Making the Best of Mistakes

by Gregory Laffrenzen

Inevitably, everyone makes mistakes. While the occasional blunder leads to serendipity, most are frustrating, difficult to fix, embarrassing, or an uncomfortable cocktail of all three. Few setbacks make me want to quit a project more than screwing something up.

Despite their aggravating nature, fixing mistakes is an integral part to mastering any task. Understanding where and why things didn’t work will lead you to a better comprehension of the skill and how it should be used again when you need it next. Equally important, you’ll know how not to repeat that mistake, or at least be aware of your struggle with that task.

Opportunities are almost endless for errors to crop up in a costuming project. Sometimes they’re apparent immediately, such as mirroring pieces of a pattern not lining up. Others, like sizing a garment improperly, don’t manifest until everything is nearly assembled. Fortunately, rectifying a botched costume is possible. Here are some ways to make the most out of your mistakes.

Show the problem to someone else.

Costumes are physical and portable, so take advantage of that. If something went haywire, bring the whole thing to a friend to talk through the problem. A second mind working on the same problem will give you different ideas and a fresh perspective or sounding board to construct a better solution. If they possess more experience than you, that is even better because you can learn from their mentoring.

Owning up to a project that isn’t working and then admitting the solution to fix it is out of your abilities can be a double hit to your pride. The initial explanation may sting, but once you begin working on a solution, that sting quickly fades. Your friend will remember you turned to him or her for help rather than you making a mistake. Endearing yourself to a mentor or bonding with a friend while solving a problem enriches both your lives.

Learn what you don’t know.

One of the first projects I sewed was my own shirt for the local renaissance fair. The pattern looked comfortable with the front and cuffs adorned with plenty of loose fabric. I had aims of being a dashing privateer and began the project with gusto. Turns out, I had no idea what gathering fabric meant, but I didn’t know I didn’t know that. And gathering was an integral skill necessary to making the garment fit together and look right.

My pattern instructions had two little parallel dashed lines all along the edge of the front ruffle and told me to gather the fabric. Dutifully, I sewed the two parallel lines of thread along each side of the ruffle and, having made my fabric look like the picture in the pattern, rationalized with myself that I had just finished gathering the fabric.

Never mind that I had two feet of fabric trying to fit into one foot of space. Taking the edges neatly, I folded them over each other and made an admirable attempt at a stylish ruffle. Yes, I accidently stumbled onto pleating when I should have been pulling the fabric along that duel line of thread I had sewn.

Encounters like these, if you can say “I don’t know what I’m doing,” can reflect back to you something to learn. While making my ruffled shirt, I did not make that admission until the “gather” instruction was repeated along the shirt’s back and my ad hoc pleating technique didn’t work. That’s when I realized I had no clue how to gather fabric. Equipped with the knowledge that I had a hole in my understanding of how to accomplish my goal, I researched how to properly gather fabric and ended with a respectable shirt.

Incorporate the mistake into your project.

Not every mistake will ruin a costume. Many times only you, with a vision of what you wanted to create, can say that the end result didn’t match what you intended. To everyone else, your project is simply finished.

While cutting pieces of fabric for a doublet, I cut out several wrong shaped tabs for the waist area. In fact, I only cut out one shape repeatedly when the original design called for multiple different types. The pattern made a tapered pointed shape, but I, having only one style of tab, was not going to match that. Out of fabric and short on both time and funds to buy more, I decided to use what I had cut.

Ignoring the predefined marks where the tabs belonged, I placed them evenly along the waist in a new layout. The resulting doublet featured a flat, even bottom instead of a shaped design. I knew the final result wasn’t what I wanted, but the doublet still looked nice and fit properly. These goals are, after all, more important than adhering to the pattern.

Mistakes don’t need to ruin a costume. Accept that they happen, and view them as opportunities for creativity and learning. Your project will work out, and you will be better for the experience.


1 Comment

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One response to “Making the Best of Mistakes

  1. Rae Lundquist

    good advice. I’d add; do all the little steps the pattern tells you to do; like, wash fabric before starting project, mocking it up in scrap fabric first, and sizing it to fit you (BEFORE you cut into the real stuff), pressing open seams as you go, working the pieces flat (applying trim, piping, applique, etc.) as much as you can first before you start sewing into a 3 dimensional piece. It’s so frustrating to have to backtrack from step 7 because you forgot to do step 3, and have to ‘frog it’ (ribbit, ribbit, ribbit).

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