CASE STUDY: Katherine Townsend & Ania Sadkowska – Emotional Fit

This case study, which explores a participatory textile making research project, is written by Katherine Townsend and Ania Sadkowska. To see more case studies or find out how to contribute one yourself, click here.

Photo: Rebecca Lewis 2017.

Title of case study project or workshop

Emotional Fit 

Name(s) of researcher(s) and university affiliation, if any

The research was undertaken at Nottingham Trent University (NTU), initiated by Dr Katherine Townsend, Dr Ania Sadkowska (now at Coventry University) and Juliana Sissons in 2015, joined by Karen Harrigan and Katherine West (RA) in 2016. 

Context for research

This ‘participatory research through clothing design’ project was undertaken between design researchers in collaboration with a group of 40 older women from Nottingham, to explore how their embodied clothing knowledge could inform a more inclusive and sustainable fashion methodology.

When did the research take place?

2015- 2017

Disciplinary background(s)

Fashion, textile and knitwear design, craft research, pattern cutting

Aims of research

  • To explore how fashion and clothing is experienced and practiced by a sample of mature British women over the age of 55
  • Understand their issues with sizing and fit
  • Discover their aesthetic design preferences
  • Develop a sustainable fashion methodology based on participation and co-creation through design research
  • Apply the methodology to create a series of emotionally durable garment prototypes that reflect the group’s physical and psychological design needs 

Description of research method

The methodology was based on research strategies developed and applied previously by the team, notably a simultaneous approach to designing textiles and garments in relation to body shape (Townsend 2004), creative shape making using geometric (low waste) pattern cutting (Sissons 2018), and influenced by individuals lived experiences of fashion (Sadkowska 2016). 

Photo: Emotional Fit 2015.

Phase I involved workshops and interviews to acquire an in-depth understanding of the participants’ past and present knowledge of fashion and clothing, its meaning to them, how they make sense of it in their everyday lives. Participants presented favourite (and least favourite) garments in small show and tell groups and one-to-one conversations with the researchers (recorded via notes and photos). Fashion and lifestyle magazines were supplied as stimuli to create mood boards. Individual’s body measurements were taken in correlation with UK British Standard Sizing charts to support pattern cutting and compare with personal perceptions of size.

Photo: Emotional Fit 2015.

Interviews and wardrobe studies (n=5) were transcribed and analysed using IPA criteria, providing valuable insights into the home sewing, purchasing / acquiring, wearing and personalising of significant items of clothing. The interview findings and snippets of conversations about clothing in the workshops provided evidence of garment longevity and future clothing aspirations relating to colour, pattern, fabric and style.

Phase II utilised these findings to inform the Co-designing process by inviting participants to feedback on: bespoke calico bodices; prints and textiles designed/ selected in response to their expressed preferences. 

Phase III: Production was facilitated via further workshops where textile and garment designs were tested and evaluated by the participants. The organisation of smaller groups (n=6 x 4) enabled space for the women to experience the material forms and make decisions based on how the designs ‘felt’ as much as how they ‘looked.’

Photo: Emotional Fit 2016.

The completion of 30 prototypes comprising different silhouettes and fabrications involved further Fittings, two Photoshoots and the co-production of a Film to inform and capture the research through making process. At the Fashion Salon 17 participants modelled the co-designed outcomes in association with Fashion Revolution Week, April 2017, sharing the work with an audience of 150 people from the local community, fashion industry and university.

Why did you choose to use this method?

The methods allowed for reflexivity throughout the research process while facilitating co-creation and encouraging autonomous participation amongst all the stakeholders. The collaboration was supported by the social and material nature of the research programme which enabled the participants and researchers to share and exchange knowledge and expertise in personal and professional clothing design and making contexts. 

Photo: Emotional Fit 2016.

What did you learn from the research process?

Most of the women participating in the study were drawn from a convenience sample (self-formed group) supporting the social interaction within the workshops and positive dynamics between everyone working on the project. The rich data drawn from the interviews was supplemented by overheard comments and unspoken interactions between participants and material objects. The most original outcomes were related to the emotive role that clothing plays, the ways we fashion and make ourselves through it. 

Photo: Rebecca Lewis, 2017.


“I think when you get older it’s easy to just become a sheep in a flock or sheep with grey hair and tweed skirts, I don’t want to be like that I want to be individual.”

“The clothes designed are material artefacts whose fabric, colours, textures, ways of draping the body we want to see… The ability to access them as material objects in this way at every stage of the process is also validating – of us as active co-creative older women – and thus goes against the grain of dominant discourses on ageing.’’ 

Photo: Rebecca Lewis 2017.


Jonathan Smith’s (1996) Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA); Lene Tanguaard’s (2012) socio-material approach to creativity and Ezio Manzini’s (2015) merging of ‘expert and diffuse’ (non-expert) knowledge and skills in ‘When everybody designs’. 

Related projects

Sadkowska (2016Arts-Informed Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis. Understanding older men’s experiences of ageing through the lens of fashion and clothing, PhD, Nottingham Trent University. 

Townsend, K. (2004) Transforming Shape: a simultaneous approach to body, cloth and print for garment and textile designPhD, Nottingham Trent University.

Emmanuel House X NTU  is a collaboration between a homeless charity and BA Fashion Design students, which adopts a similar user-centred methodology, reported in: Townsend, K. et al.  (2019) From Rag Picking to Riches: fashion education meets textile waste.

Further information

Emotional Fit (10 min film)

Sissons, J. (2018) Knitwear: An introduction to contemporary design.

Townsend, K. and Sadkowska, A. (2020). Re-Making fashion experience: a model for ‘participatory research through clothing design’. Journal of Arts and Communities.

Townsend, K., Kent, A., and Sadkowska, A. (2019). Fashioning clothing with and for mature women: a small-scale sustainable design business modelManagement Decision57 (1), 3-20.

Townsend, K., and Sadkowska, A. (2018). We asked older women what they want from fashion – here’s why the industry needs to listen

Townsend, K., Sadkowska, A., Goode, J., Sissons, J. and Harrigan, K. (2017) Design as a Socio-material Practice: Reflections on the emotional fit collective fashion enquiry, In: T. Thornquist and R. Bigolin, eds., Proceedings of Everything and Everybody as Material: Beyond Fashion Design Methods Conference and Exhibitionpp. 190-199. 

Townsend, K., Sadkowska, A. and Sissons, J. (2017) Emotional fit: developing a new fashion methodology with older womenClothing Cultures, 4 (3), pp. 235-253. 

Townsend, K., and Sadkowska, A. (2017). Textiles as Material Gestalt: Cloth as a catalyst in the co-designing processJournal of Textile Design Research and Practice, 5:2, 208-231. 

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