Getting an Early Start

I have begun working on gifts for Handmade Christmas 2017. This is undoubtedly the earliest I have ever started working on a Christmas present – even counting the quilt I made for Robert that took half a year. I always get so backed up with crafting projects in the weeks right before Christmas – which I’m sure is no surprise to fellow Christmas crafters – and the rush takes a lot of the fun out of making something handmade for someone. Not only do I usually have to contend with more mistakes, I don’t get to revel in the joy of watching something slowly take shape. Instead, it’s all hurry-hurry-hurry.

20170210_212645One of the added benefits of starting this early is…I have time to get extra yarn if I happen to run out partway through a project. I started knitting a simple cowl the other day. When I first cast on the stitches I thought “Hmm…that might be too many,” but I kept going. As I went forward, I fell more and more in love with the way the chainplied yarn created stripes of pink and purple, in the midst of the green (the colorway is “Irish Moss,” from Hobbledehoy Yarns). Unfortunately, I’m about 2 oz. short of the amount I need to finish the cowl at this width. I messaged Hobbledehoy on Facebook about seeing if she has more roving in that colorway, only to find that it had been a dye pot experiment. She said she could try to recreate it if I have pictures…which I have of the spun skein and the project in the works, but not of the unspun roving. [Note to self: remember to photograph the roving before spinning it up!] She’s scheduled to sell at the Fiber Farmers Market in Falls Church at the end of March, so here’s hoping the reconstruction of the dye pot works out, and I can finish the cowl as planned. If not, I have to frog the whole thing and start over.

Because no post is complete without a cat, here is Alvin, being uncouth while attacking a ruler on the bed.

Because no post is complete without a cat, here is Alvin, being uncouth while attacking a ruler on the bed.

Setting that project aside, I pulled out another couple of skeins from my handspun stash. A couple of months ago, I had purchased a 6oz braid from Fat Cat Knits in the colorway “Indian Corn.” I divided it up into three bits and did a traditional 3-ply, ending up with a worsted weight. It wasn’t the most even spin I have made, but I actually find it harder to spin for the thicker weights, so I’m okay with it not being as smooth, if I can at least manage a little heavier weight.

I came across the “Across the Heath” cowl pattern on Ravelry and just knew it was the 20170217_232237perfect pattern for some of my handspun – something simple enough to allow for both my beginner knitting skills as well as the color variations in the yarn.

The pattern worked up pretty quickly, and I liked the twisty look of it…but I think it would look even better with a variegated yarn where the color shifts are more muted. [Robert tried on the cowl later in the week and ended up wearing it for about three hours, so I guess it is comfy and cozy.]

20170222_083331I had a lot of yarn left, so I cast on a bunch of stitches and made up another simple cowl. I made it pretty big and still have a little bit of yarn left that I might try to make some mitts out of. Looks like 6oz. is the perfect amount for me to spin for a project.

I know exactly who two of these items are going to, come next December, and I have a possible match for the third one. But I’m not telling for now!20170222_083356

Alvin likes hiding in boxes

Alvin likes hiding in boxes

The Thought That Counts

boba-fett-on-deskShortly before Christmas break hit, I arrived at the office to be greeted by this little fella on my desk. I chuckled and grinned, and took a snack from his head (it’s not as gross as it sounds…there was candy inside). I then proceeded to try to figure out who could have left him on my desk.

You see, I was the very last person in the office the night before (besides the cleaning lady, and I doubt she left it), and I got in earlier than most of the folks I figured might have done it. I did ask around, doing my best to base my guess on likely culprits, but no one copped to it.

It drove me a bit nuts, because I wanted to let them know how much it was appreciated (also, to be honest, I’m used to being the one who does that kind of thing, and it surprised me that someone thought to do it).

I never did figure out who left it – either I was way off in my guesses of who-done-it, or the person was really good at pretending it wasn’t them. At any rate, it is a delightful addition to my Star Wars collection, and I have plans to drink out of Fett’s head when the candy supply has dwindled.

Of course, the whole thing got me thinking about the people who have helped to shape this year into a better run than 2015 had been. I know that the process of watching someone grieve is uncomfortable for a lot of people – believe me, nothing is as uncomfortable as actually going through it. The person I was will never truly return, because my father will always be dead. I will always miss him. The person I am now will always have at least a little bit of that sadness, lingering somewhere close, but I still delight in the absurd, and I still generally try to look on the bright side of things.

I’ve been making new friends here at work, but I’m not as close to any of these people as I might be in a few years. And yet, someone knew that this season might be difficult for me, that this might brighten my day, and that this little sign of support would be appreciated – even if I don’t know where it came from. I don’t think it’s solely because this is a Native place, but I think that probably has a good deal to do with it. None of these folks knew my father, and they don’t yet know Mom and the close bond of the Nicholas clan, but they know the power of family – both the ones you are born into and the ones you make – and that has helped a great deal this past year.

