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Vivian's Fashion Design Course Journal 1

By Vivian Mikhail with a short comment by

Pauline Weston Thomas for



Vivian's Fashion Design Course Journal 1


Thursday 30th September 2004

Today I went to pay the fees at the institute of fashion study.  This is a branch of the main institute, which is based in Cairo.  I live in Alexandria, which is a Mediterranean coastal city in the north of Egypt.  Alexandria was first built by Alexander the Great in his conquest for Egypt, and it was the city where Cleopatra lived and reigned over Egypt.  It was the city home for the old Library of Alexandria, which was brought down by a fire.  Now Egypt has built another great Library, which replaces the old one, on the same site, and is called Bibliotheca Alexandria.

I just started my first steps towards a career in fashion design, and to tell you the truth I feel somewhat anxious.  Stepping into unknown grounds is a little risky, especially a change which is as dramatic as mine.  You see, I decided to leave medicine (as I am a physician), and pursue fashion design as a career.  I dreamt of it since I was 13 years old.  This was when I first began to draw fashion.

At that time, fashion design was like a form of art, by which I was able to express my moods and my emotions as clothes that I drew on girls.  I was good in arts and crafts, but fashion was not only my past-time hobby, but was a form of a spontaneous outlet for my inner self.  At that age, I had no idea it was fashion design, until 3 years later when a parent of one of my school friends, whom was a fashion consultant, told her daughter that I had a talent for fashion design.

However, by the time it was time for me to choose a college to continue my post-secondary education; there weren't any specialized fashion schools in Egypt.  There were technical textile engineering courses in the faculties of engineering, as well as courses for textile engineering, and special courses of tailoring.  This wasn't what I hoped for as a career.

Since I also like biology, and excelled in it in my secondary education, I decided to join medicine.  It was a safe social and financial choice.  It pleased my parents, because it was their dream for me to be a doctor!  But fashion design continued to be a pastime hobby as before, but it was agonizing for me when people saw my sketches, and told me that I had a great talent.

I graduated 9 years ago from college, and now I am supposedly in the midst of my residency practice to become an internist.  I also started my Masters degree.  But to me, I had no deep satisfaction no matter how good I was doing in Medicine.  I even cannot see myself as a doctor practicing in my own clinic, and was always questioning myself what if I went to study art instead.

Every time I drew I become very sad, because it ended up in the drawer stored away with others.  To tell you the truth, I was also good at medicine, but it seemed I had no real goal in it, and that made my master years longer to study.  I was in no real rush to pursue medicine as a career.  That prolongation made me feel as a failure, and I got very depressed, and can take it no more.  I left medicine since a year, and stayed at home.

I began to research about different careers involving art and design, but nothing fulfilled what I longed for, until one day I stumbled upon the fashion institute in Cairo.  I began to do my homework, and found out that it had a branch in Alex.  I was very pleased, and I couldn't believe that dreams might come true one day.

Well, now I made the decision to start the career in fashion design, and my first step is to study it.  The institute that I attend offers 3 main diplomas, and plenty of specialized little courses.  I will start the "Fashion Stylist" diploma, and it is a 20 months study.

The study has 2 main courses.  One is the "fashion design", and it is the artistic part of the study . At the end of this course I will be able to find my own design style, and know how to design for all ages and body forms.  We will also know how to design seasonal collections.  We will also know about various drawing and colouring techniques.

The other is the pattern study and execution of clothes, and this is the technical part.  The pattern study course will enable me to produce a plan for the garment on paper, and execute it onto fabric, finally to be the garment that I designed.  At the end of the diploma, I will also be able to design other fashion apparel as shoes and bags, jewellery and accessories.  We will also study about the history of fashion, market research, tailoring and sewing, fabrics and yarns etc.

The good part of the institute, is that they will allow us to choose our own time schedules, and the teachers will work with each student at his/her independent pace.  This is very much different from my study in medicine.  They will also allow our creativity to flourish during our study, and this is also different from medicine.  In medicine, we just have to do research and memorise books full of diseases.  The only time we engage with patients is in the practical rounds, and only to speak to them to reach a diagnosis.  Treatment comes later after graduation, and we are not allowed to be creative until fresh graduates become specialists.

