On Plus-Size Sewing

by Shaker sweetbyrd

[Content Note: Fat bias.]

"Well, if you don't like the plus sized clothing they sell in the stores, why don't you just sew your own?"

And even though that is an absurdly reductionist argument (not least of all since you need to have at least some basic knowledge, resources and time to even contemplate sewing your own clothing), I decided to call the speaker's bluff. I am lucky enough to have the knowledge, skills, and resources to sew at least some of my own clothing, so I decided to give it a try. Making things appeals to something in me anyway, so I'll admit that I wasn't a hard sell. To ease my way into things, I decided to start off simple, with a knee-length a-line skirt.

So I took myself down to my nearest fabric store in search of a sewing pattern. For readers that are uninitiated into home sewing, a pattern provides basic instructions for turning a length of fabric into a wearable garment. While it is true that there are online tutorials for creating certain pieces of clothing, I (like many people who have learned how to sew) learned using patterns. I am therefore vastly more comfortable using a pattern than an online tutorial. At least for my first venture back into sewing, I wanted to stay within my comfort zone.

I thought that a pattern for a simple-to-make and popular wardrobe item like an a-line skirt would be easy to find. I was wrong. The fabric store I was using had at least one pattern book from each of the dominant pattern manufacturers, and I looked through every single pattern book they had. I found no suitable patterns in any of them—and I wasn't being that picky.

Out of curiosity, I looked back at the patterns available for straight sizes. ("Straight sizes" is the common term used to refer to those sizes that are not plus sizes.—Ed.) Not only did I find patterns for skirts like the one I wanted to make, but I found a wide selection of patterns for clothing that catered to many situations and style sensibilities. By comparison, the plus size selection was scant and meager. Too many options were body-negating; that is, designed to cover up the body underneath and conceal its shape. And if that if your style jam, more power to you, but it does not represent the be-all and end-all of fashion statements that plus sized women want to make. And I am by far not the only person to have noticed this problem.

So let me get this straight; in order to get clothes that both fit me and that I want to wear, I basically have to learn how to draft or alter patterns (and proceed to do so), so I can use that pattern to sew the clothes, and then make the clothes so I can have the ability to wear them (paying for the requisite supplies and training at each step). Whereas my sister, who wears straight sizes, can simply walk into a department store and grab something off the rack (and be assured that, if she doesn't find what she wants in one store, she stands a good chance of finding what she is seeking at the next one). Uh huh—that isn't a double standard at all.

Clothing, in modern American society, is not just a way of being un-naked, but a form of communication. And the state of plus size fashion, as represented in retail, and even as options for sewing our own clothing overwhelmingly communicates the message "I don't deserve any better". We are constantly being told that our "appearance matters", but plus sized women are consistently denied the tools with which we can take control of those appearances. This is the sartorial equivalent of denying us a vocabulary with which we can express ourselves.

Since more than half of women in the U.S. wear a size 14 or above (which is the common definition of "plus size"), I can only imagine a torrent of repressed communication bursting forth when plus sizes are treated with the same amount of respect accorded to straight sizes. But although I believe that things are better than they were in days past, I also know that this is still a world in which well-known designers who deign to make plus size lines refuse to advertize those lines.

Note: I would be utterly remiss if I didn't mention that there are some awesome independent pattern designers out there who do include plus size women in their pattern selection. In fact, I recently found and bought some wonderful indie patterns from a designer whose aesthetic really resonates with my own (however—fabulous though the patterns I bought may be—they do not include an A-line skirt). I just don't think I should have to look as far afield as Australia to find patterns for attractive clothing that fits me.

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