Quilting like bicycling?

There’s a saying that insinuates once you learn how to ride a bike, you never forget.  Therefore, whenever you want to describe something simple, you say it is as easy as riding a bicycle.

There’s only one thing wrong with that saying for me.  I never could learn to ride a bike without training wheels.  Apparently, I have no sense of balance.  For a while, that made me feel stupid and left out.  I got over it as bike riding became less important.

Still, the old adage lingers in my mind.  Once you learn how to do something, you should be able to do it forever.

I don’t think that’s true.  For example, about 35 years ago, I took adult woodworking at the local high school – for five years.  I did it enough that I turned my woodworking into a part time business, building children’s toys and child size chairs.  I haven’t been near a band saw, planer or anything bigger than a hand sander in at least 30 years.  I will tell you straight out, I would have to learn all over again.

Sewing has been with me longer.  I first learned when I was 13.  I started quilting in 1979.  I have made at least 100 quilts over the years, since I was teaching and needed multiple samples.  I do almost everything on the machine and consider it an extension of my hands.

Then I started Quilt University in 2000.  I did enough sewing to make samples for the classes I taught, but gradually, I was spending 90% of my time sitting in front of the computer.  I knew I was losing my skills when I went to wind a bobbin on my Bernina and did it wrong.  I had forgotten the thread path for bobbin winding!

In the summer of 2010, I woke up one morning with a hole in my vision.  While performing a totally natural function, my eye had malfunctioned and now there was a small tear in my retina.

It took more than six months for the problem to advance to the stage of surgery and then to heal so that I could be fitted with new glasses.  Before that happened, I could tell that my vision was deteriorating again.  The surgery had involved inserting a gas bubble in my eye to hold the tear closed as it healed.  Unfortunately, the gas causes the speedy formation of cataracts.  Within 6 months of the first surgery, I had the cataract removed.

With all that finally behind me, I was ready to get back into the sewing room, but life had other plans.  It’s too late to make a long story short, but let’s just skip ahead another 8 months.  I have finished going through my mother’s house and have seen it through a successful sale.  There is more paperwork to do but I am ready to get back in the sewing room.

I set aside a whole weekend and went in there full of enthusiasm.  It took me a couple hours to reorganize the project I had walked away from nearly two years ago.  But I was persistent.

Finally, I sat down at the machine and started sewing.  I noticed that there seemed to be some puckering, at the beginning and ends of my chained pieces.  I lifted one up and gave it a tug from each end and heard the dreaded snap as the thread broke.  The tension was wrong.  I adjusted it.  Still wrong.

I moved to a different machine.  Same problem.  I changed all the settings.  I rethreaded the machines.  The puckering was gone, the stitches felt smooth to the touch but they still snapped if I pulled on the ends of the seam.  Finally, I changed both the thread and needle.  And then I apologized to the machines.

Seriously.  I explained that it wasn’t my fault I hadn’t been in there sewing.  I promised to do better.  Emotionally exhausted, I went in search of a cup of tea.  When I returned, both machines worked just fine.

I ran into more bumps as I had to adjust each machine for a perfect 1/4” and relearn the settings I needed for each one.  You think you will remember this stuff forever, but take my word for it, you should write it down!

two blocks - churn dash and cake stand

Churn Dash and Cake Stand

Now that it has been a couple weeks, we are all friends again.  There are 12 blocks on the wall, testament to 12 sets of directions that make this process easier for my students.    All the tricks I used to know are coming back to me and they will find their way into the class, too.  The more I do, the more I want to do!  It’s like a runner’s high without all the sweating!

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Real Gardeners Make Dirt

When I was 10, a rainy day meant staying indoors with little to do.  At 15, I was worried my hair would frizz and boys wouldn’t like me.   Now, as an adult gardener, I just smile.  I can hear my plants drinking it all in.

We have actually had a mini-drought here in the mid-Atlantic.  There was no measurable rain for the first three weeks of April.  That’s not good news for the water table, the farmers, the gardeners and anyone who likes to eat.  No rain means no planting and no fresh veggies this summer.

