All Projects Great and Small: Creating a Task Analysis Tool

Readers,

There are few things I love more than having a good project. I love projects with the keenness of Fame(US), the border collie who won the Westminster Kennel Club agility championship recently:

Maybe I was a border collie in a previous life.

But despite my love for projects–sewing and other kinds–I don’t have a stellar track record for completing them–hence my reading books like Finish, by Jon Acuff, for insights.

And now I’m working my way through The Productivity Project, by Chris Bailey, in the hopes of picking up pointers from someone who spent a whole year devoted singlemindedly to the pursuit of, basically, project management.

My project management has had less in common with Fame(US) the border collie and more with Olly the Jack Russell terrier at Crufts last year: excited but prone to distraction:

But recently I came up with a new tool for myself that just may advance me in the project agility class.

I was noodling around with my favorite tool–a mind map– while I was waiting for the dryer repairman to call and then show up the other morning.  While I had one ear cocked for the phone and then for the knock on the door I wanted to answer this pressing question:

How come some of my projects get done, some get only half-done, and some are never started even though they retain a tantalizing glow of possibility?

So, what is a project, anyway? I asked myself. I started listing every aspects of a task–a single unit of a project–that I could think of.

Take space, for instance.  Every task requires space.  But different tasks have different space requirements:

Space

  • Amount needed
    • A lot
    • Not very much
  • Type needed
    • Work surface
      • Floor space
      • Tabletop space
    • Clean work or messy work
      • Clean work
        • Sewing room
      • Messy work
        • Workshop
        • Garage
  • Fixed location or movable location
    • Fixed
      • Example: cleaning the fridge can be done in only one place
    • Movable:
      • Example: sorting papers can be done in several places
  • Amount of time the space is needed
  • Amount of disruption while the space is used
  • Amount and type of lighting needed: task lighting? Natural light?

And then there’s time:

Time

  • Can the task be done all in one go, quickly?
  • Must it be done all in one go and take a long time? (I was thinking about writing posts, there.)
  • Can the task be broken into several sessions?
    • Example: organizing papers over a few afternoons
  • Does the task have to be broken down into several sessions?
    • Example: painting furniture and waiting for each coat to dry

Wow–this was interesting.  I continued:

  • Can the task be done entirely at home or do parts have to be done elsewhere?
  • Is the task limited to a certain season or weather condition?
  • Frequency:
    • Once and it’s done
    • Frequently
      • And that’s okay
      • But it’s a pain
    • Once in a while
  • Does the task require wearing certain clothes?
    • Messy work–yes
    • Clean work–no
  • Is the task highly related to other tasks?
    • Highly related: needs to be coordinated, maybe in a sequence
    • Not highly related: coordination not necessary; little or no sequencing
  • Batching:
    • Can the task be batched with other tasks?
    • Is there an advantage?
      • Save time
      • Keep momentum up
      • Get more done on one errand run

So far I’d captured objective, quantifiable aspects of tasks and projects.  But what do various tasks require of me?

How about:

Attention level

  • Can it be done with low attention
    • and I could listen to a Craftsy class or a radio talk show in the background?
      • Example: ironing
  • Does it have to be done with high attention
    • and I could listen to instrumental music or opera in the background?
      • Example: writing

Energy level

  • Requires high energy
    • Example: major painting projects
  • Doesn’t require high energy
    • Example: filing papers

Skills

  • Do I have the skills for this task?
    • If so, do I want to use my skills for this task?
    • Do I have
      • the time?
      • the experience?
      • the equipment and supplies
      • the instructional resources?
      • the motivation?
    • If I have the skill, will the task or project put me right at the edge of my present abilities–my challenge edge?
    • If I need to learn the skill
      • Do I have the resources already? Do I need to budget for resources?
        • equipment
        • tools
        • supplies
        • instruction sources
          • online, print, or in person?
          • individual feedback necessary?
        • time
          • to learn, including making mistakes
          • to perform the actual task
        • space
        • money
      • Do I have the motivation, interest, desire?
      • Do I have the aptitudes?

