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.
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.
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!