Introduction: Make a Weighted Sensory Vest for Adults
Weighted vests are used with children for autism and sensory disorders. The same type of gear can be used with adults but can be difficult to find or afford in an adult size. I wasn't able to find any instructions on making weighted vests designed for adults, so I decided to come up with my own. The weight is in the form of 4 separate pouches sewn inside the vest. 2 elastic compression straps on each side can be added to make the vest fit snug.
Although I used a sewing machine for this project it is quite possible to sew this by hand. Just make sure to use a heavy polyester or nylon thread.
The easiest way to make a weighted vest is to start with a non-weighted vest that is already made; one you already have or can buy. Trying to sew a vest from scratch requires advanced skills and a new vest can be bought for $20 - $30 online. Buying a vest saves you a lot of time and frustration and should give you a vest that you can wear around other people without attracting too much attention. The vest should be a little loose, probably one size up from what would normally be a good fit.
Once you have your vest you need to consider what you want to weight it with. For children usually you want very small amounts of weight for which plastic poly beads will work fine. But for older children and adults I was thinking of something in the 4 to 8 pound range, and poly beads are just too bulky to give us that kind of weight. You can buy small rectangular weights made of steel for exercise vests. Steel weights are much better than using organic material such as rice or beans because they won't mold or deteriorate with time. Unfortunately they are very expensive. After looking around I found the heaviest weights that took up the least space were steel BBs. You can buy 4.6 pounds of steel BBs at around $9 dollars. Compare that to 5 lbs of exercise weights for $40 or more. BBs also easily conform to the body with no hard or sharp edges.
Steel weights (Crosman Copperhead 4.5mm Copper Coated BBs In EZ-Pour Bottle, 6000 count 4.6lbs $8.50)
8 pieces of fabric for the 4 weighted pouches
Double folded polyester bias tape
About 4 feet of elastic or nylon 1" webbing and 4 plastic triglides for the compression straps
Sewing machine or hand sewing needle and thread. Thread should be heavy polyester or nylon.
Step 1: Designing the Weight Pouches
I used one 4.6 pound bottle of BBs for my vest. You can always increase or decrease that weight. If you decrease the weight you may want to use smaller pouches that hold the BBs tightly so the weights lay flatter across the body.
Some consideration for the placement of the weight in the vest is necessary. If you place the weight too low you may not get the full weight when sitting down. If you add the weights at the very top of the vest they may be very noticeable and the vest may not sit well on your shoulders.
I decided to use 4 pouches. Two positioned next to each other across the back and 1 inside each front half of the vest. I measured the available space and decided on using 2 pieces of fabric sewn together sized 5" x 7" for each of the 4 pouches. The fabric was a cotton poly blend that seemed strong enough for the job. You could also use a painter's canvas tarp if you wanted something heavier. I avoided using something like Cordura as I didn't want it to be too hot. If you are concerned about the pouches showing then select fabric and bias tape that match the color of the vest.
To start sewing the weighted pouches I put one 5" x 7" fabric rectangle on top of the other and then sewed 3 sides together using the black double-folded bias tape, leaving one of the shorter sides open to pour the BBs into. This gave a strong seam and would also be useful later for sewing the pouch to the vest through the edge of the tape. One consideration is to use nylon webbing in place of the bias tape. That provides a strong way to attach to the vest and also potentially to attach other weight pouches to hang off of the pouch above it. Sewing a wider webbing along the bottom seams might even allow you to install some grommets to quickly add or detach additional weights.
Draw a line down the middle of the short and long sides of the pouch. This will divide the pouch into four equal sections. Next sew a seam down the middle of the long axis. This will make 2 long columns so you can pour the BBs in. Make sure you are sewing along the longest middle line you drew, not the short line or the BBs won't get to the bottom.
To get the right amount of weight for each section I used a food scale to measure the BBs. I would recommend starting by getting 4 large identical cups to divide the total number of BBs for the entire vest into 4 equal weights. The numbers in the picture are approximate. These 4 large cups can then be divided into 4 smaller cups which will each make up one of the four sections of the 5" x 7" pouch.
