Tuesday, September 18, 2012

a Skill Assignment

The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp

I am still reading The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp, in bits and pieces, saving it for those times that I need a mental or creative rush of energy.  Chapter 9, "Skill", inspired an impromptu self-evaluation that I'll share with you.  First, here's a paragraph that sets the stage

Skill gives you the wherewithal to execute whatever occurs to you.  Without it, you are just a font of unfulfilled ideas.  Skill is how you close the gap between what you can see in your mind's eye and what you can produce; the more skill you have, the more sophisticated and accomplished your ideas can be.  With absolute skill comes absolute confidence, allowing you to dare to be simple. Picasso once said, while admiring an exhibition of children's art, "When I was their age I could draw like Raphael, but it has taken me a whole lifetime to learn to draw like them" (pg. 163).
Skills, sewing skills.  Where am I at and where do I want to be?

Later on Twyla observes that most of us are prone to keep practicing our best skills.  The areas of strength become stronger while weaknesses languish.  Naturally, we enjoy success.  If instead we can orient ourselves to explore new skill sets, therein lies growth.  And, I say excitement as well!  Because, really, it's the new that I love most.  The sense of discovery makes success far sweeter.

Every artist faces this paradox.  Experience - the faith in your ability and the memory that you have done this before - is what gets you through the door.   But experience also closes the door.  You tend to rely on that memory and stick with what has worked before.  You don't try anything new (pg. 167).

What about you?  When designing a quilt, choosing colors, working with fabric, are you so comfortable in the familiar that you close the door to new skills, new growth?  Now this is a hobby for most of us, so you don't have to reach out for new skills if you don't want to. No need to feel guilty!  But, if you do want to continue to grow as a sewist or quilter (or in whatever field you most love) perhaps loyalty to your current skill set is holding you back?

The Creative Habit is one of those books that demands personal reflection.  "Analyse your own skill set," she said and I most happily complied.  In about 10 minutes, this is what I came up with....

*Improv piecing
*Curved piecing
*Combining colors
*Hand stitching
*Scattered or asymetric quilt design

*Small-scale precise piecing
*Quilting (smooth and flat, as I aspire)
*Using value in quilt design
*Creating interesting blocks for a traditional, rhythmic setting

And then I added another category to address areas that I've barely tried.  They're weaknesses precisely because I haven't gone there...

*Piecing words (such as "Love")
*Using paper piecing in quilt design
*Free Motion Quilting
*Cross Stitch

This exercise was so catalytic.  I immediately added a section to address my lacking skills...

Potential Projects
*Values-based quilt-along
*Paper pieced mini-block series
*Quilting tips interview series

Do you like them?  A little bird may have told you that a quilt-along is coming...  It won't be launched until late October, but the wait is sure to be worth it because I'm working in tandem with 3 other quilter/bloggers that I so respect.  I think it's going to be a wonderful opportunity for us to grow together.  If you're keen to join us when the time comes, maybe check to see if your stash is outfitted with a wide range of values.

Chicopee by Value

Value just refers to the overall lightness or darkness of a fabric, irrespective of color.  Here's my Denyse Schmidt Chicopee divided by value.  I eliminated some prints and mixed in a few others from my stash to create a stark difference between the stacks (I hope).  Most likely you lack dark or light values.  Of course, there are some great stores on the right over there that can help you with that terrible problem. =)

Chicopee is available at these great online shops:

Intrepid Thread


Fat Quarter Shop

Sew Love Fabrics

Lark Cottons

Stash Modern Fabrics

Mad About Patchwork

Sew Modern

Marmalade Fabrics

If you aspire to improve as a sewist or quilter, take the time to evaluate your skill set.  You're sure to be energized by the new ideas and directions that spring up in the process.  And, I'd really love to know some areas in which you'd most like to grow.  Do tell!


  1. Good food for thought, Rachel! Your new quilt-along sounds interesting, and I'm sure it will be fun!
    I'm actually practicing some FMQ this week, also one of my barely explored territories.

  2. My mantra has always been "learn something new" on every quilt or project. If I don't feel a little uncomfortable because there is something new, I often find myself bored. Thanks for sharing.

  3. I'm currently reading the book The Happiness Project. Yesterday I read about her discovery that true happiness comes from growth rather than achievement. So true! I've been quilting for over 30 years and I still love it because there's always room to grow. Great post!

    1. Thanks for sharing, Cindy. It does seem like quilting is deep enough to support so much growth and discovery. Since this is my job, I'm totally glad to hear your testimony!

  4. You are sooo inspiring, Rachel. I am beginning to hand quilt a Sue Spargo block of the month quilt that I have recently completed. Normally I pay to have my quilts long arm quilted; but since this is basically a hand stitched quiltI thought machine quilting would take away from the quilt. I am definitely getting outside my comfort zone here but am going to push on! If I may ask what kind of quilting frame are you using in this post?

