A Little Bit on Weights and Measures

Ok, so this is a longer post than I planned, but hopefully it holds your attention. I expect a lot of people will think it can’t possibly be fun to study weights and measurements, but I promise you, it really is! There is a lot of interesting trivia, and its not just that the US doesn’t use the metric system like the rest of the world. In this post, I am going to link to a lot of different sources, but hopefully I can convince you that this subject is worth reading about!

Weights and measures are actually more important than we think. Its not just that we use them everywhere, they also help society run smoothly. The first writing that has been found was used to keep track of weights and measures, so that people knew how much was paid and owed for goods, services, and taxes. It has been assumed that writing was developed to keep track of these things in settled groups of people, the first ‘civilizations’, at least as we judge them today. So it is hard to overstate how important weights and measures are to a society. In just the last few years, scientists have officially begun to shift away from a physical thing to represent the prototypes of weights and distances, to a mathematical calculation based on universal constants. If this sounds a bit crazy, just consider why they need this. In a physical object, such as an official object to identify a kilogram, there is some loss or gain of mass over time (in terms of atoms- these are some small numbers, folks!), no matter how carefully it is stored. With the need for the absolutely precise measurements needed by today’s standards, basing units of measurement on something that never changes is essential! This change was just approved in 2019, after years of work to establish the calculations. If you want to read up on this, here is a link to a story on Vox about the process.

Early writing from Mesopotamia

This brings up a particular point about the metric system, and the United States still using imperial weights and measures. The ‘Imperial’ system is based on our use of the British-style weights and measures, with all of its inconsistencies between types. (What inconsistencies? Just consider how many ways you can divide an inch – by thirds, fourths, eighths, sixteenths. Then look at the pound, as compared to volumes, etc. That is a lot of different types of conversions!)While it is true that the basic system is hundreds of years old, there were almost uncounted ‘imperial’ systems in use until the mid 19th century, and they all differed not just by country, but also by the product being measured, and even by the city of original shipment. Basically, there were a lot of differences! In the 1790s, the new French Republic wanted to use the same system across its territory. The result was the metric system. So the metric system is older than you might think. It is also what our imperial system is based on today, after a treaty in 1875. You can read about the history of this creation in Pys.org.

Oh, you thought we didn’t use the metric system? Well, actually, yes we do. All our weights and measures are based on those metric prototypes that are being recalculated now. So really, even though you might think you are working with inches, feet, ounces and pounds, actually, your numbers are all percentages of centimeters, meters, grams and kilograms. A pound is 0.453592 of a kilogram; there is no other definition of it in science, no ultimate prototype pound. And if you wondered why everyone else has come around to this system, its because it actually is a lot easier to calculate with than the imperial system. And I know, everyone wants to say ‘No, our system is easier!’ But really, we already had this argument, and the other side won, it just took a long time to convince everyone.

In 1792, the new constitutional government of the United States had to make a decision about creating a new national currency. Under the previous Articles of Confederation, each state ran its own monetary policy, and rates of exchange across the new country were based on the British pounds, shillings, and pence (even though the most common coin used was Spanish; trust me, this is just the tip of the iceberg on complications to monetary policy!). When the federal government had the chance to start fresh, the decision was made to push everyone to switch to a new system based on a decimal system. What does a decimal system mean? It means we use base 10 for calculating money divisions, so 100 pennies is 1 dollar, and so on. What does this sound like? You guessed it, meters and kilograms! 100 centimeters is 1 meter, 1000 grams is 1 kilogram. All in base 10, because it makes calculating and conversions much easier. (Can you guess why base 10 and base 12 are so commonly used? It’s right in the palm of your hand; well, actually your fingers. Ten fingers makes base 10 natural. Now look at the fingers-not thumb, you count with that- of one hand, and the number of segments in each finger – 3 X 4 =12.) If you want some in-depth mathematics, The Story of Math is a great documentary on the development of numbers, counting, and why it is so important. It can get pretty complicated, but it’s still a really good series. (You can find it on Amazon Prime, but the link I have here is to the Films on Demand catalog, which is available to most people through public and academic libraries.)

