Mindset and Creativity


I don’t know anything. This is a reminder that I need daily. Although I’m wary of pop psychology and cynical about self-help books, I finally picked up a copy of Mindset by Carol Dweck after my 12-year-old told me that I had a “fixed mindset.” What a timely book for me to read.

Basically, the idea is that we have much greater potential when we approach the world with curiosity and try to solve problems rather than accept failure. We get better at things when we give ourselves the opportunity to keep trying. This open mindset is called the “growth mindset”, but those who believe they have limited potential and often seek the path of least resistance may have a “fixed mindset.” The growth mindset opens us up to more possibilities when we realize that if we simply work at something, we can improve. Almost every time I listen to artists talk about their creative process, they mention the hard work that they put in daily. Often creativity isn’t a bolt of lightning, but a series of failed experiments. So there may be artists with innate ability, but without time and effort, they won’t achieve success. I need this reminder to simply show up and try even when I’m feeling uninspired.

At Quilt Market this past weekend, people frequently walked into my booth, saw the cool bags that Kokka had made, and asked for a pattern. I looked at these bags and said, “Well, it looks like a circle with tabs on it — you should try that”. After every market, when I talk with the Japanese team at Kokka about developing patterns for their bags, they seem a bit mystified by the need for a pattern. Japanese craft books, even through the translation, often have fewer and less detailed instructions. I wonder if this need to follow precise instructions is an American phenomenon?

Now these shop owners know their customers — if they hang a quilt in the shop, they need to have the fabric and the pattern for people to make that exact item. Why do some people insist on always using patterns? Perhaps it’s lack of time, fear of failure, or a need to follow the rules? A pattern made with the fabric you see in front of you requires little vision and should guarantee success, right? Well, maybe. I’m not sure exactly what is driving people to stick to the rules, but I think it could relate to this issue of fixed versus growth mindset. If we approach sewing with a growth mindset, I think we can learn more. I would never recommend ditching patterns altogether because of course you need basic sewing skills before you can improvise or figure things out on your own. Or if you’re looking for something to sew quickly and efficiently and don’t have much time, a pattern is often the best choice.

But maybe once in a while we could focus on process, step out of our comfort zone, and try to make something without a pattern. A good place to start is with deconstruction. Try taking apart a piece of clothing to see how it’s made and then sew your own version. I think if you can figure out how to make a sleeve pattern by yourself, you can rule the world! Or sketch out ideas for a bag and the pattern pieces that will transform your flat fabric into a three-dimensional object. Maybe you could just make a few improvisational quilt blocks and see where it takes you. Stretching your brain in this way will improve your sewing skills.

Anyway, I’m going to have a growth mindset and do some new things in the next year. It feels good to keep learning and to realize that we’re never finished. Maybe one day I’ll be an expert in physics and golf. Who’s to say I won’t?


Having said all that, if you are looking for patterns for some of the amazing things that Kokka sews for Quilt Market, check out the Kokka blog. Doing metric conversions and making your own paper patterns should still stretch your mind a bit! And check out this interview with Carol Dweck: Talent Isn’t Fixed and Other Mindsets that Lead to Greatness and watch this TED Talk: The Power of Believing That You Can Improve.


11 thoughts on “Mindset and Creativity”

  • Loved this post as a designer that has three fails for every “wow”! I have struggled over the years against the desire to buy kits to reproduce another’s vision. I finally figured out that it was okay. It is like loving the Mona Lisa, and wanting to have her smile at you each day, but don’t want to battle the crowds in Paris. Plus, I don’t have that particular talent. I see a wall quilt that I love. The fabrics and the design make me smile. It is different than what I do. I am buying a work of art but will have the pleasure of putting it together. The act of sewing, without the need to make constant design decisions, is soothing. My mind is allowed to wander, ponder new ideas, all while still participating in my love of sewing and creating.

  • love this post. i reference carol dweck’s work all the time in my area (education) and it’s interesting to think about how it applies to making. i counsel parents to just explore materials in a relaxed and playful way with their kids and many of them say it stresses them out to no end to work without an end goal, pattern, example, etc.

  • I think there are different personality types who are inspired by creating different ways. I was raised by my mother who is very comfortable staying within the lines. She was my piano teacher, and taught me to play the notes in front of me on the page very well – but I don’t have the ability to play by ear or improvise on the piano. She taught me to cook following a recipe, which is a useful skill to have, before I realized that I could be more creative when missing an ingredient forced a substitution. I was always more comfortable coloring in the lines than I was drawing on blank paper.

