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  • evanitallie

I'm making a quilt (and trying to level up my wardrobe).

Updated: May 12, 2022

I had a lot of anxiety when I started graduate school about what I would wear every day. I’m not totally sure why, I had worn a reasonable assortment of clothes during college, and I had spent a lot of time working in a lab then. The solution that I decided on was to create a “uniform.” I bought khaki pants from Target in three different colors, a bunch of men’s standard-issue colored t-shirts from Walmart (including in a neon yellow color?!), two fake leather belts, and black Adidas Sambas. (I am both sad and grateful that I don’t have any pictures of me in these clothes.) But almost immediately upon starting my PhD I started to collect new t-shirts, mainly free t-shirts with graphics from PhD program or Systems Biology Department retreats. The collection grew as the years went on, and I even got involved in co-designing a few. Soon I was no longer wearing the Walmart tees, and instead I was wearing my free t-shirts, usually with jeans. I still wore the black Adidas Sambas.

Posing with my awesome summer 2018 mentee in highly representative attire.

Late summer 2019 I was in Denver with my cousin. We were getting ready one morning to meet up with friends, and I was trying to figure out what to wear. I was feeling joyful about the clothes I was considering putting on; I was so relieved that I wasn’t going to wear jeans and a t-shirt. I looked at Gina and said: “when I finish my PhD, I’m going to throw out all of the t-shirts that I wear routinely to lab so that I will be forced to upgrade my wardrobe.” She suggested that I could also make the tough road of finishing my PhD easier by upgrading my wardrobe now. But I said that I didn’t have time for such a big task.

Fast forward a year later to the fall of 2020, and I started thinking about making a quilt. I had always slept during the months of mild Boston weather under a quilt made by my maternal great-grandmother. But during the pandemic, when I sat at my small desk right next to my bed all the time, I started to appreciate the quilt even more. I was drawn to the creative medium. I like spatial organization, and I was excited about being able to use color and pattern without having drawing skill. I was also inspired by the strong history of women in the textile arts. I realized that I could make a quilt from the t-shirts that I was longing to "decommission." All of these t-shirts had graphics, but I didn’t want a quilt that emphasized the graphics, instead I wanted to use the well-worn and unadorned t-shirt fabric. My desire was to created something new with a connection to my past, not to purely memorialize.

My parents lying on the quilt made by my maternal great-grandmother after moving me into my apartment my first year of graduate school.

Last summer I defended my PhD thesis. Afterword, I started making the quilt. I was so anxious to start that I failed to do any research or planning. But I was immediately soothed by the process of hand-sewing pieces of material together. At the end of August, I moved out of my Brookline apartment. As I prepared to move, I sorted my t-shirts into the ones I planned to use for the quilt and the ones I would give or throw away. I thought that maybe I would be tempted to wear the t-shirts set aside for quilting if I didn’t cut them up immediately, but it was surprisingly easy to stop wearing them. I started buying some new clothes. Largely non-graphic, not-free, t-shirts designed for a woman’s body. Not a huge step, but it felt like progress. When I was in New Jersey in the period around my father’s death, I was pulled back to quilting. It was something to do as we spent time together at home, but I was still cutting the fabric with scissors and the product was looking pretty crummy. Then, I consulted with a close family friend and quilting pro. It was obvious that the finished product would look a lot better, and be easier to assemble, if I cut up the shirts into consistently sized squares and used them as my starting material. Soon I had my own fabric cutting mat, fabric ruler, and rotary cutter. I would still do the sewing by hand.

Cutting a PhD Program Retreat t-shirt into 4" by 4" squares with a rotary cutter.

My vision had always been a checkered quilt top. The first step would be to sew checkered two-color four-by-four squares from 4” by 4” t-shirt pieces. Then, I would sew these four-by-four squares (approximately 15” by 15”) into the complete quilt top. If I sew the four-by-four squares into a five-by-six rectangle the resulting quilt will be 6’ by 7’2”. This is approximately the size of a standard quilt for a twin bed. The smaller pieces are made up of sixteen squares, eight each of two colors. Almost half of my shirts were black. I realized that I could make half of the quilt-top squares black and gray and the other half two other colors. So far, I have sewn sixteen four-by-four squares. I need to sew fourteen more black and gray ones. And then sew the four-by-four squares together, quilt the quilt-top to the batting and backing, and finish the edges. I expect it to take at least another six months, hopefully no more than a year, to finish.

One of the really beautiful things that came out of the last six-months of my PhD was a deep appreciation for the journey of creating something. This quilt is my first serious venture in creating outside of the science or writing space. There are many parallels to the other creative experiences I have had. You start with one vision but then it changes as you actually start making something. Initially, I didn’t want any graphics at all in the quilt, but I have since changed my mind and have included squares that have a little bit of printing. I also didn’t originally envision the color four-by-fours as all using a blue fabric, but as I sewed more and more it emerged as a theme. This fall I occasionally found myself without enough squares of the right color and would end up with a four-by-four square that a had a few component squares of random colors. Initially I thought this would be fine, but I later decided that I wanted every four-by-four square to just have two colors. Change in desired product means revising. Luckily, with a seam-ripper tool it is not very hard to replace a square or return an entire four-by-four square to its starting components. This quilt has been a small scale and mediative reminder that progress is not always a constant journey forward, and that if change in a goal means revising, it’s okay. Lastly, a beautiful feature of hand-sewing, and the reasonable size of the four-by-four squares, is that I can sew anywhere. I usually sew sitting on a couch, and I have sewed all over the country these past six-months.

And the wardrobe upgrade? By contrast to the steady progress I have made on the quilt, wardrobe upgrading has stalled. But I think it will pick up soon. I’m on the precipice of some major life changes and new opportunities to consider how I present myself to the world.


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