Friday, March 27, 2009

Hey, look what still exists!

I've actually been working on the blanket a bit. Remember when I thought I would have it done in time to use it this winter? Or did I never state that publicly because I secretly knew that I would get distracted by something shiny and abandon it for months?

I bought some new plants this week, including that sweet grape hyacinth up there. Spring does that to me, brings all of my latent plant-ownership longings to the surface. In the past, I haven't had tremendous luck with anything flowering nor with herbs, but I couldn't resist. Plus, the greenmarket at Borough Hall is a little sad these days and I didn't have a lot of choices. I really should start looking for recipes that use fresh thyme and oregano before they die or are irrevocably infested with whiteflies.

Since I haven't been doing a whole lot else that's bloggable, I give you today's top five list of Blogs I Love But Do Not Believe I Have Previously Mentioned. Enjoy!

1. One of my favorite relatively recent finds is Peculiar Beauty, on which Bonnie excerpts beauty, fashion and glamour guides of yore (and, seriously, if you're only going to click on one link today, make it that one) and celebrates the wacky, the whimsical and the charming. Just this week, she posted these photos from the December 1970 Playboy.
I would buy a print of the bird in a heartbeat. And that's something I definitely have never said about anything in Playboy before.

2. Scouting New York. A professional location scout posting photos of tiny, overlooked details of New York City buildings and neighborhoods: swoon! Some favorite posts: before and after at the Fulton Fish Market and a look at Hart Island. That photo of all of those shoes at the asylum just slays me every time I look at it.

3. A nice companion to SNY, Patell and Waterman's History of New York cover all sorts of New York history-related topics. They teach a couple of courses at NYU (I think) about literature set in New York and maybe some history stuff too. All-round interesting blog. I'm a fan.

4. Knitkicks, which covers knitwear from a more high-fashion-oriented perspective. And since she's a knitter herself, it's a more interesting perspective than a lot of both mainstream and niche fashion coverage, like this post on Derek Lawlor, where she tries to figure out how he achieved some of his effects.

5. Haute Macabre, which is another fashion site that focuses on "alternative dark fashion with the occasional splash of culture." They post gorgeous stuff like this photo spread and these utterly fantastico eyeglass frames. Plus, their "Knock It Off" category makes the higher-end looks more accessible, which is servicey and fun.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

In a mood for picnics and scandal

Serge Gainsbourg in the spring will have that effect on a girl...

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Random Thursday!

1. In which I am glad to see flowers: crocuses along the Brooklyn Promenade. I think people who plant the early, early spring flowers — crocuses, daffodils, snowdrops, even tulips — do the world such a kindness by assuring ahead of time that there will be flowers exactly when everyone really, really wants to see something growing and blooming. One of my neighbors growing up planted thousands of daffodil bulbs in the empty, wooded lot next to her house. I'll be up there in a couple of weeks; I should go by and see if they're still there.

2. In which my tape measure is a lying slut.
I managed to knit the back of Yank a good 4-5" longer than it needed to be, despite measuring it regularly. The fronts match each other, so I'm not completely incompetent. I ripped back already and am back on track, but seriously, what the hell, tape measure?

3. In which I go to the Orangette reading.
See her waaaaaaay up at the front of the room? I've been reading Molly's blog for a while and really like it, so I was happy to go out and see her reading from her new book. It was an rsvp-only event at Idlewild Books, and was already standing-room only when I got there 25 minutes early. Wild. The reading was good, but I was happier to have had a reason to check out the bookstore. Once I got there, I remembered having heard about it when it opened — they sell both travel guides and fiction/momoirs, but arrange the store geographically so that novels set in a country are right next to travel guides to that place.
And they sell all sorts of maps and globes and things of that ilk. Not to mention having a super cool light fixture.
All of the pieces of paper had something written on them, a poem, a drawing, a note, and then are attached to some central thing by a wire and an alligator clip. I didn't spend a tremendous amount of time examining whether the wires seemed to be a part of the thing from the start or were glommed on afterward, but I love the idea.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown.

While I wouldn't wish a Saturday afternoon on Canal St. on my worst enemy, the odd corners and alleys in Chinatown are some of my favorite places in the city. The produce stands on Mott St., the weird stores that apparently only sell homemade beef jerky, the inpenetrable mysteries of the herbalists' shops, the tiny, dingy restaurants turning out amazing food... And the dumplings! I really can't go too long without dumplings before I start to feel sad. So last night, EP and I headed to Chinatown for some soup dumplings at Joe's Shanghai.
I wish I had more RIGHT NOW.

