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Amateur Sewing Hour: My First Zipper & the $10 Dress-capade

IMG_6097IMG_6117Yet again on the hunt for a fancy dress to wear to a fancy-schmancy charity event. Since I volunteer at this event every year, I wanted something new and on the cheap. I went to my go-to party dress store (Ambiance in SF) and started digging for gold. The theme of the event, you see, was Gold Rush.

So I found the perfect gold/copper dress, a little Marilyn Monroe halter number. Only one problem – it was a size L and I’m XS. As a daring amateur self-seamstress, I thought, “How hard could it be? All I have to do is shorten the halter straps and cinch in the waist. Piece of cake!”

It’s easy to be bold when the stakes are low. The price tag was the clincher – on sale for TEN DOLLARS!  How could I resist? If I failed, chalk it up to a $10 sewing lesson.

IMG_6103I got my sewing machine several years ago out of necessity. Pants always need hemming (that’s the main thing I use it for). I am somewhat of a Lilliputian – usually below the lowest size – so my sewing has become more adventurous over time. But I’m still scared of wrecking items of clothing, especially if they are new. And for some reason, I’ve always been afraid of sewing a zipper. One of my first sewing attempts was a pencil skirt that I narrowed with a back seam; instead of properly fitting it with a zipper, I chose snaps and hooks and eyes (wimpy choice, indeed).

So I hadn’t yet faced my fears and wasn’t planning on going the zipper route with this gold dress. I was thinking DARTS. But when I got it home, I began to realize the complexity of this sewing adventure: the cinching was not going to be a cinch after all. There was just too much fabric here – including several layers of stretch, netting and sheer metallic. No time to be a sissy, I would have to go bold with the gold.

What was I thinking? Not only was there a gathered cummerbund, but an underskirt, crinoline and top skirt which were also attached to the zipper. There was no way around it – I had to cut through all four layers, remove a full 5 inches of material from each and then reinstall the zipper. The ZIPPER!!! Ahhhh!

Ok, take a deep breath. This all works out in the end (pun intended). I mean, the back of the dress required a complete overall, and I somehow pulled it off. And the zipper (the zipper!) was actually the easiest part. Here’s how I did it:

IMG_6094Before cutting, I noticed the skirt was attached to the underskirt until about 2 inches below zipper, while the crinoline was only attached at the waist. My aim was to replicate this (I made notes, I took pictures). Then I used my favorite scissors and cut through one layer at a time, removed the 5 inches, and sewed each of them back up. Like performing dress surgery!

I watched several zipper tutorials online, which I highly recommend. I followed the simplest guidelines, sewing as close to the zipper teeth as I could. It would’ve been easy except for that durn cummerbund – too bunchy, too thick and too much in my way. Because of this obstacle, the zipper was still visible (it was supposed to be hidden). I had to hand sew another stitch on each side (closer in than the machine stitch) to correct it.

IMG_6112IMG_6115My Frankenstein dress was starting to look normal again. Even better than that – it fit!  Fixing the halter straps was a snap (actually buttons, very easy to reattach). My greatest reward was at the event, when someone complimented me on my perfect-fit dress. Gold star!

Whew, what a rush. Next time I’ll try a simple pencil skirt zipper and reward myself with a literal piece of cake. As for you, dear reader, may this be a source of inspiration. If I can tackle such a daunting task with my unskilled hands, then SEW can you! (And on that bad-pun note, I’m off to another amateur sewing adventure….)


Hello There, New Bird Pillow

IMG_5473We welcomed in the new year with a Calvin Klein bed set in deep purple (a radical change from our other-end-of-the-color-wheel butter yellow). I loved the new comforter and pillows, but felt a bit overwhelmed with all the purple. So I set out to find the perfect throw pillow to add the right pop.

I wanted to tie in the colors from the painting above our bed (a lovely pastel by Bob Richey), which narrowed down my choices quite a bit. After hitting every home store in SF, I had nothing to show for all my searching. Luckily the most fabulous fabric store imaginable is right in Union Square. Britex Fabrics has four floors of eye candy for the fabric enthusiast. I headed to the home decor section and soon became overwhelmed by all the choices. It’s hard to see what you’re seeing in there.

