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Sep 9, 2010

Competitive Sewing - Your Thoughts Please!

Wise readers, what's your take on competitive sewing?

Do you engage in it yourself and/or watch it on TV?  Do you think it's fun?

Last year I won the Pattern Review Beginner contest with the flowered shirt that currently appears in my blog header (to be replaced with a Burt Reynolds-inspired Nude-With-Sewing Machine portrait as per reader requests).  Winning that contest (Rachel of A Sewn Wardrobe came in second) was extremely motivating and validating too.

But sometimes I wonder if, in the long run, all these competitions don't take some of the joy out of sewing or aren't perhaps an expression of something dark in our collective souls and I don't mean black cotton sateen.

The idea of selecting a winner suggests that the vast majority of us will always be losers (or at least not winners).  Is that the way we like it-- somehow affirming how we already see ourselves in a celebrity-worshiping culture that defines success as winning the big prize, earning the big salary, being the most famous?

That hunger to win is fed by television shows like American Idol, Project Runway and even The Bachelor -- i.e, there's just not enough love (or men, or prizes) for everyone, so you have to fight for what's available.

In a world of dwindling resources and a growing gap between rich and poor (and rich and poor countries), this seems to mirror the world at large in uncomfortable ways we may not even recognize.

I've entered a few other competitions on Pattern Review, most notoriously my ruffle-collared A-line shift in the Little Black Dress contest of 2009, which was won by none other than the Selfless Songstress herself with her homage to Breakfast at Tiffany's.  (If poor Audrey is turning her grave, Edith Head must be spinning like a top.)  OK, I'll admit it, it's a lovely dress; dinner with Elaine the other night has worn me down.

Pattern Review runs a lot of competitions and many of them are very popular and I do enjoy checking out the entries from time to time.

I think many sewers find competitions motivating, whether they win or not.  It's a nice way to raise your profile on the site too, if that's important to you.

I've only seen Project Runway once or twice since I don't own a television set.  I thought it was fun in the way "Reality" TV is fun: who doesn't enjoy a good cliff-hanger or a pull-out-all-the-stops emotional breakdown?  It's likely that Project Runway has given fashion design a real boost (in popularity if not as a sustainable career).  I'm not sure if it has any effect on home sewing, however, though there is a Simplicity Project Runway pattern line.

You probably know about that Burda dress I've been kvetching about for weeks now.  The fact that it's part of some sort of competition (albeit a small and unremunerative one) has made it just a little less joyful for me, frankly.  I don't like to sew for sport so much lately.  

In closing, what's your take on competitive sewing? Is it just good clean fun or does it feed our baser, cut-throat survival instincts?

Does competition diminish us somehow, especially in a creative arena like fashion design or sewing?

Since we're all sewing different things and have different skills, aren't we generally comparing apples and oranges?

To what extent do you think these contests are primarily about the sponsors and the publicity they can garner? (It's a great way to promote a brand, you must admit.)

Finally, why this, why now?  Do you think the focus on, and popularity of, competition in something like sewing -- whether in a high profile context like Project Runway or the more homespun Pattern Review -- is a sign of the times?  If so, what does it say about us?

Open your blue booklets and begin!


  1. I don't personally enjoy the competition. I feel there is enough competition in this world without creating more. Especially when it involves something I like to do. The one good thing about it is it might encourage me to meet a deadline or try something I never would otherwise, but for me something more in the likes of a sew-along fits better with who I am.

  2. Competitive sewing has been around for as long as there have been county and state fairs. Hop on up to Syracuse next August and look at the lovely work they display. I'll meet you there for a day at the fair if you'd like. I often aspire to displaying something I've made there, but I've never quite gotten around to submitting.

    I think competitions give the average sewist inspiration and something to aspire to. I never feel like a loser or an also-ran just because I don't compete. I get enough validation from my non-sewing friends who think I'm a genius... even though I know what went wrong on the inside. If I submitted something and it was even chosen to be displayed, I'd feel like a winner (and I'm a type A competitive personality).

    I ADORE Project Runway. I know I could never compete. First of all... I sew too slowly. I go into zen mode and contemplate and admire pretty much every seam I sew. That doesn't make for speed. But I really enjoy seeing the level of skill and creativity of the competitors. I enjoy getting to know the personalities. And I enjoy pitting my judgement against the judges. It's the only reality show I indulge in... perhaps you could call it my guilty pleasure.

