Impromptu Pillow

I’m a bit ashamed that two months have passed since I’ve posted anything new. The truth is I’ve had an onslaught of assignments for several clients throughout August and September. Since I’ve already turned in three of six projects due this week, I decided to sneak in a new post.

Even with a heavy workload, I made time to work on projects most evenings — usually staying up far later than planned just to finish a piece or complete a section. I made a Sock Monkey Bag for my niece’s birthday and a Creeper pillow for my nephew’s birthday. The unseasonably cool weather over the past week must have put every knitter around here in knitting mode. After finishing a pair of socks for a cousin I needed another project. I had the yarn and pillow form, so I made another Impromptu Pillow:

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I developed the pattern last year because I wanted to make a chunky knitted pillow for a Christmas gift. Inspired by some gorgeous knitted pillows on Scandal, and knowing the recipient likes that show, too, I bought some super bulky yarn and started playing. The first Impromptu Pillow, in cream, turned out really well, with a beautiful texture you can’t help but run your hand over again and again:

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The problem? I didn’t take notes when making the first pillow. I remembered using the seed stitch, and the size 13 needles recommended by the yarn. I also remembered my gauge swatch was a bit large, so I wound up using fewer stitches to make a 16″ square.

I knew I’d crocheted the edges closed — a super easy and clean way to assemble a pillow, and a good reason every knitter should know some basic crochet stitches — and added a simple (single crochet, chain three, skip one, repeat) edging to finish it off.

For the first attempt at the second pillow, I tried 35 stitches, which was too wide; 33 was a perfect fit. Your own results will vary depending on how loosely or tightly you knit.

This is called an Impromptu Pillow because you only need to make two squares large enough to fit your pillow form — in whatever stitch pattern you like — and join the edges around a pillow form. The crochet edging is optional.

Has the knitting or crocheting bug bitten you a bit early this year? If so, what’s on your needles – or hook?

Scrap Happy Pillow

Every knitter has leftover yarn. Sometimes entire skeins are left once a project is done, but it’s usually just a few yards of this and a partial skein of that. They may be different weights, different fibers, and they’re always different colors.

What do you do with all that scrap yarn?

I get scrap happy.

I’ve made scarves, a granny square afghan, and other things over the years. Unusually cool summer weather, a desire to use up some of my yarn stash, and a spare bolster pillow form inspired me to turn this basket of mismatched yarns…

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….into the pillow on the right:

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Look closely and you’ll see a few remnants from the square pillow in the bolster.

The cool thing about using random colors in one project is how they almost always find a way to pull together. It’s the reason I love scrap quilts more than matchy-matchy color-coordinated quilts.

But there’s a trick to keeping all the different colors from fighting. Balance.

In this case, I doubled the yarn scraps with black yarn. (I used a couple different black yarns in this project.)

I decided to knit the bolster cover on size 11 circular needles, and switched colors at the end of every round. It would have been easier to use random lengths of colored yarns, but I was going for a subtle stripe.

To create texture, I used a seed stitch, but garter would be nice, too. (Remember: because you’re not turning the work, doing a garter stitch on circular needles is like stockinette on straight needles. Knit one row, purl the next.)

I wasn’t sure how to do decreases in the seed stitch, so at the ends I switched to garter stitch and decreased on my knit rows, switching to doubled-pointed needles as the number of stitches decreased.  For the second end, I picked up stitches from the cast-on edge and decreased as for the first end. I’m not entirely pleased with the decreases — I was hoping for flatter ends — so I can’t say I’d make it exactly the same way again.

Scrap happy projects are fun because you can play around and make mistakes without the worry of wasting yarn. When it comes to leftover yarn, the only waste is in not using it.

What are some of your favorite uses for scrap yarn?

Ice Cream, part 2

I’m having way too much fun making homemade ice cream. My latest concoction? Chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream.

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It was easier than I expected. I checked out several recipes online, and they all simply folded bits of a chilled, egg-less cookie dough into a standard vanilla ice cream while it’s in the soft serve stage. As with chocolate chip cookies themselves, each “dough” recipe was a bit different so I threw together one of my own:

  • roughly 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/3 of a cup light brown sugar
  • scant 1/2 cup of unbleached all purpose flour
  • dash of salt
  • 1/2 to 3/4 of a teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/2 cup mini semi-sweet chocolate chips

I beat it together with a wooden spoon shortly after making the vanilla ice cream mixture, and refrigerated both for a couple hours.

