Anne of PlayCrafts 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. computer scientist and quilter Anne of Play-Crafts.

ann playcrafts one up pixel pillow

I started quilting when I was 8. I made the start of a row of log cabin blocks, declared it boring and moved on to the next shiny thing. Fast forward almost 30 years, and I found myself in grad school for computer science, going nuts from stress, long hours, and general insecurities. My good friend and I decided we would make some pixel art projects to liven up the lab. Our lab studied video games, but the decor was standard boring cube farms, and we were determined to fix this. At some point I remembered that I “knew how to quilt” so I decided to make a pixel pillow cover featuring the 1Up mushroom from Super Mario Bros. I carefully collected fabrics, cut everything out and put together a pillow cover. Using 5/8″ seams. Needless to say, the pillow ended up quite a bit smaller than I was expecting, but I still enjoyed the process more than my 8-year-old self had.

Throughout the rest of my grad school career, I delved more and more deeply into quilting. It was my creative outlet when I needed a time out from my research and paper writing. I found a lovely community of modern quilters and we started a local chapter of the modern quilt guild. Being around other women really helped balance out my day-to-day life. Computer science is traditionally male dominated, and I had been surrounded by men for most of my life. It was so refreshing to meet other women who I shared a similar interest. My advisors were all male, so having women who I could chat with and discuss things with played such a huge role in keeping me from going insane/dropping out of grad school.

But while quilting helped me survive grad school, grad school definitely helped me become a better quilter in ways I never would have guessed. Before grad school, I was a starter. I’d start a ton of projects and finish almost none of them unless they only took a few hours to complete. Grad school on the other hand, is about the long haul. Working on something over years, and seeing it slowly come to fruition. Getting a PhD is often far more about sheer willpower and stubbornness than it is about intelligence, and I learned to be incredibly stubborn about finishing things I’d started! So while I have a WIP pile just as big as the next person, I have completed projects to show, too. And for me that’s a huge step!

Grad school also taught me that it’s not talent that leads to mastery, it’s practice. And often times “good enough” is all you need. In the past, if I was bad at something, I’d stop because obviously “I’m not good at that.” Grad school doesn’t really let you stop when you’re not good at something. Instead you learn about it, and practice it until you’re good enough to get through it. This was a totally foreign concept to my perfectionist tendencies, and an important lesson for me to learn. It’s what means that even though my first tries at paper-piecing were quite bad, I just kept trying until I’d mastered it (and now I make paper-piecing patterns!) And someday I know with enough practice, I may actually master free-motion quilting. Okay, with a LOT more practice.

ann playcrafts bentobox quilt

When it came time to write my dissertation, I quit quilting as all my energy and time went to writing. To get through that, I started collecting fabrics for my “dissertation quilt”, or the quilt I’d create when it was all done. I had a color scheme in mind, so whenever I’d find a quilt shop, I’d look for fabrics for it. By the time I’d finished my dissertation, I’d managed to collect close to 100 fabrics for my quilt, which was perhaps a bit more than I needed! I just recently finished my dissertation quilt last Christmas. It took almost 2 years to finish, and it now lives on our bed at home and makes me smile every time I see it! I worked on it in starts and stops, but never gave up on it. And while the piecing wasn’t perfect, they were good enough, and that’s all I needed

Comments 12

  1. I’m in the middle of writing my dissertation right now so I love the idea for this series. Knitting and sewing have been so important to me during grad school!

    Anne, I love your dissertation quilt–such a great idea. I wholeheartedly agree with this statement: “Grad school also taught me that it’s not talent that leads to mastery, it’s practice.” I’m struck by how much my approach to crafting has changed with the research skills, general resilience, and stick-to-it attitude I’ve learned in graduate school.

    1. Thanks Anna! I tell people I went to grad school to become a better computer scientist, but what I learned in grad school actually had very little to do with CS. It’s instead exactly those things you listed! It’s affected pretty much every area of my life in ways I was not expecting. I also suspect it’s made me a little more annoying to be around. ;) “Wait, I don’t believe that thing you just said. I’m going to go research it and find some reputable sources before I’ll let that claim stand.” is something my partner has had to get used to!

  2. Hi, I find that series quite inspiring, being in grad school myself. I share Annes opinion about success (in grad school or in crafts) being more about being stubborn and pushing through, learning on the way and being content with a result that works out fine, instead of striving for perfection and giving up when it cannot be reached. It leads to a more relaxed and happy life in general I would even dare to say :-)

    1. Thanks Annemarie, and good luck in grad school! I’m not sure my newfound attitude has led to me being more relaxed (I’m still working on that) but it definitely has led me to more success and self-confidence due to being able to finish things and be okay with them not being perfect. So happier, yes! :D

  3. This was à really interesting read! I can relate because I just recently completed my master of science and when I was having a tough time I always turned to sewing. In between writing my thesis I would be cutting and taping PDF patterns. Ha.

    1. Congratulations on your MS degree! :D That’s fantastic. :) I found that most of my colleagues found some sort of creative outlet of some form or another to make it through grad school. I think people might go insane without them! :)

  4. I just had to comment how much I love the fact that everyone who has left a comment so far has Anne or Anna of some form in their name. Synergy, go!

  5. I too saved fabric throughout my PhD, thinking “No quilting, til it’s done” . Trying to create a quilt from 28 pansy fabrics has created a monster that may never see the light of day! I relate to much of what you have posted, the persistence especially that one learns. Especially when you have reached your limits seemingly, which for many of us may not have happened before.

    How long til calling yourself Dr seems real though? Still seems a bit of a dream for me.

  6. Congratulations on obtaining your PHD, Erin! I was awarded a PHD from the SHK. Anne is a wonderfully creative friend to have. Aren’t we lucky!!?! You both do beautiful work!

  7. I have a Master’s degree and a few years ago took a sabbatical from work to study Chinese full-time for a year. I didn’t quilt that whole time as I was too busy doing homework. It was torture; both the course and not being able to quilt. When I started to quilt again, it was very simple quilts, as if I was a newbie. Eventually, I got back up to intermediate. Needless to say, on the weekends now I would rather quilt than study Chinese and sadly those language skills have gone down the drain. But I sure am happy be to quilting again!

  8. Love this series. PhDs and quilting DO go hand in hand. I have a PhD in microbiology and find that my love for innane repetitive tasks, like moving small volumes of water from one tube to another 100 times, perfectly translates to a love for trimming 100 HSTs.

  9. I love that dissertation quilt – what a wonderful way to have your memories and remind yourself of your accomplishments! Congrats on your PhD, I can’t imagine how much work that was for you. My husband is a doctor, and I saw how much work getting the MD was – whew!

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