Hello everyone! Welcome to my contribution to the Creators’ Collaborative for By Hand London. I’m a disabled sewist, who is trying to build a thoughtful handmade wardrobe that also works in relation to my lifestyle as a wheelchair user. You’ll find me @marie_stitchedup where I document my making; which mainly consists of garment sewing, interspersed with my experience of living and crafting with a disability. There is also frequent and high quality cocker spaniel content!
Marie in a Kim dress, with her cocker spaniel Woody!
One of the reasons I began sewing was to cater for my clothing needs and desires as a wheelchair user. Accessible/adaptable clothing is still something that is on the very margin of fashion in terms of availability. Mainstream fashion choices are generally limited to niche brands available online. But what about the teenager who wants to go on a shopping trip with their friends?
When you hear or read the phrase ‘ethical clothing’ what springs to mind? My guessing is that environmental and human impact of production are in the fore. It generally is for me too. But did you consider the end user? There are many barriers for people to access the clothing they desire, most obviously cost. But many don’t realise the fashion industry historically and continually exclude people with disabilities from their collections. This could be through lack of suitability as well as the physical barrier for disabled people to go shopping.
Inaccessible environments are something that wheelchair users are used to. Parking is often difficult, (we won’t touch on public transport) shops’ aisles are often too narrow. Changing rooms are too small or disabled changing areas used as stock rooms.
Tommy Hilfiger is a recent example of the industry finally responding to demand. Their accessible range felt like a pivotal moment for spenders of the ‘purple pound’. (Purple pound is the money spent by disabled people. This in itself is not insignificant and something suppliers/designers need to tap into!) But this still has not translated onto the high street to provide people with disabilities the choice they crave and deserve.
It felt for years that fashion and practicality are mutually exclusive. There is the choice of choosing something that is adaptive or design lead. Every time a mobility magazine dropped on the doormat, their offering of clothing felt like a slap in the face for someone who enjoys fashion.
Marie in her latest Jenna dress, which you can read more about on her blog
So what exactly are the elements that make clothing suitable for a wheelchair user?
Trousers seem to be one of the more difficult pieces to get right. The discomfort of a poorly fitting pair of trousers is compounded when you have to sit in them all day. You know how great it feels and difficult it is to find that perfect pair of jeans? For a wheelchair user, this search seems endless.
Firstly, the zippers ideally need to be longer. This allows ease of dressing and undressing where mobility is limited. This is a simple change that can be made to most trouser patterns.
The rise of trousers also need to have a slightly different balance. The front needs to be shortened and the back made longer. Remember the ultra low hipsters of the noughty’s? They are a definite no go as you’re always one reach forward from showing everyone a builders bum.
A big concern for some wheelchair users, particularly if they are non ambulatory or have sensory changes (I have sensation some loss at the top one thigh, and bum cheek) is ensuring minimal risk of pressure marks/sores.
Ideally trousers may have an elasticated element in the rear with a conventional front. This gives a polished look whilst being more forgiving in terms of fit. I have always avoided this style due to my association with said mobility magazine fashion. However, recent releases like Closet Core Pietra trousers has begun to restore my faith in finding style in elasticated waists! Elastic can also be added to other patterns at the rear quite easily. I recently did this with a skirt to help me through a post operative period.
Closet Core Patterns Pietra Pants
Tops and jackets often need to be shorter in the from to avoid unsightly pooling and wrinkling at the front. Again the balance of fitting for a seated person means that more length is required at the back.
Fabric choices are an important factor in my planning. I will always choose a natural fibre for breathability. There is no joy to be had in the perfectly fitted outfit if causes the skin to overheat and sweat. Wheelchair cushions and backs become very hot very quickly for me, and this adds to the skin irritation that can be experienced.
My absolute ideal are front fastening garments. As well as an almost completely fused spine, My shoulder blade is fused to my rib cage. This prevents full range of motion in my arm. Being the independent sort, I try to stick with button up garments, such as shirts, shirt dresses, and wrap dresses.
