Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Iron Craft Challenge 4: My Robo Mug Cozy

This week's Iron Craft challenge was to create a drink sleeve like the one you get with your morning latte.  I don't drink coffee, though, and if I did I would probably be too cheap to pay the premium to buy one at a coffee shop.  I do, however, love making hot chocolate at home.  My favorite mug is tall and thin, not unlike the 20 oz. coffee cups you buy, but it has a handle.  An oddly-placed handle.  I decided to make a mug cozy that would fit my mug, crazy handle and all.  I have been thinking about embroidery lately and, having never done it, decided this would be a great project to get my feet wet on.  I had some leftover black linen that I thought would be relatively easy to stitch on.  I bought a wooden embroidery hoop, some silvery thread, and a white fabric marking pen.

First I created a paper pattern of a sleeve using measurements posted by the Iron Craft creators online.  Then I traced the outline of the sleeve onto the linen.  The fabric marking pen, even with white ink on black fabric, is hard to see, so I really had to work on this in good light.  I drew my robot design inside the sleeve outline (really, who doesn't love robots?) and tightened the fabric into the hoop.  I used the backstitch to embroider my design, with French knots at the robot's joints and on the sides and top of his head.  I did have to cut out some of my work when the stitching went awry and re-embroider it, but once I got the hang of the backstitch it actually went pretty quickly.  It took me a bit longer to be able to make an acceptable French knot, but I eventually figured that out, too.  Once the embroidery was done, I cut out the top layer of my sleeve, following the lines I had already traced onto the fabric.

I used the linen as a template to cut out a lining layer from a scrap of wool fabric.  I repeated the process on a piece of backing fabric leftover from the suit pants I used for my last Iron Craft project (draft dodger).  I stacked them as follows: backing fabric (rightside down) on top of embroidered piece (rightside up, facing backing fabric) with the lining fabric on the bottom.  Then, using my machine, I stitched along the top and bottom of all three pieces, leaving the ends free.  I flipped the layers between the backing fabric and embroidered piece, turning it rightsides out with the lining in the middle.  I cut four lengths of ribbon and, turning the ends under like the hem of a sleeve, I placed the ribbons in and topstitched over the ends (see photo).

This was actually a pretty quick project, aside from the embroidery.  With printed fabric, no embroidery necessary, this cozy could be made in an hour.  Also, if you do drink coffee/tea/cocoa out of handleless cups or mugs, you could sew the ends of the sleeve together and wouldn't even need closures--the sleeve would just slip onto your cup like the cardboard ones used at coffee shops.  This would be so easy to keep in a purse or bag so you could slip it onto your cup every morning and save a little bit of paper from the trash.  Although I have been intimidated by embroidery, the basic backdstitch was much easier than I anticipated.  It's actually sort of relaxing work--you can just zone out and stitch.  Hopefully I'll find the time for more embroidered projects in the near future.  And of course, I hope you'll give it a try, too.  Be creative and enjoy!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Iron Craft Challenge 2: Dress Pants Draft Dodger

If any regular readers have been wondering what the new icon in the sidebar is all about, let me explain.  I've signed up for a weekly craft challenge called the Iron Craft (see the blog at  Every week, the organizers post a new challenge for the crafters to complete.  Then the entrants upload pictures of their completed projects to a Flickr group and the Iron Craft creators round up the projects on their blog.  There aren't any winners or losers (so not a lot of pressure), but I figured it would be a great way to connect with like-minded crafters.  I found out about The Iron Craft too late to complete the first challenge of the year, but here is my project for week 2.  Challenge 2 was to create a draft dodger or door snake.  Perfect for us because, while our apartment may be many things, well-insulated it is not.

My husband provided me with the perfect material for a fabric project: a stack of old suit pants.  I started by salvaging any buttons, snaps, and zippers from the pants.  Then I ripped them apart at the seams--literally.  Our living room window is 60" wide and it is super drafty.  I decided to make two draft blockers, each about 30" long.  I planned to make a piece of fabric 72" by 12" by creating 6 strips of fabric 2" wide and 72" long.  I cut a total of 12 strips of fabric 18" long, 2" wide and 18 strips of fabric 12" long, 2" wide.  Each of the 72" long strips was comprised of two 18" strips and three 12" strips. I laid the pieces out on the floor, varying them so that strips of the same color and length weren't directly next to each other.  I began stitching together the pieces that comprised the 72" lengths.  Once I had six strips, each 72" long, I pressed the seams along them open (see photo).  Then I sewed the six strips together, making sure that I maintained the order I intended.  When I was finished, I pressed the entire piece.

I folded the fabric in half, hamburger style, and pressed in a crease.  Then I cut along the crease, making the two rectangles of fabric that would become my draft dodger tubes.  Beginning with the first rectangle, I folded one short edge under about 1/4" and sewed along it.  I repeated this on the other end.  Then I folded the rectangle in half (hot dog), right side inside.  I stitched along the open edges, leaving about 1.5" at each end unstitched.  I pressed this seam open, also pressing the unstitched seam allowance to each side (as if I were going to put a zipper in it).  Then I stitched down the seam allowance on each side.  This created a finished opening for the ends of the ribbon drawstring to come out on either side.  I cut a length of ribbon for the drawstring and folded the end of the draft dodger down over it.  Then I stitched along the open edge, enclosing the ribbon in a tube.  I did the same on the opposite end.  I turned the tube rightside out and added three buttons to one end, just for a little snazz.  I repeated this process for the other rectangle.

