Saturday, September 28, 2013

New Draperies for Bunny Mellon's Dining Room: Design Banditry in an Historic NYC Townhouse

125 East 70th Street, NYC, photo courtesy Sotheby's
Ah, yes!  When I think of what it would be like to live in New York City, this is just EXACTLY what I picture. 

So, the Upper East Side townhouse that once belonged to Paul and Bunny Mellon has just come onto the market for a mere $46 million dollars (never mind that the current owners reportedly paid only half of that when they bought the property in 2006, and have not made any changes or improvements).  Baltimore design blogger Meg Fielding featured this property here on Pigtown Design a few days ago, and it immediately caught my fancy.

It's not that I wish I could purchase and live in this townhouse (although I'd graciously accept it if it were gifted to me!); I'd just like to do a little redecorating for the new owners.  This iconic French-inspired townhouse is 90% perfect for a modern family, but I'd like to inject a little more color and energy -- especially considering the home's connection to art collector and benefactor Paul Mellon and his father, former Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon, who gifted the American people with the National Gallery of Art in 1937 -- donating his priceless art collection as well as personally funding the construction of the museum to house it.

I'm really smitten with the cobalt blue glazed walls in the dining room, but the painted floors, pale peach drapery panels and washed-out upholstery fabrics look tired and dreary to my eye.  Perhaps the colors have faded over time, perhaps they were deliberately subdued so the Mellons' art collection could take center stage, but in any case, it's ready for an update now that it's about to welcome a new family.

Thinking about the original occupants of this historic property and inspired by the blue walls, I immediately thought of one of my favorite Scalamandré screen print fabrics, "Stravagante."

Scalamandré Stravagante, $399 per yard
Listerine heiress Rachel Lambert Mellon, better known as Bunny, is an art lover as well with a fondness for Mark Rothko's vibrantly colorful abstract impressionistic paintings.  A horticulturalist as well, Bunny Mellon also redesigned the White House Rose Garden for her close friend Jackie Kennedy, so this vibrant floral pattern flanking windows that overlook Bunny's garden would be an especially fitting tribute to the home's original owners. 

The White House Rose Garden in 1988, designed by Bunny Mellon, photo courtesy The Reagan Library

My Virtual Do-Over: What a Change of Fabrics Can Do
If you click on the picture, you can see more of the room.  In addition to hanging ScalamandrĂ©s Stravagante fabric at the window, I've also virtually reupholstered the arm chair and small bench in a (discontinued) Lee Jofa linen/silk damask.
Lee Jofa Linen/Silk Arundel Damask, $290 per yard, discontinued Flame colorway

...Because there's nothing that makes a fabric more desirable than knowing it's discontinued with no available stock, n'est-ce pas?  With an unlimited budget, we could have this fabric recreated just for this project.

You know, good clients are to be treasured, but there's something wickedly gratifying about a fantasy design project like this one, unfettered by the constraints of budgetary concerns, clients' opinions, and other nuisances.  It's a bit like designing for a show house, except that designers have to beg, borrow, and foot much of the bill themselves for a show house, working under ridiculously stressful time constraints.  No, this was more like Design Banditry -- breaking into a stranger's home, redecorating without their permission (without having to pay for anything or deal with any paperwork or logistical nightmares), and then scampering away into the night.  Great concept for an HGTV series, if they could only overcome the legal hurdles...

Sunday, September 22, 2013

More Quilting With Kiddos: Anders and the '51 Featherweight Sew Up Some Fence Rail Blocks

Success!  7" x 5" Pieced Units with 1 1/2" Center Strip
I shared back in August that I had started quilting lessons with my boys.  Anders went first, and then when it was Lars's turn, he had gotten engrossed with a counted cross stitch project and he has opted to complete that before beginning his first quilt.  No UFOs for Lars-of-Ours!

