My own mum died of Ovarian cancer so I was very keen to feature Helen from Sew Helen who is using her skills to develop a business and also to help charity following the loss of her beloved mom. We all have our own ways of handling grief but it is interesting how many of us rethink our own lives following loss and do more good in the world realising that life really is short.
Can you tell us a little about your childhood and teenage years?
I am really lucky to have had a lovely childhood and uneventful teenage years. Although I didn’t think about it at the time, looking back makes me appreciate how fortunate we were.
I lived with Mom, Dad and my older brother by two years and although we didn’t have much I had some lovely friends and a small close family. Memories from Christmas and birthdays were of handmade gifts and one year Dad made my brother & I wooden string puppets and Mom made the matching outfits – we still have these now over 40 years later.
I left school and went to sixth form to study A levels although at that time I still didn’t know what I wanted to do for a career.
What career did you pursue and why?
When I left college, I started work as a Veterinary Nurse. Although I loved the job I knew this wouldn’t be a long term career. By chance a lady I worked with mentioned a new course in Birmingham awaiting validation for direct entry Midwifery. As soon as I heard about this I knew this would be my chosen career. I had never wanted to be a General Nurse and Iwas looking forward to working with healthy women going through a normal physiological event.
I undertook my training and qualified as a Registered Midwife in 1993. My career has evolved from normal antenatal, intrapartum & postnatal care to high risk pregnancies and for the past 15 years I have been supporting & caring for families when a difference has been found with their baby. I also perform detailed fetal cardiac ultrasound scans in my own clinics and alongside Paediatric Cardiologists – I am still amazed at the detail we can obtain on little babies hearts whilst still in the womb.
How did you learn to sew?
I have grown up sewing and worked alongside Mom as a little girl. She worked from home taking in dressmaking orders and so it was only natural that I also made clothes for my teddies and dolls. Over the years, and with Mom’s guidance, I made my own clothes and soft furnishings for my home and have continued sewing most of my life – 50 years in March! I have tried most forms of textile art and recently returned to embroidery and applique.
What health issues have you had to cope with?
I have two boys, born in 2004 & 2008, and my health had always been excellent until 2011 when I felt some lumps in my neck. After a visit to the GP and blood tests I was diagnosed with Auto-immune Thyroiditis & nodules in my Thyroid gland – a fairly common hormone-based condition for women of a certain age! After a year of monitoring and blood tests the nodules had changed slightly and I asked to be referred to an Endocrinologist as literature I had read stated that any nodules should be biopsied. Four biopsies later (2 failed) I had a result that gave a 10% chance of Thyroid Cancer.
My treatment included unilateral thyroidectomy on 8.10.12 which confirmed Thyroid Cancer, 2 weeks later I had the rest of my thyroid gland removed and underwent Radioactive Iodine treatment to destroy any remaining cells at the beginning of December 2012. I started Thyroxine medication after the radiation treatment and will remain on this drug for the rest of my life.
I am now 5 years clear of cancer and it took a long time to get my Thyroxin levels right – I have probably only felt well for the last year and a half.
Please tell us about the loss of your mum and her legacy?
Health issues aside, I was content with my life until February 2015 when my Mom had a severe bout of abdominal pain & vomiting and attended Accident and Emergency – to our shock she was diagnosed with ascites (fluid in her abdomen), bowel obstruction & after a CT scan also an enlarged ovary. Fortunately, on this occasion the bowel obstruction cleared and she didn’t require surgery. However, from my medical background I knew this wasn’t a good prognosis.
A couple of weeks later she met the Consultant Oncologist and following a Multi-Disciplinary Team Meeting Mom was told that she had advanced Ovarian Cancer. It had spread throughout her abdomen and surgery was not an option. She was offered Chemotherapy which may have prolonged her life for a short while, but she decided straight away that she didn’t want to spend her remaining time by being unwell from treatment. Mom also had the sad memories of nursing her own mom with the same condition 50 years earlier.
66 days later, on 4th May 2015, Mom died peacefully at home with Dad, my brother and I at her side.
