I stepped back from the dress form, slumped into a chair, and cried. Not just a few tears — this was the whole-body kind of sobbing that makes your face blotchy and your eyes hurt. I had just finished padding out the dress form to my measurements, adding extra girth in the waist and filling out the cups of a well-fitting bra, using packets of split peas to add some weight to the padding to mimic the weight of breasts. The result was a dress form that was an almost perfect replica of my body — so why did it feel so foreign?
The year before this moment had been a tough one. On top of rheumatoid arthritis, I had been diagnosed with chronic migraines that sometimes included stroke-like symptoms, including slurred speech and weakness on one side of my body. I had developed non-epileptic seizures as well, and experienced PTSD symptoms due to a sexual assault. I was in the midst of a divorce and learning how to parent two children solo while managing several chronic conditions.
When I saw my body shape in front of me, all of the complex feelings I had about my body and its limitations and failures came rushing forward. This was not the body I had in my mind’s eye: it was larger, softer, rounder, and droopier than I imagined. It wasn’t strong. It wasn’t beautiful.
I have amazing friends who, when I messaged them for support, told me to drape the form in beautiful fabric until I was ready to see the beauty of the form. I grabbed some rayon from Cotton and Steel’s From Porto With Love collection that I had been saving and threw it on the form. I walked away and started sewing other things that were on my list: clothing for my children, clothing for clients, bags to sell at a local craft fair.
Eventually I came back to the form with some muslin and started draping and pinching and tucking and pinning. I played with shapes and fabric weights. I figured out what I wanted to highlight and what I wanted to play down. I made a Washi Dress (from Made by Rae) out of that rayon, then made another out of cotton. I’m still futzing with the bust darts to get them right, but that particular dress is a great mix of comfortable, easy to wear, and flattering for my body shape.
As I got to know my dress form, I got to know my own body and how to work with its limitations. I was approved for disability, taking a significant source of stress off the table. My seizures lessened as I started to heal from the trauma I had experienced (in my case, the two are connected). I started having some success treating my migraines. I figured out how much sewing I could do without exhausting myself, how many craft fairs I could commit to without landing in the hospital.
Shortly after my divorce was finalized by the court, I took myself to my favorite bar in my latest me-made dress. I felt great: confident, comfortable, and sexy. The body I had seen as a total failure a few months earlier was now home to the kind of strength that comes from surviving something challenging.
When clients come to me for custom clothing, they usually start the appointment at which I take their measurements with an apology. “I’m sorry about my belly/back fat/big butt/droopy breasts.” I tell them about sitting in front of my dress form and crying. About finding the shapes and fabrics that worked for the body I have. About finding confidence in clothing that I loved and had crafted just for me. We talk about shapes and fabrics that will work for their body, and about what they need out of their clothing. I ask who they are, and what they want the world to know about them. We look and touch the fabrics in my studio to see if there’s anything right. If not, we go online to look for just the right thing. In the end, they have an item of clothing they love, and I have the joy of making someone happy.
Allyson Wendt is the founder and head sewist at Warp | Weft (link: https://www.facebook.com/WarpWeftFiberArts/). She lives fiercely with disabilities in Brattleboro, Vermont, with her two children and a cat.