On failure and creativity: why sewing ‘fails’ are always wins

Is failure a bad thing? Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Just before my little ‘break’ from social media and public communication [hello again!] I read something sad: according to the Children’s Society’s annual Good Childhood Report, children in the UK have the lowest levels of life satisfaction across Europe.

The report found that ‘a particularly British fear of failure’ was at the route of our childrens’ low levels of wellbeing – levels which, it can only be assumed, have plummeted further during the Coronavirus epidemic and a grades fiasco of epic proportions.

So, as many children start a new school year in some of the strangest circumstances in recent history, and grown-ups face employment challenges the likes of which we may not have previously encountered, it seems as good a time as any to discuss the thorny issue of failure.

The arts and education

I’m no psychologist, but *dons boffin beret* I do have a research interest in the relationship between creativity and wellbeing. In recent years our education system has been vacuum packed into a joyless itinerary where creativity, and it’s associated ‘fluff’, has been sucked out and discarded.

In my local community school, which was built in the early 1990s, the arts have suffered a series of blows. The school was designed with a purpose-built drama studio, three large art classrooms across the hall from a further two home technology rooms where sewing and design were taught. Next to the drama studio was a separate sound-proofed suite devoted to music – two large classrooms and three practice rooms. When I was a teen my ‘indie’ band practiced there after school and during the week peripatetic music teachers taught instruments to children during class time.

These brand new premises were created after the amalgamation of the local boys and girls school into a single co-ed comprehensive. The school was not particularly aspiring, it didn’t push students towards Oxbridge or pressurise brighter kids to get high grades. I remember thinking that school was a bit crap, but when I look back I see how lucky we were to have these facilities. It signalled to us, in basic material form, that the arts, culture and creativity were important, that they deserved to take up space in our school and in our lives.

Limiting the scope of schooling comes at a cost to society. Just look at all those missed double word scores! Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Roll on a few decades and we are in a different place. The school’s art budget has been pared back. There are less art teachers. The head of drama now teaches English. There is only one music teacher, and she can’t offer A-Level. When I asked someone what was happening, they just shrugged and said ‘budget cuts’.

We all know what that means. We all know that when budgets shrink, the arts are the first out the door. It’s taken as a given. English, maths, science… what do you mean you don’t understand?

Cuts to schools are ideological and destructive in ways that will cost the taxpayer far more in the long run than the small fry savings made at close range. We live in an affluent society. Yet our public sector is cut, in some areas, to the point where it lies beyond recovery. We have all seen the horrifying PPE crisis engulf the NHS this year – a wholly preventable situation. It took a pandemic for the public to see what is going on behind the stage scenery.

The impact of education cuts is less readily visible. The effects of cutting the creative arts in schools are difficult to pin point. Creativity takes many forms, and takes place in many areas of life, not just the arts and crafts, but the latter provide a gateway through which many people find creative outlet. Sometimes we discover an activity we enjoy, or sometimes we notice a process we find exhilarating, the realisation of a capacity we hadn’t before known. Creative pursuits create a sense of self-efficacy, develop self-esteem and contribute to wellbeing.

Not all schools have cut the arts, and some are now becoming centres of excellence in certain subjects. A nearby school in the next town, for example, teaches textiles at GCSE level. Yet the kids that get the chance to go to this school are the ones whose parents fight for it and are prepared (and able) to pay to ferry their children across the Peaks day-in day-out for years. Having a few good schools that provide arts subjects is not good enough. A child at 10 or 11 doesn’t yet know what they will take pleasure in. Their futures shouldn’t be funnelled at such a young age.

Creativity and failure

This brings me back to the Children’s Society report and the idea that UK children’s lower happiness levels relate to a fear of failure. Failing is part of life, but in an education system geared up to constant assessments and gradings throughout the school career of each child, failure has become a thing that MUST NOT HAPPEN.

When we drop subjects like the arts and crafts from the school syllabus, we lose more than just the ability to think in a different way, or to create with our hands. It’s not even – as is often posited – that the arts give children a break from the ‘heavy’ core subjects. Done right, art is exhausting, it’s not a restful doss as some educators seem to think.

The thing that the arts and crafts – and indeed any kind of making – teaches us, is that failure is necessary. And yet ‘failure’ has become synonymous with a negative outcome. There is something final and underlined about the word FAIL.

Should we avoid the word ‘failure’ because it has negative connotations? Or should we pare the negative connotations away? To fail is such a loaded term, and yet all it means is that you aimed for something and didn’t quite hit the mark. Maybe you missed it by a mile. Does it matter?

