Friday, August 5, 2016


Mine is a family of bibliophiles. We return from most of our travels with at least one addition to our library, which now numbers over 2,100 volumes. One can travel vicariously by perusing books in our library, noting from the inscriptions where and when each was purchased, and often finding tucked in the pages some little travel momento, a boarding pass, a museum entrance ticket, or a cafe napkin, that once served as a bookmark.

Shops specializing in used books are particular favorites. You never know what you will find amid the labyrinths of teetering colorfully packed shelves. When visiting our daughters at school we've stopped in at Federal Street Books in Greenfield, Massachusetts, and always come away with treasures for our own library shelves.

Inside Federal Street Books, Greenfield, Massachusetts

I imagine it was from a shop very much like this one - albeit via a Google search - that I acquired my own copy of "The Cookie Tree," a book illustrated by my Uncle Blake and which I remembered so fondly from my childhood. You may recall from previous posts that I used the cookie tree image as inspiration for the appliqued center of a quilt.

Only after I'd put all the pieces together did I realize that the scrappy borders reminded me of the narrow aisles and crammed shelves at Federal Street Books. And like used books being passed from one owner to the next, many of the pieces in this quilt have been passed along from previous owners. It seemed natural to name this quilt "The Cookie Tree and Federal Street Books."

"The Cookie Tree and Federal Street Books" (machine pieces and quilted, 57"x77")

The book theme also makes this a perfect gift for my daughter, who has loved books from the time she was an infant. One of her first words was "book," though funnily enough she used it to refer to milk. Maybe she just thought that milk and books were similar because they both provided her with sustenance. Though I don't expect the quilt to provide sustenance, I do hope it will keep her warm at night and brighten the grey winter days she will soon face in Ithaca, New York.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Escape From the Texas Heat

When Austin's daily low temperature is eighty degrees and the high temperature reaches nearly one hundred every afternoon, it is a good idea to retreat to someplace much cooler, even if for just a weekend. Although it's a rather long trip from Austin, Calgary and the Canadian Rockies offered us a welcome respite for a couple days last month.

Arriving in Calgary on Friday just as the sun was setting, we had only a glimpse of the mountains to the west of town. Eager for our first hike of the summer, we set out early on Saturday morning for the hour and half drive up the Trans Canada Highway to Lake Louise in the midst of Banff National Park. It's a dramatic drive past seemingly endless stretches of deep-green forests with massive cliffs looming beyond.

We hiked along the shore of Lake Louise - it really is that color turquoise.

Lake Louise

At the head of the lake, where silt from the glaciers forms a delta, the color is even more intense.

We continued beyond the lake on the relatively gentle trail towards the Plain of Six Glaciers.

We stopped outside the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House to have our lunch,

Plain of the Six Glaciers Tea House

then continued on to the lookout to get closer views of the glaciers.

On the way down we heard a distant rumbling: it was an avalanche on the other side of the valley.

Rather than backtrack all the way to Lake Louise, we took the Highline trail to the diminutive, but scenic, Lake Agnes. The trail zig zags down a very steep slope!

Lake Agnes

Along the way we were treated to a nice snow storm.

Fortunately, we were prepared with rain coats and fleeces. I even had wool gloves!

Still, we welcomed the chance to stop at the Lake Agnes Tea House for a pot of hot tea and a plate of fresh tea biscuits.

On the way down we had this misty view of the Beehive.

Sunday dawned brighter and warmer,  perfect for a walking tour of Calgary. I especially enjoyed strolling along the Bow River, which runs along the north side of downtown, and crossing the dedicated pedestrian bridges.

At this time of year the gardens are in full bloom.

and make the many downtown plazas very pleasant.

It was a bit of a shock coming back to triple digit temperatures in Austin. I dealt with it by staying inside in the air-conditioning as much as possible. That's how I finally finished this exploding star quilt. 

I have to confess that I found parts of this quilt difficult. I strip pieced the star, using many pins to ensure the points lined up nicely and handled the the fabric carefully to avoid the distortion to which its many bias edges made it susceptible. In spite of these precautions, the inset white pieces between the points of the star were hard to make lie flat. 

And then there were the randomly placed broken pieces. I sewed white borders around each one to make blocks, sewed the blocks into strips, then added the strips to complete the top. It seemed like a good idea, but again I had trouble making it all lie flat. I made a few tucks to flatten it out a bit and then, running out of patience, loaded it onto the long arm and hoped for the best. Amazing! It turned out flat! Perhaps that has to do with the high density quilting, especially of the background. I alternated wavy lines and squiggles, all radiating from the center to accentuate the sense of movement.

I think it also helped that I used two layers of batting, originally chosen to ensure that the geese print on a vibrant blue ground (organic cotton by Cloud 9) that my daughter chose for the backing didn't show through to the front. It's quite a heavy quilt, but will be perfect for her to use during cold New England winters.

Although I had moments when I thought I had a disaster on my hands, I'm glad I soldiered on to finish this quilt. I think it's a very fun piece. The front is lively and the silly geese on the back can't help but make me smile.

I have to thank Susan Rubino and Chris Wenz at Over the Top Quilting Studio for their help in building my confidence and skills on the long arm machine. I have taken several classes at their well-outfitted studio and also benefited from their kind encouragement and excellent advice. If you are in central Texas and interested in using a long arm machine for quilting, I highly recommend you visit them. 

