Sunday, August 24, 2014

Re-Creating A Vintage Cardigan


Some time last year, I bought a charming hand-knit cardigan at an estate sale.

It had a lot of interesting features that I wanted to explore.  I thought it might be a fun challenge to see if I could reproduce the sweater, without the benefit of a written pattern.

I've got the back panel almost finished.  I'll be putting this on stitch holders until I knit the two fronts and the two sleeves.  The sleeves are going to be a challenge, because I really don't understand what the original knitter was thinking.  Her method of working is a bit of a mystery to me. 

So far, this has been a fast, fun project.  I hope I don't get bogged down and abandon this sweater when it is 95% completed.  That's what happens to me, far too often.  I start a really ambitious project, and then get utterly stuck at the end.  Sigh....  I can't do anything the easy way, can I?



Last night, around 3:30 in the morning, I woke up very confused.  Something was going on -- our windows were rattling, and I was overcome with a strange feeling that I could not name.  I imagine there were cartoon question marks hanging in the air over my head.  I was dead asleep, and could not access the part of my brain that produces language.  Robb had been awake a little bit longer and informed me that we were experiencing an earthquake.  By the time he said those words, it was all over, and I promptly fell back to sleep.

This was apparently a 6.0 magnitude earthquake.

That's big.

Thankfully, Robb and I spent a good deal of money when we first bought our house, getting the foundations up to current earthquake standards.

The area around the quake was not so lucky.

Merchandise was knocked off the shelves in American Canyon, which was the epicenter.  (In other news, you can buy wine at the Walmart in California.)

Brick buildings -- which do not "flex" during quakes -- were damaged.

This just looks like a photo from the X-Men.

Napa is, famously, the center of wine-making in California.  Not the wine!  Not the wine! Nooooooooo!

I think that we're lucky that the quake happened in the middle of the night, so that few people were out on the streets when all that masonry fell.

Northern Californians, what was your experience? 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Chicken Parkour


Our chickens are too adventurous for their own good.  Upon reflection, this probably explains why their water bottle was knocked over the other day.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Not So Bird-Brained, It Seems...


A week ago, our baby chicks looked like this.  They were insanely cute little fluff-butts.

In seven days, they've grown tremendously  The chicks have sprouted actual chicken feathers.  Their fluffy baby-down is almost all gone.

When I look back at the blog, I see that we got our first set of chicks back in March of 2012. (Click here for baby pictures.)  Because it was early spring and too cold to allow the chicks outside, we raised that batch of chicks in a well-heated cardboard box in our garage.  The current batch of chicks have spent the better part of their lives outside, right from the start.  The weather is great, and the chicks are thriving.

Both Robb and I think that these chicks are benefiting from being in an environment where they have something to do.  These chicks have been foraging for food since we got them.  They eat grass, and have little chicken adventures, climbing all over the place.

One of the reasons we got chickens in the first place was because we thought they might eat the snails that over-run our garden.  Our original chickens are so dumb, that I've had to teach them to eat snails.  And if I don't hand feed them snails for a few weeks, they forget all about the fact that snails are edible, and have to be taught all over again.

These two girls are freaking geniuses in comparison to our older hens.  I did not have to teach them to eat grass or bugs. They figured it out all by themselves.

The chick on the right has a massive grub in her mouth.  She and her sister played a spirited game of "keep away" before she swallowed it whole.  (They've been eating lots of dirt, so I trust that she's got enough grit in her gizzard to handle her meal.)

I think these girls have such an advantage, having been raised outside. Our older hens did not learn how to be chickens, growing up in a cardboard box. They learned to eat chicken feed, and that's about it. I wasn't kidding when I say that I had to teach our first group to eat grass.

That's what a poor educational environment will do to a developing chicken brain, I guess.

In addition to being good foragers, these two chickens are quite strongly bonded.  They really stick together.  They climb together, they run around together, they nap together. If one institutes a new activity, the other adopts it right away.  The chickens are crazy high-jumpers, and we realize that we've got to fortify our garden fences.

Possibly the most charming thing they do after trying out a new activity is their celebratory chest bumping.  It's like a chicken version of a high-five.  Adorable.  Let's just hope that this isn't a behavior unique to baby roosters.  Feisty pullets are delightful. Feisty roosters are illegal where we live, and a tragedy for two tender-hearted vegetarians.

If you're curious to see what other gardeners are writing about, click here.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Brood No More


Our silly hen Harriet has stopped being broody.  She has finally realized that there is no purpose in spending the entire day sitting on an empty nest.

Towards the end of her broodiness, Robb and I started locking her out of the henhouse. Her behavior was disrupting all the other hens, and she wasn't eating or drinking -- just sitting, staring into space.

