At a local maker night, Irish fashion designer Ruth Duignan overheard Limerick e-NABLE volunteers designing an assistive device fitted with velcro straps. “I asked why they were using velcro, which would be rough for children,” she remembers. Ruth suggested elastic would be more comfortable and would offer the same functionality to fit the device snugly to the skin. “There are amazing companies that sell beautiful, soft, patterned elastic,” she offered.
As part of a multidisciplinary, collaborative maker community, the men were receptive to her ideas. Ruth had a few more thoughts about how the fabric-based components of the devices could be improved; improvements not only in functionality but in aesthetic, style, and comfort. “Someone wears this, so it’s a concern,” Ruth remarked.
For instance, many e-NABLE volunteers use rubber or foam padding to cushion the velcro from the skin, but Ruth recommends using one of Ireland’s tweed wool producers, as the material is self-sterilizing and, surprisingly, soft. The material is already used in everyday wear, as well as in athletic gear. When she brought in samples of lamb’s wool, everyone agreed that this material would be more appropriate. “I wanted to show how we can bring new tech [assistive devices] to an old industry [textile production],” Ruth says.
Another time, Ruth heard two volunteers talking about cutting elastic down the middle. “I jumped in because I knew — the elastic wouldn’t work if they did that!” Ruth said.
Chapter founder Jack Sutcliffe said, “We need to have a healthy discussion as e-NABLE volunteers, because we can get obsessed with 3D printing, and sometimes we need a fresh perspective. Ruth comes at it asking questions like ‘Can you put it in the washing machine?’”
Fashion Design as Leadership in a Multidisciplinary Context
Open Creators, the e-NABLE chapter in Limerick, runs with the philosophy that the biggest breakthroughs do not always come from prosthetic makers, engineers, and designers. “Our chapter has involvement from product designers, fashion designers, textile students, and parents of the students,” says Jack, “It’s incredible to see the experience people bring in, ranging in age, range, experience. It’s phenomenal.”
Ruth brings valuable input to the organization, with the realization that “I never thought I’d have a role in a project like e-NABLE. I thought the technology was beyond my grasp. People with more traditional production skills, such as textiles, may feel intimidated and may think they don’t have a part to play,” Ruth remarked, “but there is a breadth of skills involved. Now, I have a lot to offer here.”
Ruth is interested in the history of Irish fashion and where it is going in the future with traditional skills and contemporary technology. Recently, a local college hosted a 3-day fashion exhibition with a focus on enterprise and fashion. As the keynote speaker, Ruth spoke about disability, asking how we can better accommodate everyone within the fashion system. “There is a limited idea of what it means to be a fashion designer, and what our skills can be used for,” Ruth remarked.
She reminded the audience that even centuries ago, the first ivory prosthetics had carvings of whales as decorations. Today, children like to pick the color and fabrics involved in their devices. Ruth believes that good fashion design assists in buy-in of the end user. “When the devices have good end-usability, the design becomes part of their wardrobe as a fashion accessory.” With input from the fashion industry, e-NABLE devices can be improved to provide the best care in the lives of children.