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Local moms teach children how to weave, embroider through new book

  • Nicole Blum, right, helps Jenna Schilling, 12, make a felt hand warmer at her home in Hadley. Gazette Staff/Jerrey Roberts

  • Nicole Blum, right, who co-authored “Stitch Camp” with Catherine Newman, second from right, talks about family crafting as April Schilling, 12, and Harry Blum, 13, make felt hand warmers at her home in Hadley. Gazette Staff/Jerrey Roberts

  • Nicole Blum sews a felt hand warmer at her home in Hadley. Gazette Staff/Jerrey Roberts



For The Recorder
Friday, December 29, 2017

When children’s hands are busy, say with a pair of knitting needles or the thread of a weaving loom, the kids tend to be happy, more open to conversation with loved ones. At least that’s what Nicole Blum and Catherine Newman have found, gathering their families around their dining room tables, creating crafts like knit scarves and embroidered T-shirts.

“The process itself is so grounding and repetitive and meditative,” Newman says. Her Amherst home is filled with big patchwork blankets made from felted wool sweaters, homemade pillowcases and painted cardboard mobiles.

She shares this passion with her children, Ben, 18, and Birdy, 14, and now she’s hoping to spread the joy to other families through a new book, released this fall by Storey Publishing, “Stitch Camp,” which she co-authored with her long-time friend, Nicole Blum of Hadley.

Simple projects

The book shows how easy it is to make one-of-a-kind crafts, like a knit backpack or a crocheted bracelet.

“It’s something that is a great skill to have no matter what,” Blum says. “We are really hoping that kids won’t pick the book up and put it back down without making something. I want them to be inspired.”

“Stitch Camp” features 18 projects for kids and tweens. With large illustrations and simple directions, it shows readers the basics of how to weave, embroider and felt anything.

Each section focuses on a different skill, starting with sewing. Close-up photography shows each step from start to finish on projects like making coin pouches and patches for jeans.

The book starts with the simple stuff, like how to thread a needle, and works up to lesser-known techniques like how to use an embroidery hoop. It promises to teach old-fashioned skills with a dose of funky creativity, while giving families a chance to unwind and unplug together.

The projects are meant to be low-pressure.

“Perfectionism has never been our goal,” Newman says. “Let the knots show.”

The chapters don’t need to be followed in any particular order, but they’re organized from the easiest project, beanbag hand warmers, to the most difficult, a decorative cover for a Mason jar, which turns the jar into a fancy pencil holder or a container for kickknacks.

Each chapter also includes projects that help kids practice a new skill, like using crotchet stitching to make a hacky sack.

Adults may find the projects appealing, as well.

“We’ve had some parents say: I know this is intended for kids and tweens, but I want to make these things, too,” Blum says.

Personal approach

At no point is the book boring. An author of two memoirs, and an etiquette columnist for Real Simple magazine, Newman uses a conversational tone that makes the book fun to read. A lifelong crafter, Blum already had one book out, “Improv Sewing,” so the process came naturally to her, too.

Over a two-year period, the women exchanged ideas and took turns writing and conceiving of projects.

Mainly their inspiration for “Stitch Camp” came from their own experiences, growing up in the ‘70s making ribbon barrettes, and then raising their children surrounded by art. Most of the pictures in the book show projects made by their kids. For instance, Newman’s daughter, Birdy, is pictured on page 130 showing off a pink and orange knit hat. Flip to page 66 and you’ll see Blum’s son, Harry Blum-Carr, 13, snuggling with a pillow he embroidered with an image of a green monster. On page 6 his sister, Ava Blum-Carr, 18, is shown working on a stitching project.

Easy peasy

While Ava is off at college, Blum wrangles Harry into doing craft projects with her, but he is now more of a power tool kind of guy, she says.

On a recent Monday evening she convinced him to help demonstrate how to make the book’s beanbag project.

Their home in Hadley was filled with warm light from the hanging Mason jar light fixtures that Blum made years ago. The kitchen table was littered with felt circles and strands of thread. A few of Harry’s friends from elementary school, twins April and Jenna Schilling, both 12, were also gathered around the table.

