Still Life with Insects

I’ve written and discarded half a dozen blog posts over the past week. Nothing seems to be quite right. Out of ideas, I resorted to the book of 500 writing prompts I created for my daughter. A random stab at the non-fiction section of the book brought me to the question: What objects tell the story of your life?

I tried to encapsulate everything in four objects:

The fiddle: made by a neighbour in Panama, given to me for my birthday by my husband. The fiddle not only tells the story of our years living and working among the incredible, resourceful people of Panama, but also tells the story of my lifelong interest in learning to play the violin…an interest which always ended up being pushed aside for other interests. Because I’m interested in learning so many things, there simply aren’t enough hours in the day.

The beetle puppet represents my insatiable curiosity about arthropods, and how that curiosity has bled into my other interests. Peanut butter jars full of bugs on my dresser when I was a kid led to the entomology degree, which led to teaching about insects at Penn State University, and then starting the Bugmobile. And the puppet is only one of many insect-themed and inspired artistic projects I’ve done over the years, as art and science mingle in my brain.

The gardening gloves speak of my weeding addiction and my love of growing food. The gloves are never more than a month or two old, because I wear through them in that time. I think that says it all about gardening for me.

The rock represents adventure, the natural world, and the wild places I have visited and lived in. Like me, the rock has traveled far and has been changed by the stresses it has experienced along the way.

Learn Something New

My first skeins of mohair yarn, showing improvement from left to right.

Not long ago I learned to spin. I should have learned earlier, right after my angora goats were shorn the first time, but I looked at all that mohair and lost heart—it was too much for me to deal with. So I dropped it off at a commercial spinner.

A year later, the spinner still hadn’t spun my mohair and finally admitted they had no intention of ever getting to it, so I picked it back up and brought it home.

It was time to learn to spin.

At first I hated it. It was fiddly and frustrating. The resulting yarn, if you could even call it that, was thick and lumpy. I was set to give up on it.

But a friend who spins encouraged me to keep working on it—it’s always hard at first, she said, and that lumpy thick yarn is beautiful and artistic in its own right.

I took her advice, and kept at it. A hundred metres of thick lumpy yarn later, I suddenly found I was producing fairly consistent worsted-weight yarn. And I was enjoying it!

Learning something new is never easy. I know I’ve blogged about this before, but it’s worth repeating. We watch accomplished people at the task, and we think, “I’d like to do that.” Then we try, and our efforts are fumbling, the results uninspired. It takes determination (and often encouragement from others) to push through the initial discouragement and get to the point where you can enjoy the new skill.

I’ve tried to teach my kids that it’s worth pushing through that learning hump to gain a new skill. Sometimes I need reminding myself.

Good Things Take Time

I’ve had a fascination with reflective fabrics for a while. The amazing reflective fabrics being manufactured today have so many creative possibilities that I itch to get my hands on some of them. Unfortunately, most aren’t available here.

Recently I managed to get my hands on some reflective fabric tape, and designed a new jacket with the tape in mind.

But first I had to turn the tape into piping.

Then I made a few test seams with the piping and the wind-block fleece I’d chosen for the jacket. I found the combination of fabric and piping was singularly unforgiving—the fabric stretched too much, and the seam had to be sewn perfectly to look good. Even the slightest sloppiness caused it to look awful.

That meant hand basting the piping to one side of the seam first, and then hand basting the seam together before sewing it on the machine.

Then each seam needed topstitching to make the most of that precise seam.

The upshot is that every seam on this jacket (to which I added seams for style purposes) has to be sewn five times (two of those times by hand through four layers of quite tough fabric).

What was I thinking?!

I’ll admit that by the time I’d managed the first seam (having had to rip it out twice because it wasn’t perfect), I was nearly ready to scrap the project.

Then I looked at the gorgeous seam I’d just finished.

When I finally do complete this garment, it’s going to be lovely. I’ve chosen fabric I know will look good for a decade or more of hard use. Its reflective piping will give me a measure of safety for the nighttime walks I enjoy. It will be warm, windproof and nearly waterproof. Yes, it will take me quite a bit longer than I’d hoped to make. But, as they say, good things take time.

Useful Crafts?

I do a fair bit of crafting—I weave, sew, knit, embroider, etc.—but almost all of what I create is useful. Clothing, rugs, bags, household furnishings … if I need something, I make it.

It’s unusual for me to create something with no utility at all.

Maybe that’s why I had so much fun making this fabric collage wall hanging. There is no purpose for this piece of whimsy, beyond fitting the ocean theme my husband declared for the new family ‘art installation’ in the living room.

