Category Archives: Crafts

Once Upon a Time, A 72-Crayon Drawing Set

As I was writing my last post, Spring’s New Box of Crayons, an image kept popping up in my mind, a blurry picture from years long past.  One of my most memorable gifts as a child was, indeed, a fabulous box of crayons.  I was very little, no more than three, but I can’t forget my first glimpse of it under the tree on Christmas morning.  The package was unusual for a crayon box.  It was long and flat, and it showed two kids drawing.  Those crayons saw constant use.  Even in our family of thrifty savers and recyclers, the box disappeared many years ago.  I’ve often tried to remember its details, wishing I could see it again. 

Today, I did.  Thanks to the web, even the vaguest of childhood memories are literally at our fingertips.  I googled “Vintage 1960s crayons,” and it appeared, as though I’d snapped my fingers and conjured it by magic, much like Samantha used to do in Bewitched:

Crayola Crayons Color Drawing Set 

72 Different colors including 8 fluorescent crayons.

There was the white box, bearing an image of two ideal early 60s-era children, happily creating Crayola masterpieces.  The girl wears a pink, full-skirted jumper and white blouse, a pink bow in her neatly ponytailed hair.  She sits with her feet tucked up under her in a ladylike position.  The boy wears a striped blue and green shirt and belted khakis.  His bright red hair has a rakish flip, and he lies stretched out on the floor.  One odd detail I certainly didn’t remember:  next to the boy’s elbow is a toy dagger.  Why in the world is that there?  Perhaps to show that wholesome, red-blooded American boys willingly lay down their weapons for a chance to enjoy Crayola crayons?  Tough guys color?  No need to worry, macho Dads:  these crayons won’t turn your son into a sissy? 

Inside the box lies the real treasure (and not a single knife): the crayons themselves, arrayed in two long, beautiful parallel rows.  My mother has remarked that she was rarely happier as a child than she was upon opening a brand-new box of crayons.  For her, growing up during the Great Depression, that was a rare pleasure.  I  was lucky to open many new boxes of crayons, but I know what she means.  And never was the elation more pronounced than when I  first peered at all those perfect crayons inside that new white box.  

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My daughter understands, as well.  She returned home from fourth grade one day talking excitedly about her friend’s wonderful new crayons.  That the girl was a talented and imaginative artist gave the crayons all the more appeal.  They were in a circular, clear plastic box, so all the colors, arranged by shade, were visible.  They were so cool!  Could she get some?  Please?  By the end of the week, she, too, was a proud owner. 

Along with two classic boxes of 64 crayons, they still remain on the shelves of our former playroom.  Barbies and stuffed animals were boxed up (and some even given away) during this summer’s room redo, but the crayons survive.  They’re still used, still fun, still relevant.  They abide.  And now, with the prevalence of coloring books geared toward grown-ups, more likely to be used by all generations. 

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Even now I love the idea of opening a new box of crayons for the first time.  There’s something close to magical in the sight of those flawless little cylinders of color, each paper cover intact, each point sharp and unused.  Such potential.  The chance for multiple new beginnings.  Much like the promise of spring on an April day like today, when the sun is bright and the breeze is fresh. 

Clothespin Creatures for Halloween

These clothespin creatures are some of my favorite Halloween decorations.  I made them about ten years ago, when my daughter was small.  Seems she helped in some way, but I can’t remember exactly how.  Maybe she painted the clothespins?  Whatever she did or didn’t do, she enjoyed them after they were finished.  We both look forward to unpacking them every year. 

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Orange Witch


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Jack-o’-Lantern Boy

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Bat Dandy


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Classy Cat


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Orange Witch #2

Egg-Decorating, Continued

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Because we fared well with our first batch of decorated eggs this season, my daughter and I pushed on. We experimented with natural dyes, without success. Boiled red cabbage suffuses the kitchen with a pungent smell and yields a vibrant reddish-blue color in the pan.  Yet eggs left in this liquid for an extended period emerge an innocuous, industrial shade of gray-white. The same is true for beet juice. This might not be the case if we had boiled the eggs slowly with the vegetables, as we have done, with good results, to make our reddish-brown onion skin eggs (See post from April 2012). Surprisingly, only frozen blueberries mixed with water imparted a substantial but subtle color (a dull gray-blue, seen on the egg in the top center, above).

