Movement based on Victorian sci-fi gathers steam

“Steampunk Sublime,” a quilt designed by Robbi Joy Eklow of Third Lake, Ill., is fused together with Wonder-Under. Eklow says she is attracted to the imagery of gears. The free pattern is available at

A quilt titled “Cog & Wheel” by Denyse Schmidt of Bridgeport, Conn., is based on a pattern from 1902. Early industrial relics hold great appeal for Schmidt, she says.

This hat and bracelet are examples of steampunk couture and jewelry. Some brides are even choosing a steampunk theme for their weddings, which can include attire, setting and decorations.

I recently joined Captain Nemo and his mysterious crew onboard the Nautilus, that most famous of futuristic submarines, to plumb the ocean darkness, to thrill at the discovery of Atlantis and to tremble when the giant squid attacks and devours one of Nemo’s men.

I’d read the book “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” years ago and viewed the film version from 1954 starring James Mason as Nemo. But lately I’ve heard much ado about author Jules Verne and how his Victorian science fiction helped spawn a 1990s movement known as steampunk. Not only is Verne often referred to as the father of science fiction, but now he’s being linked to the origin of steampunk as well.

So I went back to the source, Verne’s novel published in 1870, to learn more about this cultural phenomenon that applies to literature, music, fashion, film and art.

Those were times of change during the industrial revolution, and now that time period is romanticized with anachronism. Steampunkers ask “What if this modern object existed in the 19th century?”

For example, they may mix today’s clothing with Victorian styles, adding a fantastical assortment of gears, clockwork and goggles. Hot air balloons and dirigibles play big parts, too.

Most of all, steampunk is a movement fueled by creativity, and the art aspect includes fabric crafts and quilts.

Robbi Joy Eklow of Third Lake, Ill., offers her original gears design, “Steampunk Sublime,” and free instructions at The intricate quilt measures 30 inches by 40 inches.

“I like the imagery of the gears,” she says, explaining that her vision of steampunk is Victorian futurism, with a nod to author H.G. Wells.

The two recent Sherlock Holmes movies starring Robert Downing Jr. also reflect the steampunk craze, Eklow says.

A popular novel turned into a film, “The Hunger Games,” is described as speculative fiction which encompass the principles of steampunk. Character Effie Trinket shows perfect steampunk style with her over-the-top Capitol attire.

Eklow has designed at least three steampunk quilts, one of her most                   recent ones gracing the cover of the August issue of The Quilt Magazine. It’s titled “Steampunk Sublime 2.” An earlier one of her quilts falls into      

  that category as well:  It’s titled “Gears to You.”

With the technique she’s developed, Eklow steams the layers together with Wonder-Under, a paper-backed fusible web. No needle and thread are needed until the actual quilting begins. She describes the steampunk patterns as gears or Greek keys surrounding a large central circle and bands of wedge shapes. The colors are typical of Eklow’s work: purple, teal, lime green and orange.

Another quilt artist, Denyse Schmidt of Bridgeport, Conn., offers a quilt pattern titled “Cog & Wheel” that could fall under the steampunk label, but she says it was not directly influenced by the movement.

Rather, her pattern is based on one from 1902, and its name was chosen because it looks like the kind of “great wooden wheel that might be found in an old water-fueled mill.”

“I grew up in New England, in an area surrounded by old mill towns — many of them textile mills — and these early industrial relics” have great appeal to her, Schmidt says.

Her “Cog & Wheel” features several of the bold, circular images spaced over a large solid background, a hallmark of today’s popular modern quilt designs. Considered a leader and creative force in modern improvisational patchwork, Schmidt has inspired many younger quilters to embrace her aesthetic. In fact, she is the keynote speaker at QuiltCon, the first national quilt show dedicated to modern quilts, scheduled in February in Austin, Texas.

As for the steampunk movement, Schmidt says, ” I don’t have much conscious knowledge of it. But she says she thinks of it as “a mix of fantasy, horror, historical fashion and an industrial aesthetic.”

Speaking of conventions, several hundred steampunk enthusiasts gathered in July for the first Salt City Streamfest in Utah, where they dressed in costumes, learned how to make their own goggles and enjoyed Victorian dancing. Denver will be the host city for another such event March 29-31, called Anomaly Con 3, Denver’s Best Alternate History, Science Fiction and Steampunk Convention. A Golden Cog award will be given for the best costume, and a Lego Inventors contest is planned for two age groups, those under 13 and those who are 13 and older.

I’m fascinated with this steampunk culture, as it’s full of adventure and escapism. It may not be powered by actual steam, but the the movement holds infinite possibilities for creativity and self-expression.

Email Sherida.Warner@


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