Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Design Notes : Designing for the Disabled

One of my long term interests in designing and developing clothes is to develop fashion-conscious clothes for the disabled. There are a certain number of sites that provide patterns and/or clothes for people with disability, however, these are for the most part quite functional in focus and offer very little for the fashion conscious. In an ideal world, clothes should be both fashionable AND functional, regardless of who wears them.

There are many different groups within the area of "people with disability", and each group has different clothing needs. For example :

• Wheelchair users have a set of very particular needs, especially if they are partially paralized;
• People who are ambulatory but limp or who have problems with balance and stability have somewhat different needs that those in wheelchairs
• Individuals with cognitive disabilities or memory loss need clothes that "make sense"
• Amputees also have very particular needs in clothes
• People with low vision or who are blind need clothes that have color markers and the means to have feedback about overall appearance
• Alzheimer's patients sometimes need clothes that cannot be removed easily
• Individuals with sensitive skin have special needs in terms of textures and comfort, requiring flat seams, for example, among other adaptations
• Some people may find particular movements painful, and need clothes that accommodate, enable or even constrain such movements
• Women, men and children all have different needs in each group

Clothes for such individuals do not always seek to "mark" the disability - for many people, some means of "hiding" what are viewed by many as "problems" may also be of interest. Fashionable clothes must be designed with sensitivity to needs both to reveal and to hide. Furthermore, fashions need to respond to different contexts. People with disability, along with everyone else, need both casual and formal clothes, sportswear, clothes for different seasons, "sexy" clothes when appropriate, and so on.

Less anyone object that this is a "small niche market", current projections indicate that the number of people with disability will triple over the next decade or so due to the aging of the population (a planetary phenomenon, not limited only to the west). One source indicates that within a decade, nearly one third of North American families will have at least one person with a disability. The issue of developing appropriate products for this population is going global, and for those more financially oriented, it has been suggested that disability products will be one of fastest growing sectors of the economy.

There are some websites of interest - I only have a small sample so far. The UK company Wheeliechix Chic designs and sells fashionable clothes for women in wheelchairs (see photo at right for an example). The company, which saw the light of day in the spring of 2007, has already won a number of prizes and garnered a certain amount of attention. I have been exchanging interesting emails with the CEO of WheelieChix, Ms. Louisa Summerfield, regarding the design principles they use within their products. They have developed an interesting collection of summer clothes and are now working on designing winter clothes - this has turned out to be a real challenge, but they are making progress. When I first encountered their website and their summer collection, I did a "mini-analysis" of the design principles they use in their garments, as follows :

• Short and/or open sleeves to facilitate wheelchair manipulations
• Wide pant legs to accommodate catheters, etc.
• Open V neck for comfort when leaning forward and moving shoulders
• Soft elastic at waistband for seated comfort
• Front zip where possible, covered for aesthetics
• Modifiable skirt/sleeve length using side strings or zipped cuffs
• Accommodate arms with built-up muscle (e.g. capped sleeves)
• Cover/disguise any fat in stomach area
• Flexible back area (pleats, zippers, elastic, etc.)
• Magnetic fastenings for ease of use
• Longer at the back so the clothes do not "ride up" in the chair
• More ease in the crotch area, when appropriate

For their winter clothes, they are addressing additional concerns :

• Keep sleeves short or cuffs that can be pulled or folded up, as long sleeves get muddy and wet;
• Use cloak-like garments that cover the front but are easy to put on - winter coats are a real problem to get into and out of;
• Use fabrics that are light but warm and not too bulky;

A Swedish site called fashionfreaks offers patterns adapted for people in wheelchairs (men and women). These follow some of the principles outlined above, and the site provides instructions for beginners on learning to sew.

Some sites that market general aids for daily living also offer a limited range of clothing. LazarusMobility in the UK is such an example - they market the WheelieChix Chic products discussed above but also products from other suppliers.

