What is the Denim Project?
The goal of the Denim Project is to create jeans for kids with Down Syndrome. These jeans will help them be comfortable and express themselves. They can finally have the same clothes that their friends and siblings wear, but that also meets their needs.
How did the Project Begin?
This project was born out of my dissertation work. My team lovingly calls it “The Denim Project 2.0,” as “The Denim Project 1.0” was my dissertation. It focused on identifying challenges that kids with special needs or kids with physical and intellectual disabilities face.
I started with making exoskeletons for babies and other types of assistive apparel. My advisor suggested, “Why don’t you start from scratch, go out into the community, find a group of people you want to work with, identify what their challenges are, and see if you can address them.”
It was a little daunting. My advisor called it “Martha’s Grand Design Challenge.” She gave me the freedom to practice user-centered design, which is now the core of my research.
What are the Activities of Daily Living?
I spent a year talking to families of kids with disabilities. My only requirement was a child was old enough to do activities of daily living (ADLs). We all have activities that we do every day, which are functional tasks. These tasks help you be independent. And often, individuals with disabilities need assistance with those tasks. They have parents, caregivers, and nurses help them with these activities. A critical mission for me and my research is to help empower individuals to do these ADLs on their own as much as humanly possible. There is a sense of having a quality of life when you can do these things on your own, and you don’t have to wait for other people to do them for you.
All Kids Want to Wear Jeans
I started engaging with kids old enough to tell me what bothered them about their routine and their challenges during their daily activities. I didn’t know what they would say to me and what challenges they would bring up. I was talking to kids with Down Syndrome, Spinal Bifida, Muscular Dystrophy, and Cerebral Palsy. Every single one of those kids wished they could put on and wear jeans. They all said the same thing. It shocked me because jeans are something people from the typical population take for granted. It’s that classic American piece of clothing that we all have. Kid after kid kept saying they wished they could wear them because their friends and family members wear them.
I decided I would focus on creating adaptive jeans. I began thinking about how to design and construct denim for kids with disabilities. I worked with all kinds of kids; I became close with them. It was wonderful. The families let me into their homes.
I spent a long time watching them do different tasks. I observed how they got dressed and noted steps like manipulating a zipper; If they had assistance, how much aid did they have? Was it a verbal cue? Was it a physical assist? Typical populations may not realize that once your wardrobe is on, you can start your day.
Dressing and undressing are significant parts of many other daily activities. It’s not only the independence of choosing an outfit and putting it on by yourself. It’s also being able to do other tasks like using the restroom. That dressing task occurs in multiple scenarios throughout the day. It affects your quality of life.
Self-Expression in Dressing
The social psychology of clothing is a passion of mine. It is essential to have autonomy and agency with what we wear to express ourselves to the world. It is how we tell people to treat us. Whether we like it or not, our clothing is a visual communication tool that tells people what we think of ourselves, who we are, the role we play, the culture we’re a part of, our sense of self, and our identity.
If you are someone who can’t make those decisions on your own and can’t choose your clothing, or can’t dress yourself, you’re missing out on that opportunity to make choices about how you’re seen and viewed. I wanted the kids to be as independent with their self-expression as possible.
I developed a deep understanding of adaptive clothing and how to work with function and fashion. It helped me formulate The 5F Framework, which has become a core part of my design process.
Jeans for Kids With Downs Syndrome
I worked with so many kids with so many challenges. I decided to focus just on one challenge, one diagnosis, one population. I became close with the children living with Down Syndrome and wanted to keep working with them. I decided to focus on designing jeans for kids with Down Syndrome. There are specific challenges related to that diagnosis. I learned a lot from my doctoral work and realized issues I wanted to address.
How We Found End-Users to Engage.
We combined these activities with interviews for the kids. It helped us identify what the needs were, what they liked and didn’t like. We were able to figure out what their preferences were. We connected with our end-users through our community partners. We have a lot of great partners that work with us. The Down Syndrome Association of Delaware, Easter Seals, AI DuPont, and the Down Syndrome clinic at Kennedy Krieger helped recruit kids for us.
Parents and Kids Don’t Always Agree on Clothes
One challenge that came up happens with any kid. When you’re talking to kids about their preferences, a lot of times, a parent or caregiver will chime in and tell you what they think the kid likes or what they want for the kid; it’s called mediation. Parents and caregivers will naturally mediate this conversation because they have opinions. They are most likely the consumer, the ones shopping and choosing what the child wears. They know what works and what doesn’t work.