Can I (or must I) do it all myself?

  • I can (because I have the skills and resources)
  • I must (because nobody else knows what I want to accomplish)

Will I need or want help with this?

  • A helping hand from a friend or relative
  • Expert help
    • Repair people, installers
    • Knowledgeable salespeople
    • Designers
    • Pickup and delivery people

Now for a big aspect of task and project management: what repels me:

Aversion level

  • Does the task involve things or activities I loathe?
    • Dealing with electronics
      • computers and software
      • computerized equipment (like sergers)
      • smartphones
      • TV remotes
    • Driving
    • Shopping in stores with
      • bad music (I’m talkin’ ’bout you, Jo-Ann Fabrics!)
      • ugly merchandise or displays
      • unhelpful salespeople
    • Using aptitudes I’m low in
      • structural visualization, which is a must for patternmakers
    • Feeling I’m imposing on others
    • Making phone calls (sometimes)
    • Decisionmaking
      • When I don’t have reliable advice
      • When I haven’t defined
        • the problems
        • the solutions
        • my vision
        • criteria

On the other hand, what draws me in?

Fun level

  • This task or project lets me work with my favorite:
    • Aptitudes
      • dexterity
      • memory for design
      • verbal abilities
    • Skills
      • organizing
      • planning
      • cleaning
      • sewing
      • cooking
      • writing
      • research
    • Equipment and tools
      • Sewing equipment and tools
      • Cooking appliances and tools
      • Mind-mapping tools
    • Supplies
      • Office supplies
        • Mechanical pencils, colored pencils
        • Labeler
        • Graph paper, tracing paper
        • Rulers
      • Paint
      • Fabric
      • Food
    • People
      • Individuals
      • Types of skilled people
  • This task lets me produce my favorite results:
    • Painted surfaces
    • Sewn items
    • Food
    • Organized spaces or plans
    • Blog posts

I thought of still other factors: Consequences, Aggravations, and Rewards:

  • The consequences of not doing the task:
    • How bad would they be?
      • Increased risk
      • Compromised quality or safety
    • How soon would they occur?
      • Soon
      • Not soon
    • How certain would they be?
      • Certain
      • Not certain
  • The aggravations related to the task remaining undone:
    • Inconvenience
      • Size
      • Frequency
    • Embarrassment
      • Size
      • Frequency
    • A feeling that something is off, (like a paint color or a floor plan):
      • Size
      • Frequency
  • The rewards I could experience if I do the task or project:
    • Creating or adding functionality, beauty, or enjoyment
      • How great an increase?
        • Dramatic
        • Small, but
          • Still noticeable
          • Cumulative
      • How frequently would the reward be experienced?
        • Every time I see or use the improved thing
        • Once or twice; then I’d be used to the improvement
    • Eliminating or reducing pain or worry
      • How great a reduction?
      • How frequently is the relief felt?
    • Creating a positive trajectory
      • What advantages might compound?
      • What opportunities might open up?
  • What could I miss out on if I don’t succeed with this task or project?
    • Rewarding social connections
    • A higher level of skill
    • The ability to accomplish more sophisticated tasks or projects that lie beyond my present ability
    • On the other hand, maybe nothing much

As I mind-mapped as many aspects of tasks as I could think of, I realized as never before how there are objective components–like space and light requirements–and subjective components–like what I avoid whenever I can, what aptitudinal weaknesses and strengths I’m working with, what I gravitate toward and find fun, and what I find rewarding.

Now I’m thinking that if I account simply for the objective components of a task, my work is only half done–and my task may very well remain discouragingly half-finished.  Without understanding all the subjective components–the ones that could sink the ship, and the ones that could be my life-preservers–my odds of succeeding are very small.

