Gift bags

A pile of presents, wrapped and ready to go. Oops, one of the books is peeking out.

Last year at Christmas, I was appalled at how much wrapping paper got thrown away, as I have mentioned before, so I decided to make some bags, and use scarves to wrap other presents, Furoshiki style. I have been buying scarves every time I go to thrift stores, but I put off making bags until just a couple of days before Christmas.

I’m usually not so good at follow through, but this year, I did actually make some bags for gifts for my immediate family, and some extended family. I think there were only a few presents in paper that came from my house, and a couple of others that were packed in re-used paper gift bags. I was still appalled at how much paper got thrown away, but at least hardly any of it was mine.

I always give everyone at least one book, so I wanted adjustable bags with side gussets for thick or thin books, and an adjustable closure. I modeled these after a lunch bag pattern I found in a book.

I used a pattern for a lunch bag that I found in “Bend the Rules With Fabric” to make book bags for DH and the kids, and kind of pimped out some of those freebie drawstring backpacks with applique. Last spring, I was given a whole bunch of string backpacks from the Census Bureau. I was supposed to give them to my students, but none of them really wanted one. I couldn’t throw them away, but didn’t want to carry around a census backpack, either.  

 The homemade bag  I am proudest of, though, is for my great-niece- I looked at the construction of the freebie backpacks, said to myself, “That can’t be too hard” and whipped one up for her in red velvet. She’s going to be 4, she needs a red velvet backpack!
Now, next year, I will have the bags that already exist, and I’ll make a few more, and so on and so on. Never buying wrapping paper again…

I stitched a square of red silk onto this canvas backpack, then cut out a bluejay, freehand. It took me a couple of tries. I mostly wanted to cover up the logo on the bag.


I (accidently) grew a sweet potato!

Way back last summer, there was a sweet potato sprouting in the bin, so I chucked it into an empty flowerpot, with some soil, of course, and put it out on the patio. Sweet potatoes have pretty, heart shaped leaves, and I enjoyed the greenery all summer, honestly not expecting it to have enough soil or water, or warmth, to produce tubers. I didn’t even check at the end of the summer.
Today it’s warm and sunny, so I went out to do some fall clean-up which I should have done when it was actually fall, and emptied out the pot with the sweet potato plant. Imagine my surprise to see an actual sweet potato. there were a couple of small mushy ones, but one was the size of one you’d see at a grocery store. I’m going to eat it on Christmas.

The leaves froze sometime in October, but the tuber stayed alive in a 10 inch flowerpot.

Blood, toil, tears and sweaters

I highly recommend using sock yarn for sweaters because it's machine washable.

I knit for fun, really I do. I like to have something to do with my hands when watching TV, or riding in the car, or waiting at the dentist.  I also like to plan projects, and see them come alive.  A couple of years ago, the girl was reading the American Girl books, and when reading the Kirsten series, she asked me for a sweater like Kirsten’s mom made for her. It was cute- a black and white, Nordic ski sweater. I had played a little with knitting in two colors, and felt comfortable with it, so I took on the project.

We wound up misplacing the book- it turned up later in the closet under the stairs, so I couldn’t make up the pattern by looking at the illustration on the cover.  At that point I didn’t feel comfortable looking at an illustration and making up a sweater pattern anyway. 

The inspiration for the sweater. we never made the hat or mittens.

Actually, I don’t think I could do that now, either… So I found a pattern in “Knitting Without Tears” from the library. This is a book I highly recommend, by the way, if you are ready to graduate from scarves.

I cast on about 200 stitches in sock yarn for the body, and started on the patterns going up the body to the armpits. It was kind of fascinating- you hold the black yarn in one hand, the white in the other, and go across the rows, knitting four of black, 3 of white, or whatever, and row by row the pattern builds. Checkerboards, snowflakes, giant backward letter “s” . With the amount of work this was going to be, I wanted it to fit for a  few years, so I made it extra long, and by the time I got to the armpits, it was time to start the sleeves.  This was where I got stalled. 

