The Crafter’s Conundrum: Get It Done or Get It Right?

There comes a time in every crafter’s life, when they need to make a choice: get it done or do it right.

What is your stance on imperfections in the things you make? How do feel about the mistakes you make?

Do you look for perfection? Does your eye zoom in on the tiny error? Do you lose sight of the beautiful forest because of one misshapen tree?

Is there a difference, in your thinking, between an imperfection and a mistake?

Everyone who makes things, who uses their hands to create, faces these questions regularly.

Normally I have a high threshold for imperfection. I adhere to the philosophy of American glassblower, Simon Pearce: “The human hand can’t do anything perfectly, and that’s the beauty of it.”

I seek out imperfections in handmade items. I get a big charge out of seeing the quirky evidence of loving hands in other people’s work.

In my own work, too, I’m pretty relaxed.

I don’t like waste, of materials or money or time. I try to take the attitude that seems to have been present, by necessity, in earlier generations of crafters—will it do the job, in spite of the flaw? Yes? Then leave it be.

Of course, if I am making something for a special gift and hope for it to be cherished, I apply a higher standard but, generally, I’m very practical.

But then this quilt happened.

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The top is finished now and it looks nice but only after I fixed a pretty big mistake.

I started the quilt to practice the new technique I had learned—paper, or foundation, piecing.* I also saw it as a way to address the challenge my quilt guild had posed this year. We were to make a red and white quilt and we had to incorporate two print fabrics.

So, I made the 8-inch pieced blocks and was sooooo careful to get all the small pieces aligned correctly.

After I got the blocks made, I had to sew them all together. I did half of the top before I realized that I had set two of the blocks wrong.

The whole point of the quilt design was the diagonal line of those print fabrics running across the quilt . . . and it wasn’t happening.

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See how the top left block has the print fabrics in the wrong corners?

In two blocks, the prints were in the wrong corners. If it had been only one block, maybe I could’ve justified leaving it alone. But two, evenly spaced, was too much.

And the head of quality control agreed.

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It forced me to think about my attitude toward mistakes and to consider the difference between an imperfection and an outright mistake. There are plenty of small imperfections in this quilt and no one will notice those except me.

But the setting of the blocks was a big ol’ mistake. I needed to acknowledge it and fix it.

So I spent parts of two days doing just that.

And while I worked, I pondered mistake making and thought of my patron saint and asked myself, “What would Pollyanna do?”

I looked for the good in the situation:

  • It could’ve been much worse. I still had half the quilt top to put together and I caught the mistake before I made it many more times
  • I am unlikely to make this particular mistake again, in any quilt I make.
  • I was using a fairly long stitch and it was easy enough to pull out.
  • I own a seam ripper, at which I am, now, quite the dab hand, and another tool that made the job manageable. I’ll tell you more about that someday.
  • The deadline for the quilt guild challenge is still a few weeks away. No need to panic.
  • Mistakes like these keep me humble. Getting humbler every day . . .
  • That which does not kill us makes us strong.

Making, and fixing, mistakes, in whatever arena, works our resilience muscles, I think. If we are to be good at picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves off, and starting over again, we need to have practice doing just that.

Little mistakes, faced and fixed, give us practice for surviving the bigger mistakes, the slings, the arrows, we will inevitably face.

And knowing the difference between acceptable imperfection, which can be embraced as simply human, and larger mistakes, which must be set right, is equipment for living a better life.


* Sometimes auto correct gets it right!

As I drafted this post, I meant to type “paper piecing” and got “paper peeving” instead. And, indeed, this quilt has peeved me no end!

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Loving Hands at Sandringham

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A handmade gift can go terribly wrong but it can also go wonderfully right . . .

Imagine you’re in love.

Everything is going so well and seems so perfect.

But you’ve been invited to Christmas at his grandparents’ house and need to get a gift for his grandmother.

The pressure is on . . .

Oh, and, by the way, his grandmother is the Queen of England.

I love the story about now-Duchess Kate, who found herself with this dilemma.

How do you impress the woman who has everything? How do you set the right tone, hit the right mark, choose the right gift?

Kate Middleton seems to have gotten it just right. She turned loving hands to the task and made her gift, chutney from her own grandmothers’ recipe.

