Missing My Muse

Whether you’re an artist, writer, musician, or chef, chances are you have a muse who inspires your creativity and joy. For the last 15+ years, mine was Doggie Lily. She passed away yesterday, August 16 after along and healthy life – up until the last few days, anyway.

Lily. March, 2015. Age 15-1/2.

Lily. June 25, 2015. Age 15-1/2.

How couldn’t that sweet face and those sparkly eyes not inspire, or at least motivate, you? (Yes, she was usually trying to motivate me to give her some cheese, cucumbers, doggie treats, or take her for a walk. I bowed to her wishes most of the time.)

Who or what is your muse?

Note: I realized I had the wrong date on the photo, and just corrected it. This photo of Lily was June 25, 2015.

Word Play

I love cooking, but never wanted to be a chef or baker because having to cook isn’t the same as wanting to cook.

As a full-time writer, I keep things interesting by covering different subjects. Learning something new with each project prevents me from getting bored. But over time, spending 40+ hours per week at the keyboard writing for fun became a foreign concept.

Until recently.

About a year ago, one of my best friends entered the first ever Rockford New Play Festival, and her play was one of the short plays chosen to be read by actors. Watching her play, and the others, read aloud before an overflowing crowd really inspired me – on multiple levels.

  • The plays were really good. The actors reading them were good, too. And the audience was enthusiastic. I was inspired as a writer.
  • It was impressive that a new and relatively unknown playwriting event in Rockford could draw such a large and diverse audience. I was inspired by the local arts community.
  • I was inspired that a relatively small group of people pulled it off.

Upon hearing entries were being accepted for the second annual Rockford New Play Festival, I thought it would be fun to enter, even if playwriting isn’t my forte. Encouraged by the friend who participated last year, I decided to give it a try and soon a rough idea that had been percolating in my brain for a while became a 10-minute play, The Grove.

I submitted it in May and forgot about it. But the creative writing bug had bitten again. Suddenly I wanted to test myself with different types of writing.

When I read about a 24-hour short story competition, I registered right away and counted down the days until they assigned the length and a general theme (they encourage writers to stretch and play with the theme) I would never have thought to write about.

Guess what? The contest’s prompts spurred my creativity and the ideas poured out.

In a weird way, having a tight deadline helped focus my efforts. By removing the luxury of obsessing over every comma, the 24-hour deadline made the writing process more visceral and less precious. I loved every minute of it!

Entering these contests was something I did for fun, and to stretch my creative writing muscles. The winners of the 24-hour Short Story contest won’t be announced for a few weeks yet, and I don’t hope to be among them.

Then again, I didn’t expect The Grove would be one of six 10-minute plays — out of 520 entries from across the country — selected to be read at the second annual Rockford New Play Festival. But it was.

[Date, time and other details for the event can be found here: 2015 RNPF.]

Accepting a creative challenge is never a mistake, but letting one slip past you is.

What creative challenges have you taken on lately, and what did you learn from them?

 

Upcycled Bag

Here’s a little experiment I tried with some of that t-shirt yarn (aka “tarn”) I made a few weeks ago. All I did was coil it and secure it into place with single crochet stitches and cotton yarn.

Drawstring tarn bag

Drawstring tarn bag

Well, that’s how I built up the sides.

I started working the bag at the bottom, and added a few chain stitches here and there to increase the diameter of the spiral. Once it was the width I wanted, I switched to single crocheting thought the spaces (as opposed to through the loops like a standard single crochet).

Adding chains between some of the single crochets allowed the coil to get wider

Adding chains between some of the single crochets allowed the coil to grow wider

Since I wanted random colors, I used shorter scraps of tarn and several colors of cotton yarn leftover from other projects.

The drawstring is simply tarn that’s been chained. I made slots for the drawstring by skipping six stitches (evenly spaced around the bag) and adding an extra chain stitch over each gap. Then I worked a couple more rows, adding those skipped stitches back by crocheting into the chain spaces. (Trust me. That will make sense to crocheters.)

