Through the Keyhole

Several weekends ago, the weather finally headed into an extended warm stretch. Saturday morning started off a little more overcast and breezy than I expected, but the clouds started to clear about 1pm, and the breeze, while still present, helped to cool down the warmer parts of the day.

Robert continued on the massive task he has set  himself — digging out the monster root system in a corner of the backyard — while I worked on building a new garden bed in the front of the house.

The gutter on one of the southern corners of the house leaks a little bit. It’s also not angled correctly, to allow for ideal drainage through the downspout. As a result, water tends to pour over the edge of the gutter in that spot, absolutely hammering the ground below. We’ve tried to grow things in that spot for a couple of seasons, but the water always has an adverse affect on whatever we plant. The fact that I couldn’t use perfectly good growing space was annoying, so I decided to try a new gardening technique this weekend.

A few years ago, my friend Matt (then the manager of the National Colonial Farm) revamped the space in the Museum Garden, showcasing different cultural approaches to gardening. He included a section in the middle that utilized a keyhole garden. It’s a form of raised bed gardening that makes use of compost and grey water, and is particularly useful in drought-prone regions of Africa and Texas. The raised beds help

The compost bin from Matt’s garden

with planting/weeding/harvesting, and the compost bin in the center helps to provide nutrients and moisture directly to the soil. I won’t have to water this garden as much as the ones in the back.

I have wanted to try my hand at a keyhole garden ever since Matt built that one back at Accokeek, and I figured this might be an opportunity to play a bit with the gutter problem.

The area where I wanted to build the keyhole garden already had part of a rock wall around it, from the original garden bed I built a few years ago. The original wall stretched a lot further across the front of the house. Knowing I wanted to build the walls up, rather than out, I relocated the rocks from further down the original bed, and used them to create a sort of oval shape, with a segment out of it to form the keyhole.

[Most keyhole gardens are circular…mine is less so, because of the area I am working with.]

I used an old tomato cage to mark out where I wanted to place the compost bin, and wrapped old straw mats (which have been in the basement for years without a defined purpose) around it. I used some hemp cord I had in my stash to lace the mats together, and held the structure in place with a few strategically placed sticks.

I debated whether to put landscape cloth down, and ultimately  decided against it. I

Here it just looks like a jumble of rocks. (and you can just barely see the corner Robert has been working on, in the back, past the other beds)

might come to regret that, as there are a few tenacious weeds and shrubs which have a tendency to come back, no matter how many times I try to dig them up, but I am using another method and hoping for the best.

After I built the walls up, I tossed down a layer of sticks from the brush pile, and

Looking down into the start of my compost bin

covered that layer with torn pieces of cardboard. You’ll want to make sure you remove any tape or glue, as it won’t break down in the dirt. I also threw some cardboard bits in the compost bin, to start the ball rolling there.

The new bed got four and a half bags of soil and a bag of mulch on Sunday, but I think I want to put  a little more on it. I’d really like to angle the dirt a little more than it is at the moment. Once the final load of dirt goes in, I’ll start planting. I plan to have a few flowers throughout the bed, but most of it will be a mix of radishes, carrots, cabbages, and the borage.

I did get a few things into the dirt over the weekend: a salad mix bed with red and green oak leaf lettuce, butterhead lettuce, and an heirloom Romaine known as Flashy Trout Back (let’s be honest…with a name like that, is it a surprise I picked it up?). I also got a few more strawberry plants, a rhubarb — which I’ve never grown before but am interested in attempting — a type of tomato known as Indigo Rose, and a large bell pepper variety known as Big Bertha. On the flower/succulent side, I picked up some more lobelia, and a new hen and chick to go in the top of the strawberry pot.

Robert drew up some plans last night for two more raised beds for the back of the house, like the ones he built last year. Last year’s beds worked out really well, and I think they add a lot to the house (plus, it’s one more thing that will help keep down the weeds that take over the back yard). One will be square, and the other will be the same size and shape as the other two beds. I’m thinking green beans will go in the long box, along with some kale, turnips, and more carrots. I want to try cucumbers and potatoes in the square bed.

And, in case you’re wondering what we’re going to do with that back corner, once Robert is finished tearing all the old roots out…I have plans.

Knit Wits (Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Sewing with Knits)

[There are pictures of a man in underwear in this entry. Nothing revealing, but I figured I would warn you. And thank Robert for being kind and comfortable enough with me taking and posting a picture of him in his new underwear.]

I have been sewing for a good long portion of my life. For so long, in fact, that I can’t pinpoint the actual moment I started sewing. I can point to the period in my life where sewing apparel from a pattern finally clicked in my mind (freshman year of high school, due to theater), or the first project I made for someone else (a stuffed guinea pig toy I made for my brother when I was in 6th grade…and that he still has!) but I had been sewing – to some degree or other – for a while before then.

Throughout my long personal history with needle and thread, the majority of what I have worked with are woven textiles. Cottons, linens, rayon, wool, viscose…the fiber content itself has varied, but they were almost all woven. I don’t know if this started out as a conscious choice or if it was just the convenience of what I always happened to have on hand (I have been gifted with a lot of material over the years). However, I can tell you that, currently, I have noticed a tendency to gravitate towards woven materials.

