Split-back Wheelchair Jacket

With winter sneaking up on us in the Northern Hemisphere, the time seems right to show you how to adapt a purchased jacket for wheelchair users. I hope I'm catching you in time for the cold weather where you live!

Normally, I like to use dressing as an opportunity to stretch tight arm and shoulder muscles. I resisted adapting my daughter's coats for a long time just for this reason. However, rushing to catch the morning school bus is NOT the time to be hurrying stiff limbs! The split in the back of these wheelchair jackets reduces the amount of stretching and the risk of injury.

The split-back jacket opens up the back just up to the bottom of the collar/hood. The collar slips behind the child's neck, his arms go into the sleeves, and then the back is closed. Opening the front of the jacket makes it easier to slip arms into the sleeves, but it isn't necessary.

The sewing skills and equipment are very basic. You should be able to complete this project in less than an evening.

The fabric and filling of your jacket make a big difference in ease of sewing. Sweatshirt fleece and PolarFleece are very easy to work with. Denim is only difficult where multiple layers cross at seams. Quilted fiberfill batting is fairly easy but loose filling (such as down or the loose cotton fluff in the white jacket used in the tutorial) is more complicated (and therefore, more time-consuming).

First, the DISCLAIMER:  I recommend trying this technique on an outgrown sweatshirt or junker jacket before cutting into a jacket you value. You can use scrap fabric and skip both the interfacing and Velcro during your practice. The point is to see if the split-back design works for your child. It also builds your confidence with the sewing technique so you won't get sweaty hands during the actual project. I will
do my best to step out the process, but the final results are up to you.

Now, without further ado, the tutorial...

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You will need:

--Purchased jacket (it should be slightly generous in size to make up for the ½” you’ll lose around the chest)

--Sew-in Velcro, approximately 1 yard (you won't use the whole amount, but you will always have use for the extra, so don’t worry about buying more than you need for this project)
--Coordinating cotton fabric, 3-6” wide, prewashed and ironed
--Lightweight iron-on interfacing

1) Draw a line on the center back of the jacket starting 1” below the neck seam to the hem edge. Use a wash-away pen, disappearing marker, or for dark fabrics, tailor’s chalk or a sliver of bar soap to draw your lines.

Soap markings on purple PolarFleece, showing 1" below collar seam
Measure this line and write it down.

2) Prepare the underlap by cutting a 3” strip of fabric the length of the line down the center back minus 1.5” (line length - 1.5" = _____). Iron a piece of fusible interfacing to the back. At both short ends, fold right sides together and sew a ¼” seam just along the two short ends.

Turn right sides out, neatening the corners. Match the edges neatly along the length and press flat. 
3) Prepare facing using one of two methods:
            a. Cut a 3"-wide strip of coordinating fabric 3” longer than the line you drew down the jacket back (line length + 3" = ____). Cut a piece of interfacing the same dimensions and fuse to the back of the strip following manufacturer’s directions. Finish the edges by serging (my favorite), zigzagging, or trimming with pinking shears.

            b. Cut a 3.5"-wide strip of coordinating fabric 3.5” longer than the line on the back of the jacket (line length + 3.5" = _____). Cut fusible interfacing the same size. DO NOT fuse just yet. Lay the strips together with the fabric right side meeting the NON-glue side of the interfacing. Sew with a ¼” seam allowance around 3 sides, leaving one short end open.

Trim corners and turn right sides out, smoothing seam allowances and fuse interfacing down. Topstitch around all three sides. 

Turn under the unfinished edge ¼” and topstitch to hold it down. This makes for a neatly finished facing strip (my second favorite method, used when I’m too lazy to change thread colors in the serger).

4) Mark the back of the facing with a line down center, starting 1” below one end (if using the facing is sewn and turned, it should be the enclosed end rather than the folded one) and continuing to the other edge. For the purposes of the tute, I also marked stitching lines 1/4" on either side of this line...you can do this or not.
5) Lay the facing on the back of the jacket, right sides together, matching up the lines. Pin in place, spacing the pins 2-3” apart and running exactly along the line. At the hem edge, fold the excess facing to the inside. Make sure there is no slack where the facing folds under.

6) On the left side of the jacket back, slip the raw edge of the underlap between the facing and the jacket. Center it 1 1/4” below the top of the line and 3/4” above the hem edge. Butt the raw edge of the underlap tight up against the pins; the folded edge should come right to the finished edge of the facing. Pin securely.

7) Starting at the hem edge, backstitch and then sew ¼” down one side of the line.

About 2” from the end of the line near the neck, begin to taper towards the tip, shortening the stitch length (I've marked this with green marker in the photo). Pivot, gradually taper back to ¼” from the line, and sew down the opposite side of the line. Reinforce the tapered point by stitching over the previous stitching for the 2” that makes the taper.

