Cheeks sold separately

Published on Tuesday November 13th, 2012

It’s almost the middle of November. I’m planning Thanksgiving meal contributions around the enormous share of vegetables we hauled home from our CSA this evening. Ada loves to walk down the long tables the farmer sets up — and I mean on the tables — to help put the food into our bags. She got a little distracted and encumbered by a monster carrot she was grappling with, so I had to load up the garlic and the rutabagas and celeriac by myself, but the carrot went back into the bag in a twinkling when I told her we got to choose a pumpkin, too. It is a pumpkin destined for pie and not for an alligator carving (her idea), but these finer points are quite lost on my child. Halloween, such as she understands it, is still looming large in the imagination. And really, it’s going to be Halloween all winter long at our house, so I might as well write about it two weeks after the fact. Here’s why:

Behold, a tiny viking! Jolyon grew into this hat, a gift from a friend who can wield a crochet hook far better than I ever will, just in time for Halloween. Luckily he is also of an age to grab things with decent speed and accuracy, which seems like an important base skill for plundering. On the day, I made him a matching battle axe out of our smallest spatula. He gripped and swung it with enthusiasm, although when he bit it the tinfoil made him cry. There’s no way we’re reserving this hat for one night of his life. It’s far too cute. In fact, that was my whole attitude toward Halloween this year.

Growing up, I had the most elaborate and imaginative costumes of any kid in town. My mother does nothing by halves, and she really poured her heart into Halloween. I can’t tell you how many nights she stayed up bending chicken wire, cardboard, papier mache, fabrics, and other materiel to her creative vision. It must have been Fantasia at her work table in the bedroom, and somehow my father slept through all of it. Colossal sculptures emerged. It was like suiting up for a joust. You needed attendants to hoist half a humpback whale skyward and then lower it onto you, helping you find the straps to the rigging that would support the massive creature on your little shoulders, helping you find the eye holes concealed in the baleen, bending the chicken wire strategically so it wouldn’t bark your ankles too badly as you blundered through town in the school parade among the witches and ghosts and superheroes as a life-like cetacean breaching out of the sidewalk. When I was five and my brother was two, we were jointly the Loch Ness monster. It filled our Volkswagen van. I was the front end, and now that I have a two-year-old of my own I think it’s a miracle my brother was able to toddle along within the tail. As we got older, outrageous requests — a haunted castle! a piano! the Headless Horseman, complete with horse! — only spurred her to greater heights. It would be madness and possibly suicide to attempt to play at her level.

I figure I’ll aim for a steady, year-round simmer in making stuff for my kids instead. I look forward to the day when they can craft their own Halloween and dress-up costumes, and while I’m in charge I think my efforts will go toward making things that can live a useful life beyond a few October nights. For Ada, I knit a tiger bonnet. The child doesn’t like to wear hats, at least not for the function of keeping her head warm when she’s playing outdoors in winter. So I bent my maternal and knitterly wiles to making a really irresistible tiger. I lined it with the coziest fleece. I gave it fuzzy ears thrummed with wool roving. I made it many sizes too large so she can wear it every winter until she’s twelve if she wants to. The rest of the costume was completely slapdash, although I did knit a pretty enchanting tail that’s now pinned to the hem of her purple jacket. There will be better pictures to come, but for now, this shot from the playground is proof that my sly tricks have worked:

(Also, we made it one more year without revealing to her that candy is edible. Yessssss.) All this is not to knock commercial Halloween costumes, however. My friend Robin found a caterpillar at Goodwill and couldn’t resist buying it for Jolly. I’ll let you be the judge, but I think it may equal the viking for cuteness. And all that stuffing will be good in lieu of a snowsuit if we get a sudden cold snap.

Dual beauty

Published on Friday June 17th, 2011

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from a little series we took as a birthday gift to my mother

If I were a photographer, I would do a whole study of children with books. During my senior year, my college hosted a show of Abelardo Morell’s photographs of books. I was ensorcelled. I’ve appreciated books all my life, first as vessels of story, later also as objects with their own beauty, but under Morell’s lens they become landscapes, new worlds taking physical as well as figurative form. (Appropriately, he illustrated Alice in Wonderland in 1998.)

