The display of "Creative Dressing" at the textile Museum, 2320 S ST. NW, continues through March 12. CAPTION: Picture 1, Contemporary versions of classic designs: A hand-painted kimono and a Fair Isle sweater. From "Creative Dressing."; Picture 2, no caption, By Douglas Chevalier -- The Washington Post

It started as lots of fashion innovations do. Kaori O'Connor always liked great clothes, but found it increasingly difficult to afford them.

O'Connor's solution -- natural for a scholar -- was to investigate and trace the lineage of styles coming from the world's best designers.

The result of her research is a remarkable collection of workable patterns and instructions, from the most basic poncho to the most complicated Fair Isle Knitwear, in a book, "Creative Dressing: The Unique Collection of Top Designer Looks That You Can Make Yourself," (Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., $25).

Originally published in London, the book now is being printed in the United States and many of its handsomely photographed designs are currently on exhibit in the Textile Museum Shop Gallery.

"Many top designers today work from the basic shapes of ethnic colthing," says O'Connor, who was born in Hawaii and did graduate studies in anthropology at St. Anne's College in Oxford. "Yves Saint Laurent Sutdies clothing at the Musee de l'homme. Issey Miyake builds on authentic, classic Oriental designs."

Many coats by the late Coco Chanel (and adapted by designers today) stem from Breton fishermen's blouses and Chanel's chemise dresses from Russian Moujiks.

The appeal of these traditional, basic clothes, says Saint Laurent, is "traditional simplicity. It's what has enabled them to go through the centuries without changing."

O'Connor's book starts with traditional shapes -- the kimono, poncho, Balines trousers, Indochinese jacket, Ottoman Turkish dressing gowns, Indian shirt dress and many more -- and develops them from the basic pattern to modern variations. The Balinese trousers, for example, are shown in one version looking very much like the soft, tied trousers popular (this minute) on Seventh Avenue and in another, adapted to a long or short skirt.

The Idian shirtdress, which O'Connor wore one day last week, is traced from its beginnings as the shalvar kamize (a loose-buttoned tunic worn over trousers on the northwest frontier) to its current status as sophisticated daytime or evening dress.

Unlike many of the clothes found in stores, these ethnic designs have theirr shape built into the dress.

"The Indian shirtdress," explains O'Connor, "is based on an oval tube shape more accommodating to the woman's figure than a stiff sheath that compresses the body." The normal shirtdress (cut straight up and down with a bust dart) when belted, she says, rides up and pouches over the belt in an unbecoming way. In contrast, the Indian shirtdress has side panels which turn the dress into an oval tube that doesn't flatten when the belt is tied, and doesn't ride up.

"And it looks good on everyone, even those with a thick waist."

"The biggest problem for everyone who sews," says O'Connor, "is fit. And the more something fits close to the body, the greater is the potential for a disaster."

Because ethnic designs gain their fit through construction of the garment, rather than the individual who wears it, the real fit problem is eliminated.

"These are kind clothes," says O'Connor. (Both because they are easy to make and because they conceal defects.

About omission in the book of O'Connor's native muumuu, she says, "People can get them too easily." The appeal, she says, is in the cut: straight in front, with a bias-cut fullness in back. ("No matter how much you stick out in front, the back is graceful and flowing.")

Once establishing the wide range of patterns, O'Connor tapped some of the best fabric designers, including sisters Susan Collier and Sarah Campbell, former design and color consultants for Liberty of London prints.

"We never think about the international fashion color conspiracy," says Sarah Campbell. "We just use the colors we love and do what we like, "She concedes, however, that certain pattern adapt well to some fabrics and not to others.

Other reminders: Sparser prints look better near the face, and a link should be found in mixing prints, such as a binding that pulls together two dissimilar patterns.

O'Connor in her book bows to the increased use of knitting machines (and the wide range of the products that can be made on them) with a fan-pattern kimono created on an electronic machine, and a zebra-patterned coat done in a pile knitting stitch.

But in her discussion of handknit possibilities she presents some of the best classical designs, as well as the work of contemporary artists like Kaffe Fassett, a Californian now working in England who may take his inspiration from Persian miniatures, Morocan mosaics, Japanese or Chinese paintings.

Oxford historian Heinz Edgar Kiewe traces the origins of the Fair Isle pattern -- pet of the preppy set -- from its emergence at the time of the Vikings' trading in North Africa. (The patterns used on Berber rugs and carpets became the basis of the Fair Isle pattern.) When the Vikings returned to their homeland, Northern Europeans made some changes, replacing the gazelle, for example, with the now-familiar reindeer.

"Creative Dressing" is both a technical, how-to book -- rich in graphpaper diagrams and driections -- and a delight to the eye. And even if you don't know a knitting needle from the other kind, there is plenty of fascinating material on how and why designers create as they do.

The book closes with a design for a wedding dress, just as most fashion shows do. In this case, the dress is by Maureen Baker, disigner of Princess Anne's wedding dress.