Monday, June 30, 2014

June 30: Hmm.

I'm going to blog every day in July – I like to mark the halfway point of the year by making myself stretch a little. But as I learned last November, after three straight weeks of blogging, sometimes ideas run a bit thin on the ground. Anything you're interested in reading about? Recipes, what I'm knitting, what I'm reading? Funny stories from the subway? I'd love to know. 


Wednesday, June 25, 2014

June 24: Handwork

My first memory of knitting is vivid. Even 28 years later, I can recall what I was wearing, where I was sitting, the sound of the brown acrylic yarn squeaking across the yellow plastic needles. But I don't have the same sort of recollections about embroidery. Knitting was something I had to be taught, repeatedly, but embroidery feels like something I just did. 

(It can't be true, though: I remember having to get my mum to thread my needle for me again and again, sometimes three times in five minutes. She must have demonstrated the stitches for me over and over, too.)


Our house was never short of craft supplies. We had all the usual suspects: scissors and paper and crayons and markers (x-acto knives and crazy glue, too, if you knew where to look). But there was other, better stuff: a seemingly bottomless button tin, scraps of fabric, yards of yarn, and a stash of old embroidery kits – and the freedom to make something with it. 

I loved the old embroidery kits. They came in crackly cellophane bags, with colour photos that heavily featured the rich golds, bright oranges and sombre greens of the 1970s. The canvas was sometimes badly creased and yellowing around the edges, and the crewel wool sometimes had a musty smell, but that didn't diminish the pleasure I felt in stretching the fabric across the hoop or organizing the yarn, looping short strands through the colour card and matching the names and numbers to the chart. I could make it take all afternoon.

Indeed, I spent hours deciphering those charts, practicing the stitches, threading (and re-threading) my needle. If I think back to the summer vacations of my childhood, I remember swimming lessons in the morning, lunch eaten in front of "The Price is Right," and afternoons spent perched in the rocking chair in front of the living room window, stitching away. I watched avidly for the leaves on the maple tree out front to flip over in the wind, signalling rain on the way.

At some point I ran out of crewel kits (what were they? I remember a rose, stitched in shades of dusty pink, but that's it) and moved on to embroidery. The images were more modern and the embroidery floss was a treat compared to the scratchy crewel wool. There was a sprig of wildflowers framed in blue; a cheeky sparrow, framed in faux wood grain. But the choices were limited. I remember standing in the hobby shop and surveying a rack of kits: the only choices, variations on country geese and Ziggy cartoons. My interest waned.

In the years that followed I learned to knit (again), learned the basics of sewing, taught myself patchwork and quilting. For a long time I ascribed to the "beautiful use" school of thought—the idea that things should be both beautiful and useful (but mostly useful). Quilts were made to be slept under, socks were meant to be worn. I didn't have much time for decorative stitching. Embroidery was relegated to fixing holes in otherwise-fine shirts, stitching labels for quilts and putting noses on stuffed toys.


Of course, enthusiasms ebb and flow. Lately I've been drawn back to embroidery. In recent months, knitting has started to feel like work and sewing projects are driven purely by need. I want to reclaim the other side of creativity, the act of making for the sake of making, creating because that's what hands are for. I've been inspired by the Great Tapestry of Scotland (this commentary is wonderful); by the work of the craftspeople at Alabama Chanin; by the class I took with Joetta Maue, who opened my eyes to the idea of embroidery as art and craft; by the sampler above, from Rebecca Ringquist, which encapsulates so much of how I feel about crafting these days.

And so I'm back to sitting by the window on a summer afternoon, watching the maple leaves for the first hint of rain, quietly working my needle and thread.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

June 10: Squam Art Workshops 2014

After six months of anticipation, it's hard to believe that my time at Squam has already been and gone. It's an intense experience (so many people! so much nature!), but this was my fourth visit and I feel that I've unlocked the secrets to having a good time: reveling in the little things (a bite of chocolate cake; a shared joke; a stolen moment in the forest), focusing on the good in people, concentrating on process over product, and managing expectations. A lot like life, I suppose.

After the whirlwind of check-in, I dumped my bag in my room and headed to the dock. It's one of my little traditions – surveying the water, stretching my travel-tightened limbs, taking the classic shoe-gazer photo. It was cool and overcast; the clouds sat low in the sky, obscuring the treeline on the hills opposite.

