I don’t know whether it’s the impact of lockdown and juggling work and homeschool, time of life, or the fact that my youngest still refuses to sleep through the night, but lately I’ve noticed my sewing screw-ups ratio has been on the up.
Sure, some of these things are recoverable – nothing that can’t be solved with a few swear words and the quick unpick – but sometimes they are pretty absolute and permanent. I’ve not yet had to toss a garment directly into the scrap bin, but I have had to refashion a few things for my kids and some things got a pass only because I’m not fussy enough to let it bother me.
Whatever is going on with my attention span right now – and hopefully it will right itself soon – I know that making mistakes in my sewing is not something that will magically go away after a bit of rest. I’m lucky, in that I’ve been sewing long enough to know that you can’t learn away all sewing mistakes. Yes, there are plenty of issues you will grow out of as you improve, but there are still a million other silly little goofs that will creep into their place.
Mistakes are part of sewing. They are part of creativity. To err is human and, as I write here, to create is to fail over and over again. Sometimes we learn from our mistakes, but sometimes we make mistakes just because. The wind changed, your brew went cold, a bird flew past, whatever. This can happen to a professional sewer with a lifetime’s experience every bit as much as it can happen to a beginner struggling to work out what a button hole foot is all about.
And it’s not just about mistakes either, it’s those mental blocks – the things we dread and sometimes avoid because we’ve built them up in our head as Tiresome Tasks. Whether it’s button holes or zipper insertion, applying interfacing or notching collars, we all have our own personal combination of sewing aversions.
Why am I writing this? I think it’s really important, particularly for those of us with years of experience, to share our struggles and shortcomings so that beginner sewers stop getting the impression that there is a path to perfection and that they are miles away from arriving.
You never arrive.
And that’s a really good thing!
Now, let’s share! I’ll go first *clears throat*:
My top three sewing struggles
1. Rolled hem
A bad craftsperson blames their tools (so the saying goes) so as much as I want to lay this one at the door of my rolled hem foot, I think I’m just going to have to take it on the nose and admit this is a struggle.
This shirt, in a beautifully fluid Lady McElroy viscose I wrote about here, could have done with a rolled hem. Instead I laboriously pressed and folded it twice, with numerous scalds from the iron along the way. It seemed to me, at the time, that it would be quicker and less trying than having a rolled hem slip out of the foot – something that causes me untold irritation. Have I turned this into a ‘thing’. Why yes, yes I have. Still, in the long run, does it really matter how I got to the finishing line?
I gather things for my daughter, I gather things for work, but for myself… I avoid gathering. I often hear people report their love of gathering, but however pretty the final result, I find the process mindblowingly tedious.
To cap it off – and this is probably because I don’t gather enough – there is always some sort of disappointment in the offing: a snapped thread just as you’re almost done or watching the machine foot mercilessly flatten all those gathers (and yes I do use two lines of basting).
Interestingly, it would appear I’m more than happy to dice with my sewing struggles if I’m making something for someone else. Or maybe it’s just because little people don’t require quite so many gathers…
3. Top stitching
There is clearly a theme here. Anything that requires sustained concentration and precision is clearly not my bag!
Obviously it’s fairly hard to avoid top-stitching and it’s something I do regularly. But every time I know it’s coming I stall. The only way to move past it is to grit the teeth and just get it done. ‘Don’t make perfect the enemy of good’, I tell myself, and plough on. Occasionally this results in slightly wobbly stitching, but for the most part it’s not that bad, and even if it is, it’s not exactly the end of the world.
I know there are lots of techniques for getting the top stitching on denim just right, but recently I topstitched a pair of Heyday Dungarees for a friend’s baby. The fabric was a really heavy canvas and I knew both my thread and my needle were not quite up to the job. I also knew if I waited for the right thread and needle I would procrastinate forever and the child would be 16 in no time. For the most part the stitching is fine, but in a few places it was less than I’d hoped for. In a moment of vanity, I nearly didn’t send them. Then I stepped back, saw how lovely they actually were regardless, and off they went.
What I find interesting about all three of my ‘struggles’ is that they are in large part in my head – I do these things and they get done, but just before I have to get going I have that sense of dread about having to do it. And yes, sometimes they go wrong and out comes the quick unpick. Or, better, I just learn to live with the imperfection.
Does all this make me a bad sewer? I don’t think so. I do these things when I have to. That they’re not perfect doesn’t matter too much to me so I don’t see why it should to anyone else. It’s overcoming the sense of impending doom that would be nice.
