Unlocking creativity with stitches: Make some rules

Creativity, sewing and rules

A header image with the words unlocking your creativity. Used as the title image for series on creativity, stitching, sewing and inspiration

As promised, my first post in a series on sewing, stitching, creativity and inspiration, is here! In the series I’ll be looking particularly at the way that sewing can affect mental health, mood and well-being – both positively and negatively. This is about my explorations rather than any expertise that I have, and I’d LOVE to read your feedback, comments and thoughts in response to these posts.

Sewing & decisions: when it all goes pear-shaped

When I am in the creative doldrums, and feeling anxious or stressed, the first sign of it in my stitching life is an inability to make decisions. What shall I make – I have loads of ideas to choose from, but don’t know where to start. Then I dither about fabrics, colours, fabric styles and prints, turning over (what feels like) 1000s of ideas. I try different combinations and none of them seem right – my confidence slides away, and my enthusiasm with it. Out of nowhere, a relaxing day of sewing turns into a great big heap of stress.

The power of limits

I’ve had this experience quite a lot recently, so I turned to one of the ideas that I’ve noted down from my creative reading list – creating set of rules for a particular project.

Free Play by Stephen Nachmanovitch

In Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art (which I highly recommend – at first it’s a touch hard going, but worth sticking with), Stephen Nachmanovitch talks about the power of limits and how by intentionally limiting ourselves, we can tap into inner resources and jump-start our creativity.

…necessity forces us to improvise with the material at hand, calling up resourcefulness and inventiveness that might not be possible to someone who can purchase ready-made solutions.

Limiting yourself or setting creative rules seems a bit regressive and not at all playful  – and playfulness surely is a foundation stone of creativity – at first, but think about it:

What’s a game without a set of rules?

Another quote from Nachmanovitch:

Commitment to a set of rules (a game) frees your play to attain a profundity and vigour otherwise impossible.

Jane Dunnewold makes similar points in  Creative Strength Training, where she uses Japanese haiku as an example of how working within limitations (17 sound units/syllables) can produce exciting results.

Identifying parameters around process or materials may feel limiting, but in fact it frees you to concentrate on making and meaning and teaches a little about balancing work and play.

So here’s my first suggestion for the next time you are stricken with stitcher’s creative block:

Write yourself some rules

The idea is to release yourself from decision making by putting at least some of those decisions in the hands of ‘The Rules’ (and remember, they’re your rules, you can change them if you want – don’t let the rules make you stressed too!).

Here are some suggestions – you can think of some of your own I am sure, and then combine them to give yourself a great game plan. You can even put the suggestions in a hat, and select a couple at random:

  • Use one or two colours or a defined colour palette
  • Work in black and white
  • Use only the supplies you have
  • Ask someone else to choose the supplies for you
  • Only use hand-stitching
  • Only use a sewing machine
  • Work on tiny scale
  • Work on a huge scale
  • Learn a new technique
  • Use straight lines only
  • Use curved lines only
  • Improvise
  • Use shortcuts
  • Use traditional methods
  • Use thrifted fabrics and supplies
  • Work with a colour that’s not one of your favourites
  • Revisit a project that didn’t work out
  • Make something for a friend whose taste you don’t share
  • Give yourself a time limit
  • Do a craft swap where the rules are written for you

I’ve done a couple of projects using self-imposed limitations over the last 10 days or so.

Mini embroidery hoop with flying geese patchwork blocks using Liberty lawns and shot cottons
Rules: 1) Work small; 2) Use patchwork; 3) Use colours from a palette I created for my #100daysofcuratedcolour project. I used this colour curated selection of fabrics.
Photo showing mini embroidery hoop with log cabin patchwork block made with tweed silk, Liberty lawn, shot cottons
Rules: 1) Work small; 2) Use patchwork; 3) Use colours from this palette; 4) Complete the project in 90 minutes

Training to make decisions

An added bonus to this exercise – as you work within the limitation of the rules, you might well encounter difficulties – but, hurrah…

The difficulties aren’t your fault!

This detour round your ego frees up the brain to see the problems as possibilities, making it easier to keep going and work them through with good humour and maybe even a little bit of playfulness. And you might even break through to the other side and create something you love….

So, for example, when I made the second hoop pictured, I knew that there was no way I had time to draw the log cabin grid and foundation piece the fabrics as I would normally, so I decided, very quickly, to go wonky and trim the fabric pieces to size as I went. I think the wonkiness really suits the small size of the hoop, and more importantly, I had fun.

As I worked, I thought about the plasticity of the brain, and the way that with practice and training (as with CBT) it’s possible to change the habits of a lifetime and learn to approach life’s difficulties and annoyances in a more positive way. And of course, this exercise, if it works for you, will do just that – giving you practice in responding creatively, imaginatively, resourcefully, when stitching stresses occur.


I’d love to hear what you think – is this a technique that you think would be useful to you?



The lovely 3 inch hoops used in this blog post are from a brilliant selection at Cloud Craft. Please support Very Berry Handmade by visiting my sponsors.


21 thoughts on “Unlocking creativity with stitches: Make some rules

  1. Hi Ali, I enjoyed the post and comments. I generally hate rules and get frustrated by them but it could be a useful technique to get me unstuck from all the unfinished projects I start! I relate to the earlier comments about getting excited about trying something new and learning new skills and I often embark on things I’ve no idea how to do/finish but get great satisfaction when I do complete something e.g. the first time I joined one of your wonderful ATC swaps where, on reflection, the rules definitely helped my creativity there. I’m good with deadlines for others but terrible at finishing things for me, so I’m going to try setting myself a few rules, perhaps limiting the number of projects I start and putting a time-frame on something I start…although I’m feel a bit stressful already about consider finishing everything I start!

