Sunday, April 26, 2009

Happy Easter!

Don't bother telling me the title of this entry is two weeks late. That said, I grew up with two older sisters. I was the queen of hand-me-downs. My mother even says that I helped my sisters pick out their clothes because I knew I'd end up with them eventually. But my mom always made sure that, even though the bulk of my wardrobe was previously-worn, I got a few new things of my own every year. At the beginning of the school year, I'd get to pick out a few new things (including the all-important first-day-of-school outfit, which I usually also wore on the also important Picture Day). I would also get a new dress for Christmas and another for Easter. These, combined with whichever clothes in the big bags in the basement happened to fit, gave me quite a nice assortment of school clothes and church dresses to wear all year long.

I've tried, with varying amounts of success, to follow the tradition over the years. I do generally start every school year (when I'm in school) with a new outfit, and I frequently make myself a new winter dress in time for Christmas and a spring-summer type dress for Easter. This year, I decided I wanted an Easter dress. I had all the fabric by the Friday before Easter, so my plan was to wash it at my parents' house (the fabric is all 100% cotton, so pre-washing is a very good idea), then cut it out and maybe even start sewing while the rest of my laundry was being washed. I did get the fabric (and the rest of my clothes) washed, but a combination of other things coming up and my inherent laziness prevented the project from going any further that day.

Finally this weekend I ironed all the fabric--four different pieces--and started cutting out. I decided to use one of my favorite patterns (the one from which I previously cannibalized a sleeve piece) but with, as usual, some changes.
The v-shaped neckline is somewhat precariously low in its plunge. I wanted to fill it in a bit, but am not a fan of the dicky look. While brainstorming different options, I realized that the crossed-over bodice and wide midriff faux-sash reminded me of a kimono and obi. Since I had been wanting a dress out of a Japanese-type print anyway, I knew what I could do to raise the neckline a little. Kimonos are worn with several other light robes underneath, with the layers arranged to show neatly at the neckline. Therefore, my plan was to mimic this look.

I selected a purple fabric with a Japanese-style floral print reminiscent of the decorative washi papers I've used to cover boxes and eggs. In addition, I got two plain purple fabrics, one a light purple and the other a pinkish purple, and some white cotton.
As I was cutting out the pattern pieces, I primarily followed View C, which has the sleeves I wanted and is all one fabric. However, I cut the midriff section and tie ends out of the light purple. I mostly sewed the dress according to the pattern directions, with two exceptions: before overlapping the bodice pieces and basting, I cut (well, tore, actually) strips of the pinkish-
purple, folded and ironed them, and zig-zagged the unfinished edges, then sewed them along the front panel edges with 1/4" showing. This was done in order to add a contrast color, highlight the crossed-over nature of the bodice, and begin filling in the neckline.
1 5/8" from the top of the piece, I slanted the strip down to meet the shoulder seam which would be sewn at 5/8" from the top.

Also, although the pattern directs to lap the right side over the left, I switched it to left over right, after checking several images of Japanese women in kimono to see which way is correct for that look.

From this point, I proceeded as normal. After the dress was complete, I cut (well, tore, again, since that's the easiest way I know to get woven cotton into even strips when I don't have a pattern piece) strips of the light purple and white. I measured and placed the light purple so that a bare 1/8" would be exposed, and also tapered it toward the shoulder line in placing. The white was exposed 3/8", and also carried around the back of the neck.
These changes resulted in the point of the neckline being raised a full 1 1/4", while looking intentional and designed-in (dickies always look a little last-minute and unthought to me, which is why I wanted to avoid that solution). Also, the layered neckline allowed me to use a fabric that is really a little to yellow for my skin tone, because the final white layer is more flattering to me. he end result is a fun dress that I have made my own--and that I can bow in safely!
Oh, and I also used leftover fabric to make a head sash. In these pictures, I've tucked up the tied ends.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Rubber ducky, you're the one!

The April EtsyFAST challenge theme is "Just Ducky". I felt like going with a rather literal interpretation of the theme and work out a small motif shaped like the stereotypical bath toy. I decided the best way to go was to make a simple braid outline, similar to the one I used for the heart earrings, but with a plaited filling rather than a torchon-type ground.