You look at a sleeve, and it looks small, but it winds up being more than a quarter of the size of the body of a sweater. I cast on what I thought was the right number of stitches, and went about 4 inches, before I thought of trying it on the girl. Too small. It is now a mini dress for Barbie. Start over, The other thing about sleeves is that they can’t be just cylindircal, because arms aren’t. But the thing about working with two colors, is most of the patterns have repeats of 8 stitches, so increasing gradually messes up the pattern, and increasing too suddenly makes the arm look goofy.  Ask me how I know. 

By now it was March, and even though in Norway, I am sure people wear Norwegian sweaters well into summer, here in Northern Colorado, we are riding bikes and playing soccer. I put away the sweater for a while as being just too frustrating.

Took it out again in the fall, ripped out the sleeves, reknit to make sure they matched, then attached them to the body of the sweater. At this point, I really started cruising. It still took a while, though.  The girl’s school had a spirit day, whose theme was “Dress as a book character” I made it down the home stretch and finished the Kirsten Sweater in time for her to wear it to school. 

Now, the reason this has come up now, 3 years after I started knitting that thing, and 2 and a half years after I finished it, is that when I picked up the girl the other day at school, she was wearing it. “Oh, you haven’t worn that for a while.” I said.

“Yeah, I just found it in the lost and found.”

Yikes- the school newsletter had just announced that as of  Friday, anything still in the lost and found would be taken to Goodwill. As I said, I knit because I enjoy it, but that sweater has a little bit of my soul in it, and the thought of it being sold at a thrift store was a little jarring. I’m glad to have it home again. Don’t ask me what I’ll do when she outgrows it. I’m not ready to think about it.

The line must be drawn here…

This year, I haven’t made or given teacher gifts, I didn’t handknit anything for my secret Santa recipient, I haven’t made batch after batch of cookies. And I am okay with that, I think. 

In previous years, not only have I given presents to all the kids’ teachers, and aids, and speech therapists, I made the presents from scratch- one year I knit 7 mini stockings, and put Starbucks cards in them. It was good because I totally was able to internalize the structure of sock knitting, with all these mini socks. But I also remember staying up late the night before the last day of school, weaving in ends of yarn.   This year, I decided to cut the teacher presents, for lack of time and energy. 

A noro striped scarf I made for Secret Santa last year- if the recipient has worn it, I haven't seen it...

In previous years, I have made scarves or felted bags for the person I’ve drawn for secret santa at school, and this year I couldn’t bring myself to it.  Part of it was that my local yarn store has closed and I don’t have anything stashed away that would have worked. But I noticed that when I made the decision to skip knitting something for my colleague, a weight lifted off my shoulders.

Similarly, when I decided to skip the cookies, I felt so relieved. We’ve made tons and tons, and given some away, but eaten a lot myself, too. Not having to make several different recipes of cookies, and put together tins or plates for people was a relief.  There is the chance that I will be able to zip my ski pants, too, so there’s another benefit. Don’t get me wrong- we aren’t entirely Scroogey-  we have decorated, and hosted a party, and we have gifts, (some homemade) but having a slightly simpler Christmas has helped us with some peace on Earth.

Gingerbread houses- another project we didn't do this year.

Or at least peace in our own house. I don’t think my kids will look back, and say, “Hey, remember when we made gingerbread houses, and mom yelled at us for putting too much food coloring in the icing?”  This year, I am trying to draw the line at yelling.

What’s the opposite of rice pudding?

The boy’s first grade teacher asked me the other day to make up a batch of rice pudding for their “Christmas around the World” party on Friday.  I thought, “ooooh, I can blog it.” Little did I know that everyone else in the world has blogged it also- google has a ton of extremely “authentic”  Swedish rice pudding recipes. I threw out the ones that called for evaporated milk, and raisins (bleah! the texture!) and also decided I didn’t want to get into separating eggs and making a meringue to spread on the pudding, who cares whether that’s authentic or not?

