Starting 2014 By Finishing . . .

IMG_4454When we were kids, my sister and I lived by rules. My mother had her own version of the 10 Commandments and the greatest among them was this:

churchsignWe were not to boast, show off, or draw undue attention to ourselves. And Mom had a look that could stop us, not to mention rogue elephants, in our tracks if we showed even a hint of an intention of show-off behavior.

Well, Mom, I’m a big girl now and, while I try to live a circumspect, modest life, I am so happy to have finished a specific project, that I’m going to start the New Year by tooting my on horn, ringing my own bell, and just generally acting goofy.

It’s done. It’s done! IT’S DONE!!

What’s the big deal, you ask? People finish quilts every day.

Yes, well, so they may, but this quilt was started when my niece was an infant and she is now 17. This quilt took longer to finish than my doctoral dissertation and that is truly saying something.

I don’t know why it took so long. I’ve finished other quilts in a more reasonable amount of time. To my defense, almost every stitch in this quilt was done by hand—hand piecing and hand quilting. But that has been true of the other quilts I’ve made—I just really hate sewing machines.

I worked on it in fits and starts and got distracted along the way by work and other hobby obsessions. I took courses in jewelry making and then started with the candy making I’ve told you about. I stopped being a college prof and became an associate dean, which took a lot of attention. Then I retired and we moved and I started doing other things and, and, and  . . .

But this quilt called to me—all it has needed, really, for about the last 5 years, was to have the edges trimmed and the binding sewed on, maybe 4 days of work.

So, I finally did it. On one of the last warm days of fall, I dragged it out to our seawall and trimmed the edges. Then candy season hit and I stalled again but last week I took the time and finally finished the quilt.

And (here comes the really immodest part!), I love it! It’s a variation on an Ocean Waves pattern and I think I invented the setting. To my eye, it’s downright gorgeous and I’m going to hang it on the wall, in a place of honor, so I can be impressed with myself every single time I see it!

I might even start another quilt. I have dozens of little patches left over from piecing the top of this one and I have ideas. And working on a quilt is another great way to stay warm in the winter.

But, first, I have to do penance. Forgive me, Mother, for I have sinned—I showed off.

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Quilting Hands at Home: An Adirondack Quilt Show

A huge space, filled with of handmade quilts, on a brisk autumn day! When the biennial show of the Champlain Valley Quilters’ Guild of New York opened a couple of weeks ago, the colors inside the building rivaled those on the sugar maples outside. But the colors on the quilts will last long after the leaves have fallen!

I’ve said elsewhere that I think quilting is, just maybe, the quintessential expression of “loving hands at home.” It conjures images of regular people, using what they have on hand, to create a practical item that transcends the maker and the purpose. The time commitment in making a quilt is not undertaken lightly and the finished quilt envelops and warms the recipient, and brings beauty to any space. To see nearly 300 quilts and other textile projects on display is to see thousands of hours of work and love made tangible.

The photos sort of speak for themselves. Like every quilt show, this one was pure eye candy.

Many of the quilters had participated in a “mystery quilt” challenge, in which they were instructed to choose fabrics along certain guidelines and then follow instructions that were communicated periodically, so the beauty of each woman’s quilt (and, yes, they were all women—no men in this guild at all!) would be revealed slowly. These quilts were displayed together and the range of colors choices was fascinating!

Probably every quilt show has a regional angle or flavor. This one was no different. These quilters are based in the Adirondacks and Lake Champlain region of upstate New York so many of the quilt reflected the colors and subject matter of the area.

I am pretty bummed to say that I did not win the raffle quilt but I did pick up a copy of the Quilters’ Guild cookbook, which they compiled a few years ago. I love these community-based cookbooks for their old-fashioned, and often downright quirky, recipes.

This recipe book reflects the region just as the quilts themselves did. It has far more recipes for desserts and sweets than anything else, with an emphasis on apples and maple syrup, of course!

I’ll leave you with their “Recipe for Happiness This Year” (slightly edited to match my writing rules!)

Ingredients:

Water, Meals, Plants, 3 Es, Books, Exercise, Family and Friends, Excess

Directions:

Drink plenty of water. Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a beggar. Large meals earlier in the day are healthier for you. Eat more foods that grow as plants and eat less food that is manufactured in plants. Live with the 3 Es: energy, enthusiasm, and empathy. Read more books this year than you did last year. Take a 10-30 minute walk daily and, while you walk, smile.  Realize no one is in charge of your happiness except you. Call your friends and family often. Each day, give something good to others and get rid of anything that isn’t useful, beautiful, or joyful.

You Complete Me

pot holder girl-2For me, a special feeling comes from picking up a project, begun with good intentions by a woman who now can never finish her own work, and seeing it through to completion. I always imagine that long-gone woman smiling, to know that her effort was not wasted and that her work lives on.

If you love to embroider or quilt AND you love vintage AND you love the sense of a connection across time and place and experience, you can find almost limitless opportunities to work on vintage linens that need attention from you to be completed. It’s the best of all worlds—you can add your touch to the work, feel great about it completing a project that never would’ve gotten done without you, and be further rewarded by a vintage design done with quality vintage fabric!

Just as so many of us buy patterns and fabric with big plans but end up, instead, with UFOs (un-finished-objects), our foremothers did, too. Etsy and eBay are crammed with these projects, either never started or only partially done, and all are just waiting for a pair of loving hands to complete them.

If this all sounds appealing, you have lots of options to choose among, including the three I’ll cover here.

Vintage embroidery, waiting to be finished

I did a quick search on Etsy just now that yielded over 100 vintage items, ready to be stitched and turned into something lovely. You could find many more on eBay. The projects range from pillowcases to napkins to aprons to towels and the fabrics range from Irish linen to cotton and easy-care-options. Some of these projects are completely unfinished and some are nearly complete. You can even find sets that include the original thread.

This is an example that I found recently and will list on Etsy if I ever get around to it.

pot holder girl-1The embroidery here is finished and accents the colored cotton. The pieces are designed to be assembled as potholders and I think the girl’s face and bonnet piece is meant to be a caddy for the round potholders. The long piece with the embroidered word “holders” may be meant to be folded in half and stitched to the girl, as a handle that could be put over a drawer pull.

A couple of other examples:

Vintage transfers

Iron-on transfers were very popular in days gone by and a favorite technique for women to spiff up plain towels or other household items. These pieces of tissue paper had a design that could be transferred to fabric with a hot iron and each woman could choose her own design and colors for embroidering. Vogart was a huge purveyor of these designs and there are literally hundreds of sets of Vogart designs available on Etsy and eBay at any given moment.

If you are lucky enough to have some vintage towels or pillowcases that belonged to your grandmother or mother, you can replicate the work they may have planned to do by using these transfers and doing the embroidery. And, if you are NOT lucky enough to have plain linens waiting for your loving hands, of course you can purchase those in lots of places, from garage sales to antique stores.

Monograms? Check.

Pin-Up Girls? You bet.

And how cute are these chefs?

You can even get transfers to create quilt blocks that can then be turned into a full-size quilt, just like one your grandma might’ve made.

Vintage quilt tops

And speaking of quilts, it nearly kills me to find a beautiful quilt top, pieced or appliquéd by hand, that was never completed and used. All that work! All that love! All that unfinished business  . . .

I understand how this happens. Most people view the creative aspect of quilting to be making the top—piecing the precious scraps or appliquéing the thrilling colors. It’s a lot more fun to make the tops than to do the necessary, but long and nit-picking, work of the actually quilting together of top, batting, and backing. So many more quilt tops were made than ever got turned into a finished product. But, still, an unquilted top never achieves the essence of “quiltness”—keeping a person warm while brightening a room. It’s like a caterpillar that never gets the chance to be a butterfly! You can change that!

I was lucky enough to learn to quilt by hand on an unfinished top made by the venerable Grandma Van. She finished many quilts but wasn’t able to get this one done. I was learning to piece my first quilt top and was a long way from being done but wanted to try my hand at quilting. My husband had brought this quilt top home when Grandma Van died and I knew what I needed to do.

