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Emery Smith on GLAM

When I was a kid I never liked getting dressed up. I hated dresses. I never wanted to be the princess, I actually wanted to be the prince. But that always felt like something impossible, and something shameful.

And as I got older, I grew more and more apathetic about clothing. I wore clothing in styles that other people said they liked.  It didn’t really matter what I wore because nothing felt right anyway.

But when I began exploring my gender identity in my mid-thirties and realised, I was non-binary, I discovered a newfound confidence to express myself the way I wanted for the very first time. I began to realise clothing, in fact, has no gender. Life is too short to worry about what other people think.

And I realised that dressing up didn’t have to mean wearing a dress.

I began to dream of three-piece suits, ties, cravats, brogues….

I quickly learnt though, that the clothing I wanted to wear was generally not made for body shapes like mine. In fact, they often made me feel worse about myself. Shirts would not button up around my hips. Jackets were too big across my shoulders. I decided there was nothing else for it – I needed to learn to sew my own clothes.

It’s not always straightforward – the sewing pattern industry is heavily gendered. As a non-binary or gender-non-conforming person it can be difficult to know where to start.  I often have to decide between patterns advertised for ‘men’ or for ‘women’ and make a judgement as to which one will be the easiest to adjust to my body.

There was a steep learning curve but the first time I made a button up shirt that actually fit I felt like I’d discovered a superpower. The buttonholes were wonky and the seams messy but I was hooked. I haven’t looked back.

So far I have focused most of my sewing efforts on shirts and waistcoats. Shirts are a wardrobe essential and waistcoats are one of my most favourite things to make – fairly straightforward to sew and produce instant dapper style! Plus you can really have fun with fabrics and linings. Eventually though I hope to be able to make an entire three piece suit.

Clothing has now become a way to bring immense joy and gender euphoria to my life. And sewing has allowed me to keep my own sense of style regardless of how my body changes with time. I didn’t even let pregnancy stop me from looking dapper, so I certainly won’t let anything else!

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Sizeism in the Sewing Community

This is a topic that is near and dear to my fat self – and I am delighted to have a chance to share it in a longer form than my usual Instagram posts about the same.  I’ve shared a little about this in the past on my own blog here: https://thatssewjenny.com/episodes/being-part-of-the-solution.

And I accidentally shared a bit about how sizeism makes me feel in a YouTube pattern haul video here.  The video started as a celebration of the patterns I’d bought on sale, but by the end was really a commentary on how the “big four” pattern companies don’t really see my body at all.

Let’s dive in:  what do I mean when I say “sizeism”?  Well, there’s a default setting in sewing communities for a smaller body size – so when things are drafted, they’re generally drafted for that smaller body.  Bigger bodies end up as an afterthought (leaving the design challenges to the sewist instead of the designer) regularly.  This leaves bigger bodies in a marginalized space within the sewing community.  

Why do I talk about size extension instead of size inclusion?  Because it is impossible to include everyone in any sizing chart – so what I’m asking for is that pattern companies extend their sizing charts to include a more significant number of sewists.  I also recognize that it is unlikely that sizing charts will include all sewists (true inclusivity).  There are several designers who will draft their patterns to include your measurements (Muna & Broad, SizeMe, RubyNZ) which can make their designs very inclusive – but even then there can be a barrier to getting this done as the measurements required may be intimidating or hard to come by if you’re a sewist without someone to assist you in taking those measurements.

You’ve likely seen this at one time or another when you check out a pattern and find you aren’t able to fit it due to some measurement or another.  For me, it’s almost always hip size, but sometimes it’s also my waist size.  If you fit easily in the standard size patterns, you may have become aware of this issue when you recommended a pattern to a larger friend … only to have them report back that it doesn’t come up to their size.  This was Beverly’s experience when she looked for a pattern for her daughter to sew.  

In addition, the topic comes up regularly on discussion forums & Instagram posts when a designer is called out for their lack of size extension, usually with bad results. 