Some people tie strips of tarn together with knots, which adds more texture. Others sew one piece of tarn to another. I chose to join them as if I were linking two zip ties together. It’s faster and easier than it sounds:

  1. Fold the end of a strip of tarn over by about 3/4″ and make a tiny cut at the fold. (I discovered the smaller the cut the better, since the opening can stretch larger when you pull the tarn through.)
  2. Do the same thing at both ends of a second piece of tarn.
  3. Slip the second piece of tarn through the hole in the first, then through the hole at the opposite end and gently pull it tight.
  4. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

If that’s not clear, here’s a link to another blog that beautifully illustrates all three joining techniques. (And yes, I plan to make their tarn Swiffer Duster cover next!)

I love that this fun and funky bag was made entirely of scraps. It’s really the epitome of this blog – creating something out of virtually nothing.

Tarn it all!

Funny how things happen. My last post centered on my Want-To-Do List, and just a few days later I crossed one item off the list: Make t-shirt yarn.

There are numerous online tutorials for making t-shirt yarn, here’s a link to just one of many blogs that gives clear step-by-step instructions.

I set up a card table, got out some old t-shirts, a rotary cutter, scissors, and a cutting mat and within a couple hours — while binge watching a show I wanted to catch up on — I’d turned ten ratty old t-shirts into 10 balls of t-shirt yarn, also called “tarn.”

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The best part is it doesn’t matter if the shirts are stained, since the fabric curls up on itself. The blue-green tarn above was from a shirt I’d worn while painting, but you can’t even see the paint specks in the final product.

Before starting to make a rug or something larger, I decided to try knitting a dishcloth from some tarn. Having no idea how far one ball of tarn would go, I used two colors and worked a slip stitch here and there to add a little flare.

I totally guessed on the gauge but did pretty well for a first try. Using size 15 needles, I cast on 15 stitches (easy to remember, huh?). And because I was alternating colors I knitted 21 rows, plus the cast-off row. The dishcloths are about 7″x7″.  I used a stockinette stitch so one side of the dishcloth is smooth and the other has more texture for scrubbing.

With plenty of the both colors left, I decided to make a second dishcloth using a simple garter stitch, alternating colors every two rows. That created bold stripes on the “front” side. I’m still working on that dishcloth, but here’s a what I have as of now:

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Next up I’ll try crocheting a dishcloth to see how that goes!

The best part of making tarn? You still have the sleeves and shoulders of the old shirts for dust rags.

 

Want-To-Do Lists

With the season finale of Orphan Black airing tonight, it seems somehow appropriate to say there are some days – make that many days – I wish I had a clone.

The past month or so I’ve happily been very busy with work (including a rush article this week that went from pitch to final copy in seven hours, and the interviewee wasn’t available for the first three of those hours). During weeks like this what little free time I do have is typically spent catching up on not-so-fun stuff like cleaning – and yard work whenever the weather permits.

Ever notice how the busier you are the more craft/DIY projects you suddenly want to do?

It’s probably a form of escapism to picture ourselves working on creative endeavors. After all, who wouldn’t prefer to spend two hours focused on a fun project than toiling away at their day job?

Here are a few projects on my want-to-do list. Stay tuned to see if I actually get around to any of them:

  • Turn old pop cans into tags for my hostas and heirloom tomatoes
  • Take pile of old t-shirts and turn them into t-shirt yarn
  • Make something from said t-shirt yarn
  • Crochet more hexagons for the would-be bedspread while berating myself for choosing to make the pieces so small that I’ll hate piecing them together one day
  • Piece together these odd-sized bits I made as a kid when learning to knit, and turn them into the knitted version of a crazy quilt
The evolution of my knitting

The evolution of my knitting

I can’t be the only person who dreams up new project ideas at the opportune times. So what’s on your Want-To-Do List?

