After Work


At ten to five I realize I should have left already.  Stuffing the assorted mason jars that carry lunch and the obligatory breast milk in my bag, I grab the laptop, pumping supplies, and my coat.  Sometimes, when I leave earlier, I like to think of walking out the door as a small act of resistance against a career designed to leave little room for anything else.  Me, leaving early, bag in hand, a smile on my face, not sneaking away as though anyone is keeping track.

Spring is starting to emerge and entertains me on the walk home.  Little gardens are tucked in the front yards and side yards and in-between yards, some only showing hints of life with brown grass and twiggy hedges.  Others have come utterly alive in the last few weeks with a  parade of early spring flowers; snowdrops, crocuses, daffodils, hyacinth, and other delicate white and purple flowers whose names I cannot remember now.  Tulip leaves are everywhere, the excitement mounting as I wait for a new symphony of color.

Sometimes on the walk home I call my parents or grandmother to chat for a few minutes about the little things Adi is learning or how she is sleeping.  Other times I prefer to think about all the plans I can’t help but tidy away in the back of my mind, waiting for a yard of my own, a house of my own, more time of my own.

Fumbling with the keys, check the mail, open the door, and it’s the squeal of a baby as she sees her mama’s home.  Her daddy is lounging on the sofa trying to contain her glee and waving arms without losing his glasses.  Someone’s hungry!  Boots off, mason jars unloaded, milk in the fridge.  I change into house clothes that are already covered with a layer of drool and snot.  I try not to think about that.  Adi and her daddy have followed me into the bedroom and as soon as I’m done changing she reaches out for a huge baby hug.  Home-coming is my favorite part of the day.

While James works on dinner, Adi and I snuggle in bed for nursing and reading.  After weeks of waiting for it to arrive via inter-library loan, I have six delicious issues of Taproot Magazine to pore over with a baby in my arms; there is no greater bliss.  Finally satiated, Adi chirps and squirms and reaches out to grab the colorful pages.  I’m hoping Taproot makes it back to the library in one piece.

Dinner is ready, baby is stripped down to her diaper, and the table is set.  We’re all eating split-pea soup with sourdough bread so fresh that it’s still slightly warm.  James has been experimenting with some of the whole-grain bread recipes in Tartine Book No. 3 and this new bread recipe he started making a couple weeks ago with oatmeal is fast becoming my favorite.  Even Adi, who is only slowly coming onto bread, would rather put buttered pieces in her mouth than on the floor.

Long after the adults have finished eating and in the middle of a conversation about how James doesn’t like gardening or want to have a hoard of farm animals someday and how that is fine because that way he will have energy to do the things I don’t want to do, like taxes or setting up computers or making tons of money by sitting at a desk all day solving other people’s problems, which apparently I’m fine doing as long as I don’t get paid a lot of money for it; Adi starts flinging split-pea soup across the kitchen while trying to wiggle out of her highchair seat.

Dinner is over and it’s time to wipe up the baby and clean up the spray of food that has collected on all nearby surfaces.  After James does the dishes and I put Adi in her PJs, we cuddle up in bed once more for a snuggle, some bedtime stories, and a final nurse.  On a good night, Adi falls asleep in my arms and settles down in the fetal position in her crib without a peep.  Lately, we haven’t had a lot of good nights.  Teething and ear infections have meant a lot of rocking and singing, extra nursing, and finally, when nothing else works, quiet playing in the dark while an exhausted parent lies on a futon in her room.

But tonight is a good night, and soon I’m tip-toeing away back to the living room that is also our kitchen and dining room to make myself a cup of tea and sit on the sofa to watch the sky turn dark.  From the sofa I can see four different kinds of trees with their bare branches outlined against the intensely dark blue sky.  Each tree’s branches have a different character, some branching smoothly, others with a series of crooked turns, one with large spine-covered nuts.  Looking up, I can almost imagine that we don’t live in the city surrounded by pavement and cars and not enough gardens or fields of wild flowers.

For the next couple of hours I have my time to dream and create, to read and write about all that is and all that I hope will come.  There is still the laundry to hang up, dry diapers to put away, and perhaps a bit of cooking to do for dinner tomorrow, but otherwise this time is my own.  Tonight I am reading Taproot issue 10::seed and thinking about my lost garden in California and about the pots and grow lights that provide a dispiriting replacement in our new home.

Despite my frustrations, I can’t help but be hopeful.  Nature is stirring around me with an intensity I haven’t felt in years.  The transformation from barren wasteland of snow to verdant jungle is underway and soon I will be enjoying the first asparagus and spring greens, even if I am no longer able to grow them myself.  In my container garden new life is also stirring, with pea and fava bean sprouts breaking out of the soil to stretch ever upwards.  Spring is here and it is time to rejoice.




Apartment Gardening


Despite living in a tiny apartment with no south-facing windows, I am determined to grow and forage as much of our food as possible. Unfortunately, the most straightforward approach – having a garden plot of my own – will have to wait for an open spot in our local community gardens or for me to get up the nerve to ask my neighbors about borrowing a section of their yard.

In the mean time I have been tinkering with container gardening with varying degrees of success.  The first lesson learned was that even our southeast-facing window does not provide enough sunlight in late fall to keep sprouts alive.  Much hee-hawing later and I finally decided to supplement using a metal reflecting lampshade and a warm-spectrum CFL.  This allowed the basil, cilantro, and spinach to grow more than an inch tall, but has resulted in strangely crisp and dry leaves and the tallest basil plants I’ve ever seen (now more than two feet tall).  Part of the problem may be my lackadaisical approach to watering or possibly my insistence on not buying any special fertilizers for potted plants.  The watering I can work on, but I feel quite strongly that the whole point of growing my own food is to be self-sufficient, so I won’t be buying any soil supplement any time soon.

Now that spring is on the horizon and I have garden on the brain, I’ve finally decided to try a rather extreme approach that should solve a number of issues simultaneously.  The motivation comes from the fact that we still don’t have a good composting system worked out.  As much as I would like to have a dedicated worm bin, there just isn’t room for it in our tiny kitchen-living-dining room.  Pouring over some permaculture books from the library last week, I saw a reference to composting in place by adding veggie scraps directly to potted plants.  This is something I had tried in my California garden plot in various ways, either by putting veggie scraps on top of the soil as a sort of mulch or burying them a couple inches deep to speed up the process.  But I had never thought to try it in container gardens, mostly because one doesn’t usually have worms or much life of any kind when starting from bags of potting soil.  What I had forgotten, however, was that I had planted a bit of chives from my parents’ garden into my otherwise lifeless soil and somehow at least one worm has survived!  After burying some sweet potato peels a few days ago, a quick peak under the surface shows a couple baby worms wriggling around; I couldn’t be more excited!

IMG_7416Veggie scraps have been hidden under the soil with a light mulch layer of fallen basil leaves and (unsalted) pistachio shells.

I’m still not sure how this system will work in the long term.  Will the soil be too dense for container gardening?  Will it start to smell or provide a home for an (unwanted) ant colony?  How many containers will I need to use up all my compost as worm food?  How will it work with small seedlings compared to my basil monstrosities?  My hope is that this system will allow me to buy less potting soil to begin with and require no additional fertilizers in the future.  A tall order to be sure, but the only way to have a truly sustainable apartment garden.



Practical Knitting


I started knitting again with the thought of making myself a pair of socks.  They would be simple, durable, soft and cozy for chilly winter hardwood floors, and when they started to get holes in the soles then I would finally explore the last frontier of mending and learn how to darn them.

It was perhaps a selfish knitting goal.  I don’t need more socks – in fact I was gifted a dozen assorted pairs at Christmas that my mom found in a drawer somewhere, barely worn.  I really don’t need more socks.

