Wednesday, March 10, 2010

New bloom

Just when I thought you would never bloom again, you surprise me.  You remind me that we hold within us the promise of new growth that can burst forth at any time.  Delicate and ethereal, you have the drive to flower that cannot be denied.  You give me hope.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Mud cloth vest: How long did it take you?

Vest back
Vest front, collar turned down 

My latest wearable creation is a cross-cultural fusion, representing the global marketplace at its best.  I used the pattern for a traditional Tibetan panel coat from Folkwear, with the outside panels from handwoven mud cloth from Mali and commercial black linen fabric, which were then embellished with batik-dyed bone beads from Kenya and cowrie shells.  The vest is lined with a cotton print that has a hand-dyed look and cream-colored linen fabric.  The facings are in a wine-colored linen fabric.  I can see that this is yet another example of my penchant for wearing costumes

Back of vest, half-beaded. 
See the difference the beading made?
Vest front, half-beaded 
The beading made a huge difference in this piece. Before the shoulder pieces were beaded, the vest wasn't particularly flattering. The visual weight took the eye downward, toward the wider part of the panels. I tried out a couple of different fabrics for the shoulder pieces, but none of the colors looked right. (I don't have much in the way of earthtones in my fabric stash.) In the end, I went with a heavier-weight black fabric (cotton? silk? I'm not sure). This helped support the shoulder line of the garment, but didn't create much visual contrast with the rest of the vest. Once I sewed the bone beads and cowrie shells on the shoulder pieces, the shoulders gained greater visual weight and looked wider, creating more balance with the width of the bottom of the vest. I also like the way that the batik-dyed bone beads blur the line between the black and white spiral mud cloth piece and the shoulder piece.
Vest back, detail of beading

Vest, front left shoulder, detail of beading 

Vest, left side
I knew I wanted to put the spiral bone beads under the arm to connect with the spiral mud cloth fabric of the front panels.  I also wanted some more cowrie shells, and I figured putting them underneath the spiral beads would camouflage the slight puckering of the linen fabric underneath the shoulder accent piece.  This ended up becoming a line of cowrie shell and spiral bead fringe, which has a lovely movement and sound as the shells bump into each other.  As a happy coincidence, this creates a visual line at the waist, which is flattering, particularly in a loosely fitting garment like this.  Who knew? 

Armhole, beading detail

This vest is a great example of why I have trouble answering the question, "How long did it take you to make that?"  First of all, I don't keep track of my hours in any precise way when I am involved in a lengthy project.  Second, I tend to work on multiple projects simultaneously, and I may put aside one project for months (or even years) before getting back to it.  This tends to happen when I hit a snag in the design or construction process.  
Vest front, opened to show lining
I started making this vest a year ago.  It took me a day or two to cut out the pattern pieces; this process was complicated by the fact that I was trying to maximize the visual impact of the mud cloth design from three separate pieces of mud cloth.  There were a few places where the weave needed to be reinforced, so I backed those sections with a piece of cotton fabric, using fusible web. I also had a hard time finding a lining fabric, as I have little in my fabric collection that fits with the muted earthtones of the mudcloth, so there was some hunting and pondering time in there.  I don't remember how long it took me to sew the panels together, but I put in extra time serging the raw edges of the fabric to keep the handwoven fabric from raveling.  Unfortunately, just as I was serging the last seam on the lining, I ended up cutting into the fabric.  Argh!  This kind of snag is what usually makes me put the project aside until I feel ready to deal with it again. 

Closeup of patch on lining
What with my work schedule and other projects, I didn't get back to this vest until a month ago.  I've been on a mission to finish up my works-in-progress, so I pulled this project out as the next to be completed.  I decided to put a patch on the cut section of the lining fabric, so I had to hunt through my stash again to find a complementary fabric.  The cotton print with cowrie shells seemed perfect, so I fussy-cut a patch and fused it onto the lining, using a decorative stitch to anchor it.  It actually looked neat, kind of like a postage stamp or a designer label.  In fact, I liked it so much that I was sorry to see it partly covered by the facing.  It's nice when a mistake turns into a design feature. 

