Recently, while visiting the Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center, I was fortunate to meet author-illustrator Elise Matich, who was signing her picture book SEW SISTER: THE UNTOLD STORY OF JEAN WRIGHT AND NASA’S SEAMSTRESSES (Tilbury House Publishers, 2023). As quite the bonus, Jean Wright herself was there too! I loved learning Jean’s story, and also learning how Elise turned it into such a fascinating book:

Me: I’m so glad I discovered your amazing book! As someone who also just wrote and illustrated a picture book about an untold story involving the improbable subject of cloth in space, I feel like we may be on the cusp of a trend (a very small one, but still). What inspired you to write this book?

Elise: Thanks, Jonathan. Congratulations on your book! I’m thrilled that the role of fabric in space exploration is having a well-deserved moment. I decided to write SEW SISTER after meeting NASA seamstress Jean Wright during a visit to the Kennedy Space Center with my family in 2019. Jean was working as a docent at the Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit, explaining the ways in which heat shield blankets were used to protect the orbiters. I had no idea that the shuttles were covered in fabric, and was fascinated by Jean’s story, so I contacted her the next day, and asked if she would be interested in collaborating on a children’s book.

 

Me: So many of the details are fascinating: from the use of a 1914 sewing machine to seeing how Jean and her team helped guide a repair of the Atlantis shuttle while it was in flight! Do you have any favorite facts from your research?

Elise: My favorite nuggets from the Sew Sisters’ story are those that reveal just how much the shuttle program depended on old-fashioned skills and tools to execute its cutting-edge missions. The 1914 Singer sewing machine is a great example. In keeping with NASA tradition, it was given a nickname (“Lurch”), and was used to create the dome heat shield blankets that ring the shuttles’ three main engines. Not only was the machine an antique, it had originally been used in making another type of transportation technology—saddles! Although the Sew Sisters used machines, much of their stitching was done by hand. I was particularly delighted to learn that some of the blankets, such as the wheel-well thermal barriers, were sewn, by hand, directly onto the shuttles themselves.

Me: Your illustrations are a lovely combination of realism laced with numerous stitching designs. Is there a significance to the patterns you used? What is your illustration process?

 

Elise: The patterns were all inspired by actual quilting patterns, and reflect a technique known as free-motion quilting (sometimes called doodle quilting or meandering). The technique involves creating repeated patterns or pictures to fill a particular space. Each stitching design in SEW SISTER is meant to compliment the image it embellishes. For example, in the spread showing Jean sewing clothes for her dolls as a way of escaping a difficult family situation, I used a leaf pattern to liken sewing to the peaceful shelter of a tree.

Me: How did you get into writing for kids?

Elise: As a teacher and parent, picture books have been a part of my daily life for many years. I’ve created little booklets for my students and kids, and always hoped to be able to write a book of my own—I just needed the right story. SEW SISTER was it!

 

Me: Can you share what you’re working on next?

Elise: Sure! I’m working on a book about prehistoric life and evolution.

Me: Hey, don’t tell anyone, but one of my works-in-progress involves evolution too! But in funny, graphic novel form.

Thank you so much for chatting, and wishing much success to your book!

To learn more, please visit: Elise Matich

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