Master Knitters on Etsy

Lisa Wilcox Case

It’s a little after the fact, but I thought I’d share some of the photos I shot for the master knitting certification post that went live on Etsy. Etsy’s discovered that a large number of their visitors are accessing the site through mobile media, and that’s changed the kinds of photos they need–big, bold and graphic reads much better than detailed. So a number of these just didn’t cut it.

Lisa’s intarsia sample

But I wanted to share them with you because I think the master knitting process is impressive, and Lisa Wilcox Case’s notebooks are amazing. Filled with reports and samples, they really demonstrated her abilities, as well as the requirements for being a master knitter through The Knitting Guild Association.

Lisa’s final project for master knitter certification

The other part of the master knitting story that was fun for me was that I was having a heck of a time finding a second source to talk with. I went to lunch at a local restaurant and was chatting with the owner, who I’ve known for years, about what her daughter was up to. Her daughter, Taylor, had been in my class when I taught at a Montessori school many years ago. She described how Taylor was getting ready to graduate from college, thinking about various careers and then said, “Oh, and she’s getting master knitting certification.” So funny! So I contacted Taylor (who shared a couple of photos that I’ve included, as well).

Lisa demonstrates a cable technique

One thing that struck me was how different the personalities of these two women seem, yet how they both want to be (or in Lisa’s case, are) Master Knitters. Lisa’s been a librarian and an endodontist–methodical, detail-oriented, exacting. Taylor seems to be much more of a free spirit, but she’s enjoying the challenge as well.

Hope you enjoy these!

Samples in Lisa’s certification notebooks
Lisa at work (she knit the sweater she’s wearing)
Lisa’s entrelac sample
Taylor wearing a hat she knit
Cowl knit by Taylor

Taylor’s yarn bombing on the Cornell College campus

More on Tim Fay and the Wapsipinicon Almanac

Detail of a paper cutter

As I noted on Facebook, there are days that I feel so lucky to do the work I do and visiting Tim Fay in December, in preparation for an Etsy post, was one of those days. I’ve always admired the almanac and been a little jealous of my friends and colleagues who’ve been published therein. I was worried that Tim would be intimidating, but the opposite was true—he was friendly, interesting, and true to his journalistic training, interested. He’s definitely his own guy, living simply, in a way that few people choose. But his passion about printing and the equipment he’s gleaned from other printers over the years was easy to see. And if there’s one thing I love, it’s people who are doing something they love.

Below are some photos from that day. If you’re a local reader, there is a Wapsipinicon Almanac reading at Prairie Lights this Friday at 7. I’m planning to be there, after the UPPERCASE event at Home Ec for Sonya Darrow, aka Ladyfits, that starts at 6 pm and is in celebration of the story about Sonya in issue 16 of UPPERCASE that I wrote, with photos by Heather Atkinson and styling by Tonya Kehoe. It’s a night for celebrating Eastern Iowans!

Unbound almanacs await covers
The bed of Fay’s Miller 2-color flatbed press
Corrections on a galley of the Wapsipinicon Almanac
Sign on the paper cutter urges cautious use
Almanac cover awaits gluing
A sign printed by Fay advertising his now defunct band hangs on the shop wall
Almanac stitched volume awaits cover

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.

Do You Mock Quilters? Then You’re Quiltist

A traditional Amish quilt from Kalona, Iowa

I loved what readers had to say about my recent Etsy post on innovation and craft. Is it enough to work within a time-honored tradition, or is it important, even critical, to innovate? People argued both pro and con, and there were a number of insightful comments. There was one, however, that gave me pause.

The post referenced the anger among the art quilting community over comments by juror David McFadden who described the pieces in a current exhibition as looking like they’d been created in a time warp—that they could have been created 30 years ago. In an off-handed manner, obviously meant to be a joke, one commenter said “How irate could quilters get?!?” There it was, that attitude I’ve talked about in this post and the lede in this one. The idea that quilters are little old ladies who rock in their chairs and wouldn’t hurt a fly and that the worst they could do would be to shake their canes at some young whippersnapper.

A person with those ideas is QUILTIST. This term is akin to racist, sexist, ageist, etc. I define it as someone who makes assumptions about a person based on the media with which they choose to express themselves. Of course it’s rooted in sexism and ageism (denigrating quilting as “women’s work,” seeing older women as ineffectual and incapable of righteous indignation). And of course there are many, many divisive issues like this in the arts world: art vs. craft; traditional vs. contemporary; drama vs. comedy; community theater vs. Broadway;  novelists vs. journalists, etc., etc., etc. But I’m really tired of quilting being the broom and dustpan of the craft world.

So if you encounter folks like these, call them out! “When you make comments like that, when you gaze off into the distance looking bored when I tell you I’m a quilter, you’re QUILTIST! And that’s a decidedly unappealing characteristic.”

Grottos, redux

Just spent a few days in Wisconsin—the first day was devoted to research and shooting photos for an upcoming Etsy story. The second day was a lovely ride on the Sparta-Elroy bike trail. On our way home, I couldn’t help but stop at a couple of grottos, even though I’d already finished my Etsy story.

