How to illustrate ruffles & skirt fullness

The short version: I’m finally learning to use Adobe Illustrator. Yay me!

The long version: In the olden days, pattern makers didn’t need to know how to sketch because illustration was the designer’s job. I think most of us took the class because it was in the first year before students knew into which camp they’d eventually develop their strongest interest. These days though… it seems few designers provide illustrations. Since the job must be done, it has increasingly fallen to service providers to provide sketches. Which is fine as these things go. What isn’t fine is when new designers have the expectation that it is our job or worse, act like there is something wrong with us because we don’t offer it as a matter of course.

But I digress. I put an ad on Craigslist for a tutor this weekend because I’m hopeless when it comes to teaching myself certain things. I lined up tutor A on Saturday and Tutor B on Sunday. Not sure which I like better, each have their strengths. Both are poor which makes me sad (they wanted $15 an hour but I paid $25. Considering their student, anything less amounts to cruel and unusual punishment).

Okay, so today I’m practicing what I learned and decided to do a very simple illustration tutorial for designers. I do not plan to do many, only as it relates to common problems in communicating your ideas that end up costing you a lot of money because you have to have your patterns remade. One such example is gathering and ruffling.

Below are two skirts. The one on the left is a straight skirt with gathers at the waist. The pattern for this is a rectangle or maybe a square depending on the desired fullness. The skirt on the right is a circle skirt. Its pattern is a half circle. Meaning, if you wanted the skirt on the right but you drew one that looked like the skirt on the left, it is not your pattern makers fault and you’ll have to pay extra to cut a completely new pattern because you can’t reuse the former pattern.


By the way, I didn’t draw these skirts. They came from the CD of a book I like called Flats: Technical Drawing for Fashion. I plan on reviewing it later on.

The difference in the two skirts (or ruffles, as applicable) amounts to two things, hem (or line) shape and fabric fold lines. The line or hem shape for a straight rectangle looks something like the illustration below. The top line is the schematic. The line underneath is softer and closer to representing what you want in a rough sketch.

For comparison, below is the schematic of a circular flounce, ruffle or hemline. Again the schematic is first, hand rendering is underneath it.


So far so good but these hemlines won’t tell the whole story. You also need to show how the fabric flows into the hem or garment edge. I’ll illustrate this in reverse starting with the circular hem because it is very different. Note that in the schematic, there is a triangle shape representing the fabric folds. This is what we’re looking for in a sketch of a circular flounce.


By contrast, the straight skirt has straight folds as illustrated below.


I hope the differences between these two options in design effect are clearer now.

An aside: there are significant cost differences between these two. The circular shaped edges are more expensive than straight ones because the former use more fabric. In some cases, quite a bit more. For this reason, circular patterns are more common at higher price points. These also cost more in finishing because the hems have to hang awhile before they can be trimmed and hemmed (bias pulls).

The last reason circular skirts can be pricier is because it is rare that circular skirts fit smoothly into waistlines, usually the fabric is lighter weight and as a consequence, must have gathered fullness at the waist (otherwise it just looks cheap) which means even more fabric. Having waist smooth circular skirts in bottom weight goods was common in the 50’s but it’s pretty rare today. I close with a comparison of the two silhouettes below.


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13 Comments on "How to illustrate ruffles & skirt fullness"

Joelle Hodson
3 years 7 months ago

I don’t understand why I’m comfortable with Photoshop but completely lost with Illustrator. I like making tech flats by hand, but hand drawn has many downsides. Good idea to hire a tutor!

Eric H
3 years 8 months ago

“Its pattern is a half circle.”

Not a half annulus?

3 years 8 months ago

Heh, I use illustrator to do comics, but the sensibility came in handy when I tried the CAD editor in of a home use pattern software.
One thing to do once you find there’s certain sequences you use often…make macros.
True about tracing or at least having a photo ref to check things out, do that all the time.

3 years 8 months ago

Kathleen, I’ve often wondered the same thing as Lisa: is your Amazon wish list up to date?

3 years 8 months ago

Interesting timing – the “Classroom in a Book” for Illustrator made it out onto my work table a few days ago. I am a big fan of those tutorials, which come with CDs, and can hardly contain my envy at Kathleen’s personal instructor. Yes, another here struggling to learn Illustrator.

I’m proficient in its twin-on-steroids, Photoshop, for stuff like creating the graphics for my CD (thanks for the mention, Kathleen!) and using that in lieu of a CAD program to (among other things) reconcile the bra patterns for the line Carol Phillips and I are working on.

I’ve taught fashion sketching for donkey’s years. As a professional artist, let me lay on you: it’s okay to trace! It’s an amazingly fast way to learn. When people come to me and say, “I need to learn to draw but am terrified, where do I start?” my answer is “whatever way is easiest for you to get into it”. It’s less scary to find another use for something familiar than invest time and considerable $ to start fresh. Remember when Kathleen posted about using the spreadsheet program Excel to work up line sheets?!