For the love of it: Turning a hobby into a career
From passion to profit – can you really turn your hobby into a career? Ciara McDonnell meets six women who did just that
Once upon a time, your average woman’s knowledge of knickers was more or less limited to her own experience of wearing them. But not anymore. I’m not sure when this changed exactly– maybe in the 1990s when the low-rise jean with peeping-out thong became ubiquitous, I don’t knowbut it has: now, in 2017 knickers are no longer a secret.
Sheer dresses, leggings, tight jeans, athlesiure wear – over the years, these have granted ordinary women like me a million unsought opportunities to follow the precise outline, to join up the dots, so to speak, of a million other ordinary women’s knickers.
Visible panty-lines are everywhere.
On me, you, the bus, in the post office, workplace and street. Everywhere, that is, apart from upstairs in fashion designer Ali Wheeler’s little lingerie atelier, Clonakilty.
Which, if you ask me — being chock full of women and knickers — is just the sort of place you’d most expect to find them. But then what do I know? I’m wearing one of a five-pack of cotton-rich M&S briefs.
There is no VPL in Hot Knickers Lingerie because Ali, its creator and owner, firmly believes that, “unless it’s meant to be seen, it shouldn’t be seen”.
Now, we all know that knickers are as diverse and contradictory as the bottoms they cover; there’s high-rise, low-rise, contorting, compressing; cheeky, sensible, architectural and naff; baggy hammocks, boyshorts, barely-there- eyepatches, thermals and three millimetre pieces of string.
But there’s nothing of that ilk in Ali’s tiny weeny handmade-knicker-factory — just elegant, comfortable, vintage-inspired shapewear lingerie that only the wearer will know she’s wearing, “unless of course she chooses otherwise”.
You might think you’ve heard this all before, but what Ali does in her Hot Knickers studio is actually quite unique: with a degree in fashion, background in bespoke costume design, extensive research, passion, hard work and four sewing machines, Ali Wheeler saves women’s bottoms from the tyranny of ill-fitting, uncomfortable unsexy knickers with VPL.
I’m here to find out exactly how she goes about this business of saving women’s bottoms.
And just as importantly, why.
I ask Ali — a 52-year-old mum and one of the least intimidating women you could hope to meet — how she came to be the only bespoke shapewear lingerie manufacturer in Ireland.
“Where we’re standing now used to be my friend Paula’s hair salon,” Ali says, “I just had a tiny space for my costume-making business down at the back, where my sewing machines are now.
“Paula came to work one morning,” she continues, “having to go straight from the salon to an overnight event after work but she forgot to bring a change of knickers to wear the following day, so I quickly measured her up while she was giving one of her customers a cut and blow-dry, got my pattern-blocks out and had a go at making a pair. She said she wanted smoothing, sexy, comfortable knickers that went up to her belly-button. So I did my best with the materials I had. I remember her face when she tried them on,” Ali remembers smiling. “She just stood there in front of the mirror, actually admiring and caressing her curves. Out loud. She was delighted with herself. I loved seeing that delight. I was hooked. It went from there.”
The inspiration for Ali’s four-part lingerie range — which comprises the Paula Knickers Brief (€40), Ava and Charlie Camisoles (€40) and Liz Slip (€90) — is drawn from the glamour and tap-pants style of the 1940s and 50s (“if Elizabeth Taylor and Ava Gardner were alive now, they’d definitely wear my knickers”) but Ali fuses her vintage-inspired design with the comfort, support and functionality that modern silky European fabrics (all ethicallysourced) provide.
However, the success of Ali’s designs doesn’t merely lie in the style, cut or type of fabric she uses (85%polyamide and 15% elastane in the main feature fabrics, 95% cotton and 5% elastane in gussets for maximum flexibility and support) but in the fact that all Ali’s creations are underpinned by her proper — and by that I mean empathetic – understanding of how women’s bodies actually work.
She holds up a pair of Paula knickers.
“Women bend at the waist,” she says, “so I cut my knickers to fit perfectly to the waist and they all have a centre back seam, just like a bottom does. By cutting and seaming fabric to follow the natural curves and bends in a woman’s bodyline you end up with a natural, smooth silhouetteand nice, heart-shaped bottom. And they’re short in
the leg so there’s no panty line, with a cotton gusset that a panty liner fits and a tummy-smoothing panel, because in my experience, I’ve found that women are most self-conscious about their tummies.” Ali’s knickers also encase both buttocks and give a bit of “bottom support” which, quite apart from reassuring anyone anxious to avoid the upsetting, “cellulite in leggings” look, is also a major practical plus in chilly, windy Ireland.
