How to be a Fashion Designer without Going to Fashion School, Part 2

fashion designer part 2

THE ACTUAL GARMENT: What you need to know about sewing, construction and textiles so your garment is made correctly.

Navigating the fashion industry without any prior experience or formal training can seem tricky and overwhelming. But with the right mindset, some good old fashioned research (you and Google will become best friends), and a lot of tenacity, it’s doable.

DIY your fashion education and come along with me on this journey as we delve into the strategies of how to do this.

I’ll remind you that this is part two of a four part series (read part one here), and that it has been created to be an interactive experience; I invite you to become part of the conversation. At the end of this article, you can read answers to questions asked from part one, as well ask your own questions which I will answer next week in part three.

Now, on to the actual garment…

Q: Do I need to know how to sew and draft patterns?
A: Not necessarily, but you should familiarize yourself with garment construction.

It’s a common misconception that you must know how to sew to be a fashion designer. This is actually where a lot of my frustration with fashion schools is rooted. Designers spend semesters taking sewing, pattern drafting, draping, and other hands on courses that don’t necessarily translate into the skills required to launch a label or work in the industry. Chances are, you won’t be sewing your own samples or production whether you start your own business or work for someone else. While some fundamental skills can be beneficial, you really don’t need to know as much as you may think.

However, when it comes to garment construction, this is where I suggest you do your research and gain some base knowledge. Why? I’ve seen too many designers who don’t understand the basics of construction come up with ideas that aren’t executable in real life. If you have some knowledge of how garments are made and essential construction techniques, this will help you design within realistic parameters.

Now, if you already have or want to learn some basic sewing skills, you can use this to your advantage to save time and money on development and make your own initial prototypes (I emphasize prototypes here and specifically do not mean samples) to provide to your pattern maker or factory…even if they’re rudimentary. This is especially helpful if your design includes some tricky construction or a special feature that you can’t find a sample of in the market. A few years ago I was working on a running belt for a client and I spent a couple hours sewing a (very homemade) sample to convey the complicated pocket design. The time proved to be well worth it as the first sample I got back from the factory was constructed perfectly and met spec.

While some sewing skills may come in handy, don’t even think about trying to draft or grade your own patterns. No matter how good of a seamstress you are, I recommend always outsourcing this to a professional. Production patterns are different from home sewing patterns, and unless you are specifically trained in this area, you’re better off paying for this to be done right. Some factories offer this service as part of a package, or you can hire your own pattern maker. When you begin working on development of your first block, I’ll give you some helpful advice:

Many designers will work with an existing brand in the market whose fit they like as a base to build their fit from. You can purchase a complete size run (one garment of every size you want to make) and use this as a starting point. Give these samples to your pattern maker for reference to create your block, get a sample made in your fit size (often the middle size of your full size range) and make adjustments from there. There’s no reason to create your fit completely from scratch when there are existing brands in the market that can easily be used as a foundation and then customized to your liking.

So now that you’ve removed pattern drafting from your to do list, focus on garment construction and the basics of sewing (only if you want to). There are plenty of creative ways you can learn without sitting in a classroom (although when I first started thinking about getting into the fashion industry, I did take a few inexpensive sewing classes at a vocational school and personally enjoyed this type of learning). Some great options are listed below:

  • Get a sewing book (this is my personal favorite), some patterns, and browse YouTube to learn the basics and start making a few garments. Don’t get overwhelmed by creating a complex design – keep it simple and start with a basic item.
  • Ask someone you know (your parent, grandma, neighbor, or friend?) to teach you the fundamentals – or perhaps even help you create the first prototypes. Remember, your initial prototypes don’t have to be perfect or professionally made – they may just serve as a way to convey a complex idea or unique construction method that is hard to draw or communicate otherwise.
  • Dissect garments similar to the ones you want to make – and yes, I mean grab a pair of scissors and a seam ripper and tear some clothes apart. I used to buy clothes at secondhand stores and do this all the time, and I learned more about construction than any sewing book could ever teach me. I’ve continued to use this technique over the years anytime I’m working with a client on a type of garment that’s new to me. There are certain details “behind the seams” (thin elastic sewn directly into seams to make sure the garment stays put, fabric backed with interfacing for added structure and stability, or reinforced stitching to help ensure seams don’t rip) that many factories won’t automatically implement unless you tell and show them to do so. Designing activewear? Grab a pair of leggings from your favorite store and (gasp!) cut apart the waistband to see how it’s put together. Have ideas to make it better? Implement those and share all of this with your factory to make sure your waistband fits as good as or even better than the best leggings in the market. You can’t always assume your factory will use specific construction techniques that make the garment fit and wear the way you want it to. There are many methods and techniques for sewing garments, so to avoid lost time and money on samples that don’t come out quite right, find existing designs in the market and follow them as a reference for construction.
  • Familiarize yourself with some of the essential garment terms by using cheat sheets found on Pinterest. Don’t get overwhelmed with learning it all – just find the types of designs you’re interested in and get to know the terminology for that category. Designing dress shirts? You’ll want to know the difference between the various types of plackets and pleats. Spend a little time getting up to speed on the correct vocabulary so you can talk the talk – but don’t get embarrassed if you don’t know what something is called either – just be humble and ask.

Q: How much do I need to know about different textiles and fabric construction?
A: Just figure out the basics, and industry experts and suppliers will help you learn the rest.

Fabrics have different features and benefits, and you’ll want to make sure you choose the construction, content, and quality that are a good match for your designs and price point. At an absolute minimum, make sure you understand the two most fundamental fabric categories and can tell the difference between knits and wovens. You may also want to learn about different types of fabric dyeing, as this may help you talk about what you’re looking for in a fabric or a finished garment. Above and beyond this, you’ll want to educate yourself a little about different the fabric types and their properties that are relevant to your market.

Let’s look at activewear as an example. It’s often made with polyester / spandex blends. Why? Because polyester dries faster than cotton and spandex adds stretch and gives better resilience (how well the garment returns to its original shape after being pulled or twisted). However, a higher spandex count often means a higher price fabric (spandex is more expensive than polyester), so you’ll need to keep this in mind to choose the right balance between quality and cost. Another cool fact? You’ll see rayon used in activewear often because it inherently measures 1.8° F (1° C) cooler than other fabrics, so it naturally helps keep your body cool. Interesting? Yes! Helpful to know when choosing fabric for your designs? Absolutely.

Now, don’t worry about knowing all of this in the very beginning – after 10+ years in the industry, I still learn new things about textiles all the time. There is a lot to know…and I’ll be honest, it’s one of those areas that’s a bit tough to navigate solo. There’s plenty of info online, but you don’t get to touch and feel the fabric. You can shop the market to see what your competitors are using, but you won’t necessarily know why they’ve chosen specific content and what the exact construction is.

Here are a few good places you can start to gain some knowledge:

  • Explore textile trade shows such Texworld (a StartUp FASHION partner and sponsor) and DG Expo. Attending is best and gets you access to seminars and knowledgeable staff. Make sure you’ve done your basic research and know if you’re looking for a knit or woven plus some ideas about what kind of fabrication you think might be a good fit for your designs (if you’re unsure about this, evaluate what products similar to yours in the market are using and use that content as a starting point). If you approach these experts without knowing the fundamentals, you’ll likely be immediately dismissed. However, if you show you’ve done a little research and are honest that you just need a bit more guidance, you’ll be surprised that a lot of people are willing to teach. If you can’t physically attend, most shows have an exhibitor list on their site which you can browse to find suppliers. Research them thoroughly, and when you’ve found a few that seem to be a good match, pick up the phone and give them a call. You just may get someone on the other line who is willing to give you their expert advice and answer questions. Take good notes and order sample swatches, so you can then compare what you’ve learned about each fabric to the actual swatch.
  • Find yourself some local experts who are willing to teach you a thing or two. If you’ve got access to a garment district (such as in NYC or LA), the staff at these shops are often knowledgeable and willing to talk, just make sure you visit during off peak times so they have time to chat. Strike up conversation and see what you can learn – it may be hit or miss by store or employee, so don’t get discouraged if your first attempts are unsuccessful. If you’re located outside these fashion hubs, you may also be surprised at how much employees at local fabric shops know (emphasis is on local shops as opposed to big box retailers – I have found that in general the staff at big box fabric retailers are typically not very knowledgeable). I used to live in Denver and frequented a large but independent fabric store there that had high standards for their staff. The employees there taught me so much about some of the basics, the pros and cons of different fabrics and what types of construction (ie jersey vs interlock) may work best for my designs. While you won’t be buying fabric for production at shops like this, it is helpful to have a physical place where you can go to touch, feel and talk to people about fabric to gain some base knowledge. Don’t discount the benefit of face to face time or the value of a phone call – you’ll get so much more out of this type of interaction than email communication alone.
  • Last, you may want to add a book like this one to your shelf. While I don’t have personal experience with this exact one, it seems to be a great resource and the fact that it includes swatches is the only reason I think it would be worth investing in.

Key Takeaways
Review these key takeaways and click here to download The Free DIY Fashion Education Checklist: Part 1, The Actual Garment for a more thorough list of what you do and don’t need to learn.

  • You don’t need to know how to sew a garment from start to finish.
  • General garment construction and textile knowledge will be a huge asset.
  • As you come into contact with people in the industry, be humble and continue to ask questions so you can learn as you go.
  • Always do research upfront and make sure you’re prepared – otherwise, you’ll likely be ignored.
  • Focus on utilizing your skills wisely to complete parts of the fashion design and development process that you’re good at or that you have a knack for and outsource the rest.

Now, it’s time to become part of the conversation, and there are 3 ways you can do this (see note below regarding deadlines):

  • Post your question(s) below in the comments section
  • Tweet at me: @sewheidi
  • Send me an email: sayNOtoFashionSchool at sewheidi dot com

Ask me any specific questions about how to be a fashion designer without going to fashion school, and I’ll do my best to answer them in the coming posts. If I can’t give you a fair and honest answer from my own experience and knowledge, I’ll try and find an expert who can.

Please note that in order for your question to be considered for next week’s article, the deadline to submit is Friday, March 4th, 2016 at 10am EST (NYC time zone). If you are reading this and have missed the deadline, I still invite you to be part of the discussion and comment below or reach out to me directly and we can continue the conversation.

Not sure what to ask? Get inspired by these designers’ questions from part one of the series:

Alicia asks: How do you feel about crowdfunding a fashion label?

Thanks for the great question Alicia – I love that you’re thinking about ways to raise capital to launch your label. Crowdfunding can be a great option, but if you’re going to do it, you need to do it right in order to succeed. Crowdfunding campaigns are not a “build it and they will come” sort of venture (in fact, very few things work that way any more). You will need strategize and promote the sh!t out of your campaign. I suggest you research ways to maximize success on a crowdfunding campaign, as there are many resources and articles that can guide you in the right direction.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Hey Alicia, we have an ebook in our shop that we created specifically for emerging designers who want to crowdfund their label. You can get it here

Shaina wants to build a community: I am thinking of having shows right here in CT so I can inspire other conservative fashion designers that are in the same situation as I am…we can grow together and develop our business ideas together.

Shaina, I really like how you’re thinking about starting a community and a network of like minded designers, and I encourage you to do this. One of the best things you can do is get out from behind your computer and meet other designers.  If a community doesn’t exist where you are, then you can build it yourself. When I first started designing many years ago, I did exactly this. I coordinated events and fashion shows to get some exposure and create a network of designers. Some of the people I met back then are still in my close circle of friends, and we’ve all been able to help each other grow, trade ideas and resources, and encourage each other to keep moving ahead.

Radia asks: My sales will be online; I don’t know how to calculate the number of pieces to be made so that I don’t have too less or too much stock. Any advice on that point?

