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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
*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.