And the real humdinger
I have one major sewing struggle at the moment and it’s wreaking havoc with all my makes: attention span.
I have made so many seemingly careless boo boos it’s beginning to feel the norm. For the first time in my 30+ years sewing, I constructed two left legs for my most recent black viscose Zadie Jumpsuit (see below left, for the moment I realised I couldn’t sew these babies together…). How I guffawed! I rectified it (below right – you can read about it on the Minerva site here) and while it was a completely ridiculous error, it did ram home the lesson that you should mark which side is which on some difficult-to-tell fabrics. So, in a way, this was a very useful accident.
Meanwhile a recent Toaster sweater in leftover black sweatshirting took a sorry turn when I didn’t notice the lower part of the sleeve pattern piece was missing (I had made a tracing with baking parchment and the sellotape holding the lower portion to the upper had come unstuck in the packet in storage). As a result I cut out two short arms. It was only once the cuffs were on that the error became apparent. I have since stapled the two pieces together. Once bitten, twice shy!
Luckily this make was saved by the simple fact it is actually quite spring/summer appropriate for those days when only a pushed-up sleeve will do. Silver linings, eh?!
There are other blunders I could report – cutting out pattern pieces the wrong way up, skipping merrily ahead only to realise I’ve missed a crucial earlier step, forgetting to reset the overlocker and warping a seam. I could go on. If this happens to you, you’re not alone – it’s part of the gig, don’t let it get you down. Swear if it helps, laugh at yourself, try not to talk yourself down. It will all lead you onto better things, I promise.
Having said all this, I want to leave this post with a final – and, perhaps, the most important – point. While sharing our sewing struggles helps everyone to realise that nobody is perfect, and that perfection is both unattainable and, frankly, not worth the mither, it’s not an excuse to trip ourselves into the crevasse of self-deprecation.
Celebrating your successes, your wins, your amazing skills and general sewing wizardry, is important and valid – it’s not boasting or showing off. Or if it is showing off, then in my opinion that’s more than fine. Most of us really love to see those wins, and see how happy other people are with their own work. That is why we create, after all – it brings us joy, let’s not be shy to show it.
A great post on Instagram by Wendy Roby recently pointed out how we often rubbish our own work in front of others. By doing so we steal not only our own joy, but that of the people who support us, who are inspired by us, and who hope to show us their work without the lens of constant inner critique.
Roby writes: “What continues to upset me, is that I still see people (mostly women) apologising for their efforts… apologising before someone gets in there first… But why are we explaining or apologising so much? Why are we not climbing onto our roofs, heels aloft, screaming about their beauty; acknowledging their very radical existence?”
When I first started my Instagram account I promised myself I would not openly criticise my own work for this very reason. It’s not because I don’t criticise it, it’s just I decided I didn’t want to give the negativity I sometimes feel about my sewing any extra oxygen. Not outing my own errors is sometimes surprisingly hard. I’m the woman who puts dinner on the table and goes on to explain which ingredients were missing or what I burnt behind the scenes.
I promised myself I wouldn’t take this habit out into the world, because the more women we see being open about their achievements, the better it is for all of us. When we are unduly negative or self deprecating about our own work, it’s catching – other people then feel like they must also apologise for themselves. It’s the done thing. And, frankly, we should all be done with it.
Occasionally I worry (yes, unfortunately, I do!) that people might think I’m arrogant, or that I don’t notice the flaws in my own work. Nothing could be further from the truth. But by not pointing out every little mistake, I hope others will be encouraged to celebrate their own work too in a space where negative self talk is not necessary.
Sharing our sewing struggles isn’t the same as pointing out all the flaws – and it’s part of heralding our successes. When we acknowledge we struggle with something, but we go ahead and do it anyway, that’s an almighty win. For my part, there’s no need to point out that my topstitching is wonky, or my ruffles flat as a pancake – that I did them at all is pretty great.
Masters of craft fully accept the flawed nature of handmade creations and see those ‘flaws’ as part of the individuality and beauty of an object. Sharing our struggles is simply a sign to others that it is very rare to get to a point where nothing is difficult anymore. And, to be honest, I think if nothing were difficult most makers would lose interest. It’s the challenges we must overcome that keep us gripped to the craft, and the struggles that fuel creativity which lead to our best successes.
So, what are your sewing struggles? And what are your successes? Let me know in the comments below or tag me @grinlowstudio – looking forward to hearing from you!