Category Archives: tools

Design Tip: Cropping

I was asked to talk about my quiltlet process at Sunday’s Modern Quilt Guild meeting, and since I work a little larger and then crop down, I wanted to give a visual of how that can change a composition. Since my quiltlets are all 6×8″, I cut a cropping window out of a larger piece of cardboard. This way, I can isolate 6×8″ compositions and decide what I like best. I also have a smaller window template (for smaller compositions, obviously!). Sometimes I’m working with a finished composition already in mind, but using this template is really helpful when I’m working intuitively. It can help you discover compositions you didn’t even know were hiding within your design. These view finders can also be helpful when you’re inspired by a particular design out in the world and trying to isolate part of it to focus in on.

To demonstrate this process, I pieced an improv square.

improv pieced square,

Before adding more surface interest, I took some pictures using the cropping windows. These are only a portion of the photos I took, as I wanted to remember all the possible ways I might want to enlarge this into a full-size quilt. I really love these colors together.

cropping example,

This crop keeps the horizontal and verticals intact. But don’t just move the cropping window around; tilt it from side to side as well, to see possibilities on the diagonal.

cropping on the diagonal,

cropping on the diagonal,

I then added some surface interest in the form of circles and quilting, so the full piece looked like this.

circles and lines,

Again, I took many more pictures than I’m sharing here.

cropping example,

And again, some on the diagonal.

cropping example,

cropping example,

I love zooming in on one part of a design like this–the results can be so interesting. Using this tool allows you to explore different focal points. What works best? What is most interesting? What draws you in the most? Often I do quite a bit of sewing that doesn’t make it into the final piece, but that sewing was necessary to get to the final composition. It’s like research in a novel; the reader might never read that backstory but it adds to the story nonetheless.

Postcard Substrates–What to Use?

As part of the Summer Mail Art Swap, I’ll be posting ideas, links, and tutorials, hopefully every Monday. This week, let’s talk about the postcard substrate–in other words, what you’ll be creating your original postcard art on.

possible postcard substrates at

You can buy blank postcards, of course, such as the watercolor postcards pictured above, but you don’t have to. This is just a pad of 4″x6″ sheets of watercolor paper. It’s far cheaper to cut watercolor paper down to size yourself.

The yellow pad is Bristol board. I’ll admit, this is one of my favorite surfaces for collage and postcards. It cost about $6 for 20 sheets, each of which can produce 4 postcards. (It was $10, but I had a 40% off coupon at my local art store.)

However, you don’t need to buy a thing. Save your cardboard boxes from the recycling bin–they make great surfaces for postcards! The blank inside is perfect for writing on. You can paint or collage right onto the side with the image, or you can cover it with gesso first to start with a blank white surface. If you want to do that, here’s how.

First, I cut off the side, top, and bottom flaps so I have two even rectangles. Then I lightly sanded it with fine sandpaper. This roughs up the surface so the gesso goes on better.

prepping a cereal box for gesso at

Then apply a layer of gesso, which you can find in art stores or big-box craft stores in the art supply aisle. I’m not using a fancy brush; I got this one at the hardware store for probably a dollar.

painting gesso on cereal box at

Once it was dry, I decided I wanted a second coat, so I lightly sanded again and painted on another coat of gesso. All done–ready to be worked on!

gessoed cereal box at

You can cut them to size first and work on them small, or collage and paint first and then cut them down, as I demonstrate here.

Karen has a helpful post with 10 “cheap or free” items you can use for postcard substrates, too.

Weaving Process For a Preschooler

That cold-and-cough virus has been running through my kids for more than a week now, and G is the last to get it. When the kids are sick, the TV tends to be on more than normal (normal = hardly at all), and Thursday morning (when I felt badly, too, and needed to crawl back into bed) G and I ended up watching a meh sort of kids’ show, but it showed how spiders (animated ones, anyway) weave a web. Later that day, I asked G if she’d like to try weaving like a spider, too. 9We ended up with two different methods; materials are listed separately for each.)

Materials: Inner hoop of an embroidery hoop, yarn, strips of fabric cut about 1″ wide

I happened to have a 7″ hoop on hand, but larger would probably be even better. I began by tying a length of yarn straight across the diameter of the hoop. I added two more pieces, for six “wedges” total, but you could do more for an older child. (G is three.)

