Posted by: barn owl | May 26, 2008

Added Weight: Yes, I’m Paying Attention to the Science

While spring cleaning (belated) and sorting this weekend at the Barn Owl Roost, I came across this Icelandic Lopi sweater that I started knitting waaaayyyy back in graduate school. Back when glyptodonts scarred the West Texas high plains turf with their claws…. As I assessed the remaining yarn and the pattern, to determine whether I could finish the project (Reynold’s Lopi Volume 11, Pullover #11a, if you’re wondering), I tried to recall why I had stopped working on the sweater. Had I decided the colors didn’t suit? Had I forgotten how to carry two colors of yarn while knitting on circular needles? Had the unfinished sweater and yarn been stored at my parents’ house? Had I *gasp* changed size?


The answer to all four questions above is an emphatic “No”, so why did I stop working on a sweater, when I was so close to having a wearable finished project? Part of the answer, undoubtedly, is that I enjoy starting needlework and art projects much more than I enjoy completing them. In the Meyers-Briggs scheme of things, I am a “P”, not a “J”. But I think the primary reason that I stopped working on the Lopi sweater has more to do with the academic culture in which I was “raised” throughout childhood, undergraduate university, and graduate school, and my inability to retrieve that environment in any academic setting post-grad school.

Creativity, multi-tasking, and crafts(wo)manship seemed to be valued highly in my graduate school environment. I would have been embarrassed to have failed to produce a handmade gift for a baby shower or important birthday. The frequent communal events were graced by a variety of wonderful home-prepared foods and exotic dishes, games, pets, people making music, and groups of people knitting or otherwise engaged in crafts. Many scientists-largely, but not exclusively, the female faculty and students-knitted, crocheted, embroidered, and crafted throughout group meetings and journal clubs. Few ever doubted that they were paying attention to the science as well…it was a given that multi-tasking is an ability that many humans, young or old, possess.

I was very comfortable in this environment, as it was similar to the one in which my sister and I were raised by our academician parents. I don’t wish to dwell on the negative, but suffice it to say that I was in for a rude awakening, after I finished my doctoral work and went on to postdoctoral research. In retrospect, I think that much of the disdain for “wasting one’s time on arts and crafts”, as well as the suspicion that no one could seriously pay attention to a lab meeting and knit at the same time, amounted to thinly-veiled sexism and misogyny. Perhaps it’s also a function of being in a medical school setting, where things tend to be more formal, inflexible, and male-dominated.

Though I haven’t done needlework in journal club or lab meetings for years now, I’ve remained resolute in my production of hand-made baby gifts and other items. My old grad school friends still contact me, when they’re putting together a special communal project for one of our own. It may sound trite, but needlework projects, whether art or necessity, have provided community bonds and strength for women for centuries-look to the quilts produced by the women of Gee’s Bend for just one example of this. Below is a photo of my embroidered contribution for a gift quilt:


Arts and crafts projects, whether they make a statement or have a function, can also become environmental and social justice projects. I knitted the little caps in the photo below for a Save the Children-sponsored project called “Caps to the Capital”. In the developing world, many infants are born prematurely, or underweight; a simple cap can prevent heat loss, and potentially save a baby’s life. So simple, so inexpensive, so easy to complete a cap in one evening. I used leftover yarn from other projects.


Now that I have some of the security that tenure can bring, I believe it is *my* responsibility to recreate the environment that I loved so much in graduate school. Stop waiting for it to magically appear, and take on the added weight of developing and nurturing it in my own community. In some small ways, I’ve begun this particular journey: hosted a dinner party/workshop on art journaling for a friends’ students, developed a creative course project for grad students that allows them to express their design talents, created fiber art “awards” for top-scoring students in one of my classes, encouraged recycling of plastic bags into crocheted items, produced handmade baby gifts, and defiantly worked on crafts projects at departmental retreats. Yes, I’m paying attention to the science…and by the way, did you know that our local Nine-banded Armadillo is related to sloths and anteaters, gives birth to identical quadruplets, and can harbor Mycobacterium leprae?


Oh, and the Lopi sweater? I started working on it again, and the weaving-in/carrying two colors motor program required less than a round of knitting to retrieve intact. I plan to finish the sweater this summer, so that I’ll have it for trips to the West Coast in November, and to England in February. Also, though it will be difficult to keep this in mind throughout the extended hot weather of South Texas, it *does* get cold here in the winter for a few weeks. I use the heating system rarely, and the sweater will be nice to wear while reading or knitting during those chill evenings. When I travel to meetings, and when I attend journal clubs or qualifying exams, I intend to carry the added weight of a needlework project.


Let the needlework-challenged critics freeze in the dark, sans embellishment or warm fuzzy sweaters.



  1. Thank you for paying attention to the social setting of your work! I wish you all the best with encouraging a better atmosphere.

  2. Beautiful embroidery!

  3. Yah for knitting and other needle crafts. It would be great to work in an environment where people are not constantly surprised by my ability to wield two needles and string and listen and talk.

    I always take my knitting to the sorority meetings for which I am faculty advisor. I know some of the young women knit, but they haven’t bought any to meetings yet. Perhaps I should encourage them more.

  4. Thanks for stopping by my humble blog, y’all!

    The biomedical research funding situation in the US is pretty dire at the moment, so even the smallest attempt at making the environment at work more pleasant is worth the effort. The students can’t help but get discouraged, if the faculty are negative and resentful all the time.

    Thanks! It was one square of a communal quilt, a gift for a woman whose wisdom kept many grad students and postdocs sane, and who continues to produce beautiful handmade things for others.

    I’ve been knitting/crocheting/embroidering during journal clubs and “mock” qualifying exams lately, and both male and female grad students are the ones who are most interested in the process. There even seems to be a “self-sufficiency” dynamic among some of the students…a revitalized interest in handcrafts, growing vegetables, repairing things, building things, cooking from scratch, etc. Definitely should be encouraged!

    Love your avatar, btw!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: