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Another craft fair coming up. Another exposure of my person (in the form of sock monkeys, zippered pouches, and the like) to an audience of strangers, begging for acceptance (and remuneration), validation for what I do.

I am not an artist. I do not think of myself as such. I’m much more of a crafter, a maker of things that may evoke emotion – sure – but are more likely to elevate something merely functional into something functional and cute. My ideas are not wholly original. The idea for potato-printing clothing and note cards came from Martha Stewart. Sock monkeys have been around since the dawn of crafting time. I used a tutorial for my zippered pouches, and a pattern for the baby clothing. My ideas come from books, from craft fairs, from craft forums and boutiques. I try to put my own spin on them (for instance, you’ll never see a Rockford Red Heel sock monkey), but at times I feel like a hack.

When I go to craft fairs, in addition to shopping for things I can’t live without, or couldn’t make myself, I observe trends in crafting, patterns in the wares. One year, everyone had apparently invested in screen-printing set-ups, for all the booths were peddling screen-printed T’s with various proprietary designs on them. Now, ironic taxidermy is hot. The themes that are in vogue right now are owls, squirrels, and other woodland creatures, playing, I guess, off the taxidermy theme. Anatomical hearts were all the rage a few years ago. Now Scrabble tiles and boards are being reused and evoked in myriad ways, from magnets and jewelry to throw pillows and spiral-bound books.

Don’t artists learn by imitating masters? Don’t they develop their own style by first practicing techniques, honing their skills, and emulating work they enjoy?

I took a low-tech printing class last year at the community art center, and my instructor told us explicitly to copy others’ work. She said we were changing it enough (through the reproduction process) to avoid overt copyright issues, and, what’s more – we were giving it our own spin. That felt reinforcing to hear her say, but I still doubt myself. I find myself wishing I could present something not only completely new, but completely me.

As I wait for Oriental Trading to send me those headband and bobby pin blanks so I can imitate the hair accessories I saw at the Art Star Craft Bazaar a few weeks ago, as I feverishly hope that the accessorizing-with-zippers trend is not past its prime, I wonder if I’ll hit my mark this time, or be relegated to the spot next to the face painters, to spend all day hidden behind a line of strollers and popsicle’d children.

My mother is fond of saying she’s tired of doing things “the hard way”.  She usually says this as she’s about to take us out to dinner or purchase something disposable instead of reusable.  It’s as if her whole life she’s been needlessly complicating things and she’s ready to sit back, relax, and call a gardener.  Well, she’s only half right.

Maybe she has been doing things the hard way, but there’s no stopping her now.  Yesterday, for example, she and my father drove up to his brother’s house in a suburb of Boston to pick up my sister’s former vehicle, a 1990-ish Honda Del Sol.  It’s been sitting in my uncle’s garage since my sister realized the downfall of her teenage fantasy that she wouldn’t have to schlep anybody around if she had a convertible with no back seat; she now has to regularly schlep people around for her job as a case worker.  So her little car went to my uncle’s garage.  He never drove much – just to pick up groceries an cat litter, and doesn’t seem to drive anymore, so his garage was just waiting for a car my family had no use for, but couldn’t part with.  Last week, my parents stopped by my uncle’s house and checked on the car.  My dad thought its clutch was shot, and figured that if the disuse had done it harm, it might be time to sell the little car.  Mom called the insurance company, and found out that for about “a dollar a day,” they could add it to their policy.  They have no need for the Del Sol.  Mom already has 2 useless cars taking up space in their garage: a 1973 MGB, and my brother’s former car, a 1989 Honda Prelude.  My brother ditched his car when he became Metro and Urban, and discovered the MBTA.   So if they need a convertible, they’re covered.  And if they need ridiculous sound systems that eat up trunk space and make the car impossible to ride in (the amp takes up frivolous space where seat padding might have once been), they’re covered.  Why not bring home another useless car?

That strikes me as doing things “the hard way” – perseverating on keeping, insuring, and maintaining cars they have no use for, rather than selling them, banking $2K for each, and reclaiming garage space. 

While I try to eschew their kind of craziness and logically flawed stratagems, I also find myself undertaking ventures that, while noble in theory, end up needlessly complicating everyday tasks. 

Am I Handy?  Is Mr. Apron?  Then why do we attempt home improvement tasks, only to get frustrated with each other and dissatisfied with the results?  Though we successfully (with my father’s initiative and guidance) installed cork flooring in the kitchen, I see the flaws we left behind, and the unfinished trim we have yet to install.  We are not professionals, yet we undertake jobs better suited for guys named Bob or Frank wearing paint-stained coveralls. 

