MARIE Howarth had spent 35 successful years in social work when a rare health condition turned her life upside-down.

Left with chronic pain, forced to give up work, and waiting months for a diagnosis, she turned to crafts as a form of creative therapy.

What started out as a way to take her mind off her illness has blossomed into a thriving business, through which Marie has built strong links with her community and won the plaudits of Dragons’ Den star and retail magnate Theo Paphitis.

Six years on from her diagnosis, Marie spoke to The National about her journey, from the frustrations of the early days of her illness to her plans to expand her business and write her own children’s books.

It was in 2014 that Marie, from Bodfari in Denbighshire, fell ill.

Having worked since 1979 for council-run children and family services and as a freelance social worker, she had a passion for helping young families and specialised in adoption and foster support, and was at the time managing the Welsh branch of a charity called After Adoption in Cardiff.

“Unfortunately my ill health meant that I had to stop,” she said. “I was devastated.

“It took me 18 months to get a health diagnosis and during that time I was going from pillar to post trying to find out what was wrong with me. All I wanted to do was get back to work.”

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After a year and a half of unanswered questions, Marie was finally referred to a specialist who could diagnose her illness.

“I’ve got something called Dercum’s disease, which is a very rare and chronic health condition where you develop very painful lumps, and I’ve got hundreds of them in my body,” Marie said. “You can’t see them but I know they’re there.

“It’s very debilitating: chronic pain, tiredness, exhaustion, and it was causing other things to happen – my thyroid was reacting.

“I was bed-ridden for months and it wasn’t until I got the diagnosis and then onto some pain management that I got any relief from it.”

Marie’s symptoms meant returning to her old line of work, and commuting daily from her home to the capital, were out of the question. Left with no other choice, she was forced to give up the work she loved.

“It was a very, very sad career move, it wasn’t something I wanted to do at all,” she said. “I was on the cusp of developing [my career] even further.”

Left with a huge gap in her working life, and a health condition that would not go away, Marie sought creative therapy.

“I feel like I’ve always had a creative side, but I just wanted to do something that was distracting and felt like I was doing something,” she said. “Initially it was just about being creative and trying to distract myself from my circumstances, and then it grew.”

Her business, Willow & Ash Creative Crafts, started modestly in 2016, with friends encouraging Marie to a local craft fair. And she soon realised that even though her career had made a huge change in direction, she was still able to fulfil her passion of helping children and young families.

“The main component of what I do is personalising story cushions and gift cushions for children, and that brought it all together for me – it came round full circle that I was doing something that would promote children’s development, particularly reading and education,” she said. “It felt OK to do that.”

Interest soon grew in Marie’s work, and local businesses including nearby post offices began stocking her products.

The National Wales: Some of the personalised story cushions that Marie makes. Picture: Willow & Ash Creative CraftsSome of the personalised story cushions that Marie makes. Picture: Willow & Ash Creative Crafts

By 2018, she could be found at larger events like country fairs. And with her new career came the flexibility she needed to be able to manage her health condition.

“I couldn’t see how I would be able to go back to working and commuting in the way that I was,” she said. “If I want to work in the middle of the night, when I’m feeling OK, then that’s when I do it.”

Marie applied to sell her products at Chatsworth House, but then the coronavirus pandemic arrived, cutting short what would have been a huge opportunity for her.

“That would have been a pinnacle for me to do something like that,” she said.

“It was quite sad, but when Covid hit I started looking online.”

From there, an organisation called consciouscrafties.com, which specialises in supporting people with chronic illness or disabilities, helped Marie build an online store.

“They’re particularly helpful in getting people online and launching their businesses through their platform, helping people with chronic illness and disability and to get their talents seen,” Marie said.

Since then, her online business has gone from strength to strength. Marie now sells products via her Etsy shop and she is also preparing to start her own website.

“It’s been fantastic,” she said. “It’s not just the physical impact of a long-term health condition, it’s the psychological impact of it, and I found it very difficult letting go of my career, because it had been very important to me. It helped me refocus and feel I was still able to do things that impacted on children, which is what I’ve spent the whole of my life doing.”

Marie’s business has also won the admiration of entrepreneur Theo Paphitis, the Dragon’s Den star who runs weekly Small Business Sunday competitions on his Twitter page to showcase the best independent traders around the UK.

“It’s great to have support from Theo because it’s been tough trying to raise my profile and grow my small business,” Marie said.

“Theo has recognised my hard work and helped spread the word about what I do to his following.”

Paphitis, who runs the businesses Ryman Stationery, Robert Dyas and Boux Avenue, said: “My vision is that everyone who has ever won an #SBS re-tweet from me becomes part of a friendly club; like-minded individuals who can share successes and learnings. The website will also give a valuable profile to the winners chosen and I wish Willow & Ash Creative Crafts every success.”

Looking to the future, Marie is preparing to extend her product range and has already begun a range for adults, focusing on wellbeing and mindfulness.

She is also writing a novel and plans to work on children’s stories that can accompany the reading cushions she makes.

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