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!

Sewing and quilting – when you need a creative boost

All stitchers struggle with creative blocks, lack of inspiration and ideas, and even just general apathy now and again. I’m thinking of people taking their first steps in the world of sewing and textiles, wondering if they actually ARE creative at all, perhaps because early efforts were met with a less than enthusiastic response. Other people have been stitching and working with textiles for years, but have hit a block, for whatever reason. Or perhaps you are sewing regularly, but want to try express some of your own creativity, and wonder if you actually HAVE an authentic creative voice? Or maybe you’re still sewing but it’s become a source of stress rather than fun and relaxation.

I’ve been thinking so much about sewing, stitching, creativity and inspiration over the last couple of years, doing lots of reading and thinking, and I really want to share some of the ideas I’ve collected together about ways to getting started with sewing when ideas and inspiration are hard to find. So a new series has arrived at Very Berry…

An invite to join in with series of blog posts at Very Berry Handmade for stitchers sewers and quilters to unlock their creativity.

I have loads of ideas to share and explore. And because I am epically far away from being an expert on the subject, I really hope it can become a conversation and a sharing of frustrations, irritations, ideas and enthusiasm. First post will happen over the weekend, and it’s going to be about sewing rules! More fun than it sounds. 😉  Hope you can join me!