Astronaut Karen Nyberg arrived at the International Space Station on May 28. On Sunday, she’ll leave for home. In the five months she’s been up there, she’s worked on studies of the human microbiome and how combustion works in zero gravity. She’s helped move a Soyuz capsule from one dock to another and worked on a leaky space suit.
She’s also made a nine-by-nine-inch quilt square.
NASA put out a press release last week inviting people to join her by making their own star-themed quilt squares and submitting them for a display at next year’s International Quilt Festival in Houston.
Quilting. In space. Could the manly test pilots of the 1950s have imagined such a future? But there she is, blonde and Minnesotan and explaining how she manipulated fabric in zero gravity.
“You can’t lay things down and measure and cut,” Nyberg says in a video sent down from the space station. Instead, she cut out a square and traced the shape on the fabric.
When she cut out the pieces, she added a bit extra, the seam allowance that you turn that under to keep the edges from fraying. Since she couldn’t measure properly, she had to eyeball it, cutting a border that looked about right. “When I start piecing the pieces together, it becomes very tricky when the pieces do not have the quarter-inch seam allowance that you really had hoped for,” she says, her hair flying as she holds up the partly-finished square. “It’s less than perfect.”
The sewing itself was tricky, too, and not just because of weightlessness. “I don’t hand-sew all that much on Earth. I usually use a sewing machine,” she says. And she had no iron to make the turned-under edge crisp. There were no pins to hold the pieces together, either; she tried tape.
Her explanation of the challenges reminded me of a piece published in the Guardian last month, provocatively titled “The view that computers are technology but sewing isn’t is a sexist stitch-up.” Technology is intrinsic to sewing, knitting, and other work that is traditionally done by women. As the article’s author, Helen Czerski, says, “Men don’t have a monopoly on working out how to use the available tools to do something practical.”
As a mechanical engineer, Nyberg is used to trouble-shooting, using specialized tools, and being familiar with the properties of materials. In space, with no sewing machine and no gravity, she improvised and problem-solved and turned her fabric into a finished product.
One of the ways for a woman to exist in a man’s world—and a world that you can only get to by strapping yourself on top of a rocket is most definitely a man’s world—is to act like the stereotype of the men. Spit, swear, ignore your kids (or don’t have any). Certainly don’t admit to any girly hobbies.
Nyberg is one of six members of our species who are currently not on Earth. It’s thrilling to see her being an astronaut while being herself.