Monday, December 23, 2013

Crafting Therapy

I've had anxiety problems to varying degrees since I was 8 years old.  During one counseling appointment, my therapist gave advice on how to stop a bad train of thought--eat an orange.  When I laughed at the suggestion, he explained his reasoning.  More than other fruits, oranges are a very involved snack.  You have to wash it, peel the skin off, pick away the excess pith, split the different sections, squeeze out the seeds from each slice . . . It's such a meticulous, physical act that by the time  you are done eating the orange, you are not thinking bad thoughts anymore.  Your thoughts have switched over to the task at hand.

This underlying idea appeared again when I took a class on stress management in college.  We explored a wide variety of techniques--yoga, pilates, labyrinth walks, meditation.  Though it takes a variety of forms, all stress management techniques have the same, underlying goal:  they make you focus on the present, instead of worrying about the past or future.  Even eating a chocolate bar can be an exercise in stress management when you take the time to savor the moment.

I think this is why I feel the need to always have a project going, and why I feel like I've recharged my batteries for the week after going to Saturday brunch at Home Ec.  Whether I'm trying to make creative use of stitches or follow a cross-stitch pattern, embroidery helps my mind focus on something other than my (usually unfounded) worries.  Depending on how much distraction I need, I can get a lot done this way!  When people asked how I managed to get the February Drop Cloth Sampler of the Month finished in two days, I responded, "I worked on it while waiting for a paper grade."

It also makes me feel productive in the face of bad circumstances.  When I was dealing with a long period of unemployment, I told my husband that I felt like I wasn't accomplishing anything important.  My husband responded, with utter conviction, "Yes you do!  You knit blankets that keep babies warm!"  When my friends gather for Saturday brunch at the store, we often end up talking about the hardship in our lives--unemployment, health problems, family issues, gloomy love lives.  We met and talked the day after the Sandy Hook shooting, and the day after the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombers.  At the same time we show off our latest projects that are, more often than not, for other people.  A wedding gift for a friend.  A baby sweater for a niece.  A snazzy treehugger to show off downtown.  A blanket for the hospice.

The past several weeks, I've been working on a special piece.  I held a fundraiser for the local women's clinic in which I raffled off handmade items.  One of the prizes was for the winner to have her favorite quote embroidered by me.  The winner ended up selecting a quote from Winnie the Pooh that inspired her during a difficult period in her life.  I've just finished the words, so all I have left is some embellishment and the framing.

"Promise me you'll always remember:
You're braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think."--A.A. Milne
We can't control every force governing our lives, but we can always create something beautiful in the middle of chaos.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Stitcher-view with . . . Angela!

I've been lucky to find wonderful stitching friends.  In this feature, read about what inspires them when it comes to embroidery.

Today, we meet Angela, another Home Ec regular.  Angela's background is in photography, but she is also an avid knitter and, more recently, embroiderer.

Q:  How old were you when you learned to embroider?  Who taught you?
A:  My mother taught me to hand-sew when I was, oh, seven years old or so, I think--running stitches and back stitches and buttons and such.  I think about what I'm doing now as an extension of what I learned as a kid.  It feels the same to me as hand-sewing, but with fancier patterns, sort of like lace knitting is still a kind of knitting, but with specific arrangements of knits, purls, and yarn overs.  

Q:  Why are you drawn to embroidery as a craft? 
A:  Well, I'm obsessed with the Iowa State Fair.  I've gone at least once a year since I moved to Iowa in 2007.  Since I sew and knit, the fabric and threads division is one of my favorite places to check out (well, along with the butter cow and the smoked turkey legs).  I've always been impressed with the variety in the knitting, quilting, and crochet on display, but the embroidery seemed stuck in a very sweet, cherubs-and-inspirational-sayings, kind of style.  And I'm kind of a contrary person.  Every year I would think, "Someone should really shake this up!"  After a while I thought, well, maybe I should.  Now I have a set of tea towels to submit for next year, except instead of inspirational quotes they have excerpts from Sylvia Plath poetry.  And pillowcases that say "Ask me what I'm asking for."

Pillowcase embroidered by Angela

So I was first drawn to embroidery as a way to engage with both the literal space that it occupies at the fair, and the imaginative space it occupies in our culture.  I wanted to work with the context and the history and the assumptions that go along with it.       Once I got started on state fair projects, I also started to appreciate the qualities embroidery has to offer as a medium, and not just it's cultural associations.  I think embroidery lends itself really well to text, which is another interest of mine.  I've been thinking about approaching embroidery as a kind of calligraphy, a way of slowing down and focusing on the shape and space of letters and the craft of forming them just so.  (I still have a long way to go with that part!)     And, if I'm going to be perfectly honest, I often covet the awesome things people make around me, and I've been admiring Cassie's work for years.  So the idea has been kind of percolating for a long time.

Q:  What are your favorite and least favorite stitches?
 A:  The only stitch I use right now is chain stitch.  My absolute favorite stitches to look at are blackwork. 

Q:  What is your favorite thread and fabric? 
A:  The basics: plain cotton fabric and embroidery floss.  I suppose eventually I'll have an idea that would be better suited to other materials, but right now there are too many possibilities with just those things.

Q:  What types of projects do you like to work on?
 A:  Text, mostly.  I've been working with poetry or slogans that resonate with me.  I think written language is beautiful, not just in the imagery and emotion it can conjure, but the actual lines on a page, the shape and movement of letters.  I've recently started a year-long project--all 131 lines of T.S. Eliot's The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock--so it will be a while before I have a chance to think about what other projects I like.

Q:  Where do you find inspiration? 
A:  A lot of my ideas start out as "wouldn't it be great/impressive/funny/ridiculous if someone did ___?"  I make the things that I wish existed.  Either that, or I make the thing I wish were mine.  My current project started because I use a light table to trace my design onto fabric, and every time I do that I think about how beautiful the fabric looks when lit from behind, and what if that were the intended display?  What kinds of ways could someone manipulate the effect of the light through fabric? Someone should do that!  I'd already been thinking about the T.S. Eliot, and how ridiculous it would be to try to embroider the ENTIRE poem.  And now I'm embroidering the poem on fabric to make light boxes out of.