The next challenge was basting the outer layer and the lining together.  The outer layer had stretched quite a bit more than the lining, and I ended up basting, ripping out the basting, and re-basting, which took quite a bit of time as it was all done by hand.  Once that was fitted together, it was time to do the facings and the neckband, which I hand-basted, machine stitched, and then hand-tacked to the lining.  The facings and neckband alone took several days to complete, largely due to the hand-stitching.  It helped that we were snowed in, so I had a week to work on the vest (between bouts of shoveling snow, that is). 
Auditioning beads       
Then I auditioned various possible shoulder fabrics in between sewing cowrie shells by hand on the neckband.  I finally chose the black fabric and hand-stitched the shoulder pieces in place.  It was clear that it needed more beading, so I tried out various bead arrangements (more pondering time here).  After deciding on the bead design, it was just hours and hours (and hours!) of hand sewing the beads and then the whole garment was finally complete. 

I could, of course, try to estimate all the time involved in the design, construction, and embellishment of the vest.  But that isn't even the whole story.  Really, this vest began a decade ago, when I first had the idea of making a panel coat from mud cloth, and I began my search for the fabric and beads.  I got gorgeous pieces of mud cloth from African import stores in Georgetown and purchased bone beads in Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan (neighborhoods in Washington, DC).  I searched online for cowrie shells of the right size and color -- I only found the ones I used here quite recently.  Or maybe the story really began twenty years ago, when I made a Tibetan panel coat for my sister and dreamed of having one of my own (I probably should have kept that one and given her something she would have liked better -- I doubt she got much use out of it).  How do we count the hours of imagination and dreaming and looking for supplies?  

This is why I never know how to answer the question, "How long did it take you to make that?" except to say . . . "A long time."

Saturday, March 6, 2010

How well do you know yourself? The limits of introspection

Think back to a recent choice you made -- maybe you were choosing among different posters to put up in your home, and you liked one better than the others.  Now think about why you made that choice, and tell me what it was about that poster that you liked best.  How you do you figure out what motivated your behavior?  Well, you just look inside yourself and describe that inner process.  Surely you would know better than anyone why you do what you do.  Right? 
Not necessarily.  We tend to think that introspection results in accurate self-knowledge, but we often don't have access to our internal processes.  In those cases, we simply make up plausible reasons for our behavior and confidently believe that we have derived these from accurate introspection (this is called the introspection illusion).  Johannson and colleagues, for example, asked people to choose which of two photographs they liked best and then asked them to explain the reasons for their choice.  Unbeknownst to the participants, though, the researchers switched the pictures, so the participants were actually explaining why they liked the picture they hadn't chosen.  Yet, rather than noticing the switch, participants simply confabulated explanations, identifying aspects of the non-preferred photo as the reasons for their choice (e.g., "I liked this one because he has blue eyes," when in fact they had chosen a picture of a brown-eyed person). 

[By the way, if you are positive that you would notice the switch of the pictures, check out this video and this video, both of which illustrate inattentional blindness. Most people think they would notice the change, but few people actually do.]

 We simply don't have direct access to many of our psychological processes, as they happen rapidly and outside of conscious awareness.  So you may really not know why you do what you do.  But that doesn't stop you from making up some plausible story to explain your behavior.  These stories may then shape what we do, as we strive to be consistent with our perceived motives.  Let's go back to the poster you picked out for your home.  Suppose you made a gut decision; you just picked one you liked without analyzing your reason for choosing it.  Your friend, on the other hand, thought about the options and made a reasoned choice based on conscious thought.  Who is going to be more satisfied with their choice later on?  Chances are, you will be more satisfied than your friend, at least according to studies conducted by Tim Wilson and colleagues.  Wilson's resarch has found that analyzing the reasons for our feelings and behaviors can actually be unhelpful, because we may change our attitudes and behavior to match the story we made up about ourselves. 

No one is claiming that introspection is always inaccurate, but it is clear that we don't have access to all aspects of our inner life.  So what to do?  It seems to me there are a couple of options here.