Those little gestures that so many people think don’t make a lot of difference in the grand scheme of things? They really do. The thought does count.

I’ve Been There!

This past weekend, I had a chance to visit one of my favorite DC spots – The United States Botanical Gardens. I love getting a chance to see the gardens any time of the year, but they are particularly lovely around the holidays. The main conservatory lobby gets decked out with reproductions of the monuments, museums and select government buildings, and the gallery off to the left of the lobby is transformed into a wonderland of trains and themed displays.

This year, the theme of the special train exhibit was “Season’s Greetings: National Parks and Historic Places.”

I’m sure Robert got tired of hearing me say “I’ve been there!” (an old, running gag amongst my parents, my siblings and I), but I enjoyed seeing some of the real places I’ve traveled to in the States represented in miniature.

Without further ado, I present to you the National Parks and Historic Places exhibit from the garden:

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Handmade Christmas 2015

Now that we’re past the holidays…let’s get to this year’s line-up of handmade gift items! ( a few will not be included in this round-up, as they have not yet made their way via mail to their final resting place)

Of course, you’ve already seen the lovely purple Merino wool I spun for Meri earlier this year. Since I learned to spin at the beginning of the year, I was able to include this new skill in my plans for Handmade Christmas. There are a number of knitters and crocheters in my family, so this came in pretty handy.

First up was some lovely green yarn for my cousin, Errin. She lives in Colorado and is a few years older than me, but we joke that we’re basically the same person. In fact, she jokes that this is our theme song. So, of course, we share a favorite color – which made it easy when it came time to pick out the roving to turn into yarn for her. I picked up two bags of a mohair/alpaca/finn-x, and glitz (a shiny fiber) from Avalon Springs Farm. I loved spinning up the “Harvest” colorway earlier this year, so I was happy to find more options from them at Uniquities. This colorway was aptly named Woodsman. It had several shades of green, with some dark brown mixed throughout, and just a bit of sparkle. I originally considered doing a 3-ply with this, but I went with a 2-ply, which makes it a nice fingering weight. Inspired by the name of the colorway, I also included two fairy-tale/woodland themed knitting books: Once Upon a Knit and Woodland Knits.

Next on the list was a fleece pullover for Robert. I had purchased the fabric last year but never got around to working on it (isn’t that always the way). Since I had the fabric on hand, and had made the pattern before (it’s the same one I made for my brother last year), I figured it was high time I followed through on my original plans. The pattern works up rather quickly. In fact, I could have probably finished it all in one evening, if I had a couple hours to devote just to that. As it was, the cutting out and construction stretched over two evenings. And left fluff absolutely everywhere! I’m not kidding…that fabric was insane, in terms of how much it shed all over the place. Robert happened to see the basement when I was halfway through construction on the piece, and it was not a pretty site. His main response was to laugh and try his best to vacuum the floor (and me). It looked like a Muppet exploded all over the work room. In fact, I’m still picking blue linty fluffs out of fabric in the work room.

Robert also got a new scarf this year. I made him one two years ago, when all I really knew how to do was single crochet. The original scarf is, understandably, rather plain. Though, I did incorporate a stripe in it. However, I learned that it’s rather itchy, and so he doesn’t wear it as often as he otherwise might. The solution, of course, was to make a new scarf out of yarn I knew he liked. After a bit of back and forth, I finally opted to make The Gentleman’s Scarf, by Nadia Fuad. I used Caron Simply Soft in Pagoda, which was a finer yarn than the original pattern asks for, but I thought it worked up nicely. Of course, when I finished the scarf, had it all wrapped, and went back to the website for the link I realized…I didn’t make it as wide as I was supposed to. Grrr. Thankfully, it wasn’t difficult to go back and add the missing row….I just had to open the wrapped package, pick out the ends, tear out the finishing stitches, and add the last segment. ::sigh:: This is your friendly reminder to READ the dang pattern.

I found the perfect gift idea for Heather during a visit to Uniquities. In fact, it was the same visit where I was picking out the fiber for Errin’s gift. One of the braids that caught my eye was a beautiful, handpainted selection of Blue-faced Leicester, in a colorway named “Durango.” Perfect, perfect, perfect. When we lived in Cortez, Colorado, our family would often make little day trips up into the mountains or out to small towns scattered throughout the southwestern corner. Mancos was a favorite, with its giant arrows sunk into the ground, as was Durango, with its beautifully preserved/restored Gold Rush era architecture and the Durango-Silverton train (which we always wanted to ride but never got around to), and a little candy shop where we would get rock candy when we missed the departure of the train. I knew that was the colorway I had to spin for Heather. I also searched through our old family photos for a shot I knew was taken in Durango, so it could accompany the finished skeins.

Blue-faced Leicester is fairly easy to spin. It drafts easier than Merino (I find), takes dyes well, and spins up into a nice fluffy, soft yarn. It has become one of the most common wools for spinners, these days. The wool braids I purchased worked up quickly, filling my bobbins with a beautiful variation of blues and purples and deep maroons. I already loved the colors when they were just singles, sitting on their individual bobbins. When I started plying it, though…oh my stars. It was so hard to part with this yarn! It became even more lovely after it was plied together. And I was happy to see that my spinning is becoming ever more even (there are a few places here and there where I’ve had difficulty getting the singles consistent, but the plying helps to hide those). When I took the first bit of the niddy noddy and hung it from my finger, it didn’t even start to curl around…something that happens before you set the twist. What does this mean? It means that my spun yarn is well balanced! Yay!

My original plan for Maggie’s gift was a snowflake hat pattern I found on Ravelry. However, as I tried and tried to work it up, I realized the pattern was just not written in a way that was going to be easy to puzzle out. After a few starts and stops, I scrapped my original plan and searched back through the patterns I had saved in my library. I chose a rather simple pattern – a snood, originally intended to be made with a B size hook and fingering weight yarn. However, the directions said that the pattern also worked with a heavier weight yarn, and an H hook. I rummaged in my yarn bag and pulled out a little more than half a skein of green wool (with just a hint of blue to it) that I had purchased earlier for one of the textile workshops (I needed 100% wool yarn so I could crochet up small hearts and show how to do knit-felting). I figured there would be just enough in the rest of the skein to finish the hat. With the thicker yarn, the snood works up a bit bigger than you might originally expect it to. In fact, Mom commented on the size of the snood before it was even finished. Of course, knowing both how much hair Maggie’s got now, as well as her frequent difficulty finding hats that fit, I didn’t forsee it being a problem.

Except…I was running out of yarn. I got to the end of the skein just as I reached the end of the netting part of the snood, and still needed to make the band for the ribbon. I briefly considered using another contrasting color, but then my eyes alighted on the bag of aforementioned hearts I had made for the felting workshop. Not everyone who registered actually attended, so there were a number of hearts left over. Thankfully, there were at least two swirly hearts in the same green I was using for the snood. So, I carefully unpicked all of the finishing stitches and disassembled the finished hearts for use in the snood. I just barely had enough yarn to finish the project! Whew! I chose a white ribbon to gather the snood – with the help of my trusty bodkin. Seriously, job-specific textile tools are your friend.

David was another recipient of this year’s scarf making. I used a cream colored yarn named “Aran,” which seemed kind of weird to me, as Aran is typically used to describe a yarn weight, not a color. It has little flecks of color throughout it, giving the cream section of the scarf a little more depth to it. I also added green stripes to both ends of the scarf. It’s a really long scarf, which would probably look ridiculous on someone of my height (or lack thereof), but David is fairly tall, so I think the length works.

IMG_20151204_215910_038For LeeAnn, I turned to some of the yarn I spun up at the beginning of the year. I used the blue/yellow 2-ply to make up a Cloudgate Cowl (pattern, once again, found on Ravelry). I didn’t do as many repeats as the original pattern, but I liked how it turned out – sort of speckled with the two colors. I think I’ll try this one again with a yarn that is all one color.

Once upon a time, when I first “learned” how to crochet (take that with a grain of salt…this was before I actually kind of knew what I was doing), I made what was supposed to be a scarf for Cris. It was not great. However, I now know how to actually crochet, and I have to say, my work has gotten better. I wanted, therefore, to make something for Cris that was nicer and maybe a little more likely to be used than that poor excuse for a scarf, all those years ago. So I made her a nice hat for the winter. The pattern is known as Nana’s Papa Beanie…which really doesn’t sound all that catchy. I think it needs a better name. I like the pattern, though. It’s fairly simple, but incorporates a few color changes, a few fairly routine stitches (double crochet, half double crochet, single crochet) and one slightly more advanced (front post double crochet), to round out a nice little beanie. I liked the pattern so much I made a second one for one of my cousins, Danny. He likes black and purple and mentioned that he didn’t have a beanie and kept “borrowing” one of his siblings’ hats.

Cris and LeeAnn’s granddaughter was the recipient of one of the owl hats I made – Mathilda got the other one, earlier this year. I really like the way they turn out, and I forsee making a couple more of these this year.

Cheyenne got a purple crochet beret. I wasn’t originally a fan of how it turned out, but when I washed it, the yarn softened up a great deal and the teeniest bit of sparkle came out in the finished product. Cheyenne also got a pair of drop earrings from this year’s round of jewelry making. I chose three tones of wood beads and a little feather charm for hers.

