The Pros and Cons of Being Self-Taught

Alright, it’s out there. Everyone knows. I am a completely self-taught seamstress. Well, “self-taught” in the sense that I had no single person whom I would call my teacher. I have never had any formal sewing lessons, either in a class or one-on-one, outside of that time in high school I asked my mom to help me sew a skirt, and I gave it up in the fabric cutting process. Which, to this day, is STILL the part of sewing I struggle with and loathe the most.

Everything I know is from hours and hours of reading Facebook posts, Instagram posts, and watching YouTube videos. The Facebook posts were especially helpful

Pro 1: No one is there to tell you it’s hard

Invariablely, when mixing and meeting with people who are pursing the same thing — whether in person or online — you will share a project you are wanting to do or are currently working on, and someone will reply, “Ooo, be careful. That’s tricky.” Or if you’re taking a class, you will be steered away from doing certain things because those skills are more advanced.

And there are harder skills than others, in every field, and there definitely is something to the idea of giving up because you’re getting frustrated since you currently lack the necessary skill. However, I think more harm is done by never attempting these “scary” things or constantly being disappointed by your projects because they aren’t exactly how you envisioned them either because the fabric you wanted to use was “too difficult” to work with or that technique is “really tricky”. And while these words of caution are almost always well-intentioned, I think the way it is said makes it too easy for people to leap from, “It’s hard” to “It’s impossible.”

I am not saying that certain fabrics aren’t harder than others — I’m looking at you minky and whatever that fake polyester hybrid fabric was I made a dress out of — and I am not saying that there aren’t skills that are more technical and challenging than others.

I am saying that you should try them anyways. Just do it.

Because I firmly believe that it is in the doing and it is in the struggle that your greatest growth and learning will happen.

Pro 2: You Think Outside the Box

Similarly, there is also no one there to tell you how it’s supposed to be done. You have an idea or an inspiration, and you just run with it. Sure, it probably doesn’t turn out correctly the first time, but after some twists and turns you figure it out.

Pro 3: All the projects you do are of interest to you

Now, granted, since I have never taken a sewing class, I cannot say for certain what the standard bill of fare is as far as the projects that are worked on. But since I am assuming they are chosen for the skills they teach and not to fill a need or desire in your life, you will invariably find yourself working on things that feel like a tedium.

However, when you’re self-taught, your learning is spurred on by the projects you have personally chosen for yourself. Therefore, you are more likely to pursue them to completion, no matter the hiccups you encounter.

Pro 4: You Become Well-Rounded

I think being self-taught also makes you more well-rounded, if you’re willing.

For example, I have worked and created so many things with so many different materials. The wide variety of projects has exposed me to numerous materials and skills. I have made children’s clothes, clothes for myself, done tailoring, quilts, bags, and even a posable, plush dragon!

Additionally, I think I learned the most about tension on my machine when I was having severe tension problems, which resulted in uneven stitching and often severe nesting with my sewing. However, I had no sewing guru I could go to whom I could ask for help and they would just give me an answer.

I had to struggle. I had to dig. I think I took my machine apart 15+ times. (Well, as much as you can take apart a modern machine. Seriously, we should be allowed to get into those baby’s, but that’s another conversation.) I asked questions on Facebook. I made countless Google searches. Oftentimes I would find articles, close to what I was after, but not truly answering and solving my problem.

And while that was frustrating at the time, it also provided me with a more well-rounded wealth of knowledge for me to draw on and gave me a much more complete picture about tension and the inner workings of sewing machines.

Con 1: You don’t know, what you don’t know.

Unfortunately, without the benefit of having a teacher you also could be doing things the hard way or missing out on some really cool features that your machine is capable of.

For instance, my machine can drop the feed dogs for free-motion quilting. However, I was blissfully unaware of this for almost 4 YEARS of having my machine! I only wondered about it when I stumbled across The Midnight Quilt Show (now the Midnight Quilter) with Angela Walters and she mentioned a lot of machines can do it.

Now, granted, if I had been more attentive to the manual when I first read through it I might have known this. However, when I first got the machine I didn’t understand half of what it was talking about and after my first skim, I only went back to it to figure out how to do ‘x’ thing for ‘y’ project.

Again, I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

Con 2: Finding answers can be hard

Another problem with being self-taught is that finding answers can be really hard, as alluded to in my machine tension issues. I don’t even remember how long I wrestled with it to try and get everything calibrated correctly.

Any maybe you’re asking yourself, “why didn’t she just take it to a sewing machine repair specialist?” Well, for starters, I have a devil of a time trying to find one. It feels like they all live across the country or are hidden somewhere in a big city. Secondly, on the times when I had sent the machine in for servicing, they always told me it worked fine. However, when I would bring it back home I would still have the same issues.

So I assumed it was something I was doing. (It wasn’t, by the way. Well, it mostly wasn’t me.) This is where a teacher would have been of immeasurable value to me. If it was me, they probably could have shown me my mistake early on and I would have avoided this all together. Or, they could have assisted me in figuring out how to fix my machine.

The biggest issue was that the bobbin tension was just not tight enough and I needed to fix that, against my manual’s warnings. Two other issues are that I was using the wrong type of needles for a project, and my machine at the time was not brawny enough to handle what I was asking. Anyways…

Con 3: You Could Plateau

I think this one kind of loops back to the “you don’t know, what you don’t know” downfall. Again, without a teacher to provide new techniques or introduce new ideas you just aren’t aware of what is out there or what the possibilities are. It’s also a con of the idea that you only work on projects you’re interested in. Maybe your interests trend in only one direction, and therefore you have no impetus to stretch yourself.

Sometimes, you just find something you love doing and you only do that thing. Which is fine, to a point. But I think we should always be trying to better ourselves and learn more. So, if your thing is making clothes, try and stretch yourself and learn different techniques and use different fabrics that you wouldn’t normally choose or attempt. Or perhaps get even a little more daring, and try and draft a pattern. Nothing may come of it, except a lot of learning.

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work” – Thomas A. Edison

It also might cycle back to someone cautioning you away from a certain fabric or technique because it’s hard. In general, I don’t find those comment helpful. I cannot tell you the number of times I have heard someone say they were too scared to work with knits. In reality, I usually feel a little frustrated. If we are going to tell someone knits can be a little tricky, then let’s also give them all the knowledge they need to accomplish the task. Sewing is for everyone, not just some special elite.

So, there you have it. The Pros and Cons of being self-taught. The quick version. I have no shame in it. In fact, I am very proud of everything I have accomplished and how far I have come doing things on my own. So, if I can do it, anyone can do. Thanks to modern technology, we have a wealth of information at our fingertips. Let’s make good use of it.


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