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: Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done by Jon Acuff

Readers,

Like the majority of sewers, I’m enchanted by novelty. There’s always a new fabric, new pattern (or new-to-me vintage pattern), new tool, new technique, new Craftsy class, or new discussion of the Craftsy class vying for my attention.

Likewise, the prospect of starting a sewing project is practically irresistible. Despite numerous failures and unfinished projects I remain unreasonably confident about the success of the garment I’m planning to make. My optimism reminds me of how Samuel Johnson characterized second marriages: “the triumph of hope over experience.”

“Moribund Projects” is more like it.

Call me hopeful, then. If I’d relied solely on the brutal facts of experience to guide my plans I would have closed up shop and hired a seamstress long ago, there would be no hero’s journey, and no blog. Unthinkable.

However, I wouldn’t mind improving my batting average. So when I learned about Jon Acuff’s book Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done I immediately requested a copy from my library and read it at a leisurely pace over a couple of afternoons.

Here are some observations and bits of advice I found useful in Finish:

  • Perfectionism is the enemy of finishing. More people quit Acuff’s online goal-setting course, 30 Days of Hustle, on Day 2 than on any other day. “Why that day?” Acuff asks. “Because imperfection doesn’t take long to show up. Imperfection is fast, and when it arrives we usually quit. That’s why the day after perfect is so important. This is the make-or-break day for every goal.” Acuff spends the rest of the book identifying perfectionism’s sneaky reasoning and disguises so we aren’t taken by surprise.
  • Most people set goals that are foolishly optimistic–a practice called “planning fallacy”–which results in a high failure rate. Acuff recommends scaling back your goal to stay in the game.
  • Perfectionism claims “You can do it all.” You can’t. Acuff recommends, “Choose what to bomb, and succeed at a goal that matters.” I would add that it has helped me to recognize where I have low aptitudes and need to find expert help.
  • Perfectionism can come in the form of distraction.

    • The first form is the “hiding place,” which Acuff describes as “an activity you focus on instead of your goal,” that doesn’t require the discipline that your goal does.
    • The second is the “noble obstacle,” which is “a virtuous-sounding reason for not working toward a finish.” Noble obstacles often have “until” or “if…then” in their elaborate explanations for not realizing a goal.
  • “If you’re not excited about your goal right now, ask yourself, ‘What’s my real goal?’ Make sure that what you’re chasing is actually what you want to catch. As you progress with your goal you should continue to come back to this gut-check question because it’s really easy to get off track despite your best intentions.”

    What is my real goal with my unfinished projects? Good question!

  • “If you don’t have a lot of joy in your goal right now, make sure you’re using a method that plays to your strengths. If you pursue the right goal in the wrong way, you still end up in the wrong place.”
  • “Data moves us beyond discouragement.” Emotions change, memories fade and change, but numbers can be your friends. Acuff gives 23 ways to measure your progress, including inches or pounds lost and subscribers or money gained. In sewing a wardrobe, I realized a measure of progress could be the number of outfits I could create planning a capsule rather than a stand-alone garment. And that would be a fun puzzle to work out.
  • “The past is trying to teach you.” Answer questions like “What happened the last time you attempted a goal like the one you’re planning?” and “If you didn’t finish, which parts tripped you up?” to help you shape a better process this time.
  • Perfectionism rises up even when you’re nearing the finish line “for one more barrage of fear.” “The day before done is terrifying,” Acuff says, as “What now?” “What if it’s not perfect?” and “What’s next?” appear. A friend can be important all through the process of meeting the goal but never as crucial as at the end.
  • Ask yourself “What am I getting by not finishing?” because you are getting something, Acuff says. “You get to hold on to the illusion that you could finish if you really wanted to. Rather than find out you might not be good, you hide in the myth of maybe.”
  • The worst thing perfectionism does is make sure you never try.

“But you’ll never know the unbelievable joy of keeping a promise to yourself unless you finish,” writes Acuff. “That’s what we’re doing, keeping a commitment to ourselves and knowing we’ve fulfilled it when we finish.”

