Honoring Folk Art: The Shelburne Museum

IMG_1622If you love that which is handmade, homemade, made with love, you are probably drawn to collections of folk art.  There are lots of people, however, who turn their noses up at items made by untrained makers and at “craft,” in general.

The wealthy parents of Electra Havemeyer Webb were just those kinds of people. They collected “real” art of Europe and Asia and brought their daughter up to appreciate the best of the best.

Electra Havemeyer Webb

Electra Havemeyer Webb

But what Electra thought was best didn’t follow her parents’ tastes. Electra was drawn to art in unusual places. In the early 1900s, this pioneer collected American quilts and samplers. Figureheads of ships. Decoys and advertising art. And historic New England structures that she had brought to the museum she founded, the Shelburne Museum.

This fine museum of folk art and Americana is the Shelburne Museum, located just south of Burlington, Vermont.

The museum is made up of the 18th and 19th century buildings that Electra found and had moved to the museum grounds. These buildings, as well as more traditional galleries, serve as home to the thousands of items in the collection.

Today, at the Shelburne Museum “impressionist paintings, folk art, quilts and textiles, decorative arts, furniture, American paintings, and a dazzling array of 17th-to 20th-century artifacts are on view.”

If you visit New England, and there are dozens of excellent reasons to do so, treat yourself to a visit to Shelburne Museum. Go in the summer or fall, when the whole museum is open and you can wander the campus and spend time. You’ll be amazed at the art you see there, both old and new:

Folk Art

The buildings themselves are beautiful examples of craftsmanship and the range of folk art is stunning.


The museum has more than 400 early quilts, as well as hooked rugs, coverlets and samplers.

This current exhibit features the work of John Bisbee, a Maine artist who makes all of his work with nothing but 12-inch nails!

The other current exhibit combines old glass from the museum collection with newer pieces by contemporary artists.

A Tangled Web I’ll Weave: IBMTD #6

loomI just realized it’s been two weeks since I’ve written about something I’ve been meaning to do! I’ve been meaning to write about what IBMTD—really, I have!

I wouldn’t want you to think I’m a slacker so I will give you the most recent news, although there will be more to come.

I, with my husband, signed up for a beginners’ weaving workshop offered by our local Arts Council.

The classes start a week from today and will lead us, we hope, to finally making sense of the biggest, dumbest impulse purchase we may have ever made.

We’ve been meaning to learn to weave because last year, at a garage sale, we bought a humongous floor loom. We bought it even though it’s a) humongous, b) we have no place in the house for it, and c) we have no idea how to use it! But we got a great deal on it!

It has been sitting in our garage, mocking us in a slightly sinister way, ever since.

But that’s all going to change. Pretty soon I’ll be throwing around words like warp and weft and heddles. And stalking blogs about weaving, trying to figure out what I’m doing.

God knows, I need a new hobby. To fill up my free time.

Do you know how to weave? Any basic words of wisdom for us?

1812 “Cot to Coffin” Quilt—The Plan

IMG_5789I wrote recently about a quilt I’ve started. I’m going to use this blog to chronicle my progress, mostly so I have all the details in one place. If you’d like to read along, I’d love your company, as well as any feedback you have!

I’m making the quilt as part of a challenge to design quilts to commemorate the bicentennial of the War of 1812. The rules for the 1812 quilt challenge are basically that the finished quilt has to be 70 inches by 30 inches (the so-called cot-to-coffin size) and that it be made with an eye to the use of fabrics, techniques, and designs that might’ve been available to quilters in the early 1800s.

My own desire was to make something that featured hand quilting and that would let me incorporate the words of a song I love, which happens to be about the War of 1812. This song, “The Banks of Champlain,” is said to have been written by the wife of the commander of land forces in the Battle of Plattsburgh, as she watched the battle from shore.

Two men, Commodore Thomas MacDonough and Brigadier General Alexander Macomb, are given credit for the American victory in the Battle of Plattsburgh, which was fought on Lake Champlain and its shores. It was Macomb’s wife, Catherine, who apparently wrote the song. The song, as I learned it from a recording by Pete Seeger, has 6 verses. You can find the words at the end of this post.

My plan for this long and narrow quilt is use a large white-on-white quilt design at the top. The Great Seal of the United States was first used publicly in 1782 and, according to one of my quilt books, patriotic designs were popular in the early 1800s.

