Ireland is currently in its third Covid-19 lockdown, and we all have our fingers crossed there won’t be a fourth. The vast majority of people are ill-equipped to be stuck at home for hours upon hours. Humans are social creatures, and we crave the physical interaction that comes from caressing a cup of coffee conjured up by our favourite barista while talking nonsense with our closest and dearest. We miss the camaraderie of walking through a turnstile to watch a live event and all the banter and craic that comes with being a spectator or a participant. We’ve binge-watched every library across every streaming platform, and every one of us is now a Masterchef in our kitchen.
Every day, thousands of home workers, school children and grandparents across this Island are now verbing the noun Zoom, as if it was the next Google. You can’t buy a pint from a pub, but you can purchase anything online from the comfort of your kitchen table. One pastime that a great many people found to alleviate the boredom was taking pictures of their cute animals and then posting them on social media for all of us to see and share. Dogs in particular, especially small furry breeds, have become the superstars of the lockdown era. Man’s best friend has made it onto TikTok, and we are all the better for it. Something is soothing and cathartic about watching cute puppies doing silly things. As every dog owner knows – there is no such thing as loneliness.
Since many animal psychologists will claim that dogs have personalities too. It only seems right and proper that they should be treated like a fully-fledged member of the family. Perhaps by being given an exclusively designed doggy coat? Step in Bella Boo Dog Accessories of Moate, run by Florence Dickson – the cool grandmother that we all wish we had. I went along to meet with Florence to talk about doggy coats, children t-shirts and face masks!
Florence is originally from the Wicklow village of Ballinabarney where on the small family farm she dreamt of becoming a nurse. After the death of her father when she was aged 6, her mother decided to move the family to Manchester in the UK. It was there that Florence went to school for 11 years before training as a State Registered Nurse (SRN) at Altrincham General Hospital in Cheshire.
“My mother was a great woman. She was never afraid of hard work and in Wicklow, we were small farmers, and I’ve always loved country life. My mother was very proud of me because I was the first person in my family to go into nursing.”
A year after she became a qualified Nurse, Florence met her husband Tom in Portarlington while she was on holiday in Ireland. The couple dated and were married in about 12 months of meeting. As was the case at the time, Florence had to leave nursing upon marriage and found herself moving back to her husband’s home in Moate in order to help him run the family farm.
“I suppose farming was always in my genes, so I ended up helping Tom and his brother John build up a pedigree herd of Fresian cows until they moved completely over to the dairy side. All of that took lots of hard work and toil, but I loved it! Tom and I finally retired from farming about two years ago.”
For 35 years, Florence was content with raising her six children but then decided to do a refresher course at Limerick Hospital so that she could be certified to practice as a nurse in Ireland.
“I was one of the oldest people on the refresher course and probably had the biggest gap from nursing. The refresher course allowed me to go back into the community and I got a job doing some twilight nursing in a Moate nursing home. I worked for about nine or ten years. I also then worked for 10 years with the Sisters of La Sainte Union at the Mont Vista nursing home in Athlone, which is now closed. I loved my time in nursing wherever I was. But I still was a full-time farmer’s wife and mother at home.”
Florence has always been interested in sewing. When her children were small, she would always make their clothes and her own. “Back then, money would always have been tight, and I have always had an interest in sewing, knitting and crocheting.”
She has always supported the Moate Agricultural Show, and one year she entered a competition in which participants had to make something using recycled materials.
“I recycled an old pair of jeans and an old fleece and made a coat for my daughter’s dog. I entered the dog coat and it won a prize and I was delighted. From that moment on, my girls wanted more coats for their dogs. I put a few dog coats up on Facebook and Instagram and people loved them and wanted to buy them. So I now make them to order. I’ve now been making dog coats for about four years”
Florence realised that the material for her dog clothes was very important. Her customers feel good in the knowledge that she will only make a handful of items in a particular material.
“I went to visit my two daughters who live in Chicago and spent a few days just looking around a big American store that stocked every type of material under the sun. I must have brought home a caseload of beautiful fleeces. I try not to buy too much of one material, so that all the dog clothes I make are never the same.”
Florence tells me that she is a perfectionist and returning customers love that every single item they will be made to the highest of standards. Her raincoats are fleece lined and not only look good, but are double fleeces that are also reversible. This makes them unique. She is conscious also that all her items are affordable to as many people as possible. The main objective is to cover the cost of the material itself and is happy with a small mark-up.
After the success of her dog clothes and not being someone who is content just sitting about, Florence started making and selling long and short sleeve t-shirts for children. Once again, she decided to keep the designs exclusive and ships in fabric from America as well as from a few Irish suppliers.
“I have a grandson in Singapore and I could only find plain coloured t-shirts so decided to make one using an unusual patterned fabric. My granddaughter helps me to promote these unique designs across social media platforms.
Florence started making face masks when Covid-19 hit the country. She did a lot of research to ensure that her masks were safe, practical and comfortable. Florence opted to have three layers with a wire bridge.
“I have worn my mask for 8 hours, and they are fully reversible. I made masks with a dog-themed material and a horsey one that was bought as prizes by people running shows and pony clubs. My masks have sold in Ireland, the USA and even as far as Saudi Arabia. I am astonished by this success. The local community have been great and lots of the local shops stock my masks.”
Knitting and Crochet
Florence has to be at her sewing machine because it’s something that she enjoys. The fact that she seems to have the semblance of a second career is purely accidental. First and foremost, for her, sewing, crocheting and knitting are for pleasure.
“When I was very small, all the women I knew were great knitters. That’s what people did back then. They recycled the wool: they ripped back the jumpers that got too small and washed the wool before reusing it. I remember they would put it on two chairs and would wind it round to made hanks. It was always part of life. I learned to crochet, while I was nursing, and started off making ponchos. It was really in the last 20 years that I got into it.”
Florence is a remarkable woman and has proved that you are never too old to embark upon a career – even if accidentally. She tells me that her windows need cleaning, but an hour of housework in the morning is enough for her. She loves nothing more than tucking herself away in her sewing room upstairs. I’m told that every time the phone rings downstairs, her husband Tom can be heard saying “No, she can’t come to the phone, she is sewing again!”
Bella Boo Dog Accessories can be found at https://www.facebook.com/BellaBooOfficial
This article was published in the Westmeath Independent 17/03/2021.