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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Carlos

Global Patterns

Updated: Feb 8, 2023

As part of their educational tools an organization of educators called Purple Suitcase approached me to create patterns from different cultures that have either become universal design elements or defining aspect of that culture. In here I discuss my design notes on techniques and inspiration in the creation of the 27 patterns.

Otomi Pigeons | Watercolor on paper | 2020

Digging Deeper before Jumping in

Prior to creating and recreating these various design patterns, I have done some essential albeit basic research about the several cultures to understand the meanings and techniques behind each pattern. In the end, I have discovered a wealth of knowledge from artists and artisans all over the world, who behold traditions passed onto them by their ancestors and even divine beings. As an artist who only just recently have come to know these patterns, I have not attempted to fully grasp their deepest meanings, nor assume to authentically represent their traditions because that would also mean a life-long investigation about all these cultures—a dream job, really, but sadly not possible for a short-term project. Instead I have tried to capture the essence of the designs I have encountered with great respect, analyzed them carefully, from icons to colors and likewise weaving or embroidery patterns to the traditional techniques that I could simulate and emulate through my own process. Each design must also fit a square format according to my client's requirements.

The materials I used are water-based paints and inks such as watercolors, gouache and acrylic-gouache on paper. The compass and straight edged ruler have become my best friends! The illustrated and painted artworks were then scanned and then finished in Photoshop. In here, I have described the idea behind each design as well as my process, which can also be seen in the accompanying videos of some of the patterns.

Otomi: Mexico

Birds and other animals, domesticated, wild or mythical are common motifs in Otomi or Tenango embroidery and so I have chosen a pair of pigeons to take advantage of the spread wings that highlight the colorful characteristic of this beautiful pattern. Animals are said to be bearers of news in the Otomi culture while flowers are symbols of fertility and nature spirits and 4-point stars represent the cardinal direction.

Tartan: Scotland

I call this tartan pattern, the “Tron Tartan” because of the fluorescent greens against a night blue background. Tartans are like family crests in Scotland as well as Irish clans. Symbolisms such as colors or line order may or may not be codified and yet each pattern is identified to a clan. However in my opinion, any designer can create their own criss-cross or checked pattern and the result will still be unique, which makes endless design possibilities and thus making this pattern truly universal.

Sei Gai Ha Mon: Japan

I have this layering technique with watercolor that meant waiting for the first layer of paint to dry then applying the next one. The dried monochromatic blues create these darker outlines. This was a perfect way to build the half-circles on top of each other to form the wave pattern of the Sei Gai Ha Mon.

Buta: India

Paisley is a name of a Scottish town that imitated and popularized the pattern and Pashmina textile in Europe but the origin of the pattern is Indian, where it is called "buta," a teardrop symbol in Kashmir shawls as well as textile block printing. Instead of a typical swirly tadpole shape, I created an upright form that resembles a cypress tree, one of the symbolisms of the buta. A singular icon was illustrated and then recreated as a stamped pattern in Photoshop, digitally simulating the traditional technique of Indian block printing.

Navajo Weaving: Navajo Nation, United States

There are several Navajo woven blanket patterns mainly the first phase, second phase and third phase, also called Chief blankets. There is also the Germantown pattern style and others. This design was inspired by the third phase blanket, which has the characteristic 9 diamonds placed in three columns. The colors I chose imitate the traditional thread colors used in Navajo weaving, which are natural red, black and indigo dyes. In this case, I used watercolors on rough paper to create that woven and aged texture. The central cross represent the Spider Woman that taught the Navajo to weave.

Wycinanki: Poland

For this pattern, I literally cut and pasted colorful papers to make my own Wycinanki just to understand the paper cut pattern. Afterwards I rearranged them on white paper, photographed and used the image as a stencil and color guide in painting using acrylic gouache, which has an opaque quality, similar to the colorful papers used in Wycinanki from the Łowicz region.

Shibori Tie Dye: Japan

This pattern was created by dipping a folded kitchen towel into ink and then scanned to create a repeat pattern in Photoshop, again simulating the traditional technique of tie-dying cloths.

American Quilt: United States

The main inspiration for this pattern are the Gee Bend quilts that are constructed using old work clothes such as denim jeans, canvas or cotton dresses. The idea here is to create a geometric pattern that has an off-center focal point. The faint dashed lines represent the characteristic "snaking stitches" of the quilts. The “blooming” effect of the watercolor application imitate the faded or used textures of the fabrics for quilt making.