Want some context? Check out these discussions that have occurred elsewhere:

  • A discussion on size extension, inclusivity, & Gertie’s Charm Patterns here.
  • Before Tilly & the Buttons announced they’d be extending their sizing, they first said they weren’t going to make it a focus. @threadyforit started a conversation on size extension on Instagram in December 2021.  That discussion also occurred on Reddit here.
  • Designer Tessuti Fabrics committed to extended sizing, but then released a very simple pleated skirt without including larger sizes.  The fallout can be seen here (Tessuti turned off the comments on the post launching the new pattern in Jan 2020, so you have to read between the lines a bit on this post from Leila Sews with a tutorial for self-drafting a similar style skirt).  I did a quick review of their current offerings, and it appears extending their size range never became a priority.

So what can designers do to make a difference?  

  • Starting today, plan to create patterns in sizes up to 70” hips minimum for all future patterns
  • Create a plan to extend previous designs
    • Make sure expansion prioritizes popular designs
    • Make sure expansion includes updating the images on the website
      • Your models should reflect your size range
      • Your Instagram feed should reflect your size range
      • Update images of size charts (if I have to dig around to see if something fits me, I get the message that you don’t care about me)
  • Talk about what’s needed to make extending the size range feasible
    • New pattern block
    • Pattern testers
      • Paid
      • Fabric provided
      • Paper printing reimbursed
    • Additional training on grading for larger figures
      • Apple-shaped
      • Pear-shaped
      • Gender-neutral styles
  • Commit to transparency regarding your plans, your barriers to extended sizing

The fat sewing community is a significant underserved community.  Designers who get it right have access to $ that other designers – those who can’t picture bigger bodies in their designs – are missing out on.

We should also recognize the damage done to fat sewists when patterns aren’t designed for our bodies.  We’re all a part of the community until the latest pattern that’s all the rage goes around … and it turns out your body isn’t one that can participate due to a lack of size range.  This happens to me all the time… I rarely get to go all-in on the latest pattern you see on every sewist’s “must make” list because it’s all too uncommon for these to come up to a 61” hip.  Recently a favorite sewist shared yet another one of her amazing Wiksten Shift dresses – and I finally decided that I’d buy the pattern and make it … but of course, it isn’t sized for me.  This hip stops 9” before my hips do. This is one of those blind spots I have.  I am so used to being excluded, that I hardly get disappointed about it when it happens now.

Linked here are three conversations I had with members of our community about this topic.  I hope you take the time to listen to each one.  Share with us your thoughts here and on Instagram by tagging us #pfSizeExtension

First up, my conversation with Marianne (Instagram: @therotund)

Next up, my conversation with Leila (Instagram: @leila_sews)

Finally, my conversation with Aaronica (Instagram: @theneedleandthebelle)

In addition to actions designers can take, here are some things especially straight-sized sewists can do to make a difference (big thanks for Beverly for the suggestions here for straight-sized sewists):

  1. Refuse to purchase patterns that don’t come in decent size ranges.  You can draw the line where you please, but a good recommendation might be to avoid pattern companies that don’t have a larger block for plus-sized sewists.  Typically, if a pattern company isn’t designing for a 60” hip, they’re not reaching a significant number of fat sewists.  
  2. If that’s too big an ask for you right now, you could choose not to advertise for those companies – either not posting those makes or not tagging the designer/pattern when you do make something from a non-extended pattern.
  3. And if that’s too big an ask, you could post the maximum size of patterns that you make.  This is especially important for patterns with limited size ranges.  It’s not nice for plus-sized sewists to get excited to make a pattern only to go try to get it and find the largest size is much too small for them. 

If you aren’t ready to try 1, 2, or 3 above, I understand.  It’s really hard to look at the world of possibility and realize you can’t participate because you decided to be an ally to fat sewists … that inability to participate is a fat sewists reality every day.  

What do you think should change?  Where do you see problems? How are you going to help?