Plus-sized Fashion and Sewing Industry

Recently a heated conversation took place on Instagram prompted by SBCC’s recent post on why size inclusivity is not often practiced. The plus-sized community has heard these reasons time and again. Fit models aren’t available, mannequins are more expensive, they can’t get pattern testers (maybe try asking a plus sized community like the Curvy Sewing Collective FB group and not having such a short turn around), they did a survey of existing customers and found out they were within their average range anyway so why expand? The IG post on SBCC’s feed is where much of the debate took place.

The basic lean of the post echoes a fatphobic language that somehow our fat bodies are modern day recent inventions that they have to “deal” with.

Comments from indie pattern companies without inclusive sizing started thanking SBCC (who btw does have a good size range) on finally creating a post that justifies their choices for not expanding their sizes. The comments further speak to it being difficult for a small business to expand their sizes and I do sympathize. It’s tough out there, but it’s really tough for a beginner fat sewist to start out and encounter zero patterns in their size.

Those indie pattern companies include: Closet Case Files, By Hand London, Sew House 7, Paper Theory, Fehr Trade, and others. The point in mentioning them by name is not to be mean (a lot of accusations that we’re being mean by being political going around….), but to see where they decide to go with the way that people are reacting to their comments. Will this change the landscape of the home sewing pattern industry?

It was already changing…

But let’s examine some history first to see what got us here and why Shannon, Mary, and so many others on IG are discussing this complex issue (Megan, Emily/The Catwood, Whitney, Jenny/Cashmerette, Emily, Jacqui and so many more).

A short and incomplete history of “Plus Sized” fashion

This article provides a good overview of the history of plus sizes.

In short, Lane Bryant was the first company that still exists today to cater to plus sized woman and used the term plus sizes in its advertisements in the 1920s.

Plus sizes were gradually moved out of the “standard” or “misses” sizes and provided their own sections in department stores and catalogs over the years. The reputation then became that plus-sized clothing was frumpy and not fashion forward.

“Perhaps it was because these plus-size boutiques were completely removed from straight size, trendy stores and clothes, or maybe it was because these plus-size clothes were not getting nearly the attention of garments that happen to be smaller than a size 14, but a stereotype was born that still lives on today.” (source)

It’s only recently that the fashion industry has started providing better fashion for plus sizes as a result of the body positivity movement.

Several brands, most notably ModCloth, have moved away from providing separate plus sized sections in favour of a more inclusive sizing perspective.

There are also some other retailers, like Forever 21 and H&M, who moved their plus section entirely out of their stores. Spoiler alert: that move doesn’t go over well with their customers!

An aside, this thesis covers plus sized online shopping motivations. It’s 300 pages and I haven’t gotten through it all yet but it is SUPER fascinating.

What the fashion industry is learning is that the plus-sized market is good for your business.

My own experience of the plus sized fashion industry

I have been plus sized since shortly after puberty. I remember buying unwired bras that looked like post-surgical bandages because that was what was available in my size. I remember shopping in the men’s sections for jeans that actually went up to my size. I remember wearing a whole lot of ugly clothes because nothing else was available. From age 13-16, I wore a uniform of men’s jeans, doc martens or running shoes, oversized men’s shirts and hoodies or flannel shirts or cardigans. Whenever I went shopping for a dress, I honestly cried myself to sleep because my friends would get to wear the gorgeous dresses and I would only be able to choose a floral sack leading to my decades long hatred of floral patterns that I recently got over. I asked my mom to make many things, but being a mom of 4 and working….well, I didn’t ask as much as I wanted to and I didn’t learn how to sew at the time either.

At 16 (1996), I started shopping in thrift stores and put together some more eclectic outfits. I loved finding the weirdest vintage cardigans with crystal buttons or something. I still never found dresses but I managed to figure out some fun ways of layering and styling that I didn’t think of before. I should also note that my mental illness factored into how I dressed a lot. I suffered from severe depression from a young age and often tried to hide myself in clothing to not be seen.

