Ali Forsythe was back in a Harper College workroom last week, laboring alongside other students in constructing a pattern for leggings, one of the basic requirements in their "Knits" class.
The routine belies the fact Forsythe, of Mount Prospect, is no ordinary fashion design student at the Palatine college.
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Forsythe, 20, and one of her instructors, Donna Sculley, recently returned from an awards ceremony where one of her designs -- a trendy long, pale pink knitted cardigan, made out of luxurious alpaca fiber -- took second place in a national fashion design contest.
Her design board remains on display in Nashville, and if previous Harper winners are any indication, she could see her garment manufactured -- and sold online.
Forsythe is in her second year of classes as a fashion design student at Harper. She dreams of one day opening her own boutique, with one-of-a-kind items like a cardigan made of high-end textiles, such as alpaca.
If you're not familiar with an alpaca, neither was Forsythe until recently. The friendly animal, originally from Peru, resembles a small llama and is known for its soft and luxurious fleece, similar to cashmere.
She won her second-place award in the ninth annual Student Design Competition sponsored by the Alpaca Owners and Breeders' Association. The event is a way of raising awareness of Alpaca and its versatile fleece.
Sculley challenged all of her students in her Textiles I class to come up with a design for the contest. She entered Forsythe's design, she says, because it met the criteria: it was creative, commercially viable, with good technical construction and presentation.
The design portion of the competition took place last fall, in a "Project Runway" format, when more than 200 college level art and design schools were invited to compete.
Their theme? "Alpaca: The earth friendly fiber."
"It's very soft -- and drawable," said Forsythe, who credits her interest in the field to her first fashion construction course at Prospect High School. "I started with that, when I set out to design my garment. I wanted it to be vintage and romantic."
Sculley says there were a lot of challenges for contest participants.
"Most of my students had never felted, woven or knit anything," she said. "They literally were starting from scratch."
Place Forsythe in that category. Not only had she never worked with alpaca fiber, but she had never knitted. That only added to the challenge of the competition, says the nearly 6-foot tall former volleyball player.
The design board had to sell her concept to the judges, with its hand-constructed fabric swatch, illustration of her garment with its embellishments, as well as an essay about alpaca and its fashion properties.
"I appreciate Ali's quiet commitment to finding a solution to design problems," said Cheryl Turnauer, Harper's fashion department chair. "She perseveres."
Forsythe was one of four finalists chosen from across North America, finishing behind a student from Philadelphia University and ahead of students from New York City's Fashion Institute of Technology and the Art Institute of California, among others.
Her dream of opening a boutique may be down the road a bit, she says. First, she expects to earn her associate degree in fashion design from Harper in a year before transferring to a full-degree program.
Along the way, she hopes to land an internship, possibly in New York. Placing second in a national contest, she figures, might help.