The Adaptive Clothing site provides a useful but partial list of sources for adaptive clothing. Although there are a number of providers of garments within the list, many of these offer clothes whose primary focus is function and not fashion. There are hence huge opportunities (and huge needs to address) in the area of disability fashion.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Design Notes : Five Design Principles

Design is a process by which a global vision is brought into alignment with the technical (i.e. local) means available to realize it. This is never a linear process. It involves a seesawing between global vision and technical means, but also it means following serendipitous paths as they present themselves. Our ability to design is always conditioned by our understanding of the technical means to achieve those designs. I see the process of design as something akin to the process of "resolving paradox", since design often involves a series of tensions or paradoxes that must be resolved in order to produce good design. This is not so much an intellectual exercise, as one that consists of trusting one's intuition and unconscious processes, and letting elements emerge when they are ready to come.

While investigating the process of design related to fashion design, I have come up with five broad principles that condition the effort involved:

1) The tension between body shape and pure geometry : clothes are made, essentially, from two-dimensional shapes (i.e. geometrical forms) with a little thickness, but they must cover a three-dimensional body "manifold". Hence geometry is omnipresent in fashion design, an intrinsic part of the process. The geometry may be emphasized or efforts made to hide it in any garment or outfit. The tension between geometry and body manifold is therefore at the heart of fashion design;

2) The tension between form and function : This might seem obvious, but it comes up in situations where we don't think about it. For example, clothes that are designed to fit one body type may not work so well with another body type. Many sources classify bodies into five rough types, the hourglass, triangle, inverted triangle, pear or rectangle shape and wide rectangle or round shape, depending on the ratios between bust or chest, waist and hips. Thinking of clothes as different for different body forms and different functions is critical to good fashion design. This is even more true when one includes people with disability in the group for which designs are being developed;

3) The tension between enabling or constraining structures : All clothes are both enabling and constraining. They limit our ability to touch our skin, or to freely move certain body parts with respect to others, while allowing other movements to occur. There seems to be a common myth that all clothes should minimize constraints, but in fact constraints are a very important part of clothing design and should be thought of as an integral element;

4) The tension between what is revealed and what is hidden : Clothes are as much about what is revealed as what is hidden (this is not unlike the Japanese traditional tendency to treat empty spaces as positive design elements rather than as empty);

5) The pleasure principle : In the broadest sense of the term, all clothes are erotic. They touch us in many different ways, simultaneously. They hence give us pleasure in tactile ways as well as in terms of how they look, how they make us look, how they make us feel, what messages they send, and how they sound as we move. Designing clothes to enhance pleasure in different forms helps us be more fully human. In this sense, fashion design is a sacred task, it speaks to our relationship with the broader universe.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Brocade Blouse Project (#1)

My first learning project was to design and create a blouse made from some lovely English brocade fabric I found at one of the local sewing stores (see photo on the right). My model for this project was Marie Louise Bourbeau, who is my business partner and primary collaborator in my professional life, as well as a good friend. Marie Louise loves good clothes and is herself highly creative - she has encouraged me in my "learning to design clothes" project. In fact, she was the one who suggested that if I could make virtual clothes for virtual worlds, I should also be able to make real clothes for the real world :)

I began the project by making a "duct tape dress form" of Marie Louise. This was a bit of an adventure in itself. I downloaded instructions from the web. These indicated that the duct tape should be placed in a "loose fit". However, when it came to stuffing the finished form, the final product ended up being a 38 bust instead of a 36 bust - I overstuffed it, but a looser stuffing wasn't easy to achieve.

After working for a couple of weeks with this dress form, I started on another project involving a different set of measurements. The first dress form couldn't be used for this second project. I finally decided to purchase a commercial dress form as these can be adjusted for a range of measurement sizes. In the photo at right, the dress form is shown along with my currently still chaotic organization of fabric.

