Buying New or Making Do?

fabric and threadIt’s time to start a new project!

How will you approach it? Will you buy new or make do?

Will you shop for the love of shopping and stockpile fabrics, yarns, beads, foodstuffs on speculation? Will you choose a project, and then go looking in the stores for the perfect materials? Will you look at what you have on hand and plan a project from there?

And, if you choose the latter, will you feel you’ve settled for less?

As a maker, I’m faced with these kinds of decisions all the time and, honestly, my first instinct is to go to the fabric shop or the craft supplies website and shop.

I’m trying to consciously re-evaluate that impulse. When I wrote a post recently about why do we do the things we do, I got thinking about all this and about what motivates me to make. Two of the things I mentioned were that I liked to solve problems and I liked the idea of connecting with people who came before me.

What I didn’t say, but a commenter did and I realized it applies to me, too, is that making things is a way to step outside my reliance on “store bought” and to make do with what I have and what I can make.

Our consumer culture has taught us to buy, not just finished products, but also lots of pretty materials with which to make things. We buy fabrics and craft supplies the same way we buy electronics and clothes and home décor items. We choose new and plentiful over that which we already own.

Sometimes we don’t bother to choose at all; we buy it all.

But, you see, I’ve always been disdainful of this consumer culture. Or at least I talk that talk.

When you get me talking, I’ll say that one of the things I admire most about vintage handmade items is the evidence of “making do” that resides in the pieces. I love old quilts that are imperfect because the maker used scraps or obviously ran out of fabric and substituted another one instead of buying more.

I love reading an old recipe, with notes in the margins about substituting ingredients.

I love the idea of dividing and otherwise propagating new plants from the ones I already have, to fill in the bare patches is the gardens.

Making do leaves its own marks of loving hands—I look for those marks and they make me smile.

My love of these things reminds me that, when I myself am gathering materials for a project, I should look around at what I have to work with. I should more consciously walk the walk of making do.

This isn’t easy for me. I realize that, to some extent, I’ve unlearned the ability to make do, or perhaps I’ve never really learned it to begin with. And I also think that, in our minds, “making do” equates with “settling for less.”

I wanted to make do with my last weaving project. I wanted to make dishtowels and I wanted to use material I had on hand, from the stash of yarn we got when we bought the secondhand loom.

If I had bought new yarn, the packaging would’ve told me how many threads to use per inch, based on the weight of the fiber. But I used what I had, made a guess about how many threads, and ended up with pretty striped fabric that more closely resembles mosquito netting than dishtowel. I felt like I had settled for less.

Disappointed, I immediately decided I would buy new, “right” yarn, and re-do the project. But wait! Maybe I should use what I still have on hand and figure out how to make do and make better! To do so would give me the chance to a) solve problems, b) connect with people who came before me and who had to make do, and c) step out of the cycle of buying more.

Hey! Those are the things I claimed motivate me to do the things I do! Walk the walk, girlfriend, walk the walk.

I could learn a lot from my foremothers, whose choices were constrained by practical considerations. They often made their choices from what they had on hand and re-used scraps of old fabric or used ingredients available on the farm to decide what recipe to make. They used highly developed problem-solving skills to substitute and piece together and adapt materials and still create beauty.

They still had choices aplenty but different kinds of choice. They made do, out of both necessity and temperament.

But I’m no purist on this subject. In an age where we have so much available to us, the choice between making do and buying new doesn’t have to be absolute.

Sometimes, buying new makes total sense. If, as makers, we are motivated to make purely for expressive and creative reasons, then buying the exact right materials is probably necessary.

When I made the “Cot to Coffin” quilt recently for a War of 1812 bicentennial, the constraints were so specific that it made sense to buy new.

In so many cases, though, for those of us who look to build on a tradition and to get in touch with history and rely less on store bought, why not re-evaluate our impulse to go shopping?

So, for my next quilting project? How about if, instead of starting a new top with new materials, I finish one of the dozen vintage quilt tops I have in the cupboard? Or use up some of the myriad of leftovers pieces of fabric from the quilt I finished last year?

How about I weave with what we have on hand, and just think harder during the planning stage?

What if I “shopped” my pantry before deciding what to bake?

I’m saying all of this out loud not to judge or promise or set anything into stone. I’m only seeking to remind myself, imprint in my own thoughts, the value I see in making do so, when I’m tempted to buy a lot of stuff, I might think twice.

Because making do might mean settling for more.

Woven Together

The weaving continues.

We pursue it with the zeal of converts.

The fact that we are learning together adds to the enjoyment.

We talk about ideas and plans.

We bring different perspectives to solving problems, and four hands to the task make some chores far easier.

We definitely have different approaches. He tends toward complicated patterns and lots of bright colors. He wants to make exuberant table runners. He is bold and fearless.

IMG_8777IMG_8048I tend toward wanting to learn about different fibers and classic designs—twills herringbones, stripes. I want to make tidy dishtowels and scarves. I am methodical and want things just so.IMG_7988IMG_8789We approach weaving as we have so many things over 25 years—on equal terms, balancing the load, each with our own strengths, respecting what the other does better.

