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The Sewing Rooms

The Sewing Rooms works with the community on numerous creative projects that involve learning new skills integrated with improved wellbeing.

Maureen Fazal

Maureen Fazal

When did you first hear of Skelmersdale?

It goes back quite a long time ago, actually. We were living in Maghull at the time. And believe it or not, because I had two young children, I wanted a little part time job and where did I come to? But Reg, which is the old pub in Skelmersdale all those years ago and I had heard about Skelmersdale then being built as the new town.

So this is before the new town was being built?

Yes. Yes it was.

What was it like back then?

Well, it was all sort of open countryside and people were moaning and groaning. The old Skemmers, you know, as you can imagine, and rightly so, nobody knew sort of what was happening. And at the time it was called Skelmersdale Development Corporation. So I followed it with, you know, eagle eyes, actually. And then through no fault of anyone's, my marriage broke down and at the time you were able to apply for some housing in Skelmersdale, which is exactly what I did.

So I got a job in the state office of the Skelmersdale Advertiser. I worked for the Advertiser for about three years. Then it was interesting because the days came when, of course we had all the redundancies. They came with camera people from all over the world because obviously it was a massive big story.

So what was this and when was this?

Well, this is going back then to the early 70s. And what happened was then companies that actually moved out to Skelmersdale because they were coming from all over the place, they were being offered special money to be able to bring their business into Skelmersdale, to grow the new town. And then once they'd been there for a certain length of time, the money that they were receiving, the incentives that they were receiving to stay in Skelmersdale, of course, dried up. So literally overnight we had Cortaulds, we had Dunlops, we had, oh, all the major companies, and then it was approximately about 3000 people were actually given redundancy notices and lost their jobs literally overnight. It was devastating for everyone. And the knock on effect and even sort of today, there are people, believe it or not, who keep saying to me, my grandad says, are you the lady that tried to get him a job, you know, all those many years later, because as you can imagine, the impact that this happened on so many families and lifestyles was unbelievable.

And so is that how you moved into the kind of work that you're doing now like this?

Yes, Education, training and mentoring. Very much so. Well, because obviously, what what was going on in the town and the devastation that had caused the high unemployment rates, etcetera, etcetera. And then I got into what they call Tomorrow's People Today. And that was set up by Monsignor Michael McKenna. And he set up this project which was way ahead of its time, whereby he was trying to sort of help people that had become unemployed and their children, their families, etcetera. And I joined Tomorrows People Today and was one of the managers. So that's how it all happened.

It was very, very satisfying and it was way ahead of its time because it was something that had not been tried before. It was exceptionally, as I say, ahead of its time, and it provided the opportunities for people to sort of dabble in. We had catering facilities, we had sewing facilities, we had hairdressing facilities. If you wanted to sort of become a micro pilot, then there was an opportunity for that. There was vehicle training and mechanical training, arts, crafts, you name it. It was absolutely unbelievable. And to actually have taken over an old derelict building that was once called Callows in Old Skelmersdale and it just brought the whole area alive, you know, and it led to a lot of people being able to then further their education to gain qualifications, to actually go on and get jobs or go back to college and start studying.

So it's always been like a big thing for you, hasn't it? Empowering people and helping them, you know, reach their potential. Is there any people or any incidents that you can think back to Tomorrow's People Today where you can think, wow, they've gone on to do well or I'm really pleased I met that person.

Well interesting enough I've always been interested in in stage work and theatrical work. That was my forte. And so what happened was and going back and sort of seeing a lot of the the tutors there who were super good machining and making all sorts of things. And I started a sort of a group called the Flamstead Frolickers and quite a lot of the Flamstead Frolickers came from Tomorrow's People Today. And I was teaching them to sing and dance and to how to tap dance. And then the ladies who were in the sewing department started making all the costumes, Daphne and Margaret. And we had oh, we had beautiful costumes made. And then we started doing shows going around the local community and raising money for charity. And we went all over the north west, even to the Talk of the North in Manchester, and we thought we were all the whole cheese. But it was great because it was giving people confidence. And it was, it was raising aspirations of people and people that thought they couldn't do something all of a sudden, although they were tutors themselves and great in their own little particular areas, for them to actually start learning to tap dance at such a late stage in their life.

One of the other programmes I became manager of was the New Deal programme, which was set up in Skelmersdale, which was very successful and we were able to get over 500 people into work. So that's always been my passion is empowering, seeing the good in people and giving the inspiration and the confidence to empower them to be able to sort of have a can do attitude.

How would you describe Skelmersdale?

