Category Archives: Skills

Basic sewing skills for undergrads

Basting stitches, image from

As the new academic semester is about to begin next week, I will teach a basic sewing class for my BFA students. This is a new challenge for me, as I have never taught sewing or patternmaking classes, but also for the students, most of whom do not know how to sew. One important aspect to remember when beginning to sew is to always check for your sewing machine: most problems arise from it being incorrectly threaded. Next, always have spare pieces of cloth near you. If you need to adjust your stitch length or your tension, for example, do it in the spare cloth BEFORE trying it out on the final fabric.

These are just part of the numerous tips for new sewers and sewing students.

Others are:

1. Always have spare needles with you!

2. Have enough thread handy and wind your bobbins with the colors you’ll use beforehand. You’ll save much-needed time later.

3. Always baste curved pattern pieces, such as sleeves, before sewing them together. You’ll be happy you did!

4. Buy gross quantities of pins.

5. Put a pice of masking tape (preferably blue) to the 5/8″ mark on your machine (this is especially important on industrial machines) because it’ll guide you better so you can make straighter seams.

Do you have any other sewing tips to share? Let me know!

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Of internships: the benefits of fashion internships are always two-sided.

Internships are essential for the fashion industry. They provide invaluable experience for students and great opportunities to establish career-long connections. Due to the nature of our industry, solid internship experience is obligatory for landing a job in fashion.

What is an internship?

An internship is a work opportunity, usually 6- to 12-months long, where a student learns the basics of any given industry and obtain professional, first-hand experience. Usually, internships are not paid, especially in fashion design.

Why should I work for free?

In Spanish we have a saying: “Hay que dar del ala para comer de la pechuga.” Essentially it means we must make small sacrifices in order to reap big rewards. Although many might frown upon working for free, seeing this as a type of exploitation, the reality is that there is no other way to enter the fashion industry without previous internship experience. A fashion student should aim at having at least 2-3 internships in the industry by their BA graduation, and the more experience you obtain, the better job prospects you can have.

Some argue that the student should start an internship as early as their first BA year, but I feel this is too precipitated. First year students lack essential skills needed to complete certain tasks; for example, they might not have a strong sewing background yet, or their industry knowledge might be too incomplete, or they might not understand fully how to do research and prepare a collection. It is from the second year onwards that students, after taking core courses that will give them the necessary skills to construct their own collections, have a greater maturity to understand and better assimilate the learning outcomes from any internship. However, that does not imply a student should not be involved in fashion-related events (such as working as a backstage dresser at a fashion show, or helping organize shows and exhibitions). Early involvement in fashion events prepares the student for the fashion industry environment and might facilitate making contacts with professionals and professors that can recommend you for internship opportunities. Volunteering for such type of work experience, which is mostly short-term and unpaid, paves the way for starting a career in any industry.

What if I already know basic skills (sewing, pattern cutting, research, drawing, etc.) and I am in in my first year of BA? Should I wait for second year to look for internships?

Not necessarily. If you acquired core skills before entering your BA then you are probably capable of completing an internship. You should acknowledge that you feel ready to do unpaid work while committing to your full-time (or part-time) studies.

I am ready for an internship. How do I get one?

There are many ways of obtaining an internship in the fashion industry. I recommend that you already have a good idea of who would you like to work with. This is your opportunity to research fashion companies, houses, ateliers and independent designers to see what type of market do you like designing for and what design aesthetic better suits yours. Also, keep in mind what skills would you like to learn or improve on. For example, if you are interested in designing knitwear, your internship should help you learn how to work with knitted fabric.

The best source of internship opportunities are professors or tutors. They are mostly well-connected in the industry and they will certainly help you and guide you towards obtaining an internship. Well-known fashion companies, such as Donna Karan, Oscar de la Renta, Burberry, among others, are more difficult to enter into, but a professor might recommend you to any of these companies, increasing your chances of landing that internship.