Simple Roasted Tomatoes

Pretty much every grocery store has a reduced-for-quick-sale section. Ever wonder what to do with large quantities of over-ripe produce like these tomatoes I bought for under three dollars?

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Whenever I see decent reduced-price tomatoes, I feel compelled to try to replicate my friend Meetal’s ridiculously delicious roasted tomatoes. I’ve never quite matched her results, but I keep trying.

The first time I tasted them was a couple years ago when Meetal, our sisters, and I went to a big flea market and Meetal volunteered to bring lunch. She sliced a loaf of ciabatta bread into two layers, pulled out some of the bread-y bits to make more space for filling and loaded it up with roasted tomatoes, arugula, and fresh mozzarella. She cut the overflowing loaf into four sections and individually wrapped them for us to enjoy while wandering through the flea market.

I’m not sure if it was our reaction to how delicious the sandwiches were, or just how good they looked, but a couple passersby asked where we bought them. Boy, were they disappointed to found out Meetal made the sandwiches!

Separately, each ingredient was good. Combined, they were even better. But the richness of the roasted tomatoes was by far the star ingredient.

That day, Meetal told me how she slow roasts the tomatoes and finishes them off by adding fresh basil and a dash of balsamic vinegar.

I can never remember the specifics of her recipe, so if I’m wrong I hope she’ll chime in and correct me. (Then again, she might not want any of us knowing her secret for perfect roasted tomatoes.) The truth is, as long as you slow roast the tomatoes it’s hard to go wrong.

I started by washing the tomatoes and removing any bad spots. Then I splashed some olive oil in the bottom of two shallow baking pans. I cut the tomatoes into large chunks and tossed in a few whole, peeled, cloves of garlic and a few chunks of onion. (One time I put in a little red bell pepper, too, which lent a nice hint of sweetness.)

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Although I couldn’t remember the temperature Meetal uses, I knew it was low. So I set the oven at 300F degrees.

The hard part comes next. Waiting. Because these are slow roasted, expect to wait at least five or six hours before it even starts to look like this:

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It’s more than worth the wait, though, since the flavor intensifies as the moisture evaporates and the ingredients caramelize.

At this point, you can use a fork to peel off and pick out tomato skins if you like. I picked some of the larger skins out then used a potato masher to work the mixture into a chunky sauce.

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Next I added some basil (sadly it was dried, not fresh), a splash or two of balsamic vinegar and salt and pepper to taste.

If you don’t like chunky sauce, let it cool a bit and pop it into a food processor or use an immersion blender to achieve the consistency you prefer.

While I didn’t have ciabatta bread, fresh mozzarella, or arugula on hand, I had some gnocchi in the freezer so I made this:

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There’s still a lot of roasted tomatoes leftover, so I might yet make the sandwiches. You can uses this sauce with almost any pasta or just dip some nice rustic bread in and enjoy. It would probably make a great pizza sauce, too.

Have you ever bought bulk quantities of over-ripe produce? What did you make with it?

 

 

Sock Monkey Madness

With Midway Village Museum’s annual Sock Monkey Madness event happening this weekend, it felt like a good time to re-visit this post, which originally ran August 27, 2012. If you can’t get to the celebration and want to make your own sock monkeys, check out my step-by-step how-to series of posts  here, here and here.

 

Sock Monkey Invasion!

On a really hot day last month my sister-in-law, niece, nephew and I went to Midway Village Museum. One of the first things my niece noticed was a banner for the museum’s annual Sock Monkey Madness. She said, “I love sock monkeys!” Inside, the gift shop was filled with all sizes and colors of sock monkeys imaginable. Even my nephew wanted one. Unwilling to strike a deal with their mom to earn the bigger sock monkeys by doing extra chores – helping weed their garden, for instance – they had to settle for the smallest monkeys. That’s when I knew I’d be making sock monkeys for their birthdays!

(Yep. That’s what I had Old Reliable out for a couple weeks ago.)

