Saturday, November 21, 2009

"Advent" just means something's coming

Recently I was drawn into a discussion of why atheists such as myself and other non-Christians celebrate Christmas. Apart from the obvious questions (such as why do Christians celebrate it on December 25 which is actually the birthday of Mithras and not Jesus, who was likely born in September, if he was born at all) my justification is that as an Atheist, I can celebrate anything I darn well please. It's not like I'm afraid of going to hell for it. I love Christmas, and unlike some atheists, I go all out with the Christian mythology. I have a nativity set, I sing "Away in a Manger", I greet people on Christmas morning with a joyful "Christ is born!" What have I got to lose? After all, I've been known to cry "Expecto Patronum" in dark underpasses too. Does this have to mean I really believe in magic? I object to the silly terms bandied about today in the name of political correctness: "Festivus for the rest of us", or one I confess I sometimes use (and rather like, if truth be told): "Decemberific". I also find the multicultural retrofitting of Kwanzaa, Hanukkah and Diwali as alternatives to Christmas to be a little sad. Christmas is Christmas people. Let those other holidays be what they are too. And if I wish you a Merry Christmas and you're not a Christian, don't feel bad; neither am I. I no more want to take the "Christ" out of Christmas than I want to take it out of Christopher Hitchens. Why does everything have to be so literal? I grew up celebrating Christmas and I like it. Enough said. For this and so many other things, I don't care what Christians think. So, that was a rather long winded introduction to my latest creation. Having been appalled and disgusted by the quality of the chocolate in last year's store bought Advent Calendar, I decided to make my own - one that can be reused year after year. I plan on tucking nice candies and little toys into each pocket so Lucy can pull one out each day leading up to Christmas. It was a great way to make use of some of my Christmas fabrics (which I have used to make reusable bags for wrapping presents instead of paper). Now I need to get cracking on some handmade Christmas presents!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

T-shirt Renewal Part Two

>A while back I waxed poetic about a way of conquering unwanted t-shirts, by turning them into no-sew shopping bags. It was a great way to get rid of some meaningless and/or ugly t-shirts that seem to breed in my husband’s dresser drawer.
But what of MEANINGFUL t-shirts? You know the kind – cool concerts, excellent vacations, unforgettable sports events – t-shirts that never really looked that good on you, or that no longer fit, or are so loved and faded and pock-marked with holes that you haven’t worn them even as pajamas in years. But you can’t throw them away. They just collect in piles in closets, at the bottom of drawers, behind boxes in the linen cupboard or in the back of the car.
No more, say I! I finally convinced my husband to donate some of his more loved t-shirts to a memento quilt project – and look at the lovely results!
What I love about this t-shirt quilt is that each panel has a story. Here’s a summary:
Top row L-R: The BBQ Conference for Sound Engineers that Len used to attend, where he made some of his best friends over the years; the front of the t-shirt we were given by the company who took us on a tour of Turkey for the 2006 eclipse; a Russian doll t-shirt I bought in London for Lucy in 2005 which she wore the first time she met the woman who is now her agent; t-shirt from the very last Crowded House Concert in Sydney in 1996.
2nd row from top L-R: Guns N Roses concert in Auckland NZ, 1988; Cricket Test series 1999. We went to the Boxing Day test in Melbourne and saw Brett Lee bowl his first test over, getting two out!; Another BBQ conference – Len doesn’t go anymore, which is a pity
3rd Row L-R: A t-shirt from the now defunct Star Trek the experience in Las Vegas; ANOTHER BBQ t-shirt; t-shirt from the 1999 eclipse in France
4th row L-R: T-shirt from a “reading” from Ghost World by Daniel Clowes, who was actually too shy to read, but I got to congratulate him on his Oscar nod; back of Crowded House t-shirt; back of Turkey tour t-shirt. I like it because it has the company owner’s name: Murti. He was a laugh
Bottom row L-R: Eclipse in Australia 2002; back of Gun’s and Roses t-shirt saying “Guns over NZ”; my home made “Harry is My Co-Pilot t-shirt, made especially for my little reading party for the 7th book.
Finally, I love that I was able to incorporate Hawaiian fabric I bought on a trip to Hawaii in 2003...ahem…Lucy was born nine months later.
As far as the process, I cut the t-shirts apart to preserve the decals and logos, then fused the logos to fusible interfacing. This is the part I will do differently next time. The fusible interfacing was so sticky and unwieldy it made it very difficult to sew. Next time I will use fusible web to fuse the jersey logos to regular unbleached cotton.
Once the t-shirt squares were ready I discovered they were all different sizes and therefore would be very difficult to piece together. I brooded over this for a very long time until finally being inspired to use the Hawaiian fabric, which has a meaning of it’s own, to build up each mismatched square until they all fit together. I used ordinary fleece for the backing and simply sewed right sides together and turned the whole thing inside out, hand stitching it closed. Because there is no batting, there is no need for top stitching. It ended up about 50” x 60”, just right to snuggle under in front of the TV, or to use when a smaller child sleeps over.
I very much recommend this way of preserving keepsake t-shirts. We had actually stopped buying them when we traveled, because of how many were laying around. Now that I know I can make this kind of memento quilt, I will buy them again. I can’t wait to make one for my daughter with all her dinosaur, summer camp, sports, dance and vacation t-shirts. Maybe I’ll even send her off to college with it!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Halloween - A Maker's Delight

