How to be a Fashion Designer Without Going to Fashion School, Part 3

fashion designer without fashion school

THE DESIGN & DEVELOPMENT: How skilled of a fashion sketcher you need to be and why you can’t do anything without a tech pack.

The fashion industry can be intimidating. Competitive. Intense. But it can also be an amazing space to be in. The gratification gained from making it in this industry cannot be put into words.

You can do it all without going to school ­ but you’ve got to proceed wisely. Be tenacious. Be hungry to learn. Be humble. And be smart enough to know when you should DIY it or hire help.

A few quick reminders before we get started…This is part three of a four part series (read part one here and read part two here) and it’s been designed be an interactive experience. I want you to become part of the conversation. At the end of this article, you can read answers to questions asked from part two, as well ask your own questions which I will answer next week in part four.

Ok, let’s dive and answer two of the most common questions I hear: “What if I don’t know how to draw and why do I need a tech pack (plus what the heck goes in it?!)”

Q: Do I need to know how to draw or use Illustrator?
A: You don’t have to be an artist or a computer whiz, but learning some essentials will save you time and money.

Guess what? I’ve been a designer for many years, and am terrible with a pencil and paper. Yes, I am very good with Adobe Illustrator, the industry standard software used for design and development in the fashion industry, but I cannot draw by hand to save my life. I know many designers who have successfully launched their own collections and can’t sketch that well either. Don’t worry about your sketches being glamorous (remember what I said earlier about this industry being anything but glamorous?), just make sure they convey your idea.

If you don’t know how to draw, you can easily start with this free croquis download and trace some designs from magazines, photos, or the internet. You may have to “frankenstein” your design together ­tracing sleeves from one photo and the bodice from another to get the general shape of the garment you want, but just try and get a good base sketch of your idea. From there, you can customize seam lines, details and trims, and with a little bit of practice you’ll be surprised at how much you improve. Being a good hand sketcher can prove beneficial and will help during the design process so you can easily express your ideas, but isn’t essential. You can always create your design using samples and photos of other products and explaining to a freelancer how you want to modify and combine them to make them your own.

If you are naturally good at hand sketching or practice enough that you gain some skill, it is a great place to start designing and you may even complete the entire creative process with pencil and paper. But at some point (most likely when you’re ready to go into sampling or production), you’ll want to transfer your designs to a digital format. Many factories will take you more seriously if you provide professional tech sketches made in Illustrator as opposed to hand drawings. They’re also easier to edit and use as base sketches to start with for future seasons.

While you don’t need to be proficient in Illustrator as you can always outsource this, having fundamental skills will prove to be tremendously helpful. Many designers feel more in control of the creative process if they have the ability to sketch their own designs rather than try and convey their ideas to a freelancer.

If you’re overwhelmed by the thought of this, have a freelancer create the initial sketches for you, but take a bit of time to learn the basics so you’re able to make changes as the development process begins ­being able to DIY the edits and make simple changes will save you both time and money. If you’re ready to get started with the essentials of sketching in Illustrator, take my free fashion flat sketching course so you can get familiarized with the drawing process.

Exception for designers looking for a fashion design job: As of writing this article, 9 out of 10 “fashion design” job listings on Style Careers require “proficiency or fluency in Adobe Illustrator”, so you’ll want to make sure your skills are up to speed and learn how to use Illustrator for fashion. The requirement for hand drawing skills is much less frequent, and can vary depending on the type of apparel.

Q: Do I need to know how to create a tech pack?
A: You definitely need one for production, and while you can outsource this, they’re really not that complicated and knowing how to DIY is a valuable skill.

Going into production without a tech pack is asking for everything to go wrong, so you absolutely do not want to proceed without one. Your tech pack serves as a blueprint of your design so the factory has a clear understanding of how to make your product. It also acts as a way to track all changes and comments, approvals or rejections of prototypes or samples. Every time anything in your design is modified, whether it be adding a seam line, removing a detail such as a pocket, or adjusting the graded spec,­ it should be tracked in the tech pack with dates and a note as to why it was changed. Additionally, you’ll use it to make comments on samples from your factory, which will serve as a tracking system to ensure any necessary changes were correctly implemented on future samples.

Outsourcing this can be costly ­and it’s one aspect of the design process that isn’t as hard to learn as it may seem. You’ll want to make sure your tech pack is complete and includes everything from specific construction techniques to instructions as to what fabric goes where, but once you’ve familiarized yourself with garment construction, researched your fabrics, and learned the essentials of Illustrator, all of the hard work is done. The tech pack is the last step in design where you assemble all of these pieces in one place.

If you don’t want to start from scratch or aren’t sure if your tech pack is complete, you can ask your factory if they have a standard tech pack template they use or a sample one they are willing to send you for reference. You can also grab a template here and fill in the blanks.

In the case that you do decide to outsource your tech pack, I will give you some advice­ which is relevant to most aspects of the process we’ve reviewed so far with the exception of pattern making and grading.

Learn as much as you can from the experts you hire, don’t just let them blindly complete the work for you.

