Wander into The Mardyke Magpie in Skibbereen and prepare to breathe in the past and get lost for a few hours amongst the eclectic assortment of antiques and quirky and usunsual items. “A good old-fashioned junk shop with a touch of style” is how owner Matthew Clarke casually describes his gem of a store. The premises is also home to Matthew’s upholstery business – SOS Upholstery – which was established before the antiques started arriving.
A fashion designer by trade, Matthew’s passion and flair for working with fabric is reflected in the selection of beautifully upholstered furniture in the shop.
He points out a chaise longue, which he paid €100 for and describes how he plans to strip it back, paint it black and upholster it in red velvet. Another chair is exquisitely upholstered in alligator fabric.
“My main business, particularly during the Celtic Tiger years, used to be upholstering classic car interiors, boats, pubs, and restaurants but that type of work is completely gone. Most of the work I do now is in restoring family heirlooms, upcycling furniture and patchwork upholstery,” explains Matthew.
Born in London, the son of an Irish mother and father of Italian-English heritage, Matthew grew up in North Devon. He left school when he was 15.
“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do but I went into a junk shop and spotted a sewing machine. I said that’ll do.”
And that was that…Matthew’s career path was set. He started “messing around on the sewing machine” and got a job with Clarks Shoes cutting out soles in their factory in Devon. From there, he moved to Brighton where he got an apprenticeship as a machinist cutter in an upholstery workshop. “I spent four years there until they went bust,” he says. Never one to miss an opportunity, Matthew bought the warehouse fabric from his boss and began selling it at market stalls. At the same time, he attended evening classes, learning pattern cutting and dressmaking. He then opened a fashion shop, making and selling his own designs.
In 1990, the chief costunier for Disneyland in Paris visited his shop. “She asked me if I was interested in joining their costume department,” says Matthew. So, age 24, off he went to Paris to make costumes for Disney. “It was an adventure,” he says. After his two-year contract ended with Disney, Matthew became a freelance fashion designer in Paris, supplying several shops with his designs.
Eventually becoming disillusioned with the industry, at the suggestion of his mother, he travelled to Ireland. “My mother said why don’t you go over to Ireland, there’s a boom on. So I came over here and set up SOS Upholstery in Skibbereen. Originially I was going to set up a clothing business here but logistically it was a bit of a nighmare. People kept asking me to make boat cushions and so on and that’s how I got into the upholstery.”
Although there have been ups and downs – in 2008, with the onset of the recession, the upholstery side of the business took a nosedive – in 21 years, Matthew has never been out of work.
“People started coming in to the shop with old records and items, looking to swap them for upholstery… that’s how the antique side of the business took off,” he explains.
From old enamel signs to an 1812 Napolean II carriage clock, an old bubblegum machine to a 100-year-old diving helmet, sculptures from well-known artists, art deco furniture, porcelain, bohemian glass, a Japanese figure made from a yak bone, Cornish ware, porcelain, rugs, even an emu egg – it’s a real treasure trove for any Magpie to peck around in.
Although he enjoys the bartering and the antiques side of the business, upholstering furniture, in particular chairs, is Matthew’s passion.
“It’s a work-in-progress,” says Matthew smiling “my business changes every day depending on who comes in to the shop.”
SOS Upholstery and Mardyle Antiques is located on Mardyke Street in Skibbereen. Phone 087 2458627.