    As an adult, I rarely play the piano, and don’t find my creative outlet there. Instead I sew, making up my own quilt patterns and trying to remember that changes I make when sewing clothing can be considered design decisions instead of mistakes. This kind of sewing makes me feel creatively fulfilled, and I read quilt patterns to see how someone else chose to do their construction, but rarely follow their techniques exactly. It takes a certain level of confidence in your skills to push the boundaries, though, and practicing enough to move beyond a beginner level. There is also a lack of fear that some beginners have, that I’ve seen from people who are self-taught and didn’t know there were rules to start with.

    One other thought from the Jill Wolcott discussion on Tara Swiger’s podcast. There is a certain desire to find relaxation in crafty time that comes from not having to make any decisions. When people face decision fatigue in their day jobs or primary responsibilities, they are looking to a craft to help them unwind and do something mindless with their hands. There is a certain release in being able to follow a pattern exactly, and knowing that it will turn out as the designer intended. When I have friends over for crafty afternoons, I’ve realized that most are comfortable creating within the boundaries of the examples given, because they can envision the results. Pinterest helps people to see a wide variety of projects already done, and to choose something with results that have already been demonstrated. There’s less risk – of wasting materials, of being shown to have “poor taste”, or whatever, but I’m ok with people’s entry into a craft being in a low risk environment.

  • Thank you for sharing your thoughts, I’m now sat here thinking about how and why I create. I started my sewing life making things up as I went along, working it out for myself probably due to lack of access to books and patterns. Now with the internet we have so much at our fingers tips it’s easier to download a pattern than work it out for ourselves, part of that is time pressure, part of it for me is head space to work stuff out. I’d say that we can be very influenced by what others are doing and seeing it on instagram etc and so much of it, it is so easy to be sucked in to ‘copying’ what others are doing.
    Off to ponder!

  • Excellent article and applicable to so many areas in life! We just had one of our members (an elementary teacher!) make a short presentation to our chorus about this very topic. I plan to pick up a copy of this book now that a second source (you!) has brought this fixed vs growth mindset to my attention. Thank you and your 12 year old!

  • Hey Ellen. Very timely post. I think about this all the time. I am such a haphazard quilt maker and when I need to write a pattern it is really tricky for me to slow down and think about my steps. I used to think that everyone made quilts the way I did until I worked in a quilt shop. I was stunned to hear people wanted to make the exact same quilt that was hanging up. I think working in that quilt shop warped my own creative juices. Now whenever I stand at my cutting table I am stifled by trying to think how I would explain my process to someone else. I need to let that go and just let the fabric fly! Thank you for this post. I dig you Ellen!

  • Thanks for such a thought-provoking post, Ellen. I especially love your comment that “We get better at things when we give ourselves the opportunity to keep trying.” Amen.

    Your post and the comments of others have given me one of those “aha” moments that are so precious. I just realized that the biggest reason that I made a major shift in my business is that the people I really want to work with as a teacher are those who are willing to step beyond the safety of a pattern, those who are willing to endure the discomfort of not knowing in order to get ideas out of their head and onto the fabric. I had not been able to verbalize this before today.

    I do, by the way, purchase and use patterns. My joy is in creating unique fabric for my projects. But when it comes to construction, especially for bags, I am more than happy to use patterns from designers I trust. They have already worked out the bugs and I’m happy not to fight through that series of mistakes.

  • I think everyone thinks there is a ‘right way’ to do something and if we do it ourselves it isn’t the right way, just guess work or winging it. We give other people credit for knowing more than we do, yet actually someone had to invent that wheel before it became standardised. They were winging it too! When no one else tries new things because of fear, then we increasingly get stuck in the old ways and all these ‘rules’. Rules which are totally arbitrary and invented. They just seemed a good way to do things at the time. Sometimes they still are but sometimes there are also other ways and even better ways. Necessity is the mother of invention. It’s so true. I learnt so much as a broke teenager. I couldn’t afford patterns as well as fabric, so I had to do what I could with the fabric myself. I did good! I have since found that as an adult too, there are things I can do myself, if I did but try. Sometimes it’s laziness to blame, sometimes a lack of time and probably most of all fear of getting it ‘wrong’.

  • Ok now I want to see a picture of that bag to see if I can make it …..it’s like you issued a challenge. But also people in my area are encouraged to purchase patterns rather than “rip off” someone else’s idea.

  • I stumbled upon this Ted Talk a bit ago and it revolutionized my teaching. As an improvisational quilter and teacher I generally teach a technique not a project. It’s not for everyone, but sharing this mindset and telling people to think small rather than queen size quilt helps;)

  • I think patterns are useful when you’re learning a new skill until you have the confidence in that skill to step out and create something on your own … or as Jerilynn said, not having to constantly make decisions… I don’t use patterns to quilt, paint etc but I knit as relaxation and I always use patterns because I just want to sit and relax through the meditative action of my hands.

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