We are delighted to welcome Dr. Karen Nyberg, retired NASA Astronaut & Engineer, to the Aurifil family. Karen may have one of the most unique stories we’ve heard… one that includes flight on the Space Shuttle Discovery in 2008 and a 6-month residence on the International Space Station, a journey that inspired people worldwide and sparked a large scale collaborative quilting project that debuted back in 2013.
While Karen has been making and creating for as long as she can remember, her artistic pursuits had to come second up until now. Since she has retired, Karen has shifted focus back to her art, with a renewed perspective, endless pools of inspiration, and a growing love for textile illustration. We’ve been so honored by this collaboration… to work alongside a maker with such unique perspective.
Karen’s debut thread collection is Earth Views, a perfectly curated set including 10 Small Spools of Aurifil 50wt thread. Karen drew inspiration from a series of photos that she took of the Earth while living on the International Space Station… Earth from more than 100 miles above the surface. Few have had the opportunity to see our planet the way she has and we’re excited to see how her story inspires makers worldwide.
We had the opportunity to speak with Karen a few weeks ago, to properly introduce her to all of you. The conversation shared below is drawn from a recorded interview. We have to thank Karen for her time, her excitement, and her endless creative passion!
Aurifil: Our readers will know you as one of America’s esteemed astronauts and many likely followed along with your creative endeavors from the International Space Station. But, we’re guessing not many really know your story. What first drew you to the practice of sewing & quilting?
Karen Nyberg: My mom and dad are both very creative people and, for as long as I can remember, my mom sewed everything from snowmobile suits to prom dresses and everything in between. I have 5 brothers and sisters, so there were 6 of us kids. She also would do a lot of other creative things like flower arranging, knitting, and crafting. As a result, I got really interested in sewing when I was very young, just watching her… she taught me to use her sewing machine when I was probably about six, I think. She says I was always asking her to show me how to do it. So, really, I started at a very young age… I would just sew all the time, along with other crafts and art.
A: It’s beautiful that it grew from something from your childhood to where you are now… that organic growth. With that, would you say it was love at first sight? You discovered the practice of sewing and it just became a constant in your life, or was it more of a back and forth? How did that all bring you to where you are today?
KN: It was definitely love at first sight. From the time she taught me to sew, I started making little things. I made my first shirt, with a collar and interfacing and all of that, when I was about eight. I still have that shirt and when I look at it now, I think ‘wow, I was pretty good back then!’ My mom had a lot of patience with teaching me. Throughout junior high and high school, I made a lot of my own clothes. My mom would take me to the fabric store and I would pick out five or six different fabrics and one pattern. I would make a bunch of shorts and shirts. When I got into college, it was a little different. I just didn’t have the same amount of time. When I was able to go home for the summer, I would pick it back up and continue sewing.
I bought my first sewing machine when I was in graduate school and was able to do more sewing then. I started sewing much more when I became an astronaut in 2000. I would sew blankets, quilts, and pillows as gifts for people– something that usually started around Thanksgiving with the holiday rush! Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I would be at my machine non-stop. I started using applique designs on quilts and things like that. When I was pregnant with my son, I designed his entire nursery with classic Winnie the Pooh. I designed quilts, made the bed linens, the crib skirt, curtains, and even wall art! After my long duration spaceflight, when he was four, I redesigned his room with dinosaurs, once again creating quilts, curtains, a rag rug, wall art, and a shower curtain– really the entire room. It’s been a passion of mine for a long, long time.
A: That’s amazing. What a special thing for your son to have. He’ll be able to look back at those photos and understand all of the work that went into it. I know it’s hard when kids are young, they don’t necessarily understand it right away. But when he looks back on those memories, it will be incredibly special.
KN: I think he’s starting to appreciate that. He’s 11 now so he’s starting to appreciate everything in a different way.
A: We touched on this a bit already, but I’d love to hear more about your creative inspirations– where that initial drive came from. You’ve talked about your family and the education that your mom gave you from a young age. Would you say that she was your greatest creative inspiration?