D and I soon turned to the stand-by, store-bought egg-coloring kit. We wanted to try some easy techniques that did not involve paint or markers.  Outside in the biting March wind, we foraged for interesting bits of foliage and flowers. We arranged a sprig or a leaf on each egg, wrapped the egg tightly in cheesecloth, tied the ends with yarn and immersed the egg in the dye. We had used the cheesecloth technique before when decorating some of our onion skin eggs. (Pieces of old nylon stocking, recommended by some, did not work for us; they didn’t create a secure enough hold.) This cheesecloth process produces messily impressionistic images, as on the eggs above, instead of clear-cut stencil designs, which suits us fine.

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My daughter created this interesting design with nandina leaves,
wrapped very tightly to show the weave of the cheesecloth.

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We made bolder patterns by simply wrapping rubber bands
tightly around the eggs before dyeing them.

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For this design we used a sprig of pine needles bound with a rubber band.  It reminds me of waving seagrass in front of a beach fence.

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We made polka-dotted eggs by applying stickers before dyeing.

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We used a variety of stickers for the eggs above.  Our failure to remove the stickers immediately after dyeing made for the only stress of the evening.  We spent considerable time trying,
with incomplete success, to scrape off the shredded stickers and the gooey residue.

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We used tape to create simple rectilinear designs.  It peels off far more easily than stickers.

Happy Easter-Egging!

 

Painted Eggs

This year, my daughter and I continued our Easter-week egg-decorating tradition, but we kept the techniques simple and our approach low-key. We dyed these eggs using the tablets from a basic egg-coloring kit and decorated them using acrylic paints or markers.  I am happy to report that no family members were harmed, either emotionally or physically, during the decorating of these eggs, which is more than I can say for some years. 

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For other approaches to egg-decorating (and the upheaval they have provoked), see several posts from April 2012. 

The Gingerbread Village Today

For several years it appeared that our gingerbread structures were none the worse for wear despite constant exposure to household elements. When I started to notice a few small flying moths, I searched the pantry, found nothing, and tried to ignore the problem. But the moths became more difficult to ignore.  I began to spot them regularly in the vicinity of the playroom hutch, and I was soon led to the source of the dusty-winged pests.  Our cheery, kid-friendly cottage, the first of my daughter’s and my combined efforts,  had lost its battle with an invading army of mealworms. I remembered then that I had sprayed the house only once, instead of my customary twice, with acrylic fixative. It was time to rethink the year-round gingerbread display.

The pastel candy-covered house went in the trash (despite D’s pleas that it could be saved—the poor child, I fear, has inherited a potential hoarding gene from both sides of the family). I tried to seal and pack the other buildings as thoroughly as my mother would have done. The castle, though, exceeded the size of any box I could find.  Mama would have painstakingly pieced together something that would contain it. I did not do this. I wrapped the castle in plastic, tried to tape over the unclosable box flaps, and hoped for the best. We stored all the boxes on shelves in the basement, which, incidentally, no longer flooded.

 

Just a few months after the village had been packed away, the inadequacy of my storage of the castle becamse dramatically apparent.  During every quick trip to the basement, a rustling, scurrying sound could be heard.  Before long, we had localized the noise to the castle box.  Clearly, it was the pitter-patter of tiny feet.  A multitude of mice had hit the housing jackpot; they were living large in a sweet, edible palace. When my husband carried the box to the back yard and opened it, five mice on a sugar high zipped out, ran right back down the steps and disappeared into the murky corners of the basement. The castle had been almost completely denuded of its abundant, exuberant royal icing. 

 
We were forced to reckon with our mice-control system.  Capturing them in humane traps, easing their nerves by feeding them Cheerios and then releasing them a couple of miles down the road at the edge of the woods was not yielding the best results.  Sadly, we adopted more stringent measures, and we no longer found evidence of mouse parties.  But the fate of the castle made me even less eager to unpack the remaining gingerbread houses as December rolled around each year.  Seven years passed.  

