0 4 mins 12 yrs

Jumping through steel skirt hoops

© Channel 4

Thelma’s Gypsy Girls sees Thelma Madine attempt to train ten teenage Romany Gypsy, Irish and English Traveller girls dressmaking skills. Owner of Liverpool-based Nico’s couture dressmakers Thelma has certainly carved a niche for herself within the travelling community; to which she attributes much of her success. You can see why the highly secretive traveller community trusts her. After the success of Big Fat Gypsy Weddings the dressmaker extraordinaire is back embarking on an ambitious new challenge.

Thelma’s autobiography ‘Tales of the Gypsy Dressmaker’ paints a clear picture that her road to success hasn’t been at all idyllic. Plagued by an unhappy marriage and subsequent divorce, financial ruin and single-motherhood Thelma truly has a fighting spirit. Her lowest point came in 2001 when she served four months of a twelve month prison sentence for benefit fraud; she claimed £10,700 while she made money on her market stall. She admits she did wrong out of fear and vowed to never be in that situation again.

Knowing nothing of gypsy culture Thelma was asked if she did “Gone with the Wind” type dresses while she was selling christening gowns on a stall in Liverpool‘s Great Homer Street Market. Through word of mouth in the gypsy community Thelma soon had dozens of requests for bespoke dresses.

Ten years later and thanks to hundreds of layers of material, netting and over 200,000 Swarovski crystals her business has gone from strength to strength. She is now moving to larger factory premises; she needs to recruit more trainees to cope with her ever-growing business.

Those new trainees are exclusively traveller community girls.

Now living comfortably on the fruits of her labours, why is Thelma financially jeopardizing everything with this recent project? Thelma wishes to give these girls a chance they would never usually have, to give something back to the community that “got her where she is today.” Wanting to give the girls a sense of independence and achievement is what’s pushing Thelma to make a success of this endeavor; exploring design creativity and instilling discipline can only be a good thing for them, but it comes at a price.

Battling with prejudices in the outside world and a culture that does not expect or usually allow women to work; only to raise children and do housework, feminism did not make its mark on the travelling community. Many of the girls have barely had any schooling, pulled out of mainstream education as young as eleven. While this scheme comes from a good place, the challenges faced by the admirable Thelma and her team are things most of us could not imagine but you do expect.

Some of girls lack basic literacy and numeracy skills required to follow a dress making pattern, (even the meaning of the word ‘commitment’ evaded one girl). Their behaviour is challenging and unruly, tensions between the girls and Thelma’s multilingual staff start almost immediately. But the bitterest pill for Thelma to swallow was the bullying of English traveller girl Bridget by the other gypsy girls, she had stayed in school and gained GCSEs and the other girls perceive her as a know it all and attack her with pins.

Though there isn’t a dull moment in this programme and the travelling community is forever intriguing to us Gorgers (non- travellers), perhaps Thelma and Channel 4 may have bitten off more than they can chew with this one, only time will tell.

If you’ve missed the first two episodes of you can catch up at Channel 4oD