Today’s interview is with the lovely Jennifer Wiese, owner and creator of Workroom Social and Camp Workroom Social. Jennifer works with her pitbull-mix Rosie and a handful of instructors in New York. Jennifer also created and hosts the yearly camp-sewing intensive that sells out every year before you can grab a bag of marshmallows. Jennifer is the real deal. She really IS as nice and kind as she seems. So, grab a cup of tea, sit down, and enjoy.
Becky (B): So, I’m interviewing you for Sewcialists, who are pretty active on Instagram and the Sewcialists news-blog, and I want to dive right into how that sort of contrasts with your approach. I’ve heard you talk before not wanting or liking to use like social media or that maybe you’re not a computer person? Tell us how you feel about it and why we don’t see you in social media or blogging much.
Jennifer (J): I’m totally a technology and computer user! I’m a total gadget person! It’s just the communication-thing I find anxiety inducing. So, while I’m definitely textbook extrovert and gain energy from those around me, the hard thing is if you meet me and talk to me, I think it’s very easy for me to accurately communicate who I am, what my feelings are, what I believe in, and what my intentions are. However, on social media and emails, I think it can be really easy for messages to get misinterpreted. I just always get nervous that I’m going to write something and if the reader doesn’t know me, or doesn’t know my intention or doesn’t know my personality, and perhaps they have had an experience that gives them an idea or a feeling I’m unaware of, and they read my thing, and it somehow triggers them into a negative place even though that’s not my intention, and I have no control over that.
If we’re having a conversation and I see something that triggers you in some way to associate what I’m saying with something that is a place that you’re coming from, which is totally valid, at the same time it’s not the place that I’m coming from, I can tell you and say, “Oh my gosh, that is not my background and that’s not the message I’m trying to convey so let’s revisit this in a different way.” Then you, as the other person this situation can say, “Oh well that is my background and that’s where I’m coming from. That’s why I interpret it that way.” In social media or email, there’s no immediate dialogue or physical cues. Some of my anxiety probably comes from my background. I used to be a publicist and I always got angry screaming emails!
B: I totally see what you mean. There’s no cadence in text, and it can be hard to assume the best from people. This ties in with one of my favorite things about you. I was speaking at a local event, and I quoted you because you gave the best advice. When I heard you on the Love To Sew podcast, you said when you’re talking to your team about doing Work Room Social Camp, your team is not allowed to have a group lunch table and how you ask people to be mindful of their social circles. You ask attendees to be physically mindful of keeping their social circles open because it’s really difficult to go in and break into a closed social circle. Also, your idea of inclusivity has to be an action. Your approach is inspiring. How did you come up with it? Is this something you’re just really intuitive about or something you’ve grown into?
J: The concept of the physical circle, I did not invent that! It is actually from a book, and I just thought it was so perfect. The way they described it was to “stand together as a croissant, not a bagel.” The first year of camp I did use that exact example.
I think my idea about inclusivity has always been with me, and I don’t know why necessarily. I wasn’t really picked on as a child. I’m definitely different, in that I’m half-white, half-Taiwanese. I’ve heard a lot of stories about people who are mixed ethnicity being picked on and things like that, but I was never necessarily excluded growing up, so I don’t really know that experience. I suppose that is how most people become passionate about something like inclusivity, but that’s not the case with me. I don’t want others have that experience. I never want anyone to feel like they don’t belong, or they’re excluded, or they can’t do what they like.
I want everyone to feel like they can belong. Just walking into an uncomfortable situation, and my being able to help manage that in a way where the attendee can control their comfort is important. I want to create positive experiences for people that then help build their self-confidence.
B: I think you succeeded. If I’m quoting you 3,000 miles away at an event, and everybody knows who I’m talking about, I feel you can say that you’re successful in helping people. I like that you like to make everyone feel good, so I understand the anxiety over text. Someone else’s perception is their reality, whether or not it’s your reality.
J: Yes! And VALID. I think that’s the important thing. I might disagree, or I might feel differently, but that doesn’t mean your thoughts and feelings are invalid.
