Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Halloween 2021

Thought I'd share what the kids wore on Halloween. The oldest no longer dresses up to go Trick-or-Treating, and prefers instead to hand out candy at the door, welcoming the neighborhood kids and admiring their costumes. It's so much fun to see the tiny princesses and puppies and dinosaurs and superheroes and bioluminescent sea creatures come toddling up the walkway, with their parents a prudent arm's length behind, smiling proudly. We love the handmade costumes especially - and I'm always doubly impressed when these handmade wonders are also toasty warm. It brings up memories of sewing for my own kids, when I was inordinately obsessed with protecting them from hypothermia. There was always the danger of the additional insulation compromising the overall aesthetic of the final product, with everyone possibly looking like the Michelin Man instead of a princess, or fairy, or whatever fantasy creature they'd hoped to be. 

In recent years, my two younger girls have been making costumes for themselves and a neighbor with whom they do the candy circuit as a themed group. They know they're a little overage, and they assure me it's more about the dressing up with a friend than the snagging of sweets. On my part, I am well aware that their Trick-or-Treating days are numbered, and I marvel at how those years of manic October sewing, when my sewing room would be a disaster zone of satin and organza and fleece and sequins, and which I was convinced were never-ending, were so fleeting in hindsight. Friends who have Little Ones, I tell you now as an Old Parent: take photos. Take lots of photos, and enjoy the mania. For one, it's acutely temporary. For another, it's good practice for when those same Little Ones are Teenagers and Young Adults and Soon-To-Be-Marrieds. Those outfits are going to require higher-stakes work, and you'll be glad for the dry runs that were the Halloween costumes of yore.

Anyway, this past Halloween, two of my girls were frogs. They tell me that these particular outfits, which Kate designed and made, are more interpretative than literal. There are hats (which we bought online so as to save time instead of sewing them from scratch like we did the year before) to which Kate added puffy eyes and facial features; T-shirts with a subtle black-felt fly glued on, and tutus, which we made together.

Here they are, just before heading out on their rounds. 

Interestingly, their hats turned out to be versatile beyond just Halloween. Some days after, during a swim meet, the athletes who were not on the roster for the day dressed up as Disney princesses in support of their teammates. Jenna turned up with her frog hat as her only piece of costumewear and when asked whom she was impersonating, she replied, "Tiana - as a frog". Hee!

Friday, November 26, 2021

Mini Painting Kit Sale!

Happy Thanksgiving, friends!

I hope this has been a restful weekend - whether or not you celebrate Thanksgiving, this time of the year can get so busy with all the preparations for the year-end holidays. We got together with family yesterday and ate and talked and marveled at a year that began in such a shroud of uncertainty and dread. Can you believe that this is the same year in which vaccines were made available? It feels like that happened last year, not this spring. I am thankful for so much, and grieving so much, and trying to train my body to relax again. After a year of simmering anxiety, I've realized I need to relearn how to feel okay. And has that been that way for you? Has it surprised you as much as it has me, how all that has happened in just this one year?

I am happy to report that in a year of ups and downs, Emily's Etsy shop Lavender Chai has been one of the definite ups. 

Initially started as a Covid-lockdown experiment in the early spring of last year, it's blossomed into a delightful pastime and kept her steadily occupied as during the past summer breaks and well into the school year also. She's launched 30 new products, including new mini painting kits and bundles, and has loads of ideas for more to come. 

This weekend, she's having a huge sale, so I'm helping to spread the word here on the old blog:

there are discounts on all items in the store,

plus freebies!

There's also a limited-time deal on her popular monthly mini-painting kit subscriptions (currently available as 3-month and 6-month options). The 25% discount doesn't apply to the subscriptions - instead, you'll get an extra month free when you sign up for a new subscription during the sale.

These mini-painting kits make fun and unique stocking stuffers and are wonderful gifts for friends and loved ones excited about picking up a new skill. But don't forget to treat yourself to a kit (or two or five!) to enjoy through the winter days ahead. There's nothing like the quiet after Christmas and the new year to learn something new (I learned to crochet in February - again, marveling that that happened this year)!

Come visit Emily's Etsy shop here!

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

A New Pursuit

Hello, friends!

