Wednesday, June 30, 2010

New Print On an Old T-Shirt

I've been thinking about block printing and stamping for some time, but during the school year, it's hard to justify spending the time and money to take up such a hobby. Now that it's summer, though . . . . I read a great book about stamp carving called Art Stamping Workshop by Gloria Page and I was really inspired by the idea of using inexpensive objects to create unique prints. It took me a while to decide on a design that was interesting but simple enough for my first effort; it took me even longer to decide how to bring it to fruition. I decided to purchase black screen-printing ink and a small soft-rubber brayer to roll the ink on my stamp. Since these items were a little pricey (and I had no idea if this would even work), I decided not to buy carving supplies and a rubber block to create a stamp on. Instead, I decided on a 12" x 18" sheet of craft foam to cut my stamp shapes out of (at 99 cents apiece it's hard to go wrong) and a rectangle of corrugated cardboard to mount the foam on. I also bought clear adhesive-backed vinyl (like contact paper) to create a stencil of sorts.

I decided to make my first print on a gray, cotton t-shirt I bought at the Salvation Army. I measured the shirt and cut out an appropriately sized rectangle from the paper-backed vinyl. I drew my design on the paper backing, keeping in mind that the sections that I cut out would allow ink through (the open sections would create the printed design). Also, the drawn design is a mirror image of what will actually be printed (since the paper backing will be peeled off and the vinyl will be flipped onto the fabric). I kept my design simple, cutting out rectangles of varying heights. When my stencil was complete, I peeled the paper backing off and placed it on my clean t-shirt. I put newspapers inside the shirt to prevent the ink from bleeding through to the back layer of fabric. Once the stencil was complete, I started creating the actual stamp.

I cut a piece of cardboard to the necessary size to cover my stencil. Then I cut my desired shapes (basically just tapered lines) out of the craft foam and mounted them on the cardboard using spray adhesive (see photo to left). I put a dollop of printing ink on a painter's palette and inked my brayer. Then I rolled ink on my stamp. The foam seemed to absorb quite a bit of ink, so I was pretty generous. When the stamp was inked, I lined it up as carefully as I possibly could over my stencil and lowered it into place. Obviously, once it's down, it's down and there is no readjusting the placement of the stamp. I was sure to thoroughly press and rub the back of the stamp to make sure ink transferred onto every portion of my design. Then I held my breath and pulled the stamp off, taking care not to accidentally drop the stamp onto my just-inked design (see photo to right of inked design before stencil was removed).

I was really happy with the way my print turned out. Once the design was dry, I followed the instructions on my bottle of ink to heat set the design with an iron (I spread some scrap muslin over the design and pressed it for about four minutes per side). Now that I have a little more confidence with printing, I would like to try carving a reusable stamp out of a block (almost like a giant eraser designed specifically for this purpose). I may look for some sort of medium to add to the fabric ink to get a little smoother print next time. I am excited to try new designs with new materials, and hope maybe you will too. Be creative and enjoy!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Martha Stewart's Air-Dry Clay Flowers

I recently flipped through Martha Stewart's Encyclopedia of Crafts: An A-to-Z Guide with Detailed Instructions and Endless Inspiration.  It is a beautiful book with plenty of inspiring color photos of the projects.  I was especially intrigued by the air-dry clay flowers the encyclopedia details; the extremely lightweight clay is perfect for hair accessories, especially to be worn in fine hair like mine.  Because the book is in encyclopedia form, however, the techniques are arranged alphabetically (as in 'C is for Clay') and some of the projects did not receive as much attention as others.  The section on clay describes how to recreate several varieties of flowers in the clay but the photos weren't quite large enough to clearly convey the shape of each type of petal and how to arrange them.  Below, I have posted the photos from my attempt to make a gardenia hair pin.  Granted, I took a little creative license with the flower, especially with the number of petals; the instructional text does not include a specific number of petals for the gardenia, but in photos it looks like they have eight.  Mine has six.  I was more concerned with the look than with creating a perfectly realistic flower.

I formed each petal out of a ball of clay about the size of a large marble.  I pressed it into shape using my finger tips, then tried to smooth away any clearly visible fingerprints (see photo to the right).  Although I didn't have any on hand, I think cake fondant-shaping tools would be particularly useful for working with this type of clay.  When the first petal was formed, I folded it in half, forming the center.  I folded the second petal around it is pictured.  I built the flower up, petal by petal, slightly folding the petals downward to give the flower a more open appearance.  Once the flower was the size and shape I wanted, I rolled the base into a rope and pinched it off about 1/2 or 3/4 of an inch from the underside of the petals.  I flattened the remaining stud, then inserted an aluminum knitting needle through the base.  I suspended the knitting needles between two overturned glasses and allowed it to dry for the requisite amount of time (the clay packaging will tell you exactly how long it takes for the clay to dry completely).  When the flower was dry, I removed it from the needle.  This left a hole through the base of the flower through which I threaded the top bar of a large bobby pin.  I filled the remaining void with hot glue, ensuring that the flower would stay in place on the pin.

