Friday, 5 August 2016

'ayyy, by gum you are so much like your Gran'

I have just returned from a long weekend in Whitby with my lovely little Grandad.

Three generations and Whitby.
I spent a lot of my time with him lapping up stories and photographs of my Grandma who died in 1992 when I was just two years old. She was a seamstress and despite having no memories of her, I feel sewing has formed a space and time defying bond between us.

My Grandma and Grandad 'courting' in 1948.
They met when they were just 15. My Grandad was working as a clockmaker, in a workshop that overlooked a department store where my Grandma worked in alterations. He spent many hours watching her work on a sewing machine in the shop window before he plucked up the courage to talk to her. They married in the summer of 1952.

My Grandma's dress was made by a colleague and a very dear friend as a wedding gift. The skirt was up-cycled as christening gowns for their three children, but the bodice is still packaged up as it was 64 years ago! 

I tried the dress on and could barely do up the buttons at the cuffs, and the waist was short by a good 7 inches. My Gran had an 18-inch waist when she got married!!!! The construction and hand overcast stitches at the raw edges are beautiful. 

My Grandad's house is pretty much just as my Gran left it. Her reading glasses and rings have been in the kitchen for as long as I can remember. Her embroidery and crochet still adorn the walls and chairs and my Grandad still wears her hand knitted jumpers.

Grandad perfecting a 'selfie' in a Gran knitted jumper.
I'd be in serious trouble for including this if he had the internet!

Gran made dresses. I'd love to re-create the beauty on the bottom right, in African wax of course! 

As soon as I arrived in Whitby, I settled down to some hand sewing and a cuppa tea. I felt my Grandad's eyes follow every stitch: 'ayyy, by gum you are so much like your Gran!' It got me thinking. Could I have inherited my ease with needle and thread from my Grandma?

My Mum had watched my Gran sew and is perfectly competent at sewing a cushion or a button but has little experience sewing clothes. Anecdotal experience suggests that the 'sewing gene' skips a generation, but I'm sure this is down to sociology rather than biology. I suspect this isn't unusual for the 'baby boomers,' rebelling from 'housewife' associated past-times! When the sewing bug hit, I had no choice but to turn to the internet and relied primarily on instinct. There was certainly very little 'sewing nurturing' going on, so could nature have played a part?

You may or may not know that I am a scientist by training. Naturally, I couldn't resist the urge to make a date with Pubmed to put the theory to the test. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be much funding in the neuroscience of sewing - I'd be the first in line! However, there is more evidence than one might expect to support the idea that creativity might be inherited. Researchers in Helsinki measured participant's musical creativity through a pitch test, as well as their ability to compose and rearrange music. They found a correlation between musical aptitude and a particular cluster of genes thought to be involved in synaptic plasticity (the brain's 'learning mechanism' to form new, and prune old connections between cells).

Volf et al. (2009) have identified a polymorphism (or alternative form) of the gene that regulates serotonin processing which shows a significant association between verbal and figural creativity. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter primarily thought to be involved in regulating sleep patterns, homoeostasis, and sexual arousal and interestingly plays a key role in many psychiatric disorders. This may not come as a great surprise, the list of creative geniuses that are thought to have suffered from mental illness is endless. Consequently, this link has been of interest to researchers for some time. The largest population-based study into mental illness at Sweden's Karolinska Institute has been ongoing for the past forty years! They observed that creativity in severe mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, is limited while in people suffering from relatively mild disorders, such as bipolar, it flourishes. The study also follows the siblings of those with mental illness, and while they show no symptoms, they do appear to have increased creativity.

Elevating serotonin levels in the brain is thought to increase connectivity in areas of the brain that play key roles in awareness and internally direct thought. Interestingly this is how selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) work for the treatment of depression. Altered connectivity of the two hemispheres of the brain is also thought to contribute to creative thinking or 'thinking outside the box.' The hemispheres are connected by a bundle of fibres know as the corpus callosum and these appear to be smaller in people with creative tendencies. With less communication between the two hemispheres, it is argued that each hemisphere can specialise, and ideas can develop more freely in a process referred to as 'incubation of ideas.' This is by no means causative evidence, and for now, I'll remain sceptical!

By no means am I a creative genius, nor do I know anything about the state of my corpus callosum or whether my Grandma passed down the S/S variant of the serotonin transporter gene. For now, I'll just have to enjoy the things I know she left me for sure...

My Gran and I in 1992 matching in blue.


  1. Interesting stuff, and that wedding dress bodice is beautiful!

  2. This was a lovely post! That wedding dress bodice looks amazing, and, perhaps it sounds weird but, I like looking at vintage photos of people even if I don't know them. You're speaking my language with the scientific research ;) and the research you talk about what very interesting. My nan did lots of sewing and dressmaking, my mom the same but then I only picked it up a few years ago and never would've predicted that. Do wish I'd picked it up sooner, when my nan was still around.

    Jen (, Blogger wouldn't let me fill that in).

    1. Thanks Jen! It was a pleasure to write. I also love looking at old photos, particularly the 1950s! Lovely that you share a hobby with your Mom though - I'm fighting an uphill battle with mine! Thanks again for reading,
      Vicki x

  3. This is great! I'm really intrigued to learn more about the underlying potential link between creativity and mental illness, including the neurological side; any recommended sources for laymen with English degrees???