However, don’t think that the new system put in place for money in 1792 was adopted quickly! Oh, no, they didn’t want to change any more than we do today. As a result, from the 1790s through at least the 1820s, and in some areas into the 1840s, there were plenty of people still using the old money calculations. I have personally looked at store account books from the 1820s that have (what I presume is) a younger clerk using dollars and cents for a sale, and the next entry the sale was recorded in pounds and shillings. And for every shilling, you had to calculate 12.5 cents, and then do all the conversions to total the accounts at the end of the day in dollars. Even later, in the mid 1800s in New York (and I will promise to update this blog when I relocate this source) I have read a newspaper letter to the editor from a citizen who stated that if stores and companies would stop using base 12 for product packaging, maybe people would switch over to the decimal system for money completely. Poor man, he would still be disappointed in us today. When was the last time you bought 10 eggs at the grocery? (The reason for packaging by the dozen in English products? Because there were 12 shillings in a pound, and that made products easier to calculate packaging divisions for selling. Why 13 in a ‘baker’s dozen’? Because in the 16th century English bakers were under-weighting their bread, and instead of risking a hefty fine for an under-weight dozen, they just threw in an extra one.) So you see, it is really hard to get people to change once they get used to something, especially a system they use every day.

If this has gotten you curious about the history of weights and measures, or you want to see some of those many different Imperial weights and measures that were used before metric, one of the better sources I have found is from a professor of mathematics at UNC-Chapel Hill. Dr. Russ Rowlett is retired, but his Dictionary for Units of Measurement is still up, and provides a great, easy to understand list of weights and measures from antiquity to today, as well as conversions where possible. If you are like me, it’s fun just to read. But I have also used it for research when needing to understand primary source material from the 18th century. If you are interested in currency history, try the American Numismatic Society or the U.S. Currency Education Program. And finally, if you really want to see how long a group known for accounting, money, and business can hold on to a system long after it is out of use, just take a look at the New York Stock Exchange. If you ever wondered why the ticker at the NYSE used fractional divisions of stock (instead of decimal divisions) until the beginning of this century, it dates back to the old weirdness I mentioned about the states using British accounting and Spanish coins. Spain divided its peso, or milled dollar (which America based our dollar size on) into 8 reales. Spain minted a lot more gold and silver coinage than anyone else during the 1600s and 1700s, so everyone used their coins, including us. New York state didn’t like the quarter division of the American dollar that was decided on in the 1790s, so they stuck with the 1/8 Spanish division into the late 19th century. The NYSE didn’t change it’s use of fractions until 2001! (What is 1/8 of a dollar? – 12.5 cents. And the Spanish reale was called a ‘bit’, so 2 bits was equal to a quarter. See how much fun this is?)

Planting for Pollinators

So, it’s been a few weeks since I posted. This is what happens to me when I am devoting my writing inspiration to graduate classes! I had intended to post this a little over two weeks ago, so it’s a bit late. However, the season for being kind to bees and other pollinators is all year long. That means you can use these suggestions for any time you are considering planting or taking care of plants in your yard.

About 10 to 15 years ago, we started to plan our decorative plantings a bit more carefully. Like most people, we had picked out flowers we liked, and included a lot of perennials. (If you don’t like taking care of plants, but you do like having them around, native perennials are the best choices; you are mostly limited to seasonal maintenance in the spring and fall.) At that point, I started working more with planting and gardening at the museum I worked at, and researching native plants became a bigger part of my job. As a result, I started looking at using them more at home as well. I am at best a lazy gardener; the less work I have to do for upkeep, the happier I am. I will do a lot of pre-planning to keep from doing maintenance, and I don’t use pots at all, because you need to water them every day, or even twice a day, in the southern heat. For that reason, the more I read about native plants, the better I liked them. Picked to suit a space, they need less watering, less weeding, and provide more for wildlife than any hybrid or non-native species.

