Deconstruction of a Trend: Colorblocking for Sewists

I don’t enjoy discovering something I like is fashionable.  I finished a little color-blocked version of the Bow Tie Tee last night.  Naturally, I put it on immediately.  A friend then looked me over and informed me that color-blocking is one of the hottest trends right now.  I’m positive she meant well.   A google search confirmed my trendiness with hundreds of thousands of hits on “colorblocking 2012.”  Great.

(Ocean circulation map, I imagine trend circulation is much the same…)

When I hear words like “Blah blah is so trendy,” my first thought is always “Where, exactly?”  Trends start in different places and show up on various continents seasons or even years apart.  If everyone in, say, New York is wearing something right now, when can I expect to see it on the streets of Brisbane?  Since most people rely on manufactured clothing, the decision for when a trend will show up in a geographic location depends more on clothing manufacturers and shipping rather than the personal choice of the consumer.

When is something trendy where you live compared to the place whence it came?  Why do strangers in another city, state, continent, or hemisphere get to decide the styles you, a sewist, will wear?

Click to visit site.

I think trends are pretty irrelevant.  In the age of fashion blogs and Fashion Week/Oscars/Royal Wedding feeds streaming internationally, traditional ideas of “trends” and “trendiness” just don’t make sense.

For example: If something is trendy in New York and I sew and wear it in Brisbane, am I ahead of the times?  Will people around me look at me like I’m insane for wearing future fashions? (Answer: YES.  It can be just as bad to be a few seasons ahead as behind, I find.  Best to play it safe and wear clothes 80 years out of date.) If I wait and wear the fashion later when it’s trendy in Brisbane but it’s passe in New York, am I trendy and hip or am I hopelessly behind the times?  It’s impossible to figure out, simpler to just wear what I like.

Courtesy of DellaJane patterns

I digress, back to color-blocking…  I found a handy working definition: Color blocking is a technique where blocks of various fabrics are sewn together to create clothing with a few different solid colors.

Color blocking is definitely trendy right now.  I even found a tutorial on how to colorblock, and they offered this advice:

“…if you want to indulge in the trend without engaging in mix-and-match color theory each time you put an outfit together, the easiest thing you can do is to find pieces that have already done the work for you. We’re talking graphic tops, dresses, skirts, and accessories that make traditionally simple cuts way more dramatic. Add just one of these to your look, and you can take it easy with the rest of your outfit.”

Intriguing.  The “style advice” is almost the same as the bald definition of the phrase.

A tad quiet, but still nice. Click the image to view the article.

I have a slightly different perspective on color blocking, possibly as a side effect of bathing myself in early and mid-20th century fashion and sewing publications (I can’t remember the last time I cracked open a contemporary Vogue or “Buy This Crap Now” monthly).  To me, good color blocking marks a thrifty and clever sewist.

Click the image to visit the original listing. This colorblock says "necessity" to me.

Ever find yourself in the position where you have a piece of fabric that says to you “I am a dress”?  You rummage through your patterns only to discover the chosen dress fabric is 1/2 yd shorter than every *single* dress pattern you own.  Or perhaps you have several shortish lengths of delicious knits at your disposal but none of the pieces are large enough for an entire top…

Click to view source. 1930's wool two tone dress.

A vintage solution to that problem is to color block.  “Make Do” by using another co-ordinating fabric or fabric(s) to make up the required yardage. Sometimes necessity is the mother of great style.

I spent some time thinking over colorblocking and came up with a few tips for color-blocking as a modern sewist:

  • Pair like fabrics- a bright pink textured linen and an aqua blue slub knit cotton may not be the best choice for a garment marriage.  Separately, they may work together, but exercise caution when pairing wildly different fabrics and clashing colors

Click image to view original. 1940's silk dress.

  • Use colors that compliment you.  You know the colors you wear and everyone asks you if you’ve just come back from holidays?  Those are your colors.  Don’t feel bound by the limited palette you see on trend sites and in shops.  If you want to play with color-blocking, why not pair two or more of your best colors in a single dress, skirt or blouse?  For a more conservative approach, try pairing a darker neutral that suits you with a paler version of the same neutral (tan and brown, charcoal and black, etc).