It wasn’t until I was 25 (2006) that I started exploring plus-sized stores, buying more fashionable things, and living my best life. Of course, as a poor student that kind of meant some credit card debt was acquired…. Eeesh. Around that time, brands were starting to really bloom with plus-sized fashion choices. This expanded through online shopping. I would shop ModCloth a lot and eShakti before I started sewing all of my clothes in 2012 (after learning to sew in 2008).

A short and incomplete history of sewing patterns

Sewing patterns have existed for a really long time; since about the same time the printing press was invented, sewing patterns having been available in print. The above image is from Juan de Alcega’s Libro de Geometria pratica y trac a para (1580). Early sewing patterns were available in one size only meaning that they had to be adapted to the individual based on measurements.

McCall’s (est. 1870) was one of the first pattern companies that provided multiple sizes in their sewing patterns.

This article covers a more complete history of sewing patterns. All companies create their own blocks to work from based on proportional measurements. Every company used their own block and there is not specific standard block. This is the same for the fashion industry, which is why you can walk into 10 different stores and have 10 different sizes or not even be represented in half the stores or more.

Not much (yes an oversimplification, I know) has changed in how patterns are drafted or graded.

(Aside: I would love to be able to read this journal article on Defining and Testing the Assumptions Used in Current Apparel Grading Practice; the summary sounds amazing…I miss having access to academic journals. Edit: I got the article! Another aside, this article is pretty fascinating on creating custom patterns using formula in CAD).

A history of “sizing standards”

Immediately become skeptical of anything “standard.” Before the 1940s, sizes were based on age in younger clothing and bust size for women. In the 1940s, this changed. In 1939, the U.S. Department of Agriculture decided to go to the effort of creating standardized sizes (*again keep your skepticism everyone*). Without a computer, the data of around 15,000 women was collected and analyzed by Ruth O’Brien and William Shelton. And it was biased af, everyone: “Since the survey was done on a volunteer basis, it was largely made up of women of a lower socioeconomic status who needed the participation fee. It was also primarily white women. And the measurements still primarily relied on bust size, assuming women had an hourglass figure”(source). They published the results in this book.

The general myth of sizing is that plus sizes are a new problem. I challenge all of you to do some quick research into fat bodies in paintings and sculpture and tell me again that plus sizes are a new problem.

The original data that created “standardized sizing” was flawed. It was racist. It was sizeist. It was classist. The authors get into weight and their median weight at page 48. Their average weight was 135 with 160 at the higher range.

A lot of people take this data for pure factual analysis that there weren’t a lot of fat bodies back then. Somehow fat is a “modern day problem.” First off, fat isn’t a problem. It’s something that each and every body has and will have until the end of animal history. Fat has some pretty wicked positives of helping cushion your joints, keeping you warm without fur, and many other things that are just being discovered through research. Second, we don’t have a lot of data that gets into average body sizes before 1939 or quite frankly after… Data has only existed on sizing since that study and not much has been done since. There has been more research emerging recently (thanks in part to body positivity movement), but it has yet to impact how patterns are drafted.

The absence of a history of plus-size pattern making

There isn’t a lot of resources on the history of plus-size patterns. I know only from anecdotal conversations with sewists who have been sewing and are plus sized as well as the anecdotal comments of vintage pattern sewists who are plus sized.

On the topic of vintage patterns, they are very difficult to find. However, whether this is because there were lower numbers produced or plus-sized sewists used their patterns and kept them until they wore out is a question for the no-history books on this topic. We know that plus-sized bodies existed but there are very few mentions of how to tailor patterns to a larger size in the earlier books on garment making (that being said, I haven’t done exhaustive research on this topic; I do find it fascinating though so if anyone wants to pay me to research this stuff, I will do it!). We do know that Lane Byrant was the first company to use plus sizes in their advertisements, but we don’t know whether people cared about it before. We know fatphobia existed, though. Fat jokes go back centuries everyone.

Anecdotal information from plus-sized sewists who have been sewing for years is pretty similar to my experience starting to sew 10 years ago (plus a few months): the plus-sized patterns were frumpy and not fashion forward in major pattern companies. Now the correlation of home sewing patterns to the fashion industry is very important here. Home sewing patterns tend to borrow from existing trends in the fashion industry for designs. For the most part (another heavy-handed generalization, I know), home sewing patterns lag behind the trends in the fashion industry rather than leading the trends.

