“I have always had a deep love of the ocean,” says Allie McCathren, who made the decision to pursue a profession as a marine biologist after a life-changing trip to Costa Rica when she was 16 years old. Though the class trip was focused on education and outreach, the thing that stood out most to Allie was walking the beach at the turtle reserve. She and her classmates would walk four-hour night shifts and look for egg-laying leatherback turtles on the sand. The goal was to find and collect eggs before poachers could get to them.
Walking in the moonlight on the black sand without flashlights as to not confuse the turtles, it was around 10 pm the class saw the turtle. It was enormous—almost six feet long, slapping the sand with giant flippers in the dark. The class watched as the turtle scooped sand in the dark with her back flippers in preparation. The biologists instructed the students to hold a plastic shopping bag under the tail to catch the eggs. While the turtle was laying, the biologists took measurements so they could recreate the nest later in the protection of a sanctuary.
The leatherback laid about 48 eggs, starting the size of 1.5 ping pong balls and ending the size of blueberries. These smallest eggs are unfertilized, and laid last to protect the larger fertilized eggs from the heat of the sun. After laying, the plastic bag with the eggs was removed and the turtle pushed sand back on top of the nest and returned to the sea. The eggs were taken to the sanctuary and placed back in the sand.
The next day, Allie’s class watched as biologists cleaned out a different nest that had already hatched. They got to watch one last straggler, a tiny leatherback hatchling, racing down the beach and into the turf. This experience solidified Allie’s desire to become a marine biologist.
“I lived on Galveston Island in college, and I found many exciting things there—but seeing that leatherback turtle that night, and getting to experience that, was truly the most incredible beachcombing experience I think I could ever hope to have.”
Allie worked in aquariums for several years, and loved interacting with exotic animals and coming home covered in salt and grime—“my husband, not so much, ha!” She got the chance to make friends with all different kinds of fish. “Fish have some of the most incredible personalities—they’re highly under appreciated, in my book.”
Once Allie got pregnant, she made the choice to stay home and raise her children. She now has three sons, and they are her world. Though she misses working with animals, she knows it’s a closed chapter and her love for the ocean hasn’t diminished.
Allie started quilting in 2018. She found it truly therapeutic because she loves being able to finish tasks and see them done—not something often experienced as a parent.
She says she played around with patterns drawn by other people, but nothing truly hooked her. It wasn’t until she saw a photo of sea glass art that Allie had the desire to recreate it in quilt form in November 2019. Her first quilt was rough compared to the ones she makes today, but with inspiration from sea glass she was getting more focused on the look she wanted to eventually achieve.
She kept making and making sea glass-themed quilts, and kept getting better. With each subsequent quilt, she just wanted to make more and to explore different colors, arrangements, and feelings in her work. Allie says her quilts are art quilts, and meant for display on the wall. People often ask how she washes them, and her answer is that she doesn’t. She considers her quilts paintings, using fabric and thread instead of paint.
Now, she has quilts for sale and makes them to order, and she even has a sea glass quilting class. She says the class has been very well received, and she loves seeing other people inspired to make their own sea glass quilts. To make sure not to annoy people on Facebook with endless photos, Allie started using Instagram to share images of her quilts. Once on Instagram, people started to notice her.
“It was definitely unexpected, but I ended up finding this amazing community of quilting friends, and now it’s more than an outlet, business, or art form. It’s a space that’s brought me a lot of peace and friendship, and I’m so thankful to have found people I can connect with there.”
Allie tries not to waste anything in her artistic process. She was gifted lots of fabric from friends and family when she began quilting, and though she says it’s not necessarily the fabric she would have chosen, she likes the challenge of finding ways to make her art unexpectedly beautiful.
“The more I quilt, the more I notice elements of the ocean and nature finding their ways into my work. Whether it’s intentional or not, I do love the reminder that even though it’s been far too long since my feet have touched the sand, I’m not as far away from the sea as I think.”
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine January/February 2021 issue.
Absolutely stunning quilts. Loved hearing about her journey. You are amazing and talented.