A Failed Attempt

 

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.

 

failed refashioned sweater 2

 

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.

 

failed refashioned sweater 3

 

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.

 

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On Scheduling Less

And what Zen has to do with the infinite list

 

calendar page

 

When I first realized the truth of the infinite list*¹, I knew it was a big shift, but I wasn’t sure what it meant I should do.  I’ve had a few months to think about that now, and I’m ready to put a few ideas out there. In the language of that NPR post*⁶, I’m advocating utter surrender. And acceptance, and curiosity, and a huge sigh of relief. I’m advocating letting go of the unreasonable expectations we hold over our own heads, for whatever reason. Let’s talk about it.

(You may have noticed that I’m going old-school with the citations here.  Otherwise I was trying to jam too many things into one little paragraph.  All the numbers refer to the numbered list at the bottom of the post, you can find more info about my sources there.)

From the beginning of the infinite list idea, I kept wanting to associate it with Zen, or Buddhist ideas, or mindfulness, but I wasn’t quite sure how or why. So I decided to do a little research. The first book I read*³ mentions a cultural idea of “that’s very Zen” which can mean something is minimalist or tranquil, and maybe those were the ideas I had in my head. As I read further though, I found some actual Buddhist/Zen ideas that did have something to do with what I was getting at. (Both of the books I read were by Zen Buddhists, so I’m not entirely clear on where one ends and the other starts … may need more research.)

 

winter in nm 1(These photos are from a winter trip to New Mexico a couple of years ago.)

 

The Buddhist idea that resonates with my ideas right now the most is that of trying to see past appearances and old patterns, into the truth of the moment. I’m interested in choosing what I will actually make next, and making it, instead of spending lots of time dreaming and planning, but not much time making. I’m interested in finding out how much progress I can actually expect, like how many projects can I really do in one winter, rather than fantasizing that I’ll make them all.

I read this quote by Alan Watts earlier this year*⁵, and it was the best expression of just exactly how I’d like to relate to life I think I’ve ever seen:

“For the perfect accomplishment of any art, you must get this feeling of the eternal present into your bones — for it is the secret of proper timing. No rush. No dawdle. Just the sense of flowing with the course of events in the same way that you dance to music, neither trying to outpace it nor lagging behind. Hurrying and delaying are alike ways of trying to resist the present.”

 

It may not seem like it, but this has everything to do with my life as a maker. I spend an awful lot of my time, and thus my life, making and thinking about making. By choice! It’s a major part of how I define myself and what’s important to me, and a great source of joy and satisfaction. But if my making time is crowded with expectations, with piles of projects that MUST be done, one coming right after the other, even with an un-doable number of ideas floating around and tapping me on the mental shoulder all the time, then I’m not present, not enjoying or relating to the moment, even though the act of making something with my hands can be a beautiful expression of myself in a moment in time, if I let it.

 

winter in nm stacked pots

 

I’m scheduling less. I’m vowing to surrender completely to the idea that I can’t do anywhere close to everything I’d like to, and so what matters is what I’m doing now. I’ve been literally writing fewer things on my calendar, and trying to understand how much I can expect to get done in a day, a week, or a month. The longer time frames are the hardest, at least for me, and I’m definitely still working on getting this right. Even so, having a little calendar, weekly goals, and daily tasks which I try to keep at a reasonable level, is helping me feel less overwhelmed and more present.

For a long time I thought I thrived on having a ton of ideas at once, and working on different projects at the same time, a bit of this and a bit of that. It seemed the more ideas I got, the more would appear, and it felt very creative and energizing and full of sparks and life. But lately, partly thanks to Felicia*², I’ve been thinking about focus. That maybe, if I head straight for the things I want, just a few at a time, I’ll actually make more progress? Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a firm believer in taking some little time for creative projects every day, I need it! But I’m starting to think I went too far the other way, until the ideas themselves were at the center, and I was generating more of them and completing fewer. As I’ve been on this journey of working more in the here and now, I find fewer spontaneous ideas popping up into my consciousness, but call me crazy, the ones I do get seem more thought out, more relevant. I like this way much better than a crazy swarm of ideas I’ll never get around to.

I’m letting ideas go. Let’s be clear, I still have lots of ideas that pop into my head, many more than I need. If they seem important/good ones, I try to write them down or sketch them out, to get them out of my head, and have them stay out there until their time comes up, if it ever does. And if not, that’s fine with me too.

