Reflection with Books

 

I’ve had some kind of post like this in my head since before the holidays. I’ve been wanting to write about the next stage in my thought process around time and a slow life, as well as to highlight some of the fantastic books I read last year that helped bring me to where I am now. But to tell the truth, I’ve been struggling. My thoughts and plans don’t feel like they’re in any kind of order, and I feel a little lost, like I’m stumbling around in a trackless forest. I’m sure I’ll find my path again, but on the way there, I’ve decided to go ahead and write this post, so I can revisit some of the ideas that spoke to me in 2015, and also move on to other things I have planned for this space.

 

ABQ winter walk 2015 1

These photos are from a walk during our trip to Albuquerque just before the new year.  I always find the light in NM beautiful, as well as the cranes and geese that come through in the winter.

 

2015 was a good year for deep thoughts in my world, and it was also a great year for books. I can’t remember another time when a stream of reading material came to me one after another—as gifts, recommendations, and by chance—as if the universe was giving me the reading list for the next stage of my life.

The first of the startlingly appropriate books was Women’s Work: the First 20,000 years by Elizabeth Wayland Barber. I read it as part of my research for that article on wool I wrote for Seamwork (that was the best research project ever in my personal history of research). There were some useful tidbits for the article in there, but what I liked most about this book was how it put “women’s work” throughout the millennia of human history in context, and made me feel connected to all those women who came before me.

At the beginning of the book Barber points out that women didn’t get assigned tasks in societies because they were weaker or inferior to men. Women got tasks like spinning and weaving because those were compatible with also being the primary caretakers of small children—the role of women in every human culture to date, for obvious biological reasons. Even though I don’t have kids, and it’s kind of obvious once you think about it, this was a bit of a revelation. Women’s work isn’t “less than”, it’s part of the set of skills needed to make a society work.

I also love how she talks about hand work and how it relates to society. Quotes like this one really spoke to how I think about my making:

“Working within a quota system of production is not like weaving for oneself. It is no longer fun, nor does the weaver get the benefit of extra effort put in. Mass production is not at all like making single pieces at will; there isn’t time to do a careful job. This economic principle is illustrated many times in history.”

I’ve always thought that feminism should mean we women can pursue what we want to with dignity. Choosing to knit or make jam should be just as valid a choice as welding or practicing science. Ultimately, this book let me feel more comfortable and grounded in my own skin and my own choices. When I spin or sew, I can feel proud of the connection those activities give me to all the women going back in time before me. It’s a great place to start from.

 

ABQ winter walk 2015 4

 

Another book that made my rethink my ideas about our society, specifically class and being connected to the land, is The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks. For the first half of this book I was incredibly jealous of the author, of the way he always had a place in the world and knew exactly what and where he wanted to be. The freedom we get in many modern societies is truly amazing, but does anyone else lament the amount of angst and flailing around looking for what we’re “meant to do” that comes with it? There are definitely days when I’d trade all this for a place to belong and a clear contribution to make. As his story goes on (I’ll try not to spoil anything) I realized that he too had to coexist with the realities of the modern world, but he finds a way to do so that gives me a lot of hope. The book is full of deep insights from a perspective I don’t often hear, that of someone intimately connected to both the land and the practices of the past. Its deepest impact on me was in how I think about what I really want out of life. I need to be connected and feel like I’m making a difference, and I’m not so sure I need “success” in any sort of modern sense of it. I do want a life that makes me “want for no other” as Rebanks says at the end of the book, and I should seek that kind of satisfaction.

 

ABQ winter walk 2015 3

 

“Slow” became a definite theme to my thoughts last year, fueled by another couple of great books. The first one was World Enough and Time: on Creativity and Slowing Down by Christian McEwen. It’s jam-packed with ideas, so much so that I had to go back and sift through the passages I bookmarked in order to figure out what I was really getting from it. It’s difficult to choose which of the many promising insights McEwen includes to share here. One of her biggest themes is that we humans need slowness, rest, and time for contemplation, in order to feel whole and happy. And that we can get those things, we just have to choose to do so.

This is something that’s been at the core of my beliefs for as long as I can remember having some, and it’s wonderful to have it validated by someone who’s clearly done her research: that we can choose to live in the way that seems best to us, that we still have available many of the options of people in previous eras, even if our society at large is moving a different way. After all, if you take a step back, we have just as much time as anyone in the supposedly “slower” past—actually more, since our lifespan continues to increase, and we arguably have more leisure time than ever before (depending on how you define that). Just because a choice is there doesn’t mean it’s easy though, going slower and with more meaning is something we have to do consciously, and follow through on every day. I’m trying. McEwen quotes Howard Zinn:

“To live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all the bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

The book is full of quotes, insights, and strategies for anyone who’s thinking about moving slower and more fully in life, and is especially helpful if you also have a creative practice you’d like to nurture.

 

ABQ winter walk 2015 5

 

Another person who’s gone to great lengths to re-imagine his relationship with time is William Powers, author of New Slow City. My dad, who worked in wildlife habitat conservation for decades, had an interesting take on this one: that Powers was ignoring the fact that a lot of the calm he seeks he can only find in nature, that maybe he is suffering more from a lack of contact with the natural world than from going too fast. I think Dad has a point, but I also think the two things are intertwined. Powers also has a lot of other good ideas about moving slower, and being less influenced by the craziness of modern life in New York. The thing I liked best about this book is that it’s a chronicle of Powers’ personal experience, so it feels approachable, even if not all of us can afford to cut back drastically on work the way he does at the beginning of the book.

 

ABQ winter walk 2015 2

 

One thing that comes up prominently in Powers’ book and in McEwen’s is the damaging influence of advertising. This also strikes at the heart of something I’ve been thinking about for a long time; that the job of this entire industry is to make us feel dissatisfied—the exact opposite of what I personally want out of life. This perpetual dissatisfaction harms us, as well as the environment, by encouraging more and more purchases of disposable stuff. For me, a trip to the thrift store is sometimes enough to start a mental spiral of “I want, I want,” and even “I could make this, I could fix that,” which pushes me out of my slow making mindset and back into the same old place of wishing for more time.

I think I’m looking at it all wrong when that happens, it’s a modern-society habit I just haven’t shaken off yet. What do I want more time for—so that I can make more stuff? Haven’t I already established that I don’t need more stuff? Haven’t I already established that I have the same amount of time as any human being that ever lived, or possibly more? And how did we all decide that keeping a score of things accomplished is the best, maybe even the only, way to judge the quality of a life?

So, I’d like to strive not for more time, but for better time. As McEwen says:

“What matters is not how much [time] they actually have, but how best to inhabit it and make it spacious: how to allow room in which attention can take root.”

I know that when I can drop into “natural time” as Powers calls it, paying attention to just the moment I’m in, I find so many layers of sensory and emotional complexity to be discovered in every single minute, sometimes I’m then amazed that I spend any time at all ignoring all these textures, completely distracted by everything in my own head. The best way I can describe how I get to that slow place (although it sounds a little negative) is to say it’s by not thinking about what’s coming next, not waiting for whatever I’m doing to be over, and not planning for later. What I’m left with is what’s right in front of me.

Which is not to say that I succeed in going slow all the time, far from it (um, especially lately). And even if I could I’m not sure it would work. After all, I need to make plans in order to accomplish things, and once I get into slow mode I have zero interest in planning. I have lots of other questions too. Is there a mode in between “experiencing the moment” and “planning for the future”? Is it possible to send a slow text, or do some activities inherently belong to one realm or the other?

 

ABQ winter walk 2015 6

 

There’s also a piece of all this that’s about experiencing what I’m really feeling at a given time. Powers says, “It’s what’s happening to me when I go off the drug of distraction. Sadness has the space to grow …” For me anyway, the part of myself that’s habitually distant developed as a survival mechanism while I was miserable in school as a kid. The real world is infinitely more wonderful to me now than it was then, but that doesn’t, and won’t, mean I never feel sad. And if I’m not distracting myself, then the sadness is right in front of me too. I’m trying to choose this richer experience, both when it’s light and when it’s dark.

I am very much still figuring all of this out. Some days it definitely feels like I haven’t figured anything out at all. But I have real hope that if I keep thinking and writing and trying to move towards what I want out of life, I’ll get there eventually. I’m convinced that I’ve been thinking about time the wrong way. It’s not a thing chasing me down, or a precious commodity to be hoarded, it’s the whole of our experience, an experience we can interact with as we choose.

I’d like to mention one more resource that ties into these thoughts, this interview with the artist Ann Hamilton from On Being. This, recommended to me by my friend Amanda, has got to be one of the five best interviews I’ve ever heard, at least in terms of relating directly to what I’m thinking about, especially time and our relationship to it. They discuss the fact that our sense of time is very malleable in the brain (which I find totally fascinating), as well as making, the creative process, knitting, and other things close to my heart.

I’ll leave you with two more quotes I found relevant.

Powers: “Everything out there on Fifth Avenue was dreamed up by somebody. None of it has to be … we can create something else.”
And McEwen: “For almost all of us, happiness depends enormously on letting go, dropping our own willed insistent management, and opening into a more flexible and spacious, and above all, playful relationship with time.”

 

News Jan 2016

 

Arizona Fiber Arts Retreat, Things I Forgot to Mention, and More

 
Lately I haven’t been doing as good a job as I’d like keeping you all, lovely readers, updated when I have something going on outside of this blog.  I haven’t wanted to stick random announcements into tutorials or thoughts that will (hopefully) be read long after the news is relevant, but I also don’t want to pepper you with little posts for each bit of “look at this!” type news.  So I’ve decided to do a periodic news round-up when warranted.  Because this is the first one, there’s some overdue stuff as well as some newer items.

 

Old News

I wrote a few more articles that came out in Seamwork magazine this fall, and the latest one in the December issue.  Although I mentioned some of them in passing, I didn’t really point them out.  There’s one on how fabric is woven, and how to use your knowledge about that to improve your sewing.  It draws on what I learned when my grandma taught me how to weave, and uses a toy loom that belonged to my mom as an example.  The latest article is about five essential hand stitches, and it’s just what it sounds like, a tutorial on my most-used stitches.  I’ve been inspired by all the hand sewing and visible mending going on lately, and I’m happy to add to it!  Maybe my favorite article so far is the one on wool.  It was a total blast to research it, and I’m really happy with how it came out.  It covers some of the history and science of wool, and how to use that knowledge when you’re sewing with it. It also features my favorite (super easy) hand-wash method for all your lovely woolens.

As always, you can read any of the articles in Seamwork for free online.  I’ve also added links to the ones I’ve written in my category page (you can also get there by clicking “Sew” under “Tutorials + Inspiration” at the top of my site) so they’re included with the rest of the sewing info I’ve shared.

 

wool prep thumbnail

 

To wrap up the older news, I joined Instagram this fall, and also never mentioned it here outright.  My inclination at this point is to avoid anything that involves more “screen time”, but there was so much going on there, especially in the fiber arts world, that I decided to try it out.  And I think I like it.  It’s nice to have a place to share quicker projects, things in progress, and thoughts that won’t become their own blog posts.  And there was some surprisingly deep conversation going on there during #slowfashionoctober!  Still I’m determined to use it sparingly.  If you too are on this exciting/elitist/beautiful/frustrating/inspiring platform, do come say hi, I’m @frenchtoasttasha.

 

New News

The winter gathering at Arcosanti has a new name: Arizona Fiber Arts Retreat, and I’m teaching there again this year.  It’s coming up January 22 and 23, and as of this writing there are still spaces in both my classes.  One is on 3D wet felting, and one is making felt cuffs and beads (pictured below) while learning to use attachments, prefelts, and shaping in your felt making.  Click over to their new website for details and to sign up.  Observant readers of this blog may notice my digital fingerprints on the AFAR site, and indeed I’ve been spending a fair amount of time working on that lately.  It’s a bit surreal to be the one in our group with the most web skills, but there you have it!

Knitting classes are also starting up again at Purl in the Pines in Flagstaff.  The first session of my beginning knitting series is this Saturday (complete beginners welcome), along with a “knitting skills lab” where you can get all your questions answered and learn some new techniques.  If you’re interested, head on over to their class page for details.  It’s still snowing like crazy as I type this, but if the forecast holds, the roads should be clear by the time classes start.

 

Felt Cuffs with Tasha

 

I have a more contemplative post for the new year in the works too, but (appropriately enough) it’s taking a while to distill my “Slow” thoughts for that one.  In the meantime, if there’s anything you’d like to see in this space, or for classes etc. in 2016 feel free to let me know!

 

Every Day

 

Here’s what I made with my special natural-dye printed fabric as part of my one Year, one Outfit project: an every day skirt.  In fact I designed the print with this skirt in mind.  Keep reading for some skirt-construction details, as well as thoughts about what I figured out and where I’m going with #1year1outfit after this.

 

1year1outfit skirt 2

 

For the pattern, I copied a skirt my aunt gave me ages ago.  It’s one of those items that I probably would never have picked on my own, but once it was in my wardrobe I wore it non-stop.  I can’t describe it better than to say that it’s the perfect shape for biking in: wide enough for easy movement but not so wide that it flips up in the breeze.

 

me with early plane 2The original skirt at the Udvar-Hazy Center during Me-Made-May ’12 (I made the pink top).

 

This skirt seemed appropriate for practically every activity.  The large-scale, colorful print also seemed to go with everything I owned, and was part of my inspiration while thinking about how to print my fabric.  Maybe needless to say, I’ve worn it so much it’s literally falling apart, and had to be retired after finishing the pattern.

 

mmm'14 day 9Pretty much the only time I document what I’m wearing is during MMM.  Here are the essential elements of the skirt from 2014, when I decided to draw my outfits.  Also pictured: the beginning of this sweater.

 

Although I was pretty sure the pattern would make a wearable skirt on the first try, I knew there would inevitably be some little things I’d want to change.  And I would have to be certifiably nuts to cut into my carefully printed fabric without trying out my new pattern first.  So I made one from stash fabric, green floral linen/cotton blend I bought ages ago and turned out to be great for this.

 

1year1outfit skirt 7

 

And I did in fact have a short laundry list of things to tweak for the second version, including the length.

Judging by the amount I wore this test version before the weather got cold, I’ll wear the snot out of both these. I just have to convince myself not to treat the natural-printed one as too precious. I’m also super curious about how the dye will hold up in real life, so hopefully that will help!

 

1year1outfit skirt 8This is my favorite thing to do with quilting cottons that I apparently couldn’t resist buying in the past.  I quite like these two fabrics together, especially since you can occasionally see the facing when worn.  This project made me consider making a lot more faced hems.

 

Once the pattern was tested, I was confident enough to cut out my printed fabric, but then hit a few delays, mainly in figuring out what other materials to use.  My original plan was to source the fabric as sustainably and “locally” as possible per my pledge, but to worry less about where the notions came from.  I’m a firm believer in one step at a time, in breaking things down so that I move towards my goals without feeling totally overwhelmed by the hugeness of what I’d like to accomplish.  Still, after seeing the beautifully creative ways that Nicki crafted her totally local clothes (she made her own clay to make buttons!) I was inspired to dig a little deeper.

There seems to be just one organic sewing thread on the market, Scanfil, which is made in Holland and available lots of places online.  I’d seen it around the web but hadn’t tried it.  After all, Holland is not exactly local to me, and I assumed it would be more expensive.  In fact, it turns out that it costs barely more per yard than the Mettler thread I normally get.  And that thread is made in Germany … so I got some of the organic stuff to try.  It’s silky smooth and soft.  I think it breaks a little more easily, but I had no problems running it through either sewing machine.  For topstitching I used it doubled (two spools) with a 3mm length, and I really like the results, kind of subtle but shiny.  If you try this, I highly recommend tightening the bobbin thread the way you would for buttonholes.

 

1year1outfit skirt 4

 

I usually just use a thin, firmly-woven fabric for interfacing, and I’ve been looking for a new source since I ran out of the perfect interfacing fabric (origin: total mystery) found in my mom’s stash.  I got a swatch of every fabric I thought might work from Organic Cotton Plus, whether made-in-USA or not, but ended up rejecting them all and using another bit from my stash.

While I was at it, I ordered a zipper made with organic cotton tape.  The only difference I can see is that unusually, the zipper matches my fabric perfectly.

 

1year1outfit skirt 6Guts.  I think I’m finally getting the hang of making the inside fly guard thingy like it’s supposed to be.  This lining fabric is a super soft linen, also from stash.  The cute little pocket applique is due to an unfortunate moment while rotary pinking …

 

I should say that the skirt fabric itself is quite nice (I linked to the fabric I bought in the printing post, but as of today it doesn’t appear on the Organic Cotton Plus site, they must be out).  It has a twill weave.  It’s on the thinner end of what I would consider for this project, and very soft and drapey for a cotton.  It was also crooked when I got it, but easy to pull straight (check out how I do that in this article I wrote for Seamwork), even after printing (phew!).

I had this skirt shape in mind I was printing, and knowing that fabric I print tends to be sparser in design than commercial fabrics, I included a section of dense motifs at the bottom of the yardage, and took full advantage of that to cut all the small pieces for the waistband, etc.

 

1year1outfit skirt 5

 

So there you go, my finished project!  Since I joined the #1year1outfit challenge late, I knew I wouldn’t make a whole outfit by the end of the year, but I really wanted to see how I could integrate making more conscious choices about the new fabrics I buy with what I already do.  And in that sense I succeeded!  I’m wearing my skirt below with things I previously made from secondhand garments (this shirt and this camisole if you’re curious), a scarf woven by my grandma, and mended socks.

 

1year1outfit skirt 1

 

Moving forward, I’ve decided to keep going with my no-new-fabric-unless-sustainable-and-made-in-USA pledge, at least until July, which will make it a full year.  Even though at some point I’d like to add in some of the wonderful artisan fabrics from around the world I found during my fabric research, I do think that being on this materials “diet” is really helpful in encouraging me to be thoughtful in my choices, and creative with what I do with them.  I’ve loved being part of one Year, one Outfit, and it’s really fit in well with a lot of the other things I’ve been thinking about, and helped me move forward in directions I’d like to go in.

I have enough of this delicious wool yarn from Mountain Meadow to knit a sweater, and that is totally next on my list of sustainable/local-ish/slow fashion garments to make.  It will probably be next fall before it’s done, but that’s fine with me.  In the meantime I’ll continue to work from stash, and search for more local fabric options, and I will definitely keep you updated!

 

1year1outfit skirt 3

 

Natural Dye Printed Fabric

 

This is the fabric I made for my one Year, one Outfit project.  Well, I didn’t make it as in weave it, it was manufactured in Texas (from US grown organic cotton, as per my pledge for the project) and I bought it through Organic Cotton Plus online (it’s this one).  But I printed it myself, using natural dyes.

 

natural dye print fabric

 

Here’s what happened: I knew that coloring/printing fabric would be a major component of this project for me.  I do love the native colors that come from color-grown cottons and the fleece of colored sheep, but that’s not all I want to wear.  Most people feel the same, and have for thousands of years.  So I thought that getting color & design onto ethical, locally-sourced fabrics (which are often available in very limited colors) would be a good thing to tackle.

I had already promised to teach screen printing with dye (rather than with fabric paints designed for printing, which are fun too, but leave a bit of stiffness on the fabric) at our annual family craft retreat.  The time for the retreat was getting closer as I decided to join up with #1year1outfit.  At first I thought I would just take this fabric and print on it with the fiber reactive dyes that most crafters use for cotton.  These dyes may not be the best thing for the environment, but I would apply them myself, in extremely limited quantities, and do the cleanup responsibly.  I was sort of wrestling with these ideas, and reading Printing on Fabric by Jen Swearington.  This is an excellent book, I learned a lot from it.  And I appreciate, among other things, that she’s realistic about safety.  I was reading the part about steam-setting fabric you’ve printed with dye, in which she recommends wearing a respirator and/or having good ventilation … for whatever reason that was my “I’m done” moment.  I don’t need to be using toxic stuff, and I don’t want to be exposing myself, or my family (some of whom are small kiddos) to it.

 

natural dye print fabric 2

 

So what next?  I tried looking for less-toxic dyes, and I found some cotton clothing and fabrics dyed with metal-free or low-impact dyes, but I couldn’t find any of the dyes themselves available to the average person.  (Unlike if you want to dye protein fibers like wool, then you can buy Greener Shades dyes.)

That pretty much left natural dyes.  I love their colors, but they have a reputation of being less easy to use on cellulose fibers like cotton.  From the bits and pieces I read (and the fact that there were printed fabrics long before there were synthetic dyes) I knew it could be done, I just didn’t yet know how to put it all together.

As much as I value balance in life, sometimes it just feels so good to throw my whole self and all the energy I can muster at a single project.  With the retreat coming up fast, that’s what I did; reading everything I could find about using natural dyes on cotton, printing with dye, and the very little out there about putting the two together, and experimenting all the time on my own.  By the time the retreat came, I felt confident enough to share what I’d learned so far, and continue learning along with everybody else.  At the end of it, I took over an entire now-vacant worktable, and printed my fabric in two sections (before collapsing from whatever virus got a bunch of us that week).

A few details:

  • The dyes were: cochineal, osage orange, madder, and black tea (and combinations of those).
  • We thickened them into a paste using sodium alginate.
  • We scoured the fabric (using soda ash and textile detergent), then mordanted it with aluminum acetate to bond with the dye.
  • We applied the dye using small printing screens made from embroidery hoops.  For my designs, each motif had its own hoop for each color (not the most efficient way to do it, but very flexible design-wise).
  • I wanted a hand-printed look, so I came up with a vague plan, then eyeballed the placement of the first motifs, and made little registration marks to line up the hoops for subsequent colors.
  • After drying/curing, we steamed the fabric to heat-set the colors, then washed to remove the thickener.  The dye remains, and the fabric has the same hand it did before printing.

If you want to get more technical than that, email me! I have so many notes …

 

natural dye print fabric 3

 

Somewhat needless to say, I’m pretty stoked with how this came out.  And I’m looking forward to seeing how the colors wear, and doing more experiments with natural dyes!

A few more resources if you’d like to experiment too:

  • The Modern Natural Dyer came out after I made this project, but it has good basic natural dye info (and totally gorgeous photography).
  • This PDF from Maiwa is also a good overview, I used it heavily as a reference while I was figuring out what to do.
  • This online article is pretty technical, but it gave me a lot of confidence that natural dyes and cotton can play well together.  It also helped that I think I’d be happy to use only the color palette in that first photo forever …
  • The book Printing on Fabric, which I mentioned above, is not about natural dye but covers a bunch of other useful stuff, like how to make designs for screen printing, registering multi-colored and repeating patterns, and steam-setting fabric.

Stay tuned to see what I made from the fabric!

 

Satisfaction — Restoring a Treadle Cabinet

 
At last, my treadle sewing machine restoration project is done, and at even longer last (depending on how you look at it) I’m sharing it here!  This is necessarily a big post.  Backstory is at the beginning, practical details are in the middle, words from the heart and pictures of the finished object at the end.  I hope you enjoy it!
 

treadle cabinet restoration 1It’s actually much easier to rock the machine up on its hinges and lift it out by loosening screws underneath (as shown in the Seamwork article) before taking out the hardware.   But, I really like this photo.

 

One of my hopes for the article about treadle sewing I wrote for Seamwork this summer was that it would give me the motivational push I needed to get this machine out of the garage.  Which it did, but in a longer process than I could have anticipated …

This machine came to me through my husband’s family.  It’s remarkably similar to the one my mom inherited, which I learned to sew on.  Bryan’s brother took it to the Midwest from Florida for us in his truck, and one summer while we stayed with him during the art fair season, I spent a fair amount of time and elbow grease working over the machine itself, until it was running pretty well and looking pretty good.  We brought it back to Flagstaff with us in our truck, and while I really, really wanted to use it, it languished in our garage, becoming the ultimate unfinished object.  Because, the cabinet looked like it does below, and I just couldn’t bring myself to bring it in the house until it was refinished—a monumental-feeling task I never seemed to make time for.

 

treadle cabinet restoration 2

I’m really glad I took these pics, at this point it’s kind of hard to believe how bad it looked!

 

So, with the article ahead, to feature photos of my beautiful restored treadle, it was time to bite the bullet and get after that yellow paint.  I did some good old-fashioned library research.  The most useful thing I got there was the idea of using a heat gun to take off the paint. (Which I borrowed from a friend. It takes a village to tackle a big project. And, it absolutely would be worth buying a heat gun if you have this much paint removal in your future.)

 

treadle cabinet restoration 3

Disassembly.

 

Since I didn’t find much information besides that idea (which I really liked because it meant I could avoid using chemical strippers), and figured out some things as I went, I’m going to include some tips for removing paint with a heat gun.  Feel free to skip ahead if you’re not restoring anything yourself.

  •  Leather gloves and long sleeves are a must, no matter the outside temperature, at least if you’re clumsy like me.  My arms and hands would have been covered in little burns from swiping against the heat gun otherwise.
  • I used a temperature of 850° F.  You might need a little hotter or cooler depending on your paint and what’s underneath.
  • Give yourself an out-of-the-way part of your project to practice on, you’ll definitely get better results as you get the hang of it.

 

treadle cabinet restoration 4

I started with the inside sides of the drawers.  First, second, and third attempts from left to right.

 

  • For flat areas, melt a small section thoroughly with the heat gun, then scrape it off using one motion with a flat scraper. Scrape it up and off, not across, the surface, and watch for redeposit of paint.  Knock the curls of paint off the scraper frequently, or rub them off on something like a sawhorse as you work.
  • I found these small wire brushes (purchased at Home Depot) invaluable for getting off leftover flecks of paint, and working around curves and tight spaces.  Again, melt the paint with the heat gun, and then use the brush, kind of like you’re brushing your teeth, to flick the paint off.  I ran through a few of these, but the softer bristles are better at taking off the paint without scratching the wood below than a tougher brush.

 

treadle cabinet restoration 6

 

  • Areas with thin paint and/or worn or damaged finish underneath were much harder to remove than a full coating of paint over the original finish in better shape.  I don’t have many tips other than: yes, you can still get the finish off if you’re patient.  Take breaks.

Overall, I loved seeing progress, and at some points the removing paint was it’s own reward as I saw what the wood was like underneath.  I could also see that my former self was avoiding this project for a reason.  There’s no way around it, it was a slog.  It was so, so very worth it in the end though.

 

treadle cabinet restoration 5

 

For the record, I would like to say that although I spent much time cursing this yellow paint and all it stands for, I understand why the painter did what she did.  The finish underneath wasn’t in great shape, some parts were water-damaged, and I’m sure restoring it seemed daunting to her too.

Also for the record, I would like to say that I do not, under any circumstances, support the painting of antique furniture.  People, just say no!  As an alternative, shellac provides a clean finished surface, while showing off the original character of the piece.  If you need help, ask a handy neighbor, or a professional.

 

treadle cabinet restoration 7

Only one piece of the veneer was too water-damaged to save—the very top, where doubtless a potted plant once sat (I’m not going to rant about that, but, you know, plants on wood=bad idea).  So now we know what they put underneath veneer in 1913: pieces of rougher, second-cut wood.

 

About this time in the project, with the heat-gun-paint-removing not done, Bryan, sensing that the whole thing probably wouldn’t be done in time, stepped in and offered to sand the parts that did have paint removed.  This made me feel very loved and supported.  But it soon became clear that no matter how much he helped, it just wasn’t possible to finish the restoration in time to take the photos for the article.

So, my mom stepped in and let me borrow her treadle cabinet (carefully restored by my grandparents decades ago).  It’s certainly not the first time my mama has saved my behind, and I’m pretty sure it won’t be the last!  As luck would have it, the two machines are the same model, made only a year apart.  The photos in the article are of the machine I had worked on, sitting in my mom’s cabinet.  (Now you know!)

 

treadle cabinet restoration 8

Bryan sanding the top.  Under his hand you can see a discovery I loved—a burn mark from an old-school iron—which most certainly did not sand out.

 

Seeing what a careful job my grandparents did on my mom’s treadle was definitely a motivation to make mine as nice as I could.  Once the article was done, I took what bits of time our schedule and the weather allowed to continue working on the cabinet as summer moved into fall.  I definitely did a better job with more time to finish this project than I would if I had rushed it, but I still wanted to have a firm goal to keep me going: finishing it and bringing it inside before winter.

There was a lot of sanding.  The original finish under the paint was shellac, which can also soften/be disturbed under the heat gun, and in order to blend the intact finish with the damaged sections, we ended up sanding most of it out.  It’s not a very photogenic part of the process, although after working over a section with successively finer grades of sandpaper and blowing off the dust, I could start to see the beauty of the wood revealed.

At every stage, the drawer holders/slides took by far took the longest, being full of tiny parts and impossible angles.  I took them off where they attach to the top, but if I had to to do over again, I would separate the vertical supports from the slides as well, and scrape/sand/finish the pieces separately, even though it would mean pulling out old nails and labeling parts to get them back in the right order.

There were many days where I was apparently feeling more like working than documenting, including a lot of gluing and clamping sections of loose veneer, and more sanding.

One tip I picked up online (here) which is way to good not to share: baking soda and hot water will remove paint from metal hardware as if a miracle has occurred.  If you can soak the metal in the hot water and soda, the paint will actually bubble up and can be pushed off with a rag or your finger.  Even pressing a rag wet with the hot solution onto metal parts you can’t take off will usually make it so that you can scrape the paint off with a fingernail.  It works unbelievably well.

 

treadle cabinet restoration 10

I dropped the hardware in, went inside to get the camera, and by the time I got back I could see the paint detaching and bubbling up.

 

I became a big fan of shellac when we were doing a lot of work on our house a few years ago.  It gives off less toxic fumes while it’s curing than polymer-based finish, comes from a renewable source (bugs), and sticks to pretty much everything.  Although it can be damaged by water and heat, it’s easy to repair and refinish.

Pretty much any wood working book can tell you more than I know about sanding and shellac.  I’ll just say that I sanded until everything possible felt satiny smooth, and then applied 3 thin coats of shellac with a cloth pad.

After the shellac had a few days to cure, I rubbed out the finish with fine steel wool.  This step was pure magic, rubbing out imperfections and taking the finish from a hard glare to a soft glow.

 

treadle cabinet restoration 9It’s a little hard to see here, but the top has been rubbed out and the bottom hasn’t yet.

 

After replacing a few missing screws, the only thing left was cleaning the metal base.  I tried wiping it down all over with a wet rag, but it still looked somewhat sad.  I couldn’t stand for it to look neglected when the rest now looked so nice.  I tried a rag damped with sewing machine oil (my solution for nearly everything treadle-wise) and that did the trick, giving it a very soft sheen and a used-hard-but-cared-for look that goes with the rest of the project.

Ready for the big reveal?  Here goes:

 

treadle cabinet restoration 11

 

treadle cabinet restoration 13

 

It’s more like a Victorian with exposed brick and modern fixtures than a meticulously re-created period home.  It wears it’s beauty and the trials of it’s long history equally openly, and equally well.  It’s actually hard for me to describe how happy this thing makes me, almost like it was a living thing.  Such a process of transformation I’ve been through with it!

 

treadle cabinet restoration 12I decided to keep the exposed-inside top and sand it carefully smooth, rather than apply new veneer.

 

I sort of hate to tell you this, but you can’t fully appreciate this thing unless you touch it.  I couldn’t stop touching it when it was first done.  The velvety smoothness seems miraculous after all the time I spent with it when it was in such bad shape.

 

treadle cabinet restoration 14

 

I don’t know if it’s because I don’t often do projects like, because it waited for so long and then in the end came out so well, or because of a shift in my attitude (probably some of all of those), but this project was so incredibly satisfying.  In the final stages, I was really able to appreciate exactly what I was doing while I was doing it, and reveling in both the results and all the work that got me there in felt fantastic.

When I go into my work space in the mornings now, this is one of the first things I see.  I still often reach out and touch it at some point while I’m stretching and getting ready for the day, or if I’m sewing with it later I’ll give it an extra caress.  It probably sounds like I’m obsessed, but while this is now one of my very favorite physical objects in the world, it’s the experience of having brought it from what it was to what it is that’s my favorite part.  The best reward for tackling something big is the satisfaction.  Cheers to that!

 

treadle cabinet restoration 15

Blocking Knitting Without Special Equipment

When I mention blocking your knitting, I get a lot of blank looks from my students, and concern about how to do it and what they need to make it happen. Although it can be a magical transformation, it doesn’t need to be mysterious. And although there are a bunch of gadgets (special mats and pins, forms, blocking wires etc.) sold specifically for blocking, you don’t need to use any of those to get good results.  Some pins and a place to hold them will do, and sometimes you don’t even need that.

 
lupine cowl blocking

 

What does blocking mean anyway?

Blocking is actually a simple concept.  It just means using water and/or steam to set the final shape of something after you knit it.  As you knit, you make a new structure—a fabric—with your yarn. When the fabric gets wet, the yarn has a chance to settle into its new shape.  Sometimes it can change quite a bit, expanding or relaxing in response to the tensions (or lack of) that are now on it.

In blocking we take advantage of the fact that the yarn can form new shapes, and influence those shapes in the direction we want.  This can be as simple as gently stretching and patting a sweater so that it looks good flat, and leaving it to dry.  Sometimes more dramatic blocking is part of what makes a pattern shine, like stretching lace as much as possible to make the most of the open areas in the pattern.

Essentially, blocking is getting your knitting wet, shaping it how you want it to be, and holding it in that shape until it dries.

 

Why wet?

Yarns, especially wool ones, can change shape much more easily when they’re wet.  This is because of the structure of the fibers themselves.  (If you’re curious about the science of wool and haven’t seen the wool article I wrote for this month’s Seamwork, check it out!)

You can also stretch/shape your object while it’s dry, and then steam it to set the shape.  In general, I prefer the wet method for a few reasons.  It’s gentler on the fibers, and gives them a chance to relax before being under tension. It also gives a good idea of what your finished project will be like when it’s washed later.  A damp yarn object is easier to shape.  And when you finish knitting something, it may have been dragged all over hither and yon and have oils from your hands (or sticky stuff from your toddler) on it, and washing it is probably not a bad idea anyway.  (Hey—my favorite method for hand-washing is in that wool article too—good timing!)  (And speaking of good timing, Karen posted an eloquent argument this morning about why you should wash/block a swatch before embarking on a big project.  This is especially important when you’re making something like a sweater, where the final size/fit/drape is crucial to success.)

 

Does everything need blocking?

Not really.  I do wash all my finished knitting projects, shape them gently with my hands, and then leave them to dry.  But not everything needs to be pinned out, or to dry in an exact shape.  Socks, for example, are meant to be a little smaller than my foot, and to take on the exact shape of my foot when I wear them, so I don’t see much point in carefully shaping them before wearing.

 

How do I block something without special gadgets?

Everyone should have sewing pins, they’re useful for all kinds of things.  I’m not counting them as special equipment, but, it’s worth getting some with large, easy-to-see heads if you don’t have them already.  I like plain flat-head pins for sewing, but they get lost in the structure of hand knits.

The only other thing you need is a surface where your knits can dry that you can pin into.  A lot of times I use the same folded piece of flannel that I iron on.  An ironing board or a couch cushion covered with a towel are good choices for small projects.  For big items I stretch an old sheet over my bed (see below).

 

blocking shawl 1I tuck a doubled-over old sheet in tight over the bed covers.  That provides enough tension to hold in place when I pin onto it.  Plus it protects the covers from pin marks or any dye transfer from the yarn.  (Forgive the weird indoor lighting.  I wanted to show how I actually do this, but our bedroom is not ideal for photos …)

 
When your finished project is clean and damp, it’s ready to block.  Stretch and shape it with your hands, patting wrinkled areas out, smoothing ridges parallel, etc.  Pin in place any pieces that try to shrink back, away from the shape you want.

 

blocking shawl 2For this shawl, I pinned it at regular intervals along the straight edge, and intermittently along the other two edges.  You may have to move the pins as you smooth out the whole project, and that’s fine.  (This is my Indigo Boomerang, made with handspun.  More details are on Ravelry, and pictures of it worn are also in this post on slowness.)

 
For the cowl at the top of the post, I wanted to stretch the lace sections, but not the plain knitting in between.  I could have blocked it flat, a couple of sections at a time, and that would probably have worked fine, especially if I steamed it.  Instead I decided to experiment with different sizes of rolled up towels, and found a combo which was the right size to block it around.  I opened up the lace with my fingers while it was damp, and pinned the two edges parallel.

When your blocked knitting is dry, take out the pins and check out the shape.  If there are any parts you’re not happy with, or little pulled areas from the pins, those are great places to steam.  Hold your iron over the part you want to adjust (don’t flatten it) and fill it with steam.  Then take the iron away and reshape it with your fingers.

 

Will I have to block my knitting every time I wash it?

Probably not.  The most dramatic change takes place the first time the yarn gets wet in its new knitted shape.  Unless something extreme happens to it, it will stay more or less how you blocked it, with the additional influence of how it’s worn.  Lace may need to be re-blocked to look its crispest, but it won’t go all the way back to how it looked before you blocked it the first time.  For most items, a quick smoothing/stretching with your hands, before letting them dry flat is enough.  I like to drape bigger things like the shawl over the top of a wooden drying rack, using lower bars of the rack to hold the ends so that no part gets too stretched by gravity, or too folded and wrinkly, while it’s drying.