That implies that building a good relationship with your professors/lecturers/tutors is fruitful beyond obtaining a good grade. It will help you gain the mentorship you need for making it in this business and it is the first point of contact you’ll have in the fashion industry.

How does the company or designer benefit from hiring interns?

You mean, beside the free labor? Companies and designers hire interns mainly because of this reason, but hiring and training interns takes a lot of time and effort for the employer. They are willing to invest in you because they believe you are an asset to the industry and to their interests.

On a more personal level, internships provide employers with fresh ideas and a close look at the most current state of socio-cultural affairs, a valuable source of ideas to develop into sellable clothes. I have committed into doing a fashion-related project recently, and I have four of my best students as interns so I can receive the help I need. But one of the most satisfying aspects of directing an internship is to mentor these students. They might not know it, because I have not told them, but I have learned from them: they have spotted any mistakes I might have made in the process, they suggest new ideas, they also give feedback on the project. I have learned patience and the importance of mentorship and I know that I have given an opportunity to four deserving students that they might not have had otherwise. They have provided me with unconditional loyalty and belief in the project, hard work, and fresh eyes through which I can see how the public will react to the project before it is made public.

Internships are a fantastic resource for both students and employers/designers. They prepare students for the arduous road into fashion design industry while providing the designer with valuable skills and newer, fresher ideas to put into fruition. Internships are, as we discovered, a two-way partnership where both can win if they decide to do so.

*Edited to reflect a question posted in the comment section:

“Do you need to be a student to do an internship?”

The short answer is no. You do not need to be a student to be an intern, though some employers prefer hiring students because they already have skill sets required to complete any tasks assigned. If you have experience in the industry, and if you know at least a basic knowledge of sewing, pattern cutting, grading, or other technical or software skill, you could get an internship. I would recommend ensuring that your CV or résumé reflects your skills and what you can offer to potential employers. This can help you secure an interview at a fashion company.

If you are still fresh to the fashion industry or you have recently decided to give the fashion world a try but have not yet developed strong technical skills, I do suggest you refrain from trying an internship at this point. It would be more beneficial to take courses to address any skill deficiencies. Now, technical courses will help you improve your skills but they also achieve something more important: build your network of fashion professionals. If you are willing to build positive relationships with your tutors and with fellow classmates, you will benefit by obtaining first-hand information on potential internships and jobs.

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Fashion Skills 2: Research and its application

Previously, I outlined the steps to produce effective fashion research. However, I return to the topic now because I find that students have difficulties doing research.

Research is the investigation of a certain topic or theme that you want to make a collection about. No topic is off-limits: Christopher Kane, for example, has produced collections inspired by ‘Planet of the Apes’ and ‘The Flintstones’. Gareth Pugh is usually inspired by dark topics and historical epochs. Alexander McQueen is usually dramatic, has a flair for historical themes, especially 19th century costume, and he is focused on sharp tailoring. Likewise, John Galliano’s collections are historically-driven, but his obsession with the French Revolution has produced a solid vocabulary of shapes and silhouettes that reverberate throughout all of his collections. Topics and themes are as varied as designers: everything is accepted as long as you can produce a coherent and exciting collection.

The latter point is the most important: your works needs cohesiveness in order to be a successful collection. How do you achieve this?

1. Choose what appeals to you: Some are inspired by history, others by art, others by literature or architecture. The best way to begin research is by choosing a topic you are passionate about. Again, there are no limits to your research topic!

2. Gather as much material as possible: The more material you have, the better your design will be. Poor research leads to a poor collection. In academia, you have to painstakingly research every aspect about your topic. Fashion (and other art- and design-related disciplines) is no different. What differs is the end result: in academia you achieve a good research paper; in fashion you achieve a good collection. TIP: Start designing as soon as you start researching. You will make better use of your research if you use it alongside your sketches.