According to the reports, Kate says she thought, “’I’ll make her something.’ Which could have gone horribly wrong. But I decided to make my granny’s recipe of chutney.” Kate was reassured when the chutney appeared on the table at dinner the next day.

It seems we can learn quite a lot from Kate’s decision and from Queen Elizabeth’s response.

From Kate we learn to trust our instincts. A handmade gift, done reasonably well, communicates differently than any purchased gift can. It speaks to a confidence that the receiver will understand the gesture and be moved by it. It acknowledges that gifts are about something other than cost. And it hints at Kate’s respect for and connection to her own family, to use her grandmother’s recipe.

From the Queen we learn that it’s important to use and enjoy a handmade gift in the presence of the giver. I think the handmade gift giver is often anxious about the reception of such a gift. Is it good enough? Will the receiver think the gift is tacky or that the giver is a cheapskate? Will the receiver understand the spirit in which the gift was made and given?

Kate Middleton took a chance and Queen Elizabeth understood and appreciated it. And from this, one expects, a certain kind of connection was made that should serve them well.

So, you, you with a gift for baking or knitting or growing beautiful flowers—trust your gift and make a gift of it to others.

And you who receive such gifts—use them and enjoy them in the presence of the person who did the making.

After all, if it works for the Queen of England and the Duchess of Cambridge, it can certainly work for the rest of us!

Marching to the Beat of a Different Linen

When you hear the phrase “vintage linens” what comes to mind?

I think of sturdy linen kitchen towels with bright stripes along the edges, or lush and large white damask napkins. I think of tablecloths, and dresser scarves, and pretty embroidered pillowcases, all the usual suspects that filled the kitchen drawers and linen closets and hope chests of a day gone by.

Oh, but there is so much more! The loving hands that turned themselves to embellishing the dishtowels and napkins and pillowcases didn’t stop there! I love the unusual and quirky vintage linens that pop up occasionally.

Today, you might go to a big box store for plastic boxes when you want to organize your kitchen or bathroom. Your grandmother picked up needle, fabric and thread, and brought her creativity to bear.

I love that so many of these announce what they can do for us! But sometimes, they aren’t so forthcoming and it just isn’t clear what the funny, quirky piece was for.

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A wonderful, and old, canvas piece with pockets and hanging tabs. Apron? To hang on a towel bar?

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Very pretty hand-embroidered tabs, about 4 inches long. I have no idea what they were meant for but they would make elegant bookmarks!

Sometimes I’m even confused about what the decorations meant.

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I mean, I understand cacti and I understand lederhosen but . . . I  really don’t understand them together.

My recent favorite has had me stumped for a while.

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Top–pretty, with a slit opening in the middle

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Bottom–looks like a shower cap!

I tried it on and was pretty sure it wasn’t a bonnet. No photos of that—you’ll just need to trust me.

I was convinced it was meant to go over a serving bowl, to keep the dinner rolls warm and the flies off.

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But my husband made another guess and now I’m sure he’s right (and he wants me to acknowledge that I admitted that!) He said it was designed to go over a box of Kleenex!

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All of these oddball items, all of these special treasures . . .

I think this is, in part, why I am so hooked on vintage linens—there’s always something a little new, a little different, a little offbeat to be discovered. And in discovering these unusual items, I feel like I get a peek at the off-beat, distinct personalities of the women who made and used these things.

It’s tempting to think of our foremothers as staid and conventional and tradition-bound but some of these fun old linens, full of personality and bearing the individual’s touch, suggest that just ain’t so!

Projects . . .

Past: Yet another bunch of kitchen towels, hot off the loom.

Present: Paper pieced blocks, piling up. These are for my guild’s red and white challenge—the deadline is less than a month away!

Future: From this book:

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This pattern, in his and hers lengths:

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In these colors:

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What are you working on these days?

A Pre-ponder-ance of Making

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When you allow it to, how far does your mind wander?

As I stood at Grand Central Counter this morning, trimming dozens of pieces for quilt blocks, my mind wandered. I mused. I ruminated. I pondered.

My mind wandered widely and freely, not always deeply, but in ways so satisfying.

And this pondering, it occurred to me, is one of the reasons I love to make things by hand.

As much as I desire an endeavor that engages me and makes me focus and solve problems, as much as I want a mental challenge from the making I do, I realize that I also want periods of mindlessness, or at least of repetitive action that requires only minimal thinking.

