As you may have guessed by the title, today we’re going to chat about those frustrating early days of crafting. Whenever we pick up a new craft, or pursue any new creative endeavour, there is inevitably frustration because you have a firm idea in your head about what you want your finished piece to look like, but it’s just not up to your ideal standard straight away. I honestly don’t know a single creative person who hasn’t been through this exact scenario … and I’ll start with a little story.
A few years ago, a friend asked me for some advice. She’d started creating gorgeous handmade things for the first time in her life, and wanted to know how she could go about turning her new-found hobby into a little business. Handmade and business are two things I could talk about all day long … and we did just that! We talked about pricing, and materials, and batching, social media, how to choose the right market and so much more. But something was bothering her … she kept bringing up the same issue over and over again. She had a really clear picture in her head of the thing she wanted to make, but the things she was actually making were falling short of her ideal vision. She was frustrated by it, and I understood (because I had experienced the exact same thing), but I couldn’t quite explain properly what it would take to get from where she was now, to where she wanted to be with her handmade items. Some years later I came across this quote by Ira Glass (best known for his radio show ‘This American Life’), and it said everything I wish I’d been able to say to her on that day.
It’s usually referred to as ‘The Gap’, and I’ve seen it worked into beautiful memes, printables and videos by creative people who must also agree … this is what we wish every creative person knew from day 1! You can find links below to the video and print versions, as well as the original audio recording of Ira Glass speaking these life-changing words.
“Nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish somebody had told this to me — is that all of us who do creative work … we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, OK? It’s not that great. It’s really not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste — the thing that got you into the game — your taste is still killer, and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you, you know what I mean?
A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people at that point, they quit. And the thing I would just like say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be — they knew it fell short, it didn’t have the special thing that we wanted it to have.
And the thing I would say to you is everybody goes through that. And for you to go through it, if you’re going through it right now, if you’re just getting out of that phase — you gotta know it’s totally normal.
And the most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work — do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week, or every month, you know you’re going to finish one story. Because it’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you are actually going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions. It takes a while, it’s gonna take you a while — it’s normal to take a while. And you just have to fight your way through that, okay?”
OK … so, while I feel like he’s talking mostly about writers here, and lots of people would apply this to artists as well, I believe this is 100% applicable to us as crafters. We are creative people, doing creative things. I have experienced this every time I have picked up a new craft, starting from scratch. I always have a vision for how I want the process to be effortless, the result to be stunning, the workmanship to be flawless … but at the beginning I make paint blobs, and create uneven stitches, use my seam ripper a thousand times and mutter swear words under my breath at my tools (ok, sometimes there’s shouting and tears).
There is honestly only one way to bring your current skills up to the level that will create the ultimate finished piece … and that is practice. I’m not going to say that practice makes perfect … mostly because I am a recovering perfectionist, and perfection really is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. What I will say is that practice makes better. Here is another story that I feel illustrates this point best of all. It is from a book called Art & Fear by David Bayles & Ted Orland … I will link to my source below.
The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.
His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”.
Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
In all my years of crafting, I have found this to be true. If I am designing a crochet pattern, and I really, really want to get it right, I don’t just make it once, then send it off to the magazine. No. Like any good science experiment I will try to recreate the results by using my original notes to replicate the finished piece. Every single time, without fail, I will find mistakes and flaws in my original design, and the more I work it and make adjustments to the pattern, the better the piece becomes. There is a crochet owl pattern I made in my very early pattern writing days, and I know I made it at least a dozen times before I was happy with the end result. Even when I was learning to crochet, it took a really long time to get it right. I had no idea how little I knew about crochet, and just when I thought I knew it all, along would come some new stitch, or the bombshell that there are THREE different ways to describe one stitch, and they were all different and therefore confusing. I couldn’t turn out the incredible pieces I wanted to make, because I was still learning. I had to learn how different plys of yarn worked, how different hook sizes effected the yarn, how to splice in a new colour seamlessly, and even just become comfortable with the yarn and hook in my hand. It took a long time!
So, if you’re wondering why your cards aren’t as good as you want them to be, or why the corners aren’t lining up on your quilt tops, why your embroidery stitches are uneven or your knitted hat is entirely the wrong size … there is only one thing for it. You just need to make a LOT of things, because it is in the hands-on making experience that you learn. It is by making mistakes that you really learn, and by repetition that you really really learn your personal preferences, how to tweak a pattern, how to create on the fly, how to get the best results from your materials.
It might take a long time, it might not … but hands down, the best way to bring your skills up to meet your vision is to get hands-on.