The ability to provide spaces and food for pollinators is what I am going to concentrate on for this blog post. Most of the showy, constantly blooming annuals that you can purchase at a plant store are no good to bees and other pollinators. The effect of hybridization often reduces the production of nectar for many plants. The other problem is grass. When people grow grass that looks like carpet (often by using pesticides and herbicides) it decreases the amount of food that pollinators have available to them. While that type of lawn may look good to human eyes, to a bee it looks like a desert.

This is what a bee and other pollinators would consider a nice lawn. It has some grass, but there is a lot of other ‘weeds’ mixed in, many of which are the earliest blooming flowers in the spring. I saw honey bees for the first time this spring in mid-March. By early April, there was enough blooming in the lawn that honey bees, bumble bees, and and native bees like miner bees were getting a lot of nectar from the broad-leafed weeds in the lawn. I know that a lot of people don’t like these type of plants in their lawn. However, you can really see the benefits of them in the spring, before a lot of the flowers that people like to plant have started blooming and you see how many pollinators are using them. The flowers in the photos are from a plant called ground ivy. I will be the first to admit that it doesn’t look the best in the yard, and it will send out runners to plague your flower beds. However, I have made peace with my need to get rid of it just because I don’t like its looks. For me, it is more important to create areas for local pollinators, especially since I need them for food production. I think that is a fair trade-off, especially since it allows me to continue to be a lazy gardener!

When it comes to other ways to help the different species of bees and other insects, there are a number of ways to plant for them throughout the year. Native species of plants will only bloom for certain periods of time during the year, so having a variety that blooms over the span of the growing season takes some planning. My mother and I have looked for plants native to North Carolina, and concentrated on making sure the variety covers March through to late October. There are also lists of plants that are popular with pollinators, and you can pick types that appeal to you and the bees. The best resources to find these plants are usually local Ag Extension agencies or native botanical gardens. If you don’t mind waiting a little longer, seeds are a very economical option for planting. Personally, I don’t like wildflower mixes that you can find in chain seed stores. Often, those seeds might be native somewhere in the US, but not necessarily your area. If you have a huge area you want to plant, they might work, but if you buy several different seed packages of local wildflowers, and mix them up yourself, you’ll usually get a better result. An added benefit is that most native annuals will reseed themselves, no need for you to plant new each year (I told you I was a lazy gardener). For those in NC, a good source of information on native plants is NC State University Extension or the Botanical Gardens at Chapel Hill. If you are wanting to look up plants or resources in other states, one of the best options is the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Texas. This site has information that covers all of the US, and you can look up plants by a wide variety of options, such as state, color, size, type, and many others.

In addition to plants, bees can use a few other things, especially if you are trying to help their survival year-round. Leaving some open dirt is good for miner bees and other native bees that use it for nest building. Dead wood, brush piles, and the dead stems of plants left on instead of cutting away in the fall, are also good ways to help pollinators (and other wildlife) have a place to stay over winter or build nests in the spring. If you have a bird bath, put a rock in it that sticks halfway out of the water. This allows bees and other insects to drink during the dry times; they need a way to walk up to the water without falling in, and most bird baths are too deep.

There are also bee houses for native bees that don’t build hives you can put up (just make sure you have some dirt/mud around for them to use). We put one up just this spring, and got it up just in time for the bees to start using it. You can see one of the bamboo openings already closed up with mud beside the bee sticking its head out. This was just three days after we put this house up near the vegetable garden. There are already about 20 openings covered in 3 weeks, so the house got put up just in time! (This is a miner bee. The bees have liked the smaller bamboo openings this year!)

