Saturday, 29 September 2012

Libations with a Librarian Tablescape

Sew Mama Sew, one of my favourite blogs, is having a Table Stitch, Table Set, Tablescape contest for the month of September. As soon as I started thinking about my contribution, I realized that virtually all of the kitchen things I've made have been gifts for others, most of whom live too far away to lend them to me for an evening. I did, however, come up with a few fun handmade items for tonight's dinner:

Pictured here: matching wine cozy, coasters & napkin rings; wine cork centrepiece,
and home brewed apple cider.
I am a big fan of this centrepiece, even though it is quite simple. It's a flower vase filled with wine corks, around which I've wrapped a ribbon to match the table cloth.

I chose to call this tablescape 'Libations with a Librarian', since the wine corks were my inspiration for the theme, and one man of the house is a librarian. (The other is a cat.) We recently brewed a large batch of apple cider, which fit very well into the theme. I also included the quilted wine cozy that I made recently. It has been a big success and it's getting a lot of use.

With the remaining quilted fabric, I made a set of matching napkin rings and coasters.

 A set table is no fun without a delicious meal though. I had to include a shot of my tablescape at dinner time:

The cute little chevron mug rug on the left was my first ever quilting project, and it has turned out to be an excellent way to put out dessert. I even managed to get a close up before the little cinnamon pinwheels were all gone. (I will talk more about these in my next baking post.)

The main course was quiche with sun dried tomatoes, artichoke, and feta. Here is a better view. I wish you could have a taste, it was quite good. (More on my quiche recipes in the next baking post as well.)

Now that I've realized how few table items I've made for our place, I definitely plan to make more, such as a table runner, a set of placemats, and some cloth napkins. There will be a lot more on our table to show next year!

Colour Block of the Month: Orange

This month's Quilt Matters Colour My World Challenge is to make a block out of orange fabric. Orange is my favourite colour. I've been looking forward to this one since the beginning, and it seemed like a nice reward for completing last month's white block. When I was in high school, I painted my room a pale orange, with bright pumpkin-orange trim. It always felt sunny in there, even at night. I loved that room! It has now been taken over by my youngest brother, who painted over it with black chalkboard paint.

I've been trying out a new improvisational quilting technique for each month's challenge. This one is inspired by Elizabeth Hartman's Mod Mosaic Technique, which accents printed fabric with white borders, and by the stained glass technique, which uses thin black borders between bits of coloured fabric. (You can see a cool example of a stained glass quilt here.)

In my version, I wanted to use some School Bus orange frames to highlight a printed scrap of fabric that I bought at a craft fair last year. Who can resist a kazoo?

Since the kazoo print didn't have straight edges, I added a dark orange border around it in order to trim it into a rectangle.  I also sewed all of my smaller orange scraps together into one long piece, with a thin strip of the School Bus fabric in between each one.

The idea here is that any two pieces of fabric should be separated by a strip of the School Bus orange. The frame effect started to take shape once I'd sewn a long strip to the bottom of each piece. I then sewed my block components together, adding a strip on either side to complete the frames.

Last, I added a dark orange border to finish it off. I officially declare this my favourite colour block. It looks so happy!

I considered quilting this one up on its own, as a place-mat or wall hanging for my office. It seems like a shame to surround it with other blocks that will fight for the observer's attention. However, that would   defeat the point of this whole project. I've instead promised myself to put this block right in the middle of the final quilt, where it will get the most attention. (Last month's white block, on the other hand, will get a spot in the corner that is least visible when the quilt is draped over a bed.)

Here are the nine colour blocks I've made up to now:

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Groove Quilt - Step Two

Pile O' FabricApologies for the lack of updates over the last little while, all of my free time has been going towards constructing our new bedspread for the Totally Groovy Quilt Along.

I've got my sewing machine set up perfectly for piecing this quilt, and I haven't wanted to screw it up by working on anything else until it's done. It's hard to believe that I've been working on this for eight weeks already. I can only imagine how much longer it would take if I were actually putting this together according to the directions on the pattern.

As you might have noticed in previous projects, I seem to have a pathological inability to follow instructions. So, of course, I've taken it upon myself to make an extremely large version of the Groove quilt, while also completely reworking the pattern to decrease the number of seams and change the order in which the pieces go together.

