Thursday, January 09, 2014

Discovering by Doing

Last month I started working on this crazy quilted tote with no particular purpose in mind. Almost everything else I'd worked on in 2013 was for gifts or promo purposes, and I wanted to do something for stitching practice. Projects like these allow me to try new ideas, too.

When I make practice projects I always use scraps and leftover floss and beads so I don't waste materials. I also try to use up supplies I don't particularly like for whatever reason (this bag got stuck with a length of velvet ribbon and a swatch of faux-silk cotton, both in bright Barbie/Pepto Bismol pink.) My logic for using unwanted bits is that if I completely screw it up I can toss it in the scrap bin without any tears.

I made some poor choices with this bag from the start: the blinding white canvas handles (neutral would have been better), two Victorian novelty prints I considered interesting (actually too busy) and a butterfly I cobbled together from an organza floral accent piece and a rhinestone earring (it looked so great in my head, but after the execution? Not so much.) I'm also a little allergic to sequins, so discovering the semi-transparent type already sewn on my silk flower and my butterfly base annoyed me. I admit, I was a bit all over the place with the color palette, too.

Despite this, I worked on this bag every night for four weeks. I didn't like it, I was already mad at myself for some of the decisions I'd made, but I also suspected I could learn something from it. I've been experimenting for a couple of years now with mixing crystals, pearls, satin ribbons and lace for embellishment. Lately I have this running pink/gold/antique white/gray theme that usually works out well, and I decided to go with some variations on the bag.

I was fairly happy with some of what I did on the front of the bag, but a satin ribbon I wanted to use for the back turned out to have a bunch of pin marks and puckers in it. Beading it the way I had planned would showcase every blemish. I also had a slightly tattered ivory cotton eyelet ribbon I'd meant to pair with the mangled ribbon, but once I pinned it in place I could see that my pearls and crystals would look a little silly edging the many large flower-shaped spaces in it.

I sewed and ripped and beaded and snipped as I tried several things I've done in the past, but none of them really worked with the ribbon or the lace. Right as I was about to toss it in the scrap bin I decided to let go of what I expected and wanted and instead try something entirely new. I sewed different-colored pearls in the eyelet spaces of the lace, and then embroidered and beaded over the mangled ribbon with contrasting beads and floss. As I was working on it I was almost 100% sure it would end up looking like crap, but what the heck. Nothing ventured, right?

Of all the work I did on the bag, the make-do/try something new sections with the lace and ribbon you see here turned out to be the best-looking of my handwork. They finished so well you might think that I'd planned it all that way from the start with brand-new materials.

We can talk about our work, and study techniques, and read piles of books about it (you don't want to know how many books on quilting and embellishment that I've read.) Having discussions as well as studying how to be better at what we do are great, and we should do as much of that as we can. That said, sometimes the only way to discover what you can do is to simply do it and keep doing it until you figure it out or you work it out or it just happens. We all know that practice really doesn't make anything perfect, but it can give you the time, space and challenges you need in order to make new discoveries about your work -- and yourself.

What have you learned to do better simply by doing it? Let us know in comments.


  1. This is a good lesson for me. I can get fixated on doing something the way I planned it and keep going when it's not working. I'm be trying to loosen up a little when I'm painting. Thanks for the reminder that it's a good idea.

    And your work is beautiful!

  2. You do realize you are insane right? My hands hurt just looking at that bag. I've done crazy quilting occasionally but only with a machine. My patience level for true quilting and any level of handwork just doesn't exist. I can crochet.... barely. But then I can fight with a computer all day long and not give up. My hands thank you for that suffering... and insane making.

  3. Fran K10:37 AM

    Binding! I've read so many tutorials on "how to" and played around with fabric until my brain buzzed. My first attempt was awful, the second only slightly awful but the 3rd go, on a hexagonal child's play mat has turned out pretty darned good, if I say so myself. Its not perfect, those mitred corners are a *stitch* to get right, but I know I can give the play mat away to my friend who's just had a baby with a measured degree of pride. My next attempt is a cot quilt I'm quilting by hand (groan) and my first proper quilt is coming along really well, so much so that I'm not terrified of the prospect of binding it now - quilting it yes, binding no! Having said all that, this time last year I didn't even have a sewing machine so I'm allowing myself to swell with pride at my own accomplishments - beaming smile!

  4. I have some joint problems, so I haven't been able to do much hand sewing in the past years. I only have so much accuracy before pain sets in. But I adore fabric and sewing. This last year, I took Alabama Chanin's online sewing class from Craftsy. Oh Lynn, I had so much fun. SO MUCH FUN. I've been a quilter for years, but I have a hate relationship with knits and clothing. Natalie's class made me confident again, and I made a tee shirt that I can actually wear. The hand-sewing is so relaxing, because the way she teaches it--my handwork doesn't have to be perfect to make a beautiful garment or a lovely scarf/table runner.

    I've been so attached to perfection in my art (and my life), that leaping in and learning something that I knew I would be 'bad' at created a lot of freedom for me.

    To me, there was a huge lesson there. Let go of perfection, and sometimes magic happens. I don't know how many stitches I made, ripped out, remade, ripped out, remade. It was a LOT. I learned that I could accidentally cut through my fabric and it back together again. Sort of like life, I guess. There isn't a way to avoid all mistakes, and that's OK. Sometimes the mistakes are important, sometimes they're just mistakes, but they're going to happen. Make some tea, breathe, try again.

    I guess that's silly, but at the same time--it was so freeing.

  5. Painting scale miniatures, for sure. As a generally self-taught painter (using articles, samples, etc. but mostly practice) I've progressed from beginner (i.e. terrible) to a skilled artist. The time spent painting teaches when to use drybrushing (good for fur) or layering (good for cloth or armour), what looks good together colour wise, how to make a model interesting without becoming a clownish riot of colour, you get the idea. It's truly a practice sport, and I feel much the same as I churn away on my novel. I know there are areas that I'll go back to later thinking "what were you doing here?!?" and other areas where I've nailed it. The next will be better, the next better still, and so on.

  6. Crocheting-I spent years doing it occassionally and very badly. I finally broke down and had a friend teach me all the basic stitches and how to read a pattern. After learning the stitches, I kept practicing. I now crochet dresses for 5 cm tall dolls, doll wigs and for the first time crocheted gifts that people were actually happy to get. I even shared a doll dress pattern I created with friends.


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