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While the ice cream was in the machine, I broke the dough into small pieces – the largest being about the size of a small crouton. After the ice cream was done mixing I folded in the bits of dough. You could do the same with softened store-bought vanilla ice cream. But why not make your own?

It’s nice knowing what goes into each batch. There are no preservatives or multisyllabic additives I can’t spell or pronounce (unless they were in one of the ingredients, like the mini chips, for instance). Yes, homemade ice cream contains a lot of heavy cream and half and half, but knowing exactly how much might make you a little less likely to overindulge.

I Scream, You Scream…

I remember when my dad bought an electric ice-cream maker, the kind with a metal canister that rotates inside a bucket filled with ice and salt. The ice cream he made was good, but the mess wasn’t. Let’s just say it wasn’t used very often. After a while he sold it at a garage sale.

Thankfully today’s ice cream makers have self-contained coolants. No ice or salt to mess with. Just pop the chilling bowl into the freezer for a day or so, and you’re ready to go.

For my birthday this year, my brother and sister-in-law gave me an ice cream maker attachment for my Kitchen Aid. Now that the summer heat is upon us, I’m experimenting. My first attempt was Mint Chocolate Chip ice cream. So good, so rich, so creamy. Then I tried slightly healthier ice milk. Decent flavor, but it had a grainy texture. My most recent attempt? Chocolate Frozen Yogurt.

I found a recipe on line, and just so happened to have all of the ingredients on hand. It used a technique similar to some ice cream and frozen custard recipes that involve cooking part of the mixture.

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I was using Greek yogurt and was able to skip the cornstarch. The mixture didn’t thicken much, but as the recipe said: don’t worry. After the mixture cooled, I transferred it to a mixing bowl (with a handy pouring spout!) and added the Greek yogurt. That’s when I worried because the yogurt didn’t stir in well, so I switched from a wooden spoon to a whisk.

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A few seconds later it was beautiful, rich, thick and creamy. It tasted good, too! I let the mixture chill a couple hours before proceeding to the fun part.

After setting up the ice cream attachment and turning the machine on, I poured the mixture in and let it run for about 25 minutes. This is seconds after I turned the machine off:

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At this point, the frozen yogurt was soft-serve consistency. Almost like a Frosty, only with that yogurt tang. (Even with all of the cocoa and chocolate, you can still taste the yogurt. Not sure if that’s due to the brand of yogurt I used, or if I need to add a little more sugar next time.)

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You can eat it fresh or freeze it for later. Trust me. It’s just as good either way.

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Have you made homemade ice cream or frozen yogurt? What are your favorite flavors or additions?

Guacamole 1-2-3

Guacamole  is one of the simplest, easiest and most delicious dishes anyone can make. There’s no cooking involved, and not much a recipe, either.  All you need is a ripe Hass avocado (or two), lime juice, salt & pepper – and maybe a bit of onion, tomato or garlic.

The basics

The basics

Sometimes the hardest part of making fresh guacamole is finding perfectly ripe avocados.

A lot of people add fresh garlic, but I prefer a subtle garlic flavor so I use a trick I learned from my Aunt Jean: cut a clove of garlic in half and rub it in the bowl you plan to  use. (She did that to “season” the salad bowl before adding the greens.) Don’t worry. You can use the remaining garlic for another recipe.

Some people like smooth guacamole, others prefer chunky. I like chunks of avocado, tomato and onion, but sometimes I make it with just the avocado and lime. It depends on what I have on hand and what I’m serving with the guacamole.

Step One: Prep your extras. Rub the bowl with garlic (or mince a clove) and toss in some finely chopped tomato and/or onion if you like:

Tomato and onion in a garlic-rubbed bowl

Tomato and onion in a garlic-rubbed bowl

Step Two: Halve, peel and remove pit from an avocado (or two, or more). I like to roughly cut the avocado in large chunks for easier mashing:

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Step Three: Squeeze in some fresh lime juice, add salt and pepper to taste and mash to the desired consistency. (I usually use slightly less than half a lime per avocado, but you might prefer more or less lime.)

