Sewing and Self-Compassion

sewing and the art of self compassion whipstitch blog

Years ago, I was teaching a sewing class to brand-new seamstresses.  It was an introductory class, and there were six women there.  I gave my usual second-day-of-class pep talk, and then outlined instructions for the next project we would tackle together before sending them off to the cutting tables with their fabric to work independently while I circulated and offered individual help.  It was a relaxed evening, and everyone was in good spirits and excited to try something new.

When all the other students got up and left the table, one woman remained.  She sat with her hands in her lap, under the table, her head bowed low to look at them.  She was very, very still.  Now, I’m not terribly gifted at reading other people’s body language, but even I couldn’t miss that this was a woman exhibiting signs of distress.

I sat next to her and in my best cheerful, please-let-this-be-nothing-because-I-lack-skills-here tone, said, “What’s up?”

And she says, her voice extremely quiet and filled with tears, “It’s just that I’ve been trying for three years to have a baby and I can’t get pregnant, and I just can’t have this be one more thing I’m a failure at.”



That is heavy stuff.  She was hurting, and her pain was very real and very deep.  It wasn’t about sewing, but it was also about sewing. You know?

This is a concept I used to talk about A LOT, but I didn’t call it then what I call it now.  Ever since that night, at every class I teach, I spend a good chunk of the first lesson rattling on about how I think women–and men, too, but seriously, women for real–are much, much too hard on ourselves when we don’t master a skill immediately.

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I’m going to say that again, because I don’t want all those commas to make you miss the message: women are too hard on themselves when they aren’t perfect on the first try.

There is a TON of research out there about why we do this.  I’m putting 90% of it down to acculturation, and the other 10% is just, like, that’s how some people are, man.  And I won’t fill up your screen telling you it’s bad for us.  When we look at it squarely, none of us really think it’s GOOD FOR US to assume that we will nail every new skill or activity or technique on the very first try.

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But agreeing that it isn’t GOOD FOR US is not the same mental frame as recognizing that it’s actively BAD FOR US.  Two things happen: first, we enter into new experiences with an expectation that we will be “successful,” whatever that means in the particular context, and our behavior and emotions follow along with that expectation.  In my sewing classes, there were so many women (and sometimes men, but usually women, so again, I acknowledge that I have a certain level of selection bias in my qualitative data here) who walked in the door and were sincerely shocked when they didn’t have blistering success right out of the gate–straight seams, even seam allowances, perfect fit, and flawless hems.

Those of you who have been sewing for a while, I will pause here while you shake your head.

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These skills take TIME, but man, they take even more than that: EXPERIENCE.  And not just the act of sitting in front of the machine and putting in your 10,000 hours, but also the experience of doing it wrong.  I especially value the experience of doing it wrong over and OVER, the same mistake multiple times–bonus points if you do the exact same wrong thing more than one time IN A ROW AT THE SAME SITTING because, y’all, that one really drives the message home.

If you’re listening.

The problem is, so many of us AREN’T listening.  We tell ourselves that something external is the problem, that the machine is screwy or the fabric is cheap or the pattern isn’t well-written.  When in actuality, it’s that WE NEED TO LEARN.  That isn’t a criticism, it’s a fact, and a healthy, rewarding, ennobling, encouraging one at that.

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We NEED to learn.  That’s how humans are constructed.  And some skills come quickly while others hit us in the face like a mallet sixty-seven times and we still don’t get the message.  I AM SO GLAD OF THAT.  It reminds me that I can move to grow, to know more, to get better–and most importantly, it reminds me that I DIDN’T MISS MY CHANCE.  Failing today doesn’t mean failing tomorrow. Every dawn is another opportunity to master whatever devil was chasing me the day before, and the door hasn’t closed yet.  I get to try again.

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The second danger of this expectation of instant perfection is that we select the experiences we attempt based on the outcomes of previous experiences, so if we have a history of trying new things and failing, and seeing that failure as a BAD THING, then we are vastly less likely to try anything new in the future.  Dropping the ball on one project can stall your sewing (and your relationships, and your workouts, and your eating habits, and….and….and….), making you delay trying again for fear of experiencing the same failure.  Along with the feelings of shame and worthlessness that SO MANY of us attach to any failure.