It’s not just grunt work I try to do myself.  It’s also crafts.  There’s a new spirit of DIY that is infiltrating the Interwebs and my generation.  It’s an amalgam of a new Arts & Crafts movement (a turn of the last century movement which sought to rebel against mass produced industrial labor) and a “recessionista” frugality brought on by the current economic woes.  Though I myself haven’t started doing any crafting specifically because the stock market tanked and unemployment exploded, it’s finally considered au courant to be thrifty.  People are embracing my mentality at last.  If only this had happened when I was in middle school, I might have stood a chance at being cool (Who am I kidding?  It would have taken a continental shift for me to be cool back then.). 

On craftster.org, a website and online community dedicated to do-it-yourself crafts and inspiration, you can often read posts beginning like this: “Well, I saw it in a store, and I thought, I could make that myself!”  So we go home and do it, often cheaper, often with higher quality materials, and often customized in a way that isn’t available commercially. 

But sometimes it’s not quite the same, because we don’t have access to commercial grommet machines or industrial sewing machines, or the right kind of stretch lace.  We’re not electricians, yet we insist on wiring light fixtures.  We’re not apprenticed wood-workers, yet we convince ourselves we can build shelves and cabinets.  We’re not pastry chefs, yet we try our hand at profiteroles and custards, and bacon-flavored Jell-O.  We try fondant and upholstering and tailoring and book-binding and silver-smithing, all in the name of craft and the DIY spirit. 

Where did this come from?  Where did the drive to turn our craft rooms into mini-factories originate?  Why aren’t we still tatting doilies for the dining room table and making needlepoint canvas tissue box covers with clever sayings by Jesus? 

For me, personally, the DIY spirit has many origins.  From a young age, I saw my mother sewing.  I saw she could make clothing unavailable in stores.  I loved the yearly birthday suits she would make me in my childhood, and it was only natural I learned to sew.  Both sets of my grandparents struggled through the Depression, and while it affected each of them in different ways, I believe I did not escape uninfluenced.  From my father’s parents, I inherited that noble value of home maintenance and being Handy.  My grandfather was a notorious skin flint, who would go miles out of his way to avoid the nickel toll on the Massachusetts Turnpike.  Their house was furnished simply, and there was nothing frivolous to be found.  My father, too, is cheap.  He’s an embarrassingly bad tipper at restaurants, and never met a project he couldn’t get into, from shelves to desks to bookcases to coat racks.  He’s not so much into details, having ADD, but he generally does good work (the bookcase he built me for my 8th birthday to house my paperbacks now hangs sturdily in our living room and hides our DVDs.).  He never cleans up the sawdust, but he’s definitely competent.  My mother’s parents, having survived the Depression, started collecting “valuables”: clocks, National Geographics, pianos, shoes, stuffed animals, dolls, you name it.  While I’m sure they had unearthed many unbelievable garage sale finds in their lifetimes, the result now is my attitude that I’ll make myself find a use for the extraneous crap in my life.  Mailing envelopes are reused until they disintegrate, take-out Tupperware finds myriad new lives storing food, sewing supplies, and seedlings.  While I’m not a hoarder, I do try to see a new life in many things others would throw away.

Now that we’re done blaming my family and the 1930s economy, we can address the difficulty with my insistence on doing things myself.  If I want to paint the bedroom, reupholster the dining room chairs, make new window coverings, wire a pendant lamp out of a colander, and sew new baby gifts for all my pregnant friends, it’s going to take longer than just going to the store, hiring an interior decorator, or calling a handyman.  With the glut of cheap products from China, it might end up actually costing more; it certainly costs more in my time and energy.  When I’m done, non-professional upholsterer/electrician/seamstress that I am, I see only the inevitable flaws that result from my hack-job.  Even if I am a fairly competent human, with the skills necessary to measure, design, and create, I have to balance the control I gain when I do something myself, with the predictable short comings that result from my inexperience or lack of expertise.   More than that, I’m realizing I have to balance my desire to have complete control over my home furnishings with my desire to have my home completely furnished.  If I wait for myself to conceive, create, and finish projects, it will be a long time till we can finally have a house-warming party.  Which of course I would insist on catering myself.

Today, we tackle The Shelf again.  Last time’s effort was a spectacular and abyssmal Fail.  Mr. Apron split the end grain of the wood trying to hammer a shelf into its slot on the vertical pieces.  The wood was swollen or water-logged or PMSing and seemed to have grown since the last assembly.  But this time, armed with wait time (it’s been a while since we painted the shelves) and sand paper, we shall redeem ourselves.

