Friday, January 25, 2019

Cardboard Cat Tunnel

Dungeon-lighting photos in today's post (thanks, winter). 

It sounds like we're entering the cold snap at last, friends-who-live-in-the-Northern-hemisphere. Last night my kids were waiting with bated breath for the phone call to say the district was closing the schools because of the wind chill. Didn't happen. Frigid as today is, it didn't make the negative-35 windchill quota. Apparently we're made of sterner stuff in MN than most. 

So with the children all bundled up onto the school buses and off to lessons, I'm home alone today, trying to decide between laundry, filing tax returns or blogging. 


Blogging it is, then!

By the by, I hope you guys aren't bored with all the recent cat posts. They won't go on forever, I promise. I like to think of them really as cardboard posts, with some cat cameos, in the same way that so many of my other posts are sewing posts in which my children model clothes as supporting actors. 

Today's post is about an almost-fail cat tunnel. I made it while cleaning my sewing room out of all the cardboard leftovers from another project (not cat-related, and about which I will blog soon) and watched the cats dart in and out of random boxes. I remembered reading somewhere online that cats liked poking their paws into holes to get stuff, but that holes were dangerous if they were large enough to tempt them to also poke their heads into. So I wondered if I could make them a box with politically-correct-sized holes in the walls to play poke-a-paw with. 

Then I remembered that unlike the claustrophobic humans who raise them, cats adore fewer things more than hiding under sofas, in the dishwasher and other stupid-tiny spaces. So I made them a tunnel instead.

It's quite daft, as you can see. It's literally a large piece of cardboard that curves over and is glued to a flat base. I cut out six windows - three on each side.

If this had been superior cardboard, the physics of convex curves would dictate that the roof be strong enough to hold its shape as is under jumping cats and the accidentally-misplaced human foot. This cardboard remnant, however, was a bit saggy, so I added a supporting post at each of the two entrances. You can see it to the left of Milo's head in this next photo, as well as in the other photos following.

I initially wanted to title this post Cardboard Tunnel Fail because after I'd made it and triumphantly presented it to the cats, they completely ignored it. Sniffed it with polite interest, yes, then turned their backs on it and went off to roughhouse inside a random storage basket. 

Later that day, however, the husband reported that the cats were playing with it after all. I was surprised but somewhat suspicious - how many times have my own children done something similar with clothes I've made them? You know the ones they wear just once because they're new and fun, and then never again?

Interestingly, it's been almost a week and the cats are still playing with the tunnel. Well, then. 

So I took some sequence-shots (which, if we squint just so, we can pretend are a still-frame video of sorts).

And here is a solo shot of Milo's paw trying to get at stuff (mouse? pompom? Heaven only knows) through one of the windows.

The upside of cardboard cat toys - apart from the actual cardboardness - is being able to recycle them once the cats have lost interest in or totally wrecked them. I know I'll feel sad dismantling everything and tossing it into the bin, but it won't feel like money down the drain because they cost practically nothing to make. 

The downside, however, is using up actual cardboard to make them - cardboard I was secretly scheming to save and turn into an avant-garde scratching recliner furniture thing. Which I can't now, obviously, because I don't have any cardboard left. This is the sad reality of opportunity cost. 

Or a sign that I might need to start hoarding cardboard again. 

*pregnant pause as my eyes light with wicked gleam*


P.S. Stay warm and safe, friends. Next week it's supposed to dip so low that school might actually be canceled for real.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Tote Bag Teen Sewalong

Last summer, one of Emily's good friends spent some time sewing at our house. She came on random afternoons whenever she was available, and stayed half a day at a time to work on projects. Emily and her friend, who are both 14, have both been sewing for many years, mostly by hand but occasionally and with some guidance, with the machine. Her friend asked me if she could learn to sew together, and listed out some types of projects she was particularly interested in, and we got to work. 

Our first project was a lined zippered pencil case, which I unfortunately have no photos of. This was the method we used, and we drafted our pattern from random measurements we thought would look good as a receptacle for writing instruments. We cut and sewed our pencil cases in one afternoon, and it was an enjoyable instant-gratification piece.

Our second project was a tote bag. We talked about the easier unlined kinds which would have taken us half the time to construct, but decided that for the purposes Emily and her friend intended for their new bags (carrying library books and items for sleepovers), a lined bag might be more durable.

On the first day we got together, we went shopping for fabric. It was just as well that we decided to line the bags because it was hard to choose just one fabric from the mind-boggling variety in the store. Each girl picked a home-dec weight fabric for the outer layer and a quilting-weight cotton for the lining, and planned to use one of the many solid duckcloths from my stash for the straps and base.  Then we returned to the house and drafted our pattern, again based on dimensions we thought would produce a bag of useful finished size. The girls also cut out all the fabric and interfacing pieces, and ironed them. We pieced and sewed the remnants into a patch pocket. There was no time to do anything else beyond that, so we called it a day.