I held the hoop for her, and she began weaving the fabric strip over, under, over, under. With this set-up, it was easy for her to see where the fabric should go next, because the wedges were so defined. And with me holding the hoop, she could use both hands, almost like she was sewing the fabric through the holes.

When she reached the end of one strip, I just knotted on a new one and she kept going. The end result doesn’t look like much, but it is–it’s a really helpful step on the way to learning the weaving process. (G was quite pleased with herself.)

Materials: Cardboard, x-acto knife and metal ruler (for cutting), yarn, stapler, paper strips

Next, I created a more traditional weaving set-up for her by cutting out the center of a sturdy cardboard rectangle. Then I looped yarn around, tied it, and stapled it down. This time I cut 1″ strips of paper.

The yarn is doubled, so I reminded her to go over or under both pieces of yarn, not through the middle. She knew just what to do, reciting “over” and “under” as she worked.

I held the frame up for her, which again made it easier for her to work the strips through. The paper isn’t attached, so we can take it out and do it again, for more practice, or use fabric strips next time.

The top strip of blue paper is woven through the yarn that goes around the top of the cardboard–she wanted to weave one there, too. By the time she was ready to stop, she’d really gotten comfortable with the motion of weaving. This is propped up in the living room, ready for when she wants to go back to it, or take out the papers and start over–much like you might use lacing cards again and again, as part of the process of learning a new skill.

Stamp Making for Younger Kids

In the last post, I showed how my older kids turned a sketch into a rubber stamp. While they were making their stamps, my three-year-old, naturally, wanted to make a stamp, too. Rather than turn a drawing of hers into a stamp myself–which is definitely one option and something we might do in the future–I wanted to find a way for her to be involved in the entire process of making a stamp. This is what we did. Photos are scarce, because I was focusing on making sure my older kids were using the sharp cutting tools safely and properly, but it’s a pretty simple process.

Materials: Craft foam, scissors, wooden block, glue, pencil or other tool to make marks in the foam (optional)

Craft foam isn’t typically on my list of art supplies, but it does come in handy for certain uses, and I still have some sheets knocking about the studio cubbies. G loves to cut with scissors, so I gave her a sheet of craft foam and suggested she cut out some shapes that we could then glue onto the block. The word “shapes” hung her up, as she’s recently been learning about the shapes we call circle, triangle, square, etc. When I realized she was trying to cut out those shapes (a bit hard at her age), I explained she could cut anything she wanted, it just needed to fit on the block at the end. She happily cut the sheet of foam into strips while I worked with her brothers.

At the end of her cutting, we found a piece that fit onto the wooden block and we glued it on, using regular tacky glue. It set pretty quickly.

Then she added some scratchings in, and tried out her stamp.

This was simple, but satisfying. A slightly older child–old enough to cut specific forms with scissors but too young to use the carving tools for rubber stamps–could arrange patterns on the block using more than one piece of foam. Lots of possibilities!

Carving Stamps

Note: This is suitable for elementary students & older. In the next post I’ll show how I modified things so my three-year-old could make a stamp, too.

Materials: Speedball Speedy Carve block (cut into smaller pieces); set of linoleum cutting tools; paper and pencil; bone folder (optional); x-acto knife (optional); block, cork, or something similar for a handle, and glue (optional)

I began experimenting with stamp carving last year, and, if you haven’t tried it before, I can tell you that it’s easier than you might think to get good results. I have a tutorial here, and that is the process I led my kids through, too. However, I stressed a couple of points:

* Fingers have to stay on the edge of the carving block, not on top of it, while carving, because if the carving tool slips, we don’t want it scooping out any finger bits.

* Always carve away from yourself, directly away, not at an angle. Turn the block as necessary. The tools are designed to be pushed away as they scoop. Plus, it’s safer.

Also, using a scrap of rubber, I showed the boys how to use the tool before handing it over. I found all my supplies at a local chain craft store (near the stamps and scrap-booking section), and both cutting sets were purchased with a 50% off coupon, so it wasn’t too expensive to have one for each child. You can also find stamp carving supplies at a fine arts store.

Okay, let’s begin! First, using a metal straight edge and an x-acto knife, I cut the block into smaller pieces. After each boy chose a size, I traced his block onto a piece of paper several times. The boys then sketched their ideas into these squares, so they knew the size they were working with. Once they had sketches they were pleased with, I had them go over the lines with the pencil so they were darker, and then we burnished the sketch onto the carving block. (Details are in the tutorial.)

