Juliet shows how a stitch in time can save money
Alteration boutiques are becoming more popular as we 'get the look for less', writes Lucinda O'Sullivan
DURING the cash-rich years, fashion became ever more a throwaway culture.
The days of our mothers running up a little dress on the Singer sewing machine for the Saturday tennis or rugby hop gave way to decades of multi purchases of High Street clothing, very attractive, very cheap, run up in their thousands in the sweatshops of the Far East. Often these garments might involve intricate beadwork from India, pinch pleating, smocking or embroidery, but the work involved in these creations at High Street prices was never really appreciated by the wearer, who tended to forget that somebody did actually have to sit down and do this work, albeit for a pittance.
Our current times have brought about a better appreciation of what we have, both in food and fashion. When I was at school, every girl did domestic science -- basic cooking and sewing. Whilst I excelled at the cookery end of things, I wasn't too keen on the sewing, influenced perhaps by being whacked with a leather strap by a bad-tempered nun at eight years of age because my sewing sample wasn't up to scratch! However about that, it is a shame that in the years since then, a whole generation of children missed out on learning basic cooking and sewing skills. This generation is now very anxious to catch up and also make sure their children have some of these skills.
It really says something too that the vast London department store, Selfridge's, recently had a sewing love-in, with lessons ranging from the basic use of a sewing machine to embroidery and lace applique sessions with Sandrine Docsekalski, accessories designer at top Parisian fashion house Sonia Rykiel. There were knitting workshops too, as well as how to personalise vintage pieces, and also sewing classes for kids.
This two-week sewing fest was inspired by The Sweat Shop Cafe in Paris, which was started in March 2010 by Swiss make-up artist Martena Duss and Austrian fashion designer Sissi Holleis, who found that their French friends were always asking to borrow their sewing machines. They set up the Sweat Shop Cafe (www.sweatshopparis.co) where budding seamstresses and wannabe home dressmakers could have a go, as well as have a chat, a cappuccino and a cake and, internet-cafe style, rent out a sewing machine for €6 an hour. They also run classes and have just brought out a book of crafts and cakes, The Sweat Shop Book, which is right on the nose of our times because handicraft books are selling big time.
The new appreciation of bagging a bargain that perhaps needs adjusting, as well as making good what we already have, has led to the rise and rise of the alteration shop. Just look at what Gok Wan can do with a slash of his scissors, a stitch here and there, and the adding of an embellishment or detail. That little black dress can take on a new look each season. His new TV programme is called Get the Look for Less and that is where we are at.
Alteration boutiques are springing up all over the country but where once you had to climb flights of stairs to a fusty workroom, now these are street level retail shops where you are ushered into fitting rooms and a skilled seamstress will nip and tuck better than any plastic surgeon.
Juliet O'Connell, originally from Kanturk in north Cork, took on a franchise from The Zip Yard, opening on Upper George's Street, Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin. Not only has she built up a regular devoted clientele, but Juliet also won Franchisee of the Year 2011 from The Irish Franchise Association in association with the Ulster Bank.
Juliet, who is 31, had previously worked in marketing. "I always liked sewing, but I was never as good at it as I could be, so I hire the professionals to take care of that end of the business." She now has three expert seamstresses and tailors from Eastern Europe working for her.
"We work on anything that will fit into a sewing machine, bags coats, trousers, bridal wear, soft furnishings," says Juliet. "As well as zips and threads, any material that we cut off from a new dress or garment we keep, we always find a use for it."
Juliet showed me a flowing red ballgown, bought on the internet, which was six inches too small for the purchaser, but The Zip Yard saved the day by having the perfect fabric to extend it. "Customers very often come in, literally in tears, but we can always do something with it, we don't turn anything away."
Vintage, too, is huge, says Juliet. "One girl brought in her granny's dress: it was stunning, made from gold thread, and we restyled it so it looked like fashionable vintage rather than something she pulled out of a wardrobe." Another lady wore her mother's dress as her mother-of-the-bride outfit for her own daughter's wedding, which added a lovely nostalgic feel to the event. Secondhand or 'pre-loved' bridal gowns are huge too. "Anything is cheaper to get altered than it is to buy, regardless, and what we love is when somebody comes in glowing because they have a designer dress but they haven't paid designer prices."
Juliet became aware of The Zip Yard franchise through a friend Caroline Wallace, who opened the first branch in Limerick and who now also does the training for new shops. The Zip Yard was started in 2005 in Belfast by Brian Kielt and Bob Thompson. In 2008, they were joined by Caroline's father Don and they started expanding. They now have 17 shops with more on the way. The Zip Yard concept has changed the face of the nip-and-sew world, bringing it into the High Street.
Don says, "We have shops in Limerick, Dublin, Cork, Galway, and Tralee, and we are opening shortly in Drogheda and in South Anne Street in Dublin. There are now four shops in the UK and we are hoping to have 100 shops there in the next couple of years. Something that was old fashioned is now up to date. All our shops, without exception, had a record turnover in August with back to school and debs. The franchise costs €55,000 for the turnkey business and we have facilities with the Ulster Bank so it is within people's reach. Kilkenny, Clonmel and Athlone are all great opportunities."
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Glaswegian architect Angela Carr, who lives in Phibsboro on Dublin's north side, has created a whole new industry around knitting and crochet.
"My family originally came from Donegal, where we would visit three times a year, so I came to live and work in Ireland in 1999 on the back of the Celtic Tiger. Unfortunately with the downturn. I lost my job in 2008 and I went into consultancy for a while but it was difficult," she says.
Angela has a great eye and a talent for making things so she turned this to knitting and crochet, which she and her brother had been taught as a child by their mother. She joined Etsy.com, a global marketplace for vintage and handmade goods which allows individual craftsmen and women to get their goods out on line. Angela, who describes herself as a knitting ninja and mistress of the needles, set up the websites 'Where There's a Wool -- Handknitted Loveliness for Your Home' (www.wheretheresawool.com) and 'Grace & Favour' (www.graceandfavour.net), which specialises in accessories, made with natural and recycled materials.
She makes wonderful hand-knitted tea cosies using Donegal Aran tweed yarn in gorgeous colours and making them the way they have been made for the last 100 years. The wool is wonderful with flecks of colour, which are brushed into the wool before it is spun, and using this wool keeps the links with Donegal for Angela. She gets orders from the US, Australia and the UK as well as Ireland.
"There is a nostalgia for simpler times, anything that has a natural value, it is not just about money anymore. When you have no time you spend money and when you have money, you have no time is all too true. People are finding out what they are capable of and it gives them a new sense of self respect. Our identities are so tied up with our careers or what we do," Angela explains.
So, take a dive into your wardrobe and see what you can do with what you have rather than ditching those gorgeous little past season numbers and "Get the Look for Less".
Other alteration shops:
Fitz 24 Drury Street, Dublin 2. (01) 675-1818
Lee Alterations 19 Patrick's Hill, Cork. (021) 455-4779
Studio 54, 54 Temple Road, Blackrock, Co Dublin. (01) 278-9757
Thimbles, 15 Rathgar Road, Rathmines, Dublin 6. (01) 497-1775
Waffas Fashion, 308 Harold's Cross Road, Dublin. 6. (01) 492-8439
Fit Rite, 17 Thomas Street, Limerick. (061) 418588