How to be a beginner; learning sewing and crochet

As I’ve been slowly developing skills in making my own clothes, I’ve come to realise that most crafts have a high learning curve to expertise but a low barrier to basic knowledge. And many things can be done with only basic knowledge.

I’m not yet at the stage where I can hand-sew a pair of tailored trousers, or crochet a cable-knit sweater, but I can cobble together a lot of projects using basic stitches, beginner patterns, and my own hubris.

Now, when I see something that’s definitely out of my league, I’m less inclined to think it’s impossible and more inclined to break down what skills I would need to learn to get that done and – more importantly – what skills I already have that would be enough to get some of it done. Maybe a tailored pair of trousers is beyond me right now, but I could probably knock out harem pants or culottes. I can’t crochet a cable-knit sweater, but a basic one without the pretty decoration… well, maybe!

I have a difficult time learning new skills, because if the ‘beginner’ stage takes too long then my deep-rooted, gifted child insecurities start kicking in. I’ve had to learn how to trick myself into being a long-term beginner in order to give myself the time to develop reasonable skill.

Here are three ways I’ve found to quickly develop the beginnings of a new skill, based on what I learned from teaching myself to sew and crochet.

1) Follow hobbyists online

I first got excited about the idea of crochet not because I was interested in wearing knitwear, but because I saw amigurumi artists and wanted to figure out what they were doing.

Following hobbyists will teach you the vocabulary, the standard supplies and brands (especially with crochet, the type of yarn you use will affect the outcome of your project so knowing the most popular brands and how people use them is a big help), and the typical order that projects are put together. Most of the hobbyists I watch are not shy about showing their mistakes – they’ll show the point in their project where they went wrong, why it was the wrong move, and how to fix it, which is excellent information for your own practice.

It also really helps to see people be enthusiastic about the crafts that you’re learning. Creatives are often really excited about their projects and this excitement is usually contagious, so surrounding yourself virtually with people who are hyped about their craft will definitely put you in the mood to keep going with your own.

2) Aim for the low-hanging fruit

It is tempting to approach learning any new skill as though there is a set way that you’re supposed to learn it. This is likely a hangover from school, where everyone learned the same information at the same pace and generally in the same way. But this isn’t school. You can learn things however you like, and if you want to build your confidence it helps to focus – at least in the beginning – on practicing the easiest skills until you’ve mastered them. ‘Easiest’ is a relative term, and sometimes the easiest skill for you will not be the skill that is first taught.

For example, when I wanted to learn crochet I first read ‘Crochet for Dummies’ and watched a bunch of beginner tutorials. They all agreed that beginners ought to start with a chain stitch. This is the stitch that starts most projects. It is also, to this day, the stitch I hate the most. I can’t get the tension right, I keep making some stitches way larger than others, and end up having to re-do a row multiple times. To be clear, this is the first row of stitching. You literally can’t do most things in crochet without a row of chain stitches to start. It’s really demoralising to have so many projects you want to do and not be able to do them because just beginning the damn thing is out of your reach.

So, I cried about it a little. But then, because I’d watched hobbyists crochet a lot, I realised that there is one type of project that doesn’t need a chainstitch: granny squares. Granny squares start with a circle and then move out to a square. Some people find this tricky because the ‘magic circle’ starter takes a little getting used to, but I found it way more intuitive than the chainstitch. I was able to knock out granny squares much more easily. So I did. Literally every project that I’ve managed to finish so far has been a granny square-based project, from a little blanket to a full cardigan.

It’s ok, when you’re learning how to do something for the first time, to milk the skills that come easily to you. Practice them over and over until you can do them without thinking. See how you can adapt them to suit projects that had seemed out of your reach. When you’re starting out with a new craft, it’s more important to develop confidence than it is to master every technique – you’ll be much less likely to rage-quit if you’re doing stuff you find easy and fun.

You can do the hard stuff later. No one’s going to come and check that you’re doing things the ‘right’ way. I promise.

3) Practice with small projects

One thing I wish I’d done while learning crochet is to practice making baby clothes first.

When I was learning to sew, I started with vests. They used fewer resources so I could make more (thus practicing the skills over and over) but were also smaller, so they came together more quickly. If I made a vest that wouldn’t work then it would be ok because the final garment did not represent a significant time sink, and I was more comfortable putting it aside. Once I was confident with vests, I moved onto dresses.

With crochet, after I did a few granny squares to warm up, I tried to make my own cardigan. While I did it correctly, I realised about halfway through that the style wouldn’t work for what I needed (the stitches were too loose, and usually I live in cold climates, so they wouldn’t keep me warm). At that point, I felt obligated to complete the project because I figured it would at least make a decent mockup, but in hindsight I would have figured out the problem much earlier if I’d tried the technique on something small first.*

Most knitwear has a baby equivalent and it would save a lot of time and yarn if I was able to figure out the eventual, adult-sized version with a scaled down, teeny-tiny version first.

I could have finished a baby cardigan in a couple of days – the cardigan pictured above took weeks, and I’m just never going to wear it.

Lesson learned. Start small.

And if you’re wondering what to do with all the small projects you complete that teach you the skills but don’t fit in your wardrobe/personal style, may I recommend women’s shelters? Blankets, baby clothes, smaller garments that would fit kids – they would all be useful at a shelter. But be sure to only donate clothes that are actually clothes. Don’t just hand over your terrible mockups that only technically count as clothes. Be cool

PS – I love writing and I love eating! If you want to help with the latter (and ONLY if you want) you can maybe buy me a coffee? 

* Also, some of my sewing project have needed to be scrapped because I was trying a way to finish edges, make buttonholes, etc, and ended up ruining the whole thing. Life would have been so much easier for me if I’d practiced those things on scraps of my fabric before attempting them on the finished garment.


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