Why are these shelves so important?  They’re holding up everything, and I don’t just mean that literally.  Sure, seven foot tall by five foot wide shelving holds the bulk of our reading materials, but there’s more to this story.  The books I speak of are currently housed in 40-odd boxes in our spare room.  Which we cannot use as a spare room because it’s full of liquor boxes of books.  We’d love to get the painters to come in and paint our bedroom (with its new closet!!!) as well as the office.  While they were great downstairs at moving and covering our “valuables” (thrift-store, curbside, and Ikea furniture), I doubt they’d love to begin the office in its current state.  My boxes and piles of craft stuff are everywhere, balancing precariously on a dresser here, a filing cabinet there, shoved under my crafting desk and threatening to overtake my sewing machine.  The final destination of all this crap is a bevy of shelves we’ll install on a free wall in the office above my crafting zone.  It’ll be awesome.  But, we have to strip (or pay someone to strip) the wall paper, and then paint (or pay someone to paint) before we start screwing in the shelf standards.  So it’s a Catch-22.  Can’t paint until we clear out the shit.  Can’t store the shit till we paint. 

As a temporary solution, we thought we could move much of the crap into the spare room so the painters can attack the office, but remember what’s in the spare room?  Ah, yes, the boxes of books.  This one shelving unit is preventing us from a) having overnight guests (not that we have those kinds of friends anyway…), b) painting the office or our bedroom, c) becoming exponentially more organized, and thus crafting more, and d) having a baby (which we will install in the aforementioned spare room). 

The takeaway lesson here, the gestalt, the final message: we cannot procreate until we successfully assemble this shelving unit.  Got it?  There’s a lot riding on those shelves.  Wish us (and our future offspring) luck.

We went to the library today.  I grabbed an assortment of books for myself — a play about the Laramie project,  a paper-craft book, and a travel book about the Atlantic provinces of Canada — and Mr. Apron took out a book on Churchill and Gandhi.  We have different literary interests.

I should have known from the cover of the craft book, which said, “40 [insert adjective here] projects”, but I was too enthralled with the cover photograph of a beautiful quilled greeting card with apple trees on it to even notice the adjective.  “Project” is  a word that connotes, “fun things to do”, or, in my house growing up, as spoken by my mother, “arduous task I want you to do, and you can’t say no”.  So much so that now she calls them “P-word”s, ostensibly so I don’t cringe when she asks.  I still cringe.  The denotation of “project” is very different; it means “a prescribed set of directions which will yield the sample result as pictured in beautiful glossy photography”. 

And that’s all you get.  You barely get technique except as covered in the introduction on how to cut with a craft knife, how to find the center of a piece of paper, and how to use a bone folder (or back of a spoon!) to make creases.  Very brief discussion of how to use a quilling tool, and pretty spread of different types of paper.  The projects; now those are a different beast altogether.

You have to buy the exact paper punches, stickers, napkins, transfer designs, peel-offs, embossing powder, and stamps as her, or you’ll never get yours to look like the sample.  And she always says something like, “If you can’t find this paper punch design — which should be readily available — use my template in the back of the book.”  Like she’s doing you a big favor so you can copy her exactly.  Which seems to be precisely what she wants.  There’s no variety in her photos, so you can imagine it in different iterations with different themes.  There’s even prescriptive coloration.  “You’ll need a 5.5″;x8.5″ piece of card stock in pink, and a floral napkin with greens and purples in it”.  What happened to coloring outside the lines?  What happened to teaching us to fish so we could go off and explore some new technique you taught us?  Yes, a technique, not a project.  My bad.  Didn’t see it on the cover.

Even though they’re aimed at kids, Klutz does a much better job than all of these adult-oriented craft books.  The last one I fumbled on was a book on sewing heirlooms as gifts, a topic that could be said to appeal to me.  While the scope for imagination (to quote Anne of Green Gables) was somewhat broader — not all the projects will look exactly as her samples — they relied so heavily on photographs printed onto printer-safe fabric I thought I was reading “Photoshop 101 for Quilters”.  Again, Klutz is brilliant for their distinct non-kit kits.  They give you all the materials you need, teach you some projects, but then give you skills to go explore the medium further, be it Sculpey clay, calligraphy, shrinky-dinks, or bottle rockets.  Too many kid things are kits.  They have exactly the same flaws as this paper-craft book, and all the projects that come from the book look exactly the same. 

I’ll keep pouring over the library shelves, and probably end up making a plea for the big-ass Martha Stewart craft book for my birthday.  For though we are at times sworn enemies, she is after all the craft guru.  She shows some technique, like potato printing, and I go off into my little world and make a pile of baby onesies inspired by her.  She mentions using  bottle caps and I immediately start brain-storming all the kooky things I could shove in those neat circles.  She may be evil, but she’s my go-to lady for goddess-like domesticity.

Looks like you get another break from brain surgery today, as I need a chance to unload about today’s events, and a certain family member.  I’ll likely return to brain surgery tomorrow, but for today, I leave you this tidbit about my sister-in-law.  Welcome to the family. 

