Dr. Katherine Carroll has a unique philosophy on fashion apparel. She believes “intelligent clothing design” can improve the health and quality of life for all people, including people with disabilities — and has done the research to back it up. An assistant professor at the College of Textiles at North Carolina State University, Carroll is now advising the fashion industry on cost-effective, practical ways to embrace consumers with physical disabilities.
Q: Dr. Carroll, how did you get involved in studying the technological and societal impact behind fashion?
My research work in textiles during my Master’s Degree work [at Michigan State University] was mainly in the historic area. I was very interested in the types of clothing that women wore to work in the 19th century, when working outside the home first became acceptable. When I started my PhD [at Virginia Tech], I became interested in Universal Design (UD). I was making clothing on the side for a couple of women with disabilities, and I began to wonder why it was so difficult for them to find comfortable and attractive clothing to wear to work. That led me to take my first Universal Design class, and then to explore the application of UD to clothing. I’m now committed to opening up this market to the apparel industry, and convincing the industry that there’s a viable market out there.
Q:: Can you explain the idea of universal or inclusive clothing for those who aren’t familiar with the concept?
A: Universal design means designing products that are usable by a wide variety of users with varying abilities. The two terms are interchangeable really. In Europe and Asia, the term “Design for All” is more readily used. It’s about re-thinking product design so that the widest array of users can benefit. Of course, clothing presents more problems than, say, a potato peeler, because of the proximity to the body and the materials that are used, but the principles of Universal Design can be applied to clothing as well.
Q: What do you see as the current barriers to mainstream designers’ embrace of the concept of universal or inclusive clothing?
A: I don’t think that mainstream designers really understand that products can be made to serve multiple users. Consumers with disabilities still appear as markets of one, and that’s just not good economics for mainstream companies. I’ve also found that because of the lack of understanding of disability in general, there’s a perception that this market will require specialized service and after-purchase care.
Q: What are some of the incentives for mainstream designers to start selling inclusive clothing?
A: Well, if clothing can be designed and produced to be truly inclusive, then it will be appropriate for everyone. For example, a zipper that is easy to use, or buttons which require less dexterity, are probably going to be appealing to most of the population.
Q: Anything else you’d like to share about “intelligent clothing design”?
A: Well, not only do I want to push the industry in terms of product development for the sake of the customer, but I also believe that there are some economic development opportunities out there for companies to expand product lines and start new ones. There are a lot of small, owner-operated companies out there servicing the needs of a few consumers. I would like to do more work on a community level encouraging more businesses like this to grow their operations and give jobs back to their communities.