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Retro Claude on Sewing with a Disability

Meet Claudia @retroclaude. While researching Accessibility, I stumbled across a YouTube video by Claudia aimed at making sewing more accessible for people sewing with disability. Claudia has a penchant for period costume and she produced the video for COCOVID, a weekend of online costuming content last June.

Although Claudia sews period costumes, we think her approach and planning as well as her practical tips are helpful to everyone who sews and especially to anyone who sews with a disability. Juki Club asked Claudia to adapt the video content into a blog post for us. Claudia takes it from here.

Learning to Adapt

I learnt to sew sort of by accident. It just so happened that I ended up taking Textiles GCSE as the Food Tech course was full. It turned out I was quite good at sewing. My mathematical brain and logical nature meant I loved the puzzle of turning 2D things in to 3D. I never thought I would end up pursuing sewing as a career but when I was diagnosed with M.E. at the age of 17 everything in my world turned upside down.

University seemed like a pipe dream, and it was only my Mum’s encouragement that I “pick something and get out of the village” that made me consider studying sewing. I found a course at a drama school in Kent called Costume Production. 3 years of theatrical costume making later and I began my career as a professional costume maker. Thanks to the intermittent nature of my health (and the pandemic) I do a lot less professional work than I used to, but my love of sewing has made me turn to making my own clothes and costumes.

Sewing for myself has meant I have had to embrace my reduced activity level and have adapted a lot of the skills I learnt in professional workrooms to make my sewing as energy efficient as possible. I have learnt to get creative with my sewing tools to help prevent pain and fatigue, but learning to adapt the way I think about sewing has been the hardest part. I constantly compare myself to what I USED TO be able to do and, as wonderful as the online sewing community is, I can’t help but feel disappointed that I can’t sew at the same pace as I see my able-bodied friends do online. So, in this post I share not only the practical little tips I use to help my day to day sewing, but also how I have changed my mindset to plan projects well and set myself up for success.

Part One: Planning and Approach

Disabilities are as varied and individual as the people who live with them. Not all these techniques may be applicable to you. Take what is helpful and pass over what isn’t. This leads to my first point.

Find what works for YOU

There are countless adaptive tools, alternative methods and good old-fashioned hacks that claim to make sewing easier. Everyone is different. What is easy for one person may present difficulties for someone else. You are the best person to decide. Consider advice but experiment and find out what actually works best for you.

For example, I myself cannot use rotary cutters but they are the go-to cutting tool of many makers disabled or otherwise. I prefer a spring-loaded pair of scissors. If something isn’t working for you don’t feel pressured to carry on with it. This can be particularly difficult if your way of doing things isn’t the generally accepted RIGHT way. THERE IS NO RIGHT WAY. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS LAZY SEWING. Take all the shortcuts you need. 

Know your limits

Only you know your own body and, as hard as it can be to accept your limits, you have to work with it. Sewing is hard work. Big projects can be exhausting. Deadlines can bring stress and anxiety. I approach a sewing project with painful honesty about what I can realistically achieve. This can be demoralising at first but once you start to produce beautiful work within your limits it gets a lot easier.

I struggle to sit at a sewing machine for more than an hour before the pain kicks in so I use the Sew in 30 technique that I learned from Brittany J Jones. If I sew in 30-minute chunks, and then rest, I can sew for a total of 3 hours over the course of the day before I run out of energy. You’d be amazed how much you get done in a half an hour and I often find that I am more focused as a result of the limited time frame.

Set flexible goals and flexible standards

I work on a system that I call; Good, Better, and Best. This is similar to the popular ideas of Good Enough and Finished is better than perfect, but with a subtle mindset shift. Because I am honest with myself about my limitations, I like to start with an achievable plan.

Good Here I consider what is a level of work and finish that I can be proud of without having to sacrifice my health. I use my time and energy on the features of the project that mean the most to me. This gives me my Plan A – a GOOD plan that’s perfectly acceptable and achievable.

Better If I unexpectedly have more energy for this project, I move on to my plan B which is BETTER. Here I can add a few extra or bonus features. For me this is often hand sewn details like hems.  

Best If by some miracle I have unlimited time and energy, I move on to plan C which is BEST. This is what I would do if the sky was the limit and I could do anything I wanted.

Thinking and planning in terms of Good, Better and Best helps me to clarify the aspects of a project that I really want to focus on. This clarity helps me to prioritise. Do I want to spend my energy achieving a perfect fit? Or would I rather practice some hand finishing? Planning like this makes it more likely that I will achieve the goals that I really care about, and which lead to a really satisfying project.

I like to plan out my better and best options because I often come back to old projects with renewed energy at a later date, which can give me the chance to work on those other elements. For example, I often unpick machine sewn hems and hand sew them instead.

It’s subtle but I’ve reshaped the planning progress to be less about compromise and more about bonus extras.

My ‘Good’ version was just to make the dress up any which way from the limited amount of this vintage fabric I had. The ‘Better’ version was to practice some invisible hand finishing on the hems. The yet to be completed ‘Best’ option is to improve the fit of the bodice. I’m happy with it as it is, but a few tweaks should get rid of those wrinkles.

Instead of starting with an ambitious goal that I am unlikely to achieve and having to compromise down, I start with what I know I can achieve comfortably and work upwards. If something throws me off course and I have a setback, I may have to compromise and downgrade my good to good enough. But I am beginning with a good, realistic, achievable plan that includes the possibility of making it better.

Work on multiple projects

Something else I find really helpful as someone with a variable activity level, is to work on more than one project at a time. This can sound counterintuitive because it means there is more to think about and manage. But there are some parts of a project that are more physical than others. For example, cutting out is really difficult for me, as is fitting. It can be really frustrating when I get to a point in a project, where I need to do something, but I have to wait for a day when I’m actually well enough to do it. I have all this inspiration and drive to work and yet I have to wait for my health to be up to it.

