A Stitch in Time: How an 80-Year-Old Lecturer Keeps Dressmaking Alive!

Posted By:
Southern Regional College

24th Jan 2024

Armagh native Brigid (Breege) Shaw is a walking history book.  Her life has seen her being born and raised in Armagh, travelling to England to undertake a Nursing qualification, being an examiner and involved as an education officer for trade unions, and later returning to Northern Ireland.  Despite all these tremendous achievements, Brigid has spent the past twenty years of her life tutoring individuals in dressmaking in Southern Regional College.  This January, Brigid turns eighty years old, marking the twentieth anniversary of her teaching career at SRC which began on the day she turned sixty on 25th January 2004.

Brigid’s talent is undeniable.  Growing up with crafts was important to Brigid.  Brigid attributes her introduction to dressmaking to her childhood next door neighbour aunt Sarah, who was a tailoress from Belfast.  Brigid would help Sarah, who in turn taught her to find the ‘run of the cloth’ and sew and knit without the aids of electric machines or light!  At the tender age of six, Brigid was able to demonstrate and teach her peers at Mount Street, St. Catherines Primary School how to knit.

By age sixteen Brigid made her first wedding dress.  In her intervening childhood years, Brigid made multiple dresses, shift and communion dresses for friends, family, and customers at the local grocery store (Kells), being taught by the former SDLP councillor Anna Brolly who ‘showed [me] how to make dresses more attractive’.  Her talent was unmistakable!

In 1962, at eighteen years old Brigid began her nursing career working in the health service at St. Luke’s Hospital, travelling to England in 1963 to commence nurse training in Chester.  One formidable memory for Brigid is that of a senior retiring doctor who was gifted gardening materials on his retirement.  When questioned on advice to give younger generations, his reply was:

“’My dear, do you have a hobby?’ and I said yes, told him that it was sewing, and he said, ‘You develop it because when you retire you will be an expert and you can charge whatever you want.’”

This is something which Brigid keeps telling people about to this day. Taking this advice to heart, Brigid has undertaken fashion and interior design courses over the years and is keen to pass her enthusiasm for sewing onto others.

Since retiring from nursing Brigid has taken on a caring role for her husband, but is never too far away from the classroom, being a great believer in “sewing for the mind”.  Brigid’s biggest accomplishment is herself, having left school with no qualifications she now has stacks of them, and is able to help others, and fulfilling a lifetime ambition to teach needlework.

With nursing as her background, Brigid has seen how sewing has the ability to improve people’s mental health.  As Brigid says, “with sewing you don’t think about what’s on your mind.”  Over the years Brigid has seen how people have transformed their lives through taking up a hobby and has taught people across the region and in community and outreach centres the art of needlework.  This fantastic lady has even been requested to create living history quilts for prominent politicians in Northern Ireland and has many of her former students now teaching their own classes.

Brigid has many quotes which we would all do well to remember, some of which include, “love many, trust few and always paddle your own canoe.”  When pressed if she would write a book of her life experiences Brigid replied;

“I would love to as long as it doesn’t interfere with sewing.  It would be about sewing and dancing for the mind.  People need to get out more and avail of the opportunities in life and make the most of them.”

Brigid has gotten her life inspiration from sewing and the run of the cloth, that’s how to find the straight grain or direction of threads in cloth, for those looking to pick up a new hobby.  Throughout Brigid’s life, thread strands have been a consistent factor, and she remains keen to weave these strands through other’s lives and improve their quality of life too.

Christopher Hobson, Curriculum Area Manager Southern Regional College commented:

“Brigid is a true inspiration to all. She is always willing to get the community involved and never takes no for an answer. Her determination is infectious to all. At the age of 79, she took on a new course in Interior Design and delivered some truly amazing work. Her passion is engaging with those who have been disengaged with education for most of their life. Giving them a ‘Can do’ attitude to succeed and to be lifelong learners.

Over the years Brigid has kept me right and in turn I asked her husband (Victor) what was the secret of a long marriage? He replied ‘Chris, its simple… Yes Dear’. He said anything she asks he just replies yes dear. No job to big no task too small, the answer is always the same.

A fantastic lady who has led many lives to which we are privileged to be a part of!”