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Amy of Sew Well on Sew-viving Academia

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.!

Comments 24

  1. Congratulations again Seamstress Erin, Ph.D.! Thanks again for having me write up this little piece! It was fun to think about science and sewing!

  2. Yes, a HUGE congratulations to you, Erin! I loved reading this post! I don’t have a PhD BUT my career as a paramedic and Emergency Medical Dispatcher has taught me plenty of things that have helped me out with my sewing. Like how to apply protocol (read through everything in advance, complete each step PRIOR to moving on to the next), and how to be diligent, methodical & careful with each step. It’s taught me patience, calmness and how to work under immense stress.

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      It’s neat that you’re also able to see similar connections between what you have learned in a career and your sewing process. It does make me think more about how anyone should be able to find connections between what they learn in any aspect of life (in school, in a career, raising a family, etc.) and their sewing. Life is one big learning experience and the lessons we learn should carry through all aspects of our life if we are thoughtful about it.

  3. I’m not a scientist, but I did do some database design and general tech work in my day job, and I, too, found that the kind of problem solving I did with sewing complimented the problem solving I did at work. It all made a nice balance. Kudos to both of you for carrying through to the Ph.D!

  4. Congratulations, Erin! And Amy, thank you for explaining why I sew like I sew! I was trained in chemistry and I can so relate to your five examples. I changed scientific research for journalism, and although it didn’t occur to me to start a sewing blog until recently, it certainly makes sense. Writing about my experiments, that’s me.

  5. Always read the instructions?! I’d make a terrible scientist; the world is safer because I don’t work in a lab!! I am extremely visual, and often reading is good, but playing with it in front of my eyes is better.

    Thanks for this, Amy, and I LOVE your coat (top photo).

  6. Congratulations on finishing your Ph.D. Erin!
    Amy’s well-written post is a great example of how our creative expressions stem from the sum of our lives. I am a classical pianist and know my education including the years of training, practicing and listening are intertwined with my sewing.
    Thanks for this great series of posts and I look forward to the next one!

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      Thanks! It seems so obvious to me that science related careers would teach people things about sewing, since that has been my path. But it really fascinates me to hear about how other completely different paths can teach the same lessons. Thanks for sharing!

  7. I can SO relate to this post! I’m not a PhD by any means, but I did work as a nurse practitioner in a neonatal ICU, so the idea of needing to be very precise is completely up my road. When one is working with a one pound baby, there is no room for error in dosing and procedures. I had to be quite precise.

    Now, my kids laugh that I am far more worried about being “on-time” and giving very precise directions, etc. than other moms. Even my son’s music teacher just laughs at my notes to him because I am so exact in my wording. And, yep – it carries over to sewing. I want my seams to line up just right when they meet, I have a ton of books about sewing to learn more and more, and to learn about how to do things the correct way. I read ALL directions with patterns, even ones I’ve made before. It just seem natural to double-check myself, the way we double-checked calculations in the NICU.

    So interesting how our careers influence our sewing!

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      It makes total sense that work in a NICU would teach you many of the same things as working in a lab – and certainly the consequences are much higher in learning those lessons!

  8. There is also the other half of the Ph.D’s – the spouses that get them through! We have earned our degree through osmosis by listening to every grueling detail and the time away from us has made us masters at sewing or at least now we are just as obsessed and appear to be just as intent on our projects as if they were rocket science.

    Congratulations! It is a wonderful feat!

  9. Y’all are a bunch of eggheads! Just kidding, I’m so impressed by you sewin’ academics! I approach sewing from a completely different background, but I really think I’d be a much better seamstress if I WAS a scientist! Interesting post!

  10. Great summary Amy! I think the biggest thing you hit on for me was that sewing actually allows you to create something with an immediate and visible product. Instant gratification moments are few and far between in science!

  11. Erin, congratulations on receiving your Ph.D.! (You probably don’t remember me – we met very briefly at Sewing Summit last fall – I hadn’t realized you were so close to finishing!)

