When A Mistake Makes It Perfect

As I continue my purveying of vintage linens, I wash and iron these old pieces, and have time to think about perfection.

This homely little scrap of cloth meets my own criteria for perfection.

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First of all, it declares what it can do for its owner.

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I’ve always loved these linens that boldly state what they’re for! They come from an era when being a homemaker was a serious undertaking and women wanted to be covered for every eventuality.

This little bread cloth wants us to know it is for Toast! Not bread, not dinner rolls, just toast, dammit.

I also love it, of course,  because it is handmade. The work is done by hand. it’s not really difficult work—a bit of satin stitch embroidery and some drawnwork. Because of the simplicity, I envision a young woman, plying her needle, honing her skills, and thinking about keeping house. Thinking about growing up and getting married and bringing toast to the table with a pretty cloth, daydreaming . . .

And it appeals to me because it’s oddball. The quirky always speaks to me. I see so many damask tablecloths, so many dishtowels printed with bright flowers, so many pretty-but-simpering embroidered table runners. Nice, often very nice, but common.

But I’ve never seen a toast cloth before!

The most perfect aspect of this little cloth, though, is that it gives evidence of an imperfect human. I didn’t notice until I was ironing that the cloth bears an evident mistake. That daydreaming girl was, perhaps, in a bit of a fog. Or she was in a hurry to finish and do something more pressing or more interesting (maybe go flirt with a boy). Or maybe she was trying to figure out how to escape the life society had assigned to her, escape the sewing and cooking. Maybe she was dreaming of going to college and heading a major corporation.

Whatever. Wherever her mind was, she missed a whole line of drawnwork in her stitching.

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We can see that she cut the threads and pulled them out of the fabric but she failed to do the stitches that would define the drawnwork and finish the design.

She was human. She made a mistake that a machine wouldn’t make. Her hand missed stitches, her attention flagged, and by objective measures, she screwed up.

And yet . . . it’s the very flaw that elevates the work and makes it special.

I find this endearing and incredibly reassuring.

Seeing this mistake makes me like the girl who did the work—she is real to me, she is human, in a way she would never be, if her work was without flaw.

And I can also relate to her. I am human and I make mistakes.

Her mistake helps me understand that, in our world of making and creating by hand, mistakes and oversights are more than just inevitable.

Mistakes and oversights can be charming, they can be more engaging than perfection. They reflect the work of a real person and, in so doing, they can touch and appeal to other real people.

I’m not saying I’ll go out of my way to  make mistakes (as if that were necessary!) I’m not saying I’ll be sloppy and stop striving for a very fine finished product. I’m just recognizing that a mistake can enhance, rather than detract from, the appeal of work done by hand.

The mistake can make it perfect.

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!

Simply Human—We Don’t Have to Be Perfect!

quilting_amish_diamond_centerWhen I was more actively involved in quilt making, I remember reading that Amish women, the makers of some of the most fabulous quilts ever (if you ask me!), always made sure to include a misplaced patch of fabric or a few incorrect stitches in any quilt they made. The thinking was that only God was perfect and that it was arrogant for a human to attempt perfection. Including an intentional mistake was acknowledgement of human fallibility and humility.

In the “loving hands at home” world, mistakes and missteps abound—and the mistakes remind us that we are real and our products aren’t going to be perfect, and it’s okay to say, “Hey, at least I tried!”

In the world of Pinterest, where all the homes are beautiful and all the handmade projects above average, some people are celebrating their imperfection, and maybe, just maybe, creating imperfection for its own sake. Just type “craft fail” in the search bar and look at some of the boards with that title!

I love finding the imperfections that come, it seems, from busy, distracted hands at home. These vintage towels I saw for sale on eBay crack me up.

Firday towelback Thursday towelI can understand the accidental misspelling of “Friday” but how did the word Thursday get stitched backwards? Either the maker a) was majorly distracted, b) was sampling the dandelion wine, or c) had a wicked sense of humor!

I try to be pretty relaxed when I make something that doesn’t turn out exactly as I planned. I want it to be structurally sound (or edible, when it’s food). I want it to be worthy of the time I put into it. But if I make a mistake, I don’t quit the whole thing and throw it away and I usually don’t start over. I try to find a way to incorporate the mistake and move on. After all, I’m only human!

How about you? Are you a perfectionist? I hope you can laugh and accept the missed stitch, the runny frosting, and the little quirks that prove your items weren’t made by a machine!