Striped Fabric

Striped Fabric

A short history

Stripes have had a very long history in European textiles and for the greatest part of this history, have played a debatable role.

For centuries, striped clothing was reserved for society’s outcasts: heretics, clowns, prostitutes etc. In general, stripes were associated with the devil and therefore a symbol for the evil and impure.

Why stripes fell into disrepute is difficult to say. Historians have formed several theories that seem more or less believable from our modern point of view. The fact is that there are many sources from the 12th and 13th century that emphasize the degrading, negative or downright diabolical character of striped clothing.

In the 14th century, the stripe’s luck seemed to turn, but only after the orientation of the stripes had also been turned from horizontal to vertical. Especially in Italy and in the then independent Venice, striped clothing became fashionable for servants and slaves. This influence is attributed to the arrival of young African slaves.

Slowly, the vertical stripes became more acceptable. The Modern Age also added to the variety and multi-coloured striped fabrics began to appear. Especially in the 18th century, this development is attributed to oriental fashions becoming available around 1750. Stripes entered all levels of society, from aristocracy to agriculture. They appeared in festive and ordinary contexts and were used both for the exotic and the domestic.

The American Revolution, also considered as a “daughter of the enlightenment”, and the flag with its thirteen stripes (and thirteen stars) started a real fashion for striped clothing. This fashion soon filtered back to Old Europe, where it would find fertile ground.

Even today, striped clothing retains a certain ambivalence. On the one hand, we still consider wearing stripes as daring and wild, on the other hand it is well established in business suits and shirts.


For quilters and other textile workers, what is perhaps even more interesting than historic facts, are the associations one can find in or behind striped fabric. The issues we have included here certainly don’t represent a complete and finite list. With our selection, we invite you to join us on this interesting trip down the visual and cultural road. Think about the aspects we are discussing and decide whether you agree or disagree. Allow some or all of these assumptions to enter your imagination and let your thoughts and ideas roam freely around the images and the possibilities they offer for quilt design…

Segregation vs. Infinity

First of all, stripes segregate and are infinite at the same time.

The segregation factor might be biological and could stem from the way we perceive stripes and how our brains process vertical and horizontal stripes. We notice striped areas quicker than solid or patterned ones.

Patterned vs. Striped

It seems that there is even a dominance of the structure created by stripes over colour and shape, i.e. the striped fabric jumps out of a pattern more than even a very bright and contrasting colour.

Block Pattern

However, this optical effect could certainly have a cultural origin. The medieval associations of striped clothing with the devil might still be firmly ensconced in our brains. It could control our subconscious to register danger or at least alert us to a higher degree of vigilance when confronted with striped patterns.

On the other side of the argument, stripes can also be interpreted as perpetual forward movement.Stripes represent the motif and the background at the same time and juxtapose the finite and the infinite.


Stripes could symbolize speed and provoke the impression of an accelerating rhythm. In this context, we get in touch with the distinction between wide and narrow stripes. Wide stripes, more than narrow stripes, are “dangerous” and “daring” and farther removed from the safe and accepted solid.Fort Henry

Vertical stripes give an illusion of height and make a (fabric) piece more imposing.

To continue this game, we could also imagine that a stripe represents another striped layer intersecting with the layer we are contemplating… This would really carry the idea of the infinity of stripes to the extreme…

Attraction vs. Illusion

Stripes communicate on many levels. Mostly they attract our attentionthrough strong contrasts. The eye simply cannot avoid being attracted to a striped surface.

Harlekin Block

Today, stripes often invoke danger even more than exclusion or segregation. They are used in symbols and road signs communicating without words what actions to take or avoid.

While simple on the surface, stripes can also be a means of encrypting messages. The most prevalent is certainly the bar code which today can be found on almost any product we purchase.

Skiathos Block

With all this apparent and sometimes misleading simplicity, stripes can also create a number of optical illusions.

In nature, we find many examples of striped patterns. With its dramatic black and white colouring, the zebra can be considered a perfect example for the inspirational game we are playing here. Moreover, it might also be the best dressed animal on earth. It also raises the question of whether it is a white animal with black stripes or a black animal with white stripes - which is an insignificant argument only at first glance and which applies to all interpretations of striped surfaces.

Stripes in nature evolved to trick the enemy and to create confusion. In the zebra case, the stripes don’t really camouflage the animal, but dissolve its contours and make it harder to pin down an individual as a potential victim of the predator.


Colour vs. Half Colour

However, when the colours of the stripes don’t offer much contrast, the result is a kind of half colour, a muted shade between the one and the other.

Stripes vs. Solid

In quilts, this effect can be very desirable to move from one colour to the next. The eye is tricked, once more attracted, and interrupted in its movement over the quilt when it perceives the subtle difference between solid and striped areas.

Too many stripes Too many stripes will make you crazy! ;-)


Mark Hampshire et Keith Stephenson (2006): Les Rayures. communication & motifs. Paris

Michel Pastoureau (1991): L'étoffe du diable. Une histoire des rayures et des tissus rayés. Paris

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