Meet a businesswoman with a modern sewing company who takes life in stride. Yolanda Stiger was a middle school teacher who discovered students and teachers alike were hungry to learn to sew. That inspired Yolanda to open Sew Houston several years ago and has since brought the love of sewing to the local community. Yolanda's vision for her company incudes giving back and as such she has been generous to Sew Powerful and other charitable organizations. Listen and learn as Yolanda takes us on this journey from concept to successful sewing business.
Introduction to Sew Houston with Yolanda Stiger
IN THIS EPISODE
Sew Houston, Sewing Camp, Parties, Girl Scouts, Home-Ec classes, home school open house, Fredericksburg Sewing Company, B&B in Fredericksburg, sewing retreat in Fredericksburg, Sew Powerful, donated webbing, These women are Sew Powerful on KHOU-TV Houston
ABOUT THE SEW POWERFUL PODCAST
The Sew Powerful Podcast shines a light on the people behind the mission to keep girls in school and create purposeful products in Zambia. Join us every week for a new 30-minute episode to meet new people, hear inspiring stories, and learn how you can join us in this global movement. Whether you sew or not, make purses or not, you will find something to enjoy in every episode. Listen today.
Host: Jan Cancila
Guest: Yolanda Stiger
Jan Cancila, Host 00:04
Welcome to the Sew Powerful podcast. This is your host, Jan Cancila. You know the sound of my sewing machine means it's time for another episode. So, let's get started.
I am excited to introduce you to an astute local business woman whom I've come to call friend and sometimes tennis partner. But it is Yolanda Stiger's role as the owner of a company called Sew Houston that brings her here. That, and her generosity with Sew Powerful are two compelling reasons why you'll want to listen to today's podcast. If you sew and always dreamed of owning your own sewing-related business, you would want to design it, operate it, exactly as Yolanda has done. From the layout of her shop, to her customer base, to her marketing, to her ability to pivot the business when needed, you are going to learn a lot from Yolanda today. And let's not forget her kindness to Sew Powerful. Stay tuned because we're going to cover all that and more. Good morning Yolanda Stiger.
Yolanda Stiger, Guest 01:21
Hi, how are you today?
I'm great. How are you?
Great. Our listeners can't see, but I can. I can see that we're recording this and you are in your Sew Houston shop.
So tell us about your business. What is Sew Houston?
So I was a teacher for 10 years. And I knew I felt comfortable in education and I wanted to start a business. And I just thought, I can teach, I can sew. I started researching and there was really not a fun modern sewing school in Houston. And sewing schools in Houston are few and far between anyway, so I made Sew to be a place where sewing is approachable, first-timers can feel comfortable coming in and giving it a try, trying to make it as easy entry into the world of sewing as possible.
Wow. And I know because you introduced my granddaughters to sewing and they still talk about the lessons that they learned there, so
I love that.
Yeah, modern sewing for sure. So what is your background in sewing? How did you come to be an expert in the world of sewing?
Well, my grandmother was a seamstress just mostly for fun. She had this thing for making miniature couches, she made hundreds of them. And so when I was little, I just went over there in the summer and she would just let me have at her sewing machine. I don't remember a lot of formal instruction. I remember more, here's the sewing machine, here's how you make it go, here's fabric, have fun. And so even today, when I have Camps, I always build in a little bit of time for free sewing because I feel like that's when you really learn, when it's just you and the machine trying things out. And that's how I learned and it's always stuck with me.
Now did you incorporate sewing in any of the activities you had when you were a teacher?
I started my kind-of incubator business at my middle school where I taught. We had a Home Ec classroom and there were sewing machines no one was using because a lot of Home Ec teachers don't know how to sew anymore. It's kind of falling off the curriculum. So my principal let me have an after-school class with those machines. And it took off really well. It was a lot of fun. People were coming up to me during my day saying, How do I get in that sewing class? And I just saw that, really, people want to learn to sew. I mean, it's kind of a thing everybody wants to know how to do. You never know when you're gonna need to sew something. So my middle school was my incubator, but I really got more into teaching sewing once I opened Sew.
When did you open?
July of 2013. So I just had my seventh anniversary.
And did you open in the shop where you are now?
Okay. So for our listeners who can't see, I'd like you to describe the shop because it is a really fun place to go. It feels so relaxing. It's so modern but so practical at the same time. So pretend I'm a customer. I've got my hand on the door handle and I'm walking in. What do I see?
