Wednesday, June 30, 2010


There are a couple of books I like to read when the weather is really, really hot in summer - To Kill a Mockingbird and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil - because the settings are so hot it makes me feel cool by comparison. But the other day when it was hot for the fifth day in a row I suddenly remembered strawberries.

In particular, the Jane Austen novel in which some officious female character is taken out for group strawberry-picking on a hot day and goes on and on and on about how lovely until she switches to how insupportable, and I thought: must reread those novels, again.

Isn't it amazing to think of a writer being timeless enough to appeal to readers hundreds of years hence, not just once per reader but repeatedly? Of course, she writes all those wicked asides, saying exactly what anybody of sense would think, about people the like of which still walk among us today - so there's that.

I started with Emma. I'm pretty sure it's not the strawberry-picking book but it does have a picnic that ends badly. And strawberries are in season so I can supply them.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Sewing lemonade

Last week I made a bag for a friend from more of the vintage bedspread:

but it turned out to be best suited for a woman over 6' who does serious carting around of bulky yet lightweight items such as bathing gear or small-child changes of clothing or perhaps knit sweaters in progress and who includes bright pink chenille-esque bedspreads on her list of fashion must-haves, or perhaps a less than statuesque girl who not only loves pink bedspread fashion but also likes having a giant bag on her hip as a just-in-case pocket and a place to stash the source of the knitting she's doing while walking.

(Should I really be sewing for myself, though?)

Anyway it wasn't going to suit the friend I intended it for so I tried again, this time with less than a meter of upholstery cotton found in a bargain bin, a lucky discovery because it takes ages to have anything cut in the only fabric store I can get to and the bargain bin - usually full of polar fleece or polyester georgette - is often my only recourse when hunting for stash supplements.

I have this 'thing' I do when making a tote bag of not pinning or using a pattern piece when I cut, and either eyeballing the seams as I stitch them or, more likely, taking the straightest route along a curving edge cut under the aforementioned conditions. And with this bag it came back to bite me.

Like, see this nice interior pocket I made for keys and a phone?

I sewed it on way too close to the top of the lining and had cut the lining way longer than the outer layer turned out to be. Also: I stitched the lining way narrower than the outer bag. Curses.

Enter lemonade:

Yep, I just made the lining a design feature by letting it peep over the top, and then put decorative tucks on either side of the center print. I also used faux-denim quilting cotton for the backs of the handles because I didn't have any long enough pieces of denim to make it really matchy. But I think that's lemonade too because the handles are a lot less bulky this way.

I like how it came out. Wonder if I can make lemonade the same way twice?

Friday, June 25, 2010

A narrow escape

This is a fashion/sewing story so, you know, I won't be offended if you run screaming right now.

Okay: the weather being what it is right now (summertime warm) I've been seeing all the little girls in the neighbourhood parading around in bright print cotton dresses that billow over their shorts or capri pants and their pretty T shirts and I'm thinking - smart! Then of course I see the not-so-little girls, the teen ones whose goals are rather different from sandbox-related playtime, and I think - whoa!

Here's the thing. Clinging garments with a wide belt wrapped tightly around the torso may achieve many things, but they will not keep you cool in summer. It's the little girls who've figured it out - comfy cotton next to your skin to absorb the inevitable glow resulting from racing around in 80+ degrees Fahrenheit, with a roomy tunic over top for colour and, with luck, pockets.

And yet the people responsible for putting clothes into stores haven't figured this out (any more than they've figured out larger-sized women are just as willing to pay for fun clothes as smaller-sized ones, but that's another story.) So I spent yesterday designing a little tunic in my head

one that I would sew, myself.

Danger! Danger!

Taking on a sewing project without a pattern that requires fitting and a lot of fabric... oh boy. I could forget writing for at least a month.

Fortunately I knew I would need some yoga-shaped capri pants to carry it all off, so I headed to the local discount department store to pick some up and you won't believe what I found there.

Little-girl tunic-type mini dresses sew in a bright linen/cotton blend in adult sizes! They look pretty much exactly like the base shape I was imagining, and everything - all I have to do is add some pockets, and some lining to the cream-coloured one, and fix the collar on the black one that already had pockets.

Yes, I cannot leave well enough alone. But it's still less time-stealing than making a whole jumper, right?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Reverse rainmaking

We'd best just establish right here that I am not much of a runner: at my best several years ago, I could run for 45 whole minutes without stopping, which felt award-worthy to me. At that point I didn't hate making every step, and I didn't get out of breath, and I didn't worry I looked like a red-faced idjit to everybody who passed.

