Friday, February 24, 2017

All Things New

I'm interrupting our regular Harry Potter programming to share a snippet of my crazy life.

You guys probably know that construction stuff has been going on at home and most days I get zero work done. It's hard, not being able to do work. If I were still a classroom teacher, I think I'd have been able to do most teacher tasks even while, say, living in the back of my car. I mean, I could grade lab reports while the world spun madly by outside. I could also still social-media my students to the moon and back. And I could write out lesson plans, proposals for a new pitching machine for the softball team, solicit cost estimates for costumes for the competition choir, and draft letters of recommendation for college applications on my laptop.

Motherhood + design work, though . . . not so much.

It still blows my mind how much unstructured creative space I need for designing and making. Unfortunately, there isn't much creative space in my life right now; all I have are discrete 15-minute-quanta of time-between-other-unpredictable-demands. Enough for a quick trip to the supermarket, a reply to someone's email about a sleeve drafting problem, or a fiddle with the loose screw in some kid's sunglasses (it takes me that long to find the screwdriver now that I don't know where the kitchen junk drawer is since, you know, there's no kitchen).

But nowhere near enough to conceptualize, incubate, or evolve an idea, let alone a working prototype.

I think I've finally come to terms with not actually being productive. Or, at least, productive in the way I think productive should look. Grand announcement: I have officially adjusted my expectations. Microwaving a meal in the bathroom is phenomenal! Getting all the laundry from one floor to the next without smearing paint or wood stain on anything is awesome! Lining up one thousand (okay, 15) Harry Potter party projects to auto-post is Nobel-prize-worthy! Even if I had to correct an average of one thousand (okay, 4) typos per post the second after they went live. Still Olympian-standard. Still productive.

And even if I haven't hand-made anything new in about a century (okay, 3 months) it's still okay.

Although not because my schedules and routines are currently bonkers.

Instead because "productive" as a classroom teacher is not the same as "productive" as an office worker is not the same as "productive" as a full-time mother is not the same as "productive" as a work-at-home parent who didn't manage to actually get any of that work done at the end of any given day.

I hereby cut myself some slack to redefine "productive".
And "hand-make".
And "new".

Let me show you something important now:

You all know this little sweetheart.

Her name is Bunny, and she is Kate's alter ego.

Almost four years ago, Kate asked for her for her birthday.
Almost four years ago, Bunny looked like this:

She looks a little different now.

We've all noticed it. 

But none more than Kate, who has been growing increasingly alarmed that Bunny's fur is a bit mangy, that her nose is sparse-ing out, that her neck has got a bit of a tragic kink. 

Although personally, that head tilt just about knocks me out every time.

And between you and me, for all the ways she is no longer pristine and cloud-fluffy, Bunny has a fabulous personality.

Especially when she and Kate Get Up To No Good together. They are a hoot. They make the best partners in crime. They inspire the most rip-roaring adventures and stories and skits.

She is, hands-down, the most productive bit of hand-made work I have ever performed.

But the fact remains: Bunny is not what she used to be.

A couple of years back, when the decline first became evident, Kate began making end-of-life plans for her favorite companion.

"You'd better start sewing a new Bunny, Mom," she warned me. "Bunny's fur is falling out."

Last week, she had a bit of a crisis. All at once, it hit her that Bunny was old. 
Old = Death, and Death = Loss, and Loss = well, let's not even go there.

Do not laugh. This is important to everyone, especially kids.

We tried euphemisms.

"Bunny is well-loved," we reframed.
True, but it was beside the point.

"Bunny hasn't got a single seam-hole," I pointed out, ever the perfectionist seamstress hell-bent on quality control.
True, but it was beside the point.

We offered fixes.

"We can bleach Bunny," we suggested. "Maybe light grey isn't the new white the media made it out to be."
Practical, but it was beside the point.

"We can sew Bunny a New-Fur suit," we said. 
Less practical, and still beside the point.

"I can make you a new bunny," I promised at last. After all, I'd done it once; I could do it again. (And this time I'm using the superior, ultra-expensive fur). 

Oh dear. Not only was that beside the point, it was also a travesty to even think it.

You see, Kate wanted Old Bunny with New Fur That Doesn't Scream Grief and Loss. Not New Bunny, or Cosmetically-Enhanced Bunny or even High Fashion Fur Coat Bunny. All ye with children-and-lovies will understand this.  

The negotiations went on for two days. 
Finally, we had a treatment plan: surgery - organ transplants and a nose job.