An assortment of earrings for my co-workers

In addition to some wool for spinning, a book for Jack (one of my favorite series!), and IMG_20151221_235302_264some Harry Potter-themed tea that arrived a little too late for Christmas (despite being ordered in plenty of time!), I also made a pair of earrings for Casey. I opted for some pretty blue glass beads I had in my possession, along with some much darker blue-green glass beads, and some silver seed beads.

darn fuzzy photos!

darn fuzzy photos!

I happened to have some butterfly charms in my bead selection, which worked perfectly for Anjela’s earrings (and go nicely with the butterfly mug cozy she already has). I used an assortment of plastic and glass beads I also had on hand, as well as a really pretty greenish pearl that I always liked but never really knew what to do with.

Patti’s earrings were easy to figure out…she has a blue and gold MacawIMG_20151221_234953_163 at home. When he molts, she saves the feathers. She gave me a whole bunch of them a few years ago, thinking I might find a use for them. I’ve been saving them all this time, trying to figure out how to utilize them. While pondering all of my jewelry findings, I decided I had just what I needed to make a pair of feather earrings for her. I love how they’re extra special, because they came from her bird. Unfortunately, they turned out rather difficult to photograph. I’ve got more of the blue feathers, but those were the only fully yellow ones that were in the bag. The larger feathers – molted wing and tail feathers – are blue on one side and yellow on the other, but they’re a bit large to turn into earrings. I’m still puzzling out what to use those for.

IMG_20151221_235212_747I think I like the earrings I made for Rose, best. I really liked how the different shades of green came together. Sadly, these were another pair that I had a hard time photographing. I really need to use a real camera…that would probably help. Anyway, I thought these came out suitably simple but elegant. That seems to be a good way of sizing up Rose’s personal style. She’s not a super glitzy person – no fringe and gawdy sparkles, but always put together and stylish.

I also made a bunch of hot chocolate ornaments and distributed them to Anjela, Casey, Patti, Rose, LeeAnn, Cris, Robert, David and Maggie. I used a couple of different flavors: Raspberry, Mint, French Vanilla, and Caramel. Each flavor had a different kind of sprinkle inside. The mint ones had crushed up candy canes, French vanilla had blue and white snowflakes, raspberry had little pearls, and caramel had green and red sprinkles. I had hoped to have enough of the teeny-tiny marshmallows for all the ornaments, but I ran out partway through and had to use regular mini marshmallows. They worked out okay, though.

My cousin Maya has the distinction of being born on Christmas. Most people often reply “Aw, what a shame. You don’t get to celebrate your birthday.” Which seems silly, because of course you do. Just because your birthday falls on a day when you already get presents doesn’t mean people can’t put forth a little effort and make the day extra special for you. So Maya’s parents always celebrated Christmas in the morning and Maya’s birthday in the evening. Maya LOVES Christmas (I think she decorates her house earlier than anyone else), so I figured she would appreciate a Christmas-themed Christmas gift this year. She was, therefore, the recipient of my first ever felted ornament…the earmuffed head of a snowman, made out of Hog Island Sheep wool, from the farm. I also made her a pair of earrings, similar to the ones I gave Patti (with the addition of quail feathers in hers).

Kwana and Mimi also received handmade earrings, as well. Kwana’s were similar to the ones I made for Rose, using copper wire as the base but utilizing the same turquoise and green glass (except for the bottom drop). Mimi’s were a sparkly blue and…not exactly clear, as they are REALLY sparkly, bead, with some silver seed beads.

IMG_20151231_134840_619Maya’s daughter, Neenah, really likes pink, so I figured I would work on a pink hat for her. It was actually rather difficult to track down a shade of pink yarn I actually liked. Most of what seems to be out there is a soft baby pink, which I really didn’t want to use (not just because I’m not a fan of pink). I finally picked out a skein of Caron Simply Soft Party in Fuschia. I loved the sparkle. Originally, I wanted to make a peaked cap pattern, but I was having a real problem figuring out the pattern, and opted for one of the other patterns I had found on Ravelry. That one worked up extremely quickly.

IMG_20151231_134940_825Maya’s youngest, EJ, has kind of a dapper style now and then, and I decided to make him a golf-style cap. A quick conversation with his older brother pointed me in the direction of green, for the yarn…which turned out to be more difficult to pin down than Neenah’s pink yarn had been. While most of the pink options out there were in the baby pink arena, most of the greens I found fell into one of two categories: NEON! or puke/snot green. Now, don’t get me wrong. Olivey and sagey green has its place. I mean, I love green, so I generally have a place for all greens. But I feel that there should have been more variety in the shades of green available at the yarn store. Afterall, most kids are not going to pick olive green as their color. I finally went with Vanna’s Choice in Kelly Green – which didn’t necessarily photograph as pretty as it is in person. Oh well. I loved the cables on this cap, and found it to be fairly simple to put together.

