Saturday, October 3, 2015

Gift Sewing

 Every year I make some little gifts to put in family and friends' stockings.
This year I've picked these patterns:
Hot holders in cute fabrics
The hot holders are great. I made one for my sister and she loves it.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

King George I: Party Planning Visionary

Handel with King George I, on the first occasion of The Water Music
Picture via Wikipedia
Please enjoy my essay on King George I and the Water Music, published today on The Toast.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Sewing As Political Protest

"You just can't sew a Russian flag while wearing a prisoner's uniform in the middle of Moscow," the deputy chief of police explained to us when we got to the station. "Our country is not a concentration camp or ghetto, but everything has its limits. Sew at home. Are you even certified to sew a Russian flag? Are you even a qualified seamstress?"
"Actually, yes," I said. "I sewed police uniforms for two years, pants like the ones you're wearing. Comfortable, I hope?"
"The fabric is a little tight," complained the deputy. "Hot."

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Cat Aliases, Or the Science of Cat Naming

Book Cover: Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T.S.Eliot. His work on the subject of cat naming broke new ground in the field.
  Anyone who has ever known a cat knows that cats don't always come when we call them. We may mistakenly think that our cats are either arrogant or stupid, but the truth may be that they're using, albeit clumsily, B.F. Skinner’s conditioning methods to teach us to stop calling them by dumb people-given names. They might consider names like “Smokey” or “Whiskers” as just their aliases - their nom de la maison, so to speak. They do not recognize these as their “names”. They are like Miranda Priestley, their attitude being: “Bore someone else with your problems, human.”
Korean Painting: Cat with Chrysanthemums (ignoring humans)
  Some might say that cat names and behavior are a frivolous subject, but no less an exalted personage than T.S. Eliot has written extensively the importance of Cat Naming:

 “Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn't just one of your holiday games
You may think at first I'm as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES”

Eliot was a pioneer in the field of cat naming, and his work on this important subject inspired the play Cats, to the delight and/or dismay of many. It’s been a neglected but now newly important issue for modern science and we would do well to give it the heightened scrutiny our modern age requires. 
Cats on the Roof Goya 1786-1787, reenacting a scene from Cats
  I’m not a scientist myself, but I trained to do scientific research in college. But more importantly, my family has always had cats. I come from a long line of cat-loving people, and we always took the business of naming our cats (actually the giving of cat aliases seriously.) No simple “Socks” for us; we had cats named after my brother’s second grade teacher (Mrs. Stewart; both the cat and the woman had eyes of that lovely golden hazel color) and cats named for their specific personality. We had a particularly naughty white cat named “Billy Bother”, which is a name so awesome in retrospect that I think it should be the title of a children’s picture book. My college companion cat was a handsome all black shorthair named Monty Python. We take cat names seriously in my family, as we all should.
Monty Python. 1977-1995 RIP World's Finest Cat
 Science has recently taken up and continued Eliot’s groundbreaking work on cat naming and behavior, showing renewed interest in the subject. These scientists (perhaps dog owning scientists?) have long wondered why dogs, (reliable, affectionate, open–hearted dogs! Sterling pets!) always come when they are called, sometimes even when they aren’t called, anticipating our every dog-related desire like the enablers they are, but cats almost never do. (I like to imagine the cats in this experiment thinking of the dogs as needy, brown-nosing toadies. “You little fools!” thinks Grumpy Cat in her cold, cold voice.)
After the experiment the scientists were able to prove that cats do in fact hear us when we call them by name, and yes, they recognize our voices, but they just don’t care enough to get up and see what we want.

 “These results indicate that cats do not actively respond with communicative behavior to owners who are calling them from out of sight, even though they can distinguish their owners’ voices”, write Saito and Shinozuka. “This cat–owner relationship is in contrast to that with dogs.”
Please note the puzzlement of the researchers. Obviously they are unfamiliar with basic cat etiquette. Cats do not wait breathlessly to fulfill your every cat-related desire. They are not dogs! Page one of Emily Purrst’s Guide to Pet Etiquette clearly states that, “One must not expect doglike behavior from one’s cat, or one will be condemned to eternal disappointment.”