The uninhibited creativity of babes does not have to evaporate in adulthood. Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

There are so many sayings related to failure and how to deal with it. ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again’, ‘fail hard’, ‘success is 99 per cent failure’. People who create, who make, who think and who continually strive understand intuitively that failing is just part of the process.

Of course it’s not simply about including the arts and crafts in the school syllabus. The way the arts are taught matters too. In art, we learn there are no wrong answers. Yet when children reach the stage where they try to draw representationally, and struggle because the images do not look like what they see before them, they often give up. ‘I can’t draw!’ they wail (and continue to do so into adulthood), deciding they are neither artistic nor creative.

Some teachers try to show children alternative methods of self-expression and emphasise that not all have to be based on accurate representation, but in a way this avoids the issue the child understands all too well – they tried to do a thing, they ‘failed’, and therefore they must give up. They are second rate, art is not for them. Most art teachers are not trained how to show the child to ‘see’ (if you feel you were never taught, look at Betty Edward’s book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain for a brilliantly simple introduction). Learning to see takes time, lots of it, and dedication. It requires the individual to fail and fail again until what they draw begins to resemble what meets the eye.

I am not for a minute claiming representational art is the win – the correct way – and the rest is a fail. What I’m trying to show is how our relationship with failure is conditioned in all kinds of peculiar ways in our schooling. And much of it seems to be geared up to the idea that if you show no immediate natural aptitude then you drop that subject and move onto something where you are more likely to pass. Of course it makes sense when we need grades to move on in life, but what else does this teach us other than to avoid failure?

It’s sad and foolish – because all success is built on failure. I’m definitely not the first to point out that we have to first learn how to fail. To not fear things going wrong. To fear the inevitable leads to poor self-esteem and the low levels of wellbeing the Childrens’ Society report flags.

Failure and sewing

A definite fail. But what was my criteria? And most importantly, what did I learn in the process?

Naturally, this leads me on to my own favourite creative outlet: sewing (got there in the end folks!). In garment sewing (as opposed to, perhaps, more generally ‘textiles’) I think it is fair to say the assertion that ‘there are no wrong answers’ is, well, not exactly correct. You can sew on two right sleeves if you want, but you will be uncomfortable and probably won’t wear what you spent time making.

Fancy details and finishes are a bonus, but in terms of learning the craft, sewing your trousers back to front would be considered a ‘sewing fail’.

Of course this ‘fail’ is only a problem if, for you, failure is insurmountable and to be avoided at all costs. Succeed or fall off the cliff edge.

In reality, when we sew we fail all the time. I repeat, ALL THE TIME. No matter how much perfectly aligned top-stitching you see pasted over Instagram, you can bet your bottom dollar that there was a slew of wonky thread unpicked beforehand.

It doesn’t matter how many times I learn to stay-stitch a neckline, I still forget and stretch poor innocent garments beyond their reasonable limits. Every time we make we learn and reinforce new and hopefully better habits. Failing becomes normal, to be expected. When we succeed, we rejoice. Success means something when you have been through the ringer and understand how you got there.

Unwanted memades: fails or the inevitable byproduct of creative activity?

Ever looked back at an old make from when you started sewing? Do you recall the glee with which you created and then went on to wear the garment? Have your feelings since changed? Do you notice things you would not consider a success today? Much like the theory of creative destruction in industry, we are locked into a continual cycle of innovation, cohabitation, destruction and replacement. When we learn a craft, we constantly reinvent what it means to be successful. What was a success five years ago may no longer be considered a win.

Do we feel sad about those early attempts? I can only speak for myself. I don’t think it’s sad they didn’t work out – it’s interesting. I look back and I see progression. I’m never at some hallowed end point. I’ve never ‘learned’ sewing. Life is a journey, the cliche goes. So is learning a craft. You never arrive. You wouldn’t want to.

So, for the kids feeling like the cup is half empty, what can we do? Well, if they are your kids, you will no doubt be opening up creative horizons for them at home. For the kids without such opportunities, it’s a tough one. We need to implore our MPs to do something about the dearth of creative arts in our schools today. We need to encourage a new dialogue about success and failure. We need school systems to be reformulated so education is not primarily an either/or pass/fail proposition. We need subjects that teach children how to fail, how to learn from failure, how to keep trying and, if they choose to walk away, how to hold their head up high and know it was because that activity just wasn’t for them.

How did your education inform the creative interests or occupations of adulthood? Has sewing or another creative activity given you a different view of failure and of yourself as a person? Let me know in the comments, I’d love to hear from you!

