Nancy Zieman, who became an unlikely television star through the humblest of shows, “Sewing With Nancy,” which ran for 35 years on public television, died on Nov. 14 at her home in Beaver Dam, Wis. She was 64.
The cause was cancer, said an announcement from Wisconsin Public Television, which produced the show. On Sept. 2, Ms. Zieman wrote a post titled “Time to Say Goodbye” on her website, telling fans that she was retiring as one of the cancers first diagnosed in 2015 had metastasized.
“I am finding great peace today,” she wrote, “knowing that I can thank you for your many years of dedication, viewership and friendship.”
Nancy Lea Luedtke was born on June 21, 1953, in Neenah, Wis. Her father, Ralph, and her mother, the former Barbara Larson, owned a farm. She learned to sew as a child; for her first sewing project for the local 4-H Club, she made a gathered skirt and fringe scarf. She graduated from Winneconne High School in 1971 and majored in textiles and journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. Her first job was working for a fabric chain, Minnesota Fabrics, now defunct. “They had a propensity to hire farm kids, mainly because of their work ethic,” Ms. Zieman said in a 2007 interview.
There she met Richard Zieman, whom she married in 1977. In 1979 she started a mail-order sewing-supply business, Nancy’s Notions, which in 1982 led a Milwaukee fabric store to ask her to host a sewing program. It first ran on the nascent Satellite Program Network.
“Cable TV was in its infancy, and thankfully not many people watched the show because I was really green in front of the camera,” Ms. Zieman said.
After about a dozen shows, the store concluded that the effort wasn’t profitable, but Ms. Zieman decided to try to do a version on her own. Wisconsin Public Television began broadcasting “Sewing With Nancy” in September 1982, and it was soon being picked up by public television outlets across the United States and in Canada.
Ms. Zieman reached a substantial audience of serious sewers and casual ones, delivering tips on stitching, quilting, sewing shortcuts and more. There was nothing flashy about the programs, or about Ms. Zieman’s repartee; just straightforward advice, delivered with geniality.
She also published numerous sewing books and made appearances at expos and other events, like one called Sewing Extravaganza in 1992 in Florida that drew 360 people.
“The TV sewing guru had celebrity status with the attendees,” The St. Petersburg Times wrote. “They crowded around Zieman, who was smartly dressed in a turquoise and pink suit that she made herself.”
Ms. Zieman was a go-to interview for reporters trying to support a trend of increased interest in sewing, and she had a no-nonsense explanation of that apparent phenomenon. “We want to feel creative,” she said, “and sewing gives us the chance to create when sometimes work does not.”
That Odd Smile
Ms. Zieman was a counterintuitive candidate for TV personality. When she was 14 months old, an ear infection led to Bell’s palsy, a condition that resulted in partial paralysis of the right side of her face and a noticeably asymmetrical appearance. Only in 2011, after hundreds of episodes, did she address the subject on the air, after she had received a rude awakening when she did an internet search on her name.
“Mail and blog comments prove that something about what happened to me has helped others cope with their own challenges,” Ms. Zieman wrote in her autobiography, “Seams Unlikely: The Inspiring True Life Story of Nancy Zieman,” written with Marjorie L. Russell and published in 2013. “I find that both humbling and exciting.”
Ms. Zieman is survived by her husband; two sons, Ted and Tom; her mother, Barbara Eckstein; two brothers, John and Dean Luedtke; a sister, Gina Crispell; and three grandchildren and a million fans.
Thanks for it all. RIP Nancy.