We need to be careful who sees our work when it’s still in process. I’ve learned this from writing and from quilting. My quilting experience is particularly surprising, because I discovered that early praise can be as harmful as early scorn.

Back in 1999, I decided to make a quilt about my aunt Fran. She died of breast cancer and while I only met her a few times, I really admired her. She had a passion for living that you couldn’t miss.

I had seen a video of her performing traditional Japanese dance, something she learned while living in Japan. With her read hair, she stood out even in a colorful crowd of kimonos. I decided to make a quilt that showed Aunt Fran with her fan folded, leaving the dance.

Image of a Japanese dancer in a kimono made of fabric by Kit Dunsmore
Unfinished figure of my aunt Fran leaving the dance. (Figure by Kit Dunsmore)

I drew my own figures, inspired by Japanese ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world) and enlarged them with an overhead projector to make a pattern for each figure. Excited by the fabrics I had chosen, I started constructing the figures without designing a background for them.

Image of a Japanese dancer in a kimono made of fabric by Kit Dunsmore
Blue dancer for my quilt. She’s nearly five feet tall. (Figure by Kit Dunsmore)

They were still under construction when I made the mistake of taking them to a quilting retreat with me. I hoped that, as I finished the figures, I would come up with an idea for a background that suited them. I hadn’t thought at all about the reception they might receive.

Image of a Japanese dancer in a kimono made of fabric by Kit Dunsmore
Purple dancer for my quilt. (Figure by Kit Dunsmore)

I hung my figures on the walls so I could study them from a distance, something I couldn’t do in my tiny home. I discovered that I didn’t need need to worry that some harsh comment would poison the project. My quilting friends loved the figures. They couldn’t say enough nice things about them.

I auditioned some fabrics for the background while they kept up the compliments. To my astonishment, their praise and enthusiasm for what I had done wound up paralyzing me as effectively as scathing comments would have. I couldn’t come up with a plan for how to finish the quilt because I was suddenly afraid of ruining it.

I knew the figures were good, but I also knew they weren’t perfect. Everyone’s glowing comments made me see them as precious, as if they were perfect. Suddenly, I was terrified I would destroy what I had made. What if the background didn’t live up to the dancers? I had already done so much work and I didn’t want to waste it.

Images of Japanese dancers in kimonos made of fabric by Kit Dunsmore
Auditioning fabric for the background. (Figures by Kit Dunsmore)

The quilt is still unfinished. I have since had an idea for the background and I’ve bought the fabrics for it. But fear is still holding me back. I need to let go of my expectations and just dive in.

Getting feedback on a work-in-progress proved fatal for me. I wasn’t looking for input, but I got it. Even though the comments were positive, they became a block for me. Now, I am much more careful now not to show anyone my projects until all my decisions are already made.

Have you ever had positive criticism poison a project? Can you show others your work-in-progress or do you have to protect your early creations?

4 thoughts on “Unfinished Quilt: How Praise Froze My Project”

  1. I have learned not to share my writing projects while they are in progress. Why? Because there is always that one person who has to “correct” me and show me how *they* would do it. That annoys the crap out of me. Just because my voice, my style is different from theirs doesn’t make it wrong.

    1. I learned a critique technique at a quilting workshop that I have always admired. I don’t know all the rules (I was taking a different class and learned this second-hand from friends), but one was that you couldn’t say “I like it” or “I hate it” or anything that sounded like a judgment. You were supposed to say “I notice” and then point out the things about the work that struck you without saying whether you thought they were good or bad. The point was that the artist knows what they are trying to accomplish; you are just trying to help them see the work with fresh eyes. They are the only ones who can decide if what you noticed was their intention or not. Whether or not you liked it was irrelevant.

  2. Yup. I have a blanket. Two thirds “mine” that I love, and one third on others advice that I ended up loathing. As much as I want to fix it, I no longer have the inspiration or the will to do it again.

    1. Ugh. That’s hard. I have unfinished projects that got frozen by negative comments. Lots of advice on what to do but very different from my plan and they threw me. So I just stopped.

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