Sewing with Disabled People

Sewing on a machine requires a lot of dexterity and mobility when you consider setting up the machine, choosing your desired stitch and tension, handling your material, whilst coordinating your hands and feet with the speed of sewing (which is controlled by the pressure on foot pedal) - all whilst keeping your eyes on your sewing to avoid mistakes! You see why sewing is harder for disabled or injured people, right?

When searching online for sewing machine adaptions for disabled people, we really struggled to find an alternative apart from automatic sewing machines, such as those mentioned on this article from The Sewing Directory. Automatic sewing machines usually have 3 speeds: slow, medium and fast. You select your speed and there is a start/stop button just above the presser foot, then away you go. Although this will suit some people brilliantly, a machine of this kind will still not suit people with limited dexterity because it still requires small switches to be moved or buttons to be pressed, which can be fiddly and threading up a sewing machine is fiddly enough! There are self-threading sewing machines, like these ones ranked by SewingMachinesGuru which are a great alternative but are obviously more expensive.

For people like Max, a soon-to-be 29 year old man, sewing independently is impossible due to his finer motor skills and mobility but with help, he can enjoy designing and creating textile projects, amongst many other crafts. Despite Max being non-verbal, he is able to communicate the colours, fabric and design he would like. Let me explain how...

Step 1. Suggest a small number of ideas to Max. For example, a drawstring bag, bunting or cushions. We give Max the options first, then whilst holding his hand, we slowly repeat them. Max with then squeeze to signify the project he would like to do. We sometimes use a YES/NO app on his tablet to determine the answer if it's a bit ambiguous. Alternatively, we can write down the options on paper and assist Max to move his hand to the one he wants.

2. Show Max the fabric and decoration options. Using the same communication techniques, Max will express his choice.

3. Max is unable to measure, cut, pin or tack his creations so I assist with that. I want to emphasise that I do all of this with Max not for him, after all it's his project, I'm just facilitating! On one recent sewing project, I stitched the dachshund applique motif by hand but we did the rest together. It's all about teamwork and Max does enjoy the relaxing effect of watching crafts!

Once the project is prepped and ready for sewing, Max and I sit together like so...

4. I will guide the fabric accordingly whilst Max is assisted by someone to help him press the foot pedal... except the pedal is on the table and pressed with Max's hand. Max's brother suggested that we span the pedal around so the deeper part of the pedal (what you would typically press with the ball of your foot or your toes) could be pressed with the palm of Max's hand, rather than his fingers, meaning more force goes through the pedal. This was a great tip and we've found that Max is able to get a steadier speed this way too. However, Max will sometimes press down very hard... I think he likes to keep me on my toes and make sure I'm paying attention!

Here's a few examples of what textile projects Max and I have made together:

I know that so many people will think that they or someone they care for can't enjoy sewing on a machine. I hope this encouragement that we've sent into the ether will find it's way to those who find it useful.

It's also worth mentioning that we read on a forum, that one lady puts the foot pedal on the table and uses her elbow to press it whilst she sews but she did express it's slow going. There are hand sewing machines on the market too, but I've never had much luck with them personally.

I'd love to hear what you think or any suggestions on how to adapt sewing and other crafts.

You can find Max on Instagram @deliciouslydisabled for posts about accessibility, food, art and more!

Love, Holly xxx

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