Then we wandered over to one of my favorite places in New York, the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory, where I stupidly tried branching out from the One True Flavor (almond cookie) and was disappointed by much-too-sweet lychee sorbet.
Still, I suppose I learned something.

Then as we were walking around, enjoying the relatively empty streets and looking for somewhere for EP to buy some chopsticks to keep around the house, we had the extraordinary good fortune to wander into Kam Man, a purveyor of wonders and delights the likes of which I haven't seen since the first time I went into Pearl River when it was still on Canal Street and unfancified.

The ground floor is all groceries, stocked with what, at first glance, looks like the kind of packaged goods you might find at any Asian grocery store: cheap noodles, mysterious candy, odd echoes of colonialism like Ribena. But then I looked a little closer and found some more interesting stuff for sale.

Downstairs, there's a large housewares department and all manner of treasures.
This was with the toiletries, so am assuming it's some kind of scent? Mmmm, Florida Water...

Adorable lunch containers that read "PANDA: day after day" on the bottom. (The frog had no message.)

Next person I know who gets married, behold your gift!

In all seriousness, I'm coming here for all baby gifts from now on.

What a coincidence! Those are the top three things I require lucky cats for: In Love, Get Rid of Evil and Yellow.

Take your "happy birthday" candles and shove 'em. We only celebrate the happiest birthdays at Kam Man.

I'm going to start referring to my sugar bowl as the "sugar case."

Nothing makes me want to buy liver cleansing tea like a depiction of a large, diseased liver on the box.

If I had the kind of hair that would support decorative chopsticks, I would have been all over these little owl numbers.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

What I've been...

...Reading: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. For me, this is the kind of book that the library was made for; an epistolatory novel with a dying preacher writing to his young son sounds terrible, no matter how lyrically written. Especially if it's lyrically written. But when I can request a book online, get an email when it's available and pick it up at my leisure, all for free, I'm more inclined to try out some stuff that I've heard good buzz about but wouldn't be excited about otherwise. (I know it's not a new book, but I've seen it mentioned a few places recently, so it's low-level buzz at this point.) And I'm so glad I did. It is lyrical, but it's also wry and warm and full of joy and humor. I'm really enjoying it. And I have nothing against lyricism, but tend to be annoyed at books that are more interested in style than story. IT SHOULD NOT BE AN EITHER/OR SITUATION.

Also, Florence Broadhurst: Her Secret and Extraordinary Lives by Helen O'Neill. I've been meaning to read this for a few years and have not been disappointed. She was born in (seriously) rural Australia, was a singer in a troupe that traveled around Asia in the 1920s, pretended to be a French couturier in London, married a member of the high society, turned out not to have been actually married to him but then made him move to Australia when he had an affair — and I'm not even a quarter of the way into the book. Eventually, she becomes a famous and successful wallpaper designer and is brutally murdered in her studio, but I still have a lot of ground to cover before I get to that point.

And I've been rereading Wolves at Our Door as I fall asleep at night. I really dig this kind of first-person account of field research. The people in this instance are documentary filmmakers who live with and film a captive wolf pack for six years to observe the way the pack interacts. It's pretty amazing stuff, plus I spent three months in that area six years ago and it's kind of fun to recognize the references ("I've totally done that drive from Ketchum to Stanley! It's so twisty and moutainous — of COURSE all the puppies were throwing up! I nearly threw up myself!") The writing itself is a little ... obviously written by people who are not writers, but the material is good enough that it doesn't really matter.

...Watching: I finished up the third season of The Wire and will get started on the fourth season sometime soon. I finally drank the Battlestar Galactica Kool-Aid and am maybe halfway through the second season of that. I'm feeling the need for something a little girlier to balance out all of the space and guns, but not sure yet what that's going to be.

...Failing at executing: Blood orange curd. It seemed like such a promising idea: take all that gorgeous ruby juice, make it into curd and use it to fill a layer cake. I had promised to bring a cake to a birthday party Saturday night and had gotten it in my head that I wanted do something dramatic and fancy with layers and filling and possibly pink frosting, the kind of cake capital-L Ladies would be served, a Lady Cake. I found a recipe for an orange layer cake that sounded tasty as well as pretty and thought a nice, tart filling would be a good balance. And when I found a really cheap bag of blood oranges at Trader Joe's, it seemed like everything was coming up Stephanie.

I juiced the oranges:
Got all of the supplies out, even thinking ahead and adding a lemon because I knew the oranges weren't tart enough to produce an ideal result:
I heated the juice and zest with the butter and sugar and added the beaten eggs, whisking merrily while listening to Marlene Dietrich. And as "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine" played, I had one of those moments in which I was aware of being perfectly happy — all of my senses were engaged, I was in the middle of an enjoyable project in furtherance of a larger enjoyable project, I had a weekend full of good plans ahead of me, plus Dietrich always makes me think of my late friend Jimmie, who used to do a drag cabaret act in her character, and he's someone I always enjoy thinking about.

And then something happened that has never happened to me in all of the times I've made anything with a custard base: the eggs cooked too quickly in the hot liquid, in effect scrambling them and ruining everything forever.
That photo is from when I tried, heroically, to save the day by pushing the curd through a fine sieve, which worked well enough to take out the cooked egg pieces. Unfortunately, the remaining curd had an unpleasantly grainy consistency that I couldn't think of any way to undo. It was sad. And it made doing all the dishes even more annoying since I didn't have anything to show for them.

...Baking, with great success: After the emotional highs and lows of Friday night, I wanted something simpler and failproof, yet still impressive and fantastically delicious. EP and I had been brainstorming about cakes and she suggested that I make Nigella Lawson's Guinness cake, a choice of which I admit to having been a bit dismissive since I was still picturing a towering, pretty, pink Lady Cake, maybe with the names of the birthday people piped on top or, simply, YAY CAKE! But after CurdFail, when my spirit was broken and I was exhausted from sweeping up and throwing away the glittery, broken shards of my layer-cake dreams, I looked at it again and figured what the hell, Nigella has never steered me wrong. We seem to have similar palates and approaches to food and any of her recipes that I've made have turned out really well. Plus, I think she would be a blast to talk about boys with while painting our toenails.

The recipe is in Feast, but also here. I followed it exactly, except that I added both half a teaspoon of almond extract and the juice of half a lemon to the frosting. Oh! And I used a cup and a half of regular white sugar and half a cup of dark brown sugar instead of two cups of superfine sugar.That's it on the left and Erin's pear upside-down cake on the right. I made it Saturday afternoon and it was good that night, but something very special happened to it overnight and by late Sunday afternoon it was a whole different creature. The texture shifted a bit, becoming more velvety and dense, as well as less overtly chocolate, with more of an indefinable, slightly bitter undercurrent. I'm not generally crazy about chocolate cake (I'd rather just have the chocolate, thanks, or a piece of plain butter cake with fruit, not unlike that one up there, as a matter of fact) but this was outstanding. I will absolutely make this again. The cake itself is very moist and just fantastic, plus very quick and easy to throw together = WIN.

...Knitting: Yank, still. I'm just past the initial bind-off at the armholes on the back. Then two sleeves, one front band and the collar to go. I'm still not convinced I have enough yarn, but I'm getting closer to finding out.

...Planning: 1. A cardigan out of the most un-Stephanie, yet delightful, color ever.
It's Louet Riverstone Bulky in strawberry, a very bright orangey pink. I can't explain the attraction, but I love it. I also really like the way it looks against any shade of grey or navy or black or smoky purples (i.e., everything I own). I washed the skeins when they arrived because when I knit Owls out of the same yarn, there was a noticeable difference in the softness and fluffitude, not to mention an overpowering chemical scent when the wool hit the water. Although I should note that the dye was absolutely fast and no visible dirt washed out.

2. A number of sewing projects. It's about this time every year that I start to think about sewing again (and wishing that I were better at it). I have a few projects lined up that should be relatively painless.
a. Two denim skirts. I know I meant one of the denims to be the simple, a-line version and the other to have either the ruffle or the flouncy gore things, but I can't remember which. Whichever I bought more of, I suppose.
(I'm a little scared of all of those women in their cheerful skirts, I have to admit, like they're coming, armed with smiles, to drag me off to their neighborhood barbeque. At which I am to be the entree.)

b. Some pretty patterned cotton for a Built by Wendy top.
(Somehow, the faceless figures with broken necks scare me less.)

c. Two coordinating cotton prints that I know I had some grand plan for that involved a Built by Wendy top out of one of them and a skirt out of the other with either the ruffle or gores done in the shirt print so that I could either wear them together or separately. I *think* the smaller print was planned for the top. My mind's eye likes that better anyway, so that's what we're going with.

d. I have enough of this Mociun hand-printed hemp/silk for a dress, but I'm afraid of ruining it. See? I haven't even taken it out of the packaging.
I think I'll do something with that if/when all of the above projects are done. Juno and I have been having some pre-sewing pep talks — one of my pre-sewing tasks was a public declaration of intention and potential project round-up, so cross that off — and a recurring theme in our conversations has been building in a system of rewards, e.g., after we each make something that we would happily wear in public, we can spend an afternoon in the garment district; after we finish a big, ambitious project that will involve learning new skills (mine is a shirtdress), we can design and order custom fabric from Spoonflower. What can I say? I'm a simple creature; I respond to treats.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Where I've Been

Photos of being out and about have been piling up on my desktop, since I haven't been taking the time to post them, so I'm just going to throw them all up here now.

