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Lessons learned while crocheting the perfect sock

July 08, 2017 — Glyn Faulkner

Sometimes I make things from yarn.

My mother taught me to knit when I was a child, I'm currently teaching myself naalbinding, and when I was working towards my PhD I was a member of the university knitting society, where someone kindly taught me to crochet.

Crochet is great. I like to think of it as attention-deficit knitting, because it has such an excellent effort-to-reward ratio. If a knitted item grows by five millimeters per row, something crocheted in the same yarn might grow by fifteen or twenty. Using the right stitch, you can rattle-off a very nice hat or scarf in a few hours, thank-you-very-much.

But there's a limit to how many hats and scarves one person needs, so when I felt I was ready for the next challenge, I set out to make a pair of socks, inspired by a friend who was always making the most amazing knitted socks.

Now, perhaps you've never seen a crocheted sock, but if you have, you'll appreciate that a typical crocheted fabric doesn't have the characteristics you want for a comfortable sock. It tends towards thick and lumpy with lots of little holes. And importantly it isn't stretchy in the right way. Crocheted slippers actually work quite well, but socks are a different matter.

And so began a minor odyssey of trial, error and research. It turns out you can make a thin, even, stretchy fabric with crochet, using a collection of related techniques referred to as slip-stitch crochet. Unfortunately slipstitching grows even more slowly than knitting, and requires learning a quite different technique to regular crochet in order to get the tension right.

One time I showed a fellow crocheter a swatch of test fabric I'd made. She was impressed and asked how I'd made such a nice knit-like fabric with crochet. When I told her it was slipstitched she cheerfully replied "Fuck that; life's too short!"

Of course, she was right. I should have listened. But I didn't.

So, a full year later, and with a succession of failed, mismatched, unwearable socks behind me, my crusade had become a standing joke among my peers. In the time it had taken me to not make a pair of socks, my friends had knitted jumpers and cardigans, crocheted umpteen hats, scarves and a zoo's worth of amigurumi, and one had even knitted a half-metre long, distressingly realistic octopus!

It took another six months and a couple more tries, but eventually I succeeded! I held in my grubby little hand a finished sock that I would totally be willing to wear. It was rather plain, and should probably have come a bit higher above the ankle, but was nevertheless the best crocheted sock I had ever seen anywhere.

I rejoiced!

If you're a knitter, you might be familiar with a phenomenon called second sock syndrome. That's when you've knitted a sock, and by the time you're done, you're so bored with the pattern that you never get around to making the second one.

Now, take that idea and imagine you have one foot for ever failed prototype I had made during the preceding year and a half. By this point I was -- understandably -- suffering from fifteenth sock syndrome, and never wanted to see another wretched sock in my life, let alone try and crochet one!

But now, with a bit of perspective, it's kind of gratifying to know that I'm one of the very few people in the world who can make a thin, stretchy, comfortable, good-looking sock using only yarn and a crochet hook...

...even if I never ever plan to do so.

Tags: perfectionism, failure

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Breaking up is hard to do

June 18, 2017 — Glyn Faulkner

This post was originally written for Mind Your Head York, a great organisation helping PhD students deal with stress and mental health issues.

Nearly four years in, with the deadline looming large, my PhD was in a death-spiral. My research was unravelling, and every attempt I made to shore-up the sinking ship cost me a section of the thesis that was supposed to be done and dusted.

The worst part: it was entirely my own fault. For four years I had let my inner-perfectionist have too much control. I had thrown away too much good work in the mistaken belief that my approaches weren't creative enough, my solutions not elegant enough. I had discarded research that I could have salvaged, and re-written entire chapters that I should have edited. Finally my time and motivation were all spent, and I had insufficient to show for it.

The Saturday before I was due to submit, a conversation with my long-suffering supervisor confirmed what I already knew: in the best-case scenario I was looking at major corrections. His advice was to submit what I had with an explanatory note, and ask for the opportunity to resubmit. As usual, it was good advice -- I had been lucky in the supervisor lottery -- but the very idea of another year working on a subject for which all my enthusiasm had long-since evaporated filled me with dread. I decided to sleep on it, rather than making a decision on the spot.

The following morning, I emailed my supervisor again to say I wouldn't be submitting.

And with that, my PhD was over.

The sense of relief was overwhelming. I spent the following days picking-up hobbies and interests that had fallen by the wayside while I had been trying to write-up, and doing all the little tasks that had been quietly piling up. The contrast between how easy it all was compared to wading through the swamp of my thesis convinced me that I had done the right thing.

A couple of weeks on, when I had a little perspective but while it was all still clear in my mind, I sat down and wrote a post-mortem in the form of letter to future-me detailing my thoughts and feelings, and all the factors that contributed to my situation and decision to quit. When the rose-tinted spectre of regret rears its ugly head, I read that note and am reminded that this wasn't a decision I made lightly, but rather one that I needed to take for the sake of my own mental health and wellbeing.

One thing I dreaded afterwards was facing friends, family and colleagues -- having to explain my failure to everyone. But ultimately, even that wasn't so bad: while a few were critical, most were supportive. In particular everyone I spoke to who had done a doctorate themselves understood entirely. One member of my research group made a very astute observation: most people don't beat themselves up over quitting a job that's making them miserable. Why should a PhD be any different?

No, I didn't get those two magical letters in front of my name -- and yes, that sucks -- but I still got so much out of it, not only an in-depth knowledge of my field of study (and knowledge about myself!) but also a wealth of experiences I wouldn't otherwise have had, in the company of great friends and colleagues I wouldn't have had the opportunity to meet and work alongside.

It's easy to write "never give up" on a pretty picture and post it on Twitter, but here in the real world things are rarely so clear cut, and one lesson my PhD taught me is the value of knowing when to cut my losses and move on.

Tags: failure, PhD

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