Time, Productivity, and All the Things I’d Love to Do

Or, how I discovered the mindfulness of the infinite list.

This post is illustrated throughout with projects we made at our annual family and friends craft retreat a few weeks ago.  I’ll tie that in later in the post.

 

I'm kind of obsessed with the hand as a symbol of the ideas I hold dear.  This was my design in a reductive printing process we tried.

I’m kind of obsessed with the hand as a symbol of the ideals I hold dear. This was my design in a reductive printing process we tried.

 

I’ve struggled on and off my whole adult life with a problem that boils down to this: there will never be enough time in my lifetime to make everything I want to.  Much less will there be enough time to learn nearly enough new skills, or to read everything that’s so good, it might change my life.

 

Speaking of new skills, we got to try wood carving this year thanks to my dad.  I made this new and improved wood version of the giant plastic hair pins I use all the time.

Speaking of new skills, we got to try wood carving this year thanks to my dad. I made this new and improved wood version of the giant plastic hair pins I use all the time.

 

I used to have a fantasy that if I could cut out all time-wasting activities, I’d have time for everything I on my love-to-want-to-do list.  I really, really hate to break it to any of you who may be still thinking about this, but it won’t work.  I got rid of the low-lying fruit a long time ago: I haven’t had TV since college, and one of the few benefits of being one of the millions of Americans paying too much for bad internet is that our connection is way too slow to spend hours watching video, or even reading content-heavy pages online.  I fully support giving up time-sucks, but it’s sad and true that no matter how much you cut out, all the good stuff still won’t fit in.

So sad, right?  Although, I do agree, as elegantly put in this article from the NPR blog, that it would be so much sadder if humans hadn’t produced more beautiful ideas than I can take in in one lifetime throughout all of our history so far.

After I figured out that no matter what, there would still be more lovely projects to make and music to listen to and books to read on my list than I could ever get to, the idea simmered on the back burner of my brain, sometimes seeming as if I had things under control & was making good progress, and other times like my available time was a thing with wings, or fangs, chasing me, or flying away at warp speed.

 

I led a refashioning session for everyone to remake & mend as they saw fit.  I'm awful at taking any pictures while I'm teaching, but even the pile of scraps from this session was lovely.

I led a refashioning session for everyone to remake & mend as they saw fit. I’m awful at taking any pictures while I’m teaching, but even the pile of scraps from this session was lovely.

 

Then, just a few weeks ago, we had our annual craft retreat of family and friends, hosted at my house for the first time.  I had a classic moment of semi-panic as I suddenly saw through the eyes of these people who I wanted to think well of me, some people who had never seen my house before, and my yard looked like a redneck junkyard in-the-making … I consider myself a decent housekeeper, and I did make an effort to get some stuff out of the yard on our last trip home … but there was this moment, about two days before the first arrivals, when I looked around and realized I could clean the house non-stop, without sleeping, until everyone got there, and still be seeing deeper levels of dirt, areas I had missed.

That’s when I got it.  It’s not that the list is longer than I can ever hope to finish, it’s that the list is infinite.  There’s a freeing, meditative aspect of mindfulness to the infinite list.  Since it’s not just unlikely, but actually impossible, to do everything on an infinite list, any infinite list, a certain amount of letting go is perhaps an inevitable next step.

 

My aunt Barb Miller made this truly lovely pillow from a unwanted garment, using my grandmother Dottie Miller's handwoven fabric.

My aunt Barbara Miller made this lovely pillow from a unwanted garment, which used my grandmother Dottie Miller’s beautiful handwoven fabric.

 

I’m still looking around in this infinite-list paradigm, getting my bearings. A few consequences that seem important have occurred to me so far.  Priorities, for one.  Since I can spend an infinite amount of time cleaning the house, I have to choose to stop at some point, even though of course I want things to look nice.  As a guest, if I could arrive at either a house with sparkling windows, or one containing delicious homemade ice cream, I’m wouldn’t hesitate to pick the latter option.  Your choices might be different from mine, but we all get to choose which of the current available options is the most important to us.

 

She was so right about putting the label on the outside.

She was so right about putting the label on the outside.

