Friday, December 31, 2010

Collapsible Chessboard

 It's a bag.  You can put your chess pieces in it.
 Why would you want to put chess pieces in a bag like this?
Because it's really a chessboard.

We invented this because my oldest daughters thought her buddies at school needed a new chess board.  The one they were using is currently being held together with a bungee cord.    She thought they needed a board that would fit easily in a backpack and be portable for a bunch of teenage boys. 
It doesn't quite collapse quite as much as I had hoped, but it's still fun.   It opens back up again quite well and it's great for playing on potentially uneven surfaces.  Each square may not line up perfectly, but they will be more stable than a plain fabric board.   And it's cooler than a plain fabric board.  

To make your own you need 64 little blocks all exactly the same size.  We used half inch plywood cut 1.5"x1.5".   We found that thinner wood did collapse together better.  My husband set up a jig on his miter saw to make it go a little faster when cutting the blocks.   Next you need to stain half of them dark and half of them light.    Fit them together, and depending on how well you cut the blocks this may take some time to get them lined up well.   Then you get to flip it over (unless you are a much more graceful person than I, you may want to flip these over one piece at a time in order to avoid sending chessboard squares flying around your living room.  We did find the one that went under the couch eventually.)  Let it sit while you prepare the bag.

Cut a 24" circle out of heavyweight fabric, of course, if you do smaller blocks you may want a smaller bag.  Bigger blocks will need a bigger bag.   Find the exact center and make a grid identical to your blocks on the backside centered over the center of the board.   You might want to use a quilting marker that fades over time.   I also used my quilting ruler to draw the lines.  It made it very easy to draw perfectly parallel lines 1.5" away from each other.    Make a drawstring pocket around the edge.   I put in button holes to draw the cord through.

Now go back to your blocks.  They should all be upside down and pushed together tightly.   Put a drop of E6000 glue on the back of each and every block.    Gently set your fabric down over the blocks, lining up the grid with the edge of each block.   Make sure that's as perfect as you can make it, because it's your guide for the next step.   Now you need to put one 1/2" screw through the center of each and every grid square.  If you lined that up correctly you will have the screw in the center of each block. 

That's it.  A bit time consuming and fiddly when cutting and staining the blocks, but overall a pretty easy project.  It's also something that no one else will have, which should totally give you an extra pawn that acts like queen just because your board is cooler than theirs.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Think Bigger--Project Linus and other Blankets

It's really easy to get caught up in our own little world, our own needs, our own wants.  I find however, that my life is so much better and I am happier when I am helping those outside my immediate circle.  So with that in mind, I will be focusing every Thursday on one charity that requests or accepts crafted items for those in need.  I'm calling it Think Bigger.

Making blankets is one of those really satisfying crafty things.  They go together quickly and they are almost always loved.   I have always loved blankets myself, maybe it's because I was a blanket baby and dragged my blanket around with me everywhere.  There's just something about snuggling down under one that makes me feel loved and comfy. 

So I have a special affinity for groups like Project Linus.   Who hasn't heard of them?  With a special mission like theirs, I'm glad they are a well known group.  If you haven't heard of Project Linus, then you might not know that they give new, handmade blankets to children who are "ill, traumatized, or otherwise in need" of the love and comfort that only a blanket can give.  If you intend to give to Project Linus, please check their website first.  They do have size requirements and restrictions along with free patterns for blankets.  

Some other places to give in your community:  

Check with your local long term care center.  The residents are often in need of lap blankets.  Full sized throws are too large to use comfortably with a wheelchair so small sized lap quilts are perfect for them.  Most LTCs love to get donations.  Call first so you know what size and colors to make the blanket.  Who knows, you might make a new friend when you take your blanket to someone in need.  

If you have a blanket or quilt too large for Project Linus you might give your local battered women's shelter a call.  These women are in desperate need of a little love and comfort themselves.  They will often be scared and lonely with scared and lonely children.  A new quilt might just bring a little healing to a family in need. 

Good luck with your quilting and blanket making.  I've got some Project Linus blankets to finish up and get out and next week when my kids are in school I'll be sewing a couple pair of shorts and a couple of pillowcase dresses for Little Dresses for Africa.   I'd love to hear what projects you are working on and to whom they are going!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Gathered skirt with a deep yoke and skirt band

 My oldest daughter adores wild prints so I just could not pass this fabric up.  I knew it was exactly her.   We discussed it and decided that she would get this skirt for her Christmas dress.   She loves the skirt and it was super simple to make.

