Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Love Affair With Leather

I wish you could reach through the screen and touch the leather in the photo. It is just The orange is brilliantly saturated with color, and it feels like buttery satin. The lime green has a high gloss on the snake print, and a slightly firm 'body' that will help structure every purse. These are my skins for February -- citrus colors -- but I get excited every single time I buy. Yes, it's a love affair with leather.

My sister says, "With you, the answer is always leather." And it's true! I think that just about every challenge can be solved with this wonderful material. There are so many kinds of leather, and each has its own magical properties. So get yourself a cup of tea (or something with more spirit). This is a quickie leather primer.

My relationship with leather goes waaaaay back. I think I was 10 years old when someone gave me a bag of leather scraps to fool around with. Looking back, I now know they were cowhide suede, but I thought it was all wondrous and instinctively I began to make things out of them. My first creations were rings, with happy faces and peace signs. (Hey, it was the '70s.) I sold them to my friends for a nickel a piece. Leslie Ann Bordman wore hers to wash dishes and it came apart. I had to refund her nickel but I learned something -- leather is not plastic. It is a natural material with limitations...and incredible beauty.

In my mid-20s I had a small company, Kudos Accessories. I designed accessories in leather that were sold by my friends through the home party program. It was so successful it almost killed me, and eventually I closed shop because I was overwhelmed. But it was through Kudos that I began to really learn about leather. Here's what I can tell you without boring you to death:

Leather is not like fabric. Each skin is different -- from animal to animal -- and within the skin itself. For example, the center of the skin is the usually the thickest, but also the most beautiful. As you move toward the edges discoloration can occur, but the skin also thins, and this is what I usually use for shoes.

My main skins are lamb ( those baby lambs!) and goat, which are really the only skins fine enough for doll work. Leather is sold by the square foot (you pay for the ragged edges, too) and its thickness is measured in ounces. I know that's strange, but once you figure it out, you get used to it. For example, in ancient times, a warrior's armor was made in 9 - 12 ounce leather. That's thick enough to slow down an arrow! For doll work I use 1.5 - 2 ounce scale. If you have leather furniture, it's probably 4 or 5 ounce, to survive the stress all that sitting. If you're looking to make something for yourself -- a purse or a skirt -- you'd be best off with the same weight as I use for dolls.

One of the challenges I face with doll shoes is that leather dye is deadly... and left untreated it will leach out into a doll's skin. I know this because my own dolls were the first victims! However, I've discovered a way to block this process, and you may have noticed that the shoe interiors are stiff and shiny. This is to protect your girls. They need not suffer like my early dolls!

Another challenge with leather is glue. For certain applications, nothing beats good old white glue (the kind you had in school). But to glue 2 surface layers together, well, that took space age technology: Krazy Glue Advanced Formula Gel. Yes, this is my secret weapon, and it's only been available within the last 10 years. A lucky thing for dolls! (However, I've glued my fingers together more times than I can count.)

The top layer of a skin, by the way, is called the pliver. Thick leather can be split into layers, and the paper-thin top layer has a lot of different uses, although it's not very strong. Some people use it for calligraphy, or Indian arts and crafts. I've used it for painted shoes, and bonded shoes. The Gucci Flora shoes were silk bonded to a pliver.

I continue to learn about this material I love, and it's all to the good. What I learn, I use to benefit dolls...and what better use could there be??

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Of Mice and Mothers

“Auntie Janet is the Universal Mother,” my son has told me, repeatedly.

Thanks, son. Sure, I've raised you for the past 20-odd years and you're not an ax-murderer or anything, and never mind that incident with my car...

Actually, I can't disagree with him. There is something about my sister that surrounds her like an aura, emanating the sense of “A Mother is Here...Help Provided” Whenever I've gone out with Janet – to a play, or whatever – and left her for 30 seconds to visit the Ladies Room, she is surrounded by strangers when I get back. She could be giving directions, holding a cranky baby, hemming a skirt (in the aisle!) People seem to zero in on her. Some years ago she made a trip to San Francisco, which she enjoyed, except for the fact she was mobbed by street people wherever she went.

“I don't understand it,” she said. “No matter how many tourists were on the street, the panhandlers all came up to me.”

Just recently, Janet's boss asked her to sub for her, teaching a university class. Very excited, Janet prepared well – she wanted to give a professional presentation to these young adults. At the end of her opening comments, she asked if there were any questions. One young woman put up her hand.

“Do you have a lot of children?”

Yes, Janet admitted. She'd had 4 children.