I was using Harriet Hargrave's Quilter's Academy series initially, starting with the beginning lessons in the Freshman Year book.  Anders, my 5th grader, enjoyed learning all the facts and nitty gritty details about thread ply, fabric grain, and rudimentary textile science in this book, but when I tried to do the first exercises with him I quickly determined that I did not feel comfortable with him rotary cutting or handling a steam iron.  After all, I still burn myself with that wicked iron on a weekly basis, and watching him try to control a slippery acrylic ruler while slicing with a razor-sharp rotary cutter made Mommy nauseous.  So I'm doing the cutting and pressing and he's focusing on learning to sew straight, even seams and keep his raw edges lined up properly so that his units finish the correct size.  For a child who is just learning to operate a sewing machine, that's plenty!  If he was trying to learn the sewing, pressing, and cutting all at once, it would be much more difficult for him to determine where he had gone wrong when his finished units didn't measure up.  With Mom cutting and pressing, he can concentrate on one variable at a time, just like they teach him in science class.  Don't you love how everything is connected to everything else?

So, as per the exercise in Hargrave's Freshman Year book, Anders was working with 2" wide strips of fabric cut into 7" lengths.  After seaming three strips together, he should have a finished unit measuring 7" x 5", and his center strip should be precisely 1 1/2" wide. 

Vintage Singer Adjustable Seam Guide on my 1951 Featherweight
Judy, my 1951 Singer Featherweight, is factory equipped with her original early style stitch plate sans markings.  I attached this vintage Singer seam guide accessory to the holes in the machine bed and used 1/4" graph paper to ensure I had the guide exactly 1/4" from the needle before screwing it down securely.  This type of seam guide is so much better than the 1/4" presser feet with attached guides, in my opinion, because I can move it a hair to the left or to the right if need be in order to sew seam allowances that result in perfectly sized finished units -- with certain combinations of needles, fabrics and thread, I need a scant 1/4" rather than a true 1/4".  In this case, because we're using lightweight cotton fabrics, a 70 Microtex needle and Aurifil 50/2 cotton thread, a true quarter inch was right on the money. 

Similar Seam Guide for Modern Berninas
Incidentally, I recently discovered that Bernina makes a patchwork seam guide for my 750 QE and other modern machines that looks identical to this one.  It's been added to my wish list!

All of Anders' fabric had been cut ahead of time, and as he seamed pieces together, I pressed and starched them.  When we measured the first unit he was very discouraged to find that the fabric edges had slipped apart while he was sewing, resulting in a fence rail unit with a center strip measuring 1 1/2" at one end and more like 1 5/8" at the other end.  I frog-stitched it for him and had him do it over.  The second try was practically perfect on that unit, and all of his remaining units finished the correct size on the very first try.  We worked for about an hour and a half before he started to lose interest and wanted to call it quits for today.

Anders' Finished Units, 5" Wide x 7" Long
You know, I was initially thinking that it was wasteful to sew 7" long strips together, only to cut them down to 5" square later, but now I'm glad I did it that way.  Anders is concentrating on keeping those fabric edges aligned at the right edge, but not all of his units have the strips perfectly even at the top and bottom.  Later this week, I'll trim these units down to be exactly 5" square with perfectly straight sides, and that will minimize his frustration when the time comes to sew the units together.  Kids need victories in the sewing room!

Anders' Sewing Setup
One more tip for sewing with children: You probably need to tweak your usual sewing setup in order to accommodate the ergonomic requirements of their much smaller bodies.  The first time I sat Anders down at the machine, this didn't occur to me.  Afterwards, looking at the pictures I'd taken, a realized that the bed of the sewing machine was up near his collar bone and the poor child was reaching up at a very uncomfortable angle to sew.  Now I'm raising the adjustable sewing chair to its highest setting so that his elbows are just an inch or two above the table.  This causes his feet to dangle in midair, so I instructed him to rest his left foot on the base of his chair, and I put the foot controller on top of an upside-down plastic thread bin so he could reach it comfortably with his right foot.  Also, since the 15 watt incandescent light bulb that belongs on the Featherweight reminds me of driving down a dark country lane in the fog with one headlight out, I have swapped that out for an LED bulb AND I'm supplementing with an Ott floor lamp to the left of the machine, to make it as easy as possible for Anders to see that his fabric edges are rubbing the edge of the seam guide, but not buckling or bending up against it.  Seeing what you're doing is half the battle!

Since school is in full-swing, we're on a bi-weekly schedule with our sewing sessions.  Usually one son is at my mom's house working on oil painting while the other one is in my studio with me, but Grammy isn't available for painting next weekend so I'm considering attempting to work with both boys at once -- Anders continuing to work on his fence rail blocks, and Lars with his counted cross stitch project.  Theoretically this should work just fine, as long as I have them each set up at opposite sides of the room...  I'll probably make my final decision about this on the way home from church next Sunday, based on the Brawling-to-Brotherly-Love Ratio going on in the back seat.  ;-)

Meanwhile, I'm looking forward to starting the next block in my Jingle BOM quilt!  What are all of you sewing this week?