I have had particular success with the Deer and Doe Melilot (below, on the right) in a lightweight viscose, and I love the Republique du Chiffon Suzon (below, on the left) as satisfies search for a button up with a less tailored look.
Fully front opening dresses are the optimal choice for me. Tilly and the Buttons Seren (below, on the left), the Deer and Doe Passiflore (bonus points for being wrap and adjustable at the waist. Shown below, on the right) and of course my all time favourite, the By Hand London Hannah.
In order to make the Hannah ideal for my needs, the only pattern adjustment I made was to shorten the sleeves to 3/4 length. As much as I love statement sleeves, they are immediately getting tangled in my wheels and muddy! But that doesn’t mean we have to forego this style! - Simply shorten at the lengthen/shorten line by the desired amount and the fullness is kept at the bottom. Oh and avoid the ties! I simply used elastic to finish the sleeves. I am also partial to a good cuff.
A real MPV of my wardrobe are my knit dresses. They serve me mainly throughout the winter providing me with comfort even for days where I am not able to get up and about. My favourites are Tilly and the Buttons Coco (below, on the left), Named Ruska (below, on the right), and Nina Lee Southbank is a new one on my radar. I do however struggle with taking them off as they are over the head garments.
People who follow my Instagram feed will know I have an affinity for a well fitted dress. My collection of By Hand London favourites are the first to be worn in the sunny weather. Although they are rear fastening, they have the bonus of having a long invisible zipper. Minimal bulk and maximum opening for dressing. I will always use a 22” zipper, regardless of the pattern recommendation. Again this a simple change that can be made to the majority of dress patterns.
An absolute no? Button back fastenings. Not only are they one of the most difficult things in terms of independent dressing, but buttons pressed against a seated person (especially with metalwork in the spine) is not a comfortable experience.
This doesn’t mean I will never buy a pattern with rear fastening as in practice this is easily remedied. This is the joy of sewing! If something doesn’t work for you style wise or in practice, we have the skill to make the change for something that does! As long as you have a 1.5cm/5/8” seam allowance you can add a zipper. You can subtract the required amount from a button placket, or add it to a pattern piece that is directed to be cut on the fold for an over the head garment.
The final consideration I make when choosing a style is the neckline and hem length. Being in a wheelchair isn’t the same as being sat in a room where everyone else is seated. People have a different perspective of you and are literally looking down on you. This gives them a direct line of vision down your top! Hemlines obviously rise as you sit down and although people may not have the same view, I have been caught unawares when I have nipped to the loo at the shops, looked in a full length mirror and realised that my exposure level is perhaps a little more than intended!
Our Flora dress has an elegant square neckline that just skims the collar bone. No one's getting an unwelcome view down your top in this one!
I hope this post has been informative for you, whether you are a wheelchair user or not. I approached this from a specific perspective of being an ambulatory user (not a full-time user, walking sometimes, with crutches) and therefore I certainly do not speak for the whole disabled experience. Please feel free to drop by and ask questions for any pattern recommendations or alterations. It has taken me many years to become comfortable with being ‘seen’ in my wheelchair, much less being photographed. Sewing my own clothes has been pivotal to this acceptance.
This article has given me - as a designer - food for thought to say the least! Thoughtful construction elements and design details that would go a long way to making dressing more accessible and comfortable for wheelchair users are easy to implement, yet rarely get considered during the design process. Fashion is an essential form of creative self expression that needs to be available to everyone, and as sewists, we know only too well that where the fashion industry continues to fail, we get to seize the shears for ourselves and take back creative control! I will definitely continue to expand what I take into consideration when designing sewing patterns, and I've already got a tutorial or two planned that will hopefully help disabled sewists make some easy tweaks to patterns that would otherwise be unsuitable for wheelchair life. Thank you Marie!