Any cat owner in history could have told them this without them going to all the bother of hooking up all of their fancy electronic equipment, but at least now we have Scientific Proof that cats DGAF what we want. To paraphrase a different book: your cat is just not that into you.
Pen and Ink, White Cat Ignoring His Owners calling Him, Even Though He Hears Them
The best part of their study is the wistful tone of their conclusion:

“ although “dogs are perceived by their owners as being more affectionate than cats […] dog owners and cat owners do not differ significantly in their reported attachment level to their pets”. The study concludes by observing that “the behavioural aspect of cats that cause their owners to become attached to them are still undetermined.”

Meaning: We don’t have any rational explanation why people love their cats. Their cats clearly do nothing to encourage them. The applications of this study to human interpersonal relationships are wisely left unsaid.

 Other research by cat behavioral specialists tells us that cats don’t meow to other cats. Cats meow to communicate with humans. Kittens meow to communicate with their mothers, but adult cats only “talk” to humans this way. Cats use other methods to communicate with other cats; including special body language, hissing, and growling, but they only vocalize with us. Maybe this is the reason most cats look patient and sometimes slightly exasperated when dealing with humans: they have to use baby talk to communicate with us and we are so bad at understanding what they are trying to say. Some scientists speculate that our communication problems with cats originate in the fact that humans did not domesticate cats the way that we did dogs. Due to centuries of human domestication and selection, our dogs know us in a way no other species does. Dogs are quite skilled at interpreting human behavior, aware of the meaning of gestures and very willing to please. Cats, opportunistic takers that they are, domesticated themselves to gain access to free food and shelter and obviously feel that they are not obligated to do anything more for these things because they are gracing us with their presence. If we were in a relationship counseling session with our cats, the therapist would ask us why we stayed with a partner who expected us to do all of the work in the relationship, but made no extra effort to please us.

Mme Desroziers with her cat. Please note the annoyed expression on Miette's face.

 After I learned that cats communicate with us in the parent-child context it suddenly made sense why more women than men have an affinity to cats: we’re used to dealing with sullen uncommunicative beings with entitlement issues. But I digress.
Cat With Bird, Painting. Bruno Liljefors, 1883. Domestic and feral cats kill millions of birds every year.
 With the invention of tiny lightweight cameras and GPS trackers, suddenly scientists had the tools they needed to solve the eternal mystery of what the heck cats do all day.
The scientists who did the Surrey study put a little thought into it:

 'GPS uses a lot of power, but we could only use a small battery, so in order to save energy, we used an activity sensor to trigger the GPS only when the cat was moving. This also saved us from collecting a lot of uninteresting data on sleeping cats."
Renoir, Cat Sleeping. Sleeping is their favorite thing to do, followed by ignoring you., destroying flower arrangements, and scratching furniture.
Someone on that team must have cat experience, because what cats do the most of is nothing, and why waste precious battery time on monitoring cats doing nothing?  So far, the Surrey study scientists have learned that cats are unfaithful to their owners, (visiting other houses for food and affection), have distinct habits and territories, and are ruthless, cold-hearted predators at times (which any cat owner could have told them, but they needed to find out officially, for Science.)
 Two House Cats Fighting, J.J. Audubon. Unneutered male cats are known to fight ferociously over territory, and sire thousands of unwanted kittens every year.
 The Cat Tracker Project scientists, not be outdone by a bunch of British scientists, are doing a study of their own. They are enlisting the help of Citizen Science Cats to gather data from a much larger and more diverse sample of cats from a variety of locations. It’s not clear whether or not we’ll learn that American cats are more independent, or have larger territories, but in the end we will probably find out that American cats are the same as British cats, except without their charming accents.
The best part of their study is this phrase, which I have been saying over and over again, because it delights me so:

If you are concerned about your cat's privacy, you can have the data published under a cat alias.

