busy hands

On a recent subway ride, I watched a woman crochet a colorful hat surrounded by riders tapping away at their ‘smart’ phones. Busy hands. All hands were indeed busy, but sometimes juxtaposition says it all. The woman will have an actual useful object to show for her time, but what can be said of the others?

Are we truly busy when scrolling through Facebook, Twitter or Instagram? Does one’s mind settle down as it does whilst knitting, as Cat Bordhi revealed in her essay, “A Guide for Bringing Knitting and Spinning into Elementary through High School Classrooms.” Secretly, she had her students knit and spin during her humanities class without first obtaining permission from the administration. When the district superintendent stopped by unannounced, her students’ hands were busy knitting, spinning or winding wool, whilst listening to an audio-tape. She feared repercussions, but the superintendent later reported “that what struck him first as he came through our door was that every single student was productively and positively engaged as a member of a thriving community of learners, and that he had rarely seen a classroom so attentive on so many levels: listening, working with the hands and helping one another.”

Working with one’s hands yields compound results. Monica Moses’ editorial in the February/March 2015 issue of American Craft cites multiple studies equating using one’s hands as a tool to combat depression. The actual ‘act’ of making not only brings happiness, it also fosters the human spirit. Stephen S. Ilardi notes “that people whose lifestyles more closely resemble those of our ancestors–for example, the Amish, who make their own furniture, sew their own clothes, and drive handheld plows–experience significantly less depression.”

Jean-Francois Millet, Shepherdess Seated on a Rock, 1856 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Jean-Francois Millet, Shepherdess Seated on a Rock, 1856 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Knitting was a skill that both boys and girls learned in earlier centuries. Larissa and Martin John Brown report that in the late 1700s, villagers from Dentdale, England, men women and children, came together at the end of the work day for a “sitting.” They posit:

“It’s tough to imagine that world now, when you can buy a ten-pack of factory-made socks for a few dollars, but this was a time when the vast majority of socks, stockings, and gloves in the Western world were not just knitted, but knitted by hand. They were knitted because knitted fabric has properties of stretch, shapability, and seamlessness that make it superior to woven and sewn work for those garments. They were knitted by hand because knitting machines, though in existence from 1600s, took centuries to overtake hand production.”

My first major knitting project was a pair of socks on four DPNs (double pointed needles). I had no idea how to construct the heel flap and then turn the heel, but then found helpful resources and fellow knitters to guide me along. I had almost finished one sock and slipped it on. It was huge, so off I ventured to my local yarn store for a consult. Deb, the owner, confirmed that the sock was too big for me and too small for my husband. So as I gulped, we ripped it out and I started again on a circular needle. Now, thanks to her, I knit two socks at once and enjoy wearing my hand knit pairs.

Maybe someday, I will board a subway car and there will be a “sitting” going on — many of those in the car knitting or crocheting. What if more people started knitting their own socks, hats and gloves, not only to quiet the mind, but also to connect, with making and with others? Trust me, tucking a ball of sock yarn and a pair of circular needles in one’s bag is easy.

Cat Bordhi, “A Guide for Brining Knitting and Spinning into Elementary through High School Classrooms,” www.catbordhi.com accessed in July 2011. Her essay as well as a lesson plans may be found on her website. The lesson plans are a history of civilization told via fiber.

Monica Moses, “Making it Better,” American Craft, February/March 2015, pg. 10. Moses cites the research of Stepehn S. Ilaridi in her editorial.

Brown, Larissa and Martin John Brown, Knitalong: celebrating the tradition of knitting together, (Stewart, Tabori &Chang, 2008), 42.

nests

Bundled up with my walking stick in hand, I head out each morning for a brisk stroll. During the winter months when the trees display their trunks and branches like dark lines on a white sheet of paper, I play the “nest game.” Bird’s nests are now visible in the crooks of branches and wedged amongst brambles. Weather–rain, snow and wind–causes unfurling, and strands of straw and grass hang and move in the breeze, and it is this movement that I catch out of the corner of my eye, stopping me in my tracks, so that I may examine the nest. The nests are made of varying materials, and come in all shapes and sizes. Without binoculars it becomes hard to see the details, but happily one can reference America’s Other Audubon by Joy M. Kiser.IMG_2182

Kiser explains in her Preface that she happened upon a display featuring a copy of Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History en route to begin her new job as an assistant librarian. Perhaps it was the visual juxtaposition of the oversized book next to the tiny label that caused her examination. The label “explained that the book was the accomplishment of the Jones family of Ohio: the daughter, Genevieve, had conceived of the idea and had begun drawing and painting the illustrations with the assistance of a childhood friend: the son, Howard, had collected the nests and eggs; the father, Nelson, had paid the publishing costs; and after Genevieve died, the mother, Virginia, and the rest of the family spent eight years completing the work as a memorial to Genevieve.”

It is no wonder that Kiser lingered at the display, for each delicate plate shows a nest rendered in exquisite detail in its natural setting, as well as the Latin and common name of occupying bird. Rows of eggs are drawn and painted to scale with three views per oval. We are treated to informative text with poetical descriptions of the birds, their nests, eggs and habits (flying pattern, songs, mating, nocturnal or not, etc,).

One of my favorite plates shows the nest of the Parus atricapillus (the Black-capped Chickadee) in a cut away view inside a tree trunk. Chickadees place their nests in the cavity of a tree and it “…is composed entirely of moss and very fine downy feathers, the lining being similar to the exterior except that the fibers are more numerous within.” A perfect bowl of moss lined in feathers–what more could one want? Of course, the Chickadee’s nest will be much harder for me to see on my morning walks, for only the exterior hole is evident to the passerby. I will watch more closely the openings, ever hopeful to see one emerge from a nest hole.

Likewise, I will keep my eyes alert at yard sales and antiquarian bookstores for a copy of the original book made by the Jones family. Kiser notes only twenty-six of the fifty-three hand colored copies and eight of the thirty-seven uncolored have been located. Pay attention.

Joy M. Kiser, America’s Other Audubon, (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012), pgs. 10,13, 160-161.

Note: Kiser’s full introduction as well as selected plates are on view on line courtesy of the Smithsonian Libraries—http://www.sil.si.edu/ondisplay/nestsandeggs/index.htm

new day, new year

Happy new day and year to all.

First a thank you to you, dear Reader for journeying along with me this year–I so appreciate your comments and feedback.

Time to sharpen one’s pencils, wipe the slate clean, sweep out the old and begin afresh on the first day of this new year.

Furthermore, make those resolutions and to-do lists. Superstition keeps me from revealing my resolutions, but I don’t mind sharing a few of the items on my to-do list.

——Start an embroidery sampler. Mary Thomas’s Dictionary of Embroidery Stitches will be my guide. As she states, “Stitches are the “scales and exercises” of embroidery and a good working knowledge of these is the first essential foundation of the art.”

——Enhance the fodder for the bees and continue with our efforts to ensure that we have plants for them throughout the entire growing season. First off, plant a few witch hazel bushes.

——Plant a dye garden with woad, indigo, coreopsis, marigold, St. John’s Wort, just to name a few. Time to place that Fedco order.

——Conquer the indigo pot and fully understand the correlation between pH, temperature and fabric. Thankfully, I will use the pH chart and information from Gosta Sandberg, Indigo Textiles Technique and History (Lark Books, 1999), pp.126-127.

——Learn to make ink from natural materials, as well as make a quill pen and learn how to write with it. Search for a recipe for the ancient Oak-Gall ink.

——Venture forth to the research library in Pittsfield; locate and examine the probate records of the residents of our house.

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First on my list, though, is to dye the book covers and subsequently bind the books for my collaboration with the poet Dara Mandle and the non-profit Norte Maar. Tobacco Hour will be published in the Spring.

Time to stoke up the dye pot and get started.

All the best to you in 2015, dear Reader.

Mary Thomas, Mary Thomas’s Dictionary of Embroidery Stitches, (William Morrow, 1935), preface.

 

presents

Tis the season, as they say, and many are rushing around trying to find the perfect gift. One might suggest that presents often don’t come in the form of an actual object, but instead as a memory that returns to the forefront while your hands are busy knitting, for example.

A few weeks ago, I attended a knitting afternoon arranged by my fiber friend extraordinaire, Abigail Doan. She wanted to introduce a group of us to the “Turkish slipper.” After consuming soothing cups of tea, we seated ourselves in a circle, and received our kits containing the pattern for the “Sifa Silver Turkish Slipper” and balls of Figgi yarns.

