May 2008 Archives

Kristen's Project Runway - the bodice

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Just about there...

I did the skirt for Jenn's wedding dress in a wink about a month ago, but the bodice has been dogging me ever since. Seven days ago I bought a Japanese book of French wedding dress patterns and made a partial test bodice, but today I shook off my performance anxiety reworked the pattern more completely.

My new BFFs, the French curve and waxed paper

For the test bodice, I traced the pattern from the book but it needed some serious realignment to fit Jenn's measurements. Today I turned my slashed and taped pieces into neat and reuable patterns that I can send to Phyllis, the dressmaker.

Why use pins when bead jars work so well?

Once I had the pieces organised, I cut a new bodice and lining to make sure that my changes would fit together correctly. Then I actually read the directions in the wedding dress book and made notes.

Reviewing vintage instructions before seaming.

I also used some information I dug up on the Internet. I have to say, is extremely helpful with vintage pattern drafting textbooks.

One of two different cuffs I tried.

I unpicked a lot of mistakes. Some twice. Glad I used contrasting thread.

I am really a rotten seamstress, so this project taught me a lot. I made my own bias tape for the first time. I learned that a lining needs to be bigger than the garment it lines (who knew?). I discovered how to use a French curve properly.

Now that I have a nearly finished bodice, there are still things I want to change. The line of the closing needs to be more vertical towards the bottom. The hemline should be more even! I hope that Phyllis will be able to understand my notes and scribbles.

The vague instructionists


I like old books about how to do things - sewing instructions, cookbooks, housekeeping textbooks. They are quite unlike modern how-to books.

A modern book is well-illustrated with photographs or drawings. They definitely believe that a picture is worth a thousand words. Old books are wordier and may not have any illustrations whatsoever. When they do, they usually cover one or two key points per project. Fortunately these sparse illustrations are very good.

Modern books are explicit with their instructions. They walk the reader step-by-step through the entire process. Sometimes this is a bit overbearing. I do not need to be told to open the glue before using it, thanks. (And my coffee, it is hot. I will be careful.) Older books often start out in detail but peter out as if the writer got bored. I love the vague directions they write: "do it in the common fashion" or "proceed as usual to produce the finish."

There are two good reasons for this vagueness, as far as I can see. One is that most people have extant knowledge of "the usual way" that can be drawn on (at least contemporaneously to the book) to save time and words. Also, the writer can cheat a bit when he doesn't actually know the process by telling readers to draw on their own understanding - do it in the common way. If they don't have any understanding either, then they may feel stupid or be perplexed, but he will be far away writing the next book.

Older books use great terminology. It is correct, precise and sounds craftsman-like. Modern books simplify terms to make them easier for the lay person to understand, I suppose. Aglet vs shoelace end. Armscye vs armhole. Tisane vs tea. Those XYZ for Dummies books might not be such a joke after all.

Both modern and vintage instructions can be a bit frustrating with their materials and quantities. I think this is partly temporal and partly geographical. Of course in 1914, every American knew what a box of raisins was. Now Americans have a choice of raisin package sizes. In Japan, raisins come in plastic bags, not in boxes. So how many raisins should you use? Also, modern books tend to name specific brands, rather than giving details about the actual material. And that works now, when the item specified is popular and easily available. But how will anyone in 20 years know what a skein of "eco-andaria" is or what can be substituted?

If I ever write an instructional book, I think I will follow the vintage books and be both highly precise and utterly vague.

Paring Down the Wardrobe

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All my summer clothes

This morning I did a huge inventory of all my clothes by emptying onto the floor all my drawers, the closet, and the stored out-of-season things. I put together outfits and color coordinated sets of things and I now own about half what I did when I woke up today. Half of that half is hanging in my closet with intimates and pajamas tucked into a sparse few drawers. The winter half is stored away until the weather gets cool again.

It was difficult to cull my clothes. Some things were lovely and nearly new but didn't fit right; I felt wasteful removing them from my closet. Others were gifts that been loved but finally outlived their welcome; in those cases I felt ungrateful. A few sentimental favorites are still in the mix, even though they are worn out, don't fit quite right, or don't go with anything else I own. I just can't part with them yet. Some of the clothes that I was willing to say goodbye to will be transformed into Morsbags. A few items are just going to be tossed out.

Now if I could practice this same technique on books, I'd be living in a much neater apartment!

That funny smell again


Last year in mid-May, I wrote about a strange smell in the air that none of us quite agreed about. Wet dog? Smog? Sperm? Whatever it was, It's back again.

Also in the way of nature memoranda, yesterday the temperature hit 28.6 - hottest day of the year so far. Rainy season started in Okinawa and it won't be long before its here. Summer is certainly on its way. Bummer.

Hypocritical US Food Safety


Because of the tainted pet food fiasco and other issues with foods imported from China last year, China has recently agreed to follow the higher food safety standards of the US in several categories including pet food, fish, low-acid canned goods, and raw materials like wheat gluten.

This makes sense, right? Imported goods should follow the safety standards of the nation they are being brought into. Americans shouldn't have to worry about eating substandard food. Or buying harmful things from other nations. Nobody should.