I gave Kate a little pill cutter and she shaved Bunny (and saved all the precious little grey fuzz balls in a bag).

And then I took the scalpel to her. It was surprisingly emotional.

Out came all the old, ineffectual stuffing, and in went brand new fluffy polyfill. And I re-stitched her nose and mouth.

Kate is pretty relieved by the outcome although it did take her a while to get used to Reinvented Old-Bunny. Understandably, Bunny post-op didn't look at all like comfortable old pre-op Bunny. For one, she gained a lot of weight and now sits without slouching. When it was all done, Kate took her to school to share the story of her surgery with her class. It was all deeply charming and happily-ever-after but right there in the middle of all that awwwww-ness was the tiniest bit of something melancholic: I missed her old floppiness and attitude; she's suddenly become proper and earnest, like a kid who's been told he must behave himself because he's old enough to know now what he didn't when the world was young and kind. 

Or maybe that's motherhood whispering about children instead, and innocence, and how quickly the universe demands they be ready to let theirs go. Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference.

We will be grafting on new foot pads next. But not just yet - too much all at once might feel like an overhaul. We don't want to accidentally lose Old Bunny, you see. And we're going to coax out her old spunk and personality once again. Already, Bunny is asserting herself with a hint of her trademark sass, declaring that she's off carrots for the indefinite future because she maybe she ate too much too fast and needs a brand new wardrobe and whoa, she can totally hold her head high now and laugh at the days to come.

And that is my life snippet. When designing and creating, I've always preferred to make something new from scratch over restoring something old, because that's the way to challenge dime-a-dozen and push the frontiers of amazingness. I've never been gladder to be wrong.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Harry Potter Party: Brooms

Broomsticks today!

Of all the takeaways at Emily's Harry Potter party, these broomsticks were by far the most challenging to conceptualize. For one, there were no convenient versions on the internet that satisfied the list of mental conditions Emily had for what her broomsticks needed to look like. For another, we were mass-producing a thing which even the simplest of those internet versions claimed to require a lot of time and effort. Finally, for the longest time, Emily and I were also not on the same page regarding the finished look: I visualized a practical Walmart kitchen broom with its bristles splayed out, and Emily envisioned . . . well, the Firebolt. 

Unbelievably, we did actually design a mass-produceable version that looked quite like what Emily had pictured. We are happy to share that with you today!

If I were making just one (instead of 12), I'd have done it a little differently. For the broom handle, for instance, I'd have waited instead till I found an actual tree branch that was charmingly bent, and perhaps used actual bristles or thin twigs. 

This mass-produceable version, though, uses straight dowels and papier mache - not necessarily cheaper, but we had a lot more control over obtaining  and working with our materials.

First, start with dowels. We bought 7/8"-diameter dowels from the craft store. These came as 36" (1 yard) lengths, which was not quite long enough for a broom+bristles, but we found a way to extend the length in a later step.

These we spray-painted brown.

Next, we wrapped a piece of cardboard around one end as shown. This was for two reasons:
  1. 36" was not long enough to make a proportionate-looking broom+bristles, This roll of cardboard added a few much-needed inches.
  2. Rather than gluing the crumpled paper (see later step) directly to the dowel, we glued that to this cardboard layer. This way, if someday we wanted to re-use our dowels, we'd just cut off the cardboard layer and poach back that dowel.

Back on task now - wrap cardboard around one end of the dowel, so that the dowel only protrudes into it partway. We used cereal box cardboard, backs of writing pads and notebooks, etc. The exact size of the cardboard doesn't matter, but ours was roughly 4.5" x 11" (or the back of an 8.5" x 11" notebook cut down the middle to make two narrow rectangles). Our dowel end was roughly 6" into the cardboard.

Apply glue as needed

to wrap and secure the cardboard around the end of the dowel

like so.

Now rip up one grocery sack.

Crush pieces into lumps.

Hot-glue them around the cardboard tube, filling the middle portion more fully than the ends - this is meant to be blimp-shaped.

These crushed lumps create a form on which to apply the papier mache. Emily's original idea was to use a drinking water bottle shoved onto the end of the dowel for a form. We tried that, and found it too skinny and short. 

Here's a whole bunch of lumpy-ended broomsticks.

Next, tape over all hollows with masking tape. This helps smooth out the surface on which to lay the papier mache pieces. You can also use the tape to fine-tune the shape of the form.