Apparently I talked so passionately about my excitement for starting on my first pair that my sister started knitting again just to make a pair of her own.  When she finally realized that I had been continually side-tracked by other knitting projects she seemed truthfully disappointed, although whether that was due to the realization that her sister was all talk or because she wanted my help figuring out how to finish the toe is anyone’s guess.

No, instead I’ve been swamped with practical knitting.  In fact, the longer I’ve been knitting again the farther I get from starting a pair of socks.


First were the fingerless gloves, my way of easing back into knitting while learning how to read a proper pattern.  Then autumn came on in force and my ears were cold so I made a hat.  Then the baby was cold so I made her a cape.  And some leg warmers.  Then my husband’s ears were cold (he made it quite a bit longer than I did apparently), and since he walks the baby into daycare I’m sort of indebted.  By this point my excuses start getting suspicious, because next came a totally unnecessary cowl that I intended as a project to pick up quickly in spare minutes here or there, perhaps while watching the baby.  But as long as that cowl remained unfinished I just couldn’t commit to starting another more involved knitting project.  Last week I finally finished the cowl, but proceeded to cast-on a pair of speckled grey wool mittens.  Never mind that a very early spring is just around the corner, with snowdrops and crocuses peeking out all over the place.


The more I think about my inability to knit a pair of socks, the more I see the same thing play out in other aspects of my handmade life.  Knitting requires liberating (mostly) small bits of time in the face of busy schedules, unexpected distractions, and a continual tug towards more mindless pastimes.  As such, it requires unwavering commitment if a project is to be completed in any reasonable amount of time.  The necessary will always win against the superfluous.  Generally I don’t have a problem with this and use it to my advantage on a regular basis; it keeps us in fresh sourdough bread, ensures that my one silk slip that I’ve been wearing all winter under dresses and skirts gets mended immediately, and means I always take a few minutes to water the potted plants, no matter how late at night.  Unfortunately, in this light even next year’s mittens are more crucial than a pair of socks.


The downside to an emphasis on practicality is a preoccupation with craft as utility instead of as a way to love ourselves.  The artist in me wants nothing more than to create for the sake of creating alone.  This is what I love.  I try to inject as much artistry in the practical projects as I can, but the goal is simply not the same.  A project done for love of the process can be ripped out, changed, edited, or even dropped completely with no hard feelings because the final product was completely beside the point.

The best compromise I have found between the practical and artistic perspectives is to take away time pressure whenever possible.  I have all summer to finish knitting a pair of (practical) mittens, so starting over with a new type of yarn or with a smaller needle size in order to get the right look and feel is not a problem.

As for my hypothetical socks, once I looked at them as a way to experiment with new knitting skills instead of as yet another garment to add to my wardrobe, I finally started to get excited about them again.



A Tiny Cardboard Loom


It was only a matter of time before I went from buying fabric to making it myself, even if the first results are rather lumpy and the approximate size of a bookmark.

I blame it on Fibershed and a growing community interested in sourcing local materials for a handmade wardrobe.  While the birthplace of Fibershed is my old home of California, the same principles of organizing a web of regional fiber producers and consumers can be applied anywhere.  For drool-worthy examples, see the challenge from this is moonlight of #1year1outfit in which participants create an outfit sourced from their fibershed over the course of a year.  That may sound like a long time in which to create a single outfit, but as demonstrated again and again, local fiber resources are not always easy to find, especially not in the form that we are  used to working with.  Interesting challenges ensue, such as what to use for thread and fabric when most of what is available is raw fiber or yarn.  In addition to time spent researching local resources, many participants were forced to learn new skills such as spinning, weaving, felting, and dyeing in order to process the fiber available to them.  Is it any wonder then that a single outfit could take a full year to research, design, prepare materials for, and produce?


The fibershed model of crafting a handmade wardrobe resonates with me deeply.  It is more than just wearing me-made clothes, more than choosing organic cotton, more than using natural dyes.  It is working with my environment and my community to clothe myself.

