Thursday, April 17, 2014

Garment Sewing

It's been busy, busy, busy over here!

Last weekend I spent both Saturday and Sunday cleaning my studio. The place was a hot mess and it needed a heavy hand of purging and polishing. But oh, how it shines now! It's making me really itchy to spend some more time down there designing and sewing. I'm attracted to a clean room like a moth to a flame.

One of the projects on my sewing table right now is a tunic dress for me. I'm taking this amazing class taught by Cal Patch on Creativebug where I'm learning how to do proper body measurements and draft a pattern. Yes, draft a real sewing pattern to my own measurements! In this course she's teaching the tunic, an a-line skirt, and how to draft a pattern from an existing garment that you love. The tunic and the skirt are very basic but she goes through the process of modifying them to suit your taste with collars and waistbands, ruffles, etc.

Drafting a sleeve under Cal's tutelage.
I've always wanted to learn how to design my own garments properly. And the instruction in this class is just what I needed. Very hands-on and the technical information is explained in plain talk. Learning these basic rules of pattern design has really given me a lot of confidence. Expect to see me strolling down the avenue in something original this summer! (And surely talking your ear off about it here, ahem)

I've also been sewing up some quilt blocks that I've never tried before. It's going well, I've learned a ton. Expect a new quilt block tutorial here very soon!

Here is a close-up sneak-peek!

Have a beautiful day,


PS - Cal Patch also has a great book on pattern design here.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

For The Love of Bees

You know it's spring if Alex is posting about bees - even though Wisconsin woke up to 1.5" of snow on the ground this morning!! WTH?

Here's what this morning looked like:

Photo credit: Muskrat John
Photo credit: Muskrat John

Seriously. It's April 15. I love Wisconsin but this must be some kind of cosmic joke.

Anyway, on to happier subjects... BEES!

As you all probably know, I started my first hive last year. If you're interested in reading (or re-reading) about my adventure, here are the posts: Home At Last (Part 1); Home At Last (Part 2). Also, this is a fun post about keeping the bees: Feeding Bees.

So, last year I didn't actually get  my bees into their hive until mid-June. This is super-late in the summer if you're a bee-keeper as it only gave them about 10 weeks to build up to a critical mass strong enough to survive a brutal Wisconsin winter. Add to that the fact that my bees "lost" their queen partway through the summer and started over with a new queen and I'll bet you can guess what happened... The hive died.

There may be nothing as sad as a hive full of dead bees. It was heartbreaking. Fortunately, I anticipated that this might happen and put in an order for a 2 lbs "package" of bees. This is, quite literally, a box of bees with the queen in a separate box. Like this:

So, I cleaned out the hive, watched a video on how to install a package, and went to pick them up.

Side story... my dogs went with me out to the farm to pick up the bees. They had a blast running around the grounds and smelling all the smells. They refused to go anywhere near the outbuilding where the packaged bees were - they know the sound of bees and they avoid them. :)  Then, I loaded the dogs in the car, brushed the bees off the outside of the box, and put the box into the way-back of my station wagon. The dogs could hear the buzzing and totally freaked out. They spent 10 minutes of the drive home in a panic, watching over their heads for flying stingers. Poor pumpkins.

My new bees are beautiful. They're golden-yellow, fat, and super-docile. They took to the hive right away - immediately cleaning, foraging, and just generally being bees. After a few days, I released the queen from her box and she disappeared into the hive. At some point in the next week or so, I'll take the boxes apart and try to find her - just to make sure she's doing her queenly duties.

I'm pretty sure that my bees are either Italian or Buckfast - two of the breed types of honey bees. These two types are yellow, like mine. The Carniolan bees are mostly black and much smaller. Here's a great article on the types of bees and their traits: Major Types of Honeybees.

Finally, here are a few pictures I took about a week after they were installed in their new home. I'll keep you all posted on how things are going this summer. I like to think that, because I got an earlier start and I'm blessed with such healthy bees, I might actually build up a hive that will survive next winter. Fingers crossed!

- Alex

Enjoying the sun

Pollen patty and sugar syrup - YUM

Enjoying a mid-day meal

Checking out the new person

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Walt Disney

I'll tell you, I was a big Bugs Bunny fan as a kid. If you would have posed the "Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse?" question to would have been Bugs all the way. He had so much personality, and Disney cartoons...well, they just didn't have the same sass.

Disclaimer: this attitude did not reflect my attitude toward Disney live action. I couldn't get enough Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, or Parent Trap when I was little.

But now that I'm all grown up, I see the artistry of Walt Disney animation in a whole new light. This shift actually began when my daughter was about four, and her very favorite movie was Snow White. I had never actually seen it...and was just lovely. No other way to say it. You could see the hand in the animation and the care taken to block out every frame with artistic balance. My mind had been changed.

Sure, I could take or leave some of the more recent animated Disney efforts, but there is a special place in my heart for the original classics like Snow White, Pinocchio, or Peter Pan.

I was fortunate enough to get to see a traveling exhibit of treasures of the Walt Disney archives in Chicago last month. That (mostly hand-made) collection of props, models, and original artwork on display reinforced my newish respect for Disney.

Take a look at what really caught my eye:

This is a hand-made prop of the submarine from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It was absolutely stunning. I could have sat there all day and just counted the rivets.

This is an actual early Disney animation desk. It is a work of art in itself.

This is a close-up of an original Disney animation title card. I was knocked out by the subtle color pops in the shading.

If only I could have stolen this beautiful background painting from Pinocchio...

This is part of the costume worn by the artists model who posed live and on video for the animators reference on Snow White. My gosh it was beautifully sewn. (It was tiny. Had to be a size 0.)
It's hard to see, but this is a contraption where they slid in painted clear glass panels and then shot through with the camera for a 3D effect. This one was used on their first animated feature, Snow White.
The book at the opening of Snow White was carved out of wood by hand and gilded.

Storyboards for the penguin scene in Mary Poppins. Again, I could have studied this all day.

I don't need to tell you what this is.
Or this.
The color harmony, hand lettering, and composition took my breath away on this poster for an early Disney short.

This is the hem of Alice's skirt from the recent Alice in Wonderland. Yeah...I'm calling them out on that machine embroidery. Tisk-tisk.

If you get a chance to go see this exhibit yourself, please do! It's worth the price of admission.


PS - I still love Bugs Bunny too! I mean really, everything I ever learned about opera was from him.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Magicians: Book Review

Reading is such a wonderful escape. A good book can transport you to new worlds, teach you new things, and generally broaden your world view in the most entertaining way. But who has time to read? 

My friend Jessica is the most voracious reader I know. Whether from paper, e-reader, or audio, Jess can consumer multiple books in any given week. She puts me to shame. Cassandra has taken to listening to audio books while she's doing her graphic design so she can get through a lot more "reading" than I do. Writers can't really listen to other words while trying to construct words that make sense. :) Regardless, I still love to read and try to carve out time for at least one book a month - which covers my book club selections if nothing else.

So, when I go on vacation I use that time to hunker down and read a lot. For some reason, television doesn't hold the same interest when I'm away - probably because I don't have TiVo - so I take my escapism elsewhere. This trip I read a book called The Magicians by Lev Grossman.

It's an interesting thing when an author borrows so heavily from other, well-known works. The Magicians (and the sequel, The Magician King) have been rightly called Harry Potter for grown-ups. But I'd throw in a giant dollop of Narnia on top of that.

