leveling up

During a conversation this past weekend, I mentioned (as I sometimes do) that I am not a very advanced sewist. Miss Lulu got annoyed with me! She told me that she didn’t want to hear me say that ever again. She wouldn’t even hear my protestations. :) It got me thinking…

me. thinking.

I often talk to people who I believe are far more skilled than I am, and yet they don’t feel well-versed in areas that I frequent confidently: knits, zippers, bust adjustments… When I think of the techniques that I feel good about now but was intimidated by a year or two ago, it’s clear to see how far I’ve come. Yet, I still think of myself as an “advanced beginner.”


I’ve noticed a couple posts about this lately, and I went on a bit of a search to see what else I could find on the topic. Clearly it’s subjective, but opinions abound. This great post from The Dreamstress describes a 10-point scale that I found interesting. If I followed it laterally, then I would fall just before #4, because of the complexity of the patterns I’ve chosen. However, I have some experience with drafting already, and I would put my alteration/fitting abilities above that as well. (As I’ve acknowledged before, I delved into that stuff earlier than most, because I had to!) And would knits be considered trickier fabrics?

tricky tricksters

In this discussion on the PatternReview boards, a member references a list of skills used in a beginners’ contest, and according to that, I am definitely beyond an advanced beginner. In reading more of that string, I realized that it has been a while since I’ve felt confused by sewing lingo or conventional pattern instructions. I began to think about it like this: I’ve been cooking for decades, yet I’ve never made coq au vin. But I do not feel intimidated by it — give me a recipe and I’m off. Sure, I may ultimately decide that the second or third technique I try for the dish is better than the first, but it is unlikely that I’m going to become stymied by the process or create something inedible. Someone who only makes canned soup and grilled cheese, however, may feel differently.

jam's not hard

When I said that I was not advanced, I didn’t mean it degradingly. I just don’t think of myself that way. I know that I can stitch nicely and create professional results with what I make, but I definitely have kept it pretty simple. There are so very many things I have yet to do — pants with a non-elastic waistband, lined garments, outerwear, bound buttonholes, welt pockets, men’s anything, soooo many styles I haven’t attempted, etc. — not to mention the areas I haven’t mastered regarding fitting.

professional sewing techniques and other things i've read about

BUT. The truth is, I’ll probably always feel that way. Nothing wrong with that! It’s a complex craft, and that’s one of the many things that keeps it interesting. There’s a part of me that wants to create an arm-long list of skills to acquire, fabrics and styles to master, techniques to explore, but I am going to resist the urge to attempt sewing completionism. For one thing, it would be futile, and for another, I’m afraid it would sap a lot of the fun out of it. Sometimes, I just want a quick fix, or I need a wardrobe hole filled, stat! But also, I can work to identify those times when I feel up for a challenge — and go for it, instead of letting fear of failure sideline me into falling back on something I know I’ll be able to accomplish easily.

(And yes Miss Lulu, I’ll now consider myself intermediate. Starting today. ;D)

a fun thing

All of these pics are from my Instagram feed — I’d love to connect with you there, if you’re in to that Instagramming kind of thing. I don’t post a ton, but I am more active there than I’ve been here lately, ha!

Comments 30

  • What a great post, Susan! You’re so erudite!

  • I loved this post! According to the Dreamstress I’m a solid 4 (I’ve been sewing for just a bit less than a year). I think we sewists are an adventurous group. I know I’ve plowed ahead with some things that maybe I didn’t have the skill level for, but it allowed me to learn new things. You’re right, we don’t always need to up the level with each project, but maybe adjust the fit etc. on projects we’re already familiar with.

    • I agree with the adventurousness, for the most part we certainly are! There are so many things that sewing does — not only are we learning, but we are also filling a variety of other needs, creative and otherwise. Thanks Shar!

  • You are one awesome girl, I thoroughly enjoy your posts. It’s a coincidence your post today…I’m having similar thoughts about myself today…..again. Had an appointment with a QuickBooks consultant today as I was concerned that I may be too amateurish to be producing such reports for one of my customers. After she reviewed my reports, she sort of looked at me like “I really don’t get why you think they’re anything other that perfect”? Time after time this happens to me, one would think that after a few affirmations I would get it…..get that I really can label myself as “excellent” at stuff. “For me”, I think it’s a high/low confidence swing. Would just love for that swing to get stuck in the “high” position! :)

    • Awwww how sweet are you, thank you Debbie! I do think confidence has a lot to do with it, and yes, wouldn’t it be nice to exude that around the clock?? :D

  • Congrats on leveling up! Good for you. I think each of us goes through the journey in our own way. I need my lists to push me out of my comfort zone. What happens to me is I balk when I get to making certain things as I have no idea how to do it. Funny you mention Coq au Vin. It was the first meal I made on my own for my parents 25 wedding anniversary (back in 1976). Funny how we think of things.

