When a child is waging war against cancer, something as simple as the seam in a shirt or a tag on a pair of shorts can dig into skin left tender by treatment.
For children with autism, those seams and tags can leave them anxious and unable to concentrate on anything else.
Some Pima Community College students have teamed up with a local businessman to solve that problem by creating a super-soft clothing line they intend to take to the market soon.
The idea started with Greg Renkenberger, who watched his nephew survive leukemia but struggle to stay comfortable in clothing that irritated his skin. Tags and scratchy seams have always been an issue for a friend’s son, who has autism.
After talking with friends in the medical community, Renkenberger, a lending officer for BMO Harris Bank in Tucson, decided to create a line of kids clothes and pajamas that that feels good and looks good, made from soft, organic, natural fabrics that are less likely to chafe the skin.
But he wasn’t sure where to start.
“I went to people in Tucson who make clothing to find someone who could make prototypes for my ideas, but I could not find anyone who could do the job,” he said.
A friend suggested he contact Pima College’s fashion design department. He Googled the program and instructor Nancy Spaulding, and found the experience and know-how he was lacking.
“I needed the technical skill to get it into production and into the community, and I found out we had everything we needed at Pima College,” said Renkenberger.
And so his company, Sensitive Skin Apparel, LLC, was born.
Spaulding, who has experience in product and line development, was teaching an advanced pattern-making class at Pima. After getting the OK from the college, she brought her students on board as part of a class project with real-world implications.
Renkenberger came to Spaulding’s Wednesday Flat Patternmaking III classes at Pima’s West campus to brainstorm ideas. He brought in an oncology nurse, who provided valuable input.
Then the students went to work.
They investigated trends in children’s clothing – colors and patterns that would be appealing to kids as well as special construction features and silhouettes, Spaulding said.
They researched materials that could become the softest possible fabrics: soy, bamboo, wood pulp and even sour milk.
“We wanted to create clothing you could wear to chemo that would not look out of place in public,” Spaulding said. “We wanted to create something that is comfortable that does not make you look like you’re sick.”
Luz Escalante spent the spring semester developing patterns and prototypes for younger children, sizes 3 to 6X. Carol Margolis designed clothing for older kids, sizes 6 to 14.
“As a cancer survivor myself this was very meaningful – creating something comfortable that doesn’t mean being in pajamas all day,” said Margolis, who works at the University of Arizona Cancer Center as a database specialist.
Said Escalante, “I love this project. It was real, creating a product for someone who really needs it. I tried to design something comfortable and beautiful.”
One recent day, Escalante carefully ran her fingers over the edges of a toddler’s soft-as-butter blouse, checking for any rough patches.
Margolis inspected the seams of a pair of silky-smooth athletic shorts, making sure the prototype was as good as it could be.
For the prototypes they used organic cotton from North Carolina. They had the fabric designs digitally printed.
Each of the prototypes is tagless, with seams on the outside. Each has an opening near the shoulder, making it easier for nurses to access a port that has been implanted in a child’s skin for the delivery of chemotherapy. The port opening in the clothing allows children to stay in their comfy clothing during treatment.
Young models showed off the prototypes at Pima’s annual end-of-the-year fashion show this spring, and the pieces were well received.
The design team is looking at including a Courage Warrior logo – possibly on the port opening – “empowering kids to fight through their disease,” Renkenberger said.
For kids with autism, hidden gems – such as a soft bean bag stitched into clothing for kids to squeeze, helping to soothe them – will be included.
Now that the team has a line of prototypes, it’s time for the next step.
This fall, students in Dennis Landry‘s digital arts classes at Pima will work to develop product branding.
Meanwhile, Renkenberger is holding focus groups throughout the country and is preparing to show the prototypes to investors with hopes of getting the line on the market. His plan is to reach kids with cancer, autism and skin disorders through oncology offices, hospitals, nonprofits and the Internet.
He will continue to work with Pima fashion design students to further develop the line as part of their class work. He has given Escalante and Margolis scholarships to continue their education at Pima for their efforts.
“Things are moving quickly now,” said Renkenberger, who plans to keep production facilities in southern Arizona. “We have a vision, we have the drive and desire and now the technical knowledge. We couldn’t be happier.”
The real-world experience has been valuable for the Pima students.
“It’s nice to have purpose and to do something with the realization that it might last longer than the semester,” Margolis said. “And it was fun.”