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A career sewn with love

As TAFE Queensland celebrates 140 years, fashion design teacher Carol Costa looks back on her 32-year career training the next generation of fashion students.

Carol began her fashion career in 1971, training and working as a garment technologist for a clothing manufacturer that specialised in plus-sized and maternity wear. Her natural skills and enthusiasm saw her rise through the ranks to become production supervisor before she and her husband decided to start a family.

Leaving her role to go on maternity leave, Carol remembers how heartbroken she was to be stepping away from what had become her life’s passion.

“I cried the whole of my last day, I was devastated to be leaving,” Carol said.

While still working in industry, Carol completed a machinist class at TAFE Queensland's Coorparoo campus. She then moved over to our Mount Gravatt campus to expand her millinery skills.

At this time, the fashion department was based in an old workers cottage.

“We were in this big, old house, which still stands today, no air conditioning, just louvers and the sawdust from the carpentry students’ downstairs,” she said.

Quite the difference, she observes, when compared to the newly renovated Fashion Precinct she teaches from today at TAFE Queensland’s Mount Gravatt campus.

Carol then began teaching night classes and machinist skills during the day. She doesn’t regret her move from fashion manufacturing to teaching.

“I love coming to work and I love my students. I love seeing them enjoy themselves as they learn. I always say to them ‘we have to have fun’. I don't want them to wake up and say: ‘oh God, I've got that boring, old bag. I'm not going today!’”

A lifelong learner herself, Carol walks the walk: spending most of her spare time in front of her industrial-size sewing machine at home.

“I'm still learning. I always say, even if you learn one thing every day and it could be some tiny little thing, at least you’re learning. At least you’re growing.”

Carol’s love for her craft is infectious, with many of her students staying in touch over the years.

“I met some lovely people that I've stayed in contact with, but a student I remember, and still speak with, comes to mind. At 15, while enrolled at one of Brisbane’s top private schools, she began coming along to the night classes after being told by teachers she’d never amount to anything.”

“She loved fashion, so her mum decided to bring her along. She ended up finishing my night classes and waited anxiously until she could start her Advanced Diploma full-time.”

Carol smiles fondly as she thinks about her student.

“Would you believe I'm still friends with her to this very day? She's in her thirties now. I made her wedding dress; I made her children's christening gowns. And I’m so proud of her. For the last 10 years, she’s owned a fashion boutique in Ascot, just opposite the racecourse.”

Carol prides herself on being able to offer her students a strong foundation that will carry them throughout their creative careers.

“I am very passionate about recognising and promoting skills for the youth of today. I’ve volunteered to be a mentor, convenor, regional judge and national judge with WorldSkills Queensland and Australia since the early 2000s and was honoured with a life membership award in 2021.”

Thinking about her enthusiasm for WorldSkills and the opportunity it gives students to showcase their skills on the world stage, Carol gushes about one of her students who won gold this year.

“When competing in a national competition the pressure is enormous. It’s a massive relief to finish. I will never forget the hug I was given by him just after he won the award. He then proceeded to show me how he saved my name on his phone.”

Holding the screen up so she could see it, he showed her the text in Korean, his first language.

“Pointing at the name”, she smiles with clear emotion at the memory, “he looks me in the eyes and says ‘teacher: out of respect for you.’”

In that moment, as her eyes glistened with love for her students and her job, you can see why Carol does what she does.

“I'd like to think I've made a difference in their lives.”

Pausing as she thinks back over the last few decades, Carol thinks about the future and how she’ll know when the time is up on her teaching career.

“I don’t want to overstay my welcome. If I can't offer anything more, that's when I’ll know it's time to leave. But I still feel like I have so much to offer. I’m not finished; not yet.”