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.

Twofer: Baby Sewing Machines

So a few posts ago I mentioned being smitten with a collection of children’s sewing machines that I saw at a quilt show. Out of the blue, I had the chance to bid on one at an auction. There were actually two available, and because I was bidding remotely I decided to bid on both, in the event that I missed the first one I’d still have a chance at the second. Well, lo and behold, I am now the proud owner of  a pair of these cuties.

They came in sturdy cardboard boxes, one with the photo of an elf, the second in a plain box. It seems they were made in the USSR but sold in the Netherlands, as the language on the box and the instructions still with one of them are in Dutch, while the little gold plaque on the front reads (in English) “Made in USSR”. How they work is a mystery to me and I admit that it doesn’t really matter. I haven’t been able to learn anything about them either (except that they must have been made before 1991, when the USSR ceased to exist), but honestly I am just enjoying gazing at them in complete admiration. One will go in my sewing room and the second will be hanging around for just the right moment to either sell or gift it. What worries me is that this could be the start of a bad addiction!

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!

SeaHope Partners

Thanks to an assignment from Stitch, I had the good fortune to come into contact with Margaret Jankowski, the founder of the Sewing Machine Project. Margaret is an amazing woman, someone who absolutely doesn’t let adversity (or even her own self-admitted naivete) get in her way.

The Sewing Machine Project started when Margaret heard an Indonesian woman lament the loss of her sewing machine in the 2005 tsunami. Margaret, a lifelong sewer and sewing educator, could identify with a love of a sewing machine, but realized that for the Indonesian woman it also meant the loss of her livelihood. The loss so moved Margaret that she started gathering used machines in good condition to send to Indonesia. She quickly gathered 75 machines, but realized she had no idea how to transport them. Through a variety of connections she found someone to help, and the machines were sent to those who needed them. Since then she’s sent machines to people in need around the world, asking only that the recipients “pay it forward” by teaching someone else to sew or sewing for others in need. After Hurricane Katrina her efforts focused on New Orleans, and to date she’s created a partnership with AllBrands and has distributed more than 650 machines in that area. This is the story I wrote for Stitch (it’s in the fall issue).

When the Gulf Oil spill occurred, Margaret again wanted to help. She formed SeaHope Partners, and I was able to share that story on an Etsy post that went up yesterday. Check out the bags that Margaret is creating, including the line she’s creating with artists (and if you’re interested in helping, you can get in contact with her through the Sewing Machine Project site). Margaret’s efforts are full time and unpaid, but she’s completely committed to doing the work she’s begun and she’s got more projects on the horizon (see the Etsy story for word on her upcoming efforts). 

I love that Margaret has found sewing to be the means to reach out and help. Sewing is pleasurable: it brings feelings of mastery (learning new skills and techniques), of inspiration (working with all those colors and patterns), of comfort (sewing for family and friends), of practicality and self-reliance (making something you could buy, and making it your own). But for most of us it’s a hobby or at least a pursuit that we don’t depend on to put food on the table. Margaret understood that sewing continues to put a roof over the heads of people around the world and has made it her mission to keep those folks stitching.

If you’re puzzling over a great birthday present for a sewing friend, or even a way to honor a stitching friend who has died, consider a monetary gift to the Sewing Machine Project. It will help Margaret get donated sewing machines to areas of greatest need, to people who will love, use, and appreciate them.

(Photos courtesy of Margaret Jankowski)

Bound for babies

I finally finished binding the pink Sweetie Pie quilt and nearly have the thirties version finished, as well. I gave the pink one to Wendy on Saturday: she wound up being in a class with me in Home Ec on Thursday night and I knew I’d see her again yesterday when the class reconvened, so it was the perfect push to get it finished! Wendy has always been so wonderful to my daughter, Maggie, (they worked together at Prairie Lights) and I was so happy to be able to give her something for her daughter.

I got frustrated binding that quilt, however, because I kept having thread breakage—something I’d never encountered previously. Still not sure whether it was a flawed spool of thread…I use Aurifil for just about everything and love it and have never had a problem.

This does remind me of a couple more tools I find invaluable for binding quilts. Thread Heaven comes in a teeny, tiny blue cube and is a wax-like substance I use to coat the thread. It allows me to use long lengths without tangling. I also really like straw needles because they’re flexible, making catching both the binding and quilt back easier. I’ve never been a thimble user, but I find the Nimble Thimble does the trick for me. (I couldn’t find a photo of a hand model with raggedy cuticles and band aids covering the ironing burn, so I was forced to use the one below.) And everyone knows the trick of holding the binding on with hair clips as you stitch.

Finally, I keep all these binding supplies together, along with scissors and a needle threader, in an empty stationary box with a magnetic catch. That way I don’t need to worry about gathering things: I can just grab the box from my sewing room when I’m ready for binding and head downstairs to the family room for conversation or TV. And the magnetic catch keeps everything from winding up on the floor when I invariably knock it off the coffee table.