It was simple: sewing knitwear kind of scares me. I think, if I had an overlock machine, I probably wouldn’t have been as hesitant to get into sewing with knits. After all, an overlock machine is what makes sewing knits easier and cleaner.

That is not to say, however, that sewing knits is impossible on a standard sewing machine. In fact, it has been a lot simpler than I was building it up to be in my mind. Mostly, what it takes is some patience, a little know-how about how knits work, and a special needle.

Now, I have sewn with some knits before – I made a shirt for my Kaylee costume, one of my favorite shirt patterns EVER requires a knit fabric, and both my Po and Popple costumes were made using knits. However! I didn’t treat the knits as knits when I made the latter two. Because of the nature of those costumes, I didn’t need the knits to actually behave like knits. They didn’t need to stretch, and so I just used a straight stitch on the seams. Despite my happiness with the final product of Butterick 5497, I still generally shy away from patterns that require the use of knits.

Two Christmases ago I made my first decision to begin dipping my toe into the knitwear waters, so to speak. My brother wanted a new fleece pullover, but I couldn’t find the type he wanted…so I made one. He must actually like it, because I’ve seen him wearing it a number of times. (I made one for Robert last year, too, but I somehow made the shoulders too big, which I would have thought was impossible, and now I have to bring it in a little bit).

Andrew’s pullover turned out so nicely that I started thinking: Maybe my fear of knits really was unfounded. Perhaps I should try making some other things.

IMG_20160610_154808_181On a recent journey to Stitch, I picked up a new pattern. I’d had my eye on it for a little while – intrigued by the design and inspired by the challenge: the Comox Trunks, from Thread Theory Designs.

Thread Theory is a bit of a rarity in the pattern world: a designer exclusively devoted to menswear patterns (well, they do have one blouse pattern)! Robert was with me during a recent run to JoAnn’s the other day, and I pointed out the teensy-tiny section of the pattern catalogs that are given over to menswear (and half of the pages in that section said “unisex” and only showed women, which I thought was interesting). From the looks of the patterns, and the reviews of said designs that I’ve been reading online, Thread Theory does a phenomenal job of creating useful, easy-to-follow patterns that combine form with function.

Since I’ve been sewing a little more for Robert lately, I’ve been keeping an eye out for interesting sewing patterns that might work for his new pieces. So far, I’ve made two vests, a dress shirt, and that somewhat ill-fitting pullover (plus a Han Solo costume, but that was sort of hacked together, not really using a real pattern). I had heard about Thread Theory and decided to give them a look-see. Which is, incidentally, when I discovered the Comox Trunks pattern.

[Before I go much further…Robert asked me why they were called the Comox trunks. The answer is pretty simple. The owners of Thread Theory live in Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Comox is the name of a town on the coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. There you go.]

I was extremely excited when I brought the pattern home, both because I was ready to attempt something new, and also because I really like making useful things for people. Underwear is about as useful as you can get, and the idea of being able to customize a pair made me positively giddy.

(Plus, you know…it meant I got to see Robert modeling them for fit ::waggles eyebrows::)

Of course, I had a little bit of a problem. In my excitement, I had picked up the pattern at Stitch, but hadn’t also gotten fabric or waistband elastic. Since I needed to make up a muslin first, anyway, I hunted around the basement for an unused t-shirt I could hack apart (I had seen a couple of people go this route, via an online search). I settled upon a t-shirt from Celebrating the Potomac a couple of years ago. My friend Anjela had designed a lovely tall ship logo for the event, and I thought that would make a lovely focal point on the rear of the trunks.

I had to get a little creative with the placement of the pattern pieces, when I was cutting everything out, so two of the pieces didn’t really go on the grain the way they should have, but the muslin served its purpose well enough. The logo is nicely splashed across the but, the crotch gusset has sponsors (with the printer info on the inside of same gusset), the stars that were originally on the sleeve are now on the cup, and the fly openings also have sponsor names. I found the whole thing hilarious.

Robert tried the muslin on and I admired the view asked for input for future pattern alterations. His first comment was that they were a little shorter than he usually wears. The pattern, as is, hits at sort of a midpoint between standard boxer briefs and regular briefs. This is a simple enough fix: when cutting out the pattern, add some length to the bottom of the trunk leg, and remember to add the same amount of length to both ends of the crotch gusset.

[Side note: I purchased both ball point needles and a twin needle, in anticipation of making these trunks, but I ended up only using the ball point needle for the first two pairs. I think I might try my hand with the twin needle for the next pair (and yes, there will be several more pairs), just to see how the finished product compares to the ones made with a single needle.]

The trunks were also a little bigger than they were supposed to be, and there was some unflattering bunching and shifting. This was a result of me not paying close enough attention, and making the seam allowances a little smaller than they were supposed to be, resulting in a looser fit than the pattern calls for. This was an easy enough fix the second time around – I just paid closer attention to what I was doing.

