Student creates 'signature' coat to reflect campus community

A photo of Emily Pettet's finished signature coat, displayed on the Nittany Lion statue inside Olmsted Building

For a project for her master's degree in American studies, Penn State Harrisburg graduate student Emily Pettet gathered signatures from students, faculty and staff and sewed them into a signature coat.

Credit: Emily Pettet

MIDDLETOWN, Pa. — Penn State Harrisburg student Emily Pettet comes from a family of seamstresses and quilters, and her own specialty is garment sewing. The skill proved valuable as she created a signature coat as her master’s project for the American studies program.

Through her project, “Make Your Mark,” Pettet gathered hundreds of signatures from Penn State Harrisburg students, faculty and staff. She turned the cloth squares into a nearly 9-foot-long coat — a piece designed to reflect the unique individuals who come together to form the college community.

The project was the culmination of Pettet’s master’s degree in American studies, which she will finish in August. She chose a creative project instead of the traditional thesis and said her studies, from public heritage to folk art, shaped the piece.

“The signature coat is a modern twist on the signature quilt, which was a popular quilt form in the middle of the 1800s,” Pettet said. “They are still made today and an art form I truly respect.”

She wanted to create something new, and she liked the idea of a coat because it seemed more inclusive than other pieces of clothing.

“Everyone needs a coat when it’s cold, and so it seemed the best choice for my project,” she said.

The project was a chance for individuals to leave their mark on a physical representation of the community. During the spring semester, Pettet stopped by classes, reached out to clubs, visited campus offices and set up in the Olmsted Building atrium with cloth squares and markers to gather signatures. She then set out to sew and create the coat, setting off the 411 white signature squares with fabric as close to Penn State blue as she could find.

Pettet noted that the project posed some personal challenge for her, as an autistic individual who can struggle with social interactions. She fought to get past overstimulation and to overcome doubts that would spring up in her head, she said, and she had to make herself continue to send emails and call out to strangers as she gathered signatures.

“I had to fight against myself the entire way, but it was worth it,” she said, crediting support from friends and strangers alike. “Everyone I spoke to, even those that decided not to participate, was kind and encouraging. People I had never met before were so enthusiastic and encouraging that it made it possible for me to keep going.”

Since the college community helped create the coat, Pettet said she wants to give the coat back to the school. She hopes to donate it to the Archives and Special Collections at the Madlyn L. Hanes Library.