The next step consisted of generating a sloper and modifying its pattern to make something more interesting. As this was my very first pattern-based project, the only changes I made were to the neckline. I made a sleeveless blouse with a slightly dropped neckline. The difficulties encountered were numerous:

- I had trouble making my first darts (and they ended up being too long). It wasn't until I read the Margolis book that the use of dressmaker's darts rather than design darts was made clear to me ;
- I had a lot of trouble sewing the front part to the back part at the shoulders. The problem was the facings - I had put on the facings separately on the front part (button strip and neckline) and the back neckline, and had difficulty sewing them together ;
- I had trouble finishing the sleeves. I tried using bias tape (too cludgy and bulky) before I ended up turning the seams over to form a "clean finish" ;
- The fit to Marie Louise wasn't great either. I had too much ease at the front at the level of the arms, and too little ease at the waist.

Nevertheless, in my favor, I was able to complete the blouse and have it fit more or less, and the result looked reasonably good, despite the fitting difficulties.

Learning to Sew and Manipulate Patterns - Basics

Once I had decided that I need to learn to sew, I made the rounds of the fabric/sewing stores in town and purchased a sewing machine. I bought a Brother XL-3500, a basic machine, for about 150$. I didn't want a more sophisticate sewing machine - I used to have one and found it difficult to learn to use. In those days I was less motivated to learn to sew, but still, I decided to go for a basic machine and upgrade eventually if I needed to. Overall, however, I'm very happy with the machine. It does what it needs to do.

Next, I looked around on the internet for "how to" sites on sewing and on pattern manipulation. I also looked at Amazon for books on pattern cutting. I took a chance on the Hollen and Kundal book, which was clearly a textbook. When the book first arrived I was a little daunted by the complex looking figures and diagrams, but I've found that although they look complex, they are well done and extremely useful when one is actually working on patterns and clothes. The book has been a very useful guide. I've recently acquired some additional books on pattern cutting, including "Metric Pattern Cutting" by Winifred Aldrich and "Make Your Own Dress Patterns" by Adele Margolis, both excellent books that were recommended to me. I find all three books to be complementary references - there is some overlap, but a lot of the material in each book is substantially different from the others.

I found two extremely useful websites. The first of these is a collection of video tutorials made available by the Brigham Young University Family Life programme. These exceptional videos present a whole range of sewing and draping tutorials, some of them quite long (the one for the two part collar is an hour and forty-five minutes in length). These tutorials, made with video closeups on the sewing machine itself and the hands as they manipulate the fabric and the patterns, are chock full of tips, information about traps, and careful step-by-step advice on doing jobs that are often considered to be difficult (such as sewing in a zipper or button holes, sewing a collar, manipulating darts, etc.).

The second website, very different in style to the first, is the BurdaStyle site. Promoted as the first "Open Source Sewing" website, it offers a community of sewers from all over the world who are sharing ideas, techniques, problem-solving, expertise and, of course, patterns. In addition, the site is managed and supported by staff from Burda, the pattern manufacturer. This means that no one is left "hanging" for long before an answer is forthcoming, and some of the best advice around on the web can be found through the site. The site includes a wikipedia-style glossary of terms, community-uploading of patterns, how-tos, and photographs of creations, an extensive set of forums and a blog updated on a nearly daily basis. Notice that although the site has been open only since the spring of 2007, as of this moment it already incorporates 100 000 members!

Equipped with a collection of "how-to" video tutorials, access to a community-based web site for additional advice, a book on flat pattern cutting, a commercial dress form and a sewing machine, I set about making one of each of the basic garment types - a blouse, a skirt, a dress, a shirt and a pair of pants. For each project, I began with a basic "sloper" (the name given to a basic pattern) and a set of ambitions. I wasn't particularly interested in making "demo clothes" - I wanted to make, even at this stage, real clothes that would be worn. So I identified a recipient for each effort, measured them and adapted the patterns and adjusted the fit as a consequence.

Learning Strategy

I approach the problem of learning to design fashions and make clothes the way I usually tackle new areas.