12 thoughts on “On failure and creativity: why sewing ‘fails’ are always wins

  1. Hi Ruth, welcome back 🙂
    My grammar school teachers told me I would never get into university of I did A level Art, something I later found out to be wrong. Also, I was told by my home ec teacher that I was the worst seamstress she had taught. Needless to say I didn’t go back to garment sewing for almost 25 years.
    My daughter is doing GCSE Textiles and although it doesn’t come naturally to her she is benefiting from learning that process is as, if not more, important than the final result as well as all skills have to be learned and practiced. Creative options benefit young people in a whole range of ways.

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    1. Aw thank you and hello! That’s so sad they told you that – and yes, totally wrong! I got into uni because of my art a-level… wouldn’t have had enough points otherwise. And what was your home ec teacher thinking?! I’m so glad that in spite of that you came back to sewing. It must be lovely watching your daughter flourishing learning these skills. I fully agree there are so many benefits to learning creative subjects. The idea that they are a soft option is so misguided!

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  2. Hi Ruth – I’ve missed you!
    A really interesting and thought-provoking post. My son finds learning quite challenging and he really fears failure, I’m sad that he is worried about that at such a young age. I think he is given opportunity for creative endeavours and outside learning now while he’s at primary school but once he gets to secondary school I know that learning will look very different.

    I have several creative hobbies – sewing, painting, knitting, crochet and general ‘crafting’ and it is has become so important to me as I’ve got older. However at high school I wasn’t gifted at “Art” and therefore it wasn’t an option for me to pursue and therefore I didn’t see myself as ‘creative’. This has almost certainly limited my career choices and pushed me in a certain direction, a direction that has not and does not always make me happy (but one that has paid my bills, granted).

    I am happy that I have discovered my creative mojo in my 40s but can’t help but wonder what would have been had I found it much earlier in life. It’s really sad that the only subjects considered of value are those that bring commercial benefits to business and therefore society – just look at that leaked government ad campaign that never was, retrain Fatima and be more useful to us!

    (Good to have you back xx)

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    1. Hey Ness! Aw thank you so much for your comment. I’m so sorry to hear your little boy is already feeling this way. I can’t help think the fact testing starts at such a young age is a major issue here. Even when schools try not to emphasise the fact it takes place, kids pick up on things – like the fact reading and learning groups are streamlined even at reception level. I’m also so sad that you were not encouraged at school. I think we are so easily discouraged from the arts at a young age because it’s deemed OK to ditch the thing that ‘won’t earn a living’ – and then we later find out that plenty earn a living from it and you don’t have to be the next Da Vinci to do something creative and rewarding! I think it’s never too late to change tack, though, and it’s wonderful that you are heading in interesting new directions now. I hadn’t heard of the Fatima ad btw – just looked it up. Absolutely shocking! Xx

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  3. So true ..the fear of failure creates so much of stress for children and us the biggest obstacle in their life….no school prepares the kids for facing failure though we a know that life is so full of failures and rejections…only children with ability to face failures are likely to succeed …add to this imagination and creativity and success is bound to follow …
    Regards..
    Stay blessed 🙏

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  4. I was always arty as a kid, there are numerous ways I’ve carried it through to adulthood, including sewing my own clothes, a skill I learnt when I was small from my grandma and have built on over the last couple of years. There have been many failures, but every one an opportunity to learn and grow. My first wearable top I made was a wonderful feeling and the first time something fit me so well in a colour of my own choosing. I find that everyone has a strength. My son is a nurse who really struggled with the physical side of nursing, but he got there in the end. My dyslexic brother is a wonderful crafter of everything wooden, plays the guitar and amazing singing voice, but can barely read for toffee!

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    1. Lovely comment Lisa, thank you. It’s so true how we learn and grow through failure, and find things we love and excel in, which then makes the fails along the way bearable. It sounds like you have a wonderfully creative family xx

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  5. An excellent read and I’m glad to see you back Ruth!! For me, sewing, like many things with a learning curve ,is great for toughening the skin when it comes to failure. I still fail a lot in my sewing but failure has thankfully lost most of its negative connotation for me. Its more like I get different attempts at something, some ways work, others don’t. I see that as a blessing and I’m thankful. I hope this extends in all parts of my life and I hope I can pass this on to my kids too.

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    1. Thanks Miranda! That explains it so well (sewing helping failure lose negative connotations). I feel very much the same and I’m really fascinated by this process. I wish it were taught in schools: just let the kids explore. I guess this is why play is so important, but there is never enough play in schools, particularly as they get older. Also going to try and pass this on to my bairns. Xx

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