Using our hands

I’m midway through an interesting book, The Creativity Cure by Carrie and Alton Barron. The authors, a psychologist and a surgeon, outline a 5-part ‘prescription’ for creativity and happiness. One of them is ‘Your Own Two Hands’ – using your hands to do something creative and meaningful. Their point is basically that most of us in industrialized society don’t use our hands to actually make things much anymore – we use them in repetitive tasks and abstracted ones, like working on a computer or using a smartphone. We don’t have to make the things that we use everyday anymore. It turns out this is important both psychologically and physiologically – using your hands is good for you body, mind and soul. I think sewists, gardeners, and cooks know this already – it’s part of the reason we love our hobbies. Some quotes from the book:

Making and using tools defined the rise of humankind and its evolving, enlarging brain…
We have arrived at a point in human society where manufacturing by hand is almost unnecessary from a practical point of view but necessary from a psychological perspective. Conveniences deprive us of processes that elevate mood and foster internal well-being…
If you are consistently using your hands in meaningful ways, you are stimulating one of the largest portions of the somatosensory and motor cortex of the brain, more than other parts of your body do.
If we stop using our hands in the way they were meant to be used – to construct, create, repair, stir, mix and manipulate – we churn within and become depressed. [A neuroscientist and psychologist] discovered that decreased hand use is linked to depression and that meaningful handwork boosts mood.
Hand use balances our digital, technology-focused lives and gives our instincts an outlet.
Making what we can, however imperfectly, is empowering, because it is an expression of the self…. Natural settings, natural selves, and natural products appeal to us, despite or even because of their imperfections.

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On intimidation and failure

Last weekend I was reading the craftiness folder in my blog reader, and as I caught up on everyone’s blogs I noticed I didn’t feel encouraged, or impressed; I felt overwhelmed, intimidated and like a fake. I started to feel inferior to all these great blogs with all these great projects, and I didn’t want to go to my sewing room and sew – I wanted to never sew again.

A funny thing happened about last Friday’s post. I had this great plan to make the plum sauce and share this cool recipe with you all, and maybe a picture of my newly-filled canning jar. Then I actually tried to make the stuff, and it all went to hell in a hand basket. I thought, well, forget that plan. Then, in a moment of actual insight, I realized that a post about how it all didn’t work could be just as interesting as the perfect post I had planned. After all, I’m not the first person who’s cooked something that didn’t work out. (In fact, it happened again last night – I made banana bread and took it out of the oven when it looked and smelled done, only to have the middle ooze all over the counter when I put it on the cooling rack. It still tasted good. It was kinda like a banana version of molten chocolate cake, actually.)

I need to get better at failure. More than that, I need to get better at being less than perfect at things. Maybe I need to get better at listening less to other people, at judging my efforts by other people’s. I get stuck in this trap of perfection a lot, and I don’t think it makes me do better work; it makes me do less work and more inhibited work. I know it doesn’t make me happy.

It’s not surprising that most of us write blog posts about the things we completed, and the things we did well. We talk about our successes, and less about our failures; it’s just human nature to want others to be impressed with us and our work. It’s one of the ways that a blog, or any online presence, can be somewhat misleading – we can tell the story we want to tell, and it’s not untrue, but it’s not the whole unvarnished truth either.

I think I want to tell the truth, even if it makes me sound like an idiot who can’t cook plums or make banana bread or sew anything more complicated than a t-shirt. I think it would be better for me, and who knows, you might like reading it too.

Food on Friday: Iced coffee (no, seriously)

Someday I’ll write a novel where caffeine is banned as a controlled substance, because most people I know, including me, are addicted to it at one level or another. (Tom Standage’s book Around the World in Six Glasses is not the first work to suggest that the Industrial Revolution was strongly helped along by the shift of the typical working class drink from beer and spirits to tea and coffee (improved sanitation and the importation of the latter two from the Indies).)

Coffee was never my caffeine delivery vehicle of choice until a few years ago; the unsugared, black coffee my dad drank when I was a kid didn’t have much appeal. Even in high school and college I mostly stuck with soda (the amount of Mountain Dew I drank in a day back then would curl your hair). Like many people, the rise of Starbucks and of “coffee drinks” rather than just plain coffee sucked me in. It had all the sugar of soda, but in a coffee format! What’s not to like? Plus I can get out of the house and stare at my laptop screen or blank notebook page amongst others, rather than alone.

Going to the coffeehouse all the time gets pretty pricey, however, and I was thrilled when my brother and sister-in-law were nice enough to buy us a Keurig coffeemaker last Christmas. Since I’m the only coffee-drinker in the house it’s been really great to have, and makes pretty decent coffee as far as I can tell. I can throw a little sugar and soy milk in there and pretend I’m at a cafe but it’s cheaper.

Recently one of the blogs I follow had a link to The Pioneer Woman’s cold-brewed iced coffee recipe. I am no coffee connoisseur, but I do know the thing about iced coffee is that you can’t really just make coffee and pour it over ice, because then it’s very watery. You need an espresso-type liquid rather than an American coffee strength. I had most of a bag of ground coffee leftover from a recent trip, so I figured I’d give it a try. I fourthed the original recipe [2 quarts water, 4 oz coffee] and let it sit for 12 hours or so before I drained it. Which leads me to my main problem with this approach – it’s messy as heck. I ended up with coffee grounds everywhere – my counter, around my trash can, all over my sink while rinsing out the pitcher I brewed in. Maybe you’re more coordinated than me and can avoid this, but beware.