IMG_20160613_234659_073I took a little more time when I made the second pair (out of yet another unused t-shirt – this time a thin gray/black stripe), and I think it turned out pretty nice, if I do say so myself. I incorporated Robert’s input and made the legs a little longer. I also corrected a few mistakes I had made with the first pair – mainly in relation to the seam allowances. I also went ahead and added the little Thread Theory tag to this pair, since they actually looked rather professional. I affixed it to the front of the trunks, just below the waistband.

[A label is included in each pattern you purchase, which I thought was a nice touch.]

As you can see, the fit was better this time around. No weird sagging around the butt. I’m still having a little bit of a problem getting the hem around the legs right. I’ll need to play with the length and width of the zigzag stitch (or maybe this is where the twin needle will work best). Robert’s also still a little unsure of how he feels about where the back of the trunks hit, though that’s an easy enough fix.

I think I might also fiddle with the fly placement on these, too. He says it doesn’t work as well as it should where it is currently. I think I might just flip it to the bottom and see if that works better. I’ve seen a sample pair with that alteration, so I know it’s possible.

So…thoughts on the pattern: I really can’t say enough good things about it. The directions were fairly clear, with illustrations that really did help to figure things out. There was an error in the first edition of the pattern, so Thread Theory included an errata sheet with the booklet, which I appreciated. I did get a little confused with one of the steps (adding in the front fly piece), but the folks at Thread Theory did a sew-along tutorial when the pattern first came out, and I was able to look that step up and get some clarification (with pictures!)

In addition to clear step-by-step instructions for each sewing step, the pattern also includes overviews and insight on how to choose the best elastic and fabric, and the sew-along includes ideas for customizing your pattern.

I love, loveLOVE the finished look of this pattern. I’m sure part of the reason is that I like to ogle my guy’s bum (and, come on….who wouldn’t want to ogle that bum?), but that’s not the only reason I like the pattern. It’s clear that Morgan and Matt have given their patterns a lot of thought, and the instructions help knit-averse folks like me feel comfortable while trying out a new sewing skill set.

One of the best things about this pattern (apart from the finished fit) is how fast it is to get through. I made the muslin in one evening – start to finish about 4.5 hours, because I was really taking my time and reading/re-reading instructions, and looking up the tutorial. The second pair cut that time down significantly to 3 hours (from starting the cutting to the finished hem)…and that’s still because I was taking my time and watching a movie while I sewed (and because I dropped my dang pins on the floor and had to hunt them all down before Alvin could find them and eat them). I can see myself getting to a point where I can churn out several of these in a couple of hours – provided I avoid further pin mishaps.

[ I was not compensated in any way for this review.]

Spring In My Step

Confession: this isn't my's a shot I took back when I worked at Accokeek.

Confession: this isn’t my garden…it’s a shot I took back when I worked at Accokeek.

The weather is – slowly – starting to even out (we only had one swift turn in temperature this week, that I can tell) and the spring blossoms are in full swing…bringing a swath of allergies and illness with them, as always. I have been lucky so far in that I have never seemed to develop the same severe allergies that many of my compatriots in the DC Metro area have.

[We look forward to the cherry blossoms each year, but with them come weeks of listening to the sniffles and congestion of coworkers and friends whose bodies can’t abide the pollen]

have, however, been dealing with a bit of a bug. It started as a sore throat, then moved on to sniffles/runny nose/sneezing and has now lodged itself as a pretty persistent cough. Well, more persistent than I’d like but not nearly as bad as it has been for Mom and Robert.

Despite feeling a bit under the weather (honestly, I’m mostly just really tired) my thoughts have moved to plans for this year’s garden. Our plans last summer were pretty well laid – we had tomato plants, the cucumbers were looking lovely, and I had the most beautiful crop of cabbages I could have hoped for.

And then, of course, The Thing happened last year (no, I’m not talking about the John Carpenter movie), and all of the lovely green growing things were affected. Bugs, heat, neglect…all of them took their toll and much of the garden never really recovered.

The collards are booming! The rosemary is staying where it is, but we'll have to see about the rest.

The collards are booming! The rosemary is staying where it is, but we’ll have to see about the rest.

This year, though, we are starting anew. Well, starting again with some old, first. The collards I planted last year (that were all but decimated by the end of the summer, thanks to some very hungry beetles) survived the winter (including a pretty substantial blizzard) and are thriving in the cooler weather we’ve been having this March. I am still not sure whether they’ll make it to the “official start” of the garden…after all, there are fewer of us in the house to eat them now.

Robert and I are moving forward on making alterations to the existing raised beds. At the moment, they are only raised about four inches off the ground, which doesn’t keep grass out of them when the side yard is mowed. Last weekend, we raided the store of old wood Robert’s dad keeps in his carport, pulling out pieces that can come together to form new walls. We’ll be pulling out the original stone sides (lovely as they are) and replacing the original bed walls we put down several years ago. Depending on how the wood seems to have aged, they might find new life in some of the other plans we have for the backyard, but that remains to be seen.