KN: Yes, definitely. My mom was sewing and doing a wide range of creative things. She worked at a fabric store for a while. She started her own company in the 80s when silk flowers were popular. She designed flower arrangements for weddings and other events. She is also a skilled knitter. In fact, today she still knits baby blankets for every single grandchild and great-grandchild — she has 12 grandchildren and I think 16 great-grandchildren! She makes a blanket for every one of them, which is so incredibly special. My dad is creative as well. He is a welder by trade and he now makes these giant metal sculptures. They are pretty amazing! He once made a giant, life-sized elephant out of lawn mower blades. You can see more of his work HERE. So, yeah… the creative influence was strong in my family!
A: It’s pretty remarkable to be surrounded with so much creativity– and not just one area but from a wide range of crafts and techniques. So taking all that into consideration, why was it important to connect your love of quilting with your time on the International Space Station? You brought some supplies with you and we’ve heard that your experience there inspired so much more in regards to your creative direction… So, what was the important part about connecting these two factions of your life?
KN: Well, I was going to be there for almost six months. My first flight was only for 14 days, during which there’s not really much time for a hobby, or much downtime at all because we just had a lot to do. It was a sprint kind of mission. But this time, I was going to be living there. We anticipated some spare time on the weekends. It ended up not being quite as much as I’d anticipated, but Sunday usually brought some free time.
A lot of people bring hobbies with them… books to read, movies to watch. I thought about what I love to do most on earth and came to my art. I brought a sketch pad, some fabrics, and some small supplies. I ended up not really using the sketch pad that much. Before my flight, I had a few discussions and brainstorming with people that led to the idea to use some of the fabric already on the Space Station. We just talked about upcycling, and I felt that it’s important to use items that are already there… So, I did that in some of my projects.
A: Many of us saw an awesome dinosaur that you made– was that one of those projects?
KN: It was, yes. The Russian food containers have this fabric that’s kind of a rough Velcro– the loop side, not the hook side. It’s a muted green / olive green color. I asked my commander (Fyodor Yurchikhin) if I could have some of that instead of throwing it away. So, he gave me some of the material that I saved until I had an opportunity to use it. One Sunday, when I had nothing else to do, I drew out a dinosaur and stitched it together. I cut up an old t-shirt that I was about to throw away (it was past its useful life, as you might expect after repeated wear in space) and used it to stuff the dinosaur.
A: That is so cool. Is that something that your son still has now?
KN: Yes, it’s in a shadowbox in his dinosaur themed room.
A: That’s fantastic. No other child in the world has a dinosaur quite like that! That’s incredible. So, from there, what inspired the idea for the collaborative group project that you put together? I understand that you recently had the opportunity to see the quilts and read some of the letters that were submitted along with the blocks. We’d love to hear more about that whole project.
KN: Yes, so before flight, we’ll often sit with some of our NASA support folks and talk about various projects to complete while on the ISS. Some people like to do book reading for kids, which you may have seen. I was trying to think about what I could do as a project. I told them that I was planning to bring some quilting fabric and that I would love to do something with that. By the time we launched, we’d not yet come up with our plan. After launch, we talked a bit more and they’d been working on some different options. They got in touch with Quilt Festival and came up with the idea to do a call out for blocks with stars on them. Amazingly, by the time I got word that this is what the project was going to be, I’d already started making a quilt block– a 9” star quilt block to be exact. And I didn’t know that they were planning on doing the star theme. So, it turns out we were on the same wavelength!
I was working on my star block and NASA put out the call worldwide for people to submit star blocks. The project ended up being way bigger than they ever expected. They thought maybe we’d get a couple hundred blocks, but we ended up getting over 2200 from all over the world! It was pretty amazing.
A: That’s incredible! How many total quilts resulted from that project?
KN: The blocks ended up completing 28 quilts… large, king-sized quilts! I made a video while I was still on board the ISS to put the call out for the blocks. That was toward the end of my mission in 2013. The quilt blocks were due at some point in 2014. They enlisted a slew of volunteers from local guilds to sew the blocks into quilts. The finished quilts were on display at Quilt Festival in Houston in 2014. I was able to attend and give a talk about it. I also got to meet some of the people who submitted blocks, which was pretty incredible.
