Retired Tyrone librarian Sleator becomes global sensation with stunning designs
Following a very different career, Jacki Sleator (68) now shows off her exquisite fashion creations on the catwalks. She tells Stephanie Bell her inspiring story
She has got to be the most unlikely, successful high-fashion clothes designer you're ever likely to meet in Northern Ireland. For amidst all the young, arts college educated and formally trained designers displaying their latest creations at Belfast Fashion Week was Jacki Sleator - a 68-year-old retired librarian from Co Tyrone.
Jacki, who is completely self-taught, not only designs one-off pieces of couture but even makes and dyes some of the fabric they are cut from.
In just a few years she has amassed a customer base which is worldwide, selling her pieces as far away as Japan, Mexico and North America.
She creates striking tops, dresses, jackets, hats and gloves using only the finest Merino wool and top quality silk in her designs.
Each piece has a unique pattern and colour which, due to the nature of the process, is impossible to re-create.
Highly skilful hand stitching, learnt over the course of several decades, is used to assemble each finished item.
Jacki, from Stewartstown, explains: "When people are wearing my clothes, there's no danger of them turning up to an event only to see someone else wearing the same thing. I couldn't make an identical garment, even if I wanted to."
Please log in or register with belfasttelegraph.co.uk for free access to this article.
Jacki has been making clothes since she was a teenager, but it was only when she discovered the magic of making felt fabric a few years ago that she became passionate about creating her own fashion designs to sell.
Ten years ago, when she retired from the Northern Ireland Library Service, she launched her business from home, selling internationally through her website and social media platforms.
Jacki grew up in Stewartstown with three brothers and two sisters. One of her sisters is now deceased and the rest of her siblings have left Northern Ireland. She has two brothers in Australia, a sister in Canada and a brother in London, all of whom she visits as often as she can.
Her parents Thomas and Anna are both deceased. Her dad, who was a carpenter, passed away a number of years ago from lung cancer aged 70, and her mum Anna had dementia and died in 2004 aged 85.
Growing up in the Fifties and Sixties, Jacki made her own clothes as there wasn't the same choice of fashion for teenagers as there is now.
Her mum sewed and would have helped her with her designs.
"In those days there were no teenage clothes," Jacki says. "The age range was up to 11 and then from 40 onwards in terms of fashion.
"I liked an individual look and so I made my own clothes.
"Also at the time you were taught how to be self-sufficient and we would have learned how to knit and sew and would have bought fabric and yarn to make clothes we couldn't afford to buy.
"I learnt to sew at school and mum also sewed and we both helped each other."
She went to Trinity College in Dublin, graduating in 1972 with a degree in general studies and then completed a post graduate diploma in library studies.
She secured a job with the Northern Ireland Library Service which she loved, eventually retiring in 2012.
Jacki, who is single, says she never met anyone she felt she could settle down with and was enjoying her independence too much to get married.
Outside of a fulfilling career she pursued her love of sewing by attending classes at night school.
She says: "I was still really interested in fashion so I went to Lisburn Institute part-time to do a City and Guilds in Fashion and Design and I made great friends.
"Then I discovered a recreational tailoring class in Portadown Tech which was terrific and a place where I really honed my skills and practical sewing techniques.
"At the class we started to get designer ends of fabric like really good tweeds and they were really special, very good quality - and having such good quality fabric made you want to give whatever you was making a really good finish."
Jacki attended the class for several years until the mid Eighties when, tragically, her mum was diagnosed with dementia.
She had to give up the night class, but using a team of professional carers, she was able to continue to work full-time while caring for her mum in the evenings.
Her mum was adamant she did not want to go into a nursing home and Jacki was relieved that she was able to care for her at home.
She says: "I was very lucky to be able to keep her at home and that was down to the great team of carers who came in and looked after her during the day.
"I would go to work and completely switch off and focus on my work and then when I got home I would switch off from work and focus on mum. I think mentally it was good for me to keep working.
"Mum passed away in hospital after a fall in 2004, so I was able to keep her at home right up to the end."
A few years later, in 2009, Jacki picked up a leaflet on a felt making workshop. She wasn't put off by the fact that the one-day course was in London and she enrolled, flying over and back on the same day.
What she calls "the magic" of making felt left her mesmerised by the creative process and she went back to learn more at a five-day summer school in Cornwall.
"After that I was really hooked. I made a jacket in those five days which I still love to wear," she says.
"I got involved in hand dying fabric and worked with silk and mostly natural products.
"It is a very organic process, being able to dye your own material and add texture to create three dimensional results. You can make a jacket seamless and every time you get very different results.
"Everything is done by hand. I love the way that making and hand-dying felt creates exquisite colours, texture and drape. It's like no other fabric and the magic happens in between the layout and finished product and all the surprises you get from the finished piece which cannot be replicated in the same way again. That is the magic of it."
Now in control of the entire process, after making her own felt and dying her fabrics she then adds fine silk and wool to further enhance each bespoke piece.
It's labour intensive but also a labour of love which is obvious in the fine detail of each of her exquisite handmade pieces.
One jacket can take five full days to make and will sell for around £500.
Jacki says: "It takes a lot of patience, imagination and lots and lots of time to produce each item, so they're not cheap.
"However, customers know that everything I do is the product of top quality workmanship, and there is no other garment or design like them, anywhere in the world.
"It is a slow process but I find it very therapeutic and when you are being creative mentally it is very satisfying."
Jacki is a regular at St George's Market but it is online that her pieces have been appreciated on a global scale, selling to people in Canada, the US, Japan, France, Germany and Sweden.
Belfast Fashion Week was her first major showcase and she was thrilled to see her creations on the catwalk.
"There were about 500 women in the audience and seeing my clothes worn by professional models was fantastic. It went really well and I've had great feedback on social media," she says.
As her reputation spreads Jacki faces the dilemma of how to increase her output while not sacrificing the fine quality that make each of her handmade items so unique.
"I don't want to go down the wholesale route as I don't want to lose control of my products and whatever I make I'm not going to repeat it again," she says.
"You can make felt with a machine but it wouldn't look anything like mine and I want to keep mine exclusive.
"I am trying to run it as a business but the amount of hours I put into each piece means that it is difficult to get a return on it.
"As well as looking stunning, I want all of my clothes to be a pleasure to wear. I follow fashion and I am influenced by colours, styles and trends but I am not a slave to it and I try to be a bit more individual in my designs."
Jacki is grateful to be doing something she loves and has no regrets that she didn't follow fashion earlier in her career.
She adds: "I really enjoyed working as a librarian and it is nice to be able to do this at this stage of my life. It is good to retire and have something to do that I love so much, it is very satisfying, but I have no regrets."
- You can see Jacki's designs at her website www.jackisleator.com. Her clothes and accessories are available to buy online via her website, at The Designerie in Bushmills, The Irish Linen Centre in Lisburn and every other Saturday from her stall at St George's Market in Belfast