Sunday, December 17, 2017

Use Sewing Supplies to Make Science Geek Fancy Party Apparel!

Here's my DH Alan, at a fancy party last week.

Why was Alan at a fancy party? What's that on his tie? A closer look:

Still wondering? I'm so glad you asked. It's a long story - a VERY long story.

One billion, three hundred million years ago, in a galaxy far, far away, two massive black holes whirled around each other, then crashed together.
This happened so far away and long ago that nothing could take a photograph of it, but here's an artist's rendition of the pre-climactic moment.

The event emitted vast energy waves - more energy than all the stars in the universe put together - more than any cosmological event scientists had ever witnessed. It warped the time and space it traveled through, including, on September 14, 2015, when it blew past Louisiana and Washington State.

By that morning, the "gravitational waves" were tiny - altering space-time by a billionth of a billionth of a meter. A week or so before, nothing could detect them.  But a few days earlier, scientists in the LIGO collaboration - short for Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory - had switched on "advanced" detectors in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana.

The black line in the chart below shows the what scientists expected. The blue and orange lines show what the detectors found.

This result confirmed a prediction that Einstein made in 1916. But Einstein also believed that the waves would be too small for people to measure. In that, he was wrong.

In the early 1970's, scientist Rainer Weiss at MIT came up with the idea of using lasers to measure; he convinced theorist Kip Thorne at Caltech and, around 1990, experimental physicist Barry Barish, also at Caltech, came on board and led the project.

The three scientists recruited dozens, then hundreds, and now 1,000+ plus scientists. For this achievement, Weiss, Thorne and Barish were awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics.

As one of the senior scientists on the project, Alan was one of many who were invited by the three winners to join the Nobel festivities in Sweden last week. The trio generously hosted elegant, joyful, once-in-a-lifetime parties for their LIGO colleagues at Stockholm's aptly named Grand Hotel. (which by complete coincidence has a very quilty stairwell floor:)
More about that blue scarf below. I should make a quilt like this floor, right? But I'm not going to make a quilt out of the ceiling in the hotel party room, which looked like this:

For us, the invitation was of course a thrilling surprise, right up until the moment it hit us that it would require a feat arguably more challenging to Alan and me than science or art: Purchasing and wearing formal attire (that fits).

Thus this blog post will now descend from the sublime and cosmological, to the superficial and costume-o-logical: How a quilter who almost never sews garments can create - just for fun! - formal LIGO-themed party attire, in about two weeks? (Because I thought of doing this late.) Here's what I made, and why.

1. Turned the organza stash into a shawl. If you're in the world of art quilters, you know that overlaying a sheer fabric - like tulle, or organza, or even netted produce bags  - can completely change the look of the quilt underneath it. I've written about this fun trick here and here.

That's why I have a shelf of organzas, tulles, onion and potato bags. One acrylic organza piece was 37" x 56", and navy blue, the color of one of my new party dresses. I had tried laying it over various quilts, but always rejected it, because it was too opaque.

It just might work as a shawl! I pressed it cautiously - a silk setting took out wrinkles without melting it. I turned the edges in twice, and stitched them down with invisible thread. Here's a shot after hemming - the material is not as shiny as the photo flash makes it look.

Then I gathered some sparkly yarns - black-and-silver (bottom), holographic silver (upper right), and  a white eyelash yarn (upper left).
I crocheted them together into a long chain, to serve as the main line of the graph. Next, I stretched a sticky stabilizer that I wrongly believed to be water-soluble across the area where I wanted the chart....
...referring frequently to the LIGO printout.
I used the black yarn, and then the white yarn, to create the two remaining lines.
I tore off little pieces of the stabilizer to hold the curves in position.
Then I covered it with another layer of stabilizer. (This layer really was water-soluble Solvy.)
And zigzag machine-stitched over each line. I used black thread for the black lines, silver metallic for the other two.
Cut away as much of the excess stabilizer as I could, with blunt scissors, being careful to not cut through the organza....
I liked the white shadow! But the stabilizer was sticky, and had to go.
I gave it a bath.
And was shocked to discover that the first stabilizer was NOT water soluble after all! It didn't go anywhere! (I wish I knew what this stabilizer was - your guesses welcomed.)
I spent the next three hours picking it out, which is longer than it took me to sew the whole thing. 

I crocheted another line of cord with the fancy yarns to go along the bottom of the shawl. Fast forward to our fabulous hotel bathroom in Stockholm. Here's my navy dress pre-shawl....
And here it is post-shawl: 
And, below, the back, in a photo next to the party cloakroom taken by excellent photographer and LIGO Livingston observatory director Joe Giaime (thank you!). 
Now it has a retirement career... a curtain. If someone else throws a fancy LIGO party, I can simply untack it, shake out the dust, massage out the holes in the top corners, and wear it again! 

