Tuesday, September 13, 2016

48 Hours

It has been a long two days. I've been a bit overdue for my annual cancer checkup, which involves some invasive and altogether unpleasant medical procedures, so today was the day. The actual day is not that bad; once I'm at the hospital and hooked up to an IV, the worst is pretty much over. When I awaken, I know I'll be able to eat again, to breathe easier that another year has passed and with luck, put more distance between the time I wasn't so lucky.

Except that today, the worst wasn't over. When I awoke after the procedure, I was in terrible pain. Awful. And I'm not a wimp about pain so when I say it hurt, it hurt. It took hours for the pain to subside to a point where I wasn't wincing every time I changed position, and even now, over twelve hours later, I get an occasional stab just under my breastbone. My doctor also found a new polyp, this one much higher in my colon, which was removed and will be biopsied. He didn't seem too worried about it; he told me and my husband that it was "tiny," unlike the huge mass he found five years ago. I'll know the results in a couple weeks. I have a lot of work to keep me busy so I plan to distract myself. Another clue that he's not too concerned it'll come back positive is that he's pushing my next checkup to three years instead of one. That's great news!

The one thing that sucks about cancer is that even with a good outcome, it may be out of your body but it's always there in the back of your mind. My risks for another diagnosis are higher than someone who hasn't had that diagnosis. I do remind myself that my grandmother had colon cancer in her 70s and lived to be 100 and it wasn't cancer that got her, but old age. Every time something goes wrong with my digestive system, I wonder if I've got another tumor growing in there. It's hard to know when to relax or when I should be on it.

I was feeling too bad afterwards, so my husband brought me home to sleep it off best I could, then we went out later for food. I hadn't eaten in two days, and all I wanted was miso soup and California rolls. We have a fantastic Japanese restaurant in town, so we enjoyed an early dinner then brought take-out home for our son. The food hit the spot, the perfect meeting between what my tastebuds craved and my stomach wanted.

On the ride home, we were talking about the weather and I mentioned to him how I was looking forward to fall because it was "knitting season." He said, "Sweetie, with you every day is knitting season." Hahahaha! Not quite true -- I prefer sewing more in the summer, but I do always keep something going on my needles year 'round, mostly socks. But for the past week or two, I've found myself trolling Ravelry more. I think I need more shawls. I used to enjoy knitting shawls but felt they didn't mesh well with my style so I stopped. When we were in Germany this summer, though, I got a lot of use out of my Pebble Beach shawl -- I used it to block the sun on my shoulders during a day-long boat trip, as well as a garment to keep me warm at night. So I think I'll focus on making a few new shawls this winter -- they certainly are quite handy!

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Cranking it out

Yesterday (Friday) was mostly spent working like a dog on Money Shots: doing some last-minute research at the grocery store (oops, forgot to talk about all those new refrigerated coffees and how you can save $ with them), editing recipes, adding to the text portion of the book, assigning ISBNs through Bowker. I love this stage of book-writing--the end is nigh and the incoherence has been beaten and massaged into words manageable.

I even do my own author photographs, although most people today would call this a "selfie." Pardon the warpaint.

What is really enjoyable is having all my fingers in the pie, not just the writing one. I suspect I'm more of a manager than an artist at heart; maybe a manager with artistic sensibilities. Whenever I take those left brain/right brain quizzes, I fall in the middle somewhere, maybe a little bit more to the left on one day, more to the right on the next. I'm not one of those writers who throws up her hands at the prospect of doing some math, figuring out a bit of geometry, or working on some website coding that's gone wonky.

Anyway, yesterday was a productive, satisfying day that left me feeling like, "Ok, I've accomplished something here." Writing isn't particularly hard for me as much as it's tedious and slow business. So I'm going to enjoy the weekend and finish my new denim skirt, which only needs to be hemmed. "Only" is misleading here; it's a button-up skirt with a facing and I can't quite figure out from the directions what I'm supposed to do with that flap of fabric, but I'll figure it out after a few more cups of coffee. Then, since it's a bit overcast today, it feels like a good day for a leisurely bike ride, maybe as far as Cambridge with some knitting packed into my bike kit. (It's surprisingly pleasurable to pull over in a scenic spot to work a few rows of garter stitch!) I don't want to save it till tomorrow because we're supposed to get some stormy weather. Maybe dinner out tonight with the husband ... yes, sounds like a good day.

Speaking of which, here's what a good man I have. Recently, packages have been arriving in the mail addressed to him, which I don't open. That was a cardinal rule in our home growing up, you never open someone else's mail, so I don't do it even if I know what's inside is for the house or something he's ordered for me. So when he comes home, he opens these packages and leaves the contents on my work table. To wit:

Some girls like flowers and jewelry ... I like marking pens and rulers.

This was everything from the last week. He had overheard me mumble something about not having good marking tools for the dark fabric I was using as a mockup, so he took it and ran with it. {{{}}} Of course, we have an unwritten agreement that whenever he needs something sewn, whether it's bathing trunks, a wallet prototype, or a pair of pants that need rehemming, that I'll do the work. But really, I think it's time for me to get going on the tailored dress shirt I promised him for a birthday present something like five years ago. :-/

Friday, September 9, 2016

Fall is (almost) here!

For once, I'm happy that September has been ushered in the door. Summer here in eastern Massachusetts has been hot and dry; our county is under a severe drought, my vegetable garden didn't survive past the end of the July (the deer also helped), and because I'm a woman of a certain age going through some hormonal changes, the heat makes it hard for me to get comfortable. So autumn, let's get it on!

I can always tell fall is in the air because the knitting projects I mostly ignore during the summer start calling to me from their dusty project bags ... like the wine-colored mohair cardigan I intended to wear for a Christmas 2015 party:

I've knitted the back, which you see above, as well as the two sleeves. When I knit sweaters, I always knit the sleeves first just to avoid the whole "Second Sleeve Syndrome" thing that often happens ... you get done with one sleeve and think, "Oh God, another?" then never finish the darn thing. Here, what happened is that I didn't take great notes when I was knitting the back, so when I started to knit the two fronts, instructions like, "decrease on the same row as you did on the back." Had I kept notes, I'd know what that row is. But I didn't, so in a fit of pique I threw the sweater aside and went on to knit something else, probably a hat ... or ten. ;-) And I would rip the back out and start over again -- I'm the kind of knitter who doesn't mind taking something completely apart to get it right, even if it means I "wasted" days knitting it the first time 'round -- but this is silk mohair, and you knitters know it's sheer hell to tink back a row, never mind rip back a whole sweater knit in mohair! 

So ... the plan now is to use a measuring tape and measure the best I can where I should start decreasing for the armholes and neck holes. And take good notes so I have them for the other front side of the cardigan. I was being a big baby about it, but it's time to move forward and get this lovely sweater finished. BTW, it's an Erika Knight design -- I knit one in gray a few years ago and it's one of my favorite pieces. I'm going to knit another in an icy blue, maybe with some silver thread shot through the ribbing.

I've always got a pair of socks going, of course, to get me through appointments, waiting rooms, and sitting in the car waiting for my son to appear. Speaking of my son ... it was his first day of high school this week. Late Monday night when my husband and I were talking in bed, I started to cry because it hit me that in four years he'll be off to college. "He'll be an adult!" I sniffed, and my husband said, "No, he'll be an adult in three years, two months." Geez, honey, thanks! ;-) Anyway, Oliver wasn't too excited starting school again, but he did say he liked his math, history, Latin, and digital art classes.

The publishing company we started at the beginning of the year ("we" being my long-time co-author and business partner Linda) is going well, and in October we're releasing another title called Money Shots: How to Save Cash on Your Coffee Habit—While Still Feeling Full & Satisfied. Linda did the lion's share of the writing, while I've been handling the recipe development. By tomorrow I should be finished with the last of the recipes. I've been on a perpetual caffeine high for the last six weeks. In some ways it has been good because it has me buzzing around here making lists and plans and actually executing some of those plans! On the other hand, my adrenal system feels shot so I've been taking long walks to calm the jitters.

Research for the next book we're writing.
Let's see, what else? I'm planning a short trip to North Carolina next month to meet with Linda. I was hoping to make a stop in NYC to do a little shopping in the Garment District, but the truth is, my fabric stash is overtaking my studio and I have too many sewing projects already in the queue. When I'm faced with too many possibilities, I stall and get nothing done so the smart choice is save NYC for when I really need something. My brother is coming up this weekend to go hiking with my son; it's always nice to spend time with my brothers. :)

Hope you're enjoying the cooler weather wherever you are. :)

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

A trip to Germany

We just got back from a family holiday in Germany, spending time with my husband's family in Munich. We were gone ten days, which was a good length of time, and we were blessed with fabulous weather, good meals, and some precious visits with aunts, uncles, and cousins. My brother Kevin and his wife Jenny joined us for part of their two-week European jaunt, which made our trip extra fun.

