Summer Has Sprung

For the third year in a row, Wisconsin has not had a proper springtime. We have, essentially, jumped from winter (and 30 degree weather) to summer (and 70 degree weather). Frankly, I would really like a transition... but that just me, I guess.

This past weekend we were graced with temperatures in the high 60's and low 70's so, when you have so few months of decent weather, you don't let days like these go to waste. After a rollicking night out on Friday (my bookclub's second anniversary party which resulted in excessive imbibing and bowling until 12:30a.m.), I got my hungover butt out of bed, drank a bunch of water, and started doing yardwork at 9a.m.

The interesting thing about working off a hangover is that there's this moment when you're absolutely positive you're not going to make it and then, suspiciously, you get over it and, between the sun and the fresh air, you suddenly feel great! Or, at least, that was my experience on Saturday.

Because I'm a lazy gardener, I didn't clean out my planting beds at the end of last summer. Saturday's efforts were spent on yard clean-up - raking leaves, digging up volunteer trees, and pulling some of the early, aggressive weeds. At the end of two and a half hours of hard labor, my son, his girlfriend, and I had filled 8 giant leaf bags with yard waste to go to the landfill and (becuase we ran out of bags) left a huge pile of leaves at the curb. My yard is far from finished but I felt an amazing sense of accomplishment getting the beds clean and ready for mulch and new plants.

Inside the house got a smidgen of attention on Sunday with a bit of cleaning and some general moving around of stuff. House plants got moved to the porch and the grill got cleaned and used for dinner. But, the best part of our sunny, 70 degree day was taking my dogs to my friend's farm for a run-about. They spent three hours smelling smells, running in the sun, and chasing the teenaged pigs around the barn. There's nothing funnier than watching a 10 lbs miniature pinscher herd pigs that are four times its size. I wish I'd remembered to bring a camera...

Actually, the best part might have been the fact that the dogs slept the sleep of the dead last night. I can't remember the last time they were so exhausted.

I rounded out my first weekend of summer with a visit from a friends who's learning to knit. We had dinner and then set out to review her work to date and get her going again. She had been to two previous knitting "events" with friends and had a basic understanding of knit stitch. But, she also knew that her fabric (which was about four inches long) was kind of a mess. She had a number of dropped stitches and her tension was pretty uneven so her work looked like that of a beginner (surprise!). So, we ripped out her work and started her on a new piece. I think that, having someone right next to you to talk through problems row by row, really makes a huge difference. She knit about 20 rows and managed to keep her tension pretty consistent and only made a few mistakes (so she also got to see how to fix them). One thing I'm learning about beginning knitters is that it's not unusual for them to "twist" their stitches - usually by throwing their yarn the wrong way around the needle. She did this very consistently but I was able to show her what she was doing and why doing it the "right" way was better. It's going to take some practice for her to change the bad habit but now that she knows how to identify what she's doing wrong, I think she'll get there sooner rather than later.  Oh! I also got her off the insanely long metal needles she was using and onto some nice, easy-to-handle bamboos.

I find that I rather like teaching people how to knit. :)

Finally, in this personal ramble of mine, I'd like to update you all on my allergic reaction that I wrote about last week. Turns out that it wasn't the soap! *yea! I can still use my awesome new felted soap!*  Sadly, it turns out that I had a reaction to an antibiotic I was taking... This is bad for many reason, the worst of which is that I LOVE the Z-Pack and may never be allowed to take it again. Grrrrr.  Also, pretty bad is the fact that, because the meds stay in your system for 10 days, I'M STILL ITCHY!  Although it's much better since I'm taking a cocktail of allergy meds and lathering myself with anti-itch lotion every day.

I hope that, like us, you all  are enjoying glorious weather - wherever you are. All hail summer! Let the gardening begin.

- Alex

Itchy & Scratchy

Madison is home to a lot of really unique and well-organized communities. It's kind of an embarrassment of riches for those of us with a lot of interests. Want a great group of people to take long, country-side bike rides with, there's an organization for that. Interested in saving feral cats? There's a group for that. And, of course, there's The Madison Knitters' Guild. Honestly, if you have an interest, there's probably an organized group of Madisonians doing that activity and providing support for people who want to join.

