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.

News from the Three Fates: Dyeing Workshop

[Before I go any further, I’ll explain the title. Recently, I’ve taken over running Stitch ‘n Time – the textile club at work. I am one of three people, actually, who oversee its budgeting, coordinating meeting topics and projects, and keeping track of our inventory of equipment and finished items to sell. Seeing as how there are three of us, and that we are involved in a club that processes the wool and cotton fibers from the farm – harvesting/shearing, carding, spinning, weaving, sewing, cutting, etc – we jokingly decided to refer to ourselves – at least in reference to all things Stitch ‘n Time – as The Three Fates. I’ll also preface this post with an acknowledgement that this post was originally written much earlier…shortly after the workshop mentioned. The vast majority of it, however, disappeared into the ether before it was published, and it’s taken me a while to re-write it.]

One of the things we decided, when planning out meeting topics for the coming year, was that we wanted to have more structure to each meeting. Prior to our taking over, most of the meetings were what might be classified as “stitch and bitch”…people gathering together to work on their many different projects. While that’s fine when we’re all in fine project-finishing form, desperately trying to complete items to sell at the end of the year, it doesn’t work well for getting (and retaining) new members. If you come in to a meeting for the first time, you don’t want to feel like you’ve happened upon the cool kids’ table, and no one has time or room to talk to you.

So we decided to plan for specific themes for each meeting, and to structure the month’s activities around them. Last month, we did a meeting all about wool washing – what soaps are out there, what their pros and cons are, what works best with the wool from our Hog Island sheep, etc. We washed two full fleeces from our sheep, and worked on some of the mending that had piled up over the course of a year.

The August Stitch ‘n Time meeting focused on dyes – specifically, on the economics of commercial vs. natural dyes. Of course, as an organization that promotes sustainable agriculture, you’d think we’d be focusing solely on the “all natural dyes,” and leaving any commercially produced, chemically heavy dyes behind. However, when you’re looking at sustainability, you have to look at the whole process, to truly weigh whether something is beneficial or not.

Our harvest of Queen Anne's Lace (which made me ridiculously itchy)

Our harvest of Queen Anne’s Lace (which made me ridiculously itchy)

The natural dye segment of the workshop actually started the week before, with Polly, Casey and I trekking out to one of the pastures to cut and hang as much Queen Anne’s Lace as we could possibly find. We were out in that field for a while, sweat pouring down our faces, ticks climbing up our legs and, in my case, getting a fair bit of itchy from the flowers and grass. Then it was back to the barn, to tie and hang the flowers to dry, in preparation for the meeting. The flowers hung in the barn for a week and a half (smelling infinitely better when they were dry, than they had when we originally picked them), before being cut down and hauled to the Education Building.

Sylvia Demar, our fearless leader for this workshop, had set up her materials at least an hour before the

wool and silk, soaking in regular water

wool and silk, soaking in regular water

start of the club meeting, to make sure everything would be ready in time. We tied off our spun wool, and bundled up some of the washed but unprocessed wool in little zippered mesh bags, and tossed them in buckets of water. Before you do anything else with the dyes, you want to make sure that your fiber is thoroughly wet. And you’ll want to make sure that the yarn and fiber has enough room in the bucket to move freely.

Sylvia, prepping for the workshop

Sylvia, prepping for the workshop

Sylvia had a camp stove set up off to one side, with a pot of water and mordant brewing away. When dyeing your fiber, whether it be wool, cotton or silk, it’s important to add a mordant first. This will help set the color, as well as give a more true color with the dye. It’s certainly possible to dye some fibers without this step, but you won’t get as good a result. For this batch, Sylvia chose alum for her mordant. It’s generally the cheapest and most accessible of the main options, as well as being relatively safe to handle and dispose of (with some caveats, of course). Of course, you’re still going to want to take care when you’re setting up and disposing of the alum. Sylvia suggests contacting your local water treatment facility, and seeing what materials are safe to dispose of in a municipal water treatment setting. She also stresses NOT to pour it down the drains into a septic system.

It was a good thing that Sylvia got there early to set up and start things a boiling, as the fiber has to simmer in the mordant for

wool and silk, simmering in a pot of alum mordant

wool and silk, simmering in a pot of alum mordant

about 45 minutes before you can move forward with the dye process. While we waited for the mordant to set in, we set about preparing the Queen Anne’s Lace. We broke the long strands down into smaller pieces, each about six inches long, and set them – flower, stem and all – in a pot of water, to stew down. We added more and more flowers as the materials cooked down over the course of an hour or so.

Boiling down Queen Anne's Lace.

Boiling down Queen Anne’s Lace.

The general rule with most natural raw dye materials is that you’ll need to collect a pound of dye source materials for every pound of material or fiber you want to dye. I say “most” because there are a few natural dye materials out there which produce a nice color with a smaller amount of source material, but you really have to do your homework to determine what you’ll need for each of your choices. Sylvia was also sure to tell us that not every dye source can be broken down and achieved from just boiling it in water for a while. Some plants – like indigo, for instance – require another step in the process. Sometimes it’s fermenting the plant, sometimes it’s introducing another substance. Indigo, for instance, does not dissolve in water. Extracting indigo from any source requires the fermented plant to be mixed with a strong base – lye, baking soda, ammonia or urine.

