Saturday, December 31, 2011

18th Century Wool Breeches-Finis!

My son has been wanting some wool breeches and waistcoat to go with his Lafayette coat. We found the perfect wool sample through one supplier that wanted $60 a yard. (faint) We had to bypass perfection for economy. After requesting samples from 3 other suppliers, my son settled on the buff broadcloth wool he wanted. My son's birthday was in October and the wool arrived in November.

Also in November I took a Burnley and Trowbridge 18th century breeches class from the Colonial Williamsburg tailors, where we got to learn all the details to hand sewing a silk pair. I incorporated a lot of ideas from that class. However wool is sewn a bit differently, so while at CW during Grand Illumination, I inspected one of their wool pairs to gather ideas on how to properly sew a pair for my son. This wool pair is a different cut than my son's and the stitches are so incredibly wonderfully skilled by the tailor, that they were difficult to see. Wow! Love that craftsmanship! Anyway I ended up guessing at what I should do.

During Grand Illumination weekend I spent downtime seated on benches surrounded by 1774 holiday festivities to hand sew my son's breeches. Time was of the essence because my son's linen pair, which he was wearing, had many minor explosions over the course of the weekend due to the weakening fibers in the garment. It was almost the more I stitched the woolen pair the more I could hear the linen pair ripping away here and there. I spent at least an hour Friday night sewing repairs. Because that took away from sewing the new pair, my son volunteered to do some mending for me Saturday and Sunday nights. By the time we got home I had this much completed on the wool breeches, having only cut out the fabric late the night before we left for Williamsburg. I kept busy and had a lot of fun participating in activities that weekend, but in snatching a bit of time here and there, much can be accomplished, even while hand sewing. One nice thing about hand sewing is that it is portable!
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Busy with holiday preparations and school study and planning, I kept hearing these wool breeches calling to me. Despite the mild Texas type winter Virginia experienced in December, snowy weather was certain to descend as it has the last two years we've lived here. Finally the breeches are done in preparation for our next visit!

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My handworked buttonholes are improving...

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The reinforcment stitches were done at the end since I sewed everything together on the streets of CW. These are much easier to sew before completion.

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The back...

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I used linen tape from Burnley and Trowbridge. Although I grabbed as little of the fabric as I could for the handworked eyelets, the larger ones indicate all the bulk where the waistband meets the body of the breeches. I decided not to stress it since one of my sewing teachers from the Colonial Williamsburg Costume Design Center stressed that we not be perfect in our stitches since perfection is not always seen in extant garments. So that is what I claim while I am perfecting my skills. ;)

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A little bar tack reinforcement...
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Although I completed sewing these a few hours ago, my son has already worn these breeches a couple of weeks ago when we visited Colonial Williamsburg.
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Friday, December 30, 2011

18th Century Baby Breeches

A couple of months ago I took a Burnley and Trowbridge 18th century breeches class with the Colonial Williamsburg tailors. I left the wonderful class with nearly half the breeches completed. I have finally finished handsewing them! Actually they are toddler's breeches but they are so cute I can't help calling them baby breeches. They are based on an original for a 3 year old boy in the Colonial Williamsburg collection, acc. # 1971.1564.

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I've been absolutely terrified I might lose one of the smaller pieces or the brown silk thread spool.

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Specifically I needed to finish the knee band (above) and the waistband (below) on the first side, then do all the sewing on the other side. I still need to trim threads, but I couldn't wait to announce the completion of the hand stitching.

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I still need to hand work the eyelets and buttonholes, as well as work the buttons. These have already made a great reference for my son's wool breeches, though wool is sewn a bit differently from silk.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Christmas Trains in Washington DC


The day after Christmas we took advantage of the beautiful sunny weather and lack of yearly gigantic snowpiles to venture into Washington DC to see their Christmas decorations. Everyone has always told us we *have* to see the Christmas trees at the White House Ellipse and the Capital and see the train display at the Smithsonian's Botanical Garden. We arrived with great expectations only to be hugely disappointed. Thankfully the Canadian and Norwegian Embassies saved the day!

First stop was Union Station to see the terrific train display. Many thanks to the Norwegian Embassy for this! This was my absolutely favorite part of the day! I can stand for hours watching various trains clickety clack back and forth on different tracks through vintage towns. The scenery on this side was of the fjords and majestic snowy mountains of Norway.

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The train tracks wrapped around to the other side of the display, to the 1950's town set against the mountains...
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There was another 1950's town display...
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This Norwegian train display is the only place where I had to pull my family away, as much as I myself wanted to stay, in order to see the other sites on our to-do list for the day. As we walked out we saw a sign from the Embassy apologizing that they couldn't do their typical huge display complete with Christmas tree, due to renovations. Indeed renovations had taken over Union Station, complete with scaffolding and netting. Once home I googled for pictures of the usual Norwegian display and we all said, "WOW!" The Norwegian Embassy promised, via their sign, that the full display would return in 2012. Yea! So will we! That is most definitely our kind of train display.

As we walked to the famed train display at the Botanical Gardens, we walked by the Capitol and saw their tall and super skinny fake Christmas tree, one of the things to see on our to-do list. We weren't too impressed with that. When we left that evening we saw it all lit up in purple and blue. That was a tad better but nothing remarkable. You should see our trees and lights in Texas!

Our next stop was the Botanical Gardens where we had to wait in line for at least 3o minutes just to enter and then we had to work with the crowds and lines inside. At least everyone was nice and we met a family from our are of NoVA to chat with. She was surprised that we've been to more places than they have.

The Botanical Garden used natural elements to create their displays. For the most part I was not too impressed with these because they were mostly monotone and painted to look shiny, which made them look gawdy. The gawdiest were the homes of various creatures in the rain forest where all the trains ran. The display was huge, with trains running overhead on various tracks. I can't quite put my finger on it but I felt that so much was missing and I was really bored in here. I was wishing myself back at the Norwegian display. I love, love, love the fjords.
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However my family liked everything more than I did so I looked at one or two interesting plants and slowly followed them through the exhibit...
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I wasn't too keen on these trains either, but I did like 2 of them. This is one of them, a bumble bee car that ran by itself. Loved that! Maybe because it was finally a spot of color and fun and life in the room.

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However I did enjoy the homes of several of the presidents, although they did look a bit unnatural and out of place. Here is Mount Vernon next to a waterfall. Hmm...
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From the other side you can see Mount Vernon, Monticello, the home of John Adams and more. I think if there were more pointsettias in here to bring in festive color it would help offset the monochromatic natural elements and bring a bit of life to the room.
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Here is my other favorite train...the little ladybug near Abraham Lincoln's birthplace. Again that spot of color with the red made it so cute and fun! Love ladybugs!

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The other room was my favorite of the two. There was a lot more color and simple elegance with the pointsettias, which gently framed the national monuments made of natural elements.

Supreme Court...
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Library of Congress...
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Capitol...
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Washington Monument...
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Jefferson Memorial, with a stem at the top which I didn't catch in the picture. Hardly any pointsettias here so it didn't look as special.
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Lincoln Memorial...
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White House...
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As much as my family enjoyed the Botanical Garden, I didn't hear any wows or disappointments about leaving when I followed them out. We decided to see the National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse and began our walk over there. We arrived, took one look and in shock asked, "That's it?" How disappointing. The tree was little, had a netted web of lights which looked tacky and the tree looked like it needed a serious pruning job. We saw a few red bows and greenery hung at the White House but overall it was a disappointment.

As we walked back towards Union Station, we passed by the Canadian Embassy which had the best Christmas tree that we saw in Washington DC.

After the disappointing trees at the Capitol and White House, we kept remembering our grand lights and trees in Texas. With this being the nation's capital and the plethora of tall evergreens on the properties, why not decorate one of them? It would look so much grander. The Christmas tree on Alamo Plaza in San Antonio, where we moved from a few years ago, gets a real tree donated to the city everywhere by HEB, a historic major grocery store. This year San Antonio got a 55 foot White Fir from California and had it's official tree lighting ceremony after Thanksgiving. The decoration can get a little over the top for me, but when incorporating millions of hand made themed decorations from children, it becomes real. In fact, the city of San Antonio, itself, has better Christmas light displays than what we saw in Washington DC. While in DC we saw a couple of strands on want-to-be-decorated trees which looked oh-so lonely. However in Texas many businesses use multiple strands of white lights to wrap the trunks or drip lights from the trees. Houston Street in downtown San Antonio is famous for this. We used to drive down that street all the time to see the lights and attend the Nutcracker Suite at the Majestic (a favorite I've had to forego in the past few years). Of course the best is the San Antonio Riverwalk. No one has them beat.