One new and extremely well-organized community - of particular interest to us crafters/artists - is Handmade Madison: Indie Artist League.

The website's claim is that they are "A source for information on shows, events, workshops, products, questions, answers, and especially calls for artists in the Midwest region."  The site is really nicely designed (as one would hope from an "artists' league") and a great resource for networking with other artists in the region.

But, perhaps the coolest thing Handmade Madison does is organize "pop up markets". These are one-day-only events with a number of different, local artists setting up shop. From their site:
Handmade Madison pop-up markets are an opportunity for artists and craftspeople to showcase the things they love to make and for those who appreciate good craftsmanship and clever creations to find something they will truly love, or love to give!  We pride ourselves on our wonderful vendors – people who create with sincerity and passion.
We offer our shoppers a menagerie of handcrafted items sold to them by the very folks who create them.  Patrons can experience first hand the gratitude of our makers and delight in supporting local and regional independent artists.  We hope you shop locally  and support local artists whenever possible!
This past Sunday I attended my second Handmade Madison pop-up market and, for the second time, really overspent my "unnecessary spending" budget. I think that, when you're an artist or a craftsperson yourself, it's important to support your fellow artists with your dollars (at least that's the way I justify my much emptier bank account!)

I got this great pair of earrings:

The pic doesn't do them justice.

And a cool t-shirt:


And some organic, homemade dog biscuits: 

BBQ Flavored, All-Natural Biscuits

And two bars of felted soap (Yes, bars of soap covered in felted wool. "A natural loofah" according to the seller):

Yes. There's a bar of soap under that wool.

I learned about a process for wet felting roving to make gorgeous, soft hats.

And I found this amazing needle-felted rabbit that cost more than I could justify for a piece of art when there are electric bills due.

Seriously. How gorgeous is he?

So... maybe you're wondering about the title of this post. Well, I used one of my new (rather expensive) felted soaps and, sadly, had a wicked allergic reaction. I don't believe it's the wool - I knit with wool nearly every day and I wear wool against my skin all the time - so I think it might have been the soap itself. Regardless, every inch of my skin, from my neck down, itches. I mean REALLY, REALLY itches. All day I was running to the rest room to claim enough privacy to scratch the heck out of my legs, arms, chest, and belly. As soon as I got home, I took a shower with a moisturizing bath gel and used a BufPuf to scrub all the itchy bits. Then I dried off, put on some lotion and took two Benedryls. Keep your fingers crossed that I wake up to some relief. :)

Selfishly, I'm a little sad that my cool felted soaps have to be gifted away. Hopefully, the recipient won't have the same problems that I have!

- Alex

Alpha Waves and the Knitting Girl

When Alex and I started this blog, one of our self-imposed rules was to keep it real. Particularly real about how our lives collide with our making. So, here's a chance for me to let you in on a little secret: my corporate work life has been crazy with volume and change lately which has left me rather drained and nervous. Left unchecked, this kind of stress leaves me feeling creatively insecure and depressed. You know what I do at times like this?

Slow, deliberate stitches by hand.

I thank my stars every day I have such meditative outlets in my life. And yes, knitting (and other needlework) truly is meditation. The folks at Lion Brand Yarn and Harvard said so.

a raw edge waiting to be finished = best thing ever
These days, after my littles are tucked into bed, you will find me quietly alone with a project on my lap. For at least an hour. No talking, no thinking. Just me and miles of quilt binding to be sewn or rows of stockinette to be knit. The tension eases out of my mind and body as the soothing alpha waves work their magic. After this alone time, I can talk, think, work, do...happily. How do you like them apples Dr Freud?

How wonderful is it to be able to get into a meditative state and end up with a beautiful finished object at the end of it all? We crafty people have the tiger by the tail I tells ya.

I've recently discovered that hand-quilting does the trick too!


FaveQuilts Love (& Free eBook!)

I have some fun news to share with you today. Our Log Cabin Quilt Block Tutorial has been included in a new eBook published by FaveQuilts called Patterns for Quilting: 8 Free Block Patterns to Make a Quilt for Your Home!

