Sunday, February 7, 2016

Finished objects: Wool felt dryer balls

Quite a while ago -- by which I mean, oh, four or five years by this point -- a friend was moving house and hosted a clothing/household item swap. She was letting go of some wool yarn that she had dyed using natural dyes way back in high school. If memory serves, she had intended to knit a sweater from it but didn't like how the colors turned out.

I was interested in learning to crochet, so I scarfed the yarn up to practice with. And then, after having sat in my friend's stash for many years, it sat in mine for several more. I began to feel sorry for the yarn, waiting for so long to be useful! And so, in line with my recent epiphany that crocheting is probably not in my near future, I decided to do something else with it.

So I made it into wool felt dryer balls. The yarn I had made about 12 balls; I kept three of them for our use and I've been giving away the rest as gifts along with a bottle of essential oil (you can put a few drops on each ball before tossing it into the dryer and it will make your laundry smell nice).

I know that this probably does not seem like a very noble purpose for hand-dyed yarn. I confess that I have one set earmarked for my friend but I have not yet had the -- well, you know -- to give them to her.

But at the time, the imperative to *do something* with the yarn outweighed the qualms I had. The process could not be simpler:

-Wind yarn into softball-sized balls. (Yarn must be wool, and not washable wool -- something that will shrink and felt.)

- Tie off and use crochet hook (aha, I AM using my crochet hooks after all!) to poke end into center of ball.

- Put yarn balls into the legs of an old pair of tights or pantyhose and tie off with twine in between each one.

- Wash in hot water and dry on hot setting 3-4 times to felt the wool.

- Meanwhile, make endless series of immature jokes about "sock full of balls," "woolly balls," "is that a dryer ball in your pantyhose or are you just happy to see me?" etc. (DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP.)

- And voila! That's it.

The point of dryer balls is that they are supposed to make your laundry dry faster. I do think they work pretty well for that purpose provided that the load is made up of fairly uniform items -- like sheets or towels. With mixed loads like my daughter's or my laundry our dryer always seems to stop when thin fabrics like t-shirts are dry but the thicker things like the waistbands of pants are still damp, and the dryer balls don't solve that problem. Which is unfortunate, as that's exactly why I started looking into dryer accessories in the first place. Oh well. On balance, they're useful -- and that, after all, was the point of the exercise.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

About & Abroad: Our Montreal Christmas Trip

Before the event recedes too far into distant memory, I wanted to type up some reviews and recommendations from our trip to Montreal over Christmas.

First, a few logistical thoughts. We stayed in the Old Montreal neighborhood, in an Air BnB a couple of blocks from the Notre Dame Basilica. This was really convenient, within easy walking distance of the Old Port and a lot of major sights, and I think was especially advantageous for a winter trip. (We considered a few places in the Plateau Mont-Royal neighborhood, and I could see that being nice in the summer, but I think I would have found getting around in the cold and snow a lot more unpleasant.)

We arrived in Montreal for our Christmas holiday the evening of December 23. This worked fine but I wouldn't have wanted to arrive any later -- grocery stores and such pretty much shut down for 48 hours from the afternoon of the 24th until around noon on the 26th. But as it was, we were able to get our bearings and get provisioned for the holiday.

In general Montreal closes for Christmas to a much greater degree than Amsterdam, which we visited over the holiday two years ago. There's still plenty to keep you busy, it just requires a bit more planning and Tetris-ing of schedules. Major museums and attractions mostly reopened the 26th. Some restaurants were closed from the 24th through the new year, others reopened the 27th or 28th, and some said they would reopen the 28th but...didn't. My advice is that if you want to go somewhere, and you can't see an affirmative statement on their Website or Facebook page that they are open, call first!

