BEAVER DAM — Nancy Zieman has built her career on creating patterns and giving lessons that are easy to follow.
But if anyone else wanted to build a career the same way Zieman did, they’d find it pretty impossible to follow. Because for everything the Beaver Dam woman has created — a multimillion-dollar sewing business, a nationally broadcast television show, books, videos and events — there simply is no pattern.
The founder of Nancy’s Notions and host of public television’s “Sewing With Nancy” just released her autobiography, “Seams Unlikely.” It’s an apt title, not just for the twists her career took over the years but also because of how Zieman became the unlikeliest of TV personalities.
She has developed a loyal following and a huge fan base, one that has been able to watch her at work for more than 30 years. That’s made her a rock star in the sewing world, complete with people who recognize her at airports throughout the country.
“I even had a man come up to me and say, ‘I watch your show. I don’t sew, but I watch your show,’ ” said Zieman, 60. “I say, ‘That’s OK; I watch ‘This Old House’ and I don’t plan to fix my plumbing.’ ”
James Steinbach, director of Wisconsin Public Television, sees that when Zieman is at an event. WPT co-produces “Sewing With Nancy” and partners with Zieman on the annual Quilt Expo that draws 18,000 people.
“We’re talking about a public television show for people who sew. This is not ‘Downton Abbey’ and it’s not the Super Bowl,” he said. “But I can tell you the people who watch Nancy and know her through her appearances love her. We had her here for a book signing, and it was sold out. They love her.”
It’s all light years away from a home business that began in an apartment with $500 and a typewriter her mother had gotten as a high school graduation present.
“I was 26,” Zieman said. “There’s probably not a lot of businesses started by a 26-year-old that are still going when they are 60.”
A skill for a lifetime
Zieman began sewing when she was 10 years old. She took to it quickly and it was a confidence boost for the youngster who was self-conscious about her height and her partially paralyzed face. As a toddler, Zieman had Bell’s palsy and never regained the movement on the right side of her face.
“I was so shy,” she said. “My mom made me do demonstrations and I just wanted to die. I can see now it was the best thing she could have done for me.”
She won awards at the state level, and found her path in life. She went to what is now UW-Stout to major in home economics, with plans to perhaps one day work for a major pattern company such as Simplicity or McCall’s.
But it was as a freelance home economist, giving seminars and teaching sewing, that Zieman found opportunity. Supplies, also known as “notions,” she used at seminars were purchased in bigger cities, but their availability was limited for people in rural areas. She stocked up on the notions and created fliers of them to hand out at her seminars.
That was 1979, and Nancy’s Notions was born. Two years later, she and her husband, Richard, moved to Beaver Dam, his hometown. Her in-laws were her first employees.
Two years later, she did a guest spot on a sewing show and was offered the chance to have a show of her own.
“I said ‘Me? Look at me,’ ” Zieman said.
With some coaxing, she came to realize there was great value in what she had to teach people, and what she looked like would be secondary.
The TV show helped boost sales. The company’s first warehouse was a former chicken shack on the Zieman family farm; it’s now a 100,000 square-foot building that has been built onto seven times and includes a retail store.
From Beta to blogging
Beyond the catalogs, the business grew to include seminars, trade shows and books. As technology changed, so did the company’s marketing methods — from tapes on VHS and Betamax to DVDs, websites and blogs.
“You have to know when to jump in,” Zieman said. “I didn’t always have a plan. You plan a little and then you have to be flexible.
And by 1996, Zieman, who was turned down for the first loan she applied for despite owning a company that was making money, had 120 employees and had become a national authority on sewing.
“People just trust her. People listen to her,” said Margaret Jankowski, founder of The Sewing Machine Project, which refurbishes and donates used sewing machines to communities in need. “She’s someone who’s respected by a lot of different age groups.”
Jankowski has appeared on “Sewing With Nancy,” and it always results in a bump of interest for her project.
“When she became aware of us and was in contact with me, it was like, ‘What? You like us?’” Jankowski said. “I was so flattered because I have so much respect for her. She’s just awesome.”
Technology isn’t the only thing that has changed what Zieman and her company do. Sewing itself has changed. Many people are discovering sewing for the first time in their 20s, 30s or 40s.
“They didn’t learn it from their mothers,” Zieman said.
It’s not like when Zieman was a youngster in 4-H. People sewing today aren’t making clothes, they’re making gifts for graduations, weddings and other special occasions. Handbags are popular, as are fabric covers for iPads. Contemporary quilts are as much a piece of art as a cover for a bed.
The next chapter
The idea for the book came from a Google search. Wanting to find a web address, she searched for her name and was surprised by what she found.
“The first things that came up were ‘Nancy Zieman smile,’ ‘Nancy Zieman stroke,’ ‘Nancy Zieman crooked face,’ ” Zieman said. “And I thought, ‘Ugh.’ I obviously have a crooked face, I just didn’t think that was the first thing that people would search for about me.”
She did a segment on Bell’s palsy on her TV show, and the floodgates opened. She realized she had something to share in her life story, and in the realization that most people have something they’ve had to overcome in order to succeed. The proceeds from the book will benefit adoption services.
In 2002, Zieman sold her company to Tacony Corp., of Fenton, Mo. She’s now the company’s spokeswoman. She founded Nancy Zieman Productions, which oversees the TV show, books, videos, Quilt Expo and the annual Sewing Weekend in Beaver Dam that draws 3,000 people.
The sale wasn’t to make money, Zieman said. It was to continue the company, after her attorney posed the question, “What is your succession plan?” Her sons, Ted and Tom, were still too young to be part of the company, and in some ways it was like sending her oldest child on to its next stage in life.
“It’s the best of both worlds now,” Zieman said. “It’s reassuring to know if something happens to me, this will all go on without me.”