Once you have your 4 cups for each section of a pouch, pour one cup into each column. They should look about equal side by side. Then you need to sew a seam across the BBs along the short line you previously drew to finish the bottom sections and sew the BBs in. The hard part is keeping the BBs from getting in the way of your sewing or ‘escaping’ out of their section. I used the edge of a seam ripper to push them out of the way so I could sew the seam.
Finally pour the other 2 small cups into the columns to create the last 2 sections and then sew the open edge shut with another piece of bias tape. This process will eventually give you 4 complete pouches each divided into 4 sections and ready to sew into the vest.
Step 2: Sew the Pouches Into the Vest.
Before you start sewing in the pouches if you plan on adding compression straps on the sides go ahead and mark those seams now while you can more easily lay the vest flat, or better yet just sew the straps on first before the weights by skipping ahead to that step.
Figuring out how to position the 4 pouches on the inside of vest is important. I chose the 2 positions for the back panel of the vest so they weren’t so high up as to bulge out or make the vest hang off my shoulders in an unsightly way. It’s important to make sure to keep the pouches above your waist so your body is still supporting the whole weight of the pouches when you are sitting down.
Use some safety pins to test out the placement of the weights before you sew anything in. I made a seam across the top and bottom of the back pouches and left the sides open. Just try to keep the seams straight since it will be seen on the outside! You can select a thread color that matches the vest to make it less noticeable.
I then picked two places inside the front of the vest to sew a pouch into. The front pouches are oriented with the short sides on the top and bottom in order to fit inside the front pieces of the vest. I used two seams for the front pouches, one each across the top and bottom (short sides) of the pouch. This isn’t that noticeable on the outside as long as they are horizontal or at least straight. Warning - make sure you don’t accidentally sew across a pocket! Check both the inside and outside of the vest where you intend to put your seams so you know exactly where that seam will show on the front of the vest. Also make sure that the front pouches hang more or less vertically from a horizontal seam so they don’t pull on the fabric from the wrong angle. Again, pin everything in place and try it on and wear it for a little while before you make any final decisions.
If you want to hide the seams to keep them from showing on the outside you have the option of later sewing a long piece of webbing across the outside seams, like MOLLE webbing.
Step 3: Add Compression Straps If Wanted
I figured I may as well sew in some compression straps on the side to add to the sensory experience. I used 1” elastic in 2 pieces for each of the four straps. For each of the straps there is a very long piece that is sewn on one end to the back of the vest and the other end fed through the triglide, and a much smaller piece designed to just fasten the other end of the triglide to the forward part of the vest. I sewed in the backside of the straps towards the middle of the vest to make sure I had plenty of length to pull the straps tightly. It pays to lay the vest flat and mark your seams evenly because this will definitely be seen from the outside. This step is easier done before adding the weighted pouches. Plan out exactly where you want the straps while wearing the vest, too high may interfere with your arm movements and too low may interfere with sitting.
The part of the strap you pull to make it tighter can be turned over and sewn across at the very end of the strap to prevent it from pulling through the triglide accidentally. Make sure you do this AFTER you’ve threaded the end of the strap through the triglide or you won’t be able to thread it through later on.
The short piece of each compression strap makes a tab for the front of the triglide to attach to in order to complete the compression strap. The short piece is about 3 inches and inserts in the front side of the triglide. Sew a seam right up next to the triglide and then continue around to make a box, or a box x pattern. Consider using a thread to match the strap color.
If I was to do anything over again I would probably just use 1” nylon webbing for the straps instead of elastic. The elastic is not very thick and I’m not confident it will hold up in the long run. Make sure to use *nylon* webbing if you do this as it is much softer than polyester or polypropylene webbing.
Step 4: Final Thoughts
Overall I’m quite pleased with how things turned out. I think I could wear this vest out and around without anyone really noticing it, especially if I had taken more care to match the outside seam color to the vest. All-in-all it was a successful prototype considering I didn’t have a prior example. I might have changed the pouch fabric to a more sturdy canvas painter’s drop cloth if I did it again. Make sure to pre-wash, dry and iron your fabrics to account for shrinkage, or you might wind up with an uneven fit later. If you do use a painter’s drop cloth definitely wash it and dry it because sometimes it comes with an unpleasant coating.
I'd recommend handwashing and drip drying the vest when necessary. You can push the BBs around in the pouches to blot up the water with a paper towel to help it dry faster.
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