Tuesday, December 29, 2015

My home this season: December 2015

I thought I would share a few snaps* from around the house while it is still decked out in holiday finery.

(*And yes, they are snaps, quickly captured with my phone -- imperfectly focused and somewhat underexposed, but hopefully they get the point across.)

I love putting out treasured Christmas decorations each year (some pieces treasured because they are beautiful -- like that white-and-gold Lucia figurine below that I have admired since I was small, and that my mother passed down to me a few years ago -- and others because they are silly -- like the Santa I made from a toilet paper roll and red construction paper when I was about five, n.p.).


But each year I am also confronted with the realization that we have about three times as many decorations and ornaments as we have room to display, and quite a bit of the excess does not fall into the category of "treasured." Does holiday time in the Marie Kondo era leave anyone else with a feeling of ambivalence?

A lot of our Christmas stuff originally belonged to my husband's grandmother and has been passed down to us by my mother-in-law. My husband's grandmother loved Christmas, and went all-out with decorating. So it's wonderful to have some of her things. I love the little wooden Santas from Germany and the roly-poly tomtar from Sweden.

But she also tended to overbuy Christmas stuff, and had multiples of many items that she never even used. A number of ornaments and other decorations came to us with their original tags from the 1980s still attached.

So these are not sentimental things. And some of them are, um, not exactly my taste, aesthetically speaking. (I don't really think they're my husband's taste, either; if I knew they were, I would feel very differently about them.) Sometimes I look at our Christmas tree and feel a bit burdened by someone else's overconsumption.

And yet, I can't quite bring myself to sort through and cull the Christmas stuff. To do so seems, well, Grinchy. Contrary to the spirit of the season.

Funnily enough, as I was pondering all this my mother-in-law wrote me an email in which she informed me, "I'm just finishing lunch and reading an article in Yes magazine on the KonMari method** and I quote: 'Kondo says that gifting friends and family with our unwanted crap is unfair and actually prevents us from moving on.'  Oh my!  I must stop bringing you Christmas ornaments!"

(**She knows I am a semi-devotee, but, although she has been dedicated to winnowing down her own possessions over the last several years, has not read the book herself.)

And I found myself telling her that I didn't quite think this was the answer. One of the ornaments she passed along to us this year, with instructions to give it to her granddaughter, was her own favorite Christmas ornament: a small, golden Japanese fan that closes and opens, etched with a scene of cranes on one side and a dragon on the other. It's very pretty and delicate, and I think my daughter felt quite grown-up to be entrusted with it. There's a lot of meaning in having physical objects to connect us with our ancestors.

(Looking through my photos I realize I didn't capture a shot of the fan ornament, but it has a prominent place on this little white tree that belongs to my daughter, currently topped with the extravagant purple glass bird that Sinterklaas left in her shoe this year.)

The current craze for decluttering has a lot of upsides (as I notice each time I open one of our newly spacious kitchen cabinets, or marvel at the entirely empty half of one of our kitchen drawers). But one of the downsides is the way that minimalism can actually make us more focused on material things. 

And I suspect this decluttering business is also tied up with some of the other instigators of controlled perfectionism that currently prevail in our culture: the helicopter parenting and Tiger Mom-ing, the snowstorm of closely cropped images that is Pinterest, the relentless "curation" of social media. 

Probably some of us are more susceptible to this sort of thing than others. I find that it's easy for me to get a little too fussy about needing things to be just so, rather than letting them just be.

For example, I felt pleased with myself for not rearranging the ornaments that my daughter had clumped all into a small section of the Christmas tree, and for letting her pick out a selection of cutesy wrapping paper rather than the austere and coordinated grouping that I would have fancied to be sophisticated. And then realized that this tiny bit of letting go was not exactly a reason to get all self-congratulatory. 

I mean, regardless of whether you celebrate Christmas in a religious or secular sense (or forgo anything Christmas-adjacent altogether), I think we can all agree that getting too focused on the trappings*** of the holiday season isn't really the point of the exercise.

(***that's an interesting idiom, isn't it?)