Last week, I went to the opening of the Fashioning Felt exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt, which was good -- some very cool objects made of felt. I really dug this moulding. I like familiar objects that are made from unexpected materials.
And they got into some of the aspects in which the material itself informs the objects; there were some dresses that were felted directly into dress shape, rather than making yardage that had to be cut and sewn.

The fancy yurt was pretty spectacular:
I have to say though, that it was not the felt exhibition that I would like to see. I kept thinking what a kick-ass job the Natural History Museum would do with the topic. I think they do the best special exhibitions in the city — their Pearls and Darwin shows were some of the best I've ever seen — and felt is a topic that really deserves an inter-disciplinary treatment. Please note that this is not casting aspersions on the Cooper-Hewitt at all. They're the national design museum; "here's cool stuff" is their mandate. But I would really love to see a felt exhibition that included a scientific component and an industrial component and an anthropological/historical component in addition to the aesthetics. And some examination of the way ancient technologies are being used and adapted today, e.g., Sara Lamb's studio yurt, plus discussion of the whole artisan felt movement.

And it got me thinking about a series of exhibitions based around materials that are still relatively close to their natural source, but modified by humans before being offered up as a raw material. The only other one I could think of was plywood. Honestly, I would love to see a well-done plywood exhibition. Where does the wood come from? How is it made into plywood? What are the environmental implications for that process? What are the human-life implications -- who's doing the work, do they all suffer from, like, Sawdust Lung? What has it traditionally been used for? What kind of quantities are produced and why? Who are the people living in plywood shacks and why? What's up with the move to make somewhat high-end furniture and housewares from it, like this cabinet?
I really like very humble materials treated as though they're precious.

So, I had that idea, but would need at least a third material to round it out before I think about writing up a proposal or anything. There must be something metal that's analogous. Copper maybe? I don't know.

I went to hear my friend Brian read from his book, Feelers:
It's a very good book, and you should all buy it.

And Sunday afternoon, I got to do one of my favorite Sunday afternoon activities, which is walking around aimlessly with my camera. Apparently I still really like graffiti and industrial landscapes.
(oh, THAT's where that is)

Finished: Amelia

I've been putting off posting about finishing Amelia because I wanted to take some better pictures of it on me, but haven't done it yet and the perfect being the enemy of the good and all, figured I'm better off with mediocre pictures than none at all.

Finished, pre-blocking:
This is maybe the best idea I've ever had: when washing a sweater, pin along all of the seams to keep them aligned. It makes blocking it afterward a doddle.

I love working with industrial yarns, by which I mean yarn that was designed to be knit by machine rather than by hand. It's more durable and I think creates a nicer fabric than most of the hand-knitting yarns on the market. And because it's usually either waxed or oiled to slide through machinery more easily, there's a very satisfying transformation when it's washed and all of the gunk comes out. This yarn is comprised of six or eight sewing-thread-weight strands of cashmere/silk held together that initially didn't feel like anything special. But after washing and beating it up a little, it's really amazing. Like the fur on a kitten's throat.

I don't know if you can really tell from the photo, but all of the buttons are different. I was about to write that I dug deep into my button jar to find them all, but that would be a lie, though a charming and harmless one. I don't even have a button jar; I keep my vintage buttons reasonably organized by color and size via a system of dime bags and ziplocs. (I don't keep a stash of new buttons, those I buy as I need them.) So it was actually no trouble at all to open the box I keep notions in, find the bag of black buttons around this size within the freezer bag that holds all of the dime bags and pull out 11 different ones.

In conclusion, I love this sweater. It's exactly the kind of knitwear that I will wear to death: a classic shape with interesting details. I love the neckline. I'm happy with the fit. I adore the yarn. I'm pretty sure I made this exactly as written, other than adding buttonholes all the way down. Thanks to Laura for a(nother) fantastic pattern!