Now it’s time to carve!

Below, N works on his stamp, his sketch of the Hero Factory shield. Yes, his fingers are on the block, but at least on the near side of the tool. I did need to remind him more than once not to carve towards his fingers.

Here, V has inked and stamped his carving, so he can see what still needs to be carved away.

N’s finished Hero Factory stamp is at the top of this post, and here is V’s initial with a lightning bolt:

This activity is something that requires supervision and knowledge of your own kids. V, age 10, had no problems using the tools safely and well. N, age 7, needed much closer supervision and some help finishing his stamp. But the immediate thrill of sketching an idea and turning it into a stamp really can’t be beat. I love it every single time, and it’s really fun to share this thrill with my kids.

Note: V decided to leave his block as is. N wanted me to cut around the perimeter of his–which I did with the x-acto knife–and then we glued it to a wooden block to use as a handle. Trimming around the outside edge can eliminate the need to carve away all the excess outside the design, but it doesn’t work for all designs. I use a waterproof glue, because I like to rinse our stamps after we use them.

Tin Lanterns (Two Ways)

We made these lanterns to celebrate winter solstice, but they’ll be welcome all through winter. We made one version appropriate for older kids, and one better suited to younger kids.

Tin Can Lanterns

Materials: Clean tin can (I used 28-oz tomato cans) with the lid taken off with the type of can opener that doesn’t leave sharp edges; water; hammer and nail

Age level: Elementary & up

Fill the can with water and freeze overnight, either in the freezer or outside. I left room at the top for the water to expand, but it expanded downward for some reason. (If you want your lantern to have handles, you need to be able to punch a hole up near the top, so you’ll need ice up there.)

When the water is frozen, gently tap out a design using a hammer and nail.

We did this in the living room, as you can see, just spreading out a towel and using some old cloth diapers to brace the cans. We made our holes in the ridges of the can, so it was easier to brace the nail. It only takes a gentle tap.

I told the boys to turn the can so that they were always banging the nail straight, not at an angle. They’re 7 and 10, and both of them were easily and safely able to do this. G “helped” me by holding my hammering hand, but I wanted her to be able to create her own lantern without help, so I took inspiration from these jar luminarias at Family Fun.

Aluminum Foil Jar Lanterns

Materials: Glass jar; aluminum foil cut to fit; nail, toothpick, pushpin, or similar (to make holes); foam, cork, cardboard, or similar (as backing while making holes); tape (I used double sided)

Age level: All ages, and suitable for preschoolers

I happened to have a roll of cork lying around the studio, so I spread it out on the table and lay the piece of foil on top of it. G used a nail to punch the holes because it made a slightly bigger opening than a toothpick. I showed her on a scrap of foil how to punch the hole up and down, and how dragging the nail (like you’re drawing with it) will tear the foil. Then she punched her holes.

When she was done, I wrapped the foil around the jar, tucking a little under the bottom and a little around the top edge. I used a piece of double-sided tape to secure the overlap on the side. G ended up making two lanterns, of random design.

Tin can lanterns: my snowflake and N's initial

I placed tea lights in our cans and jars for use indoors. If you want handles on the tin can lanterns, punch a hole on either side at the top and string with ribbon, twine, or the like. But you need to have ice behind while you’re tapping the nail; otherwise the can will dent. (Also, you might not want to use a candle if you’re carrying the lantern; perhaps one of those battery-operated tea lights?)

One of G's aluminum foil jar lanterns

Because my ice expanded downwards, the bottom of our cans were a little warped, but I just gave them a tap with my fist and they flattened enough to sit level on the table.

Our grouping of luminaria, reminding us the light will return

Happy Solstice! And now we turn, ever so slowly, towards the sun.

The Importance of the Proper Tools (II)

My first post on this topic discusses my then-two-year-old daughter’s desire to cut fabric, and my search for proper fabric scissors that would be safe in her hands. (I’ve since shown her the business end of a pin and how to use them safely, since naturally, after cutting a bunch of fabric pieces, you want to pin them together.) I didn’t necessarily intend this subject to become a series, but here’s another post in the same vein nonetheless.

