Embroidering Stuff: How-To

I can’t actually remember when I started to embroider. But I found a half-finished pre-stamped crewel piece of a frog on a toadstool saying “kiss me!” in a box of my old books, so clearly I have been embroidering for a good long time–at least 30 years. And the funny thing is that I’m still not an expert. There are dozens of techniques and stitches that I still want to learn.

Please?
Please?

I’ve done crewel, freestyle, cross-stitch, needlework, needlepainting, blackwork, whitework, redwork, some ribbon embroidery, a bit of crochet lace and smocking, and now stumpwork. So while I’m not an expert, I’ve done enough to be able to give some pointers to people looking for a place to start:

1. Cheapest: Needlepainting

Use a small needle and the threads you already have! Make tiny straight stitches in different colours to sketch or “paint” out the picture you want to make. Draw the picture directly on the fabric first, though, so you’ll have something to follow. If you have a good pattern to use, fantastic; otherwise, you’re best off if you already know how to draw fairly well, because it’s a lot of the same skills. Chloe Gordiano is a master of this.

2. Easiest: Cross stitching

There’s a reason this one still has its own magazines, and the rest don’t: it’s basically colour-by-numbers on the fabric equivalent of graph paper. If you want to put a cross-stitch design on a non-aida fabric (like the back pocket on a pair of blue jeans, or a shirt lapel), get yourself some waste canvas; you baste this stuff on top of the regular fabric, complete the cross stitch design, take out the basting stitches and pull the waste canvas out from underneath the stitches. (Trust me, it works.)

It’s also fairly inexpensive. It uses six-stranded cotton embroidery floss you can typically get for $0.5/skein or less, and aida cloth is similarly priced. Get yourself a cheap plastic hoop and a couple of tapestry needles, and you’re good to go.

3. Trendiest:  “freestyle”

This is the kind of embroidery found in Sublime Stitching or Doodlestitching books and patterns. Easy, cute, fun. A few basic stitches: back stitch, straight stitch, maybe a split or chain stitch, satin stitch if you’re feeling ambitious.

4. Best introductory book: Mastering the Art of Embroidery

Sophie Long covers an enormous range of different kinds and styles of embroidery in her large and absolutely beautiful book. Not only does it include a survey of different styles of embroidery and the main stitches of each, as well as some basic projects, she includes interviews with proficient artists in those crafts, and absolutely amazing photographs of completed work. The kind of thing that will make your jaw drop open. It is a great combination of inspiration, information and instruction.

It is not the kind of book that will help you master any one technique (no one book could do that); it is the kind of book that will help you figure out what kind of embroidery you might like to try, and where to start.

Also, Sophie Long is a graduate of the Royal School of Needlework in London.

5. Most fun and inspirational embroidery book: Hoopla

Many, many photographs of finished works by professional embroidery artists doing amazing and unexpected things, as well as interviews and a handful of projects and ideas. Ever seen cross stitch on a wooden door or car hood? Right, well. There you go.

6. Best intermediate embroidery books: the Royal School of Needlework Essential Stitch Guide series

The existence of the Royal School of Needlework in London, and the sad lack of any such institution here in Canada, often makes me wish I could pack up and move to Britain for a few years. This is a degree granting institution, people. In hand-sewing. And the work their graduates do is just breath-taking.

Also, their graduates publish a series of instructional books on a wide variety of different kinds of embroidery: crewel, whitework, blackwork, goldwork, stumpwork, and more. They’re small and relatively inexpensive and you can trust the information in them.

7. If you ever get to the point where you’re looking for embroidery books at a higher-than-intermediate level, you won’t need my help or anyone else’s. At that point, you’ll know the experts and the artists by name yourself, and trot after their exhibits and books and magazine articles happily wherever they lead. However, if you do want to browse some embroidery eye-candy, you can find my embroidery bookshelf on GoodReads here. There’s also a fair number of pattern books for different embroidery styles, if you’re the kind of person who loves to embroider but hates to draw out the pattern first.

8. Embroidery magazine well worth the cover and shipping charges: Inspirations

An Australian embroidery magazine with a very impressive roster of regular artists who contribute projects and articles. Everything about the magazine is very high quality, and their projects are helpfully organized by skill-level and type. You’ll find every kind of embroidery in it, with really fantastic photography. I’ve got more projects dog-eared in back issues of this magazine than I will ever have the time to make.

