I’m in the car shuttling kids from one
place to another when I’m suddenly struck with an idea for a brilliant design. I
can see it so clearly in my mind’s eye and I become totally consumed with
developing it and making it come to life.
Duck prototype on my desk today.
The rest of the daytime hours are spent thinking about my
idea, mulling over how it’s all going to come together, just waiting for the
hours after the kids are tucked into bed so that I can run up to the studio to
When 8:00 pm rolls around and I’m a little tired, but still
raring to go. The first stages go smoothly, fueled by my assuredness that this
is going to be awesome. Then I start drawing pattern pieces, cutting fabric,
sewing stuff together and when I finish what I’ve made is so misshapen I can
hardly look at it. By now it’s 10:00 pm and I’ve got to go to bed.
The next day, I still believe in my idea and feel sure I can
fix it. Massive edits ensue. Every pattern piece gets redrawn and I make a
second prototype and stuff it. And it’s still terrible. Actually in some ways
it’s worse than the first.
Monkey heads with various failed muzzles.
But now I can see, at least partially, what went wrong. Third
time’s a charm, right? More edits, more redrawing. I sew and stuff the third prototype.
Still terrible. Okay, more research, more sketching, and then another one. I’m
getting closer, but not really. Sometimes there are nine cycles like this, or
And you know what? This is when most people give up. When questions
pop up about whether this idea was so hot in the first place, whether it’s even
possible, or possible for me, it’s easy to just say forget it. You hear
yourself asking why you’re wasting your time and your materials on making crap.
And who do you think you are anyway. Toss it out. Go watch TV.
This is when I come downstairs into the family room with a seriously
grumpy look on my face and Charlie says,
“I’m in hell,” I say.
“I can tell.”
He knows what I’m talking about because this happens every time.
In this moment we are presented with a crucial choice: give up
Many terrible kangaroos. There were more.
Creative work involves constant problem solving, fixing, and
refining. When you’ve developed a level of expertise in what you’re doing, it
gets easier because you can more easily predict what will go wrong and you’ve acquired
enough skills to correct errors mid-stream.
In order to develop that expertise, though, you have to continually
choose to persevere.
Even naturally talented designers, and designers with formal
education in their field, and designers with all the trappings of success,
acquired their expertise through perseverance. If you probe just a little bit into
their success stories you’ll see that more often than not they got where they
are because they refused to stop trying.
This was an outtake from a photo shoot I did of my tall birds in October of 2007. I think they fell over a million times.
The more you make, the more you force yourself to forge
through those moments when you are closest to giving up. And every time you
come out the other side with a finished product, every time you persevere, your
level of expertise deepens.
So you know what? Go get that prototype out the garbage and
make another one. And one more after that. Eventually you’ll see why the
problems exist. You’ll be able to anticipate them and correct for them before
you even begin.
The problems you’re having with this design won’t be there for
the next one. They’ll be new problems to solve, but you’ll have the expertise
you need to forge through those, you just need to persevere.
Have a tale of perseverance in creative work? Been ready to throw in the towel? Made a few prototypes, or a few dozen? Let's hear it.
I actually have one of these myself I put off and I’m itching to get back to try a second shot at. It’s a geek themed Chulhu plush. It’s great to know that sometimes it takes you many tries because it’s reassuring to someone like me starting out.
Great post! I think we all have those days when we’re ready to chuck it all in…but in my case I can’t NOT create. (It’s somewhat of an addiction.) But having been through the process of a new design I know that there will be something wonderful at the end of all the painful parts.
Rachel L. says
Wonderful post! I often think I’m ready to give up on a design, only to put it aside, have it percolate in the back of my mind (sometimes for months), and suddenly all that time later, I know the solution.
A question for you Abby: do you save all of your prototypes? I usually just unstuff them and keep them flattened in the envelope with the pattern. I haven’t found any benefit to keeping them, other than reminding myself when I get the pattern back out how hard-fought that design was, I suppose! 🙂
You bring up a great point here. Often ideas need time to develop. I've found in the past that when I'm rushed for time I'm not nearly as happy with the finished design as when I am when I have the time to let it all sink in. Once I've gotten the pattern the way it needs to be and I've made the samples, I unstuff and toss out the prototypes. Saving them is certainly a good way to remind you of how much work went into that pattern, though!
Love this post, Abby! Sometimes, you think others just sit down and “ta da”, make an awesome stuffed toy from scratch in a day. Some may actually do that (they’re super talented or lucky). But often, there are many prototypes involved.
Me too – great post! It was one of the things I loved when I first found your blog – the fact that you acknowledged that things don’t always go right the first time. Or the second or third time. Every time I work on new patterns, I have moments – after multiple prototypes – where I think “why am I in this job? I am so bad at this!” Then I finally get it right, and everything’s okay.
I once photographed the entire long-winded process of designing a panda for a blog post. Annoyingly, the photos made it look like it took a couple of days – actually it took weeks!
It's something I love about your blog, too, Ruth. You wrestle with getting the look of each bear just right so that it matches the vision in your head. That wrestling is a big part of the creative process for everyone, and I find it to be one of the most interesting parts.
This is a wonderful post – an affirmation of the importance of process. Thanks for sharing yours.
This actually came at exactly the right time!
I’ve had this idea in my head for months, and I’m completely new to sewing. I made one really small plush rabbit head at a workshop back in August.
I had tried to make something and it failed. So I’ve been a little intimidated by making a plush animal.
I’ve been toying with the idea in my head though. Actually solving problems with my current knowledge by studying plushes I have a lot.
I feel I’m now ready to try and then try some more.
Thanks a lot for the inspiration!!
Tenacious T says
I build websites and make stuff with paint and fabric and whatnot. But the websites pay the bills. I finished a site for a client (after much wailing and gnashing of teeth) and then they said “we don’t like it. do it again.” a few weeks after launch. I proposed something that I didn’t completely know how to do (but knew I could figure it out) and I am down to the wire now and have to show them something this week. I am so ready to quit and denounce my career and the 15+ years I’ve put into it, but luckily my friend pointed me to your article and I am feeling a little bit better.
I CAN DO IT!
Just call me Tenacious T.
Haha, I love the tall birds photo! (the bigger they are…)
Having small children means my time to do creative work is limited. It’s easy to become discouraged having redo and reimagine projects because it seems like a waste of that precious time. Sometimes I wonder why I’m using my time to fail at sewing when I could be reading or playing with my kids.
However, it’s only a waste of my time if I give up. And there is no limits to the value of an education. Failure gives us our best lessons.
Thanks for this great post and fabulous blog. One of my readers turned me on to you work just yesterday and I’m so very glad they did.
Linda Hicks says
I always tell people that I believe everyone is or can be an artist in some way…the difference is that ARTISTS NEVER QUIT. As you say, they persevere!
I know exactly what you’re talking about. And it’s important to talk about this because most people do not imagine how much work there is behind a piece of work!
Greetings from Portugal!
Amy Lynch says
I’ve been reading your blog for a few years now; an older post helped me to work out how to make a plush for the first time. It took about 6 prototypes before I was happy with it. Then I made a second, based on the final pattern for my first plush- it was a doddle! Totally worth all the time I put into number 1. I really get what you mean about getting an idea and it fizzing in your head while you get on with the day-to-day stuff until there is time to sit down and get the idea at least on paper, if not started… Brilliant!
Thank you, Amy, and I'm so glad to hear that my Elements of Soft Toy Design series was helpful to you!
I know exactly how you feel. My children are 8, 6, and 2 and every moment of free time is golden. It's so hard not to think that it's been wasted when what you are working on doesn't work out right away. I hope my Elements of Soft Toy Design series might be of interest to you in your own design work: http://whileshenaps.typepad.com/whileshenaps/learn-to-desing-your-own-plush/
Tenacity is what it's all about. Go you, Tenacious T!
Angela, that sounds awesome. I really hope you'll keep plugging away. There's nothing more motivating than success, no matter how long it might take!
You're welcome. The process is just as interesting to me as the final outcome for sure.
I just made a prototype bone pile today myself 5 deep! I totally had that grumpy face experience you share when I was working on my wildlife designs this summer. But the kids and I had a good laugh though over the felt “carcasses” left behind from prototypes! Bears that looked like pigs, Penguins that looked like worms (WTH?!), seals that looked like torpedos.
All in a hard days design work!
I've had a fair amount of worms and torpedoes as well. Oh my. They are certainly worth a good laugh. I think it's great to know that seasoned designers make failed prototypes, too!
Kim Werker says
I love love love love this post, Abby! You should distribute it as a manifesto to people who make stuff. Or have a craft-along for folks to make one of your dolls so that doll can sit on their shoulder for the rest of time and remind them to just keep going.
That's so nice of you to say. I've been thinking about manifestos recently. If I ever do write one, this idea of perseverance will certainly be in it.
