Skip to content

Old Enemies – The Smallpox Patterns


Last week, scientists at the UN announced that the second infectious disease ever defeated by human ingenuity and effort was officially an ex-virus.  Rinderpest, which causes severe (and very expensive) disease in cattle, is a thing of the past.

This is awesome.  I, however, am a human disease person, not so much into animal disease, so I can’t help but hearken back to the first time sheer human gall managed to wipe out a viral threat.

Chances are, none of you knew Smallpox at its height.  Many of you were probably vaccinated, of course, and may have even considered it as a vague threat, but the developed world had the disease on the run for decades before the WHO officially declared this great enemy of humankind extinct in late 1979. It was an old enemy, potentially as old as we are: some Egyptian mummies have smallpox scars, and the nature of the virus (which is so specifically adapted to human infection that there is no other natural reservoir species, nor a model species for research- it’s nigh impossible to give another primate so much as a measurable rash with smallpox, much less severe disease) indicates it’s been with us, been a part of us, for ages beyond memory.

Smallpox at its worst was horrifying (I’ll spare you the pictures, though a google image search should satisfy your curiosity if you like your history morbid), a constant and worldwide threat whose victims were often permanently scarred, if they managed to survive the disease in the first place.  AND WE BEAT IT.

We did that, with our minds and our hearts and the work of our hands and strength of our backs.  We beat smallpox.

And now, rinderpest.

We’re freakin’ badasses, man.

In celebration, both of this most recent victory and of the biggest single public health victory in history thusfar, I give you smallpox as an embroidery motif!  See, this is the actual smallpox virion, also known as variola virus:


It’s got a very complex structure for a virus, and I think it’s kind of pretty, false color and all.


So I give you a border, which you should be able to repeat as often as you need:

And some paisley!

What?  Why are you looking at me like that? Smallpox paisley seems perfectly logical and pretty to me.  I’ll even give you a single repeat, so you can arrange it how you see fit:



Embroidering your great war sagas is traditional, is it not?  And this was a war worth fighting, and a victory worth celebrating.  Gravedancing on this one is not only morally allowable, but euphorically encouraged.


As is embroidering the vanquished in all its nerdy microscopic glory.


I hope I can put my name on a project like that some day.  And I mean the completely-wiping-a-disease-of-the-face-of-the-planet project, not embroidering-pretty-little-smallpox-patterns project.  Though the latter would be pretty cool too.


I suspect these ones might be just a little too weird for everyone, but hey!  I love them, so I’m posting them… and maybe stitching them onto a lab coat.  Or a dress.  Oh yes.


Blah blah blah, blah blah blah:  Click on the picture, and you’ll get the full-res.  I release these free bits of line art under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

You are allowed and indeed encouraged to do whatever you want with the piece(s) (use, reuse, abuse, remix, share), just follow these two simple rules:

1) Give me credit (a link back is always appreciated- that way, everyone else knows they can use it too)
2) Don’t make a profit off any use or modification of my work.

To be fair, should you really want to use them in a profit-making venture (ie: stitch it on something you then sell in your etsy store, use it as a print for your own fabric line, etc.), talk to me and maybe we can work something out so everybody wins.  Should you want to say thanks, leave a comment and/or tell a friend or six.  Finally, if you do make something, let me know and I’ll happily blog it!

You can find a reminder/introduction to embroidery, including basic stitches and a by-no-means exhaustive list of methods of transferring patterns to fabric in this post (there’s also a good round-up here and another one here).  Finally: if you’ve got suggestions for embroidery patterns you’d like to see, I would love to hear them (no promises, though).  You can find the rest of my patterns under the Embroidery Patterns category.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. tinebeest permalink
    10/18/2010 9:42 PM

    If you don’t tell people it’s a small pox virus inspired embroidery design, most wouldn’t know it (I wouldn’t) and just think it’s pretty! Awesome pattern!

  2. 10/23/2010 8:40 AM

    I have sent this link to my friend who works in the Communicable Diseases division of our county health department. She does beadwork, and I can see her doing this!

    I was born in 1955. The childhood diseases that made my mother’s heart pound in fear were substantially reduced through vaccination after 1980. Pity that so many modern parents can’t learn from history.

  3. Fatima permalink
    04/21/2011 12:25 PM

    lol !!.. would you beleive me if I told you that I thought of something similar in the past but never had the nerve to actually make it ?..microbiology rocks !!..

  4. 05/02/2011 7:41 PM

    Greetings! This post has actually inspired me to begin a whole quilt of embroidered human disease. We’re calling it “the smallpox blanket” in honor of its first embroidered quilt square, which, as you might guess, is a smallpox virus. I didn’t copy your pattern, but I did use the false color micrograph that you featured to make my own transfer. Thought you would like seeing the result!



  1. Top 10? Also: My Largest Resolution « Corvus tristis: Science, Craft and an Odd Bird

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: