Garden in August

Despite weeks of temps in the 90s and above, some plants managed to make it through the summer.  The best is my pair of Peegee Hydrangeas.  I bought the shrubs as little sticks from a mail order place for only 99 cents!  Honestly, when they came, I thought it was a joke – a skinny twig the length of a pencil with a couple little roots on the bottom.

The two Peegee Hydrangeas

When they first open, the blooms are green and they whiten as they mature

Sensational, aren’t they?  And you really want something this showy to brighten the garden at the end of the growing season.  These are in the front garden next to the driveway.   They made babies three years ago that are now happily growing at my son’s house.

Right below them is this miniature shrub which insists on growing out the top no matter how often I prune it.  It is surrounded by drought-tolerant sedum and creeping thyme.

My stab at xeriscaping

Two kinds of lavender nestle in front of the hydrangea.  I had never seen the fern-leafed one before

At the other end, I have roses that looked spectacular around Mother’s Day.  Now they are just trying to make it through the heat like the rest of us.  The real surprise is the pale blue butterfly bush.  I spotted it last fall, a tiny spray of blue in the midst of my Black-eyed Susans.  I dug out all the Susans this spring to give this little volunteer room to grow and, oh boy, did it ever.  If I don’t move it, the roses will be smothered.  This is especially annoying since my husband told me to move it last spring…..

A gift from the birds, I assume.  I didn’t plant it.

Double white althea, also known as sweet bush

This showy dinner plate Hibiscus is perched on a scrawny little plant

The new camera does a much better job taking pictures of white flowers.  You can really see the detail.  I have lots of hibiscus in different colors but the weather was so hot, they were fading by noon most days.  Disappointing when each bloom is only open for a day.

Maybe you remember my post on the new garden last spring –  I had such high hopes.  The grass got taller and the artemisia looks okay, but the rest just managed to hold on through the summer.  Sigh.

Disappointing new garden

Silver mound artemisia

This artemisia is at the other side of the yard.  It is about 6 years old and gets cut way back first thing in the spring.  I guess its roots were strong enough to cope with the hot dry summer.

Honestly, I did go out with the camera to show you how sad the garden looks but apparently, I wasn’t capable of taking the pictures of the really bad places.  These pictures did cheer me up.  There were more bright spots than I thought!

I hope you will be getting just the right amount of rain where you are.  Just 60 miles from us, they got terrible flooding last night while I was doing my happy dance.


It’s raining rabbits!

Okay, it isn’t really but that was a cute way to get the rain and the rabbits in a short headline, right?

It’s been raining since I got up this morning and I couldn’t be happier.  A slow, steady rain, with little breaks to give the earth a chance to absorb and no vicious winds or lightning.

Of course, it’s too late to do much for this year’s garden.  Remember when I started out all full of enthusiasm in May?  There wasn’t enough rain then and most of the annuals never got much bigger than they were when I brought them home.  I do water, but it is never my aim to replace Mother Nature.  I walk around with my hose in hand rather than leaving the sprinkler on for the hours it would take to deeply water all over my yard.

We didn’t get any figs in the spring but we have a bumper crop this fall.  I haven’t gotten used to this variety which stays green even after it ripens.  Makes it hard to beat the insects and birds to the fruit.

Lovely plump figs, apparently enough for everyone

Fascinating or gross?  I couldn’t decide

Soaker hoses were my dream but with tiered planter boxes and lots of pots, we couldn’t figure out how to make them work for most of the garden. The heat defeated me, too. It got so hot so fast, I retreated into the house like the little weenie I am.

Not that I am really complaining.  This is just a hobby for me and my livelihood doesn’t depend on the crop.  It was the farmers I really felt bad for.  The corn crop around here was nearly non-existent.

I heard there were some fresh bean plants back here

But I can’t find them, can you?

And then there were the rabbits.  There are three of them for sure.  Sometimes they play tag on the lawn and I can see them from the window.  I was outside taking pictures of the sad remains of the garden this week and they obligingly played frozen statues for me.

I think they were looking for the new bean seedlings. Hopefully, I have outsmarted them.  I planted the new seeds in tall pots AND put the pots on top of other containers full of mulch.  So far, so good!

I mentioned my camera problems in an earlier post.  My sister brought me two of her old DSLR cameras to try.  These photos were taken with the Olympus.  It comes with an assortment of complex and enormous lenses.   I was at least 20 feet away from each of these rabbits and the pictures are as clear as if we were sitting next to each other.  However, the idea that I would be comfortable walking around with 10+ pounds of camera slung around my neck is another thing altogether.

You looking at ME?

As a journalism major, I took photography in college in 1968.  I tell you the year to give you a sense of time.  I needed a single lens reflex camera (SLR) for my class.  I worked in a department store at the time for about $1.25 per hour.  That made my take home pay for a part time job somewhere between $25-35 a week. 

So when I came home with a camera that cost $114, I thought my father would have a stroke.  He walked around for a week saying “A hundred and fourteen dollars!”  Always in that same amazed tone.  It became our family’s benchmark for something really expensive.  Except it wasn’t.  Not even then.  Not for a camera with extra lenses and a carrying case.

I didn’t price the two cameras my sister brought, but I know enough about what they cost to want to let the armed guard carry the camera when I am not actually taking pictures with it.  Yes, I turned into my father and am appalled at the price some things have gotten to be.

The next thing you know I will be talking about walking to school in the snow and how we used to buy a loaf of bread for a quarter.

Does old equal valuable?

A woman on a list I belong to came across a ratty old quilt.  She asked the group what she should do with it as it was too far gone to repair.

I just want to make some observations about quilts, old and new.  We all make them for different reasons.  For myself, I enjoy the process.  Some of them I have given as gifts, some I have sold, many I have used and enjoyed.  Only a couple have any sentimental value.

Here’s where you can gasp in horror – I threw out the first original quilt I designed and made.  I loved it at the time, of course, but the fabric was inferior and one of the pieces began to rot right through within a couple years.  After giving it house room for more than two decades, I got rid of it last fall after my mother died.

The conjunction of those two things is not an accident.  As I may have mentioned before, my mother’s 3400 sq foot house was crammed with THINGS.  She thought all of them were worth saving.  Heck, she thought most of them were worth money. She was wrong.  Something is worth money only if someone else is willing to pay for it.

If you are a person who finds sentiment in everything, for whom every old plate or quilt has a story to tell, that’s great.  Keep those things.  Enjoy them.  Use them.  Or box them up and become a hoarder.

But please, don’t try to make other people feel bad if they do not feel that same connection.  Not all of us do and I say, thank goodness for that.  We have to live in whatever space we have.  Keeping everything is just impossible unless you want to walk sideways through the piles.

In my opinion, keep the things that mean something to YOU.  If the original maker of that quilt didn’t care enough to leave it to a family member or if there was no one in the family who cared or even if there was no family left, the sentiment is already gone.  Without knowing the story, you aren’t holding onto their history.  You’re just making things up.

Here is the next part that will make people mad at me.  You can’t keep everything connected to a person you love, much less all the other old stuff that will cross your path.   Keep the brooch she wore every Sunday or the ring she got for her 25th anniversary, but get rid of the dime store earrings she bought on a whim or the whole collection of inexpensive watches, bought to match every outfit. 

Keep something you will use or wear or hang on the wall.  If you are going to keep it in a box in your attic, you might as well save a step and send it to the Salvation Army right now.  If you don’t, your children will.

Birth of a Class–the work begins

I used the word birth on purpose because writing a class is a lot like making a baby.  Getting the idea is the fun part.  Then you get to the labor pains.

My high school teachers would be delighted to know that I outline my classes before I start.  Otherwise, it is too easy to get sidetracked and lose track of the main theme of the class.

An easy class would be one in which you choose a project, list the supplies, provide a pattern and outline the steps to make the quilt a reality.  Most Quilt University classes are not like that.  We really do think of them as courses and want our students to come away with lots of new skills and the confidence to use them.

For the Next Step class, that meant my first chore was deciding just what I wanted them to learn.  I had decided to focus on the grid but all traditional blocks are based on a grid which meant I needed to narrow it down.

I decided to go with the most popular two sets of blocks: the 4-patch and the 9-patch.  There are hundreds of blocks in those two groups, but it was a start.

I like to work with Electric Quilt.  It gives me a way to play with blocks, fabrics and quilts quickly and efficiently.   By the time I opened my project file, I had changed the name of the class to Step Two.  There would be several more names until I finally settled on Anatomy of a Block.

At the last minute, I worried that Anatomy sounded too scientific and I polled the students who hang out in our Student Lounge to see what they thought.  I wish there had been a resource like that when I was naming my children!  My daughter ended up being Jennifer, since I had only known one my whole life.  As it turned out, that was the most popular name for a girl that year.

Anyway, I picked a slew of blocks and then started trying to set them into quilts.  Over the years, I have fallen in love with blocks that refuse to play well with others and I wanted to be sure that these blocks would coexist together in a variety of ways.

counterchange_allover   counterchange_cross_connector
I loved the Counterchange Cross block and made it work in both these layouts, but it isn’t a good sampler block, so it isn’t in the class.

In the middle of all this planning, I became executor of my mother’s estate and the class got set aside for 4 months as I tackled the gargantuan task of clearing out her house.  That is definitely a story for another day.

When I got back to the class, it took a while to get back into the groove, and I thought playing with fabric might stir up my enthusiasm and get me engaged again.  Lots of people refer to quilts with many fabrics as scrap quilts, but I actually pull 20-50 fabrics for almost every quilt I make.  The trick is to find one piece that I really love and then make sure that everything else will be happy in the same quilt with that piece.

Once the stack is pulled, I am free to use any fabric for different parts of the quilt, knowing that they will all be visually pleasing together in the final product.  Well, most of them will.  There is always a piece or two that sticks out no matter what you do.  Stripes can be hard to use, especially if you are making triangles and they point off in all different directions.  Even worse, they may not be printed straight on the fabric and end up all cattywumpus.  (That may not be a real word, but I bet you can tell what I mean.)

Some conversation prints are the same way.  My starting fabric for the pile was a gorgeous print with Japanese style lanterns on it.  They looked just awful cut up and used sideways or upside down, so they didn’t actually make it into the quilt at all.

I tell my classes about mistakes like that because it helps them to avoid making the same ones.

right_hand_of_friendship   gentlemans_fancy.
The Right Hand of Friendship was a terrific looking star and I also liked Gentleman’s Fancy.  Both were tricky to put together.  I could do it but I could envision frustrated beginners running into problems.   They came out of the class.

In the end, I made enough blocks to carpet my family room, so I divided them up into three piles.  The first became a sampler, sized to fit the twin bed in our guest room.  The second has blocks that are almost all purple and I suspect it will end up with my daughter.  The third pile hasn’t decided what it will be when it grows up.  For the time being, I will just think of those blocks as part of the sourdough starter, pieces and parts just waiting to belong to a quilt.

corn_and_beans_finished   ohio_star_blues
Two purple blocks – Corn and Beans and the Ohio Star

Right now, I am working on the border for the sampler.  The center is sewn together.   Several of the tricks I teach in the class give you leftover half square triangles.  I wanted to show a way those could be used, so I am trying to work them into the border.  The idea needs work.  Hopefully, it will look smashing when it is finished.  I like to follow patterns up to a point and then I enjoy the challenge of working things out on my design wall.  That’s just a fancy name for a big piece of flannel nailed to the wall.

A slice of the sampler before the borders – the first border will be a blue strip which will move the emphasis away from the reds and into the blue family.