During that time, Harriet was not to be deterred.  She wanted to sit on her nest, no matter what.

At one point, we closed up the henhouse, but left the top of the nestbox open. We were a little worried about parasitic mites, so we had dusted the nestboxes with diatomaceous earth, and were airing things out.

Harriet seemed determined to get back to her nonexistent eggs.  She flew up onto one of our beehives, and considered her flight options. (Do you like our Saint Catherine's Lace? It's taller than I am, and is a magnet to all sorts of interesting bees.)  Robb and I were pretty shocked when Harriet got up on the beehive, because we honestly thought Harriet was too chubby (or lazy) to fly that high.

We were also surprised to discover that sometime during the uproar of Harriet's broodiness, the other hens decided to resume laying. But since Harriet was monopolizing all three nestboxes, and generally being a Chicken Bully, they laid their eggs in the compost pile.

I'm glad things are back to normal. Or what passes for normal, around here.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Adventure Chickens


The weather has been balmy, and our new chickies are fearless, so we've been putting them outside in the portable chicken pen.

The hens are unimpressed.  Harriet, who was supposed to be their surrogate mother, seems to want to kill them.  She screeches herself hoarse whenever she notices them.  Good thing she spends most of her time camped out in the henhouse, trying to incubate non-existent eggs.

Smog is fascinated.  He is trying to convince us that our back yard is the Peaceable Kingdom, and that he should be allowed to "play" with his new 'friends."

Our chickies seem unconvinced.

As for the garden itself, maybe the less said about it the better.  It's in an awkward in-between phase, which isn't being helped by the drought conditions here in California.  If you want to read what real gardeners are up to, check up the fun at Daphne's weekly garden jamboree.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

How to Paint Gigantic Chintz


Let's say you woke up one morning, and said to yourself, "Self, I want to do a painting that looks like gigantic, oversized printed chintz fabric.  I want the final product to be over twenty-five feet tall." How might you go about doing such a thing?

Well, if you were me, and you were in charge of painted scenery for a major regional theater, you would have to consider a lot of factors. You'd know that the final painting could not show a lot of brush-strokes, because that would not look "printed."  You would realize that the painting would have to be built as multiple panels, because there's no truck (or lane of traffic) that could accommodate something this large.  Breaking the painting up into pieces would be great for transport, but would mean that the image will have to be perfectly aligned, in order to not look stupid or amateurish.  You would have to custom mix all of your own paint colors.  And you would have to do all this on a really tight time-schedule.

Sounds like fun, doesn't it? Just my kind of project!

Here's how we did this painting for Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

First, we drew the entire image (provided to my studio by the scenic designer Neil Murray) in full scale.  We wrapped the original image in plastic, and drew a grid on the protective wrapper.  We then set to drawing, using vine charcoal in bamboo holders.  We used a pre-printed gridded paper, which we set up on the studio floor.  We walk on our drawings and paintings, because nobody wants to spend the day crawling around on the floor.

Once we had all the flowers drawn correctly, we went over the charcoal lines with magic markers.  We used a variety of colors, to indicate the different parts of the painting.  After the image was "inked in" we perforated all of our drawn lines with a "pounce wheel" a traditional tool, not unlike the tool used for transferring sewing patterns. (Click here for an image.)  The pounce wheel is a wicked-looking device with rotating needles that prick tidy holes in paper.  Once we had our drawing perforated, we rubbed powdered charcoal through the holes in the paper, and transferred our drawing onto other surfaces.  In this project, we used the massive perforated paper known as a pounce or cartoon for two purposes.  We used it to transfer the master drawing onto the fabric that would become the painted backdrop.  We also used the perforated pounce to create custom stencils, which I'll talk about shortly.

I'd like to mention two things:  First, if you look at the top of the photograph of the drawing on the brown paper, you'll see a standard sized bar/office stool.  That gives you some sense of the scale of this project.  Second, if you're curious about the history of the pounce, here's a link that shows this exact technique in use on the Sistine Chapel. 

The next step was the preparation the fabric on which we would be painting.  Because the image is so massive, we chose to lay the fabric on the floor of the studio.  We just don't have walls tall enough to work on this size painting in an upright manner.  Anyway, working on the floor has real advantages.  You can reach any part of the painting without a ladder, and you're not fighting gravity.

I drew a series of boxes on our paper-covered studio floor.  To be certain that everything was straight and even, I used the good old Pythagorean Theorem to ascertain the angles of my boundary boxes.  I then stapled my fabric down to the floor, lining everything up with the boxes I'd just drawn.  I had to keep even tension on the fabric to avoid wrinkles or puckering, so I stapled very methodically.