These days I am applying myself to fitting a pants pattern.  (Well, some days I am, and other days I’d rather do anything but.) So I was curious to test my rough draft of a tool on my pants-fitting project.  Here are the main insights I gained:

  • Fitting pants requires a high attention level.
  • This is difficult to achieve, because I have a low aptitude for a key skill needed: structural visualization.
  • The aversion level is high:
    • my low aptitude
    • trying to follow instructions I don’t understand
    • trying to decide what to do next when I’m not grasping a concept
  • My aversion level could definitely doom this project as it has doomed previous (admittedly halfhearted) attempts in the past.
  • The consequences of my not getting pants to fit? Low. I wouldn’t be breaking any promises, and the world doesn’t care. I have to be careful, however, not to let these thoughts sabotage my efforts.
  • The aggravation level if I don’t get a pants pattern to fit? High!
    • I’ll continue to wear pants that fit badly or not well in every way.
    • I will be frustrated not being able to sew as many great coordinates for my tops, jackets, and coats
    • I won’t get to design as many interesting outfits and capsules for my wardrobe
    • I’ll be subject to the vagaries of fashion: fit, color, style.
  • The rewards of having pants that fit? Also high!
    • Comfort
    • Style
    • A feeling of control over my wardrobe choices that I don’t have now
  • The fun level is something I need to leverage conscientiously:
    • Using my high aptitude of dexterity
    • Using my favorite skills of research, writing, organizing, planning, and sewing (if only muslins)
    • Using favorite supplies: mechanical pencils, fashion rulers, tracing paper
    • Enlisting help from Jack, to take snapshots, and Cynthia, to take studio shots, of me in muslins to analyze fit.
  • The time required will be many sessions of short duration–short, better to keep my aversions and aggravations in check.
  • My skill level in fitting is low, but I do understand some pattern-drafting and alteration, and pants construction will be a comparative breeze.

Interestingly, looking over the data I’d collected I wasn’t discouraged, and I can think of several reasons why.

One is that there have never been so many good learning tools for fitting pants, written by very experienced teachers, as now.  I own my share of them but only recently gave them the full attention they deserve. I have been viewing online classes and DVDs and reading books and articles by Pati Palmer and Marta Alto, Sarah Veblen, Sandra Betzina, Kenneth King, Joyce Murphy, Kathleen Cheetham, and others. I am gradually absorbing some fitting principles as I see different ways they are described and illustrated and test them in my muslins.

Another is that a pattern-drafting company, Fitography, got me closer to a good fit right from the start. I am fine-tuning the Chloe Pants pattern now.  Ideally, the pattern drafted from your measurements fits you perfectly the first time, but due probably to errors on my part that wasn’t the case. However, it was the prospect of a pattern drafted to my measurements and style and fit preferences that inspired me to take up the pants challenge again.

There definitely is a sizable gap between my abilities and knowledge and the well-fitting, flattering pattern I want. But I feel as if these fitting teachers are reaching out as far as they can on their end to close the gap. Judith Neukam has a new approach to pants-fitting in the April/May 2018 issue of Threads that looks really interesting.

My last reason for not feeling discouraged is I have important new insights into what it will realistically take for me to succeed in any project I undertake. Even if I have time, a well-lighted, well-equipped work space, and all the tools I need, my aversions can hold sway. It’s often easier to imagine the frustrations of failures than the satisfactions of success.  I’m seeing that success will not come without vividly imagining the rewards. I also have to incorporate my natural interests and strengths deliberately into my plans. I can even employ my aggravations on my behalf: Do I really want to keep shopping for ready-to-wear? No!

Some projects, it’s occurring to me, are just plain difficult. Other projects are difficult but have a benefit beyond the immediate result: they can be a gateway to a higher level of ability, creativity, and productivity. Fitting pants could be just such a gateway project for me.  I’m going to remind myself of that possibility, because I want to give myself the best chance to make that statement true.

Book: Let It Go by Peter Walsh

Readers,

I haven’t seen a decluttering book specifically for sewers–yet–but when I came across the phrase “material convoy” to describe “the massive pile of stuff that you collect and carry along your winding journey” in Peter Walsh’s new book, Let It Go I ruefully nodded.

A snapshot of my “material convoy.”

In his latest title the organizing expert addresses the daunting task of downsizing your own home or that of a parent, other family member, or close friend.

