Springtime garden dreaming

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Hello. It’s been a while.

Like everyone else I know, I’ve been busy. I’ve been attending year end performances, cleaning out the garage, transporting children, filling out permission slips, trying to get a squeaky faucet fixed, and so on. And, of course, I’ve also been busy in my garden.

I started seeds, watched them grow, carried them in and out of the house to harden them off, and now, just this week, planted them outside.

I pruned a dozen inkberry bushes and then luxuriated in the resulting clippings and their glossy foliage and even made a wreath from the cuttings. Sadly, the wreath was a failure, as it turned brown about 24 hours after I hung it in my house, and before I took a photos of the final product, but the project was fun.

I’ve been Instagraming the flowers that have emerged in my garden and trying not to get too excited in anticipation of the ones I hope will bloom soon. (You never know when tragedy may stike in the form of a garden pest.)

I’ve been puttering, planting, and scheming about how to keep the rabbits from eating everything that’s not contained in the fenced enclosure around my vegetable patch. I’ve been thinking about moving some ferns and what to plant in their place.

may apple flower

I’ve been admiring my mayapple which came back five times bigger this year than last. In short, I’ve been happily caught up planning and dreaming in my garden, caught up in the spirit of spring. Happily, I am now caught up here on my blog as well. Happy spring my friends! I hope you’re enjoying it as much as I am.

hot pink peony

Books that changed me: Sula by Toni Morrison

classic books on shelf

Are you a re-reader? I don’t think of myself as one, but  along with my book club, I’ve re-read a few classic books: To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, and The Great Gatsby. We plan to read more.

After recently writing about five novels that changed me, I decided to embark on a new, more personal re-reading project. I’m re-visiting books that mattered deeply to me in my childhood, adolescence or young adult life but might not be quite so well known and/or universally loved. (In other words, books I might not be able to convince my book club to read along with me.) I’m calling this project Books that Changed Me.

When picking a list of  books that changed me, Sula, by Toni Morrison was at the top of my list, but when I tried to recall details, I realized how little I recalled of the plot. I only remembered how I felt transformed when I read it as assigned high school summer reading, circa 1987. Sula would never have made it into my hands without a nudge from school. Yet, the book affected me so powerfully that I felt dreamy and disconnected for weeks. When I read Sula it was like someone took the cover off the sky, filling it with a new kind of light. Seriously.

sula

So, earlier this year, I dove into re-reading Sula with great curiosity and anticipation.

Sula tells the story of a poor black community in an Ohio town in the 1920’s and 30’s, focusing primarily on two childhood friends, Nel and Sula. They sustain a deep friendship filled with dark secrets and unspoken connection, until Nel marries and Sula moves away. Their friendship becomes more complicated in adulthood and without giving too much away I’ll say that in the end, Nel is filled with both regret and longing. It is not really a happy story, yet there are moments of humor, poetry and transcendent truth.

More than anything, Sula transformed my 15-year-old world through the breathtaking beauty of the language. It may have been the first book I read for the writing as much has for the next plot twist. I swooned over lines like “when the day broke in an incredible splash of sun,” or this description of Sula’s eyes, “Her gold-flecked eyes, which, to the end, were as steady and clean as rain.” I still swoon.

In my recent re-reading, I was particularly struck by the descriptions of Nel and Sula’s early friendship: “In the safe harbor of each other’s company they could afford to abandon the ways of other people and concentrate on their own perceptions of things.” Morrison conjures the secret, timeless world of childhood, and first steps towards separation. On the same page, she writes “… toughness was not their quality – adventuresomeness was – and a mean determination to explore everything that interested them” and conveys the sense of discovery and tentative joy that goes with those pre-adolescent forays into independence. (It also made me think of the “like a girl” campaign.)

In re-reading Sula I was also struck by the darkness and sadness of the story. Awful things that happen in the book – deaths, betrayal, abandonment. Sula is filled with hints of magical realism and melancholy truthfulness; it is an examination of the limitations of human relationships, the closeness and distance that lies between even the most intimate of friends and lovers.

