Work and life lessons from my sewing hobby

It’s an open secret – I am obsessed with sewing (as a hobby). Handling natural fabric, making critical decisions (:)) about what to make with what fabric, tracing out and cutting paper patterns, and finally sitting at the sewing machine with music in the background… that’s my happy place. A creative outlet, but also a place where the mind can rest, process, imagine.

Having made patchwork quilts for many years, I finally progressed to sewing clothes about three years ago (learning from books and YouTube and trial and error). I’ve since made a bunch of lovely pieces for myself, my boys, and even a couple of friends.

I was recently invited to speak at my alma mater, University of Connecticut’s Career Night,  which got me thinking about some of the lessons I’ve learned in my two-decades plus career in science communications. I was sewing while thinking about it, and so many parallels popped up between sewing, work, and life that I decided to put them down.

In summary:

1/ Visualize the product

2/The end result might be different than the vision… and that might be OK

3/ Invest in the knowledge and tools you need

4/ Challenges are inevitable. They help us grow

5/Sometimes, you have to abandon a project

6/Enjoy the journey

Here goes…

1/ Visualize the product

Any creative (except perhaps Jackson Pollock) starts by ‘seeing’ the end result in their mind’s eye. The sculptor, I hear, sees the finished sculpture when they look at a hunk of wood. In sewing you must find a pattern and fabric, and that ‘forces’ you to see the item you plan to make. And your inch towards it as you sew.

At work too, it helps to start by visualizing your end product – be it a piece of writing, a meeting, a report, a presentation. A vision helps you stay on course and gives you energy to power through the inevitable challenges you’ll meet. Once upon a time when I was saving up for car upgrade, a dear friend told me to visualize my dream car to the point of “smelling the leather interior” – I did and it worked!

2/The end result might be different than the vision… and that might be OK

Sewing, as an iterative process, allows you to adjust your end product as you go along. You might decide to shorten or lengthen a dress, add or take out sleeves, or even make shorts from a trouser pattern. You might even change the finished product to your liking after a few (or many) wears. Every home sewist starts with a vision of perfection, but alas.. yet it’s the small, inevitable imperfections that make the product beautiful and unique.

At work, having the grace to self-critique, request and accept feedback and change things we’ve worked hard on, is key to growing as a professional. Every writer and editor knows that the final product and the original draft can be radically different… and that even the final product — like this blog— is never ‘perfect’. When you aim for perfection, you’ll achieve excellence. And when you examine your career journey and find that it’s turning out different than your original vision…that may be OK, or you might need to take out a hem, add a pocket, or remove the collar that’s making it hard for you to breathe!

3/ Invest in the knowledge and tools you need

For many years I thought an overlock machine was an unnecessary luxury. How wrong I was… The little Brother overlocker I got last year has transformed my sewing journey, and added that ‘professional’ touch that we home sewers continuously strive for!

At work, there is of course a basic minimum of knowledge and skill sets that are needed to do the job- e.g. if you want to be a Formula One engineer, you need to be an engineer first. But to get to the ultimate vision, we need to continuously add to that basic knowledge. E.g. if you want to become an expert in sustainable agriculture, after your formal training, dive deep into the content, work on a farm, take short courses, learn about the actors in the field – locally and globally, and read widely around the topic. I like to call it “breaking into the heart and soul of your chosen field” to learn its secrets. If you are a budding photographer, save up and purchase a good camera and lenses, take a photography course and get photo editing software. Investing the time and money to acquire the knowledge and tools you need to do your best work often pays big dividends in your career trajectory.

4/ Challenges are inevitable. They help us grow

If this hobby sewist had a dime for every unpicked stitch!… Sewing can throw you a curveball when you least expect it. Sometimes you’ll be happily sewing along, only to realize you misread the instructions and have to start over. Or you’ll discover that your fabric doesn’t work with the pattern. Here, patience, and flexibility will see you through. And when you do, you’ll learn something new, gain more confidence, and importantly, learn to anticipate challenges, e.g. by reading the instructions more carefully before launching into your project.

Even when you’ve been working for 20 years, there will be challenging moments in your career. The secret is to embrace challenges as an opportunity to learn something new – it could be learning the workings of a different field, honing your interpersonal skills, perhaps learning new terminologies or online tools. Some of this knowledge might seem pointless at the time, but it could open up your career options. So when the boss gives you an impossible task or you face criticism at work, take a deep breath and flip it to a positive opportunity for your growth. I am old enough to remember the beginnings of the internet. I was a journal editor then, and the two stark options we had were a) Get the journal online or b) Perish. We survived. The advent of social media was the same.  A challenge embraced = transformation and growth.

5/Sometimes, you have to let it go

Every so often, a sewer, after pouring blood and sweat into a project, must abandon it and move on. Every sewer I know have a few of those UFOs (Un-Finished Objects), stuffed in plastic bags at the back of the shelf, or burned.

Every career has moments when it is clear that things will not improve without radical action. I once had a ‘dream job’ that caused me extreme levels of stress anxiety (Hello, ER with heart palpitations!). I had to abandon the job, along with the privileges and the cute red car it came with, for a more modest but saner workplace. The secret sauce, however, is distinguishing challenges that represent growth opportunities from poisonous ones that could destroy your soul and your health.

6/Enjoy the journey, celebrate your achievements

One of the things I love about sewing is that it’s modular: 1/Cut the pattern, 2/Make the collar, 3/Make the pockets, 4/Add the waistband, etc. The conclusion of each process is a moment for celebration, especially if it’s turned out well and/or I’ve learned something new.

As you move from rookie to expert, it’s easy to forget the journey you’ve been on, what you’ve learned and the obstacles you’ve overcome. Once in a while it’s great to look in the mirror, smile and say “Impossible is Nothing!”


Anyone on a creative journey, I think, has gained these, and more lessons, from practicing their craft.


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