A: It must have been pretty amazing to see that whole process through… To have something start while you were actually living in space and have it grow into such a large scale creative endeavor. It’s clear that the experience you’ve had as an artist is incredibly unique. I know that a lot of people will read this interview and look at the images with an overall sense of awe. I’m not even sure how you would describe this, but for our readers… what was it like to look down and see the Earth from hundreds of miles above the surface. We can see your images, but what does that do for you… to go up and witness that?
KN: There are a lot of amazing feelings, which are hard to narrow down into a few words. The feelings come at different times while looking down at Earth. For instance, when I first got there on Space Shuttle Discovery, my first trip… the first time I looked out I was overwhelmed by how vibrant and beautiful the earth was, especially against the blackness of space, which is blacker than any black I’ve ever seen before. That contrast and the overall beauty of it is breathtaking. Then you notice, very distinctly, the health of the atmosphere… You can very clearly see how fragile it is and that there is not much cover around the planet.
As I spent more time, especially during my second mission when I was there for almost six months, I started to understand the connection between all areas of Earth… seeing it as one entity. Humans have really defined a lot of artificial borders, but really… they’re not there. Looking down at the Earth, you really notice that, and you start to realize that human beings have a lot more in common than we do different. There were a few moments that I can think of where I would listen to some piece of bad news in the morning… something going on in the world, and then later in the afternoon I’d look out the window and be flying right over that area. I felt a very strong connection with those people and empathy for what they were going through. Before, I don’t know that I ever really felt that. Often, you read the news, but it’s always something happening somewhere else. While you can watch and feel sad or scared, it’s also hard to understand because there is a lack of connection. Maybe you’ve never been to that country, or you’ve never had to experience that level of hardship or terror. I definitely felt an increase in empathy on my journeys… looking at the world from a very new perspective.
I also realized just how special our Earth is. When you see it in the blackness of space like that you really do start to understand that this is a spaceship. When we’re on our spaceship, the space station, we do everything in our power to keep it safe. We would never let things go bad… If our carbon dioxide system degrades, we will die. So, we work together as a team on that spaceship to make sure that all the functionality is maintained, because we can’t survive without that spaceship. For me, it brings that feeling of ‘Okay, Earth is a spaceship, and we are all crew mates, we’re all on the same team. So we need to work together to make sure that our spaceship maintains its integrity so we can all thrive and survive.’ There are a lot of feelings like that that you get when looking at Earth.
A: Wow… It sounds like one of those experiences that you almost wish could be gifted to all humans on Earth, so that we could all band together and work toward a shared resolution. I know there are many who are true warriors for Earth, trying to push things in a better direction. That passion that you have, that you were able to develop there… That would be such a gift.
KN: Yep, that’s exactly what I thought. If everybody could just spend 90 minutes– because that would be one time around the Earth– in our cupula, which is the big window facing Earth and, and just look at it, you know, and I think it would change people.
A: Wow, 90 minutes is one time around. In that case, how many times do you think you ended up going around?
KN: We go around 16 times a day. Somebody has that data somewhere… usually written as how many million miles we’ve traveled through space.
A: It’s pretty awe inspiring to think about that… timing and distance. If you’re flying from point to point on Earth, the time that would take in comparison to the speeds at which you’re traveling outside the Earth’s atmosphere! So, obviously this affected you in a very big way. It’s clear that you’ve brought a lot of this knowledge back home. With your view of the world, what you’re aiming to do, and the awareness that you’re hoping to generate… What are some of the other things that you’re doing? And what are some of the things that are very important to you– the messages you’d like to pass along?
