How Fear Hinders our Sewing Journey

It’s no secret that fear holds us back in life. Fears can also hinder our sewing journey, leaving us afraid to develop new skills or share our work. Sometimes it paralyzes us.

Two common fears are Atychiphobia – Fear of Failure – and Atelophobia – Fear of Imperfection. And yes, these types of fears haunt women more than men.

Do you put off or avoid activities that may have an unsuccessful outcome? Like learning FMQ, or to quilt feathers, or learning to machine applique? Are you scared to try new things, takes risks or embrace growth? This is a typical fear of failure scenario.

On the other hand, do you avoid situations where you feel you won’t succeed, do you fear making mistakes? Do you hold back because you are convinced that your efforts won’t be good enough? Then you may have a Fear of Imperfection.

Phobias are anxiety disorders which result in an overwhelming sense of fear. Family history, your childhood environment or traumatic experiences may be at the root of a phobia. And you may experience actual physical symptoms from such a phobia such as sweating, heart palpitations or nausea, shaking, or stomach upsets. Anger, irritability, pessimism, and depression can also manifest themselves.

I did a poll in my Babylock Tiara group regarding fears and 49% of those responding said that they afraid their efforts at FMQ will not be “good enough”. 23% said that they procrastinate trying new skills.

Phobias and fears are real! What can we do about them?

Two of the approaches used by professionals that you can adapt are:

  1. Cognitive behavioral therapy – Change the way you think about failure or imperfection.
  2. Exposure therapy. – This approach works on desensitizing yourself to the fear by gradual exposure to whatever triggers the fear.

Cognitive therapy includes using positive affirmations and recognizing that we all make mistakes and we all fail. Mistakes and failure are part of the learning process and are necessary to continued improvement and positive outcomes. For some people, rewriting the script around the fear is helpful. Does anyone do perfect free hand work? No. None of us do. Every quilter can show us the mistakes made in any piece of work regardless of how “perfect” it appears when viewed as a whole. Everyone started at the beginning to learn a skill. Those “perfect” fabric artists spent years learning their skills, often decades. Can we do what they do in a couple weeks or months? Or even years? No. Stop comparing yourself to full time artists/quilters who have spend decades honing their skills.

Are you a sewer that is complemented and you brush away the praise? Do you immediately point out everything wrong with the piece receiving glowing reviews? Practice saying “thank you” and smiling. Some of us were taught that taking pride in our work is somehow shameful or sinful. Do you think people are “just being nice”? Maybe. Maybe they are and it is okay for people to be “nice” and say something complementary. But maybe they mean it!

How “good” does our work need to be? Good enough for what? Good enough for a quilt show? Good enough to win a ribbon? Good enough for Auntie Em that hates everything? Think about what good enough really means to you. I gave a couple dozen of early quilts to family members and friends that loved the highly imperfect quilt that I made and gifted to them. Some of those early efforts embarrass me to think about, but they were good enough at the time. I was good enough. And now I can do better.

I know quilters who happily make tops with mismatched seams and then quilt loop de loops quilt after quilt after quilt. They are having fun, and their work makes them happy. Their inner script is full of positive affirmations.

2015, my first year learning FMQ. Loops and outlines. Both loops and outlining help us to learn hand/foot coordination and control. One of my daughters owns this highly imperfect quilt!

Exposure therapy – I am not generally fearful, and usually plunge ahead as I did when first learning FMQ, because I am also stubborn! But there was one motif that I developed a real block about learning…FEATHERS. We all want to make feathers. Lovely feathers, plump feathers, effortless feathers, ornate feathers, charming feathers, graceful feathers. I made a few half hearted attempts. They were awful. They looked like skinny, deformed fingers. Ugh. For two years, I FMQ’ed around feathers. I did swirls, thousands of swirls, wiggly lines, paisleys, poppies, ribbons, plaits, whatever was NOT a feather.

An early – and rare – photo of an early feather attempt. Ugh. After this one, in 2016, I shunned feathers for a long time.

My fear of feathers became an albatross. Here I was, an admin on a FMQ site and after a few attempts, I was paralyzed by the thought of making feathers. How could I encourage others to do what I refused to? That made me feel like a sham, a charlatan. My fear of feathers was spiraling into more fears! Enough!

I decided that for a while, I would do feathers. Ugly, misshapen feathers if need be. Feathers and more feathers. I did feathers on practice squares, but you really need room for feathers, so I used brightly colored panels scrounged from sale shelves, and matching thread. I hid my ugly, deformed feathers. I also decided not to expect too much. If I was going to fail, I would fail after an exhaustive try. I would fail spectacularly! I studied bump feathers, free form feathers, and all manner of feathers on videos. And I kept making them.

