Saturday, January 26, 2019

Snow Days and Antiques

January and we’ve finally had a little bit of snow on our village homestead. There were two lovely snow-covered days, when the world was draped in snowy branches and silence.

Snowbelle the Bunny
Snow days here mean a break from the day job and commute, hot chocolate to drink, and time for sewing stuffed animals. I spent those days and a few Saturdays working on stuffed bunnies and bears, preparing for the online store opening later this year. I’m planning to have a collection of bears, bunnies, denim bags and soaps available for you. Stay tuned!

Sewing notions

I’ve fallen for a second teddy bear pattern and just want to make this little guy in every furry fabric I can find! Our nephews all received teddys for Christmas from this pattern and now I’m working on a set to go in the store. Our nieces received matching bunnies.

These sweet teddy bears are also an opportunity to focus on the tools I use for sewing. Now, Joann may be my best friend when it comes to sewing but the antique store has offered durable treasures that have stood the test of time. My antique treadle and hand-turned sewing machines see more use than the spiffy new electric sewing machine in the corner. And for a recent jointed teddy bear, I managed to use just the antique scissors and sewing machine for his creation. I planned on using my antique thimbles but had to concede that I needed the flat top on my modern thimble to get the needle through the bear’s body to attach the arms and legs.

I have a cabinet of antique sewing tools! With the exceptions of my rotary cutter and mat, it seems that I now have a 100-year-old counterpart for each sewing tool. My bright Gingher sheers are matched by ornate Royal Brand scissors made in the 1890s. My two pairs of thread scissors are a reproduction pair that resembles a graceful stork and a smaller antique Royal Brand that match the fabric sheers.

My 1904 Standard treadle sits beside an 1885 White coffin-top sewing machine. Upstairs is the 1889 handturned portable Singer. Sometimes I wonder what they think of the “kid” sitting nearby, an 160th Singer anniversary electric machine with its plastic gears. For that matter, in 160 years, will anyone be able to use that machine? Because I’m fairly certain my treadles while still be running by then.

Some of my antique sewing tools,
including a vintage pincushion, a winding
measuring tape and needle case, a paper
tape measure and a bodkin  turning points,
made from bone.
Other notions include a thread caddy, pattern transfer wheel from the 1860s, pin cushions (including a vintage tomato that has a “made in occupied Japan” label), needle cases from the 1830s, and a silk measuring tape that winds into a vegetable ivory spool with an attached needle case.

When I hold these tools, and use them as they are meant to be used, I think of the women before me who had them first. Whether it was an aunt, or a grandmother, or a woman unknown to me, I wonder what she was like, how she thought, and what she made with these same tools.

Touching history, creating today

“Sewing tools, with their sentimental resonance, were quite precious to those who inherited them,” says Liddy at the French Garden House. “These tools were often objects of art in their own right, made of the finest materials. There was a tool for each task, and each of those tools came in many variations. Coinciding with the invention of the first sewing machine, the popularity of sewing at home brought along with it the production of sewing tools of every kind, for every budget. ”

A thread caddy
I’m steady collecting those sewing tools of every kind, something my mother’s cousins have helped when they could. Among my collection is a plain thimble with the name of a mayonnaise that was bought by a more familiar brand in the 1930s. One of my mother’s cousins gave it to me, along with other items that had belonged to my grandaunt.

I looked up the name on the thimble, when the company was giving these thimbles away with the hopes of housewives buying their product, and realized who it had belonged to first. I fitted it over my own mom’s finger and said, “You’re wearing a thimble used by your grandmother.” Neither of us had anything personal that once belonged to my great-grandmother until then (I am fortunate to have her kitchen table). In one thimble four generations were connected—my great-grandmother, her daughter and son (my grandfather), my mother, and I. When my niece wears it, she will be the fifth generation and 100 years of a plain, ordinary thimble connecting us all.

“The most exciting part of collecting antique sewing accessories and tools is their very personal nature,” Liddy says. “The sewing boxes, needle holders, pin cushions, tape measures and other implements belonging to a seamstress long ago were touched often by her hands, they are the thread that connects us to her past.  Each one is a fascinating reminder of the beauty she created with skill and much affection, as she sewed for those she loved.”

Winter sewing projects

What is on my sewing table? Teddy bears and bunnies are being cut out, so there is a lot of fake fur
on the table. And it’s startling how much of it looks like cat fur after my kitties would get into a fight!

After these, there will be some new denim bags to be sewn up, along with some contract sewing for a local re-enacting supply store.

I’m spending some time learning more about soapmaking, so you’ll see some blogs on what I’ve learned and what I’m trying. I’ve decided to focus on the scents you will find here at Edgewood in St. Denis—fresh coffee in the morning, rich basil, sweet honeysuckle and lavender, soothing mint, piney rosemary bushes. This gives me plenty to work with as I practice a new craft.

Now that you’ve read my reflections, what are you working on this winter? Share with me in the comments below.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Caramel Candies for Christmastide

Did I get your interest with the recipe for my caramel sauce? I know I promised you a recipe for caramel candies.

I think these delightful candies will make an appearance in this year’s Christmas cookie tins. Wrapped in brown waxed paper, they keep for about three weeks in a mason jar, they are an old-fashioned favorite. They had their debut at our village’s old-home days’ bake sale and were a hit! Every bag was sold and one lady even asked if I could do a batch for her family’s event.

You’ll remember from the last blog how I love caramel. I like the rich flavor and the buttery-sweetness of it. As a Gilded Age reenactor, I’m interested in the history of these American treats that first showed up in cookbooks and shops in the second half of the 1800s. I read through several recipes for homemade caramels and rejected those calling for evaporated or sweetened and condensed milks. I avoid corn syrups, but when it comes to making candies, I do make an exception. So, I dug in and got cooking on these treats.

These are candy

We don’t keep many sweets in our house–some good quality chocolate bars and Girl Scout cookies are usually all you’ll find. (We have four nieces and they’re all Girl Scouts.  They know who to call during cookie season!) In fact, my general rule is we can have any sweet treat we’d like – as long as I make it. This usually keeps our sugary indulgences to a minimum.

If you’re looking for a “healthy” sweet treat, nope, not this time. Today, it is candy. Which is also nice during Christmastide, when we indulge in sweet treats and special foods, sip warm drinks of cocoa and mulled wine or honey chai teas.  Just remember, a sometimes treat is better enjoyed occasionally than as a regular habit.

Let’s get cooking!

You can make these caramels using a candy thermometer or by dropping a tiny amount of the mix into ice water and noticing how hard the ball of caramel becomes. You are going to cook the caramel to the firm ball stage. This cooks your sugar and cream syrup to an 87 percent sugar concentration. When you drizzle a little bit of the caramel into ice water, the thin syrup clumps together as a ball and doesn’t dissolve in the water. When you take it out with your fingers, the ball holds it shape but easily flattens when you squish it. In contrast a soft ball won’t hold its shape and will flatten on its own outside of the water and a hard ball won’t flatten at all.

When you use the candy thermometer, you have more precision. Clip the thermometer to the side of your pot and watch the temperature. We want to heat our mix to at least 245 degrees to caramelize the sugars.


  • 1 ½ cups heavy cream
  • 1 cup blond sugar
  • ½ brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup light corn syrup
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 Tblsp butter, plus butter to grease the pan and to cut the candies

You will need:

  • Heavy bottomed pot (my favorite) and wooden spoon
  • Silicon pastry brush
  • Candy thermometer or glass of ice water
  • 8x8 inch pan, lined with foil
  • Pizza cutter and kitchen scissors
  • Brown waxed paper and scissors or paper cutter

Start by lining your 8x8 inch pan with foil and then greasing it generously with butter. Set aside in a cool spot.

Boiling candies
In your heavy pot—I prefer enameled cast iron—combine the cream, blond and brown sugar, and corn syrup. Set the heat to medium and stir gently as the sugars melt and the syrup forms.

Once everything is dissolved, increase to medium-high or high and bring the mix to a boil. Avoid stirring at this point; instead use your pastry brush dipped in water to careful push the syrup down the sides of the pot if it starts creeping upward. Clip on your candy thermometer at this point, or ready your ice water. If you do use ice water, plan to have several glasses ready because you’ll test your mix more than once until it comes to the firm ball stage.

Continue boiling the candy until you reach 245 degrees. I find this takes about 10 minutes but you may need more or less time. Stay with your candy, though! If it looks like it could boil up faster than your pastry brush can handle, give it a quick stir or two to bring it down.

As the syrup thickens and gets darker start checking your temperature. Test your candy stage by taking a small amount on a metal dinner spoon and dripping it into your ice water. Often, the first attempts will simply dissolve in the water. Wait another 2 or 3 minutes, and repeat. When the candy settles on the bottom and holds its shape, take it out with your fingers. If it flattens out of the water, test again after 2 minutes. If it holds its shape but you can squish it, you’re ready for the next step.

Candy cooling in buttered foil.
If you have the thermometer, keep a careful eye and watch your temperature. Your target is 245-250 degrees. Once you see the red line reach the mark, take the thermometer out of the pot and place on a spoon rest – the candy is hot and will burn you if you touch or taste it at this point.

Remove the pot from the heat and stir into your butter and vanilla. If you want “sea salt” caramels, add 1 tsp of sea salt or pink salt at this point. The mix may react and foam just a little, keep stirring if it does until the caramel settles down.

Pour your lovely caramel into your waiting buttered pan. Cover and let cool overnight.

The next day:

Use a pizza cutter and scissors to
cut into bite-sized pieces
Tear several sheets of brown waxed paper (or plain wax paper or any wax paper you think will be pretty, but not plastic wrap) and cut into roughly 2.5x2.5 inch squares. I often cut a stack of these at a time; you will have about 100 candies to wrap. Snagging a partner, like your favorite uncle, to help out is a good idea, too.

Lift your candies from the pan and place on your wooden cutting board. Peel back the edges of foil and tear them away. Roll your pizza cutter in butter and then cut a strip about ½ inch thick from the side of your candy. Lift and carefully peel the foil from the candy. Stab the butter with the blades of your kitchen scissors and snip the strip every 1 inch or so–you can make your candies bigger or smaller.

Place each candy in the middle of your wax paper squares and fold over the sides. Twist the end so you have a sweet little package.

I keep these candies in a mason jar on the countertop. Even with the butter and cream, these caramels keep well for about 3 weeks but after that they start to get grainy and lose their texture.
Wrap in wax paper to keep
candies fresh for up to three weeks.