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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?

 

 

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.

 

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?

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?

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?

Some holiday obsessions are hereditary

My family had an elf on the shelf long before the Elf on the Shelf book was first published.

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Since the elves came before the book, it means the story about them has to be true, right? Christmas magic is real.

Also real? Christmas obsessions.

My brother and I both veer perilously close to the “obsessive” side of Christmas, but our sister isn’t quite as extreme as either of us. (That said,  you know it’s the holiday season when Lisa starts “glinging” Christmas tunes. Glinging is ideal if you can’t remember the lyrics – just sing “gling.” Repeatedly.) But it’s really not our fault. It’s hereditary. And according to family stories from Grandma Bussey, we can trace it back to our grandfather.

Grandpa Bussey died way before any of us were born, but left a wonderful legacy. I have tons of Grandma and Grandpa’s old ornaments on my tree, even if you can’t see them all here:

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Grandma loved bells, and pretty much every bell on my tree used to be on hers.

In the basement I have a heavy, old, battered tree stand. It only holds about a cup of water (that’s before the tree is added), so it’s not exactly practical. Grandma said she hit the roof the year Grandpa bought that stand – which at the time had poinsettia lights on its decorative base. It was expensive even by today’s standards. One day I’d love to see it restored, but poinsettia bulbs aren’t easy to find.

Grandpa Bussey didn’t just buy things, he made things too. I’m told he made this wooden Santa that’s so cool I leave him standing in the stairwell year round. It makes me smile to see Santa waving at me when I go up or down the steps.

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He’s a little hard to see by the tree, so here he is in broad daylight….

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And check out the log fence Grandpa made for beneath the tree (hey – one of Grandma’s bells got in the shot):

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Grandma said Grandpa collected all of those branches on their property (which she referred to as a “farmette”), cut them to size and assembled the fence. It even folds up for easy storage. The fence is made of ten 12″ sections that are hinged and can be positioned however you like. It still has faint remnants of “snow” on the top of each rail, too.

I never got to meet my Grandpa, but his love of Christmas lives on through us – and the cool things he made.

What are some of your family’s special holiday keepsakes or traditions?

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?

Pumpkin Obsession: Extreme Edition

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

 

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?

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