people in fashion; Under five foot, female and swamped by your clothes? Hester Lacey meets the answer to a petite's prayer
There is, says Jacky Lawson, a characteristic gesture made by people who habitually buy clothes that are too big: they are continually pushing at their cuffs and hitching up their sleeves. This tic becomes so ingrained, that they become quite uneasy when sleeves actually end at the wrist. "People come in and try on my jackets, find they don't need to push up the sleeves and say 'It feels weird. Aren't these too short?'" says Lawson, whose new venture, The Petite Clothing Company, launched in York in October. Similarly, women who are used to mini-skirts that fall to somewhere around their knees are alarmed by the unaccustomed feel of a short skirt that stops where it's supposed to, and have to be persuaded that they are not showing an inflammatory amount of leg.

Lawson's "petite" clothing is, she says, unique in that it fits the women it's meant to fit. "High street petites are made to fit a height of 5ft 3in, and marketed for women who are 5ft 3in and under - well, 5ft 4in is actually average height, so how can 5ft 3in be petite? My clothes are made to fit a height of 5ft; they fit from 5ft 2in downwards." And height is only the start of it. The Petite Clothing Company's range is scaled down all over, with painstaking precision. "Our waistbands are narrower," says Lawson. "The standard waistband is an inch and a half wide, ours are an inch and a quarter - you know how waistbands curl over when they are too wide? Ours don't. Our neck-to-waist measurement is shorter, so is waist-to-hip. We don't use industry-standard button spacing on our shirts, because the standard gap doesn't work for petites - we start by positioning a button between the breasts and space up and down from there, so you don't get that gape in front. It's all part of making garments that fit."

Seventeen per cent of women in this country are 5ft 2in or less in height; Lawson herself is 4ft 10in. "Petite women just can't find anything to wear, particularly if they are slim," she says. "If you are 5ft tall and in proportion, you are probably a size 8, and it's very hard to find clothes that are narrow enough, let alone of the right length." Lawson stocks sizes 8 to 14, and is planning to introduce 16s next year. She designs her own separates - jackets, skirts, trousers, blouses - and buys her own fabric to have them made up. Dresses and coats she sources from the US, where petite clothes are a billion-dollar industry. Her own prices are remarkably competitive ("My blazer is pounds 10 cheaper than Marks & Spencer's," she says proudly). A wool shift dress is pounds 59.99, jackets start at pounds 79.99 and skirts at pounds 29.99. As well as clothes, she offers shoes (sizes 34 to 36.5), belts and jewellery. And an unofficial counselling service. "People want to tell us all about the problems they have because they are short," she says. "In here, everyone is very sympathetic. All my staff are under 5ft 2in. We get people who want to walk out of the shop wearing the clothes they've just bought because, for the first time ever, they can - or they can buy something and wear it that evening, without having to have it altered and taken up."

The Petite Clothing Company is Jacky Lawson's second foray into retail. Her first, Little Women (not to be confused with the mail order company Little Women based in Bristol and still operating), was based in London's Covent Garden, with a concession in Dickens and Jones and a second branch in Manchester. "The business was a victim of its own success," she now says. "It had a huge turnover, there was great pressure to expand, and I tried to do it too soon." After Little Women failed, she took time out to bring up a family. But sizism was always at the back of her mind. "Car manufacturers go on about headroom, but there are cars I can't buy because I can't reach the pedals!" she says. "And seatbelts that don't fit where they should. When I was pregnant I had to drive virtually horizontally!" So far, the new business is doing well; York city centre, with its winding narrow streets and attractive little shops is, she says, the North's answer to Covent Garden.

But do those finicky quarter-inches-on-the-waistbands here and there really make such a huge difference? "The only way for you to really see is to try something on," said Lawson. I am 5ft 2in, and have never considered anything about myself to be "petite" (surely there must be a better term somewhere? I'd settle for "short"). But I have always believed I was a "difficult" shape. I'm not overweight, but fitted skirts tend to sag and bag in odd places, and as for trousers, forget it. So, it was with amazement and delight that I said "Hello" to the suit skirt that went straight on without needing its waistband turning over twice, "My goodness!" to the jacket whose sleeves didn't reach to mid-palm, "Where have you been all my life?" to the trousers that not only fitted at waist and hip but reached the ankle and no further, and "Wahey and welcome!" to the long velvet number that fitted on top without sweeping the floor like a bridal train.

"You see?" said Lawson, triumphant. "So many people come in here saying they are short-waisted, or an odd shape or whatever. But if clothes are properly proportioned, they fit. You thought you were a funny shape, but it's not you, it's the clothes." Which is, of course, the kind of news which comes as a great relief. "Many women who come in here have never had any clothes that really fitted," says Lawson. "It's not right that if you are small you should be made to feel like a second-class citizen."

The Petite Clothing Company, 13 Colliergate, York, 01904 673873. Sale from 27 December-10 January; the shop is then closed for refurbishment until 23 February. However, Jacky Lawson is launching a mail-order service. For details, call the number above