Mud cloth: Mali

Also known as a Bogolan, the Malian mud cloth is rich in symbolisms that is significant to the wearer, who are typically hunters to help them camouflage in the wild. For this design,

I have referred to actual mud cloth patterns. The horizontal stripes represent the spindle used in weaving, the zigzags can also mean many things such as the Iguana’s elbows, an animal that is useful to the hunters, or bravery, similar to the belt used by the hunters. The cross can also mean, bamboo or millet leaves as well as wealth and luxury.

Traditional Pattern: China

The main motif here is the Shou symbol, which represents one of the three gods in Taoist religion, who is said to bring long life. The secondary symbol, the spiral, represents birth or rebirth as well as male and female. Both red and gold mean luck and prosperity.

Kochi: Afghanistan

Kochi or Kuchi is the popular name for the mainly Pashtun-speaking nomads and semi nomads that are found all over Afghanistan and Pakistan. They are known for their traditional clothing, which is also a typical Afghanistan clothing. There will be differences in the headware or accessories among tribal groups. Due to my limited knowledge, I have not distinguished a pattern uniquely identified as Kochi. I believe this is a term more appropriately used for the tribe and not the pattern. However, Pashtun/Pashtoon dresses are more well-known throughout central and south Asia and are commonly sold in bazaars along the Silk Roads. Generally, "Afghan dresses" will include all the traditional dresses of all the ethnic groups. This pattern is based from an embroidery on a yoke of a Kochi dress. The circular motifs are mirrors that serve as protection to the wearer of the dress.

Kråkesølvbroderi: Arctic Sápmi

The name "Kråkesølvbroderi" is Norwegian for Crow's Silver otherwise known as mica, a silicate mineral with luminous qualities similar to the precious metal. The indigenous Sami (also Sámi or Saami) people use mica as fine metalic threads for embroidery and appliqué techniques. While researching about this pattern, I have learned that each element holds a special meaning to the region where it originated. The colors red, blue, green and yellow are standards and are the colors of the official Sami peoples flag. A lack of literature about the symbolisms lead me to simply recreate using watercolors an existing embroidery pattern derived from an actual Sami clothing.

La Toile de Jouy: France

La Toile de Jouy is famous for featuring bucolic life settings or even historical events in the history of France. However, as a tea enthusiast, I thought of creating a Victorian tea garden setting in spring, hence the apple blossoms, inspired by a tree I saw during my stroll along a German wheat field. The wagon at the back was inspired by the Calico ghost town wagon that I saw during my visit there many years back. The swan was a main feature on the moats around the Château de Chantilly just outside of Paris. So really, the imagery is a collage of my travel memories and inclinations.

Traditional Weaving: Guatemala

A common motif in Guatemalan traditional weaving is the diamond, a symbol of the arms of the weaver, “with her body at the bottom, and her textiles at the top.” It also pays tribute to their goddess of weaving, Ix Chel, who granted them the knowledge of the ancient craft. In this sample, the central diamond motif represents “The Star That Proceeds The Sun”. With a tradition coming from the Mayans, generally the patterns are geometric and colorful that are mostly associated with their cosmology and beliefs. The zigzag depicts lightning and rain as well the smaller diamonds on the lower third that represent a “portal” or according to the Mayans, an entrance into the spirit world with the diamond in the center, the door through which an ancestor can enter.

African Wax Cloth: Western African Countries

Also heavy with symbolisms, the African wax cloth is a status symbol to the wearer. A popular motif is the concentric circle, which represents the ripples of water in a well, a source of life. In this design, I have reflected that similar symbolism and added the flower of life, a sacred geometric element. I was also inspired by the colors of the deep sea coral reef residing creatures called zoanthids.

Ndebele: South Africa

The main feature of this design is the central Ndebele symbol of divine guidance. After learning about the different iconographies in Ndebele language, I wanted to create a design that is more personal. A real Ndebele may read this differently but somehow it felt more authentic for me to create something that I could relate to. The circle on the left means sunrise or birth, and the second to the right means sunset or old age. Other symbols appearing here are the male (X) and female symbols (diamond) as well as unity, in reference to my married life. Therefore the entire design means asking for divine guidance from my birth to the end of my days. The dominant color pink means “queendom.” The overall layout format is an homage to the world-renowned Ndebele artist-ambassadress, Esther Mahlangu.

Pysansky: Ukraine

Pysansky are decorated Easter eggs made in the Ukranian tradition of layered resist dyeing technique using natural dyes. This design was inspired by the Pysansky created in the region of Cherkasy where the distinguishing feature on the eggs are solar motifs with the rising sun as a symbol of birth, or in Easter, rebirth. Red means beautiful as well as resurrection, while yellow is connected to the sun and joy, and black means eternity. The pine needles signify spring or life.