Mix up a batch of papier mache paste, using flour+water or glue+water. We prefer the latter, because it dries faster and does not smell weird.

Cut butcher paper (or brown paper or newspaper) into squares, dip in the paste and layer over the form.

No need to make it uniform or symmetrical - there is a certain charm in those weird contours.

Tear (or cut) another grocery sack into long strips slightly longer than the form. Ours were about 13" long.

Dip the strips in paste and lay them lengthwise on the form, overlapping to cover the flat squares underneath.

Two things to note here:
  1. at the bottom end of the form (where the form joins the dowel) extend the strips beyond the form to rest on the dowel. You will be tying cord around this later.
  2. at the top end of the form, you will be shaping the ends of the brown strips to a point. See the next photo for this.

The finished papier-mache layers should look something like this:

When the papier mache is dry (ours took two days), paint everything. I actually liked the natural color of the brown paper, but the white paper layer was visible through the strips, so we had to paint everything (also to cover the red print on some of the strips). If you'd like to keep yours natural, be sure to use brown paper in the first layer, too.

The tips will have dried hard.

as will the ends at the bottom of the form.

Apply hot glue and wrap twine or cord around the lower end of the form to finish the look.

Finished broomstick!

On the day of the party, we provided metallic Sharpies for guests to inscribe the name their brooms on the dowels: Nimbus 2000, Firebolt, etc.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Harry Potter Party: Galleons & Money Bags

One of the things we like about prepping for parties is being able to use a wide variety of materials to make the various props and take-aways. When were planning Emily's Harry Potter party, she decided very early in the conceptualization process that she wanted actual currency to be exchanged for the goods in Diagon Alley. Also that the money had to be kept in a bank vault, and withdrawn by each guest the way Harry Potter himself had done in Book 1, when he'd discovered to his astonishment that, rather than dirt poor as he'd been led by his foster parents to believe, he was actually filthy rich.

The books record several denominations of coins, but we thought we'd simplify things at our party and just pick one - Galleons.

To make our Galleons, we considered several options, including the small wooden disks that I painted for coins for my Wooden Bakeshop. We didn't have nearly enough on hand for what we needed for each guest, so we turned to salt clay - cheap, homemade-from-scratch, and easy to mass-produce.

The recipe we usually use is a hybrid of this and this. It's different every time, but our flour to salt ratio is roughly 3:1. I also can't remember the temperature we baked our salt dough at, but I've learned that the exact temperature and time aren't important - the thicker the pieces are, the longer they take to cook through, so I often opt for a slightly lower temperature (so they don't brown too quickly) and bake them for longer. 

Here are some shots of Emily making the Galleons. She rolled out the dough and cut out 1" circles.

It was the perfect kind of busy work for an audio book.

When the discs were baked and cooled, they were painted with metallic gold acrylic paint.

When the paint was dry, Emily wrote "1 Galleon" on every one.

Next, she made money bags.

If you'd rather not eyeball your own, we'll be including our template for this money bag in the pdf file for you to download at the end of all the party posts. 

Here are the instructions to make the bag.

Cut out two bag shapes and with RS together, sew around the sides and rounded bottom to create a pouch that's open along the top edge (left in the picture below). Turn RS out (right in the picture below).

Cut four slits about 1" from the top edge on both sides of the pouch. Cut two lengths of ribbon or cord 2.5 x as long as the width of the pouch. Weave one ribbon/cord through the slits as shown. 

Continue weaving around the other side of the pouch and tie the two ends together.

Weave the other ribbon/cord through the same slits, beginning at the seam without the knotted ends.

Weave all around the other side of the pouch and tie the ends of this second ribbon/cord together. you will now have two ribbons/cords threaded through the same slits, but whose ends are knotted at opposite seams of the pouch.

Pull both ribbons/cords to close the pouch. All finished!

These were easy to mass-produce, although cutting the slits was a bit mind-numbing, as Emily will testify.

Finally, Emily made these vault keys from colored polymer clay like this. She wrote a different vault number on each, totally for fun, because we didn't have actual vaults they would correspond to. This was entirely because we lacked a bank helper on the day of the party and guests simply grabbed a pouch of Galleons off the table at the Gringotts "station". If we'd had a helper, we would've loved to have set up a cubby hole or letter-box system for a key-for-money-bag exchange.

We threaded the keys onto narrow ribbon lanyards and gave them to each guest to wear around their necks when they arrived for the party.