Oh, how people whistle a different tune when they want something out of you!  ‘Twas not so long ago that Mr. Apron’s sister, whom I will call “Bianca” spotted Mr. Apron wearing a silk bowtie given to him in memoriam by his allergist’s widow.  It’s a long story, but, briefly, Dr. Greene collapsed and died a few years ago, in the prime of his life.  Mr. Apron, who had had a close relationship with his allergist, being an allergic, sniffling Jew with chronic post-nasal drip, was deeply moved and wrote a tribute, which eventually found its way to Mrs. Greene’s mailbox.  She was so touched by the essay that she chose one of the doctor’s distinctive bowties and gave it to Mr. Apron because she knew he’d appreciate and wear it.  It’s due to Dr. Greene that Mr. Apron started wearing bowties in the first place.  So on this particular day Mr. Apron was wearing the prized tie in question, and Bianca remarked, snidely, “That looks like something Mrs. Apron would make.”

To us crafters, that can either be the ultimate compliment, or it can send us reeling back to high school when no one appreciated what we sewed, knit, collaged, or crafted, and thought we were just freaks, crudely copying fashion trends we were too cheap/poor/uncool to buy at the mall.  Guess which way Bianca meant it?

Fast-forward.  Bianca is now 7 months pregnant with her boyfriend’s child.  After a freak-out session at Babies ‘R Us where she and the boyfriend were send into shock by all of the baby swag, she promptly texted Mr. Apron and asked him if I, alleged creator of knock-off schlock and assorted kitsch smacking of home-made, would do her the honor of making her a diaper bag.  Dear friends, how could I refuse?

So tonight we journeyed down to the fabric store where I dropped $50 on materials to make her a custom diaper bag out of some admittedly really cool fabric.  As we’re driving back to where she left her car, Mr. Apron asks how long she’s planning on working until she goes out on maternity leave.  She casually mentions the due date, September 7, and the planned C-section, which will be scheduled the 39th week of gestational age, assuming the baby’s not ahead of schedule, which it looks like he might be because he was pretty big during the last ultrasound, etc.  She’ll be out of work till late October when she’s planning on going back 2 days/week and just doing light-duty paperwork for a while.  It’s not like she’ll be unloading stock with the lifting restrictions and pain.  Though she’s such a champ with pain, who knows? 

I’m sorry, planned C-section?  I checked with Mr. Apron after we dropped her off at her car. 

“Is there any medical reason she’s having a C-section?” 

“Nope.  Apparently Dr. Kim tried to talk her out of it, but you know Bianca.”

I quoted Mr. Apron’s father/mother/sister/self: “Nobody can tell Bianca nothing.”

Well, I’m sure Dr. Kim did her darndest, and then wrote the cover-your-ass note in her file: “Pt counseled on risks and benefits of elective C-section.  Pt. verbalized understanding of all risks, but insisted on scheduled C-section vs. vaginal delivery.”  I’m sure that’s how it read.  It strikes me as odd that someone who admittedly doesn’t like kids and “wasn’t trying” to get pregnant in the first place, yet now is so gung-ho about becoming a mother, might have considered that whole Get-it-out-of-me dilemma before getting knocked up.  I guess this was her solution.  And, to quote the senior Mr. Apron once again, “Once Bianca gets an idea in her head…” 

“You know,” I countered, “she won’t be able to pick up her own baby or lift more than 5 pounds?”  Mr. Apron also tried to talk her out of it.  Want to guess how that went?

So for all her tough talk about how great she is with pain and how the only discomfort she’s had during the pregnancy is having a bulbous belly – no swelling, no fatigue, no weird cravings, no feet turning into flippers – she’d rather have her abdomen sliced open and have to recover from a C-section than suffer the normal childbirth pains (or not – hello?  Epidural?) from a regular vaginal delivery.  

Mr. Apron hit the nail on the head, though.  This way, it’ll be on her terms.  And that’s the theme, folks, on her terms.  She can schedule the birth, schedule the pain and time off of work.  She can control when and if she likes my home-made items, and whether home-made is a good thing.  All I can say is, she’d better decide she likes the diaper bag she picked out come September.

