How to add sparkle to your natural decorations: sugaring

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In my last post, about our mostly all-natural Christmas tree, I mentioned that some of the ornaments are sugared leaves and berries. Sugaring is a really easy, simple way to bring a little bling to natural ornaments, and to invoke snow and frost inside the comfort of our cozy homes.

Sugaring is the green alternative to spray paint and glitter, or heavens forfend, that white foamy stuff that comes in spray cans. After the holidays, this all-natural bling can go straight into the compost pile, or out into some remote corner of the yard to be reabsorbed into nature.

I associate sugaring mostly with cake decorating (think of pretty little sugared violets and borage flowers on wedding cakes), but I remembered it when I wanted to fancy up my ornaments.

It’s super easy. Or more specifically, the basic technique is easy, though I think bakers who capture delicate flowers in a perfectly even coat of shining sugar have the skill down to a fine art. But sugaring sturdy things, like berry clusters or leaves, is simple.

You’ll need:

  • One egg white, furiously whipped
  • White sugar
  • A small paint brush
  • Possibly a fine mesh strainer to shake the sugar though, but you can sprinkle sugar with your fingers, too.
  • A system for holding the finished product while it dries. Things on sticks or with stems can be propped up in a tray of sand or rice. Flat things can go on racks. Things already hanging from ornament hooks could be dangled from a clothes hanger to dry.

All you do is paint the object with a thin coat of egg white, then sprinkle sugar over it while wet. If the egg white coat is too thick it will A) form snotty looking drips and B) soak up all the sugar after a few minutes. If this happens, you can just add more sugar, but the sugar layer could get kind of chunky looking if this goes on too much.  Oh, and I also discovered C) the hard way: a very thick coats of egg white may encourage mold development before it manages to dry. So keep it thin.

Put the ornaments somewhere safe to dry, as mentioned above, and don’t let them touch each other, or they’ll stick. They’ll be dry in a day or so, depending on your weather.

And that is it. If you want more pictures, details and pro-tips, there are really nice instructions over at The Wandering Spoon.

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The recyclable/compostable Christmas tree

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I must confess: Erik and I are Scrooges. Ask anyone who knows us and they will tell you our Christmas spirit is measured in negative numbers. There are a lot of reasons for this, but those are beside the point. The point is that this year we’ve decided to embrace the madness instead of rejecting it. We’re getting our Christmas on.

To do this right, we needed a tree, a real tree.* Sticker shock prevented us from getting a big tree, but we’ve got a cute little tree balanced on, of all things, a stack of bee boxes in the living room. (Bees Not Included.)

Because of our essential scrooginess, we have very little in the way of Christmas decorations, especially for people of our advanced age. Usually Christmas decorations grow and multiply over the years like a tinsely coral reef. Kids, of course, generate many decorations. And some families give or buy commemorative ornaments every year. Ornaments get passed down. And some people just can’t resist a new ornament. None of these things apply to us. And, as I said, we are scrooges. I started this tree pretty much from scratch, like a kid in her first apartment. We had a string of white lights, and a couple of random things here and there.

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I just had to throw in the demented cat.

Since I was starting from scratch, I could saddle up my high horse and take her for a ride. I declared this tree and its decorations would all be compostable, or at a stretch, recyclable. Except the lights. I don’t know if the high horse would allow me to buy lights or not, so I’m glad I didn’t have to find out.

As I mentioned in the wreath post a couple of weeks ago, I really like the idea of natural, ephemeral holiday decor. There’s pleasure in finding decorations in nature, and in crafting by hand. There’s also pleasure in being able to send most of it back to the earth when the holiday is over. It saves money, saves storage space and gets you in touch with nature and your own creativity. What’s not to like?

So anyway, this year’s tree is fairly minimalist so far. I may make/find some more ornaments before Christmas, including a classic popcorn/cranberry chain. But  one thing I’ve realized is that this can be a year-round project in the future, because you never know when you’re going to find something wonderful in nature. And what better way to remind yourself to keep a sharp eye on what’s around you?

I want to collect bird feathers, and small pine cones, and young acorns and rose hips and pretty sticks covered with moss and dried flowers. I have more ideas right now than I have time. I do know that next year’s tree will be more wilderness themed than this one. This one I like, though.

Ideas for Ephemeral Ornaments

Most of these are classic, old-fashioned ornaments. I love the fact that they are free or inexpensively made, and don’t have to be stored from year to year.

  • Sturdy fruits and berries
  • Popcorn/cranberry strings
  • Paper chains
  • Dried herbs and flowers
  • Moss
  • Feathers
  • Cool looking seed pods
  • Nuts
  • Origami
  • Paper snowflakes
  • Homemade rock candy
  • Gingerbread figures

There’s tons more possibilities. What have I forgotten?