I found a simplified version of the Seal online and took the page to my local office supply store, to have it blown up to the size I want. I will put my off-white fabric panel over this and trace the design to be quilted.

colorsealThe bottom half of the quilt will be composed of six panels, with the verses of the song hand-embroidered on them. I’ve been working on these and will show you more when they’re done in a few days! I used the freezer paper and printer method I wrote about earlier to print the song words on fabric.

Between the Great Seal on top and the song verses on the bottom, I’ll embroider, in larger letters, the title of the song. At this point, I’m experimenting with process pieces, to figure out how I want the embroidery to look. I have printed the words out in a large font and will, again, need to trace the shapes onto the fabric.

When the embroidery is finished and I’ve traced the Seal design on the fabric panel, I’ll piece these elements together, with fabric sashing and borders, to make the quilt top. I haven’t chosen the fabric for sashing and borders yet and suspect that may be the hardest part of the whole project for me. We do have a local quilt shop that sells reproduction historical fabrics so that should help!

This is where I am so far. I have everything sketched out on graph paper and have been holding myself to embroidering at least one line of the song each day. More soon!


The Banks of Champlain–attributed to Catherine Macomb


Twas Autumn and round me the leaves were descending

And naught but the drumming bird tapped on the tree

While thousands their freedom and rights were defending

The din of their arms sounded dismal to me.


For Sandy, my love, was engaged in the action,

Without him I value this world not a fraction,

His death would have ended my life in distraction

As mournful I strayed on the banks of Champlain.


Then turning to list’ to the cannons loud thunder,

My elbow I leaned on a rock near the shore.

The sound nearly parted my heartstrings asunder,

I thought I should meet my dear Sandy no more.


But soon an express all my sorrows suspended,

My thanks to the Father of mercies ascended,

My Sandy was safe and my country defended,

By freedom’s brave sons on the banks of Champlain


Oh the cannon ceased firing, the drums were still beating,

As far to the northward our foes were retreating.

My friends and my neighbors each other were greeting,

With songs of delight on the banks of Champlain.


New York, the Green Mountains, Macomb and MacDonough,

The farmer, the soldier, the sailor, the gunner,

Each party united had pledged their honor,

To conquer or die on the banks of Champlain.

A Tale of Two Towels

It was the best of towels, it was the worst of towels . . .

Have you ever seen a gorgeous handmade item and, because you couldn’t afford it, tried to make it yourself? Of course you have! Isn’t that what all the do-it-yourself boards on Pinterest encourage us to do?

This impulse isn’t new. People seem always to have wanted to possess beauty beyond their means to afford. Evidence of this came home to me in a poignant pairing of vintage linens recently.

One huge category of vintage linens is towels—kitchen towels, dish towels, tea towels, bath towels; mostly these towels were meant to be used and used hard.

But another whole category of towels exists in what is often called “show” or “display” towels. Display towels weren’t meant to be used—they were designed to show off. These towels were usually made of highest-quality linen, often in damask. Damask linen is often very fine linen with a subtle white-on-white (or any other single color) design that is created by weaving.

Understated and elegant damask combined with long, gorgeous (and impractical) fringe and with some sort of hand-worked embellishment combine to make a towel that should not be touched but simply displayed to communicate about refinement and good taste.

The hand craftsmanship in these expensive display towels was superior. The long fringe was hand braided and knotted to perfection. When other embellishment, such as drawn thread work was used, the threads seem to magically twist and turn, without any evidence of a human hand at work.

But what if you couldn’t afford that lush fabric? What if you didn’t have access to the beauty and craftsmanship of these stunning items but still understood the impulse to make a statement about your love of pretty things?

What if you were striving to move up, to transcend your roots, to show you understood beauty and refinement and taste, even if you couldn’t really afford to indulge in items that would demonstrate your understanding? What if you wanted a pretty show towel but couldn’t afford one?

You might try to make it yourself.

In my imagination, that’s what happened here.

homemade display towel-4This towel mimics the key elements of the expensive, high-quality towels.

It’s made of linen but, instead of very fine damask, this one is made of plain weave, possibly homespun, linen. It hasn’t been bleached pure white and slubs are apparent.

homemade display towel-2High-quality display towels have the damask tone-on-tone weave to add interest. Because this towel is not made of damask, the maker added color with red stitching. The stitching is the most apparent sign that this is handmade by an inexpert hand.

