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Sewing in Space and the Industrial Revolution

Quilting in space is hard. We know this because one of the six human beings currently living in outer space, NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg, has been working on a 9” quilted star block, and was so kind as to send us a how-to from the space station.

Thanks to Nyberg we now know that:

  • Since everything floats around in zero gravity, you have to use Velcro to keep your supplies together. You need a Ziploc bag to hold any extras.
  • You can’t just cut a pattern flat like you would on Earth.
  • There aren’t any sewing machines.

Nyberg’s been sewing by hand, using spare needles instead of pins. Her block is a little uneven, since she wasn’t able to simply cut a straight line on a flat piece of fabric. But it’s beautiful, and she’d like us to help her make a full-size quilt. If you want to get crafty, Nyberg is taking 9.5” star-patterned blocks anytime before August 2014. Check out this press release for the address where you should send your stellar creations.

star quilt blocks

My mom made this star. See? Lovely and simple. Photo: Victoria Martinez

For anyone who hasn’t made one before, the process for quilting yourself a little star block is reassuringly easy down here on Earth thanks to gravity, and hundreds of years of technological innovation.

Just for starters, we have access to extremely sharp scissors, rotary cutters, and mats that ensure clean cuts. Each of these is a specialized tool, available widely and cheaply.

Then there’s the matter of sewing, for which we have the celebrated portable sewing machine–a piece of technology that transformed American homes in the mid-1800s. In 1860, people called it “The Queen of Inventions.” It was big.

The more modern portable sewing machine is a descendant of Thomas Saint’s 1790 sewing machine, which used a chain stitch with one string to tie canvas or leather together. An awl poked the hole, then a machine moved the string in an over-under loop. It worked, theoretically. But it never went up for sale.

Forty years later, Barthélemy Thimonnier gets the credit for pushing the first automated sewing machine to market, which was great, until a mob destroyed his clothing factory.

Once the transformative stitch of the Industrial Revolution, now common on modern machines. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Come 1850, the right entrepreneur, the now synonymous-with-sewing Isaac M. Singer, patented a rigid-arm, portable sewing machine. It was innovative on several levels. Singer’s machine had two strings (which was actually the innovation of Walter Hunt, who also invented the safety pin), a needle that moved separately from its arm, and a foot- rather than hand-powered mechanism. That last trick left both hands free for directing the fabric through the machine with accuracy.

Suddenly, it became affordable for factories to employ hundreds of seamstresses, and the clothing market moved from private home to grand corporations. Clothes got cheaper, but pay for seamstresses tanked. Sweatshops were born.

The invention of the sewing machine triggered the emergence of a new industry. Photo: National Maritime Museum / Wikimedia Commons

But for others, sewing machines introduced the possibility of purchasing ready-made rather than home-made clothing. Buying rather than hand-sewing a dress shirt saved the average housewife 14 hours a day. If she had still opted to make her shirt, but she made it on a new machine, it would take only about an hour. This freed up a lot of time for leisure, or for in-home mending businesses.

The world was changing.

But now, awash in an oasis of modern technology, Karen Nyberg is going back to basics, sewing by hand–in outer space.

This piece appeared originally on the Canadian Science Writers' group blog, titled Space Sewing and the Industrial Revolution | Canadian Science Writers' Association.
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