Tool roll

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I took a break from quilting — which can be tiring work, manipulating three layers of fabric in the heat — to make this.

It’s a tool roll.

Over the years, I’ve watched middle schoolers, high schoolers and others struggle with pencil cases. The pencil cases fill up with broken pens, pencils without points, and a variety of other broken tools. It’s dumb.  I’ve made other tool rolls, notably in leather, but I wanted to make one that I thought could be replicated in a school MakerLab pretty easily with just fabric and some simple supplies like ribbon and bias tape.   And I made this in a couple of hours, I’d say, making it up as I went.  Pretty easy, and a reasonably competent sewer could make a replica in short order, I’m sure.

The design is pretty simple but I’m going to have to refine it further before it’s ready for prime-time to teach others how to sew.  There is a pattern of sorts, in other words. But I’m going to have to refine it.

The essence of the design is two pieces of fabric, the same width but different lengths.  One is folded around the other in such a way as to form a top ‘flap’ to protect the tools inside and keep them from flopping out; and a bottom ‘pocket’ to hold the tools in place.  These two pieces of fabric are the red-with-yellow-stars fabric, and the solid blue.  (The purple is bias tape, the ribbon is from the box of a fancy men’s store in New York City that I saved for this purpose when I got a gift; and the black-and-white floral print is left over from one of last week’s quilts.  The result is a simple tool roll that holds just a few pens and pencils — enough to know that they work, that they’re good tools, and that they have a specific place to go.  Not so many that they get lost or broken.

Even unrolled, the tool roll conceals its tool kit until the last minute.  The blue fabric flips over the top in order to protect the equipment inside.  When this is flipped open or flipped back, the simple collection of tools inside becomes visible.   I think ultimately there should be room for 2-3 pencils, one of those blocky pencil-sharpeners with two shavers, a compass and a ruler, and 3-5 pens (black, blue, red, and maybe some other colors): enough to work with in an imaginative way, but not so much that it’s hard to keep track of.  And when something is broken or missing, you know — you know because you, the kid who made this pencil case, know exactly how many tools are in it, should be in it, and where they go.  That would be the idea.

So that’s the basics of the design: non-complicated, four pieces of fabric and a ribbon  And the design teaches four basic skills, too: hemming, inside-out-and-turn construction, top stitching, bias tape use, cutting on a rotary mat with a quilting ruler, and layering of stitches. It’s not fool proof by any means, but it’s a sophisticated project for being such a small thing.  I have to refine it, of course, but this is a great start.  Yay!

Triangle quilt

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This is the second quilt I’ve made that uses triangles. The first such quilt I made, I assembled hexagon shaped “blocks” and then sewed the blocks together. With this quilt, I assembled the triangles into rows, and then sewed the rows together. Something went wrong diring the assembly process though. If you look closely you can see the challenge: partway through, I seemed to run out of triangles. So I added more triangles to the pattern. And I wound up with an extra row. The first photo shows the quilt as planned: the second photo shows the quilt top as assembled. 
So this quilt has an extra or unneeded row. Now I have to decide if I’m going to even the work out by adding another row, or leave the thing unbalanced as it currently is.

Quilt: triangles

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Had you told me at the start of this project what a terrible construction system triangles and hexagons were, I might not have believed you. I admit that. But I hadn’t expected them to be quite so much of a bear to construct as they actually were.

It seems simple enough, really. Cut triangles slightly larger than you want them to be. Clip the corners, or imagine them clipped, and imagine a 1/4″ seam allowance around each piece. As you sew them together, either in rows or in hexagon ‘blocks’, the pattern you’ve chosen begins to emerge. Alternate solid and patterned fabrics for a more elegant design with much more visual interest.  Seems simple, right?

Nobody explained what a bear those corners are in the middle. If you want a really elegant point on your star or on the fan of triangles at the center of your hexagon, that’s about 3x more work than “just sewing triangles together.”

