When you can’t start stitching: fear of mistakes

Here’s another post in my series on sewing, stitching, creativity and inspiration, where I’m looking at the way that sewing and stitching of all kinds can affect mental health, mood and well-being – both positively and negatively. This is about my explorations and experience, rather than any expertise I have (I don’t!), so I’d LOVE to read your feedback, comments and thoughts in response to these posts.

It was fantastic to read your replies to my first post about the power of setting limits in your stitching as a way of getting started when you are too overwhelmed by ideas. This time round I am going explore how fear of making mistakes can impair creativity, and share some ideas and possibilities for reducing the power this fear can have over us.

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

Why do people stress about sewing?

Helen, commenting on my previous post about creativity, mentioned that it is strange that people get so stressed about sewing and stitching when it supposed to be a fun and relaxing hobby. It *is* weird that that happens to some of us, I agree, but the reasons aren’t difficult to figure out.

Getting stuff right makes us feel great.

Those wonderful smiles from our approving parents…. praise from our school teacher…. For some of us this can become just a little bit addictive and doing well, doing good work, getting perfect marks, can become a lifelong dedication.

‘The way to succeed in life is to never make any mistakes’

Worse than the addictive feeling of being right, or being the best, we also associate making mistakes with personal failure. In her excellent TED Talk ‘On Being Wrong’, Kathryn Schulz shows a picture of a quiz paper covered in mistakes and sums up our reactions:

So there you are in grade school, and you know exactly what to think about the kid who got this paper. It’s the dumb kid, the troublemaker, the one who never does his homework. So by the time you are nine years old, you’ve already learned, first of all, that people who get stuff wrong are lazy, irresponsible dimwits — and second of all, that the way to succeed in life is to never make any mistakes.

This is brought home to me every time I teach an Absolute Beginners sewing class. The fearful faces! The shaky hands! The fear of things going wrong! We start the class with some deep breaths and a reminder that it’s ok to make mistakes because they are part of the learning process. So, that’s my first tip…

There are good things about mistakes….


…Focus on the learning

When you’re learning something new, it’s not a mistake, it’s practice. Even if it goes very badly wrong, you will have learned something. Here’s an aphorism attributed to Mark Twain (aren’t they all?!):

Good judgement is the result of experience and experience the result of bad judgement.

You can’t get good at something without bad experiences along the way. But you can minimise the likelihood of mistakes and their effects – a bit like having dual-controls in the car when you are learning to drive. Here are some possibilities:

Start small… I love the idea of taking small steps to success. Want to learn how to Free Motion Quilt? Don’t start with a complicated feather pattern on a full-sized quilt. Like to learn dressmaking? Maybe don’t go for the tailored trousers and wool fabric that frays like a demon.

Make small steps to success!

Start small, start achievable, do some practice on cheap fabric, watch some videos, go to a class or do one online, get some advice from an online group. Whatever works for you.

And if you’re the sort of person (like me on a good day!) who hates this kind of advice and wants to crack straight on with the tailored trousers, good on you – go for it! But you are going to have to adopt a fairly philosophical approach to bodges, mess-ups and downright disasters.

Picture showing how I messed up the stitching of a bag to illustrate point about how mistakes can be bodged
My attempt at a cross body bag with an inset zip. My method made stitching the lining into the bag really tricky, so I had to bodge it with some dodgy hand-stitching that I worry about every time I use the bag!

…Focus on the making

We stitch and sew because we enjoy the lovely finishes, but also (more importantly?) we enjoy the process of creating. Enjoying the colours and prints of beautiful fabrics, appreciating the textures of different yarns, relaxing into the rhythm of stitching, thinking about the friends we are making for, daydreaming about our next project, as we work. Enjoy the journey. Don’t fret too much if you take a wrong turning. It might be a dead end…it might be a lovely detour…it might be a wonderful shortcut!

If remembering to stay in the present and just enjoy the making is hard, be kind to yourself and make good decisions about which project to pick up if you are already feeling stressed. Personally I always turn to crochet or chunky hand-stitching when it’s important to just lose myself in the rhythm. Working with colours and patterns that we love can be so soothing.

Playful pink crochet flower in the making
Playful crochet flower in the making

I confess to struggling with this. Having been brought up by folks thoroughly schooled in the Protestant Work Ethic who believed that you always need to do the bad stuff before you get to the good (homework before TV, finish the veggies before you get ice cream), my default is always, ugh, I must finish this really tricky bag constructions before I can make a crochet flower. I am learning to be nicer to myself – and if you have had a similar upbringing, well, this column might change your life.

…Work with the mistakes

This isn’t always going to work but sometimes that mistake can be the bit of grit that makes the pearl in oyster. One of the things about handmade is that your sewing projects can express your individuality and authenticity – and sometimes the mistakes give you a freedom to do that as you work out a solution to salvage a situation.

