Category Archives: Family

Memories That Last Forever

Almost five years ago, in honor of our de facto family matriarch’s 94th birthday, I dedicated a blog post to the much-cherished ceramic pieces Ferne made for my family over the years.

Ferne passed away peacefully at home last week. She was 98.

Ferne hadn’t done ceramics in a long time, but her hobby was such an important part of her life that it was mentioned at her funeral. My sister and I even spotted one of her lovely ceramic Christmas trees in the background of a photo in a video montage that spanned her entire life. I sometimes wonder how many of those trees she made—I’ve seen at least three, and each was a little different from the others.

In Ferne’s honor, here’s a glance at some of my favorite Ferne-made pieces.

The Choir Kids & Christmas Tree: Ferne detailed these choir kids to resemble my sister, brother, and me back when we were all under 10 years of age. (I’m the one with pony tails.) In the background is the Christmas tree she made for my mom. Every year when I bring these out I treat them very gingerly. (On close inspection it looks like my sister was decapitated at some point and had her head carefully glued back on. I have no idea how or when that may have happened.)

 

Mom’s angel: Some people focus on the gold candle holders, but I love the iridescent gown most of all. I still have the special “tear drop” candles Ferne gave Mom for the angel to hold.

 

Dresser Sets: Ferne made nearly identical covered dresser sets for my sister and me. (I might not know the correct term for them, but I’m sure Ferne did!) My set has a slightly lighter green than my sister’s set. When I was a teenager, I was heartbroken when I accidentally dropped the lid of the larger dish. Thankfully it was a clean break and was easily glued back together. I can’t remember ever not having them.

 

The Cheese Plate: Most of Ferne’s creations were much like the woman herself—classy, refined, elegant—so this whimsical cheese plate really stands out. I especially love the tiny paw prints trailing from “Nibble with Arlene & Walt” right up to the playful cheese-eating mouse.

You can see more (but by no means all) of my collection of Ferne’s creations in my previous post.

Not only do I hope to honor Ferne’s memory with this post, I also want to use her work as an example of how precious handmade gifts are when they’re created with intent. She spent hours refining and perfecting her projects, and she imbued every brush stroke, every detail with love. She even signed and dated each piece.

I guarantee none of her ceramic pieces will ever be discarded or sold during my lifetime.

Ferne will be missed, but she’ll always be fondly remembered when the holiday pieces are on display, when the cheese plate is used, even when I dust my bedroom. (Which I’m sure is not nearly often enough to suit Ferne. She was extremely tidy.)

What are some of your treasured possessions that were handmade by someone you love?

 

 

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Top Secret Knitting Project Revealed!

As soon as I knew my cousin Dano’s due date was July 4th, I started looking for baby items I could knit. On Christmas, I overheard Dano’s mom mention something about a soft neutral gray pallet for the nursery instead of typical baby colors.

On Pinterest I spotted a gray baby blanket with a row of white sheep, but that wasn’t a knitting pattern, it was a finished item ready for purchase. So I searched Ravelry for “sheep baby blankets” and found several options. Of course the one I liked the most—”Sheep Dreams”—was out of print.

It was originally published in a book called Knit Baby Blankets! and I was able to track down a copy of that book on Amazon.com.

As soon as the book arrived, I ordered several skeins of Cascade Yarns Sateen Worsted—a soft, light, worsted-weight yarn I thought would be better for summer than wool—in Gunmetal Gray for the body of the blanket. Because I was substituting yarns, I bought extra skeins in case it wasn’t enough. (That turned out to be a wise move because I believe the color was discontinued.) I also bought a skein of the fluffy, chenille-like Brown Sheep Berrocco Plush in Cream, and a skein of Sateen Worsted in Black for the details, but it didn’t show up well enough against the Plush, so I used a slightly heavier weight black yarn from my stash.

I was so excited to finally cast on. The textured border was really interesting to do. It’s called a ribbed stitch, but it’s more than that. You double the number of stitches of one row by knitting in the front and back of each stitch, then reduce it back to the original number of stitches by knitting two together then purling two together and repeating that across the next row. The process results in a thicker border.

Then the real challenge began.

With the bottom border, stockinette band, and Double Bind done it was time to form the “pens.”

The pattern was challenging enough to be interesting, but it also contained a lot of errors. Luckily the structure is pretty logical and there were several photos to reference, so I could see where the problems were and how to fix them—like when the pattern said to continue the Double Bind Stitch from border to border I could see that would interfere with the Checker Board Stitch in the center field.

Before long it was time to start putting the sheep in their pens.

A bit dark, but it was late at night and I was so excited to have the first four sheep penned I had to take a photo.

