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life in balance


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The August Break: Day 3, Windows

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I leave for my session at Penland on Friday, but I’m squeezing an awful lot of bonus projects into my last week at home, one of which is Susannah Conway’s August Break – a month of photographic exercises, all very laid-back. I’m taking my shots when and if something about the daily prompt captivates me; today’s was windows. Metro trains here in DC are comprised of six to eight individual cars, and you can often get a different perspective on the city via the window at the back of the final train car. Today I bring you two sentimental views of Old Town Alexandria and the Potomac – two places I’ll miss so very much while I’m off in the mountains of North Carolina this August.

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Weaving

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I just finished weaving my first full batch of yardage for Clementine Baby Wraps yesterday. At just under 23 meters, it was interesting to lay out and measure the fabric for invoicing in my small apartment! Since my loom is so large, we don’t even have a dining room table, so I was stuck measuring on my mattress. I thought I’d share a couple of shots and talk about the warp a little today as I send it off into the world.

I spoke last time about intentional practice; one of the results of an intentional craftsmanship process is that I’m really focusing on my working emotions and choosing what qualities I’m imbuing the final product with. When I’m relaxed, it tends to be a very gentle, calm energy, and it all flows without much extra focus on my part. In this case, since this was my first 20+ meter batch I was – let’s go with “not relaxed” – maybe “determined to do a good job” is the right way to put it. I focused on that feeling while I worked and kept my attention on working with positive, determined, strong energy. As I worked I kept thinking that the babies who grow up in this fabric are going to be such little lionhearts! Strong, brave and true are the qualities I’m associating with the finished fabric.

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Once Clementine’s owner Sarah has had a chance to process the fabric and turn it into baby wraps, she usually posts a lottery to buy the wraps on Clementine’s Facebook page, so keep an eye out over there if you’re interested in a wrap from this batch.


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Letterpress printing at Old City Press

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A couple of weeks ago I went to a letterpress workshop at Old City Press, Alexandria’s new letterpress studio and graphic design shop, which opened its brick and mortar space back in December. I was so very excited to see them start to move presses into the old fibre space storefront, which is a place that’s near to my heart as it’s the first Old Town business I ever shopped at when I came back to DC years ago. I’ve got a long-standing interest in letterpress, and I was thrilled at the prospect of having a studio close to me, in one of my favorite retail spaces in the city. I’ve got a project in my mind’s eye for 2014 that requires access to a letterpress studio, and originally I was going to make the trek up to Silver Spring and Pyramid Atlantic, but with a shop so close to home I’d be crazy not to explore what Old City Press had to offer instead – am I right? And so I signed up for the workshop to see what the space was all about.

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As y’all know, I take a lot of classes, and they run the gamut from amazing to terrible, so I didn’t know what to expect from Old City Press, but these guys hit it out of the park. I was exhausted when I got home – in that great way that happens when you’ve worked hard on something you care about. They keep the class size very small and we each got tons of personal attention from Pete and Eric (Erik? If you or Pete read this please tell me how to spell your name!), who taught our workshop. We each chose a phrase to print (in my case, “To live a creative life we must lose our fear of being wrong”) and set our phrase in a chase using wooden and metal type from Old City Press’s collections. I think my favorite moment pulling text was when I went into a case in search of some image blocks to use to surround my quotation’s attribution and found two stars. Later, pulling a print, I noted how the stars gave my print kind of a Civil War era political poster vibe… and then realized those posters were printed with lead stars exactly like the ones I was using here and now, in 2014, to pull my own prints. I love setting type because it connects me with a history of printmaking – the same way I love weaving – it’s the common thread, the historical narrative of craftwork. I am definitely more of a printer and less of a graphic designer.

