Hello! I got the chance to ask Ashley Henderson of Zella Woods some questions about her creative work- and boy, was I blown away by the passion and creativity with which she handles her business. I also found it intriguing that each piece of jewelry she crafts holds a different message- to different people and also has a special significance in Ashley’s creative process. Read on to discover the world that is Zella Woods- and thank you, Ashley, for such interesting and honest answers!
Please tell me a little bit about yourself.
I am Ashley Henderson – a Southern California native, living and loving in Austin, Texas. I am the lucky wife to one very selfless husband, the mommy to one very strong-willed 4-year-old daughter, and the owner // designer // maker behind Zella Woods Designs (zellawoods.com).
I have been fortunate to travel a lot at a young age and even live abroad in college. However, the list of places I want to go and see gets longer every day. This exposure to travel has heavily influenced the way I see things creatively and is the foundation behind my jewelry designs. I am inspired by foreign cultures and their craft, I tend to love everything vintage and I am a firm believer in supporting handmade makers as often as possible. The same heart that lives in them lives in me.
How do you maintain the balance between regular life and your work?
I may not always get this part just right, but I sure try. One of the things I miss about working in an office is the idea of checking in at 9am and checking out at 5pm. When you’re the boss and the only one behind the business that just doesn’t happen. It’s really hard to turn work off when it’s in your home and all on your shoulders.
But it’s also really great to be the only one making decisions, getting to do things your own way and not having to answer to anyone else. So it’s a learning process. I have had to learn to identify over the years when work is consuming my every thought and unplug. Take healthy breaks – whether it’s a real lunch break or a week off. I’ve learned a better routine of setting boundaries. It helps too when kids get to school age because it sets a designated work window.
What was the hardest part while starting your business?
The hardest part for me is, and always has been, talking about myself. Promoting what I make and myself doesn’t come natural to me. It’s very stressful, personally, to contact bloggers or shops and ask them to feature / carry my work. It’s something I’m still not great at I’d say, but something I have definitely worked hard to improve on over the last year specifically and it’s paying off.
What makes you the happiest in your creative process?
The passion behind my business is rooted in love – my love for family, love for travel, love for design, and above all love for God.
My grandmother had passed away before I was born, but she has always been with me. She is Zella Woods – the original inspiration and namesake for Zella Woods Designs. She was an immaculate lady in a generation that valued the idea of always looking and wearing your best, even if you spent your days in the kitchen at home. Seeing her in pictures throughout the 1950-60’s is how I’ve developed a nostalgia for all things mid-century vintage. When I work to salvage pieces of jewelry from that time period, or design new items using original parts from that era, it reminds me of her and the affinity you feel for family.
When I use materials ethically sourced from other countries, it reminds me of the whimsy and naivety when being totally immersed in a foreign place. Somewhere totally unknown, where the language isn’t understood and the culture are beyond my wildest imagination. That sense of being totally outside my comfort level; that’s where true adventure lies, and you never forget the feeling.
When my daughter came along, she was named after her great grandmother too. That sparked a totally new chapter of creativity. Now when I make custom pieces for mommies that remind them of their littles, it tugs at my heart. When I have women fighting cancer that order custom bracelets with phrases of affirmation or words of strength, that stuff means so much more than the words I inscribe. These things speak so deeply to my soul and the purpose God has put on my heart to fulfill with my hands.
My ultimate hope is to live a quiet life and work with my hands to make jewelry that people treasure like memories – timeless pieces that speak to the individual rather than the masses.
Could you give us a glimpse in a typical day at work?
I feel like my average day never has a typical rhythm. Sometimes it starts with a tea party and mommy duties before replying to emails and getting my social media game on. Other days it’s straight into the grind – making product, fulfilling orders, sketching new design ideas and photographing product for the website. No two days are ever the same. Which is how I like it. One of my favorite parts about my job is that I can flex my schedule around my daughters needs. If she wants to play dress up or cowboys and indians around the backyard for an hour, I can press pause on work and soak up those memories. Other times she’s right there beside me pretending to make jewelry and learning to use my tools. It’s a beautiful thing to see her creativity blossom behind what I call work. That alone makes my heart full most days.
What qualities are needed to keep up and also enjoy running a creative business?
