Why your lockdown hobby might be good for your writing

What cross-stitch taught me about writing

As anyone who follows me on social media knows, after months of mocking other people for getting their cook / craft on in lockdown (SO MUCH SOURDOUGH), with crushing predictability I finally gave into the urge myself. I have developed an interest in cross-stitch that can be kindly described as keen (less kindly: a bit obsessive). Never a particularly crafty person, I’ve been astonished how many pieces I have produced so far – most of my friends now probably flinch when the letter box goes, scared I have sent them yet another unsolicited piece, but what the hell else am I going to do with 30 odd bits of fabric? I spend a lot of my time picking up loose threads off the carpet, and have taken to viewing any pleasing pattern or fun slogan with the side-eyed assessment of ‘ooh, wonder if I could sew that’. But if all of that has come as a surprise, what has really shocked me is that my new hobby has taught me some valuable lessons about writing. So, like an unasked-for bit of cross-stitch plonking on your doormat, I thought I would share them.

(Below: my pattern using lettering from Innocent Bones pattern combined with skull from another pattern and Claire Brown aida backdrop)

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You get better with practice

Sounds obvious, right? Most of us don’t pick up a hobby and expect to be brilliant at it right away. You start off a bit pants, you practice, you make mistakes and learn how to fix or avoid them, you improve. Yet it’s amazing how many of us don’t give ourselves that leeway in our writing. There’s a myth that writing is an innate talent, and you either have it or not, and it can’t be taught. And of course, some talent you are born with, and some people start out with more advantages than others, but like most things, writing improves when you take the time to practice it. When I started out cross-stitching, I was peering at patterns like they were written in Greek, unpicking every other stitch because it was wrong, and approaching my sewing with a level of concentration brain surgery would barely justify. Now I do it freestyle while I’m watching reruns of Supernatural and you know what – I’m better.

(Below: My freehand pattern done from Stranger Things photo – this would have felt IMPOSSIBLE even a month ago but I’m really pleased with it now)

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Freedom from perfection = creativity

One of the downsides of being a professional writer (to whatever variant that applies – I’m not talking about solely if you make all your money from it), is you feel the pressure to make sure that everything you put out into the world meets a certain standard. It’s natural – it has your name on it, after all. But it can also stifle risks, and risk-taking is potent fuel for creativity. The fact that I am ‘playing’ at cross-stitch – even if I am doing a piece for a friend, it’s still just for fun – means I am allowed to be crap. And that has allowed me to try pieces just to see how they will work out – for instance, trying something completely freestyle, or putting bits of different patterns together and seeing what works and what doesn’t. The result isn’t always great, but the process is one that has made those pieces that do work even better. Plus, it’s actually fun, which is something I occasionally forget writing can be.

I recently applied this ‘just let yourself have fun with it’ approach to a piece of theatre writing, an area I usually take very seriously. I wrote football chants based on plays, which yes, is as bonkers as that sounds – and the result was not just a piece that successfully engaged a lot of readers, but also was just a joy to write, even if it did leave me humming a Queen song for the best part of a week. So take a minute and ask yourself: where can you employ that playful risk-taking in your work?

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(Literally all  I see when I look at this is the ways I would do it differently, but it’s my design and I did it for a friend who loves it, so…)

Learn the rules – then break them

I started out my cross-stitch with only the most basic knowledge, so I eased myself in gently. I bought beginners’ kits – which included all of the things I needed to complete an easy pattern rather than me having to source all of the materials separately, which I had found a bit daunting. My first few pieces saw me grow in competence and so I tried harder kits. Then, emboldened, I bought some supplies and started altering patterns to put my own stamp on them – switching a monochrome design to coloured, for example, or using a patterned rather than plain aida (fabric) to give a piece a more striking background. Now, while I still buy the odd kit if it takes my fancy, I mostly just make things up on the fly, using letter and pattern structures I have learned to do my own thing.

I’m not good at making things symmetrical or precise or too intricate, and my few attempts at drafting a pattern had me in tears of frustration because I was just so, so very bad at it – it’s basically maths! – but if I allow myself to be a little off-kilter, I find I can create fun, fast designs that can cope with a bit of wonkiness.