9. Inspirational web haunts: the Mr. X-stitch and &Stitches Flickr boards

Among others. You’ll see a lot of overlap, but there’s a good amount of really impressive embroidery on the internet. (And a lot of crap, of course.)

10. Embroiderers to Stalk on the Internet

Not including websites already linked to above…

Sophie Long

Jane Nicholas, stumpwork guru.

Mary Corbet, does just about everything well

Michelle Carragher, costume embroiderer, including Game of Thrones

Embroidering Stuff: Purses

If you’re thinking about dipping your toes into the pool of decorative hand-stitching, purses and bags are a great place to start.

You don’t need to worry about flattering placement, or layering other pieces on top of something embroidered if it’s dimensional, or whether or not it’s “professional” or “appropriate;” you don’t need to worry about fit (if what’s holding you back is spending a lot of time decorating something and then having the final product not fit well). And there are some really good books and patterns out there that you can use as-is, or modify to be more your taste.

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This is my winter work-bag. It’s a good size (almost, but not quite, briefcase-length), and the inside is the top of an old pair of blue jeans, so it’s got lots of functional pockets. I sewed the bottom of the jeans-top shut, gusseted the corners, added a facing to the top, then measured the outside of this to cut the outside pattern pieces, added handles, top-stitched and voila. Construction-wise for the bag, not very tricky (except for sewing through multiple layers of boiled wool and denim). But to me, the embroidery makes the bag.

The pattern is based off of one in Bags in Bloom by Susan Cariello, a really fantastic embroidered-purse project book that includes patterns and instructions for the bags and for the embroidery. I chose one part of a nice pattern and scaled it up for use on a slightly larger bag.

Another project from the book.Gorgeous, isn’t it?

Given the heaviness of the boiled wool, heavier embroidery fibres were called for: primarily yarn (as in, for knitting) in wool, bamboo and angora, regular stretch lace, perle cotton for the finer details, and freshwater pearls and glass beads in the flower centres.

No, working worsted-weight yarn through boiled wool was not the kindest project on my fingers, but the end result was so worth it; and if you started with something like heavy linen, cotton canvas or a good stiff silk, it would not be so hard on the digits.

I’ve heard that Bags in Bloom has been recently republished under another title; if the cover looks the same and it’s by Susan Cariello, it’s the same book. But there’s a few other recent embroidered-bag project books, and while I haven’t yet had a chance to make up a project from them, they both look very solid from my reading: Artfully Embroidered by Naoko Shimoda and Strolling Along Paths of Green by Yoko Saito. Both are Japanese craft books recently translated into English.

From Artfully Embroidered

 

Artfully Embroidered includes a variety of embroidery styles, and bag projects beyond purses, including coin-purses (above), wallets, tote bags, and so on. Strolling Along Paths of Green is more of an applique/quilting book, but the projects look beautiful.

From Strolling Along Paths of Green
From Strolling Along Paths of Green

If you find my bag amateurish, that’s fine, and you can exclude it from your memory for the next question:

Looking at them, do you think that either printed fabric or regular solid fabric would have been as lovely?

I don’t. You’d miss the texture that the stitches add, and the effects their fibres can create, whether shiny, sparkly, matte, fuzzy, or variegated. You wouldn’t have the same opportunities to customize, either; adding or omitting beads, shifting or outright altering the colour scheme, changing the scale of the image, using only a portion of the pattern. Certainly my work bag (and yes, I’m bringing it back in) would have been just a grey sack.

That grey bag is the one project I can count on to get a “You made that? You know you could sell those” response, including from gallery and store owners. Not that I made it for the approval of others, or that I would enjoy it less if I didn’t have it, and of course I have no intention of making them to sell. But it is something that, if executed reasonably well, adds a lot of punch to an otherwise simple and unremarkable project.

Style Arc Willow pants

Pretty Pants, No Pockets

 

So you know that suit I made? I totally forgot to post about the pants, eh?

Umm … oops.

So hey! I made a suit! The blazer was the Style Arc Sara, and the pants were the Style Arc Willow.