It all started with two pair of original Rockford Red Heel socks. One pair per primate. The Sock Monkey directions are inside the label.

The scary bit for any knitter is cutting the socks, but the trick is sewing the simple seams before cutting. Then the live stitches don’t unravel.

One monkey body with legs stitched and cut, the other stitched and ready to be cut.

The second sock of each pair is then stitched and cut to make the tail, arms, mouth and ears. The ears were the trickiest for me since I didn’t have an actual monkey on hand to gauge the size and curve of the ears.

I used good old fiber fill to stuff the monkeys, but added little red felt hearts in each torso – because the monkeys were made, and given, with love.

The secret ingredient is always love!

Perhaps the trickiest bit was attaching the arms, tail, mouth and ears. Mostly because you need to fold the live edges under and stitch the pieces on at the same time, but also because the directions don’t say exactly where to position the bits. Were the ears to high? Too low? Does the tail go on the brown part of the sock? The white? (Surely not the red.)

By the end of day one I had two faceless monkeys with gigantic ears. One friend who saw them at this stage quipped, “I didn’t know you were making the sock elephants.” (To be fair, I hadn’t shaped the ears by stitching in half circles yet.)

The next day I cut eyes from black felt and adhered them with fabric glue. When I stitched in the ear circles, I did a little sock monkey plastic surgery by repeatedly pulling the thread crosswise through the stuffing of the ears and tugging them closer to the body.

Right ear done, left ear yet to go.

My favorite part was adding a bit of personality with a few quick embroidery stitches. I started behind the ear, stitched the lips, dimples, nostrils, and then ran the floss through the stuffing and back out behind the opposite ear. The sock monkey plastic surgeon strikes again!

One down, one to go!

When my niece and nephew were trying to convince their mom to buy sock monkeys for them, I suggested making them. My niece shrugged off the idea, her brother didn’t seem to hear it. So I decided to fake them out. When it was time to open presents, I had them open theirs at the same time. They each had a smaller gift on top to open first: Red Heel socks. I said, “You know what those are for, right?” My nephew was first to answer, “To make sock monkeys!”

Then they finally got to open their real gifts. Both kids kept their monkeys close at hand the rest of the day, one being hugged, the other being tossed in the air. Just so they won’t fight about which monkey is which, I pointed out the subtle differences – one has a small notch on one ear, one has a leg where the sock rows didn’t align (not me – it was the actual sock).

Now the hard part: they need to name their new sock monkeys!

Do you have, or have you ever made a sock monkey? If so, what do you like most about it?

Making Time

If you have a recipe or pattern for making enough time for your hobbies, patent it. You’ll make a fortune.

The reason I haven’t added a blog post in far too long is that I haven’t had much time to set aside for my hobbies, which means I haven’t had any new projects to post. And when I did have a few spare hours, dry cracks and sores on my hands kept me from working with yarn.

But when my niece asked if I could make a baby-sized version of the cupcake hat I made her for Christmas, how could I say no?

Baby Cupcake Hat

Baby Cupcake Hat

The pattern is deceptively simple, so the adorable little hat shouldn’t have taken me so long to knit. If it weren’t for the cracks in my hands, I could probably have finished this beauty in two days.

Even before I started that cupcake hat, I finally cast on for a sweater coat I’ve been wanting to make for a couple of years. I’ve actually had the yarn since way back when I was a knitter-blogger for Patons Yarn. You have to commit a lot of time to such a large project, and I never had the time to spare. But earlier this year I decided to start anyway. This is where I was at six weeks ago…

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…and I’m still not quite to the 21.5″ point where the next pattern step kicks in. You’ll also notice at the left of the photo that a couple cables are twisted in the wrong direction. By the time I spotted the mistake I’d invested too much time to rip it out, so the flaw will remain. After all, handmade does not mean perfect.

Knitting is like any other hobby. You have to make time for it. Thankfully, unlike a lot of other hobbies, knitting can done while watching TV (although you might risk the occasional twisted cable, ahem), chatting with friends, or while waiting for someone.

