Learning to Sew

1 Feb

I learned to sew mostly by osmosis. As a child, I slept under homemade quilts, and trick-or-treated in homemade costumes. My mom made a handful of clothing pieces for me and my siblings, but a lot more bags and toys and costumes, along with the curtains, quilts, and throw pillows in our house. My mom’s sewing machine was tucked in the corner of our playroom when we were tiny, and later the laundry room. Her machine sat on top of the sewing machine table on which my great-grandmother had sewn. There weren’t really any formal sewing lessons that I recall, though I do recall on occasion being allowed to operate the pedal of the machine while my mom sewed. As an adult, I realize that this is insane. I have sewn with various small children on my lap over the years, and have had lot of “help” with pins and fabric, but I can’t imagine letting a tiny assistant operate the pedal.

I can’t really remember the first time I sat down to the sewing machine on my own. During one summer during middle school, mom took me, as she had my sister a few years earlier, to the fabric store to pick out a pattern and fabric with the plan to teach me how to sew. I chose plaid for some reason that I cannot now imagine, and planned to make shorts and a shirt. (It really was as bad as it sounds. I blame the decade.) Mom and I laid out the pattern on the floor, and she showed me how to transfer all the markings from the pattern to the fabric pieces after carefully cutting along the appropriate size line. And that is as far as I got with that project. Mom eventually finished the shorts and shirt for me, and I think I even wore them once or twice. Though I would consider that sewing lesson a failure, I am confident that I learned quite a bit from my mother while I wasn’t paying attention. All those trips to the fabric store and impatiently flipping through pattern books, the hum of a sewing machine the soundtrack of many an afternoon, the vague familiarity with the tools of the trade- somehow it all added up to some basic idea of how to put two pieces of fabric together and end up with something beautiful and functional.

When I was fifteen, I agreed to help with the costumes for a high school musical. The drama teacher figured the entire chorus of 20+ girls should have matching drop-waist dresses and so with some combination of ambition and naivety, two other friends and I thought we’d tackle the project with very little sewing experience. Somehow, against the odds, or perhaps thanks to some fortunate timely intervention from our seamstress mothers, we managed to pull that off. Shortly thereafter, Mom gave me her twenty year old faded turquoise sewing machine that had been her first, and since then I have never been without a machine. 

Since then, the story of my sewing career has been one that I make up as I go along. I don’t know that I do anything the way one is supposed to. When I teach others, I have to remember to use pins and precise measurements and  instructions and occasionally an iron. So there’s a bit of trial, a whole lot of error, and lots of time with my close personal friend the seam ripper, but it mostly works out in the end. 

Elmer’s Glue and Googly Eyes

31 Oct

This weekend I traded linen and wool for Elmer’s glue and googly eyes. While her little brother napped, my six-year-old niece and I pulled out some jars, glue, googly eyes, tissue paper, and gauze, and set to work on some halloween lanterns. I had spotted the idea in some magazine and immediately thought of her. I gave her the basic rundown on how to use the glue to decoupage the tissue paper on the glass jars to create an orange pumpkin lantern, but she quickly revised the method, adapting it to her own preferences. This girl started making things pretty much as soon as she got her paws on a crayon, and she’s had her own opinions since long before that. I love working alongside her, and occasionally get this little swell of joy over the fact that I have such a creative niece who is lucky enough to be surrounded by a crafty and creative family. Her dad works in theatre and builds furniture on the side, and her mom’s brief stint as a costume designer was just one chapter in her crafty life. 

My siblings and I grew up with handmade costumes, quilts, christmas ornaments, and the occasional piece of clothing. My mom was an avid sewer, and our aunts were knitters, canners, and crafters. Our tiny school, from first through eighth grade, didn’t offer home ec, but there was no need. During middle school, my mom attempted to teach both my sister and I how to cut out a pattern and sew a simple piece of clothing. I’m not sure that either went very well- I don’t think either my sister or I stuck it out to a finished product, but I think we also both walked away with the foundation of our sewing careers which would start much later. 

