Making my own clothes is proving to be difficult

It seems like for every two things I make that I’m happy with, there’s a third that doesn’t go as planned. Let’s call those learning experiences rather than failures. This goes for everything: two breads that turn out nicely, and then the third doesn’t rise in the oven and is too sour or doesn’t have enough salt or comes off the pan in pieces. The first shirt I sewed is something that I wear constantly because I like it so much. The second is soon going to be cut up and used as dish rags. It’s a bright orange tunic that I wore a couple of times when I was still aglow with an infantile sense of pride (I made this!) but I started to feel a little silly wearing it because, truthfully, it looks like hell. I wear my third shirt, documented here, all the time. My fourth started out promising, and I used the same pattern as shirt #3, but because of the fabric and probably some sort of error that I didn’t pick up on, it didn’t turn out so well. It fits fine I suppose, but if I reach my arms forward to lean my elbows on a table or hug someone, the back doesn’t stretch with me and the whole thing feels stiff, like I’m wearing a straight jacket. No big deal. Maybe that means that shirts number 4 and 5 will be masterpieces.

Another issue that I’m having when it comes to sewing and knitting, specifically, is that when I make a mistake and realize that I have to go back and undo part of it or the whole thing, I sigh and put it aside for later because in that moment of frustration I can’t stomach ripping out seams. But then what often happens is said project will languish in a basket in the corner of my workspace, or on a hanger hooked to a door, and silently judge me for abandoning it.

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This dress was a case of getting ahead of myself. It was at the time only the third item of clothing I’d attempted to sew (the first two being the good first shirt and the frumpy orange tunic). I was feeling bold one day and had just come home with a big bag full of thrifted fabric, which included many yards of this soft, light blue denim. I decided to hell with it, I was going to make myself a dress. With darts, sleeves, and a zipper. It seemed like a good idea at the time and it was, at first. The bodice and the skirt came together in an afternoon, technically, meaning that I had crafted something from cloth that could count as clothing. But it was too long and too big and the neckline made me look like I was about to run off and join a convent. (Fun fact, my grandmother ran off and joined a convent in her early 20s, and when she quit/was kicked out after six months she took the bus back to Seattle. She got off at her stop and ran into the man who would be my grandfather. And that is why I’m here today.)

I shortened the hemline and lowered the neckline, though not to indecent proportions, but I haven’t been able to solve the size issue so the thing still looks like I’m lost in an empty bag of animal feed. I tried some darts but that made the waist bunch up awkwardly, so I ripped those out, and then as I wanted to move ahead I decided to get going on the sleeves. As you can see from the above photo, there is only one sleeve because my idea for a sleeve did not work. It’s got this pointy bit that sticks out at the bottom, and the armhole is too big. In the end the only two things that have actually worked out with this dress are the zipper (which was my first, and I’m still pretty proud of the job I did with it) and the hemline, which miraculously came out straight and neat.

I’m not exactly at an impasse, just not sure where to turn next. I suppose the smart thing to do would be to admit defeat: take out the zipper, cut off the bodice, use what remains to make a skirt (which I can manage), and then do my first dress with an actual pattern instead of winging it. This uninformed foray into dressmaking was partly inspired by a sewing blog that one day featured a “tutorial” on making a dress with this same fabric. I put the word tutorial in quotes there because it really wasn’t much of a tutorial. It was a cute, Pin-able graphic of cartoon dress pieces with some arrows pointing in various directions, followed by a bulleted list of vague instructions. I suppose a seasoned sewist could take a look at that tutorial and think, hey, that’s nice, I’ll make that, and s/he would have no problem doing so. Someone in my shoes needs far more hand holding, or at least clarity, but I was swayed by the pretty photos of the finished product and didn’t let my caution get the best of me. And now I’m left with this, a partially finished dress that doesn’t fit, with a sleeve predicament that remains a mystery to me.

However, I’m not going to take it apart just yet, because in other situations I’ve found that my half-finished projects eventually stop judging me and instead start giving me answers. The Roses sweater was one of these. I started that sweater in late March, finishing the front and back in a few days, and then did one of the sleeves. Either from impatience or excitement, I shortcut the instructions and the sleeve ended up being shorter than I wanted. I could have gone along with it but I didn’t want my first sweater to be something I wouldn’t wear in the end because of a bad fit. I decided to start on the second sleeve and do it properly, rather than dealing with the first sleeve first, but even though I was following the exact same YouTube tutorials that had guided me through the first sleeve, I could not figure it out. So with one failed sleeve and a second sleeve that I could not get going on no matter how hard I tried, I tucked everything into my works-in-progress basket to wait patiently until I was motivated to pick it up again.

That day finally came this week, thanks in part to a friend who came over for lunch last Saturday. I showed her the sewing and knitting that I’d been up to and when I came across those sweater pieces I thought, oh… you. And I realized it had been two months since I’d touched the thing. I decided that I would give it another shot this week. This time I started with the too-short sleeve, and was happy to find that I only had to unravel the ribbing plus a couple of inches before it in order to fix the length issue. That was done pretty quickly. Then I started in on the second sleeve. I watched all the same YouTube videos again, and again had to fumble through the first ten rows several times until I realized that the problem was that I was knitting the second sleeve more loosely than the first, which is why it kept coming out so differently. I tightened up my stitches and all was well, and I am now pleased to announce that I have a front and back and two sleeves ready to be sewn together and blocked. We’re leaving this weekend to visit my family for a couple of weeks, so I’m going to do those final steps with an in-person tutorial (my mom).

The moral of this whole story is a common one: When you’re trying to make something, shit happens, and you’ve just got to accept it and make it work if you can. Sometimes making it work turns out differently than you’d planned (which will probably be the case with the blue dress) and sometimes making it work means taking a breather for a while and getting back to it later, only to discover that things are sometimes not as difficult as they seem.

Figuring out what to wear

For much of my adult life, I’ve avoided clothes shopping at all costs. In the past several years most of the clothing I’ve bought has been second-hand and occasionally I’ll duck into stores that I’d rather not enter because I want some basic things that you can’t normally find in thrift shops, and without things like that I would have a hard time pulling together outfits from a wardrobe that is otherwise filled with things like fire-engine red pleated skirts and 60s floral prints. And one day last winter I found that my one pair of pants was getting tight (I’m more of a skirt and dress person, that’s why I only had one pair) so rather than hook the waistband together with a rubber band I decided to go get a larger size. Thrift shops in Geneva are not great, so rather than spend the better part of an afternoon hunting through jeans that are either too big or too small or have rhinestone butterflies embroidered on the butt, I quickly went into a fast fashion shop, grabbed a stack of pants in various colors and sizes, chose the pair I liked best, paid for it and left. I was in and out in about fifteen minutes.

That’s how my relationship with clothes shopping has been for the past few years. It’s fine, I’m able to leave the house fully clothed on a regular basis, but it has kind of sucked the joy out of something that I once liked. Picking out pretty things to wear was once fun for me. With one of my best friends, Jane, I’d spend entire afternoons playing dress up as a teenager. Jane had a fantastic wardrobe that I loved going through. I have no idea where she got most of her stuff, but at fourteen years old she had things like a hot pink foam rubber dress with a tank bodice and bubble-shaped skirt that felt like a wetsuit when I tried it on. In middle school Jane began a project called Crazy Outfit Tuesday, which consisted in coming to school every Tuesday in a Crazy Outfit, such as a billowy mustard yellow pleated skirt, tights printed with a jelly bean graphic, an Air Force t-shirt of her dad’s, and a spiral telephone cord hooked around her neck like a necklace. She looked fabulous and, oddly enough for middle school, didn’t get made fun of for it (or if she did she took it in stride) because Jane’s brand of weirdness was one that was pretty much universally appreciated by her fellow students.

Jane was the person who inspired me to start thinking about how I actually wanted to dress, because in a mundane sea of Champion sweatshirted pre-adolescents, she stood out and had fun doing it. I was never as bold as she was, probably because I cared more than I liked to admit about what other people thought of me, but her example made me want to take my clothes more seriously and develop some semblance of a personal style. That’s what I tried doing for a number of years, but then when I started learning about where and how most of my clothing was produced, I became more and more uncomfortable with the process of shopping for clothes. Finally I all but stopped, and a few years ago I adopted the balance mentioned above, of scouting thrift shops and occasionally and furtively slipping into stores that shall not be named.

I also adopted a mild snootiness in thinking that shopping — and by extension, clothes — was superficial and thus I wanted little to no part of it. Daniel Miller in his book Stuff points out the issue with this. “On the surface is found the clothing which may represent us and may reveal a truth about ourselves, but it may also be a lie,” he writes. “It is as though if we peeled off the outer layers we would finally get to the real self within.” The problem with this, he argues, is that “we are then inclined to consider people who take clothes seriously as themselves superficial.” He continues:

Prior to feminism, newspaper cartoons had few qualms in showing women as superficial merely by portraying their desire to shop for shoes or dresses. Young black males were superficial because they wanted expensive trainers that they were not supposed to be able to afford. By contrast, we student academics at places such as Cambridge were deep and profound because frankly we looked like rubbish, and clearly didn’t much care that we did.

An additional problem for Miller, as an anthropologist, is that this equation of caring about clothing = superficiality is problematic when studying cultures in which clothing is important: “Dismissing them as superficial would represent a rather disastrous start to such an exercise.” He goes on to give the example of Trinidadians’ relationship to clothing as a case in point, and because I find it so interesting I’m going to go ahead and quote at length here:

I worked much of my time in Trinidad with squatters who had neither a water supply nor electricity in the house. Yet women living in these squatters’ camps might have a dozen or twenty pairs of shoes. A common leisure activity was to hold a fashion display, on a temporary catwalk, along one of the open spaces within the squatters’ encampment. They would beg, borrow, make or steal clothes. It wasn’t just the clothes, it was also the hair, the accessories and the way they strutted their stuff; knowing how to walk sexy and look glamorous or beguiling. Movements were based on an exaggerated self-confidence and a strong eroticism, with striding, bouncy, or dance-like displays. In local parlance there should be something hot about the clothing and something hot about the performance. On evenings I could spend three hours with them, waiting as they got themselves ready to go out and party, trying on and discarding outfits until they got it right.

This association is hardly new for the region. Early accounts of slave society in the Caribbean include references to the particular devotion of slaves to clothing. A.C. Carmichael stated in 1833: ‘Generally speaking, the coloured women have an insatiable passion for showy dresses and jewels… The highest class of females dress more showily and far more expensively than European ladies.’ Freilich, carrying out enthnographic research in an impoverished village in 1957-8, reports, ‘the wife of one of the peasants said “every new function needs new clothes. I would not wear the same dress to two functions in the same district.”‘ This desire was still more forcefully expressed during the 1970s oil boom in Trinidad when both seamstresses and their clients suggested that purchasing two new outfits a week was quite common for women in work. We do not necessarily condemn a population just because they show some devotion to stuff. Anthropologists celebrate, rather than demean, the devotion of Trobriand Islanders to canoe prows or of the Nuer to cattle. But curiously a devotion to clothing, as one can see from these descriptions by outsiders, was always viewed rather more harshly, especially for those without wealth.

