Thelma Eiseman – A Century of Style

Thelma Eiseman will celebrate her 100th birthday on 4th March 2018 and will be honoured with a plaque on the centenarians statue and a tree-planting in the Tondoon Botanical Gardens arboretum. Our writer Betty Laver talked to Thelma about her remarkable life:

Thelma Eiseman – What a delightful lady! Family, church and dressmaking have been the prime loves of her existence. She comes across as a jovial person who has lived life to its fullest.

Thelma was born in Emerald, the eldest of three children of Les and Liz Eiseman. Les was an engine driver for the railway and he, Liz, Thelma, Dot and Maurice were a dedicated Catholic family who lived their lives around their church. The children all went to the St Patricks Catholic School in Emerald and Thelma’s memories of this time are of the wonderful connection she had with the Nuns. They taught her many enjoyable things like Irish Dancing and she also learned to play the piano. Her parents bought her an organ and she loved to play this. This special skill allowed her to participate in the many concerts and functions that were run by her church and school.

As a young child Thelma always played with wooden clothes pegs, using them as stick people. She soon found that she had the flare to make clothing for these figures and would delight in dressing them up. This gave her the inspiration to tinker with sewing and, when she left school, she started dressmaking from home. She has a fond memory of when she was about 17 years and she made her own ball gown, which won her ‘Belle of the Ball’.

In 1936 when Thelma was just 18 years of age, her father was transferred to Gladstone. He bought a house at 15 Bramston Street, a lovely big old Queenslander with a veranda all around. This was the ideal place for Thelma to set up her own dressmaking room and she started her own business. Ladies would bring a picture of the garment that they were wanting and Thelma would design and make a pattern. When the garment was cut-out she would pin it on the person to make sure it would fit right. She put a lot of time into delicate work, which gave her the satisfaction of a job well done. Thelma was good at her craft and soon she was receiving orders from many of the business ladies of Gladstone. Thelma was requested to make garments for wedding parties, debutants, other important functions and she even made Habits for the Nuns.

Thelma and her sister Dot were very close and they always enjoyed the social gatherings around town. Dot was an usherette at the Civic Theatre and Thelma make the uniforms for this company too. Dot and Thelma would go to dances weekly and Thelma would create a new dress for each of them for the night. Thelma has a fond memory of, with a handsome partner, she won a waltzing competition.

By the time QAL came to town (c1967), Thelma had made a great name for herself as a dressmaker and she became popular with the new American arrivals. Many of these ladies would order a sari (length of silk material) and Thelma would make it into two-piece suits for them. Thelma’s work was immaculate and the inside finishing off was as perfect as the outside. One of the American ladies wanted Thelma to go to Brisbane to live where she would set her up with her own label. This didn’t happen and as Thelma says “Who knows where I would be now, had this venture transpired”.

In the 1970’s, Thelma was particularly proud when a good friend, Noeleen Allen won first-prize in the Bride of the year contest. This was in a grown that Thelma had caringly designed and made for her. Over the years Thelma had many friends amongst her clientele and she was especially linked to Mary Hansen, Joan Kidd, Nora Schedny, Liz Zussino, Ev Gormley, Dell Jordan and many others.

Neither Thelma nor Dot ever married but as Thelma says “It certainly wasn’t for the lack of opportunity”. Maurice, Thelma’s younger brother, married Pat Kelliher (a local Gladstone girl) and they had six children, Helen (Dendle), Gary (dec), Peter, Paul, Maree (Roobottom) and Cathy (Zerner). These nieces and nephews are Thelma’s family and, in particular, Maree and Cathy who have cared for her in her aging years. Throughout their life Thelma has dressed all the family with her trade and this only came to an end about fourteen years ago when she made all the garments for Cathy’s bridal party. Thelma is proud to say that her grand-niece Bella loves sewing and could possibly follow in her footsteps.