Herringbone Pattern_ Holding_Hero (Holding) Image
Photo Courtesy of Architectural Digest, Photographer Trevor Tondro

How to Invite the Herringbone Pattern into the Home

A comprehensive guide to the classic, V-shaped pattern.
by Roxanne Robinson Dec 29, 2021

Some motifs are so ingrained in the psyche that we don’t pause to consider their genius. The herringbone pattern is one of these design elements. It has been cherished for centuries, yet still manages to look current. Nest Casa explores this style, from its origins to its use in architecture and interior design today.

What is Herringbone?

The herring fish’s skeletal formation is the basis for what is referred to as herringbone or herringbone pattern. Herring is mainly caught in Scandinavia and consumed in the Netherlands, but its bones have global influence. The resulting pattern resembles a zigzag that differs slightly depending on the application and the materials used.

As a fabric, it is a woven, V-shaped pattern. It exists in wool as tweed. In twill, it’s called broken twill weave. During World War II, army fatigues were made from a twill woven in this distinctive pattern and referred to as HBT (or, Herringbone Broken Twill). It was a durable fabric ideal for combat use.

Its influence extends beyond textiles to include herringbone-pattern tile and wood. Jewelry, shoe treads, and even security printing (the printing method to validate banknotes and other valuable documents) also use this motif. 

The Non-Textile Herringbone Pattern

When used as a tile, the result is slightly different. Consider bricks as an example. The bricks face opposite directions, with the top of one butting up against another’s side. This results in a V-shaped thus resembling the fishbones.

Herringbone Pattern_2
Photo Courtesy of Salem Mostefaoui

The herringbone pattern can be made from rectangles (like bricks) or parallelograms. When using the same colors, a symmetry is achieved to create a “wallpaper group,” which is a mathematical classification of a two-dimensional repetitive pattern based on symmetries. (The repetitive patterns in typical wallpaper also employ this technique.) Creating a herringbone brick in architecture and other structural aspects of decorative art requires applying the mathematical formula as well. 

Hard goods such as bricks and wood naturally result in a more geometric look with a pronounced zigzag. Soft goods such as textiles are naturally less defined at the point of intersection, though the threads can still create a prominent edge.

The History of the Herringbone Pattern

The geometric motif dates back to the Roman and medieval times, where it was used in brick- and stonework as opus spicatum. This Latin term, which translates as “spiked work,” described a masonry construction method that was used mainly to decorate floors, walls, and fire backs. In each of these examples, a finely set herringbone construction remained intact without having to overuse subpar mortar.

There are several well-preserved examples of ancient architecture utilizing this pattern. For example, Tamworth Castle, a Norman masterpiece in England dating back to the 700s, boasts an entire wall in stone herringbone leading up to its gate tower. The Cathedral of Florence Santa Maria del Fiore’s famous duomo—constructed by Filippo “Pippo” Brunelleschi, who is considered the founding father of Italian Renaissance architecture—features an ingenious herringbone brick pattern. Brunelleschi’s impressive structure was a feat of engineering previously only accomplished during antiquity and remained a secret as the architect did not disclose his method. This iconic V-shaped pattern has also been prevalent in Gothic Revival architecture.  

Chevron VS Herringbone: The French Influence

Chevon Tile Courtesy of Backsplash, Herringbone Courtesy of Starel Stones
Chevon Tile Courtesy of Backsplash, Herringbone Courtesy of Starel Stones

As with many aspects of architecture and design, the French pioneered parquet flooring in the 16th century. The word parquetry translates to “small compartment’ and refers to the art of cutting and fitting small wooden pieces into geometric patterns. One early example of this technique from 1539 is found at the Francis I Gallery at the Château de Fontainebleau. Herringbone and chevron patterns symbolized status and refined elegance throughout the 1600s.

It is essential to distinguish herringbone from chevron. However, the critical difference is that, although they both create a pattern coming to a point at the top of each, herringbone has more of a staggered-pattern effect, making it resemble a broken zigzag. 

How Herringbone Patterns are Used in Construction Today

Of course, since Pippo’s time, the secret to building a dome that would endure over the centuries has been used by others following his work. The same can be said for similar techniques that existed in ancient Greece and Rome; little changed in construction methods in two thousand years. It wasn’t until the 1950s that a new design—the geodesic dome, which was invented by American architect and engineer Buckminster Fuller—would give way to a new approach to dome construction, forgoing Pippo’s technique.

Still, the herringbone pattern lives on today in masonry in walkways, in tile walls, and as a decorative addition to  brickwork patterns. Its popularity is as evergreen as parquetry in flooring. While popular, herringbone patterns can be challenging since lining up the multitude of small rows has to be precisely. Even a slight mistake is noticeable.

What to Consider When Using a Herringbone Pattern

Once you decide to incorporate the design into your space, there are some things to consider. First, it’s best to evaluate the entire area and comb it for details on walls or floors that might compete for attention. In most cases, a herringbone pattern is distinctive and should be the most demonstrative design element. You don’t want herringbone to compete for attention.

One must also decide where to use the pattern—and in what form. For example, tiles offer many ways to create the zigzag design. Different colored ones can create an ombré effect or add a splash of color to an otherwise neutral-toned space. Tiles also tend to be a choice of function that safeguard against water damage. Because of this, common uses are as kitchen backsplashes or in bathroom showers or floors.

Wallpapers are a way to incorporate a less permanent and less expensive version of the pattern. The same can be said when using the material as upholstery, like on stuffed furniture or a throw pillow.

Flooring is probably the most common way to use a herringbone pattern. When flooring is made from bricks, marble, and wood, it can result in two effects. Subtle, alternating color is used to create a distinctive floor arrangement. Or, in the same tone, it can look uniform from a distance, revealing its complexity only when viewed up close. Increasingly it is used as a wall or backsplash, serving both a functional and decorative aspect depending on the application.

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