Friday, November 17, 2017

New and improved











This morning, the Bear and I went to the hair salon. He needed a haircut. I've been trying to let my hair grow for the past month or so, since I had a really bad haircut at this same place. But while I was sitting there, I realized that the stylist I really like was going to be finished with her customer very soon, so I had myself added to the list for a haircut. I wanted to see if she had any advice for my hair while I'm trying to let it grow; I'm finding it really unmanageable lately, especially as we go into winter and the air is so dry indoors and out. 

When it was my turn, she took one look at my hair and wanted to know if so-and-so had been the last to cut it and whether he'd used "the razor." Yes and yes. I'd had to trim it myself with sewing scissors when I got home the day of his haircut, because there were chunks of hair three or four inches longer than the rest. She was kind of horrified. She gave me a much better haircut, for free, and I was so glad I had decided to get mine cut too. I like my haircut; it's nothing special, just a "long bob," as they're calling it these days, but it looks and feels much better. Now I'm wondering just how bad I'd been looking before. Her face really told the tale when I sat down in the chair. The Bear is too nice to say anything. Or maybe he thought I'd gotten that haircut deliberately, in which case he knows better not to say a word.

I've been crocheting up a storm this week. Now that I'm finished with Maybelle, I feel at loose ends. Which is weird, because I actually had a few tearful moments toward the end of Maybelle when I just couldn't stand to be working on it anymore. I just wanted it over with. But after a few crochet-free days, I actually found myself missing it again. So I gathered all of my worsted-weight acrylic yarns and started a new blanket. I know. But this one will be really useful in the living room, where two of my oldest (and most amateur) blankets live. We could use bigger and nicer-looking blankets in there. I'm making large (15-round) one-color granny squares and joining them in cream, like a big patchwork quilt. I like it so far. It's basic and almost totally mindless, which feels right at the moment. Plus I'm using up all that yarn. I love stashbusting, it feels great. You should see how much yarn this blanket uses, especially with a size I hook. I'm thinking about naming this one Big Gulp.

Also on the hook: more Flowers in the Snow circles, for another small dolly blanket. Santa Claus is bringing a very special doll to a little lady in Albuquerque this year, and she's getting a fully-equipped handmade bed of her own, like the other dolls already have. There's just something about crafting for dolls. It's so much fun to make tiny versions of real things, isn't it? I still have a mattress, pillow and quilt to churn out before Christmas; wish me luck.

I'm so excited to have a new plant in my kitchen! I bought a little ivy plant just after Christmas last year, putting it on a small table in the living room. I'm bad at keeping houseplants alive, but I must have done something right (or this plant is just miraculously hardy), because it's still kicking and I'm actually enjoying indoor-plant care again. So I decided to get one for the kitchen too. I ordered a macrame plant hanger and a little white plastic pot from Amazon, and bought a small philodendron plant at Lowe's. I hung it in the corner of the breakfast nook and I think it does a lot for the room. Nobody really walks through that corner, so it shouldn't be disturbed. My best houseplant ever - which I had to leave behind when we left New York for New Mexico in 2006 - was a huge philodendron. And my mom still has philodendrons in her dining room that she planted when I was about six years old! So I have hope for my little friend.

We're watching a storm roll in this afternoon. The temperature should drop substantially tonight, and we may freeze two or three nights in a row. November has been unusually warm and dry here, but I haven't minded so much. Often, I feel weird and disconnected when the weather doesn't match the calendar, but it didn't bother me this time. Maybe I was just too busy to notice. Today, though: windy, dark, still a little warm but dropping fast. We're going to get a pizza for dinner. Then it's stove popcorn and TV for the Bear and me. It's Friday night, you know.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Presenting Maybelle


Maybelle is all finished! I'm so excited to share my latest crochet blanket project today. I can hardly believe Maybelle is complete and ready to use (though we haven't really needed an extra blanket on the bed yet this fall). I started Maybelle in March 2017, finishing in November, for a total of nearly eight months of work. But really, this blanket's story began at least a year before I settled on the Maybelle square design. I searched and searched for the right blanket design but never felt comfortable or even very excited about a design until I hit on Maybelle. And then, it was like I'd experienced a bolt of inspiration and I was off!


The Maybelle Square is designed by Annette of the blog My Rose Valley. The center flower itself comes from another blog, 6ichthusfish, designed by a lady whose name I don't know. Annette came up with the squaring-off and has made many lovely blankets with the square design. My blanket is not my first brush with Maybelle; in the past, I've made stand-alone flowers (for a garland which hangs in the GB's room), as well as squares for a Christmas garland that I gave away here on my blog several years ago.

