Age: 57 | Location: Banbridge, Northern Ireland
Somewhere in the green fields of County Down, before anyone else is really awake, The Seamstress starts her day. Although she has no alarm, she never gets up later than five o’clock in the morning. A strong coffee - maybe two - and she’s awake.
It was her grandmother who taught her to sew, among other things. Her most fond memory is standing in her grandparents’ kitchen, eating pancake batter off the spoon. She tells me that the smell of cinnamon takes her straight back to those afternoons half a century ago.
‘I still have her griddle, and I think the woman's been dead now almost forty years. She taught me how to bake, not to cook because I can't cook, not to save myself. But I can bake. As a child, Granny was of the generation where nothing was ounces. I mean, you don't even do ounces. Now, you do grams right. I am old school. I still have to convert it to ounces in my head. But Granny was a handful of this and a handful of that, and I still bake like that.’
Now, The Seamstress is a grandmother herself.
‘I have a nine-year-old grandson and a coming-up-to-two-year-old granddaughter.'
'They are both the light of my life. Totally.’
Nevertheless, the path which got her here wasn’t without obstacles.
‘I had three children. I had three boys. Two are living. One didn't survive. But they are my proudest achievements. Well, they are, because they’re still going, you know. I got them through childhood and teenage years, so that was good.’
It’s every parent’s worst nightmare: losing a child. She finds it difficult to put it into words.
‘Right after my son died I can remember coming home from the hospital and sitting in the car. Somebody went into the shop for something and came out with a pint of milk in their hands and the anger that I felt was palpable, that my life had stopped and there they were buying milk. Totally irrational. But that's what heartbreak feels like. I lost the plot.'
All this time later, she’s able to remember what happened in a controlled way, but it’s still painful.
‘My daughter-in-law, my granddaughter’s mummy, bought me a very simple necklace that had three little discs with the initials of my three boys on it, knowing that the youngest one died when he was eight days old. It's very precious. I know this sounds ridiculous, but I wear it when I need to. If I'm having that moment of missing my son, I will go and I will put it on. And it could be on an hour, it could be on a week.’
What strikes me about The Seamstress is her determination to get the job done, and done well, whatever it is that she’s doing. Currently, she’s making her way through a bucket list of things she’s never done before and places she’s never been.
Most recently? She visited the Lake District.
‘I started my bucket list in 2019 and then the whole world just stopped. So I missed two years, three years of my bucket list. But the lakes I had never been to them, had never seen them. And I thought, yeah, let's just go. And it was lovely. It was absolutely gorgeous.’
She’s also trying to get to grips with social media, which hasn’t come naturally.
‘I have a business and it's very important to be on social media etcetera, etcetera. But I am the generation who, when computers came out at the start, everything was ones and zeros. It does frighten me. There's a lot of information. And it comes at me too fast and too quickly. I am a step one, step two, step three person and social media is too fast for me in that respect.'
'I had to get one of my children to put me on to Instagram because I didn't know how it worked.’
But perhaps the most curious thing about The Seamstress is that, despite the fact she spends all day long adjusting dresses, she spends her life in trousers.
‘I’ve been to a couple of awards nights where I get into dresses. But it's so out of my comfort zone. It really is so out of my comfort zone, way back, way back to when I was at school. At my formal - that is, you're going way back to the mid 80s - I wore a trouser suit.
'It just wasn't the done thing. But I just wasn't getting into a dress: it's as simple as that.’
She has a floral dress hanging in her wardrobe that she can’t get rid of. She knows she’ll never put it on, but she loves the pattern too much to throw it away.
‘I bought it from, I think it was New Look, and it was really pretty and it was really colourful. And it did all the things that they – what's the word? – the advertisers wanted it to do: it grabbed my attention. I have never worn it nor am I ever likely to, because it's too bright for me. It's just too bright. But I love it and I still think 'oh that's lovely' when I open up my wardrobe.’
As she’s telling me about it, she solves the problem.
‘What I should do is actually cut a little square out of it and frame it. Is what I should do. Because it just screams summer and holidays.'
The Seamstress rips and tears and cuts materials all the time: it’s not all careful stitching.
‘Every seamstress owns a soldering iron. Especially with lace gowns. They can be a nightmare some of them, trying to get lace off. If you have to shorten it down, the easiest way is take a razor blade and slice it, literally slice the stitches. If the hem is coming up enough where you don't have to slice it off, you take a soldering iron and you go out and round the lace. And take it off and move it up.’
Her favourite part? Hearing about the lives of the girls she’s doing alterations for.
‘There's a constant buzz of meeting new people and hearing their stories. We're seeing girls at they're most vulnerable. And you get to hear all sorts. So you know it's, yeah, it's lovely.’