Yarn and thread

Once upon a time, when we were relatively newly married and in our starving graduate student phase, my husband and I bought our first (artificial) Christmas tree, which cost $30 on sale at Rite Aid. We bought a few strands of lights, and I made some ornaments out of sculpy to supplement our small collection. As for the bottom of the tree, all we had for an improvised tree skirt was a white sateen baby blanket someone had given Anselm. It fit very awkwardly — being a rectangle and all — but we made do.

Two years ago we upgraded the tree, but we’ve still been making do with the same improvised tree skirt… until now!

This was made semi-following a pattern I bought from Mary Maxim. I followed it exactly for the twelve snowflake motifs, but then went off-piste for more of the rest. The original pattern isn’t a joined circle, but has two sort of flaps that overlap in order to make it easier to put around the tree. I prefer the security of having it totally closed; we’ll just have to remember to put it over the stand before the tree goes in. No big deal. I decided to go with a single red accent stripe in the outer section mostly because I was running too low on the other colours, but I brought the white and tan back in when I added the tassels. All in all, I’m very pleased with how this came out.

The yarn is also from Mary Maxim, called “starlette sparkle”. It’s nice and glittery, but it’s a fairly rough acrylic. That makes it good for household projects like this one — but I wouldn’t want to wear it. Still, I expect we’ll be using this for decades to come, which pleases me.

Also in the realm of pleasing things, check out this beautiful old girl:

That, my friends, is a vintage Singer 403a, manufactured in either 1959 or 1960. My grandmother was downsizing, and — lucky me — I ended up with with sewing machine. It came with the manual as well as all requisite parts, and after a good cleaning and oiling this morning it runs like a dream. It’s been years since I’ve had a working sewing machine, so I just sat right down for two quick and dirty projects!

I do mean quick and dirty. I neither ironed nor pinned (I know, I know). But I think they came out well regardless. The first used the fabric from Perpetua’s old broken umbrella, which I turned into waterproof tote:

The second is an envelope-style slip cover for a throw pillow (I’ll make its twin soon):

This fabric is very special to me. I mentioned recently that I’ve been sorting through all our old baby things as Tertia outgrows them. Something I couldn’t bring myself to either sell or donate was the woven wrap from Lenny Lamb that I used to carry Anselm through most of his infancy. He was a winter baby, and a heavy one (!), and those long cozy layers were perfect for us as I learned to be a mom.

And so, instead of getting rid of it, I decided to transform it. Anselm’s wrap will live on in our home as cushion covers, and perhaps other things as well — there’s certainly enough fabric for more projects. It warms my heart to have a reminder of those special months that’s so tangible, beautiful, and practical. Hooray for being able to sew again!

A morning’s work

We seem to be in a bit of a transitional season here at casa Pennylegion. Tertia is a sturdy toddler now, and so I have had to start deciding to do with all our baby things: what to sell, what to donate, what to put away for sentiment’s sake, what simply needs to be thrown away. And of course, in late October, the season is in full transition as well; after some unseasonably warm weather we are now indisputably into fall. And while it’s still warm enough when we’re walking Anselm to school in the morning that snow suits would be overkill, it’s still cold enough that little legs need a little more coverage in the stroller.

Happily, this all afforded me the chance to kill two birds with one stone. After a morning’s hand-sewing, Tertia now has a lovely warm stroller sack, and I have three fewer flannel baby blankets in my cupboard.

These blankets were all square, which meant a certain amount of experimental folding and pinning before I got a shape with which I was satisfied. The sports panel in the middle is folded in half, and the outer striped panel is folded to meet it, which gives three layers of flannel over the portion that will cover her torso. The back half is a leg pocket, made of the dotted blanket. That was been folded in half one way and in… sixths?… the other, which allowed it to join up nicely on the sides with the front half, and will leave her legs with three layers on top and two behind.

