Musings about life, love and genealogy.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Winter Roars Back

As the calendar flips from February into March, the Lion of Winter continues to roar. Another plowable snowstorm is barreling across the county ready to pounce on New England - again. Sure, we can raise our snow shovels and stamp our Sorrel boots in protest, but is there really anything we beleaguered New Englanders can we do to tame this beast?

They say music soothes that savage beast, but I’m going to go with food. The best kind of food. Comfort food – that warm, simple meal that brings back memories of snuggling under a soft plaid blanket on a blustery night, flames tap dancing across the logs in the fireplace, faithful dog curled up on the rug at your feet- okay, that’s a fantasy, not a memory, but you know what I’m talking about.  At the top of my comfort food list is tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich. Mmmmmm. A big bowl of soup and a creamy, ooey-gooey sandwich. It’s a staple in our house on Monday nights during the winter.

But now, my go to it's-cold-out-long-day-at-work-I-really-don't-want-to-cook-and-the-most-creative-I'm-going-to-get-is-to-add-ham-to-my-sandwich meal has some competition. Mini chicken pot pies. Kudos for the original recipe go to Holly and her Life in the Lofthouse blog, but I did a little tweaking.

The ingredients are simple, the result delicious. It's starts with the precise pop of a Pillsbury's Grand Homestyle Biscuits can and ends with a satisfied tummy. Here we go:

  • 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon celery seed
  • 3 medium carrots, peeled
  • 4 ribs celery
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 4 oz Chicken Stock
  • 1-1/2 Tablespoons cornstarch

  • 3 Tablespoons heavy whipping cream (or milk, in a pinch)
  • 1 (8 count) can refrigerated Pillsbury Grand Biscuits
Pre-heat your oven to 350 degrees. Toss the chicken breasts in to a saucepan, adding enough water to cover them (about 2 cups). Boil for about 10-15 minutes or until the chicken is no longer pink.

While the chicken is cooking, chop the garlic and cut up the carrots, celery ribs and onion. Dice or slice, it's your preference. Just keep in mind, these are mini pot pies.

Once the chicken is cooked, remove the breasts from the saucepan, skim off any crud and add the veggies. Boil the veggies for about 5 minutes, remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Viola! Chicken-vegetable stock. Chop or shred the chicken (I prefer fork shredding). Mix it with the olive oil, thyme, pepper and garlic and put in the fridge to marinate for 10-15 minutes.

While the chicken is marinating, throw some flour on a flat, clean surface and pop that Pillsbury can! Roll each biscuit until it's flat and settle it into a Pam'd or greased muffin tin. I use the Texas size, giant muffin tins, which poses a quandary since the tin only holds six and there are 8 biscuits, so I use an 8x8 cake pan (round would work too) for the "extras".

Now, back to the stove. Reduce the heat on the saucepan to medium-low. Add the additional chicken stock to the water. Once it starts to a simmer, ladle out about 2 tablespoons into a smack bowl and mix in the cornstarch. Pour the cornstarch mix back into the saucepan. Add in the heavy cream (or milk), chicken and veggies and give it a good stir. When the sauce thickens, you're ready to make pot pies.

Ladle about 1/3 cup of the mixture into each biscuit. Make sure you get a good helping of chicken and veggies into each. Seal each biscuit; take the sides of the dough and wrap them over the top. Pop the tin into the oven for 12-15 minutes or until the pot pies are golden brown. Let them stand for 5 minutes and then grab your fork!

Ah, satisfaction. Maybe comfort food really is the way to tame this beast of a winter and coax it to go out like lamb. Or just go. I'd be happy with that too.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Shifting Direction

I think I have sewing ADD.

Since starting my 1770's stays in December, I've also started a 1780 hybrid stays pattern, modified a Victorian walking skirt pattern to be wearable as 21st century office attire, am working on my English gown, the petticoat is waiting to be hemmed and I recently bought material from William Booth for my bed jacket. The 1770's stays need binding and lining, the English gown is on hold until the second half of the workshop (in March) and the petticoat can't be hemmed until I finish the gown. The 1780 hybrid stays were a test pattern, and while they are the only piece I've completed, they need adjustment in the bust and under the arms. Like I said, test pattern, but that hasn't stopped me from thinking about pulling out some material and whipping up another version.

[Whipping up, she says, as though a new pair of stays is something that can be done in a few hours!]