For those who don't know, Favequilts is a wonderful website that features free quilting content from around the web. You want to know how to sew an hourglass quilt block or maybe make your own bias tape? No problem. Go search their site and you'll find links to some great tutorials by other crafty bloggers like us.

Favequilts has featured quite a few of our tutorials on their site, the most popular being our Log Cabin Quilt Block. It lived on their "What's Hot" list for quite a while and recently we were asked for our permission for them to include it in their new eBook. Considering how many thousands of tutorials live on their site, we were really flattered.

You want to know the best art about this eBook for you? It's FREE. Yep, there's a lot of amazing content in there for nada. If you're a quilter, or want to be, go download your own copy today!


Playing Games

Recently years have seen a huge resurgence in table-top gaming. For those unfamiliar with the term, "table-top" refers to non-video games and can include anything from board games, to card games, to role playing games, and much more. Think of it as "analog gaming". Consider that Grant Wilson, from Ghost Hunters, actually quit the show at the height of its popularity to start a table-top gaming company called Rather Dashing Games!

Some of the most interesting table-top games have come from the rich history of game design in Europe. These games - which focus largely on strategy - even have their own category in the table-top gaming world. While relatively complicated to learn, once the rules are established, the game play is generally fast and there's less "luck" involved, unlike most American-designed games which rely heavily on chance and conflict. These types of games really get the brain going.

The popularity of these "unplugged" games has resulted in some interesting opportunities. Board game shops - complete with areas where you can learn/play games - are popping up in most cities. Online, geek-hero and actor Wil Wheaton, has created a program called TableTop that films him and his friends playing (and teaching you) various games. This is an amazing way to see game-play in action and to decide if the game is something you and your friends or family would enjoy. And, at least around here, you'll usually find a shelf full of board games in the neighborhood pub.

Wil Wheaton and Friends, enjoying a Tabletop game
Perhaps the best thing about table top games is that there is, truly, something for everyone. Whether you're playing Snakes Chutes and Ladders with your three-year-old or you're obsessed with extended games of Settler of Cataan, anyone, of any age or skill level, can enjoy a table-top game. Me, personally, I like a game of strategy with a smidge of chance thrown in. :)

Somehow, in the last few years, I've become friends with a fairly large group of people who either design table-top games or are somehow involved in the industry. More than likely, I'm drawn to these people as friends because they generally have big, smart brains that work in an interesting way - rather like an engineer, they are always looking for the right construction of the idea, and they have a very impressive attention to detail. Knowing these people has made me smarter as well. Because I'm playing more games, more often, I'm often being challenged to think strategically and learn new things. That moment when you suddenly "get" the game is really exhilerating.

This past weekend, I was honored to have a night of game playing with four people who work in the gaming industry. These are people who, during game play, will comment on things like how the instructions are written or whether or not the illustrations are up to par. I love this aspect of playing with them. Plus, I got to play three new games - one of which I'm totally enamored with and will be buying this week. :)  The bad thing about playing with them is that there's no off-switch. When, at 2 in the a.m., I finally said, "If we don't end this game soon, I'm going to be too tired to drive home", I didn't see a whole lot of effort to speed up the game play. LOL. On the other hand, I made a strategic move that allowed someone to win (on purpose), somewhere around 2:15am so I was home by 2:30-ish.

Early in our gaming evening. I wasn't too tired yet.

I think that table-top gaming is really specific to each person and/or family and/or friend-group. I'm going to list a handful of games that I like but I can't guarantee that YOU'LL like them. If you're ready to start unplugging and playing analog, I'd really recommend that you find a local game store and see if you can test play some games and/or get some help from someone who really knows the games. The online show TableTop will give you an opportunity to see a few games played that might be of interest. And, the very best resource for table-top game information (in my opinion) is, where you can search for games by type, age range, etc.

Here's my not-terribly-comprehesive list of Alex's current favorite games:

Board Games:
Ticket To Ride - Build your train lines while your opponents do the same. Easy to play but requires strategy based on other players' styles. Comes in a European edition as well.

