Creating Routines: Handcrafts

Crafting my Life Creating RoutinesBefore I decided to close Crafting my Life, I was running a monthly series on the site that was all about creating positive routines. I was enjoying it quite a lot, so I decided to move it over here and re-jig it a little. Each month I’m setting one goal towards creating a more purpose-filled life. If you’d like to join in and take some steps to create better rhythms and routines in your own life, I’d love to hear how you’re doing it.

Last Month’s Recap

In March, I committed to taking time every day to list five things I love about my husband. And, I’m sad to say, I didn’t even come close to doing it every day. Between a trip to Disneyland and my own forgetfulness, I hit more like 12 days out of the 31 days in March. Even so, I feel that I noticed a difference. I’m keeping the spreadsheet, and when I’m feeling annoyed at my husband or just kind of down in the dumps I open it up, add five things, and start to feel better. So, I could be more disciplined, but on the whole it had the desired effect.

creating new routines handcrafts sewing

Creating a Routine for April

For April, I want to get back in touch with my crafty side. I put together a baby blanket for my new nephew last month, which I enjoyed immensely. It reminded me how much I like sewing. There’s something very satisfying, and even empowering, about creating something useful with your own two hands. Also, I find that when I’m watching TV I like to have something to do with my hands, and since I don’t have any knitting projects on the go, I often play iPhone games instead. (Bejeweled, anyone?) The result is way too much electronic stimulation. Plus, I often miss key points in the show since I’m distracted. I’d like to stop that, so this month I’m setting two goals:

  1. Start a new knitting project, and work on it while I’m watching TV. I’m thinking maybe a simple shawl. If you have any pattern suggestions, I’m all ears.
  2. Sew myself a new tunic. I already have the pattern (Amy Butler’s Anna Tunic) and the fabric (Valori Wells’ Mamma Birds – Gypsy), so I just need to make the time. I’m thinking playing fewer video games would be a good place to start.

Start With Small Changes

One thing I’ve learned on my journey towards a more purpose-driven life is that change happens best in small, bite-sized pieces. That’s why I’m once again choosing smaller projects. The knitting has no time frame, and the sewing project should take me a few hours, at most, if things go well. I invite you to take on some small changes as well. What could you do to improve your daily rhythm or overall mood? And, what’s holding you back from doing it? Create a new routine, and leave a comment so that we can cheer each other on!

Trying out Natural Earth Paint

As I discussed in my post on public relations, one sure-fire way to catch my interest is to offer me something that would be fun for my kids. I’m a mom, I like to be able to offer my kids new experiences. So when Leah Mebane dropped me a line and offered to send me some eco-friendly natural earth paint to try out with my kids, I was in. My daughter Hannah is quite the artist, and she’d used up her existing stock of paints, so the time was ripe. Plus, I was intrigued by the concept – these paints are made from mostly dirt.

natural earth paint

The concept behind earth paints isn’t new. Leah says, “Natural earth paints were the first used paints on the planet. Recent discoveries prove that they’ve been in use for atleast 100,000 years but they were probably in use long before that. Ancient people from all over the world used earth and minerals to make their paints.” When I explained to Hannah that this was the same kind of paint that was used to make cave paintings, she was ready to go find a cave of her own to leave her mark on. While I put the kibosh on the idea since I don’t really enjoy dark confined spaces, it was cool to be able to draw that line between a modern art material and ancient history.

natural earth paint

Earth paints have something else going for them, in that they’re made with natural materials. While pretty much all kids’ paints are labelled ‘non-toxic’, that doesn’t mean they’re good for you. Many of them contain petroleum products and other chemicals. Leah says, “Even ‘Low VOC’ or ‘non-toxic’ paint may contain fungicides and bactericides that not only cause headaches and dizziness when inhaled but can contribute (little by little) to greenhouse gases. I decided to call a very large commercial children’s art supplies company, whose paints are labeled ‘non-toxic’, and ask what the ingredients are in their paints. They were very nice but said that they could not tell me anything about the ingredients. This was very surprising to say the least and confirmed my resolve to spread the word.”

natural earth paint

Okay, so we know what’s cool about these paints, but how do they actually work? The pack comes with six packets of powder in red, orange, yellow, green, blue and brown, as well as six mixing cups made from plant-based bioplastic. You mix approximately one part powder with one part water to make a paint with a texture similar to tempera. If you want something thicker you can use less water, if you want something thinner you can use more. If you don’t use all the paint at one go you can cover it and store it in the fridge for up to two weeks, although I found that mixing small quantities to use in one go is better. If you do want to store it, I would suggest getting small jars with lids to make that easier.