The basic premise is this, Quentin Coldwater is a geeky, out-of-place high-school senior who is mysteriously whisked away to Brakebills College (a magical college, of course) to take an entrance exam. Upon being accepted, Quentin's world opens up and he begins his life away from home - including all the drinking, sex, and experimentation that most college students experience. This is why it's NOT a book for your kids. :) There are, as you'd expect, the requisite oddball teachers, friends and enemies and frienemies

In addition to the on-campus, magical adventures, there are also the trips home to the "straight" world and lots of musings in Quentin's head that sound like the musings of any 18-21 year old who's trying to find himself. There are spells to be learned and tasks to be undertaken. There are crushes and heartbreaks and friendships that will last a lifetime. And, on top of all this, there's the constant reference to a set of children's books that are about a place called Fillory (read: Narnia). The correlations between Fillory and Narnia are sort of ridiculously obvious - way more so than the correlations between Brakebills and Hogwarts. But the books play an important part in the development of these kids and ultimately in their post-college future. 

The reviews are very mixed. I noticed that a lot of people got annoyed with Quentin, which I found amusing. To me, he was no different than my son at that age - the setting was just different. He's full of angst and unrest. He's completely unsure of his future and often frustrated, angry, or just stupid in his decision making. I think a lot of people weren't crazy about how similar it was to Harry Potter and/or Narnia but, frankly, that didn't bother me much. The fact that the kids were older made the entire tone more adult. And it's probably important to note that, unlike Potter, there's little time spent on how the magic actually works except in the vaguest sort of way. The story is more about the characters and their growth.

Regardless of the "faults" in the story, the story-telling is solid. Grossman paints a vivid picture of Brakebills, the magic, and the adventures. He's captured truth in Quentin and the rest of the characters. And, despite the length of the book, it's a fast(ish) and engrossing read. 

I've got about 20 pages left in the book but the big twist at the end has just been revealed and it was interesting. I'm already looking forward to reading the sequel and will post a review when I'm done with it. 

Happy reading!

- Alex 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Birdie Sling - Pattern Review

This weekend, my cousin and I stayed up to the wee hours sewing for ourselves. I tell felt great! We drank pots and pots of tea, had MeTV's awesome Saturday night lineup as background noise, and laughed and sewed all night long. What did we make? Gorgeous purses!

After an exhaustive Pinterest idea search, we settled on Amy Butler's Birdie Sling. A trip to the fabric store (or two...ugh) later we were set to sew. Well, sewing after we cut out the pattern pieces for a couple hours. Wow, there is a lot of interfacing to cut for this bag (two different kinds even). Not something I would skimp on in this case either. This is a very large purse and I think it would be too heavy to support it's shape without that extra support.

This pattern has a lot of nice details like pleats and gussets. And I do think it's those little things that make this bag as cute as it is. It is seriously adorable. And now that I've been carrying it for a few days, I'm head-over-heels with the single large strap and large inside pockets.

My interior pocket panel on the left, my cousin's on the right.
As always, Amy Butler's written instructions are bulletproof. This is my third time using one of her patterns (gumdrop pillows and Frenchy Bag) and I would make another in a heartbeat.

I'm such a fan of the written sewing instructions from contemporary designers, I like them a lot more than the traditional ones from companies like Butterick and Simplicity. Patterns by folks like Amy Butler anticipate what is going to trip me up...and add extra illustration or instruction at that point. I really appreciate that, it makes those moments real learning opportunities.

Another great idea is to tackle a new pattern with a friend. My cousin and I broke up the work of pinning, sewing, and pressing between the two of us and the work just clipped along so nicely.

My fabric choices for the exterior were an Anna Maria Horner (from my stash) and Julianna Horner (Ana's daughter) from JoAnne. How weird is that mother-daughter combo? Completely unplanned. I lined the inside with a random calico I got from JoAnne as well. Again...why am I so surprised when I find things I like at that store??

Buying way more than I needed! Couldn't resist.
I don't wear such busy patterns on my clothes (usually)...but I do like my accessories to pack a little more punch. And this one looks like a big pop of happiness.


Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Problem With Leftovers

Yes. It's another food post.

I've been woefully uncreative lately and have had a resurgence of the cooking bug. When I was down for the count with my surgeries, I couldn't go out for a lot of restaurant meals and, frankly, not a lot of food appealed to me so I got back into the kitchen. It took awhile to actually cook whole meals and not just "cook" a can of soup but, in case you haven't noticed, this has been my major distraction lately.