It’s fun to look at this quilt now because my learning curve can be tracked from the middle of the quilt, where I started with ragged, long stitches, to the edges, where I was getting pretty good at regular, tiny stitches. It was almost like Grandma Van was there, guiding my hand! And I finished the quilt—I brought it from a pretty, but basically useless, piece of pieced fabric to the finished treasure Grandma Van meant it to be.

grandma van and meIf this sounds appealing but don’t have a Grandma Van in your past, there are thousands, and that is not an exaggeration, of quilt tops available on Etsy and eBay. Quilts in every style and pattern and color combination you could want, from the sophisticated to the folky:

All kinds of unfinished projects would benefit from your loving hands. The next time your fingers are itching for a new challenge, instead of starting from scratch with a new design and new materials, consider helping a “friend” finish her project. Trust me, she’ll want you to keep it when it’s done.

These projects need you. You complete them. And along the way, you may just find that they complete you.

Loving Hands of Friends: Grandma Van’s Quilt

IMG_2079In an era where young women show their affection for friends by posting blurry photos of them on Facebook, the traditional practice of making a friendship quilt seems incredibly “old school.” But I’m an old-school kind of gal and I love being the current caretaker of a Depression-era friendship quilt, a lasting and lovely example of the power wrought by “loving hands at home.”

This is Grandma Van’s quilt.

grandma van quiltOrvada Hartman Van Landingham was my husband’s grandmother. She made wonderful quilts but she didn’t make this one. It was made for her by the women of her Texas community, as she and her husband prepared to move to California during the Great Depression.

Imagine how hard that must’ve been for a young woman, to leave everyone and everything she knew and move into the unknown. And she wasn’t moving because she had a great new job waiting, or because she’d always wanted to live in California. She was moving to escape, like so many others, the Dust-Bowl-ruined Great Plains, and just hoping she and her husband could make a better life in the mythical West.

Friendship quilts have been popular since the mid-1800s in the United States and probably evolved out of the pastime of the communal quilting bee. Some of the quilts are more properly called signature quilts, because they were made to raise money for a church or charity; people would pay to have their signature on the quilt and sometimes made their block or sometimes just signed it. These quilts could then be raffled, to raise even more money.

Grandma Van’s quilt is pretty typical of friendship quilts of the Depression Era. I know it was finished about 1931, since one of the blocks has that date embroidered on it. Each woman would’ve made a block and written or embroidered her name on it. Then all the blocks were sewn together and quilted by the members of the group.

According to very good website, Hart Cottage Quilts, typical fabrics in the late 1920s and early ’30 were heavy on new “sherbet pastels.” Because manufacturers had limited dyes to work with, the different shades of any given color coordinated well, meaning that, for Depression-era quilters, it would’ve been hard to make a “wrong” fabric choice!

Grandma Van’s quilt must have been cherished—it came to her grandson and me in wonderful condition. The names embroidered on the quilt fascinate me. My New England ancestors were Ruths and Kathleens and Lydias. Orvada’s friends were Effie, Ona, Novis, and Melia—such exotic names! And the older women who participated maintained their dignity and social status by signing themselves as “Mrs.” And “Granny.”

So, Grandma Van and her husband Guy took their quilt and their other meager belongings and left Texas. We don’t know how their journey went, whether it was fairly uneventful or pure Tom Joad. They ended up in Tuolumne City, California, where Guy found work in a lumber mill and he and Orvada raised three children.

I can just imagine Orvada bringing this quilt out at times she felt lonely or frightened in her new world. Maybe she wrapped it around her shoulders and thought of her old friends and, in so doing, found comfort.

To call a quilt like this a metaphoric hug may be a timeworn cliché but, hey, the quilt itself is time worn . . . and that just adds to its beauty. Sometimes the old ways are the best ways.

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The Maker’s Marks: Battered Hands at Home

The-Three-Spinning-Fairies-35Has your art or craft left its mark on you? Do you have calluses or scars that speak to the work your hands do?

I remember a fairy tale that fascinated me as a child. It was from the Grimm’s Fairy Tales and was called “The Three Spinning Fairies.” The three fairies all were physically marked by the work they did as spinners. One had a big, flat foot, from turning the wheel; one had a large underlip that hung over her chin, from wetting the thread; and the third had a very broad thumb, from twisting the thread.

