Experimental book

Leave a comment

the star of tonight’s show

I did a little bookbinding tonight.  I’d hoped to do two books, but this one was a bear to get right. I had it in mind to do these funky stars on the cover of my latest coptic stitch binding. My plan was to put the stars on the front of the book but not the back.  I got that done, but I ran out of the dark purple thread and had to use lighter purple thread for the upper four. And the thread ripped through the cover in a couple of places. And the quires didn’t line up properly, and I didn’t like the paper much, and the covers are too floppy. Not enough strength in them, enough sturdiness. Not enough contrast with the paper and the purple thread, either.  

But the design works. Now I just need to figure out the right combination of thread and stitching, so everything lines up properly. I need to set up the back and front covers correctly, so that I can do this nice pattern on one side but not the other. And I should probably figure out ribbon binding next, too. 

Still, this turned out ok for a first attempt. 


1 Comment

what do you do when you have a lot of little scraps of fabric but no real use for a small quilt?

Bags are simple

Make bags.
Small bags — for decks of cards, cribbage boards, magic wands, family heirlooms, game pieces, gift-giving —  are fairly simple. Even with a lining of a contrasting color, they’re not terribly complicated. Most of them are simple straight-stitches on a machine. Point the sewing machine in the right direction, and go. All of the bags here have basically three seams: one for a drawstring or ribbon casing; one for the side of the bag; and one for the bottom. They’re not intended or designed to hold up to a lot of abuse; but they could. Seriously, they’re pretty well-made for being made from scraps. 

But why make them?  For being so general purpose, they’re remarkably hard to use well. Still they teach important sewing lessons: pinning, ironing, making casings for drawstrings, pulling a drawstring, and making linings (in two different ways). They teach fabric selection and color-scheming and cutting and assembly. And they teach turning, too, which is the basis of pillow making as well. 

Once you can make this sort of simple bag, most other sewing is fairly easy. 


Leave a comment

Suppose it’s the case that you’re going to a dress-up party tonight for Halloween season, and you’re playing a pirate.

Photo on 10-22-16 at 1.08 PM.jpg

But you don’t have a hat.  And it’s becoming an issue that you don’t have a hat to go with the rest of your costume.  You need a hat.
How do you solve that problem?

Well, you could go to a Halloween Spirit store, and buy one.  But the chances are pretty good that whatever hat you find isn’t going to be as good as the rest of your costume.  You have a shirt that was professionally made, and a pirate coat-thing you made yourself, and a pair of pants, and a pair of boots, that are all wonderfully pirate-like… But you don’t have a hat, and any sort of hat you buy elsewhere is going to be cruddy or crummy or expensive.  What do you do?

You look through your collection of spells sewing patterns.  You find the hat pattern that’s part of Butterick 3072.  And you make one in a few hours.

Photo on 10-22-16 at 1.11 PM.jpg

Bend the wire cleverly hidden in the brim…

It’s not a particularly difficult pattern. I did mess up a little bit on the inside, of course; the red lining is supposed to be attached in a slightly different order than I actually did it, and the result is a lining that isn’t quite as clean or clever as I’d like. But this is not a durable, heavy-duty hat for the rain — it’s a costume piece. And like any costume piece, it’s a relatively simple pattern that can be modified and adapted — a wider brim, a stiffer interior hat-band, a pointier crown… none of these things are impossible to add or modify from the original pattern.

Photo on 10-22-16 at 1.11 PM #2.jpg

Tricorne hat!

There’s some debate about which coat to wear it with. I think it’s a better match for the “poet’s coat” I finished up recently that goes with this bag that I had to repair; my girlfriend thinks its a better match for the Scarlet Doublet.

No matter.  I can build a hat.  And if I can sew a hat, there’s a pretty good chance that I can sew anything at all.

