Here, again

I start my PhD again at the start of November, after fourteen months out. I’m kind of looking forward to it, and kind of scared, so I thought I’d write about what I’m thinking. 

I spoke to my supervisor a couple of weeks ago, and agreed to come up with a plan for how I might address the next seven months, which is the time remaining of my studentship. In theory I can finish by then. In theory. 

When I paused the PhD in August 2021 I was tangled up. Tangled in ideas, in processes, in whether my performance of scholarship measured up – to whose expectations, I’m not sure; most likely my own. When I paused, I dropped everything. Looking through my papers feels akin to how it might feel to return to a house hurriedly abandoned, looking around, surveying the damage. I’m finding myself looking at possessions whose purpose is now unfamiliar. Wondering what has been washed away. I have surprisingly little recollection of what it was I was writing about – I remember something about a breakthrough, something to do with play and learning and affinity spaces maybe, but I’m not sure what it was. I wasn’t systematic or methodical in my approach; quite the opposite, in some sort of wilful (or rather, belligerent) resistance to orderly systems which might actually have helped me but which, in my tangle, I perceived as stifling my creativity. That old lie so readily grasped when spiralling out of control. 

The months leading up to that point had been gruelling, arguably no more so than for all of us trudging through the pandemic experience, but with some added spice in the form of family illness, family members’ mental health struggles, and my husband, who worked in primary healthcare management, coordinating covid responses and shouldering ever more stress. Everything felt brittle. I remember saying to someone that if my husband had given any indication that quitting the PhD was right, I’d have dropped it in a minute, to escape the feeling that everything would fracture – so he carefully didn’t, until the day when I sat and cried and he said that if it was upsetting me so much then maybe it really just wasn’t worth it. So I did the sensible thing, and suggested to my supervisor that I pause – ‘only for a month, I’ll be fine after that’ – and she said to take three months. That was in August 2021. 

At the end of September, I remarked to my husband over dinner that the anxiety seemed to have waned.

Nine days later, he died. 

Reader, the anxiety no longer waned. 


Now, a year later, I think I’m ready to try again. I know there are things I want to think about and to write about, about making and play and shared learning, and how we develop new skills. I think there’s something worth sharing. My concentration isn’t what it was, though, and even before, it really wasn’t great, with wasps in my head all the time. There’s a theory that ‘early grief’ lasts roughly two years, and given the unexpectedness of what happened, I’ve now had the equivalent of a brain injury. Can I really do this? I’ve tried to write since – a book chapter – and the words slipped and slid while my panic mounted. That was a few months ago though. Will it happen again, wheels spinning in mud while I grow frantic at my stuckness? 

I’m trying to remember all the things people say, about how perfect is the enemy of good, and that it’s about persistence, and that all I need to do is to show up at the page every day. This is where I find myself. Onwards and alongwards, I suppose. Let’s see how this goes.

(mage to reinforce that notion that sometimes the straightest path is the hardest path.)

See what happens…

I finished a new textile piece and I think it needs a bit of explanation.

I started this work somewhere in the middle of 2021, after listening to the audiobook of Oliver Burkeman’s ‘The Antidote’ (subtitled ‘happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking). In one chapter he presents the idea of eschewing a goal-driven way of life, suggesting (via the Stoics) that we instead simply ‘see what happens’. At the time I was struggling with the banal agonies of writing up a PhD. 

I’d been thinking about maps, following on from the simple textile map I’d made a couple of months previously, and had also been thinking about the delights of narrow bias binding, appliqued onto the surface of a piece of fabric rather than being used for, well, binding – inspired by Florence Knapp’s London Tube map interpreted in Liberty lawn fabric. I thought about how I might use bias strips to represent roads… which led on to thinking about junctions, as this mirrored the notion of finding oneself at a crossroads (hence the exhortation to ‘see what happens’). I started looking at examples of junctions on Google Maps, discarded Birmingham’s ‘spaghetti junction’ as too simple (!) and then happened across the Kennedy Interchange in Louisville, Kentucky, USA. As a way of understanding which roads went where, I coloured the different routes on a printout; this became a pile of three different colours of bias binding, which sat on my desk for a while as I steeled myself for the task of sorting and pinning them into place.

The project sat for a month… and another month, while I paused the PhD… and another month, while I tried to get my head together… and then it got buried under a pile of paperwork when my husband died unexpectedly. He’d been particularly interested in how this piece would come together, but I couldn’t concentrate on anything more than finding ways of hauling myself through each day.

