Incremental Success vs. Grand Success

A few years ago I bought a sewing machine off Amazon on Black Friday, not because I could sew, but because I wanted to be able to sew. I didn’t have a project in mind when I bought it, just this nebulous idea that maybe I’d make a costume for Halloween, or maybe a convention, if I ever went to one. Unsurprisingly, the machine sat untouched for several months.

Truthfully, I didn’t know how to sew. My mom had helped me with a few projects, but mostly that machine was a hope. One day, I thought. When I found out I was going to become an aunt, I decided to make a baby quilt. I had never made a quilt before, but it looked easy enough. Plus a baby quilt was small! I ordered a few more quilting supplies, like a rotary cutter and cutting boards, and watched a bunch of youtube videos on quilting. Cut squares, sew them together, sew the layers together. Easy!

Nope. I chose to make a Yoda quilt based on a perler bead pattern, which meant cutting hundreds of 2″ x 2″ squares. In order to quilt the top, batting, and backing together, the internet explained that I needed an even feed foot for my machine. I sagely ignored this advice and regretted it later when my layers kept getting stuck and I’d have to pull out the whole line. Things went much more smoothly when I realized my mistake and got the right gear. After watching the same youtube video twenty or so times, I learned how to create and sew a bias tape around the edge. This quilt took too many hours to count. Still, it didn’t stop me from making complementary R2-D2 and BB8 quilts for my son and nephew (though admittedly I got some help finishing them this time because doing anything in the last two months of pregnancy is miserable, let alone dealing with a bias tape).


Yesterday, I started a sewing project–a reusable shopping bag–and for the first time, I didn’t have to look up the directions for how to set up the thread for my machine. When I ran into minor problems, I was able to fix them pretty quickly. When the directions were unclear, I was able to fill in the gaps with my sewing knowledge, meager as it is.

For example, when sewing the handles in place, the directions told me to sew a square with an ‘X’ through it. But how to do this with one line? After much thinking, I came to the conclusion that the directions I was following were inadequate, and I should just give it a try. My first attempt was horrible.  By the third attempt, I thought I’d gotten it, but my fourth X-square was also pretty ugly. So don’t let small successes inflate your ego too much. Either way, I improved the more I did.

Galaxy Resusable shopping bag
Of course it’s galaxy print.


This whole experience reminded me of getting back into writing. I started out with a nebulous idea of wanting to write. I read Stephen King’s On Writing and listened to some podcasts while I started on short stories. I read the submission guidelines for online sci-fi magazines and gave myself a goal to aim for: submission. Acceptance was too much to hope for at this point, and I proudly collected rejections as tangible evidence of my progress. Eventually, I got comfortable enough with the basics of story structure and character development that I wrote a novel. I still have a lot to learn, both in writing and sewing, but I’m really proud of the progress I’m making.

If there’s something I want to learn, I find I’m the most productive when I pick a project/goal that is doable. With the help of youtube, podcasts, and books, I can then get to creating. If you want to sew, start with a shopping bag. If you want to write, start with a short story. If you want to run a marathon, start with a mile. I think sometimes I get so caught up in wanting to do something grand and amazing that I forget that it takes a lot of practice and completion of smaller goals to develop the skillset necessary to successfully complete something grand, like sewing an entire costume or writing a series of novels. However, the more I experience incremental success, the more I realize that I’m going to be on this journey forever. There will always be some grander success to chase, and if I don’t take pride in my accomplishments on the way, it’s going to be much harder to stick to the path.


Side note: If you’re curious about the pattern, I followed these directions. I think they could be clearer in places, but I did end up with a bag I’m really happy with. My takeaways: One yard is enough, but plan everything before you cut. Should be obvious, but after I cut my rectangles out, I didn’t have any 22″ long bit of fabric left for pieces for the handles, so I ended up using my lining fabric for the handles. I didn’t use the stabilizer for the bottom, either, so my bags can by rolled up tight.

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