The beanbags they were making can be used either as hand warmers or as toys to play a tossing game.

They sewed two circles of felt together, leaving a hole that they then filled with soy beans and stitched back up.

The finished products can be heated up in the microwave and kept in pockets to keep hands toasty on a cold day.

The projects were all conceived by trial and error, and tested out on kids — usually their children’s friends — before being submitted to their editor

The book also aims to give parents a way to cut down on shopping by encouraging kids to make something instead of buying it. Newman’s daughter, Birdy grew up sewing her own dolls’ clothes. When she needed a backpack, she made one with fleece, which Newman says she still uses.

Many of the suggested materials are items that can be found around the house — like recycled clothing.

Early starters

Crafting was introduced in Newman’s house early. Birdy and her brother, Ben, learned how to sew at age 7. “They sewed in that really delightfully, crazy way that kids sew,” Newman says. “It’s the same way that kids use glue – it gets all over the place.”

While Ben would sew for fun when he was a child, now his stitches are reserved for making gifts or repairing clothes, says his mother.

Ava, a freshman at Mount Holyoke College who began embroidering at age 7, also, still enjoys crafts, her mother says. “She loves to embroider and she is also a painter and I feel like her embroidery is really painterly,” says Blum. “She does really detailed work now.

Time spent crafting with their children doubles as an opportunity to bond, the women say. Every winter, Newman heads to New Hampshire with her husband, Michael Millner and the kids for a weekend in a rented cabin out in the woods. They leave their computers at home, turn their phones off and they sit together and knit.

“We always feel like a room full of kids who are making things, who are sitting with cups of tea and a woodstove... that gives you deep satisfaction,” Newman says.

Beanbag hand warmer

The project description below is an excerpt from “Stitch Camp” by Nicole Blum and Catherine Newman (Storey Publishing, 2017).

Toss them into a bucket and keep score — and they’re toys. Heat them in the microwave and pop them in your pockets — and they’re hand warmers. Either way, this is a project that comes together quickly, and it makes a great gift. Make your beanbag as big or small as you like, or vary the sizes for different projects.

What you need

Enough craft felt, polar fleece, or felted wool to cut a front and back piece

Straight pins

A small bowl (or a square cut from cardboard) for tracing (any size 3 to 5 inches is good)

Chalk

Scissors

Embroidery floss or sturdy thread

Sharp needle

Rice or other grains, lentils or other small dried beans, or popcorn, for filling

Kitchen funnel or a piece of paper or small spoon

How you make it

1. Stack or fold the fabric so there are two layers and stick a pin through the middle to hold the layers together while you’re cutting. Trace the bowl or cardboard square onto the top layer with chalk. Keeping both pieces of fabric pinned together, carefully cut the shapes out. Taking your time here will make sewing easier, and you won’t have to fix rough edges later.

2. Measure an arm’s length of embroidery floss, thread your needle, and knot the end. Starting in between the two layers, push your needle up through the top piece of fabric and pull the thread through until the knot is snugly against the underside.

3. Stitch around the edge of both layers using a nice, even backstitch. It is important to make your stitches very close together so the filling won’t pop out, especially if you’re using rice.

4. When you have about 1 inch left open, stop sewing but don’t tie off your thread yet; just lay the needle and thread out of the way or push the needle into the fabric to keep it safe. Use the unstitched hole to fill the bag with rice, beans, or the filling of your choice. A kitchen funnel makes this easy, but you can roll up a piece of paper to make a funnel if you like, or just use a small spoon and some patience.

5. When the bag is full, finish stitching until you meet up with where you started, then tie off your thread and snip it close to the fabric. If it’s important to you to conceal the knot, you can push the needle between the two layers before knotting.

Tip: materials for hand warmers

If you’re planning to offer your beanbags up (or use them yourself) as hand warmers, use wool felt for the outside. Synthetics can behave strangely in the microwave, which is where you’ll heat them up. Rice is our favorite choice for filling hand warmers (it smells good when you heat it.), but whatever you choose, don’t use popcorn.

“Stitch Camp” will be available at Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, the Toy Box in Amherst, WEBS- America’s Yarn Store in Northampton and Amherst Books in Amherst.​​​​​