Audrey Aymer has an infectious laugh and her eyes sparkle as she shows off her mermaid blankets that she makes and sells through her crochet business, East London Stitched.
The pale blue blanket looks like it has scales but it hides an even more impressive story: no one ever taught Audrey how to crochet and she doesn’t follow patterns. She learnt as a child, watching her friend’s mum after school, waiting for her mum to pick her up.
“Some kids would be watching the TV cartoons where I was sitting watching my friend’s mum,” recalls Audrey. She says the first thing she tried to knit was a child’s Aran cardigan. She was 16 and remembers thinking: “Oh my god I’ve done it!” There were no mismatching sleeves, Audrey had mastered knitting first-try. She laughs and says: “I was so impressed.”
Now if she wants to make something she might seek out a YouTube video for inspiration but mostly it comes from her own imagination.
Audrey has lived in Tower Hamlets all her life after moving from the neighbouring borough of Hackney as a young child. She lived on The Highway and tells me how she loved to go dancing: “I used to go wherever there was a DJ. It wasn’t so much for the drinking, it was more for the disco.”
She would dance to anything: “I like some reggae but not too much reggae and pop. Really I can listen to people like Cliff Richard, Tom Jones, Elvis Presley. It’s more of a mixture.” She laughs confessing that she could even do Teddy dancing.
A challenging start
Her friendly, bubbly demeanour hides how resilient she is. Audrey has been making and selling products for friends for years, alongside a range of jobs from factory work to being a bus conductress to then working as a childminder after she had her son. She started selling her creations as a business in 2015. It’s not been an easy journey.
When Universal Credit was introduced in 2017, the changes were overwhelming for Audrey and so she took some time out. She explains: “It just did my head in because the whole reason I had my business was because I didn’t want to go on benefits and I was just happy to do that at home with some help from Working Tax Credit.”
Audrey returned to selling her creations in 2018 but had more health problems including trouble gripping her hand and leg pains. She says she just started getting her grip back in January. She still has problems with her leg and recently discovered that she has arthritis in her knees.
Despite this, Audrey is upbeat: “My crocheting and my knitting keeps me independent. I can’t go back to work but at least I can do something work-wise and do the best I can.”
Audrey is no stranger to overcoming obstacles. She was knocked out as a child and as a result, has frontal lobe damage.
She didn’t discover this until she had an MRI scan in 2015. “All that time I didn’t know I had it,” Audrey reflects, “I just found I was getting emotional, someone could say something to me and I was getting angry or taking it the wrong way because I didn’t know about the illness.”
She had a difficult home environment with a dad who would sometimes get violent and so when the injury occurred, she didn’t tell anyone. In fact, it caused her to lose her sight for three months.
She describes nearly being hit by a car: “I could hear a car beeping but I couldn’t see it.” Audrey adds: “I knew I was protected by God because otherwise, I can’t explain to you how I got to school.”
She went to a school on Cable Street for children with difficulties at home, having been expelled for getting angry at her previous school. Neither school asked any questions, explains Audrey. Even when she couldn’t see the blackboard, she says: “They just assumed I had an eyesight problem.”
Audrey remains positive as she recounts her schooldays: “That didn’t put me down because I just wanted to show people you can go to a school like that and still do good.” She adds: “I try and do the best I can do regardless of that background.”
From hobby to business
Audrey’s faith is important to her, she goes to church at the Good Shepherd Mission and she attends a weekly women’s group called The Arch. In fact, it was through support from them that she got the money to start her business. She says: “I bought wool and just got started.”
Her son told her she should build up a bank of stock but she didn’t have a chance: “I couldn’t make stock because I was getting too many orders, it was non-stop.”
It’s a good job that Audrey is a fast worker and crochets all the time: on the bus, in the doctor’s surgery and with the TV on in the background. One of her favourite programmes is Murder She Wrote. Her wool is mostly sourced locally from Fabians Haberdashery and Trimmings on Cannon Street Road.
What Audrey likes about selling her crocheting is knowing it brings joy to others. She says: “It’s nice when people message you and say they’ve still got the baby blanket you’ve made them and their kid is 16 now or when they say the blanket went through all five of their kids.”
This is why Audrey wants her products to be affordable. She explains “I was thinking of people like me. I was a single mum – even though I did go out working and it didn’t matter what money I had as long as I had money to buy food and pay the rent. I was thinking of people with low income who would like to have things like ponchos and mermaid blankets and setting reasonable prices.”
For Audrey, selling at Lady Lane Market is the next step in her business. With the built-in support network and the knowledge that people can watch the stall for her if need be, she says: “In a way, it’s got me over an obstacle.”
Audrey has overcome many challenges to set up East London Stitched and with each of her creations, she brings joy to people who otherwise may not be able to afford a mermaid blanket. That is surely even more magical than the creatures who inspire her.