Some highlights:

Visit to Schloss Nymphenburg in Munich

Oliver at Documentation Center Museum on former Nazi Party Rally Grounds in Nuremburg
Yarn kiosk at the local grocery store--they even had sock yarn!

Scott and Oliver 2016 at Andechs Monastery

Compare with visit to Andechs in September 2007. Time flies!

The whole crew after a delicious lunch at Andechs
Gummy Bear heaven

Steckerlfisch, a biergarten delight

It was quiet visit, since we were mostly there to visit family rather than do tourist-y things, although as you can see from the photos, we managed to squeeze in a few museums and castles. I also did a bit of yarn shopping, which I'll talk about in another post.

You'll notice that I made a switch from WordPress to Blogger. I was spending more than I wanted through my hosting company, and when they wouldn't negotiate a lower price with me, I decided to move my sites. Since Hail Britannia is a hobby blog for me, I thought Blogger would be a good platform. I was able to transfer most of my old blog posts over, but it will take some time for me to replace the photos that didn't make the transfer. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Golden Sesame Tofu

Several years ago I posted a recipe I developed for Golden Sesame Tofu, one of my favorite salad bar items from Whole Foods. At $8.99/lb. it's a little pricey, so I went to the kitchen and experimented. Here is the recipe I came up with. The recipe and photo were posted on my old blog, DianaCooks.com, and since it was a super popular post, I decided to repost it here with a watermarked photograph. (I notice the photo gets pinned a lot on Pinterest.)

I trimmed the first part of the post off because it was irrelevant to the recipe. Enjoy the trip on the wayback machine. ;-)


OK, recipes. I said I'd start posting them, and here's something you soy-eating vegetarians will like. Last year, I became addicted to the golden sesame tofu in Whole Foods' prepared foods case. These rectangular slices of tofu are fried until they're golden, then covered in toasted sesame seeds and glazed with a slightly sweet/salty sauce with just a hint of heat from hot red pepper flakes. They're also kind of expensive -- something like $7.99 a pound (ETA: now $8.99). Since tofu's cheap--and so am I--I decided to replicate the recipe at home. It took a few tries, but I think I've nailed it.

I'm pretty sure the Whole Foods' folks fry their tofu in lots of oil, because all six sides are crisp/chewy. I just use a little oil and fry on two sides. I've also used a silcone basting brush to lightly coat each side of the tofu with oil, then cooked them on a grill pan. Yum, but it doesn't give the tofu that chewy coating I like. If you're watching your fat intake, you can skip the cornstarch dusting and bake the tofu in a 350 degree F oven for 20 to 25 minutes with the sauce, turning the tofu every 10 minutes or so, checking that the sauce isn't burning (add water if it's getting too dark). The tofu will have no chew at all, and the sauce will get thick and sticky, but it's still yum.

Instead of stuffing these slices of tofu in my mouth like I do when I'm at Whole Foods, I pack them in a plastic container and store them in my fridge for lunches. I cut them up into tiny cubes to add flavor interest to salads -- when I put them on top of a potluck salad at Easter, tasters asked me about the delicious croutons ... umm, I didn't have the heart to tell them. This wasn't a tofu-loving crowd. They also make great sandwich stuffers.

Golden Sesame Tofu
Yield: 4 servings

The Whole Foods version has scallions in it. I'm not a huge fan of scallions, so I skip them. The secret here is the cornstarch ... it gives the tofu its chewy coating, but you have to sprinkle it over the tofu evenly and with a light hand; otherwise it'll get gloppy. Since I make this recipe a lot, I put cornstarch in a fine-mesh shaker; it gives me excellent control when I'm coating the tofu. You'll find toasted sesame oil and mirin in the Asian sections of well-stocked supermarkets.

1/4 cup raw sesame seeds
14-oz. extra firm tofu
1/4 cup cornstarch
Canola or peanut oil, for frying

For sauce:
2 tbsp. agave nectar (for vegans) or honey
3 tbsp. soy sauce
2 tsp. minced fresh ginger root
2 tsp. toasted sesame oil
2 tbsp. mirin (Japanese sweet cooking wine)
2 garlic cloves, minced
Dusting of crushed red chili flakes, to taste

Heat a fry pan over medium-high heat. Add sesame seeds and toast until golden and fragrant, stirring frequently. Remove pan from heat and place sesame seeds in small bowl to cool.

Remove tofu from package and drain. Press the tofu gently between the palms of your hands to squeeze out water, then wrap the tofu in paper towels, place it on a plate, then put a another plate on top of it. Place a 28-oz. can of tomatoes or a cast iron fry pan on the plate. This will press out any remaining water from the tofu. Let sit for 20 minutes or so.