From the front the whole thing is much less busy — all you see are white and grey stripes, with some purple stitching (blanket or whip, depending on the section). And while getting my sewing machine working would certainly have made this a lot quicker, there is something about hand sewing that I find very satisfying — perhaps not despite, but because of its slowness.

Last Harvest

We had frost on the ground this morning, and there’s rain scheduled for the next day or two, so I decided to harvest the last of our garden produce for this year. There’s not much going anymore, but I still brought in a good bowl full of brussels spouts (of various sizes), a nearly overflowing bowl of tomatoes (of various ripenessess), and the last seven unripe figs.

We did have a few figs ripen this season, which was more than I expected. The first was half-eaten by squirrels, drat them, but I brought two others in before they were quite ripe and they finished up in our fruit basket. Those were delightfully soft and jammy, with a berryish taste. There is one more undergoing the same indoor ripening treatment now.

As for the unripe figs, the thing to do seems to be to first boil them to death, and then poach them in simple syrup with some clove and vanilla. So that will be a fun experiment! If they turn out well, it looks like they’re fairly easy to preserve this way, which will be handy in future years when we can expect a larger crop.

All in all, I consider our first year of gardening to have been a success. There are definitely some adjustments we’ll make next spring — more strawberries, for one thing! — but with the 2-3 more raised beds we’re planning there will be plenty of room for all sorts of experiments. I do want to have one bed just for strawberries. The cucumbers and tomatoes both did very well, and I’d like to grow more of those next year with an eye toward learning how to can and pickle. And I think it would be great fun to try a three-sisters planting in one of the beds: sweet corn, some sort of squash (pie pumpkins?), and beans (pole? runner?) growing in harmony.

For my winter homework, I’ve got a handful of gardening books from the library to absorb. It’s been tremendously satisfying to be able to eat food that we’ve grown ourselves, and I can’t wait to see where our next season will take us.

“Weaning” and “The Sleeper”

I’m very pleased to announce the publication of two new poems, “Weaning” and “The Sleeper”, in Antilang no. 10 — emergence. You can read the entire issue here, or skip right to my poems on this page. In either case, hitting the “fullscreen” button in the bottom right will provide the best reading experience.

These poems are about my daughters, though somewhat obliquely in the case of the first. When Perpetua was a toddler, I had to wean her very suddenly, going from nursing frequently throughout the day to nothing at all. That abrupt stop was physically painful, and my body struggled to adjust to the fact that I didn’t need to make milk anymore. “Weaning” captures a little bit of that experience.

I wrote “The Sleeper” about six months into the pandemic. Having a young baby around during most of 2020 was, in some ways, surprisingly grounding. Tertia didn’t care about germs or geopolitics, but only about the simplest aspects of our being: warmth, food in the belly, love, sleep. Tending to her needs became a way to shield myself from the greater worries of the world.

Learn more about the magazine at antilang.ca.

Happy Thanksgiving

It’s Thanksgiving! And, thankful for fall desserts, I bequeath to you my favourite pie recipe:

PUMPKIN PIE (makes 2)

Ingredients:

  • 3.5 cups pumpkin purée
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 Tbsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • heaping 1/2 tsp ground cloves
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 2 cups table cream (18%)
  • 2 unbaked pie crusts

1. In a large mixing bowl, combine puree with eggs; sugars; spices and salt; and cream, stirring well between each addition.

2. Carefully pour into pie shells (pumpkin mixture will be extremely wet; I use a ladle).

3. Bake at 425F for 15 minutes.

4. Lower oven temperature to 350F, and bake for an additional 40 minutes, or until done. Serve warm or cold. Pies are suitable for freezing.

Stashbuster

Guess what! It’s another 12-point star blanket! In These Uncertain Times ™ I hope that my crochet habits are a small touchstone of predictability for all of you.