But Hot Knickers Lingerie is about body-contouring, not contortion.
“We are the shape we are,” Ali says, “if we squish our bodies into underwear too tight, we just end up looking boned and rolled, with lumps in places we never had them in the first place. Besides,” she says, “men have never had to suffer the misery of underwear
are the shape we are. If we squish our body into underwear too tight, we just end up looking rolled and boned
as a form of physical suppression, whereas throughout history, women have. I mean look at Poldark romping around in comfort while poor old Demelza’s stuck in whalebone corsetry. If men don’t have to suffer it, why should women?” Why indeed?
I examine a pair of Paula knickers. If someone held a loaded gun to my head and said, “post a picture of yourself on Instagram in a pair of knickers of your own choosing,” I’d choose these: soft gold with a black lace trim. Smoothing, not contorting. Clean and simple design. Modest and naughty.
But can comfort really be a happy byproduct of lingerie that is also, essentially, shapewear?
I’m not convinced. “Take a pair home with you,” Ali says, “and let me know if you think it can.” I’m wearing them as I type: it can.
- Aida Austin THE ARTIST JENNY MONKS
Jenny Monks creates otherworldly designs by combining her photography with embroidery and carefully sourced fabrics. Her work has been shown in galleries around Cork and recently Paperdolls boutique commissioned a work to suit the space and ambience of their gorgeous store.
“I make the work by collecting fabrics,” Jenny explains. “This can mean up cycling clothing, and sourcing heritage fabrics like antique lace from all over France and Italy. I get a lot of the really nice elements from my own clothing — nothing is safe! I’ve always loved the process of stitching and that’s the part to me that makes my heart sing – that’s the part that really draws me in. For me, making my work, it’s like a pianist – it’s about my hands – it’s about working directly with the touch and the feel of the materials.” Jenny says that her collaboration with Paperdolls speaks to the sartorial nature of her pieces.
“To me, the work is fashion. It’s the spirit of fashion, of personal expression. I love books like The Thoughtful Dresser, by Linda Grant and reading about Coco Chanel’s life and what really inspired them was the desire to tell a story through their clothes, and that’s why I’m doing through my work.” As a mother of two, Monks has had to learn to work her creativity around her family, and she does this by working out of a studio in her home. “I work in the evenings when the kids are in bed. My kids are a part of my work – in the studio they have their own work space/ creative space.” There are times in your life, says the artist, that you have to let go and realise that you can’t achieve everything, but it’s important to remember that you can still achieve.
“When your children are young babies and toddlers, they are your full focus.
“Even at that you’re a creative person and you will find yourself doing really creative things despite yourself. For a creative person it’s a way of life — it’s your voice. It comes out through your kids, it comes out with your family life.” The turning point came for Monks when her children reached school age, and there was more time to flex her creative muscles. “When my children got to the point of being at school I decided that this work was going to be a priority for me and it became a discipline. My children have a total respect for the dedication of my work and it enhances our lives rather than deters from it.”
The practice of creating is sacred for Jenny, and gives her freedom to express herself in the best way she knows how.
“The most important thing to do is to create time and space in which to be creative and to realise that you have to work hard to make things happen. Despite any setbacks along this journey for me — it’s a way of life, it’s my love. “
With summer comes more free time for Jenny to focus on bigger projects, and for her, last summer was about getting her branding on point. “I felt that I needed to define what my work was. I’ve been doing this for nearly 20 years so for suddenly people who know me to be surprised by my work baffles me. I have held exhibitions over the last number of years and I knew that I needed to widen my audience.”
Finding ways in which to encourage her audience to experience her work up close is a major goal for this year; because it is only in real life that you can appreciate the details and layering and finer points of her designs. That’s where her new collection of digital prints come in; a means in which buyers can start their own Jenny Monks collection by ordering directly from her website.
For this artist, the future is bigger — much bigger.
“I think that there are lots of unique tailor-made businesses in Cork and I’m trying to reflect that in the work. They are there to bring a bit of spirit, a bit of soul to a space.” Find Jenny’s work at www.jennymonksdesign.com
THE ARTISAN SOAP MAKER
When Hungarian early intervention therapist Hajni Kele moved to West Cork to treat a group of children with cerebral palsy, she would never had predicted the recession of
Ali Wheeler at her made to measure lingerie shop Hot Knickers on Spillers Lane in Clonakilty, Co Cork.