Straight-up Card Games:
Apples-to-Apples - Match the description with the best answer in your hand. Hilarity ensues. The best answer wins. There's a Junior edition for smaller kids!
Cards Against Humanity - Basically Apples-to-Apples for Adults. It's X-rated so proceed with caution.
Gloom - Silly and different. The goal is to die as unhappily as possible. Opportunities to "screw your neighbors" by making them happy.

Deck Building Games (card games with strategery):
Dominion - Once you learn the rules, this game plays fast and involves a nice amount of strategic thinking. It can become a bit of an obsession (be warned).
Penny Arcade - A great, two-player game with a tie-in to a popular geeky comic.

Card Games with Boards or Bits:
Munchkin - Super fun, silly, and ruthless. Play with like-minded people. Those with thin skins may get their feelings hurt unless they're playing with other super-nice folks. Can be played with children.
7 Wonders - This is one that I played on Saturday that I absolutely LOVE - for far too many reason to fit into this sentence.

Word Games (with boards or bits):
Fauxcabulary - Make up new words on the fly. Best word wins the round.
Word on the Street - Can be played in teams or individually. There's a junior edition as well.
Bananagrams - Kind of like a cross between Scrabble and Crosswords. Easy to transport and fun to play. Again - match your group. If you've only got one word-nerd in the mix, they're probably always going to win.

I could go on for a while... I now have two closet shelves given over to board games. Of course, that's nothing compared to my friends who, literally, have hundreds, and hundreds, of table-top games.

So, jump on the trend folks! Go analog! Interact with your friends and family! Put away the video game controllers! I promise you'll have a blast.

- Alex

P.S. - While you may have missed it this year, March 30th is International Tabletop Gaming Day. Local game shops have events and giveaways. It's a great way to get started! But don't wait until next year...

Friday Finds: Learn to Crochet

Happy Friday everyone!

Today's find is an awesome tutorial I found on Pinterest. Vanessa of the Do You Mind if I Knit blog created the best crochet how-to I've ever seen.

Photo courtesy of Do You Mind If I Knit.
I'm going to make a definite goal for this summer...this girl is learning to crochet!


Fancy Nails

I like being slighty fancy. I'm not a big make-up wearer but I always do my eyes and put on blush. Sometimes, especially if I'm going out at night, I'll wear some lipgloss. I love having fancy hair but I don't usually curl it (mostly becuase I'm not willing to spend the time on it) so I have to rely on good haircuts and my mad blow-drying skillz. And, really, is there anything better in the world than a good pedicure??

The one thing I never, ever, ever do is get manicures and/or paint my nails. There are three reasons for this:

1. I've never really liked the way my weirdly shaped fingers looked topped off with color.
2. I love having short nails and thought it looked odd to have them painted when they were so short.
3. I have ZERO patience for waiting for my nails to dry.

Let's be realistic. I use my hands A LOT. I knit, I sew, I read, I clean my house, I talk with my hands (incessantly).  I simply cannot be forced to sit around for extended periods with my hands inert just so that they have some color on them.

*This is the part where the clouds part, the sun shines through, and the angels start singing...*

Enter Sally Hansen Salon Effects Real Nail Polish Strips.

I don't know what kind of alchemy makes this happen but this is real nail polish that you peel off a backing, stick to your nails, and then go. It goes on dry and stays on for about two weeks. Best of all, if you want to be extra-fancy, the strips come in "designs" that make it look like you spent hours in a chair at a nail spa.

(Between us, some of the designs are a little... um... well... maybe "young" is the right word. But a lot of them are more understated and relatively appropriate for work.)

So, here in pictures, is my last application of Salon Effects and a few photos of the various designs I've tried so far.

What you get in the box: 2 sets of 8 strips of various widths; an emory board with three levels of coarseness; a wood cuticle stick.

Note that, if you open the package of strips, you have to use them within an hour or so or they start to "harden" and become unusable. They are, actually, nail polish.

Also note that, because my nails are so short, I use one strip for two nails - thus, I get two applications from each box!

(Sorry for the bad photo)
These are what the strips look like.

The first thing to do is to prep your nails. Clean them with nail polish remover to get rid of any oils or dirt, buff them with the emory board, and push back your cuticles.

Next, peel the clear cover from the front of the strip and then peel the strip off the backing. You'll be left with a little rectangular tab that you can use to handle the strip while placing it on your nail.