The story gets me thinking about the ways our activities mark us. The musculature of the long-distance runner tells a tale of her hard work. The tanned and lined skin of the farmer speaks of a life working in the sun. I knew an elderly teacher who had develop a verbal tic of punctuating her every sentence with “shhh,” after years in the classroom.

The activities I engage in are easy by comparison yet even “loving hands at home” tell a tale. The work, and play, I do have left their marks. When I play the guitar regularly, I form calluses on my left hand (when I pick up the guitar irregularly, I just whine!) During gardening season, I perpetually have soil under my nails. I wake up every morning, and my joints are kind of creaky.

But some of the marks my hands bear deserve special recognition:

The most annoying

I don’t always choose to quilt but, when I do, I prefer handwork (I’m channeling that guy in the Dos Equis ad!). During the process of hand quilting, both hands are in action, the dominant hand on top, sort of rocking the needle through the layers of fabric, and the other hand under the quilt, deflecting the needle back up.

Each stitch pricks the top of the underside finger and, pretty soon, you have either a) a sore hole in your finger; b) a callus; or c) both.  I never have quite built up a fully protective callus, so this is a niggling injury. It completely stops progress because I cannot go on quilting until it heals.

I always thought I could incorporate this maker’s mark into a murder mystery. Someone is killed and the murder weapon reveals an odd pattern. The lack of a normal fingerprint on the third finger leads to a deranged quilt maker.

The most psychologically unsettling

I don’t have any actual scars from jewelry making, which is odd because I use more substantial and potentially damaging tools there than in any other hobby. But I have mental scars—I can feel, in my memories, the way the slender, sharp blade of the jeweler’s saw cuts into the side of my left index finger when I slip as I’m cutting the silver. It cuts right where the fingernail joins the skin at the side of your finger. And you know it’s going to happen. And you promise yourself it won’t, not this time. And then it does. Again. I wince just writing about it!

The most painful

The most painful injury I’ve had in pursuit of handmade heaven is a burn from hot sugar syrup. I regularly make caramels and toffee and, to do so, you need to cook sugar syrup to the “soft ball” stage—about 240 degrees. That’s hot. And sticky, so you can’t brush it off. The hot syrup sticks to your skin and stays hot and just . . . keeps . . . burning.

Last winter, during the height of candy-making season for my business, I flipped a big glob of hot syrup on my finger and it kind of wrapped around the base of the finger. I got it into cold water almost immediately but not soon enough to prevent huge blisters and scars. And, by the way, if you ever get hot food on your finger, do NOT stick your finger in your mouth! As much as it hurts to burn the skin on your hand, it’s worse on the tender skin inside your mouth. I’m just sayin’ . . .

The dumbest 

The dumbest injury I’ve sustained came when I was working in a gallery, as a picture framer. I was handling a big piece of glass to put in a frame over a poster—it was about 3 feet by 2 feet. I finally got the glass all clean and I picked it up to place it in the frame. But a scrap of paper had gotten stuck to the underside glass, with a little bit of masking tape. It was just a little bit stuck so I figured I could dislodge it, without putting the glass down.

I gave the huge sheet of glass a little shake, just to knock that tape off, and it pretty much exploded in my hands! Glass everywhere, including one big sharp dagger of a piece that embedded itself in my palm. The good news: it could’ve been so such worse! The bad news: the scar dissects the lifeline on my left palm, creating great confusion when I get my fortune told!

People think that crafting and cooking are delicate pastimes, for those with soft lady-like hands. You and I know different! Any beloved, repeated activity leaves its mark upon us, whether physical or psychological. I look at my hands, after a lifetime of using them to make all kinds of things, and they aren’t pretty.

They do, however, look capable and strong and agile. And I will take capable, strong, and agile over pretty any day!

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Do you have scars and calluses to show you’ve lived a busy life? What are your maker’s marks?

Loving Hands: Connecting Two Generations

Banker quilt pendant-4When it comes to a trove of items made by “loving hands at home,” I am one of the lucky ones. I have many, many treasures made by members of my family.

