party time

I like to throw a fair number of social gatherings throughout the year. We do extended family dinners, holiday shindigs, birthday celebrations, friend get-togethers. . . but nothing compares to the annual pancake fest.  Traditionally - for the past eight years - we've done it on Shrove Tuesday itself, but this year we're moving it to the Saturday prior.  It's a little easier for people to travel on the weekend, if they're coming from out of town, and it's a lot easier on us, particularly as Al teaches on Tuesday night.

(The last time that happened was seven years ago, when I widely invited my fellow graduate students, but assumed that few people would show.  I didn't think it would be a big deal to make pancakes for a few friends and the kids and told him not to worry. Al came home to me scrambling in the kitchen while forty or so people mingled around the apartment.)

Since I'm less than two weeks away, I need to get out my list and see where I'm at.  And since it's reasonable to assume that everyone, at some point, has to plan a gathering, I thought I'd share my process with you.

1. Determine the size, scope, theme, etc.

Because I'm basically throwing the same party year after year, I don't really think about this too much.  I know I'll have about 40 people, and it will be food-driven.  But because we changed the date, I can anticipate a few differences. First, I'll plan on more people because the weekend makes it easier for people to show up.  While this generally lasts a few hours, the weekend date may make it more likely that people will stick around. Which means more beer. The configuration of our house this year means that it's possible to have live music, so we'll make room for that. This is also the point where we discuss the budget.  We had a family chat about this around Christmas, so we're set.

2. Send out invitations

This is a casual open house, so I generally invite people through facebook.  The format is helpful for allowing my teenage kids the ability to invite their own friends. I also need to make a few hard copy invites to hand out to people I want to invite but who aren't on facebook. I generally like to carry these around with me for a couple of weeks, so I need to get that done today.

3.  Create the master prep lists

This is especially important this year because we're planning to rent a car to do some of the running around and I need to be as organized as I possibly can.  I keep lists for what we need to acquire (food, drink, decorations, etc.), and what we need to do (everything from inviting people to salting the walk the day of.  This year, because we're in a new place, we'll have to figure out furniture arrangement too.

4. Work out who will do what the day of

The first year we had a pancake thing, it was a small dinner party.  The second year was what I assumed would be a slightly larger thing and turned into a crazy madhouse. Subsequent years have been much smoother because we divided the hosting tasks ahead of time. Kids do all of the door opening, for example, and take away all of the coats. We work shifts to flip pancakes and clean up.  Someone is always in charge of being the host on the floor. This year - with a dishwasher! - the clean up should be easier to manage.

This might seem like a lot to think about, but I find a lot of upfront prep increases the chance that I'll get to talk to people (and eat some pancakes!) on the day of the party itself.




A few years ago, Ontario caved and gave us all another statutory holiday (joining BC, Alberta, and Saskatchewan). Manitoba has Lois Riel day today and Prince Edward Island has "Islander Day," but the rest of us have "Family Day". As far as I'm concerned, it should be Riel Day all around, but I appreciate that finally, people were like, "we cannot, as a culture, continue to make people suffer through five day weeks from the first of January until Easter weekend. Have you looked out a window? This is Canada!"

By some generous miracle, Al's school takes its winter break next week, so he gets them both. (When I was doing graduate work, when Family Day finally came in - too late for me to get the day through my corporate gig - the university rolled it into reading week. A stingy move!

"Family Day" though!  Why not "winter day!" or "I can't believe, considering how short it is, that it's still goddamned February day!" or "Let's go for pizza tonight because it's half-off Mondays and nothing is open anyway."

That last one is pretty descriptive of our plan.


From my "research" (aka, rudely asking people, often at bars, how they run their lives), I gather that budgets are not super popular. Almost everyone feels that they ought to have one, promises themselves or others that they're going to get right on that, and secretly rejoices that they don't waste their time on something so obviously pedestrian and boring.

I've had a budget for years and years. I, myself, might be a little pedestrian and boring, but it's not because I have a budget. Having a budget, in fact, is the number one reason I'm able to have fun. It means that I'm able to take a cold, slowed-down look at what's coming in and going out and know for certain, at any given time, whether something I want to purchase or do fits into my overall plan.  And if it does, I'm entirely free to enjoy it without worrying that I'm overextended.

I can give you lots of tips on where we cut corners and save our pennies (and I totally will!), but if you don't have a budget, you're not using the best tool available to make sure that you're spending your money (that is to say your time, effort, and labour) on the things that make your life worthwhile.

That sounds so obvious! Yet, I run into the attitude, all the time, that a budget is there to make one "save money", to prevent one from spending, to curtail any inclination to hedonism at all costs.

Here's a budgeting story: when my oldest kid was about twelve, his class did a couple of days of pretending to set up a budget. They were given a certain income for the month and then they had to work out how much money they were going to spend on housing, food, transportation, etc.. (they were given some pretend rental ads and other information to work from). As far as it goes, that was fine.