Once it’s mixed the paint is a good consistency, and it spreads well. I did find that my daughter had a tendency to under-stir the paint, but once she was actually painting with it, the lumps worked themselves out. The colours were good, and far more vibrant than the watercolour pints we use, although not having white or black was somewhat limiting for my daughter. Black and white are available on the website, and so is violet, but they don’t come in a paint kit, so you would need to order them separately. My final observation was that the paint goes pretty far, so the kits should last you a while. And I made sure to ask – Leah will ship anywhere in the world from her home in Oregon.

natural earth paint

Of course, I’m not the intended audience for the children’s paint kit, so I asked my daughter Hannah what she thought. She gave the paints two thumbs up. She enjoyed getting to mix them together, and she immediately painted several pictures with them. She’s asked to use them several times since. The downside is that it’s more work on my part, because we need to mix them before we use them, but I’m on the hunt for some jars so that we can keep them for longer, which should eliminate that. Then she’ll get to paint more, I won’t have to be as involved, and we’ll both be happy.

Do you have a budding artist on your hands? What kinds of paint do you use? And how important is it to you that you know what’s in it?

Trying Eco-Friendly Crafts for the Non-Crafty

At the risk of being overly general, I think that there are two kinds of parents when it comes to kids and crafts. On the one hand, there are those parents who plan out crafts to do with their kids. They have drawers and cupboards filled with supplies and they read Martha Stewart Living to get ideas. They totally rock. On the other hand, you have parents like me. What distinguishes us isn’t our own abilities (because we may actually be crafty in our own right), it’s the fact that we just can’t ever seem to get it together to do crafts with our children. When we have scrap paper, we recycle it. And when we pin clever kids’ craft ideas on Pinterest, we know in our hearts we’re never going to do them.

My own shortcomings when it comes to kids and crafts actually pre-date my job as a parent. For five years before my daughter Hannah was born I was a Brownie leader. Each week I led a meeting with a dozen or so seven and eight year old girls. Other leaders dutifully planned craft projects. I asked my girls to draw a picture about whatever the topic of the week happened to be. Some of the girls complained about having to draw yet another picture. I pointed out how awesome I was in other ways, and then handed them a piece of paper and a marker.

green kid crafts
Mail order craft kit saves my crafting bacon

Given my lack of motivation in the areas of kids and crafts, I was delighted when someone offered me the chance to try some craft project kits with my children. Green Kid Crafts sent me a box with three craft kits to try out, and I was enchanted. The kits have all of the crafty goodness, and none of the work on my part. Plus, they have an environmental conscience, since they’re filled with plant-based and recycled materials rather than plastic and fun foam. You don’t have to produce a bunch of waste to get your craft on, and their business is even carbon neutral. Total score!

Hannah gets her craft on
Hannah gets her craft on

Our box contained three projects: a scrap book, wind chimes and a pirate costume. My daughter Hannah, who is seven, was all over it. Ever the little artist, she let her creative juices fly free. I reserved the pirate costume kit for my three-year-old son Jacob, and I found that I had to do much of the heavy lifting on the project for him. He’s not quite old enough to cut along the dotted line, for example. While the Green Kid Crafts website says that the projects are designed for kids aged three to eight, I would say that you’re going to be doing a lot of the work if your kids are under age five or so.