KN: Well, so few of us have had that opportunity– just about 600 astronauts. We’re now getting more and more with some private astronauts and that sort of thing… But, in the grand population of the world, there are very few of us that have had that unique opportunity. I think it’s important for us to share our experiences as much as possible. People might have different ways in which they can do that. Since I love art, I think that’s a good way for me to try to share my own experience… To draw attention through art, fabric, and thread, bringing attention to what I learned and how my perspective changed from spending that time in space.
A: That’s amazing. I think it’s a wonderful way to inspire people, too, because when you have that visual in front of you, it’s much harder to ignore. Some people respond more passionately to words, and some really do respond more passionately to that visual impact. That makes a lot of sense… With all of your background with sewing and quilting, what led you to the path you are on now? What really drew you to the practice of thread painting? It’s a strongly artistic technique within the sewing world.
KN: When I was little, it wasn’t just sewing that I loved… I loved drawing. I would sit down– I had this board that I would put on my lap sitting in front of the TV– and get out a catalog or a picture of family, and just doodle. I would draw people and various things. So, I love to draw. I moved from pencil to charcoal and in college, I took a drawing class. I remember it was my freshman year. I was deciding what major I was going to do. When I spoke with my art teacher and mentioned that mechanical engineering was one option, he said ‘Why would you waste your talent and go into mechanical engineering.’
KN: But… I could have art as a hobby, but I couldn’t have engineering as a hobby. So I took just a couple of art classes. In my last semester in undergrad, I took a painting class. I had not done much in color. So that was really hard for me because I didn’t totally understand the whole color theory thing. I was too literal with my colors, but I started there and learned so much. Because I loved art and drawing so much, as I started doing more with textiles… I added appliques and eventually saw some art quilts that really struck me. The first quilting retreat and workshop that I did was in 2017 with Lenore Crawford, who does realistic art quilts. Then, a year later, I did a workshop with Sophie Standing. I was able to learn a lot of techniques from both of them that I still use. I’ve really started to meld the techniques together, in addition to other techniques that I’ve seen people use. I’m still working and honing my own technique. Almost every time I make something, I do something a little bit different. So I don’t really have a set technique of my own yet. Ultimately it all really started with my love of sewing and my love of art. The best thing I could think to do was to put the two together.
A: That sounds incredible. I’m in awe of the work I’ve already seen on your website… One of your husband and one of your dogs — both are pretty remarkable. I’m guessing others will have this experience… of reading your story and already being in awe of your time on the ISS and then coming to your website and seeing your work. It’s a jaw-dropping moment!
KN: It’s so much fun. The one I did of my husband… he was in space when I started it. My goal was to get it done for him as a surprise before we got home, but it didn’t quite work out that way. I finished it after he got home. It was really fun. That one was also a little bit of a collaboration with my son. I spent about a day trying to figure out how I was going to represent his skin tone, and, like I said, color theory is something that I’m still learning. I had such a tough time with it! Then, my son Jack came in. He said, ‘Well, why don’t you just make daddy black & white and put the patch on his shoulder in color so it really stands out?’ And I thought wow… That’s genius!
A: What an incredible collaboration with your son– to make it even more special. So, do you see yourself moving forward more with the textile illustration? Is that where your passion lives now or do you find that you go from there back into quilting or home décor?
KN: I would really like to push more towards illustration, now that I have retired from NASA and have a little bit more time. I could still see myself doing some of the other things as well because it’s fun. But the textile illustration is where the real joy lives these days.
A: Your debut thread collection, Earth Views, is shipping to stores now. To give a little background to our readers– our partnership initially came about because you had already been using Aurifil thread. Your agent reached out to us and everything just came about in a very natural way. How did you first discover Aurifil thread and what really inspired you to keep going with them?
KN: When I was sewing early on after grad school… I would just go buy thread. You know, it didn’t matter what it was. I think I did have some Aurifil threads at the time without even really knowing how much I would love them. The real moment for me, though, was when I took a class just a few years ago with Sophie Standing. I love her art and that’s what she used and so I bought some and had a moment of discovery… like, wow, these are awesome! I just really, really liked them. And from then on, it’s been the only thread that I’ve bought and what I use.
