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Color and Design Strategies for Outfit Planning

Develop ensembles you love based on your favorite images
Threads #222, Summer 2023

Hobbies are meant to relieve stress, but for some sewers, deciding what to make and getting started bring on stress. You know you want to sew an ensemble that expresses your style, but you can’t seem to pull it all together. You end up sewing random pieces that don’t coordinate or, even worse, not sewing at all. There’s a solution for that.

People who sew for enjoyment tend to value individual style. They want to look fashionable, but not like a carbon copy of everyone they run into in their community. However, you may not feel confident about bringing together hues, prints, and silhouettes that are new to you. 

Happily, ideas for clothing can come from the most unlikely sources. Rather than reaching for the obvious, such as a fashion magazine, or wandering through the garment racks at the mall, try checking out more modern media sources. 

Your camera or phone holds more enticing visuals than you can count. You took the photo because something about the subject touched you: The image triggers an emotional response, so save it. Interior design magazines, Pinterest, blogs, travel photos, and the artwork hanging on your walls are all ready for you to reexamine. 

Chances are, if you review the artwork you have collected, there is a unifying theme. It may be that you like landscapes, people, or specific color themes. Whatever it is, you have a look, and that look can be used as inspiration for what you sew.

Learn to see photos in a new way: You can translate what you observe into fabric, color, and texture combinations you never imagined. The idea is to look around you, look deep into images you like; read, research, and rethink how you approach your next project, and most of all, break out of your normal plan and play. I’ll walk you through my process, and you’ll see that finding and developing your inspiration can be as exciting as sewing and wearing the resulting ensembles.

Start with a Picture

Captivating photography isn’t hard to find these days, in print or online. Other types of graphic images make good inspiration, too. When I find a picture that intrigues me, I spend time considering what makes it “work.” Those aspects can be a starting point for a successful ensemble or even a wardrobe capsule.

Break it down

As an interior designer, I seek out appealing images of rooms. It’s interesting to see how all the elements work together. Let’s analyze this cover of Anthology magazine. There is a lot to see in the way of color, pattern, and texture mixing. 

Anthology book and inspiration photos close-up
Take a close look at an inspiring photo and pick out the elements that speak to you.

Main colors: The use of two colors of fresh green in the cacti and the lighting effect on the green of the drapery fabric are the most eye-catching aspects of the image. 

Supporting texture: The floor-standing white cactus looks like a hand-crocheted piece of art and is engaging. 

Pattern contrast: At first glance, you don’t really notice the rug, but the simple black-and-white stripe is the perfect contrast to the bold greens and wavy motif of the drapery fabric. 

Extra accents: Don’t forget the pink accent color of the hat and the cactus flowers. Or maybe you like the one blue book on the end table or the drop of yellow on the lamp or the bird. Without these small touches, the greens would overwhelm you. 

Looking deep into this photograph helps you forget that this is a room setting and allows you to see the mixtures of color and texture in a different way. 

Choose fabrics

How do you translate this to a look for an ensemble? To begin, I found striped fabrics, inspired by the rug. From there, it was easy to find a couple of shades of green linen and a white knit with a lot of cable-like texture. The pink accent came in the form of accessories—a scarf, belt, and shoes. 

knit and woven fabrics on bulletin board
Knit and woven fabrics, in textures and colors that reflect the inspiration photo, form the basis of a wardrobe grouping.

Plan garments

Try these ideas to help you decide how to use the chosen fabrics before committing to cutting and sewing. 

Start with the schematics: Photocopy the technical drawings that are usually included in your pattern instructions. Enlarge them or trace them on vellum and then add color. If you are computer savvy, you can take photos of your fabric and place the photos within the outlines of the drawings. Alternatively, color them in with colored pencils, markers, or crayons. Make a few copies of each style and try various fabrics to determine what you like on top versus on the bottom. Should the stripe be vertical or horizontal? Is the accent color a major player or an add-on?

Technical illustrations of striped pants, a white t-shirt, and a mustard yellow button up
Technical illustrations make it easy to plan fabric pairings and garment combinations. A story board brings all the pieces together visually.

Make a story board: Another approach is to work the old-fashioned way—cut samples of each fabric in the general proportion that you might use them and build a composite of images on a bulletin board. Move them around, stack them on top of one another, cut them up, and walk away from it a few times. When you come back to it, the ideas will likely come together.

story board with fabric cut samples and images on a bulletin board

Try the paper-doll method: If you have no idea how to draw the human figure, you can purchase sketch pads with fashion figure templates already drawn for you in various poses. These are called croquis. Sketch over them with colored pencils, or better yet, paste small pieces of your fabrics on top of the figures and see what you like.paper doll figureshuman figure drawings and croquis book

Create the Capsule

Now that you have a plan, the garment sewing is the easy part. You already know what works together, and the fun can begin.

coordinating tops, bottoms, jackets, and accessories
Mix coordinating tops, bottoms, and jackets, plus contrasting accessories, to create many artful outfits.

Linda Lee, owner and designer of The Sewing Workshop in Topeka, Kansas, teaches sewing and wardrobe building through Sew Confident!, at SewingWorkshop.com.

Color and Design Strategies for Outfit Planning PDF Sprd ImageFor more photos and details, click on the “View PDF” button below.

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