Thanks also to the folks at The Cloth Pocket, Austin's best little quilt shop, for carrying such a great selection of beautiful fabric, including all the solids for the quilt top and the geese backing fabric.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Further Adventures in China

My last post highlighted the countryside of the Yangshuo region of China. This one will focus on the urban areas: the town of Yangshuo and China's capital city Beijing.

On maps of China Yangshuo looks tiny. By Chinese standards it is tiny. In actuality it is a good size city of several hundred thousand people. Located amidst China's famous karst mountains,

it has become a popular destination for Chinese and international tourists. No surprise then to find the usual kind of tourist amenities: restaurants and shops, tour guides and taxis, hotels and hostels. To visit the town of Yangshuo, we walked from our guest house, The Giggling Tree,

off the main road, past an old village,

over a small pass and into the busy streets to have a look. Most of the tourist activity is along West Street

and the smaller streets that intersect it.

I found several shops with interesting textiles. This one specializes in woven items,

while another one carried traditional garments and textiles, some antique and and some newly made. I couldn't resist this indigo batik table runner, which is long enough for my dining room table.

I also purchased some notebooks and cards

I don't see any Mao quotes. It's a blank book!

at a nice little stationery shop.

Mostly, it was fun just to take in the lively street scenes

 and colorful displays.

At the end of my trip I spent an afternoon at the Forbidden City, in the very heart of Beijing. For over 500 years it served as the Chinese imperial palace. Now it is a museum and I am guessing the most visited site in Beijing. It is an imposing place: 180 acres with palatial buildings,

enormous courtyards,

 colorful gardens,

and massive statuary.

Instead of jostling with the crowds trying to peer inside the most important halls, or palaces, I focused my attention on the beautiful details to be found elsewhere. I particularly liked the striking orange-yellow tile roofs. From a distance the exuberant color stands out, as does the subtle variation in their shapes.

Up close you can see that each is adorned with a different set of figures. The more figures, the more important the structure.

The walls exhibit similar far-near differences. From afar it appears that all the walls are brick red, but if you look closely, in places you can see pieces of vibrant polychrome plaster work

and hidden gems like this terra cotta flower built into a brick wall.

You also have to get up close to the marble stairs and railings to see their true beauty. It seems that every bit is embellished with decorative carving. These waves and flowers make me think of quilting designs.

Given my interest in needlework, I naturally think of translating Forbidden City designs into quilts and embroideries. Clearly some others translated it into the very modern Beijing airport where massive halls have overhanging roofs held up by rows of red columns, just like palaces of the Forbidden City.

Beijing Airport

Prior to my flight I enjoyed wandering around the bright and spacious terminal

and inspecting a few shops. I even found one that carried a small selection of fabric and quickly snapped up these traditional homespuns from the Jiangnan region, southwest of where I visited.

Jiangnan homespun fabric

I am adding them to the indigo fabrics I have been collecting for a quilt.

I have been making good progress on my current quilting projects in the past several weeks so I just may let myself start a new one before the summer is out. Come back soon to see the ones I have recently finished!

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Mind Sliding: Adventures in China

The Chinese language is so completely different from English that I expected traveling in China would entail a few adventures. I was not disappointed, though some were rather different than I anticipated. It turns out that Yangshuo, the area I visited, is a popular enough destination that many signs and menus have English translations. It also turns out that Chinese language structure and vocabulary is different enough to make direct translation a bit tricky.

We saw this first hand on an excursion in the Yangshuo region to Moon Hill, so named because of the moon shaped arch that forms its peak.

Moon Hill

We hoped that climbing the 800 limestone steps to the top would reward us with a good view of the area. Sure enough, just as we reached the top the haze cleared enough for the sun to shine through a bit and reveal numerous of the karst towers for which the region is known.

View from atop Moon Hill

Still, the most interesting part of this excursion was in the signs and their English translations along the stairs to the top. For the most part we could understand what they were getting at. Yes, the stairs would indeed be slippery on rainy days.

And, yes, the mountain path is steep.

The translations are charmingly not quite right. Rather than lose something in the translation, these signs gain something in the translation. This one seems like a good piece of general advice. Certainly it's applicable to dealing with too-slick salespeople!

This one made me wonder if those drop down menus common in software are really so dangerous. Better stay away!

This one made me feel that whoever put up the sign was really, really concerned for my safety.

But this one still has me stumped. What is empty? And why should I be careful on it?

Here is my favorite of all. It captures that feeling I have when I can't find a name or a word I am looking for. Or when I think about this year's presidential election.

Just so you know my mind hasn't slid too far, here are a few more photos from the China trip. Yangshuo is a beautiful area and its citizens are kind and warm. It is definitely worth a visit.

Surveying the scene in Yangshuo

Yangshuo vendor

Fencing, one of bamboo's many uses

Detail of a door in one of the "ancient villages"

Sunset in the Yangshuo countryside

Typical old style farm house

In the Xingping market

Transaction in the Xingping market

Raftsman along the Yulong River

Rafting along the Yulong River

In the Yulong River Valley

The Yulong River

View from atop Lao Zhai Shan: Xingping, the Li River and karst towers