Embroidered by Angela
Q:  Are there any types of embroidery or skills that you would like to learn in the future?
A:  Some day I would like to make something with a lot of smocking because I think of hand-smocking as, like, the Olympic Gold Medal of hand-stitching.  People who do hand-smocking are the BAMFs of threadwork.  And some day I'd like to make the kind of Chinese embroidered "paintings" that I grew up with.  It's all long-and-short satin stitch, but the skill difference between my satin stitches and the ones in the tapestries is monumental.  So... I want to make a prairie bonnet and a Chinese tapestry.  :)  Some day.  Oh, and since I'm making light boxes, I need to learn woodwork.  I'm terrified of power cutting tools, so it's kind of daunting.  (My fingers are useful.  I would like to keep all of them attached.)  And I'd like to re-attempt the Master Knitter program and get further than three samples.  And weaving, and quilting, and getting back into calligraphy, and--

Check out Angela's other works in progress at her website!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Stitcher-view with . . . Cassie!

I've been lucky to find wonderful stitching friends.  In this feature, read about what inspires them when it comes to embroidery.

Today, we meet my friend Cassie.  She is one of the regulars at Home Ec's Saturday brunches, and she recently opened StitchinBliss, an Etsy shop to sell hand-embroidered wedding handkerchiefs.

Q: How old were you when you learned to embroider? Who taught you?
A: What counts as embroidery, and what counts as learning? Before I was seven years old--five, maybe, but I remember most things that happened around then as belonging to five--I had a needlepoint kit. The printed picture was of a rainbow and a cloud, and my mother showed me how to make the diagonal stitches. I remember the pink plastic needle much better than I do the picture itself. Sometime before or during seventh grade, I learned some amount of cross-stitch, though I can't remember if I learned it in an intramural club or not.  
Then, at . . . um, an age probably larger than twenty-six but not larger than twenty-eight? Numbers! Argh! Anyway, as an adult, I took an embroidery class at Home Ec Workshop. A friend of mine had taken an earlier session and made a sampler with the motto, "Dissertate This," to support her as she finished her PhD, and I liked the idea of doing something fussy and bright. Codi Josephson, the teacher, had screen-printed the sampler in white on a variety of colors; because I am me, I took white fabric. She led us through basic stitches as well as showing us resources to learn more and did a great job balancing the skill levels of the class. I had read about embroidery and needed practice, a mother and young daughter were learning together, and another student, JoAnne, showed us an embroidered portrait of her cats that looked ready to purr. Teal deer: I learned as an adult, but I had a soft background in sticking needles into things.

Q: Why are you drawn to embroidery as a craft?
A: Honestly, at first, because everyone praises me for my tiny, precise stitches, and no one else was doing it as well as I was! I will not hide my shallowness. I live with spinners, one of whom is learning to weave, I eat breakfast with a Master Knitter on Saturdays, other friends do incredible colorwork, lace, or amigurumi food, and I need as many sewing lessons as my sewing machine needs work to run properly. Surrounded by people with incredible crafting skills, where else can I be best? Of course, now there are quite a few embroiderers in my circle, but I wouldn't give them (and you) up to regain my throne as No Seriously How Did You Do That Queen. I like embroidery because I can mess with it easily. I mentioned the seventh-grade intramural class--we had small pictures with teddy bears in various outfits and I took the snorkeling bear. But the snorkeling bear was a boy! Wearing a Speedo! This could not happen. So I made him into a girl wearing a pink two-piece. Likewise, the original Home Ec sampler class: I changed the wing on the bird because I didn't like the printed one. I added eyeshadow and bright red cowboy boots. I used couching where the sampler had stem stitch. I threw in scalloped stitches on both sides of the banner. I layered chain stitches to make the flowers, I did twice as many feather stitches going up the sides because I liked the look, and I decided my bird was a damned fine peacock, thank you, and she was going to have a tail. Go look at that tail. Admire the tail.  
Embroidered by Cassie

I don't know how to do that with knitting, not really, nor sewing. Embroidery gives me a lot of room to play. I designed a piece for a friend and made it look exactly right-- no worry about having the right center but wrong border, no gauge to match, just drawing the picture and spending forever and a day stitching it. Embroidery's also faster when I work on it steadily. Doesn't happen often, but it's satisfying.

Q: What are your favorite and least favorite stitches?
A: I don't know that many stitches, to be honest. From the beginning, I loved stem stitch because it looks so even and ropey. I have never liked split stitch; it's difficult to do and looks ragged. I don't like that they teach it in high school home ec classes because no one can make it look good. Backstitch always surprises me when it looks like anything other than bricks, so I guess I dislike it on paper but like it once I'm done with the project. I really like chain stitch, though I do mine backward--I do a lot of stitches backward, actually, because it's easier for me to pass the needle under an existing stitch that to gauge where the needle will come out and catch a half-formed stitch that way. I should add that I like chain stitch when it's done as small as possible. Half the reason I added the layered flowers to my Home Ec sampler was that the original petals were too big and looked sloppy! I also like couching because it goes fast. For projects that need quick writing, I use couching.

Embroidered by Cassie
Q: What is your favorite thread and fabric?
A: Can I skip this question? I use DMC floss and flour-sack towels muslin from JoAnn Fabrics. I've also used lace-edged handkerchiefs and recently acquired Irish linen. I like fabric that's even and fine enough for me to put stitches exactly where I want them. A word of advice for all stitches: don't use foil floss lightly. It will break your needle-threaders and frustrate you to no end. It's a good material once you're done with it, but it will make you hate the world and all its textiles.

Q: What types of projects do you like to work on?
A: I like projects I can alter to suit myself--I'm working on printed towels for a friend now and am not sure how I'm going to change the pattern beyond 'subtly'. I like projects with some humor to them. I love bright colors and rainbows. I like striking images and contrast. Sometime I'm going to do an embellished fabric (Home Ec has a couple I must have because leaves and birds and mine), but I have a few projects in my queue first.

Q: Where do you find inspiration?
A: So far, with limits. "Make me something," doesn't work. "I like trilobites and here's a quote about them," leads straight to a year-long project. "The State Fair wants a pair of towels," means I have to find a pair of ideas I like. "I'd love an embroidered wedding handkerchief," and the art from the invitation work together. For my embroidered book cover, I used a cool background fabric because my collection of floss is about half blues--I've never had to use my reds and oranges and I wanted to force myself to look at them the same way I do my beloved blues. I think that many people don't realize the value in limits. By eliminating almost all of what is possible, the remaining infinity suddenly seems broader. I'm also likely to subvert whatever I'm doing, or at least to think I am. A good friend of mine once said, of writing, that your first idea is almost always crap because it's easy. The second or third ideas will be better. It's not that I think traditional embroidery is terrible--far from it!--but I'm much more likely to make and use a set of napkins that makes me giggle than to follow the iron-on pattern exactly.

Embroidered by Cassie

Q: Are there any types of embroidery or skills that you would like to learn in the future?
A: Discipline? Theme of my life. I'd like to expand my vision and ideas so I have more flexibility in what I can do. Look at Carolyn's pictures! I never would have thought to do the abstract diatomish circles. I'd love to learn blackwork and other very precise filling techniques; every year at the State Fair, I take a picture of *something* blackworky. And framing! And more designing! And there must be a project out there that would make knots make sense, so that. Oooh, embroidering clothes....!

See more pictures of Cassie's projects at her Flickr page!

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Stitcher-view with . . . Carolyn!

I've been lucky to find wonderful stitching friends.  In this feature, read about what inspires them when it comes to embroidery.

Today, we meet my friend Carolyn.  We met in a Home Ec class on embroidered embellishments, and have stayed in touch ever since!

Q:  How old were you when you learned to embroider?  Who taught you?
A: I was around 14-15 when I learned to embroider. My mom taught me.

Q:  Why are you drawn to embroidery as a craft?
A: I am drawn to embroidery because, for me, it is very relaxing, portable, in-expensive, and the possibilities for design are endless.

Vegetarian Epicure image, "Cook with Spoon" drawn by Julie Maas
Embroidered by Carolyn

Q: What are your favorite and least favorite stitches?

A: Favorites: back stitch, seed stitch, split stitch. Least favorite: none.

Q: What is your favorite thread and fabric?
A: I primarily use DMC 6 stranded floss. I also love Kreinik metallic floss. 

Q: What types of projects do you like to work on?A: When choosing a project to work on, I am drawn to images that make my heart go, "Aaaaaah! I HAVE to stitch that." Follow your bliss! If the pattern/picture/image doesn't make my heart sing, I won't bother with it.

"The Twins" by Carolyn
Based on a photograph of her with her twin sister
Q: Where do you find inspiration?A: I use Google and Pinterest a lot. I just found two Winter (not Christmas) patterns (via Pinterest) that I am going to start on this weekend. 

Q: Are there any types of embroidery or skills that you would like to learn in the future?A: I am toying with re-learning crochet and using crochet with embroidery.
Embroidered by Carolyn
To see more of Carolyn's work, visit her website!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

What's My Worth?

Several weeks ago, right before Yom Kippur, I ran into the husband of a woman I am on a board with at the synagogue.  When I introduced myself, he said, "Wait, are you the one who does embroidery?"  Yes, I am.  "So you are the one who submitted that matzah cover to the state fair and got a ribbon?"  Wow, word travels fast!

He said that he has a project that I might find interesting.  Every year at the Kol Nidre service that starts Yom Kippur, my Jewish community has a tradition in which all of the torahs in the community are carried into the service and up to the bimah [stage].  (At this point, I was assuming that he was going to ask me to carry a torah during the procession.  I would have to politely decline since I haven't lifted weights in a while.)  He went on to say that his family owns a torah that they have always included in the ceremony.

When not in use, a torah is protected with a cloth covering called a mantle.  They are often very ornate, made with fine fabrics and embroidered using goldwork techniques.  During the rest of the year, they can be any color or design, but in the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, synagogues traditionally switch to white mantles to represent our purity after atoning for sins.

Antique reproductions
The man said that he sewed a torah mantle for use during the 10 days with cloth from a wedding dress that had been in his family.  When he first made it, it had a Jewish star and torah stitched on with surface embroidery.  Since then, he has decided that he wants a more complex pattern--more colors, more Jewish symbols.  He has not been able to add more because he doesn't embroider, and he has had trouble finding someone who was both talented and familiar with Jewish symbols.  When he found out about my matzah cover, he decided to ask me.  He said that he could pay me, and we agreed to talk more after the High Holidays.

I was so elated that when I got home, I cranked up my music and danced around.  (Not to Jewish music.  I think it was "Down Under" by Men at Work.)  I felt honored to be asked to work on such an important object, and that someone would actually pay me to do it!  Then it started to sink in . . .

Pay?  PAY?  What on G-d's green earth am I going to charge?

It's a question that every crafter with a home-based business must grapple with at some point.  You have to consider the cost of materials and tools.  You have to decide on a dollar amount for the time you put into the project--your time and effort has value, and the price of the item needs to reflect that. At the same time, we are living in a world where we are so used to mass-produced items that the cost of a handmade item can produce sticker shock.

We were discussing this during brunch at Home Ec because the local library is holding its 2nd annual Arts & Crafts Bazaar.  They are accepting handmade items, which you provide with a suggested price.  The items are then sold at the Bazaar and the money goes to their summer reading program.  Several people said that they had contributed high quality handmade items--both in material and technique--only to discover that the items were sold at less than their suggested price.  This year, they are reconsidering how many items they donate, they are using cheaper or leftover materials, and they are choosing items that don't involve as much of a time commitment to make.  One Home Ec patron said that her friend used to donate knit items to her church's fundraisers, but eventually stopped because she was so hurt by the way that the organizers constantly underpriced her items.  We want to help worthy causes, but we also want our hard work to be adequately recognized.  Non-crafters do not know how many weeks it took you to knit that Fair-Isle hat, or the eye strain and finger pricks you endured while stitching a monogram onto a handkerchief with one strand of floss.

