Many of you will be familiar with UK-based Gill Thomas from The Great British Sewing Bee and her instagram @theonearmedsewist. We love the way Gill openly shares her sewing journey as a genuine and positive advocate for limb different folks. This week we chat to Gill about all things sewing, including her projects past and present.
Hello Gill, please give a brief introduction of yourself to our readers!
What led you to sewing, and how long have you been sewing for?
As I got older, I found it harder and harder to find clothing to fit me on the high street. Like many people, my body shape isn’t “standard”, and every time I tried clothes on in a shop that didn’t fit, my confidence got knocked. Negative thoughts and feelings about my body shape and size were constantly being reinforced by the clothing that was available to buy.
I often thought about my great-grandmother and how if she was alive, she’d be able to help me adjust clothes to fit my body shape or teach me how to sew. But she wasn’t around, and without her I didn’t know where to start. I didn’t know if it would be physically possible to use a sewing machine with one arm. At that time, I didn’t know anyone else with a limb difference, so it wasn’t like I could ring my one-armed friends up to ask them how it might work.
In September 2018 I went clothes shopping, I needed some trousers for a work event with a strict dress code. I tried on what felt like hundreds of trousers, in different sizes and styles, in every shop I could find. Not one pair came close to fitting me, the difference between my hips and waist was so much bigger than any of the trousers in the shops. I came home in tears, I hated my body and blamed myself for not being able to get clothes that fitted me. I felt like I was unattractive and abnormal, and that I needed to do everything I could to change my body. My husband Darren was a voice of reason, he kept telling me that this wasn’t true, and he reminded me again about my great-grandmother and he suggested I learn to sew.
I took the plunge and bought a sewing machine; I didn’t have a clue how to use it or where to start! So, I bought a book aimed at beginners, it guided me through the very basics, like what a bobbin is and how to thread the machine and it did that by taking me through different projects.
The first thing I ever made was a headscarf and as soon as I’d made that I was hooked! And here we are almost 5 years later, sewing has become such an important and integral part of my life.
What led you to sewing, and how long have you been sewing for?
For me sewing has changed everything, it’s given me the confidence to embrace who I am, to know that my body is perfect, just the way that it is. It’s given me the confidence to try new things and to challenge myself to do things I never thought I could before, and of course it’s given me the gift of wearing amazing clothes and looking fabulous while I do all that.
Tell us the story of your favourite wardrobe item
Describe the space you use for sewing in 5 words... "Happy, Meditative, Organised, Chaotic, Messy"
What are you sewing (or planning to sew) at the moment?
Share with us what you learnt from your biggest sewing success
What have you learnt from your biggest sewing flop?
There was no way of saving the dress, any changes I tried to make it fit better just didn’t work. I’d wasted a lot of time and some beautiful fabric because I’d rushed. Skipping the steps at the beginning of a project can be tempting, we all want to get to the fun bit right. But, taking time to look at the pattern and consider how the finished measurements relate to your body is definitely worth doing, as is making a toile if it’s something you’ve never made before or if you haven’t used that brand before.
Do you have any secret sewing tips you’d like to share?
As a limb different sewist, what does Disability Pride Month mean to you?
Are there any sewing needs or requirements that remain unmet for you?
I was using a machine where you had to manually lift and lower the presser foot by pressing a lever that was positioned at the back of the machine on the right side, so I could only reach it with my stump, this meant I had to stretch and try and reach it while holding my fabric in place with my left hand.
The button for the reverse/back stitch was positioned on the front of the machine, but next to other buttons, again on the right side. So, I used to try and press the button with my stump, without accidentally hitting any of the other buttons. I got pretty good at this, but I did used to hit the wrong buttons by accident and end up triggering a function I really didn’t want.
If I was using fabrics that weren’t feeding through the machine evenly and I needed to use a walking/dual feed foot, it was super fiddly to change to this foot on my old machine – requiring a screwdriver and I think three hands, not just two!
A chance conversation with someone who sews made me realise there are features on a sewing machine that can make sewing a lot easier for me. I’ve now got a machine that has a dual foot pedal, I can programme it so the second pedal does a back stitch, or can cut the threads, or can do both! It’s got a knee lever, so I can lift the presser foot by using my knee. It’s got a walking/dual feed foot that can be activated by flicking a switch, so I don’t need to spend 30 minutes trying to change the foot one handed. All these things mean that sewing is made so much easier, because the machine does the things that I used to struggle to do physically.
There are a couple of things I still find difficult and try to avoid, like hand sewing or using pins. Luckily there are usually alternative options available, but if I do find I need to do either of these, then I just take my time and do it, in my own way.
What are some ways that the sewing community can support limb different sewists?
Another way the community could be supportive and inclusive would be to offer more options with designs and patterns. Including different options for the placement of openings and closures or including options for different types of fastenings. An example would be zip placement, when they are on the back of a garment, I can’t use these one handed (for anyone wondering why, have a go using only one hand), I change the placement of zips to the left side or front of a garment, so I can dress independently. It would be amazing if other placement options were offered as it would make things more inclusive, not just for people with a limb difference.
Can you share with us what and/or who motivates and inspires your creativity?
I also get inspiration from the sewing community on Instagram. I find hand sewing and pinning garments challenging because of my limb difference. The community on Instagram helped inspire me to create a stump thimble. This is a game changer for me; I can now pin, and hand sew things a little more easily, without hurting myself and it’s all thanks to the inspiration from that lovely community.
Are there any favourite books, podcasts or blogs that you’d love to share?