Lina lived in Quillium Square, over the yarn shop run by her grandmother. . . . [The] shop had once been a tidy place, where each ball of yarn and spool of thread had its spot in the cubbyholes that lined the walls. All the yarn and thread came from old clothes that had gotten too shabby to be worn. Granny unraveled sweaters and picked apart dresses and jackets and pants; she wound the yarn into balls and the thread onto spools, and people bought them to use in making new clothes. — Jeanne DuPrau, The City of Ember
About 16 years ago, I stood in our kitchen in Minnesota, a set of thin knitting needles and a ball of sock yarn on the counter. At my feet—scattered everywhere on the linoleum and on the carpet behind me—were beads. My two children were extremely fond of making beaded snakes—of giving them names and homes, and constructing stories about their families and having them visit each other—but they were also extremely fond of dumping the beads everywhere and then using toy construction vehicles such as backhoes, bulldozers, and dump trucks to scoop them and push them and cart them around.
I can still remember how I felt as I stood there, a knitting needle in my right hand, the yarn looped around my left thumb and pinky, beads at my feet, children’s voices tugging at me. My husband was probably travelling yet again for work, and I was experiencing the quiet desperation that often came with having unrelieved days on end of just me and my children in the house. Those stitches that I was casting on to that thin needle felt like a lifeline—each stitch was purposeful and orderly, and it was a useful and creative thing I was attempting to do—and I remember thinking that if I could focus on those stitches, I might just be able to succeed at my one goal in life: being a decent mother who didn’t lose her shit and irrevocably damage her children.
This post has taken several sharp turns over the past week. It began as an ode to small things. Then, it morphed into yet-another treatise on handiwork as meditation. Four days ago, it became a rant about women’s work. Three days ago, I dumped everything but the quotation and wrote about reinvention. Two days ago, I yelled at the radio and then vented here about the need to retain a sense of perspective and to keep calm.
Clearly, I have been just as scattered as that box of beads.
I spent yesterday dusting, sweeping, darning, and knitting. While I knit, I watched our prime minister, who is in self-isolation because his wife has tested positive for COVID-19, give a press conference. And as the other news came in—closures and cancellations and directives on social distancing—I kept knitting, and as I did so, I felt my anxiety ebbing away.
We live in a world that uses big measures to quantify success, and because of that, anything small is easy to dismiss. And yet it’s often the small things that end up mattering the most—the small things that build until they collectively break us, or the small things that hold us together when we’re close to falling apart.
The photos, from the top: Darning my older son’s wool socks; knitting socks for my younger son; and—like Lina’s granny—unravelling a pair of hand-knit socks, ones that shrunk in the wash, so I can reuse the yarn. My youngest son needs a scarf, and I think it’s going to be a modification of this one, made from scrap yarn.
How about you? Are small things holding you together too?
About ten years ago, I sewed a bunch of really ugly produce bags:
I wrote a painfully long-winded post about these bags shortly after I started this blog, in which I explained that one day I didn’t see plastic produce bags, and the next day I did.
So: I searched my fabric box and chose the most lightweight material I could find—a length of hideous curtain lace that my mother-in-law had probably bought on clearance and kept for a dozen years, before de-stashing and re-homing with her too-kind-to-say-no daughter-in-law, who—probably five years later—did the merciful thing (because fabric wants to be useful) and whipped up some reusable produce bags.
My children—especially my daughter—were horrified.
Why—WHY?!—do you have to be so weird, and NO, I am NOT going to take one of these bags and put apples into it, thankyouverymuch, because we are in PUBLIC (!) and who knows WHO might see us here, and . . .
(Ah, such happy memories . . .)
Ten-ish years later—ten-ish years during which I wore my children down and they willingly participated in my madness and I saved approximately 2000 plastic produce bags and my daughter got her own set of reusable produce bags (non-hideous ones which I bought for her stocking two Christmases ago)—my daughter goes shopping in a new zero-waste bulk store in the city in which she lives, and she texts me this photo:
Oh my. I think I will. (And I think I have to email the woman behind allthingspreserved.ca, so I can learn the story behind her produce bags.)
