Category Archives: Tutorials

How to get badass at almost anything, part 2: Practice makes perfect

Here’s the thing. I can give you all kinds of tips about learning styles, and tell you what I’ve learned from teaching. But the single best piece of advice I could give anyone wanting to get better at something is this: practice it. Keep practicing it, no matter how well or badly it goes.

But that’s often easier said than done. I know why I’m no good at playing piano- it’s because as a kid, I was more interested in watching TV than practicing. And it can be a deeply frustrating process. Any teacher who’s done the training will tell you that learners often spend time on a ‘plateau’- they’re carrying on at around the same level, not improving. Those stretches of time where you keep trying to get better but haven’t hit another climb can be demoralising, disheartening. But the only way to get past them is to keep going.

Luckily, there are a couple of hacks you can use to make sure you practice. The best way to practice something is every day. EVERY day. Not necessarily for a long time, even 20 minutes will do it.

Practice Hack number 1: The Chain

Jerry Seinfeld’s advice (originally from this Lifehacker post) is brilliant. You get a big wall calendar. Every day you practice, you mark a big X on that day…

After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.  Don’t break the chain.

Simple, no? And seeing that row of crossed-off days feels good. But maybe you need a bit more of a reward…

Practice Hack number 2: The Carrot

To encourage yourself to keep up the chain, you could promise yourself a reward if you keep it going for, say, 7 days. It can be anything, whatever feels like a reasonable, but enticing, reward for you. Maybe it’s a bubble bath. Maybe it’s going to a movie, or getting a takeaway from your favourite place, or a bar of your favourite chocolate (or in my case a tube of Pringles) allllll to yourself. Pick something that will motivate you to keep going.

You could also make a commitment to do something if you DON’T keep it up, like make a donation to charity.

In the (brilliant) Five Minute Journal, you have to do both these things when you start, to get you going- you write down a reward if you keep going, and something you’ll do if you don’t. It’s a way of turning the practice into a habit- the other reason to do something every day. You’ll get used to doing it, it’ll become part of the thought process when you’re planning things out. Having been doing the Five Minute Journal (admittedly more like 10 when I do it) every day, I now automatically factor it into my morning routine.

But maybe you need to go outside yourself to make sure you stick to the practicing. Which brings me on to…

Practice Hack number 3: The Buddy system

Veronica Varlow is doing this with a friend for learning guitar. It could be that you have a friend who also wants to learn what you’re learning. But that doesn’t have to be it.

Pick someone- a flatmate, your partner, or someone you talk to often. Tell them what you want to get better at, and tell them you want to practice every day. Make them remind you, or undertake to let them know when you’ve done the practice that day. And if they don’t hear from you by a certain time, they can prod you, and motivate you.

Ideally you want someone who’s going to be a good cheerleader, who’s going to make you feel inspired and excited to do what you’re doing. Guilt trips help no-one- you want someone who makes you feel good, not someone who makes you beat yourself up because you haven’t done something. You’ll know which of your friends and family would be positive influences, and which wouldn’t (don’t ask the people who fall into the second group!). If it’s not fun, you won’t do it, unless you have HELLA amounts of discipline.

Guilt leads to excuses, excuses lead to prolonging the period when you’re not doing it, and before you know it you’ve fallen out of the habit. So pick someone who’s going to be excited for you trying, excited for you making progress. Just like those people who stand along fun run routes and cheer you on- they did this at the Colour Run. I know some people find it silly, but I just loved being told ‘go on! You’re doing so well! Keep going!’.

Keep going.

It’s that simple.

So tell me, how do you motivate yourself to practice the things you want to get good at? And what are you practicing at the moment?


