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Perfectionism: Mental Illness or Endearing Quality?

2011 December 6
by elizabeth_admin

Sewing friends, whenever I speak of my personality flaws I call them endearing qualities.  You do too, right? 

Today’s endearing quality topic is perfectionism.  I think there is a scale for perfectionism which goes something like this: 

1 being (“it’s great if you have time to do it”) to 5 (mitred corners on the sheets every day) to 10 (perfectly lined up soup cans in the cabinets a la “Sleeping with the Enemy” 0r full on OCD mental illness).

I think I speak for most sewing peeps when I say that we all have a little perfectionist in us just bursting to get out.  I mean, who doesn’t like a well-ordered pantry?  When it comes to my sewing, I have noticed that perfectionism is trending a little higher with each successive project.  I’ve also noticed that my projects are taking longer and longer to finish as well. 

Coincidence?  I think not.

For instance, take this skirt pleat(s) in my current project, NL 6067.


There are two matching sets of pleats at either side of the front skirt as well as a box pleat in the CF of the skirt.  When I first sewed the bodice to the skirt, I carefully pinned and basted those pleats just so.  I was so careful that I was very confident that my pleats would come out beautifully matching. 

They did not.

The pleats pictured above were woefully not centered over each other the first time I sewed them to the bodice.  I only noticed after I had clipped the seam allowances and started pressing the seam.  It was late when I noticed, so I put it aside to work on the next day.  Which I did.  I unpicked, re-basted the pleats together, and re-sewed the seam. 

Now I have perfectly sewn, perfectly matched pleats on either side of my dress skirt.  It did add time to my construction process, but in the grand scheme of things, not much time.  Of course, the time spent re-sewing several spots that didn’t quite pass muster did add up considerably.  But the end result is so worth it, nicht wahr?

So far, I have had a couple, a few, several of those situations pop up during the construction of this dress.  Yes, it’s added time to my project, but I am so pleased with how this dress is turning out.  I will be happy with how professional it looks.  I will actually wear it.  Because, as I am sure you know or have already experienced, if you don’t like something you’ve made or something about it’s construction doesn’t turn out well, then you won’t wear it, right?  I know I don’t. 

When I was cleaning out the fabric/clothes closet in preparation for Peter’s visit last week, I weeded my clothes with a ruthless eye.  If something I made didn’t fit well or wasn’t constructed well, I put it in the donation pile.  Out went the following clothes I have made but don’t wear:

  • The first iteration of B5147 in stretch chambray fabric. This dress didn’t fit very well, gaping at the arms, and had a sub-par invisible zipper insertion, i.e. it was a visible invisible zipper.  Also, the fabric sucked.  It bagged out with body heat and looked a hot mess after 1 hour of wearing.
  • The shirred knit skirt I made without a pattern.  This skirt was never flattering on me.  Never wore it much because I was too self-conscious of that fact.
  • The doubleknit dress.  It never fit well in the bust, even with princess seams, and after two muslins and constant tweaking of the final version, I couldn’t look at that dress again.  I loved the fabric and the buttons I used, so I did wear it quite a bit last fall.  But my skillset has improved in the last year and I cannot wear it again knowing how ill fitting it is.

Long story long…  I have found that, as I learn more about sewing, fabric and techniques, my standards of excellence are rising in lockstep with my knowledge.  I want better fabrics (silks please!).  I want impeccably made clothes which I will wear with no fear of the “loving hands at home” look, and I want to expand my sewing skill repertoire (suit jackets maybe?). 

So, do I consider my growing perfectionism a mental illness?  No!  Let’s go with my old standby… It’s an endearing quality.  Well, at least it endears itself to me anyway.

What do you think about perfectionism and sewing?  Is there correlation between the two?  Is it a mental illness?


17 Responses leave one →
  1. December 6, 2011

    Perfectionism isn’t a mental illness but it can certainly feature in one and not just OCD either… (Sorry, I’m probably taking that question way too seriously, but it’s a bit of a touchy subject round here!)

    • December 6, 2011

      Although to return to the sewing slant of things – I completely understand where you’re coming from! As far as I’m concerned, I could buy something not-quite-right in RTW for a whole lot less effort. If I’m going to sew it, I might as well make it as good as I possibly can. But experience in anything ups the stakes as far as what ‘as good as possible’ actually means!

  2. December 6, 2011

    I go back and forth on this one. Some of my favourite pieces have abysmal construction. I find if I like the fit/fabric/overall look, I’ll forgive a LOT in the construction department. On the other hand there’s some fabulously-made pieces that just don’t look quite right. In some ways, those are the ones I’m happier to pass on, as I’m not embarrassed by the workmanship.

    I need to do a major closet weed. Pieces that are total fails (and it usually takes me a few months of wearing/not wearing to figure out if a piece is a fail or not) need to be either donated, or become fabric for other projects (I’m thinking kids’ clothes in a number of cases.) Whether a given piece gets donated or refashioned will probably be based more on how perfect the construction is than anything else.

    My theoretical perspective? Moderation in all things. Perfectionism is good if it leads to improvement without paralyzing you or creating dissatisfaction with overall-good projects.

    • elizabeth_admin permalink*
      December 6, 2011

      Great points Tanit-Isis! Especially not being embarrassed to pass on good construction pieces. haha!

