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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Can't Catch Me . . .

This advent calendar pocket is a gingerbread man, an image I've been using a lot lately -- I made gingerbread men cookies, I put up a mini collection of felt and paper gingerbread men made by me, the beadboys, and others, and so on. For this pocket I was going to do a standard man with buttons and small rickrack, but then I saw this -- 609East's "Gingies in a row," felt gingerbread men with beautifully intricate embroidery. So I decided to do something similar:

I used the whipped rose stitch, feather stitch, double cross stitch, detached chain stitch, back stitch, blanket stitch, and french knots. Not as elegant as 609East's, but still pretty.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Sometimes a Craft Just Isn't Worth it

To go with my red and white decor this year I thought I could whip up a bunch of simple ornaments from red and white ribbons, using Martha Stewart patterns. The first one, in the Dec. 2009 issue of Martha Stewart Living, was simple enough:
I just tied six overhand knots in the ribbon, facing the same direction, and they naturally formed a six-sided shape. Because the knots are necessarily loose (to keep the ribbon flat) they had a tendency to slide around so I held the first one in place with a safety pin. Once the six knots were formed I tucked the ends of the ribbons in the the knots at each opposite end, and glued the ends in place. I may use a little more glue; the knots seem flimsy, though I suppose there is no way they can actually come undone. I made a bunch for Beadboy1's teachers and therapists and paras (oh my!).

The second pattern, the "medallion ribbon," was from an older magazine -- 2008's Martha Stewart Holiday. This was not so easy. For one, they don't tell you what size ribbon to use, just that the length was approximately one yard and to make accordion folds every inch, then sew a thread "through the layers near the ribbon's cut ends, about 1/4 inch from the edge." Not particularly clear -- I'm pretty sure by "edge" they mean the long edge, not the cut ends, but it could have been worded better. And why specify 1/4 inch there, but use the imprecise "near" for the other measurement? After trying this with 1 inch ribbon and getting a crumpled mess, and examining the picture more closely, I realized I needed to use ribbon that was at least 2 inches wide.

So back to the craft store I went. With a limited selection, I settled for a white crinkly ribbon and a red fine grosgrain ribbon, both with wired edges, but it would be easy enough to remove the wires.

I tried first with the white ribbon, removing the wire (really, fishing line). But the ribbon was very soft and stretchy, and trying to get 36 accordion folds was a disaster. I persevered and ran the thread "near" the ends and 1/4 inch from an edge, and ended up with this:
This is not at all what it is supposed to look like, the folds are completely dissipated. But it is pretty, in a floral, sea-anemone kind of way. I could have gotten the exact same effect by just using a running stitch along one edge and gathering it together.

So then I tried with the heartier red ribbon, and kept the wire to help hold its shape -- a good call on my part, because it helped maintain the folds. I tied the ribbon, and then stared at it. The directions said to fan and flatten the folds, but I couldn't really see how to do that and keep all the folds in the same direction. I began fiddling and squashing, and eventually got this:
(The color is off). This is in fact how the finished product is supposed to look (their center is a bit neater) but I could not for the life of me tell you how I actually achieved this.

The last ribbon ornament was made from three lengths of ribbon coiled into figure eights, and layered to create a six "pointed" star. But the curve of the ribbon meant the top of the ornament would show the back of the ribbon, and even though I used 5/8 inch ribbon like they suggested, I can't actually fit all three on top of each other without squishing the loops.
I think I will just use two figure eights, to make a cross, and flip them over so you can see the stripes. I'll add a red button to the center to hide the ends and glue.

What a disappointment.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

More Advent Squares

I finished another three squares for the Advent Calendar.

Dec. 1st:
Just pieces of wool felt to create an advent wreath. I'm quite pleased with the "greenery" -- to get the dimensional look, I layered leaf shapes, attaching them with one long stitch at the base.

Dec. 12:
The Three Kings. They don't show up until Epiphany, so I put them on the 12th to symbolize their arrival 12 days after Christ was born. Unfortunately, the bases of the crowns (different bits of fabric) seem to have shifted when I was ironing them on using fusible web. I embroidered them with different metallic threads and added purple faceted beads.

Dec. 14:
A Christmas tree, on my birthday because when I was growing up we usually put up our tree around then. More wool felt, with beads and tinsel thread I stole from a Christmas cross stitch kit I have not done yet.

This is fun.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Christmas Decorating

This year for Christmas I decided to use red and white to decorate in the house. Unfortunately, because of the beadboys, I can't really have too much up; the safest spot for anything nice is over the mantle. Usually I have a quilt I made there, but this time I wanted to put up something matching my "theme." I did not have time to make a Christmas quilt (though I intend to, someday), so instead I put up a big piece of burlap. Onto this I pinned all the red and white ornaments I had (killing two birds with one stone -- we are going to have a tree this year, but we are not sure we can keep the beadboys from pulling off all the ornaments; this way I can display some of them out of reach). I like the effect quite a bit:
There are some gaps I have to fill in, but that will just be an excuse to make more ornaments.

Despite my red and white theme, I also had to put up the green toy/junk/bead/button wreath (I don't know what to call it) I made. I did all the hard work last year, sewing every green doohickey I could find onto a piece of fabric reinforced with interfacing, and only had to attach it to its base this year.
I had a lot of fun rooting through the kids' toys for odds and ends and broken bits, and through my own stash of beads, charms, buttons, and trim. The idea came from one of the Quilting Arts holiday issues.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Long-Planned Advent Calendar -- Square 1

For a few years now I've wanted to make an Advent Calendar for the Beadboys, with little pockets to hold treats and trinkets. Two years ago I even cut out 24 little white wool felt squares to serve as the pockets. The plan was to embellish each one with a different design -- Santa Claus for the 6th (St. Nicholas's day), a Christmas tree on the 14th (my birthday, and around the time we used to set up the tree), etc -- then sew them onto a panel (originally a dark red, but I may change my mind). This year I vowed to finally start some of the squares. So behold, the first one:
This square is for the 24th, so it has the Star of Bethlehem. I used fusible web to attach a star cut from dupioni silk (an old pillow) and couched heavy gold braid around it. I then surrounded it with two lines of back stitch in gold blending filament. For the beaded center I sewed on a tiny beaded star I made years ago and edged it with two rows of seed beads. Sparkly! One down, 23 to go!

