“All Things Bright and Beautiful”

Our bright and beautiful world welcomed a new little one in July!

Baby Selene joined her parents, a sister and brother
…and a pretty fun group of neighbors who decided to celebrate her arrival with a baby blanket.

And more: In true Chinese fashion (going back to the year 960!) Selene’s grandmother joined the household for a month to give Selene’s momma Alice a big postpartum hand—otherwise known as 坐月子 (zuo yue zi), literally “sitting the moon” (or, less sentimentally, as confinement.) Even the blanket gift delivery was obliged to wait until confinement was over.

My sleuthing informer-friend provided some family background in order to prep for this custom blanket:

Momma Alice is Taiwanese-American. She has fond memories of watching Mulan for the first time with her family as a young girl. She works with a non-profit organization to keep women who are at-risk or in crisis safe and supported. She has family nearby. And she’s a new mom of three!

Photo source: Walt Disney Studios

Dad Jamie served in the Army, earned his MSW and now works with veterans through the VA. He’s adventurous and a little daring. He also likes educating himself about child development and ways to thoughtfully help his own kids grow to be great adults.

I spy a great deal of brightness and beauty right in Selene’s family. So much care-giving to others!

The line “All Things Bright and Beautiful” is from Irish hymn-writer Cecil Frances Alexander and was written in the mid-1800s. (She also wrote the Christmas carol “Once in Royal David’s City” and “There is a Green Hill Far Away” for any of you who remember hymns from your childhood.) Her first verse is the most familiar:

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.

The words gained longevity when author James Herriot titled his autobiographical books about being a veterinarian in the English countryside with phrases from Alexander’s poem. British television furthered our familiarity with it by producing films and TV series of Herriot’s stories.

It seems like Alexander’s simple expressions touch something fundamental within us. Whatever one believes about the origins of things (granted, my thinking aligns with hers), I venture to say we all deeply appreciate these very good things: wisdom and wonder, great and small creatures, and beauty, color and light.

Just one particular element was requested when this blanket was commissioned: “Make it pink and cream.”

Just one thing! But did it happen here? Not exactly. Because the sweaters were insistent (as they usually are) about choosing their own buddies.

The body of this blanket began with the purplish-pink of Mulan’s magnolia tree. At that point, those magenta sweaters called for peach for the border. (You’ll likely recognize the purple-orange complement.) It was a good call. Finally, for counterpoint to the sweet pop-art flowers in the trim, I chose big, bright flowers for their centering visual weight.

Other pieces of interest are:

* a tiny pocket for tiny fingers, treasures, or messages
* two curved necklines, backed with contrasting fabric
* a preserved curling edge of a sweater
* several small sweater pieces stitched on top of the blanket’s border for greater texture
* all those cables!!

Congratulations, Jamie, Alice, Stella and Apollo! May you enjoy your family’s brand new gift: Selene.

 And welcome, Selene! May you see brightness, beauty, and all manner of other wonders in this world around you as you grow.

© Joan Olson
“All Things Bright and Beautiful” (36×36)
Felted wool sweaters

“Little Red Bird”

Four months ago (a week after my post just prior to this one), my husband and I drove to Michigan from Illinois to look at a house that had popped up on Zillow. The next day we placed a bid on the house and had it accepted. A month later we sold our own house. And a month after that, just before Christmas, we, with all our earthly belongings in tow, returned to Michigan after 22 years away.

Who ever knows what the future will bring? The short story is, our kids brought us back :).

When I finally caught my breath after this race again time, I texted my old friend Deb who had asked me about making a baby blanket for February; she and her neighbors wanted to surprise friends in their neighborhood who were expecting their second child. I was excited to begin!

That is, I was excited for the blanket…but pretty bummed about my lack of good work space. The walkout lower level of our new home has required some work, which means I haven’t been able to set up a sewing area yet. Worst of all, my many (many many!) bins of wool and related supplies are either difficult or impossible to access. The making of this blanket called for patience, persistence, problem-solving, and some jerry-rigging. (Much like pregnancy itself. Did you ever use a rubber band loop to close your pants fly?) Here’s my set-up, where I’ve appropriated the narrow space between our bed and bedroom window; and below that is the room that’s waiting to be turned into a sewing studio:

Enough about that. Back to the blanket! The thoughtful neighbors of the expecting couple stealthily gathered intel for me: mom Daphne is Swiss, dad Christian is German, and the couple lived in Germany prior to their move to the US. Their first son Simon was born on July 4 — which was no big deal in Germany, but now he thinks fireworks on one’s birthday is normal :). The family loves the outdoors.

