How to make a rag quilt

This is still a food blog, I swear! To the uninterested, I’m sorry for the back-to-back sewing posts. I’m going to do the bread bag tutorial sometime in the next month or so because several people said they want to see it, but other than that, I promise this is not going to become the “i sew stuff” blog (maybe “i sew stuff badly”!). But I’ve had this post ready to go for a couple of weeks now and I’m sick of seeing it in there with “Draft” next to it, and as the quilt featured in it has now reached its faraway destination of Australia, I can finally publish it! Food next time, no excuses!

The post…

Okay, this is going to be an incredibly long post and there will be no food and only incidental kittens, so most of you can probably just quietly leave now and return soon for the good stuff. But since I did get some interest in a tutorial for making rag quilts, I photographed the steps when I made a baby quilt for Kylie’s new baby boy, Liam. Here we go:

Rag Quilt

Necessary items
cotton flannel (NOT pre-washed)
cotton or cotton/poly batting (you could also just use more flannel)
sewing machine (unless you are extremely industrious and are willing to sew by hand)
size 16 sewing machine needle (you can try size 14, but I broke a couple 14s)
pins, quilt pins if you have them

Strongly recommended items
walking foot for sewing machine
rotary cutter and self-healing cutting mat
rag quilt snips

About the fabric

The first thing you need to do is determine the size of the quilt you want to make and the size of the squares you wish to use. This will tell you how much fabric you need to buy. I have made two sizes of quilt: adult, which contained 8″ finished squares, 7 or 8 squares wide by 8 squares tall, plus a border on all or some sides, and crib, which contained 6″ finished squares, 5 squares wide by 8 squares tall, with a border. I’ll be working with the crib size in this tutorial, and I felt 6″ was good for that, but for the adult quilts, I liked the 8″ squares. The smaller your squares, the more sewing and snipping you have to do.

Once you figure out how many squares you will use and their sizes, you need to decide on the number of fabrics you will use. I used a different fabric for each square in each row, so, for example, for the 7-square wide quilt, 7 different fabrics. Then you can do some math and figure out how much of each fabric to buy. For an adult size quilt with finished squares no larger than 8″ (you’ll be cutting 9″ squares), you can just get a yard of each fabric and it will come out perfectly. I would just get a yard for most baby quilts too, although you will probably end up having leftover fabric.

Joann’s has a large selection of cotton flannel, although I can’t stand the place. Hancock’s also has a lot. Locally, I like G Street, although their flannel selection is not nearly as good as their regular cotton selection; it’s mostly kid stuff. My favorite source for flannel is actually Etsy, because the selection available is great, and most sellers send their fabrics out within a day or two, and honestly, I find it easier to have fabric arrive in my mailbox than I do waiting for it to be cut in a store. I’ve had great luck with this method.

Sometimes sellers on Etsy will offer pre-washed fabric. Do NOT buy pre-washed flannel for rag quilts and do NOT wash the fabric before cutting or sewing it. This is opposite of what you usually do; for most sewing you always wash the fabric first. Due to the nature of rag quilts, though, washing is your final step. The quilt won’t work as well if you use washed fabric.

About the batting

I prefer Quilter’s Dream Cotton batting, which comes in easy sizes like “double”, “crib”, “queen”, etc. I say I prefer this brand, although to be honest, it’s the only kind I’ve used. I really liked it though and have no desire to try anything else. When they were out of all-cotton, I bought a package of cotton-poly, but I haven’t used it yet. It’s just a little less soft and I’m sure it won’t be a problem. G Street Fabrics sells Quilter’s Dream. Other fabric stores may have other brands. I’m sure they are all pretty similar. Instead of actual batting, you could also use additional flannel, either one layer or two.

About the thread

Buy a good quality, like Coats & Clark. You need a lot for quilting (probably more than one spool), but you’ll be sewing through many layers at some points and you want something that won’t break. Buy a color or colors that go with your color scheme. I used “winter white” for most of my quilts, which goes with just about everything.

About the walking foot

A walking foot is a special sewing machine foot that has feed dogs on the bottom of it, so the fabric is being gripped and pushed through the needle area evenly from the top and bottom. This is important when you are trying to sew through several layers; it keeps the layers moving in tandem. It’s hard to sew a quilt sandwich without having the layers shift, causing puckers, unless you use a walking foot. I know from experience. Many machines come with a walking foot, but if yours does not have one, you can buy a universal walking foot for about $15-$20, which I think would be money well spent, even for a single rag quilt, as it will save you a lot of frustration.

About the rag quilt snips

Like the walking foot, I feel some of you may feel this is an investment you don’t care to make if only ever make a single rag quilt, and I can’t lie: it is a rather single-purpose tool. But the snipping part is a pain, I’ll be up front about that, and I can’t imagine doing it with regular scissors. The Friskars rag quilt snips are a good price on Amazon, and Joann’s sells them as well, and I know they often send out coupons, so maybe you can get them for even less that way.

About the rotary cutter and self-healing cutting mat

You can certainly cut your fabric and batting with regular fabric scissors. But a rotary cutter makes it much easier, and unlike the snips, you’ll find you use them often for other projects. I’m pretty terrible at sewing, so a lot of what I do is based on straight edges, and the rotary cutter is a huge help. These can be a bit pricey, especially if you get a larger mat, but you don’t want a mat that’s too small.

Okay, now that we’ve discussed the supplies, I think we’re ready to begin!

Once you’ve amassed all of your fabrics and batting, it’s time to cut them into squares. Your flannel squares should be cut 1″ larger all around than the final size, so if you are doing 8″ finished squares, you will be cutting 9″ squares out of the flannel. Your batting squares will be cut the same size as the finished square. I usually put a half-size, solid-color border, either on the top and bottom, or on all four sides of my quilts. These are rectangles; to size them take half of the finished square size and add an inch to get your height. The width is the same size you cut for the squares. So for a border rectangle for a quilt with 8″ finished squares, your border rectangle dimensions would be 9″ x 5″. For 6″ finished squares, they would be 7″ x 4″. I’ll show you this later. For now, lets start with our interior squares.

You need to cut two squares for each block: a front and a back. So if you are making a quilt with 8 rows of 8 squares each, and each square is a different fabric, you need to cut 16 squares of each fabric. If you are using regular scissors, just cut these squares. I’ll demonstrate doing it with a rotary cutter.

If your flannel is very wrinkled, iron it first. I don’t believe you need to be quite as fanatic about perfectly pressed flannel for rag quilts as you do for most sewing, but you definitely do not want heavy creases or big wrinkles.

Fold the fabric selvage to selvage (the selvages are the finished sides), ensuring it is wrinkle-free and smooth. Lay it on the mat so the selvages are on the left and line the folded fabric up so it is straight, using the grid on the mat. Use the rotary cutter and a ruler to cut the selvages off, and also trim the bottom to square it. (I couldn’t take photos of myself cutting, but this is a great tutorial with photos.)

Use the ruler and rotary cutter to cut strips from top to bottom, the width of your flannel squares. (Remember, that’s 1″ more than the finished square size.) If the grid on your mat is ruled (and most are), unless you start at “0”, make sure you are cutting at the right inch mark! If you butt your fabric up against the 1″ mark, you need to cut at the 10″ mark for a 9″ square.

Take one of your strips and put the newly-cut edge to the left again, and square it with the grid. Cut into squares.

You will end up with pairs of squares when you do this, and they will be lined up in the right direction, back to back, just like you need them. Since you are cutting two squares each time, you need to make the same number of squares as need for your quilt (not double, as you would if you were cutting one ply at a time). Make a nice stack.

If you are using a border, those pieces need to be cut in rectangles as described above, but the process is the same:

Next up is the batting. Open the package and unfold the batting a while before you use it, to help it lose any creases. Then cut it like you did the flannel, but make the squares the same size as your finished squares are to be, i.e., 8″ for an 8″ finished square quilt.

Don’t forget to cut batting for the border as well:

Next it’s time to assemble the quilt sandwiches. As I mentioned, if you used the rotary cutter method, you ended up with perfect sandwiches that just need batting stuffed between them, so this step is pretty easy. If you used regular scissors and didn’t cut from folded fabric, make sure the front and back of any fabric with a design that has an orientation match are lined up correctly.

Take the top piece off the sandwich and position a square of batting in the middle. It doesn’t need to be exact, so don’t measure it or anything, but just line it up evenly on all sides.

Then put the top back on. I pin the large squares; not in the center, but a bit above so I can sew them later without removing the pin. Really flannel doesn’t move around on batting, so honestly, the pinning is optional.

Sandwich all of the squares, including the border pieces if you are using them. (See, i didn’t bother pinning the border pieces; they just stay in place.)

Now it’s time to sew! If you’ve never used a walking foot before, consult your machine’s manual on how to install it, but I took this photo because the first time I tried to use one, I didn’t understand where the weird arm went. It grabs onto the screw that holds the needle in. Speaking of the needle, for quilting the sandwiches, you can use a standard size 11, but later I’m going to make you swap it out for a bigger one.

I mentioned in the post where I showed you the quilt I made my mom that I free-motion quilted the squares. I didn’t do that for Liam’s quilt because I didn’t want one of the first things the boy learns to focus on to be my horrible quilting. I can show you how I did my mom’s quilt in a later post if you’d like, but unless you already know how to do free motion quilting (which requires a different presser foot), just sew an X in each square, from corner to corner. This is the traditional, normal way to make rag quilt anyway.

For the border rectangles, just sew a straight line down the middle, lengthwise. Corner squares get an “L” as shown in the picture. Notice that for this quilt I used a decorative stitch, despite my owner’s manual telling me not to, because I don’t follow rules I don’t believe in. DON’T DO THIS. I’m pretty sure I broke my walking foot by using the decorative stitch. Fortunately, I had a backup from my old sewing machine, but using only the special walking foot stitch with the walking foot is now a rule I believe in. It’s also much more obvious when this fancy stitch doesn’t line up from square to square, so until you are an expert (which I am not), I suggest using a straight stitch in a color matching the fabric, with the goal of having the stitching blend in, not stand out.

Closeup of the corner square:

Now the fun part – laying out the design. You probably already have an idea how what you want it to look like, but what I do next is lay the whole quilt out on the floor and make sure I like the order of the squares. The kittens are a huge help with this step (ugh, actually the drive me crazy!!).

Once the quilt looks the way you want it to, it’s time to pin the rows together. When you pin, pin back side to back side, then open the fold open.

Make a chain of each row.

I then roll each row up – be sure to keep them in order!

Although I try to be fairly neat when I pin the squares together, when I’m ready to sew, I unroll two squares, then remove the pin and very carefully line the two pieces up so their edges exactly match.

Then sew together with a 1/2″ seam allowance – that is, so the needle is 1/2″ from the edge of the fabric.

Keep unrolling squares, carefully aligning, and sewing squares until the row is finished. Make sure every seam you stitch is on the same side as the others.

When you have sewn together every row, it’s time to switch your needle to a size 16, which is necessary for sewing rows together as you will be going through many layers in some parts. I was unable to use even a size 14 without it breaking. Size 16 works like a charm, however.

I sew the rows together starting at the bottom and going up. It’s really easy to get confused about orientation when you are pinning rows together, so go slow and check after pinning every time! Place the bottom row in front of you so the quilt top is facing down (that is, the seams are facing the ground), and the designs are oriented correctly as you are looking at them. Take the next row and place it on top of the first, but so that the quilt top (the side with the seams) is facing up and the design is facing away from you.

Pin together, about 2″ from the edge, once in each square. I line each square up, making sure the seams match exactly. If you didn’t cut or sew some of the squares perfectly, you can make small (very small; you do want to be careful with the cutting and sewing) adjustments by bunching one square up slightly to make it fit. Then open the quilt and look at the rows and make sure you pinned them correctly. DO THIS EVERY TIME! Like I said, it’s very easy to get disoriented, and I think it gets easier to get confused the more rows you do. Here I am checking that it’s pinned correctly.

When you are sure it’s pinned correctly, fold it back on itself to be sewn, and again, sew the rows together 1/2″ from the edge. It helps to pull your sewing table away from the wall if it’s against one, so the quilt has somewhere to go.

This starts out relatively easy but gets more challenging to maneuver the more rows you add! But it also gets more exciting because you’re almost done.

When all rows have been sewn, sew a line all around the entire border, 1/2″ from the edge. (Do this even if you didn’t use border rectangles.)

Lay the quilt out on the floor…and get comfortable; you’re going to be there a while.

Get your rag quilt snips if you have them.

Now start snipping all of the seams – all of them – about 1/4″ apart, being very careful not to snip the seam. Don’t do this all in one sitting; you’ll go crazy and your hand and back will be killing you. I usually take at least one meal break and/or try to get out of the house in the middle of it.

Personally, I hate this part, but at least I always have company.

Don’t forget to the do the edges too.

Now, grab a book you’ve been wanting to read and take the quilt to a laundromat. It needs to be washed and dried in commercial machines the first time because it will produce too much lint for home machines. Wash it in cold water (detergent is optional), then dry on medium or high heat. The next time it can be washed in a regular machine, and it should only become softer and more raggedy with each washing, so wash as often as you’d like, but always clean the lint trap afterwards. When I get mine home, I like to tug at each of the seams and make sure I didn’t snip any. I found a little hole in one of my quilts from snipping a seam, so I went and sewed it back together.

Whew! That’s it! Hopefully that helps someone out there. I think rag quilts are great for beginning quilters and others who aren’t great at or lack confidence in sewing – and all of those categories include me. They are fairly easy and don’t take so long you get sick of it or frustrated. (It generally takes me about a week to complete one, though if you were determined, you could do it in a weekend.) My final tip is this: make a practice quilt for yourself before making any for gifts, and be easy on yourself about the practice quilt. Expect to make mistakes. I made my practice quilt for Mark (which is the same as making it for me) before making any others, and I’m very glad I did, as I made a few mistakes. None of them were things he would notice, but I learned a lot from each of them and didn’t make them in subsequent quilts. When I finished the practice quilt, we had a very useful (if not entirely perfect) new blanket (which you can never have too many of), and I felt a lot more confident about my sewing skills. I wouldn’t have wanted to give the first one to anyone but my husband, but I went into my second quilt knowing I could make something I’d feel comfortable giving someone else. And even though I hate sewing in general, I actually had fun making these. So I think it’s a great project.

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How to make a lunch bag tote

I know I keep mentioning that I hate and am terrible at sewing, but then I keep posting sewing tutorials, which I guess may seem odd. One thing I am slightly good at sewing, though, is bags and purses. That’s because I have a terrible time finding purses I like so I have to keep resorting to making my own. Well, I’m set for purses right now, but the other day the bag I’ve been toting my lunches in, some cheap little thing I got at Whole Foods, tore. It wasn’t really big enough to begin with, nor strong enough to carry the Pyrex bowls I take my lunch in (I will only microwave in glass). So this weekend I decided I was going to make a bag to carry my lunch in, and hey, that’s food-related, right? So I made a tutorial. I know several of you are waiting for the new bread bag tutorial I promised, and it’s coming, but I have to go to the fabric store first and I’m just not ready for that yet. (After a positively disastrous visit to JoAnn’s during President’s Day weekend, I sent my parents an email entitled My Black Heart Seethes with a Burning Hatred of JoAnn’s about my experience, which they seemed to find hilarious, but I have yet to recover.) In the meantime here is how I made a lunch bag.

Lunch Tote Bag

1/2 yard cotton fabric
1/2 yard another cotton fabric in a coordinating color
loop turner (optional)

Wash and press your fabrics. Cut two 14″ x 15″ pieces of each fabric (for a total of four squares). I prefer using a rotary cutter but regular scissors work just as well. (I cut both squares at the same time, on folded fabric.)

Cut two 2″ x 17″ strips of each fabric; these will become the handles.

Pin right sides together of one of the fabrics, leaving the top side open.

Sew the three sides, leaving a 1/2″ seam allowance.

Open the seams near one bottom corner, then pull either side of the fabric away from each other and flatten. This is easier to show in a picture than describe:

Take a ruler and find the line that is 4″ across under the point of the corner, where the seam is at exactly 2″; use a pencil or fabric marker to draw this line. Again this is easier to show in a picture:

Sew the line you drew. Don’t forget to lock the stitches by sewing backwards for a few stitches at the beginning and end.

Trim the corner off about half an inch from the new seam.

Repeat with the other corner. You now have an inside-out bag.

Follow the above procedures with the other fabric. Turn the lining fabric right-side out …

… but leave the exterior fabric inside out.

Place the lining inside the exterior; right sides will be facing each other.

Next make the straps. There are two ways to make them. Since I hate ironing and have a loop turner, I will show you that way. I’ll also describe what to do if you don’t have a loop turner. This is what to do if you have a loop turner:

Pin one piece of the lining fabric to one piece of the exterior fabric, right sides together.

Sew both of the long sides, leaving a 1/2″ seam allowance. For the loop turner I have, I also have to sew one of the short sides.

I have a tube that I slid into the open side of the strap …

… and push it all the way to the end.

Then I push the rod through the tube …

… until it comes out the other end. Then pull it all the way through.

If you don’t have a loop turner, fold 1/2″ over on both long sides of all four strap pieces, so you end up with a 1″ wide strip, and press so it holds the creases. Place a pressed lining piece onto a pressed exterior piece, right sides out, so the folds are sandwiches inside. Pin.

Whichever method you used for the straps, edgestitch both sides; if you are using the second method of making the straps, you’ll actually be sewing the two sides together in this step. For turned straps, you are just flattening them and making them neat.

Next you will be attaching the straps to the bag. Position one strap so the exterior fabric is facing up and it makes a U, with the ends meeting the top of the bag. You are just positioning the strap, it will NOT be sewn as it is shown in this picture.

Move this strap INSIDE the top two layers of the bag: between the right side of the exterior fabric and the right side of the lining fabric (which are facing each other). Place each of the ends 2″ from the side seams. Pin.

Again, the strap is caught between the right sides of the inside and outside fabrics:

Pin the other three strap ends as well, then pin the rest of the top edge of the fabric. Most sewing machines have a removable area that makes the sewing surface smaller for sewing sleeves and the like. If yours does, remove this piece. Sew a seam almost all of the way around the top of the bag, sewing the straps in as you go, leaving a 1/2″ seam allowance. DO NOT FINISH THE SEAM! Leave a 3″ gap in the seam, which you will use to turn the bag right side out.

Here is the hole I left:

Pull the bag through the hole so you see the right sides of both fabrics. You’ll also pull the straps through.

Push the lining into the bag.

Pin the hole together, making sure the edges are turned under.

Edge stitch (stitch as close to the edge of the fabric as possible) all the way around the top of the bag, closing the hole in the process.

And that’s it!

Hey guess what – it’s reversible!

These are the Pyrex dishes I use, so the bag was sized to fit them.

Here is a prototype I made using cotton flannel. It’s slightly less wide.

I also made a bigger bag for toting library books and shopping for smaller, non-grocery items. It also has longer straps so I can use it as a shoulder bag.

The library tote was a bit difficult to photograph, even with the assistance of kittens.

Speaking of kittens, they aren’t kittens any longer. 🙁 Their first birthday was March 9 so I guess they are just the boring old cats now, but they’ll always be “the kittens” to me.

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How to make a heavy-duty cat toy

No food tonight, so if you don’t have or don’t like cats, come back in a day or two for an on-topic, food-related post. If you have playful cats that are somewhat destructive, then stick around.

The kittens have a bazillion toys, which is good because they love to play. They are quite capable of amusing themselves, but their favorite game is playing with a human-held toy on a string or stick; usually this is a feather on the end of a string, attached to a stick. They leap around like nuts and are generally extremely amusing. However, they are very hard on their toys and tend to destroy them quickly. They eat through strings, so many toys get tied back together again and again until a string that started out several feet long is suddenly a few inches long. They even break the sticks the strings dangle from. And of course, they destroy any feathers on their toys within seconds. And you don’t usually know if feathers were humanely sourced. So I set out to make a heavy-duty dangle-type toy they would have a harder time destroying.

What you need:

various ribbons
about 1 yard cord elastic

plastic cord/cable cover (for hiding electrical cords along walls), about a yard long

I went to the hardware store and scouted out things to use for my “stick”. I tried several different things and what worked best was this Cordmate Cord Cover:
. I think this is the same thing; it was a little cheaper at Home Depot, where they also had longer lengths you can buy separately and cut to fit, which was even cheaper. I bought the kit with 3 36″ lengths because I wanted 36″ and don’t have a saw. It was $10, but I can make two more toys.

I bought a few different types of red ribbon for the “feather”. They were 55 cents to $3 a yard at the fabric store, although I happened to get 25% off those prices. I chose red because I have a theory that cats see red best, and I know red was definitely Tigger’s favorite color. The color, of course, doesn’t matter, so get what you want. I got one type of ribbon that was lightly wired, to provide a bit of the stiffness you’d find in a feather. I got another one that was more gossamer, like the soft parts of a feather. And I got a heavier velvet one that was strong enough to attach to the string to without tearing. So pick out some ribbons and then cut them into lengths about 6 to 8″ long.

Take two pieces of the sturdiest ribbon you have and line them up, back to back, then sew a buttonhole near the top. (If you don’t have a sewing machine, you can just snip a hole, but sewing a buttonhole will really help reinforce it.)

Put a pin at one end of the buttonhole and use a seam ripper to rip the middle of the hole open. (The pin stops you from ripping too far.)

Arrange the rest of the ribbons in a way that they fan out a bit and then put them between the two you’ve sewn together with the buttonhole. Pin.

Sew all ribbons together just under the buttonhole. I used a zigzag stitch and went back and forth a few times to make it as secure as possible. You can do this by hand if you don’t have a sewing machine.

Cut a length of the elastic. I have found that 30″ the ideal length, so cut 32″ or so. Tie one end through the buttonhole and trim the end. Other than possibly some very sleek, round elastics, most of them will tie a very tight knot that won’t come undone (I had to cut the knots on the prototypes I made that I didn’t like).

The cord cover comes with a self-adhesive strip on it for attaching to a wall. You could leave it on and just not peel the paper off, but eventually it’s going to start coming off as you handle it and get all sticky. So just get rid of it now. It took me about two or three minutes to rub the adhesive off with my thumb. I tried using a razor to scrape it off, but the thumb was a lot faster and easier.

The cord cover is also flat on one side (the side you peeled the adhesive off of), and rounded on the other.

Put the flat side on a table, hanging over by an inch or two, and then drill a hole, about 1/2″ down, through both sides. (I love projects that involve using my grandfather’s drill!)

Push the other end of the elastic through one of the holes, then pull it out through the top of the rod. You may need to use tweezers to pull it up, but I just kept pushing it until it popped up on its own.

Tie the elastic.

And that’s it!

The cats love it! It’s very, very, very hard to take pictures of them playing with it, though. I really need a video camera to properly catch it, and I should, because they can be hilarious. Gomez especially does these bizarre contortions mid-air that are amazing, but I just can’t get them on camera! So these pictures are pretty shoddy, but they’re the best I got at catching them in the air:

Torticia tends to get lazy and starts lying on her back, expecting the toy to come to her, although I always go and pick her back up and make her play properly because she’s getting pudgy!

It’s a bit hard to make Mezzie out in front of the glare on the glass behind him, but here he is leaping from his cat tree.

And doesn’t something look really wrong with the angle of Tort Reform’s head in this one?

Finally, since this is a cat-only post, here is a sequence of pictures I took the other night after giving Gomez catnip. He’s a surly drunk! Mezzie likes the ‘nip, but Tortellini doesn’t do more than just kind of sniff it daintily and look at Mez like he’s crazy for eating it. But just seconds after eating some and rolling around it in, Mezzian always starts beating his poor sister up!

Fortunately, Tort Reform just puts him right back in his place.

Okay, that’s it for tonight – back soon with food, I promise!

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Bread Bag Tutorial

Bread is sort of my “thing”. I think I’m invited to some parties just because it’s assumed I’ll bring homemade bread. When I go to friends’ houses, I’m often bearing the gift of bread. As I like to give away bread, I bought special paper bread bags from King Arthur Flour a few years ago, to have something to transport the loaves in. They were good bags, with tiny holes to allow air circulation, which is good for crusty breads, and they came in packs of 100. I realized the other day that I was just about out of the paper bags so I went to King Arthur to order some more and was dismayed to find they no longer sell them. Thus began the great hunt for paper bread bags. I can’t find them anywhere in packs of less than 500, and even when I thought maybe I’d just buy 500 and sell half of them on eBay, none of them seemed as good as the kind I had. I was beginning to get very annoyed.

My googling for paper bread bags gave me the idea, however, to make cloth bags. Since I’m already making cloth gift bags, I don’t know why this thought didn’t occur to me earlier. The best part about this idea is the fact that linen tea towels are the perfect size for making bread bags. That’s my favorite part because it means no cutting – I can’t cut in a straight line even with a rotary cutter – and no finishing seams! AND I get to shop for vintage tea towels, which is fun!

This is a very quick, easy, inexpensive, and useful craft item. If you don’t bake your own bread, these bags are good storage for artisan breads you buy in a bakery as well. As I’ve said before, I’m AWFUL at sewing, so if I can do this, you can too.

Bread Bag

1 linen tea towel (14″ – 18″ wide by 30″ – 36″ tall)
string or ribbon
large safety pin

To determine how much string you need for a regular artisan loaf bag, multiply the width of the towel by two and add 10″. So if your towel is 16″ wide, multiply 16 x 2 to get 32, then add 10 to get 42″. If you are making a baguette bag, just add 10″ to the width of the towel, so for a 16″ wide towel, cut 26″ string.

Wash and iron your tea towel. Now, ironing is something I never do. I don’t even know where this iron came from; I found it in the laundry room and I think it’s the landlord’s. But some of my towels were pretty wrinkled and I have a hard enough time trying to sew in a straight line on smooth fabric, so I figured I’d better iron them.

Unfortunately, I made a horrible mistake in deciding to iron on the dining room table (I put a bath towel on it)…when I picked up the bath towel, I discovered I’d done THIS to the table:

Which is bad news because Fortinbras bought and refinished that table for me as a gift. I asked him what I should do and he said, “buy an ironing board like every other American; what’s wrong with you?!” He also said he’d look at the photo I sent him and call me back with advice but I haven’t head from him since so I think he’s plotting ways to strangle me. (Actually, F-dog is extremely busy right now and I shouldn’t have been bothering him in the first place.) So, um, iron your towel some different way than what I did. As for me, I’ve learned my lesson and will never iron anything ever again.

So anyway, here’s my ironed tea towel. This tutorial is for a regular bread bag. I’ll explain the how to make a baguette bag at the end (it’s actually even easier).

Fold the top and bottom edges over (wrong sides together), by about an inch (depending on how wide your string is), and pin. Note that the top of some tea towels is already folded over like this so you can insert a dowel for hanging. If your towel is like this, half your work is done for you: just pin the bottom edge.

Sew close to the original edge.

When you’ve done both the top and the bottom, fold the towel in half, top to bottom, right sides together, and pin.

Sew these two seams, being very careful to start at your first seam, that is, don’t sew the loop you created above closed. Look where my needle is in the picture and start sewing there.

Here is the bag with both sides sewn up:

Here’s a closeup of the top edge, you can see where my side seams start below the top hem:

Stick a large safety pin through one end of your string. It may help to put a bit of tape on the end of the string first so it doesn’t unravel.

Insert the safety pin into one of of the top hems.

Holding the safety pin through the fabric in one hand, scrunch the fabric onto the pin, then pull the pin through a bit.

Keep going until the safety pin comes out the other side.

Then stick it in the other hem and repeat the process.

Pull the string so the ends are even and knot the ends.

Turn the bag right side out, and you’re done!

To close, just pull the strings.

To make a baguette bag, hem just the top of the towel as described above, then fold the towel in half lengthwise (right sides together) and sew the side and the bottom. Insert the string in the same fashion. These bags won’t be long enough for a real French baguette, but they are long enough for baguettes made in most home ovens, and they’d probably be plenty big enough for storing leftovers of store-bought baguettes.

Here are all the bags I made today. My favorite towels are the souvenir travel towels. I just got two map of Scotland towels today, too, that I’m excited to turn into bags.

Here are some loaves of Hamelman’s pain au levain (which is fancy French for sourdough) I baked today:

I finally got an oval brotform:

Let bread cool completely before storing if you can, although linen will breath enough that I’ll feel confident slipping hot loaves in when I’m in a hurry to get somewhere with them, which is often.

Now, my theory of these bags is this: I’ve bought (and am still buying) a bunch of old tea towels for a couple of bucks each, which I’m going to make into bags in batches as I have a chance. I can probably make 5 or 6 in an hour. I plan to make an initial stash of 25 to 30 bags, a few of which I’ll keep for my own use, but most of which I’ll use for transporting bread to other people. The first time I take a bread bag to someone, it will be a gift: they keep it and use it (I hope). There are some people that routinely get bread from me; these people would eventually end up with more bread bags than they can use, so they can just start returning the extras to me to be refilled. Most of the bags will just be given away, though, which is good, because making these bags is the perfect craft for me: it’s cheap, it’s quick, and although it involves the sewing machine (usually a huge no-no in Renae crafts), it’s kind of foolproof. So I’ll just keep an eye out for cute vintage towels, buy them as I see them, and periodically make a bunch of new bags.

I used my two Australia bags today in honor of the fact that one year ago today, I was in Australia.

I think I might also branch out and make potato and onion bags as well.

Bonus Brachtune picture:

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In which I talk about cats but not food

I was reprimanded for not having enough cat pictures lately … sorry.

I’ve just been so busy! But then I realized I had a bunch of pictures on my iPhone I’d been saving to share with you, all of cats. In fact, there were so many I’m going to make them their own post. Rest assured that I plan to have a food post for you later tonight or tomorrow, though, so if you aren’t among the cat lovers out there, you can sign off now and come back tomorrow for the food!

I took this series of pictures of Brachtune on my phone shortly after Mark’s birthday, when I was enjoying a slice of his birthday cake for dessert one evening. Brachtune was dining with me:

Suddenly, she approaches:

When she thought I wasn’t looking, she had a little snoot of the cake to see if it smelled like tuna:

And finally attacks!

I eat a lot of meals looking at this view, by the way:

In other cat news, this is the cat I’m going to have one day very soon:

His name is Nakata. I love him.

And okay, I’m not sure how soon I’m really going to have him because I must come up with an elaborate, foolproof plan for stealing him from my friends Dale and Nona, to whom he doesn’t even actually belong. They are long-term cat sitting him and another cat for a military friend of theirs. And his name isn’t actually Nakata. But get this: I fell in love with him on sight the first time I met him and immediately re-named him Nakata (from Bogey), which has been on my list of possible cat names ever since I read Kafka on the Shore. I thought the name sounded neat for a cat, especially since it’s the name of a character who can communicate with cats. Cool, huh? And I instantly decided that The Cat Formerly Known As Bogey looked like a Nakata. What I didn’t know at the time I issued this new name is that Nakata is actually from Japan! Nona’s friend rescued him when she was stationed there. Nakata is Japanese, like his name! NAKATA SHALL ALSO BE MINE. I feel I have a special bond with Nakata. He comes over to me and lies his tiny little head (actually, it’s quite large; he’s a substantially sized kitty) on my lap every time I am there! My heart, it melts.

This is the cat that really belongs to Dale and Nona, Pot Pie. She’s also super cute and I love her, but I’m not planning to steal her.

Finally, this picture is a year and a half old, but I mentioned in one of my recent San Francisco posts that I go looking for and chase around random and stray cats when I’m traveling because I really miss having a cat around to pet, and it reminded me of this cat I found at the beach last summer, lounging on a Harley. I really want to know if the bike belongs to the cat’s human:

There was also the time in New Orleans when Pig found a Siamese in a bookstore (you have no idea how much I love bookstores that have cats, by the way). Ended badly for Pig:

(You’d think I’d get kicked out of bookstores more often than I do…)

Finally, when I searched my galleries for those older pictures, I came across this picture, which made me mist up a bit:

I miss my handsome orange boy.

Right, well, time to hit Wegmans, make dinner, and make a post that’s actually about eating food, not terrorizing or stealing cats.

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Koala Park

I don’t patronize zoos. I think it is inherently wrong for humans to cage and gawk at animals, and when I find myself in situations where I see a caged animal, I get rather upset. I either have to hold back tears, or I get very angry. So a zoo would be a bad place for me even if I were willing to give them my money. Smucky, however, confronted me with the fact that the only place I was going to see a kangaroo while in Australia was in a zoo. This despite the fact that nearly every Australian I talked to spent about 15 minutes telling me what a horrible problem all the rampant kangaroos are and how they need to be culled (“culled” here is a euphemism for “killed”). And also despite the story Smucky told me last year about the night he and his friends were at a beach house (not Smucky’s family’s in Mollymook) when they heard what they thought was a burglar on the front porch, only to be very surprised to find themselves face to face with a prowling kangaroo when they opened the door. So you’d think I’d be bumping into them everywhere!

