My creativity was born from chronic pain. Before I developed my stomach disorder, I didn’t need to be creative with my clothing. I shopped at fast fashion stores for clothes that didn’t really suit me and wore them without needing to think. Tight jeans with a cute top, flirty and fitted dresses, the same five outfits everybody else had, why not?
Then “it” happened. I won’t go into what “it” was, but my stomach never worked properly again. Favorite foods turned into chemical warfare inside me. Strong smells could have me doubled over in pain and eating an apple at the wrong time of day could turn my office into a violation of the Geneva Convention. My gut took over my life.
Suddenly, clothes that had always been comfortable could cause unexpected agony as my stomach attacked itself and my waistline changed by four inches in the course of an hour. Getting dressed became the most stressful part of my day, as I lay in bed for hours agonizing over what to wear. What fit in the morning might turn into torture halfway through the day. My responses to invitations changed from, “I’d love to go,” to “If my stomach lets me.” Fitted dresses hung uselessly in my closet and my jeans mocked me from the drawer.
When my best friend asked me to be the best man in his wedding, every sense of excitement or gratitude was overwhelmed with dread, since I would have to wear a tailored suit. Would it fit that night? Would I be in pain? Predictably, my body failed me, turning my clothing into a tightly woven prison and I spent most of the evening laying on the floor of the coat room. As I lay there, listening to the celebration outside and foiling several attempted trysts, I knew something had to change. It was time to get creative.
By this time, I knew that clothing from off the rack was not going to work for me. Nor was I ready to release my inner Golden Girl and give in to the cunningly draped bag. I would have to do the work myself. If I wanted to be comfortable I would have to learn to sew. Learning to sew had always been on that vague to-do list that we all keep in the back of our minds. The list of, “Sure, someday I’ll do it, just not right now.” Well, someday had come for me.
The sewing machine my family had given me years ago was dug out of the basement and, after some arachnid eviction, placed proudly on the kitchen table. I was determined to find comfort while maintaining my own sense of self expression. With the mindset that I can do anything through grit and grace, I marched into my local fabric store. I touched, I pulled, I rubbed, I tested for stretch, I became completely overwhelmed, I began to sweat profusely, I ran out of the store.
It turns out that running into a fabric store without a plan is a great way to become a fabric hoarder, but a terrible way to start sewing. So I sat down to come up with a plan. What exactly was I going to make that would keep me comfortable at all times while still allowing me to feel like myself? I was flipping through tutorials when suddenly, a pair of overalls jumped off the page at me. They were perfect. Pants, but without the waistband. Infinite room for my stomach to grow, shrink, or simply sit there and seeth. The tutorial told me what fabric to buy and I set off again for the fabric store with renewed confidence. And an absorbent undershirt, just in case.
I left the store armed with needles, thread, bobbins, a seam ripper, and 2 yards of beautiful linen. I spread out my materials, folded my fabric, and drew the pattern onto the fabric with a pencil, just as the tutorial had shown me. Then I picked up the sharpest pair of scissors I had ever encountered and… I froze. I knew that first cut was the real first step. Anyone can have a sewing machine, fabric, a plan. But to cut was to commit. Was I ready? As if in reply, my stomach made a sound I can only describe as the iceberg introducing itself to the Titanic. I gripped the scissors, closed my eyes, and made one, tiny cut. I opened my eyes to find that I had, in fact, cut through the hem of the muumuu I was wearing. Cutting with your eyes closed is a terrible idea. Never do this.
Lesson learned, I smoothed out my fabric and my ego and with both eyes open, I cut deeply into the linen. I will never forget the soft shirring sound of the razor sharp edges gliding through the fabric, and the feeling it gave me. It was as though, with that first cut, I was cutting away the net of pain and restriction that my disability had woven around me.
The rest of the day was a blur of cutting, pinning, sewing, seam ripping, pinning, and sewing again. There were frustrations, victories, disappointments, and a remarkable amount of swearing. At the end of the day, I had a pair of crooked, too short overalls with a crotch somewhere just above my knees and I was in love. I was free.
That was it, I was hooked on sewing. I made four more pairs of overalls and wore them everyday, my confidence and skill growing with every snip, pin, and stitch. My stomach continued to fight me, but now I had the upper hand. My creativity had given me power. I was strong again.
I started making more clothes that would suit my stomach’s needs. Before my condition, I loved long, flowing circle skirts, made from beautiful woven cottons and silky prints, but wearing something with a zipper became impossible, painful, and humiliating. Now, the realities of my disability were challenges I could overcome instead of limits to my life. I designed an adjustable circle skirt which would allow me to change the fit over the course of the day to follow the needs of my body. Then a flowing, pull-on maxi dress with three conversion options which would allow it to fit me no matter my shape. Pull-on pants in fun patterns with an ultra-wide, flexible waistband that provide soft support without pressure. And pockets on everything, of course. Thrilled with my success, I shared my creations online, along with the story of the disability that had led me on this journey.
That’s when the messages started. Not just from people with the same disability, but others that I had not even considered. People with debilitating arthritis, unable to use their hands to fasten clothing, wanted my pull-on maxi dress and patterned joggers. People with autism loved the gentle, relaxed fit of the overalls. People with cancer asked for custom modifications to adapt their favorite styles to the difficulties that came with chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. People with body dysmorphia reached out to tell me what it would mean to them to have clothes that would fit them all the time without forcing them to check in with their weight every time they got dressed. A pair of jeans being too tight or a shirt too loose could trigger an emotional crisis, but a skirt that you slide on, adjust to your needs that day, and go? Bliss.
Now I sew full time, taking custom orders from anyone wants to feel great in fabulous clothes. What started as a desperate attempt to free myself from pain has turned into a passion for freeing others. Living with this stomach disorder will always be difficult, but with my creativity and perseverance I have managed to significantly reduce my symptoms. I know a new wardrobe can’t save the world, and it can’t make everyone pain-free, but if my creations can make someone's day just a little bit easier, just a little bit less painful, it is always worth it.