How to get badass at pretty much anything- part one

In a former life, before I moved to New Zealand, I was a teacher. I was pretty good, too. I still love learning, and showing others who are keen to learn something how to do it- and I believe that if you have the passion to give something a try, you can get pretty good at it, with practice.  It’s not always easy, lets face it we all have different areas that we’re good at, and others that are a struggle. You may have seen that picture being shared around social media of a blue pill and a red pill- one makes you fluent in every language in the world, the other makes you able to play any musical instrument. I’m good at learning languages (I started young), but learning instruments, while I love music, is hard for me- so I’d pick the one that made me automatically able to play all the musical instruments (and then I’d go get my Bill Bailey/Tim Minchin on at the nearest piano)  But even without magical learning pills (or that bit in the Matrix where they upload knowledge to their brains) there are ways to make the process less of a slog. I want, over at least a couple of posts, to share some of what I’ve learned about learning, starting with…

Learning styles

Knowing how you learn best is damn useful if you want to pick up a new skill. There are a few different theories out there about it, but the one I’ve found rings the most true for me is the VARK theory. It breaks learning down into four styles- Visual, Aural, Reading/writing and Kinaesthetic.

A visual learner learns best through images/watching (unsurprisingly). An aural learner likes to listen to an explanation- so they would, for example, be far more likely to pay attention throughout a lecture with no slides where the lecturer talks for an hour. Reading/writing learners learn best from words on a page. Kinaesthetic learners (who tend to find concentrating a challenge) learn best by doing something while they learn- whether that’s taking notes, practicing what they’re learning about, or doing something with their hands while they listen to the teacher.

You can take a quiz to find out which ones you’re strongest in- and it’s such a good thing to know about yourself, because it means you can do your best to cater to it when you’re trying something- as well as asking teachers and others to help you by providing input in the way that fits you. For me, as a mainly visual and kinaesthetic learner (most people are a blend), doing mind maps in lots of different colours in class (and when taking minutes in meetings) helped me retain much more information than taking linear notes. I also knit in meetings when I can to help me pay attention to what’s being said- if I don’t have something to do with my hands I lose concentration VERY quickly.

When it comes to crafts, there are lots of tutorials out there- and if you want to master a particular new skill, and know your learning style, then pick ones that suit your style.

If you’re a visual learner, then looking at diagrams or a video on Youtube/Vimeo will help as you can see what you need to do. A tutorial with photo illustrations may also help you.

An aural learner would definitely benefit from videos with commentary (I’ve seen a few video tutorials which are silent, just demonstrating the technique without talking about it).

Read/write? Then blogs are a great place to start. There are plenty of written step-by-steps out there that explain neatly how to do something, and if you learn best from words on a page they’ll be the best way for you to get your head around things.

For kinaesthetic learners, the best tip I have is to combine using one of the tutorials above with physically doing the steps as you see, listen to, or read about them. As most people have a blend of styles, pick the style you’re second-strongest in, and combine that with the kinaesthetic element.

And let me know how you get on! Finding out the styles that work for you really does take some of the work out of learning, whether it’s craft or anything else- but of course I’m especially keen to hear if you’re learning a new craft technique at the moment, and how you’re going about it. What works best for you?

Tues-torial: Creating your own colourwork or cross-stitch charts

Or, why loving computer games can make you a badass crafter.

If, like me, you have a habit of procrastinating by searching seemingly random and unconnected sets of things on Etsy, you’ve probably seen your fair share of patterns for creating images with fabric, whether it’s colourwork motifs or cross stitch designs. They’re everywhere!

And here’s the thing…they’re actually easy to design. Yes, even if you’re just a beginner. You just need a computer, a printer, some coloured pens, and a bit of patience.

The reason loving computer games can lead to badass crafting can be summed up in one word: PIXELS. Those little squares of colour that make up images on computer screens or in video games? They use the same principle that you’re about to to design your own images. If you’re not feeling confident, start with picking a favourite old school video game character (or buy a pre-done pattern so you can see the idea at work) to recreate.

First, we’re going to work out what size squares to use for your graph paper.