The first difficulty I encountered was how to create the narrow, tapered shape needed for a beak. I remembered a design I once saw, which used a leaf-shaped tally for a bird's beak. I made the drawing for the pricking based on this idea, and added in a spot for a small seed bead to be worked in, representing the duck's eye.
Next, I scanned the drawing in to my computer and mirrored the image so that I can make a ducky facing whichever direction I like. After printing the design, I cut it down to a square. I prepared the pricking by using clear contact paper to stick the printed design onto a slighlty larger square cut from a file folder. Finally, I used a pin to poke holes in all the designated spots.
For working the lace, I decided on a very bright yellow cotton sewing-weight thread. I also got some bright orange cotton thread for the beak, and tiny size 15 black seed beads for the eyes.
Now, a tally is worked using only two pairs of bobbins. Each bobbin is used singly as one is woven back and forth, forming a small, dense shape. So in order to make the beak a different color from the rest of the lace, I started by hanging in the two pairs of yellow-wound bobbins as usual, but instead of using one of them to weave the beak, I hung in a single orange-wrapped bobbin as well. I used the two center bobbins as one. The method I learned for making tallies includes tying the worker thread around one of the others at the beginning and end anyway, so that made a convenient way to bring the contrast thread in and out.
After working the beak and removing the single orange bobbin, I added in more bobbins for a total of seven pairs and worked in cloth stitch to the eye. I incorporated the bead using my amazingly helpful teeny teeny tiny 0.4 mm crochet hook, then worked on around, completing the head in straightforward cloth stitch. For the body, I used a simple braid: cloth stitch with twists setting off the outside edge. As I worked it, i found a few spots where I preferred the pins to be place closer in. So I poked new holes and moved the pins. After completing the body and discarding most of the threads, I kept two pairs to form one side of the plaited filling, and added in two more pairs for the other half.
I plaited the filling pairs a little, worked the pairs through each other at the crossing, and continued on to a couple of picots. After another crossing and finishing off, the ducky was done!
But I wasn't completely satisfied with my little duck. The contrast beak was fantastic, but the way I added the additional pairs in left a gap. Also, the plaited filling didn't seem quite stable, due in part to the fact that I have not yet fully mastered right-hand picots, I expect.
So for the next ducky, I started with three pairs, with each pair used as a single thread in the tally when woven with the orange. This made the transition from the beak to the head much more smooth, but does make the beak tally a little wider. Since rubber duckies don't usually have sharp beaks, that didn't bother me. For the filling, I skipped the picots altogether, and just sewed the plaits to pinholes to make the shape. Happy with this one, I went on and made another the same way, and made them into a slightly silly pair of earrings!

I have an idea for using the same pricking to make some more realistically-colored ducks, so stay tuned for an update when I complete them!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Spangled Midland does not refer to bellybutton rings.

I've mentioned before that I make lace bobbins. I made a couple of pairs last week, so I'll share step-by-step how I do it. If you happen to have wood lathe experience, you probably have the skills to do this, too. But there is no need to follow the same steps as I do...this is what works well for me, but I will probably continue to refine my process.

As I discussed before, the elements of a Spangled Midland style lace bobbin are:

1. the thistle top, so named for its shape, and which provides a useful location for the special knot used to hold the thread at a given length, yet easily unwind additional thread.
2. the neck, onto which the reserve of thread is wound
3. the handle, which is used for manipulating the thread and generally has decorative cuts
4. the spangle, which provides weight for maintaining tension, keeps the bobbin from rolling, and is pretty.

In this example, I turned the bobbin out of a 3/8" diameter birch dowel. I like using dowels because it saves a whole lot of time compared to roughing from square stock. However, I've only found a fairly small selection of hardwood dowels, so beyond birch, oak, walnut, and cherry, I use pen blanks.
As shown above, I set up about a 6" length in a headstock drill chuck, supported at the tailstock end by a 60 degree cone point live center. I start with cutting the thistle top at the tailstock end. First I cut the angled top,
followed by a simple bead to form the bottom of the thistle shape.
Then, in several passes I cut a narrow neck about 1" long.
After marking off the final length (total length should be 4" to 4 1/2", but should be the same for both bobbins in the pair), I cut a decorative design in the handle. I don't plan it ahead of time, but just follow the whim of the moment. Likewise, I don't try to make both bobbins of a pair match...the second one never looks as good, and the pairs generally don't stay together through the lacemaking process, anyway. However, I do use the first bobbin as a reference for the second, so that the dimensions of the thistle top, neck, and length, will be about the same.