Finishing Finish yesterday afternoon, I had a strong urge to finish something. I went to my baker’s rack and pulled a jacket project I wrote about in 2014.

From 1959, Vogue Special Design 4036.

I started this jacket in 2011, and my last notes were dated January 16, 2015.

Did I feel a fresh resolve to finish this jacket? Not in the least. I decided to pitch it. No apologies, no regrets.

Since I last looked at this project, I’ve learned that I’m best in garments with a defined waist, and this jacket doesn’t have one. I’m also not sure this collar is a good look for me. I still like the fabric, but I’m not so sure it likes me. It may be too busy: the texture, contrast and colors are all attention-getters possibly to my detriment.

I made samples of the pocket and flap and bound buttonholes and did some special Kenneth King technique on the collar pieces.

But it was the dreary prospect of making a third muslin that dealt the death blow to this project.

Let’s recap:

  • not the most flattering silhouette
  • the fabric might steal the show from my face
  • hard to incorporate this jacket into a wardrobe capsule, plus
  • either I’d have to decipher muslin #2 or start over with muslin #3. Either way, no fun there.

I concluded this would not be a hero’s journey but a fool’s errand.

So I did the sensible thing: I declared my project done–without finishing it. Upon the further examination Acuff recommended, I reminded myself that my real goal is a wardrobe that serves me. This jacket doesn’t serve me. Case closed.

I am not breaking any promises to myself, caving in to perfectionism, or admitting defeat.

I’m just giving myself the gift of done–and enjoying it immensely.

Oh yes, I am going to dump this.

 

Decisions, decisions

Readers,

Yesterday I wrote this post and was almost finished with it when I had to stop for the day. This morning I sat down to finish it, add images, and hit Publish. I reread what I wrote and–saw a glaring omission. I hate when that happens!

I asked myself whether I should scrap this post or send it out. I decided to send it out and write a follow-up in the near future. Stay tuned.

Today, like a thousand other days, I pulled a fabric from my stash, looked at it intently, and asked myself, Is this a keeper or should I let it go?

I haven’t been able to decide, which bugs me. I tell myself, “Don’t keep not deciding,” but if I do decide, I should have a guiding principle for my decision. Just tossing something out may be an action, but I don’t see that as a decision–unless you call “I don’t want to deal with it” a decision.

Do any of these buttons go with this fabric?

I keep going back to this somewhat coarse, muted, heather green wool I picked up at the Guthrie Theatre costume department’s textile sale several years ago. Some days I think the color is just too muted and the value too mid-range to look good on me and that I should move the fabric on to somebody else. Maybe a redhead.

Nevertheless, I always reshelve this piece, thinking I haven’t yet fully grasped the color and value ranges it sits in and so what would complement them.

Most of my other fabrics just do not want to play with this Guthrie fabric. Most accent colors look too busy and bright, leaving the Guthrie one looking taciturn and glum. Neutrals just look drab paired up with the Guthrie, as if each is waiting for the other one to start the conversation. The silence is deafening.

A common activity in my sewing room: identifying colors in fabrics and finding suitable companions.

It seems as if this fabric is sitting on a line between a color and a neutral. It has too much color to be cast in a typical neutral role, but not enough color to hold its own against other colors. It’s neither light nor dark. But if I give this heather green wool just the right role in the right ensemble, it may reward my efforts tenfold. The prospect is enticing, and that’s why I keep playing this game.

The piece of equipment I most like to use in this color game is my 3 in 1 Color Tool, which is so old that another edition has since been published. This elusive color, which doesn’t reproduce well on my monitor, is kind of Yellow card 1 and kind of Chartreuse card 2. Even without matching the color perfectly I can see whether it tends toward pure, a tint (white added), a tone (gray added), or a shade (black added), which might help me locate companion colors with similar qualities. This wool seems to be a shade; it’s certainly muted.

And then I can flip the card over and see these wonderful color relationships set out on a color wheel–analogous, complementary, and so forth–that set my mind ablaze with ideas. I find myself pulling stash fabrics and buttons and wardrobe items to try different relationships that wouldn’t have occurred to me without this wonderful tool.

