Handmade in Antwerp: the story of Madame Tirette

The shop and atelier of Madame Tirette in Antwerp is a real hidden gem. A charming place, with a sincere sustainable philosophy. Offering tissues, sewing courses and handmade fashion for kids. We had an interview to get the full story out.

How and when did your project start? Who played a mayor role in it?

When I was 12, my mother showed me how her sewing machine worked. I managed to do a few small projects with her help. My first piece was a kind of pajama-pants in dark blue velvet with an elastic. Looking back I realize it was awful, but with that pants a whole new world opened for me. Quite quickly I had the feeling I could make everything I could imagine. On a regular basis one could find me stitching clothes on a Sunday morning, in my underwear at the kitchen table. Cutting tissues was what I did on the carpet of the living room.

When I turned 16 I decided to take a sewing course with two friends, a course for adults after school hours. The teacher intrigued me. It was a lady of advanced age, a bit old-fashioned and quite strict. Chatting during the lessons was not appreciated. But still she was my big example at that time. I found it intriguing that she was so omniscient, at least in my eyes back then. In my memory she never told us her name. So we used to call her “Madame”. It was a bit tricky, but she seemed to be fine with that. The “Madame” part of Madame Tirette refers to her.

When I was 18 I went to study design of theater costumes in Antwerp. In 2008 I received my Masters graduation at the Koninklijke Academie in Antwerp. But quite quickly it became clear that this degree wouldn’t open many doors to a real job, so I had to go on the hunt myself. I tried many things. I worked part-time in a fashion store, and started a street-theater company with two companions, and did a few extra jobs as an animator. At the age of 25, in 2010, I discovered “Troef”: a competition of the city of Antwerp for young people that want to develop a project for young people. It really seemed like a chance I had to grab. I invented the concept of Madame Tirette, back then it were just sewing courses for youngsters, and I became one of the winners! I got an atelier at my disposal and 18.500 euro to start everything. Madame Tirette was a sewing workshop where youngsters could learn to make simple clothes. The courses in workshop-format were immediately a big success.

After that Troef-year I decided to continue Madame Tirette on a self-employed basis and I moved to the current location. Because of my experience as a workshop-mentor I could start as a teacher “sewing” at the CVO-VIVA one year later, and continuously conducted extra training. On these additional courses I really learned the tricks of the trade.

The sewing courses are still the most important part of what I do as Madame Tirette. Slowly I added the sales of tissues. I started the children’s fashion collection when I was pregnant of my son, he was born at the end of 2015. When he started going to the crèche I started with fixed opening hours. Since then people can also find me for repairing work.

Like this, Madame Tirette became a sewing atelier / shop where one can go for sewing courses, tissues, repairing work or handmade children’s clothes.

How did you end up discovering the sustainable part of your work?

When I started my atelier I noticed that sustainability was a theme that is inevitable in the DIY – do it yourself – world. The growing attention for sustainability is linked to wanting to do things oneself. People loose their confidence in big companies, want to know where their food and fashion are coming from, and more and more often choose to spend their little free time in a meaningful and sustainable way. By growing their own food with a garden and some chickens, or by making your own fashion, a sustainable hobby.

I also offer as many natural tissues as possible. A large part of my tissues is made following OEKO-TEX® norms. They are made in a sustainable manner and no toxic substances are added for the production. Another part of the tissues are organic. The sheets of paper we use for the patterns are the waste of an ecological printing company in the neighbourhood. Leftover tissues are also reused as much as possible.

The repairing work I do is done so 100% for sustainability reasons. I started it because I noticed the demand was very high. People do want to get their clothes repaired, but there has to be someone able to do that! Every piece I can repair, is one that doesn’t have to be thrown away, and that’s what drives me.

How would you define the items you offer? What makes them so unique?

The children’s clothes I design are just on the brink between real clothes and dressing-up clothes. The references to fairy tales and myths give a nostalgic feeling that triggers kids and parents. Often people use Madame Tirette to find a present for a birth or birthday.

While an average princess dress from a toy store is made using the cheapest synthetic polyester, and is broken after a few times playing, the clothes of Madame Tirette are natural, sustainable, hence perfectly fitting as well for daily life. At least as long as you’re a bit open-minded!