I've enjoyed the Maybelle design for a long time. I'd never really thought about making a blanket with Maybelle squares until this blanket, though. After trying numerous square and hexagon patterns, and being dissatisfied with all of them, I realized that what I wanted for this blanket was LESS of everything - less color and less busy-ness, above all. But also less switching colors, less weaving-in, less to look at. I wanted a smaller color palette and I wanted the texture and design of the crochet itself to be at least as important as the colors. Maybelle seemed like a good choice because I could limit the center-flower colors to just a handful (I ultimately went with nine colors), and keep all the outer rounds and joining to just one color - the gray that I knew I wanted as a main color regardless of the pattern I chose.

As an aside, I often name my blanket projects. The names are sometimes jokey, sometimes sentimental. I know it probably seems silly to name them, but I enjoy it. Here, I chose to stick with Maybelle for the project name. I like it - I think it's a pretty name - and also, since it was made for our bed, and because we met in May, got engaged in May, and got married in May (all in different years), it seemed fitting to keep the name as is.


I had been thinking about a gray-dominant blanket for years. I love gray because it goes with everything, and I also love the way it looks in my bedroom, which receives filtered light. Bright colors don't work well in my room. Soft, muted colors look much nicer. For my blanket, I decided to use a mixture of shades, mainly in the mid-range, with a few brighter or deeper ones too. (See the bottom of this post for a list of the yarn colors I used). The yarn is all Stylecraft Special DK acrylic, my favorite yarn for blankets. I'd already been collecting balls of Gray for a while, anticipating its use in a blanket. I had plenty of these other colors are well, because I liked them and knew they'd be good contenders for the eventual blanket, whatever it turned out to be.

My plan called for this blanket to be really large, the biggest one I'd ever crocheted. I wanted this blanket to be big enough for us both to sleep under it comfortably. I started with the measurements of our queen-sized duvet, which is 90 by 90 inches. I wanted the crocheted blanket to be at least that size, preferably a little larger. I crocheted one Maybelle square all the way through to the joining round, and found it measured almost 7 inches. By my calculation, the blanket needed to consist of 169 squares, arranged 13 by 13 in a huge square. In the end, given stretching of the work and the addition of a border, my blanket is closer to 100 by 100 inches, making it very BIG!

The final square!


I crocheted Maybelle squares throughout the spring and summer. I had nine main flower colors, divided up over 169 total squares, which meant that most colors would appear in 19 squares each. Two colors appear in 18 squares; it's just the way the math worked out. I worked on these squares almost every day, usually making one or two in a sitting. I took them out with me, crocheting on the shaded grass near the pool. I crocheted in front of the TV a lot; this blanket is made of Switched at Birth, Heirhunters, and Last Man Standing, not to mention lots of radio: The John Tesh Show and repeat broadcasts of Casey Kasem's Weekly Top 40 from the 1980's (a local radio station plays them on Sunday afternoons) are in this blanket too.

By mid-September, I'd finished crocheting all of the squares. Miss GB helped me arrange them in a pleasing way. We spread them out all over the living room floor and tried to make sure the colors were fairly evenly distributed. It didn't need to be precise. Then I began joining the squares, using the technique in Annette's tutorials. The joining took about six weeks, and was probably the most difficult part of making this blanket because it became very unwieldy as it grew. I had to work mainly in the living room, where the chairs are wider and deeper than the one in the family room, just so I could have the blanket spread, or sometimes bunched up, on my lap as I worked.



Once the blanket was all joined up, I realized that it didn't need much of a border; it was already enormous and a simple border suits me more anyway. I did a round of granny clusters in the main gray color all around the outer edge of the squares, dividing the clusters at the places where two squares met (one stitch in the right square, two stitches in the left). This was to help keep the border from becoming too ruffly. Then I added a round of single crochet in Duck Egg (pale bluish-green) and a final round of single crochet in Gray. In the corners, I followed the same pattern that I'd used when joining the squares: in the granny cluster round, 3dc, 2ch, 3dc and in the outer two rounds, 3sc, 2ch, 3sc. In hindsight, I should have reduced the number of stitches in the corners because they're a little too pointy, but I like them well enough anyway.