The recipe did result in a nice, strong and concentrated coffee which worked well iced with some milk (or the hazelnut Coffeemate also left over from the trip, purchased by someone else, I will note, which means it has no calories, right?). I would never make it as suggested in the original recipe – 1/3 of a glass full of half-and-half and sweetened condensed milk is too sweet for even me the sugar-lover. At that point, why not just eat a donut and pound a Red Bull rather than pretend you’re drinking coffee for the coffee?

The tracings of seamstresses past

Recently I picked up these vintage Stretch & Sew patterns at the thrift store.


Unfortunately, two of them were missing the instructions, but all four did have tracings in them – neatly folded, out of pattern paper, and already altered. If the name on one of the patterns is accurate, they once belonged to an Ann Kennedy. If the alterations were accurate, she was medium-sized and fairly short. There’s something eerie about looking at these traced patterns. I don’t know if Ann is still out there sewing or not; I don’t know if she donated these patterns or her heirs did. I don’t know if she made any of these patterns or if tracing them was as far as she got. It feels a little sacrilegious throwing the tracings away, but what else am I going to do with them?

There’s something neat and yet sobering about buying secondhand and vintage patterns, notions, and fabric. I always wonder who was the person who originally bought them, what she liked to sew, and what her plans were for the pattern or fabric. I suppose it makes us all think who will be going through our sewing things one day, wondering the same thing.

May article roundup

How is it nearly June, y’all? May has been a busy month for me, and June promises to be much the same. Here’s a quick roundup of the sewing articles I’ve written for Examiner this month:
A review of Laura Bennett (of Project Runway fame)’s new book Handmade Chic, and another accessory sewing book called Chic on a Shoestring
A look at a sewing-related exhibit at the San Francisco airport
And a review of the BurdaStyle book

Take care and happy June!

In the fullness of time?

As I get older, I start to understand how very much a lifetime can accomplish. When you’re a kid, you’re changing so rapidly you can’t imagine being interested in the same things in 6 months or a year. Even as a young adult, your commitments are still rather short – years maybe, but not decades. This moment of philosophical pondering is brought to you by a curtain for my kitchen window.

A long time ago – at least 5 years, I think – I was browsing in a fabric store off my usual beaten path, and saw a folk-print panel that I thought would work great as a curtain for my kitchen window. When I got it home, I realized that my general mental measurements were good, but off by 90 degrees – the panel print was a 4×3 grid, but I needed a 3×4 grid for my ungainly window. Of course, the next time I was in that store they were out of the fabric. So the piece sat – at one point I cut off one of the borders with the idea to add it at the sides, but then found it wasn’t quite long enough. I even got a compression rod long enough to use in my window from the home goods store, but still, the thing sat.

I’ve been on a kick to finish UFOs and mending (not so much a formal plan as an informal goal, which seems to work better with my perverse brain) and pulled the bag holding this fabric out from the stack. After a little mulling (and a break to pull out the curtain rod from the pile o’ crap that it’d gotten buried under in the intervening years), I cut off the top row of the print to make more of a cafe curtain size. I added black squares to the ends of the border and attached it to the sides, and added a muslin rod pocket on the back (which I ended up just fastening with pins, because stitching would have been really noticeable). With hemming (and hemming and hawing) I still probably spent less than an hour or two on the whole thing – plus or minus 5 years.

Cafe curtain

I never would have imagined leaving a project for 5 years when I was younger. I don’t know if that means my standards have lowered, or that I’ve just gotten more patient. The funny thing is that although I think it looks OK, I’m not sure I like how it noticeably reduces the amount of sun that comes in the window – sun being a limited thing in my kitchen anyway, with the giant tree taking up much of our tiny backyard, and the neighboring houses and fences just outside. Ah, well, at least it’s out of the sewing cave.

Dating silk and other chiral activities

There’s an interesting article in the February issue of Smithsonian about a new process to date silk artifacts accurately. There’s a short article on the Smithsonian’s website summarizing the technique. Basically, the amino acids in silk come in two types. The silk starts out as all one type, but slowly over time turns into the other type. You can calculate the age of the item based on the ratio of these two types, and scientists at the Smithsonian have figured out how to do it with a much smaller sample, which means that silk artifacts in museums can be tested without destroying a large piece.

I thought it was fitting that this technique came back around to fibers and cloth, because it’s what inspired the name of my blog, and I don’t think I’ve ever explained it here. Chirality is a certain kind of symmetry in molecules, like the amino acids in silk. Most amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, are chiral, as well as sugars manufactured by the body, and in some pharmaceuticals. In fact, it’s fairly common in some classes of drugs that one version of the drug molecule is active in the body, and the other one doesn’t do anything at all, because the shape of the molecule has to fit the body’s receptor in order to work.

Chiral symmetry is seen when an object is not superimposable on its mirror image, and the most common examples of this in everyday life are human hands. If you look at your left and right hands, you can tell that they are similar, but they are not identical and you can’t lay one on top of the other and make them the same, no matter how you flip them.

I was a chemistry major, even though I don’t use my training much these days, so “Chiral Craft” is a result of my chem geek-dom and the fact that chirality is informally known as handedness, and I’m writing about sewing and other “handicrafts”. So now you know how much of a geek I am the story.