I'm not sure I have a tidy wrap-up to these thoughts. I suspect that there's just a fundamental tension (or maybe, an unexpected kinship) between minimalism and materialism, and I'll probably keep on wiggling at these ideas like a loose tooth of sorts. In the meantime, yes, I'll continue to work on clearing away the crap and the clutter -- but I'll try a little harder to remember that this is not an end but a means.

P.S.: If your Kondo fascination is not yet sated, I thought this was an interesting take on the phenomenon and investigation of the myth and reality behind it.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Slow Fashion October: WORN, and why I care about clothes

This last (I'm a little late with this again; at least I am consistent) week's theme for Slow Fashion October is "WORN," which Karen explains as being about:

heirlooms / second-hand / mending / caring for things / laundering for longevity / design for longevity (bucking trends, quality materials …)

I thought I would pick up on the "second-hand" aspect of the theme.

I think there are a lot of women out there who find that clothes just don't light their fire. Which is honestly awesome. More power to you all: sort out your 'uniform,' wear it with pride and confidence, and go about your important work in the world.

But, the thing is, I really like clothes. I don't mean that I consider myself a fashionable person -- I don't really care about trends and those who do probably give me the side-eye when they see me walking down the street. But I do enjoy the opportunity for creativity that getting dressed represents. I like juxtaposing patterns and colors in an outfit the same way I might in a quilt. I like exploring the way different styles can imply character and narrative in the same way that I like inventing characters in fiction.

And so, though I wholeheartedly believe in the importance of ethically sourced clothing, and the environmental imperatives of minimal (or at least...reasonably sized!) wardrobes made up of items chosen with an eye towards longevity, after a while this all threatens to become a little, well...joyless.

Shopping second-hand can be a solution to this conundrum, I think. It offers an opportunity for low-commitment, low-environmental-impact play. I am always happy when I find wardrobe staples at thrift stores (hello, knee-length denim skirt, and brand-new Breton-striped tunic from J. Crew). But I also like to occasionally relax my rules about what is and isn't "me" a little bit and try something new.

One can go overboard with this; buy anything that appeals to you in some way because "what the hey, it's cheap," and you end up with a mishmash of a closet where it's hard to find the things you truly love. But a little bit of deliberate "I'd like to give this look/item/trend a bash" can be a good strategy. Sometimes you conclude that a particular look doesn't suit you after all, but other times you might discover an enduring element to your style.

While thrifting with my mom during my parents' visit a couple of months ago, I found myself drawn to hippie-like maxi skirts. But I had an inkling that I wanted to wear them in a non-hippie way.

My style is neither "boho" nor preppy/conservative, but I think that sometimes juxtaposing both types of items in an outfit can cancel out or tone down both of those qualities in an interesting way.

So here are two outfits featuring my new maxi skirts, made up entirely of second-hand items. (Sorry for the blurry phone snaps -- this ain't a fashion blog.)

In this warm-weather take on the experiment, the skirt, t-shirt (Ann Taylor LOFT), and wedge sandals (Sofft) are all from thrift stores. The cardigan is by Leifsdottir via Ebay, and the bangle and earrings are both vintage via Etsy.


This second look is entirely from thrift stores (the sweater is by Banana Republic and the gray suede loafers are by Peter Kent, which I gather is a $$$ Italian brand; I paid $5 for them), except for the pearls which belonged to my husband's grandmother.

The implied narrative here is: "Oh this? I found it in a closet at Gran's country house. Would you believe Aunt Phoebe was a hippie in the sixties?"

In truth, I am not sure how long these skirts will remain in my closet, nor how often I will wear them. But in the meantime I'm having a bit of fun. I think I might wear the second outfit above on Thanksgiving!

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Eating lately: October

I am just coming off my busiest, craziest work week of the year, so to get back in to the swing of the domestic side of things, I thought I'd share a few quick snaps of some of our recent meals.

Spaghetti squash with cherry tomatoes and basil. I tried serving spaghetti squash in place of pasta, because healthy! low-carb! But even though I served it with garlic bread, we were ravenous two hours later! This is a delicious recipe, but I think I'll consider it more of a side dish in the future.

Nothing says "Happy Birthday, sweetie, I love you!" like a 10-pound lasagna. (See, because carbs.)