Well, as far as I'm concerned, there's no other place like it. And the people are just amazing. It doesn't matter who you are and they will help anybody. I mean, obviously we all know there's good and bad in every town, But to me, it doesn't matter where I've been and where I've lived abroad and in England that I always feel as if I'm coming home because as soon as I see that beacon coming up the M6 and see that beacon, I always say to myself, I'm coming home.

The greenery is second to none. The air is second to none, believe it or not. You know, we're so many thousand feet above sea level and it's just lovely. I just love it.

How has it changed then over the years? How do you see its future?

Well, the way it's changed over the years, obviously, you know, is the way that unfortunately, a lot of the factories have had to move out. And for this, for example, particularly the Concourse, the Concourse was the sort of main drawing point of everywhere. It was always packed. It was always a case of that you could always go back down to the Concourse and sort of there were some super shops there and it's going down now and it's sort of, it's lost all that.

And so a lot of the people have changed, and a lot of people have become kind of say a bit downhearted because so much has been promised to people. And as John Fleet always said, his famous words were Skelmersdale has seen more apparitions than Lourdes. You know, they've been promised so much and it's never happened. However, in saying that… we are starting to see some changes happening. And, you know, from my own point of view as a grandmother, the schools were second to none. And I have a granddaughter and grandson who both attended local schools, state schools. One got into Oxford and is now a practising barrister. So there's so much goodness that goes on and there's so much goodness that goes on with so many people here. I'll never forget because following in my footsteps, my mum and dad came from Aintree and moved to Skelmersdale. My brother then followed and came to school in Skelmersdale So it was like a magnet and the compassion and the welcome they received, it was like no other.

And you were openly welcomed and made welcomed by everybody. And being a member of the parish, you know, Saint Richard's parish, as it's just been… Well, it's my lifestyle and I love it.


Paula Gamester MBE

Paula Gamester

When did you first hear about Skem?

Well, I first heard about Skelmersdale as a new town and that they had built beautiful homes and a lovely estate. And there were opportunities for young people and newlyweds to get a brand new house complete with central heating, three bedrooms on a new estate. And it just seemed perfect for us because we just we'd just got married and we were looking for somewhere to live. And so we came. We had a look around Skelmersdale and thought it was just a beautiful place actually.

And then we put our name down. We got a house and we moved up in 1975 and we're still here now. And I have to say, we've been fully immersed in the community and civic life of the town for all this time.
So when I first came to Skelmersdale, I had a little baby and he was six months old. And so I couldn't work initially. And the Concourse hadn't long been built and there was all new and exciting shops and various different things. So it opened and there was a new hairdressing salon called Trimmers, and it was a really very trendy, very upmarket hairdressing salon.

I applied to work there on a Saturday as a qualified hairdresser. I thought that would fit in perfectly with having a small young baby. My husband could look after him on a Sunday and I went to work on a Saturday. And so I'll never forget going for my interview. I didn't have anybody to mind the baby, so I took him in his buggy and he sat in the salon reception while I did a few sample hairdos.

And I got the job and the rest is history. It was fabulous. I worked there for about five years on a Saturday and Fridays eventually, and built up a clientele and worked with a lot of great people and got to know lots and lots of people within the town. So we had young mums coming in that maybe have just had babies and were feeling a little bit down and they wanted their hair doing, to teachers, to solicitors, to magistrates.

You know, the MP used to come and get his hair done. Yeah. You know it was a great place to connect with people.

I've always been a very sociable person anyway. And especially when I look back training as a hairdresser and working in that field, it's a really important job. I really feel that it is, especially when, you know, I got to have such empathy with women in particular.
Although we did do men's hair, it was mainly women. And I know the value of wellbeing, of having a hairdo and what it does for your confidence and your, you know, mental health, you know, I've come to appreciate that.

You become actually friends with your clients, I can't tell you how many weddings, christenings, special birthday parties that I've been invited to and to people you know, all over the town over the years that I've really got to know and become very friendly with, actually.

What was the next step for you then, after Trimmers?

I was obviously involved in hairdressing and then I was very involved with our local church and the parish priest at that time, Father Michael McKenna, had set up a project called Tomorrows People Today. And it was, it was really aimed at young people learning skills. There was a big void for employment opportunities for our young people in the town. I was asked would I run the hairdressing department for Tomorrows People Today. And it was a government funded project. So I left Trimmers. It was great because my son was at school and it just all fitted in. So I taught young people how to do hairdressing. And we did lots of confidence building.

We'd organise fashion shows within Tomorrows People Today, it was really a groundbreaking project of its day. I like to think that it was, you know, one of the very first social enterprises, to be honest. It had social value and it was all about supporting young people, getting them into work, building up the confidence and getting all those connections for them so that they could, you know, get meaningful jobs.

And then needless to say, when governments change… funding, you know, changes. And then I had to start thinking about, well, you know, tomorrow's people today. Well, there wasn't a job for me there. There was no funding. And so I left and became self-employed. And I just rekindled all those relationships with all the people that I knew. And initially I started out as a mobile hairdresser and saving up every penny that I could.

And and then I put it into a business and I, my very first business in 1981, and I was supported by the Prince's Trust with a business advisor. The business advisor was Michael Rutter. He was an older man with such great experience and knowledge and he really supported me because there was nobody in my family that had set up a business. Nobody. There was no role models. But I always knew I had it in me to to be an entrepreneur.

And so I set off on my very first hairdressing salon and I called it the Continental. And that was because we hadn't long gone into Europe. It was only about six years before. So I called it Continental Hair and Beauty. And again, you know, got myself involved in the hub of the community. It was a hairdressing salon. We did beauty, but it was a lot more than that because it was like a therapy centre for people to come.

They used to enjoy coming to our salon and having a cup of tea, sometimes a glass of sherry. It was really great. I also during that time, I became a governor of Saint Thomas the Apostle, which was a secondary school. It's now Our Lady Queen of Peace. I was the school governor there for many years. I served. And yeah, I got involved in lots and lots of different things within the town.

In 2007 I was still living in Skelmersdale, I've travelled the world and got lots of skills and knowledge and experience, but I ended up in Saint Helens Chamber working as a business advisor. And it was just at that time when Gordon Brown had launched this new business model called a community interest company.

And it really, you know, struck a chord with me. And I thought, "oh, that sounds really interesting". And I was helping people to become self-employed. And when I found out about this new social business model, I thought that's what I want to do. That's something that I need to do. And just at the time, I'd been supporting various women in Skem and I thought, that's where I'm going to set it up.

And so I set up Connector Media CIC, and the whole point of that was to work with women to give them confidence. And then through a whole host of various different things, not just media, we did do things like creative writing, we did some filmmaking with them, we did event planning. And that was in the early days. And then I heard that Ikea were looking to work with a social enterprise or a charity because they wanted to offer their customers a curtain making facility. So I thought to myself, Oh, you know, I've always been interested in sewing. I've always made my own clothes, even though I'm not a professional and self-taught. But I thought, you know, we could get a professional person and we could do that. And it also coincided with a number of the women that came to Connector Media had latent skills within the sewing trade, and they'd asked us would we run some sewing sessions for them. So we all seemed to be the right fit. And so I got in touch with Ikea and the rest is history, to be honest.

We got the contract with them and then the Sewing Rooms was born and that was in 2010. And here we are in 2023 and we've trained thousands of women coming through our doors. We've been involved in a whole host of community regeneration and inspiration. And it's just a joy to come into work every day and do something that you love.

It's not really light work. It's something that I really enjoy doing.

Tell us about your MBE?

It's a weird thing. It's funny how things come full circle. So when I first opened, I explained that I had been supported by the Prince's Trust to open my first salon. And then I actually became a business mentor for the Prince's Trust. So I did help young people on a voluntary basis, I was a mentor and helped them on their their journey to becoming entrepreneurs. And that was really an interesting thing to do. But another thing that happened was West Lancashire Council organised this business expo and I was able to be there and have an exhibition stand because I had a business in West Lancashire.

So it was Prince Charles at the time and Princess Diana were coming to Skelmersdale. And, you know, it was very exciting. We had this exhibition stand and we had all our equipment all there. And nobody knew if Prince Charles would talk to anyone. And lo and behold, he headed straight for our stand.

So I met Prince Charles all those years ago in Skelmersdale, and here I am now and I've received in the King's first Birthday honours list, an MBE, which is something that, you know, came out of the blue, was something really unexpected. And it's just an amazing thing to receive. And it's something that I'm looking forward to.

I'm going on the 2nd of November 2023 and I'll be sharing that with my family. And of course, we'll have a little party here in the Sewing Rooms with all of the wonderful women and the community that we work with. So, yeah, it's come full circle now.

Finally. How would you describe Skem to someone?

Skelmersdale. Well, these aren't my words, actually. It's my son's words. And he said, Skelmersdale is like a housing estate on a nature reserve. And I got thinking about that, and I thought, well, yeah, it is. It's set in this most beautiful rural setting. But more than that, it's the people and the camaraderie and the friendship.

I do think it's a special place actually. And I love living here and I love the people of Skelmersdale.


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