But I guess I can’t realistically expect to find kangaroos hopping around the streets of Sydney. Smuck suggested we visit Koala Park, where I could not only see but pet a kangaroo, instead of a regular zoo. I liked that Koala Park doesn’t have any non-native animals, so the animals are in their normal environment. And I liked that they do koala rescue. And I liked that some of the animals – including all of the koalas – are allowed to roam the entire park at their will: none of the koalas are kept in cages. So I agreed to go. I’ll be honest though: I was a bit torn about this. I still have major issues with even a place like Koala Park. Some of the animals were in cages. And even the animals that weren’t are still kept within the confines of the park (although the koalas could probably escape through the tree tops if they wanted, though I doubt it’d be a good idea on their part). And although I confess I really did want to pat a koala pretty badly, I do not agree with humans patting koalas for kicks. So it is with some amount of guilt and a large feeling of hypocrisy that I present these photos. I am glad I had a chance to interact with a koala and some kangaroos, but at the same time, I think it is wrong. I’m planning to donate some money to an Australian animal welfare site to help offset my sin, though I also don’t think that throwing money at your wrongs is the answer either.

But on with the photos! One of the first animals we saw as the wombat. I thought wombats were much smaller than this!

We also saw a wallaby, which looks like a small kangaroo:

Smucky’s been trying to tell me for years that they have penguins in Australia, which I thought was crazy talk. “You mean Antartica,” I’d say. “No, they are Australian,” he’d insist. Turns out he wasn’t lying! These are called “little penguins” and apparently Tux the Linux mascot is in fact an Australian penguin.

Smucky had also been warning me about the cassowary for quite some time. He described it as “prehistoric-looking and very scary”. He got the prehistoric-looking part right, but I thought he was a pretty charming guy!

Probably my least favorite part of Koala Park was the dingo cage. I didn’t feel the dingos had nearly enough room, especially as they were all very frisky. I thought they were quite cute and looked friendly, although you have no idea how many times I heard “the dingo got your baby” when I was near their cage. One of the park employees had a big jeep in the cage at one point as he was doing some yard work or something and the dingos were all running around and jumping on it and all over it. I felt very sad that these poor animals were contained the way they were.

Echnidas look like large hedgehogs with anteater snouts and they waddle around in a most delightful manner.

As we were walking by, this little guy started shouting demands our way! “Got a cracker? Got a cracker?” he kept repeating, until Luke gave him some leftover ‘roo food to shut him up.

Smucky said that the emus were usually allowed to roam freely in the kangaroo petting area, but they were behind bars the day we were there, which seemed just as well with Smucky who finds them a little nerve-wracking. Since they were in a cage, I was unable to recreate my family’s famous “Carol Amongst Emus” photo: a shot of my mom surrounded by emus at the Catoctin Petting Zoo, which we visited when I was young. Maybe mum will post it for you when she sees this post.

Pig managed to get in on some emu action, however.

Now the part you’ve all been waiting for, maybe….the koalas! The park has 3 koala feeding times during which visitors can pat – if they are lucky – a koala. Koalas are nocturnal animals and as they are given free range of the park, most of them were actually asleep high in the trees above our heads and invisible to us, however, they select a few to hang out in an enclosure during feeding time. Here are some of the sleepyheads:

The park employee selects one koala to wake up and feed, although visitors are told that if the koala hops down and runs off or if he climbs back up in the tree, they are not to follow him or try to pat him. You’re only allowed to pat him if he feels like cooperating. Fortunately, our koala decided an extra serving of eucalyptus was worth being manhandled by about 20 children and tourists.

Koalas sure love eucalyptus. It’s the only food they consume, and their only source of water. We were told if you want to give a koala a treat, you give him more eucalyptus.

He was so soft! His fur isn’t silky like a cat, rather more fluffy like a sheep, but oh my god, he seems so cuddly! I just wanted to hug him and ran off with him!

I mean, who can resist this face?!

Next it was time for the kangaroos. They are in a large gated area into which you can freely walk, and you can purchase kangaroo food to hand-feed them. Kangaroo food appears to be Cheerios. Not sure how natural that is.

What I found very interesting was there were no employees in the kangaroo enclosure, so they must really trust both their kangaroos and the visitors! I’d think in America they’d be so worried someone would get bitten and sue that someone would be on-hand at all times to supervise, but this place was very laid back. You just wander in and start patting ‘roos.

Having watched a lot of Bugs Bunny cartoons as a kid, I was under the impression that all kangaroos bounce up and down constantly and box people. Turns out they are pretty lazy.

(I gave this one a lot of food for being such a good sport about Pig’s antics.)

A few did get up and hop around a bit.

But probably the best one was the mum and joey. Awwww!

And that was the last day of my trip! The following morning Luke and I began our 30-hour journey back home (which oddly ended just 5 hours after it began…) I have to give a shout-out to Qantas. I was very worried that the 14-hour flights to and from Sydney were going to be utter hell, and that I’d start to feel confined and that they’d mess up my meals and I wouldn’t be able to eat…and if I don’t eat every few hours, I get nasty. Qantas, however, is the ONLY airline that has managed to serve me an entirely vegan meal every time. British Airways usually does okay, but always manages to give me butter or non-vegan salad dressing. All four meals Qantas served were entirely vegan and actually edible! And I got served first! And booze was free! Plus I took a sleeping pill that knocked me out for almost the whole trip. Though it was two and a half times longer than the United flights to and from DC, the Qantas Sydney flights were actually much better. Which is great because I definitely plan to visit Australia again!

Funny story about coming home, though: since we switched airlines in LAX, Luke and I had to collect our luggage there and turn it back in for our next flight. As we are waiting for our bags to come out, a TSA employee with a sniffer dog approached us. The dog was all over my carry-on bag. “Do you have any fruit in your bag?” The TSA guy asked me. “No,” I replied, then, “oh, wait, I have a fruit cup!” I had purchased a fruit cup in the Sydney airport to eat on the plane, but then Qantas served me fruit and I never ate it. The TSA guy inspected my fruit cup, returned it, marked something on my landing card, and went away. Five minutes later the dog returns and is all over my bag again. “Do you have fruit in your bag?” the guy asked me again. “Uh, the same fruit I had last time,” I said. It seems he had forgotten he’d already found my illicit fruit. After I went through Customs, because I was branded a fruit smuggler, I had to go through extra security, whereupon my fruit cup was confiscated and I was reprimanded. WHO KNEW THEY HAD FRUIT-SNIFFING DOGS AT LAX? THEN they threw away the bottle of water I ALSO forgot I had. Frankly, I can see the fruit thing, sort of, but these liquid restrictions are really getting on my nerves. I’m pretty sure it’s just a way to increase bottled water sales in airports.

Once your favorite fruit smuggler was allowed on the United flight, we were delayed for FOUR HOURS – on the plane – for various mechanical and missing-pilot reasons. The final hour was because – and I’m not making this up – the IT department at LAX could not fix a broken printer and the pilot wasn’t allowed to take off until they had a printed copy of the repair documents. I happened to be seated behind Michael Chertoff, the ex-secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. I never would have recognized him, but Luke did. I kicked him. It was an accident but I didn’t feel bad about it. Take that, Homeland Security!

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The Greatest Cat in the World: Tigger, 1993 – 2009

I didn’t make this post while I was in Australia because I thought it would upset me too much and I was concentrating on not letting it ruin my vacation. A few days after I left, Mark had to let Tigger go. He’d had kidney disease for several years but had only in the last month or so shown any real symptoms. When I booked my trip back in October, it was with no small amount of apprehension that something would happen to one or both of the cats right before the trip or while I was gone, but as they both seemed in relatively decent health at the time, I felt I couldn’t live my life based on “what ifs”. To my immense sadness, the worst case scenario came true and Tigger fell ill just before I left. He spent Wednesday night in the animal hospital. When I retrieved him on Thursday, he was not himself, although he was very clingy and did not appear to be in pain. I spent Thursday night with him sleeping on me and when I said goodbye to him on Friday when leaving for the airport, it was with tears in my eyes because part of me was sure it was for the last time. And unfortunately it was. He declined rapidly after I left and after another visit to the vet, it was decided between Mark, the doctors, and I that the time had come to let him go.