This lag . . . I can’t explain why it exists (likely lots of complex reasons about why home sewists sew and business reasons, etc), but the fashion industry leads the home sewing industry which is why I provided a short history of the plus-sized fashion industry earlier.

So, if the fashion industry didn’t use the term “plus sizes” before Lane Bryant… then likely… home sewing patterns didn’t either. I mean I’m generalizing again here but one can probably say that there wasn’t really a concept of plus-sized patterns. “Stout” is a term that exists before. I would definitely need to do more extensive research to give you more information (pay me! haha).

A short and incomplete history of modern plus sized sewing patterns in Indie Pattern world based on my own experience

There have been many pattern companies that have sold and continue to sell plus-sized patterns for years now. All of the major (umbrella) brands provide some type of plus-sized patterns: McCall’s and Butterick have “plus-sized” sections on their patterns, Burda magazine (and subsequently their online patterns) have a plus-sized section (usually offering around 5-6 patterns a month in the 44-52 range), Simplicity has a plus-sized section, etc. Other sewing magazines tend to reach up to a size 52 or 54 for some, if not all of their patterns.

In the indie sewing world, certain brands have existed for a while with plus-sized offerings. We try to keep a comprehensive list of plus sized pattern companies at the Curvy Sewing Collective, so please check that out for a larger list.

With the body positivity movement, home sewing has actually changed a lot (thankfully!). When I first started sewing, my measurements were smaller than now. I don’t remember them exactly but they were around 44-40-48 and now they are at 52-48-56. With my smaller measurements starting out, I was outside the range for a lot of patterns and am even more so now. I learned quickly about BMV’s famous ease and found that with some adjustments I could actually fit into their patterns. I choose my size based on my upper bust measurement and learned how to do an FBA around 2012 from some other amazing sewists that ending up forming the Curvy Sewing Collective. Colette Patterns (a company who I was very into at the time since I was always into vintage looks) then expanded their sizing and the CSC was born with Tanya, Mary, and Jenny still being the original founding members. I’ve been there cheering on the CSC ever since then and am now an editor. Yay!

Since the success (albeit mixed….hrm) of Colette’s plus sized expansion, a lot of other indie pattern companies have emerged that cater to a more inclusive sizing either from their creation or from the overall success in the rest of the community and continuing demand for it.

I’d love to, in general, know more about the plus-sized home sewing market and what percentage it is of the home sewing market. I would also love if there were a more wide (har) survey done on the customer base. The CSC survey Jenny did years ago is currently the only one I know (does admittedly have it’s own biases since it samples CSC readers who are well, probably, plus sized).

What does this have to do with fatphobia?

Since standardized sizing was created through a biased sample size, the fashion industry has used that as a standard in pattern drafting and since home sewing patterns follow the fashion industry….well the cycle continues. Standardized sizing excludes fat people. The sample size didn’t have enough data and everyone sort of agreed that is okay and moved through history with a biased point of view. Fashion advice emerges for larger sizes based on some expectations to look more slim and hide their fat.

The very fact that a pattern company chooses to start with standard sizes usually stems from that need to conform to the norm in our society; in the 1940s it was the hourglass figure and then later it became a body with less and less curves creating a fatphobic norm. Somehow (it’s mysterious! *sarcasm*) because fat people weren’t part of that initial sampling, we are a modern day “problem” for pattern drafting.

It’s probably not an active choice for exclusion but it is an active choice to go with the norm.

