Manly Hands at Home: A Shining Light


I loved it the first time I saw it.

I mean, anyone can have a house but a house with its own lighthouse? Awesome.

For years, it sat there looking pretty. It was on a timer so it came on at 4:30, year around, and went off at 11. It was reliable.

And it was attractive. It was the centerpiece of many a photo, in many a weather condition.

But it was made of untreated wood and it took a beating from all that weather.

Then this happened. That didn’t help.

Eventually the electrical quit working. Pieces of rotten wood needed to be replaced.

Then this happened.

We were lighthouse-less for a while and I missed it more than I would’ve imagined.

My husband kept saying he would build us a new one.


For all his many skills, Don has never done that much building. I wondered . . .

I can’t tell you how pleased I am to have my doubts allayed, to have been wrong to doubt him in the first place.

A new lighthouse, made of pressure-treated wood has risen from the lawn in recent weeks.

There were fits and starts—I wanted it to look like the old lighthouse and the old lighthouse was an octagon shape. Octagons are hard!

But it grew and developed and came together. I helped a little and gave feedback– invaluable, I’m sure.

We went to buy the red paint and, without consulting one another, both picked the same color.

It was completely and totally wrong.

But now it’s right.

The paint is right, the shape is right, the height is right, the light is right.

The lighthouse is perfect.

I love the symbolism of a lighthouse, that it warns and protects but also signals that civilization, and people, and warmth, and safe harbor, and hope are near.

I love that we have our lighthouse back and that it was made here, at home, by loving hands.


Making Magic


Andrew Lang’s The Blue Fairy Book, ca. 1889

Can you spin straw into gold?

What? You say that’s ridiculous, it only happens in fairy tales? And with the help of creepy little elves?

I beg to differ.

We probably all know the story of Rumpelstiltskin. The young woman in the story is tasked with the seemingly impossible, the magical—she is told to spin straw into gold. But that doesn’t happen in real life.

And yet this morning, as I took plain, pale ingredients and cooked them into the molten gold of caramel, it occurred to me that spinning straw into gold is a metaphor for the creating we do with our hands at home.

When the spinner takes flax (really, isn’t that basically straw?) and, in her hands, it becomes finest linen, that’s magic being made.

When the weaver or knitter takes string and manipulates it into rich tweed or an Aran sweater, that’s magic being made.

When the woodworker or the quilter or the cook takes bits and pieces, plain and unlovely, and transforms them into something as valuable as gold, magic is made.

The magic comes from making something useful from the useless, something beautiful from the plain, something special from the quotidian.

There was a time when people made this magic almost routinely, and out of necessity. If one wanted cloth, one likely needed to spin and weave it. If one wanted food, one cooked. If one wanted most anything, they made it. It was a do-it-yourself world.

Today we don’t NEED to make much of anything. We can buy so much, so easily and so cheaply, often for far less than we could make it ourselves.

And, yet, all indicators suggest that, for many of us, we don’t care if we can buy it. We want to make it. We want to do it ourselves.

Why would someone in the 21st century spin her own wool? Bake his own bread? Build their own bookcase? I think the answer is that we believe in magic and we want to participate in the magic, to create the magic in our own world.

Because when we make something with our own hands, we don’t just transform the ingredients into something different, we transform ourselves.

We re-make ourselves from consumers—dependent on others for what we eat, wear, and use in our homes—into makers—competent, creative, individual.

And if that isn’t magic, my friend, I don’t know what is. It’s time to get busy—go spin some straw into gold.



The Perfect Portable Project: Fabric Yo-Yos

IMG_6268My ancestors came to America as Protestant religious dissenters, with strict standards about productivity and frugality.

It may be this Puritan heritage or my own nagging sense that one’s time in life is not unlimited, but I really like to be productive and to have something to show for my time.

I am a firm proponent of the philosophy that idle hands are the devil’s playground.

Having said that, recently I was stuck for TEN HOURS in an airline terminal, completely unprepared and completely unproductive. I just sat and read a free mystery novel on my tiny little phone screen and didn’t get anything done. At all.