This post is a positive offering for the Ten Year challenges that are swirling around on Facebook and Instagram. So many of the pictures are so disheartening, but there are also so many positive things happening, especially in the zero-waste movement.
Zero-waste stores seem to be popping up everywhere—we even now have a tiny store, in the very small and not especially forward-thinking city in which we’re currently planted, a place where I can get bulk dish soap, laundry detergent, shampoo, and toothpaste. And while I know (I know!) that 2000 plastic produce bags saved—or two shampoo bottles, or three dish soap containers—won’t save the world, I can’t help but see all these little things as gateways: little things that can lead to other little things that can lead to bigger things, that can lead us from simple addition all the way to multiplication. Ripples to waves, in other words.
In other ten-year news, it’s ten-ish years since my daughter pushed her pork chop away and declared herself a vegetarian.
My children—especially my daughter—were horrified. Her parents—especially her mother—were horrified.
Why—WHY?!—do you have to be so weird, and NO, I am NOT going to take one of these bags and put apples into it, thankyouverymuch, because we are in PUBLIC (!) and who knows WHO might see us here, and . . . Why—WHY?!—do you have to be so difficult, and NO, I am NOT going to be cooking separate meals for you, thankyouverymuch, because that is doubling my work in the kitchen, and . . .
Just to be clear: There’s is no connection whatsoever between my daughter becoming vegetarian and Health Canada releasing its new food guide.
There’s only this: Ten years will pass no matter what. And when we come upon new ideas or are faced with new realities, we have two choices: We can flat-out refuse to go or be pulled along protestingly, or, we can open our hearts and minds to new ways of doing and seeing. And if we open our hearts and minds, we might just be very surprised—and grateful—to see where we end up ten years later.
My mother had a copy of the Reader’s Digest Complete Guide To Needlework sitting on our living room bookshelf, and when I was young I would sit quietly and pore through its pages imagining all the things I could one day make.
(Oh, yes, weirdness epitomised … )
One of the sections in the book deals with various ways-and-means of rug-making, and I remember that this subject held particular fascination for me. Although I was well-acquainted with the process of hooking a rug (because hello, it was the 70s) I didn’t know that one could make a rug by braiding strips of fabric together:
I’ve always loved textiles, a propensity that seems to walk hand-in-hand with my half-Dutch sensibilities. To my eye, rooms are immediately made cosier when hard surfaces are softened by textiles. A kitchen table, for example, looks homier when covered by a cheery tablecloth; a simple linen runner on a sideboard can be transformative; a small rug set before a sink adds colour and comfort. And for me — a person who grew up drooling over a needlework book, a person whose hands were always supposed to be busy — the idea of having handmade textiles … ? Well, that was all the better …
Growing up, I was taught — and dabbled in — nearly every imaginable craft: embroidery, cross-stitch, knitting, crochet, sewing, darning, macramé, rug-hooking … and of course, that other seemingly ubiquitous craft-of-the-70s: spool knitting.
(Does anyone else out there have fond — or otherwise, as will soon be revealed — memories of spool knitting?)
I confess I once-upon-a-time imagined, that like Sister Bear (in the Berenstain Bears Too Much TV) —
— I could produce a rug of the sort pictured in my mother’s book, not by braiding, but by spool knitting. But sadly, however much staying-power I exhibited for other crafts, spool knitting utterly defeated me.
Excruciatingly slow —
(And here I simply must interrupt this post to say two things. Firstly: Stan and Jan Berenstain — shame on you for perpetuating the spool knitting myth; there is NO WAY IN HELL that Sister Bear could make that kind of progress in one afternoon! And secondly: Sister Bear — I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you are, in all likelihood, on a fool’s errand; your illustrator is clueless, and you will be lucky to emerge from the ordeal with a pot holder.)
