This Engineer Hacked a Retro Knitting Machine to Create a Giant Stellar Map

Sarah Spencer has created a gigantic equatorial star map in tapestry form using an old knitting machine and lots of new code.
Jessica Miley
The photo credit line may appear like thisHeartofPluto

An Australian software engineer has spent years hacking a 1980’s knitting machine to create a spectacular work of art and simultaneously both advance knitting and science education.

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Sarah Spencer has toyed around with hacking and programming a 1980’s knitting machine for a while before seriously turning her attention to a mammoth task: creating gigantic equatorial star map in tapestry form.

“As a woman in tech, I wanted to create something which would engage young minds in an area of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics)," Spencer said in a statement emailed to Space.com.

To get the ambitious project underway Spencer had to figure out how to hack the retro knitting machine to make it produce with bird's-eye backing (a simple pattern that ties the wool down behind the tapestry) using one knit per pixel in three colors.

This Engineer Hacked a Retro Knitting Machine to Create a Giant Stellar Map
Source: HeartofPluto

Complex design made possible by advanced hacking skills

This was a huge achievement and opened the doors to complex tapestry design. Spencer gave herself the deadline of presenting the work at Electromagnetic Field Camp (also known as EMF Camp), a tech festival in the United Kingdom that explores the collaboration between art and science.

This Engineer Hacked a Retro Knitting Machine to Create a Giant Stellar Map
Source: HeartofPluto

On August 31, 2018, at 6 p.m. Spencer revealed her work - "Stargazing: a knitted tapestry." The giant tapestry piece features all 88 constellations as seen from Earth. 

You can also pick out the equatorial line with the zodiac constellations running along it and the stars are scaled according to their real-life brightness. All the major players are represented such as the Milky Way galaxy, the Sun, Earth's moon and all of the planets within our solar system.

Planets located with detailed accuracy

The planets, moon, and sun are strategically located to accurately represent a real date in time that coincided with Spencer's visit to the UK. "Stargazing: a knitted tapestry" is made from locally sourced Australian wool in a wonderfully deep blue.

This Engineer Hacked a Retro Knitting Machine to Create a Giant Stellar Map
Source: HeartofPluto

The piece stretches out to about 2.8 meters tall and 4.6 m wide. The astronomical tapestry took Spencer more than 100-plus hours to complete, weighs in at 15 kilograms.

Spencer has made other space-themed knitted works in the past including a set of scarves featuring the Milky Way, but ‘Stargazing’ is the most ambitious work to date for the talented Australian. You can follow Spencer’s adventures in hacking and knitting by following her blog ‘Heart of Pluto’.

This Engineer Hacked a Retro Knitting Machine to Create a Giant Stellar Map
Source: HeartofPluto

She also generously shares her code on GitHub. Spencer also sells some of her spacey creations on Etsy.

On her blog, she describes her journey to becoming a ‘maker’ by accident after feeling too lazy to water her vegetable garden so designed and built a self-watering system. From there the making bug took over. Spencer also collaborates with her husband, John, who is also a self-described maker and hacker.

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