summer hand-washing reinvented

design, eco-craft, family, just a thought

I know that there are really important issues out there facing the world such as wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the economic collapse of Greece, volatility in the stock market and the oil slick the size of Puerto Rico in the Gulf of Mexico that BP can’t seem to stop, but frankly I don’t feel qualified to solve any of them. I have, however, solved two not-very-important issues. I realize that by even bringing this up I risk being thought if as someone who really needs to get a life but sometimes small improvements in our routine can make all of those big, serious problems just an eensy bit easier to face.

Are you ready for my big achievement? I have developed a better, more frugal, greener way to wash really dirty hands. It involves changing the triangular relationship between the dirt on your hands, the soap and the towel.

We’ll start with the soap: Soap seems so simple enough but it becomes really annoying over time. Some of it cracks and develops these yucky black streaks, others develop yellow stains in certain places, some develop these erosion-looking streaks on the end and that’s even before it gets down to that too-small-to-use-easily-yet-too-big-to-want-to-throw-away phase. Some crack in half prematurely and others just become too cumbersome to use. Big bars of soap are awkward for kids’ and my small hands, but little bars don’t last very long and can be equally awkward to use. In the lifespan of a bar of soap, I figure that there’s about two good weeks when it fits well in your hand and is still usable. I know that I could use liquid soap but I don’t want one plastic dispenser in my life and liquid soap is wash-for-wash much more expensive than bar soap, although I will fork out the money for our gigantic container of Dr. Bronner’s that we decant into a smaller squeeze bottle in the shower. This idea is for grimy hand-washing, which doesn’t work as well with slippery liquid soap.

Then there’s the towel: I have this vivid memory of feeling betrayed by the fancy hand towel in our family’s powder room growing up. Heeding the advice to wash my hands with soap and water after playing outside, I couldn’t understand why even when I did that I ended up getting in trouble for getting the towel dirty. So when I found myself reminding my own child about not trashing the hand towels I confessed to her that I understood how hard it is to get all of the dirt off before you wipe you hands on the towel.

Here’s my theory: we’re doing the whole hand-washing thing all wrong. We’ve got dirt on our hands, right? We need gentle abrasion to get the dirt off right? We use smooth soap, which doesn’t do the job so then when we use a slightly textured terry-cloth towel to wipe our hands dry, the remaining dirt comes off on the towel.

So here’s my solution: I’ve taken an old, thin terry-cloth washcloth (an old dishcloth would also work I bet) and sewn a little hand-sized pouch. I wouldn’t try this with a thick washcloth: poor abrasion to soap ratio. In it I’ve put all the pitiful shards of soap from around the house. Finally I used a simple zigzag stitch to sew it closed. I’ve put this contraption in the soap dish that’s most frequently used for washing grimy hands (after gardening, soccer games, etc). When we’ve used up all of the soap in the pouch, I’ll cut off the end, add more soap and sew it up again. I considered a small zipper, Velcro or button but I don’t think I’d want that rubbing against my wet hands. I don’t think this solution would work if we didn’t have soap dishes that drain but we do so I don’t think that we’ll end up with any mildewing problems. I even made an identical pouch for the deodorant soap we use in the summer in the shower for what I will euphemistically refer to as “sandal feet.”

Now all I have to do is wait for the Nobel Peace Prize Committee to call.

scarf blocking 101

design, just a thought, knitting

While living in Japan in the late ’80s I contracted the chicken pox on vacation in China. I was 28 and it hit me hard. For an entire month I was confined to my lovely apartment in Tokyo with little to do but sleep and wait it out. I didn’t even have the energy to make anything.

During my long hours lounging under the kotatsu (it’s a heavenly piece of Japanese furniture  that looks like a coffee table with a blanket sandwiched between the legs and top but underneath there’s a heating device that keeps your lower body toasty) I began watching Japanese daytime TV. There would be segments on talk shows about the skills one should have to be a good housewife. These segments were very informative and I learned a lot from them.

One that was particularly interesting was the segment on the proper way to hand wash wool sweaters. Up to that point I had always filled up the sink with cold water and some Woolite or Ivory or something and dumped the sweaters in. I swished them around a bit, kneaded them and then rinsed them out. I would roll them in towels to gently extract the extra water and lay them out to dry on a flat surface.

According to the Japanese lady with the lacy apron, all fibers are at their most delicate when they are wet so you should always keep the desired shape of the sweater, even under water. Then she took the sweater folded up as it would have been in the drawer and plunged it underwater without unfolding it.

This made a lot of sense to me because I had on occasion had sweaters that seemed to have longer arms after a washing or sometimes more narrow sleeves than they had before the washing. The lady said that long thin parts of the sweater are especially prone to losing shape during washing.

I took her advice and began to apply those principles to blocking handknit pieces as well. Scarves in particular can be hard to shape if you just dump them in the water. Below is the step-by-step process I use for blocking scarves. It may seem like a lot of extra steps but think of all of the time you put into that scarf. One of these days I might buy those fancy interlocking blocking pieces but for now, it’s a beach towel on the dining room table.

Fold the scarf like an accordion making sure to  straighten out the rolled edges, if you have any.

Gently place the scarf under water.

While it’s under water, gently unroll the rolled edges so they lie flat.

Keeping the accordion shape in tact, drain the water and rinse the scarf. Then carefully roll it out on a large towel.

Starting at one end of the scarf, roll up the towel and scarf together like a jelly roll.

Place your hands on the roll and squeeze out the excess water.

Carefully unroll the scarf onto a dry towel on a flat surface. I like to use striped beach towels for scarves because I can align the edge of the scarf with the stripe to the scarf dries straight. Place the scarf right side up to force any curls on the underside to flatten as the scarf dries.

Leave the scarf flat on the towel while it dries.

Time’s up. Put your pencils down.

experiences, just a thought, quilting

That’s the FedEx guy that I gave our manuscript to on Saturday afternoon. I asked if I could take his picture and he said, “Sorry. Bad hair day,” pointing to his cap. I replied, “There’s a year and a half of my husband’s and my life in that envelope. Your hair looks fine.”

If you’ve never written a book, it’s hard to explain how complex the emotions are when you turn it in. Especially with a new publisher. Especially in a bad economy. Although we’re relieved, there’s a certain amount of fear that goes along with finishing. We’re committed. Although we can change a few small things, this is it. Bill and I talk endlessly about how it’s going to look and if all of the work that we put into it will show. We obsessed over the structure of the book and the content for a year and a half. Bill tirelessly produced diagram after diagram, wanting to make sure that readers would know how to align seams flawlessly and that the explanation of various binding techniques was clear.

I spent eight months hand-quilting one of the quilts in the book. It was in one of four boxes we shipped to the publisher the day before Thanksgiving. When the email from our editor came that the boxes hadn’t arrived, we tried to remain calm. The safest way to send quilts, should you ever need to, is via Registered Mail by the US Postal Service. There are special packaging requirements for shipping this way. There’s a special tape you have to seal it with and every seam is stamped at the post office so any tampering with the package with be evident. Every single person who touches a Registered package has to scan it and sign a register. Jewelers send jewelry via Registered Mail and while it’s slower than other services, it’s safer. Our letter carrier told us that there are severe disciplinary actions for workers who are careless with packages sent Registered Mail. It’s serious business.

We switched to Registered Mail a few years ago after UPS delivered some boxes of quilts headed for the American Folk Art Museum in New York to the wrong address and was unwilling to retrieve them. The UPS agent said it was too much trouble to go look for them, even though they had the exact address of where they had been incorrectly delivered. “It’s easier for us just to get you the insurance check,” they said. If you’re a quiltmaker you know that in some cases no check would be big enough to cover the value of 10 quilts that are going to be published in a book.

So for 16 tense days we continued to work of the manuscript and waited to see what had happened to our quilts. The postmaster was alarmed, regional superintendents were notified and all we could do was keeping writing and illustrating. Our publisher could see that we shipped them on time but we all knew that this could be a huge loss for them as well as for us. Later three arrived and the fourth was missing. Days later the fourth box was found in a storage room in O’Hare airport. The postmaster was horrified and told us that he had uncovered serious breaches related to our boxes. Employees were being disciplined, we were told. We were grateful that they tracked them down and refunded all of our costs, but it was an exhausting episode.

We’re so aware that there are a lot of books out there and that many quilters have had to cut back on their expenditures because of the economy. So it was hard to stop working on the book. There’s always this feeling that we should re-work that paragraph on working with large-scale prints just one more time or add one more diagram on different ways of quilting a quilt.

Books also have a way of measuring the passage of time for the authors. During the writing of this book we started this blog, began to overhaul our website (still in progress), had some illnesses to deal with, completed numerous other commissions, had two quilts published in American Patchwork & Quilting, had our first products (dinner napkins) produced by Crate & Barrel, mourned the death of a friend, celebrated the engagement of another friend, submitted Bill’s application for tenure at the university where he teaches and watched our daughter grow into being able to wear my shoes. I think part of the reason that it’s so hard to stop working on the book is that we’re different people at the end of the book than we were at the beginning.

But there comes a point when the deadline has arrived. So we burned the disc, put our fabric samples in the envelope and handed it to the FedEx guy.

A few hours later we were discussing the proposal for the next book.