Picking & Pairing Impactful Prints

Since I’ve been teaching about print selection – and especially since my article on the topic for Threads magazine – I’ve realized that my own wardrobe was the opposite of most of my clients’.  The typical client’s closet has too many prints; my closet actually had very, very few.  I’ve worked to add more patterned pieces.  Here’s the result — and the reasoning behind each one …

Here’s an overview of the “Under-layer Tops” section of my personal closet. Of 62 items, only 13 are carefully-chosen prints.  (I know, I know, that’s a ridiculous number of items, especially for someone who preaches fairly minimalist wardrobing.  My justification is that I use them all for photos, demo and classes, not just for personal use, OK?)  I hope my print experiences will help inform your wardrobe choices.

The common denominators are points of connection to my personal appearsance:

  • color (all cool, fairly strong and in my personal palette),
  • contrast (fairly strong but not excessive) and
  • motif shape (modestly angular, or at least not overly rounded).
  • medium scale (regardless of the actual repeat of the pattern, the size of the individual motif elements keeps each print in the medium range).

What characteristics should YOUR best prints all have?  Defining that makes your future choices more targeted.

I try to be sure each print item works at least 3 ways with my existing solid pieces.    So here they all are, in color order, neutrals first:

Animal prints are especially trending this year.  But it’s tough to find them in cool colors.  Would you believe I found the shell on the left in the closet of a client with very warm coloring?  After we replaced it with golden-toned skin prints that flattered her, she gifted me this one.  I wear it with mixes of my black and gray pieces, and occasionally top it with a red jacket or turquoise cardigan.

Middle one is Simplicity 1945 in Bark Print jersey from our fabric inventory.  It includes a range of the neutrals I wear – charcoal, chocolate and taupes – against cream for moderate contrast. Bits of my coordinating solid garments show along the right side of the photo.  Blended or blurred color areas like this make a print easier to coordinate to a range of related solids.

The right-hand one is a past-season Cabi design – abstract with an animal-ish feel, in black+chocolate brown – one of my  favorite color combos – against a creamy background to keep the contrast level from getting too strong.  Works with black pieces and with brown pieces obviously, but also as a link to combine my black bottoms with a brown faux-suede cascade cardigan. And with off-white jeans for warm weather, although the short, straight styling needs to be front-tucked into the waistband to avoid looking boxy.

Now the berry/pink group:  far left is a me-made piece – Itch to Stitch Brasov Top – that works with berry ponte skirt or pant and deep plum cords. Multiple variations of the basic color family makes it easy to blend with various solids.

Middle pic is another Cabi – deep berry and pink on a black/white tiny check background.  Sleeveles, it’s an under-layer piece so it works as a link to connect jackets and bottoms in berry, gray and black/white tweed.

Far right is Vogue 9006 in an abstract floral georgette. The semi-sheer fabric softens the black a bit.  This layers over black skirt, pant, jeans and leggings, topped with a duster-length open-knit cardigan in either black or soft rose.

It’s been a green season in my world, and I wear this animal-ish print Cabi shell with any black bottom, dressed up with a double-faced wool jacket (love the black button accent) or more casually with a cascade cardigan.  Because the green areas are variegated, the print works equally well with the two distinctly different green solids.  I hadn’t noticed – until I was taking these photos – that this print also works with off-white summer jeans and a matching textured cardigan. (Afternoon sunlight gave the middle pic a blush cast, so you’ll have to trust me on the off-white color).

Zigzag shell – another Cabi – is a bit more angular than my ideal.  See how the bold areas of solid color make this zigzag pattern read more abrupt than the berry-color one above?   But layering it minimizes that issue.  It contains both black and navy, so works with lots of bottoms including dark-wash jeans. None of my blue over-layers match (that’s a risk with solid non-variegated color blocks) but the same green cardigan is a great topper.

Jade reptile-patterned shell (left) works with black/charcoal bottoms and the jade short sweater for cool weather and with the off-white (trust me! it only look blush here) jeans and textured cardigan in warmer weather.