The fabric is a poly-wool blend from Fabricland. At $12/m it wasn’t exactly cheap, but that’s a very reasonable price for a wool-blend suiting and something I’m much happier about potentially botching than a $30/m proper wool. Plus it is an incredibly vibrant cobalt blue, which struck me as a fun suit, potentially.

I had enough fabric to make two pairs, which was good, because the first had Issues.

First pair:

Of course I'd wear it with a yellow top. Why else would you make a purple-blue suit?
Of course I’d wear it with a yellow top. Why else would you make a purple-blue suit? For reference, my waistline is about where the top of my wrist is; no, the pants don’t meet it. And yes that is an undecorated Xmas tree beside me. So that tells you how long ago this picture was taken.

I cut this up and sewed it as a straight 12. Inside seams were serged. And I added pockets. The Willow pattern is pocket-free, and I have a hard time wearing pants without pockets thanks to the insulin pump. Especially in a slim cut, because then there’s nowhere to put a pump-holder inside the pants (at least, not without an odd and conspicuous leg bump). Same pockets that the Jasmine uses; I just merged the angled pocket line with the outlines of the Willow pattern at top.

Because I added pockets, I changed the order of construction: front darts, then pocket construction, then back darts, then sewing leg seams together. I used an invisible zipper that is less invisible than I’d like because it is black. I inserted the zipper before sewing up the side seams, then put on the waistband and hemmed the bottom with their little vents. Bottom hem is a blind stitch. On the inside, the lower waistband edge is serged and then attached to the front with a stitch-in-the-ditch.

They were a bit too snug for me, especially in the back. I can sit, but sitting takes more preparation than I’d typically like to undertake.

In part this is because of my high waist. My back-waist measurement is about 14″, which is shorter than a standard petite size 4. Am I petite? No, I’m not; I’m tall. Yes, I have the upper torso length of a small child. Anyway. The waistband is supposed to be on the waist here, but it’s not. So the waistband pulled everything up uncomfortably.

Second pair:

Added 1 1/2″ to the crotch rise and about 1/4″ to the seams to add a bit more ease in the hips. Otherwise the same. Nice blue zipper that is more invisible, with a beautifully matching purple-blue button. It’s much more wearable and more comfortable. The legs are also a bit looser in these photos than I would have liked (I’ve since snugged them up a bit, but so sorry so cold; pictures of that will have to wait).

You've seen these before, I know.
You’ve seen these before, I know.

I’ve already started on suit 2 (which you’ll know if you follow me on IG). What do you think, Dear Readers? Is this a pants pattern you would use for suits? Or would you go for something more conservative and less slim? Keep in mind that the blazer will be fairly fitted.

Silly photo time!
Silly photo time! Oh my god. I look like a cadaver.

Review: Stumpwork Butterflies & Moths

Stumpwork Butterflies & Moths
Stumpwork Butterflies & Moths by Jane Nicholas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am incredibly impressed by the level of research in Jane Nicholas’s insect embroidery books. I don’t read them expecting to learn more about the critters she embroiders, but I do: The natural history and basic biology of the insects are included; she also includes the history of the use of those insects in art, design & embroidery; and all of the projects are based on specific species of insects, quite true to life, with background information on their classification, habitat, and life cycles. It blows me away.

I’ve now completed one of the butterflies–the Chalkhill Blue Butterfly.

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Below is a photo of an actual Chalkhill Blue Butterfly, to give you an idea of how realistic the embroidery is:

Wow, right?

The instructions were detailed, thorough and accurate. This time, I used a much finer gauge of wire, and it was much easier to couch to the fabric and buttonhole stitch over it.

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The instructions for shaded satin stitch in the wings also made sense, and made a final product that looked mostly like the photo in the book (any discrepancies I’m chalking up to my poorer relative skill level).

