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.

Going head-to-head over buttons

Shell buttons

If you’ve arrived here from my Etsy post on button competitions, you might enjoy seeing a few more photos that I took when I visited button collectors Kareen and Barb. I love people who are obsessive and these two women are definitely all about buttons. The walls of every room in Kareen’s home were decorated with framed trays of buttons she’d entered in competitions, as well as trays still “under construction.”

Moonglow buttons

Sorting buttons: note pill bottles for storage
Carefully categorized buttons
A tray of sewing-related buttons
Buttons are mounted with plastic-covered copper wire
Framed tray of jet buttons

The great thing about collections is that by tweaking what one collects just a bit, there is always something new to search for. These women had tremendous knowledge about the buttons they loved. Thanks for sharing your buttons and know-how, Barb and Kareen.

Button up

For about a month now I’ve been working on a post for Etsy about the Pearl Button Museum in Muscatine, Iowa. The post finally went up today, and I am amazed (and thrilled) at all the comments…guess I didn’t realize that lots of folks had a mother-of-pearl button obsession, just like I do! (Check out the Etsy post here.)

I’ve always loved pearl buttons, but was amazed to learn that so many of them came from the small town just 40 miles from my home. I keep spouting this statistic to everyone, (whether they’re interested or not): in 1905, 37 percent of the world’s buttons (and that’d be 1.5 billion) came from Muscatine.

The museum is small, but the exhibits are nicely done and I learned a tremendous amount from them. Plus, they have some nice interactive displays: you can plunge your hands in buckets of side-by-side pearl and plastic buttons to feel and hear the difference; you can read memories of people whose relatives worked in button factories, you can try your hand at sorting a gross of buttons with a specially made paddle.

There’s also a wonderful collection of buttons and mother-of-pearl artifacts and an entire display case of buttons sewn on those wonderful vintage cards. I’m sure anyone who knows me is tired of hearing about it, but I love learning about things like this and thinking about an unusual industry that supported an entire community. Today there are still three button factories in Muscatine, but the buttons they make are plastic.

While the story is wonderful and quirky, there is definitely a dark side: children worked in many button factories, the working conditions were unpleasant at best and often downright dangerous, and dust from shells created breathing problems for many workers. A strike by button workers turned violent and one man was killed. But despite this grim side, the city of Muscatine is proud of its heritage and enjoys its moniker “Pearl City.” If you’re button-obsessed (or just interested in history) it’s definitely worth a visit if you’re in the neighborhood…and even worth a detour if you’re not.

The Button Lady

Writing about Fiberarts and the memories of clothing reminded me of one of my all-time favorite writing opportunities. In 1995 I was in grad school and working as an intern at The Goldfinch, a wonderful and sadly now defunct history magazine for children published by the Iowa State Historical Society. Although the publication had a tiny budget it managed to win national awards and I loved doing the research for the articles. While working on a piece about collections, I was introduced to this photo of Mamie Thimmes, a woman from Mechanicsville, Iowa, who had quite the penchant for buttons.

After the photo ran in The Goldfinch, I pitched a piece to Fiberarts and it ran in the Jan. 1996. This was in the early days of Martha Stewart, when she was introducing the glue gun to the masses (anyone remember those Martha Stewart parody magazines, Is Martha Stewart Living? One photo spread featured her in S&M-style attire, glue gun at the ready in a holster around her waist). I mention this because now Martha’s all about sewing, but in those days she was into adhesives…hence the lead to my piece, which I’ll reproduce below.

But first my favorite part of this story. Mamie Thimmes’ daughter was still living and had Mamie’s button outfit. It turns out Mamie had sewn buttons to much more than the items in the photo. Here’s a picture of Deloris with an American flag Mamie created.

Visiting Deloris in the home she’d shared with Mamie was such a treat, although a bit surreal. Deloris was a very quiet woman, unused to talking with strangers. Getting her to say much at all about her mom was nearly impossible—I got a lot of my information from archived newspaper clippings.