As evident in the description of the local catwalk, what mostly concerned Trinidadians was not fashion — that is, the collective following of a trend, but style — that is, the individual construction of an aesthetic based not just on what you wear, but on how you wear it. There used to be a term saga boys for men who combined sartorial originality with ways of walking and talking that never let up from conspicuous display. Another local term gallerying gets it just right. Trinidad style, in turn, has two components, individualism and transience. The individual has to re-combine elements in their own way. The source of these elements is unimportant. They may be copied from the soap operas or the fashion shows which appear on television, sent from relatives abroad or purchased while abroad. They may simply re-combine local products. But the various elements should work together, be appropriate to the person who carries them off well, for ideally just one particular occassion. It didn’t matter what the clothes cost or even whether the clothes worn on the catwalk belonged to them or were borrowed for the occasion. This wasn’t about accumulation, but about transience. The stylist may learn from fashion but only as the vanguard. Then they must move on. Trinidad’s best known cultural export, Carnival, enshrines this transience. Individuals may spend weeks, if not months, creating elaborate and time-consuming costumes. But these must be discarded and re-made annually. What is celebrated is the event, the moment.

(…) [I]nstead of trying to ask where such a relationship to style comes from, instead of seeing it as a problem that requires explanation, we can turn the lens back onto ourselves. Why do we think that a devotion to clothing is a problem anyway? Why do we see it as a sign of superficiality and what does the very term superficiality imply? The problem with (…) treating clothing as superficial is that we presume a certain relationship between the interior and the exterior. We possess what could be called a depth ontology. The assumption is that being –what we truly are — is located deep inside ourselves and is in direct opposition to the surface. A clothes shopper is shallow because a philosopher or a saint is deep. The true core to the self is relatively constant and unchanging and also unresponsive to mere circumstance. We have to look deep inside ourselves to find ourselves. But these are all metaphors. Deep inside ourselves is blood and bile, not philosophical certainty. We won’t find a soul by cutting deep into someone, though I suppose we might accidentally release it. My point is that there is simply no reason on earth why another population should see things this same way. No reason at all why they should consider our real being to be deep inside and falsity on the outside. The argument here is that Trinidadians by and large don’t.

(…)

Most Trinidadians would certainly assert humour and wit as central to their self-definition and would see it as contributing to their sense of cool and style. (…) This keeping of things on the surface also means the freedom to construct oneself and not be categorized by circumstance. In London when two middle-class people meet they tend to ask each other ‘and what do you do?’ — meaning their employment. But most Trinidadians consider this highly inappropriate. One works simply because one needs to earn money, so this is entirely the wrong source of self-definition. Asking what work someone does tells you nothing significant about them. It is the things one chooses freely to do that should define you, not the things you have to do. Freedom in self-construction seems central.

It is again at Carnival that one comes to appreciate the further implications of not seeing the essential nature or truth of a person as a property located deep within. One of the main themes of Carnival is the revelation of truth. Carnival starts at night with a festival called Jouvert derived from the French jour d’ouvert or the opening of the day. People dress as creatures of the night, such as devils, or come out covered in mud. (…) Sometimes they carry placards with scandals and accusations. Gradually they move toward the centre of town where they are revealed by the dawn. In 1988, one of the most striking costumes represented a current calypso and was called Bacchanal Woman. A huge figure wore a dress festooned with eyes. Bacchanal is the disorder that follows scandalous revelation. (…) People try constantly not to reveal the truth about themselves but Carnival brings the things of the night into the light of revelation.

The point all this makes about lies is that people are constantly trying to hide them. And where is the obvious place to hide things? Well, deep inside where other people can’t see them. (…) For Trinidadians it is entirely obvious that truth resides on the surface where other people can easily see it and attest to it, while lies are to be found in the hidden recesses deep within. A person’s real being, then, is also on the surface, and evident. The deep person, who keeps things stored close to himself or herself and out of view, is viewed as just dishonest. The point, of course, is that truth is neither intrinsically deep nor on the surface. Neither set of metaphors can be judged as right or wrong. It is simply that there is no reason why any other population should have a concept of superficiality which sees the deep inside as true and significant and the surface as false and insignificant.

(…)

[W]e have this very peculiar ideal about looking natural, which tends to imply that putting on make-up and clothes is false and superficial. But why should we assume this? Why should the fact that one person has freckles tell us who they are? Or that one person is born uglier than another person, and so can portray evil or a debased character on the stage? We see the natural just like the deep as being about the truth of a person. The Trinidadian conception, by contrast, is that who we are is not at all given by the happenstance of physiognomy — our face when we wake up in the morning. Why on earth should the natural look of a person be a guide to who that person is? By contrast, a person who spends time, money, taste and attention in creating a look, where the final look is the direct result of all that activity and effort, can properly be discovered in their appearance. Because now one is judging what they have done, not what they happen to look like originally. We are judging them by their labour, not their birth. One aspires to the act of self-cultivation.

When I first read this, I think what I found so interesting about it was the affront that it was to my own idea that the surface is superficial and the true self lies inside. That is something that I have absorbed over the course of my life thus far to define for me what is reality, and it’s been backed up by personal experience. I’m someone who has one of those faces that, if I’m not smiling, looks deadly serious or angry about something. Once as a teenager I was on a bus with some friends going downtown (to do what I don’t know, loitering or looking for additions to our classic rock cassette collections) and an older man sitting across from us stared at my friend Linda and me for a while before announcing to Linda that she looked “nice” whereas I looked “mean.” I still remember that twenty years later because it hurt — I’m not a mean person (maybe sometimes, but not on purpose) and here this guy was judging me from my stony-faced exterior and deciding who I was and what I was like based on that. Women get this all the time: I know I’m not the only one who has had to endure countless observations from strangers on the street that I’m not smiling, and why don’t I smile, and encouragements to “hey, smile!” In addition to wanting to scream at them that my purpose in life is not to walk around sunnily smiling at men for whatever purpose that would serve — I’ve never quite figured that one out — I’ve also always been confused because more often than not I’m not smiling because I’m lost in thought, thinking about happy things or sad things or whatever sort of thing that just happens to not show up on my face. They can’t see what’s going on in my head because the surface manifestation doesn’t match it. The real me is inside, whereas the surface me is (apparently) going around scowling at everyone.

