For my second foray into Amy Renea‘s book, Crafting with Nature, I decided to stick with the natural dyes theme, and try dyeing with onion skins. Finally! A use for all the discarded onion skins floating around in my kitchen ‘onion’ drawer.So, following the directions in the book, I gathered and boiled all the onion skins I could muster. I added a couple of plain white cotton napkins and a little cotton drawstring bag (after soaking them in warm water first) and let them boil in there for about an hour, stirring occasionally. What a thrill it was to pull the fabric from the water and see how it turned out. Even better, I adore the final product. Though I was never a big fan of the color orange, I love the resulting soft, dusty semi-orange color. The transformation almost feels magical and I find myself dreaming of embarking on new adventures in dyeing with all kinds of found and foraged materials, like Mathilde Master. That dream lasts until I consider the array of carpooling, baseball/soccer games, and orthodontist appointments on my calendar, and the long lists of updates I have planned for my etsy shop. The less said about the former, the better, and I’ll tell you more about the latter in my next post.
It probably won’t surprise you to know that, in my kitchen, I have a pineapple plant grown from the top of a supermarket pineapple, a motley collection of house plants, and a red oak seedling pulled from my garden with roots in tact, and now growing in a bottle of water. In short, I’m often tempted to experiment with the bits of nature that come my way, either by way of the supermarket, the garden or the greater world outside.
So, when I first opened up Amy Renea’s book, Crafting with Nature, I was immediately smitten. Want to make a lavender wreath? Here’s how you do it. Want to find something to do with your bumper crop of lamb’s ears and sage? Try this! I was thrilled by the variety and volume of ideas and more than a little tempted to drop everything, and whip up a few all natural lotion bars and luscious healing whips.
When I flipped to the section on beets, I knew that would be the right place to start. Beets have long been one of my garden stand-bys, and I was happily surprised with some ideas I had never thought of. How had I never thought to slice off beet tops and keep them growing for baby beet greens?! Or, to boil the skins to make dye?
I still haven’t decided what to do with the beet dye (too many choices). Maybe I’ll stick it in the freezer and use it for a frozen cranberry wreath this winter. (Another enticing idea!), but in the mean time, I’ll be happily sprinking those beet greens in smoothies and salads.
In the interest of full disclosure, I did receive a free copy of this book to review, but I was beyond thrilled to take a look inside and give it a try. I will undoubtedly be trying out lots of the other ideas/ recipe/ crafts in it, and in fact, I’ve aready got another one in the works. But I’ll tell you about that one in another upcoming post.
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.
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.”
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.
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?
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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?
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.
When I started this blog, I planned to avoid two topics: books and cooking. Not because I don’t love those topics dearly (I do!) but because I worried I would be so busy posting about books and cooking, that I would never get around to anything else.
Today, I’m breaking that self-imposed rule and talking books, thanks to Kate, at Book Nook, who recently asked the very simple question what is your favorite book? And are there different books for different stages in your life?
I could talk about books all day long, and I whole-heartedly agree that there are different books for different ages. The concept of a favorite book has always been problematic for me, not because I can’t pick one book, but because the word “favorite” feels too insignificant to reflect how I feel (or have felt) about certain books.
When I was an adolescent, I would have called Wuthering Heights my more-than-favorite book. I read it countless times by age 18, and in college I managed to write at least three papers on it. As an adult, I am fairly certain that I might now find it wild, excessive, histrionic. Plus, I pretty much know it by heart. Still, Wuthering Heights is filled with brilliant tidbits, quotes, observations, and the one that has stuck with me the most is this quote, voiced by the ever-romantic Catherine Earnshaw:
“I’ve dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they’ve gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind.”
It is such a beautiful image for how an idea, a feeling, a thought, can permeate and change you. And books do to. When I try to name favorite book, that is where my mind flies – to the books that have washed through me and “altered the color of my mind.” A bit grandiose, maybe, but still, true of a great book.