Really needed to see this right now! I’m working on my first sewn toy design, and I’m currently on the second revision. It’s good to hear now, at the beginning, that this could take lots of revisions so that I’m ready for it and don’t get discouraged. Thank you!
I'm so glad to her that, Nicky. Good luck with your design work!
O my goodness you have made me feel soooooo much better! Prototypes? Yes and they were about as exciting as those you have shared with the stuffing sticking out in all the wrong places!!!
Perseverance! Throwing in the towel? If it had not been for YOU, Dala would have never been born. Your series of tutorial made all the difference between giving up and seeing there was light at the end of the tunnel.
And FYI – my friend Heidi who is just learning to sew shared with me that she has been making small stuffed toys of her own design by following the information you have provided in the series.
Thank you for ridding out the storms and staying the course. Your talent and perseverance have enriched us all.
You are so welcome, Pam. Thank you for all of your support over the years. It means a lot to me.
Kim @ floating thru fields says
This post was so great! I have a had similar experiences, you get a new idea your are so excited, you make a prototype and it looks like a foreign creature from another planet. I love all your prototype pictures all the monkey heads……awesome!!!
I got kind of fed up recently, but I might revisit some prototypes this weekend 🙂
So nice to hear everyone’s comments
Lisa Press says
I am also working on a prototype of my doll using the Susan Oroyan books, I originally discovered through an earlier post of yours. Thank you.
Trying to make her three dimensional and have her movements/poses be more human. It definitely takes patience, but it is so rewarding.
What material are you using for your prototypes? i was using the 100% wool felt I use for the final, which ended up being unnecessarily expensive. I should have switched to something else when I realized how many prototypes it would take.
You can see the prototype in progress here:
I use old high-thread-count bed sheets for prototypes. They are nearly free, plentiful, and tightly woven with no stretch so I can really see the shape of the stuffed toy well. I hope that helps!
Dawn Valentine says
Thank you so much for this post! It’s exactly what I needed to hear right now. I’m a pattern designer, but I don’t draw, so I always question my abilities. If something doesn’t look right after a few tries, I usually give up. It’s nice to know that sometimes it takes a dozen or so times to get it right. I’m about to make a bunch of new patterns, so I will definitely keep this in mind while I’m creating!! Thanks again!!
I'm so glad it was helpful, Dawn. Self-doubt is always there, but it doesn't have to win.
This was a great post and I needed to read it today because I was getting so frustrated. Thanks!
Fabulous post!! you don’t know how many animal/doll parts I have sitting in bags in my craft room waiting for my return while I waste away at a job (or 2) that I can’t stand. Ugh! I need some courage to pick it all up again. Just believe! Perfect timing 🙂
I'm so glad this post was helpful to you! Keep in touch,
Edward Bax says
I would like to use the phrase “Many Terrible Kangaroos” as the name of my band.
Michelle Mach says
The funny thing is that this happens to some degree nearly *every* time. It’s more the norm than the exception and yet every time I sit down I always think that this project is going to go perfectly smoothly the first time and turn out exactly how I envisioned it.
Me, too! We need that optimism to keep us going, right?
Thank you for writing this post. I really needed to read this today. I absorbed every word you wrote and took it to heart. Thank you so much.
Im so glad to hear that, Leeann. Thank you for visiting!
Louise Hilton says
Okay, so nearly 18 months after this original post, I have found your blog and it’s wonderful.
I am a new sewer and I would love to have a go at making a design of my own, I just wondered if you would tell me what kind of material you use for your prototypes?
Your book is on my hint list which I will be giving to my boyfriend for my Christmas presents.
Keep up the awesome work
Welcome! I love to buy old bed sheets at thrift stores to cut up for prototypes. That way I don’t feel I’m wasting good materials if I have to make several before I arrive at a design I’m happy with. I hope that’s helpful!
Jerriann Massey says
Hi. 22 months after you posted this, I found it. And. You. Are. Right. I have 3 (or maybe 4…okay probably 4) attempts at a special project that just does NOT work like I want it to. Now, I will keep trying. Thank you!
That’s terrific to hear! I’m so glad you found this post useful, even though you found it some time after I’d written it. Keep going!
Lisa Winer says
I agree with one of the previous commenters about the value of putting a project aside and coming back to it. I paint and I always have a few different canvases in the works at one time. I find it really helps to refocus my attention when I get frustrated. Or maybe I just have a short attention span! 😉