In 2013, I started sewing a men’s sport coat. This is the story of how that sewing project became a crucible that revealed my own insecurities, resilience, tenacity, and weaknesses. It’s also a sewing project that turned into an unexpected chance to grow. Buckle up.
How It Started
When my oldest child graduated from high school, my husband and I took her & her best friend on a Spring Break trip to New York City. While we were there, I did a little detour to Mood Fabrics, where I discovered this lovely navy linen. I asked my husband if he’d like a summer sport coat from such beautiful fabric. I wanted the challenge of sewing menswear–something I’ve never done–and I love making things for My People. A sport coat? So bold! Such a gift!
He seemed cautiously enthused, so the yardage came home in my carryon bag. I felt nervous but confident and convinced I could make this happen.
How It Went
I wanted to do such a good job, you know? I have zero training in tailoring, but I DID have a Vogue pattern for a men’s sport coat and a lot of willingness. I figured I’d work systematically and figure out the kinks as I went along. I wrote about each step along the way, from the planning to the cutting, to making the muslin.
And that’s where I got stuck.
I sewed the muslin, and finally got up the nerve to ask my husband try it on. Looking back, I see how much feeling I put into that practice garment. How much WEIGHT. I wanted to make something wonderful to impress and thrill my husband, and see him delighted with it, but it was my very first try, and I didn’t know if it would be any good.
Somewhere under the needle, my sense of self-worth attached itself to this sewing project, and I didn’t see even it happen.
I asked him what he thought, and he told me: it’s a little loose here, and a little snug here, and it doesn’t quite fit like my store-bought ones. In hindsight, it was honest and invited feedback, it wasn’t personal, and it was all FIXABLE.
But I took it personally. I felt hurt and inadequate and rejected. Which isn’t fair–I ASKED HIM, and the answers he gave are within the parameters of what I NEEDED TO KNOW in order to create the sport coat I OFFERED TO MAKE FOR HIM.
My own ego had gotten mixed up in this project, and I couldn’t separate the two. My ideas about my own value and self-worth were wrapped around a FIRST ATTEMPT AT A NEW SKILL.
When I write it out like that, with the benefit of eight+ years of growth, it sounds foolish. Did I expect to nail a new skill right out of the gate?? That sounds unreasonable. It didn’t FEEL unreasonable, though. I know that I’m not the only one who has encountered these moments, where the project has become THE PROJECT. That’s when my reactions get bigger and bigger in relation to the expectations (usually my own) placed on the outcome (which was always uncertain).
I set the sport coat aside for many, many years. YEARS.
How It Ended
Somewhere in 2019, I found the pieces again. I set them on my sewing table. Over the space of three years, I moved the folded-up muslin + instructions and uncut linen closer and closer to my sewing machine. With each move, it sat for a few months and my eyes glided over the stack, as if it wasn’t there.
I WANTED to finish sewing, but I couldn’t give myself permission. I didn’t want to fail, and I didn’t want to feel inadequate, so it was easier for a long time to make the project invisible–which isn’t the same thing as ignoring it, but rather this weird unconscious thing people do when they see/don’t see whatever is pressing on that bruise, because we would prefer not to know if it still hurts when we touch it.
Eventually the pile got so close to my sewing machine that it was on the same table, and it was hard to sew without actively seeing it each time I sat down. Which forced the question: DID it still hurt to think about finishing this project? Did I feel inadequate or afraid of failure?
The answer was YES. Maybe it’s supposed to be no? Like, look how much I grew! I’m an adult now! Jubilee!!
The answer was still yes, I felt worried and anxious and afraid to try because I didn’t want to fail, and I didn’t want to make something “bad” because then I would feel foolish. But one day, without invitation, I realized I DIDN’T TRUST THAT FEELING MORE THAN I TRUSTED MYSELF.
In one conscious, active moment I thought, “Ugh, honestly, so what if I fail? It’s not the only sport coat in the universe! We can just try it again, make another one, maybe it’ll be fine as it is! I will never know if I don’t finish it and find out.”
So I did. And it’s fine! It’s totally wearable!! It’s not the work of a Master Tailor–but it’s well better than good enough for my husband to wear in public, and it’s certainly suitable for a Zoom meeting.
What I Would Do Differently; Or, What I Learned By Failing (A Little Bit)
- TAKE MY OWN ADVICE: I regularly tell students to jump in and try, even if they don’t really know what they’re doing. But sometimes I forget that after the initial jump is a LONG FALL for most of us, and it’s really, really uncomfortable. I wish I’d been softer with myself along the way. Maybe I was, with that bundle of fabric that moved like a glacier across the sewing table, closer and closer to the machine? I should give myself credit for that.
- STEP BACK: It’s hard to be honest with myself when I’m in the middle of Big Feelings. It takes practice, and I’m deeply proud of how much I’ve grown in that regard, learning to be curious and view myself with less judgment. Stepping back from this project was necessary in order to take myself out of the equation, since I’d become my own roadblock. I wish I’d known to call it that, “stepping back,” rather than heaping on another dose of “failure” because the project wasn’t finished “yet,” as if ONE MORE WAY I dropped the ball was not hitting…some deadline that didn’t exist?? I needed space and time, and the permission to take them.
