Sunday, January 29, 2017

'20s in Tweed

Pleated skirts are classic. I like how they can be fitted at the waist and sit smoothly at the hips, but not cling tightly while sitting or striding. Gathers are bunchy to me, and unless they're for something pre-20th-century-- in which case it's long and petticoated enough to offset the waist-- I really prefer pleats. I frequently look through patterns in thrift stores; there are seldom any older than 1970, but once in a while I'll turn up a gem. This one was in girls' sizes, but view #3, with the two inverted box pleats on the front, attracted me immediately. The disintegrating envelope contained only the directions, but these were intact and included diagrams of what the missing pieces looked like. For only 99¢ it was worth taking home as a reference.
Simplicity #1783, from 1956, via Etsy
One thrift store which I frequent keeps a shelf of fabric scraps and remnants. I often donate my own there and sometimes pick things out for new projects. This one caught my eye especially: a plain-weave wool tweed for $2.00. Tweed is my favorite material and I would have all my clothing made of it if it were more readily available. This piece was 44" wide doubled, and just over a yard long-- enough for the skirt, if I cut it carefully. There was no room for error: this is old fabric with no stretch in it whatsoever.
It's a rusty reddish brown with oyster-cream-- warm and autumnal.
At some point before starting work on the skirt, I happened to be re-watching some Jeeves & Wooster episodes and noticed a skirt in one of the episodes which seemed to be constructed on the same general principle. I can't tell if there's top-stitching or not, and there are two pleats in the back as well (#1783 only has one). It is also slightly a-lined, which I liked. Pencil skirts are difficult to fit to my body type, and I was worried that even with pleats a form-fitting skirt might be uncomfortable. This one looked nice, though; it's designed off a late 1920s golf dress.
"To qualify as Miss Wickham's husband, a gentleman should be possessed of a commanding personality and considerable strength of character."
"Exactly, Jeeves! Condemned out of your own mouth!"
The front is pieced in five: a front panel, two front-side panels, and two insets for the inverted box pleats. I didn't have enough material to fold the outer fabric all the way from the pleat to the waistband, but that's the beauty of it-- I could cheat a little bit. Here's the underside.
I managed to cut around all the moth-holes and weird sunbleached bits.
Originally, I thought there wouldn't be enough material to include a pleat at the back, but there was just enough. It really surprised me how far I could make that little bit of fabric go-- there's even extra material inside if I should ever wish to enlarge it. Here's a view of the back pleat, with the topstitch going up to the waist.
I hemmed it by hand. The woven selvage was pretty enough to leave, but the hem looks crisper.
The waistband worried me a bit because there wasn't a strip left which was long enough for the entire thing and I had to piece it together out of three. It doesn't show at all, though. I did put some interfacing inside it for support. I decided against an invisible zipper since I planned to match the topstitching anyway. The button is one from an old collection I bought in a 1960s coffee jar-- nothing antique and nothing particularly exciting, but good and plain and serviceable. 
Probably my nicest and most patiently-done waistband ever.
 I did fully line this skirt, since tweed is awful against the skin and I had planned to wear it in cooler weather. Lining is something I do for most garments anyway; it helps them sit better and looks more finished on the inside. Here it is! I've already worn it to work several times and it is quite comfortable.
I usually wear a cardigan buttoned over the waistband.
 When there's a bit of a breeze or I'm moving around the pleats open up some, so I have lots of mobility.
I'm pleased with the way this came out-- it's the first sewing project I've sat down and completed in a long time which came out exactly how I had hoped. That's always an inspiration to go on and finish the rest of them.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Saga of the Shed: a brief history