The Dickeyville Grotto is the better known of the two. It’s definitely flashier and larger. It’s both religious and patriotic. But there aren’t any trees nearby and there was very odd muzak playing, which was rather disorienting. The grotto I liked best was at the site of the former home of the Paul and Matilda Wegner. When they retired, they started building grotto-like structures around their home, including a model of the ship that brought them to the United States from Germany. It was charming and their chapel, which you can apparently get married in (although I can’t imagine three people can fit inside), included elements of multiple religions…I appreciated the Wegner’s inclusivity.

The above are all Dickeyville 
These are from the Wegner site

Mad Photo Skillz

My husband’s 7th grade picture, on our workbench

Welcome to those of you who are visiting after reading my guest blogging post on the Quilt Gallery blog. Michelle was a real pleasure to work with and as a former teacher of writing, I really enjoyed the opportunity to share a few tips I’ve learned along the way. I’m planning to offer more suggestions about writing for blogs and for publication and possibly to be taking on a few online “students” in the future, so if you’re interested check back, or even better drop me a line and let me know of your interest.

At any rate, along with writing I’ve greatly enjoyed the opportunities my work presents to improve my photography. I took photo classes in high school and spent many pleasant hours breathing in horrid chemicals under a red light—okay, so that wasn’t a hightlight, but I so loved darkroom work—the magic of watching the image slowly appear in the trays of developer. I shot photos for my high school yearbook and continued through college to take and develop them. But as kids and life intervened, I switched to a point and shoot camera.

So it was with trepidation that I started shooting “serious” photos again, first for my blog, but then for Etsy stories and my Quilt County column. And now I love it. I still have much to learn, though, and one of my challenges is taking crisp, clean shots of individual items. Etsy has fantastic resources for taking great photos and there are lots of tutorials on line about photography, too. I used this one and this one when I decided to make a light box, and below are a few shots of the process.

Start with a box. This one was pretty large, and thus harder to store the finished product.

One one side, measure 2 inches in from each of the four edges of the box, marking the distance at intervals along each side.

Using a straight edge (a quilter’s ruler would work well for this), connect the dots to draw a line. Then use a box cutter to slice the cardboard away, leaving a “frame.” Do this to three of the boxes sides, leaving the back and bottom of the box uncut.

Below is what it will look like, with “frames” cut into three sides:

Next, cover the three “frames” with something white that is transparent enough to let in light. Some tutorials suggest tissue paper, but I thought this would be too easy to accidentally punch through. Most quilters have some muslin in their stash and so that’s what I used, along with duct tape to hold it tightly in place.

When you’ve covered all three “frames” it will look like this on the outside and inside:

Now, add a sheet of white paper to the back and bottom. I got some poster board. Mine wasn’t quite wide enough, but still works well for shooting small items. Then, add lights. I placed mine directly under the lamp that lights our kitchen table. It’s near a window and I hoped the natural light might be enough, but in retrospect I would add lights to either side. Again, if you’re a quilter and have an Ott light or other portable light, these would be ideal to place on the sides.

And finally, try some sample photos. While I love the white background, I think they would be made much crisper by adding side lighting (portable shop lights would work well, too).

There you have it! I’m more than a little embarrassed that I didn’t take the time to crop and enhance these photos. And I think that the scarf in the bottom photo would show off much more effectively on a live model (like this one). But you get the idea. Take the time to get creative with it—try lights on just one side, change the color of your background, etc. It will go a long way toward improving your photos!

Do you have any great tricks for shooting textile photos for your blog? What do you think of this light box? I’d love to hear from you!

WPA—Would Politicians Approve?

John V. Bloom mural in Tipton, IA post office

I’m so lucky! There are, of course, many, many things that make me feel lucky in life. But right now I’m referring to the fact that I get to travel around the Midwest learning about and photographing things I never before knew existed (or may have taken for granted).

Moline, Illinois post office (currently for sale for $400,000)

That’s the way I felt with today’s Etsy post on the Works Progress Administration (WPA) era. I knew a little about it (and frankly I still know just a little about it, because it turns out there is so much to know). During Franklin Roosevelt’s time more than 100 departments, known as the “Alphabet Agencies,” were formed by the government to both provide work for people on relief (unemployed and supported by welfare).

These jobs included all kinds of artistic and recreational endeavors, as well as construction projects (many under the auspices of the Civilian Conservation Corps—CCC). While I chose to focus on murals and buildings within driving distance of my home (and in the case of the boathouse above, within walking distance), I discovered that there are a plethora of WPA-era murals in post offices around Iowa and Illinois.

Edward Millman mural in Moline, IL post office

There are, of course, well known murals from this time period—those in San Francisco’s Coit Tower come to mind. But to learn that so many murals were painted for tiny post offices, and that most are still in existence, amazes me…to know that every day people are in the presence of artwork whose creation helped feed artist’s families, while enabling artists (and actors, musicians, writers, and craftspeople of all sorts) to continue in their chosen line of work…and to know that the government valued those lines of work enough to support them, is nothing short of stunning.