Not much to say about this one, except that I took it on with the sole goal of finishing this skein of yarn. I’m not crazy about pastels, I don’t really like variegated yarn, it was a huge pain the last time I crocheted with it… but I feel guilty throwing useful things out, and it was too snarled to give away in good conscience, so “use it up” was the remaining choice. And so I did. And it was annoying. And now it is done.

This baby blanket is destined for the church donation stash, where I trust that it will end up with someone who does like pastels, and for whom it won’t matter whether the yarn was nice to work with so long as it is soft and warm. Which, as a matter of fact, it is.

The honeycomb blanket (free pattern)

This blanket made it safely through the mail to its recipient, so I can finally blog about it!

Dear friends of ours are expecting their third child very soon, and since the sex is a surprise I thought a nice neutral like yellow would work well. This is Lion Brand Scarfie yarn in the colourway “cream/mustard” which reminded me very strongly of bees and honey — and so the honeycomb blanket was born! I’d never used Scarfie before, but it’s a delightful wool-acrylic blend, warm and very soft, that I would be happy to crochet with again.

The construction of this blanket is relatively simple. If you can crochet a granny square, you can crochet a granny hexagon, as the principle is exactly the same. Once you have the basic pattern down it’s easy to just keep repeating until you’ve achieved the desired size. In this case, I used almost four skeins of yarn for a toddler-sized blanket.

Start with a magic circle (or if you’re rather not punish yourself, ch 4 and sl st to join).

Chain 3 to serve as your first dc, 1 dc — this is your first granny cluster (six sides requires only 2 dcs per cluster as opposed to the regular 3). Ch 1, and repeat until you have 6 clusters joined with a chain stitch in between each. Slip stitch to close the round and move over to a chain space.

Ch 3 to serve as your first dc, 1 dc, ch 1, 2 dc — this is the first corner cluster of your second round. Repeat pattern in each chain space around; you will have 12 dc granny clusters, with a chain space in between every second cluster. The chain spaces will be the corners of your hexagon (although it can be a little hard to discern them in the early rows this will become very obvious soon). Slip stitch to close the round and move over to a chain space (corner).

Repeat the general cluster pattern, doing two clusters joined with a chain in each corner of the previous rounds, and a single cluster in between each non-corner cluster. Go until your hexagon is as big as you want it, then sc around for a nice finish.

Happy crocheting!

Signal boost: this one’s for the folk lovers

You know those people you meet and instantly you know they’re a kindred spirit? That’s how it was with my friend Jill. Although we only got two years or so of in-person friendship time before I moved away, we’ve kept in touch through the intervening years and all the changes they have brought.

Jill is a gifted singer-songwriter, currently based in Arnprior, Ontario. Recently she guest hosted an episode of Canadian Spaces on CKCU, highlighting a number of Ottawa-area folk singers, interviewing and being interviewed, and playing two of her original songs. The whole program is worthwhile, but of course I want to particularly highlight Jill’s interview and singing, which start at around the 42-minute mark. Listen here!

Mid-season garden notes

Veggies:

  • Tomatoes: doing excellently. We planted two varieties of cherry tomato — one red and one golden — and they’ve been producing beautifully.
  • Cucumbers: two plants, ditto. We’re getting some big boys off of these vines; these make about ten full-size cukes so far, and there are more to come. Next year we will need to stake them properly.
  • Radishes: the radishes also did very well and it was fun to grow them from seed. However, I am the only one in the house who really eats them, and I can’t eat that many radishes. We’ll skip these next year.
  • Spinach: these seeds didn’t take; we only got the one plant and its leaves stayed quite small, so we didn’t get to harvest before it bolted. I’m not sure if we’ll try again next year or not.
  • Broccoli: we have two plants and I kept waiting for them to get bigger before harvesting, but like the spinach they just bolted. I’ve left these in the garden anyway, for the pollinators.
  • Brussels sprouts: what a big plant! We’ve got lots of little nubbins on the stem that will eventually become sprouts; so far, so good on this one. Something has been eating the leaves but it doesn’t seem fussed.
  • Garlic: I planted three bulbs in a large pot rather later in the spring than I should have. For a long time all the pot sprouted was various tiny mushrooms (it has been a very wet summer) but last week some definite garlic leaves surfaced. I’m curious to see what kind of a bulb we’ll get.