That was ten hours of my life that I’m never going to have back again! It made me crazy and completely determined to never be stuck in that position again.

I don’t think I’m alone in this desire to get things done–I think a lot of you are right here with me. I read about your projects and hear about your creations. You’re not sitting around, twiddling your thumbs.

When we’re home, you and I can choose among many different activities to engage our hands and our minds. We can sit at the sewing machine or quilting frame. We can stand over our stoves or toddle out to the jewelry studio or the garden.

But when we’re away from home or just want to work outside and enjoy the weather outside (and all the weeding is done), we need a portable project.

And I have the perfect portable project for you!

Perfect portable projects should meet certain requirements—they need to be small so as to be, you know, portable. They need to require very few tools or supplies; none of the tools should be the kind of thing to be confiscated in an airport screening. They need to be easy to pick up and put down at a moment’s notice, just in case they ever make the announcement that your flight is boarding.

Right before my most recent trip, with my new-found determination to be better prepared for delays and downtime, I made a fortuitous discovery at a big-box craft store. It was a gizmo called the Clover Quick Yo Yo Maker. It’s designed to facilitate the making of little fabric “yo-yos.”

I’ve always thought yo-yo quilts were absolutely charming. They evoke the 1930s and 1940s, and vintage ones are usually made of bright and cheery fabrics, with small, quirky prints.

Yo-yo quilts are not really quilts at all—they aren’t layered with batting and backing and there is no actually quilting on them. They are made from small scraps of fabric (the Puritan in me LOVES using small scraps of fabric!), cut in circles. The edges of the fabric are folded over, stitched around with a running stitch, and then, when the two ends of thread meet, they are pulled to pleat the fabric together to form a smaller, double-layered circle that looks like a yo-yo.

All the little yo-yos get stitched together to make a coverlet or throw.

Like I said, I’ve always thought them charming but hadn’t ever tried to make one. Something about handling the fabric rounds and trying to press the edges under and hold it all together while I stitched just made me feel all angsty.

But the gizmo solved all that.

The gizmo consists of two pieces of plastic, a rimmed circle with a notched circle that fits inside.

IMG_6011These come in five different sizes to produce round yo-yos anywhere from ¾ inch (about 2 centimeters) to 3 ½ inches in diameter (about 9 cm). You can also buy similar gizmos to make other shapes—like hearts and butterflies—but, as a staunch traditionalist and Puritan, I don’t approve of those!

I like the little yo-yos.

So, I bought a yo-yo maker (for a Puritan-acceptable $6). And I found that, with minimal prep time before I left home, I had the perfect portable project. I want you to have it, too.

To prepare for your project, you’ll want to cut your fabric at home. I bought the yo-yo maker labeled “large,” which makes an end product that is about 1¾ inches across (about 4.5 cm; not really very large—we’re going to need a lot of them!)

I started by using my rotary cutter and mat to make 4-inch (10.25 cm) squares of scrap fabric. You don’t have to be too precise about the measuring because the corners are going to be cut off anyway. The directions that come with the yo-yo maker suggest you should make the squares bigger but 4 inches works just fine. Puritans don’t waste fabric unnecessarily!

IMG_6005After I had a nice pile of squares, I put two or three at a time in the Clover gizmo and roughly cut off the corners to make circles. Again, you don’t have to be overly careful about this. IMG_6018Instructions for making the actual yo-yos

We’re going to talk about the two pieces of the gizmo this way:

The piece with the rim is the exterior piece.

IMG_6274The piece with the notches all around the edge is the interior piece—it fits into the exterior piece (how about that?!)

IMG_6275Put a fabric circle over the exterior piece of the gizmo. You want the RIGHT side of the fabric facing down.

Snap the interior piece of the gizmo into the exterior piece, paying attention to two details. One, you want the fabric centered so you have a small, even rim of fabric all around. Second, make sure one of the radiating lines on the interior piece is aligned with one of the little knobs on the rim of the exterior piece.

IMG_6190Once you get your fabric piece situated, you’re going to turn the whole thing over and look at the exterior piece as you stitch.