Abigail explained that the pattern is designed by Catharine Bayar, a textile expert living in Istanbul, and is based on the traditional slippers her husband’s female relatives knitted for generations. Furthermore, the yarn, made from delicious, durable Turkish cotton, includes a strand of silver and is called sifa defined as healing in Turkish. We could not wait to start, and all cast on and began to work.

A pair of knitted lace Turkish slippers. Photo by Abigail Doan.

A pair of knitted lace Turkish slippers. Photo by Abigail Doan|Lost in Fiber.

When the event finished, we packed up our work and headed off, with promises to be wearing our slippers soon. I am adoring knitting my slippers, not only due to texture of the yarn in my hands as I work combined with the stitches that create the lace work of the pattern, but for the memory that it sparked, and this present to me is invaluable.

Knitted slippers. Like a bolt of lightening, I recalled Nannie, my grandmother, giving us presents of her hand made wool slippers at Christmas time. Each year we received a new pair, sometimes with pompons, others with reinforced-soles, always knitted perfectly in bright color combinations, and so warm.

It is a long way from Hickory, NC (Nannie & Papa lived there) to Istanbul in real time, but in memory time, the distance is quite short, linked for me by yarn. This holiday season, I am thankful for the cherished recollections of time spent with Nannie, especially when watching her hands transform yarn into slippers or sweaters and crops into delicious dinners. And I am thankful for my friends and their experiences and memories. A true present indeed.

Pattern for Turkish Slipper maybe found on Etsy.

Information on Figgi Yarns found here.

Information on Bazaar Bayar and their knitting retreats found here. Perhaps, this is something to put on your to-do or wish list for 2015!

sky strainer

The ephemeral often becomes useful–milkweed silks for candlewicks, cattail fluff for pillow stuffing, and spider webs for staunching wounds—as well as inspirational.

Glimpsing lacelike spider webs, fluffy cattails and silky milkweed on my morning walks spurred me to re-examine strands of fiber and sparked a series of work. The sculptures in sky strainer series are made from my handspun wool in the knotless netting technique. Some of the pieces are nestled in tree branches or suspended from the ceiling, as one might glimpse a light orb or a spider web out of the corner of one’s eye.

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In his book, Primitive Scandinavian Textiles in Knotless Netting, Odd Nordland examines ancient textiles, including the beautiful milk strainers made from cow tail hairs gathered in the fall after the cows no longer needed their long tails to ward off flies. He further examines the many uses of the cow: for food (both meat to eat and milk to drink, often out of the horn of the cow), and for skin and sinews (providing material for sewing, often with needles carved from cow bones).

It is not only the magnificence of the lacelike milk strainers that influences my series, but also the industriousness of the farmers that used them. Early farmers depended upon their cattle in a wide variety of substantive ways. These cows were not being raised on industrial cattle farms and being fed corn and antibiotics, but instead were eating native grasses under the stars and sky.

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In our over-mechanized society, we can draw inspiration from the ancients who exemplified such resourcefulness and directness in their daily routines. Be it from the turning of the spinning wheel to make the yarn, or the slow methodical movement of the needle twining through the loops, the sky strainers hearken to an earlier age and push forward.

Odd Nordland, Primitive Scandinavian Textiles in Knotless Netting (Studia Norvegica No. 10, Oslo University Press, Oslo, 1961), p.93.

Note: sky strainer #6 is currently on view until January 31, 2015, in the exhibition Circle Round at the KNOX Gallery, Monterey, MA. https://www.facebook.com/knoxgallery?sk=wall

illuminations

Last week, snow fell as forecast. A heavy wet whiteness outlined every branch and covered every surface. Trees laden with dense snow could not bear the load, and fractured limbs blocked roadways and downed power lines. We experienced a power ‘interruption’, as our utility termed it, for 36 hours.

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Luckily dinner was on the table when the lights went out. The candles illuminated our plates (heaped with warm, soothing polenta and greens), but not much beyond that. Looking outside, I could no longer see the neighbor’s lights far in the distance. Our world was quickly shrouded in darkness.