Once my two tubes were complete, I cinched the drawstring at one end of each tube.  Then I filled them with the remaining scraps of fabric; I figured wool-blend pants would make decent insulation.  At some point, I might make plain sleeves to fit inside these covers and fill them with rice, fish gravel, or dried beans.  For now, though, pants scraps will work just fine.  I love looking at other crafters' entries for this challenge, seeing how others interpreted the task.  And if you have drafty windows or doors, I hope you'll consider using whatever materials you have at your disposal to make your home a little more energy efficient.  Be creative and enjoy!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Metal Clay Ring Part 2: Firing and Finishing

Once my ring was completely dry and sanded smooth, it was time to fire it.  There are several options for firing metal clay pieces; the best option depends on the size of the piece and the type of clay used.  It is possible to fire an item over the flame of a gas burner, but this only works when the piece is small enough to be fully within the heat of the flame.  This could be the flame of a gas stove or a propane-fueled camping burner.  If you are making the initial investment in metal clay, this is the least expensive option for a firing implement.  I was concerned that my ring might be too big for this method (and I also don't have a gas burner).  Jewelry kilns are quite expensive, so that wasn't an option.  My friend Anne has a propane torch, however, and she agreed to help me fire my ring.

In the last post I described how I made sure the ring was smooth and completely dry before firing.  We placed the ring on a fire brick and lit the torch.  Anne adjusted the flame until it was the appropriate temperature.  It should be a medium flame, mostly blue with a yellow tip.  Then we started firing the ring--Anne worked the torch while I worked the camera--probably the most sensible arrangement if Anne didn't want her building burned down.  She kept the flame moving over the ring to make sure it heated evenly.  At first the ring smoked and even flared up as the organic binder burned off.  As she continued to fire it, the ring began to glow.  Once the ring was entirely glowing orange, we started timing.  The timing depends on the size of the piece.  Metal clay should be torch fired for at least 1 minute and up to 2 1/2 minutes.  Because the band of my ring was a little thick, we fired it for just over 2 minutes.  The appearance of the ring doesn't change too much during firing, except that is noticeably smaller.  If the piece starts to look silvery, it is probably close to overheating.  If it starts to lose its shape, it is melting.

Once the ring is fired, it needs to be cooled.  According to Magical Metal Clay Jewelry, my primary resource for this project, the fired piece can rest for 20 minutes or be quenched in water.  My ring still looked a little like clay once it was fired, chalky white over the whole surface (see photo top right).  Once it was cool, I started the process of finishing the ring.  First I used a wire bristle brush to remove the white residue from the ring.  Once the ring was brushed, it had a soft, silvery look (see photo bottom right).  One book I read suggested only using a wire brush while the metal clay piece was in soapy water to immediately remove any metal filings from the brush itself.  I didn't bother with this, however, because I still intended to sand the ring.  I also used my files to gently smooth out any sharp edges and bumps on the ring.  I tried to use the files sparingly because I didn't want to remove too much material from the piece.  Once the ring was brushed and filed, I sanded the band with 400 grit sandpaper, then moved on to increasingly fine grits (800 then 1200).  At each stage of sanding, you will initially feel some resistance.  As you continue sanding, it will feel smoother and smoother until there is no resistance.  Then it is time to switch to a finer grit of sandpaper.  When I was finished sanding, I used an agate tipped burnishing tool to rub the surface of the ring in the loops where it was difficult to maneuver the sandpaper.  Burnishing is basically rubbing the surface of the metal, with a fair amount of pressure, to bring out the shine.  After the ring was sanded and burnished, it had a beautiful shine.  I used a little silver polish to clean any residue from the surface.

For a first attempt at metal clay, I am really happy with my ring.  Sure, it's a little rough, and not perfectly round.  I was really encouraged by how it turned out, though, and I am already brainstorming new projects.  My husband wants a tie bar, and maybe some cuff links.  My mom has already asked if I need to know her ring size.  Even if you are hesitant to make the investment of time and money to do metal clay work at home, I hope you will consider taking a metal clay class because it is really amazing stuff.  Be creative and enjoy!

PS: Even if you never work in metal clay, I highly recommend that you check out some of the books available on the subject, especially Metal Clay Beads by Barbara Becker Simon.  These books really illustrate the incredible effects that can be achieved by well-practiced metal clay artists.

