On failure and sewing | How to stop giving ourselves such a hard time

On failure and sewing | How to stop giving ourselves such a hard time

In January, I had started a coat as part of a project for Simplicity Patterns. I was on a deadline, it was a collaboration post and I had never made a proper coat before. So there was a lot of pressure to produce something good. I was also using a fabric that I had dyed and spent a lot of time on, which I did not want to waste. And it went terribly wrong. It was so bad that I had to abandon halfway through, after spending waaay too much time on it. My husband, who is ever so patient and never complains about how much time I am hidden away in the sewing room, actually complained that he never got to see me. I ended up making another garment for that collaboration, a quick cardigan,  and this coat went into my ‘drawer of shame’, where the UFO pile resides.

Then, as I trying to slow my sewing down, I decided to go back to this coat project it and finish it. I had already finished a coat by now (soon to come on the blog), so I ha conquered that gremlin, but it was still niggling me that I had an unfinished project. I don’t usually have many UFOs, because I either finish something or unpick and reuse the fabric. So the thought of it sitting in my drawer really bugged me.

So this weekend, I just bit the bullet and finished it. Bagged lining and all. It ended up a vest because the sleeves were not salvable, but it’s now sitting finished on my dress form.

And I don’t like it very much.

And instead of feeling relieved that I actually made a fully lined, tailored(ish) garment, I felt an utter failure. Because of the time spent on a garment I know won’t get a lot of use, because of the fabric that I wasted and because I did not do better. I mean, I have been sewing for almost 10 years, what the heck, should I not be able to do this by now?

From many conversations I have seen in the sewing community, I know I am not alone in this. So I wanted to write a post to explore this a bit further and also, offer my penny’s worth on how to deal with it.

Failure vs comparison

I feel I often define failure in relation to what I define as success. But success is such a relative concept in itself. We are being shown different views of success all the time, especially in this age of social media. Is sewing all the popular patterns in all the fancy fabrics success? Is making a garment and posting a picture that gets hundreds of likes success? Is being complimented by colleagues on your new garment success? Is completing a particularly difficult project success? And is not achieving these immediately a failure?

Do I feel a failure because I have not achieved the goals that I set out at the beginning of the process? Or because the end result does not compare with other people’s that I think are more successful? I feel that often people are showing their best sides, their best projects. And they take beautiful pictures of them on Instagram. Very easy to feel inadequate, right? I do wish we, as a community learned to embrace, or at at least, not edit out the failures. Because if we don’t, we define a measure of success that is not realistic, and often not achievable.

On Failure and Sewing _ How to stop giving ourselves such a hard time

Failure vs perfectionism

Probably the biggest hidden enemy, along with comparison that tends to plague sewers. And probably one of the biggest causes for feeling like a failure for me. After almost 10 years of sewing, I can’t say I have made any garment I am 100% happy with. Because even if I have achieved what I set out to do, I completed a project I liked, that I know I will wear loads, I can’t stop myself from picking a fault, even if no one will ever notice it.

But perhaps the most insidious thing about perfectionism is the fear of even starting a project because we are afraid of being bad at it or not being able to complete it. I read a really great NY Times article that was shared in the RTW faster 2018 Facebook group that talks about the why hobbies should be about enjoyment, not being ultra competent at them. And when perfectionism is stopping us from enjoying the hobby we so love, then that is the only one true failure.

Failure vs process

I remember a conversation during the first Sewing Weekender with Marilla Walker when she was talking about cherishing the process vs the end result. I am a very results-focussed type of person, and I very often do not take the time to appreciate the journey as much as the destination. Every sewing project teaches or solidifies a skill. It may be understanding a process, a way of assembling a certain type of garment, it may be just practice of sewing a straight line, or working towards a better fit. Whatever it ends up being, you will never be the same person when you complete a project as the one you started. Even if it’s only the experience never to do that again.

So I found that for me the feeling of failure is more often than not linked to the lack of satisfaction with the end result and I am completely ignoring the valuable lessons learned along the way.

Failure vs guilt

Being so passionate about the environment, failure often means a whole heap of guilt for wasting fabric or creating a garment that I will never wear, or not enough to justify the material investment. Also, as I was mentioning in the introduction, it is also around the guilt of wasting time that could have been otherwise spent for example with my husband or friends. For other people, it can be linked to the guilt of having wasted money on the fabric or pattern. I often end up passing on prototypes (first attempts that are annoying to my perfectionist streak) to my sister or BFF (we are the same size) or to charity. This helps alleviate my guilt, though not sure about the failure.

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On Failure and Sewing _ How to stop giving ourselves such a hard time

How to stop giving ourselves such a hard time

The reasons for feeling a failure can be very personal and so how they can be addressed will be different from person to person. But I did want to share a few thoughts on what helps me once they have already set in, usually at the end of a project.