I didn’t have to worry about whether the metallic threads would hold up to use, or whether the long embroidery stitches would snag on anything. I didn’t have to finish all the edges of every piece of fabric. It didn’t have to be machine washable, warm, comfortable, or something I’d want to be seen wearing in public. It didn’t have to be biologically accurate or to even make sense in any way. I could make it as silly as I liked. I could do whatever I wanted and call it finished when I got sick of it.

What started as a project I felt obligated to do (because everyone else in the family was contributing to the art installation) turned out to be a joy. I spent twice as long on it as I originally intended and, though I’m not sure it particularly counts as Art with a capital A, it makes me smile when I see it on the wall.

Maybe it was useful after all.

Slashing the Stash

It rained all weekend, so what was I to do but bake and sew for two days? It felt decadent, indulgent (though I did get my weekend chores done; I wasn’t a total slacker).

It was a rewarding weekend, too. My fabric stash has been getting out of control lately. I only buy fabric when I have a project in mind, but there’s always a little left over from any project, and it builds up. Not enough to make clothing for me or my now adult-sized kids, but enough for clothes for little kids and babies.

So this winter I’m on a mission to reduce the stash by making clothing to give to charity. On this chilly, wet weekend, I started in on my scraps of polar fleece. I made a whole raft of warm hats, and cut out the pieces for five little jackets (I need to get zips for the jackets before I can sew them). It was great fun turning all that ‘waste’ fabric into useful items.

Next weekend, I hope to start in on the knit fabric—I have patterns for baby t-shirts that’ll be perfect for using up those scraps. And then there’s the denim, cotton broadcloth, corduroy … so many fabrics, and so many creative possibilities, once you think small.

I managed to cut my polar fleece volume down by half—my stash reduced to pieces useful for my own clothes. If I can do the same with all my other fabrics, I’ll be thrilled. I get more space in my cupboard, I get to indulge in sewing I enjoy doing, and someone in need gets new clothes. It’s a win for everyone.

Making the Most of It

August adventure day at Rakaia Gorge

August is always a month of frustration for me. On the one hand, I’m excited, because spring planting starts, and though the weather might not be the best, there is the promise of spring on its way.

But with the promise of spring on its way is the threat of winter being over. I look at the gardening tasks ahead, feeling overwhelmed and wanting to get cracking on them. But I look back at winter and feel I haven’t accomplished nearly enough while the cold weather lasted. All those sewing projects that I meant to get to, that extra writing I had hoped to do in the long dark evenings, the photographs I meant to print and put into the family photo album…August reminds me that the time for finishing indoor projects is running short.

It’s not that I didn’t do anything over winter. I was busy sewing, knitting, and writing. But there simply aren’t enough winter days for me to accomplish everything on the to-do list. When August comes round, I have to resign myself to not getting things done. I have to prioritise. That photo album? It’s been three years since I’ve put a picture in it. Looks like it’ll have to wait one more year. The jacket I wanted to make for myself will take backseat to the one my son has asked for–he needs it more. The pair of socks I started knitting last winter…well, I still have hope I’ll finish that project.

Half of me is ready for spring. Eager for warm sunny days to whip the garden into shape. The other half of me wants a succession of rainy weekends so I can finish all those winter projects.

The only reasonable thing I can do is make the most of whatever the weather gives me in August. If it rains, I’ll dive into the sewing with gusto. And as soon as the sun comes out, I’ll don gardening gloves and head outside. And if the weather is so fine, it begs for an adventure, I’ll leave everything on the to-do lists for another day.

Knitting Socks

You could call me stubborn.

It would probably be more accurate than the more polite persistent.

But sometimes stubbornness pays off.

I hate knitting.

I’m lousy at it. Really. I was first taught how to knit before the age of ten.

I’m now 47.

I still couldn’t knit my way out of a wet paper bag.

But I’m also stubborn.

I will knit.

Specifically, I will knit socks.

I know, I know. Socks are not the sort of project a non-knitter should attempt. They’re bound to end in tears. And they have, over and over again.

But I’m so close to being able to make all my clothes. I make shirts, trousers, jackets, underwear…

The only thing missing is socks.

Once all your other clothes are custom-made and fit perfectly, the ‘one size fits most’ socks they sell in the stores feel like they were made for aliens.

I need socks that fit.

Which means I need to learn to knit socks. Not just any old socks, but socks that are perfect for my feet.

So, how many socks have I knitted in the past 37 years since my first knitting lesson?

Um…none.

But, as I say, I’m stubborn.

I’ve never been able to knit in the round (which, of course, dashes my chances of making socks), but with fresh stubbornness this winter I had another go.

After several blood-pressure-raising sessions, I have knitted SEVEN CENTIMETRES of sock!

I’m so excited.

Think of it. SEVEN CENTIMETRES! Give me another 37 years and I might make it to the heel of my first sock!