The young woman smiled. “You seem like a mom.”

She has that face. Or something. However, the following events are rather illuminating.

Now, please know that Janet and I live in wine country. Our homes stand on land that was once orchards or vineyards. All the creatures (deer, coyotes, rabbits, wild turkeys and smaller critters) still think this is their home. And when the weather turns brisk, they avail themselves of the amenities.

“I think I have mice in the kitchen,” Janet told me. “Do you have any of those catch-and-release traps?” She couldn't even consider traditional mouse traps, with her animal-loving daughters at home.

Well, I did and I lent them to her: 3 grey plastic tube-like traps that were 6.00 apiece. These must have been built by mice, for mice, because the little creatures instinctively knew how to rob the bait and get away. They glutted themselves on peanut butter without even leaving a thank you note.

Janet purchased a more substantial trap – suitable for housing ocelots – and tried again. Success! In the morning she had a furry intruder safely secured. Her daughters marched the cage 2 blocks to the park and ceremoniously released him. That night Janet baited trap again. Her youngest daughter Danielle watched with her arms folded, a bemused expression on her face.

“I don't know why you're bothering, Mom. He's not gonna fall for it again.”

Oh, Danielle, you sweet, innocent child.

Mouse after mouse 'fell for it.' Once, when the trip to the park was delayed, Janet's oldest daughter, Zoe, fed the prisoner some homemade raisin bread to 'tide him over.'

“And he ate it, Mom!” she said excitedly.

No kidding. He probably started sending postcards to his family and friends as soon as he was released in the park:

Darling, wish you were here. The hotel is FAB – you wouldn't believe the food . And the service! I had meals right to my room.

In fact, one little nipper actually had to be shaken out of the cage. He wasn't willing to give up the room.

Well, the weeks went on and I forgot about the events in the hubbub of the holidays. After Christmas I remembered to ask Janet how 'Project Mouse' was going.

She looked down. “Well, I've sort of backed off.”

Really? Why? Things had been going so swimmingly.

“I know,” she said. “But it's gotten cold, and it's snowed. How could I put those little things out into the snow?”

That is the answer from a UM – Universal Mother. And even mice know a soft touch when they see it.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Beware the Lace Bandit

I have to preface this post with a disclaimer: Our mom is very generous. There have been several times when she's opened her heart -- and dug deep into her savings -- to help Janet or I out of a serious bind. She's generous in small ways, too. This past summer she told me she was going to sell what was left of her china at a garage sale, and I developed a sudden attack of nostalgia.

"Those dishes with the green leaves? I love those dishes! They're the dishes of my childhood."

Well, she took them out of the 'to sell' pile, packed them up carefully, and shipped them almost 4,000 kilometers across the country to me. Of course when Janet came over she said, "How come YOU got the china?!"

(Please note that the 'china' consisted of 5 dinner plates, 2 platters, a sugar bowl and a cracked gravy boat.)

On top of her generosity, Mom is known for her quirky sense of humor ("You were an easy child to raise -- You were so gullible," she told me once.) She's also known for her 'thing' about lace... and trim... and fabric.

Like Janet, Mom is a wonderful seamstress, but her thing for lace goes above and beyond the need for supplies. I think she has an unconscious belief that one day they will suddenly stop making lace and she'll be caught short. Never mind the boxes of it in her basement! She wants to be well-prepared for the next event that requires frilly trim...even if it's outfitting the Canadian Armed Forces in pretty nightgowns. She's reluctant to let go of her current stock -- of anything.

Just this spring, she called me on the phone, bubbling with excitement over the vintage Ultra-Suede she'd found. She knew that Janet and I treasure the original Ultra-Suede, because it has the stiffness to make perfect doll hats and other items. It's also getting hard to find.

"I'll send you some," she enthused.

Well, I waited, and waited. And finally the envelope came: it contained 4 square inches of Ultra-Suede.

"It's just a sample," she explained. "I'll send you more if you need it."

Sure you will, Mom.

But the most illuminating event occurred on her last visit to us, a few years ago. She surveyed my work area/basement and in true Mother fashion, put her hands on her hips. "This is a dump! How can you find anything down here? Look, the drawers on this cabinet won't even close, they're crammed so full."

I had to admit she was right, so the two of us set to work sorting and cleaning. We brought out the drawers full of trim and made 2 piles -- one to keep and one to throw out. I could hardly believe it. I don't even sew! How did I get so much stuff? There was ribbon, lace, pipe-cleaners, bows, you name it.