Selburose: Norway

The signature design element that made Scandinavian knits so popular is called the "selburose" and it was popularized in Norway. However this symbol is not at all originally from Norway as this geometric pattern element appears in many cultures. For this design, I have looked at numerous images of Scandinavian knits that feature the selburose, what in other cultures would also be known as a star, or the sun, as you can see on the Pysansky design above.

Yakan Weaving: Philippines

A pattern close to my heritage and yet not quite for I do not belong to this southern ethnic group in my country of birth, this Yakan pattern was derived from an actual clothing item I have seen at an exhibition at the Ayala Museum, in Makati, Philippines. This is the central square on a Yakan seputangan or a headcloth worn by high-ranking men of the tribe. The square symbolizes the earth and when folded becomes a triangle that reinforces the symbolism of man’s connection to the earth. Also, similar to the arabesque designs, the Yakans being an Islamic tribe, this particular pattern is categorized into the 4-fold sacred geometric pattern, also akin to the mandala.

Zellige: Morocco

Like the Yakan pattern, this zellij or zellige pattern belongs to the 4-fold family of geometric pattern that is the basis of the 8- or 16-point star or petal arabesque designs that are created using a compass and straight edge ruler. In fact a lot of the patterns here follow the 4-fold geometric pattern. During my travel in Morocco, I have since been fascinated by these exquisite tile work and have always wanted to learn how these patterns are made or at least incorporate in my artworks. Little did I know that studying these involved high-level knowledge in geometry and symmetry--something that I needed to learn quickly for this project. The colors chosen here come from the beautiful tiles I have seen in the Bahia Palace in Marrakech.

Tapa Masi: Fiji

Many Pacific island nations including Hawaii as well as the Philippines produce this material out of tree bark, which is generally called "tapa cloth" or "barkcloth". In Fiji, it is known as "tapa masi" from the barks of a mulberry tree. A general feature of the bark cloth design is the so-called “zoning”, where the elements of the designs are laid out on the flat surface and then repeated in sequence using stencils out of banana leaves or nowadays a sturdier X-ray film to create borders surrounding a central motif. It is said that the designs and symbolisms are sacred traditions passed from mother to daughter and only a Fijian can read the meaning of the pattern. Decorative tapa masis are sold to the tourists but are no less meaningful to the Fijians. After examining several vintage Tapa Masi patterns, I have included in this design a few of the common symbols such as the pinwheel-like symbol known in Fiji as Kamiki in Moce that depicts two birds, a symbol of good luck. The knotted X is called Vaka civeyadra and the diamond at the center, which according to one famous Fijian Tapa maker, symbolizes love of their country, Fiji. The color black means strength and red, humility. The pattern was initially hand-drawn in black ink and then composed digitally to create this positive-negative pattern.

Shyrdak: Kyrgyzstan

Shyrdak including Ala-kiyiz is the art of Kyrgyz traditional felt carpets. Felt carpets are made of local sheep's wool of autumn shearing and divided into ala-kiyiz (motley felt) and shyrdak (quilted carpet), but will have similar patterns and symbolisms used with their meanings usually determined by the maker. The main motif featured in this design is the ram’s horn, which is a symbol of protection to the Kyrgyz people. A rug with this motif placed outside the yurt (the cylindrical tent-like dwellings) offer protection to the inhabitants. The repeating triangles that form zigzags symbolize the mountains around them.

Sakura-mon: Japan

The Sakura-mon is a beloved motif in Japanese craftsmanship, which actually is a common family crest. In this design, however, the cherry blossoms are arranged more organically similar to embroideries on kimonos, or in this case my own sukiya bukuro, a brocade pouch I use in our Japanese tea ceremony lessons. The flowers are set against a blue background that depict the sky—just like when you see the sky through the pink blossoms during hanami or cherry blossom viewing season in Spring.

Mehndi: India

Also known in the west as henna tattooing, mehndi is the art of painting intricate patterns on skin using a natural redish-brown pigment called henna during special often religious ceremonies. After watching several videos of how henna tattoo artists create their henna tattoo designs, I thought painting this pattern freestyle using brown ink on Indian cotton paper would be the best way to emulate the technique of painting on bare skin. The flower or the lotus-like symbol is a popular motif, which means beauty, regeneration, purity, harmony and the opening of the heart combined with the spiral being a symbol of the Goddess’ protection going inward. The leaves mean happiness and prosperity.