I have posts to share, with photos all ready to go but my time of late has been fractured, and I haven't gotten round to writing about them. I will soon, though. The kids are back at school and slowly settling into the year. I say "slowly" because in spite of this feeling like a much more normal year than last, it's still an adjustment. Swim season is over, along with the late homework nights, early morning weekend training sessions and mountains of chlorine-y laundry, which somehow segued into band/orchestra/play/musical season, with the children disappearing at random times for some rehearsal or other. Most recently, I'm catching snatches of a trombone oompah-ing behind a shut door, or a piano or saxophone running scales somewhere else in the house. Some days it's a circus; other days no one's home till late in the evening, and it's just me and the husband and the cats, passing each other on our way from one chore to the next. There's still homework happening, and Emily is still running her Etsy shop after (and sometimes during, because so much of it can be done online) school, and I'm constantly erasing and editing my old-fashioned paper wall calendar to keep it all straight.

It was a very different scenario last year, wasn't it? I am thankful. For the new things we get to do this year in school. All those opportunities to play in a band, swim on a team, gather in a home for a movie. And for the old things, too, the pre-Covid things we'd lost but which now have been restored to us: Math in a classroom with friends, sharing a bag of chips in the lunchroom, even simply just leaving the house to go to a different place to learn, then returning home to tell a parent about one's day, because it didn't all happen in an oversmall shared space 24/7. 

I am thankful I even have an oversmall shared space 24/7. Not everyone in the world enjoyed that last year, or ever.

Speaking of gratitude, I want to show you guys what I made this afternoon (it is noteworthy that I, procrastinator extraordinaire, am actually blogging on the same day I made this project; this in itself is a rare and miraculous thing).

It's a tree appliqued on a square of fabric. Whoo! Why is this significant?

Because for one morning each week, I get to help teach refugees and immigrants to sew.

And I cannot begin to explain how amazing it feels to say that.

For years, that has been something I've wanted to do. In my head, however, it was always far more romantic: LiEr packs up her sewing machine, gets on a plane, flies to a different country where they may or may not speak English, and spends months in a rural community center empowering women to wield their own sewing machines to learn a life-changing, marketable skill and eventually a livelihood, enabling them to feed their families, provide education and sustainable living needs, and someday even start their own sewing school to keep the cycle going. LiEr wakes each morning thinking, "Ah, yes, this is what all those years of blogging tutorials and writing sewing patterns and making 1 million felt doughnuts has been for! God, are you listening?"

God has, it appears - although He has cut out the middleman and brought the refugees to me (He can be very efficient that way). 

It's a long story, which I will skip over so as not to bore you with the details, but the gist of it is that someone mentioned an opportunity in passing, and I thought I'd check it out and somehow the time worked out so that people were interested to learn to sew at the exact same time I was not manically cooking dinner for the family or driving some child to a piano lesson, and voila! Instant dream-come-true.

And so, every Friday mid-morning, I get to work with some very motivated newcomers to this country and we make projects together. There's a curriculum of sorts (and you guys know how much I love curricula), and vast amounts of donated fabric and notions nicely organized into tubs and stuff, and sewing machines in impeccable working order. Funny story: I spent the first couple of sessions being a student myself, learning how the machines worked. I found it interesting that a big part of learning to sew is overcoming one's terror of the sewing machine, particularly if the manual is missing and one has to discover all its intricate workings by trial-and-error. I learned very quickly that I am only an expert at my own machine (if I can even call myself that, see this post for counter-evidence); faced with an entry-level Janome, for instance, I might as well have never sewn a stitch in my life, let alone aspire to guide others to do the same.

(Incidentally, that romantic fantasy of that faraway rural community center full of sewing machines? They were all treadles. Not an electric or computerized thingamajig in sight. Hey, it's my dream - I get to pick the details, right?). 

But let's show-and-tell now. This tree-applique thingy was project #3. The learning tasks included working with fusible interfacing, the zig-zag stitch, sewing around curves and layering. It was good fun. And when we had finished our projects, someone floated the question about what to do with it.

"Bag," I immediately said. Because I am addicted to making them.

This wasn't part of the curriculum, however.

But maybe the very-motivated students might be ready for a challenge, was how I rationalized it. You know, like in a mixed-ability classroom in which a teacher prepares More Challenging Assignments for the kids who are done with their regular work and are yawning at their desks?

So that's the plan. I took some supplies home and made a sample. I had to remind myself repeatedly not to make it ludicrously fancy like the bags I usually sew. When people see it, the point is maybe for them to say, "Oo, I don't know if I can make that but I think I might be able to connect the dots if I try."

Well, here it is:

The marvelous thing about the fabric is it's some kind of twill or canvas - I believe these squares are actually upholstery fabric swatches someone donated to the organization. And because they're swatches, their edges are also pre-finished. All that was needed to turn them into a bag was sew two pieces together, hem the opening, create bottom corner darts, 

and attach a pre-made strap. 