  3. I have to admire people like Carolyn the Sewing Fanatic, who signs up for the wardrobe challenges and such. I don't personally like to compete, because as soon as I know I MUST do something for a competition, I no longer WANT to do it; it becomes a chore, not unlike mopping the floor (have you seen my dog's feet? it's not a pretty sight). Having a hubby who won't watch Project Runway, I've never seen it. We do, however, watch Amazing Race with our youngest boys, both for the free visual trip around the world and the insight into people's behavior. I would not want to compete even in something like that.

    My 3 girls all belonged to a local 4H sewing club for about 4 years, all were required to enter several county fairs, as Fairevergreen mentioned, and sometimes even won honorable mention (and one 3rd place) ribbons. I'm not sure they liked the competition, or even sewing that much (it was required by me that they learn, however), but they entered to make the little old lady who ran the club happy. THAT was good for them: making someone else happy.

    I hope lots of people continue to want to enter competitions, because their work is a great source of inspiration. But it's not for me.

  4. What an interesting question!

    On project Runway and reality TV/competition TV in general.... while I LOVE project runway, I don't like the competition part. Project Runway and Top Chef are fun to watch because I like to see the contestants style and how they work. My favorite seasons of both shows have been when all the contestants are REALLY GOOD. And I don't like the drama plot lines or the inevitable contestant who is all full of strategy. That makes me feel icky inside. Plus, Project Runway is one of the few things that really gets my suit-during-the-day and track-pants-at-night hubby to get all chatty about fashion and sewing!

    For contests for MYSELF - I have to admit - I recently (tried) to participate in the patternreview wardrobe contest - it was AWESOME to get me to plan and sew in a more focused way, as my plotting can outpace my doing if I don't keep myself in line. The contest helped with that, although the Self-Stitched September challenge and the Lady Grey sewalong** are much more inspiring for me!

    I think the patternreview contests have great potential for eventually making me feel bad about my sewing, though. Especially if it was a one-item contest. You know, taking things personally kind of way (they don't like me or my shirt...

    As for competition in general, in society. While reality shows have certainly gotten wildly popular, I don't think it's necessarily new, just repackaged for the masses. I realize I may be one of the few that can't stand football (maybe not so much in a sewing-blogger-crowd, though!) but the popularity of organized sports stretches back through the ages, to, you know, lions eating people in the coliseum! People have a strong need to identify with, and be part of, the winning team. There's probably some sort of biological imperative connected to it in our psyche's. Those who win get the tasty food and get to live through another winter, that sort of thing.

    **BTW - I'm making lady grey for myself and the burda coat that you made for my hubby - he picked out the awesome-o fabric himself! Pictures are on my blog! I was so impressed with him!!

  5. Hmm. We all like contests if we win them, right? :)

    I'm not a big fan of manufacturing drama, in my personal life or as entertainment... like some of the other posters I like Project Runway (or So You Think You Can Dance) for the spectacle and the glimpses into the process, not for the competition itself. But at the same time, the competition raises the stakes, and while that edge can be unpleasant, it can also drive us to superior performance.

    I've only entered a PR contest once, the sewing for children one last summer. I was sewing a bunch of kids' stuff anyway, so I didn't really do anything extra or different. It did make me pay a bit more attention to my photography than I might otherwise (because let's face it, at least half of the judgment is going to be based on the photography in these online contests). I didn't win but one piece did tie for second in the number of votes, which was pretty sweet.

    I guess I'd say competition is like a strong spice. In just the right amount, it inspires and challenges us to surpass ourselves. Too much, and it just sucks the fun out of everything. And how much is too much---well, that's going to vary by individual taste.

  6. I've never entered any of the PR contests. But in general they seem to be good-natured and motivational.

    I also have no problem with a healthy dose of competition - it gives us something to strive for. I've noticed with my niece and nephews that in schools today everyone is "special" and everyone is "a winner". I'm not sure this makes us better people. Some of my most important life lessons have come from when I failed or lost.

