Hidden Messages

Handmade cotton clothing label

You probably know that feeling of surprise when you find a treasure tucked away in the pocket of a jacket that you’ve not worn for several seasons. Like a rock picked up at the beach or on a family hike. You pull it out and remember the day – who you were with, the conversation, the relaxing feel of just wandering. It makes you smile – and you might just decide to leave it there as a reminder of what is most valuable.

From time to time, I’ll write down a quote and tuck it away in my planner. The quote often brings me back to center when I’ve been going a hundred miles an hour. I think of these items we randomly collect and drop into a pocket, a zippered pocket of a purse… as hidden messages to ourselves.

You may have seen a hidden message of sorts in handmade garments in vintage stores or even stitched a label into garments and accessories you’ve made. A message that reads something like “Made Expressly for You by the maker’s first name.” How wonderful to slip the garment on knowing the maker stitched in a lot of warmth and love as they knitted the sweater as a birthday gift, a back-to-school outfit, or simply because.

The coat Jill Biden wore on the evening of President Joe Biden’s Inauguration included a quote embroidered into the lining: “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” The quote, from Benjamin Franklin, is meaningful to her as an educator. And, it was something to “carry with her” on the historic day.

Quiltmakers often include a label on the back of a quilt with their name and the date. When working on a commission, I ask clients if there is a sentiment they would like to include on a separate label. Many provide one, especially if the quilt is to be a gift.

So, here’s a small project – or a big one, depending on how you run with it! Make some labels to stitch into your own clothes, your child’s, a partner’s… 

  • Include a family motto, a simple drawing, a quote, or a personal sentiment.
  • Decide on whether you will use fabric markers or embroidery to make the design.
  • Play with cotton fabric scraps, pieces of felt, buttons, and ribbon as you design your label(s). 
  • Consider the orientation of the label before stitching. For example, do you want the wearer to be able to view it when wearing the garment or just when they slip it on.
  • Select materials and determine size based on where you want to stitch the label and how it will be washed. For example, avoid anything scratchy that will be stitched in at the neckline.
  • Test the materials you are using before sewing into the garment/accessory to make sure they are colorfast. This is especially true for fabric markers – it’s best to make sure the ink doesn’t run before the label is stitched into a favorite sweater.

The label pictured above is made from 100% cotton fabric, a leftover scrap from another project. The edges were turned under and stitched in place using a running stitch. When I tack it down, I will incorporate a bit of ribbon.

Have fun!

Handmade cotton clothing label laying on mittens

Finding Calm – Part 2 – Read, Watch, Listen, Explore

Up close image of embroidered arcs

During the past week, I’ve actually spent time in my studio creating several small pieces with lots of handwork. It’s been quite nice after what seems like days of not being able to focus on anything. That said, with the week ahead in this country, I have a feeling that this focus will wax and wane. So, like last week’s post, I am sharing a list of resources to turn to when you are looking for calm, creative fuel and a break from the news…

Read

  • My husband is currently taking a continuing ed class where he learned that “even knitting” is good for your brain health because it speaks to the complex physical movements our brain was evolved to accomplish. This dovetailed with an interview I heard on NPR’s Fresh Air with Dr. Sanjay Gupta on his new book, Keep Sharp. I’ve added it to my reading list and will keep knitting and sewing!

Watch and Listen

Last night I watched the excellent new movie One Night in Miami, a fictionalized account of a 1964 meeting in a Miami hotel between friends Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke and Malcolm X. Read a review here and read more about the meeting here. It is streaming on Amazon. After watching the movie, I had to pull out “Sam Cooke: The Man Who Invented Soul” from our stack of CDs. Issued in 2000, it’s still available (but the price has gone way up since I purchased) or check with your local library or streaming service to access.

Explore

Transforming ordinary materials into something beautiful is an idea that has always fascinated me. Paper folding of any kind leaves me in awe, whether snowflakes made from white copier paper or complex shapes made from beautiful, unique papers. If you’ve not seen Between the Folds, a PBS Independent Lens documentary that came out in 2008, I suggest adding it to your list. It is available for streaming on Amazon – see the trailer here.

Then check out this article on 31 artists who transform sheets of paper into incredible works of art. Three of my favorites – the breath-taking gigantic paper flower by artist Tiffanie Turner, the paper feathers by artist Parth Kothekar, and the ramen (see video at bottom of article) produced by Papermeal. Then grab a piece of paper and start folding – there are lots of tutorials and books (including this one by Tiffanie Turner) to provide further inspiration and instruction!