I wanted to see which of Walsh’s observations or guidelines might apply to sewers and sewing spaces. Here’s what I found valuable:

  • In Chapter 1 Walsh quotes gerontology expert David J. Ekerdt, “Our possessions are extensions of ourselves. All of these things in the convoy are part of our past selves, but they’re also part of our possible selves. They’re selves I could become, so I hang on to the object to accomplish that.”

Aren’t fabric and patterns seductive, even–or especially–in their pristine state?  Years ago I attended a neighbor’s estate sale that included musty old dressers and file cabinets crammed with at least 1000 1500 patterns from the late ’40s through the ’70s–untouched except by moisture and mold.

What dreams Maureen must have had! But how many remained sadly unfulfilled?

Maureen’s estate contained hundreds of patterns like these, at 50 cents apiece. I limited myself to 12. (Hard!)

Well, of course I can’t say, but I do know the siren call of aspirational buying, and in the end it’s rarely satisfying. I’m sure she never meant for her patterns to be hauled away in grocery bags by eBay vendors.

What steps am I taking to see that my vintage buttons don’t meet a similar fate?

  • “If your home is like most people’s,” Walsh writes in Chapter 2, “it probably contains half-completed projects that the kids abandoned a year ago, an old coffeemaker that you keep in the kitchen, just in case you need it again, a broken printer that holds up the working printer, and gifts gathering dust in cabinets, still in their packages. Such homes are filled with what I call un objects: things that were unwanted and unopened, that go unused, that are unappreciated, or simply unnecessary.”

If I remember only one thing from Let It Go it will be this brilliantly simple concept of un objects. And now I have a new question for myself:

Is this item an un object? 

If I have to ask, probably so.

When I set up this sewing room 3 years ago I saw this baker’s rack as a parking garage for projects. Today I see it more clearly as a graveyard. Now I am limiting the number of projects I have going.

  • “All the stuff you own will fit into one of three categories: Memory Items, I-Might-Need-It Items, and Trash/Recycling. It’s easy to determine where each goes, and this will be your first task when you start doing the hands-on downsizing work.”

You’d be either a genius or a fool to whittle all possible categories for stuff to just three. Walsh is a genius.

  • In Chapter 4 Walsh describes four kinds of Memory items: treasures, which you keep; and trinkets, the forgotten, and the malignant, which you don’t. “Here’s a good rule of thumb: If something makes you smile, fills you with joy, brings back a good memory, and makes your heart sing when you look at it, then chances are high it’s a treasure. If not, it likely isn’t.”

    “Treasure” objects: Souvenirs of Wayward, the vintage haberdashery store in St. Leonards On Sea, a little town on the English Channel.

  • Most things by far might appear to be I-Might-Need-It items, but the only ones you’ll bring to your new home will be the ones he describes as “worthy:” “Your worthy items must have a readily visible purpose in the next stage of your life, and you need adequate space to store them appropriately. You must have a better reason for keeping them than ‘I just don’t feel like getting rid of this yet’ or ‘I can’t make a decision now, so I’ll box it up, take it with me, and deal with it later.'”

    I was going to bind the ragged edges of these towels, but you know what? They would still be old towels. They don’t meet my “worthy” standard. So off they’ll go to the humane society.

  • In Chapter 7, Walsh warns that “Thinking ‘I’ll move this to my new home’ is an overly broad and general statement that discourages downsizing. So I recommend ‘shrinking’ your ‘thinking.’ This means viewing your new home not as one space but as many smaller individual spaces, each of which will be used for a specific purpose. Not only should you break your new home into rooms but you should also consider the spaces within each room.”
  • “You only have the space you have. This is worth repeating, since it’s so important.”

“You only have the space you have.”

Walsh adds, “Accept this fact now or you’ll struggle with it later.”

Walsh recommends recording the measurements of cabinet space, closet space and shelf space as well as the dimensions of rooms and assigning them purposes as crucial steps in downsizing to your new space.

It’s obvious, but I hadn’t thought about this reality check so clearly before:

Do the Math.

