Making Kaleidoscopic Illusions

Similar to the much-loved kaleidoscope optical instruments, a fabric’s design can be manipulated to create an endless variety of sophisticated and intriguing new fabric motifs.

A kaleidoscopic illusion is a visual effect provided by symmetric, or asymmetric, fabric imagery which radiates from the design’s interior portions. Most of us are familiar with angular kaleidoscopic illusions that converge in the center and visually pulsates outward — those designs are seen with most optical kaleidoscopes.

Kaleidoscopic illusions can be created with fabric, using pieced patchwork units that focus on the interaction of fabric motifs placed in an organized arrangement. These fabric motifs, when combined, produce a complex overall pattern using repeated fabric designs in adjacent or neighboring areas within the geometric layout of any given patchwork block.

I became aware of a fabric’s ability to become kaleidoscopic illusions in the early 1980s, through Jinny Beyer. Many of her early quilts used fabric motifs to create kaleidoscopic imagery, adding excitement and complex dimensions in her quilts. Influenced by her, one of my first attempts with kaleidoscopic illusions was with eight-pointed stars.

The fabric’s kaleidoscopic imagery involves several steps:

  • Identifying and isolating a fabric design area
  • Marking the chosen design areas of the fabric
  • Cutting identical fabric areas
  • Sewing those individually cut fabric pieces together, being careful to match pieces together

Whether symmetrical or asymmetrical design motifs are chosen, completely different fabric designs emerge when identically cut pieces are joined together.

Kaleidoscopic illusions can be created in several ways. The illusions are created when using specific fabric units in repetitive sequencing. Depending upon the complexity of the patchwork block(s) and the overall design of the patchwork, kaleidoscopic illusions can be made by arranging the fabric units in several different placement positions. These positions can be adjacent or neighboring locations. Kaleidoscopic illusions can also be created by splitting up a unit within a patchwork block.

Adjacent, or touching, positions offer a true kaleidoscopic illusion with design complexity that focuses on the very center of a patchwork block. Oftentimes, a kaleidoscopic illusion made from adjacent units will radiate. Neighboring units offer movement and dimensionality. With neighboring units, the focus becomes a design arena strategically planned to pulsate patterns.

Another method used to create a kaleidoscopic illusion is by splitting patchwork block units. When a unit is split, or divided, the kaleidoscopic illusion provides highlights within a patchwork block. Complex kaleidoscopic illusions, created by combining several of these methods within one design, offer depth, movement, and radiance.

Positioning Fabric Units

Adjacent Units: Kaleidoscopic illusions are most dramatic when 6 or more points meet. Most popular among quilters are the hexagon or octagon shapes which yield the 6-pointed or 8-pointed stars. These two star designs alone can produce a wide variety of kaleidoscopic illusions. The 8-pointed star category includes the “kaleidoscopic” block, which provides an opportunity to create kaleidoscopic illusions without the difficulty of set-in squares. Other effective Kaleidoscopics include 4-pointed stars, like those found in the Arkansas Snowflake block.

Working with basic adjacent units, such as a square or triangle, can offer dramatic results, too. Even a 4-patch, composed only of squares, becomes more intricate as the focus on the patch as a unit becomes a new motif.

Neighbor Units: Almost all traditional patchwork blocks have geometric symmetry. This symmetry provides identical neighbor units (which are identical pattern pieces found within a patchwork block) to be used for fabric design arrangements. With identical neighbor units, the complexity of a block’s overall design creates movement within the block and the entire block becomes the focal point for a kaleidoscopic illusion.

With the Variable Star block, for example, each star blade could provide movement with a paisley print. The four corner squares could have a stripe added for patterned dimensionality.

Splitting Units

Splitting a unit within any given patchwork block can create a new look and can generate a large assortment of unique blocks. Splitting a square unit into 4 equal triangular pieces provides an opportunity for intriguing kaleidoscopic designs. Even splitting a square into two triangles offers potential for kaleidoscopic depth and movement. The below photograph shows an example of a square that has been split into four triangular units so that a kaleidoscopic illusion can be formed with a fabric motif.

Other shapes can be split into several units as well. Consider a split diamond, or a split triangle.

Any unit, or template, can be split asymmetrically too. An asymmetrically split unit will often force the focus on the unit as a whole. In general, symmetrical splits suggest order and control, while asymmetrical splits create a tilted illusion. The center of the wallhanging, Mira Shining, was drafted with asymmetrical pieces in the center, taking advantage of fabric motifs by adjusting the shape of the templates.