The institute in Egypt is under the supervision of a famous Italian institute, which teaches fashion, and the examiners will also be Italians.  However, the teachers are Egyptians, but are very qualified and are chosen by the Italian administration.


Sunday 3rd October

Today was my first lesson at the institute.  I have never been so excited at doing something in my whole life.  Well there are other few occasions in my life, but this one far outweighs most of them.  It feels like a walk in the sky, and I am able to grasp my life-long dream, which seemed before as a cloud I can only watch.  However, there is some anxiety about my career change, but as the tutor began to teach me about the first steps of taking body measurements the anxiety had subsided.

Today was my first two pattern lessons. 

I never knew how to put a needle on a thread, nor sew a button, nor shorten pants.  Mum used to design her own clothes and sew them on a sewing machine.  She tried to pass this hobby of hers to me when I was young, but I failed a lot.  This took so much time and patience, and I preferred to draw.  I never agreed with her how important tailoring and pattern design was for fashion designers, until recently when I was searching for the fashion institute.  I just had found out that tailoring, sewing and pattern study are an integral part of most of the fashion school courses.  I guess I owe her a big apology.

Well my first pattern lesson was tough. I never knew that there was something even tougher than medicine.  The body measurements were a very easy and smooth introduction to the basic pattern design.  For the people with math phobia; WATCH OUT!!.   I was on the verge of melting my brain from over concentration.  I was overwhelmed by numbers, letters, and equations.  It was like an algebra lesson, joined with technical drawing.  At some point I thought that I had a mental block, and my brain seized to function. 

I kept saying to myself, if I was smart enough to study medicine, this entire math is a piece of cake.  (In Egypt, the secondary school graduates with the highest grades only are allowed to join medicine).  Common, I could do it, but at the back of my mind I kept on remembering how I was a wreck in math and physics.  That was why I was interested in medicine.  No numbers…..

That evening I went to buy all the equipment needed for the pattern course.  I borrowed the centres in today's lesson, except for a specialized large French curve (made of transparent plastic) and a roll of 10 draft papers which I bought.  The French curve is for drawing the curves needed for the pattern design.

The draft papers are also large paper on which I will draw real size patterns of the garment.  Other kinds of paper will be 350/450mm cardboard paper, transparent vellum for tracing, and A-4 blank paper for sketches and colouring (must be adequate for all markers, pens, inks, water colours, pencils, colour pencils, crayons, pastels, charcoals etc.).

I also bought Mechanical 0.5 HB pencils, and ordinary HB pencils, coloured ballpoint pens, rubbers, fabric roulette, fabric chalk, fabric needles, measuring tape, cheap toile fabric, sewing thread, fabric carbon paper, glue, white Duco tape, adhesive tac, paper scissors, fabric scissors and blade cutters. I bought several folders, to keep the entire pattern and garment samples that I will produce over the course.

I bought an ordinary 60cm ruler, and a 1/4 scale ruler (which is a prismic 30cm ruler, and has a different scale on each edge of the prism).  The latter ruler will allow me to draw small scales of the pattern.  Yeah, I bought also a geometric triangle, which is a right angle triangle, with 1cm gradings all over it's surface and edges, as well as a protractor scale on one of its surfaces.

I bought a large art bag to contain all these materials, as well as a tube, which will carry the paper rolls, and a large pencil case.  I think this will be the start of a somewhat expensive and a very demanding course, not mentioning the fabric that I will buy later on for my projects and exam modules!

Monday 4th October

At home, I went over what I took for the basic bodice pattern design, and I drew one for myself as my pattern tutor gave me for homework.  Everything made sense.  I don't know why I did have the mental block, but maybe I was startled at the entire math at the beginning, or maybe because it was a different teaching technique than how I studied for medicine.  I will get used to it eventually.