Some of my ornaments

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This is a sugared white sage leaf. I added sugar because I decided the tree needed a little bling.

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Ditto with these–sugared toyon berries. I will do a separate how-to post on sugaring.

pepperberries

But berries don’t need sugaring to look nice. These are pink peppercorn tree berries.

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These  pretty twisty spiral things fall off a tree in our neighborhood. I’m sorry that I don’t know the name of the tree.

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Next year I’m going to do my own origami for the tree. This year I’ve got some paper stars I dug up, which I believe came from Ikea.

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And there’s always snowflakes.

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*We considered a potted tree but decided against it because first, we could never plant it–we don’t have the space, and second, most of these conifers aren’t meant to live in the LA climate. I didn’t want to keep a potted tree on life support on our back patio. I think it would be unhappy. This little tree will be dismembered after Christmas and will become part of the ecosystem of our yard.

An Early Resolution

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Last night I wrote a rant against disposable coffee cups, aka to-go cups. I didn’t post it this morning because I didn’t feel good about it. It was too negative, and worse, I was projecting. My rant went into some detail about the fraudulent idea of “disposability”, and how this idea degraded both our environment and our culture.

And this is true. A to-go cup is not particularly recyclable, despite its pretenses. Many (most?) communities don’t find it worthwhile to recycle dirty paper cups. And by culture, I mean that is far more civil, not to mention communal, to share beverages from a common pot. To sit together and drink, instead of run and gulp alone. I said that is important to share a communal drink, leaving aside your own preferences for this happy wholeness and communality– i.e. your choices comes down to “cream or sugar?” rather than a whole menu blackboard full of incremental and ultimately insignificant customization options. I find that in the case of coffee, individualism is a lonely business.

At any rate, I realized I was spending too much time on my high horse (her name is Princess and she has a pink mane) when I am a frequent enough user of disposable cups. True, I don’t work in the office, so I’m not lining up at Starbuck’s twice a day, and I often carry a travel mug, but I don’t say no to hot beverages when I’m at meetings and gatherings, or when I’m on the road, and these almost always come in disposable cups.

If I try to imagine how many disposable cups I’ve used in my life–say the earth (justly) vomited them all back at my feet–how high would the pile be? As big as my house?

So I’m making a resolution. Instead of berating others, I’m declaring a personal moratorium on to-go cups–all disposable cups for both hot and cold drinks, actually, because why not? I banned plastic water bottles from my life long ago. Why it took so long for me to eschew the cups, I don’t know. I guess I was always able to mutter, “Well, at least they’re paper.” Denial is a beautiful thing! But it’s time to face facts. They’re just as bad as the bottles.

Thus the resolution: no more disposable cups personally, and I also vow to help groups/organizations I belong to wean themselves from disposables, even if that means me doing a lot of dishes in random bathroom sinks. Oh yes, I’m going to be that person.

One hopeful note: in researching I discovered that use of personal mugs at Starbucks  is up by 22% in one year:

In 2013 customers brought their own tumblers into our stores 46.9 million times, up from 35.8 million in 2012, saving more than 1.4 million pounds of paper from landfills. As more customers brought in their personal tumblers over the previous year, the percentage of customers choosing reusable mugs saw a 22% increase over the prior year from 1.5% to 1.84%.  (Starbucks blog)

Okay, so it’s not even 2% of their customers, but those few kept 1.4 million pounds of paper from the landfill, and that’s significant. Individual choices do matter.

A few more thoughts:

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To-go cups c. 1963, from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. See? Not so hard.

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Bitter intelligence agents share a nice pot of tea. Also from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. (I just watched it, so I noticed the cups.)

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A Tea Lady in Britain keeps the war workers well-caffeinated, without the use of disposables.

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This is so common, and yet so very unappealing. The plastic stir sticks! The creamers! Seriously, does anyone approach this situation with any more enthusiasm than you would a port-a-potty when you really have to go? Meaning, it’s there to fulfill a basic need, not to give anyone joy. Photo credit Colin Harris

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Guess how old this coffee mug is. Guess. This mug was made in China 4000 to 4500 years ago. Humans have appreciated a good brew in a good mug for a long time. Let’s get back to that.

Return of the Caftan?

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A hasty blog post on Sunday about a 1970s caftan pattern provoked a passionate response. Craig of Winnetka Farms called and joked that since we’ve already hosted a shoe making workshop we might as well host a caftan making class. That, I said, would make us fodder for Portlandia parody.

Reaction to the caftan post fell into two camps. Baby Boomers chastised my Generation X cynicism and noted that caftans are comfortable and practical. Others thought the idea is as ridiculous as, well, hosting a shoe making workshop and grinding your own flour. In Facebook, someone posted the picture above of Yves Saint Laurent rocking a caftan and “mandals”.

The caftan is from the Middle East and is still part of the the day to day and clerical garb of Abrahamic cultures. It’s a garment that makes a lot of sense in a hot, dry Mediterranean or desert climate. It functions as a kind of natural air conditioning. With each step you get a breeze, a real bonus for a coming era of anthropegenic fashion change.

Its last appearance was during the 1960s. When will caftans return to the fashion-forward Silver Lake Trader Joes?

025 Bees and Home Ec Disasters

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Of the 25 podcasts we’ve produced, this may have been the most difficult to put together. I don’t think most people know how contentious beekeeping practices are. There’s a sharp divide between natural/non-interventionist approaches and conventional beekeeping. I’m on the natural side, but I hope I was fair in my description of the California Beekeeper’s convention that I attended this week. During the beekeeping part of the podcast Kelly and I mention the following beekeepers: Micheal Thiele and Micheal Bush. We also mention Honeylove.org. We conclude with a plea for more citizen science projects on pollinators such as the Sunflower Project.

We conclude with a discussion of a series of household disasters, including breaking a precious tool, the Silent Paint Remover and burning a batch of spicy maricopa beans.

Make sure to listen until the end for Kelly’s eloquent addendum on the discussion.

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. Additional music by Rho. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

Diyas: oil lamps from India

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[Oops! We accidentally posted Thursday’s post today–Wednesday. Please don’t miss our regular scheduled Wednesday podcast, below.]

As readers of this blog and our books know, I’m a big fan of little vegetable oil lamps–the type that can be easily improvised with any shallow vessel, from sea shells to Altoid tins. If the tabletop aesthetic of oyster shells and recyclables doesn’t quite appeal to you, may I interest you in diyas?

Diyas are little clay lamps used in India. They usually burn ghee, but any vegetable oil works well in them, too. I just found them being sold at our local Indian supermarket. There, the fancy molded ones, like the one pictured above (one of many shapes) were 3 for $1.00. The simplest ones, which are basically teardrop shaped pinch pots, go for 5 for a dollar.

That’s a lot of fun for a dollar, and a good way to light up a party with a hundred warm little lights–if you can keep your guests from catching themselves on fire! (For more info, see my post at the first link above for all the deets on making and using a vegetable oil lamp.)

Also, it occurs to me that it would be a great lesson for kids to make a pinch pot out of clay dug from the ground, and then make some ghee and a wick, and then see how prettily butter burns.  (And whenever I say something would be a good lesson for kids, this means it’s something I want to do myself.)

024 Water, Wilding our Gardens and Sewing

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Kelly and I return this week to discuss a recent talk I gave to a bunch of Master Gardeners about water harvesting and encouraging wildness in our gardens. On the second part of the podcast Kelly discusses the process of learning how to sew. During the first part of the podcast Erik mentions:

In the sewing portion of the podcast, Kelly talks about:

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. Additional music by Rho. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

023 Cleaning, Spam Poetry and Shoemaking

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In episode 23 of the Root Simple Podcast, Kelly and Erik give an update on their housecleaning habits, read some spam poetry and discuss Randy Fritz’s shoemaking workshop. Some links we mention:

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. Additional music by Rho and Choc. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

I made shoes!

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As regular Root Simple readers know, I’ve been obsessing on making shoes for some time now, but was not able to wrap my mind around the process without help. Help arrived this weekend in the form of the wonderful–and wonderfully patient– Randy Fritz, who taught me and four other intrepid souls how to make turnshoes over the course of the last 4 days.

Lesson 1: As we have all suspected, shoes are not easy to make. Seriously not easy.

Four full days of work may seem like a lot for a pair of shoes, but it was just barely enough for us all to reach the finish line. I think all of us walked away with a new respect for the craft and complexity of the cordwainer’s art.

Lesson 2: Cordwainer is the proper term for a shoe maker. A cobbler repairs shoes. Who knew?

Randy estimates he could make a pair of turnshoes in about 10 hours, but leading a pack of wayward newbies through the process takes 32 hours. More, really, as we had homework. I’d say 40 hours went into each pair of shoes. After doing this, I will never again balk at the price of a pair of bespoke shoes.

Lesson 3: It is, in fact, worthwhile to make your own shoes.