With a trunk full of material and several more patterns waiting in the wings (in addition to the bed gown), I decided to take a step back and shift direction. Literally.

My shift pattern kit, another offering from Larkin & Smith, came complete with pre-cut linen material, linen thread, a beeswax cake and instructions. Rather than obsess over my English gown and the growing list of patterns I've squirreled away and those I'd love to purchase, I turned to the simple shift for something close to hand sewing's version of immediate gratification.

The shift was the first of the layers garments that built the shape of 1770's feminine fashion. Loose fitting, about knee length and made of linen for durability, the shift was a utility garment worn by day under clothing and by night to sleep in. Standard construction was as simple as its use: felled seams, precise hand-stitching (8-10 stitches per inch using linen thread), underarm gussets. The pieces of the garment were rectangles or squares, except the triangular gores attached for fullness at the hem, were judiciously cut from a single piece of the precious fabric to avoid waste. In the days when fashionable outer garments were rarely washable and a bath more of a luxury than the course of daily hygiene, the shift kept sweat and body oils from ruining the expensive gowns.

Eighteenth century shifts were carefully cut from linen woven for that specific purpose; the selvedges an important part of the garment's construction. Ads or fabric inventories from the era promote Irish linen sold as "3-4, 7-8 and yard wide," meaning ¾ yard wide (27"), 7/8 yard wide (31.5") or 36" wide (yard). Robert Ruggles posted an advertisement in the June 30, 1774 edition of the Massachusetts Spy advertising "linnens" and other sundry for sale.

Because shifts were well-used, very few 18th century examples survive. Paintings and prints provide glimpse of the edges of the shifts, and documents only mention them in passing. The 1789 sewing manual, Instructions for Cutting Out Apparel for the Poor, provides information on sizing, materials and patterns for linen shifts, as well as aprons, petticoats, stays, cloaks, bonnets, caps, gowns and more. The manual, published in London, also provides information on the "expence of cloathing" for poor men, women, children and infants.

So, I'm stitching my shift, determined to finish it before the weekend when I'll pull out my new Tow & White striped linen, just arrived from William Booth, Draper, and start the bed gown. And I'll ignore my hubby when he tells me that if I don't start to watch the "expence of my cloathing", I'm going to put us in the poor house!

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Running with Stitches

I've been sewing since the tender age of seven, when my Irish grandmother Mary Margaret, also known as Mamie, handed me a threaded needle, a scrap of material and taught me how to make a simple running stitch.
I bought my first sewing machine when I was 15. Over the years, I made some of my own clothes, clothes for my kids, curtains, Christmas gifts, carry-all bags, dolls, and more. If it had a pattern - even if it didn't - I'd make it. I forayed to other types of needlework too - knitting, crocheting, counted cross stitch, but I never looked back after I started using that Singer... until now.

As the kids got older and my paychecks got bigger, sewing became more of a hobby than a necessity. I'd pull out "the machine" (I'm on my 4th now) from time to time to fix a seam, make a Halloween costume or whip up a set of curtains, but by and large, the whir of the Singer was silenced. Since I've broadened my interest in history and genealogy to include costumed interpretation, I pulled out the old girl (Okay, she's not really old. I bought my most recent model in 2009.) and dusted her off in preparation for my 1770's stays class.

Silly me.

In the stays workshop, Hallie said if I really, really, REALLY wanted to, I was given a hall pass to machine stich the channels, but her drumbeat about historical accuracy made me think better about it. "It will be cathartic," said one of the other women in the class, a stitching veteran trying to sway the rest of us from the error of the sewing machine ways when fashioning historical outfits. I didn't actually believe her, until I started stitching. I stitched channels at night while sitting on the couch. I stitched channels in the car on the 10 hour ride to Virginia. I stitched on the back deck looking at the golf course, on the way to West Virginia, and on the ride back home to Massachusetts. Over 10 days, I completed the stays - well, the channels, the eyelets and the assembly, and I've finally started the binding. Truth be told, it really was cathartic.

When the edict that the English Gown would be hand stitched only was issued, I didn't bat an eyelet. The stitching is still cathartic and along the way, I've added a few stitches and stitching techniques to my reporitoire, including the whip gather, the stroke gather, the combination stitch, and the lapped seam. I've prick stitched, tailor tacked and learned to use a thimble, well, a leather coin thimble.