Hannah shows off her windchimes
Hannah shows off her wind chimes

The idea behind Green Kid Crafts is that you pay a monthly subscription fee and receive one of these craft-filled boxes each month. If you like the idea of doing crafts with your kids, but you struggle when it comes to coming up with ideas and assembling materials, this may be a good solution for you. But you do have to consider your kids, as well – if they’re not into crafts, that’s probably not going to change just because you paid a subscription fee. As I said, this would be a great fit for my daughter, but not such a great fit for my son.

Avast ye, me hearties
Jacob shows off the pirate craft I assembled for him

The other thing I just noticed in looking at the Green Kid Crafts website is that they seem to only ship to US addresses. To be honest, if I had realized this in advance I probably wouldn’t have accepted the craft box, which is a lesson to me to do my homework. However, if you live in the US, unlike me, this will not be an issue for you. Once again, being Canadian has its downsides when you want to do some online shopping. We’ll just have to console ourselves by visiting the doctor for free.

Now, I’d like to hear from you. Are you a craft star or craft dud? How do you get ideas for crafts to do with your kids? Do you try to be green when it comes to choosing craft projects? And how do you keep your supplies organized and contained? I’d love to hear!

Look, I Made Soap!

Last Friday, I braved traffic and possible parallel parking (which I don’t enjoy) to drive all the way into Vancouver to visit Lindsay Coulter. In her day job she’s David Suzuki’s Queen of Green, which is how I connected with her originally. But the rest of the time she’s just Lindsay, and she enjoys making soap, amongst other things. I actually don’t know everything that Lindsay enjoys, come to think of it, but my point is that she’s a well-rounded person with interests outside of work. Also, David Suzuki does not personally endorse her soap-making efforts. Although I doubt that he opposes them, either.

After a conversation on Twitter about how soap-making intrigues and intimidates me, she offered to teach me. And this is how I found myself knocking on her door on a cold Friday afternoon. I was 40 minutes late thanks to the afore-mentioned traffic, but I was enthusiastic and ready to go. And immediately when I walked into Lindsay’s home, I could smell the essential oils she uses in her soap wafting my way. She made her 15th batch of soap with me, and all around her kitchen and living room I could see the other 14 batches, some drying on wire wracks, some artfully arranged in jars, some ready to be sent off as Christmas gifts.

Lindsay's soap
Some of Lindsay’s soap – this batch has coffee in it

Since it was my first foray into soap Lindsay let me choose what we would make, and I opted for star anise essential oil, with it’s lovely licorice smell. I am a black jellybean person, and I enjoy soap that carries that aroma. I also added some chamomile blossoms that Lindsay ground up in her coffee grinder to act as an exfoliant. Choices made, we set about making soap.

Soap additives
Soap additives – honey, clay, dried flowers, oats, essential oils, etc.

The part that scared me most came first – the lye. It’s a highly-corrosive substance, and highly-corrosive substances freak me out. I’ve never used bleach, for instance, because that skeleton hand on the warning label skeeves me out. I don’t want my hand to turn into that skeleton hand. Now that I have two little kids in my house, my fear is only amplified. I don’t want my babies to have that skeleton hand, either. But Lindsay assured me that while we needed to “respect the lye” it was really no big deal, and I decided to trust her.

Scary, scary lye
Scary, scary lye with the skeleton hand warning

It turns out making soap is really pretty simple. We used the cold process method. Lindsay used an online calculator to figure out the correct amount of each ingredient. First we mixed the lye crystals with water, and then took the solution outside so that we weren’t inhaling the gases. While that did its thing, we mixed together a bunch of different kinds of fat and melted them together over low heat. There were solid fats like coconut oil and cocoa butter, and liquid fats like grapeseed oil, olive oil, canola oil and castor oil. Each oil has different properties, and you want a mix of solid and liquid.

Soap block
The finished soap goes in this block mold while it hardens

Once the oil was all melted together, we had to bring it down to the right temperature. We brought the lye in and brought it to the same temperature, and then we mixed them together. Then you mix and mix and mix. I had an immersion blender, and Lindsay had a whisk, and we kept at it for a few minutes until the soap started to thicken. You want to get a “trace”, which means that when you drag the whisk along the surface a little bit of soap comes along with it and stays in place, instead of sinking back into the mixture. Once we had that, we added the essential oil and ground chamomile, and did some more mixing. And that was it.