If you want to find out more about pollinators, and how to help them survive and thrive in you yard, the Xerces Society is a good source for information. They have advice for general plantings, pollinator needs, and even a certification system for those wanting to spread the word about a commitment to cultivating pollinators. There is also a lot of information about attracting butterflies, and specifically the monarchs. Here’s another advantage of being a lazy gardener – longer lawns and leaf litter help fireflies, since they spend the daytime at the bottom of grasses and in leaf piles. There is nothing like looking out in the early evening in late May to see the first fireflies rise from the yard and woods. It signals the beginnings of summer! There are a lot of ways to help cultivate pollinators around you. And don’t worry about bees around your house (unless you are allergic to bees; you’ll have to decide what you feel safe doing where you are spending a lot of time outdoors). Those bees don’t care anything about you when they are looking for flowers. (I’ll write a post later this summer about how to avoid wasps, yellow jackets, and others considered dangerous; hint, they’re really not when you consider what they are looking for at different times of the year). As long as you don’t get in their flight path, aren’t swatting at them, and avoid smelling like their food source, they will leave you alone. (Avoid flowery perfumes, shampoos, and sugary smells if you plan to be outside with the bees; if you do, it’s not their fault if they come take a look!) I’ve stood watching bees at flowers from less than a foot away, and they never paid the least attention to me. Watching bees is one of the great pleasures to having a pollinator garden.

Pysanky & Dyed Easter Eggs

I am one of those people who like to try a lot of different crafts (hence the name of this blog-A Little Bit of Everything!), and a number of years ago I decided to try making those really decorative Easter eggs called pysanky (all the pictures on this post and in the Gallery are eggs I have made). There are actually a lot of eastern European cultures that decorate Easter eggs, and the word pysanky is particularly Ukrainian. I have tried a number of other ways to decorate Easter eggs, and I’ll describe them below. Pysanky are one of the most elaborately designed forms, and it takes more time and equipment than many others. First, let me give a short history of coloring eggs for Easter. Eggs as a symbol of the renewal of spring goes back centuries, and while it is now associated with the Christian Easter, the tradition predates Christianity. Dyeing those eggs different colors also has a long history, and scratching a design into the dyed surface probably dates back just as far in time. It would be hard to document when exactly decorating eggs with multiple dyes in patterns using wax began, but it also has a long history. There was even an early form of the Easter bunny in Germany, called the Osterhase (Easter hare); a painting of the Osterhase carrying a basket of dyed eggs has been found in Pennsylvania from 1810 (link to image). PAAS egg dyes weren’t sold until 1893, when new dyes could be produced and sold in tablet form, and dissolved in water and vinegar. Like many traditions that were done on a smaller scale before the 20th century, the industrialization of materials and shipping allowed Easter egg dyeing to be done on a large scale. While more people were dyeing eggs, the skill and time to create the more intricate designs made that tradition stay confined to a smaller group of people.

The dyes used to color eggs before the mid-19th century were similar to dyes used for other products, using concentrated plant, animal, or mineral colors that could be made at home or purchased in the store. The production of the modern aniline dyes using coal-tar as a base began in the 19th century, but the wide use of them for most dyes didn’t really take off until the second half of the 1800s. Some of the commonly purchased dyes for eggs were cochineal, madder root, and turmeric. Other colors came from cooking at home, such as red cabbage juice, spinach juice, and onion skins. Some of these colors are ‘fugitive,’ meaning that they fade over time (sometimes a very short time if left in sunlight). Others last a long time if they are protected from strong light. I have tried all of them, and there are different techniques to using each dye to get the best results. Some work better hot, others work best cold after aging overnight, and many need vinegar as a mordant (a substance that allows the dye to stick to a surface). You can also get good results from combining certain colors to get others, just like you would with paints. For instance, red cabbage juice actually gives you a wonderful blue (as long as it ages 24 hours before use) but if you add yellow turmeric to it, you get green eggs. When I worked at the museum, we would do egg dyeing for Easter, and over time I experimented with many of these dyes.

The easiest one to try without too much effort is to use onion skins. You need a lot of yellow or red onion skins, but if you are using onions regularly in cooking just save the dry skins in a bag. You can dye the eggs by boiling them with the onion skins for a deep orange, or add vinegar and iron (just put in an iron vitamin) to get a dark brown. Or you can soak the onion skins and wrap them around the egg in layers, using string to hold them on the egg, then simmer for up to 1 hour or leave in the dye overnight. After the eggs cool, unwrap the onions skins and you will have a tie-dyed egg!

