Introduction to Adaptive Sewing: 5 Makers of Adaptive Clothing Share What They’ve Learned

OCT 13, 2021 updated Oct 14, 2021
Charley-Anne Gordon is sitting on a dark yellow couch, looking at the camera, wearing a blue sleeveless dress from Unhidden Clothing.

Charley-Anne Gordon wears a dress from Unhidden Clothing. Photo by Christian Dyson.

Moeed Majeed is sitting down, wearing all-black garments from Unhidden Clothing.

Moeed Majeed wears garments from Unhidden Clothing. Photo by Christian Dyson.

One of the best things about sewing is that it allows you to customize what you make. For some people that may mean creating wardrobe items out of unique fabric and indie patterns. For others, sewing lets them make clothes that work for bodies in a way that may be hard to find off the rack.

And that includes bodies that may need a range of options when it comes to garment closure, accessibility, length and more. That’s where adaptive clothing comes in, as it helps people maintain their independence, focus on living life vs. how seams or tags feel, dress in a way that safely fits their body and more!

To share some of what’s possible with adaptive sewing, we asked five adaptive clothing makers and designers a few questions about what they’ve learned in the process and what other makers and companies should keep in mind.

 

Meet the Makers

Ann Sullivan-Treacy

“What if all clothing was adaptive? As long as it’s stylish and flattering and cool, who would care that it also happens to be adaptive? It could appeal to anyone!”

Instagram: @patterndivision

What do you wish most clothing makers would keep in mind?

Ann: “I have Parkinson’s Disease, so I shouldn’t wear anything too long that I could trip over. Changing at the end of the day can be a chore as can getting to the bathroom fast so I like things that I don’t have to maneuver too much to get in and out of like pull-ons and pullovers that stretch or have lots of ease, especially in the shoulder area.

Other things I avoid are lots of buttons, fasteners in hard to reach places and fitted jackets that require lots of reaching. Comfort seems to be more important these days too. I like soft materials and smooth seams. Knit dresses are a good choice as they are just one piece to get on, plus, dresses are fun!

I think maybe something designers could keep in mind is just how many people are affected with physical challenges and could benefit from adaptive clothing. What if all clothing was adaptive? As long as it’s stylish and flattering and cool, who would care that it also happens to be adaptive? It could appeal to anyone!”

Does wearing adaptive clothing change how you show up in the world? 

Ann: Honestly I “show up” less with Parkinson’s and I think that is one reason the pandemic has not bothered me that much. I love virtual appointments and how more things are available online these days. It means I can conserve my energy and still get things done.”

Sewing gave me back some things that I lost through my illness like accomplishment and confidence and control.
Ann Sullivan-Treacy

What has been your biggest lesson learned?

Ann: “I had this idea for a wrap-style dress that would make changing easier, but it turned out that it was too much maneuvering. It was harder than a pullover for me, but I know lots of people have difficulty with pullovers. So another lesson is that different people have different needs and challenges and there is not one style that is best for all.

As far as sewing goes, I find simpler projects are best because it takes me extra time and I find that the fewer steps involved the better my result is. I find it to be a special challenge creating unfinished edges that look finished. I especially like to work with cotton interlock as the edges stay flat.

I have also learned that rules are meant to be broken, that needs change and how it’s not all about problem solving. It’s also about opportunities. I tend to not focus so much on problems I am addressing but rather the fact that I am making a fun dress for myself.”

What has been your most helpful resource?

Ann:Sewing is a great pursuit for people with physical challenges because you can make what you need and like and you can take all the time you need to do it.

Sewing gave me back some things that I lost through my illness like accomplishment and confidence and control. I love Spoonflower!

I started designing fabrics with my sewing patterns in mind. I try to create designs that are fun above all else. I think of them as mood lifters. They are big and bold and colorful. You can take design risks as a designer with Spoonflower, because as it is print-on-demand, you don’t have to worry about getting stuck with bolts of fabric.”

Ann Sullivan-Treacy wears a bright yellow dress with striped black and white circles
A blue dress with thick pink lines running through it is on a dress form
Denise Archer portrait

Denise Archer

“My truth is that I had to endure nearly six months of chemo and eight surgeries to get to where I’m at. There are times when my body is an emotional trigger for others who have lost a loved one to breast cancer.”

Instagram: @h.o.m.u.n.c.u.l.u.s

Does wearing adaptive clothing change how you show up in the world? 

Denise: “Somewhat. Some garments obscure the fact that I have no breasts, while other garments make it very obvious. I identify as a woman, but people also make the assumption that I’m nonbinary and elected to have top surgery. I’m okay with that.

