Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Family Snowmen and Other Ornaments

It's been a pretty busy January so I'm only now belatedly posting about a fun tradition Kate invented for our Christmas celebrations with extended family. For the past four years (if I count right), she's been making ornaments for each of its 17 member. It started when she was in middle school and in a fimo clay phase. That first year, she made miniature clay sculptures representing each of our interests - cameras for the photographers, tea and coffee mugs for the caffeine addicts, books for the avid readers, and suchlike - adding even finer details with acrylic paint using toothpicks and paintbrush. The next year, she discovered that she didn't like the fine work of sculpting and/or painting nearly as much as cutting with scissors, so she ventured into felt and fleece ornaments. And we launched a collaboration: I mass-produced the basic ornament shapes with the sewing machine, and she sat on the sewing room floor beside me and painstakingly cut tiny embellishments out of felt to personalize each to our respective family members. That Christmas, we made fleece stocking ornaments and she had a blast cutting and gluing all the little felt bits and sequins on them.

Here's a right-way-up photo if you'd like to zoom in to catch all the details. 

I also took some close-ups of a couple of ours on our tree this year. Here's Jenna's - there's a sugar cookie, a chocolate chip cookie, rolling pin, her flute and piano keyboard.

This is Emily's: boba tea, a paint dot card from her Etsy shop, a bucket hat and a treble clef (easier to cut out than a trombone, Kate thought!)

The following year, Kate started high school and with the transition came a drastically increased academic workload which kept them busy in classes up till the day before Christmas Eve. So we had to tweak our collaboration: she'd still pick the theme for the ornaments but rather than working side-by-side as we'd done before, I'd sew and stuff the basic ornament shapes days ahead and she'd work on embellishing them whenever she could squeeze in some time between homework assignments and studying for tests. That year, we made Christmas Trees, and she opted for favorite-color-coordinated buttons along with a few felt cutouts. Mass-production sewing tip: I didn't cut all those evergreen tree shapes exactly identical, which would've been too fiddly and bordering on lunacy. Instead, I used the bubble-cut technique outlined in the last post to get the edges of the front and back pieces of each ornament to perfectly align after sewing.  

Here's the ornament Kate made for me: a predominantly blue color scheme, my crocheted blanket WIP (she did knitting needles because they were easier to render than a crochet hook) and a couple of jigsaw puzzle pieces.

Here's Emily's: a sprig of lavender and a cup of chai with our black cat Milo's face on it.

Jenna's has a sugar cookie, her music headphones and purple buttons.

This past Christmas, the theme was Snowmen. Kate made her sketches in preparation - note the last snowman, which was her own, and its complete lack of detail. I'll come back to that later.

Once again, manic school schedules meant she'd be cramming the snowmen-decorating at the last minute, so I helped as much as I could ahead of time. I made the basic snowmen - filled, with pipecleaner arms and felt eyes and nose. I also made beanies and baseball caps according to her sketches.

The night before our Christmas party, we stayed up till 3 am to get them done.We put on a video, sat amongst tubs of felt and buttons, set out snacks for sustenance and worked together to get all the embellishments cut out so she could glue them on. It was insane, and not something I'd recommend on a regular basis, but so much fun that one night, fueled by the euphoria of finally being done with school for the year and on the brink of Christmas break.

Remember that featureless snowmen Kate had sketched for herself? On previous occasions that she'd made ornaments for everyone else, she'd never made one for herself because, as she'd explained, they were her gifts to us. This year, however, I decided that had to change. So I made her one for herself, but kept it a secret until she'd presented everyone with theirs. Sneaky!

So here at last is Kate's ornament, featuring some of the many things we celebrate about her: her music, her love of cheese, her swimming (goggles in its left hand), her growing love for her high school and all its opportunities (scarf in school colors), and of course Bunny.

It's so much fun to watch this handmade ornament collection grow as we add the new shapes of each subsequent year. I can't believe this is the only first Kate ornament to join the others on our tree but it looks like the start of yet another new tradition - that of me (or anyone else so inclined) surreptitiously making one for her at Christmases to come. 

What are some of your favorite handmade Christmas (and other holiday) traditions in your family? I'd love to read about them in the comments!

Monday, January 1, 2024

Matching Game

Happy new year, everyone!

Well, this post didn't make it before Christmas. Or in 2023, for that matter. Not surprised, given how busy December tends to be. I hope everyone's Christmas and New Year - or other celebrations of the season - were lovely. We had no snow in the Twin Cities over Christmas, which was bizarre. Nobody really complained, being Minnesotan and all, but people were discombobulated to say the least. Do we wear shorts or pants? Do we make the hot chocolate and bring out the tie blankets even though it's 54F? Do we still sing songs about White Christmasses and Snowmen and Coldness even though it's practically tropical outside? One of my friends said, "This is Minnesota. The snow will come. It's not if . . . it's just a matter of when." And whaddya know - yesterday, it turned up. A couple weeks late, but still.

Still, Christmas was lovely. The kids later said it was one of their favorite ones in recent memory, even though the youngest two were doing finals and assignments at school till the evening of the 22nd. Emily got done with college finals with a week to spare before Christmas, which was one of the perks of no longer being in high school, I suppose. She hung out with friends who'd all come home for the holidays, and helped with shopping and wrapping and baking. It was fun to have a full house again.