I think it makes sense to tailor your price, crafting technique, and expectations to where your items will end up.  The goal of a fundraiser is to make money for the organization, so items need to be priced to sell that day.  Save the higher quality materials and complex skills for times when customers will be expecting to pay higher prices, such as an Etsy store, a craft fair, or custom work.  Browse the internet to find out what the prices are for similar handmade items.

I also don't know whether I should factor my experience into the price.  I will be putting in my best work, but should I lower the price since I do not have years of experience behind me?

Whatever the answer, I will take care in finding it.  When I receive the torah mantle. I will take it to the owner of Home Ec to ask for advice on materials and tools.  I will keep scouring websites to get ideas on prices, and I will ask for honest opinions from my crafting friends.  Above all, I will see this as an opportunity to grow as a Jewish embroiderer--and that is priceless.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Stitching Shakespeare (Part 2)

I finally finished the stitching on my special Shakespeare project.

This was my first time working on a completely original design, and it was a really valuable experience.  Before working on each section, I would hold up the cloth and examine it, trying to consider what colors and stitches would look best in that section.  At the same time, I also learned that it is fine when a particular choice doesn't work out, because I can always take out the stitches and start over.  Like knitters, stitchers refer to undoing work as "frogging" because you have to "rip it, rip it, rip it."  (Someone on the Frosted Pumpkin forum referred to it as "the frog visited," which sounds like a euphemism for something else . . .)

Adding the embellishments to the peacock was especially fun.  This is a newer trend among embroiders.  You take a piece of fabric with a bolder design on it, then stitch on top of it in a way that either brings greater detail to the design or adds a picture on top of the fabric.  One fiber artist takes traditional French fabric with a pastoral design on it in blue and white, then adds subversive changes--like giving a dairy maid a mohawk and fishnet stockings.  In my case, I added the details to both punch up the colors and give the peacock a more textured effect.  The result has a lot more depth than the fabric design alone.  The embellishments also emphasize the theme of the quote.  As one of my Home Ec friends said, "The quote is about how it is hard to hide your nature, who you really are, and the peacock is flaunting what makes him special."
Outline:  blanket stitch
Head feathers:  french knots
Top wing:  backstitch outline, seed stitch filling
Wing feather:  fern stitch
Tail feathers:  blanket stitch outline, french knot center
Flower:  Algerian stitch
It was surprising to me how liberated I felt stitching my handwriting.  I have never had very attractive cursive or printing.  I used to write in cursive on tests because it was quicker, but I gradually switched to printing because I was worried that professors wouldn't be able to read my cursive.  I got used to the idea that my cursive handwriting was rushed and illegible.  When I wrote the quote for my project, I didn't deliberately change my handwriting, but it looked inherently different because I took my time and was not writing under the pressure of an exam.  I was able to take a part of me that I was always ashamed of and turned it into a beautiful work of art, with its own character and style.

I had to share this because I was so happy to get the stitching done, but the project isn't complete yet! Next time, I will describe my first venture into framing--a step that bring anxiety to many beginning stitchers.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Project Round-Up--10/16/2013

Sorry for the lack of updates.  I got a bad cold last month that I am still getting over, and I learned from a disaster with a lace knit scarf that crafting and illness don't mix.  Once I was feeling better and more energetic, I was able to complete some cross-stitching on my Frosted Pumpkin Stitchery Woodland Sampler.

This is my favorite block so far.  The hedgehogs are adorable, and it really helped me get into the autumn spirit when we were experiencing a 100F heatwave in September.
The pattern calls this adorable owl "Oliver," but my husband has named him "Hootie."  I really like the design of the oak leaves.

The ladies behind Frosted Pumpkin have started a Facebook group for fans.  There's a lack of forums on the internet to discuss hand embroidery and cross-stitch, especially with more modern designs, so I've enjoyed having a place where people can post pictures of their projects and get advice on materials and technique.  We have even gotten sneak peeks of upcoming patterns!

It looks like the next year of seasonal samplers will be holiday-specific.  Halloween is not really my thing (I don't care for holidays that require you to find a raucous party) and I am not interested in the Christmas patterns for obvious reasons.  That gives me time to finish up the previous seasonal samplers and look forward to the 2014 yearly sampler.

Other updates:
  • I was avoiding the Satin Stitch sampler from Drop Cloth while I finished the Frosted Pumpkin squares.  I started that, but I am also working on the Cross Stitch sampler to satisfy my need to finish an embroidery sampler quickly.  (As I will discuss soon, satin stitch is slooooooow.)
  • I have finished the stitching on a project I wrote about previously and will be posting pictures soon.  In order to really showcase its beauty I have been trying to get good pictures of it, but the autumn clouds and the poor lighting in my apartment are making that difficult.
  • As part of a fundraiser I organized, I raffled off the chance for the winner to receive their favorite quote embroidered by me.  I'm really excited to work with the winner, who just sent me the quote she wants.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Binders That Tie: My Torah Binder Journey

One of the things I like about embroidery is that it allows me to explore Jewish concepts in a new way.  Not that there was nothing Jewish about knitting--I even knit the chuppah for my wedding.  (It is now spending its retirement as a warm winter blanket.)  When I tried to look up knitting traditions in Judaism, however, I did not find much information.  My grandmother and great-grandmother both knitted, but they were taught by a friend during vacations at their summer home.  There are long traditions of knitting in Scandinavia and Turkey, but I found frustratingly little about anything having to do with Eastern European Jews.

The story changed when I began looking into Jewish embroidery traditions.  In Judaism, there is a concept called hiddur mitzvah, "beautifying the commandment."  This means that it is considered a good thing to make ritual objects more attractive.  For example, it is a commandment to a person to wash his hands in a certain way before eating a meal with bread.  This involves using a cup to pour water on his hands in a certain sequence.  There is technically nothing wrong with using a plain plastic or paper cup to pour the water, but the task comes across as much more appealing if that cup is attractively formed and decorated.  A metal worker can make a metal cup with designs stamped on the surface, or a ceramics worker can make a cup on a pottery wheel and glaze it in different colors.  Decorating ritual objects emphasizes the joy of the task.  Throughout the centuries, hiddur mitzvah has been a source of creativity and livelihood for Jewish professional craftsmen, folk artists, and talented women.