As we turned our thoughts to the garden, I took stock of the seeds we have for this year’s planting – both new purchases and those saved from last year’s harvests. I am hopeful that this year, finally, I can get some cauliflower to grow. Third time’s the charm, right? We are also focusing on some of the things we know we love and others that keep well. Sugar snap peas are back on the menu (we’ll see how many of them make it inside this year), as are green beans and assorted lettuce. We’ve got kaleidiscope carrots and cosmic purple carrots and turnips and radishes (the first time for turnips and radishes, but not for carrots) and a new form of cucumber that Mom stumbled upon called cucamelons. They look like watermelons but taste like cucumber with a hint of lemon. We’ll see how they work out. My luck has not been great lately, when it comes to cucumbers.

Speaking of lemons, though…I was gifted with a lemon tree this year. I have not yet tried to grow fruit (I don’t count the peach trees that grew on the side of the house when I was a kid, or the wild blackberries that grow in some spots around the backyard), so this will be a bit of an experiment for me. According to the care tag, the tree can stay in a pot, though I believe I will probably transfer it to a larger one soon, just to make sure it has some room. It’s a hardy little tree and can survive in zones that get down to 30 degrees…which means our zone, in the winter, can be just a tad bit too cold. Leaving it indoors is not a possibility. For one, Mom doesn’t care for the smell (it is  a bit fragrant, but I don’t mind). Two, Raven loves plants. He keeps getting up on the mantle to get into the flowers we had up there, and we’ve caught him trying to eat roses out of a vase before. I’d rather not have to fend the cat off from the lemon tree, so it will be spending most of its time outdoors.

Of course, that leaves us with a little problem once the winter sets in.

To solve this problem, Robert and I have decided to build a greenhouse. Not a large one. Just a small one, about potting shed size, which can sit at the back corner of the house, between the window and the downspout on the corner. We’ll be able to start some seeds in there, away from the attention of one little black cat, and house the lemon tree in the winter, when the frost might be a bit much for it.

This would be great, but I don't think this is what we'll end up with.

This would be great, but I don’t think this is what we’ll end up with.

To this end, we’ve started looking over all of the salvaged windows that Robert’s dad also has stored in his carport. I really like the idea of using a lot of found and repurposed objects for the garden. As a result, I’m probably more willing to overlook the “weirdness” of some of the items we pull out for garden use. For instance, I’m okay with wood that isn’t always the same length or width or type, and I have been known to go “Oh, this would be GREAT!” when presented with something that looks a little shabby. (I do draw the line at wood that looks a bit bug-eaten, as I’m trying to introduce as few pests to the garden as possible) Of course, this has meant that Robert has had to deal with my insistence on re-using an old footboard as one of the walls for the previous garden, and my excitement on seeing abandoned tires, as they are supposed to make great “containers” for growing potatoes.

I have yet to convince him to actually stop and load said things into the car for later use, but we have been keeping an eye out for wooden pallets. He made a lovely table out of one last year. It’s currently housing some of last year’s pots, until such time as we are ready to pull the ground cover out of them and plant new items.

[There is also a neat set of shuttered doors stowing away in the top of Robert’s dad’s carport that I am desperately trying to come up with an idea for. Hmm. Seems like Pinterest is in my future.]

Even my kale - going on three years, now - is still growing. Well, most of it. You can see that last year's big plant (to the left) hasn't fared as well.

Even my kale – going on three years, now – is still growing. Well, most of it. You can see that last year’s big plant (to the left) hasn’t fared as well.

Our original plan was to build the new beds on Easter, but it rained. Well, and we fell asleep. But, with some luck, we’ll have the new beds assembled soon and we can start laying down some new dirt and fertilizer for this year’s growth. I still haven’t decided whether I’m going to try to transplant the collards into the re-done beds. I have a problem pulling up things that have their mind set on growth — as evidenced by the fact that, not only has the comfrey plant I got ages ago not been pulled up, despite not really using it for anything, but I’ve allowed its offspring to thrive in the front of the house, as well. Pulling up collards and salad burnet when they are doing so well seems kind of sad.

Last year, our garden plan was…less than planned, shall we say? Much of what I planted came about as a result of my work over at the farm. One of the women interested in volunteering her time happened to work at Merrifield Garden Center and she let us know about some plants that were about to be thrown out.

It is truly remarkable how many plants we ended up picking up last year – many of them were too large to be considered seedlings anymore, and needed to be planted in ground pronto! Others were just an abundance of a less popular plant.  Let’s face it…everyone goes crazy for the tomatoes and peppers, and no one looks at rue and yarrow and tansy and gets as excited. Well, some of us do, but not enough to snatch up all the plants that were on their way to the discard pile.

I figure our "greenhouse" will probably be less actual greenhouse and more potting shed.

I figure our “greenhouse” will probably be less actual greenhouse and more potting shed.

