What My Mother Taught Me

About a year ago, I was given the opportunity at work to talk about someone influential in my life, I chose to talk about my mother, who was far along in her decline from dementia by then. My mom passed away last week, and I can think of no better memorial than to share those words I wrote a year ago.

If you knew my mom and have stories to share, please do so in the comments.


 One of my favorite Onion headlines reads as follows: 97-Year-Old Dies Unaware Of Being Violin Prodigy

 The article goes on to talk about how the woman spent her life completely unaware that she was one of the most talented musicians of the past century and possessed the untapped ability to become a world-class violin virtuoso, had she just picked up a violin once.

I’ve always liked that article, because in it’s typical satirical fashion, the Onion is highlighting that so much comes down to opportunity. This fictional woman could have been an amazing musician, if she was ever given the chance.

My mother was the person who put the violin in my hands, metaphorically speaking. Also literally in the 5th grade, but I didn’t turn out to be a violin virtuoso. I’m hardly a prodigy in anything, but most of the skills that I feel are so integral to my person today are things that she nudged me into.

My mother introduced me to the performing arts. We both took dance classes at our local studio and she fed me a steady diet of old movie musicals, introducing me to Shirley Temple, Gene Kelly, Vera Ellen and Ann Miller.  She got me a waiver out of health class, so I could take choir. She accompanied me to piano and then harp lessons. Because of her, I know the Good Ship Lollipop, Mozart’s Requiem, and the ballets of Tchaikovsky.

At eight years old, my mother put needle and thread in my hands and taught me to cross stitch. She took me to fabric stores and let me flip through the pattern books and glide my fingers across the rows and rows fabric bolts.  She demonstrated the magic of sewing by making me the best Halloween costumes on the block and she taught me that finish matters, even on pajamas. She loaned me her sewing machine and helped get me first job ever, at our town’s fabric store.

As our elementary’s school’s librarian, she gave me a sneak peek of all the new titles as they came in and let me draw new dust jackets to replace the damaged ones. My mother double majored in science at college, but she encouraged me in every creative endeavor I ever pursued. I probably had one of the few parents out there telling me I should take more art classes.

But the greatest thing my mother ever did for me, was not let her fears be mine.

My mother was always anxious. She had social anxiety that meant she hid in her room every time my friends came over to visit, but she let me have friends over as often as I wanted. She asked me to apply to the college closest to home, but didn’t say a word against it when I moved out of state. Once, after I had moved to Chicago to work in the theatre, she told me that she thought I was very brave.

 It struck me as a strange thing to say. Brave? To be brave you had to be up against something scary and there was nothing scary about it.  I only realized later, that for her, to go to someplace where you had no family, knew nobody, and were trying to make it on your own was about as scary as it could get. But never once did she try to talk me out it.  Time and again she tamped down her own fears to let me do it my way, giving me the space to pursue my dreams.

My mother gave me the tools to be the artist I am today, but the biggest influence she had on me can perhaps be summed up in the words of Shirley Temple in the film Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, “I'm very self-reliant. My mother taught me to always be that way.”

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Being Comfortable - Part II

Wherein I talk about body image, mental health and making your own clothes, one year later...

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Your Questions - Part I

My Studio

I recently ran a little giveaway on Instagram and one of the contest requirements was to either 1) suggest a tutorial or 2) ask me a question. Yes, I shamelessly pump my followers for blog content ideas! For tutorials, a beginner's guide to embroidery was the overwhelming ask and is currently in the works, but in the interim, I thought I'd answer the non-tutorial related questions. 

Here's a question for you:  how do you balance your work as a maker with your domestic and family life? You seem to have a great time doing both! - Carneykar

Balance.  That's the eternal question, isn't it? Ask any tightrope walker and they'd tell you that balance isn't a one-time trick and you've got it all figured out; instead it takes focus, constant adjusting and having a big stick to help even you out doesn't hurt. At least, that's what I'd guess they say, I don't know any tightrope walkers. 

In terms of mindset, making is a priority for me. You first make time in your life for what you need, (i.e. go to work to make money to feed your family and pay your mortgage, clean laundry, etc.) and then you prioritize (I hope) what you love, and I love both my family and making things.  