3. Edit: This is the difficult part. You have to choose what exactly appeals to you from your chosen topic. Maybe you researched about circus acts but got more interested in acrobats than in animals, for example. This is also the time to make decisions about choice of fabrics, colors, silhouettes, and embellishments. Now, some people are very inspired by silhouettes and materials rather than topics and prefer to drape and choose their fabrics before designing. This is equally valid; the design process should fit around your thought process and your preferences.

4. Keep designing and design from the inside out: This proves to be so difficult for beginners! Students often forget that fashion requires engineering. You have to design how clothing will function: how the pattern is made, how will it be sewn, how much inches or centimeters will it measure, what embellishments to use and how much you’ll need of each, what type of zippers or other closures you will need. Those are all decisions that designers need to do. Remember: if you don’t know how your clothing will be made, you have not design a thing.

5. Select and polish: Are you happy with what you have designed? Do you know how will it be constructed and presented? Are you already thinking about styling, either for the runway or for a shoot? Now it’s the time to choose the best designs to construct your collection. Choose things that have visual coherence. If your silhouette, colors, fabrics and/or embellishments do not look like they belong in the same group, it is because they don’t.

Now, you can start your research without major worries!


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Fashion Skills 1.2: I can draw better, but I still have problems with proportions!

For the second article in this series, I’ll address the most common problem fashion students have with drawing in general (and it is more common than the problem faced on Fashion Skills 1!): they can draw somewhat, but human proportions just elude them.

As I said in my previous post, human proportions equal to 7.5 times the size of the human head. The first thing you should do before starting to draw is to divide the paper you’re using into 7 segments of equal height and a last segment half the height of the other 7 segments. That accounts for the 7.5 heads. This will simplify your experience, making it less ominous. Now, number each line from 1 to 7.5. Remember when I recommended you practiced drawing from life? Well, if you followed suit, you should have now enough experience with life drawing in order to understand how body parts relate to one another. Let’s practice your newly-acquired skills and knowledge!

Line 1: Draw an oval, which is to become the human head, and have the thinnest part of the oval touch Iine 1. This is where the chin should be.

Line 2: Draw the neck and the upper part of the ribcage. The shoulders should begin at the middle of the second square and the axis of the breasts (where the nipples are) should touch Line 2.

Line 3: Draw the lower ribcage and the waist, the thinnest part of the body, should be in the lower half of the third square. The navel should touch Line 3 and so should the beginning of the hips. Align the elbow to where you placed to waist (they’re usually a bit higher than the level of the waist but since you’re beginning to draw, you’ll find it easier aligning them horizontally).

Line 4: The fourth square should contain the hip bones and the upper part of the femur. The groin should almost touch Line 4, but not quite! Make sure that it doesn’t touch it, though, or the torso will be too long. Also, towards the middle of the fourth square should be the widest part of the body: the hip joint.

Line 5: The fifth square contains the remainder of the femur bones, or the thighs.

Line 6: Place the knees at the middle of the sixth square (note: the middle of the square, not Line 6!). The second half of the sixth square should have the beginning for the tibia (shinbone) and fibula (calfbone). Remember that the fibula is slightly angled to the outside of the lower leg, giving it its wider appearence.

Line 7: Place the ankles in Line 7 and finish the tibia and fibula bones on the line. Make sure that the bones and the ankle connect perfectly (or you’ll have some bizarre drawing).

Line 7.5: Place your toes on the line and draw the feet coming from the ankle.

This is a rather simple rendition of the correct alignment of human proportions. Of course, if you want to make a 9-head fashion figure, your proportions will change. For the time being, stick to the 7.5 human proportion canon and learn it.

Now, if you find drawing the outline of the human figure too intimidating, you can always break down the figure into geometrical shapes and later refine your drawing to match it to a human body outline. For example, it’s easier to draw the head if you think of it as an egg that you add cheekbones and hair to. The limbs can be reproduced by simple lines and the joints by small circles. The feet can be done with an inverted triangle shape, to which you add circular toes. Later, fix the toes to a more irregular shape to make them more realistic. The hip is usually heart-shaped, so this can help you reproduce its form. After you’ve done your geometric figure and it’s perfectly proportioned, then you can work on the outline and on making it more human-looking.

