Friday, September 02, 2011

The Cult of Perfection

Recently, a knitter showed me her current handspun shawl, and expressed concern that it was Not Good Enough. She was hesitant to continue, because there were imperfections. I showed her the shawl I have been working on, which is decidedly not perfect, and she said Oh. (You have to laugh).

August Scotland trip Marin etc. 381

My work is not perfect. It is lovely though, useful, magical, beautiful and wonderful for me to behold. In the process of making things for the last 30+ years, I have learned that to be beautiful, something need not be perfect. The real test is in the use of a practical object, and it does not have to be perfect to be useful.

We all worry, second guess our work, step back and criticize. Examination and critical assessment can be a good thing, and is indeed an integral part of mastering a craft. But it can go too far. It can cripple, halt progress, make one run for cover and not finish things.

I might have been known to harp relentlessly on “finishing things”. It’s a problem for many of us, we start something, knitting, spinning, weaving, and it goes along for a while, and then we Stop! And put the work aside, start something else, clean the house (!), go fishing, whatever.

When we finish things, we learn things. We might learn what we never want to do again, but every time we make something, we are teaching our hands and bodies subtle movements that help us master the craft. Sometimes a project is just Proof of Concept, but finishing things is part of mastering the craft. The muscle memory does not come from your head. It comes from doing. Even from doing things Not Perfect. And the muscle memory is the goal: not the thing.

This is not to say we cannot strive for beauty, fine work: perfection, if you will, in what we do. Most craftspeople trying to master their craft are doing just that: striving. But the best of them are not expecting Every Single Work to be Perfect. Not every piece is a Masterpiece. But a masterpiece will not just show up, full blown, the first, second or even third time you do something. It takes work. It takes a body of work, with incremental learning along the way. It takes a visceral and physical understanding of the materials and process in which you choose to work; it requires you to put in the time. The subtle body knowledge that comes from working on your craft has nothing to do with what’s in your head; it’s a muscle memory, and an unconscious knowing without thinking, an integral part of who you are.

Your first (second, third) project should not be a masterpiece. If so, you have just done something safe, something everyone else has done, something your teacher told you to do, nothing from your heart and soul.You can’t email an internet list and ask how to sett the yarn for a masterpiece. You can’t call up your local weaving teacher and ask which weft to choose. You may get one good piece that way, but will it be yours? Will you have learned the tactile and subtle understanding which makes you a Master of the Craft? Or will you have put together a series of steps to create a beautiful object, One Beautiful Object, with no part of you invested except your head, your intellectual ability to pull together information? That leads to Posing. Posing as a Weaver, because you have woven. Not Being a Weaver (spinner, knitter), but pretending to be one. We even fool ourselves sometimes.

In a recent discussion with several spinners, the topic was “butt to tip, wind off to storage, and ply one direction”, all of which any spinner has heard, and knows the arguments for and against. My question is: are there sweaters made with variations on this theme, worn for ten years and compared??? Can you tell then which was butt to tip, run onto a storage bobbin and plied from the same direction and which was spun more casually? If so, we can all learn. Without the work, it’s just talk. And it is talk that separates, divides people into good and bad spinners, and causes some spinners to halt, paralyzed by Not Doing it Right, not being perfect.

I want to hear about personal experiences, not listen to a parrot. I want samples, not intellectual exercises. If I keep asking teachers what is the best sock yarn, not spinning sock yarn, knitting socks and deciding for myself, am I a master? If someone asks me for the best cast off to use, do I say Cat Bordhi says This? Or do I say: "this has worked for me"?


Your teachers should have samples to show you progress, variations from A to B, samples, hopefully, of their own making. Yet even samples of indigenous textiles will help students gain understanding, samples the teacher's apprentice has made will help other seekers. But look for samples, please. We are involved in a tactile craft. The appearance, while important, is not the only criteria for success. Intellectual understanding is not mastery. Performance, over a period of time, is really the goal: beautiful useful objects. To be useful, one need not be perfect.

Machines can make perfect things. That might be why some weavers are attracted to computer weaving: once designed, and set up properly, the machine takes cares of vagaries in memory or order of treadling or complex systems so the fabric structure can be perfect (the weaver still has to provide the information, design, fiber and yarn choices, color choices, even structure choices, to make the fabric beautiful: perfect is not necessarily beautiful. Have I said that enough?).

We should not expect our hands to behave like machines. There lies madness, and the way to piles of unfinished less-than-perfect projects.

When I buy textiles made by hand, I am enchanted to find the little imperfections that indicate a person, not a machine, made what I am holding. Why do we hold ourselves to a different standard? I believe we should glory in the evidence of the human maker, glory in the imperfections, the variations from standard, that make our work, and us, something you cannot buy, something precious in this world, something unique.


Well, I guess I have ranted. Do you wish to rant back? I am curious, and wish to hear it. Please leave a comment, or a link to your post in response.