(It wasn’t until I stood back to take a picture of this quilt that I realized how inadequate my camera was.  Purchased because it fit in a pocket, it has no real wide angle capabilities at all.  With luck, that problem will be remedied this weekend.)

The class is written and registration opens in a couple of hours.  I don’t know whether I am the mother giving birth or the nervous dad pacing in the waiting room.  Either way, I can’t wait to see how the students like it!

What we leave behind

I was in my car running errands when the DJ said, “I have a special reason for playing this next song. I’ll tell you after it’s over.”  I heard the first distinctive notes of “The Entertainer” from The Sting and knew that Marvin Hamlisch had died.

I felt inexpressibly sad.  He had brought so much joy into my life over so many years, it was almost as if we were friends.  Of course, Marvin didn’t know me from Adam but he had made it possible for me to know him, not only through his wonderful music but because he appeared so often on TV.

He showed up as himself on talk shows, documentaries, tributes to his work or to other people and even on sitcoms.  He was charming and funny and made you want to spend the evening with him. 

Above it all was the amazing music.  Look at a list of the things he wrote from “Sunshine, Lollipops” for Leslie Gore and “The Way We Were” for Streisand to all those sad, funny, soaring songs in A Chorus Line.  Can you hear “One” without seeing those gorgeous girls in the top hats, without wanting to get up yourself and kick up your heels?

Even after all the people who remember him are gone, his music will still be there,  like Sinatra’s voice or Cary Grant’s movies, like Marilyn’s giggle and sultry walk, like the words of Shakespeare or Steinbeck.

That isn’t going to happen for most of us, so it seems that our only real legacy is the memories we create for other people – not the perfect birthday cake or the expensive present – but the surprises, the kindnesses, the smiles and hugs and even the ready shoulder to lean on or the ear willing to listen.  It won’t matter if we get credit or even if the other person knows our name.  Each caring act bends the universe just a little in the right direction.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Birth of a Class

We used to have a lot of beginner level classes at Quilt University, but I realized one day a couple years ago, that attrition had caused a big gap between my Starting from Scratch class and the next traditional class. 

triple_irish_charin   jewel_box
Triple Irish Chain and Jewel Box, one of my all-time favorite scrap quilts

Ideas chased around in my brain for weeks.  Should I offer a simple pattern like the Irish Chain or the Jewel Box?   Those are great projects but there isn’t a lot to teach.  Since I was in the second grade, I loved to play school and try to teach other kids.  I guess I never grew out of that.  I want my students to leave with more skills than they came in with.

So just what was it I wanted these hypothetical students to understand as they moved on from their first quilt or two and started exploring more possibilities?  I thought back to my own journey of discovery.  One of the first books I bought was Maggie Malone’s 1001 Patchwork Designs.  I salivated over all those blocks, tearing up strips of paper and marking the ones I liked until the book looked like a porcupine with white quills.

maggie_malone_    fanning
Early quilting books by Maggie Malone and
Robbie and Tony Fanning were in black and white

That book came out in 1982 and was a leap forward from the two books that I already owned.  There wasn’t much in print back then.  The instructions were right out of the 1850’s; you made cardboard templates, marked the fabric with a pencil and cut out the pieces with a pair of scissors.   Even better, because it had lots of instructions, was The Complete Book of Machine Quilting by Robbie and Tony Fanning.

My first quilt was a log cabin and all the strips were torn.  After two of those, I felt ready for my real love – stars!  I picked about a dozen stars and worked on them painstakingly for nearly a year.  When it came time to put the top together, no two blocks were exactly the same size.  Undaunted (okay, I was a little daunted but didn’t know enough to pull out my hair), I just cut spacers out of the muslin background.  I laid out the blocks and figured out how big each individual spacer needed to be so that all the rows were the same width.

Honestly, I don’t remember what I did about the height, but I am pretty sure that I put a sashing strip between the rows.  I am equally certain that not all my stars had sharp points.  I finished that quilt and used it proudly for several years.  That was when I looked down one day and realized that all the places that had a particular brown color had simply rotted away.  My precious quilt was dissolving before my eyes!

