Once upon a time, I bought a pair of white snail-shaped chairs from Good Will. Actually, what happened was, my mother saw them at Good Will and told me if I didn’t buy them, then she would. (This was supposed to be a threat. I don’t really know what was supposed to be so threatening about her owning the chairs, but I always listen to her when she says things in that tone. It’s for the best.) She then chased a little girl away from them. My mother is serious about cute chairs.
I love these chairs. I like to sit in them and read Photoplay to see what hijinks Doris and Rock are up to.
However, since they are white and my walls are white, my poor pretty chairs sort of disappeared into the background. So I called my mother (the one who’s serious about cute chairs), and I told her I wanted little round red fat pillows. The pillows needed to have all those attributes, and I wouldn’t accept any substitutes.
Mom and I took a few trips to the fabric store to look at patterns, but the pillows the pattern books suggested had either ultra-clean lines, or Kountry Kitchen ruffles. There was nothing that would fit my snail-shell chairs.
I went home, sat in my chairs, and muttered about little round red fat pillows.
Then one morning, I opened my email to find this picture:
That’s mom wearing the crown. And that’s Uncle Scott hitting her in the head with a bat. Not a whole lot has changed. More important than either of those things, though, are the pillows on the couch behind them.
Mom found little round fat (pink) pillows. They just happened to be from her childhood. She also found the pattern: vintage McCall’s 2467.
We bought the pattern from an eBay seller,and off we went to the fabric store again. We found a gorgeous shiny red fabric with tiny flecks of gold, a couple of pillow forms, and went home to start putting the pillows together. We cleared everyone out of the kitchen, got Mom’s sewing machine out, and were ready to get to work.
It turns out that we weren’t going to need the sewing machine. These pillows are all smocking, and this particular kind of smocking is done by hand.
Smocking, for those not in the sewing-lingo know, is what it’s called when you gather fabric, and then hold those gathers with stitches. For the last 50 years or so, smocking has been done by machine. Why? Because hand-smocking is difficult and time-consuming. I know this now. Hind-sight is 20/20, etc.
The second set of instructions went along with a complicated 9-step diagram. It was made up of arrows and dots and so many numbers. Remember those Disney cartoons where Goofy would try to learn to dance or play golf, but instead would get so tangled up in the arrows of the play book that his feet would be where his ears go and he’d fly off a cliff and land somewhere mid-yodel? These instructions were sort of like that. And mom and I were about to hit “yodel”. Maybe to someone who already speaks smocking, the diagram would make some sort of sense. But who speaks smocking these days?
But wait. There was a note. Hope. There, at the bottom of the diagram: “For further instructions, visit your local fabric counter and ask for McCall’s Easy Sewing Booklet”.
So mother and I put on our second best hats and walked down to Woolworth’s for an eggcream and nice chat with our Regina, our fabric girl.
Except it’s not 1961. And we don’t have a fabric counter. We don’t even have second-best hats. And although I have a full back-story for Regina, she’s completely imaginary. It’s all very depressing.
After a few more tries to sort the smocking out, we gave up and put the whole thing away. It’s possible to find the Easy Sewing Booklets, but since McCall’s released a new edition every year, it’s almost impossible to find just the right one.
I went home and sat in my chairs and muttered about little round red fat pillows. I carried a fabric sample around in my wallet, and would take it out and pet it every once in a while.
After a few months of muttering and fabric-petting, I got angry. I wasn’t going to let this pattern beat us. I sat down with some spare fabric and went through the diagram step by step. After a while, I had something that looked like this:
It wasn’t perfect, but mom and I were able to get the general idea. We had a start. We practiced on the muslin for a while, and then when we were really brave, we started on the actual fabric.
For the next several hours, our conversation went like this: “Pick up one, loop around two, go back to one, grab three, pick up four, four becomes one, loop around two…” We were unable to say anything else. Any family member with helpful suggestions like “maybe you should stop counting and eat dinner” was promptly banished. After a few hours, we both had something that looked like this:
Still, that doesn’t look like much. However, when you turn it over, it looks like this:
That, my friends, is a semi-successful row of hand-smocking. You can also see how sheeny and pretty my fabric is. Raise your hand if it’s the prettiest fabric you’ve ever seen. I should see a lot of hands, people.
