Monday, May 30, 2011

A Room Without Pillows is Not Finished Yet

This is my client's beautiful wool oriental carpet, which anchors a small seating area at the base of a three-story spiral staircase.  I have literally been crawling around the floor of my office for the past three hours, digging through piles of trim samples and fabric memos, to come up with the perfect combination of fabrics and trims to imbue this small space with warmth, personality, sophistication, and elegance.  Also fun.  Red fun!
The camel mohair chairs with nailheads are new, but they need to be enlivened with custom throw pillows, as will the teak bench on the opposite wall.  So, after obsessing about pillows for three hours, here's what I'm excited to show my client tomorrow:

 The teak bench will get two square throw pillows in this Patchwork Damask Silk in Russet from Lee Jofa, with Samuel & Sons Boulette Fringe in Cherry Bomb sewn in-seam.
This cut velvet bamboo fabric is also from Lee Jofa, and it's slated for the pillows that go in those mohair chairs.  In person, this fabric is exactly the same shade as the chair fabric, but its shimmery pile will give it enough oomph to hold its own and not disappear into the chair fabric.  This red and gold brush fringe from JAB Anstoetz will go in-seam, and the coordinating Stresa braid will be inset about 2" from the edges of the pillow, mitered at the corners.

 Another fabulous Lee Jofa velvet!  Fretwork in Claret/Chocolate is for two more throw pillows on the teak bench, and these will have knife edges, but they will be anything but ordinary with JAB key tassels on the corners that are embellished with Swarovski crystals and cultured pearls.
Last but not least, the teak bench will get a custom boxed seat cushion in this F. Schumacher & Co. bamboo Deco Velvet fabric.  This Samuel & Sons hand-embroidered ribbon will completely cover the 2" boxing, and solid black silk chair ties will secure the cushion to the bench at the front corners.  I love mixing the contemporary geometric patterned velvet with this vintage-looking ribbon trim, and the metallic embroidery reminds me of the gorgeous antique Asian textiles my client collects (several of which will likely be displayed on the walls of this space).

Okay, I lied -- there's one more pillow.  We carried this Calvin Klein ribbed ottoman fabric swatch around for months, loving the texture and the myriad hints of color that made this anything but a basic black, and finally we discovered that it complements this carpet beautifully.  So this will be one small rectangular pillow on the teak bench, with this Stroheim & Romann silk pom braid inset a few inches from the edges.  The bench cushion is gold with black, so this pillow is black with gold. 
Considering that I exhausted just about every resource imaginable, and auditioned hundreds of possible fabric and trim combinations, and didn't like ANYTHING else until I came up with this plan, I really hope my client likes it as much as I do!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Extra-Special Kongsicles for Spoiled Rotten Rotties

A long time ago, when I was a newlywed with no children, I used to bake bread and cook things like boeuf bourgignonne -- from homemade beef stock -- when I was feeling particularly domestic and industrious. Fast forward a decade and a "from scratch" crock pot roast and Bake & Serve rolls from the grocery was the pinnacle of my culinary achievements. No more bread from scratch (do I even remember how to do that anymore?), but I'd still bake scones from time to time. But these days, I'm rolling up my sleeves in the kitchen on a regular basis to make Extra-Specially-Good-Puppy Kongsicles. Sometimes I think my dogs are eating better than we are!
I remember seeing these Kong things in the dog toy aisle at the pet store years ago when I had a Golden Retriever. I think I might have even purchased one, but I never put anything in it and Byron Fussy the Golden completely ignored his empty Kong. Our awesome dog trainer, Janine Gauthier of Paws & Order Dog Training, suggested stocking up on Kongs and filling them with all kinds of food goodies for our dogs, and they are really working well. Anytime the dogs have to be crated, they get one of these filled Kongs to keep them happy and busy until we return. If we'll be gone longer than an hour or so, or for bed time, I like to give them frozen Kongsicles like the ones I made today because it takes longer for the puppies to get all the food out if the Kongs are frozen. The dogs L-O-V-E their Kong treats, and they have been known to race into their crates so fast to get the Kong that the whole crate skids across the floor.
So, what goes in our Kongs? Well, every Kong gets a smear of either all-natural peanut butter or organic nonfat cream cheese on the small end, with a little freeze dried training treat stuck in the little hole. I like Tricky Trainers treats for this (I get them from a local holistic pet shop, but you can also find them online), because they fit perfectly in the little hole at the end of the Kong. I put about an eighth of a cup of their kibble in each Kong (they're eating Orijen Large Breed Puppy kibble). Then I vary what else goes in the Kongs: organic carrot or banana baby food, hunks of fresh banana or fresh blueberries, canned unsalted green beans, and plain organic nonfat yogurt are typical Kong fillings. Sometimes I putted a canned sardine or a scoop of canned salmon in there, too -- stinky fishies are great for developing puppies' brains, and we're all about raising healthy little smarty dogs! Then, when the Kong is almost full, I stick a grain-free dog biscuit in the large opening like a little popsicle stick and smear peanut butter, cream cheese, or more yogurt around the biscuit. I pack the filled Kongs up in gallon-sized Zip-Lock bags and pop them in the freezer until they're needed. 