Thread your needle with a rather long piece of thread—I use about a yard to start and can do a few yo-yos with that length. Don’t knot the end of the thread.

Keep the EXTERIOR piece facing you (look for the hole in the middle) and notice the little crescent moon-shaped openings. Your stitches are going to come up on one side of the opening and down on the other.

IMG_6192As you take the first few stitches, just hold the tail of the thread down with your middle finger on the back of the interior piece. With your index finger hold the edge of the fabric folded over the back, so you stitch through it (am I making any sense at all?)

IMG_6282Make stitches in every opening, all the way around. When I reach the starting point, I make one more tiny up-and-down stitch right next to where my first stitch began—this seems to make it easier to pull the threads in the next step.

Pop the two pieces of the gizmo apart. Carefully remove your fabric piece from the interior piece.

IMG_6193Hold both pieces of thread between your fingers and pull the long piece* to begin to gather the fabric.

IMG_6195As you gather the fabric, the yo-yo might start to go inside out and the raw edge of the fabric may show. Just use your fingers to get everything going the direction it should and gently pull the threads some more. You’re aiming to pull hard enough to get everything gathered into a nice, small hole but not to pull so hard as to break the thread.

IMG_6198Tie the two ends of thread together in a sturdy knot. Clip the ends leaving a little extra and bury the short ends inside the yo-yo. If necessary, use your fingers to tweak the fabric yo-yo to make it symmetrical and perfect.

IMG_6276Isn’t it the cutest thing you ever saw?! But it’s lonely so you need to make more!

IMG_6203I assure you that, after you’ve done 4 or 5 of these, it will take much less time to make one than it did to read this post.

And you’re ready to hit the road with your perfect portable project! Put a stack of round fabric pieces and the gizmo into a zip-top plastic bag. Add a needle and a spool of thread. If you’re traveling by plane, put nail clippers in the bag; otherwise, take a small pair of scissors. I add my thimble because I can’t sew without a thimble! That’s it.

You’ll be pleasantly surprised, I think, by how fast these yo-yos pile up. I got about 75 done in a few days, while I was on my trip, just picking them up at random moments. I never did work on them in the airport—we had no flight delays—or on the plane. Just random moments when idle hands might have led me astray.

Are you wondering what to do with your darling little yo-yos?

I found that 36 of my yo-yos make a square of about 10 inches (about 25.5 cm). I’m in no hurry to finish anything—I have lots of scrap fabric and want to keep the portable project going. So I will probably just keep stitching away until I can make a traditional coverlet with mine.

IMG_6265In the meantime, I’ll just enjoy their pretty simplicity.

IMG_6293But there are almost innumerable other ways to enjoy your yo-yos!

As with most things, there are endless boards on Pinterest devoted to yo-yos, both in quilt or coverlet form and used in lots of other inventive ways. Here are a few, just to get you started. I searched on “yoyo quilts” and “yoyo crafts.”

Aren’t these fun ideas? Can’t you feel your fingers itching, eager to begin? What are you waiting for?

If I have completely confused you but you still want to give this a try, please let me know what questions you have!



* You can pull both ends but, as you’ll see, doing so wastes a lot of thread and Puritans don’t waste thread.

Limoncello: Sunshine–Anytime, Anywhere

IMG_6178When winter gets to be just too much, a trip to a sunny, tropical place is in order.

The bright yellow warmth of the sun, the smell of citrus, the taste of fresh fruit on the tongue . . . ahhhhhh.

You can’t get away? Are obligations keeping you home? Is winter driving you to drink?

The answer, my friend, is limoncello.

We just got back from Florida. It was wonderful to go and we had a lovely, restorative trip BUT the downside was we had to return to winter! The day we left, we got almost two feet of snow that we’ve had to deal with and more snow is falling right now . . . ugh.

But our return to winter was tempered by a lovely glow from our kitchen closet. In there, among the light bulbs and vacuum cleaner bags, was a tightly sealed container of liquid sunshine.

We came back to our homemade limoncello, ready for drinking after about 6 weeks of steeping.

