Surviving a Huge Career Leap

There often comes a time in starting a business when there is tension between doing it full time and still feeling you need to keep some element of a day job to be stable. A lot of fear can enter in at this time-- am I good enough to to do this? Will I make enough money? #ahasmember Ashley shares her journey from school teacher to running a full-time sewing business.

p.s. We are looking forward to seeing Ashley again at Craftcation this year! Her classes look ah-mazing!

Q: Please introduce yourself.
A: My name is Ashley Nickels, and I am a teacher, writer, quilter, and sewist. I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in a pretty crafty household. My mom is a professional quilter, and my dad is a general all-around DIY extraordinaire. I have just as many memories of sewing and knitting as I do of sawing, drilling, and sanding from when I was a kid. When I went to college, I became obsessed with languages. I went all-in, and ended up studying and getting a masters degree in Spanish, and living in Spain for seven years.

It was during that time that I found my way back to a sewing machine (a BERNINA with European plugs, of course) and started making bags more formally. I also made my first quilt, a baby quilt for my friend Elizabeth’s baby. When it came time to change jobs from teaching high school English at an international school in Valencia, Spain, I took a chance on a small school on Valencia street in San Francisco-- it was a sign, right? 

Once in California, I really took things to the next level, and realized that sewing, quilting, and making were parts of my life that needed to take priority. I started my blog, Alphabet Summer, during my summer vacation in 2010 as an attempt to keep myself creative, and I discovered a love for writing. I then repeated the Alphabet Summer project in 2013, after an exhilarating four days at Craftcation, and the following year I decided to leave full-time teaching.

Q: Before running your current business, what did you do for a living?
A: When I lived in Spain, I taught middle and high school English language and literature… Of Mice and Men, the Crucible, that kind of thing. My students were primarily Spaniards learning in a British school, and their accents were adorable. When I moved to San Francisco, I taught middle school Spanish to super hip and cool city kids. One of the best things about that job was that we took kids on a yearly trip to Nicaragua, which is such a beautiful and amazing country. 

Q: What made you decide to leave teaching to pursue your current career? Why?
A: Anyone who has taught full-time knows that there’s not much time or energy to dedicate to other things during the school year. And while the breaks were incredible-- and clearly I had figured out how to take advantage of my summer breaks-- I found that for 10 months of the year I wasn’t able to channel this part of me that felt like a major part of who I am. So I took the leap.

I remember hemming and hawing over the decision for a few months, and then all of a sudden, it dawned on me that I couldn’t NOT do it. And so I did it! I definitely cried when I told my boss, but it was the right time.

Q: What was making the leap like? What happened and how long did it take? What did you learn during that period?
A: It was incredibly exhilarating, especially at first. And because the nature of a school calendar, I had about four months to say goodbye to the whole thing. Then I took a big six-week trip to Europe, which was just what the doctor ordered. I re-connected with Spain, and learned a lot about myself since I traveled alone. And then I got home.

I wish I could say I dove right into my business with all of the renewed energy from traveling. But fear works in mysterious ways, doesn’t it? I wasted a lot of time. I read a lot of books on how to be creative. I looked at a lot of websites. I watched a LOT of webinars. By about month four of limbo, my friend Susannah challenged me to make “a pencil case that didn’t fall over,” which was how the Pop-open bag was born! Thank goodness for her.  

Q: What were the conditions that allowed you to make this leap? Did you have something to fall back on or a safety net of some kind?
A: I had a wonderful and supportive emotional safety net in my family and friends. But in terms of a financial safety net? Not really. That is the part that I wish I had been more savvy about.

But the truth is, if I had known how hard it was going to be to make a living, I probably wouldn’t have quit my job. So I’m almost grateful that I was so naive, in a way. Ha! But last year I read Jen Sincero’s “You are a Badass,” and that book changed my life. I am still learning that old stories about who we are and what we are capable of are often what prevent us from taking big chances.

(Craftcation Panel) photo credit: Nicole Stevenson

(Craftcation Panel) photo credit: Nicole Stevenson

Q: How has your original vision changed over time? What did your business look like then vs now?
A: Oh my goodness. This is the one thing that I didn’t know would be true: That everything changes, all the time. I thought that I would become some sort of bag making extraordinaire! That Gwyneth Paltrow would travel with one of my bags and then I’d be set. But I stick to that line (I can’t remember who said it) that it takes 12 years to become an overnight success… That is so true. Over time, I began to take opportunities that presented themselves, things that were not even in my purview when I started.

I also realized that I wanted teaching to be a part of my life still. I went back to teaching a little bit of school, and now teaching sewing and quilting is my biggest source of income, as well as my most favorite aspect to my business. My bags are still there (and awesome) but I’ve realized that having a business is all about evolving and listening to what’s calling. 

Q: What do you know now that you wish you had known then? What advice would you give a fellow maker thinking about making a big career leap like yours?
A: I wish I had understood that things will *always* feel unsteady. That there really is no destination, even if you make it big. We always want to iterate and change. I would advise anyone who is considering the leap to do some self-study… I have found that the best way to weather the storm that is making it in a creative business is to have healthy ways to cope with stress, anxiety, and uncertainty. Mindfulness, exercise, a good emotional support system… these things are invaluable.

Q: Where can we find you?
A: Please find me! I’m usually hanging out on Instagram at @alphabetashley, or you can find all of my classes, my writing, and my upcoming schedule over on my website Say hello!