Laurie O’Flynn: How to make it in fashion

Laurie O’Flynn could never find the clothes she wanted – so she decided to make her own. Her first award-winning creation was snapped up, and now, she writes, it’s launched a brand new career

Laurie O’Flynn: How to make it in fashion

Laurie O’Flynn could never find the clothes she wanted – so she decided to make her own. Her first award-winning creation was snapped up, and now, she writes, it’s launched a brand new career

Who goes to colleges of fashion design? If you asked me that question a year ago, I would have answered only very trendy people who have loads of knowledge and ideas about fashion.

Now, having unintentionally spent a whole year learning dressmaking at the Mallow College of Design and Tailoring, I have discovered that fashion design is not only for those creative, trendy people looking to establish a career in fashion, but for everyone with an interest in learning a new skill with a built-in creative element.

I am definitely not what people would imagine as your typical student in this area, but I do have very valid reasons for learning to sew.

My mother reckons that, as a child, I cared so little about my clothes I’d have worn a bin bag if that’s what she gave me to put on.

As I got older I dreamed of wearing jeans, sneakers and a sweatshirt, just like the kids in the 1980s American movies and TV shows, but not being able to find jeans that fit my shape in any shop in Ireland burst that bubble, and no doubt did serious damage to my self-esteem. Even today, I find it almost impossible to find trousers that fit properly and it’s just a depressing process trying on one ill-fitting thing after another.

It’s little wonder that I have a very small window of tolerance when it comes to clothes shopping. After about 30 minutes my eyes start glazing over and I’m looking for a way out. Looking through my wardrobe, I notice that I haven’t put a whole lot of love into what I buy in a long time.

I decided that one way I could mostly avoid shopping but still have clothes was by learning to sew. Then I could figure out how to renovate or create clothes that I liked and make them fit properly. Being able to choose your own material also means that you’re not stuck with whatever is on trend in the shops at the time. It’s sad that Cork city is losing Hickey’s Fabric Shop in the Savoy just as I am getting started.

I also have young children who love to dress up and being able to do more than hold things together with safety pins is a bonus. My youngest is obsessed with Batman. I’m nowhere near being able for that sort of costume, but maybe some day.

I am lucky to live close to the Mallow College of Design and Tailoring. I had met various people over the years who had studied there and every one spoke about it as a hugely positive, and in some cases, life-altering experience. Without exception they all spoke about the legend that is Mary Cashman who set up the school 30 years ago. I just had to find out for myself.

Last September I signed up for ten weeks of dressmaking, wanting to learn the basics, but I quickly got sucked in to it.

It had so many positives like a sense of achievement when a new garment was completed (in very fancy curtain lining), a very positive social element with the other students who are from all walks of life and all parts of the country, and, most surprisingly of all, I noticed that the sewing class was like a sacred space where the worries of the world disappeared once you walked in the door. I wasn’t the only one to say that it was the one time in the week when we could park everything that was going on in our lives, as if we were masters of meditation.

After just a few weeks I had made a skirt, followed by a pair of trousers and a shirt with all possible bells and whistles. Once that was done, the training wheels were off and it was up to us to take the next step ourselves by choosing our own patterns and fabric. (My young daughter commented that now I think I know a thing or two about sewing I don’t call it ‘material’ any more.) One day my mother arrived with metres of ‘material’ that someone had given her. I instantly fell in love with it because it is fun and colourful and unconventional with its goats and flowers and bridges, to name just some of the elements printed on it. I chose a clean, simple jacket design to show off the print.

Little did I think I would receive an award at the end of year fashion show for something I had made myself from scratch (with plenty of guidance and encouragement from the tutors and fellow students). And to top it all off, as I was wandering around the car park in the dark trying to find my car to go home after the event, an image consultant approached me to buy the jacket. This is something our tutor, Jess Lucas, used to joke about during the year in class while we were busy ripping our latest mistake. Not being accustomed to winning anything except the odd argument, I went home bursting with pride and encouraged to keep going, so I’m back this month to do pattern drafting, which is another part of the first year curriculum.

I’m not your typical ‘fashion’ student, but neither was Mary Cashman an obvious founder of a fashion college.

“I was a nurse and when I got married in the early 1980s there was no work so I went to college, got onto the City and Guild and opened the sewing school. I just love it. It’s challenging but my students keep me going. I love every minute of it — to see how people are coping with life. People who sew are of the same mindset,” she explains.

Mary Cashman definitely doesn’t believe in a specific profile for her students.

Before, if you went to art college you had to be way out there, but everybody should learn to sew. It’s not difficult and it works the creative side of the brain. We get all walks of life with a very dynamic range of age groups, including some people who just lost a bit of themselves along the way,” she says.

The ethos of the college is one of encouraging creative expression and the more people share their ideas, the more they benefit.

“There is a great atmosphere of encouragement. You share everything or you will restrict yourself because art is individual anyway. The best students share the most and get back the most,” she explains.

“At the start I had two students who were very competitive. They would even cover their copybook in case anyone would see what they were doing. I told them to put those copies straight up on the table for all to see. It’s about passing on the knowledge, and you can do it and have great fun at the same time,” she adds.

The courses at Mallow College of Design and Tailoring are part time, but the standards are extremely high. It’s little wonder it attracts students from every county in Munster, as well as Galway and Dublin. Jobs that graduates have gone on to include bridal wear designers, jewellery designers, marketing managers for high street retailers, and even a tutor at the London College of Fashion and Design.

One lady who is fearlessly introducing sewing to our younger generation is Joanne Denton in Wexford Town. In 2016, she and her two business partners opened Sew Fun Studios, a US franchise that welcomes children from the age of six for birthday parties, workshops, camps and after school sewing. As a parent of young children my first question is, of course, isn’t it dangerous? So far she says there have been no problems at all with children using the sewing machines.

About 80% of the time is spent at different stations doing colouring, designing, cutting and pinning. Only 20% of their time is at the machine. It is usually complacent adults who have accidents because they are tired after spending hours at a machine,” she explains.

She adds that parents have children so nervous about the dangers of a sewing machine that the first day is often spent coaxing them to relax around it.

In her classes it’s not a case of one sewing machine per child. It’s usually a ratio of 8:1 depending on the group.

“You evaluate the children when they come in and watch for who might need some extra attention,” she says. Joanne and her team have been busy with summer camps not only in Wexford but also in Waterford, Kilkenny and Dublin, such is the demand. She says that children aren’t creating as much as before and it gives her the greatest pleasure to see children who are doubtful when they come with a birthday party, to walk out feeling like they’re 10 feet tall they’re so proud of what they have made.

In a way these ladies really are changing lives one stitch at a time.

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