The maker used a lot of blanket stitch to finish edges and you can easily see how uneven the stitches are. The maker seems to have been counting threads to determine where to place stitches but, because the weave is uneven, the stitches look uneven. Also, the person who stitched this had trouble deciding what to do when she came to the end of a thread. Knots are all too noticeable.

homemade display towel-3High-quality towels have long, hand-braided fringe. This one does, too. The braiding is less meticulous and the fringe is shorter. (The fact that it looks meager is due to the fact that this towel was used and laundered. The fringe tangled and broke when it was combed out.)

Both towels incorporate the same drawn thread work to create open bands across the width of the towel. This is created by horizontal threads being cut and pulled from the weave. The vertical threads are then twisted and held by the introduction of a new horizontal thread.  The use of red thread in the homemade towel highlights the twisting white threads but also draws attention to unevenness in the design.

Both of these are handmade; one is obviously homemade.

Which one is better? Which is more treasured?

I have to admit, I admire the expensive fine towels—they draw me because they are simply so gorgeous. Lush, high-class, expensive, understated, yet elegant.

But I love the homemade towel; it speaks to me on a much more basic level. It reflects the hands of the maker in every stitch. The fancy towel was made by expert hands but the homemade towel was made by hands, loving hands, at home.

It’s homey, far from perfect, a little awkward, and out of place in a world that values beauty and money and perfection. But authentic.

It makes me a little sad to think that, of the two, the world will value the pretty and perfect towel.

My little handmade towel is like a homely, mixed breed puppy, likely to be overlooked as unlovely, especially when compared directly with a haughty, perfectly groomed purebred.

But I’ve always been a sucker for a stray. I’ll appreciate the beauty of the perfect towels, and then pass them on to others.

And I’ll keep the other towel, and display it, to serve as a tangible reminder of who I really am.

Just like the towel, I’m homey, far from perfect, a little awkward, and out of place in a world that values beauty and money and perfection. But authentic.

It was the best of towels . . .


Winter Woes? No, Wonders!

mountainsOkay, all you winter haters, I hear you!

You’re over it. You’re sick of snow and ice and drenching rains. And shovels and snow blowers. And big itchy sweaters and clodhopper boots.

Yes, yes. You’re dreaming of crocuses and daffodils and wearing sandals. Even watching the Olympics is failing to stir your enthusiasm for ice and snow.

You’re done with winter but it’s probably not done with you. Not quite yet . . .

So, I want to remind you that winter can be lovely and fun and embraceable.

Winter is not really a dead time. Signs of life abound, large and small, actual and implied.

Winter is the only time for enjoying some unbeatable activities.

Winter whispers its loveliness.

 Winter offers promises of what’s coming next . . .


Nobody Knows the Truffles I’ve Seen

irish cream melts-1Today is the highest of the high holidays of chocolate. Nestled between Halloween and Christmas on one side and Easter and Mothers’ Day on the other, confection affection reaches a frenzy for Valentine’s Day.

And that means, once again, chocolate has oozed its sweet, smooth, silky self into all my waking hours. I’ve been sending chocolates all over the United States, to help people show their love to far-flung friends, lovers, and relatives.

It’s great fun to be part of this celebration, as folks try to decide just what combination of candies will best please their loved ones. All dark chocolate for some, no dark chocolate for others. No lemon or pumpkin seeds, please, but extra ginger or coconut would be great! Tastes are so individual and givers want everything to be perfect, especially on this day.

I also love writing up the note cards to accompany the candy I mail. I make up little stories to fit the odd or mysterious sentiments and imagine how pleased the daddy will be to get the candy from his children.

People aren’t just treating their love ones. I’m here to tell you that LOTS of people are treating themselves. As we’ve always been told, you need to love yourself first!

To be honest, all of this intense focus on chocolate means that it sort of loses its Valentine’s Day cachet for me. When you have chocolates on every free surface and are honor bound to do regular taste testing, you don’t need a special holiday devoted to chocolate! Every day is chocolate day!

As for my Valentine and me, we’ll celebrate by shoveling the most recent foot of snow. Then we’re planning a dinner that will evoke warmth and summer and picnics—Michigans, coleslaw, potato salad. If I’m lucky, my Valentine will play some “honey songs” on the guitar for me. And we’ll probably have some chocolate but we do that everyday!

And, in the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll tell you that I almost never make truffles—I just couldn’t resist that blog title.

Truffles are so incredibly easy to make (2-3 ingredients and no need to temper chocolate?!), it seems wrong to take money for making them! And, the fact that they depend heavily on cream means that they aren’t as shelf stable as a lot of candy so mailing them and taking the risk that they might spoil unnerves me.