So with all of that said, here are some of the highlights from our trip. This isn't everyplace we went, just what I particularly recommend:

See and Do:

Pointe-a-Calliere / Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History: This is both a museum and a working archaeological site featuring the ruins of some of the earliest structures in the city. An exhibit set up among the ruins traces the history of Montreal and Quebec from the time of European contact to the present. The story told here gave me a very different perspective on European settlement of North America than I'd gotten in my history classes in the United States: I could see much more clearly how geography, natural landforms, and especially the courses of rivers like the St. Lawrence and the Mississippi shaped this process. Utterly fascinating. While I liked the archaeological site and exhibition best, my daughter was partial to the little dioramas of Montreal scenes through different phases of the city's history. There is also an interactive, kid-friendly exhibit about pirates and privateers that I thought was quite well done, but my daughter declared herself totally uninterested on the grounds that pirates are "smelly, foul, and mean." Your mileage may vary.

Basilique Notre-Dame de Montreal / Notre Dame Basilica of Montreal: The city's grand cathedral, with decoration modeled on Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, had free admission (normally $5 CDN) on Christmas afternoon so we joined the crowds touring through the space. This was not a religious service, but did feel like a spiritual experience, albeit one of a secular sort (if it's not sacrilegious to say that about a church). What I mean is that marveling at the church's stunning blue nave, intricate wooden decorations, and tenderly carved statues of figures from Montreal's history with a crowd of people from all different backgrounds and traditions (e.g.: I saw a number of women wearing Muslim headscarves) felt very similar to standing in a crowd of people gazing at Rembrandt's The Night Watch, as we'd done exactly two years before. Which is to say it felt like an appropriate way to spend Christmas Day.

Patinoire du Vieux-Port / Old Port ice skating rink: I can't say much from a first-hand perspective since ice skating tends to be a daddy-and-daughter activity in our family but this outdoor rink on the shores of the St. Lawrence River is well run, reasonably priced, and plays just-cheesy-enough music.

La Ville Souterraine / Underground City / RESO: We treated this not as a destination in itself (though it could be) but as a means to an end, and we got almost all the way from our apartment to the Fine Arts Museum using this system of tunnels, shopping malls, office buildings, and subway corridors (there are 20 miles in all). It's worth trying out as a means of transport: Intermittently baffling, but fascinating and kind of awesome in the end. If you have a Minecraft fan with you, keep them engaged by marveling at how much time it must have taken to mine out all these tunnels!

Photo by my husband.

Musee des Beaux-Arts / Fine Arts Museum: We spent most of our time here viewing an excellent temporary exhibition on a jazz-age collective of Montreal artists. I wish I'd had more time to explore the permanent collections -- the museum has a really extensive collection of Quebec and Canadian art, organized into chronological exhibits, which I think could make a great art history lesson. My daughter and I did take in the Inuit Art collection, which is fairly small, focuses on contemporary artists, and is located in a wonderful little crow's-nest-like space at the top of one of the museum buildings. She found this really engaging and loved recognizing the Arctic animals and speculating about the monster-ish characters depicted in the sculptures. By the end of our time there she had sharper eyes than I did for the various materials (whale vertebra, etc.) used by the artists.

A couple of pro-tips for this museum: they are pretty strict about not allowing large bags/backpacks into the galleries, and while there is a (free/by donation) coat and bag check available I recommend packing light if you can. Also, I found the museum cafeteria expensive and pretty lackluster -- I wish that at lunchtime we'd braved the cold and tried out this vegetarian restaurant, which has a location just around the corner on Rue Mackay, instead.

Centre des sciences de Montreal / Montreal Science Centre: I have to admit, these sorts of places are usually low on my list of priorities when traveling. After all, if you've seen one science center (we have an excellent one in Seattle) you've seen them all, right? But my daughter wanted to go, and it was nearby and fit well with our other plans for the day, so off we went. And let me tell you, it was so great to have absolutely no agenda of my own and to just let her guide the visit. She loved the temporary exhibit featuring animatronic dinosaurs (of course), which was certainly entertaining if not really high on the actual science. We also spent some time in one of the permanent exhibits, about the human body and human evolution, which I thought was really well done -- engaging and accessible for my 8-year-old, but really meaty in terms of scientific content.

