Thursday, August 27, 2015

Works in Progress: Front yard garden

My parents are up for their annual late-August visit, and this year's house project is working on the landscaping of the front yard.

I'm feeling a little overwhelmed by the task.

Some background: Our house was built in 1953. We are the third owners, and the second family to live here. A little over 10 years ago, a house flipper bought from the original owners, took the place down to the studs, put it back together, and then sold it to us. He did a nice job, and the place is in really good condition, but  as you might imagine there are a lot of builder-basic choices.

That shows in the landscaping, too, which is a bit chaotic at the moment. This bed directly in front of the house, shown in the photo above, contains what I am pretty sure are decades-old roses, a couple of lovely Japanese anemones that I planted two years ago, a mysterious volunteer bush that showed up a few years ago, and a line of what I call "flipper bushes": evergreen azaleas planted 10 inches from a walkway without regard to the landscaping (or lack thereof) of the rest of the property. See how the azaleas are right up at the front of the bed, where some soft, low perennials ought to be, and the back of the bed, where something evergreen-azalea-like for structure might be welcome, is a giant hole?

On the other side of the walkway, the front yard proper, is an even giant-er hole.

It used to be lawn, but it was never a very good lawn -- mostly moss and creeping buttercup, with just enough grass that you actually had to mow it, which was cumbersome to do because of the low-hanging branches of our big rhododendron.

So, two years ago, we decided to kill our lawn.

This is what it looked like for the first year after that.

And this is what is has looked like for the second year. Yes, we are Those Neighbors. The ones with the eyesore of a yard.

So the task now is to turn the front yard into some kind of pleasant and unified landscape. And I really have no idea where to begin.

My husband, wearing his project-manager hat, thinks we should choose one section of the yard to work on first, on the theory that seeing real progress in one spot will motivate us to continue working on the project. I see where he's coming from, but as with most house- and design-related projects, I find it very difficult to make individual decisions without an overall plan or vision in mind.

Plus, working on one section is sort of what I've been doing in this area of the yard, which is in front of the front porch and living room picture window. And the results are pretty underwhelming if you ask me:

A mishmash of plants, no structure, no sense of overall landscape.

But, developing that overall vision has been quite flummoxing. I've consulted a number of garden design books, but I've been frustrated by their paint-by-numbers approach. Sure, they give you garden plans, but what I really want to understand are the design principles behind those plans so that I can adapt them to my actual garden. Why is this kind of DIY advice so hard to find, or have I missed some obvious resources?

Anyway, I spent some time out front yesterday, pulling a few weeds, clipping a few branches, and generally flitting from task to task because I didn't really know what to do with myself. It felt pretty unproductive at the time, but I think I worked through a few things after all.

Let's start with what I know that I love. I love using native plants in my yard, and I also love English cottage gardens with their riotous perennial borders. Is there some way to make these two preferences compatible? It sounds a bit crazy, but people always say "buy what you love and it will somehow all work together" when it comes to home decorating, so I'm hoping the same might apply to decorating outdoors too.

I've realized that most of the front yard -- the bed directly in front of the house and the area underneath the cherry and big rhododendron shown in the photos above -- is shadier than I'd first thought. So I'll need to think of this area as a woodland garden -- I'm imagining lots of salal, sword ferns, and evergreen huckleberry for structure. And then a mix of shade-tolerant native and English-garden type perennials to fill in the nooks and crannies: native bleeding heart, angelica, foxglove.

The sunniest part of the yard is that end in front of the porch/living room window -- that current "mishmash of plants" above. Again I didn't realize this before now, I always thought of it as shadier. But I think this is where I can indulge my penchant for the cottage garden aesthetic.

Now that I have this overall vision, and especially a sense of which plants I want to repeat in different parts of the yard, I think I can follow my husband's "tackle one area at a time" approach. I have some ideas about what to do with that little bit in front of the dining room window, so that's first up:

This probably all makes more sense in my head than it does in print at this point, but hopefully soon it will make more sense in photographs!

Have you ever done any DIY landscape design? Are there any good resources about design principles for landscaping that you have come across?

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Works in Progress: Wiksten tank muslin

I've been thinking recently about making some of my own clothes. This isn't really a new thing for me; it's an interest I've circled back to periodically although I have to admit that I've never gotten very far with the actual making*.

This current burst of interest is, unsurprisingly, connected to all the thinking that I've been doing in recent months about the size and structure of my wardrobe. I have a better sense now not only of exactly what I want to wear, but also of what items would make my closet work better. Cue impatience when I can't find the items from my mind's eye in stores, either secondhand or retail.

The idea of what to make first is connected to this souvenir from our London trip:

Two meters of Liberty cotton lawn from the glorious Shaukat Fabrics.

