Education: Learning Account: New design technology that is more than a passing fashion

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Sandra Bartlett trains students in computer aided design for the fashion and textiles industry at Clarendon College, Nottingham.

When I started in the industry many years ago, clothing design was a laborious process. As a designer of lingerie, ladies' wear and work wear, I would do everything manually, from calculating the pattern sizes to cutting them out and producing hand-drawn storyboards of themed garments for high street buyers.

For me, as much as for any of the companies that come to the college to train their staff, computer aided design really means a revolution. CAD allows you to speed up the technical side of the job but it can also be used for the creative side - the designing of garments and testing of different colours and fabrics.

The CAD suite, which opens officially next week, is in Clarendon's Fashion, Clothing and Textiles Centre, based in Nottingham's old lace market area where lace is still made and the clothing industry still has a strong presence. The area still has a reputation for fine work, and there are small companies here working for top designers such as Nicole Farhi because they have managed to preserve the old sewing skills.

Our 20 computers are used for training fashion and textile students at the college, who know they may well need CAD skills in their careers and have no real experience of anything else, and for training employees of textile firms at home and abroad, who are often terrified of the whole experience after years using paper and pen. We show them how, instead of drawing out patterns in different sizes, you can feed a digitalised version of the initial shape into the computer and let it plot out the size increases. That is particularly useful for designing bras, for example, because I know from experience that calculating the small changes between sizes is very difficult to get right. It is very exact and sizes have to be taken down to the millimetre. Afterwards, you can get the computer to print out a pattern or a section of a pattern to work from.

For creative work, students can use a separate piece of software to design garments on screen. You can take a design and fill it with any fabric pattern you have scanned in to the computer, and you can change the colour at the touch of a key. You can even scan in models from fashion drawings and "dress" them.

I am still a designer at heart and I love this side of the job. I qualified originally in lingerie design, which always seems to fascinate people at parties. Over 20 years, I've done plenty of chemises and French knickers and nightwear - all using lovely trims such as lace and broderie anglaise.

The fact that I've been in the industry for a long time and still managed to learn these techniques reassures other people trained in different methods. Our equipment, funded with European money, really is state of the art, and we hire it out by the hour for smaller companies who can't afford to buy it themselves.

Companies now really have to use CAD or risk getting overtaken by competitors. Using the latest technology is one way we can make garments more quickly and cheaply, to help us compete with imports from the Far East.

Interview by Lucy Ward