However, my truth is that I had to endure nearly six months of chemo and eight surgeries to get to where I’m at. There are times when my body is an emotional trigger for others who have lost a loved one to breast cancer.

I’ve had friends who’ve died from breast cancer and it’s horrific [to] watch someone with so much vitality decline into a shell of what they once were. At times, people do stare at my chest. But I’ve decided that’s not going to stop me from wearing fitted garments.”

What has been your biggest lesson learned?

Denise: “My biggest lesson is that pattern adjustments do not need to be difficult — shortcuts can and do work! Sometimes.

While I like well-fitted garments, I’m also a bit lazy about it. I need to remove bust darts from lots of patterns, so I have two choices: 1) I can slash and spread and cut and tape a pattern or 2) I can simply fold the bust dart across the entire chest of the pattern (removes all the excess fabric) and raise the neckline an inch. Works every time!

Also, if I like the look of gathers under a bust, I can make the pattern in the smallest cup size and simply wear foobs (fake boobs) or go without. Either way works. There are a lot of women’s patterns — mostly dresses — that use the breast as a design element. I get to choose if I want to make a formal outfit with foobs or a casual outfit without.”

My biggest lesson is that pattern adjustments do not need to be difficult — shortcuts can and do work! Sometimes.
Denise Archer

What has been your most helpful resource?

Denise: “My own brain and creativity (hahaha). I don’t know of any sewing resources that cater to the flat community. A French curve ruler works great for raising necklines (which needs to be done on every single garment).”

Portrait of Denise Archer standing perpendicular to a white wall, so that we see her from one side. She is wearing a blue swimsuit with white dots, trim and strap.
Denise Archer stands in front of a brick wall with graffiti wearing black trousers, a rose and black striped shirt, sunglasses and black hat
K. Fox portrait

Fox of Eightfold Fox

“Most adaptive clothing seems to express vibes of “suburban family in an Olive Garden commercial.” People with disabilities and special needs are just as dynamic and complex as everyone else, and our clothing options should reflect that.”

Company: Eightfold Fox
Instagram: @eightfoldfox

What do you wish most clothing makers would keep in mind?

Fox: “As someone who was either physically miserable or tragically frumpy (think Golden Girls style, but without the sequins) before I started designing, making and wearing adaptive clothing, I wish most clothing makers knew that expressive, accessible clothing is appealing to everyone, not just people with special needs!

My line was developed out of my own need and with a mindful and intentional design process. I made [my line in such a way that] people with and without disabilities could equally enjoy my clothing. I like to tell people to think of adaptive clothing like the handicap ramp: Everyone can use it, not just people with disabilities, so why are we still so focused on making stairs?

Most adaptive clothing seems to express vibes of “suburban family in an Olive Garden commercial.” People with disabilities and special needs are just as dynamic and complex as everyone else, and our clothing options should reflect that.”

I like to tell people to think of adaptive clothing like the handicap ramp: Everyone can use it, not just people with disabilities, so why are we still so focused on making stairs?
Fox

Does wearing adaptive clothing change how you show up in the world? 

Fox: Adaptive clothing has completely changed how I show up in the world. Prior to learning [how] to design and create adaptive clothing for my disability, I was in constant pain. The pain made me angry, rigid and resistant to the world. When I made the switch to adaptive [clothing], I knew that my pain was dramatically reduced, but I didn’t realize how much it changed my interactions with the world until my boss asked me point blank, “Why are you so nice all of a sudden?” I was flabbergasted as she asked why I was friendlier, more flexible and easier to work with than [I had] ever been.

It hit me that reducing my pain had changed how I was interacting with the world, allowing me to be cheerful, flexible and resilient. Adaptive clothing gave me a life I hadn’t even known I was missing. For the first time, I was able to show up as myself, unclouded by pain. I will never go back to standard clothing.”

What has been your biggest lesson learned?

Fox: “The biggest lesson that I have learned in making adaptive clothing has been a rather sad one: The demand is huge, the supply is tiny. There are so many people whose lives are dramatically improved by simple modifications to their clothing, yet so few clothing designers seem to be aware of these needs, let alone willing to embrace them. This first lesson has led to an important second one: I can improve people’s lives through my designs and I have a duty to do so.”

What has been the most helpful resource?

Fox: “Believe it or not, my go-to resources for my adaptive clothing lines are historical fashion texts! In the past, clothing was expected to last, and to be passed through families, fitting first this person, then that person, and, therefore, adjustability was built into the garments. Seams were flat felled or stitched in such a way as to prevent wear on the garment, but had the added bonus of reducing negative sensory input. With historical inspirations and modern modifications, I can construct a wide variety of aesthetic, adaptive clothing.”