    • I love this! Coq au vin is commonly thought of as a gourmet/difficult dish, hence me using it as an example, but it was your first one. Lovely, just lovely — that reminds me of when I was learning to knit last year, and went to socks straightaway despite lots of “advice” otherwise. :)

      I think your skills list is great — when I said I was tempted to make one, I meant it. I’m a lists girl. I’m fighting it because my gut is telling me that this time, it wouldn’t be helpful for me… But I’m excited about seeing how yours progresses! :)

  • Excellent thoughts here, Susan. I was recently having a similar conversation, where someone suggested they considered me far more skilled than I consider myself.
    That gave me pause.

    Admittedly, I did tackle some quite difficult patterns and skills quite early on, simply because I didn’t know they were meant to be difficult, but I never really considered myself a better sewist because of it.
    Sure, menswear, shirts, coats/jackets, pants – no worries
    Knits, a simple skirt – wowsers, they kill my mojo just contemplating them!

    I guess skill level is very subjective, and everyone has a slightly different skill set because of the type of sewing they choose. It comes back to the whole idea of comparing yourself to others to measure your success as being a bit futile….

    • Yes, I agree that comparison is futile and a reeeeeal joy killer. I think the knits things is so interesting, because more than any other, it’s the area I feel good about that seems to perplex so many. Maybe our “level” has mostly to do with the mental blocks we have overcome, and those blocks are different for everyone…?

  • Great post! I find it hard to rate myself and I don’t think anyone could ever be quite an expert as there is always something new to learn. But not being afraid to tackle anything and knowing the lingo sure seems to be similar in about anything you do.

    • Agreed! There are so many analogies that I find apropos — it’s like with each skill learned, we’re building a house. At some point that house is quite livable, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still repairs, decorations, upgrades, etc etc that we could still learn! :)

  • I am as guilty of this as the next person. Be it in sewing or anything else, I always find that others rate me as more skilled as I am. I’m never sure whether it’s because they overestimate the difficulty of something I’ve produced, or I underestimate my own abilities. I know for sure that when I look at what other sewists are making, I’ve still a loooooong way to go to reach a level of skill that satisfies my standards for myself.

    • Yes! Of course, we’re our own worst critics, and I also think it’s sort of an inside-the-head / outside-the-head kind of thing. Someone else looking at my makes may see how well a specific technique was performed, how well it fits, what awesome fabric I chose. I may see and agree with that, but I also know about the wonky seam finishing, the three ripped out attempts, the snaps I used in order to avoid buttonholes. Both perspectives are valid. Maybe part of the “answer” is looking at it objectively rather than judgmentally: Today, I don’t know how to skip a stone. That’s not good or bad, right or wrong — it just is. You know?

  • Reminds me of this great essay about why you might want to value quantity over quality.

    I find that it’s more of a continuum or a radar chart than hard-and-fast linear progression, and that we all kind of accomplish things in our own way. If you have no need for formal, fitted evening wear, then sure, you won’t make up much of that, and you’re not a less-skilled sewer for it. But if that’s the reason you got into it in the first place, or if you have a really difficult-to-fit body, or whatever, then you’ll probably jump right in. You’ll distribute your “points” differently than someone who perfectly fits every pattern company’s sizes, has unlimited money and time, and a great fabric store nearby.

    It also feels like leveling up happens slowly and weirdly. It’s like Buddhist enlightenment — does it happen all at once, or does it happen gradually? First, I know the concept of setting a zipper. Then I decide to try it. Then I insert an invisible zip, leaning heavily on my resources, maybe ripping it out once or twice. Then the next time, a little less. Then a regular zipper. Then a heavy-duty one in a pants fly. An so on, til eventually I’m Queen of the Zippers. Then one day, maybe around the middle somewhere, I look at your hands as I’m inserting one on autopilot and say, whoa! I think I leveled up at some point! Weird, right?