“You only have the space you have:” Figuring out the sewing room floor plan in 2014. (It was fun, by the way.)


Walsh is writing about physical space, but it’s occurring to me that I need to do the same with mental space. I can manage only so many sewing projects in my head at a time. Or, for that matter, in a lifetime.

So, of the dozens of sewing projects I could consider, which ones strike me as the treasures? Which, no matter how difficult (or easy) they may be, would yield me and their users the deepest satisfaction? What physical and mental space am I prepared to dedicate to those special endeavors? “Treasure” projects might take a greater investment of resources, but the rewards would be greater, too.

Downsizing can be an intimidating undertaking, but Peter Walsh argues for engaging fully with your stuff to win the life-enriching benefits .  If you follow the Let It Go process, he writes, “You’ll have less focus on the amount of your stuff and greater happiness with the quality of the treasures that surround you. The possessions you carry forward will support your daily activities, bring you joy, resurrect happy memories, say something important about you, and perhaps serve as treasured heirlooms after you’re gone.”

From here on out, when I evaluate my fabrics, patterns, and equipment, I’ll ask myself, “Honestly–is this an ‘un object,’ or do I have a plan to make something wonderful from it?” And when I think about the things I could possibly make, I’ll ask myself which could be the “treasure” projects.

Because this sewer certainly doesn’t have time for “un projects.”

This vintage fabric by Souleiado is one of my favorite possessions, and I want to turn it into something wonderful. I just have to commit to doing the practice runs before I cut into this beauty.

Blinding Glimpses of the Obvious: De-stash Edition

Readers,

This past weekend I started slimming down my bloated collections of sewing supplies, taking advantage of a “De-Stash on the Lawn” event at Sew to Speak, a local fabric store, this Saturday.

Not only did I discover buttons I’d bought several presidential administrations ago–

Bought about 1991.

Wow.

–I also had some “aha” moments–of such glaring brightness I had to put on those cheap sunglass things I get from the ophthalmologist when I have my pupils dilated–such as:

Out of sight, out of mind. I need visual reminders!

I can get all excited about buying online classes when there’s a sale, and then forget about those resources when I tackle an actual project months later.

A folder labeled “Fun with Fitting Pants” is now parked with my fitting books in my sewing library. It reminds me that I have Sarah Veblen’s online class (PatternReview.com) as a resource.  When the need arises, I’ll print out her downloads to accompany her videos and pop them into the folder.

Folders ready to receive printouts from online classes act as placeholders in my sewing library.

Sewing is an activity that generates leftovers. Unfortunately, they can’t be turned into a pot of soup for dinner or compost for the garden.

No matter how economical and clever we sewers try to be, we always end up with remnants, scraps, and extras. I’m hoping this de-stash event will help redistribute our resources and become a regular occurrence.

Ghosts of shirts past, and ghosts of shirts to come. These loose buttons are now sorted and bagged for easy access. Some are headed for the sale.

Editing my sewing collections is a cinch if I have criteria. Uh–what are those criteria?

I don’t mean “I’ve had that for so long, I have to get rid of it!”

And I don’t mean “I’ve had that for so long, I can‘t get rid of it!”

I do mean criteria based on a solid foundation of current information about my

  • figure type
  • coloring
  • degree of contrast
  • lifestyle
  • tastes and preferences

I realized that my biggest obstacle to getting things sewn was being unclear about all of the above.

As long as I was agonizing over–

“Should I sew this print into a top, or a skirt? Which would be better?

“Is this a flattering color?”

Is this palette from a color analysis 15 years ago still good for me?

“If I sew that, what should I wear with it?”

–my fabrics, patterns, and buttons would languish, unused, which was equal parts horrible and ridiculous.

So I took the plunge to seriously, completely, answer all my fashion and wardrobe questions, which would greatly help me get things sewn.  A couple of weeks ago I registered for a program called 7 Steps to Style, created by Australian image consultant Imogen Lamport, and I’m liking it a lot.

If retrieving an object is difficult, it discourages use.