There is, if you will, an underlying logic.  Further up in this post, I crossed out the word ‘spell’ because I think there’s a relevance here.  The average pattern in a pattern package that you buy from the fabric store is a set of guidelines; there are recommended fabrics, trim, and  materials — but those are essentially guidelines.  Those patterns have a grammar, if you will, of language to help you understand what it is that you’re doing. There’s an underlying order and methodology; alter the methodology, and you alter the results; stick with the methodology, and you’ll get exactly what the pattern-maker intended for you to get.  But each time you go through this process — each time you make a hat or a coat or a cheese or a tool chest or a book or a bookshelf — you’ll discover that you have a new set of tools for solving problems and building and creating things: food, clothing, furniture, even houses.   This touches on what I said to Will Richardson — that a school’s purpose is to teach measurement, in part so that the questions of what to make, and how to make it, become easier and simpler as we grow older. 

That teaching, that knowledge of how, is never undone.  It stays with us forever, this side of dementia or death.  The underlying thought processes remain eternal, and grow deeper with each project completed.  Even if the first hat is slightly too small… you know how to make it again.

Under-Education: Responding to @willrich45

1 Comment

Will Richardson writes, over at Modern Leaners, about the problem of under-education:

 A phrase I find myself using more and more these days (and probably mispronouncing) is “raison d’être” or reason for being, as in asking school leaders “why does your school exist?” The easy answer is “to educate our children!” For centuries, that was probably good enough. Everyone knew, sorta, what it meant to be “educated.” You “learned” a lot of stuff about different subjects. You learned how to read and write and work with numbers to some acceptable degree. You were “prepared” for life, for a job or a college. You looked pretty much like everyone who was “educated” before you, passed the same tests, got over the same bars.

I think I get what Will is getting at, here.  Why does your school exist? is a really fundamental question. I mean, in general, “to educate our children!” is a great answer.  But one school I taught at, the “our children” part carried a caveat — and that caveat was “because the schools that are closer to where we live have failed them.”

I taught in a boarding school from 1996 to 2001, took a sabbatical year, and then taught in that same school from 2002-2010.  That school focused on student success by providing a one-on-one tutor for 45 minutes every day; by requiring all students to participate in athletics; and by providing a formal study hall for two hours every evening for completing homework.  In the early part of the 20th century, the idea of learning disabilities was not widespread or understood; my school helped develop a series of one-on-one tutoring processes, including championing the Orton-Gillingham methodology.  People from all over the country (and now from all over the world) sent their children long distances, because my old school could do what no other school could do.  So that sentence becomes, “My school exists to educate our children through time management and compensation techniques for their learning disabilities.”  I think that some of my former colleagues might dispute that baldly-phrased statement, but it’s a shorthand way of thinking about the school’s identity.

My old school’s day and pattern was adapted from a model similar to many other New England boarding schools. The most famous of these schools (and not one where I ever worked), is probably the Groton School, where the names of graduates are professionally carved into the oak-paneled walls of the study hall; and the names of its graduates who went on to the American presidency are gilded with 24-carat gold.  Students literally sit for study hall each evening with light and shadow playing out on the names of those who went before them; and each of them is impressed constantly with the reality, “No matter how great I become personally, I will never be as great as that other alumnus of this school, four-term U.S. President, who led the country out of the Great Depression and through World War II…”  Those students literally sit in the shadow of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and under the names of numbers of his deputies and aides — and it affects every one of Groton’s graduates deeply.  That school’s sentence becomes, “My school exists to educate our children to be problem-solving citizen-leaders at the highest levels.”

Sometimes the identifier is more regional.  I went to a junior high school for grades seven through nine; our athletic rivals were the other two junior high schools in town… not even the next town over.  That school’s sentence might be construed as “My school exists to educate our children who live within walking distance of this building.”  It was a funny, wonderful place: a good theater program, a good music program, Home Economics, shop classes and drafting, computer programming in the mid-1980s when that was still a weird thing.  Sure, all the regular classes in math and science, English and foreign language, history and civics (I had a civics class in there, how weird that seems today).  But it was the extras, I think, that shaped who I am today though it took twenty years to see it.