N (age 7) and I signed up for a parent/child art class at a local museum. We both like art, and art museums, and I think he, as my middle child, is really in need of some one-on-one time with me. This class seems like a great way to do that. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it seems (we’ve only had one class) that we’ll be working on one collaborative project over the five sessions. The first day, part of what we needed to do was sew the shoulder straps that will connect to the rest of the project. Rectangles of craft felt were pre-cut, and we were to choose two rectangles, and fold each in half and sew the two halves together, to make two straps. Easy enough. N and I looked around for needles…

…and all they had were tapestry needles. Those are the large, blunt-tipped needles you use, generally, with yarn, which is exactly what we were to use them with too. But they don’t pierce felt, so we were supposed to punch holes in the felt with hole punches first, and then weave the yarn through the holes to “sew.” Which is a pretty good method, except that anyone who cuts fabric knows never to use your fabric scissors on paper because it dulls the blade, and boy did it look hard to punch holes through craft felt!

N really wanted to use a “real” needle, which I thoroughly support. I don’t know if the tapestry needle/hole punch/yarn method was chosen out of expediency or safety. I got the sense it was safety, but the class is geared for kids ages 6-9, and any six-year-old can use a real needle if shown how. And I’ll be honest: I really didn’t want to try to punch holes in craft felt with a paper hole punch, so we took our pieces of felt home to sew.

Here’s N, using an embroidery needle and floss to sew his felt.

(That is a rare TV-on sighting in our house! It was Sunday afternoon–football was on.)

N used the chalk that you see in the photo to draw a line of what he wanted to sew, and then he followed the line. I showed him how to backstitch and helped him around the corners and sorted it out when he forgot and sewed around the edge of the fabric instead of back and forth. After a few times, he figured out himself how to fix that, even re-threading the needle himself. Since this is a collaborative project, we each sewed a strap. Here they are together (click to embiggen).

N’s is on the bottom. He backstitched that zigzag himself. With a real needle. And he is pleased. And yes, he poked himself once or twice with the needle, but he didn’t even bleed (so he’s doing better than I am; I usually draw blood from my thumb at least once per embroidery session).

Kids are so capable.  Let them prove it to you!

(PS: We also made the shirt he’s wearing, many years ago. It’s printed using a vinyl fish replica and liquid acrylic craft paint.)

The Importance of the Proper Tools

I’ve always believed that kids deserve as good-quality art supplies as we can manage. This doesn’t mean the most expensive, but the tools and supplies we provide for our kids shouldn’t lead to frustration. The pencils and crayons should draw smoothly, the pastels should feel good against the paper, the paper itself should hold up to whatever’s being applied to it, and for goodness sakes, none of the teeny tiny paintbrushes and the watercolors that stay dry and colorless no matter how much water you add to the measly little block. (I always wondered, as a kid, how famous artists created such amazing watercolors. Learning about tubes of watercolor paint was a revelation, I tell you.)

Many products and supplies geared towards children are just not up to the task of carrying out the child’s ideas. But when I notice I need, I try to fill it; when a child has a desire, I try to make sure he or she can carry out the task. I don’t want an idea to fail simply for lack of the proper tools.

Not too long ago I decided to try sewing while G kept me company at the art (and sometimes sewing) table. I hadn’t tried this in a while, but I was making an apron for her and she was invested in the success of the experiment! She played with buttons, looked at some sewing books, and then wanted to play with, and then cut, some fabric scraps. I have a pair of fabric scissors set aside for this use, but they’re much too large for small hands, so I gave her some scissors from the art table. But cutting paper dulls scissors, and it was hard work to cut the fabric. She was very patient with it, but I decided I needed to get her scissors with blades that were sharp enough to meet her needs and desire.

After some research and asking around, I decided to try to find Fiskars 5-inch blunt-tipped scissors. Unfortunately, my local Joann’s (where the scissors were 50% off this week!) didn’t have those exact scissors, so I bought a 5-inch pair with slightly sharper tips than I wanted, and the 7-inch student scissors, which are also blunt-tipped. I’d thought the 7-inch ones might be too long, but they actually are just fine.

Can you see the small smile on G’s face? When we tried the scissors and she realized how easy it could be to cut fabric, she was so, so pleased. So satisfied. Like I said, she’d shown remarkable patience with the dull scissors, but I have a feeling using scissors that cut so easily was a revelation akin to my watercolor discovery. It is amazing to realize that something you want to do doesn’t actually have to be difficult.

