To Quilt, Perchance to Discover

What is it about Quilting?

Not yet a quilt, this is a stock photo image.
Not yet a quilt, this is a stock photo image.

There is a really big quilt show going on in town right now. The annual Wisconsin Quilt Expo runs Thursday through Saturday, September 8–10, 2016 here in Madison, WI.

This quilt expo is the State Fair for quilters. It is to quilters, what Summerfest, or a Lollapalooza festival is to music fans. It is the Stitch-Stitch fest for those with thimbles (and fabric, of course).

To give you another idea of the size of Quilt Expo, busloads of quilters and quilt fans come to this expo, and there are awards for the best quilt in each of ten categories. Can you imagine the time it takes to judge quilts in 10 different categories?

Quilt Expo is sponsored by Wisconsin Public Television and quilter-in-chief Nancy Zieman, host of the popular public television show “Sewing with Nancy”. Her store, Nancy’s Notions is a destination quilting shop in Beaver Dam, WI. I’ve been to this store twice, both times with dedicated quilters. Each time, my quilter counterpart stopped talking immediately upon entering the store. They looked around once, took a cart and went deep into shopping. I gave up on attempts at conversation, due to a lack of response.

Quilt-making (and preparation therein) is very serious business, a passion, a hobby to which much dedication is exerted.

I have done some sewing, but no quilt making. My hobbies include a food preservation (canned peach jam; none of this “freezer jam”) and I dabble in metalworking/jewelry making. For me these activities provide an escape, a meditation and a feeling of accomplishment that is unlike most activities.

Quilt Making and Science—Really?

By now you might be thinking, “This science blog—Promega is a biotech company—what does quilt making have to do with science?”

Enter engineer and security expert Lorrie Faith Cranor, who garnered attention back in 2014 for her “security blanket quilt”, featured in an article at, the web site of Science magazine.

This is Lorrie, wearing her handmade password dress in front of her security quilt. (Image used with permission from Lorrie Cranor.)
This is Lorrie, wearing her handmade password dress in front of her security quilt. (Image used with permission from Lorrie Cranor.)

Lorrie has a doctoral degree in engineering and policy and master’s degrees in computer science and in technology and human affairs, from Washington University in St. Louis. (Interestingly enough for this election year 2016 blog, her dissertation was on electronic voting.) She has done privacy work as well, and was just appointed Chief Technologist for the Federal Trade Commission.

Here is Lorrie with the “security blanket” quilt, covered in passwords that are but should never be used. In addition, notice that she is wearing a handmade passwords dress.

Lorrie blogs about her work and her quilts, which are amazing for their color choices and the way she takes well-known quilt patterns and manipulates them for a new design. She has also created a new pattern beginning with a security or privacy idea and developed a pattern from there. See her blog for details and quilts going back almost 15 years.

What Came First, the Scientist or the Quilt?

Although I received permission to use Lorrie’s quilt images, time did not permit an interview. However, after working at two large publicly-funded universities and a biotechnology company, I’ve known a number of scientists that are restlessly creative individuals, among them painters, wood workers, writers, musicians, not to mention fabric and metalworkers.

"Monkeying around and around" quilt by Lorrie Cranor. (Image used with permission from L. Cranor.)
“Monkeying around and around” quilt by Lorrie Cranor. (Image used with permission from L. Cranor.)

The fascination with creating, with doing work with one’s hands and maybe even with the meditation and deep focus it takes to do such work, is commonly found in scientists. This 2014 article, “Scientists are More Creative than you Might Imagine” from The Atlantic, includes some interesting quotes and facts about scientists and creativity. (I know for a fact that there are readers of this blog that are creatives and scientists themselves.)

My personal interest in science and research was inspired in part by questions I wanted to find answers for, both to fulfill a personal need, and because the information might help others. I was intrigued by the practical benefits gained by many people due to discoveries such as penicillin (Alexander Fleming) and selenium toxicity as a cause of livestock deaths (Oscar Olson). My interest in beadwork developed during childhood, and later became a jewelry-working hobby.

If you’ve paid any attention to pieced quilts or know a quilt maker, you know the challenges and precision work in cutting and sewing, as well as the creativity exercised by quilters who alter patterns and colors. Perhaps you know a young person that learned to sew or make quilts, and then decide that they could apply this ability and desire for creating, to engineering, chemistry or biological science research? I know a fashion designer that later went to veterinary school.

Our Hunting and Cave Painting Past

We are all derived from ancestors that scavenged and hunted for food, that survived out in the open amongst predators, that lived and worked under far more difficult conditions than we do, in our air-conditioned/heated homes, cars and workplaces. This ability to survive must have required creative solutions to the many problems our ancestors faced. (Think saber-tooth tiger/no gun…)

While we have the luxury of more free time due to easy access to food (I won’t be killing any chickens this week) is it possible that we need  intense activity, whether hunting, wrangling livestock, doing scientific research, cooking, preserving food or quilt-making?

In our very connected electronic world of instant gratification, with social media playing on many channels, all of which are on 24/7, indulging a passion, something that you dive deeply into and really concentrate on, is not only an indulgence, but something that connects us to our great-grandparents in their very intense, hardscrabble lives. Great, great grandaunt Rebecca would recognize and appreciate a lovely quilt, or the results of your masters’ thesis.

We’d love to hear about your deep focus activity, your creative-scientific outlet, whether an existing passion or something new you are trying.

Here are some other really amazing quilts by Lorrie.

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Kari Kenefick

Kari Kenefick

Kari has been a science writer/editor for Promega since 1996. Prior to that she enjoyed working in veterinary microbiology/immunology, and has an M.S. in Bacteriology, U of WI-Madison. Favorite topics include infectious disease, inflammation, aging, exercise, nutrition and personality traits. When not writing, she enjoys training her dogs in agility and obedience. About the practice of writing, as we say for cell-based assays, "add-mix-measure".


  1. Creativity is the concept behind scientific discovery. Therefore creativity came first. I have always had two passions, science and art. In school my optional class was an art class, usually drawing or painting, but I dabbled in others too. My chosen science, geology, allowed me to merge the two through geologic map making. When it became cost prohibitive to sew my own cloths, I turned to creating with fabric via quilting. I usually create my own design for my quilts and, if using a predesigned pattern, always add my own touch somehow. Science creeps into my quilting a lot. I have been told I engineer my quilts by more than one person. First comes the concept, then the fabrics then the piecing order and lastly the quilting…all created to work together to achieve the picture I have in my head of the finished product.

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