Hand-Stitched Badges for Me-Made-May

A beginning embroidery primer, with free patterns.

 

For the last few years, May has found us around Washington DC. We usually do two art shows there, and in between stay with some dear friends and ride the Metro to visit the sites of our nation’s capitol. The whole time we’re surrounded by so many people (especially from my middle-size-town perspective). Since it’s Me-Made-May, I spend even more time thinking about what those people are wearing than I normally would. It’s easy to get a little bummed out when I look around and consider that, of the hundreds of strangers I can see at any given moment on the subway platform or at a monument, perhaps none of them are wearing anything handmade. But it also got me thinking that maybe they just haven’t considered it, that if they knew there was a whole movement going on, that folks around the country and the world were encouraging each other and posting about their handmade wardrobes at that very moment, maybe it would encourage a few of them to at least think about it.

So I wanted to bring something that said I was participating in Me-Made-May, and/or that I had made part of my outfit, off the internet and onto my physical person where all those strangers could see it. I started to talking to Zoe about it, and she liked the idea too. I owe her big thanks for her support, bouncing ideas around, and of course for putting on this challenge for us again this year! Since MMM is all about stitching, and I’ve been doing a lot of hand-sewing and embroidery lately, here’s what I ended up with:

 

embroidered mmm badge

 

You can make them too! I designed these little badges with embroidery beginners in mind, and I’ll walk you through some parts that might be confusing, so even if hand-sewing isn’t usually your thing, you can handle it. If you’re already further along in your embroidery journey, feel free to skip down and glance through the photos, then print the pattern and get started.  Click the link below to get the pattern:

MMM-badges-pattern

 

materials & tools

You’ll need some felt, and some embroidery floss, thread, or fine yarn.

Wool felt is an ideal material to start stitching on, since it’s forgiving, doesn’t ravel, is thick enough to not need backing, and you can hide ends and extra stitches in the thickness.

The Me-Made-May badge is stitched here in variagated cotton floss, and the “I MADE this!” one in wool thread.  There’s more about the specific threads I used at the end of this post.

You’ll also need a few basic sewing tools: a sharp needle with a long eye, and a small sharp scissors. I always wear a thimble like this one when I’m hand stitching.

Finally, you’ll need a scrap of tissue paper and a fine-point pen to transfer your design to the felt.

 

thread types

Let’s talk for a minute about the differences between cotton and wool, and floss and thread, for stitching. Wool threads designed for embroidery are often labeled “crewel” (a type of embroidery) and are usually made up of two single strands (called plies) twisted together. This plying is integral to the structure of the thread, and it’s not meant to be separated.

 

embroidered mmm badge 9

 

Cotton floss often comes in a loosely twisted bundle of threads, which can be separated to make various thicknesses. This is called “strandable” floss. If you look closely (maybe with a magnifier), each strand of this kind of floss actually has its own two-ply structure. Some cotton threads have a non-strandable structure as well.

 

embroidered mmm badge 8

 

Just like in sewing or knitting, the different properties of wool and cotton fibers make a difference to how they work in embroidery. Wool’s crimpy, elastic nature means that it plumps up, filling gaps and making it easier to embroider a smooth satin stitch or a plush knot. Cotton is denser, smoother, and less elastic, meaning you may need more thread to cover the same area, and the stitching will have a tighter, flatter look.

 

getting started

Put a little piece of tissue paper over the printed pattern you want to make. You can use scraps of tissue, and iron them flat if necessary. Using a fine-point pen that won’t bleed, trace the pattern carefully, including the circle around the edge. Make a single line for thinner shapes and letters, and draw around the outline of thicker shapes. Pin the tissue to your felt, with the pins outside the circle. You’ll stitch right through the tissue and the felt to make the design.

 

embroidered mmm badge 1

 

I tried several methods of transferring the patterns to my felt, and this one worked the best. An iron-on transfer pen (not a pencil) also works, but it makes thick permanent marks that are a little fiddly to apply, and must be covered with stitching.

To thread the needle, I use the techniques I shared in this Seamwork article about hand-stitching. I found that it helps to fold over the end of the wool thread, and to wet the end of the cotton floss.