When entering the shop of Madame Tirette you immediately stumble upon the cutting table of the atelier where everything happens. You can really feel the atmosphere and live a part of the process. There are many items on stock, but if the correct size or colour is not available, you can discuss with Madame Tirette to have one custom-made. When it is not too busy, it can be ready the day after. This way, there is never an over-production. Nearly everything made in the atelier is also sold.

Furthermore, every piece at Madame Tirette is unique. Most often the differences can be found back in details, for instance buttons or colours, but to find two similar pieces at Madame Tirette it will take you a lot of searching!

What are the biggest challenges for a shop as yours?

Since the price of confection is lower than ever, people sometimes perceive my fashion or tailor-made as “expensive”. This because it is compared to confection made in countries with low wages. Because of that reason I feel a strong urge to keep the prices for my sewing work very low, which in fact isn’t livable. I notice that clothes repairing shops in the neighbourhood charge too low prices as well, and hence don’t survive. Working with prices that are too low benefits no-one. Especially repairing work is something that can differ in quality in many ways. When you don’t ask enough, you’re triggered to use the quickest and not the best way to do so. And that can lead to an unsatisfying result, for the customer as for the repairer. Still it seems people find cheapness more important than doing a decent job. When people want to negotiate about the prices, which are already too low, I sometimes get a bit desperate.

Giving workshops and sewing workshops is a different category and is also compared to other workshops/courses. For these lessons I can charge the correct prices, and that’s also why I spend most of my time and energy on this.

Do you have the feeling people are changing their habits into more sustainable ones?

Definitely. Though I think the change is limited to certain people: those a bit above middle-class that can afford to spend more on sustainable products.

Antwerpen-Noord, the area where I have my shop, is a poorer area of Antwerp. On the Turnhoutsebaan one can see one 1-euro shop next to another, mingled with a lot of shops selling cheap stuff. People from lower income classes prefer a new product that is cheaper and breaks easily, above a second hand, more sustainable product of the same price. Living sustainable is a lifestyle that isn’t the standard yet in this neighbourhood.

For instance when I go to buy vegetables at the Moroccan grocery around the corner, he always insists that I take a plastic bag, even when I try to avoid it, “because it’s free Ms”.

Many people  also compare the prices of my repairing work with the cost of something new. Replacing a zip can sometimes cost as much as a new piece of clothing. So often people then prefer to spend the same amount on a new item, one of which the zip will probably break as quickly. Buying something new apparently gives more satisfaction than having something repaired.

How is Antwerp doing as to sustainability?

“Kringloopwinkels”, second hand fashion stores, swapping- and giving fairs are hip and happening. Bigger chain stores offer paper bags more and more often, and with ever more coffee bars and neighbourhood stores I see words as “organic-eco-veggie” or related sustainable terms on the windows.

Antwerp is growing along, but I have the feeling Ghent is leading with a far distance. Antwerp seems to be following yet lagging behind. In Antwerpen Noord, Borgerhout and the poorer areas of Antwerp sustainability seems to receive little attention. Leaving trash in the street rather seems the rule than the exception. In poorer classes people seem to look for the price, and less for quality, let alone sustainability of a product.

For me this is even more a reason to stay in this neighbourhood. First of all because I love this neighbourhood with all its colours and nationalities so incredibly much. But also because this kind of area is where sustainable initiatives have to break through! Maybe other initiatives feel inspired to give this neighbourhood a chance!

Do you have some tips of sustainable places or initiatives in Antwerp?

‘t Werkhuys: Zegelstraat 13, 2140 Borgerhout. A meeting place in Borgerhout where you can conduct workshops and courses, do handwork in a cosy get-together way on Tuesday evenings, and on Friday evenings you can have dinner in the kitchen for all.

Travant concept store: Turnhoutsebaan 112, 2140 Antwerpen. At Travant concept store you can find an entirely second hand outfit or a beautiful second hand bike for a fair price. There are also marvelous wood products for sale, made in the atelier. In the chatting corner delicious coffee or tea is served with a biscuit. Travant is part of CAW Antwerpen. The team of Travant organizes meaningful jobs for people with talents, but few chances on the regular job market.

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More info of Madame Tirette: in our review

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