So based on a lifetime of empirical data I eventually arrived at the conclusion that the real me was somewhere deep inside, and my physical self was just a source of transportation to get my real self around to work and school and social events and Walter Benjamin reading groups. And clothes — in addition to being produced by sweatshop labor and fossil fuels — were just a means to avoid getting arrested for public nudity during the course of those commutes.

The problem with believing this is that it ran into head-on conflict with a reality that I was trying to deny, and which I’ve only recently stopped denying: I like clothes. I love beautiful fabric and bright colors, the feel of something that drapes perfectly and moves with me, and, yes, the sense that what I wear is somehow a projection of what exists in my head, the feeling that it’s somehow a reflection of my individual self. The latter is probably part of why I love shopping in second-hand shops. It feels like I’m on a treasure hunt looking for myself, and when I find something that seems like me I’m also excited by the idea that I’m going to be the only one in the entire world wearing it. (Because all other copies of a particular dress were burned, and this is the only one remaining? That’s what it feels like anyway.)

This is, in the end, why I’ve taken up sewing this year. I recognize that I could very well go out in the world wearing the exact same thing every day. I would continue to live and breathe, no problem. A full wardrobe is not necessary to the continuation of basic biological functions. But I don’t want to go out in the world every day wearing the exact same thing. Having a full wardrobe is not a question of survival, it’s a question of desire, and of fun. Why else do so many people have more than two outfits on rotation? And why should we limit ourselves to that if we don’t want to?

This gets me back to the issue of where fast fashion comes from, what it’s made of, and who makes it. Since I still can’t stomach forking over my money to support that industry, I decided to start filling in my wardrobe with things I make myself. This of course brings up a whole load of other issues, such as the fact that fabric is still made somewhere by someone else (though you can check the tag, which will usually state the country of origin) and also the fact that it takes an immense amount of time to make something that seems so simple. I submit to you the following example, the shirt I made this weekend. It was the first time I ever sewed something using a pattern and I’m really very happy with how it turned out:

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(Note: the color coordination of the shirt with the circa 1982 linoleum in our hallway was unintentional.)

Simple, right? A basic v-neck tank, no sleeves to mess with. The trickiest part about it was that it’s cut on the bias. But even so, it took me nine and a half hours to make it. (I timed the process.) The fabric was 30-something Swiss francs, and add the cost of labor to that and you can best bet that I will not be tossing this tank top into the wash with my sweaty running clothes. This is haute couture that I sweated and cursed over for a few hours Saturday afternoon and the better part of Sunday. The very fact that I had the available time to do so is privilege in itself, not to mention the privilege of spending money on a sewing machine and untold hours learning how to use it. But in the end, money-wise, this is cheap because nowhere on Earth will you find a shirt made of Italian fabric with hand-stitched interior seams for less than your monthly rent. Odd to think about how making your own clothes is both cheaper (when compared to store items of similar quality I mean) and also a thing people can do only if they’re relatively privileged (meaning they have the time to do it).

Anyway, this is how I’ve decided to reconcile my love of clothes with my hatred of shopping for them. It’s funny, because when my mom was growing up she made a lot of her own clothes because that was the only means she had to accumulate a wardrobe. Shop-bought clothes were expensive and there wasn’t the money for it, so she went to school in her handmade kilts, mortally embarassed at her homespun-ness, and vowing from a young age that she would ensure that her future children would have the privilege of buying their clothes in shops. Now in her late 60s, she’s done a complete 180 and despises the very industry that she once wanted to buy into. But she still likes pretty things, so she’s taken to making them. About once a week, Mom emails me photos of her latest masterful knitting projects, and I email her back photos of whatever I’m knitting or sewing at the moment, and we respond to each other with mutual praise of how fantastic we look.

Last fall’s canning projects

I took a hiatus from this blog for much of last year — no big reason, just I wasn’t really in writing mode, more in making mode, so I let things hang out here while I was busy in the garden, the kitchen, and my knitting and sewing den. However, I wanted to share a little project I did in October when I was faced with pounds and pounds of tomatoes on the vine that were still green and, given that we were well into fall, would have had no chance to turn red.

I’ve learned that there are plenty of things you can do with green tomatoes, but at first all I could think of was fried green tomatoes. We ate those for a while, but really a person can only eat so many fried green tomatoes before she starts looking around for something else to do with them. Those something elses turned out to be two canning projects that I’m really happy with, not only because they taste good, but because they were made entirely with garden produce and featured all those green tomatoes that were tired of being battered and fried.

First up was this hot sauce, which I altered slightly (see below) in ways that wouldn’t mess with its acidity (no botulism here). Making garden hot sauce was actually my big goal for the season. I had bought a bunch of habanero and cayenne pepper plants in the spring with plans to make hot sauce for my brother, who is something of a hot sauce expert. I thought that even if everything else in the garden failed that year, if I managed to get one jar of hot sauce for my brother out of it, I would consider the year a success. As it was, last year’s garden was the most productive one yet, and I got not one but five jars of hot sauce out of our hot pepper plants. This hot sauce isn’t overwhelmingly spicy and has a slight sweetness to it from the apple cider vinegar.

After the hot sauce I went searching for a way to use up the rest of the green tomatoes. I was thinking some kind of chutney or relish, and finally settled on one that was very sweet and very sour and went nicely with some bread and a sharp cheese like cheddar or gruyere. I unfortunately can’t locate the recipe (should’ve posted about it when I made it!) but there are dozens available online that are very close to what I made as far as their ingredients.

