Content warning: within this post, I discuss both dismissive messages written in the sewing community around size inclusion and common, harmful diet-culture narratives regarding fat bodies, as well as include links to examples.
In this post, I also excerpt comments made within public Instagram conversations on the topic. I have made these deliberately anonymous in order to use them as teaching moments rather than opportunities to single out particular individuals.
Over the past week and a half, members of the sewing community have been engaged in a discussion around size inclusivity in pattern design. Out of this discussion have emerged new directions for a number of pattern companies now seeking to expand their size ranges, re-affirmed appreciation for companies that have been including plus sizes all along, and a chorus of voices from plus sized sewists sharing our measurements, our concerns, and our anger.
One major focus of this discussion is the relative exclusion of plus sizes within the sewing industry as a whole: by pattern companies, within educational spaces (both fashion industry and classes aimed at non-professionals, such as those at fabric shops), and within sewing media, such as magazines and podcasts. Alongside that, though, we’re also having a discussion around the way we talk about plus size people, bodies, and pattern drafting.
In this iteration of the discussion, as with the many times it’s come up in the sewing community in the past, plus size drafting is frequently described as more difficult than drafting straight-sized counterparts. As Jenny of Cashmerette and other industry experts point out, though, it’s not that plus size drafting is inherently more difficult, it’s that it requires a different set of skills that are less frequently taught than those used for drafting smaller sizes. Thus, we should reframe such statements from “plus size drafting is more difficult” to:
- “I have more difficulty with plus size drafting, because I have not been doing it as long,” or
- “I was not taught plus size drafting at school and thus need to seek out those resources now,” or
- “Working in plus sizes requires different decisions than those I’ve already made, so I need to carefully consider my options.”
Each of these places the lack of knowledge and need for action back on the person speaking, and moves away from the idea that plus size bodies are inherently more difficult.
Perhaps more insidious, though, is language that dehumanizes fat or plus sized bodies by describing them as fundamentally unpredictable or unknowable. In the first day or two of this conversation, the comments below were posted to explain why plus size drafting is “more difficult.” I’ve chosen these examples, but others exist.
- “fat will go wherever the hell it wants to and does not conform to evenly spreading itself out”
- “volume moves in mysterious ways”
In these, fat (or euphemistically “volume”) is described as though it is a separate entity, moving independently of the bodies in which it dwells, and in ways difficult or impossible to comprehend. Describing fat as independent from the individuals who bear it (which is all humans) is common in diet culture. For instance, weight loss might be represented by objects of equivalent weight, existing outside of the person and, in visual representation, shown as cumbersome and unnecessary. This representation of body size ignores the fact that fat, as a necessary component to the human body, is integrated within the body’s composition, so that moving a cohesive body is not at all the same thing as carrying around a heavy object. We also see harmful representations of weight loss desires showing people cutting or slicing flesh off their bodies (honestly, that Google search is sickening; take that into account before looking). Similarly, the “thin person in a fat body” narrative also buys into this concept: that the essential being of a person is thin, and fat is just (removable) excess.
We also saw a number of comments regarding how much more variation fat bodies as a whole offer than thin bodies. While this may be true (though I don’t know that we have data besides anecdotes to back it up), as many commented, the vast variation in straight-sized bodies has not stopped companies from choosing a single block and grading system when offering patterns to them. Comments regarding the number of decisions that have to be made when expanding a pattern range harmfully emphasized the difficulty, such as: “there is so much variation in shape it’s almost paralyzing to even begin.”
While facing a number of decisions with a high-stakes outcome can be difficult, and I don’t want to underestimate the thought and time required to plan out a size expansion (getting the block wrong could certainly mean a lot of time and money spent on something unfruitful), such comments suggest that plus size bodies are impossibly daunting. (For this comment in particular, I would also point out the ableist use of the work “paralyzing,” which undermines the actual experience of chronic or intermittent paralysis by comparing it to indecision). An alternative might be: “I’m facing a lot of decisions regarding what blocks and grading systems to use. It will take me a while to sort through them and determine the best ones for my customers.”
In some cases, the difficulty of grading complicated designs for plus sizes was also cited as a reason to avoid or put off size range expansion. It is true that simple, boxy shapes are easier to draft, but that is true no matter what the size is. More complex designs will take longer than simpler designs, will require more pattern pieces and therefore more material in paper patterns, and will more closely hew to the shape of a specific block and therefore fit fewer types of bodies. However, once a designer has chosen their plus size block and grading method, the process is not fundamentally different than creating the same design for a smaller body. What it might require is thinking holistically about a given design across sizes, rather than envisioning a single “ideal look” in a smaller size. (This is why using croquis that fit real bodies, rather than stretched out fashion croquis, is important). There is also a market for more complex and fitted designs in plus sizes, as many of us have had more than enough of tents and oversized, draping garments.
This line of thinking is also underpinned by the idea that there are some designs fat people simply won’t look good in. Diet and beauty culture spends a lot of time telling us that some garments are “off limits,” but many of us are disregarding that advice and wearing whatever we want! Designs are always going to look different on bodies of different sizes, and folks who wear plus sizes deserve to be able to choose from a wide variety of styles, shapes, and types of garment.
Why this matters
These ways of framing choices are fundamentally and materially harmful for fat people, who continually receive the message that our bodies are disposable, difficult, unknowable, and unworthy of care, and that we should think of an integrated component of our body as one that can be sliced away. We’re taught that we don’t deserve adequate clothing and should try to hide our bodies. While in most cases, designers who responded intended to explain the limitations and difficulties they face, by framing plus size drafting — and by extension plus size bodies — as fundamentally, inherently difficult, they furthered a dehumanizing narrative of fat and plus size people.
As the Curvy Sewing Collective preaches, sewing can help us change that narrative! The amount of sewists posting and commenting with affirmations about their own worth and their desire to sew clothing that brings joy and comfort proves that many of us come to sewing to experience our bodies in a more positive way. As members of a community, I believe it’s all of our responsibility to therefore be thoughtful and welcoming with the language we use.
Within this discussion, it is important to note that business decisions made by individual companies might vary, and that, as noted, every company must specialize by choosing a pattern block and a set size range. It’s not possible for every company to represent every body. Indeed, it’s not necessary or practical for every straight-sized company to expand to cover plus sizes. However, changing the way we talk about plus size patterns, drafting, and bodies is a necessary step in building a community where all are welcome and included.