IMG_20151224_235456_874Part of Christmas Eve was given over to this year’s (literal) jam session. I had picked up quince at the new Lotte by my house, along with some huge grapefruit. I still had a few raspberries on hand from my last big session of berry-picking around the park last year, so those also went to use. Mom and I found a couple of different quince jam recipes. I ended up not following any particular one. Mostly, I just looked at them to get an idea of what to include and what not to include.

My basic plan for the quince was as follows: Peel and core five quince, saving the peel and core in a separate bowl. Boil the peel, core and seeds in 4 cups of water for 10 minutes, in a covered pot. While the water boils, chop the quince into smaller pieces. Strain the peel, core and seeds out, reserving the liquid. The liquid should measure 4 cups. If it doesn’t, add a little more water until it does. Add the chopped quince, sugar to taste (I think I added two cups?), and a cinnamon stick. Boil for another 30 minutes, making sure to check on it regularly. I also went ahead and used the immersion blender (that I didn’t realize we had!) after the mix had boiled down a bit and the quince became soft. I didn’t need to add any pectin, since I had first boiled the peel and cores in the water.

I used this recipe for the grapefruit jam, but I think I would make a slight change if I made it again. I suggest collecting the pith, peel and seeds in some cheesecloth and boiling that in with the juice and pulp for a bit, to add some more pectin to the jam. Mine never quite set up to the level I would like.

IMG_3232One of the things we do at our yearly Christmas party at work is an ornament exchange. Last year, we were supposed to make the ornaments (though not everyone did), and I figured I would go the same route this year. Michael’s has a nice assortment of ornaments that you can personalize – that’s where I got the pieces for the hot chocolate ornaments – and I picked up a couple of wooden bauble shapes. I broke out my wood-burner and set about making this year’s offering for the exchange. I debated about whether or not to paint it or put some sort of sealer on it, but I opted to leave it as is. In case you can’t tell, it says “May your days be merry and bright, and all your Christmases be white.” And yes, that writing – done with a regular wood burning tip – is very small. That’s the bonus of having small hands and a lot of experience with fine detail work in sewing….a steady hand. There are also a ton of tiny little snowflakes all over the top. Originally, Cory unwrapped this one. He really liked it, too, and it seemed fitting, as he had contributed one of the few handmade items and had also done wood burning for his. However, MaryAlice was the last one to pick and she snagged this one for her tree. It’s always nice when someone likes your work enough to steal it from someone else. 😉

(Semi)Final Handmade Count:

  1. Merino yarns – colorway: purple – __yds
  2. Alpaca/mohair yarn – colorway: woodsman – 366 yards
  3. Blue-faced Leicester yarn – colorway: Durango – 412 yards
  4. Yarn sampler – approx. 100 yards
  5. Blue fleece pull-over
  6. Gentleman’s scarf – colorway: pagoda
  7. Green snood
  8. Beanies – 2
  9. Cloudgate cowl (made with handspun yarn)
  10. Hot chocolate ornaments – 9
  11. Woodburned ornaments – 3
  12. Feather earrings – 2
  13. Butterfly drop earrings
  14. Turquoise and glass drop earrings – 2
  15. Blue glass drop earrings
  16. Owl hat (child)
  17. Purple beret
  18. Green golf cap (child)
  19. Sparkly pink cap
  20. Aran/green scarf
  21. Homemade jams:
    • Raspberry
    • Quince
    • Grapefruit
  22. crochet dragon
  23. crochet badger hat (child)

Whew! Not too shabby! Especially considering how little I felt like doing for much of the past couple of months.

Heart Felt

IMG_20151114_132012_308November 14 was the fourth installment of the foundation’s textile workshops. So far, we’ve covered spinning, natural dyes, and weaving (which was sort of a bust). This month’s focus was felting, with a project emphasis on wet felting and knit felting (pretty much the same as wet felting, but done with a finished knit/crochet/woven item, instead of raw wool).

The original title I came up with for the workshop was “Felt Up,” which all the textile ladies thought was hilarious and approved of, but my boss made me change it, since we were applying for grants to help cover the cost of the workshops. Apparently, the idea of including “Felt Up” in a grant proposal was a little too much.

IMG_20151114_132131_718In preparation for the workshop, I gave myself a crash course in all things felting. I purchased some felting needles and stabbed tried my hand at needle-felting. I made a little tiny Hedwig (the results of which were less-than-fantastic) and needle-felted some accents onto a crocheted heart that didn’t completely felt the way I wanted it to (I think the yarn is mostly acrylic, which would explain why it didn’t felt in hot water).

I also did a dry run with wet felting some Merino wool (haha…see what I did there?).

[Felting Tutorial Here]

It was a fun project, but I don’t know if I’m completely sold on felting as an additional hobby. Certainly not like I was with spinning. I do think, though, that I might incorporate felting into this year’s bevy of hand-crafted Christmas gifts, though. Perhaps it’ll make an appearance in ornament construction, or an embellishment for another gift. We’ll see.