Small log cabin patchwork pincushion made with Liberty lawn and a crochet edging
When I stitched this pincushion a few years back, I mucked up stitching the edge, so added the crochet lace to hide it – I loved how it turned out.

In Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art, Stephen Nachmanovitch uses a French word – bricolage – to express this resourcefulness. Bricolage means making do with the materials you have to hand. He describes a performance situations where everything has gone wrong:

You are forced to do a little bricolage, improvising some new and crazy contraption…. The redirection of attention involved in incorporating the accident into the flow of our work frees us to see the interruption freshly, and find the alchemical gold in it.

To go deeper with this approach – it’s good to contemplate the fact that the hiccuppy, bumpy nature of creativity is a reflection of our lives.  We think one thing is going to happen, we plan for something, all the arrangements are in place, then something else happens instead, and you have to run with it, adapting and doing a bit of bricolage as you go.

So sewing and stitching can be a philosophical life lesson.. and more than that, they can…

…Retrain your brain

So this idea is a bit out there, and is really born out of my experience of living with an annoying anxiety disorder and keeping a reflective cognitive diary. I’m sharing my thoughts in case they ring true for readers out there who’ve had similar experiences…

Making stitchy mistakes gives you the perfect opportunity to work on retraining your brain. How you react to tricky sewing situations is completely within your control. Neuroscience tells us that the brain can learn new ways of thinking more positively about all of life’s little annoyances (more about this in a book review over the next couple of days), and here’s a chance to have a go. At the end of a sewing session that hasn’t gone as well as you would have hoped, take a leaf out of the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy handbook and record your thoughts and feelings, (make notes, it makes a difference – there are loads of apps you can use for this – I use this free app), taking time to reflect on them and get them back into proportion and perspective. Your sewing went wrong, but it’s not a big deal and you’re still a good person. The brilliant thing about this is that if, like me, you live with anxiety, it’s definitely a transferable skill. Learn to accept mistakes made as part of the journey of stitching, and in a small way, the tweaking of those neural pathways means that we are learning to accept mistakes as part of the journey of life.

OK. Phew. That was a lot and has taken me a week, on and off, to write. I’d love to hear what you think!

28 thoughts on “When you can’t start stitching: fear of mistakes

  1. Firstly I’ve stumbled upon a fellow stokey hazahh! I couldn’t believe it so I just had to read your blog, I love you studio space btw, the lighting is fab and the building is glorious one of the oldies that makes our city scape appealing! I am one of those that has been brought up in a similar fashion, and as work ethic from my background would dictate make a mistake, rectify, learn, be better! Pressure! I’ve learnt to let it slide since having my daughter, what amazes me is just because we are grown, we are expected to be in the know, whereas kids can wander around making countless mistakes and it goes by the by. My old man always says ‘if you don’t like it, don’t look’ and that’s what I think of when I make my mistakes, I may sometimes take a leaf out of my 5 year olds book too and just leave it on the floor for a second go later! Hey we’re only human right?!

  2. Thank you for this post! I am about to start blogging properly (I’ve tried before but never kept it up-mainly because it’s scary!) and I really needed this advice. So thanks!

  3. I come across this right when im about to start making a dress for an occasion in about a week im just not in the spirt of. Its been a year since i made a dress. last dress idea i had turned into a disaster when i executed it. Good read right before i go in 😓.

  4. Bricolage! I love that word and I enjoyed this post. I am going to begin teaching a small group of women with ‘sew fright’ beginning this weekend. When I met with them to sketch out what we would learn I tried to emphasize that there are no mistakes – only opportunities to create in ways as yet unforeseen. Looks like we share similar ‘learn to sew’ views.

  5. Found the content very informative and also insightful and helpful. I recognised myself in so many of the characteristics of someone who beats them selves up when I make a mistake not just with my sewing etc. But in everyday life. So thank you for sharing this, I will try to be kinder to myself in the future and to tackle a new project with more confidence rather than put it away because I am afraid I will mess it up. Lynne On Wed, 7 Jun 2017 at 23:30, Very Berry Handmade wrote:

    > veryberryhandmade posted: “Here’s another post in my series on sewing, > stitching, creativity and inspiration, where I’m looking at the way that > sewing and stitching of all kinds can affect mental health, mood and > well-being – both positively and negatively. This is about my explora” >

    1. Best advice I ever had was ‘be kinder to yourself’. I’m not sure I am very good at it though! I like the idea that if I practice being kind to myself about sewing (which in the grand scheme of things, is not so important!), I can carry that skill across to other areas of my life. So glad you found the blog post helpful.