 

Since my to-do list is infinite, it makes more sense than ever to block out time for the things I love, which would otherwise get immediately buried under the small mountain of tasks I “should” do every day.  Back around the time I gave up TV, I decided to pencil in an hour a day for myself to sew, and I was fairly astonished at how quickly I finished projects.  I have more to-dos now than I could have imagined in college, but I’ve also realized that if I work on only one thing all day, even something I like, my brain slowly turns to mush over the days and weeks.  Plus, the feeling of getting further behind on my personal goals really starts to drag me down.

I need a little “fun” creative time, and a chance to explore new ideas, to keep me happy.  I reinstated the practice of giving myself an hour a day to work on whatever I want, regardless of whether it’s likely to ever make me any money, a few years ago.  It’s a huge and immediate boost to my life satisfaction.  If you can’t spare a whole hour, even 15 minutes a day can give you enough time to make progress on anything you’d like to fit in (Mark Frauenfelder of Make magazine says so, and I’ve seen a lot of sewing bloggers trying it out in the last couple of years, particularly after this post appeared on The Coletterie).

Mark Frauenfelder

The infinite list only beefs up my justifications for scheduling my “free time”, since it makes clear that the time when I “don’t have anything else pressing to do” won’t ever come.  I must choose to make time for the things I love, rather than waiting for the time to appear.

 

My dear aunt Barb also made this wonderful spoon.

My dear aunt Barb also made this wonderful spoon.

 

Perhaps the most freeing thing about meditating on the infinite list so far, is that since there’s no pressure to finish the list, it’s easier to give myself permission to to pay attention to what’s happening in the here and now, and to take care of some things right away.  Or just to appreciate a lovely moment, rather than always focusing on the tasks already stacked up from yesterday.

Overall, I’m feeling pretty stoked about this mental shift from the incredibly long list to the infinite list.  I’m hoping that it will help me focus on the things that are most important, leave some room for spontaneity, and let go of some of the unreasonable expectations I tend to hold over my own head.  Sounds pretty good, right?  What about you, any thoughts to add from your own experience?

 

Basting: Thread Magic

 

new backstitch 1

 

I kind of feel sorry for anyone who doesn’t like basting, or thinks they don’t.  It’s a like a magic wand for your sewing.  It keeps things exactly in place for exactly as long as you need it, doesn’t distort your final sewing, doesn’t need to be removed as you go, and can be pulled out when you’re done, leaving no mark behind.

I fell in love with basting many moons ago, while sewing a collar onto a button-down shirt.  I had all the layers of shirt and collar scrunched together ready to sew, and no matter how many pins I put in, the fabric kept shifting under the sewing machine as I went and getting terribly uneven, and/or folding over and catching pieces of the shirt I didn’t want in the seam.  After ripping it all out and starting over two or three times, I decided to baste it in by hand and see if that was any better.  Held by the basting, the shirt and collar seam went through the machine without a hitch, as nice as I could ask for, on the first try.

 

basting stripes

 

Basting just means any kind of temporary stitching, meant to hold fabric in place until you can get the final stitching done.  The advantage is that the basting doesn’t have to be neat and even, or strong enough to hold up with wear, so you can concentrate just on the fabric while you’re basting, and then just on stitching when you’re sewing the final seam.

If I’m in a situation where I want basting, usually it’s because I need more precise control over the fabric, so I baste by hand.  To baste, simply sew running stitches (illustrated at the top).  The stitches can be pretty big and uneven—concentrate on the placement of the fabric layers with each stitch, rather than the stitches themselves.  I like to begin and end with a backstitch, just to keep the basting from pulling apart until I’m done.

Some good places to use basting are: when you want things to align exactly (like matching stripes), when there are a lot of shifty layers (like the collar seam), or any other time when you want to make sure some part of your project will stay in place while you sew it.  For the soft bra below, I knew there was no way the lace would stay in the folds I wanted against the fabric if it was held only by pins.  Plus, basting allowed me to put everything together on my dress form, seeing exactly how the lace would work on a body, and then take the whole thing off the form and sew it.

 

basting lace on form

 

finished soft bra lace

 

It worked great!  When you’re done with the final seam, you can remove the basting easily.  Pick out the backstitches at the ends and grab one thread tail, then you can often pull out a long basting thread with one pull.  Unless of course you sewed over it in the final stitching, but no worries, that happens.  Just pull out what you can at once, you may have to cut and pick out a few small thread bits.

