Thursday, December 18, 2008

Ghosts of Christmas Past: Links to Earlier Baby Toolkit Holiday Hacks

In an effort to recycle more, we offer some Baby Toolkit holiday hacks in excellent used condition:
Plus, a few easy handmade gifts that work year-round:
In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that our tree is still in the closet, and I have yet to wrap even one gift. I plan on liberally using the "look at the pretty baby" excuse this year.

What seasonal hacks are you employing?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Nutcracker Revelations

While watching the Nutcracker with Ranger, a crazy list of thoughts ran through my head ("like sugarplum fairies," Jim interjects):
  • Watching Ranger enjoy this ballet charms me. His pure enjoyment of the music and movement helps me remember my own blissful connection with music and dance (before adolescence and 80s pop made everything awkward and self-conscious). We bought a storybook concert version of the Nutcracker (based on a Maurice Sendak book) when Ranger turned 2, and he watched it so often that I thought he would wear out the tape.
  • Just last week, I came out to my friends as a hardcore childhood ballerina-wannabe (I don't know that anyone would guess it of me now). I adored ballet, leotards, tutus, and beribboned pointe shoes, that is until my little pink ballet flats hit the hardwood floors of actual ballet lessons. A few weeks of the basic positions convinced me that it was far more fun to leap, prance, and spin alone at home.
  • The only reason I told my friends is because both of their daughters are going through ballerina stages where they want to wear leotards around the clock. My ultra-girly 5-year-old self still has the ability to embarrass me 30 years later. Let's just call that early interest my road less taken.
  • Going to bed tonight Ranger tells Jim, "I like dancing."
    "Really?" Jim asks.
    Shrugging shoulders, "It's pretty great."
  • Ranger and I have actual debt of gratitude to Tchaikovsky. My mom was raised in a family that prohibited dancing, so it was a little surprising that my dad's plan for their first date was this holiday ballet. Despite the fact that mom's upbringing suggested the road to hell was toe-polished wood lined with sugarplum fairies, her rebellious spirit overcame those fears. She and my dad were married within a year (secretly, but that's another story).
  • About 45 years after their first date, my parents took Ranger to see a children's dance theatre production of The Nutcracker. They thought their 2-year-old grandson would drag them out the door before the end of the first act, but he sat rapt for most of the production. It means a lot to me that he and my parents enjoyed the show together as it is significant in our family history.
I wouldn't have watched this ballet alone. Ranger makes it fun for me. His interest in movement far exceeds my rather superficial ballet-obsession (which was really more about looking pretty and wearing lots pink things with ribbons and sequins). I think he might actually practice if we enrolled him in hip-hop classes.

Ranger's love for dance is deep and joyous: one friend commented at his birthday dance party that she "didn't believe in reincarnation until [she] saw Ranger dance. Elvis is with us."

For Jim and I there is great wonder in watching our child discover what makes him happy (even if it is a dream that never captured us). My mom's divergence from parental preferences reminds me that even rebellion can turn out well in the long run. What more comforting holiday story can a parent wish for?

What stories lead you wax philosophical about your family?

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Crowning Glory: A DIY Play Crown Tutorial

Remember the birthday crown I posted in June? Well, now you can make them too. They're a good project for sewing beginners, and I'm sure more experienced fabric-crafters will be able to elaborate on their very basic design.

  • fabric for panel A (almost anything works, but I tend to avoid really silky fabrics and things that fray easily)
  • fabric for panel B (I like corduroy or denim)
  • fusible fleece interfacing (one side irons on)
  • thread (I tend to use all-purpose for everything)
  • Velcro (about a foot); I use sew-in for greater durability, but iron-on would be easier (whatever you do, DO NOT try and sew on self-adhesive Velcro)
  • iron
  • sewing machine
  • press cloth (large piece of colorfast cotton fabric)
  • scissors
  • tape measure/ruler
  • straight pins
  • crown template
Measure the future wearer's head circumference where the crown will rest. Toddlers (2-3) seem to measure around 18" circumference, so I make most of my young kid crowns adjustable from 18-23" to allow for growth. Ranger's crown adjusts from 19.5-25" because we're a big headed clan (and everybody wears the crown).

