by Val Leclair
Posted by Berlin Schaubhut
As a fat, disabled person, I came into sewing for two main reasons: a hobby for my good days that made me feel “useful” (awful capitalism), and a way to have access to garments in the style and fabrics that make me happy. I constructed my first garment in March 2020 and have made enough garments in the past year to now feel comfortable taking on larger projects.
While plus-sized clothing and patterns are becoming increasingly diverse, properly fitted, and readily available, unfortunately, part of the plus-sized community is left out entirely. Folks like myself who have accessibility needs don’t have access to plus-sized adaptive clothing and patterns.
With nearly 1 in 5 adults worldwide living with a disability, the adaptive apparel market is large and growing. Adaptive clothing is designed to make it easy to dress and undress for folks who have mobility difficulties due to age, disability, or other causes. Unfortunately, despite the adaptive market’s advances, disabled customers' needs are still not being met.
Most often, adaptive clothing is designed for comfort in a seated position. Some examples of ways to achieve this include:
- Higher rises in the back of pants for more coverage
- Higher back hemlines on jackets that prevent bunching when seated and make it easier to remove without needing to stand up
- Seamless tailoring in bottoms to prevent chafing and sores
- Softer waistbands to avoid digging in at the waist
- Closures that are easy to open and close securely, such as snaps, zippers, and neodymium magnetic closures
There are also adaptive garments designed to be easy to put on without raising your arms or legs. Some examples include:
- Full-length closures on the sides of garments (similar to tear away pants in function)
- Discreet closures at necklines and underarms to allow more ease in the garment when dressing or undressing
- Socks and bottoms with loops used to assist in pulling the garment over legs
- Bras with easy closures such as snaps, magnets, or zippers on the front
Some adaptive clothing is designed to make it easy for a personal support worker or family member to change the garments of their family member or patient easily. These garments can use any combination of the above adaptations to accommodate the disabled person’s specific abilities.
Other adaptive clothing fills a medical purpose, such as allowing lines in and out of the garment for feeding tubes, ostomy bags, insulin pumps, and other medical devices. These types of clothing are called stoma clothes. In addition, supportive stockings, socks, and legwear prevent swelling and blood clots in individuals with poor circulation.
I started looking for my own adaptive (and medically necessary) clothing when my doctor suggested compression socks and legwear to ease my legs' swelling from being seated for long periods of time while using my electric wheelchair. When I could only find ready-to-wear garments that were at most several inches smaller than my measurements, I figured it was no big deal. I would just find patterns and make them myself! I knit, crochet, and sew, so I just thought it would be easy to find a pattern for at least compression socks in one of those mediums; I was wrong.
After several days of searching through my local library’s online catalog, and searching online bookstores for anything on adaptive/medical garments in plus sizes, I was shocked to find that nothing was available in my size or style, for that matter. Everything targets folks of *ahem* a certain age. My only findings were a few shapeless cotton-polyester house dresses. The only adaptive clothing sewing resources I could find were young children’s clothing, which would not scale appropriately for drafting up to my size.
The only DIY option for adaptive apparel of any kind in any size range was the website SewWhatAlicia.com
This website is a blog written by a mother whose son needs adaptive clothing. She uses ready-to-wear garments and makes alterations to them to adapt to her son's wheelchair use. This option is great in a sense but is also limiting and assumes that there are ready-to-wear options available in the size, color, and style preference of the person with a disability. As you may know, with plus sizes, this often isn’t the case; garment selection is already limited significantly in that size range.
I made a plea to the plus-size sewing community in May 2021 via a guest blog post on @fat.sewingclub. I didn’t expect much response, particularly when my blog post was on a niche topic compared to the other posts about fat beauty, fat acceptance, and sewing for plus-sized bodies.
Within 12 hours of the post going live, I received an onslaught of messages from the fat sewing community. They told me that this was not a problem I should be bringing to the fat sewing community. I should draft the patterns I needed myself or grade them up from the small number of existing children’s designs. I was being called lazy, needy, and pathetic.
I was heartbroken and angry from these responses. I knew that the fat sewing community had received the same reactions from large sewing pattern companies in the past when they asked for inclusion in their size ranges. However, I couldn’t believe that they echoed these responses at a fellow community member asking for help! So, I responded publicly on my Instagram stories and voiced my disappointment and that the responses were not only rude but incredibly ableist. As a disabled person with limited abilities and increasingly finite amounts of energy, how could anyone expect me to design, draft and sew my own clothing entirely from scratch?
Leila and Jess from Muna & Broad is an indie plus-sized sewing pattern company. They rose to the challenge and added an adaptive envelope back on their Tarlee T-shirt and made a commitment to include an adaptive back to all future shirt patterns that don’t have another opening on them.
A member of the fat sewing community, @adifferentstitch, compiled a spreadsheet of unintentionally adaptive patterns for the community. She sourced many of her patterns from unexpected resources - burlesque patterns, maternity patterns, and nursing patterns. This spreadsheet is still available on her link in bio on Instagram.
I have reached out to every adaptive ready-to-wear clothing brand I can find, asking them to increase their sizing into a true plus-size range. Overall their responses have been disappointing. I’ve been advised that there isn’t a sufficient market for plus-sized adaptive gear or that they already have too many products to try and sell to a small demographic. The worst response that I repeatedly received was, “We as a company value health and do not want to promote obesity.”
I wrote long emails to these brands, giving them the benefit of the doubt and hoping that they meant well. However, I refrained from calling them out on their fatphobia. I didn’t tell them that their views on health and size reinforce colonialism and have roots in anti-blackness. Instead, I appealed to them using their own argument- clothing equals access to activities that benefit the health of the disabled person.
You see, there’s a bunch of activities I can’t do, and it’s not because of my wheelchair or my weight.
A black-tie event? I have nothing to wear.
Dogsledding? Nothing to wear.
Going outside during a rainstorm? Nothing to wear.
Deep-sea SCUBA certification? Nothing to wear.
Attending a wedding? Nothing to wear.
Building a wheelchair-accessible snow fort with my nieces? Nothing to wear.
I would love to do these activities. They’re fun and probably would be good for my physical and mental health. So why can’t I do them? I can’t do them because clothing, equipment, and gear don’t exist in my size, all because designers don’t want to make it in my size.
By not making my size, adaptive brands limit what I can do and where I can go. And that’s worse for my health than my extra weight and more restrictive than being in a wheelchair in a non-accessible world.
But maybe that’s the whole point. They would rather tuck me away. I’m a reminder that health is fragile. And if they only make clothing and equipment for what they’ve determined as “healthy” bodies, then they don’t have to think about it.