When we were very little, my sister overheard our mother remark to an aunt that I was “the crafty one,” but the truth is, while I was wandering the aisles of the local Benjamin Franklin craft store and gluing random items together and calling them gifts for my unfortunate family and friends, my sister was dabbling in oil pastels, cross stitch, painting, and pottery. My projects were signed with gluey fingerprints. My sister’s were signed carefully with her neatly printed name and the date. My first solo sewing project, once I picked up the scissors again, was a simple A-line skirt with an uneven hem that was a couple of inches too short. My sister’s first sewing project was a tailored velveteen blazer that fit her like a glove. 

These days, my sister squeezes wonder woman costumes and knitted hats and curtains in between a full time teaching career, and packing lunches, and homework, and bath time, and her project list is longer than the day. But meanwhile the niece is happily cutting out leaves she drew, and the nephew is trying his hand at leaf rubbings, and whether its their mom or their aunt digging out the scissors and glitter, I am thankful that these two half pints will grow up in such a creative environment that values the handmade. 

Books by Hand

4 Oct


I learned to bind books nearly ten years ago in an old barn that had been converted to an art studio. Those first few books I made had a certain homemade quality to them- slightly wrinkled covers with gluey fingerprints, tight stitching that often pulled the covers open. It took more than a few books before my stitches were even, the binding snug but not too tight, the corners neat, and the covers smooth. But from the beginning I have always been a big fan of binding books for a number of reasons:

1. I have always been a writer, from my elementary days of writing long stories about girls with even longer names, to the travel journals I have diligently kept on seven continents.

2. I like making things that are useful, in addition to beautiful. I like that the books I have made for myself, given as gifts, and sold to others, aren’t just pretty little things that will sit on a shelf. Rather they are pretty little things that (I hope) will be well-loved and worn, stacked on nightstands and stuffed into satchels, pages filled with lists and ideas and fond memories. 

3. All sorts of materials lend themselves to book covers. I’ve used maps and photos and fabric stretched over book board. I’ve tamed tin cans and album covers and old floppy disks into book covers. Not every random bit has turned out to be suitable, but I have ended up with many unique books along the way. 

It took a bit of patience and a lot of practice to get a finished book that pleased me, and it is exactly the disclaimer I’ve offered before teaching anyone how to bind books. Your first book will likely not be your best book, but it will open a whole world of possibilities. 

Until now, I have only taught classes in Antarctica, where the community is small and the faces familiar. Next week, I am branching out. I will be teaching a two part class at Share Denver, a great new community space for teaching and learning all sorts of crafts and skills. If you are in the Denver area and are interested in learning to bind a book, go to http://www.ShareDenver.com to register. 


Repurposing Clothing: Girls Skirts, three ways

12 Jul

three skirts hanging

The fine folks over at Simple Simon & Company are sponsoring “Skirting the Issue,” a five week event encouraging sewers at large to make and donate girls’ skirts and other items. I’ll be following their suggestion and donating these skirts to a local foster care agency.

I started off at the fabric store where I picked out a bold floral print and coordinating polka dot fabric to make a few skirts. But when I realized that the fabric had been mis-labeled and would cost about twice as much as I thought, I reevaluated. I’m on a pretty limited budget these days, and after all, the point of this is to be able to donate my skills and abilities to create something useful. I do after all have boxes and boxes of fabric- surely there is something that would make for a cute skirt.

An increasing amount of my fabric stash is in the form of previously worn clothing found in thrift stores and occasionally my own closet. Here are three skirts I made, from three different items. The key to successfully repurposing (or upcycling) clothing items is to make something smaller than the original item. For this reason, making children’s clothing is an obvious choice, but you could certainly use some of these techniques to make larger women’s skirts, you might just need a larger item to start with.

Skirt #1: Man’s Dress Shirt

Before: Man's dress shirt, size XL

Before: Man’s dress shirt, size XL

After: Girl's skirt, size 6/7

After: Girl’s skirt, size 6/7

The advantage of using a man’s shirt instead of a woman’s, is that there is typically less shaping, and fewer seams. The boxier cut of this shirt makes the transition to a skirt much simpler. I used the existing side seams as the seams of the skirt, and added a separate elastic waistband. In the interest of modesty, I ran a quick seam up the button placard so that the skirt cannot be unbuttoned. A rolled hem later, and Voila!, a sweet skirt for a six year old. Though I think those tan buttons may need to go though, don’t you?

