On the Horizon: A Feed Sack Book with UPPERCASE

Why yes, it HAS been four months since I posted…and while many things have happened in that span of time, probably the thing I’ve concentrated most of my energy on has been on a book about feed sacks. I’m working with Janine Vangool of UPPERCASE and as if you know her work, you won’t be surprised to learn that this book is going to be an absolute stunner.

I’ve been reviewing page proofs over the past couple of weeks and cannot get over the variety and number of included images—vintage ads and newspaper clippings, images of items made from feed sacks, historic photos of feed sack-wearing folks and of artists designing logos, and of course, lots and lots of feed sack swatches, labels, and whole bags.

Janine and I met in Lincoln, Nebraska in August and spent two days photographing feed sacks belonging to collectors Gloria Hall and Paul Pugsley—quite literally thousands of sacks and feed sack-related items. We visited the International Quilt Study Center and met with curator Carolyn Ducey. We held an event at Porridge Papers and met and learned from some lovely folks. And we sat on the couch and wrote and rewrote, found imagery to accompany text, and worked on making the book something that was truly ours.

There have been a number of different feed sack books (one woman I talked to said “There are 17 books about feed sacks,” to which I replied “I guess ours will be number 18!”) and while I found many of them useful (indispensable, really) and lovely, this book will be different in style and content. I’ve interviewed a number of individuals with great and unusual feed sack stories, slipped in items both whimsical (chickens dressed in feed sacks) and serious (Belgians using feed sacks to subvert the WWII German occupation), and Janine went a little wild—more than a little, to be honest—in acquiring and sharing images that shed new light on the feed sack story.

So there you have it. I’m waiting now for final page proofs, and the book should be available in November, in time for the holidays. I can’t wait to hold it in my hands, instead of just in my head. Long live print…

Rhubarb Dreams

I have lots of quilt-related photos to post…one of these days. But for today, I’m touting rhubarb.


Short version: Years ago we made rhubarb simple syrup as a basis for rhubararitas—rhubarb margaritas. They were a hit and I wanted to make them this week for my youngest daughter, who’ll be home for a wedding. Yesterday I combined two cups of water, two cups of sugar, and a pound of cut up rhubarb and simmered for 20 minutes, This morning I mixed the “dregs”— the well-cooked rhubarb solids left after pouring off the simple syrup—in my plain yogurt it was deeeelicious! Looking forward to the simple syrup, too. (This drink sounded also sounds like a good way to use it: The Rhubarb 75.)

My dad and daughter toasting with their rhubarbaritas in 2010

Rhubarb is one of those fruits (really it’s a vegetable) that I just can’t bring myself to pay for—it seems to grow like a weed and lines the alleys of old neighborhoods in Iowa City. I haven’t have success growing it at my house though, perhaps because I planted it in the backyard, too close to three huge walnut trees. So if a friend didn’t share rhubarb from their bounteous patch, I often went without.

Last fall we redid some landscaping in our front yard and I realized that the side of my garage—nearly hidden from view but warm and sunny, would be the perfect spot for rhubarb, which once it’s established can be neglected. The big leaves would help keep the weeds down and I’d have all the rhubarb I wanted. I bought two plants and got two from my friend Anne, who has an enormous patch on her farm, and it’s those latter two that have grown like crazy and that I was able to harvest.

My sister with our 2010 rhubarb simple syrup

I didn’t grow up with rhubarb, as it doesn’t do well in southern California, but I learned to love it at my Aunt Marcia’s farm in Minnesota. Her rule was that you could pick it until the 4th of July, and I’m looking forward to more rhubarb this year, and lots more next year, when it’s all better established. My rhubarb dream—an unlimited supply that I’ll never have to pay for—is coming true.

Art Quilts of the Midwest is Launched!

I really will post soon about something other than Art Quilts of the Midwest. But last night Codi held a book launch party at Home Ec Workshop and it was so much fun for me. There were lots of friends, old (as in 20+ years old) and new (people I’ve met while working at Home Ec) and in between. There were several folks that I was especially touched to see, including a group of my former colleagues from my days at the University of Iowa. Several of us had made quilts for one another for significant life events (here, and herehere).

Here Codi and I look oddly formal (considering that I must have hugged her 27 times over the evening). But she gave me this bouquet of daffodils tulips and I wanted to include it in the picture. She put so much effort into the evening, and I was so grateful.

This was the only shot I got of Erick, and we didn’t get one of Astrid (the book’s foreword author) at all. She and I each said a few words about our involvement in the book, and Erick showed a portion of the film he’s made about his work that included the pieces he has in the book.