Still, sooner or later you have to do it. It’s not possible to just keep building quilts out of squares forever. Sooner or later, you have to grit your teeth, stomp your feet, and assemble a quilt that uses triangles or hexagons.  You make your templates, slice up your fabric, and get to work sewing.
And things go wrong. You mis-marked a triangular piece. You didn’t mark a piece. You didn’t clip the corner of a triangle. You didn’t clip the correct corner at the right angle of a triangle. You removed too much of a corner. Your chalk wore off the piece of fabric. THere’s a dozen (a million) things that could go wrong. It doesn’t matter. “Build the whole prototype,” says a friend of mine in the engineering business. “That way, you know where the serious mistakes are.” There are a lot of serious mistakes in this quilt top.

Still, there are some successes.  Some of my center corners are pretty spot-on.  Some of my external centers look pretty good, too.  Some portions of this quilt look awesome.  And some percentage of those who see the finished product will never know there were any mistakes at all, once I’m done quilting it within an inch of its life.   The perfect is the enemy of the good, wrote Plato, as the words of Socrates.  And so it seems here, too — the more perfectly I try to make this quilt on the first try ever with this technique, the more likely the quilt will wind up unfinished in a drawer for months out of frustration.

And so it is that the quilt is here — pinned to its batting and backing, and ready for the quilting-sandwich: layers of stitching that will bind the upper layer to the bottom layer through the middle layer.  And then there will be bias tape to make, and edge-binding.

And then it will be done.

It’s certainly not the best quilt that I’ve ever made.  It’s certainly the best triangle-based quilt I’ve ever made, given that it’s the only triangle-based quilt I’ve made (though not the only hexagon-based quilt I’ve made — see English Paper Piecing and some of my further insight.)  But most of what it is, is a learning experience.  I’ve made this quilt, and I now know enough of the process that a range of similar patterns and workings are now open to me.  I can do this again and again, as needed and as desired.

Just don’t ask me to make a triangle-based quilt for free. Ever.

Quilts: cut and sew

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I want to learn the core angles of quilt sewing. Since most quilts are simply tiling patterns writ in fabric, a large percentage of this work is done in squares or rectangles on the one hand; or triangles, diamonds, and hexagons on the other.  These shapes and their variants are pretty much the only ones that tile easily. 

I started by making some six-pointed stars using a flat triangle pattern. When three flat triangles are grouped, one gets an equilateral triangle. when one groups six equilateral triangles, a hexagon results. Half-hexagons can be used to form an edge to a field of hexagons, turning a hexagonal tile patttern into a rectangular ore square field. Many hexagons and half-hexagons together form a quilt… Who knew?? 

Much of the early work consists of lining up sheets of fabric and then putting a template on them to slice out triangles.  I felt like I cut out hundreds if not thousands of triangular fabric tiles yesterday. You can see the piles of them in the first photograph here, a lot of grays and blacks and very dark blues, with some Celtic knot work fabric, too. 
Once that fabric gets sorted by color and type, it begins to feel like not enough, though.  

Nonetheless, one has to keep going. Breaking up big pieces of fabric into smaller ones just results in a mess. Fabric has a warp and weft that holds it together.  Once you start cutting into it, you break up its internal integrity and it will start to unravel.  You’ve dissolved the bonds that hold it together.  Now you need to begin to recombine it.  

The key things to consider about that recombination are color, texture and weave.  People like complementary colors rather than clashing colors.  They like patterns, but they don’t want too many patterns next to one another.  There need to be places where they can rest their eyes on relatively neutral hues, so that a patterned fabric can then grab their attention. That’s a lot to hold together in mental clarity. 

And so we begin with somethiing relatively neutral, and matching the stars in certain particulars.  
Hexagons have a particular logic to them when you start with triangles, as I have. Quite naturally the three stars are going to draw the eye first and foremost.  So the quilt has to be built out around them. I have enough fabric to make twelve or thirteen more of these two-grays hexagons, but not enough to make a whole quilt this way. So my next step is going to be to construct another pleasing hexagon design, and interleaved the two-tone gray hexagons with that new design, while trying not to distract from the stars.  My partner also recommended making more stars but in radically different colors. That could work too. 

