Developing Confidence in Stitch and Design

Gail Cowley

What makes us want to develop our potential as creative beings? Is it the idea of pushing ourselves further or of achieving more than others? Is it self-satisfaction gained from knowing that we have given ourselves the chance to be the best we can be?

As a City & Guilds tutor I'm often amazed by the lengths students will go to in order to develop themselves as designer/makers. People with powerful jobs and heavy workloads come back from a long day at work and then religiously break out their coursework to do another 3 or 4 hours on something entirely different to the day job. Others scrimp and save in order to go on a new course so they can continue with their textile love-affair. Conversely and I probably shouldn't mention this (so please don't tell anyone!) I'm also occasionally shocked that a minority of students want to know what the minimum requirements of the C&G course they're undertaking is so they can slide by with the very least work to achieve the qualification. Surely that is cheating yourself, by not producing your best work if you don't absolutely need to? If you can do better, why not do it? However, it is interesting to know why people are so different in their approaches to their course.

After years of working with new students, I think it has to do with self-belief and confidence. Some students are so under confident in their own abilities that they would rather do nothing than do something wrong. Also a little thing called 'pay back' helps. You have to suspend your disbelief about your own abilities when starting a distance learning course (or any course for that matter) for just long enough to surprise yourself with what you are capable of. Having once taken this leap of faith, blindly followed the instructions on page 1 (all the time telling themselves that they're going to be rubbish at this) and then found that they have produced something fabulous, there is no stopping many people.

There is no secret to being a good designer or maker - you're not 'born with it'. It's simply practice and love of the process that keeps driving us all on. When it doesn't work out so well and you think a three year old could do better, then you just keep going because you know from experience that if you produce enough designs, sample enough stitches, mock up enough blocks then you will come across one which will be amazing. Then you don't mind the couple of play school ones you made earlier! Like I said - that's 'pay back' for all the ones that didn't work out.

My tips for adding to your self-belief are:

  1. Plan your work on paper first - it's heartbreaking if it looks horrible and you've just spent two weeks sewing it, not to mention expensive - much better to try out on paper first.
  2. Just do lots of stuff, especially when working on designs, and then decide which you like and which are worth keeping, then bin the rest. If you expect to do it right with only one attempt, you'll be disappointed.
  3. Try using more than one technique - if you're not a great watercolour artist then your watercolour may look a little sad, however add in some printing, maybe a little collage and you're really motoring. If you're stuck for technique ideas, look through an inspiring design or stitch book and write a list. The same principle applies with stitch.
  4. Look back on your work after three or six months - you'll probably be amazed at how amateurish it now seems. This is a good thing - it means you've progressed during that time. Well done you!
  5. Try not running yourself or your work down to others - it destroys your confidence and sabotages your future attempts, especially if they are rude enough to agree with you.

Above all, do bear in mind that design, embroidery or quilting encompass a complicated set of processes and stages, any of which can and do go wrong from time to time. If you never had a failure, then you wouldn't be quite so pleased when you had a success.

Workshops and talks

Gail Cowley offers a range of day workshops and talks on different aspects of textiles and design throughout the UK and abroad.