Finally finishing graduate school this year was the hardest thing that I have done in my life. Working through the challenge, I learned so much about myself. Part of that was learning how important it is to me to sew – to work with my hands, to design, and to create. Sewing is my rock that gets me through hard times. Curious to see if others have had similar experiences, I asked some other sewists to share their personal connections between sewing and making it through graduate school. I’m excited to introduce Ph.D. chemist and seamstress Amy of Sew Well.
First of all, I want to give a huge congratulations to Erin on her well-earned Ph.D. Not only has she now received a few very prestigious letters to add to the end of her name, but she also earned those letters while perfectly poising herself to transition into an independent sewing business. A Ph.D. is a huge undertaking, one with little glory or pay, so to continue the pursuit long after one has realized their passions lie elsewhere shows a laudable depth of character and devotion. But, juggling the time commitment it takes to work long hours in lab, while also hosting Sew Alongs and developing patterns and writing a blog – I’m convinced Erin must not sleep! Thankfully, I’m also convinced there must be something special about science that makes it go hand in hand with sewing because there are so many sewing scientists out there (and so many sewing cat owners as well). So, I do believe Erin’s Ph.D. will almost certainly guarantee her success in her future career. Science + sewing + passion + character + devotion + ability to work long hours + no need for sleep + cats = superstar sewing celebrity pattern designer extraordinaire, naturally!
That said, Erin didn’t ask me to wax poetic about her. She asked me instead to write about my experiences with sewing and having a Ph.D. Now, to come clean, I didn’t start sewing during my tenure as a graduate student. I owned a sewing machine during those years, one of those awesome vintage Singer machines that tucks away into its own sewing table, but I never used it. I’d inherited it from my grandmother, and I kept telling myself I’d find the time to crank it up and get it working, but I never did (right now I have that same relationship with the violin… one day I will learn how to play!). Eventually I moved into a teeny tiny apartment that was too small for the sewing machine and its table, so I put it and my fish tank and a bunch of other random things in storage until I finished my Ph.D. And, wouldn’t you know, when I went back to move my things out of the storage room, everything was there except for my sewing machine. It had just vanished. I was distraught. When it never turned up, my parents gifted me with my current machine. It came with lessons, which were just the thing I needed to actually get started sewing – just in time for my postdoctoral years.
A postdoc is a lot like getting a Ph.D., only since you already have your Ph.D., you’re expected to work faster and more efficiently. Something that would have taken three years during a Ph.D. should only take one year as a postdoc, or something like that. It’s the perfect time to pick up an obsessive hobby! Despite the fact that I probably didn’t have time for all the sewing that I did during my postdoc, I did find it quite therapeutic. If an experiment didn’t work out, it was so nice to be able to go home, turn on the sewing machine, and know that I could sew a seam together and see visual progress immediately. Getting a bit of instant gratification from sewing made it easier to turn around and attempt another experiment the next day in lab.
In turn, I think my training as a scientist has aided in my efforts as a novice sewer to learn how to sew well. Here are five reasons why my training as a scientist has helped my sewing.
1. I always read the instructions. Even on BurdaStyle patterns! I would never attempt an experiment in the lab without fully reading and understanding the protocol first, and sewing is much the same for me. Maybe I won’t have to decades from now after I have loads of sewing experience, but right now, with only several years sewing under my belt, I almost always learn something new or reinforce some good habit or even get a bit of a boost when I realize I know how to do a step a “better” way.
2. I research new techniques. In the lab I was always reading scientific papers or looking things up in text books to make sure I was up to speed on anything relevant to my field. I have a huge sewing library to prove that I do the same thing for sewing! Never worked with silk charmeuse? I have a book that’ll tell you what needle to use and the best ways to finish the hem. Making a high-waisted skirt? I have a book that walks you through how to add boning and stabilize the waistband. And, there’s always the internet when I can’t find the right book.
3. I aim for precision and perfection. In science there is no other way. Everything comes down to the precise amount of reagent or specific gene sequence or what have you. I might not always get there with my sewing, of course, but I never set out with the intention of making a sloppy garment. The few occasions where I’ve rushed through a project have only served to reinforce the fact that that I’m not a fast sewer. When I think about my ideal closet, I’d rather have a few well made things that fit and flatter than a ton of clothes that I don’t feel comfortable wearing.
4. If something doesn’t work out, I change one variable and try again. In science often a reagent can go bad or a dish might not have been properly sterilized, so changing one thing and trying again often leads to success after an initial failure. The same can be true for sewing. Having trouble sewing a seam? Instead of ripping it out and sewing it the exact same way again, I will instead try to change something up – use more pins, hand baste it first, etc. I figure taking the time to think it through and do it slightly differently likely leads to my saving (unpicking!) time in the long run.
5. I know that sometimes, despite my best efforts, things are bound to fail. Not every science experiment will work. In fact, many of science’s successes can be chalked up to luck, not necessarily preparation or hard work. And, the same is true for sewing. Sometimes careful choice of fabric doesn’t mean it will end up being the right fabric for the pattern. Sometimes endless fitting won’t result in a flattering garment. In all cases there’s still something to learn, and then it’s best to move on!
Anyway, those are just several of the ways that my scientific training has positively impacted my sewing. Now I’m curious how all of you feel your backgrounds have influenced your sewing – whether you have a Ph.D. or not. Perhaps you studied art at school or grew with a mother who was constantly sewing or spent a year traveling around the world, your experiences are bound to have impacted your relationship with your sewing machine in one way or the other, right?!
Again, a massive congratulations to Seamstress Erin, Ph.D.!