Yes, that’s right. I said urine. If you go back through accounts of indigo’s history in the world, you’ll find plenty of mentions of urine vats used to extract the dye from natural sources. (Interesting non-urine sidenote: indigo does not require a mordant. Unlike some other dyes, it sticks to both protein (wool and silk) and cellulose (cotton) fibers – probably why you should wear gloves when dyeing with indigo, unless you want blue hands)

I could do a whole blog entry on indigo alone – going into the different plants that can be used, talking about the process of extraction and dye, talking about economics and the socio-political importance of it throughout history…and perhaps I will at a later time. There’s a lot of information out there on it, and it really is fascinating to see how something that is basically just fabric dyed blue has had an impact in and on multiple cultures the world over. We’ll just have to bookmark that topic and come back to it later.

Back to the dye workshop!

With the broken down Queen Anne’s Lace bubbling away on the burner (and smelling deliciously like carrot stew), and the fibers heating in the

Double, double toil and trouble; fire burn and dye pot bubble!

Double, double toil and trouble; fire burn and dye pot bubble!

mordant for at least 45 minutes, it was time to move on to the next step. We removed the carrot-scented concoction from the burner and poured the liquid into a metal basin, using a regular mesh strainer to keep the source materials from moving from the dye pot into the dye bath. A second straining to sift out the remaining small bits of source material, and we were ready for our first skeins of yarn! Into the pot it went (adding a not-so-lovely wet sheep smell to the carrot stew aroma), and we moved on to another type of dyes.

14774945217_774ffbc76a_kIn addition to the natural dye sources that Sylvia had brought – onion skins, cochineal, walnut shells, etc – she also brought a number of commercially available liquid and powder dyes. The first of these we tried is referred to as an acid dye. These dyes come in very fine powder form and are usually dissolved first in vinegar, before adding it to the water of a dye bath. They are available in a truly astounding variety of colors, though Sylvia has a recommendation when it comes to picking an acid dye color. She suggests going with the dyes that have very “unsexy” chemical names, like Red Dye #37 or Blue No. 476, rather than something more poetic sounding, like Vermillion or Chartreuse. The obvious reason for this is the unsexy name generally refers to a specific chemical makeup, and knowing what that makeup is increases the likelihood of getting the same color time and again, when you go to purchase your dyes. If, however, you go with Vermillion or Chartreuse or Baby-Poop Green (that last is, to my knowledge, not an actual dye name but you know the color if you’ve ever dealt with babies), there is no guarantee that the color will be the same from provider to provider, or even from dye lot to dye lot.

Cochineal - a natural dye that creates purple.

Cochineal – a natural dye that creates purple.

Hell, even a color name like chartreuse can be deceptive. While it’s generally described as being halfway between yellow and green, I have seen people advertise something as chartreuse when it is clearly neon green. There’s even a difference between chartreuse in “real life” dyes and chartreuse in web colors.

So, what’s in a name? Certainly not its exact chemical makeup (unless we’re talking about one of the unsexy color names). There are a million different variations on colors out there, and just as many different names for each of them, and the names aren’t even always that descriptive. Anyone who has ever spent an hour in front of the paint counter at Home Depot, trying to determine the difference between “Misty Surf” and “Cumberland Fog” can tell you that (something I spent way too long trying to do just last week…I never managed to figure out what the difference between the two was).

The lesson here is, of course, know what exactly you’re putting in to your dye bath, so you know what to expect.

The first acid dye we used was of the “flowery name” variety. The way we picked it was simple: Sylvia read out the names of a variety of colors,

Adding the aquamarine acid dye to the dye bath.

Adding the aquamarine acid dye to the dye bath.

and we all went “Ooooo!” when she said “aquamarine.” There was no indication, though, as to what the makers of that particular color meant by aquamarine. Perhaps they meant on a scale closer to teal. Perhaps closer to turquoise – though, I’ll pause right here and mention that “turquoise” is an inexact color definition as well. Some turquoise is more blue, others are more on the green end of the spectrum, and there’s even a variety of white turquoise. Just goes to show you, names aren’t all that reliable for color choice.

14722103088_ecee56877e_kAnyway, we all donned our face masks, rubber gloves, and protective eye gear and set about mixing the dye bath. First, we started with a little vinegar, to which we carefully added the extremely fine powder of the aquamarine acid dye. A quick stir with a chopstick, a little more vinegar, and then we submerged the jar in the larger bowl for the dye bath, swishing it to add the dye to the water. In went the wool, which cooked in the dye bath for a short time, while we moved on with the workshop.

Now, I’ve mentioned that you need to add a mordant to the fabric or material you’re dyeing first, in order to make sure the color adheres to the material, and that you get as true a color as possible. That being said…Sylvia showed us a way to dye wool that is faster, produces a rainbow of colors, is fairly cheap, and doesn’t require cooking your materials for ages.


Kool-Aid packets.

Yes, my friends, everything you need to dye wool is contained in a small paper packet of fruit-scented powder. Whereas, with other dyes, you need to add a mordant, the citric acid in the Kool-Aid mix provides the same thing, without having to heat it (although you can certainly do that, as well, if you like).

Kool-Aid dyes

Kool-Aid dyes

We each grabbed a clean mason jar, some wool, a bit of water, and the Kool-Aid flavor – er, color – of our choice, and got cracking. You can use vinegar to start mixing the powder for this dye bath, as well, but water alone works just fine. Plus, then you don’t have that vinegar smell afterwards. Put the water in the jar first, filling about halfway, and then add the powder. The water-to-powder ratio doesn’t actually matter when doing this. What is important is the dye-to-materials ratio. If you’re just dyeing a little bit of wool, you’re probably fine using one packet of Kool-Aid. If you’re dyeing more, than you’ll want to up your dye source amount. Also, if you want a more saturated, bold color, you’ll probably want to use more Kool-Aid.

