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Comments & Suggestions on Vivian's Fashion Journal 1

Pauline Weston Thomas for


Comments & Suggestions on Vivian's Fashion Journal 1, in an Open Letter to Vivian

A few months ago, earlier in 2004,  Vivian wrote and told me of her dream to pursue a fashion career.   Vivian's letter was one that sparked my interest to seek more information about her.  She elaborated that she was a doctor, but her dream was to become a fashion designer and with that aim in mind she was for the time being abandoning medicine and starting a fashion course this autumn 2004.

Perceiving her to be a very sincere and articulate person, well able to explain herself I invited her to keep a journal of her experience of attending a fashion course.  We both realised how useful it would be for anyone embarking on a new fashion design course and a career change.  I also felt Vivian would benefit from writing down her thoughts on this experience to later look back on them with a measure of comprehension.

I felt an empathy with Vivian because I was 27 when I went to study Dress and Design at university. I too had a nine year career previous to that in a large banking organization so I knew what a challenge she was setting herself, putting herself on the line to her amazed friends and being desperate to succeed and satisfy her creative expression.  I know she will succeed already, because she is committed to improving and learning skills very different from those used in medicine and yet not so very different.  Skills that demand patience to get things right, trial and error and seeing a job through.  Skills that will make her feel creative and fulfilled and a head bursting with imaginative ideas she cannot get out fast enough.  To help her and you reader, I shall sometimes comment on her journal entries.  To read the full web page of her first 4 weeks go here.


An Open Letter to Vivian

Vivian wrote - <<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 ...I just started my first steps towards a career in fashion design, and to tell you the truth I feel somewhat of my school friends, whom was a fashion consultant, told her daughter that I have a talent for fashion design.....>>

Pauline replies - Vivian, follow your dreams with the passion that is so obvious to anyone who reads how thrilled you are to be at last doing this course.  I hope it lives up to your expectations.  But as in most things in life what we put in ourselves, we get back threefold.  So you have hard work ahead and hopefully lots of satisfaction.  Apprehension is normal when you start something new and unfamiliar.  It will soon pass.  Already by the end of your first 3 weeks I notice a certain confidence that you will do this and see it through.  To be told you have a talent for fashion design by various people must encourage you to know you can succeed.

Vivian wrote - <<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.....>>

Pauline replies - Pattern drafting or at least an understanding of how the principles work is an essential tool for anyone who tries their hand at designing clothing.  Many think it is only about making pretty fashion drawings of wistful girls in flimsy ball gowns, but in reality it involves being able to produce working drawings and also production drawings which are far duller to make, but are needed to explain ideas to the end manufacturer.  Modern design studios use a lot of Computer Aided Design systems such as the Lectra system to produce artwork and cutting edge patterns and layouts. The skills you are learning are a great foundation, particularly for bespoke work.

Vivian wrote - <<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…....>>

Pauline replies - Sounds just my cup of tea!

Vivian wrote -  <<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.>>

Pauline replies - Sounds very impressive when you think that only a decade ago you write you could not find a course of this type in Egypt.

Vivian wrote - <<Today was my first lesson at the institute. I have never been so excited at doing something in my whole life. .......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. ....I never knew how important tailoring and pattern design was for fashion designers, until recently.... I just had found out that tailoring, sewing and pattern study are an integral part of most of the fashion school courses. ....Well my first pattern lesson was tough.......  I was overwhelmed by numbers, letters, and equations. It was like an algebra lesson, joined with technical drawing.>>

Pauline replies - I think it's great to be so excited about this.  It is harder for those who have never used commercial dress patterns to grasp the flat method of pattern drafting.  Basically it is technical drawing or a bit like constructing a geometric shape in a mathematics class.  Pattern drafting is classified in the Dewey Library system under engineering. That engineering just happens to involve the three dimensional form called the human body.

If you had used for example a Butterick or Vogue or Simplicity or McCall's or Burda dress pattern before you would have been more aware of the symmetry involved and the end product you were attempting to achieve.  From my point of view I always found students learnt this skill better if they had a) used dress patterns before and b) started with the skirt block and made half a dozen adaptations of the skirt block before advancing to the bodice block.

For web visitors the type of block Vivian made was probably similar to this picture below and was labelled by her as she went along.  There are quite a few different methods of making a bodice block using the flat drafting method and the picture below is just one of them, so Vivian needs to be aware that once she has tackled the block at the institute and got the drift of how these things work that she could try drafting another variation of a bodice block from a modern or even an older book and seeing which methods she likes best.  Many block instructions use a compass at the armscye.  Such blocks and instructions are usually worked out first by being downsized on plain exercise paper to see the method and use either a 1/4, 1/5 or 1/6 scale.  Vivian mentioned the ruler with a reduced scale.

