“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

“The Work of Her Hands”

[“The Work of Her Hands” joins other Legacy Blankets on this blog. These are custom order blankets made from the sweaters of a loved one who has passed on. Learn about them here.]

“I hear you do something with old sweaters,” Bill said while we were all eating coffee cake.

My husband and I were at the home of friends. Bill’s daughter Dawn, my friend, had earlier told him I could help him put to use the sweaters of his late wife, Dawn’s mom. Nan had been a crafter par excellence, and knitting was one of her skills. Bill had saved a few of Nan’s sweaters after she passed away—a couple hand-knit by her, a couple store-bought. He was packing his home to move and wanted to do something meaningful with them.

“You heard right—” I answered, “I make blankets!” I began to tell how I took a loved one’s wool sweaters, felted them, and turned them into something gorgeous and functional. But as soon as I said “felted,” I knew the concept would be difficult for this gentleman to imagine, no matter how much crafting his wife had done.

So Dawn got her iPad and we opened up this website. I was able to show Bill what in the world we were talking about.

“Okay, then! I think I’d like to do that,” said Bill, and I left with Nan’s beautiful sweaters, ready to make a blanket for Bill and his new home.

I learned more about Nan. “Anytime she sat down,” Bill had told me, “she had something in her hands to work on. She knit me a pair of argyle socks—while we were dating!”

Nan loved knitting, sewing, ceramics, counted cross-stitch, and celebrating the holidays with several of her desserts on the table and her handmade items for decor. It sounds like she shared herself with those she loved through creating things. Bill fondly recalls all of this.

But one of his very favorite memories is how she loved others with a listening ear. She did this often, especially for younger women, some very distressed. Nan had words of counsel that grew out of the experience of her years. “Now, think it out,” was one of her best recommendations to encourage someone to pause and consider things carefully. Then she would listen some more.

When Bill first showed me Nan’s sweaters, I was pretty sure the two colorful ones hand-knit by her (one with her favorite bright turquoise blue) did not contain much if any wool. It was true; they did not felt up with the others and so I wasn’t able to include them. But the wools I was left with were a beautiful collection of more masculine colors, perfect for me to work with for Bill.

Oooh, but they were BUSY together—high contrast and tons of pattern! I laid the pieces of this blanket out one way and then another, several times, wanting to corral the chaos and introduce some calm.

The calm finally came. I put mostly medium and light hues in the center, organized the multiple patterns so they could lead the eye, wrapped those up with an interesting band of light chainlink, and reserved the darkest pieces for the outer border. I loved it.

One of these sweaters felted up particularly thick, thicker than I will usually put into a blanket. But I stuck it in anyway because it was gorgeous and meaningful, and I’m happy to tell you it is doing just fine. Because of that, this may be my weightiest, warmest blanket. 

For Bill—and the whole family—I hope this blanket reminds you often of the work of Nan’s precious hands and heart. You’ll have to make her pecan pie yourself, though. I hear it’s an excellent one ;)

© Joan Olson
“The Work of Her Hands” (60″ x 72″)
Felted Wool Sweaters

[“The Work of Her Hands” joins other Legacy Blankets on this blog. These are custom order blankets made from the sweaters of a loved one who has passed on. Learn about them here.]

Blanket-Making Class is Open for Enrollment!

Interested in making a felted wool sweater blanket, possibly with my new class? Sign up for free access to a video I’ve put together, Find and Choose Good Sweaters for Felting. It gives pointers on how to select great sweaters for making a blanket. This also adds your email to The Green Sheep newsletter list. (If you’re already on the newsletter list, your email won’t be duplicated.)

Read on ↓↓↓ for more about the new class.


Oh, my—I just got to spend a beautiful, restful time in GREEN (England and Wales; these photos are all Wales), and I am excited to be back and launching my blanket class!

Have you been dreaming of making a blanket from wool sweaters you’ve collected? But you don’t know where to begin? Maybe you’re afraid of ruining the sweaters or hesitant that your blanket won’t turn out to be full of the loveliness you imagine. I know all those feelings!

At the tail end of September I’ll begin walking a group of blanket-makers step-by-step through the process of making a “sweater blanket” from upcycled wool sweaters. The class includes video and written instructions so you can choose your favorite learning style. If that described you in the paragraph above, consider joining the Felted Wool Blanket Master Class with me.

In addition to teaching the mechanics of putting together a basic “Green-Sheep style” blanket, I’ll also help you think through and plan the design stage of your unique blanket using the sweater colors and textures you have available. The course is designed as a work-along class, presented in three sections of 2 weeks each, to enable you to actually finish your blanket. Also, since you have complete freedom to decide on the size of blanket you make, you can influence how much time you will need to spend on the project. (The larger the blanket, the more time required.)

This class’ super-power is that we’ll have a private Facebook page throughout the project, a virtual meeting place for asking questions, getting input from me, sharing what we’re doing, encouraging each other and designing together. This part is really fun!

What is a basic “Green-Sheep style” blanket, you ask? It is—

  • a blanket made from strips of felted wool sweaters of similar weights
  • it consists of one layer and has very narrow raw seams on its backside (to preserve the wool’s gorgeous drape and avoid any machine-washed surprises from variations in felting)
  • it’s bound with a bias binding also made from a wool sweater

The techniques for this style of blanket, once learned, are easily transferred to other creative blanket ideas!

Interested? Find more information about the course here. Also, I’ll send you a link to a helpful video about how to begin collecting your sweaters for designing a blanket! Just sign up here:

Questions about anything? Contact me via this form.

Windows like blankets: CFA Voysey

This window.

A couple of weeks ago I opened a library book on CFA Voysey and saw THIS WINDOW. An immediate feeling of familiarity flooded me. This interesting, textured, window frame looks exactly like a blanket layout—all staggered and brickwork-like. I felt as though I had stumbled upon kin.