If you want to try this, you’ll want to find a shirt whose circumference is at least 1 1/2 times that of the waist of the future skirt wearer. As with all reclaimed clothing, make sure the shirt is free of stains (check the armpits!), and look for a shirt without pockets if possible. The placement of shirt pockets is often less than ideal, and may limit the length of your skirt. In my experience, removing the shirt pocket rarely goes well as it often leaves glaring stitch lines.

Skirt #2: Pillowcase Skirt 

Before: Cotton Pillowcase

Before: Cotton Pillowcase

After: Girl's skirt, size 10

After: Girl’s skirt, size 10

I snagged this IKEA pillowcase at a thrift store last summer. I’m not usually one for floral prints, but leave it to the Swedes to persuade me. Pillowcases, of course, have long been used to make dresses, shirts, and skirts, usually for tiny pigtailed tots. The advantage of using a pillowcase for an article of children’s clothing means that most likely you can use the existing seams and hems, and only refashion the top of the pillowcase into a neckline or waistband. If making a larger item, you could potentially reorient the pillowcase sideways to have more width to work with, depending on the print and the weave of the fabric. In this case, the pillowcase opening had an extra flap so reusing the hem was out of the question. Instead, I slit open the folded end of the pillowcase and then cut the pillowcase to the skirt length desired. Just like the shirt skirt above, I sewed a separate elastic waistband from contrasting fabric and attached it to the skirt. I added a wide hem to the bottom. Super simple. Except that the finished product looks a little plain to me, so I’m thinking about some applique.

Wanna give this one a go? Lightweight pillowcases can make for cool, airy summer wear, but the thinner pillowcases can also be a little transparent. Keep an eye out for vintage pillowcases with lace or embroidered edges that will not only save you the trouble of a hem, but make for a unique hemline.

Skirt #3: Adapting an Adult Skirt 

Before: Woman's Skirt, size medium (has already been shortened in this photo)

Before: Woman’s Skirt, size medium (has already been shortened in this photo)

After: Girl's Skirt, size 8

After: Girl’s Skirt, size 8

I realize that these before and after photos may possibly be the least interesting, least dramatic before and after photos. Frankly, this skirt took so little effort it felt like cheating. When I found this on thrift store rack, this skirt was a few sizes too small for me, not to mention the elastic was shot and the ties were coming apart, but I’ve always been a fan of India cotton- I love the softness of this lightweight cotton, and the soft bleed of the (usually) vegetable based dyes. I recently raided the lower portion of this skirt for another applique project so I started by trimming the skirt to leave me with a straight hem. The original casing for the waistband was a little too narrow, and the stitching was a little worse for wear. So I ripped out the original casing and refolding the top edge to create a slightly larger casing. I stitched in a new hem, and this skirt has been given new life for a slightly smaller owner.

I’m hoping to tackle a few more skirt projects in the coming weeks, using a combination of reclaimed garments and stash fabric. If you’re interested in checking out what other skirts folks are making for Skirting the Issue, you can check out the flickr page here.

Something to Chew On

5 Jul

sugaring the candies

At some point in my early teen years, I found an old set of lollipop molds in my mom’s kitchen. Coupled with a 1960’s Better Homes and Gardens candy cookbook with faded photos of once glistening hard candies, I set out to make candy to give to friends at Christmas. My mom’s kitchen was not equipped with a candy thermometer, so I followed the instructions to test the various stages of candy using only a spoon and a plate. I diligently tested the clear sugary liquid several times, and when I thought it had reached the hard crack stage, I pulled the mixture off the stove, added flavor and color, and then carefully poured the hot liquid into the molds. As the plastic molds lay cooling on the dining room table, I was awfully pleased with myself. Dozens of glistening lollipops lined up like sweet soldiers. Oh they were perfect! …Right up until I removed them from the molds. I held up the first lolly and it took only a moment for the elongated figure to start drooping slowly forward. It would turn out that I had not cooked the candy quite long enough, leaving the lollies in the unfortunate soft crack stage: too soft to hold their shape or suck on the way one does with hard candy, but too hard to chew on like taffy. They were such sad lollipops, and yet I gave them away anyway, just one of the many flawed projects of my childhood lovingly bestowed on my unfortunate family and friends.

