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Seamster sparks patient creativity, comfort

Thursday, December 21, 2023

For more than a decade, Elizabeth Flick fitted and fashioned brides for their wedding day.  Now, she has found a new way to use her creative sewing skills – ensuring Oregon State Hospital patients feel comfortable in their own clothes.

Flick is one of three OSH seamsters who provide sewing and alteration services to patients. On an average day, Flick may work with five to six patients who visit the hospital’s clothing store to shop from an inventory of basic clothing items or request alterations. 

Many patients may be admitted with only the clothes they’re wearing or very limited possessions. Flick enjoys helping patients find clothes that not only fit their body but empower them when they need it most. 

“Clothes are such an important part of personal expression from color to fabric choice,” she said. “The same way you and I choose clothes with intention, the patients get to choose their clothes with intention. It’s helping them feel good because they’re expressing their individuality and that can help with their mental wellness.”   

Having the ability to choose their own clothing also empowers patients in a situation where most things are out of their control since the hospital maintains schedules for patient dining, treatment services and even time outdoors, said Jennifer Snyder, OSH clinical psychologist. 

“Most of our patients didn’t choose to come to the hospital, and they don’t have control over many of the decisions we take for granted,” Snyder said. “Being able to choose their clothes and wear clothes that fit well and feel comfortable gives them some autonomy and can help them feel more normal in what is decidedly not a normal situation.  And, just like anyone else, when people are dressed in clothes that they like, they are more likely to feel positive about themselves and others and have confidence that they can manage the stresses of life.” 

In the clothing store, patients can drop in and shop for t-shirts, sweatshirts, sweatpants, dresses, skirts, shoes, undergarments and other clothing items. The clothes hang in racks or are neatly folded on shelves — just like a store in the community. Store items are free to patients, and they also have the option to purchase other clothing items through an ordering process. 

Right now, most of the stocked store clothing is state-purchased inventory that covers basic clothing needs, and a smaller percentage of the store’s stock is from community donations. The hospital’s Volunteer Services department is hoping to boost donations that will introduce more color, texture and streetwear options. 
The seamsters also mend or alter patient’s personal clothing which may be needed to align with hospital policy, improve fit due to weight fluctuation or to extend the life of the item. 

Flick recently worked with a patient who needed a jacket mended at the armholes and elbows.  

“The patient came here with it and it’s special to them,” Flick said. “We’re going to put heart-shaped patches at the elbows and restore the wearability to her garment. She’ll be able to keep the comfort that she has with that jacket.” 

She may also make modifications to garments or help patients find appropriate clothing for their specific needs. 

“Some people have sensory needs, so if it’s the wrong fabric they’re not going to be receptive to growth or to staff. My job is to work with them to find a balance between what they want and what we can provide. Having the personal option to have a choice in what they wear puts them in a better place to receive the help they need at the hospital,” she said.   

The seamster team’s work isn't just about clothes. Elizabeth and the team work closely with patient treatment team members like occupational therapists to find solutions to better support a patient's sensory needs. The seamsters help modify important sensory items like weighted blankets or vests and bean bags for tapping. The items help promote regulation, calming and organization of the nervous system, explained Janelle Sheehan, OSH occupational and physical therapy director. 

The seamster team has helped problem solve issues patients may face like modifying a pillowcase with removable towels sewn on the inside with Velcro and buttons to keep it in place for a bariatric patient who was drooling excessively at night. 

“They’ve engaged in problem solving with us to modify meaningful items to reduce risk and brainstorm with us to create items to promote engagement in fine motor and gross motor activities and skill development,” Sheehan said. 

Flick started at the hospital in April 2022, and she admitted she didn’t even know that the hospital employed seamsters. 

“It’s been a really fun exploration of being able to work without being micromanaged while being part of a team,” she said. “I also get a lot of fulfillment from taking a boring garment and transforming into something that’s stylish and retains that comfort of the familiar while being something new. It’s definitely in my wheelhouse.” 

Flick holds an associate of science degree in custom dressmaking/fashion design and while her previous retail work with brides was professionally fulfilling, she said she’s finally found a job that offers her more. 

“This is a unique position that enables me to use my skills to give back in a meaningful way,” she said. “There’s the hierarchy of needs in a job – that it’s what you want to do, that you’re earning enough and that you’re giving back to society. This is the first job I’ve had that knocks all three out of the park.” 


Elizabeth Flick, OSH seamster

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