After a miserably disappointing trip to Northern Liberties last weekend to not find the Philadelphia Independent Craft Market’s show (seriously — the address that was given led us to a padlocked theatre building with no signs of life anywhere), we tried again to have success this weekend.  Last time we went to the Art Star Craft Bazaar it was a much smaller affair on a blocked off coupla blocks in Northern Liberties, an up-and-coming hipster neighborhood that’s seeing a lot of changes.  This year it was down at Penn’s Landing, an admittedly more “legitimate” venue for a craft fair.  It.  Was.  Huge.  And also, I think, catered to a larger segment of the populati0n.  Not only tattooed hipsters with their babies dressed in goth onesies, but straight-edge looking people as well.  Parking last time cost nothing, and was just on a sidestreet.  Parking this time costs  flat rate of $13 or $17, depending on which lot you wanted to rape you.  We were trapped.  Penn’s Landing is a generic name for a number of waterfront sites.  Not knowing which one it was, we couldn’t park across the I-95 bridge (it cuts right near I-95) and park in the neighborhoods of Philly.  The waterfront area is full of pay parking lots, expensive restaurants, and old boats, some of which are expensive restaurants.  You get raped for parking no matter what.  So Mr. Apron convinced me to suck it up and just pay to park.  Actually, since he was driving, I didn’t have much of a choice.  Oh, and we brought the dog. 

This thing was huge!  I can’t even know for sure how many vendors, but I’d say 150 – 200, easily.  It was a bring-your-own-tent event for the vendors.  Each display looked like it belonged in the windowfront of an Anthropologie store.  Coordinating tablecloths, customized hang tags and labels, people processing credit cards — these were legitimate businesses.  Compared to my library craft fair, this was the big time.  It made me feel small and amateurish.  Like maybe why am I even bothering to try to do another craft fair when my booth won’t measure up?  I don’t have an EZ-up tent, I don’t have 25lb concrete weights to hold the tent down.  I don’t have labels or a sign with my as-yet-undetermined business name.  I wouldn’t know how to go about learning to process credit cards.  My displays rely heavily on luck and safety pins.  And my tables would be borrowed from my current crafting area. 

We sat down in a piece of shade so the dog, who had heretofore been lying down in the  middle of vendors’ tents to grab some rest, wouldn’t pass out.  And so we wouldn’t get heatstroke.  Mr. Apron and I talked about how I was feeling.  He said I could choose to make this about comparing myself and my crafts and my abilities and where I am in selling my wares, or I could relax and enjoy it as a consumer.  Or I could do both.  Everything we do that ties into my interests (early music, crafting, dogs, architecture, Balinese gamelan, clothing design) doesn’t have to be about unrequited dreams and abilities, about things I could do if I spent more time, money, energy, education on them.  I do get sad when we go to a music or theatre performance.  They remind me of how little I’m doing those things in my life.  When I was in college, music took up easily three evenings a week (9 hours) and at least as many hours of classtime, plus any practicing I deigned to do.  In high school, I was in maybe 2 plays a year as well as a pit orchestra or some other special activity (examples include performing Mozart’s Requiem with the local Mormon church, and playing with the Mayo Clinic orchestra).  And now?  I maybe sing a little Gilbert & Sullivan with Mr. Apron when I’m helping him rehearse for one of the 5 plays he’s done in as many years, and I listen to him playing banjo.  My bassoon sits in the basement, my clarinets next to me in a milk crate, plaguing me with familial guilt, as I come from a very musical family.  I used to recall with glee all the instruments I was proficient on — clarinet, bassoon, piano, recorder, (early music instruments:) dulcian, viola da gamba, krumhorn — or could play passingly — bari saxophone, folk harp.  Now I’m embarrassed at how low my skill level has fallen.  I’m overwhelmed at how much work it would take me to play well again. 

I guess the craft fair stirred up those feelings in a less-extreme way today.  I know I’m never going to be a professional craft artisan, making a living off of my etsy shop and schlepping to craft fairs up and down the eastern seabord.  I don’t want to, either.  I want to do enough crafting that I still enjoy it, not so much that I think of it as a business.  I don’t want to think of my art pieces as commodities.  So when Mr. Apron said I could do both — look at it with lessons to learn as well as fun for shopping — I needed to hear it. 

I did look at the other people selling baby onesies and compare prices.  I charge $10 or 2/$18 for potato-stamped onesies.  People today were selling them for as much as $25 and $30.  Granted these were appliquéd, so they took more hand-work, but even the screen-printed ($$ for start-up, but cheap per-piece costs) ones were$20.  The jumpers I sell (well, hope to sell) for $22 and $25 were going for $35 today, for an almost identical product.  I guess this is what you can get, or have to charge, in the “big time” of craft vending.  Maybe those prices would be way out of line for an elementary school or library craft fair, where you’ll see more crocheted doilies and plastic canvas angels than screenprinted tees with skull-octopuses and art prints of a very sinister-looking little red riding hood. 

