All You Can Eat

I'm a sucker for an all-you-can-eat buffet.

The irony of this statement is that I have the stomach capacity of a two year old. I can ingest about 4-6 ounces of protein and about a cup of other food in one sitting. And this constitutes a BIG meal for me. One would think that I'd be Audry Hepburn-thin, the way I eat. But, alas, due to my Southern Italian genealogy and my gastro-snobbery, I'm destined to be thick. Even when I was young, and really thin, I had chunky fingers, fat calves, and an appetite - clear indicators, all, to my impending girth.

At my worst, I weighed a couple of pounds shy of 220. Today, I fit comfortably in a size 12 and uncomfortably in a size 10 and I'm okay with that. Because, ultimately, there are certain things I'll never give up - like buffets.

In the past few days, I've eaten at three different all-you-can-eat establishments. I feel like a whale right now and plan to spend the weekend recovering with yogurt smoothies, and maybe a salad. In the meantime, I'd like to wax rhapsodic about my love for the trough.

Years ago, trough eating was just that - shoveling in copious amounts of food, like a farm animal, until I was in a veritable coma. It has nothing to do with the food itself, only the quantity available. For me, this was the era of the cheap Chinese buffet.

Then I had surgery and I couldn't trough-eat anymore. It was sad but a good exercise in portion control. The unexpected side-effect of the surgery was that I became much more selective about the food I DID eat. If I can only eat a couple of cups of food, why would I waste any of that stomach-space on cheap bread or overcooked meats? Suddenly what the food tasted like became infinitely more important than how much there was.

Then, one shiny day, I discovered the "gourmet buffet" and I'd found the perfect confluence of quantity and quality.

When a decent restaurant does a buffet, I can choose many different items and still eat a small portion of food overall. I'm their best customer because I consume the least and - pound-for-pound - pay more for my meal than anyone else in the room. But their service to me is to allow me the variety I crave without having to throw out half of the meal.*

So, this week, I indulged in a Japanese buffet, an Indian buffet, and the meat-parade of a Brazilian churrascaria. Granted, I did "overeat" - walking out with a ludicrously full belly after each meal. But, my lack of willpower aside, these buffets allowed me to not feel guilty about taking one cube of potato from the potato salad bowl, or one small piece of California Roll. These minuscule portions mean that I can try everything on the buffet that appeals to me. And, I'm telling you, it was ALL good (except maybe the undercooked lamb at the Brazilian place.)

Chow down, babies.

- Alex

*Please don't lecture me about leftovers. They're just not the same.

So many ideas, so little time.

Lately I've been doing a lot of talking about embroidery in this space. Unfortunately, the only projects I have had to share are Sesame Street related and that doesn't really appeal to everyone. I actually wouldn't consider myself an expert in this art, and, as a matter of fact, would like to explore it a little more deeply.

Dreamy crewel design from a kit sold at Purl Soho.

The embroidery I have tackled has been quite rewarding for a few reasons. First, it's sort of instant gratification. I would put the speed in between knitting (slow for me) and sewing (a much quicker process). Now, keep in mind that I haven't gotten really complicated with embroidery so I'm sure there are some slow techniques out there! Second is that I really enjoy the process. Pulling a needle full of brightly colored thread through fabric really appeals to my senses. Mistakes are corrected rather easily and I can be a designer of my own pattern in a flash. (I am referencing my upcoming woodland creatures wall-hangings project) Lastly, and sad to say, importantly, it is "sitting work". For the same reason I love knitting... I love this. I can get comfy on my couch with tea and a movie and create while I relax.

Example of 18th century Finnish embroidery. I adore the all-over pattern.

My personal history with this sort of project work has only included DMC 6-strand embroidery floss. Really standard stuff. Simple chain or outline stitches coupled with french knots and satin stitch. I'm not lighting the world on fire here. But I will say, it's amazing how many projects you can do with just a thimbleful of knowledge.

But, I have gotten intrigued by some materials I have seen lately... linen threads, crewel yarns, wool threads, etc. It is fun to work with such bright candy-colors that you can't usually work with when knitting or sewing... unless you have a very small girl child to craft for in your house. Which I don't.

Pillowcase design by Sublime Stitching. Seriously awesome.

A while ago we reviewed a simple and basic embroidery book called The Embroidery Companion by Alicia Paulson. That has been a great book for referencing basic stitches. But there are also a lot of great resources on the web. I have found that the Purl Soho blog (The Purl Bee) has some really great ideas and tutorials for all sorts of types of techniques. And this site is really bare-bones as far a web design goes, but goodness it has a tutorial for any stitch you could possibly want to try.

If you're looking for some inspiration, just search "embroidery" on flickr or google images. There are a lot of people doing a lot of really creative stuff out there. I'm actually intrigued with the idea of combining quilting and embroidery lately. Just another project to add to the list! Hopefully I will have some of my own original designs to share with you soon.


