Fear and Sewing in BrisVegas

Tilly at Tilly and the Buttons recently posted a sample of ten sewing techniques gleaned from a discussion on her blog.  It’s an interesting and sensible read.  I thought this was especially wise advice for a new sewist:

“Listen to other people’s sewing experiences, but don’t listen to their opinions. And by that I mean, learn from others as much as you can, but once they start saying things like ‘slide-fasteners are a pain in the back’, ‘trousers and bras are the most difficult to sew’ or ‘knit fabrics are for professionals’, it’s time to let it go in one ear and out the other. For one thing, it’s bound not to be true, and for another thing it’s up to you, not other people, to decide your limitations.” (Emma)

An Anonymous commentator took the time to respond to each tip in turn, and responded to the above:

Not very helpful, in my view. Some garments are objectively harder to sew than others. Skirts are easier to sew than a shirt or pants. Pants are easier to sew than a tailored jacket. A cotton woven is easier to sew than silk or organza or velvet. An invisible zipper is trickier than a regular zipper. Patch pockets are easier than welt pockets. It’s not a matter of opinion, it’s fact.”

Sure.  True enough. I won’t nitpick, I understand what Anonymous was driving at- honesty about our craft.  Sure.   Good point.

(Ever feel like this in the middle of a sewing project?)

And yet… I can’t help but think of all the Fear in Sewing I’ve seen.  Emma’s words don’t speak to me of any kind of dishonesty, but rather to keeping Fear out of your sewing.

I could argue there’s two types of new/intermediate sewists.  I’ve seen those who plunge headfirst into a new challenge, relishing every experience- even the catastrophic mistakes.  Then there’s those who proceed slowly, rationally, and sometimes fearfully. They are perhaps the vast majority of beginner-intermediate sewists.

I’m firmly in the first category, sometimes to my detriment.  Still, I want to understand the Fear.  I watched the Fear, listened to the Fear and thought about the Fear so I could figure out how to banish it.  The Fear slows down classes while I calmly reassure someone that if they would just take a breath, change their foot and stitch the seam for the love of Peter, they’d be fine. And they would be fine.  No one ever died in one of my classes.  Sometimes I spend more energy convincing someone to try a technique than I do actually teaching it.

I think the Fear comes from the thought of trying something new and not being perfect immediately- a fear of failure.  To compensate, the fearful sewist might try to understand sewing with her (his) brain only, without engaging her (his) hands.  I get that.  Actually trying to make something work is a lot scarier than thinking about it.

You can intellectualize sewing up to a certain point but it’s also necessary to build “fingertip knowledge.”  The fingers must learn the tactile joy of handling fabric and tools as much as the brain must learn to comprehend the sewing.

The fearful sewist is perhaps related to the conscientious perfectionist.  I mentioned this in “Perfection Is a Bitch Goddess.”  I’m not advocating slipshod technique, but I can say that perfectionism is a way to compensate for being “in over your head” on a project.

Where’s my point?  My point is that Fear in Sewing causes stress and wastes time.  Many, many beginner/intermediate sewists get the bejesus scared out of them by tales of techniques gone wrong, fabric disasters and sentences like “I HATE invisible zippers, they’re just awful to put in and never look right!”  This is where Emma’s words come in- “…it’s up to you, not other people, to decide your limitations.”

Tips to Banish The Fear:

  • The next time you hear someone griping about sewing, think of it as a reflection of their own sewing experiences without letting it color yours.
  • There’s always, always more than one way to skin a cat; anyone who tells you differently is sorely limited.  Some cat-skinning methods may be more useful than others, but they’re all ways to end up with a cat carcass and pelt.  I try to learn several ways to approach the same problem.  It vastly improves my sewing confidence.  Often a particular technique may work better in some situations than others.

And finally, if you aren’t sure what to do next on a project and all your research has failed you, take a deep breath and just try something.  Alternatively, allow yourself to place the project on the back burner for a little while.  Try to avoid complete paralysis.  A project can almost always be salvaged as long as you don’t light it on fire.

Besides, at the end of the day, it’s fabric.  It’s just fabric.

Have you met the Fear?  How do you banish it?  As a sewist, how do you handle failure?  Have you ever lit a project on fire?


  1. I definitely fall in the first camp – approaching sewing with an eagerness to tackle a challenge instead of fear of the unknown. I also don’t expect perfection of fit or skill execution, so I think I’m generally happier with the result. I always think, “Next time I’ll be able to improve on such and such.”

    I know some are paralyzed at the outset of sewing for themselves because they think it’ll be so hard to get a good fit, or whatever. And then they will overanalyze a garment they’ve made and imagine it’s much further from perfection than it really is.