It took me the whole evening to draw my real-size basic bodice pattern.  The basic bodice pattern is similar to the base for drawing a simple T-shirt without its sleeves, which I will take later in the course.  It constitutes of two quarters, half of the front of the body, and the other is half of the back.

First I measured myself with the help of my husband.  Then I did the whole calculations needed with a calculator, and then I drew a sample basic bodice pattern using the quarter scale ruler, i.e. the sample is quarter the size of the real size bodice.  I used the triangle to acquire perpendicular lines for the grid base of the bodice.  I also used the French curve for the curves.  The sample bodice seemed O.K.

I did the real size basic bodice pattern on the draft paper.  It took a long time to produce, and a tremendous effort of concentration, but it looks good at the end.  I hope that I will be quicker and more efficient as I get used at drawing the pattern, otherwise this time consumption will not be in my favour later on in my career.

Thursday 7th October

Excitement is nothing to what I felt today as I was waiting to start my design lesson. Yesterday I was full of anticipation, that I couldn't sleep the night. This was what I have been waiting for.

Last time at the centre I couldn't speak to both of the students that were there. 'There were several students, and some of them are taking the stylist diploma, and some are taking the design diploma. Some of the students are graduates of textile engineering, and some were fine art students. One was a pharmacist, who owns her own pharmacy, and another is a physician, whom was older than me. They have the same designing talent as I am, and they were eager to pursue it, as they heard about the institute. It is never too late to pursue a dream, no matter what one will give up. I guess I wasn't the only one who jumped between careers, and that was conciliation. But I wonder, will the expertise that I missed for not studying textile engineering will affect my career later on? I don't know….

As we talked I found out that there are some who are already in the garment industry. A couple of them own their own small businesses, and some work in bigger factories, but the majority are here to study to start their own ateliers or small factories. As for me all I want is to be a fashion designer. Who knows? Maybe in the future I might start my own haute couture atelier, or maybe a new fashion ready-to- wear brand. Perhaps produce designs for the cinema or the theatre. I still did not specify what to do, but I like to think in the short time range. My first priority is to concentrate in my study for now, and as I go on I will research in all these alternatives. I guess my preferences will show later on.

Our design tutor came, and gave us an introduction about what we will study for design, and she insisted that we must exercise drawing very plenty, so that we could master it.  We started the first lesson for the newcomers.

It was about drawing the female nude body standing in the erect position, with the 3 views; front back and the side.  We have to draw it in a grid of 2 squares wide and 8 squares high, with the feet protruding different lengths below the grid, depending upon the view.  Drawing of the female inside the grid is important to help us to draw the female in the right proportions.  This seemed to be easy, but it was difficult in practice.

It needs so much of an artistic talent as a base to master design, so that the hand can move smoothly in drawing the figure. But this is not the only prerequisite. Knowledge of anatomy is needed, too. This knowledge I had from my previous study of medicine. Anatomy is important for the ability to draw all the details of the body in the right place, and in the right configurations.

For example, if you will be able to draw the neck descending down to the shoulders, the knowledge of the major neck muscles and the bone construction for the neck and the upper part of the chest is important to draw it very realistic, with the curve and the shadings of the neck, the shoulders and the collar bones.

However, the most annoying part of the grid is that it constricts me to draw in a specific size for every part of the body.  I mean, I wasn't a professional artist, but for years I developed a particular configuration of the body in my illustrations that I feel comfortable to draw.  This was a tall slim flat figure, with long legs in relation to the chest, and long angular faces (gives a sophisticated 20's feel to the model).

But drawing this female body in the grid is very time consuming, and very frustrating for the first few times.  This technique forces me to draw the models relatively curved and fuller. The face is very different from my long angular faces, and the legs have very large feet and calf muscles.  The new legs I learned are sexier and more dramatic than my old ones, although in the institute's design courses they are very gigantic in relation to the normal anatomical configurations that I knew from medicine.  I always crippled in drawing the curve of the waist starting from the chest down to the hip.  I keep slimming it, and my design tutor keeps inflating it.

The other hard thing was to draw symmetrical shoulders, with the equal sloping angles and with the right length.  My design tutor told me that these are minor mistakes, which I will correct if I practiced more.  The back and the side view were easier than I had expected, and I quickly mastered these.