Strong fabric depends on warp and weft. Woven together.

Manly Hands at Home: A Cake for All Seasons

Why, yes, that is rhubarb. And, yes, I know that rhubarb is a spring treat and it is not currently spring anywhere.

But, when there’s a man in the house who loves to cook and is willing, nay, eager to cook, you mustn’t quibble when he wants to bake with rhubarb out of season!

My husband is the main cook at our house. He likes it and is amazingly good at it. And since I’ve already posted the three or four recipes that I know how to make, it’s time to move on to sharing some of his concoctions!

He found this recipe for Rhubarb-Pecan Upside-Down Cake in a back issue of Yankee magazine, a US magazine featuring all things New England. And even though he is usually more of a cook than a baker, this recipe seduced him and he could not rest until he made it!

I hope it’ll seduce you, too, and that, even if you believe that rhubarb can only be cooked with in spring, you will remember it when the time comes. It’s a lovely balance of sweet and tart, crunchy and crumbly. Plus you get to use a springform pan, which, if you’re like me, will make you feel like a real cook!

Rhubarb–Pecan Upside-Down Cake by Jane Walsh

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Overview: You start with pecans, brown sugar, butter, and rhubarb, then cover those ingredients with the cake batter. When the cake is baked and inverted, the rhubarb, sugar, and nuts create a caramelized topping that is delightful!

General instructions

Preheat oven to 350° and set a rack in the middle position. Butter a 9-inch springform pan; then cut a round piece of parchment paper to fit the bottom of the pan. (The original recipe says you can use a cake pan). Place the pan on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper, in case your springform pan leaks. (Don’t ask me how I know this. I just do).

Ingredients for the topping (which will be at the bottom for now!):

  • 4 tablespoons salted butter, melted
  • ¾ pound rhubarb stalks, cut into 1-inch-long diagonals
  • ½ cup pecan halves (we used a full cup and we toasted the pecans in the oven first; see notes)
  • ½ cup firmly packed light-brown sugar (we used more!)

IMG_8742Instructions or the cake topping:

To create the topping, start by arranging the pecan halves in the bottom of the pan and pour melted butter over them. Arrange the rhubarb, then sprinkle all over with the ½ cup of brown sugar. Set aside.

Ingredients for cake batter

  • ½ cup pecan halves
  • 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • ¼ teaspoon table salt
  • ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
  • ¾ cup granulated sugar
  • ½ cup firmly packed light-brown sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
  • ½ cup whole or reduced-fat milk

Instructions or the cake batter:

In a food processor, pulse the pecans until very finely chopped.

Mix the nuts with the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt. You can do this mixing of dry ingredients in your food processor or by hand in a bowl.

In a large bowl, beat the remaining ½ cup of butter with the granulated sugar until fluffy, about 4 minutes, scraping down the bowl several times.

Add the remaining ½ cup of brown sugar

Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each.

Add vanilla.

Add the milk in two batches, alternating with the dry ingredients, and scraping down the bowl as needed.

Pour the batter over the rhubarb mixture, and smooth with a spatula.

IMG_8748Bake until the sides of the cake are beginning to pull away from the pan and a knife inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, about 50 minutes.

Cool in the pan for 15 minutes, run a knife around the edge to loosen, and invert the warm cake onto a serving plate. (If the cake cools too long, it will be hard to remove from the pan.) Serve warm or at room temperature.

IMG_8755Notes:

Toasting the pecans before using adds a great deal of flavor. I toast pecans in the oven, set at 350 degrees, for about 12 minutes. I use a heavy cookie sheet and stir the nuts every few minutes. They will start to smell yummy; be sure not to let them burn!

You may be tempted to use more than the called-for amount of rhubarb. If you do, you’ll be adding extra moisture to the cake and it will take longer to cook and may not cook fully in the center. Don’t ask me how we know that. We just do.

We served this with vanilla ice cream and a puree made from the leftover fresh rhubarb. YUM!

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Dragonfly Summer

dragonflyWe’ve had an unusual number of dragonflies around this summer and I have been trying, mostly in vain, to get a good photograph of one. This is my favorite so far.

Aren’t his iridescent wings beautiful? And he eats mosquitoes!

What does this have to do with “loving hands at home”? Ummm . . . dragonflies are also sometimes called “darning needles”?

Patty Yoder’s Beautiful Sheep, Again

IMG_8479Just about a year ago, when I started my blog, I wrote about an exhibit of hooked rugs I had seen at Shelburne Museum, in Vermont. These rugs, made by Patty Yoder, are so beautiful and so successfully bring an new artistic vision to an old craft form that I was excited to share them.

The problem was, I had just started my blog and almost no one was reading it yet! So the delightful, sweet, hand-hooked sheep were enjoyed by only about 4 people.

We went back to Shelburne last week, and visited the sheep again–they are still splendid. I took some new photos and am refreshing what I wrote, with hope that you’ll find them as compelling as I do.

The Shelburne Museum website says the following about the rugs: “The Alphabet of Sheep series combines two of [Yoder’s] favorite things: the sheep on her farm and the alphabet. Her rugs incorporate her family, friends, or sheep as the subject matter, a joyous celebration of one woman’s life.” And joyous is the perfect word to describe these rugs!

