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Happy Independence Day!

On this Independence Day, I encourage all Americans take a few minutes to remember the sacrifices our forefathers—and foremothers—made in order to create a more perfect union dedicated to providing liberty and justice for all.

Flags, fireworks, and patriotic afghans are pretty, but to a writer like me, the Declaration of Independence and The United States Constitution are even more beautiful.

I hope every elected official, in every party, spends at least one hour today to remember how and why our nation was founded. Perhaps they’d realize they were elected to represent We The People—not one political party or another. The only way our elected officials can truly represent all Americans is by working together for the greater good. The gamesmanship of today’s partisan politics is not, and will never be, in the best interest of the people.

Happy Birthday, United States of America!

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.

 

 

Replacement Pockets for an Antique Pool Table

Puppy Sadie should graduate from puppy school next week, so perhaps one of these days I’ll be able to get back to more crafty endeavors. Right now, though, she’s still extremely curious and eager to “help” (if by “help” you mean trying to pull the double-pointed needles out of my hands so she can play with a half-knitted sock).

Good things are worth waiting for, or at least I hope my brother-in-law agrees since he’s still waiting for his Christmas socks.

Good things are also worth doing right.

You might remember that I made a set of replacement pool table pocket nets for my cousin’s gorgeous old pool table a couple years back. It took a while for him to devise a strategy to attach the new pockets, and from what I understand it was a bit challenging because you have to work at awkward angles. He attached the final pocket net a couple months ago, so I asked him to write this guest post.

 

 

New Pockets for the Brunswick Home Comfort

By Mark Hendrickson

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This Brunswick pool table, the Home Comfort model as it’s known, has been in my family since I was a little boy. I first remember seeing this table in the parlor of an elderly couple who lived next to my family when we lived in town. As this couple disposed some of their possessions, they gave the table to my parents.

The 3.5’ x 7’ Home Comfort, made in about 1905, turns into a couch when the heavy playing surface is flipped up into a vertical position. In a 1911 Brunswick catalog, the table is described as “a very popular design especially adapted for use in a den.” The table sold originally for about $150.

On this particular table, the seat back and seat cushion are original — leather covering with horse-hair stuffing. The felt on the table was renewed in 2012.

The original pockets were a mesh fabric made of forest green wool. Over the years they had torn or stretched to the point where they would no longer hold pool balls that fell into them. Luckily for us, we have an outstanding knitter in the family (Paula) who agreed to make new pockets, using the existing ones as a model.

Once Paula finished making all six pocket nets, it was my job to affix the pockets to the table. The pockets are attached in two major ways.

 

How the pockets are attached

First, the lower edge of the pocket is stapled into the wooden frame of the table bed below the playing surface, at each pocket location. After this part of the pocket is secure, the top and outside edge of the new pocket is sewn to the leather and metal bracket that is screwed into the top of the rail at each pocket. It takes good strong button thread and a sturdy needle to puncture the leather lip on the bracket.

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Once the pockets are stapled and sewn in place, the final step is affixing black fringe around the pocket bottom and around the outside edge of the upper leather and metal bracket.

The bottom of each pocket has a round wooden plug, shaped somewhat like a squashed hourglass. This wooden plug helps enclose the bottom of the pocket and provides a solid surface for affixing the fringe.

In creating the new pockets, Paula incorporated a length of wire at the ends, around the circumference of the hole at the bottom. This wire is wound around the hourglass at its narrowest point, thus effectively closing the pocket at the bottom. The lowest part of the wooden plug extends beyond the knit pocket and thus allows us to hot glue the fringe (salvaged from the original pockets) to the plug.

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The upper fringe was affixed to the leather and metal bracket with hot glue. Originally, I suspect that the fringe may have been sewn into the leather, but they didn’t have the ease of hot glue in those days.

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Overall, it took me approximately 6 hours to complete the installation of the new pockets. They work wonderfully, look as the originals did, and we no longer have to station someone by a pocket to catch a ball before it drops to the floor!