Eat and Drink: 

Il Focolaio: Brick oven pizza place with lots of different pies on offer, including many vegetarian options. The food is a little heavy-handed, but oh, blessedly, they deliver to Old Montreal.

Stash Cafe: We had a light lunch at this Polish restaurant on Christmas Eve. Friendly staff, charming Old World atmosphere, reasonable prices and portions, and kid-friendly options like pierogi, potato pancakes, and mushroom croquette.

Maison Christian Faure: This high-end pastry shop seems very old-school French to me, by which I guess I mean it seems to be staffed entirely by dudes. A little spendy, highly caloric, and absolutely worth the extravagance.

Tommy: A little cafe/coffee shop in a beautiful old space a few blocks from Notre Dame Cathedral. Sure, this place is a little hipster-y, in that way that I am slightly embarrassed at being such a sucker for, but the staff are totally friendly and down-to-earth. And they make a fantastic latte.

Comptoir 21: This fish and chips joint is, oddly enough, said to have some of the best vegetarian poutine in Montreal. I can confirm that, indeed, it was the only poutine I have ever been served outside my house that I thought was worth eating (oooh, fighting words!). Three locations -- we visited the one on Rue Ste. Catherine.

Fairmount Bagel: Ah, Montreal bagels! Yes, they live up to the hype, although strictly speaking my husband is not sure they are worth walking 40 minutes in a blizzard for, so -- make your plans according to the weather, I guess.

Next time:

St. Viateur Bagel: I was sorry we didn't get to sample the offerings from Montreal's other iconic bagel maker. St. Viateur and Fairmount have locations a couple of blocks from each other in the Plateau Mont-Royal neighborhood, so I think the ideal thing would be to have a bagel bang-bang, no?

Dolcetto & Co.: This restaurant in Old Montreal looked promising, an atmosphere to appeal to the grownups but some nice basic pizzas on the menu likely to be enjoyed by the kiddo.

- Espace pour la vie / Space for Life: We had to scrap our plans to visit this complex of nature museums in the Olympic Park at the eastern end of the city when, on the last day of our trip, a blizzard arrived and my daughter came down with a cold. Dangit. I was intrigued by the Biodome's exhibits on ecosystems of the Americas and the Planetarium's show about the Aurora Borealis; my daughter was bummed to miss out on the Insectarium. Next time, indeed!

Thursday, January 28, 2016

My wardrobe this season: New life for gray jeans

I'm linking this post with Anne's "pin to present" linkup, because it started with an image pinned from the blog une femme d'un certain age:

I believe this is a picture of another blogger, Garance Dore, and she is very fancy. I am not very fancy, but I did like the way une femme described this blogger's gray jeans outfit as "simple, sleek and sophisticated." 

I have a pair of gray skinny jeans (from the Gap) myself -- they are a few years old now and you may have seen them when I talked about my winter capsule wardrobe last year. I have always worn them in very casual outfits, like so:

And I like that look well enough, but it was getting a little old. So I appreciated the push to try to dress up an item that I've always thought of as resolutely casual.

Here's what I came up with.

My gray jeans are very low-rise and a quite skinny cut, so I prefer them with longer tops. My white button-up shirt (J. Crew, thrifted) works well with the pants proportion-wise, and the tuxedo-style pleats help lend a dressier feel to the outfit.

I can put either my charcoal gray long cardigan (Allude, via Ebay) or my black one (Lord & Taylor, also via Ebay) over top. Both are soft cashmere in a fine-gauge knit, so they also look relatively refined (the pictures are flattening out the color differences, but I promise, they are not entirely interchangeable in real life.)

I especially like the black cardi, something about the crispness of black and/or white really dresses up the jeans.

