“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

“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.

How I Store Felted Wool Sweaters

Living in the Midwest, this time of year always feels to me like a big gift: The cold, the winter, the lure of the indoors provides a luscious lull for doing projects. (The Luscious Lull! I may coin that.)

In previous winters/early springs, in addition to working on many, many blankets, I also…

This year, a welcome burst of energy has alighted upon me and I’ve tackled household painting projects—trim, doors, bathrooms. It’s a task I actually love to do. I get to put on old clothes, turn on some funky music, and take my time at making something old into something new.

But you know what? I’m still dreaming about sewing.

What dreams, you ask? Well, first, I have two custom blanket projects I’m ruminating upon. I’m pretty sure I’ve talked before about how I enjoy this stage: looking at the sweaters, mixing and matching them, mulling over stories the client has told me. So that’s one sewing thing I’m dreaming about.

Second, for my birthday (it’s this month and it’s a milestone one), I asked for a fitting system for adjusting, designing, and sewing clothing. I caught the bug last year with Brooks Ann Camper’s Skirt Skills course and want to learn more. We’ll see what dream-worthy sewing projects I can fit into this season along with the household painting.

But all of that to say—
♥ THIS SEASON MIGHT BE YOUR Luscious Lull TOO ♥

And if in your lull you are working with wool sweaters, you might be wondering about storage.

First of all, you need to know: I will never win an award for being either terribly organized or fastidious. The ranking motivators for my storage choices are:

functionality and efficiency
with an margin for laziness.

Thus, my outlook on wool storage may not be the one with which you’d align yourself. There are certainly other great resources and opinions online. (Google “felted wool storage.”) However, if you’d like to know what my own experience has taught me, keep reading.

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My 5 recommendations for wool storage:

Start with clean wool. Wash and felt your sweaters before storing. Any food or other organic residue left behind on a pre-worn sweater will invite pest damage or stains. (For neat stacking in storage areas, I also cut my sweaters apart prior to felting.)

Allow wool access to air. I don’t store my wool in anything air-tight. There are opposing views about this online. Some believe air-tight plastic is the best protection; others have found moisture inside of plastic bags with their wool. I choose to provide some air. A lidded plastic bin likely still allows the wool to “breathe” as long as the bin isn’t air-tight. But even in bins, I recommend nestling a paper-wrapped bar of lovely-scented soap inside with the wool. I don’t like how felted sweaters smell if they are closed up.

Keep wool away from insects and critters. A garage or a dark, quiet basement may allow unwanted creatures to get to your wool. Store the felted sweaters in a clean area where there is some human activity.

Don’t expose wool to direct sunlight. Over time, the whites/creams will yellow and the bright colors will slowly fade. I learned this from experience.

Don’t use mothballs for storage. At least, I don’t recommend it. First of all, there’s their toxicity. Second, it can be very difficult to get rid of their odor.

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How I apply the 5 recommendations in my own studio:

Because I love to have both easy access to and inspiration from the wools I’m working with, I store most of my working sweaters where I can see them. My studio is a loft space in our home: a large open area above our living/dining room. I have a west-facing window and, nearby, shelving that was once an enclosed closet. Years ago, prompted by a daughter headed toward interior design school, we removed the closet doors and had lovely wood shelves built and installed by a friend. It’s been occupied by wool ever since. The shelves are inset and protected from the sun, and the wool has done very well here.

This shelving alone is not enough space for all  the sweaters I have. Let me just say, I have a very patient spouse who tolerates The Green Sheep business spilling over into other storage areas, all in neat stacks and easily accessible to me.

I store most finished product in clean, fresh cardboard boxes also in the loft area, where the wool can breathe, be kept clean, and be protected from sunlight. I include a bar of soap in each of these (just as I recommended above with plastic bins).

I store scraps worth keeping in plastic bins, stacked without lids in an unused closet, also where the wool can breathe, be kept clean and protected from sunlight. I occasionally organize the scraps into neat piles according to color shade within their bins, but it all quickly becomes disorderly again when I go searching for the perfect match for a project.

Pretty much, that’s it! That’s the system I’ve decided upon through my years of working with wool. It has worked very well for me and my situation.

Did I forget anything?
Do you have any questions?
Especially, how do you guys store your wool and what have you learned through trial and error?

Mike’s Life: To Love and to Laugh

I’ve got one final post for 2019!

Admittedly, I’ve created a much quieter year online for myself. But I’m so happy to still be here, peacefully plodding away (haha! it’s true!) at making and then recording the things that come about.

My large and final project for this year was a custom order of three blankets. This came about through wonderful Marilynn, who first contacted me over a year ago about “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit.” That blanket, an all-time favorite of mine because of its heartfelt subject matter, is now with Marilynn in her home in Arizona. Yea!

At that same time, she told me about her husband’s passing two years prior, the sweaters that he had loved, and her idea to have some legacy blankets made for her and her two sons.