Most of those plants made their way to the gardens over at the park, but there were only so many Brice squash plants and Vietnamese corianders that could be stuffed into the Museum Garden. So I got to bring some home with me. Some of those plants are still growing (the aforementioned collards, as well as a hardy curry plant, some sage, and half of the lavender). This year, I’m making a little more of a plan for the garden ane won’t just adapt to what we might get in a donation.  Since we grew leeks last year (another of those donated crops, and the first time growing that particular veggie), we can’t put anything onion or garlic-related in that spot. So that’s where some of the carrots will go, as well as some beans, all nestled around the rosemary.

Can you tell I’m excited about the garden this season? Because I am.

HSM #1 – Shaky Foundations

I just barely made it, in terms of completing the first challenge for the Historic Sew Monthly. With the basement still in shambles (though less than the last time I posted), it isn’t all that easy to get in to my sewing machine. Or my patterns. Or a space to lay out and cut out fabric. Knowing I didn’t have a lot of space or time to work with, I racked my brain for ideas of what I wanted to/needed to/could conceivably make. It didn’t help that I wound up sick at home for a few days, due to dehydration and the common cold. I could have, theoretically, beaten the cold without much work, but the dehydration skewed my chances there.


Thankfully, there were a few simple items I needed, to kick off some of my historic costuming goals. The first was a pair of fun stockings that I could use with my caroling outfit.



The caroling outfit isn’t specific to any one particular year/style. It’s more of a suggestion of a general period, at the moment, though I’ve been hoping to make it a better representation of a specific era of fashion. Knowing that the stockings wouldn’t be seen by most folks (unlike the stockings I need to make for interpreters at the National Colonial Farm), I wanted to find the most ridiculous and fun color or pattern possible. I don’t have a lot of jersey-type materials in my stash, so I lucked out with the material I did happen to pull out. It was a stretchy fabric of unknown fiber content (most likely primarily polyester, but the burn test isn’t conclusive) that was contributed when my brother-in-law’s great aunt moved and got rid of a lot of her sewing notions. It has a truly ridiculous gray/pink on white print – I’ve stared at it for a while and still can’t really figure out what is really going on in the print. It would be perfect!

The pattern came together fairly quickly, though I caution folks to pay close attention to where the corners meet up at the heel, as it’s easy for the fabric to bunch under the presser foot. The right side of the pattern fits pretty well, despite the fabric not being as stretchy as it probably needs to be. The foot length is perfect, which surprised me, as I have rather tiny feet.

Then, you’ve got the left side. Due to repeated injuries to my left leg, my ankle and calf has a tendency to swell

Raven isn't sure how he feels about the fabric.

Raven isn’t sure how he feels about the fabric.

throughout the day. Even in the morning, when I’ve just woken up, the left side generally measures a little bigger than the right side. By the time I finished the stockings, the left side had swollen a little, so the fit wasn’t as perfect. I think it would have been okay if there had been more stretch to the fabric.

I was happy with the overall pattern, though, so I plan to make a couple more attempts to get this right. I’ll make a few adjustments to the pattern and re-make another stocking for the left side, and see if that solves the problem.


A new shift had been on my list of “to be made” items for some time. My old one, made out of a tight, gauzy material, had disappeared and I was in need of something to wear underneath a couple of the festival outfits. I had even gone ahead and cut out the pattern a couple of months ago, but somewhere – literally in the distance between the small cutting table and my sewing machine – the back half of the pattern was lost.

I still haven’t found the errant pattern pieces, so I figured it was time to try again. I picked out the hem on an old sheet (I think it came from years ago, when my grandmother was in the hospital…which means 20 years ago) and cut out all the pieces. When I went to start pinning them together, though, I discovered I was missing the first two pages of instructions for the pattern! Gah!

Luckily, I’ve sewn this pattern before, as well as another pattern with underarm gussets, so I had a general idea of what I was doing. I used flat felled seams to finish the edges, as I’m all too familiar with the way the shifts in the NCF clothing inventory literally comes apart at the seams after washing. I figured this will help extend the life of the shift, anyway.

I stitched a quarter-inch hem around the neckline, and then stitched a length of twill tape to the inside of the neckline, for the cord to feed through.

The Challenge: Foundations

Fabric: unknown jersey with pink/gray print (stockings); re-used bedsheet (60% cotton, 40% polyester).

Pattern: Rosalie stockings pattern (The Dreamstress); Simplicity 4052 (out-of-print)


Notions: white cotton thread, twill tape, braided cord

How historically accurate is it? Eh….I’d say the shift is maybe 80%. The fabric I used isn’t, what with the addition of polyester, but the pattern is a pretty good example of the period. The shift is hand-sewn, which I feel helps bump it up a little. The stockings….maybe 50%…and that’s ALL pattern. The fabric choice is not at all historically accurate, but that was sort of my point going in. 

Hours to complete: 1 hour for the stockings; __ hours for the shift

First worn: around the house, chasing after the cats.

Total cost: $2 for the twill tape! The fabric was all gifted to me, and the pattern was in the stash already.

The little shits (aka Alvin and Raven) sitting on the clean sheet and my new cowl, while I wait for the laundry to finish.

The little shits (aka Alvin and Raven) sitting on the clean sheet and my new cowl, while I wait for the laundry to finish.