I used bias tape for the strap, of which the organization had a large quantity. I went for pre-made because strap-making is a whole other new skill I didn't want to add to the mix at this point.

I vacillated on the button clasp - on the one hand, it finishes the bag and makes it more functional than had I omitted it; on the other, it ups the difficulty level because it's fiddly. There are other options, of course: snaps, for instance. Or a tie. 

I'm going to leave it in for now. Upon finishing the project at home, I realized two things.

One, that it might be jumping the gun somewhat. I mean, we're veering dangerously into 3-D territory, after all, and adding details that perhaps are overwhelming for a beginning seamstress. Maybe we could omit the corner darts and let it be a flat tote even though that's not nearly as cute as a darted one? What do you guys think? Could a beginner make this without their eyes glazing over?

Two, that this project has the potential to be adapted for different challenge levels. Take the clasp/fastening mechanism alone, for instance - it's a button and bias-tape loop at the moment. Later iterations might have a button and a buttonhole. Or a magnetic snap (meaning we would need to introduce a lining). Or a small fold-over flap with a buttonhole in it. Or (shudder) a zipper. And then (double shudder) a recessed zipper.

And pockets. 

OK, I'm stopping now.

Here's a last shot of Fleur modeling the bag, for size perspective.

Final thing: one (distant) goal of this sewing class is to enable the students to work toward selling what they make, if they want to. I could see potential for that in a bag like this, I think. When I'd projected sewing as a livelihood in my crazy dream, I imagined dusty-floored tented marketplaces and small-scale collaborations with indie craft stores in bigger towns and cities. But what if it also meant craft fairs and boutiques right here in our neighborhood, or online platforms like Etsy? Whoda thot?

Sunday, October 24, 2021


So this is the post about the Menagerie animal that didn't fit the mold.

I mean, it's a giraffe. 

You know, lanky. Slender. Long neck. Verrrrrry loooooong neck.

See where this is going? 

Let's just say that I was slightly dismayed when I found out that this was Emily's Secret Sister's favorite animal. While I like to think that it's possible to pull just about any animal out of the Menagerie template, there are notable exceptions. Snakes, for one; snakes would be hard. But snakes are also essentially just tubes, meaning that they could be made independently of Menagerie. Emily herself did, once upon a time.

And giraffes would've been another.

Although, given the title of this post, and the promise of numerous brag photos to follow, I say "would've" with a dash of irony.

Anyway, I thought it might be fun to document the process of stretching the boundaries of Menagerie, if you'll pardon the pun. You know, to see if instead of only being a base template, it could also be a teaching model for how to design a stuffed animal in general. Besides, if there's anything I love about sewing, it's imparting the fundamental principles underlying it, and pushing the limits while doing so. 

I've written in the past about my soft toy design process, and you can read some of it here and here if you're so inclined. In the light of those posts, today's material might read like old news, but let's start at the beginning anyway.

First, when I am conceptualizing a stuffed toy, I draw it. Sometimes I know right away how to make it - everything from the material to the sequence to the familiarity of the various body parts. Often, this happens because I've made something similar before, so that this new toy is simply a tweak on that earlier one. Other times, the way forward isn't clear, and I have to mull over it for a while before inspiration comes. In those cases, I often find myself sketching obsessively - on scraps of paper, backs of receipts, in the margins of sermon notes in church, etc. - while trawling the internet for photos of the real-life animal for reference.


Then I'll continue to draw the same thing over and over again, as if a part of me hopelessly believes that the repetition will somehow morph into something new which had previously been hidden from me. It could take hours, days, weeks - but I'm not anxious, or edgy. There's merely a kind of tension, like an idea playing hard-to-get as it dances on the borders of your mind. 

Sometimes, as I sketch, I'll experiment with new shapes, or focus on one part of the project that seems especially inaccessible.

When I'm ready to take this from paper to fabric, I'll start by making a muslin of that one part of the animal (never the whole thing) that seems to have particularly stymied me - in this case, it was the head. Actually, it's usually the head, now that I think of it. You can see in the single head sketch above that I'm playing around with the seams and the concept of a round nose.

This was the first head iteration. In spite of it being this animal's most distinguishing feature, the neck itself is not very giraffey in this first muslin. It will get worked on, but only later because this is how important the head is to get right first.

This design is a very common one, incidentally. Vast numbers of animals are made with this head design. It's literally a leaf-shaped gusset straddling the two side pieces to make them 3D rather than flat. I often start with this design because for something so simple, it often works, producing a spectacularly round head. The carrot-suit bunny has this head design, for instance (and yes, its head is indeed quite fetching and yes, I obsessively tweaked it early in the process). For a giraffe, however, this style was wrong in all sorts of ways - it made me think of snakes and the dubious photo of Nessie and that horrific chestbursting alien creature in the movies. 

