Ami James: How textiles can change lives
Ami James lives in Derbyshire, England, and she is fairly new to textile arts. She started sewing just over two years ago after she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
The 34-year-old mother reached out to us with her inspiring story: Ami found that textiles and crafts had significantly aided her recovery. In fact, she turned her passion into a business by opening her own haberdashery in Swadlincote.
In this interview, Ami James discusses the sudden onset of type 1 bipolar disorder, how her newly discovered passion for embroidery helped her to cope, and what eventually led her to open her own haberdashery.
From being happy to depressed
TextileArtist.org: Tell us a bit about your background and life before textiles.
Ami James: Five years ago my life was completely different. I was happily married to my hubby David with one child, Ben, who was 6 years old at the time. I had completed a few small cross stitch kits that you can get free in a magazine but that was about my limit. I had no interest in sewing or any other crafts.
In June 2011, the nightmare for me started.
My mood plunged dramatically out of the blue. Within a couple of weeks I had gone from being happy to depressed and suicidal. The change came with such speed that my world had been turned upside down. I can remember David taking me to see my GP where I explained everything and he prescribed me antidepressants… well, that didn’t work.
Two weeks and lots of appointments later I was considered high risk and was taken to hospital to be evaluated. Bipolar, that’s what I have. My official diagnosis was bipolar type 1 with psychosis. That’s when the hard work started.
How and when did you stumble upon textiles as a medium?
After being discharged from hospital, my mum took me out for a coffee every week. We would talk about everything and nothing. It was a great distraction.
One day, I took a brochure that had come through the letterbox about courses being held at the local adult learning centre. We had already been planning on learning something new that would become a hobby. But at the time we were looking for something like flower arranging or upholstery. We noticed there was a beginner sewing classes that ran over a number of weeks. That was it – we both signed up.
It was great for me because not only was I learning something new and having sometime with mum but I was also socialising.
So I learnt how to use a machine and basic patchwork, and we made cushions, bags and doorstops. I looked forward to every Tuesday afternoon.
No pressure for it to be perfect
What inspired you to explore textiles for yourself?
Three weeks into the sewing class, my dad treated me to a sewing machine. I was so chuffed. It was a basic machine but that was fine as I didn’t need a fancy one. It lived on the dining room table and was quickly surrounded by fabric and threads. I wanted to try so many techniques but I really wanted to start quilting.
Now, for some unknown reason, I found that I could not follow patterns – and I mean not any pattern or instructions. Dress patterns, sewing patterns, quilt patterns, knitting and crochet patterns… no, I couldn’t follow any of them.
I gave up trying and went on my merry way, making it up as I went along. I find that way there’s no pressure for it to be perfect and it’s more unique.
Tell us a bit about the condition you have and how it has affected your life in general.
Bipolar is classed as a mood disorder but to many it’s much more. In fact, people that don’t know about bipolar automatically think that we are “just moody.”
High and low moods are just a part of it. The other symptoms that make up bipolar are normally the worst parts.
Restlessness, irritability, racing thoughts, anxiety, panic attacks, easily distracted, aggression, and struggling to focus is classed as a high mood – so not a good mood as you might think.
Depression, lack of energy, negativity, hopelessness, memory problems, no concentration, tired, emotional, intrusive thoughts of self harm, hallucinations, paranoia, guilt, emptiness, feelings of no worth, and loss of interest are all symptoms of a depressive episode.
After being discharged from hospital I spent the next two years trying different medications, some of which had harsh side effects. I tried different therapies and coping strategies, as well as weekly appointments with my psychiatrist. The biggest part of my recovery after the breakdown was learning about bipolar and how to come to terms with it. This wasn’t easy for a long time as I felt ashamed and weak.
The biggest part of my condition is anxiety. Anxiety for me was a living nightmare. It triggered panic attacks, hallucinations and paranoia. My husband was living the nightmare with me. He is so supportive and caring and it has been a learning curve for him, too.
I have now found a happy level with my medication. I do have to have blood tests every three month to make sure my blood hasn’t turned toxic with the levels of lithium in my body. I still have good days, really good days, bad days and really bad days but I’m getting there.
The learning of new skills
What role have textiles played in coping with your bipolar disorder?