Charles Francis Annesley Voysey was a British architect and designer during the Arts & Crafts Movement. Although I can’t remember the exact trigger that sent me exploring at the library, I know it was one of his wallpaper or textile prints.

What do I love about his work? His drawings, full of motion, come alive on the page. His creatures exude personality. His pastoral colors walk me out the front door to the living world. And all this happens right in my head.

I’ve written previously about my undercurrent of obsession with design from that time period here and here and here. (I once unintentionally posted an uncredited photo of Voysey’s fabric—oops!) Other names you might recognize from Britain were William Morris, Philip Webb, C.R. Ashbee; in the U.S. there was Frank Lloyd Wright, Gustav Stickley, Greene & Greene. But there were many more! Influencers in the movement, in reaction against industrialization and the loss of human touch in the process of making things, advocated beautiful, simple design and craftmanship, generally with natural materials.

Voysey, though, was an independent thinker and something of a loner. He actually did not appreciate being connected to the movement. His background is interesting. He descended (by a couple of centuries) from Samuel and Susanna Wesley who also begat John and Charles Wesley, the brothers (and hymn-writers!) whose ideas led to what became the Methodist church. Voysey’s own dad was a reverend as well, but he broke with key standard doctrine and became an outcast in many circles. Voysey stood by his father. This apparently shaped a lot of his life.

I will leave more history either for another time or for your own research. But I’m delighted here to share some of his works that charm and inspire me.

More windows:

Magnificent homes and floor plans, in the English countryside, no less:

Wallpaper and fabric designs:

A sweet didactic puzzle-note for his grandchildren. It’s tricky, with his drawings of items we no longer use. His message, though, is appropriate for us all, whatever our age. (Translation below):

“My dear grandchildren, I hope you are busy working at something nice for someone. Service is the safest road to happiness. You will delight in realizing the pleasure you give to others. I would like to know what things you most delight in, and do something that adds to your well being.”

A sketch for an inlaid work-box. I love this! The man appears to be drawing and the woman knitting. To me, the little tree speaks of the organic nature of handwork. And when “head” and “hand” and “heart” meet—well, can we get any closer to Csikszentmihalyi’s flow?!

Finally a whimsical MAP! In watercolor! What is not to love about this?? (See full map below.)

So there you have it: Some visual goodness to wander through.

Who or what inspires you? Please share with the rest of us and leave a comment so we can keep our library cards in action this summer!

Credits:
Window photos from Arts & Crafts Houses II; C.F.A. Voysey
Wallpaper and fabric photos from C.F.A. Voysey; Design in the Age of Darwin
Map photo from Design in the Age of Darwin
Architectural drawings, letter puzzle and work-box sketch from C.F.A. Voysey

“The Things We Love to Wear”

“Do
the best you can
with what you have.”

—Debi T.’s grandmother

Debi and I communicated briefly on Etsy and then a little more by email. She had a collection of cashmere sweaters she had been wearing and was eager to have them made into two blankets. Her enthusiasm came through with each interaction:

She was seeking simple! Modern! Eclectic!

The box of sweaters arrived on my doorstep one evening while my husband and I were out. By drone, I wondered? It’s nighttime! Why are packages being delivered in the dark?! But I was eager to get home and open the box. What color theme would show up in the mix? What harmonies would these particular sweaters be singing together?

But when I sliced the tape, pulled back the flaps and peered inside, I couldn’t hear singing. I admit I was jarred by the cacophony of color. (Sorry, Debi! True confessions!)

There was pale blue, bright red, barely-there tans, black, a high-contrast argyle, deep green, hot pink, lavender, gray, and a determined yellow-and-blue stripe. Practically all I could see were dissimilarities. If you had asked me then, I would have said most were not playing nicely across the color wheel.

Because Debi had already written me with her preferences, I tried to get started. But honestly, I was floundering. I had no imagination, no inspiration, and a heavy heart about all the highly contrasting stuff I was about to put together.

I emailed Debi and asked if I could call her. This piece of the process—voice-to-voice communication—has become essential to me, and yet here I was, trying to skip it. Debi and I found a moment when our work schedules matched up, and we talked.

What is it about hearing a person’s story in their own voice and with their own words?

Debi told me about her grandma, who lived to be 104 years old. Her grandma loved cashmere, and when Debi was in college, she wore several of her grandma’s vintage sweaters. Debi has never quit the cashmere habit, and her teenage daughter has picked it up as well. They hunt for resale cashmere in good shape, wear it as long as possible, then turn it into blankets. (I’m not their first blanket sewist!)

Debi shared one of her grandmother’s life lessons: “Do the best you can with what you have.” (I noted to myself how fitting this was to my current project.) Then she ended with, “My husband is an architect. I love art and I appreciate the artist—but I’m not one!”

With that, she trustingly handed me carte blanche, and we said goodbye.

It was enough. I divided the prepped sweaters into two groups, threw in a few pieces from my own sweater collection, and immediately began laying out the first set, all without an ounce of floundering. I can’t explain how that little conversation made the difference, but it did. And I ended up having a ball creating these two unique blankets.

♦ • ♦ • ♦ • ♦ • ♦ • ♦ • ♦

This is “The Things We Love to Wear (Bright)” —

This is “The Things We Love to Wear (Muted)” —

And here they are side-by-side, singing and playing together nicely, after all —

 

*Photos taken at Cuba Marsh Forest Preserve

© Joan Olson, “The Things We
Love to Wear (Bright)” (61×68)
Felted Wool Sweaters

© Joan Olson, “The Things We
Love to Wear (Muted)” (64×70)
Felted Wool Sweaters