Inside the Growing Movement to Share Science Through Quilting

Kristen Pope
Laura Guertin, an Earth scientist, had just returned from Louisiana when she began her journey with science quilting. On the flight home, Guertin's seatmate had shared with her how discarded Christmas trees were used to reduce shoreline erosion and wave energy in the Louisiana bayou. Guertin was impressed by the clever idea of recycling garbage to benefit an ecosystem. As she was walking through her dining area, Guertin noticed her quilting materials laid out beside her sewing machine. It hit her that she could combine her love for quilting and her ability to explain science to the public.

She was inspired and began sketching a design to show the story she heard from the plane. Guertin states that there is no pattern for telling a story about Louisiana Christmas trees. The bayou scene is depicted in her quilt, Christmas trees to encourage coastal optimism in Louisiana. The quilt can be viewed horizontally, separated by gray fabric strips. This allows for sequential moments to be depicted. As water erodes the coast, the area of quilt that is being viewed by the viewer becomes less. Guertin made patches of Christmas trees for the coast at the bottom of the quilt. This reduces erosion.

She created the wall hanging that became Guertins Stitching hope for the Louisiana Coast collection. One tells the story about invasive apple snails, while another is focused on marsh restoration. She says that each quilt tells a different story about resilience and adaptation, which is the theme of coastal optimism.

Guertins collection will include coastal quilts. These will be on display at this year's American Geophysical Unions meeting, which will take place in New Orleans in December. Betsy Wilkening and Guertin are leading the charge in encouraging people to create quilts that communicate science. They have set up a hashtag, #QuiltYourScience2021, for artists to share their designs on Twitter and Instagram, as well as a Slack community.

Anyone can share a science quilt to display at the American Geophysical Union Meeting, and #QuiltYourScience2021 is open to all ages and skill levels. Each quilt should not exceed 24x24 inches and will be focused on Earth and space sciences. Scientist quilters have already begun to connect with each other ahead of the exhibition. They are sharing inspiration and tips via Instagram and Twitter using two additional hashtags #SciQuilt21, and #QuiltYourScience.

Karen Vaughan is a University of Wyoming soil scientist who makes paints from dirt. She says that quilting can also help people embrace science. She says that by combining science and art, we can create connection through an emotional response, rather than relying on facts and concrete. Art is a way to connect with science and art opens up to more. It allows us to relate to, care for and act on the scientific results.

Guertin notes quilts have a long history communicating messages to generations. Underground Railroad quilts often had codes that indicated nearby dangers or where escapees should go. A bear paw pattern, for example, indicated that viewers should follow an animal trail. Homesteader quilts communicated a variety of messages. These included designs that indicated faith and patches that represented friends and family back home. Guertin believes that quilting can be a powerful medium for engaging people with science because it produces familiar and comforting handmade objects. Guertin blogs about her science quilting work at Journeys of Dr. G. She says that she wants to make quilts more accessible in order to bring in new audiences who might be interested in science. It has been quite effective.

She believes that the dialogue the quilts create is crucial. Guertin states that science conversations around science quilts can lead to actions. Then, the action is what will benefit planet Earth in end.

Guertin starts each quilt by telling a story. She uses a variety fabrics with themes such as ocean waves, birds, compasses, and even seaglass. She created a quilt depicting nine jars and included a different fabric in each jar. This was to show how flying predators are controlling the invasive gastropods. These quilts attract attention, she says.

Guertin states that people see the blanket hanging there immediately. Blankets don't pose a threat, and no one is afraid of blankets. Everybody has a blanket story to tell, or a blanket that their grandmother made for them. The blanket idea seems to draw a lot of people in.

Guertin may engage admirers in conversation and will often take photos to share with relatives who quilt. It's a novelty to have a quilt telling science stories, and it getting shared. This is what scientists want and what southern Louisiana residents want.

Guertin exhibits her quilts at schools, science centers, and other educational events in Philadelphia. She found another place to display her quilts during the pandemic: her front porch. Many families were walking around the neighborhood when the schools closed and the public libraries were shut down. She later added, "What a great opportunity!"

Because her front door is so close to the sidewalk, she started putting science facts on her doors in March 2020. These facts covered topics such as earthquakes and oceans. She began hanging quilts and placed information about each design below. Families could enjoy the display as an enrichment activity. She says that neighbors called our front door their school field trip spot.

She recalls seeing a mother with three children reading one of the educational signs. Each child chose their favorite science fact. One neighbor wrote a Post-it to say how much they loved the displays. Guertin states that it is a way to teach science in a way I didn't think I would do. She will be using her front door this year to display a mini quilt related to Project Drawdown, an organization that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Project Drawdown quilts address topics like electricity, food, and agriculture.

Courtney Gallaher is a Northern Illinois University geography and women's studies professor who uses quilts to teach. She taught a Women in Science course in 2017 that included a project in which students created a quilt that focused on female scientists.

40 students created 20 squares of quilt. These featured well-known scientists such as Rachel Carson and Jane Goodall. There were also lesser-known women like Rosalind Franklin, molecular geneticist Leena Paltonen-Palotie, and Rosalind Franklin, X-ray crystallographer. Gallaher states that many of these women scientists, even those who put on the quilts, were unable to fully participate in scientific processes due to their gender.

Students sought to show each woman's scientific work in a creative and abstract way. They then received a crash course on sewing, including how to cut fabric, design squares and assemble each piece. Laura McDowell–Hopper, curator of The Human Rights Quilt Project at NIU Pick Museum of Anthropology, gathered each piece and made a queen-sized quilt. Randy Caspersen made a documentary about the process. Gallaher states that the students said that it allowed them to be more creative and learned in a way they don't usually get in college. I expected them to like it. But, I was surprised at how much they loved it.

Some students loved quilting so much that they bought supplies and started their own projects after class. Gallaher said that she is contacted by professors from other universities a couple of times per year who are keen to incorporate quilting into their science classes.

Research is not the only thing that science quilters do. Ann Baldwin May, an avid quilter, has made hundreds of quilts throughout her life. She stopped counting at 300. Before moving to art quilts a decade ago, she remained focused on quilts for bed. When she learned about the University of Santa Cruz's project that paired scientists and artists, she was fascinated. Her match was with a PhD candidate in Physics, so she started to study images of dark matter breaking apart, noting the vivid colors and patterns and the space between.

"I was stunned to see that so many pictures looked like threads and fibers when I looked at them. It was amazing. She chose several images she liked and created reproductions using cloth and decorative threads.

May has created many quilts inspired by physics, including the Blue Collider Event Display. This quilt is now part of a traveling show. She loves to play with colors and fabrics. She says, "That's what motivates you how the items fit together and create something of interest."

Gallaher states that "Quilting as an artform is amazing," and then adds that she loves the fact that STEM is incorporating such a creative process into their curriculum. More research is being done and there's a growing understanding that art can play a crucial role in helping people understand science and math.