The funny part was that the crowd was so much larger than anticipated and we realized we wouldn’t fit into the workroom. So Codi, Astrid, and I delivered our remarks from Home Ec’s kitchen, and Erick showed his film in shifts in the workshop. Our friends listened patiently and there were so many great comments about Erick’s film.

Emily, in the black and white jacket, was one of the book’s jurors

It was an evening that reminded me how much the Midwest has given me. Though I rant and rave every year about my dislike of the cold and the snow, the community that is Iowa City makes me so very happy. As Astrid said in her remarks, it’s a place filled with people who are hidden gems doing surprising things, and having this group of artists, professors, shop owners, scientists, realtors, poets, graphic designers, knitters extraordinaire, biologists, etc. come out to support the book meant so very much.

Time for a Deep Breath!

I’m sure to readers of Pearl the Squirrel, it appears that all I’ve been doing is breathing deeply…quietly…far away from my computer. Actually, it’s been just the opposite. I’ve spent so much time bent over the keyboard that I’ve had to go to physical therapy for my neck! But a break is in sight, because Sunday I turned in the manuscript for Art Quilts of the Midwest, the book I’ve been working on for the University of Iowa Press.

While I make it sound like a slog, it’s actually been such an interesting process, and one that’s enabled me to do that thing I so love—interview creative people and find out what they do and why. Each of the 20 artists’ works will be accompanied by a brief bio that came out of our hour-long conversations. Always a challenge to describe people like these in so few words, but also a privilege.

The book will be out in spring, 2015, and I’ll certainly mention more as the time draws nigh.  I can’t wait to share with you the work of these artists, brought together by their Midwestern influences.

But for now, I’m going to go on a vacation (and I’m taking my knitting with me)!

A workshop with Crazy Mom Quilts’ Amanda Jean

Amanda Jean’s slabs and strings

Our guild lined up Amanda Jean Nyberg, co-author of Sunday Morning Quilts, for a workshop and I signed up immediately. I had the pleasure of interviewing her and Cheryl Arkison for an Etsy story and really enjoyed talking with them and their entire philosophy of saving scraps. I don’t know about you, but I can’t throw scraps away. Actually, I’ll bet that you can’t either. I go through phases, where I save even the little triangles I’ve cut from joining binding strips. I admit that eventually I’ve tossed them, but now that I’ve had a class with Amanda Jean, I wish I hadn’t!

My scraps

Scraps can be overwhelming, and the goal behind Sunday Morning Quilts is to help them be less so, to make them actually useful. Our class started with a discussion of sorting scraps (Amanda Jean and her friend Pam even brought a set of scrappy sorting boxes) and sorting our own took some time. But it did make them more useable. I was trimming some blocks I’d made from my scraps and Amanda Jean came by and there was a tiny little square—maybe 1.5 by 1.5 inches—that I’d cut off the end and she confessed that she saves even those. Her frugality is matched by her creativity, and she puts these scraps to really great uses.

Amanda Jean’s high-and-low volume quilt, Shady

One thing I enjoyed seeing was that even though her aesthetic is scrappy, she has a “look,” a clear, colorful palette that shows up time and again in her quilts. I felt quite inspired and started with a log-cabinish block of multicolored scraps.

My slab

I decided, however, to limit my palette and went for blue, green, and yellow with a bit of grey and was quite enjoying that. I’m not sure yet what I’ll do with the bit I made, but I do think I’ll keep at it, as I have a ton of scraps in these colors.

Amanda Jean laying out gum drops

If you ever get the chance to take a workshop with Amanda Jean, don’t hesitate. She’s funny, friendly, and spends a lot of time walking around and talking through issues with quilters. A day well spent!

Scrap baskets, rug knitted from selvedges and strings, and 2.5 inch square quilt
My friend Kristin’s slabs. We bought that dark blue fabric together six or seven years ago and both used scraps of it in our slabs.

Two Fall Favorites: Quilt Shows and Leaf Peeping

I’ve never been to New Albin, Iowa, but got word of a quilt show in October you might want to add to your calendar. New Albin is on the Mississippi River, just south of the state line between Minnesota and Iowa. Driving along the river in the fall is always lovely. Our first year back in Iowa we took our girls and drove to Effigy Mounds to see the autumn color. At dinner that night, in the tiny town of Harper’s Ferry, we waited our turn in a restaurant and noticed two women giving us the eye. One of them leaned over to the other and said, sotto voce, “Leaf peepers.” The other nodded solemnly. “Leaf peepers” instantly become a McCray family favorite phrase. But I digress.