I will now confess to pulling apart patterns and only using the pieces I need for something.  If I have a sewing project in mind, why come up with an entirely new pattern when I have the parts already?  Why reinvent the wheel?  But also, I hate going the fabric store with a garment idea in my head and never finding the pattern I need to make what I'm planning to make.  So that's when I started mixing things up.

For this skirt I used a pencil skirt pattern I had on hand for the yoke and went patternless for the skirt.  Who needs a pattern for a gathered skirt anyway?  It's just one big rectangle.

To make this you will need one pencil skirt pattern that does not have a waistband, aprox. 1 1/4 yard main fabric (unless you are taller than about 5'4".  add fabric in that case based on how long you need your skirt to be),  1/2 yard accent fabric, enough trim to wrap around your hip with 4 or so inches left over, and a 9" zipper.   You will also need to use a good measuring tape and your quilt cutting tools.

To start, decide how long you want the skirt yoke to be. ( Our pattern is from the '90s and so goes all the way to the natural waist.  You may want a shorter or longer yoke.  And don't laugh at my pattern.  I know you've seen the Hollywood starlets in their natural waist pencil skirts lately.  It's totally cool again.) We finally decided that 6" of finished yoke would be perfect on my daughter.   Add 1 1/4 inches to that measurement.  Lay out the skirt front pattern and mark that measurement on the pattern.
  Fold the pattern up at the mark making sure you line up the inside edge of the pattern (that "place on fold" line)  to be sure you get a straight fold. 



Finished yoke length+1 1/4 inches=length of pattern piece

Pin the pattern piece down to the fabric leaving the rest of the skirt free from pins.  You do not have to cut apart your pattern.  Just cut around it so you can use it again.  Because I know you are dying to be like a Hollywood starlet and have a natural waist pencil skirt you can tuck your crisp, white oxford top into. 
 Now do the same measure, mark, and fold with the skirt back.   This time when you fold, line up the grain line arrow.  Pin the back in place.   Pin down your skirt facings.  Cut everything out.

Now lay out the rest of the fabric on your quilting mat.   Fold the folded edge to meet the selvage edge so you fabric is folded in fourths lengthwise.   Do this very carefully.  If this isn't straight or if the fabric has small folds in it along the length then your skirt will not be straight.

To figure the length of the skirt piece you need to cut, do this calculation:

Finished skirt length-finished yoke length-4 inches+1 1/8 inches=Skirt length

Basically, you need to subtract the yoke and the band lengths from your finished skirt measurement and then add back in your seam allowances.  (This will only be 1 1/8 inches instead of 1 1/4 because you're going to do a 1/2 seam to attach the band.)

Lay out the folded fabric on your quilting mat. Make sure it is lined up perfectly straight and then square the ends.  Cut two skirt lengths. No matter what size you wear your skirt will be two pieces the full width of the fabric.  On me, that would give me much less of a gather than it did on my daughter (over a triple gather.  Girl is skinny.)   If you are doing this for a little girl, you may be able to work with one width of fabric for the skirt rather than two.   All my measurements and fabric recommendations are for an adult size.
 Now use your cutting mat again to square the ends of the accent fabric and cut it in half so you have two pieces aprox. 9"x45".   
 Sew the yoke and facing exactly like the pattern recommends.  Do your darts and if you have a back seam sew that as well.  You need to leave the left side open for a zipper with this skirt.    Pin the yoke around the person you are sewing for or a dress form and be sure your yoke is straight.   Line up the waist and the yoke.  Trim as necessary to create a level edge around the bottom of the yoke.  This is also a good time to check your darts and seams to be sure it fits properly.
 Sew side seams on the band to create one long loop. Press open the seams. Fold the loop in half lengthwise so you have a 4 1/2" wide band. 
 Sew your skirt sides seams together and press.   Leave 3 inches unsewn at the top edge of the left side.  This is for your zipper.   Now sew the band to the bottom of the skirt using a 1/2" seam allowance. Make sure to match the seams.   Press the seam down toward the hem.   (Yes, there is a way to do this so it looks more finished from the inside.  I am somewhat lazy though and I don't think anyone is going to notice anyway.  If it will bother you, feel free to take the time to do it the other way.)
 Now sew your gathering stitches.  Divide the skirt into eighths and mark with pins by folding the skirt in half and then marking those ends with pins.  Fold again matching the pins in the center and marking the ends again.  Do this until you have divided the skirt into eighths.   Do the same for the yoke.  Match your seams and pins as you gather the skirt. 
 Sew the skirt to the yoke.  Press the seam. Carefully line up the trim along the seam line and sew down.
 Install your zipper according the package directions.   I will not be giving you zipper installation tips because I'm worthless at zippers.  They hate me.  Do not inspect my zipper in the next photo, please.  Thank you. 
Have fun sewing!

