Friday, November 20, 2009

Punched Aluminum Lantern

I checked a book out of the library this week called eco craft: recycle, recraft, restyle by Susan Wasinger. It includes some clever ideas for using common throw-away items to create decorative household items. One project that caught my eye was a mock punched tin Christmas ornament made with flattened pop cans. I have always loved the look of punched tin and thought this would be a great way to use up some of the many cans we have in our kitchen (a definite downside of moving to a state with no can deposit). I think that punched tin is most beautiful, however, when it is illuminated by a candle. So rather than crafting Christmas ornaments, I made a lantern.

First, using household scissors, I cut the tops and bottoms from 10 soda cans. I started by cutting around the top edge of the can, then straight down the side, then around the bottom. I evened out the edges once the tops and bottoms were removed. I flattened the metal sheets by gripping the short ends and running them against the edge of a doorframe (you could also curve it over the edge of a table or workbench). The actual lantern only requires 8 cans, but I made an extra "side" to practice on. I wore heavy work gloves when handling the cut cans because the edges are VERY sharp. Once the cans were flattened, I sprayed adhesive on the printed side of every can, let them dry for a moment, then put them together. I ended up with five sheets of metal, shiny on both sides.

For a pattern, I looked at a lot of pictures using Google Images. I was thinking about Celtic knots, but I wasn't sure how that would translate into punched dots. I looked at art nouveau designs, basic shapes like stars and circles, cirlicues, and on and on . . . I eventually saw a picture of a beautiful Moroccan lantern, and it inspired the pattern I drew. I used the metal sheets as a guide for size, then drew the pattern. I traced it three more times. My husband and brother-in-law made a frame for me using an eight foot length of corner molding, cut to the appropriate size with mitered ends.

I affixed a piece of cardboard and a piece of styrofoam to a board. Then I taped down my first sheet of aluminum with the pattern on top. Using a hammer and nail, I punched holes through the cans. I learned quickly that it does not take much pressure to go through both pieces of aluminum and tapping too hard will put a tear in the sheet. Also, as I said above, I made an extra sheet to test out my pattern and I ended up making a few small changes to my design. I eliminated a small circle from the center of my original drawing because that many punches so close together created a problem. Once all of my surfaces were punched, I glued the frame together using wood glue, then hotglued the metal sides in. I used lengths of square dowel hotglued into the four vertical corners to secure the edges of the metal (see picture). I will probably use wood filler to fill in the mitered corners that had small gaps, then sand and maybe stain the frame. Until then, however, the lantern will look great glowing in my window (especially now that it is dark by 5:00 pm here)!

This concept could be used to make holiday-themed lanterns to put on outdoor steps or along your walkway. If you didn't want to go to the trouble of making a frame, I think these punched sheets would even look great matted and framed as art. Maybe punch several cans, then wrap them into cylinders, secure the ends, then wire them along a strand of Christmas lights. Be creative and enjoy!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Cornbread, Chili, and the American Frontier

"We'll get along somehow . . . Why not? We're healthy, we've got a roof over our heads; we're better off than lots of folks."
-Pa Ingalls, On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder

A few weeks ago I got the sudden desire to re-read the Little House series of books. I've been thinking a lot about economy in the home, using the resources available to their greatest advantage. The books provide ample insight into using your environment in a responsible manner (for example, Pa hunts and traps, but not in the spring when the animals could be caring for young, thus ensuring that the game will be abundant in the fall). What I did not remember about the books (I guess because as a child I wasn't concerned about such things) was the strength of spirit of Laura's parents. They moved three young children from Wisconsin to Kansas to Minnesota to South Dakota by horsedrawn wagon, leaving behind a house that they had built by hand each time. They were driven out of Kansas by the government, they lost crops to grasshoppers, experienced harsh blizzards and prairie fires, suffered malaria. Not only did they survive, they were happy and appreciative for what they did have. The books have provided me with a much needed reality check.

