Why I'm Retiring from Professional Sewing

Criss Cross Applesauce Pillow by Heidi Staples of Fabric Mutt

Oh, my friends, this is a hard one . . . a long one. And I'll need you to be patient with me, because even as I'm typing this sentence, I'm struggling to find the words and to keep the tears from falling. But there's a happy ending to this story, I promise. So let's begin at the beginning . . .

In the fall of 2011, I was an exhausted stay-at-home mother of three little girls under the age of five. My days were long, full of dishes and laundry and mindless cartoons, swinging wildly between frantic activity and tedious boredom. I loved the time I was investing in my daughters, but it was a challenge that left me burned out and stale by the end of each week. It quickly became obvious that I needed some time to play.

And so I tried quilting. 

It wasn’t until I started sewing that I realized how desperate I had been for creative playtime. It energized me, gave me a break from the craziness to breathe and think and make again. I look back on those early days now and smile. 

My new hobby started a chain reaction that I honestly never expected when I first picked it up. It would be easy to say that everything just happened all at once, that it was completely beyond my control, but I know that's not really true. A combination of factors caused things to take off in a big way over that first year -- my love for sewing, my need for community and acceptance, my sometimes compulsive personality that leads me to chase new pursuits with a passion that borders on obsession, and just being in the right place at the right time. And like so many things in life, it was both wonderful and difficult together.

My quilting led me to blogging which then led me to social media. Over time, I sewed samples for fabric companies and publishers, hosted blog tours and sew alongs, and eventually wrote my first book, Sew Organized for the Busy Girl for C&T Publishing. This led to more sample sewing, more blog tours, pattern writing for magazines, and invitations to teach and share my projects. I got the opportunity of a lifetime when Riley Blake Designs gave me a contract to design fabric for them, and I threw myself into the work with a fervor, spending countless hours at my computer sketching ideas for fabric collections. When Lucky Spool gave me the chance to write a second book, Patchwork USA, I was overjoyed, pulling together years of patterns and stories to create what was definitely my favorite project yet. I couldn't have been more thrilled when it was finally published last July.

On the flip side, balancing my creative pursuits along with homeschooling my daughters, keeping house, and staying involved in family and church activities was getting more difficult by the day. "I don't know how you do it all!" people would say, and I felt desperate to maintain that image of being both capable and creative, a busy person with important things to do. But there was no denying that the hobby I adored had become all consuming work, and I was struggling to hold it all together. My own perfectionism and the constant pressure to keep producing as much as I could had sent my to-do list spinning out of control. 

My family was getting the short end of the stick in so many ways. I shudder now to think of how many times my girls asked me to play with them, only to hear, “Not now . . . Mommy has to finish this first.”  And of course, whenever I finished that thing, there was the next thing. So many afternoons and evenings my wonderfully supportive husband took the girls outside to ride bicycles or swim or play in the front yard so that I could meet upcoming deadlines on time. And I would sit upstairs glued to my computer screen or my sewing machine, every now and then glancing outside the window to see them all having fun together down below, feeling an ache in my heart because I was missing out on moments that I knew I could never get back. Even when I was with them, I wasn't always really there emotionally. I remember taking the girls out for a mommy-daughter lunch one day. We placed our order, sat down in a booth, and I automatically pulled my cell phone out of my pocket to check emails. My oldest daughter reached out her hand and gently placed it over the screen. "Stay in the moment, Mommy," she said quietly, with a meaningful look that cut me to the heart.

It was almost two years ago that I started having unexplained health problems leading to doctor visits, with every one ending in the same diagnosis: “It’s stress. You’re doing too much. You’ve got to slow down.” With each warning, I promised the doctors and my worried family that I would handle it this time, really. Yet every time I tried to scale back my commitments, they slowly crept back in . . . and so did the ongoing stress and fatigue. I wanted to have it all, but I didn't know how to manage it all. Eight years ago, the solution to my stress was sewing. Now sewing seemed to be the problem.

But I didn’t want to stop sewing. I just wanted to find a way to make it fun again. How could I return to the place where I began, those early days spent happily stitching away at my dining room table while my toddlers played nearby? Could I rediscover the hobby that I loved so much? Was there a way to balance creativity and everything else in my life? I knew that something had to change, but I didn't know how.

And then last week I was hit hard by a sudden serious infection with which my burned out immune system seemed completely unable to cope. The fact that it wasn't life threatening didn't make it any less frightening, but it was, at last, the wake-up call I had been needing. There's something about lying on your bed in a state of pain, helplessness, and total exhaustion that has a way of clearing the mind. I finally came to grips with the fact that my health and my family had to come first -- truly first -- and that the only way to do it was to make a clean break with the work that was throwing my priorities out of order. There were still tears and discussions with family and plenty of emails to write, but for the first time in ages, I felt a peace that had been lacking in my heart for too long. I had the power to make a choice, and this was the one I wanted to make.

So what does this mean going forward? It means that at the end of February, after I finish two more blog tour commitments which I want to honor, I will be retiring from professional sewing. It means that I will no longer be doing blog tours for sewing books or fabric collections, and that all my teaching will be at home with my three precious girls. It means that I won't be writing any more patterns for magazines or subscription boxes. And it means letting go of a third book which I've been working on for the last nine months. I can't even begin to express to you how hard it is for me to walk away from these things, but I know without a doubt that it's what I need to do.

Yet the truth is that, in spite of my sadness and regret, I feel so incredibly blessed! I've gotten to have a fantastic side career for all these years, work with all kinds of unbelievably talented people, learn a host of new skills, and meet so many dear friends from all over the world in the process. It's been one of the most amazing experiences of my entire life, and I'm deeply grateful for it.

And just because I won't be working professionally anymore does NOT mean that I won't be sewing and blogging and dropping in on social media. Things will be a little different, of course. There will be more works in progress, I think, and more slow sewing, and sometimes just me talking about what's going on in this new life experiment I'm beginning. In the weeks ahead, I'll show you some of the projects I've been working on in secret over the past year for that third book I'd been planning (like the sneaky peek at the top of this post!), and it will be so much fun to finally share them with you.

Honestly, I'm still coming to terms with this change in my life, still figuring out what it's going to look like. It reminds me of when we moved to Texas five years ago and let our dogs Emma and Fritz out into our huge backyard for the first time. After growing up playing on the small patch of grass in our suburban California backyard surrounded by a cinder block wall, they had no idea how to handle the massive stretch of lawn behind our new home on almost two acres of land. That first evening, they stepped cautiously through the gate, sniffing as they went, and slowly they started to walk and then run between the trees with their tongues hanging out their mouths as if they were laughing. It was all good until Emma suddenly spotted the neighbor's dog through the metal fence posts. Having no experience with a see-through fence, she thought she could run through it, headed straight for the unfamiliar dog at breakneck speed, and slammed right into the metal bars. I thought she had killed herself for a minute, but she got up and shook her head in a daze while James went to go bend the bars back into place. I have a feeling that this new life may be something like that for me. At times I'm going to be unsure of myself and go slowly, some days I'm going to be giddy with freedom, and once in a while I'm going to crash and have to shake it off while I figure out what my new boundaries are going to be.

But for now I'm going to rest and heal, read more books, sit outside with my girls while they show me how well they can ride their bikes, have coffee with James without talking endlessly about my to-do list, and enjoy the fun of starting a new sewing project without having to write down any measurements while I do it. I suppose that sewing, like anything else in life, can pull you to pieces if you turn it into something it was never meant to be: a compulsive assembly line, a popularity contest, the measure of your worth. It's time for me to slow down and appreciate this hobby for what it is, to remember why I loved it in the first place, this chance to make something beautiful with my own two hands.

I'm finding my way back to joy, friends, and it feels a lot like going home.
Source: fabricmutt

Why I'm Retiring from Professional Sewing