When I decide to do something, I make sure it's researched and done correctly. My hubby says I'm a little fanatical like that, to which I reply, give me an inch, and I'll give you 8-10 stitches.

The English Gown Project

A few weeks ago, I took part one of a two-part English Gown workshop with Hallie & Steph using their brand new Larkin & Smith pattern. The end result will be a fully authentic, hand-stitched gown ready to wear for the Patriot's Day activities in Minute Man National Park this April.

I had a fabric design in mind, something I'd seen in Colonial Williamsburg (of course) and spent hours trolling boards on Pinterest, historic and costuming blogs and other sites featuring gowns of the 18th century looking for something to document my decision.

The workshop was held, fittingly enough, in the parlor of one of the historic buildings in Minute Man National park. Six women sewing in stays must have been an interesting sight. I left the class with the back skirt pleated (it’s one piece incorporating the bodice and skirt), sleeves complete and front bodice pieces cut. Doesn’t seem like much for a 6 hour class, but trust me, the pleating alone was tedious, and everything – I mean EVERYTHING - is done by hand.

In the days since, as part of my “homework” in preparation for the second workshop on March 8, I’ve finished the 4 skirt panels and attached the front bodice. Sleeves, cuffs and robing are ready. And a beautiful, complimentary light blue chintz petticoat to wear with it is nearly complete.
English gown back

English gown sleeves

My historical clothing vernacular has expanded, or more specifically, gone retro, as I’ve taken on more of these 18th century projects. I’m used to a Victorian wardrobe and glossary after spending years with the Hackettstown Historical Society, whose focus was the small NJ town’s Victorian heyday. Underthings included bustles, chemises and corsets. Now I’m wearing a bum roll, shift and stays.
The Victorian petticoat was an explosion of frills, and ruffles, the ultimate symbol of femininity in the era. It was worn under the dress, and depending on the decade, it was expected to have several swishing beneath your skirts. One would think that with such attention paid to the detailing of a Victorian petticoat, with their crisp white fabrics, beautiful eyelet embroidery and delicate lace, they would be an outer, not under garment. The highly visible 18th century petticoat was worn as part of the gown (not dress) or on its own. And, of course, a Victorian woman would never leave the house in her bed jacket or apron!

Examples of Victorian petticoats from the Metropolitan Museum

Considering this is my first 18th century gown, I am very impressed with how it is coming together. Of course, I’m already planning my second gown and ordered 6 yards of tow & white striped linen from William Booth, Draper, (along with material for my bedgown, but that's for another blog) even though I’ve told myself I need to finish my stays before I start another gown. It's a bit like the parental negotiations to get your child to finish their dinner before they get dessert.

Wait! I am the parent…

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Gift that Keeps on Giving

The Massachusetts winter of 2013-2014 can be best described as the gift that keeps on giving. I wish I could re-gift it to Florida.

We’ve had records amount of snow, bone chilling cold and on Thursday, Mother Nature had another hissy fit, dumping the trifecta of winter fun – snow, sleet and rain, up and down the east coast. With another 12 inches piled up in our front and back yards, (I’m fairly certain we’re not going to see our grill until May) my poor hubby gave the Little Snow Blower that Could another workout, chugging up and down 200 feet of driveway so we could head to Virginia.

Yes, Virginia. A 10-hour drive through a multi-state snowstorm.

We’d already made plans – my son, daughter, son-in-law and grandkids - to converge at our house in Virginia over President’s Day weekend, long before we knew about this latest winter wallop. We debated. Should we go? Should we stay? The weather wizards were dancing around the possibility of another storm on Saturday, but I knew I could accurately predict sunshine in Virginia, courtesy of the smiling faces of my 4 grandchildren. I’ll admit, I’m not used to having kids underfoot, empty sippy cups on the counter and the trail of crayons and toys leading from the “playroom”, but or but I wouldn’t trade these times or the art on my refrigerator for anything.

Our longtime friends (34 years and counting) came up on Saturday night – my son-in-law knocked dinner out of the park with a great eggplant rollatini and penne vodka, followed by Tiramisu cake and Baked Alaska courtesy of my daughter’s infinite baking talents. There was laughter, wine and good times. It was a weekend of happy chaos. 