But seriously, if you want to turn some of your quilting tulle or organza into a party shawl, I have a couple of suggestions. First, use a longer piece. Mine was 57", but I think it should have been at least 68" so that it could be tied or secured better with a pin. I'd also make it shorter from top to bottom - I think 18" would have been more manageable, though not as good for a kitchen curtain.

2. Embroidered a Necktie - Along with a shawl, I wanted to put the LIGO chart onto a necktie for Alan. (There are official printed LIGO neckties on Zazzle, but they're $44, and by the time we thought of ordering one, it was too late.) My first try was a fail because I started with a flawed necktie, whose inner lining had shifted, which I believed would magically fix itself. I printed out the LIGO chart....
...placed it on top to make sure it fit...
...traced the lines in three different colors onto Golden Threads Quilting Paper (easy to pick out, and won't pull out stitches.) I used water-soluble kids' markers - DON'T USE PENCIL - to draw the lines on the tracing paper. (The needle can transfer the pencil lines onto the fabric and they won't ever come out!)
Pinned the tracing paper to the tie, then machine-stitched straight stitches through the tracing paper with three different color threads. Tore out the paper, which also takes a while...
 ...and was left with this....
The central black line was then covered with a thick sparkly black yarn, which I hand stitched (couched) in place. I used embroidery floss - red and blue - to stitch directly over the remaining two lines.
I was not happy with the result. It was lumpy and thick - and the embroidery only worsened the tie's  alignment issues. So I started over with a flatter necktie, and came up with this:

Much better! It took very little time, because I'd had practice. Also, instead of couching a black cord, I simply hand-embroidered over all the machine stitching with three strands of embroidery floss, black, red and blue. In the interests of transparency, here's the back....
Who's gonna know?  (If I'd had more time, I might have taken the extra care to keep the stitches from penetrating the back.)

3. Crocheted a Black Hole-Themed Button Necklace. The black beads represent black holes, and they clattered together delightfully at our celebrations, especially as I trembled with joy at the diverse herring dishes. (Just kidding, herring isn't my thing, I trembled joyfully at the chocolate bon bons.)

The  gold and silver beads represent neutron stars crashing into each other, a more recent LIGO discovery - for the first time ever, scientists were able to observe that heavy metals like gold and silver are created by neutron star collisions. The flat mother-of-pearl buttons represented buttons until my DH told me they could symbolize accretion disks, another product of  the star crashes! And the squarish pearls represent, uh, visual relief.

I needed a big, cluttered, noisy, black necklace to hide the awkward neckline on my OTHER party dress, a black lace concoction. (Awkward necklines are the kind of thing you must accept when you score a dress bargain at Ross). Neckline before:
 After: The necklace didn't quite hide the horizontal bargain bar, but at least it confused the situation!
I also crocheted a blue variation for the navy dress, but didn't end up wearing it at the party (I chose something less busy.)  
The clear buttons, mostly vintage, glass and plastic, were supposed to represent the emanating gravitational waves....
The small blue buttons and beads represent blue holes, which, I predict, scientists will never predict. 

And that's the billion-year story! I hope it will encourage to turn your sewing supplies into themed party attire...or Star Wars movie attire...or Halloween costumes! 

I am, of course, so proud of Alan and all the LIGO collaborators for their extraordinary accomplishments. A short but action-packed video of Alan explaining LIGO's discovery, complete with cool sound effects, is here

Also: I turned a different blue button necklace, intended for this event, into holiday decor, documented in my previous blog post, here.


  1. Fantastic! I would have guessed that you would have had to add your own creativity. Alan isn’t the only one who was the star (pun intended:) Kol Hakavod! Did you buy any yarn in Stockholm?

    1. Diane, I did stop at a few yarn shops, but didn't end up buying. Swedish yarn is gorgeous, organic, earthy, nubby, designed for winter projects. Maybe because I'm in a warm climate I lean towards yarns that are sparkly and polyester! I did buy a beautiful blue Swedish yarn the last time we visited Stockholm, 12 years ago, and used it as a tzitzit fringe for my husband's tallit.

  2. Forgot to mention that the stairwell is definitely a quilt in the making. And, I love your shawl. Makes a nice curtain, too:)

    1. Thank you, Diane! Yes, that stairwell floor quilt is definitely coming!!!

  3. How fabulous! A step-by-step documentation of the artistic secrets hidden in your thoughtfully designed attire.I adore the curtain and am so proud of both you and Alan for your fabulous work!!!

    1. Jeri, you empowered me when you dared me to make a shawl. I was thinking of your masterpieces when my first reaction was "no way!" But then it grew on me. Fortunately, Alan's fellow scientists and spouses aren't fashion critics, and this isn't Project Runway! Thank you, Alan and I are proud to know you!!!

  4. Congratulations are in order to both you and your husband for venturing into new and creative things which will benefit us all!