  2. We were given rules for certain lessons at college. One was to draw a small object 20+ times using only grey scale or only lines. It was hard but really got the creative juices flowing. You had to become more and more innovative so the drawings didn’t all look the same.

    1. I can imagine that was a really difficult exercise – and can see why you would have to try to be more and more inventive. I wonder if you feel it stands you in good stead now?

  3. Hi Ali this was an inspirational post thank you. I particularly liked the part about setting some rules – I struggle with cutting things straight try as I do every day😢😢. I beat myself up about this but by turning this on it’s head and setting my own rules I am hoping that I will gain a little more confidence in my ability to make and create. I look forward to your posts Ali as you give me hope in my own creative journey. Have a lovely day and fond greetings to all your followers xxxxx🙋🏻

  4. I have a rule which I use for protection but which also stops me from indulging in ‘playtime’: only make things that already have a dedicated purpose or destination. I want to delve into creative textiles but don’t want to make things that will simply hang around at home.

    1. Hi, I think that is a very good rule. I retired from work Christmas time and find myself indulging in daytime television, especially the craft channel, I also love following blogs. I need some rules in my life.

    2. Oh, I so relate to that! But it’s such a shame not to play… Are there ways that you could perhaps combine the two? E.g. do some creative stitchery and then make it up into a pouch or bag? I do totally get where you are coming from though.

  5. Hi Ali, very interesting post, lots of food for thought! I think the idea of ‘rules’ can be applied to so many areas of life, I have dabbled in papercrafting, knitting and a bit of sewing but haven’t concentrated on achieving much in any of these areas, I think I need to choose one and master it instead of being master of none!

    1. I’m a bit of a butterfly myself Judith… and it’s always good to try new things – or at least that’s what I tell myself! The tricky thing with rules is finding the balance between letting them give you freedom and being totally constrained by them!

    2. I don’t know if that’s really a bad thing. I’m a “jack of all trades, master of none” myself but I know myself well enough to know that I’d be bored doing just one thing only no matter how well I mastered it. Besides, sometimes one craft bleeds over into the next creating something really unique and unusual! I’ve incorporated cross stitch into quilting and sewing, crochet with sewing, painting with sewing and quilting, embroidery with quilting, sewing and crochet, sewing clothing led to upholstery and working with leather to recover motorcycle seats, paint pens led to candlewicking….. I could go on and on! If doing just one thing and mastering it is your goal, go to town! But if you’re interested in many things, don’t feel bad about getting pretty good at a number of things! 🙂

      1. Thanks for your fab comment! You sound a lot like me – I get bored very quickly and my brain is always dashing off to the next idea. Sometimes I find that a bit frustrating in myself (I’d like to be in the moment a bit more) but I do agree, it’s fun to try stuff and get good at them too!

      2. Oh! I do so admire people who have taken up a craft, art, skill and have devoted all of their energies to mastering it. But I’ve too curious a mind and it’s beset with a bad case of wanderlust, lol! You know how people used to start as an apprentice then move up to journeyman and eventually become a master of their craft? Well, I’ll probably stay at journeyman level in most things. Something new and intriguing always comes along and I’m compelled to traipse off after it to discover it’s mysteries! I enjoy learning new things and I enjoy finding ways to combine elements from different disciplines to create something unique…..and I enjoy a challenge. My son came home and asked me if I knew what a coracle was. I said yes and he said do you want to help me build one. Well….yeah! We did and she floated and he took her to the water and ended up paddling in circles, lol!
        Wouldn’t have missed THAT experience for the world!

  6. Interesting article Ali . Isn’t it strange when what’s supposed to relax you , and in my case , is a hobby , starts to cause stress ?

    1. It’s really funny isn’t it. Just this evening I was reading a post on UK Quilters on Facebook from a lady (who had been teaching Free Motion Quilting) bemoaning how STRESSED everyone gets in her FMQ classes. I feel the same when the poor ladies who come to my Beginners Sewing switch on their sewing machines with trembling hands. I think there are lots of different reasons why people get stressed about it… for me it’s mostly grappling with that inner committee, that I’ve written about before.

  7. Hello Ali, I immediately saw the potential in the ‘using what you already have’ rule. Many of the most beautiful patchwork quilts were made from a limited colour palette, sometimes from fabrics which had been previously used. I’m going to start planning to use what I have in creative ways – rather than buying more fabric, thread, haberdashery. A great idea – I’m looking forward to the next post. Susan

    1. We’ve moved a long way from those skills of reusing fabrics and working with what you have to hand. Perhaps we’ve got a touch too much freedom to go and buy what we need… like kids in a sweet shop. Which makes me laugh because my kids spent about 15 minutes this morning trying to choose their ‘I survived the barbers’ treat!

      1. I love making crazy quilts and aprons from cast off clothing and linens. I quit buying fabric a good while back and went to using what I could find at Goodwill in the $1.49 a pound section and sheets, curtians, tablecloths that I pick up at the Salvation Army store for $2 or less. The clothing must be 100% cotton, linen, silk or a blend of those fabrics. Occasionally I’m invited to go through someone’s stash of fabrics when they’re getting rid of a lifetimes accumulation and love the older vintage fabrics, some of which date back to the 40s. My self imposed rule of using only thrifted stuff and not allowing myself to go buy all new fabrics for a project has led to much more creative, unusual and unique creations and has really made me think outside of the box! Rules CAN be a good thing! Who’d a thunk it! Lol!

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