I asked the Bear for some help with photographing my blanket, as I often do. He's much better at tinkering around with lenses and holding the camera on a monopod (not to mention 6 or 7 inches taller than I am), which makes for better shots of a large blanket. Here, he held the camera over the bed so you can get the perspective of how big this blanket really is. It covers the whole mattress top and hangs down substantially on the sides. I really love this photo because I can see that I did a pretty good job distributing the colors. There are a few gaps I'd go back and fix if it were easy to do so, but really, it looks pretty good to me.


The blanket is large enough to hang down almost to the very bottom of the mattress, where it meets the box spring. The wood in the above photo is the side rail of the bed frame. I'd been thinking that I would need to buy a new duvet cover just to look better with the blanket, but I needn't have worried because you can't even see the duvet under this blanket unless you scrutinize the open spaces in the crochet! The blanket covers the duvet completely. And actually, I like the way it looks against the duvet cover fabric, so I'm not in a hurry to replace the cover. It still has plenty of life in it, which gives me more time to shop.



It fits the bed really well in general. It's large enough to be more of a bedspread than just a blanket topper, which is nice because it will be plenty large enough to keep us warm. I love having a crocheted blanket on the bed in winter; it's just heavy enough. I have tried so many different kinds of blankets over the years, but when I started crocheting in earnest about 6 years ago, I realized that a crocheted blanket is just right for our needs. And it looks so pretty folded at the foot of the bed during the day, so it's just a nice thing all around.


I'm pretty proud of this blanket. It took a long time to come together and I was actually starting to wonder if I had reached my limit with crocheted blankets. I just couldn't seem to find a design to spoke to me or made me feel calm when I worked on it. That's the most important thing about crochet for me: it needs to make me feel happy and peaceful inside. With this blanket, I feel a renewed energy for crochet and also something unexpected: a sense of contentment in my own work. I think that sometimes, especially as a blogger, I feel some pressure to produce something new and cool for others to enjoy. What I've realized is that the basics make me happiest. The more complicated stuff - inventing new things, mastering really difficult techniques, working successfully with a multitude of colors - they aren't who I am as a crocheter. I want to create beautiful things (and I hope that I am), but even more, I want to feel good about it. Realizing this has been an important part of the journey. I'm happy with my Maybelle blanket; I feel true contentment with my creation, and I can't wait to start using it. Bring on the coldest, frostiest nights! We're ready.

Maybelle Blanket
Pattern: Maybelle Square by Annette Ciccarelli
Size: approximately 100 by 100 inches (169 Maybelle Squares)
Hook: size G/6 (4.00mm) Clover Amour
Yarn: Stylecraft Special DK in the following colors - Gray, Raspberry, Pale Rose, Parma Violet, Grape, Duck Egg, Sage, Denim, Storm, Petrol (1 ball of each flower color; approx. 20 balls of Gray)
Started: March 2017
Finished: November 2017

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Before it's too cold

Hello! Happy Sunday. I haven't been here much since I posted the Link Party last weekend. I've been really busy keeping the children occupied while they've been home from school. It wasn't for a vacation or anything fun, though. Their school had been having a new wing added onto it since last spring and the classrooms were finally ready to move into, so they closed school for a week to allow the teachers to do so. I have many Feelings about this situation, but I won't express them here. We muddled through, and life is resuming as normal. Thankfully.

I've generally felt kind of out of sorts for a little while. Life has been just plain hard lately, for a bunch of reasons. I'm feeling anxious and worried. We have a lot of medical stuff for the LB going on right now, including a new health challenge we didn't know about until recently. Guess what that means? More begging, pleading, cajoling, and arguing for me. I'm getting better at keeping my calm when I deal with the bureaucracy, though. There's no sense in making myself upset, you know? It will be fine, it always works out.

So what's good? I'm keeping busy with my crafts, trying to see friends and continuing to try to make time for walking. These things make me feel calmer and happier. I'm even about to start a new blanket, if you can believe it. Maybelle is completely finished, and I'll share it here soon. The new blanket will be for the living room, where we could really use a new one. I think it will be my real winter project.

I treated myself to a very good pair of winter shoes and about ten new pairs of socks (when did socks get so fun? I hadn't bought any new ones in about twelve years, so maybe sometime since then). I'm looking forward to wearing my shoes when it's colder out; right now I'm still wearing my lightweight Skechers BOBS most days. I've even been out in flip-flops a few times recently. It's cool and crisp right now, but not all that cold yet, just perfect weather.

I'm finished with most of my Christmas shopping. It's almost my birthday. I am excited about eating Thanksgiving dinner in a restaurant for a change, since the holiday is also my birthday this year and I was so not looking forward to all that work on my birthday.

