Tutorial: Clothing design paper dolls

nausicaa dress

Sketches for a tunic/dress-to-wear-over-trousers that has been bouncing around in my head for a while, made on the paper dolls I will show you how to make.

So, I have this issue with the way my main hobby, sewing, interacts with what I will jokingly call the fashion-industrial complex. On a pragmatic level, that issue is I am not a size-zero lady, and clothing that fits/flatters size-zero ladies does not always look good on me. On a philosophical and political level, well, I’d like to keep this blog about crafting so I won’t get into all of my issues with fashion in modern society.

One thing I have been thinking about lately is being really honest with myself about the shape of my own body, without turning that honesty into guilt and shame and unhealthy behavior. That means no more “wishful thinking” sizing of sewing patterns, even by one size, even just in the hips, and then being sad when the garment is uncomfortably tight. That means no more buying patterns that look fantastic on the waifish model (or the even thinner fashion drawings; actually I stopped buying patterns without photos some time ago) assuming that that means they will look fantastic on me—and then being sad when they make me look dumpy, or in denial, or pear-shaped, or just plain fat.

A while ago, I read somewhere that fashion is a unique art form in that it has two sometimes-conflicting goals: the item itself should look beautiful, but it also should make the wearer look beautiful (or, sub in whatever art concept you want instead of “look beautiful”). This provides an interesting lens for choosing patterns—it is easy to choose beautiful items but harder to fulfill the second part, when you can’t try things on like you can with ready-to-wear clothes. Add in a third axis that high-fashion designers don’t really worry about, comfort, and this becomes an interesting challenge.

vogue (772x1024)

Actually a pretty tame fashion sketch

I have also been thinking about doing more of my own designing—starting from a sketch, drafting or modifying existing patterns, and bringing a creation purely of my own mind into the real world. The traditional way of doing this, the iconic “fashion sketch” that we’ve all seen, is even thinner, taller, and more elegant than the thinnest, tallest, and most elegant model. Needless to say, this conflicts with the honesty I talked about above—and because this fashion sketch is so pervasive in our culture, or at least in the garment sewing subculture, drawing anything freehand runs the risk of being taller and thinner than reality. Besides which, my sketching skills are not impressive, to say the least. So I want some sort of guideline, a template for design sketches that will both aid my sketching and prevent me engaging in body-shape wishful thinking.

I could, I suppose, take a set of good measurements and use them to alter the standard fashion sketch, by some arcane rules of figure-drawing that I’m sure exist. Two problems, though: I am actually really bad at measuring myself, and I know basically nothing about figure-drawing. Three problems, actually: I am also super lazy.

However, I do have a couple of decent cameras, a steady mouse-hand, and some drawing software. Howsabout I take some photos and convert them into sketch bases? I discovered a while ago that I can make quite striking line art just by judiciously tracing lines from a photo, then deleting the photo out from underneath. Turns out, it works pretty well for making fashion design paper dolls too.

You will need:

  • Close-fitting foundation garments, such as a camisole or tank and yoga pants; if you are just designing tops, you can wear normal pants instead. Do wear whatever bra you want to wear with the shirt.
  • A camera with a timer, remote trigger, or obliging friend; I used the built-in camera in my laptop with a wireless mouse as a remote trigger. This actually worked really well; you don’t need great color or a huge number of pixels, and the laptop on a table and stack of boxes was really steady.
  • Drawing software that is better than microsoft paint—I used Inkscape, a freeware mimic of Adobe Illustrator; anything that will let you a) draw straight lines and b) remove the photo afterwards will do. In a pinch you could probably manage this in powerpoint. If you use Inkscape, I suggest using the pencil tool, and click once to start the line and once to stop it rather than click-and-drag.


  1. Set your camera up so it sees from about clavicle or eye level—if you set it up at belly level you will be disappointed. An obliging friend, tripod, or large stack of board games/books/furniture helps here.
  2. WIN_20140401_145547

    See? Not size zero at all.