Fruit:

  • Strawberries: we have just one strawberry plant, but it is now starting to produce a second crop. We lost most of the first one to the birds before putting up netting, but there are lots of little green strawberries developing now and I’m looking forward to eating them! Next year I want to have an entire raised bed just for strawberry plants.
  • Blueberries: we’ve got a small blueberry bush in a large pot, and it’s doing pretty well. Earlier in the spring its leaves started turning red on the edges, but I added some coffee grounds to the soil and that perked it right back up. The blueberries have been ripening for what feels like six hundred years and they’re still green. Evidently we picked a late-ripening variety. I’ll be sure to make a note of when they’re actually ready to eat so that less of next summer will be spent on tenterhooks.
  • Figs: Figs! FIGS! We planted the Chicago Hardy variety, which should survive our winters with minimal insulating, and it’s been growing like gangbusters. I’ve been fertilizing it about every 2-3 weeks with an 18-18-18 mix (the Miracle-Gro tub with the tomatoes on the front) and it’s put on a lot of height and foliage. And now the first little wee figlets are starting to grow — just a few millimeters in diameter but definitely there. Note to self: purchase organza bags to avoid sharing these with the birds as well.

Ornamentals:

  • Back: our back flower beds are still very overgrown on the whole, but we’ve made good progress as far as the random tulips and daffodils growing out of the lawn. One more season, maybe two, and I think we’ll have gotten them all. My husband took out a number of bushes on the one side that were not doing well, and we replaced them with two flowering bushes native to our area. I seeded microclover throughout the lawn last fall and we have a few good-sizwd patches. Other than that, we’re just continuing to thin things out, which is easier now that we know where all the perennials are.
  • Front: there are two small circular beds in the front lawn that had pretty annuals in them when we bought the house, and nothing last year. This year we put in some native perennials, like foxglove, which have taken well (except for one tall plant that leans badly after having had a branch dropped on it during tree trimming). In the beds immediately in front of the house, I replaced/repaired some hardscaping and we discovered that plants grow better if you water them (surprise). There are a few patches still with not much going on; the dahlias I planted were enthusiastically ripped out by a nameless party who thought they were weeds. I am considering wild roses for next year.

And that’s how things are going! It is so lovely to have these green and growing spaces to work and enjoy, amateur as our efforts certainly are. Next year we hope to add at least one more raised bed, and probably two, and my husband also plans to build proper frames over them for netting (this year we wholly improvised with large branches from the bushes we ripped out and netting left in the basement by the previous owner). It’s been a great experience getting our feet wet this year and I’m really looking forward to further garden adventures!

Mixed media

I followed some links this morning to an interesting newsletter post (is that what we’re calling them?) by Lincoln Michel, entitled “Maybe It’s Time to Admit People Just Like Books?“. I’m old enough to remember most of the struggles between physical and digital media, from the rise of Napster to the advent of Netflix and other streaming services. Paper versus electronic books is just another facet of the broader technological skirmishes that the internet age as necessitated. But, as Michel points out, there’s something different about this one:

As recently as 2015 or so, the common wisdom was that physical books were going the way of the VHS tape or CD. Sure, there would always be “snobs” who held onto physical media. But the market would be dominated by digital books in the same way that music, movies, and TV shows have moved almost entirely to streaming. There was no advantages to books except “nostalgia” and “fetish,” the thinking went, and the digital savvy youth would put an end to the outdated physical book. When publishers fought with Amazon to keep ebook prices close to print prices, the online commentariat mocked them for their backwards thinking that was going to doom the industry.

