The word tessellation comes from the tesserae or tiles that fit together to make the mosaic floors that we associate with the Romans. Escher's intricate artwork has long fascinated me and I often wondered how you would start to create a repeating shape that interlocked to form an overall pattern.

Aspects of Water 2, River Fowey, Moor to Shore
Aspects of Water 2, River Fowey

When I decided that I wanted to work with tessellations, it was many years since my children had learnt the design technique and I could not remember the basic idea behind the cut and paste method. After much searching, a friend who was also a maths teacher, lent me a book 'Mathematics Through Art' by Anne Woodman and Eric Albany. Here were simple techniques that had excited me early on in my patchwork journey. These were the building blocks to simple tessellation! All I had to do was translate into a working method for patchwork and appliqué. The most obvious tessellation is a square, then a rectangle, and in traditional English patchwork, the hexagon and the clamshell.

To create your own tessellating units, follow these simple step by step instructions. I suggest starting with coloured paper pasted back onto white paper. As you work through the exercises, you can see how the process evolves.

Aspects of Fire, Pentecost
Aspects of Fire, Pentecost

Unit One

  1. Draw a rectangle at least twice as long as it is wide. Cut this out.
  2. Fold the rectangle in half lengthwise and finger crease well.
  3. Keeping it folded draw and cut a curve from the short end of the rectangle.
  4. Open out the rectangle and the piece you have cut off.
  5. Move the small piece to the other end of the rectangle, lining up the short straight edges.
  6. Stick down to card or paper and cut out the unit.
  7. Draw around the unit and move it to draw around again. Repeat this several times so you can see how the pattern would evolve. See Figure 1.
Figure 1: The basic unit Figure 2: Unit two
Figure 1: The basic unit

Figure 2: Unit two

Unit Two

  1. Cut out a second rectangle as detailed in unit one.
  2. Cut the small piece from the short side in the opposite direction at the fold, so there are two cut pieces when you unfold the rectangle.
  3. Stick the two pieces on the opposite short side of the rectangle. See Figure 2.
Aspects of Water I
Aspects of Water I

Unit Three

  1. Draw and cut a rectangle as above.
  2. Draw and cut a curved line from one long side to the other long side.
  3. Move the cut piece so that the short straight sides are aligned and the curves are on the outer edge.
  4. Stick these pieces to another piece of paper or card and cut out the unit. See Figure 3.

Unit Four

  1. Take a version of unit three. Cut two curved pieces from each of the two straight sides (x/y).
  2. Swap and paste these pieces to the opposite sides as shown in Figure 4. to create a new interlocking curved unit. When the units are repeated you can see how the patterns fit together. Look at Figure 5 where repeating units are shown to make tessellating patterns.
Figure 3: Unit three Figure 4: Unit four
Figure 3: Unit three

Figure 4: Unit four
Figure 5: Examples of tessellating units one to four
Figure 5: Examples of tessellating units one to four

First published in Popular Patchwork Volume 9 Number 9 - December 2001