Twenty years later, I have still not made another attempt at making candy. I’ve made some chocolates, mostly truffles and barks that require significantly less precision than sugar candies. Recently however I stumbled upon a this recipe for making sour gummy candy from scratch. Though they are not hard candy, they do require slightly more precision than anything else I’ve tried. The project was enticing, and the gummies sounded like they might be slightly more forgiving than lollipops. Bouyed by a recent successful Worcestershire sauce-making endeavor (and who ever thought you could make that from scratch?!), I thought I’d give the gummy candy a go.

This time I started off by acquiring a candy thermometer, as well as a few flexible silicone molds (originally intended for ice). Turns out those candy thermometers are pretty handy. Once the sugar mixture had reached temperature, I added the pectin mixture as instructed and then divided the mix between two glass containers. I used lemon extract and yellow coloring in one half, and orange extract and coloring in the other. I ended up with a total of 44 candies.

bubbling candy mixture

citrus candy molds2

citrus star

This candy making attempt was FAR more successful than my first foray into the world of cooking sugar, and I am extremely pleased with how the candies turned out. I love how sour they are, and think they are just plain pretty. With the array of silicone molds out there these days, I’d say the possibilities are endless. My beau remarked that he thought they were a little slimy, and indeed the gummies are a little softer than many store-bought varieties. I might consider altering the amount of pectin in the recipe to make the candies a little firmer, but please note that the gummies were not apparently slimy enough to keep aforementioned beau from eating a dozen of them.

finished hearts

Diamonds in the Rough

1 Jul
Journals made with recycled wool sweaters

Journals made with recycled wool sweaters

I’m a big fan of reusing old materials to make something new. There is a special sort of satisfaction that comes from taking something ugly or worn or useless and turning it into something lovely and useful.

Thrift stores are always an excellent stand in for a fabric store, offering heaps of wool, cashmere, and cute cotton prints, not to mention buttons and trim. Shopping the clothing aisles for fabric rather than for garments opens up a world of possibilities. Nevermind that a shirt or dress is three sizes too small and has an unfortunate stain when it’s only the fabric you’re after.

From felted sweater journals to recycled wine bottle drinking glasses to baby clothes cut from old t-shirts, I have conjured up many a new item from someone else’s cast off. Over the years, I’ve learned a few tricks about what to look for when scouring for materials, and the best ways to get the most out of items to be reused. I hope that some of these might be helpful.

1. Look Past the Ugliness. It is a totally different ballgame sifting through garage sales, giveaway boxes, and thrift stores for materials rather than for actual products. With an eye on the potential of the pieces rather than the whole, you can look past the terribly unflattering cut of that outdated dress, or the water stained pages of a cookbook, or the missing buttons. As an avid reader, I have always scoffed at the volumes of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books that seem to line the shelves of nearly every flea market and library book sale. But underneath the faded dust jackets advertising the shortened classics, many of these book covers have fantastic patterns reminiscent of victorian wallpaper, which make great covers for journals.

2. Zippers are never worth it. At a couple bucks each, new zippers certainly don’t come cheap, but I have not found it to be worth it to start pulling zippers out of old clothing items. First of all, the amount of time and labor required to painstakingly rip out the two to three rows of stitches holding a zipper is exorbitant. Secondly, zippers are somewhat delicate creatures, and will seldom stand up to a second life, particularly the ones with nylon or plastic teeth. Instead, I keep an eye out for zippers on sale and on clearance racks, and have occasionally found unused zippers in grab bags of sewing notions from thrift stores and garage sales.

3. All of the other notions are totally worth it. Buttons are easily removable and always worth saving. Easily half of the contents of my button jar came off of clothing items that I cut apart to use for something else. Sometimes I’ll pull off a snap, hook n eye, or other closure if it comes off easily, or is in some way unique. Embellishments can be reattached elsewhere, along with ribbons and rick-rack.

4. Shop in the dress aisle, but otherwise head for the men’s department. When hunting for fabric, steer towards the men’s department for larger pieces. A men’s buttondown will give you a whole lot more fabric than one from the women’s department, thanks to the boxier cut of most men’s shirts, as well as the larger sizes available. Also keep in mind that women’s shirts and jackets are more likely to be tailored with darts and princess seams, that could end up right in the middle of a piece you want to use. However, if it is printed fabrics you are after, head to the skirt and dress aisle, or maybe the children’s department. Just keep an eye on where seams are, and how much of the garment will actually be useable.