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  12. Great post, Amy! It’s really interesting to think about the relationship between work and sewing. As a current PhD student, I can relate to a lot of what you wrote about.

    One thing I’ll add is that I take very detailed notes in the lab so that when (not if!) things go wrong, I know exactly what I did and what I can think about changing. I do the same with my sewing – writing down all the details – and find it helpful to have a record for later.

    Congrats again to Erin on her PhD! Maybe one day I will graduate too… maybe?? :)

  13. It’s so interesting how many seamstresses have higher education in science – there must be a correlation! I don’t have a Ph.D., but I’m so impressed with anyone who is able to stick through that many years of school. When I was in school, one of my profs told us he spent four hours a day for two years just studying to take a test for admission into a Ph.D. program. The test apparently covered everything. Two years of studying just for a chance to start! Not for me. No way.

    I just have a bachelor degree in math, but I think it definitely influences my sewing. If something isn’t working, I try to think of alternative ways to solve the problem, and I don’t give up until I’ve found a solution! Although I do put it aside for a while if I’m getting frustrated (another lesson learned in school – sometimes the problem will solve itself if you stop looking at it). I also love the visual-spatial aspect of sewing – geometry was one of my favourite subjects.

  14. I have to smile at the level of precision you both (Amy and Erin) say you get in your sewing, from being a scientist! I’m a PhD of 20 yrs, and now a full Prof, but I almost never read pattern instructions and definitely fly by the seat of my pants when sewing. I have always thought that I do that because I just like to figure stuff out for myself so I really understand how it all works, both in sewing and science! Exactly the opposite to you guys. Probably just as well I’m not a molecular biologist ;-)

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      I think I’ve made a lot of my best learning opportunities while sewing from flying by the seat of my pants, because it’s an excellent way to learn. I learn well when I learn the hard way. But the best work I do does come from attention to precision.

    2. This is so interesting. I also have a a PhD (in molecular biology). But am very much a fly by the seat if my pants sewer. I love experimenting and coming up with my own designs. I hate doing the same thing over and over. I love trying new things. I remember being annoyed at my PhD supervisor when he wanted me to repeat an experiment again. I moaned because I couldn’t think of anything else to change to get it to work. (I did it again, changed nothing it worked aaarrrhghhh he was right!

  15. This is so wonderful. I am so glad to know I’m not the only researcher scientist out there who loves to sew. Somehow I’m beginning to think there must be a correlation. I am currently doing my PhD (2nd year) in Microbiology. My research is avian based and viruses that lurk within. This is great. Congratulations Erin on your recent accomplishment!! I could definitely identify with Amy’s pointers above. I have been following you for a while now and I understand the struggles and the challenges of this competing love for science and sewing. To tell you the truth I wonder if I will someday have to give up one because they both require time and energy, not looking forward to my final year :s

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      Thanks! Best of luck in your graduate studies. I do hope that you find a way to continue to sew even as your time has more demands on it. If you do have to set it aside for a bit, know that it is always there for you to pick up. But don’t lose track of how important it is to have hobbies outside of science, for the sake of your mental health!

  16. Congratulations Erin!! And wonderful post, Amy! I finished my Ph.D. in earth systems science 6 years ago – but I admit to only staring at my sewing machine case longingly for most of graduate school. My mom taught me to sew as a young girl and I made many of my own clothes throughout my teenage years. Once I moved out on my own with my mom’s old singer in tow – I never had space to set it up permanently and sewing fell by the wayside. I do think the training my mom gave me in sewing helped me become a better scientist in the lab, though. Hopefully my training in science will help me become a better sewer now! Now that I’m figuring out how to balance teaching, home, a four year old and a soon-to-be infant – I decided to find a permanent sewing space just for me. My machine is out and I’ve completed a few quick and easy projects – and I’m looking forward to more. Thanks to you both for the inspiration!

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      So glad to hear that you’re finding a permanent sewing space! And it’s lovely to hear that your training as a seamstress made you a better scientist since I’ve been thinking about the relationship in the reverse.

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