The Living Was Easy

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It’s summertime.

Look at those self-satisfied faces.*

They know.

Those girls know, even though the oldest is only 9, they know how lucky they are.

They are lucky to spend their summer days on a farm, a farm where they have the freedom to roam, to sit in the haymow and dream, to chew a stalk of hay.

Four cousins, together for only the summer months. They are lucky to play together with absolutely nothing to worry about except breaking a plastic flip flop or getting sticky drips of Popsicle running down an arm.

School doesn’t start again for a month. Their moms will take them to the “little beach” down the road and their bathing suits will never completely dry out all summer. Their dads will call them away from the TV in the evenings, to help corral cows that have wandered beyond the fence line.

Later they and a dad and a dog or two will make the trip for soft ice cream. The ice cream shop has not yet gotten the technology to make a twist of two flavors so the hardest decision of the day will be chocolate or vanilla.

These girls were so lucky to have this childhood. They knew it then and they are even more convinced now.

Every year, when summer arrives, the scent of new-mown hay or the taste of the first corn off the stalk transports them back to those days, and they smile those self-satisfied smiles and remember how it was summertime and the living was easy.


* I just saw this photo of my sister, my cousins, and me for the first time (that’s me on the left, then cousin Paula, sister Kathy, and cousin Jill). Paula gave it to me a couple days ago and I’m not sure I have a photo I like better! Do you have a photo that sums up your childhood? Shouldn’t you write a blog post about it?!

A couple of bloggers took me up on this!

Deb at SevenCub’s Blog

Deb at A Daily Dose of Fiber

The One That Didn’t Get Away

Sometimes things work out just fine.

A few short weeks ago, I was loudly lamenting that I had not bought a sewing caddy I found at a garage sale. But that recent experience with hesitation and regret left me primed for the sewing box I found two days ago, at yet another garage sale.

While the one that got away was whimsical and handmade and fun, this one is staid and handsome and sensible.

The case I left behind made me smile out loud, but I think I knew that, if I owned it, I wouldn’t really use it. I have other similar cases and I have never pressed them into real service. They are a little tippy and awkward to move and, I don’t know, not really aligned with my organizational style.

I knew this case was really much more suited to my needs; I loved it the moment I saw it.

This is not to say that I paid the asking price for it! It was priced at three times as much as the box I didn’t buy and I would not have gone that high. But the seller wanted it to be loved and appreciated and was willing to accept what I could pay, she said, because she believed I would love and appreciate it.

She was right.

It belonged to the great-grandmother of the seller; great-grandma’s name was Violet.

Violet, and others in the family who came to use the box, left the case filled with the bits and bobs and flotsam of daily sewing. I spent a happy hour or two sifting through their treasures.

Wooden spools of thread, clothing patterns from the 1960s, needle books given away at stores. Pin cushions. Many, many buttons. I will think of Violet whenever I use the case.

But this isn’t Violet’s sewing box any longer. It’s mine now, and I just know she’d want me to use it and make it my own.

I’ll put most of the old stuff away and fill the box with the flotsam of my daily sewing. It will hold the things I use to sew yo-yos together, to embroider my redwork squares, to organize me through projects as yet unimagined.

I will pick it up and take it with me to sit by the lake on these perfect summer days. In autumn, I can carry it to a spot sheltered from the wind and savor the October sun.

I will transport it next to the fireplace when winter arrives and the lake freezes and the north wind blows cold.

And I’ll be awfully glad I didn’t let this one get away . . .

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A Moment . . .

. . . I’ve been waiting for!

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When you’re immersed in a project, do you have a favorite moment? Is it casting off the last stitch, putting the finished cake or flower arrangement on the table, sewing the binding on the quilt?

Or is there a step along the way that gives you the biggest thrill?

For me, and I suspect a lot of weavers, the best moment comes when I cut the warp off the loom and unwind the long, long piece of fabric.

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So many steps remain before anything here will be finished! Ends need to be woven in, hems turned and sewn or fringe twisted, various stages of wet finishing and pressing.

But right now, I can see what I have, what I have been working at for these last weeks. Much of what I’d woven had been hidden from me, wound onto that front cloth beam.

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I’d almost forgotten what the first section looked like so this is a sort of unveiling, a revealing of work of my hands.

This length of fabric will become a runner, two towels, and, my favorite, the random-sized piece of cloth at the end. Because it’s random, “extra,”I felt free to play and, off course, I like it best. It’s too small for a towel . . . maybe a bread cloth?

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Now that this project is off the loom, I can get ready for my second most favorite moment–the fresh, tidy new warp, ready for the shuttle to be thrown and the web to be woven.

 

“It’s All About Me” Monday: The Balsam Pillows

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Nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it.
–Vladimir Nabokov

When I was a child in upstate New York, I took naps on a sunny glassed-in porch at the farm. On my couch was a special pillow. It was small and floppy and not soft. In fact, it was lumpy and sort of scratchy but . . . it had the most amazing smell.

The smell was faint, just a hint of something special remained. If I squeezed the pillow, I could coax a stronger breath of it out but just for a moment. The fragrance was of all outdoors and mountains and pine trees. It spoke of my grandmother’s house, of the farm, of the region, that place of my birth.

The small pillow was filled with needles of balsam fir. Then, and still now, these small pillows can be found all over the northeast, and especially, it seems, in the Adirondack Mountains of New York and in Maine. They were, and are, sold as souvenirs of a particular kind of wilderness.

I’ve had a thing for these balsam pillows all my life. I wander around my house and can count at least 35 of them—some are vintage, with corny sayings, like “I pine for yew and balsam, too,” printed on the pillows. Some are newer, made of bright Pendleton wool, embroidered cotton, and even one of velveteen.

Of the pillows lying around, probably 10 or more are ones I’ve made over the years. I can buy balsam needles locally for $5.50 a pound. It’s fresh and aromatic and condenses forest-mountains-lakes-sun-breeze-summer into one sniff.

I have usually made my pillows using a quilter’s technique called Cathedral Windows. A solid-colored fabric is folded and sewn in a particular way, until small bits can be turned back to frame an inserted scrap of special fabric, which is featured like the glowing pieces of stained glass.

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A Cathedral Window quilt. Photo by Kristen

Over the years, my featured fabrics have been of Adirondack images—apples, acorns, and pine cones—but my most recent pillows are a little different.

Of all the vintage linens that go though my hands, some of my favorites are classic, hard-working, striped linen dishtowels. They look tailored and efficient and elegant in their perfect design for a job of work.

But some of the towels I handle are damaged by a big hole or dark stain. It pains me to throw such a towel away so I use scraps to decorate my balsam pillows. Some plain muslin fabric, a small square of dishtowel, a random old button—together they make a perfect envelope for that special fragrance.

These are very small pillows, less than 4 inches across. I can use them as sachets and tuck them almost anywhere so that, unexpectedly, I’ll walk through a room and get a hit of that astringent fragrance, evocative, not too sweet, full of memories.

When I smell balsam, it’s always summer and the sun is always shining onto fir needles. I’m a small girl again, taking a nap in a cozy, secure place in the country. When I smell it, I smell home.

But, enough about me! Let’s talk about you. How do you like my balsam pillows? If you craft and make things, is fragrance a part of the making? Is there a smell that transports you back to childhood?

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Something for Everyone: A Quilt Show Tonight

Now, I know what some of you are thinking, “Oh, jeez—a quilt show. She’s going to show us pictures of quilts. I don’t quilt. I don’t sew. I don’t care about quilts.”

But I say, with apologies to Stephen Sondheim and the cast of “A Funny Thing Happened at the Way to the Forum,” that no matter who you are, there’s something for everyone at a quilt show, or at least that was the case last weekend at the Vermont Quilt Festival. Come, and hum, along and see if you agree.

Something familiar:

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Something peculiar:

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Something for everyone,
A quilt show tonight!

Something appealing,
Hung from the ceiling

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Something for everyone:
A quilt show tonight!

Something with houses, something with towns;

Bring on the fabric, notions, and gowns!

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Vendors for shopping,
Something eye-popping,

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Something old-fashioned,

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Something with flash and

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Something for everyone:
A quilt show tonight!

Something most modern,

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Something POSTmodern,

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Something with color,
Bright or much duller,

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Something most Op-ish,

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Something more Pop-ish,

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Something for everyone:
A quilt show tonight!

Impressive!

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Obsessive!

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Specific!

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Terrific!

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Something exotic,

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Something chaotic,

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Something Egyptian,

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One with inscriptions,

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Something so striking,

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Much to my liking!

Something so simple and so right!

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Real world tomorrow,
Quilt show tonight!


If those of you who love quilts have any questions, let me know!

The One That Got Away: The Sewing Caddy

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Sometimes being practical is a bad idea.

Sometimes being frugal comes back to bite you.

Yesterday was such a day. I was practical and frugal and now . . . I am repenting.

It was Saturday—garage sale day. My mother and I went off on the byways of upstate New York, to see what treasures lurked.

Not too many treasures, as it turned out, but there was one . . .

In a driveway, in a small village, a beautiful sewing case.

I’ve written about these cases in the past. They were offered, apparently as a project from the Cooperative Extension, for men to make for their wives. I’ve seen probably 20 of these over the years and have ended up owning most of them, at least for a while, before passing them along to others.

This one, though, is the prettiest and most unusual I’ve ever seen.

The fabric on the outside is a wonderful winter scene, and in great condition.

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The inside, though, is what sets this apart. All of these cases were customized by the makers, probably with input from their wives. Some have pin cushions built in, or little drawers. Many have the jars with the lids attached to the box, to collect buttons and pins, and the nails to corral spools of thread.

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But never have I seen one with the fabulous decorative cutouts evident here. The words “This ‘N That,” the initials “LC,” and the shapes of scissors, large and small, were all carefully pierced into the wood.