The Business of Knitting.

The vendors get me every time...
This past Saturday was the Madison Knitter's Guild Annual Knit-In. This is a one-day extravaganza of yarn hobbies - specifically knitting, crocheting, and spinning. There are classes and speakers and a nice-sized vendor room (which is the siren that hypnotizes me every time.)

The Madison Knitter's Guild has been around a while and has a large, active membership. As a result, they're able to attract incredibly good guests to their monthly meetings and nation/international yarn-centric folks for the Knit-In. Granted this doesn't mean much to the average bear but, if you're a yarn hobbiest, names like The Mason-Dixon Girls or The Yarn Harlot or The Team from Ravelry make you weak in the knees. These are our celebrities (among many others) and, because knitters are all pretty friendly, these folks are actually accessible while being famous within our community. This is a huge draw.

The Mason-Dixon Girls @ 2010 Knit-In (Madison)

This year's "celebrity speaker" was the core team from We've spoken about the site a lot here at Ooo! Shiny!  There are myriad reasons to sing the praises of Ravelry - not the least of which is how incredibly well-thought-out the site is - so the possibility of hearing the founders and operators of the site speak was pretty irresistible.

The lovely folks from Ravelry
These are, essentially, kids (well, they're about 1/2 my age) who came up with a good idea, developed it a bit, and then took its evolution so slowly that they were able to make good business decisions along the way. While stumbling forward they've kept their values and their humility and they are still seemingly shocked at their own success. And this is my one, huge complaint...

I realize that, when you're consumed by a project it's easy to have a skewed perspective, but it's really annoying to learn that they are SO humble about their project that they don't even seem to realize that they've changed the face of our community. I have no idea HOW they can't know this, but they don't - or, at least, they put on that they don't. As a business person, this drives me insane because all I can see is a giant pile of opportunity being approached with a very zen-like, slow-moving attitude.

I want them to have a little swagger and some better business acumen and make a boat-load of money. At this point, they seem so devoid of actual strategy (other than ensuring that the site stays free and that they don't bum anyone out) that I'm afraid that they're ripe for a buyout. And that would suck because we'll lose the one thing that makes Ravelry really different from, say, Facebook - the values of the owners.

Of course, the right buyer would make them really, really rich and, in the end, they really deserve that.

- Alex

Knitting Rules!: The Yarn Harlot's Bag of Knitting Tricks Mason-Dixon Knitting: The Curious Knitter's Guide: Stories, Patterns, Advice, Opinions, Questions, Answers, Jokes, and Pictures

Now I lay me down to sleep...

Hello everyone!

Today I'm happy to share another Sesame Street room project with you. Meet our new embroidered pillowcases!

When you can't find what you want at the store, you make it yourself!
Making custom pillowcases is soooo easy, and soooo worth it. In this particular project the embroidery was 90% of the work. If you choose not to use embroidery, this is a 1 cup of tea and an hour of sewing project, seriously. I made some other pillowcases recently for my bedroom and was able to get 2 done in an evening after the kids went to bed.

There are lots and lots of methods for constructing a pillowcase. The differences lie in how the band at the opening is attached to the big part of the pillowcase. I never seem to use the same method twice. There are a lot of really great tutorial blogs out there if you do a search, but the 1 Million Pillowcase Challenge site has some of the best (easiest) directions. Plus, options for being charitable, if you're so inclined.

And this book is awesome for all things bedding:

French General: Home Sewn: 30 Projects for Every Room in the House

What I can add to the already good tutorials is how to figure out where the embroidery should be placed to look just right. What I did first was to cut the band fabric to the correct size. Then, I folded it in half longways, measured 3/8 inches from the cut edge (that will be sewn to the main pillow section) and marked it with disappearing ink. I then folded that in half again as it would appear when finished. Mark the 3/8 inch seam allowance on the cut edge on the side. Now you can mark the fabric on the folded edge on the side and bottom with the disappearing ink pen. Using a straight-edge, draw out the square that is your "live area". Embroider anything your heart desires! I chose to use scanned-in and sized images from Sesame Street coloring books again for my templates along with the boys names that I printed off the computer.

My embroidery templates.

Pillowcases in progress.
Give it a try...make a pillowcase. It will become your fast-favorite!


Beware the Ides of March

March 15. The day that Caesar was set upon by his brethren in the Senate and unceremoniously stabbed to death. The day that William Shakespeare's soothsayer so famously spoke of.

When I was a kid - and by "kid" I mean somewhere in my early teens - I was obsessed with fate and superstitions. Then, when I read Julius Caesar for school, the Ides of March took on a weird, fatalistic meaning. For a few years, I would get all freaked out as March 15th approached. Of course, nothing ever really happened but any small misfortune that day would be attributed to the poor date.