Practicing is key: the more you draw, the better your drawings will be.

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Fashion skills 1: Help, I can’t draw!

A couple of days ago, a fashion student asked me how she could produce a fashion portfolio if she’s not very skilled at drawing. I told her, quite simply, that she had to practice endlessly her drawing skills and I suggested a list of fashion illustration books and also suggested she viewed the ‘How to do a Portfolio’ section of this blog. Every day I encounter more and more fashion students who need to develop their drawing skills. Design is a two-part discipline: there is the artistic/visual side, and there’s the engineering side. We will deal with the former in this, our first post of 2012.

First, if you’re planning on entering a fashion school or fashion design department you NEED to be able to draw well. I don’t mean senseless doodling (although that is quite useful at times), but to understand the notions of basic drawing principles. More importantly, after conquering basic drawing skills, you must be able to draw the human body effortlessly. Knowing the proportions of the human body is paramount in order to be a good designer. Sometimes, students forget that a designer works with, and for, the human body. If a student does not understand how the body works, how it moves and how the fabric moves when the body moves, (s)he cannot design properly. The student will find great issues when translating their idea to a tridimensional garment. Thus, human body proportions are at the core of fashion design.

Second, I will ask you the unthinkable: forget everything you think you know about fashion illustration, especially the notion that the human body measures 9 times its head. This is false and misleading, and it causes great trouble for beginners when they start designing and drawing. When students sketch a garment using the 9-head proportion without knowing real human dimensions, (s)he will have great difficulty converting their drawn version of the design to a tridimensional model. I see it all the time with my students! To avoid this, learn the following: The human body has from 7 to 7.5 heads and this is the proportion you should memorize to a ‘T’.

There are many techniques to help you achieve a proportioned human figure. The best thing to do, though, is to ask a friend of family member to pose for you for 5 minutes at a time so you can draw their pose using the 7.5 human canon. At first, you won’t finish your drawing, but after enough practice, you won’t even need the whole 5 minutes! Then, make things more complex by asking them to pose with elaborate clothing: a wedding dress, a prom dress, a frilly shirt or a printed outfit. Try different poses, and start drawing different people. Draw from what you see on TV while watching Glee, for example (imagine drawing Lea Michele while singing!), or just practice your people-watching skills by drawing girls that walk by you at the mall.

On this latter point, I advise you try the following exercise: Sit at the mall, near a womenswear clothing store. With your sketchbook ready (it shouldn’t be bigger than an 8.5” x 11” or A4 size), look at any of the people coming in or out of the store and observe what interesting clothing items they’re wearing. Choose whoever you feel has the coolest style, and draw them quickly while they enter or exit the store. [1] You’ll have to be lightning-fast: maybe you’ll have just a minute to do it! But because you have to be really quick, and you have to know your human canon by heart, your eye-hand coordinating skills will get developed fast.

Also try the following: While walking at the mall or on the street, ask people with stylish clothes you like to pose for a snapshot. Remember, always ask first! Then use those photos to recreate the human proportions and later draw the clothes.

All of these exercises will train your eye to remember details and proportions without having to look twice at the subject. Practice and perseverance are key! When you have dominion over the human proportions, you can try this next exercise they taught us at Central Saint Martins: take a photo from a fashion magazine (try choosing one where the model exposes most of her limbs; a model with a bikini is usually perfect) and cut out the model. Next, cut out the clothes and glue the photo to a white photocopier paper. Now you can make many copies of the same photo and draw over the figure. Think of it as a type of collage: this can be useful as a working sketch but also as a final illustration. You will have a perfectly proportioned body base to work with and you can see better how your final clothing item will look on a real person before you even make the pattern for it. It’s a win-win!