Metal Clay Ring Part 1: Planning, Conditioning the Clay, Shaping, and Sanding

A preliminary note: this is a pretty labor intensive project, so I'm going to explain it in two posts.  About two years ago, I happened across a book at my library called Creative Metal Clay Jewelry: Techniques, Projects, Inspiration by CeCe Wire.  I had never heard of metal clay before and I was instantly fascinated by it.  Like sushi and Playstation, metal clay is a brilliant product of Japanese origin.  It consists of powdered metal combined with water and an organic binder to create a workable clay.  (See Magical Metal Clay Jewelry by Sue Heaser.)  Once the piece is shaped, dried, and fired, the organic binder burns away and the remaining precious metal particles fuse (sinter) together.  The creative possibilities for metal clay are limitless and I was hooked by the idea of working with it.  You can literally shape or sculpt metal into virtually any form, then fire it into a piece of pure silver (99.9% pure, unlike sterling which is 92.5% pure).  Because it is pure silver, it is softer than sterling, but tarnishes more slowly.  A word of warning, though, (and an explanation for why it took two years before I could finally work with metal clay): it is a hobby with substantial upfront costs.  Because the clay is comprised of precious metal, as the price of silver (or gold) rises, so does the price of the clay.  I think I paid about $30 for 20g. of silver metal clay six months ago (prices appear to be closer to $35 now.)  The finished pieces must also be fired, which means a gas burner, torch, or kiln.  The method you choose for firing also limits your options for clay; for example, the standard formula for Precious Metal Clay (PMC) requires a kiln for firing.  You might also need to buy related implements; shaping, sanding, and finishing the pieces requires certain tools, like wire brushes, sand paper, and a burnishing tool.
First, a few lessons I learned.  1) If a studio/art institute/guild near you offers metal clay classes, take one.  I did not and the learning curve for working with metal clay is steeper than I originally anticipated.  Metal clay is not like other types of clay you may have worked with.  It dries out very quickly--I even bought slow-dry clay and I still felt like I was rushing.  Without knowing how the clay should feel and the best ways to work with it, I became a bit frustrated.  A class probably would have eased some of this initial frustration.  2) Make sure you buy your metal clay from a reputable source.  From what I have read, the clay should come out of the package ready to work, but mine was really dry.  I bought my clay online from the seller offering the best price and I think I might have gotten an older package--ok, so it's totally true that you get what you pay for.  3) If you are new to metal clay, which I am, spend a lot of time planning your design so you can work quickly with the clay itself.  One book I read suggested creating your design in polymer clay first as a practice.  4) Be prepared to spend a fair amount of time and effort on your first project.  I decided to make a ring, which, in hindsight, was probably too ambitious for my first attempt.  I kept thinking of Monty Python and the Holy Grail as I scrapped, remoistened, and reshaped ring after ring ("that burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp.  But the fourth one . . .").

Because I had my heart set on making a ring, I purchased a wooden jewelry-making mandrel (basically a wooden cone to shape rings on) and a set of metal sizing rings.  Metal clay shrinks when it is fired, but the exact amount of shrinkage depends on the type of clay.  Magical Metal Clay Jewelry has a very helpful chart indicating how to adjust the size of your ring design to account for the shrinkage.  I wrapped a scrap of paper around my mandrel and taped it into place.  Once I had determined the ring size I needed, I slipped the appropriate sizing ring onto the mandrel and marked where it fell on the paper.  Following the directions in the aforementioned book, I moistened the clay by rolling it into a very thin disc in between sheets of plastic wrap (see photo to the right).  Then I dipped my finger in a cup of water and lightly moistened the surface of the clay disc.  Using the plastic to avoid touching the clay with my hot hands, I folded the disc in half, trapping the water inside, and kneaded the moisture into the clay.  I repeated this process until the clay was the consistency I thought it should be (although now I think it was still a little too dry . . . this is why a class would be really helpful). 
Once the clay was conditioned, I used about half of it (10 g.) to roll a single coil.  Then I shaped my ring on the paper-covered mandrel at the point where I had marked.  I had spent a lot of time coming up with an intricate design for my ring, but realized very quickly while I was working that I needed to simplify.  Like I said, it took me a few attempts but I finally came up with a workable ring design that I was happy with.  I let my design dry on the mandrel overnight.  Then I removed it, carefully peeling the paper from the inside.  Following the directions in Sue Heaser's book, I baked the ring at 360 degrees for 30 minutes on a pizza stone (I flipped it over and used the non-food side) to make sure it was completely dry.  I made a paste with a small amount of clay and a bit of water.  When my ring had cooled, I used the paste to repair a small crack that I accidentally made when I took the ring off the mandrel.  I applied it thickly with a small paintbrush, then dried the repair for several minutes with a hairdryer.

Once the ring was dry and crack free, I set to work smoothing the surface.  The clay is pretty fragile at this point, so I tried to work as carefully as possible.  This is about the point in the process when I decided that as long as the ring didn't crumble to dust or melt into a silver lump during firing, I would wear it no matter how ugly it might be when finished.  After all this effort, I was determined to get a wearable ring!  When I bought the mandrel and sizing rings, I had purchased a set of 12 needle files and I used these to smooth out any rough bumps, especially along the inside curves of the loops.  I also used very fine, 400 grit sandpaper to smooth the band of the ring inside and out, getting it to an even thickness.  I tried not to do too much work on the inside of the band because I did not want to enlarge it by taking out a lot of material.  Once the surface was as even as I could get it without breaking the piece or making the band too thin, it was time to fire it.