— I remember sitting there, spool and stick in hand, wondering if I would EVER see the fruits of my labour emerging from the bottom of the spool. And when — finally! — those first-wrought stitches DID peep out, it was nothing short of a eureka! moment … only to be quickly replaced by the painful realisation that it would likely take YEARS to produce sufficient length in order to make a rug!
(I swear, spool knitting is THE craft to give a child if you want to torture them school them into developing the patience of a saint.)
When I got married, my mother gave me my own copy of the Reader’s Digest Needlework book, and although it’s come in very handy over the years (I used it to re-teach myself knitting, for example, when I was pregnant with our first baby and suddenly craved some tiny-sweater knitting), it’s also sat there, tauntingly, with all those “one day” projects — most notably the braided rugs — whispering quietly to me.
Fast forward to this house, and to the (first-world) problem of finding an area rug of a suitable size/shape/colour/material for my daughter’s newly hardwooded room. I searched high and low* and bought several** (only to return them all) and then suddenly thought, WHY NOT MAKE ONE?
Hand-stitching a braided rug still seemed like a crazy thing-to-do, but thankfully it was no longer the 70s, and I had access to a little thing called the internet.
I ended up using a slightly modified*** version of this tutorial to make this rug for my daughter’s room:
I ended up so in love with both the process and the results that I’ve since made several more. Six altogether, to be exact, although I won’t bore you with photos of all of them:
So … I admit I may be slightly obsessed with making these! The reasons these rugs make me happy are severalfold:
They’re great for stash-busting — they provide a good use for leftover lengths of fabric as well as fabric bought with Good Intentions or Just Because.
They can be made using clothing or linens that are too worn to be donated to charity, and which would otherwise only be useful for rags or would be destined for the landfill.
They’re fully customizable with regards to shape and size.
They provide a means of incorporating sentimental textile items back into daily use.
They’re useful, providing warmth and cosiness to a room.
They’re a (mostly) mindless project, which means they make one feel productive and less guilt-ridden about Netflix binges.
They come along surprisingly fast (take THAT, spool knitting!).
*Not really; I hate shopping.
**Two equals “several”, right?
***I made my strips of fabric thicker (about 4 cm) as the suggested 2.5 cm (1-inch) width seemed too narrow.
It was “large item pick-up day” a couple of weeks ago in our city, a monthly garbage collection event that never fails to both fascinate me and fill me with dismay. The stuff that gets hauled out of houses and piled on the curb! On this particular day, I ended up stuck behind a garbage truck that was gobbling up a fuchsia leather sofa, a process that took several chompings before the sofa was finally consumed. I sat there and watched, hoping against hope that the sofa was irretrievably broken or ruined, and that it wasn’t out on the curb simply because its owners were re-decorating and didn’t want the bother of calling Habitat for Humanity (or some other such organization) to arrange a pick-up.
Although our city sends out informational leaflets on garbage collection, explicitly encouraging people to donate usable household items such as chairs, tables and shelves, to organizations such as Goodwill, many people clearly can’t or won’t be bothered. This means that our city is a paradise for those people who make their living fixing and/or repurposing furniture items, as well as for those who simply want or need to set up their home as frugally as possible. While there is a certain something in the rescuing and re-imagining and re-making that really speaks to me (I admit to feeling a powerful urge to stop and poke through curbed items, and I did pick up a library cart (!) last year that I will eventually blog about), the minimalist I-hate-clutter side of me has so far prevented me from giving in to the impulse to stuff the garage with potentiality. For now at least, I’m more interested in using what we already have on hand, like our now-illegal drop-side crib, for example.
I blogged about our crib several months ago, sharing a photo of what became of one of the side rails, and confessing to a somewhat over-the-top sentimentality about our children’s “stuff”. It was my intention, early on in the planning stages of this blog, to dole out these finished pieces one by one, but that seems almost coy now; all the pieces have been completed, and are sitting or hanging in their final locations, just awaiting photographing. So, in the interests of contributing to the repository of useful inspiration that the internet so often is, and linking back to the original tutorial we used, I’d like to show you what we did with the other four pieces of the crib.