NOTE: I'm limiting my Kong ingredients to food items that I know are good for the dogs and safe for them to eat. Some of my Kongsicle ingredients were suggested by our dog trainer, and others came from an article in the Whole Dog Journal about healthy supplements to commercial dog food diets. Certain seemingly innocuous people food items, like raisins, grapes, or chocolate, are actually toxic to dogs, so it's not a good idea to just give your dog some of whatever your family happens to be eating. SECOND NOTE: Obesity is a big problem for American pets, so it's important to be mindful of how much your dog is eating. Our puppies get one or two filled Kongs per day, and I deduct what's in the Kongs from what would have been in their food bowls. A good rule of thumb is that you want to be able to just barely feel your dog's ribs when you pet him or her, but you shouldn't be able to see their ribs through their fur. If in doubt about how much to feed your pet, consult your veterinarian.

While I was making Kongsicles, Otto and Lulu were busy playing their favorite game, Chomp Your Sibling In the Face. This game is very closely related to one of Lars's and Anders' favorite games, Whack Your Brother With a Stick. Dogs and humans are not that dissimilar, after all.

Otto at 4 1/2 months
All that rough-housing really tuckers a puppy out! Otto's favorite place to rest is in front of this air conditioning vent, near the kitchen sink, and Lulu-Belle likes to snooze near another vent behind the kitchen table. I am sure this is because she has fabulous taste in fabric, and really appreciates the Vervain drapery fabric. Yes, there is black dog fur all over the bottom of my drapery panels -- and frankly, I couldn't possibly care less!
Lulu at 4 1/2 months

These dogs are the sweetest, most loving, eager-to-please creatures imaginable. When they come running to greet me with their tails wagging 90 mph and their puppy kisses, any stress or anxiety just instantly melts away. We spoil these Rotties rotten, and they deserve every bit of it!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Adventures in Sewing and Dentistry: In Which My Smile is Restored and I Vow to Abstain from Needle Biting and Grinding Henceforth

If you've been having trouble reaching me lately, it's because I've been at the dentist.

A few years ago, while working on a hand quilting project, I determined that a good way to get a slightly dull betweens needle through a particularly bulky seam allowance of batik fabrics would be to bite the needle with my front teeth and pull it through the fabric. As soon as the corner of my front tooth chipped, I had a déjà vu moment as the memory of having chipped a tooth in exactly the same way many years ago came flooding back to me. I think I was sewing Barbie clothes out of Lycra costume fabric scraps the first time I chipped a tooth. In both cases, my dentist filed down the front teeth slightly to "erase" the chip, and I forgot all about it and went on with my life.