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I was working with a trainer at the gym a couple years ago.  It was NOT FUN, let’s just get that out there to start.  This is NOT a story about how I used to hate the gym, but now I love it and I look forward to it all the time blah blah blah* like you read on Instagram.  Instead, I was just starting to work with a trainer because the gym offered me a free session and it seemed like one of those things you OUGHT to do.  And it was free.  So.  Anyway, I’m sitting at some machine, I don’t even know what it was or what it did other than I was facing a big black vinyl post and there were cables and weights and it was very upsettingly reminiscent of an illustration from a short story by Edgar Allen Poe.  The trainer is giving me instructions but her words kinda started to blend together into a humming sound, and I wasn’t looking at her because my eyes were filling up so I couldn’t even read her lips.  And finally I hold out both my hands like she’s coming at me, except she was about five foot two and standing, and I was sitting on this hard vinyl bench, so basically I was pushing her belly button away from my face.

And I said: “Hang on, hang on!  I need a minute.  I’m having some FEELINGS.”

And the feelings were coming out of my eyes.  All over her.

Her face gets very concerned and she says, “Ohhhh….kay….What kind of feelings?”

“It’s just that I’m not used to failing at things, and I don’t want to fail at this.” Gasping breath. Lips squeezed tightly together. Burning behind eyeballs.

Her face IMMEDIATELY cleared up, and she looked, like, super relieved.  And she says, “Oh, no worries!  That’s the GOAL here!  The gym is the place where you WANT to fail!”

There were almost certainly daggered lightning bolts shooting from my eyes at her entire being.  I responded, “Good God, why would anyone WANT to fail???”  You could definitely see those extra question marks dripping from my word bubble as it hung in the air between us.

“Because!” she said, far too brightly.  “When you fail at the gym, you send the message to your muscles that you need MORE, that they need to grow.  That’s how you get stronger.  If you never push yourself to the point where you fail or where you can’t lift the weight anymore because it’s too much, you’ll never actually get any better.”

Which leads us to this skirt, because you are all intelligent readers and don’t need me to draw out those gym-to-sewing-machine-and-the-rest-of-your-emotional-life parallels for you.  You did that already.

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These photos were taken today of a skirt I made more than fifteen years ago.  I was in a deeply unhappy place in my life, and sewing was helping me work my way out of it.  I made this skirt and I thought it was glorious.  It wasn’t perfect.  But it was GLORIOUS.

I remember wearing this a little over a year later, when circumstances had changed and my heart had opened and I was much, much happier.  And the skirt was STILL glorious.  It wasn’t perfect.  But it made me feel empowered and accomplished and proud.  I could say I made it and people seemed impressed.  I felt good wearing it.

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The insides show my skill level at the time.  There are wonky seams, and sloppy stitching.  The waistband is totally ad hoc, I remember very clearly that this was not what the pattern called for because I was copying a J Crew skirt I’d seen on the rack that was super over-priced, so I was pretty much making things up as I went along.  The pleats were never perfect.  The whole thing is quilt-weight cotton, which I wouldn’t use now to make a pencil skirt but at the time was just, like, fabric.

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These sound like criticisms. I guess they are, by definition. But they’re mostly signposts. This is who I was then: I tried new things when I was feeling down, even if that meant hiding in a room by myself while I felt my feelings; I saw value in experimentation, and missed the mark but sometimes nailed it; I got excited about figuring something out that I didn’t knew before, and gave myself that solo shoulder-punch from the end of Breakfast Club; and sometimes, not every time but sometimes, I could swallow my fear of rejection just enough that I proudly showed off my work to others.

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That’s not failure.  It’s not perfection, either.  But it sure as hell isn’t failure.

There are still days when I feel down.  And talking to a lot of my friends, there are days as we get older where we’ve become so accustomed to what we DO day after day that we don’t always have a clear picture of who we ARE.  This skirt might be a failure from one perspective.  But I don’t see that.  I think it’s a picture of who I AM, at my core, when I am working at being better.

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I have a very clear memory of wearing this skirt in Nashville with my husband, before he was my husband, walking our dog (who at the time was just his dog), strolling past folks on the sidewalk having brunch.  I remember experiencing the euphoria of falling in love and feeling interesting and admired and deeply known by someone I found interesting and admired and wanted to know deeply.  He wasn’t looking at my seams or the flaws in my zipper installation.  He was seeing ME.  He saw a woman who made a skirt because she took risks and wasn’t afraid to fail.  Or maybe was terrified of failing but decided to say, eff it! and try anyway.