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Once we finished selecting our type, laying it out and fixing it in place, we mixed up our inks and pulled a series of prints on each of the shop’s two Vandercook presses; we each got several copies of our posters. I am not showing y’all mine because hey, born perfectionist, and this was my first print pulled in ten years – so not ready for prime time – but I do have a copy of it hanging in my weaving studio. We also had the chance to pull prints using a pre-made polymer plate. Polymer plates are widely used today to save time on typesetting and get a deeper impression on the print. One of the things I found most interesting about the class was that although we typically associate letterpress type with that deep, rich indentation that’s so sought after in printing today, historically it was considered a sign that you were an inferior printer if you got that deep impression on your paper. As Pete said, after all, who wants to read a crinkly newspaper or book? And in fact, contemporary printers can crack wooden type trying to use it to produce that deep imprint, which is why it can be hard to find undamaged wooden typesets. I was completely fascinated by this, having never printed with a polymer plate before, but I think I’m still a true-blue typesetter at heart.

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I really enjoyed working with Pete and Eric and I can’t wait to rent more printing time in the studio this year.

Update: Sadly, shortly after I took my OCP class, Pete contacted me to let me know they would be giving away the fonts I intended to work with. I’ve found another letterpress studio that’s geared more to serious letterpress printers and will be posting about working in that space soon!


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Weaving

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It’s incredible how many turns our lives can take in the course of one year, how many changes can rock through us and move us. Though I don’t typically do New Year’s resolutions, January has always been my month to tuck in to quietly process the year that’s gone – and, in an odd, almost mutually-exclusive way, to power into new challenges that previously seemed oppressive. I don’t call them resolutions because they always seem to quietly line themselves up well in advance of the new year; by the time January arrives on the scene, I’m thusly committed. Last year, my challenge was to become part of the local community of weavers here by joining a communal studio space near my office, and that decision rippled through 2013 in truly beautiful ways. This year I’ve committed to taking a basic drawing class, an idea Rebecca supported during my time in her lovely class back in September. It’s a really painful process at times; I don’t have much natural aptitude for it. That said, I decided in the early weeks of this year that I don’t really believe natural aptitude is what makes the difference. Sure, aptitude makes it easier to get your hours in, because natural skill makes practicing less unpleasant, and so you’ll find you practice more. But I think it’s the grit factor that takes you through to true skill. You’ve got to believe you can continue to move forward even in the face of your early attempts, and you’ve got to be gentle as you push yourself to the edge of your skill set, and you’ve got to do it again and again. It’s not pleasant, no, not at all. But it works, and so I believe in it.

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My perseverance with weaving in 2013 has led to a new weaving job producing yardage to be used as baby wraps for Clementine Baby Wraps up in Boston. I spent most of January weaving the sample yardage so that Sarah and I could jointly evaluate whether I would be a good fit for Clementine; it’s been a wonderful return to the finer-gauge yarns I’ve always preferred to weave with but haven’t used in a while. Sarah dyes her warps by hand, which appeals to the part of me that’s been interested in planned pooling warps for a few years, and the materials are just lovely to work with. It’s been a fun challenge to weave yardage to spec for someone else, and a wonderful stretch to work with projects that are larger than what I’m used to producing, but the absolute best part of the process is how holy it feels to weave for someone else’s child. I’m a big believer in intentional craftsmanship – meaning I believe that the finished fabric is imbued with my emotions and intentions for its recipient – so I’ve been extremely careful not to work on the yardage when I’m tired or distressed. I’ve also been following Natalie Chanin’s principle of loving the thread – if y’all haven’t heard her talk about this, she goes over it in her Creativebug classes. It’s basically a principle that thread on a spool has a will to tangle, because it’s been all coiled up and compressed and it doesn’t want to lie smooth and relaxed – so before you begin you have to love on it a little to calm it down. She and her staff smooth the thread with their fingers repeatedly, talk to the thread about the garment and how happy its owner will be, how beautiful she’ll feel when she wears it, how the thread is all a part of that process of beauty and comfort. I do this with my warps, too. Untangling the warp is always a part of winding on, and going smoothly and gently through the process, straightening and untangling the warp bit by bit with my fingers, focuses my intent for the work and helps center me as an artisan. I just feel so honored to be able to do this work as I think about the life of the child who’s going to ride around in the fabric, snuggled up and safe. I can’t wait to watch these wraps find their homes as I weave this year.