So the first thing you'll see is a little bit of a reception area. It's where I have a couple of bolts of fabric, usually between 20 and 30 bolts. I have threads, some notions, chairs, and I've got a table and it's kind of where parents wait for their kids or where brothers or sisters wait on their iPad while their sibling is having a lesson. But also when I have parties, that serves as the reception area where the cake goes and the cups and all that kind of stuff. Then you come into the classroom. I have six sewing stations. They all face the wall which in the beginning that was kind of a question everyone had. Is it good to face the wall? But I've noticed over time my students appreciate it because it kind of helps them concentrate; it's them and their machine, and they have their own station. And they're not worried about what everyone else is doing. So I've kept it that way. So six stations against the wall. I've got four big cutting tables. I've got a chalkboard, which really does come in handy sometimes because sewing is geometry. And sometimes it helps to draw an example of what's going to happen. And then in the very back, I've got kind of storage. I've got my special stash back there. I keep stabilizers, projects we're working on are hanging back there, and I also have the bathroom back there.
Okay, now you mentioned parties. We can have a party at Sew Houston?
Yes, we can have all kinds of parties.
I say I'm kind of like a Pinot's Palette but with fabric. As you come in, you get your kit, and a lot of times things are marked and ready for you. And then they can just focus on the sewing. Sewing fear is really real. And a lot of people who come to parties are nervous. They think they're gonna sew their finger or they think they're gonna leave with a mess. That never happens. So for a party, I try to just put people at ease as much as possible. So I wouldn't say parties are instructional, but they're not as instructional as a class. Because in the class, you'll go from the very beginning cutting your fabric. From a party, usually that part will be done for you and you can just get to the sewing, just the fabric handling part.
Who has these parties?
A lot of adults. I've had bridal showers, baby showers. Baby showers are fun because we can all make a little baby blanket or a little set with burp cloths. I have a lot of birthday parties. I do for any age, but the most popular age group is probably 11 to 13. They'll come, bring their friends and we'll make something of the girl's choosing. I mean, the possibilities are endless. I had one girl who was really into France. So for hers, we made little berets, and I had a group of gymnasts who travel around. So for them, we made some little travel toiletry bags for when they go on their competitions. So it can be really customized towards the guests or guest of honor.
That sounds so much fun. Now you all show mentioned Camps. So break this down, because you have different kinds of Camps, right?
Yeah, so Camps are my most popular thing. Summer is my busiest time of year. I have a Fashion Camp where we'll make a garment from a pattern. That usually takes all week because usually it's a dress or a romper, something in depth. That's for people with a little experience who've been here before. That's Fashion Camp. And then I have just a Summer Fun Camp where we make an array of things, maybe a bucket hat, maybe a beach towel bag, just kind of a sample of all kinds of small projects. And then I have Dollhouse Camp, which is a really fun Camp I've just added last year. And it is kind of an engineering camp where we design miniature furniture. We make couches, we make all kinds of accessories, sew curtains, bedding. So it's a little bit of an engineering camp with a sewing element to it.
And is there an actual dollhouse involved?
Yes, there is an actual dollhouse involved. It comes with the price of the class. And it's an Ikea bookshelf that is also a dollhouse.
Oh how fun, how fun is that? And your grandmother's experience making miniature couches
I keep meaning to channel her energy and make some couches, but I haven't made them in her style yet. She's making kind of big and the top would open and sometimes the top would be a pin cushion. So I haven't reached her level yet. But she was a master at it.
Okay, and so for people in other parts of the country or world, a couch is also a name for a sofa, right? And in some places, I think it's even called a davenport, but okay, so
Yeah, I think that's an older term, but it might also be a European term. Okay, so we have parties and camps and classes. Now tell us about classes.
So classes are generally ala carte. I don't really have a big semester where they come in and have a series of classes. I focus it, you come in, you learn the skill you want, and then you can take another class. So the intro class is my most popular, that's Intro to Sewing. That's where most people come who've never sewn before, never seen a sewing machine, and they learned the basics, right sides together, things like that. And they make a tote bag. And then I have other classes if you want to learn to put in a zipper, you can come to a pillow class. If you want to learn garments, I have Intro to Garment Making, and then I go up from there. When it gets more technical than the intro, a lot of times it's private lesson, or just a very small group, two, maybe three people, if we're really going to get into fit and the technical side. But most of my classes are kind of an overview because I'm the place where beginners come
And do you do other kinds of work?
