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


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.



Summer Senses: The Taste of Soft Ice Cream

IMG_8312Many foods say “summer” to me.

Corn on the cob, from the farmer down the road.

Tiny wild blueberries, from the secret place our friend knows.

Slightly-charred kielbasa, from the grill on which my husband works his magic.

But one food trumps them all for its ability to put the sensation of summer into every bite, or should I say every lick?

Summer is . . . soft-serve ice cream from a roadside stand.

The North Country has lots of soft ice cream. One place serves only one flavor a day and no one cares because all the flavors are so good. Other spots serve 65 flavors every day.

You can get your ice cream in a paper cup and eat it with a spoon but, really, what fun is that? Soft-serve is at its best when it’s in a cone and you can get the ice cream down into every nook and cranny of the cone by gently tapping the bottom on the heel of your hand.

I’m sure my love of soft ice cream is tied up with childhood memories.

My father loved ice cream; it was a well-known fact. When I was about 5 years old, we moved to a new house, up the road from my grandparents’ farm and at the housewarming party one of the gifts was a huge Pyrex mixing bowl, labeled “Don’s ice cream bowl.”

Because he loved ice cream so much, during the summer we’d frequently make the trip from the farm, about 8 miles, to the Tastee-Freeze. It was Harrigan’s Tastee-Freeze and I can remember their ads used the Irish-American song—“H-A-double R-I-G-A-N spells Harrigan.” The same family owns it today, 55 years later.

Harrigan’s was only open, as are all these roadside places, for a few short, special summer months. For the first week they opened in the summer, they’d give little gifts to every child who came in. Ice cream and a trinket? Heaven to a seven-year-old.

We’d go to Harrigan’s in the pick-up truck, with my sister and me riding in the back on really balmy nights.

My father and I always had vanilla cones and my sister always had chocolate.

But then a new wonder came to town! A stand opened called Finney’s Freezer and they had that modern marvel—the TWIST! Chocolate and vanilla ice creams were swirled together into the cone.

Finney’s Freezer was much farther away from our house than Harrigan’s but my father thought it was worth the trip. He and I always had the twist. My sister always had chocolate.

Now our “local” is a place called the Happy Pike. The Happy Pike is about 6 miles from our house so the 12-mile round trip is a perfect bike ride away, far enough to justify a medium cone, instead of a small!

But, of course, we mostly go by car.

We can sit outside and watch the lake and the boats. We have to eat quickly, of course, because the ice cream starts soft and melts fast, and we chase the drips with our tongues. We always end up with a touch of “brain freeze.”

But then, so soon, summer ends, and the roadside stands are shuttered. Big signs say, “Thanks! See you next year.”

During the winter, I’ll eat regular hard-packed ice cream and enjoy it very much. But I will fantasize about soft ice cream and the end of May when the stands open again, because that will make it official—summer has begun.

I bet you have some special food that says “summer” to you—is it soft ice cream?


Made on the 4th of July

IMG_8143What do your “hands at home” make for a special celebration? The decorations? The flower arrangement? The bread? The ice cream?

One day a year, on America’s Independence Day, we go a step further.

We make music.

IMG_8178Two of us have sung together for over 30 years. A little girl grew up singing and joined in. Two of us married and brought new musicians to the group.

We play and sing only a couple of times a year but always, always, on the 4th of July. Most of us never pick up a guitar at any other time.

Because we play together only once or twice a year, we play with no finesse. Self-taught, we play really easy songs and try to avoid F-chords (or those F-ing chords, as a wit among us calls them). We have trouble finding enough capos, let alone the same key. We drink beer and complain about how much the guitar strings hurt our fingers.

We sing songs you may know—of green alligators and long-necked geese, of times that are a-changin’, of Charley on the MTA.

We have loyal listeners who never find fault (mostly because they are related to us!)

Every time we get together and play, I think we should do it more often—there’s something about making music, even not-very-good music, that seems to be at the core of what it means to be human.

When we sit by the campfire and sing, it’s hard not to think of other fires, other songs, other singers who have found warmth and community and harmony through making music.

It may only happen once a year for us, but the feeling lasts. That feeling always makes me think of one of my favorite songs, by John McCutcheon:

And I wish you songs to speed you through the evening,
And I wish you rest at the close of the day,
And a harbor safe till the morning light,
And I wish you good dreams, good morrow, and I wish you good night

So gather `round, you friends and lovers,
Let the darkness come for the fire is bright;
Though the road is long, love makes us stronger,
And I wish you good dreams, good morrow, and I wish you good night.