B: I love how you are positive and open and energetic, but then you’ll say that you’re slow-going and methodical in regard to your business. Are you an early riser, or are you a late bird? What is your methodology?
J: I really like sleeping. I like to sleep, like, nine hours every night.
I’m self-employed, I think for other businesses like mine, where you are running this company and making a living, I think that others are much quicker to produce things and to make money, and I’m just not one of them. I think that’s what I mean by being slow. For example, I’ve been working on this jeans pattern for a year and it’s still not for sale. I’ve been working on this second sewing pattern to pair with our fabric for over a year, and it’s still not for sale. There are two new fabric collections which basically have had the artwork been done since May, and I don’t know when those are going to be done. I work a lot, and I work very hard, but at the same time when I have a friend or a family member or something come up that is not work-related, I will usually choose that over finishing a work project.
This year, I just decided if I don’t grow as fast as other people, it doesn’t matter. I’m taking care of myself, at my own pace, and that’s fine and as long as I’m honoring my commitments to everyone. Maybe I don’t have as many Instagram followers as everyone else because posting Instagram gives me anxiety and that’s fine for me. If I hate responding to emails, instead of beating myself up and insisting I need to get better at emails, I decided this year I hate it! I don’t want to do it! I’ll have someone else do it.
B: I think that’s just smart: knowing your strengths and knowing when to give somebody else something, like answering the email. I don’t know if you want to delve into this or not but in 2013, you did a video series on How-cast, and then in 2015 you did a few for a McCall’s video series as well. I think you translate very well to video. Have you considered revisiting this? Especially for those of us not local to New York-area or unable to travel, or have you considered a franchise option or taking your show on the road?
J: I love that you found those! I’m have this plan for a video series that I am producing now, but I haven’t told anyone! The only people who know my very few industry friends. I really like video. I used to be a publicist in film, and before that, I was production assistant in film, and I always thought that I was going work in entertainment until I realized how stressful it is and not interesting it is!
So, YES, I am interested in another video series, but I don’t know necessarily want to do a back and forth, conversational-thing. I wanted it to be more of a creative project.
I actually I filmed a few episodes of what I thought the thing would be, and that was full a series about sewing failures. I think lot of the sewing community can get really worked up and stressed out about what they think of as failures. For me, every failure is a learning opportunity. At Workroom Social, we teach classes and the way I think about a class is that I never expect from any class that I would take, as a student, is going to be usable because you’re to learn. I fully expect to mess up, and I expect that the thing that I’m making is going to be a reference point. So, later, I know how to do it and then I go home and make another one.
I feel very strongly about this idea of failure. I want to communicate that not only are you at home messing up, and that’s okay, but we all mess up all the time. We filmed a couple episodes and as I was cutting this thing together, it just didn’t feel super compelling. Sooo, thank you to all my friends that let me film them buuuut those videos will probably never see the light of day.
I do have a NEW series that is much more along the lines of this creative project idea. I’m very excited about it. The thing is, if I’m going make something I want something to be interesting to watch. So, yes, I am working on something. Just don’t ask me when!!
B: As we wait for the video series, what about you as a traveling teacher? Are you traveling with your camp or any of your classes?
J: I’ll definitely travel to teach a class, I’m just not an aggressive sales person. There are a lot of teachers who actively email studios, but I’m just not like that.
The camp thing… I have thought about traveling with it but I at this stage I don’t think I will. Camp for me is so… and let me just preface this by saying I’m this is super selfish…camp for me is so special. I just love it so much and I don’t want to kill it or myself! I don’t want camp to become this thing that become JUST business. I wanted to still remain like this fun thing. The demand for camp right now is very high, and although I do want to give that experience to more people, unfortunately I can’t cram more people in because it’ll change the experience.