Finished soap
My finished soap

Once the soap is done it goes into a mold. Lindsay has a soap block, and we poured it all in. It has to stay in there for a couple of days, so I had to bid my soap farewell. Once it’s ready to come out you cut it, and then you need to leave it out in room temperature air to cure for about four weeks before it’s ready use it. This means I’ll be waiting until mid-January to give you the report on my soap. I’m waiting eagerly, though, let me tell you!

I really enjoyed making soap, and I could definitely see doing it again. With my kids at the age they are now, though, the idea of handling lye around them still freaks me out. But I was really impressed with how easy it was. Other than a precise kitchen scale and a soap mold, Lindsay didn’t have any special equipment at all. It’s really quite straightforward. You’re just mixing fat and lye, the way people have been doing for centuries. Once the kiddos are a little older, I would definitely consider making soap in my own kitchen.

Have you ever made soap? What was it like? If not, would you consider it? Share your soapy stories with me!

I Make Stuff

When I’m feeling out of sorts, and as if nothing is working out in my life, one of the best things that I can do is create. Writing is a fabulous outlet for me, creatively, but when push comes to shove, there’s nothing like making something. By which I mean, crafting something tangible that you can hold in your own own two hands. Because when you do hold this thing that you made in your own two hands, you will have absolute confirmation that you are a productive human being.

You have produced something. Therefore, you are productive. Who could argue with that?

I am a very fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants person, when it comes to creating. I just kind of go for it and hope for the best. My projects reflect that approach. If I get too bogged down by making everything perfect, then crafting will just be one more thing that isn’t going right in my life. I don’t need that. So I just wing it, and give myself the freedom to play. Sometimes I end up ripping out a lot of seams and swearing, but everything has a way of working out most of the time.

I have been feeling rather lackluster. When I’m so busy that I can’t think straight, it doesn’t feel like I’m doing much. I mean, I know I’m doing a lot, but I’m not always sure I can see why. Because in spite of my best efforts, there’s always so much more to do. And so, this post is my way of reminding myself that I have, in fact, accomplished something lately. Here are the knitting and sewing projects that I’ve finished so far in 2011:

Hat for my nephewI knit myself a hat

A hat for my nephew, and a hat for myself

Jacob rocking his new toqueHannah models her new skirt

A hat for Jacob, and a skirt for Hannah

Hannah in the new sweater I knit herI knit myself a sweater

A sweater for Hannah, and a sweater for myself

I made an apron for my momHannah models her Nan's apron

An apron for my mom

Hannah's homemade re-usable bag, side AHannah's homemade re-usable bag, side B

Both sides of Hannah’s homemade re-usable bag

What about you? What do you do when you need to feel that you’ve accomplished something? And what kind of projects are tickling your fancy right now? I’d love to hear!

Free as a Bird Tote

I’ve mentioned before that I like to make things. Crafting gives me real, live, tangible evidence of my accomplishments. It provides me with a creative outlet and sticks a thumb in the eye of the consumer culture. And it’s also sort of fun, especially when I make things for myself.

I recently made myself a new tote bag. Now that Jacob is 2 years old, I can get away without the full-on diaper bag. Yes, I may still cart around a spare diaper and some wipes in the tote, but I don’t need the same volume of stuff that I did when he was a newborn. And so I am graduating to a fancy new bag, with lots of pockets and plenty of room for kid gear, without the diaper bag feel. Because I like to share the love, you can read on to learn how to make one of your own.

My version has two pockets – one zippered pocket and one patch pocket with two compartments. It also has a magnetic clasp. All of this is optional. If you want to make your life easy, omit this stuff.

Free as a bird tote
I call it my ‘Free as a Bird Tote’, but I was also tempted to go with ‘Twitter Tote’

How to Make a Free as a Bird Tote

*Note – For closer views, click on any image in the instructions.


