Brooke Atherton’s Solar Sojourn

Brooke Atherton had a deadline to meet for a major SAQA exhibit. She also wanted to join her family on their annual pilgrimage to Montana. Here is the story of how they were able to do both.

Something I look forward to every year is our two week retreat to the Little Belt Mountains, part of the Rockies, in central Montana.  I grew up in Ohio where our camping was done in KOA-type facilities with daily showers, lots of other people, and trips into town for anything we forgot to pack.  Local wild life included giants—it was the training camp for the Cincinnati Bengals.  They traveled in packs, and even as a teenager I slipped my hand into my father’s and moved closer to him for protection whenever they were near.

Brooke Atherton sewing chair

Atherton’s favorite sewing chair in the middle of Lone Tree Park.

The places we camp now are full of a different kind of wildlife.  We share the woods with moose, elk, deer, black bears (but not grizzlies!), owls, coyote, and many other birds, animals and fish.  There were rumors this year of a wolf. Normally I pack notebooks and basic handstitching supplies and take lots of walks. I start every morning standing on the edge of the meadow watching the gray early morning turn into a beautiful sunrise, watching for signs of the life around me waking up or bedding down. Evenings are spent the same way; it is very calming and inspiring. Town is 45 minutes away, so we are careful to pack in everything we need.  We’ve aged out of truly primitive camping, but if the weather is fine we throw our bags on the ground and sleep under the stars. We’ve had plenty of trips, though, where we did have to tarp the campfire.

Deadline defines the solution

In August, my husband watched me working, stitching a five foot square canvas, facing an approaching deadline for my contribution to the SAQA exhibit, Earth Stories.  “You’re not going to be able to go camping, are you?” he said.

“I don’t see how,” I said.

“What if you were able to take your sewing machine?”

A week later, the afternoon before we were to leave, two portable solar panels were delivered.  We didn’t have time for testing, so packed a range of odd things—anything with a power cord.


Solar-powered sewing machine in the middle of the Lewis and Clark National Forest

And that is how I came to have my solar-powered Bernina in the middle of the Lewis and Clark National Forest, meet the deadline, and have plenty of family time around the campfire watching the moon and the stars.  We don’t run into many other people while we’re out there, so I was surprised by how many visitors we had in camp last year.  They could see something odd yet familiar from the road, and wanted to see what it was.  Most left saying “My wife’s going to want one of those.”  I’ll be back to stitching by hand next year, but it’s nice to know there are options.

Brooke Atherton

Brooke Atherton

Brooke Atherton is an award-winning quilt artist. Her piece, Springfield, won Best of Show at Quilt National 2013. Her art is a visual record of her life in the North American West.  She is inspired by natural forces such as fire and water, and a diverse range of objects and materials collected from countless walks across the landscape. To see more of her work go to

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7 Responses to Brooke Atherton’s Solar Sojourn

  1. Joy February 14, 2014 at 9:27 am #

    Brooke, what a wonderful story! You are so creative that a solar Bernina just sounds like you.

    • Suzanne Kistler February 14, 2014 at 2:54 pm #

      My son would like to know what the wattage is of the solar panels. Sewing out of doors is intriguing…thanks for sharing!!

  2. Cindy February 14, 2014 at 12:55 pm #

    The idea of a solar-powered Bernina makes me smile. Kudos to your husband! He sounds both supportive and handy.

  3. Kristin Freeman February 14, 2014 at 2:05 pm #

    Now when my daughter and her family ask me to come along to a remote Forest Service building they have rented, no power, rustic yet comfy for my septuagenarian body, there is a way to bring along a machine or two so we can do some family piecing of quilts and sewing of clothes…my daughter was here when I read your article and she said “Mom, we will get Don, her husband, to get a set-up like this so we can really have some wilderness vacations together still.
    Your story is inspiration for the possibilities available to make all wilderness time work well for us. Without internet the grands always want to do things together..and they are loving their sewing machine time with me. Thanks for the story and inspiration to creatively find ways to be in the Montana wilderness and keep the machine going! Handwork is always a treasure for me and with this new potential the sky of family stitching is the limit.

  4. Linda Laird February 14, 2014 at 9:24 pm #

    Dear Brooke,
    I am impressed by your husband’s ingenuity! Would you and he be willing to share more details of your solar power system? Source for the panels, how was it wired into your sewing machine, how much power did the system produce, and how long could you sew at a sitting? My husband is also ingenious, and we would love to know the details.

    Linda Laird
    QuiltArt List

  5. Brooke Atherton February 15, 2014 at 9:03 am #

    This is how we did it; but solar energy technology is changing so quickly it would be worth seeing what other options may be available. We settled on the “GO! Power 120 W Portable Solar Kit” and ordered it through Amazon. Don’t remember the vendor. It is a suitcase design of two panels hinged together; can be closed for carrying. Although they sell it as light weight, and demonstrate (in their video) a guy carrying it, pay attention to his bulging arm muscles. I wouldn’t be able to carry it very far myself. Other than that, we are happy with the idea of the set up but it’s not really strong enough, so will upgrade to about 250 W someday. The solar panel is connected to a 12 Volt battery, the battery to a converter, then the sewing machine (90 W) is plugged into the converter. We were concerned about cloudy days, but had consistent power even under cloud cover. Did have to gently wipe away morning dew one day from the surface of the panels before it would charge. Other than that, it worked fine with a laptop, my curling iron, and for charging cell phones. Not at the same time, tho. I don’t plan to ever do much work in the woods with my sewing machine, or laptop, but self sufficiency is always good.

  6. Patty Kimmet February 21, 2014 at 8:35 pm #

    Love you Brooke. I have done the same, but unplugged. I didn’t want to run the GENERATOR because it was loud. I’m married to an electrician, should put him to work, if I had fancy deadline like you.

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