I wanted to address this in my doctoral work with the Adaptive Jeans Project. I had to make sure that I communicate with the child. Of course, the parents’ and caregivers’ input can be valuable, but I also wanted to get at the core of what the kids wanted and give them as much a voice in this process as possible.
I worked with a fantastic team of students from so many different majors, like medical diagnostics, art, and design. My team had all kinds of students who are passionate about being a part of this project. We came up with the concept of a fashion obstacle course. We also had traditional interviews with the families and the kids.
A child may have a communication challenge, like many kids with Down Syndrome do, so I wanted to try a different way to engage them and share their preferences with me. My team designed a fashion obstacle course that was a means of participatory design. Participatory design is when you engage your end-user in the design process, including them and giving them a voice.
We did a series of tasks all related to The 5F Framework. For example, we were trying to identify the function. What were the child’s challenges that we needed to address with the jeans function? We would have big stickers on the floor; they had to jump between each sticker. That is how we observed their range of motion and their activity. We had a potato sack race because it is a similar activity to pulling on a pair of pants. We looked at fabrics; we got several swatches of all different textures, things you wouldn’t even consider using to making jeans. We had fake fur, feathers, all kinds of crazy material. We could see what they gravitated towards; What was fun to touch and feel? What did they like?
Finding the Right Fit
Figuring out a fit preference was challenging. As adults, we sometimes choose things that may be more fitted, looser, more baggie, drapey, etc. The fit may not necessarily be our accurate size. It happens all the time. People choose how they want their clothes to fit. For a child, let alone a child with a potential communication challenge, figuring out how they want their clothes to fit was difficult. My team and I spent a long time thinking about it. We landed on having various t-shirt sizes and asking them to pick the ones that felt the best. Some of them chose ones that were snugger, and some chose bigger ones. It helped us get an understanding of what was comfortable.
In addition to the fashion obstacle course, we found their appropriate size. We had each child go into our 3D body scanner, which can be intimidating, even for adults. It looks like a giant refrigerator. You only have to be in it for a few seconds, but we were concerned that the kids might be scared or unsure of what was going on.
One of my students had the brilliant idea of setting up an iPad on a tripod in front of the body scanner. The child would watch a cartoon for a few seconds to relax and feel more comfortable. We can get exact measurements of everyone.
Working through fittings and designs, we came to the final garments. We were able to make jeans! We are currently making denim for the kids that they like. We are excited to get feedback from the families. Did they find them useful and helpful? Did the children select to wear them? The family and child’s feedback are the key to creating better adaptive clothing in the future.
We are wrapping the project up this semester, but we will be doing this for a long time. There are always opportunities to improve. There’s always new technology that can make the clothing better. Now that we have completed this research and done this work, we are starting to get recognized nationally and through commercial channels. Through our company, Dr. Martha Hall LLC, we are in partnership with Human Solutions, 3D Scanner, and Bender. I am presenting a series of talks to help get the word out about the importance of sizing and clothing for individuals with disabilities to brands to encourage this opportunity. We invite brands to use our expertise, what we’ve learned, our evidence, and knowledge-based data.
Creating size charts is currently not done the way you think it might work or what used to work in the ’50s, or what you learn in home-ec class. There is a lot of information and designs in the adaptive apparel space that isn’t necessarily evidence-based but assumption-based. When you talk to the end-user’s family and the actual person who will wear your designs, you get a wealth of information and knowledge that will inform you how to create a successful design.
Ready-to-Wear Jeans for Kids with Down Syndrome
The translation from custom to ready-to-wear is relatively simple. Currently, we are making one-off pieces. We know that across this population, there’s an average body type. Individuals with disabilities of any kind may have different developmental scales. They are not going to grow in the same ways as typical development. It’s essential to understand that as we are scanning children of different ages, we can create a data line that shows different sizes for different ages. It is very similar to a typical child’s growth or sizing chart for a typical brand. You base sizing on age. We can do the same thing for kids with disabilities, as long as we are mindful of different grading challenges—for example, consistency between ages. As we scan everyone, our jeans will go from custom to an average that will genuinely represent this population.
By doing these fine motor and dexterity tests and other assessments of the different challenges with the dressing task itself, we know what fasteners will be appropriate and what fasteners aren’t. Our studies show us what is going to facilitate independent dressing and what’s going to hinder it—creating a mass-customized product used to be unheard of. When I was an undergraduate in fashion programs, people would always talk about a crazy dream of mass customization. It is possible if you research, use data, and poke holes at the idea that it has to be a custom alteration garment. It doesn’t. It just has to reflect the population so it will serve their needs.