  • 1/2 yard – main fabric (I used a drapery canvas, but any fabric will do)
  • 1/2 yard – lining fabric (I used corduroy, but any heavier fabric will work)
  • 1 yard – heavy weight interfacing (I like nonwoven nonfusible, but that’s just me)
  • 1 – 7″ zipper to match the lining fabric (optional)
  • 1 – magnetic bag closure (optional)
  • co-ordinating thread

Pattern Pieces:

  • A – cut 2 each in main, lining and interfacing
  • B – cut 2 each in main and lining
  • C – cut 1 in lining (optional – patch pocket)
  • D – cut 1 in lining (optional – zippered pocket)

Cut 1 bird in lining fabric (or any other contrasting fabric you like) – mark the eye location but do not cut.


1. Baste both interfacing pieces to the wrong side of each main fabric piece A around all edges, or if you have fusible interfacing iron the interfacing pieces to the wrong side of each main fabric piece A.

2. B is the strap pieces. Put one of the main fabric strap pieces against one of the lining strap pieces, wrong sides facing out. Stitch down both long edges, so that you have a long tube with open ends. Repeat with the other two strap pieces.

3. Turn the straps inside out so that the right side is facing out, press and topstitch down the long edges.

4. If you plan on adding a patch pocket, fold and press one of the long edges down 1/4″ on piece C, and then fold and press 1/2″ down. Stitch along the folded edge to make the top hem of one of the pockets.

5. Fold piece C in half along the long edge and press. You are marking the centre point along of 10″ width. Press 1/2″ under on the remaining 3 raw edges. Position the pocket, right side up, on the right side of one lining piece A. It should be positioned 2 1/2″ inches from the top edge (as shown in the pattern pieces), with the folded centre line located 8″ from either side (you know, roughly in the middle).

6. Topstitch around the bottom and sides of the pocket, and down the centre fold, to make 2 pocket compartments.

7. If you are adding a zippered pocket, then mark the zipper slot on the wrong side of piece D as shown below:

In case you can’t see what’s happening, piece D is right-side down against the right side of lining piece A (the one you didn’t put a patch pocket on). Piece D is centered horizontally on piece A. I have marked a box that is 7″ wide x 1/2″ tall. The top edge of the box is 3/4″ from the top of piece D, and the sides of the box are 1/2″ from either side of piece D. Down the centre of the box there is a 6 1/2″ line, with diagonal lines extending up into the corner of the box.

8. Sew around the edges of the 7″ x 1/2″ box.

9. Cut down the centre of the box, along the 6 1/2″ line, and along the 2 diagonal lines, being careful not to cut the stitching.

10. Now the magic happens. Pull piece D through the slit you’ve just cut, and you will have a lovely opening for a zipper. Press this to make it all pretty.

11. Position the zipper in the lovely slit you’ve just created. The nice zipper part should be visible on the right side of piece A. Pin it in place, and top-stitch around all 4 zipper edges, about 1/8″ from the slit edges.

12. Check the back of piece A, and make sure the zipper is securely stitched in place. Then fold piece D in half, so that there is a fold along the bottom, and the other edges all line up. This is going to be your pocket. You will stitch along the sides and top, but only on piece D. Be careful to keep piece A out of the way as you stitch.

13. Applique the bird to the right side of one main piece A. I positioned mine approximately 4″ from the side edge and 5″ from the bottom. To applique, I used a tight zigzag stitch around the bird’s body, leaving the edges raw. I trimmed down any scraggly bits when I was done. To make the bird’s eye, I used contrasting thread and a tight zigzag stitch. I repeated this horizontally and vertically. You could also embroider something nice, if that’s more your speed.

14. Don’t despair, you’re getting close. Press the top edges of all your A pieces, main and contrast, down 1/2″.

15. Position one of the straps along the wrong side of one lining piece A. The lining side of the strap will face down, against the wrong side of the lining piece A. The raw ends will be positioned 1 1/2″ from the folded edge at the top, and the strap’s side will be about 2 1/2″ from the edge of piece A. Stitch the strap in place at one by sewing 2 horizontal lines – one about 1/4″ from the raw edge of the strap, and another line about 1/2″ above the first.