One surprise was that due my making thousands of swirls, my overall FMQ technique had improved. I could do smooth curves and I could make relatively consistent stitches. My feathers started to improve.

It was time to do an entire, pieced quilt with nothing but feathers. I made a log cabin lap quilt in purples, my favorite pattern in a favorite color. And then I quilted the HECK out of it in feathers. Done! And someone actually bought that quilt from me. I pronounced myself “cured”, although I experienced anxiety each time I made them for a while.

I called this lap quilt Feather Mania. This was 2018.
Finally! After two years of avoiding feathers, some feathers that were “good enough”.

I started using feathers at least once in a quilt (on a border, for example) and moved onto feather Mandelas. Big feathers, tiny feathers, smooth feathers, humped feathers, feathers with twirls and swirls. I can now do feathers without anxiety and find them enjoyable. But, I don’t do bump feathers. I do free hand feathers and they look just fine. Occasionally, they look glorious. I will never be a feather goddess, but I can do a mean feather when needed.

Feathers in 2021! You can’t arrive here, unless you travel through the uncomfortable learning curve.
An early applique project of a lighthouse that we visited in Maine. Stitched in 2017. This is mainly quilted with swirls. Big swirls, tiny swirls, medium swirls. Swirls became my comfort zone.
2018…deep in my “swirl period’. I made a couple dozen swirl-only quilts, runners and placemats in 2016-2019. I was happy that I finally could one motif well!

What is that worse that can happen? When I hit a stumbling block, I like to ask “what is the worse that can happen?” We are dealing with fabric and thread here. What is the worse that will happen? The thread goddess will not banish you from the sewing room without your dinner. No one will be injured or imprisoned. In the grand scheme of life, how dire will the outcome be? At worse, I will toss my creation in the bin and start over. No one will ever know. Unless I confess it in this blog!

I once made a lap quilt so ugly, I couldn’t stand to keep it in the house. The seams did not match up. It refused to square. The quilting was a mess. It haunted and taunted me from the cupboard. But I had spent a lot of time on that ugly thing. I took it to a craft fair and put a $50 tag on it, which was half the cost of materials. If it didn’t sell, I would find a dumpster!

A woman came up, admired it and declared it the perfect gift for a baby shower. I took her money and I kept my thoughts to myself. Thoughts like “OMG, you are going to saddle a baby with this”? I was thinking it might work for a dog bed, but here was a gal buying it for a baby. Oh my. I hope that baby loved the quilt as much her auntie did!

Set yourself up for success. Sometimes we undercut ourselves. We set up a situation destined for a less than optimal outcome, where failure is almost guaranteed. And that becomes the self fulfilling prophecy that confirms our fears that we are not good enough, that our efforts will never be good enough, and that we will fail. Again.

I see posts that read,”I made a wedding ring quilt for my niece that took 6 months to piece and I just started FMQ. What should I quilt on it? ” This is setting yourself up for failure.

Did you spend a small fortune on the specialty fabric? Were months or years of your life devoted to piecing this top? Is this quilt meant for a very special occasion, say a wedding or 50th anniversary? Yess? If so, then think about your skill level and how it matches up with the quilt top. This is not the moment to try a motif you barely practiced or rulers you never used before. If you can do a simple motif well, do that. I have made wonderful quilts using only swirls. If you have only “practiced a couple times”, then put that special top in the cupboard and finish it later. Or send it out to be quilted.

Make quick and easy quilts to practice new skills. Scrap quilts, quilts with fabric from the sale wall, panels. Panels are wonderful for learning FMQ. A panel and a border or two. Boom. Done. And now practice your FMQ on it. One year, I made a LOT of table runners with matching placemats. Great for practicing FMQ. They wear out fast, with weekly washing, so you don’t have to look at them forever! And they make great gifts or craft fair items. You will not care so much if your quilting is less than sublime on a Frozen panel or a table runner. This is setting yourself up for success.

Outlining and thread painting on a great panel.
You could quilt absolutely anything on this wonderful panel and it would look fabulous!

All the things we learn and do well take time, and lots of practice. Kids know this. But as adults we often do not allow ourselves the same grace to learn. Practice, breathe, be kind to yourself as you are to others sewers, and discover the joy of the journey.

Did I ever despair of learning FMQ on my years-long journey? Many times! But did I dust myself off and try again? Every time. The only thing worse, for me, than trying and failing was to give up and never succeed.

Best wishes on your journey!



  1. Thank you Lennea for hitting the nail on the head for many of us we can relate to every thing you have written. Thanks for putting it in writing and in simple layman’s language.


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