In March of 2004 I left my teaching job to be home with our newborn daughter. She was tiny and fussy and I was going through an identity crisis, having abruptly transitioned from an exciting, interactive profession I’d done for many years to being at home, alone during the daytime, learning to be a mother.
During the long hours I spent nursing my baby on the couch in our apartment I found solace watching Sewing With Nancy on PBS. Each morning I’d tune in to see Nancy Zieman demonstrate how to insert a zipper, sew with knits, and line a jacket. I learned and relaxed and began to dream of a creative future that involved sewing.
What I didn’t know then is that I’d spend the next decade building a new career for myself in sewing. Now, 10 years later, I have a small sewing pattern and supply business and a sewing blog which is the educational arm that accompanies it.
This week I finished reading Nancy Zieman’s new autobiography, Seams Unlikely, and now I appreciate Nancy on a new level. I see her as a pioneer in my field, an independent sewing entrepreneur. Through Nancy’s Notions, her direct mail sewing supply company founded in 1979, and Sewing With Nancy, the longest running sewing program on North American Television on the air since 1982, Nancy paved the way for those of us who are working to turn our love of sewing into a profitable and fulfilling career.
Nancy herself admits that she is “the most unlikely of television personalities.” As a baby she was afflicted with Bell’s palsy which makes one side of her face droop. I invite you to watch this two-minute trailer for Seams Unlikely to get a sense of who Nancy is and how she came to write her story.
Nancy is truly our forbearer. Before there was Craftsy, Nancy was teaching sewing to a wide audience through video demonstrations. Before there was Etsy, Nancy was selling a curated selection of notions and sewing supplies to people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to them. Before there was Sewing Summit, Nancy was hosting Sewing Weekend in Beaver Dam, WI, gathering eager sewists together to stitch, learn, and shop. Nancy walked down the road we are walking, but before we were all online.
Nancy Zieman grew up on a mid-western dairy farm. She got her introduction to demonstrating sewing techniques through 4-H in high school.
“My first demonstration in Sewing was, ‘How to put on a waistband.’ With help from my mother I broke the process down into various steps and created different samples showing each of those steps," Nancy recalls. "There is no magic to a waistband, but when I stood before the judges of my club, demonstrating step-by-step how to prepare and attach a waistband, the girl who spoke was confident, articulate and at home in herself. Nothing else mattered – I had discovered where I belonged.”
After overcoming significant health obstacles and graduating from college with a double major in home economics and journalism, Nancy met Rich, who would become her husband, while working as a home economist at Minnesota Fabrics. When Rich changed jobs, Nancy become an independent home economist, teaching sewing seminars.
“Looking back from the perspective of what has happened in the four decades since that time, I realize now that what I was doing was a rarity. Today, there are many careers in which people commute to work from home offices, making proximity to a workplace of less importance than a good internet connection. In 1979, though, computers were in their infancy and cell phones were props for science fiction movies.” Nancy invented an independent sewing career.
She began selling sewing notions to the women who attended her seminars who lived in rural areas and didn’t have access to stores that sold them. She was smart from the beginning, following the same advice we so eagerly dole out to creative business owners to this day: she kept a mailing list.
“Since the beginning of my career as a freelance home economist and teacher, I had kept the names and addresses of those attending my seminars. I transferred the names and addresses to index cards and they became the basis of a mailing list for product flyers.”
In 1981 someone who Nancy met at one of her seminars asked if she would do some sewing demonstrations on video to help sell sewing machines. “The idea was exciting, but suddenly I remembered my face. The realization was almost a jolt – a jerk back into reality from a brief, but vivid dream. ‘I can’t do TV with my face,’ I thought. ‘I’m not television material.’” Even so, she took him up on it and that was the beginning of Sewing With Nancy. When the original producer pulled out, Nancy persevered, finding and paying for production herself.
One of the things I found most striking about Nancy Zieman’s success is the continual interplay between the two parts of her business: the educational television show and the sewing supplies company.
“Throughout the thirty-year history of Sewing With Nancy, the television program and Nancy’s Notions have maintained a relationship almost like that of a marriage. One supports the other,” Nancy writes. By becoming a trusted sewing expert on TV, Nancy was able to use that relationship of trust with her viewers to very effectively sell supplies. For those of us that sell online and also have blogs, this interplay will sound very familiar.
And what’s even more fascinating is that Nancy doesn’t get paid to do the show. “Instead of receiving a wage for being on Sewing With Nancy,” she explains, “Nancy Zieman Productions pays for air time.” But there’s surely no way that Nancy’s Notions would have thrived without the educational arm. They go hand in hand. Even if your blog doesn’t explicitly make money, it is key to running a successful online business.
Subscription pattern clubs are burgeoning online and for good reason: they’re a great way to ensure an ongoing steady income. Nancy knew that, too. “In 1987, we began offering a video club and promoted it by developing a single sheet that listed thirty-two Sewing With Nancy videos. The program was patterned after video rentals in stores, only ours was via mail order. Over a twelve-year period it grew to a sixty-four page catalog with over two hundred-twenty titles and eighty presenters. We were way ahead of Netflix.”
Nancy is also a mother. She worked incredibly hard throughout her two children’s childhood and expresses real gratitude toward their nanny, Joan, for helping to raise her children. “Sometimes I wondered: Is this the way I should be as a mother- having someone come into my home, taking care of my children? Should I be flying off to work?” Being a mother and working is a difficult balance. Her ability to do both is an inspiration to me.
Nancy’s written over 40 books and designed patterns for McCall’s, in addition to producing 26 programs a year. Her creative output is truly incredible. “I’m often asked how I select topics for the program. There’s no rocket science to that answer – if something interests me, I believe viewers will find it interesting as well.” To me that’s the absolute best way to come up with content, whether you’re producing a nationally broadcast TV show or a small-time sewing blog.
Nancy is an innovator. Over the 30 years that she’s been in business think about how much has changed, especially with technology, but she’s embraced those shifts. From VHS to DVD to live streaming, her show is still alive and well. Today Nancy blogs three times a week. She tweets (and she follows me on Twitter!) and is on Facebook and Pinterest. Instead of mourning the past and decrying how the media landscape has changed, Nancy has changed with it.
Looking back on those days when I was a new mom, Nancy Zieman helped me to dream of a creative career and for that I am thankful. I find Nancy’s career to be truly inspirational.
“lt continually amazes me that viewers regard Sewing With Nancy as more than an educational program,” Nancy writes. “They see me as a friend and I am honored at the affection I receive. People take from Sewing With Nancy what they need. If they need companionship, that’s what they take. If they desire a connection to the past, that’s what they get. If they need encouragement, we’re all about encouragement.” Cheers to Nancy Zieman!
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