Inspiration – how do you come up with your ideas?

posted in: Designing, Inspiration | 19

Years ago I signed up for a two year part time fashion course. Early on, one of the tutors – Mrs Tregelles – set us a task. “Design a T shirt” in 30 minutes. We were given a piece of paper with an outline of T shaped top and told to create a design. The room fell silent. We picked up our pencils and started drawing. She paced the room in her clacky heels, peering at our work.

Intimidating context
Intimidating context

I was paralysed! I didn’t have any ideas up my sleeve. I could only think of drawing a T shirt I already owned. I think I ended up drawing some diagonal stripes on the T shirt which took me all of five minutes with a ruler.  I am not artistic! I didn’t know how to design. Any slight enthusiasm and confidence I had slowly ebbed away. I was also sure the other students would have imagined something amazing and was fearful that I would be found out as being unable to do the design side of the course. I was terrified I would be thrown out as a useless fraud. If you want to know how this feels do try it at home. Try it now. Design a T shirt, I tell you!

At the end of half an hour all was revealed. Some of the designs produced were OK. Ish. Most were as banal as mine.

Mrs Tregelles said “Right! Here is a pile of colour supplements and old magazines. Take ten minutes to find inspiration pictures. Not clothes! Choose environment pictures. Then sit down and design a T shirt.” I looked at a travel supplement. I found a picture of a brown skinned swimmer against azure seas. I used the colour scheme to create a wavy lined drawing that became rather beautiful as I used thick crayons to create a blended look. Later I used this design to create machine embroidered waistcoat.

Mrs Treggelles also  made sure we went to exhibitions and art galleries regularly. She would take us herself and set us design challenges, based on what we had seen – exhibitions of Cossack dress, the art of Gwen John and Tiffany lamps to mention just three.

I know we struggled a bit at first with the idea of designing clothes based on display of tea cups, or men’s military uniforms. She even had us designing based on a piece of music or a poem. One of my designs started as a poem, linked to picture of the Challenger disaster.

1986 Challenger disaster
1986 Challenger disaster

I learnt to collect pictures (before the internet, Pinterest and Instagram was invented) that attracted me, sparked interest and provided inspiration. Anything at all could provide inspiration, but not clothes. I still adopt the same process. I wander around an exhibition, a museum or a park, or look up pictures on the internet. And rather than copy what I see I try to capture an element of it, a mood, a colour scheme or texture. And then bring it into my clothes making and designing.

For me

  • I like to be stimulated visually before I can produce
  • I enjoy a brief, challenge, or framework. Often it is not something that appeals originally but as I dwell on it I see how it might work for me. I go to evening classes and when the brief is “a flared dress from a yoke” I groan inwardly. But the project that initially turned me off, led to the creation of my circle dress, which I really love. But I wouldn’t have had that thought myself.
    Fabrickated Circle dress
    “Flared dress with a yoke”
  • Too much freedom can stunt creativity (I think this year’s SWAP rules, while universally welcomed, maybe too broad to get the best out of me). I actually prefer to make a meal from what is in the fridge or store cupboard, rather than buying all the ingredients listed in a recipe and following the instructions.
  • Having an inspiration picture can encourage the introduction of further elements. For example with the swimmer picture I embroidered with blues, green and browns. And then I noticed the little white spumes in the water and added a rougher light grey thread on top. This just made the embroidery look so much stronger and more integrated.

Is it the same for you, or do you work quite differently?

19 Responses

  1. I’m always fascinated by this sort of information on the design process. I don’t think of myself as designing when I put together colours and fabrics, or even when I tweak or Franken-pattern a commercial pattern…I’m a crafter, not a designer. I think I have some skill with colour and texture, which I used a lot when I was making theatrical costumes, but I couldn’t produce the fabulous designs that you make. I know what you mean with the SWAP, and certainly it could be interpreted very, very freely…that’s why I felt the need for a pretty tight theme, and I’m keeping a tight rein on colour as well. I haven’t dicussed it yet in the blog, but as much as possible I will be sticking to stash as well, which is going to take a serious blitz and organising session or three. Just make up your rules as tightly as you want, and go for it. I still think your Westwood ideas are to die for, and don’t see any reason why you can’t make them in lighter weight fabrics instead of the original wool- my only Westwood inspired garment is in a very lightweight check silk, and I love it!

  2. I am in complete agreement with your four bullet points. I usually use that process when designing a needlework or doll.

  3. It sounds like you had a great teacher. I don’t think I design clothes, as I mostly make them from patterns. Good fabric is hard to find in my experience so I always start with the that. It usually tells me what it wants to be. I’m inspired by browsing clothes shops but try and choose existing shapes that suit me and find fashion elements that are current. Also good luck with your SWAP. I did consider it but it’s too restricting for the way I like to work. I do enjoy the designing element though but after that I’m bored and don’t want to make anything I’ve planned. Looking forward to seeing what you come up with.

  4. I’ve always said that my best results have come from projects where I had limited resources. It demands a more creative view to achieve the desired goal. Great post!

  5. When the Soviet Union fell and capitalism started in full force in Russia, many Russian cooks complained that they no longer felt creative. They were at their best making something out of almost nothing. Where was the skill in being a good cook when the grocery store shelves were stocked with plenty?

    • I love this anecdote. My feelings precisely. Sometimes I wish there was a war so I would have to Make Do and Mend (although I probably wouldn’t have to as my stash will last a lifetime and can cover all eventualities).

