Inspired by a diabetic child, a policewoman-turned-seamstress has made a special range of dresses to discreetly accommodate insulin pumps, which have been so successful she now aims to patent the design.
After meeting Julia Looker, 10 – who had been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes four years earlier – at an art show where she was exhibiting her ordinary dresses in Cohasset, Massachusetts, USA, Julie Christian, 53, was determined to design some clothes specially for children like her.
She had spotted Julia’s insulin pump – a battery powered device attached to the body via a cannula and needle, which administers the hormone, used to stop a diabetic’s blood sugar from getting too high – dangling from her arm at the July 2018 show and felt sure she could make dresses to accommodate it.
Julie, mom to Jack, 23, Charlotte, 21, and William, 20 said: “Julia was lovely and was looking at my dresses with her mom, Rachelle Looker – but her pump was extremely obvious to me.
“Rachelle told me how it could get in the way of life, as Julia has to wear shorts under all her dresses to clip the pump onto, otherwise she would have to hold it.
“She also said the tubing often got caught, or ripped whenever she was playing with other children.”
She continued: “I felt so terrible that a child should have such a burden, as well as an awful illness, so I knew I had to help in any way I could.”
Meeting up with Rachelle, 47, whose husband Mark, 48, is a stay-at-home dad, and Julia a few days after the event, Julie – who, before she began dressmaking had been an auxiliary police officer and 911 emergency operator – learned some of horrors of living with type 1 diabetes, which she had been oblivious to.
Watching Julia prick her finger with a small needle and use the blood sample to check her glucose levels in a blood monitor, she then saw her use a plastic clamp to attach the insulin pump to her body.
She said: “It was so shocking to see a child work with medication in a sophisticated way.
“I was impressed by her knowledge and skills, but I felt awful that she had to do it in the first place. It isn’t something a child should ever have to worry about.”
Julie then started designing Julia’s dress by taking measurements of her body and her pump and picking out patterns and fabrics from her long list of options.
Only training as a seamstress in 2016, after deciding she needed a career change and studying textiles at the Rhode Island School of Design, an affiliate of the Ivy League school Brown University, in Providence, USA, Julie had graduated at the age of 50 and visited India and Sri Lanka to learn her craft.
Returning to her job with the police for a few months in January 2018, she quit for good in June 2018 – just before meeting Julia – by which time she was creating her own designs, working out of a friend’s tailor shop in Hanover.
She said: “I had been making dresses and going to art shows to display them for potential buyers and never expected someone like Julia to walk up to my stall and change my path.”
Now working on the corporate compliance data analytics team at her new job, too, so she has a regular income, inspired by Julia, if she can make enough money from her specialist diabetes dresses to make ends meet, she is hoping to move into dressmaking full-time.
“When I was designing the dress, I tried to treat Julia’s pump and tubing as though it was an iPhone with wired headphones,” Julie explained.
“Because that’s what it’s like for her – it’s like walking around with your phone by your side and your wired earphones swinging everywhere, catching on things, restricting your movement. That’s what it’s like for Julia, except she doesn’t have the privilege of removing it whenever she wants.”
Designing the dress around the pump, which is waterproof and can only be taken off for a maximum of two hours, Julie created internal pockets, which it could sit in without looking lumpy.
Finally, after three weeks of work, during which she designed various prototypes, she made the dress of Julia’s dreams – a sleeveless floral dress with lavender colors made with polished cotton, French seams and a dropped waist.
Remaining secretive about the logistics of her garment, after seeing how thrilled Julia was when she tried her new dress on, Julie is now keen to patent the design.
She said: “I brought over the lavender colored dress to Julia’s house and when she opened the door she had dyed a streak of her hair lavender to match it, so I could tell she was excited.
“When she came downstairs wearing it she took my breath way. I was choking up looking at her, because it wasn’t just a dress, it was an opportunity for Julia to feel like every other little girl.”
Julie now spend most weekends creating bespoke dresses for children aged between three and 13 years – some for diabetics, like Julia, and others just plain, costing from £115 to £300. They can take anything from three weeks to a month to perfect, depending on the details, such as added embroidery or sequins.
And she wants to create prom, wedding or special occasion dresses for girls and women with diabetic pumps, who do not want their medical needs to cramp their style.
But designing for children remains her priority, according to Julie, who added: “I want these little girls to be recognized as the people behind the illness. They should be known for being more than unwell – they should be known for having a beautiful, unique dress which was made just for them.
“It’s a chance for them to feel special and for them, just for a while, not to think about their condition, which follows them everywhere they go.”