Technical Design students engineer garments for veterans with disabilities

When asked, “How do you put on pants?” Air Force veteran Judy McCombs answered with a laugh. “In bed with a lot of wiggling. It’s like putting on skinny jeans.” Erika Morales-Hernandez, Technical Design ’15, listened carefully and took notes. McCombs, a patient at the Veterans Affairs St. Albans Community Living Center, has multiple medical problems and has been wheelchair-bound for three years.
In the spring, Morales-Hernandez and four other graduating Technical Design students worked together to engineer clothing that is comfortable, stylish, and easy to put on for veterans who use a wheelchair or prosthesis.
Nastaran Rivera ’15 worked with Army veteran Pamela Winfield, who lost her left hand while saving an elderly woman in her neighborhood from a man wielding a sword. Rivera found her consultations with Winfield invaluable: “We take the fastening of closures such as zippers and buttons for granted, but amputees have to overcome such challenges every day.” At the VA center, students met with an occupational therapist and prosthetic technologists, to discuss which fabrics are least likely to snag on prosthetics made of thermoplastics, acrylic resins, and often metal.
Over the semester, students developed many design strategies. They substituted magnets or Velcro for buttons; incorporated special pleating so a skirt can expand to be put on easily but then contract and look good; and created a tailored jacket with an open sleeve that could be clipped and snapped together, an adjustable fly for a man, and pant hems that could be adjusted with magnetic closures.
The project originated in the Technical Design capstone course, taught by Assistant Professor Luz Pascal, who says the assignment was “to engineer garments that will improve someone’s life.” (Other students in the course chose to work with Parkinson’s patients.) Department Chair Deborah Beard said the garments are more than simply one-off designs: “The students put everything they’ve learned in four years into this project. These items are ready for production and ready for wear.”
Morales-Hernandez eventually partnered with Air Force veteran Anna Smith, who uses a wheelchair. It took four separate fittings, first with muslins, before the cape, pants, jacket, and top fit right, Morales-Hernandez said.
“I had designed the cape to be shorter in back to avoid bunching in the back of the wheelchair, but now I understand it has to be shorter in front as well to ensure freedom of movement.”
The veterans came to the capstone presentation and modeled the clothes. Smith said she was delighted with the whole outfit. Regular pants tend to cut in at the waist and ride up, but Morales-Hernandez’s design didn’t, she said. The inside seams were covered with fabric so they didn’t rub against her skin, causing blisters. “There’s even a pocket for my iPhone 6 Plus!” she said. If these designs ever become an actual line, Smith is ready with a name: Options. “It should be available for all people with disabilities,” she said.

Featured Image: From left: Morales-Hernandez, Smith, Rivera, and Rivera’s fit model, Sam Poulis. Smith’s jacket, designed by Morales-Hernandez in polyester with netting for a sporty, urban look, is made to fit over a back brace. Poulis wears the outfit Rivera designed for Pamela Winfield, who could not attend the photo shoot. The leather sleeves attach to the cotton/spandex bodice with magnets, and the neoprene pants incorporate a zipper in the inseam to ease dressing. “Fashion can make a huge difference in your demeanor, self-esteem, and even personality,” Rivera says. “The vets were a great inspiration. I was honored to work with Pamela on this project.”