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Illustrator Tutorial: How to Manipulate Patterns with Envelope Distort
By Sew Heidi on Jul, 11 2014

It’s easy to quickly fill garments with patterns, but to make them look realistic, we are going to use the Envelope Distort feature to warp the patterns around the folds of a garment. It takes some time and finesse to get everything just right, but once you’re done, you’ll be very pleased with the results and how much more alive and realistic your sketches look.  It took me about 20 minutes to complete the Envelope Distort to my liking on this example. (Watch the video version here).

Envelope Distort Final


Step 1: Applying Envelope Distort

Starting with a garment that is drawn with separate objects for each section (in the example, the sleeves, bodice, kangaroo pouch, and all 3 pieces of the cowl neck are drawn as individual closed paths), we’ll distort a stripe pattern since it’s one of the most obvious patterns to visually distort.  Select one of the sleeves and work with it off the body (I find it easiest to create a copy of the sleeve off to the side, apply the Envelope Distort, move it back in place using align tools, then delete the non-distorted sleeve.  Feel free to work right on the body and lock objects you don’t want to edit, but that’s not my preference).  Give the sleeve no fill and a black stroke, and behind it create a rectangle that is larger than the sleeve with a stripe fill and no stroke.

begin with the sleeve

Select the pattern filled rectangle and choose Object > Envelope Distort > Make with Mesh…  For the sleeve, a mesh grid of 4 Columns and 4 Rows works pretty well, so set that and click OK.

make envelope distort with mesh

Before manipulating the mesh, choose Object > Envelope Distort > Envelope Options…  Make sure Distort Pattern Fills is checked or else your Envelope Mesh will only affect the object and not the pattern.

make sure to distort pattern fills


Step 2: Manipulate the Envelope Distort

You will now notice a grid on your artwork with Anchor Points at all intersections.  Lock the sleeve outline that is on top so as to not manipulate or move it (Object > Lock > Selection), and start manipulating the mesh until the pattern runs through the sleeve the way it naturally would.  For this example, I find it easiest to select the mesh points at the top using the Direct Selection Tool (or the Lasso Tool) and the Rotate Tool to manipulate the points accordingly.  Take a look below as I adjust the mesh in 3 steps, first rotating the top and bottom points, and then pulling the middle points out to the right.  Note some distorts are better done manually one Anchor Point at a time, and some work better moving multiple Anchor Points at a time.  If you want to manipulate individual Anchor Points, you can select mesh points within the Envelope by clicking directly on the Anchor Point with the Direct Selection Tool, or you can manipulate all 4 Anchor Points that make up a quadrant within the grid by clicking inside the quadrant with the Direct Selection Tool.

manipulate the envelope distort mesh


Step 3: Clipping Masks

Once you’re pleased with the pattern distortion, you will unlock the sleeve outline and use it to make a Clipping Mask of the Envelope Distort (select both the sleeve and the stripe pattern, Object > Clipping Mask > Make).  Then select just the mask portion (the sleeve) with the Direct Selection Tool and give it a black stroke again (by default any object used as a mask will be given no stroke / no fill, but Illustrator allows you to go back and give it a stroke / fill).  Your sleeve is now ready to be realigned with the rest of the body and arranged accordingly.

add a clipping mask to fit the distorted pattern into a sleeve shape


Step 4: Finishing the Body

Continue the same process for the rest of the body, distorting each section at a time.  Below you can see each individual section of the body with the stripe patterns distorted.

continue updating the remaining objects with envelope distort

continue updating remaining pieces of your sketch

While I do prefer to work with each individual section of the body independently and then reassemble my garment, I will often manipulate the mesh after placing the object back on the body to make minor adjustments.  You can do this easily with the Direct Selection Tool to move individual Anchor Points which will affect the mesh.

In addition to the Envelope Distort, I’ve added some more shadow and dimension by drawing some shapes where shadows would naturally ocurr.  I prefer to draw my shadows with a black fill and change their opacity to 20-30% with a Blending Mode of Darken (Window > Transparency).  Making them black with a Darken Blending mode allows them to work on top of any color pattern/fill and avoids having to change the color of the shadow with each new garment color.

add shadows for dimension


Step 5: Changing the Pattern Fill

One of the great features about Envelope Distort is the ability to change the pattern fill after the distort has been applied.  Select an instance of the pattern using the Direct Select Tool.  I’ve grabbed the wearer’s right sleeve below.  You will notice you actually have the Envelope Distort selected, and not the actual pattern.  If you take a look at the fill color on the Tool Bar with this selected it will be a light grey color, not the actual pattern.  With the Envelope Distort selected, choose Object > Envelope Distort > Edit Contents.  The selection will change to a rectangle and you will notice the fill color on the Tool Bar will be the pattern fill. 

changing pattern fills

Do this for the rest of the objects that you want to edit (you can do this with multiple Envelope Distorts selected at once, but it can be hard to select overlapping objects so you may need to do one at a time.  Once all of the pieces are set to Edit Contents, you can change the fill either one by one, or select one, choose Select > Same > Fill Color (you can also use the Magic Wand).

select same fill color to select all of your patterns that you applied the envelope distort to

With all of the fills selected, choose a different pattern fill for your garment.  It may take a few seconds to process (it’s not quite as quick as changing the fill on a flat non-distorted object) so be patient and wait for the new pattern to fill the garment.  You will notice with different fills, you may need to tweak the Envelope Distort.  The plaid below doesn’t follow the sleeves realistically, so I’ll tweak it to wrap more natually with the curve.

change the patterns

To do this, select the sleeve fill with the Direct Selection Tool, choose Object > Envelope Distort > Edit Envelope at which time you’ll have access to all of the mesh Anchor Points and can manipulate accordingly.

before and after editing envelope distort on sleeves

If you are fussing with the Envelope Distort a lot and your Anchor Points and Handles start getting a bit sloppy to the point that it’s a fight to get the fill to behave the way you want, it can be good to just start over with a clean Envelope Distort.  The easiest way to do this is to select the Envelope Distort with the Direct Selection Tool (make sure you have the Envelope selected as opposed to content Object > Envelope Distort > Edit Envelope) and choose Object > Envelope Distort > Reset with Mesh…  Make sure to uncheck Maintain Envelope Shape and check Preview.  If it’s done correctly, you should see the mesh reset to a perfect grid with the Preview turned on.  Click OK and begin editing the mesh points.

reset the mesh


Step 6: Manipulating Distorted Patterns

After you’ve filled your body and dialed in the distortion, you may want to change the scale or directionality of the pattern.  You can do this even with a distorted pattern!  Select the pattern fill you want to affect with the Direct Selection Tool, choose Object > Envelope Distort > Edit Contents (unless you are already editing contents).  Once contents are selected, open the Appearance Panel (Window > Appearance), double click on Contents, select the Fill, then edit the pattern accordingly either via Object > Transform > Scale (or whatever transformation you want) making sure only Transform Patterns is checked, or using the Scale Tool, Rotate Tool or Direct Selection Tool while holding the ~ (tilde) key to affect only the pattern.  Be patient when doing this, it can take a few seconds to process the transformations on distorted objects.

manipulating distorted patterns

final envelope distort image


Thats all for this tutorial, thanks for reading and please share with friends!