5. Look for Wool in March. Even thrift stores have sales, and they, along with closet-cleaning friends and family, will be most eager to get rid of wool, cashmere, fur, and shearling at the end of winter. These are some of my favorite materials to work with, and can often be a little pricier than other materials.

6. Use what’s already there. When cutting garments or other pieces from old clothing items, reuse seams and hems when possible. In the last year, I’ve made dozens and dozens of t-shirts for children cut from old adult shirts. With careful placement of the pattern pieces, I can save the trouble of hemming the shirts, and particularly the tiny sleeves. Plus the professionally made t-shirts typically come with much nicer hem stitching than my machine is capable of. Always save the rib knit used on the collars of t-shirts, and the shirt sleeves of ringer t’s. You will be able to quickly build up a selection of multicolored options for your own knit projects.

Original T-shirt hem reused for elastic casing

Original T-shirt hem reused for elastic casing

Infant Sleep Sack made from Man's T-shirt

Infant Sleep Sack made from Man’s T-shirt                               












I hope that if nothing else this list may help you to see new possibilities when you look at a rack of clothes in outdated fashions or several sizes too small.

Treasure Hunt

24 May

We made a trip up to the Mile High Flea Market, just northwest of Denver in Henderson, CO, today. I had stumbled across their website while hunting for good thrift stores in the Denver area. I had high hopes of a bustling flea market with some solid though slightly battered wooden furniture, metal washtubs and other oversized containers to use as planters, and of course a few hidden pieces of vintage pyrex tucked in between the floral patterned dishes. Alas, these hopes were all but dashed. The flea market was fairly quiet today, with most of the stalls shuttered, and mostly vacant spaces in the open lot in the  back. The farmer’s market, which appeared to be devoid of farmers, and chock full of produce distributors, was the busiest part of the market, and even there, a general mood of ennui hung over the place.

Wandering the asphalt aisles, mannequins modeling floral jeans and cheetah print leggings stood topless in the sun, and bouquets of colorful plasticware hung from the awnings. One stall was teeming with tools of all sorts, ranging from well-worn, to still in their packages. “Those are out of your price range,” the vendor assured me when I asked the price of some old metal letter dies. I bit my tongue instead of pointing out how overpriced his goods were, and let him make his assumptions about me and my financial prowess (or lack thereof…).

Beyond the painted clapboard stalls, individuals set up yard sale style in the wide open lot. A few sellers sold new items- plastic costume jewelry, knock-off perfumes, and plastic children’s shoes. A few stalls were dedicated to tools, mostly power tools that showed their age, but definitely still had some life in them. Drills, saws, grinders, and compressors basked on tarps in the afternoon sun. In most of the spaces, towering heaps of boxes loomed in the back of card tables mounded with all manner of housewares and toys. Cassette tapes mingle with vases and action heroes, while napkin rings tumble over dinnerware and faceless dolls. Amid the chipped glassware and stained linens, there are a few pieces of milk glass, devoid of chips, and a well-seasoned cast iron frying pan that still has plenty of life in it. As I wander amid the old sewing machine tables and rusty wheelbarrows, I think this is the place that things live on forever. Under these tents, it seems that nothing has ever been thrown away- not a single happy meal toy, laundry basket, or rusty hammer.

While my beau lingers in a pile of dewalt tools, drooling slightly over an oversized air compressor, a leather chair catches my eye. It is slightly worn, but in good condition and a lovely shade of brown- somewhere between saddle and chocolate. After digging around the seams to confirm it’s real leather, I ask the seller what he wants for it, and as has happened over and over again today, he calls out to someone across the aisle to inquire about the asking price. The price is called out in Spanish and I politely wait for the unnecessary translation. I mull over $40 for a leather chair. I offer $25, and threaten to walk away at $35, and in the end, with more trans-aisle yelling, agree on $30. 