handmade projects

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

My favorite new recipe book

A little over a year ago I stumbled upon several really amazing deals for magazine subscriptions.  I ended up with subscriptions to three magazines that had heavy recipe content.  I loved the mags (personally I can't get enough of magazines.  I adore them.) but I didn't love the clutter.  There were recipes in them that I didn't want to get rid of but I didn't have a good way of storing them.

Enter my new recipe book.   I bought a three ring binder and several packages of page protectors.  Then I went through every saved magazine and tore out the pages for the recipes that I thought I would use.  Anything that looked good or feasible for me to make got torn out.   Then I sorted the recipes by food catagories and stuffed them into the page protectors and into the binder they went.   I also have page dividers in there so I can quickly get from salad to main dish.   You could come up with any system you wanted for categorizing the recipes, from course to ingredients to cost, whatever works best for you.

I love it first of all because I was finally able to completely toss my stash of back magazines.  One less stack of clutter in my life!  Second of all, when I plan a menu from the recipe notebook, I can pull it out of it's place and move it to the front of the book so it's easy to find on the day I make that dish.  And when I actually cook from it and inevitably get food on the page I'm cooking from . . . it just wipes off. 

If you've got a stack of recipes sitting around, including those you've printed off websites, you need to put together a recipe notebook.  Have fun with it!

Monday, December 27, 2010

English Toffee

I adore Toffee.  It's the one candy I just can't stay out of no matter what.  Needless to say, I only make it at Christmas time.  

You might notice that this recipe has a lot of water in it.  Don't worry, your toffee won't have a lot of water in it when it's done.  The water all boils off before the candy finishes.   What the water does is lengthen the cooking time so the sugar has plenty of time to fully disolve.  That makes this candy very easy to make and it almost never sugars.   (By the way, this little trick works in any cooked candy recipe.  If you have one that sugars on you easily, add 1/2 to 1 c of water to the recipe and cook it as normal.  It will take quite a bit of the fiddly-ness out of the process.)

Toffee

2 1/2 c sugar
1/4 c light corn syrup
2 c butter
1 c water
 dash salt

 Combine all ingredients in a heavy bottom, 4 quart pan.  Stir it together with a wooden spoon just for a few seconds and then put the lid on.  Wash off your spoon.  Cook over medium heat with the lid on until the candy begins to boil and steam leaks out from under the lid.  Let boil for a few minutes with the lid on.  Remove the lid, clip a candy thermometer to the side of the pan, and begin stirring.   Do not stop stirring until the candy is finished.  Stir always.  Stir lots.  Stir because if you don't this will scorch and the butter will seperate.  (If you are really concerned about scorching, turn the heat down to medium low.)   Cook until the candy reaches 300 degrees, hard crack.  This will take ages, so have a friend to talk to or a book you can read while you stir.  (yes, I read while cooking.  Doesn't everybody? No, I only ruin things every once in a great while and I never mess up my candy.)  

When the candy reaches 300, immediately pour out into a lightly buttered rimmed baking sheet (like this one).  Only pour out what comes easily out of the pan.  Do not scrape it out or you'll mess up your toffee.   You can scrape it out onto a separate buttered, heat proof plate, though.  That's totally legal and it cools off faster.  After you pour out the candy, you are going to have to smooth it out with a silicone spatula.  Gently push it around the pan until the candy is level and fills the whole pan.  Now spread a chopped Giant sized Hershey bar over the pan of candy (that's the 6.8 oz size).  Let it sit until the chocolate is soft and then spread it around with a spatula.   Now leave your candy alone until it's cooled off and the chocolate is set.    Then break apart into random sized pieces.