A huge part… from the sewing class I became more confident. But the biggest change was definitely my awful anxiety. Instead racing thoughts about negative and dark things, I had a mind full of fabrics, quilts, new equipment, and things I wanted to try.
Okay, so my mind was still racing, but full of positivity instead. But then that stopped the hallucinations, paranoia and low moods. Sewing became some sort of a therapy for me. I would try and do something crafty every day. The changes in me didn’t go unnoticed – my family and friends all noticed. It wasn’t just down to sewing or crafts, as I soon realised it was the learning of new skills and techniques that was also keeping me grounded and focused.
Bloody hard work
Tell us about the business you set up and how that came about.
In September 2014, I had an idea. I wanted to set up a haberdashery in my local town of Swadlincote. My family thought I was absolutely barking. I had seen an empty shop which my family talked me out of as it was too far out of town and I’m glad they did. My dad suggested having a market stall to see how it went.
That’s how Simply Needlecraft started. Six months of getting up at 5 am twice a week come rain or shine. My dad was my partner in crime. It was bloody hard work but we enjoyed it. We had such a good reception and the stock was growing fast. We started to gain loyal customers. It was so much fun.
However, a trip to the local post office was where the real journey started when I spotted an empty shop in the town centre. Looking through the window, it appeared perfect and I just knew I wanted it. I made a call to the estate agent and booked a viewing for the following week.
We loved it.
We picked the keys up on February 13, 2014 and decided we would open the doors to the public on the 1st of March. Two weeks of painting, decorating, cleaning, sourcing furniture, more cleaning, ordering, unpacking, and being excited, and we were ready in time. The local Councillor came to cut the ribbon along with local newspapers and radio stations. It was a lovely day and the shop was packed full of crafters.
Fast forward 15 months and Simply Needlecraft Haberdashery is doing great.
I became a dealership for Singer sewing machines.
In 2015, we have already expanded and now there’s a fabric snug, upstairs is being worked on as we speak, and it is turning into a lovely, comfy, bright, and inspiring sewing studio where people can hire out Singer machines and come in for classes.
It’s a dream job for me. I’m surrounded by beautiful fabrics, yarns and all things crafty. I love seeing what my customers have been making, and I can fit coursework around the shop. It’s without a doubt the best decision I have made.
I will never be free from bipolar and I can’t say if I will have another breakdown, but I’ve found my coping strategy in sewing. I can’t imagine my life without it now.
Find the Simply Needlecraft Haberdashery online at: www.simplyneedlecraft.com
Ami shared her very inspiring story about how textiles can change lives. Have you or someone you know had a life changing experience through art? Tell us about it in the comments.
14 comments on “Ami James: How textiles can change lives”
Thank you for sharing your struggle and journey so openly, Ami! I found it moving and inspiring. A friend of mine wrote a book that might interest you: http://www.crochetconcupiscence.com/crochet-saved-my-life/ Kathryn found healing through crochet and advocates strongly in favor of using art as therapy.
I read something once about the folk artist, Howard Finster, which stuck with me. He was a preacher from Georgia in the US who had visions and painted everything he could get his hands on. Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy showed up regularly in his visions, just to chat. He slept four hours a night, added sugar to his Coca Cola (!!!), and became a diabetic (of course…). The author talked about how many artists walk a thin line between “sanity” and “insanity” and that diet, exercise, etc can push you over the edge. The problem is that many of the ones who society considers nuts actually have the most interesting work and are extremely productive.
I find that when I am sewing or doing some kind of art, I go into another type of “reality”, a very peaceful place and what I think is the closest that I can get to prayer. There is data out there that points to these changes in the brain, where meditation, prayer, and art bring great healing. I am not disciplined enough for the prayer and meditation stuff, but I do love being in that state of making art!
All the best to you! May your road be as smooth as possible. Cool that you have such a supportive Dad, too!
Thank you for your honesty. I live with similar symptoms and your post is simply inspiring. Well done you!
I too am Bipolar and because I can no longer work, turned my creativity into a successful business designing (and sewing), producing and selling tradituonal embroidery kits. I sell on Etsy and Ebay and without my sewing I would be lost. Thank you for this touching article. Very best of luck in everything. Magsx
Hi Amy, thank you for sharing your journey with us. I too have suffered similar attacks of anxiety. I was not officially diagnosed as Bipolar but it was suggested to me twice over the years. It was also suggested that I take lithium but I was too scared. There is stll a certain amount of stigma attached to mental illness here in Ireland.
