Friday, October 25, 2013

Dresden musings

I am so excited to be starting in with the Dresden quilt blocks! (You may recall that I acquired 19 antique blocks from a family friend.) There are several reasons for the excitement. For one, I can tell you, this quilt will be a keeper. The blues and indigo are going to look great on my couch.

The second reason is, it's World Series time! There is no background noise I like better than the sound of baseball on the television. The announcers are restrained. They let the silence speak--and the crack of the bat, the thump of the ball in a glove. These rhythms of baseball made comfy grooves in my childhood soul. My brother and I spent countless hours together watching the Cincinnati Reds and, when our dad was present, gloating over their dominance of the NL West (Dad was a Dodgers fan).

So what goes better with baseball on TV than hand work? Time to sew these Dresden plates down. This is what they look like now:

The poor person who handstitched these plates made the seams a scotch too narrow, so they don't quite lie flat. No wonder she gave up on the project. So, my first job (on the machine) is to angle those seams in to the mouth. Then, I machine-stitch the mouth to the backing, and machine-baste about an inch from the outside edge. This will keep everything in place, and make the handwork less dicey.

Here's the front, after I appliqued the blue circle and stitched half of the fluted edge:

Here's the back, showing the back of the applique stitching.

As I stitched this morning I contemplated the irony. I cannot think of Dresden without thinking of the dreadful firebombing of that city. Shattered plates and horror all the way around. But the name of the pattern popularized just a few years before (the 1920s and 30s) appealed to women's romantic associations with that German city, and its ornately decorated porcelain wear. How much can change in so short a time.

Stitching the plates onto a background, and stitching the circles on top of the plates does nothing but reinforce the antique fabric. It's a vote for "picking up the pieces," for utility, beauty, and continued life!


Alas, I had to set aside this satisfying fun for an unwanted chore: making a Halloween costume for a distant young friend. The mere thought of a store-bought costume makes me cringe: the ticky-tacky fabric, the single-use wear, the slut factor in most commercial ready-to-wear costumes, the sweatshop labor, etc.... but mostly the concept that creativity comes wrapped in plastic for $29.99. So, invariably, I offer to sew--in this case, a witch's robe. Ulterior motive alert: when I made the offer, I had in mind a particular 4-yard length of loathsome polyester double-knit (in black!) occupying valuable space in my sewing room.

The last time I checked, my female recipient wore an extra large--in men's. I just happen to know an extra-large man, so I asked him to model the results of my efforts. He agreed--on condition of complete and total anonymity:

The hat was a mere $3.99. Thank Gaia that package is now at the post office and off of my "plates"!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

What now?

Today I pretty much finished off this fabric that I had in my stash:

It's not gorgeous on it's own, but then again it's not something you see every day. I do like the thistle color with the peach, gray and antique blue. And I'm really starting to dig indigo as a background. Anyway, here's what I made with it:

The fabric looks almost impressionistic from a distance.
My quandary is, the quilt top is now about 50" x 50". What does one do with a quilt that size?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Managing abundance

I believe I had an insight today!

When I came home from Columbus, I saw that my sewing room was in quite a state of disarray. Not the "dog-had-urgent-intestinal-troubles-and-chose-my-sewing-room-to-relieve-them" kind of disarray. That was the week before last. This time it was good disarray! B had been playing with fabrics and trim while I was away. An "imagined" garment was draped on the cutting table, and her machine was set up for use. How wonderful. Can't wait til she wanders back again.

There were also a couple of my unfinished projects spread out and about. Like my new blog friend, Zenia Rene, I have Multiple Project Disorder! In other words, I like to have a few projects going at once. On top of that, I had more fabric to add to the mixture, from my culls in Cols.

And, there was the five-gallon bucket of Jonathan apples on the stoop, and the tomatoes still on the vine, with Jack Frost just around the corner. I decided I needed to "manage the abundance." Yesterday, I found this easy crockpot recipe for apple butter from a pair of Iowa City bloggers, and "reduced" 2/3 of the 5-gallon bucket. But that--and everything else in my life--left me little time for sewing.

So I decided it's about time to (yes!) give some fabric away! Each of these is one yard of prewashed standard quilting cotton. Identify the fabric you want, and describe in the comments how you might use it, and in a few days the most compelling answers win! 