I went to a costume and party store today, to buy a balloon reward for a job well done. That's all I wanted, a balloon. Being that it is Halloween week, however, we couldn't resist a look around at all the costumes and junk on offer for this years' festivities. There was an amazing selection of costumes, masks and wigs. Everything for kids, adults, I think I even saw some dog costumes in there. All great fun, of course, but really, isn't buying a ready made costume missing the whole point?

When we were kids more than half the fun was tearing the house apart looking for old clothes, tea towels, cardboard, tin foil, Styrofoam and poster paint to put together some monstrous outfit, some hilarious get up or some perplexing accouterments to wear on Halloween. Also part of the fun where we grew up was figuring out how to winterize the costume, since we regularly treat or treated in the snow. Just how many pairs of tights can one wear under a gypsy skirt anyway?

One year my mum helped me make a lion costume; my friends were Tin Man, Scarecrow and Dorothy. Then the next year, I found a yellow unitard, sewed fabric swatches to a belt and a hat and was a jester. Another year I wore all my red clothes, made a tail out of old red tights and horns out of paper mache. With a made up face I was a totally convincing devil, a look I still resurrect from time to time. One year I altered a pair of palazzo pants of my mother’s, added a velvet vest, cobbled together a fez type arrangement out of a yogurt tub and put bells on my ballet slippers. The resulting genie was so good that I won a bookstore gift voucher from a radio station that broadcast from my school. My mum liked it so much, she wore it to a fancy dress party later that year!

As I got older, treat or treating gave way to going to parties, then bars. Over the years I perfected the “vampire slut” look so much that it became quite legendary among my friends. Occasionally I paired up with my sister or my roommate and did a “twin vampire slut” act. I often dyed my hair black just to perfect the effect. But always the costumes were homemade. I even made vampire teeth out of a piece of white plastic.

Last year, I confess, I bought Lucy a costume. It was on sale and she loved it so much that we created a superhero theme for her birthday party in April so she could wear it again. This year, since I’m on a making kick, I could hardly buy an off the rack costume again, could I? Even though the costumes, inspired by the movie Hairspray, are readily available, I was determined to make them.

By now I shouldn’t be surprised at how rewarding this whole experience was. I took both my daughter and my niece to the fabric store to choose fabrics, finding some perfect and well priced options. I altered patterns I already had to put the dresses together, and even styled the girl’s hair myself (Although I wore a wig)! As you can see from the pictures we all looked adorable, and the girls loved them.

I was on a roll. Next my husband decided he wanted to be Captain Jack Sparrow, from Pirates of the Caribbean. “No problem!” said I and set about fashioning him not only a costume, but a wig made from an old fleece scarf! I found everything I needed either in my house, or at thrift stores. We were sensational at our pre-Halloween party.

It’s still five days until Halloween; Lucy has four more costume wearing opportunities, in addition to Treat or Treating. Lucy will wear a semi handmade Wordgirl costume for Trick or Treating, and miscellaneous princess/fairy dresses for all the other events. Enough time has elapsed since I made the costumes that I’ve cleaned up the sewing room. It looks orderly and nice for a change.

But I’ve got an itch, an itch to stitch…Christmas here we come.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Making the time for “Making Time”

So I finally finished, with the help of my mother, two of my sisters, the niece of literally my oldest friend, two newer friends, and someone I haven’t seen since high school. My fourth charity quilt and my second community quilt is finished and on it’s way to being auctioned for Grandmothers to Grandmothers, a favorite charity of my mother’s.
I love making these quilts and already have plans for my next one. One thing I need to address in some way is—what can I call it—the drop out rate. As I said in a previous post, a lot of women said they wanted to help, but didn’t sew, which of course is one of the things that inspired this blog. But something that has happened both times I’ve attempted a community quilt is that quilters have signed up and then not submitted a block. Now, again, no big deal really, the quilt got finished and looks great that’s all that matters. But I’d like more quilters to take part. Some just didn’t get back to me. Some said they just didn’t have the time. This got me thinking. What are we spending our time on?
I often feel like I “don’t have the time” to read, to write, to sew, to cook. Sure I have a child and I work (occasionally) but let’s get real here. My mother had a fulltime job, FOUR kids, a husband, did all her own housework, volunteered at a homeless shelter, was going to night school AND still had time to sew up a storm AND make home-cooked food every night. How the heck did she do it?
Well…she didn’t have Facebook, that’s for sure.
See the thing about computer based pastimes as opposed to watching TV for example, is that they require all your attention and both your hands. Ever tried to read a book while you chat on MSN? Ever tried to knit while you play Vampire Wars? I knit while I watch TV. I’m not a big knitter so I don’t do this often but I have friend who, if it weren’t for cheesy TV dramas probably would never have become the professional knitter she is now. My mother listened to the radio as she sewed, deep into the wee hours, not even noticing that CBC radio had switched from classical to “Brave New Waves” at midnight. I’ll never forget seeing her stitch obliviously along to Skinny Puppy at 1AM.
Video games and web surfing and Facebooking and texting don’t allow for real multi tasking. Sure you can play Vampire Wars while Facebooking, but you’re trapped at your keyboard, so you’re really only semi-multi tasking, since the two tasks are really just different versions of the same pointless thing. The question is, how much time are we putting into computer based entertainments and pastimes, and what do we have to show for it at the end of the day?
The home computer was supposed to be this great tool for us that would simplify and streamline our lives leaving us with more free time to …what? Sew? Paint? Build bookshelves? But somehow it has ended up eating up all that extra time, and then some, leaving us no time to do anything at all except maybe order some bookshelves from At least when we watch TV we can do something with our hands. Shuck peas maybe, or make origami.
I can’t believe it but I think I’m suggesting we all watch more TV

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Chicken Soup for the Maker's Soul

My daughter has a book of crafts for kids. Spontaneously, after she had been told what it was (she was only 3 at the time) and tried out a couple of the crafts, she starting calling it a “Making Book”. I like that, a making book. It’s a broader concept than crafts of course, which is why it’s so satisfying to me. A making book can be a woodworking or home repairs book, a sewing or knitting book, even a cookbook. It is different than other books in that it has expectations of you. It wants you to give back; input then output.
Now, I confess, I own a lot of making books, from some of which I have never made anything. But I do make things, as much as I can. Some people ask “why make something when you buy something for less money that’s just as good?” It’s true; most things can be bought cheaply these days, saving time and money over handmade. And in many cases the quality is good. So why make things? Why not just buy them?
What I and other “makers” know is that the making is the point, not necessarily what is made. When I make something I get more out of it than just the handmade item. The journey is more important than the destination. I can think of no better example than the chicken soup I made the other day.
My friend Jane recently learned she has breast cancer. Many in my family and friends have faced this frightening diagnosis and I was determined to do what I could to help Jane through it. Just before her surgery I jested, “I’m coming over with soup when you get home”. “What kind?” said Jane. “Chicken noodle,” I answered, without hesitation. I had seen Jane consume copious quantities of the packet variety over the years.
When Jane got back from the hospital I went to see her. She was pale and tired, but walking around and positive about the outcome. “I’m making the soup this afternoon,” said I. “I will call you when it’s done.” That afternoon I set to it. Now the interesting thing about this is that I didn’t shop for this soup. I had some chicken thighs in the freezer and a few vegetables so I thought I would just use what I had. I can’t give you the recipe because I don’t remember. I didn’t measure anything. I started with sautéed onions in butter, added some chopped baby carrots then covered that with organic chicken stock. I sautéed the chicken in olive oil and garlic and threw that in. Then my visual esthetic sense wanted something green so I headed out to my half dead herb garden and picked some thyme, parsley and sage. Washed and chopped, that added just the right amount of color. I seasoned it with salt, pepper and a bit of lemon juice. Finally I added frozen peas and penne noodles, cooked until tender.
When I was happy with the result, I called Jane. As she lives next door, she said she felt up to coming over. A few minutes later she came to the door, looking tired and in pain. She was stiff from not being about to move well, and she’d just had the drain taken out, which was also painful. She wasn’t allowed to have a shower until the incisions were closed and she hadn’t washed her hair in a week. In short, she felt like crap. I sat her down at the table and set out a bowl of hot soup in front of her. “Wow,” she exclaimed, “This has real chicken in it!” While she ate it, I rubbed her shoulders and brushed and braided her hair. Jane went home with two Tupperware containers of soup for later.
The best part of this soup story is what came later that day. I had kept a serving of the soup for my daughter’s dinner. My daughter is not a fussy eater; she’ll eat anything but it’s hard to get her to eat a whole meal. She usually gets bored about a quarter of the way in. Not so this soup. She devoured it, marveling at the plump noodles and copious chicken. When I told her I had made it for Jane, she was delighted and asked many questions. When she left the table there wasn’t a scrap left in her bowl. The soup was all gone and I personally had eaten only a few tastes as I made it.
Chicken soup is an amazing thing. It is actually scientifically shown to improve immunity. In one form or another, folk wisdom from many cultures imbue it with medicinal or even magical qualities. Eating it is almost universally believed to be beneficial. Even vegans, who of course never eat chicken, believe in the powers of vegetable or bean soup. But what I discovered that day were the benefits of MAKING soup. I went to bed that night feeling not only like a good “maker” but a good friend and an excellent mother.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The No-Sew-T-Shirt-Shopping-Bag

