We Caught up With Embroiderer Mary Broddle to Find Out How She Turned Her Diagnosis of Ehlers Danlos Syndrome Into a Successful Business

Words: Addie Kenogbon
Photos: Mary Broddle
Sunday 03 December 2023
reading time: min, words

In honour of International Day of Persons with Disabilities which takes place on 3 December, we caught up with Notts embroiderer, business owner and disability champion Mary Broddle to find out how following her diagnosis of Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, she turned adversity into a successful business, Mary Broddle Embroidery, and re-ignited a childhood passion… 

Karina Lyburn Mary 29 Copy

Since its launch in 2019, Mary Broddle Embroidery has been shifting perceptions around needlework, mindfulness and sustainable mending through engaging workshops, embroidery kits and stunning one-off pieces. But running an embroidery business was far from what Mary expected her life to look like. “All I'd ever wanted to be was a mechanical engineer,” Mary says. “I come from a family full of them. I spent twenty years in rail engineering, travelling UK and Europe around train depots and factories but I then got diagnosed with EDS and everything changed.”

Ehlers-Danlos syndromes (EDS) is the term given to a rare group of inherited conditions that affect the connective tissue within the body. Symptoms can vary from person to person but can include joint hypermobility; stretchy or fragile skin that breaks or bruises easily; extreme fatigue and loose, unstable joints that dislocate easily. According to a recent study, in the UK, EDS affects approximately ten people out of every 5,000.

“When you have EDS, you injure really easily and when you do, it's really hard to recover properly,” Mary explains. “And for me, over the years it got worse. I've been living with chronic pain since 2004  and then when I had my kids in my thirties, it got harder. I got more and more disabled. I reached a point in 2019 where I couldn't drive anymore as my leg was too weak to use the pedals, and it was impossible to get to Derby for my engineering job.”

Mary first learnt embroidery after being taught by her mum as a child, but it was a chance visit to John Lewis which helped reignite her passion and put her on a track towards a very different career path. “I did loads of embroidery during my school years but I got back into it when I gave up smoking. I always joke that I had an epiphany in the John Lewis haberdashery section. I picked up a needle kit and I just found my passion for it again, so I went on a series of courses.”
However, it wasn’t until lockdown that Mary made the decision to take the plunge and do embroidery full time: “All the discussions I'd had about going into consultancy for engineering had dried up and I thought, ‘I've got all these skills from my corporate life and I have really good embroidery skills, I must be able to do something with it.’ So three years ago, I set up my business.”

Mary then joined the local Embroiderers' Guild, tried as many techniques as she could and got more and more skilled. “Having to leave my career, I wanted something that challenged me from a design point of view. I have engineering and design training so it was about channelling that creativity in a different way.” Recognising the damaging effect of the fashion industry on the world, Mary developed a range of kits and a series of workshops, the first of which was her modern visible mending workshop. It uses the traditional Japanese techniques of Sashiko to patch and mend garments, while making a feature of the repairs made to the clothes.

“We’re in a world now where many people treat clothes as disposable and I don’t think many people realise the impact of fast fashion. I totally get the overconsumption. I've been there. That was my retail therapy but I’m past that now. I think there's something about buying something good and keeping it going by mending and rewearing. I've come across a lot of people who are really pledging not to buy brand new, which is great. But one thing about buying second hand is it's going to get holes in sooner, so I encourage people to put a bit of their own personality in there. I really think that visible mending is like an eco badge of honour, a bit like cotton tote bags were ten to fifteen years ago.”

I really want to try and get other isolated people like me out and connecting with others through my classes

Visible mending comes in many forms and can involve sewing patches on top or under a hole or tear, or stitching patterns in different coloured threads over rips. 2022 saw Mary develop a new concept, mindful stitching, which uses traditional Japanese and Indian techniques of hand embroidery to aid relaxation and stress reduction, by letting the needle and thread move freely across the fabric, without a clear pattern to follow or design in mind.

“A lot of embroidery can be super precise but with mindful embroidery, it's not about that. It's just letting your mind roam during what I call thread doodling. It doesn't matter what you're sewing, it's just pulling the needle and thread through that engages different parts of your brain and overwrites the fight or flight. Engaging in crafts is proven to lower the stress hormones in your blood. It gives you time to contemplate which helps your emotional well-being and calms your thoughts. I describe it as a yoga class for the mind.” Mary now has a packed calendar of embroidery workshops across the county, with four monthly events. These include Saturday mornings at Ford & Guy in Beeston, the third Tuesday of the month at Hopkinson, and the first and second Tuesday of the month at West Bridgford café Bubble & Bean.

“Sewing has brought people together for the whole of human history, with people throughout time, sitting, sewing together and connecting,” Mary explains. “And you don't have to be witty and charming or have the best anecdotes. You're just doing something altogether and the conversation flows. What I want to do is bring people together. It's been totally lost over the last hundred years, that history of embroidery, but also having that well-being effect from it. Instead, it became something that was seen as something the housewife did behind closed doors. So, let's start again without those preconceptions.”

As well as the sustainability factor, she believes they could also provide a solution for loneliness, especially for other disabled members of the community. “I really want to try and get other isolated people like me out and connecting with others through my classes,” she says. “As a younger person who gets really isolated, everything takes place in church halls for the over seventies, and it just makes you even feel more disabled. And I'm very aware that there isn't much out there unless you're sporty or you're boozy. I love meeting new people. I realise that's what I missed about my old job, but workshops have given me a way to do that.”

As well as Mary’s classes, those looking to channel the power of mindfulness through needlework, or to try their hand at breathing new life into old clothes through creative visible mending, can also purchase one of Mary’s kits. Available at Ford and Guy and the Framework Knitters Museum in Ruddington, Mary is looking for more stockists over the coming year.

“I think that my motto with my disability has always been, ‘There's always something you can do.’ It's very easy to sit on the sofa and be negative and depressed. And I get that feeling still sometimes, but you start doing embroidery and that dissipates. And that helped me cope with disability and chronic pain over the years. Even if you aren't creative, it can become a learning journey, and that's proven to be so good for brain health because you're getting your neural pathways building all the time.” 

Mary Broddle’s events take place on Saturday mornings at Ford & Guy, the third Tuesday of the month at Hopkinson, and the first and second Tuesday of the month at Bubble & Bean


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