I love to ponder and let my thoughts wander. I spend a huge amount of time in my own head, in introspection.

Almost none of this is meaningful or profound thinking. I just wonder about things. When I was child, I wondered about the fact that Santa and Satan had the same exact letters in their names . . . surely that must mean something but what? Hmmm . . .

Similarly, I pondered Skitch Henderson and Mitch Miller. Skitch and Mitch, such funny names, and they both were on TV and they both made music and they had similar facial hair.

Were they related? Surely there must be a connection but what? Hmmmm . . .

Some of my pondering has been a bit weightier, it’s true.

When I was a grad student, I needed to ponder the ideas for my never-ending dissertation. When I was teaching college, I needed to ponder ways to get difficult concepts across to my students. When I retired, I needed to ponder what would make me feel productive and good about the rest of my life.

So, yes, I am given to pondering. But I’ve found that if you just sit around and stare into space and ponder, it makes other people nervous. They think you’re wasting time or that you’re bored and they need to amuse you.

I’ve always needed a socially-acceptable cover for my ruminating. I get it to some extent, like I know many of you do, from walking. I like to take long walks—I like the exercise and, I swear, some of my best pondering occurs then.

But my feet have never been able to wander as much as my brain wants to ponder.

And that’s where making comes in. All of the creative activities I like best have processes that are necessary and important but also repetitive and easy and undemanding.

Tempering chocolate—Each batch takes about 40 minutes of simple stirring, and it can’t be rushed. Some days, I temper 4-5 batches over the course of the day. So much time to ponder . . .

Winding warp—I stand at the warping board and make the same basic movements maybe 600 times, to arrive at the numbers of threads I need to put on my loom. Lots of time to ponder . . .

Quilting—On the machine, I sew the same short seams over and over, to create the small blocks from which to create more complex ones. At the quilting frame, I make thousands of tiny, rhythmic stitches to turn the fabric into a bed cover. Endless time to ponder . . .

I ponder big and I ponder small. What will I wear to dinner tonight? How come people believe in God? What do people see in rap music? Should I increase the insulin dose I’m giving the cat? What in the world will I blog about next? Hmmmm . . .

I can get away with all this pondering because I’m engaged in making something and I appear to be busy and to be concentrating very hard. No one wants to interrupt another person if they are concentrating very hard!

So, how about you? Do you use your gardening time, your crocheting time, your kneading or stitching or purling time, to ponder?

It Pleases Me: A Personal Aesthetic

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You walk into a furniture showroom, packed with sofas, and walk right up to one and say, “This one. That’s my style.”

You flip through the pages of a clothing catalog and stop short on one page, with one outfit, and say, “There. That’s my style.”

You get ready to start your next project—quilting or weaving or knitting or gardening and, in a world full of options, you know just what you want to do because you know “that’s my style.”

You probably can recognize your style, or your personal aesthetic, when you see it embodied in home furnishings or clothing or craft, but have you ever tried to articulate it?

In my ongoing attempts to explain what pleases me in terms of the making I do and, conversely, what leaves me cold, I’ve been thinking about my style.

I don’t mean style in a fashion sense, like “she’s so stylish.” If pressed to describe my fashion sense, I could tell you, quite honestly and without apology, that I have no style. Or it’s the sort of anti-style of LLBean, Orvis, and thrift shop, apparently based on a desire not to stand out in a crowd.

I’m talking more about what makes us tick, visually.

What motivates us and guides our choices, choices in what to make, how to express ourselves, what to wear, how to live?

I know I tick and you tick but what makes us tick? And what makes us tick so differently, so uniquely, so one-of-a-kinded-ly?

So, in this latest installment of craft-related navel gazing, let’s talk about our personal aesthetics, shall we?

Here’s a rundown of what I see as my style:

  • Head, not heart
  • Reason, not emotion
  • Practical, not precious
  • Traditional, not trendy
  • Timeless, not au courant
  • Nostalgic, but not sentimental
  • Understated, not flashy
  • Geometric, not organic
  • Old, with a patina of age, not shiny and new
  • Clever, not cutesy
  • Craft, not art
  • Patchwork, not appliqué
  • Solids, not prints
  • Twills, not overshot; rep weave, not lace
  • Dishtowels, not scarves
  • Saturated and low-key colors, not pastels
  • Natural fibers, not sparkly or shiny or fussy
  • Silver, not gold
  • Semi-precious stones, not diamonds (but, mostly, no jewelry at all)
  • Flats, not heels
  • Denim, not velvet
  • Wood, not plastic
  • Arts and Crafts, not Victorian
  • Art Deco, not Art Nouveau
  • Et cetera . . .