  6. Stumbled on this article while attempting to find “blog-spiration.” I’m trying to decide which thoughts to gather and how to gather them. I skipped my normal blogging pattern last week, so feel I must write this week. I like how this article translates to more than sewing. I don’t sew, but I struggle with mistakes (anxiety too). I’m glad that somebody wrote out loud about mistakes being practice and the good that comes out of them. I also appreciate your willingness to share mess ups and mistakes. It’s another way of showing how mistakes are okay and sometimes good comes from them.

    This is advice I need to take in repeatedly. It seems like common sense, but the anxious brain doesn’t always hear common sense (or like adhering to it). And as a co-worker friend of mine says, “Common sense isn’t as common as we think.”

    Thank you, and keep sharing.

  7. A great post! Just what I needed. Sewing is a big deal about the pleasure involved in creating something. You’ve said it so well. Thank you

  8. What an inspiring blog Ali.At my age now (70) I am still aspiring to improve my stitching and probably like many, although I know what you say is right it’s still hard not to try to achieve perfection, old habits die hard as they say,I think you are very strong to share your knowledge and experience and it’s good to be a part of your sewing World.Thank you.x

    1. Thanks so much Carole. I know totally what you mean about old habits.. I really struggle with setting myself impossibly high standards about stuff that really doesn’t matter too much! Being aware of that though, is helping me change a little bit at a time.

  9. I am quite an anxious person, although I have only recently realised this. I love to create and sew but do worry about not getting things right, especially if I am making it for someone else. I also nearly always apologise when I give a gift, saying that it isn’t perfect but it is made with lots of love. I do think some of it comes from my upbringing, I just never felt good enough. Thanks for the posts, they are helpful. x

    1. I have been anxious most of my life and only realised it over the last 5 years or so, I though everyone felt like this!! Really appreciate what you say about not feeling good enough, I think it is something that so many people struggle with as adults. Being aware of it is such a good thing though – recognising that your assessment of your work might be too harsh because of your life experience.

  10. Oh! I am so enjoying these posts! It’s nice to hear someone talk about these things! I’m sure many of us were brought up in such a way that we fear to attempt things until we’re sure we won’t make a mistake or, even worse, fail at the attempt. I remember when I was about 30, asking my stepmother if she would show me how to crochet. We spent about an hour with her showing me the very basics. I spent all week practicing and the following weekend proudly showed her the nine inch square I’d managed to make. She very subtly but pointedly scorned and mocked my poor little square….and me…..in front of my husband, children and father. I was so humiliated and embarrassed that it was over twenty years before I picked up a crochet hook again. Sounds silly, right? A thirty year old woman so affected by one incident that it took her twenty years to get over it? Thankfully, the feelings that that incident engendered in me didn’t bleed over into everything else I tried or I’d have no hobbies or skills at all! I’m not perfect at anything that I do. I make mistakes. And that’s okay because done is better than perfect. If I chase after perfect, it’ll never be done.

  11. I love this! I’ve just been procrastinating on my sewing classes and well now, I want to eargerly learn. I hope the long vacation gets me those sewing skills. I’ m going to be self taught though, all thanks to YouTube videos and well, your blog will be super helpful too! You rock!!🙌🙌😀

  12. Oh my goodness this was so refreshing to read! I stress about messing up all the time! As someone who is diving into sewing clothes lately I really try and go with the flow and literally not panic… So I love your idea on using a cognitive behavior exercise to put it all into perspective. A great tip, thanks!

  13. Hi! Love your writing. I am one of those people. I never think what I do is good enough. I am new to quilting but embroidered and sewed years ago. I have been making a baby quilt for my grandson ( already made one for granddaughter..twins) it has a small amount of applique and embroidery. The quilt is Moon bunny..never heard of a moon bunny before but apparently there are a lot of stories about one in Asian culture. Anyway I did the embroidery on my bunny but did not like it. I have redone it 3 times. I think I will now stop and finish it. I started keeping a log or diary for my quilting. Talking about what I liked and what I could do better next time. It does help. Thanks for your encouragement.

  14. Last week i a nana age 55⅔ and recently diagnosed with rapidly failing eyesight taught two young ladies in their very early twenties to sew on a sewing machine a very simple skirt each. Neither had any sewing skills. Neither had used a sewing machine. In about an hour each had taken two full width of the fabric rectangles (cut to skirt length plus two hems top hem to thread elastic through) all that was left at the end of the session was sewing the bottom hem as they had another appointment I finished the hems off and gave them the skirts when I saw them at the weekend. Yes mistakes were made a slight cutting error by the nearly blind woman (me) so the bottom hems were slightly smaller than intended (¼ inch). A slight twist in one hem was caught and unpicked otherwise one skirt would have been completed in the allotted time.
    The young women are both extremely proud of their skirts and the fact they can say “I made this”.

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