Since my affair with Wuthering Heights, I’ve read many, many good books, and a few that changed me, or altered the color of my mind. I’ll post my list below, but first, I’ll add that there are many bloggers who write beautifully about books and reading, including the afore-mentioned Kate at Book Nook, Lindsey at A Design so Vast, and Anny at Dreaming in Stitches. They all inspire me and I’m happy to be jumping in on the reading discussion.
(1) Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. When asked what is my favorite book, I often cite Crossing to Safety, a beautifully written story of life-long friendship between two couples. The novel follows the Langs and the Morgans from their ambitious early lives into old age. This book is filled with the realities of adulthood – births of children, illness, faltering careers and transcendant love and friendship. The only thing that surpises me is that I loved it so much the first time I read it and I was only about 24. This book is compassionate, honest, adult and subsequent readings have still held me enthralled.
(2) The Known World by Edward P. Jones. The only novel written by Edward P. Jones (thusfar) and the winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize, The Known World takes on slavery in the antebellum American South. Jones strips away any vestige of Gone with the Wind style picturesqueness of the epoch. The rawness, the loneliness, and physical vulnerability of both slaves and slave owners is palpable and not surpisingly the story is heartbreaking. What did surprise me is how much I loved it despite its deep sadness and dark subject matter. Even now, eight years after reading it, this book sticks with me.
(3) History of Love by Nicole Krauss. The unforgettable story of world war II refugee Leo Gursky, who is pining for a lost love and a lost book manuscript, and the story of 13 year-old Alma Singer. Their stories are masterfully woven together and the final twist is funny, sad and absolutely thrilling. I read this book when my children were small and one of my fond memories of is sinking into the couch for an hour of reading during their naptime. I don’t have a photo of it because I can’t find my copy – I must have lent it out to someone.
(4) One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Cyclical time, repeated names, gypsies, fortunes made and spent, alchemy, an unending civil war, an entire town of insomniacs, banana companies that come and go, and an industrious and long-lived matriarch, this book is filled with archetypes, luminous moments and poetic prose, and there is a reason it won so many, many awards. I would have considered this book my favorite in my early twenties, when my Spanish was good and I was working in Latin America. I recently re-read it with my book club (in English this time), confirming my deep connection with this novel. I was surprised that it was not universally loved by the group, but then, maybe I would have not loved it so, had I not first read it as a younger person.
(5) Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. As I explained above, I loved this book to excess when I was an adolescent. There’s a reason its a classic.
For me, one of the biggest pleasures of being a mother is reading bedtime stories. As I snuggle in each night with my youngest child, I often find myself re-reading old favorites – The Very Hungry Caterpillar, the Gruffalo, Frog and Toad. And I often find myself inspired, transported, bewitched, not just by good stories, but by captivating illustrations.
One such inspiring book is Amos and Boris by William Steig. It tells the story of a friendship between a whale and a mouse and the illustrations are loose and alive, emotive and humorous, absorbing and appealing. I know this story so well now, that I read the words aloud without comprehension, while my mind dwells on the images, roaming over the rooftops of a castle on the horizon, basking in light shining from a boat’s cabin, floating in the swells of the ocean.
Inspired by the quirky and cheerful seascapes in this book, I recently sketched a whale in the ocean, a design I decided to use in an embroidery project. I chose three shades of murky blue-green for the sea, an earthy whale grey, and a white cotton drawstring bag. I stitched the lines of ocean swells, darkest blues toward the bottom, lightest towards the top for an ombré effect. (DMC #s 924, 926, 927, if you care for specifics.)
My whale, outlined in a split stitch, seems a bit washed out compared to William Steig’s beautiful illustrations. When I am a more experienced and more confident embroiderer, I’ll have to revisit this project and try filling and shading the whale with stitches.
At the edges, I extended the ocean waves (stem stitch) around the side seams of the bag and across the back too. This reverse side might just be my favorite part of the project. The open blue ocean, embroidered version.