Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Make some embroidered kitchen art & Drink English breakfast tea

Before I get on with the post, I feel I must provide the obligatory explanation for the gap between blog posts. I've got some really good excuses! In the months since my last full post, I have moved almost 200 miles, hunted for work, started a new job and have been planning a wedding that is now just three months away. So there! Now I have justified myself to the blogosphere.


Lately I had been craving a project with a more quaint and folk-artsy flavor. Maybe it's because of the yummy descriptions of antiques and collectibles in the book I had been reading, Killer Stuff and Tons of Money, by Maureen Stanton. Whatever the reason, what better tea to enjoy with a sewing project than English breakfast?

English breakfast is by far my favorite type of tea. Since I don't drink coffee, it's the stuff that wakes me up in the morning and revives me after lunch. I drink it in the traditional English manner, with honey or sugar and a small amount of milk or cream. This is how it was first served to me by my British math tutor, Helena, and I have enjoyed the ritual of it ever since.

The two varieties I had on hand during this project are loose leaf, but I'm not opposed to using bags. Trader Joe's sells a wonderful and wildly affordable English Breakfast blend and their Irish breakfast (read: stronger) is great too. English Breakfast is a blend of several types of tea leaves, so it can vary greatly in flavor. I have found some pretty bitter supermarket brands, but also amazing packets sold in bulk to restaurants. Trial and error is the name of the game. Good old Lipton is always a surprisingly good option.

During this project, since it took several evenings, I alternated between a tin of EB from Peet's Coffee and Tea and Upton Tea's Bond Street EB (a really yummy blend of tightly rolled Ceylon and Assam leaves). During the spring and summer I try to find local honey for my tea. Since the bees make the honey using pollen from the plants that grow nearby, this can work as natural allergy prevention. Plus local honey often tastes richer and is organic! I find that Whole Foods stocks local honey varieties, but usually with a heavy price tag.

Now for the project. This project could take a little longer, since for a few of you embroidery is a totally new skill to learn. If you are new to the craft (and believe me I'm no expert) this should be a fairly simple first project for you. If you're experienced with embroidery or needle crafts, go ahead and skip ahead.

I learned embroidery (and cross-stitch) from Needlecrafts for Dummies. For most craft endeavors, I found this tried and true book series is a great place to start. However, I have noticed they aren't meticulously edited, so keep an eye out for errors in the instructions for projects. You can also often find fairly good instructions in the beginning of embroidery pattern and idea books. Many such books can be found at thrift stores for a few dollars, especially those published by Better Homes and Gardens.

Of course the internet is another wonderful resource for learning embroidery basics. Many great videos pop up if you plug "how to embroider" into YouTube. I also found a few great step-by-step explanations with pictures.

Embroidery 101 on
The only thing I disagree with is knotting the floss on the back of the work, which can be problematic if you ever want to mount your work and can also add bulk. I always work the loose end into the first few stitches as I make them, rather than making a knot.

Hand Embroidery Tutorials on
Wonderful pictures and graphics and a very well organized site, but the instructions aren't super in-depth.

Embriodery How-To on
Probably goes into a bit more detail than you need, but very thorough. Beware that Martha's site is often very slow, however, and I have encountered errors within instructions (though mostly in recipes).

What you will need:
fabric scraps
an embroidery hoop
embroidery floss
scissors (preferably small and pointy)
embroidery needle
fabric marking pencil
glue (hot if you have it)

My fabric scraps came from an old table cloth and thermal blanket I had used to turn a table into a small upholstered Ottoman. I found both for a few bucks at a thrift store. For a project like this it's better to use fabric with as little natural stretchiness as possible. (Think woven, not knit fabric).

I was lucky enough to find my hoop at a flea market on a table full of random containers of beads and other craft paraphernalia. But embroidery hoops can be found at any good craft supply store. Just make sure you look for less expensive wooden or metal hoops, because the hoop is going to become a permanent part of this project, like a picture frame. Many plastic and some metal hoops are intended for reuse.

Embroidery floss is the name used to refer to the stranded thread necessary for most embroidery projects. It is packaged very similarly to the craft string used for things like friendship bracelets, so be careful. What we want to use is six-stranded floss. The strands of the floss can be separated, allowing you to vary the thickness of your stitches. When I first started with needle crafts I bought big bag of floss in assorted colors which has been very useful. I chose the floss for this project from that bag.

