Learning to re-create bang in fashion thanks to Sheffield's Olusola

Olusola McKenzie at Learn to Re-create. Picture: Andrew Roe
Olusola McKenzie at Learn to Re-create. Picture: Andrew Roe
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Sewing, dressmaking and fashion design are undergoing a renaissance in a corner of Sheffield - and it's all the work of a former council worker who decided to pursue her dream of a life in crafts.

Olusola McKenzie runs Learn to Re-create, an organisation based at the Workstation on Paternoster Row in the city centre which, through a range of different programmes, aims to teach people the skills to work in fashion, and potentially turn their learning into a proper job.

Olusola McKenzie at Learn to Re-create. Picture: Andrew Roe

Olusola McKenzie at Learn to Re-create. Picture: Andrew Roe

Some students are paying members of the public, while others are unemployed people, whose places are funded in the hope that gaining valuable knowledge will help them get back into work.

"What we really have a deficit of is people skilled in production, like machinists," says Olusola, surrounded by handmade cushions, hats and garments at Learn to Re-create's workshop.

"I studied fashion, but the academic side of it was much more than the practical element."

The venture has reached an important new phase, she says. A worker's craft co-operative is being launched soon, targeted at those interested in selling their craft products. The first step will be to raise funds through sales and a crowdfunding appeal.

"We want people in Sheffield to get in touch if they can help, and also to support us once the campaign starts."

Olusola, aged 42, was born in Birmingham, raised in Nigeria and has adopted Sheffield as her home. She came here to take a master's degree in environmental monitoring in the late 1990s, then worked as a research analyst for the city council. However, she later resigned to study fashion and textiles at Sheffield College, completing her course in 2008.

"I just saw my get-out, that window of opportunity," she says. "As a teenager I was really interested in crafts and fashion, but didn't have the skills. I just thought it was time for the dream I'd held for a long time."

Learn to Re-create was originally set up in 2010, but experienced some early setbacks with a scheme backed by grants.

"We decided to pilot the project to test it and see if we could engage people who were out of work with textiles, arts, crafts and training. We got the students to make different things, taught them about the commercial side of the business - quite a few different skills.

"The plan was to get all of them to achieve a qualification, albeit a very basic one. Only two managed to complete that qualification. What we learned was that our 'one size fits all' model wasn't going to work. People needed to be taken through the programme at a different pace. Some people had mental health problems and they were really poorly."

A new plan was written, and the project was broken up into different strands.

"Firstly we decided to do a basic programme, where you just come, learn skills to make things and you're not aiming for a qualification - we teach you how to go on and set up an enterprise. Intermediaries would be people actually studying a fashion course, and then, thirdly, designers, professionals who want to upskill or expand their businesses. That's what we have now."

Learn to Re-create has four directors, with another joining soon. All are voluntary, and get paid for delivering services, with freelancers coming in to teach.

"They could be milliners, dressmakers, craftspeople, designers - that's the model we've had to date, we don't employ anybody full-time. A freelance designer-maker has their hands in industry. When they are teaching they transfer that knowledge, and the business and enterprise side of things, which is absolutely critical."

The organisation uses unwanted fabrics from mills and manufacturers around the country and abroad, so anything made at the Workstation 'preserves UK craftsmanship while caring

for the environment'.

An autumn season of classes starts this month and details are being finalised of an EU-funded programme which will send eight fashion apprentices to Portugal for two months of training.

According to the British Fashion Council, the trade is worth 800,000 jobs nationally, figures that haven't gone unnoticed by Olusola.

"I want to give people a chance to go and work in industry. They are going to be going to factories and seeing the process."