By Monica Rhodes, NUA Volunteer and Owner of Monday Wash Furniture
If you work in the drapery, soft furnishings, and/or upholstery trade, chances are you know of Ceil DiGuglielmo. In addition to running her own homebased drapery and soft furnishings business, Sew Much More Custom Sewing in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Ceil supports and assists workroom technicians through multiple avenues: The popular Sew Much More podcast featuring personal interviews with tradespeople, Sew Much More: 30 Minutes with Workroom Tech, an on-air collaboration with Susan Woodcock that offers an array workroom tips and advice; the Sew Much More Opportunity Thinking Series of podcasts highlighting personal innovations that make work life easier for us all; the Curtains and Soft Furnishings Resource Library (CSFRL), a multi-media clearing house for trade related information and educational materials, and the Drapery and Digital Design Digest, an on-line magazine catering to home décor professionals and enthusiasts.
One day in August, I was in my workroom prepping my machine. As I adjusted my lamp to thread the needle, Ceil DiGuglielmo began her fifth anniversary podcast. She talked about being astounded by the opportunities the podcast has brought her, about fear being her constant companion, and about learning to ask for help. Ceil described going through a stack of photographs from the past five years and realizing just how much had happened. Some of those events were etched in her memory, but so many had been forgotten. We tend to see our present status as a situation, not a process; so busy with what we are doing that we fail to witness what we have done. During her anniversary podcast, Ceil encouraged her listeners to get out their photo albums and reflect on all the past moments, big and small, that form the foundation of their businesses. To appreciate themselves and all they have done. Value themselves. Be astounded, as she was. Be proud.
I often listen to Sew Much More while I work but, that day, I switched off my lamp and machine and just listened - because it was like Ceil was right there with me and she both deserved and naturally commanded my full attention. Her voice was clear and soothing, her words utterly authentic.
“We have seen some of the best of human kind reaching out and helping one another. Look, I know we have also seen some of the worst of human kind – but right now, I am choosing to focus on the positive parts of what I’ve seen these past five years because I have to.”
Ceil spoke of the precise moment that she, while standing in a parking lot, overcame her doubts and anxieties and truly committed to launching the podcast. At that, I pictured a trail of photographs connecting the Ceil of today with the Ceil of 5 years ago; a few of the photos, impressive formal portraits, the rest a series of random candid snapshots. When I share that image with Ceil during our interview, she tells me, “I think the milestones are important, but I really do believe that it is the constant little things we do that make a difference. It’s the showing up every day and doing those things that make those big moments possible. It is little choices that we make; those little steps of not being afraid, or more likely, being afraid and doing it anyway; the day-to-day habits that keep our businesses steady and moving forward. Those are, really, really important.”
Ceil DiGuglielmo wears more hats than most people. When I ask her if she thinks of all the things she does as separate jobs or as one large enterprise, she says, “I really do see it as one thing. Separate things that I do with a big circle around them keeping it all together. I look at the library as a compilation of so many different people’s experiences. There are so many people contributing to the content that it becomes a more and more valuable resource every year; and the podcast is a valuable part of the library – people’s stories and their experiences; and when I’m in the workroom working on something, I think – I really should document this so I can add it to the library. So, I really do see it as all working together.”
Each of these efforts plays into what Ceil DiGuglielmo calls her “joyful obligation to pay it forward”. Says Ceil, “I would not be here if it were not for those people who helped me and supported me and answered my questions.” Prior to opening her own workroom, Ceil had steadily worked her way up through a series of management roles at a prominent Philadelphia department store. She and her husband had been trying to start a family for almost a decade when the first of their two adopted daughters came into their lives, born prematurely. There was no family leave at that time; Ceil used up two weeks of accumulated vacation and, exhausted and missing her baby, returned to work. It just didn’t make sense. In her case, the financial and emotional costs of commuting and working away from home far outweighed the benefits.
Ceil’s first foray into self-employment was designing custom bridal head pieces. As that business did not generate much revenue, she sought to pivot to something else. Ceil had paid for her own sewing lessons as a middle-schooler and developed her skills making clothing for herself and, later, her daughters. She had also made her own window treatments. Seeking advice and resources, Ceil attended a SCORE (small business mentorship program) meeting sixteen years ago and, there, met a couple of designers with whom she started to work. Ceil muses, “I still can’t believe I thought I should go ahead with this business! My friend, Dawn, encouraged me to start and introduced me as her window treatment expert to a designer friend. Her confidence in me was greater than my confidence in myself. Dawn, along with the designer she introduced me to and the designers I met at the SCORE meeting, were my first window treatment clients.”
