Substrate and cell patterning are widely used techniques in cell biology to study cell-to-cell and cell-substrate interactions. Conventional patterning techniques work well only with simple shapes, small areas and selected bio-materials. This paper describes a method to distribute cell suspensions as well as substrate solutions into complex, long, closed (dead-end) polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) microchannels using negative pressure. Our method builds upon a previous vacuum-assisted method used for micromolding (Jeon et al 1999 Adv. Mater 11 946) and successfully patterned collagen-I, fibronectin and Sal-1 substrates on glass and polystyrene surfaces, filling microchannels with lengths up to 120 mm and covering areas up to 13 × 10 mm(2). Vacuum-patterned substrates were subsequently used to culture mammalian PC12 and fibroblast cells and amphibian neurons. Cells were also patterned directly by injecting cell suspensions into microchannels using vacuum. Fibroblast and neuronal cells patterned using vacuum showed normal growth and minimal cell death indicating no adverse effects of vacuum on cells. Our method fills reversibly sealed PDMS microchannels. This enables the user to remove the PDMS microchannel cast and access the patterned biomaterial or cells for further experimental purposes. Overall, this is a straightforward technique that has broad applicability for cell biology.