    Take a bunch of photos in different poses: front, profile, and back; sitting, standing, leaning, and dancing; full-body and detail; whatever will let you get a complete drawing of the garment and even inspire you. Take some care over your posture; you don’t want to have slouchy pictures that you hate to look at when you’re just starting out. The goal is to be honest, but to present the best reasonable version of yourself.

  3. Crop those photos to be just you and import them into your drawing program.
  4. Zoom in a bunch—you want to be looking at maybe six inches square of yourself at once. The closer you are, the more accurate your lines can be, but if you are too close you may lose the forest for the trees, capturing every wrinkle of the cami or getting lost in shadows.
  5. Use a line-drawing tool to start tracing all the edges in the photo. You can be pretty vague about the face—I did outline, hairline, and eyebrows. Trace around your body, being as honest as you can (being zoomed in helps with this), but feeling free to smooth over wrinkles and such that come from the foundation garments. If you have a lumpy tummy like me, feel free to smooth over it a bit—as long as you do so on the outside rather than making yourself look thinner. Make sure that at least some of the photos give a good sense of where your armpit is, where your bra straps lie (if you are not a bra-wearing person please ignore this and other mentions of bras), where your waist and hips are, and so on.
  6. Bodies are made mostly out of curves, but straight-line tools make, well, straight lines; if your hand is good enough, feel free to use a pencil/curve tool, but I like straight lines. Make lots and lots of short lines that connect end-to-end, and if you screw up, you can always delete a couple lines and try again, or adjust the endpoints. There will be a temptation to make as long a line as you can, just to get around this outline as fast as possible, but if you take your time the result will look a lot better. Remember to be honest—no wishful thinking that your arm was less rounded or whatever; half the time making “corrections” to your figure at this stage will make you look like an alien instead of a model anyway.
  7. Repeat for the rest of your poses; I used 8 poses total (and have more photos to make more if I want). Copy them all into the same sketch document if you can and scale them all to be the same (ish) height and on the same level.


    Sketchified versions of 5 poses in cami and trousers. Compare the one on the right to the photo above.

  8. If you are really comfortable drawing freehand on the computer, you are done: make a copy of the document for each garment and start drawing, deleting whatever interior lines (like bra straps) that will be covered by the garment.
  9. If you would rather print and draw with pencils, I recommend arranging all your sketches in some coherent fashion on a page, and making all of the lines a really light gray before you print. The goal is that you, looking at the page up close, can see the lines and use them, but once you have shaded in a sketched garment, the interior lines of the model won’t be distracting. When you are sketching the garment you can also trace over any lines you do want to be seen, like the face and the pants.

I am actually really pleased with how these came out. I had this idea a while ago, and tried it before, but a combination of bad camera work and body-shame made me scrap it at the time. Immediately on finishing I printed out a set and started sketching a couple of ideas that have been bouncing around in my head; see the post-topping photo for one of the sketches. I think the sketches that look kinda fugly are actually more instructive, though:

bicolorThis is an idea for a two-tone, knee-length, pencil-skirt professional dress that I have been thinking about since making the patchwork shirt, and I think it would look terrible. I don’t like pencil skirts or knee-length skirts much to begin with, so it would have to look really fantastic for me to try it, and I just do not have the waist for it. So, maybe I will make it in shirt form instead, or do something else entirely. Maybe it would look better in reality—I haven’t had the chance to calibrate the sketches to reality yet—but it helps me prioritize at least. In this image you can also see a couple of light-gray paper dolls that I haven’t sketched over yet—if you have good eyes and a good monitor.

tennisI am kinda on the fence about this one. It’s a tank with attached skirt-thing, like a tennis skirt, idea lifted from here. Again, I feel like I just don’t have the figure for it. Maybe making both the bodice and the skirt longer would help, I’m not sure. More sketching to ensue. Also that is a totally unrealistic number of buttons.

Watch this space for progress on the sketch at the top of the page. I have a pretty good idea how to do it, and I think I have enough left-over fabric (lighweight woven cotton in a light sage green) that I can pull it off without a store trip.

1 thought on “Tutorial: Clothing design paper dolls

  1. Pingback: Journal: 7 April 2014 | seesawyer

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