This fleur-de-lis fabric is called "Feedsack Melody" by Gloria Leonard Hall for Andover. Note how it's one degree off from primary colors, with gold, tomato red and a purply royal.

This retro-funky ranch print just says "DAVID TEXTILES". And of, course, "Do Not Use For Children's Sleepwear" (what the heck are we supposed to use for children's sleepwear, anyway?)

Finally, this Christmassy print with gold embossing also has no name, just the designer Lonni Rossi for Andover.

Have fun with this. In the meantime, are you curious about my insight? Well, I realized that my dominant paradigm for a while has been that I "don't have enough time" to do the things I want to. You can see I slipped into that language of "lack" above. But maybe it's just that there are so many fun and worthwhile things to do in this life. Maybe, just maybe, I need to focus on "managing the abundance."

I have a hunch that this attitude, if cultivated, could make me feel less rushed, and more present in every thing I choose to do. It can't hurt to try!

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Everyone has fabric

For my last night in Columbus, my mom and I visited longtime family friends whose early bonds with my parents were forged over auctions, estate sales, and the like.

They are collectors. Exhibit A, their kitchen wall:

Exhibit B and C: two pieces of work by a Columbus artist and friend, Lee Csuri (I just adore her combination of whimsy, pathos and Medieval heraldry).

During the course of the evening, our hosts told hilarious stories about some of the acquisitions they'd made. These well-rehearsed stories, each with its unique characters, circumstances and "moral", remind them of why they went (and still go) to such effort and expense to fill their house with unusual items which now, at life's end, become somewhat of a question-mark. When they can no longer be the docents of their collection, who will recognize the value of the objects they leave behind?

Value is a mysterious entity. The market says it is quantifiable. The soul says it is not. It's like light: particle or wave? For the collector, it is both. As our hostess said, "Sometimes it's about an object you can't live without. Sometimes, it's about taking pity on an object. I mean, if you won't love it who else will?

In this spirit, I was invited to view her assortment (if not "collection") of antique quilt blocks. There were some very special ones, and some not so special ones. The fabric was old, perhaps not so strong. She and her mother had painstakingly disassembled quilts for the blocks--she doesn't remember why, perhaps to make pillows. I gravitated to these Dresden plates, which had never been assembled.

Why these gripped me I cannot say. But I spent the ride home imagining what field to put them on, and what color their centers should be. Back home, this is what I arrived at (that's actually indigo, not black).

Note to self: I must be careful. Everyone has fabric.

Friday, October 11, 2013

More Vintage Finds

I was trying to find a pic of my mom in one of her Marimekko get-ups, but those frantic few moments before cocktail parties must have been spent with the babysitter, not with the camera. All I could find were vacation shots, with Mom looking fabulous in her capris and waist-tied button-down shirts. I did find this picture of yours truly, c. 1968, in a dress my mother made.
Crazy-short, huh? That was probably the most fashionable I've ever been. Some 12 years later, you'd find me in a quite uninhibited mood in this prom dress. I remember thinking the label was cool!

Today, Mom and I ventured into the basement, a dark, dank maze of collectible clutter. Here's what 45 years of paint looks like in the sunlight:

We also found a neat 3.5 x 8 foot length of floor canvas (for painted rugs), which I posted on Craig's List, and a set of dollhouse furniture made from clothespins. Now onto the next challenge. . . Sorting through this stack of upholstery remainders Mom has culled from her "special source" to add to my burden our enjoyment:

Let's just say I come by my predicament honestly.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

My Hippy Mom

I've been in Columbus, Ohio these days, helping my mom detach from some of the excess "material" in her house. It seems to be quite a theme in my family these days!

Yesterday, I was pleased to find a home for several linear feet (!) of old Natural History, Smithsonian, and National Geographic magazines with a local teacher of SoulCollage, a spiritual / creative practice that involves collaging images onto cards (cf. Tarot cards) that have an immediate, visceral potency for you. I enjoyed spending a couple of hours with the scissors myself, salvaging images to take back to the SoulCollage facilitators in Ames.