Making is as habitual for me as brushing my teeth, so I always have a variety of projects or ideas in the works and I give myself tools to work on them whenever an opportunity arises. Most of my sample knitting is done either on my carpool days or while I'm watching tv at the end of the day. I  always carry a knitting or embroidery project in my bag so I can stitch during lunch breaks or while waiting for appointments. I keep paper around to draw out new ideas and a notebook in my nightstand to jot down story ideas. I'm almost always doing something, but the majority of the time, making is how want to spend my "me time," even if it's for work purposes.

My daughter's playroom and my studio share a space - so we can "play" together. I've learned what I can and can't do with my daughter around: gardening or baking together - a hearty yes; tracing sewing patterns while she's coloring - yes;  cutting out fabric - no way. I've also learned to do everything in bits and pieces. When I really need to focus or do computer work, I work during naptime and I'm usually the last one in the house awake by a long shot. 

As much as I (mostly) enjoy all the aspects of my handmade business and want to grow it, I try to be forgiving of myself when I choose not to work.  I stayed up late last night weaving in ends and blocking a sample that is due shortly. I've got three more projects with deadlines in the queue, but if my daughter asks me to nap with her on the weekend, I probably will, because I know those chances to snuggle and plan her epic "Happy Heart Day" party before we fall asleep are short-lived.

I would also be remiss if I didn't give HUGE credit to Mr. Cleaver. He does 90% of the cooking and laundry in our household and the majority of things like grocery shopping as well. This means when I get home from work, I get to spend time with my daughter instead of rushing to make dinner and I can clean up the dishes in stages across the evening. I work from home one day a week now, which means I can help out more on the laundry/dinner/shopping front and try out fancy new recipes - which again I do in pieces. For example I made some spaetzle with pesto the other day - I made the pesto first thing in the morning before my workday started; mixed the dry ingredients and set out the pots I needed at my lunch break; and then dove into making it while Little Miss Cleaver watched My Little Pony after pickup from preschool. 

I'm certainly not prefect. Somedays I'm not as present with my family as I want to be. I'm terrible at actually taking a break. I wouldn't recommend eating off my floors.  It often feels like it takes me twice as long to get something done as I'd like it to. But I've also become more aware that life has a rhythm and an ebb and flow. So I keep my eyes on the wire, adjust as necessarily, and allow myself to be supported by those who help bring balance to my life. 

Beach Beauties in Progress

 I would like to know what is the inspiration for your designs? - cclynn14

A writer friend of mine introduced me to the phrase "plot bunnies" - the definition being that once you get one idea, it seems to multiply like rabbits until you have more ideas than time. I'd say the same is true for both my knitting and embroidery design.

Inspiration is everywhere, you just have to open and patient. I'm constantly seeing something that triggers an idea for a new design and that trigger can vary widely - I've designed four shawls based on bird-titled songs from my favorite bands, I've got a colorwork sweater in the works that came from a peeling wall paper image I saw in a friend's Instagram post about their home renovation.

Of course, if I didn't tell you that, you probably wouldn't see the connection, even if I placed them side by side. I find inspiration almost works like a dream - it takes familiar things, takes and element or two of familiarity - a mood or a color -  and shifts it into something different. With that wallpaper sweater, there's a muted color palate similar to the original and both have patterns with a circular quality, but that's about it. The songbird shawls set out to capture a mood (Leading Bird), a rather literal translation of the lyrics (Paper Bird and Tributary, aka "Cage the Songbird"), or the layout of the performers on stage (yet to be released Darlingside-inspired shawl).  

My embroidery designs are much more illustrative, and more literal in translation from concept to final design.  Often when I introduce someone to embroidery, I'll teach them by drawing a daisy on the fabric for them to trace- the Coneflower design took that idea and made it a bit more formal. (That pattern is also a secret sampler, which you'll see in the Embroidery 101 series coming up). With my embroidery designs, I'm often illustrating my dream life - something slightly agrarian and rooted in a sense of place, with a timeless quality. When I wanted to come up with a summer-themed hoop, I started thinking about all the things that would be a dream summer to me - inner tubing on a lazy river, rope swings, leaping off a dock into a lake, sun hats on the beach. Of all those ideas, the sun hats won out (see design in progress above), but it doesn't mean I won't revisit the other ones next year.  

