Thursday, December 31, 2020

The 11-dollar hundred-dollar space heater


Another man's treasure. That's what this is.

The electric heater, not the cat.

You're looking at the discontinued Kozy World Shilo Electric Stove Fireplace, which online goes for anywhere from $60 used, to $144 (but out of stock), to as much as $377.16 at a site called Discount Cleaning Products... Similar heaters at big-box stores range $80–$150.

We got it for free, because someone was throwing it out. A house down the street was being renovated and sold. As the sale closing date approached, a lot of stuff appeared on the curb each week on trash day. Among the stuff was this heater. Len carried it home to see if it still worked. 

It sort of worked. 

It needed a fresh light bulb and had a familiar rattle Len knew how to fix from working on other electric space heaters. So, Len opened it up, cleaned it up, replaced the light bulb and voilĂ ! It works. 

After using it a few times, the flame generator stopped spinning. (That's the reflective, uh, wand, that catches light like a disco ball to generate the look of dancing flames against the back wall of the heater.) Len opened it up again to work on the timing motor. Ultimately, he made a trip to American Science and Surplus and bought two new timing motors, each a different RPM, because we weren't sure exactly how fast the original had been spinning.

This errand, not counting the nominal gas to the get there, cost a grand total of $11.

Now we have the cat's new favorite napping spot and an extra timing motor for some future project.

The moral of the story, kids, is that a broken hundred-dollar appliance often just needs a new five-dollar part.


Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Waste, waste, to bring Him laud


Tips for an eco-friendly holiday abound. In November, the Popular Science e-newsletter told me how to plan a waste-free Thanksgiving. Next will be a Green New Year. I'm thinking of Christmas right now, because that's what I'm celebrating, but it could be any holiday, any time of year. Our practices could be more sustainable.

How many single-use decorations and wrappings will be in your trash bin? Or how about the outdoor decorations that abandon your yard with one big gust of wind? Will you retrieve them from the neighbor's bushes down the block or shrug it off as litter you couldn't help? How much packaging are you throwing out with each daily Amazon delivery? How much uneaten food?

There's a sound argument that the little things, like reusing a paper gift bag, won't save the planet. I'd posit instead that, while those little things on their own don't make a big enough dent, our subtle changes in habits do start to change our attitudes. And, a change in attitude will change our approach to both little and big things. 

It works in both positive and negative ways. Consider the age-old advice that you can set yourself on the path to success throughout the rest of the day with just the small sense of accomplishment you get from making your bed in the morning. The implied opposite is that when you stop caring about little maintenance things, you'll stop caring about big ones, too, and eventually reach the "it's already a huge mess, so what's the point?" point. 

Bleh! Choose to care about some small things! Make the effort!

Let's clarify -- I'm not telling you to sweat the small stuff and suffer great anxiety worrying about little things. I'm asking you to care about some little things. Worry and care do not go hand in hand. Caring is a positive energy that you can use to take action, however small. Worry is a fear-based, negative energy that often stands in the way of productivity. Example: Worrying about an elderly relative and calling her five times a day will not necessarily prevent her from slipping and falling at home and may only slightly relieve your anxiety about that. Stopping by to drop off a meal and help her get some things from a high shelf is a productive act of care.

But I'm not an anxiety counselor, so let's get back to having a green holiday with a quick digest of the little ways we can take care to minimize our celebrations' environmental impact. 

There are so many considerations to sustainability. Food waste, energy waste, air pollution, water pollution, adding to landfills, contaminating recycling batches... Many of which come with the tacit waste of time and money -- either your own or that of whoever's cleaning up after you. 

Planning is the key word in avoiding almost any kind of waste. Plan your route to save gas. Plan your list to save time (and money) in the store. Plan your online shopping to get as many items in as few shipments as possible, to minimize your delivery transit and packaging footprint. Plan your meals to avoid wasting any food.

Reusable is another key consideration. It's obvious that sturdy, reusable decorations are better than the flimsy, one-use kind that you'll just throw away and buy again. Reusable packaging is another no-brainer, such as the everlasting and ever-trendy mason jar, or something as simple as a rectangle of fabric, like beeswax-soaked food wraps or colorfully patterned furoshiki. Look them up.

Another major holiday item that's reusable? Your food. Actually eat your leftovers!

There is one single-use decoration that is more sustainable than its reusable counterpart. Real Christmas trees. They're grown for the purpose of being cut, are continually replenished, and handily convert carbon dioxide into oxygen in the meantime. That is, if your tree was farmed locally. If you're trucking in a specialty fir from across the country, you missed the point.

