Trendy and Useful

A small company in Orsha, Belarus creates clothing line helping to ease life for children with autism, attention deficit and hyperactivity.

November 16, 2022
А woman in a sewing workshop

Yulia Kutepova, head of the sewing workshop in Orsha and the driving force behind the entrepreneurial initiative “I won't get lost or designer vests for autistic children.”

Photo: Yana Bondar/UNDP in Belarus

A weighted vest is a wearable garment for children with special needs, typically a vest with numerous pockets filled with special weights. The weight and compression delivered by the vests help children with autism feel better the boundaries of their own bodies, increase sense of calm, focus and attention, reduce in anxiety. It is believed that in certain cases, properly selected and used vests can even replace medical treatment. There are other garments of weighted clothes designed using a similar principle: pants, dresses, armlets: it depends on what part of a child's body needs to be ‘comforted.’ Parents with children with special needs and teachers and therapists are very well-familiar with these garments as they are often used in sensory integration therapy.

“I learned about these vests from parents and also learned about the challenges they face when trying to choose something appropriate for a child from the clothing lines available in Belarus. Most models resemble a fisherman's suit, are made of artificial fabric and sometimes of low quality. “If parents are lucky to get some worthwhile weighted garment it is repaired, patched up again and again to be passed on to other kids over the years.”
Yulia Kutepova, head of the sewing workshop in Orsha.

“Manufacturers either ‘hide’ the important information about a child, i.e. name, parents’ phone numbers inside the vest or leave no space for it at all. Because of that parents insert notes with contact information into inside pockets, which is a problem as not all children can talk or feel comfortable to communicate with strangers. If lost children can end up in a challenging situation because few of them will take the notes out of inner pockets,” Yulia explains.

That is why Yulia came up with an idea: why not try to make high-quality and fashionable vests in her workshop?

Clothing customization

In the workshop, they want to make "adjustable" vests so that the number of weights can be selected individually depending on height, sensory requirements, and treatment strategy. If all weights are removed, the vests turn into ordinary school uniform. The first garments have already been made; they will be delivered to families and orphanages for testing and further improvement.

“Our vests are designed in partnership with art-therapists and psychologists. But it is still important to ensure that they are comfortable to wear daily. For example, whether 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 any feedback,” Yulia recalls.

Yulia wanted to move away from ‘special garment’ and bring weighted vests to a trendy, high-quality clothing line. 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. The project helped the company to buy new “smart” sewing equipment, which allows them to overcome technology challenges.

“Now we can make embroideries with children’s names, phone numbers, emblems, chevrons and any multi colour patches. We just need to program it and numerous small needles will simultaneously work on an any image. This machine can do embroidery on any garment, including baseball caps,” Yulia says demonstrating the equipment that looks like an embroidery printer.

It is very important to have such a machine to produce vests, as now every garment features an important information that helps a child not to get lost.

To make durable bags and quilted vests an industrial cover-stitch 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 are friendly to child’s skin and do not cause allergies.

Woman with cloth
Photo: Yana Bondar/UNDP in Belarus
Child  wearing a vest
Photo: Yana Bondar/UNDP in Belarus
Embroidery Machine
Photo: Yana Bondar/UNDP in Belarus

Profit is not top goal?

Yulia believes that there should be no high expectations about commercial profitability of the vest business. It will not be possible to produce this type of clothing en masse because of its niche market characteristics and relatively limited demand. More likely the company will work with individual orders.

The workshop will focus on other products needed by parents and teachers for children with special needs. For example, sensory bags, coloured parachutes for classes. They will make aprons for parents and tutors (special teachers who help children with learning). Aprons have many pockets where you may keep teaching aids like tablets, cards, pens, and toys.

“For some people the achievement is to become a director, for others - the ability to learn a three-line poem,” Yulia explains the inspiration that drives her work forward, “I've been doing a lot of volunteer work since I was a student. I visited boarding schools where children with special needs live.  I understand the importance of help and support and 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 this.”

Fashion board

The workshop’s financial stability will be ensured by other product lines, for example stage costumes.

Photo: Yana Bondar/UNDP in Belarus

Yulia is sure that people will continue to order everyday clothes, clothes for work, including medical workers who often order suits with custom design. Now Yulia can clearly see with additional equipment she needs. The woman 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 her own expense. Yulia also wants to find the missing part for her antique machine for openwork embroidery. She says that this machine is the only one in Belarus and its appearance in her workshop was a miracle. The gift from a grateful client has a long history and came to Orsha from the United States. Perhaps, after the repair this vintage machine will also serve the company’s purpose.

“The new equipment expands our business opportunities. Now we can afford embroidery works. Before I used to do it manually, which was very expensive, or had to send clothes to colleagues in Brest to do machine embroidery. Now I can do this in my workshop,” Yulia says. “Embroidery is a part of modern fashion. 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 consider and target local needs of vulnerable populations.