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.
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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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
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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