But, say you have pine allergies or just prefer a fake Christmas tree. Several sources estimate you'd need to keep it for at least 10 years before its carbon footprint equals that of one real tree. We have indeed used our big artificial tree for more than a decade, and I'm fairly certain my grandma's tree is at least twice that old. Take care of your fake tree!

You may have noticed the recurring theme of waste management. It's as important big-picture (i.e. national environmental policy) as it is in your own home. So here's the point I really want to drive home.

You do not have to eschew a wonderfully extravagant holiday for austere minimilism in order to celebrate sustainably. (Minimilists may argue with me, but I'm for diversity of lifestyle within environmental reason.)

You can still serve an expensive roast, a beautiful platter of vegetables and decadent desserts, but think quality over quantity. How much food do you really need for the number of people you're hosting? Maybe locally, sustainably sourced meat becomes more affordable when you realize you only need half as many pounds of it as you're inclined to buy. Alternatively, if you make a huge turkey because you like plenty of leftovers, evaluate how many days' of those leftovers you're truly willing to endure before you automatically buy the biggest one you can find.

Decorate your house with a million lights if that brightens your holiday, but use the ones you already own first. Yes, spend just a little time to find and replace the two bulbs that are causing the whole strand to go out. If you "need" to buy more, go for the new LED lights, which draw less energy. 

Bake a bunch of cookies if you like, but again, first consider how many you (and your family, friends, dog walkers, mail carriers, passersby) will really eat, and make that many instead of a zillion just because. And, try to do it efficiently, so your oven is not left heating for unnecessarily long (or frequent) periods.

Reduce what you buy and use, whenever you can. Reuse what you already have, even repairing or repurposing as needed. And, when you must throw it out, take care to separate and recycle what you can.

It comes back to those key words. Plan to reduce your waste. Manage the waste you cannot avoid generating. 


Thursday, December 17, 2020

Square knot dog toy


Somehow we got on a square kick. Anyway. 

Like my easy arm-warmers, this a no-sew project.

There's an artisan fair we like to visit every November (except this November) at Heritage Prairie Farm. One year there, I saw a woman selling -- and making, as she sat in her booth -- these cool dog rope toys. She was tying strips of fabric in knots, resulting in a nicely solid but also kinda stretchy tug toy. 

Just like this writer, my first thought was, "I could make that." And, for the next 24 months I thought about what a great Christmas gift it would be for the dogs in my life. Finally, this year, I did it. I made the square rope described on Create Laugh Grow (the writer referenced above), which turns out skinnier than the dog toys I saw at the artisan fair, but I think the basic concept is the same, with variables like fabric type and width giving you different sizes and textures of rope.

I found Create Laugh Grow's instructions very helpful, but I still didn't make the square rope correctly the first time. A closer read revealed that the instructions were perfect; I just didn't read far enough down the page to get the crucial clarification. because I misunderstood the important trick of keeping each of the four strands always on its own side.  

Using four different colors is one way to keep track (and results in neat stripes). So, let's pretend you have red, lavender, teal, and brown strips of fabric. For the two vertical strips, being folded top down or bottom up, let's say the red strip is always on the right, and the lavender strip is always on the left (top down, bottom up), and for the two horizontal strips you're weaving left and right, teal always on top and brown always on bottom. 

Now, if you want a round rope, with your different colored strips making a spiral pattern, just do what I mistakenly did the first time: No matter what strip is on top, fold it down to the right, always from the top down to the right. Whenver folding a strip up from the bottom, to the left. Weaving from right to left, always on the bottom. From left to right, on top. 

So here are those instructions, with my notes.

  1. Cut 4 lengths of fleece fabric. About 2" wide and 45" long is ideal for a medium-sized dog. NOTE: 45 inches seems long, but all the knot-tying compresses the fabric significantly. My 35 inches of fleece made a rope about 8 inches long with barely enough leftover to tie the end knot. I also tried this with old jeans, which make a nice, solid rope but lose more length because they don't have the stretchiness of fleece. Already making the rope shorter is the limit of the jeans themselves -- unless you're very tall, you won't get 45 inches from your old pants legs.
  2. Tie a regular overhand knot at one end, leaving a few inches of fabric as a tail. Pull the knot tight.
  3. Tie your square knots:
    1. Open your 4 strips into a plus sign shape.
    2. Fold the top strip towards the bottom, a little to one side, always the same side as you progress. NOTE: I misunderstood this step to mean whenever folding the top strip down, it should always go down to the right. Not so! It means this particular strip, whether folding it down from the top or up from the bottom, should always stay on the right. The other vertical strip, whether folding up or down, always stays on the left. 
    3. Fold the bottom strip towards the top, a little to the other side, always the same side as you progress. NOTE: Same as the vertical strips.
    4. Fold the right strip towards the left. Pass over the first strip, then under the second.
    5. Fold the left strip toward the right. Pass over the first strip, then under the second.
  4. Pull all of the strips nice and tight.
  5. When you've got about 5 inches left, tie off the end with another overhand knot and pull tightly. NOTE: If you're using old jeans or other scap fabric that does not stretch like fleece, you need more than 5 inches to tie this end knot. At least, I did.
  6. Trim off tails to make them even. Snip the tails into a fringe if you like.
Two last notes on using jeans instead of fleece:
  1. If your old jeans are too ratty and wearing thin, they might tear when you pull the strip tight to knot. Obviously, such fabric will not work so well for a semi-sturdy dog toy.
  2. The jeans made a thicker rope (larger in diameter) than the fleece. That same lack of stretchiness also equals less ability to compress into a small knot.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Gingerbread Foursquare: Completed



