Sunday, January 29, 2006

Knit Your Bit

During WWII, my grandmother was an enthusiastic supporter of troops conducting night-time flight training outside her town. At first, the local townswomen handed hot drinks and baked goods through the barbed-wire fence to the famished airmen, most no more than boys. Before long however, the women had browbeaten the military higher-ups into allowing them to commander a shed on site, and a borrowed car enabled them to provide an elaborate spread every night. Eventually, my grandmother’s enthusiasm turned to horror as first, her only brother was killed, then her husband signed up, leaving her with two small girls and my mother, a newborn baby. In an incomplete memoir she left behind, my grandmother remembered not being able to take care of the overgrown lawn. She decided to set it on fire.

For the duration of the war, she knit for the servicemen. Patterns she might have used are available here and here. It’s hard to imagine my grandmother complying with the Army’s strict olive drab colourway, but this article describes how anything not knit to specification was ripped back and the yarn re-used.

I can’t work out if I’m ashamed not to have knitted anything for the troops in Iraq or elsewhere. Have you? Is there a need? This site suggests so, and provides a pattern for a knitted helmet liner. It looks itchy to me, but then perhaps itchiness is the least of one’s problems when wearing bulletproof Kevlar headgear.

Last year, I read a Talk of the Town piece in The New Yorker about a group of parents in New York who galvanized around the need to provide their school security guard with adequate body armour for his upcoming service in Iraq. This struck me as both touching, and quintessentially upper-crust New York. If I remember correctly, one mother noted that body amour only provides so much security, but the parents couldn’t come at paying for a personal amoured vehicle.

But they did something. I hope their security guard returned home safe.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Never place a thin or doubtful icing on a cake. Do everything you can to thicken it before taking this step.

Cupcakes are the craft fad of the baking world.

Kath posted an exhaustive list of cupcake inspiration last year, and Alicia recently posted about this lovely new Chronicle book. Regular visitors to my flickr page might be mistaken in imagining my life to be one big round of parties, cute babies and cupcakes (with some knitting on the side.) Right now, when everything seems so hard, it’s good to remember that last year I celebrated four or five cupcake-worthy occasions.

The first was my friend Anne’s 40th birthday. The icing was a chocolate buttercream and the flowers were made from miniature marshmallows. Cutting them in half created a satisfyingly petal-like shape, and the petals lifted nicely when an M&M was pushed down in the center.

The red & white cupcakes were in honour of the South Melbourne Football Club, in the grand final for the first time since 1933. All were demolished by tense television spectators before making it to a serving plate. The red dot is a Jaffa, an iconic Australian confection, famous for being rolled down the aisles in picture theatres. (Why? I don’t know.)

The pink flowered cupcakes were for my sister’s wedding in November. We made over a hundred.

The Christmas cupcakes were made by my Mum with a buttercream icing. The leaves are cut pieces of candied angelica. A long debate was had during Christmas lunch over whether or not angelica is candied celery. Finally, in between courses, someone leapt up to consult the internet. Verdict: Angelica is a celery-like herb, commonly used in its candied form.

A note on the icing: the white icing on the Jaffa and wedding cupcakes is from the 1953 edition of The Joy of Cooking. I was desperate one day when I realized that my pack of icing sugar didn’t have a recipe for icing printed on it. I don’t think I’ve ever used this cookbook before (not having any urge to make aspic or stewed tripe) but this icing has made me a convert. The recipe for White Icing I (page 694) makes a wonderful glossy, marshmallow-like icing. It is the kind of icing you see in photo spreads in 1950’s magazines, with a housewife in a tightly-belted New Look-style dress, gesturing to a perfect bouffant of a cake. [This is the recipe that Julianne Moore’s character should have used in the birthday cake scene in Far From Heaven.] Like I said, I was desperate, and willing to take a punt despite the intimidating tone of the text. Irma S. Rombauer and her daughter Marion Rombauer Becker are, at least in the 1953 edition, very keen on rules. There is a Rule for Cup Cakes (page 660) and a Rule for White Icing (page 693.) The latter rule involves boiling the sugar syrup to an exact consistency, which should be reached at approximately 238ºF. This, I guess, is less intimidating if one owns a confectionery thermometer. I do not, so there were some anxious moments trying to guess whether or not the “sirup” [sic] was “threading” or not. Perhaps it’s just beginner’s luck, but I’ve had success three times in a row now. It’s an icing that actually tastes good, and doesn’t make you feel like you’ve just eaten a stick of butter. And if this isn't joy enough, Ginnie Hofmann's illustrations in this edition are so wonderful that they make me feel like I might turn my hand to making that aspic after all.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Lovely packaging

Found last Sunday morning at Camberwell Market. I was looking for a desk, outdoor chairs and flower pots. I came home with hat elastic, buttons, a buckle and super-mercerised lisle hosiery mending thread.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Save Gocco!

I came this close to buying a Print Gocco system a few months back. I drove to a residential address in an unfamiliar suburb and patted the RISO representative’s large dog as she demonstrated the system on top of her ping-pong table. I was hopeful, but I guess I already knew that letterpress had ruined Gocco for me.

But I was desperate! My letterpress equipment was (and is) in storage, and a friend needed a special invitation pronto!

Don’t get me wrong: I love Gocco, and recently bought Nest Studio cards that I’m guessing are printed this way. I begged my mother for one after a demonstration in a department store sometime in the early 1980’s*. But I’ve become accustomed to examining the impression of type through a loupe, being able to register with precision and having the freedom to print up to poster-size. I knew I’d quickly become frustrated by the Gocco’s limitations. Which was lucky, I guess, since it seems that Print Gocco is to be discontinued, unless we're able to rescue it from obsolescence.

