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A Season of Change

This is a far more personal post than I usually make. I’m sharing because maybe someone else needs to hear it and feel a little less alone. Maybe you’re just curious about what is happening behind the scenes.

I began 2020 with a sense of overwhelming change in the air. It’s a feeling I’ve experienced before, usually before a major shift in work or personal life. I had no idea just how much everything would change in a few short weeks.

I started this blog post in February, when things still felt normal. I suspected that my business was going to shift significantly this year, and I wanted to be transparent about the new direction. Then the pandemic pushed all those thoughts aside for a while.

These last 6 months have made me really think about what I want to do – in life and in business. I want to make beautiful things. I want to teach others how to make beautiful things. I want to do this in a way that feels healthy and sustainable for me and my customers.

The thoughts in this post have become even more important to me during this year of change and uncertainty. Life is too short not to follow my heart. I need to find my way back to the passion that led me to start this business in the first place.

Always Learning

Some of my most successful costumes started with “I wonder if I can…”

I wonder if I can make … corded stays, a Norfolk jacket, a men’s court suit?

The answer was yes. Not always perfectly, but I could DO it. Along the way I’d revel in learning new information and testing out new skills. Corsetry, millinery, tailoring, hand sewing, lace making – there were no limits to what I might decide to tackle. I was even bold enough to enter, and win, competitions.

One day the “I wonder” turned to machine embroidery. I started fiddling and testing, first by editing other people’s designs and then by creating my own.

It was an amazing puzzle. I loved the work of figuring out how to recreate historical examples so that they looked hand-stitched. I strived to make sure the designs were easy to use. It was a steep learning curve, but it was so worth it!

Almost 6 years ago I switched the focus of my business to machine embroidery designs. At the time, this was a much-needed change. I was feeling burnt out by custom work and was looking for something more flexible. I saw machine embroidery as a positive new direction.

What I kept quiet at the time was that my marriage was falling apart. I was moving out of the big studio that I loved working in. I needed something small enough to work anywhere. I also needed to start thinking about new expenses and a higher income to cover them.

I was momentarily starry-eyed at the idea that maybe this business could grow to support me without any side jobs. In 5+ years, that’s not even been close to happening. The business has not grown as I’d imagined. If I’m honest, the main thing getting in the way has been myself.

Losing my Muse

At first, I was so excited to make new designs. However, as my skill grew, maddeningly, my interest waned. I pushed through for a while, trying new techniques. Figuring out how to make a quilted petticoat on an embroidery machine was a new challenge that briefly boosted my energy, but it didn’t continue beyond that. What was wrong with me?!

Well, my new situation meant I had to split my attentions. Since the business wasn’t supporting me, I needed to focus more on other work – work that took time away from the business.

Part of it was unacknowledged resentment towards the business. My creative energy is finite and I simply didn’t have as much as I once did. I was using that energy to create products rather than to create new costumes so that I could participate in the hobby I love.

In turn, not creating stirred up a massive amount of imposter syndrome. Who was I, in this new world of amazingly skilled beginners? I felt clunky and out of touch.

For a long time I thought this explained it. I tried various ways of carving out a little personal creative time to recharge my batteries. It helped, but only a little. I still felt like something was holding me back.

It shocked me recently to realize that the pieces I still consider some of my best work were created 7-10 years ago. Nearly a DECADE ago. What happened?

I’ve come to realize that a large part of the problem is I strayed too far from my own passions. I stopped asking “I wonder if I can…?” When I stopped creating for myself, I also stopped experimenting and learning.

18th. c Passementerie fly fringe class supplies

Creating my 18th c. Passementerie class last year fired up all those passions again. I was constantly pushing myself to see what I could do. Nearly every day I experimented, I puzzled, I studied. I searched for answers that weren’t in any book. I learned by doing.

And I was happy.

The thing is, it wasn’t embroidery. It wasn’t on brand for my business. Business gurus tell you to focus on your niche. Here I was, veering wildly into new territory.

My imposter syndrome had a LOT to say about this turn of events. I was happier, but I was sure I was going to tank my business.

“Jack of all trades, master of none.”

This catch phrase has echoed in my head this past year. I’ve dabbled in so many techniques over the years. No, I haven’t truly mastered any of them.

Did I actually want to?

Frankly, the answer is NO. The idea of hitting upon the “one thing” I’ll make over and over and over again horrifies me. It sends my creative muse into hiding.

Mastering something takes years of repetition. Unfortunately, repetition bores me. It’s stagnant. It means I’m not learning and growing at a rate that keeps me inspired.

I have boxes of supplies I’ve happily dabbled with over the years. Bobbin lace, tatting, tambour, needle lace, chenille embroidery, silk flower making, tailoring, gold work, and more that I’m sure I’m forgetting. If we step outside my historical interests, I can add cooking, baking, quilting, knitting, butchering, gardening, canning, craft cocktails, and paper crafting. Dabbling, for me, means learning and learning makes me happy.

I’ve finally given myself permission to go back to dabbling. I’m currently working on a corded petticoat I first started about 7 years ago, a new 1920s slip with silk appliqué, embroidery swatches for a 1920s gown, samples of tambour work for an 18th c. gown, 3 hand embroidery designs, a traditional quilt, an English Paper Piecing quilt, two needle books, and more than a dozen types of silk flowers for my next online class.

It’s a lot of projects, I’ll admit. However, each one has a mood, and I work on it when that mood strikes me.

The corded petticoat is deadly boring but great for when I’m chatting with friends or watching a good show. The EPP quilt is slow, but perfect for road trips and relaxing. The embroidery designs and needle books use a lot of creative energy and let me refine my hand embroidery skills. The 1920s slip and dress are driven by a muse that demands intense focus for hours or days, and then thankfully drifts away so I can think about other things for a while.

As long as I’m working on one of these projects each day, I’m making progress. More progress than the last few years where I tried to focus on one thing and instead I made nothing.

Finding Myself

I recently saw a new ending to the phrase that has been haunting me:

“Jack of all trades, master of none, but oftentimes better than master of one.”

I’ve come to realize that being a jack of all trades suits me far more than being master of one. Instead of beating myself up for this “failing,” I’m embracing it.

After all, this hobby is one that encourages dabbling in many areas that were once devoted professions – corsetry, dressmaking, wig making, and millinery, just to name a few. We fall in love with multiple eras and need to learn the new skills and shapes that go with each of them. To successfully create a vision on a budget, it’s often necessary to become a jack of all trades.

That’s not to say I’m abandoning embroidery. I think this change may actually have the opposite effect, and I’ll circle back around to some embroidery ideas that excite me. However, it will be just a part of what I create instead of the whole.

In case you’re wondering, did stepping outside my niche tank my business? Actually, quite the opposite. 2019 was one of the best years so far. My take away is that doing what I’m passionate about can only help both me and my business to thrive.

What’s Next?

To be honest, I’m not 100% sure.

2020 continues to bring new challenges. I’m planning to move away from the state I’ve lived in for 20+ years. I’m currently in the middle of packing and downsizing. This means that for an unknown period of time, I won’t have a studio full of supplies to inspire me or distract me.

Once again, I need to form a new picture for what my life and business look like. I’m hopeful that this period will force me to get creative in new ways. I’m already planning an ambitious personal project that excites and terrifies me at the same time.

For now, I’m going to focus on growing my skills and sharing my knowledge via classes. I hope some of you will come along with me, as either supporters or students (or both!) If there’s something you’d like me to dabble in and share with you, please let me know in the comments.

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