Sometimes two separate necessities meet in such a pleasing way that it just feels like the universe understands us, for a change, understands and sympathizes with our weaknesses, instead of judging us for them. Thus the "No-Sew-T-Shirt-Shopping-Bag". Problem 1 - plastic shopping bags. They are little floating plastic bags of death. We all hate them, so why can't they go away? Problem 2 - too many t-shirts. As anyone who has ever been to a convention, sent their child to summer school or camp, or bought a Volkswagen will tell you, there IS such as thing as too many t-shirts. What to do with them all? Problem 3 - no sewing machine. Discussed in a previous post, this problem is more widespread than I had hoped, once, when I was young and idealistic. Solution: The No-Sew-T-Shirt-Shopping-Bag Here's how: (see here for step by step pictures)
  1. Take an unwanted t-shirt. Make sure it is clean. Regular cotton double knit(not ribbed) will give the best results.
  2. Cut BELOW the bottom stitching until you have a long thin rope. Pull it taut and it should roll up too a nice rope tie.
  3. Cut small 1/2 cm holes along the bottom of the t-shirt above the stitching you have left. Make the holes about 3-4 cm apart.
  4. Thread your tie rope through the holes and gather up the bottom of the t-shirt. Tie a tight knot and make of bow of the excess tie-rope.
  5. Cut the arms and collar off the t-shirt INSIDE the stitching.
  6. Stretch and pull the "handles" until your bag looks right.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Beat the Heat - Lemonade

Anyone in my home town of Vancouver (and apparently those over on the Island too) is all too familiar right now with a little something we call "summer". Now I don't mean the piddly, mild and breezy summer we Vancouverites are used to. Noooooo - I mean SUMMER - East Coast style, Prairie Style, LA Style, heck this is even (gasp!) Sydney style summer. I mean, I'm wearing a boob-tube for god's sake. A BOOB TUBE! It's that hot, you know what I mean? Which brings us to that eternal question: how early is too early to crack open a beer? 10am? 8am? Personally, I can't drink during the day unless I'm prepared to forsake all productivity until the next morning. But then again, there's just something so thirst quenching about beer. Water just doesn't seem to work as well. What is a hot chick to do? The answer? Lemonade. Yes, real old fashioned lemonade, made with real lemons. No powders, no bottles, no lemon flavored "drink", real lemonade. Something our grandmothers hand made nearly every summer day. Ahhhhh. Still, that seems like an awful lot of squeezing on a hot day. Well take heart, thirsty friends and get out that blender you bought yesterday, for here is the easiest most deliciously drinkable home made lemonade you will ever taste on a hot summer's day: 1. Take a whole lemon, peel and all, quarter it and drop into blender. 2. Add a cup and a half of ice 3. Add a cup and a half of cold water 4. Add 1/4 to 1/2 a cup of sugar or Splenda. (use less than you think you need, you can always add more later) 5. Blend on high until all lumps are gone. 6. Pour the mixture through a fine strainer. You will need to mash to get all the juice out. 7. Serve over ice and enjoy! Note: you can add a few strawberries or raspberries for color and flavor, or just red food coloring to make pink lemonade! Kids not only love drinking this, they love making it!