The 3 in 1 Color Tool is so helpful showing the possibilities in relating colors to each other.

If your eyes are glazing over at this point I can’t blame you, but then you probably took art classes and learned color principles in the first week. I thought I knew about the color wheel but never learned anything about actually applying basic color principles to designing garments, outfits, and a whole wardrobe.

Maybe if I quilted I would have had many a conversation about color concepts. But over the many years I’ve browsed fabric stores and attended sewing classes I don’t remember any discussion of color beyond “Oh, that would look good with that” or “That looks good on you.”

I recently learned about this Color Matching Guide for painters, which is also great for finding complementary colors for fabrics.

Color is hardly the only characteristic I’m intent on identifying, of course. There’s weight, and drape, sheen, texture, weave, pattern, contrast, fiber. There’s what the fabric is capable of doing physically (take a crease well or keep you warm) and psychologically (the luxurious feeling of silk).

My stash cards just barely all fit onto a standard ring.

I was thinking this morning that for years I’ve tracked simple factual information about my fabrics with my swatch cards: fiber, yardage, when and where purchased. A nice enough start.

So much data and so many ideas to collect! I am experimenting with a Fabric Inventory worksheet.

A few weeks ago I started experimenting with a worksheet to collect and hold more information: what garments this amount of fabric was suitable for, for what seasons, and what coordinates (fabrics, buttons, wardrobe items) I had on hand.

Yesterday morning I noticed I hadn’t created a space to record vital information for me: the Color Tool number. Time to revise the form! And I think there will be more revisions and additions to come.

Every day I’m reminded how planning and sewing a wardrobe is a multi-dimensional activity, with a multitude of  circumstances and choices that connect in a great big web. There are so many variables and dizzying possibilities that I can’t possibly keep them all in my head.

There are contextual circumstances like

  • occasions
  • activities
  • roles
  • physical conditions
  • what’s in my stashes and wardrobe to coordinate

And there are individual factors like

  • personality
  • style
  • figure type
  • coloring
  • physical characteristics

to factor in.

My swatch cards were a start. The fabric inventory worksheet is another step. But what I really want is to think much bigger.

I want to devise a streamlined, comprehensive system that will move me with minimal effort toward sound decisions, so I no longer find myself lingering over a decision–unless I want to.

Do You Know About the Ready to Wear Fast?

Readers,

I was taking a brief break from Thanksgiving Day cooking when I saw an invitation in my e-mail. Sarah Gunn of the phenomenally successful sewing blog Goodbye Valentino was inviting her readers to join her in a year-long “ready to wear fast” starting January 1. The more I read about this challenge, the more my enthusiasm mounted. I headed back to the kitchen practically whistling a happy tune.

As Sarah explained,

The Ready to Wear Fast is a vow to abstain from buying clothes for one year. You will give up buying clothes from January 1-December 31, 2018. You may sew anything, and you may fabric-shop as much as you like! The purpose is to Save Money and Improve Your Sewing Skills, but believe me, the rewards of the commitment will exceed your expectations.”

The only exceptions to the clothes-buying rule will be wedding gowns and bridesmaids’ dresses. No sweaters, no swimsuits, no mother of the bride dresses, not even scarves can be bought during the year-long fast.

But when I read the restrictions I noticed I thought, good! This will give me that nudge to try sewing knit tops and cardigans like I’ve intended to do for years. The same with scarves, which have been my only frequent ready-to-wear purchases for years: it’s time I learned to do those fine hand-rolled hems on scarves I make myself, cut to the dimensions I choose.

And pants, which have been my sewing holy grail for years: I’ve made do with occasional ready-to-wear purchases that have tided me over but have hardly been figure-flatterers.

Sweaters!  Even those sized “XS” are often too long in the torso and sleeves and too big around. The armholes are huge, restricting range of movement for sleeved versions or exposing too much flesh in sleeveless versions. Color choices are limited to what garment industry experts chose based on color forecasts made many months earlier.

