Sunday, January 14, 2018

So You Want to Improve in Your Craft?


Ten years ago, I didn't really know how to sew. I also didn't know much more than the basics about late medieval clothing. When I look back, it's actually pretty shocking to have learned so much in a mere decade, but I can also see that it wasn't by accident. Everyone's journey in their craft is different, and it's important to understand and accept that not every road leads to somewhere exciting, but improving in your chosen art or craft comes with some pretty important standard procedures. Today I'd like to do my best to walk through the ones that help me.

Pick a Direction

There's something to be said about spending time and energy wandering and testing the various waters. In fact, I think this is a useful phase for everyone to go through, preferably early in their craft "career". Wandering aimlessly allows us to be inspired by different things and begin to learn about what's possible, and that's a really important first step. But it can't be a permanent state if you want to actually get good at anything.

If you want to improve, it's important to identify in which direction to want to grow. It can be a general idea or something specific, or it can be a combination of things, but the key is to stop and say "I'm ready to work toward the next level here." The beauty of "Arts & Sciences" is that it's a really deep and wide pool. You can start in on one thing that looks, sounds, or feels like a good and interesting fit for you, and six months later, you can find that you've moved in a direction you could not have predicted. However, the most important part is that you started somewhere and went with it for a bit. 

I think it's also a good idea to be open to your passions. I like to keep lots of notes, and every so often, I make big lists of things that are on my mind- projects I started but haven't finished, ideas for new projects or research avenues, general things that I find interesting. These notes provide a road map for me, so if I decide to go in one direction that feels really exciting and I have a passion for, and it turns out to be a dead end, I can look back and not be lost on what other directions I could have gone. 

Aptitude is Not Expertise

I'm going to try making this point with personal allegory. It turned out that when I started sewing, I was pretty good at it. I had aptitude for hand sewing, and being swift and accurate with needle and thread came naturally to me. I was not, however, skilled at hand sewing. I didn't actually know techniques, or when to do one type of sewing over another. I didn't know anything about thread types or needle sizes, or seam finishing. I didn't understand the value of craftsmanship. I didn't KNOW anything. Which meant that my natural talent for hand sewing was merely an opportunity, not an automatic pass to expertise. I've spent the past 10 years refining that natural talent into skilled talent by being open to evaluating the things I can do without trying too hard, and recognizing that they could be better if I put my ego aside and learned more.

Which leads directly into the next point:

Evaluate Your Progress

There are a few different ways to check your progress. You can ask for others in your craft to take a look and give you honest feedback, you can participate in low-key craft displays that allow others to come and chat with you and help you get a handle on what you may or may not know, or you can enter a judged faire that gives you scoring or specific critiques based on set standards. These are all valid. However, don't sell your own evaluations too short.

There's an axiom in creative endeavor- the artist is their own worst critic. While this is often leveraged as a way of helping artisans not get too down on themselves regarding their skills and creations, it's also a powerful force that shouldn't be entirely written off. The bottom line is that you are your own worst critic because you understand more than anyone else what you know, where the gaps in your knowledge fall, and what you're potentially capable of. I've written about this in the past- the difference between being a harsh critic and giving useful critique- and I absolutely believe that evaluating ourselves is an essential part of growing in our skill.

I like to do my evaluations with three questions: What are my initial thoughts on how I did, what do I see as things that didn't work, and what are my final thoughts taken all together? From these questions, I'm armed with some things to take into the next project with me- things I want to improve, but also things I'm already doing well and I don't want to get lazy about.

A phrase I love for this portion of improvement is to "fail forward". When something doesn't work, understanding why or how allows you to move forward into the next thing better equipped to not fail on that thing again (or, at the very least, to fail less spectacularly.)

Two Kinds of Projects You Should be Thinking About

Regardless of your art or craft, or how prolific or productive you are, in order to gain knowledge and skill, you need to be working on things. Sure, you can read books or watch videos, or browse blogs, but until you put knowledge and action together, you aren't going to improve. (Not to say that "action" has to be MAKING something- action could just as easily be writing something out or putting a class together.) There are specific kinds of projects, however, that are going to be the most useful to growth- those that introduce skills, and those that allow you to iterate.

Skills Introduction
These are projects that introduce techniques, research topics, or specific skills into your knowledge base. For the most part, these are going to be one-off” types of projects, or projects that interest you in the sense of I just want to try it”. These are projects in which you may have a sense of not being entirely sure how to do it, or whether you will be successful. There should be in this list a mix of projects you think would be easy, and projects that are a bit intimidating.

Iterative Progress
These are projects that focus on a small set of topics that you can repeat over and over again. With the aim of proficiency in mind, these projects have to be interesting and valuable to you. They have to fall inside the realm of what you want to consider Your Craft”, and be something you would be comfortable being known for on some level. There should also be some variety possible in the project type, so that you have room to try new things on each version you do.

So, for example, if I were a leather worker, a project type that I can repeat over and over is belt pouches. They provide the opportunity for a few different skills, styles, periods, so there’s plenty there to repeat without having to produce exactly the same thing every single time, but I could if I wanted to. So belt pouches would be my Iterative Progress project type. I can also do belts, shoes, armor pieces, equestrian items, and other leather working projects as part of my Skills Introduction list. Each of these other projects allows me to learn different things that I can take back into my pouch work, and gets me more experience working with the medium of leather.

This can be applied to research as well. Skills Introduction would be different types of research opportunities and formats (documentation, class notes, presentations, papers, etc.) as well as stretching your interests to cover different topics that will allow you to conduct different types of research. Your Iterative Projects would be that one type of research and topic you are the most interested and passionate about.

Just Keep Swimming

It's okay to take breaks. To have lazy periods and to not work on things for a bit. To get frustrated and need to regroup. We aren't doing these crafts because our livelihood depends on them, but because we like them and we've having fun. If you aren't having fun, that's a great time to stop, maybe do something else for a little while, and evaluate if we're still headed in the direction we want to go. Don't stop moving, though. Personally, I have other crafts inside the SCA, as well as mundane hobbies that I can tap into when I need that break from my big topic of interest, and just ride that other interest until I'm ready to come pick back up where I left off with the big one. Even if you aren't applying action to your primary craft, do your best to not lose sight of it or of the wide range of things that interest you. Also, even if you reach milestones, such as public recognition or big goals you set for yourself, recognize that improvement never has an end, and there's always somewhere else you can go to keep getting better.

I want to wish you all good luck with improving in your chosen craft interests this year!

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