Sewcialists Interview: Michelle Mason

Meet Michelle, @michebemason on Instagram. Michelle has a powerful story to tell.

We hope sewing businesses, pattern companies and sewists on social media not only learn but are able to make changes based on what Michelle has to say.

Sewcialists Editor Denise (D): How does your disability impact your sewing? Is it negative or positive?

Michelle (M): It definitely provides a lot of challenges to sew, but without my disability it is unlikely that I would have been thrown down this sewing path. I am an ambulatory powerchair user, meaning that I can stand and hobble around but only for very short periods of time. I am unable to use a traditional foot pedal, so I use a start/stop button and speed button for sewing. 

Michelle poses, half-seated on a stair lift, wearing a coral jersey dress with a black floral motif.
Michelle’s lovely memade dress.

I began sewing because I was depressed and lonely and feeling useless. I could no longer do my previous hobbies. I used to knit and do a bit of cross stitch—I’ve tried most things, really—but I couldn’t concentrate on all the markings and placements after becoming ill. I have ME (also knows as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome). People don’t like the name CFS (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) because it downplays the condition. I also have fibromyalgia, asthma, and migraines. I feel like I’m falling apart sometimes. 

Michelle sits in her powerchair, wearing a dark denim jacket and brown trousers, paired with a bright coral tee.
Jacket and trousers.

I became ill when my three kids were three, five and ten years old. It got to the point where I couldn’t take them to school anymore. I felt like such a failure because I wasn’t being the mom I wanted to be. When you’re stuck at home with little kids, it’s really hard because you want to take them out, and I couldn’t take them anywhere.

One day by chance my daughter showed me something in a catalogue, and on the same page were all these sewing machines. One of them had a start/stop button and I became intrigued. I got a computerized sewing machine that Christmas when I became housebound. I upgraded it a year later. Sewing has helped to get me out of my depression and loneliness. I didn’t know what to do with myself until my partner got me that sewing machine.

Michelle's Brother sewing machine, with a digital screen and start-stop button. The machine is decorated with cheerful sewing-related stickers.
Michelle’s sewing machine with a start/stop button feature replaces the need for a foot pedal.

D: What aspects of sewing bring joy?

M: I love the feel and texture of fabric. I am a very tactile person, and love to feel its smoothness or the “bobbleness” of crepe or the ridges in brocades. I also love the satisfaction of knowing that I am good at something and I can do it all on my own, that I am not just a burden. Society seems to think of me as a burden and it’s very hard to pull away from this idea. I love to see the smile on my children’s faces when I make them something they really like or want. I once made a dress and a top for the kids next door, and their mom was over the moon. Because I’m next door, I can hear the kids playing, even though I can’t see them. I still make most things for myself, and I love knowing that I made them. 

Michelle works at her serger. She is seated at the side of the table, leaning over to sew.
Michelle sewing on her modified serger.

I also love people’s surprise that, I, a disabled person can do these things; however, it really depends on how a person reacts. Sometimes there’s a condescending surprise and I’m like, “Why are you so surprised?” I don’t like that. Disabled people tend to be put into two categories: 1) inspirational; or 2) those who are a drain on society. There’s no middle ground. I’m just a normal person who wants to make things. I don’t buy clothes. I make them. And I feel proud about that.

D: Does your disability influence what you make?

M: Yes, I am unable to wear jeans due to the pressure on my joints. It is just too painful now. A lot of trousers tend to dig in when seated, and that gets painful, as well. I used to live in skinny jeans before I got ill, but now I cannot because they are too tight and put pressure on my hips. I want to make some chambray jeans and hope those will feel better. For all my trousers, I need at least half an elastic waistband for comfort and bloating. I mostly wear dresses, but I have to be mindful of how I can take them on and off. Back centre zippers are impossible for me. I can wear dresses in the house, but the minute I go outside, it’s cold! Comfort is definitely my top priority but I also want to look nice, too. 

Michelle shows off a faux jumpsuit — matching sleeveless top and trousers in a striped fabric.
A fabulous faux jumpsuit!

D: What accommodations do you make for sewing to be more accessible?

M: I use a computerized sewing machine as I need the start/stop button feature. A lovely charity called Remap UK modified the foot pedal of my overlocker and turned it into a hand control. There are zero overlocker and coverstitch machines that have a built-in start/stop feature. I was so amazed that Remap UK would do this for me. I’m so very grateful that they do this free of charge to help disabled people improve their lives. I was in tears when they said they could modify my foot pedal into a control board. This is a specialized thing that cannot be done anywhere. We gave them a big donation. 

A close-up of the modified controls on the overlocker. The controls are housed in a beige metal box, wired to the machine, with start/stop buttons, a slow/fast switch, and a dial.
The control board on Michelle’s serger replaces the need for a foot pedal.

I just bought a Horn cabinet (the quilter’s deluxe model) which I love. It means I can put my machine away on my own. I am no longer dependent on others to move it for me. I had to wait for someone to help, but now I can simply push it under the table. Eventually, I’m going to get some additional storage units—my fabric is a mess!