Skirts, blouses, dresses–I can count on the fingers of one hand how many I’ve bought readymade in the last decade. Either fit or style is an issue, and, again, color and pattern choices are limited.

As Jack can attest, I’ll pop into a retail or consignment store to check out shoes and hats and sometimes specialty outerwear, but when I browse regular clothes racks I almost always leave the store muttering, “I’m glad I sew!”

So I think I am 90 percent of the way to a ready-to-wear fast anyway. If a fast means deprivation I already feel deprived, that’s for sure.

But if deprivation and restriction characterize a fast, why do I feel so upbeat about the approach of January 1? Because what I see is a yearlong sewing feast.

Oh sure, the sponsors of the RTW Fast are sure to dangle some enticements–fabrics, online classes, patterns, maybe even a sewing machine–before those of us who took the pledge. But what I think will have me singing Zippety Doo Dah in 2018 will be the abundance of encouragement and inspiration we participants will be sharing on our private Facebook page to realize our wardrobe dreams.

I know it sounds crazy: I sew, but do I have a closet full of seasonal custom clothing capsules to create dozens of outfits? No! As a matter of fact, since I joined Imogen Lamport’s 7 Steps to Style program four months ago I have drastically thinned out my wardrobe–including clothes I’ve sewn. Everything–my patterns, fabrics, wardrobe, style, my coloring, my figure type, and what I want to dress for–has been undergoing a reexamination.

When I read about the RTW Fast it struck me that it could give me just the right combination of structure, incentives, flexibility, and accountability to get me out of analysis paralysis into purposeful action. I am going to give the RTW Fast my best shot to turn 2018 into a year I can look back on with a feeling of accomplishment. That doesn’t sound like deprivation to me.

Signing up for the 2108 Goodbye Valentino Ready to Wear Fast ends Dec. 31, 2017. Click on the link for registration details. I hope you can join us!

Valancing Act

Readers,

What did it take to go from this:

A very sad valance accompanying spindly mini-blinds in the kitchen of our 1958 house when we bought it.

To this:

The sad valance is gone, thankfully–but what window treatment would be best?  Not a lace cafe curtain, that’s for sure.

To this?

Got a minute?  I’ll tell you.

I’m a fabric person, so I wasn’t thrilled to conclude that the best window treatment for our kitchen was a blind. Not floor-length draperies (obviously), or little cafe curtains, which would leave too much hard, dark, shiny window glass exposed before sunrise and after sunset when days are short.

No, for what we wanted–to be able to watch the passing neighborhood scene or shut it out, according to inclination–a blind was just the thing. Back in February I called the blind and curtain company Smith & Noble to send a designer over. She walked me through the whole process of choosing the widths and colors of slats and twill tape, did the measuring and the ordering, and in a couple of weeks our blind was installed.  It looked and worked great.

I lived with the blind very happily, but it wasn’t long before I returned to the matter of adding more colors, patterns, and shapes by way of fabric into the view of our kitchen window wall.  I knew which fabric I wanted to use, too: a printed cotton from the legendary French fabric producer Souleiado.If you have ever seen Pierre Deux’s French Country: A Style and Source Book you may recall the gorgeous fabrics chapter showcasing Souleiado.

My well-thumbed copy, which I bought in 1985.

I had found this faded but still vibrant Provencal print at my favorite store in the world, Grandview Mercantile (right here in Columbus, Ohio), covering a little homemade comforter. I was immediately taken by the unusual combination of mustardy yellow, spicy brown, and vivid turquoise balanced by a terracotta pink. These weren’t conventionally pretty colors, but I found them arresting. I bought the little comforter for $35.

Months later, I took out my seam ripper and carefully undid the stitching of the comforter. That’s when I discovered this enchanting pattern was made by Souleiado. That was as exciting for me as it would be for someone else discovering that a lamp picked up at a garage sale was made by Tiffany.

I wanted to use this fabric where I could enjoy it every day, but I didn’t want to ruin it. That was a quandary so familiar to me as a clothing sewer: longing to use a fabric but fearing cutting into it before being certain the fit and the style of the garment were right.