Place the strip on your nail by centering it and putting it as close to the cuticle as possible (even a little under it if you can). This is why prepping your cuticles is an important step. The Sally Hansen brand has a light adhesive so it's easy to pull up and reposition if you don't like how it landed on your nail the first time. However, once you press it down hard on the nail, it's pretty much in place.


Push the strip down, tucking it around the edges of the nail, against the cuticle. Using a pair of nail scissors (or other small snips) cut the excess strip from the end of the nail. I reserve this piece to do another nail. If your nails are longer, you probably won't be able to do this.

Wrap the excess over the tip of the nail then take the roughest part of the emory board and file off the excess strip.

Angle the file under the nail so as not to damage the polish at the tip.

I then use the flat part of the cuticle stick to press the edges of the polish strip to ensure that they're well adhered to my nail.

E voila!  Fun, "polished" nails with ZERO DRY TIME!

I believe that these 'cure' a bit over the course of an hour or so. I have noticed that I can pick at them easier right after I've done them but the longer they're on, the harder the polish seems to get.

Also, even though the box says you can remove these with regular polish, it takes an annoying amount of polish (and time) to make that happen. After my first application, I went to the beauty supply store and bought a bottle of pure acetone (the active ingredient in nail polish remover). Now they come off in a couple of swipes. :)

And now, for your viewing pleasure, here are some of my favorite nails since discovering Sally Hansen Salon Effects:

This next one isn't Sally Hansen - it's a brand called Essie. While I loved the pattern (lace with a pink pearlescent undercoat), I found the strip too thick and difficult to use. The fit wasn't as clean as with the Sally Hansen brand and, because the design was raised, I found myself wanting to pick at it constantly.

I highly recommend trying polish strips if you want a quick, easy way to fancy your nails. The whole process takes me about 40 minutes. I pick a one-hour show on the DVR and by the time the show is over, my nails are done and, more importantly, dry.  Let me know if you try these and what you think!

- Alex

Fear of Success

I have a lingering project in my studio. And it's killing me because, as I've said before, I am a start-to-finish girl. How have I suddenly gotten myself into this position?

3 words: Fear of Success

Way back in my art school days I remember a professor diagnosing me with "Fear of Success". It sounded like the most ridiculous thing I'd ever heard. At the time I wanted nothing more than success. Now if he would have said, "Fear of Failure", I would have agreed with that whole-heartedly. So I dismissed those words. And yet, they ended up haunting me for years.

You see, every time I take on a "designed by me" creative project, I stutter at the end. I avoid finishing the last bit of work that needs to be done. For instance, the Woodland Animal embroideries I did for Little Bear's room were all stitched and ready to be framed for a few months before I made myself do it. And once they were done, I sat back...a little shy about the attention they might receive.

I think my professor was telling me to be as creative as I could and let the chips fall where they may. Sometimes those chips fall into the realm of success, and that's part of the creative journey. A single success just unlocks one of the doors on your way. Just one. And there are a million more left to open. Your own personal creative path is a long road that never ends.

It's time to put aside my fears and take care of business. The short-term solution is simple...take a big girl pill and finally finish my first queen sized quilt.

The piecing on the top has been finished, hand-embroidery done, quilt back is sewn, and it even has been to the longarm quilter and back (waving to Stitchlilly right now!). What is left? Just two things. Attaching the binding and hand-quilting the embroidery panels. Everything else will be set aside until this is done.

When this monster is finished I will definitely share my creative process and my inspiration with you. For now, a sneak peek...

This quilt is saying "bind me already!"

Pinwheels, log-cabins and checkerboards playing nice-nice with each other.

There is something about the quilting that just makes all the blocks seem like they belong together.

 Thanks for listening (reading?) to my own personal crazy.


Friday Finds: Great Yarn Deals

I'm sure that all of you are, at least, passingly familiar with Craftsy - the online community that offers classes in knitting, sewing, and much more.