And of course, this book is also about race. Sula chronicles indignities that Nel, Sula, and other poor, black characters face, though it is more than a chronicle, it shows how race is part of the fabric of the characters lives: “Because each had discovered years before that they were neither white or male, and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden to them, they had set about creating something else to be.”

old photos summer 1987

My world in the summer of 1987. Working at the beach, a hiking trip, reading.

No doubt, reading Sula as an adolescent cracked my privileged world open. When I think of the experience, I think of this TED talk by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie, on The Danger of a Single Story. Before reading Sula, I read a lot of 19th century British novels, with governesses, genteel parties, and usually a marriage proposal. Sula provided me with another story, another narrative, and allowed me to see into another, very different world.

It was no different in my recent re-reading. Only this time, it was like returning to a familiar place. It all came back to me- the one-legged matriarch, the harrowing escape from school bullies, the humiliations of segregated train travel. I’d held onto the vivid characters and scenes all along, and they glowed like jewels in my memory. They were only waiting to be stitched back into the whole magnificent novel.

morning reading sula

Whew! That was a long post. It’s hard to write breezily about a book like Sula. Thanks for sticking with me. I do hope to continue this series of Books that Changed Me. Next up is The Witch of Blackbird Pond, a Newbury Award winning YA book, which promises a less wordy post.

I also hope you’ll tell me what books resonated deeply with you in your early years. In other words, what books changed you?

Hello, Spoonflower!

pinwheel flower fabric samples hanging

I know. I left you hanging in my last post. Possibly even consumed with suspense. I promised to explain how this embroidery project led me to a totally different creative venture. And now, here I am, ready to divulge.

It started with Spoonflower. Do you know this custom printing website? If not, you are in for a treat. Any user can upload their own work and have it printed on a variety of fabric, wall paper, or gift wrap. Even better, anyone can browse and shop from thousands of independent, user-created designs. If you like surface design and/or textiles, Spoonflower is pure enchantment.

lattice embroidery

After dreaming, clicking and generally wasting time on Spoonflower for years, I knew a lining fabric for this embroidery was the excuse I needed to attempt fabric design. I had a definite vision for the lining fabric – delicate aqua-colored pinwheel-shaped flowers on a white background, almost an inverse of the embroidered design on the outside.

I borrowed a few books on fabric design from my local public library, painted several designs with watercolors on paper, and got to work.

watercolor fabric designs

I used photoshop to clean up my artwork and turn it into a repeating design. (A Field Guide to Fabric Design by Kimberly Kight offers an excellent tutorial on how to turn a design into a repeat, by hand or with phtoshop.) It took some time to clean up the design, orchestrate the repeat and generally fiddle around with all the details, and in the process, I gained a new appreciation for photoshop.

pinwheel flower fabric samples 1

Once I uploaded my designs onto to Spoonflower, I adjusted the scale, and then I ordered test swatches. (I chose to print on the cotton poplin fabric.) There they are, freshly laundered and pressed. Now, I just need to choose which design I will use as lining fabric for my embroidery project. For now, I’m leaning towards the scattered, random flowers, though I’d love to hear your opinions.

In the weeks since, I’ve been tinkering with my Spoonflower shop interface where all these designs are now available for anyone to order. Please go visit – I haven’t had many visitors! I’ve also been working on a few unrelated designs. To keep up the suspense, I will tell you about those designs another time.

P.S. Spoonflower also offers a color changing feature, where you can alter the color ways of a design. Of course, I had to try it! The result: a few designs originally rendered in shades of aqua, now in shades of periwinkle. In truth, I am happier with the designs in their original color. To alter the colors, I had to reduce the number of shades. Since the charm of the watercolor depends in a large part on the subtle variations of color and shade, I found these version a bit boring. But still, It was a fun exercise.

periwinkle pinwheel flower samples

On historically-inspired embroidery, and moving from project to project.

lattice whitework detail

Are you familiar with the children’s book, If you give a Mouse a Cookie ? It concerns a pesky little mouse who moves from one activity to another, eating a snack, cutting his hair, drawing pictures, and more, until he eventually comes full circle, back to the first activity of eating a snack.