Split pea soup, carrot-raisin salad, and bread and cheese. I agree with Marian that soup with good bread and cheese never goes amiss. And I'm grateful that split pea soup is, unlikely as it may seem, a favorite meal of my very picky eater. Our table looks like this roughly once a week!

Rice and smothered cabbage soup. This was the first recipe I ever cooked from a food blog, way back in 2008, and it's been a staple ever since. It may not look like much, but oh, it's so comforting and wonderful! (Easy, too.)

Monday, October 12, 2015

Works in Progress: Grainline Tiny Pocket Tank muslin and Slow Fashion October

Grainline Tiny Pocket Tank muslin -- hey, at least I've figured out that hemming curves issue!

Here is a muslin for the second of three patterns I've been experimenting with in an effort to find my One True Woven Tank. This is the Tiny Pocket Tank by Grainline Patterns.

It's been a while since I last posted about this project, so to refresh your memory, the first pattern I muslined was the Wiksten Tank, but I decided it probably wasn't for me because (1) no bust darts, and (2) janky shoulders.

As for the Tiny Pocket Tank...I am not sure what I think. When I first tried it on, I thought it was great. When I put it on again to take these photos, I thought it was awful. But when I look at the photos, it seems...ok-ish?

Grainline tank muslin, side view...this is passable, I think.

I do think the Tiny Pocket Tank fits better in the shoulders than the Wiksten Tank, and I think I have some insight into why.

In the photo below, the Wiksten pattern is laid on top of the Tiny Pocket pattern. See the shoulder seam up at the top? The Wiksten tank has much more sloping shoulders compared to the Tiny Pocket pattern.

Direct comparison of the Wiksten and Grainline tank patterns.

So I think, when I lay that angled seam on top of my broad, straight shoulders, the inside portion of the shoulder seam is forced upwards, resulting in exactly the sort of janky shoulder fit that I saw with the Wiksten tank.

Wiksten tank -- janky shoulders.

You wouldn't think such a small angle would make such a big difference, but look what happens when you align the shoulder seams of the two patterns: the Wiksten tank swoops WAY out and up.

A little angle makes a big difference

I suspect this is why I initially wondered if I should lower the armholes of the Wiksten tank. In fact, looking at the patterns, I can see that the Wiksten's armholes are actually markedly lower than those of the Tiny Pocket, and yet the Tiny Pocket tank fit me much more comfortably in the underarms.

So, all in all the Tiny Pocket tank is a much better fit for my body. But it's not perfect. To make this closer to the Woven Tank of My Dreams, I'd need to raise the front neckline (by an inch or maybe a bit more, I think), and also shorten the bust darts (currently they go well past the apex of my bust). I have a short torso and a small bust, so neither of these alterations is very surprising.

I also notice a bit of horizontal pulling above the bust. I see this in a lot of Tiny Pocket Tanks made up online, and I'm not sure what the cause is (in my case, it's obviously not that it's too small there), but I suspect it would bother me a bit.

Horizontal pulling above bust. 

The fit across the back seems not quite right, either. Just under the arms it's very tight, and I suspect that's why I'm seeing that gaping at the back neckline, too -- the too-tight back is forcing the garment upwards.

Too small across the back, no? (Also, sorry for the involuntary sideways-thumb -- which actually sums things up pretty well, come to think of it -- and for the awkwardly placed bathtub faucet -- we only have one wall mirror in the house.)

And yet, from the front, let's be honest...I'm still swimming in this a bit, aren't I? The Liberty lawn that I plan to use to make these tanks will probably drape better than this vintage bedsheet, but it's still a fairly crisp fabric, so I can't rely on drape for a flattering fit.

But...kinda shapeless and blocky from the front.

What I think this adds up to is that the pattern needs the following alterations:
-raise neckline
-shorten bust dart
-cut a size larger (?) at the upper back
-cut a size smaller (? front and back ?) through the torso/waist

But I think I'll muslin my third pattern before doing any of that, to see if it is a better fit in any respect and also to see what additional insights I can gain.

Whew! Are you tired of me nattering on about all this? Me, too. To be honest, I'm feeling a bit demoralized about this project -- rather overwhelmed by the number of tweaks that need to be made in order to get a flattering fit in this very simple sort of garment (a feeling that is magnified by not really being sure how to diagnose what is wrong with the fit or how to fix it).

But I think I need to persevere. Which brings me to Slow Fashion October, an event/experiment/Internet-related happening initiated by Karen Templer. I recently started following Karen's knitting blog, Fringe Association, and I don't knit -- not even one little bit! I think that really says something about how thoughtful her posts are and how compelling her sensibility is.

I'm posting this a bit late (hey, so I'm slow about Slow Fashion October, that ought to be allowed right?), but my thoughts here are inspired by last week's theme of "SMALL," which Karen describes as being about:

handmade / living with less / quality over quantity / capsule wardrobe / indie fashion / small-batch makers / sustainability

I think it's pretty obvious from my last post on the capsule wardrobe topic that I'm not really a minimalist, in terms of either numbers or aesthetic. (Actually I suspect it is easier to be a numbers-minimalist when your aesthetic is also rather minimalist.) But I do care about sustainability.

I think the way that I might square those two things is with the concept of longevity. That is, especially when I add something made with new resources to my wardrobe -- either bought at retail or made from retail-purchased fabric -- I want to aim for it to stay in my wardrobe for a good long time. I mean five years, or preferably ten. Or even longer!

And that means that the thing has to be really pretty much perfect. The right color, the right style, the right details, and the fit spot-on. A big part of the appeal of handmade, as I've previously alluded to, is that it offers the potential for lots of control over these things.

And, looking at my existing wardrobe, I see the same silhouettes repeated over and over, most of the variation being in color and pattern. This means that all this fussing with fit is likely to pay off, if I can get it right; I am an excellent candidate for getting good use out of tried-and-true patterns. But I have to admit that I was hoping the trials would be shorter and I could skip straight to the true!

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Home improvements: Bad news and good news in the dining room

Bad news: projectile feline scarf-n-barf.

Good news: all over the worn-out sisal rug I'd been gunning to get rid of for a while.

You might remember our dining room rug. It was a big day when I turned it upside down.

Way before.

The truth is, though, no matter how I flipped it, the thing was looking pretty tired -- worn, stained, cat-scratched, and completely unraveling in one corner.

When the aforementioned bad news happened I started to clean it up, and then I had this moment where I just felt DONE. Over it. I rolled up the rug and threw it outside.

That rug had been through 11 years, two houses, a wedding, four cats, and a baby. It had done its job, you know?

And secretly I'm grateful to our gluttonous cat. I'd been wanting to try removing the rug from the dining room for a while.

Thank you, Daisy, for solving my home decorating dilemmas.
Daisy shows us what she thinks of all this mockery.

My husband was skeptical. He thought (1) the lines around the previous position of the rug where the sun has faded the finish on our wood floors would look funny and (2) a dining room without a rug would look unfinished, as if it belonged in a house of college dudes.

It's true that there are sun-fade lines on the floor, but I don't think they are particularly noticeable.

His second objection I guess is a matter of taste. I'm definitely in agreement that we want to aim for a grownup-looking space. But I don't think a dining room necessarily needs a rug to look finished. When I look at my Pinterest board of dining spaces I see plenty of bare-floored examples, like so:

Original source.

And like so:

Original source.

Especially in an eensy space like ours, I think a rug can just create visual clutter. So. Here's where we are today. (The round table arrived here. Funny enough, in that post I was worried about how stressful it was going to be to find a rug my husband and I could agree on. Like how I sidestepped that issue?)


Anyway, I like it. My husband has not mutinied. Nice and simple looking, and it's definitely easier to keep clean.

Hey, and how about that flower arrangement on the table? Just a few stems gathered from our front yard earlier today.

The funny, spiky things with balls on the ends are anemone flowers that have lost their petals. (From these anemones here.) I think they're kind of funky and modern, and I really like the way they look with the subtly shaded, late-season hydrangeas.

I realize it's a bit cheeky to get rid of a worn-out old rug and label it a "home improvement." And I'm certainly not claiming that just getting rid of things will solve all interior decorating quandaries. But I do think that when we're thinking about replacing or upgrading an item, it's worth including "actually, do we need that at all?" as a step on the flow chart.