The last of the fall canning was the spiced apple sauce from Canning for a New Generation. I only got one jar out of it, using apples that had fallen from the trees in the garden, so I had to do some high school level math to figure out quantities. (An aside: I’m finding that high school math has been coming in handy these past few years — algebra for canning, geometry for sewing. I’m still waiting to find out if calculus and trigonometry are useful.) The spiced apple sauce is also a nice recipe. If you’re into canning and don’t have that book, I’d recommend it. Full of good things.

These were by far my favorite canning projects so far, not because they tasted the best (I think that would be strawberry-lemon preserves, also from Canning for a New Generation), but rather because they were nearly “free” in the sense that I paid very little money to make them aside from a couple bottles of vinegar and the canning jars. (And of course the plants and seeds back in the spring, but that’s much cheaper than buying the resultant fruit and veg.)

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Medium term investment planning

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Appreciation

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Return on investment

The spices and salt I already had on had, so this was preserving for necessity, preserving to prevent waste. For other canning I’ve done, I’ve used crates of produce that I picked up at my town’s farmer’s market. I get a good price when I do that because I buy by the crate from my regular vendors, but I’m still shelling out money, so those are fun projects rather than necessities to prevent perfectly good produce from going into the compost bin. In canning this hot sauce, relish, and apple sauce, I was working with a surplus, the first time the garden presented me with such a predicament. I was being thrifty. It was a nice feeling.

The hot sauce recipe:

GREEN TOMATO HOT SAUCE

Ingredients:

8 cups chopped green tomatoes

1 cup combined cayenne and habanero peppers

1 cup chopped onion

4 cups apple cider vinegar, 5% acidity (<– the acidity level of the vinegar is important, so be sure to check)

2 teaspoons salt

a tea ball filled with peppercorns and coriander seeds, in about a 2 to 1 ratio

2 cinnamon sticks & 3 bay leaves

For cooking and water bath canning instructions, see the original recipe here.

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Dreaming of edible landscapes and vegetal cities

A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine sent me a TEDx talk by Ben Falk (which I’ll put at the bottom of this post), and today I watched it while eating lunch. My lunch was nice — a big salad and some of the bread I made yesterday, but apart from the actual making of the bread, the rest of it was store-bought and I hadn’t grown any of the ingredients myself. There’s nothing in the garden that’s ready to pick yet, aside from herbs and the celery that lasted through the winter — way too much celery really, so I’ve been feeling a bit rabbity this week since Alvaro doesn’t like the stuff. I’ve duly noted this and won’t bother planting so much celery this year.

So while I was happy with my nice midday salad, I couldn’t help feeling a bit envious of Falk’s rural Vermont homestead. What a dream, to be able to grow almost all of your own food, grains included, as well as medicinal herbs and eggs from happy chickens. To be able to feed yourself almost entirely with what you’d coaxed into being with your own two hands.

But it also got me thinking again about something that has nagged me for years: we, the people who are into this sort of stuff, salivate over lush foodscapes like Falk’s backyard while at the same time living in apartment blocks, paved-over suburbs or cities, with a lucky few having a few square feet of balcony. The rest have to be contented with windowsill boxes… if that — I once lived in a studio apartment whose two windows looked out onto a fire escape, barbed wire fence, and the next building’s wall eight feet away. We didn’t get much sun so I tried to compensate by painting the place canary yellow.

More than half of the world’s population today lives in urban areas, and I’m sure many people living in apartments like mine would, like me, be very happy to get away from it all and live somewhere that doesn’t smell like car exhaust, and isn’t so cramped that the guys working on the scaffolding of the building across the way can see what TEDx video you’re watching while eating your supermarket lunch. But not everyone who wants to can get out — because of finances, family, work, available land to buy — and even if they did, where would they all go? Wikipedia has just told me that if we were to spread out the human population over the Earth’s land mass, excluding Antarctica, we would be more than 50 people per square mile — and that’s taking into account land mass including the top of Mont Blanc and the middle of the Mohave Desert.

Thus, it’s not going to happen, that we as a species can all heed the call to go back to the land. That isn’t to say that those who have the inclination and possibility to do it shouldn’t. If Alvaro and I are lucky enough to score a piece of land upon which to cultivate our paradise, we’ll certainly jump at the chance. For that, Falk’s talk is some lovely farm porn, something to dream about and work towards, but it remains that there need to be some alternatives presented that better take into account the fact that this dream is not realizable for everyone — nor is it for everyone.

I organized a walking tour for a group of art students yesterday that ambled through the streets of Geneva on mission to discover alternative systems of food production in this urban landscape. We saw large and small plots of fruits and vegetables, chicken runs and bee hives, beautiful and cared for pockets of land squeezed in among old buildings and new ones. It all looked so precarious, and yet at the same time gave a tiny taste of the way things could be — even with Geneva’s housing crisis — if there existed the political and cultural will to change. Problem is, there isn’t really. As is the case in other cities, there are very few urban gardening projects in Geneva that take the long view. There are a few exceptions, but most urban gardeners here have to be contented with a few square meters of clay-heavy soil in peripheral areas or parcels of land that the city lets them use temporarily while finalizing the permits for an upcoming construction project. (The latter is the case of my community garden — I’ll give an update on that here soon.) There is no grand urban planning scheme here, no thought to preserving green spaces aside from the city parks. Always there is the cry of “but we’re in a housing crisis” and “but all these immigrants need apartments.” These sound like excuses to me, because look around Geneva and you’ll see plenty of buildings that are either vacant or vacated of meaning, shops filled with fast fashion and electronics that will stop working after two years, offices whose sole purpose is to pass paper around or trade decimals of wheat. We don’t have a housing issue — we have a priorities issue.

I’m afraid I don’t have any sweeping plans that I can take to the Grand Conseil tomorrow, so this will be filed under Complaints with No Clear Alternative Offered. I will therefore leave you with Ben Falk’s video, and continue pondering the issue and try to figure out something that at least I personally can do about it.