I am exploring a new thing that will be camp, just slightly different. I think next year should be the first year of that but I don’t know what we’re gonna call it yet! It will be on the east coast first, but this is something that could travel to the west coast. It’s to still be camp-format-ish, but much smaller. For example, camp is about a hundred people total, and so this will be much more like 20 people for a more intimate experience. My idea is to create a more intimate event where women can come together, have the space and the resources to start thinking about, and start building their wardrobe. Camp is really centered around these classes: you’re in one class and you’re there for the two days and that’s it. The new idea of camp-retreat is going to have more flexibility. We’ll cover multiple pieces of garments, for example there’ll be a section on blouses and dresses, a section on skirts, and so on. Also, you can bring your own patterns, so it doesn’t have to be confined to what other traditional classes are like, but it’ll still have all the same camp elements and the same social atmosphere. I guess a better business person wouldn’t tell everyone what they’re planning, but I just get so excited!
B: Oh, I don’t know about that. I think in today’s whirlwind age, people really like transparency and like to see the authentic person behind the business. Seeing your creative process behind your planning is a treat. I also want to mention, as a sewer that is not a beginner, I personally like seeing your more advanced class offerings. I feel more advanced sewers really crave a deeper dive into sewing. Is that something you do on purpose?
J: Workroom Social classes are really a niche market. I’m just not really interested in the beginner stuff. I mean we all have to start somewhere, which is really important, and so when people call us looking for beginner classes, I refer people to other businesses that support beginners. This way, we’re supporting other businesses in the sewing industry, and also, when they’re ready, they can come back to us. I don’t think beginner’s classes is where my strength is anyways, and then the same goes I think for a lot of our instructors. I don’t want to take over the entire sewing world and be everything to everyone. I want you to go to my friends to learn different things, get from them what you’re not getting from us, and then come to us when you’re ready for a more focused, specific class.
B: Well, I hope we can all experience your charisma in person and be able to have the experience of a Workroom Social class. Your classes and camp are so highly rated and sell out so quickly. That, and we’re not all on the East coast of the US, so it would be great to have more of you out in the world. You’ve got a great energy about you.
J: Well, you want to know my secret? 1. I actually care. The thing with camp, and our studio classes, I’m very clear with anyone who works for us: If you don’t buy into this super, sugar-sweet candy, then this isn’t the place for you. And that’s ok – this super sweet kindness isn’t for everyone. There are other places that don’t have such a strong sugary vibe. 2. I will do everything in my power to make people happy.
I was talking to a friend recently, and I was actually talking about social media. She’s really good on social media. I was saying I hope I can be like you because you’re so good about just putting yourself out there, being yourself, and having a great time. She said what she really wants is to make people laugh. When I think about what I really want: I really want to make people happy.
For example, for our first fabric order we did a pre-sale. I expected it to take two months for the fabric to get but it actually took three months. So I had to constantly be emailing all the pre-sale people to let them know it’s later than expected, but here’s this free thing. THEN the fabric came in right when I was scheduled to go to Virginia to bring the fabric to a shop. Because of that prior commitment to go to Virginia, I wasn’t able to ship out the orders to the direct customers before I left. I had one customer email me and they were very disappointed in the process, and it was like I was prioritizing the wholesale order over our direct customer order. I totally felt for her; she was very unhappy. That WAS really sucky and I didn’t want her to be unhappy so instead of emailing her back, I called her. I think calling is very uncommon these days, but I called her. I just said, “Hi, I got your email. I know you’re really unhappy. I’m sorry.” PERIOD. Hard stop. No “I’m sorry, but…”
Just: I’m sorry. I know this sucks, I’m sorry. To make it up to you, I can present you with some options…
I like to approach every problem ready with possible solutions. I mailed her everything when I got back and she was so happy. She posted a really nice Instagram post about the fabric. It’s so easy to make people happy if you just like go the extra mile!
Those are my secrets! I care and I will do everything I possibly can to make you happy!
I believe and I think everyone should believe this too but it is like the coolest thing in the world and also super, super easy just to be nice to people. It’s so easy.
The Sewcialist Interviews are a chance to hear more from some of the leaders in our sewing community. We will search out pattern makers, fabric designers, teachers, designers, and all-around awesome people that embody the Sewcialist spirit, and bring you the interviews to help inspire your sewing journey.
All images owned by and courtesy of Jennifer Wiese & Workroom Social.
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