Good luck with your drawing!

[1] People usually don’t have a problem when you are drawing at public spaces, but you have to be careful nonetheless. Some people will not like you drawing them! So try to be discreet. On the other hand, if you wish to take a photograph of the person with their clothes, just like cool hunters do, always ask for permission first. Never take a photo of someone without asking, you could get into trouble!

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Into the Cloth: The Science Behind Various Fibers (

Here is a link to this article, coutesy of

Jeremy Fordham is an engineer who is excited about encouraging dialogue in unique spaces. He contributes to resources promoting Ph.D. programs and is an advocate of sustainability and green energy.

Fabrics are an essential part of everyday life. From their functional purposes as clothing, carpets and curtains to their to aesthetic incarnations as wearable art, fabrics have enriched human existence for centuries. While cotton, wool, silk and linen have been utilized by cultures around the world for generations, scientific research over the last century has yielded a plethora of new, synthetic fibers. While these innovations have made lives infinitely richer, they have also greatly complicated the arts of sewing and fabric design.

As those who have attended online Ph.D. programs in this area know, fiber composition and chemical structure not only affect the lifespan of the fabric, they affect how easily the fabric can be dyed, woven and stitched. They affect whether a fabric must be steam treated, dry-cleaned and even dictate the temperature of the water in which delicate fabrics must be washed. However, while fiber science is certainly complicated, understanding some basic principles will make it possible to select the best fabric for any design endeavor.”

Read the rest here: Happy Reading!

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Book of Kells Collection Part 2: Research

‘[…] Research means creative investigation, and good design can’t happen without some form of research. It feeds the imagination and inspires the creative mind.’[1]

Part two of this series of posts is precisely about the importance of research for creating a concise, creative and mature fashion collection. As you might remember, my first post about this collection is about finding a theme, which in my case it will be the Book of Kells (Trinity College, Dublin) and Lindisfarne Gospels (British Library). Once I established the main theme, I have decided to ditch the Lindisfarne Gospels and concentrate only on Kells. Why? Because I was intrigued by the Latin verses and the decorating motifs and because I have found other bits of information that make this book all the more tantalizing.

First of all, there is evidence that the Book was started at the island of Iona (called Hy until the 14th century)[2] and later sent to Kells, in Ireland. As I previously discussed, we cannot tell which part of the book was produced where, but we do know that it is clearly associated with St Columba (this includes Iona, Kells and Lindisfarne). One of the illustrations (fol. 201r) is a fish-man that is grabbing the T-stroke of the word fuit in the genealogy pages in Luke’s Gospel. Right next to fuit is the word Iona (prophet Jonah), from which the name of the island is derived.[3] Iona is Hebrew of Jonah, and its Latin equivalent is columba. Both words mean ‘dove’. Colum Cille (St Columba) means ‘the dove of the church’ in Gaelic, for those of you who are curious. Adomnán, abbot of Hy (Iona), in his Life of Columba, describes how St Columba (d. 597) is indeed named after the prophet Jonah.[4] Therefore, Meyvard concludes that the fish-man figure is pointing out the phrase fuit Iona, not because it signals the name of the island where the manuscript was written, but because that was the name of the saint associated with the monastery where it was probably produced.

Secondly, some of the figures in the Book of Kells resemble figures found in Coptic manuscripts. A Frankish monk by the name of Arculf visited the monastery of Hy when Adomnán was abbot and stayed there enough time for Adomnán to write about him. De locis sanctis was an account of places in the Near East according to the testimony of Arculf.[5] Arculf spent time in Egypt and maybe brought manuscripts or other sort of visual material that contained Coptic illuminations, and this was probably used as inspiration for various illustrations in the Book of Kells (mainly, fols. 72.v, 273r and 309v).[6] This is noted also by Francis E. Stephens, who in 1946 took pictures of  some understudied pages of Kells. He noticed certain interlineal designs that resembled some sort of Eastern script in red ink, and usually was accompanied by a small illumination of a lion. These were used to denote stops in the manuscript text and they may very well represent an Insular scribe’s attempt to copy a script of which he knew neither the language or alphabet.[7] Eastern art may have made its way into Insular manuscripts.