If you make it, they will come – No.Va. Mini Maker Faire

Dismantling a printer

Dismantling a printer

Around the middle of March, I took part in Northern Virginia’s Mini Maker Faire, held at South Lakes High School and Langston Hughes Middle School, in Reston, VA. To my knowledge, this was the first such fair in Northern Virginia. There have been several mini maker faires held fairly locally before – Silver Spring being one of them – but this was the first one within the Fairfax County area. I found out about it quite by chance. While Robert’s sister was visiting for her birthday celebration, we somehow stumbled on the topic of Maker Faire. Robert has been to the large one in New York. Always interested by festivals and fairs (let’s just blame that on folklore, shall we?), I did a quick internet search, which revealed that there would be a smaller version of Maker Faire taking place just down the road from my place in Northern Virginia.

I went ahead and submitted an application to be an exhibitor at the faire, showing how to make costumes (particularly, large character heads) out of fairly household materials. They accepted my application and I was on the list of creative booths!

Robert and I went in to the high school the day before the event to set up my table. I had an interesting set-up: a round table, with stools attached to the rest of the assembly. I knew it was going to make for an interesting challenge, when it came time to actually do some work at the event, but I figured I could make due.

After we finished laying out the bins, Robert and I took some time to wander around, watching people setting up their own spaces in

These are carved out of wood and stone.

These are carved out of wood and stone.

anticipation of the next day’s crowds. I had a nice chat with a lady who had a booth where she was going to teach people to knit. She had a fantastic pair of knitted and felted slippers on display, and I was incredibly jealous of other peoples’ ability to make something other than a scarf.

The gym, across the hall from where I would be stationed, was a hub of 3-D printers and robotics and drones. The DC Area Drone Group, of which Robert is a member, was set up at one end, with a screen separating the flying robots from anyone who might not have the presence of mind to duck when it sounds like something is going to crash.

Sadly, I didn’t get a whole lot of opportunity to walk around and visit the other booths the next day. We got to the faire early on Sunday morning, and I immediately set to work straightening a huge stack of coat hangers. My plan for the day was to have a work-in-progress…Olaf, from FrozenAfter setting out my materials that morning, I was just about to start wandering around the nearby tables when I spotted the swarm starting to enter the far end of the cafeteria. Before I knew it, it was battlestations!

Costumed head selfie!

Costumed head selfie!

The first visitors to my table were my friend Scott and his two sons. I hadn’t seen the eldest since he was about four, and I had never met the youngest, so we had a wonderful visit. They tried on the heads I had on display, and told me about this year’s Odyssey of the Mind challenge (which sounded awesome!) and promised to return later in the day, to see how my costume head was progressing.

I wound up having a fairly steady stream of visitors to the table throughout the course of the day. I think folks were mostly drawn by the opportunity to try on giant costume heads. I had brought Kowl and Oogie Boogie the day before and had planned on grabbing Toothless as I headed out that morning, but I had forgotten the dragon at home. Thankfully, I caught Heather before they passed our house, and she and Frank picked it up for me on their way in.

Toothless was probably the biggest hit at the table. He was definitely the most recognizable, for most people. Everyone wanted to

Working on Olaf's head

Working on Olaf’s head

try him on. Unfortunately, he also happens to be the most fragile of the three heads. He’s not exactly about to break apart, but the eyes and the horns are definitely the sections of the head that I’d rather people not poke or pick the head up with. Of course, that means that the eyes and the horns are the very first things that people are drawn to. One came up and started poking the eyes into the headWhen I told him not to do that, he asked why. Oh, child. Because it doesn’t belong to you, it’s not yours to destroy, and because someone told you not to. I even had a grown ass man who should have known better poke at the eyes. When Maggie and I asked him not to do it, he nodded his head, and poked them a little more. GRAAAAA!

Apart from those two, and a few kids who attempted to walk off across the room while wearing the heads (they were thwarted by Maggie), most folks were pretty respectful of the fact that they were handling something that someone had spent a lot of time working on. I chatted with a mother whose daughter had recently taken on the challenge of making her school’s mascot costume (a panther), and crossed paths with a number of other costumers. Some folks had even been to DragonCon, and recognized some of my costumes.

I have to say, it’s a good thing I had some extra help show up throughout the day. Robert and Maggie both took some turns at the booth, supervising little hands as they picked up the heads and answering the questions they could, and were kind enough to watch the table long enough for me to step out to the food trucks for a little break.

When the event ended at 4 I was exhausted, my voice was shot, and I was sweaty and dehydrated and ready to go home, but it was a truly amazing day. My only wish was that I had gotten a chance to see more of the rest of the faire. Mom, Heather, Frank and Joey all reported on the things they had seen in other rooms and buildings, and it sounds like there were a lot of wonderful offerings. There’s another mini maker faire coming up later in the year, in Charlottesville. I don’t plan on exhibiting there, but I’m thinking about going, just so I get a chance to see what else the faires have to offer.

Here There Be Dragons

Setting up the work space

Setting up the work space

I can thankfully say that this weekend has been a very productive. After fretting and agonizing over Toothless for months, I finally sat down and started working on the costume again. As you might remember, I had a bit of a snafu with the original legs I built, and I felt overwhelmed and out of sorts afterwards, meaning I wanted nothing to do with dragons for a little while.