Finding Calm – Read, Listen, Explore, Cook

Grey and yellow quilt that is basted together with black thread

It’s hard to write a post about making and creativity after the dark week we’ve just witnessed in Washington, D.C. It’s also been hard to keep my focus in the studio this week on anything that requires focused attention, like measuring, cutting and sewing.

Even though it might be hard to believe right now, as I’ve said before, art, nature and physical work (think shoveling snow or cleaning your home like never before) can help provide the space to process difficult events, manage anxiety, and find peace, if only for a few hours. And, these same outlets can help lead us back out to the world to do our work, advocate for positive change, etc.

This week I’m sharing a list of go-to’s that I’ve turned to over the last few weeks…

Read

I’ve been recommending Jane Smiley’s new book, Perestroika in Paris: A Novel, to all my friends in the last month. It’s a lovely story – the pacing is perfect for the times we are living through right now. No big drama, likable characters, and a great story. I borrowed it from my local library but if I had purchased, it would go on my shelf of all-time favorite books. Find it at your local library or bookstore, or check it out here.

Listen

  • “Appalachian Spring” by composer Aaron Copland premiered in 1944. Whether you are a classical music fan or not, this is a beautiful, uplifting piece. Learn more about it here and listen to it here.
  • A CD I’ve pulled from the shelf several times when I just really want to forget the outside world is “Elton John’s Greatest Hits.” Crank the volume and sing along! Check it out here or your favorite music streaming service.
  • Next up on my podcast playlist is Powerful Women: Let’s Talk about women doing good things in the world. There are only 27 episodes as of now so if you like it, it’s doable to go back and listen to all the episodes.

Explore

  • If you can, get outside and explore parks, hiking paths and other outdoor spaces in your area.
  • Online, many museums are offering virtual exhibits. Check out your favorite museums as well as ones you’ve yet to explore in person. One of my favorite museums in Chicago is the American Writers Museum. Opened in May 2017 after years of planning, it is deceptively small. While it has a small footprint relative to other museums, I spent several hours exploring the day I visited.

Cook

  • A big steaming bowl of soup, accompanied by a grilled cheese sandwich on occasion, is my go-to comfort food. And, holy cow, I’ve been making a lot lately – usually on Sunday afternoons for a simple evening meal that we can also have for lunch throughout the week. Make up your favorite recipe(s), then sit back and enjoy each and every bite.
  • If you’re looking for a new recipe, my husband and I are both crazy about the Simple Red Lentil Soup with Spinach, Lemon, and Pepper from At Home in the Whole Food Kitchen by Amy Chaplin. And, if you’re not sure about lentils, red lentils are wonderful – in this soup, they dissolve into a creamy, thick stock. Divine. Here’s a link to the recipe – and an interview with Amy Chaplin – on the Food Network site.

NOTE: The image at the top is from a small quilt that is in process. The working title keeps changing… Today, it is “Sun Peaking Through the Clouds.”

Keeping it Simple in the New Year

Potholders made with colorful loops and loom

We are starting a new year with the same concerns and challenges of 2020. In years past, I have kicked off the new year with an ambitious studio project – a large bed quilt, an intricate embroidery piece, or a series of projects for upcoming classes. This year I decided to start simple, knowing the larger, more complex projects are around the corner.

To begin, I dug into some of my daughter’s crafting supplies from years ago and found several yards of blanket fleece. In about 90 minutes, I had made a tied edge fleece blanket, start to finish, for friends’ 3-year old child. Perfect for cuddling under after a day of play in the snow. A straight-forward, simple project. You can find instructions here.

Recently, I also found my daughter’s potholder loom and some leftover loops (from hers and mine!), so in the days leading up to 2021, I also made a few potholders. Again, simple, useful and done in less than an hour. Another plus – I’ve stashed several away to pair with tea and baked goods to give away to friends and family. If your potholder loom is long gone, check with your local art/craft store to see if they have any in stock. If not, here’s a link to Purl Soho’s kit. Both the potholders and the fleece blanket projects are fun to do solo and with kids.

So, as we enter another roller coaster year of experiences and emotions, take on those big, ambitious, boundary-pushing projects for sure but intersperse some smaller ones in there as well. This practice also applies not just to what you are making but also to what you may be doing at work and in your community: )

Happy making in the year ahead ~

Purple Fleece Blanket with Bicycle Motif

Martha Mae-A Favorite Destination for Art Supplies and Inspiration

Unwrapped package with notecard

Once in awhile, you walk into a store and feel transported to another world. Martha Mae: Art Supplies & Beautiful Things is one such place.