There were certainly people who felt disdain for the New Deal and the Alphabet Agencies, but not so many that the programs didn’t exist.

I’ve had a number of conversations with people about whether this kind of government work program could work today. What do you think? Why or why not?

Feeding My Obsession

Can you believe that one on top of the box? Totally wild!

Since last April, when I attended the feed sack show in Ainsworth, I’ve been under the spell of feed sacks. In every antique and thrift store, at any quilt show, wherever vintage textiles are found, I poke through stacks of fabric in search of them. Typically they’re very, very pricey, and given that I’m not sure what I’d do with them, I’ve never splurged.

Sweet little floral

Earlier this summer, no doubt when I should have been doing some work, I was noodling about online and decided to check Craigslist. Lo and behold, there was an ad for feed sacks, nearly vintage itself at several months old. I figured they’d be long gone, but wrote for more information. Amazingly, they were still to be had, but for a price that was a bit rich for my blood. Turns out here were about 23 (including several duplicates) of them, plus some scraps. I offered to buy them all for a lower price and the owner countered. I told her that I would pass, but if she’d ever consider my offer to let me know. Sure enough, she did and they arrived today!

So graphic! I’ve got two

It turns out that the feed sacks belonged to a octogenarian quilter from a small Iowa town. Her daughter was selling them for her. I felt a bit guilty having bargained for them, although the ad had been placed months before, so I guess she was glad for the sale. My real worry is that her daughter said that her mom wanted to know what I would do with them and asked that I send a photo of anything I made. Yikes! That feels like such responsibility…I can barely imaging cutting into them. But I promised when I did use them, I’d share the results. And she obviously used them, as there are many small bits in addition to the complete sacks.

A bold take on florals—flower in a flower

With feed sacks, I expect the sweet little florals, but am always amazed by how contemporary many of the designs are. In my Etsy story I mentioned that it took three feed sacks to make a dress, but the only bag I have three of would make anyone look (as my mother used to say) like the broad side of a barn.

Apparently owl imagery isn’t new

For now, I’ll just be folding and re-folding and admiring my feed sack stack. Heaven!

My favorites!
Yup, I’ve got three of these…

The Egg and I

Earlier this month I headed three hours north for an Etsy story and my friend Anne agreed to accompany me. Anne and her husband live on a farm close to town and there’s always much to anticipate as I drive down the road to their house. There’s a guaranteed welcome by Penny the dog and the sensory delights of checking to see what’s blooming along the path to her front door. (This time—roses. See below.)

Anne and her husband have an incredible amount of energy, and along with the flowers and pets, there’s usually something new to admire. Each year they plant an enormous vegetable garden and her friends (me included) wait for the inevitable email saying they have way too much asparagus or rhubarb and we’re welcome to stop out any time and get some.

This summer, they’ve added six chickens to their farm. Years ago they had chickens they butchered, but it’s been a long time and these six are likely to be egg-layers only…Anne says she just can’t imagine eating them this time around.

Before we left on our road trip, she took me out to the lovely little outbuilding they’d cleaned up for a coop, and we gathered eggs. The chickens pecked at my painted toenails while I shot photos, then escaped out the coop door. We rounded them up without too much trouble and then marveled at the eggs they’d laid—they’ve been producing an egg apiece daily, and Anne (a former caterer and fantastic cook*) has been making all manner of egg dishes.

When I dropped her off that evening she bequeathed to me a dozen brown eggs and all week I ate omelettes and scrambled eggs with toast. I’d forgotten how simple and good eggs can be, and these were so fresh and the yolks so firm and golden.

Summer really is my favorite time in Iowa for so many reasons—the Farmers’ Market and friends like Anne are definitely at the top of the list.

 *An example of Anne’s cooking: The lunch she fixed for our road trip—wraps stuffed with a chicken she’d smoked, along with asparagus and lettuce from her garden, and for dessert, vanilla Greek yogurt topped with sliced strawberries, also from her garden. My MO had been to grab grapes, granola bars, and bottled water. Thank goodness for friends like Anne!

Feed Sacks, Continued

Thought those of you who read the Etsy feed sack post might enjoy a few more photos: The exhibit was sensational and Mike Zahs knows so much…I kept encouraging him to write it down, because it will be a shame if his extensive knowledge is lost. He’s obsessive, in the best possible way, and one thing I really loved was that he so admires the women who used every last bit to make sure their families were clothed and comfortable. He’s even got a doily crocheted from the strings used to hold feed sacks closed.

Enjoy, and plan a visit to Ainsworth the last weekend of 2012!

This piece contains 561 squares of 134 different sacks.
Feed sack from the 1950s with sailor doll. Sew, stuff, and enjoy.
The Corn of Tomorrow, Today
Border prints above. Some of Zah’s 31 new feed sacks below.

One crate full from Zah’s collection. He has nearly 50 crates.
Three colorways of a single feed sack pattern
A book of feed sack sewing ideas
A fantastic spider web quilt made with solid and striped sacks
Ainsworth Opera House: tables set for lunch and dinner meal served as a fundraiser