I never aspired to become a fashion designer, even though I love to sew. I have always been perfectly content to use other people’s patterns. When I had a mastectomy, there were no patterns or ready-made clothes that met my needs, so I pulled out my sewing machine and began designing.
I started making my own clothes as a teenager out of sheer necessity. My parents would not buy clothes for me but they would buy as much material as I wanted. My mother had done a tailoring course and always had her sewing dummy out and a project in the works, so I had a fine teacher at home.
There were home economics lessons at school as well, in which I was always too ambitious. While the other girls were making wrap-around skirts, I was making pleated culottes. During the holidays, I would embroider and cross-stitch, and when I moved from Australia to Canada twenty years ago, just next-door to Mennonite country, I thought I had better learn to quilt.
Like many women who have mastectomies, I chose an external breast prosthesis rather than reconstructive surgery. With my sewing skills and my Janome Quilter's Companion. I set out to make a garment that would supplement my figure without any straps or weight so that my scars and rashes could heal. I decided on a vest with internal pockets for soft bra cups that don’t irritate my scars.
Other features were added as I went through my treatment. I ended up in tears trying to get a shirt on over my head while my shoulder was frozen and my arm was crippled after surgery. I realised that the vest had to be front-opening. A zipper with a decent sized pull tab seemed the best solution for numb fingertips. I added kangaroo pockets (how could I resist?) because women’s clothes never have enough pockets.
When I decided to turn my idea into a business, I knew I needed to make my vests look more professional. I bought an Elna serger and a Janome coverstitch and learnt how to use them. The mentoring programs at my local small business centre put me in touch with women with their own sewing studios who gave me the benefit of their skills. But I needed more than just my own experience to make a product that was going to help the largest number of women.
WIth the help of my friend and business partner Rose, eighteen testers came on board to refine the final design. These women, of all shapes and sizes, enthusiastically received a free vest in return for their feedback. By this time, we were all in lockdown for the coronavirus. It was a real pleasure to video chat with ladies all over North America and in Australia to hear about their battles with breast cancer and their responses to our vests. To read Rose’s blog about this click: https://bestbreastvestco.com/blogs/vest-buds/and-shes-off
What did we hear? Firstly, that every woman’s body is a different shape. We narrowed the shoulders and added side-splits to make the pear-shaped women more comfortable. Secondly, we heard that everybody’s breasts are unique. The biggest challenge was the sag. If one breast is unsupported, where do you place the bottom of the pocket on the other side? Even if you get it right at the start, as the lady ages and gravity takes its course, the bottom of that pocket would need to descend too. VELCRO® to the rescue! It is a unique feature of our product that it is capable of changing as the woman does.
Our testers were mostly in agreement that they wanted plain, not patterned, material. They favoured a heavier weight and darker colours to support the figure and hide any differences in symmetry. Everyone asked us to make a black vest, with dark blue and burgundy coming up as the next most popular choices. And we kept hearing the words “classic” and “feminine”.
We incorporated all these suggestions into our final design. We are almost ready to sell our first vest. Our final design (with its patent application pending) is a casual classic that looks like a regular part of your wardrobe, able to be dressed up or down. And it’s secretly working hard for you on the inside! Hope you like it.