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Simple, huh?

I don’t care for salty or greasy chips, so I usually cut up a small corn tortilla or two and bake my own chips in the toaster oven.

The final step? Enjoy!

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Once avocados are cut they turn brown quickly. Even the lime juice doesn’t help stave off oxidation. I’ve heard putting plastic wrap directly on the guacamole helps keep it green because it reduces the exposure to air. Some people claim sticking the avocado pit into the mixture keeps it fresh too. But who am I kidding? There are never any leftovers to worry about!

While I love classic guacamole like this, it’s also be fun to experiment by adding things like grilled corn, hot peppers, cilantro, even mango. What are some unusual ingredients you’ve added to guacamole, and how did it turn out?

Writers Worth Month, 2014

I wish I could say I’m behind on blog posts because I’ve been even busier with work than usual. That was true in March and April, but my schedule returned to a more normal pace this month. The  truth is most of my creative energy (outside of work) has been focused on creating entries for a contest, but I can’t divulge details just yet.

However, I made a point to carve out some time to write a guest post for Lori Widmer’s fabulous blog, Words on the Page. Not only is Lori the founder of Writers Worth Month, she’s also one of the best motivators around when it comes to spurring freelancers to keep marketing their services and skills to a wider range of clients. Lori’s also built a great online community of writers who make her blog a must-read for any writers serious about building a successful writing business. Actually, anyone who’s self-employed could learn a lot from her blog.

Mine is just one among dozens of guest posts celebrating all aspects of Writers Worth Month. If you’re a writer, bookmark Lori’s blog page – you’ll want to keep coming back well after May ends.

Say Cheese!

Ever heard of the Grilled Cheese Recipe Showdown? I hadn’t until a friend told me about it this week. Sure, the odds of me winning the $10,000 Grand Prize are slim to none, but boy will I have fun testing recipes to submit.

Grilled cheese aficionados have long debated what makes a classic grilled cheese sandwich. I prefer sharp cheddar on whole grain bread with tiny touch of spicy brown mustard, like this:

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Others like white bread with American cheese. (Honestly, I don’t even consider American cheese actual cheese since it has barely any flavor. But at least it’s not Velveeta.)

This contest isn’t about ordinary grilled cheese, so my mind is already dreaming up various flavor combinations. Who else is up for creating a decadent twist on a grilled cheese sandwich? Let us know if you plan to enter the contest, too.

Contest entries are due by May 12, so get grilling!

 

Deconstructing a Wreath

Remember how a bunch of my family members made fresh Christmas wreaths last year? At the time, Mary told us once the wreaths were past their prime we could disassemble them and reuse the heavy-duty wire wreath frames next year.

Spring is here, and my community has resumed collecting and composting yard waste, so it was time to deconstruct my glorious wreath.

It needs a pop of color, but a bow would be crushed by my storm door, so I need to figure something out.

Any wreath constructed around a metal frame can probably be disassembled, too. Even a store bought wreath. Not sure how your wreath is constructed? Take a look at the back.

Wow. Look how the greens have faded.

See how the greens attach to the frame with green wire? And wow – look how much they’ve faded!

Untwist or cut the greens free. We tied small bunches of greens together before attaching them to the frame, so I started by pulling a few out. (Do I even need to point out you should be doing this outside if your wreath is made from real greens?)

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Each of these little bundles was bound with green wire. If you’re planning to mulch or compost the old greens you need to remove all of those wires. Some of the greens slipped right out of the wire for me, others had to be unwound or cut. The wire-free greens were tossed into a paper yard waste bag.

I simply reversed the process we used when making the wreaths and systematically worked my way around the frame.

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It probably took about 20 minutes to untie and pick wires out of the greens, but now I’ve got a wreath frame ready to be reused.

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Deconstructing the wreath wasn’t as much fun as making it, but the faded greens still smelled wonderful – and my gloves didn’t get covered with sap this time!

 

Handmade socks for fussy feet

I’ve had foot problems my entire life. While Morton’s Neuroma is the most annoying issue with my feet, hypersensitive skin is a close second.