Full Draft of Bodice to Hipline  Shaped Fitted Bodice to Waist Block
Draft Bodice Draft Waiste

The above is my block for a bodice.


Vivian wrote - <<That evening I went to buy all the equipment needed for the pattern course......I bought a large art bag to contain all these materials, ....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!>>>

Pauline replies - Practical courses are always demanding of cash!!!  But equipment I bought years ago lasts a long time.  I think I may have owned only 1 French curves in 25 years.  Pattern paper though gets eaten up by nett drafting and redrafting to gross patterns and can be costly.  A good source for it is MacCulloch and Wallis in Dering Street, London who have a web site and where you can buy it by the ream or on a huge roll.  You can buy plain pattern drafting paper, centimetre squared paper in large sheets or inch spot paper.   If you get to having the huge roll stage I advise buying a dispenser stand which makes handling the heavy roll so much easier.  MacCullochs sell a catalogue and do mail order of goods from the catalogue.

Vivian wrote - <<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....It took me the whole evening to draw my real-size basic bodice pattern. ...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...>>

Pauline replies - The more you do this the easier it gets.   You'll soon speed up.

Vivian wrote - <<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. ….....>>

Pauline replies - I bet that made you feel so good that you were not alone in wishing to pursue a different career.   The old saying that life is not a rehearsal and is about achieving what you want to do than pursuing what someone else thinks is best for you.

Vivian wrote - <<....It was about drawing the female nude body standing in the upright position...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. ......But drawing this female body in the grid is very time consuming, and very frustrating for the first few times. ....>>

Pauline replies - With your knack for drawing you'll soon adapt.

Vivian wrote - <<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…....We will need later all kinds of colours as markers, crayons, charcoals, water colours and fabric colours ......The problem is that the most used 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.. >>

Pauline replies - I highly recommend Pantone markers to you.  They are the Crème de la Crème of art markers and do not flood outside specific boundaries like cheaper markers do.  The flow of the Pantone marker ink is even, not patchy nor does it blot outside the area you place it once you get used to the ink and its flow boundary. 

Pantone markers create professional effects with ease and have great flesh tones for limbs and faces.  Push the boat out to get some.  Ask your tutor for advice on a selection of the best basic colour Pantone numbers to make a start with say just 6 markers.  As you are in Egypt you may select different skin tones than say I would in England.

Even so when cost is a factor consider asking in art shops if you can test their markers.   As they now have to compete with internet sales they are often very happy to help you and many are art students with a genuine interest in art materials.  Take a piece of cartridge and layout paper with you on which you have sketched a few circles and other simple outlines and see how the sample pen ink flows on your papers, the papers you will actually use.  Of course sometimes it's easier and cheaper to purchase from the internet rather than lug heavy art material home.  Paper and card goods can weigh a ton!

To Top of Page

Vivian wrote - <<I bought different rubbers; Sanford's art gum .... Staedtler's Mars Rasor rubber .....There is also what we call mix pencils. ....Buying the colours made me feel good. >>

Pauline replies - Hmmm I love art shops too!  I'm always wiling to listen to them tell me about their new products or kits or materials.

Vivian wrote - <<<It is time for my two pattern lessons today.......Well, today I learned how to add ease allowance on the basic pattern bodice. ...Ease allowance also depends on the person's body faults,.....The second of today's lessons was cutting the basic bodice pattern into fabric....Seam allowance is the extra centimetres which surround the whole nett pattern, so that it will be used for sewing...The bodice pattern which was drawn on the draft paper is a quarter of the front and the back of the body.....>>

Pauline replies - <<Already you have learnt the difference between nett and gross patterns a basic principle in pattern drafting.>>

Vivian wrote - <<Today it was my 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 still considered it to be a monster, and it's time to tame it. ......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....Sometimes it tangled into a mess underneath the fabric ....My tutor told me to concentrate at how I control the fabric movement... Finally I finished sewing, and my crusade at the machine was over for now. I ironed it and turned it inside out ..It was great...Back at home, I was very pleased with it, and I kept wearing it. What I need is to practice sewing at home, and to buy a sewing machine. >>

Pauline replies -  Getting a good fit on a toile or muslin is very satisfying.  This really is something that is better done in a room with a tutor or helper than over the internet


This is an old suggestion I have for you to get sewing machine control.  Take all the thread out of the machine and also remove the bobbin case or bobbin if that is the type.  Next I suggest you get some pieces of long paper about a metre or so or more, take the thread and bobbin out of the sewing machine.  NOW press the pedal and machine threadless straight lines, right angles, curves both convex and concave etc., all without thread.  Do this on a smaller square of paper too and actually machine squares on the paper. 