Comments on this post (16)
I loved your article and shared it with my quilting friends. Your clear descriptions of the challenges reminded me of when I first started sewing my own clothes when I was a teenager.. Your simple and clear solutions are inspiring- thank you for sharing the information and the photos, your clothing is lovely.
Hi! Really interesting read, and your clothes look very good! Even as as a non-disabled person, I very much recognize the feeling that fashion and practicality can never go together. I was very angry with fashion for this reason for many years. Sewing has helped very much in this regard. My goal now is clothes that are practical, elegant, durable AND comfortable! Of course I don’t always suceed, but I am a lot closer now compared to when I had to accept what was available to buy.
Wow, what an informative blog post. This is really something the fashion industry has to think about and dive into. Thank you Marie for sharing your experiences. You look so beautiful in your makes. Thanks BHL for opening my mind.
Marie, all your makes are beautiful and you are so inspiring! I had no idea of the challenges disabled people have with regards to clothes and fitting, thank you for this informative post and keep doing what you’re doing!
What a wonderfully informative post. Have you ever though of collaborating with pattern houses to offer a “purple” option in some of their patterns? After all, most patterns offer options for making something longer or shorter, and many now offer a greater range for larger or smaller sizes; so why not highlight the potential for moving zips and buttons between back and front, changing the height of the neckline or the type of fastenings used, etc?
— Jean Moore
Thank you for such a readable and informative post. You looked lovely in all the outfits and I am much more aware now of the challenges to disabled sewers. I also have 2 cocker spaniels so I loved all the dog content 😃. Will be heading over to your blog now to have a read to see both of you.
Thank you for such an informative blog , you look stunning in all your makes. 💕
Thank you BHL for bringing this important information to a wider audience, and thank you Marie for writing your experience for us all to read. This was an interesting and informative post and I feel better informed having read it. I also loved looking at all the pretty dresses, my gosh you’ve sewn some stunners!
Thank you so much for sharing these details.! My brother is developmentally disabled, which has made finding clothes that only fit and he can put on by himself, but also are age appropriate. Since having a stroke two years ago, he’s been in a wheelchair. These insights are so helpful to us as his comfort and accessibility needs have taken a pivot. While he is non verbal, we certainly know when he’s not comfortable but this information will help us know what to look for.
I’m happy to hear industry is opening its eyes to All types of customers. In the meantime, you’re a wonderful sewist – love your masks,
The clothes that you have made are lovely and they look absolutely beautiful on you. Keep creating those gorgeous dresses! All the best to you.
Thank you for your fascinating post. My son is disabled and as he was growing up I despaired of managing to get a fit on shirt sleeves. As an adult man knit fabrics or over large clothes help. I would love to hear from men who sew for bodies with less conventional shapes. Others ideas are so useful.
Thank you Marie for such a lovely and thought-provoking post. You raise so many issues I had never even considered! Headed over to your blog now to look around…
I thank you for opening my eyes to the difficulties you face and the ways you adapt sewing to suit you. I am not handicapped but I still have a hard time fitting RTW on my body and that is why I sew. God bless you.
Thank you for writing and sharing with us! It’s wonderful that you can make clothing that exactly suits you and your needs.
I had most of my spine fused a couple of months ago. Because I physically can’t slouch now, most of my high waisted pants cut into my stomach when I’m seated because I’m so upright. After reading your tips, I think elastic may be the way to go!
This was a moving and so uniquely informative read! Thank you for the rare glimpse into a disabled sewist’s challenges when considering a pattern to make up. The alterations and design features that may need to be adjusted along with the fitting alterations such as necklines that offer modesty when typically one is the only one sitting was eye opening. Thank you to Marie for bringing us into her sewing world. How close to her heart sewing is when it empowers her to make fashionable, comfortable and flattering clothing. Sewing does that for all of us sewists but she has highlighted how especially this hobby has elevated her confidence to share her creations on her body. Such gorgeous dresses you make Marie!
Thank you Marie for this informative blog post.