Once you’ve mixed up your Kool-Aid, you’ll add your wool little by little, poking it down into the jar until its all submerged in the Kool-Aid. Let the jar sit for a while. You’ll know it’s ready when you can tilt the jar and see that the water is clear again – this means the wool has absorbed all of the color.

Kool-Aid DyeWhen you pull the wool out of the jar, you might notice the color is not as deep or saturated as it seemed when it was still sitting in the water – remember that the water also sort of acts as a magnifying glass, so the darker spots will seem bigger. If your wool seems too light, simply mix up some more Kool-Aid and re-dye until you are happy with the finished product. As soon as you are happy with the finished color, squeeze the wool (gently) to remove excess water, and spread it out on a clean drying cloth, bench or what-have-you to let them dry. You’ll want to make sure they can get some airflow, to help them dry, and so they’re not just sitting in whatever water might still drip off of them. I recommend making use of the sun if you can.

Some folks recommend going ahead and rinsing the dyed wool with some water and a mild detergent after you’re finished dyeing them, but we didn’t take that extra step. If you’ve used wool or any other protein-based fibers, you shouldn’t have to worry about any color transfer or fading – Kool-Aid dyes are remarkably colorfast…something that has caused a bit of concern among club members, when they’ve stopped to ponder what our insides might look like after drinking the stuff.

The prepared Queen Anne's Lace dye bath

The prepared Queen Anne’s Lace dye bath

The aquamarine dye set while we all made up our Kool-Aid wool jars, and the water was clear enough to pour out. When we spread the wool out on the ground, we were all a little dismayed to find that the finished color was less “aquamarine” and more a soft, muted robin’s egg blue. Still really pretty (and we all wanted something made out of it), but not what we were expecting. Further proof, if we needed any, that the flowery names don’t always describe the exact color you’ll end up with.

14722159027_9de6443fcc_kIn between acid dyes, we checked in on the Queen Anne’s Lace dye bath. The yellow was setting in quite nicely…though the smell of wet sheep was now even stronger.

14722069399_2a233e4d61_kI got to pick the next color of acid dye, and I went with a lovely, deep shade of purple. We mixed the powder carefully, added it to the water, and set the yarn to cooking. When we checked on it later, we were happy to see that the first batch came out the color we were expecting. The water, curiously, wasn’t completely clear, though. Sylvia informed us that this was normal with some of the acid dyes – what we were looking at was the exhaust, and it could be used to dye a little more yarn. Understandably, it would come out a lot lighter, as there wasn’t as much of the dye in the bath, but we would still get a lovely color. In the end, we finished with some lovely deep purple yarn and wool, and some lighter more coral-colored yarn and wool.

Spreading the HOT wool out to dry

Spreading the HOT wool out to dry

Sylvia also set up a dye bath inside, consisting of the easily obtainable commercial RIT dye. This is the kind of dye I grew up using from time to time. You can purchase it at the craft store – and even, sometimes, in the grocery store. It comes in a variety of colors, and can be found in both powder and liquid format. The powder form has a much longer shelf life so, if you decide you’re going to use it, go for that form.

This is where I learned an astounding (to me) thing. Now, remember how all our dye baths – the blue, the purple,

All these came from the same batch of acid dye - you can tell which was dyed in the exhaust

All these came from the same batch of acid dye – you can tell which was dyed in the exhaust

and the Kool-Aid – would eventually all come out clear when we had dyed enough materials? Every time I’ve ever used Rit dyes, I’ve pulled out the material to find it’s a bit lighter than I anticipated, and there was a WHOLE LOT of dye being dumped down the drain afterwards. It seems there’s a reason for this. Most chemical dyes are formulated for specific types of fibers. In the case of Kool-Aid dyes, you can dye protein-based fibers, but not cellulose-based fibers. There are some dyes now that are specially formulated to color synthetics. I’m sure there are a few out there which only work on things like cotton and linen.

Rit dyes are formulated to allow you to dye both wool and cotton…but each of those materials requires a different kind of chemical makeup to make sure the dye adheres to the fiber. The Rit dye contains dye source for two different types of fibers so, when you finish dyeing your wool, the dye bath still contains all of the stuff to dye cotton. Unless you’re planning to do another run-through with the opposite type of material, you are quite literally pouring your money down the drain. That’s just…I don’t even know what to say. Also, after you’re done with the dye bath, you still need to rinse your materials a bit with some soap, wringing out excess dye. Which means you could very well end up with a lighter color than you expected.

I don’t think I’ll be using that type of dye again, if I can help it.

At the end of the day, we wound up with a whole crap-ton of different colors for our wool. The yellow from the Queen Anne’s lace came out beautifully, and contrasted very nicely with the other colors we chose to use. Casey and I have since used the Kool-Aid dyeing technique at the farm’s big Food for Thought festival, so we should have enough of those colors to spin and make something neat to sell. I’m dreaming of a pair of fingerless gloves in purple, orange and green…and I don’t even like orange!

Making Tiny Fairies

mug and model

mug and model

As I mentioned before, I am part of the two-person team that makes the employee appreciation mug cozy each month. Last month, Casey (the other member of the afore-mentioned two-person team) received her cozy, with a felt rendition of our office cat, Barnstable, on the front. She was excited. He was less than pleased.

This month, the cozy and coveted parking spot went to Jessie. She is one of the folks on staff usually tapped to take pictures, and so most of the suggestions for her cozy label included “camera.” I felt that was too easy, though, so we asked her boyfriend for some ideas. He came back with about 20 different buzzwords, among them: nature, specifically mountains, trees, flowers, hiking, photography, fairies, animals, butterflies…the list went on for a while.