Today, I'm roasting a chicken for dinner (leftovers will become tortilla soup later in the week) and since I have a surfeit of apples again (a blessing to be sure), I'm going to bake an apple crisp. I'm going to start attempting to photograph giant Maybelle and working on my post. I'm almost done with a full morning of laundry. I have nothing left to clean. I have a new houseplant, for the kitchen, because my little ivy in the living room is almost a year old now and encouragingly alive.

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Speaking of winter projects, thanks to all who joined in with November's party. I hope we'll have more people want to join as the winter progresses, but I'm very glad to have anyone along who wants to participate. As in past years, I'll be posting the link party on the first weekend (usually Saturday) of each month. I don't want anyone to feel surprised by the parties showing up, so please look for them then.

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I wanted to share an ice cream recipe today, which I've been hoping to share since the summer but just never got around to doing it. I found it on Pinterest when I was looking for really good chocolate ice cream; chocolate was one flavor I'd never tried making and it seemed like a good idea to give it a shot. I'm not a chocoholic, but I do enjoy a good chocolate ice cream now and then. It took me a bit to wade through all the recipes that came up, and when it did, it was helpfully titled "The Very Best Chocolate Ice Cream." How about that? If only I'd thought to use those words as a search term. I know we're getting close to winter in parts of the world, and ice cream isn't necessarily high on your list of things to eat right now, but I really enjoyed this easy, fast recipe and I know some of you love to make ice cream too. Maybe you'll want to give this one a try at home yourself.

The Very Best Chocolate Ice Cream
(adapted from The Suburban Soapbox blog)
Makes 2 pints

2 cups whole milk
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 ounces finely chopped semisweet chocolate
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup granulated sugar
5 large egg yolks (I used 6 yolks from my own hens' eggs, which are a bit small)

In a large saucepan, whisk together the milk, cream and cocoa powder. Bring the mixture to a simmer over med-low heat and then turn the heat off. Stir in the chocolate and vanilla until the chocolate has melted.

Add 3/4 cup of the sugar to the milk mixture and bring to a simmer, whisking occasionally to dissolve the sugar.

In a medium bowl, whisk the remaining sugar and egg yolks until the mixture is slightly thickened and light in color. Slowly, add 1/4 cup of the milk mixture to the eggs while whisking constantly.

Continue adding the milk to the egg mixture 1/4 cup at a time until all the ingredients are combined.
Prepare an ice bath in a large bowl and place a medium bowl in the ice bath. Place a fine mesh strainer over the bowl.

Transfer the cream mixture to a large saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly and scraping the bottom and sides with a heatproof spatula until the custard thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon. Strain the custard into the bowl and allow to cool.

Refrigerate the custard until cold or overnight.

Pour the custard into the freezer can of an electric ice cream maker and freeze according to the manufacturer's instructions. When the ice cream is the consistency of soft serve. Transfer to an airtight storage container and freeze.


This was my first time using semi-sweet chocolate in bar form. I think you could probably chop up semi-sweet chocolate chips if you wanted to. I don't cook or bake with chocolate often, so I wasn't sure what to buy. I looked at fancier types of chocolate, but I went with Baker's because I had a little experience with the brand in the past. I used regular (bitter) Baker's chocolate many years ago when I baked a flourless chocolate cake for a gluten-allergic friend. Half of this bar remained after making the ice cream, and I'm looking forward to using it again. It was softer than I'd expected, and kind of fun to chop. For the powdered cocoa in the recipe, I used a combination of Trader Joe's house brand (what I had remaining in an open package) and Hershey's to supplement.



The ice bath seemed a bit superfluous to me at first, but it's an important step. The custard was like the richest homemade chocolate pudding after the second cooking step - incredibly thick and lush. I may have cooked it too long because it was too thick to strain effectively. I don't think it mattered much; the custard was so thick, egg bits were probably not very noticeable. I was hesitant about all these steps - cooking, ice-bathing, cooking, straining - but the effort was worthwhile. The process was fascinating, actually; I'd never made an ice cream base that solidified so much before it was even frozen. I assume it had mostly to do with the egg yolks, but even before cooking with the eggs, the milk-cream-chocolate mixture was thick and creamy, almost a milkshake consistency. This recipe was interesting, you could really see it taking shape as you moved through each phase.