Let’s have compassion on ourselves, dear ones.  If I hadn’t taken that risk with this skirt, this ridiculous small sewing project, I wouldn’t have that memory of being pursued, admired, and adored.  I treasure that memory all these years later, and I am proud to work each day to still be that woman–it’s HAAAARRRD work, y’all, and it never lets up–but I want to be a woman who likes herself and tries new things and gets excited when they work, and who forgives herself and tries again when they fail.  Because each failure is a chance to get stronger.

sewing and the art of self compassion whipstitch blog

*Full disclosure: I actually AM one of those people now, and going to the gym is something I look forward to. But I had to suck at it for a looooooong time before I got better, even enough to not be ashamed and embarrassed by walking in the door, and then it took more time after that before I was strong enough to get surprised by what I could do at the gym, and then it was sorta fun because I wasn’t failing ALL the time. And there’s a lesson there, too, dear ones, about sticking it out while you fail until maybe you don’t fail every time and then maybe your wins are more than your losses and the losses don’t hurt as much as they used to.  All I know is, if we can’t forgive ourselves for failing over and over, we never get to that sweet spot where it’s fun. Self-compassion is the key. Hang in there.

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  • Debbie
    February 1, 2019 at 3:25 pm

    Yes! And yes and yes! I’ve been doing life and doing sewing for over 50 years and there are still plenty of fails at both. (Winging a new quilt design and have ripped out half a dozen blocks because *somehow* they came out upside down; not sure i’ve got the color combo right; and I know I need a fresh needle, but come on.)

    • Deborah
      February 1, 2019 at 3:35 pm

      Ha! Exactly! And the “fails” are never in the place I expect them to be? Somehow? They’re always a surprise. Le sigh.

  • Holly
    February 1, 2019 at 4:36 pm

    This is beautiful! I’m bookmarking it to come back to often. I don’t have others around me who sew, so mostly people just look at me like I’m speaking mandarin when I talk about sewing. But this idea of self-compassion and embracing failure is articulated so well. I have tried to say these things to friends about parenting, but you said it better. Thanks SO VERY MUCH for this!

    • Deborah
      February 7, 2019 at 6:08 pm

      Thank you, Holly!! And YES. It is so hard to express to people who don’t sew that it isn’t all about putting pieces of fabric together–it’s also about self-discovery and risk and failure and challenge and expression. SO MUCH happens at the machine, and the therapy I get out of it is priceless!!

  • Denise
    February 2, 2019 at 10:30 pm

    This is so so good! Thank you!

    • Deborah
      February 7, 2019 at 6:09 pm

      Thank you, Denise!!

  • Corrie
    February 3, 2019 at 1:11 am

    Oh my goodness, Yes! You hit the nail on the head with this post. Thank you so much! It’s everything I’ve vaguely mused about before in sewing and learning and mistakes but never could express. You put it perfectly. Thank you. <3

    • Deborah
      February 7, 2019 at 6:10 pm

      Thank you, Corrie!! I should absolutely give credit to my students over the years, whose reactions and comments to me have forced me to be a lot more introspective about this topic than I might have been otherwise–they really challenged me to articulate something that I think a lot of us feel in our gut? Because saying it out loud helped us all to feel more understood and connected. I’m so glad you feel the same way!

  • kay
    February 3, 2019 at 10:07 pm

    Wow!!! I really needed to read this. Thanks so much for sharing. I will be reading this a few more times so that it really sinks in.

    For now, I got the message we expect way too much of the perfectionist crap out of us and that Failure is actually good!

    • Deborah
      February 7, 2019 at 6:11 pm

      Yes!! I wish I could adequately describe the look on my face when the trainer said that to me–I’m aggressively ambitious about nearly everything, and the idea that I would ever even ATTEMPT something that I don’t already know I’ll succeed doing seems like wackadoodle crazy talk. So learning to not just embrace failure but PURSUE it was a huuuuuuge leap for me–I credit Brene Brown and her writing for giving me the framework and vocabulary to make the attempt!!

