Joanna from Mrs Marvellous

Midday Makers

Born in the West Midlands but moved to Clevedon near Bristol when I was 6. Moving school at that age was terrifying for an already painfully shy little girl. As one of 4 children enjoyed nothing more than sitting quietly on my own making stuff.

From the age of 4 was making dolls clothes and bits for my dolls house, then progressed on to kit for Barbie and Action Man (really wanted to be a Blue Peter presenter). We had very creative parents but they’d never have said they were. Mum made all our clothes, never using patterns. So learnt, just as she had done, to cut one from newspaper, drawing round a garment that you knew fit. Dad did all the DIY and grew all the veg. It was a real ‘make do and mend’ house. They worked very hard and didn’t really have time to be creative for creative sake, it was more of a means to an end. Dad always insisted if he was making or mending something for us then we had to watch and be involved, annoying at the time but my goodness that parenting has paid off (especially when renovating my own 1890s cottage in Cornwall).

Labelling is very restricting in my book and to prove a point my sisters were the ‘creative ones’ – they hated school – my brother and I were the ‘academic ones’ – we were sloggers. Never thought of myself as creative even though I loved cooking and dressmaking. In breaks from my Saturday job I’d pop next door to Hagley’s the haberdashery and worship the glorious fabrics, spending ages perusing the rows of sumptuous textile porn! Payday I’d carefully choose my yardage in utter devotion and go home to sew the latest creation which was always a little bit alternative!

After school went to Worcester Teacher Training College to study Home Economics. Pattern drafting and screen printing filled me with wonder. Having never used a commercial pattern before I had no idea what a notch was, blimey they’re handy!

The Leys, Redditch West Midlands was my 1st job and it hit the front page of The Sun the day after my interview! But loved that place, the children, staff, community, it was like a big family, so supportive even during the unrest of the mid 80s. Loved teaching and sharing knowledge, seeing students flourish, producing plays, taking residentials, running heaps of extra-curricular activities. After 2 years became deputy head of year but after a year the Headteacher decided to give the A allowance to encourage another teacher to do more, citing that I was young and enthusiastic and would continue with the extra responsibility without it. I was incandescent with rage so reached for the Times Ed. There were jobs in Manchester, London, Bristol, Hong King, Botswana and The Cayman Islands! So applied for the latter 3; had no idea where the Caymans were, had insufficient teaching years and was too young but hey what the heck….and yes got the job – PANIC!!! It hadn’t been a life plan decision, it was a knee jerk reaction to piss off my Head. But it was too great an opportunity, if a door opens go through it; not denying I was terrified, especially having found that Cayman was almost 5000 miles away. Packed up, said goodbye to everything I knew and loved and flew to the Caribbean for 2 years.

It was like starting college all over again, there were 20 of us on that flight, arrived late at night to a hotel on the beach for a Rum Punch and a warm sea swim. Things weren’t so great in my classroom, lizard in my desk, cockroaches in the cupboard and no a/c but it was amazing. The colour, the sound, the light, the music, the vibrancy. I painted and drew, sailed, scuba-dived and learnt underwater photography. Fell in love with a diving instructor, developed a modular curriculum for those with additional needs and became Head of House. 2 years became 4 and each holiday we travelled extensively soaking up the culture surrounding us, Guatemala, Belize, Mexico, Costa Rica, Jamaica, The States, Canada, Bermuda, Turks & Caicos, Cuba (in the early 90s it was something else). I was mesmerised by the colours, the crafts, the skills and talents of those who made the most incredible things from limited resources.

We returned to UK and the National Curriculum and, in my opinion, the destruction of my subject area. Teachers were robbed of their autonomy and students of practical, life skills. After a couple of years and some soul destroying jobs I had a bad day & handed in my notice.

After making a list of all the things I really wanted to do from being Barbara Streisand to a Park Ranger, I volunteered with a couple of charities. One was as an outreach worker with Fairbridge, who worked with inner city young people in St Pauls, Bristol. Became their female outdoor education instructor, learnt to climb, abseil, canoe, cave etc. Ran residentials and follow on work to develop personal and social skills for young people to overcome barriers to engagement and get jobs. It was flipping hard work, seriously challenging but so rewarding. Was rarely at home and lived most of my time under canvas but was loving teaching lifeskills in a completely different environment.