Next, I cooked up a five-gallon batch of cornstarch-and-water, to "size" the fabric, in order to make it a better painting surface.  The "sizing" fills the weave of the fabric, which means that less paint will permeate the material.  This in turn means that the final painting will be less stiff, less heavy, and less prone to cracking.  I tinted the starch with some pink paint, so that I could see what I was doing.  (Cooked corn starch is transparent, and it might as well be invisible.)  Then I strained the starch solution through a paint strainer bag, poured it into a garden sprayer, and sprayed it onto my canvas.  I built up many light layers, letting the fabric dry between passes.  The starch tightened up the fabric, removing any hint of a wrinkle.

Next, I sprayed on several layers of custom-mixed paint, to build up the base layer of the painting.  Again, I used a garden sprayer, of the sort you might use to apply fertilizer or insecticide in your home garden. The sprayer is like a gigantic air-brush, creating a beautifully smooth surface.

The object in the middle of the painting is the designer's model. Also notice the spray booth in the top left corner of the photograph.  It is filled with gigantic hand-made "ostrich feathers" that are being treated with flame retardant chemicals.  Our crew made over six hundred of these "feathers" out of custom-dyed fabric.

Color recipes were developed, based on the designer's original image.

The image was transferred onto the canvas, and paper stencils were created.

And then the real fun began!  We started painting!

We'd line the stencil up with the charcoal image on the canvas, and then weigh the stencil down so that it wouldn't shift out of position.  I used paint cans and those little glass "stones" used in flower arranging as stencil-weights.

I used a paint sprayer to apply the paint -- the kind used to paint automobiles.  This worked beautifully with the paper stencils.  I got a nice crisp image, and the stencils did not get over-saturated with paint.

We cut dozens of stencils.

At first, the painting looked like a collection of undiffferentiated blobs, but eventually the images began to emerge.

And while we were working on this, we also had to paint the structures that the painting would be stretched on.  See those metal things on the sawhorses on the left side of the photograph?  Those were constructed by the carpenters in our scenic studios.

Once the steel frames were painted with a rust-proof coating, we then had to paint a bunch of floor panels for one of our two theaters.  We're all excellent multi-taskers, because there's so much to do, and such a tight schedule to adhere to.

Here's another photo that shows the scale of the project.  Can you see Anya, pinning used stencils to the wall for safe-keeping?  We had to stay organized, or we would have drowned in a pile of stencils.

Stencils were used repeatedly, to create multi-colored images.  This is one of the many leaves on the painting.  The polka-dots on the paper stencils are made by the weights that I mentioned earlier.  The big circles are the paint cans, and the smaller dots are where the glass "stones" were weighing down the paper stencils.  Everyone who visited the studio while we were working on this project was quite taken with the physical stencils.  They were very interesting objects in their own right.

Here's the painting, almost finished.  At this point, you can see the places where the fabric will be cut to wrap around the frames.  I put a huge amount of effort into making certain that the pattern would line up correctly.  This was one part of the project that I found particularly nerve-wracking.  That, and the fact that every bit of paint we applied to the canvas had to be perfect.  This was not a project we could make any mistakes on.  If we screwed up, there was no going back.

No pressure, there.

Here's a view from the other side.  One of the things that made this project fun, and which made it look so much like printed fabric were the places on the original image where the printing was a bit out of "register."  If you look at some printed fabrics, you'll notice that the layers of printed color don't always line up perfectly.  Sometimes one color is just a little bit "off."  On this project, we carefully copied the inconsistencies of the original fabric, given to us by the designer. Oddly, making mistakes on purpose is actually quite difficult.  We naturally want to "clean up" mistakes.  But if we'd corrected all the oddities in the original image, I think our giant version would have lacked both charm and authenticity.

Once the paintings were finished, and carefully removed from the floor, they were handed over to the carpenters who attached them to their frames.  I was terribly nervous during this process, as it was another thing that had to go absolutely perfectly.  I tried not to hover, and I'm sure I made the carpenters a bit crazy, but in the end there was nothing to worry about.  The carpentry staff at the Berkeley Repertory Theater is the best of the best.

Patrick even obliged me by standing in this photos, to offer a human scale.  Patrick is tall, and this panel is massive.

Once all six of the panels were stretched, they were test-fitted, to ascertain that the pattern actually worked.

Did I do the Dance of Joy?  Were the muscles of my face aching from smiling?  Yes.  And yes.

There's actually a lot more that happens to this painting.  And if you want to see it, you'll just to have to come see the show, An Audience with Meow Meow.  It's going to be fabulous!


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