Unwrap the tofu and slice into eight rectangular slices. To make even slices, I slice the block of tofu in half, then half each half, and then half each quarter. Make sense? Then dust the slices with tofu evenly with cornstarch on all sides.

Heat about 2 tbsp. of oil in your fry pan over medium high heat. Add the tofu slices, but don't crowd the pan. You might have to fry in batches. Fry until the tofu is a light golden color, approximately 2 minutes, then turn the tofu over to cook another 2 minutes on the other side. Remove to drain on paper towels. If frying in batches, add more oil to the pan. Note: it is normal for the tofu to splatter, so wear an apron if you don't want to ruin your clothes.

While the tofu is frying, stir together the agave nectar/honey, soy sauce, gingerroot, sesame oil, mirin and garlic together in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat and cook until slightly syrupy, about 5 minutes or so. Remove from heat and set aside.

Place tofu in glass container to hold. Pour sauce over tofu and turn to coat. Dust tofu with toasted sesame seeds and turn again to coat. Season with crushed red chili flakes. Can be served warm or chilled. Will keep for about 5 days refrigerated.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Adventures in Hemstitching

Like a lot of people around the world, I woke up this morning and was pretty surprised to see that citizens of the UK voted to leave the EU. All I can say is that the people have spoken and I hope this ends up turning out well for all.

On to less political/hot topics ... hemstitching! A few years ago, I purchased Fine Machine Sewing by Carol Ahles at a local sewing shop. To be honest, I bought it because of the pictures, not because I had a burning interest in heirloom sewing, which I associate with christening outfits and dresses for young girls.

But lately I've been thinking about how to give my sewing projects a little more oomph. I briefly investigated an embroidery machine, but I think if I were to embroider it would be in small doses i.e. by hand and very discreet. Plus, it's another machine that requires specialty threads and stabilizers, meaning a whole new line item of cost.

I started researching embellishment techniques I could do by hand or with one of my sewing machines, everything from smocking to sashiko. And then I remembered Ahles book in my sewing library...et voila!

As I reintroduced myself to the text and pictures, I noticed many of the photos were of store-bought plain linen blouses that had been embellished by the author. I enjoy making blouses, but did I want to practice machine hemstitching on something I'd spent hours creating, only to ruin it with a poorly executed pivot? After all, hemstitching creates holes in a garment, holes you cannot hide or fix. The holes are created with a specialty needle called a wing needle, which has "wings" on either side of the tip that push fibers to the side and create a very visible opening. I decided the best course of action was to do a bit of practice on some linen in my stash and then follow-up with some practice on a store-bought garment.

I scored this week at our (semi) local Savers: an ecru Liz Claiborne linen blouse, size medium.


My original plan was to dye the blouse navy blue as there's a grease stain on the back shirt-tail and I thought the ecru color would wash me out, but I guess ecru is one of my "colors" -- it really flattered my complexion more than I thought it would. So plan B was to keep it undyed and remove the stain with my Dawn dish detergent and a sturdy brush, which never lets me down. If Dawn can take crude oil off sea birds,  it can handle oil on clothing, I say. The other benefit to plan B was that mistakes would be harder to see on an ecru blouse hemstitched with white thread than a navy blue blouse stitched in white.

I decided to use a Parisian hemstitch, which is commonly used on linen napkins and table cloths, as well as clothing. It's elegant and subdued, and it was easier getting a good result pivoting around the very visible collar point. I did quite a bit of practice on scrap linen before I attempted the cuffs:


I would have liked to stitch around the whole cuff but I would have cut into the buttonholes. I noticed halfway through the first cuff that I'd inadvertently reset the stitch length and width I planned to use to the machine's preset stitch length/widths. Grr. But I was committed at this juncture, so I carried on.

Next, the collar:


Here, I noticed that the holes were less pronounced and the thread was thicker on the inside row of stitching than they were on the cuffs. It was okay though; I liked the result and I managed to pivot around those collar points like a pro. ;-)

Emboldened by my success with the collar, I decided to add hemstitching down the sides of the front plackets:


I was very happy with how this turned out. The holes were visible and the thread wasn't bunched up as much as it was on the collar and cuffs. It looked like true hemstitching.

Here's a picture of the "refashioned" blouse:


(You'll have to click on the photo to zoom it; the stitching isn't very visible at this resolution.)

I'm very happy with how this turned out. I don't think anyone will walk up to me and say, "Wow, what fantastic hemstitching! Where did you get that blouse?" but it really gives a very simple blouse a much more elegant look that *I* will appreciate.

