We present the methods used to derive mathematical models of global secular variation of the main geomagnetic field for the period 1985 to 2000. These secular-variation models are used in the construction of the candidate US/UK models for the Definitive Geomagnetic Reference Field at 1990, the International Geomagnetic Reference Field for 1995 to 2000, and the World Magnetic Model for 1995 to 2000 (see paper II, Quinn et al., 1997). The main sources of data for the secular-variation models are geomagnetic observatories and repeat stations. Over the areas devoid of these data secular-variation information is extracted from aeromagnetic and satellite data. We describe how secular variation is predicted up to the year 2000 at the observatories and repeat stations, how the aeromagnetic and satellite data are used, and how all the data are combined to produce the required models.