If you’re doing a cross-stitch, this is a simple process- you just need to know the count of your Aida cloth (available at most any craft store). The number on the packet (usually between 7 and 22, mostly an even number) is the number of ‘squares’ per linear inch- this is the number of crosses you will stitch per inch through the teeny holes in the Aida cloth. Go to this cross-stitch graph paper generator and pick the right number from the drop down that says ‘grid size’. Pick your paper size, click and save the paper to your computer, then print out a few sheets (to allow for messing about and mistakes).

If you’re knitting it’s a little bit more involved, and I’m about to use two words that make most knitters recoil in horror: gauge swatch. OK, if you’re English those words probably don’t make you recoil in horror, but these two mean the same thing and will do the same thing: tension square. But see, it’s actually a good thing! You get to check your gauge and get ready to chart out your design AT THE SAME TIME. See? It’s like killing two birds with one stone (how exactly are you supposed to do that, anyway? Do you just use a really big stone?…) Anyway- knit up your little square- at least 4 inches by 4 inches, ideally bigger. Measure carefully and get the number of rows and stitches per inch.

Then plug those numbers into this knitting graph paper pattern generator, click create and voila! Your own printable graph paper with squares the same size as your stitches.

Why does that matter? Simple- get the number wrong on cross stitch and your picture will end up much bigger (or smaller) than you intended on the cloth you’re using. Get it wrong with knitting and it can end up a completely different shape to what you intended (ask me how I know *coughcoughweirdshapedmapofnewzealandcoughcough*).

Now you’ve got the paper, it’s time to create the image- this is the easy bit. Take your coloured pens (or pen, depending on how many colours you’re planning on using), and fill in the squares to fit the picture. For example:

 Star chart

Yes, I know the star in Super Mario doesn’t give you an extra life. I hadn’t had quite enough tea when I drew this one (this is why you print multiple sheets of graph paper, people!)

When you’re finished, you’re ready to start stitching! Each square you’ve filled in with pen represents a colourwork stitch if knitting, or a cross in your cross stitch.

I wish you much badassery in your stitching.

And now to leave you with a little link candy, here are a few fun patterns from Etsy you could just download if doing all the above seems like way too much work: Perhaps a starter Pokemon set? Or some Super Mario power-ups. But I have to say my personal favourites are The Ghost Pirate LeChuck and Swordfighting insults from Monkey Island! I mean c’mon, MONKEY ISLAND!

Have you ever designed your own patterns? How did you find it? What are your tips? Let me know in the comments!

Tues-torials: Three craft tutorials you never knew you needed

One of the things I love about craft is that it’s always developing and changing. People come up with new techniques all the time, often by accident- in fact in some cases it may happen without you even realising that nobody else does something that way- not until you do some social crafting and you’re asked ‘how are you DOING that?’ (which along with ‘where did you buy that?’ when you made something yourself is one of those moments of Ultimate Crafting Smugness which are precious and golden). Thanks to the internet, it is of course super-easy for people who’ve realised that they’re doing something new, weird, or different to share that. For today’s Tues-torials, I present three of my favourites.

A small caveat- the knitting tutorial is not for the faint-hearted, but it IS worth trying out if you’ve gotten the hang of the basics. After all, the great thing about knitting, crochet and sewing is that if you get it wrong with the stitches, you can (usually) undo what you did and start again.

First up, though, we have a set of tips and tricks for hand sewing from the Dreamstress. Why did you not know you need it? Simple- an awful lot of sewing peeps (sorry, I just can’t bring myself to use ‘sewist’) rely heavily on their machine and avoid hand-sewing like the plague. But as the Dreamstress points out, hand sewing can add something very special to a garment. In the post, she talks about how to make it easy and even pleasurable (beeswax and silk thread, and really good needles- oh no, you’ll have to go to the craft store…). Thanks to her I’ve started added hand-done elements to the things I make, and it does make a difference to the finish.