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Final notes: I’m sure many photos of Clementine warps will be finding their way into my Instagram feed, so if you’ve found your way here because you’re interested in Clementine specifically, feel free to follow me over there. I’d love to share my work with you!


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Year in Photos

Wow, what a year. He got his doctorate; I quit my job; we went to Paris, Iceland and the UK together and I travelled to Massachusetts, New Hampshire, NYC and Tennessee alone, as well as an earth-shifting trip back to Austin. Following Susannah Conway’s lead, I wanted to put together a year in photos post – twelve photos, one for each month. Turns out it’s nigh impossible to choose 12 photos for a year this full. I put the ones that made the cut into collages here for the sake of your scrolling fingers.

Jan-Apr
January through April. Struggling with the loss of my aunt, challenged by my workload, finding solace in the company of some soul sisters.
May-June
May and June. He graduates with his PhD, a year ahead of schedule. A challenging time at Squam as I struggle with what’s ahead. I take him to Europe to celebrate all we’ve been through in the last seven years together.
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September. That lake. Healing magic.
Sept-Nov
September through November. Loving souls. Embroidery head-banging sessions. The mother tree. The best dinner party I’ve ever attended. Wild insomnia.
Nov-Dec
November through December. The wheel keeps on turning and the city keeps changing. Knitting the damage back together. Being at home – at home.

Many of the women I know have been inspired by this exercise – I’d encourage all of you to try it – it is amazing the ground we cover in a year. If you do post your own year in photos I would love to see it – please do share in the comments! Should you want to see the full images from my set and some longer-winded accompanying stories, click over here to my Flickr set, which includes the full size images as well as a couple of bonus shots.


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Setting intentions

tiny pie

Yesterday I decided that if I used this tiny individual pie as a photo prop before I ate it, it would somehow become healthy to have pie for breakfast. Except, of course, that my breakfast was actually two spoonfuls of granola, eaten before a phone interview at 9am, after which I spent several hours sunk into a photography groove before I realized I was hungry and should eat something, and, well, it was right there in the fridge. Thus: pie at noon that feels like a breakfast, and also some pie photography. I wasn’t actually planning on writing this post, but I’ve been doing some meditative work this week on addressing how my rabbit brain interferes with my ability to get things done – and I’ve had rather a breakthrough that I wanted to share with you all.

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On Tuesday we got up early. Or rather, he got up early and then spent fifteen minutes talking me into getting out of bed. I’m not a morning person. It used to be slightly easier because I hated our bedding – no joke, I had an obscene nickname for our comforter and swore at it constantly – it was an awful blanket. The worst possible thing to snuggle up under on a bad day or a rainy night. But for my birthday, with one of his first paychecks from his new job, he got me a whole sheet set from Anthropologie, and now? It is on. Or rather, it is off. I don’t ever like to get out of bed these days; it is simply too comfortable in there, especially with a notebook to hand and a book on the bedside table. But on Tuesday I marshaled my willpower and crawled forth and we went to vote together. We walked over to our polling place and voted, and then he deposited me at my local coffee shop and caught the train to work. I staggered around the coffee shop for a while taking photos for an upcoming guest post I’m writing, and then the barista called me over to lick the mixing spoon from my latte, all coated with nutella. She is a genius and this is one of my new favorite parts of getting coffee – licking the mixing spoon. I settled down all bleary eyed with my caffeine and dug into what is becoming my favorite morning ritual – otherwise known as that thing I came here to tell you about – intention setting.

at the coffeeshop after voting

There’s a lot of buzz in my head these days. I’m a high octane person and I always have been. In college I took three languages simultaneously – Japanese, Ancient Greek, and Latin – while working four part-time jobs. As a sysadmin, I routinely worked on four systems at the same time. Now, as a free agent, there are so many things I want to do on any given day that I find it very difficult to focus on anything. I finally realized this was happening last week, and to combat it, I’ve cleared conscious space in the mornings to sit with my journal. I daydream a bit first, and then I look at my energy level that day and my commitments, and I assess what I can reasonably get done in the space of one day. I survey my open projects and I listen to my gut; emotionally, spiritually, what do I want to work on? What am I feeling called to do? And I make a list that sums up the results of my self-exploration. It’s a kind of deep current listening.