There she is.

Yes, there is a small electric light bulb inside, along with melted gummies over the window holes for that warm, aged-glass glow.

Len gets the majority of the construction credit. We worked together to get the main four walls up, but he assembled almost every other piece that didn't require more than two hands and even, somehow, some sections that did require more than two hands. And he glazed all the windows, built the chocolate block foundation, mixed the cookie-crumb concrete for the driveway and back patio. I sculpted the dinky, not-to-scale car out of fruit Tootsie Rolls and added frills such as peppermint patio furniture and our sunflower garden.

What would we do differently next  year?

Let's start with the roof. Most gingerbread house kits follow the standard pattern of two rectangular walls and two walls with triangular peaks -- why? So the two pieces of roof can easily sit atop them. The two triangular walls support the peak of the roof where the two pieces meet.

Notice, however, the roof of a foursquare-style house... The roof is nearly a pyramid four pieces that peak in the very center and slope down toward all four sides. The walls themselves do not follow -- nor support -- the slant of the roof. If you want the roof to have the traditional overhang (i.e., stick out past the walls a little), it has to be self-supporting. 

We found it impossible to assemble the roof on the house and instead assembled it separately, allowed the icing to harden, and then lifted it onto the house... where it would separate under its own weight. So the roof needs a platform. Imagine a gingerbread frame -- a rectangle just slightly larger than the footprint of the house's four walls, with a rectangle cut-out in its center, just slightly smaller than the footprint of the house's four walls. (I'd show you a picture of what we did, but we cobbled it together with the last scraps of our cookie dough, and it looks like a lump attic floor with a gaping collapsed hole in the center. Next year, I will measure and cut out and nice, neat rectuangular frame to support the roof.) You assemble the roof on the frame and then the frame sits evenly atop the four walls.

Why a frame with a cut-out center and not just a solid rectangular piece? Why, so it doesn't obstruct the light inside from shining through all of the house's windows, of course.

So that's another thing we'd do differently to the roof next year. I'd cut out rectangles over which the dormers will be built, just like I did in the wall for the bay window -- so the light can shine through them.

Next, some general gingerbread tips I really did know but didn't heed -- and will next time. 

Bake the large pieces together and the small pieces togther and never a mix of the two on the same pan. Why? They bake at different paces. We have some rather crispy small pieces with some lighter-colored large pieces because we put them together on the same pan -- and no, you can't just remove the smaller pieces early and let the larger pieces continue baking. The cookies must cool (and therefore, harden) on the pan before you can move them.

Pay attention to how thick/thin you roll out your dough before cutting the shapes, and try to roll every batch to the same thickness every time. We have some rather thick pieces that are quite sturdy but probably unnecessarily so, and some rather thin, delicate pieces that I was terrified of snapping during assembly.

If your cut-out gingerbread pieces spread in unexpected directions as they bake or for any other reason need a trim or to be cut apart, do it immediately upon taking them out of the oven! While it's still warm, the gingerbread is just soft enough to cut. As it cools, it hardens (because it's construction gingerbread!), and trimming, while not impossible, becomes a more tedious and risky task.

Have some items on hand for structural support as needed. This is mostly for larger, heavier pieces during the beginning construction stages when the house is not yet self-supporting and/or the royal icing hasn't hardened enough to hold a piece in place. In my last post, you saw some plastic cups (candy packaging) acting as a column under a section of wall to hold it level while the icing dried. Boxed cake mix also makes a sturdy, straight, and tall support to stand against a wall and hold it plumb. It's good to have these random supports within reach, or else one of you is left holding the piece in place while the other one scrambles around the kitchen looking for something to use as a support (and that's assuming there are more than one of you working on the gingerbread creation).

