Nellie Thornton MBE

Founder member of Fashion Service and the Wharfe Valley Community Project, Nellie Thornton
studied for a Diploma in Community Studies at Bradford and Ilkley Community College. She was
awarded an MBE for her tireless work in 2007.

Nellie Thornton meets HRH Diana Princess of WalesEducated at Keighley Girls Grammar School, Nellie worked as a textile designer from the age of 15 to 23, training for 6 years at night school at Keighley College. She married in 1955 and brought up two sons in Ilkley. When her husband lost his job in a company take-over she took in sewing, studied for a City and Guilds at Craven College, and began teaching in Further Education at Craven College and Ilkley College. Nellie then began outreach work in Nursing Homes.

Twelve years later, she studied for a Diploma in Community Studies at Bradford & Ilkley Community College and took a work placement at Airedale Hospital alongside a medical social worker working with stroke cases. Nellie noticed they all seemed to have clothes too big for them, which did nothing for their image and self-esteem. Realising that an arm out of action made it impossible to get into certain styles, she designed and made a dress for a lady which fit, met all her needs and made her independent. “She was a changed woman” says Nellie, “If clothing had this effect, why wasn’t somebody doing something? Nobody was. You unpicked seams, attached velcro and stuck it all back up again. I knew about fabrics and pattern cutting but precious little about disability.”

Her next placement was at Whetley Hill Centre for the Disabled. Here she realised that many could make their own clothes with a little help, or by working together. Reporting back to College she identified the need for a workshop to make clothing and a training centre for those who could help themselves.

In 1981, the Year of the Disabled, lecturer Rod Sawyer successfully applied for funding for her scheme. Twelve hours research time gave Nellie the opportunity to meet field workers, school staff and parents. She also sat on the clothing panel at Disabled Living Foundation in London. ‘Fashion Service’ was set up in Salts Mill, holding International Fashion Weeks and classes for disabled people, parents and teachers. The Workshop was always busy, and members worked 13 weeks a year in schools and centres around the country, and gave talks at seminars in Cambridge, Dublin, Athens and Rome. They soon realised why firms were not making these clothes. As each person’s needs were different and consequently their garments were one-offs, they were expensive. Clients couldn’t afford the cost, so each garment was subsidised.

The original funding finished after 3 years. Visits from Princess Diana and Selina Scott and a slot on Calendar Fashion all helped to bring in more funds. Since then they have depended on Charitable Trusts and are still working under a new name ‘Clothing Solutions’ chaired by their very first customer.

In 2007, Nellie was awarded the MBE for services to her Ilkley community. She is a Founder Member and Voluntary Secretary of the Wharfe Valley Community Project, which was set up in 1995 by a group from the Ilkley Soroptimists with help from Age Concern. This project helps elderly, isolated members of the community, providing activities in cookery, sewing, art and crafts, keep fit and life history at their Ilkley base at Abbeyfield Grove House. They also provide the service in the homes of the less mobile as far as Addingham and Menston. Nellie has also been a volunteer at Ilkley’s Clarke Foley Centre and for Ilkley Talking Newspaper.

Photograph Bradford College