Monday, July 27, 2020

Completing a 1950s Patio Dress


I have had a long love affair with a particular vintage outfit, known variously as a  patio, fiesta, or squaw dress (or set). This distinctive outfit dates to the late 1940s and early 1950s, when southwestern styles were popular in American fashion.  They were typically made in small workshops in Tucson, Arizona, and were worn by a wide cross-section of society.

The dress draws influences from a combination of three similar types, all with a big tiered skirt: a slightly gathered skirt based on Navajo dress, a "broomstick" or pleated skirt based on Navajo and Mexican attire, and a fully gathered, three-tiered skirt based on contemporary Western Apache camp dresses or Navajo attire, according to an article by Parezo and Angelina R. Jones, "What's in a Name? The 1940s-1950's Squaw Dress."

These dresses are comprised of two pieces, a heavily embellished skirt and a matching blouse.  Rickrack and metallic trim are typical trimmings for these garments.

A while back, I bought a lovely vintage patio skirt.  It was clearly a home-made garment, with some idiosyncratic construction methods.  I loved it.

But it needed a matching blouse.

I found an appropriate vintage pattern.

I also located fabric and trim that coordinated nicely. The fabric was from Stonemountain and Daughter (purchased prior to the pandemic lockdown) and the trim was from Lacis (purchased via sidewalk service).  I am so unbelievably lucky to have such great sewing resources in my community.

Because I had reservations about my ability to pin my trim to the fabric neatly, I basted guidelines onto the blouse.  (At some point, I'm going to need to have my sewing machine serviced, because the way the thread feeds from the bobbin has been unreliable.)

I started at the center back, and ran the trim inside of the sewn lines.  If I were to do this again, I'd open up the center back seam and bury the ends of the trim inside the seam.  This will solve the problem of what to do with the unattractive ends of rickrack.

I would also sew the neck facing on before all the trim, despite what the pattern instructions say.  Sewing the facing on after all the trim was a huge pain in the neck.

I practiced sewing my trim on a coordinating mask before I embarked on the blouse.  I'm really pleased with how the entire project turned out.  And I suspect this won't be the last patio set I make.

If you're interested in learning more about these outfits, I recommend this article, and this one, and this one, and this one.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020



We've reached the time in the year when our pluot tree is at its peak, and when I'm making loads of jam.  I thought I'd write down all the improvements I've made to my recipe, so that I won't have to rely on memory this time next year.

The basic recipe is five pounds of fruit (with the pits removed), four pounds (eight cups) of sugar, and five or six lemons.  This produces between between ten and twelve half-pint jars of jam.

Every morning, I collect the windfall pluots.  I wash them and cut off any bruised or damaged sections. Then I cut out the pit and put them in a sealed bag in the freezer.  A gallon bag holds about five pounds of fruit, which works out perfectly.

I don't add any liquid, although I might add a few un-frozen pluots, just to get the juices flowing in the pan.  It's a bit shocking to see how much sugar goes into making jam.

While the fruit is cooking down, I wash the jars and put the jars and lids in a boiling water bath.  I sterilize the lids in a smaller saucepan, for easier handling.  I prepare my work surfaces, placing serving plates next to where I'm cooking my jam. My goal is to minimize the mess that I have to clean up at the end of the process.  It's much easier to wash a couple of plates than a jam-encrusted stove.

I have been removing some of the liquids produced by the cooking.  My thinking is that by taking out some of the excess liquid, I'll be able to cook the jam for a shorter period of time, and thus keep a fresher texture and flavor.  We've been experimenting with making sorbet and syrups with this liquid.  Typically, I've been removing about two cups of liquid, early in the cooking.

After this, it's just a matter of watching the jam, to make sure that it doesn't scorch on the bottom of the pot, or boil all over the stove.  When the jam reaches 219 degrees Fahrenheit, the ratio of sugars to water should be ideal for gelling.