In crafting, there are all manner of superstitions. I would guess that it's because crafting has been around since the beginning of time and was generally the domain of women who, for centuries, went uneducated.

Some of my favorite crafting superstitions include:
  • Don't knit your boyfriend socks or he'll walk away from you.
  • Never start a sewing project on Friday because it will never be finished.
  • Never hand a friend scissors (or knitting needles) as they'll cut up (or stab) the friendship.
  • If you knit one of your hairs into a project it will bind the recipient of that project to you.
  • It's bad luck to leave a project unfinished. The intended recipient will experience the bad luck.
  • Always sew a pillow case on New Year's Day to hold the abundance of the coming year.
  • It's bad luck to make baby things (knitted or sewn) before the baby is born or the mother is pregnant.
  • Place a needle or pin into a piece of cloth when passing to someone, or your relationship could be ruined. 
  • Cast-on for your next knitting project immediately after finishing one. It's bad luck for your needles to be empty.
Of course, if these things were actually true, most of my friends would now be my enemies, none of my projects would be completed, and my life would be filled with strife and bad luck. Fortunately, I don't believe in superstitions anymore.

Except, maybe, the Ides of March.*

- Alex

*Today I spent $74 to learn that my uninstalled ice maker was "on" and that's why the fridge was making weird noises. Then I bought the wrong faucet for the upstairs sink and had to make a second trip out and spend an extra $11 for the right one. And my dogs won't stop barking at the plumber. Yeah...I'm sure that this is all due to the fact that it's March 15.   :)

Hot Buttons!

The past few weeks have been a roller-coaster of emotion and concern for Alex and I. The political climate in Madison, Wis. (where we live) has the city's residents either polarized, mobilized, or paralyzed. Whether you have been pounding the pavement with picket signs or slavishly following the news updates on your computer... it has become all-consuming and frankly, we've said it a few times already, exhausting.

The Japanese earthquake horrors and tsunami today have sort of woken me out of the political fatigue I was feeling. A natural disaster of that magnitude has made me step back and put all things into perspective. I need to find my center again. I need to find my quiet.

Thinking about the peonies blooming soon is helping bring the happy.

Alex's post from Wednesday about knitting basics is on-track with where my focus needs to lie - back to the building blocks of my creativity. I want to simplify by thinking about the construction of things (like the baby-room draperies I need to make), and breaking down projects into manageable bits.

With that said, I'll share one of the most basic (and misunderstood) fundamentals of handwork. The button. I am shocked by how many times have I been asked to sew a button for someone who thought it was some complicated adventure. It's so basic, and actually quite fun. I found this funny video tutorial created by Esquire magazine specifically targeted towards men. Even if you've sewn a hundred buttons in your lifetime I think you'll find it worthwhile.

So, I'm going to keep it short and sweet today. There are many crafting projects on my plate that I will be sharing with you very soon. But, for today, I am keeping it simple.


Knitting 101

One of the most wonderful things about knitting is that, with a two basic stitches (knit and purl) and a couple of simple techniques, myriad patterns can be achieved. There's so little to actually learn and so many variations that it's kind of mind-boggling.

The two stitches just mirror one another. As you're going down a row, if you "knit" a stitch, you place a bump of yarn on the side facing away from you. If you "purl" the same stitch, the bump goes in the front, on the side you can see. These little bumps and indentations, done in a particular order, will create a pattern.

Garter Stitch is made by knitting every row:

Stockinette Stitch is made by knitting one row and purling the next, alternating throughout the fabric:

Seed Stitch is made by alternating your stitches - knit one, purl one - across a row and then doing the opposite on the next row - purl one, knit one - then repeating these two rows throughout the fabric.

Moss Stitch is made by alternating your stitches - knit one, purl one - across a row, repeating this for the second row then reversing the stitch pattern - purl one, knit one - across rows 3 and 4. Then repeating these four rows throughout the fabric.

It's deceptively simple.

The Very Easy Guide to Cable Knitting: Step-by-Step Techniques, Easy-to-Follow Patterns, and Projects to Get You StartedEvery knitter has their favorite patterns, and I'm no exception. For me, moss and seed stitch are very appealing. I recently started doing eyelets which requires making "holes" in your pattern by knitting two stitches together. Also, one of my crafty resolutions for this year was to do my first cable project - like the cables you see on sweaters. This is a very interesting technique that requires taking stitches off your needles and picking them up again later to place them "over" the other stitches.

When I attended the Crafting for Democracy at the Madison Capitol building, I made friends with a lovely woman named Colleen. She was knitting a pattern I'd never seen before and that I instantly fell in love with. For some reason, this pattern really sang to me.

