Stretching My Skills: How (and Why) I Made My Own Compressi…


Have you ever noticed how “one size fits all” often means “one size poorly fits all”? This became especially clear to me when I started using a compression sleeve on my arm. Like any hacker, this seemed like something I could fix, so I gave it a shot. Boy, did I learn a lot in the process.

A little over a year ago, I started dropping things. If I was holding something in my left hand, chances were good that it would suddenly be on the ground. This phenomenon was soon accompanied by pain and numbness, particularly after banging on a keyboard all day.

At best, my pinky and ring fingers were tired all the time and felt half dead. At worst, pain radiated from my armpit all the way to my fingertips. It felt like my arm had been electrocuted. Long story short, I saw a neurologist or two, and several co-pays later I had a diagnosis: cubital tunnel syndrome.

What’s in your elbow? Via St. Luke’s

Tunnel of Pain

You’ve no doubt heard of carpal tunnel; this is its nasty cousin. My ulnar nerve was being compressed in my elbow, and the annoying discomfort made me want to gnaw my arm off.

I had surgery last summer to move the nerve to somewhere less pinchy. The shooting pain is gone now, and I’m beyond grateful for that. But my arm is still kind of messed up. Those two fingers still get tired almost every day.

Squeeze Play: My Short-Lived Store-Bought

I decided to try a compression sleeve for support. You know, those sausage casing things that athletes wear for increased blood flow and muscle recovery. I bought a cheap, no-frills sleeve from the drugstore that’s basically a tight tube of nylon/spandex with a thick band of elastic at the wide end. As soon as I put it on, my arm felt great. Energized, even. I could wear it most of the day and only feel a tiny bit fatigued.

See how it sags? So agitating.

There’s just one problem: the fit keeps changing. After a day or so, the elastic band is stretched out, and I have to hike it up my arm every five minutes. I put it through the wash and it’d be snug again, but after just a few cycles, the elastic started to fray.

As soon as I fell in love with compression sleeves, I became dismayed at how flawed they are. It’s also disappointing that they only come in a couple of sizes.

So, I decided to try making my own, which I’m sure the Hackaday universe understands. I know these will lose shape, too, but if I can iterate until I lock in a pattern that’s tailor-made to my arm, I can have a bunch of sleeves around to wash/wear/coordinate with all my Steely Dan t-shirts.

How Hard Could Custom Tailoring Be?

I have some sewing experience, but none with fabric that’s weird or stretchy or particularly hard to work with. On the other hand, the design of compression sleeves is simple. Personally, I feel like most of the nerve-supporting compression happens in the elastic band, while the close-fitting sleeve provides muscle support and protection from dings. So I figure that if I can get the elastic to fit well, I’m halfway there.

There’s been a piece of stretchy, leopard-print fabric of unknown fiber content kicking around the house for a long time. It was a remnant that was too nice-feeling to leave in the bin. I decided to start with this stuff and see what happened. If it worked at all, I would go buy more remnants with high spandex content and keep iterating.

My plan was simple: just measure the store-bought sleeve and make it smaller! I cut out a rough rectangle, pinned down the seam on the forearm end, and tried to sew it with a straight stitch. My thread bunched up immediately, and the feed dogs—those little rows of metal teeth that grip the fabric and feed it along—weren’t having it. I tried a zig-zag stitch instead. It sort of worked, but the zigs and zags were so close together that it looked more like a liar’s polygraph than a resistor on a schematic.

Basic needle types via DIBY

Specialized Tools for Working with Stretch Fabrics

Down but not out, I posed the question to le goog: how do I sew stretchy fabric? It returned a relevant YouTube video that taught me there is something called a stretch needle with a rounded tip.

This design lets the needle worm its way through the fabric rather than stabbing and hoping for the best. One short phone call to my local sewing machine company later, and I was on my way downtown to get a pack of five stretch needles for $5.

The same video clued me into stretch stitches. A line of regular, straight stitches has no stretch. But any zig-zag stitch will stretch naturally. Think of them like an accordion file or a scissor jack: they’re designed to expand. Many machines have one or more special, straight-look stretch stitches, but mine is fairly low-end.

Same stitch, different needle. On the left, we have the liar’s polygraph output from the standard needle. On the right, the multi-stitch zig-zag with the stretch needle.

The Proof of Concept: Longer for Better Coverage, Sleeker to Hug the Taper

It was so much easier with the stretch needle that I just kept going until it was done. The fit wasn’t great, but it wasn’t terrible, either.

The elastic I bought is wider than the commercial sleeve, and I think that will lengthen the snug time before it starts getting loose. I also made it longer than the store-bought sleeve on purpose.

I got some new remnants from the fabric store including one that’s 82% nylon / 18% spandex. That’s 6% more spandex than the store-bought sleeve, which could be a bad thing. I figure, the higher the spandex content, the more room for error on my part. That is, it should be easier to iterate until I have a sleeve that’s snug, but not as tight as a blood pressure cuff.

I made this one a little differently. Instead of starting with a rectangle, I measured out an arc that corresponds to the taper of my arm, and then sewed along the pinned curve. I wanted to cut out a long trapezoid, but the piece was too small.

The second sleeve turned out great, but a bit loose, so I sewed another seam on the inside of the first one. Then I just cut off the extra material. This is where a serger would be great to have for a nice, flat seam because they cut the excess as they sew. But that doesn’t matter much, because I made a thing for a lot cheaper than I can buy it, and it’s tailored to me.

Sleevie Nicks! This was before I cut off the excess fabric.

Eureka! The Return of Custom-Fit Garments

I thought this project would end up as Fail of the Week fodder, and it almost did. But after a little education, I was excited to try again and I ended up being more successful than I thought I would be. I’m going to make more and try some different things, like making a big hem instead of using elastic, or using a different color of spandex for visual appeal like a ringer t-shirt. Some sleeves have hard-shell protection over the elbow, which could be interesting to replicate with 3D printing.

The influence of globalization on costume is interesting. Back in the day, people had everything tailored and could rattle off their hat size, collar, and inseam without a thought. As fashion relaxed, populations increased, and women entered the workforce, we saw the rise of ready-to-wear clothing and ‘one size fits all’. When it doesn’t fit right, is like corner-cutting with a side of body shaming. But the skill and tools for custom tailoring are well within our reach.

So, Hackaday readers, what garment would you customize? Have you already done it? Let us know in the comments.

Algolia Reports

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