I could go on all day like this. If I got stumped, I could go to my Pinterest boards and get new, but consistent, examples to add.

My aesthetic is consistent to the point of providing humor for people who know me well. They laugh when I choose another navy blue crewneck sweater. They nod knowingly when my husband shows up in bright prints and I wear that navy crewneck and jeans—the peacock and the plain little peahen . . .

This house is full of elderly, sturdy denizens of the farm . . . and I’m not just talking about my husband and me. The furniture comes from attics and sheds and barns, not Pottery Barn. The colors do not change to reflect the Pantone color of the season. Practical trumps pretty every time—frugal Formica that doesn’t show dirt and there’s not a bit of stainless steel; dark leather furniture because the cats seem less likely to claw it.

One other aspect of my aesthetic that’s a little harder to put into words is the extent to which I am moved by the symbolic appeal of an item. I really like things that have a story behind them, a personally-meaningful provenance. If, somehow, words can be brought into the bargain, then I’m really happy! So, I can walk around my home and tell you the story of most of the items of furnishing and décor that we keep around.

In large part, the story is what makes the thing beautiful to my eyes.

My craft choices undeniably reflect my aesthetic.

I made jewelry for years, and the one thing I liked best was making these classic loop-in-loop chains. I like the fact that, originally, chains like these were made by ancient people years ago, in the same way I make them in the 21st century–the earliest examples are from 3000 B.C.! I like that they are simple, sleek, and understated. I like that they need to be made of pure silver, not sterling. I like that they are woven!

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Other jewelry I made often had a connection with the past or something with symbolic appeal. I’ve written about this brooch before—it contains a scrap of a quilt with my great grandmother’s signature.

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This charm bracelet was made to communicate my feeling about summers at “camp.”

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The quilts I’ve made are consistent with my aesthetic, too. They’re all patchwork quilts, made with traditional blocks, blocks that were chosen as much because I liked the name of the pattern as for any other reason. The quilts have been, almost always, bed-sized, because that’s what quilts are meant to be in my world—bed covers. They are made of colors that appeal to me.

Having said all this, my favorite quilt is still the 1812 Cot to Coffin quilt.

In spite of not being bed-sized, it reflects, perfectly, my aesthetic—the colors, the simplicity, the focus on hand work, the story behind the words of the song, and the story behind why the quilts were originally made. The symbolic appeal of this one, for me, is huge.

Already, as a weaver, I can see my aesthetic playing a very large role in my choice making. You know I love to make utilitarian items in “homespun” colors. I am happiest, it seems, working in patterns that focus on texture and straight lines, like twills and stripes. I know that one direction I want to move is into what’s called “rep weave”—done with blocks of color in bold geometric shapes.

I am already choosing weaving patterns based on their names! I did a scarf from a pattern called “Wall of Troy” mostly because I had to read all that ancient Greek history for graduate courses in rhetoric.

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It tickles me no end that my husband weaves an overshot pattern called “Mary Ann Ostrander” because Ostrander is a family name—I might be related to Mary Ann! Although it’s too complicated to explain quickly, there’s even a technique called “name drafting,” where the weaver encodes words into a woven work—can I tell you how that possibility thrills me?!

Here again, I could go on and on. But the point is not to catalogue every detail of my aesthetic life in (more) mind-numbing specifics.

The point is that I’ve learned a lot about myself in this exercise, both about the aesthetic rules I abide by and the ways I step outside those rules sometimes.

I’m wondering if you’ve been thinking about your own style or aesthetic as you’ve read along. My style is not right or better—it’s just my style. Your style may be incredibly different and I could find it beautiful and impressive and I might envy it . . . but it wouldn’t be my style.

So, what makes you tick? What’s your aesthetic? If you’re a blogger, maybe you’d consider writing a blog post about it, so we could all know you that much better? Or just give us a hint, here, in the comments . . .