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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  1. Tara Griffiths says:

    Thank you so much for this post. Wow, you are a fast learner if it only took you two sessions to get illustrator.
    I was just going to redo my technical sketches for the umpteenth time because there is something not quite right about the drape of the fabric. Talk about good timing. You’ve shown me the errors of my ways, I think. Just to make sure, for a silk bias cut tank (straight silhouette) the hemline would look more like the straight ruffle?

  2. Jen Rocket says:

    Great job Kathleen! I love Illustrator. I took a course in school and it was awesome. If there is anything I can get lost in on a computer it is illustrator. I have the same book by the way ;)
    I am considering adding flats on my website to give another view for the our products. Lip Service does this on their site, it is a nice touch. Sometimes their crazy prints can hide seam lines and this approach clears that up.

  3. celeste says:

    ohhhh, a book I don’t have (and didn’t know about), I look foward to the review. I wonder how it compares to what I already own, though. Illustrator can be lots of fun even though sometimes it can be frustrating.

  4. Kathleen says:

    Lisa: I do have Tallon’s book (for CS2). I think it will be good now that I can kind of, sort of, navigate the workspace. For whatever reason, it wasn’t clicking for me when I first bought it. I’ve had CS for quite a long time, since 2006? I am up to CS5 now on the PC (CS4 on my mac) so it’s about time I figure it out…

    Tara: yes, the hemline would look more like the straight ruffle.

    Another option for illustrating is Carol Kimball’s CD which she sent me but I have since misplaced. eek!

  5. Betsy says:

    Welcome to the club! I love Illustrator-especially the fact that you can re-use parts of sketches to make new sketches so it is not always necessary to start from scratch.
    Rather than focusing on fashion sketching I think designers would get the best results if they focused on the technical sketches. Tech sketches work great not only for sketches to give to the patternmaker, but also for linesheets.
    I feel like every designer sketch I get is a long conversation of “is this what you mean?” and by the end the style is nothing that I initially thought it was. Fashion-y sketches can be beautiful, but don’t always get the point across.

  6. Nic Cornell says:

    I also enjoyed this article! I learned Illustrator in digital arts school nine years ago and still consider it to be one of my strong points. Lately I’ve been giving some consideration to applying those skills to fashion illustration and this posting was just the thing to get me really thinking about that. Thanks Kathleen! I would be interested also to hear more about your experiments with CAD software…I guess come to think of it I have notice more CAD illustrations lately :)

  7. 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?!

  8. E A says:

    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.

  9. Joelle Hodson says:

    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!

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