We became shepherds a few years ago because 1. sheep are fuzzy and cute and look adorable dotted across our hillside; and 2. because I really wanted to grow my own fiber for knitting.
It was a long and varied road that led to those first skeins of wool but we made it – and each stitch I make with homegrown yarn is more satisfying than I ever could have imagined.
I planted black hollyhocks in my flower garden so that I could have a wider color palate of natural dyes. As a biennial (flowering only on the second year) even my dye plants were a long-game plan.
Finally this spring I dyed my first skein of hollyhock wool (the bottom skein in the photo above) and it was true love. A complex sage with an undercurrent of blue, it's mellowed to a soft sage green in the months since I dyed it.
And it is, quite possibly, my favorite yarn ever. Because squishy, gorgeous, and homegrown in every way? Yes, please!
Despite my yarn being worsted weight, I chose to knit a Guernsey Triangle after being utterly distracted by my friend Meg's gorgeous version during a visit this spring as we discussed homeschooling, lambs in tutus, and doing yoga with goats. (Among other things.)
Yes, the Guernsey Triangle is designed for fingering weight yarn. Yes, I knitted it in worsted. Rules be damned!
To accommodate for the extra bulk of my yarn I simply cast on the small version with the expectation of it coming out roughly the size of a large. (It did.)
I spent one evening this weekend searching Pinterest for the perfect backyard tent to make with my kids.
And I found some charming designs. Wooden frames, hemmed fabrics, grommets, twinkle lights – the works.
Every one was picture-perfect.
And as I closed my laptop I decided that we wouldn't make backyard tents this weekend after all.
Because I had no bamboo poles, dowels, or 1×2's. I only had two grommets, and no yard after yard of perfect fabric to cut and sew into a tent. And frankly, no ambition to take on a six hour craft project after weeding eighteen thousand thistle plants out of my strawberry bed.
Don't get me wrong. I adore Pinterest. I find great inspiration there. But sometimes what I see is all a bit beyond my reach.
And then as I looked out on my kids playing in the backyard I realized what was happening.
It was the perfection myth bubbling up again.
The false idea that if it isn't photogenic it isn't worth doing.
That if it isn't perfect it isn't enough.
I wasn't going to play that game.
We were building forts, dang it.
So instead of going back to Pinterest I went to the linen closet. I pulled out some old bedsheets, blankets, and table cloths.
I went to the barn and gathered all the bailing twine we pulled off the hay bales last winter.
I grabbed my pocket knife and we set to work.
Not Pinterest-style, but old school. Like what I built when I was a kid with only my imagination to guide me.
And we did it. In one afternoon.
Two fabulous, simple – and yes – imperfect play forts.
Total cost: $0.
Total time: 5 minutes for Lupine's, all afternoon for Sage's as he tweaked and modified and tricked his out again and again.
And the play value? Fan-freaking-tastic.
Want to make one, too? It's easy. Really.
You can squeeze it between the sidewalk and your garage, tuck one in the corner of your patio, or set it up in the woods. Be where you are and use what you've got.
Heck, you could even make one without a yard if you screwed a couple of lag bolts into your living room walls and anchored the corners with bean bags or duct tape.
And, of course, it doesn't need to be perfect. (But you already knew that.)
So grab your kids, some old sheets, and get outside.
Here's what to do:
Large bedsheet, table cloth, or other sturdy fabric
Rope, twine, or clothesline
Knife or scissors for rope
Tent stakes or a few strong sticks
Four small rocks
Blanket and pillows for the ground (optional)
1. Find the biggest flat sheet you can spare for the day or the week or forever. (You can still use them for sheets as for this basic version there's not need to cut or sew it.)
2. Run a strongish rope, clothesline, or spliced lengths of bailing twine tightly between two trees, a tree and an eye bolt on your house, or your fence and playhouse. Whatever you've got that will hold the weight of a sheet. Be creative! Set the height based on the size of your sheet (smaller sheet = lower line). Ours is a full sheet and set set it at waist/chest height.
3. Suspend your sheet along this rope. The sheet above is centered but you could also hang it off-center for a more one-sided shelter. If needed use spring clothespins to secure your fabric.
4. Sage suggests tucking a small rock into each sheet corner and tie a rope or piece of twine tightly around the rock. (The rock will keep the corners from slipping out.)
5. Secure to a tent stake, root, tree trunk, or stick pushed into the earth. Angle the stake back toward the tent to keep it from pulling out.
6. Trick it out with doors, windows, walls, tree branch supports – whatever inspires you or your kids. (Optional)
7. Line with a blanket or pile of pillows if you wish, and get in there and play!
There. Now aren't you glad you didn't get disouraged by those pretty, fancy play tents?
Being a shepherd, a gardener, and a forager it was only a matter of time before this happened.
