Who We Are: Sewing with Aphantasia

Picture an apple. What do you see? While some people can vividly see an apple, others can’t see anything (for more details, see this great article). The condition of not being able to visualise, aphantasia, is something that many people have without realising it; personally I didn’t realise I had it till I was 26. Having aphantasia doesn’t affect the way I go about my life, but it has affected some of the choices I’ve made, whether it be my career choice or sewing. 

Lacking the ability to visualise, my mind has compensated by being a very analytical thinker. I mean, I am a scientist by profession! I learnt to sew as a child and it was one of the few creative pursuits I was good at. As an adult I started sewing again in earnest as a creative outlet from my stressful PhD and fell in love with it. But not being able to visualise anything and having a very analytical mind has certainly impacted my sewing habits.

The author poses in her graduation cap and gown, worn over a self-made dress. She stands against a wall of ivy.
In a self-sewn dress when I graduated

Not being able to visualise the next step, or how a given step in the sewing instructions works has some advantages. Because I can’t visualise how a step is going to end up, I follow instructions like a recipe, even if at first glance the instructions don’t appear to make sense. Although sometimes this leaves me with a long date with my unpicker, mostly the instructions are written well enough that following them gives the desired outcome.

But not being able to visualise what clothes I already have in my wardrobe, how a new piece of clothing or style will go with everything else in my wardrobe, or even how a patterned fabric might look in a garment is always a challenge. To compensate for this, I have a defined style and colour scheme so that most of my clothes go together. I tend to buy fabric and clothes that are part of a safe colour scheme, patterns, and style, unless I have someone shopping with me. I remember one day many years ago I looked in my wardrobe and realised every jumper I owned was blue! I do have to say that it isn’t that bad these days…

The thing I struggle with the most while sewing is going off-script. I’m good at following instructions (whether it is in sewing or otherwise). However, I really struggle with breaking the rules, whether this is hacking a pattern, choosing a not suggested fabric, or even imagining how a fabric will look differently to that used on the pattern envelope. I have found online communities like Instagram and Pattern Review very helpful in this respect. If I am thinking of sewing a new pattern I will look at other people’s makes for inspiration. However, I still struggle to go beyond the pattern envelope and hack a pattern. I mean, I like to shorten or lengthen patterns and add pockets, but when I purchase patterns I look for those with multiple views so that I get lots of options without having to hack the pattern.

The author in a self-made jumpsuit, which she altered from the way the pattern was originally drafted.
Outside of the box fabric used with a pattern where I added length and pockets

I am still trying to work out how I can make my sewing better despite my aphantasia and use it to my advantage. I have been sewing again for nearly 4 years and for about half of that time I have known I have aphantasia. If anyone has any suggestions of what they do to help themselves or others, I am all ears!

Tanita has been sewing since she was a child before starting sewing clothes again in earnest nearly 4 years ago. She grew up in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia but now lives in Armidale, New South Wales, Australia, and can be found on Instagram at @sewtanita.