Now, each pillow needed three rows of this smocking. So some several thousand years later, we each had something that looked like this:
But add one more row to that.
There are a couple of steps after this. There’s some more gathering, and then the attaching of the buttons. I’m a little fuzzy on the details. Mom assembled the pillows while I finished up my smocking, so I don’t actually have any photos. (I may have figured it out first, but I’m a much slower smocker.)
Ta da! The finished product. Now tell me, have you ever seen anything so little and round and red and fat?
And look how nicely they cause my chairs to not disappear? (At least a little. They disappear less in real life. I blame the bright-whiteness of these photos and my inability to edit them.)
And here are the two together. Look at how beautiful the edges are! I can say that without it being bragging, because I’m pretty sure that’s the one my mom made.
I love them. Now I can sit in my chairs and mutter about little round red fat pillows while actually holding my little round red fat pillows. I promise I do other things sometimes.
[Note: I have every intention of writing about and posting pictures of the the cabinet I wrote about last week, but my therapist says that it would be best if I wait until the hurtful words stop coming out.]
It’s not my fault.
I had plenty of time this week to figure out where to lay the blame. I traced back to my grandma, who converted her cozy lake house in to a three-story, four-sitting-room retirement dreamhouse. I’ve considered my mother, who knew, just knew, when my dad had finished framing and installing the French doors, that they would work so much better if he just moved them six inches to the right.
Surely there must be something in my genes that inspired all this.
I considered my dear friend Kate. Kate made slipcovers for her couches out of canvas drop cloths. Kate made herself Christmas stocking out of thrift-store sweaters. Kate reupholstered a wingback chair. You can read about it on her blog.
Katy dear, she’s the one who introduced me to all those do-it-yourself blogs. It’s those blogs that are to blame.
Those blogs with their shiny custom blog layouts. With their perfectly candid family photos and the wide array of tools. They have everything they need, really. Power sanders, paint brushes (the expensive ones), and the kind of can-do attitude that can only come when you’ve hand-crafted your own bootstraps out of upcycled trunk handles. (Cute idea, right?)
Their homes are perfect. Oh, they write, apologetically, welcome to our work-in-progress. This ol’ thing? they say, displaying a photo of the chandelier they constructed out of bicycle tires and fishnet stockings. I just whipped this up between re-tiling the bathroom and weaving a rug on our homemade loom!
These people, these bloggers, they’re forever productive. They find some ugly old chair, say, caked with mud and upholstered with palm-tree-embroidered velour, and they haul it away to their backyard. This thing’s got great bones, they’ll explain. You just wait.
And I do. I wait. I tap my phone, refreshing my RSS reader until I see that little number pop up telling me I have one new post to read. I shake my phone, cursing my wireless company for the slowness of my 3G connection. Finally, the photos load. I scroll past the clever title and post teaser. This isn’t the time for your words, blog lady. Tell me what happened to that chair.
I’m never disappointed. They were right. The chair did have great bones. In about 20 minutes, that bony chair when from a trash-pile relic to a magazine-shoot ready, Eames-inspired, Martha-Stewart-can-only-dream, room-making Chair!
I never would have put those colors together, but it so works for them.
It only takes a few weeks of feverish blog-reading before I realize that I can do this. I can Do It Myself. What do these people got that I don’t got? A table saw? Bah! I don’t need a table saw! I held the flashlight for my dad for 20 years! I know how to do stuff! I bet when those bloggers started, they didn’t know a Phillips from a flat-head screwdriver. I’m already ahead.
I start small. Spray paint some picture frames. So I never actually hang them. It’s experience, right? Next I make some pillows. Well. I watch my mom make some pillows. I’m getting very good at threading needles. I decide to learn how to embroider. Just think what cute curtains I can watch my mom make after I’ve embroidered Shakespeare’s sonnets around the border.
Hang on. Embroidery’s really boring.
What Would Younghouselove Do?