  • Trust your instincts (sometimes):  Much of this research supports the idea that we are better off going with our gut when we make choices, at least in some situations.  The unconscious processes may be a better match for our real preferences than the carefully-thought-out reasons we craft to explain our choices.  However, there can be costs in following instincts, as well, in that we are prone to biases in our thinking and may make choices that do not meet our broader, long-term goals.  Our gut is not particularly rational, after all, and relying solely on instinct can result in poor choices at times. We may like that car merely because we have seen it in advertisements, not because it is a reliable vehicle.  So, instinct might be useful in guiding decisions at times, but I do not think we should rely on it in all cases. 
  • Don't overthink:  The implication of Wilson's research is that conscious analysis of our feelings and behaviors can result in faulty self-knowledge and impaired decision making.  So clearly, he would argue that we shouldn't overthink our decisions.  Again, though, this needs to be qualified.  There are certainly some decisions that are improved by careful thought, and self-analysis can be helpful at times.  No one is arguing that thinking is always counterproductive, merely that when we are being driven by unconscious cognitive processes, self-reflection can be misleading. 
  • Embrace uncertainty:  When asked why I feel the way I do, I'm quite likely to say "I don't know."  I know this response is frustrating, but I want to be mindful of the limits of my knowledge.   The introspection illusion comes from the fact that we don't know what we don't know. So maybe it would help for us to resist the desire to confabulate and be willing to admit ignorance.  The challenge here is to know when we are gaining accurate self-knowledge through introspection, and when we are confabulating.  Quite frankly, I'm not sure we can tell which is which.  So maybe it's a good idea to live with a certain amount of uncertainty at all times. 
  • Be open-minded:  One way of dealing with our lack of certainty is to strive to be open-minded.  Even when we do have a theory regarding our motives or feelings, we can still be open to other explanations.  In general, though, we aren't terribly open-minded.  We work to maintain our beliefs by searching out and remembering confirming evidence and ignoring or deflecting contradictory evidence.  So being open-minded requires active work on our part to counteract our natural cognitive tendencies.  That doesn't mean we have to throw out our beliefs every time they are challenged, but it does mean we should take extra time to consider contradictory evidence and alternative theories.  So if someone suggests that you might have a different reason for your feelings or behavior, give that idea a chance before you reject it out of hand. 
  • Don't rely on introspection alone:  If there are multiple possible explanations for our behavior, then how can we decide which one is correct?  Rather than just looking inward, we can also examine our responses over time.  If our feelings and behavior don't seem consistent with our conscious explanations, then it is worth re-examining our theories.  When we moved into our house, I had the idea that neutral, off-white walls were ideal, as that gave us the freedom to display any artwork we liked without fear of clashing with the color of the wall.  But every time we have painted one of the rooms a bold, striking color, it makes me happier.  It turns out that my oh-so-reasonable belief that I would prefer neutral paint schemes was just wrong -- it doesn't fit with my real experience and feelings.  So, in keeping with my goal of open-mindedness, I threw out my neutral-paint theory and reshaped my self-image to fit my actual patterns of experience.  Friends and family can also be useful sources of data, particularly insofar as they might recognize patterns that we haven't seen (although their image of us may also be biased). 
In short, introspection is not an infallible source of self-knowledge.  Self-reflection and analysis can produce faulty explanations for our feelings and behaviors, particularly when we are influenced by unconscious processes.  There are some contexts in which self-analysis may lead us to second-guess our instincts and make inauthentic choices.  We needn't throw out introspection altogether, but it behooves us to be aware of its limitations and be less confident in our introspective conclusions.  You may not know yourself as well as you think. 

Note:  This post was prompted by a comment I posted on Katherine A. Cartwright's blog about the role of  introspection in the artistic process.   Check out her blog for terrific intellectual discussions about art. 

Further reading: 

Johansson, P., Hall, L., Sikström, S., Olsson, A. (2005). Failure to Detect Mismatches Between Intention and Outcome in a Simple Decision Task. Science 310 (5745): 116–119. PDF

Wilson, T. D. (2002). Strangers to ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wilson, Timothy D. (2003). Knowing When to Ask: Introspection and the Adaptive Unconscious, in Anthony Jack, Andreas Roepstorff. Trusting the subject?: the use of introspective evidence in cognitive science. Imprint Academic. pp. 131–140. PDF

Wilson, T. D., Lisle, D., Schooler, J. W., Hodges, S. D., Klaaren, K. J., & LaFleur, S. J. (1993). Introspecting about reasons can reduce post-choice satisfaction. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 19, 331–339. PDF

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Women's Studies Silent Auction

The annual Montgomery College Women's Studies Program Scholarship Breakfast is on Wednesday, Mar. 3 (8-9:30am), which showcases the achievements of Women's Studies students and faculty.  This is also the main fundraiser for the Women's Studies Scholarship fund, and I am coordinating the silent auction part of the breakfast.  Thanks to our generous donors, we have a wonderful array of items for the auction, and all proceeds from the auction go toward student scholarships.  If you see something you want, I am happy to arrange a proxy bid for you.  Just email me by Tuesday, Mar. 2 at 5pm to let me know what item you wish to bid on and how high you are willing to bid. 

I did some new kinds of lighting for some of the pictures, as well as using some different editing options in Photoshop, and I think most of the photos of the silent auction items came out quite well.  Many thanks to Robin Atkins for her post on photographing beadwork, which inspired me to try out these new techniques. 

Silent Auction Slideshow