Why a prize-winning handbag is just as good as an A* exam grade

April 27, 2017

The head of leading Sussex school Burgess Hill Girls says Textiles is being neglected in too many schools as creative subjects are given short shrift.

Liz Laybourn, Burgess Hill Girls’ Interim Head, said the outstanding success of Sixth Form pupil Allegra Cook in National Textiles and Fashion Design competitions should be a wake-up call to other schools about the value of creative opportunities for students.

Allegra, 17, has won the title of Young Handbag Designer of the Year at the Clothes Show over two successive years and last month was awarded first prize in the Design for an Icon competition, part of the Fashion and Embroidery show at the NEC in Birmingham. The competition attracted more than 100 entries.

Allegra’s success has brought her to the attention of some of the biggest names in fashion. She has already completed a week’s work experience with Zandra Rhodes and has now won a three-month internship with Vivienne Westwood during the summer holidays.

Mrs Laybourn pointed out that the only creative arts subject to have increased numbers of GCSE entries over the last five years is art and design. All the others – drama, music, design & technology, and expressive & performing arts – are down – in the case of D&T [design and technology], which includes textiles, by nearly 30 per cent.

Mrs Laybourn said she believed that with the exclusion of arts subjects from the EBacc, more needs to be done to assert the importance of creativity in schools.

She said: ‘Let’s reignite interest in textiles. There’s a place in every school for these fantastic creative projects.

‘At Burgess Hill Girls we really do give “parity of esteem” to girls who show amazing talent in creative subjects.’

One of the designs that Allegra submitted to clinch the Handbag Designer of the Year title was a circular bag based on an old-fashioned pocket watch.

She used luxury silk and velvet fabrics to represent gold, and inside the bag she created a superb watch face which used gems at the hour points.

Mrs Laybourn said: ‘Allegra’s design was, of course, a fantastic feat of fabric engineering. Her incredibly complex work, which included a winder for the pocket watch, calls on all sorts of so-called academic skills.’

A few months ago Allegra, who is studying for A-levels in Art, Business and Textiles, was highly commended in a Clothes Show competition to design an outfit inspired by a Queen from any era.

Mrs Laybourn says: ‘The competition was open to young designers up to the age of 25, so Allegra’s achievement really is remarkable. It shows she can compete with young designers already studying at college.’

Case study: Allegra Cook

‘There’s a stigma around textiles that it’s “just for girls”

On the role of school:

‘I’ve had incredible support from the school generally and my textiles teacher in particular. She has given up her weekends to support me when I’ve been working on competition entries. I’ve also been allowed to let my A-levels take a back seat when I’ve been working on competition entries. I need to catch up now!’

On why textiles is an important subject:

‘I think textiles isn’t given enough importance in schools generally. For creative students who have only done art, it’s another way of expressing your creative abilities. I won a £3k embroidery machine for the school in one of my competitions, but textiles can be done on a lower budget.’

On why more boys should do textiles:
‘There’s a stigma around textiles that it’s “just for girls”. But textiles isn’t just sewing; it’s creating using fabric. It’s fabric manipulation – not just making a pretty dress. Many boys just don’t do textiles. In the last competition there were two boys who had never even sewn before, but they did incredible work.’

On working with Zandra Rhodes:
‘It was a very exciting five days in my last half-term. I found Zandra herself quite scary but amazing! It was fascinating to find out how a top fashion house is run. It was all very [film] Devil Wears Prada! I got to have a brief conversation with Zandra and I think she began to get to know me a bit.
‘I started by tidying up and organising, which was fine. But by the end I was putting prints on to mug designs and ceramics, working with the head of textile designs. I even got to finish some of the detail on a dress for a US show.
‘It was an amazing privilege.’