Yes, I do occasionally do Seamstress For Hire, and you're mentioning how I pivot my business. I'll talk about Seamstress For Hire for a second. So a lot of times people come in and you just never know what you're gonna get. I have small business owners, I have inventors come in a lot asking for help with a prototype. I mean, just really interesting. There are so many businesses out there that need sewing, and so many prototypes that need to be sewn. And so I get a lot of that. And that's, just, you never know what that's going to be. I do work for a few designers making their pillow covers, and I get a lot of requests for people to either sew for them, or help them sew the new cushions for their RVs. That's kind of a popular thing, especially right now. Everyone wants to redo their outdoor patio furniture. So I've got a lot of requests for that. And I like sewing that.
In the intro I did talk about pivoting your business. So as we record this, we're somewhere in the middle (and who knows) of the COVID situation. And so back in March, what was happening to your business, and what did you do by April?
So that was probably my most lucrative pivot, was to switch to mask making. In the beginning, everyone needed a mask, there weren't any to be found. So I started taking orders and then they just started coming in fast and furious. In the end, I made probably close to 1000 masks, and it started off small, a trickle, and then it just became this flood and I had to enlist the help of friends and family. You, thank you so much for coming in and helping me. You were the first one to help me get my process together. Then my Aunt came, then another client came another day. And that was a really good boon to my business because at that time, everyone was canceling, no one wanted to come in, none of us knew what was going on. So the only way I had to make money was by sewing, which was a great skill to fall back on at the time. So I made masks. I did a little bit of upholstery work for people. But mostly it was the masks that really helped me keep my business alive this summer.
And are you still making the masks?
Yeah, orders are still coming in because now it's kind of a fashion thing. People need masks to go with various outfits. So yeah, people are still coming in. And people sometimes want their masks just for their personality. I had a fabric the other day with beer bottles, a man had to have. So it's just, people like to, you know, show their personality with their masks. So the orders are still coming in.
Well, I'll give you a tip. I interviewed one of our friends from England. And the new trend over there is to have a coordinating drawstring bag to carry your masks in as you go out so that you can switch them out during the day so
Yeah, so that could be a Camper class, is to make your mask and matching bag.
And so many of my sew girls while we're on the topic of masks, so many of my sew girls have gone on to make masks. I have a Girl Scout who's getting her Silver Award, she's made hundreds of masks and sold them, and then donated the proceeds to the fire department, to a homeless shelter. And I've gotten a lot of messages from girls who haven't been here in years, whose mothers have told me that they're making masks now. And that just makes me so happy. In the very beginning, I put out a call and said Please, anyone who can sew let's start making mask. I'll help you. I'll do what I can. And a lot of people took me up on that.
So that was a really proud moment, to see a little small army of sewists out there helping with the mask effort in the beginning.
Yeah, I remember that. Nobody knew where they were going to get a mask. And yeah, suddenly those of us who could sew became very popular people, didn't we?
So how do you find new customers? Where do they come from?
So in the very beginning of my business, I got some great advice. And someone told me never pay for advertising. When you're new, your first thought is how are people going to find out about me? If you're good, people will talk about you. If people come, have a great experience, they're going to tell their friends, they're going to post a Google review. And that's how I grow my business. No advertising. I do kind of participate in community events. There's a homeschool open house I go to every year, I've been to some art festivals in the area and just put up a booth showing people that I'm here. But I never do any kind of ads in magazines or, you know, local papers. But there is a local paper in Cy-Fair, the Cy-Fair Impact, and they are really great about supporting small business. I just called them in the very beginning and said, hey, I've opened this sewing school. They said great, we'll come do an article on you and I got a nice feature. And I got a lot of business from that right in the very beginning and that didn't cost me a dime.
Well, and and I have to tell you, they've featured Sew Powerful in there before. Why don't we take a quick break, and when we come back, we're going to talk about Yolanda's role and support of Sew Powerful and how Sew Houston has been instrumental in that in our local community.
Have you gotten the second edition of the We Are Sew Powerful book? This updated version of the original best seller (4.9 out of five stars by the way) is again authored by Sew Powerful co-founders Jason and Cinnamon Miles. It is available on Amazon in paperback or for your Kindle reader. This latest edition is packed full of moving stories about how Sew Powerful came to be, the volunteers who make it happen and the way this small movement has grown into a global mission to break the cycle of poverty through education and the dignity of work. And don't forget, when you place your order, if you use smile.amazon.com and designate Sew Powerful as your preferred charity, Amazon will donate a portion of your purchase right back to Sew Powerful. And now back to our podcast.