Here is my new garden site as it appeared late in the summer of 2015. It wasn't until clearing away some of the brush to plant the peonies that I realized what a nice corner it would make for my entire garden, since it received balanced amounts of sun and shade and afforded a greater degree of privacy than my current flowerbed. The one drawback of the location was the eyesore shed. The outside was pristine compared to the inside, which was too dilapidated and filthy to use for real storage needs. One of the doors had broken off and had to be held up with a broomstick jammed through the handles. This doozy was visible from the main thoroughfare six blocks away.
Coming up the street, it looked as if Our Lady were riding the broom. That was when we knew it had to go.
My perennials were mostly in place by the end of 2015. I had hurried to get them moved before cold weather set in, only to end up with a drastically mild winter. Everything was in a hodge-podge and I had no plan whatsoever, though I did amend the soil with some peat moss and a few bags of manure. I enlarged the iris bed and moved in a few dozen more. The pedestal for the statue used to belong to an old broken bird bath. I really should straighten it out one of these days.
The only reason that the shed was standing on the concrete pad in the first place was that it had been nailed there.
An ice storm last January left us with a sizable amount of debris. It wasn't until a week later when everything had thawed out that I saw the full extent of the damage. On entering the shed for a branch trimmer, I found that a huge limb from a loblolly pine had crushed the roof. I was elated. A kind neighbor with a chainsaw helped to remove it. Almost forty minutes had passed before we could even get it to budge.
The cat used it as a stately pleasure-dome.
I would have removed the shed immediately, but the screws holding it together had rusted into the metal in many places and were so weather-worn on top that a screwdriver had nothing to grip. They had to be located from inside and beaten out with a hammer. I removed the panels from two sides and laid them away to use as roofing for the screen room we hope to build sometime in the future. The rest of it I tore down and beat to pieces between grueling sessions of work on a graduate portfolio. I did cut my hand rather badly in the process.

To save myself a trip to the scrapyard or dump, I took a picture of the twisted heap that remained-- roof, walls, doors, and framework-- and put it on Craigslist for free. A gnarly-looking and excessively polite gentleman disassembled and removed it to build a trailer for his rat rod car. This is not the first time I have listed something as "Free" just to have it carted away.
Now we're getting somewhere.
This is the garden wall I built last week as the first phase in my new design. It's made of broken concrete sidewalk pieces which were buried at the back of our yard; I believe they were used to hold down landscaping plastic which was then covered in mulch, about 30 years ago. This past summer I salvaged a truckload of broken cinderblock which gives the wall a bit more height. It all blends together nicely and I love its irregularity. It adds some much-needed upward dimension in the garden and has a nicer effect than lining all the "rocks" up in a flat meandering border. The top layer on the wall has some yellow lichen growing on it. I'd like to try moss on the shady side and some pockets of succulents in the larger gaps. There is about 16' of chain-link fence between the wall and the bushes at the back and I might try to build a panel of wattle fencing to conceal it. The gap at the end of the privet hedge will eventually be concealed by a summerhouse.

The arbor is built of scrap wood, some from the shed when we moved in and some leftover from projects. Carolina jasmine is starting up the left side and 'Lady Banks' up the right. Both are a little slower-growing than I thought they'd be but will look beautiful someday. In the meantime I might try some morning glories to make it look less barren.

I still have a long way to go but am pleased with the view so far.

Monday, January 2, 2017

New Year, New Garden

In the fall of 2015, I began the process of moving my entire garden from the southeast side of the yard to the northwest corner.
This map makes the lot look huge. It's really only a third of an acre.
There were several weighty reasons for the move. Privacy was a big one. Our neighbors on all sides are sweet people, but the ones to the south had their outdoor living space directly beside my garden. The only boundary was a falling-down chicken wire fence which didn't make for a nice backdrop, let alone affording any privacy. I always felt a bit in-their-space while working alongside the property line, and the entire thing was within 15' of their windows. In addition, the outer edge of the garden is visible from the street.

Secondly, my plants were doing better in partial shade than full sun-- even plants which typically grow in full sun. The weather can be brutal during July and August and a bit of shade during the midday hours gives everything a little break.

Thirdly, I don't have a particular talent for border gardens. A 30x4' strip of plants only really works against a fence or wall or hedge-- not chicken wire. And not something as sparse and sun-blasted and patchy as my border had been. To top it all off, the garden was not visible from any windows in my own house.

The new location allows for more compact garden shapes, lush shade plants, privacy from the road and neighbors' patios, and a degree of visibility from the master bedroom windows. However, when I moved everything, I was still too locked into using elongated border shapes to deviate from The Sprawl. This was my initial design, in place for the planting season of 2016:
There had been irises originally. I enlarged their bed and added more.
A few things of note: the concrete pad held a dilapidated metal storage shed which I had wanted to destroy (as it was no longer secure, functional, or even structurally sound) and which, in a piece of extraordinary luck, was crushed by a limb in a January ice storm. Someday I hope to build a screen-room there, but for now it could function as a bonus patio if I cleared away all the flowerpots and rubbish. The mulched area to the left has been set out with azaleas which will hopefully blend into the older azalea hedge at the back of the lot. A willow oak and two large loblolly pine trees make excessive digging impossible. None of those trees is particularly picturesque. Neither is the chain-link fence that borders the property to the right and top of my diagram. The camellia is ugly because it never blooms-- the buds get fat and start to open and then freeze or rot off in chunks. Some of the scrubby shrubby things are flowering quince, which could be nice if pruned back for maximum blooming.

The winter of 2015-16 was very warm and enabled me to move almost all my plants, but due to a massive pileup of life events in the spring and summer I didn't accomplish anything further. This led to the garden looking so bad during the growing season that anything would've been an improvement. It was warm and wet today, and when the rains cleared up in the afternoon I went outside and did this:

The irises match the wall now-- the brick is for something special.
One reason why I liked using salvaged concrete chunks as garden edging was because they reminded me of a garden wall. It occurred to me suddenly that instead of going for a vague allusion, I might as well try something a bit more ambitious. All of my chunks are now in a nice wall leading from my scrap-wood arbor to the property-line fence.

What does this mean for my future garden layout?

Well, for one thing, I'm leaning towards having three or four small raised (or at least individually-bordered) beds within this garden area, as opposed to the bizarre, vaguely-North-Carolina-shaped mess I had last season. In the past I've tried to go for a naturalized or naturalistic flowerbed, but these can take a long time to mature even in the best of circumstances. Right now I am hoping for more of an herb or kitchen garden with tidy groupings of old-fashioned plants, less impressionistic and more orderly. Staying focused on one type of design will keep it looking its best.

I'll bring you pictures of the wall and arbor later this week, along with some potential designs for the new flowerbeds.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Inexpensive Framed Art

Early in the summer, I found this frame at a thrift store for $5. The glass and mat were in perfect condition but one of the outer corners was heavily damaged. There is a large wall in my bedroom with nothing on or against it, and I knew it would look more proportionate with one generously-sized item on it than lots of little ones. This frame was just the right size and I knew I could do something with it.
The ugly is strong with this one.
Originally I thought to fix the corner with putty and then paint it, but there was too much damage and I couldn't replicate the crispness of the other three corners. I cut four squares of scrap wood and glued them in place, caulking the seams, and then spray-painted it. The mended corner is not visible without squashing one's face against the wall and peering behind the frame, and I don't have that sort of person over to visit.

Choosing a picture to go in the frame took a while. I admire and enjoy plates of plants and wildlife for their composition, elegance, history, and scientific value. After looking at hundreds of public domain pictures, I decided to use this 1886 plate of redpolls, which resemble our native house finches. I like the limited but eye-catching color scheme, the lifelike postures and placements of the birds, and the attention to detail in the arching branches of the birch tree in which they are perched. Many old plates look posed, almost stiff, but this one captures the gregarious movement of the birds as well as their beautiful plumage.

Vintage Printable is one of my favorite sites for nice pictures; Wikimedia Commons also has quite a few. They are all copyright-free for private use, and many of them have large file sizes which can be blown up without losing image quality. This one was 1948x3272, more than adequate for my purposes, so I saved the file onto a flash drive and made a 16x20 poster enlargement at Wal-Mart. This cost almost $13 and a bit of trepidation, but the end result thoroughly delighted me. The paper is thick and smooth and of high quality, and the image printed clearly with no blurring or pixellation. Here's the finished project. It cost less than $20, which I would count as a bargain for something which is mean to be the main piece of artwork in the room. I will never get tired of looking at it.
I thought this was the one shot without a cat in it. I was wrong.
Another framed art project I'd had in mind for a long time was of illustrations from one of my favorite children's books, Miss Rumphius, by Barbara Cooney. It's the story of a librarian who loves flowers, which would remind me of myself even without her Gibson Girl silhouette, long coats, and drab clothing. The warm earthy folk art of the illustrations captivated me when I discovered it a few years ago; I do not remember if I ever read this book as a child, but it seems familiar.