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The wings cut out well and inserted through the background fabric no problem, and the remaining instructions to embroidery the body and antennae were simple and accurate. Voila, the final product (beside the ladybug I embroidered from her beetles book a few weeks ago):

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Some imperfections to note:

-I didn’t have the stripey thread she used for the antennae, so mine are solid.
-I also didn’t have and couldn’t find 3mm beads for the head, so my head is not quite the right proportion for the body–still, I think it works
-I also didn’t want to pay shipping on the brand of chenille thread she used for the body, so I used a fuzzy thread I could buy locally. It’s not quite right but it’s better than the shipping charge would have been.
-And lastly, you can see the pencil tick marks on the background fabric showing where the butterfly ought to have extended to, according to the “finished size” photo/diagram. Mine is clearly smaller. I followed the patterns for the wings quite carefully, so either the photo/diagram of the finished project is a smidge off, or you’re supposed to buttonhole stitch around the wing shape, and not directly over it. In any case, it’s a minor thing, and won’t affect my ability to use the butterfly pattern on anything else I choose.

Five stars. I’m having a fantastic time with stumpwork so far. Yes, it’s small and fiddly, but the smallness means that each element works up really quickly, and I can see lots of potential for including little bits like these on clothing and bags and other projects.

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Embroidered Clothing is Better

Say, did you know that it’s National Embroidery Month?

I’m guessing 100 hours on embroidering this dress.

No, me either. Which is tragic. I feel like I’ve wasted ten days of potential embroidery bliss through my careless ignorance. Not to say that I haven’t been embroidering–I have–but I didn’t know that I had the perfect opportunity to torment you all with embroidery talk!

I don’t remember when I started embroidering. I have half-completed embroidery projects around from when I was in elementary school, so it’s apparently been for at least 30 years; but I wouldn’t consider myself to be an expert. There are so many skills, stitches and techniques to master in embroidery that I will never get to that level.

I will never, ever be this good. Amazing.

It’s got a bit of a fusty reputation, too, much like sewing had in the last decade or so: it’s for old women, right? Making dustcatchers with bible verses to give as Christmas presents. Though there is nothing wrong with this, and the ageism and sexism in the assumption is problematic, it’s also completely not true. Lots of people, both men and women and of all ages–including this program for male prisoners in the UK–embroider; it’s not just for pillow covers and wall hangings; and if you want to put your favourite Walking Dead or Friends quote on your work, well, nothing’s stopping you.

Right? Now there’s a way to combine needlework and power tools!

But there’s no getting around that hand embroidery, unlike machine sewing, really is something that takes time, practice and effort to master. Don’t get snippy: you can make a knit t-shirt in an afternoon, and it will be perfectly wearable; you can master the techniques required to make a gathered skirt by machine in a day, as many beginners classes prove; but it may take you a year of practicing your stitches before you are good enough to embroider that t-shirt or skirt, and when you do, it will probably take you a week of active stitching time to actually do it. I hand-embroidered a work bag a few years back; it took 40 hours to make the bag from start to finish, and at least half of that was just the embroidery. Totally worth it, though.

This is why our clothes are no longer embroidered. Fast fashion and mass production rely on things that are replicable by machine and can be completed in a short enough time that the costs are still low. Hand embroidery does not fit in that business model. I think that our decades’ long experience with mass produced fashion has conditioned our eyes to see it as something somehow odd, fussy, irrelevant, or not-modern. As something we’ve outgrown. But frankly, if you’re already invested in making your own clothes, then you have already mostly rejected mass produced clothing, and you may as well go all the way. Haute couture still recognizes that well-completed hand-embroidery elevates a garment, adds a loveliness that cannot be replicated by machine embroidery or by printed fabric.

Also, embroidery has an incredibly long and surprisingly functional history. Smocking, for example, is something now associated with heirloom dresses made for little girls; but historically, it was used on workers’ clothing to add stretch to woven fabrics. Sashiko embroidery was first developed in Japan to reinforce areas of wear on clothing, or at stress points to prevent wear.

Some embroidery was of course always entirely decorative, and speaks to me of the need for personal decoration built deep within human nature.

Sioux dress w/ fully beaded yoke, from Wikipedia.

Aren’t these incredible? Imagine the dedication and skill it would take, not to mention the time, to produce something so beautiful. Imagine the need to make beautiful things that would have encouraged people to develop those technologies and skills in the first place!

Our clothing is no longer embroidered by hand because our clothing today is cheap, and hand embroidery is not cheap. Clothing today is meant to be disposable; if it wears out, if the colours bleed, if it fades, pitch it. Hand embroidery is not disposable; if done well, it will last for centuries.