Also, all of the frontier cooking inspired me to do a little experimenting in the kitchen. I wanted to make a hearty meal, something that would sustain even the Ingalls family through the ridiculous amount of work they did each day. Cornbread and chili would fit the bill (and my husband would be happy to eat it). I realize that the Ingalls family didn't eat chili when Laura was young, but later in her life she did make the dish for her family on Rocky Ridge Farm in southern Missouri (see The Laura Ingalls Wilder Country Cookbook). Ma Ingalls served cornbread frequently on the prairie because cornmeal was less expensive than wheat flour. Granted, this is most definitely not Ma's cornbread (which was essentially cornmeal, salt, and meat drippings); this is more like a sweet, dense corncake.

Crunchy and Sweet Northern Cornbread:
1/3 c. yellow cornmeal
2/3 c. all-purpose flour
1/3 c. granulated sugar
2/3 tsp. baking powder
Dash salt
1/3 c. milk
2 large eggs
1/3 c. vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and butter two 16 oz. ramekins. Combine cornmeal and milk, allow to soak 10 mins. In a separate bowl, mix flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder. Mix eggs and oil into cornmeal mixture, then stir in flour until moistened. Divide batter evenly between two ramekins. Bake 30-35 mins, until puffed and cracked. A tester inserted in middle should come out clean. Run a knife around edges and remove from ramekins to cool. Cut into wedges and serve.

Thick and Spicy Chili:
1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes with herbs (I love the Full Circle brand)
1 15 oz. can tomato sauce
2 cans kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1/2 lb. ground beef
1 onion finely chopped
1 clove garlic minced
2 Tbsp. chili powder
1 1/2 tsp. cumin
1/2 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. cayenne
2 tsp. brown sugar
Dash oregano
Beef stock as needed

In a cast iron pot, saute onions in a little vegetable oil until softened. Add minced garlic, stirring for 30 seconds. Add beef, breaking apart with wooden spoon. Cook until meat is no longer pink. Drain off most of the grease, then add in seasonings (including sugar). Cook spices with meat, stirring, for a minute or two until they are fragrant. Add in tomatoes/sauce and drained beans. Allow mixture to simmer (mine went for about an hour). I added beef stock to achieve the consistency I wanted, which was admittedly thick. If you like a thinner chili, add a larger can of tomato sauce or use juice instead.

This was exactly the hearty meal I have been craving since I started reading the Little House series. The cornbread could be doctored up in any number of ways: cut the sugar and add jalepenos or cheese, skip the ramekins and make corn muffins, even top with strawberries and whipped cream for dessert. Chopped green pepper could be added to the chili. Also, I buy rather strongly flavored dark chili powder, so you may need to play with the spices until it suits your tastes. You may want to forget the cornbread altogether (especially if you are a Southern cornbread purist) and serve the chili in bread bowls. Be creative and enjoy!

PS: I have a few Christmas projects in the works, but there won't be any pictures until after the holidays.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Microwave Potato Bags

My sister and I went to an Apple Butter Festival/Craft Show a couple of weeks ago. There were many cute and clever items for sale, but I was especially intrigued by a booth selling potato baking bags. Essentially, they are fabric pouches that can be used to microwave potatoes, corn on the cob, or asparagus. You can also heat tortillas or dinner rolls in them. I had never seen anything like them before, but my sister said a lot of places sell them in Branson, MO. When I got home from the festival, I did an internet search and found quite a few sites describing and selling the bags. So, what is a compulsive crafter to do? Make one (or two), of course.

I read numerous tutorials before I settled on a method for making the bags. The bags are comprised of a layer of batting sandwiched between two layers of fabric. I bought 1/4 yard of 100% cotton calico fabric. I wanted to buy 1/2 yard of fabric and 1/4 yard of 100% cotton batting, but I could not find the right batting. The closest I found was 87% cotton and 13% poly-something. I ended up purchasing 1/4 yard of prequilted layers of 100% cotton fabric/batting. This actually made the project easier, because I only had two loose layers to work with rather than three. So, I ultimately had 1/4 yard calico, 1/4 yard prequilted cotton/batting combo, and a package of extra-wide, double fold bias tape. These materials were sufficient for two bags, all for under $5.