Foraged and home-grown dyes on yarn made from the wool of our sheep.
I grew this. All of it! The yarn, the dyes – even the kid who's arms they're in. This is a delight in so many ways.
And to cast on a project where you know not only the story-line of the fiber but the dyes as well? It's downright magical.
The dyes we used on these skeins are invasive garlic mustard and black hollyhock blossoms. The garlic mustard we pulled from a nearby roadside; the hollyhocks I have been dreaming of dying with for years and planted them in my garden three springs ago, collecting blooms all throughout last summer.
In the photo below the skeins are (top to bottom): garlic mustard, garlic mustard over-dyed in hollyhock, and hollyhock.
Inspired to dye your own? We love the book Harvesting Color. We used her process for hollyhock and adapted her basic instructions for the garlic mustard which was our own creative experiment. All fibers were pre-mordanted in alum.
Yesterday I found myself inexplicably edgy. Grumpy, jumpy, terse, and sour.
So I did what any reasonable person would do in this state.
I mixed up a batch of gigantic bubble juice, made some bubble wands with my kids, and got over myself.
I laughed. I played. I watched my kids laugh and play.
In short, I got a much needed attitude adjustment. Because with six to eight foot bubbles floating across my yard – well, I couldn't stay crabby even if I wanted to.
And it didn't cost us a penny. Our supplies list was scavenged up between our basement and our workshop, our kitchen and our brush pile.
Insane, super-sized bubble fun.
And a cure for crabbiness no less.
We ended up making a dozen of the wands in the afternoon to take to our homeschooling potluck. And they were a hit! By the end of the night a full gallon of bubble juice was gone and I think everyone had as much fun as we did making bubbles.
I suggest you stop whatever you had planned for today and do this instead.
Especially if you're grouchy.
Make Your Wand
All you need are two sticks (any size), two screw eyes (any size – ours were around this big – afflink), a washer or other smooth weight (any size), and some yarn (any kind). See how flexible this is?
You could replace the sticks with purchased dowels but I ask: why uses dowels when you have sticks? Because sticks are free. And they grow in your yard. (Or your neighbors yard…)
Cut two branches, trimming off any side branches or pokie bits. Shoot for around 12" to 24".
In one end of each branch attach a screw eye. (I pre-drilled my holes with a small drill bit to make this easier.)
Cut a length of kitchen twine or yarn (mine was cotton) approximately 6' long and thread through your sticks and your washer. Tie with an overhand knot anywhere you like.
Make some bubbles!
First, make your bubble juice.
I used this recipe. It was fantastic. My favorite recipe yet.
You can also use my more basic recipe if you don't have some of her ingredients, like corn starch or glycerin.
(A note about dish soap: I have tried making bubbles with more natural dish soap to no avail. These babies are Dawn, all the way. We don't use it on our dishes, but for bubbles we keep it on hand.)
Second, dip your string.
Hold the screw-eye and yarn ends of your two sticks together.
Completely submerge the yarn in the bubble juice. (The first dip is the fussiest.)
Lift the wand slowly from the juice, then separate the sticks to open the yarn loop.
Walk slowly backward into the wind and watch your bubbles soar!
You can encourage smaller, (thought still huge!) bubbles to break off and fly free by bringing the yarn loop back together to snip off a bubble here and there.
The bubble below floated clear over our house and was bigger than the biggest watermelon.
Note: if your bubble juice gets frothy on the top from use give it a few minutes to settle down. It works best without foam. Also, one wand in the juice at a time unless you want to spend your time untangling bubble wand strings.
And if you or your kids love to learn about how things work, check out this explanation of bubbles. It was fascinating to my kids.
P.S. For younger kids the handmade bubble wand tutorial I wrote here is the best. So beautiful and fun.
Partially because I made it (which is always satisfying), partially because it's recycled, but mostly because of the love-hate relationship I have had with this yarn for the past five years. Wearing this cape means I won the battle.
This cape began in 2011 when – with a burst of ambitious upcycling spirit – I purchased (then unraveled, then dyed) a women's XXL wool sweater with an American flag emblazoned across the front. It was exceptionally ugly. But the yarn was promising and at $6.00 I couldn't argue with the price of a sweater's worth of wool.
At the time I remember being rather proud of myself. I thought that upcycling sweaters was a great way to acquire sustainable, affordable yarn. And it's true. But the other truth is that yarn became a bit of a thorn in my side soon after unraveling began.
Because there were knots (so many knots!) and no matter what pattern I tried I could not get gauge to save my life. This yarn defies sizing estimations.
And finally, the wool looked more enticing knitted (American flag and all) than it did once it was skeined up and waiting in my craft room. Don't get me wrong, it's nice thick soft wool. It's just not very pretty when you look at a ball of it up close.
