I was introduced to Pippa last summer on Instagram. (She’s @SewPippa go give her a follow!) We connected over size inclusivity and dealing with our chronic illnesses. Plus we both have fluffy cats who love to sew with us. When we decided to focus on accessibility, I knew I wanted to highlight Pippa’s voice and experience. She was gracious enough to do an email interview with me. Here’s what she had to say.
How did you get into sewing?
I was always interested in sewing as a child. I can remember being fascinated by my mum’s sewing box and playing with buttons. When we were young she even made my brother a yellow, hand-sewn, five-foot tall plushie hare called Hector! But she really wasn’t into sewing or dressmaking — it was usually just sewing buttons back on, name tags in clothes, etc.
I wasn’t taught to sew by anyone in the family — I just started to one day. I’ve dabbled with sewing since I was around 13, which is when I got my first machine. I only seriously got into it during the pandemic. Until then I’d sewn things like tote bags, cushion covers, etc. When lockdown hit, knowing I had time on my hands and couldn’t go out, I had my sewing machines sent up to me. I started with button headbands, scrub bags, etc. for the NHS. When I moved into masks and basic garments, I totally caught the bug and didn’t stop!
What physiological conditions influence/impact your sewing?
I have chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) and repetitive strain injury (RSI) in my hands/wrists, which are hypermobile. CFS has the biggest impact. I’m moderately affected at the moment and I am only just gradually returning to work after 9 months off due to CFS.
How does your condition impact your sewing? (Negative? Positive?)
With CFS, my energy levels fluctuate, which can prevent me from doing any sewing at all. Bad days will just be spent lying on the sofa or in bed. Things like sitting up and standing can be difficult at those times. I get brain fog, which can really impact complicated sewing or sewing an unfamiliar pattern — sometimes things just don’t make sense and no amount of reading will change that. The best I can do is come back to it another day when the brain fog isn’t so intense. I also have quite a lot of light and sound sensitivity. I have to moderate that quite a bit and usually spend some time in a dark room each day, which reduces my time to do things including sewing since it requires quite a lot of light. I get quite a lot of muscle aches and pains, which I have found really affects things like cutting fabric out and ironing fabric, because they require me to stand, lean or bend for prolonged periods of time.
Generally, I can only physically do an activity for so long at one time. I need to take rest breaks. The same goes for concentration too — I have to divide things into chunks. I’ve learned to moderate this now, but when I was figuring it out, I often did too much for too long and made my condition flare up. That said, it’s taught me to take things easier and work in chunks of time, rather than burn myself out non-stop until I’m finished (which is my natural mode for everything in life!).
All of this tends to mean that I don’t do well with a fixed schedule or plan for sewing. For example, I recently wanted to sew some garments to take part in some hashtag challenges on Instagram, but my health meant that it didn’t work out that way as I couldn’t finish in time. I tend to be very fluid with my sewing plans so that I can adapt them to how I’m feeling. I don’t set rigid goals for myself, because the likelihood is that I wouldn’t be able to meet them in time. In an unexpected way, my condition has taught me to be kinder to myself and go with the flow more.
What accommodations do you make to make sewing more accessible for you?
The biggest one with RSI is that I sew at a dining table and I have my machines side by side, and they live there permanently. I have a chair by each machine and I move when I need to switch between my regular machine and overlocker. I can’t move my current sewing machine without pain due to the weight. I couldn’t cope with a set up where I have to move them regularly. My RSI is also more likely to be set off by hand-sewing rather than machine-sewing.
Besides that, I divide sewing into tasks: ironing fabric, assembling PDF patterns, cutting out fabric, and construction (which can be divided further depending on complexity). I generally plan what I’ll do that day and usually do no more than one task. So, for example, I might spend a couple of hours ironing a big batch of fabric, taking breaks as needed, and that’s the only sewing activity for that day. That one’s quite physical, so I tend to batch do that to avoid having to do it too often. Another day, I might batch assemble PDFs, which I find pretty low energy — I’ll usually save things like that for days where my CFS is worse. Working this way means that I have a range of projects on the go at various stages, and it means that when I have energy to do the construction side of sewing, I have a project I can work on that is ready to go.
I recently upgraded to a computerised sewing machine and that has definitely had some positive impact on accessibility and sewing. Features like automated tie-off, adjustable speed, built-in walking foot, auto-threading are very helpful. I’ve tried using the start-stop button instead of the foot pedal, but for now I prefer the foot pedal.