I would recommend pre-washing and pressing your fabric before beginning. I evened all of the edges of my two pieces of fabric, then cut them in half (across the 9" length, not across the width of the fabric), making four rectangles total. Then I placed one rectangle of each fabric with right sides together, then pinned the shorter sides (see photo to right). Using my sewing machine, I stitched the short sides together, removing the pins as I sewed. This step is easier if you keep the batting side facing up on the machine. Once both short sides were stitched, I flipped the rectangles right sides out, with the batting sandwiched in the middle. At this point, the long sides should still have raw edges, but the short edges should be finished. I cut two lengths of the bias tape to cover the long sides, then using one length of tape, I enclosed one of the long, raw edges in the fold of the bias tape and topstitched all of the layers together (see photo to left). I repeated this process with the opposite side.

Once the exposed edges were covered, I placed the calico (this will be the outside of my bag) facing upward, and folded the right edge in about two inches. Then I folded the left edge all the way over, meeting the fold on the right (see blurry picture to right). I know this seems a little counterintuitive, but this is how the top of the bag is formed. I cut a short length of bias tape (probably 3.5") to create a loop for the bag to hang by; I tucked this loop into the bag, leaving the loose ends sticking out of the side a bit. Then I stitched over the bias tape along each of the open sides, making sure the catch the loop ends in my seam on one edge. The only thing left to do was to turn the bag right side out and flip the flap over the top to close it up.

I read a lot of instructions that said to wash the potatoes but not to poke them before placing in the bag (I guess to avoid starchy potato ooze?). I find the thought of a potato exploding inside my pretty fabric bag less than thrilling, though, so I did pierce the potatoes before I microwaved them. I cooked the potatoes for about 8 minutes, flipping the bag over about halfway through. I would recommend testing the bag in your microwave before using to make sure the power is not too high. As I said before, these bags can be used to cook/heat a wide variety of items in the microwave without plastic bags or cling wrap. Make a set in varying sizes, or use bold fabrics to liven up your kitchen. Be creative and enjoy!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Fine China Storage

The year before I started law school, I worked for a fine china and crystal manufacturer. Needless to say, during my time with the company I amassed a huge collection of china, but I was soon confronted with the problem of storing it. My store sold "china savers," essentially thin, quilted fabric bags that would protect your china from dust, but not much else. I needed something durable enough to move my china across several states, not just keep it dust-free in my sideboard. I found a set of rigid-sided china storage containers online, obviously better than the quilted bags, but with a price tag to match. I eventually decided to make my own storage containers using doctored hat boxes. As a preliminary matter, I'll say that I was hesitant to put this project on the blog because it is rather complicated. The sewing is not difficult and the supplies are not expensive, but there are a lot of steps that must be done in a specific order. Because it is such an involved project, this post will be much longer than usual, so brace yourself.

For the bodies of my storage containers, I bought a set of 3 paper mache hat boxes at a craft store, although they can also be purchased individually. When choosing a size for the boxes, remember that they will be lined with foam, so this should be taken into account along with the diameter of the plates. I also bought 1/2" thick green foam and inexpensive fabric. I opted for plain black fabric with white accents, but you could use any pattern (leopard print, floral, whatever strikes your fancy). I used both spray adhesive and fabric glue for my china storers, but you could use hot glue in place of the fabric glue. I also purchased nylon strap material (like the kind used at the bottom of backpack straps); it's usually sold by the yard. The handles are made from a single length of this strap material that is threaded through the guides (see below) and sewn together into one single loop.