Welcome back. We are talking with Yolanda Stiger, who is the owner of Sew Houston and she's been telling us about her modern sewing company and who she trains and all the different offerings her company has for the local community. Yolanda, about a year ago you opened up the doors to Sew Houston to Sew Powerful (that's that's a lot of Sews in one sentence there) and we hosted a Sew-a-thon. And leading up to that we were able to be on one of the local lifestyle TV shows called Great Day Houston. We had a lot of publicity, we had flyers up in storefront windows, we had prizes, we had people registering. Tell us about that day from your perspective.
Well, you are a master event planner, that is your niche. You got people from far and wide donating purses, coming into sew, and it was just a great event. It was a lot of fun. I think everyone had a good time. We made 60 purses that day and I was very happy to do it. And I did get clients from that who've been back since.
Oh, is that right, oh, I didn't know that. Oh, that's cool.
One of the ladies who helped me during the mask making learned about me during that Sew Powerful event. I'm here for that.
Well, and you know, we had people who had never sewn before. Their very first project was a purse for Sew Powerful.
We've had very experienced sewing people came in to contribute. One of the interesting people that came in was a middle school young man. And he made two purses during that event. So
That's right. I remember.
We had everybody. So you know, I got to see you firsthand, guiding people through their first sewing experience. Tell us a little bit about your philosophy and maybe how you apply that to making those purses for Sew Powerful.
Sure. I believe you learn by doing, not by receiving a lecture. I've heard of other people taking sewing classes where it starts off, and here's the presser foot and here's the tension dial, and here's the... and people feel overwhelmed like they need to remember all these parts to get started in sewing. But I feel like, get in there, learn how to sew your line, and then everything else will start to fall into place. You'll understand more what the presser foot does once you've actually used it and not just talked about it in theory. So I believe jump in there, get started. Sometimes maybe make a little miniature so you can kind of get your head wrapped around the process first. I believe in starting, learning by doing not being overwhelmed with information right off the bat.
And what is your philosophy about perfection?
Perfection comes with time. I'm not a fan of perfectionism. I'm not a perfectionist, and I'm more of a practice makes perfect person. So perfectionism, I feel, does halt a lot of sewers in their process. I told you before I have a lady who had started a pretty simple shirt and she had been working on it for a year and she just could not get it perfect enough for her. She kept taking it apart trying again, taking it apart trying again, and she was so frustrated. And my philosophy on that as if she would have finished that first one, in the course of a year she could have probably been on her fifth one by now and the perfection would have come. But she kept stopping and not letting herself learn more beyond that point. So I feel perfectionism is not a good trait in any creative endeavor, really. You have to allow yourself time to learn, time to be a beginner and understand it, and then you can perfect it.
And I also want to talk about a couple of other things you've done for Sew Powerful besides our Sew-a-thon day. You have donated untold hundreds of yards of webbing that go into purse kits. Just before COVID we were making purse kits and they were available for donation at, typically at quilt shows or other places where Sew Powerful would have a presence to talk to people. But you have donated so much webbing. Tell us about that webbing.
Well I am very lucky to receive a lot of donations from the community. With a name like Sew Houston I come up quick on a Google search. People contact me when they have excess things. And that was a donation, so I was able to pass that along to you. On the donations topic, I had one lady who was going to start a sewing school and she had five little Elnas, no, maybe six little Elnas.
Wait, backup. Elnas are...
Little sewing machines. The Elnas aren't always little, but the ones that she gave me were very little, they were called an Elna Lotus. They were kind of like the featherweight of Elnas, a portable, small machine. Her goal never came to fruition so she donated them to me so that I could choose six recipients to receive the machines. That was one of the best gifts I've ever gotten, it was so nice to be able to say, Oh, this person can really use this machine. I mean, the people who received them are just all different. And that's just the most fun. I'm so happy that I can receive these donations and pass them along to other sewers, you know, and it's just a very nice gift.
I also want to talk about another donation that you made to Sew Powerful, and that was the donation of time and space. So I think it was maybe in January of this year, and we had an event coming up in February. This is of course before everything was closed down. And I needed to cut out a lot of purse kits. And you know, to have to cut out a lot of anything at home is challenging. But I'm looking over your right shoulder there. And I can see two cutting tables and how many cutting tables do you have?
