23. Dear Gabby: Sewing for Scoliosis—Help!

Dear Gabby,

I have so many problems fitting garments, because I have scoliosis. My right shoulder is higher and bulges out, and my left hip twists forward. Not only is it physically uncomfortable, I struggle to find clothing that will lay properly on me. Can you suggest some pattern adjustments I can try to stop my makes from twisting and pulling?

Shifty in Sioux City

Dear Shifty,

Of course, my friend! For all the uninitiated, scoliosis is an abnormal curvature of the spine—please see below for a basic explanation.

Diagram showing spinal curvature for a healthy spine next to four different types of scoliosis curves
Image shows types of spinal curvature, courtesy of spineuniverse.com

Let’s chat about it!

In this video, Gabby talks about various pattern corrections you might consider if the body you are sewing for is unbalanced.

The pattern adjustments in the video break traditional pattern balance rules. Even though we’re breaking those rules to make necessary corrections, there are still a few basic things to keep in mind:

  • Make sure your seam lengths match: side seam to side seam, sleeve cap length to total armhole, etc. so your garments will sew together. (Unless you’re adding pattern tricks in to account for the extra length—for example, knits that stretch to the right length, gathered sleeves that allow you to gather in the extra fabric, or trouser inseam ease where it’s standard standard to have the back inseam on trousers or jeans anywhere from 3/8”-1” shorter than the front inseam.)
  • If you shift a seam forward or backward, don’t forget—if you add to the back, take the same amount from the front and vice versa.
  • Again, keep “slash and spreads” gradual and start from the other side, since you are working on a whole piece and not just a half. This will help keep your corrections and your fabric laying smoothly. If you need to sun-ray additional spreads to achieve your correction, that’s fine, just make sure your outer shape is organic, rather than jerky. Your body is made up of curves, so these corrections need to feel the same way.
  • Have a friend help you take pictures of yourself, measure yourself, and mark new seam lines/placements for you.
  • Since scoliosis can affect both your shoulder blades and the set of your pelvis, make sure not to forget to adjust your sleeves, rises, or leg panel angles if needed when you are making your corrections.
  • Because you will be making asymmetrical corrections, don’t forget to re-true the center back/front based on your original line—this won’t change, it’s only the features around it that do. Even if your actual body’s center back is curved, we can’t make paper and grainlines do that- but we can change the outer shape of the pattern to better fit over your body.

There’s not a ton of additional information about this readily on the internet, but I did find a some clear photos and explanations by Mary of The Daily Sew.

And in terms of sewing—some of these corrections may mean that you have more areas cut on bias than you would otherwise. Go ahead and stay stitch areas like neckline and armhole curves that are now even more vulnerable to stretching out. You may also be interested in using fusible stay tapes, and certainly everyone’s favorite friend, Fray-Check.

On a personal note, I was also diagnosed with scoliosis. I had two surgeries in my early teens to correct my spinal curvature. Even 24 years later, I find I’m still pretty emotional about it—I don’t like to wear anything backless, because I have pretty significant scars down the center of my back. My first surgery was to realign my spine, using stainless steel rods and bone shavings from my hip to fuse my upper vertebrae together. A year later (I was 14), the rods were removed. The whole thing was… a whole thing. I grew an inch overnight! I had to wear a hard plastic back brace! I was on morphine for a while because the pain was so intense! Ugh. What a pain in the… back.

It’s kind of surreal to think about people who can wear camis or sundresses or two piece bathing suits without worrying about getting repulsed looks, or the inevitable busy-body who hurries over, “What happened to your back?! Have you tried vitamin E to get those scars to go away??” Listen, b*tch, I’ve done everything under the sun—if I could be that witch in The Craft who removes her scars I would do it in a heartbeat. Clearly, I have some self-acceptance work to do here…

For me, personally, I am asymmetrical from side to side (pretty much everyone is to a small degree), but because my spine was corrected, it’s not too bad in terms of fit. I make adjustments to the level of my shoulder placements on wovens, but I don’t usually have to make side length adjustments. However, I very rarely wear anything that shows my scars outside my home. Full backs all the way, baby!

It will definitely be worth making your own bodice and bottom slopers, so you can easily adjust existing patterns, and experiment with your muslins to get them to fit correctly before you cut your fabric. It is a time investment, to be sure, but in your case will be so worth it in the end, even if that means you can’t cut things on the fold anymore.

I completely sympathize with your plight – I hope that these kinds of pattern corrections will help. Don’t be afraid to make changes that may look exaggerated or extensive. If it works for you, it works for you! When something like that is affecting your life and health, the last thing you want to worry about is your clothing not fitting. Sewing can be therapeutic and meditative, if you have the right tools and can mentally let go of some of the rules in standard pattern books. Pattern balance is essential, but when your figure isn’t “standard,” you’ll have to find your own balance.

How to submit:

Email gabby@starislandxo.com, or DM me-> @ladygrift on Insta!

Send an explanation of your problem or question with a short video or set of photos, and your contact information. This can be purely for fit advice, sewing and technique questions, or really, any kind of sewing etiquette! Your submission will be edited into a blog post, so please note that by sending me a note, you are granting permission for your video/photos and sewing questions to be shared online. You are helping the community see all-bodied individuals! There is no shame or judgment — the end goal is to help you make clothing that feels great and that helps you feel the same way while wearing it.

Gabby is a technical designer, fit specialist, and prolific googler. She lives in Denver, raises tiny littles, reads, embroiders, makes, experiments, fails, learns, tries again. See her on instagram @ladygrift.