I have found, like you solace in needlecraft. It was knitting for a long time, then crochet for about the same. But crochet hurts if i spend too long at it. Lately though I have found stillness in stitching with a sewing needle and fabric.
One thing I would like to say though, I do not own a shop, I could not afford to start a business and unfortunately cannot work and feel it would be unrealistic to believe I could start a business anytime soon.
My mood is a pendulum swinging to extremes. I spend money I can barely afford to spend then feel annoyed with myself for doing so which causes me to feel worse! Sorry. How can I even hope to succeed if i don’t possess the financial wherewithal to even begin saving. Truly sorry for the outburst. God I sound so pathetic!
Needlework IS my saviour most days. My dream is to design my own stationery and fabric. But for the moment I am quite happy (some days) to create and sew. On a more positive note, is the Embroiderer’s Guild open to Irish stitchers?
Thank you Ami, I am all over the place at the moment and your story has inspired me to try and do something creative every day. It’s the only way my life is whole I have been sewing for years but I have had some serious set backs and just needed your story for that reminder that creativity is what I have to make time for. Thanks again and all the best for your future.
I’m so proud to call you my friend Ami, although I’ve not known you long I admire you for what you have achieved, as you know I’ve suffered with depression & anxiety so can partly understand what you’ve been through, I found healing through meditation & mindfulness, it’s brilliant that we can find ways to help ourselves. What you do at Simply needlecraft is incredible, the service you provide with the classes is truly awe inspiring, anyone would think you’d been doing it for years. You’re an amazing lady, with a beautiful personality & way stronger than you probably imagine, I hope things continue to go from strength to strength for you xxx
Thank you Ami for your warts and all journey through the nightmare that is bipolar.I thankfully do not suffer from it but I do have depression and severe spinal pain which is very debilitating and a family member has bipolar and I walk the road with her through her ‘episodes’ so I understand how it can affect a person. On the bright side I felt an overwhelming sense of connection with your description of how sewing and being surrounded by lovely fabric can help you feel good! I adore sewing and creating and it has saved me from even deeper depression. Good luck to all.
Sewing…textiles.. creating art…all can be so very important and helpful for mental health, grief, and any time life begins to over whelm.
Sewing…textiles…embroidery….crochet etc. has been a life saving outlet for me most of my life. I was diagnosed as being bi-polar in 1998 since then, fibromyalgia and at the age of 55 I found out that I was born with chiari malformation that has caused 8 mil. of my brain to be out of the skull and pressing onto my spine. What I am saying is that I am glad for the gifts that GOD has provided me with…they have been the best mechanisms for getting through my day to day life.
Thanks, Ami. I went through all of this eight years ago so I know where you are comming from. I have been diagnosed with bipolar with PTSD and suffer from anxiety an panic attacks. A visit to a local quilt show helped me get on with life. I started with quilts and now textile art is an important part of my life. And now I am working on a fine arts degree!
I was 69 years old, grieving and had horrible anxiety after my father’s death. Then I actually stumbled upon quilting. This craft turned my life into a joy, and creating something beautiful took away depression, anxiety, and helped me through grief. Life has been wonderful.
Hi Ami I too was diagnosed with Bipolar 1 about 8 years ago now. I had to give up work as anxiety and panic attacks affected me a lot. I too took up sewing and joined a patchwork class for socialising. I did like to sew and had made a few dolls in the past. It helped me a great deal and I have just decided to take up doll making and maybe I will be able to sell them down the track. I loved reading your post and am amazed how you have been able to run a business. I remember how long it took me just to join a group because of anxiety.
Hi , I was pleased to read your blog post Ami James. I suffer myself with anxiety and depression and it can be overwhelming . I know it can be difficult. I know its not as serious as bipolar can be. I have studied textiles in the past I know how relaxing and fascinating it can be . I hope to start up again at some point, not sure where to start I forgot how to do most of it lol.
I am fortunate that I do not suffer from this however, my daughter does, and your description of your experiences have helped me to understand what she has had to deal with. Recently she has started knitting and this has helped her to manage life a little better, so being an avid crafter myself in many forms, I can agree with you, and many of the people responding to your article, that craft in any form can help enormously.