Then it was just the eating. Man, this ice cream was good. It was so chocolatey, with strong flavor and a rich, dense texture, almost like frozen fudge, but only very lightly sweet; there isn't all that much sugar in the recipe. I love most kinds of chocolate, so I wasn't concerned at all about the lack of sweetness, but what I didn't expect was how little it mattered. The flavor was so intense that sweetness seemed beside the point, to me. This was my first homemade chocolate ice cream and I'm really glad I came across this recipe. It's an instant keeper.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Winter Project Link Party



Welcome to November's Winter Project Link Party! I hope you will want to join me in sharing your current crafty works-in-progress or recent finishes. This month, I'm still plugging away with Maybelle, but I have wonderful news: she's all joined up! YES. I have joined all 169 Maybelle squares and now I have a gigantic square blanket of about 90 inches. I can't believe I've made it this far. I still need to add a border, which will definitely be a narrow one since the blanket is just so very large. There is no need for a deep, detailed border here!


Actually, the joining was pleasant, and I enjoyed it for the most part. The joining method is very simple and easy to do, with very little counting and nothing complicated to remember. I joined the squares from the wrong side, so the joined edges look a little curly right now, but I'm sure they'll flatten out quickly once we've started using the blanket on our bed. I love the central joins between four squares, though they look lumpy right now too. Never mind, it will be fine. Blankets are the most forgiving thing to crochet, just one reason why I love 'em so much. Plus all the toasty, snuggly stuff. Yeah, that's pretty good too.


I'm almost giddy about being finished joining this blanket, to the point that I actually don't have a lot to say in this post! It's silly, I know, but it was such a long time coming that I can't quite put it all into words. I will share a reveal post very soon, with a much better grasp of the English language, I promise. :)

Just a quick note - after last month's party, I realized there was a code problem with my grab-able link party button, featured below. I think it's fixed now, but please let me know if it doesn't work and I'll try to troubleshoot it again.

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It's link-up time! Please read the link-up guidelines below. To keep it fresh, please add your project posts about current works in progress or very recent finishes. You can add as many posts as you like.

Be sure to link back to this post in your winter project post to help spread the word about this link party!

Grab a link party button (code is below) to display on your blog!

Thistlebear

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Monarchs and marigolds






I bought this small potted marigold plant yesterday when I shopped for groceries. Trader Joe's has them on the floral display right now. They were so cheap, and so sunny, that I had to have one. They're special too - they are meant to celebrate Dia de los Muertos, a holiday observed in Mexico on November 1 and 2, at just the same time as All Soul's Day, and for similar reasons. I put my little pot of marigolds on the kitchen table, where they sit in the sunshine most of the morning looking bright and cheerful.

Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is an ancient traditional holiday when people pay their respects to loved ones who have passed away. They do this by visiting graves and leaving special mementos, including marigold flowers, which are called cempacuchil in Mexico. Marigolds are an important symbol of Dia de los Muertos, and they adorn graves and ofrendas, or altars, as below, which are built to commemorate the dead.

Photo from Mexconnect.com

I don't really celebrate Dia de los Muertos (aside from wearing my dangly faux-turquoise skull-and-flowers earrings), but the ideas and imagery behind it fascinate me, as you may have noticed if you've been reading my blog for a while. I've previously shared posts related to this holiday, including one about an Etsy treasury I'd made, featuring Dia de los Muertos-inspired art, crafts, jewelry and textiles that I'd found and loved. Another time, I shared some sugar skull-inspired cookies I'd baked with the small Bears during my Martha and Me challenge in 2015.

Photo from freytagsflorist.com


Photo from mexicansugarskull.com

Here in New Mexico, where we have strong ties to Latin American culture, we have numerous public celebrations, including a Marigold Parade locally. Some people build small altars too, including the traditional marigolds as well as different kinds of food offerings - fruits, vegetables, decorated sugar skulls, pan de muerto (bread shaped like bones) - and candles. Some will also paint their faces as skulls, with flowers in their hair, for the parade.

Another lovely part of this holiday involves monarch butterflies. This happens to be the time of year when monarchs migrate across central Mexico, where monarchs are considered a symbol of the soul. Sometimes people drill holes in a loved one's coffin to let the soul escape in the form of a butterfly. The monarchs' migration is seen as a return of the spirits of deceased ancestors and loved ones. I really, really love that - golden, glowing flowers and fluttering, painted-glass butterflies to welcome our beloved friends and family home again.

Honoring the dead makes a lot of sense to me. Death is an unavoidable part of life, but it helps - and heals - when we focus on the good, happy things we remember about our lost loved ones. I appreciate the way life, death and the natural world are tied together in one celebration.

You might enjoy watching this short film called "Here Come the Dead," about traditional Dia de los Muertos observances in Michoacan, Mexico.
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