It’s so tempting for our online lives to show only the bright side; just our beautiful finished projects (neatly ironed), our best ideas translated fluidly into tangible objects. I’ve definitely swept my share of failed makes under the rug, never to see the digital light of day. And actually I think that’s fine too—some things we learn from, and some we just don’t want to talk about. I’m going to talk a little bit about this one though, and see how it goes.
I had so many reasons to love this sweater and try to save it. My mom knit it for my grandma, and after my grandma passed on I took it, thinking I could turn it into something I would wear. It started out as your classic grandma Aran cardigan; white and long and covered in cables and textures, slightly too big for me, with a high neckline and little pearly buttons. Although I’m sure it could have fit right into some people’s wardrobes with minor adjustments, it made me look ridiculous. Maybe I should have stopped right there, but I have a lot of faith that things can be refashioned to work in a new wardrobe (built on a solid foundation of makes that have worked out).
My first attempt to refashion the sweater was a few years ago, and included: shrinking/felting it slightly, dyeing it with tea, widening the neckline, and knitting new bands for the bottom and cuffs. It was a fair amount of effort, and I still didn’t wear it much. It felt strange, and the strain on the neckline proved too much, the yarn started to pop in several places. Not sure what to do next, I put it in a plastic bin in the garage, and there it sat, occasionally nagging at the back of my mind.
I got it out again last fall at the start of Slow Fashion October. What could be a more appropriate project? And I had a plan, in several steps, thought out beforehand, which looked good in my head. I trust those plans and my ability to envision how they will come out.
I dyed more yarn and ribbon in tea. I stitched the ribbon in to reinforce the neckline. I shorted the body and used the extra to add a collar onto the (ridiculously wide) neck. I figured out what stitch pattern I had used before, and knit another piece for the collar, and then another one because the first one didn’t work (actually I think there were three attempts at the collar). I wasn’t convinced it was great, but I also wasn’t able to take a step back from all I had invested, and I went ahead and overdyed the whole thing with madder, hoping for some kind of warm soft brown. It came out, well, salmon, and that’s when I was forced to take a step back.
It wasn’t just the color, it was the spottiness of the color that really got me down. I knew this could be an issue dyeing garments (even though I haven’t had many problems using tea) and I had tried to strategize against splotches, but evidently not well enough. On top of all that, it was inescapably not my style—particularly that blasted collar.
I put it down, knowing it was no good, but not emotionally ready to let it go. It’s been a while since I had a downright project failure, particularly of something that I put this much effort and planning into. I still have plenty of “um, well, I won’t do that again,” learning moments, but at this point in my creating life, the results are usually fixable, or cause just a minor inconvenience in the finished garment. I had kind of forgotten what it feels like to have to give up completely on something that I’d worked so hard on, and how it takes the wind out of your making sails for a while. I definitely felt a little intimidated to start another project after this one.
The best silver lining I can come up with so far is this: that remembering this feeling is good for me as a teacher, in the same way that remembering what it’s like to be a beginner is good for me. There’s one big difference though: being a beginner is super fun if you have confidence you’ll get there in the end, but making a failed project is still no fun at all. I do know that my present confidence and skill is built on a whole bunch of projects that didn’t go very well (to one degree or another). And I’ve reminded myself that no time is ever wasted, as long as you’re making and learning, and enjoying the process. I just finished reading Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, and one of my favorite things about that book is how much she is reassuringly down-to-earth about stuff like this: everyone fails, everyone has droughts of creativity, and crises of confidence (even highly successful authors). What makes the difference is whether we can use the good parts of a bad experience to move forward, or we get so bogged down in the bad parts that we give up on this path entirely and look for another one.
Needless to say, one crummy sweater will not derail me from the path of any of the fiber arts I love. Thinking about this one still stings a bit, mostly because I can still see the potential in some parts of it … but I’ve accepted that I cannot make it into what I want, and I’m ready to put it in the charity pile, and let it go to meet its future, which whatever that may be, is not my responsibility any more. It took a couple months of the sweater sitting in the corner in our bedroom for me to get to this point. To tell the truth I think, with the benefit of a little hindsight, that the whole second attempt was doomed, because the neckline from the first attempt was beyond saving.
But now, I’m ready to take what I learned, leave the sweater behind, and move on. I still trust my instincts, and my ability to plan a project in my head before I start. These skills are built on years of experience, and usually the plan works. Even when it doesn’t, it’s another step moving me forward on a path which I believe in with my whole heart.
Wow! Really enjoyed reading this! I appreciate your honesty so much. I’m 62 years old and my mother turns 95 tomorrow (same day my grandson turns 9!), and she taught me how to sew. I’ve sewn many, many garments and, boy, have I had my share of failures! But I like your attitude, as long as we’re learning, that’s what counts. My mother only stopped sewing a few years ago, when her fingers got too numb to hold a needle. I owe so much in my life (including my life!) to her. And I love your blog! Thanks so much for sharing with all of us.
Hi Heather, thanks so much for the kind words! I know what you mean, my mom taught me to sew and knit etc. when I was a kid, and I think I owe a lot of what I do today to her giving me an early start. A happy birthday to your mother!
I always enjoy reading your insightful posts. Thank you for sharing this with us and making us aware that nothing is truly a failure unless we fail to learn something from it.
Thanks Barbara! We can’t expect to make things and try new things and never fail, so I think it’s important to be able to take those failures in stride.
Ah, too bad about the sweater but I so appreciate the candor with which you shared this project! For what it’s worth, I can easily see it landing with a new owner; it’s got a lovely 60s vintage feel with that collar. I have to say, what you’ve described in this post is how I feel after almost every re-fashioning project. I don’t do it a lot, but refashioning is usually a last-ditch attempt to salvage a hand-sewn item before it gets sold to a thrift store. I think refashioning is a very important and cool skill to cultivate, so my track record makes me sad!
Thanks Morgan! There are some exceptions, but overall I tend to have the best success if I can treat whatever I’m refashioning as fabric, and basically start over, or if the alterations I need are fairly minimal. It’s that middle ground where things get rough … for some reason it seems harder to envision how things will work out when I’m making big changes but not starting from scratch. So I hear you! I’ll definitely keep refashioning, but I also think one thing I’m learning is that if what I want is very far from what I’ve got, and the pieces aren’t big enough to cut into something new, it’s probably best to just leave that one for the next person to play with.
Good points – those are two situations where I’ve had refashioning luck! I’ve cut out undies and bras from failed knit fabric projects, cut fabric into quilting fodder, or shortened a hem / turned a dress into a shirt, etc.
Totally! I love how I can get a pair of undies out of the scraps from almost any other knit project. Maybe someday I’ll figure out how to do a major refashion … but sometimes I feel like there’s only so much you can do when the fabric is already shaped a certain way. If I can work with the shape it’s great, if I’m fighting it that’s trouble.