There is an entire world of ritual objects to decorate for the home and the synagogue.  I could probably spend the rest of my life making holiday hand towels, challah covers, table cloths, and decorations for my house.  Synagogues have traditionally been decorated with ornately embroidered torah mantles, curtains, and other decorations.  (I just noticed that at our synagogue's new building, they have gone with a more modern look that emphasizes negative space, and the ark curtain has no embellishment at all.)  Often items embroidered for the synagogue made use of fancy gold work and beading, which was the work of professionals.  One specific synagogue item, in some communities, was traditionally a piece of folk art made by women--the torah binder.

A torah is a scroll of paper attached to two wooden rods.  If left alone, the scroll would quickly unravel from the effort of taking it in and out of the ark and the parchment would crack.  In order to keep the scroll rolled tightly, the people reading the torah during services wrap a piece of cloth around the torah to hold it together.  Some binders have a buckle, others use velcro (shudder!), while others are long strips of fabric that are wrapped many times around the torah and have their ends tucked in.  The task of binding a torah after it is read is considered an honor, in the same category as blessing the torah before reading or lifting it up after reading.

In German Jewish communities, a female relative would save the swaddling cloth used during a baby boy's bris.  She would then cut it into strips, sew the strips together, then embroider blessings for the baby with detailed illustrations.  The blessings usually contained a variation on the following message:

"May G-d bless this young boy [baby's Hebrew name] son of [father's Hebrew name] and [mother's Hebrew name], born under the good star on the day of [Hebrew birth date].  May G-d raise him to Torah, Chuppah, and the performance of good deeds.  Amen forever and ever."

On the baby boy's third birthday, the father would take him to the synagogue.  The rabbi would use the embroidered fabric strip to bind the torah in a short ceremony to celebrate the baby's introduction to synagogue participation.  The synagogue then kept the torah binder on file as a kind of record of the baby's birth.  Ten years later, the boy would use the fabric strip as a torah binder during his bar mitzvah ceremony.

This tradition was mostly limited to German Jews, but now Jews from all communities are discovering it.  Some organizations hold workshops on how to create torah binders for different occasions and with a variety of materials.  As I learned about this tradition, I knew I wanted to create ones for the children in my family.  It was my chance to create something truly personal to each child, a Jewish heirloom that they can always treasure.  I also feel like it is a way to connect with these women of the past who created torah binders with their own styles, from rudimentary letters to dazzling needle-painted art.

I have begun my work by gathering the Hebrew names and birth dates for the child recipients.  This simple information can inspire a wealth of symbols to illustrate the torah binder:
  1. The child's name.  Some names lend themselves to specific imagery.  Examples:  Zvi=deer, Devorah=bee, Tamar=date palm.
  2. The child's zodiac sign.  As I learned on a trip to Tzipporah, an archaeological excavation of an Israeli town from the Ancient Roman occupation, zodiac imagery has a long history in Judaism. They are the same symbols, but the names more directly correspond with the image.  Example:  Sagittarius=archer ("keshet" in Hebrew)
  3. The father's priestly class.  Jews are divided into classes based on whether their ancestors served as Temple priests or assistants.  While Judaism is passed through the mother, class is passed through the father.  Cohens are the descendants of the high priests of the Temple, while Levis are descendants of the temple assistants.  A torah binder might have symbols indicating that a child's father belongs to these classes.  For Cohens, the symbol is the hand sign made when they give the priestly benediction.  (You might recognize this as Spock's "Live Long and Prosper" hand sign from Star Trek.)  The symbol for Levis is a pitcher with water flowing into a bowl.
  4. Holidays.  If a child is born during a holiday, that provides a ready source of symbols. Examples:  Matzah for Passover, menorah for Chanukah.
  5. Torah portion.  Jews divide the Torah (Old Testament) into portions, reading one each week through the year.  A Torah binder can include imagery from the torah portion read the week of the baby's birth.  Examples:  A dove with an olive branch for the portion about Noah's ark, a burning bush for the first portion of Exodus.
Embellishments in this picture include a fish as a reference to
"Jonah and the Whale" (for the baby's father's name) and two angels for the zodiac sign Gemini.
The result is a piece of embroidered art that is completely unique to the child.  (Theoretically.  I will need to work out what to do to individualize the ones I will make for a set of twins . . .)

Right now, I am still full of questions.  How can I sew the long strip of fabric so that I don't go insane from all the hemming required?  What is the best transfer technique for getting my pattern onto the fabric?  Will I be able to finish one binder before my baby relatives graduate medical school?  Join me next time as I attempt to solve these questions.

[The pictures used in this post come from a Flickr set put out by the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at UC-Berkley.]

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Project Round-Up--9/8/2013

I have been catching up on the Frosted Pumpkin Woodland Sampler.  The squares for this summer have been very adorable.
July 2013
This fox is my husband's favorite so far.  When he saw the scale of the fox with the dandelions, he said, "Wow!  That is a really tiny fox!"
August 2013
I guess this skunk was gathering mushrooms for the terrarium in March.  I like the clever choice of green for the eyes.

Now I am working on September, and this square might be my favorite one so far . . .

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Fair Enough, Part 4: Next Year, In Des Moines

I got my matzah cover back in the prepaid envelope I provided.  The cover came with the 4th place ribbon, the judging form, and a surprise--a cash prize!
Don't spend it all in one place.
Now my project is on display at Home Ec Workshop with the other winning projects made by store patrons.  Congratulations everyone!  Now to start working on next year's projects!
Yes, it's hanging correctly this time.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Fair Enough, Part 3: The Day of Reckoning . . . and Funnel Cakes

On Saturday, my husband and I made our long-awaited trip to the Iowa State Fair.  We went with two of my Home Ec friends, Cassie and Angela.  We were glad to go with two people who had such an appreciation for hard work, craftsmanship, and the success of friends.  We were very excited to see two Home Ec patrons practically sweep the hand knitting division.

Sooooo many blue ribbons.
After winding through the breathtaking quilts and evening gowns, we found my matzah cover.  My first impression was, "I got a ribb--wait, they hung it upside down."

*Sad Trombone*
While the border is a circle made of the steps of the Passover seder, the middle of the pattern contains the word "matzah" in Hebrew.  That definitely has a specific orientation, and they hung it 180 degrees in the wrong direction.  I found a fair worker and explained the issue.  He asked how it is meant to be displayed, and I replied that it is meant to be flat on a table, on top of food.  He said that if they had known that, they might have been able to put out a table to drape it on, so I will know that for next time if I make a similar item.  He also said that I am probably one of 3 people over the course of the entire fair who would notice this problem.  That is probably true, but I still worked very hard on the item and would like it displayed correctly.  My friends wondered why they didn't use Google to figure it out, but frankly, I don't think they had enough knowledge of the subject to even know what to google.

So, how did I actually do?  I got a 4th place ribbon in the Embroidered Holiday Decoration class!  I am still gathering my thoughts on this . . .

On one hand, there were only 4 items entered in this class.  (Contrary to my prediction, the class was not dominated by Christmas decorations.  Two of them were for Thanksgiving and St. Patrick's Day.)  

On the other hand, I have looked over the overall results and the judges clearly do not feel obligated to just give ribbons to everyone, even in smaller classes.  There are even categories with the results, "First place--no award given.  Second place--no award given.  Third place--Mary Sunshine, Ames."  If I got a ribbon, then it is clearly because the judges felt I had successfully achieved a certain standard of skill.

On the OTHER other hand, the three items that placed ahead of me were all small quilts with some embroidered blocks. In contrast, my item focused entirely on the embroidery.  (A barricade prevented us from examining the pieces more closely, but it appeared that I used a wider variety of stitches as well.)  Were the other items considered better because they were quilted, even though this was in the Embroidery division?  It seems like these items should be held to two entirely different standards in separate categories.  On first glance, a quilt probably does look more impressive than embroidered white cotton.  There is also some talk that most of the judges are quilters.  Ultimately, I will not know the judges' reasoning until I receive my critiques.  

This is another reason why I was glad I went to the fair with my husband and friends.  When I said, "But--"they cut me off.  "No, there is no 'but.'  This is an accomplishment and you should be proud."

And now for something completely different!

Old-timey linotype machine
"Sun Bonnet Sues" of Many Lands
When you want to go hunting and look good while doing it
All hail the Iowa Urban Poultry Queen!

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Project Round-Up--8/8/2013

I'm working on many mini-samplers, and not all of them really warrant separate posts.  Project Round-Up will be a regular feature where I showcase these small projects.

After finishing my State Fair matzah cover (still waiting for results!), I had to decompress by working with bigger needles.  I have been knitting blankets for all of the upcoming babies that are befalling my friends, and I finally wove in the ends of a finished blanket and mailed it off to a new, happy mother.

Once I felt rested up to go back to embroidery, I finished Drop Cloth's Sampler of the Month for July.  Before I get to that, I realized that I hadn't posted a picture of June's.

These are filling stitches--the kinds of stitches that you use to banish empty space.  Used judiciously, they can really add a nice pop to your pattern.  I was surprised at how nice the simple seed stitch, made of one or two parallel straight stitches, looked when done with different colors.  The battlement couching was the trickiest because it required some exact work, but it produces an effect that looks like 3D plaid.  It also got the most compliments.

July was chain stitches.  These also presented a challenge, because these are based on making intersecting loops.  When I made a mistake, I would end up needing to start all over.  A few of the more complicated stitches, like Cable Chain and Checkered Chain, required looking at instructions from several different sources before I found ones that made sense to me.  Still, this sampler gives me a lot of great ideas for the future.  I liked the way the basic Chain Stitch looks as an outline for the flower stems.  My friend Cassie uses a type of Chain Stitch for lettering on her projects, and I can see that it makes a solid-looking outline for when you want something different from typical backstitch.

According to Instagram, the sampler for August features Satin Stitch.  I'm going to be honest--Satin Stitch is my least favorite stitch to work on.  I trust that Rebecca's innovative samplers will convince me otherwise!

Monday, July 29, 2013

Fair Enough, Part 2: Lessons Learned

This weekend, I submitted my matzah cover to the Iowa State Fair!
I put my blood, sweat, and tears into this (in one awful night, quite literally), and now I have the satisfaction of meeting this exciting new goal.  I am also glad that next year, I will know what to expect.  Here are some lessons that I learned that I hope will be of use to other crafters who are considering competing in their state fairs:

  1. Budget more time than you will think you need.  I was able to finish my matzah cover in about one month, but I would definitely start sooner on my state fair projects next time.  Maybe not 11 months in advance, but enough time that I won't have to rush.  I had to prioritize this project above other projects--including decorating fabric squares for a friendship quilt for the co-owner of Home Ec, who is leaving to go back to school.  I also felt rushed towards the end, which can result in mistakes.
  2. Pay attention to deadlines.  I had to go to Des Moines and submit my project in person because I missed the deadline to turn it in by mail.  My husband and I ended up making a day of it, going to an IMAX movie and shopping at the only Trader Joe's in the state.  That was pleasant, but not everybody can make the trip.  Some of my friends had planned on submitting items, but did not realize that the Fabric & Threads department (which covers yarncraft, needlework, sewing, and quilting) has a MUCH earlier deadline than the other competitions.  Find out early what the deadline for submissions is and put it in your calendar.
  3. Read the rules.  The rules (or premium book) say what condition your items should be in, how to attach the tag, and other specifics of preparing your project for submission.  It also lists every single division and class for which the fair accepts items.  As I was waiting to submit my matzah cover, I overheard the woman in charge talking to someone about how every year, people show up who have not only not filled out their tags--they haven't even looked at the rule book to figure out if their item fits in any particular class.  Entries can be disqualified if they are submitted to the incorrect class.  Don't let your hard work go to waste.  Reading the rule book is what inspired me to submit my matzah cover.  I figured it would be a breath of fresh air in a Christmas-dominated Embroidered Holiday Decorations class.  (Interestingly, there was a division that had both a Christmas Decoration class and a Non-Christmas Holiday Decoration class.)
  4. No crafter is an island.  In the midst of a competition, your initial instinct might be to work on your project in secret.  After all, you might be submitting in the same categories as people you know, and you certainly don't want to give them clues on what you are planning!  No--fight that instinct.  Work on your projects with friends.  Give them updates.  Ask them for advice.  If they are also working on state fair projects, do the same for them.  Before making the drive to Des Moines, I stopped off at Home Ec to use their iron to flatten the wrinkles out of my matzah cover.    After working on it during Saturday brunch for several weeks, the regulars were so curious to see it.  They loved it, and told me how beautiful it was and how they were so happy I got it done in time for the competition.  After we left, my husband told me how nice it was that everyone was so happy for the success of others.  Maybe in a few weeks, we can organize a group trip to the fair.  I may not earn any ribbons or prizes, but the compliments of friends make me feel like a winner.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Book Review: A-Z of Embroidery Stitches 2

