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How To Make Patterns Inside of Patterns in Illustrator

Sometimes we need to create patterns within patterns such as a floral repeating pattern, and each of the flowers has a polka dot pattern in it.  You may have gotten an error when trying to put a pattern inside a pattern in Illustrator since the software technically doesn't allow us to do this.  There are a couple workarounds depending on your needs and we'll explore two of them in this post.  The examples below are demonstrated using the Pattern Tool which is available in CS6 and newer versions (learn how to use the tool here).

Method One: Precisely Controlling Pattern Within Pattern Placement

Let's start with this artwork below as the motif for our pattern, and as shown we want the flower to have a dot pattern in it instead of being solid. 

Once we've added the dot pattern to the flower, we select that artwork and choose Object > Pattern > Make.  Unfortunately, Illustrator gives us an error of "patterns cannot contain anything painted with a pattern" meaning you cannot take a pattern (the polka dot inside the flower) and turn it into another pattern.  

However, there is a way around this!  The quickest and easiest way is to add the pattern once you are in pattern editing mode.  Select the motif with the solid flower and create your pattern by choosing Object > Pattern > Make.  Once in pattern editing mode, select the fill of the flower and add the polka dot pattern.

Once you are done and you exit pattern editing mode, you will get a dialog box that warns you of the active content that must be expanded.  This is referring specifically to the polka dot pattern (note that if you use any brushes in your patterns they will also be expanded).  That's fine for our purposes as we will still get the visual results we want, and we will explore what the "expanded" artwork leaves us with.

Once we click ok, we can now use our pattern to fill objects and it looks pretty good!

So what did Illustrator mean by "expanded"?  Essentially, the polka dot pattern inside the flower is no longer a pattern, but instead is individual instances of dots that create the pattern.  If we edit the pattern again and start to dig deeper into the polka dot pattern, we can see this is true.

It's essential to understand that this dot pattern is no longer a pattern that is editable, but rather all of the individual dots.  If this is something you want to edit later, it's going to be a big mess.  It is often wise to save an instance of the artwork outside of the pattern so as to keep the artwork intact.


Method Two: Adding Multiple Fills

The next method creates artwork that is easier to edit and manage but requires a bit more thought on how to build it.  Instead of creating a flower with dots in it, we are going to create our artwork so that the entire motif has a solid background except the flower (where we want the dots).  We want that to but cut out of the background and essentially be see through.  Below, you can see that there is no artwork inside the flower thus allowing anything under it to be seen through as shown with the green rectangle that we put behind it (for demonstration purposes only). You can cut the flower shape out of the background using either the Shape Builder Tool or with Pathfinder.

Once the pattern is created and done, we'll use the appearance panel to add another fill layer which will act as the polka dot fill inside the flower.  Select the object that has the pattern fill, and open the appearance panel (Window > Appearance).  Inside there, you will see that there is one fill color - the floral pattern swatch.  Select that and choose Duplicate Selected Item from the bottom of the panel (this will create another instance of a fill within your artwork).

We now want to change the bottom fill layer to the dot pattern.  Select the drop down and choose the dot pattern which will then appear inside the flower (since this portion of the top pattern is cut out / see through, the dot pattern will show through only where the flowers are).

The 2 fill layers act like regular Illustrator layers and can be rearranged, so if you move the dot pattern to the top, it will change the pattern to look like this.

You will need to pay attention to what you have selected in the appearance panel when you are trying to rescale or manipulate the pattern(s), as they are treated independently (which is a great benefit of this method).  If you want to change the scale of the dots, select the dot layer within the appearance panel and choose Object > Transform > Scale (or use the tilde key shortcut) and scale the pattern accordingly. If you want to scale the floral pattern, select that fill instance and scale accordingly.  For a more in depth tutorial on manipulating patterns, review this tutorial.

This method of adding a pattern in a pattern is a bit more complicated to create, but maintains the active patterns in both positions and gives you great control over editing and manipulating the artwork.