  • Laura T
    February 4, 2019 at 7:33 pm

    Spot on! A good reminder that failure isn’t a bad thing if it leads on to growing and learning. As well as giving ourselves (and others too) a little grace and compassion.

    • Deborah
      February 7, 2019 at 6:13 pm

      Truth!! I think we are often–certainly as women–taught that we ought to be more kind and compassionate to others. But somehow the message remains that it’s OK for us (and men are VERY MUCH included here) to continue to expect vastly more from ourselves than we do from those around us. It’s so painful to feel like no matter what we do, we won’t measure up, but the worst part is that we never learn anything that way, either!! We just keep treading water. Learning to offer myself the same grace and margin that I want to show others has been a haaaaaarrrrd process (that I’m still in the early stages of attempting) but I know with certainty that it’s the truest goal. <3

  • Tiphaine
    February 5, 2019 at 8:27 am

    I am speechless…. the fear of failure nearly brought me to lose everything. This is still my biggest war. against myself. It is painful, an on-going conscious battle. Sewing, training, funny that you mentioned it, but it was the two things that hold me together. For a time. I did crash. Bad. really bad. I am back up on my feet for nearly two years now. Still fighting with my demons.
    Your words brought me to the edge. I cried. It was good though because it reminded me to keep working on being kind to myself, to keep hope and to believe. So thank you.

    • Deborah
      February 7, 2019 at 6:15 pm

      Love you, sweet lady!! And your words: yes, yes, yes!! SO much the same for me. Lots of falling down and beating myself up–and now I’m working on falling down and GETTING back up, and it’s not that much different when you make a list of “what happened” but it FEELS so different in my spirit. Sending hugs to you, so glad to know you’re up on your feet and moving forward!!

  • Laurie Bennett
    February 7, 2019 at 9:39 am

    This is just what I needed to hear today, Deborah! Thank you. I’m getting ready to present a proposal to the Board of our Newcomers Club here in Florida to start an interest group for Stitchers. Thank you for the boost. Stitchers really are the nicest people and we should always keep trying new things. And sometimes together is better!

    • Deborah
      February 7, 2019 at 6:16 pm

      Oh, Laurie, I’m so glad!! I confess that I shed my own share of tears when writing it–some of this is very personal, but it also represents the parts of sewing that make me feel most connected to others, most grateful to know that my experience isn’t mine alone. Together IS better, and there is so much encouragement and understanding in our community!! So glad it has led me to know you!

  • Maureen
    February 13, 2019 at 10:20 am

    This is a lesson we all need to learn. When I was young, I wanted to learn to sew, but as soon as I hit a road block I would quit. Instead of powering through, I would move on to another project and fail again. Then someone invented the internet and everything changed. It’s possible to find instructions for almost any project and encouragement from a community of like-minded people. We live in different states and have never met, but with the miracle of technology you have taught me to sew and so much more. Please keep blogging.

  • Diane
    February 13, 2019 at 12:20 pm

    My youngest daughter verbalized this to me just recently. “I’m good at being a student and a worker. I’m scared to enter a new field where I may not be as good.” I was forced to put on my “parent, not friend” hat and tell her that life consists of just such challenges OVER and OVER again. She was not thrilled to hear that her ancient mother was STILL wrestling with how to manage major life transitions.

  • Yvonne Ammann
    April 12, 2019 at 4:41 am

    Thank you so much for this amazing post, Deborah! I just started sewing a couple of months ago and still make LOTS AND LOTS of mistakes but you know what? That’s ok. I started sewing because I struggled to switch off from my busy job in the evenings and on the weekends. Sewing is great because you need to fully concentrate on every stitch and cut you’re making, leaving no time to worry about work or your mum’s hospital appointment. And if things go wrong – and they do – I just try to fix it or start all over again. No pressure for once. We have to learn to be kind to ourselves and believe me, I’m still on a journey myself for that.

  • Deb Kuz
    June 15, 2019 at 3:41 pm

    I found your site earlier this week while looking for recommendations on a beginner sewing machine: I left it opened to return later. Then today began as a down day, no confidence, want to crawl in a hole. I picked up my iPad for an explanation of my feelings: maybe “Oz” can advise me.
    A bunch of tabs were open, I started closing them and your page, that I left open days ago, was there and there was a link to this article.

    Thank you Oz.