If you boil the egg for at least 30 minutes to an hour, and make sure it is stored where air can get to it (not in a plastic or styrofoam container), it will usually dry out inside over several months to a year, and can be kept indefinitely. The inside will gradually become a hard center, so you need to be careful not to shake it (I have broken them by not being careful, as the hard center acts like a little marble inside). I have seen decorated eggs, kept carefully, that are over 150 years old.

If you want to try something that takes a bit more time, you can scratch off the dye to create a picture on the egg. This works best with a single dye color, and the darker the dye, the better the design will show up. This can be done with most dyes, because the dye sits on the surface of the egg and scratching it with a pin will reveal the white of the egg below the dye. You want to make sure to boil the egg before doing this, and you need to get the feel for how hard to scratch with the pin, but you can get elaborate designs if you are willing to take the time. (This egg is dyed with red cabbage juice.)

Another technique is to use a straight pin to apply beeswax to a boiled egg, by heating the head of the pin in a candle flame and scooping up a small amount of beeswax, then creating a design on the egg before dyeing it. The wax will preserve the white color below it, and you melt off the beeswax to reveal the design. (This egg was dyed with madder root.)

Pysanky uses multiple dye colors with beeswax to preserve sections of each layer of color. In this technique, you gradually apply the dyes starting with the lightest color, then proceeding through to the darkest to create a finished design that can be very elaborate. The wax is applied using a tool called a kistka, which is a small funnel attached to the end of a handle. The funnel is heated in a candle flame, then used to scoop up beeswax. You then use the narrow end of the funnel to apply the wax to the egg, creating simple to elaborate designs with the wax. Any dye under the wax will not be dyed with the next colors. Other than the steady hand needed to apply the wax, the main skill with this technique is planning the design. You have to create the design knowing which color each part will be, and make sure to apply the wax in the order of the dye colors. You can’t go back to a lighter color once the darker dye has been applied. Pysanky design books give the instructions for which designs to apply with wax after each dye bath. At the end of the process, you gently heat the wax to melting point, and wipe it off to reveal the design (I’ve done this with just a candle flame, but you can also put it in an oven set on 100 degrees). If you would like to try to make pysanky, I recommend this website by a family who originally came from Ukraine and now sells dyes, design books, equipment, and even finished eggs.

Recipes vs Receipts

A quick discussion about my new header pic for recipe blog posts. I am still getting better at putting pictures at the top of my blog posts, and I also want to be very careful about copyright law. I either use Creative Commons pictures, or I use my own pictures on this website. For the blog posts that I have with recipes in them, I have created a new header picture to use of a receipt book I made when I worked at the museum. I think a lot of people might be a bit confused as to why it says Receipt instead of Recipe, so I thought I would do a quick explanation of the difference. Up until the mid 19th century, cookbooks had receipts, not recipes, in them. A lot of this had to do with cooking over a hearth. There was simply too much variability in cooking conditions to give specific instructions for how to cook. The authors had to be vague on instructions to take into account all the different conditions that might be present. The type of hearth being used, the wood type, the cooking vessels, the time of year (weather, humidity, temp, type of raw ingredients available, etc) would all create very different options for the home cook. Even today, most cooking shows will give instructions on how to test your oven temp with a good thermometer if your baking times are different than stated, and everyone who has cooked on different surfaces (gas, electric, and especially induction) knows how different they can cook for the same dish. Multiply these variables by several factors and you get the problem for the authors of 18th century cookbooks. So instead of a recipe with specific instructions, you had a receipt that listed the items you needed and guidelines for cooking them. There were often substitution options for different spices, vegetables, and containers, heat instructions such as a ‘slow’ oven vs a ‘quick’ oven, and the all purpose ‘cook until done’ for time. All of this meant that a cook needed to be skilled in understanding how a receipt would be applied for a particular kitchen and time.