But today, for a change from the usual Keep Mary Healthy schedule my long-suffering trainer holds me accountable to, Carol and I were going to run. If the weather was nice. Which is to say, not pouring rain like it has been every other day for a week.

Well, as turned on the computer this morning the rain was pouring down from an angry sky and I started thinking Oh please rain, go away. If it keeps raining not only will I have to do the horrible ab strengthening things Carol makes me do every time we stay in the gym, I will have to carry my running shoes and walk in my too-big rain boots, which when I am late and having to sprint always gives me shin splints (and as I'm sure you can guess, I am always late and having to sprint. Seriously, my neighbours stand with their jaws down on the rare occasions they see me at a stroll, which is pretty embarrassing.)

Rain rain go away, I thought, and as I got ready to write this post I could see some bright rays breaking over the patio umbrella that shuddered under the weight of the pounding water. And as I typed, the rain was pouring down through pure sunlight.

And now at the end of this post the sun is shining and the trees are dripping and I am feeling very happy even if it wasn't just the power of Rain rain go away that did the trick (or is it?)

Either way: take that, too-big rain boots!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

I have been sewing

This morning when I was about to pour a glass of milk I stopped myself from reaching for the glass shelf because I really only wanted a little, and went for a teacup instead. And that got me thinking - why? I can pour the exact same small amount of milk into a big glass as into a teacup, plus the glass shelf is a whole lot easier to reach than the teacup one I have to stand on my toes to reach, not to mention that I'm not likely to run out of either kind before I wash dishes again.

Am I that wedded to my spatial sense or am I just obsessive? Don't answer that.

In other news, I've made a couple of tote bags:

There's a little pocket inside, too.

I wrote down for future reference the measurements of each piece without considering the serious angle on which IKEA printed this sailboat stuff onto the fabric, but the degree to which I had to sew inside the intended lines made the measurements kind of irrelevant, so I won't post that info this time.

Still, cute bags, yes?

Monday, June 21, 2010

Chocolate-covered bacon

I don't know how I missed the boat on the idea of coating bacon in chocolate, but that's been remedied now with a little taste of a Mo's Milk Chocolate Bacon Bar.

(yesterday after supper, not today after breakfast - I do have some standards! Breakfast chocolate must be in either steamed milk or bread. Honestly.)

My review: meh on the chocolate/bacon combo. I infinitely prefer the maple syrup/bacon combo that apparently inspired the bar I tasted. But the alderwood salt that was added to the bar... whoa. That's a different story. I didn't know salt could be so awesome!

Fortunately, I'm not nearly so addicted to salt as I am to chocolate, so I will be able to resist buying alderwood salt to sprinkle on apples, unbelievably amazing though that would be. Oh, it's good to be such a paragon of healthy eating.

Friday, June 18, 2010

How to make a child's hiking satchel

I sewed these two satchels as gifts for two cousins sharing a 6th birthday party - the invitation said 'no gifts required' which translates to "Please! No more toys! The house is overflowing!" Since the boy's family does a fair bit of camping, a hiking accessory was a logical alternative.

The birthday girl has a little sister, so I made two satchels for her from a vintage bedspread; the birthday boy's was new denim. Both used lightweight cotton for their lining.

If you make one, be prepared: Other Children may ask for some of their own. (I'm already on duty for two more, minimum.)

You will need:

2 flap pieces, each 8.25" x 11", one each in the lining and outer fabric

2 bag pieces, each 12" x 19.5", one each in the lining and outer fabric

1 strap piece, 3.75" x 34", in the outer fabric

1 button or toggle 3/4" -1" wide

1 closure loop approximately 3" long (I knit an i-cord in wool for elasticity - Patons Classic Wool on 3.5mm needles, two stitches knit over and over for 20 rows)


Lay flap pieces right side to right side and slip under the needle 4.5" or less from the end of one long side, then stitch around to the same distance from the other end of the same long side, leaving at least a 2.25" gap, with a 3/8" seam allowance. Trim off corners and turn inside out, tucking in the exposed edges of the gap and pressing flat.

Stitching them separately, lay each bag piece right side to right side and stitch down the two sides with a 3/8" seam allowance. Fold the stitched piece flat with the seams in the middle, then stitch across the bottom corner to make a box bottom. Aim for about a 2.5" run of stitching, matching the length for both the liner and the outer bag.

Slip the liner inside the outer bag, wrong side to wrong side, and set aside.