If you are in Washington DC my official Christmas recommendation is to see the Canadian Christmas Tree at their embassy and the Norwegian train display at Union Station. We all agreed that as far as DC goes, we can now honestly say, "Been there, done that." We can check Washington DC off of our Christmas to-do list. Well, except the Norwegian display at Union Station which promises to return to its full scale grandeur next year.

If anyone wants to see great Christmas decorations I can recommend two places: Colonial Williamsburg and San Antonio, Texas.

Colonial Williamsburg decorates their buildings with natural elements and simple candles at the windows which look wonderful. Also they have a Christmas tree lighting ceremony on Christmas Eve and that tree stays lit for a month or so. I saw them decorate it during Grand Illumination and it is a living tree in the ground that is tall and wide and covered in a million lights! I've seen it on visits in January and it is gorgeous.

When you are done visiting a Christmas with 18th century undertones of British influence, then head for the Spanish colony of San Antonio, Texas for great Tex Mex, great Christmas lights dripping throughout the town and a Texas sized Christmas tree on Alamo Plaza. Then listen to the carolers sing on the river barges on the San Antonio River where luminaria lit pathways meander along and over the river with candy colored lights dripping down from above.

When you are back in the nation's capital, enjoy the grandest in DC from the embassies. Many, many thanks to the Canadian and Norwegian Embassies for their fantastic displays! We'll be back to enjoy your work in full array!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

If George Washington had a long overdue library book...

Yesterday we drove into Washington DC (stay tuned for Christmas pictures) and got to travel down the lovely George Washington Parkway which hugs the Potomac River. One end of the parkway begins at historic Mount Vernon. While driving along the parkway the kids were supposed to be finishing their copies of Machiavelli's The Prince, for their government studies.

Education in the 18th century was quite a bit different than that of today. The elite were most properly classically trained. George Washington fell into this niche, with hopes of a proper education culminating in Great Britain, as his brother had received. However Washington's father died so the finances were no longer available for the priviledged education. Therefore Washington is not quite known for his rhetoric during the early years of formation of our country. Yet he was still well read because he chose to continue reading books. The beginning of any educated person comes through reading books which is evidenced by his ability to communicate with his peers. Washington served as burgess, eloquently inspired his men to persevere in a seemingly dauntless war, led the Constitutional Convention and was unanimously elected president of the United States.

What types of books would a man like this read? As the New York Society Library restored their ledgers from 1789-1792 for digital publication, they stumbled upon record of a missing book. Now made available to the public, we can see what types of books were borrowed and read by such memorable people as John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton is from New York, so that makes sense. Why would a Bostonian, like Adams, borrow a book from a library in New York City, in the days before interlibrary loans? Our nation's first capital was located in New York City, during which time our first president, George Washington, checked out Emmerich de Vattel's The Law of Nations on October 5, 1789. According to the ledger, the book had never been returned now had fines ever been paid for the overdue book. (oops!) There has got to be a story there! Did the library simply overlook this matter since a book of important subject matter was in the hands of the highly revered President Washington?

After discovering the missing book during the restoration, the New York Society Library continued to keep this information a secret. Somehow the New York Daily News found out and exposed the information. As a result, Mount Vernon found out and they contacted the library with special arrangements which in turn led to a special ceremony...read all about it here.

Since I am having the kids read some of the books the Founding Fathers would have read which influenced their ideas in forming our government, the very first attempt at self-government, I found this information espeically interesting. The Law of Nations is subtitled "Principles of the Law of Nature Applied to the Conduct and Affairs of Nations and Sovereigns." Written in 1758, it talks about the very same topics other Englightenment thinkers discussed like Locke, Voltaire, Rousseau and Montesquieu.

As I pondered the significance of the book's check-out date, I googled "October 5, 1789." What happened on that day? My suspicions were confirmed by the dates of the French Revolution. Although Washington would not have been aware of the daily events as they happened (no CNN, no cell phones, no e-mail, no text messaging) he was well aware that a revolution in France was erupting. As a statesman, Washington was well aware of world events. As a friend, he was concerned about his adopted son, Lafayette, who was in the midst of the eruption.

