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!

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.

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

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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.