The sheep are done with a Duplicate Stitch—sort of like embroidering new stitches directly on top of existing stitches. Centering them was a bit fussy. You have to count stitches from the sides, top, and bottom to find the starting points, but the charts—one with a sheep facing left, the other right—were very clear.

Duplicate Stitch step one: I determined where the feet would go.

Working the Duplicate Stitch.

Yes, I know you’re supposed to work the Duplicate Stitch bottom-to-top, right-to-left, but for me it was easier to start with the right foot and work up, and then to the right before working to the left because the Plush is so fluffy it hid the stitches I needed to work on.

Close-ups of a left-facing sheep and a right-facing sheep.

Hoping the process would get easier with each sheep, I opted to do one corner, then the opposite corner, one side, then the opposite side so you wouldn’t be able to see if my abilities improved with each sheep. (They didn’t. For some reason the final two took the longest to do.)

Initially I was frustrated if I saw gray come through, or if stitches weren’t even or looked misaligned. But once six or eight were completed I realized those little inconsistencies give each sheep its own personality.

Funny how those sheep kept multiplying…

Several of the Sheep Dreams projects on Ravelry didn’t have all 14 sheep. Now I understand why some people stopped short. Each one took me about an hour to complete! Once the final sheep was in its pen and all of the ends were woven in, the only thing left to do was to block the blanket to size. The Plush yarn creates a subtle 3-D effect, which in turn slightly distorts the grid pattern of the blanket, so blocking is a must.

After it was pinned to size, I spritzed the blanket well with room-temperature water and covered it with a thick towel. I repeated the process the next day.

A different perspective of the sheep:

I loved the final result so much I found a pattern for a similar baby hat and made that, too!

I hope the little baby-to-be will have plenty of sweet dreams under this blanket.

 

 

D-I-Y Christmas Wreaths

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The only downside of our family’s new Thanksgiving tradition of making our own fresh Christmas wreaths? I’m always the last one to finish. But the effort is worth it.

We’re fortunate to have access to plenty of balsam, white pine, red pine and other random evergreens on our cousins’ wooded property, but this time of year you can usually buy boughs (or maybe even pick up free trimmings) wherever live Christmas trees are sold. For us, going out to cut the branches is half the fun.

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We foraged mostly for balsam, white pine, and red pine, but a little spruce, hemlock, and jack pine may have worked their ways into our pile of greens. We didn’t have our full contingent of wreath makers this year, so we only filled one wheelbarrow with boughs.

It gets messy dealing with all those pine needles, so this year we tried putting the branches on a tarp to make clean up easier. It helped, but we still had to do a lot of vacuuming when we were done.

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Most of us re-used our old wreath frames. They’re not expensive, and in January when people discard their Christmas wreaths they’re pretty much free for the picking; if you want to take time to remove the old greens you’ll have a usable frame. (One of my older blog posts explains how to deconstruct a wreath.)

This year my sister decided to make a swag instead of a wreath. She made her own frame by bending a coat hanger into a diamond shape, and our cousin, Mark, happened to have some chicken wire to stretch over the hanger.

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With a frame in place, it’s time to start bundling. Some people make several bundles and wire them to the frame at once, others wire each bundle to the frame as they go. I did a little of each. Hoping to speed up my work this year, I only used about 5 sprigs per bundle…usually four balsam plus one of the showier greens. Last year I think I did seven or eight.

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Mark holds a bundle of greens as Lisa works on her swag. (The bowl of M&Ms on the table was for us, not the wreaths.) The pile of greens in the front is part of what I was using to make my bundles.

Here are a few more photos of the process…

Lisa's swag in progress.

Lisa’s swag in progress.

Mark's made so many wreaths now, he's virtually a pro.

Mark’s made so many wreaths now, he’s virtually a pro.

Brice powered through. I think he was the first to finish.

Brice powered through. I think he was the first to finish.

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With our creations. Note that Brice is the only one whose wreath is decorated.

Mark had to help me finish the last third or so of my wreath so we could take the photo before dark. The last two years I thought I was slow because I’m allergic to pine sap and have to wear gloves. But in the photos above you can see Lisa and Brice wore gloves this year too. Yet I was still the slowest wreath maker.

Later that evening, Mary helped Lisa and me make bows, and the next day we added our finishing touches. My decorations include a few pine cones, some gold jingle bells I bought at a dollar store in Eagle River, and the bow made of ribbon I bought at Goodwill in Rhinelander. Here are our finished masterpieces:

Mark's wreath,

Mark’s wreath.

 

Brice's wreath.

Brice’s wreath.

 

My wreath. A couple of jingle bells are hiding at this angle.