Over the next day and a half, there was time to contemplate and consider, as we inhabited a world without electricity and modern conveniences and connections it affords. No heat or running water; these two became the most missed and needed. No stereo nor internet; while it was refreshing to step away from instant access, the quiet became more accentuated and appreciated. Our old-fashioned rotary phone, stationary at that, plugged in; no more walking and talking or otherwise multi-tasking.

Being inside a true colonial home, these hours allowed me time to contemplate the following:

Weather forecasting—What range of natural signs did our early inhabitants rely upon? Thickening clouds, changes in wind direction and speed, the moistening of air, the up-turning of leaves, or changes in the feel of one’s body? No NOAA weather advisories to harken a blizzard. Almanacs would serve as a reference, as well as handwritten daily weather diaries kept in some households.

Time telling—Perhaps they could not afford a clock, but the sun’s position relative to the western mountain range provided a constant reference–a large sundial, if you will. Furthermore, if they had a flock of chickens, the light sensitive rooster heralds the coming of dawn and gathers his hens in the coop at dusk.

Water—Where was the water source in relation to the keeping room? And how did they stop it from freezing? How much water did they take in knowing a storm was imminent, and how did they decide the duration in which they might not be able to access the water before conditions improved?

 Entertainments—Quiet descended on us, both outside and inside. M’s returning from feeding the chickens was announced by his beautiful whistling underscoring the stillness. No wonder Laura Ingall’s family rejoiced when Pa brought out his fiddle, breaking the silence and bringing in felicity. I wonder about what other entertainments they may have engaged in.

Chores—-All outdoor work was done in a timely manner and at the right hour of the day. One would take advantage of the natural light, for when darkness arrives without flashlights and headlamps, it would be onerous, if not impossible, to work. No wonder the harvest moon was so appreciated, not only allowing extra time and more illumination.

Light sourcingCandles and a few flashlights became more treasured on the second night of the ‘interruption.’ At first, I could barely discern what was in the bottom of the pot on the stove. Soon I grew accustomed to the dimness, and realized how hard it was to read, sew, knit, whittle, write or sew or do anything at night.

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I attempt to envisage what it was like to inhabit this house over 200 years ago, and being without power for an extended but certainly endurable period allowed me a glimpse into the quiet, strenuous past. It is often difficult to step out of the modern and try to feel and see days of yore. Visiting historic sites and reading well-written biographies or first hand accounts and history books gives one another peek into a past world, as often does a transporting film; one may be brought closer to this past, however, when one “loses” our modern conveniences, whether by choice or by circumstances.

NOTE: The harsh realities depicted in the new movie “The Homesman” offer a glimpse of unrelenting Nature and human striving. We are with Mary Bee Cutter, the heroine of the film, and her moral and physical dilemmas of the 19th century American prairie.

nutmeg

Pumpkin pie season is upon us. Time to pull those familiar, readily accessible and relatively inexpensive spices off the shelf—-cinnamon, allspice, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg.   In my mother’s kitchen, whole nutmegs were stored in a bear-shaped glass jar once filled with Domino ‘Sugar ‘n Cinnamon.’   She liked the bear container and reused it, not as a matter of thrift, per se, but for pleasure. If she lived in New Amsterdam in the 1660s, she would have locked her precious nutmegs away, according to the historian Janet Zimmerman.

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Indeed, the nutmeg tree was

“…native to only a single spot on the planet: the tiny volcanic island of Run in the south of the Banda Sea [surrounding a large part of the Indonesian archipelago]. Hyperbolic western herbalists credited the nutmeg with prolonging life, health, and youth; depending on one’s written source, the nutmeg was the ultimate aphrodisiac or the complete cure-all. All of Europe’s seafaring powers hoped to obtain their own nutmeg tree with which to start plantations outside the Dutch-controlled Moluccas.”

In the kitchens of New Amsterdam, nutmeg found its way into both savory and sweet dishes. In his latest informative, exquisite book, The New American Herbal, Stephen Orr provides a recipe for “an old Dutch spice” Koekkruiden,

2 teaspoons of ground cinnamon, preferably freshly grated
2 teaspoons of ground ginger
4 cardamon pods, crushed,
1 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground aniseeds 

When preparing your Koekkrudien, take a moment and roll one of those tiny nutmegs around in your hands, as I just did, recalling how cheap and easy it was to purchase, as are many commodities in our day and age. In contrast, I remembered that the prized nutmeg once commanded a ridiculously high price and precipitated bloody battles on the far-flung island of Run (part of modern day Indonesia).