I can not express to you how glad I am that I have such a marvelous husband who took care of this for me. While I was gallivanting around the globe, Mark was home shoving several pills a day down Brachtune’s throat, cleaning up after Tigger in his final days (apparently he became a bit incontinent), taking both cats to the animal hospital (Brachtune also needs sub-q fluids every other day), and generally giving both cats the enormous amounts of love they need. Although my heart breaks at the thought that I was not there during Tigger’s final moments, I am comforted by the fact that Mark loved the little tyke as much as I did, and that Tigger loved him too – as much as he loved me. I don’t know that I would have felt comfortable about this with anyone other than Mark, but in the 8 years they knew each other, Mark and Tigger were just as close as Tigger and me.

I’ll share a brief story of Tigger’s life with you, if I may. In 1993, a friend of mine was planning to move back “home” from the beach in Ocean City, Maryland, in order to attend my university with me. I’d be moving out of my current apartment and we’d be moving into a new one together. A couple of months before the move was to happen, she drove a tiny 6-week old kitten the three hours from Ocean City to Towson, Maryland, and presented him to me, to be our kitty together when she herself moved up later. She looked exhausted when she arrived, stating the little one had screamed the entire trip. Having traveled much lesser distances with this cat in the future, I can tell you Lisa was nothing less than a saint for tolerating him for that long! I fell in love with the kitten on sight. Lisa named her Antigone, both because she liked the name and because another friend of ours had recently been in the play of the same name.

When the time came for me to move from the old apartment into the new, there were some sort of repairs that needed to be made to the new apartment that caused me to leave the cats (I also had at the time a stray I had taken in a while before) in the old place after moving all of the furniture. On my way home late one night after being out, I stopped by the old apartment to visit the cats and was dismayed to find one of the window screens had been cut and my little orange kitten missing. Either someone had deliberately stolen the cat, or (more likely) someone had been trying to rob us and was very disappointed indeed to find the place completely empty, and unwittingly let the kitten out, either by the front door when they left or through the hole in the window. Whatever the case, I was devastated. Friends and I spent the Fourth of July making Lost Cat signs that we hung around the neighborhood. I called Lisa, who hadn’t yet moved up from the beach, in tears. On the day we were to make the final inspection and move the one remaining cat to the new place, I was late meeting another friend of mine there. He asked me to go retrieve his bag from one of the bedrooms. I told him to get it himself. He insisted that I get his bag for him, which was behind a. closed door. When I opened the bedroom door, I was greeted not by his alleged bag, but by one tiny, orange, much-missed kitten! One of my neighbors had seen the bowls of food I’d been leaving out (but curiously not the signs) and, finding my friend heading in to wait for me, had asked if he was missing a cat, and he’d gone to collect my baby. I went to the neighbor’s apartment to thank her. She was a cat person herself and had taken good care of the little one for a few days, but insisted on calling the kitten a “he”, despite the fact that Lisa had always called it a “she”. I was not the brightest crayon in the box at the time and instead of peering under the kitten’s tail (I knew very well how to tell a boy from a girl cat), I simply assumed the lady was sloppy with her pronouns. A couple of weeks later, though, when my orange kitten got its first shots, I was of course made a fool of. Antigone, despite the girlish name, was a boy, and became from that day simply Tigger. And also king of my heart.

When Lisa and I eventually moved on and were no longer roommates, I took Tigger. I didn’t even give her a real choice in the matter. I loved him more than anything and wasn’t going to be parted from him. I was totally crazy for this cat. When singing along with songs, I substituted “Tigger” for most 2-syllable words and claimed all songs were in fact about Tigger (and how great he is). Tigger could be aggressive at times: if you looked at him wrong, he was sometimes apt to claw you. But I always sided with the cat instead of bloodied friends and family, claiming they must have provoked it and that he was just a little baby boy who never did anything wrong. When Mark and I were away from home – whether on a long trip or just at a bar – we’d ask each other constantly, “What do you think Tigger is doing right now?”

I met Mark in 2001. Mark and I were one of those sickening couples that falls almost instantly in love, but if he and Tigger (and Brachtune for that matter, but she loves just about every human) had not hit it off as well as they did, I’m not sure what would have happened. Mark even had to sacrifice his own cat in order to move in with me because Tigger barely tolerated Brachtune after eight years and would have probably killed Mark’s cat. (Mark’s mom now provides a very happy home for Mark’s cat, Din.) Mark was fond of saying that Tigger needed a male role model in his life and it did seem as if Tigger mellowed after being adopted by his new father figure. I’d never seen Tigger like anyone as much as he liked me – he barely tolerated anyone else on his best days – but he almost immediately took to Mark, and Mark to him.

I’ve had cats my entire life, but I’ve learned that you bond with different pets with varying amounts of intensity. The bond I had with Tigger was immense and eternal. He greeted me at the door whenever I came home, begging to be picked up and cuddled. As readers of this blog are aware, he “helped” me cook nearly every meal I made. He happily wore a harness and leash and went for jaunty walks around the neighborhood with me. He loved to be held like a baby and walked around the house by Mark. Mark and I would often pick him up and sandwich him with kisses. He tolerated me picking him up and dancing around the house with him. He’d put his paws around my neck and hug me when I was feeling blue. He was my best friend.

Mark told me on the phone when breaking the bad news that he was glad I was so far from home when things turned bad because all of my memories of Tigger will be good and happy, and I won’t have to remember the pathetic state he was in in the day or two before he was gone. Although it sickens and pains me to think I wasn’t there, Mark made a valid point. I knew Tigger’s passing was going to turn me into a sniveling wreck of a human being for a long time, but I was kept so busy in Sydney, that though I grieved, I had some time to adjust before coming home and dealing with the house being devoid of him, and the simple fact of his not being here is the hardest thing to take. I nominate Mark for Husband of the Year, however, and having gone through this, I am reminded of why I love my husband. Mark tells me that Tigger spent his last couple of days not budging from his lap (which was in a way a symptom of his illness, because Tigger wasn’t much of a lap cat). I know Tigger died a happy cat. And I’m so happy to have had him for nearly 16 wonderful years.

I was right in that being in the house with it empty of him would be the hardest part. It’s only beginning to really hit me now that I’m home. I missed him walking in the door because he was always there to greet me. I missed him when doing the laundry because he’d always stick his head in the washing machine as I loaded it. I missed him while making soup because he always helped me cook. I missed him while taking a shower because he always took showers with us. I miss him every minute.

He always helped me cook. How can I do it without him?

I just hope he’s in peace.

This is one of my favorite photos in the whole world: my two favorite boys.

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More from Sydney

Howdy! I’m still in Sydney! I haven’t had a chance to cook any more, but last night I ate in a vegan restaurant and managed to take (rather bad) pictures. Smucky had decided that Newtown was a very Renae-like area and that we should spend the evening there. Several people had mentioned The Green Gourmet as a good vegan restaurant, so we grabbed dinner there. Newtown seemed very San Francisco to me. Which, yes, by extension means I felt right at home there! The Green Gourmet had an almost overwhelming number of options; nearly all of it mock meat. It was a decided reversal of fortunes for me and Luke and Smucky. I’d had nearly the same pasta dish three times already because it was the only thing on the menu I could eat, but Luke and Smucky both found only one thing on the menu at Green Gourmet they wanted: Singapore Noodles. Ha hah! I, however, could not decide and opted for the buffet instead so I could try a bunch of different things.

First I started off with a crazy green tea/lime/mint beverage:

I can’t say that I loved it; the green tea tasted like powder (it was powdered green tea), and it was $4.50, which I found extravagant. Beverage prices are pretty ridiculous here. Good thing the exchange rate is in my favor!

Luke and Smucky ordered appetizers: spring rolls and fried wontons, which I forgot to photograph. They said the fried wontons were better than the spring rolls. I went up to the buffet to get a few different appetizers (which I also neglected to photograph) and sat back down to eat them with my friends, only to be interrupted a few minutes later by a waitress who struggled to inform me that I was supposed to weigh my buffet food before eating it because it was priced by the pound. Oops. That was an epic fail on my part. (I’m picking up Smucky’s slang, by the way.) We agreed I’d just pay $3 for the plate.