I had just about given up when I spotted this bird print draped on a display way up high. “Where do I find that?” I asked the sales clerk. She dug through bolts until she uncovered it. Half a yard later, I headed out the door and down the block to Crate & Barrel – my go-to spot for pillow inserts. They have a large selection of sizes (in both down and down alternative) for an excellent price. I got an 18 x 12, which seemed just about right for my new bird.

I chose the right bird for my pillow front

I chose the right bird for my pillow front

I have made many, many pillows (read my Make a Pillow Out of Scraps post) – yet this one presented a new challenge: I had to measure carefully to have the image centered just so on the pillow. I was terribly afraid of cutting pretty bird’s head off. Yet I wanted to keep his tail on there, too. What’s a girl to do?

I draped the fabric over the pillow insert many times, pinning the approximate place where the seam should be. I made my first cuts, but I was too cautious. Pillows should have a seam allowance of half an inch on each side. That was cutting it close to my feathered friend, but it had to be done (the pillow cover must fit snugly over the insert). In the end, I decided it was better to err on the side of the head than the tail. I left more head room and trimmed the bottom very close to the tail feathers.

Whip it good

Whip it good

I folded the fabric inside out, used the sewing machine for three sides and left room to stuff in the down insert. Then I sewed up the rest of the seam by hand (note: I used an invisible ladder stitch, but a simple whip stitch works as well; it’s very easy to learn how to do this by following one of the many tutorials online).

IMG_0914I’m so happy with how it turned out! It’s exactly what I had envisioned and it cost much less than a fancy store-bought pillow (total cost, including $9 insert: $36). Plus the whole project took a fraction of the time it took me to shop for pillows. The custom fabric is just perfect. Hello, beautiful bird!

Bitter-Sweet: Let’s Eat

imageTime to use up that Swiss chard (it goes bad pretty quick, you know). Let’s see, what else do we have? Why, a sweet little sugar pumpkin makes the perfect pairing. So here we go: Swiss chard and lentils with a side of mashed pumpkin. Delicious!

Cut pumpkin in half, scoop out seeds (I like to use an ice cream scoop for this job). Add a dab of organic raw coconut oil in each half and bake cut side up in 375 oven for 45 min (can turn over halfway through cooking). Meanwhile, put half a cup lentils and one cup water in a small pot and gently simmer until water is mostly gone (around 30-40 min), then turn off heat and cover.

Saute a minced garlic clove in 1 TBSP olive oil for 1 minute, then add chopped Swiss chard stems. Cover and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add another TBSP of oil and the chard leaves and stir over medium heat until leave are bright green and barely wilted. Turn off heat, add the lentils. Salt and pepper. Squeeze of lemon.

Remove pumpkin from oven and let cool slightly. Use that ice cream scooper to transfer the pumpkin flesh to a bowl. Add a pat of butter. Salt and pepper liberally. Herbes de Provence sea salt from Spice Ace really puts the flavor over the top.

The timing is very easy here; it all comes together nicely. The colors, textures and tastes are in perfect balance. It’s bitter-sweet, and just right!

Note: This pairing can easily be made vegan by substituting more coconut oil for the butter.




Rabbit Hole Juice Redux

Rainbow juiceThis beautiful rainbow-hued juice scares me a little. What will it taste like? And will it turn my teeth purple?

I’ve got another box of fresh veggies on the way; so here I am again, juicing like a madwoman at a wood chipper:


Half a head of red cabbage (hence the purple)

Half a cucumber

A tiny Meyer lemon from the lemon tree

A large red beet

Fennel stalks

Four and a half carrots


Pink-red beet juiceWell looky here, when stirred it becomes a lovely pink-red (beet-hued) drink. And the taste? Perfect! Lightly sweet, not too cabbage-y. I got lucky with this one. And my teeth are still white. Whew!

I’ve had a few mishaps while rabbit-hole surfing with my juicer. Just a small amount of onion juice stung my eyes and made my heart want to leap out of my chest. Oh the burn! Check that off the list. Garlic juice is much more appealing (not on its own, of course). The key is to strike the perfect balance of sweet and bitter/astringent.

Following juicing recipes is a good place to start, but then don’t be afraid to go down that rabbit hole. As long as you’ve got some sweet (carrot, beet), it’s hard to go wrong. I believe almost any juice can be fixed with a touch of apple. Not onion juice, no.