In the meantime, someone I know practices climbing stairs. She is learning a new muscle memory, and she will be really good at it. Someday.

marin stairs


Blogger Barbara said...

What a gorgeous pile of samples and peek into your closet. I have a goal of weaving garments that I can (and will) wear. You've been an inspiration to me for years.

This post ties in very well with two new things I am practicing at this time.

1. stop pointing out to others the imperfections in things I have made.

2. Sample sample sample. I'm working with a new-to-me yarn, 10/2 cotton, and have no idea how to get the fabric I want - so I've done two samples and am working on the third for the next project I want to do.

Is there any chance that you would create a workshop related to designing the fabric, weaving and sewing the garments that you make for yourself?

many of the "working with handwovens" workshops I see are for tailored garments with complex cloth and I am much more interested in the cloth and garments you wear.

10:32 AM  
Blogger Sara said...

I'll answer you personally, Barbara, but the workshop you mention is happening in Michigan in October at the Spinning Loft ( painted warps, garments, samples galore, etc., etc., etc.

10:39 AM  
Blogger Delighted Hands said...

'Without the work, it’s just talk.'
This is the defining thrust for me-I have a friend who is so crippled by perfection she does nothing but collect pictures for inspiration...I would rather make 50 items, given in love than worry about perfection. (Now, practice does improve our results but it is not perfection that motivates!) Very interesting post, thank you. Your grand daughter is brilliant!

11:22 AM  
Anonymous Gwen said...

Yes. Amen. Sing it!

Not making excuses, but thinking about my ratio of reading about things to actually doing things...

I love to read. I am a Reader. When I am unable to knit (or spin), but can read, well, it's nice to read about knitting or spinning or weaving. I've got all sorts of info floating around in my head, and even more I've read and forgotten. But the more I do, the more useful the info in my head. Sometimes applicable, sometimes not.

As far as finishing things, well, time for doing is in short supply. Luckily, I'm not seeking perfection. And luckily, I'm not seeking high production rates! I am lucky.

11:26 AM  
Blogger Freyalyn said...

Such a thoughtful, thought-out little essay - I think I shall keep this and re-read again and again. And give it to people just starting out on their journey of working with their hands. Thank you so much for sharing this with us.

With such pretty photos, too.

1:02 PM  
Anonymous Jane said...

Love this!! I wonder how often we mistake 'consistent" for perfect, or beautiful. It is a strange mistake considering that complexity is so pleasing to the eye. Most of us would rather work with a yarn that has "depth" (read variations) than a flat, every-single-fiber-in-the-yarn-dyed-exactly-the-same-color, shade, hue, etc.

Hands can turn out perfect, beautiful work, but not absolutely consistent work. I guess those who want consistent can eat at McDonalds.

2:09 PM  
Blogger MarthaVA said...

"I believe we should glory in the evidence of the human maker, glory in the imperfections, the variations from standard, that make our work, and us, something you cannot buy, something precious in this world, something unique."

Amen! I know I can't be perfect in my arts, so I embrace my imperfections and know that others will know it's made by my hand, with love.

3:00 PM  
Blogger Deanna said...

As one who is regrettably more of a thinker than a doer, I resonate with the wisdom of what you have written. I yearn for the courage of imperfection, which ironically is the only way to ever reach any kind of perfection. I heard Ray Bradbury speak once, and when asked how to write the perfect short story, he said "Write 50 that are crappy. The 51st will be worth it."

10:09 PM  
Blogger Rows Red said...

Former student of yours here...

Sing it, sister! I'm reminded of this from time to time when we have certain kinds judges at Rhinebeck. I volunteer to write comments on the entry cards as the judges do their things, and I'm sometimes appalled at what the judges personal criteria are.

"Some inconsistencies." was the main theme of last year's judge, especially with the handspun. Well, yes, these are handmade items. Still, she was far more forgiving than a judge from three or four years ago who complained that she didn't like the project I'd chose for the yarn, and that my ties weren't trimmed short enough. I had no idea we had secret rules about the length of our yarn ties. Who knew! :P

I'm not a technical spinner. I have several techniques at my disposal, true, and I use them often depending on my goal. But I am NOT the kind of spinner who is going to check against a spin-card every few minutes or proudly point out that I'm spinning a Z twist at a 45 degree angle at so many treadles per second. More power to those who do, but for me, it's far more likely I'm spinning with friends, by touch, and having a great time while I do it. I'm not calculating the angle of the sun via my yarn. And yet my yarn makes me happy, and even gets a ribbon now and then.

I tell people, especially new spinners, that if you want "perfect" yarn you should buy some from a machine. If you want yarn that is alive with the joy and work of your own hands, then make it yourself and love it as such. That's not to say that I don't strive to make yarn that is strong, viable for the type of knitting I do, and stable. But I try to be far more forgiving of myself than I'm naturally inclined to be and I enjoy the process.