It is this last detail which has captured my attention today. A simple design, a mixture of Eastern script and art and Insular designs, that can be further explored for aesthetic purposes. Since I have already satisfied my academic instincts for today, I think it is time to move into the fashion bit.

I started my research book (or sketchbook) where I collect and analyse the material gathered. I start by collecting various photographs and images of designs in the Book of Kells and Lindisfarne Gospels to see the artwork in question. I have also reproduced some artwork by hand with gouache and repeated some of the animal designs.

To the left, Lindisfarne Gospels (images taken from the British Library webpage,, and to the right, images from the Book of Kells.

Left: ‘Tunc crucifixebant […

I am focusing on the animals portrayed (lions and dragons primarily) because I found that using the letters might not work. Since I plan on using neutral colors to keep with the brief given, I want the design to be noticeable enough in trapunto and embroidery stitches without it looking patchy and grandma-like (sorry, Grandma!). Sketchbooks provide you with the opportunity to play with ideas and develop them fully (or discard them if necessary) by giving a platform where to process and analyze the complied information. They are ‘a window onto your thinking processes and clues as to the origination of your design ideas’.[8] What is more important, sketchbooks are not solely for your use, and what my students usually forget is that industry individuals can and will ask you for your sketchbook, in addition to your portfolio.[9] So you have to keep in mind that you have an audience and you have to be clear and precise about your research investigation. Don’t pretend everybody to understand what your thoughts are!

Images from beasts and interlacing from the Book of Kells. Top left: possible trapunto design

Lindisfarne Gospels

Here I include some photos of my research so far. Notice how I have also collected information of current trends and silhouettes that can inspire what I want the collection to look like. I chose Calvin Klein and Jil Sander A/W 2011, in addition to some dresses by Louise Gray. A trick that I have is to use pictures of designs I like and embellish them with possible embroidery designs to get a good sense of proportion and silhouette before I design my own clothes. This process also helps you to clarify ideas and can aid in the technical aspect of design—pattern cutting. Before you even put a pin on your dress form, you can decide if the proportion you have in mind is working or not and that saves you LOADS of draping and drafting work later.

I hope you find this interesting enough since it is a very long post!

Sketchbook page on silhouette. Jil Sander A/W 2011 and Louise Gray

More research. To left: ‘Secret of Kells’ movie (2009) Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Picture.

Jil Sander 2011 with collage and drawings by me. This aids in deciding proportions, silhouette, colors and embellishment placement.

Same as above. Jil Sander 2011.

[1] Richard Sorger and Jenny Udale, ‘Starting your research’, The Fundamentals of Fashion Design. (Lausanne: AVA), 16.

[2] Paul Meyvart, ‘The Book of Kells and Iona’, The Art Bulletin. 71:1 (1989): 6-19.

[3] Ibid, 6-8.

[4] Ibid, 9.

[5] Ibid, 13. Bede also wrote a book named De locis sanctis where he mentions Arculf because Adomnán presented a copy of his De locis sanctis to king Aldfrith of Northumbria in 686 AD.

[6] Ibid, 13-19.

[7] Francis E. Stephens, ‘An Interlinear Design in the Book of Kells’. The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquieries of Ireland. 76:4 (1946): 213-15. Yes, I know this is an outdated source and the debate has probably moved on. Remember, I am trying to do a fashion collection!

[8] Sue Jenkyn Jones. Fashion Design. (London: Laurence King/Central Saint Martins; New York: Watson-Guptill, 2002), 152.

[9] Sorger and Udale, 22.