Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Sewing Project: Space Shuttle Tribute Embroidery & Patch T-shirt

The last Space Shuttle mission is about to come to an end with Atlantis en route back to Earth and it brings on a not-unexpected or even unique wave of nostalgia given my age (I'll be 35 in a couple months). What can I say? I'm a Cold War kid and I love the stars.

I always thought I'd go see the space shuttle lift-off in Florida. You know, one day.  Unspecified future tense.  It is by all accounts a truly awe-inspiring thing to witness.  I wished for years that they'd reinstate the West Coast launch program from California, but they never did after Challenger.  This is not the place to get into the politics of funding the space program, but our nation's history of flinging humans off the planet in a dangerous (and yes, expensive) bid to understand the fundamentals of the universe and how it operates is something I'm happy to share with my children.  The space shuttle is cumbersome and outdated and needs to go, but I hope it is replaced with something just as innovative and iconic.  And one day, I swear, I will go watch it, whatever it is, hurl brave people into orbit or beyond. 

On to the sewing!  There is currently a print of a small piece of embroidery on Atlantis, (the original was too heavy if you can believe that) experiencing zero gravity right now-  it's by Texas artist and fellow craft blogger Rachel Hobson and earned its place through a contest sponsored by NASA and Etsy. 

Her blog is all kinds of fun, check it out.  I totally agree with her win, but the other entries were pretty damn amazing.
It is truly a great piece, the texture is incredible and the stitching is both intricate and simple.  It is needlework at its finest, I think.  If it were a painting it would be called painterly, in that you can see the evidence of the artist's hand at work.  I have no idea if there's a word for that in embroidery or not. But it is inspiring and beautiful.  My embroidery is far less artistic and way more juvenile in part because I made it for my kids.  The concept could easily be transformed into something more chic and sophisticated by ditching the shuttle entirely or removing the booster and flames, doing it entirely in black and white, putting each of the capsules and the collection of stars into their own mini hoops and adding considerable texture... it would actually be quite lovely with an entirely different execution, but this was for my son and he is five, so no subtlety here: 

In case you don't recognize them, which is likely since I drew them, that's the Space Shuttle and beneath it the Gemini, Mercury and Apollo capsules.  Each star represents a person who has died on a spaceflight.  There are 18, counting four Soviets, thirteen Americans and one Israeli.  5% of all humans that have EVER been launched into space have died doing it.  The occupational fatality rate for an astronaut, i.e. the percentage who die while on the job, in space or not, hovers right around 10%. To use that hated statistical mis-analogy of the imaginary meal:  if you have dinner with 10 astronauts one of them is going to die at work.  Go Science!

xkcd, the webcomic that would really hate that I didn't explain how the fatality incident rate for astronauts is skewed since TOTAL number of deaths have to be counted per astronaut- there are so few astronauts, there is no other way to do it.  After doing my own math I checked around the web and it seems people have come upon this problem before and either ignore it or call the whole calculation off.  The mortality rates for other professions (like firefighters, roofers or loggers) which can be calculated per 100.000 and on an annual basis are difficult to impossible to compare.  THAT SAID, generally speaking, being an astronaut is ~60% more deadly then any other profession over the last six decades, making it the deadliest job in the world by far.  Then again, I took a year of statistics 15 years ago and use a calculator to balance my checkbook.  So yeah.  You might want to ask someone else.  I can't believe I bothered doing all that math for my sewing blog.

Back to the sewing!  Sewing and the Space Shuttle have an intimate relationship.  The thermal blankets that keep it from disintegrating on re-entry were hand sewn with glass thread for the last two decades, mostly by women, using industrial Singer machines, one of which is from 1918 and originally was designed to sew saddles for horses. The blankets have to be perfectly tailored, obviously. NPR ran a great bit called "The Homemade Spaceship" back in 2006 which I found fascinating and then followed up just this week as these highly skilled seamstresses are about to be put out of work.  I don't think making slipcovers for couches is ever going to quite compare.

This is one of the thermal panels- it is made of woven silica fabric, woven glass fabric and silica thread and quilted by hand.  This one is from the National Air and Space Museum so you can see where it has been marked "scrap" with a red stamp.  Lots of awkward shapes to lay across the ship.  I had a hard time quilting a runner for my perfectly rectangular, flat dining room table.  With cotton.

And the patches!  NASA loves embroidered patches!  Here's a retrospective on some of the mission patches. Totally worth a look.  Most of them were designed by the astronauts themselves; some of them are better then others. I think the most successful ones are those that were designed with thread in mind, you can kind of tell when a design didn't quite translate to embroidery.  Each is unique and nearly all include their names which is a nice touch.  My favorites, purely based on design:
Apollo 13.  Lucky or Unlucky?  Great design, but the horses didn't quite make the transition to thread.  There are three horses, 1 each for Lovell, Swigert and Haise.  One of them was intended for Ken Mattingly- guess it was a good thing this patch didn't include the names since he was kicked off the mission two days before launch).

Final servicing of the Hubble space telescope in 2009. 

Insignia in patch form vs.

in emblem form:  the only insignia that I think looks GREAT as a patch and boring as an emblem.

I made this t-shirt for my son Henry.  Nothing too special, just patches, but he needed something since he didn't get a 4th of July dress:




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