  7. I don't have a problem with sewing competitions, as they have been around forever (see the state/county fair comment). I've even entered and won ribbons, and my mom enters every year, I think because it gives her a goal to work toward (she'll be 71 this month). I've even entered a PR contest, the formalwear one, but I was going to make the dress anyway. I have a sense that ends up being more a photography and popularity contest, but haven't observed enough to know for sure.

    As for Project Runway... I LOVE LOVE LOVE it! I have become addicted to the whole thing, drama and all. And I love the various challenges, trying to imagine what I might make in that kind of challenge, not that I would.

    Bottom line: are competitions good or bad for sewing? well, there will always be competitions in some form or another, and participation is entirely voluntary. Take them or leave them. I just think they're fun and you can't take them too seriously.

  8. I only watched the first season of Project Runway that aired here in the Netherlands. Back then, I liked it for the reason others mentioned as well. Now, my own skills have improved which means I'm less easily impressed and get more annoyed with the excessive drama. I could never stand to watch the Dutch spin-off of it. People trying to live up to the example set by the American 'personalities' on the show in my mother tongue was just too freaky.

    I'm not big on entering contests myself. A tiny bit of fear of failure. I can get very involved when making something. I've had two bad experiences with contests (one clothes design, one photography) where 'insiders' told me my work had been selected for (at least) honourable mention, when, in fact, it wasn't. I don't know why did it and it made me feel very bad about something I would have shrugged off otherwise.

    About competition in general... Difficult. Indeed, competition has been around forever. I've been brought up on the 'everyone is special'-idea and I definately found its draw-backs later on. However, I think there is something new about a lot of today's competitions. The notion of celebrity. The televised competitions are often all about the drama. Not about the actual skill involved. I don't believe they select the best designers/makers for Project Runway. They select 'personalities' who will make 'good' TV - lots of drama. Even in small competitions, this sometimes happens.

    That is something I can't stand. Have we all become cynical enough to think skills don't matter anymore? I could even get philosophical and claim this to be a symptom of post-modern society: we, collectively, may believe that everything has already been done, there's no advance of the human race to be expected anymore (unless you're a nerd. exact sciences are a bastion of modernist thinking...) so it doesn't matter what we do with our lives and, just because that seems to be the most fun, we all want to be 'winners' and 'celebrities'...
    I do not want to believe that.

  9. I credit Project Runway, which I started watching around the third or fourth season, with reawakening my interest in learning to sew, but I've never really seen it as a show about sewing.

    People simply don't work like that in the real world. Designers have time to research ideas, source fabric, and have pattern makers and sample makers. It doesn't hurt to know how to sew well, but it's not really necessary, unless you're completely on your own, whipping up a few things for an open-see at Bendel.

    You don't often see much of the actual design work or sewing on PR and it's probably because it's very sloppy. I could not care less about the styling of the models. Some of the judge's comments are just off the wall. I remember Nina Garcia's reaction to a suit made for a young woman who was about to start job hunting. Garcia dissed the perfectly appropriate outfit. Clearly, she has never looked for a job in a field other than fashion. Even Tim Gunn's elegant avuncularity is beginning to irritate me. How often have I seen it?

    I skipped the entire season in L.A. and now watch it sporadically. I see it as a metaphor for the challenges of the workplace: You're often given ridiculous deadlines with inadequate resources and have to work with people you don't like. If something goes wrong, there can be a hefty price, even if it really wasn't your fault.

  10. Lauriana wrote:

    "The notion of celebrity. The televised competitions are often all about the drama. Not about the actual skill involved. I don't believe they select the best designers/makers for Project Runway. They select 'personalities' who will make 'good' TV - lots of drama."

    I've read that the producers explicitly discuss who make "good TV." In addition to the manipulative editing, the producers do things to exacerbate the drama, like depriving the contestants of sleep and then sticking a camera in their faces at 6 a.m. I for one don't find it very interesting.

    The show does underscore how difficult the fashion business is. Who from PR has yet launched a successful line or been hired as the head designer for an established company?

  11. I was raised in the 4-H county fair "judging" world of sewing and it sucked the joy out of creation for me. I've finally come to realize that my ideals are not always other people's ideals, and that's okay. But, competitions reignite my fears that people will only find flaws in what I do .

    I think Lauriana is perceptive in linking these little competitions to our celebrity culture. Do we all yearn to be sewing celebrities, instead of just wanting our buttonholes to look neat? Of course the internet is a double-edged sword--it creates a community of like-minded people, but then we start ranking each other.