Using our oh-so-technical paper crown template, you can plot out the starting and end points of your crown so it allows for user growth and/or a variety of noggins. I recommend adding about 5 inches past the user head circumference for good overlap and size adjustments.

After adjusting the template (cut off excess or tape on additional lengths) to your desired finished size (you'll add seam allowances later, so don't worry about that now).

Pin your finalized paper template (good side up) to the non-fusible side of the fusible fleece interfacing. Trace template outline, then remove template and cut fleece (or if you're feeling dangerous, just cut close to the template's edge).

Set the paper template aside. Place the fleece (fusible side down) on the back of your thinner fabric (panel A). Make sure you allow 1/2" on all sides and that your fabric's design (if using a one-direction fabric) is aligned with the crown's pointy top edge. Pin the fleece (fusible side down) to the wrong side (non-printed/back/ugliest side) of the panel A fabric.

Following the directions on your fusible fleece, iron the fleece to the panel A fabric. This will require an iron and a damp press cloth.

Once the fleece is fused to the back of the panel A fabric, mark a 1/2" seam allowance from each fleece edge and cut.

Lay the panel B fabric good side up on a flat surface. Place panel A face down (fleece side up; good side down) on top of panel B. Pin and trace, then cut out B to the same dimensions as A.

Adding the Velcro:
Remove panel A from panel B. Place panel A face down (fleece up), and iron or pin back the 1/2" seam allowance on the right and bottom edges. Set panel A aside.

Place panel B face down. Iron or pin back the 1/2" seam allowance on the right and bottom edges of panel B. Set B aside.

With A facing up, place a 5" strip of Velcro (or whatever size you chose in the earlier measurements) against the left edge (not counting the ironed-back seam allowance) and 1/2" above the bottom edge of the crown (again, 1/2" not counting the seam allowance). Pin it in place. 1/2" above that strip, pin a parallel Velcro strip in place. I tend to use the loop side Velcro on panel A and the hook side on panel B; just be sure to use the same type of Velcro (loop or hook) on a single panel. Mixing and matching just creates more work in the long run.

Set panel A aside.

With B's good side facing up, align the other half of your Velcro strip to the left edge and 1/2" above the bottom fold. Pin in place. As before, add a second parallel strip of Velcro 1/2" above the first strip. Compare side-by-side with panel A for alignment.

Sew (or iron- depending on your Velcro) the strips in place. I tend to outline the pieces with a straight stitch first, then go around them once or twice with a zig-zag. This is where your crown is going to have the most stress applied in use, so make sure you've really stitched it down well.

When both panels have Velcro attached, you are ready to sew them together!

Pin with good sides facing each other. Mark a gap of about 6 inches (for turning) at the bottom center of the crown (I put two pins side by side to make these beginning and end points).

With fleece side up, sew a straight stitch outline around the edge of the fleece. If you're feeling fancy you can clip the curves and trim the corners of each point.

Through the bottom opening, turn the crown right side out. Using a pencil (eraser end) or chopstick, push out all the points and smooth the edges. When you are satisfied with the crown's shape, pin the bottom opening shut and top stitch around the edge of the crown (closing the bottom opening along the way).

Now, pop that crown on your head and go look in the mirror. You look marvelous!

I would love to see your completed crowns in photos and/or links!

Download: Crown Template

P.S. Ali, thanks for stalking me (in a good way) on this. I needed the inspiration to get through my difficulties with making my paper pattern into a working pdf.

Happy Thanksgiving, and Happy Buy Nothing Day's Eve

This year, we are looking forward to a peaceful Thanksgiving with those we love. However you spend your day, we wish you happiness and respite.

Thank you so much for being a part of Baby Toolkit. This ongoing conversation with other parents and friends invigorates our daily lives and keeps the old synapses firing.

Tomorrow, for Black Friday, we're planning on staying out of the stores. Observing Buy Nothing Day has become a tradition for Jim and I. As we've chosen to cut our spending and stick to useful and meaningful gifts, Buy Nothing Day reminds us to enjoy rare vacation days together doing something interesting.

