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Style Adaptations for Sewing for People with Disabilities

Convenience as well as comfort

Periodically Threads readers have asked for information about sewing for people with disabilities, especially those who spend a great deal of time in a wheelchair or bed. Probably the most difficult challenge for a person with physical disabilities is dressing and undressing, so the key is to make garments that are simple to put on and take off without compromising function or appearance. Over the years I’ve gathered many suggestions and tips which I will share with you here. Pants, skirts, dresses, shirts, and jackets can be easily redesigned for comfort and convenience. I encountered more pants adapting tips than tips for other garments, so I’ll focus on them here. If you’ve had occasion to sew for someone with limited mobility, I invite you to share your tips and design ideas. There are also some great online sources where you can find some information. Independent Living is located in Sweden, but they include patterns for people with disabilities on their website. In addition, Sew Much Comfort provides custom-made adaptive clothing (at no cost) to injured service members from all branches of the US military and national guard who were injured while serving in our current conflicts.

The seated figure

As we all know, when we sit, the front hem of our pants rides up, the back waist rides down, the abdomen area bunches up, and the crotch area becomes more snug. For someone in a wheelchair for a good part of the day, it makes sense to make adjustments for these situations. It’s easy to lengthen the center back seam and shorten the center front seam. It’s also helpful to contour the pants hem so that the front hem is longer than the back hem. Extra room should be given in the seat, crotch, and thigh areas which tend to spread when sitting. (For more information read “Adjusting Pants from Waist to Seat” by Joyce Murphy in Threads issue #122.) Knit fabrics have more give than woven, and a waist with pleats in the front can give extra room to the seated figure.

Rethink Pants Pockets

It’s often difficult for a person with disabilities to run to the desk to get a pen and paper, or go to the bathroom to find a tissue or hand cream. However, using a traditional pants side pocket to store essential items is impractical because the standard pocket is next to impossible to access while in a wheelchair. Relocated roomy pockets can help eliminate this concern. Cargo pockets are a real plus, but placing them on the front upper thigh will make the pocket even more accessible. You can also add a bag pocket that hangs from a belt or the waistband. For something less noticeable, place a pocket in the side seam along the lower thigh or upper calf using an invisible zipper to keep the pocket almost invisible. In fact zippers are a wonderful addition to any disabled pocket to keep stored items secure. It’s not easy for a person with disabilities to pick items up that drop on the floor, so keeping their stored items in place is helpful.

Pant front and side adaptation

Always choose a center-front pant zipper over a standard side zipper, but even that can be a problem for someone with severe disabilities, especially at bathroom time. Consider a drop-front panel that snaps or buttons just under the waist and attaches on the sides with buttons or hook and loop tape. Another option is to put a long invisible zipper along almost the entire side seam from the waist to mid calf. Zippers are extremely effective in allowing garments to open in places that one doesn’t expect. As long as there’s a seamline, you can add a zipper, and an invisible zipper won’t be noticeable. These openings make dressing, etc., easier for the disabled.

Avoid pressure sores

For someone that spends lots of time in a wheelchair or bed, pressure sores are a concern (also known as bed sores). They develop when sustained pressure against the skin inhibits an adequate supply of blood to the skin cells and underlying tissues even in a small location. Sitting on or leaning against a bulky seam for an extended period of time can cause this problem to occur. The handicapped may not be able to lift themselves easily enough to adjust clothing to remove a wrinkle or move a thick seam to another place. For the severely disabled, a better option might be pants styled with no seam in the center back. Sweat pant styles work especially well for this, and a gusset in the crotch area can provide additional room without adding bulk to the back. (See “Gusset Solution” by Kenneth D. King in Threads issue #153.)

Design rules

All of the well-known style “rules” are just as important for someone in a wheelchair. For example, vertical lines on a standing person might make her look slimmer, but for someone in a wheelchair, vertical lines make her appear taller. Keep all style lines in mind. Pay attention to the body’s silhouette when seated and discover which garment style lines work best in that position. For more ideas you can also read “Discover the Best Proportions & Styles for You” by Nancy Shriber in Threads issue #125. All of the same rules apply involving choice of fabric and garment styles, except that the silhouette becomes a seated figure rather than one that’s standing.

Share your ideas

If you’ve ever sewn for someone with a disability, please share your tips and techniques as well as your successes and failures by leaving a comment below.


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  1. User avater
    SoManyColors | | #1

    Great article! We had trouble dressing my dad in anything but sweats when he was ill. Will definitely share this!

  2. User avater
    SuitsMe | | #2

    Maybe you could rethink the title of this article. The sewing itself is not handicapped. Perhaps "Style Adaptations for the Disabled"?

  3. amm | | #3
  4. amm | | #4

    To kundert:

    Thanks for pointing this out. I will edit the title.


  5. dodey | | #5

    Thanks!!I am glad that Threads has some help for those of us that need help in sewing for the seated figure.
    I have patterns from a website called "Fashion Freaks", which has patterns that you can download and tape together to make a pattern. The patterns are very basic and come in multiple sizes that are easy to work with.I have tried the pants pattern and am at the "fine tuning stage". There are also patterns for a Skirt and a Jacket.The Jacket has different sleeve shapes and there are also different shapes for the jacket back, depending on the needs of the wearer.

  6. loralou | | #6

    I am disabled. I hate shopping for clothes so I took up sewing to help now I'm somewhat in style. Thank you Threads!