I can understand why new sewers would be aiming for the quality of off-the-rack clothes: they represent the lowest common denominator of acceptable clothing in public, right? The seams are straight, the hems are even, things are pressed. And then fitting is the next natural skill to tackle, making clothes that are better than off-the-rack because the fit has been perfected for the body it goes on.

But what then? Do you just jump on a treadmill of cranking out endless repetitions of perfectly fitting garments that look like off-the-rack, but better fitted? End up with a closet just as full as the worst fast-fashion junkie’s? Is mimicking disposable fashion the end of the line in sewing skills development?

Of course not. Unless you really just want 30 identical boring knit t-shirts, so you can wear a different one every day for a month. But then you’ve made your thirty identical boring knit t-shirts, and then what?

If you get to that point, and you’re looking for a way to slow down in your clothing production, add more visible hand-made details, make something that will last and that does not look in any way like it came from a mall–in a good way–might I suggest embroidery? It is the last stage in handmade couture clothing, Dear Readers.

~~~~~

tl/dr: I’ll be talking about embroidery a lot over the next couple of weeks. You’ve been warned.

~~~~~

All of the clothing images, with the exception of the Sioux dress, are haute couture clothing designs from runway shows. And they’re all a bit over-the-top and decadent. But I hope they made the point that our clothing today isn’t embroidered, not because it’s old-fashioned or out-of-date or inherently unattractive, but because it costs serious time and dedication.

My First Burda

Burda’s got a bit of a reputation, eh?

The instructions! The complexity! The lack of seam allowances!

But it was the only place I could find a nice dress pattern I could adjust to fit my daughter, that would work with the kind of knit we’d already bought for her holiday dress (a shiny panne velour, in a bright cobalt/navy blue). So I decided to gird my loins and enter the battle of Burda.

And found myself strolling through a park. Dear Readers, it was not hard. It was a dress pattern. Yes, I had to add 5/8″ seam allowances, but other than that … you know … sew the yoke to the bodice, join the shoulders, the sides, make up the sleeves, add the sleeves, gather the skirt, sew it on, hem. I hardly even had to look at the instructions.

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The bias trim in velour on the neckline and sleeve hems turned out to be a bit tricky, but not that bad.

The adjustments didn’t work out quite as well as her last dress, but purely my fault; I added girth to the front, but no length, so the front waist seam is not level on her. I also had to make up two sets of sleeves, as the first was too narrow. But it was an easy fix and we had lots of extra fabric, and this happens with all the woven shirts I make for her. She also asked me to make it ankle-length, which I was happy to do and which used up all of the extra velour.

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I even decided to make it a bit more difficult by using lace binding on the hem to ease the excess in, so it’s all catch-stitched. There’s no wonky top-stitching on the velour, and there’s no weird bubbling from excess fullness, so it worked out. Again, not so bad.

It’s a nice dress that fits her well and falls well within her preferred grey-and-blue colour scheme. But of course, she had Christmas at her dad’s and didn’t wear it there and then forgot to bring it home so couldn’t wear it here … so it’s still waiting for its perfect debut opportunity.

In the meantime: Burda! Not as terrifying as previously reported. I will definitely try their patterns again.

Review: The Stumpwork, Goldwork and Surface Embroidery Beetle Collection

The Stumpwork, Goldwork and Surface Embroidery Beetle Collection
The Stumpwork, Goldwork and Surface Embroidery Beetle Collection by Jane Nicholas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A fantastic book for the advanced beetle-loving embroiderer. This may be a small audience, but it’s a wonderful book–from the research on the inspiration insects, through to the instructions and projects using stumpwork, goldwork, crewel, beading, and applique techniques.

I finished my first stumpwork beetle –the ladybug–and can say that the instructions are clear, the measurements and diagrams are accurate and make sense, and the project worked.

 

In person, this little guy measures about 1 cm long.
In person, this little guy measures about 1 cm long.