As for me, I’m happy with the lightly sweet (a far cry from the overtly sweet juices you’ll find in the store). My father, who loves vegetables, tried juicing once. He took a sip of his concoction and said, “This tastes like the ground.” Perfect! Just the way I like it.


For more juicing tales, click here.


Siege of Fleas – How to Get Rid of Fleas for Good

I have a flea in my pants. Right now, as I’m writing this. I can’t find the little buggar yet, but I feel him biting his way up my calf. This has become a common occurrence in my home. Apparently I am sweet meat, a real flea magnet. Lucky me.

Laszlo and Zelda

Laszlo and Zelda

So here I sit on the 4th of July, the birthday of our nation as well as the 8th birthday of sibling cats, Zelda and Laszlo. These feral creatures came into our lives at a mere 7 weeks old, and we have since done our best to be their faithful servants.

I have felt more and more like a servant lately, thanks to the thousands of other creatures who have taken up residence in our 800 square foot apartment here in San Francisco. Over the last six months we’ve had a siege of fleas – an infestation that has made our living quarters a living hell. How, you may ask, does this happen with two indoor-only cats? In our case, it’s as simple as taking out the trash. Those hungry bloodsuckers hang around the bins and then take a free ride in on my pants leg. All it takes is one pregnant flea to wreak havoc in this place.

Think I’m exaggerating? I’ve learned a lot about fleas in the past few months. One flea lays about 20 eggs a day, and averages 800-1000 eggs in its 1-3 month lifetime. In a few weeks, 1 flea becomes 20 and so on – all feeding on blood, mating and laying more eggs.

Bam. Instant infestation.

So here was my first idea: bring out the poison. I’ve always had good luck with topical solutions (the kind you apply to the nape of the cat’s neck). But this time it wasn’t working. I never saw any impact, nary a dead flea, after several rounds of Advantage. What I did see was lots of flea dirt. I’m referring to flea fecal matter made of dried blood (gross), which is what flea larvae feast on as they grow (totally gross). My husband said he never saw a flea, but we had plenty of evidence that they were there.

Cats scratching all night (in the bed with us). Me waking up with bites on my body. The worst part – the part that made it unbearable – was that Laszlo developed a serious skin condition, basically an allergic reaction to the fleas that caused him to rip out huge clumps of bloody fur and skin. We had to shave poor Laszlo’s neck many times to help the wounds heal.

The vet prescribed prednisone pills for the itching, which helped temporarily. But the only real solution was to get rid of the fleas permanently. I stepped up the cleaning, brushed the cats daily and wiped all fabric surfaces with pet hair remover pads, which did a pretty good job of getting up the hair and flea dirt. Then our local pet store recommended diatomaceous earth.

Have you heard of this stuff? Diatomaceous earth (DE) is a fine, flour-like substance made up of the crushed up shells of algae from oceans and lakes. Food grade DE can be sprinkled all over the house; after a few hours it kills the fleas by drying out their exoskeletons. I am a big fan of DE, especially after discovering its human health benefits. But working with this stuff is one big awful mess. Only a desperate flea-crazed person would succumb to such torture. And desperate I am.

The first time we used DE, we put it absolutely everywhere – including on top of the bed. While the stuff is completely nontoxic (farmers feed it to livestock to prevent parasites) – it is a very, very fine powder (like talc). So imagine sleeping in a bed covered in powder with cats and people rolling around in it all night. Not good.

Our throats got chalky dry, our eyes red. Cloud poufs emerged everywhere we went for two days. And guess what? The fleas were gone! I did a little happy dance (after vacuuming and opening the windows and gasping for air, of course). The cats were happy, too – what a relief!

But a week or so later, fleas were once again doing their own happy dance on my bed. Know why? Because DE only kills the adult fleas; it cannot penetrate the eggs or pupae (cocoon phase). Turns out this is true of most flea treatments – those dastardly eggs/pupae are pretty much impermeable.

Three more attempts with DE and we were done. It broke our vacuum. And that, my friends, is what we call turning a corner. I am so thankful that our crappy, cheap vacuum literally bit the dust. Once again it was time to step up our game.