  • Strategize with color: Use colors from the same family (warms or cools) with lots of contrast, or go for two colors very close to each other like red and magenta.  Another great color strategy is use of complimentary colors (that is, pairing colors that are opposite each other on the colorwheel.

Click image to view entire article. I actually like this lip treatment, I think I'll find some lip-liner that color and play around with it.

  • Think through the fabric use carefully.  Look for a single pattern piece or element you’d like to highlight in the garment and use a piece of contrasting fabric for that piece.  Then think about where else you can use that color, or another color you can introduce if desired.  Make the use of color look like an essential element of the design.

Was this necessity or design? We can't really know!

  • Remember that color-blocking is supposed to be clear and graphic.  Pick out one or two small details from the garment to highlight, but try to avoid using a different color fabric for each pattern piece.  Unless you really, really want to, then go for it.

Like so many other trends and fashions, as a sewist you have way more options for colorblocking than someone who doesn’t sew.  You have the freedom to choose the styles and colors that flatter you best to create a fun and apparently on-trend garment.

I spent the weekend completely absorbed in the pattern making project (staycation!), and I’m pleased with the results.  Tomorrow, I’ll show you my own color-blocked Bow Tie Tee!


  1. I’m an anti-trend person too–frequently trends, to me, seem as though a bunch of stylists got together and said “Just how crazy can we be and STILL get people to spend a ridiculous amount of money at the stores?” Seriously….

    That being said, color-blocking is probably one of my least favorite on-point trends currently. It too often looks like a weird mish-mash of 1960s/70s and now (like something Marsha Brady would wear)… BUT, I LOOOOOOVE the vintage images you posted! Oddly, they look more fashion forward than the first color-blocking image you posted…

    • I tend to think it’s a group of people who get together and have no clue about the lives or tastes of the people they design clothing for… Just completely thoughtless about the needs of the consumer. (Bad sizing systems, color palettes that tend to flatter certain types more than others, tyrannical necklines… Laziness.)

      Yeah, there’s some charm in the vintage images. A lot of the modern colorblocked stuff just looks like a quilt to me. Where’s the art? It’s a garment, after all. But the vintage dresses tend to use the splash of color tied to an essential piece of the pattern. I do rather like the color palettes I’m seeing on the 2012 colorblocking garments. Light, bright, clear. Most of them, anyway…

  2. I’m not a fan of the things that pop into my head when I hear the term color blocking, which is mondrian type 60’s dresses, early 90s suits with contrast side panels, that godawful Stella Mccartney Make-me-look-like-Barbie dress, and any number of other things. BUT< I love the idea of your bowtie tee done that way, of Megan's pink dress, of 1920's colour bloking like The Dreamstres' recent Rate the dress and any number of exceptions. I just don't know what the line in the sand is for me.
    It amuses and delights me that you are like me, someone from whom the phrase "You look so trendy!"is an insult not a compliment ;-)

    • I keep trying to forget about mondrian dresses. Not that they’re awful or anything, they’re actually quite nice but they’re almost too iconic.. Maybe I’m just sour grapes-ing because I look hideous in a mod-shaped shift… :)

      heh… “You look so trendy” is pretty much right up there with “You look so tan!”

  3. I used to avoid trends but either the last handful of trends are just already to my taste or I’ve stopped being bothered by trends. Overall I prefer a tailored look but am often surprised to find a more flow look flattering on me. Last year I wore my first maxim dress and I plan on making as many as possible over the next 30 years. For me, colorblocking is a means to an end. I’m a frugal sewist and the idea of putting two or more pieces together from my meager stash makes me feel like a rock star.
    Love your post. Great reminder that trends repeat. Sticking to what you like and what is flattering is always my way to go.

    • Maxi dresses are one of those trends I am very happy to see. It’s feminine and practical, with infinite stylistic possibilities.