    I chalk this up to personality – people have individual ways of approaching problems, and then varying levels of perfectionism. The fearless definitely progress more quickly, but maybe there’s a weakness there, too, that I’m not aware of?

    • Definitely a weakness there… Moving too quickly, jumping into projects that are too hard, or long-term projects that need a whole new skill set… Like the time I made a bed quilt from all hand-dyed fabrics. When I couldn’t find the colors I wanted, I learned to dye fabric. Which was really cool, but the whole process took me years. :)

  2. Hmm I consider myself part of the first category. Everyone else seems to disagree :) I DO want my garments to fit. Why else would I sew them myself? But I never go into paralysis. I guess things always work out in the end. I might need more time than others. And I might just redrape something – ehr everything! – on my body. And my pieces always end up pretty unique due to happy mistakes. But I have never sewn anything that I’m not happy with.

  3. I generally look up techniques on the internet. You tube has plenty of video clips of how to install a zipper etc. It also helps to use some of the scraps after cutting out the fabric to test how the fabric will behave.

    I don’t worry too much unless the fabric is expensive.

  4. Since I was eight years old, and my mother let me sew a pillowcase on her machine, I’ve had no fear about sewing. Which is odd, as I am uncommonly timid about almost everything else in life.
    Am still trying to get the image of a skinned cat out of my head, since I find myself wondering: A. How would I cook a cat carcass: and B. What could I make with cat leather?

    • Hehehe. I believe a little Thyme brings out the flavor of a well-skinned cat.

      As for the cat leather… I don’t know about you, but I’ve always wanted to work with fur for a little hat or capelet… ;)

      • Line mittens or slippers? Earmuffs? Depends on the size of the cat, I reckon. Also whether it was long-haired or short-haired.

      • I think maybe Persian earmuffs might be quite the thing… Little ear fluffies… (I’m a catlover, too… But the whole “skin a cat” is too much fun to play with… )

        Or a Siamese tippet…

  5. I’m definitely in category #1. I’m pretty much self taught so I just kind of had to just have at it. I’ve only had a few things come out unwearable so far. I’ve not burnt any though. lol! I have picked up some bad habits though….

    • You sound like me! I had many bad habits worked out of me through working in the sewing shop, plenty of constructive criticism all the time and it helped me so much… :)

  6. I’m not sure if I’m consistently in one category or the other, but thanks for this post- it is very helpful. I’ve feared alot of really pretty things and put them out of my reach before and that doesn’t help me progress at all- this advise will.

    • I’m glad.. :)

      I used to put certain skills “out of my reach” because I didn’t think I could do them at all. Once I tried (drafting comes to mind), I realized I’d overthought it.

  7. I am a sewist constantly paralyzed by fear, granted, but I’ve never read someone else’s blog and let their opinions decide what my fears are. I’m not sure why anyone would? Maybe it’s just I’m so far entrenched in my own gripping fear of failure that everyone else’s issues just roll off my back.

    (for the record I love knits, hate buttonholes, have a constant pile of UFO’s, and feel extraordinary guilt of wasted money if my project doesn’t work out. The fabric! Oh all the beautiful wasted fabric…. *weeping* *weeping* *weeping*…)

    I think what it comes down to is a life thing… I am who I am… but I can do better. It probably starts by pulling myself up by my bootstraps and drying my eyes and sitting myself back down at the sewing machine, instead of only reading about what everyone else is doing…

    • Well, I don’t necessarily mean hiding under your bed fear… But if a well-known blogger you respect said something like “Oh, this silk charmeuse is impossible to work with, I can’t keep my seams from slipping no matter what I do!” that might seep into the brain and you could easily have a “thing” against silk charmeuse…

      Most people I know sew A LOT and everyone has a big pile of UFOs. Just remember to put on your tinfoil hat when you go into the sewing room. ;)

  8. When I had my little girl my mum told me this “everyone will give you advice, listen to them, then do it your own way”, it’s the best bit of advice ever (also passed on to my daughter when she became a mummy) I apply this to my crafting too, seems to work for me anyway!!! X

  9. Can I be both? I am afraid of the actual sewing machine, and would much rather hand sew everything if it took less time – I am convinced I will sew through my fingers, despite not actually being able to phisically get them into a position where this would be possible. This fear led to me not sewing between the ages of 8 and 22. I still have to sometimes OUT LOUD tell myself that the machine will not hurt me. But I jump in at the deep end making things without (bought) patterns and figuring out how to put an opening in the middle of a french seam and blah blah blah. I’ve been TEMPTED to set some things on fire though..

    • Yes, I’ve been sorely tempted, too. :) I’m interested to know why you’re afraid of the sewing machine? I think saying it won’t hurt you out loud is a good way to train your brain.