It is the color of early morning sun, a sun that promises full-blown heat later in the day but now just warms your skin.

It smells like lemons off the tree, warmed by the sun, tangy but not sour, intoxicating.

It tastes . . . well, it tastes like lemonade’s grown-up sister, sassy and kind of naughty, but lots of fun.

If this all sounds good to you, you have choices to make. You can head out to the liquor store and buy a bottle of limoncello and have it today. Or you can make your own, in true loving-hands-at-home fashion, and have it ready in about 6 weeks. Or  (and this is my favorite), you can do both, allowing you to have your limoncello and drink it, too.

Limoncello takes just a few ingredients and a little work. Mostly, it takes patience.

There are many recipes for limoncello on the Internet. We chose this one because the bag of lemons we bought contained 15 lemons and the recipe called for 15 lemons. It seemed like a sign.

Limoncello Recipe

15 lemons (zest from peels only)

One 750-ml bottle of Everclear (190-proof) alcohol OR two 750-ml bottles (100-proof) vodka

4 cups granulated sugar

5 cups water (filtered tap water or distilled water)

Prepare the lemons

The only semi-difficult part of making limoncello is zesting the lemons. You want to get just the yellow of the peel, with none of the white pith. The pith will make your limoncello bitter.

Wash the lemons in warm water.

We found that a sharp vegetable peeler worked best. We cut off the ends of the lemons and peeled from top to bottom. With some pieces of peel, I needed to scrape a little pith off, too.

You use only the peels for the limoncello. Use the lemon juice for lemonade or other purposes.

Place lemon peel in a large glass jar with a lid.* Add your choice of Everclear grain alcohol or vodka.


Pour it on!

Cover the jar and put it somewhere cool and dark. Let it rest at room temperature for at least ten days. You can let it sit longer, up to 40 days, and that supposedly improves the final taste. I wouldn’t know.

Add the simple syrup

After 10 (or more) days of allowing the lemon oils to release into the alcohol, you will make a simple syrup of sugar and water.

Place 4 cups of white, granulated sugar in a large saucepan with 5 cups of water. Stir well as you bring the mixture to a gentle boil. Allow to boil for 5 to 7 minutes, then remove from heat and let the syrup cool.


Simple syrup–simple to make!

Once cool, add the simple syrup to the lemon peel and alcohol jar. Give it a good stir and put it back in the cool, dark space to sit for another period of 10 to 40 days. This will bedifficult—it smells so good!

Strain and use

The last step is straining the limoncello and bottling it.

We used coffee filters to strain the mixture. Place a coffee filter into a metal strainer and carefully pour in some of the mixture.


Strain through coffee filters or cheesecloth

It strains slowly, I think because of the oils you are removing from the mix. We replaced the coffee filter frequently.

Pour the strained, and beautiful, liquid into a pretty bottle.

Seal the bottle tightly and store in the freezer—it won’t freeze with all that alcohol in it and it tastes great when it is super cold.

You’ll end up with a generous amount of this lovely drink so use your imagination about ways to enjoy it. Obviously, you can also drink it straight out of the freezer (but preferably not straight out of the bottle!)—it’s a perfect after-dinner drink because it’s so light and fresh-tasting.

I like my limoncello over crushed ice, like a grown-up slushie, or you can mix it with tonic water for a lighter treat. It’s also lovely mixed with champagne and can be used as an ingredient in other cocktails.

But limoncello is not just for drinking! Pour a little over fresh fruit salad or berries or try drizzling it over lemon sherbet. I’m thinking it would be perfect in a traditional trifle, layered with pound cake, fruit, and custard. Or you could make a boozy pound cake—when the cake comes out of the oven, use a skewer to poke holes in it and drizzle the limoncello over. Do I have good ideas or what?

Whatever you do with your limoncello, save some for the next cold, nasty day, that day when you feel that winter will never end, and you long for a warm breeze and your toes in the sand. Put your limoncello in a small, pretty glass, close your eyes and sip. You’ll be transported.

I think I need some right now!

* We learned the hard way why glass is important. We used a plastic container and found that the oils from the lemons adhered to the plastic in what seems to be a permanent way.