But I set to work anyway to find a pattern that would accommodate with a chunky yarn whose only mission it turned out was to defy gauge. I make and unraveled several swatches that resembled knitted cardboard (so! dense!) and a vest the size of my Volkswagon.
And so (with a slight huff) I gave up for a few years.
But when I left for Vermont and Maine with a camper-load of fiber to drop at the mill I knew it was now or never. If I didn't make something out of this yarn before my own yarn came back from the mill I never would.
And then I found it. The Selkie. The perfect bulky pattern for my burdensome basket of grey yarn. And I got gauge! Oh, happy day.
And the truth is I really fell in love with both this pattern and the yarn (knots aside) as this knit came together. It was a fast project (believe it or not) and I finished it with a set of my great grandma Nellie's antique buttons. A nice touch, I think.
It's warm and squishy and I feel a little bit like my high school art teacher when I wear it. (That's a good thing, I promise.) Or maybe some sort of crafty superhero. Because it's a cape! That I made. Out of an ugly sweater from the thrift store.
If that's not a superpower worthy of a wooly cape I don't know what is.
But since you all liked the homegrown shawl so much I thought I'd share another project that just came off the needles.
I've had a string of more complicated projects in my knitting basket for the past year or more. Lots of cables, lace, and complicated "no-one-talk-to-me-or-I'll-lose-my-place" kind of work. I needed a "talking project" for my birthday weekend. Something that requires no pattern or little attention to it. So I spent a night wandering around on Ravelry looking for something to knit. When we left for our overnight I grabbed this yarn and a set of DPNs as we set off for the woods.
I picked the lovely yarn up at Green Mountain Spinnery last fall, and loosely based my knitting off of Pinecrest. (Without, um, following the pattern. Because: talking.)
And since we're having another cold snap here in Wisconsin they've been in use everyday since I cast them off.
The truth is, I'd like to spend more time gutting and downsizing every room in my house. Or cleaning. And planting my garden. But here I am, knitting. It's my simplicity and garden avoidance plan. It's working.
I do a fair amount of knitting over here, but rarely share finished projects with you. I'm not sure why, but sometimes I feel like you don't need to know what's in my project basket or what's blocking by the fire.
This one, though, is special.
Because this yarn began it's journey right here on the farm. Home grown, home dyed, hand knit. All by me.
When we took our road-trip last fall I dropped a huge bundle of our flock's wool off at Green Mountain Spinnery in Vermont. Two year's worth of fiber from our ewes and lambs. When the wool came home a couple of weeks ago I set to work immediately to dye some skeins, then cast on my first project. And nothing could be more satisfying that knitting with yarn you grew yourself. (Who knew?)
The pattern is Lonely Tree, and I dyed the wool with dyes from Greener Shades, blending a purple, blue, and pink. You can find my project here on Ravelry.
My next project with our homegrown yarn will be natural dyes, using the black hollyhocks that I grew last summer, elderberries I harvested from our farm, and pokeweed that Lupine and I foraged on our return trip from Maine. I can hardly wait to get started!
We delivered both back in September and we've been waiting for their return with all the patience we could muster.
Yesterday the fiber boxes arrived!
Skein after skein of beautiful, soft, homegrown yarn from our very own fiber flock, plus a large box of scrap wool and roving that we can use to spin at home and to stuff dolls, pillows, and toys.
It's hard to adequately explain how this feels. To hold in my hands enough yarn to knit a sweater for every member of my family and then some – and know so well the sheep that it came from.
It's been a long time coming and I can hardly wait to cast on my first project.
Based on the advice of my fiber mentor and friend Kathryn, the first thing on our agenda was to wash the wool one more time to increase the softness and spring.
Into the bathtub it went with a bit of wool wash and the hottest water our water heater could muster. (Wool only felts in hot water with agitation or with changes in water temperature.) There it soaked for a bit before a second wash in clear water; then each skein was carefully hung to dry.
This morning I am amazed at how springy, soft, and delicious this yarn is. From my own flock!
I can hardly wait for spring to arrive so that we can forage some dyestuffs from our farm and woods. I also dried and froze some natural dye material last year (black hollyhock blossoms and pokeweed berries) that I can use in the meantime. Oh, my. This is going to be fun!
As for the roving, well, we have plans for that, too.
I pulled out my spinning wheel to try spinning a bit and before I knew it I had a helper in my lap. Soon she was working the wheel on her own. There's a steep learning curve to be sure, but Lupine isn't daunted.
Lupine spent much of last weekend working on a project that we're both quite taken with.
Inspired by Tree Change Dolls, she gave two thrift store Bratz Dolls make-unders, transforming them with nail polish remover and acrylic paint.
And while there are so many things that we could discuss here (not the least of which is why we market dolls like the originals to children), I think I'd rather let these photographs do the talking.
