The Tailor

I’ve just been in London, and I try to spend a little time in the National Gallery, sitting imperiously as it does across from Trafalgar Square and Nelson’s Column. If you watched James Bond strutting his stuff in Skyfall, you’ve seen Daniel Craig having a moment with Q in front of a Turner painting there, but I had a different, favorite painting in mind: Saint George and the Dragon (shown below).


I never made it to Saint George. I got distracted en route by Moroni’s The Tailor (shown at the top of this page). It’s striking, unusual. This is a working man, an artisan, but posed like a member of the aristocracy. I like the stately humanity here. The impatience in his face, his slight belly, the comfortable fit of scissors in his hands.

Cutting Cloth

If you’re making clothes, there are three things you need to be able to do. First, find the best possible cloth. Does it have the right weight, the right feel, the right texture and color? But the cloth is just the start; you can walk into any fabric store and see bolts of beautiful material, but they’re nothing you can wear.

And, of course, you need to be able to sew. Attach the left sleeve to the left armhole, master the intricacies of the collar, do a buttonhole just so.

But the real art is knowing how to cut cloth. Understanding whether you cut with or across the grain of the fabric, having a supple and subtle wrist that keeps the line of the cut true and on the line.

Weave Your Cloth

“Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”
William Butler Yeats

In the warp and weft of the cloth lies in the experiences of your life, the triumphs and the scars, your core values, those things you hold most important. It’s not something you find on the shelf. It’s something you weave.

So have you seen your cloth recently? Do you really know its pattern? Have you taken it out and seen the play of light across its colors? Have you felt its texture, truly held it in your hands, and weighed it up?

Cut the Pattern

Kevin Kelly, the futurist and the technologist, has talked about calculating the exact date of his death. It’s statistically true, if unlikely to be the actual truth. (My demise? September 15, 2043)

Almost as an aside, Kelly says that each significant project he takes on takes about five years to complete. Be it a new company, a new skill to master, a new book, five years is his rule of thumb. So the value of knowing the date of your own death might be that it focuses you on just how many Great Work projects you have left in you. (Me? Five, maybe six.)

What’s the piece you’re working on now? What are you cutting from your cloth? Are you cutting with courage and clarity, bold lines of commitment, not tiny snips of uncertainty?

Sew Something Great

Annie Lamott’s wonderful book Bird by Bird is a reflection on writing and, through that, life. It’s central premise is that the big thing needs to be tackled step by step, first thing first and then the next thing.

So too with sewing. Even though you’ve got a machine, it’s still stitch by stitch. Too fast and you go off track. Too slow and you lose grace and fluidity.

But above all, sew. Even if it’s not quite right, it’s something.

Michael Bungay Stanier is the Senior Partner of Box of Crayons and author of  Do More Great Work and the philanthropic bestselling book End Malaria. For more on Michael,  follow him on Twitter.