Instead of working in rows of small pieces, I am working in chunks of large pieces. Ten days ago, I'd completed three chunks:

Already, at that point, I had run out of floor space inside the house to lay the quilt down and photograph it properly. It was only half done! I was starting to worry about the overall size.

Over the last two weekends I've continued to work at it, and I've now completed two other chunks. This time, I had to lay it out on the lawn in order to photograph it.

My first reaction when seeing the pieces together for the first time was "Whoa, I didn't think it would be so neon!" For some reason I had pictured this quilt as predominantly dark, with some lime green and orange accents. Not so! It's mostly very bright, with a little wisp of dark blue. I'll have to wait and see the whole thing put together before I can decide if I like it as much as I thought I would. No matter what, I'll be very excited to finally get the top finished and start on the back.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Sneak Peek at my Geekiest Craft So Far

This is officially the geekiest felt craft I've ever undertaken. So far, I've cut sixty small, but precise, geometric shapes out of different colours of felt, and lots of itty bitty little numbers.

I will let the pictures speak for themselves. Can you guess what I'm making?

If you're still wondering what these might be for, perhaps it will help if I specify that each felt piece is actually one face of a three dimensional shape. Before cutting these out of felt, I made some cardboard models to see how the pieces would fit together, and, more importantly, to ensure that all of the polyhedrons would finish at about the same size, despite their different shapes and number of sides. That turned out to be the trickiest part. Spacial perception is not my strong suit.

I leave these lying around to puzzle the cat

To round out the project, I'm making the far more popular (but less interesting) cube variation. This should leave no doubt as to what the collection will be.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Opinions from the Kitchen: Berry Jam Without Additives

Every time I look for jam in a store, I spend a good fifteen minutes standing in front of the shelf, reading the back of the bottles and wondering why in the world you would need so many thickeners and preservatives for something as simple as jam. Doesn't anyone just sell fruit and sugar in a jar? Apparently not. I figure it's always in the manufacturer's best interest to make people believe their product is too complicated to reproduce at home.

This is not the case for jam. Our grandmothers made it using stuff from the back yard. To make my own better-than-store-bought berry jam at home, all I use are berries, half an apple, a lemon (or lime), and some sugar.

The lemon did not show up to have its picture taken - pretend it's there

These berries are from the local farmer's market. I like to keep things cheap, healthy, and environmentally sustainable. There are quite a few ways I try to do that.

I don't buy special jars

I've never actually bought preserve jars. People never return them once they've eaten the jam anyway, and if I did this I'd find myself having to buy new ones every year. There are many types of glass jars that you can reuse.

Mason jars are the classic choice for pickling and preserving at home. They've been around forever, so they're easy to get ahold of, their quality is assured, and most grocery stores carry replacement lids and rims. Often if I buy preserves at a local market or specialty store, they'll come in Mason jars. I keep the jar and metal ring. VoilĂ , a reusable jar. I always replace the round sealing part of the lid (single use only, they rust!), but everything else can be reused hundreds of times as long as the glass doesn't get chipped. Other good sources for Mason jars are garage sales, estate sales, and the dusty sections at the back of mom's cupboards.

Specialty stores will often sell products from small producers who buy jars in bulk (you can tell this because the lid doesn't have anything printed on it). They're probably buying decent jars. If they are made from thick glass and have sturdy metal lids with an unstained plasticized interior, I keep them. On the other hand, I stay away from brand name manufacturers' jars. They're custom made for one time use.

I toss any jar that has small cracks or chips. If the rim is chipped, chances are the jar will not seal and what you put inside will be wasted. If the jar itself is cracked or chipped, the pressure from high heat might cause it to explode. Bad news! I also toss lids with any remote sign of rust. After all that, I'm usually left with enough glass jars accumulated over the year to make a couple of batches of home made yummyness.

I don't buy pectin

Pectin is naturally found in fruit and it's what allows preserves to gel. Raspberries and many other berries already contain some. Apples and citrus fruits contain a bunch. You can use this naturally occurring pecting to thicken your jam by making your own pectin from apples. (No fancy apples needed, you can use crab apples - raid a tree in your neighbourhood!) Or you can do it in one step and just cook down the jam until the naturally occurring pectin kicks in. This is why I add some apple and lemon juice and/or zest.

