FOR each of us clothes are the armour, or perhaps the camouflage, we put on to present the version of ourselves we want the world to see. They can reflect our personality or help us to fit in and make us feel good about ourselves.

But for people with disabilities or those living with brain injuries and degenerative conditions, clothing choices are either removed or are limited by practical concerns. Dressability, formed in Swindon in 1998 by carer Sian Barrie, aims to give back that small but significant area of control over lives that have lost so much of it.

“Our whole philosophy is about inclusion and self-respect and allowing people to make their own choices about what they wear,” says manager Sharon Tombs.

The charity, based above Swindon Therapy Centre at Bradbury House in Westmead Drive, is not just about restoring choice, it is also there to help free people from the restrictions their conditions place on them by adapting the clothes they want to wear to suit their situation. That means replacing zips, buttons and clips with Velcro or magnets, adjusting waists, leg lengths or adding panels – all with the highest discretion and quality of work.

“Allowing people the dignity of being able to dress and undress themselves is so important, that’s something you can’t put a price on,” says Sharon. “That’s what we really should have as a right.

“We’ve met people who’ve had a stroke who are having to have their bra put on by a family member, nobody wants that. We can adapt a bra so that it can be put on with one hand.”

Dressability’s three highly-skilled dressmakers can alter or adapt virtually any piece of clothing for anyone within a 25-mile radius of Swindon (though it never turns anyone away and now offers a postal service).

Some jobs give clients the opportunity to regain their dignity, like the bank manager who wanted to continue to wear smart trousers instead of easy-to-wear tracksuit bottoms after a stroke. Others, like nine-year-old Grace, who lives with a severe disability, have had a dream made reality.

“Her dad brought her in and it transpired she had never had a dress because she has a non-standard body shape that stopped her getting one to fit her,” said Mrs Tombs.

Dressability’s nimble-fingered volunteers made her two dresses and since then have delivered three more. The smile that lights up her face as she wears it is proof enough of the joy it brings.

“She’d also never worn a school uniform dress because they don’t make one that fits her,” said Sharon.“The whole philosophy of who we are is making sure that everyone has the same opportunity to wear the clothing of their choice, regardless of their body shape or their circumstances.

“Imagine when you are the only child in the class in a wheelchair, that is challenging enough, and then you can’t get a school uniform to fit you either, that further isolates you from other people.”

Clients mostly find their way to the charity by word of mouth or referral from other organisations. They visit its dressmakers, or receive a visit at home, to discuss what they need and are shown a range of samples of previous work to demonstrate what can be done to adapt the clothes they need.

They will modify one piece of clothing for the client to try and then visit, or invite them back in, to get feedback and suggest further modifications. Once the client is happy they will make more of what they need, always modifying at the client’s request.

All of this is provided at just 15 per cent of the true cost. “We do lots of research and development on behalf of clients to make sure the garment is just what they need,” says Mrs Tombs. “They might pay £10 for something but they have had two home visits and more than four hours of sewing.”

Some of the adaptions and alterations seem so small but they can make a huge difference to someone’s life. “I went to see a gentleman who had had a stroke and he hadn’t been able to go out independently because he wasn’t able to undo his trousers if he needed the loo,” says Sharon.

“For him to have Velcro instead of a zip, was life changing for him, that was his independence again.”

Sharon joined the charity in 2013 after being made redundant from a health and social care role at the council. For someone who has owned a sewing machine since the age of six, joining Dressability was an ideal move.

When she joined the group had just four staff and one volunteer but now there are five other part-time staff and 20 volunteers to cope with a workload that has steadily increased. The charity now provides the same low-cost alterations and adaptions for anyone over 65.

The volunteers, all skilled seamstresses, work on community projects, such as making aprons for the Olive Tree Café or counselling charity Ipsum’s art group, Christmas sacks for the women’s refuge and blankets for the homeless. All of these are donated free of charge.

They are also busy de-branding unwanted or obsolete work clothing such as fleeces and coats to distribute to homeless charities such as Swindon Night Shelter, again free of charge.

“We are known for doing clothing adaptations but we do so much more now,” says Mrs Tombs.

For the four years pre-Covid, the group completed an average of 616 jobs a year. But since the pandemic the workload has increased by 15 per cent. Its business plan predicts a 30 per cent growth over the next five years.

Because its charges are so affordable its income at present is around £4,000 a year, leaving it £100,000 to find to cover its running costs. A quarter of that comes from an annual £26,000 National Lottery grant but the rest has to be fundraised from applications to trust and charity funds and donations locally.

Sharon said: “Demand has always exceeded our capability and the dilemma has always been whether we focus on raising money or serving the clients.

“With all the staff, volunteers and our seven trustees, who give their time for free, we are a team of 35 and trying to help all the people we want to help is an ongoing challenge. But it is just so worthwhile.

“Life is difficult enough for people with disabilities and some the things that we can make possible are so beneficial to them. When you think about mental health, some of these life-changing adaptations can have a huge impact on how people feel about themselves.”

Find out more about the charity and its work, or donate, at