Cosmic Threads: A Solar System Quilt from 1876
By Maria Popova
In October of 1883, a paper in the nation’s capital reported under the heading “Current Gossip” that “an Iowa woman has spent seven years embroidering the solar system on a quilt” — a news item originally printed in Iowa and syndicated widely in newspapers across the country that autumn and winter. The New York Times reprinted the report as it appeared in the Iowa paper, dismissively qualifying it as a “somewhat comical statement.”
The woman in question, Ellen Harding Baker (June 8, 1847–March 30, 1886), was not a person to be dismissed with a patronizing chuckle. Baker taught science in rural Iowa, in an era when most institutions of higher education were still closed to women, all the whilst raising her five surviving children. She used her Solar System quilt to illustrate her astronomy lectures. To ensure the accuracy of her embroidered depiction, Baker traveled to the Chicago Observatory to view sunspots and a comet — most likely the Great Comet of 1882, which had become a national attraction — through the professional telescope there.
Baker was born in the year Maria Mitchell — the figure who sparked the initial inspiration for my book Figuring — made the landmark comet discovery that earned her worldwide acclaim and established her as America’s first professional female astronomer. When Baker began working on her Solar System quilt, she was the same age Mitchell was when she discovered her comet — twenty-nine.
The quilt, crafted long before we knew the universe contained galaxies other than our own, depicts an enormous radiant sun orbited by the planets known prior to Pluto’s discovery in 1930, as a comet — one of those mysterious and enchanting celestial bodies, extolled in poems and foreboded in Medieval paintings — blazes in one corner. The quilt is made of wool, lined with a cotton-and-wool fabric, and embroidered in silk and wool.
The convergence of the threaded arts and astronomy was not entirely uncommon in Baker’s day. Mitchell herself, while condemning the needle as “the chain of woman” and resenting the tyranny of “stitch, stitch, stitch” as society’s means of keeping women confined to the domestic sphere, believed that the needle could be reclaimed as an instrument of the mind. “The eye that directs a needle in the delicate meshes of embroidery will equally well bisect a star with the spider web of the micrometer,” she wrote in her diary.
Nearly a century after Baker made her quilt, the pioneering astronomer Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin — who revolutionized our understanding of the universe by discovering its chemical composition and became the first woman to chair a Harvard department, having ended up at the esteemed university thanks to a fellowship established there by the Maria Mitchell Association — would pick up where Baker left off, crafting a stunning yarn-on-canvas needlepoint depiction of the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A. In the year of Payne’s death, the artist Judy Chicago would also bring needlepoint and astronomy together in her iconic project The Dinner Party, which features a hand-embroidered runner celebrating Caroline Herschel — the world’s first woman astronomer and the subject of Adrienne Rich’s stunning tribute.
Published December 6, 2018