But did you know that Craftsy sells yarn and fabric? And sometimes at bargain basement prices? HOLY CATS. Look at my recent haul:

This is 20 skeins of Cascade 220 Heather and 2 skeins of Cascade Pure Alpaca (in the most scrumptious colors!) My entire order was $101.55. Seriously. The shipping was free - maybe because I spent over a certain amount, I can't remember. But, regardless, this is insane. My average price per skein was $4.64. For Cascade. And alpaca.

So... you can simply check Craftsy's "shop" tab occassionally for deals or, if you're a Facebook sort of person, you can follow a page called the Knitting Club. They post all the Craftsy deals as they're happening. That's how I found out about the Cascade sale. :)

Have fun shopping!

- Alex

P.S. As of about 3 minutes ago, we are officially PUBLISHED!

Drum roll, please...

Word on the street is that this Friday, April 5, is the offical release date for What (else) Would Madame Defarge Knit?!!  Woot!

For those of you who haven't seen our multiple posts on the subject, Cassandra and I have a pattern in this book - which will make us official, published knitwear designers, once the book is released. It's been a crazy, fun, and challenging effort and we're really proud to have worked with Heather Ordover and the folks at Cooperative Press. (On the QT: we've had two more designs accepted for the next book in the WWMDFK? series as well! I'm starting to feel slightly "professional" at this crafting thing now.)

The publicity for the book has included a regular e-newsletter from Heather that includes mini-interviews with the book's contributors as well as free patterns. Just in case you're not on the email distribution, here are links to each (our interview is in "Sneak Peek 5"):

If you're interested in signing up for the newsletter, click here.

For fans of Facebook, you can get all this and more at the WWMDFK? Facebook page.

And, of course, if you're a Raveler (which I'm sure all our knitting friends are!), you can see pics of some of the patterns and more at the WWMDFK? Ravelry page.

Finally, there's the absolutely offical (and full of awesome information, pics, bios, etc) WWMDFK? website!

Needless to say, I hope that everyone decides to buy the book. :)  But, just in case you need added incentive, everyone who pre-orders or orders during the first 24 hours of being published (beginning noon, Pacific time on Friday, 4//5) will receive additional freebies. I don't know what those consist of but I'm sure they'll be pretty awesome.

If we haven't said it enough, Cassandra and I are exceedingly grateful for the support of our Mighty Distractible friends. We can't thank you enough for sticking with us as we take this crafty journey and we hope you continue to enjoy the "work" we're doing.

- Alex

Vegetarian Matzo Ball Soup

I'm not gonna lie. Sometimes being a vegetarian can be really hard.

I miss the rich flavor that only meat can bring to a dish. Anyone who has tried to make meatless versions of classic recipes know the frustration that can bring. My husband and I have been experimenting with meatless home-style dishes for a while and I decided to share this recipe with you because we've decided that it totally "scratches the itch" when you want some matzo ball soup.


Faux Chicken Broth

1Lb Soft Tofu
5 carrots
5 celery stalks
1 large onion
2 cloves of garlic
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tbps of butter
Better Than Bouillon, No Chicken Base
2 large springs of fresh thyme
5 bay leaves
Salt (to taste)
Pepper (to taste)

Grate the carrots, dice the onions, and thinly cut the celery (we use a mandolin to get it paper thin).

In a large soup pot on medium heat, melt the olive oil and butter. Add the onions and celery and cook until the onions start looking transparent. Press the garlic and add it along with the shredded carrots. Let that cook together for a couple minutes and then add a heaping tablespoon of the No Chicken Base. Let this cook on medium heat while you pick the thyme leaves off the stalks and add them to the pot with the bay leaves. Stir that up well and then add about 5 cups of water.

Get the broth up to just before boiling and then keep it simmering while you add a tablespoon of No Chicken Base at a time. Keep tasting and adding until it is to your liking. Now it's time to crumble the tofu into the broth. We like to crumble it into really small bits, but do it to your taste.

This is when the broth is ready to add the matzo balls you pre-made and are chilling in the freezer. Make it easy on yourself, buy this kit. It makes them so effortlessly. We have made them more "from scratch" and they really weren't any different. One thing we do is add an entire grated carrot into the mix right before we form the balls. I love the look of those orange flecks in the matzo balls.

Cook the matzo balls directly in the broth for the time called for on the matzo ball package. Delicious.