    That said, I have entered some challenges because they motivated me to finish something or to learn a new skill that I care about.

  12. And let's not even get into the topic of competitive blogging! ;)

  13. I would like to relate to my experience as a piano teacher. In music education we use recitals and competitions as a way to motivate to a higher skill level. By putting the polish on a piece for public performance the student lifts the overall general level of their playing. Although I personally hated public performance and always struggled with my nerves, I could really see that perparing for the performance improved everything about my playing. In sewing the same can be true, except that (excluding Project Runway) you don't have to perform the skills in front of an audience. I think the competitions are a good thing to help motivate, focus, and in the long run, move us along with our sewing skills.

    p.s. Love your blog. I look forward to it everyday.

  14. Elle said "I have a sense that [it] ends up being more a photography and popularity contest." I have to agree. In my small WNC town, we have country fairs and such where there are quilt competitions, and the judges and attendees get to see the stitchery up close. I think these contests are legit. Online, I think can become more about your photoshop or modeling skills than sewing skills. To go back to the "human clothes hanger" topic, have you ever noticed how super slim women can make even wonky seams and horribly executed necklines and such look passable? I can think of one sewer who is always hyped up on one of the sites I frequent, and although this person's ideas are fantastic, their execution is rather sloppy in the close up. Oh well- a little photo retouching goes a long way! I am newer to sewing, and I am not competitive for the most part. I recently did a project with my mother in law for charity, and we made dresses at a leisurely pace. When the time came that a deadline loomed and there was a number suggested, it honestly became more of a chore. I guess having a 5 month old also means I am not to keen on deadlines. I don't know. I prefer the idea of a creative and supportive online community where people direct others to good resources and make helpful suggestions.

  15. Woops - I deleted my first go of this comment - sorry!

    I like entering the PR contests - I see them as a bit of motivation to make something new, and to take extra care in sewing it - similar to what Ann has said above regarding piano recitals.

    I've never won one, but to me that is beside the point. I have fun making something, and fun taking some photos of it. Then I get some nice feedback on my sewing that I can use to improve future garments.

    I see contests like the PR ones as similar to sew-a-longs - seamsters getting together to turn out something beautiful that we can all draw inspiration from.

  16. Peter, what an insightful blog post and loved reading the responses as well. Hmm, you have given me something to think about.

  17. Hey Peter! Catching up again - I have to read about 10 of your posts at a time at the moment. And I have been roaring laughing - with a few tears in there for good measure.
    Competitiveness doesn't seem to belong in sewing eh? I reckon it takes the zest out of it.

  18. I personally don't enjoy contests or competitions. In the past when I've tried to enter one, I haven't finished. I don't like being dictated to nor picking one winner rather than celebrating each person's success really bugs me.

    In terms of Project Runway, I've been sewing for thirty-six years. When I started, information, classes, and supplies were everywhere and then they dwindled down to nothing. Magazines like Threads and pattern catalogues like Simplicity had a going down and out look about them and then suddenly, the quality of paper in Simplicity's catalogue picked up, the patterns were more up to date, there were more sales, and Threads and Project runway sponsored designs appeared. There's been a noticable increase in home sewing where I live. I think the show has had tremendous impact. Fabricland is actually getting crowded now. LOL - we only have the on fabric store.

  19. My daughter entered 4H this year. I had more trouble than she did with the requirements. Philosophically, I have issues with the requirements and limitations placed on many of the projects (but especially sewing). And in so many competitions politics are a significant factor. I explained to my daughter that those rules are meant to level the playing field and make judging easier. But still, I thought the goal was good sewing and an enthusiasm for craft. It's hard to be enthusiastic when you can only sew a skirt with an elastic waist. I also think too many contests can be won by resources. A fancy machine or expensive fabric (or better photography) can win over better skills and workmanship.

    The only competition I enjoy in sewing is with myself. I want to do better than I have done before. I want to improve my techniques. While cash and prizes would be great, knowing that I did a good job is even sweeter (dangit, Mom was right again!).

    I do enjoy Project Runway. I love to see what they come up with. I long to learn pattern drafting, but I'll settle for living vicariously through the contestants.