      I agree about the rock star feeling. It’s always a thrill to use up remnants and oddbits. :)

  4. I have a simple rule – if something is described as “on-trend” on TV or in a magazine – I hate it immediately. (Unless it’s something I’d already decided I liked – I then ignore the “on-trend” comment. I’m fickle like that :).

    I have to say that I was surprised that you used the word “trendy” – I thought that word had gone out of fashion about five years ago and was replaced by “on-trend”, or maybe that’s just in the UK.

    I gave up on fashion/trends about five years ago – I now have my own style because I sew for myself and no longer have to give a toss about what is fashionable.

    • Hahaha! I’m kind of like that too. I tend to be rather contrarian about anything sources like that have to say. And likewise fickle. :)

      Dear me! I used the passe version of on-trend. Hehe. Love it.

      Hear hear about sewing your own style… It’s so much more fun than all the studying and one-up-man-ship of being “on-trend.” I can spend that time studying up on sewing techniques and experimenting with fabric..

  5. Truthfully, I’m not really a fan of “color-blocking,” but that is mostly because I associate it with the 1980s and almost anything that reminds me of the 80s makes me squirm. Consider bold color-blocking + giant shoulder pads. Enough said, I think. Color was my actual job at one time, so it’s a sensitive point. Never say never, but I would tend to be conservative with color choices for color-blocking, variations on the same shade, etc.

    As for trends–I totally agree. Those furry vest things showed up in New York recently (I think they came from Europe–which sounds like a virus or something!). Capes (last fall), booties (now). Unfortunately, there was a lot of vintage looking stuff–think Gatsby–last summer among a certain trendy crowd. Sigh.

    ~Jen (NY)

    • Sigh indeed. ;)

      At least Gatsby fashions are kind of nice… I might eventually stop having to look at people’s cracks out in public because they’re wearing jeans too low…

      • Oh no — the low-riding, butt hanging out jeans thing has had a resurgence here lately too. I had blocked it out of my mind.


  6. You know, I like colour blocking also for the colour it can bring to the garment world. Don’t really care that its trendy, really. Actually hadn’t noticed somehow. Eyes are switched off at the mo I think. Then again I have never “managed” to key into a trend and prefer more classic tailored pieces that are always in fashion, apparently.

    I do like to browse through Vogues because they give me ideas of things and shapes and combinations that are interesting, plus many more that are not. Fortunately, for me having a couple of small messy 5 year olds zooming about necessitates practical rather than ‘trendy’ more often than not.

    Oh and I can’t afford trendy, or whatever the appropriate current word for it is now.

    • The problem I have with vogue is the lack of range. It’s fashion for one particular “type” of body. Then what? I really like blogs for exactly that reason… It helps me spot good proportioning for different body types, etc.

      I’m pretty much all about practicality… I like pretty clothes or “stylish” clothes, so I try to find ways to make my mommy clothes fun.

  7. YES! When you’re a sewist(a, mad sewist, sewasaurus rex…), it’s almost insulting to be trendy – I mean, when you sew your clothes, you surely want them to last, so why follow trends? I think I’ve always had the sewist mindset. I’ve always wanted my clothes to last. I was trendy exactly once in my life, on Grammar school, when the trendy thing was jeans with turned hems (? or what do you exactly call that). A handy trend for a person with short legs.

    Travelling trends: totally. I noticed that when I was in the USA. People dressed completely differently. People who were obviously the young and trendy lot wore things that would be considered positively frumpy in Europe.

    Besides, this colourblocking “trend” is ooooold. It dates back to Middle Ages, if not further. My first (rather awful) medieval dress is colour-blocked. I did not have enough of the main fabric, and it looked medieval. Another proof of anecdotic nature: I was piecing a quilt (or something quilt-like) of white and bright, sunflower-y yellow checks, and father asked whether it was going to be a medieval dress.

    And because my one, old colour-blocked garment was made that way because I had to save fabric, I love the vintage garments of this kind you put up. That’s the way I like it. Frugal AND pretty. Almost the exact opposite of the current trend. :-)

    • Hahah! Sounds like your dad knows what’s going on. :)

      I’m a huge fan of frugal and pretty, too. Throw in “practical” and we’re in business.