Instead of feeling like I’m wasting time, I just work on a different project. Having a variety of projects on the go allows me to redirect my reduced energy to another doable project. This helps me to avoid frustration because I am still making progress, just on a different project.

Personally, I love hand sewing. I often get a project to a point where there is just some hand finishing to do, then start cutting another project. Cutting being a very tiring activity I spend the next few days hand sewing my previous project in bed whilst I recover enough to begin on the next project.

Part Two: the practical little things I do to make life easier

There are lots of practical little things that I do to make sewing easier. I’m going to approach this sort of chronologically to cover the way that I work through a project

Pinning

  • Use a thimble it helps to push through the fabric. There are lots of sizes and types. If you’ve never used a thimble, now it a good time to learn. The thimble helps me to push the pins through the layers of paper and fabric more easily. The thimble also helps me to take the pins out at the end.
  • Use the right kind of pins, glass or flower headed, that are easier to pick up and see. Alternatively, you can use the kind of clips popular with quilters for holding bias binding in place.
  • A magnet on a telescopic pole, often available in hardware stores for picking up screws, is great for retrieving lost pins or needles. No more crawling around on the floor!

Cutting

Cutting out is really difficult for me. I struggle to use a rotary cutter and use spring loaded Fiskars instead.  Ideally cutting out happens standing at a table. But standing is difficult for many disabled people. Some people cut out on the floor, but many disabled people can’t do that either.

I’ve experimented with lots of different ways of trying to cut out, including cutting out in bed which wasn’t particularly successful. Often the best option is to ask for help. Ask a friend or carer. It helps if they know a little about sewing but careful supervision of a novice has also proved successful. Sewing brings so much happiness to so many people and it’s OK to ask for help for something that will make you happy.

On days when I can’t find a sewing buddy, I just take my time and divide up the tasks.

  • One day I’ll just pin the pattern pieces to my fabric and then carefully roll the fabric up
  • Next, I’ll roughly cut around the pattern pieces outside the cutting lines, so that I can manipulate the pieces and cut more accurately the next time. This does waste fabric, but if it means that I can accomplish a difficult task, that’s fine with me.
  • Finally, I can manipulate the roughly cut pinned pattern pieces to achieve the final accurate cut.

Something else I have seen but haven’t personally tried is the use of a projector to project PDF patterns directly onto the fabric. This skips the print and tape stage of PDF patterns and eliminates the need for pinning. It of course does require installation and set-up, not to mention the cost, but it does save a lot of time.

Here are some links to using a projector for PDF patterns:

Pressing

Pressing used to be my least favourite task until I discovered an adjustable ironing board. Being able to adjust the height of the ironing board allows me to iron sitting down. I also use the ironing board as a work surface for other sewing tasks like pinning and even cutting as it is at a much better height.

I have also discovered the wonders of a mini-iron. Not only is it much lighter but it means I can keep it out on my sewing table and use it with my sleeve board on the tabletop. It’s not an ideal set up for pressing things like long skirt hems but is great for pressing things like darts and bodice seams. No need to even get the ironing board out!

Batch your tasks

Instead of working my way through a project piece by piece, I batch my tasks. Instead of following the directions, I do all the pinning, then do all the sewing, then do all the pressing etc. This is something I have taken from my time in industry and is a huge time (and energy) saver.

There are some places it doesn’t work. For example, sometimes it is necessary to press a seam open before you join it to the next piece. I find it works best with bodice darts. This also works really well with the Sew in 30 technique. It takes my about 30 mins to pin, sew and press all the darts into a bodice. Then I have a rest before moving on with the construction.

I personally never have the energy to cut more than one project at once but many people find batch cutting projects is a great way to save energy. That way when you feel like sewing, your next project is all ready to go!

Organize your supplies so that you can find things!

I am ashamed to admit that I am a very messy sewist. I am always losing things. Even things that I just had a minute ago! The answer to this problem was to tie what I need to me, literally!

I have taken to wearing a short waist apron with lots of pockets where I keep all my most frequently used supplies (thread snips, needle book, unpicker etc). I can’t leave it somewhere because it’s always attached! This means I save a lot of energy because I’m not constantly having to search for things.

I also have a wrist pin cushion which does a similar sort of job and I know Coco Chanel famously wore her fabric shears on a ribbon around her neck.

This works for me. There may be a better way for you to keep track of your tools. Finding an organisational system that works for you will save you time and energy in the pursuit of lost things.

In conclusion

I hope that this post has given you some ideas for ways to make sewing more manageable with a disability. I will stress this again because it is so important: THERE IS NO RIGHT OR WRONG WAY TO SEW. Some of these techniques may work for you, some of them won’t. It is best to use these suggestions as a starting point as you experiment with making sewing more accessible. Find what works for you, don’t be ashamed to ask for help and consider using adaptive tools and technology. My health is constantly throwing new challenges at me but I keep adapting my sewing practice so I can continue with this hobby I love. I recently completed a project sewn entirely by hand from the comfort of my bed!

Sewing for ourselves is supposed to be FUN. Finding a way to carry on sewing in spite of the challenges of disability is absolutely worth it. Sometimes it means different methods and a slower pace but the joy is still the same. Keep muddling through.

Claudia, studied Costume Production at Rose Bruford College and has made costumes for West End musicals and Hollywood films. A passion for historical dress has led her to create her own period costumes and vintage clothes. You can follow her costuming projects on Youtube www.youtube.com/retroclaude and Instagram @retroclaude.

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