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In our day to day lives, I think many of us get pretty far away from asking our bodies what feels right, what feels good, but it’s a powerful tool if you develop the knack of knowing what’s just a surface-level immediate-gratification feel-good impulse, and what is really going to bring you a sense of deep-seated joy. Each individual action isn’t profound – hell, today the thing I got the most deep-seated joy from was burning a lemon verbena candle – but the act of asking yourself and answering yourself is deeply profound. And to sit with your sense of self for a while and explore what’s fair and right to ask of your body, mind and heart in a given day’s space… well, it’s a really beautiful way of being gentle with yourself. I don’t ask what I need to get done first, though that has been a part of my calculations each day – I never feel deep-seated joy unloading the dishwasher – but doing those little chores feels much less oppressive somehow when I’ve put them in the proper balance. Sometimes I’ll also wait to do those “have to” chores until I’m stuck on something I really want to do, which is also a neat trick; at least for me, the sense that I’ve gotten something annoying done helps me develop forward momentum and power that I can then use in my creative work. And having the day thought out and recorded helps me make the most effective use of that momentum.

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As a result, this week has been a powerhouse of sewing and cooking activity and so many exciting things; hopefully I’ll be able to share some of these activities soon. Until then, a very peaceful weekend to you all!


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Rummage and Lye, and a tutorial

Amy's dining room table

After a busy week of canning and soapmaking and rummage sale goodness, I’m gearing up for another trip out of town, this time up to NYC with friends for the weekend. One of my favorite parts of my job change has been having this time to travel without having to plan around paid leave, and I feel an obligation to really take advantage of this opportunity to go out and explore. I’m not a great traveller and I’m not a great homebody – I’m always wanting to set down roots, always wanting to move on, always at the same time – so travel tends to make me profoundly uncomfortable, but it also speaks to some sort of deep-seated need within me, a craving that seems to just get bigger the more I feed it.

Canning applesauce at Amy's house

For my last few trips, I’ve found myself frantically packing in the entryway at midnight the night before I’m set to leave, so yesterday, I sat down to get my backpack ready and make a packing list, determined to be prepared this time, and to my surprise, I found that all of the hullabaloo didn’t seem necessary anymore. After all of this travel, how much do I really need to think about it? Toiletries, clothes, a book to read and a book to write in. My camera and some knitting to occupy my hands. What else is there? I know now what’s essential to me and what’s just dead weight – no lists required. Ten minutes of packing later, and I’m ready to go.

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As usual these days, the week before I head out of town is packed with projects and people to see before I go. We drove out to Leesburg this weekend to attend the Ladies Board rummage sale for the first time, in search of treasure – aka cheap sugar bowls for my new shaped sugars from Provisions – and had an absolute blast. We went on Sunday, when the staff were starting to really mark things down for the second day of the sale, and got some incredible bargains. My favorites, though, were a little green sugar bowl for a dollar, and some amazing vintage hankies to use as foundation pieces for embroidery.

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And today I got to host my wonderful friend Amylynn for a drink and a chat at my place; she kindly offered to drop off the cured soap and sealed jars so that I wouldn’t have to take them with me on the Metro ride home from her house. Oh, boy, that house. I want to sneak in and live in the basement. Her kitchen has vintage metal cabinetry in a lovely subdued robin’s egg color, and there’s light everywhere you turn. Quilts handed down through the family, well-loved and in use all over the house? Yes please. And we haven’t even talked about the studio space in the basement, or the late 1800s canning jar on the kitchen windowsill, or the collection of kitchen dishtowels… or the light. Most of the photos in this post were shot at her place while we worked on our applesauce.