Have a wonderful week, everyone!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Jingle Applique Block 6 is Finished!

Jingle BOM Applique Block 6, Erin Russek's Pattern Available Here
Somehow I've managed to complete another applique block for the Jingle Block of the Month (BOM) project I've been working on.  The pieced and appliqued block patterns for this quilt are available on Erin Russek's blog here

With this particular block, I had some concerns about how smoothly I would be able to turn the edges of the gold metallic fabric I had chosen for the tulips, but I'm very pleased with how those turned out.  I think I'm getting better at those little stuffed berries, too.  When I did the first block with berries, I thought I could just hold each berry in place with my thumb while I stitched it down, since they were too small to pin and I worried that the basting glue would make it difficult to stitch around the edges of each berry.  However, doing it that way, my "perfect" circles had a tendency to get distorted and lumpy during the stitching process and I ended up with too-visible stitches, like little prickle balls.  You have to look REALLY CLOSE to see the prickles on those early blocks, and they may not be visible after the finished quilt is washed the first time, but I know they are there and they bug me!
Berries Without Prickles!
So, here's what I did differently this time.  First, after making my stuffed berries with Karen Kay Buckley's Perfect Circle templates and batting scraps (scroll down for a YouTube video of Erin Russek demonstrating this method), I put the finished berries in a sealed Ziplock bag so they would stay nice and crisp rather than going limp from the humidity in the air before I had a chance to stitch them in place.  I lightly traced each berry in pencil on the right side of my block with pencil (using the applique pattern and a light box).  Then I used Roxanne's Glue Baste-It on the inside part of the turned seam allowance of each berry, staying away from the outermost edge where my stitches would go, and I glued each berry down exactly on that pencil line on my fabric.  The glue worked like a third hand, holding the berries in place as I was stitching, and having that faint pencil line helped me maintain the shape of each berry as I was stitching it down.  Because I hadn't put glue all the way to the edges of my berries, I was still able to position each stitch precisely and fairly invisibly.  No more prickle balls!

Here's Erin Russek demonstrating her method for making stuffed circles for applique in a YouTube video:

...and there you have it! 

I'm still behind on this project (naturally).  I still need to catch up with Pieced Block 5, Applique Block 5, and the center medallion applique for this quilt.  It's not a race, though, and there are a couple of things I need to get done before I can go back to this project.  You know, Lars and Anders finish their homework and their music practice every day so they can play video games before bed time.  Mommy has to do laundry, pay bills, and get a wallpaper quote written up for clients so she can earn applique time in the evening!

Have a wonderful Wednesday, everyone!

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Amazon Listens: New Kindle Paperwhite with Free-Time Looks Like an Ideal E-Reader for Kiddos

All-New Kindle Paperwhite, Available for Pre-Order at Amazon
Obviously, Peter Larsen, VP of Kindle Product Management for Amazon, has been reading my blog.  And my emails to Amazon Customer Service over the years.  And the desperate pleas of a multitude of parents seeking an electronic reading device for their children.  Because today, Amazon has commenced accepting pre-orders of their All-New Kindle Paperwhite e-reading device, which seems to incorporate all of the features parents have been clamoring for. 

Both of my sons, who are now in 5th and 7th grade, have always been strong, avid readers.  If I take them to Barnes & Noble, I can't get out of there without spending at least a hundred dollars -- and that's after placing limits on how many books I will buy.  Then they will have finished reading all of them within a few weeks and will be begging for more.  Already their bedrooms look like hybrid library/LEGO factories, and there is physically no more space available for additional book shelves. 

They each already own the first version of the Kindle Paperwhite, which I reviewed here back in December of 2011.  I love the long battery life and convenience of the boys' ability to read the same book simultaneously (without Mom having to purchase two copies) and the fact that I can quickly and easily download new books without having to schlepp to the store and engage in public, tearful negotiations at the checkout line.  I was even able to send Lars's science textbook to his Kindle last year, since his teacher had posted a PDF version of the book in a SkyDrive for her class.  Each boy's Kindle contains two different versions of the Bible, Martin Luther's Small Catechism, several dictionaries, and other reference books that are useful in different situations in and out of school.  We are even able to download PDF files of missing LEGO instructions from the LEGO web site and send them to the Kindles rather than printing them out.  There are a LOT of LEGO instructions in my Kindle archives now, and this use of the Kindles is saving me a fortune in printer ink. 