Enjoy!   Have a good time with this one.  And thank you very much for giving me an excuse to make that pan that's sitting on my kitchen counter right now.

Friday, December 24, 2010

An Appology

So I promised a cool chess project for today and it's not happening.  V1.0 is not working out like we hoped and it needs tweaking.  The nice part is V1.5 should be pretty cool and we have a V2.0 that will be even easier to put together.  I will have lots of time next week when I'm not sewing monsters and Christmas dresses and making fudge.  I'll get V1.5 put together and hopefully V2.0 as well and post them as soon as I can.

In the meantime, I do hope you have a wonderful Christmas day with your family and friends. 

Unless you don't celebrate Christmas and then have a good weekend.  I'm actually a little jealous of my Aussie readers.   We have 6" of snow on the ground.   A day at the beach and kite flying in the park sound like an awfully nice way to spend Christmas day.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Think Bigger: looking locally

It's really easy to get caught up in our own little world, our own needs, our own wants.  I find however, that my life is so much better and I am happier when I am helping those outside my immediate circle.  So with that in mind, I will be focusing every Thursday on one charity that requests or accepts crafted items for those in need.  I'm calling it Think Bigger.

This time of year a lot of crafters are knitting hats and scarves.  You've probably given several away and still have yarn left over.  Why not make a few for a charity?  Charities all over the world love getting hand made scarves and hats. 

Many hospitals accept hats for preemies and newborns.  Give your local hospital a call and ask about guidelines and sizing for their hat program.   How about your local homeless shelter?  A beautiful new scarf and a pair of mittens would go a long way to helping someone with very little feel cared for.   Local womens shelters are always looking for donations.   Scarves, hats, mittens in all sizes would be very welcome there (and you could toss in a new crocheted toy for a child who probably had to leave most of their stuffed animals when they entered the shelter.)

If you aren't sure where to start looking for local charities Wool Works' local charity page can be a good place to begin.  I have not checked all the charities on that list, so do contact them before sending anything to the charity.  They may have guidelines they need you to follow or a new address for you to send your package to.

Have fun knitting!  I know that your knitted gift will make a big difference in the lives of a someone in need. 

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

chip bead jewelry

I love working with chip beads because I'm a snobby scrooge.  The lower price of the chip bead makes me scroogy side not complain about the price and the true semi-precious stone part makes my snobby heart happy.

The problem with them is they can be harder to work with.  They don't work with others quite as well as regularly formed beads do.  Their irregular shape tends to visually fight with other beads and can look cluttered if not done right.

I do have a favorite way to use chip beads though. 
I love to alternate sections of chip beads with freshwater pearls.  The little pearls are a great contrast to the chips and since they're white they match everything.    This little choker has 1.5 inches of chip beads and then a pearl alternating around.

What do you like to do with chip beads?  I'd love to see what you've done with them, especially earings.  I'm still working on making chip beads look good in earings.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

My husband has really gotten into the home made Christmas spirit this year.   He's taking over the boys' gifts while I make the girls' gifts.   Our younger son has been asking for an orange wallet.  He just thinks it would be so cool to have a place to put his money (all $2.35 of it.)  Steve has been wanting to try making a duct tape wallet.   So of course that's what he did:
He bought orange and blue duct tape at the hardware store and followed this video:  Duct Tape Wallet video

I think they came out great.  The blue one has orange pockets so it's a BSU wallet.  (We live in Idaho.  You can't throw a snowball in this state without hitting a BSU fan these days.)

I've also been hard at work finishing up the monsters project.  You might be happy to know that you don't always have to make monsters:
The butterfly (with hair;  that's what the shape on her head is supposed to be anyway,) was designed by my six year old.  The winking cupcake was designed by the 15 year old.  Both are their Christmas presents.  If you were looking for more monsters, I've got this guy:
Designed by the eight year old.  She's got a thing for those fin shapes.  They aren't the easiest to do since they have to be lightly stuffed and then sewn.  My sewing machine is not happy with me these days.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Pumpkin Pie Fudge





An unassuming little fudge.  Pale orange if made with canned pumpkin, barely more orange than tan if made with fresh.   It has a mild pumpkin flavor with lovely spice notes.   Want to make some of your own?

If you haven't made fudge before you should start by reading this post on making chocolate fudge.   The process is the same no matter what kind of fudge you make. 

