An interview with Magalie Houle Dawson - July 2007
Q: I read a little about your history designing for the Canada Ballet, could you tell me a little more about your
background in clothes design and construction?
I had quite a bit of experience before entering Fashion School in my twenties. Starting at three or four I was playing with
dolls and dressing them. I started creating my own clothes for the dolls with scraps from my mother's sewing efforts,
before I was allowed anything but child's scissors and big blunt needles. This morphed into sewing cloth dolls for sale during
my teenage years and I started sewing my own clothing. I also started doing alterations for many people in my
neighborhood and then took a piecework job with a local clothing manufacture at 15, and learned how to sew on industrial sewing
This led to starting a dancewear company with my sister who was dancing for the Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. We
designed and sewed unitards, leotards, leg warmers etc. This business continued for several years, and as my sister moved
up in the world of ballet (The National Ballet in Toronto) I had new customers for my designs. Then I made a mistake and
ended up as a single mother - two children and a divorce before I turned 25. But that was a minor detour for me (my children
are now in college), and with my father's help I enrolled in College LaSalle in Montreal to study Fashion Design.
While in Fashion School I designed costumes for choreographers of some smaller ballet companies. My classes in Fashion
School filled in what I didn't already know, especially about how to drape and draft professional patterns. I studied fashion
history and had a very inspirational teacher for Fashion Drawings. The high point of those years was winning a fashion
contest that let me represent Canada in an international competition held in Paris. The theme was "Cruise Wear" and my
entry was titled "The Pirate's FiancÚ". It was thrilling to see my design compete on a Paris Fashion Runway with a
professional model dressed in my creation!
Right about this point in my life I met and then married my husband, Bennett, and moved with my two young children to Vermont, a
land of green mountains and cows... No fashion industry at all! So I opened my own shop called "Fashion By
Magalie" where I had a thriving business making custom sportswear, Winter fleece wear, and personally fitted bathing suits.
This became too much to manage while raising my children, so I took a position as creative designer for a small doll company and
designed two complete lines of cloth dolls with extended fashion collections. Then in 1999 I discovered eBay and the rest is
history. I had finally found a viable outlet for my childhood passion!
Q: Your patterns are completely unique and original, where do you get your inspiration?
Every doll 'model' I have is an inspiration for me, but I'm also inspired by fabrics, textures, and jewelry. I usually work with a
movie going in the background and have an extensive collection of old movies. The Wizard of Oz, The King and I, Gone with
The Wind, Doris Day, and other vintage movies that are filled with the most beautiful fashion inspirations! I also have a big
collection of fashion books and magazines, paper dolls, and vintage sewing patterns.
My favorite designers are Erte for his fantastic fashion illustrations, Schiaparelli for her shocking boldness, and Christian Dior for
bringing femininity back into the fashion world with his "new look".
I love to mix and incorporate different eras of fashion into one design. My only rule is that it has to be pleasing to MY
eye. I don't replicate fashions, but strive to create my own personal look.
While in Paris I visited the haute couture houses: Dior, PerSpook, and Nina Ricci. I saw some of their original fashion
sketches that showed how they draped and created first drafts of patterns. This is how I want to keep my patterns - hand
drafted and hand illustrated in the haute couture fashion, which is becoming somewhat of a lost art in today's computer driven world.
Q: I've noticed on a few of your pattern covers a beautiful drawing of the outfit, is that drawn by you?
Yes! I've always loved drawing, and fashion illustration is an art that I wish I had more time to practice! When I started
sewing one of a kind designs for Gene Marshal, I included the original fashion illustration with the ensemble but soon found that there
was not enough time for this. Plus, I started offering Limited Edition designs, so I decided to focus my time only on the
design. Now that I'm creating patterns, I've decided that the illustration is an important part of the look of my patterns and all
future patterns will have my original fashion illustration on the cover.
Q: Could you take me through the process of designing a pattern, from inspiration to final completed pattern?
The genesis of a pattern varies, but most of the time I start by playing with fabric combinations, and different colors and textures,
draping on a doll until I decide the basic direction I want to go. Then I make a rough sketch or three to explore the budding
concept. Then I just cut the fabrics and sew, sculpting and adjusting as I go. I always use the type of fabric I intend
to use for the finished design so I can see how it will fall, thus creating my prototype.
Then I do a 'master plan' of the prototype, sometimes using basic slopers I have made for each doll, other times starting from scratch
depending on the style of the design. This is where the first draft of the pattern pieces are made. Then I add seam
allowances, and cut a second sample from these pieces to make sure that everything fits, that all the pattern pieces work together
perfectly, while working out the easiest way to sew the garment. This may take several tries, adjusting the pieces or
assembly methods until I have figured out the best and fastest way to sew the garment.
When I am totally happy with the pattern pieces I transfer them to cardboard, and place them to fit on a standard piece of 8.5 by 11
inch paper so that my customers don't have to buy special paper to print my patterns. Then I write and draw everything that
needs to be on the pattern pieces, scan the pages, and then cut fabric from these final pieces to use in sewing the Pattern Proofs for
the pattern. I sew as many pattern proofs as needed to show the different styles contained in the pattern (long skirt, short
skirt etc.), with Bennett taking pictures of each step as I sew the garment. Once the basic garments are finished, I embellish
them to use as examples on the pattern cover. Then I use my notes and the photographs to write the instructions for the
pattern, all of which is then put together in a finished MHD pattern format by my husband.
Special Note On Pattern Making: In my fashion school, we had a class on CAD pattern making, and a wonderful computer
program for fashion illustration with dozens of templates of different figures, and different types of clothing that you could use as a
base to design your own pattern. I watched as some of the students get lost in the system, relying on the computer
programs for everything, never actually designing beyond what was already in the computer program, and making
fashion drawings that were completely computer generated. This is not really designing in my opinion. It is
pattern making, but it's not very original.
I much prefer the manual method of design, pencil and eraser, markers and watercolor. But this is just my personal
preference, a matter of taste. Hand drafted or computer drafted patterns can be 'as good' or 'as bad' depending on the ability of the
designer. For example, if you are a member of the Tonner Doll Club, you received hand drafted patterns and slopers for various
dolls. These are 'professional quality' patterns from a high quality doll company! Hand drafted patterns are just as
"professional" as computer generated patten pieces, and often fit the doll better!
Q: If a customer has a question or problem with a pattern, how easy are you to reach, and how can they get a hold of you?
I absolutely encourage everyone to email me with any questions they have while working with my patterns, and I will promptly reply,
walking them through the problem area until they totally understand the process. Some steps are VERY difficult to get a
photo showing details. I also love to see the results, and seeing auctions for garments sewn from my patterns is very
rewarding to me.
I sincerely believe that anyone, novice to experienced seamstresses, can understand and sew from my patterns. My
objective is to encourage the novice seamstress to surpass what they 'thought' they could do, and Boldly cut into fabrics! It
may take a few tries, but the results are so much fun. It doesn't take yards and yards of fabric to sew for dolls, so mistakes
are not too expensive, and you learn a LOT from each effort. Besides, I truly believe that there is always a way to turn a
'mistake' into a 'success'.
Have fun sewing!