Today, we dug into the stored fabrics and clothes. The final upshot was a major haul to the nearest Mennonite thrift store. When it comes to things material, there's no one I trust more than the Mennonites. They throw very little away. Holes get patched; scraps get made it into beautiful, functional "somethings" like rag rugs or quilts.

We dug up all kinds of things between the mothballs. My mother has always been a stylish dresser, but in my youth, she was a fabulously sophisticated hippy (think Mad Men): tiny-waisted, skinny legged, and an artist who made most of her outfits herself. I quite distinctly remember her wearing this skirt, made of Marimekko fabric:

Today she offered the skirt to me, to make into a lap quilt. How thrilling! It will be a cherished touchstone for me.

We also found this paper mache jewelry of hers. I remember her wearing this set as if it were yesterday, possibly with a white dress of large polka dots? You'll notice the bangle bracelet is a bit yellowed from wear. Another keeper for me!

Now we get to the hard stuff. It was hard to see some of the fabric go. For instance, this large shopping bag of natural-fiber whites:

I could just visualize these unblemished fibers soaking up fiber-reactive dyes--those vivid dyes I don't use because I have trouble following directions and don't want to take responsibility for their toxicity--not that I don't hunger for the experience! Still, I figured, some other crafter will happen upon these whites, spend a little for Mennonite 3rd world missions, and turn them into multi-hued treasures.

The vintage calicoes in the closet were few and fabulous; it was easy to absorb them into my stash:

Then, there were the wools. I grew up hearing about Viyella, a cotton/wool blend that is washable. We easily parted with several yardages of Viyella; besides them, there was a large bag of half-made garments and wool-blend scraps, including all the pant leg bottoms that my dad had ever had tailored to fit his short, stocky frame, a black-watch plaid skirt I had worn as a school uniform, and a red skirt that never really fit me. I debated long and hard over whether to give this bag of scraps to the Mennonites to sew or to haul it back on the plane to Iowa to make a quilt myself.

I bet you think I'm going to say that I finally decided to "let go." Hah! Are you kidding? I've always wanted to make a wool quilt. Plus, that Viyella has such a lovely hand, and I'm going to love going through every last pants fabric my dad wore. When the quilt is made, then (and only then) will I let those fabrics go into the world to lead happy, fulfilling lives of their own.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Getting it Wrong

I was on a long trek through the Iowa countryside to pick up B. when I listened to my first-ever smart-phone podcast, a free excerpt of a talk by Thich Nhat Hahn on "offering your presence." Afterwards, I was so exultant with the autumn beauty and my resolutions to be present for others that I missed my turn. That was okay, as I had time to spare, and I could laugh at myself. But...

On the way home I stopped at a small-town grocery for garlic. Must. Get. Garlic. Beer was also on the short list. Uh, oh, I thought. B's getting out of the car; she'll be asking me to buy her something. I dashed to the produce section but I couldn't find garlic--or a store employee. My indignation kicked into high gear. What culture doesn't consider garlic a staple? Answer: the culture B. grew up in; she won't eat anything but McDonalds. Where was the help, anyway? What kind of service was this?

I finally found the person who was clearly the manager, behind an adding machine in a small office near the front. He led me back to the produce section. "Oh!" He spoke with a smile. "Here's why you couldn't find the garlic. It was hiding behind this." He held up a purple plushy doll with wings. I took the garlic, but did not give that mass-marketed made-in-China object a second look.

I went straight to the cash register with the garlic. No one there to serve me. My inner voice was practically screaming, "I demand to be served!" I stopped in the office again, where the manager was back at his calculations. "Can someone check me out?" I asked, impatiently.

"There is someone; she's in the beer cooler."

"Oh yeah! Beer was on my list." Another opportunity to get it right, calm down and laugh at myself. I didn't, as B. had found her way to the self-care products aisle. (Like many a 13-year-old, she loves the products, but generally fails to apply them). Several gruff exchanges ensued, about how I was not going to spend the rest of the afternoon in that store, and I finally escaped with just a cheap stick of fake-scented deodorant.

Back on the road, it didn't take long to realize how I'd had all those opportunities to get it right, but hadn't. I could have noticed the purple plushy doll on the shelf, and how it was out of place. I might have smiled at its cuteness, or how it was the "keeper" of the garlic. Instead, I got it wrong--less than an hour after I had vowed to "offer my presence". I had loved the "product" (available at, but had not applied it. Instead of cultivating peace and joy, I had bombarded the place with recrimination and anger.