Yesterday at the fabric store, I met a woman who was making fabric furnishings for a Russian Orthodox congregation: linens for the altar and stoles and robes for the clergy.  She was working on the stiff linen and brocade chalice cover, and had come in to find some more gold braid for the cover. It was beautiful. I have a long way to go yet, but it was a reminder that all kinds of people need all kinds of custom sewing work. Increasingly I’m prepared to handle it. 

Knitting: Second Hat

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I had some time this weekend, and I was in the mountains where it was cold and rainy over the weekend.  So I spent a fair number of hours working on my second hat.  I finished it on Sunday. And a good thing, too, because I needed it on Monday, when it was again cold and rainy and ugly.

The hat is a little bit on the large side for me. I was trying to scale it up from the “Adult L” size to my extra-large head, and I made it a little too big, I guess.

All the same, there’s a couple of things here that I managed to get right:

  • Ribbing to create a frame for the hat
  • knitting in the round on a circular needle
  • knitting in the round on four double-pointed needles
  • managing decreases (knit2 together)

So, all in all, a successful second hat was made. By me. To wear. Right away. I’m eager to make another one, but this time I think I’ll keep it at the Adult L size, rather than trying to add in another 18 or so stitches to make it conform to what I ‘think’ is the correct size.  This kind of thing only gets easier with practice.

The next challenges?  Socks and mittens.  Then gloves.

What I Do: Vision Statement #makered

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My friend Stephanie challenged me to write a marketing plan for my business (Watermountain Studios), in sonnets.  I don’t know that I can write a marketing plan in sonnets, but I can write two that qualify as a vision statement, I suppose.

The human hand used to shape all our needs
and make all our wants from creche to casket;
the old factory is now choked with weeds,
and we mock those who can make a basket.
Robots build cars, machines sew our raiment
and the sweat of slaves dapples our plastic toys…
our children sit idle, workshops vacant —
we test to exhaustion both girls and boys.
Yet numbers and letters can still be learned
through artisan’s arts of loom, forge, and press.
By hand and eye’s labor are truth discerned
and concrete order made from abstract mess.
Children learn best when their hands learn to make,
for artistry helps our minds to awake.

To start a MakerSpace right now is hard:
we sold off the shop tools and burned the scrap,
put abstract thought on every student’s card,
and put computers in each student’s lap.
We tested for phonics and random facts,
and jumped for joy at every new reform —
yet abstraction has been a kind of trap
to make a man who thinks instead of acts.
Ask me — I’ll guide you through these thickets,
to where your students thrive with tools in hand
making theater props, posters and tickets,
costumes, the stage — instruments for a band.
When children make, they become more adept
at fixing the world that broke while we slept.


Braiding disks 

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I spent some time in the workshop yesterday, cutting out kumihimo disks.  Kumihimo is a Japanese art form, a technique for braiding using a disk and silk strands. I made this form of braiding part of my class called “String Theory” several years ago, along with the Lucet and knitting needles. The challenge was always producing a disk in the time allotted for the class, without power tools.

What I Made

Now, I have some power tools. Thanks to the scroll saw and drill press, I’m able to crank out the disks necessary for the class in about 30 minutes. Sanding takes longer because I don’t have a belt sander, and I have to do them individually.  But it’s still possible to produce a few dozen disks pretty easily.

These come from oak hobby board from Home Depot.  I’m not sure how I feel about Home Depot at the moment, because their president is supporting DT for president rather than HRC. But short of going to a smaller lumber yard and buying more expensive board, this is at present a cheaper option.

There are a number of online guides in how to use kumihimo disks to braid.  HEre’s a favorite pattern of mine, which I use for a good many applications; it’s also possible to add beads to the work, this way.  There’s another collection of braiding patterns here.  Really, though, I have to make a small booklet to go with the disk.

