Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Revisiting old nightmares

I've had to drag the sewing machine kicking and screaming out of its cupboard several times this week and that doesn't please me. I don't think it pleases the sewing machine either - I hear malice in its whirring everytime I use it and it's gone for my fingers several times. Relining curtains is an unwieldly job, especially when your only workspace is already covered in fimo, miniture cupcakes, beads and a pile of paper you should have analysed for last weeks "team confabulation". I guess the only saving grace is this paper now has several lines of neatish holes punched in it.

I know it's not good to analyse, but was thinking back and trying to work out where our relationship broke down and the realisation struck me quite clearly. I attended what was effectively a technology college between the ages of 11 - 13. I actually don't remember much about the school other than the sheer number of practical lessons we had. I cut things out of zinc sheet, snapped bits of acrylic on pillar drills, learnt how to turn wood on an industrial size lathe and how to use hand engraving tools. I blame my parents for encouraging me to make things, but I blame school for giving me tools and showing me what was possible. Far more practical learning experience than the prissy single gender grammar school I shifted to later on, where it took four weeks for a group of horribly giggly girls to build and paint a rather useless looking shelf. For someone with my background, these lessons were nothing short of inefficent torture; honestly, if you want to wind me up, make me work with someone who's scared of power tools. And Miss Clarkson used to wash her smalls in the washing machine in the home economics room *shudders*.

The only practical thing I hated at tech college though was textiles. There is only so much time I can spend making kites and hand sewing googly eyes on a soft-toy freak show before I lose patience. I carried the resentment with me from primary school where the girls and boys were split once a week - and I had to practice feather stiching on bright orange cross-stitch canvas whilst the boys got to build planes out of balsa wood. Even now, twenty years later, the unfairness of that still irks me. Textiles class never stood a chance because it felt like a punishment meted out specfically on those with two X chromosomes.

My over-riding memory of textiles class at the tech college is the sewing machine. Before you were allowed to thread and use the thing you had to prove you could sew in straight lines with the correct speed by submitting (to be graded) your neat lines of holes punched in paper. I still do that exercise before I start stitching now. The first exercise I remember where I was allowed fabric was the one I am going to repeat today. The technology apron - the item that that you made in textiles, wore in woodwork then washed and ironed in home economics.

I don't have any really rough beige cotton in my sewing stuff so it isn't going to be an exact replica. I also might even consider wearing the apron in the kitchen - I now have a Kenwood Chef which is capable of plastering me with whatever is in the mixing bowl (even on the lowest setting), so it needs to be thick enough to withstand projectile cake mix.

I do have this fabric. I like it a lot.

I was going to make a dress out of it (I even have the pattern)...

...until I realised that a) that was too ambitious a project given I can't sew b) I'd never get round to it and c) boho/vintage/shabby chic isn't really me. I haven't worn gingham since I was at the afore-mentioned school of infant gender repression and this fits in the same box. If it was a person it would be a young 1950's American housewife with immaculate hair, nails, make-up and a duster in one hand - posing like a poster girl for a furniture polish company. I look like a cross between Amy Winehouse and Sarah Palin so drinking tea elegantly out of bone china cups with Laura Ashley and Cath Kidston isn't going to work.

Aprons, in my limited knowledge of not wearing them, consist of a central piece, a neck strap, two ties and a front pocket. The central piece is symmetrical. I also want a loop on the side for useful things. I don't know why, it just feels right.

I don't want to start by hacking up my nice spotty fabric, so I'm taking out the overhead projector pen on the remaining "Hick-chic" corn curtain first. This sort of looks like an apron - at least it's symmetrical (fold down the centre axis, draw and slice).

My fabric is quite thin and because of this it needs lining or it won't withstand an ariel cupcake frosting attack. I have this thin blue fleecy material, which is meant to be a blanket.

I'm glad it's going on the inside though, as it feels flammable - a scary sort of 80's shell-suit flammable. I figure it'll be splash proof at least - as it's synthetic, even if I risk ending up looking like a Pink Floyd album cover by getting to close to the cooker.

I'm going to start by hemming the pocket and making the straps - as it's a small job and the sewing machine might not notice.

