Category Archives: gifts

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.

 

 

Blanket Coverage

I’m usually up for a creative project, so when a friend asked if I’d help her make something for her dad’s birthday, I asked “When?”

Julie’s dad is a big Milwaukee Brewer’s fan, so she bought three yards of official Brewer’s fleece to make a fleece throw. After deciding she preferred a contrasting color for the back, she bought a couple yards of a solid neutral, too.

We finally carved out time in both of our busy work schedules and got crafty earlier this week.

First, we lined up both fabrics on her kitchen floor and cut them to roughly the same length, about seven feet; she wanted it extra long since her dad is tall. Next we smoothed the wrinkles out. Fleece-on-fleece doesn’t shift too much, but since the floor space was limited I knew we’d be moving this around a lot to make the cuts and tie all the knots, so I used a needle and thread to loosely baste a giant X to hold everything in place. (After we finished, we pulled the basting threads right out.)

IMG_0783Once we trimmed off the selvage edges we were ready to start cutting.

There are tons of patterns and instructions online for making tied fleece blankets. Measurements may vary, but it’s a pretty basic process. In our case, the directions said to start by cutting 8-inch squares out of each corner.IMG_0784

Next, it said to make 8-inch long cuts every two inches along all four edges of the fabric.

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My rotary cutter and cutting mat with its handy-dandy measuring grid really sped up the process.

Once I had several strips cut, Julie started knotting. After I finished cutting I knotted, too. Instead of tying the two strips together like shoe laces, we held both layers together and tied it as if making a knot at the end of a single piece of thread.

We soon realized two things:

  1. Tension matters. Tight knots can cause the fabric to bunch up. But if knots are too loose, they might come untied. Aim for uniform tension.
  2. The pattern we were following wasn’t clear on what to do at the corners. Do you make two knots right on top of each other? Or do you tie the abutting knots together? It’s a subjective decision, so just make sure you use the same process for all four corners.

I wasn’t watching the clock, but I’m pretty sure it took the two of us less than three hours to make the extra-long blanket. Neither of us had made one of these before, but I imagine the work goes faster with each one you make.

Julie (who’s standing somewhere behind the blanket in the photo below) said she and her husband will go over the blanket to make sure all knots are tied with a similar tension before giving it to her dad this weekend. I hope he likes it!

 

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Have you tried your hand at a tied fleece blanket or throw? How many have you made?

One Reason Plans Always Go Awry

Earlier this month, on I Love Yarn Day, I said the color work cowl I made for my sister was my final non-holiday knitting or crochet project of the year.

Yeah, um…I got lured in by an interesting new pattern.

I can’t justify spending $80-90 on the gorgeous yarn the pattern was designed for, especially when I don’t know if the project will turn out well. Luckily I had plenty of a much cheaper (but nice!) yarn on hand from an abandoned project. I compared the weight, yardage, wraps-per-inch and gauge of the two yarns, and they were close. Very close. I had the right needles, so I cast on. This is how far I was by day three:

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The pattern is fun. After a border of alternating sections of garter (knit every row) and stockinette (knit one row, purl the next), the “mixed texture” repeats begin: a simple arrowhead-like lace pattern followed by a few rows of seed stitch. I have a couple more repeats to go before any shaping starts.

The structure looks simple. Start at the bottom and knit the back and sides as one unit — no piecing, hooray! — and eventually divide the block into sections to form the shape. The tricky bit will come when the main piece is done and it’s time to “evenly” pick up 200+ stitches from the front bottom edge on one side, all the way around the neck, and down to the bottom of the other side. After that you knit a wide border like the one you started with.

One trick to knitting any complicated pattern, like lace, is to add a lifeline every few rows. A lifeline is just a piece of contrasting yarn or string that you run through each “live” stitch. (Live stitches are the ones on the needles.)

Look closely. There are two lime green lifelines through each lace section,

Look closely. There are two lime green lifelines through the top two lace sections.

