Have you ever had a situation where you needed to teach, lead, guide or mentor either an individual or group through a task where everyone’s skill set was not the same to start? Yet you needed to accomplish the task at hand at the same time and with success?
One of the best perspectives I’ve ever gleaned from how to do that is from one of my teachers. This is an amazing approach to leadership in action. This perspective came from watching how my sewing teacher worked with me on my very first sewing project.
The wisdom from this experience is what I call “Taking the French Seam Approach to Leadership”.
When ever I am involved in a leadership situation where I need to achieve a large result, or a change in culture within a group, or where I at first think that the task at hand could be daunting- I apply the “French Seam Approach”.
About French Seams
A French seam is often used when the fabric is too delicate to use a traditional stitch that would prevent the seam allowance from raveling. The construction of a French seam provides a clean, finished, professional look to the inside of the garment, such as concealing pinked (or cut/frayed) edges.
The use of a French seam is not restricted to any particular clothing style or type. There are instances, however, where it requires more skill and patience because of its complexity sewing with certain materials and patterns of clothing. It takes practice for the seamstress (or tailor) to become proficient with this procedure, but using a French produces an amazing finished product.
My intro to French Seams:
Ever since I was younger I had wanted to learn to sew. For different reasons I finally took action on it as a young adult.
I decided to take classes through one of the local colleges in San Diego. I had a new sewing machine, and no clue how to use it. When I learned about the local classes I knew it would be a great fit for me.
The program basically was: we had to bring our own machine, sewing tools and we would be assigned two required sewing projects per semester to finish. If we finished the required projects during the course of the semester, we could do additional projects in class and the instructor would be there to help us when needed.
I was stoked! For years I had been sketching out different clothing ideas, things for my daily wear, things to wear on stage when I perform, and I even had ideas of doing household sewing projects.
Sewing Class; Day 1
The first day I walked into class, I was intrigued by the age range of my classmates. I was about 24 and had many ‘seasoned in life’ classmates (many ladies in their 50’s, 60’s ad 70’s) and then there were a couple of young gals who were being home schooled. This class was part of their curriculum. They were about 12 or 13.
With me that day was my new sewing machine, my $3 pair of scissors, a sewing needle, thread and a huge excitement about learning something I had always wanted to do!
Looking around the room, I was expecting that the class would be a bit dry, focused on our machines only. Much to my surprise, our teacher was amazing! She was very experienced at sewing and teaching. At first she was very quiet, but then when she started talking, her experience and care for how we learned to sew came through.
She taught us a lot about fabrics, threads, the types of sewing tools we would want to invest into, and she gave us a very important foundational lesson. Her verbatim words to us were “Never buy your fabric at full price.”
She went onto explain how the stores worked, how we could find great quality and save money by going to the garment districts, etc.
I appreciated that she wanted us to be mindful of our spending and to invest into quality tools to help produce the best results for all of our projects. Sewing should be fun, enjoyable and even relaxing.
She proceeded to get to know each of us quickly as we gave a brief intro of ourselves and our sewing history. I was one of the few newbie’s in the class, but I was pleased to get to know my classmates. These ladies looked like a hoot to get to know!
Time to start sewing
For all of us first timers, we actually were given paper to sew on. Not even fabric! At first I was bummed, but I understood her approach. She had to teach us to crawl before we could walk. I learned how to set up my machine and use the most basic stitch on the machine.
I took my time and before I knew it, I was sewing! Even though it was just paper I was thrilled!
Our first assignment:
Before we wrapped up that day one class, we were given our first required assignment. We were going to be making bath robes!
Now, when I was younger I had a couple robes, but they were stiff and kind of itchy. Our teacher was quite sharp- and as quickly as she told us that the robes are what the project was.. all of us must have ‘flashed’ a look of ‘thick, plush, resort style terry cloth robes’ across our faces. I know I did.
She quickly proceeded to say: “Here’s the pattern to go get… and NO terry cloth! It’s too difficult to sew on for a first time project.”
She then wrapped up the class and gave us one final reminder: “Remember, never buy your fabric full price!”
We all departed class excited to go fabric shopping.
The next day I walked into one of the fabric stores and immediately saw the most amazing deep plum brocade fabric. Let me clearly state, I love purples. They are some of my favorite colors. And, I love fabric that has delicate and elegant texture. At the time I knew zero about the ins and outs of fabrics. I just knew I really liked this one. My heart lept when I saw it.. and the best part was.. it was on sale! SCORE!
This fabric was normally $15 a yard on sale for $5 per yard. I knew I needed three yards. Did some quick math- what would have been a $45 ‘robe’ was now only going to be about $15. I was a happy camper. I could picture this finished project and it was going to be elegant, I saved money. My fabric fit her criteria: on sale and not terry cloth.
I gathered and paid for everything I needed and walked out the door with my purchases. I could not wait to get to my next class to start working on this!
Day 2 of School
The next day I was back at class, totally excited to start to make my robe and ‘really sew’. I always tend to sit towards the front of the classroom, so I found my place, and waited with anticipation at getting into the project.
As I glanced around the room, I couldn’t help notice that almost every other gal in the room had chosen flannel for their robe. I didn’t think much of it, just observed that it was so dominant of a choice.
One thing to note is that all my life, intentionally or not, I seem to always walk the different path. Not afraid to go down uncharted terrain. That’s part of being a trailblazer, of which I’ve been doing my whole life. As I noted all the flannel, I simply reminded myself that the choice of my purple, textured material was going to make a robe I would be excited and proud to wear. Flannel for me did not seem too comfy for a robe.
The teacher comes in and glances around the room. Everyone had machines set up, tools out and our fabrics were on our tables too. She was assessing everyone’s choices with a smooth gaze around the room, gently nodding her head in approval as she spied all the flannel. Then her eyes fell on my purple purchase. Her eyes furrowed and she sharply said “ I thought I told you not to pay full price! To only buy fabric on sale!”
I was a bit startled by her quick retort, but proudly spoke back “I did! This was normally $15 per yard and I got it for $5!”
She considered what I said, gazed me in the eyes and saw my excitement- then she took a deep breath, let out a short audible sigh and said “Ok.”
She quickly proceeded to tell the class how to lay out our fabric, prep the patterns, and lay the patterns up so we could start to cut. As she watched us, she would walk around the room and then give us tips for making sure everything was done correctly the first time.
As she maneuvered around the room, she noticed I had reached a point where my next step was going to be to cut the fabric. I had my $3 scissors in hand (these are the really basic kind you use to cut papers). Before I could event put the scissors to the fabric she asked: “Where are your sewing sheers?” I showed her my orange handled scissors and said: “These are all I have”
Hearing what I said, she looked at my fabric, my scissors, my excitement, then she took a deep breath, let out a short audible sigh and said “Ok. You wait here. I’ll be back.” She walked towards her desk, looked through her teacher things and then returned to hand me a shiny pair of super sharp, stainless steel, sewing scissors. She handed them to me and said: “Use these”.
As I started to cut with them, I could feel the difference. All this was new to me and I had no previous experiences to compare to. I have always done arts and crafts, and in many cases, ‘good enough is good enough’. These scissors were different though. Quality, well balanced, and most importantly, as I quickly learned, would not unravel my fabric. The craftsmen ship of the blades were far superior to my basic scissors.
Lesson #1: quality of tools matters. Invest in the best.
As I started cutting, she stayed close by my side. Speaking quietly calmly, and reassuringly, she guided me on how to cut the fabric so it was not wasteful, but most importantly, so that it did no fray.
Brocade is a type of fabric that is woven. The delicate textures and patterns that I so admire are made by a cross hatching of the threads used to make the fabric. Like a basket, some are vertical, some horizontal. Some on a diagonal. Depending upon how you cut into the fabric, you can break the bond of the weave easily- and quickly ruin your fabric all while making a mess.
Her quiet support gave me the confidence to cut with precision that kept the fabric in tact, looking beautiful.
Next Step: Seaming
After she saw that everyone had successfully cut out their fabric, it was time to start assembly. This time, without even asking me any questions about my actual sewing skills, she took a proactive approach. She said: “Wait here. Let me show you how to do this after I get the others started”.
I didn’t question her statement as I was just simply thrilled to be ‘sewing’. I waited patiently until after all the other ladies and young gals had machines humming. The teacher came back to me and said: “I’m going to teach you how to do a French Seam. This is what all the high end designers do.”
Her matter of fact method of talking to me was calming, and very simple to follow. She stayed near me checking in on me each step of the way.
First she taught me how to do step one of the seam. It was different than what everyone else was learning, but I didn’t question her methods. All I knew is that when I did what she said, it worked.
Step was seaming was done. We then proceeded to step 2, and step 3. Before I knew it, my robe was coming together and boy was it elegant! The French Seam she taught me was so clean, pristine. The robe was classy and you could not see any cut lines. Everything was self encased in it’s own fabric shell. Beautiful. Elegant. Easy!
I was so exited to finish this project off with ease, complete with fine line top stitching for the last ‘designer’ detail.
When we were all done with the project, we did a quick show and tell. All the robes looked great- but mine was clearly just a bit different.
Eager to get home and show my husband my very first completed sewing project ever, while I was packing up, my teacher came over to me and quietly said “Debbra, you did this amazingly well! I taught you how to do a French Seam because the fabric you bought is one of the most difficult to work with. It unravels easily and it’s so expensive to work with. The French Seam is one of the most complicated seams to learn also- but you learned it without any hesitation. Great job.”
Her approach in compliments is pretty matter of fact. I stood there quite surprised at her statement of how difficult the fabric and seaming was supposed to have been. And then it hit me… the reason I was so successful, so quickly, was due to her teaching approach and her leadership style.