Turnshoes are very much like gloves for the feet. We crafted custom patterns for our feet, and the resulting shoes were as unique as we five students are in every other way. To see our same-yet-different shoes lined up in a row was to realize that how much we are cheating ourselves when we shove our feet into standardized prefabricated “foot coffins”.

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Casts of our feet on their way to become patterns

Lesson 4: Crafting is more fun in groups.

I know some people are very content as solo crafters, puttering away alone in their work rooms and man caves, but for me, one of the best parts of the last four days was getting to know four other fascinating people; to gossip, bitch and celebrate together as the shoes started to take shape. As I know from outdoor adventuring, nothing facilitates bonding like shared adversity! It really was very much an adventure, and it also felt strangely like a vacation. I know many people would balk at a 4 day class, but believe me, it was no hardship. I would happily just keep on doing it.

Lisa, Lee, Pilar and Ruth, I salute you!

The Shoes Themselves

Turnshoes are soft soled leather foot gloves, very like moccasins.  I like to call them “Euro moccasins” — they are patterned on a shoe style prevalent in Europe, particularly Northern Europe, from about 900 to 1400AD. The shoe is constructed inside out, and only turned right way around in the final stages. Thus, “turnshoe.”. (The act of turning the shoes inside out takes time and considerable finger strength. We called the turning “shoe birthing” — as it required a good deal of grunting and cursing, but resulted in a beautiful newborn shoe.) The result of this technique is that all of the stitching is hidden inside the shoe, even the sole stitching. The only visible stitching is the decorative lashing around the top.

We started the process by making patterns off our feet, both tracing our soles and using duct tape (a common medieval technology) to make casts of our feet. Then we cut open and flattened those 3D casts to form the pattern for the uppers. The uppers were made of buffalo hide, which is strong and buttery soft, and the soles of latigo, a thick leather which is a traditional soling material. We stitched the leather together with strong waxed thread.

The shoes are meant to fit like gloves–and they do. As I said above, each one was a perfect expression of their maker’s foot. Mine have a distinctive duck foot shape. Don’t get me wrong–I like my feet. I think they are quite fetching in profile, actually, but years of flip-flopping and barefooting have spread my toes wide.  As a result, most shoes are uncomfortable for me. It is amazing to have a perfectly fitting pair at last.

The finished shoes were so pretty and soft that three of the five of us decided to reserve them as house shoes, for which they are ideal. I want to tramp around in mine, though, so I opted to paint a layer of protective gunk made out of shredded tires on my pretty red soles. That gunk is drying right now. I’m itching to take them on a hike!

More Shoes?

The key to mastery is repetition, so I should make another pair soon. Right now, with my fingers still sore and tingling from all the scraping and punching and pulling, the idea sounds less than appealing. As a compromise I’m going to find myself a nice sheet of felt and make a pair of house slippers with the same pattern, just to walk through the process again while all that information is still floating around my sieve-like brain. Later, though, I’d really like to make another pair. Perhaps with an ankle extension to make booties.

A Fantastic Teacher

Hats off to the inimitable Randy Fritz for teaching this class with such grace and wisdom. I cannot adequately describe the Zen-like patience he displayed as he shepherded the five us on this journey full of inexplicable and sharp tools for four full days. I think I tried him the most, because I was very good at goofing things up.  (Common Kelly phrases: “Oh, I wasn’t supposed to cut that?” and “Is this supposed to look like this?”) Randy was always there to save my bacon–and my shoes.

If you are now wildly jealous and want to make a pair of turnshoes of your own with Randy, there will be chances to do so in the future. He’s working on his website, so I have no linkage for you, but we’ll keep you informed as things develop, and announce his future classes. We’re hoping to see a sandal class from him next year!  Ooh ah. You could also send him an email to get on his mailing list, or to invite him to teach a class for a group: fritzr(at)cox(dot)net

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We worship the shoe god. I’m second from the right.

DIY Sage Deodorant

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I like Weleda because they are one of the few cosmetic companies that makes products simple enough for my tastes. Their website is also well done in that they break down and explain every component in their products. The downside to Weleda is that their products are very expensive. However, that very simplicity makes it possible to re-create some of their products at home–such as their alcohol based deodorants.

I bought a bottle of Weleda’s Sage Deodorant while on a trip and I really love the scent. I have a particular fondness for sage and related scents, and this was a lovely, subtle scent, unisex and clean. The deodorant action is simple–it’s all down to alcohol, which kills bacteria on contact. The essential oils, which are all from the family of cleansing, antibacterial oils, probably help as well. There’s really not much else in it. It’s not the sort of deodorant which prevents sweating, which is unhealthy. It’s of more use in freshening up, which suits me just fine. When the bottle ran out, I decided to make my own version.

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