I can cut round my arable template to give a nice shape - leaving a little bit of leaway for hemming the outside part.

Adding the interior layer...

All hemmed - after much cursing and thread snapping. I should admit here that I have no idea what the dials on the side of the sewing machine actually do as I haven't changed them since I pulled the thing out its box originally.

I'm going to go back to punching holes in paper now. Next the straps and sundry bits...

A little focal corsage made from vintage lace to break up the spots a bit. Actually, that should read (if I'm being honest) - made a flower out of a scrap that looks like it's been cut from an old petticoat and stitched it onto one corner of the pocket to hide the fact that I forgot to line up the pattern repeats and turned the corner way to fast. Just to warn you, I drive like I sew. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Me and the sewing machine, well, we're never going to remarry, but I think I'm satisfied with the armed truce we seem to have at the moment. At least the cupcakes won't stand a chance any more.

I did listen at school. Sometimes.

Monday, 15 February 2010

She sleeps with the fishes

I am distraught. I popped into my local Chinese food store today to get some mushrooms. I love this store as it is full of wonderful things, but today I found a jar of pickled gourami. I have gourami in my house, they are lovely placid little creatures, they have long feelers and come to say hello when I tap the side of the fish tank. I know they're just fish, but they're my pet fish. I don't expect to see them pulped in a jam jar. That makes me sad.

Time for revenge. This is crystal resin.

If it was a person, it would be pointing and laughing every time I walk by and putting "kick me" notes on the back of my coat. But today I'm going to stand up to it. I've had it in my craft box for ages and everytime I use it I screw it up. I get bubbles in it and fluff in it and things sink or dissolve and it looks naff. It soaks through every mould I've tried to use with it, wreaked several tablecloths and declared a bloody war of adhesion on the pyrography iron it shares a box with. I had to put it into isolation and that made it more angry. I have these "okay, so you stay in the damn box" conversations with it everytime I see it.

Geeky aside: This stuff's only saving grace is that the safety data information on the side of the box made me laugh. I see a lot of materials safety data sheets at work - all chemicals carry a list of risk phrases (R-phrases) which are defined in the European Union Directive (Annex III) as "Nature of special risks attributed to dangerous substances and preparations". This one is great. I'm assuming it should be either an R50, R51 or R52 - which describes the potential risk to aquatic life but on the side of the box it has been translated directly as: "poison for the watery organisms" .

I had a look on-line and wealth of knowledge on the folksy forum pointed me in the direction of a store where I could buy moulds for resin (actually I was being drawn slowly into the shiny and expensive world of PMC, the moulds were just on the same site and saved me from caning my credit card with more stuff I don't need or have any idea how to use). This I hope will be the first battle won as I know from experience that the stuff eats kawaii moulds, plasticine and most other things I've tried. They turned up a few days ago.

Firstly the inserts. I made a tiny piranha.

It took ages, so I baked it and used it to make a little flexible mould in order to generate more tiny piranha faster rather than make another one freehand.

I made some pebbles, some pond weed...

...and a little person. All this together didn't take as long as the first rather angry looking tiny fish did.

Resin is mixed two parts resin to one part hardener. It burns. It all burns.

They provide gloves in the box that are only suitable should an eight-foot yeti be wanting to make window hangers. Noone has hands that large.

Fight with gloves, glue gloves to resin, throw away gloves, mop up resin, treat burns... Pour into a mould greased with vaseline (although I couldn't find any, so I used cake release instead - I'll admit it).

Poke fish, pebbles, person and pond weed into resin. Add more resin. Mop up excess resin. Resist the urge to poke it.

It's supposed to cure within 12 hours. I'm assuming this measurement was done in on a beach in Hawaii in the height of a tropical summer, not in the UK in Feburary. We've had hail and it's freezing outside. There isn't a cat's chance in hell that thing's going to set in 12 hours.

After 24 hours it was hard enough (just) to pop out of the mould. It actually came out for the first time without me having to prise it out with something or hack the mould away with a craft knife. I can trim the edges cleanly with a craft knife - obviously the Archimedes principle escaped me when I pressed the clay in, but it's easily corrected with a bit of scraping.

