Recently I had the honor of visiting the studio of Anne Brauer, the quilter of Shelburne Falls. Anne produces amazing work, and she’s been making a living at selling her quilts for thirty-six years. I bought two of her potholders, and I was shamed that I didn’t buy more things from her.
But it was clear from the arrangement of her studio that she sews every day she’s in or at home in her studio, and she’s at home quite a lot. There must have been thirty or forty quilts on display in the room, and numerous smaller pieces in a variety of sizes. Her work is beautiful and richly colored, and all worth both a look and a buy.
How do you get that good?
Sewing every day, I imagine.
It’s a tricky thing to tell anyone, I think. But if you want to get good enough to be a rock star at anything, you have to put in the hours and hours of musical practice that will make you good enough to perform. You need the time with your hands on the guitar. If you want to be able to produce beautiful things on a sewing machine, it’s not enough to have a quality machine, you also have to use it. Want to be a tai chi master? Put in the hours necessary to get 80% competent — and then keep going.
Sew. That’s what I’ve been doing. Every day since I visited her studio last week. Didn’t matter if it was banners or half-triangle squares (HTS) or pinwheels or hats or kinkachu bags. You have to make stuff to get good at this art form — just like you have to paint to get to become a great painter, or write to become a great author, or sing to become a great singer. Sooner or later, you have to take out the scissors, cut your fabric stash into slivers and strips and stars and diamonds and half-rounds, and then you have to assemble them.
Sometimes your work is going to be terrible. Sometimes it will be great. Sometimes there will be critics; many days there won’t be anyone talking at all to you about your work. From time to time, there will be a buyer or a commission or a custom order. It doesn’t matter, though, what opportunities come your way, if you haven’t put in the time to make things, if you haven’t got a backlog of things imperfectly or poorly made or not-quite-ready-for-prime-time.
It’s the time you spend working on making stuff, that makes you ready to receive those commissions and orders for custom work. Richard Feynman, the American physicist, used to go around Los Alamos at the Manhattan Project, picking locks and cracking safes, to demonstrate that the security system was a joke — that if a half-trained amateur could pick the locks and crack the safes, it would be child’s play to the dedicated professional.
The thing is, it was the practice that he’d gotten before he went to Los Alamos, that made Richard Feynman into a half-trained amateur… and the safes and locks at Los Alamos made him into a dedicated professional. If you want to be a dedicated professional at anything, yourself, it begins with accepting your role as a half-trained amateur… and then working as though you loved your work.
Which you do.
That’s how trained and dedicated professionals are made.