I ordered a paperback copy from Amazon for a penny (so four dollars, with shipping). The sewn binding came apart easily with a seam-ripper; since the cover was bent it wouldn't have lasted long anyway, so I didn't feel bad about giving it new life in a frame. 
Thomas Kinkade: giving me more fear of Hell than painters of actual Hell
These 11x14 wood-and-glass frames were on clearance at a thrift store for a dollar apiece, and there were only three of them-- the exact number I had wanted. A few scuff marks and some perfectly ghastly pictures from a calendar were preventing anyone else from seeing their true potential. Minor chips and scratches on wooden picture frame are easy to conceal with brown magic marker or shoe polish.

My book pages were just shy of 8x10 and just fit in a mat of that size. I bought these pre-cut mats at Hobby Lobby for $3.99 each. They're sage green, one of my favorite colors, with light fibers embedded in the paper, and they complement the naturalistic palette of the pictures beautifully.
It is amazing what a squirt of glass-cleaner can do for old frames.
I'm pleased with the way these pictures came out, and I enjoyed the process of finding just the right things to put together. This is more meaningful to me, personally, than buying generic trendy framed art, and there's an extra satisfaction in the knowledge that many of these things might have ended up in a landfill without creative intervention. In my mind, home decorating is a work-in-progress, and hunting for things on a budget is half the fun.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Spinet Desk Restoration, Part I

When I came across this spinet desk at a thrift store I walked right past because it burned my retinas, but a family member encouraged me to take a second look. It had been badly slopped in a thick coat of bright coral paint, chipping in places to reveal another poor job-- white, uneven and brushstroke-thin, showing dark wood here and there. With the exception of a missing hinge and front panel, both easy fixes, the desk was well-made and perfectly sound. It looked so pathetic and victimized that I decided to rescue and restore it. I appreciate small furniture for small spaces, and the idea of a little writing desk is irresistible.
Don't worry, little desk. You didn't live through a century and a World War just to become Coastal or Shabby Chic.
In case you're not familiar with spinet desks, they're named for their resemblance to early keyboard instruments. These desks feature a lid which folds back to show a pull-out writing surface and some combination of pigeonholes and drawers. To the best of my knowledge, this one is from the 1920s or 30s, a piece of plain everyday furniture built to last. I appreciate its compact functionality and proportion.

I don't care for painted furniture, with very few exceptions. Antiques and older pieces are beautiful just as they are and I enjoy the natural warmth of wood. My plan was to strip and sand this piece in an attempt to restore it to its original look. Even if I had wanted to repaint it, stripping would still have been necessary since the paint was laid on like cake frosting and was not adhering properly. The lid was beginning to alligator, the hinges and other hardware had been painted right over, and hairs from the paintbrush and/or small animals were embedded everywhere.
Oh no, brass! Quick, paint it!
I can understand why this piece was painted. Furniture from its era was often finished to imitate dark walnut and can turn black from oxidation, concealing the grain of the wood. It's easy to imagine someone getting tired of that and painting it white to lighten it up. When the colorful furniture craze began, someone had in turn grown bored of a dirty-white desk and chalk-painted it. It is not, after all, a unique or a valuable piece. As for how it ended up in a thrift store-- it came out just too hideous to live with. There was a chair of a different style which had been painted to match; I do have to say that it was done very nicely and, with the inclusion of new upholstery, had perfectly captured the current trend. The desk was too much, though. "Coral" is putting it politely. It's more like neon tomato soup.
"alligatoring" paint
I have been removing the paint layers using CitriStrip and a plastic paint scraper. This paint stripper is gentle compared with harsher chemicals and is safe to use indoors with low ventilation, which is why I like it. My application tends to be economical-- I once made a single $11 jug last through two walls of kitchen cabinets-- and this is probably making it take longer than it otherwise might. 

Since the original finish of the wood was so dark, I had assumed I'd be simply resealing it once I got the paint off, but I found that the paint stripper also lifted some of the old varnish in oily yellowish-brown patches. After letting this dry, I tested a spot with 60-grit sandpaper and discovered to my surprise that the blackened varnish was entirely removable, revealing beautiful mahogany veneer on the lid and writing surface. The plan is now to sand it all down to bare wood and select a finish that will be appropriate for its age and style.
chalk paint, unknown paint, original varnish
Never, ever undertake a project like this unless it's a labor of love (or you plan to sell the item, have had it appraised, and are absolutely certain it will be worth your time). The pictures simply cannot convey the tedium, snail's pace, and mess of this process, and it is just not worth it unless you know the outcome will be magnificent.

