It wouldn’t be Christmas without Santa Claus in his big red suit with Mrs Claus and a team of elves – but when it comes to kitting them out at 18 ft tall that’s a job for Ireland’s leading sportswear manufacturer, O’Neills.
Fans of The Tinnies – Strabane’s iconic millennium sculpture designed by Maurice Harron – are currently busy eyeing up the spectacular steel structures dressed for the festive season.
But spare a thought for the real-life elves busy behind the scenes at O’Neills Irish International Sports Company Ltd in the Co. Tyrone town who teamed up to make it all happen using their expertise to design and manufacture the bespoke garments.
Rosie Sobande and Mary Flanagan are the seamstresses extraordinaire who took on the challenge as part of Derry City and Strabane District Council’s seasonal dressing at the iconic landmark. The women spent 50 hours sewing the mammoth outfits at the Dublin Road factory and a further six hours skilfully dressing the five figures who stand majestically on the gateway site into Co Donegal.
Mary Flanagan, Operations Manager at O’Neills, admitted it’s a major operation to size up – but one that the entire local team embraces as they know how popular the end result is for all involved. It took 25 metres of fabric to kit out each of The Tinnies for the festive season, a grand total of 125 metres in all.
Mary said: “It was a massive job. We needed a huge amount of fabric as well as hundreds of yards of thread and Velcro but there was great excitement around the floor when we were making the costumes; all the machinists were coming up to have a look.”
Rosie, who has worked at O’Neills for almost three decades, explained it was a two-woman job due to the weight of the fabric alone. “The material was very heavy so one of us held it while the other one sewed and then we switched over. Because each of the figures is also holding an instrument you have to work around that added element also. Each costume was made in four parts which we Velcroed when dressing them and then cable-tied to make sure they stayed in place!”
Mary added: “Since the statues are close to 20 feet tall, you could only see a small part of the costume at a time while making them, so we had to keep laying the garment out on the floor to get a look at it in full and then bring it back to the machine to continue with the sewing. It took around 50 hours for the two of us to complete the work but it was worth every minute to see the final result on site.”
“The elves have hats with bobbles on, both Santa and Mrs Claus have little gold-rimmed glasses and, of course, Santa himself has his big white beard. We even stuffed plastic bags inside his suit to give him his big tummy. The costumes are well-secured to withstand the weather and since they’re made of O’Neills specially coated fabric, they are quick-drying and don’t hold the water if it’s raining.”
Rosie added: “We really enjoyed making them, though there was plenty of coffee and early nights to get all the work done the next day. Our muscles are definitely stronger now!”
Both proud Strabane women, they are clearly thrilled to play a part in bringing Christmas cheer to their town. Rosie said: “It makes us feel so proud. Hopefully it also brings a smile to many other people’s faces and spreads some Christmas spirit after the year we’ve all had. A lot of people come to Strabane just to see The Tinnies dressed for Christmas, especially at night-time when they’re lit up.”
This isn’t the first time that O’Neills have dressed to impress the well-known public artwork. Rosie and Mary first came up with the idea of dressing The Tinnies in the red and white colours of the O’Neills Tyrone GAA kit when the county team made it to the All-Ireland Senior Football Final, clinching the Sam Maguire Cup three times inside six years in 2003, 2005 and 2008.
Earlier this year, The Tinnies also donned large-scale scrubs, masks and gowns as O’Neills publicly thanked frontline healthcare workers in the battle against COVID-19. The company, which transformed its production facilities at the outset of the pandemic, is continuing to develop its range of healthcare products and supply of PPE across Ireland.
The Tinnies will steel themselves against the elements when they return to their former glory once again in the new year. Word has it that they are a lot easier to undress and there’s always the next big occasion to look forward to for yet another new rig!