Next, for those who have a passionate affair with their sewing machine, is a little-known fact about one particular possibility from Gertie’s New Blog for Better Sewing (vintage style? Check. Gorgeous blogger with paintbox-coloured hair that I’d love to have toooo? Check. Fantastic projects and tutorials? Checkity check check!)- in this case, it’s about a stitch on your machine which acts like a serger. Yes really. You’d better believe I rushed out to the local Bernina stockist to get an overcast foot when I read this! Not having an overlocker (and lets face it, if you’re just starting out then just getting a sewing machine is a big step), this tutorial shows you how to add a nice finish to raw edges of fabric before seaming/hemming. Sure it takes more thread and time, but it’s definitely worth the extra effort.

Finally, this is an oldie but a real doozie. Do you knit? Do you, more specifically, knit things that require you to make two of the same thing? Socks, mittens, sleeves on jumpers… Did you know that you can knit BOTH AT ONCE ON ONE SET OF NEEDLES? If you can get your head around that (take a moment to get your head around it. I can wait…), you can find out how in Knitty‘s article Extreme Knitting: 2 Socks in 1. I also absolutely encourage you to occasionally exclaim “EXTREME!” at the top of your voice if you attempt this technique. Maybe don’t pump your fist in the air though, if you’re still holding the needles. I’ve used it to make arm warmers and I can attest that it works- and as long as you relax (yes, that is indeed an excuse to have a glass of wine or some chocolate on hand while you try this) it’s not too hard to master.

What are your favourite little tricks that you’ve learned? Let me know in the comments- I love hearing about new things to try out!

Friday Five: Five awesome beginner crochet patterns

My friend Anna has recently taken up crocheting- I’m always excited when someone starts getting into a new craft. She’s already a talented sewer, but in the end getting good at any craft is all down to practice. Now, the easiest and simplest thing to make as a beginner crocheter would be a cotton dishcloth, but if you’re anything like me, you yearn for the beautiful, the silly, the fun. So to celebrate making it through the week, I give you five super-gorgeous, super-fun crochet projects that a beginner could tackle.

Hint- crochet hooks and yarn? Not that hard to get hold of. And there are plenty of books and tutorials out there to show you the ropes. The only thing to be aware of is that American crochet instructions are different to UK ones, but once you know what they mean you’re flying. Another hint- the second pattern on the list includes a handy quick reference to explain the difference between them.

Go on, give it a try- what better time than right now to surprise yourself and make something great?

Best of all, four out of five of these patterns are available for FREE! ❤

First up, we have the crochet bow ring from ChabeGS Crochet Design. A little bit pin-up, you could make them in every colour to match your outfits, or use up an entire ball of yarn and make them for everyone you know. They’re super cute and THE PATTERN IS LITERALLY THREE LINES LONG. Can we say instant gratification? Oh yes, I think we can!

The Easy Crochet Owl from the Bunny Mummy blog will teach you how to crochet in a circle, and change colours. Also, OWLS! Yes, I know, ‘we can put a bird on it’ but c’mon people. We all know what YOLO really stands for.  You Obviously Love Owls.

If cute birds of prey aren’t your thing, then how about a kawaii octopus? Because, well, OCTOPODES. Just imagine making a bunch of these in different crazy colours and putting them on your desk at work. Go on, imagine. You could even tell people they didn’t need to start giving you octopi because you already had a bunch of them. Or attach loops to a load of them and have an octopus themed Christmas tree? OK, I’m not doing a very good job of selling this. Just click on over to NyanPon and you’ll see why I had to include this on the list. Added benefit- this is an amigurumi pattern. Amigurumi is a particular technique used to crochet toys and other 3-d objects, and it’s a great thing to learn, especially if you want to make toys. Just Google amigurumi and be amazed at the possibilities.

“This is all very well,” I hear you say, “but what about actual items of clothing?” Well, how about the classic- a beanie? But this one has an awesome twist- I give you (or rather I’m Topsy Turvy gives you)…the bearded beanie! Yes, you could just follow the beanie part and make yourself a lovely hat. But seriously…you can add a crochet beard! I bet you’ve often thought to yourself, ‘gee, what I really need is something to keep the rest of my face warm, not just my ears. But I don’t want to wear a balaclava…’ Well here’s your answer! Also you could pretend to be a super secret spy in your cunning disguise…If nothing else, take a look at this pattern for the ADORABLE photos of the baby bearded beanie. I defy you not to go ‘awwwww’, at least to yourself.