Carefully consider the order of assembly and decoration. Or else you may find yourself squeezing precariously into awkward nooks just to add one little (but important!) detail.

And then, some lessons specific to this gingerbread house, most of which can be summed up by the adage, "Measure twice, cut once." In this case, it would be measure twice, stop and think about how the pieces fit together, measure again, cut once, bake once, avoid having to trim the cookie after it's baked.

There are pieces I'd make smaller next time, and others I'd make larger. The are some angles I'd adjust, either because I really just guessed this time or because baking affected the geometry enough to matter. Above, I mentioned several roof lessons learned.

But all in all, we're very happy with this gingerbread recipe from Serious Eats and this royal icing recipe from Spend With Pennies (which I chose because it uses egg whites instead of meringue powder, not because I have anything against meringue powder but rather just didn't have it and didn't want to go out). Our templates worked fairly well, so I have saved them for next year, with notes on adjusting measurments.

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Gingerbread Foursquare: Construction begins


What started as creative enhancement of boxed gingerbread house kits -- graham cracker additions onto the house, extra candy for custom adornments, a few homemade gingerbread cookies to add people or trees to the "yard" -- has this year become a from-scratch architectural adventure.

That's right, more graph paper!

A guesstimated template of our own American Foursquare house, a sturdy-yet-tasty gingerbread recipe, and some lessons learned along the way for next time.

What better way to celebrate our new old house's 110th (probably) Christmas than by creating a gingerbread version of her?

Here we have some Hershey bars as the foundation blocks and some random plastic containers supporting the empty side of a wall where the bay window pieces will go.

This is a days-long project, because we're not under the showstopper clock in the Great British Baking Show tent, and we have other daily responsibilities. So, construction is underway, and I will post again with further progress (hopefully, the finished house) as well as more details, like those lessons learned.


Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Friand, you're my friend... and actually a tart


 Imagine my best (worst?) Forrest Gump impression: "I ate some."

I had blackberries and a few plums that were about to go bad. Recipe-hunting led me to this blackberry-plum friand. After further research, I'm not sure this technically qualifies as a friand. 

There are friand tins for making these little almond teacakes. If you don't have the real friand molds, a muffin pan is the appropriate substitute. This recipe, however, results in one large product rather than individual servings. The difference is muffin vs. bread. Same ingredients, different baking dish. Friand-inspired, perhaps? Friand-flavored? I'll call it a...

Blackberry-Plum Friand Tart
3 plums, pitted and sliced
1 cup blackberries
3 Tbsp sugar
Juice of half a lime
a shake of cinnamon
3/4 cup powdered sugar
1/2 cup almond flour
3 Tbsp all-purpose flour
1/8 tsp salt
2 egg whites
1/3 cup butter, melted

Preheat the oven to 400 F. In a small bowl, stir the plums and blackberries with the sugar, lime juice, and cinnamon. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the powdered sugar, both flours, and salt. Whisk the egg whites until frothy. Add the egg whites and melted butter to the dry ingredients and stir just until blended.

Pour batter into a greased, 8- or 9-inch pie plate or other baking dish. Top with the fruit and its juices. Bake for 30 minutes, then cover with foil and bake another 10 minutes, until the cake is deep golden and the fruit is bubbling. 

Serves—honestly?—4, max.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Repair, Repurpose, Recycle your clothes

We all know (tell me we all know!) that we can donate our unwanted clothes to thrift stores and charities. We also realize (don't we?) that those stores can only resell our donated clothing if it's in decent condition. The clothes that don't fit us anymore, that aren't really our style anymore, that we never actually liked and never wore that much.

So, what do we do with the clothes that we've worn out beyond repair?

Why waste an entire knee sock when the
only part that's worn out is the heel?
It seems sacrilege to put a wad of textiles into the trash. Especially when many items, while no longer functional as a proper article of clothing, still have large swaths of usable fabric to spare.

Ever bent over and ripped your pants from butt seam to inner thigh? Yeah. That won't be a pretty mending job. No one is going to wear those pants again. But, despite that one nasty tear, I'll bet you the threads are in pristine condition elsewhere, like from the knee down to the hem.

I've often cut out and saved such remnants to use in craft projects, like turning old knee socks into awesome argyle arm warmers. For my first nephew's first Christmas, I made him a dog puppet out of sweat-pants scraps. He was named Scrappy, of course. The puppet, not the nephew. And, I made a fabric "busy book" for both sets of niblings entirely out of scrap material. (I need to post that.)

But there are only so many crafts to be made (and only so many crafty gifts you can give). No matter how many crafty people are out there, Americans are still adding more than 11 million tons of textiles to landfills each year. Another 2.5 million tons gets recycled.