I really should have come up with this on my own

But instead I had to get the idea from Quilts and More magazine. Although I had bought wool felt beads quite a while ago, I needed to get more because certain members of this household thought they were cat toys. I had plenty of beads, though, to match the colors, and beading them did not take very long. For interest, I used more patterns than the three in the magazine article. Then I made the mistake of leaving them out while I went about my day, and that night I spent a fair amount of time hunting the beaded beads down because of the aforementioned household members (one bead was two floors down, in a blanket). I strung them immediately after that, having learned my lesson.

Mr. Beadgirl calls it the Muppet necklace, because he is convinced one of these days the center turquoise bead is going to start talking.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Maybe I should sue . . .

From a Grady Hendrix article for

At least Anne Rice's vampires were still primarily bloodsuckers. The first sign that something was awry came with the introduction of Angel in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A prime example of the brooding, crying-on-the-inside, leather-jacketed emo boy of the '90s (see also: Dylan McKay, Beverly Hills, 90210; James Hurley, Twin Peaks), Angel was a vampire who had a soul. He fell in love with Buffy, teared up a lot, and believed in random acts of kindness. Angel, in short, sucked. Or, rather, he didn't suck, which was the problem. When he did suck, he took limited amounts of blood from consenting human women, or sucked blood against his will, or sucked rat blood.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

G.M. Malliet

Part of the fun of a trip to the library is browsing the new books for ones I would otherwise miss. A few weeks ago I discovered a new mystery series by G.M. Malliet, centered around British DCI St. Just and containing various homages to and parodies of mystery writers and sub-genres. What makes these books stand out from other "themed" mystery series is Malliet's wittiness and writing skills.

An example, from Death and the Lit Chick (which takes place at a mystery writers' convention):
. . . St. Just strode briskly past, gathering odd scraps of conversation as he went.
"You have to have a corpse by page fifty-seven. Page seventy at the absolute outside."
"Says who?"
"Why, so says everyone. It's the industry standard."
This, of course, occurs on page 70. The first body does not show up until page 96 (and page 112 in Death of a Cozy Writer).

Malliet also uses that time-worn staple of mysteries, where something a character says triggers the memory of something significant in the investigator, but she can't quite put her finger on it, not until the very end just in time for the final confrontation. In other books such an event sends me flipping through previous chapters to see if I can find the connection myself. In Lit Chick and Cozy Writer, however, Malliet has St. Just figure it out two pages later, and while it is not irrelevant to the investigation, it is not crucial to the case either. Both times had me laughing out loud.
I look forward to the next installment.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

8 years . . .

A couple of months ago, when Mr. Beadgirl finally got his new office, he asked me to make him a wall quilt for it. For about a week I racked my brains, trying to come up with a good design, but I wasn't really inspired by anything. Then I walked into the City Quilter and saw, prominently displayed, beer fabric, and inspiration struck.

I started with a 12 inch square of just the beer fabric, and surrounded it with a 1.5 inch border of gold dupioni silk (from a pillowcase I had made years before which had fallen apart). On the border I sewed beer bottle caps, as many and as varied as I was able to collect from Mr. Beadgirl's beers. For the next border I wanted fabric that said, over and over, "No TV and no beer make [Mr. Beadgirl] go crazy," a modification of a Homer Simpson line which is itself a parody of a line from the Shining. To do that, I ironed plain white fabric onto the shiny side of freezer paper, and cut out 8.5 by 11 sheets and fed them into the printer, printed out pages filled with the line, and removed the backing. That wasn't interesting enough, however, so I then stained the fabric with coffee (I tried to get coffee rings, but the fabric was too absorbent), then layered on torn up bits of documents from Mr. Beadgirl's work (including, as he was amused to notice, the Securities Act of 1933) which I attached with 3 coats of Modge Podge. I wanted to get the idea of papers layered on top of his "state of mind" as they are layered on his desk, but between the lack of time and the need to make sure no confidential client information made it into the quilt I had to settle for torn scraps. I backed the quilt with heavy black dupioni and then quilted the center square (which was a royal pain -- the silk backing didn't move well). Because of the Modge Podge and the uncooperative backing I gave up on quilting the outer border, and simply tied it with a few scattered crystal beads. With a few late nights I was able to finish it in time for our anniversary last week.

Mr. Beadgirl loves it.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Pretend it's still Halloween . . .

So perhaps you have heard of vampires? And how there is a book or two out there about them? Even though I've always liked vampires (from a mythological standpoint), I've avoided almost entirely the current crop of books and movies about them, because I really don't like how creators have taken scary monsters that represent true evil and turned them into sooper-speshul, hawt, emo whiners (or invincible, kewl, I-wish-I-could-be-one-that'll-show-my-meanie-classmates superior beings -- White Wolf, I'm looking at you).

I guess we could blame Anne Rice, but Interview with a Vampire and The Vampire Lestat were actually quite good, albeit completely different in tone from each other. Unfortunately, Rice got too caught up in the mythology and turned it into a incomprehensible mess, while also focusing too much on the sexiness and decadence of being a vampire and not the tragic or disturbing consequences. When you have the vampire matriarch explain over and over why her tribe's ritual cannibalization was really ok and not at all icky, and how it was totally not her fault she became a vampire, it was evil patriarchal men (the bastards), well, in my opinion you've totally lost sight of what it means to be a vampire.

But that's what a lot of these series do. They take the sensual appeal that Bela Lugosi brought to Dracula, and transform vampire stories into melodramatic romances. Of course, that means having vampire heroes who just hate having to leech off innocent humans, and so they drink animal blood or steal from blood banks or only victimize criminals, all the while whining about how tortured they are. Or writers get caught up in the special strengths of vampires, and end up making them ridiculously powerful and superior to humans, practically Mary Sues and Marty Stus. That's one of the main reasons I could never get past the first couple of chapters of an Anita Blake story, not even as a melodramatic teenager. And if Wikipedia is to be believed, Anita Blake has garnered a laughable amount of specialness and super powers by now.

Which isn't to say all pop culture vampires are bad. I've heard the Sookie Stackhouse series is lots of fun, and I can't say enough good things about Kostova's Historian -- it was fascinating and scary, and a great update of and homage to the original Dracula. And of course I was a big fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That show did a fabulous job portraying monsters and monster-fighting as a dead-on metaphor for adolescence. And Angel was was pretty good character, even if he was arguably the proto-emo vampire boyfriend. My favorite part, however, was when Spike went out and got himself a soul (uh . . . spoiler!). I was fascinated by the fact that Angel, the first "good" vampire, had his soul thrust upon him as a punishment, whereas Spike, who had been trying to be good for a while, acquired a soul to make himself a being worthy of love. I wanted an exploration of what it means to be good, and what role free will has, but unfortunately it was not that kind of show.

There are a lot of fascinating ideas that could be explored with vampires, and the nature of good and evil, agency and free will is just the beginning. Watching Coppola's version of Dracula over the weekend, particularly with Renfield wailing on about how "the blood is the life," I was struck with how vampirism could be seen as a total perversion of the Mass. Although maybe it's for the best that no popular writers (that I know of) have really latched on to this -- in the hands of Dan Brown, we'd probably end up with a book about how Jesus' followers were the first vampires and sucked His blood, and ever since the Church has been behind a murderous vampire conspiracy. That's why I find most current vampire books disappointing: they don't explore the issues I find interesting.

So as a reaction to the over-saturation of contemporary vampire books, and because it was the week before Halloween, I decided to read the original -- Bram Stoker's Dracula. I enjoyed it quite a bit. I was a little afraid it might be too gothic (I don't like gothic, at all, at least not the overwrought style of Ann Radcliffe) but it wasn't, and I liked Stoker's technique of telling the narrative through diaries, journals, and newspaper articles. I also liked that Stoker gave the vampires a mesmerizing appeal without allowing the characters (or us) to completely lose sight of what they really were. It is a product of its time, and so the theology was a bit suspect, the characters tended to use ten words when two would suffice, and the constant statements about how Mina was so much stronger and smarter than the typical flighty, faint-hearted woman caused a lot of eye-rolling. Over all, though, I liked it quite a bit.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

They Just Can't Get No Respect

I love the New York Times Book Review; it and the Sunday puzzle are my favorite parts of the NYT, and I impatiently wait every Saturday morning for the newspaper to hit the curb so I can go fetch it in my pajamas and settle in to reading it when I am not refereeing toy disputes between the Beadboys. The Book Review, however, is rather notorious for ignoring genre fiction. So this week I took note of the essay on the last page, Picking a Genre -- a mildly amusing look at different genres. And even here, certain genres get short shrift. For example, romance is in the illustration, but not discussed. Science fiction and fantasy are not mentioned at all, unless you count the blurb on "fabulism" or magic realism. And so continues a longstanding tradition of ignoring genre.

Remember when the Book Review announced Dave Itzkoff would be doing a regular column (Across the Universe) on science fiction? I nearly cheered out loud, but apparently the NYT's definition of "regular" differs from mine -- according to the NYT archives, he has written a grand total of 14 reviews and articles on science fiction (depending on how you classify certain novels), and none in the last year. They dropped the "Across the Universe bit back in 2006. A perfect illustration of the Book Review's disdain for genre fiction, and rather foolish given the growing popularity (and mainstreaming) of science fiction.

The Book Review does review mysteries (called "crime", I guess for the same reasons some publishers try to gussy up scifi/fantasy by calling it "speculative fiction"), but the books reviewed are overwhelmingly of a type. Because God knows it's not worth reading if it doesn't have a brooding, lonely recovering alcoholic with health issues, a tortured past, a dead lover, a dismal apartment, and too much familiarity with the seedy underbelly of the city. That's it for genre fiction, however; scifi is barely touched and I think the editors think the civilization would collapse if they reviewed a romance. Reportedly, an editor once said, in explanation, "Well, we have to draw the line somewhere." Why? What does that mean? Isn't the point of the Book Review to highlight both "important" books and good books, books the readers of the NYT would be interested in? Are they aware of the diversity of taste in the city? Are they actually arguing that it is impossible to find a well-written, smart book in certain genres? That sort of attitude just encourages the idea that the NYT is a snooty paper for the upper class. Which it kind of is, if you only look at the styles section and the book review and the way they ignore local news. But its front page journalism is far superior to that of other local papers, and more to the point, they review populist music, shows, and movies all the time. So why not populist books? Good populist books -- there is a lot of schlock in scifi and romance (and "crime" and fiction and non-fiction . . .) and I think readers would love to be pointed to the best of the genres. It's simple, really; at the very least, once a month they could omit a review of yet another quickly written, irrelevant in a year, political book (or just cut it in half) and insert a page or half page with quick reviews in a genre. C'mon, NYT, you can do it. It might even increase readership and ad revenue.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Miscellaneous crafts

I've finally had some time to finish, or at least work on, crafts I started a while back.

For Halloween this year I decided to cover some fake pumpkins in glitter; an idea that is not at all common. I bought cheapo plastic pumpkins and painted them black, because I wanted to go for the black/charcoal/silvery look I saw in a Martha Stewart magazine. I then covered one with fine black glitter and one with silver. The black one came out pretty well (except for some smudges here and there):
It looks especially nice with the dried leaves and foliage. The silver pumpkin, on the other hand, did not come out so well:
The glitter dried splotchily, leaving some areas more silvery than others, partly I think because of the glue I used -- M.S.'s instructions said to use craft glue, which I found to be very thick. I think next time I'll use watered down glue or Modge Podge. In the mean time, I suppose I could reapply some glitter to even out the tone, but then the whole thing will end up looking like a disco pumpkin, which . . . not the look I was going for. I also may try to coat the pumpkins lightly with spray adhesive, to see if that prevents glitter shedding.