Except that my poor kid failed this exercise because he spent 'too much' on food. The teacher had a sample sheet where each category of spending was meant to add up to a certain percentage.  Housing was between twenty and twenty-five percent, food was something else, transportation was ten to fifteen, etc.

My kid, no stranger to how budgets work, went at this problem from a totally different angle. "What is the thing that I like the most?  What don't I really care about? What makes me happy?  What might make me depressed?"

He was twelve at the time, so there's a good chance that he underestimated his tolerance for living in a basement studio (the cheapest option for housing), or eschewing car ownership in favour of the bus (cheapest transit - and, incidentally, how he gets around five years later), but he knew what he loved, and that was eating all kinds of different foods.

lobster joey


I have so many pictures of this kid sitting down to eat something exciting with a huge grin. He may not have understood the point of the classroom model, but by spending over half of his available cash flow on food and restaurants, he clearly understood the power of reserving his money for the things he adored.

When you're twelve, you might have to make a pretend budget according to the sample sheet (lest you fail), but as an adult, the entire point of having a budget is to spend money on things you care about and minimize how much you spend on things you don't. Before you drag out your bank statements and calculator, spend a little time thinking about what you really like and what you think is important.

Next week, we'll talk about how to make those abstract values into a concrete plan: a budget.




Valentine heart skirt, easy sewing for teens, grunge, The Velvet Aubergine

She is so grown up. Taller, more mature in every way, and she definitely has that "irritated yet tolerating it" look down pat.

I made her this quick gathered skirt yesterday. It's a simple rectangle gathered and sewn to a giant, purple elastic at the waist.  I found it a little bit tricky, to be honest. I had to pull on the elastic so much to get the skirt to gather that my hands were sore! I suspect that this is because the fabric weight is more of a bottom weight. (I've seen this kind of skirt around the internet mostly in light cottons.) And I wanted it to be very gathered, so I used the entire selvedge to selvedge of 60". Valentine heart skirt, easy sewing for teens, grunge, The Velvet Aubergine

So, um, don't do that.

Or maybe you should! Because as much as I found that final step flummoxing, I love the way this turned out - a little homage to the grungy days of yore. Bea was pretty happy with it too.

Valentine heart skirt, easy sewing for teens, grunge, The Velvet Aubergine

Valentine heart skirt, easy sewing for teens, grunge, The Velvet Aubergine

The heart pockets are lined with a more cheerful, spring fabric.

Valentine heart skirt, easy sewing for teens, grunge, The Velvet Aubergine

The hem is more hearts. I'm still considering whether I'm into this finishing or not. I almost never use the special stitches on my machine and I've been attempting to put them into more things. Bea does like it though, and that's what matters here.

Valentine heart skirt, easy sewing for teens, grunge, The Velvet Aubergine

The infinity scarf was a Christmas present. Like the terrible mother I am, I 'borrow' it all the time. In my defense, this combo of soft flannel plaid and giant pom-poms goes with everything.

(That's not much of a defense.)


valentines, the velveta aubergine

I confess, entirely and without shame, to being a romantic. My husband and I eloped. What's more romantic than that? However, despite being the sort of person who loves to be in love, I'm inherently suspicious of any gesture that seems pre-packaged, mass-manufactured, or trite.

Unless it's widely thought to be cheap/tacky, in which case I am all for it.

My youngest kid is not in pre-school or daycare and my oldest are in high school, so the above valentines are leftover stock from when I would pick them up at yard sales and thrift stores. I'm surprised at how few are left! I remember having so many good ones (and by 'good' I mean, of course, 'cheesy').

Al and I don't really celebrate Valentine's Day, but when we were at the record sale, all alone without our kids, we exclaimed that that was pretty much like being on a date. A Valentine's date, even, since it was less than a week to the day.

And yesterday, I saw an online tutorial that I recognized - immediately! - as the perfect gift for Al.

I repaired his winter coat.

I know, I know, this isn't a perfect gift the way that making him a new shirt or buying him a really nice album would be, but it is a romantic gesture. Al wears his clothes until they fall apart, but his definition of "falling apart" is sometimes a little lax, especially if he really likes the item.

He has this nice, tweedy (but somehow also houndstooth?) vintage coat that he's worn for the past five or six winters. I mended a tear on the outside bottom edge of the pocket this fall, but I noticed at the time that the pockets themselves weren't exactly functional. It wasn't so much that they had a hole in them, but that they were holes, surrounded by pocket outlines. The lining (which is some kind of lovely, thick, slippery stuff, was stitched down everywhere and I didn't think I could get to the wrong side of the pocket.

Until yesterday, when I saw this amazing tutorial by Lynette at Running with Scissors.  She patiently explains (with pictures!) how to get to the pocket by opening a hole in the sleeve lining and turning everything inside out. This morning, I had a go at it and successfully created two functioning pockets.