Having always sewn, and after making remembrance pictures for some close friends shortly after Mom had died, I started thinking how I could use my sewing skills to create a small business in memory of Mom and at the same time raise money and awareness around Ovarian Cancer.
Just Sew Helen was created with the underlying principle to raise awareness of the symptoms of Ovarian Cancer and to make donations to charity from my sales.
Describe your business
I design, create and sell textile art incorporating applique, hand embroidery and sewing.
Most of my items are remembrance gifts and over time my work has evolved to include Baby Loss gifts. I also make keepsakes such as cushions & pictures to preserve children’s drawings. I love doing all types of products and am also very happy to receive custom orders.
I had a massive learning curve researching handcrafted business development, online selling, book keeping, distance selling regulations, web design and marketing. I continue to work as a Midwife and am developing the business for the time when I can retire from the NHS.
I currently sell on Etsy & via my own website and promote my products on social media including Twitter, Instagram and to a lesser degree, Facebook.
My business is evolving and the most popular items I make are Baby Loss gifts & I have lots of plans to expand the Angel Baby range. I’m keen to to create items from treasured fabrics such as clothing or blankets and would love to design and make baby loss burial gowns suitable for little ones born too early.
I am slowly developing my blog to include the topics on Women’s Health, Pregnancy & Loss, Bereavement, Textiles & Sewing and a Handcrafted Business.
Do you support charity and if so which ones and how?
I have chosen to make donations to Target Ovarian Cancer – a UK charity working to improve early diagnosis, research and support to women with Ovarian Cancer
I made the decision early on that I would make a donation to the charity each time I made a sale, from every platform I sell on. My husband also does sponsored events and donates to the same charity.
Recently, I have been accepted by the charity to undertake information reviews and plan to contact the other main charities for women’s cancers to offer my services.
Using social media, I have an ideal target audience to raise awareness of the symptoms of ovarian cancer as the majority of users in the handcrafting community are women.
If you could give one tip to someone who is experiencing grief, what would it be?
There is no time limit nor right way to grieving. It is individual but, over time, if is affecting how you function on a day to day basis seek help from professionals.
If you could give one bit of business advice to a woman what would it be and why?
If you have an idea just do it and don’t put it off. It is so true that life can be short and there is nothing to lose if you do your research before investing a lot of time or money.
Google is a great tool and there are many online forums that can help with setting up a small business.
I work part time and one day would like to leave the NHS and continue my own business – it has suited me to take it slowly and I have learnt so much about web design, distance selling regulations, social media, postage & customer service.
How would you encourage a woman to experiment with creativity?
I would encourage a woman to choose an art that they love and again, Google and YouTube are excellent resources for tutorials. When they have mastered the basic techniques they can then develop their own unique style.
If you could recommend one book to a woman what would it be and why?
Marti – A Coward’s Chronicles
I found this a hard question as, although I read a lot, I don’t currently read many books. However, this book has stayed with me for many years and occasionally comes to the forefront of my mind.
This book is inspiring about a woman who survived a difficult childhood, her career and her battle with cancer. She tells her story with humour and strength and a positive outlook right up until she lost her battle with cancer.
If you could recommend one website apart from your own to a woman what would it be and why?
I recommend the website https://whileshenaps.com by Abby Glassenberg
I came across this website from a sewing point of view, but it interested me as Abby doesn’t just focus on the craft side. I named and designed my business/website to be sewing based but not too specific as I envisaged changes as things evolved. I was concerned that my site wasn’t focused enough but didn’t want just another sewing blog. Seeing Abby’s site has given me the confidence to make my site exactly what I want – which is eclectic incorporating sewing, business, bereavement and in particular women’s health.
When I read about setting up a blog all the information points to focusing on one niche but there is no reason why you can’t make your business exactly what you want and Abby achieves this on her website.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
It has taken me a long time (45 years) to be less self-conscious & not worry about what others may think about what I’m doing – it doesn’t matter what others think as long as you are honest and respectful and believe in yourself.