Construction of this year’s Handmade Christmas has already commenced. Which, unfortunately, means that you probably won’t see too many pictures or read many details about the projects that will be filling my time over the coming weeks. Afterall, some of my family and friends read this and we certainly don’t want them to find out, now, do we Precious? No, Precious, we do not.

Sorry. Couldn’t resist a random LotR quote.

So, what can I tell you about what I’ve been working on? Hmm…well, I canned some apple butter last night. I needed to make some for use later this month, in one of the pies that I’ll be making for Thanksgiving. It was a much smaller batch than years past, which was strange, considering I filled the crockpot to brimming yet again. I think I’ll probably have to make another batch in a few weeks, to count as Christmas gifts to a lucky few.

I’ve finally finished the applique on a LOOOOOONG term project I’ve been working on, which means I can start piecing it back together and get it back to being a quilt, instead of just pieces on my worktable soon. And yes, that long-awaited post is still coming. Believe me, it’ll be a doozy. And once you see the pictures of the original state of the quilt, you’ll understand why it’s been so long in coming.

IMG_20151114_132137_625I’ve continued work on a couple of smaller side projects…things I can pick up and put down and pick up and put down and lose for a while and pick up, etc. Among these are my skull shawl and the sawtooth star quilt that will one day grace my own bed. Raven likes to sit on the pieces of the latter.

Alvin, in the meantime, has become best friends with my spinning wheel. He likes to rub his face on the drive wheel, and weave around the legs, and I’ve even caught him trying to work the treadle with one of his paws. Silly cat.

New skills and finished projects

The Halloween season is thankfully over…by about a month, I know, but I’m finally recovering. I was in charge of the foundation’s big Halloween program, Twilight Tales, this year, and it was a whirlwind of craziness (there’ll be a makeup tutorial coming, but not now). Decorations, assigning costumes, baking goodies, picking up apple cider, casting roles (and filling in for some of those roles)…lots of craziness that is thankfully behind me for another year. Although work hasn’t slowed down, I’ve been trying to get better about leaving the work at work, and using my at-home time for some of my own projects. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t.

For instance, the goal this summer was to have the main room in the basement cleared out and fixed up, and the chimney cleaned in time for fires in the winter months. Temperatures dipped down in the teens last week and we’re expecting our first dash of snow this Wednesday, just in time for Thanksgiving, and there’s still a good deal of junk in the way. 😦 I really do want to make wintertime evenings by the fire a reality this year, so I took a chunk of yesterday to do some more cleaning and consolidating of the stuff still in the way in the basement…

…and I can walk around at the bottom of the stairs for the first time in ages! I almost cried. Several years ago, I had that whole area cleared out…and then my brother filled it back up again. It’s finally, after about fours years, getting back to the state I had it in.

I had originally intended to use yesterday to work on some items on my Christmas to-do list, but I think the time was well spent. And, after I finished moving some stuff around (and throwing some other stuff out) I did actually have some time to work on a few other things.

Not really the  true color of the yarn, but you get the idea

Not really the true color of the yarn, but you get the idea

I have finally bitten the bullet and started to learn how to crochet. Up until this point, the only thing I knew how to do was single and double crochet. Nothing fancy. Just enough to make a scarf or two. I don’t know what my biggest obstacle to learning has been. It’s not like I didn’t want to know how to do it, or that I don’t like working with yarn. I’m very much a tactile person – just ask anyone who has ever walked through the fuzzy textiles section of the fabric store with me – and I love the feel of many different kinds of yarn. Whatever was holding me back, I finally decided it was time to take the plunge, and I’ve begun the process of learning to do more than single and double crochet. My first attempt at following an actual pattern (written!) involved learning to do a puff stitch. Thanks to some well-written descriptions and a thirty second video tutorial showing me someone actually making a puff stitch, I was able to complete my very first pair of fingerless gloves!

I scrounged in the basement for some extra yarn to use – which wasn’t hard to find…the stuff is everywhere! – and came up this ridiculously bright, variegated rainbow yarn. It’s not the softest, and was kind of “grabby” when I was working with it, but I figured it needed to be used up and that it would be perfect for a trial pair of gloves for myself (I don’t know who else might wear something that bright, other than – maybe – one of the girls at church). I tore the left glove out at least six times (three of those times were after I had actually taken the pattern all the way to the end – two of them after I had already woven the loose end in to the rest), but I finally wound up with something that I am happy with. I finished the gloves off with some appropriately jaunty buttons from my massive collection.

The finished product...made from the hides of Muppets, according to legend.

The finished product…made from the hides of Muppets, according to legend.