Many of us are lucky enough to have a garbage pickup service that includes single-stream recycling, and we can throw all of our recyclables into one bin that gets picked up at our curb. But it's not really all the recyclables, is it? Paper, plastic, metal, and glass, yes. But what about cloth?

Notable local the late Greg Zanis knew what to do about cloth. Here he is saving cotton from the landfill -- and making money on it. 

When I was kid, my family saved aluminum cans for recycling. There was always a garbage bag next to the garage door, slowly, slowly collecting our crushed soda cans. When we finally had a couple of bags full, we took it to the local metal recycling center, where they would weigh it and pay us a few bucks. And then we'd go buy ice cream.

These days, I'm not that interested in letting recyclables accumulate in my garage until they reach a profitable volume. I just want to be rid of the stuff -- responsibly.

So, we're back to the question. What do we do with the clothes we can't donate?

I have not had an easy time navigating recycling search tools like those available from Earth911 or the Illinois EPA. The results come back with Goodwill stores that will take wearable clothing, not scrap fabric. I think you'll have better luck Googling things like "textile recycling in [state]" to find options in your area. That's how I found these:

Let's not forget the preferable order of waste management: 1. Reduce, 2. Reuse, 3. Recycle

Number 1 is just buying less. You can do it! I believe in you.

Number 2 is making what you have last longer, in its original form or otherwise. (Spending 200 years not really decomposing in a landfill is not the kind of lasting we're after.) For clothing, "reuse" covers donating your gently used duds so someone else can use them. It can also be interpreted a couple of other ways... also starting with R! 

Repair. Small rip? Popped button? Learn how to mend your own clothes, or just pay the few bucks most dry cleaners charge to do it for you.

Repurpose. Get your craft on! Or use old t-shirts as cleaning rags. Or braid strips of old jeans into a tug rope for your dog. Save for next Halloween's zombie costume.

Only after exhausting options 1 and 2 do we fall back on number 3. Recycling; i.e., processing the clothes into textile fibers to be made into something new.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Persimmons, Pears, and Lavender


Unless you've spent significant time in the lower midwest, you may only know persimmons as an Asian fruit that grow in California or occasionally show up at specialty markets, but a variety also grows wild in the U.S. I'll qualify that further and say, in the southern midwest. I can attest to wild persimmons in the greater St. Louis area, but I have never noticed any in northern Illinois. I'm not saying they're not here, but I can't say they are here. 

As a kid, I would find the occasional persimmon tree just galavanting through the woods. (I was galavanting; the tree was rooted in its place.) I remember plucking a bright orange persimmon from a tree in my cousin's backyard and biting into it. Beware biting into the unripe persimmon. The Missouri Department of Conservation's Discover Nature Notes blog warns that the fruit is "notoriously astringent" if eaten unripe. 

That an underrripe persimmon will make you pucker is an understatement. 

It will turn your gums to cotton. 

For a while.

How to tell if a wild persimmon is ripe enough? Squishiness. "Water balloon" is the tactile description I've seen online. If a tomato felt like this, you'd say it was rotting. The persimmon, however, is perfect. 

That said, forget any persimmon recipes you find that call for sliced persimmon (unless you've found fuyu persimmons at a market—those are the variety that can be eaten firm). Your wild midwestern persimmons need to be mushy-ripe, and so you'll use them as mush.

Slice off the top of each persimmon and just rip it open.
Pick out its 5 or so pumpkin-seed-sized seeds.

I made a persimmon-pear tart with lavender yogurt. combining a few different recipes. Let's see if I can remember the adaptation -- and before I do, let me make one adjustment already: I originally spread the sugar-and-spiced persimmon pulp over the top of the pears before baking, which turned out OK, but if I make this again, I will instead cook the persimmon pulp a little bit into a jelly and wait to spread it on after baking. I believe this will leave you with more of the persimmon flavor, plus a lovely glossy finish.

Persimmon-Pear Tart Recipe

Preheat your oven to 350. Butter a 9-inch pie pan or, for fancier presentation, a fluted tart pan with removable bottom.

Prepare the fruit:

2 pears, cored and sliced
1-2 tablespoons lemon juice, divided
1 tablespoon sugar, divided
5 persimmons (this is just the number of ripe ones I had ready, you could adapt)
Cinnamon (maybe 1/4 teaspoon)
Ground ginger (maybe 1/8 teaspoon)
Nutmeg (maybe 1/8 teaspoon)

Toss the pear slices with a little lemon juice and sugar. I did this right on the cutting board. Feel free to use a small bowl.

