Friday, March 31, 2017

The Pause in the Method

"Does your quilting help you with your writing?" - an interested reader asked this almost two months ago and it got me thinking about my work process regarding my PhD research and my quilting. Generally, I seem to be spending a lot of time wound up in a seemingly unproductive state in which I am neither writing nor quilting, but well ...planning, napping, designing, loitering, musing, walking, researching, procrastinating, and above all thinking! I create mental images of what kind of quilt I would like to make or think about what I should do with that layer cake of 10 inch squares that's been sitting in my closet for two years. I'll watch some Youtube or Craftsy videos on certain patchwork techniques, read up on them in magazines and books and garner inspiration from Instagram and Pinterest. Similarly, I think about suitable graphic representations of my PhD, about how all the different concepts interact with each other. The more I read, research, and engage in discussions with other academics as well as non-academics, the more complex this web of ideas and concepts inevitably becomes. But there are also those ecstatic moments of epiphany when something suddenly clicks into place. The "problem" is that these moments are difficult to measure in terms of actual output as is the process leading up to them. It doesn't seem acceptable to say I spent four hours thinking, planning, napping, designing, loitering, musing, walking, researching, and procrastinating, when someone asks you about your day's work. Nor does that appear to be an appropriate answer when asked about what kind of quilting project you're currently working on. Especially since I always have more than one project on the go. They exist in various stages of conception and completion. Though some have definitely ended up in the UFO (unfinished object) box because I just no longer feel like working on them, with others, the time spent not directly working on them is definitely part of the process of doing exactly that. Much to the dismay of my grandpa who, for the live of it, cannot understand how I can have a fully basted quilt sitting in the middle of my studio for over a year without doing anything with it. He passes it every time he goes for his daily afternoon nap and while to him it is symbolic of a bad work ethic and procrastination, I take pleasure in having the liberty to spend as much time as I want to on deciding on the quilting design and thread color. As I take a casual or more focused look at it every time I enter the studio, I appreciate the fabrics, design and piecing or don't pay much attention to it at all because I'm in fact all set on working on a completely different project. It's like I'm waiting for the quilt to speak to me about what to do next. In the meantime I may as well be whipping up some other project, make a small pouch or even big bag.

Arranging some fabric strips according to color

With my academic work, of course, it doesn't exactly work that way. There are deadlines to meet, progress to be recorded and things to finish up. After all, this is my job and I'm being paid to produce a measurable end product that can be accessed and cited by others. At times, this certainly proves a struggle because I feel like I'm just not yet "ready" to write or that I'm lacking behind in comparison to others who stick to an impressive and rigorous schedule and appear to be writing all the time. However, two terms into my PhD and besides the general load of things that just "need doing now" I have come to appreciate and value the flexibility academia allows me regarding my schedule and my interests. And no, this doesn't mean that it's all just a wonderful state of bliss in which I "drift" along. There are (regular) moments of self-doubt and of feeling over-whelmed and incompetent as well as some late hours during which I'm frantically trying to finish up some presentation or annotate some book at the last minute. But there's also the moments of ecstasy and elation when I realize that all the hours spent "just" thinking, planning, napping, designing, loitering, musing, walking, researching, and procrastinating have led to the development of a very strong and nuanced argument that seems to just flow from my mind out onto the page.

The outline for my latest conference essay

In this sense, I guess my academic work and my quilting are quite similar in process. Moments of seemingly not "working," of thinking, planning, napping, designing, loitering, musing, walking, researching, and procrastinating are, in fact, part of the process. Plus, my quilting helps me get through moments of impasse and blockage. When I can no longer focus on the problem right in front of me, though it feels as if the answer is almost tangibly close in front of me, I walk away from it and quilt. The engagement with the material, the colours and the repetitive movements along with the continuous whirr of my sewing machine appear to take my mind off the problem I'm working on. Yet, somewhere in the back of my head, my mind seems to continue to work on it and often, when I go back to it after such a creative timeout things seem to flow better again. 

From the "Entangled - Threads and Making" exhibition at the Turner Gallery in Margate


  1. In my work room, the sewing machine and laptop are inches from each other on the same counter. I like being able to shift to producing a visible product when hours of mental activity offer little to show for it. And that unfinished pile? All quilters have one, its origin dates back to when you first started making things-- for me, 1965. My oldest unfinished project-- a cross-stitched quilt top. It doesn't symbolize procrastination, it says I have plans, that I'l never run out of things to do!

    1. Thanks for your comment. I love the idea that the unfinished pile symbolizes plans!