Right after Halloween is the Day of the Dead. Ever since my father died on All Souls Day I have been interested in the iconography of Day of the Dead (even though my father was Puerto Rican). Two years ago I made calaverita earrings:
Last year, inspired by Alicia Policia's felt skulls (one of which I bought) I decided to make a two-dimensional one myself. I finished the facial features, but then stalled on how to finish it until a few days ago:
The edge needed something, so after experimenting with colored lace I decided the rickrack worked best, especially as it is a marigold color, a flower often associated with Day of the Dead imagery. It then took me another half an hour to pick green perle cotton to hold the rickrack in place with french knots (sometimes I can be too picky about color). Once it is done, I will back it with another layer of felt. I'm also working on the brightly colored skeleton kits from Mill Hill.

Finally, inspired by my success with the Hungry Caterpillar quilt, I decided to get going on the Brown Bear quilt for Beadboy2. Behold the center of the top:
So much faster to put together than the odd pieces of the first one. I think I will add another border using the people fabric.

It feels good to work with my hands again.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Winner of the National Book Award

Amazing how school, housework, and my damn wiener kids take up all my time. I finished Jincy Willett's Winner of the National Book Award over a week ago, and I have not had time to put together a post about the book (which I really enjoyed). (And I finished Northanger Abbey last night, so I am way behind.) So I will make two points:

1. Just as all the cover blurbs say, this book is funny, funny enough to make me laugh out loud on the train. But what they don't tell you is that the book is also downright scary. Willett so effectively portrayed a sociopathic, abusive man that I felt actual dread while reading the book, waiting to see what he would do next.

2. Her characters, particularly the two sisters who are the heart of the book, were marvelous. They were so much more than the hypersexual "bad" sister and the intellectual "good" sister. Abigail was no pathetic woman relying on men for approval; Willett forces one to see her genuine sensuality and love of life give her an integrity of character one would not otherwise expect. Even when she she falls into the thrall of the aforementioned sociopath, their relationship is not simply one of abuser and abusee, but something far more complex (as is Abigail herself). And indeed, by the end, it becomes apparent that Abigail is much stronger and more self-aware than people (including the readers) give her credit for -- and not in the "victim overcomes her abuser" way that Willett so brilliantly lampoons.

Dorcas, too, is wonderful. She narrates the book, and she recognizes the danger the sociopath poses right away. But she both fails and stands by her sister in unexpected ways, which adds depth to her character. I've read many books where the intellectual narrator is undone by his flaws; Dorcas was refreshing in that she was well aware of those flaws, and she coped with her failures. Unlike those other characters, her failures never bring her down or humiliate her permanently in some awful way. She seems to realize that her mistakes, and the emotions she could not control, are simply part of life. She does not wallow, and that makes her so much more likeable than the other characters.

I don't think I have done the book justice.

Bracelet giveaway!

The Glamorous Housewife over at Tales of a Retro Modern Housewife is giving away a neato bracelet made from plastic fruit. No wardrobe would be complete without such a stylish piece, so check it out.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Bet Red

Sars over at Tomatonation runs a contest every year to raise money for Donors Choose, a wonderful charity that helps classrooms all over the country. To help out this year I decided to make tomato earrings to donate to Sars, to serve as one of the mini-prizes she gives out during the contest.

I started with big-hole wooden beads which I sloppily painted red and then covered with red delica beads:
I then made a sort of headpin from green wire which I formed into a spiral and strung on the beaded beads. The holes were still too big, so I added some size 8 beads to stabilize the earrings, then did a wire wrap loop to finish them off. The results:
So all two of you who read this blog -- check out the contest and donate if you can!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

The word "lyrical" is over-used in book reviews; every time there is an even slightly pretty sentence, it seems, the word is plastered all over reviews and and dust jackets and those "praise" quotations publishers love to pepper the book with. The result is that the word becomes meaningless.

Which is a shame, because every once in a while an author really does merit its use. Reading Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, I could not think of a better word to describe her writing.

And every evening would bring its familiar strangeness, and crickets would sing the whole night long, under her windows and in every part of the black wilderness that stretched away from Fingerbone on either side. And she would feel that sharp loneliness she had felt every long evening since she was a child. It was the kind of loneliness that made clocks seem slow and loud and made voices sound like voices across water. Old women she had known, first her grandmother and then her mother, rocked on their porches in the evenings and sang sad songs, and did not wish to be spoken to.
Her sentences are absolutely gorgeous. Reading them feels like cold liquid washing over me.

Loneliness is an absolute discovery. When one looks from inside at a lighted window, or looks from above at the lake, one sees the image of oneself in a lighted room, the image of oneself among trees and sky -- the deception is obvious, but flattering all the same. When one looks from the darkness into the light, however, ones sees all the difference between here and there, this and that. Perhaps all unsheltered people are angry in their hearts, and would like to break the rook, spine, and ribs, and smash the windows and flood the floor and spindle the curtains and bloat the couch.

What is thought, after all, what is dreaming, but swim and flow, and the images they seem to animate? The images are the worst of it. It would be terrible to stand outside in the dark and watch a woman in a lighted room studying her face in a window, and to throw a stone at her, shattering the glass, and then to watch the window knit itself up again and the bright bits of lip and throat and hair piece themselves seamlessly again into that unknown, indifferent woman. . . . And here we find our great affinity with water, for like reflections on water our thoughts will suffer no changing shock, no permanent displacement. . . . I think it must have been my mother's plan to rupture this bright surface, to sail beneath it into very blackness, but here she was, wherever my eyes fell, and behind my eyes, whole and in fragments, a thousand images of one gesture, never dispelled but rising always, inevitably, like a drowned woman.