Lately, I’ve been feeling like that mouse, as one project inspires to another project, which then leads to another project. (Also, there has been snacking, but that’s not what this post is about.)

whitework pattern

A few weeks ago, I posted about these embroidery patterns, drawn by my three-times great grandmother in the early 1800’s. I neglected to mention that I was working on this stitching project based on one of those patterns.

detail lattice whitework

Initially, I was excited to work with all white treads on the colored linen, to lighten and simplify, and to adapt the design, rather than re-create historic work. I had planned to stitch most of the historic design, including, the elegantly looping dots, which are clearly meant to be French knots. But after writing the post on the history of these designs, and looking more carefully at historic embroidery, I’m already thinking about what I will do differently next time.

detail of whitework petticoat

The whitework example I have from my 3rd great grandmother is more fully filled with satin stitch, rather than executed it in the open stitches I’ve used in my piece. In fact, I’m guessing this whitework might also be considered crewel work, since the threads look like wool. And there are other examples of historic embroidery here and here and here.

hanging embroidery sample

Though I’ve learned from it, I’m abandoning this, my first historically inspired embroidery piece. Only, I won’t exactly abandon it. The embroidery is finished enough to make into something, and, in keeping with the historic needlework theme, I decided to make a reticule (O.K., a drawstring bag).

That’s when I started to feel like that mouse in the story, because in planning how to make this bag, I was drawn into another creative project. And it was not snacking-related. That project will be the subject of a separate upcoming post.

 

Update on March 29th:

My eminently wise and more-historically-knowledgeable mother says:

 I don’t think EBVH’s embroidery could possibly be done in wool because it wouldn’t have survived on the Eastern Shore with the moth problem that is endemic.  I think it is far more likely that the thread is hand-processed linen.  Modern machine-processed linen is smooth and has a sheen because the short hairy strands are removed.  Historically, I think, because the processing was done by hand, shorter strands remained and gave a hairier look to the thread.  That may be what you are seeing.

She’s probably right.

Bargello pocketbook

close up modern bargello

Remember this? Last October, I stitched this bargello – a modern, multicolored, aspiring-to-be-Jonathan Adler bargello. After I posted it, I tucked it away for later, not quite sure what to so with it. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I had a vague vision of a clutch purse type of bag, but it turns out, I don’t need a fancy needlepoint clutch. (Already have one and I’m not fancy enough to use it very often.)

Wool needlepoint pocketbook.

Wool needlepoint pocketbook from colonial williamsburg.

Only when I revisited my photos from a summer trip to colonial Williamsburg did I know why I had this idea was lodged in my brain. Look at this hand-stitched 18th century pocketbook (photo above), used by the ladies of colonial Williamsburg to store scissors, needles and other sewing notions.

That was when I knew I had to make my own 21st century version. As someone who typically throws an extra needle and a pair of scissors in the bottom of a canvas tote bag, drops her needlework on top, and then periodically struggles to untangle metal bits from thread, I found the idea of having an organized case for the small notions deeply appealing.

needlepoint bargello pocketbook

I particularly liked the idea of stitching it entirely by hand and using all natural materials, as in the 18th century, so I used wool twill tape to bind the edges, and 100% wool felt to line it. The only place I cheated was in using a lighter, thinner rayon to form the gussets that allow the pocketbook to open a bit wider. (I was hoping they would fold in more easily for closing.)

opened up sewing case

When it came time to engineer a method to keep it closed, I hemmed and hawed again. In other projects, I have used magnetic snaps or velcro. I like the convenience of both of these closures but each has their drawbacks, too. (Velcro obscures a large area of the needlework and can also snag threads if not carefully placed; Snaps sometimes open too easily.)

So, again, I consulted the work of the Williamsburg ladies and decided to try twill tape ties for closure. They are certainly not as convenient, but they leave no mark on the needlework and can always be removed and replaced with some small miracle of the 20th century like velcro.

There it is, tied up and ready to go. Now, I am excited to put this pocketbook to use and move on the new projects. The first of which might just have to be a needlecase, so I can get rid of the plastic bag I’m currently using to store my needles.

tied up needlepoint pocketbook

 

Giveaway winner!

kitchen table giveaway

Wow! Giveaways are fun. I loved hearing from everyone one who entered last week’s embroidered phone case giveaway, even if I feel that I’m bribing you, my friends and readers, to speak up and show yourselves. Many thanks to everyone who took the time to leave a comment – it was so fun to read your responses!