As a start, I was O.K. Although I thought I can do better.   Maybe it will take time for me to draw like a professional artist.  Until today I was an amateur with little or basic knowledge of art since my school years.  This was more than a decade ago!!!  However, today I saw some who had a really difficult time in the design lesson.  They did not seem to have the talent for drawing, and it took the design tutor nearly all her time with them.  I don't want to be a sensor or an imposer, but what the heck do they do in here?  I thought to myself; "If they do not have the talent and it is hard for them to draw, why do they waste good money, effort and time taking design?  They should have taken only pattern courses".  As I understood from them, design is a mere additive skill, which is important for them to be more qualified for job security.  Only time will tell who will manage to continue with the design course, and who will lag behind…...

Friday 10th October

Today it is time for more shopping. The design tutor told us to buy the tools we will be using for the design.  PENCILS and more pencils….   She told us we will continue to perfect our drawing and shading techniques before we start colouring….  We will need later all kinds of colours as markers, crayons, charcoals, water colours and fabric colours etc.   But at the moment there is no need to rush for the colours.  I am glad that she decided to delay the usage of some things.  Too much unnecessary stuff will be a strain on the budget.

The problem is that the most used pens for colouring are the Pantone colour markers.  I don't believe it.  These aren’t sold in Egypt at all.  These markers must either be bought at the institute or ordered via the net.  I guess I have to try the net, maybe I can get cheaper deals than what they offer in the institute.  One marker will cost, either way, too much in Egyptian pounds, so I guess it will be a strain on the budget now or later…...

There are cheaper markers on the market, but are of less quality and have a less colour spectrum.  The design tutor will teach us the rest of the colouring techniques, and it is up to us to choose the markers to colour with.  But if I want to build up a professional portfolio I have to bring them.  At the meantime, there is no hurry for them.  I have to search the net for good deals. 

Well I bought several HB pencils, and different B and H pencils (2, 4, and 6 of the latter two kinds). These are important to give different shading intensities.  I bought different rubbers; Sanford's art gum is important for rubbing pencil markings with cleansing effects to remove smudges off the paper.  Staedtler's Mars Rasor rubber is shaped like a pencil, with a brush at the end.  This is important for rubbing fine lines in highly detailed drawings, and also can be used for shading.

There is also what we call mix pencils.  These are very peculiar pencils that I saw them for the first time in my life; these are wooden pencils with no leads, and are wrapped I guess by a tissue, and are needed to mix shades in a harmonious way.  I also bought new pencil colours; a set of 24 Staedtler colours.  I really missed buying colours.  I last bought colours when I was in school in Kuwait.  These were the 36 Lyra colour set, and thank goodness I still have them.  I will use them  to obtain more colour shades.

Buying the colours made me feel good.  Whenever I went for shopping for stationeries, I always wished to buy colours and use them like a professional, but I never had time during my medicine years except for frequent quick pencil sketches and an occasional coloured illustration with my old pencil colours.  Well, I feel what I hoped for is coming true.  I always wanted to work with colours professionally, and here I am.  I feel alive again!

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Sunday 12th October

It is time for my two pattern lessons today.  I chose to take my twice weekly pattern lessons on the same day, and the design lessons will be on Thursdays.  Unfortunately, there will be a slight deviation in our schedule in the next month. Ramadan (The Muslim Holly month of prayer and fasting) will start at the end of this week. The working day will be shortened, and that means I will be taking pattern twice a week.  Design will be postponed until after Ramadan, because I can't take an extra 2 days for design.

I felt a bit let off. I enjoyed design a lot. The design lesson made me feel as if I was in the midst of my dream as a true fashion designer, although all I drew were erect female bodies in 3 different views.  Delaying it made me feel very disappointed.  However, if I waited all these years to reach my dream, why couldn't I wait for another month?  On the contrary, it is a good chance for more practice for me to forget my old drawing habits.  I did not practice drawing until now, although it has been 2 days since my last design lesson.