I’ve been thinking about the beauty of the form magnifying the beauty of the content since I visited the Lloyd Reynolds retrospective exhibit at Reed College last week. (Alas, it has closed, so you can’t go see it now.) I had the chance to go with our fourth and fifth graders, who have been studying the arc of human achievement across the millennia, from the ancient constructions through the Renaissance, and have learned both calligraphy and typesetting. Lloyd Reynolds was internationally known as a great calligrapher and teacher of calligraphy; he also designed books and carved woodblocks and Punch and Judy puppets. He influenced pretty much everyone practicing calligraphy in the Northwest today and can even be credited with the existence of decent type faces for the computer, thanks to his sway over students like Steve Jobs (who dropped in on Lloyd’s classes after he dropped out of Reed) and Sumner Stone. The kids and their teachers and I admired scores of his hand-lettered signs, weathergrams, favorite verses and quotations, and diagrams of pleasing page formats and relationships between letters. Later we got to try our own hands at some calligraphy, and I was struck by Lloyd’s advice to his students:

LloydReynolds2The Order of the Black Chrysanthemum was his tongue-in-cheek name for the brotherhood of calligraphers, who could always be identified by the generous ink blots on their shirts, should they absent-mindedly place their pens in their breast pockets. And he wanted aspiring calligraphers always to use large pens so that their mistakes would be loud, proud, and easy to spy. Then they could do better the next time. I love this. It’s entirely counter to my own penchant for fastidious workmanship, but too often those efforts wind up crabbed and I never get the flow. My pen was not nearly large enough for my mistakes on this day, as you can see from my unlovely samples here, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself and have been seized by a desire to take a calligraphy class and to read the work of Edward Johnston, which Lloyd wrote was “a lightning bolt” for him when he studied design. I also wish there were a biography of Lloyd himself. One case in the gallery was devoted to ephemera from his investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee; he refused the summons to testify and I found his words on the subject deeply satisfying: “I’m no hero, but I hate to get down on my knees unless I’m planting onions or looking for collar buttons.” They put me in mind of E.B. White.

After we’d done some practice sheets (the kids wrote out the Shakespeare quotations they’d memorized), each of us penned a weathergram — a poem of only about ten words written on a strip of paper from a grocery bag and hung outdoors to weather — and found a home for it on Reed’s grounds. There was lunch and a merry game of Capture the Flag, girls against boys. I only played defense because, although I am old and out of shape in comparison to your average healthy ten-year-old, I have much longer legs. But I made those boys think twice about an assault on our pile of cones. It was bliss.

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Even better was the chance afterward to peek into the Special Collections library, a treasure trove of ancient books — Ptolemy, Pliny, antiphonaries, bestiaries, Isaac Newton — and beautiful art books of more recent vintage. The children had to hold the elevator for the adults who couldn’t tear themselves away at the end.

I returned to my usual job, which currently consists of wresting an algebra book out of InDesign —a program I am totally unqualified to use — and wished I could be spending this much time hand-lettering the darn thing or setting it in metal type. It feels ironic that, at a school so heartily devoted to making things by hand, I’ve got the job of translating it all for the outside world via computer. (Nobody senses this irony better than my husband, who knows just how limited my competence with computers actually is.)

I find myself longing for Ada to be a few years older so that she and I can make things together. I don’t want to rush these sweet baby days of wonder and discovery, but I picture setting up a scriptorium in the living room bay and the two of us crafting hand-lettered books. Right now my future calligrapher is screaming about the indignity of nap time and gnashing her stuffed otter with her gums in frustration, so we have a little way to go. I’d better go read her a book. One step at a time.

Oh, and my favorite thing from the Reynolds exhibit, a tiny woodblock print only an inch and a half wide:

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Published on Tuesday March 9th, 2010

I’ve spent the past five days under the thumb of an ugly cold, not much good for anything but lolling on the couch with my box of Kleenex and countless mugs of tea. I’ve read about 140 pages of Wuthering Heights, watched the Pride and Prejudice miniseries for the umpteenth time, and I’ve finished sewing the binding for the baby quilt I started last summer. See?


This is the slapdash log cabin I named Satsuki (for the girl in “My Neighbor Totoro”). I finished the top months ago, then realized that the eight-point stars I wanted to machine quilt over each block were going to cause a problem.


