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?