At this point, I juice (and then strain) five lemons, and add their liquid to the jam.  This drops the temperature. While the jam is heating back up to 219, I drain the jars and lids, and set up my jar filling station.  Just before filling the jars, I skim off any foam that has formed on top of the jam.  This foam is actually delicious, but should't be included in jars of jam.

The sealed jars go back in the boil water bath for twenty minutes, and then are set on a cooling rack on the counter.  I get a delightful thrill when I hear the jars make the sound that indicates they're properly sealed.

I had intended to write this post for the Monday Harvest blog round-up, but work far from home, and the weekly zoom party that I host meant that I'm posting this a bit late.

If you're interested in reading what other gardeners are doing with their harvests, check out the links, here.

Monday, July 06, 2020

Harvest Report

One of the great pleasures of my life is having a small garden, in which to grow special treats.  This week, we picked a truly beautiful harvest.

Mt friend Yolanda gave me the zucchini and tomato plants, which were grown by UC master gardeners.  It's great to have well-connected friends!  Oddly, I'd never grown zucchini before, because I always assumed they'd take over the entire garden plot.  I guess plant developers have reined in that tendency since I was a kid, and my parents' zucchini plants ran wild. My plants maintain a reasonable size, and I'm definitely going to grow them again.

I'm horribly allergic to tomatoes, but I know Robb misses them.  I planted the tomatoes in a place where I wouldn't be brushing against the plants.  The first year we had this house, I planted an ambitious vegetable garden, and spent the summer covered in hives. Apparently even touching tomato plants is more than my body can take.  It's such a pity. I adore tomatoes.  Oh well. I enjoyed them while I could.

Our plum tree is just finishing up, and the pluot is at its peak.  We've been inviting friends over to pick fruit.  Everyone wears a mask, and we keep apart from one another.  It's all very strange.

I processed ten pounds of fruit this weekend, which is always really gratifying.  Throughout this time of year, I collect the windfall fruit every day, cut out the pits and any bruised sections, and stash them in the freezer until I'm ready to make jam.

Nothing is more satisfying than the sound of jar lids popping as the jam cools on the counter.

I picked a few of our currants.  Harvesting currants is always a bit of a race with the birds.  I want to let them stay on the plant as long as possible.  The birds have other ideas.

Robb has told all the neighbor-kids that they're allowed to pick the blackberries in our front year.  We love sharing.  City kids should be able to experience the pleasure of foraging.

It sort of boggles my mind that we'd never made lemon curd.  We have chickens.  We have a lemon tree.  But, for whatever reason, we were intimidated by making this recipe.  Turns out, it's absurdly easy, and that recipe writers tend to needlessly over-complicate things.

All this came together in tartlets that we enjoyed on the Fourth of July. 

The entire nation has been blowing off steam this summer by shooting off massive amounts of illegal professions-grade fireworks.  East Oakland has always been a blow-shit-up neighborhood, and the summer has been brutal. The fireworks go on every night until 3am.  I've actually been working (more on that, anon) and I'm just not getting enough sleep.

Pastries are the cure to sleep deprivation.  This is known.

I also picked the season's first figs. I grew all our fig trees from tiny twigs. I feel unreasonably proud of this fact.

Robb made a delicious rustic tart, which did not photograph particularly well.

If you're still curious to read what other folks are growing, there's a weekly garden harvest jamboree at the Happy Acres Blog.  It's really fun to check out.

And if you want to come over to pick pluots, please let me know.  I have enough to share.

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Of Staghorns and Stinkhorns


The other day, my beautiful staghorn fern threw itself to the ground. It had been mounted to our garage wall, and for whatever reason, it came crashing down.

This plant was a gift from friends, and it had become an absolute beast.  I figured I might as well take this opportunity to divide and re-mount it.

After getting some advice from another friend who has the most glorious collection of staghorn ferns, I ruthlessly chopped the plants apart with a pruning saw.  

This was pretty daunting.  There was so much old growth to cut through.

I coaxed the plants into wire baskets and tried to avoid mauling the plants too badly.  I filled the backs of the baskets with sphagnum moss. Who knew that it was possible to buy massive cubes of moss?