Learn what works for you

Obviously, you want to stretch yourself and get better even at the stuff you aren’t great at, but there’s also a lot to be said for figuring out what suits your working (or playing) style and building on that – even if it’s not what you hoped, or what other people are doing. A friend and I started out our cross-stitch journey together, and she’s so much better at it than me it’s embarrassing: she was knocking out these fantastic, intricate patterns like she was born to it while I was still trying to thread a needle. But I’ve realised that I am doing what works for me – creating streamlined designs I can knock out in one night in front of the telly, so that I don’t get bored or bogged down in them – and now I’ve accepted that, I enjoy it more. I can look at her work – at the work of all the amazing stitchers out there – and appreciate it the way I enjoy a well-researched historical or intricately plotted crime novel: something I enjoy, but could never produce myself, and have no inclination to try.

Remember you view the results differently

There’s a meme I’ve seen online that shows the front of a piece of stitching – all tidy and pretty and finished – and then the back, the tangled mess of threads and knots, and reminds you that as a creator, your idea of the finished piece is distorted by being able to see the back of the cloth, not the just front. What you think is a total mess, other people will think is a really cool pattern. And while it’s natural to see your own mistakes – and not necessarily a bad thing, as that helps you fix them – it’s also important to remember that most other people won’t. Remember my friend with the cool cross-stitch skills? Every time she shows me a piece of work, I am totally in awe of it – and there she is telling me all the ways she needs to fix it, none of which are remotely obvious to me.

So, yes, assess your work, push yourself to improve and enjoy the satisfaction that comes with getting better at something. But don’t beat yourself up for being good rather than perfect, because a) there’s no such thing as perfect and b) most people can’t tell the difference, anyway.

(Below: what you see, versus what they see)

You’ll always find your people – and you can learn from all of them

Unbeknownst to me, there was a huge and popular subculture of cross-stitchers out there, just waiting for me to discover them. Some are traditionalists whose pieces lean heavily on flowers and inspirational slogans (and, y’know, good for them), but many more create the kind of work I aspire to: heavy on the sarcasm, activism and pop culture references. Once I took the time to track them down and connect with them – improving my Instagram game as I went, since that seems to be the main platform – I found an incredible resource of ideas, support and suppliers. And it can be the same with writing.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was ‘treat other writers / freelancers as your team, not your competition’ and it’s stood me in good stead over the years. Fellow writers are your cheerleaders, your industry spies, your network and your feedback crew. They will read your work, retweet your posts, recommend your books, let you know about a new competition or gig that is happening. Nearly every gig I ever got was because a fellow writer put me forward for it or suggested to me that I apply for it. Yes, occasionally you might be up for the same thing against them, but even that will be easier if you treat one another as allies not enemies.

Not everything has to be a job

Just as Being a Writer means that you feel everything you write has to be a certain standard, so Being a Freelancer can mean that you feel like any time doing anything that isn’t actively earning you money or promoting your work is time wasted – even more so in the middle of a pandemic that most of us are feeling in our pockets. But, God, the pressure theses days not just to have a side hustle, but another hustle or two on top of that. It’s exhausting.

Obviously, not everyone has the time or energy to spend on time-consuming hobbies, especially ones that involve shelling out for supplies on the regular (I mean, it’s not expensive, but all that aida and those threads and patterns aren’t free, either). But if you can, even if you are only giving yourself ten minutes a day to do it, I promise you it is good for your soul.

For a start, it allows the risk taking I talked about earlier – if you are making things with an eye to selling them, you’re obviously keener to produce something first time that is worth the effort. I’ve resisted the urge to accept money or commissions even when offered (though I’m obviously never above being slung the odd Ko-fi as a thanks) and I’m glad I have. (You’d be amazed how many people’s response to me saying I do cross-stitch is, ooh, you could put them on Etsy. Though that may be because I am complaining I am broke a lot.)

But it’s incredibly liberating to do something just for the sheer pleasure of doing it – to create for creating sake – and you may find it bleeds into your other work anyway. After all, it got me writing this article…

(Below: a friend asked if she could commission me to do this and I said no – I was worried taking it as a ‘gig’ would be too much pressure on a fledgling hobby. Without that pressure, this has ended up being one of my favourite pieces)

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(You can check out a fuller range of my cross-stitching on my Instagram (traceysinclair23)

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