As a matter of fact, I recently did something similar in the kitchen. We had a mat in front of the sink that had always been kind of ugly, never stayed in place, had become horribly cruddy and stained, and couldn't be washed. I did ponder getting a nice rug of some sort to replace it, but in the end I just chucked it, and I haven't missed having something there at all. (Hm. Who knew I had such a vendetta against floor coverings?)

In the dining room, I've got my sights set next on reupholstering those chairs. I mean, this is pretty bad, right?

And this is not a case where I can just get rid of something and not replace it. But it should be -- knock on wood -- a pretty easy project: just stretch the new fabric over the seat and staple to the bottom. I'm thinking of a metallic gold linen -- it would echo the texture of some other linen we've got going on elsewhere in the common areas of the house, and I think the gold might fancify everyday meals a little bit without being fussy.

I need my dining room upholstery to be wipe-able, though. So I'm thinking about laminating the fabric. (Yes, I realize this is probably not the most environmentally friendly project ever, but I'm willing to compromise a bit for something durable.) Has anyone tried something like this?

Sunday, September 27, 2015

My wardrobe this season: Fall 2015

My approach to seasonal capsule wardrobes has evolved a bit since my first experiments in this area last winter. I'm still very inspired by the idea of switching up my wardrobe each season, and organizing each capsule around a characteristic seasonal palette or "color story." I'm less interested in having hard-and-fast rules about how many or which items I'm "allowed" to wear at any given time.

So here is what I did to organize my wardrobe for fall. I pulled together a stack of items that seem quintessentially "fall" to me. Here's a better view of what's in that first photo above:

My idea is basically to wear the heck out of these items between now and Thanksgiving, mixing them both with each other and with a variety of closet basics that I tend to wear across several seasons. (This post should give you an idea of what I mean by "closet basics," although it's not really an exhaustive view.)

I spent a bit of time recently playing around with various combinations of these items. I was inspired in part by this post on Bridgette Raes' blog showing the mix-and-match potential of items owned by one of her clients. Bridgette is a professional wardrobe stylist and clearly knows her stuff, and her posts have a warm and upbeat tone -- all of which makes hers is one of my favorite style blogs on the Internet (and is probably why I keep referring to her as Bridgette, as if we were on a first-name basis!). I like that instead of pushing particular trends or items to buy, her posts tend to be much more analytical. I find that even when the outfits she shows are not my style or appropriate for my casual, work-from-home lifestyle, I can often glean the underlying principles that she's illustrating and then apply them to items in my own closet.

So, I sort of took apart Bridgette's post and then tried to apply what she was doing to my own collection of items. I haven't replicated her template exactly, but I think I've captured the spirit of her post. Settle in, this is a long one, with lots of photos!

1. First, Bridgette tackles an item that seems like it should be a staple but has been deceptively hard for her client to style. She's working with a pair of subtly patterned navy pants, and I'm using my bottle-green cardigan.

Here I've paired the cardigan with my black skirt leggings and a teal layering sweater. I can wear this outfit with black ballet flats early in the season, or black ankle boots later on when it's colder.

In her post, Bridgette also uses a particular scarf repeatedly and shows how it pulls together a lot of different outfits. My goes-with-everything scarf is a large square scarf with a print of ducks on a pale-pink background. Here's a better view:

I love this scarf and wear it often in fall. It was an impulse purchase at Goodwill about three years ago, believe it or not. It is not my usual fare -- I thought it was a little way too preppy for me -- and I balked a bit at paying seven whole dollars for it. But I am so glad I did. It's a good example of the usefulness of rotating my wardrobe seasonally: I only wear the scarf in fall, so it feels fresh each year and I'm excited to pull it out and wear it again.

It's also interesting to consider with regard to color. A common piece of advice is to build a seasonal color palette around the colors in a printed scarf, but in fact I don't wear the colors in this scarf much at all. I do love this pale pink, but have very little of it in my wardrobe. And the particular blues and greens in the scarf aren't exactly the ones in the rest of my clothing. Nevertheless, I think it works because the pink makes a nice contrast to colors like teal or bottle-green, and the blues and greens end up being "close enough." (In the outfit photo above, for example, you can see that the teal layering sweater really pulls out the medium blue bits of the scarf. But they are really not the same shade.)