I’m happy to hear there are other tea-drinking, home-organizing, idly snacking, book reading procrastinators out there. Also, so many of you are knitters… who knew?! I see the appeal of those fluffy and colorful yarns and the cozy things one can knit, though knitting has never been a strength for me.

I wish I could send something to everyone, but alas, that level of crafty output is out of my reach. So, I’ve picked one winner.

wrapped giveaway

I made a list of the 14 entries (social media shares were listed twice), numbered them, and then used a random number generator to pick a number… and the winner is Grace! Thank you all for reading and participating. Have a great weekend everyone, hope you find lots of time for knitting, taking photos, crocheting, procrastinating and talking about good books.

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Fronds and Umbels Embroidery Giveaway!

embroidered umbels case

Sometimes I spend hours making something, set it aside, and then forget about it. And that’s exactly what happened with this embroidery project. Yesterday, after finding it in a mess of embroidery supplies, I reacquainted myself this little object, which I stitched in December, during an obsession with making small pouches inspired by a project in Aimee Ray’s book Doodle Stitching.

detail embroidered umbels

I’ve been calling this design “fronds and umbels” because, well, the fern-like frond motif, and the umbrella-shaped flowers, which are botanically speaking, umbels, like queen anne’s lace or allium. 

embroidered felt case

Stitching on thick wool felt was both satisfying and liberating. With no way to transfer a drawing or pattern onto the thick fibers, it was true free-hand doodle-stitching, and it was so much fun.

If you’ve beeen reading this blog for long, you will not be surprised to learn I made this piece into an iphone case. (I have a slightly alarming history of making iPhone cases.) I lined it in a soft blue-grey 100% wool felt and added  divider so there are 2 compartments. It closes with a magnetic snap. It is deliciously touchable and cozy and I do love it. The problem is, that I don’t need a phone case. As I recently related, I lost, then found my beloved needlepoint phone case in December. After that tearful reunion, I don’t plan on replacing it anytime soon.

embroidered ihpne case with flowers

So, I’ve decided to give this embroidered phone case away to one lucky reader. It fits an iPhone 5S, iPhone 6 and probably a few other make/model phones. (And of course it does not have to be used for a phone.) I’ll even throw in a carabiner clip to go with it.

embroidered phone case with carabiner

For a chance to win this hand-embroidered beauty, leave a comment below. (If you share this post on facebook,  twitter, or instagram, tag me, and you’ll get an added shot at winning for each post.)

No need for flattery in the comments, just tell me your preferred craft, hobby, artistic pursuit, or favorite form of procrastication. If you engage in none of the above, you can tell me your favorite book. (How is it possible to name a favorite book?! More shockingly, how is it possible not to engage in procrastination?!)

I’ll post the randomly-drawn winner on Friday, March 6th 2015. Go ahead, give it a shot – your chances of winning are good!

Dreaming of the past and 19th century whitework

white work embroidery petticoat 1800s

In June, I wrote about growing up in an 1830’s house filled with antiques and artifacts – top hats, handkerchiefs, tortise shell combs, musty books, and one delicately-embroidered whitework petticoat. After that post, my mother gave me a box of aged papers – embroidery designs, hand-drawn by my several-times-great grandmother, the creator of the whitework petticoat.

whitework patterns 1800s

I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to write about these designs, because I was pretty excited to leaf through the box. The papers are yellowed, and crackly and the drawings are light, sweet, charming.

whitework pattern

Many are hand-sketched in pencil, others in ink, and two are printed designs, clipped from an unidentified publication. So, when I recently stumbled across this post by E.K. Duncan on regency embroidery patterns in Ackerman’s repository, I knew it was time to sit down and write about this little cache of history.

Ackermans table of contents

Published in London from 1809-1829, Ackerman’s Repository was an influential journal that covered arts, literature, commerce, manufactures, fashions, and politics. As needlework was still quite fashionable at that time, Ackerman’s  included a needle work design, or as listed above, a muslin pattern. (Hat tip to Jennifer Jermantowicz for compiling this handy index to Ackerman’s repository, and to archive.org for making this amazing resource available to everyone!)