The Thinkers and the Makers

My mind, though, often returns to the schools in the shadows of Europe’s great cathedrals.  The so-called Cathedral Schools of the 9th through the 12th century focused on the seven liberal arts, which were the simplification and inheritance of the Latin educational system such as it was: the Trivium, consisting of Grammar, Rhetoric, and Logic; and the Quadrivium of Music, Arithmetic, Geometry, and Astronomy.  There wasn’t much time for more than that, really:  boys (and it was mostly boys) were taken in at 7 or 10, trained until they were 16 or 17, and then shipped off to be clerks to bishops and dukes, professional literates in a world lit only by fire (as William Manchester called it).

Those schools’ sentence ran like this: “My school exists to educate our children in Christian virtues, rational thought, and logical and mathematical relationships, for the purpose of tempering the warriors of the age with some professional advice-givers.”  They were pretty explicit about this in their writings; they knew that they were trying to bring about relative pacifism in an age of violence, warfare and feud, through education.

Down the street from here is a technical high school. Kids study regular academic subjects, but they also pick subjects like plumbing and electrical work, automotive repair and carpentry.  One of my friends is a graduate of that school;  he’s not a great writer, but he visualizes objects in three dimensions and builds them.  He’s a master builder, a contractor, a savvy businessman, and a leader both in his community and of his employees.  He’s no FDR, but I think he could say, “My school exists to educate our children in building and making and managing workers and materials.”

The Measurable and the Immeasurable

Will says,

So, why do we exist? What is our higher, more modern calling? How do we talk about that even? Haque says that one place to start is to put “intuition over computation,” or as I’m referred to it in the past, the “immeasurable ahead of the measurable.” Or, as Russel Ackoff says, again, “to do the right thing instead of trying to do the wrong thing right.” I think most of us get this, yet we seem unable to move from legacy thinking.

And I think this is one of those places where Will — as much as I love him — have to part ways.  Because I think about what it is that schools used to do, and what they so often appear to do now.  I think that we’ve probably drifted too far from legacy thinking, myself.

Because the essence of school is not necessarily to measure, but to teach measurement.  When I think to the Cathedral Schools, focused on the essentials that they could afford to save of Roman and Greek learning, they chose to save the abilities to think, speak, and write precisely; how to count, and account, for numbers; and to understand mathematical relationships in space and time and vibration.

My friend’s technical high school taught him how to cut 45°-angles into complex pieces of wood crown moldings for construction; how to keep an account book; how to price out a job; how to hire and pay workers; how to pay his own way in the world.  Measurement is at the core of his business and his success; and it is what his school taught him how to do.  He lovingly tells the story of one of his carpentry teachers inspecting a joint between two pieces of molding, holding the two wood scraps up to the window. “No. There is light shining through. The angle is wrong and the cut is not straight. Do it again.”  It is that love of accuracy and precision that makes him one of the most sought-after contractors in town.

The school where I used to work focused on teaching time management and attention management to students with ADD and ADHD; how to read effectively and to speak clearly; how to function with limited note-taking in high-information environments; how to move cleanly from one task to another.   It wasn’t exactly the exalted study of astronomy practiced in medieval times atop cathedral towers.  But it was the teaching of measurement and management.

Even Groton, with its oak-paneled study hall, was teaching the vitality of measurement and technical expertise: “one of your predecessors solved the greatest economic crisis in our country’s history, and you’re going to whine about a little algebra?” I can almost hear a teacher telling a recalcitrant student.    Except that my sense of things is that the environment of Groton does a good job of helping students understand that whining is not helpful.🙂

