(just in case you all forgot my main sources of inspiration)
My sewing acumen is brought to my attention profoundly every now and then – like today, as I assisted a woman in making a dress and watched her attempt incredibly counter-intuitive methodologies. I am not a classically-trained professional, but I do have experience, and I have it to offer others. I’m reminded of this body of work (often hard-earned through much trial and error) when I’m helping someone who is new.
Now of course, the “mistakes” my student made weren’t really mistakes, as she was a beginner. Indeed, watching a student for a few minutes is the best way to gauge where they’re at and how to best help them. I’ve had students who took to sewing near-immediately, and ones who couldn’t, despite repetition and several different methods of explanation, easily grasp even rudimentary concepts. When someone sits down at the sewing machine I can always tell if they sewed as a child, or if they’ve sewn at all. I remember a young woman I helped in my dining room; her husband had wound the sewing machine bobbin for her – poorly, and all by hand. Very sweet, and the kind of thing that never would have occurred to me since I’ve “always” known how to correctly wind a bobbin.
My craft – garment sewing, although I get up to all sorts of other stuff too – is not a popular one around these parts. It is very odd but at least where I live there is a simultaneous lust for, and devaluation of, the artisan craft – the homemade, homesewn, tailored, and bespoke. I’ve spoken about these issues before, but today I want to write on practicalities. To wit, how to not make an ass of yourself around those who knit, sew, sculpt, build things that are amazing. To wit: if you really admire someone’s work, stop making it about you. To wit:
How To Be Friends With The Super-Crafty*
1. Don’t call them “crafty”. “Talented” works fine. Or “skilled”. Or “impressive”. Stop saying “crafty”.
2. Ask them about their process; but. But, if they don’t seem to want to talk about it, drop it. Most artisans have something they’re really into, or a latest-thing they’re geeking out about. They probably do want to talk about it. This is a great opportunity for you to learn a bit more about what goes into what they do. You’ll learn a bit, and also be poised to help your crafty friend, and your other friend desirous of craft (or instruction), meet up and make a beautiful craft-partnership. Isn’t that peachy?
3. If they do any work for pay, feel free not to comment on their pricing. I earned my first sewing dime, probably fifteen years ago. I’ve tried all sorts of pricing and not-pricing and sliding scale and low-balling and I’m just now coming up with what works for me. You’d be surprised (or maybe not?) how many people try to tell me what I should be doing.
When it comes to an artisan’s prices, just: don’t (that includes gossiping about it behind their back, by the way). Now, if they open this discussion, it’s probably fair game. But ask questions rather than giving advice. What are their goals? What has their experience been? And here’s an idea. If you really really feel you have some advice? Ask, “Would you like my suggestions?” and then literally pause and wait and see if they do or not. Their body language and mannerisms are going to tell you a lot about whether this field of discussion is helpful or interesting to them.
It is unlikely you have thought about this as much as they have. You also don’t know their resources. I knew a gal who wasn’t particularly technically gifted, but was able to sell her simple items – made of high-quality materials – for a very good price. She had independent source of means, and connections in a few high-circulation publications (whether her connections were through privilege or doing footwork, I have no idea). It is inappropriate to guess at or tell someone how much they should charge because you don’t know what their craft means to them, why they do it, how much support or resources they have, the market they’re aiming to – or if indeed they think of their work like a business at all (many don’t).
4. Don’t ever ever tell them “You could sell those!” There is likely not a single soul out there, who is any good at making something, or even marginally okay at it, who hasn’t had this thought flit across their mind. And it is far more likely, especially if they’ve been an artisan for some time, they’ve imagined ways they could sell, or sell better, or earn more, or reach more people. Et cetera. “You could sell those” can be replaced by a lot more interesting conversation. And for all you know, they are profoundly uninterested in selling, and likely have valid and interesting reasons why they’re not.
Please. Please. Please quit commoditizing their craft. Please quit telling them to charge less, or charge more, or market this way, or make this, or make that. Just: stop.
You know what? This might be a time in your life you get to walk away not having told someone what they should do with their beloved work. This is actually a good exercise for all sorts of situations, maybe I’ll write an article on that at some point.
5. Ask for favors and freebies. Why not? This is not going to be a popular suggestion with some people. But I say, it’s on the craftivist to say, “I’m flattered, but no thanks.” I have sewn and helped others for free (or the cost of materials), and through both missteps and slam-dunks I’ve learned what I can comfortably say No or Yes to. Coming to mind, the time I made a jacket and offered it up to help a friend’s blog – as a give-away. You know, I never heard word one from the person who got the jacket gratis – gift-wrapped and all – but I did enjoy making that jacket, and I also enjoyed learning: fuck giveaways. For me, personally.
6. Give feedback. This is going to vary from artisan to artisan, but I absolutely want to know how fabrics and garments held up under performance conditions. Often people buy my pieces and never tell me if they were happy or not. I haven’t had to issue any refunds (and I offer a 100% refund policy), so either people are happy, or too reticent to be honest.
7. Don’t tell people what to make. This happens to me often. People tell me to sew clothes, if I comment on ill-fitting ones. People tell me to sew curtains, if they see I don’t have any yet (I hate sewing curtains! And it is cheaper to buy them than sew them!). A better bet: ask someone. “Do you sew clothes for yourself?” “Do you sew home dec stuff?” (or for different crafts: “How many different cheeses do you make?”, “Would you ever make an ashtray?”, et cetera). Again, a better conversation for everyone.
8. Ask for help. Do you want to learn how to do something? Look online first (after all, we often make tutorials and we usually answer emails!), but then, if you can’t find it or if you’re lost or need details or even hands-on assistance: ask! I’m not too grumpy to love teaching. I spent a handful of hours today helping not one, but two women. It’s not only an opportunity to learn skills, it can be an opportunity for the artisan to let their imagination fly. And, curmudgeon-y tone I am writing with aside, I obviously like to help people.
9. Want a requisitioned piece? Do your homework. Most artisans have a body of work. Investigate and figure out if you like their style. If you don’t, look elsewhere. Avoid unnecessary dissatisfaction.
10. Don’t compliment gifts if you don’t mean it. When I’m making a gift, I really do try to make the “perfect” gift for the intended recipient. But in general, I do not need someone to like my pieces or my style. I like my work, and that’s enough for me.
So this whole, you-don’t-like-my-stuff thing doesn’t have to be awkward. If I or some other craftivist gives you a gift you don’t care for, you can say “Thank you,” and leave it at that.
11. Tell your friends. If the crafter makes pieces for sale or barter, tell your friends who seem like they might like the artisan’s stuff.
12. If you’re able & willing, send them money, buy them yardage, give them supplies. I have had so many friends pick up something at the thrift store, or out their closet, and give these items to me as a gift or loan. Sometimes the materials aren’t to my taste, or something I can use. But very often I can use these things, and I’ve had wonderful projects come alive from these gifts! One woman mailed me a quilting ruler stand. One woman gave me an old sewing machine – that I love dearly and use regularly! I’ve sewn with yards and yards of gifted fabric – and the items I haven’t used, I’ve assiduously donated to the appropriate artisans/shops. Cash donations are wonderful and have helped me make wonderful clothes for my children (that then get passed to other children). Think of it this way: most artisans are creative and want to splash out goodness to the world. Give them something to work with!
Tomorrow: pro-tips TO the cranky craftivists.
Handsewing & bitchy
* YMMV of course; just a list of my preferences and many others’ I’ve spoken with.