From making clothes for her Pippa doll out of scraps of discarded fabric, to creating the dress worn by Miss Gibraltar the night she became Miss World and setting dozens of sewing students off on their own making and designing careers, Dorcas Hammond tells me how she turned her passion into a creative business.
Christened with the name of a seamstress from the Old Testament, it would seem that Dorcas Hammond was born to sew. Her father, who Dorcas describes as a very religious man, had liked the name and as his wife was a keen seamstress herself, he thought it appropriate to name his second daughter Dorcas. Little did he know at that time, what an accomplished designer and dressmaker, she would later become.
Dorcas began sewing at a very young age. Her mother made curtains at home and she picked up the remnants of curtain fabric and hand sewed them to make dolls clothes. By the age of six, she was using her mother’s sewing machine in secret with the help of her older sister, Ingrid. “When my mother was out, my sister helped me get the sewing machine to work” she told me. The pair would operate the tredle-powered machine until Dorcas was able to manage on her own using her tip-toes to reach the pedal.
Her secret was only discovered when “the ironing lady (who came to the house) said she needed two sheets sewing together but as my mother wasn’t there it couldn’t be done. I told her I would do it and machined them together for her … the ironing lady told my mother that it was me who had done the sewing”. After being rumbled for using the sewing machine, Dorcas’s mum put her to work doing embroidery but she hated it, “I remember embroidering this bird and it was rubbish, I just wanted to sew”.
Later on in childhood, she would make simple clothes using Burda and Simplicity patterns and experiment with her cousin. They would lock themselves into a bedroom and measure, sew and fit the clothes. No one was allowed to see what they had done until they were completely happy with the finished result.
Dorcas’s passion for sewing continued into her teens, she began making clothes for clients at the age of 18 while working in a cosmetics shop on Main Street. Each lunchtime she would rush home at 1 o’clock, her mother would have her lunch prepared for her and she’d spend her lunch break sewing garments for clients before returning to work at 3pm for the second half of her shift.
In the evening, Dorcas would begin her sewing work again with the help of her mum. “My mother would go to bed when she got tired, but I would carry on until I’d finished. I couldn’t sleep until the garment was on the hanger – sometimes I’d sew until 2am”.
Sewing has run in Dorcas’ family for generations. Her grandmother had a workshop with her own mother making clothes. When Dorcas told her mum that she would like a workshop like her grandmother’s (at a time when no one else had one in Gibraltar), her mother said she was crazy and said she was to keep working at her job in the shop.
It wasn’t until the age of 26, when she’d been married and had her two sons and “had a load of problems that I decided it was the time to do it”. The ICC shopping centre had just opened in town and she opened her first shop there.
At that time, Dorcas created her garments using manufactured patterns but soon discovered that they didn’t always work well for her clients. “Someone would want a dress with a sleeve from this pattern, the skirt from another pattern and a top from the other pattern”. Dorcas then had to decipher how she was going to join all the elements together.
She’d had no formal training but was given a book of instructions on how to cut your own patterns by one of the ladies who did sewing for her. “I still have that book to this day” she says, “it was very old but I went through it and as I have always had a good eye, I knew some parts were wrong for what I was making. It was the first steps to the pattern cutting system I use and teach now”.
The first made-to-measure garments Dorcas created (using her own patterns) were for her mum before implementing the method in her shop. Because she’d not been formally taught how to make the patterns properly, Dorcas says she was always scared that she wouldn’t have enough fabric to fit the garments properly. As a consequence, she cut huge seam allowances. It wasn’t until she went to a crash course in pattern cutting in Madrid in 2000, that she learned the seam allowances only need to be 1 or 2cms.
While in Madrid, she was asked by one of the teachers why she had come to the course as Dorcas had created the best sample jacket sleeve the teacher had ever seen. It was thanks to this compliment that Dorcas left filled with the confidence to truly believe in her designing and dressmaking capabilities. That was almost seventeen years ago and since then her business has gone from strength to strength.
Alongside her dressmaking and designing business, Dorcas inadvertantly ended up teaching the skills she’d developed over the years to others. During the time she had run her shop, people had occasionally asked her to teach them dressmaking. She also took on interns every now and then from University, however it was an ecclesiastical request which set her on the road to teaching properly.
“I was at a song contest and Father Caruana asked me if I would teach some of his social cases. By the time I said yes, a room had already been set aside at Nazareth House and six sewing machines had been bought”. Dorcas spent several years volunteering at Nazareth House teaching not just sewing but life skills to the young women who attended the classes. She says “we discussed things like what you should wear to go to a job interview and how to behave” a bit like a mother or big sister might.
The lessons came to an end when Father Caruana died, but there were still a few students who wanted to carry on being taught. Eventually, Dorcas needed to find new premises for the lessons and converted the rear of her workshop into a classroom and began the Dorcas Hammond Fashion Academy. After perfecting her own method of pattern cutting, she compiled all her notes into a four year course to teach dressmaking, from beginners through to tailoring and wedding dress design.
Dorcas says she has had many highs throughout her career including fashion shows in London, Marbella, Morocco, Madrid and Portugal. She designed and created the Gibraltar National Costume worn by the Miss Gibraltar contestants when they attend pageants, and is most famous for creating the dress worn by the 2009 winner of Miss World, Gibraltar’s Kaiane Aldorino.
Dorcas says she still gets a thrill out of making dresses “I love what I do… I get butterflies in my stomach when it looks good”. The biggest highlight for her though, is seeing her students go out from her Academy and make the most of their great potential. So far she has seen former students go on to study fashion at University, get PGCEs and go into teaching themselves and one has opened her own fashion boutique. “I want them to achieve what I haven’t and fulfill their dreams” she says.
So what does the future hold for Dorcas? “Well I’m a chicken” she says. “If I haven’t done more things it’s because I take a long time thinking about doing them. When I was young I just jumped into things, but not so much now”. Her small alterations and dressmaking shop developed into a fashion design business and academy and the next step will see her selling her fashion designs online. “Some days I wake up and I say who will buy my clothes? But then I think if other people can do it why can’t I?”
Dorcas is currently working on her first online collection and is looking forward to launching it later on in 2017. You can find Dorcas at her shop on Governor’s Street and on Facebook and Twitter as Dorcas Hammond Fashion Design.
Also in the Creative Gibraltar series: