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“Twenty years ago, everyone had a granny to teach them”, says Jo Poole, in her bright, fabric-filled sewing studio in an industrial estate off Scrubs Lane. “But now the grannies have gone, and the next generation mostly
didn’t pick up the skills.”
The skills Jo says were lost are remodelling clothes to make them more fashionable and wearable, or simply
to prolong their life.
Today, she says, clothes end up in cupboards and
bottom drawers instead.
“I realised many people had far more clothes than they actually wore”, she explains. “Perhaps because they’d changed size or because fashions had changed. But
they kept them because they couldn’t bear to part
In 2006 Jo decided to provide a solution.
She launched herself as The Dress Doctor – and
started visiting people’s homes to breathe new life
into their hidden treasure troves.
Arriving in a little white van stuffed with her sewing machine and boxes of materials and accessories,
she and her clients talk through what’s needed.
“Sometimes it’s simple”, she says. “Fixing a tear or moving a button. Sometimes a much more complex reworking is called for”.
A typical visit might involve alterations to a couple of dozen garments – some done on the spot, some back
in her studio.
The cost for such a visit is typically around £500, but her clients seem to think it’s value for money. Jo says 60%
of her workload is from existing customers coming back for more.
Consultant Oonagh Heron is one of Jo’s regular customers.
“I’m a shopaholic”, Oonagh says, “so I end up with plenty of clothes which I buy on impulse but which don’t quite work when I get them home. I’d think if only it could just be a bit longer, or shorter or slightly differently cut, it would be just perfect”.
On top of that Oonagh says it’s been hard to find clothes to fit her since she’s just five foot three tall and goes up and down in dress sizes as she gains or loses weight.
Oonagh met Jo by chance and found her Dress Doctor service was the answer.
The kind of problems Oonagh was having are ones
Jo says her temperament and seamstress skills are
precisely designed to solve.
“I get bored easily” Jo says. “So the idea of long production runs or remaking the same design in different sizes just doesn’t interest me”.
Jo realised she wanted to work with fabrics and clothing when she was just into her teens. But it took years for her to find a way to do it which fitted her Quaker-based ethical beliefs.
After studying costume for stage and screen at what is now Arts University Bournemouth - a course which included an attachment to the prestigious French National Theatre School in Lyons - Jo moved to London in 2000.
The banking boom was starting to take off and Jo soon found herself making costumes for extravagant corporate and celebrity parties.
“It was a time when banks would spend millions of pounds on a Christmas party”, she recalls. “You’d have women dressed up as Tequila girls – we were making ammunition belts to be filled with shot glasses.”
“They were expensive parties usually thrown for and by people with no taste”, she says.
Looking for more satisfying work, Jo moved into theatre – working at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, the Shakespeare’s Globe and the National Theatre.
Again she was discontented, realising she was more interested in people than theatre and actors.
Then, with a brainstorm on the back of an envelope, The Dress Doctor was born. And, she says, she hasn’t looked back.
Recently Jo has started making wedding dresses with a difference – designed to fulfil a couple’s dreams for their great day.
“Some people spend crazy amounts of money on
wedding dresses”, Jo says. “£5,000 to £6,000 is common. Even poorly made, off the shelf, mass-produced polyester dresses – probably stitched by child labour – typically retail for £1,500”.
Jo has set out to do far better than that - making wedding dresses her clients really want at prices which she says are fair to both sides.
In one corner of her studio is a dress inspired by the Dior designs of the late 1940s. Next to it is one modelled on the dress Jane Seymour wore when she was married to Henry VIII.
The Jane Seymour dress was commissioned by Jenny Johnson – an enthusiast for what’s called LARPing –
Live Action Role Play – in which dozens of participants, dressed in character, relive situations from history.
“Jo has been brilliant”, Jenny says. “She is extremely knowledgeable about historic garments and how are
they were made so she could guide me as we planned
the dress together and I’ve ended up with exactly what
After Jenny’s worn the dress at her wedding, Jo will remodel it for the Tudor-themed LARP events Jenny enjoys. It’s all in keeping with the low-waste philosophy Jo and Jenny share.
Jo says plain dealing and giving value for money is a key part of the Quaker business ethic she follows.
And Jenny Johnson certainly seems satisfied with the outcome.
“My dress is costing more than the most basic dress you can buy”, Jenny says, “but in terms of value for money I’ve got far more than I hoped for, working with Jo and
I’m delighted with the whole experience.”
Consultant Oonagh Heron now consults Dress Doctor
Jo across her entire wardrobe.
“Jo is calm and listens and steers me away from things which won’t work”, Oonagh says. “So I get clothes I really want to wear and I’ll be going on using Jo’s service for as long as I possibly can”.
There’s a chance to see Jo at work and get top tips on remodelling clothes in the last weekend of September.
Along with around 50 other artists, sculptors, photographers and designers, Jo is opening her studio
to the public in the annual ArtWest Open Weekend.
It’s free and all are welcome - children included. On September 28th and 29th the studios will be open between 1pm and 6pm.
Jo will talk through sewing problems, show her work and is planning to offer cushion covers made from vintage material remnants at around £20 apiece as well as a rail of vintage clothes at between £20 and £80.
It’s taken a while, but Jo says she has finally found a business which works financially but which also complies with her Quaker principles of care for the environment
and honest fair dealing.
It’s an ethical approach which has brought Jo more than financial rewards.
Future 100, an organisation set up to recognise and promote businesses which have a strong commercial foundation as well as a significant social and environmental impact named Jo as one of its Young Social Entrepreneurs of 2011.
All of Artwest send our love and thoughts for a full recovery to the wonderful Jo Poole, who is critically ill after a car accident, as well as sending our love and support to her partner Michael and their little boy Bertie.