This piece sits in a corner of our master bedroom (or, putting that sexist term aside, the owner’s or principal suite):
This next one sits in our mudroom, and in my mind, I refer to it as the if you build it they will come … NOT … bench:
We built this bench hoping it would be a repository for school backpacks, but I failed to account for the fact that, unlike in our previous house, in which the kids arrived home from school via the attached garage, in this house, they enter through the front door. They dump backpacks and shoes upon entry, and because life is too short to be on them everysingleday to walk the backpacks through the house to the mudroom, there they sit. (We also have a ginormous front door shoe problem that I need to tackle; the backpacks are one thing, but the shoes (the SHOES!) are positively driving me up a creek).
When this logistical flaw became apparent, I was a bit miffed; I figured the bench was going to be largely useless. However, because there’s a law pertaining to horizontal spaces (they will get piled with something, sooner or later) we discovered a use for it when our youngest started hockey last year, at the ripe old age of nine.
A rather verbose aside:
We exist in what many might consider to be mutually exclusive state of being: we’re Canadian, and we’re NOT hockey.
Yes, it actually is possible. And, contrary to what one hockey-crazed Minnesotan once insinuated, Canada does not kick you out of the country if you fail to profess an all-encompassing love for the game; they won’t even do it if your meh is perilously close to actual dislike, which is pretty much where we sit on the sliding scale that measures hockey-ness.
Because we’re not only NOT hockey, but are actually closer to UN-hockey, this meant that we were just a bit bewildered when, shortly after moving here, our youngest asked for a stick and a tennis ball and told Dad to take shots on him in the neighbour’s net which sat (communally) in the cul-de-sac. Truthfully, we hoped it was simply a passing phase.
It wasn’t. Soon, street hockey wasn’t enough: he was asking to play the real thing. On ice. And with a team. Stalling, we told him he couldn’t play hockey until he learned to skate, so we enrolled him in lessons. And all during those Friday evening sessions, he kept gazing wistfully at the other end of the ice, where boys in full hockey gear were being schooled in power skating, wielding sticks and juggling pucks. Succumbing, my husband asked around at work: what to do with a nine year-old kid who has never played hockey on actual ice? When most Real Canadian Kids start at four? His co-workers’ advice? Enrol him in a summer hockey camp. So that’s what we did last summer. We got him padded up with second-hand gear, hoping fervently thinking he might not like it, but alas great news! He loved it, and last October began playing house league hockey.
So this means two things:
The bench has a use! It’s where our son’s humungous hockey bag sits, with all his gear strewn out on top, airing out after practices and games. (Because, oh my! the sweat pouring off these kids when they get off the ice!)
I’ve had to become the thing I never imagined myself becoming: a hockey mom. Considering that I felt we had dodged a bullet when our older son showed no interest in the game, this is quite a feat for me 😉 . (Fact: hockey change-rooms have to be some of the least gezellig places on the planet. And sitting in the stands with rabidNHL-dreamingoverly-competitive really, really, really excited parents who eatsleepbreathe hockey … ? Um, yes … this doesn’t quite make my list of gezellig-things-to-do-on-a-Saturday-morning … BUT (!) I do have to admit that as the season wore on, I began to see why our son was loving the game … )
Moving on …
The crib spring is, for now, hanging on the wall in our mud room, and is a message centre of sorts:
So yes … I admit this is a bit strange. When our 16 year-old son saw this he said, OMG Mom, really?! Why … ?! Just why would you … ?
Although I’m normally not one for cutesy decor, I have to say there’s something eclectic and industrial to this vignette that really appeals to me, especially when taken in context with the washer and dryer which sit in the same room. Maybe one day, if we move to another house, it’ll become a trellis for peas, but in the meantime, it functions very well in its role of fridge declutterer, holding the calendar, a birthday calendar, and a small blackboard (I rolled chalkboard paint on the glass of a framed embroidery I was no longer fond of) where I jot notes about when I last watered the plants, chores for the children, and library book due dates. It’s also where I clip school notices and field trip forms. (As it was July when I took the photo, it’s rather emptier than it usually is).