Now, it’s all very well and good for me to tell you to just make lots and lots of things, but that leaves you with a little problem that I’d also like to address. What do you do with all those things you’re making while you’re building your skills? I promise not to leave you up to your elbows in dolls or quilt tops or cards or knitted jumpers without suggesting some things you can do with the pieces that you are making in the pursuit of excellence
1 Donate them
There are so many amazing charities that you can craft for. Do a Google search, and don’t forget to add your country, for your craft. For example … crochet for charity in Australia. A whole bunch of websites will come up, and you can surely find a charity that needs something that you can make at your current skill level. Often there is a pattern provided, and guidelines, and these days you’ll also likely find a Facebook group full of people who are making the same thing for the same organisation, and they will have lots of hints and tips to help you out. Perhaps you can crochet octopuses for NICU units, booties & bonnets for an angel gowns association, pouches for orphaned wildlife or vests for penguins who need help after an oil spill. So, go search for your particular craft and see if you can create pieces to donate. It’s great skill building, it makes you feel good, it can fill in empty time, and the best bonus is that you aren’t filling your house with whatever it is you’re working on, and wondering where on earth you’re going to put another crocheted blanket! You can also look at donating locally, perhaps to a charity looking for prizes to raffle off for their fundraiser, the school mothers day stall, the local nursing home to give to residents, Ronald McDonald House, hospitals, hospice units … so many places that would be delighted to receive your handmade donation.
2 Gift them
Giving handmade items as gifts is a wonderful thing to do. A lot of loves goes into a handmade gift, but this is where I offer a word of warning. Not everybody appreciates a handmade gift, so test the waters with something small, and see how it is received. It’s not a personal slight on you, it’s just that not everybody understands, appreciates or even likes handmade items. It is heart breaking when you’ve put hours and hours of effort, not to mention a very large amount of money, into a handmade gift, only to have the recipient turn their nose up at it, not use it, bin it or give it away. I have been there, and it’s soul crushing! So test it out with a handmade card first. Some people love them, but some people think you’re being cheap … those are the people for whom I recommend purchasing a gift rather than making one. Save yourself the distress, and the inner rage as well as your time and effort and money … and save your beautiful handmade creations for somebody who will truly appreciate them.
3 Sell them
We’ve all had that moment, just like my friend, when we think to ourselves “Hey, maybe I could sell this”. Or perhaps a friend or work-mate sees what you’re making and suggests that you could sell them. This is why I had a handmade doll business for several years. I was absolutely obsessed with a new raggedy ann style pattern I had bought on Etsy, and I’d never made dolls like that before. At first they weren’t coming out quite like I wanted them to (mostly because I suck at satin stitch embroidery) … so I made a lot! And then when I was happy with my workmanship, I just kept having ideas for different ways I could dress them and embellish the clothing. I could start adding in other crafts, like painting and smocking and even more embroidery stitches to create really unique dolls. Before I knew it, I had dozens of dolls in the house. I couldn’t find anywhere to donate them because of their yarn hair, and my kids had enough dolls, and I had no nieces or nephews back then … so I opened an Etsy shop! And then when I found myself bored with the Raggedy Ann dolls, plus I wanted to make a more practical doll that could be machine washed, I found another pattern, worked up a dozen or so to perfect it, and then started selling those. That one doll style kept me busy for about 4 years, and were loved by many little girls and boys all over the country.
4 Reuse them
This one depends a little on what it is you’re making, and what your materials are. If you are learning how to sculpt with clay, make something, photograph it, then smash it down and reuse the clay. This gives you experience without being left with dozens and dozens of sculptures that you don’t know what to do with. Yarn is another good one for this. When I was learning to crochet, I would sit with a YouTube video and create the piece, then unpull the whole thing, restart the video and do it again. Sure, the yarn eventually became too matted to use, but I was able to learn the method and stitches without being left with a pile of finished pieces. Part of a ball of yarn was a sacrifice I was willing to make to hone my skills without filling my home. You can paint over a used canvas, so if you’re a painter, that’s a great option down the track. For some crafts you will be able to repurpose the materials form your early attempts. It saves money as well as space.
Lastly … a great way to build your skills a little faster is to
take a class or do a course. When you
are working with a teacher who is experienced in the craft you are learning, they
already know all the tips and tricks, shortcuts and ways to get great results. It’s kind of like paying for a shortcut. Sure, you still need to put in the work, but
instead of sitting at home, muddling it out for yourself, you will have a
guide. Your teacher will be able to correct
your brush stroke, help you fix the thing that’s making your seams bunch up and
explain it to you at the same time, show you the difference between US and UK
crochet terminology … and that is something that happens instantly on the spot,
because they’ve already been through that process, and can help you find the
answers quickly so that you can get on with the making. Craft teachers are a great resource, and I
have to say, whenever a student goes past my skill level it is one of the
proudest days of my life. I am delighted
to pass them on to a specialist teacher and watch them blossom in their chosen
So, if you are in that phase of frustration, remember … it’s just a gap, and you can bridge it at your own pace. Make the beautiful things, practice, seek help and enjoy the journey.
The Gap – Ira Glass
Video – https://vimeo.com/85040589
Audio – https://jamesclear.com/ira-glass-failure
Written – http://lamiki.com/2011/11/nobody-tells-this-to-beginners/
Art & Fear by David Bayles & Ted Orland