Janet Zimmerman, The Women of the House: how a colonial she-merchant built a mansion, a fortune, and a dynasty, (Harcourt Books, 2006), pg.23.

Glynis Ridley, The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: a story of science, the high seas and the first woman to circumnavigate the globe, (Crown Publishers, 2010), pg. 199.

Stephen Orr, The New American Herbal, (Clarkson Potter Publishers, 2014), pgs. 37

mended

The thermometer’s mercury slid to a new seasonal low this morning, 16 degrees F.  Thankfully, outdoor chores—putting the garden to bed, storing onions and garlic, drying goldenrod and mugwort, raking leaves, and storing hoses, etc.—have been completed and my mind turns to the roster of indoor tasks: mending, sewing, weaving and knitting.

My friend Audra Wolowiec sent me a treasure in the post—a piece of fabric purchased at a yard sale with lovely mending. What causes one to repair, and once darned, to save, store and cherish? Earlier generations were trained to mend and darn; an exquisite 1711 darning sampler found in the Cooper Hewitt’s collection provides visual testament to both skill and beauty. The description reads like a poetry: “…fifteen mending crosses and two corner mends, with picot edgings, a center GD 1711, surmounted by a crown.”

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Even though I received my Girl Scout badge for sewing and attempted many embroidery stitches as a teenager, my hands lack the skills to complete the delicate inter-lacings of thread. Proudly, I recently completed my Alabama Chanin D.I.Y. skirt, and although there are thousands of stitches on this skirt, their lack of consistency compels me to become more proficient in the needle arts. Where do I find a school that will teach me the stitches outlined in Catherine Beecher’s 1843 book, A Treatise on Domestic Economy:

“Every young girl should be taught to do the following kinds of stitch, with propriety. Overstitch, hemming, running, felling, stitching, back-stitch and run, button-stitch, chain-stitch, whipping, darning, gathering and cross-stitch.”

If I lived in United Kingdom, I would register for Tom van Deijnen’s darning class in just two day’s time in Dalston, London. Van Deijnen started The Visible Mending Programme, which:

“…seeks to highlight that the art and craftsmanship of clothes repair is particularly relevant in a world where more and more people voice their dissatisfaction with fashion’s throwaway culture. By exploring the story behind the garment and repair, the Programme reinforces the relationship between the wearer and garment, leading to people wearing existing clothes for longer, with the beautiful darn being worn as a badge of honor.”

Indeed, why not accent the mending on one’s beloved sweater, for example, with contrasting thread, thus reinforcing both metaphorically and literally, its importance? After all, does a garment really need to be discarded due to a hole or rip?

“Darning Sampler, 1711.” https://collection.cooperhewitt.org/objects/18345433/, Accessed on November 19, 2014.

Mirra Bank, Anonymous Was A Woman: A celebration in words and images of tradition American art—and the women who made it, (St. Martin’s Press, 1979), pg. 24.

“About Tom Holland.” http://tomofholland.com/about/, Tom van Deijnen, accessed on November 19, 2014.

seasonal

Our beloved CSA comes to an end this week, at least for this season. Since June, we have made weekly pilgrimages to Indian Line Farm, which is situated in a verdant valley below the Taconic Mountain range. Once your feet hit the earth here, and you look up at the mountains, stress seems to wash away and your mouth begins to water as you glance at the current week’s offerings. Most of the produce is picked and ready for us, but we also go out into the field to pick green beans, cherry tomatoes and husk cherries, as well as stunning bouquets of flowers. At the farm, and then when we sit down at our dining room table, we give thanks to Elizabeth and her crew for their efforts.

Our summer subscription starts off with many delightful greens, and we eagerly await the almost ripe tomatoes grown in the long tunneled hoop house. We mark the season with the farm, embracing zucchinis and eggplants, and now we appreciate root vegetables and hardier greens.