Lafayette, the Frenchman initially inpsired by the ideas of liberty, came to America to help us achieve our independence. In France he tried to be the bridge between the monarch and the people. Lafayette drafted Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen which was adopted in August 1789. Lafayette became commander-in-chief of the National Guard.

Interestingly, 0n the day Washington checked out The Law of Nations, October 5, 1789, a mob stormed Versailles, the home of the monarch. Lafayette helped the monarch safely escape to the Tulleries. Meanwhile Lafayette tried to bridge the gap of ideas for a peaceful change from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy, but the mobs eventually saw him as a traitor.

Timing is everything to making connections in history. Washington took the oath of office as first president of the United States of America in April 1789 in New York City. The weight of setting presidential presidence, leading a fledgling nation, diplomacy in eruptive events abroad must certain have occupied his mind, as he checked-out a Law of Nations six months later. Many questions come to mind as a result of this uncovered microscopic detail that magnifies the significance of his leading the first country in the world that was inspired by the very type of information found in Law of Nations.

George Washington was a man of a bit of self-education, highly attainable with the wise choice of reading classical history, government and literature. Mount Vernon is currentlycollecting the books that Washingon read in order to provide education outreach programs and more that focus on Washington's leadership.

The next step to self-education is thinking, discussing and writing about the material learned in the great books of classical history. The University of Virginia is making available the writings of George Washington. Surely scattered in his letters are the thoughts of influence of books read and experienced events.

Much of who Washington was and did was because of what he read. Shouldn't we seek to understand the foundations of our government more by reading the books that our first commander-in-chief, the President of the Constitutional Conventional Convention, the first president of the United States read himself? Shouldn't we pass on this heritage to our students, even at the high school level, to deepen their understanding of citizenship?

My kids will not read every book that Washington or the other Founding Fathers read, but we are getting a great start. My hope is to lay a contextual foundation for them to draw from in learning high school civics, in preparation for college and becoming informed American citizens fulfilling civic responsibilities. Hopefully they will continue a lifetime of reading great books that will prick their thoughts and deepen their understanding of their history, to help them make intelligent decisions as American citizens.

Our country takes many things for granted, including water downed history and government texts full of bias. Who learns from that? I had an awakening when I read Fahrenheit 451. We need to put fewer textbooks and more classics into the hands of our students. Great books are fun to read! I have inspired many a student to read books that they and others thought were too difficult for them. Instead of lowering the bar, we should raise it. Whether public school, private school, home school or self-educated, the key is reading, thinking, discussing and writing based from the Classics. It's timeless. It can be fun.

Tonight at dinner I shared this information at the dinner table and we were all laughing. I asked what happened on Oct 5, 1789 and my kids knew the French Revolution was at hand! We pondered the possibilities for future questioning for George Washington with a few giggles. I submit that learning can be deep and it can be fun!



Ah, the stories that an overdue book and a ledger can tell that make the study of government that much more fascinating...

Monday, December 26, 2011

A Festive Fiesta for Christmas Eve


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As much as I love, love, love Virginia, I am having a hard time abandoning all of my Texas traditions. Without a doubt, I have brought Texas to Virginia with me. Along with a few tangible objects, like the Cowboy Mistletoe above, are the memories.

When I was in high school I got to go Christmas Caroling with the foreign language club on the San Antonio Riverwalk. We sang songs in German, French and Spanish, on floating river barges, surrounded by luminarias, beneath the candy colored lights dripping down from tree tops.

The historic tradition of the luminarias dates back to 16th century Spain. As bonfires were lit in Spain to commemorate Mary and Joseph's search for an inn with a room, luminarias cast their reflective glow upon the San Antonio River, discovered by the Spaniards in 1536.

La Gran Posada occurs each December on the Riverwalk, reenacted by San Fernando Cathedral (built in 1738 by Spanish colonists from the Canary Islands). A singing procession follows Mary and Joseph from merchant to merchant on the Riverwalk, until they find an inn with a room. The melodic tune that follows the procession becomes one of merriment as the procession celebrates the birth of Jesus by breaking open a pinata. This beautiful song was one we sang on the barge (though not part of La Gran Posada) so I was glad to find it on The American Girls' Christmas CD" which I purchased several years ago at The History Channel store which used to be located on the Riverwalk across from the Alamo.