Friday, September 11, 2009

A Lazy Post

I've made little progress on my books or crafts in the last month because of houseguests, temper tantrums, new schools, doctors' appointments, forms (so sick of forms), and bad news (it's amazing I was able to finish the quilts below). I don't think the next 6 weeks will be much better, either, because I am starting a 6 week class with tons of required reading. So to avoid completely neglecting my blog, I decided to take pictures of some embroidery I did years ago. I had lots of little bits of floral embroidery with no idea what to do with them, until I found a frame at Target with multiple openings.

(The lighting wasn't great.)

My favorite:

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Things I Learned Making the Very Hungry Caterpillar Quilt

1. While cutting up a panel allows for more creativity and interest in the layout of the quilt, it requires a lot of math to put together blocks with measurements like 3.75 by 21.5 and 19.25 by 22.

2. Appliqueing shapes onto blocks is a lot harder when you've already sewn all the blocks together.

3. I need a design wall.

4. A quilt this size is too big for me to meander-quilt well. Even with the excess quilt rolled up tightly, my hands were simply too small to grip the quilt securely enough and still be able to move it around.

5. It is quite tricky finding the proper balance between the speed of the needle and the speed with which I move the quilt around.

6. Quilt stitches which vary from a millimeter to a quarter of an inch are not good.

7. Meander quilting is scary.

8. Five-year-olds do not care about nos. 1-7.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Jane Taught Me How to Applique

I started my Dear Jane quilt way back in 2004 (you can read about Dear Jane here, but in summary, Jane Stickle's quilt is a beautiful Civil War quilt with 169 different small blocks that started a craze in the quilting world). Almost every month since then I have attended a Friday night class at the City Quilter where I could work on it; many months, it was the only time I got to work on it. Because I have so very, very many projects and so very, very little free time (and because I get bored easily) I decided I would only make a wall quilt, using only the applique squares from the original quilt. This had the added benefit of forcing me to learn how to applique, something I had been avoiding for a long time (eventually I threw in a few curved-pieced squares, to learn that too). Working on the quilt, particularly in a group setting, has been a wonderful experience, and I am not sure I would have survived the last five years without the class.

Last week, I finally finished the quilt!
Yay me! As you can see, I picked lots of bright fabrics (different ones for each square) on a black background, a combination I chose after seeing a gorgeous Dear Jane quilt (full size, natch) in brilliant batiks. I also echoed the Trip Around the World setting Stickle used for the blocks, though it is hard to tell because I rather stupidly photographed it on its side (rotating the image was not an option because the perspective is slightly off, since I had to lay the quilt on the floor to photograph it and unfortunately I did not have a harness suspended from the ceiling to make sure I got the photo perfectly flat and centered). Tilt your head to the right, and you can see how there are bands of color; for example, the purple blocks go from the upper left to the right middle to the bottom center-left.

What's even more exciting is at the request of the folks at City Quilter I am exhibiting the quilt at the City Quilter quilt exhibit, "Made in New York," to be held at the Williams Club. My first show! Granted, my particular quilt was not really juried, but that is just as well because despite my pride in my quilt it has some significant flaws. The quilt will be on exhibit from September 20 through November 16.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Time Traveler's Wife

Whenever I hear or read about a book I want, I jot it down in a little book I keep with me. The list is several hundred entries long, so it is not uncommon for me to get around to reading a book I marked down years ago, and to forget why I wanted to read it in the first place. That happened with the Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. Apparently the reviews made an impression on me, and I wrote the book down, actually bought the book a couple of years ago, and decided I wanted to read it a few months ago. But I could not find my copy anywhere. Finally, spurred by the (then) imminent release of the movie I bought another copy so I could read it before seeing it (which turned out to be unnecessary -- given the dismal reviews, I won't be making much effort to see the movie unless it pops up on cable for free).

Because so much time had passed, I started the book cold, with no idea why I thought I would like it, and knowing nothing about it other than it was a love story with time-traveling. And that is a succinct description of it. I enjoyed the book quite a bit; I thought it was an intriguing premise handled well, and the writing was good, and some parts moved me quite a bit. But in the end I think I would have enjoyed it more if there had been deeper levels to the book. The romance was lovely, but by focusing almost exclusively on that the book had a very intimate feeling -- nothing really mattered beyond Clare and Henry, and we never got a sense of the world around them; we barely even saw anything of their lives other than their love. I kept on hoping for something on a grander scale. Henry's time-traveling was the result of a genetic mutation*, and I wanted to read more about that -- were others affected? How common was it? How would society deal with this mutation, would they ostracize or fear travelers, would they try to replicate time-traveling, would they take in stride naked people popping in and out of the present? What would time-traveling mean, not just for the characters themselves, but the world of the narrative -- how would it affect work, politics, science? And on a meta scale, what would time-traveling mean? Why this metaphor, other than to show that it's hard loving someone who is always leaving?

I really don't mean this as a criticism. I genuinely enjoyed the book, I think it is a wonderful concept that made a lovely, er, love story. Certainly, given that Niffenegger has stated she was inspired by frustrations in her own love life, it is understandable why she wrote the book she did. But I would also have love to read Borges's take on this, or Kelly Link's, or Chabon's.

*One thing I noticed almost immediately was that Niffenegger had created a detailed and believeable description of time-traveling, so I was nerdily thrilled to read's article on how Niffenegger's time travel is more scientifically plausible than most other descriptions. I especially appreciated his mentioning of the grandfather paradox to explain why one can't actually change the past, because one churlish reviewer of the book complained about the fact that Henry did not try to prevent the Spetember 11 attacks. Setting aside that a novel that changed that event would be creepy, if not downright offensive, and that the reviewer does not attempt to explain just how much crime and tragedy a time traveler is morally obliged to prevent, I don't think he read the book very carefully because from the beginning Niffenegger makes it clear Henry can't change the past. When he tries, he feels this pressure, this dread, that he cannot overcome, and he must let things unfold as they are supposed to. And now I learn that according to physics, this is a necessary requirement of time travel -- no parallel universes. Take that, Churlish Reviewer!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Group

Mary McCarthy's The Group is an interesting book to read. One of the side-effects of reading older satires is that as our understanding of the world changes, so does our reaction to what is being satired. In some cases, it does not affect our interpretation of the book too much. I can read Pride and Prejudice without getting caught up in how unfair life and law was to women of that era, because Austen herself felt that way and made it clear in her writings. Other satires become dated very quickly, and we may end up disagreeing with the viewpoint that is doing the satirizing, and I really wish I could come up with an example right now but I can't (it'll come to me in the middle of the night, I'm sure).