And yet here we are in 2021, fourteen years after the Kindle was first released and many years into an age when music, TV, film, and other media are almost entirely digital. Yet print books are not only strong, they still dominate the market. This is at the same time that pitiful music streaming payouts are crushing the music industry and digital magazines, constantly wrecked by changes in social media algorithms, are perpetually closing and laying off workers.

Maybe, he posits, there’s just something to physical books — something that still appeals, despite the convenience of ebooks, and appeals to a far wider audience than literary snobs, luddites, and fuddy-duddies. The physicality of a paper book is integral to the experience of reading it: the feel of the pages, the weight of it in your hands, perhaps the smell, the dog-eared pages and scribbled marginalia. Among my favourite books, I also have favourite editions. I like Pride and Prejudice the best in the pocket-sized hardback Oxford World’s Classics edition. When I reread The Lord of the Rings, it makes a difference whether I read the movie-tie-in set of three mass-market paperbacks, or the hefty red thousand-pager with its miniscule type and narrow margins.

I think that there is also something about physical books that is fundamentally invitational. Any library, no matter how small, no matter its setting, invites you to browse, to run your fingers along the spines of its collection, to stop and flip through something that caches your eye. A book read in public can spark a knowing glance or a conversation. The colorful pages of board books and picture books invite our children into the mysteries of reading itself — the magical insight that these squiggles and dots carry meaning, a meaning that is always the same but will also tell us different things as we grow and change. The paper itself invites us to read with a pen in hand, joining in conversation with the author, with previous readers, and even with our past selves.

If there are sides to pick here, I’ve always been on the side of physical books. That is probably obvious. But what’s surprised me over the course of the pandemic, as my reading habits have swung wildly between poles, is how much I’ve come to rely on ebooks. And — depending on the day you ask me — they might even be what I prefer.

Is that weird? It feels weird to me, since I’ve been in the paper camp for so long, appreciating ebooks the ease of toting them around on vacations but not much else. A lot of what makes physical books so experiential is entirely missing from the ebook reading experience; no matter what I’m reading, on my phone it’s going to look about the same as anything else. But even with these differences, ebooks have come to fill an important niche in my reading.

During the covid-19 pandemic, especially in the first half of 2020, both what and how I read changed dramatically. There were times I found myself in a sort of paralysis when reading was simply impossible. I’ve sent dozens of books back to the library unread over the past year and change. When I could read, I took a hard bend toward fiction, particularly of the escapist varities: fantasy, science fiction, romance. But what I found was that during those times when picking up and holding a book was somehow too much (in a year that had more than its fair share of too much), ebooks had an approachability that I needed. They felt low-stakes. Checking out and returning them takes three seconds and a few thumb presses. And at least in my library system, the electronic versions of popular books often have far fewer holds on them than their physical counterparts, or sometimes none at all. When I was reading through Louise Penny’s back catalogue last summer, I read about half of her Inspector Gamache novels on my phone, where they were nearly always immediately available. Perhaps most importantly on a personal level, I can read a book on my phone in an otherwise dark room as I wait for my daughters to fall asleep. Over the past year+ ebooks have been, for me, a bit of a lifesaver. I’m still reading physical books, but the ratios are a lot closer to even than they’ve ever been.

Many people have speculated over the years that books, like other physical media, will eventually be relegated to the realm of niche collectors’ items. Lincoln Michel argues that the reverse may in fact be true. While Boomers embraced ebooks enthusiastically, Gen Z is not so interested:

…the gen z “digital natives” that were supposed to ensure ebook supremacy are actually the least interested in ebooks. They get plenty of screen time as it is between movies, TikTok, and video games. When it comes time to read a book, they’re ready for a break. (It’s actually aging boomers who are the most attached to ebooks, making one wonder if it won’t be ebooks going the way of the dinosaur soon…)

Here in the messy Millennial middle, I’m not so sure that either of them is going anywhere. I can finally appreciate the distinct advantages that each form brings to the table, and if they maintain their current market equilibrium, then all the better for all of us.