In the sphere of sewing, the weekend was much of the same. I was wondering whether I'd gotten it wrong when I made this Double-X block:

I was a little surer when I put two blocks together,

Or put together a field of them. Just not working. Way too busy!

But I liked the core idea of using a print as the background fabric. So I made this Double-X block with a background print that was a little less demanding:

Now, look carefully at the block above. Do you see any place for the block on the left (below)? Do you see any place for the block on the right? Yet, lo and behold, no matter how many of these subunits I made, the ones on the right kept showing up.

How do I keep getting it wrong? I guess I get bored, and start thinking of something else.. 

It's interesting that both Buddhism and Christianity have forgiveness as a central message. Alas, human nature gives us plenty of opportunities to apply that message.

Maybe that's why it felt like a miracle when I actually, by accident, got something right:

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Seamsters of the World, Unite!

A friend who had just received a B.A. in Fashion Design and Merchandizing dumped a load of fabric in the back end of my car last May at her graduation party. It was dark and I couldn't see what I was getting, but it seemed important to offer her this service. She and her boyfriend were having a serious "clutter" conflict. "It's just so hard for me to throw stuff away. Someone has to want it."

Only this week did I drag it all out of my car. As I had suspected from furtive glances through the window, that "someone" would not be me. Most of it was lengths of cheap garment fabric--usable, but too bold, shiny, or polyester-y for my taste.

I offered the fabric on freecycle, and heard back from a local woman whose church has a connection to the Elikya Foundation, which (among other things) trains widows in the Democratic Republic of Congo to make clothes for a living. Perfect!

Kiva Microfunds is another way to support independent stitchers (and other types of small businesspeople or landholders) around the world. Instead of your money sitting in a bank, it is put to use by honest, hardworking people--who almost always pay it back on time. Here are just some of the tailors and seamstresses I've made loans to.

Hector, from Colombia (my very first loan), bought an overlock machine:

Ganbaatar of Mongolia was seeking wool. I like to imagine what he was making.

Agnes (Kenya) bought a sewing machine. With her profits from sewing, she has been able to send her two children to school and buy a milk cow.

Yoslaida (Colombia) had worked in garment factories. She and her husband wanted to start a business from home so their 3 kids could have a better life. Her dream is to develop her own line of clothing and be able to provide jobs for others.
Laura was a seamstress for 20 years in Argentina. She moved to Florida and has started her own alterations business here. Her dream is to make custom-designed wedding dresses.

I think of these men and women often. I am glad for the opportunity to help them pursue their dreams--those dreams that seem so familiar to me. 

I am also glad that they are not working in sweatshops.
Well, I should say, they are not working in someone else's sweatshop. Sewing can be hard work!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013


I've gotten this far, and I have a couple of observations:
  1. Next time I do this, I will use dark and light in the twists to create the illusion of depth.
  2.  "      "    "   "    " , I will regulate the width of the strips so there won't be any strings. 
  3. The front does not match the lovely dark floral (below) I had planned for the back. Her DNA is just too shy. I have some peach flannel for the back.
As I stitched I remembered a beautiful fabric I had acquired through a swap. Of course, it was no use looking for it because -- well, you've seen my sewing room -- but when I was tearing through my bins for fabric to use in another project, I happened upon it! About a half a yard:

I love this rich saturated rust color, and I have been inspired multiple times by its combination with periwinkle. I would love to show off its generous-sized print in the quilt, but as you can see, the color is too dark for the soft hues of the center part:

So I decided to create little "vignettes" of the fabric for someone to enjoy.

A row along the side would look like this, sort of Craftsman style.

That "other" project I mentioned? A new use for the bold dark floral. Not sure what I think. (More about the sources of this inspiration in the next post.)

In the meantime, I have been pondering who to give the DNA quilt to. It doesn't have anybody's name on it yet. For me, this raises issues relating to my own shy DNA. I would love for this shy girl to have a home, to be part of something meaningful. But how... ?

Perhaps sewing just gives me too much time for introspection!