Independent Living Search

Clothing Care & Sewing Techniques for Visually Impaired or Totally Blind Students

by Carol Woodward, former Homemaking Teacher
Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Austin, Texas

Revised March 1998

Marking Clothes

Coordinating one’s wardrobe can be accomplished with the following techniques:

A. Safety Pins

This method uses small safety pins to identify colors in clothing.Let the students make up their own system for colors and their positions. It involves placing a safety pin in a specific hidden spot for each color on each garment. For example:

B. French Knots or Yarn Knots

This method is similar to the use of safety pins, marking in different area for different colors.The students should decide on the code used. The knots could stand for the Braille color names, for numbers, or have different shapes (e.g., squares, triangles, circles).Note: Most people have more clothes of one color than another. The prevalent color could be identified with no pins or markings. For clothes which coordinate with several colors, such as plaids, mark each color in the appropriate spot (e.g., left front for blue, side seam for green).

C. Commercially Available Products

Maxi Aids, PO Box 3209, Farmingdale, NY 11735, phone 1-800-522-6294 or 516-752-0521, fax 516-752-0689:

Independent Living Aids, 27 East Mall, Plainview, NY 11803, phone 1-800-537-2118, fax 516-752-3135:

Lighthouse Enterprises, 36-20 Northern Blvd., Long Island City, NY 11101, phone 1-800-829-0500, fax 212-821-9727:

Maggie’s Sew Free Buttons, P.O. Box 54, DeWitt, NY 13214

Threading a Needle

A. Self-Threading Needles

Self-threading needles have two holes, one of which is open. The thread is placed across the top and pushed down through a slit into the second hole. There are several hand positions that can be used to thread the needle while holding it in your hand. The recommended method is to place a pin cushion on the table with the needle stuck straight into it. This allows two free hands to hold onto the thread. Wrap the thread around the two index fingers and use the thumbs to locate the position of the needle in the pin cushion, then push the thread down onto the needle. A disadvantage of self-threading needles is that the thread pulls out of the slit in the needle very easily.

B. Wire Needle Threaders

Wire needle threaders can be purchased in packages of three for about $1. To use this, push the triangular shaped wire through the eye of the needle, put the thread through the triangle, and pull the wire back through the needle with the thread. These may be difficult to use for some students because the wire has to be pushed through the eye of the needle first and the wire may bend or a student may not find the hole in the needle. My students like to wrap the thread around a straight pin and stick the straight pin through the wire loop. This gives the student something stiff to stick through the wire triangle instead of the limp thread.
Dental Floss Threader           Wire Needle Threader

C. Dental Floss Threaders

Dental floss threaders can be purchased in packages of 20 from the drugstore for about $2 – $3. My students prefer these threaders over the wire needle threaders because they are stiff enough to easily thread into the eye of the needle and the loop is flexible, unbreakable, and large enough to feed the thread through. The loop is pulled through the needle from front to back.

Using Scissors

To teach a student with visual impairment how to hold and use scissors:

  1. Put the scissors in your own hand and let the student feel the hand position and the cutting movement (hand-over-hand, student’s hand on top).
  2. Let the student hold the scissors and put your hand around the student’s hand to help guide while cutting (hand-over-hand, teacher’s hand on top).
  3. Let the student practice cutting on raised line paper until the student is able to cut along the line.

Note: Some students’ hands are too weak to cut through two thicknesses of fabric. Let these students cut one thickness at a time. Electric scissors are sometimes helpful.

Patterns and Fabrics

A. How to Make Your Own Patterns

For students who have poor tactual discrimination, I recommend making patterns out of heavy brown paper or butcher paper, using conventional tissue paper patterns as guides or creating your own:

Note: The pattern number, size, and pattern piece could be marked on each pattern piece in braille or large print.

B. Adapting Conventional Patterns

  1. For tactual markings:
    • Before trimming any excess margins off tissue paper patterns, put an Elmer’s Glue line on the cutting lines. Let dry overnight. To keep the tissue paper from sticking to the counters, I put scotch tape on the wrong side of the pattern piece along the cutting lines.
    • Mark these patterns with masking tape as described above.
    • The student should be able to tear off the excess margins outside the glue lines before pinning the pattern on the fabric. Otherwise, I cut off the excess margins outside the glue lines.