It is definitely not a perfect project, but I learned some things in doing this one:

  1. You cannot substitute the 24-gauge jewellery wire you have on hand for the 28-30 gauge florists’ wire called for in the pattern. It makes too thick a border for the wings, and once you finish the wing, you’ll have a devil of a time trying to get the wire through the background fabric.
  2. Draw the outlines on to the back of the background fabric, so you can still see where the legs go after the front has been covered by the wings. Draw the outlines of the wings on the front of the wing fabric, because honestly you’re going to cover the whole thing front and back with stitches anyway so it doesn’t really matter where it goes.
  3. The black seed beads you have on hand are maybe not quite small enough.
  4. You will absolutely need to have good, clear detailed vision of objects held at about nose-distance. Doing couching stitches over even 24-gauge jewellery wire, and then padded satin stitches to fill in tiny shapes only a few millimetres in each direction, will require you to hold things pretty close to your face and be able to see them relatively well. This may mean reading glasses. If you’re me, this will mean reading glasses worn in front of your regular prescription glasses. Hazel Blomkamp, whose wonderful crewel embroidery books I got the double-glasses suggestion from, gently reminds her readers to take off the reading glasses before being seen by anyone. Or you can take selfies and post them on the internet, which is what I did.

    In a 4" embroidery hoop, to give you a sense of scale.
    In a 4″ embroidery hoop, to give you a sense of scale.
  5. Working itty-bitty black stab stitches around the borders of the two teeny pieces of black felt that form the body underneath those wings will require the brightest light you can find. Don’t try to do this in the kitchen at 10pm.
  6. After 30 minutes stitching while wearing two pairs of glasses, you will not be able to see well without them.
  7. But you can totally do 3D stumpwork embroidery.  It’ll even be recognizable when it’s done, if a bit messy.

    See? 3D!
    See? 3D!

Given that these little ladybugs are so small, I think they could be a super cute touch on a shirt collar or placket or something.  I’m not sure what I’ll do with this little guy. It’d be a fun pendant for a necklace, don’t you think?

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So close, and yet so far: leather skirt muslin #2

I had such high hopes for this skirt.

Goofy poses taken from Women In Clothes (ref. in below photo)
Goofy poses taken from Women In Clothes (ref. in below photo)

One of the high hopes that I had was that it would be a fun holiday skirt. But this thought, this “wouldn’t it be great to get all gussied up in nice shoes and tights and everything at the end of December?” idea, comes strictly from a determination not to know myself and the laziest inner leanings of my winter heart.

No, actually, what sounds like fun at the end of December is to put on a pair of comfy blue jeans, an old worn-in sweater, make a huge pot of english rose or dorian grey tea, put my hair in a ponytail and spend the entire day sewing, while wearing fuzzy socks. Getting gussied up and wearing a skirt and tights and nice shoes and everything means, for at least a short period of time, being cold; and I have no interest in that. (I was very cold taking these pictures, which is why I took three of them and went back inside.)

A second high hope that I had for this skirt was that the material, a lovely bright copper faux leather with a bit of stretch, would be good for muslining out my leather pencil skirt again, if only to practice leather sewing techniques on something similar. And in terms of getting the fit right, it certainly was. This pencil skirt fits. And thanks to the rayon lining, I know it’s not due to the stretch.

Not just the lighting.
Not just the lighting.

But thanks to the stretch, all those lovely interesting curvy seams bubble and hiccup like a drunk man at 2 am on a Saturday.

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(sigh)

So while I’m pretty sure the fit is fine, I’m going to have to try it again without stretch. Before I do, I’m going to take another closer look at the seamlines on the adjusted skirt pieces, because truly fixing the bubbling probably means finessing those quite a bit as well, to make sure the curves match as much as possible.

Today's crazy pose courtesy of the poses shown on pp 233-239 of Women in Clothes, which I am still very slowly making my way through. As you can see, the bubbling doesn't go away when I wear it.
Today’s crazy poses courtesy of the poses shown on pp 233-239 of Women in Clothes, which I am still very slowly making my way through. As you can see, the bubbling doesn’t go away when I wear it.

However, I did lay out my lovely leather and make sure that these pieces will fit on the skins that I have. And they will, just barely. So once I get the curves figured out, Dear Readers, I am off to the races on making a gorgeous leather skirt, that I am pretty well certain not to wear until April at least, because it is Canada in the winter time and it’s cold outside.

Review: Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message

Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message
Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message by Tara Mohr
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Boy, am I ever glad I didn’t pay for this.

Mohr’s heart is in the right place. She wanted to write a book that would help women overcome a lifetime of socialization and learn to believe in ourselves, so we can pursue our own big dreams and goals. And that is wonderful. But the execution fell apart somewhat.