I sand the bobbin with strips of sandpaper, starting with whichever grit seems necessary based on the cleanness of the cuts, and progress down to very fine grit. The neck and thistle top in particular need to be very smooth, so that the thread will unwind smoothly. Finally, to cut off the bobbin, I use a skew chisel to cut down to a narrow point and finally part it off. I've tried using parting chisels for this, but the skew just seems to work better and give a better looking end.
I use tung oil to finish the bobbins. Then, I drill a small hole at the end of the bobbin for the spangle. I cut a few inches of brass wire and thread it through the hole, leaving the bobbin hanging in the middle of the wire. (the spangling pictures are taken using a cherry bobbin I had on hand, because I didn't think to take pictures while I was spangling the birch pair.)
Next I slide on beads symetrically on either side, finishing with one large bead. I do not use plastic beads, as they don't seem to give enough weight.
I cut the wire on one side, near the last bead. With a pair of pliers, I form a small loop. Then I pull the other end of the wire snugly through the loop, cut off near the loop, and form another loop, linking them together.

With the pliers, I pinch the loops flat, then pull the large bead over the connection. And then the bobbin is complete and ready to use!
And here is the cherry pair I made last week:

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Semi-Annual Cheesecake

When I had roommates, I had a standing offer to make a cheesecake any time they bought enough cream cheese for me to do so. Although the offer was not taken very often, I also started a tradition that guarantees I make at least two cheesecakes per year. On the first Saturdays of April and November, I make a baked cheesecake. I eat the first piece for breakfast the next morning. I frequently have the second piece for lunch and so forth… I also give away pieces of cheesecake, as I really should not eat the whole thing myself.

With only one exception that I can remember, I use the same basic recipe every time. I won’t type it all out here, but it is the Lindy’s Cheesecake recipe from my big Betty Crocker cookbook. It calls for 40 ounces of cream cheese. It also calls for grated lemon and orange peel, but I don’t think I have ever included that. A 9” springform pan is specified, and you should trust the recipe on that. The first few times I made this recipe, I kept having problems with the edges burning. Finally I measured the pan I was using and realized it was too big. I got myself a nine-inch pan and haven’t had any problems since.

I have a couple of tried and true variations on the recipe (cherry-chocolate and turtle), but this time I decided I wanted to try something different. I had a bottle of almond extract on hand and a bag of sweetened shredded coconut, so I picked up a can of crushed pineapple to round it out. I had thought of this combination before, but was nervous about the effect the juiciness of the pineapple would have on the texture of the cheesecake. So, while I prepared the crust (it’s a from-scratch cookie type crust—if you don’t have that cookbook, get it, it’s a great general resource) and the filling, I had half the pineapple from the can sitting in a strainer over a bowl. Every so often I’d press it with a spoon or spatula to encourage more juice to drip out. After I’d finished mixing the cream cheese filling according to the recipe (leaving out the zests), I mixed in some almond extract. I measured out a ¼ teaspoon, tasted, thought it needed some more, and added a little more without measuring. I guess that’s what recipe-writers mean when they say to add something “to taste”. Just before pouring the filling into the pan, I folded in the strained pineapple and about half a cup of coconut, stirring by hand to distribute throughout. The rest of the baking and chilling was according to the recipe.
This morning, I decided a nice crunchy topping would be a good finishing touch. First I toasted some coconut (keeping an eye on it to keep it from burning) and then toasted some sliced almonds.

I arranged the coconut and almonds in circles on top of the chilled cheesecake, then sprinkled brown sugar over it all.
With the oven set to “Broil”, I stuck the cheesecake in to carmelize the sugar. I quickly realized that I shouldn’t have pre-toasted the coconut, as it continued to brown (and burn a little) while broiling. So I pulled it out a little sooner than planned, leaving some of the sugar unmelted.
Even though the coconut and almonds are a little more toasted than planned, it’s still really good cheesecake. The pineapple did not mess up the texture at all and gives subtle flavor, plus a little extra juice when I bite into a bit of fruit. This would probably also be good if coconut extract or (possibly) pineapple extract were used instead of the almond flavoring. Also, I think that next time I want to try this type of topping, I will rub some softened butter into the brown sugar.