At some point during the decades that separated these two sewing mishaps, a former football player for the Minnesota Vikings also chipped one of my front teeth when he was removing my braces (I'm sure he was the best orthodontist in New Jersey and that his former life as a ViQueen player in no way influenced my dad's decision to entrust him with our teeth). The orthodontist also filed my front teeth down to smooth out the chip, and I was so happy to be rid of my braces that I didn't pay much attention to the way the repeated filing of my front teeth was changing my smile. To make matters worse, apparently I habitually grind my teeth in my sleep (probably in those dreams where I can't find a bathroom, or I'm late for a final exam and I don't even know where the classroom is). So I had filed-down, stress-fractured, drifted-apart-post-braces teeth that made me feel older than my years.
I started thinking about correcting these issues about a year and a half ago. I spoke with my regular dentist about it, and he did these cute computer-assisted pictures of what my teeth could look like with porcelain veneers to restore the natural length of the teeth and fill the gaps that had opened up between them. (No, that's not my natural haircolor, either, and I know it looked terrible that day!) However, I didn't feel comfortable having that particular dentist place veneers on my teeth for a couple of reasons. First, he proudly showed me the temporary veneers he had put on one of his assistants' teeth, and she told me how she had been wearing the temporaries for months because the dentist was such a perfectionist that he kept redoing her veneers over and over again, wanting to get it right. Excuse me? I think I want it right the first time, thank you very much! Secondly, when the practice manager sat down with me to go over the cost of the veneers, she informed me that my dentist had learned how to do veneers from Dr. Ross Nash himself, but charged significantly less. Hmmm… She wants to sell me discount teeth from a dentist who can't even get his assistant's teeth right on the first try? This did not inspire me with confidence!
So I sought out this Dr. Nash who had taught the other dentist and made an appointment to see him at Cosmetic Dentistry of the Carolinas, located about 45 minutes away from me in Huntersville, North Carolina. Dr. Nash was wonderful from the very first consultation. As opposed to the high-pressure sales pitch I was getting from my previous dentist, I felt like Dr. Nash was just sharing information and giving his professional opinion. No one in his office was the least bit pushy, just friendly and helpful. My husband had concerns about how much healthy tooth needed to be removed in preparation for the veneers, and even he felt comfortable with the whole thing after discussing it with Dr. Nash. Of course, Dr. Nash's impeccable credentials and decades of experience with general and cosmetic dentistry were reassuring as well. They do have to remove some of the outer enamel of your teeth to put veneers on them, kind of like prep work for a crown, so there's no going back if you don't like how it turns out. If I was going to do this at all, it needed to be done really, really well!
Some months went by, and I got caught up with other things and didn't think much about my teeth unless I saw a photograph of myself smiling. Then I'd think, "I need to do something about my teeth! I'll call the dentist after I pick up the groceries and finish my client's design rendering and take the kids to piano lessons…" I just didn't get around to it until I decided to go to my 20th High School Reunion in Manalapan, New Jersey last month. I was looking at my friends' Facebook pictures and seeing how great everyone looked. By the time I decided to attend the reunion it was too late for diets or exercise to do me any good, but I found myself wishing I had gone ahead and gotten my teeth fixed last summer. Then I thought, if I wish I had already done it, I should just do it now! I had been unhappy with my smile for a long time; the reunion was just the catalyst that finally got me to do something about it.
I called Dr. Nash's office the Monday afternoon before my reunion, and they were able to get me in the following afternoon. Considering I was at the dentist for six hours without sedation (Bernie was traveling so I didn't have a ride home), I had a blast. I have no idea why they put this goofy contraption on my head, but I had to get a picture of it for posterity – and for my blog. It wasn't six solid hours of drilling, though. Lots of pictures were taken of my teeth before, during, and after each step of the process in case Dr. Nash wants to use my case as an example for his teaching lectures and seminars. I think this should be my new Facebook profile picture, don't you? Yeah, not so much.
So, when you get porcelain veneers, you don't get them instantly all in one day. They have to take impressions of your teeth after the prep work is completed and send those off to a lab where the permanent porcelain veneers are created just for you, and you get plastic composite temporary veneers put on in the meantime that are attached with the absolute minimum amount of temporary cement that will adhere them to your teeth. Because I had an upcoming event that weekend, Dr. Nash went out of his way to make me extra-special temps out of translucent bonding composite. Here's me at my reunion with two of my favorite girlfriends, Jilly and Jennifleur. I have temporary veneers on my teeth. Even the temps look 100% better than my smile did before!
However, it turns out that when they said temporary, they really meant temporary! I lost one temporary veneer while eating a fortune cookie the night before my drive to New Jersey, and Dr. Nash had me come in first thing in the morning on Friday so he could fix it before I got on the road. I lost the same veneer again the Tuesday I got back, from eating a Starbucks chocolate-covered graham cracker. After they fixed that one, two days later another temp veneer popped off on the other side of my mouth while eating Starbucks chocolate-covered graham crackers again (it's a wicked addiction). Dr. Nash and his assistant Chip assured me that my permanent veneers would not come popping off left and right every time I ate something because they are adhered much more securely to the teeth with a much stronger cement, but I was still a little nervous about ending up with beautiful decorative teeth that were not appropriate for actually eating! My son Lars went so far as to suggest that I get injections of shark DNA so I could just grow new teeth every time one fell off. Hah hah haha -- National Geographic strikes again! Still, it was very reassuring to know that Dr. Nash has successfully done veneers for hundreds and hundreds of patients over the years. If I was part of some other dentist's learning curve, I would have been much more unnerved about the temps falling off. It was also nice to see that, when those temporary side veneers did come off, the teeth didn't look as bad as I had expected – it wasn't like I had to cover my mouth to hide ugly little stump teeth when talking to people; no one would have noticed those teeth were slightly smaller and slightly yellower than the adjacent ones. The prep work for the veneers really did not remove much tooth at all. Now, if I lost one of the veneers on a front tooth, that would be a different story – not because Dr. Nash removed more of my front teeth, but because so much more of my front teeth was missing before he even started.
Without further ado, here are my teeth "before" as well as the "after" picture once the permanent veneers went on:

The "after" picture was taken right after they finished working on my teeth for three hours, so my gum tissue is still sore and inflamed. What do you think? The funny thing is that, when I was debating whether I should do this and asking opinions of family and friends (they are used to me asking their opinions and then completely disregarding them), the general consensus was that my teeth "weren't bad enough" to justify cosmetic dentistry; that I wouldn't see enough of a difference. And I really didn't see that much of a difference in the mock-up photo that the first dentist did, either – it seemed like a lot of money to spend on something very subtle that no one would notice except me. In fact, originally I was going to have the veneers matched to my natural tooth color instead of going a shade lighter like most patients do, but I ultimately decide to go a shade lighter just as insurance to make sure I would be able to see a definite improvement at the other end of this rainbow.

Now that it's done? I am amazed what a difference this makes. I feel like my whole face has brightened up, like I've shed at least 5 years from my appearance, and for the first time in over a decade, I am flossing my front teeth because they are close enough together again for bits of food to get stuck between them. I even look more like my beautiful mommy now (that's her college graduation picture below).
I have a night guard to wear while I'm sleeping so I can't grind my teeth anymore, and I vow to use only thimbles or pliers to push needles through fabric from here on out.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Mother's Day Flowers: What's Blooming Now

My sons and husband took me to the garden center yesterday to pick out some new annual and perennial flowers for Mother's Day. As usual, my eyes were bigger than my flower beds, so we had to get creative about finding homes for some of the new plants, like this lovely fuschia snapdragon lookalike that we had to squeeze into the Flower Dump. I don't remember what it's called, but it's a perennial and it likes full sun.

I picked out these fancy geraniums to add to pots on my front steps. The purple pansies were planted there via bird poop. I'm sure the birds did this deliberately to thank us for all the bird food we've been putting in the feeders all year.

Bernie has a weird aversion to cannas, which I can't relate to at all. They are tall, dramatic, and bloom pretty constantly throughout the summer. Since I'm the Momma and I get to pick the flowers on Momma's Day, I chose these unusual peachy-pink cannas with splashes of yellow... well as these yellow cannas with splashes of peachy-pink. I have some red cannas from last year in big pots on the front steps. This summer, I want a wild mix of colors. It will be interesting to see how the garden develops as all of these plants begin to take off.

Last but not least, I wanted to share these yellow irises in the Flower Dump that Bernie rescued from a nearby property where the house was demolished to make way for a new subdivision. Aren't they pretty?

Happy Mother's Day, everyone!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Trepidation, Terror & Triumph: Test Monogram of the Lee Jofa Cut Velvet Fabric

Even the most seasoned sewists -- a group which does not, by the way, include me -- have occasional stage fright when it comes time to cut into expensive fabric. When my mother made my sisters' wedding gowns, she spread the fabric out on the dining room table and left it there for weeks before she did anything with it. Each day, she'd go into the dining room, circle around the table and just look at the fabric, picking anxiously at her fingers and wondering what on Earth made her think she could tackle a project of such magnitude... But eventually she mustered up the courage to cut into that fabric and sew two beautiful gowns.

I'm not sewing any bridal gowns, but I've been procrastinating a bit on a monogram project for a client. I designed a 20" square monogram pillow as part of a client's custom bedding ensemble, and although I don't typically sew for clients anymore, this particular pillow is a new-and-improved version of one I did for the client a couple of years ago and since I monogrammed the fabric myself last time, I figured I should do it again this time. I still had the Victorian 12 "M" design from Embroidery Arts that I had enlarged and saved in the correct format for my Bernina Artista sewing machine on my hard drive. All I had to do was stitch it out again on the new fabric, with the new thread color. Piece of cake, right?

WRONG! The new fabric, Penzance Velvet in Brass from Lee Jofa, costs close to $400 per yard. I have only one yard to work with, and two 20" pillow squares need to be cut out of that piece of fabric. There's not much room for error. Since I don't have much in the way of extra fabric for experimentation, I decided to practice on the memo sample I checked out of the showroom. Shhh... don't tell anyone! This fabulous, yummy fabric is going to be a challenge to embroider for a couple of reasons. First, it's a velvet -- that means I can't hoop it, or I'll have a permanent oval shaped "hoop burn" indentation in the finished project. Plus, similar to a terry cloth bath towel, the velvet pile is going to have a tendency to want to poke up through my embroidery stitches, particularly since my design uses long satin stitches. I'm also concerned about the uneven surface of this cut velvet fabric, since the flat areas between the velvet pile squiggles are like little valleys in the fabric.