Fox and one of their rescue dogs wearing Fox's designs in burgundy velvet

Fox with rescue Weimaraner Greta.

Fox is standing in the woods, wearing a long red-and-green plaid skirt, a dark green button-up vest and a cream long-sleeved shirt, holding a book in their left hand
Maria-Luisa Mendiola portrait

Maria Luisa Mendiola, founder of MIGA Swimwear

“…When you design inclusively, everyone (whether you have a disability or not) wins.”

Company: MIGA Swimwear
Instagram: @migaswimwear

What has been your biggest lesson learned?

Maria Luisa: That when you design inclusively, everyone (whether you have a disability or not) wins. The Lydia is our most popular suit. It was designed inspired by [a woman named] Lydia, who has an ostomy bag. The suit is the favorite of many, aside from ostomates, from women who have diabetes equipment to women who have no medical equipment at all.”

What has been your most helpful resource?

Maria Luisa: “Working directly with the community. We use comprehensive surveys (our last one had over 400 submissions with detailed images) so that we make zero assumptions about what our community needs.”

Models: Gloriana Guadamuz, Ley de la Rosa and Daniela Arias. Photograph by Mariam Wo Ching and Leo Carvajal.

Two women photographed from the back, both wearing swimsuits. One is wearing a bright green swimsuit with a zipper down the back and the other is wearing a bright orange two-piece bathing suit with full arm coverage.

Models: Ley de la Rosa and Daniela Arias. Photo by Mariam Wo Ching and Leo Carvajal.

Portrait of Victoria Jenkins

Victoria Jenkins, founder of Unhidden Clothing

“…One size fits all can work, but really we all need the option to be able to customise or change trims.”

Company: Unhidden Clothing
Instagram: @unhidden_clothing

What do you wish most clothing makers would keep in mind? 

Victoria: “That they need to bring disabled people into the design process at all levels and include them at every stage of design, marketing and research.”

Does wearing adaptive clothing change how you show up in the world? 

Victoria: “Not for me, as it’s my own designs (which feel pretty awesome!) but for so long I just wore the same as everyone else and put up with the pain — no more!”

What has been your biggest lesson learned?

Victoria: “That one size fits all can work, but really we all need the option to be able to customise or change trims. Which is why I offer that with Unhidden — magnets, velcro or poppers! Magnets don’t resolve all issues in the same way, neither does elastic, etc.”

What has been your most helpful resource?

Victoria: “Asking. Constantly asking as many people as possible. Open Style Lab has brilliant research in this area too. Looking at existing adaptive clothing and reverse engineering it.”

Glynis Evans is standing and laughing, face turned away from the camera, and wearing a blue sleeveless Unhidden Clothing dress.

Model: Glynis Evans. Photo by Christian Dyson.

Torso of woman wearing a white button-up shirt. A clear medical tube is coming out from the bottom of the shirt and is concealed by piping up the shirt until it goes back under it above her chest.

Model: Christina Lea. Photo by Christian Dyson.

Do you know anyone in the Spoonflower community we should know about who makes adaptive clothing?

Please share in the comments below!

Want to meet more makers?

Check out our Meet the Maker posts!
About the Author
Betsy Greer portrait

Betsy Greer

Betsy is a writer and stitcher who joined the Brand Marketing team in July 2021. In her spare time, she talks to people about their choice to make things by hand and related lessons learned for her project Dear Textiles. She also aims to befriend all the dogs she meets and is forever looking for the perfect dress pattern with pockets.

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  • I’ve been making garments for queer and trans people in my communities. Mass-produced clothing usually doesn’t have transgender, fat, or disabled bodies in mind. My projects aim to show that all bodies are good bodies. Bodies are not the problem – ableist, sizeist, cis-normative fashion is the problem. Some of my fabrics also incorporate pronouns as gender-affirming design elements. http://www.jamieq.net

    • Thanks so much Jamie for your comment and for sharing your wonderful work! And yes to all bodies being good bodies! We have two posts coming up soon that further talk about some of the great points you made in your comment, so watch this space, er, blog! Your website is fab and I see you’re a Spoonflower designer too! Hooray!

      Best,
      Betsy
      Spoonflower

  • Tremendous article! It is helpful for ALL of us to know about this whether we have a direct need at the moment or not.

  • Circe Oropeza

    Such an interesting topic! It’s great to know that are makers focusing in everyone’s needs and getting to know a bit about their process. Thanks for these posts!