**People keep giving me buttons when they clean out family members’ sewing rooms, so I haven’t had to go out and purchase buttons for some time. If you need a place to off-load some buttons, you know where to send them.**

I’ve worn the gloves out to the store, while driving, and at work, and I’m quite fond of them. Everyone’s first comment is always about how bright they are, to which I reply “Well, it’s winter time. I figure everything is already pretty dull and drab and gray, and you need a little fun to brighten up the day.”

I’ve got a couple of other patterns picked out, for other attempts, but some of them might be a little advanced for my current skill level. I showed them to Mom and figure I can get some help with learning some of the new techniques I’ll need. Plus, there’s always Youtube tutorials – which is how my sister has been learning. Mom’s pretty excited about us learning to crochet this year. I think mostly because it means she’ll have to make fewer of the things we find online and fall in love with. Of course, she’s just picked up knitting again, so you never know…I do like a nice pair of knit socks. 😉

Before I leave off here and head back to some more crocheting, I figured I’d post all the pictures of Jack and Casey’s quilt. I delivered it to them the Thursday before they went to the courthouse to get married, so I can finally show you folks everything. Which basically translates to: I can show you all of the adorable pictures of my cats sleeping on/in the quilt while working on it.

Really…they are ridiculous. And Raven’s already started sleeping on the pieces of the new quilt I’m working on. ::sigh::

Under the Stars

Christmas 2013 has come and gone (at least, in terms of unwrapping presents), so I can finally talk about the presents I made this year. Sadly, most of my gifts wound up coming from the store this year, due to lack of time to prepare everything I wanted to. There were a few things here and there – a scarflette, some felt bird ornaments, a few homemade hand warmers – but not the same amount of handmade items I usually try to aim for. Robert’s stepmother will be getting a new nightgown in a few weeks, after she decides which pattern she wants.

The big item I worked on this year was a gift for Robert. Unlike my usual homemade gift lineup, I did not start working on it at the end of November. I actually began work on his gift way back in September. One day, while at his house, I was pondering some fabric I had with me while he toiled away on a project in his workshop. I had an idea to stitch some constellations using glow-in-the-dark embroidery thread. I used a book from Robert’s shelf as a guide for cutting the fabric into uniform blocks, and realized there was a little bit of a road block. I had the fabric, embroidery thread, needles, and a handy book of constellations that I borrowed from Robert’s dad’s library…but I didn’t have an embroidery hoop. I’ve tried stitching designs on fabric without the assistance of a hoop to keep the fabric taut, and I didn’t much like the results.

embroidery hoopI wandered down to the workshop to see if there was something down there I might be able to use, but nothing popped out at me. So I retreated back upstairs and figured I’d just pencil in the constellation outlines, to be stitched when I got home. A few minutes later, Robert popped into the room and handed me pieces of an old Tupperware set that he had fashioned into a makeshift hoop for me. I actually like using it a lot more than the hoops I get at the store, as there isn’t an annoying adjustable screw on one side, to catch the thread on while I’m working.

He watched what I was doing for a short time, asking what it was for, and I replied that I was just doing something to keep my mind and hands busy. I didn’t want him to know that it was going to be part of a gift for him.

The original 15 constellations are on the darkest blue (almost black) fabric.

The original 15 constellations are on the darkest blue (almost black) fabric.

I had originally intended Orion to be shooting at Draco...obviously, I made a mistake.

I had originally intended Orion to be shooting at Draco…obviously, I made a mistake.

I made 15 constellations, originally. Of course, when I placed them on the top of the bed later, trying to determine the layout, I soon realized it wasn’t going to be enough. I needed another row at the top, bottom, and both sides, to make the quilt fit a queen size bed. So I dug through my fabric stash again, came up with a good amount of blue fabric, and cut out even more rectangles for the quilt. In the end, I wound up making 20 more constellations.

The sashing and borders of the quilt required a trip to the fabric store, as I didn’t have star-themed fabric in my stash at home. I picked up the lighter blue swirl and the dark blue galaxy print first, thinking that would be all I’d use. While waiting at the cutting counter, though, I spotted another bolt of starry fabric. I fell in love with it, and really wanted to use it, but knew it would clash with the galaxy print. It went well with the swirled stars, though, and I decided to get a little bit of it, to use on the inner section of the quilt.

The shooting star corner block

The shooting star corner block

Last year, I made some quilted potholders for Connie. Each one was a different quilt block pattern. One of them was a pattern called “Shooting Star.” I remembered that Robert liked that one the best, and decided that would anchor each corner of the quilt. I paper-pieced them, using fusible interfacing (which I would change in the future, as it made it stiffer than I like), and set them aside as I worked on everything else.

Quilting, in case you didn’t know, requires a good deal of math. You have to measure and re-measure, and add, and multiply…at least, I do. I wanted to put sashing in between the constellation blocks, so there was a lot of figuring and re-figuring, and then drawing everything out on a piece of paper, because the numbers kept dancing about in my head. The funny thing was, when I did all my figures, I thought I was going to end up with an extra 4 inches of batting at the top and bottom of the quilt, but when I rolled the batting out, the quilt top fit perfectly.

