Mel Martinez’s father had an unusual (and very unofficial) title in the Air Force: Stitch Bitch. Decades later, that title — bestowed on many men whose chores included sewing — has now become something of a rallying cry for queer seamstresses like Martinez, who put gender affirmation at the heart of their creations. Martinez and many others are reinventing their craft to subvert the status quo of designs that don’t quite fit, and instead are building a world of underwear, lingerie and lingerie where everyone (and every body) is welcome.
“I’ve always been very concerned about how clothes fit; I have very sensitive skin and some skin allergies and some sensory things,” says Martinez, who uses both she and them as pronouns. In the underwear space, that means it often takes her months to find them Perfect Pair. So, knowing how to use a sewing machine, they finally decided to build their own.
When it comes to dressing, gender affirmation can mean a multitude of things: paying homage to oneself and one’s body, functional — and perhaps unconventional — tailoring, and, of course, comfort. But there isn’t much information available on the subject, Martinez says.
You’re right: Communities like Sew Queer and The Sewcialists (which shut down in 2021) have served as digital meeting places for queer people who want to make their own intimacies. But it’s a piecemeal effort to share information and pattern hacks — worlds away from the mainstream sewing companies that have been mass-producing patterns (mostly) women for generations. Queers are looking for something often overlooked: binders, gaffs, lingerie for trans women, boxers for non-binary people; Designs that simply have never existed in the McCall or Simplicity pattern universe.
While conventional, gender-specific bra cuts are a dime a dozen, Emilia Bergoglio, a queer seamstress in Tokyo, Japan, saw that there were “basically zero resources” when it came to sewing binders. It prompted her to write a blog post titled “The Great Binder Story” for The Sewcialists as part of a larger series entitled All Chests Welcome, in which knowledge and instructions were cobbled together by a variety of crafters.
“Binding materials are essential for many trans people and they don’t come cheap,” they say. “Sometimes it’s impossible to find something on the market that fully represents who you are, so sewing helps you with that. You can create it yourself. The fit, the fabric, the silhouette – it’s very powerful.”
The Sew Queer blog has a similar page with resources more specifically aimed at queer sewing, full of links to tutorials, Facebook community groups, patterns, and suggested materials – ranging from posts like the included Floozy Doozy DIY Underwear Strap On Hack complete pattern available for purchase to a Facebook group hosted by Rad Patterns where people can share pattern hacks, tweaks, and changes to better suit their needs. It’s a small but growing rolodex of important information.
The queer community has been ingrained in a do-it-yourself mentality for generations, making their own clothes, media, music, etc., says fashion historian Valerie Steele, who organized the 2013 FIT exhibition A Queer History of Fashion: From the Wardrobe to the catwalk.” Because clothing is one of the clearest forms of non-verbal communication, it was critical in enabling under-the-radar queer dialogue.
“When you start looking into fashion, you realize there were all these hidden stories — at least hidden to the general public today, not necessarily to people of the time,” she says. “When you look at your sexuality, your gender, your sexual orientation, your sexual representation of the world – all of these things are related to your identity and fashion is very much about that intersection between your sense of who you are, and who in general society thinks you are.”
From this point of view, Martinez realized that queers who can sew often make their own underpants. The queers who couldn’t do that needed an alternative. That’s what prompted Martinez to start Aqua Underwear, a boxer shorts brand (for now) that started out of her home in Salt Lake City, Utah, in the midst of the pandemic. “It was at this point that a lot of people started talking to me about their underwear frustrations. Underwear isn’t exactly a casual conversation with people, but when they find out you make underwear, it’s like, yeah, everyone wants to talk to you about underwear!”
Martinez tapped into a market that exploded during the pandemic; women’s lingerie alone was worth US$42 billion in 2020 and is expected to reach US$78.66 billion by 2027. Of course, these stats don’t include the emerging categories like gender-affirming and gender-enhancing underwear that manufacturers like Martinez specialize in.
It’s a niche whose growth is fueled by the needs of the community, says Rae Hill, founder of Origami Customs, which offers bespoke, hand-sewn lingerie. Hill estimates that gender-specific items now account for 85 to 90 percent of their sales.
“My community has really defined the direction the company has grown,” they say. “We’re not reinventing the wheel. These things already exist. And I think people needed to feel really good and safe about where they came from, knowing that this is a queer and transgender company, that it’s ethically manufactured, that they’re comfortable buying it, and that it fits — Size inclusivity, body inclusivity – that you can send us a message. Everything is really made from a single source.”
Of course, hyper-custom pieces don’t come cheap. Hill works with over a dozen community organizations to offer low-cost and free options (Martinez also runs a pay-what-you-can program).
Whether it’s bespoke or homemade, queer seamstresses around the world ultimately have the same goal: to help people feel comfortable in, as Bergoglio puts it, “their chosen skin.”
“I think it comes down to just being comfortable with yourself,” says Hill. “I really hope so [our pieces] can be an entry point for people to start playing with their gender – literally we try things on and see how they feel.”