8) Control the bulk from the seam allowances and strengthen the stitching by sewing a narrow zigzag on either side of the line, staying between the line and your previous stitching line. I especially like a double zigzag for this (takes an extra stitch in the middle of each zig and zag, making an especially flat and professional stitch). The stitching won’t fit in the tapered point, but that’s fine because you already reinforced it by stitching twice (you did, didn't you?). If the jacket you are adapting has a loose lining, be sure to check underneath regularly as you zigzag that you aren't catching the lining in your stitching (do you hear the voice of unfortunate experience speaking?).

9) Cut along the line from the hem edge to the tapered point. Cut right up to, but not through, the point. Turn the facing to the middle and press and  flatten the seam allowance with your fingers (don’t use any iron on any jacket unless you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it won’t melt).

10) Pin hook-side Velcro along “public” side of underlap (the side facing away from the child). If your winters are harsh, use a solid strip the full length of the underlap. Where winters are mild, you can increase the jacket's ability to move with the body by cutting the Velcro in 3" pieces. Place a strip at the neck edge, one at the hem, and 1-3 more along the center edge (the number is determined by the size of the jacket) with approximately 1.5 – 2” between strips. Stitch strips to the underlap with a zigzag.

Pin matching strip/strips of loop-side (soft) Velcro on the loose facing on the right side of the jacket, matching the placement with the hook-side Velcro. Zigzag in place.

10) Arrange the facing neatly to the inside of the jacket and pin. Lengthen your stitch to a 3.0-3.5 and topstitch along the fold.

For flat jackets, on the outer right half of the opening, stitch down the outer edge of the facing. If this side of the facing pulls when the jacket is worn, sew a third line between the topstitching and outer stitching, running right through the soft Velcro to anchor the facing even more firmly. For “puffy coats” with vertical quilting, topstitch along the inner edge of the opening as before. Then, instead of sewing the facing down along its outer edge, stitch vertically through the facing, going right through the quilting lines.

Hand stitch the open edge of the facing to the jacket lining on the inside.

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There you go! Now you have a toasty warm jacket that is quick and easy to slip onto your children as they head out the door in their wheelchair. If you have any questions about the directions, please don't hesitate to drop me a comment or a note. I'm happy to clarify!

Inside of cold weather jacket


Anonymous said...

I was reading your webpage and was wondering:
If you sew only up under the collar or hood of the jacket or a regular sweatshirt then want you still have to pull it over the child's head to put it on?

Can you make cotton sweatshirts the same way? I am interested in getting a family member to make a sweatshirt coat for my son. He has one from another company but they discontinued them b/c of not enough sales. He is needing another one by next winter.


Rose-Marie said...

Great question! If you unfasten the front of a jacket (such as the ones in the tute), you don't have to pull it over the head. You can also leave the front fastened and pull it over, but unfastening it seems to make the arms easier to slip on, at least at our house.

If you have a hood, as with a sweatshirt, then yes, it would need to go over the head. The good news, though, is that you can run the split up the back seam of the hood to the top, crossing the neck seam (might be a bulky seam to cross, but it can be done). It makes a nice wide opening that is easy to slip over the head. My daughter had a jacket like this that was made commercially, where the split went up the back of the hood--perhaps the same maker as the one your son had? Hers had a zipper that zipped up from the bottom of the jacket to the top of the hood in back. It worked great (except we did have to be watchful of her long hair in the zipper).

Yes, I've adapted cotton hoodies before and they work quite well. It's a really nice fabric to sew on...cooperative, and we like that!

I hope this post will help your family member adapt a jacket for your son. Every child deserves to be warm... Please let us know how it works out!

Thanks so much for stopping by,

wheelchairs said...

I really appreciate your post and you explain each and every point very well.Thanks for sharing this information.And I’ll love to read your next post too.

Rose-Marie said...

Thank you very much, wheelchairs! I hope you give this a try.

I appreciate your feedback on the explanation, too. It's hard to know just how detailed to be or not, so this is important information to me.

Thanks for commenting!

Anonymous said...

Hello Rose Marie , I have just been online to look for a back fastening jacket for my son. none of them seem to be very fashionable and they are expensive! Just found your page and am really excited to see that it is possible to adapt a 'normal' coat. Must admit that I won't do it myself but will be paying the services of a professional. It is so refreshing to find that there is someone like yourself who is thinking out the box that our poor children are so easily put in. Fashion is so important! We'll done.thankyou

Anonymous said...

Thank you...you're an angel for sharing!!!

VFieldNZ said...

When I first found this tutorial I thought it was about providing 'ease' to the back of a jacket in the form of a pleat to allow the jacket not to bunch around the hips of the wheelchair user. I am still not too sure how or why you would want to adapt a jacket this way. I am assuming the child could be put through that back velcro hole head first and then arms into the front without that lovely lift arms and shove in we have to do. But I am looking at a way of adapting puffy jackets and vests for my wheelchair using son so they don't bunch and will fit around him in the chair without needing unbuttoning or zipping. Any ideas?