I am very sentimental about these things and I like to have them out where I can see them. I have a wooden knife box, made by grandmother’s grandmother’s father, in the kitchen holding my dishcloths. We use my husband’s grandmother’s hand embroidered pillowcases on the bed. And I used the scrap of an old, old quilt, with my great-grandmother’s signature, to make a silver pendant.

The quilt: An old patchwork quilt, done as a friendship quilt; each person would stitch a block with their signature in the center, then the pieces would be put together by the group. Sometimes these quilts were made as a gift to a person marrying or leaving to move West. Sometimes they were made by members of a church, with each signer paying for their block, as a way to raise money for the church. This quilt was made in a variety of fabrics, set into off-white cotton and with a center square for the signature.

Banker quilt pendant-2My quilt had been used hard and then stored badly for too many years. By the time it came to me, it had huge holes through the fabric and batting and was filthy. Though some people will say I was wrong to do so, I cut it up and salvaged what I could, with an eye toward doing something to preserve the remnants at a future date. I saved all the signature blocks, including a number with names I recognized, made by women and men. One block said “Grandma Banker.”

Banker quilt pendant-3Based on the other signatures and family memories, I identified the “grandma” as Ella Banker, mother of my paternal grandmother and born in 1867.

The pendant: I studied jewelry making as an art student in college and then did nothing with it for years. I became a college professor in an entirely different field but the college at which I worked offered jewelry making and silversmithing so, after about 25 years, I was back in the studio.

We received the assignment to make a piece of jewelry that represented our notion of “precious.” I knew I wanted to focus on family and connections so I chose to incorporate the “Grandma Banker” quilt scrap into the jewelry.

I made the pendant of sterling silver and created a tiny oval box into which the fabric would nestle. I cut the front and back, using a jeweler’s saw, and scalloped the edges to suggest lace. I used tube rivets to hold the pieces of the box together; these hold tightly just by fitting them properly and I thought the hollow middle of the tubes added to the look of stylized lace.

Banker quilt pendant-5Banker quilt pendant-6I used plexiglass on the front, to protect the old fabric. I wanted to be sure that the piece wasn’t airtight, so the fabric could breathe and not get mildewed, so I used my saw to spell out my great grandmother’s name and birth year on the back of the pendant.

Banker quilt pendant-7It was hugely satisfying to find a way to incorporate an old one-of-a-kind family treasure into a new one-of-a-kind piece. I still haven’t done anything with the rest of the quilt pieces but I have ideas!

I’m always drawn to the re-purposing of old treasures. I’d love to hear about ways you continue to weave the pieces of your family’s past into your present life!

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Simply Human—We Don’t Have to Be Perfect!

quilting_amish_diamond_centerWhen I was more actively involved in quilt making, I remember reading that Amish women, the makers of some of the most fabulous quilts ever (if you ask me!), always made sure to include a misplaced patch of fabric or a few incorrect stitches in any quilt they made. The thinking was that only God was perfect and that it was arrogant for a human to attempt perfection. Including an intentional mistake was acknowledgement of human fallibility and humility.

In the “loving hands at home” world, mistakes and missteps abound—and the mistakes remind us that we are real and our products aren’t going to be perfect, and it’s okay to say, “Hey, at least I tried!”

In the world of Pinterest, where all the homes are beautiful and all the handmade projects above average, some people are celebrating their imperfection, and maybe, just maybe, creating imperfection for its own sake. Just type “craft fail” in the search bar and look at some of the boards with that title!

I love finding the imperfections that come, it seems, from busy, distracted hands at home. These vintage towels I saw for sale on eBay crack me up.

Firday towelback Thursday towelI can understand the accidental misspelling of “Friday” but how did the word Thursday get stitched backwards? Either the maker a) was majorly distracted, b) was sampling the dandelion wine, or c) had a wicked sense of humor!

I try to be pretty relaxed when I make something that doesn’t turn out exactly as I planned. I want it to be structurally sound (or edible, when it’s food). I want it to be worthy of the time I put into it. But if I make a mistake, I don’t quit the whole thing and throw it away and I usually don’t start over. I try to find a way to incorporate the mistake and move on. After all, I’m only human!