Going forward, I intend to buy only locally produced fiber and textiles.  Now that I’ve had a chance to settle into my new home by finding the farmer’s market, public library, and neighborhood parks, it is time to start planning for the future.  The future of how I will keep myself cool in hot and humid summers and warm in often brutal winters.  How I will dress my daughter and perhaps start making clothes for my husband as well.  How to make curtains, blankets, quilts, pillows, mattresses, and maybe even shoes.  This is not an easy task.

The first step is learning about my local fibershed and what resources are available.   This is where I am now.  In the mean time, I have fabric, thread, yarn, and other notions purchased over the last four years to work through.  As excited as I am about using local fiber, I can’t ignore the stash I have already amassed.  Not only does it take up considerable space in my small apartment (four moving boxes worth of space, to be precise), it required considerable natural resources to produce.  The least I can do is use it up before consuming even more.

In preparation for taking full advantage of my fibershed, I will also work on improving and diversifying my skills.


So I made a tiny loom.

The loom is cut out of a small cardboard box that once held a baby spoon.  The sides are cut away to provide room to thread (the weft) yarn back and forth with my shuttle (a large, blunt needle I use for sewing in the ends of my knitting).  The ends have many small, evenly-spaced cuts on which to thread the other direction of yarn (the warp).  This tiny loom is perfect for using up very short bits of yarn left over from my natural dye experiments.


My first woven piece is the size of a bookmark.  It uses six different colors of naturally dyed yarn, including both the warp (alpaca) and weft (cotton).  It was an absolute joy to make.  I worked from my childhood memory of using a small wooden child’s loom, but beautifully illustrated instructions can be found here by Sugarhouse Workshop.


What’s next? Making a second, slightly larger cardboard loom.  There are only so many bookmarks one family can use…


Additional Weaving Resources:

Truly Non-toxic Natural Dyes


I have a curious crawling baby, for goodness’ sake.  There is no way I can rationalize keeping harmful powders, liquids, tablets, or any such nonsense within her reach.  And as I’m learning, “in reach” pretty much means everywhere.

It was frustrating, then, to realize that much of the natural dyeing literature depends upon using mordants to create vivid colors.  Mordants that are toxic enough that you need to be careful how you dispose of them.  If it can’t be poured straight down the drain, I don’t want my baby ingesting it.


So I started to make a list of all the natural dyes and mordants that I could eat.  Simple as that.  I took every natural dye book I could find out of the library and slowly the list grew.  What follows is by no means complete, since I’ve erred on the side of caution.  There are doubtless many other dye stuffs that are non-toxic to ingest, but the ones I chose are very obviously so.

Non-toxic Natural Dyes (colors and sources)

  • Coffee (brown): from reusing coffee grounds.
  • Black tea (brown): from reusing tea leaves or a tea bag.
  • Red onion skins (brown): collect the dry outer leaves in a paper bag.
  • Celery leaves (green): these are otherwise reserved for veggie stock in my house.
  • Carrot tops (green): carrots are often sold with their greens at the farmer’s market during the summer, or try growing some of your own.
  • Yellow onion skins (yellow): same as for red onion skins.
  • Turmeric (yellow): the dried and ground kind in your spice drawer.
  • Hibiscus (pink): sold as herbal tea (e.g. Tazo Passion).
  • Beets (pink): use the water from boiling beets to eat and then add any peelings (the root end and top, for instance) to get more color.
  • Red wine (purple): preferably from the remnants of a bottle you forgot to finish.