If you are shopping tomorrow, please remember the cardinal rule of discounts:
It's only a good deal if you needed it or were going to buy it anyway.
Fewer gifts are good for the planet and your bottom line. Your savings can also help change the world:

As always, we ask everyone NOT to buy chocolate (unless it is Fair Trade certified) until it no longer brings injury to children half a world away.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Talking Turkey: Jennie-O Offers a Fool Proof Turkey

We've hosted a few Thanksgiving dinners in our home, and with the exception of last year's, they have been unmitigated disasters.

Our first Thanksgiving away from extended family the turkey didn't thaw according to instructions. Not noticing the total lack of pliability, we put it in oven as instructed (not removing any of the extra parts inside the bird). After a long day of cooking, we found a mushy disaster. We tipped the content of the roasting pan into the garbage and high-tailed it to the only local grocery store still open for pre-cooked ham.

The year before Ranger was born Jim and I spent weeks planning an elaborate menu that was Martha Stewart in its vision. We even included individual compote-stuffed acorn squash for each guest.

Our guests arrived hours early, just in time to be here when the oven caught fire. We ate each dish sequentially (as they now had to be heated in our tiny, EasyBake wattage microwave) in the slightly smoky dining room. Needless to say no guest present has ever suggested us hosting Thanksgiving again.

When Jennie-O contacted me that they had an idiot-proof turkey available, I wondered how far our reputation as destroyers of Thanksgiving had traveled. Their miracle turkey could go straight from freezer to oven without cleaning, thawing, marinating, or prepping for roasting.

Our Jennie-O Oven Ready Turkey came boneless, skinless, and frozen. We removed the exterior bag to find the turkey in a roasting bag. We placed the roasting bag in an ovenproof dish and cut 3 small slits in the bag.

The turkey then went in the preheated oven for about 2 hours, emerging as an easy and flavorful dinner. The pop-up timer signaled the end of cooking (and popped around the same time our meat thermometer hit the recommended inner temp of 170 degrees). The thermometer was much easier to use in the Jennie-O Oven Ready turkey breast than in a conventional bird (where you need to avoid the bone). [Video of cooking instructions]

When we cut off the roasting bag, there was enough juice to make a homemade gravy, but it wasn't necessary. Jennie-O includes a packet of gravy mix (add water and heat on the stove). We should have started the gravy before the turkey came out of the oven, but we did not. Instead, driven by the savory scent of turkey, we microwaved the mix.

The turkey was surprisingly juicy and tender. The seasoning was mild, but delicious. Jennie-O's Oven-Ready Turkey was our first successful turkey. These fool-proof gobblers could save future holidays here, and the boneless turkey breast makes a hearty weeknight dinner.

Jennie-O Oven Ready Turkeys can be found year-round at Safeway (Dominicks, Genuardi’s, Vons), Jewel, Super Wal-Marts, Ralph's, King Sooper, Acme, Schnucks, HEB, Meijer, Winn Dixie, Publix, Hy-Vee, Super Target, Fry's, Von's, and some Kroger and Super-Valu Divisions. A 12 lb. whole turkey costs $28, a 5 lb. bone-in breast costs $17, and the 2.75 lb. boneless breast retails for around $13.

Jennie-O turkeys can be ordered online, but their heavy shipping weights and need for expedited shipping translate into considerably higher costs.

Even if you're an expert poultry chef, you can enter Jennie-O's Trauma or Triumph Sweepstakes to win a month of free groceries from Amazon, an iPod nano, a camcorder, and Netflix or iTunes gift cards.

What holiday cooking disasters have you experienced?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Our Secret Project: Meet Our New Intern

Since early summer, you might have noticed a declining number of posts. We've secretly been working on a huge project.

As Ranger grows strong and tall, we've been losing the baby inspiration for our ongoing toolkit posts.

So we decided to recruit a young intern to turn our attentions back to things baby in addition to ongoing toddler/preschool content.

Without further ado, I am pleased to introduce you to our new BabyJ:
As she gets a little older and asserts more personality, we'll discover her true blog nickname.

Ranger, Jim, and I are all really happy to meet her and welcome her to our family.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Smallest Art Gallery in the House

Whenever I'm in the downstairs restroom in my parents' house, I always think back to a specific day shortly before I turned six. Visitors ALWAYS ask us about that particular room, too.