Gocco’s demise is familiar, really, from a letterpress person’s perspective. Like many technologies, the obsolescence of letterpress opened it up to print and book artists. Older fine press people talk of the 70’s as a golden period in which you could drive up to any print shop in town and they would load in their letterpress equipment for you. An equipment dealer outside of Cleveland told me once how even five years ago he was regularly incinerating old type cases and cabinets because he couldn’t get rid of them. Now good presses sell at a premium, even proof presses, a kind of press that was never used for production runs. Scarcity increases value, but value isn’t just in the physical objects themselves: it’s in the whole culture of a craft, the specific, precise language of a trade, in craftsmanship honed by daily work. We’re quickly losing the tools of many crafts, but quicker still is the loss of the skills required to use these tools proficiently. There’s many a printer turning in his grave at the thought of girlprinter eating her cereal at the feed board of her C&P. More than one old-timer has looked at my work and asked in all sincerity: who buys this?

Gocco, however, is a toy, which perhaps is its problem. Toys are expendable, and the toy business is a fickle market. Gocco’s had a good run: over 25 years in Japan, less elsewhere. Kids may have moved on from Gocco, but artists haven’t. In the event that RISO does discontinue the system and another commercial supplier doesn’t step into the breach, artists have to figure out a way to keep Gocco alive by working out how to produce their own screens, by adapting other bulbs and experimenting with non-proprietary inks. It’s screenprinting, after all. If Gocco does die, we’ll lose the convenience of the system, but the aesthetic will live on, and as letterpress has shown, a whole new culture will develop around the piercing together of tools and resources. Re-inventing the wheel has it’s own pleasures, and there’s the always the possibility of a better wheel right around the corner.

* This must have been during an early attempt to introduce Gocco into the Australian market. I remember a tiered display of the machines, and mounting serious argument as to why I must own one. I think the cost of the consumables killed my campaign pretty quickly. Years later, after I’d forgotten ever wanting one, Mum sent me money earmarked for a Gocco. It seems that she’d felt a little guilty that she may have hampered my typographic career by not caving in and buying me one all those years ago. But I didn’t buy a Gocco, deciding instead to put the money toward my first letterpress.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The New Leaf

You’ve already heard how hot it was on the Australian eastern seaboard this past New Year’s Day: 44º C (111.2ºF!) where we were on the New South Wales Central Coast. But while the rest of our trip was spent sweating, sticking to automobile upholstery and praying for a cool change, my New Year’s Day was spent inside my brother’s house, blinds drawn, central air-conditioning ON. The beach? they ask. No sirree, Bob, I’m happy right here, in the near-darkness, knitting for the first time in weeks.

My brother is a gadget man. And a bit of a handyman too. My sister-in-law is impeccably neat, and the combination of the two can best be described as akin to a marriage between Martha Stewart and Bob Vila. Without the frou frou. Or the old house. But whatever, their place is neat. Things work. And it is possible to spend a 44ºC day knitting, which is something that won’t ever happen in my house.

About lunchtime, my brother called from upstairs for Isaac to come see the beginning of a bushfire in the national park across the water. Within minutes, there was a huge plume of smoke. Within hours, six separate fires had joined to form a huge front, evacuations began and roads were closed. All day, I felt a kind of morbid nostalgia: this is the real Australia, I was thinking, the Australia of my childhood, where you played on the beach while hot ash rained down on the sand. That night, the sky glowed red.

When I was growing up, my grandparents lived in a bushfire-prone area, and we were drilled strictly by my grandfather about what to do if we couldn’t evacuate in time: we were to wrap ourselves in wet blankets and lay on the floor of the carport. If we could evacuate, we were to sit in the river, something my grandparents did once, as the Ash Wednesday fire ripped through their town, sparing their house but taking many others in the process. More enjoyably, on bushfire days, I'd go to the Red Cross station with my grandmother and make sandwiches and coffee for the firefighters. I’m the kind of person who cries at newscasts of disasters and displacements, but I also feel the perverse thrill of anything out-of-the-ordinary, of people banding together against threat, of impending apocalypse.

Fortunately, it didn’t come.

Sydney in the new year is a little like Paris in August. Cloth was closed. Paper Couture was closed. Many interesting-looking shops and cafés were closed. But thanks to Di, Alison, Meg and Kylie, I got my fill of paper, fabric and notions, some of which will feature in upcoming posts. Best of all was the subtle change in perspective, the delicious feeling I have while away when my plans and ideas fly free, unshackled from my day-to-day reality. Yes, I will make all my own clothes. Yes, I will organize a big party. I will write a yarn review and install iView. I will find a wooden filing cabinet and file stuff in it. I will paint the other half of the back fence.

Why not? In my away-mode, it’s possible that all these things might happen this week.

Now I’m back of course, for two whole days, and I, um, returned some library books [what, someone else wants to borrow Flea Market Style?] I bought and assembled an outdoor table that, despite being made of steel, shows a worrying tendency to bend and wobble. [“Butter steel,” Isaac suggested.] I called the agent about the studio space, but the landlord is out of town. I’ve wondered idly how many thousand e-mails and phone messages will greet me when I return to work tomorrow, and how perhaps I should have left vacation messages indicating when I’d be back. I’ve marveled at how much our tomato plants have grown, and how they might make it nearly impossible to finish painting the half-done fence.

As long as I can remember, I've found returning from a trip almost always more exciting than arriving in an unknown place. I remember daydreaming in the backseat of my parents’ car about commandeering a section of their garden for an elaborate vegetable patch. I remember pondering a career in architecture when I grew up. I dream-designed an early eco-sustainable house, which featured a metal bathtub with a log-burning cavity underneath for heating the bath water. [Ouch!] Car trips home provided the perfect time and place for new year’s-type resolutions. The world rushing by, adults at the helm, dreaming of rearranging my room the minute we got home.

Welcome back!