Fabric + Freezer Paper + Printer = Fun

IMG_4814If you’re crafty, love textiles, and want to customize your projects, you probably already know the technique I’m going to explain here. I’ve known this technique for quite a long time, and used it many times in the past, yet had forgotten about it–so maybe the same goes for you!

I want to remind you how easy and satisfying it is to print any image or words on fabric, using humble freezer paper, your trusty iron, and your home computer printer.

IMG_4784It’s a great technique for textile artists and crafters to have in their repertoires—it’s super easy, very inexpensive, and gives you custom fabric pieces that can be used in a gazillion ways.

I’m planning a quilt and, for part of it, I want to embroider the words of an old song on fabric panels and stitch them together.

I could just write the words on the fabric, and embroider over that, but I want a calligraphy typeface. So I chose one on the computer and typed up the stanzas of the song. You can choose anything, though—words, graphics, photos. You may be surprised at the quality of the print you can get! Just take into consideration the color of your fabric and how that might affect the colors you’re printing onto it.

I used my rotary cutter and cutting mat to cut cotton fabric into pieces that my printer could handle. These rotary cutters are commonly used by quilt makers but I use mine, with the mat, to cut all kinds of things—fabric, paper, cardstock, lots of stuff. If you don’t have one, just use your scissors.

IMG_4788Then I just ripped off a piece of freezer paper bigger than my fabric. Be sure you have freezer paper, not waxed paper!

Put the fabric face down on an ironing board or protected surface. Place the plasticized side of the freezer paper, shiny side down, on top of the fabric.

IMG_4791Make sure your iron is dry and will not spit steam all over the fabric. Empty it of water and turn the steam option off! I have an old iron that was never designed for steam so I use that.

Get the iron really hot and run it over the back of the freezer paper. Press down firmly and check often to see if the bond is complete. You don’t want corners that peel up or any spots that shift. When this is ready, it will seem as if the pieces of fabric and of freezer paper are one.

Let it cool a bit and trim the freezer paper right up to the edges of the fabric. Avoid any raveled threads that could gum up your printer!

Then, if you have your images ready, all you need to do is pop the fabric piece into your printer, making sure you know which side the printer will print on, and run it through!

IMG_4799Since I am embroidering over the lettering I printed and I’m not planning to launder this quilt, I’m not worried about the printed image fading. If you’re printing an image that will stand on its own and/or be washed, you should look into a spray-on fixative.

After the ink has dried fully, you can gently remove the fabric from the freezer paper and go ahead with your project!

IMG_4806Make a quilt with family photos!  Add fancy frames and borders around the photos! Make little fabric pennants to spell out a name! Make a fabric coffee coaster for your Valentine with downloadable graphics!

IMG_4804The possibilities are limited only by your imagination and the size of paper your printer will handle. And, of course, you can also use this method to stabilize fabric while you write or draw directly on it.

I’ll show you more of this quilt and tell you the story behind it as I get a little further along.

Have you used this technique before? What did you make? Can you add any helpful tips that I missed?

I’ve Been Meaning To . . .

i've been meaning toAs I’ve read your blogs about your hopes, dreams, plans, and resolutions for 2014, I’ve caught myself thinking, “Oh, I’ve been meaning to do that.” Then I was reviewing my never-ending to-do lists, which include prosaic items like “buy shampoo” but are also littered with things that never get marked off the list. The latter are things “I’ve been meaning to do.”

These aren’t the big, earth-shaking, bucket-list kinds of intentions. I don’t find the making of a bucket list too compelling. And they aren’t the little day-to-day to-do list kinds of items. Those are easy and they get marked off the list promptly.

Right in the middle of “really big” and “really small” are the kinds of good intention that are just right for my “I’ve been meaning to” list—you could call them the Goldilocks goals. These are manageable goals—projects to start, places to go, new skills to try. Maybe it’s because they are manageable that they never get done.

For instance, I’m always saying I’ve been meaning to spend more time in Montreal. It’s close, it’s easy to get to, it’s an antidote to provincial rural life. But because it’s easy and close, I can postpone doing it—it’ll be there tomorrow.