- STAY RESILIENT: After stepping back comes returning with new eyes. I needed that kick–from myself!–to return to this project with a different attitude. Shaking off the sense of failure without dismissing it, without thinking it’s not OK to sometimes get overwhelmed or to lose sight of our best selves, is the GOAL. It’s how I’m learning to be a safe person, and to know that I can trust myself to KNOW myself. I needed to remember WHY I STARTED this project, and decide if I still wanted to finish it–and when the answer was YES, I need to offer myself empathy and patience and understanding that, yeah, sometimes stuff just takes eight years, is the thing. We bounce back so we can move in new directions.
- CHOOSE WHEN TO BE TENACIOUS: Sticking with a project solely for the purpose of seeing it through to completion has REAL VALUE, but only when we’re honest with ourselves about WHY we’re doing it. Otherwise, it’s pointless torture. I COULD HAVE given up on this sport coat–I could have decided this wasn’t the type of sewing I want to do, or that I wanted to start over fresh with different fabric and pattern, or even that I wasn’t equipped emotionally to finish a project I’d loaded down with such meaning. All of those would have been valid choices as long as I tell the truth about it, to myself and to him. In the end, I determined that I wanted to finish THIS coat, because I wanted to keep that promise to myself, and because I discovered that if I DID FAIL then picking up an abandoned project was a great place to do that with less risk.
- LEARN TO LOVE UNCERTAINTY: I hated the uncertainty of offering a garment to my husband, who wears a LOT of sport coats, and not knowing if it would be Good Enough. I hated how uncertainty about my own skills got all mixed up in my head with my self-worth. I don’t even really like writing those words, because I’m uncertain how they’ll be received when you read them! Uncertainty scares me less now, though, because I CHOSE to push through on this project and see it finished, and discovered that everything is uncertain all the time ANYWAY, even when we think we have it figured out, and that the regret I would carry from NOT finishing a project, even one that left me unsatisfied, would be way greater than the regret of jumping in and KNOWING I DID MY BEST.
And Now What?
Over the years since I started this project, I’ve gotten occasional emails and comments asking, “Where’s the rest of the blog series?”
Sigh. I started writing about the project to keep myself motivated and accountable, but taking my own advice from the numbered list there? I’m calling a #2 and a #4. I won’t be finishing the blog series. I had a moment of clarity when I was sewing that made me recognize: if I try to sew this sport coat AND WRITE ABOUT IT, I may not finish. I chose finishing over blogging.
BUT THESE WERE THE STEPS: I went back to the muslin, and I asked my husband to try it on again. This time, I listened and (tried to) step back, so that I was only thinking about the PROJECT and not about my EGO. I used tailor’s chalk, marked the places he wanted to change the fit, and made notes.
I took apart the basting stitches on the muslin and used those pieces to cut the linen. I started sewing and DIDN’T STOP until I was finished with the shell of the jacket–there was still just enough fear left in me that I wanted the running start before leaping into the cold, dark waters, I’m not superhuman, y’all, and spiritual awakenings don’t happen in one day. I gave him the partial jacket as a Valentine’s gift in 2020, with a card that read, “A work in progress is a beautiful thing.”
That summer, I finished the jacket. He wore it to Zooms under lockdown and back out into the world when we were allowed to do that. He packed it and took it with us when we went on a trip, which felt like the ultimate act of endorsement. What had I been so worried about? That he wouldn’t like a SPORT COAT and that would make him LIKE ME LESS?
Well, yeah. Kinda. Haven’t we all done that? Made something as a gift and worried that how it was received was about US and not about the gift? or the recipient?
A gift isn’t a gift if we offer it with expectations FOR OURSELVES. I offered to do a generous thing for my husband, and he accepted. His feedback hurt my feelings, and rather than walk that through, I ditched the project. That was about me, not about the gift. Lots of sewing projects are gifts, and they aren’t all well-received! Some are thrown in the garbage on receipt!! (True story. Let’s just say there’s someone out there who will never again get a lemon poppyseed pound cake from my kitchen.)
The making and the giving can exist independent of the reception–I needed a crucible to teach me to see that more clearly in myself. I can make something, enjoy the process, and then offer it with an open hand. If it’s received well, it’s joyful! If it isn’t? That’s information. There are a billion reasons why a gift might not land, and none of them are about me–not even when it’s handmade. I don’t make gifts any longer for family members who don’t value them, not out of spite, but because it isn’t a GIFT if I do it for what I get out of it! It’s a gift if THEY FEEL LOVED when they receive it.
I will cheerfully make more things for my husband, because he was honest when asked, because he appreciated the work & effort PLUS THE GIFT ITSELF, and because when I reacted out of my own ego, he gave me the space to do the work to grow. All eight years of it! Talk about a gift.