    Note: This is the method that I use in my clothing classes. You will need plenty of counter space.

  2. For visual markings: Use a color broadtipped felt pen and retrace all the cutting lines and special markings, such as darts, dots, and pocket placement lines, etc. It is easier to do this before the excess margins have been cut off of the tissue paper pattern. I usually ask the students what color is best.

C. Patterns Available for Visually Impaired Users

Fingertip Patterns, 155 North Bellaire Avenue, Louisville, Kentucky 40206.These patterns are specifically made for the blind. All of the markings are in braille. However, the paper used is similar to butcher paper and it is sometimes difficult to feel the edge of the paper when cutting the fabric (no glue lines). I understand this company has pattern catalogs available per request. For a fee, an adapted pattern can be made if you send a store-bought pattern to the company. Unfortunately, it takes over six weeks to get the pattern back.

D. Buying Fabric

Students should be encouraged to learn to differentiate textures and weaves of various types of fabrics (e.g., cottons, double knits, wool). A trip to a fabric store should include opportunities to tactually explore fabric. Describe the characteristics of different fabrics verbally to the students. Help them pick a pattern, or practice soliciting help of a sighted person, and practice buying the fabric and all the sewing notions needed, and paying for the purchase.

E. Transferring Patterns Fabric

Make all necessary adaptations (e.g., glue lines or colored felt-tip lines). From this point on, the student should be able to lay out the pattern (using the masking tape grainline arrows as guides), pin the pattern to the fabric, and cut out the pieces. For beginners, I recommend simple projects, such as an apron, tote bag, poncho, skirt with elastic in the waistline, pants with drawstring or elastic in the waistline or a “torn project” (where the student tears out the pieces rather than cutting out the pieces). I strongly recommend that the fabric chosen be a woven polyester and cotton fabric.Only special markings such as darts, dots, pocket placement lines, or notches need to be marked on the fabric. Darts can be identified by placing a small safety pin at the point and at each end, where the staples were on the adapted paper pattern . When the darts are ready to be sewn, the safety pins are replaced with straight pins. I sometimes have my beginners trace the pattern markings with a tracing wheel on tracing paper, in addition to the safety pins, so they will be familiar with that technique.

Machine Sewing

A. Pinhead GuideThe use of a pinhead guide helps the blind student sew straight. Place a row of straight pins horizontally onto the sticky side of a piece of masking tape. Let the heads of the pins extend over one side. Place another piece of masking tape with the nonsticky side directly over the pins. Stick the pinhead guide to the metal slide plate on the sewing machine.The placement of the pinhead guide may vary depending on the task (regular seam at 5/8 inch, staystitching at 1/2 inch, topstitching at 1/4 inch). A notched metal seam gauge, similar to a 6-inch ruler, but with indented notches at each half-inch mark, can be used to aid the placement of the pinhead guide. Most sewing machines come with an etched line on the metal slide plate that marks the 5/8 inch regular seam line. Most students can feel this line and place the pinhead guide on it. When beginning to sew, the fabric is lined up with the first pin on the pinhead guide (which is even with the machine needle).B. Metal Seam GuideMost sewing machines have a screw hole to the right of the needle for a metal seam guide that functions like the pinhead guide. These metal seam guides are also available in a magnetic form. I prefer the screw on type because the magnetic ones tend to move out of position. Some of my students use a combination of the screw on type seam guide and magnetic guide (or pinhead guide) in order to make a longer edge for the fabric to move against.

C. Needle Finger Guard

This is a small 3-sided metal bar attached to the sewing machine on the same bar as the presser foot near the needle. It is a safety device to warn the user that the needle is close by. The finger guard is pulled down in front of the needle when sewing and pushed up to the left of the needle when threading. Most new sewing machines have a finger guard.

D. Seams

Have your students pin the pieces of fabric together with straight pins parallel to the fabric edge with the points of the pins pointing toward the needle of the sewing machine. This makes it easier for the student to pull the pins out of the fabric and it gives the student a better idea of where the stitching line will be. I recommend using pins with large colored plastic heads. Beginners should practice sewing two pieces of Braille paper together first, using the metal seam guide to sew straight.