I also really love the ease of looking up unfamiliar words in the dictionary when reading on a Kindle, and my sons use this feature regularly.  It's so easy to tap that word on the screen and have the definition instantly appear -- if they had to get up and go look for traditional dictionary, it would be too much of an interruption in the middle of a good story and they would just skip over that word.  Lars and Anders also use the note-taking feature quite a bit, although primarily they use it to leave silly messages for one another in their books.

The only problem I ever had with the Kindles was that, once I had registered the kids' devices to my Amazon account, they were able to easily access the Kindle store directly from their devices and my older son (who struggles with impulse control) made purchases without my permission on multiple occasions.  There is no reason why kids need to shop for books in their Kindle device.  It's not a user-friendly feature on the Paperwhite Kindle unless you already know what you are looking for.  There are also way too many digital "books" in the Kindle store that are really just chapter-length cliff-hangers that hook readers with a low initial purchase price, but lure them into purchasing sequel after sequel.  I much prefer finding books for them on the Amazon web site, which provides reviews, additional information about the books, and suggestions based on prior purchases.   

Lars's Kindle Paperwhite, with Kindle Store and Web Browser Disabled

However, soon after the original Paperwhite came out, Amazon released a Kindle software update incorporating parental controls that allow you to block access to both the Kindle Store and the Experimental Web Browser.  As you can see in the photo at left, the Kindle Store and web browser are both grayed out and inoperable on Lars's Kindle because I blocked them.  Problem solved!

So, what's the big deal about the All-New Kindle PaperwhiteHigher screen contrast due to E-Ink's Pearl 2 Display, faster loading page turns due to a better processer, and not much else, according to hands-on reviewers like the editors of CNet, who evaluated the device primarily from an adult user's perspective (read their review here).  What I'm excited about as a parent are the new features Amazon will be rolling out in a software update for the Kindle Paperwhite later this fall: Integration with Goodreads, enhancements to the built-in dictionary, and a new array of special parental controls and enhancements called Kindle Free-Time.

Kindle Free-Time Features for the Kiddos, Coming Soon in a Software Update
Ooh, la la!  Creating an individual profile for each child?  Genius!  Because otherwise they are able to access any book that I have purchased for my own or for their father's iPad Kindle apps.  Fortunately, we don't read a lot of smut -- no Shades of Gray in my Kindle archives -- but Anders did download the women's health classic Our Bodies, Ourselves out of my archives, which had him rolling with laughter.  And I do think twice about purchasing anything other than juvenile fiction, knowing that my kids are likely to access them on their Kindles.  So, a personal profile for each child limiting which books in your account they can access is a great idea.  The dictionary enhancements will pull up X-Ray (don't know what that is) and Wikipedia entries as well as dictionary entries for unfamiliar terms and -- get this -- it will actually keep track of which words the kids are looking up and create flash cards with those words as a Vocabulary Builder.  Mothers and teachers are getting misty-eyed!  What's more, Kindle Free-Time will allow you to set daily reading goals for your child, will track their progress in terms of time spent reading, number of books read, and number of words looked up in the dictionary.  It will track their reading accomplishments, reward them with badges when they meet and exceed those goals, and parents will be able to access a Progress Report to see how their kids are doing.  So many teachers assign 30 minutes of reading as part of daily homework -- if you have a child who resists reading, this would be a wonderful tool for encouraging them and holding them accountable.  These are features I asked for years ago, and they are valuable enough to me as a parent to warrant the cost of upgrading both Kindle devices.

I'm not rushing to preorder All-New Kindle Paperwhites just yet, though -- the parental restrictions on the current Paperwhites was a software download, and I was surprised to discover the last time around that the software update applied to older Kindles as well, not just the latest release.  So I'm going to wait for that Free-Time software update to come out.  If it is compatible with the earlier Paperwhite device, it should download automatically when they are connected to our wireless network.  If not, I'll be upgrading their Kindles this Christmas!