I cautioned her that I had several other custom order conversations underway that involved nearly a half-dozen blankets … and Marilynn was content to be patient. Timing worked out well, and these lovelies were finally shipped off to her mid-November.

Marilynn and her husband Mike raised their family both in the US and abroad as Mike, a civil engineer, shepherded major public work projects to completion. He loved his profession and he loved creating and building. But above all, he loved his family and he loved humor.

My assignment: to take more than 2 dozen sweaters and combine them pleasingly for 3 unique blankets. I needed to make sure that sweaters that were particularly significant to each family member made it into their blanket.

With many of the sweaters, I included pieces of them in all three blankets, while working to maintain the integrity of each blanket’s vibe and color scheme. This project took a ton of thinking + trial and error!!

By the way, most of the sweaters were Mike’s, a few were Marilynn’s, and one was Dan’s from childhood.

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I’ll begin with Dan’s blanket:

“With Dad: Life Around the World.”

© Joan Olson
“With Dad: Life Around the World” (73″x68″) 
Felted Wool Sweaters

Since Dan as the older son had the opportunity to live overseas as a child and still travels frequently, I dove right in for a blanket that portrays something of our planet’s variety. The patchwork style hints at a view from a plane window. The patterned cream stripes even remind me of two latitude lines on a world map: the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn.

Most specially, the sky blue pieces in here come from Dan’s own tiny sweater from Denmark. In the two photos below, Dan’s and his parents’ Scandinavian sweaters are lined up, left to right: Dan’s is the light blue, his dad’s has the brown patterns, and next is a sleeve from Marilynn’s blue and white one.

Mike had three half-zip sweaters by Orvis, two with large, wildly colorful brand labels inside the sweaters’ necklines. At first glance I thought they were mosquitoes (!) but then realized they’re fishing flies. So much better! I wouldn’t do well with a mosquito inside my shirt.

Each blanket got to have the neckline (if available) and the zipper from one of the Orvis sweaters. I assembled a pocket behind each zipper for a secret storage spot.

Scroll back up to the VERY FIRST photo at the top of this blog post. You see the close-up one in the shade? There my camera best captured what this blanket looks like in person. It is soft and muted, with much less contrast than appears in the stepped-back pics.

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Next is Adam’s blanket:

“With Dad: A Richly-Colored Life”

© Joan Olson
“With Dad: A Richly-Colored Life” (73″x66″) 
Felted Wool Sweaters

Younger son Adam spent his growing-up years mostly in Arizona, so for him I put together the strong, warm colors of the desert, deep and rich. Mike’s sweaters provided great raw material for this.

The V-necks with contrasting color insets remind me of the mountains that rise straight out of the flatland all over the American southwest where Adam continues to live with his family and near Marilynn.

And you know I love that desert!! I’ve written more about that here (a luscious desert landscape), here (its heat and color), and here (visiting grandparents).

In the midst of Adam’s robust solid horizontal lines I laid out two blocks of one of his mom’s sweaters (the soft blue and white) and chunks of his dad’s brown-and-white patterned sweater (the same that creates the “latitude lines” through Dan’s blanket). I felt that setting them in relief like this quietly marked his parents’ presence in the whole of his life.

Adam’s blanket gets the fantastic purple Orvis label inside the forest-green sweater along with its leather zipper and pocket.

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Finally, here is Marilynn’s blanket:

“A Life in Sweaters.”

© Joan Olson
“A Life in Sweaters” (75″x70″) 
Felted Wool Sweaters

Marilynn sent me two very special sweaters of her own in this collection, both blue and white. She received one from her father, who bought it in Copenhagen in 1964. I believe the other is from Denmark as well, and was bought with Mike. These two sweaters along with a third, a cream cable of Mike’s from Greece, formed the centerpiece of this blanket.

Marilynn is actively engaged with family, community, and travel but says she likes to stay behind the scenes, looking for ways she can help others. She’s been an EMT, worked for the Arizona Republic newspaper, and has taught in junior high. She simply likes people.

After I learned that Marilynn has spent time volunteering at a Phoenix art museum as a docent, I decided to preserve the three main sweaters’ neckline tags on small museum-label “plaques” underneath each corresponding sweater, in a sense representing Marilynn’s dad, Mike, and Marilynn herself.

Now Marilynn reports she is learning bridge—”To get ready for the retirement home!” she says. Hmmm. I can’t tell if this very busy woman is joking or not.

Marilynn’s blanket got the blue Orvis sweater (no fishing fly label though!) and its beautiful leather zipper. In the pic below you can peek through to the sweater that lines the back of the pocket. These were just plain fun to construct.

Marilynn has also sewn and quilted for most of her life, which is likely why she saved all Mike’s sweaters in the first place: to make something out of them, right?? I love the way she thinks :)

Marilyn, Dan and Adam—may these blankets allow you to bask in the warmth, memories, and pleasure of your wonderful family. In them, I’ve aspired to convey the joy and fullness of life Marilynn shared as she talked about your family. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of this project!