I'll post pictures of the sanded desk, along with ideas and plans for staining and restoration, soon.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Vernal Finery

Easter Sunday was cool and dark and damp, with a touch of rain finally laying some of the oak and pine pollen. This week is full of those rare and pristine days where the air is clear and fresh and the trees are newly green, with no humidity or insects to make the outdoors unpleasant.
Fothergilla gardenii
 My dwarf witch-alder bush is blooming for the first time. I bought it last fall and have yet to plant it, so it's still sitting in a bucket. This small shrub is native to the southeastern US; it belongs to the family Hamamelidaceae and is related to witch-hazel. The leaves are actually quite similar, though witch-hazel's emerges first. Witch-alder blooms before its leaf buds open. The flowers remind me of something from a Dr. Seuss book. They smell of honey, which will be more noticeable when the bush gets larger. I was not sure what to think of this plant when I bought it, but am now thoroughly charmed by its unusual addition to the spring bouquet.
Trachystemon orientalis
 This strange little plant is early-flowering borage, a native of eastern Europe and Asia Minor. It has handsome,vigorous foliage which emerges in spring and remains fresh and vigorous through fall, and clusters of tiny lavender blossoms in the spring. This perennial is very similar in appearance to the common annual borage, though the flowers overall are smaller and the petals are curly. I had never heard of this plant before seeing it last fall at a gardening center. Of course I liked it immediately; I have mentioned my predilection for Boraginaceae before now. It is supposed to be a groundcover, but we shall see.
Oxalis articulata subsp. rubra 
This cheery thing is a type of wood-sorrel, a non-native garden escapee which is common in lawns and fields. It forms clumps of rhizomes up to a foot across, sprouting in mounds of perfect shamrock leaves. This plant is mildly aggressive and thrives on poor soil, and though some consider it a weed, I love it. The flowers bloom for about a month in spring and then the entire plant goes dormant over the summer, reemerging in the fall to bloom again. Each tiny flower swirls closed at night and on cloudy days. Wood-sorrel is fool-proof and can't be killed. If anyone would like some, do let me know.
Narcissus triandrus 'Thalia'
This Victorian-bred daffodil is in the triandrus narcissus group and has two flowers per stem. They open one at a time, and the trumpets are pale yellow for a day before turning pure white. I was reading earlier that this variety is said to smell particularly nice, but I haven't noticed a difference in fragrance between these and my other daffodils. I would love to grow more species daffodils. There is something striking about their wildness and unusual shapes and sizes which the showier garden varieties don't have. I am particularly fond of bulbocodium and cyclamineus narcissi, as well as jonquils. 
Kerria japonica 'Flore Pleno'
I am not sure why I am fond of Japanese kerria, with its fluffy mango-colored rosettes. For some reason I don't mind bright flowers in the spring garden when everything else is bare; by summertime I prefer the cooler palettes and pastels to dominate. This plant is messy in its youth, sprawling and slouching everywhere, but it will form a nice arcing mound when mature, not unlike forsythia. It needs plenty of growing room.
Polystichum acrostichoides
My native Christmas ferns just sent up their fiddleheads this past week. I wasn't able to get a picture of the very young ones since it was raining, but here they are unfurling. These are supposedly edible at this stage and are said to taste of asparagus; they seem like they'd be tough and leathery, though, and at any rate they're too pretty to eat. The grassy foliage in the background belongs to zephyr lilies.
Rhododendrum indicum 'Coral Bells'
These azaleas are blooming along the property line-- squat, scrubby little bushes whose sole redeeming quality is this week. I am not positive of the identification of these bushes, but given their age and ubiquity they are most likely in the Kurume azalea group. They are at least 20 years old and have not been particularly well-maintained. Azaleas can be long-lived, but need light pruning every year and a heavy rejuvenating lop when the main limbs start to show their age.
Cornus florida
This dogwood tree grows in the neighbors' yard and leans over the fence. It is lovely from a distance in spring and again in the fall, when it's covered in bright berries. Sadly, these lovely trees are succumbing to dogwood anthracnose, a hard-to-control fungus which disfigures the foliage and flowers and eventually kills the entire tree branch by branch. This is why close-up the flowers look like old mushroom slices.
Rosa banksiae 'Lutea'
Lady Banks is a Chinese species rose, and probably my favorite rose of all-- hardy, reliable, spectacular, and easy to maintain. Mine was a gift from my mother last summer, and I am training it on one side of an arbor at the entrance of my garden. The canes can be up to 30' long; at my parents' house one specimen climbed a tree and cascaded down in sweeping curtains of blossom. The flowers are tiny and smell faintly sweet, like watercolor paints. I love the elegant growth habit and pale yellow flowers. 
Narcissus 'Tête-á-Tête
Last fall I planted a bag of these mini daffodils for fun and have been enjoying them popping up all over the yard. Each one starts out only a few inches high, but the stems continue to grow to around 4-8" total. They blend nicely with grape hyacinths and some of my other smaller-scale spring flowers, and the foliage will be easier to hide come June than a standard daffodil's mess. If Wordsworth had come upon his daffodils about a month later, he would not have been impressed.