My wreath. A couple of jingle bells are hiding at this angle.

And the game-changer this year, Lisa’s swag:

Lisa's swag.

 

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

 

Family Crafts: Chocolate Almond Toffee

When I was still in school, some friends of the family gave my dad a box of chocolate almond toffee from a specialty candy maker. It was delicious, addictive, and very expensive, so I set out to replicate the toffee as closely as possible. That meant testing several recipes and using them as a blueprint for developing my own tightly guarded recipe.

Ever since, I give homemade toffee to friends and family as part of their Christmas gifts each year. I never realized how much my cousin’s family liked it until a few years ago when two of them arrived at our family gathering on Christmas Day greeting me with a hug and, “Merry Christmas! Did you make the toffee this year? We were talking about it on the way here!” They even asked if I’d share the recipe.

They seemed somewhat trustworthy, so I gave them my top secret recipe. I guess their first attempt didn’t turn out well, but candy can be tricky to make. A degree or two the wrong way and it’s either too soft or burnt. It’s my recipe and even I’ve lost a couple batches over the years due to poor timing.

Since we were planning a multi-day Thanksgiving retreat this year, I brought all the ingredients and a candy thermometer. The cousin who helped me make the toffee had to leave before it was set, so my 9-year old niece stepped in and spread the chocolate and sprinkled the almonds on top. It turned out perfectly.

I usually break the toffee up in parchment paper, but forgot to bring it with. A clean brown paper grocery bag made a great substitute!

I usually break the toffee up in parchment paper, but a clean brown paper grocery bag made a great substitute!

Just to taunt my cousin a bit, we sent her this photo of the final product. The toffee always goes quickly – I just hope her dad was able to resist eating the toffee we set aside for her!

What are some of  your family’s favorite holiday treats?

Micro-budget Filmmaking

Talk about being creative. Not only does my super-talented brother-in-law Daniel Nearing write and direct indie films, he manages to produce them on micro-budgets. (And his idea of a micro-budget is a fraction of what Hollywood considers a micro-budget.)

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The poster (designed by my sister) for Dan’s latest film, Hogtown.

When I told the editor of the newly revamped Creative Screenwriting how Dan’s film Chicago Heights (later re-named Last Soul on a Summer Night) was named as one of the late Roger Ebert’s top art films of 2010, he asked me to write an article on Dan’s writing process and another on how he actually gets his films made. The first article was just published and you can read it here.

It includes a link to a YouTube video about the making of the film, so be sure to watch that, too!

Handmade Doll Beds

I’ve mentioned before how creative and talented my relatives are, but sometimes they really out-do themselves. My cousin, Mark (the one with the great old pool table and who built my new porch railings) made the coolest gift for my 8-year old niece, and I asked him to write a guest post about what’s got to be the girliest woodworking project he’s ever done. Be sure to check out Mark’s blog, too: http://www.blackbearjournal.blogspot.com/

THE DOLL BED MADE FOR TWO

by Mark Hendrickson

I believe it may have been last Thanksgiving that my God daughter Reese approached me, with her dad, and asked if I might be able to build her a doll bed sometime. With Christmas just a few weeks away, it seemed like the natural thing to do.

The project began with Reese providing me with the height of one of her dolls so I knew how long to make the bed. She actually has two special dolls — Kit and Ruthie — so it was not to be a single bed but a bunk-style doll bed.

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What little girl wouldn’t love to have this for her American Girl dolls?

As I planned the project, I thought that the bed should be convertible. That is, the beds could be stacked in typical bunk-bed fashion, or, one half could be lifted from the other and they could be placed side by side.

I looked online to get a few ideas and then drew plans for the corner posts, head- and footboards, bed frames and the simple cleats glued to each post to enable the top bed to set securely on the bottom. When stacked, the beds are 19″ high, 23″ long and 16.5″ wide.

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Here you can see how the beds stack – and the adorable details Mary added that match the bedding beneath the comforters.

The beds are made of solid pine. The typical pine you buy is ¾” thick, much too bulky for a doll bed. So one of the first steps was to plane down these boards to ½” thickness which seemed to be a better size. I cut and assembled them and then completed the purple painting of all surfaces. [Paula’s note: A master of understatement, Mark makes the process sound a lot simpler than it was!]

In addition, my wife Mary and I enjoy projects where we can combine our skills: mine in the furniture-making arena and hers in the artistic touches once the construction and painting is completed. Mary then stepped in and added the wonderful painted highlights that you can see in the images.

I think Reese loves the bunk beds as much, if not more, than Kit and Ruthie!

I think Reese loves the bunk beds as much, if not more, than Kit and Ruthie!