So instead of truffles, I make chocolate melt aways, combining tempered chocolate with a little coconut oil and flavoring oil. And, even though I just said I don’t get too excited about chocolate on Valentine’s Day, an Irish cream melt away might just get me to re-consider!

I hope your Valentine’s Day brings a happy balance of affection and confections!

Now, That’s A Cat!

catsbeach9I love cats because I enjoy my home; and little by little, they become its visible soul.
Jean Cocteau

**Happy ending alert: This cat does not die at the end of my post!**

I don’t read books or blog posts about pets. I don’t watch movies about pets. I know how they’re going to end and I know it’s going to make me cry.

Why do we only write epitaphs and obituaries for the animals we love? Do we only recognize how much we love them when they die?

I know exactly how much I love my cats and I know how special they all are, but one of them is special beyond measure. I want you to know about him without crying at the end!

2006 cats-67The cat’s name is Blondie, a funny name for a huge, yellow boy. He was a stray at our summer place, years ago, and since he was around so much, we needed a way to refer to him. He was pale yellow so we cast around with all our creative energy, and called him Blondie.

When he finally became ours, the name had stuck.

When he first started coming around, he was pitiful. He was big but very thin, which made his legs seem too long. Now he’s quite plump and my mother always says, “Blondie used to be much taller.”

He now has long luxuriant fur but, back then, it was matted and he had licked himself bald in places.

He had a circuit he made, trying to find food and he covered a lot of ground. Neighbors would say, “I saw that cat you’ve been feeding at the community college,” (two miles away) or “That cat you’re going to adopt was at our house yesterday” (two miles the other way).

And, yes, we fed him. You would’ve fed him, too. Because as hungry and pitiful as he was, all he did was purr. And he has been purring his big, deep, resonating purr ever since.

He purred when we fed him and let him into the house. He purred when he wanted to go back out and we wouldn’t let him, even though he was a little nervous about that.

He purred when we put him in a cat carrier. And put him into a car. And drove with him 400 miles. And he got carsick and everything. He was very nervous about that.

He purred when we took him directly to the vet to be neutered. When the vet said, “He probably has feline immunodeficiency virus or feline leukemia and will need to be euthanized,” the cat purred, while I cried.

But he was fine! So we took him home and made this rambling boy a house cat for 8 months of the year. We made him live with two other cats. And he purred.

He has purred ever since. And he has adapted. He has the heart of a lion and has become the center of the cat family. We call him the captain of the varsity and the other cats pay him obeisance and take turns curling up with him.

blondduff3 twinkblond People love him, too. More than once, workers who’ve come to the house have taken one look and said, “Now, that’s a cat!” Because he’s big and hunky and bear-like, he appeals to people who don’t normally like cats. Once, a deliveryman came to the house, and Blondie streaked out the open door to get outside. The pizza guy said to my husband, “Hey, mister, I think your dog just got out!”

Blondie protects what he sees as his. He has taken on dogs, large and small, who have ventured into his world and woe be to those dogs! Cats who don’t belong to his family are directed to leave and large waterfowl are summarily dismissed! IMG_0701

Blondie has been with us for many years now. We live in a spot where he can go outdoors but he never goes far. His favorite spots are kind of half in and half out—in the doorway, on the deck, in the nearest garden (the one with the catnip!) And he purrs.

blondiedoor IMG_5438It’s as if he knows how lucky he is.

2008 cats-67We keep a close eye on him. We give him special food now and let him eat where no one can bother him. We whisk him the vet (she loves him!) at the smallest sign of a problem. We stop what we’re doing and pay attention when he comes by for love.

It’s as if we know how lucky we are!

And that makes Blondie purr.


A Quilt for All Reasons: IBMTD #5

1812Since I finished my last quilt (finally!), I’ve been meaning to start a new one (IBMTD). I love to have a project to pick up and work on at odd moments and I love the process of stitching and watching something pretty develop from my own hands.

But I hadn’t started anything because I simply wasn’t inspired. I didn’t know what direction to go, what pattern to use, what fabrics to choose. Nothing was speaking to me.

But then I learned about a quilt challenge that has been going on for a couple of years to commemorate the bicentennial of the War of 1812. This project focuses on the making of “cot to coffin” quilts and has been taken up by quilt guilds in towns where battles took place in the War of 1812. Quiltmakers design and make quilts of 70 inches by 30 inches, using techniques and fabrics consistent with what quilters would have had access to in 1812-1814.