I'm not really sure what my parents were thinking when they broke out the acrylic paints and gave 7-year-old not-yet-an-uncle Punk and 5-year-old me each a brush and palette.

Can you tell Punk has mad art skills and loves dinosaurs and I have a lifelong love for Smokey the Bear and far less talent? All these facts remain true today.

My parents also contributed to the decor. Though, since they worked more slowly, Punk and I dominated the wall space.
Over the years my excitement about the room has waxed and waned. At the height of my embarrassment (late high school and early college), I begged them to let me paint the walls again- with a thick coat of primer and then some standard color latex. All requests were denied.

The room now charms me yet again. Maybe now because I can clearly see in my childish work exactly how adoring and supportive my parents have always been.

Tableware Designer: Make-A-Plate Kits

Today, the UPS man delivered a some Make-A-Plate classroom kits for my mom.

Every year her fifth grade, students get to design melamine plates. Uncle Punk, Jim, Ranger, and I are always invited to make a plate of our own.

When Ranger was one, he was not interested in coloring but he was obsessed with letters, numbers, and shapes. It was fun to give him a plate that integrated his burgeoning interests.

Ranger (at two) made a plate of his own which we labeled with his name and the year.

With the classroom kit (~$11 with shipping) and free early bird shipping (templates submitted before November 31st), the plates cost $5.95 each. This is a good option if you want to go in with some friends on a bulk order. Otherwise individual kits are available for around $15.99 (online and at craft stores like Hobby Lobby).

The plates are dishwasher safe, but not microwavable. There are also kits to make bowls, trays, and mugs if melamine plates don't hold much appeal.

With bulk ordering and free shipping, these plates can make durable and inexpensive custom gifts for grandparents and friends of the family.

What kind of custom and/or homemade gifts does your family make?

Related posts:

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Spy-Catcher Gang Caught Me: DK's Graphic Reader Series

In a family of readers, it's not uncommon to find that the good book you left on an end table is suddenly missing, abducted by another interested reader.

DK publishing sent us a copy of The Spy-Catcher Gang, one of their Graphic Readers Series. This intriguing mystery offers an adolescent's view of London during the Blitz.

The graphic novel format reminds me of the deliciously pulpy Great Illustrated Classics that my brother and I shared. I always felt like I was getting away with something to discover the characters and plots of great fiction comic book style. Those pulpy little paperbacks whet my appetite for great stories, and historical fiction like DK's Graphic Readers offers the same potential for lifelong interest in history to a new generation.

The Spy-Catcher Gang not only includes historical facts relating to the plot but also uses lots of British slang (though nothing particularly tawdry) explained in an end glossary.

Driven by a mystery, the story was good reading even for an adult. I was definitely compelled to discover the resolution. The book does not gloss over the destruction of the Blitz. Not only does it give statistics on the loss of lives and complete destruction of homes and other buildings, it goes so far as to mention the deaths of classmates as a result of the bombing. Serious stuff for young readers, but emotionally compelling and more humanizing than history textbooks.

The deaths in the book actually made me wonder if my friend's son was too young in third grade for the emotional content, so I showed the book to my mom for a professional opinion on age appropriateness. She thought I should wait at least a year, maybe even two, before sharing it with him. In the meantime, she offered to keep the book in her fifth-grade classroom.

The Spy-Catcher Gang will make its classroom debut in preparation for a Veteran's Day presentation by a very charming couple, two WWII veterans a former Navy captain of an Escort Destroyer and a Women's Army Corp veteran who served in Britain during the Blitz. The book offers great context for the WAC veteran's stories of visiting London.

If all of DK's Graphic Readers offer well-researched historical settings for their fiction stories, I think they've got a great formula for engaging students with the past.

Publisher's recommended prices: paperback, $3.99 and hardcover, $14.99.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Letter Paint: Freezer Paper Stenciling a Name Bunting

If you want to make a name bunting, but don't feel up for applique work, freezer paper stencils are a quick and simple alternative for the lettering.