Another reason to wish I had more time to knit? An ever-growing backlog of projects I want to make – several to use up scrap yarn from past projects. Yet I keep finding new patterns to try. Like a pattern for a cowl I spotted when looking up links to include in this post.

I’m sure it’s the same feeling people get no matter what their hobby is. There’s always something more to do or make, a new skill to perfect, and more joy to feel with that next level of accomplishment. Do you have a hobby? How do you make time to pursue it?

Weaving Magic

A few months back I heard about something called weaving sticks, which, I was surprised to learn, have been around for a very long time.

Always one for finding new ways to use up my scrap yarn — or for an excuse to get more yarn — I decided to buy some weaving sticks. The only problem was none of the local craft stores carried weaving sticks. I looked around and wound up ordering both small and large sizes of bamboo weaving sticks:

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Here they are, all spread out…

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Basically, they’re like pencils or chopsticks with eyes at one end.

Following the package directions, I first tested two of the smaller sticks with some lovely alpaca yarn I had left from making my sister some arm warmers. First I strung a length of yarn through the eye of each stick and let it hang. Then I made a slip knot from a ball of yarn and put the knot around the left stick and began wrapping the yarn in a figure 8. I only spent about five minutes testing it, and this is what I came up with:

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Next, I tested three larger needles with a bulky yarn. That resulted in a nice, thick fabric:

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When I was ready to end, I simply tied the ends together.

Then I got bolder. I decided to try all of the large sticks at once, and change the color every five layers. I also remembered to photograph the process:

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Weaving the yarn, left-to-right...

Weaving the yarn, left-to-right…

...and right-to-left

…and right-to-left

As you wrap, you push the work down the sticks and eventually onto the yarn you fed through the eyes of the sticks when you started. My goal was to make a cowl, so I only wove about 26 inches. (In retrospect, it would have been a better idea to have more layers between rows. It took me longer to weave in all of the yarn ends than it did to make the entire piece.)

This is what I wound up with:

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I still haven’t figured out how I want to connect the two ends. They aren’t flush, like you’d get with a knitted or crocheted piece. I could attach a button, or even braid the strands of yarn left on each end and tie it together. I might even un-weave it and start over since this was just a practice piece to get me used to working with weaving sticks.

My experiment taught me how to use weaving sticks and also gave me a glimpse into yet another method our ancestors used to create woolen garments to help fend off the cold long before there was indoor heating.

If you like yarn but don’t have the patience for knitting or crocheting, consider giving weaving sticks a try. All you need to do is wrap, wrap, and wrap some more.

 

 

Making Merry (Christmas Wreaths)

For the second year in a row, our family gathered at our cousins’ property in the North Woods for a wonderful Thanksgiving retreat. And once again, wreaths were made.

We started by collecting boughs, like last year. Then several of us sat around the table and followed Mark’s lead in assembling bundles of greens and attaching them, with green floral wire, to our wreath frames. Most of us used 18″ round frames, but Brice got fancy and used a square frame. His wreath (which I don’t have a photo of, hint, hint) turned out great….except for the decorative little bird on it that chirped sporadically all that night, about three feet from where I was sleeping.

As usual, Mark was the fastest worker since he’s had more practice at making wreaths:

The Wreath Master at work

The Wreath Master at work

And once again my sister and I were the last ones to complete our wreaths, even though we started making them at the same time as everyone else.

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Lisa took time out to prepare our (delicious) dinner that night, yet still finished her wreath about two minutes before I finished mine. Brice and Mark were already cleaning up the unused boughs and vacuuming pine needles off the floor when I was decorating my wreath. I’ll blame my slowness on the fact that working with thin wire is tricky when you have to wear work gloves to keep the sap off your hyper-sensitive skin.

Here are a couple of the finished wreaths:

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lisaswreath2014

 

 

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Yeah, the right side of my wreath got a little crushed, but it still smells great!

 

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