The Roses sweater

1929 Oct 12 mother-Angela Eva [Ernsdorff] Ellwanger, daughter-Rosemary Eva 'Roses'

The woman above on the right is my grandmother Rosemary, aka Roses, on her wedding day, October 12, 1929. A woman named Judy found my family tree on a genealogy website and emailed me because we’re distantly related — her grandmother was my great-grandmother’s little sister. We started corresponding last year because Judy has a large stash of family photos and is trying to identify the people in them — no small task, since many of the photos are pushing a hundred years old, and so very few of the people in them are still alive to identify themselves. So Judy and I, plus my father, are attempting to put names to faces, with little to go on. The woman on the left in the above photo, we assume, is Roses’s mother, Angie, but she could also be Roses’s mother-in-law, Katherine (that’s what my father thinks).

I have stared at this photo for untold lengths of time since Judy sent it to me this past week. There are so many things about it that hypnotize me: the smiles, for one. My father has a framed portrait of his parents on their wedding day, only in that one my grandmother is dutifully gazing into the distance, serious and unsmiling, like a silent movie star. She’s wearing the same headpiece and holding the same bouquet of lilies. I’m very familiar with that photo, and so seeing this one in which she’s grinning, her eyes crinkled, next to her mother (or mother-in-law), makes me gleefully happy because she looks like a real, 22-year-old human about to get (or just after getting) hitched.

Judy also sent me this photo:

1929 Oct 12 Wedding Rosemary Eva Ellwanger

The dapper man on the far left is Judy’s grandfather, Bart. Angie/Katherine is in the center, holding the arm of a young man whom we believe to be RJ “Boots” Ellwanger, Roses’s little brother. To Angie/Katherine’s right (your left), skipping a person, there’s a woman peeking her head out from behind the front row — that’s Judy’s grandmother, Winnie. In front of Boots is Roses’s sister and maid of honor, Flo. Just behind Roses to her right (your left) is her dearly beloved, my grandfather, Carl Stevenson. Directly behind Angie/Katherine is a gentleman who seems to be looking askance at the man who is stealing his daughter away — this is Roses’s father, my great-grandfather, RJ Number One.

I am mesmerized by this photo as well: The short hair, the pleated drop-waist skirts, the three-piece suits. The girl third from the left who’s sticking her tongue out at the photographer. The little boy on the far right in knickerbockers and argyle socks. The sleepy bulldog who decided to get in the shot and was recorded for posterity.

I’m also fascinated by this because the people in the photo did not know at the time that in twelve days the stock market would crash violently and ten years of economic depression would follow. I don’t know what happened to this family during that period. I wish I had thought to ask my grandmother before she died in 1998, but I was sixteen and didn’t really think to ask things like that at that age. Her family was middle to upper-middle class. Her grandfather John (RJ One’s father) came to the US from Prussia two years after the Revolutions of 1848 (he was born on the boat), and ended up in Iowa, where as an adult he made a killing in the liquor business. He had a huge, three-story house that’s still there in the center of Dubuque, which I know because my father and I did a drive-by once. Legend has it that John’s second wife went mad with the Panic of 1907, allegedly attacked the mailman one day, and thereafter lived in the attic while John went on to marry a third time. And yet, life went on, in good ways or bad, as it did for the people in these family photos, and as it does every time our precariously balanced house of cards tumbles yet again. People continue getting married, having babies, going to work, making do, maybe sometimes questioning why we put so much faith in an economic system that has failed us so many times.

I got into researching my paternal genealogy not so much because I’m a nostalgic person (though there is some of that, too), but because I like to ponder what life was like on the cusp of huge historical events. I’ve got about forty pages left in William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, and this weekend I finished a multi-month project of binge watching Mad Men (about four years after everyone else). With both, I feel a tiny thrill (or chill, depending) every time the storyline is creeping up to an important date — 24 October 1929, 23 November 1963. How will the characters react? How would I have reacted? It will be like that when I am old and my hypothetical future grandchildren are looking at photos of me wearing a hair scrunchie and acid-wash jeans with snaps at the ankles. Where was I when the Berlin Wall fell? Where was I on September 11, 2001? (Answers, respectively: lying belly down on the living room carpet watching the evening news footage, and waiting in line to check my email at the university computer lab, not knowing at first why everyone was freaking out).

My current knitting project is a sweater pattern from a 1930s booklet. The pattern is called the “3-Hour Sweater,” because you can supposedly knit it in three hours, which I assure you is absolutely not the case. Though it’s knitting up quickly, I’d say it’s more like the 3-Day Sweater if you’re burning the midnight oil, or the 3-Week Sweater if most of your knitting is done like mine is, on the bus into town and while watching the season 7 finale of a worringly addictive period drama.

I found the pattern on Ravelry and have included it at the end of this post, which I felt at liberty to do because the copyright must be expired by now. I wasn’t necessarily looking for a vintage pattern when I found this one. I was just looking for something to knit with 615 yards of worsted-weight targhee wool in cranberry red that my mother gave me for Christmas. (It’s awesome to work with, found here if you’re interested.) When I stumbled upon this pattern, I felt like it was the obvious winner. The finished sweater will look something like this:

3-hr-pix

At the moment it looks like this:

IMG_3806

There’s bit more work to do on the front, and after that come the two puff sleeves and stitching everything together (which I’ve never done, so that’ll be an exciting feat). Realistically it’ll be another week, but still time enough to be able to wear it plenty before it gets too warm here to wear wool.

I was knitting this when my email pinged with Judy’s latest photo finds, so I had my new-old sweater in my lap when I first saw my grandmother happily smiling at 22 years old, showing some white-stockinged leg in her trendy, asymmetrically hemmed wedding dress. I have no idea if she was a knitter, but I’d like to think so, and so I’m pretending that there’s a possibility that she once knit a sweater of this very design. There is something almost eerie about working with a vintage pattern, your hands following the same instructions as someone else’s hands did eighty years ago.