Pumpkin Pie Fudge

3 cups sugar
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup pureed pumpkin
6 Tbs butter
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup light corn syrup*
3/4 tsp pumpkin pie spice
2 tsp vanilla

*If you are someone who does not like HFCS, you should know that you leave out the corn syrup at your own risk.  Corn syrup play a very important part in the candy making process.  Without it your candy is more likely to "sugar," or become granular and crumbly.   If you must omit the corn syrup, try adding 1/2 c water to the candy to lengthen the cooking process.  I do not recommend leaving out the corn syrup, especially if you are new to candy making.

Start by putting everything except the vanilla in a four quart sauce pan.   Stir it together with a wooden spoon.  Cook over medium heat with the lid on.   While it's cooking, test your candy thermometer in a pan of boiling water.  If it reads anything other than 212 degrees when the water is boiling, you will have to adjust your cooking time to compensate.  Either add or subtract from the final temperature based on whether your thermometer is reading hot or cold.   Also, now is a good time to rinse off your wooden spoon.  Make sure you clean off any sugar crystals clinging to it.

When the candy begins to boil, it should start steaming out the side of the lid.  Leave the lid on for another 3 minutes or so after that begins to happen.  This is called sweating the pan.  It washes down any sugar crystals that may have been clinging to the side of the pot so all the sugar cooks to the same temperature and none are left to spoil your candy.

After sweating the pan, remove the lid and stir a few times with your clean wooden spoon.  Add the thermometer now.  It is not necessary to stir continuously,  just ever few minutes or so to be sure the candy isn't scorching.  Cook over medium heat until the candy reaches 238 degrees on the thermometer.

Immediately pour out into the bowl of a stand mixer.  Just pour out what comes easily out of the pan.  Do not scrape the pan out with either the spoon or a rubber spatula.  To do so could cause your candy to "sugar."  By the way, if you do not own a stand mixer, leave the candy in the pan you cooked it in.  Let the candy cool for about an hour or so.

When the temperature of the candy has reached between 110 and 120 degrees it's time to whip it.  If beating by hand, start it at 120 if you can.  The warmer temperature will make it easier to beat.  Get lots of friends to help you stir.  You need to stir with a firm hand until the candy thickens and loses it's gloss.  With a stand mixer you will want to beat on medium speed until candy loses it's gloss.  It will have the consistency of frosting.  With the pumpkin pie fudge, you will need to stop and scrape down the candy every few minutes.  It will look a little different from the other fudges because of the extra butter.  Beat it a little past the frosting like stage until the candy has a smooth consistency and the butter is fully incorporated into it.

Scrape it out of the mixer bowl and press down into either a buttered 9x9 pan or a buttered loaf pan.  I use a loaf pan because the pan shape gives me cubes of fudge and it works best for the boxes I use for gifts.  This recipe makes two pounds of fudge.

Good luck with your candy, and be sure to leave a comment telling me how you candy came out or to ask questions.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Video Game Shelf

Got a video game enthusiast on your gift lift this year?  I do.   This is going to my brother in law.  Don't worry.  Since he doesn't know this blog exists and since the blog isn't about video games, paint ball, or hunting, he's safe from having his gift spoiled.

I'd like thank my husband for building the shelves for me.  He's so great about helping out with the wood projects. I sketch them out and write up a cut list.  He puts them together.  I putty and paint.  We've got a good system going.   (It's not that I can't use power tools.  It's that he likes helping me and who am I to insist on doing more work?  My motto is:  less work=more time to read.)

So you wanna build one too?

To start you need one 8 foot piece of 1x6.  It's between $5 and $10.   You will also need a scrap piece of Masonite or thin plywood at least 18.25" square.

Cut four lengths 18.25 inches, but miter the ends with a 45 degree angle like this:


The should be 18.25" along the longest side of the board.  You can do that with a miter box, a miter saw or a table saw.  Your choice.  

(If all you've got is a circular saw, you're going to have to do butt joints.   That will change your measurements.  Cut two boards 18.25" and two boards 16.25".  The long boards are the sides the short boards are the top and bottom. )

Sand everything so it's nice and smooth.  Sand the edges to round them slightly, but don't do that to your miter cuts.  