But Deloris was quite willing to show me the button creations, and they were the most amazing things: the buttons were of every shape, size, and material imaginable. They depicted the Eiffel Tower, a floral wreath worn around the necks of winning horses at the Kentucky Derby, and pieces of fruit. The outfit weighed a ton and the corduroy onto which it was stitched was starting to tear from the weight. I tried contacting Deloris after our meeting to encourage her to donate it to the State Historical Society, but I’m afraid it was probably sold at auction and dismantled by button collectors…

Here’s the copy I wrote that accompanied Mamie’s photo:

If that high priestess of homeyness, Martha Stewart, provided instructions for this outfit, a glue gun would be first on the list of required materials. But in 1955 when Mamie Thimmes whipped up a simple wide-waled gold corduroy shift and began meticulously arranging her button collection on it, she attached them in the tried and true way—by hand, with a needle and off-white thread.

“It was just something she enjoyed doing,” says Thimmes’ daughter, Deloris, who traveled the United States with her mother in search of of old and unusual buttons. After the shift, Thimmes went on to create a button-covered hat, a shawl, shoes, an antique parasol, a fan, earrings, a bracelet, and a stuffed dog-on-wheels. She estimated that over 40,000 buttons adorn the ensemble. Thimmes modeled her weighty creation for select gatherings in her hometown of Mechanicsville, Iowa.

This fascination with buttons began when Thimmes cut one from her daughter’s baby shoe in 1908 and continued until she died in 1981 at the age of 92. In between she worked in a meat-packing plant and taught Sunday school for over 50 years. But there was always time for buttons. Methodically, on winter evenings, she stitched them to pillow shams, wall hangings, a wastebasket, and an American flag. Forty years later, they are still holding strong.

A day off

After some rather stressful work-related meetings and conversations, I decided to give myself an entire day off. It’s a stunning concept and one that needs to be revisited more often in this household. When we moved to Berkeley in the late 1980s, our realtor observed after a day of house hunting that she’d never seen anyone with the “drive to completion” that I have. (This was because I insisted on looking at every last house on the market.)

The drive to completion often serves me well. I generally hit deadlines and really crank on things when the end is in sight. That feeling of accomplishment that comes from getting things done is highly satisfying. But lately it’s morphed into working seven days a week, and that’s not healthy for anyone. Paul and I are both trying to remember that there will always be more work to do tomorrow, and that it’s important to step back and just do something else every now and then.

So,my something else today was making split pea soup, taking a walk with a friend and Pearl, watching Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (meh), and sewing. My mom gave me a couple of fat quarters when I visited her in January and I’d seen raves about the Lazy Girl Wonder Wallet, so when I saw the pattern at Home Ec I grabbed it. I made one a weekend or two ago and finished another today.

It’s a great pattern: they’re very quick to make and now that I’ve made the basic pattern I see all sorts of possibilities for modifying them—different sizes or pocket configurations, for example. The one change I will definitely make is to use a heavier interfacing in the main body of the wallet. I’m not sure why, but the flap flips up a bit on either side of the button when the flap is closed (the button is just decorative and hides the stitches that secure the velcro). I thought heavier interfacing might help. You may note that I have two sizes of velcro dots—the small one seemed a little too small, so I opted for the larger on the second wallet.

I also initially thought I’d use a metal silver-and-blue button that was on a shank, but realized that I’m likely to use this wallet when I walk downtown and don’t want to haul a purse; the button with the shank would have been uncomfortable in the pocket of my jeans. So I used a couple of gorgeous pearl buttons I’d been saving for something. Guess this was it!

Button up…

With today’s temperatures, the heading should be “Button up your overcoat.” It was barely zero on the bank thermometer downtown when I headed to a 1 p.m. meeting a few blocks from my office. I noted several student-types wandering about with coats unbuttoned, mittens missing. It was all I could do to overcome my mothering tendencies and walk past without lecturing them on the perils of bare flesh in such sub-freezing conditions. But I did…

Instead this button up refers to the charming American Maid buttons I bought at the Crowded Closet awhile back. I have a thing for pearl buttons–they remind me of the prize of finding an abalone shell on the beach as a child, and more recently of a piece I wrote many, many years ago for the now defunct children’s history magazine The Goldfinch about the button industry in Muscatine, Iowa. It was a perilous industry and one that eventually depleted the Mississippi river of mussels. But even with that dark history, I have a real admiration for old pearl buttons, because of their varied and natural origins and the labor that’s required to produce them.