Last winter, about this time, I discovered Martha Mae in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood. Though not large, my husband and I spent well over an hour in there ticking through our holiday shopping list and finding gifts for artists and those who haven’t picked up a box of paints or sketchpad in years. We were not about to leave until we had looked, touched and tested our way through the store – yes, “tested.” Trying to decide between different pencils, we were invited to try them out at the back counter. Martha Mae, a Cavalier King Charles spaniel and the store’s namesake, was curled up in his basket sleeping away despite a bustling store – just so darn cute!

Flash forward from last year to this and, like so many other businesses, Martha Mae was forced to close its brick and mortar store because of the pandemic. The store has moved 100% online.

A couple of weeks ago, I popped onto the website to make a couple of gift purchases, and the box arrived a few days later. When I opened it, I was immediately wowed by all the care they had taken to package my treasures (eco-friendly, too!). For a few minutes, it was as if I was standing at the back counter waiting for my purchases. Tucked in a small bag were several items including a small watercolor of a kumquat with a hand-written thank you note on the back. In this era where we hunger for in-person gatherings, these little touches were so appreciated.

On this small business Saturday, shop local and be sure to check out stores that may have moved from Main Street to just online. And if you are looking for art supplies or a beautiful gift – especially for that hard-to-buy-for-person – check out Martha Mae. Oh, and my favorites at the store… Beam Paints, all the inks, and the Moon Calendars.

Unplugging to Create and Explore

Brown and Orange striped knitted scarf

Election Day seems to be a good day to post about the break I’ve taken in this space, especially since I’m trying to tune out the news for at least part of the day. So, about that break…

My studio is where I go to create, express ideas, find peace, and get lost in the flow. Occasionally, it feels more like work than play – usually a sign that my creativity is tapped out. So, I took a break – or, as I like to say, cleared the table for awhile. Critical was unplugging from social media and engaging in activities that I find restorative:

  • Playing with color and texture. Finding a box of yarn for a sweater that I know I will never knit started me down this path. Now, 4-1/2 scarves later, I’ve got some ideas for future quilts and embroidered pieces – and gifts for my family.
  • Sketching found objects. When out on walks, I like to pick up leaves, acorns and other items lying on the ground. When the objects are too big or stationary (like tree bark), I snap a picture and then begin sketching at home. My sketches are not how you might see it, but they are as I see and interpret the object. Again, more ideas going into the creative tank.
  • Breaking out of a cooking rut to make some pretty terrific meals. There have been a couple of flops so not all has been perfect but I am learning and my taste buds are quite happy. The meal we are still talking about: Zuni Cafe’s Roasted Chicken with Bread Salad. I’ve never eaten at this San Francisco restaurant but I know exactly what I’d order!
  • Connecting with family and friends via phone, Zoom, or in person. It is amazing how much your schedule opens up when you unplug. All of sudden, you have a bit more time – and energy – to connect with people one-on-one. One blustery, chilly day we sat around our friends’ table to enjoy a great meal and conversation, then watched My Octopus Teacher. (We first checked to make sure we had been following CDC guidelines when it comes to social distancing.)
  • Steeping myself in nature. Walks, sitting outside – even with a blanket wrapped tightly round – or just opening a window and taking a deep breath in to connect with the natural world.

I am working on making these activities daily/weekly habits to keep my creative tank from becoming depleted again. I’ve also established more clear boundaries around social media – checking in once or twice a day for 30 minutes or less and unplugging during the weekends. Exceptions will happen but that’s what they will be, not the norm. Focusing and prioritizing those things that matter most – like family, friendships and my creative practice – will get the most attention.

So, on this big day, go vote if you have not already. Next, unplug to find a few minutes to slow down and do what restores you on a regular basis. Then starting at home, create and do to build a better world for today and for future generations, a world that unites, is kind and inclusive, is built on science and truth.

Transforming Envelopes into Art

Quilt block stitched to white Tyvek Envelope

If you look at a Tyvek mailing envelope up close, you see what looks like iridescent fibers and feels like a cross between paper and cloth. Manufactured by DuPont, Tyvek is a non-woven material, and according to their website, is made of “100% high density polyethylene fibers randomly laid and compressed to form a remarkably tough printing substrate that is ideal for applications where durability and tear resistance is of prime importance.” You’ll find it in building materials, envelopes, reusable bags, building signs…

I like Tyvek for its water-proof properties, especially when mailing something important (like fabric or taxes) And, I feel guilty every time I send or receive something in a mailer, even though DuPont says it’s a recyclable material.