Happily, we got about 2” in a 36 hour period from Sunday through Monday.  Today, we got another .75 inches.  I know this without listening to the weather because we have our own rain gauge.  Naturally.

flower boxes, compost pile

Compost piles hide behind planter boxes

The picture above shows one of the terraced boxes we have in the back.  Our slope is so steep, it is the only way I can garden in most of the yard.  Back against the fence are what my husband calls my little cow pies.  That’s where I make my compost.

The newest pile, the one we are currently adding fresh material to, is in the circular green thing.  They don’t sell that anymore, but they should.  Mine is about 25 years old.  You just lift it off when you are ready to start a new pile.  The sides have lots of air holes and you can toss the contents as you add grass, leaves and kitchen waste.

In the fall, I try to toss the piles that have been cooking during the summer.  I spread out anything that is fully decomposed and consolidate as much as I can.  Fall brings a big influx of dead leaves and I treat the piles like sour dough starter, adding partially decomposed layers to help the leaves start breaking down.

Each spring, I am usually able to top dress all over the garden and add good compost to anything I have in pots.  I feel smart and virtuous!  I can make earth.  How cool is that?

rebuilding grass garden

Remember that gorgeous ornamental grass garden I showed in my last gardening post?  Nature hasn’t been kind.  Towering evergreen trees began blocking the light and sending roots over to steal the nutrients.   The picture at the right shows you what it looks like now.  I have moved several of the straggly old grasses to homes along the back fence and added a row of thick curved wall stones as a front edge.

They will allow me to raise the level of the soil by about 4” along the front 4-5’ of the slope.  I have some small pieces of flagstone which I will use to mark the end of the lower section and the beginning of the upper section.    I hope to put mostly perennials here, with taller ones in the back to help hide my neighbor’s storage sheds.  At least they are white plastic and not rusty metal ones.  I try to look on the bright side.

I’ve dug about half the space, removing old tree roots and rocks.  The little rocks are filling the triangular spaces between the border stones.  Looks kind of cool and should keep those spaces from filling with weeds.

pebbles_and_shellsI try to keep all the smaller rocks I find whenever I am working the soil.  I throw them on a sloped area near the house that connects one part of the garden to another.  It was a potential washout spot but the rocks keep that from happening.  On trips to the ocean, I picked up shells and tossed them on top.  I think of the whole pile as ground art.

Work will keep me busy tomorrow and then more rain is promised for the weekend.  With luck, I might get out in the garden on Sunday, Monday for sure.  I have to harness all this enthusiasm while I have it!  I know it disappears as soon as the weather gets really hot.

Hope you are getting out in your garden.

Why gardening?

I don’t like being dirty or doing physical labor, so you might ask how I got into gardening?  The first thing I remember growing was yellow marigolds.  I had this tiny space that used to be a footpath until my dad put up a fence between our yard and the neighbors.  He got tired of the constant stream of kids and dogs that cut through our yard.

At 9, I had never heard of amendments, turning over the soil or mulch.  I just scratched a bit at the surface, carefully patted my seeds into place and ran out every day to see how my 4 plants were doing.  They got to be about 3” tall and sent out one sad little flower each.

You would think such a miserable experience would have put me off gardening forever, but no such thing.  Our first apartment had a little space outside the fence where they let me grow tomatoes.  The giant snake was a bonus courtesy of the construction on both sides of our complex.  I was lucky.  Our neighbor found hers inside the apartment.

view from bottom of walk

View from the bottom of the walk, looking up toward the grass garden

Our first house had a fabulously flat back yard with no trees.  The previous owners  raised vegetables on the back half and every year they dumped a truck load of manure on it.  Everything I put in the ground grew like Jack’s beanstalk.  I sold bushels of tomatoes to a local market.  That was right before a storm knocked over the whole row of plants.  I learned the hard way not to tie all the stakes together!

In 1978, we moved to the house we live in now.  No one had ever done anything, except plant trees.  I think the first owner must have stood on the front porch and thrown a handful of marbles out in the yard – and then told her husband to put a tree everyplace there was a marble.  There were 38 of them on our lot.