There are two options for stitching the strap. Right side to right side and a line of stitching down the open edge is great if your fabric has some give (like my vintage cotton bedspread) but for something stiffer, like denim, try folding in and pressing flat about 1/4" of fabric down the length of the strap, then folding the fold over the other side and topstitching down the middle of the strap. That way, you avoid having to turn it inside out.

Fold in by 3/8" the exposed edges of both bag and liner, press, and - tucking the strap ends into place at the side seams - pin into position. Stitch down as close as you can to the outer edge while catching the lining. To reinforce the strap without adding extra rows of stitching, backstitch over it a couple of times before stitching onward.

Tie a knot in the ends of the i-cord or, in the case of a ribbon or other cord, simply fold into a loop.

Tuck just inside the opening of the flap, pin in place, and topstitch across bottom end of flap.

The flap will be too wide for the bag, but that's okay - the idea is to have a little leeway for an extra-big book or especially interesting find on the trail. Center the non-loopy end on the back of the bag - wrong side of the flap to right side of the bag - and fold in anything that extends past the straps on the sides. Pin down and topstitch into place.

It will now look something like this:

Stitch the button or toggle onto the center front; if you choose a flat button, you can wind thread around your stitching to make a shank the loop can snug up to.

And you're done! One completed bag, one very happy inquisitive child.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

How to make butterscotch brownies

This week is turning out to not be getting so very much done in it


I did make butterscotch brownies today.

The recipe I use is from this book, which may possibly be familiar to other Canadians of just old enough to be baking in the 1970s vintage. It's an old favourite of my family's and judging by the cut-up form in the back we ordered several more copies of it. To be truthful, it is a pretty great resource. Proof that you should never judge a book by its cover.

(I mean honestly, who would know from the pineapple thing and the creepy lobster and the mystery mess in that pot that there are great desserts to be had within?)

I hope it's not breaking any copyright to share the recipe here... since I can't find a copy of the book anywhere online and Cream of the West now appears to refer to a US-based cereal company, I think it is okay. I should know this sort of thing what with being a writer, shouldn't I.

Anyway my own version is modified very slightly for emergency people-are-coming-over use, such that it uses only the ingredients most likely to be in the house, with minimal cleanup because I am so very lazy:

Butterscotch Brownies

Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Line an 8" square cake pan with parchment paper
Blend together
1-1/4 cups Cream of the West Flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup soft butter
A little more than 1 cup lightly packed brown sugar
[*note: the original recipe calls for 1-1/2 cups, which is crazy sweet]
Stir in
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
Beat until light and fluffy, then blend in dry ingredients.
Pour into pan and bake for 25 - 30 minutes.

Then of course you can just lift the parchment paper out of the pan onto a cooling rack, and later store the remains (if any) still wrapped in the parchment in some other container.

I wonder what it would be like with chocolate chips in it?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


Probably not writing today. Might write! but probably not.

If I'm going to procrastinate though, it's nice when I pick 'cleaning' over, say, 'watching a movie'. Well, nice for people who come to the house or were hoping I would be able to find something they needed that I offered to loan. For me, nice is blinders + movie. This is why knitting is such a good fit for me, because I can watch the movie and still be accomplishing something (even if I make a mistake early on and then have to rip it all out again. It still counts, just like ice cream eaten on a day that ends in 'y' between 3-3:15pm has no calories.)

Anyway judging by the increasingly bad feelings I get every time I go to hang up laundry in there, today might be the day I tear apart the junk heap that's been building in the workshop since Christmas, and that definitely means no writing.

Or cooking of supper!


(or maybe I will just watch the movie.)

(or get that satchel tutorial together.)

(or both?)

Monday, June 14, 2010

Maximum blanket

I set aside most of this weekend for sewing some little hiking satchels for some little friends' birthday gifts, aka 'art therapy', but I actually did some cleaning up around the house too, which tells me that all the recent stress and deadlines must really be receding at last. Well, the deadlines, anyway.

Tomorrow, with luck, I'll post the tutorial for the satchels which came out well enough for me to want an adult-sized one of my own for knitting in transit, but today I want to say:

Yay vintage fabric!

I didn't use anything old for the boy satchel, but the girls' ones are made from a twin-sized sort-of chenille bright pink cotton bedspread that is just




Normally it would be so painful for me to cut into such a thing lest I two weeks later come across a girl who needs one, but this particular spread had some apparently unremovable coffee stains in the middle and I was able to cut around them without guilt.