I pulled together three color combinations and photographed them to show Deb and get a vote from the group. I was hoping for green (can you tell?), to bring the magic of outdoors inside for them.

And…the greens won!

It takes me awhile to work with the design of a blanket. First I laid out my strips on a diagonal. Then I decided I liked them straight. I found an interesting neckline and formed a pocket with it. Finally, I deliberated about what outdoorsy thing to appliqué on the blanket: a tree? an animal? In the end, I decided to go with both. (I’ve done one of these before!) I pictured a little bird on a branch, waking up his new friend with a song. But what shape and color of branch? And what should the bird look like? It generally takes me several iterations of a thing before I make my final decision.

The factor that eventually made the decision for me is the way the reds and greens fairly vibrate when they are against each other. The striped red made the best branch of anything, in my estimation. And once that was chosen, I needed a funky little bird to balance the joyful craziness.

AND, since this new little babe came in February, what could be more apropos for the pocket than a HEART??

Congratulations to parents and big brother! And welcome, sweet new one to this beautiful world, so worth watching, exploring, hanging out in and getting to know. May your little red bird help with introductions ;).

© Joan Olson
“Little Red Bird” (35×36)
Felted wool sweaters

A Pause and a Purge

OPEN! OPEN! The Felted Wool Blanket Master Class
is OPEN FOR FALL!

Have you been saving wool? Are you ready to make a blanket?
Go here to learn more.

It’s been a bit.

The nutshell version of the past 3 months is:

1)  I retired, freeing me to
2)  spend more time with family (especially Mom) and to
3)  put our home on the market to move.

Yes! in July I retired from my regular position as an occupational therapist at the neuro-rehabilitation clinic I have fondly mentioned here for years. I still fill in as needed. It’s been a sweet way to cut the cord, as I love the work and the people.

A huge component of wanting to retire has been to gain flexibility to visit my mom across the country more frequently and for longer periods. In fact, I was able to go see her for a good part of September. That was significant to us both.

Here we are last month, in Southern California, with a backdrop of sorrowfully ashy sky. After the shot we each said, “Do I really look like that?!” (Ummm, perhaps it actually was, “Do I really look that old?!)  We said that, but I honestly think we look just right. I love and appreciate this woman so much.

In addition to attending to a bunch of doctor appointments, doing a fascinating 4-layer puzzle of Los Angeles, we purged and organized. This is a monstrous, large-looming theme over the past months, both with Mom and back home.

At home, we are sprucing up our abode and paring down our possessions in order to put this house on the market. Now that the kids have grown and gone, it’s time to go traipse after them (with their permission!).

In encouragement to purge well, one of our daughters briefly described the idea of “Swedish Death Cleaning,” adding with a good-natured wink how thoughtful it was of us to unburden the family of things now so she and her sister would not have to do it later.

The hubs and I have laughed over this often since then, because in actuality, our versions of cleaning out are perfect reflections of us. So he is out in the garage surrounded by stacks of boxes, in a thoughtful reverie of Norwegian Death Cleaning, wherein he carefully reflects upon every backstory and possible future need. Meanwhile I’m whipping through the house with my DNA-bestowed German Death Cleaning skills, winnowing items with a 2-second decision and a flick of the wrist.

I should add that we are both eldest children and thus we are each certain our approach is best. I will also add that we have managed this with no fights and with frequent interludes of laughter.

(I did check out Margareta Magnusson’s “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning” from the library to see what fine points I might be missing. In a nutshell, she recommends giving away one’s dear possessions while one is living, to people who have admired them or who have similar passions. While at present we’re mostly getting rid of excess stuff that’s not especially meaningful, I do plan to take her advice to heart in the future.)

One more note on the topic of purging. For several years I’ve been grateful that my husband has tolerated the multiple stacks of felted wool sweaters everywhere: on open shelving in our loft, in my work areas, and finally standing tall against the walls of our bedroom. The numbers became overwhelming even to me. So I challenged myself to choose my favorite 2/3 of the sweaters and pass the rest on. I again employed my 2-second-decision-and-flick method, and I cross my fingers that I don’t live with regrets. But honestly, thinning out the throngs brought a new sense of lightness and inspiration to me, and I can’t wait to set up my workspace again in a new place. I miss sewing so much!