Loose duplicate swatches and swatch cards were in such disarray I didn’t use them much.

Rings hold swatches of shirts I’ve made for Jack, garments I’ve made for myself, and my stash. See which is biggest?

Several years ago I had puzzled over how to store my vast button collection.  I moved all the loose buttons into cellophane bags. That was a good idea.

Storing the bags vertically in plastic shoeboxes? Terrible!

I could hardly see my beautiful buttons, and I despise filing.

And the rustling of all that cellophane when I pulled or put back any bags was like the sound of dozens of people noisily opening candy wrappers in a theater.  I hated that!

I dreamed of having big, shallow drawers as in a map library or archive where my buttons could be all easily visible.

Then I realized I could achieve my goal almost as well–in minutes, using what I already had.

I roughly sorted my buttons into colors–multi-colored ones got their own category–and spread them out on sheet pans of my baker’s rack.

I’m converting the baker’s rack to mostly supply storage. UFOs are going to be phased out!

Voilà:

Reds, oranges, and yellows.

Greens, blues, and purples.

Browns, blacks, grays, whites

Multi-colored

In two seconds I can pull a pan from the rack. In two more seconds I can be scanning for buttons to scatter on a fabric unfurled on a work table.  And returning items to their homes is just as easy.    Problem solved.

I had started my de-stash project as a way to open up my physical space, but I’m ending by opening up mental space.

I can vouch for the truth of the statement I read recently in that little book, 101 Things to Learn in Art School: “Your studio is more than a place to work. It is a state of mind.”

It’s not just my sewing room that’s getting more spacious–it’s my mind.  And they’re both getting ready to welcome some fresh, new thinking.

De-stashing on a Deadline

Readers,

I got back from our New York trip to find an e-mail from my local little independent fabric store. Sew to Speak, in Worthington, Ohio, was announcing an event it was calling “De-stash on the Lawn”–a yard sale especially for sewers September 9.  What a brilliant idea.

For a small fee sewers could rent space on the tables on the lawn in front of the store to sell stash fabrics and notions not only to Sew to Speak customers but also to passersby on their way to pick up some basil and tomatoes at the nearby farmers’ market.  Presumably, with our yard-sale earnings we vendors would then be primed to browse Sew to Speak’s beautiful fabric selections for fall to restock our sewing room shelves.

I read Sew to Speak’s announcement first as a customer, and since I’d hadn’t even unpacked my purchases from the Garment District I thought, no, I’ll pass up this event.

Then I thought, hey–I need to be part of this–as a seller.

I slept on the idea but the next morning I was so concerned that table space would sell out fast that I registered to secure my place.

Of course, I saw the De-stash on the Lawn as a convenient solution to the pesky problem of disposing fabrics and scraps, buttons, and sewing gadgets that no charity or consignment store would accept. If all I did was lightly edit my fabrics and notions, spend a pleasant Saturday morning in some good-natured haggling with other sewers, and earn back the $12 I’d spent on table space, I wouldn’t consider the time ill-spent.

But then I wondered how I might leverage the opportunity further, to yield a bigger benefit.  After all, I’ve been mulling over Sewing Room 2.0 for months.

Yes, the sewing room is due for an overhaul.  In the first round, three years ago when we moved into this mid-century fixer-upper, I was happy just to have a biggish room with natural light and good heating (unlike my Minneapolis basement sewing domain).

Now I want more.

No, not more space–more function.  A 17-foot by 13-foot room should work fine, but I’ve got to get a lot smarter about supporting the whole getting-things-sewn process, start to finish.

I sewed for years in a space that just–existed. It performed moderately well and I got moderately good results.  I never even thought about designing my sewing space until I began blogging.

The big lesson I learned from designing my Minneapolis basement sewing domain was:

Space not otherwise assigned a function tends to get filled with stuff.

I’ve found this becomes a serious problem when stuff interferes with doing activities.

Obviously, fabrics (and patterns, books, equipment, etc.) are physical objects and need cubic feet of storage space. That’s a fact.