Glue a magnet on the back and thats it. A couple of bubbles, but they add to the scene so I don't mind this time.

Swim my pretties...swim... Mwahhhaaaahh...

Friday, 12 February 2010

I am your conduit

My day job is a conversation stopper. People ask me what I do, I tell them I'm a scientist, they press for more information, I revert to geek and they glaze over and start dribbling out of the corner of their mouths. You have no idea how many dates I've lost because of this. It's sad. People back away from me when I talk about work. I don't fit in the real world any more.

The worse thing is is that as much as I love my job, I don't exactly fit with the real geeks either. I read things other than JACS, my idea of a meal is not something that comes in a foil tray, I wash my clothes, I wear jewellery and I have an A-level in Sociology. I don't find jokes about Linux particularly funny and I do not have a binary clock on my desk. Geek is my second language but I've been here so long, I sometimes feel I've lost my ability to speak in my mother tongue.

I knew things had got bad when I got the sewing machine out to solve a work problem.

This is my problem.

It's an NMR tube - a fine and quite expensive thin walled glass tube with a little plasic lid. It's got some deuterated chloroform in the bottom of it, plus the stuff I made in the lab yesterday. The issue is that these tubes are fragile and expensive and I have to take them to another room to do my measurements. Because of the way this place works, anything that goes outside of the lab has to be in a secondary container to protect against spillages. These things rattle around and are generally a pain to transport. It's not that it's unsafe (she says, looking at the scars on her hands), I just don't want to lose what's inside. It took me three weeks to make that, you can't even see it and I'm storing it in a glass tube a couple of microns thick. It's the chemical equivalent of taking a rare birds egg to a student party and expecting it not to end up as a tequila sunrise.

Anyway. I bought this fabric in IKEA last year. I don't know why. I like fabric.

I have a lot of fabric even though I can't sew. I think in my head I'd love to be able to sew when in fact I'm cack-handed and impatient. I hate ironing, I don't do straight lines and me and the sewing machine - well - we called an armed truce after the tote bag incident but we still view each other with a mild distrust. Accuracy is the casualty of speed when I sew. That and my fingers. I also have this fabric for some reason, which probably used to be a curtain and appears to have corn printed on it. It doesn't win any points for design unless I'm taking up making up cushion covers for a trailer park in the deep south, but its one saving grace is that it's plain on the reverse.

I have a picture in my head. I'm glad you can't see it because later on when it all goes pear-shaped I can claim it's how I wanted it to look. My mum always tells me I should measure twice and cut once. I found I can by-pass this rule by buying a larger bit of fabric and drawing round something. My NMR tubes are seven inches tall - it just has to be a bit taller than that.

A lesson that I learnt through trial and error is that oil pastels, conte crayons, overhead projector pens and/or permanent markers are not suitable substitutes for tailor's chalk. Really no. They also go straight through the fabric and onto the tablecloth. Which to be fair will probably end up stitched to this anyway, so what the hell. Eventually - two bits of fabric much bigger than I need in order to compensate for the inevitable screw-ups.

Let me introduce my sewing machine. We don't get on even though we've been together many years. We're like a married couple that tolerate each other, but only just. It also appears to have red thread in it, which confuses me given the last thing I remember making was blue dress for a fancy dress party. So now we have the bobbin arguement. I'd just like to say, at this point, that I am *really* pleased you have no audio feed.

Cutting down the fabric gradually gives me two rough squares, a wide strip and a narrow strip. I'm hemming the strips - well, actually I appear to be punching a small set of neat holes in the fabric for fun at the moment, but it'll hem in a bit.

Arrange, sew, hem...

...then add the mother of all pop-studs by hand.

I'm also adding an itty bitty bag because sometimes I need to swap the lids, so having somewhere to put them will save me shoving them in my pockets then having to fish the damn things out of the washing machine.

And I'm done :)

*sigh* I guess I could have said it was a jewellery roll.

Monday, 8 February 2010

I'm afraid of Americans

I've had this David Bowie song stuck in my head all day. It's a great song - even better, dare I say it, when covered by Trent Reznor and belted out live to a packed arena. I've not spent a great deal of time in the US and what time I have spent there has mainly been in airport transit lounges. I seem to fly to the US to get interrogated and poked around, then fly off somewhere else. International soil? Yeah right. Nice.