In this project, I used only backstitch, one of the most basic and easy to learn embroidery stitches. If you're new to this, I definitely recommend practicing a bit before starting the project. I covered a handkerchief sized piece of fabric with wiggly stitches before ever embroidering something I wanted to keep. Of course, if you're feeling fancy, you could certainly add some more complex stitches into this project, like split-stitch, satin-stich and French knots.

I started with a sketch of the design I wanted to embroider. This is just what popped into my head and it seemed suited to the theme of this blog. But you can choose whatever you want! A cat smoking a cigar, perhaps. A bundle of cooking herbs? Why not a wine bottle and some glasses? Or maybe just your favorite quote or proverb.

Next I gathered my fabric scraps and pinched them into my little metal hoop. I used a scrap of a thermal blanket (orange) in addition to my primary fabric (blue) because my flea market hoop was a bit loose and I needed some extra bulk to make sure it would stay tight enough to work with. Plus, I kind of like the padded feel the extra fabric provided.

When putting your fabric into a hoop, you want to make sure it ends up with even tension. I start by laying my fabric over the smaller piece of the hoop, then push the larger piece firmly over it. Then I gently tug the fabric around the hoop until the embroidery surface is taught. You want an almost drum-like tension. If you dropped a penny on it, would it bounce? This particular hoop was held tight with a spring, but usually you will find yourself tightening a small washer on a screw.

Next I transferred my design to my fabric in a very old-school way. So far I haven't experimented with any fancy-pants transfer methods. I wanted a kind of free-hand look to the piece, so all I did was mark basic guide lines on the fabric to help me keep track of my design. I didn't write out any letters, which would have been too difficult with my marking pencil. Instead I drew curved lines to help my backstitched lettering stay evenly placed.

Next, I just went for it. I started with the teapot and tea cup. I didn't worry about following the guidelines exactly, just as long as everything was in the right place.

Stitching the lettering took a bit more time. It was a bit of challenge to keep all the letters to the same scale. So I will admit I pulled out and re-stitched a few stitches when a letter didn't look quite right.

Once the stitching is done, you will want to wash your piece. Always hand wash! Even if you didn't use a marking pencil, there will be a bit of dirt and oils from your hands to wash off, simply from handling the piece so much. On white fabric you can usually see this sneaky grime.

I put a small amount of laundry detergent into a sink filled with warm water then gently rubbed and swished the fabric around with my hands. Be sure to take it out of your hoop first!

Look how nice and clean it looks! And the pencil marks are gone. To dry the fabric, I rolled it up in a clean towel and squeezed gently. Then I laid it flat and put it back into the hoop while still damp. Once it was air dried, I tugged a bit more to make sure the tension was still even and the image was centered.

Then it was time for some finishing touches... completed in the kitchen of my new apartment in San Francisco!  Same trusty old thrift store dining table though. I used my small fabric scissors to trim off the fabric around the back of the hoop. I got as close as possible to the edge, which involved lots of very meticulous snipping. Make sure those scissors are sharp!

Next I whipped out my beautiful pink, polka-dot hot glue gun. I slowly glued along the back edge of the hoop. I laid it on thick to make sure there was no risk of the fabric slipping out or the hoop pieces pulling apart.

Now it was time to add one last decorative touch. I happened to have some extra ribbon on hand, so I decided to use it to hang my creation on the wall.

First I clipped off a small section of the ribbon and trimmed the ends. I like the look of ribbon with chevron ends, so I pinched my pink ribbon in half like below an cut across at an angle. The result was two identical V-shapes.

Next I got out my trust bag of craft buttons and selected some possibilities. A lot of the colors looked great, but in the end one of the white buttons fit the best. I first secured the ribbon to the hoop with a small bit of hot glue, then I did the same with the button. I made sure not to put too much glue under the button, to avoid it oozing out through the holes.

Finally it was time to hang my folksy new creation. I chose a spot in my kitchen directly above my spice rack. When the afternoon sunlight is pouring through the windows, this little decoration looks its best. And guess what? That's also the perfect time of day to enjoy a cup of tea.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Britt Tip: Removing dark nail polish

Sometimes I have ideas I want to share that aren't a full-on project or that occur to me when I don't happen to be enjoying a cup of tea. That is why I decided to add Britt Tips to this blog. These will be any tips and ideas that I feel the urge to pass on to the World Wide Web. I'm sure they will be very, very the one below!

Preface: I love nail polish. I mean LOVE it. I'm not sure where it came from, but it's an obsession that grows and grows. The nail art trend has made it even worse with endless encouragement and inspiration. I almost can't leave a drugstore without buying a new shade! The weirder the color, the better. I have easily over a hundred bottles, but honestly I'm a bit afraid to actually count.