It is possible to make one of these disks out of a paper plate.  I prefer the wood, because it’s a tactile awareness for the students who use one. And it’s more enduring, which means that if one finds the right group of students, you can help change the school culture by having these strings made by all age groups, and traded back and forth across the school. It’s a way of introducing a continuing culture of making, and the trading of the bracelets/necklaces/backpack strings becomes a way of enriching the social/emotional culture of the school. Hmm!

The current challenge I have to think about, is how or if to mark them.  Modern disks label the slots in the edge with numbers.   But it seems likely that children and adults who braided were probably taught patterns, instead, and the patterns were done without benefit of numbered points on the disk.

Why add numbers? Or symbols? Here’s roughly how this tool works.  A number of strands of embroidery floss or yarn are tied together. In traditional kumihimo, there are usually an even number of strands, like four, eight or sixteen; in modern braiding work, sometimes seven strands are used.  The patterns are based on the numbers.  The strands are arranged in the slots around the edges; the knot (sometimes with a weight) is hung through the hole in the middle.

So symbols or numbers allow one to recall a greater number of patterns — heck, let’s teach some programming while we’re at it, and introduce the concept of a WHILE loop… continue doing this pattern of string movements until the bracelet/necklace reaches the correct length — and use the disk in a greater number of situations as a training tool for understanding algorithms.

I think the two stumbling blocks at the moment are cleaning, sanding and cleaning,  maybe staining and sealing. I can turn out quite a few disks — smaller sized for smaller hands — in a few hours.  The scroll saw makes chopping the slots around the edge quite easy; the drill press punches through the oak hobby board quite easily.  It’s the removal of the paper pattern with mineral spirits; the sanding of the edge, the edges of the center hole, and the individual slots that takes the most time.


There are a number of online guides in how to use kumihimo disks to braid.  Here’s a favorite pattern of mine, which I use for a good many applications; it’s also possible to add beads to the work, this way.  There’s another collection of braiding patterns here.  Really, though, I have to make a small booklet to go with the disk.

Here’s the PDF pattern for the disks I made.  The individual sizes can be increased, I think — but I preferred a smaller disk, especially since the oak board provides a good deal more weight in the hand; and it’s easier for smaller/child-like hands to manipulate a smaller disk.   Kumihimo Disk.

Here’s a report on a similar tool from the Viking era, called a Lucet.  The Lucet and the Braiding Disk together (also possibly with the addition of a pair of knitting needles, which can EASILY be made in a Makerspace, or a Crochet Hook (another easy tool to make), together form a curriculum I call “String Theory”.   I have oak lucets for sale on my Etsy shop.

I used to include weaving in my string theory class. Not any more.  It’s just too hard  — weaving requires way too much set-up and complications, and should be its own class. Though then you get to teach card weaving or tablet weaving too.

Use in classes

As I mentioned, this is a great way to teach the concept of while loops in computer programming, or algorithms — the idea of a repetitive process (like the manipulation of eight variable ‘strings’ through the multiple repetitions of a set of six steps) that results in a particular outcome (a necklace or a bracelet).  For schools that have a MakerSpace, the process of making such a disk teaches the concept of Tools Make Tools Make Things, which I think is pretty important these days.  It also helps bring back artisanry — how to make a thing that makes something else; and helps history teachers teach the concept of specialization.  Making braids and knotted cords also opens up pathways into jewelry-making.

Use in Magic

Braiding is a pretty easy thing to do.  Knot-magic has been around for thousands of years; there are ancient statuettes of women from the Paleolithic era wearing string skirts; learning to work with string is a powerful way to teach important magical skills.  But more, braids in the right color can be used to secure mojo bags (as drawstrings or as decorative elements), hands, talismans, or astrological images.  They can be used as bindings and wrappings.  And they can be used as charms in and of themselves — tie one on your wrist after consecrating it to a given purpose, and it will do its thing until it is too dirty or falls off from over-use.

Not a bad thing at all.

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