All the kids in town go back to school next week. If I was still in college, I’d probably be leaving for resident assistant training this week. I love this time of year—mostly for stocking up on office supplies—and it always gets me in the mood to learn something new. In fact, I’ve been focused lately on improving my applique skills across the board. I learn the most basic of basics many years ago, enough to say I technically knew how to needle turn applique and had made one bag with a machine applique octopus. It’s one area of quilting I consistently skip over because I don’t do it well enough to enjoy it! Well, enough of that, I told myself, and went to work improving my skills. That’s when I realized a lot of what I was doing to set myself up for learning success can be applied to most any skill one wants to learn. So today I’m going to walk through the steps I take to learn a new skill.
Zero In On What You Want to Learn
The first thing that stops me from learning a new skill is vagueness. For example, I often say I want to get into wood working, but if pressed, I don’t have a clear goal of what I want to learn about wood working, I just like how it would sound to tell people I am great at wood working. Applique was different because I knew what I specifically wanted to learn. I wanted to become faster at machine applique, to learn the freezer paper method, and to learn needle turn applique well enough that I would no longer be intimidated by it. Decide what you want to learn and to what degree you wish to master that skill.
Set a deadline
The difference between a wish and a goal is a deadline. When you decide you want to learn a new skill, set yourself a few deadlines. I like to set a deadline for acquiring a teacher, practice time, and my first test. Usually at this point, I write a little outline in my day planner laying out my specific goal(s), deadlines to meet, and leave room for notes about teachers, supplies, projects, or whatever else might come up on my quest for knowledge.
Find a Teacher
These days, teachers come in all shapes and sizes! I can learn to start a fire using the cabin method off of a WikiHow in a few minutes—that’s a teacher! I often start on the internet when looking to pick up a skill. I read a couple blog posts with pictures about how to do the freezer paper method, but it all came together for me only after watching a video of someone using the method. There are also phone apps for lots of different kinds of skills. Looking up knitting apps I found apps with video tutorials teaching you how to knit, resources with libraries of different stitches, and various helper apps like row counting apps. And of course, there are more conventional, local resources for learning skills in person. I like to see if there’s a shop that caters to a skill I’m learning because they’ll often have either classes or resources to connect me to for learning. Most crafts also have local groups who get together and those can be great places to learn. I love going to my local quilt guild because I always pick up some new trick or skill.
Practice Smarter, Not Harder
It’s impossible to achieve proficiency without practice. I studied cello intensively throughout high school, so I’ve had a lot of practice with practicing. The number one thing about practice is that there’s no way out but through. Schedule practice time. When I’m learning a new skill, I like to set aside about an hour a day. I spend the first quarter of that time either reviewing my learning materials or reviewing what I’ve done. I’m practicing in my head before ever acting. I then spend half the time in practice, going through the act, and I don’t critique myself during this time. For the final quarter, I take stock of what I’ve done, and this is when the critique comes in. I see what I can improve, and I finish by noting what I’ve done well so I finish feeling proud and accomplished. If you find yourself feeling frustrated, especially when first starting to learn a skill, shorter practice periods more frequently can really help. The goal is to have lots of little successes to build your confidence.
The First Test
The first test takes many forms depending on the skill. If you’re learning a language, the test might literally be a test, but let’s take applique for an example again. I had three goals: get faster at machine applique, learn the freezer paper method, and grow comfortable with needle turn. I now have three applique projects going! One is a baby quilt that I’d originally designed without applique, but added to it so I’d get some practice with machine applique. Nothing makes you learn to go faster like working on a quilt for an early baby. (What did I tell you about August babies!) I have another project that uses the freezer paper method, and finally a little project with needle turn that I’m saving for last because it’s the most challenging of the skills. For most craft skills, a project serves as a test. Identify what your first “test” will be and aim for it. Once you’ve gotten through your first test, you’ll be able to tell if you need more practice to meet your proficiency goals or if you’ll have mastered what you want to learn.
There you have it, a run through of picking up new skills. Let us know what skills you want to learn or any tips you have for learning new skills in the comments. I’m off to practice my speed at machine applique because this baby quilt isn’t gonna finish itself.