So why does the US keep insisting that Japan lower its standards and import American beef that isn't acceptable here? In Japan all cows, 100% of them, are tested for BSE (mad cow disease). In America, not even 1% of cows are tested. Even if you want to test all your American cows, you can't. It is illegal.

This really annoys me. How dare the US insist that exporting countries following their standards, yet also insist that importing countries abandon any stricter standards. You can't have it both ways. That is hypocritical.

Barak Obama lost any chance at my vote today when I read he told ranchers that Japan should lower its standards:

"You can't get beef into Japan and Korea, even though, obviously, we have the highest safety standards of anybody," he told a town hall meeting in Watertown, South Dakota. "They don't want to have that competition from U.S. producers."

"Highest safety standards?" Helloooooo? Test all your cows and you can export as much as you like to Japan. "Don't want competition?" No. Don't want disease. Honestly, Mr. Obama, get your facts straight here. You are wrong.

The US really makes my blood boil sometimes (lots of times). Do you know that they force Japan to buy rice it doesn't need? That's another post in itself. Maybe tomorrow.

Safely Delivered

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Elliot Mason Sueyasu was born at 4:29 pm on May 15th. He weighed in at 3458 grams (7 lbs 10 ounces) and was 50 cm (20 in) long. He has all his fingers and toes and Yoshi's nose, for sure. I think his wrinkly fingers look like tiny elephant trunks. MJ is tired but happy. It is so sweet to see her watch Elliot sleep. Her face gets all blissed out.

If you were checking wombquake, you got the news just a few minutes after Elliot appeared, thanks to MJ's clever skill at giving us access to post by mobile phone. I even snapped a photo as he was being washed up for the first time.

I was surprise at how fast it happened at the end. When I got back from my break, MJ was 7 cm dilated (10 cm is the goal). Tracey went to take a shower and Yoshi to get some food. I sat with MJ for 20 minutes or so, then the midwife shoo'ed me out so she could do something involving a basin and a towel. I was in the waiting room for ten minutes when the nurse ran in to find Yoshi. "Where is the husband? The baby is being born now."

Tracey walked in 15 seconds later, but Yoshi wasn't with her. We rang him, but he didn't answer. I dashed back to the apartment to fetch him. We thought we had sufficient time, since the books all said 30 minutes to 2 hours for this phase of the delivery. Urgent messages from Tracey sped us up and we made it to the delivery room in the very nick of time. Elliot was just emerging as Yoshi walked in.

I've never seen a baby delivered, and though I missed most of this one, I saw enough. Wow. When the doctor held him up so Tracey and I could see, we both cried. Just thinking of it now brings tears to my eyes.

But I'm really glad it was MJ and not me. I'm very happy to be an aunt.

I don't know nothing about birthing no babies

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MJ is having her baby today. She and Tracey & I trooped over to the clinic for a check-up this morning and they decided to induce her. Apparently she had a torn membrane and was slowly leaking amniotic fluid. She was 4 cm dilated, so the induction just speeds things along.

By 1pm, the drip was definitely doing its job. She was 5 cm dilated, her water had broken, and she well into the painful contractions. But three people in the room (Yoshi had joined us by then) watching her breathe and writhe was really too many, so she told us to take a break. Politely. She didn't yell at us or throw anything. Brave, patient MJ.

I dutifully came back to the apartment, started a load of laundry, made myself some tea and watched an episode of Project Runway. But it is about time to go back and give Tracey or Yoshi a turn at tea and Internet access.

Will post more later on. Gambatte, MJ!

A Slow Start?

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"The baby won't budge. Nothing seems to be working to get labour going," MJ chatted with me as she walked to the grocery store this morning. "Not spicy food, not walking. I was even jumping up and down. Nothing"

"That sucks. At least you don't have menstrual cramps," I commiserated.

"Hey, wait...something feels weird down there."

"Weird how? Like water-breaking wet weird?"

"Weird. Wet, yeah. I dunno. Let me pop into this store and use their toilet to check. I'll call you back."

15 very long minutes later (I paced the house with keitai in hand waiting for it to ring), MJ called back. She was damp but not the water-breaking gush she imagined. Since she had no idea what was going on she went home, had a shower and a closer look at things. After a trip to her clinic later in the afternoon, she learned that she has a slow leak but isn't dilated enough to go into labour. She is on antibiotics with instructions to come back on Thursday.

If you want to keep up on the proceedings, check out MJ's special pregnancy blog, Wombquake. She's set it up so she can post from her phone in the clinic after delivery. Tracey and I will be guest posting as needed in the next few days while we are down there in Kanagawa with her.

Fenugreek Chickpea Curry


I spent this morning cooking for my friends who are new parents (and ones who are abut to be). I wanted to do a hearty main dish that could be frozen easily and that was tasty but not too spicy for a nursing mother. I decided on chickpeas over bulgar wheat.