Although it may sound like a technique for more advanced sewing, I definitely recommend basting for beginners too.  When you’re just starting out, learning how your machine handles fabric, especially in tricky situations, isn’t easy.  You can baste practically anything that you just can not get to stay in place while sewing on the machine, get much better results, and save yourself a lot of frustration.  According to The Mary Frances Sewing Book, back when most garments were sewn by hand, it was more efficient to baste a seam first, and then sew it, than to sew the final stitches while trying to keep the fabric layers in place.

Best of luck with your sewing!

 

Asparagus Tarts for Spring and Early Summer

 

asparagus tart

 

Posting this recipe feels kind of, sort of, almost like cheating. It’s a variation on the savory tart/quiche recipe I’ve been using all the time since this past fall. With the late spring in the Midwest this year, there’s still a lot of asparagus around, and I’d have a hard time thinking of anything easier and more satisfying to do with it than this. I made the tart shown here with about a pound of asparagus, and some fresh thyme. A week or so later, I made another one for a new friend who’s eating gluten free, without the crust, with slightly less asparagus, and adding some leftover potatoes and onions. This really is one of those recipes (my favorite kind) that encourage experimentation and new flavor combinations.

 

Asparagus Tart Variations

 

Refer to the original recipe for the cornmeal crust, if making a crust, and more filling ideas.

For the asparagus, either broil it lightly first for more smoky flavor, or simply wash, and chop it into approximately equal diagonal segments, discarding any tough or dried out ends.

Optional: prepare potatoes as for the potato and green chile tart, or use any other leftover cooked potatoes you happen to have around.

 

For the Filling:

4 eggs

A generous splash heavy cream or milk

A few Tablespoons grated cheese (I like a hard cheese such as Parmesan)

Fresh ground pepper

(Salt is optional, depending on your taste, and saltiness of cheese)

Fresh thyme or other fresh herbs to taste (Tip: if the stems are sturdy enough, you can get most of the thyme leaves off by grabbing the stem near the top and running the fingers of the other hand down the stem from top to bottom.)

Feel free to add an extra egg, and a little more of the other ingredients, if it seems like there’s not enough filling for the veggies you have.

If not using a crust, make sure to grease your pan thoroughly.

Mix the cut asparagus (and potatoes) in with the filling, and pour into the pan/crust. For the second variation, I sprinkled the top with minced garlic and more Parmesan, which puffed and browned as the tart cooked for a tasty crispy top.

Bake at 375° F for about 40 minutes, turning once, until the tart is golden on top, puffed up, and just moist inside when tested with a knife.

 

Exploring & Eating: Texas Edition

 

indian oven

I’ve updated the Roam + Eat page to include all the new places from our latest trip to Texas, plus some I previously forgot, meaning it now includes every single good place to eat I know in the Lone Star State. Only 49 to go … just kidding.  But I will try for a couple more updates as the summer goes on, to fill things out a bit!

 

Thoughts about Sewing, Empowerment, and Body Image

 

As we near the end of Me-Made-May, it seems like a good time to share some thoughts about sewing, empowerment, and body image. Although I get a huge boost of self-sufficiency when I’m wearing the clothes I made, I actually don’t think much about sewing as it relates to how I feel about my body. Except for when I’m making pants. I originally wrote these thoughts as part of a proposed series on the Colleterie, which didn’t get off the ground, but it seems a shame not to get them out into the world. I thought about a lot of this again just recently when I was working on my trousers.

 

blue stripe trous and wool knits 4

 

I’m lucky that when I was growing up, my parents always stressed that I’m just fine the way I am. I’ve never had a really negative image of my body. But I have always had trouble finding pants that fit at all, or were remotely comfortable. I would describe my figure in a nutshell as small and pear shaped. When I’m good about exercise, my thighs get firmer, but they don’t exactly shrink. In fact, in High School, when I was doing lots of power yoga every week, and in the best shape I’ve ever been, I just about gave up wearing pants altogether. It wasn’t worth it; they were just too uncomfortable. I have a vivid memory of sitting in class wishing I could just grab the top thighs of my jeans and yank upwards, and that the seams would pop down the sides, releasing my legs.  I never actually tried it, but after that I stopped wearing jeans.