This hair accessory is perfect for dressing up a sloppy bun (which I pretty much sport on a daily basis during the summer, especially in the St. Louis heat!).  It is so incredibly light that I forget it is in my hair until I lean my head on something.  The clay is also surprisingly durable -- I spent a day driving around with it in my hair, inadvertently crushing it against the head rest and it didn't break or crack.  These flowers are also versatile; as Martha Stewart's Encyclopedia illustrates, there are many applications for them (gift toppers, headbands, etc.).  I hope you'll give these flowers a try, and be sure to check out the Encyclopedia of Crafts -- it's worth it.  Be creative and enjoy!

P.S.: Thank you to my beautiful sister for modeling the flower in the first picture of the post.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Jim Lahey's No-Knead Bread and Prepping Le Creuset for High-Heat Baking

I love bread.  In all honesty, I love most forms that starch takes, but good artisan bread holds a special place in my heart.  Crispy, crackling crust; chewy, open crumb; deep, complex flavor.  I love it.  And, as any good do-it-yourselfer would, I have, on occasion, attempted to replicate my favorite bakery breads at home.  Unfortunately, my attempts were largely unsuccessful.  Don't get me wrong, I have baked many respectable, sturdy, and even tasty loaves of bread.  The aforementioned qualities that make artisan bread so appealing, however, have always eluded me.  A few days ago, though, I ran across the book My Bread by Jim Lahey.  He is the founder of the Sullivan Street Bakery in New York and emphasizes high-quality, Italian-style breads.  On November 8, 2006, Mark Bittman of the New York Times published a piece about Jim Lahey's no-knead breadmaking method and it proved quite popular (article available through NY Times website).  Essentially, in Lahey's bread, the all-important gluten is developed during a long fermentation period, rather than through traditional kneading.  The dough prep is only the first simple step in this amazing recipe.

Then comes the real magic.  The bread is baked in a preheated, covered cast iron (or ceramic) vessel which approximates the enviornment created by professional steam-injected ovens.  Partway through baking, the lid is removed to allow the crust to darken.  This covered vessel aspect of the method produces that beautiful, elusive, crackling crust in your own oven.  Seriously, once my bread had cooled and I sliced it, I almost cried with joy when I saw the crumb.  It was gorgeous, thanks to this virtually foolproof recipe and method (it certainly was not the result of any special breadmaking talent on my part).  Before I could achieve this near-miracle, though, there was a certain preliminary matter to deal with.  I have several cast iron Dutch ovens for the baking, so that wasn't a problem, but the recipe requires an oven temperature of 475 degrees F and the standard black Le Creuset handles are only rated for 375 degrees.  Le Creuset produces stainless steel replacement knobs that retail for $14, but can be purchased for $10 through Amazon.  I am frugal, however, and more importantly I am annoyed by the notion of paying hundreds of dollars for a pot and then having to shell out more money for a fully functioning handle.  America's Test Kitchen suggested drawer pulls as replacements for the plastic knobs, so my husband and I went off to the hardware store.  They are way less expensive than the Le Creuset handles and provide an excellent opportunity to add a little flair to your cookware.

I suggest a few key criteria when shopping for knobs: stainless steel (or a similarly heat-resistant metal), a base wide enough that it will not slip through the hole in the lid, enough space between the base of the pull and the head so that it can be comfortably gripped, a well-sized knob (can you grab it with an oven mitt on?), and I tried to find something that wouldn't look completely out of place sitting on top of a Dutch oven.  I selected one of the more expensive styles of pull, but at $3 apiece, the handles were still incredibly well-priced compared to Le Creuset's knob.  The screw that comes with the drawer pull will probably be too long (the lid being much thinner than a drawerfront).  You could purchase a shorter screw, making sure that the head of the screw will not slip through the hole in the lid and, of course, that it is the correct size for your drawer pull.  If you are lucky enough, the original screw from the Le Creuset plastic knob may fit your new handle.  Alternatively, if you have the means to do so, you can cut the drawer pull's screw to the correct length (this is what we did, worked like a charm).

I should say, Jim Lahey's recipe does not require a Le Creuset Dutch oven.  I highly recommend baking his bread recipe in whatever suitable vessel you can find because it is so outrageously good.  For example, I read numerous stories online about people baking bread, with great success, in presoaked terra cotta pots (althouh I would try to be sure that the terra cotta was lead-free before using it for high-heat baking).  If you do have Le Creuset cast iron, though, you may consider replacing your standard knobs with something a little more durable for high-heat cooking.  Be creative and enjoy!

*Note: Jim Lahey's basic recipe calls for bread flour because it generally has a higher protein content than all-purpose flour.  However, King Arthur unbleached all-purpose flour has a higher protein content than other brands of flour (roughly 11.7%) (see Rose Levy Beranbaum's Bread Bible), so I substituted it for the bread flour.  It produced a great loaf.