Cutting fabric is by far the hardest part for me to do. I have to cut everything out on the table as I am unable to get on the floor. Table cutting causes a lot of pain in my back, hips, shoulders and wrists. My hips hurt really badly whenever I lean over. I can’t fit all the fabric on the table so I tend to pin pattern pieces one-by-one around the fabric. Then when I am certain it all fits, I chop it into bite-sized pieces, usually one pattern piece at a time. Then I put one rough-cut piece on the table and cut it out neatly.

Another shot of the modified serger, showing the control box in front of the Janome machine. There are snips and other tools around the sewing area.
Michelle’s modified serger.

This takes a lot of time. I can mange it with two- to three-hour cutting sessions (with a lot of breaks) over one or two evenings. I need lots of breaks so I can deal with the pain, but I still pay for it. I have to rest for a couple of days after cutting. Sometimes the payback for exertion can be evil. For example, I went to a parents evening last year, and I was in bed for a week afterward.

D: What needs remain unmet?

M: Fitting garments for a wheelchair user is quite different, especially for trousers. It has been very hard to work out which patterns are suitable for me. Very few pattern companies make suggestions for fitting wheelchair users and I struggle with that.

A photo of the sewing cabinet, with the machine lowered to create a flat tabletop. There is a panel that can fold up to make a larger work-surface; behind it are some drawers for storage.
Michelle’s Horn cabinet allows her to move her machine independently.

I’m attempting a pattern for woven trousers, as I don’t always want to wear knit trousers. Because of this I do spend a lot of time in dresses (I love dresses but the weather is not always suitable here in the UK).

I would also love to see more people show their garments seated as this makes it easier for me to see how I would look. Clothes look very different seated than upright.

When I see a pattern that I might enjoy but cannot find images of seated people, I feel annoyed. And to be honest, sometimes angry. There was a callout last year for people with disabilities and other marginalized groups and when the selected people were revealed, not one was in a wheelchair. I had applied, but they said there were too many applicants. At first I was a bit annoyed and disappointed, but once the company revealed their selected folks, I became pretty upset. I was so angry, it took me three days to calm down. I tend to get very emotional but that’s just me.

Another shot of the sewing cabinet. This time, the computerized machine is still in the lowered position, but the overlocker is on top of the other side of the table (covered in a fabric cover), and the extension panel is raised, with a thick wool felt ironing pad on it for pressing.
Michelle’s sewing machine hidden below the table.

Sewing businesses and pattern companies definitely need a greater representation of people. There tends to be one or two people used for all the disability things. A lot more of us seem to be ignored. I know my pictures aren’t nice because I’m indoors 99% percent of the time. I cannot go outside in the garden because there are steps. I have a limited amount of energy so I cannot make pretty backdrops—and that wouldn’t make me happy anyway. My Instagram feed @michebemason is all mine and it’s authentic. 

Another shot of the sewing table. This time, the overlocker is still covered, but the computerized machine has been raised into sewing position on the tabletop.
Michelle’s sewing machine on top of the table.

D: So what tangible improvements would you recommend to sewing businesses and/or the sewing community? 

M: More representation. I rarely see any sort of disability shown on pattern companies sites—although that is improving. I remember the elation I felt when I first saw Friday Pattern Company’s Ilford Jacket with a wheelchair user model. I almost cried. For the first time I felt like someone cared. So I sent a message to the owner, Chelsea (I was a pattern tester, so I got the Ilford in advance). Chelsea replied that she thought of me when thinking of the photograph. I was amazed, filled with utter shock and happiness. I felt that I was wanted and not pushed to the side. I do struggle with not feeling good enough, and it still gets to me. It makes me so happy when I make the Ilford jacket now.

Michelle wears a sleeveless, sky blue maxi dress, with a draped detail at the neckline. She is seated in her powerchair.
Another beautiful dress!

I would also recommend showing models with a seated pose. That would help people like me to decide if that pattern is suitable.

Also, more advice on fitting for different types of disabilities would be damn amazing. Demonstrating different pattern adjustments that we could do.

For the sewing machine companies, more information about whether the machine can be used without a pedal. It’s assumed that everyone knows what a start/stop button means—that there is no need for a pedal—but it is never explained on the machine product pages. Also more machines with options for those who cannot use a foot pedal. That way, disabled people can use an overlocker or coverstitch if they want. 

Pre-cut fabric would also be amazing although I imagine the cost would be too much. But that would be an amazing treat once in a while. 

Also for those with brick and mortar shops, more information if your workshops are accessible and if there is room for a wheelchair. When I first started sewing I wanted to take a workshop to learn some skills, but I couldn’t find any information about local shops that I could get into. It seems most workshops are taught upstairs which is a big barrier for me.

Michelle wears a blouse with a butterfly print, demonstrating that a simple forward-facing seated pose is best for showing how a garment looks when the wearer is seated.
If you post a seated picture of your garment for wheelchair users to reference, please remember that simple and forward-facing is best.

On social media, a few people are now doing seated poses (#SewnShownSeated). But you have to be careful. A lot of seated poses are those I cannot manage. Draped poses are not helpful at all. I need straight-on, forward-facing seated poses because when you’re in a wheelchair that’s what you see. The sides have armrests and block the garments, so I just need a simple seated picture, forward-facing, without all the extras. Especially seated trouser shots! 

Denise Archer has joined the Sewcialist team as a Temporary Editor. Her personal garments and projects can be found @h.o.m.u.n.c.u.l.u.s