Mary Corbet

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I learned to embroider when I was a kid, when everyone was really into cross stitch (remember the '80s?). Eventually, I migrated to surface embroidery, teaching myself with whatever I could get my hands on...read more

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The Art of the Mistake, or How to Improve in… Everything!


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As embroiderers, we’ve all spent time picking out stitches, pulling out threads, repairing small errors – indulging in what is (affectionately?) called reverse stitching, frogging (rippit! rippit!) or similar terms of endearment.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a body in possession of life is prone to make mistakes.

And in the world of hand embroidery, we are not immune from the mistake-making tendencies of humanity. It is part of the game.

But I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – mistakes should never hold a person back. We’ve surely heard all the sayings: “A mistake is an opportunity waiting to happen,” or “it’s not how many times you fall that matters, but how many times you get back up” – plus many more. And they’re all true. Perception and reaction, when it comes to mistakes, are everything.

Every misplaced stitch, every knotted thread, every tangled mass, every unfortunately chosen color or thread – they all have a silver lining, depending on how you look at them and how you react to them.

The Art of the Mistake: We all Make Them

Take, for instance, the little projects we are working on lately in the studio. One of these projects – not the one in the photo above – will eventually result in the next Stitch Snippet for this year. But we are working many small designs in this process.

And you know what? They don’t always work out! Perhaps the color doesn’t work the first time we start stitching on one of the samples. Or maybe the stitch choice doesn’t fit the design. Or … better yet! Maybe the whole design is just plain Wrong.

These things happen.

There are a few downsides to making mistakes – especially when you’re all keyed up to develop a new project according to the seemingly brilliant idea in your head.

The Disadvantage of the Mistake

First, mistakes are time consuming. One of the immediate results of making a mistake is definitely the perceived waste of time. Especially in hand embroidery, the process of development of an idea is pretty slow – so when you have to chuck the first attempt (or second, or third), it can be somewhat disheartening. That was time lost. (But was it completely lost? Not necessarily!)

Second, mistakes lead to waste. Fabric, thread, beads and more – materials that end up discarded can be a real waste of resources. For small projects, this is not such a big deal; the cost is minimal when the supplies are minimal. On larger projects, waste due to error can lead to unforeseen costs.

Third, there’s an emotional downside to mistakes: they can be super frustrating! And they can put a dent in one’s confidence. They can cause us to question our skills and abilities. They can cause us to hesitate in trying new things or in improving our skills. They can convince us that I can’t do it, and this can be detrimental in any pursuit.

The Advantage of the Mistake

But wait!!

As frustrating as mistakes may be, in the creative process, a mistake is not a negative thing! No, no! A mistake is an art in itself. There is a certain artistry, I’m convinced, in making, and re-making and even re-re-making, mistakes. The way we approach, perceive, examine, and react to our mistakes

First, we all know – or at least, we’ve been told since we were kids – that a mistake is a learning opportunity. The best teacher in the world is The Mistake. If we really want to do something, if we want to succeed at the thing we are setting out to create, then when The Mistake comes along, we must take it apart, understand what went wrong, and figure out how to right it. What a great opportunity for learning!

In embroidery, this process of learning from The Mistake is one of the quickest ways to improve embroidery skills and to gain confidence.

Second, a mistake can end up being not-a-mistake. It can be the beginning of something unique and innovative – an unintended development into something better than what was initially planned. Serendipitous mistakes can lead to unexpected, delightful results in embroidery.

This is the main reason I think it’s a good idea to walk away for a while from a perceived mistake, to come back later with fresh eyes to examine it. You never know – you might like the mistake better than you liked your original plan.

Third, besides helping us refine our embroidery skills, mistakes help us refine us. They teach us patience – with ourselves and others. They teach us resilience – we can jump back up after a mistake. And they help us understand that progress in anything is not always linear. There are ups and downs. And that’s ok.

The Upshot

All of this is really just to say that we’ve been making – and correcting – a lot of mistakes lately in the studio. It’s just part of the process!

Sure, it’s not always the Most Fun Part of Embroidery, but we always find that it’s a useful art, knowing how to handle mistakes. I can’t tell you how many projects have turned out better than we intended, because we made a perceived “mistake” and found, instead, an improvement hidden underneath it.

If you happen to indulge in a few stitching mistakes on your end, I hope that they are not a setback for you. Mistakes have a lot to offer – embrace them and conquer!

And on that note, I’m off to make a few, I’m sure. Today is solely a day of stitching, so I’ll be sharing progress and tips soon on anything and everything we learn along the way.

Have a marvelous Monday!


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(9) Comments

  1. Really, everyone makes them. I tend to feel disappointed. After a few days, or weeks, I get going again, but it’s hard to do!

  2. I’m on my second goof on a Hardanger project I began to learn the tricky stitches I’d need.
    I’ve got one or two errors left, methinks. And that’s OK — older, wiser me understands.
    The other side will be beautiful and I’ll have so many new skills!

  3. This post rings a bell. I recently had a stitching problem. I have not done much any stitching at all since Covid.

    My husband and I are 18th century reenactors. After being relieved of cooking for our unit over the fire at events about two decades ago, I was able to return to demonstrating embroidery as I did originally. I have been working/stitching at events on a reproduction 18th century seat cushion – it will not be used as same by us. The piece using silk floss, cotton floss, and crewel yarn for stitching.

    At an event this past spring (my return to stitching) I stitched a row of petals in crewel yarn and glad to be stitching again. In the summer at an event I again worked on the piece – stitching the next row of petals – again in crewel yarn. I was not happy. The stitches were not right. They were done in long and short stitch and the area for them was actually too short for this to be done well. Instead of matching the other areas done in this stitch – including the row of petals below them, they looked more like little bricks lined up. My husband, also a craftsperson and who has stitched embroidery as well as attended numerous exhibitions of needlework with me, kept reassuring me that it looked fine. It did not.

    My biggest concern in pulling out the stitches is that this is a kit and I have a limited amount of the threads to use. While I could easily replace the floss if I needed more of any color, no one locally sells crewel yarn. I could not mail order additional as I don’t know the colors by an official name or number or what company’s yarn had been used in making the kit – some years ago. I was leaving the work as it was as I tried to figure out what to do. We had another event coming up and I would need it or something else to work on. (And I have enough started projects.) Suddenly in my appeared a clear bag of leftover crewel yarn – aha – but where was it? Our craft studio morphed into also a “store extra canned goods, etc due to Covid space” so it is a bit unorganized. That night another vision hit me – my old (since I was a girl) brown sewing box – with the bag of crewel yarn in it! I climbed all over the floor of our studio,found the box, found the crewel yarn. I managed to find yarn to seemingly exactly match two of the colors in these petals and an extremely close match of the third (which could be used in other places so it would not be mixed with the original color).

    At our last event I restitched the petals. I mostly did them in satin stitch – using long and short only in the small sections of areas which were long enough to do same. it looks great. I finished doing this section across all 3 petals at the event and started on the next row of petals – which is in much darker of the same colors.

    Had I not had this problem – I might never have remembered that I had this bag of crewel yarn waiting to be used!

  4. Hmm I don’t know… in the disadvantages section I’m not sure I’d count beads as a loss. If I was really going to toss out something and it had beads (especially glass beads) I’d be picking them off to re-use before tossing the remainder of the project. Or at the very least setting it aside in a box or basket to be picked off at a later date. I suppose there are people out there that would, but I can’t really see a reason to throw out perfectly good beads simply because a design didn’t work out.

  5. Hi Mary, you are very inspirational and when I read your blog I am inclined not to be so hard on myself.

    Merci beaucoup !


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