We were diligently ruthless and it still took almost a whole day to get through. We worked on the kitchen table, because it was the only clear horizontal surface in my home. but when I put the drawers back into the cabinet, they actually closed, and I had a wonderful feeling of satisfaction. Good old Mom.

After she'd left, my son Ben and I reminisced about the visit.

"And the funniest part," Ben said, "was when Grandma was sneaking all that lace into her purse. You know, when you were cleaning the drawers at the table...?"

..."You were an easy child to raise -- You were so gullible"...

Good old Mom. You'll notice she's wearing dark glasses in the photo, like other con artists.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Purple Rabbits and the Panic Button

My sister Janet has many fine qualities, but these 2 are my favorites:

1) She believes in me even when I don't know what the heck I'm doing

2) She keeps her cool even in the most panicky situations

(Please note -- 1 and 2 are related)

Even when I am running around, squawking like a chicken, she is able to view the situation with an objective eye. Example:

ME: "Awk, awk! I left the window open and the rain got in and soaked my computer! It won't start up and we have to list an auction...awk, awk!"

JANET: "Hang on, I'm coming over with a hair dryer."

(Another note -- I know that even primitive societies now have hair dryers, many with Quik Curl attachments. For some reason I never replaced mine when the motors burned out.)

Final result? The computer was dried by her quick-thinking action, the auction went up and the La Boutique empire was saved.

I'm sure her biggest challenge, though, was the Fendi Purple Rabbit Event. Now, this was in the first year of Purse of the Month, when I would choose a purse design simply because I liked it, without real thought of my ability to re-create it in miniature.

I saw the real Fendi design in purple fur and loved it. No doubt dolls the world over were suffering because they did not yet have a furry purple purse, and I had to make one available to them. I ordered 10 purple rabbit skins.

My sister's youngest daughter, Danielle, was 9 at the time and (unfortunately) she was the one who opened the box when it arrived. The little animal-loving child was horrified.

"Mom! This box is full of rabbit skins -- and there are no rabbits in them!"

Quick-thinking Janet tried to explain that these rabbits had fought bravely in the war and...Well, Danielle wasn't buying it. (For months afterward I was referred to as Auntie Diane, the Butcher.)

I took the purple rabbit skins home, a wee bit dismayed by how...furry they were. There was way more volume than the real-scale Fendi had. But I soldiered on and finally showed Janet the prototype. She was silent for a whole minute before she said, "It looks like...Pet on a Rope."

We laughed 'til we cried. That's exactly what it looked like! But we needed to solve our problem -- the clock was ticking! Janet said, "What we need is to shear the rabbit fur. Let's get some pet trimmers."

Valiant soul, she was the one who went to Pet Paradise and explained to the cat-lady-clerk that she needed trimmers.

"How long is the fur you need to trim?" the clerk asked.

Janet glanced at the Cat Enclosure, just 10 feet away. "Well, it's about the same length as cat fur..."

The clerk looked nervous. "Why don't you try the clippers out and bring them back if they don't work. What type of pet do you have?"

"Well, actually, the 'pet' is not really alive...and it's purple... Say, couldn't we try it them on a cat?"

They threw her out. And my sister (God bless her!) marched into Wal-Mart and didn't tell them a darn thing. She brought me a beard and moustache trimmer, and for weeks I was down on my knees in my basement, shaving away, purple fur in the air and in my nose, cursing the day I'd ever thought this up...

If you have a Fendi purple fur bag, thank you for your purchase. Please enjoy it. There will never be another.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Ask me anything – Go ahead – ask me!---- DOG CHAT

I think any mother will agree that no matter what is going on in a family, no matter who is doing what, or where, when a question comes up the buck always stops at her door. That is the case in our home. If something is broken, or lost, or missing, or needs to be fed, watered, walked, diapered, or rocked to sleep, it always seems to wind up in my arms.

And so when my daughters, Zoe and Demi, began Puppy Pawz and walking dogs for dough, it only seemed natural that I would fill in the blanks. Baxter, an English springer spaniel, and his little sister Chloe (part Yorkshire terrier, part havanese) are regulars here at the Ellis home.

They are certainly beloved by my daughters, and there is plenty of walking and playing going on. But when the girls turn to other things, like friends and the computer, the puppies turn to me. Baxter loves to come down stairs and sit beside my sewing machine, in the thread, and wiggle until I scratch his back. Chloe can’t get down the stairs, but cries at the top for me to come up and spend some time with her. And of course it goes without saying, if anyone is coming in with a messy bottom, I'm the one who does the cleaning up!