In San Antonio it is traditional to serve tamales. While living there I simply bought our favorite type at a nearby store. The preparation of tamales is such a tedious and laborious process, that traditionally, in the Mexican culture, daughters, granddaughters, aunts, cousins and more all come to grandma's house to make dozens of these.

Since we moved to Virginia, we haven't found any tamales with that TexMex flavor. As much as I love Virginia, the food, overall, is quite bland. I miss Tex Mex flavors intensely. Compelled by traditiona and memories, I decided to conquer the tamales. I adapted a Paula Deen recipe (who knew someone from Georgia can come so close to Tex Mex?) from her Christmas magazine that featured Colonial Williamsburg a few years ago. Included in the magazine was a Christmas fiesta section and the recipes weren't too bad. She even has fried ice cream which is right on target though I think I want to try it with a different coating...the fried ice cream around here is quite sad. I ammended her recipes a bit based on my Tex Mex flavor profile past and a bit more research. I had followed her recipe to the letter last year but couldn't get the masa right, even though it was shortening based. In fact, I was so discouraged in the process of making them, I gave up and said I'd never attempt them again. I've had a year to think about it and I've paid attention to the ones I've seen made on Food Network. I wanted to try a different masa recipe and I think the masa needed to steam longer. Also I think I needed to have a thinner layer of masa than I did the year before. The tomatillo chicken filling though is incredible! That recipe I'm definitely sticking to!

This year for the masa, I decided to use corn oil instead of lard or shortening, which I avoid in my cooking as much as possible. Here I have everything set up (from left to right)...masa, chicken filling and corn husks soaked in water.
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It took nearly one and a half hours to roll nearly 4 dozen of these. I asked that we pop in the movie, "Christmas in Connecticut" to watch while working. Set in WWII, it's about about a naval guy who is stranded at sea for 18 days, dreaming of food, before he is rescued. While recuperating his nurse reads to him a special monthly magazine feature written by a popular author who writes about her perfect home. She succulently describes the gourmet meals she cooks for her family on their idyllic farm in Connecticut. His dream of meeting her and enjoying her food is arranged. Meanwhile we meet the authoress in a teeny tiny Manhatten apartment, getting recipes from her uncle, the chef, because she doesn't know how to cook. Suddenly she has to find a husband, a farm, a baby, a cow...all of which she's written about and learn how to flip the perfect pancake, in order to save the magazine company's reputation. Somehow all of that is perfectly arranged, but when the sailor and authoress meet, they fall in love. How to get out of this mess? I figured she had things worse than me, laboriously preparing 4 dozen tamales. I feared I would be rolling them for hours and was prepared for a 3 movie night but I seemed to make good time. As the movie showed in the family room I prepped tamales at the kitchen island and the kids persevered constructing their gingerbread village at the kitchen table. Finally all 4 dozen tamales were done and ready for steaming! The steaming could wait for the next day. I covered them in saran wrap and put them in the fridge.

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This year I decided to steam them longer so I started that process at 3pm. If it took a little longer, we'd have time for that. If they finished early, I could put them on simmer. Finally it was time to eat and everyone was marveling as they unwrapped their tamales. This year though they were wonderful! My son said they are the best tasting tamales he's had inVirginia. However I do have ideas to make them better. The guys each ate 4 and my daughter and I had 2. I have plenty to freeze and we can pull them out to enjoy once in a while. I also made Roasted Red Pepper Soup and spring salad mix with shrimp and honey orange vinaigrette, both recipes in the Paula Deen magazine, that I adapted. I have plans to fine tune them next year too. We usually do finger food on Christmas Eve but that was too much work for me. This was actually easier, apart from the tamales, and quite easy to do ahead of time. The family was quite impressed with this dinner.
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Look, the tamales rolled out perfectly! That's the sign of a well made tamal! I feel like I belong to a special tamal sorority or something now.

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Served with some roasted salsa...

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There were plenty of of cookies for dessert. Baking these kept me busy. I had made them earlier in the month, but the family ate them up and I had to bake more this week.
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To top it off I made a traditional English dessert, fruitcake (on the far left). No wait! Don't leave! My fruitcake, unlike others, is GREAT! It's especially moist and full of flavor. I was surprised that the family insisted on an old tradition of lighting a candle in the fruticake so they can sing "Happy Birthday to Jesus." After all, wherever our traditions originate and how we celebrate, He is the Reason for the Season!