On the whole, people loved Finley.  They pet him, commented on his unusual “beauty”, and even crawled under tables to get to pet him (adults did this).  He got some sample doggie cookies, and one man even gave us his tupperware from his fruit salad (dumping his fruit into a ziploc bag) so Finley could have a drink of water.  Someone asked us about our grooming choices for him (laughable right now with his full “mop” ‘do), and only one person was afraid enough to shriek and back away hysterically.  ‘Cuz he’s really intimidating.  Yup.  I bought something, too.  Not something like what I make.  I make a point of only buying things from craft fairs that I could not make.  It’s a head-band with a huge felt 3-D flower placed jauntily, so as to resemble nothing so much as a 1940s hat.  I chose the yellow one, as it seemed more vintage.  Mr. Apron bought something, too.  It’s that little red riding hood print I mentioned.  It’s pretty dark, probably more similar to an original illustration from Grimm Brothers than a modern Disney-fied cartoon.  But it’s awesome.  Just enough whimsey and fun.  In the end, I’m glad we went, even if we paid $13 to park, even if we were roasting in open sun for 2 hours, and even if our purchases were pretty pricey.  We supported independent artists, and bought things you can’t find at Costco or the GAP, no matter what you pay for them.

Probably the last thing I should be doing right now is sitting down in an office chair in front of a computer screen to blog.  I’ve been sitting in 10″ high molded plastic or wood veneer chairs all morning, followed by an afternoon of sitting in an office chair that someone else’s butt broke in already.  Now I’m seated in a wheelie chair (fun!) that unfortunately has lost all its padding (not fun) in the six years I’ve owned it.  Has Oprah done an exposé on when you should replace your office chair?  She should.  Her masses will listen.  Then I spent the last couple of hours alternatively crouched over a mini-ironing board that’s definitely the wrong height for ironing, and a sewing machine that’s definitely the wrong height for sewing.  Or maybe the non-sewing chair I was sitting in is the culprit.  I’d hate to blame my new toy

I’m making some more I Spy Bags for some friends and customers, a task I had not been looking forward to.  I’d cut out all the pieces, assembled all the toys, and purchased the PVC pellets I use to fill them.  Yet they sat unassembled on my sewing machine because of vinyl.  Sewing vinyl is a torturous task.  I will try to describe it in a way that non-sewers can understand.  Remember the vinyl seats in my parents’ 1978 Buick station wagon?  Of course you don’t, but you had a car with vinyl seats, or you sat in a rental truck that had them, or you sat at a diner with a vinyl booth once.  And I know you’ve ridden a school bus.  Cue the vinyl.  Now cue summer time.  And you’re wearing shorts.  It’s hot and sticky because the rental truck didn’t come with A/C or the A/C in the Buick doesn’t reach the “way back” (as we called the 3rd row), or because someone driving feels that having the windows open is better.  But you’re trapped.  And so are your thighs.  Channel that friction between your naked skin and the sticky PVC (aka vinyl) as you peel your thighs up from the seat they’ve somehow glued themselves to.  Now imagine trying to glide your school bus seat through the gears of  a sewing machine.  It’s like pretending your car seat is a slip-n-slide.  It’s just not working.  It’s a no-go.  Until now, I’ve churned out I-Spy bags using an arduous process my mother taught me: tissue paper.  So I used to save scraps of tissue paper and use them to sandwich the vinyl between layers so it never actually touched the sewing machine.  Afterward I had to carefully tear the tissue away and cut myself another scrap to do the next seam.  Others on craftster have suggested using Vaseline, dropping down the presser foot, or buying a Teflon foot. 

Being cheap, I never even looked to see if my old machine had an accessory Teflon foot I could buy.  But my new machine came with a plastic foot with a magical surface on the bottom I can only assume is the famed Teflon.  All I can say, after churning out two I Spy bags tonight as if I were sewing regular cotton, is that I’m throwing the tissue paper out.  And it’s very hard for me to throw anything out; just ask Mr. Apron.  I’m a complete convert.  I told my machine I was sewing leather/vinyl (seriously, there’s a button), and it automatically sets the stitch length for me and suggests a foot and a needle.  I took the extra time to put in the heavy duty needle and the new foot, and it was magic.  Like switching to Corinthian leather seats on my rental car.  I hope you’re a convert, too.

 I got a new toy today.  It arrived in a big box from my uncle in Colorado, taped to the gills, as usual.  I opened it, too impatient to wait for Mr. Apron to come home, and was greeted with a curved expanse of white plastic, not unlike this:

Was it a bread machine?  A laminating machine?  ( I do love the smell of melting plastic)  Something else ending in machine?  When Mr. Apron came home, we barely had time to eat dinner before I had to dash off to go tutor, but he did spy a manual of sorts visible from behind the miles of bubble wrap.  Words such as “needle” “thread” and “bobbin” jumped off the page.  A new sewing machine!!!