And really: think about it. It was one bedspread for one person, and already I've cut from it three bags for three people and there is tons more fabric where that came from. I can probably get six big things out of it and add elements of it to six more and spread the cuteness across some seriously wide territory.

Now if I could just think of some projects for the somewhat-damaged crochet tablecloths.


Thursday, June 10, 2010

no procrastination today

I have valid excuses for everything!

There's a funeral to attend, a friend to visit, muffins to bake, a supper to cook (I avoid this usually, but can't today) and something else I forget, plus all the regular running around.

No writing yet. But next week, I think yes. I really do.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Home is where... what is?

I spent rather a lot of yesterday in a retirement building - not a nursing home, but a place with a nurse on duty 24/7 and all meals managed by Somebody Else - specifically an outstandingly happy person who clearly loves to make delicious, nutritious food so perfectly portion-controlled that nobody need fear going over their sugar or salt requirements for the day.

It's hard for me to visit a place and not think about what it would be like to live there - in that city, near enough to visit that museum every day, in a house decorated like hers, etc. - so of course, I thought about what retirement home living would be like for me.

It means just a room or two (with space for a computer and internet access, so that's all right), and a bathroom - no kitchen. Sad for snacks. But all meals taken care of? Bliss. Great neighbourhood near family? Awesome. Free to come and go as I please, mobility permitting? All over it. Community? Um, almost.

Like a first day in school, when you don't know anybody it's hard to feel at home. Staff can be as nice as can be and that helps, but they are, after all, staff. I decided you really do need friends in this life. When I walk into my house from an outing I may be alone - but I'll have greeted quite a few neighbours getting to the front door. And in a retirement residence supportive enough to stay in until the end, some of the neighbours are kind of past that.

Still, there's nothing to stop you from reaching out to them, even if they can't reach out to you. And maybe that's enough to make a life on when this part of my life is done. Which shouldn't be for another 40 years or more but hey, I'm all about thinking ahead!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Sour grapes, literally

I have a 'frig full of sour grapes and let me tell you, it was a surprise to me to be reminded by Wikipedia that the expression 'sour grapes' refers to disdain for something you can't have anyway. Sour grapes are not only something I can have, they seem to be the only grape I can have, courtesy of a conspiracy by my local grocery stores.

What I want to know is, what can you do with sour grapes? It's not like eating them straight is an option.

Can I add sugar and bake them into a pie? Float them in a bowl as a centerpiece? Pitch them at people who annoy me?

Maybe I should take advice from Epicurious, and roast them.

Monday, June 7, 2010

How to give a new life to an old photo album

Yesterday while I avoided clearing out the clutter from my erstwhile workshop (now better described as 'junk heap') a friend dropped by with a bright swirly old photo album acquired from a neighbour's curb.

Because it's obvious that I need more stuff in my life.

The photographs had been removed, so there wasn't much potential there.

But the cover reminded me of this one:

It's an accordion book made by gluing paper or cloth down over two pieces of cardboard, then gluing a long strip of folded paper over their edges.

Makes a nice blank book that you can write in either before or after the gluing. Anyway, it seemed like an effective use of the swirly cover, so I performed surgery,

thereby facilitating the creation of another accordion book.

(afterward, I realized I could also have just taped new pages over the existing ones without cutting them out at all - so there you go, a scissors-free option.)

Friday, June 4, 2010

The upside of culinary cowardice

Aren't these beautiful?

I found them at the grocery store the other day: fiddleheads. You see them around briefly at this time of year - they're the springtime furls of an ostrich fern, and if you get them at just the right time, they're delicious (wait too long, with the fronds uncurling, and they're bitter.)

For years now I've wanted to try fiddleheads, and when I saw these I thought, Yup, this is the year. I'll saute them in a little butter and finally see what the fuss is about.

I figured I'd look around online for a good recipe first though, or at least see if there were tips about the brown stuff on the ends of some of the cuttings (there is; you wash it off.) Epicurious had suggestions about washing the fiddleheads in few different bowlfuls of water, presumably to get out any grit, and some very fussy recipes I didn't have the energy for, so I kept looking.

And guess what I found out? Fiddleheads will make you super sick if you don't cook 'em right!

The rinsing isn't just for grit, it's to wash off whatever toxin causes the problem, and that's why you have to keep changing the water. You can't do anything with the cooking water either, because it could have toxins in it.

Thank goodness I didn't just go ahead and throw them in a pan with butter.

(and no, I never did cook them... I think I'll wait for a year when somebody else who's done it a lot can show me how.)