That's everything in full bloom this week. Next time I'll bring you some splendid azaleas, baby peony leaves, and a surprise bugleweed.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Flower Sunday

Palm Sunday is called Virágvasárnap, or Flower Sunday, in Hungarian. I understand that this is because palms were not traditionally available in Hungary, so flowering branches were brought to Mass instead. Here are some of my flowers for you to enjoy. This winter was unusually mild with sudden ice storms in late January and early February. My plants stayed confused all winter-- the flowering quince began blooming just before Christmas instead of mid-January, and started up again last week. Everything else held out until March, which was nice-- I'll have bulbs blooming at Easter this year. Even with an early Easter, they would've already been done. Here's what's in bloom this week.
Pulmonaria 'Trevi Fountain'

This is the lungwort plant I bought last spring. 'Trevi Fountain' is bred especially for humid climates, and I am pleased with its performance so far. It does need its own personal cup of water every day to keep from wilting (even on warm days in winter), but it's definitely worth it. The speckled foliage is handsome year-round, though much fuller in the summer, and the flowers are raspberry pink and true cobalt blue. My camera does not capture blues well. I have it planted under an oak tree with some miniature daffodils.
Pyrus calleryana
 The bradford pear tree at the corner of the patio is in full array this week. It blooms for about two weeks and is ethereally beautiful. There are a lot of things not to like about bradford pears-- their fragility in weather events, their need for constant pruning, and the garbagy smell of the flowers-- but they are glorious in the spring.
Forsythia x intermedia 'Lynwood Gold'
 This is the very first year that my forsythia bush has bloomed. I bought it on super-clearance at Wal-Mart a few years ago for $1.35. It was literally a stick with a rootlet on one end and a leaf on the other, but it wanted to live. I potted it up and it grew a few more leaves that year and another branch the next. Last year it started throwing out canes and sending aggressive rootlets through the bottom of the pot. It's a legitimate bush this year and will be huge someday. I have always known these as forsythias, but a lot of people here call them yellow-bells.
Calycanthus floridus 'Michael Lindsey'
Last fall I bought a sweetshrub bush after looking for one for a long time. Its buds should open by next week. I'll be writing a full post about this one, since it's in my top three favorite spring shrubs. For now I'll just mention that its flowers are a most beautiful burgundy-brown and smell like strawberry yogurt.
Crocus vernus 'Pickwick'
 These are my favorite crocuses. Isn't the venation beautiful? I have fond memories of an entertaining professor who always wore purple-and-white striped shirts, which reminded me of crocuses. I like plants which remind me of people, and people who remind me of plants.
Muscari 'River of Color'
These little grape hyacinths were unbelievably hard to photograph. I have them planted in the nooks and crannies among an oak tree's roots, where they have naturalized well. The foliage is rather shabby and has an odd habit of coming up at various times of the year, but on a whole I don't mind. They're low-maintenance and the squirrels never bother them.

I'm waiting on a few more buds to open before posting another round of pictures-- coming up I should have hellebores, miniature and triandrus daffodils, early-flowering borage, fothergilla, azaleas, and a 'Lady Banks' rose. I also have a post coming about my garden's new location and layout, with plans for further development. Everything is off to a lovely start.