  8. I think that extreme trends are dangerous…you spend a fortune on them only to have them not really look good on you and then they go out of style the next season and you look ugly and nuts wearing it. I’m in favor of wearing classics and wearing what looks good on you! If you do that, no matter what era your outfit is or hints at will look stylish.

    As to why fashion trends happen…well you have two things happening. You have creative people wanting to stretch their creativity and do something new. You have financial people wanting to make money on your needing to wear clothes. If they tell you that everything you bought last year is passe you have to run out and buy all new!

    • I love classics, too. :) They’re reliable.

      Whimsy can be fun, too, in small doses but like anything it’s all about moderation.

  9. And here I thought I was just ekeing out fabric to get a garment out of my scraps! Color blocking. Hmm. Now I feel all official and everthang.

  10. I live in sort of a backward town- new trends don’t reach us within 4-5 years of the catwalk. We are just embracing uggs right now (sigh) a nascar shirt is still considered acceptable at weekday funerals. If I get too Harper’s Bazaar on the locals I will probably be tried as a witch. Besides, a trend has to flatter me, so I may have so sit out the colorblocking- lest I resemble a hazmat sign. Tho your vintage examples are sooo tempting.

    • I think its one of those styles where if you wear colors that flatter you and a style that suits you, it’s probably unlikely you’ll look like a hazmat sign. ;)

      Nascar shirts to a funeral? That seems rather disrespectful to me, but then again it’s not *my* funeral and probably the dead person in question might not mind such a thing…. I’ll be thinking about that one for a while.

      • If the tee shirts are clean and cover most of your torso, they are also acceptable funeral wear for where I live, lol. You can probably even order a NASCAR casket branded like your favorite driver’s car.

  11. I go to Hong Kong regularly, and my mom always says that whatever’s hot in HK will be in the States in a year or so. So even though I may not like what I see there at the time, I end up getting a few pieces and then saving them for the following year. That said, I do pick and choose from what’s currently trendy to sew up my own versions. Not a fan of colorblocking, though, but only because it looks really fussy to cut and sew!

  12. I have always found the geography of fashion fascinating. For instance I was in England in 2007, I bought some pants there, saw almost exactly the same ones here in Canada in 2010. I grew up in Vancouver BC, my Dad lived in Seattle and he would take me shopping for back to school clothes (translation: drop me off at a mall & come back for me in 5 hours), I would hardly ever buy anything because they were so far behind what we were wearing in Vancouver, only 3 hours north. I have always wondered how this happened. Any ideas?

    BTW-I love colour blocking.

    • Having roamed around for most of the “Nauties,” I’m fascinated by the flow of trends and fashions too. (Not just clothes- music, food habits, everything…)

      I think the disconnect is down to plain old merchandizing and production stuff… The clothing industry is not about the consumers, but the business. I could imagine that an international boundary like that would be responsible for breaking up suppliers and etc. Just guessing…

  13. It’s funny, I both love colour-blocking and I don’t. I love combining two different fabrics, or using the reverse side to get the effect of two complimentary fabrics, but I’m not likely to combine more than two colours, or radically different hues. I’m currently “coloublocking” a sweater for my daughter because I didn’t have enough of the camouflage fleece to do the whole thing. So certain parts—notably the hood, undersleeve, and side-panel—are going to be in black sweatshirt knit.

    When deciding which parts I want which colour, I like to print out a copy of the line-drawing and shade or colour in the different areas. Sometimes it’s really obvious, but sometimes it’s not so much.

    I don’t think I’d heard the term “on trend” until I stumbled on the Pattern Review website… I have very little care for mainstream fashion, aside from checking in once or twice a decade to make sure I don’t look totally outlandish. I do remember the first time I encountered capri pants, though. It was gr. 12 (1997) and a friend had just come back from an exchange program in Germany, and wore these odd below-the-knee shorts to school. “Everyone in Germany is wearing them, so they should be all over the place here next summer,” she explained.