But not just any machine.  It’s a Viking Husqvarna Platinum 735 Royal.  I don’t know what any of that means.  I do know that we used Vikings in 8th grade home ec to learn how to sew (even though my mom taught me the summer before), and that they had lovely smooth action.  I also know that during the summer before moving out to Philly to be with Mr. Apron (shhh, I also had job prospects, but he was my primary motivation.  It’s a big secret.  shhh), when I worked ever-so-briefly as a seamstress for an Egyptian man  who owned a dry cleaning establishment, I had the pleasure of working on a Husqvarna, and damn! if that didn’t make my piece of shit $99 special from Ames’ going out of business sale feel inferior. 

I have always advised my sewing students, when they look for a machine to learn on, that all they really needed was forwards, backwards, and zig-zag.  I still feel that way, to some extent.  You can learn the basics of sewing from such a machine.  And now the beginner models are coming with all sorts of gimmicks and doo-dads — they’re like the Hyundais of the sewing world.  When I got home from tutoring, I waited politely for Mr. Apron to finish his blog, and then ran downstairs to rip open the box.  Taking off the stormtrooper helmet, we found this beauty:

I am so stoked.  I have already figured out how to thread it, a feat made easier by the drop-in loading of the bobbin (like on a film camera), and the automatic needle threader (I have yet to figure this part out).  I have found the bobbin holding tray, designed by brilliant Norwegians to keep threads from tangling (like they did on the trip from Colorado).  I have drooled over the decorative stitching.  I am in love.  I have no idea how to use 3/4 of the features this machine offers, and yet I will not know how I ever sewed without it.  Pretty brazen, you say?  Well, it is an odd house-warming gift, especially from one’s uncle, but one that will be used and appreciated more than a chafing dish or a salsa platter.

I wrote yesterday about the Craft Fair, and how many adult-like people asked me “What are they?” about the I Spy bags.  Aside from having no signage and having one woman repeat after me, “Ice Pie?  You mean you put it in the freezer?”, it occured to me that my readers (are there 2 of you yet?) might not know either. 

I shall elucidate.  The classic I Spy game is based on one person naming an object in clue form, “I spy with my little eye, something luminescent, radiant, and electric” to which the other person, upon scanning the room, says, “Is it a lightbulb?”  Kids probably say, “I spy…something blue” and then stare directly at it, waiting for you to name the dog’s water dish, while you give chase, naming all the other minutia in the room that is blue.  An I Spy bag is also a hide and seek game. 

I fill a 9″x9″ pouch with doll beads (PVC pellets) and 40-someodd small dollar-store toys (baby shower supplies are choice, small plastic animals, GI Joe figurines, party favors, hair clips) and junk-drawer mess (paper clips, bread tags, binder clips, foreign coins, buttons, puzzle pieces, bottle caps).  Then I seal it up and attach a tag listing the contents.  Here’s what my bags look like:

An I Spy bag

An I Spy bag

You can see I attached a laminated tag with a picture of all the contents.  My contents tags have a word list on one side, and a picture map on the other side.  I love the pictures because pre-literate kids can match what they find to the pictures, or go looking for an item on the card without needing a grown up to read it to them.  “Mom what’s this?  What’s it say?  Mom, what should I find next?  Mom?  Mom!”  Here’s what a picture map looks like:

I Spy bag contents

I Spy bag contents

The grid is an added “feature”.  Kids can challenge themselves or others to find all the items in box 7.  They’re grouped in some sort of order, by farm animals, round objects, vehicles, buttons, or beads. 

Here is the value:

Waiting in a doctor’s office, sitting quietly in church, riding in a shopping cart, enduring an endless car ride, children can entertain themselves quietly, with no lost pieces, no noisy buttons, and no need for adult support, even for young kids. 

Therapeutically, I can see speech language pathologists using them to build vocabulary, practice articulation targets (imagine a bag filled with just /s/ words!), follow directions (“Find the pig, then the dragon.”), teach language concepts (“Where’s the big round bead?”), or use them as a reward for doing other work.  I also work with occupational therapists, so I now understand the value of an I Spy bag in this field as well.  First, they’re weighted.  They provide sensory feedback to kids who crave it.  They also require manual manipulation to move around the pellets.  You can use one hand to strengthen it, or both hands to learn coordination.  You can squeeze it, poke it, shake it, etc, trying to find the objects and you’re not even thinking about therapy.  I received an e-mail today from a woman on craftster.org who made one for her 4 year old who has vision challenges.  With her I Spy bag, she is working on tracking, visual discrimination, focusing, matching, and never realizing it’s therapy. 

Did I mention how awesome these things are?  I think they’re worth far more than the $18 I’m offering them for.  I just need to figure a way into the market.  I know it’s a great toy.  Kids do, too.  Their parents just need to realize it.  And then pay me money for my creations.  And then all will be well in the world.

Married white female, aged 27, ISO Shrinky Dinks brand shrink plastic to complete craft project for the upcoming library craft fair this Sunday, May 19.  No substitutions, please. 