After sorting, I photographed several beautiful stacks of 1/3 of my wool collection, and put a call out for shoppers on Facebook Marketplace.

In less than 24 hours, I had wonderful, creative, interesting (and bemasked) “strangers” slip into my family room, just inside the sliding glass door from the deck, where I had set up a browsing area in the shade but it was still TOO DARN HOT that August week to be out there handling wool.

Each person who came had a different plan for the wool. First was a mitten maker who pored through sweaters looking for appropriate sweater weights and edges for cuffs. The next woman was planning her wool appliqué work. Another was looking for cashmere for her favorite baggy bed socks. Later came a teacher in search of materials for right-brain projects to relax at the end of her work days. The final woman of the afternoon wanted to make simple items for an annual handmade Christmas gift exchange with friends. She was considering little pocket purses, or maybe coasters with flowers.

All in all, I was very happy for the in-person human interaction, so rare lately, and found this a delightful way to say good-bye to much beautiful wool ♥.

And one final reminder:

The Felted Wool Blanket Master Class is OPEN FOR FALL!

Go here to learn more.

“Keep to the River”

Oh, my heart. Back in February, when our days were more ordinary than they are now, my friend and colleague, Sara, contacted me about a blanket for her dad’s June birthday as a gift from her sisters and her. I trimmed the binding last week, in the nick of time, and mourned when I sent it on its way, for I grew to love this blanket that took shape in a time of turmoil.

I began this project with trepidation, yet not because of world events. Sara’s is a blended family of interesting, accomplished people and makers, and Philip, the birthday honoree, is an artist. I admit I felt the weightiness of designing something for this creative man and his gifted offspring.

Phil’s story includes young love and marriage, the birth of two daughters, divorce, a second marriage and another daughter. The sisters—civil engineer, doctor, and speech language pathologist—have made it a point to pull together around their father.

Phil kept these sweaters carefully stored away. They came to him via his mother, father, and wife who all have now passed on. When one of Phil’s daughters attempted to quietly remove the sweaters from his house, he alertly took note and expressed concern about where they were going. And who wouldn’t? I can understand why they are meaningful to him.

Of the group of sweaters above, Phil’s mother Fern hand-knit three. She made the top left sweater for Phil. She made the bottom wide-striped sweater for an unknown recipient. And she knit the top right sweater for Phil’s dad, Bob. This sweater had the most character of all: instances of darning (which, according to Sara, often took place while the sweater was on Bob); very old elbow patches which I would’ve included but they didn’t come through the washing process well; and discoloration at the neck from cigar smoke. (Did this character make it into the blanket, you ask? Well, just sit tight…)

The other sweaters mostly belonged to Phil’s wife Cheryl. She, in fact, had felted several with plans to make something from them but did not ever get to it. In spite of the sweaters’ range of condition, age, and color scheme, they eventually sorted themselves out for me. I always experience a huge moment of relief when this happens! (And I was able to include all the sweaters except one which felted up too thickly.)

Once those sweaters sorted themselves into what became three color groupings, the outline in the photo below popped into my head and I sketched it down. I expected it to be just an idea to get the process rolling, but in the end this one simple picture guided me through the whole stage of blanket design.

So here is “Keep to the River.”  The blanket is part abstract, part concrete, and altogether influenced by the stories Sara told told me and by life going on around all of us since February.

There are two interrelated impressions I have about this river—

First, a river is like life itself: flowing immutably forward, sometimes swiftly, so there is barely enough time to react to one development before we are racing toward the next; and sometimes gently, and we can absorb, rest, reflect, and make (some) sense of things. Keep to the river! Live fully into the life you have been given!

And also: A river is a trustworthy guide, giving us our bearings, pointing out the route, sustaining us, joining us up with others and their routes. Keep to the river! You’ll find the way!

And so this river feels appropriate for a birthday marking many rich years of life and for a blanket representing full, rich lives of several interconnected family members.

For Philip:

May this blanket hold within it the fondness and love your three unique daughters have for you. May you also find in it wonderful and warm memories of Cheryl and your parents.

Happy birthday!

