When Lydia Morrow was pregnant with her son, like so many people she gained weight fairly quickly. Faced with a "full-on wardrobe makeover project," she figured she’d finally invest in the clothing she had been lusting after for years. Unfortunately, her plus-size figure meant those clothes were no longer an option – not because plus-size bodies "shouldn’t" wear them but because the brands she coveted simply didn’t cater to plus-size people.
"It was a pretty big blow," she tells Refinery29. "Brands I'd been saving up to buy from for years suddenly weren't even an option. I remember having a meltdown when my son was 7 months old because I was meant to be going to a big gallery opening and couldn't find any interesting dresses to wear to it, or even interesting sewing patterns, in my size."
Although Morrow has been experimenting with sewing since she was 5 years old, it wasn’t until her second year of art school (where she studied painting and printmaking) that she began making up her own sewing patterns. At the time, Morrow wasn’t fat but she struggled with "obsessive exercising, disordered eating and extremely low self-esteem." Even when she made clothing, she often wouldn’t wear it for fear of standing out.
"When I gained weight really quickly after being pregnant with my son, I was lucky enough to be able to work through a lot of that and that's when I really started making clothes for me, and wearing them, and feeling like, F*ck it, my body now is the one I want to clothe," she explains.
On the night before the aforementioned gallery opening, Morrow went into a "sewing frenzy" and created one of her first more complex designs, which she wore for the event. "It definitely felt like the start of something," she says.
And it was. Today, Morrow, a UK size 22 (size 18 in the US), has made half of the clothing she owns (she primarily crochets these days, as extended periods of sewing and knitting can aggravate her chronic pain). Like many plus-size babes up against a fashion industry that continues to overlook us, she’s also discovered the immense power of making one’s own clothing and creating the kind of wardrobe that no one is seemingly going to create for us.
It’s something that E. Louise, stylist and owner of Shapely Louise Boutique, can relate to. Louise, who wears a UK 24 (US 20), has been plus-size her entire life. She remembers standing in front of a mirror at 10 years old and discovering her hips. Her mother had to "get creative" when it came to dressing her in an age-appropriate yet trendy way, and it is her mother’s creativity as well as the lack of plus-size clothing options in the wider industry that have driven her to design her own looks.
"I understand the frustration when wanting the industry to acknowledge that we (plus-size women) deserve to dress trendy," she explains. "But I’m a problem solver. Solution: let me just create my own!"
In 2013 she sewed her first dress for a full-figured fashion show. "It was time to add an additional flare to the vintage boutique scene I was presenting," she recalls. "It was a one-shoulder, knee-length bodycon style with a funky psychedelic print." She ended up selling it for around $20 and the process made her realize that sewing could be the perfect outlet for showcasing her originality.
"I haven’t been to the mall to shop for clothes in years," she adds. "Even before online shopping became a thing, the fact that there were hundreds of stores and only two that were size-inclusive wasn’t fun for me. Not only is it empowering [to make my own pieces] but I feel that I’m not allowing the industry to place me or my style in a box."
In 2020 there may technically be more options than ever for plus-size consumers (particularly for those who wear a US size 20 or below – little progress has been made in clothing larger fat bodies) but many of these still seem to be crafted based on fat-phobic ideals of what is and isn’t "flattering" on a larger body. A-line dresses, cold-shoulder tops, and otherwise matronly aesthetics that one would never deem "trendy" rule many plus-size selections. "[Even if more brands] did offer more options, I think it would still be limited to what they feel like we 'should' be wearing," Louise muses. "They’ve proven time and time again that they don’t understand this particular market."
As well as providing an outlet for creative expression and sartorial rule-breaking, designing and making one’s own clothes can help fill another void in the market: sustainable plus-size fashion. For Laura McCammon, size 16-20 (US size 12-16), who sews her own clothes, sustainability has become a key motivator.
"I actually alter my clothing to grow and shrink with my body these days," she tells Refinery29. "Instead of just sewing a new item, I will review my wardrobe and change whatever isn’t working. For example: a dress that’s a bit tight over my stomach [can be] cut into a T-shirt. A waistband on a skirt [that’s too tight] can be unpicked and extended using inside facing. I used to be embarrassed about this because I had a 'friend' who would mock me for not just sewing a new garment. Now I really just don’t care because I don’t want to send something to the landfill."
Sadly, there are very few brands out there offering ethically made lines in truly inclusive size ranges. Exceptions certainly exist, but a couple of brands cannot possibly be expected to cater to all budgets and styles, though. When it comes to charity or vintage shops, plus-size options also remain few and far between.
"I've been a charity shopper my whole life but the offering is so much smaller for fat folks, and while I've gotten super good at finding the goods in my size, it's a lot of work for stuff that won't necessarily be 'you'," explains Morrow. "All this definitely made me get more excited about sewing my own clothes as my most accessible, sustainable option. However, the sewing definitely made me feel more understanding of sustainable price points and more likely to pay a lot for a decent bit of ethical kit. Sewing is a lot of work and I want to support ethical brands who include fat folks."
For McCalman, wearing great items designed with a body like hers in mind also factors into her craft. "I just really like wearing well-made garments," she explains. "Things that fit me, not a random block the company used. I have more options to buy from now than I ever did, but I was getting annoyed at how poorly designed and crafted fast fashion is."
While DIY projects are no more than a hobby for many people, there is tremendous potential for radicalness within these crafts and the communities that claim them. "There are movements within the sewing community that are doing amazing things, changing the way I and others think about inclusivity," explains McCalman. "I’ve honestly learned so much about social inequity and my own immense privilege because of the great work of people in the sewing community."
Morrow also believes that craft's "potential as a vehicle for political and societal change is becoming far less overlooked."
"Coming up studying fine art, I definitely feel I was a part of a relatively new wave of young artists who are learning not to dismiss hand crafts as 'hobby' or 'mum' stuff," she adds. "I think in part we ironically owe that to mass production, because the perceived value of a handmade piece has gone considerably up in cultural estimation and a lot of people have become unfamiliar with the feeling of making things in general compared to previous generations [...] Making something you want to own definitely creates a big shift in your perspective and understanding of the physical things in your life and how they are made."
Sharing their designs on social media also allows these women to connect with other plus-size babes, which is always a game-changer. Morrow explains: "One of the really damaging things that fat-phobia has done in our culture is make it very, very difficult for fat people to have a community because it has kept us all desperate to not be fat and to turn against each other and ourselves. I think social media has been an incredible source of change in that respect and I feel like I now have a remote fat community that means a hell of a lot to me."
"People say incredibly kind things to me every day but what really gets me is when people who look like me tell me that seeing me be weird and wonderful and semi-nude on the internet has helped them to feel that they don't need to be ashamed about themselves," she says. "The idea that I could be helping people err away from the active [fat-phobic] negativity is incredible to me, though it doesn't surprise me. All the power I have these days is from the fat people in my life, I can only hope to have that same influence on people around me."
McCalman agrees. "My favorite part is when someone reaches out to me because they are of a similar size and want to know what I thought of a pattern. Or when I get that little notice that someone shared my post or saved it for later. Hopefully I’ve been able to inspire someone to create something, like so many other people have inspired me."