Monday, July 27, 2009

First challenge - Iced Coffee

This may seem like a small thing, trivial in fact, but how many of us spend up to five, ten, even twenty dollars PER DAY on coffee drinks? Think about it - that's three to six thousand dollars per year. On coffee. Just to put it in perspective, with three thousand dollars here are just SOME of the things you can pay for: -ten cleft palate operations in developing countries -Up to 100 investment micro-loans with something like Grameen Bank -Up to two semesters at a state or public university in Canada, the US or Australia - Two kick-ass electric bikes -100+ months of birth control pills.

So, start grinding, people.

 1. Make the strongest coffee you can manage. I used an espresso maker, but a plunger or drip filter will work as long as you make it STRONG!

 2. Pour half a cup of this super strength coffee straight over at least a half a cup of ice. The ice will melt and you'll have room temperature coffee.

 3. Fill a tall glass halfway with ice, add the room temperature coffee.

 4. Add coffee cream, whipping cream or half and half (milk is OK too, I guess, but it's not very good) and your preferred sweetener to taste.
 You can blend this mix for a frappuccino - if you have a blender. If you don't, buy one.

While you're buying your blender, buy a sewing machine.

Day One - Iced Coffee

This is my first blog post - EVER. I'm been meaning to blog for years. I mean, I AM a writer, writers write right? So I should be blogging. But about what? Another blog about writing? Forget it. Some kind of review blog - maybe book reviews? Who cares what I think? (BTW All books are great - you should be reading one now). What else do I care about? Atheism? I would only get into trouble blogging about that. The environment? I couldn't keep up with the true believers - I'm a green wannabe. Abortion rights? Oh dear God no... 

 Then my mom asked me to make a quilt for her charity - Grandmothers to Grandmothers - so I invited a few women to help me; to make it a community quilt. Many of the women I asked said they would love to help out a great cause but they "don't have a sewing machine", "don't know how to sew," or were "hopeless at making things". Now this didn't really bother me - I can make the quilt by myself - I was just surprised and kind of depressed that these wonderful creative and intelligent women don't sew. How do they hem pants, I wondered, or fix a torn seam? Most of my friends love fashion and are snappy dressers, so why don’t we sew our own clothes? For all we wax poetic about the environment and sustainability, about re-use, reduce, re-purpose, re-cycle, about changing our thinking to save our planet, only about 10% of my friends own a sewing machine! This shocked me.

Then a Facebook friend invited me into a kind of “I’ll make you something/Pay it Forward” challenge, which of course I accepted. I think I’ll make some re-usable grocery bags – there are many patterns online. This got me thinking: we don’t make things anymore. We don’t even fix things. Many of us rarely cook.

I remember watching my mother darn socks. I understand the theory of darning socks, but I’ve never actually done it. Have you? Has anyone you know under the age of 50 ever darned a sock? When my socks get a hole, I throw them into the rag bag, from whence they often end up in the trash. A lucky sock might go to a rag dealer via a charity bin and thence to an industrial rag maker – a recycling of sorts, if a somewhat ignoble one.

My mother and my grandmothers all knitted and crocheted and sewed, not because it was trendy (as knitting has of late become) but out of necessity and a sense of purpose and thrift. My mother sewed her own wedding dress for crying out loud! My mother-in-law, a formidable knitter still, also dabbled in furniture making.

It’s not just women and “women’s work” of course. Those traditional men’s hobbies/responsibilities: building a table or birdhouse, tuning the car, installing a light switch have also fallen into memory. My husband is handy, as are my brother’s in law in their own ways, but many men don’t even own a hammer these days. How can they live?

Then there are the foods we no longer make – preserves, jams, jellies, pickles – my mom made all of these back in the day (so did my dad believe it or not). Cookies and cakes now come from Safeway, or maybe from a mix. Juice comes from a can, candy from a machine. Dinner, for many, is prepared with a telephone.

So thus, this blog. I’m going to challenge myself and my friends and readers to make stuff – hand made stuff – on a regular basis. I’m going to try to make one thing a week. I’m also challenging myself and others to make things we would normally buy – food included – hence a few minutes ago, I made myself an iced coffee. So it begins.