Indiana Evaluation Association Week: Sew What? by Jennifer Borland

Jennifer Borland

Greetings fellow evaluators. I’m Jennifer Borland, the Director of Research Programs for Rockman et al and member of the Indiana Evaluation Association’s Board of Directors. When I’m not evaluating, I can often be found doing crafts of various sorts. A while ago, I got to thinking there are a few interesting lessons that evaluators can learn from reflecting on cross stitch.

Lessons Learned

1. It helps to lay some groundwork for success upfront. In cross stitch, you have to count squares on your fabric before you start to make sure you aren’t going to run out of space. Eyeballing it gets you into trouble and the same is true for an evaluation. Take the time to get to know all the key details of a project up front.  

2. There are many ways to make an X!  No matter how you make your Xs, a finished product often looks the same on the front, but can look very different when you look at the back. I think there are three related lessons for evaluators:

Sometimes it matters how the back-side looks. With some evaluation projects, clients aren’t too picky about how you go about things so long as they get accurate information. In other cases, clients want more transparency and the process matters just as much as the outcomes.

Different methods may be better in different contexts. Some modes of stitching seem to be quicker in certain contexts (e.g., big chunks of one color vs. spots that are more complex). As evaluators we must be able to identify and implement the methods that are best-suited to each individual situation given a wide range of factors (e.g., time, cost, privacy issues, cultural differences among participants, institutional barriers, etc.).

Don’t get in a rut.  I often change things up in the middle of a sewing project just to break up the monotony of stitching the same way over and over again. There may also be value to adding some variety within an evaluation project to keep things fresh, and to help ensure that we are seeing things from different viewpoints.

3.  It’s okay not to be perfect. My cross stitch projects are rarely perfect. I miscount rows or misplace stitches all the time. Rarely is a mistake so major that I have to unstitch things and I can usually salvage things with slight modifications when mistakes occur. It is a lot harder admitting that my evaluation projects aren’t always perfect, but I think it’s fair to say that there is no such thing as a completely perfect project or evaluation. Rarely does a five-year project adhere perfectly to every single detail of the plan set forth in the proposal and the evaluation has to pivot and evolve. Even with great instruments, the resulting data can be messy. The sign of a good evaluation, not unlike cross stitch, is the overall quality of the final product, even if it isn’t perfect.

4. Pace yourself and celebrate the little wins.  A big sewing project or evaluation can be overwhelming at the onset. That’s why I’m a strong advocate for respecting that the process takes time and recognizing the importance of pausing to celebrate accomplishments made along the way as different parts are completed. All the little parts add up to something beautiful in the end.

As evaluators, we are often charged with asking the question, “so what?” but next time (if you are so inclined) think of this post, and ask “sew what?” –  you might just find some creative inspiration to make your evaluation efforts even more awesome.


The American Evaluation Association is hosting Indiana Evaluation Association (IEA) Affiliate Week. The contributions all this week to AEA365 come from IEA members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this AEA365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the AEA365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an AEA365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to AEA365@eval.org. AEA365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

2 thoughts on “Indiana Evaluation Association Week: Sew What? by Jennifer Borland”

  1. As an avid cross-stitcher myself and a person handling M&E, this was such a lovely post. Agree on the missing a stitch or a row but still being able to catch up. Here I think the cross-stitcher is helped by the constant discipline of counting (not particularly aiming this to mean Quant methods – rather constantly checking). And have you ever tried to use a skein that is so close in colour to the fabric? Such subtle differences! Let’s toast the newbie cross-stitcher who does simple samplers 3 by 3 inches wide as well as the cross-stitcher who aims at a 2 feet wide pattern.

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