Not surprisingly, running her own business was a challenge. One of the things Ceil always asks when interviewing a guest on her podcast is, “Have you ever thought of quitting?” Because she has. She knows what it takes to become successful: the sacrifices involved, the difficulties endured and overcome. Ceil is truly grateful for the help and support she has received along the way and she derives profound satisfaction from helping other people solve their problems and, sometimes, “just get through this day.”
“My biggest concern for our industry, besides education and that a lot of us are aging out of the industry, is that is that we work ourselves to death.” Ceil knows, from experience, that it is vitally important to “not take just any scraps that are thrown to us; not take just any job because someone is willing to pay us; not let anyone else set the boundaries for us. We are so intent on getting things done for people that we are not thinking about when we will eat, sleep, or see family. Or just sit down.” Ceil admits this tendency to disregard reasonable boundaries was one of the hardest things for her to overcome. She ultimately came to realize- there is value to what I do - and she longs for all of us to embrace that knowledge. One of the ways Ceil makes that happen is by listening compassionately to her guests on the podcast and allowing them to shine. “I care deeply about who’s listening,” she says, “but I care most about the person in front of me. My job is to make them feel comfortable, feel at ease, and come across in their best light.”
“When people put their headphones on, (I am) literally inside their heads – and that is a very precious space.”
The Sew Much More podcast transcends the workroom. Often deeply personal, each episode highlights the backstory, motivations, passions, fears, mistakes and triumphs of the interviewee. We have much in common but also a great deal to learn from one another. “Listeners are so happy when they relate to others’ stories in this community of people with similar jobs. The idea that we are all connected, even though we are working alone was so important to me. When I realized how different all of our stories are, that’s when I started realize what the impact was.”
When Ceil DiGuglielmo aired her first podcast, she was thrilled to see that six people had listened, “not realizing that two of those people were myself,” she points out, laughing. Ceil explains that she had dragged her feet at first, nervous to take the plunge. Finally, she decided that if there were topics and stories that she was interested in, somebody else out there was certainly interested as well - and would benefit from listening. With the encouragement of friends, she forged ahead. Had she reached merely one person in a meaningful way - through that one podcast – it would have been worth it. To her lingering surprise she has, to date, recorded over 300 podcasts that have been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times across 46 countries. At this point, Ceil can’t even count the number of times listeners have contacted her to say, “Thank you, I really needed to hear that.”
Ceil DiGuglielmo takes this very seriously. “When people put their headphones on, (I am) literally inside their heads – and that is a very precious space,” she says. Podcasts provide a dread free zone for learning, relating and obtaining validation. These conversations unspooling in the private spaces between our ears feel intensely personal, yet we don’t have to ask questions ourselves and endure the anxiety of revealing what we don’t know in order to get answers. Ceil goes on to say, “When the lightbulb goes on for someone, when someone receives the affirmation that what they are doing is right, it is so reassuring.” Listeners realize, Cynthia Bleskachek does it that way, Susan Woodcock (who frequently notes that there are always at least three right ways to do any given task) does it that way…“Oh, I am doing it right after all!” Ceil says that one of the biggest compliments she receives is that “people feel like whoever I’m talking to is now a new friend.” On more than one occasion, that feeling of kinship has blossomed into flesh and blood friendships and/or partnerships. “That just light’s me up with joy,” says Ceil, “knowing I’ve connected people.”
Ceil has made a multi-faceted career out of joyfully connecting and supporting other people. Every move she makes, every job she “gets to do”, as she puts it, is geared toward increasing her capacity to help others. I am writing this knowing that Ceil will demure, because that is the type of person she is. But the truth is Ceil DiGuglielmo does good things because she’s a good person. Choosing to see the good because she has to. Choosing to do good because she wants to.
Please follow the hyperlinks in the first two paragraphs to learn more about Ceil and the many resources she makes available to those in the soft furnishings and related trades.