 

grey pants side

 

Since then I’ve explored my style, how it relates to my body, and to how others see me, through my sewing—starting with long skirts. As you know if you’ve read this blog for a while, I’ve also been working on and off for years on pants that actually fit me. It wasn’t until I was making the purple pair that I realized how much not being able to find clothes that fit or flatter could affect my conceptions about my body. Those purple pants aren’t perfect, but they show off my shape and are comfortable—a miracle to me. When I’m standing in front of a dressing room mirror and no pair of pants I try on looks good or feels right, I think that encourages me to feel like I need to change, like my body is not right. I was fairly amazed at how, looking at my legs in these new me-made pants, it was so much easier to say, “I love my body! It’s so cute and curvy!” It’s not my body that needs to change—it’s the pants. From my hair to my thighs, I’ve had the best experiences with my body when I realize not only that I can’t change something, but that I shouldn’t be trying to change it, that the beauty the universe gives me is for me to embrace and to work with, not to fight. And I can only do that if I’m willing to think outside the box, to take the time and develop the skills I need to get what I really want and need.

 

purple cords side

 

To me sewing, and making anything, is all about empowerment. Since I sew, I can break free from the consumer culture that gives me limited choices, while at the same time encouraging me to find fault with everything, in order to sell me more cheap stuff. Sewing is a way out of that cycle, and also a way in to a deeper and better understanding of my own body and taste, my personality, my unique self. Perhaps the best part is that this kind of freedom is available to anyone who wants it, anyone who’s willing to can their own jam or sew their own jeans.  Let’s go get it, people!

 

All About Backstitch

Originally posted on Stale Bread into French Toast:

Backstitch Drawing 1

Revised and updated with new photos and text (and drawings I found in my sewing class materials), this tutorial is now better than ever! Feel free to grab a fabric scrap and some thread and follow along.

If I had to name the single most useful hand sewing stitch I know, it would probably be the backstitch. I love it for repairs, for sewing in zippers, and for anywhere I need the control and flexibility of hand stitching with a hard-wearing stitch.

When you think of hand sewing, you probably think of running stitches, like the ones below. The needle dips into the fabric and comes up going in the same direction. You can make several running stitches on the needle before pulling the thread through, and the thread slides easily through several running stitches at once.

new backstitch 1

In a backstitch, the thread loops around itself, which makes the stitch much…

View original 287 more words

Spring Strawberry Salad

With maple candied walnuts and creamy goat cheese balsamic dressing.

 

spring strawberry salad 1

 

For some reason, this spring I’ve been craving the fresh new foods that come with the changing season, much more than I normally do.  The strawberries in my yard are nowhere near making fruit yet, but a few weeks ago, the strawberries in the market were suddenly glorious.  A strawberry out of season tastes Ok, but when they’re actually ready, ripe and fully red, full of sweet juice that seems composed of the very flavor of renewal and new growth, they are magical things to eat.  I was immediately obsessed.  Another good thing about food in season is that it’s bountiful, and therefore on sale, and I pretty much stuffed as many fresh ripe organic strawberries into my gullet as possible.  I also came up with this recipe, the first one in a while that I’ve invented without looking anything up or searching for ideas.  So:

 

For the salad:

Lightly shred about a handful of lettuce (I like red leaf or butter lettuce) per person.

Add 1 small or 1/2 large grated carrot per person.

Add grated radish, about half as much as the carrot.

Add sliced strawberries, as many as you like, I suggest a lot.

 

spring strawberry salad 2For the dressing:

Put about 4 Tablespoons of plain fresh goat cheese in a jar.

Add heavy cream up to about the top of the cheese.

Add 1 Tablespoon good quality balsamic vinegar.

Add a pinch of salt, and stir together (a small whisk is great for this).

Add a little water, stir, and add a little more, until the dressing reaches the consistency you’d like.  Taste and adjust seasonings.

This makes a fair amount of dressing, enough for about 6 people to have salad, and maybe find some other things to spread it on.

 

For the walnuts:

Lightly crush 1 cup of walnuts (I just do this with my hands).

In a skillet, melt about 1 Tablespoon butter over medium heat.

Add two teaspoons of maple syrup, one teaspoon of brown sugar, and a large pinch of salt.  Stir until the sugar is dissolved, and then add the walnuts.  Stir until most of the coating is on the nuts rather than the skillet.  Let cool.

If you run out of time, this is also good with un-candied walnuts or pecans, although these lightly candied ones add a really nice touch.

 

Sprinkle the nuts on top of the salad, and let each person add the creamy dressing as it’s served.

 

spring strawberry salad 3

 

Now, if only I can find some fresh peas …