CELEBRATE THE ORIGINAL GOALS NOT THE [POTENTIALLY IMPERFECT] END RESULT

What was was I trying to achieve with my sewing project? Was my goal to make my first pair of jeans? Or my first coat? Well, even if they are not the best jeans I could ever sew, I completed them. So I will let myself take that in and enjoy the feeling of accomplishment of a daunting project. It wasn’t a perfect fit? How about that bang-on front fly zipper? Celebrate it!

BENCHMARK YOUR SUCCESS TO YOU, NOT OTHER PEOPLE

When I first started sewing, making a first garment I could put on that did not fall apart was the best feeling in the world. And that was because I was comparing this achievement to the Alex that could not use a sewing machine a week ago, not to someone who had been sewing all their life.

LIST YOUR LEARNINGS

Next time you have a sewing fail, take a pen and a piece of paper and write down everything you learned or practised while making that project. The list will be longer than you think. And don’t forget to also list what you need NOT do next time. Analysing why something did not come out as planned is also very helpful, and can yield valuable lessons. For example, not to use a certain type of fabric with a pattern, size down

RECYCLE MISTAKES

When I feel guilty about having wasted fabric, if the garment is completely unwearable, I will try to scavenge the fabric for another project, if at all possible. A dress might end up a skirt or a blouse. Or make a kids garment out of an adult one.

SHARE YOUR FAILURES

I am as guilty as the next person of swiping mistakes and failures under the carpet, i.e. not sharing them on the blog for example, but I do want to make myself share more. This will help others avoid a pattern that is not very well drafted or highlight lessons learned after the fact. Honest, non-judgemental criticism is what the community is known for, so let’s take advantage of that more!

 


 

HOW DO YOU DEAL WITH SEWING FAILURE? I WOULD LOVE TO HEAR YOUR STORIES AND TIPS, SO PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT TO CONTINUE THE CONVERSATION.

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17 Comments

  1. gilliancrafts
    14 October 2018 / 11:23 PM

    Great topic! For me failure is when I do poorly at something I think I should be good at, which means I feel much more a failure when I do a poorly fitting knit project than when I dabble in wovens! I am a process person though, which is why I hated selling handmade goods because they had to end up perfect and consistent.

    • Alex
      Author
      15 October 2018 / 10:14 PM

      I can’t even imagine making stuff for sale! I have made a few custom made projects and I was stressed out of my mind. But I know exactly what you are talking about, it’s like messing up your TNT!

  2. Josephine Jackson
    14 October 2018 / 11:59 PM

    Very interesting….. I thought naively I was the only one with failures! Everyone else’s pictures of their makes look great. I think it is perfectionism causing my problem, I have never made a garment without having to ‘bodge’ a part of the process that never went as instructed. So instead of praising myself for ‘getting out of jail’ with inventiveness,all I can see is the mistake. Much the same as when playing a piece on the piano a couple of wrong notes spoil the whole thing when in fact 98% of it was fine!!
    But the process is fun…. now to believe in what I say and wear garments with pride… forget about the blips as I am sure no one else will notice!

    • Alex
      Author
      15 October 2018 / 10:17 PM

      Oh no, definitely not the only one! Also, just to say, please don’t let following instructions make you feel a failure, I think it’s a sign of your success and growth, that you can either do without cause you know what you are doing or you are confident enough to go off piste.

      Thank you for taking the time to comment!

  3. 15 October 2018 / 12:05 AM

    great post and it quickly made me realize why I am not in my sewing room! Two recent failures for my self imposed perfectionism is more than I want to admit to! If I don’t sew, I can’t fail huh? Time to get a hold of my ego and get busy I think. Everybody loves the Eleanore jeans by Jalie – I give up on those but I did learn something! They go together beautifully, but simply don’t fit me so they are now in the donation bag for someone else to hem and wear. I think Jalie is for younger bodies . . . .maybe. Ok, Itch to Stitch Hvar jacket is next – third time is a charm, right?

  4. Lisa Fredericksen
    15 October 2018 / 12:19 AM

    Great article! I learned to sew in 5th grade and I’m now 58…so I’ve been at this a long time. My greatest successes were probably dresses for my children and Halloween costumes! I’m very tall & hard to fit, so I continue to make the occasional skirt, dress or pants….but so few people sew that’s it’s hard to find comrades to share with. But I usually enjoy the process, especially choosing pattern & fabric & occasionally someone ccompliments me on a garment and they are astonished when I say, “I sewed it myself”!! As I’ve gotten older I worry less about the “failures”, but it is still disappointing to lose the time and the money invested. I wish more children were taught to sew. It really is a practical skill.