16. Repeat step 15 with the other end of the strap, sewing it in place about 2 1/2″ from the other edge of piece A.

17. Repeat steps 15 and 16 with the other strap and the other contrast piece A.

18. If you plan to use the magnetic clasps, position them now. I centered mine horizontally along the top of lining piece A, about 1/2″ from the folded edge. There is one clasp on each lining piece.

19. You’re really almost done! Put your two main piece As together, right sides facing. Sew along the bottom and sides, but not along the cutouts.

20. To sew the first cutout, fold it so that the raw edges are together, and the bottom and side seams you just sewed line up in the centre. So, the inner corners of the cutouts are on the sides, as you open up the bottom and side seams and line up the cutout edges. Sew along the raw cutout edges. Repeat for the other cutout.

21. Repeat steps 17 and 18 with the lining pieces. Now you have two bags, one with straps and pockets, one without.

22. Turn the main body of the bag out, so that the right side is facing out. Position the lining inside it, so that the side seams line up. Pin the lining in place along the top, folded edge. Topstitch approximately 1/4″ from the edge.

Take a bow, you have a tote!

Free as a bird tote in sunlight

If you are a crafty sort, you might want to visit my Making Stuff page, which has other sewing projects, as well as needle-felting and cooking. You can get there any time by clicking my fabulous ‘Making REAL Stuff’ button in the sidebar.

Practicing Creativity

It’s Thursday and I’m Crafting my Life! August’s theme is creativity. Whether your dreams involve painting or writing or growing food or taking lots of naps, tapping into your creativity is an important part of changing your life.

We all have amazing creative potential. It sounds schmaltzy, but it’s true. People are incredibly good problem-solvers, it’s our primary advantage over the rest of the animals. We can look at a stick and see countless ways to use it. We build buildings and computer networks and create amazing works of art. We bake and we sew and we knit and we woodcraft and we turn iron ore into steel and we capture it all in photographs. Each and every one of us has this creative power in us, and when we get together and combine forces we can do truly amazing things.

Being creative isn’t just useful, it feels good. When I am making something with my whole heart, there is immense joy in it. I work harder and I work better. And the best way that I know to bring that kind of creativity to what I do is to set aside time to intentionally create. The more that you flex that muscle, the stronger it gets. Taking time out of the daily grind to make your art, whatever your art happens to be, is important. Even when you don’t have the time. Maybe especially when you don’t have the time.

When I was in engineering school, I learned that if I gave my mind breaks, I was more productive. I could come back to a problem with fresh eyes, and see things that I hadn’t seen before. Often, while I was away and focused on something entirely different, I would even have an epiphany that helped me when I got back to work. By giving my mind a little freedom, it did its work more effectively. It used the creative energy I got in my recreation time to attack the task before me.

This is all very pertinent for me, because right now I’m not making the time to be creative. Even though my day-to-day is more obviously creative now – writing instead of computer programming – there really is no difference in my need to take a break and practice being creative in other ways. Almost any task can be creative, whether it’s typically viewed that way or not. Even making spreadsheets can be a creative task, honestly. You can bring art and joy to anything, and it gets easier the more that you do it.

When I’m not writing, I practice creativity by sewing and knitting. That works for me, but it might not work for you. The way that I take a break doesn’t have to be your way. It doesn’t matter how you practice creativity. But I’m certain that if you do, it will help you look at the world in new ways. And that can be a really amazing thing. So I plan to set aside some time to do some sewing for myself this month. As I write about creativity, I will practice creativity, too.

How do you give your brain a chance to rest from the daily grind and practice creativity? How do you change your perspective and bring fresh eyes to a task? I’d love to hear!

August’s Crafting my Life series is about creativity. On the last Thursday of the month, which just happens to be the 26th, I will include a link up. To participate, write a post on creativity anytime in August, or track down a post you’ve written on the subject sometime in the past, and add yourself to the list. Then read everyone else’s ideas and thoughts and be inspired! Check out the link-ups from January, February and March to get a feel for how it works.

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