Second outfit: same cardigan, with mid-wash skinny jeans, a gray layering sweater, smaller floral scarf with green border, and green flats.

Same jeans and cardigan, this time with a gray-and-white striped popover blouse, gray boots, and the duck-print scarf.

Same jeans, cardigan, and boots, this time with a black watch plaid shirt and and a floral scarf with an orange background. (On a really rainy day I would wear this with Wellies and perhaps swap out the jeans for dark-wash skinnies.)

Finally, the same combination of cardigan and black watch plaid shirt, this time with my black merino knit pencil skirt and black ankle boots.

2. Next in Bridgette's post is a cobalt-blue pencil skirt. My version of a brightly colored bottom that turns out to be surprisingly versatile is a pair of mustard cords.

First, I've paired them with the gray-and-white striped shirt and gray boots that you've seen above, and my ivory Aran cardi. You didn't think I'd leave out my Aran sweater, did you? Perish the thought!

Same cords, with the black watch plaid shirt from above, long navy argyle cardi, and Wellies. I realize that is a lot of color, but I think it would be rather cheerful on a dreary gray day.

Now the cords are paired with a black-and-navy plaid tunic, long charcoal gray cardi, gray boots, and the duck scarf makes an appearance once more.

Same mustard cords and gray boots, this time with the gray layering sweater you've seen before, and a fair isle cardigan (mostly blue, but it has a bit of yellow in it). Cozy!

3. Finally, Bridgette styles a pair of gray pants to make the point that basics can be worn in non-basic ways. I'm going to depart from her formula here and show a mix of items because I wanted to feature at least one outfit including each of the items in my "capsule."

First, a couple of outfits featuring my plaid portrait-collar blouse. Admittedly this blouse has a rather short season -- it has elbow-length sleeves, so it's just not warm enough, even with a sweater over it, once the weather really cools down -- but I do love wearing it in the mean time. Here I've paired it with my black merino knit skirt and navy argyle cardi, both pieces that I've used in outfits above, and a pair of braided clog sandals. The sandals are a good example of an item wouldn't be practical to include strict capsule wardrobe for fall, but on one or two unseasonably warm days, it's fun to pull them out and create some unexpected combinations.

Here's a similar formula that will more often be weather appropriate: the same top with dark-wash skinny jeans, my long charcoal-gray cardi, and tan clogs.

Here's that black merino knit skirt again, with a Liberty-print popover blouse, emerald green cardi, and green flats. Of course I could just as easily swap out the skirt for my dark-wash skinny jeans if I need to keep my legs a bit warmer.

Medium-wash skinny jeans, teal layering sweater, long charcoal-gray cardi, black ballet flats: all basics that I've used in various combinations in earlier outfits in this series -- here completed with a teal paisley scarf.

And finally, the emerald-green cardi and black ankle boots, with my beloved animal-print shift dress.

So that's 14 outfits from 30 items, pretty similar to Bridgette's 15 outfits from 31 items. Also, about half of the items that I've used here were obtained secondhand -- just to continue beating my "a secondhand wardrobe doesn't have to be a hot mess" drum.

Of course, these outfits don't exhaust all the mix-and match possibilities of these items. And I have a few other things not pictured here that I'll likely make good use of (a camel cable-knit cardi, for example, and a few burgundy things that help outfits feel fall-ish.) But it gives a flavor of my wardrobe this season.

I think this sort of exercise is a great alternative means to accomplish some of the same goals as a capsule wardrobe more narrowly defined. I'm surprised how many combinations I've discovered that I wouldn't have thought of before sitting down and rather methodically pairing up different items in my closet. And I'm excited to wear these outfits this fall and make use of what I already have -- rather than going shopping.

I'm sharing this post on Anne's "pin to present" linkup on In Residence. You can find the post that was the original inspiration for this one, and several other posts from Bridgette's blog, on my How to Wear It pinboard.