Radia, this is a really tricky area to navigate when you are first starting out and unfortunately I don’t have the magic answer you probably want. What I will say is that from my experience, starting small is usually the wisest option. While you don’t want to run out of inventory, it’s better to have a product that is in such high demand you can’t fulfill orders than to be sitting on 100’s of units that you can’t sell. You can easily spend your entire budget on your first production run, and if that doesn’t sell, you don’t have a second chance. By starting smaller, you can figure out what works and what doesn’t work so you can plan better for round two. If you do sell out on your first order? Let your customers know that due to overwhelming demand, some items are on backorder. You may lose some sales, but you can spin this in a way that works to your advantage and shows how popular your product is. You don’t want to do this often, but for the first round I think it’s acceptable, and from there you can appropriately plan your inventory.

Read part 1 of this 4 part series.
Read part 3 of this 4 part series.
Read part 4 of this 4 part series.


Guest post: Heidi  used her Adobe Illustrator skills to go from an associate level designer to partner at a fashion design firm in less than 4 years.

She knows the fastest ways and best tricks to use Illustrator for fashion…and she’ll teach you how to do the same. Check out her website at SewHeidi.



StartUp FASHION is an online community where independent designers and emerging brands are coming together, helping one another, forming friendships, collaborating, letting off steam, sharing victories, and belonging to a network of people who get it; who are doing it too. We’re a place to access and discover the tools and information you need to build your fashion business. We help you define your path and give you the guidance, encouragement, and resources to follow that path.

  1. Edene "Jo" Henderson

    I’ve read parts 1 and 2. I’m not sure if what I want to do is fashion design. I’m 69…a very young 69…and have sewed since I was 10 years old. In the beginning I followed pattern instructions and then realized I could construct some garments in easier ways and still the results I wanted.
    I’m now retired…meaning lots of time…and it is only me and my husband in the house. What I really want to do is design and sew one of a kind garments…mostly coats, jackets, vests, etc. I want to use recycled fabric from clothing that is damaged. I will cut up and piece together and then line and embellish. I’m not sure if this is considered designing.
    I don’t need to make money but making a name for myself might be nice. I just want to sew and be creative. I would appreciate any advise and comments. Thank you

    • Casey Cline

      Hi Jo- You might find some of our other blog posts helpful- we cover everything from the early stages of figuring out your fashion brand to marketing and production and more. You can also get on our waitlist for our community if you are interested:

  2. Desiree

    Do you need a lot of money to start your fashion design business

  3. Asha

    Thank you very much. Very useful post for beginners to know about fashion designing requirements.

  4. Rachel Litiatco

    Whenever I come up with new ideas, I have people telling me that I should get a patent. I read that you really can’t get patents for clothing, or when you design something, some one can change the pattern by a certain percentage without calling it copying.. how does all that work? I also heard about sending yourself the item once you make it and not opening up the mail aka poor mans patent. Would you be able to discuss the rules for clothing design and copying?

  5. Rachel Litiatco

    I design and sew the clothes at home, and am really considering buying a industrial machine to speed up the process. But, people also tell me that I should just hire someone else to do the sewing… I worry that by hiring someone to sew the clothes, my money gained will go all to them. So, How do you know when it’s time to hire someone else to manufacture the clothes for you? What’s the min amount to be made when manufacturing?

  6. Miranda

    Heidi so glad you decided to do this series as it was definitely needed because I’ve been struggling a bit. I am a fashion designer but I’m a bit green about textiles and sewing. I recently designed my first collection but was a bit disappointed because of all the money I spent and the fabric wasn’t the perfect fit for the designs. I was in fashion design school for a short period of time but decided to stop because I didn’t wanna waste anymore time and money as I already have a bachelors degree. What do you suggest that I do or learn first to build my brand as a designer? Or what steps to do you suggest to get me back on track? I have already started seeking mentors in the industry for some guidance because I really lost my momentum after things didn’t work out for me the time.

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