My mind's eye sees a bit like this: Liberty tank + cardi in a related color + cropped jeans + clog sandals = summer is sorted.

So I've been working on making muslins of three different tank patterns. First up is the Wiksten tank.

(Why not just buy one pattern and tweak it if necessary until I like the result? Well, I've been curious about whether and how the cut, proportions, and fit of a garment might vary across patterns, even for a very basic thing like a tank top. And I wanted to develop a better understanding of the details of how a flat pattern translates into a shape on the body. In other words, because science.)

The Wiksten tank is very popular, and deservedly so -- there are a lot of great-looking versions out there. But looking at my muslin I can see why people say that "simple isn't easy." From the front the top looks blocky, and from the side it looks tent-y. The Wiksten tank doesn't have bust darts -- I'm pretty flat-chested so that shouldn't "matter," but I think the result just flattens me out more.

I realize that part of the issue here is fabric choice: I'm using an old bedsheet for my muslins, and I could have predicted that a crisp cotton-poly poplin would be exactly the wrong thing for this pattern. If I were to make this tank "for reals," I'd only use a VERY drapey silk or maybe a rayon challis. But really my conclusion is that while I don't need bust darts to accommodate my shape, I do need them to keep my shape from getting totally lost.

I'm a bit more befuddled by the fit at the shoulders. See the way the back neckline rises up away from my body? The general shoulder/underarm region feels pretty tight, too (this isn't much of a surprise, I have broad shoulders and a wide ribcage, and often find ready-to-wear shirts difficult to fit in this area -- though sleeveless tops usually aren't as challenging).

Let's back up for a minute. So the armholes and neck of the Wiksten tank are finished with bias binding. But I didn't want to fuss with all that for a muslin -- I didn't need a finished garment, I just needed to be able to gauge fit and proportion. So I decided to just turn under the neckline and armhole edges (by prescribed seam allowance plus a smidgen more to account for the turn-of-cloth) and baste them down.

The first time I did this I ended up with a pretty wavy, puckery finish at the neckline and armholes. I remembered seeing a tutorial on the Coletterie for sewing a curved hem so I decided to try that. (Yes, I ripped out the stitching and did it again -- on a muslin that I "didn't want to fuss with." But at this point I was curious, because remember, SCIENCE.)

This version was even jankier than the last! Also, the fabric did not want to behave, to the point that multiple f-bombs had to be dropped in order to get through sewing the neckline and just one of the armholes.

Of course. The curved hem method is for convex curves, like you would find on the hem of a circle skirt. Not for tight concave curves, as exist at armscyes and necklines. What I should have done was clip the curves and then turn the fabric under. (Like this, of course.) I mean, I know about clipping curves, I have sewn curved seams before, see:

Funny that I failed to transfer this knowledge from craft sewing to garment sewing. Well, I've learned now is all I can say.

Anyway, I couldn't face finishing the second armhole so I just cut off the seam allowance instead. And look, the right side of the tank sits much better than the left.

Left shoulder - hell to the no.
Right shoulder - not so bad.

So what's going on with that left shoulder area?
(a) It's the janky armhole finish that's causing the problem.
(b) I need to add width across the shoulders/upper back.
(c) I need to lower the armhole.
(d) Combination of (b) and (c).
(e) ???

I'm curious whether any garment sewists out there can tell me what might be going on. I admit that this is a question of mostly academic interest at this point -- I've moved on to sewing up a muslin of a different pattern that looks like it is going to be a better match for me -- but like I said, I'd love to understand this stuff better.

*Why do I think this time will be any different? Time will tell, of course, but I have hit on one new strategy that seems to be helping: instead of waiting for a time when I have a couple hours to sew up a whole garment, I'm applying the "sewalong" approach and just trying to sew one or two seams each day. For something simple like a tank top, this means that I can finish an item in about a week, rather than waiting until forever to even start it.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Introducing: Objects of Beauty & Usefulness

In my last post I mentioned that I have some ideas for blogpost series; here is one of them. Now, by this point I know that the most reliable way to ensure that I don't blog at all for six months is to say that something is coming "in my next post" or "later this week," so I won't make any promises along those lines. Let's just call this the first in a possibly-occasional series.

Anyone who has dipped a toe into the lifestyle, home, or minimalist blogosphere over the past several years probably knows the William Morris quote I'm alluding to in the title of this post:

"Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."

It occurred to me that much of the time, when we invoke these words it is in one of two contexts: I got rid of a bunch of stuff that was not beautiful or useful; or, look at the new thing I bought (or made), isn't it beautiful. And both of those types of posts have their place. (In particular, you know I am a huge sucker for a good decluttering Cinderella story.)

But we don't talk much about the objects that we do decide to keep in our houses, how they might become more beautiful with use, and why certain things stand the test of time.

