Bronchiectasis and a Shift Dress

Last year I was diagnosed with mild bronchiectasis. Whilst this was disappointing news it did help me to realise that the symptoms of shortness of breath, tiredness and chest pains did have a cause and weren’t due to the usual exhaustion that can be felt by any of us when trying to manage busy lives.

My first reaction to the diagnosis was to google ‘bronchiectasis’. My second reaction was the realisation that I had a subject for my shift dress – it would be about a chronic lung condition.

Like many projects that initially seem to be a good idea, the early days were quick to throw up some problems. I had a simple idea – I would make the dress fabric pieces entirely from drawn thread and include an image from my CT scan.

First I needed to get a copy of my CT scan and once I had gained access to that, I needed some help to understand the images so that I could recognised the diseased tissue from the healthy lung. The consultant radiologist at the hospital was very helpful and agreed to meet me and explained that there was classic shape that signified the bronchiectasis; a signet ring.

CT scan showing signet ring shape

With a basic understanding of what I was looking for, I printed several different images from the scan. I cut, arranged and rearranged the paper images and then made some 1/4 scale samples based on the designs that I had achieved using free machine embroidery on dissolvable fabric.

Once the 1/4 scale samples had been made I decided that I liked the signet ring shape best of all. The geometric design was perfect for a 1950’s inspired shift dress and it was how the disease was first demonstrated to me by the consultant. Two circles would include detailed drawings of the lung tissue.

The next stage was a toile so that I could work out where the two circles that would make the signet ring shape would be placed. The large circle represented the damaged bronchi and the small one, the normal sized accompanying blood vessel. I wanted to position them in the chest area, but they also needed to be aesthetically pleasing.


With this decided I set about stitching the white fabric for the dress. I felt excited by my plans until I started drawing the detailed section of the CT scan image.The thread drawing just didn’t work.

Feeling disappointed, I removed the detail and decided that I would pare down the design. The 1950’s dresses often had very simple geometric designs as can be seen by this photograph that I took whilst carrying out research at the V&A Clothworkers collection.

V and cloth work
Original shift dresses, V and A, London

I continued with this idea and chose the original CT scan colours for the signet ring design. Once the pieces had been drawn, I pinned the fabric onto two large foam loft boards and hosed it down with water. The pieces were then left to dry before being hand stitched together with red thread so as to provide a link with the body. A label containing care instructions was then made and attached to the side seam, just the same as if the dress was hanging on a rail in a shop. However, these instructions provided care on how to look after the condition.

Making the label
Finished label and hand stitched red seam








The finished dress. And the final fact, the 10% shrinkage allowed in the design was just right, and my final dress pieces measured the same dimensions as the original paper pattern provided for the project.

The finished dress, free machine embroidered drawing on dissolvable fabric.