When I was at a thrift shop the other day scouting out second-hand fabrics, I also wound up buying this sewing pattern from circa 1980something:

IMG_3807

The pattern is already cut, and I’m fine making do with that, and even happy for it because that means it was used and maybe loved. It also makes me wonder what its previous owner was doing and thinking as she was cutting the pattern and piecing together her homemade skirt. Where was she when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and Pan Am 103 crashed in Lockerbie? What was she thinking when she watched the guy in the white shirt stand down the tanks in Tiananmen Square? I only have hazy memories of a few big events in the 1980s — my world at the time was the size of Sesame Street — but this skirt’s maker was, let’s assume, an adult and as such had an entirely different experience of that decade. And so when I go to start work on Burda super-easy 7226, I’ll think of what she might have been thinking when the stock market crashed in 1987, like I’m thinking about the makers of my 1930s sweaters, and about my grandmother in her wedding photos, smiling on the brink of a new and scary decade.

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3-HOUR SWEATER (from a 1930s booklet that is in bits & pieces)

Fascinating!  And  most  popular. Three hours of knitting and presto —you have a smart garment your friends are sure to admire. The loose stitch  progresses  so  rapidly  you’ll want to make several — two or three for your own wardrobe and others for gifts.

SIZE 16 (see note below)

Five 1-oz. balls Germantown Zephyr*

1 pair bone needles 5MM (Note from me: my needles are bamboo, and that works fine.)

1 pair wooden needles 10MM

1 crochet hook No. 3

4 sts = 1 inch

BACK:

With 5MM bone needles cast on 52 sts.

K 2, p 2 for 3 inches. Change to the 10MM wooden needles.  K one row, p one row for nine inches.

Bind off 2 sts at the beginning of the next 2 rows. Then decrease 1 st both ends of needle every k row until 44 sts remain. Next row start yoke.

K 2 sts, p 2 sts and continue ribbing still decreasing 1 st both ends of needle every other row until 22 sts remain. Bind off.

FRONT:

Cast on 56 sts with 5MM bone needles.

Follow directions for back until there are 48 sts on needle. Next row start yoke.

K 2, p 2 for 24 sts. Leave these sts on pin to be worked later for the other half of front and continue to k 2, p 2, on remaining 24 sts. Work ribbing of k 2, p 2 for rest of yoke, keeping front edge even and decreasing I st every other row on armhole edge until front edge measures 3 inches.

Bind off 6 sts at neck edge. Then decrease I st at neck edge every row, still decreasing 1 st at armhole every other row until all sts are decreased. Work other half of front to correspond.

SLEEVE:

Cast on 4 sts.  K 2, p 2 increasing 1 st both ends of needle every other row. When there are 20 sts on needle change to k 1 row, p 1 row, still increasing 1 st both ends of needle until there are 36 sts.

Then cast on 4 sts at each end of work. K I row, p 1 row for 3 inches.

Next row — K first 2 sts together, * k 2 sts, k next 2 sts together. Repeat from * across row to last 2 sts. K these 2 sts together. (32 sts on needle.)

K 2, p 2 on these 32 sts for 1-1/2 inches. Bind off.

Sew underarm and sleeve seams. Sew sleeve into sweater. Finish around neck and front opening with one row of single crochet, making a loop at top of opening for button.

Germantown Zephyr  is described as:

A 4-fold yarn (4 twisted strands) of high-quality virgin wool. Approximately 80 yards to the ounce. It is available in Ombre (variegated shades) as well as solid colors.

Suitable for: Afghans, robes, and pillows. Suits and dresses for women and children. Sweaters for men, women, and children. Scarfs, mittens, berets, etc.

 

A note on sizing:

This is vintage sizing, so a 1930s size 16 has nothing to do with a 2016 size 16. Clothing manufacturers over the years have continuously used smaller and smaller numbers for sizing in order to appeal to women’s vanity. Sizes once presumably corresponded to something, but they now correspond to nothing at all. I have modern-size fours to tens in my closet, all of which fit, and I have a gaudy 1960s shift dress that’s marked as a European size 42 and that also fits. Since my 3-Week Sweater is still in pieces, I can’t say for sure how it fits, but it looks like it’s going to be roomy enough to be comfortable and not pull across the bust, but won’t be baggy. Your best bet is to go off your bust measurement, holding the measuring tape at the widest part of your bust — securely enough so it stays in place, but loose enough for you to be able to breathe comfortably. Mine is 36.5 inches, so I think if you’re within an inch of that either way this pattern will work for you as written. If you’re larger, you’ll need to adjust the pattern. A woman going by the name of Miss Dixie O’Dare posted in the comments section on Ravelry that she’d adapted the pattern for herself, and was nice enough to post it on her blog. She lists her adjustment as being for a 40-42 inch bust, so you can use her pattern as written if that’s your size, or use it for reference if you’re somewhere in between and brave enough to adapt the pattern for your own body. Either way, it’s a quick project so if you have to undo things a few times in order to get it right you won’t have lost much time.

Also, needle sizes here are important — from the looks of the photos on the sweater’s Ravelry page, a lot of knitters didn’t use the recommended needle size, which is totally their perogative, but if you use smaller needles you won’t have the same shape that’s shown in the drawing of the sweater above. That will of course have an effect on whether or not the sweater will fit in the end.

