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Professional Help

Sewing can teach you important lessons about work – and yourself. By Emily Adams.

Posted in: Creativity & Mindset • April 30, 2015

I consider myself to be one of the few lucky people who get to do what they love for their day job; I’m a professional pianist specializing in playing for ballet classes. Every day I am immersed in this artistic microcosm of incredible talent and intense discipline, which, although magical, can also quickly become emotionally overwhelming. Constantly surrounded by extraordinary talent, I sometimes doubt my own abilities, and it is a major temptation to give in to those negative voices in my head telling me I’m not good enough and don’t belong in this world.

ballet piano practice hi res
Illustration by Laura Row

Sewing has served as my haven to work through my insecurities and doubts, and has taught me a lot about what it means to be an artist. When asked if sewing saves money, the humorous explanation we all give is that “Sewing is cheaper than therapy.” Although we joke about this, it often surprises me just how true this statement is.

One thing I do as a ballet accompanist is play music from operas or ballets to prepare dancers for performances, since you can’t pay for an entire orchestra to come to every rehearsal. My current assignment is an incredibly difficult opera score, and I’ve been working hard to prepare it for spring rehearsals. Around the time I began working on this, I noticed a strange pattern in my sewing. I’ve always had a bit of a perfectionist streak, but now it suddenly became debilitating. There was one day when I literally re-sewed the hem of a sleeve no less than half a dozen times and still wasn’t happy with my work. I didn’t understand why I was suddenly incapable of finishing a project without unpicking more stitches than I sewed!

Then it struck me—I was working out my desire for musical perfection through sewing. Music, like sewing, requires a delicate balance of precision and freedom. Of course I want to play as many right notes as possible, but when I focus on that alone, my playing becomes rigid and anxious. In preparing this score, I was actively trying to say “no” to the perfectionism that would freeze me up and turn me into one big, neurotic mess. Unable to wreak havoc on my music making, that perfectionism instead reared its ugly head in my sewing.
As soon as I realized this, I was able to relax while sewing and be patient with myself. I put aside the project that was tripping me up and instead worked on some tried-and-true patterns that I knew would be satisfying and help cure me of the “perfectionist’s curse.”

Another important lesson that sewing has taught me is that burnout is OK. About a year or so ago, I was feeling utterly exhausted in my work and started to question if I was even in the right field. I had lost the spark of joy and inspiration that got me excited about ballet accompanying in the first place. To make matters worse, I beat myself up about it psychologically: _You’re supposed to love music and be passionate about dance! What’s wrong with you?_ I was afraid that spark was gone for good.

The creative process is a series of highs and lows, and that’s just the nature of the beast.

But then I thought about my sewing process. There are times when I just don’t feel like making anything. It doesn’t mean I don’t love sewing; it just means I need a break. Maybe I knit something for a while instead, or put my energy into another creative endeavor, like cooking. Even simple things like just going for a walk can help! The creative process is a series of highs and lows, and that’s just the nature of the beast.

I realized that being exhausted about playing didn’t mean it was the wrong thing for me to be doing. Of course, I couldn’t just put it aside for a few days since it’s my job, but simply acknowledging that it is part of what it means to be an artist took away my fear about the situation. And that made all the difference!

One of my major frustrations with music and life in general is how ephemeral it is. Even if I play a piece perfectly one day, there’s no guarantee it will turn out that well next time. I’ve always wished that after a hard day of practicing, I could have something to show for it. Sewing provides just that—a creative process with something to show for it in the end!

I often hear new parents saying their goal is to do something every day that can’t be undone, since those diapers and dishes need almost constant re-doing. This holds true for all of us. So many of our daily activities are fleeting and are gone as soon as we are done with the task at hand. Sewing is a wonderful antidote to the transience of our daily lives and gives us something concrete that we can hold up and say, “I did this today!” That feeling of accomplishment is deeply empowering, leaving us with satisfaction and confidence to move forward and face the day.

So yes, sewing is therapy and so much more! Whether you’re an artist, scientist, secretary, or homemaker, sewing teaches us all about who we are and how we live our lives. How lucky we are to have a part in such a rich tradition!

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