The love of my life, fell out of love with me so I moved to Cornwall to run my own team for an independent charity in Plymouth. They provided the most incredible support for young people, housing, advocacy, counselling, sexual health and personal development. When my knees packed in I went to work for Connexions as a community adviser and was seconded to the Leaving Care Team in social services. It was a hugely challenging job and at the same time my mum became ill. For a year was driving up to Bristol every weekend to help care for her, doing a new and difficult job and struggling with a diploma. The day before my mum’s funeral got the diagnosis for my knees, a degenerative condition that was undiagnosed at birth. A month later was sent for a dyslexia assessment…yup the reading age and comprehension of a 7 year old. All those years of being labelled a day dreamer, not paying attention, not listening properly blahblahblah all explained. But I’d created my own learning style and realised that I learnt through pictures, by doing and by experimenting. And that’s how I taught, by creating pictures, stories, images to explain a concept.

I was exhausted and needed a break so took a month off and flew to Thailand to do voluntary work in a school and orphanage. I travelled into the mountains and to tiny, remote islands when wasn’t working, I drew, sat in temples and took photographs. When I got back I got the flu and never got better. After 6months was diagnosed with M.E. For the 1st 3 months couldn’t do a thing for myself, friends washed my hair, cooked my meals; I’d lie in bed without the energy to breathe. Most people didn’t ‘get’ it and thought I just needed to think positively, the most common comment was that they’d been really tired lately too. Eventually went back to work part time. 6 months later was diagnosed with breast cancer, had a mastectomy and received incredible treatment. People ‘get’ cancer, it’s a ‘proper’ illness and so there was lots of support. Sadly though the ME returned and was off work for another 14months.

I learnt to ‘pace’, that’s all about doing one thing (not my usual manic, multi tasking) and to rest after doing that one thing and not to do something else even if feeling well. It’s really hard, especially when you’re used to flying by the seat of your pants, living on adrenalin, working best under pressure and giving 150%…shall I go on? But the most important thing I learnt was to ask for help and to be honest; if I need to say No, then say No.

Got a job with YWCA as a project worker and met James who worked for another charity in the city. He had 2 boys and we soon added a crazy rescue dog to the mix. We had an incredible DIY wedding at a Christmas tree plantation where everyone camped for the weekend and joined in making, baking and creating.

Worked hard to manage my ME but when YWCA closed all the centres below Bristol and I was made redundant it was the time to think differently. Decided to go it alone and revert to what I love best, sewing. Sadly within the month James was made redundant too, it was the middle of the credit crunch and we were in our 50 so jobs were hard to get, therefore plans had to adapt. I took whatever work came my way and ended up running lots of children’s craft workshops. Ran adult workshops too but being a perfectionist they were really hardwork with loads of prep that you never get remunerated for especially as salaries down here were relatively low so it was hard to charge a realistic price.

Dad was then diagnosed with dementia and was going back up to Bristol every week. Some people can live well with dementia but Dad just wanted to give up, he just wanted to be with mum, forgetting she had died. He became isolated, depressed and lost his identity. Eventually we couldn’t care for him at home so he moved to a residential home. It was impossible to pack all his treasured possessions into one room to support his memory and sense of belonging, which is where the idea of his lap quilt came from. I’d go up on a Thursday to attend the activity group and have lunch with him and the residents. It was undignifying for them to have bibs put on, so when I got a place at the School for Social Entrepreneurs the idea of aprons was born.

After graduating as a Fellow of SSE I decided no more kid’s workshops and focussed on my quilts and aprons. I’ve found it really hard running a business, I can’t get my head around the business side of it! I love meeting people, hearing their stories and transforming their narrative into something beautiful but the earning a living bit leaves a lot to be desired. As a business with social purpose I do talks at memory cafes and sell my aprons at Memory Matters, a fabulous dementia hub & donate 25% of sales. I’m also a member of the Plymouth Dementia Action Alliance.

Over the years I’ve tried markets but the whole adrenalin of packing up, setting up and chatting (I LOVE chatting with people, I give it my all) wipes me out, was finding my ME kept returning. So for the last 2 years I’ve done none. This year was going to try just 2, well-chosen one and do 2 exhibitions (joined Drawn to the Valley, a group of artists and it has really helped me focus my work and my direction. My confidence has grown and applied to become a member of the Society of Embroidered Work. It was a huge validation of my work to get accepted. Think I was such a victim of that hideous saying “those who can, do and those who can’t, teach”)

So the whole lockdown thing has made me really re-evaluate. At first was trying lots of online stuff but then found your amazing market which has been a totally marvellous and awesome experience for me. My confidence has grown and feel part of such a wonderful community. The realisation that less is more – don’t chase success, let it happen. Now I’m only doing a couple of online markets and when the time is right I’m going to do just one market but do it regularly. My quilts rely on the story, it’s not a product to sell in a quick fix. I need to build up a relationship…you have taught me that, thank you!

Watch Joanna’s interview on our Midday Makers series on IGTV.

Visit her Instagram @mrs_marvellous