The quilt I just finished fell into this category. It was right there, waiting. It only needed a couple of days of focused work to be finished. Easy. Postpone. It’ll be there tomorrow.

But then I finished that quilt and felt such satisfaction! I strutted around for a couple days! And that has added to my certainty that I should do more of these things I’ve been meaning to do, both because they’re worthy things to do AND because I feel so smug when I actually follow through (and can take them off the list).

So, here’s my plan. I’m going to try to do one of the things “I’ve been meaning to do” every week this year and tell you about it. I’m going public with it because I hope that means I’ll be more mindful of following through.

My guidelines for myself are as follow:

  • I’m going to remember that my blog is NOT all about me. I write a personal journal for that. The blog is about, and for, you, too.
  • Having said that, I promise to write about things in ways that I hope you can relate to.
  • And having said that, I may not do a post on this topic every single week. I may do something I’ve been meaning to do that is too personal or weird to burden you with!
  • I will seek to stay true to my theme of “loving hands at home.” Many of the things I’ve been meaning to do are tailor-made. Some are a little further afield. Both may show up here., with an emphasis on the former.
  • If the plan gets boring to me or I think I’m boring you, I’ll abort!

So, thank you for sharing your plans and goals in the last week—it seems to have motivated me to re-consider some of mine. I hope we all follow through!

Christmas Senses: The Smell of Oranges and Cloves

IMG_4089I like my Christmas to smell.

Yes, I want to see bright lights and colors, as well as snow on the ground. I want the taste of peppermint and the feel of flannel PJs but mostly I love the smells I associate with the winter holidays.

You probably know the smells I mean. Evergreen boughs. Cookies baking. A wood fire. Caramel and chocolate and mint.

And the best smell of all, to my way of thinking—oranges studded with cloves.

Every year at this time, my husband gets a big bag of oranges and a big jar of whole cloves and makes pomanders while he watches football on TV.

He has done this for many years and, because the cloves dry and preserve the oranges, we probably have pomanders around here that are older than some of you!

Pomanders make a wonderful addition to holiday decorating.  They are natural and rustic and nostalgic but can also look quite modern, with the geometric design and bright contrast of colors.

And they are very easy to make. And pretty inexpensive. And they last, it seems, forever. You can even put them out in the fall and leave them out all winter because they don’t scream “Christmas.”

But, really, we make them mostly for that heavenly, spicy, zippy smell of bright citrus mixed with exotic clove.

Are you ready to start?

IMG_4061You’ll need:

Oranges—get small to medium ones. They don’t have to be perfect and expensive. Save your money for the zester (see below).

Whole cloves—don’t buy these in the little tins in the baking aisle, unless you only want to make one or two pomanders—they’re expensive that way! Try a restaurant supply store or a place like Sam’s Club, or order online, where you can find a whole pound for about $15-20. That big jar in the photos holds 11 ounces and has lasted a long time.

You won’t need but you’ll want:

A good zester—you can make pomanders by sticking holes in the orange with a skewer and putting cloves in the holes. But my husband’s method is so quick and sensible that, if you’re serious about this, you should consider it. He uses a heavy-duty zester—the brand is Rosle. This zester sells for about $25, which, I admit, is a crazy price for such a tool but it makes this job so easy! And I’m sure you occasionally want zest for a cocktail or something, right? Or is that just me?

To make your pomanders, use the larger hole on the side of the zester, called a channel, to carve a design in the orange. It’s very sharp so you can easily do stripes or swirls or spirals or a happy face. You can probably do monograms if you choose! Be sure to carve enough lines for a lot of cloves—remember you’re trying to preserve the oranges.

IMG_4072Once you have the design carved, stick the pointy ends of the cloves as far as they’ll go into the white pith of the orange. The cloves should go in close to each other, almost touching. Don’t be stingy—remember you’re trying to preserve the oranges!

IMG_4077How easy is that?

