Benjie Marshall lost her mum as a child; learning how to sew helped her to finally grieve. Julie Marshall reports.
Benjawan (Benjie) Marshall’s mother Uthaiwan was an accomplished dressmaker in her native Thailand. In 1989 she left her husband and six children for a job in America, vowing to come home when she had made her mark.
But Benjie, who was 10 years old when her mother left, never saw her again; she was killed in a road accident four years later.
Now aged 36 and living in Wakefield, Benjie, became shy and introverted and was never able to grieve for her mother or speak about her to anyone. Her father, left alone to bring up two young girls (the four boys were adults by this time) turned to alcohol in a bid to numb his pain. Their once happy home became a place of sadness for Benjie and her siblings.
Benjie says: “What hurt so much was that I never got to say goodbye to my mum properly.
“The night before she left, she kissed me goodnight and said I wasn’t to come to the airport, I should go to school instead. I’m sure that was just her way of dealing with the separation.”
Uthaiwan kept in touch with her family by letter and telephone and was making plans for a visit home when the accident happened.
Not really knowing what she wanted to do with her life, Benjie, who had shown early promise as an artist, decided to study for a degree in fine art and design and computer graphics at Phranakorn university in Bangkok.
After graduation, her two older brothers, Anuchit, a senior air steward and Wicha who is a captain in the Thai Navy sponsored her passage to England and waitress while studying for a second degree in art and design at Thomas Danby College and attending English classes at Leeds Metropolitan university. ”I learned to speak English in Thailand, says Benjie,” but it was at an American school and I couldn’t understand the Yorkshire dialect when I came to live in Leeds.”
It was while she was working in a Thai restaurant in 2004 that she met her future husband Ben; the couple married two years later and in 2011 launched Malagor, a Thai restaurant in Ossett, near Wakefield. As executive chef, Benjie create the menu, designed the interior and also painted a striking mural on the wall of the restaurant.
But back in 2006, not long after their wedding, Ben’s grandmother died and Benjie went along to help clear out her house. “I saw an old sewing machine on a table and then suddenly, out of the blue, all the memories of my mum that I’d hidden away came flooding back and I remembered that we’d made dolls clothes together before she went away, and that she was a dressmaker.
“I suddenly realised that was what I wanted to do. I’d always been creative and good with my hands and this was the perfect way to express myself.”
The old sewing machine was taken home but it was found to be broken so Ben bought Benjie a new one and she set about teaching herself to sew.
“Occasionally people would ask me where I’d bought certain clothes and I longed to be able to tell them that I’d made them myself,” she says.
But it was not until she was pregnant with daughter Daisy-Mae, now five, that she was able to devote time to her new interest.
“I took a pattern making course at Leeds college of art and design and I began creating my own patterns and designing clothes in the styles and material I like to wear. I favour very simple loose and floaty styles so that is what I make and I don’t necessarily follow the latest fashion although I am aware of what the current trends are.
“When I look back at my first attempts they were truly awful but at the time I thought it was an incredible achievement and I was really proud of myself.”
As Benjie’s skills developed she was asked by family and friends to make clothes for them but the majority of her collection she kept for herself and Daisy-Mae.
“As a child I remembered hating the clothes my mother made me and my sister wear so I now sit down with Daisy-May and ask her to give me some idea of what she’d like me to make for her. We choose the fabric together and I try and stick as closely as I can to what she’s asked for. The result is she tells everyone that her mum makes her clothes and she’s really proud of me which is lovely.
“After a while though, hen someone asked me if I could make them something, I started encouraging them to learn to sew for themselves ,” she says.
“That way, if they like a particular style they can have it in as many different colours or fabrics as they want.”
Benjie has now opened her own fabric shop called Benjie Bee’s in Northgate, Wakefield, the first floor of which has been turned into a classroom with eight sewing machines.
From next month she will offer sewing classes for adults and children from complete beginners to those who have some skills.
Benjie will be encouraging new mums to come along to classes: “I think it’s important for women who have had babies to do something creative. It’s so much fun and it’s lovely to be able to make something for your baby,” she says.
“Our first children’s class is allmost fully booked up. We are making a monkey out of a pair of socks with the younger age group (five-seven-year-olds) and the eight to 10 year-olds are going to be stitching bunting on the sewing machine.”
“Sewing has been my therapy and because of it I am now able to grieve for my mum properly. I realise now I was lost and that finding out I had inherited my mum’s love of sewing and creating really helped me to grow as a person.
“ It was completely life changing for me. For many years I harboured a sort of hatred for my mum and couldn’t come to terms with her leaving us. I realise now that she loved us all and it was as difficult for her to go as it was for us. Now, whenever I sew I think of her.”