Because I find it hard physically to iron large lengths of fabric before cutting patterns out, sometimes I will cut pieces out of un-ironed fabric and then iron the cut piece and trim the excess fabric off. It takes longer but means I’m ironing smaller pieces of fabric and I can do that on a wool mat rather than getting the ironing board out.
I also keep an eye out for tools that will help me. I have a relatively expensive tool that I use for loop turning (expensive compared to the standard ones) but it makes loop turning MUCH easier for me and saves me time and saves my hands!
What needs remain unmet?
Things that I still struggle with and haven’t found ways around include ironing large quantities of fabric; I live in a small flat so there’s no room to hang it to dry.
I think more ergonomic tools would also be extremely helpful. As above, I’ve found some tools which aren’t marketed as ergonomic but work better for me; but there are plenty of tools that could be redesigned to be more ergonomic (particularly those around the fiddly, tiny things that need to be done by hand — those are more likely to set off my RSI).
Something that would be incredibly helpful (and I believe Samantha @purplesewingcloud is working on) is if machine brands put out accessibility feature guides with their machines. Something as simple as highlighting how various features might help (without even introducing new features) would be great. I know there are a ton of features on my machine that I don’t currently use or know how to use, and an accessibility guide would be super helpful to prioritise learning those features.
I find it hard to think about what needs are unmet, because I’m used to just adapting to get by. I often don’t really realize how much something affects me until I’ve been shown a solution and I see the contrast. I suspect there are many unmet needs that have never occurred to me.
Are there tangible ways sewing business and/or the sewing community could improve?
It’s still relatively rare to see a light shone on accessibility — this is especially true of sewing businesses. There are some people within the sewing community who do really good work to promote accessibility, like Samantha (@purplesewingcloud on IG), but businesses are still quite a way behind. I’d like to see more disabled brand ambassadors and collaboration from businesses; more content that addresses accessibility; and I’d like to see businesses working with disabled sewists to consider aspects of sewing pattern design/instructions, machine design/construction, etc. For example, the way that the buttons are laid out on my current machine means that my arm inadvertently hits the reverse button quite a lot, which can be a problem if you don’t realize before you sew. I’ve seen that commented on before so it’s not a problem specific to me.
I think there is also a big conversation to be had around the language that is used by businesses and the community. At the moment, there isn’t a lot of attention paid to this — to the use of ableist language or ableist concepts. In the year I’ve been actively sewing, I can remember seeing a business making light of mental health in its marketing, and getting called out for it. Likewise, there is an issue around businesses using International Day of Persons with Disabilities for promotion without actually engaging with disabled sewists.
Are there things (big or small) that sewing businesses already do that make sewing easier for you?
One thing that I find extremely helpful is when fabric is packaged with an attached card reminding you of the fiber content, length bought, brand info etc. With brain fog, I may forget fiber content etc or I may forget where I’ve bought fabric from, which means I can’t trace my steps to find my confirmation email or the listing on the website and check. I find it hard to tell the length by just eyeballing, and actually measuring it out is another thing that takes energy and physical space that I don’t have.
Does your condition influence what you make?
I generally have an aversion to fastenings — I like pull-over clothes, elastic waists, not having to faff with zips or buttons. I think the way in which my condition influences that is a) not having things that might be a problem if my RSI flares up; but b) in just having as much comfort as possible so there isn’t something pulling on my energy and concentration. If I’m in uncomfortable clothing then I don’t feel great — a too small jacket will increase tension in my shoulders, I’ll keep adjusting it etc, and it’s just another thing to take energy.
What aspects of sewing bring joy?
I love that sewing enables me to be creative! I enjoy physically making something and seeing it come together, and I love that I can create garments that fit me in a way that RTW clothing doesn’t. I love that it allows me to express myself outwardly — the clothing I make is different to that which I used to buy. I think in large part that is because I have been able to play around with colours, shapes and prints that I wouldn’t have looked at on the hanger. I like that there are always new challenges with sewing – new techniques, new fabrics to work with and manage, new fitting issues. Every time I have a new “first”, it is an amazing boost to look at it and know that I made something I never thought I’d be able to make, like my first coat. And I love the feeling of finishing a garment that I’ve had in my mind’s eye for months, where I’ve searched for exactly the right pattern and fabric to bring it life.
I particularly love sewing gifts for other people — I get an enormous kick out of seeing something I’ve made being worn, and it allows me to tailor a gift even more — finding the perfect fabric and pattern.
