Thursday, July 28, 2011

One River and 46,000 Glass Tiles

During the summer of 2008, when the Iowa River reached far beyond its banks and wreaked havoc across the state, the University of Iowa was in the process of building a boat house for its women's crew team. They stopped what they were doing, watched the partially-built structure submerge, and once the river subsided made flood-proofing alterations, knowing that the river would inevitably rise again. The result is  a LEED-certified structure that sits at a bend in the river, affording views both up- and downstream.


One of my favorite features in the boathouse is a mosaic of a rower, gliding across the river's turbulence. It was designed and constructed by Des Moines artists Rebecca Eckstrand and Tom Rosbourough and is constructed of 3/4-inch glass mosaic tiles—46,000 of them—laid by hand and designed to withstand flood waters. Take three minutes to check out this video that shows the mural, the process used to create it, and the boathouse.

In June, my husband and I stopped to see the mosaic at an open house and were surprised when the tour guide ask us if we'd like to try rowing. I've long admired the sport, but have a few injuries and wasn't sure I could row. Here was an opportunity to find out.

Suffice it to say that not long after I signed up for a two-day learn-to-row workshop and survived. And after that, I joined the Hawkeye Community Rowing Club and have been on the water two and sometimes three days a week. Each time I'm both thrilled and terrified. I'm also surprised how much focus it takes. I never noticed Paul on the river bank, taking this photo (that's me in the front, my first time in a two-person scull). Suffice it to say that I am in love—with learning to row; with being on the river at 7 a.m., when only a few hardy walkers stride the banks and our boat scares up an occasional egret; and with the knowledge that my body can still take on, and meet, a challenge.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Real Headache

The daughter of some friends recently underwent surgery for a brain tumor. She's a college student, 20 years old, and it was a frightening event for all concerned—hell, it was every parent's worst nightmare.

Despite this, her parents were paragons of calm—the mom told me that she felt that she needed to hold it together so that her daughter wouldn't be even more frightened before the surgery, but that she sobbed after leaving her daughter en route to the surgical suite.

Fortunately, things seem to be going well. The tumor was benign, and though she had to be re-hospitalized for a few days, she's home and the stitches are out.

While friends brought the family meals, and while I knew that was highly useful, I decided on a (totally impractical, particularly for a 20-year-old young woman) sock monkey. This time, I followed the directions while making the monkey. E's school colors are red and black, so I made a hat from a crimson baseball sock and embroidered a black "E" across the front. Then I made a pair of crossed band-aids from wool and french knots and stitched them on the head, where they can be hidden under the hat. (Indeed, I got the sweetest thank you note from E, who said that now that she'd gotten her stitches out she had one less thing in common with the monkey.) I used scraps of my Woolylady wool for both the band-aids and eyes and was reminded what a pleasure stitching through wool can butteh!

I was a little worried about giving her this rather odd gift, as I don't know E all that well, but was gratified that the entire time I visited she kept the monkey in her lap. And I am so, so happy that she seems to be doing so well. I think their experience is part of what informed the last paragraph I wrote for my recent Etsy post on The Oxford Project: "Sorrow and fear, passion and joy will find you, and the completely unexpected can happen whether you strike out for parts unknown or move just down the block."

Monday, July 18, 2011

Clothespin Pleasures

People who hang out clothes get lots of environmental brownie points. But long before clotheslines represented doing without for the greater good, I loved to clip sheets, sleepers, and socks to the line. I actually felt guilty about taking the time to do something so pleasurable rather than using the much quicker and more efficient dryer. Hanging clothes on the line was and still is my very own brand of hedonism.

The appeal is not just the smell of freshly hung clothes, or the fact that once hung, many need no ironing. And it’s not just feeling the sun on my back or hearing the wind swish through the walnut trees, or of catching sight of kingbirds chasing white moths or the oranges and pinks of blooming daylilies. 

It’s the way clotheslines display textiles, threads splayed to catch the sun. And I get to handle each piece of fabric twice…once in it’s limp, mangled, wet stage and again when it’s crisp and flapping. And when I do I am reminded of where each textile fits into my life. The red-and-blue dishtowels I wove more than 15 years ago that still get used weekly, the hand towels monogrammed by my mom, even the rags that used to be my favorite nightgown or a diaper that belonged to my now-grown children—these fabric bits and pieces conjure everyday kinds of happiness. 

I adore my antique quilt and the silk-embroidered table runner from Iraq, textiles so precious that I protect them from fading and friction. But my clothesline let’s me feel the density of knit sweatshirts, the airiness of linen skirts, the raised stitching on days-of-the-week dishtowels. It feeds my obsession for the tactile and visual elements of textiles, past and present, and lets the daydreams and memories unfold with the napkins and fly with the sheets.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Old Friends

I think that every quilter was attracted to a traditional quilt at one time or another. Whether you were fortunate enough to have one passed down through your family that you snuggled under at night, or a quilt caught your eye as you perused the merchandise at an antique store, old quilts often are what got us quilting in the first place.

But just because we loved or were intrigued by an old quilt, doesn't mean that's the kind of quilt we want to make. My initial interest in piecing came not from a family quilt, but from patchwork-y things I made in the 1970s, like the purple and brown floor-length patchwork skirt I stitched in high school. In recent years, it's contemporary fabrics that make me want to sew and I'm an unabashed color whore color hound (but I am pretty promiscuous in my love of color).

So I was surprised to find myself bringing home an antique quilt. Every year there's a show in Kalona and the displayed quilts are a combination of antique and contemporary. I'd gone to see a quilt made by quilter extraordinaire Erick Wolfmeyer  and was sucked in by the antique quilts. There were three that I was drawn to and when Marilyn Woodin (original owner of Woodin Wheel antiques and founder of the Kalona Quilt show and the textile museum there) told me I'd made good choices, I couldn't help but buy one. (When I got home with it, Paul said, "You've been with an enabler." Indeed I was. Marilyn complimented my choices and told me this quilt was the perfect start to my collection. Which doesn't exist. Yet.)

According to Marilyn, this quilt is from the 1880s and the cheddar fabric is likely from the 1860s (it's not just my friend Mary Lou who believes every quilt needs some cheddar). And Marilyn said this is a T-square block, popular with the followers of the temperance movement.

I think it's got a lot in common with contemporary quilts—it's graphic and there are certainly some unexpected colors and fabrics in there. Everything old is new again. I've got it atop the spare bed in my study, where I can see it every day, and see something new in it every day, as well.

Friday, July 1, 2011


Okay, so perhaps destiny is a bit grandiose...but when I was in Virginia my mom was packing up her suitcase and pulled out the shoe bags she's used for my entire life and what were they made from? Feed sacks!

It turns out that decades ago my mother went to my aunt's farm in Minnesota and picked the sacks out especially to make these. I took a close look and sure enough, there were the former stitching holes Mike Zahs told me were a sure sign that the fabric had once been a feed sack.

Apparently feed sacks have been tucked away in my brain all these years. And now I'm a little obsessed. In my family, when someone has something you really like, you tell them "I get it when you die!" I told my mom I definitely get these when she's gone.

There's a great outdoor antique sale every 4th of July in nearby Solon. This year I'll have my eye out for feed sacks, for sure!

Have a wonderful 4th of July weekend, everyone!