    And then there’s always the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is probably what saw me through my early days sewing as a kid! (And probably a bit now, too…)

    • Oh, that medium.com article was a terrific read! A few paragraphs into reading it, I began to think about Ira Glass on Storytelling, and lo and behold, the article referenced it. :) That video floored me several years ago, in an I-can’t-believe-how-much-sense-this-makes kind of way. So simple, so brilliantly put. The perfect antithesis of analysis paralysis.

      The leveling up like enlightenment — YES. Exactly. It’s like… creating an instinct. Which is completely nonsensical, because an instinct is something you’re born with right? Maybe… But muscle memory, which takes a while to develop, can feel an awful lot like an instinctual thing once you’re there. “It’s like riding a bike…”

      And Dunning-Kruger too, very interesting. I commonly refer to some variant on “armchair quarterback” and that seems to have been plucked right from this theory. If only we could be a little more objective and a little less judgmental… Ah well, I’m sure both have their places. :)

  • i’m an 86 with the dreamstress. (take away the 6.)

    great post!! judging from your live in person wardrobe, your level up is valid. VALID, I SAY.

    • Aw, thank you Beth! Sometimes I think maybe a little pressure like that is just what I need, and sometimes it feels like a death knoll, HA! Maybe I will, let’s see which way the wind blows… ;)

  • Great post! I don’t know what I would label myself as…for some reason it hasn’t crossed my mind in ages. I just pick a project and go and doesn’t necessarily go in order of how I planned it. I’m non committal in that way among other things. ;) I do think you’re experienced in many things and I definitely appreciate and value your sewing input and advice. Like you said, one of the things I love about sewing, too, is that the learning never ends!

    • Thanks Angela! Yes, the labeling is probably quite irrelevant after all, but I suppose it can be helpful in certain circumstances. I have appreciated your input a lot as well! :)

  • Good for you!! We categorize ourselves, and that is good as it keeps us focused on learning. My other hobbies are also long term and difficult to master-in dressage I will always be an advanced beginner to intermediate.

    • In general, I think these in-depth, difficult-to-master hobbies are such a great thing! They give us a sense of pride and accomplishment — the key (well, one of them) is not to get impatient with ourselves, right?? :)

  • Ding! (you may not get that if you aren’t a nerd or hang out with nerds)

    I still feel like I have a lot to learn even as I search for things to learn (in regards to sewing and everything else). Going through that scale, I think I would have her 10 as a 7 or 8 with a 10 being master of those last steps and I think I would put myself at maybe a 6.5 or 7 on the new graded scale. I think though that what puts me on the higher part of the list is an eagerness to try things out of my current reach of skills and not so much complete mastery of those earlier steps before I do so.

    • Yes! The confidence to attempt new things is definitely part of what puts us at a higher level, and that only comes with experience and practice — or at least that’s how it is with me. Maybe you should do a post with your new scale? I’d be interested! :)

  • I just followed your link to “completionism.” I think the fact that our knowledge goes on and on, new things all the time, is what makes our pursuit different from a video game. You can’t change anything in a video game.

    • Agreed! I came across that term several years ago, and I’ve found myself using it several times to describe that must-do-all-the-things feeling (though I’m never talking about video games :D). It’s an interesting concept, and one that I think a lot of us can relate to: list of accomplishments, check marks, gold stars, that kind of thing. But what does it really *mean*?? Only what you want it to, I suppose… :)

  • Really interesting post Susan, I was thinking about it in the last few days, am I an advanced beginner or an intermediate? I can draft a little but only very simple things but I’m not really familiar with alteration of existent patterns, I haven’t used silk or organza yet but I used lined patterns and I feel very confident in sewing with knits,so when it comes to dressmaking I would say I’m an advanced beginner. But I consider myself experienced in bag making, I even teach bag making classes. I’m learning how to draft soft toy patterns and I make soft toys and dolls for sale or to give as presents to my daughter’s friends. It’s all about sewing but different things and I feel my skills are different in each area.
    I consider you to be more advanced than me, anyway, so you are definitely intermediate, AT LEAST :)

    • It’s such an intriguing subject isn’t it… I know what you mean, my feeling about my skill level definitely varies based on the specific task at hand. Maybe we should call it a “confidence meter” instead, ha!

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