In any case, a school is for educating our children in ways to measure the world.  We begin with counting and rulers, then teach angles, and a variety of formulae for converting one kind of measurement to another.  Temperature, humidity, wind speed.  Weight, velocity, angle of repose.  Supply, Inventory, Demand.  Current, resistance, voltage.  Light-years, Miles, Yards, Inches, Angstroms.  Pounds, Quarts, Grams, Micrograms. Syllogism, Fallacy, Validity, Conclusion.  Even in classes that focus on writing and reading, in storytelling, we are focused on methods that measure the world and make it return logical results: If this, then that; if not that, then not this.  The Cathedral Schools sent graduates into the world who knew the power of words, but also the structure of rational argument; they were not Christian fundamentalists, but deep and careful thinkers trained in Aristotlean and Platonic logic, Boethean grammar and Ciceronian rhetoric, with a skilled understanding of what to say, how to say it, and how to argue for and against different positions.  Aesop’s fables, annoying and boringly familiar as they are to us, taught medieval Frankish children Latin grammar, rhetorical style and logical thinking all at once; and prepared their minds to understand the formal relationships of geometry, the pitch relationships of music, and the  vast interplay of arithmetic, geometry and time that was astronomy.  My contractor friend builds houses from stacks of lumber — but stands in awe of another friend of his who knows to the board-foot and last chop-saw cut and nail-count how to build a Sonic drive-through restaurant.

Where we fail, I think, is that we spend far too much time taking the measure of the student.  In the pursuit of ever-more-accurate understandings of what is going on in the child’s mind, we fail to impart the critical lessons of how to apply differently-graded yardsticks, containers, and meters to various kinds of problems, or to analyze those results.  Nor do I simply mean physical tools like rulers and protractors — no, I mean the genuine tools of rational, evidence-based thought.  Instead, we look for evidence from the students themselves that they know what we’re talking about; and we give in probably too often to confirmation biases: a student says something, and we take their words at face value, hearing the measurements and evidence that we have laboriously collected for ourselves — instead of hearing all out their evidence, data, and interpretation.

But the child is not the center of the school.  

There will be some teachers and parents who will clutch their pearls  or adjust their ties at this.  And I think that we can agree that the best teachers that we know are the ones who care deeply about children and their welfare.  But true adults, capable and competent adults, are ones who know and understand the facts of the world — who are capable of measuring aspects of their lives, and interpreting those measurements against certain standards.  Doctors know the names of all the bones, muscles and ligaments in the body, all of the spaces and valves and passages; and they recognize when a blood-glucose level is too high or too low.  Lawyers know the names of the laws, how to look them up, and how to argue that one action either does or does not fit a particular interpretation of that law.  It’s a bit of great humor to me that Teachers measure and interpret children according to a variety of yardsticks, too.

It’s just that we forget sometimes that children are not in school to be measured; they’re in school to learn how to measure.

Where We Agree

I don’t think that Will and I are in any disagreement about one of the key challenges, which is finding ways to express what teachers want and need from the non-professionals: the politicians, the parents, and the other stakeholders.  We’re not medieval churchmen trying to save the scraps of a fallen empire from the dark ages warlords; we can’t claim God is on our side, and wow our opponents with secret knowledge of when an eclipse will occur.  We’re not all shop teachers, holding boards up to the window to look for the perfect angle.

But I wonder if a teacher focused on measurement for a few weeks in their lesson planning, if they did not see a marked improvement in the quality of their students’ work?  When we ask ourselves, before we begin each lesson, “what measurement process am I teaching today? What method for interpreting information am I offering to my students?” it may be that on some days we’re teaching fact-gathering.  On other days, we’re teaching the construction of logical thought.  On other days, we’re concerned with helping students string facts together into a story.  On other days, we’re teaching how to use a ruler or a thermometer, more basic tools that nonetheless reveal important truths.

But the centerpiece of our work as teachers, regardless of what subject we teach officially, is the work of helping students to measure the world.  And if a school isn’t doing that — then maybe that school should be closed.



A few weeks ago, I got started on this bookshelf.  I started with cutting some mortises, which are the slots or holes in one piece of wood for tenons, which are the tabs or jutting-out-bits on another piece of wood.  By checking out those two posts, you get a sense of what’s involved in making this bookshelf.   What with one thing and another, it’s been very hard to get back to it, but today I had some time between errands, so I put in a few hours on it.  I made quite a bit of progress today!

