Retired Astronaut Launches a Fabric Line Inspired by Her Views of Earth From Space
Karen Nyberg’s two missions to the International Space Station over her 30-year career with NASA fueled her creativity as an artist
Seeing Earth from space is a privilege afforded only to a select few highly trained individuals—the rest of us have to settle for photos and videos. Now, those views can also be incorporated into quilts and other crafting projects thanks to a new fabric line from retired NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg.
For her “Earth Views” fabric line, created in partnership with Robert Kaufman Fabrics, Nyberg drew inspiration from 13 photographs she took of the planet while aboard the International Space Station. Before retiring from NASA in March 2020, Nyberg participated in two missions, in 2008 and 2013, and spent more than 180 days in space as a mission specialist and a flight engineer.
This project marries Nyberg’s passion for both science and art. In addition to her robust mechanical engineering skill set, Nyberg is also an accomplished artist and crafter. She made headlines in 2013 when she brought quilting gear to the International Space Station and sewed a dinosaur toy for her then-three-year-old son, who was back home on Earth, using scraps and fabrics she found aboard the orbiting habitat.
That same year, she became the first person to make a quilt square in space, a feat that inspired a worldwide quilting challenge that produced 2,400 quilt blocks from more than 30 countries, per a video Nyberg made explaining the fabric line.
“There were quilters who had never thought about space before that were now interested in space, there were space-enthusiasts who had never quilted before and had made their first quilt block,” Nyberg says in the video.
Nyberg says she’s been interested in art and sewing since she was a child growing up in Vining, Minnesota, in the 1970s and ‘80s. After her mom, Phyllis Nyberg, taught her how to sew, Nyberg began spending much of her childhood free time working with textiles, drawing, painting and pursuing other art projects.
Her journey to becoming an astronaut includes earning a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and a doctorate, all in mechanical engineering. Nyberg started working at NASA in 1991, while she was still in school, and held a variety of positions at the organization during her nearly 30-year tenure. She holds a patent for developing a robot friendly probe and socket assembly process.
“About the same time that I looked up at the sky and knew I wanted to be an astronaut, I sewed my first shirt, at age eight,” she tells Women’s Wear Daily’s Tracey Meyers. “For me, the technical aspects of sewing, drawing and art have always just made sense.”
Living in space fueled Nyberg’s creativity even more and “forever changed” how she looks at Earth, she tells Women’s Wear Daily. The 30 new organic fabrics depict different landscapes she photographed while gazing out the window of the space station’s cupola, ranging from swirling ocean currents to dense forests. For quilters who are eager to put the fabrics to good use, Nyberg also created quilt patterns meant to compliment the fabrics.
Though it doesn’t attract as much attention as other high-tech developments required for traveling and living in space, sewing is a critical piece of the nation’s space program. NASA works with a team of expert seamstresses who sew everything from thermal blankets to fabric that fills the gaps between space shuttle tiles and helps keep the shuttle cool during launch and re-entry, according to FOX Weather.
"The astronauts see at least 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets," Jean Wright, a seamstress who works with NASA and presented at the 2014 International Quilt Festival with Nyberg, tells FOX Weather’s Emilee Speck. "She is seeing all this beautiful eco-culture, snowcapped mountains, seas and oceans. To me, it's only natural. You've got the beauty of Earth that it would translate into doing something for fabric."