The next step was to put the layers together for basting — loosely stitching the backing, batting, and quilt top together, in preparation for quilting. This does not require a large turkey baster or roasting pan in any way.

One of the biggest problems I had with this quilt wasn’t actually the size (though I’m still thrown by how enormous it is!). The biggest challenge was the batting. I had originally intended to use 100% cotton batting, but each time I went to the store, they were out of the queen size batting. Eventually, I gave up trying to find it, and used a package of polyester batting I happened to have on hand, knowing I needed to get started on the quilting.

Because the quilt is huge, and because “free space” in my house usually refers to a clear space on a table big enough to put your plate and silverware on, I took it over to the church to baste the layers together, with Mom’s help. We set out a number of plastic tables, and rolled everything out, little by little. I can’t thank Mom enough for helping me with this stage. It took the two of us four hours to get the whole thing stitched together. If I had been left to do the whole thing myself, I’m sure I’d still be there, stitching. Of course, the polyester batting wasn’t conducive to making this part of the job easier. The damn stuff sticks to everything! Fingers, clothes, the backing fabric, the quilt top, itself…it’s a nightmare. We fought with it the whole time, trying to keep it from bunching up, and we still had problems, with the backing fabric and the batting both puckering and bunching and folding over on itself. I vowed, when we were done with that stage, that I would never again buy stupid polyester batting, no matter how difficult it is to find the cotton batting I want!

IMG_20131203_200938_581 IMG_20131203_200949_346

Of course, after everything was basted together, it came time for the truly daunting task…quilting the damn thing.

I started off using one of my large, oval hoops, thinking I could make the work go faster if I didn’t have to take it out of the hoop as often, but the oval hoop just gets too cumbersome to work around with a quilt that large. It’s heavy, so it pulls, and the way I quilt means the ends got in the way several times. So I went back to using my smaller circle hoops, and things moved along fine. I focused on stitching around the constellations themselves, first, and then moved to doing the borders.

There are an assortment of stars and freehand designs I took to calling “infinity swirls” all along the border of the quilt. The stars are pretty easy to freehand – you just stitch them as if you’re drawing them with a pencil. They just take a lot of time to do. I worked on the border stars for 8 hours on Christmas Eve, and only barely finished them in time. I had stitched around the very edge of the quilt, to make sure the batting didn’t separate and pull out (as it kept trying to do), which helped when it came time to cut off the excess fabric and batting. This stitching line came in handy when I put the binding on, as it marked a half-inch seam allowance around the edge of the quilt.

I made my own binding for this quilt, rather than do the fold-over/self-binding technique I usually do. The muslin looked fine on

Stitching by candlelight, at the office of the National Colonial Farm.

Stitching by candlelight, at the office of the National Colonial Farm.

the back, but I wanted something a little more snazzy for the binding. I bought some interesting yellow-orange swirly cotton fabric from Hancock Fabrics, and cut it in 2″ strips. Crazy Mom Quilts has a pretty good tutorial on how to make and apply quilt binding. I stitched the strips together at work (by the light of several candles, when our power went out for a few hours), and sewed them to the quilt by machine. This was actually the only time I used the machine in the making of the entire quilt. If I had left myself enough time, I would have hand-sewn the binding as well. I’m not 100% happy with how the binding came out, but it was enough to get the quilt finished enough to wrap and give to Robert on Christmas morning.

Constellation Quilt whole_webRobert was kind enough to take some shots of the finished quilt, on his bed. He even managed to capture it in glow-in-the-dark status. I am so happy with how this came out! It is, hands down, the largest quilt I have EVER made, and I think it’s safe to say it’s the one that’s taken the longest to make. Part of that time was the size, and part of it was the fact that I didn’t use the machine. Certainly, stitching everything together on the machine would have cut out some of the time, but hand-stitching everything gave me a little more control when it came to matching the corners, and gave me something to do when I was sitting around. I worked on the quilt, little by little, at home, at the hotel up in Ohio, on long drives in the car (obviously, when I was the passenger) and, occasionally, during free time at work, when there was no one in the office and nothing else to do.

I even managed to keep the secret of what I was really working on from Robert, despite him spotting the fabric and the constellation blocks, before they were sewn together. Each time he asked what I was working on, I had to evade the question, and replied, “Oh, just trying to work through some of my stash.” Which, in all honesty, was true. I did have to lock him out of the room in the basement for a few hours one day, as I furiously tried to finish the quilting in time for Christmas. I will admit, I was a little sneaky and had purchased and wrapped another present for him, to keep him from thinking I was working on something for him. I am not above a little trickery in order to preserve a surprise. 🙂

It glows!

It glows!