Slowing it Down

When I tell people I enjoy quilting, they assume I mean I enjoy choosing fabrics and colours, and piecing quilt blocks. They’re usually surprised to find that it’s actually the quilting that I enjoy, and that I do it by hand.

People are also often surprised to know how much hand sewing goes into the clothing I make. Buttonholes, zips, linings…even my t-shirts often have hand-stitched hems or neckbands.

Partly, I do a lot of hand stitching because I prefer the way it looks, or it’s the only way to handle something my machine can’t do.

But mostly, it’s a way to take my time and focus on both product and process. A machine stitches quickly, but if I sew something by hand, I can place each stitch exactly where it want it. I can shape an edge or an awkward corner. I can make hand stitches invisible or use them to add subtle embellishment. By sewing slowly, by hand, I have greater control over the stitches themselves.

Sewing by hand also forces me to take more time with each project. I rarely make anything purely for fun–when I sew a pair of jeans, it’s because I need a new pair of jeans–but I also enjoy sewing. It is tempting, sometimes, to whip out a project quickly, just to get it done and have the final product to wear. By sewing parts of a project by hand, I am able to slow down and enjoy the process, not just the product.

While I am sewing by hand, I have time to think–about the project, about the person it’s for (if it’s a gift), about the ways in which it might be used, about how the process is going (and whether I need to rip a hastily done seam and do it over, or add a feature I hadn’t planned on). There is something meditative about hand sewing that sewing by machine doesn’t provide. And I think it has to do with speed.

It’s like walking versus driving. You might not get there as quickly walking, but you will experience more along the way.

 

Traditional Easter Jack-o-lantern

The traditional Northern Hemisphere holidays make absolutely no sense here. Easter falls at the Northern Hemisphere seasonal equivalent of mid-October. So a celebration of spring flowers, new-season’s growth, resurrection, etc. just doesn’t work.

We’ve just brought in the last of the harvest–pumpkins, apples, popcorn. The only summer crops left are those in the greenhouse, and they won’t be around much longer, either. Trees are losing their leaves. We’ve brought out the candles, and dream of sitting by a crackling fire in the coming months. Clearly, painted eggs, bunnies, and spring flowers are inappropriate.

So I introduce the traditional Easter Jack-o-lantern. Carved while snacking on roasted pumpkin seeds.

Great fun for the kids, and better for them than chocolate bunnies!

Failure

2017-01-21-09-23-03smI’ve been in a veritable frenzy of pickling the past couple of weeks. Before that, there was a good stint of jam-making. I’ve had a brilliant run. I’ve been able to run a full canner-load almost every time, every jar has sealed, and the jam has been the perfect consistency.

Until two days ago, when a jar of dill pickles exploded when it was lowered into the canner. Then yesterday, I ran fifteen jars through the canner, and FIVE of them didn’t seal. What? FIVE? I never have that sort of failure rate. I did what I always do though, upon reflection, maybe my lids or jars weren’t quite as hot as they should have been, because I was doing two batches at once, and my attention was divided.

Today I reran the five unsealed jars, making sure they were nice and hot, and they all dutifully sealed.

But it made me think about failure and my response to it.

I fail a lot. I have hundreds of rejections of my writing from agents and publishers. I’ve thrown away entire rounds of cheese that just didn’t work properly. I’ve made loaves of bread that could be deadly projectiles. I’ve made birthday cakes that didn’t look anything like what they were meant to be. I’ve taught lessons that have flopped completely. I’ve made clothes that have gone immediately into the rubbish upon completion. The list of my failures goes on and on.

When we fail, we have a number of options.

Option 1: We can pout, blaming our failure on the weather, the phase of the moon, the person next to us, the wrong tools, millions of illegal immigrants, or whatever. This might make us feel good, because it allows us to pretend our failure was not our own fault. But it doesn’t make us likely to succeed next time.

Option 2: We can get angry, blaming our failure on our own stupidity, clumsiness, incompetence, or lack of innate ability. We can believe that, because we failed, we are a failure. This is an easy response, because it allows us to justify not trying again. “I’ve tried that, and I can’t do it.”

Option 3: We can critically analyse what went wrong. Maybe it was poor tools–I’ve had cheese fail when a thermometer was inaccurate. Maybe we got sloppy–I’ve ruined garments by rushing to finish them. Maybe we didn’t understand enough about what we were doing–the first time I taught preschoolers, they chewed me up and spit me out, because I had no idea how they related to the world. Analysing our failures takes time. It requires a willingness to critique ourselves in an honest and constructive manner. It requires us learn new things. It requires us to get back on that bicycle and try again.

It’s hard.

But it’s the only option that leads to success.