3:34 AM  
Blogger Charlene said...

I think it all depends on what you're after, and for some that may be a consistent and specific goal, and for others, very context-dependent. One way or another though, I think it's ultimately about satisfaction with the process and/or outcome.

Looking for new clothes? Spinning, weaving, knitting, sewing or shopping could be part of the process, but the outcome has to be something you are ok with putting on your body on a regular basis (or in the case of something like a wedding dress: once).

Germ of a concept? Nothing will do but a series of experiments (or one, should you have proof for or against right away) in which you work through and around and between ideas until you KNOW in a way that satisfies. And then perhaps (depending on that deep voice) you use that to make a something which you can love, or give, or share the why and the how.

Perfection? Beauty? Cleverness? It all depends on what you need to satisfy that little space inside you that just opened up, needing to be filled Just So.

As far as tools and techniques go, as far as I'm concerned, it's whatever just does the job best. My favourite toe-up sock is something that surprises people when I explain it to them, and they give that look, you know, the "What crack are you smoking?" look, but my favourite go-to heel is Lucy Neatby's short-row garter stitch over two thirds of the stitches. Is my toe better than my heel entirely because it's MINE? Or are they both good because both are the best FOR ME?

I'm thinking the latter.

I think I'm not a purist, and because I'm not, I don't have an automatic bias against machine made (of course, depending on the goal). Whatever does the job that you're needing to get done, where need drives satisfaction for me most of the time.

And PS you have to know that I love that you referred to your craft and not "My Art" (intentional capitalization) which is so often shorthand for "close to zero technique and that which I employ is sloppy at best but hey I've made something ugly and useless that it glorious in its hideosity and makes a Statement". Not always, but way too often.

And PPS, Baby! Cuteness personified!

7:29 AM  
Blogger Caroline M said...

I often say that I stopped being a perfectionist because I wasn't good enough at it. It's taking time to change tack but my aim now is "fit for purpose" rather than "perfect".

I decided right at the outset that rewinding singles could wait until I reached that level of expertise that it actually mattered. Now I'm channelling Granny Weatherwax - I can't be having with that.

10:56 AM  
Anonymous Dee said...

I have two small Persian carpets, a very fortuitous trade for some of my handwoven garments. One is quite perfect, motifs square and all that. The other? Well, the weaver's mind wandered and the corners aren't quite the same, the motifs vary a bit, borders arrive when the weaver, not the pattern, dictates.
Guess which one entralls me?

3:51 PM  
Blogger Merna said...

Very well said, Sara!

7:36 AM  
Anonymous Tien Chiu said...

I think there's a place for theory as well as practice; one informs the other. If I tried to challenge everything everyone told me about weaving techniques, and do experiments to determine what was right and wrong, I'd never have any time for my projects. Even in science, one builds on prior work without necessarily going back to founding principles every time.

That said, when there is an anomaly between theory and practice/what your samples tell you, then it's time to challenge the theory. Otherwise I'm happy to build on what other weavers have discovered - conventional wisdom, while not infallible, is a wonderful resource on which to draw, rather than having to reinvent the wheel every time.

Your comments on practice vs. perfection reminded me of a passage out of the excellent book Art and Fear:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

While I think theory and reading are essential to making a good craftsperson, they need to be applied and practiced to be of value! I think you have hit that right on the head.

9:38 AM  
Anonymous aliceq said...

I would characterize myself as an advanced beginner at spinning (I can reliably make yarn, but not necessarily with full control over the design thereof). It annoys me no end to see new spinners say that they're not going to make anything with their first finished yarn because it isn't good enough. I am a better spinner because I could see in the knitted fabric which of the many things I could have done differently would, in fact, have made a difference. I am a better spinner because I have used my handspun yarn.

8:42 AM  
Blogger Susan Luni said...

In case your curiosity isn't sated yet, you can read the first part of my blog post for the beginning of this year.
Perfect Knitting
Basically, for those who don't care to follow the link, I explained why I want to develop my own definition of perfect.

9:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brilliantly written.

And, dayum, is that little girl cute or what!!!!

6:19 PM  
Blogger Lynn said...

I keep re-reading this.

And then going and getting work done.

10:56 AM  
Anonymous Cathy said...

Good post. And great comments.

I have nothing to add.

Adorable part of being mother of son(s) is being the grandmother of girl(s).

8:10 AM  
Blogger Anne said...


There is a lot here you write that I agree with. My english is not good enough to write a real comment but I just wish to add something I often repeat: a piece of art is never worth throwing away, consider it is just 'not finished'.
Artly/friendly yours, Nanouanne

12:14 AM  
Blogger the scarlet piglet said...

So many of us need to print this out, enlarge it 1000% and paper our walls with it. 'Specially me.

I'll try to remember.

And really, it's just like viola playing!

2:55 PM  

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