Up until recently, I would have considered America's best contribution to the world of food to be cheese slices you could use as sticky notes. I don't really like peanut butter very much; as I can't bring myself to eat something you could use to grout the bathroom and I don't like the bread. I don't eat a lot of meat, so I get funny looks. I am a self confessed diet coke addict, but I don't know what they put in it in the US to make it taste like that. I can't cope with the sheer amount of food I am given, it puts terror in my heart. Despite all this, I think I'm in the minority when I say that I actually have a massive respect for the much maligned American confectionary. I like Hershey's chocolate, I like marshmallow fluff and M&Ms (even the peanut butter ones). I even like marshmallow peeps. I've eaten twinkies and lived. Say what you will, America understands sugar very very well. It does sugar properly, without the guilt of the British or the arrogance of the continent and (quite rightly) doesn't give a damn what you think.

My quest for the perfect chocolate drop of my childhood hit a wall yesterday when I spent my afternoon wandering around all of the shops near my department looking for sweets that looked like sweets rather than pale looking sweets made with fruit juice and extract of hippies. There was nothing even remotely appealing looking, nothing bright, nothing that screamed chromophore. The history of chemistry is littered with wonderful stories of the brightest dyes and quests for the most amazing colours and now everything I see looks like it's been washed at 90 degress with a black sock. Then it struck me, I needed big, bold, bright and brash. I needed confident. I needed American.

In the UK, getting hold of American treats isn't easy unless you are lucky enough to have American work collegues who you can send home with a shopping list. A couple of the delis round here sell marshmallow fluff, Reese's pieces and peanut butter cups. You can buy Oreo cookies in most supermarkets. I bring back lucky charms breakfast cereal for my sister everytime I go to the US but I occassionally see boxes here too.

M&M's, however, are fairly ubiquitous. Okay, so they don't come in 3 kg bags, nor do they taste like ones from the US because they are manufactured on the continent, packed in Ireland and have more Airmiles than I do, but they look the part. I wonder if they have a vacancy for a proof reader in the factory; they may even let me eat all the w's.

M&M's are similar to Smarties anatomically, although they are prettier, brighter, shinier and more regularly shaped. They are slighly smaller - still not as flat as the Smarties of old, but certainly closer in shape than the current stage of evolution of the chocolate drop was to its ancestor. Because the colours are nice and bright, matching is simpler. It matches to a different red from the fimo range than the last one.

So, same procedure as before - little chocolate coloured discs...

then a white layer...

then the outer shell...

All done!

As before, a sugarcraft cutter can be used to nip out a bite mark.

There is no need for sanding and dappling this time, just a quick dusting with varnish.

So there we go. Chocolate drops of the present (right) with their distant cousins, chocolate drops of the past (left). Long may their memory be preserved.

I'm afraid I can't help it. I'm afraid I can't.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

I'm not sure...

I used to work in the chemical industry before I went back into university research. People always laugh when I tell them my industry job was watching paint dry, even though that was actually what I got paid to do on a day to day basis. One of the best thing about the work however (other than the fact I had access to a great deal of very good very cheap paint) was that our plant site was shared with a confectionary company and we had a joint staff shop. Never before have I ever seen a shop that sold only floor varnish, satin emulsion, weedkiller and massive quantities of chocolate. I hold them solely responsible for my addiction to Galaxy caramel and my hatred of the smell of acrylic monomers.

Claire, from Blackcatswhiskers, who makes (amongst other things) the most wonderful button jewellery - you can see it here: http://www.folksy.com/shops/blackcatswhiskers - asked if I'd ever made charms shaped like chocolate drops. I hadn't, but I'm always up for a challenge. Bizarrely, given that I consider chocolate to be one of the four major important food groups (the others being coffee, cheese and red wine) it's been an awfully long time since I last ate a packet of them.