So easy that, while you’re doing all this, you’ll have plenty of time to breathe deeply. Smell that wonderful smell. Finish one pomander and make another. And another. Tuck them into baskets and bowls and tie ribbons around them and hang them from a wreath or a tree.

IMG_4092You may find it quite addicting! And next year, you’ll make new ones to nestle up against the ones from this year. The old ones will be dried out and a little pale and not as fragrant but, hey, that happens to all of us eventually!

IMG_4073Pretty soon you’ll have generations of pomanders and a new family tradition. Start now!


One more thing—don’t throw the little scraps of orange rind and broken cloves away!

IMG_4100Put them in a sauce pan on your stove with some water and maybe a cinnamon stick and let it all simmer. Pay attention and add more water when needed and fill your home with the smell of Christmas!


Taking Pains

quote-genius-is-an-infinite-capacity-for-taking-pains-thomas-carlyle-31782There are several ways to perform almost any act—an efficient, workable, artistic way and a careless, indifferent, sloppy way. Care and artistry are worth the trouble.― Helen Nearing

From my earliest memories, I can remember being urged to “take pains.” My paternal grandmother would say, “Kerry, you need to take pains to practice the piano” or “Take more pains with that embroidery.” I didn’t really understand this—did making something need to hurt?

As I grew older, I started to understand what it meant, really. I wanted to make things and I tended to rush, to get on to making the next thing. But my grandmother, and other family members and teachers, would tell me to slow down, do it well, take pains. It didn’t mean anything needed to hurt but I that I had to work against my impulse to rush, and that took control and self-discipline.

When I was studying jewelry making and metal smithing as an undergraduate, our teacher would assign grades based on both design and craftsmanship or, in other words, taking pains. I’ve never thought myself to be particularly creative, in terms of coming up with new designs or ideas. I could work to make my designs less predictable and derivative but other students had flashes of brilliance that escaped me.

But I could be the most painstaking. No file marks left on the metal for me! No globs of solder or poorly set stones.

Similarly, when I took up quiltmaking, I used time-tested, traditional patterns but learned to do the piecing and quilting by hand and tried to make the tiniest, most even stitches possible.

Now, none of this has come easy to me. I love marking things off my to-do list—finish the candy, put the binding on the quilt, post a blog entry, be productive. I need to fight my impulse to do things just to get them done. I cannot do quickly and do well; I know that about myself.

Taking pains, I think, is at the heart of craftsmanship. Thomas Carlyle said that, “Genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains” and, while I think there’s more to genius than being painstaking, taking pains is the part we really have control over.

This approach has served me well; what I lack in creative insight, I’ve found I can make up for in craftsmanship. I can pay attention to detail; I use a set of skills, which are available to all of us, but try to use them exceptionally well. I can take pains.

I’m not talking about perfection here. I am, after all, a human being and we are not meant for perfection. Tolstoy told us that, “If you look for perfection, you’ll never be content,” and contentment is very high on my list of achievable personal goals.

Rather, I’m saying that I work hard to do my best at the things that are meaningful to me and that I have control over. I want my work to reflect the human behind it but a human striving to do her best. And what I’ve realized is that we need to take pains with all kinds of human skills—writing, making, doing, thinking, and relating to others.

When I consider the people I admire most, they are the ones who take pains to be kind to others, to make relationships strong, to do their best work, whether that work is in the kitchen, the classroom, the boardroom, the workshop, the studio. These are the people who commit fully to whatever task they are engaged in and take pains to do it well.

I strive to be one of them.


Art in the Strangest Places–A Humongous Fungus


by Gary Chuszinski

The human desire to leave an imprint and to decorate a plain surface amazes me. From the cave paintings of Lescaux to the graffiti in today’s cities, we seem impelled to make a lasting mark.

Some artists choose a traditional medium and become expert in it. They purchase oil paints and quality brushes or yards of new fabric and state-of-the-art sewing machines. Other artists use what is at hand, finding a canvas in the most unlikely places.

One of the oddest of these accidental canvases may be fungus. Not just any fungus, like that stuff growing on cheese you forgot in the back of the fridge, but a particular fungus—Ganoderma applanatum, which grows mostly on dead or dying trees.