Several weeks later we were able to get together again, and the girls sewed their bags. The sewing techniques were simple (straight lines, side seams, a simple corner dart) but because of the layers and band detail around the base (which involved edge-stitching), it took us the entire day. 

The outcome, though, was fantastic. The bags are a good size - maybe 16" across, if I remember right. The straps are made with the same coordinating fabric as the base panel.

This is the inside of Emily's bag, with the little patch pocket on the inside, made from remnant scraps.

This is the inside of the bag Emily's friend made.

Emily and her friend have both used their totes many, many times since making them. I'm certain that a large part of the motivation is having sewn the bags themselves. That said, I'm also certain that custom-making a bag with dimensions to accommodate specific needs is also a huge factor in final usability. After all, some of my favorite bags are the ones which are "a good size" for whatever I need them for. And I often hear similar feedback in many reviews of bags and sewing patterns for bags. For instance, hardly anyone says, "the fabric I chose is so amazing and matches everything I wear!" Rather, they tend to say, "the bag is a good size, so I use it all the time."

If you're interested in working with a young seamstress, I highly recommend a project like this, because the sense of accomplishment at the end is so encouraging and the end product very practical and useful. Some specific thoughts:

One, this is not an independent sewing project for beginners, however. They will need guidance, especially in selecting fabric to produce something like they're used to seeing in stores. The firmer structures of commercial bags compared to home-made ones tend to be the result of interfacing combined with more robust fabrics, which in turn, require different techniques for making, say, the straps (you wouldn't be able to turn out a double-seamed reinforced canvas strap as easily as a cotton one, for instance). 

Two, depending on the details added (or omitted) the level of difficulty of a tote bag can be varied to fit the skill and attention level of the seamstress. Including a lining is a simple addition - although it requires additional time to make this second layer, it is essentially an identical structure to the main (outer) bag and involves the same techniques to construct. It does, however, change the method of installing straps. See this post for more explanation.

Adding a pocket can increase the challenge level - depending on the kind of pocket. A patch pocket is the simplest variety, while zippered pockets can range from medium- to higher-fiddliness, especially if you include a welt opening in its design. For inspiration and instruction on different kinds of pockets, you might find my pocket tutorial series helpful, in particular the classic (unlined) patch pocket and zippered welt pocket.

Three, sewing a tote bag will probably require more time than you'd initially imagined you needed. At its simplest, a tote bag is a double-layered rectangle with three closed sides and straps attached, which could be completed in a couple of hours. However, a lining, pockets, color-blocking, a reinforced base, interfacing and the separate construction of the straps (as opposed to using ready-made webbing) will all add time to the process, as will drafting the pattern from scratch and/or including fabric shopping in the sewing experience. So plan for at least two sessions, maybe three if your young seamstress is also new at using a machine and would benefit from some familiarization with it.

Happy sewing!

Monday, January 14, 2019

Cardboard Cat Tower

There's something about cats and cardboard, I've heard. 

Take scratching toys, for instance. Until I had cats, I had no idea there were such things as corrugated cardboard scratching recliners and scratching hangers. And then when I first heard about them, I couldn't decide if I was thrilled or offended. I mean, it seemed exceedingly disrespectful to cardboard that something be made from it with the sole function of being clawed to death.

Then it came to my attention that in some cases, cats actually preferred these cardboard scratching things over the more traditional ropey or carpety ones. 

And I wondered if instead of the feral monsters with a nasty penchant for willful destruction, maybe cats were discerning creatures with taste, after all. Which was later confirmed with the arrival of a truckload of amazon shipping crates (as so often happens during the Advent season): after they were divested of their contents, the kittens spent many happy hours energetically jumping into and hiding in the empty boxes. 

"Ah", thought I with deep contentment as I watched them, "we are knit together in soul, for we love similarly."

Then, later, having purchased our litter boxes and finding ourselves one short, we sacrificed one of those amazon cardboard boxes to fill in (literally). Well, of course weren't foolish enough to just dump litter in as is - we had more respect for cardboard than that! We lined it with packing tape first to waterproof it and then dumped the litter in it.

Guess what? The kittens did not use it. 

And my esteem for cats as a species shot through the roof. 

Because clearly, these marvelous animals not only appreciated cardboard as a superior entity in itself but also knew innately to reserve it for only the noblest uses. 

It is an evolutionary triumph in no uncertain terms.

Thus inspired, I set forth to construct for them an Emergency Climbing Toy.

The progress of which I shall share in excruciating detail, but first, some preamble.

I am not a cat expert. I have close to zero experience with cats, but I have received helpful advice about Climbing and Scratching and Claw Sheaths and Muscle Stretching and Elevated Vantage Points, all of which pointed to the need for some kind of thing for kittens to sink their tiny little talons into and clamber up and down. It was either that, the internet said, or we say goodbye to our furniture. I quite like our furniture, so I was sold. That said, cat towers are enormous and our house isn't set up to easily accommodate anything of that size. Plus they're pricey. And being barely weeks to Christmas, we weren't ready to do the research to find a tolerable non-behemoth with decent reviews.