One thing I've had to adjust to in designing is the forward-looking nature of it - as soon as I hit my current deadlines, I'm going to be working heavily on Christmas/Winter designs, in August.  Magazine work generally works on a 6-9 month lead time, so I'm designing summer sweaters in January and am knee deep in wool in July.  In those cases, mood boards from the call for submission are a great help, or I'll use Pinterest to make my own.  I'll often collect images for years before they coalesce into something - I'd been collecting images of strong rural women in early 20th paintings and photographs for sometime before it was translated into the Prairie Wife Cardigan and I'm far from done playing with that concept.  I still have a treasure trove of inspiration I've yet to translate yet - art from Andrew Wyeth and Barbara Cooney, Anne of Green Gables and my love of 1950s sci-fi - all hundreds of design bunnies, just waiting to be born. 

Something else you'd like to know? Ask in the comments below and I'll include it Part II.

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Being Comfortable

Wherein I talk about body image, mental health and making your own clothes

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2010: In Review

2010: In Review Looking back at 2010, I'm amazed at how big of a year it has been for me.

A few weeks ago, I was speaking on the phone to a friend who's was just finishing his first semester of grad school - and he is very much a grad student  - everything is big ideas, and being humbled, and learning, and being amazed at how much there is to learn - and he's exactly where he should be.  Then I talked a bit about what I've been up to, and I got the feeling, in his eyes at least, that it all seemed small and a little dull.

I suppose, in some ways it is.

On most days, I get up choose between oatmeal, cereal, and waffles; go to work; come home; watch Jeopardy!; hang out with Mr. Cleaver; have tea and desert; read; and go to bed by 10:00 - 11:00. Overall, not much changes from day to day.

Back when I worked in the theatre, everything was always building up to opening night, getting more frenetic and exciting and exhausting as the big day neared. Then there were a few weeks of runs, and then you tore it all down and started creating something new. It was wonderful and very tiring. I burnt out and I decided to do something different and more stable with my career and my hobbies.

I got a good job in a completely new field that is a wellspring of new things to learn, I turned my creative energy into my knitting and sewing. My days have a quiet rhythm to them and I like it.

But even in that quiet everyday rhythm, sometimes big things happen:

I started a business this year, releasing seven knitting patterns and submitting a half-dozen more.

I planted my first garden and learned the joys of growing and processing your own food.

I took up running and ran a 5k.

I traveled to Rhinebeck, Chicago, Boston, and Southern California.

I camped and canoed and enjoyed a perfect Maine summer.

I increased my sewing skills, tissue-fitted, made muslins, and sewed a coat.

I spent more time developing my friendships.

And this morning Mr. Cleaver and I bought our first home.


Like I said, 2010 has been a very big year.

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5 True Things and a Lie

One of my dear friends and old college roommates tagged me on this so I figured I must comply - the rules are I must write 6 things about myself, one of which is a lie.

  1. When I first met Mr. Cleaver, I hadn't sewed in years and didn't yet know how to knit.
  2. From since I was little, up to today, whenever I take long roadtrips and I'm not driving, I imagine myself riding a (rather speedy) horse alongside the car.
  3. I really want to learn how to quilt.
  4. I own at least a half dozen children's books in Latin.
  5. I once stole 54 green crayons from a restaurant.
  6. If I ever did more acting, my dream role would be Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible.

You can put your guesses for the untruth in the comments if you'd like. :)

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20/20 in my Dreams

I started wearing glasses in the 4th grade. I don't recall any big "I can see clearly now!" moment. It just was the way it was. Glasses seemed to suit my personality (nerd!) and I was fine with wearing them.


Oh school photos, I'd be embarrassed about putting this on the internet,
but I know everybody's got a terrible one stashed somewhere 

Then towards the end of my junior year of high school, when I still wanted to be an actor I decided I should get contacts so I didn't have to worry about wearing my glasses and/or squinting a lot onstage- only to be asked to wear my glasses in the first show I did after getting contacts. Ah well. 

When I got those contacts I was honestly excited by the idea that I'd be wearing my contacts all the time, then one day I'd wear my glasses for one reason or another and someone would say "Hey! I didn't know you wore glasses!" It would be proof that I'd moved on from being the dork with glasses or more likely that I just wanted to be surprising to someone in someway. 