To begin, take a long stitch on the back through the thickness of the felt, coming up near where you want to start. Let a little bit of thread remain on the back surface. You can trim it off later to neaten things up. If possible, take your first stitch as a backstitch to anchor the thread.

 

embroidered mmm badge 5

 

General embroidery tips:

  • Stitch in good light! It’s unbelievable what a difference this makes.
    Test out your stitches and thread on a scrap before you start, especially if you are experimenting with new stitches and/or aren’t sure what thickness of thread to use to get the look you want.
  • How even your stitches look depends mainly on how even the tension is between one stitch and the next. Start off slow and even.
  • When moving from one letter or shape to the next one, take a stitch through the thickness of the felt to keep it hidden. To keep long stitches from pulling the next part of the embroidery out of shape, push the needle straight through to the back of the work, then take a long stitch into the felt, coming out on the back near where you want to start again. Then bring the needle up to the front in your next spot.

 

the stitches

Most of the text in these patterns is made with backstitch. I explain this stitch in that Seamwork article, and in even more detail in this post.

 

embroidered mmm badge 2

 

Backstitch tips:

  • Put your needle in right at the end of the last stitch for a solid line.
  • Look ahead at the section you are stitching, and decide whether to divide it into two stitches or three, etc.
  • Think about the path of the thread when you come to corners and curves. Remember that where the needle goes in is the beginning of the current stitch, and where it comes out is the end of the next stitch.

 

embroidered mmm badge 3

 

For the scallops around the edge of the Me-Made-May badge, I used a simple straight stitch. Follow the individual lines on the pattern for a looser look that shows off the separate threads, or fill in the whole scallop shape, depending on the thread you’re using and the look you’re going for.

 

embroidered mmm badge 6

 

I filled in the thicker lines of text with satin stitch, which is basically a row of straight stitches very close together, so that they look like a solid surface. It’s easier to keep these stitches even and plush-looking if you work them over a base of another stitch. For these patterns I outlined the satin stitch sections in backstitch first.

 

Straight & satin stitch tips:

  • Backstitch around the outline of all the text, and finish all other parts of the design that use the pattern as a guide, then remove the tissue pattern before you fill in the satin stitch. You’ll be able to see exactly where the stitches are more clearly, and pulling off the tissue will be easier.
  • Cut carefully around the outer circle of the design. Leave the outside of the tissue pinned to the felt for reference and later cutting (you may actually want a few more pins at this point to hold it smoothly). Tear out the part under the badge itself. Pointed tweezers are an ideal tool for pulling out tiny/stubborn pieces of tissue.

 

embroidered mmm badge 7

 

  •  I find it easier to keep an even tension if I put the needle all the way through to the back at the end of each stitch, and bring it up again close to the stitch I just made on the same side of the shape I’m stitching. This method is slower to work than the more common technique of taking the needle under on one side of the shape and up on the other side in one stitch. But, it uses less thread and is easier to control, especially when you’re starting out.
    • Stitch as close to the foundation backstitches as possible for a full look. You can even push the foundation stitches to the side with the needle to make more space and keep the line of stitches even.

     

    embroidered mmm badge 10

     

    • If your satin stitch comes out a little lumpy, it can help to put the eye of your needle into a row of stitching and move it gently back and forth.

     

    embroidered mmm badge 11

     

    • When making satin stitch around curves (like on the D in “MADE”) it helps to make the stitches inside the curve as close together as possible, and fan them out a bit on the outside of the curve, a technique that’s illustrated in detail on Needle ‘n Thread here.

     

    The round knots around the outside of the “I MADE this!” badge are colonial knots. They’re a variation on a French knot where you loop the thread in a figure eight around the needle before pushing it back into the fabric. I like these because they hold a larger, more textural shape, and can’t come undone as you’re making them. They look especially plump in wool threads.  There are more pictures and explanation about colonial knots on Sarah’s Hand Embroidery Tutorials.

     

    embroidered mmm badge 13

     

    finishing

    When you come to the end of a section of thread, bury it through the felt for a short distance and come out on the back. You can trim the ends close, since some thread remains in the thickness to keep your stitches from pulling out.

     

    embroidered mmm badge 4

     

    Once all your stitching is complete, cut out the felt circle, once more going carefully around the shape you traced.

     

    embroidered mmm badge 12

     

    Sew a pin, a clip, or a magnet to the back, and it’s ready to go meet the world.

     

    embroidered mmm badge back

     

    supplies

    I used handmade felt, because I have lots of scraps of it laying around. Use what you can find near you, but if you possibly can, use real wool felt rather than the synthetic stuff. Wool is just so much lovelier to work with, and it will hold up to wear much better. Mine was 2-3mm, or around 1/8” thick.  Weir crafts sells a variety of felt online, including some that’s handmade and some that’s made in USA.

    I discovered two things while looking for threads for this project: there are probably as many small companies and indie dyers making embroidery threads as there are making knitting yarn, and I personally am just not interested in using floss in flat colors. My mom has been into embroidery for as long as I can remember, and a quick dig through just part of her stash resulted in many more beautiful options than I could use.

    For the Me-Made-May badge, I chose two colors of variegated cotton “painter’s threads” from Tentakulum; 121 “Cezanne” and 125 “Matisse.” They’re made in Germany, and available through embroidery suppliers in the US, including Artistic Artifacts. DMC also makes a couple of ranges of variegated floss, which are a lot more common, at least where I live.

    For the “I MADE this!” design, I used some amazing fine crewel wool thread, dyed with natural pigments by Renaissance Dyeing, out of France; color numbers 0309, 1622, 1708, and 2000. Single colors are available in the US through Hedgehog Handworks.  Photos do not do these colors justice; they are good enough to eat!  Any crewel wool or very fine yarn that you like would be a good substitute.

     

    embroidered mmm badge 14

     

    In case you’re wondering, while I had plenty of materials to choose from right in front of me, I did do a little searching to see what I could come up with for organic/traceable threads. Renaissance Dyeing looks good on the sustainability front; they use all natural dyes and local wool, it’s just that they’re far away from me. Organic Cotton Plus also sells a line of organic cotton embroidery floss which is grown & spun in Peru and dyed in the USA.

    Personally, I think I’ll be using a lot of the yarn scraps I have lying around, especially for larger designs.  And I think it would be well worth it to buy (or spin!) some natural colored thread, and drop a tiny skein into every dye pot I try.  It takes so little, why not?

     

    resources

    All you have to do is start searching on Instagram, Etsy, or wherever you get your internet eye candy to find amazing examples of beautiful modern embroidery.  I particularly like Katherine Shaughessy’s crewel work, she has two books with a fun modern aesthetic, and sells supplies and patterns (with some free ones) on her site Wool & Hoop. Yumiko Higuchi also does some of my favorite embroidery. She likes to to mix wool & cotton threads, and her book just published in English (Simply Stitched) does a great job of taking advantage of the properties of both, as well as being full of inspiring designs.

    If you make one of these, I’d absolutely love to see it!  Share it using #mmmay16, #handstitched, or email me a photo. And of course, I’m here to answer questions if I can.

    Happy stitching!

     

    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

    Our Relationship with the Tangible World, or How I Learned to Spin

     

    first handspun yarn 1

    You may be able to guess what this is … yeah baby, my first bobbin of handspun yarn!

     

    So it’s like this: My beautiful, wonderful cousin came to visit me (with my beautiful wonderful auntie) and when she went back home, she left her spinning wheel here for me to borrow while she’s at college this spring. Amazing!

    I’ve been thinking vaguely about learning to spin for, um, the past two decades give or take, ever since I first practiced weaving with my grandmother. But it just seemed to take so long, like it would add so much time to my whole knitting/weaving process, so I wasn’t ready to commit. Needless to say, that was before the infinite list.

    In my new post-infinite-list world, starting to spin seems like the perfect choice; an expression of surrender and adventure all at the same time. Since there’s no way to ever finish all the knitting I’d like to (or weaving for that matter), I might as well make some frickin’ yarn!

     

    first handspun yarn 3

     

    Spinning is pretty amazing (I’ll talk more about that in a minute), but one of the best parts about it so far is an accidental discovery. In an effort to keep my immediate-onset spinning obsession from taking over my whole life (remember, I’m supposed to be focusing this year), I decided on some rules: I wouldn’t read about spinning except during times when I would normally read something else, and I wouldn’t sit down to spin at odd times during the day. Instead, I would wait until just before bed. So every night at 10 pm, I give myself permission to stop whatever I’m doing, shut off the computer, and spin for up to half an hour before getting ready to sleep.

    Oh people, this has been life-altering. A lot of the work I’ve been doing lately has been very abstract: putting my ideas out there to various people and institutions, basically a whole lot of online research and laboring for hours composing messages, many of which are never answered at all. I do hope that good things will come of it, but it’s basically a frustrating process that leaves me floating in inconclusiveness, and for the most part, kind of grouchy.

    Then at the end of the day, I put all that aside and sit down to learn, to make something real, to interact with the tangible universe. I’m reminded of this quote from Anaïs Nin about letterpress printing (which I found, like a lot of my deep-thought quotes these days, via Brain Pickings):

     

    The relationship to handcraft is a beautiful one. You are related bodily to a solid block of metal letters, to the weight of the trays, to the adroitness of spacing, to the tempo and temper of the machine. You acquire some of the weight and solidity of the metal, the strength and power of the machine. Each triumph is a conquest by the body, fingers, muscles. You live with your hands, in acts of physical deftness.
    You pit your faculties against concrete problems. The victories are concrete, definable, touchable. A page of perfect printing. You can touch the page you wrote. We exult in what we master and discover. Instead of using one’s energy in a void, against frustrations, in anger against publishers, I use it on the press, type, paper, a source of energy. Solving problems, technical, mechanical problems. Which can be solved.

     

    Although later this spring I will return this wheel to its rightful owner, I fully intend to keep this night practice going with knitting, or drawing, or something else. At 10 pm the computer shuts off, and I make something real for a little while before bed.

    Some things you may be wondering: yes, the spinning wheel tempts me all day when I look at it, but in a sweet way of something to look forward to. And yes, if we’re going out at night or I think we’ll have guests staying late (I’m not really a late-night person and tend to crash hard if kept up past my bedtime) I find a half an hour earlier in the day to spin. Yes, this is in addition to the hour I still try my best to find every day for personal projects. I’m discovering that the more up-in-the-air my day’s work is, the more real-world-project time I need to stay happy.  I’m also a firm believer in taking the time your life will allow for the things that are really important to you. And yes, when I wake up at night lately I find myself thinking about twist in fiber, which I like much better than mulling over my worries!

     

    first handspun yarn 2

     

    Another thing that’s been beautiful about this process (although it sounds funny) is watching myself learn. I suppose I’ve absorbed the mantra I’ve told all my beginning knitting students: “You can do this! Anyone can do it if they just decide to practice it.” I do absolutely believe that this is true, that skill in handcraft is available to anyone who’s willing to start where they are (which a lot of times means training your hands from scratch) and keep practicing. It’s a gift we get just for being human, but it does take work.

    Anyway, I’m cheating at learning spinning—the process is brand new to me but the feel of fibers and their qualities, the look and feel of yarn I’d like achieve, these things I already know. Not that I didn’t have lumps and bumps (you can see them!) and moments of beginner’s frustration which I had to push past, of course I did, and do still. But it’s been a long time since I learned something truly new to me, and maybe because of my teaching experience, but this time I’ve been able to let go of the outcome (a really healthy attitude for a first project in any material, I feel) and enjoy it. I’m a little surprised and pleased every time I sit at the wheel and notice that my technique is a little bit better, the yarn is coming out a little more even, or I just figured out some tiny thing that no one told me, it’s there in the materials and my hands to be discovered. When I first started I couldn’t spin from the imperfectly-carded batts of wool leftover from my early felting days, or treadle with one foot, but now I can do both.

     

    first handspun yarn 4

     

    If you’re not interested in being seduced into the wild world of spinning, stop reading now.

    Three compelling reasons to spin:

    Spinning is fast! For some reason I always assumed it was the slowest part of the fiber-to-garment process, but it’s clearly not, due to being a more-or-less continuous flow, rather than a stitch-by-stitch motion. It’s fairly shocking how quickly a newbie like me can make enough yarn to knit something out of.

    You can make yarn that you can’t buy, and the other people doing so are interesting folks!  This, realized while reading Ply Magazine, was one of the final straws for me: I could see myself wanting just such a yarn for such a project, but it wouldn’t exist commercially … I started reading Ply because of an article about how twist protects the fibers in yarn from wear (by Deborah Robson), and ended up reading every. single. thing. in the Twist Issue, even though at that time I had no plan to become a spinner. The way the articles are presented; with differing opinions, and explorations by people digging around the fundamentals of their craft, captivated me. The intricacies of how yarn is made are interesting even if you’re working with the yarn and not making it … but as I read I also became more and more convinced that if this is how spinners think, they are my people, and I must become one.

    Spinning is amazing! There’s something very fundamental about it, an immediate sense of how old and how intrinsic this process is, which draws me in. The rhythm is soothing, and at this point in my learning anyway, it works best if I can concentrate on what’s happening and be present without many words in my head—a lot like meditating, or dancing with someone. Plus you make real yarn from a pile of wool! If that doesn’t seem amazing, then you’re just not paying enough attention.

    I have just two tips so far for other would-be beginning spinners:

    Read the book The Intentional Spinner by Judith MacKenzie McCuin. Although it doesn’t have the variety of perspective you get from reading Ply, she lays out answers to a lot of the basic questions I had with clear photos, fascinating descriptions of fiber, and even ideas for making tools you need using a cardboard box and old knitting needles!

    Try not looking for a second while you’re spinning. I know it sounds crazy, but I tried it after reading an article by Carson Demers in which he said (among other things) that looking up at least part of the time you’re spinning (or knitting!) is much better for your body. And it turns out that (also like dancing with someone) if you take your eyes off what you’re trying to do, even for a couple of seconds, you become instantly so much more aware of all the other information available to your body—in this case what your fingers can tell about the twist and diameter of the yarn you’re making by feel.

    Ok three tips: just try it! Or try something else you’ve been meaning to do, and save it as a treat until the end of the day. I really can’t recommend it enough.

    In Which I Make a New Handle for a Plastic Gadget using Silicone Putty

     

    sugru handle 1

     

    When my friend Becca introduced me to the site The Grommet, the thing I immediately wanted was this moldable, air-curing silicone putty called sugru.  It’s supposed to stick to practically anything, be formed into any shape, and be washable and permanent when cured.  Their motto is “the future needs fixing”—how could I not love that?

    I got some for my brother for Christmas, and kind of hoped he might give me one of the little packets to try myself, which he did.  (Whether it’s nature or nurture, we definitely share a tendency to tinker and fix things.)  “I don’t care what color,” I said.  “Then you’re getting yellow,” he said.

    I really didn’t care, because the thing I wanted to fix was this cheese grater.  It came with a handle that rotated, but the plastic clips which held it on eventually broke, meaning that the handle just fell off, leaving me with nothing to grab onto but the sharp plastic shards on the end.  Nevertheless, this is the kind of thing I can’t seem to get rid of, because all the other parts of it still work perfectly fine.

     

    sugru handle 2

     

    Working with the sugru is a lot like molding polymer clay, except it smells different.  It will hold fine details like a fingerprint, or you can smooth the surface with a light touch.  I could have spent a lot of time minutely sculpting it, but I tore myself away and mainly went for function here.  The contents of one little package were plenty to form the handle.  It cures up harder than I expected, more like the grips on my camera than like a silicone spatula.

    The new handle is working well!  It doesn’t rotate, but it makes the grater nice and comfortable to use again.

    A product that lets consumers fix more things themselves—yes please!  We need more of that.

     

    sugru handle 3

     

    (Full disclosure: I don’t have any connection to this product other than buying some, and I wasn’t compensated in any way for writing this post.  However, if anyone wanted to send me some free sugru, I would not say no … )

     

    Recycle Fabric Scraps and Worn Out Clothes at Goodwill

     

    fabric scraps for recycling

     

    I like saving scraps of fabric from my sewing.  They usually come in handy for other projects.  However, there is a point when a scrap is just too small to be worth saving, and I don’t want to clutter up my storage space with tiny little bits.  On the other hand, I feel like the scraps are perfectly good clean fibers, and I hate to just send them to the landfill.

    A while back, Zoe mentioned that in the UK, the charity she used to work for (TRAID) sent scraps on for textile recycling—to be turned into insulation and stuffing and whatever else uses short mixed fibers.  I wondered if any of the thrift shops on my side of the pond were doing the same thing.  I started saving a (large) bag of just the fabric scraps too small to keep, which took a surprisingly long time to fill up, considering it had all the scraps from this fall’s batches of Fiddleheads.  (Probably due to the fact that I can’t bring myself to part with any piece of slightly felted cashmere big enough to be remotely useful.  Want some cashmere pieces? Let me know!)  I also had a few garments that weren’t really fixable any more, but I figured had life left in at least some of the fibers.

    I thought about contacting charity shops every once in a while, but basically put it off until the scrap bag was too full to ignore, and then sent out emails.  Good news, USA-dwelling, fabric-cutting folks: Goodwill will take your scraps!

     

    This was my message:

    Hello,

    I have some worn-out clothing and fabric scraps which I don’t think a thrift store would be able to sell.  However, I would still like to keep them out of the landfill!  I know that some thrift stores pass on worn out clothes and scraps to recyclers so that they can be remade into something else, and I am wondering if your store does this?

     

    And this is what I got back:

    Yes, most fabrics that cannot be sold continue to be recycled in the manner outlined below at all our locations.

     

    Hooray!  Now I don’t feel like an idiot for saving a big bag of tiny fabric scraps can be a good citizen and recycle.  I also took some things I was ready to part with that I thought Goodwill would be able to sell—seems only fair as they are providing this service.

    A note: if you don’t have a Goodwill store in your area and decide to contact local thrift shops, I’ve had much better results via email than over the phone.  The people I got when I called were more likely to assure me that they try to sell everything before sending it overseas, etc., than to have the answer I was looking for.

    Good luck!

     

    Turning a Lotion Bar into Handmade Salve

     

    For some reason, people give me these lotion bars.  It’s true that I have super dry skin, but the consistency of the bars doesn’t really work for me, it leaves a sticky film on my fingers.  However, I just love homemade salve.  I use it for lip balm, minor burns, on my dry fingertips before bed, etc.  The ingredients of the bars and the salve are about the same (a combination of oils and beeswax, and sometimes a few other ingredients like shea butter), except the salve has a higher proportion of oil.  So …

    Basically all you have to do is heat the lotion bar until it melts, add more oil, and cool it again.  I’ve tried this a few times and the mixture has always stayed emulsified.

    A re-used glass jar is a good vessel for heating. The ideal container would have a pouring lip (which this one doesn’t). It only took a little brute force to get my lotion bar inside.

     

    lotion bar to salve 1

     

    I melt it gently, in a pot with water over low heat.  It might not be necessary, but to insulate the jar from the direct heat, I put an old dishrag in the bottom of the pot. The bar will take a while to melt, but you don’t have to watch it the entire time, just remember to come back and check every so often, until it’s completely melted.

    To figure out how much oil to add, you really just have to let the mixture cool and try it out, as it depends on how much is in the bar to begin with, and the finished consistency you like.  Err on the side of a little less than you think to start with, you can always add more.

    You can add olive oil, almond oil, or any other oil you like that’s good for your skin.  I’ve used jojoba oil for the last few batches, since I had some from another project.  Stir the oil into the mixture, so that it’s distributed throughout (I used a wooden skewer).

    The first time I did this, I let the jar cool down all the way to test it.  Then it occurred to me that it would be much faster to cool a small amount in a little measuring spoon.  Wait until it’s completely cool to test, and keep in mind that a hard skin forms on the surface, so break through it and smear the salve between your fingers, on your lips etc. to test the texture and absorbency.

     

    lotion bar to salve 2

     

    As soon as you get in as much oil as you want, the salve is done!  If you’d like, you can pour it into smaller containers for storage and use while the salve is still liquid (using a funnel or very carefully).

    Every time I do this, I’m pretty excited about the almost effortless batch of lovely new jars of salve around the house.  If you want to, you can even make fun labels for them, like we did for the salve we made at my craft retreat two years ago.

     

    lotion bar to salve 3

     

    I find the best way to get the salve off the teaspoon, or out of a jar I’d like to use again, is to just keep rubbing it off with one dry fingertip after another.

    Here’s to upcycling!