A call to action for home sewing pattern makers

  • Examine why you chose your size range and be transparent about it. Share it in your about page.
  • If you want to expand your sizes, you don’t need to do it immediately. Try releasing an action plan or business plan or vision for the future. You can do it as slowly as you need to.
  • If you don’t want to expand your sizes, say that you have no plans and then support plus-sized pattern companies by linking to them. You can do that through FAQs to bury the recommendation if you really want…. We aren’t your target market so do us a solid and direct us to people who want our business.
  • Share your size chart and include more measurements (bicep, etc). Some of us will go through the trouble of making adjustments with more information available.
  • Listen to your customers and your potential customers. And, for goodness sake, if you choose to rely on a survey to understand that the plus sized sewing industry is huge (just like the plus sized fashion industry) at least share it in groups that target different demographics from your existing customer base. You will never have a good sample size unless you seek outside of your bubble. Let’s not repeat age-old mistakes here, okay?
  • Share your fat makers! I care if an IG feed or a blog is filled with white skinny young middle class cis straight abled people. I want to see BIPOC, queer (like me!), fat (like me!), old, disabled (like me!) people too! I want to see everyone and everything. I know that lots of people like curated feeds (UGH) so be transparent about what colours for backgrounds and fabric you prefer, quality of photography, backdrops. Let me know because there are so few pattern companies that share makes by a large variety of people.
  • Share samples on bodies in a range of sizes for your patterns and remember to share your largest size!

In conclusion…

Shout out to pattern companies that have inclusive sizing. Shout out to pattern companies that took this discussion and already acted on it. Shout out ESPECIALLY to pattern companies that have a size chart beyond 60 inches. It’s still a really rare thing to see.

This took a lot out of me and I want to share so much more (including a bunch of stories and experiences in the sewing community as a fat, disabled, queer person) and research more but at 3000 words I should stop there…

Feel free to buy me a ko-fi.

Chronic Pain, Body Positivity, and Sewing

This is a little bit of a different entry for me, but I have been having a lot of thoughts about these three things and how they fit into my life. I thought I would write about them.

I’ve spoken before about how body positivity and sewing go together.  Sewing helps me become a more body positive person and helps ,e break free of the number on the tag and fit for an actual body. I’m able to look beyond my fat to enjoy my style and become the confident person I should be.

Chronic pain runs counter to all of that. It’s a struggle and it’s your body attempting to rebel. You have very little control over your body and it prevents you from doing so many things. Chronic pain makes you feel horrible both inside and outside. On my bad days, I struggle to get ready for work; I struggle to smile; I struggle to do the basic things in life that are so easy for people without chronic pain.

I’m going to talk about what my medical condition is and how body positivity and sewing can help me recover.

Chronic Pain

There are a few different sources for what it feels like to live with chronic pain or illness. One of the best explanations is the spoon theory. I use this in conversations with my fiance all the time. The basic gist of it is that someone with chronic illness starts their day with a limited number of spoons. In her example, she uses 12 spoons. Each spoon is an activity: get out of bed/spoon, go to the bathroom/spoon, brush your teeth/spoon, get dressed/spoon, etc. If you run out of spoons, they are gone. You have no more energy. Sometimes you can borrow from tomorrow’s spoons, but that leaves you in a spoon deficit, which means you can’t do as much the next day or worse you end up harming yourself more and losing all your spoons for the rest of the week. Happens to me so often.

Chronic pain is exhausting. It takes a lot out of you. It leaves you unable to sleep and regain your energy. Or, if you do sleep, you wake up a lot or toss and turn or wake up in tons of pain. The pain makes it difficult to move normally. Your basic movements become very laboured. It’s sort of like moving through lava, if someone could survive that. You’re on fire and in pain, but the lava is thick and tough to move through; you aren’t dying, but you feel like you are. I drop things. I get frustrated. My hands don’t work properly. And everything is swollen and inflamed. I’ve gotten into this habit of removing my engagement ring and putting it back on to see how swollen I am. On good days, it slides right off without issue; on bad, I can barely remove it. Today, as I type this, I can barely remove it.

Chronic pain is your body rebelling. It is your body attacking itself. I don’t look sick, but I am suffering with every movement. On bad days, I don’t sew. On good days, I sew and I make jokes and I smile and I hop about. But even on good days, I am in pain; just less pain. It’s like the lava has ebbs and flows. Bad days, I am up to my ears in lava; good days, the lava is around my knees.

I recently read this article about understanding chronic pain from the perspective of a sufferer. I shared it on facebook and spoke about it for the first time there. I’ve spoken to a few people individually and mentioned a bit on here, but I guess I “came out” as a chronic pain sufferer yesterday. I’ve gone through a lot in my life, but this is definitely the hardest. The article really lays out how I feel, except for the last part about religion. I am not a religious person. I keep pushing forward, because I am incredibly determined and, in spite of everything that has happened to me, I am a very positive person and see hope in every corner of life. I am survivor and that keeps me going.