  6. I was trying to formulate a response over on the SWAP discussion thread the other day, but I couldn’t pull my idea together, but this post helped clarify it some for me. I think there is a continuum we sew along- I am at the moment on the “survival” end of the continuum, meaning I am sewing because I require something to wear. So for me, the relaxed SWAP rules were welcome, because I could plan out a fairly cohesive wardrobe, using my stash, of things I could wear often. (I am wearing last years SWAP tops every time they are clean at the moment. The revelation that tops could be long enough and fit me in the shoulders has been life changing.)

    The people having trouble planning under these rules are at another point on the continuum for the most part, they seem like they are sewing as creative expression. For those people, I can see where they would want more of a challenge or a framework to work within. Right now I am mostly quilting/embroidering for my creative expression, so it doesn’t bother me that my clothes are not works of art.

    The interesting thing to me is that even those of us talking about SWAP who I would consider survival mode sewists do still feel the tug that we should be creating more epic projects- tailored pieces or elaborate new challenging patterns- even if they are not something we would wear. We are declaring our plans “simple”, as if that is a terrible sin, when maybe it is just a practical plan for our life at the moment.

  7. That is a fabulous picture of you living life to the max! And yes thanks for the clarity on design and the process.

  8. A very interesting post. And a reminder of what a success your circle dress was. I think your colour combination might inspire me to something good 😉

  9. I come from a studio art background and a family of engineers, which sounds a lot more useful than it’s been. I get stuck on the process (a shirt? Let’s move the seams and do a textured….oh, when do you need this?). The inspiration gets left behind.

    The advantage of the studio background comes from having those teachers who deliver that swift kick to the upside of your maker’s brain, to draw the apple without looking at the paper, to make a sculpture with a shoe about a divorce. I keep taking classes to meet more of these people and get more of these crazy assignments which makes the designs I work on more interesting, at least to me. And I learn something new every day.

    Often on your blog. Thank you.

    • Lovely, interesting commentary SJ Kurtz. I just looked at your blog and I am hooked. You have a very nice sense of humour. I love your rectangular dresses. They really appeal to my mind (probably not my body).

  10. I enjoyed your post – and it has made me really think. I don’t consider what I do as designing. I tend to find a garment that I like but then start to change elements until it is what I really want. I envy people who can really just come up with original ideas.

  11. Love this post so much, Kate. Obviously, I am not a designer (particularly at this stage in my sewing life), but I do love cross-pollination in all things and so I tend to forage for inspiration in many different areas. My Pinterest folder for Fall and Winter sewing and knitting is full of pictures of not only clothes but paintings and lately birds. I often save random objects just because they give me a feeling that I’d like to express in another media. I’m a better dreamer than maker though, as I get stuck at the “too much inspiration/too many ideas” point. I’m assuming that I’ll eventually break out of that. 🙂

    Re. SWAP, I totally took your point in the forum and felt a little bit guilty in fact for being one of the ones advocating for rules that cast a wide net. My feeling in reading the pre-SWAP forum had been that many people were interested in participating but wouldn’t with restrictive rules, given different lifestyles, family responsibilities, climate, etc. I thought it would be nice to be inclusive. I tend to just go with the flow, myself, but many people seem to be bothered when something that is more of a “rule” gets thrown in, like the reversible/recycled garment last year (even though the rules indicated that using old buttons or trims would count towards that one), and so I thought it would be fair to honour that. Even though I am lousy at restricting myself to a small set of ideas, generally (I’ve tried to do this by setting my plan early…though I’m already bored with it, which is another story), I’ve taken that approach this year to try to meet my own objectives within the SWAP rules (design at least one or two things, do some tailoring, etc.). I guess I view the wide net in that way, exactly – wide enough to allow each individual to put in his or her own sub-rules.

    • PS I forgot to mention that I had a similar thought in a post I wrote last year I think, about how I would have been a better maker had I been a pioneer in the woods with old scraps to re-use and natural materials. Having too much choice has been the bane of my existence in many ways, I think (which is a horribly ungrateful thing to say). I put the challenge in front of myself to break those chains (still haven’t yet, but hopefully will).

  12. I’m still at that early stage you described with the T shirt design. I’m currently just starting a mood board and new sketchbook (which means they’re not opened yet!) and am a little stuck. I didn’t start sewing for design and don’t consider myself creative, never having done art etc, but did want to be able to harness any inner creativity. My course is taking me in that direction. I’m beginning to notice things more and to take inspiration from different sources. Exciting but still a little scary.

  13. As my career requires me to be creative on a dime, finding inspiration for my creativity has, quite literally, been a matter of survival. While inspiration can come from anywhere, for me, it can’t be spontaneous – it has to be a storage bank in my brain which I fill from multiple sources daily, and draw upon when I need it. It’s often difficult for me to be put in situations where I have to consciously look for inspiration (like you were in your class) because it’s second nature for me, so that contrived process feels unnatural (I hate doing mood boards LOL). I also don’t work well with zero parameters, like if someone gave me a canvas and said “paint whatever you want” I’d be stumped, but even loose parameters like the SWAP, I can work with.

    • Thanks for your insight Amanda.I think for people who don’t work in the visual sphere it can be taught, or at least encouraged. In my day job I have to be creative all the time, and I do work in a similar way to you in relation to housing policy, new developments in technology, the built environment, psychology, organisational design, etc. Very interesting!

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