Paula’s note: As cool as the beds look in photos, they’re even more impressive up close. On Christmas we were all inspecting the work and every little detail Mark & Mary put into making Reese one of the best gifts she’ll ever receive.

Invasion of the sock monkeys, Part 2

I’ve never had a sock monkey of my own, yet somehow sock monkeys have invaded my life. I blame my niece and nephew – and Midway Village Museum.

It’s simple really. If we hadn’t gone to Midway Village last summer:

  • My niece wouldn’t have seen the big Sock Monkey Madness banner and told her mom, “We have to go!” (It’s in March.)
  • My niece and nephew wouldn’t have fallen in love with every sock monkey they saw, from the cute, colorful little monkey keychain fobs in the gift shop to the world-famous human-sized Sock Monkey Nelson in the museum. (I just noticed Nelson has his own Twitter account: @tweetsbynelson, it’s not verified but looks legit.)
  • I wouldn’t have decided to make my niece and nephew their own sock monkeys for their birthdays.
  • My sister wouldn’t have seen those sock monkeys and asked me to make two pink sock monkeys for friends of hers going though chemo.
  • I wouldn’t have done the Pink Sock Monkey Craft-along for Breast Cancer Awareness Month on this blog.
  • Another family member wouldn’t have asked me to make these pink sock monkeys for her to take to a Susan G. Komen event this month in Texas.

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  • I wouldn’t have mentioned the new pink sock monkeys to my niece, who wouldn’t have oh-so-sweetly said, “I really need a pink sock monkey,” and I wouldn’t have replied, “Maybe we can make one together.”

The next person to ask me to make a sock monkey will be directed back to the blog and advised to make his or her own. Except for my niece and nephew. I’ll offer to help them make one sock monkey each, but they’ll have to do most of the work themselves.

This kind of thing happens to people all the time. Make something popular and everyone wants it, too. What have you made that’s invaded your life like sock monkeys have invaded mine?

Pumpkin what?

No guesses on what I planned to make from my homemade pumpkin puree? Not one of you? Then it looks like I’ll have to show you.

I used it to make a big, delicious pot of pumpkin chili.

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Yes it sounds weird, but it’s really good. I promise! The secret recipe I used came from one of my cousins, but you can turn almost any chili recipe into pumpkin chili simply by replacing some (or all) of the tomato sauce or puree with the same amount of pumpkin puree. You don’t have to make your own pumpkin puree, canned works just as well.

Not only does substituting pumpkin for some of the tomato products add nutritional punch to an already pretty healthy dish, it lowers the acidity of chili, making it a nice alternative for people who have problems eating acidic foods.

The recipe I used is particularly colorful since it uses red kidney beans, black beans and pinto beans and has red, green and yellow peppers – plus lots of jalapenos.

I’ve heard of people adding anything from chocolate to whiskey to chili, so pumpkin really isn’t that strange. What’s the most unusual ingredient you’ve added to chili, and how did it turn out?

Upcycling ancient cedar shakes

Thanks to a hail storm, a couple months ago the old family bungalow got a brand new roof. The original part of the house had three layers of asphalt shingles on top of the original cedar shakes, so the roofers did a total tear off.

This little pile accumulated outside my office window.

This little pile accumulated outside my office window.

Being both sentimental and crafty, I decided to save a small box full of cedar shakes in case inspiration struck. I cleaned them with TSP and let them dry in the sun, as advised by the helpful people at a neighborhood hardware store.

Over 50 years ago, a previous owner accidentally started a house fire, so some of the shingles were a bit scorched, but most were simply well worn. I set them on the table and started toying around with ideas. I decided to make frames and wound up buying simple wooden photo frames at the craft store – unfinished wood that’s ready to be painted or decorated.

After  arranging the pieces, I glued the shakes together with strong glue and weighed each frame down with a large book. Twenty-four hours later, I glued the shakes to the photo frame using the same process. I didn’t like seeing the light wood from the sides, so I used good old crayons (black and various shades of brown) to help camouflage the edges.

This is what I came up with:

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I made two, and didn’t even realize that I’d crossed them in opposite directions. I wanted each frame to have at least one scorch mark and a nail hole or two. I made the frames for my brother and sister, so on the back I wrote a note about where the shakes came from. My sister happened to see the shakes piled on the table during my first attempt to nail them together (turns out the wood is too delicate for that). She thought it was a cool idea and suggested gluing them, so she probably wasn’t too surprised to unwrap one!

The frames are light weight, but I really hope the glue holds! (If not…re-glue!)

Next I’ll make one for myself.

What are some creative ways you’ve repurposed something destined for a landfill, and what did you make from it?

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