I read about a scientific study that said most fleas could be killed with vacuuming alone (96% of adult fleas and 100% of larvae and pupae). After reading this, I decided it was time to invest in a more powerful machine. We found our dream vacuum on sale at Macy’s for about $100: the Shark Navigator.

photo 4

My new best friend, the Shark

I’ve always hated vacuuming – it hurt my back and made me sneeze. But I am in love with the Shark. It is light and self-propelling and so powerful! With the attachments, I feel like a superhero sucking up every last crumb. And egg. I hope I’m sucking up lots of eggs.

I could tell the vacuum-only approach was helping, but the siege was far from over. Even with a thorough approach (vacuuming every 2-5 days), it seemed impossible to reach every egg. They are not really visible to the eye – you may notice something that resembles minuscule white grains of sand. And maybe you’re just looking at sand.

While eggs can hatch in as little as two days, flea pupae can languish in unsuspecting corners for months. They are triggered to adulthood by vibration (sound, heat, movement). So even if you’re sucking up most of them, the vibration of the vacuum can actually cause fleas to hatch.

What to do? I’m a sensitive girl. I don’t want to use insecticides – sprays and foggers seem way too toxic for the humans and pets in this small space. But I was willing to give the topical stuff another try. Last month I used Frontline Plus (the pet store guy said that Advantage and Frontline have to constantly tinker with their formulas to keep ahead of the fleas; each may have good years and bad years in terms of effectiveness). While it seemed to work a little better (I spotted a few dead fleas), it wasn’t enough on its own.

So last week I bought a flea comb. A big improvement over a regular pet brush. On the first day we pulled 18 fleas off the cats. Whoa! I know that’s got to be a small percentage, but it sure felt good to send those beasts to their death in a cup of hot soapy water. Since then we’ve been combing them diligently two times a day. The number of fleas fluctuates widely.

Are we beginning to see a pattern here? It doesn’t seem like there is any one solution. So today, I am claiming Independence Day from fleas by using a three-pronged attack:

photo 2

DE brushed into area rug

1. Another round of Frontline Plus on the cats
2. Thorough vacuuming of all rooms (rugs, hardwood floors, upholstery)
3. Sprinkling and brushing DE into the rugs

Tomorrow I will vacuum up the DE and mop all floors. I am empowered by my new tools and am confident that this is the beginning of the end. I promise to provide updates!

Once again, my top five tools for flea control:

1. A great vacuum like the Shark
2. Pet hair remover – I use Scotch Fur Fighter sheets
3. Flea comb (mine is Safari comb for cats)
4. Diatomaceous earth – I started with this sprinkle jar (easy spreading), but you can also buy it in bulk
5. Monthly topical treatments (Advantage or Frontline)


Homemade Granola Girl

Image 1I eat granola pretty much every morning, followed by a cup of decaf organic green tea. Though I’m partial to Udi’s Original granola with nuts and fruit, sometimes I like to make my own. It doesn’t take much time to mix together the ingredients, and the house smells wonderful during baking.

Here’s my latest favorite concoction, which I came up with by embellishing on several recipes that I found online. You can experiment with different oils/sweeteners and additions. I like a lot of variety in mine. The raw nuts are added last (after cooking) for maximum nutritional benefits.

Jewel’s Favorite Granola

3 cups organic rolled oats (I use Bob’s Red Mill)
2 TBSP raw sesame seeds (white or black)
1 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup organic maple syrup
1/2 cup organic coconut oil, melted
3/4 cup organic unsweetened coconut flakes
1 cup raw nuts (I use walnuts, cashews, pecans, slivered almonds)
1/2 cup organic raisins

Golden crispy goodness

Golden crispy goodness

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Stir together oats, sesame seeds, salt, cinnamon, cardamom.  Add the vanilla, maple syrup, coconut oil. Stir well to combine. Spread onto baking sheet evenly.

Bake 15 minutes, stir in the coconut flakes, then bake another 20 minutes (stirring once after 10 minutes). Remove from oven and add the nuts and raisins. Allow to cool completely. Store in airtight container. It will last 3-4 weeks in the cupboard, though I usually eat it up much quicker than that.

I top each serving with chia seeds, cacao nibs and almond milk. Good morning, uber fiber and antioxidants!

ImageWhat do you like on your granola?

