Fabric as Inspiration

Submitted by: Christianne Myers, University of Michigan


As designers, when something is being built for the show, the very fabric can serve as a source of inspiration for the overall design of a garment. When a fabric has a bold pattern, it is the designer’s responsibility to determine with the draper how that pattern will “collaborate” with the style lines of the costume. How can the repositioning of the motifs change the mood and character of the look? What other trims or fabrics can join the “conversation” of the look? Let’s use this exercise to get the creative juices flowing and understand how the same source/inspiration can inform different end results. Using the provided fabric and the assigned mid-20th century dress, design two different looks.

Length of Activity

  • Week Long Project

Area of Technical Theatre

  • Costume Design

Activity Objectives

  • Use fabric as a source of artistic inspiration and to stimulate your imagination
  • Analyze pattern, value and color to inform design
  • Demonstrate visual communication skills
  • Demonstrate accuracy and understanding of research methodologies

Activity Goals

  • Ability to use scale and shape to impact design
  • Research specific period silhouette
  • Understand the human form, proportionally, for costume rendering
  • Practice the design process of: researching, generating ideas quickly, editing, then refining



  • Instructor assigns fabric sample and dress pattern
  • Research (25 points- Due Class #1)
    • Using Western European fashion resources, locate supplemental research that shows other style ideas of your assigned dress pattern
  • Thumbnails (60 points- Due Class #1)
    • Develop at least 4 different thumbnail sketches in rough color that use the same garment silhouette & style lines
      • Small adjustments to the dress style, such as pockets and neckline shape can be explored
    • The major element you are changing is how you use the fabric motifs; the addition of one other fabric is certainly permitted as you explore color, contrast and impact
    • Consider how fabric might be used differently on different body types and proportions
  • Two complete designs (80 points- Due Class #3). 
    • After peer feedback, refine your designs. Complete 2 designs showing two distinct interpretations of your source fabric. If you used other fabrics, be sure to include swatches (real preferred, digital sources ok)
  • Process Documentation (10 points- Due Class #3)
    • Document your process. Make this project “portfolio ready” with the addition of a few helpful bullet points that guide why you made the decisions that you made. Organize the research, thumbnails and any fabric “dissection” in support of the final designs.

Time Required

Approx. 12 hours total including class time.
The class meets 2 x a week for 90 mins each session.


  • End of class the week prior, assign fabric & dress style
  • Weekend homework due on class #1: research & thumbnails
  • Class #1 – peer feedback, draw in class (if working digitally, demonstrate scanning & manipulating fabric)
  • Class #2 – continue working in class, refining designs, studying fabric
  • Class #3 – (one week after thumbnails were due)- turn in final 2 designs & process document

Required Materials

As instructor, I provided ¼ yard samples of bold printed fabrics from Denver Fabrics (students returned them at the end of the project so I can reuse them). The linked array points to the web store so students can easily grab a digital copy of the fabric as well; this is where I assigned each student’s name to each fabric. Having a large sample is important as some students draped with it on a form, or sketched it in folds to really understand how the pattern “behaved.”

I also provided the dress styles. These were sourced from the COPA (Commercial Pattern Archive). What’s important is to be able to access a schematic of the flat pattern pieces typically included on the back of a commercial pattern envelope for motif placement.

Students Need:

  • A computer & access to the library for additional research
  • A way to organize and present their research & process (mood board, google slides, etc…)
  • A way to communicate visually with color- Bristol & watercolor or makers, or digitally w/ a tablet, stylus and app (procreate, sketchbook, fresco)


This is a great exercise for potentially exploring digital costume rendering in a way that lowers the stakes since it’s not a whole show.

There is flexibility in choosing both fabrics and silhouettes.


Students received peer feedback mid-process based on their thumbnails & I provided “shoulder coaching” during class time. Mid-process feedback is framed as “I appreciate ________, have you considered___________? What kind of feedback are you looking for? Where are you stuck?” 

Final designs were shared with the whole class. I provided written feedback via the rubric below on our LMS.

Research (25 points)

Locate at least 2 images of extant garments or additional illustrations that clearly show style lines for the design. Identify paintings or photographs that illustrate the silhouette. Organize your research legibly. All images should be of a high resolution. Due [Class #1]

Thumbnails (60 points)

Generate at least 4 distinct color thumbnail sketches that explore how your fabric can inform the design based on the canvas of your silhouette. These are completed on time for peer feedback by [Class #1]

Completed Designs (60 points)

Building off peer feedback, complete 2 final designs that demonstrate two distinct uses of the fabric. Any additional fabrics and trims are sourced as well. Due [Class #3]

Proportional Figures (20 points)

The accuracy of the conveyed design includes proportional figures with realistically rendered human forms. To encourage an exploration of different body proportions, the two figures should not be copies of the dress pattern illustrations; rather they should be two different poses of two different body shapes.

Process Documentation (10 points)

Make this project “portfolio ready” with the addition of a few helpful bullet points that guide why you made the decisions that you made. Organize the research, thumbnails and any fabric “dissection” in support of the final designs. Due [Class #3]


Student Example