But designing garments–outfits–even a seasonal collection for a wardrobe–what space does that activity require? Isn’t that important, too?

I had never considered that question until recently. In Sewing Room 2.0 I want to shift the default.

In Sewing Room 2.0, supporting activities will take precedence over storing stuff.

Readers, I am stating this without completely knowing what a Sewing Room 2.0 will look like. But now, I’m eager to find out.

Book: Year of No Clutter by Eve O. Schaub

Readers,

How can I write a tidy little review of a book that, like its author, is seeking–but only occasionally finding–order? I’ve just reread my extensively mind-mapped notes from Year of No Clutter by Eve O. Schaub, and my mind is jam-packed with random thoughts about this sometimes exasperating book.

After the publication of her book Year of No Sugar Schaub decided to confront another personal and societal bugaboo: the burden of owning So Much Stuff. In a effort that simply screams “follow-up book project” Schaub was going to confront her borderline hoarding tendencies by tackling the 22- by 25-foot-square “Hell Room” of the Vermont home she shared with her husband and then 10- and 15-year-old daughters.

Surely a year would be more than enough time to identify, sort, reassign, relocate, and organize–or dispose of–the mementos, arts and crafts supplies, and occasional dead mouse that crammed the malodorous Hell Room.

But, no surprise, facing a lifetime of indecision about what to own and why took longer than a year to sort out.  And, of course, it was far from a year of no clutter–it was about fifteen months of maddening uber-clutter, which afflicted the entire house and its occupants. Schaub seems to have made dozens of trips to drop off clothes, books, CDs and miscellany at thrift shops, charities, and libraries with no end in sight.

At the end of this book younger daughter Ilse’s offhand reference to going to the “art room” indicates how the Hell Room has taken on a healthy new identity and role, even if the “disgusting” carpet is still waiting to be taken out and the family photos still need to be dealt with.

Similarly, Schaub has advanced from attaching symbolic importance to virtually every object she touches, requiring her to keep it to the end of time, to being a little more selective.  This is no small amount of progress in a year, so good for her.

Although thankfully I don’t have a Hell Room to deal with, as a sewer I have fabrics, patterns, and other supplies that can easily cross the line into clutter. What is clutter, anyway?  Schaub’s clever chart, “What Is My Stuff?”on page 161, shows that items that meet these two conditions, “I do NOT have a designated place to keep it” and “I do NOT use it on a regular basis,” constitute clutter.

I don’t disagree, but I think that’s just a starting point for myself as I ponder fundamentally reorganizing my sewing room in the next couple of years.  What might happen if I maximized my planning and production spaces? What if I could painlessly edit down my supplies with no cost to my enjoyment or creativity?   I mean to find out.

I said this book could be exasperating. Here are a few examples of what didn’t work for me:

Schaub says she’s read Marie Kondo’s international best-seller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, but seems to have completely misunderstood Kondo’s approach:

Although Marie Kondo disapproves, I’m not about to stop collecting my own life. It has been a source of pleasure for me ever since I can remember; it helps define me. (page 125)

Anyone who’s heard of Kondo’s book knows about her criterion for keeping things: “Does it spark joy?” If you answer yes, it matters to you and is worth keeping. I’m not seeing a conflict.

Schaub also criticizes Kondo acolytes who “follow Kondo’s book to the letter and purge away an enormous percentage of their belongings” in what she seems to imply is a game of one-upmanship among themselves:

When they are done, they turn and look to their closets and shelves and see a small handful of things they love, a fraction of what had been there before, and they feel a tremendous sense of freeness. (p. 267)

A few pages later she writes

I’m part of the way there, to Kondo’s land of the immaculate, joy-sparking place, but I also know that I will forever be an exile to that land. (p. 274)

An exile has to have lived in a place first before either skedaddling under duress or being booted out, so I think Schaub is more accurately an outsider.