Now take two boards and match your miter.  Apply glue to the ends and then nail or screw the two boards together.  We like using screws on projects like this.  It makes for a good, strong joint.  Since we're painting the shelf anyway, we can just fill in the screw holes with putty.   By the way, it's helpful to have a second set of hands to hold the boards in place while another person screws it together.   
Now put together all four boards to make a box.  Getting close.
Cut a square measuring 18.25" on each side out of thin plywood or Masonite.  Nail down on the back of the shelf.  Brad nails or finish nails are good here.  Your box may not be quite square, so use the Masonite as a guide.  Tap the corners lightly to square it up until your box is even with the backing piece before you nail it down. 

Ok, next you need to measure down 8" from the inside bottom shelf up the side.  Mark that on both sides of the box.   Measure across the box and cut a board to that length (90 degree cuts this time.)  It should be somewhere around 16.75 inches but may be slightly longer or shorter.   This is the shelf.  Sand it just like you did the other boards.

Now measure down from the inside top 8" on both sides.   Center your shelf between the two marks.    Attach with screws or nails. 

Fill in the holes with putty, put a light skim coat of putty over each knot hole, let dry.  Sand the putty and apply a second coat if necessary.  Sand that one.   Then prime it and paint it.   Want to know a secret?  My shelves aren't quite painted yet.  That's on my list for today.  (along with a monster, a grocery list, and running errands. Think I can do it all?  yeah.  Didn't have a book to read today anyway.)

Have fun with your video shelves!  It's a simple project that's so easy to put together my 12 year old made one for a friend.  You should be able to knock one out in no time. 

By the way, if you've got a chess player in your house, you're going to want to check back here next Friday.  I've got an awesome project to show you.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Think Bigger: Little Dresses for Africa

It's really easy to get caught up in our own little world, our own needs, our own wants.  I find however, that my life is so much better and I am happier when I am helping those outside my immediate circle.  So with that in mind, I will be focusing every Thursday on one charity that requests or accepts crafted items for those in need.  I'm calling it Think Bigger. 

Little Dresses for Africa is a non-profit 503c organization that focuses on delivering hand made clothing to children in Africa.  The group asks for pillowcase dresses for girls and simple shorts for boys.  They have patterns and directions available on their site if you need them.

The dresses and shorts are distributed through orphanages, schools, and local churches to the children.  Little Dresses for Africa hopes that by giving these items to the children they will feel loved and worthy.

I love the mission of this group and I love the photos on their site of the beautiful little girls in their new dresses.  If you have an extra hour of time and a yard or so of fabric, you might consider making something for these special little children.  

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Felt and Ribbon Garland




 This project took me a bit longer than I like my midweek projects to take, but I'm happy with the results.  I don't have a lot of Christmas decorations, so I decided it was time to make something for my home.   Something quick and easy that I could make without a pattern or a lot of effort.  A felt and ribbon garland:


 decorating my antique Victorian piano (it's not really worth that much, but it's pretty, don't you think?)

I started with three 9x12 pieces of felt and 2 yards of ribbon.   I used red, green, and white, because I do traditional colors with my decorations.  The fun part about making decorations yourself is that you can customize them to fit your home.

As always, I started with a sketch.  In this case the sketch also turned out to be my pattern. I went with a candy cane, a tree, and a present for my shapes.  You can do anything you like:  Santa heads, ornaments, snow flakes, bells.  Look around at the decorations you already have and incorporate those themes into your garland.

If you have a plotter cutter machine, like a Cricut or a Silhouette, this will be even easier for you.  Let the machine cut all your pieces and parts.   (If you do have one, I'm jealous.  Those machines are so handy for crafting.)


I sketched them out on my cutting mat so I could have the grid as a reference.  The present is 2x2" and the others are about 2x2.5".    After getting my shape patterns settled, I folded the felt in half and cut out the candy cane and tree each five times (so 10 of each) and the present 6 times (12 presents.)   Then you have to cut out the accents.  You'll notice I tried to do a bow thing on the present.  Yeah.  It was ugly so I got rid of it later.  For the presents, I just needed two narrow green strips per present.  Don't worry about making them the right length, at this point it's easiest to have them a little long.   For the tree I cut three white circles for each one.  And the candy canes got three stripes each.  Those are just strips I cut long on purpose.  