Of course, when I heard “fairies,” the wheels started working and I decided that’s what I fairy 1
would make. I had an idea for how I wanted to make it, but my plans were thwarted when I realized I had forgotten to bring toothpicks from home, and there weren’t any in any of the kitchen cabinets at work. Thankfully, Casey’s desk is full of random craft supplies. She pulled out a handful of pipe cleaners and asked if they would work. They were perfect. I cut a small section off for the legs/body, and another smaller section for the arms.

fairy 2I started by trimming the sparkly fuzz down as close to the wire as I could. If I hadn’t, the sparkly bits would have poked out between the wrapped embroidery floss, and it would have looked like really weird leg hair. I’m not giving a judgement on leg hair in general – just that it wasn’t going to work in this particular situation. With the pipe cleaners trimmed, I started wrapping the embroidery floss around what would form the legs, careful to catch the loose end of the floss under the wrapped threads. When I reached the bottom of each leg, I turned the very tip of the pipe cleaner up over the thread, and continued wrapping the thread back up the leg, covering the folded-up pipe cleaner tip. This will keep the thread from unraveling at the bottom of the leg, eliminates a potentially sharp point, and creates a little “foot” at the end of each leg.

I used a bit of glue to secure the thread at the top of each leg, and wrapped more thread to secure the arms to the body. Eachfairy 4 arm was was secured at the end, just like the “foot.” When I finished wrapping the arms, I returned the thread to the “torso,” where the arms meet the rest of the wire, and wound a little more thread here to secure them in place. I cut come more embroidery floss for hair, folded the length several times, and inserted it through the loop at the head of the fairy. I brought the gold floss up and wound it to create a neck and a head, securing the hair in place. Another little dab of glue secured the loose end of the thread on the back. 

fairy 3I went back over the loose end with some more thread of a contrasting color, to make the fairy’s dress. The embroidery floss hair was pulled to the back of the head and secured with another small dab of glue.

I cut wings out of black felt, and proceeded to make symmetrical cut-outs where I wanted color. I sewedfairy 5 small bits of felt to the back of the black “outlines”, so you can’t see where the colored felt meets. The wings then got stitched to the label, Jessie’s name was embroidered on, and I secured the body of the fairy to the label with a few strategically placed stitches. I even managed to make little french knot eyes for her.

I’m pleased with how well this one turned out, though I’m a little worried that I’m now expected to up my game even further.

finished label

Come Fly With Me

Shoe covers, dragon horns, and a few other flotsam and jetsam…that’s what’s on my list of things-still-yet-to-do, at the moment. Yesterdaydragon claws was quite productive. I finished sewing all the little dragon claws while at work, but didn’t get a chance to sew them onto the hands and feet for Toothless. Much of yesterday was spent working on the wings. Mom was kind enough to go out and pick up some extra felt for me, so I could get right to work on making things, instead of spending important time out at the store, running errands.

First, I set Oogie’s dice out in the yard, so I could paint them and leave them to dry. Tonight, they will get a coat of reddish-brown paint, and maybe a coat of clear acrylic, to protect them.

The wings came together pretty nicely, once I figured out what shape I wanted to do. I was originally going to make wings that looked a little more “folded up,” but I ended up going with a design that looks more like “pre-flight.” I figure they will work better in pictures. Plus, what good are wings, unless they actually spread out like wings? I was also originally thinking of making them all black, but Mom picked up some charcoal gray, in addition to plain black, and I decided to make use of the difference. It’s not completely accurate, but I figure the contrast will help in pictures, instead of everything reading black. Have to think about how things will present in film/digital format.

Outlining the wing

Outlining the wing

Wing construction began with laying out the felt, and determining my desired shape and size. I pinned some binding I had sitting around to the felt, to make the outline visible while cutting, as my usual chalk pencil doesn’t mark on felt as well. After I cut the gray, I laid the felt template on top of the black felt, and cut the same shape. I lined the bottom edges of the wings up, but cut the black felt a little larger than the gray along the top of the wing. This would provide the pocket for the wire support of the wing, later.

I pinned the gray to the black and took the pieces over to the sewing machine, stitching the inner part of the wing to the back along the top edge. As I sewed the bottom edge of the wings together, I left strategic spaces open, at the tips of wings, and stitched in some boning channels. When everything was stitched together, I inserted 1/2″ plastic cable ties in the channels. They mimic the bone structure beneath wing membrane nicely.

Inserting the wire

Inserting the wire

I straightened two coat hangers (of the last four in my current stash!) for use as the wing supports along the top. The top 1/2″ of black felt was folded over and stitched close to the wire support inside. I wish I had planned for two hangers per wing – the weight of the felt is more than I expected, and they are weighed down a little more than I’d like, but it will have to do. Each wing includes a little extra wire at the end, so the wings can be inserted into the harness.

Finished wings!

Finished wings!

I went ahead and straightened the remaining two wire hangers, in preparation of making the harness tonight, as well as pulling out the hard plastic tubing which will be used as part of the internal support for the wings. I’m still unsure whether I’m going to create a harness that will be worn on the inside, or on the outside of the suit. I’m leaning towards inside, so less of it is visible. Robert is planning to be over tonight, and I plan to make use of his engineering skills to rig the harness.

Today’s “whilst at work” task has been spikes. I knew I needed to add some spikes to the head for Toothless, and down the center of the back. I forgot about the ones on the tail, and a few for the arms and legs. Thankfully, I packed along enough felt to make a couple of strands of spikes, that I can later stuff and stitch to the costume. I also finished the second boot cover for Oogie Boogie (the other one is on my sewing table at home).

Apart from constructing the wing harness, the other important task tonight is finishing the head for Toothless. The poor dragon is still in need of a pair of eyes!

All Work and No Play

painting the scalesThis week and weekend have been so busy! And not just with sewing and furiously trying to complete everything in time for Atlanta. As I mentioned before, I had been working on Toothless over at Robert’s house most of last week – meaning I’ve seen little of my own house (and my cat) for the past few days. I did, however, manage to get a number of things on my list knocked out. So, here’s an update:

The head for Toothless is almost finished. It took about two and a half days of work, but I finally finished painting all the daggone scales on the head. I started on the scales that ran down the center front on the same day I finished sewing all of the seams, but I hadn’t yet posted pictures of it. I wanted to make sure they still looked acceptable when all the paint dried. Upon my return to the workspace the next day, I was pleased that they stood out just enough from the black felt of the rest of the head.

the splotches, after being attacked by a wooden stick

the splotches, after being attacked by a wooden stick

Originally, I was going through the paint job, trying to paint each individual scale with the miniscule tip on the bottle of fabric paint. Keep in mind, of course, that each scale is a mix of two types of paint: slick and metallic black. This was obviously going to take way too long, so I came up with a much simpler way of covering a large amount of dragon head at a time. I took the bottle of slick black and just started making random splotches and dots in the general area where I wanted a scale. Then I went through with the bottle of metallic black, and added a little squiggle or dot of it to each “scale.” Then, I took my handy dandy paint-spreading stick (which was just a really short wooden tongue depressor-like stick), and smoothed out the splotches into something more closely resembling a dragon scale. This method really cut down on the time it would have taken me to paint the scales, and it was a lot easier to mix the two types of paint and get even coverage.

Finished paint job!

Finished paint job!

The rest of the painting took two additional days, as I had to paint all of the “top” scales and let them dry overnight before I could go back, flip the head upside down, and complete the “bottom” half of the head. I only managed to glue my hair together with fabric paint (by inadvertently leaning against some of the scales while painting) on the first night, and didn’t get any paint on my clothes (though Robert’s table might have seen a few drops here and there), so I consider the paint job a win!

The head still needs eyes and some foam inserts inside to make it fit a little more snugly to my head, but it is, for the large part, done. I had it safely stowed in my trunk on Sunday, and pulled it out to show one of the kids after church. As I pulled it out, another car with some more of the youth population passed by, and everyone easily recognized it as Toothless. Again, another win! Also, I feel like I get bonus points for being the cool priesthood member who makes giant costume heads of cartoon characters.

Sunday afternoon was spent working on the body of Toothless. I had availed myself of the giant empty floor space at Robert’s house earlier that weekend, when it came time to cut the patterns out. The pieces went together swiftly when I was back in the sewing corner in my house, but, upon trying on the suit, it soon became apparent that there was a bit of a problem…

The sleeves were HUGE! It was really quite ridiculous. I used that pattern for the basis of both Kowl and my Popple costume, and I don’t remember the sleeves coming out that enormous. I might have thought it was because of the fabric I was using, but Kowl was also made out of felt, and the arms just weren’t that big. Or at least, I don’t remember them being quite as large. suit pieces

I hopped upstairs in the costume (turned inside out, for ease of adjusting seams, of course), and enlisted the help of my Mom. This meant standing in the living room, holding my arms up and out for what felt like eternity – but was, in reality, probably only 20 minutes – as she pinned and adjusted and generally tried to make the arms look less silly and more dragonesque. Eventually, we wound up with something more closely resembling the shape of Toothless’ arms, and I skipped back downstairs, where I then had to deal with the unique costuming challenge of getting out of a zippered costume where the zipper is on the inside (it was inside-out, remember?), and there are a bunch of pins along the arms. Miraculously, I managed to not gouge a million holes in my arm, and eventually wiggled out of the suit. Alterations were made, things were turned right side out, and I moved on to the next challenge.

The tail.

underside of the tail fin

underside of the tail fin

The tail actually wasn’t as difficult as I was anticipating. I had set aside some scraps that were plenty long enough to create the tail, back when I cut out the jumpsuit pattern, and just sort of eyeballed the right shape and length. The thing that I figured would be the trickiest was the tail fin. I decided I was just going to make the original, scarred tail, and wouldn’t worry about also creating the tail extension that Hiccup creates. That can come later, if I decide it’s needed. I wanted the tail fin to stand out a little more from the rest of the tail, so I didn’t want to use more of the same black felt. I remembered seeing some felt back in a section of my stash, left over from an original Halloween costume I had made years earlier. I had later used some of the same material on the handle of my homemade lightsaber, and I thought “Might as well continue the trend.”

Of course, when I pulled the fabric out, I found that it had become a very popular place for mice. They had chewed a number of holes in it.

finished tail

finished tail

Because of the way it was folded, these holes were pretty evenly spaced through the whole scrap, and I was worried there wasn’t enough unmarred fabric to make the fin. After it was cleaned, and I took a better look at it, I was able to figure out a cutting pattern that would give me two pieces for the tail. I sewed them together, and stitched in boning channels, which would look like the bones of a bat/dragon wing. I inserted two pieces of thin cable tie plastic in each channel (one in each was too flimsy), and made little channel “anchors” on the bottom strip of the tail. I then inserted the fin into the opening I had left in the side of the tail, and stitched everything together and closed. I stuffed the tail with fiberfill, and attached it to the back of the jumpsuit. I think I’m going to add some waist tape to the inside of the suit and anchor it to the back of the tail, so that the weight of the tail won’t make it pull out and away from the back of the suit.

