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Periodic table cross-stitch, a geologically inspired skirt, and a bathroom floor that rocks

by Linda Wang
September 12, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 35


Periodic table cross-stitch

Photo of Brother Martin Sellner with his periodic table cross-stitch.
Credit: Courtesy of Brother Martin Sellner
Final stitch: Brother Martin Sellner completes his 20-year project.

It took only 2 decades and a pandemic, but in August, 83-year-old Brother Martin Sellner of Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, finally completed a giant periodic table of the elements made entirely of cross-stitch, a form of sewing that creates patterns on fabric using X-shaped stitches. “There are over a million stitches,” says Sellner, a retired chemistry teacher now living in the Philippines, of his finished table, which measures nearly 1.5 m across and 1.4 m tall.

Sellner, a member of a Catholic teaching order, started cross-stitching his periodic table in 2000, shortly after a back injury took him out of the classroom. A friend suggested he take up needlepoint to pass the time while he recovered. Sellner started by sewing covers for tissue boxes, but his mind kept seeing the rectangular sides of the box as element squares. “All of a sudden, it hit me,” Sellner says. “I said, ‘I could do a periodic table out of something like this because there’s nothing but boxes on the periodic table!’ ”

He has incorporated the nine elements that were added to the periodic table in recent years. Sellner says that even though it took him 20 years to finish his project, quitting never crossed his mind. “I’ve never given up on anything that I can remember,” he says, noting that one silver lining of the pandemic is that it gave him time to finish the piece.

An active TikTok user, Sellner took to the social media platform to complete his final stitches. He says kids have been particularly fascinated with his periodic table, which gives him an opportunity to share his passion for chemistry with them. In fact, after the pandemic eases, he plans to donate the periodic table cross-stitch to a local school.


Science in this skirt

Photo of Irene Suarez-Martinez wearing a skirt that has four horizontal strips of colors representing Earth's layers.
Credit: Courtesy of Irene Suarez-Martinez
Made with love: Irene Suarez-Martinez wears her science.

Where others see the layered pattern of a skirt, Irene Suarez-Martinez sees a cross section of Earth’s layers. Suarez-Martinez, a senior research fellow at Curtin University, says her tendency to see science in everyday things is just part of her mindset as a scientist. “When I see hexagons, I don’t think of that as a hexagon; I think, ‘That’s benzene.’ ” When you’re steeped in science, she says, “your brain doesn’t work in the same way.”

In designing her Earth-core skirt, Suarez-Martinez didn’t just replicate the layered pattern; she also made sure the proportions of each layer were true to the proportions in Earth. She even stitched the name of each layer and its depth into the skirt.

This isn’t her only science-inspired sewing. She also embroidered the band structure of graphene onto a skirt and created a dress from fabric printed with the faces of women scientists.

Her creations have become science conversation starters. “I remember I was on a bus one day and someone looked at my [graphene] skirt and said, ‘That looks like a plot of something.’ We ended up talking about graphene,” she says.


Rocking the floor

Photo of a bathroom floor made of small, circular red, gray, and yellow rocks.
Credit: D. G. H. Boetekees/Utrecht University
Rock on: A floor so interesting it distracts people from their phones.

A bathroom renovation in the Department of Earth Sciences at Utrecht University turned into a departmental project after a lab technician jokingly suggested that the tens of thousands of rock samples that the department had been storing and planning to dispose of be put to use as a pattern for the new bathroom floor.

“The interior designer thought that was the best idea ever,” says Lennart V. de Groot, an assistant professor in the Paleomagnetic Laboratory at Utrecht University, who was among the faculty who got their students involved in the project. “We ended up cutting 30,000 slices of rock and cleaning them, drying them, and they were glued on the floor. We poured a flooring epoxy on top of it.”

The rock samples contain a lot of history, de Groot tells Newscripts. Some were taken as far back as 60 years ago. The bathroom floor gets many comments, de Groot says, even catalyzing some bathroom jokes about how much time people are spending in there.

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