Slice off the tops from the persimmons and open them up. Squeeze or scoop out the pulp into a small bowl, and discard the skin. Remove large seeds from the pulp. Sprinkle on a little lemon juice, a little sugar, and the cinnamon and ginger. Stir to mush and mix.

Make the crust:

1/2 cup almonds
1/2 cup sugar
1 stick of unsalted butter at room temperature
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1 cup sifted flour (or gently spoon and level)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

Process almonds and sugar in a food processor until finely ground. Add the butter, egg, and almond extract and blend until smooth. Add the dry ingredients and pulse a few times until just combined into a soft dough.

Assemble the tart:

Press the dough into the bottom of the tart pan. Arranged the pear slices over the dough, and gently press them in (just a little bit!).

Bake the tart about 50 minutes, until pears are tender and dough's center is cooked through. 

Make the persimmon glaze:

This part is untested as of yet, as I originally spread the prepared persimmon pulp over the pears before baking. Instead, I suggest while the tart is baking, you put the persimmon pulp, along with its sugar, spices, and lemon juice, into a small pot, to cook it into a jelly-like glaze. Add a little water if necessary, so it's spreadable.

When the tart comes out of the oven, while still warm, spread the persimmon glaze over the top.

Optional Garnish (a.k.a. enhancement): Lavender Yogurt

First, make lavender syrup:

You'll need equal parts water and sugar (I did 1/4 cup each for a small batch)
A few stems of fresh lavender
Plain or vanilla yogurt (I used about 1 cup)

Mix water and sugar in a pot and boil together until reduced by one third. Remove from heat and add a few stems of fresh lavender. Allow to steep for 40 minutes, then strain (or do your best to pick out all but the smallest bits of lavender).

Blend the syrup, a teaspoon at a time, into the yogurt. Taste. Add more syrup if you like, and mix well. Store in the fridge until ready to use.

Leftover lavender syrup is good on pancakes or fruit, or to sweeten tea or lemonade. It will eventually crystalize, but you can gently heat and add a little more water to re-liquify it. We stored ours in the fridge for a few days before it was used up.


Thursday, November 5, 2020

Thank Heavens for Little Scraps


Last Thursday morning, just about 12 hours before we'd arrive at church to record music for Sunday's YouTube service, the Covid-19 protocol email went out. In it: singers required to wear masks.

I said earlier, this year's most popular improvisation sewing project is likely face masks. And, I said I'd probably make more. So shall it be.

Have you tried singing while wearing an ordinary face mask? Even if you can keep the darn thing from sliding off your nose, your enunciation is quite impeded. Hence, the singer's mask, a style that stays put and allows for robust range of oral movement. 

This project was not so improvisational, as I did indeed print and follow a pattern, but it was impromptu. Thanks to my good stock of leftover fabric and other scraps (elastic, twist-ties) and a few free hours, I made two singers' masks in time for the evening recording schedule. I used brown cloth, so I think we look like we're wearing dog snouts. Was this close to adding a black nose and pink tongue -- I have the pieces of felt! 

I won't go into the step-by-step here, because the video I followed does it better. Many thanks to SopranoJoan's skillful tutorial, here.


Thursday, October 29, 2020

Cold-weather clothesline


Every time I pin laundry to the clothesline, I think of my mom. 

While I have memories of the T-posts in my childhood backyard, I more often recall my mom's stories of earlier times. How the more experienced neighbors in Texas surveyed the sky and told newlywed her that she had just enough time for the laundry to dry before the storm on the horizon rolled in. How she'd carry baby me in the basket with the laundry. How I, as a sleepy toddler, would stand beneath the clothesline, clinging to my special naptime blanket. How the cloth diapers would freeze stiff on the line when she hung them out in winter, and she'd know they were dry when they finally started flapping free in the wind.

It's this wintertime laundry story I was thinking of when we hung clothes out yesterday morning. Snow had fallen two mornings in a row here, but the latest forecast was mostly sunny, high in the low 50s. It wasn't cold enough for the damp fabric to freeze, just cold enough in the morning to numb my fingers. 

A hot, sunny, windy day makes for the best line drying, of course. But the anecdotal evidence suggests line-drying is still possible in less-than-perfect conditions. On cool, cloudy days, I've learned to make adjustments, like pinning the shirts' sleeves out a bit so the armpit section gets full air circulation -- this is the part of the shirt that otherwise remains damp longest. If you don't have the heat or the sun, wind is even more important. And, you especially need time.

I got to wondering. At what point in the colder season does it stop being worth it to dry laundry outdoors?

Humidity is a key factor. A dry winter's day with plenty of sunshine and wind -- bundle up and get out there! Maybe I'll experiment by hanging just one towel in January to see how long it takes.