Cotton fabrics suggested for a kaleidoscopic illusion include large or medium scale prints, border prints, and directionals. From these main fabric categories, desirable fabrics can be further identified as geometrics, florals, foliage, fruits, objects, abstracts, and stripes. Within each of these design categories, fabrics can be identified as having symmetric or asymmetric designs. Symmetric designs, such as a fleur-de-lis, are much easier to work with than asymmetric designs. Asymmetric designs include paisleys, florals, abstracts, and even border prints. Occasionally, border prints have been scaled differently along each vertical strip. When this occurs, motif areas fail to match correctly, making it difficult to stitch the kaleidoscopic illusion.

Good fabric designs provide effective kaleidoscopic illusions. And obviously, complex fabric designs provide complex kaleidoscopic imagery. The design areas chosen within any particular fabric dictat the marking and cutting lines. Grainlines become inconsequential since the design lines and motifs are the most important factor when marking and cutting fabrics. By using plastic see-through templates, these design areas are easy to identify and easy to mark. Making a kaleidoscopic illusion in this wall quilt, Holiday Castles, took a few extra steps to create, but the use of the border print provided a much more dramatic effect.

Angle Basics

All geometric shapes are based on a 360-degree circle. Any geometric shape, including polygons (many-sided geometric shapes) and stars, are measured in degrees based upon the circle. The straight line, which is the basis of a circle, measures 180-degrees. The straight line is also the basis for measuring triangles and their angles as geometric units.

Full circle 360 degrees

Half circle 180 degrees

Straight line 180 degrees

A square 90 degrees 4 squares fill a circle

A hexagon 60 degrees 6 hexagons fill a circle

An octagon 45 degrees 8 octagons fill a circle


To make a hexagonal star, six 60-degree star diamonds will be required. For an octagonal (8-pointed) star, eight 45-degree star diamonds are necessary. As listed above, to create a kaleidoscopic illusion with a patchwork square, four 90-degree square units would be necessary.

Using Mirrors As The Tool

A true kaleidoscope is made with angled mirrors. To create the optical tool necessary to preview fabric kaleidoscopic illusions, a pair of mirrors are used.

To create a kaleidoscopic mirror for yourself, purchase two identical mirrors. Try a floor tile center, or a home decorating shop to obtain these. Mirrors can also be custom-ordered through glass-cutting companies or craft shops. If custom-ordered, ask the glass cutter to bevel the edges for safety. (And you can also request 1/4-inch thick mirrored glass which is stronger.) I have a small 4-inch set and a large 12-inch set of mirrors. This photo is taken with the small 4-inch set of mirrors.

The larger the mirrors, the larger the visual field for your previewed designs. This photo below shows a larger design field because the 12-inch set of mirrors was used.

Once you have a set of mirrors, tape the edges for safety. Then, place one mirror on top of the other mirror with the reflecting glass inward. Lay them on a flat surface, then secure them together with strong duct tape along one long edge. This will be the hinge that becomes the kaleidoscopic illusion’s center.

Translating angular degrees to a hinged set of mirrors is relatively easy. Keep in mind that the mirror opens wider as angular degrees increase. The hinged mirrors closes as angular degrees decrease. For example, a 90-degree angle will set the hinged mirrors in an L-shape. To create a 45-degree angle, pivot one mirror side half the distance of the 90-degree angle by moving one side toward the other mirror. The hinged mirrors are now placed into a V-shape.

Beyond The Basic Fabric Block

Kaleidoscopic illusions can occur from most any object — the illusion is created with the help of at least two mirrors, as described above. No doubt everyone has looked into a tubular optical kaleidoscope with 3 or more mirrors. The colorful illusions that are created come from bits of glass or plastics, or chards of ceramics and other found objects.

Software has also been developed to create kaleidoscopic illusions from an image. Here is a lovely kaleidoscopic illusion created by using one of the photographs of my recent WIP, Interruptions. Dramatic effect, isn’t it?

I’ve stitched many quilts using these techniques and the final results have always been exciting and very unique! I hope that I have inspired someone to try making a kaleidoscopic illusion with some of their fabrics.

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3 Responses to “Making Kaleidoscopic Illusions”

  1. Violette Says:

    I have always wanted to make a kaleidoscope quilt. It may require more brainwork than I am willing to give though.

  2. An Evening with Kaffe Fassett / Quilting Gallery Says:

    [...] seemed rather fitting that I came across this wonderful article by Lynn, Making Kaleidoscopic Illusions. So very [...]

  3. Stack and Whack Kaleidoscope Quilts / Quilting Gallery Says:

    [...] As I’ve mentioned before, I am enthralled with Kaleidoscope Quilts. [...]

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