Well, today I learned how to add ease allowance on the basic pattern bodice.  Ease allowance is the extra few centimetres added on the basic bodice pattern to give the garment extra space between it and its wearer's body.  This is to allow for comfort during any movement and posture of the body, and allows also for the different layers of the clothes to be worn on top of each other.

Ease allowance also depends on the person's body faults, and the style and fabric of the garment.  This was easy to produce, but it still took me a while to produce the basic bodice pattern, taking about 40-50 minutes a pattern.

The second of today's lessons was cutting the basic bodice pattern into fabric.  This was exciting.  I always thought that sewing was one of the mysteries of the tailor's universe.  Mum was a telecommunication engineer, yet she knew how to sew and tailor her clothes.  It was her pastime hobby, and she made some of my favourite garments when I was young.  She stopped since a long time.

My wedding dress was especially tailored for me, and I was the one who helped the tailor for the design, but communication between us was very hard.  I thought he was difficult to deal with, but now as it turned out that I was the one who was the pain.  If the clock was to turn back, I would communicate my thoughts about the dress better.  That is why I think pattern is important to any fashion designer.

I enjoyed these steps for cutting the fabric.  It is like an art and craft lesson that I used to love and enjoy very much back at school, and it is a kind of a break from the technical pattern design. First of all, the pattern is traced on transparent vellum, and then its copy is cut after adding seam allowance on it.  Seam allowance is the extra centimetres which surround the whole nett pattern, so that it will be used for sewing, allowing for extra safe space between the initial pattern lines and the ragged cut edges of the fabric.

After that, the cut bodice pattern on the transparent vellum is pinned to the folded fabric, and then the fabric is cut by scissors.  The whole complex is then placed on the fabric carbon paper, with the fabric facing the carbon paper.  The bodice pattern is traced on the lower face of fabric as the rollette (tracing wheel) slides over the top tracing paper, which is still pinned to the fabric.  With extreme care the pins are removed from the tracing paper, but are placed underneath it to join the two layers of fabric.  This step removes the transparent paper pattern without separating both layers of fabric.  The fabric is then turned so that its unblotted surface faces the carbon paper, and using the rollette sliding on the top of the blotted pattern lines, the bodice pattern will be blotted at the lower face.

The bodice pattern which was drawn on the draft paper is a quarter of the front and the back of the body, and these steps for transferring it on fabric will allow it to be transferred into the front and back halves of the body.  I then pinned the front and back halves at the side lines, and packed them in my art bag until next lesson to sew them together, because this lesson had ended at that point.

Sunday 19th October

Today it was my most excited moment ever.  I was allowed to use the sewing machine to sew my basic bodice that I prepared on fabric and had cut last lesson.  I actually came near that machine that I used to consider a monster when I was young.  When we were young, my brother and I weren't allowed to get near my mother's sewing machine.  Considering the immense size of its needle, and the speed at which it goes up and down, we thought of it as a monster.  We weren't enthusiastic to get near it any ways…...

Well I still considered it to be a monster, and it's time to tame it.  It was my first time sitting at it, and I remember my heart was pumping, especially when my pattern tutor showed me how to sew. Her hands quickly and spontaneously were moving all over the machine, as she hooked the thread, and put on the fabric and placed down the needle and began to sew quickly one side of the bodice.  I couldn't get anything, except the way she moved the fabric.  As long as the thread was in place, I felt it good to continue after her, and sew the rest of the fabric.

What can go wrong? I began to sew, and everything went wrong.

After sewing a whole line, I found out that there was nothing sewn, and I found out that the thread keeps on disappearing inside the machine, and my design tutor taught me how to correct it.

Sometimes it tangled into a mess underneath the fabric and at that point the machine clenched and failed to rotate.  She also told me how to deal with that thing too.  Then the thread kept on retracting away from the needle, and she showed me again how to hook it on, but this kept on returning again.  In fact it seems that every line took from me ages and ages.  I also had the needle broken and replaced.  Not mentioning the zigzagged and wavy line I sewed instead of the supposedly straight pattern lines.  This is because the machine was going very fast as I sewed, and I was slow on directing the fabric.