Make a Pillow Out of Scraps

IMG_1562Pillows are probably the easiest tasks imaginable for the amateur sewer – following just a few simple steps: Give yourself a one-inch seam allowance. Put the two pieces of fabric together with front sides facing (inside out). Sew three sides, plus most of the fourth side with your sewing machine in no time flat. Then turn your square/rectangle right side out, stuff your stuffing through the hole and viola! – a pillow is born.

Make sure the hole is not too big. After it is completely stuffed (either with batting or pillow form), you will need to hand sew the rest of the way to close it up. Fold in that leftover inch on each side of the hole and try threading into the inseam so you can’t really see the stitch. It’s ok if it doesn’t look perfect; this can be the underside of the pillow.

I got inspired to make pillows when we moved back to San Francisco a couple of years ago. We bought new furniture for our apartment, but I couldn’t find the right pillows. The ones I loved in the design shops were out of range (I couldn’t bear to pay $200 for a throw pillow knowing that our cats might pee or puke on it at any moment).  In my household, they are often known as “throw out” pillows. Wah wah….Image 1

Even though pillows are easy, I’ve challenged myself with some out-of-the-ordinary designs and materials. I made this one the other day out of a faux fur neck scarf and a dress remnant. First I cut the neck scarf in half, then sewed the two parallel sides together by hand.  The jersey dress fabric (like thick t-shirt material) was super-easy to work with because it was already in a tube rectangular shape (picture a pillowcase open at both ends). So I only had to sew two sides on the machine.

I went ahead and stuffed it, closed it up, then sewed the furry front onto the jersey pillow (by hand). The furry stuff is great to work with because it hides imperfections easily. And now the pillow is reversible! ImagePurple with fur trim on one side, all fur on the other. I just love how it turned out.


Total time: less than 2 hours. Or give an old pillow a furry face lift in less than 30 minutes!

Will he love or destroy it?

Will he love it or destroy it?

Here are some other pillow ideas you might like:

Juice It and Reuse It

“Eeek, the CSA is coming any minute and I still have some stuff left from the last box!”

Here’s what you do:

Juice It!

Juice up a healthy drink (pictured here with celery, fennel, carrot, lemon, basil, beet). Make sure it’s enough balance of bitter and sweet. (This one was celery-heavy, but I knew the sweet beet would play counterpoint).

Now I just had an epiphany: why not make vegetable stock out of the leftover pulp from the juicer? This stuff:

The Pulp

Well, why not? So I threw it in a pot and covered with water. Brought to a boil, then set to simmer for 1 hour. So we’ve got some time to kill here.

Mind you, I realize this is going to be one red stock because of the beets. That might affect what kind of soup I make with it. I make a lot of soup with CSA box leftovers. My husband complains we have too much soup, but if it were up to him we’d be eating pizza every night. Besides, nothing is better than a good homemade soup. Except for that time I made the accidental lavender-hued batch….

Image 3I digress, let’s get back to the stock. 52 more minutes to go. If this doesn’t work out, I’ll just go back to my favorite bouillon cubes (The Organic Gourmet Vegetable Bouillon low sodium). Easy to store, and certainly faster than boiling down pulp. I get a small box of these at Whole Foods, but you can also buy them in bulk online.

Hey, while we wait, let me gush about my juicer. I love this little guy. It’s the only juicer I’ve ever had – but of course, I did tons of research before I bought it. This is the L’Equip Juicer Mini, which I probably bought about 5 yrs ago. I was once a juicing fiend, but now my juicing days seem to come and go in spurts. This strong, compact R2D2-kinda guy has never let me down.

I also have a favorite juicing book: The Juice Lady’s Guide to Juicing for Health by Cherie Calbom. Chock full of information about specific health benefits of all the fruits and veggies. And tantalizing recipes, such as The Ginger Hopper, Sweet Calcium Cocktail and Popeye’s Power. It is arranged alphabetically by condition, making it very easy to find a remedy for what ails you. Thanks, Juice Lady!

25 minutes left. Plenty of time to clean up my juicer. This can be a mess and a pain, but I have a couple of tricks to make it easier: such as a small plastic produce bag to line the pulp bucket and a fine-bristled brush designated to clean the mesh blade/basket. These two things save oodles of time.

The stewing chum is finally done! Now I’ll strain out the pulp by putting a colander over a big bowl. ImageYep, that’s some red-tinted stock! Hope it makes my next soup taste delicious. And just in time, here comes the CSA!

For more CSA stories, click here.