If you want to see a typical 18th century receipt, here is one from England, describing how to make Pigeons in Paste–Fill the belly of the Pigeon with Butter, a little Water, some Pepper and Salt, and cover it with a thin light Paste, and then to put it in a fine Linen Cloth, and boil it for a time in proportion to its bigness, and serve it up. When this is cut open, it will yield Sauce enough of a very agreeable Relish. The Country Housewife and Lady’s Director, Richard Bradley, 1736. Try giving that to today’s cook and see what they say about it! After years of experience reading and using this type of receipt, I could make this without too much trouble, but I wouldn’t want to serve it to guests the first time I made it. However, this gives a good example of the types of instructions in a published 18th century cookbook. If you were to look at a manuscript cookbook, you might have even less. I have seen major ingredients left off that I know are part of it, because the writer assumed they would remember the obvious ones and didn’t need to record them.

So that is the difference between recipe and receipt. For my own cooking, I still look at recipes like I do receipts. They are more strong suggestions to achieve a particular outcome than they are strict rules. I am always happy to change things I don’t like, or want to do a different way. This is why I am a good cook, but only a reluctant baker. Baking is much less forgiving of guesses and ‘good enough’ measurements. Personally, I consider cooking an art and baking a science, though I am sure that bakers might disagree!

Cmabrige Rscheearch

Icdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg The phaonmeal pweor of the hmuan mnid Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer inwaht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltter be in the rghit pclae.  The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm.  This is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but wrod as a wlohe.  Amzanig huh?  yaeh and I awlyas thghout sopeling was ipmorantt!

You might have seen this internet meme before; if you haven’t and it looks like gobbledy-gook, it works a lot like the Magic Eye images. The harder you try to figure it out, the worse it gets. If you are having trouble reading the above, don’t try so hard. This will be harder for non-native readers of English, but if you stop trying to read each word because it looks strange, and just let go and get started reading the first bit, it comes a lot easier (at least, I found it so). The reason I am putting this up is because it goes to my inner language geek. Just recently, I came across this (which I had originally hung in my office at work) and I had the time, so I looked it up to see if it actually came from Cambridge. Funny thing is, its the exact question someone from Cambridge asked! The answer, apparently, is that no one really knows who this originated from, though there has been linguistic studies into similar areas, and studies of how people learn language and how the brain translates words.

One of the professors who has worked in the Cognition and Brian Sciences Unit at Cambridge wrote up a blog post where he gives the history of the research into language learning he has found, and possible links to this meme. He does show how there are some tricks to the above process, which means that you can’t just use any way to mix up the internal letter order, and that the sentence design itself has a lot to do with how it can be read. He has also added all the different languages this meme has been created in. Some written languages do not work as well with this design (such as Chinese), because the structure of the writing doesn’t work the same as many of those based in Europe. However, some do, and the blog poster, Matt Davis, gives a good run down of the types of written languages he has found examples in. I am providing a link here for you, so you can read his studies yourself if you are interested. He last updated it in 2003, so it has been around for a while, but the information is still good, and very interesting if you are like me! Link Here.

Featured Image in Creative Commons-“Zine Study XIV: [language]” by Shawn Econo is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/

Scherenschnitte-The art of paper cutting

Scherenschnitte–one of the final words of the 2015 National Spelling Bee, and probably the only time I have ever been able to spell a word from that contest. (I am notoriously bad at spelling; I give myself comfort that Einstein is rumored to have been a bad speller, but it is definitely cold comfort!) Scherenschnitte is a word I had to spell frequently when I worked at a living history museum, where we would demonstrate the technique of decorative paper cutting from Germany and central Europe. There are a lot of different traditions of paper cutting and folding in many cultures, such as origami from Japan and the original paper cutting of China, but scherenschnitte is one of those that many people think of today, probably because it reminds them of cutting out paper snowflakes in elementary school. The technique was often used as gifts, or to decorate other items. Many people who practice it today will use an Exacto knife for very fine cuts, but I have always used small scissors. It doesn’t have to be difficult, just as making paper snowflakes can be very simple, but there are plenty of examples of very intricate designs that take skill and patience to complete. I am going to include several pictures of designs that I have cut, but it is fairly easy to copy a design for someone who wants to just try it out for fun.