We’re less than a month away from Dragon Con now, though, so I figured it was about time I set to work on creating an actual dragon. I’m still playing around a bit with how I’m going to do the body, tail and wings for Toothless, but I started working on one of the most important pieces today: the head.

Usually, I work on a small square table (and I mean small) in a cramped corner of my

Dual work space

Dual work space

basement. Today, I had the luxury of working in Robert’s work space, in the newly “refinished” garage. You might remember we had a wee little fire in the original garage workshop, back in the early hours of Valentine’s Day. The ceiling has since been rebuilt, the windows and garage doors replaced, and the walls and floor painted. Much of the garage is still in the process of being put back to order – there are boxes and shelves and various power tools in a bit of disarray – but Robert cleared one of the tables and set up some space for me to spread out. He had work to do on a new quad copter, in preparation for his sister’s wedding in Maine next month, so the two of us happily spent the entire day tooling about in the garage.

I started by pulling up the file of reference shots I had amassed during my earlier costume research, and sketched the head a couple of times. Now, since I had the pictures on my computer and can refer to them at any time, I didn’t really have to sketch them, but I’ve found that I tend to have a better understanding of the shapes I ultimately need to form, and how everything is going to come together if I do a little bit of fiddling about with pencil and paper first.

Sketches done, I set about straightening my pile of wire coat hangers, and laying out the other supplies I’d need nearby: heavy gauge floral wire, duct tape, wire cutters, pliers (needle nose and blunt nose). This time, since I was going to be cutting some of the thick coat hangers, instead of leaving them their original length, I made a little addition to my original tool list. I got to use bolt cutters today!

Notice the bolt cutters!

Notice the bolt cutters!

As usual, work on the head began with construction of a coat hanger and floral wire skeleton, joined together with my old friend, duct tape. I think I really need to take a video of this part of the process, so you can see exactly how I figure out this aspect of the head. You build the coat hangers up, level by level, creating stabilizing and supporting vertical “beams” with the floral wire. I generally start with four supporting vertical beams between each level, until I have the basic shape. Then, I go back and add extra supports where I can see they’ll be needed.

So much duct tape and wire!

So much duct tape and wire!

Toothless provided a little bit of a challenge, when creating the head, as the head needs to slope up and back more than, say, my Potter Puppet Pals or Wise Man head did. Even Kowl’s head was relatively close to human shape. Not so much with Toothless. I also knew that I was going to have to contend with the challenge of the “horns” that needed to extend from the back and sides. I happened to have a lighter weight coat hanger that worked quite well to form the supports for the horns.

The back of the wire structure, showing the horns.

The back of the wire structure, showing the horns.

By the end of Saturday, I had a completed wire skeleton for Toothless’ head. The next day, I went to JoAnn’s after church, to look for foam. I had already gone out a few months earlier and stocked up on my usual ½” foam, in addition to buying two small slabs of 4” foam, but I went looking for something a little thinner. I basically wanted ¼” inch green foam, but they don’t stock any. I finally decided on what was listed as “rug foam,” or something similar. It’s rather thin foam, with a flannel backing on one side. As I carried it around the shop, I tried to figure out what it reminded me of. Later that day, I finally realized – it feels like the material that makes up the inside of the roof of the minivan.

I think this is the worst foam job I've done. :(

I think this is the worst foam job I’ve done. 😦

Anyway, foam purchased, I headed back to Robert’s house, were my work space was still set up from Saturday. I plugged the glue gun in and set about cutting and fitting foam. Knowing how the material works now, I would have done things a LOT differently if I had to cover the head again. The thin foam is a lot less forgiving and manageable than the green foam is, and I don’t know that I’ll be using it for costume heads again, any time soon. I finally got the head covered with the gray foam, and set about cutting green foam for the shaping.shaping foam work front

Making sure the two sides of the head are symmetrical is proving to be one of the big challenges of this head. After I took a picture of the front of the head, I noticed that the eye on one side was going to be bigger than the other. Thankfully, I tend to save the little shavings and scraps that I cut off the big chunks of foam, so I was able to just add a few thin pieces to even things out.foam work side

After I took this picture, I ended up ripping off a section of foam, because the little ridge above Toothless’ nose went too high up the head. I like the placement a little better now, though I still need to play with the shaping a little more before I’m completely happy. I need to finish adding foam to the other side of the face, and smooth out some of the seams on the horns, and then it will be on to creating the felt “skin” for the head.

Earth Day and Costuming

Earth Day isn’t something I’ve participated in a whole lot in recent years. Not because I don’t recognize it as an important event. I’m all for Earth Day. Back in my high school days I was the president of the Science Club (oh come now, you haven’t realized before now that I’m a nerd?) and we always made plans for Earth Day. I haven’t done stuff for Earth Day lately because I’ve forgotten when the actual day has rolled around. By the time someone mentions “Oh hey, today is Earth Day” the day has already passed by.