If you make a mistake and need to rip some rows out, the lifeline will keep all of the stitches on that row from unraveling. You can slide them back on the needles and continue knitting. It’s a good idea to note which row your lifeline is in, so you’ll know where to resume the pattern.

The sad thing? I only learned about lifelines a few years ago. Before that I’d usually give up when — not if — I found a mistake.

What are some “I can’t believe how easy that is!” tips that make your own projects, of any type, a little bit easier?

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.

That’s a Wrap

Over a year ago I decided it would be fun to make my own wrapping paper. At a post-Christmas sale I bought a bunch of holiday themed rubber stamps for pennies apiece. The hard part was finding the paper.

It needs to be strong enough not to tear when wrapping a gift. It can’t be too slick or the ink won’t stick. But it also can’t be to porous, or the ink soaks in and blurs. Sure, you can buy plain white wrapping paper to decorate, but that’s more expensive per square foot than pre-printed wrapping paper. Not very thrifty. I was hoping some of the online orders being delivered to the house would include wads of packing paper I could upcycle — white or brown — but most were filled with plastic air bladders.

I improvised with paper grocery bags, freezer paper and plain gift wrap. It turned out fairly well for a first effort, but I didn’t think to take photos of it.  But six months later, look what arrived…

Well, the freezer paper was already here. The packing paper came via a UPS delivery.

Well, the freezer paper was already here. The packing paper came via a UPS delivery.

I pressed most of the wrinkles out of the packing paper using an iron set at the coolest setting and got to work.

Despite my pile of holiday stamps, I have no all-occasion stamps. There weren’t any potatoes in the house or I could have made potato stamps like we did in grade school. Then I remembered a “signature chop” my sister got for me when she was in China.  It’s supposed to say my name.

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The special red "ink" is too hard to find to use for a large package.

The special red “ink” is too hard to find to waste on a large package.

Along with the red, green, black, silver and gold ink pads I bought to make the Christmas wrap, I have lavender and aqua. I really didn’t want an aqua Santa or a lavender snowman, so what household object could I turn into a stamp for those? After some trial and error I discovered the flat round ends of old-time clothes pins make great polka dots.

Don't even try for perfection when stamping your own wrapping paper - you want it to look handmade.

Don’t even try for perfection when stamping your own wrapping paper – you want it to look handmade.

Each paper has its pros and cons. The packing paper is perforated every 10 inches or so, and some colors don’t show up too well. With freezer paper, colors look great, but it’s thicker and you don’t always get nice crisp edges when you wrap.

While the polka dots are fun, I’ll still keep my eye out for a sale on some non-holiday rubber stamps.

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Simple, but cute. For larger gifts, try wrapping them before stamping them. You can put the designs exactly where you like.

Of course, the best wrapping paper I ever saw was hand decorated by my niece and nephew. They’re both such good artists they don’t need to use stamps!

Bake your own doggie treats

Anyone with a dog knows a lot of dog treats have been recalled in recent months. Why risk your pet’s health on pre-made, processed by-products when making treats from scratch isn’t any harder than baking cookies?

That, and I have been looking for an excuse to use these cool doggie bone cookie cutters….

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When a neighbor passed along this recipe her sister’s dogs loved, I asked Doggie Lily’s vet if it sounded like a healthy treat. She said pumpkin is really nutritious, good for digestion (it’s great for cats, too), then asked me to let her know how they turn out.

This weekend Doggie Lily and I broke out the rolling pin and started baking.

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Measure and mix as directed, then use your hands to knead it into shape. Then roll out the dough and start cutting.

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They don’t need much space for baking, so you can pack them fairly closely.

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Bake as directed (flipping the treats half way through), and this is what you get.

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Yield: 20 small, 18 medium and 12 large, crunchy treats.

Lily’s verdict?

Lily didn't stay still, and had most of this treat down before I could get a photo.

Lily didn’t stay still, and had most of this treat down before I could get a photo.

That's my girl. She didn't miss a crumb!

That’s my girl. She doesn’t want to miss a crumb!

