NEIU alumna Sylwia Zalinska with her sister, Aneta, who is expected to graduate from NEIU in Fall 2020. They wearing zodiac shirts from their company SilkAndScales.

News & Features

Thursday, December 17, 2020

We’ve all been there. We want to get a gift for someone, but after looking at products on Pinterest, Etsy and Amazon, we can’t find that perfect present and instead settle on something that’s close but not just the thing we’re looking for. Yet, how many actually do something about it?

Northeastern Illinois University alumna Sylwia Zalinska (B.A. ’18 Psychology) found herself in that predicament shortly after her graduation. What resulted was SilkAndScales, a zodiac-themed Etsy shop that Sylwia co-owns with her sister, Aneta Zalinska (B.S. Marketing, expected Fall ’20). Two years since its founding, SilkAndScales has been featured on a national talk show and sold out an entire line of products this holiday season.

“I was looking for a gift for my friend, and I scrolled through what felt like 100 pages of what felt like very standard zodiac-themed gifts,” Zalinska said. “I wanted something that was both minimalist and elegant with an option to personalize it, so my friend would know her gift was unlike any other. Shortly thereafter, Aneta and I had the thought that instead of wishing that someone else was selling a zodiac-themed gift that looked exactly like what we wanted, why shouldn't we be the ones to bring that vision to life and create items that we’re proud to present to our friends and family?”

That’s exactly what they did. After deciding on a company name that pays homage to both Sylwia’s obsession with Daenerys from “Game of Thrones,” whom she sees as an “empowered woman who goes full-force into what she wants,” and the contrast being something softer, SilkAndScales was founded with a mission to “produce gifts for the elegant and fierce.”

The shop focuses on hand-painted constellation mugs with an option to customize the mug with a name. SilkAndScales also produces a line of zodiac-themed shirts and digital art downloads that people can print and frame on their own.

“Because we hand paint all of our mugs, we have to pay attention to every detail,” Aneta said. “If we ever have a doubt of whether or not a mug is painted as well as it could be, we ask each other to double-check or we’ll ask our family because we know they’ll be honest. We want our customers to be happy so we won’t ship anything that we don’t think is the best it can be.”

Aneta and Sylwia said that because of the pandemic, many people are searching for more customized gifts this year. As their mugs are customizable and also fit into another on-trend category, celestial-themed gifts, they recently caught the attention of Dayna Isom Johnson, an Etsy trend expert who featured SilkAndScales mugs on a December episode of “The Drew Barrymore Show.”  

After the segment, the two remembered they had an order that was sent to NBC Studios in New York, but didn’t make the connection that the mugs were for Barrymore and Johnson because they were not the listed buyers.

“We were shocked when we found out that our mugs had been on the show,” Aneta said. “We had no idea. A customer wrote us a message when they ordered and said, ‘I hope these are the mugs I saw on “The Drew Barrymore Show,”’ and because Etsy is such a one-to-one type of business, we were able to contact the buyer and ask when they saw the segment. We watched it and were really excited to see our product on television.”

Both Aneta and Sylwia were admitted into the University Honors Program (UHP). Their older brother, Jan (a current Mathematics student), started taking classes at Northeastern, liked the school and suggested his sisters also attend, knowing they wanted to go to school close to home. As the daughters of Polish immigrants who started their own construction business, Aneta and Sylwia had realistic expectations for their company.

“I saw a video that said to not expect to make any money within the first two years of a business unless you get really lucky,” Sylwia said. “So, we went into this knowing that we might not be successful right away. We just continued to put in the work no matter the circumstance and if something doesn’t go the way we want it to, we have to readjust the plan and continue to try to find different ways to grow.”

Aneta added, “If we didn’t have that support and encouragement behind us, I don’t know that we could have gone into this with the right mindset and confidence.”

As of October, right around the two-year mark of SilkAndScales, the business started turning a profit. To date, they’ve sold 600 items.

UHP Coordinator Jon Hageman recognized the potential in both Aneta and Sylwia.

“Working with Sylwia during her time in the UHP was remarkable in that she had lofty goals and knew where she wanted to go, and was open to a variety of ways to achieve her goals,” Hageman said. “Aneta brings a high level of energy to her scholarship. When she talked about her honors adapted courses or her research, her enthusiasm was contagious.”

The two consider themselves to be perfectionists. For some, that might make it difficult to work together, but these two seem to thrive off each other.

“We’re so similar,” Aneta said. “I was talking to Dr. Hageman and he said, ‘You do realize that marketing is basically psychology but for the business world.’ It made me realize how much I’m really like my sister.”

While Sylwia continues to work full-time in communications, and Aneta is planning to begin a master’s program in Business Administration at Northeastern in the spring, the two hope that, eventually, SilkAndScales can become their main source of income. Since the segment aired on “The Drew Barrymore Show,” SilkAndScales have temporarily sold out of their customized mugs, which should be back in stock in the new year. Their shirts and digital downloads are still currently available. They hope to keep their business growing and, perhaps, even open a brick-and-mortar store in the future.

“We wanted people to feel the love behind the products when they’re handed to them,” Sylwia said.

“We thought about closing our shop when the pandemic hit because we didn’t know if customers would be concerned regarding the safety of receiving hand-painted and packaged products. What we’re seeing is people are buying more online for gift-giving,” Aneta said. “When you love what you do, the customers can feel that."

Top Photo (from left): Sylwia and Aneta Zalinska model zodiac-themed T-shirts from their shop, SilkAndScales.