Non-toxic Mordants (particular affinities)

  • Vinegar (especially good for onion skins and beets)
  • Salt (cotton)
  • Skim milk (cotton)
  • Whey from cheese-making (cotton)
  • Black tea (cotton)
  • Water from boiling acorn meat that has the leached tannins (cotton)
  • Soy milk (silk)
  • Oxidized wine with tannins
  • Baking soda
  • Sugar
  • Cream of tartar
  • Yogurt

Of course you may notice that some of these things (vinegar and baking soda for example) would not be pleasant to ingest in large quantities, but I have these in my kitchen regardless.  The goal is not to reduce all risk, only to minimize it to what is reasonable given our current lifestyle.

IMG_6830White and light brown alpaca yarn dyed with beets and red wine.

There will doubtless be much poo-pooing at this point (and no, not just by the baby) that many of the above dyes are not particularly light-fast, wash-fast, or generally prone to keeping their color.  At first this bothered me, but after reading India Flint’s book Eco Colour, I am converted: the worst thing that can happen to dyes fading is that you need to re-dye your textiles, giving you the opportunity to change them with the seasons or the years.  As for wash-fastness, I appreciate any excuse to do less laundry.

IMG_6828White and light brown cotton yarns dyed with beets, hibiscus, and red wine.

In all honesty, I have barely begun exploring the dyes and mordants on my list.  I started with beets because we eat them often and the bright pink dye liquid takes advantage of what would otherwise be waste water and trimmings.  Then I found some old Tazo Passion tea bags that had water spots on them and realized that they were mainly hibiscus.  For mordants I have tried sea salt, white vinegar, black tea, coffee (perhaps more of a pre-dye), baking soda, and old red wine.  The red wine turned out to be more interesting as a dye than as a mordant for beets.  I have also tried using white vinegar as an after-rinse to make colors more vibrant.  Soon I will experiment with yellow and red onion skins that I am saving in a paper bag in the kitchen.

IMG_6797Dye samples on cotton and alpaca yarn with detailed notes on the mordant and dye bath.

Every single book or blog post I’ve read about natural dyeing harps on the importance of taking dye notes and saving a record of how each dye experiment turns out.  By the time I had dyed more than two different pieces of yarn, I was on board.  There is just no way to remember all the little tricks and experiments you will think of.  Make it easy on yourself and create a library of dye samples by punching holes in the side of a piece of paper through which you can tie a piece of dyed yarn.  The result is beautiful and allows for easy comparison.  I like to add samples of the un-dyed yarn as well.

IMG_6810More dye samples of beet, hibiscus, and red wine and how the colors come together in a small woven piece that includes six different colors of naturally dyed yarn.

Until I have the motivation to write a comprehensive review and comparison of natural dye books, let me recommend India Flint’s Eco Colour as my overwhelming favorite.  It is the only one I’ve read thus far to emphasize how important it is to source and dispose of both dye and mordant responsibly.  Many of the other books focused on natural dyeing like following a recipe, despite the fact that dye results can be affected by something as simple as the water you use in your dye pot.  As with cooking, a recipe can only get you so far and may have the effect of limiting your creativity if you don’t have the confidence to experiment for yourself.  With non-toxic dyes and mordants, what can go wrong?

IMG_6803White and light brown cotton yarn dyed with hibiscus tea drying on a plate.  After the yarn is rinsed the color will be less intense.

As a final note, let me add that natural dyeing has been an ideal creative outlet this winter, requiring only small bits of time whenever inspiration strikes.  I have a single small pot for my dye bath that lives on the stove.  The dye pot does not need special ventilation because it does not generate toxic fumes.  Every few days I will remember to start a bit of yarn soaking in some mordant that I keep in a couple glass jars on a side table.  A few days later I remember to add the yarn to the dye pot, turn on the burner for a little while, and then let the yarn soak at least overnight before letting it dry on a plate.  Every so often I make up a new dye bath when the old one seems weak.  As long as I take notes on what was done to each piece of yarn throughout the dye process then my lack of promptness only works to my advantage (assuming longer soaks in mordant and dye bath lead to brighter/stronger colors).

It’s as easy as dropping a scrap of yarn in the dregs of your morning coffee.  What’s not to love?