      • I have a memory of my mother telling me her brother sewed through his fingers and had to be taken to hospital. She denies this ever happening, so I probably heard it somewhere else. Or dreamed the whole thing. But I can’t get the idea that its going to happen to me out of my head. Irrational fears YAY.

  10. Oh wow, I am on the other side of the world from you but we are sharing the same mental space right now. I just finished writing a blog post about this issue but from my own point of view. I am not often defeated by my sewing experiments, but I am often emotionally charged by them. I want to improve my craft, and so I try difficult things…which sometimes do not work out as planned. ah, well.

  11. I, luckily, am definitely NOT a perfectionist. I’m totally okay with mistakes. I think that keeps the fear away.

    I am, however, married to the most type A, obsessive perfectionist that ever was. Makes me want to be even less of a perfectionist, if that’s possible.

    • I think acceptance of mistakes is a very very good way to keep away the fear. :) The Fear is usually a beginner/intermediate type issue, and the kind of thing that keeps people from learning to sew, but I think most commentators here are rather fearless. It’s wonderful.

  12. I just love the title of this post :-) Of course one could take insane quantities of drugs to keep the fear at bay? Or would that bring on the paranoia? To be honest, I often sew with a couple of relaxing drinks under my belt. That probably gives me a bit more courage!
    I’ve never set anything on fire and I think muslins have saved me from a few disasters. When I was much younger, it wasn’t fear but frustration that would get me. Now I’m a parent, I have truckloads more patience and have found the joy in sewing challenges. I might need to unpick, adjust, re-do again, be satisfied with less than utterly perfect, but least a sewing machine doesn’t ask questions like “Mama, is it tomorrow today?”

    • I think the drugs might not be best mixed with sewing, but I wouldn’t know. :) It was too catchy a title not to use, and I think that sometimes in the middle of a big suddenly-confusing sewing project we’ve all passed through “Bat Country.”

      I hear you about becoming a mother and also more patient… Do I ever. :)

  13. Sewing for others has ruined my nerves. Even though I have 35 years of experience, some of it as a full time dressmaker and costumier, I can overthink just about anything. If it is for someone else. If it’s for me, no worries. I know what I am like when I am the recipient, and there are no surprises, or shocks! ;-)

    • I think sewing for others as a job is a special calling. Big rewards at times (making that perfect dress for a lovely bride..) but other times… It would be very special and nerve-racking. :)

  14. I’m definitely in the first category – I learn faster by doing and then hopefully getting better the more I repeat something.
    My worst habit is feeling limited by my technology and tools which is a complete cop-out. Right now I’m all like “I can’t make dresses without a pattern cos I don’t have a dress form” etc etc. Some of it may be valid I guess but I always think if I had just one more thing, I would be “better”.

    And skinning cats….My little kitty Puss would make the loveliest collar – I keep telling her that too ;-P Her fur is so soft and silky.

  15. I’m also in the first category – plunge right in. I think I wouldn’t try new techniques if I thought about it too much. I might convince myself I couldn’t do it. BUT I did go through some fear the first time I bought fabric that cost more than $20/yard. I was afraid to cut it. I got over that by letting time pass and then it was OK.

  16. A lovely well thought out post – thank you! I have finally shifted from the Fear to the I can do that! and it’s wonderful. Some things work, some things have actually been set on fire (rare but true!). If a project really turn out, it is almost always fine for wearing around the house or in the garden. All projects give you information and help train your hands/eyes/mind which gets used in the next project. It’s all good and we are always learning.

  17. The first thing I ever sewed was a Renaissance costume – shift, bloomers, boned bodice and skirt. I still have everything but the bodice, as everything has stood the test of time, including camping in mud and machine washing. Many might think that was the deep end, but I felt it was really quite simple.

    Modern clothing took me longer to get into due to a fear of darts and zippers, but really they just require a little patience and aren’t terribly difficult. In fact, I’ve started just making things up to test pattern fit. Everything is wearable, and fits better than purchased clothing. So even if it’s not perfect, I don’t mind. I’ll just try again! Well, unless I’m cutting into fabric my Gramma gave me. That I’m doing mockups for!

    • Sometimes I think about the durability of the cut of some of those “ren faire” type garments that are based on historical garments… Like they’re already designed to be durable from the beginning..

      • Fabric choice also plays a big part in it. I was lucky I used batiste for the chemise and bloomers, and a lovely cotton suiting for the skirt and bodice. It’s probably the most expensive thing I’ve ever sewed.

        Most of my modern clothes suffer from low quality fabrics – colours that fade, loose weaves that lose shape, etc. My mindset is changing though, since my apartment is so tiny. Quality over quantity, I hope!