The good news is, today is the first day of spring which means that, soon enough, you're going to be bombarded with gardening and beekeeping posts! Woo hoo!

So, what's on the menu today? Leftovers. 

Here's my problem - I hate leftovers. I throw out a lot of food because it sits in my fridge for too long (and Cassandra will tell you that I'll eat stuff that's pretty old). I just look at the containers and think, "That's not what I want to eat" or "I just had that the other day" or "That's not good reheated". So it sits until it's too old for even me to eat. I've decided that the key is to cook things that can be RE-COOKED into something new.

Yesterday I decided that I couldn't let the half a corned beef in my fridge go to waste. I don't really care for sandwiches (too much bread) and there's no way it would reheat very well. I had cooked a "round" instead of a brisket and it was dense but a little dry. So, I decided to make corned beef hash - which a adore. While I was in the store shopping for my missing ingredients, I ran into my neighbors who were shopping for missing ingredients for reuben sandwiches. I just had to laugh. I guess we all have to get creative with leftover corned beef after St. Patty's Day.

So, I grabbed some red bell peppers and russet potatoes. Then headed over to get some Ziplock Snack Bags to portion out the remaining diced corned beef to freeze for future hash. I walked up the freezer aisle and low-and-behold what did I find? Frozen Ore-Ida O'Brien Potatoes.

My life got easier.

Holy cats! I love Ore-Ida products and here, right in front of me, was pre-cut, diced potatoes, bell peppers, and onion all in one, awesome, frozen bag. 

I put the fresh produce back. (I know, I know. But it was already 6p and, by the time I'd be done dicing and cooking, I wouldn't have eaten until 8p).

Boys and girls, this was the easiest, fastest, and yummiest dinner and will be my go-to corned beef hash "recipe" forever - unless I want to get fancy or feel the need to dice stuff.

Here's how to make it:

  • Dice corned beef into 1/4" cubes
  • Heat a skillet on medium high heat and cover bottom with vegetable oil (I used canola)
  • Pro tip: If you heat the skillet first and then add your oil, your food is less likely to stick
  • Put frozen O'Brien Potatoes in the skillet in a single layer
  • Cover and cook on medium high for about 10 minutes without disturbing
  • Turn the potatoes (the bottom should be lightly browned) and add the diced corned beef
  • Continue to cook until the potatoes have browned to your liking. I like there to be some crispy bits in my corned beef hash so I cook them for a while, turning every so often so that they don't burn.
  • Salt and pepper to taste

The finished product. YUM!!

I'd say that the total cook time is probably about 20-30 minutes. As I mentioned, I put up the remaining diced corned beef in the freezer. When I make another batch, I'll probably put the corned beef in at the beginning with the potatoes since it'll be cooking from frozen as well.

Bon Appetite!

- Alex

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Perfectly Imperfect

This weekend my youngest celebrated his 5th birthday. I can't believe he's that old already. It seems like only yesterday he was a teeny baby. How time flies!

My littles are big fans of home-made cakes. They don't balk at store bought, but every year they kind of assume that mommy is going to make and decorate a cake to their specifications. I try my damndest to make the best cake I can...and I do fairly well....but these cakes are never perfect. There's always something that's a little bit off. Mind you, they taste fine. I'm talking about the aesthetics.

Cake cooling on my messy counter.
Part of my problem is that I love cream cheese frosting and will go out of my way to use it. Even if that means I have to sacrifice the sculptural qualities of buttercream. looks a little gloopy, but tastes oh-so-yummy!

Cream cheese frosting gets even runnier with food coloring.
I don't self-identify as a baker. Sure I make cakes, some breads, and potica. But it's not my passion. I happily follow a recipe and leave it at that. It's not the thing I think about while driving in the car or before I go to sleep, like I do with knitting, sewing, or drawing. I know folks who's baking is an art form, and I reserve the title of "baker" for them.

I, in my own humble, fumbling way...make cakes with more heart than art. And my kids are thrilled. I call it a win. :)

Take care,