I’ve already started making the little dragon claws for the hands and feet. I started them in church on Sunday, and have brought them to work with me today, in case I find myself with some free time on my hands. Tonight, I’ll finish closing up the ends of the front “paws,” and work on finishing the feet for Toothless.

Before (left) and after (right)

Before (left) and after (right)

I’m also going to be spray-painting the dice for Oogie Boogie. I wasn’t originally going to bother with the dice, but I found myself with some extra time on Saturday night, while I waited for the paint on the dragon head to dry, and I started carving out the designs on some foam dice I had purchased from the Dollar Store. The dice turned out to be the perfect size for what I needed, and the carving has been coming along quite nicely, for not having the best idea of what I was doing.

Feeling the Fear

side view of feltThe final two weeks before DragonCon are well underway. There’s only one more weekend to go before the final week of pre-DragonCon craziness. Ideally, I would have had a completely clear weekend to finish all the work that has yet to be done on a particular dragon. That, sadly, will not be the case. A good chunk of Saturday will be interrupted by a jam session for a program at work (I’ve been tapped to sing for our Halloween-themed program, Twilight Tales, this year), and Sunday morning includes churchly duties. So, to make up for losing work time this weekend, I’ve decided to haunt the workspace at Robert’s house for a few days this week. I had been carting the head back and forth between Robert’s house and mine these past few weeks, working on it in both places. Of course, this is not ideal, as I then have to spend time setting the workspace back up again before I can actually get anything done. So…instead of fighting with the darn thing twice a day, I decided to leave everything at Robert’s, and focus on other things when I’m at my house.

back view of seams in feltThe head is even closer to being finished now. All of the felt “skin” has been hot-glued and sewn to the head, and I’ve started the long, tedious process of creating the scales on the head with three types of fabric paint. Covering the head with felt took a lot longer than I expected, even with having prior experience and a good idea of how long the work would take. The main delay in the process was the daggone horns that I had to deal with. With other heads, I was dealing with a fairly straightforward head shape. Even Kowl, with his distinctive eye ridges and tricky beak, was fairly simple by comparison. Toothless has six horns of various sizes, requiring a lot of shaping and contouring of the felt. There are far more seams on the head than I would like, but thus is the problem of cutting and sewing curves into the felt.

sewing the seamOne of the things I recommend doing, after you’ve finished sewing pieces together on your own costume head (should you feel the urge to put yourself through this unique level of hell), is “combing” over the seams with your fingernail. This helps raise some of the fibers of the felt, and serves the purpose of blending – as much as possible – the two edges of the seam. Thankfully, a number of the seams can easily be covered with painted scales.

The eyes of Toothless are my main goal tonight. I’ve been struggling to figure out what material to use to create them. I do not have the ability to do resin casting for them at this time (though that’s something I’d like to try in the future), and I don’t think I’d be able to see through those spots in the first place. The current plan is to cut the eyes out of the domed tops of a 2-liter soda bottle. I’ve got paint to create the iris, and I plan on covering the pupil with some black mesh. That way, it will look black but still, with luck, allow me to see out of the eyes.

Oogie Boogie is all but done. I was finally able to work on the back closure last night, and it’s looking pretty good. I need to add a little more velcro on the back, and complete the shoe covers. I would have had the shoe covers done last night, but I realized that the only extra pair of water shoes I have are bright pink, which will easily show through the natural-colored muslin. So, I’m on the lookout for a nice pair of Water Doggers in white or cream, and then Oogie will be done. I might go back and add a little flap to the hands, so I can pull my hands out of the costume without taking off the ENTIRE THING, but that is not as pressing as finishing a certain dragon costume.

I’ve still got to figure out what other costumes I’m bringing along, as well. I’m certainly not making anything else new for this year – two new costumes will be enough for me, thank you very much. I do, however, need to decide which of my other stock of costumes I should bring with me. I know I’ll be bringing my Kaylee jumpsuit. It wouldn’t be Dragon*Con without it. I think I might also dig out my God (from Dogma) costume. It needs to be brought in a little bit in the top, but that isn’t a big ordeal.

I’m certainly on the more reserved end of the spectrum this year, in terms of how many costumes I will be bringing. I believe both Maggie and Heather are tied at eight. I don’t think I’ve ever brought that many costumes for a convention. Although we’ve got a host hotel for the second time in our history with this con, I don’t think I’ll be utilizing the location for costume changes. I think my great joy is going to be the ability to take a nap from time to time. A nap in an actual bed, and not just a corner of floorspace in the bottom of the Marriott.

I think the other reason I’m keeping the costume line-up simple this year is because of my “schedule.” I’m on tap for three different panels this year, and I want to be able to maneuver the halls and get between buildings fairly easily…and probably wouldn’t look as professional sitting in front of an audience, discussing folklore and mythology tropes in fantasy while dressed as a giant panda. If you are so inclined, I invite you to check out the following panels:

Saturday, August 31

5:30pm – Folklore in Fantasy (Fantasy Lit track)

8:30pm – Non-dystopian Science Fiction (SciFi Lit track)

Sunday, September 1

5:30pm – Beyond Grimm and Campbell: Folklore, fairy tales and mythology in Urban Fantasy (Urban Fantasy track)

Getting Plastered

I don’t drink, so this doesn’t mean what you might think.

Sunday, Robert and I went over to Maggie’s house to help with a slightly-more-involved costuming task that I’ve mentioned before, but haven’t completely gone into here. Namely, face casting. Thinking about casting your face can seem a bit daunting at first, if you’ve never tried it before – I’m sure some of you folks out in costuming and make-up land have seen behind-the-scenes video of models and actors covered with a thick layer of casting agent, with straws shoved up the nose to make sure they can still breathe.

