Anna Piccoli

Julia's washable protective underwear

Don't let incontinence stop you

Adults' incontinence is a common problem which challenges one's emotional and physical well-being, and disposable diapers aren't a comfortable solution. In order to enable incontinent people to actively take part in social life, Julia Veldhuijzen van Zanten has designed washable textile protective underwear: is it the breakthrough?


Washable protective underwear designed by Julia Veldhuijzen van Zanten - Underwear and related accessories to wash it and re-use. This garment was created by social designer Julia van Zanten to counter practical and emotional problems caused by urinary incontinence in elderly people Julia Veldhuijzen van Zanten

Pee can have many advantages, as we have seen, but sometimes it is a problem that cannot be underestimated. I remember that in her last years my grandmother suffered of incontinence. It was certainly not a pleasant experience. She had to resort to disposable diapers, but she suffered a lot psychologically because she felt like a big baby who had no control on the bladder. It was a continuous struggle between using them or not and both options would have been uncomfortable. Enjoying life out of home became much more complicated and truly embarrassing.

In an ageing population as the European one, the loss of control on pelvic muscles is a common dysfunction: researchers from the Department of Epidemiology at the University of North Carolina found that in 2011 more than 35 millions people worldwide suffer from urinary incontinence. According to the European Association of Urology (EAU), mild urinary incontinence affects women twice as much as men. The two most common manifestations are Stress Urinary Incontinence (SUI) and Urgency Urinary Incontinence (UUI).

This is what Julia van Zanten, young social designer, saw happening with her grandparents. She also realised that, whereas adult diapers offer a practical solution to the dysfunction, they don't address the emotional side related to it, preventing elderly people to take part in social life. And she decided she could try and use her final 2014 graduation project at Design Academy Eindhoven to fix the problem. She worked with inclusive design principles and applied an active participatory methodology. The latter is based on user collaboration, consultation, and close interaction (for example through interviews, discussion groups, active observation, and re-enactment of procedural experiences) to access intimate experiences of the target group.

Since it is assumed that people with dysfunctions have “no choice whether to use aids or not, … less priority is placed on the design of how it looks and feels to use it” (Veldhuijzen van Zanten 34). Inclusive design refers to the creation of products and services that take into account the needs of the largest possible number of users and focus on groups which are normally excluded from mainstream solutions. It aims to raise awareness and promote understanding between generations, bridging people with disability or dysfunctions to the so-called able-bodied ones. Central to this approach are participation and celebration of difference at the level of the group, yet also individual rights play an important role.

Re-designing absorbable undergarments may sound like an easy task, but it is not: it requires, indeed, a lot of material experimentation to overcome technical limits and find the right fabric structure which has to:

  • feel nice on the body
  • remove liquids from the textile surface
  • enable the creation of a storage layer
  • prevent leakage on external clothing
  • enable free movements


Multilayered fabric structure - Material experimentation is necessary to create comfortable and functional underwear that is wearable in case of incontinence: several layers are used to perform different functions, from absorption to transport to anti-leakage storage. Julia Veldhuijzen van Zanten

Additionally, questions of aesthetics, security, feeling old, independence, normalcy, and discretion sum up to the functional problem.


Julia's goal was fighting the stigma linked to diapers in adults and providing a device that could guarantee independence and comfort. What came out of the process was washable protective underwear for women suffering from mild incontinence.

These undergarments offer more than functionality and a daily aid to bodily problems. They touch upon emotion and aesthetics. A final plus: this washable underwear is more environmentally friendly than normal diapers too. Forget about old pads.
However, there is still a lot to be done, first of all inspiring acceptance of protective underwear in order to move them from a stigmatised medical field to a normal fashion world and to make them purchasable in traditional retail outlets next to other underwear categories.

With her design, Julia Veldhuijzen van Zanten won the New Material Award 2014