To turn a corner sharply make sure the needle is in the paper when you try to go around the corner.  If you cannot do it with foot control then take your foot off the machine pedal and then turn the balance wheel toward you by hand until the needles is in the paper.  Now turn the paper a full right angle and begin to machine again.  This gives control over the angle which does not have to be a right angle, but can be.  Experienced sewers frequently get extra control by manipulating the balance wheel a half or quarter or full turn.

Also try turning the corner by leaving the needle in the paper, and turn the wheel just one movement to make one stitch hole and then turn the needle corner again and machine again. This gives a softer corner for certain fabrics, which would develop a bubble when you machine them and turn them through.  Try it and see.

You can also try machining a large scallop shape or repeated half circle shapes or the kind of curves you might have on a rounded collar or pocket or cuff.

You will need to replace the machine needles you used as paper blunts the tip of the needle making it unusable for someone else.  If you are using the college machine do that immediately so the next person has a fair chance with the sewing machine, but it will give you greater control. This way you will get a feel for the movement of the needle under the paper and how your hands would eventually manipulate the fabric. 

Vivian wrote - <<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! >>

Pauline replies - Quality training is not cheap, but the sense of satisfaction in achieving your ambition will be worth it in the long run.  Think carefully when choosing a sewing machine.  Perhaps for now it will be best for you to try out a few models at the institute to see which type your prefer.   You could also do some internet research on this using keywords such as choosing a sewing machine or which is best sewing machine or computerised sewing machines comparison or consumer reports sewing machines etc.  Investigating the various computer elements within sewing machines can be useful too.  Consider if you want embroidery features which can be built in, additional add ons or a sole motif making machine in addition to a utility machine.  

Another Google type search might involve your searching the sites of Bernina, Newhome or Janome, Viking, Toyota, Brother, Riccar Necchi, Bernette, Frister and Rossman, Pfaff and Elna all leading names (and in no particular order here) in the domestic sewing machine market.  Some company names no longer belong to the originator of the machine brand and have been sold on, but the brand names are used on machines by other famous manufacturers.

Consider also researching a (fast) industrial machine against a domestic machine with several speeds.  Bernina domestic machines always used to have speed controls for those who disliked fast machining.  Check with your tutor if they can be slowed down a little.  Bernina also used to do a sewing machine with a knee control which is very good for those without full control over their upper limbs.  I have to say the faster the sewing machine goes, the more I prefer it, but times does that to you - you get more impatient - a bit like waiting at an ATM cash card machine telling it to hurry up when the whole transaction takes less than a minute!

You could also add the word forum to certain phrases you think of, as that sometimes leads to negative and positive feedback on items like sewing machines.   You might also consider asking this question on a forum where sewing is a feature and where you can state exactly what you need the machine for.  Surfers love telling others why their machine is best.

The briefest simplest advice I can give on this page is make sure it is a free arm model to make sleeve insertion and children's wear easier; ensure it will take a twin needle and do an automatic stage buttonhole; and lift it to see how easy it is to move around work surfaces.   You want it neither too light nor too heavy.  A fair size bed as is, or as an add on can be useful.  I also like to be sure I can switch the light off - those bulbs can get mighty hot and cheaper models don't always have a light off switch.

Finally when you choose the machine take a selection of different squares of fabric with you in double layers ranging from silk chiffon to tweed to slippery satin to bias cut crepe to denim to thick velvet and see how they sew under the test models.  Don't be convinced just by a demonstrator using calico or crisp cotton.  Any old machine can sew tough old calico or felt without damaging it, but fine lawn is another matter, although of course the size of needle does play a very important part.  But a good demonstrator should be happy to change to a heavy upholstery needle if you present her with furnishing brocade and say 'will it sew that.'  It will also make you feel a bit more confident when making the choice as she will know you are serious about purchasing in the near future and may suggest reasons and questions you have never considered.

And with Xmas coming maybe that husband of yours could turn into Santa if you drop enough hints.  Although a word of warning be very specific about several machine brands you prefer and type out a list of must have features or best of all take him with you, just let him think he is taking you with him!  I currently use a Viking machine, but I have owned Newhomes, Berninas and Pfaffs. 

You can do it Vivian. Good Luck.

Note from PWT

My sincere thanks to Vivian Mikhail for her account to date of her fashion design experience.  The account is Viv's 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 Autumn 2004 session.


For more information on Visitor's Contributions to pages on

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About looks at women's costume and fashion history and analyses the mood of an era.  Changes in technology, leisure, work, cultural and moral values. Homelife and politics also contribute to lifestyle trends, which in turn influence the clothes we wear.  These are the changes that make any era of society special in relation to the study of the costume of a period.Fashion History can take no responsibility for any information on the site which may cause you error, loss or costs incurred from use of the information and links either directly or indirectly.  This site is owned, designed, written and developed by author: Pauline Thomas and Guy Thomas. This site is designed to be viewed in 1024 X 768 or higher.

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