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I thought it might be fun to share a little tutorial for the soap we made – a goat’s milk soap with a few drops of lavender and rosemary oil and some dried lavender buds on top. The recipe is adapted from a how-to on Martha Stewart Living. Note that the percentage of goat’s milk, which was what the original recipe emphasized, has been changed drastically. If you refer to the Martha Stewart site, you’ll definitely be preparing a different batch from what Amy and I put together.

Scented Herbal Goat’s Milk Soap

Supplies you’ll need; note that if the supplies come into contact with the soap mixture, you shouldn’t use them for cooking afterwards, so you will need separate utensils from those you use in your everyday kitchen.
– Candy thermometer or laser thermometer
– Immersion blender
– Spatula
– Large heatproof bowl (a Pyrex works really well and bonus, has a pour spout; you really want a bowl with a pour spout so that it’s easy to transfer your mixture to your mold)
– A mold to pour your soap into (this can be as unsophisticated as a cardboard box lined with freezer paper or parchment paper, but can also be fancy soap molds if you like)
– Cookie racks
– Digital scale
– Plastic wrap

Ingredients you’ll need for the batch:
– 7.43 ounces goat’s milk, partially frozen
– 2.82 ounces lye
– 4.25 ounces extra-virgin olive oil
– 5 ounces coconut oil
– 12 ounces vegetable or soy shortening
– Essential oils (one or more; optional)
– Dried herbs (optional)

Before we begin, an important safety message! Any time you’re working with lye, it’s important to take safety precautions. Make sure you wear a respirator mask, safety googles and rubber gloves at all times and be very cautious as you work. Also, while we’re getting started, note that all temperatures here are listed in Farenheit. Now, onto the fun stuff!

Begin by putting the partially frozen goat’s milk into the bowl and slowly add the lye. Stir with your spatula until you’ve got a nice, smooth, lump-free mixture. Be very careful to go slowly; you don’t want to splash yourself. The contents of the bowl will get very hot, between 95-100 degrees. Set the bowl aside to cool down.

While your lye and milk mixture is cooling, melt your olive oil, coconut oil and shortening together and heat them to 90 degrees. This can be done in a pot you’ll continue to use for cooking as all these ingredients are food safe.

Once the goat’s milk and lye have cooled to about 90 degrees, add the oils to the lye mixture. Blend them with the immersion blender to combine. Note that if you’ve never used an immersion blender before, you may want to familiarize yourself with it before you use it for soapmaking. It does have a tendency to splash when used improperly – not something you want with lye! Be sure you understand how it works before you start blending your lye with it.

You’ll want to blend the oils into the lye and milk until you begin to see something soapmakers refer to as “tracing” – basically, the mixture becomes thicker and, if you turn the blender off and lift it out of the mixture, its drips will leave behind a noticeable trail in the bowl. Amy told me it would look a lot like a pancake batter, which indeed it did.

At trace, set the immersion blender aside and stir the mixture just a little bit with a spatula to eliminate any air bubbles. At this point, you can also blend in any essential oils you might like to use. In this batch we used about 25 drops of lavender and rosemary essential oil, but Amy recommends a full teaspoon’s worth of your essential oils for a stronger smell in the finished bars; ours came out a bit subtle. You can also blend in dried herbs at this stage – the amount you add is up to you.

If you’d like to top your soap with dried herbs (we used lavender, both on top of and mixed into the bars), sprinkle the herbs into the mold.

Pour the soap mixture into your mold or molds. Tap the bottom of the mold firmly but gently against the counter to even out the mixture’s distribution in the mold and place a piece of plastic wrap against the top of your soap. Leave your soap to set for 24 hours with the plastic wrap on; remove it and let the soap set an additional 24 hours with it off.

After 48 hours, you can remove the soap from the mold and, if needed, slice the large brick of soap into smaller bars. Set the soaps on the cookie rack to cure. They’ll need to cure for 3-4 weeks until they’ve hardened. While they’re curing, be sure to flip the bars every couple of days to ensure that both sides of the bars are getting the proper ventilation.