Because my skin is so annoyingly sensitive — contact dermatitis, allergic rashes and relentless bouts of eczema are common  — I have to avoid most natural and synthetic socks. Cotton is the one fiber that doesn’t irritate my feet.

Despite that sensitivity I can still knit with other fibers because the yarn doesn’t smother my skin so it can still “breathe.” (When my hands do get a little irritated, I just set the knitting aside until they’re better.) In fact, I had so much fun making wool-blend socks for other people that I decided to find a thin, smooth cotton yarn and make my own socks.

I bought a few skeins of Cascade Yarn’s Ultra Pima Cotton (color: Syrah) and made my own socks…just in time for Spring. I know. My timing could be better.

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I’m wearing them for the first time right now. While they’re a perfect fit. I can feel every stitch. These may end up as layering socks, with a smoother store-bought pair of socks underneath, but I still love having a handmade pair of socks for my very fussy feet.

Constructing Socks One Stitch At a Time

The instant gratification of knitting with thick yarn and large needles is hard to beat. That’s why I long resisted the idea of knitting socks. Tiny needles, fine yarn – worse yet, you have to make two!

A few years ago a great knitter I know, Ruk, took a sock making class and really loved it. She suggested I try it and sent me one of her favorite patterns. That’s back when I was blogging for a yarn company that gave me free access to all kinds of gorgeous yarn so I had no reason not to give it a try. I requested some fun, self-patterning sock yarn, bought a set of size 3 double pointed needles, and gave it a go.

While there are thousands of sock patterns to choose from, the basic construction is usually quite similar. The stitch counts mentioned below are specific to the pattern I used.

Adjusting to such small needles was frustrating. Despite each round being only 48 stitches, I was knitting at the sluggish speed of one inch per hour. It took days to knit the leg of one sock:

Measuring leg of second sock against the first sock to see if it's long enough.

Measure leg of second sock against the first to see if it’s long enough.

By the time I got to the heal flap of the first sock I was hooked. The heel flap and heel turn are my favorite parts of the sock because 1) only half the stitches are worked, 2) nearly every other stitch of every other row is slipped, not knitted, and 3) after a couple inches you start decreasing. All of which makes the work go even faster.

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The heel flap starts with 24 stitches, but the gradual decreases of the heal turn leave you with ten stitches on the needle.

The next section is the gusset. Because you pick up new stitches along the edge of the heel flap and continue knitting in the round, this is when you’ll have the most stitches on your needles. That’s to make enough fabric to accommodate the ankle, foot and heel. There are decreases in every other row (until you’re back down to 48 stitches) which keep the work interesting.

Working the gusset (shown from heel side).

Working the gusset (shown from heel side).

Working the gusset.

Working the gusset (shown from the top of sock). Note the top two needles both have far more stitches than the bottom two. Those needles include stitches picked up after the heel turn.

The really cool thing about the gusset? The decreases create a graceful curved line at each side of the foot.

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Speaking of the foot, that’s when the inch-per-hour frustration once again rears its head. You need to knit several more inches until you’re just shy of the desired foot length. (The upside: you can custom size socks for people with hard to fit feet.) Once there, a few rounds and some strategically placed decreases round off the toe.

The toe.

When only eight stitches remain, I use the kitchener stitch to seamlessly join the toe, then weave in the yarn tail.

The pair of socks shown here were made (upon request) for my cousin Mark. They’re made with Patons Stretch Sock Yarn in “Mineral.” To be honest the yarn didn’t feel as soft as other sock yarns I’ve used, so I’ll be curious to hear how they compare with Mark’s other socks.

I’d intended to finish them for Christmas but was so far behind that Mark got a box of yarn instead. He finally got his new socks in January – just in time for the Polar Vortex!

For some reason unknown to the rest of the world, Mark likes wearing socks with flip-flops that have divided toes. Even in winter. When I asked for a photo of him wearing the socks, he replied, “With or without flip flops?” When I said without, he said, “Well, okay, if I must.”

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Looks like they’re holding up pretty well despite being stretched around those toe dividers!

Have you tried knitting or crocheting socks? If so, do you love sock making or do you hate it?

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