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And all those pierced panels are constructed to tip out, on hinges, for easy access.

So, I looked at it and I drooled. I coveted it.

The practical persona sat on my shoulder and whispered, “You already own two pretty cases like this.”

The frugal persona asked the price . . . and offered $5 less.

The seller declined that offer.

And the third persona, known forever after as the bereft, disappointed one, walked away.

I got in my car. I drove away. And I haven’t stopped thinking about this treasure since.

Redwork–Mine, Old and New

I fell in love last year.

I was at my quilt guild’s show. Among the antique quilts being shown was a quilt made up of many small panels with simple scenes, done in red embroidery.

Then I noticed two similar quilts, modern ones made by fellow guild members. Redwork quilts, all of a sudden, seemed to be everywhere!

As I looked at these quilts, and coveted the old one, something niggled at my memory . . .

I’ve mentioned that I go to garage sales, estate sales, flea markets and, like everyone who spends enough time at such places, I’ve found treasures.

In 2012, I bought a pile of old linens and fabrics at an outdoor sale. I was busy and distracted at the time but vaguely aware that, in the pile, I had picked up a redwork quilt for a dollar.

I remember seeing that it was in rough condition but figured I could cut it up and sell some of the blocks. It got put away, with stacks of other old linens, and forgotten.

But now my interest was piqued about redwork quilts, so I went searching for the quilt I’d bought.

I found that old quilt and looked at it carefully for the first time.

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Just one section–it’s so faded I couldn’t get a good photo of the whole thing!

It’s faded, it’s ripped and patched, it’s stained. In one block, the design has disintegrated entirely.

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It was finished in April of 1889.

IMG_2753And, to my 21st-century eyes, it is peculiar and quirky and wonderful.

If you went looking for redwork quilt designs today, you’d find countless patterns that look like they were designed by Disney.

My quilt looks much more like Grimm Brothers had a hand in it. The difference between the aesthetics of the late 1800s and the early 2000s couldn’t be more striking. The old quilt is hard-edged, sort of harsh, not at all cute, really quite gritty.

I love it. And it’s clear that it’s been loved before, and loved nearly to death. It’s fragile and unstable.

So I have decided to remake it, to preserve a version of it for a couple centuries more.

I have been using an inexpensive child’s lightbox to trace the redwork panels on to paper, so I can keep them. Then I trace from the paper version on to off-white cotton fabric.

As I trace and then stitch, I enjoy the designs. There are flowers, lots and lots of flowers.

And there are animals; some are the ones the maker would know from the farm and some are exotic, known only from books or dreams.

My favorite blocks, though, are the ones with the people, and, especially, children. The children depicted are not the cute and pampered and romanticized children of modern America but are serious and, often, awkward-looking.

A girl jumps rope.

 

Two boys blow bubbles.

The children in my quilt are all focused and intent. Only one panel shows a child with any hint of a smile—a small person (not especially childlike), listening to a large person read. She stands at attention; no cuddles here.

Looking carefully at these old panels has given me a lot to think about. Do these older quilts reflect a fundamental difference in the perception of childhood, then and now? We can’t attribute the differences to design ability or sewing skills—this seems to be a difference in seeing the world.

It’s true that, by the turn of the 20th century, the shift to gentler and “cuter” designs had already begun. Even then, the Sunbonnet Sue girl was taking over and designs by illustrator Kate Greenaway seem to have dramatically changed, and romanticized, the image of childhood.

Some stitchers chose one depiction of the world and others chose another, even as we do now, I suppose.

So, I stitch and ponder. This is slow stitching, a project with no deadlines, only for me.

I am trying to copy the old blocks precisely but realize that, without wanting to or trying, I am smoothing rough edges, making things “prettier” than they were. I am influenced by a 21st-century way of seeing without wanting to be.

I am thinking that I will, eventually, add some personal and modern panels to my version of the quilt, to let it reflect both centuries in which it was made. I’m thinking about a panel depicting an iPhone (because I love mine so!), maybe one celebrating 100 years of women’s right to vote in the US, and, I hope, a panel celebrating the first woman president of the United States.

We’ll see. For right now, I have my plan and my focus. I have 40-some-odd blocks to do before I worry about moving back into the 21st century.

I’m curious about what you think of this old quilt. Do you like it or think it’s creepy? Find it interesting? Or is it ugly to your eyes? Do you prefer the cuter, softer images we see today? What kind of redwork can you imagine yourself doing?


As I’ve plunged, head first, into the rabbit hole of the Internet, I have found all kinds of redwork resources.

An amazing resource for old embroidery patterns, a catalog published in 1886 and including many of the designs in my quilt: New Sample Book of Our Artistic Perforated Parchment Stamping Patterns, from publisher J.F. Ingalls. Available as a free download.

Some of the Ingalls designs, reproduced on Flickr.

A blog featuring many great examples of redwork quilts and patterns.