Last week, I was listening to an episode of The Sew Much More Podcast. It was a roundtable discussion with a handful of self-employed mothers, looking at the challenges of balancing career and family.
It got me thinking about my own mom. She is such an important part of who I am, and who I aspire to be.
She’s taught me many things about upholstery: how to make buttons, how to cut and sew welt, how to decipher a complex attached cushion.
These were things she meant to teach me.
But other lessons, just as important, were unintentional.
Here are a just few things my mother taught me:
Don’t underestimate The Mothers
My mom started doing simple upholstery and sewing in her mid twenties as a young mom. Her main motivator wasn’t love of upholstery: it was passion for being a mom.
Based on her potpourri of skills and a strong desire to stay home, she tried 4 ads in the local newspaper: typing, ironing, daycare and sewing.
In my teens, I considered that kind of doggedness embarrassing – who puts themselves out there like that?????
As an adult, I find it inspiring.
Call it what you will: that took grit.
Turns out she disliked everything but the sewing. At that, she had a knack. And over the years, her business grew around motherhood, instead of next to it.
She worked a lot . . . but she was always at school conferences, concerts and sporting events. The neighborhood librarians knew us by name because we showed up every week, with bags of books.
When I was in college she moved to a store front. Now, there were grandchildren, scattering books and toys, occasionally running through the shop in their underpants.
It was something we fought about, actually. How can a reputable business have crayons all over the showroom?
She’d let me run my mouth for awhile, and then make it clear, in no uncertain terms, that family was her priority. Clients who were uncomfortable with that were welcome to find another shop.
That woman. She knew her priorities <3
Unlike my mom, I never felt comfortable with kids at the shop – it made me awkward with the clients and short with my sons. I just couldn’t get comfortable being a professional and a parent in the same space.
So instead, I often chose to work part time, balancing days at the shop and days with my kids, trying to find space for both. It was a challenge, emotionally and financially.
Kids grow up fast. I know it’s a cliche, but they really do. Even as a young mom, I knew that. And it reminded me to properly value time spent away from them.
If pressed for unreasonable pricing, I reminded myself: ‘You’re giving up time with your kids to be here.’
Though my mom and I reached different solutions, we were essentially motivated by the same force: our children. Professional upholstery was a good non-traditional career fit.
As a teacher and professional, I run into a whole lot of moms. Upholstery translates well to a home-based business and can (theoretically) be structured around a family, especially in the beginning when it’s hard to make a full-time go of it anyway.
Knowing that our industry could really use some creative, determined, resourceful champions? I like seeing moms in the shop – they bring a lot of potential assets to our shared table.
(P.S. I shouldn’t just say moms: I’ve been heartened to know a number of dads and grandpas who juggle children in the shop, hooray! – I wonder if one of your children would guest author a blog post???)
Self-employment ain’t for weenies
My brother-in-law recently asked how self-employment was going.
I told him, “It’s easier than I expected.”
Because, you see, for years I’d believed it would be impossible
I’ve heard some people think starting a business will be fun! Be your own boss, yeah!!!
Children of the self-employed harbor no such casual delusions.
We see ALL the bad days – the long days, the rework, the customer who simply will not be satisfied. We see months when the cashflow runs dry. We see worry and stress and evenings spent catching up.
We have a backstage pass for all the struggle.
So I avoided self-employment for years.
Eventually, I had to face the truth: Self-employment was the only way to do what I wanted to do, I had to step into the arena.
So I did.
I kept my start up costs on a shoe-string budget. I found a mentor through SCORE. I made a business plan (several). I networked relentlessly. I listened to entrepreneurial podcasts and self-help books. I made a vision board. (oh yes I surely did.)
I did these things out of sheer terror.
I can tell you now, that self-employment has been a good path so far. Surprisingly. Thankfully.
It’s not easy, but I’m glad to have stepped through the fear. I like where this path is headed.
Still . . .it is a conversation I’m prepared to have with our serious students: Do not confuse a hobby with a career, and do NOT enter into self-employment lightly.
(My mom told me to tell you it’s hard.)
Self teaching IS an option
My mom started with a basic set of sewing skills, making custom cushions.
Sometimes, clients would pick up their order and drop off a chair – can you do this?
She’d look at it and say, “Sure, that doesn’t look too complicated, if you trust me, I’ll give it a try.”
I simply cannot imagine the hours it must have taken her, pouring over library books, to figure out upholstery on her own, one project at a time.