To begin with, it is pretty well a standard self-help book, with standard self-help advice: make friends with your inner critic, find and follow your inner mentor, step depending on praise or running from criticism, deal with fear, stop undermining yourself, figure out what your big dreams and callings are, chase them down to the ends of the earth. All fine, so far as they go, but not earth-shaking. I’ve read enough self-help books over the course of my life to know that making friends with your inner critic is the first piece of advice offered in almost every self-help book, and whether you call it your Inner Mentor or your North Star or your Peaceful Place or your Future Visualization or whatever, finding it is always the second.

(Aside: I had three stages in my own self-help book journey: 1–I was young and proud and much too good for self-help books; 2–I was older and sad and decided maybe I could use help even if it came in the form of self-help books; 3–I am even older and either through the books I’ve already read or just the process of increasing curmudgeonization, I feel like I no longer need it. The Fuck-Off Fairy has been and gone; now I figure if I do something and it turns out to be ridiculous and everyone laughs at me, well, at least I’ve brightened their days.)

For another, the feminist portion of the book seemed half-thought-out, at best. She acknowledges the reality of discrimination and sexism in shaping our world, our lives, and our personalities, but then doesn’t really consider how that sexism will react to us in our new, fearless, uber-confident and self-mentored-up selves. If we are taught self-deprecation in order not to seem uppity, for example, it stands to reason that when we no longer self-deprecate, the world will not take it well. In my exeperience, one can absolutely expect a significant backlash to any move away from the feminine Norm of Nice.

Most of the research that forms the basis of the book is anecdotal and personal–of course, since this is self-help; one can’t expect double-blind studies and statistical correlations. However, it is less that convincing, particularly when some of the anecdotes are of the “I listened to my inner voice, and it told me to send my first ever written piece to Forbes, and it got published!” variety.

The chapter on fear, though, angered me.

Mohr states that really there are two kinds of fear: pachad, which is the fear of things that don’t actually exist, like monsters under the bed; and yirah, which is the fear felt when we confront the divine or other things larger than ourselves. Pachad we should ignore because what we fear isn’t real. Yirah is telling us we should move forwards.

You may notice that there is a distinct lack of any discussion of the fear of real, present and immediate threats, like sabre-toothed tigers, abusive ex-husbands, or the imminent prospect of foreclosure on one’s house. Both of the kinds of fear she does discuss mean, in her view, that you should move forwards towards your dream; but look, terrible things can happen and sometimes our fears are rational and realistic. The Universe is not a cosmic vending machine and we are not all guaranteed to have our dreams come true if we are nice people who want reasonable things. The worst can happen, and sometimes it does. Sometimes people fail, and it is irresponsible not to even discuss what to do when one’s fears are realistic or even probable, and it boggles my mind that however many people read this manuscript and no one thought to wonder about the whole fear thing.

Here’s my own personal advice on fear:

As yourself three questions: What is the most likely outcome? What is the best case scenario? What is the worst case scenario?

If you can accept the most likely outcome, if the best case scenario is something you truly deeply want, and if the worst case scenario is something you can recover from, it’s a good risk.

If the most likely outcome is not good enough, if the worst case scenario would crush you and you aren’t sure you could recover, or if the best case scenario isn’t amazingly fantastic, it’s probably not worth it.

By all means, do some research or talk to people to figure out what those scenarios are; but just plunging ahead on the expectation that the Universe takes care of people with good intentions is silly and irresponsible.

~~~

There was a time in my life when a lot of this book’s contents would have resonated with me and I would have dragged out my journal and earnestly completed all of the journaling prompts. If you are at that time in your life, I wish you good luck, god speed, and it almost certainly isn’t as bad or as scary as you think. Keep breathing. You’ll get there.

Somehow or other, I did; or at least, I think I did. I did more tagging of pages that I agreed with than tagging of insights–in fact, I didn’t tag any insights. Yep, still scared of things; no, it doesn’t stop me; the inner critic is still vicious but I just smile and nod at her and keep on plugging; praise and criticism don’t tell me what to do; etc. Maybe I’m just a smug and self-satisfied brat. In any case, I’ll be sending this back to the library, where it can hopefully inspire and console someone else.

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