You have four. So I called up Yolanda and said, Could I borrow one of your cutting tables? And so I think I came in while you're working in the shop and you used your cutting machine. And that introduced me to the cutting machine. And so Sew Powerful is going to have a cutting machine soon for the different fabrics because Sew Powerful gets a lot of direct donations of fabric as well. So you inspired all of that. And I just want you to know that what you did is going to touch thousands of girls in Zambia, because of your generosity of time and space has sparked an idea and made other things possible down the line.
That is so great. When I was envisioning Sew before it existed, I wanted it to be a place where sewers could get together, share ideas, spend time together. So these Sew Powerful events and other charity events we've done after the flood, making toiletry bags for the community. Those are really a dream come true for me. That's really why I started Sew, to be kind of a place where other seamstresses could get together and help the community and have fun and make new friends. And that's just everything I wanted for Sew, so when you came to me with the opportunity for Sew Powerful, it was a no brainer. It was a definite yes. So and the electric rotary cutter is definitely a game changer.
Yes, I know that. Thanks to you. I know that. So what do you see on the horizon for you and for your business?
Well, as you know, I have a bed and breakfast in Fredericksburg, Texas. And I have visions of starting sewing retreats there. We're not quite ready, we need one more building, like a tiny house. So in the future, I would love to host sewing retreats there. Maybe in seven to 10 years, we'll move to Fredericksburg and I'll start the Fredericksburg Sewing Company, and have kind of a second business from Sew. But for the future, I would like to get back to regular classes again. Right now I am suffering a bit like all small businesses; the desire is there, the clients are there but due to social distancing, I can only have three in the shop at once. So that's obviously half the money I normally would, due to COVID. So in the future, I look forward to getting back to business as usual, hopefully, seeing the full class of students again, and back to parties. Those aren't really happening right now. So I look forward just getting back to usual and having more sewing classes and more charity events, too.
Oh, cool. And do you have any advice for someone who might be thinking of starting their own sewing business?
I say if you're thinking of starting a sewing-related business, you have it in your heart, you have a desire to do it, just do it. Don't wait around, just get started. Take baby steps, don't overcomplicate it, just jump in there and get started however you can. Maybe start teaching classes at a community center. Or if your desire is to make things for, to sell, then maybe start making things to sell but start donating them first just to get your feet kind of wet. So I say start. Don't be afraid. The business that you're thinking about starting, gonna start, that's the business you're not starting. I read a couple of really good books in the beginning when I was thinking about starting my business, and one was You'd Have To Be Crazy To Start A Business, and that's where I got the idea of just do it. Just Start. That's the probably hardest step. And another book that I read when I was first starting out was, I believe it was called Raving Fans, and it was about how your business will grow. If you provide a good service, and you give people a good experience with you, your business is going to grow.
It sounds like your business philosophy and your learning to sew philosophy are very similar.
Oh, that's true. I do believe in just getting in there and getting started.
Well, absolutely. Well, fantastic. Yolanda, it's been a real pleasure speaking with you and I'm sure our listeners, especially those who might be toying with the idea of starting a business, have been very inspired by you. And we want to thank you for all you have done for Sew Powerful and you're not off the hook. You're right, when things get back to normal. We're going to have another event at your fantastic shop. So
I look forward to more. And I have two things I'd like to add. If anyone does have any questions about starting your sewing business, I'm always happy to help. They can reach me at Sew Houston on Facebook, Instagram, or just Google. And I'm always looking for another sewing tennis partner too. So anybody in the Houston area wants to play tennis and talk about sewing, I'm there.
All right. All right. All right. Thank you so much for your time, and we will talk with you soon.
Thank you so much.
All righty. Bye bye.
If what you've heard today inspires you to want to make a difference, I urge you to explore the Sew Powerful website at www.SewPowerful.org. That's SEWPOWERFUL dot ORG. The website has great information about the organization. It's where you can download the free purse patterns or even make a donation. We hope you will join us again next week when we bring you another Sew Powerful story. Thanks for listening. Now, go out and have a Sew Powerful day.
ABOUT THE HOST
Jan Cancila has been making purses for Sew Powerful since 2014. She serves the organization as Director, Global Volunteerism, the Area Manager for Shows and Events-Mid/South USA and as the Houston Regional Coordinator. She was a public speaking major at Hanover College and holds an MBA from Our Lady of the Lake University. Jan had a 25-year career with The Coca-Cola Company before owning and operating a linen and party rental business in Houston. She is married with two grown sons, a lovely daughter-in-law and two remarkable granddaughters. Jan’s published work includes more than 100 online articles for Examiner.com. Reach Jan with comments or suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.