  • Exacto knife
  • straight pins
  • an iron
  • some clean brown paper, and
  • freezer paper (also called butcher paper). It's like waxed paper, but it's only coated on one side.
Draw or stencil the letter outlines onto the paper side (NOT the coated side) of your freezer paper. Leave a wide space between the letters to prevent painting mishaps. Cut out the letters with an Exacto knife. You will need to leave some connectors to hold the centers of letters like o and a.

When you've finished with your letters, cut them apart leaving a wide margin on each individual letter. Center the letter outlines on your pennant flags and pin them in place.
Iron lightly to affix freezer paper to pennant. Use some clean paper to prevent the freezer paper from leaving residue on you iron.
Remove pins and iron again. Press hard and use high heat. It's important to solidly affix the letter outline to the pennant to prevent the paint from bleeding.
Once the stencil is firmly affixed fill in the letters with fabric paint. I used three coats to get a bold white against the dark green.
Allow paint to dry fully before peeling off stencil. Tip for the impatient: a blow dryer can rapidly speed drying time.
Once your stencils are peeled off, you are ready to finish your name bunting.

Friday, October 17, 2008

A Banner By Any Other Name: Sew A Custom Name Bunting

My sewing machine is limping along. I'm not sure if I've simply worn out some of the plastic parts or if Ranger's covert "adjustments" have actually caused damage. Let's just pretend I sewed the machine to death, it's a far cooler scenario.

One of my favorite sewing projects this year is pennant flag name banners (or buntings for you Brits). Back in February, I made two for young friends (earlier post). The simple freezer paper stenciled prototypes have evolved to a fancier model after Emma, my sewing mentor, taught me to applique mid-Spring.

So here are all my custom bunting sewing secrets in stream-of-consciousness tutorial form.

Supplies (for 8 letter name banner)
  • fabric for pennant front-less than 1/2 yd
  • fabric for applique (unless stenciling)- less than 1/4 yd
  • fabric for pennant back (optional when stenciling)- less than 1/2 yd
  • 1 pkg (3 yds) of double-fold bias tape (1/2" or 3/4" width) or homemade bias tape
  • double-sided fusible interfacing for applique (like Stitch Witchery)
  • thread for applique (unless stenciling)
  • thread for pennants and tape
  • buttons or other embellishments (optional)
  • pinking shears
  • fabric scissors
  • sewing machine (unless you're super hardcore and into hand sewing)
  • ruler/yard stick
  • letter stencils (optional)
  • freezer paper, Exacto knife, & fabric paint (if stenciling letters)
  • straight pens
  • chalk pencil or removable fabric marker
  • iron
  • press cloth (clean thin cotton cloth- a clean, colorfast handkerchief works)
Part 1: Cut Out Your Parts
1. Mark the front fabric. Using the front pennant fabric, mark with your chalk pencil two lines 11" apart (this will be the height of the pennant). Beginning at one side of the fabric mark 10" (pennant width) intervals across the top line. On the lower line mark one 5" distance then 10" intervals. By tracing between the two lines' intervals, you should end up with a uniform series of triangles. If you need more triangles than a single row affords, mark a third horizontal line 11" below your existing line and note 10" intervals. Fill in the diagonals to the middle line for more triangles.

2. Mark the back fabric. If you want the back fabric to frame the front fabric (as I did on the example banner) make your two lines 11.5 inches apart then use intervals of 11" for the top line and 5.5" followed by 11" intervals on the bottom line. If you want the front and back of the pennants to be even in size (not shown here) then use the same measurements as the front fabric.

3. Cut along the top and bottom lines with standard shears. Cut the diagonal lines with pinking shears (this prevents fraying of the raw edges).

4. Mark your interfacing for letter applique. With the paper side DOWN, stencil or draw on the letter outlines; Alternately, I find it easier to stencil the letters on the paper side BACKWARDS, but I don't recommend drawing them this way unless you're very gifted at mirror writing. Cut out letters.

5. Line up the letters paper side up on the back of the applique fabric. Once you're satisfied with their placement and orientation, pin in place. Iron according to interfacing directions.

6. Using standard sheers, cut around the edge of the interfacing. Check the letters to be sure they're facing the correct direction.

Part 2: Affix the letters to the pennant fronts:
If you're doing freezer paper stencils, skip this portion and check out my freezer paper stencil instructions.

