How to Build a Better Widget

Wow – It’s been two months. Did I mention my short attention spSQUIRREL! 🙂

I had a couple of interesting conversations recently both online and at KASF about how to help people grow in their chosen art. Many people have shared good advice, and I suspect that different things will work for different people because that’s usually how it works. That said, here are a few things that have been useful to me.

I was always very sensitive about the idea of being judged. This was something I was doing for fun, and I didn’t ask anyone for a grade on it. The fact that I had absolutely no interest in seeing an A&S competition score on my latest widget probably was strongly related to my being in graduate school [aka my own personal hell] when I joined the SCA. Eventually, I got over that, and what helped me with that were a) seeing first hand how at least one polling order works and understanding why you really shouldn’t get bent out of shape over them (see my earlier post on the topic), and b) deciding to pretend that I was ineligible for any more awards for technical reasons – that I couldn’t get any more awards ever. In that situation, what would I do? WhateverTF I wanted to do, and nothing I didn’t want to do. Taking the award/judgment issue out of it was very helpful to me. Other people thrive on competition and reaching for that next goal, but saying, “Yes, I want that golden ring, but what would I do if told I’ll *never ever* have even a chance of getting it?” was immensely helpful to me in not feeling stressed out about what people think about my widgets.

People complain about not getting meaningful feedback on their widgets. I see this as a symptom of our expert artisans not being a bunch of jerks who go around telling newer artisan what’s wrong with their widgets. This is a good thing, but what it means is that if you are an artisan who wants to improve in your art, you probably can take yourself a certain distance on your own – if you are stupidly stubborn about such things, as I am. After that, you’re going to need objective feedback from people who know more than you know if you want to improve – they’re the ones who can point out the things that you don’t know you don’t know, and that’s where people get stuck. I see the solution to this problem as very simple. You must approach a person who knows more than you know about widgets (or even someone at your own level who has a different background or perspective) and say, “I’m interested in making my next widget better than this one. What can I do to improve my future widgets? What skills should I work on? What’s the next level for me? What should I be reading and thinking about?”

I asked just a few friends for feedback on my gown, and I now have numerous serious tasks to accomplish this spring and summer. A friend fingered the collar of the gown, which is interlined, but not stiffened as much as it should be. “I probably should learn pad-stitching (a tailoring technique) for collars, shouldn’t I?” Another friend told me the sleeves were hanging too far off my shoulders – “I probably should stop focusing on hand-sewing garments and instead  practice patterning and fitting a bunch of armholes and sleeves, which have always been the bane of my existence.” Really studying these things and mastering them will greatly improve all of my future projects (Thanks, Maggie and Greer!) I’m sure there are many other things I can improve about my work, but I now have a manageable to-do list for the next few months and can ask others for feedback in the future.

The key is that 1) I went to people I trusted to give me honest feedback without being jerks about it, and 2) I explicitly gave them permission to criticize – I asked them to tell me what could have been done better on this project. It’s now up to me to act on that advice, but asking – which can be scary – was the only way to find my way to the next level.

Read. Read. Read. I set a goal last May of reading all of my Elizabethan costuming books (I have more than a few) by Ruby Joust this year. I’ve gotten through all of what I’d consider the major works, but I have a good number of second tier books – solid info, but what I’d suggest *after* you’ve read (cover-to-cover, except for parts that don’t interest you at all) Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlocked, Patterns of Fashion 3 and 4, both V&A 17th Century Women’s Clothing books (for construction techniques, not the actual garments examined), all four Tudor Tailor publications (two are Henrician era, and the one on kids’ clothing has applications for adult clothing), all of Hayward’s books (if also interested in Henrician era), and about a half dozen Costume articles (email/PM me if you want them). I have learned a ton, and I have a better appreciation now for what I *don’t* know – again, it’s *what you don’t know that you don’t know* that is the sticking point. I now have my marching orders on some of what I need to learn next. I’m guessing my future reading will show me the way to the next rabbit hole.

If you don’t know what to read, ask an expert – “What should I be reading?” Any of the Laurels or Pearls (and many others) should be able to direct you to someone who can help you put together a reading list, but you can create your own by looking through the bibliography of the major books in your field. I currently have free access to a university’s library services, so holler if you need a journal article – if VCU has it, it takes a couple of minutes for me to download the PDF, and if they don’t have it, it takes a couple of days (longer right before finals) for them to get it and send it to me.

Meet everyone you can in and around your field. Meet all of the artisans you can meet in general. Surround yourself with positive, helpful people who love geeking about widgets. You don’t want snarks – we all have lapses and say things we later regret, but avoid anyone who makes a habit of it – there are enough awesome, friendly, helpful, interesting, and nice people in the SCA that you don’t need to bother with the non-awesome people. Hang out with people who will support you and your efforts.

Practice, then practice some more, but others are better equipped to tell you more about that.



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