"Colleen's Pattern" is a four row sequence. Row one - knit all the way across the row. Row two - knit one, slip one (slip the stitch, without knitting or purling it, to your right-hand needle) all the way across the row. Row three - knit all the way across the row. Row four - slip one, knit one all the way across the row. Then, of course, you repeat this four-row sequence throughout the fabric.

And this is what you get:

"right" side
"wrong" side

The best part of this pattern, in my opinion, is that both sides are pretty - even though the one side is supposed to be the "wrong" side.

Right now, I'm just making a scarf but I'll probably make something more impressive with this pattern at some point. It's just so gorgeous. If I do, you can bet you'll be seeing pictures of it here.

- Alex

Up in Flames

I'm happy to report that I learned a new kitchen technique this past weekend that supports my cooking resolution. And guess who my teacher was? My husband! I know! All these years he's been living in my house with this dormant knowledge... You could have knocked me over with a feather.

And what is this great new thing I learned, you ask? Roasting bell peppers on the stove top.

Flashback to yesterday morning. I had proclaimed that I was going to make home-made vegetarian chili for dinner. I took to my cookbooks (and the internet) for recipes to cobble together. There was a particular flavor I had in mind... tomato. All ingredients were assembled on the counter and I was rolling up my shirtsleeves to get started. That is when my husband walked up and said "you should roast those peppers first". Huh, wha? Next thing I know, he had the gas burner on the stove on high and a red pepper sitting right in the flame. A Renaissance man!!

My goodness. What a difference! Those peeled peppers were an amazing addition to a chili that was outstanding. I couldn't be happier with this recipe and I thought I would share it with you all today.

My actual chili.

Tomato-y Vegetarian  Chili
2 large yellow onions (diced)
6 cloves of garlic (pressed)
olive oil
3 roasted red (or green) peppers (diced)
1 14.5 can of roasted diced tomatoes
1 46 oz. can of tomato juice
1 cup Texturized Vegetable Protein (TVP) - available at your local health food store or co-op.
4 fresh tomatoes (diced)
1 can kidney beans
2 tbsp Chili powder
Tabasco sauce
Salt and Pepper
Vegetable bullion/broth

1 hour before you are ready to make the chili, put the dried TVP in a bowl and cover with vegetable bullion/broth to rehydrate. Set aside. Roast and peel red peppers. Set aside.

In a heavy-bottomed pan, (I use a dutch oven) heat up ¼ cup of olive oil. Brown the onions and then garlic until they are well carmelized. Add the roasted red peppers and cook until they are heated through. Add the can of roasted diced tomatoes, tomato juice, kidney beans, and the TVP. Add chili powder. Salt, pepper and Tabasco to taste. Simmer for another 20 minutes.

Add diced fresh tomatoes and simmer for another 20 minutes.

I found a youtube video where they show almost the exact pepper-roasting technique we used. Trust me, it's well worth the extra cooking time!

If you are a fan of tomato-y chili, I really hope you try this recipe! Talk to you soon...


Sheep in the City

This past Saturday, Alex and I took a much needed break from the current craziness in Madison. We headed down to Milwaukee for some fun with yarn people at The Sheep in the City event. Last year we weren't able to attend and were pleasantly surprised at some improvements since our visit in 2009. Some of the changes we noted immediately were: the event is now held at a larger hotel with a bar and restaurant, the trade show area was much roomier and was able to accommodate more vendors and there is a lovely auditorium for listening to speakers.

Main trade show room...the center had room for spinners and knitters.
Unfortunately we weren't able to attend any of the classes...but we did what we do best, make friends and spend money! There were some really neat vendors we were able to visit, these are a couple of our favorites:

Corny Goodness
Yes, they can make yarn out of corn these days. The 100% corn yarn is quite soft. It reminds me a bit of Rowan's milk cotton, except it seems even more "splitty". This is why I chose to purchase the corn/wool blend yarn. It has really nice stitch definition. I think that is why the patterns that they sell with their yarn shows off that fact.

The crocodile hat is just one of their patterns using this technique.
The Corny Goodness yarns come in a nice variety of colors.
This is my corn yarn purchase, I have no idea what I am making yet.
Happy Hands Yarns
These generous-sized skeins of yarn are all hand-dyed in yummy colors. Soft, lofty, candy for knitters. Now, I'm not a big fan of variegated yarns, but she does have some subtle colorways that I find quite appealing. This is what her overflowing tables looked like:

Shiny happy yarns holding hands.
My Happy Hands 100% Merino purchase. I told you it was subtle.
There were so many cool things that we saw that day, but these might be my favorite:

Sheep and alpacas made from mohair. 10pts on the cute-o-meter.
It was a great day... aside from the snowy ride home! We had fun, met some fun people, and bought interesting yarns. It is getting me excited for the upcoming "Knit In" event in Madison!