I am not one for strappy stilettos like Ms. Dore, but I consider a nice ballet flat "sleek and sophisticated" enough for me. Not the most practical footwear for winter, admittedly, but doable on the occasional dry, warmish day. 

So this challenge ends up providing a good chance to get a little more wear out of those gray flats I thrifted a while back (we discussed them here), as well as a pair of photographic-print floral flats that I recently purchased (Ted Baker via Lord & Taylor on deep, deep discount -- no, I did not need them in any way, but I believe they are what is known as a coup de coeur).

To the gray flats outfit I added this floral scarf (Echo, vintage, via Ebay) for a little more color. I love the print on this and somehow it helps the outfit avoid the 80s associations that pink and gray usually bring up for me.

I realize these are not so much different outfits as minor variations on the same one, but I'm glad to have a new way to wear an item that was already in my closet. I'm on the lookout for a tunic-length black pullover sweater -- I think that would also pair well with the jeans and have a similar, polished vibe. And I can see a few possibilities for creating similar outfits with items that are in some of my other seasonal color palettes. 

How about you, have you discovered any new ways to wear old favorites that are brightening up your January?

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

My home this season: January 2016

Green and white is such a nice color palette for January -- calm and serene after the abundance (and maybe even, by the end of it, overstimulation) of the holiday season, but not so austere as to be dreary.

In fact, if January has a color all its own, I think it must be that pale green of those candles up there. I suppose light green is often considered emblematic of early spring, the promise of new grow growth and all that -- but to me it seems just exactly the expression of what is already here right now. Or maybe I'm just taken with how lovely the candles look against those brass candlesticks, who knows?

I'm dipping back into Styling the Seasons, so here are some photos of the Janus-faced arrangement up on my mantel just now.

Looking backward with our postcard travel journal from Montreal*; looking forward with a candle that smells intensely of blossoms.

*(Oh and hey: more Canadian art on the wall above.)

Looking backward with some bulbs started back in December; looking forward with a new bay plant to cook with, replacing the one that had gotten spindly and tired. (I'll move it to the kitchen windowsill soon, but thought I'd enjoy it here for a little while first.)

Those paperwhites won't be good for much longer, will they? No matter, the sideboard's Janus-faced, too: looking backward with a candleholder made from a banister post in my grandmother's childhood home; looking forward with some more bulbs coming along.

How about you -- does your home look backward as well as forward at this time of year, or are you all about the clean sweep?

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Weekending: 2016.4

Night-time low-tide beach walk.

End of an era.

Before and after.

My London souvenir -- used it up! That was so satisfying.

Some peppers needed to get eaten --> Sunday breakfast got fancy.

Industry is overrated.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Weekend reading: On Marie Kondo and David Bowie

Vieux-Montreal, December 2015

Yes, I'm serious.

First, there was this article in Slate, which argues that Marie Kondo's campaign against clutter is actually "a nonstop assault on the most basic form of human denial," that of our own eventual, inevitable demise: "The piles of stuff we might need someday are an argument that we will always be around to need them."

The article crystallizes something that I've suspected about myself but hadn't quite put the words to: I do tend to take on too much, too many projects, and the physical stuff that comes along with them (I'm thinking mostly of creative pursuits here, especially my shameful fabric stash). And in a funny, almost-hidden way, it's absolutely a bulwark against mortality. It's a way of telling myself: There will be time for everything.

Which brings me to David Bowie. It was striking how within hours of the announcement of his death -- a surprise to all but those closest to him -- pretty much the entire Internet had realized that with his last album, released just days before, Bowie had essentially written his own eulogy

I won't pretend here that I am a fan of Bowie's -- or a hater, either; I don't know much of anything at all about his music. (I am what is known as a musical putz, actually). If you, like me, are more literarily than musically inclined, there's also this: a posthumously published memoir by Paul Kalanithi, who was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer while studying to be a neurosurgeon. An excerpt appears here in the New Yorker.

