Partner Spotlight

Partner Spotlight: Sew Your Story's Mary Kelleher

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This week's Spotlight is on Mary Kelleher from Sew Your Story

We caught up with Mary and asked 5 questions to find out more about her as an individual.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.

At 35 I learned about my whakapapa and the threads of my ancestors that ran through me and started to feel right about who I was, my character, my interests and passions.

There’s the Irish thread. The Irish I like to think of as being my independent inner gypsy, travelling in a decorated caravan, trading things I’ve made or gathered or telling stories around a campfire.

Then there’s the Dalmatian and the English threads.

From Dalmatia I feel that my love of fabric and fibre comes from. Traditional folk costumes of the Dalmatians have gorgeous rich hand-stitched motifs on them. I often think of this when I am creating a “Story Jacket” for a customer in my shop Kombi Nation, especially the ones themed to Frida Kahlo with flowers and butterflies in bright vibrant colours..

The English side of my lineage were workers in the harsh cotton mills of the Victorian industrial era. It would have been a hideous, dangerous and relentless existence. 

Years later in the 90’s I combined all this into creating my own shop and kitchenware range in Scotland called “My House of Edinburgh” using storytelling to engage with my customers. How the store looked and the products I made or chose was like a mini theatre. It was themed to the nostalgia of the old-time kitchen and home. I loved that people would come into that space and feel something that felt familiar and heartwarming to them.

This meant that our interaction was not just a commercial experience but one with more personal connection between us. I also loved hearing the stories that they wanted to share with me that an old rolling pin brought back to their minds.

How did you get into the area of work you’re in?

The journey to “Sew Your Story” started by doing an art course (I was the oldest on the course by 30 years!) that gave me a broader understanding of “art” or “visual communication”. It was called Creative Technology. The journey since then has gone like this:

  • First term, first artwork, a collaged mural inspired by the theme “Moving Image” called Knit one, Purl One. It was about all the mums, aunts and grannies who knitted clothing for their families before mass clothing production.
  • Presenting my art work to the 18-20 year old students on the course revealed that they didn't know anything about how clothing was made in New Zealand     before the invention of chain stores and mass importation. That was amazing to me.
  • I felt that this was what I wanted to do, to represent that part of our history in a way that wasn’t preachy but fun and would inspire curiosity.
  • This led to making other NZ historical mural stories about the ordinary person living and working in the early part of the 20th Century. I felt that these ordinary people were as important as the people usually considered famous (like “discoverers” or “politicians”, the mayors and male forefathers).
  • More murals I made on the course led to commissions for art galleries for education, museums and community groups.
  • These Handmade Histories murals then led to self-publishing book versions of the artwork. People wanted to take the stories home to share with family, both older and younger family members.
  • Handmade Histories murals & books then went on the road around Northland as a Duffy Books Literacy Role Model...curiosity from children and teachers alike was huge about how the murals and books were made.  Which led to....
  • “Sew Your Story”.

Yet when there came a moment where, if an idea or opportunity presented itself, I thought, should I do this next step? Even if there is no financial security that it’s going to work out? After a lot of agonising, I always decided “Yes, go for it”. Was it a sink-or-swim response that came from my ancestors?  A fatalism, anothing-ventured-nothing-gained feeling that let me just jump off that cliff and just do it!

What motivates you to do what you do?

What motivates me is the feeling of happiness I get when the students are relaxed and engaged in stitching, sitting around a table of fabric, needles and thread, all together, telling each other stories, or singing a song; all working together for a common goal. And not a digital device in sight!

“Sew Your Story” is about being in the mindful state of doing and the positive effects of working with your hands whatever the outcome. Whether it helps with learning, communication or is just good for your mental or emotional health there is a subconscious connection with all our ancestors who clothed themselves for warmth, identity or for artistic expression.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

There are two pieces of advice that have helped me.

First comes from a nun who taught me way back when in Primary School.  “Necessity is the mother of invention”. I’ve always loved that one! It’s what makes life's challenges fun and manageable. In my world, whenever anything goes wrong, is broken, or even you need something to do a “thing” and that “thing” that you need to do isn't invented yet, that’s where you can come up with ideas! That’s the fun part for me, inventing, resolving or fixing things.

The other advice came from a mentor from The Rag Trade, Gary Gwynne who created the RODD & GUNN brand: ”Always turn a mistake into an opportunity”.

I’ve had quite a few missteps. And I’ve been pretty hard on myself for a lot of things where I thought I’d messed up. But somehow thinking of that piece of advice has helped me regroup, move on, be kinder to myself and look at everything as part of the tapestry of me.

Like a dropped stitch in knitting or a garment that didn’t stitch up the way you imagined, you go back, fix it if you can, if not, you try again knowing that you can do better next time.

These philosophies are both very much at the heart of “Sew Your Story”.

Knowing what you know now, what is one thing you would do differently if you were to start again?

I wouldn’t change anything. I can see in hindsight so many ways I could have done things differently which might have been kinder or easier on myself.

But all experiences - good & bad - have led me to this place at 64 where I have the privilege of having a purpose. I’m doing more of what I love to do, putting together everything I have learned in a new unique way to meet a need in our computer driven times.

In Scotland I loved the Celtic view of the ages of women: child, maiden, mother and crone or wise woman.  Crone in the dictionary is “ugly old woman”. But to the Celts that was a time for women of experience to show leadership and pass on her knowledge to the child, maiden and mother. So I embrace the Crone in me as an ambassador of “Necessity is the mother of invention” and “Turn a mistake into an opportunity” and pass on the resilience that these sayings contain.

Nischal Chakravarthy
20 September 2023
min read

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