Thelma Madine locks her office door, slumps into the chair behind her desk and takes a long drag on her electronic cigarette. “This was a bad time to give up smoking,” she sighs.
On the other side of Madine’s door are nine traveller girls who are coming to the end of six months’ training with the Liverpool-based wedding-dress designer, celebrated for her spectacular bejewelled meringues and pineapple-inspired creations.
Having made her name designing ever more outlandish dresses for the traveller girls on their big days - which made Channel 4's Big Fat Gypsy Weddings such a guilty pleasure last year - Madine wanted to give something back to the community (and Channel 4 saw a chance to capitalise on their ratings-spinner).
“All the girls I meet are so excited about their wedding days,” she says. “Once they’re married they’re stuck in their caravans, cooking, cleaning, looking after their children and totally reliant on their husbands,” she says. “They’re taken out of school at 11 with no qualifications and can never experience any kind of independence. My mum said if you can sew you can always make money and that is what I want to pass on to these girls. I just thought if I taught them a skill they might gain that little bit of independence.”
There’s a knock at the door – “Not now, I’m busy!” screams Madine.
“I had this dream that they’d all be sat at the machines in a row with me walking round helping them and teaching them, but after the first day I was crying all night, thinking what had I done? These kids were feral; they had no social skills at all and I soon realised some of them couldn’t read or write or even tell the time.”
Within the first few days it became clear that sewing would become the secondary thing on the agenda. The priority was teaching the girls basic literacy and social skills.
On the wall facing the sewing machines hangs a clock, beneath which are four paper plates with clock hands and illustrations drawn on to indicate when the girls start work, when they can take lunch, tea-break time and home time.