  3. December 6, 2011

    I love your perfectionism scale – and I detest mitered corners. I love when we can actually tell that our skills growing and we’re benefiting from that. I also love that you’re saying goodbye to projects that no longer meet your increased standards. It’s a great measure of pride in your enhanced techniques. Yay!!! xos

  4. Meg permalink
    December 6, 2011

    Congratulations on graduating to the next stage: what I call “sophisticated sewing,” for lack of a better term. In this phase you strive for perfectionism where it matters, you realize that cheap fabric still looks cheap no matter how well sewn, and you’d rather invest most of your time sewing classics that will stay in your closet season after season. Sure, there’s still a time and place for quick, easy and trendy. But now you realize it may be more cost-effective in the long run, when you factor your precious time in, to pick up trendy pieces from H&M or Zara.

  5. December 6, 2011

    I hear you! I am a perfectionist and sometimes it is getting ridiculous. I don’t think there will ever be the day when I look at the garment and do not want to change something or can point at something that was not quite perfect.

  6. December 6, 2011

    “Because, as I am sure you know or have already experienced, if you don’t like something you’ve made or something about it’s construction doesn’t turn out well, then you won’t wear it, right? I know I don’t.”

    As my recent post suggests, this is so true for me. However, I think perfectionism is great until I find that I’m not completing anything or nothing is ever perfect. Then I need to reevaluate my idea of perfection!

  7. December 6, 2011

    Ha! Just as I was constructing my bound button hole blog post I thought, ‘Well, here’s another excuse to get totally OCD over a sewing detail.’ All that careful measuring… I suspect you have to have a little perfectionist streak in you to enter on this journey in the first place. I agree with Tanit-Itis, though. I often berate myself for imperfections on makes that I then wear week in and week out, never glancing ever again (or even thinking about or noticing) that tiny detail that wasn’t quite right. Regarding getting rid of your own makes: I believe this is a really healthy step on the sewing journey. Recognising something as a step along the path, but something that is never going to be worn again and needs to say farewell. Can’t wait to see your beautiful dress in all its glory.

  8. December 6, 2011

    Hmm, I think I am more of a perfect-is-the-enemy-of the-good kind of girl. But I think that’s a side effect of graduate school where I learned that if I wanted something to be perfect it was never going to get done at all. My sewing skills have gotten a lot better and I can’t bear to wear some of the first things I made, even if they look nice on the outside, because I know they are fraying underneath. At the same time I’ve slowly been converting to the “wearable muslin” school of sewing. It doesn’t seem to matter how many muslins I make of a dress or jacket, I don’t know how it will actually fit until I make it up in the real fabric and try wearing it for a day. I think there’s a lot of knowledge that only comes from trying a lot of things and making a lot of mistakes and perfectionism only becomes dangerous when it keeps you from trying.

  9. December 6, 2011

    I still haven’t been able to get rid of any of my home sewn garments, although there are a few that really should go. Perhaps I could repurpose the fabric…. And I totally want to take back some of buttons because they are just too good to get rid of, even if the project was an epic fail. Usually I can tell when a project is finished if I like it or if I am going to wear it a lot, but lately I have noticed some of my sewn projects are growing on me – the fit and construction are so nice that I really like to wear them, even if they weren’t quite what I had hoped for or imagined when I had started the project. I also find myself wanting to sew up replacements for some of my sewn garments that have been made in cheaper materials. I think once I have replacement garments I will be much more willing to give up my $3 polyester gabardine pants which fit great but aren’t the most comfortable things to wear.

    Also, I have found that my level of perfectionism is proportional to the complexity of the garment I am sewing. I can survive with a few messy bits to a quick knit top, and I will still probably wear it, but I can’t deal with messy bits in my complicated projects like coats, fancy dresses, or skating costumes for competition. I think this dress is going to be quite special when you are finished, so it is totally worth all of the time and effort you are putting into the details. Can’t wait to see the finished product!

  10. December 6, 2011

    While I strive for better than pretty-good, I don’t go crazy. My tipping point is if someone who doesn’t sew would notice. I mean have you seen RTW? 😉 And I never notice RTW’s imperfections on someone else, mostly because they’re a moving target and I’m not studying the construction of their outfits (usually). So, I give myself a pass, a lot.

  11. December 6, 2011

    Of course its not a mental illness 😉
    Just a natural progression along the sewing experience journey.
    It does mean, for me, that nothing is a quick project anymore. Not good for appropriate stash maintenance at a reasonable level. I haven’t got my buying-fabric skills to the same level of perfectionism as my sewing..

  12. December 6, 2011

    I used to be such a perfectionist that I was nearly afraid to sew, lest I make a mistake. Furthermore, I was sewing entirely for the economic benefit, not even thinking about the creative aspect. That was about 20 years ago. Then I met someone who sewed so quickly that I had to ask how she did it. Of course, most of the answer had to do with whether another person would really care about all the exactness and neatness inside the garment. In other words, who is going to see inside, anyway? When I taught my daughter to sew, around age 12 or so, she seemed to instinctively know that. I finally realized that sewing can be more about creativity than practicality, especially if I “just do it.”

  13. December 6, 2011

    I think the art is knowing what needs to be perfect and what doesn’t and being able to live with the decisions you make about this. For me pleats must be perfect.

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