If you don’t quilt from the center of the whole quilt, you tend to get bunchiness somewhere. For me, that was going to be in the sashing between blocks. I was too wedded to my eight-point stars to change my mind, and not feeling fastidious enough to make the quilting process much more complex by sewing the parts of the six stars on the interior of the quilt first. I wanted to just sew one whole star at a time, block by block, so that’s what I did. Like the rest of the quilt, the stars are intentionally free form. I made no attempt to align the points from block to block, and I let them be lopsided because the bright center squares aren’t really in the center of each block.


Sure enough, the bunchy sashing happened exactly as predicted. So I created a fix and pretended it was a design element.


Yep, I used red embroidery thread to whipstitch up the center of the sashing, gathering and securing the excess fabric in a pleat.

If you want to make a quilt like this yourself, you’ll need a yard of fabric for the back (I had enough excess in my yard to also make the small squares that link the sashing strips from the backing fabric), a yard of flannel for the batting, five fat quarters in neutral fabrics (mine looked very quiet in their bundle but livened up considerably once I was sewing them) for the log cabin blocks and the outer border (this was exactly enough; I had hardly any fabric left over), about a third of a yard of neutral sashing fabric, and small amounts of leftover brights for the block centers and binding. Start with a 2″ square of your bright fabric, then start snipping scraps of the neutrals at random to fit around it. I cut every piece with scissors as I was ready to attach it, and I let the strips be variable widths so the whole thing would be rustic and cattywampus. Don’t measure anything, but keep working around and around until it looks like you’ve got a square about a foot wide. When you’ve made six blocks, square them all up to 12″. Cut seventeen 2″ x 12″ strips for the sashing and twelve 2″ squares for the small squares linking the sashing strips. Assemble them around the six blocks and sew all together. Then cut the remaining neutral fabrics into 4″ strips of variable lengths and piece them together in lengths sufficient to log cabin them around the quilt to form the outer border. Make the quilt sandwich with the backing and the flannel, then draw eight-point stars (as you’d see in a compass rose) radiating from the center of each block to its edge and corners (don’t quilt into the sashing). Machine quilt around the center square and along the lines for the star you’ve drawn. You’ll need two hanks of embroidery thread to whipstitch the pleats; just pinch up the center of the loose fabric in the sashing and whipstitch from the center of one of the small sashing-linking squares (these must have a name, right?) to the next. Let the center of that little square stay loose and poofy. Repeat in all seventeen of the sashing strips. Cut 2″ strips of variable lengths from your scraps of brights for the binding and attach it in the usual way. (I like the directions in Bend-the-Rules Sewing for the Lap Quilt for bindings.) Et voila! A cute baby or lap quilt that makes you feel terribly creative and folk artsy and doesn’t task your patience for fussiness or accuracy. It’s liberating, I promise you.


Inspiration strikes

Published on Tuesday July 31st, 2007

So, baby things. I started rummaging through the stash, trying to make decisions about what to cast on for the neighbors’ September sproglet. We know he’s coming with boy parts, and since the EZ February sweater with the gull pattern is a little on the lacy and feminine side, I’ve been thinking about substituting another pattern for the body. (Gull stitch is only a suggestion from EZ in the pattern; most folks have taken it as gospel and there’s nothing wrong with that. Check out the umpteen darling iterations on Zimmermania.) There are a couple of good candidates in the stash for this; the frontrunner is some Fly-Dyed Monarch Fly Super Sport Monarch (my vote for most redundant yarn name ever, but tasty stuff) in a handsome dark teal color. I’ve also been toying with the idea of knitting Wee Neighbor Lad a blanket. In the inheritance stash is an armful of venerable Reynolds Saucy cotton in a perfect little boy blue. When I investigated the sack o’ Saucy, I found this:


Behold, a sadly unfinished sweater back, adult woman size. Ah well, I thought, the style’s past its expiration date and I’m sure Mr. G’s mom has totally forgotten she ever knit it. I’ll rip it out if I run out of intact balls during the blanket knitting. (You may remember this is what I did for Mr. G’s Fishtrap Aran – I still have the better part of the back of its former incarnation lining a box the cat sleeps in.) But then I had a flash of inspiration – what if I folded it like this?


Sew the bottom together, insert a zipper up the middle from the hem rib to the arm holes, continue for a few more inches at the top with some shaping for a little hood, pick up sts in rib around the opening for his little face, and voila, a baby pod! It’s already 21″ long, which I understand to be about the length of your average newborn. And the pattern should be cute and quilty:


If this works out, I will feel insufferably clever.