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

Irish Examiner - Weekend - - Inside - ALI WHEELER


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.


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.jen­ny­monks­de­



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.

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