So this series aims to correct that balance a little bit: I'll choose an object from my home that passes the William Morris Test, and talk about why. Some of these items might be mostly useful, others mostly beautiful, and a few might even have that elusive, near-perfect fusion of both qualities. Some items might be things you could buy at a store, some will be old and not available anymore, and others will be entirely one-of-a-kind. But this isn't about recommending a product.

Instead, it's about giving worthy objects a moment in the spotlight. I hope this exercise will help me appreciate the things in my home a little bit better, as well as understand what qualities make an item likely to become beloved. Maybe you're interested in considering objects in this way too?

Objects: Salt and pepper mills

Provenance: Purchased from Mrs. Cooks, Seattle, WA

Date acquired: August 2013

Maker: William Bounds, Ltd., USA

Materials: Wood, silver-tone metal, ceramic blades

Summary: I bought these matching salt and pepper mills two years ago as an anniversary present for my husband. The materials they are made of don't have anything to do with the prescribed gifts for the ninth anniversary (which are willow or pottery in the traditional system, and leather in the modern), but our kitchen was in need of a pepper grinder of better quality, and less wastefulness, than those grocery store plastic bottles of peppercorns with a built-in grinder we'd been using up until then. I picked these partly because the barrels are made of unfinished wood; I liked the idea that they might develop a patina over many years of handling and use. Maybe I will feel differently when I am older, but right now I think an anniversary present should be more about celebrating a relationship's future than its past. (And along anniversary-gift lines, the heart-shaped cut-out in each handle is a nice touch, too.)

The two mills look identical except that the knob at the top of the pepper version is silver, while that on the salt version has a dot of white enamel. Once you've noticed this you're unlikely to mix up the mills and put pepper where you wanted salt or vice versa, but the subtlety of this marking makes them a pleasingly matched set. I like the authenticity of their materials and their modest size: they fit nicely in the hand, and are easy even for a child to manipulate (admittedly, the salt mill has been tested more rigorously than the pepper mill in this regard).

And while it's mainly the meaning of these objects -- or my idea of their future meaning -- that makes them special to me, they are undeniably useful as well. The cranks turn easily and and efficiently, though you can feel a pleasing crunch as the blades slice into a peppercorn or a salt crystal. The blades have never yet gotten gummed up or stuck, and the simple, straightforward mechanism makes me confident that they will continue working for a long time to come. And now again I think we might be back to metaphor.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Eating lately: July

The problem with writing the overthinking woman's lifestyle blog is that, well, one tends to overthink things. Believe it or not I have ideas about blog series, editorial calendars, and all sorts of things like that for this space but as often as not I seem to talk myself out of writing anything at all.

And of course, the longer I go without writing here the harder it is to come back to it.

So I thought I'd get myself over the hump by just sharing a few snaps of meals we've eaten lately. I love cooking at this time of year -- well, when it's not too hot to cook at all that is. Lots of fresh ingredients close at hand and I enjoy the creative challenge of trying to make something delicious out of bits and pieces from the garden and the produce drawer.

For example: pasta with sautéed greens from our garden (the results of thinning the beets and kale), cherry tomatoes from the grocery store, oil-cured olives, and crumbled feta cheese:

Of course, when offering this sort of thing to a kiddo one has to take extra care with presentation:

Here's a Nicoise salad. This is what my man and I eat when it actually is too hot to cook (boil the potatoes and eggs and blanch the beans early in the day, and refrigerate). Again greens from our garden (volunteer arugula, plus kale and beet thinnings), beans from the garden, and more of those tomatoes and oil-cured olives:

Buttermilk cornbread, black beans and rice, and sautéed zucchini (the first harvest from our plants so far this year) with shredded cheese. I was pretty pleased with myself for coming up with this combination -- my man can't really tolerate beans, and I knew my girl wouldn't be too into the zucchini, but between all the options everyone was satisfied and got a little protein to boot. And I enjoyed all of it!

A slightly less recent meal at this point but still one that I enjoyed immensely: vegetarian English breakfast at Bumpkin, a farm-to-table restaurant in London, where we vacationed as a family last month. I hope to write more about our trip soon -- I've got a colorful travel capsule wardrobe (of course) to share, and also some thoughts on making travel kid-friendly without being entirely kid-centered (hopefully that makes sense and doesn't make me sound like a total monster).

What are you cooking (or eating) lately?

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Raccoon trio

Here is an embroidery piece that I made for my sister's kitchen. My sister was a wildlife rehabber for a while, and one summer she raised a litter of raccoons. They liked to climb up on her head and play with her hair. I'm still jealous!

I'm adding this post in the waning hours of Anne's latest Pin to Present linkup. The raccoon face template for my project came from a free pattern provided by Rachael of the blog Imagine Gnats. Around the time of the pattern's release, Rachael featured a whole week of projects made with it. I think these raccoon elbow patches are adorable, but I decided to go in a different direction with my efforts.