We worked on how to safely hold the fabric and the scissors. (Her fingers are a little closer than I’d like here, but she was careful the whole way through.) I made sure she was always cutting away from herself, not towards her fingers or her body, and I didn’t take too many pictures because I was more concerned with holding the fabric to make her cutting work easier. She was intent on cutting small pieces, and then she needed a place to put them.

She was happy for quite a while, cutting up scraps and putting them into a glass jar. I think I’ll keep the smaller, sharper scissors for me and the student scissors will be hers. They enable her to do what she wants to do.

In the course of asking around to figure out what sort of “real” scissors would be appropriate for a two-year-old, I know I ran into some who disagreed with the idea outright. Here are some things I considered:

* This is not G’s first experience with using scissors. She’s been experimenting with cutting paper for a while now.

* The desire came from her–she had a plan and a need, and when a child (or anybody else) wants to do something, that person is likely to be invested in learning how to do it safely.

* I’m willing to sit with her and take the time to show her how to use the tool safely and supervise her at all times.

And, of course, respect–I respect her needs and desires and recognize it’s my job to help her fulfill them to the best of her ability. G, being the youngest of three, has always done things a bit ahead of schedule, and I’m not saying every 2 1/2 year old is ready to cut fabric with sharp scissors. I am saying that it’s so important to know the kids we are working with, provide them with the best and most appropriate tools that we can, and never underestimate their abilities.

(G, happily modeling her new apron!)

Punching Tin

Materials: Scrap wood, flashing, hammer, nail or awl

This is sort of a cheat, because I didn’t have to do anything for this except take my kids to opening weekend at a nearby historical homesite. The festivities included an encampment by the Lebanon (CT) Militia, a group of mid-17th century historical re-enactors. We wandered by the tinsmith’s tent, and he invited the boys to give it a try.

I include this here because it would be so fairly easy to replicate at home. The boys are using hammers, nails, aluminum flashing purchased from any hardware store, and scrap wood to place underneath the flashing. The gentleman told us that the pieces of metal were tin with aluminum coating (tin rusts), and could be found at any hardware store.

After the boys got the hang of using the nail, he let them use some shaped awls–one made a short straight line, so you could make a flower, for instance, by surrounding a nail punch with the lines. V immediately began punching out his initials. N began experimenting with the various shapes, seeing what they could do (and also banging so well that twice he nailed his tin sheet to his wood block!).

It was open-ended and process-oriented, with the fun of hammers on top of it. (G, by the way, was invited to try, with my help, but was a bit too unsure–maybe she’ll try at home.) There are some safety considerations–the edges of the tin, he told us, are sharp, so you don’t want to run your finger along it. The back has pokey-out bits. But certainly kids are capable of working safely with it. The tinsmith showed us a candle screen made with one of these sheets with a design punched out. He’d punched a design out on the sheet, then nailed the bottom (one of the longer edges) to a rectangle of wood that acted as a shelf for the candle (or several smaller candles, I guess). A simple yet pretty way to display a finished piece.

We’re going to put the boys’ punched tin sheets in their windows, after they bring them to school to share about their visit–which also included muskets. And pirates. And playing conkers… what’s not to like about an afternoon like that?

Free-Range Creativity

It’s school vacation week. The weather is meh. I’m not sure my toddler slept at all on Monday night. As a result, I wasn’t up to even getting out of the house yesterday. Before much of the morning had progressed, N had created this:

The people and animals are crossing the bridge. There’s water under the bridge–see the boat?

See the waterfall, cascading from the couch into the stream?

That’s another view of it, as it flows over some rocks. The stream then continues into a river (using larger blankets) into our blue circle rug, which became the ocean, complete with a whale.

This isn’t the first time he’s done this. Once again, we left it up all day, so Daddy could see it when he came home from work. Periodically he’d add to it, until there were gnomes and hamsters also crossing the bridge, along with a chicken and another pony. (The felt board was his second try at a bridge, after the pillow kept falling.)

I’m a big proponent of kids amusing themselves. This blog shows just a snapshot, of art activities that we do together, but, like most blogs, it doesn’t tell the whole story. My kids spend time filling their own time, too–an ability that I think is a crucial component to becoming a successful adult.

While I’m here, I keep meaning to share these photos, of V excitedly taking apart a small kitchen digital scale that ceased to work. I handed it over to him so he could explore it.

We have a small space heater that no longer shoots out warm air. It’s next in queue for V’s screwdriver. 🙂