Sanaa Gateja "Baby Boom" (detail)

SDA Book Club: “Patternalia” reviewed by Vivien Zepf

Patternalia: An Unconventional History of Polka Dots, Stripes, Plaid, Camouflage & Other Graphic Patterns by Jude Stewart

A Black, white, and ecru patterned large letter "P" takes up the majority of the image, with the text "Patternalia: An Unconventional History of Polka Dots, Stripes, Plaid, Camouflage, & Other Graphic Patterns" in the hole of the P

“This is going to be fun,” I thought as I flipped through Jude Stewart’s book Patternalia for the first time. The book’s graphic style and layout were ideally suited to a book about pattern. Skimming over a few sentences suggested that this book was a bit of a romp, as opposed to a dry treatise on the subject. When I finally settled in to read, I was very pleased; my first impressions were spot on.

Human brains naturally categorize what we see, cognitively creating patterns as we move through the world, such as when we intuitively group together dots of a similar color if there’s color variation in the larger set. It’s a perception default we all share. But the influence of pattern in our human experience goes beyond this auto-response. We have been enthralled with pattern across millennia and cultures. People have adorned objects for decoration and to convey meaning, used patterns for practical reasons and purely whimsical ones and have applied patterns in art and science. Stewart guides us through many fascinating back stories of our some of our most recognizable patterns to try to answer the question, “What makes pattern so persistently beguiling?”

Patternalia starts with brief review of pattern terminology and general textile history because, as Stewart writes, “any history of patterns–even an unconventional one–bumps into textiles more often than any other surface.” From there, chapters are organized as Dots and Spots, Lines and Stripes, Squares and Checks, Curves and Florals, and Off the Grid Patterns. Each chapter offers a deep dive into a particular pattern, extending beyond what I had anticipated to include topics such as knot reading, pattern poetry, QR codes, and geometry. Stewart explores some of the initial uses of each pattern and also how the application and meaning of these designs has evolved over the centuries. Stewart reviews the familiar, such as the use of stripes to connote military rank. But we also learn about the unexpected (I never knew there is a bricklaying lexicon), the droll (DC comic villain, Mister Polka-Dot, had a costume with dots that could be removed and transformed into gadgets), and the amazing (did you know about the Xuanji Diagram, two hundred palindromic verses called hui-wen, which were embroidered onto an eight inch square piece of silk?).

Stewart writes with humor and that’s part of the pleasure of reading this book. Sprinkled throughout are pattern-related quotes that are often thought-provoking and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. Each bottom-of-the page footnote is identified with an element of the pattern it references in the book. For example, imagine a small superscript square by each footnote related to the topic of Squares and Checks. These, and other clever details, are some of the reasons the book deserves high praise for its design. It’s also important to point out that Patternalia is printed in black, white and ecru so readers aren’t distracted by colors within pattern. (You can always check out Stewart’s ROY G. BIV book if you’re interested in color.)

Not to put too fine a point on it: I couldn’t put Patternalia down. It’s a page-turner about a topic some might expect to be dull or tedious. It’s also a visual treat. Kudos to Stewart and her publishing team for creating a book that’s as informative as it is entertaining. If you have an interest in pattern or surface design, I hope you’ll get a copy of Patternalia for your library.

–Vivien Zepf

Read more of Vivien’s Book Reviews here!


  • Publisher: Bloomsbury (buy it here)
  • Date: October 2015
  • ISBN:9781632861085

If you’ve read this book, leave a comment and let us know what you think!

Do you have a recommendation for a recent fiber-related book you think should be included in SDA’s Book Club? Email SDA’s Managing Editor, Lauren Sinner, to let her know!

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