I’d love to say I found Mr. Right on the way home from work, in the closest thing southeastern PA has to a general store.  This is a store which, while bearing the ACE hardware logo, carries everything from men’s undershirts to 1/2 price Easter candy, to model cars, to greeting cards, to spools of thread to lugnuts, and anything in between.  Once upon a time, there were three of these stores within a 1/4 mile walk.  One was your Hallmark-type store, selling cards, wrapping paper, novelty desk sets — I have no idea.  One sold toys and craft items.  It had a vast backroom full of boy toys like plastic weapons, model vehicles, and enough model paint to make any 12 year old semi-permanently high.  And, it had crafts.  This, dear readers, is important.  My mother is forever lamenting the Wal-martification of America, claiming that it’s becoming harder and harder to find a spool of thread in a small town.  And now that Wal-mart is phasing out many of their sewing department, even harder.  I guess a spool of thread is some high-water mark for her.  But in downtown Narberth, in a toy and craft store, one could buy a spool of thread.  The third store was pretty close to being an only slightly confused hardware store — having some kitchen supplies, candy, school supplies, and sweatsocks in packs of six. 

I guess I should have seen it coming when the card store imploded and the storefront became a knitting store instead.  Soon the hardware store was sporting a card rack.  Next the craft department moved in between sporting goods and garden hoses.  I hoped they were just making room for more toys down the street.  Today, as I frantically pored over the craft aisle ISO Shrinky Dinks, I wondered if they qualified as a craft (in my eyes) or as a toy (being marketed to children for amusement).  Finding none, I set off down the street to the toy store.  Which.  Was.  Vacant.  Huge “For Rent” signs hung in the windows.  And as I made my way back amidst raindrops to the hardware store cum card store cum toy store cum craft store, it all became clear.  Why puzzles and games and stuffed animals had been pushed in between Con-Tact paper and Tupperware.  Why GI Joes were opposite Snickers bars.  Why the model cars were shoved in some back corner next to car activity books.  Why I could not find Shrinky Dinks. 

Some helpful sales associates know exactly where everything is.  Not so here.  I can’t say I blame them, as the store is in such disarray and nonsensical order.  Usually the response to a help query is, “If we have it, it’d be in aisle 3 or 5a.”  Today I got a real answer and actually persuaded an associate to walk me over to aisle 2, where they had thought to put Shrinky Dinks.  In the school supply aisle.  Because often when I sit at my school desk, I pull out my Trapper Keeper and make some Shrinky Dinks.  Which I cook in the cafeteria oven. 

Except they weren’t.  Not really.  It was a kit.  Oh, how I loathe kits.  As Anne of Green Gables would say, there isn’t nearly enough scope for imagination.  And this kit, dear readers (more than one of you yet?), was pre-stamped, pre-cut, might as well have been pre-colored and pre-shrunk.  Anathema to crafting, or any creative endeavours.

Disheartened, I scanned the quaint storefronts in the business district of little Narberth, and spied Character Development, a toy store which prides itself on having toys which have nothing but scope for imagination and which (steel yourself, Toys ‘R Us shoppers), have no batteries.  “This,” I said to myself, “is exactly the type of store I need.”  (Except I didn’t say it outloud, because they wouldn’t have let me in the store near the children.)  What I did not need was to pay $9.95 for 5 sheets of shrink plastic which was billed as “refill pack” for the Klutz Shrinky Dinks book when I’m fully aware I can buy 10 sheets for about $5 at Michael’s or A.C. Moore.  Both of which are about 20 minutes from my house.  In spite of the helpful sales staff (“Yes, we do carry Shrinky Dinks.  Let me show you where they are so you can give us too much money for them.”) and convenience of having them staring me in the face, I left the “refill pack” at the store.  I actually snuck out.  When you come into a store asking for a specific item, and they have it, there’s some sort of unwritten code that you should buy it.  Sometimes I’ll say, “Thanks.  I was doing some reconnaissance work for a future project.”  This time, I put my hoodie over my head, waited for the nice lady to help someone else, and slinked (slunk?) out the door into the raindrops again. 

Arriving home empty-handed, I once again tore the house apart for the second day in a row looking for the pack of Shrinky Dinks that were lost in the move.  I know we moved February 20th, and it’s almost 2 months later, and I still have sealed boxes, and my craft stuff is piled into corners…but I thought I could find them. 

But no Shrinky Dinks. 

You know when I will find them, don’t you?  When I drag my sorry ass out to A.C. Moore and buy a pack of new ones.  I will return home, open one more unmarked and highly improbably box, and find them.  How do I know?  Because that’s how it worked with my address book, our blank address labels, my craft knife (which has survived 4 moves over 7 years), our packaging tape, and my ugly neckties I use for crafting.  That’s how it always works.