If you’re given to rambling through the woods, you’ve probably seen these fungi, also called Artist’s Bracket or Artist’s Conk, growing on the trees.

fungus5-4 fungus-1These aren’t little mushrooms but, rather, the kind of growth that will have you exclaiming, “There’s a humungous fungus among us!”* Indeed, some are very large and they aren’t gummy or gelatinous or icky like you might expect fungus to be; they’re quite hard and woody and often lovely on top, but soft and almost velvety on the bottom, the side that artists use.

This soft underbelly of the fungus is easily marked with a toothpick or point of a nail, and the marks turn brown and become permanent. As it dries the fungus becomes wood-like and can be coated with varnish but I don’t think it needs to be.

According to Larry Schneider, a fungus artist, on his website, the tradition of making art out of these fungi has been done by American pioneers and Native Americans. He also says that museums have specimens done by soldiers of the Civil War.

I couldn’t find any information to corroborate the history of the art form but it makes perfect sense to me that it’s an old form. I think of it as sort of a woodsman’s version of the sailor’s scrimshaw. The white surface becomes a tabula rasa, just inviting a transfiguring mark.

Today, artists decorate these fungi the traditional way, by scratching the surface or with a wood-burning tool, or they use oils or acrylic paints. The subject matter is usually, appropriately, rustic and primitive, with images of forest and stream, although I’ve seen examples with ballerinas and sad clowns.

Gary Chudzinski / Fungus moose / Primitive fungus / Painted Eagle

For all you DIY-ers out there, this is an easy camp craft. All you need is the artist’s conk—the ones that grow on trees, not out of the ground—and a pointy, but not really sharp, object to make the marks. So, take the kids on a hike and set them up to make forest souvenirs. According to Jean-Marc Moncalvo, senior curator of mycology at the Royal Ontario Museum, handling the fungus is  “absolutely safe.”

The only drawback is that you can’t hang them on the refrigerator!

We made this one  when we left our beloved lakefront rental, after it was sold.

We made this one when we left our beloved lakefront rental, after it was sold.

* I got this line from singer/comedian Camille West.

“Hands at Home” Heritage–Who Taught You?

Where did your interest in handmade start? Do you remember the first thing you made?

I have all these little snippets of memory from growing up, of being exposed to people making stuff and teaching me how. We lived on a farm so my paternal grandmother was always making food. She made the bread for the household and, when she took the loaves out of the oven, she’d use a stick of butter and rub the end over the tops of the loaves to give them a nice finish. My sister and I would sneak in and use our fingernails to pick the buttery crust off the bread to eat. And I don’t remember anyone ever speaking harshly to us about that!

My maternal grandfather was a serial craftsman. He ALWAYS had a hobby, one hobby, that he would do intensely and master. And then he would drop it and move on. He built houses. He took and developed photographs. He was a rockhound and collected rocks and gems all over the country. He made the most amazing wood furniture. But, once he was really, really good at something, it seems to have lost its hold on him and he’d find another outlet because he just seemed to need to make things.

My mother inherited the serial crafting gene from him. When I was little, she was into sewing. She made her clothes and our clothes. She was a first-grade teacher so she would do that all day and then stay up late, late at night and sew fabulous clothes. And then, one day, she just stopped. And took up knitting. She read knitting patterns to fall asleep at night. She made up her own patterns. She knit fabulous sweaters. And then, one day, she just stopped. I could go on and on . . .

So I’ve come honestly by my desire to make things! The first thing I really remember making, other than the typical drawings a little kid makes, was a piece of embroidery. My farm grandmother started me on it. It was a transfer design of a basket with flowers in it and I remember working really hard on it. I wish I still had that little piece of cloth and I think of it sometimes, when I’m ironing embroidered linens for my Etsy shop.

I cherish the “hands at home” history of my family and I can see, everyday, how it has influenced my style and aesthetic sense. I wonder if most artisans learn their love of crafting at home?  Or do some people come to it later, without the influence from an early age?

How about you? What was the first thing you made? Who taught you?