The relationship between the Ackerman’s designs and these hand-drawn designs is clear. Both show medallions, fantastical flowers, and dainty scalloped edges.

The creator of these drawings and the petticoat, Elizabeth Victor Hammond, lived 1800-1870. After she found herself a widow in 1832, she moved from a nearby farm to what became our family house in a small Maryland town. In the late 1970s, living in the same house, my parents found the drawings packed in a wooden box, along with the petticoat, Elizabeth’s wedding shoes (dated 1820), another piece of whitework, and a few unfinished pieces of a brown calico quilt.

That’s the story of these objects, as I know it. As for Elizabeth Victor Hammond, she spent the rest of her life in the same house, with leisure enough to engage in needlework but certainly not at the height of fashion. She never remarried, outlived three of her four children, but lived to see her youngest son prosper as the town’s doctor.

EVH wedding shoes 1820

I know those rough outlines of Elizabeth Victor Hammond’s life, but when I handle those tiny delicate shoes, or sift through those drawings, I yearn to know more, to see how she handled and cared for these objects, to feel the texture of her life. In The Hare with Amber Eyes, Edmund deWaal traces the history of his grandmother’s family through objects, specifically a collection of Japanese netsuke. At the outset of this book, deWaal writes,

“I want to know what the relationship has been between this wooden object that I’m rolling between my fingers… and where it has been.… I want to walk into each room where this object has lived, to feel the volume of the space, to know what pictures were on the walls, how the light fell from the windows. And I want to know who’s hands it has been in, and what they felt about it, and thought about it – if they thought about it. I want to know what it has witnessed.” 

close of of embroidery pattern ink 1800s

So, what about all those papers filled with carefully rendered designs? Were these the cherished creations of Elizabeth Victor Hammond’s youth, saved and carried to her new home? Were they packed up after the death of her husband, when she moved to town, and then left in the attic? Or was embroidery a lifelong occupation and pastime? Did she continue to design and stitch whitework later in life, even as styles changed?

details from whitework petticoat

And what about that petticoat? Since it was stored with her wedding shoes, I like to imagine she wore it on her wedding day in 1820. Did she wear it under a gown like this? Or this? Or this? Or possibly under many different gowns at different times in her life? What else did she stitch? Handkerchiefs? Waistcoats? A reticule like one of these?

However she wore the petticoat and whatever these objects meant to Elizabeth in her lifetime, these papers, petticoat, and slippers are a source of mystery and inspiration in mine.

Sustainability, oceans, and artist Jo Atherton

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I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently published study on the proliferation of plastic debris in oceans. News organizations have touted “five grocery bags of trash on every foot of coastline around the globe” and the fact that plastic has been found all over the ocean, from the deep sea to Arctic ice.

I’ve also been thinking about Jo Atherton, creator of “flotsam weaving” from washed up fishing line, netting, balloons, lobster pot tags, army men, and other plastic trinkets she and her helpers find on the coast of Cornwall in the U.K. Her work is clever, beautiful, and powerful. Her contemplation of the weaving together disparate objects and their histories, the longevity of plastic trinkets, and the global problem of marine debris is even better.

  Watch Jo Atherton’s TEDx talk here

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P.S. If you don’t know me in person, you might not know that I worked many years in environmental science, studying carbon sequestration in forest ecosystems. Even today, I can be downright annoying in my zeal for composting. So, yes I have a history of being environmental-ish, but I promise I won’t preach too much here on my blog.

White line print: succulent

making a white line print

When I posted a white line print a few weeks ago and mentioned that I was super-excited about my next printing project, I wasn’t kidding. Here it is – a more detailed close up of a succulent.

close up succulent print

This time, rather than work form one of my own instagram photos this time, I scrolled through the many amazing succulent photos on instagram (hashtags: #succulentlove, #putasucculentonit) and fell in love with a beautiful photo by holly, whose instagram feed is jam-packed with stunning photos of succulents.

I’m really loving making these white line prints and feel like my mind is crackling with ideas for designs. Assuming I can keep up the momentum, there will be more to come!

white line print succulent