 
Just after Thanksgiving this year, I decided I had the time, energy and fortitude of mind to confront the stored boxes.  Still, I dreaded what I might discover. I knew that our house played host to other creatures besides mice that were likely to enjoy dining on gingerbread.

 
One by one, I unsealed the boxes and brought out each house.  The thatched cottage from 1989 had a few issues with its Shredded Wheat roof, but otherwise it had held up well.  The Norman church tower from 1990 was missing only a few crenellations along its roofline.  The manor house and its adjoining wing (’91 & ’92) had both survived mostly intact.  The white Gothic tower, made to commemorate our wedding in 1995, showed few signs of age.  All its surfaces had been completely covered in white royal icing, and I had expected it to have a long life.  The replica of St. Kevin’s Kitchen (’96), a playhouse-sized eleventh-century Irish chapel, looked good as new except for having lost its conical chimney cap.  Only one building was a loss.  The nave of the Norman church (’93) had succumbed to a mealworm infestation like the one that had destroyed the candy cottage.  I took each house outside to the back patio for a thorough coating of acrylic spray.  The village is back on the playroom hutch again, at least for Christmas (and perhaps through Valentine’s Day). 

Gingerbread 032The Manor House, St. Kevin’s Kitchen (so-called because of its chimney-like tower), the Gothic Bell Tower, and Manor House Wing.             

The Gingerbread Village Relocates and Plays to a Younger Audience

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As a toddler, our daughter’s favorite playthings were the various trappings of Christmas.  She had little use for actual toys if holiday decorations were at hand.  This led to occasional minor heartbreaks when fragile tidbits fell to pieces in her insistent little fingers, but generally she knew how to handle with care.

The first year that I unpacked the gingerbread village in Virginia, D was at my side, bubbling with excitement.  She greeted each structure with much admiration, and I was duly flattered.  She helped me arrange the buildings, some in the center of the dining room table, others atop the hutch.  D could spend hours sitting on the table, setting up various inhabitants among the houses and churches, talking to herself, happily lost in her imagination.  The village might host our clothespin nativity figures one day.  The felt Christmas mice, or a crowd of Polly Pocket dolls might have the run of the place the next day.  The possibilities were nearly endless, just like a child’s busy, growing mind.

D proved to have a knack for creating attractive baked goods.  At age three, she was a surprisingly skilled sugar cookie baker.  She turned out to be a natural with a pastry bag; her royal icing decorations were top-knotch.   Before long, she was asking to help me make a gingerbread house.  I realized that she would, indeed, be a capable assistant.

Our first mother-daughter collaboration was a modest cottage.  I gave my daughter fairly free reign in terms of decoration, so it was a colorful dream of candy and icing.  The next year, we decided to go big.  We made an elaborate, turreted gingerbread castle.  It was an appropriately exuberant candy palace for a girl who chose to wear a different princess costume every day.

Because I couldn’t face the daunting task of properly sealing, packing and storing the gingerbread village, it became a permanent display in our playroom. Our old house, as I’ve said before, is lacking in closets, and our basement used to flood with every hard rain. The absence of the perfect spot to store the village was a good excuse to simply keep it out all year long. D was glad to have it as a constant companion. Every new holiday brought another chance to redecorate.  Our Christmas village had become a town for all seasons.

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D, nearly three, arranges the clothespin Mary and baby Jesus
on the roof of the thatched cottage.

My Medieval English Gingerbread Village

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Back in 1989, home from grad school one winter break, I had enough free time to try my hand at making a gingerbread house. I had spent the previous year living in England researching my dissertation, and visions of picture-perfect country villages were rattling around in my head. I loved the quaint homes lining narrow lanes, the dwellings in use since medieval times and only gaining in charm over the centuries. I was especially fond of the thatched cottages with their half-timbered facades and slanting walls. When I saw Martha Stewart’s masterful gingerbread replica of her Turkey Hill farmhouse, I was further inspired. I liked its relative architectural correctness and its conspicuous absence of frou-frou candy cuteness typically associated with gingerbread buildings.

