Athlone native Ursula Hanley had just taken early retirement from her bank job when her sister, Sheelagh, was diagnosed with cancer. When accompanying her to purchase a wig, Ursula – the youngest in a family of three girls – watched her sister cry and began thinking of ways to create something for her that would combine style and comfort.

“Sheelagh found the wig she was advised to buy uncomfortable, particularly indoors,” says Ursula. “I had always sewed, mostly alterations and some patchwork so I decided to attempt to make a turban for her – inspired by the glamorous Princess Grace – made from soft cotton jersey, which she liked. I trawled through magazines and the internet for ideas and my teenage daughters kept adding theirs too.”


As she listened to her sister’s feedback, Ursula realised that the headwear needed to be comfortable, secure and give full head coverage, while also being stylish.

“Hair is bound up with issues of femininity and attractiveness, so losing your hair can be very traumatic for some women,” the designer says. “I loved the fashion element, as I had a keen interest in colour and co-ordination, through dress-making.”

Ursula began to consider turning her headwear hobby into a business when an item she made for her sister to wear to a wedding reception prompted quite a response.

“Sheelagh and her husband love to dance, so the wig would have been too warm and sweaty,” she says. “I took some of the material from her pashmina and wove it into a plait and added it to a plain turban which matched her dress. When four women approached her enquiring about it, I realised there was an opportunity here.”

She soon began adding long, slim removable scarves, plaits, brooches, cloth flowers and fringes to the headwear and now has several designs of the turbans, soft-caps, fitted bands, bandanas as well as scarves and night caps.

“I started ‘Ursula’s Headwear’ and it took me two years to develop the business, before I got brochures printed and advertised. Sheelagh was my guinea pig for a year, accepting and rejecting styles and fabrics. I only use cotton fabrics, which includes lightweight denim too.”

It was trial and error for a while, but Ursula learned quickly and, in the process, she discovered more about cancer issues which she used to inform herself and identify more with her customers.

“Dealing with hairloss is very traumatic for everyone but especially for women,” she says. “According to some studies, chemo-induced hairloss is more traumatic for some women with breast cancer than the loss of a breast. Women like to wear their wigs outdoors, so they look the same and feel normal, but indoors, it’s too warm and clammy.

“There’s also the desire to protect loved ones, particularly teenagers and children from possible trauma associated with hairloss. Sheelagh’s teenagers did not like seeing their ‘bald mam’.”

Headwear for children

Now, at the age of 71, Ursula is adamant that there is no need for anyone to lose their sense of style during this difficult time – whether the hairloss is a result of chemotherapy, alopecia or other illness.

Working out of her showroom in Beechpark, Athlone, she also makes headwear for children and men and says that it’s good to create a unique piece they can use to complement their personal wardrobe, or for a special occasion.

“My best-sellers are the four items made from stretch cotton jersey – turbans, soft caps, soft caps with a scarf attached, and night caps. This is like T-shirt fabric. It’s extremely soft and comfortable. The fact that you can add, remove or change the accessories that go with them adds to the appeal of them.”

Despite the circumstances through which many of her customers find her, Ursula feels truly grateful for the role she’s able to play in their lives.

“The best part of my job is seeing women leave my showroom happy,” she says. “Also, as I love sewing, I feel I have turned my hobby into a very enjoyable and rewarding job, and there is huge scope for creativity.”

Prices start at €20. Visit to find out more about Ursula’s work.

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