So we bought sisal cord with the intention of wrapping a trashcan to turn into a decorative and functional planter that might also serve as a scratcher. Clever improvisation, we thought.

Then the kittens grew overnight and before we knew it, were themselves taller than the trashcan.

While all around me, the closer we drew to Christmas, the mountain of cardboard and cardboard boxes grew. 

Obviously, it was a sign. 

So I did the only thing I could. 

I began to build. 

It took a while, because I had to devise ways to make the structure strong enough to support not only the weight of two growing kittens, but also be stable enough under the forces of their motion and play while on it. 

And grow they did, incidentally. I had to enlarge the arched opening at least twice during the build. 

This is the lower of the two platforms which rests on a pair of narrow tubes. 

Incidentally, Maisy and Milo would come and visit every time I sat down to work. Not only on this project, but every other one, really - and they are little rascals, it turned out. The surface of my measuring tape is now pocked with little teeth marks, and they will insist on slinking by and sitting exactly where I need to draw a seamline on my drafting paper. Above all, if having toddlers around glue guns and scissors was a hazard before, it's nothing compared to kittens. Infinite safety considerations. And so much fur to get stuck on masking tape. Yet they are so delightfully curious about everything, and so easily impressed by even the least interesting scrappy bits of randomness. It's like being alive for the first time just to watch them.

But let's move on. 

The platform itself is a thick flat rectangle of cardboard wrapped around with fleece. The supporting posts are two wrapping paper tubes wrapped in upholstery fabric that has a short pile, like a very bald carpet. Maisy, it later turned out, loved scratching them.

Here is a view of the underside showing the supporting beam between the posts.

The posts extend to the bottom of the structure and are held in place with two side flaps and an inverted corner. Even without glue, this combination produces a really effective and snug hold. Plus, it's so easy. First, fold down the natural top flaps of the box so they lie against the inside of the box. Slice about 1.5" through the fold at the corner of the box to enable you to bend about 1.5" of the flap back on either side of the corner. This makes two side flaps as shown, between which you can shove the tube. The natural tension of the cardboard will make the side flaps want to straighten out, which grips the tube between them.

That inverted corner is simply two horizontal slits cut into the corner of the box and pushed inward to create a square collar into which the tube fits. The tubes I had on hand were not as long as I needed, so I propped them up with that cube of thick cardboard which added a good 2" to their height.

Here is the view from the outside of the box - you can see the two slits that created the inverted corner on either side. You can also see where the blue fabric-covered posts insert into the box, the rough edges where the fold of the box flaps has been cut to create the side flaps.

Now let's dissect the higher platform. This one has a backrest and the sisal tower underneath, which had to be secured with an inset joint (i.e. I cut a cavity in the underside of the platform so the top 3/4" of the tower could be recessed into it) and four tabs through the top of the platform, which are visible in the photo. Also visible in the photo is a black shadow which is Milo. This platform, like the earlier one, would later be padded with stuffing and covered in fleece for traction (cardboard is slippery!)

This is the sisal climbing tower. It's sisal cord wrapped around and glued to a rigid cardboard mailing tube.

The under-support was the most complicated part of the structure to get right. First, the flat supporting platform on which the sisal tower sits was made from the natural flap of the box reinforced with thicker cardboard underneath. This extra thickness allowed me to cut out another circular cavity into which to recess the bottom end of the sisal tower. Supporting everything were three mailing tubes 

held in place against the walls with more collars.

Here is the finished Cat Tower. I took these pictures last week, after the kittens have been at it for over a month. The black fleece is a bit beat up, and in some of the later pictures you can see glue that dried on the backrest of the upper platform where I spilled it. 

When I next remember, I must stick some fabric on the cardboard surface beside the base of the sisal tower - when the kittens jump onto it, it's a little slippery.

Here are the cats playing on it.

Already they're outgrowing it, but it was nice to be able to customize a smaller structure for them while they're littler, and then toss it out when they've outgrown it. The roll of sisal cord was only $12, of which I used about 1/4, and everything else was already in the house for free.

Another nice thing about customizing a cat tower is adding dangly things to entice the kittens to come and play. During Christmastime, it was curling ribbon.

Other non-holiday items included pompoms 


and random ribbons

It's held up to a lot of goofing off and roughhousing

You might notice in the pictures that there are two heavy books on the bottom flaps of the box. Having the flaps splayed outward on the floor is an aid to stability but as the kittens get bigger and heavier, they needed the added weight of the books to steady the entire structure.

And what of the surplus sisal cord? 

I turned some of it into cat toys.

They're simply sisal cord wrapped around a skinny cardboard inner tube, with feathers glued to the ends.

The cats liked them for a while.

But I suspect they secretly prefer chewing on random cardboard scraps left over from the build. Who wouldn't, really?