 The sweet dear Cat Trackers are concerned about my cat’s privacy! If we consider the actual level of cat caringness about issues of personal privacy and recall that all cats are already living under an alias, we’ll understand this is a completely unnecessary precaution for cat feelings. Yes, cats have names that we give them, but we don’t know their real cat names (if in fact cats have names for themselves at all. Cats might not even have names as we know them, but instead identify each other by their individual smell. These aren’t dolphins we’re dealing with, people.)
  We are right back to T.S. Eliot again, with his secret cat names. If we think about this rationally, and we should, since this is for Science, what difference would it make if the study were published listing your cat under her common name “Tiger” versus her alias “Madam Meow”? Cats don’t read. They won’t be talking amongst themselves about what Mr. Pickles was up to last weekend. What we are really worried about is our privacy. Cats, as always, Do Not Care.
  The Cat Tracker statement inspired me to invent some possible Cat Aliases, which I present to fellow Citizen Science Cats for their use, if they desire to protect their Cat Privacy.

Ming the Merciless (After the evil emperor in the Flash Gordon serial)

Benedict Cumbercat (this name should require no explanation)

Shere Khan (The tiger in The Jungle Book)

Harry Longpaw (Harry Longpaw is a punning name for Harry Longabaugh, the actual name of the Sundance Kid. My own ginger cat is named Harry Longpaw because he looks like Robert Redford. No, really, he does. See for yourself. The resemblance is uncanny.)

 Harry Longpaw. Harry did not pose for this picture. He was staring at a giant killer wasp which was, unbeknownst to me, right behind me as I took this picture.
Robert Redford as the Sundance Kid, Harry Longabaugh. Photo courtesy World Biography
Eartha Kitten (Eartha Kitt played the Catwoman on the Adam West Batman series, and she was also a wonderful jazz singer.)

Cat Power (The actual name of a singer-songwriter)

Andrew Lloyd Webber (He was just asking to be a Cat Alias by writing Cats)

Sergeant Tibbs (He was the cat who helped save the puppies from Cruella DeVille in One Hundred and One Dalmatians.)

Abelard (He was the ginger cat in I Capture the Castle)

Minerva McGonagall (She was an Animagus who transformed into a lovely silver tabby in Harry Potter I-VII)

Calvin Coolidge (The President reportedly used to hide his two cats in various locations in the White House for his wife to find. What a practical joker! Knowing this Cat Fact about Coolidge has upgraded my estimation of him several points ahead of Franklin Pierce, whose cat preferences are unknown.)
Calvin Coolidge with a cat that wants to get away
Judge Posner (The Judge is a huge cat person, and he speaks highly of his Maine Coon named Pixie. He would probably be flattered if his name were used as a cat alias.)
Pixie, Judge Posner's Maine Coon Cat. Picture by Judge Posner. Pixie is holding down the NY Times. Courtesy
  After you have enrolled your Citizen Science Cat in the project under a suitable alias, being as considerate of your cat’s privacy as a decent cat guardian should be, you can be assured that the ensuing fame that any cat citizen might gain from participating in this experiment will not change your cat in any way. Because what we have learned from multiple studies and anecdotal experience is that our cats Do Not Care. They don’t care about us as people, however affectionate they seem. It would be much shorter to list what they do care about: themselves. Cats are the uber-takers, and Ayn Rand would be proud of their self-interestedness. (She was also a cat fancier, as a self-respecting Randite would be.)
  It’s clear now to both science and the general public that cats hold all the power in our codependent relationships, while we have only the Friskies on our side to bind them to us. This kind of power imbalance should be of great interest to science, and maybe one day we will discover how to make them love us as much as we love them. The whole situation sounds like it should be in a letter to Dear Prudie: “How can I tell if my cat cares?” Answer: He doesn’t.

T.S. Eliot, The Naming of Cats,

A portion of this essay was previously published here

Friday, May 15, 2015

Are We All Still "Beginners"?

Me at 17, wearing a top and jeans I made myself

  Some of us have been sewing a long time, but still think of ourselves as beginners, or maybe just intermediate level sewists. But I've been thinking maybe we do ourselves a disservice. Sewing involves so many skills, there's no way if asked that I would call myself "advanced", yet this picture shows that at age 17 I felt confident enough to sew jeans with a fly and a waistband (pretty good fit too, if I say so myself), a fitted empire waist top with set in sleeves, and a button in back with a hand made loop. Not too shabby at 17. But I didn't know that these things were considered difficult, I just sewed the things I liked and kept learning as I went along.
In yellow crepe formal