Eating seasonal food in the season it is produced is nothing new, for prior to modern methods of canning and freezing, one either ate food directly from the garden or from the stored vegetables in the root cellar. Though one can purchase Asparagus officinalis and Fragaria x ananassa at the grocery and consume these all year along, we instead cherish the long fresh spikes of asparagus in May and the plump red strawberries in June.

my collection of Ambrose Heath books

my collection of Ambrose Heath books

Persephone Books has just published Ambrose Heath’s The Country Life Cookery Book with illustrations by Eric Ravilious. Heath (1891-1969), a much renowned British journalist, wrote over 70 cookbooks as well as countless newspaper columns on food. In his preface to this new edtion, Simon Hopkinson notes:

“Seasonal is simply how it was. Those of my grandparents’ generation, as well as that of Mr. Heath, knew nothing else other than, say, the purchase of a pound of leeks from the greengrocer in winter; followed by no leeks at all, all summer long……seasonal cookery writing is all the rage, now, but this was not always so. “

Already we look forward to next year’s progression of vegetables with Indian Line Farm, and for now, we will turn to our hoop house for winter greens and lettuces. Now on our trips to the grocers, I try hard not to eat out of season.

 The Persephone Biannually, No 16 Autumn/Winter 2014-15, pg.4

NOTE: Persephone Books publishes “reprints of neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century (mostly) women writers.” Each of their 110 books is a delight to hold in your hand with its elegant “dove-grey jacket, fabric endpaper” and matching bookmark. I adore those bookmarks and cherish them. If you are in London, a visit to their store at 59 Lamb’s Conduit Street is a must.

 

saving time and making light

Sunday marks the beginning of ‘Daylight Savings Time.’ DST is an early twentieth century concept supposedly implemented to use electricity more efficiently, to utilize more of the natural light and otherwise encourage more daylight activities; just how it does these things is the subject of some controversy. What most of us would agree on is that it is disruptive.

Thankfully, we are not ‘in the dark’ whilst M is deep into a major home project. For this particular one, involving the complete re-cladding of one portion of our home, power to the house was removed and re-routed from the garage to run back to the house. We still have enough amperage to run the refrigerator, lights, furnace, and our computers but not the clothes dryer and the dehumidifier. Furthermore, we have to monitor what is running and not over-load the new power source; i.e., we turn off some lights and then run the washing machine, but we can’t use the toaster while doing a load of clothes. No big deal.

Our monitoring of lights, heat and electricity has left me pondering methods of yore most likely sparked by my first foray into candle-making a few weeks ago. My friend Jody has dipped thousands of candles, being the former proprietoress of Wax Poetic. She taught me the multi-step process: first, cut the wicks to the same length; attach six wick strands to one piece of wood; dip each group into the warm wax; hang and let dry; and then continue dipping until the desired size. This process is not much different than the one employed by the colonial housewife described by Alice Morse Earle in Home Life in Colonial Days:

“Every thrifty housewife in America saved her penny as in England. The making of the winter’s stock of candles was the special autumnal household duty, and a hard one too, for the great kettles were tiresome and heavy to handle. An early hour found the work well under way. A good fire was started in the kitchen fireplace under two vast kettles, each two feet, perhaps, in diameter, which were hung on trammels from the lug-pole or crane and half filled with boiling water and melted tallow, which had two scaldings and scimmings. At the end of the kitchen or lean-to, two large poles were laid from chair to chair or stool to stool. Across these poles were placed at regular intervals, like the rounds of a ladder, smaller sticks about fifteen or eighteen inches long, called candle-rods. These poles were saved from year to year, either in the garret or up on the kitchen beams.”

Tallow, from “…deer suet, moose fat, bear’s grease…” as well as “…every particle of grease rescued from pot liquor, or fat from meat…” was used to make candles. Beekeepers saved the wax from their hives, for this wax did not smoke as much as tallow. Earle reports that wicks were made from “…spun hemp or tow, or of cotton; from milkweed.” Over the past few weeks, the milkweed pods on our land have been spreading their seeds and their silk-down and have given me pause, for I wondered what would have been done with this resource. Today, in the daylight, I will gather some silk-down and try my hand at spinning wicks to be used for the next batch of candles in my own effort to make light.

Alice Morse Earle, Home Life in Colonial Days, (Grosset & Dunlap, 1898), pgs. 34-35, 38.