Perhaps this “immaculate” place Schaub imagines feels sterile, one-dimensional, or too untethered for her tastes and the Kondo super-fans too smug and self-referential. I certainly would also find it hard to listen to her friend Mary-Anne triumphantly relate, twice, in excruciating detail, how she had tossed in the trash the “paper Santa” made by her daughter after treasuring it for years. Schaub rightfully questions whether Mary-Anne is trying to convince herself she did the right thing.

My underlined and flagged copy of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

However, Schaub was never in danger of stripping her Vermont home bare.  When her mom offered her the family piano, which Schaub never learned to play, here’s what happened:

And then, as Mom prepared to move, what was I to say when she offered me this millstone? How could I say anything except, “Yes, I want it”? (p. 138)

Oh, I dunno, how about “Yes, I want it, but we already have Grandma’s piano, and nobody’s playing that one, so I’m sorry; I really have to pass on your offer.” Instead, she took in the second piano, because selling the piano “simply isn’t me” and “giving away these things seemed wrong to the very core of my being.” (p. 139)

Surely, between experiencing the unsettling void of purged closets and the suffocating surfeit of a growing houseful of memory-laden, cumbersome Stuff,  there must be some middle ground that would allow the author to be “me.”

On the “what worked for me” side of the equation:

–Schaub’s observing that most decluttering advice addresses only one or two facets of the clutter problem while ignoring all the others:

A big reason [the advice isn’t helpful] is a misunderstanding of the many different stumbling blocks there are to getting and keeping clutter-free. The advice columnist or organization expert on the talk show might address one of the existing problems or even two but none of the others.

Because there are so many different facets of the Stuff problem, they can all merge together to form a tangled mass as daunting as that island of plastic floating in the Pacific Ocean. (p. 175-176)

–Her realization that the Hell Room was not an island, entire of itself, but part of the main:

The next morning I woke up on fire. I had come at last to the realization many doctors already know: every part of the patient is connected to every other part of the patient. I was dismayed to realize that my prior one-room approach wasn’t cutting it. I was going to have to approach my house holistically. I saw it all very clearly: the pantry, the guest room, the front room, the Hallway Room, the Hell Room–they all existed like dominoes: where one went, the rest followed. (p. 236)

–And lastly, when Schaub weaves strips of many treasured items of clothing into her “autobiography rug” at her weeklong summer weaving workshop:

It felt wonderfully therapeutic to work with these fabrics that clearly had a lot of metaphoric significance for me and transform them. I couldn’t hold on to everything forever–no one can–but I could take these bits that I still had and make something useful and beautiful with them. I couldn’t keep everything. Couldn’t know what had happened to the things that went missing. But I could do this. (p. 223)

Early on Schaub tells us she’s been to art school and has degrees certifying her as “an Official Creative Person,” which explains her urge to collect materials with any potential for art and craft projects. It’s only during this week at the weaving studio, however, that we get to see her create something.

Up to this point we see her collect and keep items in their original state: mementos, which help her recall her past, and supplies, which have potential for future artworks and craft projects.  It was interesting to see her engage directly with her stuff: interpret it, take control of it, and actively design it into something combining her past, her present, and her future that was dynamic and inclusive.

Making the autobiography rug struck me as the type of creative experience Eve Schaub could repeat endlessly as a way to express the “me” she is so fearful of losing and also to intelligently, sensitively edit the flow of physical life.  If she can avoid getting caught in the deadly undertow of Stuff, maybe she can ride that powerful wave instead.

For inspiration she might want to check out the work of Emily Adams Bode, a fellow “official creative person” (Parsons), who merited a story in July 13’s New York Times “Styles” section. Described by the Times as a “millennial men’s wear designer with the work ethic of a midcentury dressmaker,” she’s turning textiles such as century-old quilts, 1930s dress fabrics, and souvenir tablecloths into jackets, shirts and pants that are useful, beautiful–and simply delightful.

It’s hard to limit myself to one example. Here is a jacket Bode made from a 1960s blanket with a lining printed with football helmets.  I love how she reimagined this blanket.

Wool Shirt Jacket

Emily Adams Bode’s work can be seen on her website, https://www.bodenewyork.com/collections