McCarthy's book draws heavily on her time at Vassar and the years following to create a vignettes of seven women who graduate in 1933 and settle into their lives (well, six, really -- the seventh spends most of the book in Europe and functions more as a blank canvas on which the others project their insecurities). The women are, for the most part, overly confident and self-assured in the way only recent college graduates can be. They are filled with theories -- on politics, society, entertaining, marriage, raising children, living lives -- and are absolutely convinced their ways are the best ways. These theories, after all, come from the most current research and philosophies of the best colleges. The satire is driven by watching these women fail, succeed, change course, make mistakes, and generally muddle through life and love the same way all women do, regardless of the latest theories.

But there is a second level to the satire (and a shallower one), which is apparent to anyone reading the book now. Most of the theories the women cling to are just plain wrong. No, canned vegetables are not healthier and better tasting than fresh. Babies need to be nursed more often than every four hours, because breast milk is thinner than formula. Stalin did not really have the interests of the proletariat at heart. The humor in the book came not just from reading about these women who were so convinced they understood the world better than their parents (I hope I was never that arrogant), but also from seeing how much the world has changed since then, how much more we know now about certain things. Which caused me to wonder how much we think we know will seem hopelessly misguided or outdated or wrong 70 years from now.

McCarthy published the book in 1963, so it is highly likely she intended this dual level of satire; certainly enough had changed by then to make many of the notions the women held seem quaint. But I can't be fully sure how McCarthy expected us to react because so much has changed again. This is true of any novel, really -- novels are a product of their times, and we of ours, and our environment will will affect how we understand a book, no matter how we might think otherwise.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

One of the best things I did when I moved to this area two years ago was sign up for the CSA; for a flat fee I get a box of goodies every week from June through November. In addition to getting delicious local lettuces, carrots, tomatoes, etc., I've been introduced to stuff I could never find in a conventional supermarket.

Like kohlrabi. We got a couple of bulbs a few weeks ago, and one the weekend, as Beadhusband was grilling dinner and I was trying to find a vegetable to add to all the meat, I decided to try the kohlrabi. I sliced it into 1/4 inch think slices, brushed them with olive oil, sprinkled them with kosher salt, and put them on the grill for a few minutes. They were absolutely delicious. Last week we got gooseberries, which I had not had in ten years -- at a lunch in Boston with colleagues from work, we had gooseberry tarts for dessert. This time I decided to make gooseberry crumble. Unfortunately, the recipe was off, and the crumble part was powdery, but the berries were great.

The CSA has also gotten me to seek out farmer's markets to get more fabulous local produce. Yesterday I went with Beadboy2 and scored yellow carrots (I had heard carrots came in lots of different colors, but this was the first time I saw them) and a quart of sour cherries. The cherries were a particularly exciting find, because I have been searching for sour cherries ever since the Washington Post ran an article, with recipes, and proclaimed them superior to sweet cherries. These cherries are a bright, translucent red and are definitely tart (and delicious). Tonight I plan to make sour cherry brownies.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Bookmark Swap 2

I finally finished the last of the bookmarks last night, just in time to hand them in tonight (they are actually due next month, but I won't be able to make that class). For the most part I am pleased with the results, though I think some are better than others.
I like these three a lot. The first consists of cross stitch variations, and it is the most "regular" of the bunch, though that is fitting given the nature of the stitch. The middle one is the chain stitch one I discussed earlier. I really did not like the blue thread, so I ended up removing it and replacing it with more of the dark pink (what a pain that was). Had I more time, I would have gone in search of a different pink (ideally a purply one). The last is two related stitches -- the whipped spider web and the woven rose (both are built around an odd number of spokes. I really enjoyed this one, experimenting with different thread thicknesses and tensions.
Next up: 5 or 6 different leaf stitches. At this point I had to abandon my idea of only using one kind of stitch (and its variations) per bookmark, but at least the shapes offered a theme. I learned quite a few nifty stitches for this one, including the Vandyke stitch (the big orange leaf in the middle). The middle bookmark is just the stem stitch. By itself it looks nice, kind of minimalist, but here with the others it looks unfinished. The last is the running stitch one. As I said below, the only change I'd make is to get a better green thread.
The last trio: the first is also the first one I did, the feather stitch one, which I really like. The middle one was the last one, and having exhausted all the major stitch families I opted for laid stitch variations. It would look better if I had had the discipline to pencil in the grid before stitching. the last one is the blanket or buttonhole stitch. The way the different threads and stitches are layered over each other is the look I had originally wanted for all of the bookmarks, and I think this is my favorite. Also, I learned that a loosely and irregularly done blanket stitch on its side looks a lot like a feather stitch.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Bizarre Marketing Decisions, or, Why You Should Never Judge a Book by its Cover

I don't tend to read many romance novels, not because I disdain the genre, but because I have such a hard time finding books that I like. For whatever reason, I'm more skilled at identifying and avoiding dross in the mystery and scifi genres than in romance. Which is why I like Smart Bitches Trashy Books, and when, in one of the comment threads, I read about a romance novel with a "meta" twist, I immediately ordered it from Amazon: Hero Worship by Dawn Calvert.

Meet Andi. Tired of all the bad dates she has suffered, she decides one night to curl up with a regency romance containing a hero she considers to be her ideal man. One wish later, she is actually in the book, meeting this man. The problem? She's not the heroine, she's just a minor character (and a simpering, weak-willed one at that). The rest of the book is about her attempt to change the story so she gets the man, fighting both an author who has decided on another heroine and characters who don't want Andi rocking the boat. If she's lucky, Andi might even end up in another book with an author (like, say, Ms. Calvert) more supportive of her characters' wishes.