How could I get to the point of being brave enough to cut into my precious, perhaps irreplaceable, fabric?

I thought, okay–I’ll just have to do a lot of mockups. Instead of thinking I would never know enough to be able to cut into my fabric, I thought about how many easy, cheap or free, reversible experiments I could run.

How about tracing the outlines of the kitchen window wall from a photo? After I did, I thought, “Everything but the faucet is a right angle! I want to mix in some curves!”

Here’s the photo…

…and here’s the tracing. It was when I traced the basic outlines of the wall that I noticed they were all right angles. How about adding some curves to this view?

Paper is cheap. How about testing shapes and sizes of valances in paper?

Better yet, how about color-photocopying my fabric at our local library for 50 cents a sheet? Tape the pages together and hang them to get a sense of the impact of the colors and patterns mixed with the existing colors and patterns on the window wall?

I also thought to try finding more of this fabric and set up a daily search on the word “Souleiado” on eBay. After a couple of months, a three-yard piece turned up, in perfect condition–a very lucky find.

I set up a Pinterest board to collect valance and cornice pictures. (I mostly found designs I didn‘t want.)

I used a scrap of the furring strip to balance the staple gun. Jack held the mount steady while I stapled down the Velcro.

I wanted a valance I knew could be machine-washed if it got dusty and dull-looking. That definitely meant I had to create my own construction plan to guarantee washability. But the instructions for the Zigzag Pelmet/Valance from the book Curtains and Blinds by Lucinda Ganderton and Ali Watkinson turned out to be very helpful.

I had two main questions to answer about the shape of this valance: the depth, and the bottom edge. I studied pictures to get a sense of what looked proportionate–not skimpy, and not like a hat that’s too big for its wearer. Then I tried paper mockups.

The mount was attached to the wall with angle irons.

I realized after trying out some curves in paper mockups that determining the right size is not as easy as it seems.   It was only after studying the print for awhile that I noticed the unbroken lengthwise curve that supplied the obvious shape of the border. I cut my photocopy along the curve–another cheap, easy, risk-free test–and had my answer.

On the taped-together photocopies I cut along the curve in the print. Would this curve make a nice border? Yes.

A closeup of the mount

The lining for the valance was another question. It had to be machine-washable and the right weight and drape. In my stash was a white cotton flannel sheet I had been saving for interlining coats that turned out to work very well.

All during this project I wished I could get a few minutes’ input from a designer for aesthetic guidance and from a window furnishings maker about construction techniques. That would have boosted my confidence and saved me time.

My idea of using separate pieces of Velcro for the returns helped to create crisp turns around the corners.

Instead, I dithered about the size and shape of the valance, questioned the completeness and accuracy of the instructions I was more or less following, and worried about drilling holes in the wall in addition to worrying about chopping into my fabric.

I had a lengthy conversation with the hardware store clerk about the right size of angle irons and wall anchors to buy as well as the dimensions of the furring strip for the valance mount.

The instructions I used did not call for pressing in a crease at the turns. A crease gave a much better look than the original floppy ends.

In the absence of professional advice I did learn a lot along the way, and I applied knowledge from curtain- and garment-making to create a pretty nicely finished, proportionate–machine-washable, even!–valance from a beautiful fabric.

Monday afternoon I finished the stitching and pressing, and Jack installed the valance on its Velcro’ed mount.

The lining can be glimpsed from the front, so I’m glad the flannel I used didn’t have a cute print!

What works, what doesn’t?

What works is, I’m satisfied with the construction.  With my level of knowledge as a home sewer of mostly garments, I don’t think I could have done better.

What doesn’t work? The best way I can put it is, I think this burst of color, shape and pattern will work better when the eye can travel around the room and pick up on other bursts of colors, shapes, and patterns that will set up an intriguing rhythm.

Putting objects in a room is just the first step. Creating relationships among the objects is where a lot of the fun is going to be. I have more of this beautiful print and am thinking about how I can use it to delight the eye.

A few of my favorite things