Your own comfort level is another factor. I can stand to brave a merely freezing day to keep from using the gas dryer. Maybe I'll wimp out when the temperature dips into the low 20s. 

Definitely I'll wimp out at sub-zero.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Scrap-Fabric Draft Stopper


The 110-year-old house has a 110-year-old front door, and it's super drafty! Time to get super crafty. Because sometimes weather-stripping just doesn't cut it.

I think it goes without saying, but here I am saying it anyway, that this year's most popular and practical sewing project is the face mask. Yes, I've made a couple, and I might make more. At this moment of dropping temperatures, however, energy efficiency is a priority. Cold air is rushing into the house through this gigantic gap under the front door.

Draft stoppers in their simplest form are tube-shaped beanbags or pillows, or even just a rug kicked up against the door. You can find DIY draft stoppers all over the internet. I browsed and decided to go for the two-sided, under-door type.

Even improvisational sewing
requires some planning.
My door is 36 inches wide, and 2 inches thick. My plan was an 8-inch-around tube for the interior side and a 5-inch-around tube for the exterior side, connected by a 2-inch flat strip under the door. All 36 inches long.

I came up with the tube sizes just making circles with my measuring tape and thinking, "Yes, that looks good."

Basic materials:
Heavy fabric (can stand up to wear and tear)
Fleece interfacing, batting, or similar for inner lining
Unpopped popcorn kernels 
General sewing notions

I pieced together some fabric scraps and planned to have the nice patterned fabric for the interior side of the door and the plain, utilitarian fabric (old khaki pants) for the exterior, so I had extra sewing to do, but this project could be made easier by using a single large rectangle of fabric.

About 18 inches across for the 8-inch tube, 5-inch tube,
2-inch middle strip (x2 because it will be folded),
and seam allowances.

Line the wrong side (what will be the inner side) of the fabric rectangle with fleece interfacing. 

Then, fold. For a single tube with traditionally neat seams, you'd fold in half wrong-side-out, stitch up all but one side, and flip it right-side-out for filling. Just like a very long, skinny beanbag.

For my double-sided version, I kept it right-side-out when I folded it, and I stitched three lines down the long length of the rectangle: 

One to sew the two loose edges together (shown as the middle here), 
one at 4 inches from the fold to sew off the 8-inch tube, 
and one 2.5 inches from the fold to sew off the 5-inch tube. 

The space left between the two tubes was the 2 inches for the flat middle section to slide under the door.

Then, at one end, I just folded an edge seam and stitched it there, visible but not too shabby. After filling the tubes, I sewed up the other end with the same simple fold.

Could you get away without the fleece interfacing? Yes. Just like you could choose to fill your tubes with pillow stuffing instead of popcorn kernels. But, I like the combination of the two. The fleece gives the fabric a little extra cushion and shape, and it helps fill some of the space inside the tube for a more balanced fill. You get the heavy sagginess of a beanbag, which is better for sinking into and filling the gap below the door, without it being so heavy and saggy it's hard to move. 

Carefully fill each tube with the unpopped popcorn kernels.

Now, if you noticed, I said earlier, "My plan was..." 

I tested my dual tubes before stitching up the open end. Slide the 2-inch, flat middle section under the door, with the larger, decorative tube on the interior, and the plain, smaller tube on the exterior side of the door where, when the door is closed, the tube will sit on the threshold between the wooden front door and storm door. In theory, the two-sided draft stopper provides extra draft stoppage and also moves with the door as it opened and closed. Well...

The threshold is considerably higher than the floor—one of the many modifications in the house's history to try to weatherproof that gap under the front door. The dang exterior tube wouldn't slide over it very easily. I could get the door shut, but not without carefully adjusting the draft stopper as I pushed. Not very user-friendly.

Ultimately, I emptied the popcorn from the smaller, exterior tube, leaving it as an extension of the flat section that slides under the door, which still helps fill the gap better than a simple, single-tubed version.



Thursday, October 15, 2020

Weekend Homesteader Ideas, October-December

More than two years later...

This is a continuation of my review of my weekend homesteading ideas and goals inspired by The Weekend Homesteader by Anna Hess and her and her husband's blog, "The Walden Effect." I hadn't looked at this list (or the website) in five years when I went back to it in, uh, early 2018 to see if I'd accidentally achieved any of these goals. 

Now it's late 2020. So many things have changed, while still so many remain the same, which is how it goes. We've just been doing, without the show-and-tell. We're in our new (but old, 110-year-old) homestead. From the pandemic's stay-at-home guidelines have sprouted a resurgence of homesteading practices, or at least attempts to practice them—I was amused by someone's reference to their dearly departed sourdough starter when asked if they had any pets.