Hero Worship is a romance novel, so getting Andi together with her man is the main focus of the book. All the meta, break-the-fourth-wall stuff is just a (novel, heh) way to make that happen. But that doesn't change the fact that it is a neat concept which plays with that old lit-crit idea of who really "creates" a text -- the author? The reader? The characters? Throw in some Barthes and Foucault, maybe some Jauss, and you have the beginnings of a senior thesis.

So what book-cover did the publishers use to illustrate a text that touches on major lit-crit ideas?
I was floored when I first saw the cover. Not only does this cover not give any indication whatsoever of the unusual premise of the book, it doesn't even accurately represent the Regency setting; men of the early 19th century did not loll around naked very often; certainly there is no naked lolling in the book itself. At most, this cover indicates that the book is in the romance genre, but it does even that badly. Where are the watercolors? The windswept hair? The wild moors and rearing horses and swooning heroines? If the publishers wanted to ensure that people could identify at a glance this book as a romance novel (with no attention paid to its unusual elements, because who cares about the individual book itself), surely they could have gone whole hog and had a proper "clinch" cover. Instead, we get the torso of a not-very-interesting man staring blankly into the distance on a beige (beige!) background. FAIL.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009


Sarah over at Makin' Projiks has a post today about an idea she picked up from another -- butterfly shadowboxes using magazine images. I thought I'd share my version of this, with needlecrafted butterflies:
At my brother's suggestion, I even used pins to hold them in place, just like real butterfly shadowboxes except a lot less icky. It seemed a good way to display all the butterfly patterns I had collected over the years. And still collect -- I'm almost done with a second box.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Recession Jewelry

I often get ideas for jewelry from different magazines. I'll see a piece I like and think "i can make that." Usually as I make the piece I end up using the image as inspiration rather than something to copy exactly; I'll change the colors or the length, I'll tweak the style or make it more suitable to my taste. Sometimes the piece I've made ends up almost identical*, other times one would be hard-pressed to recognize the original jewelry piece in what I have made.

Today while waiting in the drug store I flipped through a copy of In Style magazine and found a stack of leather bracelets with Swarovski crystals and immediately thought "I can make that!" As soon as I got home I headed up to the third floor and got to it. Rather than make several bracelets to get the stacked look (which would require several clasps on leather, not my favorite thing to do), I decided to use one long piece of leather thong. I cut a piece that I thought would fit around my wrist loosely five times (thanks to my mom, who taught me odd is better than even). The bracelets in the magazine had the crystals in metal settings in the leather. Not having a BeDazzler, instead I wrapped the crystals (swarovski, round, 6 mm) onto the leather with a long piece of thin brass wire, spacing the beads about an inch and a half apart. I finished it off with brass coils and clasp. The whole thing only took about a Simpsons episode and 2 innings of a Red Sox game. Best of all, it was free. I'm quite pleased with it.
*Lawyer time: this is Fair Use. I never take credit for others' designs, and I never copy another's design for commercial use.

Thread Play

Inspired by the success of the tissue paper bookmarks, I decided to try another technique from Fabric Art Collage (although I've seen it elsewhere too) to create a sort of freeform thread lace by machine. The idea is to free-motion stitch all over a piece of water-soluble stabilizer, being sure to cross the thread over itself a lot to prevent the thread from later unraveling. Then you soak the piece in warm water to remove the stabilizer, and let it dry. Of course, within one second of sewing I learned an important lesson -- use a hoop to stabilize the stabilizer. My stitching totally scrunched up the stabilizer:
The stabilizer started out as a nice big square.

Lesson number 2 -- don't sew over the thread lines too much, or you'll end up with a very dense lace:
Still, a neat thing.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Even More Bookmarks

It's that time of year again -- end of school (sort of, Beadboy1 is eligible for 12 month schooling) -- which means I have to come up with small gifts for his teacher, aides, para, therapists, and social worker. That's 8 total, which is a lot. We thought of doing gift cards to Barnes and Noble, but they will have to be small. I also want to include something a little nicer, handmade by me, to thank them for everything they have done. So, probably because of the swap I'm working on, I came up with the idea of bookmarks, which have the advantage of being small, easy to make, and appropriate with the gift cards.

For this set I used the "tissue fabric" technique from Fabric Art Collage, which the leader of my Crazy Fridays "made" me buy. It was a great technique -- fast and fun. I ironed torn pieces of tissue paper onto double-sided fusible webbing, added on top another layer of webbing, fused Angelina fibers to it, painted it (which you can barely tell; next time I won't dilute the paint as much), fused the entire thing to muslin, added a band of plastic mesh to the top, and sewed the entire thing all over with variegated thread. Finally I fused felt to the back, cut the piece into bookmark sized strips, and zigzagged around the edges.

Now that I write that all out, it seems like a lot of work, but the whole thing took only three hours (not including the zigzagging, which was the only time-intensive part). I'm really pleased with the way it came out:
especially because I had never tried this layering technique before, thinking it would be too hard. I even did a pretty good job on my first attempt at zigzagging edges, if I do say so myself. Generally I can't really do anything on the sewing machine except sew a somewhat straight line. I also threw in the two decorative stitches my non-computerized machine has:
(well, only one is visible here). One sheet roughly 8.5 by 11 produced enough to make nine bookmarks (meaning I get to keep one, yay) and three little 1.5 inch squares to save for another project.
I have to do this again. Also, I highly recommend the book. It clearly explains how to do a lot of different mixed media techniques, and provides inspiration with all of the gorgeous finished projects it features.