My plan now is to continue sleuthing thrift shops for linen blouses that I can play with before I attempt sewing my dream blouse: white linen hemstitched in delft blue thread. I would also like a French blue blouse hemstitched in white ... and gray one, too.

I also scored in a different area at Saver's this week ... I found a copy of Connie Long's Easy Guide to Sewing Linings, which is out of print and can be expensive on Amazon. I got it for $2.99. :)

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

McCalls M6885 Shirtdress

McCalls M6885 Shirtdress

McCalls M6885 Shirtdress

McCalls M6885 Shirtdress

McCalls M6885 shirtdress

McCalls 6885 Shirtdress

M6885 McCalls Shirtdress

Over the past few months I've been buying an awful lot of shirtdress patterns, so when McCall's put the word out they were doing a sewalong this spring, I was all in. I don't wear a lot of dresses in general, but shirtdresses are a different matter. I like their tailored look and they're an empty canvas to dress up or down. On top of this, I love sewing tailored shirts so it was the perfect project for me to fill in a hole in my wardrobe.

Here are the details:

Pattern: McCall's M6885, a semi-fitted, pullover shirtdress with a pointed collar, collar/front bands, button-up placket, front pleat and narrow hem. I sewed view D with patch pockets, tie ends, long sleeves with button tab, and a shaped hemline.

Size: I cut a 14 at the bust and graded out to a 16 at the waist and hips.

Fabric: A blue chambray-like cotton fabric from my stash. It may be a blend of cotton and linen. Nice and lightweight, perfect for summer. Washes and presses beautifully. Where did I buy this? No idea, but my guess is That $1.99 Fabric Store in Auburn, MA. In the pictures above, the blue IRL is more of the darker blue than the lighter blue in some of the shots.

Notions: Gutermann thread, Pro-Weft Supreme Light fusible interfacing from Fashion Sewing Supply, metal buttons from Joann Fabrics.

Sewing Details: I created my own order of construction with this project. I wrote out every step and broke the project down over five days, starting with cutting out the pattern and washing my fabric and ending with sewing on the last button. I made a few changes to the suggested order of construction that the pattern sheet provided; for instance, I worked on all the smallest pieces first, like the sleeve tabs, pockets, and collars. Having my own order of construction really helped keep me focused and kept me from making dumb mistakes because when I was done with that day's tasks, I was DONE. No late night sewing mishaps for me!

The one thing that I didn't catch until the very end was how McCall's wants you to sew the sleeve tab button until the very end of the project. It would have been easier to do this when the sleeve tab was being sewed on the flat sleeve, especially if you use a sewing machine to sew on buttons, as I do. Also sewing the buttonhole at the bottom of the front placket was difficult with all the fabric bunching up at the bottom. If I make this pattern a second time, I'll take my chances by sewing buttonholes on the placket earlier in the process.

Meg Carter at McCall's had a great tutorial that helped me a lot with constructing the front placket.

My goal was to create a garment with a very clean finish on the inside. Shoulder seams are French seamed, then topstitched from the outside ... I guess sort of mock felled seam? The seams down the side are also French seamed. For the armhole seams, I trimmed and overcast them with my sewing machine; I had already clipped into the seam allowance, making a felled seam a little more difficult, so I took a bit of a shortcut here. The dress was finished with a narrow hem.

One major thing I changed was eliminating the side ties. I wanted to have the option of using my own belts, so instead I made thread chains by zig-zagging over pearl cotton from my embroidery box, then sewed the thread chains into the side seams. These loops will keep looser belts from falling down my waist. Over the next couple weeks I'm going to make a few fabric belts in different colors.

So, what about fit? The shoulder/bust fit was perfect. I wish it were a little looser around my bottom, but I am losing weight so by the time we leave for vacation in August, I think it'll fit perfectly down there. The problem is in the arms. I should have done a muslin because then I could have done a bicep adjustment; the fit is just a little too slim-fitting for my tastes. Lesson learned. I think I would also like the dress about 2" longer as the side reveals a bit more leg than I'm used to.

Another lesson learned: do not assume white tailors chalk disappears. It didn't on this dress. I had used wax-based chalk to mark the wrong side of the fabric and was horrified when, after sewing on the pockets, I noticed a big greasy looking "x" on each of them.  I was able to get most of stain out with Dawn Dish Liquid and a toothbrush, but I can still see a faint "x" on both of them. I guess no one will notice except me, or anyone who finds my boobs especially noteworthy.

At any rate, it was a satisfying project and I know I'll get lots of wear out of it later this summer during our trip to Europe. :)