The back yard is sloped down to the house at about a 45 degree angle.  The 2008 picture above shows the view from the house, looking up the hill at an angle.

Over the years, we have changed the yard many times.  There was a swing set  when my kids were young.  I got big boxes built like terraces so there would be a flat place to grow plants.  Gradually, I took over all the edges of the yard, creeping out from the fences and the house and leaving just the swath of grass you can see.

I explained – over and over – to my husband that I was doing him a favor.  He would have less grass to mow.  He’s learned that letting me garden is cheaper than therapy.

The close up below is my ornamental grass garden in 2008.  There is a fig tree at the rear.  It looked spectacular that year, didn’t it?  Sadly, the big evergreens across the back property line kept sticking their branches out and blocking the sun.  A lot of the grass died and the fig started growing over to my neighbor’s yard.  He didn’t like it.

grass garden with fig tree at top

Ornamental grass garden with fig tree at back

The inner parts of the evergreen boughs were bare and I finally convinced Roger we should have them removed.  Massive changes are happening in the back gardens this year.  I’ll show you more in a future post.

Back to my original question – why gardening?   What else carries such uncertainty, hope, promise, disappointment and even exercise, all wrapped up in one package?  You learn botany, etymology (bugs), chemistry (composting and fertilizing) and a little animal husbandry (birds, chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits and voles).  Maintaining a garden is endlessly fascinating and challenging, beautiful in all the seasons if you learn to appreciate subtlety.  What else lets you start over every year?

Who is creative?

And how do you know?  That was the simple question my daughter asked in her reply to my introduction.  Simple? Ha!

I belong to a list that deals with Quilt Art (www.quiltart.com) and this subject comes up all the time.  Do you have to be an artist by education to be considered an artist? Does your art have to say something or can it be just pretty?  Where do you have to be in your development as an artist to actually call yourself one?

Beats me.  I didn’t go to art school and didn’t take my first art class until I was 50 years old.  It was part of my celebration of turning half a century.  I tried to do something brand new every month.  That’s more creative than feeling sorry for myself, right?

My parents had no money when I was growing up, but they came out of the Depression and knew how to make do.  My mother never made a quilt but she made lots of our clothes, using the same patterns over and over and altering them so no one ever knew. 

I wouldn’t drink milk and didn’t like vegetables much, so she would make a yummy cream sauce and bury veggies like asparagus or cauliflower.  She even put the asparagus over toast, which boggles my mind when I look back on it now.   Think about it – there were 5 of us and she made the rest of the dinner and this elaborate vegetable dish showed up on separate plates.  I’m happy when I nuke a green vegetable to serve next to the main course.

To me, that’s pretty darn creative.  But I never got to the part about calling yourself an artist, did I?  Stick around.  Creativity will come up again, I promise.

First tentative steps

Starting a blog has felt a bit like getting ready for my first big date.  Picking out the theme, background and pictures for the header were all harder than they ought to be.  Too bad you can’t just describe what you want it to look like and presto! gorgeous blog all ready to use.

At least while I was getting the blog dressed, I didn’t have to think about what I was going to say.  Making conversation in a vacuum isn’t as easy as you might think.

fern_frond_unfoldingMaybe it will help if I visualize a less stressful analogy.  Instead of being a sweaty-palmed teenager, let’s envision a fern, poking up through the leftover leaves of fall and tentatively unfolding its fronds to the spring sunshine.  I like that better – adventurous but not too pushy, following the natural instinct to reach out to others.

Let me introduce myself.  My name is Carol Miller.  I own and run www.QuiltUniversity.com, where I also teach quilting classes.  In my spare time, I love to garden, read and listen to music.

My husband is the IT person for Quilt University, while I maintain an uneasy truce with technology.  If it would just stand still long enough for me to learn it all, life would be wonderful, but it seems there is always an upgrade or a new camera to master when I would rather be up to my elbows in fabric or plants.

I hope you will come back and visit as I feel my way through this new world and tell me how you deal with the constant shifts in the computerized world.  Don’t they understand that change is only good when it is my idea?