I only made two gifts this year (and bought everything else). This one was a matching game for my nephew, who turns four in January. I remember seeing these all over the internet, but only when my own kids were already far too old for matching games. People made these with fabric scraps, and you were supposed to match the fabric prints in pairs. The photos were gorgeous, because the prints were designer and gorgeous, but I did wonder about the interest levels of toddlers and, say, damask prints. Or plaids. So I dug into my novelty print stack of cottons instead, and picked twelve with what I thought were slightly more fun motifs for a little boy.

And also thought I'd do a tutorial since I haven't done one in a long time. It seems strange to be sewing for children after so many years - I've missed the heady excitement of toymaking, and getting into the psyche of a child in order to create some crazy plaything. So to have a four-year-old in the extended family is a wonderful gift.

Step 1
So, to start, you'll need 

  • Felt - I used acrylic felt off the bolt (not the single 8" x 12" craft sheets, which are horribly pill-y) because it was what I had on hand. If you feel especially splurgy, wool or wool-blend felt are even better. Decide on the number of pairs you want in your game - you will ultimately need 4 times that number of felt squares. Mine were 3" x 3". In my game, there are 12 pairs, or 24 game pieces in total, so I'm going to use these numbers throughout the tutorial. Therefore, I would ultimately need 48 squares. If you are a precise cutter, go ahead and cut out all 48 before sewing. But if you're the sort whose edges don't always line up when you stack layers together, trust me and just cut out half of that, (so 24) and leave the remaining half uncut for now. Scroll down to Step 4 for further instructions if you're curious and want to skip ahead to find out why.
  • 12 pairs of print fabric squares (24 in total), a little smaller than the felt squares. Mine were about 2-3/4" x 2-3/4". 
  • Interfacing for each of the print fabric squares, which are optional but which I highly recommend because the cotton can get pretty floppy. I used some Pellon Craft Fuse, but any medium-weight fusible interfacing would do. I cut 24 squares that matched the fabric squares, and ironed each to the wrong side of one fabric square.

Step 2
In the picture above, the felt squares have windows cut out of them, and this next photo shows how I did mine: fold each square in half along the diagonal to get a folded triangle. Cut out a smaller triangle to leave a V that's about 1/2" - 5/8" thick. When you unfold the V, you'll get a square window frame. I found this to be the fastest method to getting all 24 cut out. Discard the smaller squares. These 24 window panes are the fronts of the game pieces. If you'd cut out all 48 felt squares in the beginning, remember that only half of those (24) will need windows cut out, and the other half, which will be the backs of the game pieces, will remain whole.

Step 3 
Here's how to make one of the game pieces. Take one window frame felt square and place it over one of the stabilized fabric squares.

Sew (edge-stitch) around the window, through all layers.

Here's the wrong side, to show you both the stitching, and how much smaller the cotton fabric is than the felt square. The reason we want the cotton piece smaller is so that when the back layer is added, none of the cotton layer will show around the edges. It's neater, for one. For another, we don't want bits peeking out as spoilers during the game.

Step 4
Next, add the back felt piece. If you'd cut out all 48 felt squares earlier, this is when you'll just place one of the back squares (with no window cut out) on the WS of the front piece, perfectly align all sides, and sew around the outer edge. If, however, you'd gone with my cryptic instructions and cut only 24 earlier, this is how I sew stacked layers together so that their sides align perfectly and the edge-stitching is astoundingly even all around: I cut the back piece a little bigger than the front piece, a fancy technique my kids use to call "bubble cutting" from their preschool days. In the picture below, I used a pink piece of felt for the back piece for visibility - you'll of course be using a color that matches the front.

After edge-stitching, trim away the excess fabric so that the back pink piece exactly matches the front.

Voila - supernaturally even edge-stitching even on the back.

When mass-producing, I often sew all the front pieces on even larger back pieces and then cut everything out at the end. In this case, I cut strips of felt that were about 3-1/4" wide and sewed front pieces on them, then cut the finished game pieces apart.

It was oddly satisfying to sit on the couch after, meditatively cutting up those strips and trimming around all those squares.

I also made a pouch for storing the game pieces. 

The pouch is this one, except with a darted bottom rather than a separate base - I forget the dimensions I used. I just measured around the stack of game pieces to decide how big to make it. 

Found some alphabet fabric in my stash for the lining, and to make the initials on the front. 

When I was halfway through this project, I had a fun memory from when I was about five. My mom was in the hospital about to give birth to my brother, and Dad and I were waiting at home because in those days, fathers weren't allowed in birthing rooms in Singapore, or anywhere else, I imagine. To occupy ourselves, he played a matching game with me using a deck of playing cards spread out all over the bed. I remember that we'd called it a Memory Game back then. It's been five years since Dad died, and I'm at the point in my grief when I can enjoy memories without feeling gut-punched, so this was a lovely one from a time when we were celebrating new life and excited about new beginnings. A fitting thought to carry into 2024, I thought. May this year bring hope, new beginnings and the making of wonderful memories!