Thoughts on Excellence, Mastery, and Embroidery

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I have been thinking a lot lately about excellence and mastery. When did North American culture shift away from excellence? We certainly still praise and find ourselves in awe of people who are masters of their craft, but it feels like there has been a societal shift away from expecting people to master anything. Perhaps the shift is a result of a backlash against cruel and unsupportive coaches, teachers, and parents from our generation's past. In an attempt to avoid being unkind, mentors and trainers must now accept any amount of effort as much as full effort. Participation trophies for everyone!

The problem is that this theory falls flat. Even when our instructors can't bring themselves to say it, we know that when we don't work hard, we don't get better. And being praised for performing badly does not actually encourage anyone to continue to practice. It is important to learn a skill in a supportive, safe environment, but the support should be toward mastery and excellence. Students of all ages and of any topic should have an appropriately high bar set for them and supportive skill-building to reach it. There is something important about learning: about practicing a skill over and over in varying situations; about acknowledging mistakes and then actually fixing them rather than either abandoning a project or pretending as though the mistake doesn't need to be fixed.

In the past year or so, I have been learning embroidery. I chose embroidery because I have found it difficult to prioritize making time to sew clothing on a regular basis, but I still need a creative outlet. Embroidery is fairly portable, and thankfully I do not experience motion sickness, so I can do it in the car or bus almost as easily as at a coffee shop or on my lunch break. My instructors have been a few booklets of stitches, some internet research, and a handful of other creators who are willing to answer questions about the work they post on Tumblr or Instagram. The projects you see here are almost all gifts for friends. It's been a good experience. I used to dislike hand sewing hems or facings, but now that seems so simple and straightforward compared to getting a French knot to land exactly in the destined spot.

The projects here are in reverse order. The first embroidered gifts I made are at the bottom and the most recent one is at the top. Unfortunately, I did not use the same technique to photograph the pieces, so it is difficult to see the progression of skill, but I know it is there. I have learned different things with each one, and with each one I made new and different mistakes. The piece at the top was put on hold for quite a while after I had to rip out two entire flowers, do a little more study, and reconsider how to make them. (The original peachy pink one looked like an anus.)

People who see me embroidering often feel compelled to remark on it and I have noticed that the remarks typically fall into one of two categories. Category 1 is "I Could Never Do That". Usually I just smile and nod and let that kind of remark go, but it makes my stomach churn. Are you physically incapable of passing a needle and thread through fabric? No? Then yes, actually, you could do this. It is possible that you never tried it, or that it never occurred to you, or that you did try it but didn't push yourself past the frustrating early stages. It is also very possible that embroidery does not interest you; that it is in no way a priority for you. Any of those answers are actually honest and perfectly acceptable. I am certainly not going to try to convert you to embroidery.

The remarks that make up category 2 are "Horror Stories From My Childhood". These stories typically sound like this: my grandmother tried to teach me and she would rip out my stitching when it wasn't good enough. Okay. Let's all just take a breath and remember that we are adults now. While it is possible that you were left in the care of a nasty horrible grandparent who was mean and made you sit in the corner and sew, chances are very good that you were just young, with developing fine motor skills, possibly more interested in climbing trees, and you struggled to keep the thread from tangling and knotting. In order to correct your mistake, your stitches had to be removed (ripped out) and you needed to start over. This is certainly disappointing, but definitely what everyone who masters any skill does.

My husband was recently reading the book The Glass Cage by Nicholas Carr. It's the kind of writing that requires that I block out the rest of the world with white noise in my earphones in order to concentrate enough on the text to retain any of the information. The book is mostly about the rise of automation, but the last chapter is different. The last chapter talks about the goodness that comes from physically working. Here is a quote from that last chapter that made my husband think of me and my sewing practice over the years:

"It follows that whenever we gain a new talent, we not only change our bodily capacities, we change the world. The ocean extends an invitation to the swimmer that it withholds from the person who has never learned to swim. With every skill we master, the world reshapes itself to reveal greater possibilities. It becomes more interesting, and being in it becomes more rewarding." 
Nicholas Carr, The Glass Cage