The photo I got about the New Albin quilt show features cow quilts, based on the book by Mel McFarland and Mary Lou Weideman book: Out of the Box with Easy Blocks. You may remember when Mel brought samples from the book to my parents’ house, or when everyone was stitching them at our Lake Tahoe retreat.  The variety is endless (and often hilarious). Looks like the quilters of New Albin have caught cow-fever, but there will be other quilts, as well: this is the show’s fifth year and in years past they’ve had as many as 200 quilts.

The show will be held int he New Albin Community Center on October 11 to 13 (Friday, 4 to 7pm; Saturday, 10 am. to 5 pm; and Sunday, 12 to 4 pm).

Featherweight Follow-up

Colleen & Roger Hicks Featherweight table

My recent Etsy post on Featherweights was such a treat for me. First, it enabled me to learn more about these tiny, but mighty machines. Then—always one of my favorite parts of my work—it gave me the opportunity to get to talk to others about them. Roger and Colleen Hicks welcomed me into their home and showed me Colleen’s collection of nine Featherweights. I especially loved hearing about their search for new ones and about the time they found one of the rare Featherweight tables in a junk shop and bought it for a fantastic price.

I also really loved talking with The Bobbin Doctor, Steve Pauling. I found his name through a comment on a Featherweight post on someone else’s blog (ah, I love the sleuthing aspects of journalism!) and as I was on deadline, decided to try calling him. He had just come in from shoveling 14 inches of snow and was incredibly gracious and kind and we had a great conversation in which I learned he’s also a tailor extraordinaire. I’m hoping to follow up with him, so look for more about Steve in the future. (His partner has a fantastic, sewing-related Etsy shop, too.) Steve’s comments about the durability of well-made, older sewing machines were so interesting—stitchers’ love of these machines is so great that Steve’s turned fixing vintage machines into a full time second career.

Colleen’s Featherweights on display

Finally, I absolutely adored all the comments from Etsy readers. As someone who often feels that her job is mainly sending stuff out into the void, never really knowing if people read what she writes or if it means anything to them, getting close to 200 comments is like the nectar of the gods. Seriously. And the comments were so thoughtful and there were so many great stories…I still can’t get over the skill level of people who wrote that they made wedding dresses on their Featherweights, for example. And I loved all the memories people shared of watching their mothers and grandmothers stitch away on these machines. My favorite was from a woman who said that the first letters she learned as a young child were S-I-N-G-E-R because she’d spent so much time siting at her mother’s side while she sewed. There’s brand loyalty you just can’t buy!

So inspired was I by the post and Roger Hicks’ comments about how little there was that could go wrong with a Featherweight, that I decided to try and fix mine, which sadly went on the fritz during my October Lake Tahoe retreat. There was some tension issue I couldn’t resolve. So Paul and I spent a couple hours on Saturday checking the manual and Featherweight 221: The Perfect Portable and Its Stitches Across History by Nancy Johnson-Srbebro. We oiled every nook and cranny and tried all kinds of fixes, but alas, despite feeling so empowered by my own article, I ended up taking it in to a professional on Sunday. Sigh. But I really do know so much more about how a Featherweight works than I did. So there’s that.

Back to School: The Pleasures and Purposes of Taking Craft Classes

The newspaper pattern we created to make a-line skirts

 I am one of those people who can’t resist things. I cut out myriad recipes, planning to try luscious-sounding new foods; I get intrigued by threads of conversation that lead to story ideas and want to follow through and write them all; and of course, I’m a sucker for every new crafting idea that comes my way. As someone who writes about artists and designers, that’s a heck of a lot of ideas.

Granny square class

For me, taking classes is one of the best ways to give in to my multi-crafting urge. I can buy books and materials, but actually sitting down and committing a several-hour block of time to use them is hard. There is something about paying for a class and putting it on my calendar that gives me permission to devote the time to trying something new.

South African embroidery in progress

In the past couple of months I’ve taken two classes taught by Alisa at Home Ec—one sewing a skirt (from a pattern we learned to make ourselves!) and another on crocheting a granny square (something I’d done in college, but not since). Also at Home Ec I took a class on South African embroidery (taught by Catherine Redford), and knitting a hat (taught by Jenny Gordy). I’ve done all these things previously in one form or another, but in each class I was reminded of what I enjoyed about that particular craft and I learned something new (last week in my hat class Jenny taught us a cool way to join stitches while knitting on circular needles). I get to handle new materials and use some old ones (I’d bought the fabric for my skirt at a Quilt Market six months ago, but wasn’t quite sure what to do with it.)