So, when a package arrived the other day in a Tyvek envelope, I decided to extend its life in a new direction: Using it and few scraps of fabric from an earlier project, I made a small quilt block, then stitched it to a piece of Tyvek. I wrote a get-well message on the back and will mail it to a friend tomorrow.

Here are the steps:

  1. Gather some fabric pieces and a used Tyvek envelope.
  2. Design your quilt block. Consider incorporating envelope seams, stamps, and the postage mark into the design. Also consider how you intend to use the finished piece. For example, will you write a message on the back and mail to a friend, tack it on your inspiration board…
  3. Cut out your pieces, allowing for a 1/4″ seam allowance. For the one-patch quilt pattern in the photo, I cut 4 squares (2 from each fabric) measuring 2″ x 2″.
  4. Stitch the block pieces together (1/4″ seam allowance) using a needle and thread or sewing machine.
  5. Stitch the block to a piece of Tyvek. Use tape to hold the block in place while stitching, removing it before the needle pierces the tape. This prevents the needle from getting gummed up. (Note: Pins will leave a permanent hole in the Tyvek, so tape works best.)
  6. Use a longer stitch length – or decorative stitch to add a border around the block. Be sure to use tacking stitches at beginning and end so that the stitches don’t pull out.

Several additional notes to keep in mind:

  • Do not iron the Tyvek – only finger press – because it will melt if your iron is hot enough.
  • You can paint Tyvek with acrylic or fabric paints. Just paint, wipe off any excess and then let dry before using in your project.
  • If you are writing on the back, test on a scrap of the envelope first to make sure the ink does not soak through onto your block – or that your message does not smear. I wrote on the back using a Uni-Ball Signo fine point gel pen (0.28mm tip).

To see other ideas on how to transform mailers into something both useful and beautiful, check out Reinvention: Sewing with Rescued Materials by Maya Donenfeld, available through your local bookstore and, hopefully, library.

Bits and Bobs: The Makings of a Most Excellent Creativity Lab

A collection of found craft objects

When I was young, one town we lived in hosted a pumpkin festival each year at Halloween time. Kids would select a category – like science fiction, famous people, or books – then, decorate their pumpkin accordingly. All the pumpkins were displayed on the courthouse lawn for a week or so with different events throughout, including a parade and an awards ceremony where 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place ribbons were awarded in each category.

One year when I decided to create a pumpkin martian, a neighbor invited me to come by if I needed any supplies. Entering her family room, I was not sure this trip would yield anything of use – until she opened the closet door. This was not an ordinary closet!

There was a desk with drawing paper, pencils and some small hand tools. On the back wall, above the desk, were several shelves with paint (including a martian-perfect metallic green) and glass jars full of odds and ends – bits and bobs. Toothpaste caps, miniature glass Christmas tree bulbs, googly eyes in many sizes, pipe cleaners, beads, empty thread spools…

With no older brother or cat to get in my way, this space became my creative lab for the next week as I worked on my pumpkin each afternoon after school. While quite pleased when the pumpkin won a ribbon, it did not compare to the joy I felt when I was deep in the process of designing and creating the martian.

When my own kids were growing up, we filled several shoeboxes with an array of objects that might be useful for art and science projects – sewing machine parts, spools, pieces of leather from an old belt… The shoeboxes were in a closet – handy enough for them to pull out and sort through.

In my sewing studio, I have a random collection of objects that I often turn to when looking for inspiration. Case in point – this spice jar shaker thing that became the basis for the motif stitched on a linen napkin:

Circle embroidery pattern drawn on white linen napkin

Circle Embroidery Pattern Stitched in Blue Thread on White Linen Napkin and hoop, thread, scissors, and needle

So, where to start? Collect and organize the random objects currently stashed in the kitchen junk drawer, in a desk, etc. Next, set up your own creativity lab on a closet shelf or in the corner of a room. Then, of course, play! Here are some ideas:

  • Make a mobile.
  • Make a small sculpture for the middle of the dinner table. You could even change it out several times a week, taking turns with other family members.
  • Sketch an object or two, playing with color and layout.
  • Use the object as a starting point for an embroidery project as I did above.

Happy Making!