  5. Rachel, I love your blog. I loved taking your Handstitched class. Thanks for doing such excellent work. I'm comforted to know that you, a well-known blogger, haven't done free motion quilting. Maybe we can both take the plunge sometime soon. The possible upcoming events here sound great. Going to make my lists!
    Emily V.

  6. This is a great post, Rachel. I was just telling someone the other day that I'm terrible at paper piecing words. It has never worked for me, but I have an idea for a mini quilt that I want to gift for someone, and it involves a big word. So I need to practice that.

    Another area I would like to work on is patience. I know it's not necessarily a sewing-specific skill, but my biggest mistakes come from when I'm rushing to finish something. Not only do I make mistakes, but am I really savoring and enjoying a project if I'm rushing through it? Probably not.

    I'm looking forward to your QAL...I hope to learn something about color values and how to use them well in individual blocks and then all together in a quilt top. And you're right, most of my fabrics are medium values. Must branch out.

  7. Good reflection post. I think one area I want to grow is how to take what's in my head and turn it into reality. The final product is so different from how I first envisioned it sometimes...although I'm allowing room for the design to change and be flexible in the process, sometimes I get stuck at this point.

    1. Your comment has me thinking, Valerie. I think that I should invest more time in sketching out my quilts in advance. I often go from a fuzzy mental picture alone, which really doesn't allow me to fine tune much. There's definitely an ideal balance between planning and flexibility though. Good point.

  8. Great post! I love the reflectiveness. I'll have to keep my eye out for that book!

  9. Rachel, I do normally stick with what I know. I did branch out when I took your Handstitched class - it was WAY out of my comfort zone! I had so much fun (even though I'm still working on my quilt!) I really want to work on my hand quilting.

  10. Food for thought, your post. At the moment I can't really sew intuitively - I have to follow instructions if I'm making anything that's not simple or that I haven't done before. Well, I have only been sewing for 18 months or so, so I'm not too fussed. But I really want to grow and expand my skills. I love making crafty things, like small quilts (haven't tried a really big one yet!) or cushion covers or bags but I want to get my head round patterns and being able to sew without having to follow every little detail set out in a tutorial etc.

    SO, I've enrolled in sewing classes. Not just any sewing classes but dressmaking classes! I also wanted to make new friends with similar interests so that gave me a bit more motivation. I start next month and I'm SUPER excited!

  11. Love the post! Your handstitched class did the same thing for push. Pushed all my boundaries and really hit a lot of places that I had no skill sets. Pumped for the quilt along. who's it with?

    1. Really my classes push me too. Ironically. I mean, I try to become more widely experienced at anything I teach. And I learn so much because I try lots of new things to make my projects fresh. That's one thing I really like about teaching so far!

      I'm not going to spill the beans on my QAL partners yet, since we haven't agreed to really announce it yet. But, it'll be good! Promise.

  12. What an inspiring post! I am always looking for ways to improve my craft and push myself. I really need to put that book on my reading list.
    I am really excited about your quilt-along and I'm so glad it isn't starting until the end of October, since I am moving right now! Doing a value quilt has been on my bucket-list, so I hope that's what you are hinting at!

  13. Good post rachel, I have just finished binding my first quilt from handstitched class! I feel like everything I have sewn this year is a new experience for me so I am kinda looking forward to a couple of crayon rolls and bags! I have learnt so much this year and I can't wait to try my new skills in some other projects! Ahhh if only the day was a bit longer!

  14. i have been slowly reading through the book also. very slowly. i need to take some time to devote to it. i am looking forward to it.

  15. I've been "should I, shouldn't I?" over this book in my wish list for a while now. You've made my mind up, I'm putting it on my birthday and Christmas list.
    Brilliant, thank you for sharing.

  16. Free motion quilting is something I really need to add to my skill set. I'm not good at paper piecing, but I've tried it and don't really enjoy it, so I don't think I'll worry about getting better at it :)

    1. I'm with you on the FMQ. I hope to make progress on that one via Quilt Con. I need inspiration for it, not just practice.

  17. This is a really thought provoking post! I've been happy to try out a lot of new things over the past year -- I rediscovered my sewing machine instead of just knitting/crocheting all the time. I'm looking forward to trying out some tops for myself sometime soon. I have a specific idea in mind, but haven't found the perfect pattern yet. Thanks for the food for thought!

  18. Love the post, Rachel. I got this book (on your recommendation) and am reading it a bit like you- in bits and pieces. Fortunately, along the way I've continued to take classes in new things. My current endeavors include paper piecing a mariner's compass (total fun!) and joining a small group to do an art quilt every 3 months - totally doable! I just gave up, last night, on hexies - love the look, but when given a choice of doing ALL those little things or working on a piece of needlepoint, I'm taking the latter. Someday, maybe, I'll hope on the hexi train again.