Next, I used fusible webbing to fuse each of the decorations in place.  This was the process that took the longest for me.  You need to trim the webbing down smaller than the decorative strip.   Follow the manufacturers directions to fuse it down, but keep in mind felt is pretty thick stuff.  You may need to turn your iron up and keep it on longer than the package recommends.  Experiment on a scrap to see what works for your stuff.   Also, don't forget the press cloth.  You need to sandwich the felt pieces between two pieces of fabric to protect your iron and ironing board.  I'm also using the ugliest towel in my linen cupboard as an extra precaution.  That fusible webbing loves to get stuck in your ironing board and then melt right onto your favorite top the next time you iron it.
So you've got everything fused down.  Now turn them over and trim off the long pieces using the backside as a guide for the cut.
See?  All neatly trimmed down and ready to place on the ribbon.
First you need to prep the ribbon.  Trim the ends and then melt them.   If you've never melted a ribbon end before, you've been missing out.  I've never found a better way to halt fraying.  I put too much time into this garland to have the ribbon go ugly on me.   Just hold the edges of the ribbon close, but not in, a candle flame.  The heat will melt the polyester ribbon, fusing the threads together so they don't fray out.  If you are using a cotton or silk ribbon, you'll have to use another method to fix the ends.  (I hope you are also using nice wool felt, because otherwise, save the nice ribbon for something else.)
Now it's time to place your felt pieces.   I put mine about three inches apart.  I allowed for a little bit of overlap and did 3" from the center of each shape.   I put mine pretty much centered on the ribbon.  They are kind of overbalancing as it hangs though, so you might want to place yours so the ribbon is nearer the top of your felt shapes. 
Once all the shapes are pinned on, sew around each one with a zig zag stitch, leaving a gap in one end for stuffing.  It's best to work on all the shapes of the same color at once so you aren't switching thread quite so much.

I found that cute little wooden stick in the package of stuffing the other day.  It's been very helpful in filling small shapes like these.  Using a stuffing stick, or a knitting needle, or a chop stick or other small instrument, lightly stuff each piece.
With the candy cane, you need to leave the top of the hook open so you can get all the way down both sides of the cane with the stuffing.
Once you've stuffed, sew the gap closed.  Finish the rest of the felt shapes,  and you're done. 
Isn't it cute?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A monstreous pencil sharpener

Thursday I had time to make a monster before my kids came home from school. I got out the monster drawings, the tracing fabric, my tape measure, all of that stuff. I need a pencil to draw the monster pattern, however, so I went looking for a sharpened pencil.

And I looked.

And I looked.

There were none in the kitchen junk drawer.

There were none in the kids craft box.

There were none in the desk drawers.

There were none under beds or on the floor in the kids' bedrooms.

There were un-sharpened pencils aplenty. Brand new pencils just mocking me with their perfectly square, virgin wood.

And none of that would have been a problem if my children hadn't lost the pencil sharpener a month previous. They like to take it around with them as they do their art projects. They carried off to parts unknown and neither threats nor bribery could uncover it's hiding place.

No sharpened pencils.

No pencil sharpener.

I did what any reasonable person would do. I bought a new pencil sharpener. The kind that attaches to the wall and can not be carried around by young children. It's a manual sharpener so it will last for decades. I ordered it from Amazon.com with two day shipping. I came very close to paying for overnight shipping. (I have a Prime account, so it would have only been $4.00.)

It arrived on Saturday and was installed on the pantry shelving within five minutes. I sharpened a full box of Dixon Ticonderogas with a very happy smile on my face the whole time. The musky smell of pencils shavings has never smelled so good.

Which means Monday I could make this guy:


My husband thought I should show you one of the sketches these monsters are coming from. This was done by our eight year old. He loves drawing these monsters and has done dozens of them for me. This one is his favorite.You'll notice I made a few changes here and there to make it easier to sew. I shortened the legs and the antlers (yes, those are antlers and horns. He knows animals don't have both, but he also knows monsters have different rules.) I simplified the mustache curls a bit and smoothed out the arms as well. He still went much more quickly than I expected. I was worried about the mustache, but felt and super stiff interfacing solved that little dilemma for me.

By the way, Monday afternoon the eight year old found the electric pencil sharpener . . . in his closet.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Caramel Chocolate Shortbread

You want one don't you? Be careful. Once you've had one, it's very, very difficult to stop. This is one of my very favorite cookies. The chocolate, the caramel, the perfectly textured shortbread. Sigh. So lovely. It's perfect for gift giving and for cookie exchanges. It's also super simple to make.