The moment I heard about this project, I was smitten, and inspired to make a quilt for the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Plattsburgh, NY, to take place in September 2014. Other members of the local quilt guild will be making quilts, too, and the entries will be displayed during the celebration.

The Cot to Coffin project and my plan for my quilt let me bring together so many elements that I love:

First, of course, I love that I’m quilting. I love adding my hands to the tradition of working with textiles to create beautiful, meaningful, and useful objects.

Second, this project takes history out of the dusty past and asks us to re-consider an unusual war. The War of 1812 was supposedly fought between Great Britain and America but really mostly affected the lives of Americans and Canadians, as well as native peoples of the area.

When the war was over, both Americans and Canadians considered themselves to have been victorious and the outcome has led to 200 years of peace and good will between the two countries—you can’t make that claim for a lot of wars!

I also love that these quilts focus us on people often overlooked by history—the foot soldiers and the women left at home as the battles were waged. The size of the quilts was determined at least in part because of a tradition documented from the later quilts made for Civil War soldiers. The size of 70 inches by 30 inches is “about the size of a man” and organizers of this quilt challenge thought it was possible that such quilts, which were “small enough to roll into a backpack while on the march . . .  and may well have served as a burial shroud,” would’ve been used in earlier wars as well.

I imagine a mother or wife hurrying to make a quilt to send with her son or husband, to keep him warm and to bring a bit of home into battle. And, should the worst happen, the quilt, and the love stitched in, could carry the soldier to his grave.

Third, this quilt challenge appeals to me is because I grew up in the Plattsburgh area and have been hearing about the Battle of Plattsburgh my whole life. I can envision the locales where the fighting took place and I see historical markers every day that remind me of the battle.

Beyond this, my own ancestors have lived in the North Country of upstate New York at least since the late 1700s and, since I know they fought in the American Revolution, it seems likely that some of them also fought in the War of 1812. Did some woman in my lineage make a quilt to accompany a man she loved, as he went off to fight?

Even if not, I know that eyes related to mine watched the battle. The family farm was on a hill overlooking Plattsburgh and Lake Champlain. The story passed down through generations tells of my forebears hiding the cows in the woods, so British soldiers wouldn’t take them for food, and then watching the battle take place on the lake below.

Fourth, this project excites me because it will allow me to honor a song I’ve loved for a long time. I’ll tell you more about all of this in future posts but a key part of my quilt design is a set of panels upon which I’ll embroider the words to this song.

The song is called “The Banks of Champlain” and I learned it years and years ago from an album by my folk hero, Pete Seeger. The song is said to have been written by the wife of the field commander of the Battle of Plattsburgh, to convey her thoughts and worries as she watched the battle unfold.

I love this romantic narrative, as it poignantly relays the thoughts of a woman who worries about her husband at war. She doesn’t just send him off to war and worry from afar but, rather, she watches as he fights the war before her very eyes. Her husband, Alexander Macomb, and his counterpart, Commodore Thomas Macdonough, are given historical credit for the strategies that allowed a small contingent of Americans to defeat the much larger British force.

So, I have a new project that combines a craft I love, history, romance, a family angle, a folksong—what more could I want? One more thing—a clear, unequivocal deadline! With my history of letting projects languish incomplete for years, it’s motivating (and a little terrifying!) to have a specific date by which this needs to be finished.

And that date is the end of June. Expect to be hearing more as time gets tight!

A Florida State of Mind: IBMTD #4

I’m a Yankee. I love winter. Really, I do. No, really.

But, sometimes, a person needs a break from the cold and the gray and the usual.

So, for a while now, I’ve been meaning to (IBMTD) take that break and, with my husband, avail myself of the kindness of two sets of friends who spend winter on the Gulf Coast of Florida. “Come,” they said! “Stay!” Such very good friends . . .

We’re so glad we took the time and went! It was a marvelous trip and, in hopes that these photos will allow you to experience vicariously some of warmth and beauty of this amazing place, I share them here.

We loved the exotic, purely Florida, colors and places. (No Disney for us–sorry!)

We loved the variety of animals that one simply does not see in upstate New York.

And, oh my, we loved the dolphins.

The week went quickly (even with the extra day that we got as a result of a flight cancellation!) We’re back in the snowy and cold Northeast now, pondering winter festivals and snowshoes.

But I also have a mother who lives in Florida! And she says, “Come! Stay!” So, we’ll be heading back one more time, for a little antidote to the rest of winter. What lucky folks we are!