So, first we weren't Jewish and making latkes, now we're not Swedish, and making rice pudding. I wonder what we aren't going to be next? Chinese, I hope, or Mexican...

            I wound up taking what I know about rice, and what I know about pudding, and making a leap. I can’t really say it’s authentically anything, though. Note- I used 1% milk, because that is what we always have. This would probably be better with whole milk. Also, I just got a brainstorm, what about steeping a Chai tea bag in the milk? Of course, then it would not only be not Swedish, it wouldn’t be great for first graders, either…

Beating the eggs with the sugar, and then adding the hot milk a little at a time prevents the eggs from scrambling.


First Grade Rice Pudding

2 cups cooked rice (you know how to cook rice, right?)

2 cups milk

2 eggs

½ cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1 teaspoon cinnamon

Heat the milk to almost boiling in a large, heavy saucepan. Meanwhile, beat sugar and vanilla into eggs. Temper the eggs by adding about half a cup of hot milk to the eggs and mixing, then add that mixture to the rest of the hot milk.  Now add the cooked rice to the egg and milk mixture. Add all of it to a casserole dish nested inside another dish.

This is a casserole nested inside a 9x13 lasagne pan. I poured an inch of hot water in once it was in the oven.

Sprinkle with the spices. Place the pans in the oven, and carefully add hot water to the outside pan. This forms a water bath, and helps the custard cook evenly. Cook for one hour at 350 degrees, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.

            One of the traditional things Swedes do with this pudding on Christmas Eve is put an almond in it about 10 minutes before it is finished. Legend has it that whoever gets the almond in their serving will get married the next year.  That will go over well with the first graders…

So, as I see it, rice pudding is a blank slate- what would you do with it?

Hollow Book Safes

 Just moments ago, I got an idea to make book safes for my nieces and nephews- little books to hide important things in…then I realized I don’t have time to make them before Christmas, but maybe next year. I did come across this extremely complete tutorial for hollowing out a book, though.  Now that I think about it, giving everyone book safes at the same time is a bad idea, then little brothers and sisters know which book holds your secrets…I have great visions of lining vintage books with velvet, though…maybe I just need one for myself.

Angel costumes we have heard on high

My sister-in-law called me a week or so ago, wanting advice. “You’re so crafty,” she said, “and you have such great ideas, I wonder if you can come over and help me with ideas for these angel costumes for the kids’ Christmas play. It’s just that none of them match, and they’re too long…you’re just so creative…” I agreed to come over, and thought of what I’d say, things like, you know, “gold belts would look great… or why not try halos? or how about cutting holes in white sheets?”

It turned out that when I got there, she had about a dozen non-matching costumes for kindergarteners, all of them long enough for the kids to trip on as they walked up to the stage. We looked at what she had, and I said, “In a perfect world, what would you want?”

I traced this template from the best existing costume, then laid it out on rectangles folded in quarters. Zip zap with the rotary cutter...

All of the costumes looked like they had been put together at different times, by different people. Some with genuine sewing skills, and one of them was, no kidding, a sheet with holes cut in it. My SIL said that in a perfect world she would want the costumes all to match, and not be as long, and this one (she pointed to one of the several lying on the floor) had nice wingy sleeves. By the way, she also had a bolt of white muslin. Well.

We figured out that we could trace a pattern with the one with the sleeves she liked, and had enough muslin to cut out 8 at 18 inches long, which was just right on my nephew, who is one of the Angels in question. I took the bolt home, washed the fabric and ironed it, which is always the worst part. In fact, since my SIL agreed to iron all the bits and pieces as they came off the sewing machine, sewing them wasn’t so bad. I checked the internet to see if anyone in the blogosphere had any tips about angel costumes, but seriously, they were along the lines of: gold belts, halos, cut holes in sheets…

SIL brought the kids over to my house the next day and we set up an assembly line, cutting out the necks and sleeves from a symmetrical pattern, like a valentine heart. (The kids weren’t in the assembly line, by the way, they pretty much ran around, swordfighting with sticks, and breaking up the ice in the goldfish pond with a shovel.)  Then I stitched the sleeves and armpits, then the necks. We were going to try to get away without doing the necks, but then one angel ripped it when trying it on, so I zigzagged around each neck hole.