First off, I cut the next six mortises. I did this by drilling out the corners of the mortises, and then using a coping saw to cut out the waste. This was MUCH easier, by far, than chopping out most of the waste with a Forstner bit and then trying to carve the corners true with a chisel.  Once the waste blocks were cut out it was much easier to true the corners with a chisel and be done with it.  In some ways they’re not very elegant, but they’ll definitely work — and better yet, I know how to do it more effectively next time.

As you can see from this image, the process of truing up the corners of a mortise is a bit of an effort. You want the tenons — that is, the tabs on the shelf board — to slide into the mortises easily, and with a good fit; but you don’t want them to be either fussily tight, or so loose that the shelf wobbles.   The mortises at the top and bottom of the board were the best fits; the tenons at the top slid right into the mortises, no problem.  There was one chunk in the bottom mortise at the front that I needed to clear with a chisel; the middle two mortises for the middle shelf required the most work.

Drill followed by coping saw for internal cuts.


I saved a couple of my own photographs of this coping saw process, as you can see. The drill holes are relatively small; and make sanding off the corners of the shelf tenons less immediate of a problem. Since the corners of the mortises are rounded, it’s possible to avoid going to a lot of trouble to sand the tenons to match the precise square holes.

The coping saw blade angle has to be adjusted for each cut. You also have to be careful not to be too vigorous with the saw.  You want your cuts to be straight up-and-down, to avoid too much chisel work — because chisels are accidents waiting to happen — but the blade on a coping saw wants to make a weird curved cut if it can.  Don’t let it.

One learns to cope, eventually


A word about Chisels being accidents waiting to happen.  Whenever I have injured myself in the carpentry studio, it’s been with a chisel.  Whenever I’ve injured myself with a chisel, it’s been a bad cut.  Whenever it’s a bad cut — it’s ALWAYS been because the chisel wasn’t sharp enough, and I was trying to force a cut to happen that should have been easy.

So have sharpening tools in your studio.  Have a workspace set up specifically for sharpening tools. Teach people to sharpen their tools properly. They will have more respect for sharpened tools that they sharpened themselves, than for tools you sharpen for them.  Also, they will know how to do it, and you will not be a cutler at the grinding wheel all the time while they get to do all the fun work.

Mortises & Wedges

Now that I’ve cut mortises and fit all the tenons, my next task is to cut a new set of mortises, smaller ones about 3/4″ square, into each of the twelve tenons, and to make wedges for these smaller mortises.  The wedges and mortises will help hold the shelf together without nails and without fasteners, which I like.   Getting these cut out should be easier now that I have a process for them— but the temptation is to drill them out with a 3/4″ Forstner bit, and then true up the corners into a square.  See notes above under Coping — don’t do that, Andrew.

For the MakerSpace

Why build a shelf as the next thing after a the work of making a pair of saw benches and worktables, and a couple of boards for tools?   Or what about a serious workbench where I can get really seriously down to business?Why not get started on making stuff I want to make?

Well, yes, I’m doing that ,too. The Yarn Winder, for one, and the Yarn Swift.  Those were fun.  And I’ll get to the workbench eventually.  But (and this is important), there’s an important component of any MakerSpace, whether it’s a specialized workspace like Beehive Sewing (that only does textile work) or somewhere else that’s more generalized like a school Design Lab.  It’s actually much more important than any of the physical pieces of hardware or tooling that your MakerSpace can have, and everyone forgets how important it is.

But that’s a secret. For now.

Bag repair

1 Comment

I made this bag a few weeks ago to complement a coat that I made for an outdoor event in October in the Berkshires. The brown trim on the coat is the same as the body and strap of this bag. I didn’t know how much I would have to carry, but I knew that I had to carry some things over the weekend from place to place; this bag was going to provide a useful place to store things of unknown size but probably relatively light weight.