So here's the plan: I hooped a single layer of OESD Clean and Tear stabilizer, which I then sprayed with 505 Temporary Spray Adhesive so I could stick my velvet fabric down without actually hooping it. I then laid a sheet of a pretty thick clear topper (don't know what it is exactly, since the label is missing off the roll and I've had it a long time). It's not a water-soluble stabilizer like Sulky Solvy, though; I need something permanent that will remain beneath the embroidery stitches to keep the velvet pile under control indefinitely. I didn't risk using spray adhesive to secure the clear topper either, because I had a bad experience doing that once with a plush terry pile -- when I tore off the topper after embroidering, little clumps of fuzz were ripped off the towel with it and the poor little towel looked like it had mange.

So I decided to try a basting stitch just inside the hoop to hold down the topper and secure all three layers in the hoop: stabilizer, fabric, and topper, crossing my fingers in hopes that the basting stitch wouldn't leave a line in the fabric once I pulled out the thread.
This is my finished sample. The topper and stabilizer combo worked well, and thankfully, I was able to fluff the velvet pile back into place with my fingernail to "erase" the line from the basting stitches after I pulled them out. I am about 90% satisfied with the way this test stitched out.

...Here's the 10% Room For Improvement factor. Even with the topper trapping the velvet pile, I still don't have a clean enough edge to the embroidered areas. See how it looks a bit feathered up close? So I opened the design up in my embroidery software again, changed the fabric settings, and increased the stitch density of the design. Whereas this test sample had a total of 8052 stitches, the tweaked design is going to have 8559 stitches. Hopefully that will fill the design in better without creating so much thread buildup that I get giant thread nests and broken needles. If the denser design still has sparse areas here and there, I'll thread up a hand needle and fine-tune the embroidery by hand after the machine work is done. Another change I'm making is to increase the basting stitch length from 2.0 mm to 3.0 mm. That should still hold the layers together nicely, but will be easier to pick out after the embroidery is finished.
So now, it's 9:30 PM. I really want to bring this embroidered fabric to my drapery workroom tomorrow morning with a batch of other fabrics I'm dropping off, and I don't want to be up all night. I still have work orders to write, too. Do I stitch another test sample to see how my changes affect the way the design stitches out, or am I going to be a gambling woman and just go for it? Keep in mind that I don't do machine embroidery very often, and I haven't really used my embroidery software at all since I upgraded to the newest version and took the mastery classes. It's entirely possible that I screwed something up (which is why I saved the revised design under a new file name and retained the original). I wonder if I have enough of the real fabric to do one more test and still have enough for the front and back of the pillow? I guess I'll find out when I get upstairs to my studio. Wish me luck!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

My Chocolate Larzipan Saves the Day

Today has been a challenging day. I raced from a doctor's appointment this morning straight to an installation and meeting with a client with no time for lunch in between, then barely had time to let my puppies out and feed them before I had to stuff them in the back of my car and high-tail it to Anders' school in time to pick him up (5 minutes late). I walked the dogs along the strips of grass near the school parking lot, then loaded them back in the car and zoomed back down I-77 and I-485 towards home to meet Lars's bus. Today Lars's bus was late because the bus driver ran out of gas (?!!), which made us late to piano lessons.

Lars "accidentally" forgot to bring his book bag to piano lessons, which meant that he couldn't do his homework during Anders' lesson and got to read his book instead. Anders did bring his bookbag, but he refused to do his homework during Lars's lesson. It was 6:15 by the time we got home and I was able to feed the dogs, park the boys at separate tables with their homework, and start dinner. The whole day felt like one long panic attack, and it is still not over because I have about four hours of work to get done before I can go to sleep, and if I stay up too late I'll sleep through my alarm and tomorrow will be even more stressful and chaotic than today.

So, what am I doing blogging at 10 PM if I have so much to do, my sensible friends might be wondering? I just wanted to quickly share with you one delightful splash of sunshine that lit up my otherwise wretched day:

My Lars-of-Ours informed me, on the way home from piano, that chocolate is a vegetable. For real. Chocolate comes from the bean of the cacao plant, and it is an honest-to-God, scientific fact that chocolate is a vegetable. Lars apparently learned this from reading National Geographic. So all those cravings for Starbucks' dark chocolate-covered graham crackers, all those guilty Godiva indulgences -- it's no longer a source of shame! Forget broccoli, brussels sprouts and parsnips; the choco-beans are vegetables, too! This is the best news I've heard in a long time. Thanks, Larzipan -- Mommy needed that today!