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I am a mother, a grandmother, and a teacher. But whatever happens in my life, I keep sewing. I have worked as a political communicator and now as a teacher in my formal life. I have also written extensively on sewing. I have been a frequent contributor and contributing editor of Threads magazine and the Australian magazine Dressmaking with Stitches. My book Sew.. the garment-making book of knowledge was published in May 2018 and is available for pre-order from Amazon

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Monday, February 15, 2021

The stages of learning sewing translated

I had an extremely interesting hair cut yesterday. My stylist was pretty sharp. She did my hair on a Saturday because she has gone back to school during the week.

Because of her current learning we talked about the stages of taking on something new when you have been doing something else for a long time. This is a pretty interesting process to consider.

She talked to me about a classic model of learning, and in particular the first stage, unconscious incompetence.

I thought about our conversation all weekend. These ideas bumped up against other conversations I have been having on the issue of confidence among sewists. I have observed that older sewists are often tentative with their sewing. When I first mentioned this in my monthly newsletter I had many emails from readers who shared the ambitious projects they jumped into when they were younger, and how they now procrastinate with many purchases of patterns and fabric, nervous about actually executing any of these projects.

By contrast I equally see some social media sewists who are quick to jump into expert status with very little actual sewing experience, and in doing so sometimes do not give the best advice to new and returning sewists.

So if you are willing to indulge me I would like to interpret the chart below from a sewing perspective:

I think there is something to think about here and also, I hope some comfort for those on the getting to learn to sew better continuum.

Unconscious incompetence- This happens at the beginning of learning a new skill, I think a hands-on skill in particular. You know the feeling when you look at someone else's work or watch them sew and think "I could never do that." You can, at your worst moments, even think that you will never be good at this. I think this feeling is particularly prevalent about those of us who were raised in a family where aptitudes were considered something you were born with and pretty set for life. You know "she's the athletic one" or "I am no good at crafts/sewing". A lot of people get discouraged or give up or panic at this stage of learning. The learning curve once you begin to see what is involved in sewing, just seems too overwhelming.

Conscious incompetence: This is the stage when folks become students. They buy courses, books, read blogs, Google everything. Some people even stall at this stage and become more students of sewing than sewists. I think this is the stage where the paralysis of confidence can kick in. Sometimes this can be manifest in muslin fittings of many iterations - almost as if the sewist feels she needs to perfect before she sews. A pretty interesting stage. Practice is the key activity here and leads directly to the next stage.

Unconscious competence: As a sewing teacher I see this one a lot - sewists who are more able than they give themselves credit for. These are the people who make me want to chant like my grandchildren do when I am on the trampoline in the backyard "Do it, Do it, Just Do it." Practice at this stage I think is where practice is no longer as much about learning as it is transferring the skills to muscle memory - you begin to acquire a repertoire of things you can do in your sleep - if you give yourself credit for this or not.

Conscious competence: This stage is pretty obvious - you can do it and you rely on those skills. Only practice and pushing through the previous three stages gets you here.

However I personally think this is the most dangerous stage. This is when you think you know it all, or are so confident in your skills, that you can close the book on learning. This is me who jumps right into a new pattern and doesn't read the instructions because, well you know, I am so smart. But of course lots of the time I am not. How many mistakes have I made because I didn't read the instructions? I am not going to tell you.

It seems to me that deciding you don't need to learn anything new is even more tricky than not knowing what you don't know yet. In systems theory any system that is closed, doesn't allow in new information (which of course means you have to embark on travelling through the first three stages of learning again) is system doomed to atrophy. 

And who wants to let their sewing go there?

So what do you think? Does this make any sense to you? What of your own observations would you add?


Marianne said...

Did you change the order of stages from what the chart says? Looks like the chart seems to say that one moves from conscious competence to unconscious competence, not the other way around? Maybe it’s just too early in the morning for me, not enough coffee.

From my own experience, the movement between stages is not really linear. This may be because I try different kinds of sewing, so I may feel competent in one area, then try something new and feel totally incompetent. With free motion sewing I’m at the stage where I don’t think I will “ever” be able to stitch with the control I want.

For sure there are stages when one knows less than one thinks and these are often the stages of most confidence and freedom. When I was young, I took apart a pair of beloved pants for someone, for pay!, made a pattern, and sewed her several new pairs. This was way before I knew about the importance of grain, etc. ((But she persuaded me to do this, it wasn’t my idea!)

I went through that stage of doubting myself, and everything I thought I knew, when the Internet became available. And yes, that led to too much reading about sewing, not enough actual sewing. But I am now in the place I think I like: having the confidence to try lots of things, because of my years of experience, plus the open mindedness to continue learning more.

The key to everything, though, is the doing. I think the best way to learn is to try things. Wonder what will happen if you add a dart to your tshirt pattern? Just try it, wear the darted shirt for a while, see how you like the fit and feel. Wonder about the best finish for a neckline? Read about some options, try a few, see what you like.

I read some interesting books about mastering skills and that also helped me a lot. We don’t get better at things just by spending time on them. Instead we have to work systematically to improve our skills. Believe it or not, it’s possible to sew poorly even after 50 years of sewing. I’ve seen this happen. ��

SMP said...

Really interesting stuff to think about. But the diagram seems to cycle through the stages differently than your description, which confuses the diagram, unconscious competence appears to be the endpoint?

Anonymous said...

So true. I noticed all 4 stages in a sewing group I used to attend, as well as a bit of talking down to new sewists (who I thought we should be welcoming with open arms instead of sneering at). I started asking some of the new folks "could you show me how you did that" when they brought in a project to share - sometimes there were innovative approaches - but unfortunately the more experienced part of the group as a whole seemed unwilling or uninterested in an inclusive approach. People are so interesting. But when we can go back to group activities I think I will be giving the sewing group a miss.


bbarna said...

Excellent post. In my Grade 9 home ec class, I was the one making a fully lined wool dress, a lined plaid pantsuit and a jumpsuit (it was the 70's). I told myself that I would make each new item with another degree of difficulty. When I was 13, I made my mother's maternity wardrobe when she got pregnant with my youngest brother. I had a maternal grandmother that was a great seamstress and she assisted with my winter maxi coat I made that same year. I do alot of clothing sewing still, but have now gone to more casual and workout clothing to suit this time in my life. I also love to do kids clothes and very technical cycling gear. Over the years I have taken classes in tailoring, lingerie and bra making, jeans and quilting. There is always something new to learn.
Barb from Prince George.

Barbara said...

The chart is weird, meant to be read from the left, then down then from the right and down. Should have made that clearer.

Helen Marshall said...

Really interesting! My experience of a sewing group is completely the opposite of the earlier comment. I signed up for sewing classes a decade ago, very conscious of my incompetence and found a wonderfully supportive teacher and women who were happy to share their methods and even asked me for help at times. We have been together ever since and are holding our breath for our current lockdown to end tonight so we can meet on Friday. I think the group leader/teacher is a key factor. So maybe if the sewing group feels wrong, set up one ( if necessary a virtual group) for yourself that feels right?

MultiVroon said...

Oh, I made a comment as well, was that lost? said...

Man, this comment really spoke to me: "I think this feeling is particularly prevalent about those of us who were raised in a family where aptitudes were considered something you were born with and pretty set for life. You know "she's the athletic one" or "I am no good at crafts/sewing". I am 61 and have spent the last 10 years discovering the art of "practice" and realizing that you can become good or better at something if you work at it. Thank you thank you thank you for saying what you say.