Yesterday a co-worker asked about my glasses. I think I surprised her with my excitement about her question. She didn't know that I'd been waiting eight years. Of course even after all this time, I still have a preference for purple frames.


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Questions & Answers

The following questions came from the blogaversary giveaway:

I’d like to know more about your sewing history. How’d you get started?

I kinda covered this in my Burdastyle interview, but basically the story is this: my mother is a fantastic seamstress and my fraternal grandmother was a home etc. teacher once upon a time and an amazing quilter, so I always grew up around it. I used to tape together my grandmother's fabric scraps into outfits for stuffed animals.

When I was in middle school I had the opportunity to take a home ec. class and I jumped at the opportunity. In the sewing portion of class we made a nine-patch pillow and a bib apron, which got me interested in sewing myself, rather than just picking out stuff for my mom to make me. I sewed a bowling shirt, which I still own and most of a doll dress, after which I didn't do much sewing for a long time.

After earning some extra cash in the spring of 2007, I bought myself my sewing machine and starting making clothes again. I've been hooked ever since. 

What photo editing program do you use?

I'm pretty low tech. I have MacBook and I use the editing tools that are free in the iPhoto program. If I can't make the picture look good with 30 seconds of editing, then it probably wasn't a great shot to begin with. I figure people have been taking amazing photos for years without the benefit of computers.

I would like to know what you wish you had time to do more of?

Honestly, my schedule's been pretty lax. For me it's not about needing more time, it's about using my time more wisely. But I wish I had more focus to do some non-blog writing. I like to fancy myself a playwright on a occasion, but I haven't put any of my ideas through to completion yet.

What are three fears you have and what are three desires?

Jeepers, um... I have an irrational fear of falling down stairs. I also fear not living up to my potential/being a disappointment and someday contracting type-two diabetes (it runs in my family). 

Three desires are to have a play professionally produced, to have kids, and to start a side business of selling patterns or items I have made.

Are you right or left handed?

Right, but Mr. Cleaver is a lefty.

Do you like blue or black ink?

Black, but my favorite teacher in high school always corrected our papers in green ink and I was always fond of that.

Do you like mittens or gloves?

Gloves, although mittens are easier to knit. I'm planning on casting on my first pair of gloves (for a friend) this week!

What kind of juice do you like?

Cranberry, though I have to have some kind of cran-apple or cran-grape blend because it's too hard on my stomach if I drink it straight.

Who won the pincushion giveaway?


Congratulations Cindy! Please email ms.cleaver(at)gmail.com with your address so I can mail out your pincushion! Thanks to everyone who commented - I love hearing from you all!

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My moment in the internet spotlight

Burda Style Blog Screenshot.jpg

I have the pleasure of being the "featured member" this week on Burdastyle. Feel free to check out my interview on their blog!

If you're a visitor from the Burdastyle - welcome! Take a moment to look around the site and don't forget to enter in the pincushion giveaway !

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I was tagged by StinaStuff to list seven random things about myself - I'll be answering the questions from the giveaway at the end of the month, but these may sate your wondering about me appetite for now. 1. Not including family members and Mr. Cleaver, I've had 18 different roommates over the years.

Here are some of them: Roomies

2. I've played the celtic harp since I was 12, though I haven't lived in the same state as my harp for the past five years, so you could say I'm a little rusty.  I could, however, probably still play you "Scarborough Fair."

3. In 6th grade I was literally head and shoulders above my classmates, I'm still fairly tall (5'9"), but it seems as though everyone else caught up.


4. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone; The Giving Tree; and Yes, Virginia There is a Santa Claus are just a few of the books I own in Latin, along with things like the Aenid and Metamorphoses. I also own a cookbook of ancient Roman recipes.

5. I absolutely adore carousels - the older the better. And before I ride one I always watch a couple of go-arounds to pick out the best horse/creature.


6. I am comfortable using a table saw, a jigsaw, band saw, a drill press, and pneumatic nail gun. For my scene shop final in college I made a wooden marionette from scratch. His name is Frank and his feet are disproportionally small to the rest of his body. I am no Geppetto. 

7. I know how to use a semicolon.

I'm going to tag 

Fancy Elastic







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