Setting a Place at the Table

We’ve reached a weird point in the year. Spring is trying to hurry winter along, and winter is refusing. We’re still a month away from starting seeds. Snow still lingers in the shaded parts of yards. The ground is squelchy and the temperature vacillates between warm and frigid. There’s this constant tug of war going on between the desire to rest ad the urge to get moving.

I’ve dealt with that tumult by diving into my fabric stash. I have so much of it. Some is neatly stored on cardboard bolts. Most, though, is stuffed in file boxes and plastic bags, in bins and piled on tables. It’s an overwhelming mess that I simultaneously want to shovel into the trash heap and lord over it like a dragon who has settled in the back of a defunct hobby store.

Last week I decided to make use of some of the scraps and sew up a set of placemats. I’ve wanted to have some for a while now, due to my nine-year-old’s table manners. Placemats are one of those pieces of household linens that makes it look like you have your life together.

I pulled out two bags of fabric scraps. They were all floral prints in shades of red, orange and yellow. Those colors are always associated with cooking and eating for me. There wasn’t enough to make the placemats from each print, so I ended up quilting them together for the tops and using a length of floral linen for the backs. To add a bit more protection from hot plates, I dug out a remnant of yellow flannel to use as a batting.

Placemat Fabrics
Each place mat is made up of the quilted top, a flannel interior and a fabric back.

I’m not a great quilter. It’s not really an aspect of sewing I’ve ever gotten into. For these placemats I just cut the fabric into rectangles and squares. I pieced them together in rows and then sewed those rows together. My only goal was to make four pieces large enough (17″ x 13″) and I wasn’t too concerned with the patterning.

Othala rune stitching
I chose to mark the flannel with the Othala rune as it has associations with the home and prosperity, energies I would like to bring to the dinner table.

I decided I wanted to add a bit of sew craft to the placemats. To that end, I stitched the rune Othala onto the flannel pieces. Othala is a rune of home, prosperity, and family, all energies I wanted to reinforce. I basted the flannel to the wrong side of the quilted top pieces. And for good measure I top stitched inside the seams of each rectangle and square.

Placemat Topside
Topside of the placemat. I wanted to stitch it to the flannel to keep the flannel from bunching during use, but also to reinforce the quilting seams.
Placemat backside
The backside of the placemat, showing the quilting lines where I sewed the top fabric to the flannel.

The project spanned three days, with the bulk of the time spent on cutting and piecing the fabric together. I plan on making one more set, so that I won’t ever run out (one set can be on the table when the other is in the wash). And it’s not like I don’t have plenty of fabric to use.

Placemat Detail
Making the placemats from fabric that I love and which invoke feelings of plenty and prosperity and richness, makes the table a little more inviting come dinner time.
Finished placemats
I had enough fabric to make four placemats. Each one is different.

Dare to Suck

Once upon a time, I enjoyed playing racquetball despite the fact that I suck at it. I wasn’t just bad. I was an introverted book nerd with clumsiness baked into my genes chasing after a little blue all and failing nine times out of ten to actually return a volley. Even so, I loved playing. It was freeing to enjoy something I was spectacularly bad at.

My ex-husband was less enthused about playing with me. The first few times I think he put up with my running and giggling while missing the ball because I hadn’t ever played before. He expected me to get better. When I didn’t, he began to play to my level, not putting a lot of energy into the game. Upon realizing that he was purposely playing badly, I told him he didn’t have to. It didn’t hurt my feelings that he was better at the game than I was. And I didn’t mind losing 15-0. The point was to have fun.

Once assured he didn’t have to “play down” to me, his whole demeanor changed. He would hit the ball with such force that the rebound sounded like a gun shot. I was dodging the ball now, instead of missing it. A couple of times it hit me with enough force to leave a mark. This was the way he played with his friends—all men. They didn’t so much as serve the ball as assault it with the racket. Winning and winning through the biggest display of aggression was the point.

My ex could only approach racquetball—and our relationship—in two modes: humoring me or total domination. I dropped racquetball. I wasn’t allowed to just enjoy running around, swatting at a ball. It wasn’t fun.