Check out the massive hinge that allows the table to be turned into a not-that-comfy sofa!

Check out the massive hinge that allows the table to be turned into a not-that-comfy sofa!

 

Note from Paula: After a bit more use, friction will help the fibers of the nets “felt” slightly so they’ll look more like the originals did in their prime.

 

Photos courtesy of Mark Hendrickson. Not only is Mark an amazing wood worker, he’s the creator and executive producer of Barn Find Fever. Follow him on Twitter: @FindBarn and Instagram: @nassaublue66.

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.

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 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!

 

Extreme Pumpkin Obsession

In honor of the season, I thought it would be nice to revisit a popular post from 2012:

 

My brother gets a little crazy every autumn. Brice is always buying pumpkins in October, and he carves them all, or as many as time allows. Gourds aren’t even safe from him at this time of year.

As of Monday he said the current count was 26. That was nine pumpkin-shopping days before Halloween, so he may have even more by now. (I think he’s regretting not following through on his idea of planting a pumpkin patch this summer.)

It all started way back when little Bricie won a ribbon in a pumpkin carving contest. Not that lots of actual carving was involved – his creativity caught the judges’ attention.

Every Halloween season, Brice & I wind up talking about pumpkins. When I carve jack-o-lanterns, I only do one or two. I carve slowly, but add special touches like freckles (by plunging a metal skewer through the shell) or scars (by scraping skin and a little flesh off the pumpkin). Brice? He uses power tools.

Use extreme care when using power tools – especially on round objects.

Brice’s carving isn’t completed yet for this Halloween, so let’s take a tour of their yard from a Halloween past. (The great photos are by my sister-in-law, Jeanne.)

Hmm, doesn’t that white jack-o-lantern way back there appear to be eating something? Let’s take a closer look….

This last one looks a bit Seussian, don’t you think?

All right. It’s time to admit my role in my brother’s autumnal obsession. A couple years ago I gave him two Extreme Pumpkin Carving books by Tom Nardone.

Hey, Bri, it seems Nardone has an annual pumpkin carving contest. Enter it, and maybe you’ll repeat your childhood success with another win!

What are some of your favorite Halloween traditions? How many pumpkins do you plan to carve this year?

The Upside of Cold

We saw our first snowflakes of the season this morning. That’s early for us. There was no accumulation, but my dog is still very excited to know snowy doggie walks are on the horizon. I love snow and snowy doggie walks, too, just not before the beautiful autumn leaves fall.

What I don’t love is facing another season of heating bills. I turned the boiler on this morning and warmth is beginning to rise from the radiators. There’s something very comforting about the smell of hot radiators on a cold day.

Ah, radiators. They’re definitely an upside of cold weather. If you’ve never had the good fortune of living in a home with radiant heat, you probably don’t know the comfort of putting on toasty warm socks, mittens, or pajamas fresh off a hot radiator.

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If you’re a baker, radiators are also a great place to let a bowl of bread dough rise.

That’s right. Baking is a great activity on a chilly day. Even non-bakers can enjoy freshly-baked treats thanks to slice-and-bake cookies, frozen pies, or a tube of ready-to-bake rolls.

Another upside of cold weather? Homemade soup. I was thinking about making pumpkin chili today, but I don’t think I have any canned or frozen pumpkin. (Well, I have a fresh pie pumpkin in the dining room, but I won’t be cooking that up until after Thanksgiving.) Maybe I’ll make black bean soup. Then again, yesterday I overheard someone mention homemade potato soup, so I may need to find a good recipe for that. Whatever I decide to make, it will be warm and comforting — precisely what you need on a chilly day.

Of course, the best part of a cold day may simply be putting on your favorite sweater or snuggling under cozy afghan and watching an old movie.

What are your favorite upsides to chilly weather?

 

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!

 

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