Murray Bookchin: Economics and the Moral Order

Recorded in 1976 at the Schumacher Center in New York

Climate Journeys

Just popping in to share a fascinating series of short pieces from the blog Artists and Climate Change:

Climate Journeys n° 1: Living Inside an Egg

I lived in character as the Beaulieu Beadle for twelve months from July 14th, 2013 until July 13th, 2014 in a six-metre long, floating Egg sculpture in the Beaulieu River on the fringe of the New Forest National Park in England. It was an innovative and energy efficient, self-sustaining capsule, providing a place to live as well as a laboratory for studying the life of a small tidal river in a protected Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Climate change is already creating new shorelines here, as established salt marsh is eroded by a combination of rising sea levels and falling landmass, and the entire littoral environment is in a state of flux. Sea level is predicted to rise by 114cm from today’s levels by 2115, with the loss of over 760 hectares of salt marsh.

 

Climate Journeys n°2: Sailing the Southeastern US and the Caribbean

I live in nature. Surrounded by it, I experience every subtle shift and change. I witness an amazing array of species as they inhabit the same place, and I am exactly where I want to be. I never could have predicted this would be my life. I never thought I’d give up my studio, my workshop, all my tools and supplies. I loved being a full time studio artist. But at some point, as an environmental artist, it wasn’t enough. As my ideas grew, the studio felt too confined, too removed, so isolated and incapable of adequately experiencing and expressing (incubating and containing) what I needed to say. Being more visual than verbal, that’s really what art is to me; another means of expressing a concept or idea.

Having sold the bulk of our possessions, my studio now fits in eight small drawers and paints live in a tiny bin. The sailboat is impossible to keep tidy and organized, and mold is a constant problem. But when I step out of the cabin into the cockpit, I see dolphins and egrets. I see pelicans and sea squirts.

Climate Journey n°3: Creating a Map of Coastal Climate Change Adaptation

Many island nations of the Caribbean and coastal regions of the Eastern U.S. are particularly threatened by damaging climate change impacts like sea level rise, increased storm surges, and loss of local aquatic ecosystems. Many adaptation measures could be taken to spare life and property in these threatened areas, but climate change skepticism and a poor understanding of the science remain a major barrier to meaningful action. In order to address this gap in understanding my partner, hydrologist Zion Klos, and I are embarking on a year-long sailing expedition, and art and science collaboration called Climate Odyssey.

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In other news, my research activities have been reduced to reading, sewing (a new discovery) and watering the garden in the midst of a nasty (for Switzerland) heat wave. The forecast is calling for 100° starting tomorrow and continuing at least through the weekend. All activities involving ovens, stoves and wool are therefore on hold at least until Monday-Tuesday, when I’ll be giving a bread baking workshop at a kids’ summer camp. Had I know we would be hit with this kind of weather, I would have proposed a popsicle workshop, but oh well, what’s done is done…!

Keeping Quiet, Pablo Neruda

shutup

“Keeping Quiet,” Pablo Neruda

 

Now we will count to twelve

and we will all keep still.

 

For once on the face of the earth,

let’s not speak in any language;

let’s stop for one second,

and not move our arms so much.

 

It would be an exotic moment

without rush, without engines;

we would all be together

in a sudden strangeness.

 

Fisherman in the cold sea

would not harm whales

and the man gathering salt

would look at his hurt hands.

 

Those who prepare green wars,

wars with gas, wars with fire,

victories with no survivors,

would put on clean clothes

and walk about with their brothers

in the shade, doing nothing.

 

What I want should not be confused

with total inactivity.

Life is what it is about;

I want no truck with death.

 

If we were not so single-minded

about keeping our lives moving,

and for once could do nothing,

perhaps a huge silence

might interrupt this sadness

of never understanding ourselves

and of threatening ourselves with death.

Perhaps the earth can teach us

as when everything seems dead

and later proves to be alive.

 

Now I’ll count up to twelve

and you keep quiet and I will go.

 

That concludes today’s poetic interlude. Have a nice day everyone.

All I need now are some sheep

The other day I was working with Arlène, a friend from the garden, to start up a blog to document this year’s garden adventures, which will serve as an archive of photos and stories as we prepare for our eventual eviction and search for a new home. When Arlène and I talk, even when we’re supposed to be working, we have a tendency to go off on tangents, which I like. That’s my kind of talking, because tagents often lead to exciting discoveries.

During one of our little derives Arlène mentioned a website called Keepinuse, based in Switzerland (mostly in the French part though there is some action in the German regions), that works on the assumption that one person’s trash is another’s treasure. People put up posts for their unwanted things that they’d like to give away, while others post requests for certain items that they’d like to take off someone else’s hands, and somewhere along the line the giver meets the receiver and an unused object finds a loving home. I like these sorts of ideas so I created an account and, as luck would have it, the first give-away I found was a woman posting for her mother, who had some materials for dyeing wool that hadn’t been used in a while. I responded immediately, got a response back, and set up a date to go up to their house in the suburbs and pick up my goods.

On Friday I parked my bike downtown and took the bus out to a small village, where I met Béatrice, the mother. She drove us to her house and took me to the backyard, where I saw that the dyeing materials would very definitely not fit in my bike basket. I was picturing a pot and a few packages of tumeric. It was a lot more than that. Sheep not included, but pretty much everything else was. I’ve made an inventory:

1

1. Two 5 kilogram sacks of ground madder root to make a vibrant red dye. (Béatrice showed me some samples she’d done, still bright cherry red even after two decades in her basement.)

Continue reading…    

A World Through the Hands (video)

A new-to-me video, which I discovered thanks to Root Simple.

So though there is this loss of understanding the value of things, of the meaning of things, and in handwork, in transforming nature we also make something truly unique that we have made with our hands, stitch by stitch, that maybe we have chosen the yarn, we have even spun the yarn — even better, and that we have designed. And when I do that, I feel whole. I feel I am experiencing my inner core because it’s a meditative process. You have to find your way; you have to listen with your whole being. And that is the schooling that we all need today.

Nothing to add here… she says it all.

Now back to my knitting.

(More info here and here.)