  19. Well Rachel... always fun to read your blog.

    I read the book on your recommendation this summer and really enjoyed it. I had checked it out from the library so I had to give it back... However I learned a lot and think I would like a personal copy.

    Trying new things
    Paper piecing
    traditional piecing
    putting ideas into action
    Freemotion Quilting

    Starting too many projects
    successful curves every time
    seam ripping when not quite perfect
    hand quilting

    Making my own patterns for clothing

    1. Thanks for sharing your list! I think it's so interesting to read about where other people are at.

  20. What a fantastic post, Rachel! I will definitely need to sit down and do some thinking and writing on this one. I'm very much looking forward to hearing more about the upcoming QAL!

  21. I read Twyla's book a few years ago and thought it was really good. I ought to reread it and really make some notes related to my quilting. Thanks for reminding me how good it was.

  22. That books looks fantastic...I'll have to find myself a copy! I like a challenge, all the time. And oddly enough, the simpler things give me the most challenge. I had such trouble with quilt bindings that I'd let finished quilts sit with no binding for months....or years. But I had some commissioned charity quilts that needed binding. So i sat down and pulled up every tutorial I knew I'd already cringed at...and just started trying. I was super successful almost right away. And I have the wonderful list of quilt bloggers that I follow to thank for amazing photo perfect tutorials. My latest project....I'm teaching myself how to design paper pieced blocks. I love them and I really love the challenge. I of course had to start with a difficult ninja drawing, but I've been pushing through and hope to be able to write an informative tutorial when I'm done. Thanks for all your inspiration! Love your blog!

  23. Thanks for the thought provoking post. I sew to relax, so it's hard sometimes to pick new techniques to focus on. Hand stitching is really firmly in my comfort zone, so I've had to really push myself to fire up the machine!

  24. I love reading blogs but I so often see a comment about a particular skill, whether its FMQing or curved piecing for example, with the writer wishing they could do it and being too frightened to try. I take the approach that its only fabric and nothing to be frightened of so I'll generally have a crack at anything! I'd love to see more quilters have a try at something they've previously been scared of. I've found that things I've spent ages putting off because they might be too hard usually end up easier than I thought once I started! The only thing I struggle with is enough time to fit everything in I want to make (like most quilters it seems!). I like your post about pushing your boundaries, lets all get out of our comfort zones!

  25. We all can't be great at everything, can we? I appreciate the reminder to focus on the things you feel uncomfortable with and not just what boosts your ego. You are certainly excellent and what you do and it's great that growth is part of your business design as well as your personal agenda. I suppose if it's in your nature, all aspects of your life benefit. It's just too darn bad this online community is just that, online. Wouldn't it be too fun to just get together any ol time we needed to learn from each other? I guess that stems from my love of hands on learning. That may be what you need to get FMQ underway and feeling confident. I already know that once you get the hang of it...we'd be impressed even more than usual. With that being said...if you ever find yourself in need of some sand between you toes and clear ocean water against your skin...you just let me know. I bet we could have quite a bit of fun with FMQ, in Hawaii, and I could certainly benefit from learning how to sew up some curves...lol! Xxo Robin

  26. I think each time we prove to ourselves that we can learn and master a new skill (even small things) we are also reaffirming our life purpose to grow and evolve as people. It can become pretty easy as adults to forget that we came into this world knowing hardly anything and that our main job as children was to take in everything around us and use it to grow and develop.

    All philosophy aside though, ;) I really hope to improve my machine quilting skills and learn how to master FMQ. It's the one part of the entire quilt-making process that I like the least, but I also have the most room to grow in.

  27. Excellent post. I was just reading this book last month but had to return it to the library before I got to the section you are referring to (...note to self, time to go back and re-check this book out again). Actually, I do think about this topic from time to time, but have yet to write the nitty-gritty particulars down so as I can see them in clear black and white. Time to do that as well. Thanks for the nudge.

  28. I have always dabbled in many different crafts. While I was pretty good at all of them, I always felt a little like I was unfocused. I felt like I was wandering, floating. Then I read something that changed everything. It was something along the lines of finding what you're really good at and getting better at it. Forget your weaknesses. It was a lightbulb moment for me. That's when I decided to pour all my energy, time, and money into sewing. And eventually more specifically quilting. I have since gotten rid of so much of the stuff from other crafts that was taking up space in my studio. I have. E more focused and productive. I am also really starting to find my voice and defining My style. I also love that i am becoming an expert in my field and as a result, I have greater respect for all experts in all fields.
    I am more skilled at doing what I love best.


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