  5. 15 October 2018 / 12:39 AM

    For me sewing failure is when something that I SUSPECTED beforehand wouldn’t work for me, doesn’t. I think, “For heavens sake! I knew intuitively it wasn’t going to work but in a bull-headed fashion, I pushed through and made it up anyway.” Now standing in front of the mirror I’m appalled. I know I will never wear it (likely no one else would either because it’s made to fit my odd shape or it’s out of a fabric that was wrong for the pattern) and I spent gulps of time & resources on a piece I kind of knew was wrong all along! Something like what you describe above with your Simplicity coat. I think I should know – I’m 64 years old next month. If I don’t know what suits me, what makes sense for my lifestyle I never bloody will 🙂 It can take me a while to get back on the horse again. I have a project sitting on my table that’s been on there for almost a week and I’m finding it difficult to get back to it after 2 failures already. Maybe I should just give up on jumpers 🙂

  6. 15 October 2018 / 7:51 AM

    Failure to me is making something I then don’t wear, and despite my best efforts it still happens quite a lot. It can be surprisingly difficult to figure out what patterns will be comfortable, flattering, and practical. Construction problems generally don’t bother me after I’ve worn something a few times.

    • sewrendipityalex
      Author
      15 October 2018 / 10:28 PM

      I completely agree, Catherine, that is ultimately my biggest failure too. The wear test is my most important measure, both for longevity, but also to see if the imperfections bother me enough to fix them or they just slip into oblivion like they were never there.

  7. Marianne
    15 October 2018 / 9:02 AM

    One of the reasons I prefer blogposts over Instagram is for the documentation of the process. I use my blog for reference so I make sure all adjustments are mentioned (before blogging I always lost my notes). This means I absolutely need to blog about my failures as well to make sure I’ll never make the same mistake again! So I’m all for sharing failures, finding solutions and sharing the often long and winding road to a well fitting, nicely executed garment. What ‘s the use of just showing pictures of a finished project when you’re sweeping the struggles to get there under the carpet? I like to read all about the fitting and construction details otherwise I could just as well read a fashion or style blog instead of a sewing blog!

    • sewrendipityalex
      Author
      15 October 2018 / 10:26 PM

      That’s so great, Marianne! I wish more people did the same (and that people don’t stop reading blogs)!

  8. Elaine Marsh
    15 October 2018 / 9:51 AM

    Failure to me is not addressing something at the beginning of the project that I know in the back of my mind is not going to work because I haven’t chosen the right components, cloth, colour or style. If I have gone ahead in spite of all of those things and it does fail then I was correct and I then set about correcting it. Knowing your style and colours help and accepting experimentation does not always go to plan. I currently have two skirts I have doubt about, although I have worn them, they hang in my cupboard awaiting attention. I can’t stand anything on me that is baggy in the rear, both items are pencil skirts, the cloth I chose for one was cotton gingham but it ‘gives’ when you sit despite a lining. I will need to add an extra strength lining, that may or not work, it may not be the right cloth for the job. It’s experimentation. If I’m using an expensive piece of cloth, (and even with a commercial pattern things don’t turn out quite right) I make a toile first before starting proper.That usually shows the problems. My experience helps rule out what doesn’t work for me, I’ve been sewing for roughly 50+ years, many garments. I’ve made clothes for other people, so fit is most important. I don’t beat myself up if I have made mistakes, that’s the learning process, I aim for perfection, but sometimes fall short, but I’m not one to shout about it either, I’m not competing with anyone, so it doesn’t matter. Turning a fail into a fudge is the art of sewing😀

    • sewrendipityalex
      Author
      15 October 2018 / 10:25 PM

      That last bit made me smile, as I remembered my sewing teacher who always used to say to me to think about how I can turn a mistake into a ‘design feature’. No one would know what the original intent actually was. Thank you for sharing!

    • Cathy
      16 October 2018 / 5:38 PM

      TURNING A FAIL INTO A FUDGE is the art of sewing …..LOVE THIS !

  9. Cathy
    16 October 2018 / 6:09 PM

    Failure is when your enthusiasm turns into a MESS !
    Unfortunately sometimes those illustrations are NOT quite identical to the pattern. I stubbornly refuse to do a muslin/toile to save time and boy this always seems to back -fire ! Sewing when stressed or tired is not helpful in obtaining great results either. Yes, sometimes or even many times we take a gamble on a pattern and lose in a major way HOWEVER, I quote ELAINE MARSH (above) ‘ Turning a fail into a fudge is the art of sewing’ then ARTISTIC FREEDOM IS BEING USED IN THE MAKING !!

  10. Jackie Iosson
    16 October 2018 / 8:02 PM

    Hang on a minute, we are so good at beating ourselves up over fitting me made garments but how many of us have RTW clothes in our wardrobes that don’t fit perfectly but we accept them. Stop, enjoy the process, what does it give you and those around you? For me it’s relaxation away from my day job.It’s a hobby for most of us, if your children or partner play a sport have they got to be the best to validate it?

  11. 20 October 2018 / 12:02 AM

    Great post! I consider every failure a “teachable moment”. What did I learn? Wht don’t I like it? What would I do next time? Usually I have been sucked in by someone else’s make and I am getting better at not doing this. I admire and move on!

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