In my previous post, My Michigan Find, I talked about my discovery of the Australian "A-Z" series of embroidery instruction books.  I immediately investigated how I could get my hands on other titles in the series.  I decided to focus on the out-of-print titles first.  The current titles can be purchased at the Country Bumpkin online store, though shipping to the US would probably double the price of each book.

I try to use caution when buying books or supplies from an unfamiliar website, because I've been burned on this in the past. When I ordered an item from the one online store I've found that carries the Jewish embroidery patterns my great-aunt used to use, they never sent a confirmation e-mail.  I asked them about my order, and they called back saying they were sending it to me in a couple of days.  Then they cancelled my order and credit card charges with no explanation, even after I sent them a second e-mail asking for one.  At least I wasn't charged for something I never received, but I am still annoyed.

For the books, the first online store I turned to was Purl Soho, a craft store that sells supplies for knitting, sewing, and needlework.  They have a storefront in New York City, where Rebecca Ringquist often teaches embroidery workshops.  They also run an online store with a distribution center in Los Angeles.

Feeling sufficiently confident in their trustworthiness, I first ordered "A-Z of Whitework."  Whitework describes any embroidery technique that traditionally uses white thread on white fabric.  My order went through, but the next day I received an e-mail saying that the online inventory had not been updated and they were out of that title.  I asked for a different title that was in stock, and got "A-Z of Embroidery Stitches 2" instead.  Thankfully, they handled the matter swiftly, so I would be willing to buy supplies from them again.
It says it is the 17th book in the series, but with so many out-of-print and reprinted titles I don't think numbers mean much.
The book begins with a description of necessary supplies.  While all embroidery books include this information, "A-Z" goes into details that I have not seen elsewhere, such as the properties of threads with s-twists vs. z-twists.  They also have a helpful, full-size picture of different types of embroidery needles of different sizes.
A handy guide to needles
From there, they list the stitches in A-Z order by name.  Each stitch includes full-color photographs of each step, and many of them include photographs of the stitch used in a final product.  As the sequel to the first A-Z of Embroidery Stitches book, the stitches here go beyond the basics.  They include variations on basic stitches, edgings, beadwork, and even ways to incorporate metal wire and rings.  I would have never thought of these variations on my own and thought the selection was very inspiring.
Using Double Pekinese Stitch to make a frame.

Embroidery--now with friendship bracelets!
The book also includes some stitches that are more appropriate to canvas work, like needlepoint.  The commitment to the "A-Z" format means that these stitches are mixed in with the stitches for surface embroidery.  I do not do canvas work.  While there is nothing to stop me from incorporating most of these stitches in surface embroidery, I prefer the format that other embroidery stitch guides use of separating the canvas work stitches in a separate section.

That is pretty much the only qualm I have with this book.  With thorough instructions and a variety of stitches to choose from, I know that I will be using this book to help me embellish future projects.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Fair Enough

I grew up in the suburbs of a major city--one that my family has lived for the last 100 years, ever since arriving in the US.  I am so accustomed to living in or near a city that driving out in the country makes me nervous, because I get worried that I have driven too far in the wrong direction.  As a result, I grew up without exposure to a lot of the things that my friends have some connection to through their families or childhoods.  Canning, hunting, 4-H clubs, and especially the state fair.

Iowa is particularly famous for its state fair.  It is included as an essential event in 1000 Places to See Before You Die, and it even serves as the backdrop for several movies and a Rogers & Hammerstein musical.  You simply can't find anything more state fair-y than the one in Iowa.  I went with my husband the first summer we moved to Iowa.  I saw many things that were easy to joke about--chocolate-dipped cheesecake on a stick, cheap carnival game prizes, and a hastily-made 4-H poster about ATV safety.

When I entered the pavilions showcasing the entries for arts and crafts competitions, I stopped joking.  (I also stopped joking at the Butter Cow.  You do NOT joke about the Butter Cow.)

I was astounded by the level of craftsmanship I saw in a wide variety of categories.  There were quilts with squares of photographs copied onto fabric, and wood furniture pieces that looked like they belonged in everyone's fantasy log cabin.  The grand prize winning doll house included an attic . . . with a doll house workshop.  I saw so much skill and pride in these entries, many of them in areas I didn't even know existed as hobbies.  Prize ribbons fluttered everywhere.  How many of these treasures have gone unnoticed by people like me, who had never attended a fair before?  How many people have these gifts, but aren't aware of the opportunity to showcase them?

I began my regular attendance at Home Ec Workshop about a year later, after I took up embroidery.  It was after the state fair was over for the year, and one of the regulars had just gotten back the entries she submitted in the knitting category.  Immediately, rumblings began that we should "take over the state fair."  I asked my new friend Cassie what they meant.  She explained some of the divisions in the craft section, like knitting and embroidery, tended to get very similar entries every year.  And every year, the Home Ec regulars talk about submitting entries en masse to shake things up in terms of style and content.  Normally, the revolutionary talk peters out after a while until the cycle repeats itself the following August.