Mini Twig Sculptures

Twig wrapped in perle cotton beneath woven through leaves

Some years back, my family and I took in Steve Tobin’s Steelroots exhibit at The Morton Arboretum. Inspired by what we saw, my daughter and I came home and made our own mini sculptures from twigs we collected in our yard and perle cotton. Recently, I came across one of the twigs stuck in a vase that had somehow made its way to the back of a cabinet.

To make the sculptures, we looked for twigs with an interesting form – if there were scars or other interesting marks, we left those sections unwrapped. We played with different lengths of perle cotton – sometimes using just pinks or greens, other times using multiple colors.

When finished, we laid them on a table in the hallway where they were constantly rearranged every time someone walked by. Other found made their way into the “exhibit” – rocks, an acorn, a paper snake, origami birds… This time around, I pulled an interesting (but pesky) weed from the yard and put it in a vase on the kitchen table. And, then of course, the play began: weaving the wrapped twig into the leaves different ways, laying it beneath the leaves, propping it up alongside the vase…

For a fun creative break today, take a walk and gather some interesting twigs of your own, then wrap them in perle cotton, yarn, twine, kitchen string, cording or whatever fiber you have on hand. Arrange the mini sculptures on a table or your desk – and then rearrange again and again!

Exercising Your Creativity Muscle

Basket with Vegetable Garden Plant Markers to Decorate

Creativity has been likened to a muscle: We all have it – we just have to work to strengthen it so that we can reap the rewards.

Over the last few months, with sheltering in place and social distancing the new normal, implementing a daily creative practice is as important as ever. Our world feels a bit smaller, our days a tad mixed up (“Is this Sunday or Monday?”), and our work-life boundaries totally blurred (think kids playing at your feet while you’re trying to get work done, office texts and emails still flowing in at 8 or 9pm, or extra long shifts at the hospital). Expressing ourselves through writing, drawing, painting, sewing, quilting… can help provide a much-needed, nourishing break from the challenges we are facing in our lives right now.

And, if setting aside time to make and create sounds a bit indulgent these days, it’s not. The spillover effect I mention here – Step #6 on the Art Everyday page – is well documented. For example, this Fast Company article from a few years back talks about that spark we feel or breakthrough we have after engaging in a creative practice.

Decide on the best time to fit a creative break into your day, experimenting to see when you get the most benefit: Do you want to use the practice as a warm-up exercise for the day, a mid-day boost, or a transition from your workday to home life. It does not have to be a big chunk of time – committing to 15 minutes a day can make a big difference.

I’ve always got several projects going on in my studio at any given time. However, I keep a basket for just one simple, self-contained project. It sits in my office, ready to go when I need a creative break (usually at the end of the day). The projects rotate: Right now, I’ve stashed a vegetable marker kit from Target. The original kit had paints, which now look dried up, but we’ll see when I get to work. I might instead fill the space up with different patterns using Sharpies instead. It might take me all week to finish the project but the point is that it’s easy to start and stop and all my supplies are in one place, making it hard not to begin. Once this project is finished, I’ll find something else to put in the basket.

My recommendation is that as you develop a creative habit, keep it simple and start with what you enjoy – at least at the beginning. First find a container, something that works for the space you are working in and is portable – a basket or tote bag works best. Then, if you like to write, add a journal or notebook and your favorite pen or pencil to the basket. If you want to spend time each day working with watercolors, stash a small water color set, brush, and a 6″ x 6″ pad of watercolor paper in the basket…

If you have kids, consider making a basket up for each of them that is age appropriate and, ideally, something they can do by themselves at a time when they most need it. For example, a potholder kit, paper and instructions for making paper airplanes (include different kinds of paper to see what flies best!), or a coloring book and crayons.

I’ve long said that when I have a problem to be solved, the best way to figure it out, is to spend time in my studio making. Getting lost in the flow of making frees up headspace to think more creatively, beyond the box – first, in what I am actually doing in the studio and then for the problem/issue I’m trying to resolve.

In the coming weeks, months, and years, creativity will be key to generating new ideas for rebuilding our lives, our communities, our healthcare systems and, well, pretty much everything. And, throughout this process of creating new, focusing on lessons learned from the past, listening to experts, and cultivating out-of-the box thinking so that the end result benefits everyone and addresses what hasn’t worked in the past. Like many things, we can start at home – thinking more creatively about how we solve problems there and at work, then build from there.

So start flexing your creative muscle by building a daily creative practice, stick to it, and enjoy the process and spillover effect! Read more about building a creative habit here. Connect with us on Facebook to see some additional ideas in the coming days of what to put in your basket.