Before it reaches its boiling point, I squish my berries into a bright red fruit & sugar mush. When it starts to boil, the volume increases and it becomes frothy. I used to fill my pot up to the top to make as much jam at once as possible, but it tended to bubble over and make a mess at this point. I've learned to make more batches of jam, using less fruit at a time.

Once all of the pink froth is reabsorbed, the jam turns a deep dark red. At this point I let it boil for 20-30 minutes, checking to see how thick it has gotten every 5 minutes or so.

To check thickness, I keep a plate in the freezer and drop a small spoonful onto the cold plate in order to cool the jam down quickly. That makes it easy to tell how thick it will be at refrigerator temperature. When I like the thickness, it's ready to be poured into sterilized jars.

I don't have a canner

A canner is basically a large pot in which you submerge your full jars for boiling, to kill any bacteria that might make the contents go bad. They actually sell special pots for this, and some of them cost a lot of money. They also take up a lot of space for something you only use a few times a year. To me, this seems like a waste.

If you're making jam to have at home, and you have some extra freezer space, you can skip this step entirely. Once the jam has cooled, pour it into airtight freezer safe containers and freeze until you're ready to eat it.

I often make jam to give away, and I don't have much freezer space, so I do process mine in boiling water. I use a regular stock pot, which can fit 8 small jam jars or 3 large pickle jars at a time. The only difference between a stock pot and a canner is that the canner comes with a rack to hold your jars. The rack serves two purposes: one is to keep your jars from being in direct contact with the bottom of the pot. To replicate this, I just grab a large handful of forks and spoons from the cutlery drawer and spread them at the bottom of the pot. The second thing it does is easily lift the jars out of the boiling water. I've found that you can accomplish this just as well using silicone tongs and oven mitts.

I've found Ove Gloves to be super useful for canning because they insulate well without restricting motion. I use them to securely hold boiling hot jars and screw on the lids. Careful though, they're not waterproof! If you spill boiling water, you will not be able to get the gloves off quickly enough to prevent a serious burn. If there's a chance of boiling water getting in, big silicone oven mitts are a better choice.

One afternoon in the kitchen was all it took to make jam to last us the rest of the year. I ended up with one batch of raspberry, and one batch of raspberry-blueberry (my all time favourite). The overall cost (berries, apple, citrus, sugar, and Mason jar sealing thingies) comes to just under $5 per jar, which is about what you'd expect to pay for good jam anyway.

Kitty can't resist a photo opportunity

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Colour Block of the Month: White

This month's Colour My World Challenge over at Quilt Matters was to make a quilt block in white. I found this to be the most challenging colour (or absence of colour) so far. I don't usually sew with white fabric. In fact, I don't even buy white clothing.

It's not that I think white is boring exactly, it's more that I get annoyed with it being see-through, and not ever staying white. Drop something on it and it will never be white again. Put it through one laundry cycle and it will never be white again. Rub up against something and it will never be white again. Touch it too often, even with clean hands, and it will never be white again. Forget it within reach of the cat and it will never... you get the idea. What's the point of something that goes from white to a slightly dingy shade of grey on the first day it comes out of the bag, and never gets used again?

Nevertheless, I did think mixing a bunch of printed white fabrics would be a fun experiment. I've been trying a new improvisational quilting technique for each month's colour block, and this time I went with the free pieced chevron method from Tallgrass Prairie Studio.

I started with a whole bunch of short strips of different fabrics, and sewed them on one at a time, alternating sides and pressing after each addition.

When the big messy arrangement of strips reached the length I wanted, I cut off the edges and squared up the centre section.

All of the remaining strips were sewn together, and then cut in half at a random angle to fill up the space on either side of my chevron centre.

Once assembled, I found the slightly wonky angle of the chevron section to be rather pleasing, though also kind of boring. I added a white border to finish it up. This is the completed block:

I don't find that there's enough contrast between the mostly-white fabrics for any part of this design to really pop. In my eyes, that makes it the least interesting block so far, but once integrated into the final quilt I think it will actually show up a lot more because it will be the only spot of white in an ocean of randomly assembled bits of colour.

After eight months of colour blocks, here is how the collection's coming along!