  20. I have decided to avoid entering any more sewing contests. It kind of took the fun out of sewing and added stress to my life, which is not why I sew! It becomes strictly about the finished product and for me sewing is more about the process. Not that I don't like and want results but I enjoy the sewing more.
    I do watch Project Runway, but on my computer as I don't get expanded cable. I have enjoyed it less and less this season and the last. I don't know if it's just had it's run but it's just not as fun anymore.

  21. Count me as another who has never done a sewing competition of any kind. I'm a very competitive person at heart, so I try to avoid situations that are going to awaken the beast. I think that for a lot of people, it's just good clean fun. But I know that I would spend too much time stressing about my project to really enjoy the process.

  22. PROCESS, yes -- that's a great point Nancy and Marianne.

  23. I guess I'm a spectator at heart, so I enjoy the idea of sewing competitions mostly for the joy of seeing all the entries. It's fun to admire what everyone makes and marvel at other people's creativity. I enjoy Project Runway for the same reason. The runway is like a wonderful smorgasbord of items to admire, with some tastier than others (or maybe I'm thinking of an array of cakes, ; ) ) I get a thrill out of seeing the magic trick of transforming something with the power of the imagination -- party store favors or bridesmaid dresses for instance. And then, well, there's seeing, hearing, and loving Tim Gunn -- he makes the competition so humane. But the worst moment for me is when someone gets "aufed" -- I hate to see it happen to them and it means there will be less to admire the next week.

  24. I really have to agree with indywriter, the competition for me is within myself. Constructing a garment is no easy task, and I struggle to be as skilled as possible. Our cultural appetite for cheap clothing has removed us from the reality of how labor intensive even the most basic garment can be. Even though we may think that the clothes on our backs have spontaneously generated on a rack at Macy's, someone somewhere with exacting skills has produced them. If I can come close to their result I'm satisfied. I've built a lot of things over the years. A post and beam house, a boat, various wiring and plumbing projects. Seems I always have some sort of project going. Now I'm making my own clothes, but in the end the process is all the same. Only the tools and materials change. I accept the fact that I'm not a "pro", but if I pay attention to the details and strive for the best result I'm capable of, I'm usual satisfied with my results.

  25. I don't enter contests. Actually, I don't even discuss my projects online anymore, because I found that I was choosing my projects (not intentionally) based on whether they might make an interesting blog post or review. Or because I thought I "should" display a new technique or something.

    The truth is, I don't wear contest-worthy things. I make simple things that are easy to make and wear. I don't feel the need to challenge myself. I just want to make clothes that I like.

    As for pushing oneself: I recently found an old box of my childhood sewing projects. I think this was probably my most creative period, sewing-wise, and it was done all on my own, with no one telling me what to make or how to make it. I know that if I want to take my sewing to the next level, I need to get back to that feeling-- not a contest.

  26. Interesting question.. I've never entered any sewing competitions myself, but I can see the benefit. It could help give focus and a goal, to someone who would be floundering otherwise and never finishing what they start.
    I'm on the fence for my own sewing - part of me thinks I'd like to enter, because maybe I could win, and that would be nice for the ego. The other part would much rather make whatever pleases me, without boundaries and without official judgement.
    In the end I agree with Marianne, I'd stress too much about being perfect and wanting to win, and wouldn't enjoy *doing* it as much as getting it done.

  27. I'm a competitive person, and I don't feel bad about that. I came in second in two PR contests (pattern stash, sewing for children) and first in this year's fabric stash. I like the challenge, and if I didn't, I wouldn't enter. I also entered the local fair and won a bunch of ribbons last year, but I didn't even have competition in some categories. I'll gladly take my shot at the prize money (entering this year's fair this weekend). I may try the state fair this year, too.

    I think the bottom line is contests are good if you enjoy them, and if you don't enjoy them, don't enter. For me, they are motivating. I have a feeling without the fabric stash contest, I wouldn't have cleared almost 150 yards of fabric in two months. (And almost 40 yards of that went into clothes I made to send to children in they won, too.)

    Oh, and Project Runway...can't wait til 9pm!