They are not how I remember at all. I remember them being really brightly coloured - the sort of colours that make kids hyperactive and are banned in most EU countries - where as now they are sort of pale and a little bit insipid looking. They aren't as regularly shaped as I remember either - there are some seriously mutant ones hiding in the box I'm eating as I type. They are also larger than they used to be and they taste different.

I used to love smarties - I still have my gruesome greenies plastic pouch and my glow in the dark smartians somewhere. I loved it when they printed footballs or funny faces on them and when they hid white chocolate ones in the packs. A quick look on the back revealed that they'd replaced the artifical colourings with natural colourings.

Meh. If I eat sweets I am making an active choice to ingest stuff that isn't good for me, I don't want it to be a way of sneakily making sure I eat my vegtables.

But the saddest thing is the demise of the tube :( I feel like part of my childhood has been stolen. The best thing about smarties was the tube, you could smack an empty tube hard and fire the lid acros the room. And I loved the letters on the caps too. They have questions on them now too - and of the three packets I have here (for research purposes) the answer is incorrect on one of them. I guess children aren't allowed to choke on educational things any more.

This little experiment is therefore a two part practical class. I want to make chocolate drops past and present. I'm going to start with making a model of what I can see before I try to resurrect the ghost of chocolates past.

I learnt a long time ago that the easiest way to understand something is to take it apart and see how it works. Even with an item as simple as a chocolate drop, the satisfaction of smacking something with a hammer is immense.

Chocolate centres, white coating, coloured outside.

As far as the colourings go, the easiest colour match for the clay I have is red. It's almost spot on; although the colours aren't as uniform any more either and the surface is slightly dappled.

Inside first! They aren't a uniform mass any more, but I need something smaller as I have to do two more layers on top of this.

Now the white layer...

then the outer shell..

Spot the difference! (I'll give you a hint, two are real!)

Lily of the valley sugarcraft cutters make great bite marks, so it's a fair test to see if the inside looks okay. As they are charms, I pierced them before baking them. If you bake polymer clay at a slightly higer temperature, you will cause crazing on the surface, so that was perfect to mimic the cracks in the shell of the bitten one. A quick going over with a hand engraving tool added the surface dappling/crazing and satin varnish (which I have had in the cupboard since I left my 9 - 5 job) is added for the shine.

Hmmm... they are a pretty good match, but somehow I think there is a little room for some artistic license here. I want them to be pretty, I want them to be shiny, I want them to look how I remember...

....to be continued

Monday, 1 February 2010

Hands that do dishes...

I wish I had nice elegant hands, but I don't. I have hands that repair vacuum pumps, tweak machines and clean out rabbit hutches. I can see four scars just as I'm typing this - the three long ones were down to me breaking NMR tubes at work and the fourth was due to an incident with an angry chicken (honestly, that is true!). I have short fingers, a touch of ecxema (thanks to a combination of spending hours everyday with gloves on and the solvents we handle at work) and I bite my nails. They're not ugly hands, they are just *practical* hands; hands that work rather than hands wot lunch.

It's because of this I don't wear rings or nail polish. Or anything really that draws attention to them. Which is a shame as I see so many really lovely rings - but I just know they wouldn't suit me, I'd spend ages fiddling nervously with them or I'd get annoyed with them catching on things.

Despite this, my craft box contains a number of ring blanks. Quite a large number in fact. Most of them have pierced fronts and adjustable backs.

As my Prague beads are still spread over every surface, I figured beads might be the way to go here.

Blue beads - blue cord :) I'd say it was a highly considered colour choice inspired by one of my many muses, but it's more to do with the fact that my craft boxes are in disarray at the moment, so I pulled out the first matching pair. It was a little like those maths problems you used to get at school where you had to calculate the number of time you had to select a sock from a drawer in order to get a pair.

Threading through the first hole actually proved easier to hold in place if I wore the ring to support it.

Four regularly spaced leaves round the outside...

..and some random beads in the centre to add a little bit of height.

These little flower beads need threading in a different way as the hole is in the centre. Thread goes through the flower, through a seed bead then back through the flower to hold it upright.

Repeat until bored :)

Final product - upgraded from the dark of my craft box to the dark of my jewellery box. Maybe one day I'll be brave enough to wear it outside.