How about you? Are you a perfectionist? I hope you can laugh and accept the missed stitch, the runny frosting, and the little quirks that prove your items weren’t made by a machine!

Vintage Textiles: Looking for Loving Homes

cowboyI love vintage. I especially love vintage textiles–table linens, quilts, blankets, and such. I have loved them for so long and so well that I created quite a problem for myself. I lived in a house that was overwhelmed with textiles. I was the stereotypical “crazy cat lady” of vintage linens. I wanted every embroidered napkin or tablecloth, every crocheted afghan, every hand-stitched quilt to have a good home. And I thought I was the only person who cared enough to provide a good home.

The fact that I had two houses to fill didn’t help matters. For years we had a “real” house and a summer house, both with lots of storage space. When we moved into the summer house full-time a few years ago, I was forced to face my linen-hoarding tendencies. I found boxes and boxes (really!) of linens that I had completely forgotten I had. I had wanted those things to have a good home but what kind of home was I giving them, packing them away and forgetting them?

And, so, I have become the Humane Society of vintage textiles, the SPCA of linens and quilts. I started my Etsy shop, KerryCan (www.etsy.com/shop/KerryCan), to find good homes for my collection of vintage textiles. And I have found that many, MANY people love them as much as I do!

Here are some of my favorite items that have recently found “forever homes.” The dish towel at the top of the page was one of a set of three “day of the week” towels, featuring the cowgirl trying to get her chores done, with the “help” of a flirtatious cowboy

A beautiful hand-crocheted afghan, in fall colors.

A beautiful hand-crocheted afghan, in fall colors.

A pair of linen pillow cases; the drawnwork was done by hand, by a woman preparing for her marriage, in 1910.

A pair of linen pillow cases; the drawnwork was done by hand, by a woman preparing for her marriage, in 1910.

A hand-crocheted tablecloth, with a beautiful star motif.

A hand-crocheted tablecloth, with a beautiful star motif.

Another spectacular afghan, in black and brights.

Another spectacular afghan, in black and brights.

Aren’t they wonderful?! I miss all of these beautiful things! Sometimes I wish I had kept them but then I remind myself of the pleasure others are getting from them . . . and I look around and take stock of all the other special stuff I’ve kept for myself!

Do you find it easy to accumulate things and hard to let go?

Busy, busy hands . . . and not enough time.

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Retired people always talk about how busy they are. I could never figure that out. They don’t have to get up early and take a shower and put on grown-up clothes every day. They don’t have to drive to work and find a place to park. They don’t have to work for 8 hours! And then drive home and get ready for the next day at work. Just how busy can they be?

Then I retired, pretty much the minute I turned 55, from my career as a college professor. And now I am SO busy, I truly cannot find the time to do everything I want to do!

I want to do what you want to do—make things.

10 things I wish I could fit into every day:

1)   Quilting—I have a beautiful quilt that needs about two days work to be finished. I’d love for you to see it!

2)   Making jewelry—You should see my studio! I have everything I need to make pretty things.

3)   Baking—I used to bake bread. I love to bake cookies . . .

4)   Getting the dirt out—I get the weirdest thrill out of soaking a stained and smelly old tablecloth, made by someone else’s loving hands, and seeing it come back to its shining glory!

5)   Ironing—no, really. I love to iron. I can explain it and someday I will.

6)   Making music—my husband plays his guitar and sings almost every day. I should, too. It’s just good for the soul.

7)   Gardening—I actually do get into the garden almost every day. Those pesky weeds insist.

8)   Trying a new candy concoction—Last year, I developed new recipes for mint meltaways and peanut butter meltaways and they are FAB, if I may be so impertinent as to say so. What can I make next . . .?

9)   Getting out of the house—all these projects keep me home but when I go out to look at what other people are doing and making, I get a huge creative jolt!

10)  Trying something new—I’d love to learn to weave. And hook rugs. I’d love to learn to play the banjo or the fiddle. But, the problem is I don’t have time for the things I already know and love, so I tell myself I shouldn’t start something new.

So many creative outlets, never enough time. I imagine you feel the same way, too. Right?