This anecdote has been weighting on my mind the last few days. In November I shared a tweet on my Idiorhythmic Designs Facebook page:

Twitter User: jen is #RedForKashmir @bookavid: "Destroy the idea that you gotta be good at artistic things to enjoy them, that every hobby has to become smth you're good at, you can monetize it 
"A capitalist lie.
"Sing offkey, draw poorly, write badly. Life is meant to be enjoyed, not monetized.  You're not a product."

It got shared and liked a lot. The response was 99% positive. But there was a 1% who took offense with the message. One person even took the time to comment: “Stupid bitch, tell that to my bills.”

A few others shared with similar remarks. What I had read as being an inspirational piece of advice, others viewed as an attack.

There is this great distaste for the term “amateur”. It seems to have become conflated with “dilettante”. The two words share an overlapping general definition, as being the opposite of a professional. But where the latter has an added connotation of being a negative, the former has, at least until recently, been a neutral term.

As the tweet points out, hobbies—especially those that involve the arts—have become commodified. The gig economy, and the idea that “if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life” are prevalent. Viewing every act of creativity through that lens leaves no space for doing something for the joy of it, even if you suck at it.

And yet, I get it. As someone who makes her (not so very lucrative) living from her creative efforts, it is imperative that I be not just great but phenomenal at what I do. My writing and sewing skills determine if I will be able to pay rent and buy food. I could as easily miss the point of the tweet, reading it as a dismissal of my artistic endeavors and I might respond with a spicy retort about bills, too.

I don’t think the solution is an either/or approach to the for love or money question. An and/also gives people more space to be, to hustle, and to feed their souls with the joy that comes from doing something just because it is fun.

I won’t ever return to racquetball. My knees are less springy than they were almost 20 years ago. But I have other hobbies that I participate in. I doodle and dance, poorly. Next year I have decided that I will try karaoke. I plan on picking up a croquet and a badminton set for our backyard, where I will put my non athletic to use. And should anyone comment on how bad I am at any of it, I will respond with, “Yeah, I suck at it, isn’t it great?”

Dreaming of a Craftsman Economy

“I like your computer,” she said. “It looks like it was made by Indians or something.”

Chia looked down at her sandbenders. Turned off the red switch. “Coral,” she said. “These are turquoise. The ones that look like ivory are the inside of a kind of nut. Renewable.”

“The rest is silver?”

“Aluminum,” Chia said. “They melt old cans they dig up on the beach cast it in sand molds. These panels are micarta. That’s linen with this resin in it.”

One of the things I loved most about the novel Idoru by William Gibson was the idea of handmade computers.  Going beyond the limited customization offered by tower cases and laptop decals, he presented a vision of one of a kind units.  In a world of cheap T-shirts, fast food and Walmart, the idea of something so unique, so intentional, has instant appeal.

One of my greatest disappointments of the future is that we haven’t embraced a hand-crafted model like the one described in Idoru.  There are hints of handmade technology—phone cases here, apps, widgets and live wallpapers there—most notably in the Steampunk genre where a DIY aesthetic is applied to everything from fashion to machinery to vehicles.  The glimpses, though, serve more to highlight the predominance of mass produced items.

I think about that a lot, about how we have reached a point where we shouldn’t be relying so much on mass produced clothes and furniture and houses.  I wonder what it would look like, to live in a world where there were more crafters, making more beautiful things for people.

It’d require a higher standard of living than we have right now, that’s for sure.   Obamacare has been helpful in easing one of the main reasons people don’t strike out on their own.  But when you can’t be certain if you’ll make enough to survive, all the health care in the world isn’t going to convince you to leave your day job.

A guaranteed income would probably be necessary.  Or at least creating a living wage.  If we could ensure that people wouldn’t starve, that they would have a place to sleep, that they could have their basic needs met, what would they accomplish?  If someone could be certain that working forty hours at a fast food place paid enough to meet their needs, what could they do with all the extra time they didn’t have to spend at a second or third job?  How many cottage industries would crop up, providing beauty to replace the beige and plastic molded bits and bobs of our lives?

I don’t know. I’d love to find out, though.


This article was originally posted on January 14, 2016.