  If you don't know something is supposed to be difficult, or you have crazy teenage confidence, you'll try new things all the time. I made several formals when I was in high school and college, and never thought twice about how they might be more difficult than just sewing a dress, because my mother said,"oh they are just longer dresses". This one is crepe, with a high collar that rolled over (I forget the name) empire waist ( that was the style then) back zipper, long sleeves gathered into cuffs and a full lining. I hand-hemmed the bottom, and I recall it took a long time because the skirt was full and I was taking care that the stitches didn't show, and I had to hem both the lining and the outside.
 Those set in sleeves look smooth and unpuckered , and the fit looks good. Well done, 17 year old me.
   But on a survey the other day, the question was, "what level sewist are you?" and I thought "Advanced Beginner, or Intermediate" when clearly that's not exactly true. But most sewists would say the same, because the more we know, the more we know what we don't know. Sewing has so many levels, there is no way to know everything. I'd never tell anyone I was "advanced" because in my mind that would mean I could do tailoring, or make a suit, and I've never done those things before even though, with the right instructions, I think I could. Would that make me "advanced"? No, then I'd think about how I don't know how to do smocking or heirloom sewing or whatever challenge I'd never done before.

  Maybe I still think of myself as an advanced beginner because I still make mistakes (even though no one is perfect and everyone makes mistakes.) Just this last year I've made the following bone-headed errors:

  1. set in a sleeve backwards
  2. sewed the wrong sides together on pants (both front side seams to each other-oops)
  3. Put in a zipper upside down
  4. sewed the bottom of the skirt to the bodice, instead of the top. (in my defense, they both looked almost the same, but still, label your pieces, people. Learn from my mistakes.)

Although upon further reflection, I see that these are not errors in which I lack skills so much as I get distracted and lack mindfulness. Perhaps my weakness is a lack of concentration, or perhaps sewing hubris? (As in, this is EASY, I've done this before, no need to focus here?)

On Colette's blog this morning, she wrote about the difficulty in rating patterns, which made me think, What level am I really?  Compared to a real beginner, I'm an advanced sewist. I could probably sew a boned ball gown or a tailored jacket if I were so inclined. (Maybe we should rank ourselves not by beginner, intermediate or advanced, but instead by hubris levels? Like instead of those labels we use:

Instead of Beginner, Timid = I'm scared, hold my hand.
Instead of Advanced Beginner, Overconfident = I'm not afraid to make a huge mistake.
Instead of Intermediate, Seasoned = I know enough to know where my weaknesses are.
Instead of Advanced, Patient = I pay attention to what I'm doing and am a more mindful sewist.

  What about you? Do you still think of yourself as a beginner? Would you ever say you had advanced skills? What new definitions would you use?

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Lucia

Here is picture of my great grandmother Lucy, (her full name was Lucia, a common name in Sicily), taken around 1904-1906. Grandma Lucy had emigrated to the US from Sicily around 1900, in the great wave of Sicilians leaving poverty and lack of opportunity to come to America.

I met her once when I was about nine; she was learning then how to write in English well enough so she could finally take her US Citizenship test. She had been too busy raising my grandmother and her six other children to take it when she was younger.

I love her sensible shoes.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

My Weekly Reader

Picture from the National Gallery of Art Exhibit

I loved this walk through of the Matisse exhibit.

"Surgery had left Matisse debilitated, basically chair- and bed-bound. Painting and sculpture had become difficult. His solution was almost child-simple. He picked up more manageable materials and tools: sheets of paper paint-washed by assistants, sturdy scissors and plain tailor pins"

Proof that you have to make your art with the tools you have, to paraphrase a famous musician.

Men care more about out fancy kitchens than women do.

Well of course they do. In this survey, they asked single women and single men. My guess would be single men would see a fancy kitchen as a trophy, and women would see it as a workspace,
Just a theory. Women don't dream of kitchens, sexist researcher people. Kitchens =work to most women. We've been stuck in there for centuries. We'd like to spend less time there, on the whole.
Just sayin'

The story behind Irving Berlin's "Always" is even more romantic than I imagined.

It snowed six inches last night, which is small potatoes compared to New England, but is a state of emergency for Virginia. Stay warm!