I sewed the middle one (McCall 7975) specifically to wear with black bottoms and the gorgeous suede pump I used for my entry in the Match Your Shoes contest on Patternreview.com.  What a nice surprise that the top also matches a teal ponte skirt I already had in my closet.  And I just noticed that the shoe blends with the jade reptile shell, doesn’t it?  Those “happy accidents” are the inevitable result of dressing entirely in one’s ideal color range.

The right one is a little iffy.  The print has so many of my best colors – turquoise, royal, teal and purple – but the turq is sufficiently lighter and brighter to overpower the other motifs. Squinting at the fabric would have made that obvious before I bought it – lesson learned!   The royal blue pops out just enough to work with the royal ponte skirt, but I mostly wear it with black bottoms. The print also obscures the cute ruffled detail of the garment, doesn’t it?  It’s Butterick 6709 – I’ll post it on Patternreview.com in a day or two.

I made Butterick 6517 in this Tropical Multi jersey from our fabric collection, specifically to wear with off-white summer jeans. But ended up liking it even better with darker bottoms like this royal ponte skirt or dark-wash jeans, alone or topped with a turquoise cardigan or red linen jacket.  All those colors make f0r great versatility.

This last one – a hybiscus print shell from Cabi – is colors I adore, but too high-contrast (the white is just too white) and the flowers are too large.  It took some experimenting to make it work, but topping it with the blush sweater, red linen jacket or green cardigan allowed the flattering colors to take center stage and the not-so-good elements to slip out of focus, making the top a new favorite.

What print pieces in your closet could you be using more effectively?  And did you find any that need to rotate out of your wardrobe?  Go check it out and let us know what you discover.

About Nancy Nix Rice

I help other women feel confident about how they look every day - regardless of their age, budget, lifestyle or the size tag in their pants - so they put wardrobe concerns on the back burner and go share their gifts with the world.


  1. Teresa on January 6, 2020 at 9:52 pm

    I am so happy to have found you recently! I am really enjoying your blogs and the information. Thank you, and keep up the good work!!!

    • Nancy Nix Rice on January 7, 2020 at 7:36 am

      Welcome to the “club”. So glad you find the info helpful.

  2. Katrina B on January 7, 2020 at 9:55 am

    After reading this I had to go and count! Turns out I have 13 print tops and 15 solid tops, but note that all my prints are in that top layer. I long ago made the decision (probably influenced by a certain Nancy Nix-Rice) to have all solid skirts and pants, with (mostly) matching solid jackets or cardigans. This has made a HUGE difference in wardrobe planning and particularly in just getting dressed in the morning.

    P.s. I just love your deep jewel tones. As a very pale, warm-toned person I will always admire those on other people.

    • Nancy Nix Rice on January 7, 2020 at 8:12 pm

      I too have more solids in my wardrobe by far, and I’m used to using multi-color scarves as links. But I’m realizig tht patterned tops (mine are mostly under-layers, but not always) work as links too and are a fun way to mix it up sometimes. And about those jewel tomes — I often look longingly at soft, warm colors. I guess we all occasionally want what we aren’t.

  3. Sherry on January 7, 2020 at 1:18 pm

    Nancy Nix Rice,
    I am always on the search for MORE prints, as I have so few ! However, they seem to be rather scarce on the market when trying to find them to fit my requirements of soft , muted , warm colors in medium to low contrast patterns and prints ! Sadly, I don’t sew or I might then have more options !

    • Nancy Nix Rice on January 7, 2020 at 4:10 pm

      I totally agree that finding good prints these days is often an exercise in frustration. So much of what is featured is too bright and too high contrast to flatter the majority of women. I’ll work harder at trying to call attention on the blog/Instgram, etc to good ones I see in national chain stores. I just checked New Arrivals at Chicos, Talbots, Ann Taylor and Loft and saw nothing but cool pastels and black/whit combo. Usually Soft Surroundings and jjill have softer colors. I saw some nice things at jjill just now that looked like they have potential for you — especially a couple of cardigans. An alternative little trick is to take something that is too cool for you and over-dye it with camel, which will both mute and wwarm the colors. There’s a good example on pg. 191 of my LOOKING GOOD … Every Day book.

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