The Upcycled Book Box

October 26th, 2012 § 4 comments § permalink

If you are a livestock farmer, much of your day is spent fixing barns and pens and flat tires, unloading feed trucks, and moving livestock from one pasture to another. If you are a high-rise maintenance worker, your workday starts as you rappel down 20 stories to wash away window goop in bone-numbing cold and unpredictable wind.  If you are a high altitude alpine guide, a typical day includes repairing a broken climbing harness, carrying 40 pounds of gear up a ravine, cooking Mexican refried beans over a small pellet stove, and restringing your ukulele.  If you are a kid, your job is to play.

Childhood is a short season.  There is just this small pocket of time when a person alone in a room can be easily lured into designing an escape tunnel for some kind of top secret mission to protect innocent from evil—to criss-cross the globe and actively battle, risking it all, for the betterment of humankind (or doll-kind, or stuffed animal-kind).  Given a collection of plastic crates, large empty cardboard boxes, an old telephone, a map, buttons, phone books, fabric scraps, fake train tickets and postcards, my small girls can easily overcome impossible odds to obtain godlike Supergirl powers and defeat massive magical beasts. In just an hour.

But, adventures can get messy.  And oftentimes during this frantic hour or so the entire fabric bin is overturned, fuzzy scraps are transported into the bathroom sink, the bottle of buttons rolls under the dining table and its contents mingle with last night’s fossilized cornbread bits and a discarded grime-encrusted strawberry, giant cardboard boxes are dismantled and transformed into slides with detachable cat-sized dirigibles, awkward costumes wind up on innocent furry passersby, and permanent cap-less Sharpies magically appear and threaten to deface the sofa.

I cannot pretend that this does not sometimes bother me.

Sometimes, just sometimes, when I am without much time or patience (which lately seems to be fairly often), things are better when they are completely flat—not things like baby bellies, tires, or lakes without wind—but things that are held in small busy hands.

My two girls make small flat things they call Paper Pets.  They never got fully into the doll thing, but these paper critters are really just like paper dolls and, in fact, they have very similar accessories, but without the bling.  These flat friends have beds, brushes, bows, collars and treats—and they are perfect for that quiet rainy afternoon when we have just an hour to pop them out and then tuck them away nicely.  For a long time, we kept them secured in an old manila folder, but just the other day we upgraded their home and then moved them in.


To complete this simple project, you will need the following:

An old hardcover book (8 x 10 in or larger, 300+ pp)

Mod Podge or watery glue (1 part glue to 2 parts water)

Paint brush

Utility knife



Plastic wrap


This requires an old hardcover book.  Choose it wisely.  Do not choose a book that your great aunt gave you for high school graduation.  Do not choose a handwritten copy of J.K. Rowling’s “The Tales of Beedle the Bard” or an 1827 copy of Audubon’s “Birds of America.”  Do not choose a book that looks even slightly interesting, or one that you plan to someday reread.  You will not ever get to read this book again.

Open the book to the first page (or flyleaf).  Draw a line one inch from each edge of the first page (including the spine)—this will determine the interior dimensions of the box.  With the ruler as a guide, carefully cut along each line with a utility knife.  Apply enough pressure to cut several pages at a time.  After you cut through a large section of pages, you may need to turn these back to get farther along in the book.  Leave at least a few of the book’s last pages as a box “bottom.”  Again, open the book to the first page and inspect the cut edges.  Clean up all bits and pieces and rough edges with the utility knife.

With Mod Podge and brush, generously paint all book pages that follow the box “bottom” so they will stick together.  Make a cup of tea.  Close the book and sit on it for a few minutes to flatten.  Drink your tea.  Clip out a photo or magazine print to use as a decorative box bottom—use Mod Podge to seal.  Paint the book’s inside edges with Mod Podge, leaving the book’s exterior unpainted.  Allow it to soak in and then apply a second coat.  Paint all surfaces inside the box.

Place a generous layer of plastic wrap inside the box.  Fill the box with a small book.  Place a layer of plastic wrap over the small book.  Close the book.  Allow it to dry overnight underneath something heavy.

Remove the plastic wrap.  Check to be sure the book is dry.  Fill it with flat friends or small special somethings like a collection of heart-shaped rocks or worm-like twigs, or secret plans for potential scientific inventions.  Lucky us, we found our Vol 1 and Vol 2 within a slipcase.  We transformed both volumes into paper pet book boxes and then painted the entire slipcase—first with a layer of gesso to provide some texture, then with a few fancy layers of acrylic paint.  Alternatively, decorate the actual book cover.  Or leave it unadorned and mysterious.

A magical box can be your new best friend—it allows time for smallish people to become quietly immersed in little things.  It promotes stillness.  And it is this stillness that helps provide focus during times of clutter and chaos.  Which, at our house, is most of the time.




The Farmers Market

September 22nd, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Yesterday we sold our wares at the local farmers market.

We were joined by local artist friends Lea, Jamie and Jennifer, a bundle of smaller people, a collection of larger people, and lots of crispy apples.  Fun for all!


Rules are Made to Be.

July 14th, 2011 § 30 comments § permalink

Summer arrived while I wasn’t totally paying attention.  The days got hotter and longer; the girls got stronger and picked the first sweet fruits of tomato, zucchini, cukes and sugar snap peas.  We watched the sparrows fledge; the supersmart baby rabbits devour the perfectly perfect crispy radishes; the catbirds feed their saucy fledglings, (and we carefully buried the one that did not make it); the ladybug larvae tyrannize the meadowsweet aphids; the swallowtail caterpillars eat the parsley, change from third to fourth to fifth instars, and then magically transform into camouflaged chrysalises.  Now it is here.

But summer is deceiving.  As carefree as it appears, with its crazy messy hair, p.j. pancake breakfasts, sandy wet beach towel floors, puzzle-piece days, and lazy late sleeping girls, it reminds me each year of this: small people can get really out of hand.

Because in the summertime something happens between my two joined-at-the-hip girls.  Something spellbinding.  Yes, they have always loved each other.  There has always been idolization and fierce protection and love, love, love.  They get each other.  “Let’s pretend….” one of them says, and they make funky paper reading glasses and make handmade paper pets that play together with intricate social relationships, and they make each other laugh so hard that they make me laugh at them laughing.

But as the school year comes to an end, we are here.  And it is just us.  And so it is now that quickly things can change.  The “on purpose” bump, the “stolen” crayon, the intentional pinch—it is time for them.


And I think that if you and I are going to continue with our great friendship, you’re going to have to admit that you, too, at least occasionally have small people in your house that get completely out of control.  In fact, it is true that once, in one such moment, my small sweet one pushed a chair down a flight of stairs.  And then threw in a five-fingered scratch from shoulder to wrist.  To my mom.  On purpose.

Sometimes during the hot summer it is like they are putting themselves together by tearing me apart.  Building themselves out of tiny collected pieces of this, that, him, her, me.  And so, because of this, sometimes you just have to go back to the source of something and let it wash over you.  Sometimes you just have to review the rules.

I know this much is true.  Our rules are simple and we make them together.  They range from “Drink your Milk” and “No Pushing” to “Be Kind” and “Help.”  In earlier years, as a visible reminder, we wrote them on a family chalkboard and kept them nearby.  More recently, I permanently painted them on an old stretched canvas.

To replicate this project, you will need an old canvas or scrap wood (size is up to you), wood stain or paint for background, paint for lettering, small- and large-tipped paint brushes, a sanding block, chalk or transfer paper, and a your trusty list of family-generated rules.

First, prepare your canvas.  It need not be perfect.  In fact, the more rustic and unfinished, the better. Prime, roughly paint all sides, allow to dry, and sand edges with a sanding block.  My friends Lea, Helen and Susan (who, unlike me are superstar painters) would proceed at this point to paint the rules freehand.  Instead, I prefer to print them out supersize, cut each word or phrase out, and place them strategically on the canvas.  With transfer paper and a sharp pencil, trace the outline of each letter onto the canvas.  Remove the paper.  Fill in using teeny paintbrushes.  Allow to dry.  Lightly sand the canvas.

Just a note:  I suggest you not follow my black canvas background lead on this one.  Envisioning a chalkboard-like background, I painted a black oil base over my scrappy canvas.  I then hand-painted our rules in white.  Don’t do this.  Instead, either lightly stain a wood background or paint a light-colored background on canvas or wood.  You will avoid the headache of transferring letters onto a dark background.  Uggh.  If you are chalkboard-obsessed like me (we have five), you will not heed this warning.  In that case, use white chalk as a transferring agent instead of transfer paper.  Thoroughly rub the chalk on the back of each paper rule printout, and then use a sharp pencil to transfer the word or phrase onto the canvas.  Remove and fill in with paint.

On another note:  Our rules are referenced incredibly often.  Choose your rules wisely.  For instance, beware of ones that may slip in like “Get Muddy,” “Ask Questions,” or “Try New Things.”  Outcome may be entirely different from your original plan.

And on another note:  Surely some of you will think of easier ways to do the job.  Feel free to reveal any tricks of the trade.

Celebrate The Day

April 4th, 2011 § 7 comments § permalink

Handmade RibbonOne has eyes that laugh like moons, a dimple, and full lips that whistle just one single piercing note.  She is sharp and lively, and ready for battle.  The other one has a quietness that moves right through me.  Her steps are still and steady.  She is deep and contemplative, and tenderhearted.

Sometimes, not often, but sometimes, I worry.  Sometimes after a challenging day, I hold a small hand and look into those wild-earth teary eyes and I am sad.  Sometimes I say I’m sorry that the world is not perfect, that tragedies happen everyday, that people can be unkind, that people suffer.  People we’ve never met.  People we know.  People we see everyday.

My girls.  Mostly, I want the world to accept and appreciate them.  To pay attention to them, compliment their uniqueness, listen and respond to them, encourage and help them when they struggle, laugh and cry with them, high-five them, teach them when they don’t understand, and recognize all the good they have to give.  To love them.