Three months later, and after finishing my stitched diary of 2021 (seen here), I decided to return to the project, as much for distraction as anything, but it turns out grief does strange and unexpected things to a person, and in wearing my shoulders somewhere round my ears, the act of slipstitching the bias strips to the blue fabric soon became very uncomfortable. The project paused again. Two more months passed, with the project visible and nagging, before I decided to wade back in with a slightly bigger needle than the 5cm embroidery needle I was using previously, and suddenly my shoulder no longer hurt as much and the pace picked up significantly.

This project was intended as a quick experiment, to ‘see what happens’, rather than an nine-month process, but its message has gained new significance for me now that I find that I am unable to rely on how I will find myself from one day to the next. I have various other projects trundling along, one large and several small (not counting the small matter of the PhD), but there’s lots to return to in this piece. 

Stitching the map by walking the walk

I’ve been thinking about stitched maps for ages, but, as is always the way, there needs to be a prompt to get me going. This time it was a conversation with the inimitable Emma Bearman about the LovetoPlay 2021 festival, happening in Leeds and intergalactically (as she puts it) between 10 and 17 April 2021. 

The finished map: felt and cotton on cotton background, approximately 25cm square

I was wondering what a map I made might look like, and what maps can represent. I’ve found that I’ve been stuck in thinking about documents of boundaries, roads, infrastructure, rather than considering more imaginative, playful approaches to map-making, for instance as a record of a journey still taking place – as in the way in which, in cartoons, Wil E Coyote might be laying out train tracks or road before him as he chases after the Roadrunner. 

Emma’s call sparked an idea for me to ask people to create their own maps, using whatever tools and materials they had to hand. My invitation said: 

Make a map of your world! Where is important to you? It could be a map from your house to your favourite tree. It could be from your house to school to your favourite sweet shop to the place where you walk your dog. It could be from your gran’s house to the park to your best friend’s house to the seaside. It could be imaginary – if you had a secret underground cave system what would it be like? If it was a treasure map, what would it be like? It could be really detailed or not at all. You could make it with pens and paper, or twigs on the ground, or sew it like I’ve done with mine.

I’ve put together this blog post to show the stages of assembly. In the end, I didn’t have as much time as I’d hoped to put together my sample map; there is probably about ten hours’ worth of stitching in it. Assembling the map was a process of trial and error, with bits and bobs hastily grabbed from a pile of materials; this forced me to be creative as I began to assemble it, as I was away from home but the short time frame meant I had to persist with what was to hand. Fortunately the restrictive resources were counterbalanced by working at a very large table with plenty of room to spread out as I experimented with different fabric combinations. 

The inspiration for the map was drawn from the book From Here to There: A Curious Collection from the Hand Drawn Map Association, by Kris Harzinski (website:, which encompasses all sorts of cartography, from scribbled diagrams used to offer directions through to more elaborate art maps. I have a collection of maps of my area, and had been thinking about local, and seemingly banal hyperlocal maps. What I created depicts my walk with my dog, a walk I’ve probably done a thousand times, whose familiarity means I could tell you about the cars parked in each driveway, the new gate recently installed in the lane, even the ankle-wrecking tree roots to step over in the woods.

I stripped out various details (I apologised to friends in the village for wiping out their roads) and the work is also not to any particular scale. The important thing I wanted it to communicate was a route from my home to the woods, which, despite stripping out this other information, is still clear. It is intended as an invitation to others to have a go at making a similarly ‘banal’ map. 

The big hindsight observation about making this was that it was a failure of sorts, in that it didn’t actually do what I set out to do. I got so excited by the making process that I didn’t think through the rest of what needed to happen. The intention was that people would make their own maps and email them to me so that I could share all of this lovely home-made-mapping; what happened was that the map and its instructions were put out into the world, with an invitation but no deadline, the post was shared widely and enthusiastically, but then… one single response. This response was great, and was received with much excitement, but it got me thinking about how putting things out into the world is one thing, but putting things out into the world in expectation of specific responses is quite a different thing. In other contexts I know how to put out an invitation and get responses, but it seems I’m still figuring this out when it applies to my own creative work. If you’ll pardon the extended cartographic metaphor, I’m choosing to remember that it’s all part of navigating unfamiliar space. I’m learning my way by feeling my way. Watch this space for revised mapping as I chart new territories…

On crumpling and uncrumpling – a tale of a PhD in progress

I went for a walk yesterday, and as I walked I thought some thoughts. There’s a phrase in PhDland, ‘take breaks – make breakthroughs’, but all too often it feels like it’s more about ‘have breakdowns – take breaks’. This post is a reflection on my experience of crumpling and beginning to uncrumple myself.

The moor between Kettlewell and Starbotton, Yorkshire Dales

My relationship with my PhD has been problematic for a long time. There’s so much information out there about how to navigate the process, and so many of us talking about our experience of the process, but things have been glitching inside my head for months and months now. Some people suggested having a chat and it ended up with me counselling them for an hour – great, and glad to be of help, but not what I needed. It’s like those trite posts on Facebook, where people say they’ll always be there to listen, and it always, always, requires the person in distress to make the first move, which is, of course, the hardest step to take when you’re in distress. 

I took a week off in March, thinking that would help, but I ended up cramming it full of non-PhD activity, as if I had to Do All The Things before the thesis monster ensnared me again. I’d found myself shouting at a constant inner voice to just shut up already will you, just shut up, but it didn’t. I kept feeling as if I was on a rollercoaster dropping into its big dip. I climbed for several years, and I don’t remember things feeling this vertiginous even when topping out on a big multi-pitch mountain route or sea cliff and peering over the edge. The chatter in my head is always about how I haven’t read enough, I don’t know enough, what am I doing, what’s the point. I’ve left emails unanswered (if you’re reading this, please excuse me – my silence isn’t borne of ignorance). I’ve sat staring at the screen, wondering what I might mean by this or by that. I wonder about theoretical underpinnings, things I thought I’d nailed months, years, before. I wonder how it will ever come together. I fear putting it together and being told to go back and rewrite half of it before submission. I fear time running away while I fret. 

The other thing I’ve found is that no matter how much performative martyrdom happens on academic Twitter, (and lord knows there’s a lot of it), there still seems to be a huge omerta around confessing that one is struggling. If you struggle, you’re weak, right? You can’t take it. You’re not a Good Scholar. You’ll never cut it in academia (who says everyone even wants that anyway?) It’s so easy, at these times, to stare out at the people who are killing it, churning out articles, presenting everywhere, networking away, performing brilliance, and to think ‘bloody hell, I’m really not cut out for this business’. Those people are probably marvellous and will go far, but I don’t know most of them from Adam and their lives have zero impact on mine, except for my habit of looking from my messy insides and seeing their gleaming shiny outsides. 

And then there’s Covid, and the long drab winter, and enormous complicated family things that aren’t for public consumption, and all of that, combined with trying to write findings drawn from my own (autoethnographic) experience, well. It’s all got to be too much. I realised I’d begun to resemble one of those insufferable people who thinks that holiday equals weakness – I hadn’t had a two week break in twelve years. The reality of this is, of course, not quite as straightforward as it seems; for instance, I live in a coparenting household, we have an assortment of pets, and my partner’s job becomes problematic with  breaks of more than a week. But even so. Even so. I downed tools on 31st March, and I’ve gardened, and stitched, and sewn, and wandered, and I’ve read books, drawn pictures, stared into space, seen friends, talked to counsellors. I’ve read about maladaptive perfectionism and have stroked my chin while taking notes. 

Yellow lichen on a rock

So yesterday I walked, and thought, and looked at lichen and lambs and places where the land has slipped down the hillside, and I thought about all the things I know about bite-size chunks and taking it steady, and slowly I began to think about some of the interesting things about learning amateur crafts alongside others, and about how necessary I think the ‘third spaces’ – the open access making spaces of my research – are. I remembered that all my stitching, which is only notionally part of my PhD but which has been the huge personal discovery of my doctoral time, will wait for me. I reminded myself that I don’t have to stop doing everything for the next six months or however long it takes, that time off is as important as time doing. I walked along in the spring sunshine and I felt better than I have in probably eighteen months. Reader, it was quite the revelation. 

An embroidered record of a Covid year

My friend Jon Rainford flung down a gauntlet on Twitter a couple of weeks ago, in the form of a challenge to document this strange Covid year in just one image. I’ve been thinking a lot about maps, charts, diagrams, data visualisation, all rendered in stitch, so it seemed logical to stitch my interpretation. I have chosen to include a mix of the micro and the macro to reflect the fact that while we have all shared a common experience of some form of loss, so too have we have all felt very specific individual impacts as we’ve travelled through the year.

The image is 50cm x 50cm (unmounted and with unfinished edges at this stage), using perle cotton, coton à broder and stranded cotton threads on a cotton poplin base.

A reflection on the opportunity cost of nearby hills, or, the fear of squandering chances

Vintage Ordnance Survey map of Beinn Eighe hills, Torridon, Scotland

I’ve been thinking about uncertainty a lot recently.

I’m a mature student. I came back to academic study at 38, after several years spent working in various roles in the creative and cultural industries. I came back because I felt that I was at a crossroads, sure that what I’d been doing wasn’t moving me forward, but at the same time feeling unsure about what possibilities might lie ahead. One thing led to another and I’m now in the fourth year of a PhD, at 44. I’m in the ‘writing up’ phase, an innocuous term for what could reasonably be likened to that process whereby rough stones are turned and rolled again and again until they become smooth, polished, perfected versions of themselves. 

I’m reading Rebecca Solnit’s ‘A Field Guide to Getting Lost’ as a side-book1 as I ponder uncertainty within the making process. I’m researching my own experiences in amateur craft classes, rifling through notes and photographs, holding up artefacts to observe the traces of their making, and hauling forth the self that attended the classes, with all the attendant baggage of previous creative experience. This, and thinking about Tim Ingold’s ideas about ‘wayfaring’, that is, finding a way through, is all leading me to think about the path I’ve travelled through the doctoral experience thus far. I’ve scaled various peaks on my journey, and a fair few marshy bogs of the sort where one’s foot can suddenly give way into a stinking heavy mass of peat – what the Thesis Whisperer aptly describes as the ‘Valley of Shit’. For the first time in months I feel as if I’m on some sort of reasonably clear path at the moment, even if it’s only a path whose bearings are drawn from what Ingold describes as ‘attentionality’2. I can’t yet see the summit, but if I can trust the sketched map I carry in my head, I should reach it at some point in the middle of 2021. 

As much as I’m looking forward, placing each word in front of the last, I’m also trying to look around and to remember to look back too, at where I’ve come from (the best views often being the ones behind you). As I reflect on the landscape, thinking about uncertainty, I consider the journey I’ve undertaken, wondering about those cliched paths not taken. This is the thing about sitting with uncertainty; it is sometimes exhilarating, but is more often uncomfortable and destabilising. Have I done what I set out to do? Should I be creating more opportunities – to extend the metaphor, should I be bagging those adjacent peaks whose summits require barely any loss of height? With six months (or thereabouts) of funding left, and an uncertain future ahead in 2021, is it wisest to stride forward, head down, in pursuit of that final summit, or should I take a moment to grab the chances that still being in this rare position might afford a person? 

1 These are the books I read in bed at night to distract myself from the books I read at my desk during the day. 

2 Ingold, T., 2015. The Life of Lines. 1st ed. Abingdon: Routledge. p.133.

On tuning in and tuning out


I don’t often write blog posts, but things bubbling away seemed worthy of articulation.

The best way to describe my anxious feelings is that it’s as if there’s a very loud clanging bell or the sound of roaring traffic inside my head, which, as a noise-sensitive person, I find pretty unbearable. I noticed that despite all its myriad complications and devastations, one good thing that came out of the lockdown back in March and April was that it felt as if the volume knob had been turned right down on the world, and consequently my anxiety became more manageable – the clanging and roaring and clattering stopped, albeit for a while. Recently the clanging has become quite intense, and I’ve found myself longing for that function once again. I decided I’d make a stitched panel about it, as a way of thinking through the idea.

As I put the panel together, however, I found myself reflecting on the wider context of wanting to ‘turn down the volume on the world’, and how problematic it is. In the face of  the multiple impacts of coronavirus or the failures of education policy, atrocities in Belarus or the explosion in Beirut, the suggestion that one might want to muffle this comes from a position of extreme privilege, to suggest that one has the option to be able to somehow set the world aside instead of being forced to confront it.

Perhaps, then, it’s about finding ways to better differentiate between the signal and noise – toning down, for instance, the relentless performances of brilliance and of rage in the vacuums of social media (I’m looking at you, academic Twitter), and finding ways to quell the clanging in my head so I can concentrate on the work in front of me.

As ever, the act of making doesn’t silence the noise, but rather, it offers a time-space in which I can reflect, sit with the discomfort for a while, and find ways to tune in – and work out what to tune out.