        • YES! Yes yes yes! I had a similar ephiphany– I thought “Why would I possibly use only the “good stuff” for repro/costumes/cocktail dresses/stuff I don’t wear often, when I can use the “good stuff” for garments I constantly wear and enjoy?” :)

  18. I’m somewhere between. My natural bent is to avoid because of fear of failure. My age has pushed me along to say “now is that reasonable?” And usually it is not. Some co-workers who replicate old dresses reminded me of my love of that very thing when I was a teenager. I was afraid to start it up again because this time around I was aware of the concept of authentic. If I couldn’t do it authentically I wouldn’t do it. Then I realized it wouldn’t be authentic if I couldn’t legally get whale bone and ivory! If I can give on that fact I can give on other issues like technique (due to lack of knowledge and experience), and materials (because of money and availablitly). If I’m not entering a contest (none in my neck of the woods) I am free to use close match synthetic fibers if I can’t afford real silk. I can machine sew if hand sewing seems to daunting. A Victorian seamstress would use what is at her disposal.

    • I think the process you’re talking about is a way to build your own authenticity. Wikipedia: “Authenticity refers to the truthfulness of origins, attributions, commitments, sincerity, devotion, and intentions.”

      I sometimes feel the word “authenticity” gets used in a way that implies only a particular way of doing something is “right.” But that’s inadequate, I think.

      You’re right. A Victorian seamstress *would* use whatever was at her disposal. There’s still something to be said about painstakingly re-creating a garment or a look, but it’s not the only way that’s “good” or useful.

      • That is true. I like the part of the definition from wikipedia that says sincerity, devotion and intensions. It implys that authentically replicating a dress is not all about the mechanics. It is about the over all feel of the dress. A fabric of an original dress may be a certain kind but that same type of fabric may not be made in the same way today so it would fall differently. You can be authentic and buy the fabric of the correct name and fiber content but the dress will be unauthentic because it doesn’t fall the same way. Another fabric by a different name and fiber content may be a better choice because it will move and behave in a way the original seamstress would have intended. Then you factor in money. I have a lady of qualities taste with a farm girls budget! Most times the real thing is out of my league! Now a days people buy knock off puses and cubic zirconia because they like the look of the real thing but can’t afford it. That can’t be a modern concept. Folks in the 1800s would have done the same thing. And I’m not about to buy 10 meters of fabric at $80 a meter for something I’m going to a costume party for only to have it get grass stains on it! At this point in my sewing hobby I am not going to making something of museum quality!

        • Yes… I’m not much of a historical costumer these days, but I do think there’s value in doing historical garments both “ways”: either with painstaking attention to accuracy and detail, or working to create a garment that is wearable and useful in a modern world (which includes compromising materials if necessary.) Both ways “work,” but I’m just a dressmaker. ;)

  19. So true! It seems like every time I make a pair of pants, someone comments (and not always new sewists, either) how they “don’t do fly zippers.”

    Now, jeans were about the fifth truly wearable item I made. And my fly zippers are far from perfect—but they’re adequate, they work, and I’m getting better.

    In some ways I’m glad I never “learned to sew” properly. While I’m sure it would’ve saved much time and could still teach me plenty, I never learned fear. I never learned that seams had to be finished just so, that stitching had to be perfect or it wasn’t acceptable.

    I guess ultimately it’s a balance, between perfection (and possible paralysis) and progress (but possible sloppiness.) There’s good and bad on either side. But all else being equal, I’d rather just sew.

    Great post! :)

  20. Good post and discussion. I’m more in the first camp. I learned to sew at a young age but I was always jumping in over my head. I’d get frustrated a lot, mostly because I didn’t understand why things were turning out a certain way, but I soldiered on. Everyone learns differently; whenever tackling a new subject or skill, my approach is more like total immersion. The beginnings are awkward but the skills and understanding come together and compound more quickly.

    I often wonder if some sewing fear is a machine-related thing. Some are more mystified by machines than others? You’re so right about fingertip knowledge–I prefer to see sewing skill like any other skill, a combination of intuition and knowledge that builds from practice. It’s not the sum of skills or techniques or even being able to finish a certain type of garment. I’ve often wondered if I ever taught a sewing class, that I’d just start with having students make samples. That way the expectations don’t go over the horizon.

    • I think perhaps that “immersion” is a kid thing… Kids are used to not completely understanding something before they jump in, right?

      You could teach a learning to sew class with just samples, but I find often a beginner student needs to see some kind of tangible product of their efforts, which is fair enough. I don’t know that sample sewing would go over well with beginners, though intermediate students looooove samples, because they know it will improve their other sewing.

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