Star quilting blocks aligned over the past year to create an out-of-this-world astronomical quilt that pulled together the talents of an astronaut, Johnson Space Center team members and enthusiastic crafters from the general public.
That monstrous quilt began with a 9-inch square completed in space by astronaut Karen Nyberg, Expedition 36/37 flight engineer, from May 28 to Nov. 10, 2013.
“I was chatting with Karen Nyberg after a preflight meeting one day,” said Maura White, multimedia technical monitor in the Information Resources Directorate. “She told me about her plans to make ‘something’ in space with fabric. I didn’t have any suggestions for Karen for making a patch, but I did offer advice to ‘not lose the needle …’”
Not only did Nyberg keep hold of the needle, but her love for space and crafts was duplicated on the ground with participants all over the globe submitting their own star-themed blocks for the quilt, which would ultimately be displayed during the 40th
Anniversary International Quilt Festival in Houston from Oct. 29 to Nov. 2.
“Now that I’ve tried my hand at sewing in space, I can say one thing with certainty: It’s tricky,” Nyberg said in a video downlinked from the orbiting laboratory. “It’s far from being a masterpiece, but it was made in space … I can’t wait to see what we make together.”
Stacey Menard, deputy chief within the Safety & Test Operations Division, jumped at the chance to contribute her efforts to the unique crafting challenge.
“This project combined two of my passions—space and quilting,” Menard said. “How could I refuse?”
What no one realized, however, was how the project would grow exponentially—much like our rapidly expanding universe.
“Since the project was started by an astronaut, we wanted to involve as many quilters associated with NASA and JSC as we could,” Menard said. “Quilters have a very connected community, and we knew we could take advantage of that. I have to chuckle, because when we were advertising the block challenge, Quilts, Inc. only planned for 10 panels. I got a kick out of seeing their faces when almost 2,400 blocks came in!”
Though all blocks and panels were displayed at the International Quilt Festival, the team is planning to incorporate the remaining loose blocks into panels for future displays.
Getting the quilt to the festival in one piece required not only a “block party” to assemble the blocks into panels, but also a “binding party” to sew the quilt to the backing. There was also a one-day blowout session at the Gilruth Center to attach the binding and hanging sleeves. All of it was worth it, though, when Nyberg was able to unveil the astronomical quilt and speak to the immense community—backyard and worldwide—effort that made the project more than just a specialty flown item returned from space.
The crafting project held a lot of meaning for all the participants.
“As I worked my way through the large pile of blocks stacked next to my sewing machine, I was amazed by the fact that I was sewing together blocks in no particular order,” White said. “I put blocks from Ohio next to blocks from Australia and Japan. The League City, Texas, block went next to a block with a star originally pieced together in 1880, which went next to the block from Canada, which went next to the block from Russia. My panels spanned the world … and time. I’m so lucky to be a part of global projects like the International Space Station and
the quilt challenge.”
For White, this quilt and her contributed square checked off one bucket list item—having her work displayed at the International Quilt Festival.
“Now, off to hold a monkey, which is somewhat further down on that list,” White said jokingly.
Is this the last stellar idea combining the arts with space? Menard doesn’t believe so.
“The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) launches in 2018,” Menard said. “We could do a miniature quilt challenge. Folks could use Hubble or JWST images to make small quilts to be displayed at the festival.”
Another idea would be to create some NASA lesson plans around sewing and textiles “and make more of a STEAM (I just heard that term recently, and love it!) curricula,” Menard said.
So instead of the typical science, technology, engineering and math push—NASA could insert the ever-important and beloved “arts” into the mix.
However the quilt ends up leaving an beautiful imprint, one thing is for certain—it touched the hearts of many.
From quilter Tammy Bourgeois: “Enclosed is my star quilt block for Karen Nyberg’s challenge. I would be honored to have my block incorporated into the quilt with a block that was made in space. This block was not made in space, but it was made lovingly with two hands that helped launch many astronauts into space. I am proud to say that I worked 19.5 years as a chemist/engineer for Lockheed Martin on the Space Shuttle Program at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. Thank you for the opportunity to contribute and to be a part of this history-making quilt.”
Catherine Ragin Williams
NASA Johnson Space Center
Cardboard Karen Nyberg, astronaut, welcomes quilters to the International Quilt Festival. Image Credit: NASA/Lauren Harnett
The real Nyberg speaks to a rapt audience about crafting in space. Image Credit: NASA/Lauren Harnett
Star quilts from the Astronomical Quilt Project on display. Image Credit: NASA/Lauren Harnett
From left, Vicki Magnum with Quilts, Inc., Nyberg and Stacey Menard. Image Credit: NASA/Lauren Harnett
Maura White, a JSC volunteer instrumental in getting the quilt project to the International Quilt Festival, poses in front of one of the creations. Image Credit: NASA/Lauren Harnett
Nyberg interacts with crafters and fans of all ages. Image Credit: NASA/Lauren Harnett
A contributer to the Astronomical Quilt Project proudly points out her square. Image Credit: NASA/Lauren Harnett
The beauty of the quilt is magnified by the uniqueness of each contributed square. Image Credit: NASA/Lauren Harnett
A full star-themed quilt takes center stage at the International Quilt Festival. Image Credit: NASA/Lauren Harnett