You’ll gain a better understanding of that aspect of the business, and you may figure out enough to DIY it next time to save some cash. At the very least, you’ll understand that part of the process more and can properly engage to make sure it’s executed correctly. As I mentioned earlier, a tremendous amount of what I know has been learned by asking as many questions as possible, so don’t waste the opportunity of having access to an industry expert.

Exception for designers looking for a fashion design job: You’ll absolutely need to understand the fundamentals of a tech pack, what goes into it, and why they’re necessary. Review the links above to familiarize yourself.

Key Takeaways

Review these key takeaways and click here to download The Free DIY Fashion Education Checklist: Part 2, The Design & Development for a more thorough list of what you do (and don’t!) need to learn.

  • You don’t need to be an artist or know how to sketch.
  • Your sketches convey your idea ­ they don’t have to be glamorous.
  • Professional digital sketches created in Illustrator can help convince suppliers to take you seriously.
  • Do not go into production without a tech pack ­ this is the blueprint for your design and everything will go wrong if you do not have one.
  • Your tech pack should be more detailed than you think it should be.
  • As always, educate yourself as much as you can, be humble, and ask questions to anyone willing to answer.

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 11th, 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 two of the series:

Miranda wonders how to do right the second time around…

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. 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.

Miranda ­ it can be very deflating to get knocked down, and cheers to you for getting back up. That being said, it sounds like you may have dove in a bit too quickly when buying your fabric before determining what was the best fit for your design. I know how exciting it can be to want to jump in, get all your supplies, and start making your product. But, one of the best pieces of advice I can give you is to move slowly and with a plan. Buy sample yardage and determine what is right for your design before over committing to bulk fabric. Pay for multiple samples and prototypes to be developed before moving ahead with bulk production. And so on… It can seem hard to pay for sample yardage and sample sewing, all of which will be more costly than your actual unit cost in production, but in the long run it’s a small price to pay to ensure your production is correct. Investing a little extra up front on development will make your money go further in the long run and will make your product better, which sets you up for greater success.

Oh, and getting mentors will prove to be tremendously valuable, so you’re on the right track with that. Find a couple who you really connect with and get as much guidance and advice as they’re willing to give.

Rachel wants to know how to protect her ideas…

Whenever I come up with new ideas, I have people telling me that I should get a patent. Would you be able to discuss the rules for clothing design and copying?

Great question Rachel ­ a lot of designers wonder this same thing. Unfortunately, it’s hard to protect yourself and your designs in the fashion world. While it’s pretty much impossible to copyright an actual design, some things can be protected via a patent, such as a new and unique function or feature.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Rochelle Behren’s of The Shirt, who was able to patent her No Gape ® technology. However, she mentioned during our conversation that this was a multi­-year and costly endeavor…not something you’re going to tackle on a whim.

For a more accessible form of protection, Rochelle advised designers look into trademarking their brand name and their personal name if it’s connected to their brand. Since there’s really not anything you can do to protect your designs, this is the best and easiest option to get what little protection you can.

Heather needs clarification on analyzing a size run…

When you say purchase a complete size run, do you mean to go to the store and purchase a piece of clothing in every size that you are interested in? For example, I like the fit of [INSERT BRAND NAME HERE]. If I want to use their sizing would I buy a dress, shirt, skirt, a pair of pants in each size that I am interested in and take those pieces of clothing to my manufacturer so they can create patterns and we can modify them from that point?

Heather, this is essentially exactly what I mean. While your patterns won’t actually be created from all of these sizes, your initial POM (Point of Measure) chart can be created from them. This chart includes different Points of Measure (POM) on the garment such as:

  • Body length from high point shoulder
  • Sleeve length from shoulder point
  • Collar circumference on outside edge

The POMs vary depending on what type of garment you are making, but serve as a base reference for what different parts of the garment should measure on a finished piece. From there, your pattern maker can make a pattern for the base size (typically the middle of your size range, so if you’re running XS­XL, size M would be your base size) using the POM chart and the sample garment. Once you have your base size fit defined, your patterns can be graded up and down using the POM chart as reference, making any adjustments to the base size accordingly.

Read part 1 of this 4 part series.
Read part 2 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. Miranda

    Now that we’ve created our first collection with samples and everything, the next most important thing is sales. How do we begin to market and brand our product to increase sales?

    • Sew Heidi

      Hi Miranda – my apologies I was not able to address this in the last article as I had already wrapped it up by the time your question was posted! That being said, sales, marketing and distribution is not my expertise. The majority of my background and experience has been in the first half of the process – designing and getting product made. So…I would not be the right expert to advise you on this!

      However, with a quick search you can find a plethora (12 pages!) of articles on How to Sell right here on Startup Fashion 🙂

      I think you can find some really valuable insights there and hope that helps!

      Best, Heidi

  2. Clinton

    interesting topic, I have learn a lot. pls can hand bag designing be included. thanks

    • Heidi

      Hi Clinton – any of the advice and tips I’ve discussed in this series could be applied to hand bags, shoes, jewelry, or any other aspect of design! In no way is it specific to apparel only 🙂

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