My Big Fat Gypsy challenge: Wedding gown designer launches dressmaking school for traveller community – but finds most are illiterate
Big Fat Gypsy Weddings dressmaker Thelma Madine ended her first day teaching in Liverpool cryingGirls of 17 have educational level and social skills of 10-year-olds
10:04 GMT, 3 July 2012
Her elaborate, meringue-shaped wedding gowns are on every young Traveller bride's wish-list, the unabashed stars in each episode of Big Fat Gypsy Weddings.
But when Liverpudlian dressmaker Thelma Madine decided to teach the young traveller brides who commission her skills how to make dresses themselves, she faced her biggest, fattest challenge yet.
Dressmaker extraordinaire: Thelma Madine at work on one of her typically extravagant gowns
Mrs Madine, who is in her 50s,
discovered the girls had very few social skills, clung to her like much younger children, rarely knew what day of the week it was and were, for the most part, illiterate.
Some didn't even know how to tell the time.
Speaking to the Daily Mirror, Mrs Madine said: 'After the first day I cried my eyes out and thought, “What have I done”.
'My vision was to see them all sat in lines sewing and me saying, “This is how you do it”.
'What I didn't realise is they don't act like 16 or 17-year-olds – they were more like 10 or 11-year-olds because they finished school at 11.'
Hard work: Two of Thelma Madine's gypsy students cut out fabric for their wedding frocks
Mrs Madine launched her fashion academy in her Liverpool shop as a thank-you to the girls who have contributed to her success, selecting 10 inexperienced teenagers and endeavoring to teach them how to make a spectacular wedding dress of their own in just six months.
She said: 'There are so many girls who want a job. Maybe they don't work because they've never had that opportunity. I really do want to do this.
'The travellers have helped put me where I am today and this is my way of giving something back.'
But teaching the girls – whose progress is documented in Channel 4's upcoming spin-off, Thelma's Gypsy Girls – was much tougher than she had expected.
As well as dealing with squabbles and excitability, Mrs Madine also found herself up against extraordinarily poor levels of numeracy and literacy – many of the girls struggled with the numbers on tape measures and were even unable to use calculators.
Pink lady: Margaret Toohey, 16, says her boyfriend disapproves of her working but that Thelma has been like a second mother to her
She brought in a tutor to help the girls with their reading and writing, and stuck up paper clocks on the walls to help them recognise times.
Since the girls are paid for their work, she also had to teach them about tax and national insurance.
Mrs Madine soon realised that traveller girls are never expected to have jobs, rather that their lives are set on a path which includes only marrying young and having children.
Many of their families and boyfriends even disapprove of the girls having jobs.
The project is meant to teach the girls that having a trade is invaluable in life, however prescribed your destiny may be.
Dressing up: Traveller student Bridget during one of her lessons with dressmaker Thelma Madine
Some students in the show include 16-year-old Irish traveller Margaret, who instantly makes an impression with her boisterous ways and wilful attitude; Bridget, an English traveller who was bullied at school and is keen to do well on the course; and Irish Shannon who is suspended from the course when she does something Thelma describes as 'pure evil'.
Dress-making divas: Students Lilyann, left, and Kathleen, right, are two of Thelma's traveller students
Thelma Madine – who is not herself a gypsy, just a dressmaker whose clients happen, mostly, to be gypsies – has been running her dressmaking business, Nico, since 1998.
She shot to fame after creating a wedding dress weighing 21-stone for a 15-year-old bride and attracting the attention of local Liverpudlian press and TV producers.
Her success followed a period of turbulence which included being imprisoned for four months in 2001 after receiving a 12-month jail sentence for benefit fraud to the tune of 10,700 she committed for 11 months between 1996 and 1997.
Material girls: Thelma Madine's gigantic, sequin-riddled designs are on every Romany bride's 'must have' list
Larger than life: Thelma Madine's over-the-top wedding dresses are the stars of Channel 4's documentary Big Fat Gypsy Weddings
Material Girls: Thelma will teach her 10 students how to make a wedding dress of their own in six months
Thelma's Gypsy Girls begins on Sunday, July 8, at 9pm on Channel 4