We knew the dogs were part of our life when we won a free sitting at the portrait studio in the mall, and we thought we'd include them too.

I thought Dog Chat would be a nice place to share your puppy experiences, and even answer a question or two. What’s that? We already have 2 furry friends that have sent in a question for Baxter and Chloe?

Dear Chloe,
I hear you visit a home where any time, day or night, a meat ball could wind up on the floor. Is this the place they call 'heaven'?
--A schnauzer in Saskatchewan

To: Schnauze. Yes, a meatball or two does tumble down out of the fridge, But I have to be quick. My big brother Baxter tends to get any stray food first. Hugs, Chloe.

Dear Baxter,
Hey, big guy, I'm like you -- my fur coat's a litte...uh...thick in the middle. Now, it's winter and my owner wants to put a doggie coat on me. Should I worry about what it does to my 'fightin' physique'?---- A boxer in Brooklyn

Hey Box, Fit is everything! As long as the lines are sleek, you can look manly in a fur’s fur coat.
Stay tuned to this Blog for fashions for our furry friends… LB BOW WOW… sometime soon!

February Inspiration -- Part 2, or "How to land a man"

Look closely at the needlework on the near left. If you're like most people you probably think, "Hmm...some kind of embroidery. Nice colors." If you're part of the 1% who still do needlework, you just clapped your hand to your forehead and said, "Mein Gott! That's the smallest chain stitch I've ever seen! Some poor woman went blind doing this."

I am in the forehead-clapping group. After I received this vintage trim as a gift from my mom, I had to do some research. (Okay, gift is too strong a word. I had to wrestle it out of her hands. More about Mom and her issues with fabric trim at another time.)

What stumped me was this looked exactly like embroidery chain stitch, but it was too perfect and there was too much of it. I finally found the answer in a book called Plain & Fancy, American Women and their Needlework. What I had was called tambour work, and it's actually done on muslin with a poker that looks like a teeny weeny crochet hook.

This particular trim is circa 1920 - 1940, and so it was done by machine. But up until the 1860's tambour work -- and all needlework -- was part of a woman's man-trapping arsenal. It was considered "one of the feminine charms," (right along with what was squeezed up above her corset.)

Just study the image of the painting above, with that sultry Miss Vick working the tambour stitch. Oh, sure, her innocent cousin Miss Foster blithely holds the pattern, but that hussy Miss Vick looks out at us, knowing the power of her "beguiling poses." In the 1850s, a potential suitor was led through the house -- before he ever received tea or sherry -- and forced to examine the needlework of the young lady of the home. By the time he reached the ultimate, her Sampler, he was in a fever and couldn't take it any more.

"That's the Queen's Stitch -- you hot babe! Marry me and recover my footstool, I beg you!"

And we, the sisters of La Boutique, dare to bring such a potent piece of needlework into your doll's life. For February, we'll be offering an optional tote made of this wonderful vintage trim. All your girl has to do is swing her tote as she saunters along the beach, and every 1850s male doll will be slavering after her. He'll never know it was machine made (men are so easily fooled.)

Whoops! Did I say 'beach'?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Janet - What Could I Possibly Have to Say?

When my sister Diana, first suggested the idea of a blog, I equated it with the spacebook wall of friends that my 15 year old daughter has. Not that there is anything wrong with facebook, or my space, but I was concerned that I wouldn’t have time for the daily upkeep.

“I won’t have to tweeter or anything like that, will I”, I asked. “I don’t have to post pictures of me in my grade 8 graduation dress, or ask everyone to comment on the current color and length of my hair, do I?”

“No”, my sister assured me “we’ll talk about La Boutique and the creative process. And we’ll invite people to share in that experience. You’ll like it, you’ll see!”.

And so I agreed, and I signed up; and I have to admit, it’s a good idea. Diana is a wonderful witty writer, and I laugh at all her stories. She retells our past so well, that it almost sounds like it was fun! And I guess it was, and if nothing else, it bonded us as sisters, and made La Boutique possible.

We often joke that we think with one brain. Now if that is true, then we really are each different sides of the brain. I am the fabric side, and Diana is the artistic accessory side. And somehow we come together each month and create a collection of fashions and accessories, most often led by the style of a designer purse, and manage to not kill eachother!

So I’ll do my part, and we’ll take lots of pictures and let everyone in on our fabric shopping trips and the designs we draw, and the drama at home, and even a bit of ‘dogchat’ with Baxter and Chloe – the 2 puppies my daughters walk and dogsit. And it will be a blog….. La Blog!