I used a thick knit material, which I assume is not strictly a good idea because it stretches and might not hold up to wear and tear. I didn't have a lot of plain material in my stash though and I figured I could always replace them again if it was a real problem. (I shortened the pocket bag to make up for the stretchiness - hopefully that will help heavy items like keys from sinking all the way to the bottom of the coat.) It turned out great, though!

pocket in pocket out

The knit, though probably a bad idea, is cozy on the hands and I do love the colour.

cord thing

While I had everything out, I also repaired this little coat hook hanger made of cording (one end had come out).

arm pit

And I sewed up a hole in the underarm.

Though I started this post a little tongue-in-cheek, in a society where it seems we replace things rather than repair them, mending loved clothing really is a great Valentine's gift.

Thanks again to Lynette, whose tutorial instructions were spot on and who, very kindly, quickly answered a question I had. Running with Scissors underwent a revamp a little while ago and, though always a favourite, I think it's better than ever.





car free living, record sale

car free living, vintage vinyl, the velvet aubergine

car free living, vintage vinyl, the velvet aubergine

This is - surprisingly - a really great city to live in if you like vinyl. There are a number of independent shops and a few large record sales every year. We bought a record player (like, a new one, not the yard sale bargain we had before) just around the time we moved here and it's been pretty dreamy.

(We have a Rega, if you're in the market.)

I wouldn't say that Al and I are audiophiles or anything. Our collection of vinyl is pretty modest, but we do listen to albums almost every day. We buy the kids records when we see them at thrift shops and brand new ones for gift-giving occasions.

And then there's the big winter record show.  It's held close to the downtown park, which is only a twenty minute walk from here. We left all of the kids to their own devices for the afternoon and trudged it together (it was a mild Sunday, but the sidewalks were a bit slushy and I'm really glad that we didn't have to push the stroller).

car free living, vintage vinyl, the velvet auberginecar free living, vintage vinyl, the velvet aubergine

It was a folksy haul! (Yes, there are three Paul Simon records up there. I recommend that "Live Rhymin'" album if you come across it, by the way.)  It's funny how that happens.  The jazz albums we were interested in were a bit out of our price range.

(I nearly bought an interesting-looking compilation of jazz poets released in the 60s, but it was $25.00, which was nearly half of what we had to spend overall. I was worried I would only listen to it once.)

But I'm delighted by that Phil Ochs album. I'm listening to it right now.  The Odetta record is great too, but Al says there's a tiny skip at the beginning of the second side (I was putting Ralph to bed while he was playing it). It's so hard to tell.  Al is generally great at picking vinyl that will play through, but we've both picked out records that looked like they were in great shape only to discover a skipity part when we get it home.

On the other hand, a few years ago, when Ralph was a tiny baby, we came across a rough looking copy of this Sesame Street classic. I'd been looking for a copy for ages.

roosevelt franklin

It's really scuffed and scratched and - not shockingly - looks like it was some kid's well-loved record that got a lot of play. We were at a thrift store though and it was going for $2.00, so Al bought it. I had almost bought a copy when I was pregnant from an online record store for thirty bucks or something crazy -- plus shipping from the U.S. -- but I recognized that a hormone surge might have had something to do with my intense desire to own it at any cost.

Anyway, that scuffed copy plays through.  Weird!




Frugal Fridays, Chicken Soup with Dumplings at the Velvet Aubergine

Welcome to Frugal Fridays! This is the first in an ongoing series of posts where I'll discuss some surefire ways to keep cash in your pocket.

My very first tip? Buy your chickens whole and use the whole chicken.

Though I'm pretty tight-fisted, I never bother to buy cheap food. It might be less expensive at the cash register, but in every other way, cheap food costs us - environmentally, health-wise, taste-wise, and in the (in)humane treatment of animals. We eat a lot of delicious lentils, of course, but when we splurge out on animal products, I like to make it as cost-effective as possible.

The price of a skinless, boneless organically-raised chicken breast at our local food co-op is somewhere between $8 - $11 dollars.  The price of an entire chicken is about $20 - $25. In the summertime, we buy our chickens fresh and hack them to pieces in our very own kitchen, but in the winter, we roast the chicken with lots of garlic and a lemon stuffed up the cavity and revel in leftovers.

After picking all the meat off the bones and boiling down the carcass (and vegetable peelings!) for stock, I generally have about a pint's worth of chicken pieces and several cups of very thick stock. I sometimes use these separately, but on wintery weeks like this one, our whole family looks forward to chicken soup and dumplings. This was my grandmother's dumpling recipe and I remember calling up my dad and getting him to read it to me over the phone after I moved out.