My favourite piece, a small shelving unit, sits in a corner of the dining room:
The open spots on the top and middle shelves are where framed photos of the kiddos usually sit (I took them down for the picture because I’m still a bit paranoid about the Big Bad Internet). Because my method of design involves at least six hands holding up sticks of wood, this piece took several months of pondering, and at least two false starts. We were a bit hard-pressed to figure out how to construct the shelves and the front supports in order to remain in keeping with the style of the crib, but I think we managed fairly well in the end.
And to keep the fate of the crib in its entirety all together, here again is the first piece I blogged about, the plant bench which sits in our ensuite:
To wind up, I’d just like to provide encouragement to those people who may look at these projects and think, Ah, but we’re not handy enough to make anything ourselves. It’s actually not that difficult to do small woodworking projects, either from scratch, or by repurposing something you already own. Prior to moving into this fixer-upper four+ years ago my husband and I had done very little DIY work (apart from painting), and it was only my anger at a contractor (you want THAT much money for THAT teensy job?!) that set our handy wheels in motion. Home Depot will gladly cut large sheets of wood into strips for those who don’t have access to a table saw, and while we did buy a mitre saw, a mitre box and a hand saw would have worked just as well. For the actual construction of these pieces, we found a Kreg Jig (an inexpensive tool used to drill pocket holes) to be an invaluable tool.
When it comes to my children, I can be pretty sentimental. Too sentimental at times. I’ve kept stained sleepers, chewed-up board books, bits of paper they’ve scribbled on. I’ve been known to weep over itty bitty socks and stand there in a near catatonic state, hemming and hawing over whether I can stuff just one. more. thing. into the chest I’ve allotted for keepsakes.
Yes, I could use some therapy. I wish I were joking, but I’m not. As much as I crave minimalistic spaces, as much as I recognize the wisdom of William Morris (have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful), as much as clutter drives me around the bend and makes me cranky and on-edge, any item remotely connected with my children has proven to be my stumbling block.
So when our youngest moved from the crib to a twin bed (over six years ago), I was stumped. What to do with a piece of furniture that had cradled our three sleeping babies?
I’m pretty sure I know what a sane person would have done: (maybe) have a good cry over the passage of time, and then send it off to a resale store, or list it in the newspaper, or cart it off to Goodwill.
So what did I do? I stowed it — disassembled, of course — in the back of our closet, with the full intention of keeping it for possible future grandchildren.
Yes. I’m fully aware this borders on crazy-lady behaviour.
So the crib had sat in the back of our closet — taking up precious space — for about two years when I caught a whiff of a problem: crib safety regulations had changed. Drop-side cribs were no longer being made, and it was illegal to re-sell them. It seems the plastic parts that make the side rail moveable were occasionally failing, with devastating results. Suddenly, the notion of keeping our crib for possible future grandchildren went from nostalgic frugality to cavalier riskiness. But while I knew I would never want to risk the life of a child on the dubious security of a brittle bit of plastic, I also knew I didn’t want to just chuck the crib into the landfill. (Have I already mentioned our three babies slept in this crib?!)
Thank goodness for Google. That’s all I can say.
We had just moved back to Canada (our now-illegal crib coming with us) and while I was looking for renovation ideas for our new-to-us house-from-hell, I had a sudden brainwave: perhaps I could use the pieces of the crib to make something else. I did a Google search, and fell down a rabbit hole into the awe-inspiring DIY internet-land of Let Me Show You How to Re-Purpose ANYTHING, emerging several weeks later with ideas galore. I truly am amazed by all the creative people out there: people like Gail from myrepurposedlife.com who can look at the side rail of a crib and envision a bench. And not only can they envision said bench, they have the wherewithal to take photos of its metamorphosis and to make this handy bench tutorial.
So this is the first piece my husband and I made:
a plant bench to fit in the narrow space between the wall and the free-standing bathtub in our ensuite bathroom. We loosely followed Gail’s tutorial, but unfortunately, a blog wasn’t even a dream at the time, so I didn’t think to take photos.