Thursday, June 3, 2010

In the middle

It's hard not to eavesdrop while knitting at the coffee shop, especially now that the weather is hotter and school is wrapping up and everybody wants to meet a friend someplace air conditioned before they all go off for the summer.

Yesterday was something special, though. When I arrived, the only free seat was beside two retired gentlemen talking over real estate values in cottage country and which of their friends' cottages was where while they finished their coffees.

When they left, their places were immediately filled by two girls, both just finished their year at university, meeting up to catch up on the last day one of them would be in town. The one leaving first? Newly married, with in-laws from an entirely different culture speaking an entirely different language, and living with them part time as she starts a specialized degree. The other? Leaving soon for another country where she knows nobody but hopes to find a job. She told her friend that people keep admiring her bravery but she doesn't get it, because she doesn't consider herself brave and has no idea how she came to be heading off into the unknown and is frankly a little scared.

That's pretty much the spectrum, isn't it - finding your way in your 20s, reassuring yourself of your place in your 70s. And there I was in the middle, knitting.

And then I came home and guess what?

The peony bloomed.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Planning a not-horrible holiday

I have had an uncanny knack over the last few years for picking holiday hotels so bad they single-handedly ruin the vacation.

There is an upside to this, like the week spent forking over pantloads of cash to stay in a deluxe historic property where very bad things happened in threes and fours on a daily basis, and the management people for the chain offered me a very steep discount to stay with them again anyway, and I picked the only hotel they had that gets good reviews on TripAdvisor and it turned out to be the Best Vacation Ever (if you don't count how far away it is and how many scary roads and drivers and missed turns made up part of the To and From.)

Anyway I think I have finally figured out how to not have this problem, and it is to stay at budget hotel chains. Frequently- and well-reviewed ones, of course - some of them turn out to be 30 years out from their last carpet replacement or have perpetually crabby people greeting you at the door - but otherwise, budget hotel chains are the choice of champions.

Here is my logic: you may not get much, but you're also not paying much. You can get just as little for a lot more in a resting-on-its-laurels behemoth. Bonus: with less on offer, there is less to go wrong. And frankly, you're going to get a better sleep in a hotel that focuses on patrons' sleep than in one that distracts itself with bars and spas and proximity to jazz festivals and so on, if only because you aren't likely to have drunken gangs roaming the halls and partying in the room next to yours till 6 in the morning.

(Oh yes. And did you know that Some Hotel Chains have a corporate policy of not kicking out drunken partying boors until the 10am the next day even though the people on either side of them are paying over $300 before tax to sit up all night listening to hallway brawls and moving chairs in front of the door? And they don't give the people on either side a discount on the bill either. Or, apparently, clean up the broken bottles in the elevator until after said people have checked out.)

All of which is to say that last night when I was supposed to be getting to bed early to fight back this re-encroaching cold I've got, I sat up at the computer planning this year's vacation - not by destination, but by well-reviewed budget hotels. And that seems to be sending me to beautiful downtown Sudbury. Bring on the summer!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The moment we've all been waiting for

Any day now, this peony is going to bloom! My neighbours' plants (which seem to have about a million buds on them every spring compared to the two on mine) have already opened up, so I've sort of been getting my peony fix. But I'll be so happy to see these.

This year the sole surviving poppy of my attempt to plant a few of those three years ago also bloomed for the first time. As illustrated on the plant card, its petals were milky white with a dark purple centre, almost black in its depth - perfect for my garden, but very different from the poppies that made me want to have one of my own.

Those were growing in the large triangular bed of a house on a corner a few blocks away. This bed was fenced off in rustic fashion and the entire space inside was filled with orange-red poppies. When the pods developed, they looked like magical eggs, soft green and full of promise, and when the flowers opened and shifted in the breeze, you couldn't help but feel happy.

On its own, my poppy was beautiful for about two days after maybe a week of a creepy looking pod that got furrier and furrier every day, and then last night - poof. Petals down. Nothing but the creepy looking purple center. That's why there's no picture of it, by the way; next year I'll be smart and take some moments after it opens up.

These late spring flowers always make me think how different a thing can look on its own than similar things in a large group, and also how fleeting their impression. It's been put more eloquently I know, but you really do have to enjoy them while they are around. Just like people and happy times in your life.

Just imagine though... what is it like for the plants? Working hard to produce even one bloom that lasts maybe just a few days, and making it special enough to attract whatever it is it needs to get to sustain it for another whole year. Not just to sustain it, either, but to help it spread and support new growth. I find that amazing.

Even more amazing: some people have to live that way, too.