The stag horns do look a bit like hunting trophies, don't they?

And what do the stinkhorns look like?  Perhaps the less said about that, the better....

A Backyard Fruit Story, In Three Chapters


Monday, May 25, 2020

Beehive Inspections


This weekend, I opened up my three hives, to see how the bees were doing.  Overall, things looked good.

The Empress Norton hive was building beautiful new honeycomb.  I prefer to let my bees build the structures that suit their needs.  Typically, I'll inter-leaf older wax comb with empty frames.  The bees will build their own structures, within the confines of the existing honeycomb. This keeps the comb relatively parallel, which means there's less damage when I remove a unit of honeycomb from the hive.  There's nothing worse than dragging honeycomb against itself, ripping open the comb, and drowning the bees in their own honey.  By alternating straight comb with empty frames I'm encouraging the bees to build in a relative orderly manner.

The bees are building beautiful structures from the wax their bodies produce, and behind them my pomegranate and cherry trees are blooming.

I believe I managed to spot the young queen in the colony that I split off from the Empress Norton Hive.  My photo leaves a lot to be desired, but you should be able to find the bee I think is the queen. She's just to the right of center, with a bit of space all around her.  She's little longer than the other bees, and she's facing up and to the right.

The new queen doesn't seem to be laying eggs yet, but the rest of the colony is hard at work. They've filled all this comb with honey, and capped the honey storage cells.

Notice how the bees leave corridors between the frames of comb.

The Elpseth hive that I got from my friend Lori is small but mighty. The queen in this colony is laying eggs.  The capped cells in this photo contain developing bees, which is very encouraging.  Notice the difference between the color the new wax on the left, and the older wax on the right.

With one exception, I was delighted by what I found when I inspected the hives.  The bees looked healthy and industrious.


I did notice a single small hive beetle, which is an invasive African pest that can do massive damage to a beehive.  I am going to have to take action to discourage these creatures from overwhelming my hives.   Because American beekeepers transport their hives all across the country for agricultural pollination, pests and diseases spread like wildfire. For a while, it seemed like this pest was only found in the southeastern states, but now they're established in California, and we need to figure out how to keep them under control.

I did not harvest any honey this week, only because I'm temporarily out of storage jars. There's a bit of urgency to get honey our of the hive, if I'm dealing with small hive beetles. The beetles can burrow through the wax comb and contaminate the honey.  They can also destroy the developing bees, which is distressing.

I spent the last few weeks putting honey into jars and melting down beeswax.  I've got to order more jars and put more honey into safe storage.

If you're interested in reading what other gardeners are up to this week, check in with the Harvest Monday jamboree at the Happy Acres blog.

Monday, May 18, 2020

So Stinkin' Cute (with an emphasis on the stinking'...)


For the first time since we've lived in our house, skunks are regularly visiting our yard.  

They typically show up around 4pm.  Sometimes there's one, sometimes two.  They're juveniles, but are clearly able to fend for themselves.  They're quite tiny, more tail than body.  Their fur is glossy and lush.

Skunks have notoriously poor eyesight, and are incredibly shy and gentle.  I've been spending my twilight hours out in the garden, watching quietly.  I'm enchanted by these sweet creatures.

Robb may have his own opinions on our crepuscular visitors, but he's too polite to share them with me.

The skunks seem to be foraging for worms and insects.  They industriously snuffle around in the grass, and will dig in the first inch of our soil.  I suspect they're eating any bees they find crawling on the ground.  They tend to hug the perimeter of our yard, and stay under cover as much as possible.

The chickens and cats and I give the skunks a wide berth.  The western scrub jays, on the other hand, give them the stink-eye.  I imagine they resent the fact that someone else is eating bees.

Unfortunately, my neighbors' little chihuahua had a run-in with one of the skunks this weekend.

Tomato sauce did nothing to alleviate the smell, and in fact Dobby was keen on eating the skunk-scented bath-sauce.

My poor neighbors.


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