Here's what you need:

For the soup

  • two or three cups of stock
  • two cups of chicken pieces
  • four or five carrots, chopped
  • half a dozen potatoes, peeled and chopped
  • a couple of onions, peeled and chopped
  • half a stalk of celery, chopped
  • salt, pepper
  • a bit of white wine (if you don't use wine, you need a splash of lemon juice or vinegar to "brighten" the taste)
  • water to cover

Note that giving amounts is a little odd because this recipe really works on proportions. You're looking to have approximately the same amount of each major ingredient and enough liquid to make it soupy.  If you didn't roast your original chicken with more than twenty cloves of garlic (don't knock it til you try it), you might want to add a couple of minced cloves to the soup.

Combine all ingredients and bring to a boil.  Simmer on the stove for several hours. (Of course you can throw all of this in a crockpot in the morning or cover and put in the oven. But you must bring the soup to a boil on the stove to make the dumplings.  Fair warning!)

*** Don't saute the onions and garlic or try to brown anything as a first step. The long, slow simmer will make everything meld together anyway and throwing everything in and leaving it is far, far easier.***

For the dumplings

  • 1 cup flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 2 tablespoons oil (I just skip the oil entirely -- sorry, grandma!)

Make sure that your soup is looking fairly liquid-y, as the dumplings will thicken it as they cook. (Adjust with water if you need to.) Bring the soup to a boil. Whisk the dumpling ingredients together until a batter is formed (a little thicker than pancake batter).  Drop the batter, by spoonfuls, into the boiling soup and cover with a lid. Turn the stove down to medium heat and leave for 10 minutes.  Don't peek!  The dumplings need to steam in order to be fluffy.

When the timer goes off, yell for all of your kids, carry the soup to the table, and break up fights about who had the most dumplings.



Free English Paper Piecing (Hexie) tutorial, the

English Paper Piecing (EPP) is one of the oldest piecing techniques and simply means using paper as temporary backing in order to get precise seams. You can create any number of shapes with this technique, but there's a reason that the humble hexagon is so popular - hexagons fit together in a number of pleasing combinations and the corners make for easy basting. The small size of the hexagons can put a surprisingly rapid dent in your scrap pile.

If, like me, you've been attracted to the look of hexies, but fear the hand sewing, I want to reassure you that it's an easy and fun technique to learn. I've put together a simple tutorial that, I promise, will have you knocking out hexie flowers in no time.  Because the pieces are so small and you can make up a portable kit with very few materials, you'll find yourself stitching on the couch, on transit, watching a movie, at the park. . . . But do pack a couple of extra needles in your kit because quiet, enjoyable public sewing tends to attract bystanders who will long to try it for themselves.

Ready to give it a try?

...continue reading


English paper piecing, hexies, the velvet aubergine

Though I managed to get a couple of pairs of pants knocked out for KCW, I did not finish my older son's shirt. It's all cut out. . .  somewhere. That's right: I've misplaced the pieces.  Now, I haven't actually looked that hard and I'm sure it's still around, but it's looking like that shirt will really be for spring after all.

One of the places I looked was my scrap bin. I'd done a huge amount of scrap clearing before we moved, but I apparently still have a lot. Once again, I hauled them all out and had a look and wished I was doing something with them. I wanted an ongoing thing - something to cut them up into and work on bit by bit over the months or even years.  A scrap quilt was the obvious answer, but I didn't want to make large blocks. I guessed that it would be a lot of effort and then, ultimately, not look that hot. I wanted small pieces that I could space out with a lot of negative space.

Though I had rejected English paper piecing in the past because I thought it would involve a lot of precision and fiddle-y cutting and sewing, it turns out to be much easier than I imagined and extremely portable and unobtrusive.

Sewers know what I'm saying, right?  Sewing is fast and looks great, but it is not a cozy activity. Sure, you can hand sew anything, but it's generally going to turn out better on the machine. Except in some cases.  And this is totally one of those cases!

If you haven't jumped on the hexagon bandwagon, I highly recommend it. Even with the crazy selection of fabrics I have above, I think the finished flowers are looking pretty fantastic. It's not as hard (or as precise) as you think and it's an excellent handwork alternative to knitting.

I mean, it's obviously going to take freaking forever, but, at the end of it, I hope to put a serious dent in my scraps and make a swell quilt.

(Al pointed that we already have "a lot" of quilts. To this I say that not one of those quilts was made by me. And " a lot'?  We have the bare minimum number of quilts. I already had plans to make a couple of patchwork quilts this winter. I'd no idea that I married someone with such a bizarre attitude to the best kind of blanket in the world. Fortunately, the people living in the house that came directly out of my womb know the score. They'll steal any quilt that isn't already in use by another human -- Ralphie, in particular, likes to lie on one and demand that we "swaddle" him.  And Joey, recently coming to terms with the idea that he's moving out in the foreseeable future (*sniff*!) spent some time pointing out which quilts he plans to take with him.)