Microscopic Inspiration: Barbara West’s Plankton Quilt

When you do a Google search for “quilt art,” this is one of the first images that comes up. It is hard to imagine that this is even a quilt. Its depth and complexity make it resemble a high definition photograph of the deep sea, or even outer space. But it is indeed a quilt, made by Barbara J. West. West was born and raised in Canada and started displaying her quilts there in 1998. She has been juried into several national shows and has won national awards for her work, including First Prize in the Large Innovative Quilt Category at the Canadian Quilters Association National Juried Show of 1993. She won for this plankton quilt:

Quilt0 (1)

Finished Product – Photo by: Joseph Potts

Not surprisingly, this quilt was also selected by the Canadian Quilters Association as one of five quilts representing Canada to be sent to the World Quilt Festival in Nagoya, Japan in March of 2004 as part of their Invitational Show.

Barbara was inspired to make this quilt by her friend and fellow quilter Cathy Nigrini. The two women are members of the same quilting guild. Says Barbara:

My idea for this quilt came from Cathy Nigrini a scientist guild member who is studying plankton. She goes on sea/ocean expeditions to take samples and catalogue plankton from around the world and is one of few people in the world who study in this field. One day at her house, she kindly let me see one of her books showing early drawings of plankton (1862). I was particularly taken with the complexity of a single celled entity and the fact they are so small they really never get appreciated for their beauty by most people. This quilt has taken 3 years to complete because I had to learn some of the techniques incorporated into it.


Cathy Nigrini, plankton scientist. Read full article on Nigrini here.

Barbara continues, explaining Nigrini’s work and the plankton that inspired her:

This Mediterranean Sea plankton was first described by Ernst Haeckel of Germany in 1860 and revised in 1887. The diameter of the whole jelly sphere is 1-4mm. It is extant (still alive) and because this plankton has no skeleton, we don’t know how long they have been around. Although they are yellowish and grey in true appearance, I got carried away by artistic license in choosing the colours for this quilt. The spheres on the right show close-ups of parts of this particular plankton. The top right sphere is the central compact capsule. The next sphere holds the central compact capsule. The third sphere is the nucleus, its surface covered with small roundish finger-like protuberances (beads). From this nucleus, on the complete cell, you will see long thin cylindrical nucleoli extending beyond the cell bubbles (an effect that was achieved using a technique called couching). The fourth sphere on the right shows a close-up of the jelly-body containing the numerous “bubbles”. The embroidered patches represent protoplasm. Finally, the beads on the main view of the cell show numerous xanthellae (little cells scattered on the bubbles).


West’s inspiration

The techniques used for the plankton quilt were hand and machine appliquÈ, machine-pieced, machine embroidery, couching, beading. Materials were 100% cotton, glass beads, rayon yarn, cotton and rayon thread. The quilt measured 57 3/8″ x 60 1/8″.

We hope this inspires you to think big looking to the very small. Beautiful patterns are truly all around us!

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