The small white pieces next to the Vaseline are wonderflex - not for use in this process. Neither is the nail polish remover.

The small white pieces next to the Vaseline are wonderflex – not for use in this process. Neither is the nail polish remover.

If that’s what you think about when you ponder doing a face cast, it’s no wonder you might be feeling a little panicky. You don’t have to cover your whole head in the scary type of plaster that the big boys use in Hollywood. You can do a much simpler, much quicker cast using cheaper materials available in your local craft store. The best material we’ve found for quick casts is Rigid Wrap. It’s a pretty ingenious little product. It’s basically gauze that’s covered in plaster dust. When you get it wet, you can shape it around objects. When it dries, it forms a pretty good mold. I’ve found it at Michael’s, JoAnn’s Fabrics and Crafts, Hobby Lobby, and A.C. Moore. A quick search online has turned up online markets such as Target and Kmart and Etsy. The link I’ve posted here is to the entry for Quill.com (this is where I order office supplies for work. Occasionally they’ve got deals for free cookies. Just saying).

By now, I’m an old hand at this method. My first casting was done way back in my undergrad days, when I took a puppetry class for one of my electives. (I was, by the way, the only history major taking that class). All four of us taking the class had to sit for a short casting session. Since I was the last to go, and class had long since ended, I actually got to wait by myself in the empty black box theatre while the plaster dried. (Then I had to quickly scrub as much plaster from my face and hair as possible, in order to make it across the street to start my first day of work at the movie theater, but that’s neither here nor there) Thus began my experience with plaster gauze. Since then, Maggie and I have done several casts – for Blink Angel masks, for silly ninja half-masks, for face casts intended to build make-up sculpts off of. This Sunday, however, marked our first attempt at a full head cast. For that purpose, and in an effort to make this process a little less scary for those who haven’t yet attempted it, I decided to do a longer entry here, to detail the whole process.

Step 1. Preparation of materials and space. It’s good to do this in a place where any mess that you make (and rest assured, you will make a mess) won’t do any damage and can be easily cleaned up. Linoleum or tile floors are best. Wood a little harder. Outdoors would be a bit more ideal. Try to stay away from carpet. Of course, we did our casting on carpet. This is where I put in my disclaimer, to keep parents from yelling at me, after some kid comes across this and says “But Meg did this on carpet!” If you absolutely can not find a tiled/linoleum/concrete floor to do this on – or, if you’re like us and want to be able to hear the television in the living room while you’re working – make sure you do a little advance prep for the floor, as well. Lay down some garbage bags or a lined dropcloth, to catch any plastery drips that will inevitably fall.

You’ll want to cut the plaster gauze into smaller pieces. I recommend having a variety of lengths and shapes. Small squares, longer strips, and the all-important triangle 2 preppingshapes. These are really good to use around the nose, and areas around the eyes. Get a nice assortment of shapes and sizes, preferably keeping them separate, so you don’t have to go hunting through a pile with wet hands, trying to find what you need. Also, make sure you have something underneath the pieces – they will shed plaster dust as well, and easier to just pick up a big swath of newspaper than try to scrub all the plaster dust off your coffee table.

You’ll want a nice big bowl of water, of course, to dip the plaster gauze in. That is, after all, how one activates it. One of the things I recommend doing is filling the bowl with water on the warmer end of the spectrum. Not boiling hot, mind you. But more than just room temp. Believe me, both the person doing the dipping and smoothing and the person whose face is being cast will appreciate this.

While we’re at it, make sure the ROOM is a nice temperature. I would say to put it more towards the warm side. You might feel a little warm while getting everything ready, but the person having their face cast is going to get a bit chilly as water drips on them and the plaster strips dry. Making sure they’re comfortable from the start will help alleviate any stress they might have later, as they become further encased in a mummy-like apparatus.

Step 2 – Preparation of person to be cast. The important thing here, as you start, is to determine what, exactly is going to be cast. As I’ve mentioned, our previous sessions have all been half-casts, done of an individual’s face and forehead. The purpose for this session , though was to wind up with something that Maggie can use to mold her Valkyrie helmet, so we needed to do a full head cast. This means more prep for the person being cast. The first thing you want to do is get something to cover your hair. If your model happens to be bald, this is less of a problem, but most folks you’ll need to do this on probably will. We’ve covered hair with a variety of things in the past – bandannas, tights, wig caps – but I think the best thing to use is something non-porous. In other words, something plasticky. I would suggest a shower cap, swim cap, or a generous bald cap. Ideally, you want something that will keep your hair as close to your head as possible, so you don’t get weird air bubbles on the top of your head, and so you can get a good idea of the shape of the individual’s skull. You also want something that will cover as much hair as possible. We’ll get into that in a moment.

Once you’ve affixed your swim or bald cap to your head, and tucked in as many errant strands of hair as possible, it’s time to break out the Vaseline! Petroleum jelly should actually be a standard element of your make-up/prop-building tool box. It’s got a number of uses – it creates a nice “dewy” look in makeup, for one – and it’s cheaper than some of the alternative products that people try to get you to shell out the money for.