I don't know that our own habits have notably changed, but since it's October, now is the perfect time to finish reviewing that idea list, where we left off at October through December. My original notes are in italics.

Quick hoops - look into. The mini greenhouse we made out of a double papasan frame with just a heavy plastic sheet and some staples is akin to these cold-weather tunnels for growing vegetables, but I have not been that attentive to the garden to make good use of it or to merit an actual hoop setup. I'll file this away under possible future idea that may never happen.

Storing vegetables on the shelf - look into. I just recently was remembering our first plot in the community garden, when we grew nothing but vining plants. That winter, we did store a bunch of butternut squash in our living room bookshelves. However, since then, we haven't grown enough of our own winter vegetables or found such a great deal on them to merit stocking up and storing up for winter in this way. We're still feeling out our capabilities in our new yard, though, so it could be a potential future goal.

Scavenging biomass - horse poo? Well, we did find a friend with a horse, and we hauled a couple of trunkfulls of horse manure from the barn to our community garden plot. Only for two seasons, and then we stopped community gardening. We compost our own kitchen scraps, wood ash, fallen leaves, and vacuum contents (mostly pet fur). In our former home, I suppose you could call our raking and composting of leaves "scavenging," because the land technically belonged to the homeowners' association. We have also relieved our neighbors of their rotting jack-o'-lanterns for compost.

Apprenticeships - meh. We're not in college anymore. I rescind my "meh" here. Learning some skills hands-on would be fun. The idea of apprenticeship is that it's not a class you have to pay for, and it's not a job that pays you. I'm open to something resembling a temporary apprenticeship should an opportunity arise, but obviously, I'm not looking to grow a career from it.

Garden rotation - look into. I get the concept. I have not really had the garden space or commitment to putting the concept into practice. I'll reiterate that we're still exploring what we can (and want to) do with our space now, so I'll keep this on the goal shelf.

Roast a chicken - sure
. Done, done, and done a hundred more times. OK, maybe just dozens of times. And roast a turkey—done that. And used the carcass to make broth. And been teased about using the word "carcass."

Storing drinking water - hm. This is an emergency preparedness habit we have not yet adopted. I imagine us storing some jugs and forgetting about them, and then when the emergency happens, they're all old and gross. It needs to be an active rotation. While I continue to half-heartedly measure my interest level in such an effort, I'll keep in mind we have a water filtration kit among our camping supplies.

Diversify your income - hm. Considering that our moderate homesteading comprises more hobbies and money-saving lifestyle choices and not so much our livelihood, we aren't facing risks like "What if the chickens don't lay enough eggs?" Our uh-oh scenarios would be losing a job or facing a disastrous expense like major health or property issues. While some people are ambitious and enthusiastic about finding additional income streams via their hobbies, I don't quite like turning my hobbies into work. Instead, we'll save, save, save what we can from our day jobs and maybe look at alternative income sources as retirement supplement should we be so lucky to retire with our health and other assets intact.

Plant a fruit tree - hey, check! Yes! We planted those apple seeds, and they grew and grew and grew and produced their own apples. And then we moved. I took scions of our baby (not so baby anymore) trees, ordered dwarf rootstock, and tried grafting this spring. One of the four grafted trees remains, and I think it's dead. Sad. New goal: order some heirloom fruit trees such as a couple of apples for cidering (and eating) and a Queen Anne cherry tree like my grandma's.

Soup - um, sure. Make a delicious soup using in-season produce, check. Cold soups, hot soups, smooth soups, chunky soups. Check, check, check, check.

Essential tools - hm. While we haven't made a list of tools, we have slowly collected plenty over the years. Some new, some even found, many gifted hand-me-downs or bought used. And, with our recent move, we even culled our collection somewhat to the most-used, most-loved, and this-only-does-one-thing-once-a-year-but-it's-important. I'll expand this from lawn and home mainenace to include kitchen gadgets.

Stay warm without electricity - look into, even feasible in our situation? Further reading reveals that this is basically camping in your home. Can you stay warm and prepare food and do other essential activities if you lose power midwinter? The quick answer is, sure, for a short while. It's actually the preservation of the home in such a situation that is more concerning. Freezing pipes and all that. Two subgoals here for us: improving the energy efficiency of our new old house by repairing/restoring the original windows to their historical glory and replacing the storm windows with better ones that actually fit (next year?), and make a draft stopper for the interior front door (now). Some subgoals we've already achieved: Adding insulation to the attic, sealing gaps and cracks, improving the fit and weatherproofing of external doors.

And that's the list.