  7. Yarnhooker | | #7

    Many Kudos to you for remembering my world of wheelchairs. I have a couple suggestion (I don't think I saw this mentioned ). Zippers can be very difficult to get hold of to zip up or down. I would suggest adding a pull ring to the zipper. It definitely makes a big difference. Another suggestion is buttons - DON'T DON'T DON'T. There is nothing more fustrating. You could put buttons on decoratively but use velcro for the closure. Thank you again for remembering those of us that spend our life in a wheelchair.

  8. Kate_13 | | #8

    Great work. I was pleasantly surprised at the content of your article. My partner is a tetraplegic - has been for over 10 years. He gets his pants made by a tailor (I have just drafted a pattern to have a go at them - cheaper than the tailor). He has similar adapations to those you have mentioned, along with a small section of elastic at the back to prevent them gaping and dropping. He also uses a hook and bar with a zip. He finds velcro too stiff....looks like he's just a little too excited.

    I have just finnished a modified shirt for him - slightly shorter sleeves, so they won't get dirty when he pushes his chair, larger across the back shoulder, again to provide extra room for pushing from the shoulder, and smaller in the front chest, as his pec muscles are not functional, and therfore a little wasted. He also has a suit (made by his tailor) with jacket adaptations similar to the shirt I made.

    He is a firm believer that the way you present yourself says a lot about who you are, and he insists on presenting as a well dressed professional. He doesn't own any trackies/sweats!

  9. pursonalissues | | #9

    Its too bad I am seeing this article now. When my sister-in-law was mother of the groom a few years ago, she was having a hard time finding a suitable outfit. Confined to a wheelchair because of MS, she also needs quick access if she needs the washroom. We had talked of making an outfit, even to the point of having velcro strips at strategic places so she would be able to disrobe quickly for the washroom. Her husband eventually found her a beautiful jewel-tone satin/poly pajama ensemble. It didn't look like pjs and served all her purposes wonderfully with the elastic waist, easy off pants. Interesting comment about the hem length, although these pants were long enough they didn't need hemming. Good to know about how to hem pants the right way for someone in a wheelchair though.

  10. pursonalissues | | #10

    "Yarnhooker" has some very good advise about zippers & buttons! A must read (in the comments section)

  11. BethVavrina | | #11

    I have sewn for a number of people with different disabilities, and the most important thing to remember is to ask where they need adjustments in ready-to-wear clothing, and what works well for them. They know exactly what their abilities and limitations are. And where clothes don't fit well...depending on the disability, bodies can become very asymmetrical.
    If you are sewing for a wheelchair-user, you may want to make more significant alterations for someone who is always in the chair compared to someone who stands/walks part of the time. They definitely don't want to trip over extra-long hems or have too much sag in the seat when standing.
    Be careful with the fabric you use...knits are great for the stretch, but they can "grab" the seat cushion cover and make it even more difficult to move while sitting. This can also cause the fabric to bunch up under the seat or thighs--uncomfortable for those with sensation, and a potential cause of pressure sores for those without sensation since they won't know they are there.
    One comment on jackets for a full-time wheelchair user...my husband buys jackets with a double back vent and we shorten the section between the vents (the width of his hips) by several inches so the jacket hangs straight in back without bunching up, but the front and sides hang normally.

  12. circesmom | | #12

    I was diagnosed with MS more than three decades ago. I made my clothing at the time and realized that my clothing needs would change as time passed. Well, that time has finally arrived and I so apprciated your post. Wouldn't it be great to see a article in Theads on this topic. Especially since so many of our sons are being sent home from battles with their bodies so different from fashion industry standards. Help us do it right, Threads!

  13. Carolebarrel | | #13

    Don't forget to adapt some jazzy bags and sacks for carrying things with canes, crutches, walkers and wheelchairs. They can be made out of quilted and denim fabrics to be washable and durable. Used to hold identification, pharmaceuticals, and other things that need access when traveling(to the doc'soffice or hospital) Compartments even with labels help to not forget necessities. Coordinating cushion and pillow covers than can be removed also make for cleanliness. Made from towels, they are soft and comfortable and can be colorful to encourage cheer. CR

  14. Chunjueh | | #14

    Very interesting article, and thank you. Some disabled people have severe shoulder or arm pain, and find it very difficult to put on shirts and jackets. Are there any suggestions for accommodating those with arm/shoulder difficulties?

  15. JDtailor | | #15

    To "Kate13": THANKS for using a tailor! While I understand your desire to avoid costs, this is how I make a living and why I spent four years in college to get a Bachelor of Science degree in Clothing & Textiles. Please do utilize our skills and don't feel you must "reinvent the wheel". It's nice to be needed.

  16. User avater
    michellepaganini | | #16

    Thank you for the article. The correct terminology is "person(s) with disabilities" not "disabled person(s)."

  17. circesmom | | #17

    Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  18. Pas_de_Z | | #18

    There is an increasing demand for adaptive clothing for people with moderate to severe physical limitations. PLEASE try and put together an article or two for: injured/MS/ younger people; seniors; people at the end of life who are now living in sleepwear that must have back openings. The latter is a challenge because it usually involves alterations to ready-to-wear night gown, PJ’s and dressing gowns/bathrobes and time is spent in bed or in a chair. One client’s care facility prohibits the use of velco and buttons which is an additional challenge.

  19. jackgray | | #19

    It completely depends on the type of wheelchair. The better you use the quality results you will get.

  20. Deleted | | #20


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