In the end we came home with two White Clad end tables, one Snap-On tool box, and the leather chair. So while the flea market was not quite the bustling affair I had hoped for, the trip wasn’t a total bust either. For now, the furniture will look great in the storage unit with the velvety couch and mammoth wooden desk that are already there. 


In Memory

1 Feb

open pages copy

There are some projects that leave me feeling downright giddy. Often these are the tiny things I have made for my nieces and nephews- a knitted piece of pie, a set of spiked dinosaur mittens, coloring books for a summer roadtrip with the wee ones. This week’s project, however, is not one of those sorts of projects.

Last week, a plane wreck in the Queen Alexandra mountain range, halfway between South Pole Station and McMurdo Station, took the lives of three men. I didn’t know the crew personally, but of course many did. Somehow, their deaths feel like the loss of some distant cousins- I didn’t really know them, but they are family nonetheless. In the grand scheme of things, It’s a pretty small group of us who live and work here in Antarctica.

I am always amazed that south of the Antarctic circle, when there is a plane crash or a missing helicopter or a fishing boat engulfed in flames, the first conversation is how to help and not who will pay, or who is responsible. Oh certainly that conversation happens, but rescue efforts are in motion well beforehand. This time, weather stymied rescue efforts for a few days, during which time we all hoped for the best and expected the worse. Word finally came that the crash had been both sudden and fatal, and the best thing I can say about that is that even if rescue teams had been able to get up there any quicker, the outcome would not have been any different. Somehow there is some tiny solace in knowing that the pilot, co-pilot, and engineer aboard, spent their last minutes flying over the Transantarctic mountains, and not suffering from hypothermia on top of massive injuries while awaiting rescue.

Eight days later, all of the members of the SAR teams have returned, debriefings have been held, and now plans are being made for memorial services. I was asked to make a book for the community to sign in memory of the three who died. It is not exactly the sort of project that leaves me giddy, but I am pleased with the result, and hope that it will offer a suitable way for people to honor these three members of our Antarctic family.

cover edit

front page edit

You can find more information on the crash here. 

Kenn Borek Air has posted a memorial site for the crew.

Dying Yarn

6 Aug

I thought dying yarn for my sister with her 3 year old daughter would be a good idea- a great project for my niece, and a lovely surprise for her sleep deprived mother. Unfortunately, my sister, an avid knitter, is allergic to wool. I think this is surely one of the great tragedies of the world. My sister doesn’t actually mind a bit, perfectly content with bamboo and cotton, and the much improved modern acrylics. There’s only one of us lamenting her allergy when we go yarn shopping and it certainly isn’t her. 

So with instructions for kid-friendly yarn dying in hand, I picked out a natural cotton yarn. What I failed to do, however, is actually read those instructions. The first line of which reads “This will only work with animal based fibers……” 

So while we started with this: 



We ended up with this: 



But then when I wound the yarn into a ball, my hands turned pink. So a few more rinses and a couple rounds in the microwave later, what my sister got was some very pink yarn, since apparently that’s the only color that will stick to anything! 

Ah, well. Live and learn (to read the instructions first.)

My Latest Project

13 Jul



This is what I’ve been working on recently. I, along with about 100 other fantastic folks, put together this 1400 sq ft straw bale home on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in southeastern Montana over the course of 6 weeks. 

For most of those six weeks, I worked continuously, moving from one task to the next at the direction of an amazing staff, seldom stepping back to appreciate the magic of putting up a house. And then, on one of my last days, I laid down on the concrete floor in the living room, because after another long day I couldn’t possibly stand up anymore. And finally I had the chance to really look around. I thought back to the day we raked concrete, having waited so long for the rain to subside. I looked around at all the elements that made up this cozy little house, and realized that I had a hand in most of them. I considered all the people who I worked alongside along the way, and the patient instruction of the staff, and the frustrations of unfamiliarity. I cursed like a sailor trying to learn to stucco, but a few trowels in, fell in love with the process. I stayed up well into the darkness hanging drywall with a couple of hardworking women, and one very tall guy who could reach all the places we couldn’t without moving the scaffolding. I wasn’t yet ready to appreciate the crown boards having just finished that 3 day project (it felt like a year). 

I really can’t begin to explain what a feeling it is to sit in a house that I have been a part of, to see the magic of it all coming together, and to imagine the life that will be lived here.