As I was poking around my spice box, I found my fenugreek seeds and recalled the stunning fenugreek tomato pasta Ken made at camp. Fenugreek, tomato and chickpeas - perfect! This is hearty, healthy (it's vegan) and smells so good that I nearly portioned some out for myself.

Fenugreek Chickpea Curry
serves 2-3

1 can whole tomatoes
1 can chickpeas
1/2 onion
1 clove garlic
2 sundried tomatoes
1/2 tsp whole fenugreek seeds
pinch cumin seeds
salt to taste
olive oil

Mince the garlic and chop the onion, Saute in olive oil until the onion is becoming translucent. Add in the fenugreek and cumin and cook for a minute to release the spices' oils. Add in the tomatoes and liquid, crushing the tomatoes through your fingers as they go into the pot. Drain the chickpeas, rinse well, and add to pot. Chop the dried tomatoes into bits and stir into stew. Add a bit of water as needed. Simmer for 20 minutes or until chickpeas are a little bit soft and the flavors are fully developed.

Fern, Farro & Feta Salad



I like the idea of eating wild foods even when I can only discover them in grocery stores. Yesterday I spied some fiddlehead ostrich ferns, kogomi in Japanese, and bought them to try. Full grown ferns are toxic, so you have to be cautious about your preparation of fiddleheads - boiling for 10 minutes is necessary and you want to make sure that the curled up ferns are nice and tight.

If you can't find ferns in your market you could substitute asparagus, which is similar in taste but without the earthy overtones.

Fern, Farro & Feta Salad
serves 2 as a main dish or 4 as a side

1/2 cup farro
1 cup fiddlehead ferns
2" square feta cheese
1/2 onion
1 lemon
1/2 tsp sesame seeds
1/4 tsp sesame oil
olive oil
salt to taste

Boil the farro in water for 20 minutes. Drain and set aside to cool.

Chop the onion into bite-size pieces and prepare to steam them over the fern water. I use a metal strainer that sits nicely over my small saucepan.

Clean the ferns by scraping off any loose brown bits and cutting the stems close to the curls. Wash and rinse well. Drop into a pan of boiling water and cook for ten minutes. Steam the onions.

Zest the lemon and juice half of it. Combine the lemon zest & juice, sesame oil, sesame seeds. Adjust with salt and olive oil as desired.

Combine the farro, ferns, onion in a bowl. Crumble in the feta and drizzle the dressing over everything, giving it a good stir. Serve at room temperature.

Still morning

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The city is so quiet this morning that I can hear wind through trees and chirping birds across the way. Everyone is still asleep. The highway is silent. The local roads are still. It even seems like the trains are rushing past less frequently.

Post-holiday exhaustion? People must be resting after their golden week blow out. I'm sure it won't be too long before everything and everyone starts moving again so I will go outside and savor these few last quiet minutes.

Buttercream Roux Frosting


I never seem to get the standard butter/powdered sugar buttercream right, and I really don't like the too sweet taste or the heavy texture, so yesterday I went searching for a new method. I learned about buttercream roux, traditionally used on Red Velvet cakes. I think I will be using this cooked frosting for a while; it is soft and fluffy and not too sweet. Even though is it a bit more effort than whipping together butter and powdered sugar the result is worth the extra pan to wash.

I would like to try it with soy milk instead of cow's milk, but of course that will change the texture and flavor - perhaps in a good way, certainly in a more healthy way. I am sure other flavourings could be substituted for the vanilla and I wonder if you melted chocolate into the roux if that would work. I foresee many cake experiments in my future.

Buttercream Roux Frosting
covers a two layer cake

1/2 cup milk
2 -3 Tbsp flour
1/2 cup butter, room temperature
1/2 cup granulated sugar
vanilla to taste

Heat the milk and flour until it thickens, stirring vigorously. Remove from heat , pour into a shallow bowl and allow to cool completely. Cream butter and sugar until light. Check the roux for lumps; strain if necessary. Add in the cooled roux and beat until creamy and fluffy. It is possible to do this with a whisk but an electric beater is certainly less effort.

From Camp

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Tod says Niijima is a magical place and I think he is right. There were so many happy coincidences there this past week.

On the first day, Tod ran into some of his colleagues from UBS. They had sailed down from Tokyo and offered to take us sailing one day. Eight of us had a wonderful morning sail out into the ocean with Jason and Neil. They put us to work pulling lines and hoisting sheets, which was beyond fun.

On the last day, a convergence of stories brought two friends together. Our taxi driver had told Tod the day before about a guy who got off the boat mistakenly; he had no cash, his friend had the tent and all the gear and he had no idea what to do. The taxi driver gave him a room for the night. The next morning, a guy in our camp is talking to Tod about losing track of his friend on the boat. Voila! Two plus two = friends reunited.

And in between those connections we had an outing with the entire local elementary school, an arts and crafts day in my tent with drawing and jewelry-making during a rainstorm, we tried our hand at blowing glass, and experienced the usual Niijima combination of beautiful weather, great food, socialising with new friends around the camp, and friendly interactions with all the locals.

Going to Niijima is always a treat. Thanks to everyone who came along with us. Let's do it again soon.

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