Saturday, 21 December 2013


Last week I read this post and this post. They were a great run up to teaching last weekend and I spent a lot of time thinking about being a beginner, on making things perfectly, on dealing with mistakes and mishaps and on process/product focus. The challenge of teaching is taking all the stuff you've learned and making it meaningful to people who haven't learned it yet. Thinking about how to do this and reflecting on the experience afterwards is what keeps me coming back to teaching again and again.

And last night, when I realised I'd sewn the collar on my latest shirt underside up I thought even more about this issue of making mistakes and the learning curve. In the last month I've sewn no less than five shirts and I was feeling pretty good about the heights I'd reached on that learning curve. Nothing like a bit of intense repetition to hone your skills, especially on something as fiddly and precise as a shirt. And yet here I am doing something as flat out stupid as sewing something on round the wrong way.

On the left a lovely turned collar, points down, no visible seams on the collar edge. On the right points up and seams on display.

It's tempting to say it's because I got cocky and careless, but that's only part of the truth, and it makes it sound like more experienced sewers only stuff up when there's a reason. While Felicia's posts make some salient points about why dealing with problems in projects is much harder for beginners (primarily the simple truth that beginners just don't have as much data in the database for diagnosing and treating problems) I also want to say that experience is not protection from problems.

While I was helping students deal with tricky bits and minor fudges in class last weekend, I heard that phrase I get at least once in every single class in response to facing up to a stuff up and working out how to deal with it - it's easy for you to say, I bet you would never make a mistake like this. My standard response to this is to paraphrase a wise woman I know that the difference between a beginner and an experienced sewer is the quality of the unpicker they buy. My other response is see above - yes, I make every kind of mistake still!

In my mind, and I think in the minds of many students there's this idea that being an effective learner, being smart and getting good at something all equate to the ability to bypass mistakes. The better you get, the fewer mistakes you make. You can hear what the teacher tells you and execute the move in their image. You can read the pattern carefully, apply your skills and knowledge and end up with a perfect product. As a student, a learner or a novice this idea is powerful and persistent - often in the face of evidence to the contrary.

But the more I make, the more I accept that mistakes and fudges are an unavoidable part of making.More importantly, I think they are actually the bit that keeps me coming back to sewing. I go on making dumb mistakes because I get distracted or cocky or can't remember all the details at one, I make mistakes because some things are just plain hard and you can't expect to get it right every time, and I make mistakes because I am always experiencing new sewing challenges. Frustration not withstanding (swearing ahoy!), a period of entirely problem free sewing makes me restless and generally sees me looking to ratchet the challenge up with more complex projects. I am prepared to invest in the best unpicker (that would be the one made by Clover) because I absolutely expect that I will have to use it, and while I no longer see its use as a sign of personal failure, neither do I wish to make the undo bit any harder or more drawn out than it needs to be.

I am going to unpick the top stitching on that collar, then I am going to unpick the attaching seam too. I am going to do it slowly and with care because if I am rough and get frustrated I am going to stretch and fray the neck edge of the shirt and then the collar will never go on well no matter what I do. I am going to accept before I start that it will take some time, and some of the back stitches at the start and end will be tough to cut cleanly, but I won't be tempted to use brute force. I'm thinking this through because there is still a perfectly good shirt in the offing here, even if it is going to take a while longer to make than I had anticipated. I am also reminding myself that snatching this project from the jaws of defeat is going to make it special and treasured because of that extra time, because of the extra smarts it is going to take,

So what's my point here? Like Felicia says, if you are a beginner have faith that in time your mistakes will be easier to deal with, but also know that this will only be because of the mistakes you make now, and the ones you go on making. Every lesson you learn is money in the bank for future problem solving and sewing well into the future will be a more satisfying and productive experience because of it. You will make fewer and less catastrophic mistakes as you get more experienced and they will shit you less but you will make mistakes.


neki desu said...

a thought provoking post.
i've been weaving for 30+ years and still sometimes make weaving 101 mistakes.
to me the difference between beginners and experienced makers is that beginners can live with mistakes;experienced makers can't.and we undo.

formandreform said...

Love this post!
You know me - I'm all about the 'design feature', but the design feature is only valuable when it's in a beautifully constructed frame. Thanks for the reminder that a good unpicker is an important tool to have in the repertoire and not a total bugger. salient. and timely...