The caramel is made from scratch, but don't let that worry you. It never sugars on me. I don't even have to take the precautions I normally take with candy. (Like sweating the pan, using clean spoons, not scraping out the pan, etc. ) It's simple and can be made while the shortbread bakes.

To start, dump 2 cups of flour, 1/2 c + 2 T brown sugar, and 1/2 c cold salted butter into the bowl of your food processor. It works best to cut the butter up into pieces first. Pulse until the butter is fully worked into the flour, about 12 pulses.
(If you don't have a food processor, you can do this by hand with a pastry blender. You might want to start with room temperature butter in that case.)

Dump the shortbread out into your oldest, ugliest 9x13 pan. Do not bake these in your brand new Williams-Sonoma Gold pan. These cookies are hard to cut and require a sharp knife. A sharp knife that will leave lovely cut marks in the pan. Please use a pan you won't feel bad about ruining when you bake these. Or you can line the pan with a foil sling. Whatever works for you.
So you've dumped it out and now you press it down firmly. Pack the shortbread down well with either your hands or the bottom of a measuring cup.
Now put it in the oven to bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes.

Meanwhile, you get to make the caramel layer. In a 3 qt pot, stir together 3/4 c salted butter, 1/2 c brown sugar, 3 T light corn syrup, and one can of sweetened condensed milk. Cook over medium heat until all the butter is melted and the candy is smooth.
Like this. Now turn the heat down just a notch.
This stuff scorches easily, so stir continuously making sure to cover the whole pan with your stirring pattern. If it scorches lightly, don't freak out. Just stir it in and turn your heat down a bit. Cook until the candy comes to a full rolling boil. Like this:
Boil for 6-8 minutes. This is a loose number because it doesn't matter that much. You want it to reach near soft ball, but the exact temp is not a big deal. If it's a little softer or a little harder it's ok. You just want it soft enough it's easy to eat and hard enough it doesn't drip on your fingers. There's a lot of leeway there.

The shortbread layer should just be finishing up around the time your caramel is getting done. When it's baked, it should be lightly golden brown.
(Yes, I know that's an ugly pan. My children do the dishes and there are some things that are worth comprimising on for the sake of not having to do the dishes myself. )

Pour the hot caramel onto the hot shortbread. Feel free to scrap every last drop of caramel out of the pan. It's lovely stuff. Don't let it go to waste.
Let it cool for 5-10 minutes and then put it in the fridge to finish cooling. I always protect my glass fridge rack with a hot pad under the pan. It works fine.

When the caramel is firm, melt 1 1/4 c chocolate chips and spread that over the caramel.
Use milk chocolate or dark chocolate your choice.
Isn't that lovely? When the chocolate is spread evenly, put it all back in the fridge for another hour or so to firm the chocolate. You can cut into squares as soon as the chocolate is hard, but it will be easier to cut if you let the pan come to room temperature before you cut them. I don't do that because I've already waited three hours for these cookies and I'm not patient enough to wait any more. You can wait. You're much better than I am at waiting for cookies, I'm sure.

There. The best cookies on the planet. You're welcome. Now go forth and wow the other bakers at your cookie exchange.

Caramel Chocolate Shortbread
1/2 c salted butter
2 c flour
1/2 c brown sugar

3/4 c salted butter
1/2 c brown sugar
3 T light corn syrup
1 can sweetened condensed milk

1 1/4 c chocolate chips

Pulse first three ingredients in a food processor until the butter is fully worked into the flour. Dump out into a 9x13 pan and press firmly and evenly into the pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes, or until light golden brown. Meanwhile, mix the next four ingredients in a 3 qt sauce pan. Stir over medium heat until the butter is melted and the candy is smooth. Turn the heat down a notch or so and continuously stir until the candy comes to a full rolling boil. Boil while stirring for 6-8 minutes, until the caramel is very thick. Pour out onto the baked shortbread layer. Let cool for 5-10 minutes and then cool in the refrigerator until the caramel is firm. Melt the chocolate chips and spread over the caramel layer. Refrigerate again until the chocolate is firm. Let rest at room temperature for another hour before cutting. Cut into 48 squares. Serve. Try not to eat all of them yourself.