Then I went up a second time and helped myself to a bite or two of just about every item they had. This time I managed to go to the scale as instructed before eating, although I hadn’t realized I was expected to pay at the time of weighing, so I hadn’t brought my wallet up with me. I eventually straightened all of this out and sat down to eat. Here is what I had:

I have no idea what it all was, but it was all very good. Not a lot of actual vegetables, but the fake meat was really good.

Here is Smucky’s Singapore noodles:

On the walk from the train station, we passed a place called Burgerlicious. Once we were in Green Gourmet, Smucky commented he couldn’t believe he’d walked past a place called Burgerlicious and ended up in a vegan restaurant. Don’t feel too bad for him, though. He liked his noodles and ate the entire plate!

In non-food adventures, Tuesday we took a train to the Blue Mountains and saw the Three Sisters:

Smucky and I enjoying the view:

And here’s what that view looked like to us:

Wednesday we took the ferry from Circular Quay (which does not rhyme with Renae as one might expect, but is instead pronounced “Key”) to Manly Beach. Here another ferry just like ours returns from another trip:

I LOVE all the mass transportation options in Sydney! I was talking with a new friend last night and she said some of the buses are less than reliable (she called them “phantom buses”, when they fail to appear), but other than that annoyance (which is a problem in DC as well), the train system is extensive and regular, the buses I have been on have been clean and comfortable and not terribly late, and they have their own lane on the freeway which means you avoid (the very heavy) traffic into and out of the city, and there is a monorail, water taxis, and ferries.

The ferry alighted in Manly Beach.

We took a walk, upon which we found tourists crowding around something, which turned out to be a lizard. I’m pretty sure this is a wild iguana, which I found very exciting.

I was a bit excited for nothing, however, as we ended up seeing numerous lizards as we continued our walk!

But I thought it was great anyway! Here is an ocean water pool that appears to be open to the public that we passed:

I liked the ornament that adorned it:

As we walked from Manly and towards a little cove of sorts, the water was very calm and there were a few snorkelers, as well as this lone canoer:

(Actually I’m not entirely sure if that’s a canoe or a kayak, but it seems smaller than the kayak I’ve been in so I’m guessing canoe.)

I felt a little creepy taking photos through my telephoto lens of this couple, but one thing I’ve seen a bit of on the beaches here is older couples who appear happy and affectionate, and it’s something that makes me happy. I think it says something about living in Australia!

Yesterday we went jet boating. I didn’t take my camera because it’s a very wet endeavor, but here is a photo I took from the ferry of the same sort of jet boat we were on:

The jet boat was a lot of fun. In fact, I’ve pretty much decided I want to be a jet boat operator when I move to Sydney.

Everything you’ve heard about Australia is true: the people really are the most friendly, most laid-back on earth! And get this: they queue at bars!! For some reason, that fact astounds me more than any other. One thing that strikes me is the huge number of American businesses though. In fact, there are so many familiar places here it barely seems as if I am half away across the globe. I’ve been in Target twice, which seems weird and wrong. Sydney seems to me like a cross between Baltimore and San Francisco with a twist of Miami and a healthy dose of London. Which if you know me at all is a recipe for AWESOME!

I’m meeting Smucky’s family today. I’ve met his sister once before, while in London if you can believe that, but I’ll get to meet her newish daughter, her boyfriend, and Smuck’s mum and dad for the first time. Then tomorrow morning his mum is driving is to their beach house in Mollymook where we will spend a few internet-less but relaxing days. Since I won’t have internet, you probably won’t hear from me and I won’t be able to moderate comments, so if you are a new commenter or if you’re commenting from a different location than usual, it might not show up right away. I’ll probably be back mid-week with another post, which may be about my trials of eating vegan in a little beach town three hours from the big city…hopefully the oven there works!

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Skincare Products

I make most of my own skincare products, out of food-quality ingredients – well, out of food, really! Which makes this post somewhat food related! I needed to mix up fresh batches of a few items today so I figured I’d share my “recipes” with you.


I put it in quotes because it’s not technically a lotion, but I use it all over my body as a lotion alternative after stepping out of the shower. I make this one differently in the winter than in the summer because it’s mostly just coconut oil, which solidifies at around 70 degrees or cooler. So during the winter months, I add some almond oil to keep it soft. During the summer, it stays soft on its own.

Coconut and almond oils are both very inexpensive in Indian and Asian grocery stores.

coconut oil
almond oil (during cooler months)
vitamin E (optional)
essential oils or other fragrance

If your coconut oil is at all solid, use a spoon to scoop out some into a glass jar.

Then microwave it for about 20-25 seconds to liquefy (or use a hot water bath).

If using, add some almond oil (I use about 2 Tbsp for the size jar shown) and vitamin E. Also add some fragrance if you’d like. Sometimes I use sandalwood, but today I wanted to smell like the baby Jesus, so I used frankincense and myrrh.

Stir. I like to use a tiny whisk, which I bought at an Asian grocery store and which Fortinbras is always trying to steal.

Depending on the ambient temperature, it will take a day or two for the oil to solidify again. It will turn whiter and look more like coconut oil again when that happens.

To use, simply emulsify in your palms (if necessary; generally it’s not) and apply to your entire body.

Sugar Scrub

sugar (white or brown is okay)
sweet almond oil
fragrance (optional)

Fill a glass jar nearly to the top with sugar.

Add just enough sweet almond oil to saturate it. Add fragrance if desired. I use bergamot for a citrus-but-a-little-different scent.

Use a chopstick to encourage the oils to completely saturate the sugar.

To use, simply scoop a little bit into your hand and apply to your face, scrub, and rinse off. I use it maybe once a week or so.


Instead of expensive moisturizers, I just use oil. I use jojoba because it is the closest to human skin oil. I mix in a tiny bit of tea tree oil because it is antiseptic, it’s good for your skin, and because I like the smell (not everyone does, however). It is drying, so I don’t use much.

jojoba oil
tea tree oil

Mix a few drops of tea tree oil into the jojoba. Place in a pump-type container.

To use, pump out just a FEW drops and apply to your face. A little goes a long way.


Instead of soap, I use the oil cleansing method. I won’t give you a recipe because everyone finds different combinations of oils that work for them. (I use half caster oil and half sweet almond.) I store it in a pump like this:

I’m not going to say that using oils instead of soap and moisturizers will solve any skincare woes, however, I will tell you that I developed rosacea about five years ago. My face was a total mess and I went to a dermatologist who prescribed about four different medicines, none of which worked and one of which reacted weirdly with alcohol and gave me bright (and burning) pink rings about my eyes whenever I had a glass of wine. Needless to say, that didn’t last long with me. I stopped using all medicines and switched from cleansing with soap to oil, and I haven’t experienced a trace of the rosacea since. I must stress that part of me believes this is just a coincidence! Although I do believe oils are better for your skin, I do not believe they work miracles!

Also, I have naturally oily skin. You may be adverse to slathering yourself with oils if you share this characteristic with me, but actually it’s good for this skin type. When you wash with something drying, your oil glands react by generating a lot of oil to counter the dryness. If you instead apply oils, your glands don’t end up overreacting. Just use them sparingly. A little really does go a long way.

Hair Gel

aloe vera
rosemary essential oil (optional)
peppermint essential oil (optional)

In a measuring cup, stir together equal parts water and aloe vera, as well as a few drops of the essential oil(s) if using.

Decant into a spray bottle.

I use this both to encourage my natural waves to come out with scrunching, or to smooth fly-away and otherwise misbehaving hairs.

Hair Oil

I use this occasionally to combat dryness.

coconut oil
neem oil (available at Indian groceries) (optional)
rosemary oil (optional)

Place the coconut oil and neem oil in a small glass jar.

Warm in a microwave (or hot water bath) until stir-able, then add rosemary oil if using, and stir.

Allow to solidify again. To use, emulsify between your palms and apply to your hair, concentrating on the ends. Comb through if you can. Leave on for a few hours, then shampoo out thoroughly.

And that’s about it for skincare products for me! They’re cheap, they’re edible, and they work great! And if you use them you can be as beautiful as me!

Since I was playing with oils, I filled these pretty little perfume bottles I scored at the thrift store for $2 yesterday, with various scents I like to wear, including amber and sandalwood. Aren’t they cute?