    Sure enough, they were.

    • Yeah, I do the thing where I use whatever fabric I can to make a garment happen… Sometimes it works out to make that a feature of the garment, rather than trying to be discreet about it.

      Despite years of admiring Burda and the wicked cool style of my German friends, it’s still hard for me to think of Germany as a fashionable place…

    • I remember almost the exact same story with capris in high school too! One girl wore them to school and got teased badly about it. But she was all ‘whatever jerks, these are the style and they’ll be all over the place soon’. I admired her, but I wanted nothing to do with these silly pants-shorts that can’t decide what they want to be. :D

  14. I’m with Tanit-Isis; I love colour blocking and I don’t. I often dress in colour blocks using separates, I’ve always done that and I like it. I occasionally sew something colour blocked (I did a whole series of colour blocked bowling shirts for my ex-husband more than a decade before Charlie Harper made them popular) but it’s not something I want to leap on to now that it’s trendy. If a colour blocking opportunity presents and I like it, then I’ll sew it regardless of what the magazines say. Interestingly, only yesterday a colleague commented that I am ‘very interested in fashion’. I told him I was nothing of the kind that, in fact, the dress I was wearing that day was made from fabric that had been in my stash for five years and was from a Vogue pattern from the early 90’s. What I am interested in is wearing clothes that I like, that fit me and are in colours that I like. Sometimes those things happen to coincide with current fashion, but not very often. If trends are created by what people are wearing, then in my lovely little village of Crabbes Creek they are creating a whole new line in banana-juice stained chic day wear. Don’t ask about Hobart …

  15. I don’t even know what the trends are, anymore. I work in an office full of 40-, 50-, and 60-year-old women, and we just wear what we want, which is mostly what’s comfortable (without being frumpy, of course).

  16. Perfect timing! I’ve been looking into colour blocking a tnt top to try my hand at altering a pattern for a design feature. Googling for colour blocking inspiration was kind of disheartening though, and not what I was looking for at all.

    But ooh, that pretty 1930’s two tone wool dress! I love how they did the blocking! Simple and unfussy, but pretty and gets the idea across nicely. And adaptable to a t-shirt pattern, I think. I think I’d like to try that out on my top. I can’t wait to see how you colour blocked your bow-tie tee. :)

  17. After reading this post it made me laugh when I read in a magazine from August 2011 (a friend passes on her magazines to me and I read them in whatever order I pick them up from the pile) that colour-blocking is really fashionable, and one of their examples of colour-blocking was someone I’ve never heard of wearing an orange top with tan trousers!

  18. I like what I like, and whether everyone else happens to like it, or the fashion magazines declare it the “thing” of the moment, is entirely irrelevant. (except sometimes when everyone else decides to like what I like for a few years I think it is fantastic because I can stock up on all my favourite things before they disappear from the stores again).

    Colourblocking happens to be one of the things I really like – whether it is medieval patchwork, 1920s & 30s blocking, 1960s Mondrian, or modern takes. I liked it back in the late 90s when it was dreadfully unfashionable, and I like it now, and I’ll like it in 3 years when it is completely passé again.

    After all, isn’t disliking something specifically because it is ‘on-trend’ almost as bad as liking it because it is? Either way you are letting the fashion behemoth and others dictate your taste.

    Just trust that you have excellent taste (and you do), and don’t worry about the rest!

    • I’m not worried, and I *like* being somewhat reactionary in my choice of style. It’s not like I comb through magazines looking for what’s hot so I can do the exact opposite, but I do reserve the right to pitch a temper tantrum when I find out something I like is “on-trend.” Where’s the fun if everyone wears the same thing all the time? I might as well not sew.

  19. I like color-blocking because I’m not a huge print person and it’s sort of a way to be able to do “print” with simple shapes and color contrasts. It’s also kinda architectural and really draws attention to the shape of clothes (if done well!). I’ve been away from my blog-reading for a week or so–did you finish your cool Mad Men dress? I loved the color-blocking on that.

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