The juxtaposition of these two pieces of art have me thinking about creativity and the art that people make when they know they are dying. (N.B. in case it wasn't obvious: We are all dying.) I'm sorry if this all seems morbid, but there's actually a psychological argument to be made that thinking more about our own deaths will in fact make us happier

What does all this have to do with stuff? I have also sometimes allowed myself to acknowledge a sneaking suspicion that this very habit of taking on too much, and having too many planned projects (and the supplies that accompany them) actually hampers creativity, makes it more difficult for me to focus on completing any one thing.

And, sure, there's a balance to be struck here. I'm not shedding my entire queue, just trying to make it a little shorter, so I can focus more completely on the next thing. And acknowledging that some projects aren't going to come to fruition, and then letting them go, is actually producing a weird kind of optimism for me. For example I would love to learn to crochet, but let's face it, I'm not likely to work that into my schedule any time soon. So it doesn't make sense to stockpile a bunch of yarn and thread. But, maybe later in my life, who knows? Perhaps I'll have a crochet season. There will be time for everything.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Finished objects: Living room pillow covers

I made some covers for the throw pillows on our living room sofa.

You can see that the need for new covers was acute. The pillows were hand-me-downs from a friend. (Yay for free decor.) They came with some simple ivory velveteen covers that served us well for a while. But one had gotten quite dingy and one had suffered an even worse fate -- a fatal run-in with a glass of red wine. Oops.

I finished these some weeks ago (there was a sneak peek in my post on Christmas decor) but I'm just getting around to throwing them up on the blog now.

Actually I debated whether they were really "blog-worthy" at all. I mean, I am not exactly breaking new sewing (or decorating) ground with a pair of envelope-back pillow covers. They are nothing more than a bit of arithmetic (I first wrote "algebra" but even that is overstating the case!) and a few straight seams.

On the other hand, I really love them! I love the combination of fabrics -- the backs are a black linen-cotton blend by Robert Kaufman with a wonderful texture, and the fronts are a home-dec-weight fabric with a print of peacocks that I thrifted a while back. The print reminds me a bit of Liberty of London (it's not, as far as I know, just has that look) and feels a bit sophisticated and grown-up.

Also, they took me a whole afternoon to make, so I guess I feel compelled to record the output of my efforts. I am not a very fast seamstress, perhaps because I am not that experienced and don't get to my machine as often as I would like. And when I do sew I like to be very careful and thorough about it. So maybe with more practice I would get faster at banging things out, but I think I'm going to stop worrying about my inability to actually make a "1-hour X" in a mere hour.

All in all, it's good to remember that even simple, commonplace projects can be non-trivial, both in the time and effort required to make them and in their eventual impact.

I did make one mistake in the sewing: I meant to construct both pillow backs so that the outside flap would be on top facing down, as I thought this would keep the pillows looking neater. But I sewed the second one -- of course, it was the very last thing I did, and I was hurrying by that point -- backwards, so that the outside flap is facing up. Oh well, I figured, nobody would really see it and it would be an opportunity to test my hypothesis about which construction technique wears best. (Spoiler alert: I was right, outer flap facing down is best.)

After I finished the pillow covers, I did something very unusual (at least, for me). I put the remaining peacock fabric in my Goodwill bag rather than back on my shelf. I thought: this fabric has served its purpose in my creative life, I'm going to pass the rest of it on (or something along those lines; I swear it sounded less pretentious in my head). And you know what? I don't regret it.

PS: Since we're on the subject, did I ever go through the Christmas stuff to determine what sparks joy in my Grinchy little heart? Reader, I did. And in the end I didn't manage to let go of all that much. I asked my daughter which things were precious to her, and she selected a lot of items that I would have been ready to pass on. So into the Rubbermaid bins and back up to the attic it all went. And I don't regret that either, because after all, it's not just about what sparks joy for me now, is it?