If I remember correctly, around that time my sister and I went thrifting together and she wanted to buy some blue-and-white Japanese bowls but wondered if they would go with her kitchen, which is painted yellow. So part of the point here was to say Yes We Can combine blue and yellow in the kitchen. (I think that's a very kitchen-y color scheme, myself.)

Many of the fabrics I used for the raccoon faces are Liberty of London quilting cottons that my sister had given me for my birthday. I liked the idea of turning around and giving something made from her gift back to her.

I used fusible web to assemble the raccoon faces, then hand-stitched around the edges of the different bits of patchwork. If I were starting this project today, I'd use Wonder Tape instead. Sewing through five layers of fabric and fusible web is no fun!

To add the text, I printed out the words on a sheet of paper on my home printer and then traced them through the fabric. I'm pretty sure that's how I did it, anyway. If I sound a little vague and uncertain about all of this, it's because I started this project over two years ago. Even though it's a simple project it took me quite a while to finish it, even longer to frame it up and give it to my sister, and yet more time to blog about it.

It sounds like I'm castigating myself here, but I'm not. I think it's good to remember that sometimes, for all sorts of reasons, inspiration takes a while to come to fruition, and that's okay. One of the nice things about Pinterest is that it can hold on to our inspiration until it ripens. The other thing that this project reminds me -- and this is a good thought to keep in mind when I get overwhelmed by all the productivity and seeming perfection out there -- is that inspiration doesn't have to be direct. We don't have to copy someone else's project, we can go our own way. We can snuffle around in the creative soil, pluck out the best bits like juicy grubs from here and there. Steal a bit, like the masked bandit you are, but judiciously. Be creative like a raccoon.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Meaning of May

We're only a few days away from the end of May so I wanted to pop in with this month's Styling the Seasons post and link up with Katy and Charlotte. Around here, May has been about biting off more than you can chew. On the blog, of course, that translates into a whole lot of blank space. Here's what it looks like in our house:

The truth -- and probably not a secret one at this point -- is that I kind of love biting off more than I can chew. Yes! Let's grow all the tomatoes! I love the feeling of possibility this time of year represents, when the world seems to go from barely laced with new leaf all the way to lush life in scarcely a weekend. Sober is for September. Let me have my May.

My man got into the spirit too and one weekend he bit off more than he could chew by rebuilding our raised garden beds. They were nine years old and starting to fall apart, so if we really wanted to grow all the tomatoes it was now or never for fixing them.

The old beds were built of softwood painted red, and the new ones are cedar. Hey, we are moving up in the world! The other day my man remarked to me that he thinks the geraniums I planted in little terra-cotta pots next to the raised beds look better against the new beds than they had against the old ones. That was a nice thing to hear. Sometimes I struggle with my interest in domestic things, because domesticity is largely seen as a feminine pursuit and of course feminine pursuits are devalued. And I find myself thinking: why am I spending time worrying about what the house looks like? Shouldn't I be focusing on something Worthier? (I do in my heart believe that domesticity is worthy of care and consideration, by both sexes, but I'm talking about my moments of self-doubt here.) So it was nice to find out that the geraniums I planted didn't just matter to me.

And, sappy as it sounds, it's nice to look out our back door and see the geraniums, and know that I'm seeing something that pleases his eye -- along the same lines as seeing a Northern flicker or a birch tree.

Before I close, one more picture, this one taken by my girl of the garden she planted in a metal tub. She got to choose all the plants and she's responsible for watering and taking care of it. We have a penstemon in the center, carrot seedlings coming up around the edges, a strawberry plant, two colors of basil, a pansy, and some marigolds. We had to talk her out of putting a cherry tomato plant in there too -- whether you call it biting off more than you can chew, or having eyes bigger than your garden tub, I guess the condition is hereditary.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Spring Essentials

I hope the change in tone here isn't too incoherent after yesterday's serious post, but I wanted to connect with the spring style linkup that Anne and Shea are hosting, which is about "spring essentials" this week.

Last week I shared the clothing items that I've carried over from my winter capsule to my spring one. So this week I'll show some of the elements that make my outfits these days feel quintessentially spring. My spring essentials are --

Breton stripes

navy/white tee | light blue/white tee with eyelet trim

Floral prints, of course

tulip-print skirt | gray floral skirt
navy cardi with embroidered flowers | voile infinity scarf

Lots of navy

gingham button-up | cabled v-neck
dark-wash jeans | argyle cardi

Contrasted with coral

ombre scarf | ladybug socks

Green footwear, for wet or dry days

wellies | green suede flats

And my beloved red peep-toe clogs!