Onset and Diagnosis

Three years ago, I started having the worst years of my life. I was in top physical condition. I was well on my way to losing a bunch of weight and was the smallest I’ve been in my adult life. I was exercising almost everyday and walking  10km or more per day: during lunch break, walking home from work (this was an hour long walk), and walking at night with my fiance on occasion. I was eating incredibly well. I still eat incredibly well. I am a “no processed foods” kind of person and, while I do get them occasionally, I tend to steer clear of pre-packaged foods and make a lot of my own things, including breads.

All signs pointed to me being in great shape and then I started to decline. It started with an increase in migraines; I’ve had migraines since my early 20s, but I started getting them on a weekly or even daily basis. I started feeling dizzy on my walks home and I had to take breaks. I then stopped walking home. My right hip started hurting. My left knee had sustained an injury a few years before and I had flare-ups with knee pain. I slowly couldn’t exercise, because it was so painful. I started getting shooting pain from my right wrist to my neck and eventually my elbows were in constant pain. Over the space of a year and a half, I went from working out all the time to not being able to do much at all. I saw doctors; I got an MRI; I got xrays; I got massages; I went to a chiropractor; I went to a naturopath; I tried healing waters; I eliminated more things from my diet: soy, inflammatory fruits and veggies, red meat, etc. etc. I started seeing a physiotherapist this year at the end of January. It’s been helping to a degree, but again it’s like moving through lava and the change is so slow.

And, yes, I gained weight. Twice as much as I lost. I just got weighed on Tuesday and had a meltdown about it. They are just numbers, I tell myself, but numbers that reflect how much pain I carry. I never cared about being skinny, but I always wanted to be able to move, to dance, and to play. Not be the person who goes to bed at 7pm out of pure exhaustion with tears in my eyes because of the pain.

I was diagnosed in the fall with fibromyalgia. I’m still not convinced that this is entirely what is wrong with me, but at least it is something. I was also told by physiotherapists that my joints are hypermobile or too flexible. I am bendy. This unfortunately leads to an increase in injury and pushing your joints out of place with simple tasks. Sometimes when I twist my abdomen, I get a pain in my rib and feel like it is going out of place. I wake up at night and feel like my hip joint is out of place as well. If I carry too much weight in my hands, my elbows can feel like like are going out of joint. I’m working on figuring this out with a new doctor who is finally willing to help me get better.

Body Positivity

We’ve come a long way, baby. I started my body positive journey back in 2008 when I joined a burlesque troupe in St. John’s, Newfoundland, where I was doing my PhD (have since quit that due to a lot of unfortunate circumstances regarding supervisor neglect).

Burlesque is a great gateway drug to body positivity. You get to dress up in gorgeous clothes and “tease” the audience into submission. They scream for you to take off even the slightest bit. I never went beyond showing my corset, but did they ever beg for the gloves to come off! Stage performance is amazing. You can be anything on stage. I get the same euphoric feelings from my improv comedy performances. In 2009, I fell down some stairs and then moved to Toronto to be with my fiance. The fall was a few months of recovery with very little help from healthcare professionals. In spite of that setback, I still maintained a body positive outlook.

There’s tons of stuff that you can read about the body positive movement. I suggest checking out some TED talks on the subject.

Here are some basics of the body positive movement: your body is just fine and you should love it. Does that mean you can attempt to lose weight or that you shouldn’t be on a diet to be body positive? Naw. It just means accepting yourself. If that acceptance means going to the gym, do it. If it doesn’t, whatever. Love yourself. Kiss your mirror in the morning and tell yourself how wonderful and adorable you are. You only have one body in this lifetime and you have to treat it right. It also means ignoring the expectations that society sets for you. You are the only person that you should have an opinion on your body.

For me, that means embracing my style at any size. I wear dresses, because growing up fat I wasn’t able to. I was scared to show my legs. I was scared to wear anything that showed my curves. For me, body positivity meant I was free to stop thinking of what went in my mouth, what number the scale said, and free to live my life.