Jenny Gordy (Wiksten) hat with bobbles

So here are photos from my classes—I finished the skirt the same afternoon I started it, but the other projects aren’t yet finished. Those resulting UFOs are probably one of the biggest problems with taking classes. I sometimes question whether flitting from craft-to-craft is wise—after all, I have at least five unfinished quilt projects in my sewing room just waiting for me to devote time and attention to them. But I tell myself that some day these skills will all be waiting for me, as will the time to use them.

Happy Thanksgiving to my U.S. readers! Hope you find some time to sit and stitch this coming weekend.

Art Quilts of the Midwest

Friday was an exciting day. I finally sent out numerous Calls for Entry for my upcoming book, which has been in the talking and planning stages for over a year. The working title is Art Quilts of the Midwest and I’ll be working with the University of Iowa Press.

I’m very excited that visual artists Mary Merkel-Hess and Emily Martin will be jurying submissions with me and art quilter Astrid Bennett will be writing the foreword.

If you or anyone you know might be interested, below is a brief description of eligibility and how to submit work for consideration. All this information and more can be found on the UI Press home page. Once you’re there, click the quilt block button (same image as the block on this post) on the left side of the page. Feel free to email me if you have any questions.

An adventure begins!

•Seeking submissions from Midwestern art quilters with an emphasis on quilts whose creation was inspired by life in the Midwest. Quilters are free to define aspects of “Midwesterness,” be they physical, environmental, emotional, etc., which affect their work. Artists must reside in the Midwest, defined for this book as Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. Submit up to three quilts, original work completed after 1/1/09. Book to be published in print and digital editions. 

In Praise of Iowa and Iowans, Old and New

I am not a native Iowan. I lived briefly in Minnesota, spent some time in Florida, and then moved to California when I was two. Although I left the Golden State when I married, my husband and I spent a few years in Northern California, where we bought a house and sent our kids to school, and my folks still live in Southern California.

Vanessa, Jenny, and Greta at Home Ec (Codi helping a customer, at left)

Though I’ve now lived in Iowa for more than two decades, the environment of my growing-up years is firmly embedded under my skin and in my soul. In my last post I mentioned the influence of Minnesota summers, but ocean colors, the scent of rosemary and eucalyptus, and the golden light of California all show up in my quilts and the colors and artwork in my home and wardrobe. I’ve never learned to like winter, and I still think of myself as essentially a Californian.

Vanessa’s fabrics, in stores in October—these colors are a hint that she’s also a Californian 

That said, I find myself fiercely defending Iowa in general and Iowa City in particular. There is an ease to living here that makes everyday life less draining—little traffic, the ability to do errands on foot or bike, the friendliness of everyday interactions that make daily life simple. There’s also much that’s stimulating—my neighbors and friends are writers, artists, yoga instructors, professors, musicians, doctors, editors, engineers—and walking Pearl sometimes takes three times as long as it should because of the engaging conversations that take place in a simple stroll around the block. The landscape takes a little more work to appreciate—no dramatic seascapes or mountain ranges that demand immediate and obvious awe—and that’s created in me an attention to detail and calm that enriches my life.

Jenny Instagramming, Greta in motion

So when someone moves to Iowa and struggles, as I most certainly did when I arrived, I feel compelled to serve as an ambassador. I know what it feels like to be a “foreigner”—where the architecture, flora, and even the bypassers smiling and saying “hi” feel unfamiliar and unsettling. I know what it’s like to not see the beauty of Iowa.

One of Jenny’s Wiksten patterns

So it was last week when I finally managed to get together a group of new Iowans. Vanessa, Jenny, Greta, and Codi are all from elsewhere—Greta and Codi have been around for awhile, but Vanessa and Jenny have just spend their first year here. We gathered for coffee, thrifting, lunch, and conversation, bonded by a love of sewing, design, fabric, and making things.

Greta’s upcoming Marcus fabrics

We visited Codi, took photos, and fondled textiles at Home Ec, admired Greta’s first line for Marcus, anticipated Vanessa’s about-to-hit-the shelves Moda fabrics, and discussed Jenny’s current patterns and those that are in the works. We went to some great thrift shops where Vanessa and I scored a few items, and had a lunch over which we discussed marriage, publishing, children, interns, and working alone. All the while, I found myself extolling the glories of Iowa. And I was reminded that one of them is the addition of talented women like these, who like me weren’t very sure when they arrived if they’d like it, but find themselves warming to its charms.