In Orša, production of special vests for children with autism spectrum disorders, attention deficit disorder and hyperactivity, cerebral palsy and other peculiarities was launched.
The vests for children with special needs are characterized by numerous pockets filled with special weights. Such weighted vests help children feel better the boundaries of their own bodies, calm down, relieve anxiety and focus. It is reported that in certain cases, provided the vests have been properly selected and used, they can replace medical treatment. There are other items of weighted clothes made using a similar principle: pants, dresses, armlets: it depends on what part of a child's body needs to be ‘calmed down.’
Of course, parents with children with special needs and teachers who use it in sensory integration classes know that such clothes exist.
“From parents I learned about these vests and also about the problems they face when trying to choose something appropriate for a child from the range of products offered in Belarus,” says Yulia Kutepova, head of a sewing workshop located in Orša and participant of the entrepreneurial initiative called, “I won't get lost or designer vests for autistic children.” “Most models look like a fisherman's suit and are made of artificial fabrics; besides, their quality is not always high.”
“Manufacturers either ‘hide’ the important information about a child, i.e. name, parents’ phone numbers inside the vest or provide no space for it at all; so parents have to leave notes with contact information in an inside pocket. And here is the difficulty: not all children can talk, not all are easy to contact strangers and, if suddenly lost, end up in a difficult situation, because few will take the notes out of the pocket, if guess at all that there are notes in there,” Yulia explains. “If parents are lucky to get some worthwhile weighted clothing, this clothing will be repaired, patched up again and again to be passed on to each other over the years as children grow older.”
So Yulia came to a thought: why not try sewing high-quality and pretty vests in her workshop?
In the workshop, they want to make "adjustable" vests so that the number of weights can be selected individually depending on height, need to calm and correctional purpose. If all weights are removed, the vests become simple school uniforms. The first models have already been sewn; they will be provided to families and orphanages for testing. To understand if the vest is really comfortable, one should wear it.
“We designed our vests using the help of art-therapists and psychologists. But it is still important to find out how comfortable they are in real life. For example, whether the inside pockets should be velcro fastened. Or would it be better to use zipping or rubber band? We will not be able to finish the model off if we don’t receive feedback,” Yulia recalls.
To move away from ‘special uniform’ and come closer to fashionable, high-quality clothing is what Yulia wanted. That all came true due to the project “Support to Economic Development at the Local Level in the Republic of Belarus” funded by the European Union and implemented by the UN Development Program (UNDP) in partnership with the Ministry of Economy of the Republic of Belarus. Thanks to the project, the workshop in Orša now has ‘smart’ equipment, which allows them to address technological challenges of sewing production.\
“Now we can embroider children’s names, phone numbers, emblems, chevrons and any multi-coloured pictures. We just need to program it and numerous small needles will simultaneously work on an image. The machine allows us to embroider all types of clothes, e.g. baseball caps,” Yulia says demonstrating the equipment that looks like an embroidery printer.
Such embroidery machine was necessary for the production of vests, because each of them is supplemented with important information that helps a child not to get lost.
To make durable bags and quilted vests an industrial coverstitch machine for quilting, seams finishing, unusual designs and decorative stitches was bought. There is now a computer sewing machine for quilting that is the American variety of patchwork. To provide a neat finished look to products, an ironing board with a powerful steam generator was bought. Quality fabrics were bought for the first batches of vests: mostly natural fabrics that contact a child's body and do not cause allergies.
Profit is not everything?
Yulia believes that high commercial profit from vest production should not be expected. It will not be possible to produce this type of clothing en masse because of its specificity and relatively limited demand. It is more likely that they will make vests for individual customers.
The workshop, however, is going to produce other products demanded by parents and teachers of children with special needs. For example, sensory bags, coloured parachutes for classes. They are going to sew aprons for parents and tutors (special teachers who help children with learning). Aprons have many pockets where you can place supporting materials for classes such as tablets, cards, pens, toys.
“For some people the achievement is to become a director, for others - the ability to learn a three-line poem,” Yulia explains the motivation behind their work, “I've been doing a lot of volunteer work since I was a student. I visit boarding schools where children with special needs live. And I understand that help and support are needed, so I decided to develop social values in my workshop. Making vests and other ‘special’ clothes will probably never become a super profitable business but it is still important for me to do it.”
The workshop’s financial stability will be ensured by other more habitual areas. For example, stage costumes, which they have always made. Yulia is sure that people will continue to order everyday clothes, clothes for work, e.g. medical workers often order suits with custom design. Working on the vests, Yulia realized what equipment she still needed. She says that the list of equipment to be purchased under the initiative would now be adjusted considering the new experience. She has no regrets however and now plans to buy additional equipment later at own expense. Besides, Yulia also wants to find the missing part for her very old machine for openwork embroidery. She says that this machine is the only one in Belarus and it was a miracle when it appeared in her workshop. This gift from a grateful client has a long history and came to Orša from the United States. Perhaps this vintage machine will also serve the enterprise.
“The new equipment increases our opportunities. Embroidery will be more affordable now. I used to embroider manually before, which was very expensive, or had to send clothes to colleagues in Brest for machine embroidery. Now I can offer such a service in the workshop,” Yulia says. “Embroidery on modern clothes is very fashionable. Why shouldn't this area be considered as something that will bring additional income?”
Support for such business initiatives ensures implementation of the state programs "Social Protection” for 2021-2025, "Labour Market and Employment Promotion|” for 2021-2025. It also helps create new points of economic growth at the regional level that take into account local needs of vulnerable populations and support them.