I’ve got through various eating disorders. I’ve overeaten, undereaten, starved myself, and, yes, I’ve purged a lot. Being body positive, helped me repair the tense relationship I had with food and listen to what I enjoyed, what my body was able to eat, and to not feel guilty for enjoying a bag of chips or a chocolate bar on occasion.

Body Positivity and Chronic Pain

This part has taken me a while to come to terms with and I’m not even really there. It’s tough to be positive about a body that rebels at every step. When you are walking through lava, it’s tough to take a moment and kiss the mirror and tell yourself how wonderful you are.

If you follow me on instagram, I have a lot of body positive talk about myself. I tell people I am adorable and I truly believe it. But you won’t see a picture on a bad day that reflects that, because chronic pain sucks the positivity from you. I am trying to change that.

What I started doing recently is taking self care days. I am having one tonight. As much as I would love to get back to my wedding dress and finish it, I realize when my spoons are running low and the lava is at my ears, I need a self care day.

Self care is body positive. It says that I am worth it. It says that my body deserves a hug.

What do I do on self-care days:

1) Limit activity: I may be working my day job, but I tend not to run errands except very small ones that don’t involve carrying a lot.

2) Indulge in something: This could mean getting a Frap from Starbucks or buying a favourite chocolate bar or making something tasty and easy for dinner that I don’t usually have. Something small that is outside my usual routine.

3) Watch something fun: I watch something like Gilmore Girls or I will watch Pitch Perfect or Mean Girls for the 400th time. I indulge in visual pleasures and especially in things that make me laugh. Laughter is the best medicine.

4) Take a bath in epsom salts and bubbles: Pretty self explanatory. Epsom salts are great for inflammation.

5) It rubs the lotion on its skin: After the bath, spend some time applying lotion and massaging my tender points. I use an all-natural ointment for muscle tenderness.

6) Hot hot heat: I have a castor oil pack and hot water bottle treatment that I find helps. I put it on my abdomen for 15min and then my feet for 15min. Mostly the castor oil just leaves the skin nice and soft and the heat helps ease the pain.

7) Meditation: I meditate and toss my phone across the room while I have the hot water bottle on me.

8) Streeeeeetch: I stretch each area of my body. Nothing too strenuous, but enough to work the muscles and take advantage of the heat.

9) Realize my limitations and accept them: I take some time to reconcile my feelings about the pain and my hatred over my body’s limitations. I try to accept that I cannot snap my fingers and be better overnight, but that it is a gradual process and I will eventually get there as long as I have hope to move forward.

Sewing and Chronic Pain

“How do these even go together?”, you ask. Sewing is one of those activities that can be a lot easier on the body. You are basically seated the entire time and you don’t need a huge range of movement. On bad days, I can’t put pins into the fabric so I stay away or I do small things. I’ve actually started doing several projects at once so I can switch between them and choose what I can and can’t do. I choose a good day and cut out a ton of patterns at once and then I just get to sew.

It’s important with any chronic illness to feel productive and sewing does that for me. I am able to work through it and create something beautiful and increase the outward beauty I have.

The single worst thing to do if you have a chronic illness is to stop everything. Don’t stop. Don’t sit on the couch. Don’t immediately quit your job. Don’t fall into the pit of despair. Don’t drown in the lava. Keep going. Do what you can with the spoons you are given. Create something. Some days, I just sketch something or I write something or I will tell myself a story.

There is lots of stuff out there about the benefits of creativity and mental illness. While there aren’t as many articles on creativity and chronic illness, the benefits are there. Creativity helps recovery.

The ability to create something even the smallest thing is a way of pushing through the lava. I can make it to higher ground and feel better. Improv helps, but that is very physically exhausting and leaves me feeling pretty horrible the day after. Sewing, on the other hand, is within my spoon limit. I can take as little as 20 minutes and work on sewing a seam and then eventually have a dress to wear and feel good about. Not only that, but it’s a dress that, when I wear it, I want to kiss the mirror and say wonderful things about myself.

Not only that, but I get to write about it and I get to take part in a wonderful community of sewing bloggers. You all help on a daily basis.

Sewing may not be the answer to healing my body, but it helps with all the mental fallout of walking through lava on a daily basis. It helps lift me out of a sad mood and work toward loving myself again.

Thanks for reading. ❤