I usually take a minute here to lay out all the letters and pennant fronts together
. With patterned fabrics like the one used in the example, some letters look better on one pennant than others.

7. Remove the paper backing from the letters. With the right side of the pennant front facing up, center a letter on each pennant. Pin in place. Iron letters to pennant fronts according to interfacing instructions.

8. Thread machine with applique thread. Set your machine to a satin stitch or a very short zig zag stitch. Stitch around the raw edges of the letters to prevent unraveling.
9. If you're using buttons for the tops of is and js, sew them on now.

Part 3: Sew pennant backs and fronts together
10. Place the frontpieces right side up on the back of the rear pennants. If they're different sizes, center the front pennant on the back one. Pin together.
11. Change thread, if necessary. Top stitch the diagonal (pinked) sides to form a big V.

Part 4: Attach pennants to bias tape
12. Layout the pennants with letters in order facing up. Find the center of your bias tape. Match the center of your bias tape to the central letter (odd number of pennants; e.g. 3 out of 5) or the right edge of your next to central letter (even numbers; e.g. 2nd out of 4, 3rd out of 6, 4th out of 8).

13. Open your bias tape and pin the narrow side to the top your central pennant (letter side up). Radiating out from that central pennant pen pin on your other pennants in the same way.

14. Double check the order of the pennants. Triple check the order of the pennants. Seriously, it's easy to get them backwards.

15. Starting at the first pennant and working to the last one, sew a straight stitch JUST ABOVE the top fold in the bias tape. This stitch will be hidden later by the folded bias tape.

16. Fold the bias tape over the top of the pennants and pin into place.
17. With the letters facing forward and starting at the left end of the bias tape, top stitch the layers of bias tape together. Continue stitching over all the pennants and to the far end of the bias tape. Stitch the ends of the bias tape shut.

18. Pat yourself on the back. You are done and it looks fabulous!

Questions, comments, poxes upon my house?

Monday, October 13, 2008

Stick It To 'Em: Marking Important Buttons For Toddlers

Ranger's fixation with a few CD tracks used to drive me crazy, so I decided to teach him how to find the desired track again after it played.

We kept having problems because there are few good ways to describe the player's buttons to someone who (at that time) couldn't identify shapes or directions.

So, I put a sticker under the essential button. Ranger's now been locating his own tracks for almost a year. It's been great reinforcement for identifying numbers and counting as he knows his current favorite songs are tracks 1, 4, and 11 on CD 1.

Before kids, I wouldn't have dreamed of putting a sticker on electronics, but this strategically placed sticker offered Ranger greater musical independence and a gateway to numeric literacy. It looks pretty good to me.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Putting Words to Paper: Check Out November's Parents Magazine

My cell phone very conspicuously rang yesterday at my physician's appointment. It was hanging in my bag right below a gigantic sign reading "Absolutely NO cell phones" while the dermatologist I've been seeing since childhood checked the same old moles and their new colleagues for signs of revolution and mutation.*

After leaving the office, I made a return call in the elevator. Jim said "I'm driving back to work, and I have a November issue of Parents with me." Well, faster than homeland security can search that statement for coded meaning, I am in the car driving toward the nearest bookstore.

Why the sudden acceleration to buy a magazine I already subscribe to? Because my article appears on page 152. It's "The OMG Guide to Parenting Disasters." Written months ago, I didn't know exactly when it might appear.

I resisted the urge to show the my driver's license and the byline to everyone in Borders (saving that kind of shamelessly excited bragging for, well, this post). Back in my car, I opened the magazine and took it all in. My body rang with electricity as I held the concrete reality of print publication.

Wow. Thank you, Judy (I owe you a cupcake) for inviting me to write and providing such great support and editing. You and Parents gave me an opportunity to fulfill one of those long-shot lifelong dreams.

*Important medical note: I made this skin check-up appointment the day after I drove my dear friend (36 years old) home from Moh's surgery to remove facial skin cancer. My friend's cancer (which she thought was a persistant pimple) taught me that skin cancer can strike any skin type at almost any age. Even though it's not always easy to get to the doctor, it is important to get regular check-ups.