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.
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.
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