Do you see the two faint blue lines I've drawn across the gusset piece? Those are important for situating the horns and nose later. Even though I tossed this head design, this muslin was useful for visualizing the proportions and positions of other head bits.

This next disturbing-looking weirdness was the second muslin. Look - there's a distinct muzzle/nose thingy now - the blue positioning lines from the first muslin enabled me to incorporate that here. This second design is quite different - the gusset is no longer a leaf-shaped top piece that tapers to a point at the nose. Instead, it retains a relatively consistent width as it wraps around the entire nose area and down past the chin, narrowing slightly into a neck before widening again into the chest and belly.

Here are the first and second muslins together. The second muslin is decidedly more giraffey, and I love that the nose is enormous. Animals with large noses are astoundingly cute. Like dogs photographed close up, their inquisitive black sniffers squished gigantically against the camera lens.

However, this nose is far too boxy. There are sharp edges to it that make it look angular and amateur in a world where noses are softly and beautifully round. 

The fix: contouring. 

I used some baseball curves on just the gusset piece. 

Muslin # 3: much better. Do you see how the sides of the nose are now no longer boxy and instead rounded? 

Here's another view.

Now that the nose is worked out, we can attend to the neck. Here's a throwback photo to the second, boxy-nosed muslin - do you see how the poor thing doesn't actually have a neck, so that the head looks simultaneously undefined and too long? This is because the gusset tapers to a point that's too far down the body.

In the third muslin, the gusset is much shorter, ending closer to the front of the head, which has the instant effect of distinguishing the head (bulgy) from the neck (not bulgy). At this point, we can start fine-tuning the position of the horns and ears,

as well as the eyes and nostrils,

Also the limbs. These arms and legs are pretty standard Menagerie ones - even the hooves which, if I remember right, are the Pig's. However, the arms are attached quite a bit lower than in the usual Menagerie animal, to accentuate the height of the animal's upper half and give the illusion of a longer neck than it actually has.

I made a fourth muslin after this, which I didn't bother to photograph. This fourth muslin featured a more elevated neck i.e. I didn't care for how droopily the heads had hung in the first three muslins. Not only was this contrary to the Menagerie principle of earnest, upturned faces, it also presented a challenge to the animal's ability to stay upright.

All the tweaks thus completed, I cut the pieces out of the real fabric and made the final (fifth) version. 

Behold the Menagerie giraffes:

I love them so much. They're Menagerie, yet beyond -

some parts are stout and compact; others slender and extended.

As always, I learn something new when doing animal research for a Menagerie creature: giraffes are not yolk yellow as I'd always imagined. Many of them aren't even yellow but ivory or white or sometimes a light tan. Hence this pale yellow fleece for my giraffes: while they aren't as striking as many other yellow-yellow giraffe softies, they're anatomically closer to nature, which I'm okay with.

Those round noses make me unspeakably happy,

and I'm doubly pleased that their faces are indeed upturned and earnest. Everyone who's seen them instinctively lowers their own noses to nuzzle them.

When I was conceptualizing this giraffe, I briefly entertained the idea of using a giraffe-print fabric to make the final outcome more obviously giraffey. When I went shopping, I promptly discovered two things: one, giraffe prints are hard to find in person, and not that much easier online. And two, the prints that I did find were of a much larger scale than would be suitable for a giraffe of this size; they were better matched to a 6' room model or a human-sized giraffe bodysuit. I decided then that the giraffe's spots should be interpretative rather than literal and appliqued randomly-placed trapezoidal brown patches on the otherwise solid yellow fabric. Personally, I think these are a lot cuter than an all-over print, and much easier for most people to replicate, besides. 

A couple more things to highlight: one, the mane.

Do real giraffes have variegated manes? No. But this was the yarn I had on hand, and I made a row of curly loops in a spectrum of brown and it all somehow worked.

Two, the horns and ears. This was really the only fiddly part of the construction, because all four had to be inserted in the seams of that small triangle at the pointy end of the head gusset - horns in the horizontal seam across the forehead; ears folded into the side seams along the head. It was a tight squeeze under the presser foot, and if you make this yourself someday, be patient here. And be prepared to stitch and restitch to catch all those ends in the seams.

Here's the final Giraffe alongside that first prototype - quite the evolution from its humble beginnings.

Four muslins to make this little guy.

Makes the two-hour fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants Dolphin-making process sound absolutely haphazard, doesn't it?