So, why are we using petroleum jelly in this particular instance? Simple…you don’t want to be stuck inside your face cast forever, do you? The jelly is going to create a nice barrier between your skin (and any exposed hair) and the plaster gauze, making removal of the dried cast MUCH easier and less painful in the end. We’ve forgotten this step before (poor Casey can attest to that), and I don’t recommend it. You’re going to want to put a thin coat on the swim cap or bald cap that you’ve put on your head, as well as around your ears, on your eyebrows, on the bits of hair that will inevitably poke out from under the cap you use, and generally all over your face. Even if you’re not a man with a big bushy beard, you’re going to have some peach fuzz on your face – yes, even you, ladies. Trust me, you’ll realize it’s there when it comes time to pull the cast off, if you don’t jelly up your face. Also, remember to coat your eyelashes! Some hairs will still be pulled out, regardless of putting on the Vaseline, but remembering to close your eyes and wipe a bit of jelly across the edge will keep you from losing your eyelashes to this process.

The person being cast should put a drape on before you start casting. This will keep some of the drips from going all the way down the clothes, and will make the whole process a little more tolerable and easier to clean up.

3 applyingStep 3 – Casting the back of the head.
You are going to actually cast the entire head in two pieces. You could, in theory, do it all in one, but then you’re left with the question of how on earth you’re going to get OUT of the darn thing. So, take it from me, and take the extra time to do two pieces. Your friend will thank you. I started working from the top down, wetting strips and smoothing them on the bald cap. I took the casting for the back of the head up to just past Maggie’s ears. I knew this would make taking the back cast off a tad little bit tricky, but I figured it was going to be the better alternative of the two. Since we didn’t need the full neck for what Maggie wants to do (she can always build up a false “neck” with plaster later),

Bringing the back up to the ears

Bringing the back up to the ears

I took the plaster cast down to the bottom of her bald cap, just under where it covered the bottom of her bun. Once you’ve covered what you deem to be the back half, you’ll have to pause for a bit and let the plaster dry some. You can’t move on to the front casting until the edges of the back are dry, so just hang out for about 20 minutes. The whole thing will need to cure overnight, but the edges will be dry enough to work with much sooner.

You can see the line I drew (You shall not pass!) before applying the jelly

You can see the line I drew (You shall not pass!) before applying the jelly

Step 4 – Prepping the seam. Before you start casting the face, you’ll need to determine how far you are going to overlap the edges. I suggest taking a marker or pencil and marking the line directly on the back half of the cast. I made an overlap of just under an inch. After you’ve marked the cast, you’re going to break out the petroleum jelly again and thoroughly coat the edge of the cast. This is done so that the two pieces of the cast will actually come apart after the front is dried. Again, you don’t want to get stuck inside it!

Step 5 – Casting the face. I suggest starting around the edge of the face, where it will overlap with the back half of the cast, and then slowly move out to cover the rest of the face. I generally “outline” the edge of the face, covering the forehead, cheeks and chin first, then work in and block off the rest of the face. I’ve found that most people will say that they are not claustrophobic (and probably really believe that), 9 over the nosebut will still have problems when it comes to casting the face. It has less to do with feeling closed in, and more to do with the very understandable fear of being suffocated. This is why it helps to know the person sealing you into your cast, and to be sure that they harbor no homicidal thoughts towards you. Talking to the subject while you lay the plaster often helps, but make sure you don’t say too many funny things, as laughing and smiling will affect the casting process. I usually start to cover the bridge of the nose first, work around

Covering the eyes

Covering the eyes

(but not over) the eyes, and then cover the mouth. I leave the eyes and nose for last. You don’t have to insert straws, as long as you make sure not to cover the nostrils with the plaster. Just build around it, leaving them open.

Make sure that you do a fairly even, thick coat of plaster gauze when you do the front and the back of the head. You and the model should be able to drum your fingers along the cast with your fingertips, and feel where more strips need to be applied. You don’t want a really springy feeling. It can have a

Checking the thickness

Checking the thickness

little bit of give – and will until it’s completely dry – but you want it to be as sturdy as possible. Once you’ve completely covered the face, it’s time again to let it dry. Again, you can usually pop the cast off after about 20 minutes. The model will be able to start pulling their face away from the inside as it dries (it’s a weird feeling).

Step 6 – Covering the holes. If you’re like me and have left the nostrils free so your model can breathe, you’ll want to take a strip or two of gauze and cover the holes before you cure the head. This is important if you intend to pour plaster or wax into the cast later, to create a positive mold of the person’s face. I suggest holding the pieces up to the light and looking for thinner places that might need a little reinforcement. You shouldn’t see light shining through any part of the cast.

I'm going to want to patch the open nostrils before filling with plaster

I’m going to want to patch the open nostrils before filling with plaster

The inside of the head cast. You can see the ripples from the bald cap.

The inside of the head cast. You can see the ripples from the bald cap.

Step 7 – Drying. Remember, the pieces need to cure overnight. You aren’t going to want to lay them flat on the table, as the edges will flatten out as the plaster dries, and you won’t have the overlapping seal you intended to. If you’ve got a wig stand, I suggest wrapping the pieces around it, holding the halves together with some loosely tied twine. Or, you can drape it over something that will support the nose and some of the more important areas of the face (cheeks, chin, etc).

And voila! You’ve got a negative mold of someone’s face! You can either piece these together and use them as a head to make helmets on (which will provide about 1/16″ of room between your head and whatever you plan to make, Or you can temporarily seal the pieces together with duct tape or more gauze (remembering to re-coat the seam with Vaseline, if you do the latter), and pour plaster inside to make a positive cast of the model’s head. Just remember that you’ll want to coat the inside walls of the cast with jelly or cooking spray, to form a barrier between the cast and the plaster you’re using. Always use a release agent!

As I finish this up, I just want to do an extra special shout-out to Maggie, who was worried about being fully encased in plaster for this project and who did remarkably well (especially considering the fact that we were eating over on the couch while the plaster dried on her head) and Robert, who took wonderful shots of the whole process. There were actually a lot more, but I could only fit so many on here!