Sewing for People with Sensitivities

I started sewing when I was five, learning to make everything I wanted the way I wanted it. From doll clothes to Halloween costumes, to prom dresses, even my own wardrobe in high school and college that fit me perfectly. But it wasn’t until I had a child with sensory processing disorder and Asperger Syndrome that sewing became more than just a part of my everyday life. It became a gift I could give my son.

If you know children (or adults) who have sensitivities or special needs of any kind, you will undoubtedly nod in acknowledgement when anyone speaks of cutting tags out of shirts and pants, wearing socks inside out so the seams don’t touch the toes, and an outright refusal to wear jeans.

For my son Peter, the difference between a good day and a call-mom-at-work-to-pick-up-the-child day was almost exclusively down to the clothes he wore. After my otherwise mild-mannered child had a giant temper tantrum over an orange shirt, I realized I needed to pull out my sewing machine to help him. It wasn’t the color of the shirt that was the problem. The problem was that the thickness of the fabric caused the overlocked interior seams to be very bulky, therefore not smooth on the inside. The seam itself caused him such distraction, he had no attention left over to tolerate any other irregularities or external input, hence the overwhelm and subsequent meltdown. I was only able to discover the underlying issue because he was a highly verbal child at three years old. Imagine how much more difficult it is to interpret the cause of sensory overwhelm in a nonverbal baby or child (or nonverbal adult, for that matter).

The solution, as is often the case, was far simpler than the problem. I just needed to make him the smoothest possible seams in every piece of clothing he wore. Eighteen years ago, we couldn’t find tagless t-shirts or raw-edged sweats at the store, so I learned to make the most comfortable little boy clothes I could imagine. These turned out to be the “secret pajamas” on which I would later base my entire sewing philosophy. I only bought fabrics that would wash well and not pill in the dryer because those little balls of polyester fleece were irritating to my boy’s little legs.

I started to sew his shirts inside out, tacking down the seam allowances with an additional line of stitching. I sewed strips of thin polar fleece inside jeans to flatten and soften the seams. I even stitched the pockets to the front of his trousers with soft twill tape so they wouldn’t flop around or bunch up at the side seam.

T-shirt from Sewing for Boys by Karen LePage and Shelly Figueroa, Wiley, 2011

I learned to remove tags from those t-shirts he really wanted from the store and sew an extra binding on the inside back neck if I couldn’t completely remove the tags and paper or rough ribbon remained.

Between the extra special clothing and occupational therapy, my son transcended his sensory issues and thrived in school and beyond. He’s now a completely independent successful adult, going to college, working full-time, and living in his own apartment without giving a second thought to his clothing.

When we make clothes for ourselves and others, paying special attention to their specific needs and considering comfort as much as style we truly give a gift that can affect their experience. Over the years, I’ve been able to help children who would otherwise collapse with sensory overwhelm live normal kid lives.

About the Author: Karen LePage has written books about sewing for children and adults. She is the indie designer’s patternmaking secret weapon, and has taught video and in-person classes to anyone who would listen since 2008. She believes that sewing clothes is a radical act of self-love. For more information and a demonstration of specific techniques, please join Karen in class 1926 Sewing for People with Sensitivities. Sign up at sewexpo.com when the ticket office opens. Also be sure to visit her blog One Girl Circus to learn more about Karen’s experiences and how you can adopt similar philosophies when sewing for others.

The Future Is Now: Zero Waste for Home Sewing


All sewists have various idiosyncratic ways of buying, using, and storing fabric. Personally, this practice crystallizes around an anxiety of discarding all fabric waste. No matter how small the remnant, swatch, or bit of fiber, I’m sure that one day a masterpiece will be formed with the aggregate of my horde of fabric scraps. From large black trash bags to big plastic bins, stuffed in a corner or pinned on the wall, I have scraps everywhere! When does the insanity end? If you find yourself in a similar situation, there are two choices: Start creating with the scraps amassed or create without producing any scraps in the first place. Either way you tackle it, the process is part of a global movement called Zero Waste. This movement centers around the idea of  the reduction of waste sent to the landfill through an improved design on our use/reuse of resources in daily life. As sewists, this means re-evaluating methods, techniques, and overall design of projects to produce the least amount of waste possible, if any at all.

During the ‘80’s and ‘90’s garment manufacturing became very inexpensive as production was primarily outsourced to China and other regions where labor costs and environmental oversight were and still are limited. Today, I find the recent resurgence in garment sewing is fueled not out of economic necessity but because we enjoy it! We don’t want to look like a cookie cutter, we want clothes that fit and that express a unique facet of our personalities. With this resurgence of home sewing, Zero Waste is quietly making a name for itself by answering so many of our contemporary garment sewing needs. Following the Zero Waste philosophy, sewists are discovering new ways of cutting garments that produce little to no scraps, new projects for using scraps, new techniques for fitting, and an overall wonderful creative outlet.

Much has been written about of Zero Waste fashion design. So much so, that a quick internet search (especially on Pinterest) will result in many resources. If you are returning to sewing after a pre-internet hiatus you will find the pattern industry has changed drastically to include scores of independent patterns lines, .pdf downloads, shop copies, blogs, and Instagram pages. With this explosion, Zero Waste has found an emerging spotlight in the industry. A few pioneering names to know include Holly McQuillan, Julian Roberts, and Timo Rissanen. Projects like FashionRevolution.com and MakeSmthng.org are also inspiring a new generation to become more conscious of how and what we consume by supporting a movement in making, repairing, and reducing.

Above: Example of the Zero Waste French Fold Shrug (pattern available from Diane Ericson) cut out before being sewn.

Below are some tips for those interested in exploring this approach further:

  • You can throw out almost all you think you know about conventional fitting techniques. Darts, folds, tucks, and pleats have no standard placement.
  • Decide if you want a clean and minimal finished product or handmade and artsy.
  • When fabric shopping, always look for reversible/double faced fabrics, trust me. There is no right and wrong side, both sides will most likely be visible.
  • You will work with a maximum of 1, 2, or 3 pattern pieces when following a Zero Waste-inspired pattern.
  • Develop a toolbox of finishing techniques for cleaning up raw edges such as slashes.
  • Hand finishing is fun!
  • Helpful materials include fold over binders, tapes, ribbons, and a selection various hand sewing threads like sashiko, silk button hole twist, and #50 silk tailoring thread.
  • Visible mending – Perfection is out and individuality is in! Take advantage of “blemishes” by adding a bit of originality to your pieces. A simple internet search can help inspire different ways for mending your garments.

About the Author: Ina Celaya is a designer and owner of L’Etoffe Fabrics and the Center For Pattern Design. She studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology and Los Angeles Trade Tech. Visit Ina at Expo at the L’Etoffe Fabrics booth in the Pavilion. Visit sewexpo.com for booth assignments.