One of the gifts from 2020 that I’m happy to carry into the new year is embroidery, my quarantine hobby.
In late April, when it was clear that we weren’t returning to campus for the remainder of the school year, that travel was curtailed indefinitely and that I had watched more than my fair share of Netflix shows, I chose a new diversion.
That first starter embroidery kit came with everything that I physically needed, including printed instructions that I supplemented with online videos from stitching veterans. The emotional starter kit was all up to me, though.
I soon realized that I needed extra doses of patience, problem-solving and adaptability — above and beyond what was required for pandemic life. Since those first wobbly stitches, I’ve created about 20 pieces, learning lessons along the way that apply beyond needle and thread.
There are some basic steps that you need to know to start; the rest you can learn as you go. A straight stitch is as simple as it sounds, requiring no loops or twirls, and the satin stitch is a close cousin. The fancier stitches are impressive, sure, but the basics are reliable building blocks.
The front of a finished piece may look lovely, but the back could be a messy mess. That’s where mistakes are hidden, where extra thread gathers, where unsightly knots hide out. The front is what the world sees. The back reveals the vulnerable adventure — if you choose to share it.
You can hold on too tight or have too loose a hand. A puckered canvas reveals stitches under stress. Loose stitches can look sloppy or easily snag. If you’re seeking perfection, you’ve got to find a balance and be willing to start over often — and ask yourself if the pursuit of perfection is worth the cost.
Some mistakes are charming. I’ve used the “wrong” stitch or color on accident, misreading a pattern or getting distracted along the way. I’m not getting graded on the work, and most people can’t find the error, so I’ve learned to embrace many of my missteps as serendipity.
Some mistakes require that you move back only a couple of moves. With experience, I’m recognizing errors as they happen and learning how to back up without starting over. I can feel the thread in back tangling before it becomes a tight knot. I can straighten a line before it’s an unsightly slant.
Some mistakes require that you rip everything out and start over. I’m still learning how to create an even chain stitch, and when I make a mistake I am a bungling mess of fingers with no clue on how to repair the damage. That’s OK. I keep trying.
Sometimes you need to walk away and come back with fresh eyes and a rested mind. My 48-year-old eyes get tired even with the help of spectacles and adequate lighting. My hobby has no deadlines, though, so I’ve learned to set down a frustrating project. The needle and thread will wait for me.
Even solo work is easier with a community. I have sought help on creating French knots (they no longer haunt me). I follow a few stitchers on Instagram for inspiration. I have stitched on a Zoom call with a former student, both of us working on the wagon wheel stitch. We all need help and helpful feedback.
The final product may not look the way I planned, but I always enjoy the journey. Each piece represents progress. Some remind me of church, as I often stitch while watching worship services from home (yet another byproduct of the pandemic). Some remind me of podcasts and audiobooks that keep me company. Some remind me of my children in the family room, watching a movie as I create.
We each get a blank canvas for 2021. I’m tackling the new year not with resolutions but with fresh reminders to take care of the basics, embrace the mess, let go of perfection, adjust plans as needed, take breaks, gather community and give thanks for the journey.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. She can be reached at [email protected].