A: So, once we determined our collaboration and went through various discussions about what direction to take, how did you eventually narrow down to the 10 colors that are included in this collection?
KN: It was really hard, because there are a lot of colors. I think we had talked about how I could have a collection for just deserts, just oceans, or just mountains… or even by continent. I still believe you could do a collection for each of those. What I eventually had to do was to consult some of my favorite photos, the ones that really jolted memories for me, and look at them with a different eye. What were the primary hues that created that beauty?
KN: It always struck me how some of the desert areas and some of the River Delta areas were a purplish pink color… so I added in those colors. You would also see that color replicated in some mountain ranges. And of course, the water colors. I wanted to get the Bahama blues… the lighter blue reminded me of the pictures that I would take from further away… the colors of the oceans from a distance. Then I tried to represent various ecosystems on earth– a little bit from desert, a little bit from the grasslands and farmlands, and a little bit from mountain snow. After looking at several pictures, picking out colors and putting them back in, the 10 that now appear in the colors are the ones that I ended up with. It’s a gorgeous range of colors. I think that people will really be able to draw inspiration from these hues.
A: I love that they all came from all these images… ones that readers can see in this post. Am I right that you’re actually working on a few new projects now… taking a lot of those colors and using them in new works of art inspired by the images you took of Earth? Could you tell us a little bit more about that?
KN: I’ve started a collection called Earth Views… like the thread collection. It seems to be a good name for the whole scope of things. I’ve finished two so far. I haven’t yet started a third, but I’m working on which image I’d like to do next. The first two had been done before I selected the colors for the thread collection. I know there are some colors included in those works of art that don’t appear in the collection, so I’m grateful that I’ll now have those curated hues as a reference point. Anyway, I think any Earth View image created will have at least a couple of these colors in it just because that’s what Earth looks like.
A: We have the thread collection, and you’re doing some works of art that are inspired by your photographs. But you also have some other things that are on the horizon. We just saw the announcement for your Robert Kaufman partnership. What’s happening with all of that, and when should people expect to see a little bit more?
KN: Yes, I’m really excited about this as well. Working with the team at Robert Kaufman has been wonderful. In particular, I’m working with a couple of their amazing designers. It’s going to be an Earth Views collection. It will be based on some of the photos that I took. I went ahead and selected 50 or so of my favorites with different textures– like the textures of the Amazon River, river deltas, clouds, mountains, and deserts and have been working with those designers on how to represent the textures in textile form. I can’t recall how many different patterns we ended up with but it will be about 30 fabrics total, including a couple of colorways for several of them. It’s an artistic take on the textures of Earth with some fabulous color. Not all of them are realistic colors. There are some unique colors included to help represent the whole range of values and hues. They should be released in October.
A: That is so exciting! A little bit of thread first… then some fabric… Congratulations on it all!
KN: Thank you. It’s pretty awesome.
Dr. Karen Nyberg is an engineer, astronaut, and artist who, through nearly thirty years of experience in human spaceflight, has gained an appreciation for the value of working within and across diverse political ideologies, cultural values, and world views to advance critical missions.
Karen was selected as a member of the NASA Astronaut Corps in 2000. She made her first trip to space aboard Space Shuttle Discovery in 2008, during the height of International Space Station (ISS) construction, delivering and installing the Japanese Laboratory. On her second spaceflight in 2013, Karen launched on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft and lived and worked at ISS for 166 days.
Prior to astronaut selection, Karen worked as an Environmental Control Systems Engineer at the Johnson Space Center where she led several design and analysis initiatives in the areas of space vehicle and space suit thermal and environmental control. Recently retired from NASA, Karen is currently pursuing interests in the areas of conservation and sustainability, fully appreciating the responsibility for innovation and technology to strive to meet those needs.
Karen received her undergraduate degree from the University of North Dakota and graduate degrees from the University of Texas at Austin and has been honored with the highest alumni award from each alma mater.
Karen lives in Houston, Texas with her husband, Astronaut Doug Hurley, their Dinosaur loving son, Jack, and two sweet dogs, Leo and Luke.