Sewing will always be important to me as part of my recovery from CFS. I have had chronic fatigue syndrome for several years, but I relapsed significantly during the pandemic and went from mildly affected to housebound and unable to work. Sewing was a lifeline — it gave me something to work towards, that I could do in very small amounts, and it was an activity that helped to build up my stamina and energy in a measurable way, as I gradually became able to do more and more sewing-related activity. The community has also been incredibly important to me — I have met wonderful people through Instagram and I have made many supportive friends who also have CFS, which has been personally amazing as I know very few people with it offline. I have felt supported, heard and seen.
What aspects don’t bring joy? Is it related to accessibility and/or the limitations of your condition?
The aspects that don’t bring joy are mostly related to negative consequences because of my disability. I don’t enjoy the physical pain from sitting at the machine for long periods of time, or the pain from having been bent over on the floor cutting fabric out. If I push myself to finish a project to a deadline and I have to use more energy than I have to spare, then that is a problem both in terms of my condition flaring but also feeling frustrated at not having been able to manage both a project and my condition.
I also struggle to sew and keep on top of the putting away and tidying up. I can be chaotic anyway, but because I need to take breaks, it might mean that I spread a task out over several days (e.g. right now I have half a skirt cut out — the cut out half is piled on the sofa and the other pieces and fabric are waiting on the floor where I cut out) and constantly taking things out and putting them back is a task that needs energy and I tend to skip it in favour of doing the main sewing tasks.
There are also times where I feel like I need a “sewing win”. Where I’m feeling low energy and low mood and I know that I need a quick, simple sew that comes together with no issues. At those times, I don’t want to do a toile or a new pattern because of the frustration of putting energy in with either no measurable progress or finding new issues I need to tackle.
What do you look for in a sewing project?
In terms of what I look for in projects, patterns usually catch my eye because they either have interesting details or they look comfy and easy to wear. I like boxy tops, camis, gathered skirts, A-line or fit and flare silhouettes. I wear a lot of dresses (except during lockdown, when I’ve been living in joggers and tees!). Through sewing I’ve become more interested in using print, so I like patterns that will either show off prints or lend themselves to using print creatively.
What have been your favorite projects so far?
Favourite projects include my Wiksten Unfolding Jacket in rust-coloured chevron knit (included in the photos). That was something I had envisioned about 6 months before I made it, and was a bit of a special project as I took my time with it and made contrast facings in remnant Liberty fabric and bias-bound seams and hand-sewed the facings in place.
Another favourite is the By Hand London Hannah Dress in a large floral print (included in the photos) — this was the first dress I ever made and my first big garment project besides box tops and camis. It involved a few rounds of fitting and I still want to re-do the bodice as I’ve now learned more about fitting to my body, but it will always be significant to me. It was the first garment where my other half said that he couldn’t tell that it was homemade!
How did you discover the disabled sewing community online? What has it meant to you?
It’s hard to remember how I found the community, but it was very timely — I got into sewing just before my CFS relapsed quite badly and it very much became a lifeline. I think that I stumbled across one or two sewing Instagram accounts that had quite large followings which talked openly about having disabilities, and from there I explored hashtags and comments sections and found more accounts to follow through others identifying as disabled. I also found that when I started using hashtags like #ChronicallySewn, #SewingDisabled, I connected with other sewists with disabilities who found my posts. I’ve made friends within the sewing community who also have disabilities, and they’ve been some of the strongest connections I’ve made through sewing as we’ve bonded over shared experiences as well as interests.
Personally, I’ve now got a number of people I consider as friends who I hope I’ll get to meet in real life eventually; but more broadly, the community has been really instrumental in feeling seen and heard and knowing I am not alone. Going through a relapse was a very intense personal experience and especially so in the midst of a pandemic. In a year where I’ve rarely left the house, I haven’t ever felt alone, because there have been wonderful and supportive people online who also know what it is to live with a disability. It has also helped me to be more vocal and assertive about my experience; as others around me speak out about accessibility and disability awareness, it has inspired me to do so too — to own who I am, rather than trying to hide or downplay my disabilities as I have previously done.
Bri Ooms is a queer disabled sewist and temporary editor with The Sewcialists. Bri is an Oregon girl and West Coaster at heart, but she currently lives in The Netherlands with her partner, toddler and fluffy cat. Find her @BriMichelleMade on Instagram or blogging at AStitchAcrossTheSea.com.