E. Darts

If the darts were marked with safety pins, fold the dart in half by making the safety pins even. Replace the safety pins with straight pins and put a straight line of pins from the wide end to the point by using the seam gauge or ruler as a straight edge. Place the pinhead guide directly in front and in line with the needle and presser foot. Start at the wide end of the dart (at the fabric edge) and begin stitching, holding the pins in the fabric flat against the pinhead guide and remove the pins one by one to the point of the dart.


Mark the length desired with a pin. Measure the fabric to be turned up with the notched seam gauge and pin up the entire hem. Press the pinned up hem.

A. Sewing Hems with the Sewing Machine

Whenever possible, use the sewing machine to sew in hems. Use the metal seam guide or pinhead guide, placing it as far from the needle as the depth of the hem, and stitch.

B. Ironing Hems with Stitch Witchery

This is an iron-on adhesive, mesh-like material available in strips or by the yard. The strips are easiest to use for hems. After pressing the hem up, remove the straight pins and place the Stitch Witchery between the fabric and iron.

C. Sewing Hems by Hand

Thread a needle using a double thread. A single thread comes off the needle too frequently. Hold the hem in one hand with the thumb on the pinned hem edge. With the other hand, put the needle through the fabric until the point just touches the index finger and then push the needle back up through the fabric. Position the thumb so that the first stitch is on one side of the thumb. Now take the second stitch on the other side of the thumb. Continue around the hem, using the thumb as a guide for the size of the stitch to make.

Ironing Clothes

A. Safety Techniques

Teach the student how to turn the iron on and off, the positions of basic temperature settings, how to add water to steam irons, how to set the iron down when it is hot, and which parts of the iron get hot. With a cold iron, show the student how to hold the iron correctly. Teach students to put the iron down by keeping the forearm straight out with the elbow next to the body. To find the iron again after putting it down, trail up the ironing board on the side closest to the body or find the cord and go up the cord to the handle.

B. How to Iron a Shirt

Folding Clothes

A. Folding Shirts

First button every other button and the cuffs, if applicable. To find the top of the shirt, put your hand inside the top of each sleeve. Shake out the shirt holding onto the top of it. Lay shirt face down on a table with the collar to the left. Pull the sleeves out to the sides uncreasing the body as much as possible. Bring the body of the shirt close to the edge of the table. Put the index finger side of the left hand next to the collar (right side of shirt), fingers pointing to the shirt tail, and fold over right side of shirt. Fold the right sleeve lining it up lengthwise with the shirt. Repeat for left side of shirt. Bring the tail end of the shirt up to the collar to fold in half lengthwise, or fold in thirds by bringing the tail end up one third and then fold again in half.

B. Folding Creased Pants

By holding the bottom of each pants leg put the seams together, making sure the inside seams are touching. Hold the bottom of the legs and put under your chin. Bring the waist of the pants up and fold in half, or hold on to each end and bring hands together.

Hanging Clothes

A. Hanging Shirts and Dresses

Put the hand inside each sleeve or armhole and slide the hanger in. Button any top button to prevent the garment from sliding off. Line up either the tag on the shirt with the hanger hook or the shoulder seams with the hanger arms.

B. Hanging Pants

Crease the pants the same way as when folding pants. Lay the pants flat on a table with the pant legs out in front of you. Slide the hanger under the pant legs, almost to the crotch, and raise up off of the table.


A. Washing and Drying

Most washers and dryers have various types of settings. If possible, mark the settings for regular and permanent press with glue dots, puffy paint, or Hi Marks. Do not overload the washer or the dryer! Teach how to sort clothes according to color and type of laundry and how to measure detergent. Remember to put the detergent and bleach into the washer with the water before putting the clothes into the washer (it is a good idea to swish the water a few times to dissolve the detergent). To avoid ironing, take polyester clothing out of the dryer before completely dry and hang up, or as soon as the dryer stops, hang up the clothes quickly.It is not recommended for blind students to use bleach in their laundry. If bleach is to be used, then use it only on white cottons (make sure the student knows about different fabrics). An alternative would be a detergent with bleach safe for colors.

B. Stain Removal

Stains or spots on clothing must be found or identified by a sighted person. The stain should be marked with a safety pin, or if the spot is large surround the spot with safety pins. Use a prewash or stain treatment and let it soak for a few minutes. Then wash the garment with the other laundry in the washing machine.