Any tiny move of the fabric in any direction will mean a large diversion in the sewing.  It is just like driving a car at a high speed, any tiny diversion of the steering wheel means going far from the straight line.  My tutor told me to concentrate at how I control the fabric movement, and to lower the speed of the sewing machine by not stepping at the peddle too much.  But sometimes lowering the speed allows the tangling of the thread below the fabric producing that dreaded clenching of the machine.

Well now the sewing machine is less of a monster than it was, but it can be very frustrating for a beginner like me.  I think my tutor was very frustrated being called every few minutes by me for assistance.  I pitied her.  What would it feel like for her if there were more like me? She will  eventually get mad !! I apologized to her at the end of the lesson, and promised her that I will do better and be less of a nuisance next time.

Finally I finished sewing, and my crusade at the machine was over for now.  I ironed it and turned it inside out to see how it looked finally.  It was great except for the smudges of my yellow fabric carbon.  The sewing lines didn't look very curvy.

Back at home, I was very pleased with it, and I kept wearing it.  I felt very proud of it, and I couldn't believe that I accomplished something like that.  Nor did my husband.  He was very pleased that this course began to show some results.  I can't wait to design and do a garment completely by myself.

What I need is to practice sewing at home, and to buy a sewing machine.  I think this course is really stretching the budget.  I was told that we will do monthly projects, which will be a reflection on what we took all along the month, and this means higher quality fabrics, buttons or zippers and other apparel depending on what will the style be.  This is nothing compared to the designs I will do and execute for the final examinations.   Well medicine wasn't cheap too!

Thursday 21st October

Today, I was taken a bit further down the line, and took the basic bodice pattern with darts. Luckily for me, it was one pattern lesson, for it was again the turn for my brain to steam a little more today.  I thought we will study maybe the collars or sleeves, since the basic bodice pattern was taught.  But no, it was the basic bodice pattern with a further step - How to draw darts on it.  It took more time and more brain work, but it seemed easier doing it again at home.  I do not know why I seem to be taken aback at every new step at pattern design.  I should be more at ease and keep an open mind at every new thing.

Maybe the reason for this is that the rules have to be deviated at every new step at studying pattern. 

It takes a lot of imagination to understand every alteration in the pattern.  In the clinical years at studying medicine, we used to study diseases by the same basic scheme.  This was similar to a check list to keep all issues considering any disease in mind.  We use this scheme in every disease whether studying it or diagnosing and treating it.  Even diseases, involving one system of the body, symptomised similarly, and only few symptoms and some investigations varied between them.  These monotonous schemes were useful in memorizing diseases, and imagination and creativity played a lower role in our practice.  Even in postgraduate study and research this was the same.  Remember the cartoon "Follow the Dancing DOT"!!!!!!!!!!

But I have to get used to the rapidly evolving pattern course.  I have to let my brain break loose, and I have to control my fretting.  Surprisingly, pattern also follows the same basic rules, but it has to be changed a little to add the darts, and other details.  It needs more imagination to understand it, and to deal with it. I t needs a lot of patience, too.  It took me a whole three hours to draw my bodice pattern with darts at home……

By the way, this bodice allows the garment to be tight and more shaping of the body.  Those darts are the sewing lines you see in the front and the back of the garment. I  was told they were not only shaping, but are the base of a lot of creativity in the style of the garment; as well it can give more ease allowance.  Well, I will see where this will lead me later…

Note from Pauline   My sincere thanks to Vivian Mikhail for her account to date of her fashion design experience.  This account is Viv's personal description of her course and feelings of excitement, jubilation and despair to date.  Viv forms part of's new section where Visitor's contribute to the fashion-era site.  This first account is of the first 4 weeks of the Autumn 2004 session.

Read my comments to Vivian in an open letter to her on the next page where I suggest a few tips and suggestions to her in relation to her first entries on her journey of discovery.  You can read how Vivian got on with sewing her first project in the immediate following weeks here.

For more information on Visitor's Contributions to pages on


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