Anyhoo, if you paint your own nails like I do, then you surely sometimes encounter issues removing dark or brightly colored polishes. If you have a light complexion like me, you end up with tinted smudges all around your clean nails which are almost impossible to remove. Plus they don't look cute if you're going from say, bright crimson, to repainting them a delicious Tiffany blue.

But! I've discovered a trick to help avoid this problem. It's not a perfect fix, but it really helps. Before painting on your dark or bright color, put a thin coat of a lighter shade underneath first. That way, when it comes time to remove your darker shade, your nails haven't been tinted or tainted! The dark color just comes right off with the lighter shade. This also has the benefit of making your bright or darker polish appear bolder.

You can see results below, from when I put a light lavender under a dark plum purple polish.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Make a simple birthday card & Drink dragon well green tea

At some point I became the official birthday card maker in my office. I think I volunteered one time and everyone really liked what I came up with. Not to toot my own horn. I actually have a formula I use for all the cards I make, and it's easier than most of my coworkers think.

All you will need is some colored paper (check near your office's copy machine), a pencil, scissors, stick glue and a felt tipped pen like a Sharpie. And some patience. This is a quick project, but it will turn out best when done with care.

And of course, you'll need some tea. I sipped Dragon Well green tea from Dean & Deluca. It was a stocking stuffer from my mom last Christmas. It's a very light loose leaf green tea, with leaves that are flattened into large flakes instead of rolled. It's a very accessible flavor if you're new to green teas.

The first thing I did was gather paper scraps from previous card projects. I made sure to get every color my office had to offer. Next I made a quick sketch of my design, labeling the color of paper I would use for each shape. This card is for a coworker with an upcoming birthday who is also leaving for the season this week, with a road trip the next thing on her docket. So I imagined her driving through the mountains off into the sunset!

Next I started drawing and cutting. I started with the most prominent part of the image, the green mountains and foreground. Then I marked out the road and purple mountains. For some pieces I eye balled it and for others I put one piece of paper over the other before sketching. I did my best to cut inside my pencil lines, since I found the markings almost impossible to erase neatly.

To make sure the car shape was symmetrical, I drew half the shape then folded along the center line (see image below for clarification). For the window and tail lights, I used the scrap from around the car shape as a guide. I used the same folding technique to make those shapes symmetrical too.

Next I started gluing. I find solid stick glue easiest. Make sure to get glue along the edges of each shape to keep them from sticking up. Before I started, I stared at all my paper shapes for a few moments. You want to make sure you glue them down in the correct order, as many of them overlap. For example, I made sure to glue on the smaller segment of blue road before tacking down the green foreground piece and the wheels before gluing down the car.

I used a cutting board to trim down the extra yellow paper around the edges. I also used this to make all the edges flush and square. You can see in one of the photos below that the green bit didn't end up flush with the bottom of the blue road. Trimming fixed that issue.

After trimming, I carefully outlined the shapes on the card with my Sharpie. This hid any pencil marks left on the edges and also gives the card and almost comic book appearance. Next came the message of the card, in the neatest penmanship I could muster. My coworkers and I used the open spaces on the card to write other personal messages. Finally we delivered the card, with some cupcakes and off tune singing!

Monday, February 25, 2013

Make a tree branch centerpiece & Drink chamomile citrus tea

This is the perfect project for a lazy Sunday afternoon. You know, the kind of day when you have a bunch of stuff you should do (like fold that mountain of laundry), but you've run out of procrastination ideas and you find yourself roaming the house aimlessly? This project will get you outdoors, out of that funk and hopefully get your hands dirty too.

Yesterday I was stuck at home with the dog while everyone else went skiing. I've been recovering from a terrible flu and didn't quite feel up to hitting the slopes yet. My inspiration for this project came from the blog SAS Interiors, found through Pinterest. I had been wanting to try my own version of Jenna's autumn centerpiece for months now. It may not be autumn, but I think this centerpiece can work all year long. Plus it was a good excuse to give my restless doggie a romp!

Here's what you will need:
A branch (or piece of driftwood)
A hand saw
A power drill
A spade drill bit (preferably 1 1/2")
A pencil
A ruler
Strong glue (hot if you have it)
Tea candles

As you can see from this list, this project is a bit heavier on the tool requirements than my previous posts. It is my firm belief that everyone should own a power drill and know how to use it. It makes so many home projects easier, especially hanging curtains! You can get drills with a cord attached or with a rechargeable battery pack. Both have their limitations and advantages (ie. battery life vs. mobility).