Finally, the only paid pattern on the list. This will make you a master of double crochet. It’s a much bigger project to tackle than the others, but when you look at the results, you’ll see why I had to include it. The Babette Blanket from Interweave Press is, in a word, stunning. To me it looks like the background of a Klimt painting. If you have a look at finished projects (look at– and if you haven’t signed up there already and like knitting/crochet or want to start, you need a (free) account, stat!) you’ll see the possibilities. The actual pieces that make the blanket are simple to make (I’m working on one at the moment) but there are endless options for colours, as you’ll see. I’m working on one of these at the moment myself, in rainbow colours (what else?). If you don’t want to tackle the full sized blanket, why not make just the middle sections, and create a baby blanket?

I hope one or more of these will tempt you, and that if you haven’t given crochet a go you’ll consider trying. Whatever happens, I hope you have a fabulous weekend! Happy Friday!

Tues-torial: Thrifty sewing

Something which comes up frequently in my conversations with sewers-to-be or aspiring crafters is cost. Obviously, in an ideal world, I would be writing this from a velvet-upholstered chaise longue, or possibly one of these, surrounded by bolts of silk crepe and rockabilly/geek fabric from Spoonflower (and not even the basic combed cotton either).  Even without those things,  I do, however, do pretty well for fabrics. Maybe they’re not designer, but I’ve been very proud of some of the things I’ve created. Today, I’d like to start sharing some of what I’ve learned about sourcing good sewing fabric for a good price. All you need is a little willingness to think outside the box (or in the case of thrift stores, the rack).

You may already be aware that most charity/thrift/op shops have a basket somewhere in the store full of remnants of fabric. Admittedly, a lot of it is weird late-80s bright coloured geometrics (or maybe that’s just New Zealand), and I’m not saying you can’t make some fun garments from the crazy prints, but if that’s not your thing you can still strike gold.

But it’s not the only place in the store you’ll find great fabric. In fact, it’s usually right next to my other big source of sewing material- the bedlinen section.  Flat sheets are one of my favourite sources of fabric, especially as I sew a fair few costumes that require a lot of fabric- and there’s a lot of fabric in your average sheet. I’ve made everything from Victorian skirts to medieval gowns, all from bedsheets:

Victorian skirt made of bed sheet Medieval dress made from bedsheets


If you like prints, rather than plain (and I share that, I have a big weakness for awesome print fabric as you’ll see in some of my project posts), don’t discount duvet covers. They come in a wide array of lovely and unusual prints, and it’s possible to have a lot of fun with them. For example, this dress used to be a Superman duvet cover:

ASASuperman Dress

If you can get the shape of a garment in your head (reading the pattern and getting your head around the pattern pieces is the big key here), you can have a lot of fun getting a big design to fit the shape.

Ebay (and if you’re in New Zealand, it’s equivalent TradeMe) can also be a great source of fabric- the prices run the gamut from a dollar or two to super fancy expensive, but as with physical rummaging at a thrift store, if you’re willing to put the scrolling work in, the reward is finding some great fabric at good prices.

Of course it’s not just about the fabric- most op-shops will have a bunch of vintage notions, and this can be a great way to stock up on unusual/vintage buttons and embellishments, embroidery thread and the more basic stuff- hooks and eyes, presser-studs and zips are all things I’ve picked up this way, and had no problems using. There’s one exception when it comes to thrifting notions and that’s sewing thread- thread can age, and old thread is much more likely to break, and break quickly- not what you want when sewing. But other than that, the thrift store is your oyster when it comes to fabric.

How about you? Where would you recommend looking for thrifty sewing gold? What great finds have you hit on, and what did you do with them? Let me know in the comments!