Handmade Fabric Scrap BannerLife moves on, and quickly, and there will be more tears.  But always there is us.  Our family.  And we embrace this and make something out of it.  Life moves on, and so we celebrate the moment.  We unwrap the small, secret gift of everyday.  The messy, the comical, the unexpected.

We celebrate big milestones, of course—birthdays, anniversaries, holidays—but we also celebrate small moments.  The clean plate, the book read, the first crocus blossom, the last snowflake, the new friend—all have the potential to be acknowledged in some small way.

Birthday GirlWe keep banners on hand for momentous occasions, constructed out of fabric scraps and remnant bias tape.  We have special hats to be worn by special friends.  And a big big ribbon to wear.  No four-layer cake, ice sculpture or elephant ride—a simple hand-written note placed under a pillow or in a lunchbox or in a small hand will do just fine.  Or a smile.  Just a smile.  And so, as time flies slowly by, we will hold tight to our family and know that we are lucky.  I feel lucky.  I feel there is a story here so beautiful that we will someday tell.  And look, we get to live it.

Hurray!  Hats off to today!



April 1st, 2011 § 1 comment § permalink

Mossy Pinafore DressesIn May, I will begin selling my work on Etsy.

All my wares are “refashioned” from high-quality cast-off fabric, curtains, clothing and notions—things that would otherwise be destined for garbage landfills.  Unwanted wool sweaters, upholstery, wool remnants, buttons, clasps, lace—some are felted and reconstructed, some are cut and altered—all are transformed into a combination of vintage and modern designs.  Everything I make is crafted with extreme care by my own hands.

Come take a peek.

And, when the shop opens, come on in.

The Toolbox

February 21st, 2011 § 4 comments § permalink

Card CatalogA child with his or her own toolbox is a rare thing.  While it’s not usually wise to provide your little person with a supply of two-part epoxy, a 13-piece Allen wrench set and Teflon grease, it is important to provide workshop space and easy access to age-appropriate gadgets for important projects.  After our girls reached the age when they stopped eating glue sticks, we set out to keep our craft supplies in a modified kid-level card catalog cabinet.  Drawers are labeled with names of contents—ribbon, fabric, buttons, glue, scissors—and the girls have a few communal rules that seem to keep everyone safe and busy.  It’s not fancy, and most supplies are simply remnants from past projects, but it’s a place to go and tinker with things alone—to work independently, responsibly and thoughtfully.  These skills take practice.  Real practice.  I’m quite certain that these are the foundations of creativity and perseverance—necessary elements of a competent adult, and some of the most challenging to master in a school setting.

ToolsIf our goal in life is to make the world a better place than it was when we arrived here, how better to do that than to grow and encourage self-sufficient competent kids?

Wet Felting: The Tiny Birdhouse

January 14th, 2011 § 9 comments § permalink

The Tiny BirdhouseLet me just start by saying that this is not fine sewing.  In fact, you’ll want to skip this post if you have aspirations toward achieving perfection.  The Tiny Birdhouse is the most satisfying project for both kids and grownups, since it really begins with a mistake and there is really no way to mess up the outcome.  It’s not unlike making lemonade out of lemons.  Really, the only thing you’ll need for this project is a medium-weight 100% wool sweater (or two), some thread and a needle.  Grab the laundry from the kids rooms and your own and add the sweater to the batch.  Wash and dry on normal.  The sweater will be slightly smaller and thicker (if you’re like me, you already happen to have several of these tiny, thick sweater casualties on hand due to prior hard knocks with the washer).  Easy, right?  You’ve felted the sweater.  Now the fabric can be cut.

Fabric Pattern: BirdhouseAnd now for the tiny birdhouse.  To form the base and roof of the house, you will need to cut the felted wool into the above shapes (my long rectangular pieces are about 2 in by 3 in).

And now on to stitching.

  1. Cut a small circle out of one of the triangular-topped rectangles.
  2. Stitch the inner edges of the circle.  I use a chain stitch for this.
  3. Using the square piece as a base, stitch bottoms and then sides of the walls.
  4. Stitch the roof sides together.
  5. Then, stitch the roof to the sides.  Project complete.

Few things make me happier than discovering a project that takes little preparation, doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, and, upon completion, runs little risk of being thrown away by other family members.  Display it proudly on your mantle, or hand it to a deserving friend.  This is now one of our go-to after-homework projects—after choosing a few colors from our felted sweater bin, my young design team drafts the plan and takes the plunge—I am commonly appointed Ms. Scissoruser, Madame Knot, or Dr. Needlethreader.  Also, this a great girls-night-in project with close friends on a wintry night.  Even those chronically un-crafty friends will be inspired if tiny, thick sweaters are united with a full wine bottle and candlelight.  Most importantly, the quirkier the outcome, the better.

If you’ve polished your sweater felting techniques and now consider yourself an accomplished Tiny Birdhouse maker, I strongly encourage you to explore other projects using the felted sweater like SwittensSweater Mice and a Superhero Outfit.  Sometime these may come in handy.

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