Assessment, Attitude, Aptitude and Achievement.
She had to assess my choices of material and tools at the beginning of class. Technically, I did what she said. Bought my fabric on sale, I had all the parts I needed to complete the project. When she realized the potential obstacles that I was going to encounter with my fabric choice and inferior scissors, she made a choice.
Rather than criticize or condemn me for my lack of knowledge or experience in sewing, she worked with the situation at hand. She stayed calm, and taught me technical things in a manner that made it seem ‘normal and easy’. That made it doable!
Her supportive manner instilled the confidence in me to do exactly what she said and showed by example. Great leaders need to be willing to be flexible and work with the situation at hand in this manner.
Break the ‘bigness’ down to the smallest component parts & Details matter
In her approach of teaching me French Seams, she didn’t try to tell me or show me everything at once. That would have been too much. She knew the outcome that was needed, and in her wisdom, she gave me just enough information, instruction and support in small bite sized pieces. Giving me the ‘to do’s one step at a time, being ready to come to my aid when needed, but with wiggle room to do things on my own, gave the encouragement needed, and each step of the way where I saw that I was “doing it”, added more confidence to be able to see the project coming together the way the end photos looked.
Any time I encounter a leadership situation that looks too big to maybe accomplish, I always remember this lesson. Break it down to one step at a time. Remain calm at the helm and teach with individual attention if needed to help make the student successful with completing the tasks at hand.
After that class was formally over, I enrolled in more classes for the next couple years. Every semester I always finished my required projects quickly, so I was able to do extra projects of my own choice.
Inevitably, as my skills continued to increase, so did my choice of difficulty of projects compared to the time I had actually been sewing. My teacher and I developed a fond appreciation for one another.
She would see my ‘extracurricular’ sewing choices, ask me how I was planning on accomplishing the project. When I would answer, she would always pause, breath deep, let out a long audible sigh… and then direct me to a specialty class or workshop she was teaching that would simplify the difficult steps.
Our final project together was one that I fondly remember. I had stopped being her student for a couple years. I did have a personal phone number for her, but I never wanted to use it. This last project was a doozy for me as I was time short and stumped on a solution.
I was helping out a young bride and I made her wedding dress. It was my gift to her. When I offered this to her, I had two conditions: no fancy beading and no zippers. We were a few days a way from the wedding and it was time for the final fitting. The dress had come together beautifully. All I had left to do was hem the dress and make the roses for the bustle. Easy.
The bride lived 3 hours away and she drove down for this final meeting before the wedding. The last time she tried it on, it fit wonderfully! I was excited to have done this for her and I was excited for my own skills. I had only been sewing for 2 years, and to do a wedding dress was not considered easy.
As we slipped the dress on and as I buttoned up the back, I watched in horror as the shoulders of her dress slipped right off the tops of her arms! OH NO! What happened?
Turns out, I made the dress correctly (it fit before), but she had been so nervous about getting married, that since our last fitting (three weeks prior) she stressed hard and lost a ton of weight in her upper body.
I was trying to stay calm.. but had no clue what to do. The only fix I knew of was to pull the whole dress apart and to make a completely new top. I didn’t have time for that. Literally.
In this moment of crisis, I reassured the bride all would be good- and then after she left, had to seek out a solution. This was before the internet, before Google. I picked up the phone and called every sewing store I could to ask for ideas. I needed a quick, yet effective fix that would still make the dress be beautiful. I did NOT want to call my former teacher and tell her ‘what I did’. 🙂
Alas, no one had an answer, and I knew, deep in my heart, she would.
It had been at least a year since we had seen each other. I wondered if she would actually remember me.
The phone rang, she answered. After a couple of quick pleasantries, I knew she remembered me. When she asked why I was calling, I shared the dilemma and then waited in silence to hear her reply.
She took a deep breath, let out an audible sigh, and proceeded to give me instructions on how to fix this issue, one step at a time.
The dress turned out magnificent, the bride was thrilled and I was once again thankful for my amazing teacher.
It doesn’t matter how often we are asked to help guide, teach and lead others. What is important is this: how you approach the ‘bigness or difficulty’ of a situation totally can effect the outcome for those you lead.
Do you create mountains out of mole hills? Or, do you view the terrain of the mountain for what it is, assess the skills and eagerness to learn of the individuals you lead- and then teach them ‘French Seam Style”?; one step at a time all the while remaining calm, positive and with reassurance that they can accomplish the new goals learning new skills along the way?
I have used this method to help the entrepreneurs I lead accomplish amazing things that are noticeably above the results of their peers.
Oh yeah… I still sew everything I make (even casual t-shirts) with French Seams!
What to some is difficult, to me is the norm. Anything less just doesn’t feel right.
What is your next Big Thing you want to accomplish that you can apply this leadership approach to? I’d love to hear from you.
Have a Magnificent Day!