Determination. It’s a must. There are days where things are totally overwhelming. I’ve heard myself saying I just can’t do this anymore and then I remind myself why I do what I do – I love it. My husband helps remind me of that all the time to, it’s impossible without support.
When you make something you love into work, you have to be ready to fight for it when things get hard. If I hear myself saying something that I wouldn’t want my daughter telling herself (like “I’m not good enough” or “I’m not as good as so-and-so with 50k followers”) I shut it down, immediately. I dive into the Bible or a devotional and refocus. God has me right where I am supposed to be. I’m not going to doubt that for a second more than I’d allow her too. You have to have a strong conviction that this is what you were made for and know what will keep pointing you back to that truth so that when times get tough you can turn to that for encouragement and refuge.
Where do you see yourself in a few years?
We have another little one on the way as of 2016. Knowing there will be two kids calling me mommy means work will have to look a little different. For years I have wanted to incorporate the craft of other artisans around the world in impoverished regions, and this is the year I want to start making that a reality for Zella Woods. I’m not exactly sure what that will look like yet, but I know God will lead us. In the past I have featured some fair-trade items handcrafted in India where a portion of the proceeds went back to orphan care in that region. Something along those lines is where I’d like to see the business grow- in a direction that is still featuring my own original designs in collaboration with the traditional craft of other artisans that will empower and enable them to thrive.
What is the main inspiration behind your lettering engraved on your jewelry pieces?
Scripture most often inspires them. Every time I open the Bible, work through a group study or listen to a sermon, I’m sketching something and taking notes. The word of God never fails to open new chambers of my heart, breath new life into my weariness or humble me in awe of how He loves us. It’s endless inspiration.
How long has jewelry making been your hobby? How did you think you could convert your hobby into a business?
I had made my own jewelry for ages. I never thought about making a business out of it until I got married. I had made pretty much everything for our wedding – from the table numbers and napkins, every announcement, invite and program, to bridesmaid accessories and my own feather and rhinestone hair piece. I had fun doing it all. But when my husband heard how many compliments we got he started nudging me into thinking of it as a business. Plus I hated my office job at the time and thought very seriously that a piece of my soul may die if I stayed there any longer, so when I had Zella it was time to quit and dive in head first to small business ownership.
Just for fun: What are your favourite colour, flower and animal? Do you think you’ll incorporate other elements in your jewelry style like these favourites?
My favorite color is impossible. If we are talking clothes, it’s neutrals like navy, white or black. If we are talking strictly jewelry it’s turquoise – every single time. I’m obsessed with genuine turquoise. It’s stunning and wears well with everything.
Favorite flowers would be peonies, hands down. And favorite animal is kind of tough. I’d say the wildest animal I have seen in it’s natural habitat (that literally took my breath away) would definitely be the giraffe. They have a grace about them that you would never expect from this rather awkward looking animal. I guess I can relate to that somehow, always feeling like a rather awkward human but being told by others I have a strong sense of style and air of confidence that I don’t necessarily see in myself. If that makes any sense 😉
My favorite colors will always play a role in my designs. They’ll change over time, no doubt. But color is a great source of creative inspiration in my work. As for my favorite flower and animal, outside of the way they inspire my aesthetic senses, I’m not sure I see them in future jewelry designs of mine. But you never know.
I adore your clean workspace- the combination of white and wood is so clean and refreshing! How do you keep it clean and organized?
I clean it up like that after I’m done making orders. Every time. Because it feels so much better walking in to a clean slate. When I’m in the midst of making stuff though it’s pretty much covered in tools and supplies. Haha!
I think the best advice for organizing a workspace is start with the basics. My dad and I built that workbench together. I knew I needed a standing height work surface so we started with that. All the cabinets, desktop and storage slowly came piece by piece after that, depending on my needs as I learned to run things like a business and grew. Then it’s just a matter of tweaking things here and there to make stuff as accessible and organized as possible.
A lot of the components in my space are from Ikea. They’re mostly solid wood pieces that will last a long time and are easy to customize. The white cabinets under my desk are my favorite because they are shallow drawer storage, which is essential for maximizing a small space!
Hope that helps! Thanks for complimenting my space 🙂
Thanks Ashley for this amazing interview! It’s very inspiring to see people shape their vision of something so intangible at first, to something so wonderful.