She frequently tells a story of her first channel back chair, reupholstered for a relative. She ordered fabric 3 times, and tried every method she could find in order to get the job done – finally – to her own satisfaction.
Self teaching isn’t a perfect option. . .But it IS an option. And an increasingly important one in our post-degree era.
You may think it is strange, then, that I’m a proponent for education.
I saw a lot of disadvantages to self teaching. Most notably, it’s SLOW. My mom had to go through a LOT of failed experiments to find success.
It’s also hard to do our best work in isolation.
After leaving her shop, I studied under several other professionals. I was able to bring back new tricks to my mom’s shop. I talked her into a new way of making zippers and introduced her to the vacuum method for filling cushions.
She really liked that one 🙂
I learned many random things that would have saved her crazy amounts of time and effort . . . if only she had known.
When it takes tremendous energy to discover a viable solution, we aren’t likely to keep looking once we’ve found one. We do what we know will work,.
Connecting with other professionals, and accessing (even occasional) education expands our palette of options. our fluency and confidence.
So I’m passionate about encouraging our vast community of self-teachers to seek out education . . . but I’m not completely freaked out about people learning on their own.
Does organized education elevate our industry? You betcha.
Are we going to hell-in-a-handbasket if people start learning on their own with books and videos??????? Girl, please.
It’s amazing what you can learn outside of a classroom.
People will expect your best – even when they aren’t paying for it.
My mom started her business as a home-based side hustle. She was self taught, and very isolated from the industry. She never really did a business plan, and didn’t expect to take home a regular paycheck. Mostly, she wanted to cover some household expenses.
And she grossly undercharged.
I’m not here to say charge X or Y. Your price is between you and your business model.
But it’s wise to be aware: if you charge money for a service, people will expect a professional result.
Mom’s clients paid prices that were WAY below market – that didn’t necessarily mean they adjusted their expectations.
Though she had many, many regular and appreciative clients, it was often the people pushing hardest for a discount who were likely to come back with complaints.
You can do whatever you want with this information. It brought me to the following conclusion: I’d better charge for my very best work, because that’s what customers assume they’re getting.
Know your worth, because others may not
When people ask how I got into the industry, I start by saying that my mom was an upholsterer . . . .
But that oversimplifies my decision to “go pro”
Mom was my door in and my biggest deterrent.
I saw the struggles of self-employment, I saw the struggles of self-teaching, I saw the struggles of working with clients . . . And I saw that her worth was not always recognized by the people who hired her.
Or DID I????
This is a question I’ve struggled with. Did clients undervalue her? Or did I see my own insecurities projected there?
I’m still not sure. Probably both.
Most teenage girls don’t want to be their mother.
I didn’t want to learn from my mom, I didn’t want to listen to my mom, I certainly didn’t want to upholster like my mom . . . until I did.
I was from the generation of four year degrees. We did not look generously on the trades, or any career that came without an expensive diploma. I will take full responsibility for my personal perspective, though I do think it’s what we were taught: Go to college, go to college, go to college. Alternate paths were presented as lesser.
I’m sorry to say that I looked at my mom’s profession with condescension.
This is not something I confess proudly – I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to apologize, and make amends.
But choosing this profession was a huge mental and emotional shift. I now understood the complexities of and many skills involved in upholstery, yet I couldn’t help but see myself through that teenage lens. And it no doubt made me hypersensitive to the dismissive and condescending attitude of certain clients.
My mom for the most part knew her worth, and wasn’t so bunged up over what some rando thought of her.
But it enraged me.
I made a personal vow not to deal with clients like that. If I couldn’t find mutually respectful client relationships . . . I would change careers.
Happily, it hasn’t come to that – I adore my clients. There really are good ones out there.
I know my mom had loads of clients who respected and appreciated her – It’s just the bad ones who stick out. (Which is undoubtedly the case for all of us.)
I actually suspect that difficult or predatory consumers seek out professionals who may not yet have the networking, experience, support and confidence to protect themselves.
It’s just a theory, and I might still be speaking through my teenage brain . . .
I just know it’s important to me to help promising new professionals steer clear of toxic relationships.
We all come into this profession with our own backstory. It affects how we view the industry and what we can potentially contribute to it.
It is no coincidence that I’m drawn to education – specifically, education which strives to connect with, support and empower self-taught professionals, instead of alienating or shaming them.
For better or worse, the beginning of my story will always be rooted in hers.
My work now is to decide how I can pay these important lessons forward.
We all view the world through the tinted lens of personal experience – who have been the important people that have shaped your perspective? How does it affect your professional journey?