The original doll is shown below at left, and Lupine's first make-under at right. What a transformation!
The process for a doll make-under is simple. Indeed, Lupine did all of the work (save stitching some corduroy pants) on her own.
After she repainted their faces Lupine spent days sculpting, sewing, and woodworking everything her dolls needed.
It was a lovely project in so many ways.
And then Lupine came to me with one of her dolls. The doll (originally clad in a tight dress and stiletto heels) was wearing a cotton shawl and calico dress and was now holding a small basket of green leaves. Her doll, Lupine said, had foraged a basket of medicinal herbs. She unpacked the basket, one tiny sculpted plant after another.
"There is nettle, mint, white pine, and motherwort."
And I knew then that the Bratz dolls were gone, and the ones that stood in their place spoke to who my child was and what she valued more than I ever could have imagined. Transformation complete!
You can learn more about Tree Change Dolls here and watch her how-to videos if you or your child are inspired to create your own!
I think the most enthusiastic feedback I got on my recent kitchen remodel was about my snazzy Nikki McClure switch plates. I cranked them out in an evening and they were so quick, so simple, and so darn satisfying. My kind of project, since anything more ambitious than this tends to languish half-done for years in my craft room.
A few of you asked for a proper tutorial on how to make your own, so when I made a second set for a housewarming gift last week I decided to take a some photos and write up a tutorial for you.
Here it is!
How to Decoupage a Switch Plate Cover & be All Sorts of Awesome
1. Choose your artwork.
Old calendars, magazines, kid-art, and medium weight scrapbooking paper all work well. Thin paper can be too fragile for this project and card-stock tends to be too thick, so aim for something sturdy but not too thick. Fabric also works, they say, but I haven't tried it yet.
Note that some papers will wrinkle. If you aren't sure how you feel about that do a test with a scrap of paper you don't love. Stick it to something plasticy (an old milk bottle for example) and see what happens. Wrinkles don't bother me, so I use whatever paper I love.
My paper of choice (thus far) has been Nikki McClure art from calendars going back a few years. I think I have a girl-crush on Nikki's art and can never bring myself to toss old calendars of her work. (One of you sweet people even mailed me one after seeing my decoupaged suitcase a few years back. You're nice.)
2. Using your switch plate as a guide, cut a rough rectangle approximately 1" bigger all around than your plate.
Be sure to center the switch plate over the art you want to appear on the completed project. You'd also be wise to check that the switch itself doesn't become an awkward appendage or something obscene depending on the art you choose. (Unless that's what you're going for, in which case, align that switch carefully with whatever you want it to prove. I won't judge.)
3. Notch your corners.
You can do this by cutting your paper at a 45 degree angle at each switchplate corner (a good idea I came upon after these were already made), or by notching them as shown below.
Note how I angled the flaps slightly to make wrapping the paper around the back easier in the next step. The flap on the right below was notched even deeper so it wrapped nicely to the back.
Do a test wrap and snip more paper away until it's not too bulky at the corners.
4. Coat the back of your notched paper with an even layer of Mod Podge, working the Mod Podge all the way to the edges.
5. Quickly center your switch plate over the paper. Turn over and adjust the paper as needed to center. Smooth front with your fingers to remove bubbles.
6. Now turn the switch plate over in your hand so the back is facing you. Wrap the longer sides of your switch plate firmly around to the back and press flaps into plate with your fingers as shown below.
Repeat with short flaps.
7. After all four flaps are pressed firmly into place, turn the switch plate around in your hand looking for any bubbles or loose spots.
Smooth them out gently with your fingers. Too much pressure and you'll rub the color right off your paper, so be gentle!
8. Lay your switch plate face down on a cutting mat or piece of card-stock. Using an Exact-o knife, carefully cut an X in the switch opening.
9. Fold these flaps toward the back, adding additional Mod Podge if needed to hold into place. These can be buggers so keep at it until they stay put.
10. Poke a small guide hole from the back in each screw opening using the point of your Exact-o knife.
11. Flip the switch plate over and press on these guide holes with your finger to make a small depression in the paper at each screw point as (poorly) shown in the photo below. (It's hard to see. Sorry.)
12. Using your Exact-o knife to cut a tiny X in each of these depressions with the point of the knife. This will ensure that your paper does not tear when you attach your switch plate.
13. Coat the front of your switch plate with a light, even coat of Mod Podge.
14. Allow to dry completely and repeat 1-2 more times.
15. Finish with a clear coat of spray paint if desired. (I skipped this step and they are holding up well just the same.)
You're done! Carefully screw into place and admire the awesomeness you just made, or pack them up in a gift basket or care package for a friend and share the love.
Warning: this project is addictive. You might make dozens. Don't say I didn't warn you.