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.
The paper plates currently indicate that the girls can have some lunch, but with the programme culminating in a fashion show only days away, in which the girls will be modelling their own designs, they carry on cutting chunks out of fluorescent pink material and furiously glueing crystals onto butterflies. “If you stand still long enough they’ll have you covered as well,” jokes Madine.
Unlike the rest of the girls, Grace, 30, who’s the oldest in the scheme, has worked before. “After I left school at 11 I started helping my mam with the cleaning and at 16 I got a part-time job cleaning at a warehouse. But all I’ve ever done is packing or cleaning jobs for a few months at a time because I can’t fill in the forms at job agencies.”
She accidentally ended up on the programme when she agreed to chaperone her little sister to the auditions in order to meet Madine – but feels she is walking away a new woman.
”The best thing I have learnt is that you can have it all. I never used to think I could, but Thelma’s shown me. It’s been hard because I have a husband and two kids and the other girls don’t. But my husband has been good. There’s been times I’ve been really tired and I didn’t think I could do it and he’d say, ‘Oh come on, we’ll just get a takeaway tonight, don’t worry about it.’ Some men wouldn’t allow that.”
Seventeen-year-old Margaret was also taken out of school at 11 to help her mother at home but it seems having her there all day may have been more of a hindrance than a help.
“My mam was really happy that I wanted to do this. She’s always telling me to get up in the mornings and do something. I’m really going to miss Thelma and it’s going to be weird not getting up every morning for the taxi to work. But maybe Thelma will give me a job and I can stay!”