In an industry that has largely existed without the scrutiny of a journalistic eye, Abby Glassenberg is the Nellie Bly of the sewing and craft world. Glassenberg’s blog and podcast, both entitled While She Naps, have become a vital source for information in the craft industry. A craft business owner herself, Glassenberg began by researching and writing about trade oriented subjects like how to publish a book or get a licensing agreement. She has also tackled larger issues such as unfair pay for event teachers and sexism in the industry. Her documentation of the trials and tribulations of online craft retailer Etsy, in part, launched her career as an investigative journalist and podcaster. It has also brought her work to an audience outside the craft world – just this week she was featured in a New York Times article about the craft giant.
A teacher in her previous life, Glassenberg left her career to be a stay-at-home mom after she had her first of three babies. In the right place at the right time, Glassenberg took advantage of what little time she had to create a blog, after reading an article about the nascent blog phenomenon in the New York Times. While She Naps documented her crafty side: she wrote about cake decorating, gardening and origami. However, it quickly veered into an outlet for her love of sewing stuffed dolls and toys. That same year, just a month after Etsy launched, Glassenberg became one of the first Etsy vendors, using the outlet to sell her stuffed toys. I recently spoke with Glassenberg about her career path from stay-at-home mom to industry documentarian.
On creating a business from her craft hobby
Abby: Lisa Congdon gave me a nice piece of advice. I had been making a lot of different things (stuffed toys), but one of them was birds. She said that I should make more of those. I took her advice to heart, because she was someone I respected and was a friend. I made more of those and ended up getting a book deal with Interweave in 2011 for my first book, The Artful Bird.
When I pitched that book, it wasn’t my first idea. The first book I pitched was a manual for designing your own patterns for stuffed animals. But the way I conceived it, it was just too large of an idea, so the publisher said, “Why don’t we do the birds?” The book came out in December and by now I had realized how to make the manual of softie designs into a book that would actually work, so I pitched it again right away. So, my second book, Stuffed Animals from Concept to Construction came out in spring of 2013.
I had been in the rhythm of making patterns for so long for my books that I realized I could sell patterns rather than finished goods and make more money. I took finished goods out of the (Etsy) shop and put patterns in. With that income, plus the royalties of my two books and the pattern licensing deal I got with Simplicity, I started actually having a business.
I have an education degree and a history degree so business wasn’t something that was familiar to me. I started to learn more about how publishing houses work, how contract law works, the business side of craft, and how the industry itself functions. I became really interested in that and started writing articles for my blog.
On becoming a podcaster
Abby: In 2013, Etsy redefined their definition of handmade, allowing their sellers to have manufacturing partners. They did this big announcement online, like a town hall meeting. I watched it and wrote an article, which was the first article from a maker’s perspective on what these changes would mean.
Etsy read the article and got in touch with me, wanting to talk more about it. I felt like I didn’t really need to talk to them, as I already understood the changes. But, I thought, if I could record the interview and publish the recording, then that would be worth doing. So, I said, I have a podcast, let’s do this as a podcast and they agreed. But, I didn’t really have a podcast, so I had to figure out how to get one really fast! We recorded the interview and when I published it, it was downloaded 8,000 times the first day.
That was in October of 2013. I did a few more interviews that year and then decided that in 2013 I wanted to publish on a regular schedule. The show has developed from there and I’ve now produced 107 episodes. [Update! Now it is 109 episodes.]
On using teaching skills in her new career
Abby: One of the things you learn as a teacher is how to write lesson plans, and a pattern is very similar to a lesson plan. I do still teach. I taught two schoolhouses at Quilt Market, and preparing a class for adults is exactly the same as preparing a class for young students. The first thing you do is gather people’s understanding of the concept before you begin. Ask them what they know and get everyone’s preconceived ideas out on the table. Then, you can scaffold new information onto what they already know. It is a really important step because you can’t build new information without knowing where people are when they come in.
When you are the host of a podcast, you are the proxy for the audience, so you have to be thinking about what the listener needs in the same way you would think about what a student needs. So, say someone in classroom asks a question that is complex or esoteric. As a teacher, it is best for you to repeat the question in more understandable terms, so everybody can access that information. So, in the podcast, when a guest references a book, trade show, or technique that is insider information, it is best for me to explain what it is, just to catch everybody up. That way, their answer is more informative and useful.
Wait time is also really important. You can ask a question to a group of students and have silence. Don’t fill that silence, you can wait. And if you wait, you are likely to get better answers, or answers from people who don’t often raise their hand because their are people who need more time to process auditory information. So you often get a more thoughtful response. On the podcast it can often be the same thing.
There are a lot of tips like that, where being a teacher has been really helpful. Even though I don’t actually teach 6th grade anymore, I’m certainly grateful for those years of experience, learning how learners are, how they work, and how learning occurs.
Abby: I remember all the frustration I had setting up the first blog. I didn’t understand how it worked, I didn’t understand how the internet worked. I was beginner, beginner, beginner. But now it is something that I’m super interested in. I try to stay up on tech news and am personally really interested in technology companies and social media.
I love having my finger in the sandbox. I think of all of this stuff as a sandbox. I want to be in there playing and have some sort of stake in it. So when things change, I am part of it. I think it’s really fun and exciting to the opportunity to have your own media company. That’s how I see myself now, as an independent media company. I produce a lot of different kinds of media, instructional media, podcast media, audio/visual media, written media – and I can produce all of it myself, no constraints. I think that power is incredible.
On crafting stories
Abby: You have to wonder and be really curious about things. Then you have to figure out how to get the answers to your questions, which sometimes can involve a lot of sleuthing. I’m very passionate about learning to become a reputable journalist to cover an industry that hasn’t really had press coverage. I feel like the crafts industry is like a microcosm of the whole world. So every political, social, or economic issue is all playing out in the industry. But nobody covers it. It’s an industry that isn’t used to having press. But I’m the press, and I’m super fascinated with it. Filling that role is really important to me.
One of my most successful moments was being able to make positive change in the industry through journalism. Two years ago I got a pay raise for teachers at Quilt Festival. They hadn’t had a pay raise in 17 years and they got a 33% pay raise after an article that I wrote [was published]. That was incredibly gratifying to me. To me, success is being able to help people who would not otherwise be able to voice their concerns.
A huge thank you to Abby Glassenberg! Head over to While She Naps to listen to Abby’s podcast and read her fascinating articles on the sewing industry.