The barn-door stitch

I was right about both size and weight; the bag was hopelessly too big. It also had a problematic seam; one end of the shoulder strap came undone about an hour after I showed up at the event. The objects I eventually needed to carry? Tiny — like, I could have made a pouch the size of a deck of playing cards, and had room to spare. Oh, well. I still like the fact that this bag matches a coat I made, which will be suitable for other events. At the event, I made it work by creating a loop and tying a knot, but it wasn’t ideal. Today, I fixed it.


The fix came in three forms. First, I top-stitched all the way around the mouth of the bag. This reinforced the attachment of the flap to the body of the bag, and the strap to the bag’s body. It also created a heavy attachment between the lining and the outer shell of the bag; the outer shell is wool, while the inner shell is cotton; this won’t be a great “foul-weather bag.

Second, I used a form I call the “barn door stitch”, which looks like a square with either one or two diagonals through it, to secure the shoulder strap to the body of the bag. These reinforced points mean that the bag just became much more suitable for carrying, say, my laptop or something similarly heavy and fragile.  I still don’t know that I would trust my laptop to this bag (what if it flips over? What if the flap comes undone or flies open in heavy weather? What if moisture seeps through the bag?) but at least I can say that it’s much stronger now as a result.  It makes me wish that I had used French seams, though, inside, which would have made the bag that much stronger yet…

Reinforced barn-door

Third, I backstitched over the beginnings and ends of all of my seams. I’m sure that this is what caused the strap to fail in the first place. It’s a pretty standard practice in machine sewing work to back your sewing machine’s stitching forward and back over itself in order to lock the thread in place.  By doing this at both the beginning and end of a stitch, the whole seam is locked together, and is much less likely to fail.

A bag has challenges — thinking inside and outside, choosing fabric, figuring out waterproofing as needed, sewing stitches, mashing together three or four or more layers of fabric, determining inside compartments as necessary, and more. There are a lot of things that can go wrong. But it’s a great student project — the finished bag serves as a useful tool for transporting notebooks and textbooks from class to locker and home and so on. Designing a bag for a school means that all the needful school supplies should be able to fit within it.  You can even pair it with a pencil case design for a more thorough experience in sewing (adding zippers, yay!), and thinking in three dimensions.

But I’d like to propose to you, readers, that sewing is a critical part of any Maker education. We wear far more clothes in our lifetimes than we install birdhouses; we carry more bags and wear more coats and scarves, than we build workbenches; and students carry far more books in far more book bags than they need vast collections of electronic gizmos that taught them how to wire one circuit.  The soldering lessons have their place, I admit — but knowing how to sew is a perpetual source of design power.


1 Comment

Coptic stitch

Poetry has been a special concern of mine for decades. I’ve written a lot about poetry; and I’ve written quite a lot of poetry, from the Orien fragments to the Neo-Orphic hymns, and a bunch of stuff in between. Usually poets in the 21st century publish chapbooks, or small paper pamphlets of their work. I delayed, and delayed, and delayed. But I’ve finally felt like I’ve reached an important stopping point. 

And so I’m taking the time — a lot of time, really — to print and hand-bind the collections. There are going to be (probably) a hundred copies each of four books: the Book of Splendor, shown here; the Behenian Stars (I gave out six very special editions last weekend); the Mansions of the Moon; and the Decans of the Zodiac. The last two are still in development, but these first two are essentially done. I think. 

Nothing left to do but the binding. I did ten copies of the Book of Splendor in an early edition, a special run of ten copies, to test out different binding processes. I decided that I really liked the Coptic stitch best.  So now I’ve started on a run of 100. I’m at odds with myself, whether to do all the covers in black with blue endpapers, and the binding in white thread; or whether to change it up by groups of ten or twenty-five. The text will remain the same throughout. 

I also haven’t decided if I should sell them as I make them, or wait until I have a big pile of them. I’ve decided that ten or maybe twenty or so will be gift-copies; but most are going to be for sale. 

It’s a funny feeling in the gut, to know that the covers, the binding and the book and the text inside it are all your own work. Feels like a responsibility. Feels like a happiness, too. 

Older Entries