Short courses the first step to a new creative career
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Short courses the first step to a new creative career

When Fairina Cheng enrolled in a short course in jewellery making, a change of career wasn’t on her radar. Back then the marketing professional “had absolutely no concept” of how a necklace or ring was made – she was just hoping the evening course would make her leave the office on time.

Fast forward a few years and Cheng is running Fairina Cheng Jewellery full-time from a workshop in her Sydney home, with dog Brooklyn by her side.

Fairina Cheng

Fairina ChengCredit: Anna Potaczala

She says none of the career options she’d come across at high school or university “hit that lightbulb moment” she found with jewellery. “When I started thinking maybe jewellery design was that profession, it kind of felt really good.”

Changing careers is fairly common for Australians, with ABS figures showing more than half a million changed industry or occupation in the 12 months prior to February 2018.

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For Cheng, though, it wasn’t easy to leave behind the consistent salary of the corporate world.

“I’m a person who needs to be very secure, and I think a lot of other people would’ve taken the leap a lot earlier.”

She stuck with her marketing position part-time while building on her new skills at TAFE with courses in jewellery and object design – “really creative out-of-the-box thinking” – and jewellery manufacture. She committed to running her business full-time in 2017.

Cheng also received an Australia Council for the Arts grant for equipment for her home workshop, which is where all the dirty work happens.

“With jewellery making a lot of what you see in shops and magazines is the finished, pristine, beautifully clean piece, whereas in reality jewellery making is quite dirty.”

Cheng often records behind-the-scenes action so clients “can see that process of the hammering and the cutting and the soldering. There’s flames involved – it’s visually a very interesting process.”

The skills developed in her marketing days are put to good use promoting the business, but being “very willing and happy and motivated to do this kind of work for myself” means Cheng still works later hours than most.

“It does get intermingled a lot, especially working from home. There’s no real separation for me.”

Felicity Northeast.

Felicity Northeast.

During Melbourne’s spring racing carnival, milliner Felicity Northeast gets so busy she only leaves her Mornington Peninsula home studio to eat.

“No matter how much you try to plan ahead to make the really busy season more bearable it just doesn’t work,” she says.

Making headpieces for Melbourne’s racing community wasn’t part of the game plan when Northeast entered a lengthy career in paediatric dietetics after university. She loved the science behind nutrition, but always dabbled with textiles and crafts as a hobby.

When a friend suggested a short course in millinery, she was keen.

“I did a weekend of it, and what I realised was all those other short courses that I’d done and things that I liked, you could incorporate into millinery. I’d done sewing, I’d done pattern-making, I’d done silk painting. Millinery can go in so many different ways and use so many different techniques.”

She began making pieces from her home studio while still working in dietetics, and simultaneously completed a Certificate IV in Millinery, “the most intensive millinery course you can do in Australia”.

Then suddenly she was building a customer base and receiving fashion awards for her headwear. A spell away from dietetics to care for her unwell mother allowed more time for millinery and “when I could’ve gone back to dietetics I went, no, I’m quite enjoying this,” she remembers.

“It all just fell into place really. I can’t say there was a huge business plan.”

Northeast has now been at the business full-time for seven years, juggling the designing, assembling, social media and accounts. Next up she plans to focus more on the marketing side of things.

“That’s probably the area I do need to do a short course in. That’s the area that dietetics and the creative side doesn’t teach you.”

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