This year, I managed to get out and do something Earth Day-related. First, I dropped some old electronics off over on campus. The school had set up a recycling center to collect old tvs, computers, stereo equipment, sewing machines, etc. so they could be disposed of or recycled in an environmentally sound manner. We had two broken televisions, an old computer monitor and Mom’s old Singer to drop off. I was a bit sad about handing over the sewing machine – I’ve got a lot of memories from it – but it was just sitting around the house and needed to leave.

After the run to campus I stopped by my sister’s house to pick up her cloak. I had made it for her as a Christmas present a few years ago but it was entirely too long. We’re heading up to the Spoutwood Fairie Festival this coming weekend (first weekend in May) and it’s usually a bit cool while we’re up there so I figured it would be a good idea to get everything ready ahead of time. It didn’t take all that long to trim and re-hem the whole thing. It’s hanging on my body form as I write this, waiting for my sister to pick it up.

I had originally intended to work outside in the yard this weekend but the weather wasn’t as sunny and cheery as I wanted it to be. I was worried about rain starting up while I was in the middle of ripping stuff out of the backyard, so I decided to continue working on costumes.

First, I decided to start working on a new jacket for Tesla. I’ve been thinking more about her character and elements of her look. As I’ve mentioned before, the Victorian-style, rather feminine jacket I originally made works better with

No more collar!

Maggie’s outfit. Tesla’s look needed to be a bit rougher. I’ve been admiring things like welder’s jackets and the like and I think they go along with Tesla’s character more than anything else. I obviously don’t have the money to drop on an actual welder’s jacket (and I like the challenge of making something) so I’ve been thinking of ways I could create my own. I took an old faux-leather jacket out of the closet upstairs and started deconstructing it. The collar of the jacket had worn out long ago. It was all cracked and split, which I didn’t even realize fake leather could do. Most of the rest of the coat was still in good shape, although there were a few places here and there that were definitely showing some wear and tear.

I went ahead and just followed the actual construction lines of the original jacket for the deconstruction. The jacket

The front of the newly cropped jacket, which will be used as a pattern for the real thing.

 had a yoke on the top and I just went ahead and cut off everything below that. The sleeves took a little fiddling with before they finally came off. I took some pictures of the basic look of the new jacket before I started taking it apart to use as a pattern. The first mock-up of the new jacket isn’t 100% finished yet, but I hope to have the sleeves done and added to the rest by tomorrow.

I decided to set work on the jacket aside for a bit and start work on the Big Project. Yes, I’m using capitalized letters where they’re not really needed. That should give you an idea of how big this project is.

What is this Big Project, you ask? Well, friends and readers, I am starting construction on the head for my Kowl costume. I’ve got until the first weekend in September to finish the whole thing but I really don’t want to have it go on for that long. Ideally I would have the whole thing finished by June, if not mid-May. The biggest problem so far has actually not been the construction of the head. That seems to be going along swimmingly so far. Well, aside from the deep slash in one finger from a literal run-in with some of the wire and the slew of burns from the high-temp glue gun that I was using originally. I’ve since switched to the low-temp one. It actually works with the foam better and means I don’t have to wait as long for the dang glue to cool.

As with many of my larger costume builds, part of the head is made with old wire hangers.They’re honestly one of the most useful items in a poor costumer’s arsenal. Hot glue, wire hangers, cardboard and a little masking tape = awesome stuff. So far Maggie and I have used wire hangers in the Blink Angel costumes, my Toad costue, several hoop skirts, Maggie’s Pan costume (I think) and our Potter Puppet Pal heads. Kowl certainly seems to have good company in the wire hanger club.

I knew I didn’t have enough wire hangers to build the whole head so I made a quick run out to A.C. Moore to see what they had in the way of floral supplies that I could use. I found a lovely spool of thick wire (covered in something that’s kind of like raffia but isn’t) that is working very nicely. The first step was to create the top part of the cage that forms the bones of the head. Since the wire hanger is a good deal sturdier than the floral wire, I used it as the base and wove the floral wire around and over it. After I made the basic cap, I started building the section of the head that would sit down over my ears. I tried to keep most of the “bones” of the head out of the way of my vision. Back when I made my Harry Potter puppet head I wound up with a major part of the inner construction obstructing the place I really wanted to be able to see out of. I didn’t want to worry about my vision the same way this time around, which meant a little creative manipulation of the wires.

The half-finished head and the tools on my work table

The wire base of the main part of the head (the lower jaw is going to be separate) is finished and I’ve already started adding the foam overtop the “bones.” I need to bring the foam on the back of the head down just a bit more, to cover more of the back of my neck, but otherwise it’s coming along quite nicely. I’m going to be adding on a little more foam on the top and sides of the head. The forehead needs to be a little taller and flatter in order for the eyes to sit right and Kowl kind of has jowls. After I add another layer of foam on top of the basic layer, I’ll be able to use a pair of scissors to provide a more exact shape. After the foam layer is finished, it’ll be time to start covering the head with the fabric/fake fur.

Hopefully I’ll be able to find enough fabric of the right color soon.