First of all, even though I'm a teacher at least some of the time, I don't particularly care for courses. I prefer to learn on my own, doing my own research and learning from my own mistakes.

Secondly, I follow a learning strategy that I have learned over the years is unusual. Most advice on learning will tell you to learn "in small chunks", to "reinforce what you learn" by repeating steps, and to tackle problems that are not too challenging so you don't get disheartened when you make slow progress". I have always been interested in "learning to my maximum potential", however, and I realized as a young man that the best way to maximize my learning potential was to aim well beyond what I think are my limits. If I aim for 400% of my perception of my limits, and only achieve 30% of what I've aimed, I will still be learning at a rate 30% above what I thought was my maximum reach. Years ago, I made the mistake of assuming that other people like to learn this way and taught using this model. I quickly discovered that most people find this strategy to be too stressful - they want a steady stream of reassurance that they are doing "OK". That's what the grading system is all about, in fact. You have to be highly motivated and self-disciplined to follow this other route.

Third, I learn in "grasshopper" fashion. I jump from one topic to another, from one orbit to another, rarely following a set or ordered system. I am a chaotic learner, and I've learned to trust my intuitions about what I need to learn next.

My understanding of the "learning landscape" regarding fashion design and fabrication is that one is presented with a suite of possible paths to follow :

The main route followed is to go to fashion design school. I notice that lots of people interested in fashion do this, but then drift into other activities after finishing. So design school is not only for those who choose this as a career, but also for "interested others", although it represents a significant investment of time, money and energy. The other main route followed by many people is to learn to sew and make clothes from patterns (the yellow road in my diagram). Learning to sew may be achieved by following classes or by independent study and practice.

Another possible learning path is to study how to drape and make clothes from draping. This is covered within fashion design schools. I have not found many sources of information about this approach outside of the formal context of such schools.

Finally, the green road in the diagram is the one I have chosen to follow - learn to manipulate basic pattern slopers, and to develop garments from these. It is an intermediate path between the "sewing from patterns" route and the "design school" route.

My basic idea is to use pattern manipulation (and possible draping, if I ever master it) to develop a technical understanding of clothing fabrication, and to then combine this technical understanding with a design-oriented approach to develop garments that interest me.

I decided to begin this as a summer 2008 project, hence starting in June 2008. Over the course of the summer, I set out to design and make one garment of each basic type (blouse, skirt, dress, men's shirt, pants). Since I knew nothing about garments and clothes, I entered into an intensive learning period. I bought and studied fashion magazines, surfed the web for blog sites and "how to's" on sewing and design, investigated software for design and pattern construction, bought books, bought a sewing machine (and later a serger), taught myself to sew, bought fabric, made a dress form and then bought a commercial one, and became active within the internet sewing community. It is now late summer, and I am moving into the next phase of my learning - a kind of "knowledge consolidation" period and some risk-taking into new, more ambitious projects. More later.

Chameleon Gods - beginnings

Strange name for a blog about fashion and clothes design? Chameleon for changeable, transformation, adaptability, color, innovation, uniqueness. Gods because I am interested in foundations and fundamentals, sources, roots and inspiration.

The Chameleon Gods blog is about my journey, in learning, creativity and movement, in the world of clothes and fashion. I will try to spell out the roots of my own inspiration, and share the challenges faced so that others may benefit from my efforts.

My journey is an ambitious, perhaps over-ambitious, effort to develop fashion designs for particular areas of interest. These areas include dancing, disability, sculpture, ecologies, and identity exploration, at the moment, but the categories will shift and change over time. My journey begins with an extensive background in design from both a scientific and an artistic perspective, but no experience in clothes, fashion, sewing, etc. So everything is to be learned. I started my project three months ago, so I will be spending a certain amount of time "catching up" with where I am, and then, later, reporting on progress, as well as on odds and ends that relate to fashion, identity, sewing, ... and life :)