This morning, as I look out the kitchen window at my backyard, also known as the 13th fairway, I can see signs that Spring is getting ready for her 2014 debut - a gentle breeze dancing with the budding branches, birds chasing each other across the blue skies and an errant golf ball nestled under the magnolia tree. Unfortunately, the next cup of coffee will be sipped from a travel mug. It’s going to be a long drive back to Massachusetts, with more snow in the forecast and a high of 14 degrees, but it’s only six weeks to April and we’ll be heading south again.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

In the Eye of the Creative Storm

I'm in the eye of the perfect creative storm. (And if you're reading this post, it means I've completed one of my To Do items - redesigning this blog.)

It's totally self-imposed and it's not a bad thing. In fact, I'm energized but exhausted. There just aren't enough hours in the day to do everything I want to do - sewing projects, genealogy, paper crafts and more.  Craft season, as my husband calls it, doesn't follow the calendar. It kicks off in late October when I begin the mad scramble of Christmas creativity.

I love old ephemera - handwritten letters, bills and invoices, ledger pages, cdv and cabinet card photos. I've adopted hundreds of Instant Ancestors - bought on eBay, purchased from baskets in antique stores. This year, my craft gift was created using my stockpile of photos, paper and trinkets - altered art shadowboxes.

Since each was made for a specific person, I wanted them to represent something about the recipient. It meant finding the right photo, the right accents, the right background paper and the best tag line to pull it all together.

A droll girl atop a vintage laxative was perfect for my sister, who can be a real pill (but I love her anyway).  "Loyal Subject" was built around an old dog tag and given to my dog loving sister-in-law. And for my younger sister, who works in finance, a girl in a plaid dress sitting on a brass scale for a piece I titled "Check and Balances".
I made 10 shadowboxes for family and friends. I had such a great time creating them, it was hard to give some of them away! And now, I need to find the time to finish my stays!

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Staying in Character

There are two elements key to historical interpretation – knowing your subject and dressing the part.

During Weston’s 300th anniversary celebration, I had the opportunity to meet Steph Smith and Hattie Larkin, both beautifully (and authentically) costumed in 1770’s attire. While chatting with Steph, I learned about The Hive, a living history community group with a focused interest on the Minute Men and Battle Road, the scene of the first shots that launched the War for Independence here in Massachusetts. The Hive helps people develop, improve and grow their 18th century impressions through workshops and meetings. Steph said if I was interested, there was a workshop scheduled for early December – stays, in the neatest fashion.

Of course, I was.

Stays were the foundation of 18th century women’s clothing. The predecessor to the corset, girdle and the fashionable but not necessarily functional bustier, stays were an essential undergarment stiffened with whalebone (baleen), wood or reed. They helped create the straight-backed posture and conical-shaped silhouette that was popular throughout most of the 18th century.

1770's stays from the Snowshill Wade Costume Collection
While in Williamsburg over the Christmas holiday, I spent some time with the milliner and mantua-makers, chatting about stays and the stay making process. Making one’s own stays is outside the norm. Eighteenth century women had their stays were fitted and made by skilled stay-makers, primarily male, who would have made nothing else. – 10 pieces that were to be cut from linen, hand-stitched, boned and sewn together.

Eighteenth century stays were laced up the back, and how a woman living alone was able to get herself in and out of them still remains a mystery to me. Eighteenth century stays were meant to support the body; frankly, my dear, they were not meant to be pulled tight to accentuate a tiny waist (No apologies for the Gone With the Wind reference, and despite Mammy and Scarlett’s on-screen demonstration, stays weren’t pulled that tight in the antebellum era either.).  Women of all classes wore them – upper classes for fashion and working class for support.

My stays pattern was fit to my body, just like it would have been done in the 18th century. The 10 pieces were transferred onto linen and a worsted wool and I basted through the three layers to outline the shape of each piece. And then the real sewing began.  I’ve logged about 60 hours sewing tiny stitches with waxed linen thread, about 10 stitches per inch, to create more channels than I care to count. Reed was slid into each channel. The 20 eyelets lining the back were made with an awl and stitched by hand before the finished pieces were whipstitched together.  But, I’m not done yet. There’s seam binding, top and bottom binding and lining still to do.
Front of my 1770's stays

Stays interior

Close-up of the eyelets

While it seems like a significant undertaking and investment in time, I actually found the process quite cathartic, and am every excited to see them actually taking shape (no pun intended). The stays are needed to properly fit a gown, and that class is scheduled for February 8!