Besides the ideas in my own head, I’m sure it hasn’t escaped your notice that more new indie patterns than one person can possibly sew come out just about every month, not to mention all the projects on Ravelry, Pinterest, etc. I do love this digital revolution that’s fueling our maker movement, but I don’t go surfing around looking for “inspiration,” unless I’m actively looking for a pattern or researching a particular thing. This is a really personal choice, and it will be different for everyone. For me, I’ve found that I get much more satisfaction out of sitting down to make something I already have the idea for, than out of looking at new ideas.

 

winter in nm 2

 

Sounds like I’m on the path to crafting enlightenment, right? Well, maybe. Let’s just say I’m still figuring it out. The holidays were a perfect excuse to go back to dreaming of random projects, grossly over-estimating how much I can do in a short space of time, and scheming ways to fit in more making at the cost of other things. But, I made a chicken pattern, and then the chickens! I have no regrets, I loved the things I made, and the results when folks got the packages. At the same time, part of what I’m hoping for from putting this post together is to get back on the path, closer to where I was in November.

 

chickens 2Chickens!

 

So here’s another Zen idea for you: forgiveness, starting over again, and again, however many times it takes.

By the time you read this, Bryan and I will be visiting his family in MI, and then heading to the East coast for an opening of his work at the Griffin Museum, and then a little quality time with one member of my family who I don’t get to see nearly enough. For the two-week trip, I’m taking yarn for a pair of socks to knit, supplemented by a little extra to experiment with, for my upcoming class on socks. That’s it. Ok, and maybe the finishing touches for the mittens I’ve been making Bryan, if I don’t finish them before it’s time to go.  Witness my heroic effort to accept the fact that this, combined with thinking and taking notes about socks for my knitting students, will be plenty (after all we’ll be spending a lot of the time with little ones, who have their own way of taking over your whole life), and that knitting is a really good activity for this kind of time (blogging is not). If I did what I usually do: take my laptop and fantasize that I’ll find time for some research or writing, I’m kidding myself, and that doesn’t help anyone. It just makes me grouchy because I couldn’t realize what I wanted, and then I feel like I’m behind, when in fact it’s a trap I’ve set for myself. This is what I’d like to do with all my plans, not set myself up for disappointment, but focus on what I can do.

By the way, I have no plans at this time to actually become a Buddhist …  But these ideas are pretty compelling, right? What do you think? What path would you like to be on in the next year?

 

Further reading

This post draws on just about everything I’ve read and thought about in the last 6 months, and a lot of it goes much further back. I owe particular debts to:

1. Sarai, editor of Seamwork magazine (and head of Colette patterns).  She asked me to distill an essay about the infinite list from my original post, for the January issue!  I’m excited and proud to be published there, and grateful for the encouragement this assignment gave me to keep thinking about all this.  (Did you know that “focus” was Sarai’s watchword in 2014?)

2.  Felicia of The Craft Sessions, for writing the most thoughtful sewing/making blog I’ve found, maybe … ever?  Seriously, it’s fantastic.  Several of the ideas here have bounced around there first, either in the comments, or in my head as I read what she’d written.

3.  Tell Me Something About Buddhism: Questions and Answers for the Curious Beginner by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel.  If you’re curious too, I thought this was a great book to start with.  Not everything in it made sense to me as I read, but when I started the next book, I realized it made much more sense than it would have without reading this one first!

4.  Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki.  Despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that it contains phrases like “Do not think you will necessarily be aware of your own enlightenment,” I really enjoyed reading this book as little further introduction to Zen.

5. Alan Watts was a British philosopher who was one of the first to bring Zen thought to the West.  I discovered this quote via Brain Pickings.  It’s from a book I would really like to read more of, but my library is lacking so I may have to pick up a copy elsewhere:  Does It Matter? Essays on Man’s Relation to Materiality

6. Although not about making, but about taking in culture, especially books, this is totally relevant: The Sad, Beautiful Fact That We’re All Going To Miss Almost Everything on NPR’s monkey see blog.

Also, I’d like to publicly thank my sweet family, particularly the Albuquerque branch, for being spiritual seekers, and introducing me to the ideas that were floating around in my head when I started thinking about all this.

 

Happy New Year everyone!