IMG_8477The exhibition features about 20 of the 44 hooked rugs Yoder made in the 13 years between her retirement and her death in 2005. That’s a very short time to develop skill and a personal vision but these rugs are amazing in both ways.

IMG_8476Have you ever tried rug hooking? I have. It was hard! All those strips of wool sitting around, flat and uninteresting, and the maker needs to be able to envision how those pieces fit together, how to vary color, how to bring them through the backing fabric in a consistent manner. Yikes. My failed attempts at rug hooking made me much more appreciative of what Yoder accomplished with her work!

I wish my pictures were better. I wish Shelburne had more photos on their website. I wish you could see these in person, to appreciate the texture and color with your own eyes. Patty Yoder found her creative outlet, building on a traditional, utilitarian craft and, like so many other makers, finding a way to express herself and her passion with her own hands.

The Patty Yoder show is up through October 31, 2014. I know most of you will never be able to see these in person but I hope the photos give you a sense of how loving hands can transform strips of fabric into a whimsical farmyard of sheer delight!

A Maker’s Abecedary: A is for . . . Alphabet Sampler

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Samplers from the collection at Shelburne Museum, Vermont.

One of the wonderful things about being a maker is the choices we have available about what to make. Depending on your interests, values, and aesthetic sense, there’s a craft or art form for every taste, from A to Z.

As our hands shape our chosen materials, we are shaped by the work we do. This was perhaps never more apparent than in the tradition of girls and young women making needlework samplers, especially in early America.

These samplers taught so much—the alphabet, the building blocks of literacy, and often a moral precept, but also focus, concentration, and amazing eye and hand coordination, especially considering that simple samplers were stitched by girls as young as five or six. Eleven- and twelve-year-old girls made elaborate samplers, with superbly tiny stitches that would challenge you and me.

Just as the samplers taught the girls much of what they knew, they also teach us much of what we know about these girls and of women and their roles in these early years. Even the names of woman were rarely recorded in official ways in the 17th and early 18th centuries and so much of women’s work was work that was regularly undone and didn’t last.

Food was prepared and was consumed, and more food needed to be made. A home was cleaned, a bed was made, a garden was tended and all needed to be done again the next day. All were relentless, repetitive works in progress, with no lasting artifacts to remind us of the names and contributions of women.

So, in our abecedary of craft forms, it’s appropriate that alphabet samplers come first, since they were the craft that came first for young girls and because they provide tangible evidence that women make.

All alphabet samplers are samplers but not all samplers were alphabet samplers, or training tools for that matter. It seems that the earliest-known samplers were a way for women to collect stitches—a sort of cloth and thread library of stitches they could refer to.

Women didn’t have printed instructions, much less the Internet, to learn from so, when they saw a stitch that was new to them, they would stitch it on cloth, as a reminder. This sampler of stitches was added to over a woman’s lifetime and examples of these collections survive from the 15th and 16th centuries.

It was probably only a matter of time until these collections of stitches turned into something of a competitive sport and samplers evolved as more elaborate and showy, a way for a woman to show off a little, as seems to have happened in 18th- and 19th-century Europe.

These showy samplers didn’t make a lot of sense for European women who came to North America, though:

the settlers in America had a new wilderness to conquer and the need for elaborately decorated linens and clothing was not a necessity to them. What was common luxury in ‘civilized’ England was not important in the new land.

What was deemed necessary in early America was the education of girls to become resourceful and pious women, and good wives and keepers of a home. The alphabet sampler was an important aspect of this education. The alphabet sampler, while not original to the United States, was certainly embraced by new settlers of the English colonies, to teach their girls.

From 1645, when the earliest-known American sampler was made by Loara Standish of the Plymouth Colony, girls spent hours of their days, producing stitched alphabet samplers. It seems amazing to me that young girls, usually between the ages of six and twelve, had the coordination and concentration to make these stitches. Can you imagine any 10-year-old you know handling this task?

These samplers were teaching tools, giving girls a way to learn and practice stitching, letters, coordination, and lessons in morality. They could then demonstrate their ability to mark linens, in order to keep track of them in a household, as well as demonstrate piety and values to possible husbands.

The completed work was usually framed and hung in the parlor, proclaiming the maker’s obedience, patience, and skill. . . . The verses found on many samplers reinforced these messages, emphasizing the importance of female virtue, the value of education, and obedience to one’s parents and to God.

That so many alphabet samplers survive, even though they are made of relatively fragile threads, gives us a good sense that the women who made them treasured them. And why wouldn’t they? The samplers were evidence that a woman could make a mark that would last, unlike so much of the work assigned to women in those years. The permanency of thread on linen, along with the name of the maker, gave many women the only tangible item that might outlast them.

The simple designs of these samplers are still treasured by needleworkers, who reproduce the designs faithfully from patterns offered for sale. Today’s patterns connect modern stitchers to a long, homely tradition:

Make it.

Learn from it.

Sign it.

Cherish it.

___________________________

For more information about samplers, including alphabet samplers, and many images visit Antique Samplers.