So I set out to make a thatched cottage. I used Martha Stewart’s recipe and diligently followed her gingerbread-baking tips. I remember thinking my mother was overly uptight when she expressed some dismay at my timing; I began rolling out the dough a day or so before our annual Christmas party. Now I know exactly how she felt. Recently I was struggling to prepare for out-of-town guests when I noted with incredulity that my daughter had plunged into an ambitious beading project that required table surfaces in several rooms. Mama, please accept my belated apology!

That first house took about a week to bake and assemble. If I had thought I could finish it by the party, I was certainly mistaken. It wasn’t even done by Christmas, as that year’s holiday photos attest; it can be glimpsed in the background, roofless, Progresso soup cans supporting its walls. But by New Year’s Eve it was complete, from its Gothic windows, snow-topped chimney and roof of Shredded Wheat, which bears a remarkable resemblance to thatch.

Gingerbread is generally considered a fragile, impermanent medium. But this is not necessarily the case. Like the thirteenth and fourteenth-century cottages I so admired in England, my first gingerbread house has had a long life. It is still with us. The strength of royal icing, a mixture of powdered sugar and egg whites, should not be underestimated, and a clear acrylic spray does wonders to protect gingerbread surfaces.

During the 90s I made other houses and several churches, all in a subdued palette and reflecting various medieval periods. A gingerbread village evolved. Each January I flew back to New Jersey, leaving my mother to deal with the increasingly time-consuming task of storing the houses. She was a faithful (if somewhat understandably resentful) curator of the collection. She kept the village on display atop the hall bookcases until after Valentine’s Day, when she sealed the houses in plastic bags and carefully taped boxes.

By the time H and I bought our home in Virginia, Mama was eager to retire as gingerbread caretaker. House by house, the village began the trek from Atlanta in the back of my parents’ station wagon. I saw, with some alarm, that it would be up to me to deal with the complicated preservation demands of theoretically edible structures prone to decay.  As in every craft project, the fun is in the design and fabrication, not in routine maintenance. I wasn’t sure I wanted this new role, but abandoning the houses to the trash bin was not an option.

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The first four buildings of the gingerbread village, displayed
in my parents’ dining room in 1993.

New This Year: Spooky Trick-or-Treaters

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This fall, my daughter and I spent several amusing afternoons in production of these big-headed, bug-eyed trick-or-treaters to add to our Halloween decorations.  Using a Dremel, we drilled indentations for the wooden bead eyes, which we anchored with Sobo glue.  Our goal was to create a variety of strange and crazy-looking little figures, so we rather indiscriminately raided the craft closet in search of odd miscellaneous items.

For hair, we used yarn, felt, an old shade pull, and some of the stuffing that Kiko was at the time pulling out from the toy he was attacking.  Hats are acorn caps, wooden craft cups, and in one case, a plastic spider ring.  For bodies we used small spools or corks.  Toothpicks or wooden beads form the arms.  One figure received oversized white plastic hands on springs that came with a set of Halloween pencil-toppers. We made two dogs, one with ears of pecan shells, the other with wooden bead ears.  Maple leaves from a craft punch adorn several of the creatures.  We covered miniature Nerds boxes with orange paper to make trick-or-treat bags.  Because we didn’t intend our creations to be perfect or traditionally cute, no one (and I won’t name names) flew into a rage when a slight crafting hitch or two arose.

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Ready for Halloween: Papier-Mâché Jack-o’-Lantern Friends

These two jolly Jack-o’-Lantern friends were inspired by a vintage Halloween decoration my mother found in a catalogue.  Several years ago, my daughter and I made the heads out of papier-mâché, using the tried-and-true Kindergarten method of newspaper strips applied to balloons with watery white glue. For the bodies, we wired together sticks from the yard, which we draped with muslin for the gowns.  The black cloaks were formed from two mens’ drawstring shoe bags.  The friends take their place every October on our dining room sideboard.  This year we surrounded them with bittersweet branches and used two mercury-glass hurricane candle-holders for support.

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Anticipating a happy Halloween!