I was back in the same cabin as last year, Everest, but with all new housemates. There were nine of us altogether – six from the US (Sarah, Karen, Shelly, Heather C., Emily and Heather W.), plus Fiona from Ireland and Sarah from the England, who made up the Commonwealth contingent with me. It was a really good group and we had lots of fun – one of the highlights being fireplace s'mores, courtesy of Emily.

The opening ceremonies, with their fairy lights and general air of excitement, got things started off on a good foot. There's always such a buzz in the air on the first night: reunions happening, new friendships being forged, and a lot of knitting talk.

Unlike last year, I didn't take any knitting classes. My Thursday class was with Joetta Maue – an artist who works in embroidery. I wasn't sure what to expect, especially given that I already knew the basics, but it was a terrific class and hearing her talk about her work really changed the way I thought about the ancient art form. (More about that later, perhaps.) This little sampler is simple but it makes me very happy.


The second class, taught by Maya Donenfeld, involved stamp making, fabric printing and sewing (hand and machine). We did the printing and most of the snap pouch on Friday afternoon and the zippered pouch on Saturday morning. The view (above) was lovely and I really enjoyed working with Stewart and Wende, fellow embroiderers and rabble-rousers.

I didn't learn anything earth-shattering in this class – the techniques are basic and I'm pretty confident with X-Acto knives (too confident according to some! but hey, no bandages required, so no harm, no foul), ink pads, rotary cutters and a needle and thread. I am pleased with the finished projects, though, which will likely become a project bag and a pouch for embroidery notions.

By Saturday afternoon, the weather had finally taken a turn for the better, and we spent the afternoon down on the dock. One of the girls had rented a canoe, so we all had a chance to do some paddling...

...which was a new experience for me. (I'm in the front, being surprised at my heretofore unsuspected canoeing abilities.)

The rest of the afternoon was spent dock knitting, and it was wonderful. I had been looking forward to that moment for months, and it was definitely worth the wait.

The Saturday night art fair was also well worth the wait – as usual, there were tons of vendors and all sorts of tempting goodies. I came away with some Brooklyn Tweed yarn and a couple of the beautiful linen bento bags from Fringe Supply Co (I was happy to meet Karen in person), plus a copy of the delightful Kerry Lemon's new book.

Sunday morning was clear and calm, the water like glass. I'd have loved to have stayed all day, but it was time to pack my suitcase, bid my housemates farewell and head back down the I-93. There's always next year.  I'm looking forward to it already.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

June 3: Since last we met

Lately, my days have been full of words, my evenings full of stitches. I finished up three big projects recently – two were dictionaries; the third, this sweater. They were each challenging in their own way, and I won't prevaricate: I'm happy to have them done and dusted.

 Meanwhile, the weather finally turned to spring. The long-awaited cherry blossoms arrived and were promptly washed away. It's the first time in years I haven't made it out to High Park to see them in full bloom, but between deadlines and rainstorms there was no way.

My latest project: a crochet granny square throw. I have an uneasy relationship with crochet – you never forget your first love, and mine was knitting – but my hands are slowly coming around. The colours (and the lack of a deadline) make it easy to enjoy.

Speaking of the joy of crafting, I'm off to Squam tomorrow. My suitcase is packed with fabric and thread, yarn and needles; I'm set to take a sewing workshop and an embroidery class. I'm especially looking forward to the art fair on Saturday night. The weather looks warm: maybe this is the year I'll make it into the lake for a swim. 


No trip is complete without a special snack, so this afternoon I tried something new – a take on a snack I buy at Starbucks sometimes if I'm hungry but want something a bit more substantial than any of their infinite combinations of white flour and white sugar.

Super-Duper Trail Mix to Power Lakeside Crafting
(I winged it – wung it? – so these measurements are heavy on the -ish side of things. Do what feels right.)

Scant 1 tbsp olive oil
2 tsp honey
1/4 tsp vanilla
Pinch cinnamon
1-1/2 cups almonds
1/3 cup pepitas
2 tbsp sesame seeds
Pinch sea salt 
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/4 cup dark chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 300ºF. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, whisk together the oil, honey, vanilla and cinnamon. Add almonds, pepitas and sesame seeds; toss to coat. Spread on baking sheet; sprinkle with sea salt.

Bake for 25–30 min, stirring occasionally, until almonds are golden. Turn off heat and let sit in oven for 30 min more. Remove from oven and let cool on rack.

Transfer cooled nut mixture to clean bowl; add cranberries and chocolate chips. Toss to combine.