Blanket Details:

• Three daughters, three swaths of color in the blanket, three buttons—

• What were these two circles originally? To me, they looked like Scottish tams. Or maybe they were to be small pillows. “You don’t have to use them,” said Sara. “We don’t even know where they came from.” But aren’t they interesting? And fun! Yes, they belonged in there too. To me, they’re stepping stones. But what do you see? —

• The philodendron leaves represent a personal and tender expression of Philip for his wife Cheryl, a gardener, at her passing—

• These two pictures show Fern’s repair handiwork (in green) on the the backside of Bob’s sweater. At the lower edge you can see a bit of that (cleaned-up!) cigar discoloration—

• Pockets! —

• The back, as per usual, is simply unfinished seams, which tend to hold up very well due to the wool content and felting. Without a backing the wool maintains its unique drape—

• The bold stripes! I loved their colors! But I couldn’t figure out how to get them to play well with the rest of the blanket. They kept wanting to take over, be the squeaky wheel, grab all the attention. Finally, I separated them and they quieted down, at which point they earned an important job: They got to encircle the whole—

This is a custom order blanket and has already gone to a good home.

© Joan Olson
“Keep to the River” (56×72)
Felted wool sweaters

A golden wash of afternoon sun

[Don’t forget: During the coronavirus shutdown, the Wool Blanket Master Class is open for enrollment. It’s a work-at-your-own-pace video course with clear instructions and access to me for questions and feedback. Check it out here. Questions about it?  Write me a note here.]

Amid many rainy days, we have had some spring beauties: clear, warm and sunny. To my mind, there’s no better place to work with wool than in lucid sunlight, where color and texture come alive together.

A recent day like that beckoned me to cut the sweaters for a custom-order blanket I’ve been sketching out. The late-afternoon slant of the sun set such a tranquil mood that I wanted to share some photos.

This blanket was requested by a friend and colleague I’ve worked alongside for over 20 years. The blanket will be a gift from Sara and her sisters to their father for his June birthday. In it will be three handknit sweaters made with care by his mother, Sara’s grandmother, many years ago.

A record of my work environs is incomplete without a quick pic of my “foldable rubbish bin” below, tucked in by the legs of the antique table which, when it’s not being called upon as a dining room table, holds my cutting mat.

I’m delighted that both my cutting space and my sewing space, two separate areas of our home, face west, into the sunset (and toward my the land of my roots!). Each spot coaxes me to linger and do just a little bit more in a golden wash of afternoon sun.

This weirdness calls for: a Master Class opening!*

Gosh, you guys. How the heck are you?

I’m smiling underneath this mask.

Two months and so much naivete ago, I wrote about having a “luscious lull” near the end of winter in which to tackle projects. What in the world??

I knew nothing of what was about to hit, and my mind is now officially blown. Wiser and more thoughtful voices can inform the internet about the complexities of our current situation. But let me say this:

In the silver lining of this coronavirus cloud, we makers suddenly find ourselves at home with precious time on our hands.

And–since interest has been expressed–
the Felted Wool Blanket Master Class 
is open!

This time, the course will run completely at one’s own pace rather than with a cohort of students. All videos and PDFs will be accessible immediately upon purchase and, as always, participants will have access to me for questions, trouble-spots, etc.

Have you been collecting beautiful sweaters for a long while and want to finally commit to making a blanket from them? Learn how in the Felted Wool Blanket Master Class! Go here to learn what’s offered and to read what several past students have said about it.

I’ve set up a new Facebook group for all who enroll in the course and wish to interact with others about blankets. This is one of the best places to contact me (I check in regularly) although it’s purely discretionary and you don’t need to be a Facebook user to take the course. You are always welcome to email me directly as well! (For any of you who have taken the course and were part of a Facebook page for just your session of the class, I’ll invite you to the new page. Be on the lookout for an invitation.)

———

You may or may not know, but I’m a healthcare worker: an occupational therapist in a neuro outpatient clinic. I am still going in to work–and feel fortunate to be able to do that, in spite of the risks. I don’t feel like a genuine front-line worker, as I watch nurses, physicians and assistants conducting tests and treating infected patients. I tip my hat to all of them. Thank you, all who are truly right up front, fully covered in PPE (personal protective equipment) and battling an unseen infiltrator!

*Please don’t interpret this title as flippancy in the face of a disruptive and deadly virus. I do take it very seriously.