Several weeks ago, Cassie completed an embroidery project she had been working on for a while and debated over whether she should submit it to the state fair competition.  She then turned to me and said, "If I'm submitting something, then YOU are submitting something too."  I made excuses--there was so little time left.  What would I submit?  I had made so much progress over the year, but what if I wasn't good enough to compete?  She responded, "There are two reasons to enter the state fair competition.  You can do it to win awards.  Or you can do it to just be able to see your work up there, with all the other projects, and know that you did that--and possibly get some good useful critiques from the judges in the process."

I decided to take the plunge and enter something.  The great thing about submitting state fair entries is that they make it easy to apply, but the cost of failure is low.  They have a website where you can apply electronically.  You have to ask for entry tags by July 1, and the cost is $5 for 1-10 entries.  That means that, theoretically, you can ask for all 10 entry tags for $5, then decide for yourself how many entries you will actually end up sending.  If, in the end, you don't send anything, then all you have lost is $5.

Once you get the entry tags, you label each tag with the division and class for your entry.  (The department is already listed).  You can only submit one entry per class.

For example, I am planning on submitting an embroidered matzah cover from my great-aunt's stash.  In the Fabric & Threads department, I can submit this in the Embroidery division.  Under this division, I think it qualifies for the "Embroidered Holiday Decoration" class.  Once you fill out the tag, you attach it to your project with a safety pin.  You can then either bring it to the fairgrounds on a certain date, or mail it in a package before that date.  Once it is there, it will go on display with all the other entries.

I have no idea how my embroidery will be received when it goes up against projects from women who have years of experience.  Frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if my matzah cover gets a note from a judge that says, "Which holiday is this for?"  I'm just taking this on as a new experience in order to grow as a crafter, to have the pleasure of seeing my work up in public . . . and maybe start a revolution.

Monday, July 8, 2013

My Michigan Find

I hope you all had a wonderful, safe 4th of July weekend.  Parades bring out so many emotions in me--excitement, looking . . .

I went to visit a friend at her new home in Michigan.  It was the first time in a while I was going on a true relaxing vacation, with no sites to see and no reason to hurry.  My friend is a fellow crafter--we have fond memories of making friendship bracelets as children, and knitting/crocheting while snarking at old Beverly Hills 90210 episodes as adults.  She knows about my growing interest in embroidery, so she advised me to check out a needlepoint store nearby.  Her mother had gone there to buy thread for a cross-stitch project.

While I am interested in picking up embroidery-related souvenirs on my travels, I was nervous about visiting a needlepoint store.  I do freehand/surface embroidery and counted cross-stitch, not needlepoint.  All of these are different crafts under the banner of "embroidery," since they all use a needle and thread on fabric; however, they are distinct crafts with their own techniques.  The best comparison I can make is that if surface embroidery is like drawing, then needlepoint is like painting--the stitches cover the entire canvas, and it uses thicker thread or yarn.  When I started looking into places to buy embroidery supplies, I discovered that there are entire stores devoted just to needlepoint.  They provide needlepoint patterns and thicker thread and yarn that will look the best for that craft.  There is nothing stopping me from just buying the thread for projects, but it seems odd to me that a store would focus solely on one technique.  To me, that's like a yarn store that focuses entirely on crochet while ignoring knitting.

I walked into the store, and it was filled with thread of all kinds--thick, thin, glittery, variegated.  I didn't know what to say when the owner asked me if I was interested in needlepoint.  Maybe someday, but I have a lot in my crafting basket now!  (I also feel awkward going into a small, one-person store without buying anything.)  I meandered over to the book case, thumbed through the selection . . . and came across a book that made my eyes pop out of my head.
Oh.  Dear.  G-d.
It was an entire book on bullion knots.  This is a type of elongated knotted stitch made by wrapping the yarn around the needle several times.  There are about seven steps involved.  The first time I stitched them was in the Dropcloth Original Sampler.  I was able to get the hang of it, but I made a bad color choice and they looked like . . . um . . . rat droppings.  You can see them on the lower right corner of the following picture.
Did my friend's rabbit confuse my sampler with his litter box?
I learned to like them more while working on my knotted stitch sampler, but I still wasn't terribly excited about a stitch that was in constant danger of looking like animal scat or maggots.  Just looking at the cover of this book was enough to change my mind and open up an entire world of stitching possibilities.  I had absolutely no idea that bullion knots could be used to make images of actual things.  Cute things.  

The owner told me that this book is only printed in Australia, and she bought a stack of them while she was traveling.  Luckily, the book was not a store copy and I bought it.  The book begins with detailed instructions on how to stitch basic bullion knots and common variations. Every step is accompanied by a color photograph, which is especially useful for showing how to make such a complicated stitch.
Instructions for the Classic Bullion Rose.  There are two more pages of steps after this.
The rest of the book shows how to use bullion knots to make pictures.  They specify the number of bullion knots, the thread colors to use, the placement of the knots, and the number of times to wrap the thread around the needle for each knot.  Some patterns also include embellishments made with other stitches, including feather stitch, couching, and even (gasp!) shadow work.  There are sections for fruits, toys, and Christmas decorations.  Because this is an Australian book, local animals receive special attention.
My favorite is the lounging kangaroo.  I like his style.
The section on flowers is especially beautiful.  It makes me want to buy delicate handkerchiefs so I can stitch dainty rose bouquets on them.
The needlepoint shop had some other "A-Z" books.  I looked it up and it turns out that this is an entire series put out by Country Bumpkin Publishers in South Australia.  There are some books in the series about other crafts, but most of them are about specific embroidery techniques.  These include bead embroidery, crewel embroidery, goldwork, and smocking.  In addition to the titles listed on their website, I have found other out-of-print books on Amazon.  The company also publishes an embroidery magazine, Inspirations, and sponsors an international embroidery conference.

This is why I want to make a point of finding local embroidery spots when I travel.  I end up finding more ideas and resources, ensuring that this is a hobby where I can always find something new to hold my interest.  What cool craft experiences have you had while traveling?  And if you are traveling to Australia anytime soon . . . can I ask you a favor?