On giving up “perfect”

‘Tis the season! Yes, the season of tinsel and holiday muzak, of cookie bakes and frenzied shopping excursions. And the quilt store where I work is not immune from the insanity… there have been a lot of folks rushing in with parts of a project in hand, looking for one more fabric, or help on how to get the bumps to lay flat. Two things are afoot as they hurry through the door… the first is the time crunch, and the second is what I call “perfection panic.”

So first let’s talk about time. Of course we are hugging the deadline. Of course. The time we left to do our projects got squeezed by all the time we left for other stuff getting squeezed by life in general. It always takes longer. Just like home improvement projects… double the time estimate and triple the $$ or is it the other way round? But like it matters – time is a squeeze so we need to just breathe and do the next possible step, and then the next, and so on. We’ll get there. And even if it’s late, let’s take a moment to frame some perspective… we are making a handmade treasure here as a GIFT*, and surely the handmade part of that earns us some grace. Late is just that… LATE. That’s it. Nothing more. A late gift is not going to cause a tragedy (and if it does you need to hang out with nicer people). So add a little of your favorite holiday beverage to some perspective and keep on stitching!

And so let’s tackle perfection. First of all, no matter where you are on the scale from newbie to pro, the thing you’re going to make ALWAYS looks better in your head. There is always a disconnect between how rockin’ your imagination thinks it’s going to be, and the skills your hands can actually perform. And the only thing that makes the gap smaller (note that I don’t say disappear because it never will) is patootie-in-the-chair time: the skills that we use to make our treasures improve with practice, practice, practice. So everything you make is a testimony to where you are on the curve of improving your skill.

Yes, I know. You’re not sure you want this testimony of what you think is your lack of skill to head out of the house to grace your mom-in-law’s couch. Or your best friend’s family room. Or your sweet kiddo’s play space. But truly, it belongs there. It is a manifestation of the very best you have to give TODAY, and that is a huge, important thing.

These pieces are milestones, without which we can’t look back to see how far we’ve come, baby. Case in point, a certain purple quilt I made in 1990 for my friend Karen. It was, I think, the 4th quilt I ever made. A modest strip rail fence with six fabrics shading from light gray to a dark blue-violet.

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All but one of the fabrics were from Jinny Beyer’s Color Palette collection (the hot thing at the time), and I was so incredibly proud of myself for picking all six of those fabrics in under three hours. It was quilted over puffy polyester, in the ditch (sort of!) without a walking foot (so full of little pleats) and it had a (probably poly-cotton) sheet on the back. Making it octagonal was a huge stretch, and even though I made actual bias binding for it, I had no idea how to get around corners that weren’t ninety degrees, so they’re a weird sort of tight.

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Was it perfect? Not even close. But it was what I had on the day, and Karen reminded me again yesterday, when I asked her for some pix, that I gave it to her lovingly and enthusiastically, and that it still gets used and means just as much to her as the (so much more accomplished yet still nowhere close to perfect) one I made for her last year.

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Like many of us, I’ve spent far too much of my life caught up in trying to be perfect. It took a mighty health thump in chest to get me to give up that game. We can’t ever be perfect, and so we may as well just be a wonderfully flawed best that we can be. It makes for far more interesting quilts, not to mention a far more relaxed life.

For a while there, while I was in the perfection trap (and plotting to destroy any evidence to contrary), Karen was actually afraid to lend that early quilt to me to show at a talk in case it never came home. But now I know better. It isn’t about how great your seams are (unless you are sending it to competition – but that’s another opinion for another day). It’s about trying to do the best you can, and giving it with affection, respect, enthusiasm, love, and celebration. All of this matter so very much more than a stitch outside of the ditch.

You know dang well that you will plan another quilt for another day, and that it will have a few less of your old errors as your skills get better, and probably one or two new ones as you stretch up to a new technique you haven’t tried. See… there you go… practicing again – bravo!

So there you have it – Sam’s formula for combating “perfection panic.” Aiming to improve without aiming for perfection. Sounds like insanity, right? No, I think it’s actually a playbook for living.

*GIFT: noun

1. something given voluntarily without payment in return, as to show favor toward someone, honor an occasion, or make a gesture of assistance; present.