If your project does dry with wrinkles, a little steam will fix that right up.

I hope this helps demystify blocking for you!  The more we can all understand what’s going on with our yarn at various stages and why, the more we can get the results we want.  Happy knitting!

 

Sustainable, American-Made Garment Fabric — I Found Some …

A big announcement, and a list of sources:

Hello dear fellow makers! I’m actually not sure where to start with this … I’m either feeling deadly calm or like I might jump out of my skin. So here goes—sometimes, you just ask the right question to the right person, and then there you are. Remember when I was fed up with the NYC garment district, joined up with One Year, One Outfit, and vowed to contact Imperial Stock Ranch* because they had made a fashion collection using fabrics from wool grown on their ranch and entirely made in USA? Well. I did. Jeanne Carver, who owns the ranch along with her husband, wrote me back. She had some fabric left from the collection (!!). She offered to sell it to me, so I could offer it to you (!!!). Big bolts of two of these fabrics, basically the wool of my dreams, are in a huge box in my studio, and on offer to the whole online sewing community via my Etsy shop, starting today (!!!!). All the details about the fabrics are there.

*The story of the ranch is really amazing, and way too much to tell here.  Check out this article if you’re interested, which also has some nice pictures of Jeanne and her sheep.

 

striped imperial fabric 1My idea was to photograph these fabrics in a way that was fresh and felt personal, giving you an idea of what is would be like to wear them, and also conveying how lovely they are and how fabric like this might be all we need.  But yes, I am wearing clothes underneath …

 

I can’t believe it! Can we jump up and down now?! I’m trying to be calm for another minute or so, because this may in fact not be the most exciting part. The MOST exciting part is that, according to Jeanne, even though only about 7% of the American textile industry that once was remains today, we can still make any kind of fabric we want here in the USA. So, the most important thing you can do to make more fabrics like this a reality (other than, obviously, tell everyone you know, and buy some if you can!) is to tell us what you most want. If we make another run of fabric (a lot of just a few types) with Imperial wool, what would you buy? What would you want to make—a coat? A dress? A suit?! What are the qualities that make a wool fabric special to you?

 

black imperial fabric 1The black fabric is hard to show here but truly lovely.  Check out the listing for more detail photos.

Since Karen asked, and since I feel like we’re really on the cusp of something here—a growing interest in how our fabrics are made and where they come from which I very much want to be a part of—I’m also going to list the other suppliers of traceable, sustainable fabrics I’ve found so far below. I did a lot of this research while looking for fabrics for my One Year, One Outfit project, and I also love how much discussion is going on around this as a result of Slow Fashion October, so here you go:

 

Fabrics Made in USA

Organic Cotton Plus is probably the most comprehensive source I have so far. They have a big “Made in USA” section of organic cotton fabrics grown and processed here. They carry lots of undyed and colorgrown fabrics, both knit and woven.

Alabama Chanin is just all kids of cool, sustainable, and handmade, and they sell American made organic cotton jersey in 50 colors! I haven’t tried it myself yet, but since it’s the same fabric used in their collections it should be awesome.

Vreseis is the shop of Sally Fox, the pioneer of colorgrown cotton in the US. Everything she does is done with so much thoughtfulness. She’s now raising sheep and wheat to make a true biodynamic farm. Her shop offers a few fabrics, as well as yarns and fiber.

O! Jolly! is a newer, smaller, knit-fabric-making operation. Her commitment to sustainability comes through a little more in this interview on Ginger Makes (where I found her) than on her website, but she does offer colorgrown cottons, and lists origins and knitting locations for some of the fabrics, including some new wool knits which list the breed of sheep and that they’re American raised—yahoo!

Honey Be Good also specializes in organic fabrics and has a “Made in USA” section, which as of writing has mostly wooden buttons, and some printed jersey.

 

Fabrics Made Elsewhere

Simplifi Fabric (which I found through Sew Pomona’s list) has a fairly big section of fabrics made in Canada (and a few in the USA).

Hell Gate Fabrics is a new venture from Sonja of Ginger Makes, bringing us fabrics made mostly in Japan, where labor and environmental practices are much better than in many other countries producing textiles.  She plans to expand her selection of organic fabrics as her suppliers do.

The Fabric Store is where I found the organic merino jersey (from New Zealand) I used to make these tops.  It’s holding up well so far!  This store has locations in Australia, NZ, and Los Angeles.  Although they don’t have a full-service website, they do have a very friendly and comprehensive swatch service if you tell them what you’re looking for.

Offset Warehouse carries fabrics from all over, and they are quite transparent about where each fabric comes from and how it was made, if it is certified organic or sustainable, etc. They carry some truly beautiful and low-carbon handwoven/handprinted fabrics from around the world.

Many of the participants in One Year, One Outfit have been doing their own research and listing resources near them. You can find them listed here.

If you’re a nerd like me you can also browse the GOTS listings to find businesses making all kinds of things certified under Global Organic Textile Standards wherever you live. I haven’t made any amazing discoveries by doing this yet, but you never know …

 

black imperial fabric 2Bryan kept coming up with slogans like “fall in love with fabric again” as we were shooting these photos.  I like this one because it feels true, and it reminds me that doing something you feel great about can also be fun.

 

Really, the list of sustainable fabric sources is not as sparse as I thought it would be going in. One thing is clear to me: we make a difference when we choose to buy our materials with some thought and care as to how they’re made! The more demand there is for sustainable fabric, the more of it there can be. So, who’s with me? What’s your dream fabric?! Maybe we can make it happen!