Huichol Folk Art: Mexico

An eclipse in Huichol art means marriage. Other symbols include the Blue Deer which is one of the most revered characters in Huichol creation story, corn as the main sustenance of the Huichol people, the snake, which symbolizes rain, the bird, which signifies freedom, the zigzag as the connection to the divine, and the peyote, a sacred plant in their culture and also hallucinogenic. Traditionally the Huichols create their designs by applying colorful threads or glass beads onto heated beeswax and so I have also tried to emulate the manner of “painting with thread” by applying each color of paint with brush one after the other and using bright and contrasting colors to make the icons appear to be glowing. Huichol paintings are religious and are interpretations of the messages of their gods through their shamans, who are also artists.

Carta Marmorizzata: Italy

This is what is known as the peacock pattern, which is produced by combing the suspended paints on water. This design, however, was made by layering paints and creating the swirls through brushstrokes mimicking the elegant marbled effect on paper.

Northwest Coast Formline Art: United States and Canada

The style used for this formline art is inspired by the Haida style. This image depicts a beaver (identified by the forefront teeth in red at the middle section), a common animal motif in their artworks and character in their legends and creation story. To understand the abstracted figure, look primarily at the figure formed by the black lines. Bill Holm, the highly regarded authority in formline art studies, suggested to focus on the donut and not the donut hole, which in this case, the donut being the black lines forming the major ovoid shapes.

This was for me, the most difficult (and also my favorite) design to recreate mainly because of the strict rules involved in drawing the elements that needed years to completely learn, apart from studying the symbols. In order to create this design, I have decided to look at the works of old masters, such as Charles Edenshaw and the Chicago Settee Carver as well as modern master Bill Reid and carefully observed their styles while following the more contemporary rules of line work and colors. With symmetry being one of the major rules of formline art, I have made only half of the pattern on paper, painted black first as the primary colors, then red as secondary and the blue green or turquoise in the later stage, as traditional artists would do. The painted half image was then scanned and then mirrored digitally.

An Education

The idea behind this project is to educate children and enrich their understanding of the many cultures around them by showing them the variety of traditional patterns and the ingenious artistry of these craftspeople. By showcasing the handmade aspect of each piece, they may also try to represent the designs in their own way. In truth, by taking part in this project and being the "hand" that created or recreated the patterns, I have gained so much knowledge in such a short period. Not only did I become acquainted to the individual cultures, mostly unheard of to me before, but I have also enriched my visual vocabulary and technical skills that I could later on use in my own work.

As I deciphered each pattern, it was a curious observation that artists from all over the world follow a certain universal rule of design, an example I have mentioned earlier, the 4-fold geometric pattern, which I surprisingly and unknowingly already employ in my previous works. The colors and the iconographies likewise may have different connotations from every culture but nevertheless hold a steadfast connection to their identity and spirituality—all of which are universal motivations to create. Truly I am humbled by the artists' in depth knowledge of the sacred arts and their relationship to the earth and the divine. As best as I could, I have tried to create my own designs using the information from every pattern that I have gathered from my own research. It was also crucial for me to know and understand the meanings behind every element of the design such as the colors, lines, symbolisms, the logic of the design, as well as the techniques used to create these patterns so I could utilize them in my own process.

Not only did I become acquainted to the individual cultures, mostly unheard of to me before, but I have also enriched my visual vocabulary and technical skills that I could later on use in my own work.

More importantly I have also learned about the struggles of the artisans to hold on to their cultural heritage as well as pass them onto their heirs. Each of them have become victims of modernization and globalization, which make them a dying breed of artists while their resources by birthright are being depleted and their sacred art being exploited in pop culture. In recent years, there have been a revival of some of these traditional arts, which lead to the protection of their cultural heritage—a positive notion but still not enough. That is why cultural lessons like this is all the more significant to educators and students alike to simply spread the word about the wonders of mankind's creative diversity and ingenuity that they may live on.

"Beaver" | Acrylic-gouache on paper and digital composition | 2020

One of our passions here at Purple Suitcase is to partner with uniquely talented creatives around the globe. By chance, we had the incredible fortune to discover Michelle Carlos. Her depiction of rich textures is what drew us to her work. Born in the Philippines, lived in Singapore and Germany, and now residing in South Africa, we are sure her work has been deeply informed by a wide world view. Her talent is matched by her insistence on cultural understanding, respect, and integrity of the patterns she represented for our Global Patterns series. We are thrilled to have partnered. She has brought our vision to life! - Heidi Johnson (Founder and Chief Creative Officer Purple Suitcase)


Thanks to Heidi Johnson and her colleagues in Purple Suitcase for entrusting me with this task.

A portion of the sales of the kits supports under-resourced educational learning environments.


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