Finally, Mark said I should show you this item I made for him. I told him it wasn’t food and he said I’ve posted crafts before, which is true. Not only that, but this entire post has not been about food, so it’s the perfect opportunity to show off my (lack of) sewing skills. The story behind this item is: one day a few years ago, Mark, who in the winter perpetually has cold feet, complained to me, “They need to invent a blanket for feet”. I immediately responded, “They did: they are called socks. Try them.” Although I like to kid Mark about this, I later decided I was going to get into quilting and decided that my first project would be a “blanket for feet” for Mark.

Now, I have explained here that I am REALLY bad at sewing. I have NO idea why I thought I was going to “get into” quilting. It was a huge mistake. It caused me a lot of headaches. I later decided it was among my dumber ideas. Not before I DID manage to make a quilt top of sorts for Mark, though. It was simple: merely squares of different plaid flannels, but I did sew it together. When it came time to actually quilt it, though, I realized that either my sewing machine or I personally – or likely both of us – are not made for quilting. I shoved the flannel, the batting, and the fleece I’d gotten for the quilt bottom into a closet and promptly forgot about them.

Last weekend I got around to cleaning out that closet (I’m in an organizing frenzy around here lately!) and found the quilt parts. It’s freezing here. Mark’s feet are cold. Heck, MY feet are cold. I decided to assemble the blanket without actually quilting it. So I just sewed the batting to the flannel, then sewed the flannel to the fleece.

Then I added a pocket on the underside at one end.

Mark can slip his feet into the pocket and voila! – a blanket for feet!

Although it wasn’t quilted and the three layers therefore aren’t sewn together (other than at the seams), it is actually extremely soft and comfortable. And warm! I might have to steal it from Mark!

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Reusable Fabric Christmas Gift Bags

I swore last Christmas would be the last Christmas I used traditional wrapping paper for my holiday gifts and true to my word, I came up with a much better idea this year. I hate wrapping Christmas presents. I always think it’s only going to take me an hour or so and it ends up taking eight. Eight labor-intensive, boring, back-breaking hours I’d much rather spend cooking or reading, as much as I may love the recipients of those presents. Heck, I could be cooking them something instead. And although when we were kids my mom used to meticulously save wrapping paper to use year after year, we’ve gotten lazy about it in recent years and I hate seeing all that paper go to waste. So this year I decided to make fabric gift bags instead. They are just as pretty as gifts wrapped in paper and didn’t take any more time. And the best part is it will take substantially less time in subsequent years as I have to make fewer and fewer bags as I am able to reuse bags from prior years! I figure in two or three years it’ll take me about ten minutes to wrap all my gifts! Then I’ll kick back with some soy nog and listen to Christmas Wrapping 18,000 times in a row and be very happy.

The first step of making the gift bags was by far the hardest. I went to Jo-Anne Fabrics. Due to childhood trauma, I hate Jo-Anne’s. My mother made all of our clothes when we were kids and we were always being dragged to stupid Jo-Anne’s. It was awful and boring. Mark actually had the exact same trauma, so we commiserate about this. We both agree the only things to do at Jo-Anne’s were 1) hide in the middle of the circular fabric racks and 2) look at the Halloween costume pattern books, but neither of these things were interesting for more than five minutes, and if you’ve ever lived with a serious sewer, you know trips to the fabric store take closer to five hours. Mark’s mom bribed him with trips to the toy store after Jo-Anne’s. I was bribed with trips to the library. You’d think a kid could go the library without having to be tortured first. Anyway, I hate Jo-Anne’s to this day.

I didn’t inherit any of my mother’s sewing skills, unfortunately. Although I hated all the trying on of clothes I had to do as a kid (“walk away from me”, “now turn around and walk towards me”, “turn sideways”, “do a pirouette and then a handstand”), suffering through a thousand pins pricking me at the hemline, much later in life I realized I hate pretty much all manufactured clothing (and I’m small enough that frustratingly little of it fits me) and I wish I could make my own clothes. From time to time I attempt to do so. It generally goes badly very quickly. I have vague plans of either invading my mother’s house one week and forcing her to teach me how to sew (again – she did try when I was younger) or kidnapping my mother-in-law and making her do the same. Most of the times the sewing machine gets lugged out from its storage place, I end up whining to Mark that I hate sewing and that the only thing I’m good at is cooking so I’m going back to that and I stuff the sewing machine back in the closet and console myself with an elaborate feast.

Anyway, the point of all of this is, it is DEAD EASY to make these gift bags, and trust me, you don’t need any sewing skills other than knowing how to thread your sewing machine. I even imagine this would be a really good project for any child that is old enough to use a sewing machine. I, in fact, found myself wishing I had a kid I could task with it!

As I was saying, the worst part about this project is Jo-Anne’s. On those rare occasions I get the misguided notion in my head that I am going to sew something, I usually go to G Street Fabrics which is huge and there are always a myriad of people wanting to measure and cut my fabric for me. However, G Street is more expensive, further away, and closes earlier, so I went to Jo-Anne’s this time. And Jo-Anne’s did have some great deals on holiday fabrics, like 2 yards for $5. Of course there was only one person cutting fabric and despite the fact that I was the second person in line and the one person in front of me only had one fabric, it still took 15 minutes. I had anticipated this and taken a book in, though. Seriously. I really did stand in line and read my book. Jo-Anne’s is dumb.

So anyway, step one: get a bunch of cheap, garish fabric. I bet it will be even cheaper in January. Cotton is definitely best and easiest to work with. Also make sure you have a lot of thread. And some grosgrain ribbon to match the fabric.

Step two is to cut the fabric into rectangles large enough to cover your gift. I find it infinitely easier to use a rotary cutter for this type of project, mostly because I can’t cut in a straight line. What I did was fold the fabric in half, place it on my cutting mat, place a gift on it …

… then cut around it, leaving a few inches on the sides and bottom and a bit more on the top:

Note: At Swim Two-Birds is a decoy gift! Many of my gift recipients read this blog and I can hear them all now thinking, “man, I hope I’m not the poor sap getting that gift”. Their loss, though, it’s a great book.

For many of my bags, including the one I will be depicting here, the fourth side was on the fold of the fabric. This meant I only had to sew up two sides instead of three. If you included the fold in your cut, unfold the fabric and hem the entire top side. If you have two separate pieces, hem the top of each. I just estimated an inch or so, folded it down and started pinning. My mother will surely be appalled by this when she reads this and realizes I didn’t measure and make sure it was uniform. Sorry, Mom. It’s just a gift bag.

After pinning, sew the hem, close to the raw edge. I imagine my mother would instruct you to do a lot of folding the raw edge under, pressing, folding again, pressing again, ad nauseum, but you’re in luck because I hate irons. Also, it’s just a gift bag.

Here is the finished seam. Remember, if you have two halves instead of one folded piece, you will do this for each half.

If you have one piece, fold it in half, right sides together, hemmed seam at the top. If you have two pieces, place right sides together, hemmed seams together at the top.

Pin the two raw sides together for folded bags, or three for two-pieced bags.

Sew the seams. Use whatever you feel comfortable with as a seam allowance. Heck, I can’t even sew in a straight line. It’s just a gift bag. (My mother is probably rolling her eyes at my incompetence and laissez faire attitude by this point.)

Here’s the bag all sewn up:

Turn it right side out.

Slide the gift inside.

Tie the bag closed at the top with a length of ribbon. Ta-da!

As for gift tags, Jo-Anne’s had these wooden ornaments for 49 cents each:

I figured they’d make good reusable gift tags I can save from year to year, although for people outside the family from whom I couldn’t reasonably demand my tags back, they could then double as an ornament after being used as a tag.

Here’s the tag on the bag:

(Would you believe I also made those stripy pillows?! I’m a sewing genius!)

I only bought a limited number of the wooden ornaments, so for other gifts, I’ll use cut-up bits of old Christmas cards or printed photos, or something like that.

As for the bags themselves, if the recipients want to keep them, of course they can, and I hope they’ll use them next year. Then I’ll get some back and use them following year, etc. I figure they’ll just circulate through the family, and I’ll make more each year until we have enough to cover just about every size and shape of gift.

In food news, I’ve been on Fortinbras to get cracking on his holiday baking post. He says he’s started writing it, which means it’ll be done sometime in March. Of 2012. In the meantime, since it probably won’t dawn on Fort to include pictures of the cats, I’ll give you this photo of Tigger, which Fort exclaimed “looks like a heart”. And which therefore sums up my feelings for Tigger.

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