  28. I like sewing competitions. I'm not in any way competitive and I rather shy away from competing with others. I'm one of those who finds the guidelines and deadlines both motivating and inspirational. I know my skills are no match for most of the other entrants, so I know I will never win and in some ways this makes it easier. Because I'm not trying to win, I am free to explore the bounds of the competition and in the process get myself a great wardrobe or garment. I'm a bit like Mainelydad; I always have projects on the go and like he and indywriter, the competition is with myself. Are my skills improving, have I tried something new, have I stepped outside my comfort zone?

    As for Project Runway, whilst I like watching it, I must say that I believe it came into being purely to make money. Reality television is easier and cheaper to make than a good drama or comedy series. Project Runway caters to a previously untapped sector of the viewing market as well as getting the reality show junkies who watch them all for the drama. It has been pure luck that home sewing gets highlighted at a time of a global financial crisis when people are looking for ways to save money.

    Then there's the human element. All I will say about that is this; go and read The Running Man.

  29. I too don't own a TV, so I've missed the barrage of 'competitive' shows that have been on the broadcast machine over the past 5+ years.

    I don't mind competition, if its judged by a reputable and respected person in the field. Being judged by your peers or someone who has no idea of the craft irks me.

    "I like it, it gets my vote!" Well, why do you like it, stupid person. Cite examples and passages...No? Then move on.

    I'm a creative professional, so being constantly judged on your work is old hat for me. I enter illustration competitions when I can afford it, for exposure if nothing else, but sewing I don't feel I have the skill set that would make me comfortable competing.

    I know what I can do, but I don't know 'standard' ways in which what I can do is generally done. So I don't feel comfortable competing because of that.

  30. I enter things I have sewn in local county fairs (used to do the State fair, but no more after they damaged a quilt I entered). I have won ribbons, which is nice, but I enter in hopes of inspiring others to learn to sew, or quilt, or try a technique I did on my project.

    I don't watch so-called "reality" TV shows. At all. Never have, never will. I don't criticize those who watch them because I have no room to talk... my guilty pleasure is watching telenovelas. (ack!) 'nuff said. LOL

  31. I'm a very competitive person. In the music field it seems hard to survive if you aren't. But with sewing its different for me. I try not to be competitive and just try to be inspired. It's hard not feeling anything but complete envy for the person and the fabulous garment they made. I want to be the one with the best skills and the best knowledge and beautiful garments. Instead, I am what I am and I can do what I can do. And that's just fine, most times.

    Just no one make anymore great garments, OK? Great.

  32. Honestly, I thought I was the only one in North America who didn't own a TV.
    That aside, I am a HIGHLY competitive person in real life. Coming in #2 is failure for me. Therefore, I rarely enter sewing competitions. I usually come in #2, lol. Ergo, its much better for me to just say no to sewing competitions. Oddly, enough, I am in a current one. I expect to be number 2.

  33. Peter, I've noticed that people have a real need to craft (sew, knit, carve, paint, dye, weave). Everyone seems to have one of these hobbies, or had one at one time. I'm trying to decide if it comes from a basic human instinct to make your things pretty - or to make your things prettier than your neighbours? When our ancestor tribal woman made a clay bowl and thought of how she could make the next one prettier by painting it, was it because she wanted a painted clay bowl - or because she wanted the prettiest clay bowl so the men would notice her skills and she could have her pick of the men? If it is the latter - well we can't fight our biology!

  34. I think it's when she took those bowls and put them on her breasts that the trouble began! ;)

  35. This is timely: I've just submitted my first entry into a local competition in Melbourne.

    I don't seriously think I will win a prize, but as the judging is based on technique, it has been a really good way to try and improve my skills. Being part of an organised event, such as a competition, is kind of fun when sewing is essentially a solitary pursuit.

    As long as you're not playing for sheep stations (sorry: weird Australian expression!), I think contests can can just be a bit of good clean fun.

  36. Peter - I love your blog and I love that you don't have a TV.

    I'm certainly not a competitive person and don't think I'll find myself entering competitions. I'd be happy if I could finish a dress that fits!

  37. Okay, I love Project Runway because I like to see how creative people can be with limited resources, including time.

    The problem with so many contests now is the popularity angle. The contest is often not about the best design or best construction but who garners the most votes. They can be from friends, family, coworkers, Facebook friends, the Serbian Army, and anyone else with an Internet connection. That doesn't inspire good workmanship or creativity. It does, however, give the contest sponsor an "out." They don't need any criteria except a calculator.


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