I received my corded drill from my dad as a Valentines Day gift one year, but there are plenty of places you can get one without denting your wallet too much. Thrift stores and flea markets are actually a great place to find used tools that are still in fairly good condition. I found my practically new power sander at a local thrift shop for less than $20 and I bought the spade drill bit for this project for $1 at a summer flea market down the street from my house. I considered getting a saw second hand too, but decided I wanted a nice, new, sharp one.

The first part of this project meant going for a walk and doing some exploring. I loved the childish sense of adventure this gave me! I grabbed my saw and Denali's leash and headed for the forested area down the street from my house. As Denali frolicked in the mid-winter sunshine, I began hunting for dead branches. It wasn't long before I found a dead tree with lots of promising possibilities.

I'm lucky enough to live near wilderness, but that's not necessarily a requirement of this project. The inspiration blogger found her log in a pile of tree trimmings in her neighborhood. You could even make a day of it and bring your saw on a hike or out to the beach. Just make sure that wherever you go allows for the removal of dead branches. I wouldn't advise hacking away at a live limb in a national park, for example. Keep in mind when you hunt that dry wood is much easier to work with (and more eco-friendly).

Now, back to my fallen tree. I found a nice thick branch I liked that was covered in pretty little termite patterns. Make sure you choose a branch thick enough to drill tea candle-sized holes into without it splitting or looking disproportionate. After contemplating what section to cut for a few minutes, I got to work with my saw. It's a good idea at this point to keep in mind the size of the spot you're planning to display your new rustic candle holder. I also recommend choosing a bare branch with few attached twigs or dead leaves for critters to hide in. Since it's still the dead of winter here, I was fairly confident there wasn't anything living in my selection. Also, remember that sawing requires patience and works best with strong, deliberate strokes in both directions.

Dog provided for scale.

Next, Denali and I headed home with our prize and for some much need warmth. I left my branch outside then went inside and threw the kettle on the stove. Since I've been sick lately and am still fighting a lingering cough, I decided to choose a citrus flavored tea: chamomile citrus by Mighty Leaf with a generous dollop of honey. This is the fanciest bagged tea brand I know of; their tea sachets are even made of silk! If you order tea in a nice restaurant, they often bring you a big box of Mighty Leaf packets to choose from. If you're just getting into tea, a variety pack like theirs is a great place to start exploring your tastes.

Once my throat was soothed and my hands were warm I headed for the garage with my drill, spade bit, pencil and ruler. Before starting on the drilling, I used some rough and medium grit sandpaper to smooth the raw edges of my branch. This makes it look nicer and also reduces the chance of scratching surfaces and skin. I also ran the finer grit paper along the length of the branch to eliminate any random splintery spots.

Next I experimented with placing the branch at different angles on the ground until I found the position in which it was the most stable. Then I eye-balled how many candles would look good on my branch and made four marks on it with my pencil, about nine inches apart. Choose whatever spacing and number of candles you think will work best for your piece of wood.

Now the fun part: drilling! I secured the spade bit into my drill and braced the branch with my foot. I find this kind of drilling is easiest when done from a standing position. You get more stability. Making sure the drill was straight up and down, I started with light pressure as the pointy end of the bit dug into the wood. I made each hole fairly shallow at first, then gradually deepened them until I was satisfied. My holes aren't a uniform depth, but you could certainly use a ruler to make sure yours are.

My drill bit was actually a little too small, at just 1 1/4". I definitely recommend the 1 1/2" size used by Jenna from SAS Interiors. I just ended up giving myself a little more work to get candles into my branch. More on that later.

Once I brought my newly drilled branch inside, I decided it would be a good idea to add pads to the parts that touched the table. Luckily I had some cork board material left over from another project, but you could use small felt furniture pads too. I cut out little circles of cork board and hot glued them to the four bottom points of the branch.

In order to fit the tea candles into my drilled holes, I had to trim down their sides a little. I took them out of their metal cups and took a knife to them until they were the correct diameter. You can keep the candles in the cups if you want to, but I liked the idea of the wax melting right into the wood.

Finally, I placed the finished piece on the dining table and lit the candles. It looks a bit plain by itself, but I'm planning on surrounding it with other small decorations and foliage to fit the season. Dried flowers for spring. Seashells for summer. Mini pumpkins for fall. And I can't wait to use it at Christmas!