An embroidered organogram

I spent half of August and September in Aarhus, Denmark, undertaking a Researcher Employability Project as part of my WRoCAH doctoral scholarship. This involved spending time at the Godsbanen cultural production facility, observing interactions in the Open Workshops, with the aim of producing a creative output and a report on my findings.

The embroidered organogram I created shows the structure of the staffing in the workshops, and will be used to show how the spaces function. The video-collage below offers a view of the development of the piece.

The process has built on methods used in my stitch journal, and has employed ethnographic research techniques such as participant observation for its content. It has inspired further thoughts about embroidered data visualisation and interpretation, and I’m now thinking about other opportunities to use this approach.

In Aarhus

(after letting this bit of my website gather dust for a year or so, I thought I’d try a spot of blogging. Next time there might even be photographs.)

I told myself I’d write a blog about my experiences here.

So here I am in Aarhus, for one month (only). I’m doing what my scholarship organisation (the WRoCAH AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership) call a ‘REP’, a researcher employability project, which is intended to give us reckless PhD folk some work experience outside the academy, to show us wider horizons and give us more options when we realise that either academia isn’t for us, or, more likely, that we’re not for academia. I already have a fair bit of work experience, some twenty years’ worth, so I’m treating this as an opportunity to do things a little differently.

I’m spending time in the open workshops at Godsbanen, a cultural production facility located in the town’s old railway goods depot. The workshops are of unusual scale even for Denmark, where there’s more of a culture of craft and making; this is their third iteration, from beginnings as Huset (translation: house), set up by the city council in 1971 after youth demonstrations demanding craft facilities. Imagine. Imagine people on the streets, with placards and chanting and ‘What do we want? Woodwork facilities! When do we want them? NOW!’ After a spell above a supermarket, the facilities were relocated to Godsbanen, which opened in 2012. The premise behind my project involves investigating interactions between users of the spaces – some volunteers, for instance, have been involved with the workshops since the start of Huset, and semi-professionals mix with amateurs, amongst whom there might be very experienced practitioners as well as complete novices. The workshops consist of a metalwork space, a woodwork facility, a big laser cutter, a ceramics workshop and a textiles/printmaking space. On Saturday I hung out in the textiles space, pleased to be in my comfort zone; today I’ve been in the ceramics (form) workshop, observing interactions. There is, of course, a language barrier, and I feel very grateful that the Danish people I’ve encountered thus far are able to speak English.

I sat in the workshop for three hours and these are some of the things I noted: The queue of people waiting for the workshop to open at 1pm, to take up one of the twenty or so places in the workshop; the way in which anyone can wander in, no membership or details required, and get stuck into clay activity; the volunteers on hand to help with technical problems; the equipment and oxides drawn from behind a series of anonymous plywood-faced cupboards; test tiles glazed in every clay and glaze permutation; everyone seemingly focused on their own work, in a convivial atmosphere.

Getting into the groove is proving a little tricky, but there’s plenty of time ahead – I’m reading a paper about shyness in qualitative research(1) at the moment, and reminding myself that it can work in one’s favour sometimes. The intention is that I will create some sort of embroidery to reflect on the relationships between different user groups, along with a report and some photographs. It’s a chance to test out some ideas about creative methods, but it’s very much an experiment, with all the attendant risks.

A month away is quite a thing, once you’ve reached a stage in life where there are pets and gardens and washing to be sorted. I lived alone for years, and though I thought I’d appreciated the solitude, the time to get on with things, I now realise that I squandered so much; but then, don’t we all, sometimes, for want of a crystal ball? Only four days in, and I’m finding that I don’t quite know what to do with myself, with all this time made available through not having to let the dog out, let the dog in, let the dog out, let the dog in, supervise the cats’ dinnertime so the dog doesn’t snaffle it, sort socks, load the washing machine, unload the washing machine, nip out for groceries, let the cats out… and so on. I have a little work to do whilst here, a short paper to write and some thinking to do, but I’m determined that the work won’t fill all the available time. I’ve come here full of good intentions to learn some new habits, to unpick and understand some aspects of academic practice that I daren’t admit out loud to not knowing. I think I’m hoping to believe that a month can transform a person. Failing that, I have embroidery, writing, drawing, lino cutting, swimming attire, and running things. Heaven forbid that I might be bored.

(1) Scott, S., Hinton Smith, T., Harma, V. & Broome, K., 2012. The reluctant researcher: shyness in the field. Qualitative Research, 12(6), pp. 715-734.