To begin, I cut a round of foam to fit in the bottom of the hat box and a rectangle of foam to line the inside "wall" of the box (see picture). Then, I cut out all of my requisite fabric pieces: three circles and six rectangles all together.
1) One circle should be the size of the bottom of the hat box (this will be part of the interior lining)
2) The second circle is for the bottom of the box and its diameter should be about four inches greater than the diameter of the bottom of the box (when affixed to the hat box, this circle should hang over about two inches all the way around)
3) The third circle is for the lid of the box, and should be about 1" greater in diameter than the lid of the box (it should hang over about 1/2 inch)
4) One rectangle should be as long as the circumference of the box + 1" seam allowance. It should be as wide as the heighth of the wall the box + 2.5" overhang (so use a measuring tape to measure the outside of the box, add an inch, and the depth of the box + 2.5" as the dimensions of the rectangle)
5) One rectangle will be a band to cover the exterior edge of the lid. It should be as wide as the lid is deep + seam allowance. It should be as long as the box's circumference + seam allowance.
6) Put the lid on the box and measure the distance between the bottom of the lid and the bottom of the box itself. This (+ seam allowance) will be the width of the rectangle that will be a band around the exterior of the box. The length of the band should be the circumference of the box + seam allowance.
7) The three remaining rectangles will serve as guides for the nylon straps (see photo to the right). Size isn't terribly important here, they just need to be long enough to accommodate the straps. When I sewed the guides on, I essentially stitched "tunnels" for the straps to go through.

Next, I pressed all of my fabric pieces. I also pressed under the top and bottom edges of the two rectangles that will be bands around the exteriors of the box and lid. I did the same for my strap guides, this time pressing all of the raw edges under. I topstitched the edges using contrasting thread (for looks), but this step isn't really necessary. Next, I sewed the lining together (circle from step 1 above + rectangle from step 4 form the lining for the interior of the box). Once sewn, it should be a cylinder with an open end, like an empty soup can. Then, I stitched the short ends of each exterior band together (rectangles from step 5 and 6 above), creating two "belts," one skinny and one wide. The three strap guide rectangles (step 7), should be sewn into their places before the pieces are adhered to the box. One guide should be sewn to the center of the circle for the bottom of the box (circle in step 2). Two should be sewn to the band that will cover the exterior of the box (on opposite sides of the circle from eachother, see photo). I also sewed buttons and loops of bias tape to the band for the lid, and corresponding buttons on the exterior band for the body (see photo of finished container). Now the pieces can be assembled.

I used spray adhesive to adhere the circle from step 2 to the bottom of the box, taking care to keep the strap guide centered on the bottom of the box. I also adhered the overhang to the vertical side of the box (see photo). I repeated this process for the top of the box, although there was no strap guide on the top to worry about. It's not too important that the edges of the overhang are even, because they will eventually be covered by the finished "bands. " Next, I tucked the lining of the fabric inside the box, over the foam, then glued the overhang to the exterior of the box. Then, I worked the "band" over the exterior of the box, making sure to keep the overhang from the lining and the overhang from the bottom of the box tucked under the finished band. It is important orient the strap guides correctly, lining them up with the strap guide on the bottom of the box. I repeated the process for the exterior band of the lid, although (as mentioned above), there are no strap guides to line up here. I used the fabric glue to adhere the edges of the bands to the box and lid. My last step was threading the nylon strap through the three strap guides, leaving enough excess for handles, then sewing the strap ends together. The length of strap MUST be threaded through the strap guides before the ends are sewn together. Ultimately, once the ends are sewn together, you will have a single loop of material that forms two handles and supports the bottom of the box. Then I worked the nylon loop around until the seam was hidden beneath the strap guide on the bottom of the box.

As I said before, these storage containers could be made using fabric in any pattern you would like, hopefully something that you won't tire of quickly. I'm also trying to work out storage for my serving platters and bowls, so perhaps more posts will come. Hat boxes come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, so this idea could be used to store almost anything. Skip the foam and cover rectangular boxes in fabric for storing photos, cds, dvds. Cover them with baby or child-themed fabrics for nursery or kids room storage. Christmas cards or decorations? Sewing supplies? Be creative and enjoy!