She’s already had two medium sized treats and is still sniffing around for more.

With lots of leftover ingredients, we just might bake some more when Doggies Finn and Stella are here for their spring vacation next week.

What are some of the crazier things you’ve done or made for your furry babies?

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?

Give some personal flare

Most of us are on pretty tight budgets these days, which has more people than ever looking for inexpensive gift ideas. Instead of going cheap and buying someone another five-dollar fleece throw (as warm as they are, they are sort of impersonal), try putting your own skills to use.

Not everyone has the talent of my woodworking cousin, who has made things like table trays, mantel clocks and cutting boards all of us over the years, but everyone has at least one thing they’re good at.

Here are some other memorable gifts I’ve received in recent years:

  • Homemade Pumpkin Chili from another cousin, complete with the recipe. It was frozen, easily transportable, and so delicious that I’m looking forward to making it again very soon.
  • My niece and nephew’s framed artworks.
  • The cool yarn Christmas wreath my sister-in-law made me that I’ve been dying to put up this season.
  • Personalized ornaments.
  • Glass coasters (the ones you’d put photos in) with individual pastel drawings instead of photos, from my sister.
  • Handmade jewelry from another cousin.
  • The hat a non-knitting friend made for me on a knitting loom.
  • Framed scrapbook page with photo of my newborn nephew and me.
  • Kitchen task lights installed by (and from) my brother.
  • Framed felted piece made by my sister.

Still not sure you can make a great gift? Worried you won’t have time to make gifts? How about these ideas:

  • Duplicate a favorite photo – Copy the photo, pop it into a simple frame and give it to someone who can appreciate the memories. One year I copied photos of my paternal grandparents at their jobs — he was a train engineer, she was a telephone operator – and put them double frames for my sister, brother and cousin. (Perfect photos for a home office.) Another year I found an old photo booth strip of my sister and me as little kids, put it in a simple landscape frame that could be turned on end and gave it to her.
  • Make a favorite recipe – Cookies are great, but change it up like my cousin did with the pumpkin chili. That froze well, but unfrozen perishable foods can be “wrapped” in insulated lunch bags. Look for a large recipe you can split among several people. Spiced nuts, chai latte and peanut brittle are a few edible gifts I’ve enjoyed in years past.
  • Offer your time – If you’re good at DIY projects, offer your time and skill with things you’re good at. It might be painting a room, planting a garden, moving heavy furniture, shoveling snow – anything you think the recipient might like a little help with.
  • Print some coupons – A friend who doesn’t cook much loved my homemade veggie burgers, so I gave her a coupon to redeem at a later date. My sister loves  Fudgy Bonbons, but they’re best fresh, so when she visits her in-laws for Christmas, I usually give her a coupon to redeem for a fresh batch.
  • Make plans – My grandma was always hard to shop for – by age 90 there wasn’t much she didn’t already have. One year my aunt & uncle and dad decided to take her out to lunch on alternating months throughout the entire new year. Grandma always loved going out for lunch, so I’m sure she enjoyed that more than a more traditional gift.

I try to give some homemade or handmade gifts every year. Sometimes they might not quite hit the mark, but when they do it’s a great feeling, like hearing how much some folks look forward to my chocolate almond toffee each year, or arriving at my cousin’s house on Thanksgiving and seeing he’s wearing the socks I made him last Christmas.

Even better? When you start getting special requests for handmade items.

What are some fun homemade gifts you’ve given or received over the years? Why are they so special to you?

Pink Sock Monkey Sisters Update

I’m thrilled to announce that our favorite pink sock monkey sisters, Cupcake and Endura, are now happily ensconced in their new homes!

Once my sister, Lisa, got her hands on the girls, she dolled them up with some jewelry and added notecards introducing each monkey to her new caretaker.

Endura brought her new person some fun laces for her running shoes, while Cupcake gave hers some pretty pink cupcake liners. Thoughtful little monkeys, aren’t they?

I hope Cupcake and Endura will bring their new people plenty of comfort and cuddles for many years to come!

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