“Obviously I’m not symmetrical,” said Nancy Zieman, whose eye and mouth on her right side are partially paralyzed due to Bell’s palsy.
Zieman has been the host for “Sewing with Nancy,” a half hour public television show that first aired in September 1982. With over 900 episodes, it’s the longest running sewing program on North American television.
For the last week of Women’s History month, I chose to write about someone in our modern day history, someone who has been a friend and inspiration to women all over our country. And her story is not just of interest to women who sew. All of us, including the men, can learn from this woman of extraordinary grace.
As a young child she battled many other health problems, including major surgeries.
But Zieman found her niche in sewing through 4-H.
“Sewing became my outlet,” said Zieman. “Winning a ribbon at the county fair required skill, not looks.”
As Zieman wrestled with the difficulties her facial paralysis brought her throughout her years of school she kept her faith in God, always believing that she had a purpose in life.
“I think that’s the thing we can all take away from life is that God has given us this and how do we go forward,” said Zieman. “Each of us faces challenges in life. Some are bigger than others. But what happens to us does not define us unless we let it.”
After graduating from high school, Zieman attended the University of Wisconsin with a double major in home economics and journalism. Some of her first jobs after graduation were working for a national sewing chain store in Chicago and as a freelance sewing instructor in Minnesota. She also was an author and designer for McCall’s patterns.
In 1977, she married Richard Zieman. Together they raised two children and started “Nancy’s Notions,” a direct mail company specializing in sewing supplies. This started as a small business, working out of her home on their shoestring budget. She worked from her kitchen table while warehousing notions in the basement. Little by little the Ziemans expanded “Nancy’s Notions” to a remodeled chicken coop and then finally into a 100,000 square foot building.
She began her career with “Sewing with Nancy” in September 1982 and filmed her last show in September 2017. Her retirement came about because she was diagnosed first with osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer, and then breast cancer. Zieman passed away on Nov. 14, 2017, the day after her last show aired.
Her last show was filmed at her home with her grandchildren and titled “I sew for fun,” where she showed her viewers how to teach children to sew. Zieman realized that teaching children to sew could be done in the same manner as teaching them to make chocolate chip cookies in the kitchen. She emphasized, “You work together as a team.” She also told her viewers not to expect straight seams.
“Techniques aren’t so important at first,” said Zieman. “It’s all about fun.”
Zieman taught America how to sew. But her show went beyond sewing and quilting. Her viewers could take from it what they needed.
“I teach sewing, but if they need companionship that’s what they take from it,” said Zieman. “If they need encouragement that’s what they pull.”
Zieman’s greatest lesson was not how to sew a particular item of clothing or a certain quilt design. She was determined to make something of herself and show people that she could.
“Not because I was a woman, but because I was a woman who had physical limitations,” said Zieman. “I wanted to prove that I was beyond that. What you first see is not really what you get. Or your first impression is not really who I am.”
When I first watched a “Sewing with Nancy” program that aired on a Saturday morning on WSKG, I thought perhaps Zieman had had a stroke.
Zieman realized many of her viewers wondered about her face. She decided to “take the bull by the horns” and invite Dr. Justin Sattin, a neurologist from the University of Wisconsin Health Comprehensive Stroke Program to one of her shows to explain what Bell’s palsy is and how it affects people.
“I understand why people want to know about this because it’s unusual to have someone on television who is not picture perfect,” said Zieman. “And I’m certainly not.”
Zieman may not have been “picture perfect” but she was an excellent teacher. I have been sewing since I was 12 years old, yet I learned much from Zieman, as I continued to watch her shows.
“The love of sewing is our common thread,” said Zieman. “We want to feel creative and sewing gives us the chance to create when sometimes work does not.”
One of the camera techniques that I noticed was particularly helpful to viewers was that Zieman positioned her body off to the side as she sewed. Filmed from behind her, the viewer could see her hands and how she guided the fabric through the machine as she sewed, rather than filming in front of her where the machine would block the viewer from seeing what her hands were doing.
“Sewing with Nancy” every Saturday morning became something I looked forward to; like getting together with a friend, a mentor who taught me a great deal about sewing techniques that someone of her experience knew how to share.
Zieman opened every show holding a mug of tea, and thanking her viewers for joining her.
She spoke to her viewers in a warm, caring way. As she step-by-step demonstrated sewing and quilting techniques, she gave them the confidence that said, “If I can do it, you can too.”
And Nancy Zieman closed every show, even her last one, with the same simple, but extraordinarily graceful words, “Bye for now.”