Artsy? or just underexposed? you decide...

All the angels were adorable at the Christmas play, although I didn’t get any pictures- we were late, as usual, to the performance, and they took off the costumes pretty quickly after the show was over.  It took an afternoon of work, but we’ll see the costumes for years as my nephews and nieces work their ways up from angels to census takers to shepherds year by year.

Sigh, in a perfect world, I would have had more time, to hand-bind the necks with silver ribbon, a simple detail that would be invisible from the audience, but I would know…

Making Latkes

We’ve been so busy this past week, that today is the first time we have to make some homemade Latkes. We’re not Jewish, but last year the girl came home with a recipe for Latkes, we made them and discovered how delicious they are with French Onion Dip, and a tradition was born)
The girl just learned how to peel potatoes at Thanksgiving, so she peeled some, and now she’s grating the potatoes. Sigh, my little girl, so grown up… Last year we didn’t have any applesauce, so we just grated some Golden Delicious apple- which was a tasty alternative. This year, we have some homemade applesauce, but I forgot to take it out of the freezer…so we might grate some apple again. Sour cream is also a traditional topping, but now that we have tried French onion dip, I’ll never go back.

2 cups grated peeled potatoes,

1 small onion, grated,

 1 teaspoon salt,

 grind of pepper,

1 tablespoon flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder,

2 eggs, beaten

Soak the potatoes in cold water for an hour, then drain and press out as much water as possible. Mix the potatoes, onion, salt and pepper, then add the flour and baking powder. The flour makes the latkes hold together when they fry, but too much and you lose the crispiness. Add eggs and mix well. Drop the mixture by tablespoons in a well greased, hot frying pan. Spread out with the back of the spoon. Cook on one side until golden brown, then flip. Eat immediately, or save up on a plate in the oven set on 200. The advantage to doing this is that everyone gets to eat together, but the disadvantage is that they really are best fresh out of the frying pan. I think it is worth it for everyone to eat at the same time.

This recipe makes about 15 or 16 latkes.

Organizing the Piano

In order to put out Christmas decorations, we have to clean. The girl wants to be in charge of the Christmas village, which consists of two newspaper offices and a spooky castle. As we start clearing off the piano, I am realizing that one of the reasons it hasn’t been cleaned before is because of some unfinished business. There is a big basket of sheet music that dates back to when the girl took piano lessons. I mean, it dates back to when the girl quit piano lessons.
So much clutter is psychological- I had wanted piano lessons as a kid, but never got them. The girl started out liking lessons, then hated practicing, hated lessons, hated me. There was a lot of yelling. We hosted her final recital, she did a beautiful job, then she quit, and I had (still have) a lot of mixed emotions. The basket of sheet music contains her Suzuki book 1, the Suzuki book 2 that I bought, hoping she would change her mind, notebooks that I took notes in about what she needed to practice, flash cards, envelopes with prizes she could win if she practiced 2 hours, 4 hours, 6 hours…
I am tempted to put the whole pile in a box to be dealt with at some later date. No. Must deal with now. Wish me luck.

OK. It is later, and it wasn’t as bad as I thought. I went through the basket while the girl dusted the piano. I got rid of some bad memories, and was able to pull some Christmas music to the front of the basket. We pulled out a vintage linen tablecloth to represent snow, and she set up the buildings, plus the spooky castle on the hill. Then she actually added to it, making some houses, and an ice skating pond. In a perfect world, she would then sit down, pull out some Christmas music, and start playing piano. Needless to say, that didn’t happen. I guess I can dream.

No, there was no tornado...this is just how the living room looked before. It is much better now. At least the top of the piano is organized now...