We have come a long way since my cardboard template days.  We have rotary cutters and accurate rulers to use with them.  The tool that really makes the difference between okay, good and excellent is graph paper.  Graph paper lets us draw out our blocks and make truly accurate patterns. Even if we don’t need the pattern piece for a 3” square, it is good to know the precise size we want to cut with our rotary equipment.

Understanding how to use graph paper, whether you do it with a pencil or inside a program like Electric Quilt became the basis for my Next Step class.  That doesn’t sound very sexy, but the secret was choosing great blocks and beautiful pieces of fabric.  Nothing to it, right?

You know better than that.  More to come…….

How do you learn?

A discussion in the Student Lounge at Quilt University made me start thinking about this. Lilian pointed out that people tend to learn with visual, auditory, or tactile methods.  I think you would have to divide visual into subsets – watching something is certainly visual but so is reading, where you are looking at the words and pictures.

I find that the kind of thing I am trying to learn has a lot to do with how I can learn it.

For example, if we are talking about concepts, I would rather read and see the words than listen to someone lecture.  I am happy to talk about it after absorbing it on my own.  I find many people difficult to listen to.  All those voiceovers on TV documentaries and those old school films – I just want to go to sleep!  People raved about the Civil War PBS series.  I lasted about 10 minutes.  I was bored out of my mind.

With more physical things, it depends on where I am in the learning scale.  With a new concept for sewing, I want to see it done.  Maybe more than once.  Partly that is because I was apparently off getting a snack when spatial skills were passed out.  Remember those tests in school where they show an unfolded shape and ask you what it would be when put together?  I could STILL be sitting in front of that paper and wouldn’t know.

When I teach quilting, it is embarrassing to put triangles up on the wall. If I start with them, I will have no idea which way they should face unless I am looking at a diagram.  I have come to accept that this is just a black hole in my brain.

(To digress for a minute, did you know that some people are born with face blindness?  They simply cannot distinguish one face from the other, and that includes their own face.  Imagine looking into a mirror and not realizing it is you because you don’t remember what you look like from one time to the next!  I recently saw a fascinating interview with the famous British neurologist and psychologist, Oliver Sacks, and he has this condition.  Imagine seeing patients and never knowing if you saw them before!  I’ll take my little spatial problem without complaint.)

Placement of shapes aside, I have been sewing since I was 13 and quilting since 1978, so I can usually visualize the steps in assembling by reading the directions,  which I suppose makes me still a visual learner for physical skills, since I am picturing it.

And yet, I still only want to see the actual motion needed for doing the task.  I know videos are the popular way to learn but I find I am squirming in my seat after 10 minutes.

I remember being sent to a workshop for Word Perfect when I was working in an office.   It turned out to be a room full of tiny tables with an overhead projector.  We got a sheaf of sketchy notes and most of the information came from a disembodied voice while hands on the screen performed the task.  The program moved rapidly from one skill to the next, with no repetition and not enough time to write down the steps.  And we certainly didn’t get to try anything ourselves.

I could tell in 5 minutes that I would have to choose one or two things and try to get those written down in enough detail to repeat them in the office.  The big one was mail merge and I managed to remember enough to get it to work.   How anyone ever mastered a wholly new program with that approach, I cannot imagine.

Learning things on the computer falls into a whole new category, often closer to a level of Hell than a learning experience.  I seem able to grasp the word-related tasks much easier than those in the graphics programs.  Naturally, as soon as I have reached a level of competence, the next version comes out.  I resist as long as possible and usually end up getting version 3 when version 4 is released.

Left to my own devices, I wouldn’t bother to upgrade but our computers last about 5 years and then you are faced with a new operating system which is too snooty to run your old software.  The end result is that I seem to learn fewer new things on each successive version.

So how do you learn?  And how do you compensate when the situation provides you with the information in a way that doesn’t work for you?