I head to the thrift store. I find it: my Next Project. I’ll refinish that cabinet. It’ll take a day, probably. Maybe a weekend. A little paint stripper, a little elbow grease, I’ll have a vintage-nouveau cabinet to hold my hand-me-down lamps.
The cabinet’s in the kitchen now, drying. It took me three days just to get the original paint off, and I don’t want to talk about what I found underneath. (Hint: not wood.) I smashed my finger in one of the doors during an intense sanding session. I’ve spent every spare moment of the last five days on this thing, and I have an alarm set for 6am so I can put a third coat on before work.
I chose an olive green paint. I thought it would be a good color-used-as-a-neutral. The first coat went on like…well…it sort of reminded me of what happens when you feed a baby too much pureed spinach. I still have high hopes, though. They say paint always dries less poopy.
I’m going to finish this project, even if it means I have to prime sand it down and prime it all over again. I’m going to stain the cabinet legs to match my side chairs. Someday I’ll just happen upon grimy-but-just-right brass hardware that I’ll polish and screw on.
I know I’m going to start a new project in a few weeks, once my finger heals and the paint fumes clear out of my apartment. I also know I can’t really blame genetics or even those DIY blogs.
I did this myself.
Midwesterners enjoy the ocean just as much as everybody else does. We just choose to be more sensible about it than other people. When we Midwesterners go to the ocean, we don’t get in an aeroplane and fly to west to California. We don’t pack our station wagon and head east to Maine. When Midwesterners go to the ocean, Midwesterners go north.
You may argue that the Great Lakes are not technically an ocean, and you are right. Technically. However, I am here to tell you that the Great Lakes are far superior (heh) to any ocean you have to compare them to.
1) Fresh Water
Water should quench your thirst. Water should not make you more thirsty. I think that’s in the Bible. ”Salt water” is an oxymoron. If it isn’t, it should be.
Remember that time when you were eight, and you went to Myrtle Beach and you only brought one water bottle to share with your sisters, and you swam in the ocean and the salt water parched your little throat, and you drank the whole bottle of water, and told your mom that you were thirsty and wanted to go back to your hotel room but she said no, because you had just gotten to the beach and the hotel room was far away, and then she said that there’s no way that you could be thirsty because you were swimming in water?
I don’t remember that either. Must have been a weird dream. But anyway, salt water is completely counterintuitive and a sign of a fallen world.
I love the idea of a great expanse of water, but eventually you have to apply the law of diminishing returns. I can stand on the shore of Lake Michigan and look out as far as I can see, and still feel the bigness of the world, but I can drive to the other side in a couple of hours. Conceivably, I could watch the sun come up on Oak Street Beach in Chicago, grab breakfast at La Sera, noodle around in Old Town for a few hours, and still make it to St. Joseph in time to buy some antiques and eat chicken salad* before watching the sun set over Silver Beach.
Oceans are inefficient.
Now, I enjoy a cephalopod as much as the next girl, but I like them in their proper place. On YouTube. I prefer my beach visits to be terrifying-creature free. Sure, oceans have dolphins and narwhals and other cuddly creatures. But they also have these. You know what the most pressing fish issue is in the Great Lakes? The Asian carp invasion. Yup, that droopy little face is the stuff of nightmares.
Did you know that innocent beach walkers have been known to step on jellyfish while waking on a coastal beach? You don’t even have to be in the water for the ocean to get you.
This is why you should visit the Great Lakes and leave the ocean to people with an unreasonable expectation of bigness and high saline tolerance.
All joking aside, oceans are nice to visit. I’ve seen two of them. I’m glad I did. But really, if I have to choose, I’m perfectly happy to spend a day on one of our pretty Midwestern beaches, that are near fresh water, of a reasonable size, and terrifying creature free.
That’s how I spent the first half of this week. It was wonderful, and restful, and I spent the whole time with my mom and sisters. I enjoy them more than just about anyone else in the world. I’m feeling much more myself than I was a week ago.
*My free time is mostly spent eating soft foods and looking for antiques. I’m going to make an excellent old person.
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This blog belongs to Jesse Doogan.
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