More Bookmarks

I finished the running stitch bookmark on Saturday. I'm pleased with the way it came out, although I wish I had used a darker, yellowier green.
So I moved on to the buttonhole/blanket stitch. I've only just begun it, but I want to build up lots of imperfect layers.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Bookmark Swap

For a few years now I have been taking a monthly quilt class at the City Quilter in Manhattan. Originally a crazy quilt class, because of the high proportion of regulars it has become more of a art quilt/mixed media studio, where we all work on a variety of projects (sometimes even an actual crazy quilt). Recently we've started doing challenges, such as making small quilts totally from recycled materials or trash, or finding innovative or unusual ways of "quilting" three layers of something together, and so on. This time around, the instructor decided to do a bookmark swap. There aren't really any rules, just that it, you know, be bookmark-shaped and flat enough to go in a book, and that in contain something recycled.

I played around with several ideas. I thought of incorporating beading of some kind, since that is my specialty (if I can be said to have one); I could only use seed beads, though, to keep the bookmarks functional. I thought of making charms out of the little colorful plastic caps I've been collecting from juice cartons -- drilling a hole, filling them up with beads and thread and charms, and sealing them, then having them dangle from the bottom of the book. The charms, though, I thought would be too big. I thought of experimenting with various mixed media techniques I've been meaning to try, but that seemed daunting. And then I realized I would be missing the August class and would have to turn them in a month earlier in the beginning of July. So for the sake of my sanity I decided to embroider wool felt. Here are the first three:
(Ignore the scarred and beaten, I mean distressed, table.) I've opted for bright colors for the felt and perle cotton (sizes 3 and 5, with a little 8). What I wanted was to devote each bookmark to a particular stitch and its variations, and to get a layered, not-very-organized look.

The top one is feather stitch. Turns out, there are not a whole lot of variations, but because it is so airy it layered nicely. I still might fill in a couple of spots. Detail:
The stitch family for the bottom one was the chain stitch. There are all sorts of pretty variations, but I'm not thrilled with the way it ended up so linear. I guess I should have meandered more. I do really like the laced cable stitch, though -- that's the 3 pink columns of chain with two strands of red weaving them together.
The middle one is just a simple running stitch. I really like how the stitching came out, and the colors are growing on me. I've since added some teal and purple, but I don't have a photo yet.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The (almost) lost art of independent bookstores

On Sunday Beadhusband and I went to the Upper West Side to visit friends. We arrived an hour ahead of schedule (so desperate were we for some kid-free time) so we parted ways; he went to see the renovations at St. John the Divine, and I headed uptown looking for a Barnes and Noble. Happily, I found Book Culture on the way. I hadn't been in an independent book store in so long I had forgotten what a joy they can be. Instead of yards of bestsellers and the same old midlist fiction, Book Culture had dozens of little displays of thoughtfully collected books -- a pillar devoted to the latest indie graphic novels and related periodicals, shelves of literary magazines, tables of fiction and literary criticism, stacks of philosophy and art history and poetry. The best part about such a set up is the browsing, the discovery of books I had never heard of but I must own right away. I found the latest book by Rabih Alameddine, The Hakawati, about a storyteller (I read her I, the Divine years ago). I found a recent issue of McSweeney's with stories told in different obscure genres. I found several books on the art and criticism of stoytelling and genres, which only with great effort I did not purchase.

See a trend in what I like? I have yet to read The Child that Books Built by Francis Spufford for personal reasons that would be too complicated to go into, but I always remember a line from the New York Times book review that stated Spufford's "defense of those whose reading pleasure derives from storytelling and who unashamedly love thrillers, science fiction and metafiction." (Shapiro, James. "Confessions of a Literary Mind." New York Times Book Review 2 Feb. 2003: n. pag. New York Times. Web 15 June 2009.) That made me realize for the first time that my love of Lord of the Rings and Possession, Pride and Prejudice and Dictionary of the Khazars was related. I love storytelling -- the stories being told, and the ways they are told. I like both a good mystery and an experimental novel like The House of Leaves which is a typesetter's nightmare. I collect modern retellings of fairy tales because I want to see a new way of looking at them. To quote another book review, I am in that "extremely slender overlap between the set readers who like the ineffable, high-concept fiction of, say, Jorge Luis Borges or David Foster Wallace, and the set of readers who favor fondly comic portraits of small-town life in mid-century America after the fashion of Garrison Keillor or Jean Shepherd." (Miller, Laura. "American Meta." New York Times Book Review 6 Mar. 2009: n. pag. New York Times. Web 15 June 2009.) (The book that is the subject of that review, Flying by Eric Kraft, is on my must-buy list, natch.) On a fundamental level, both kinds of books entertain me, and that is the most important function of a book; I may at different points want to think, to puzzle, to feel, to relax, to analyze, but I always want to enjoy. An academic bookstore like Book Culture feeds my habit quite well.

Friday, June 5, 2009

So much for crafting . . .

Usually each week I get at least one or two chunks of time when I can go hide up on the third floor surrounded by all my craft crap and play for a while; it is a necessary thing to recharge my batteries and brighten my mood. So far this year I had actually made some progress on my stack of unfinished projects plus worked on some new ones, both practical and decorative.

Sometimes, though, I get weeks like this one. Between babysitter cancellations, appointments, errands, and unexpected delays, I'll go the entire week without picking up a single needle or bead. I hate that, it makes me grumpy. I hope next week is better.

In the meantime, since I have nothing new to show, I'll talk about my recent obsession with beaded flowers. A few weeks ago I pulled out my copy of The Beaded Garden to make some tiny little flowers for a pair of earrings I had been thinking about. The inspiration was a trip to the botanical gardens in Pittsburgh I took while visiting my mom. We walked into one room and I was immediately stunned by gardens overflowing with deep purple (almost black) pansies and dark magenta, orangey-red, and yellow tulips. (the Beadboys' reaction -- "Oh, wow!") I made a note of the colors to use in some future project, then eventually settled on earrings. I chose the tiny tulip, five-petaled rose (the official pansy pattern was too big), and daffodil (for variety) patterns and made these:

I couldn't stop there, though, so I also made these:
Then I thought I really needed to make more daffodils:
Whenever I make it back to the third floor I think I'll make some of these flowers into earrings and put them in the shop.