This is a quarter fold pattern with writing space in the center. If you look at the featured image of this post, you can see the cut design mounted on red paper.

The first thing to do with paper cutting is to make sure you pick the right type of paper. Very thin paper, while it is easier to cut, won’t hold up to the pressure that comes from cutting away much of the structure. If it isn’t strong enough, you will end up tearing the design, especially if you are doing a very intricate one. Stronger paper will also give a crisp finish, which looks a lot better for the amount of work you are going to be doing. The paper available in the 18th and early 19th centuries, when the practice was popular, was generally rag paper, which means that it was made of cotton, linen, or a blend of the two. Wood pulp paper became more common after the 1820s, but if you want to get an idea of how much stronger rag paper is, pull out the one that most people are familiar with, money. All US paper money is made of rag paper, 75% cotton and 25% linen. Linen provides a lot of strength to paper, and is why your paper currency can be put through the wash and still stay intact! All of this is to say, the best paper for making scherenschnitte has some rag content. I recommend a general 25% cotton, which is what good quality resume paper is made with. Even a thinner weight paper with this rag content will provide stability for the design. After that, it depends on how thick you want to cut through. If you just want to try this for fun, get some good quality resume paper and give it a try.

If you want to do much paper cutting, I recommend getting a small light board for tracing purposes, but you can also use a window for this (I always used a window when I was working in the museum), it will just get tiring if you want to do more than one or two of these. As for designs, you can find a lot of them online or purchase a book of designs, but you can also make up any design you want. The main thing is to remember to look carefully at your design so you know what paper is going to stay, and what is to be cut away. If you want, you can shade one part, and leave the other white; just make sure you know which is which! You will need a small pair of scissors that are very sharp and pointed. Do Not use scissors you keep for cutting fabric to cut paper. Cutting paper will dull scissors much faster than cloth, and will ruin good fabric.

This pattern is from a set of cards I received for Christmas one year. I just took the design and traced it onto paper, and cut it out myself. This is a single fold design, with some intricate details. You can see where I started tracing the design for cutting in the bottom image. Before you start cutting, make sure you have firmly in mind what is cut away and what stays; you can’t put the paper back on if you make a mistake! You can also change these designs however you want. Leave out the middle details to gain a space for writing, for instance, or just use the very outer design to create a lacework edging.

Most of the designs I have done are traditional styles, which usually means they are folded once or twice, and then opened up after cutting to reveal the repeated design. You will find paper cut designs that are done without folding, often of scenes, and these are often done with a knife rather than scissors. If you like those, feel free to try them, but I won’t show any of them here, since all of the originals that I have looked at are folded designs. You can paint or color the designs after they are done, but I like the plain color ones, with a contrasting color of paper for mounting to show the design. Many of the original ones were given like we give cards today, including as Valentine’s greetings, so many of them would include a space left for writing, but I have also seen them with writing on the delicate edges of a filigree heart.

The technique for drawing and cutting is to start by tracing or drawing your pattern. I am not an artist, so I will always trace a pattern. If using a window, just secure your pattern behind your paper (making sure to allow room to fold the paper you are cutting, i.e. place the pattern at the top of a page to fold in half, not in the middle of the paper). Hold or tape the paper and design to a window at a comfortable height to draw, and then trace the pattern onto your cutting paper. Once you take off the pattern, fold your paper in half or in quarters along the fold edge of the design, then look closely at your design for where to start cutting. The best technique is to cut from smallest areas to the largest areas. This gives you the most stability, keeping the bulk of the paper intact while you work, and leaving cutting out the biggest portions until the end, which lessens the risk of tearing the paper. The outside edges of the design are the last thing to cut away. There is also a trick I learned that you might find useful. The amount of pressure to push the scissors through the paper can cause tearing even when you are being very careful. I take a straight pin and poke a hole in the middle of all of the cut-out areas before I start. This takes a little more time, but makes it much easier and safer to cut even the smallest areas, because you have created an opening for the tip of the scissors without much pressure being applied. The tip of a straight pin is much finer than the best scissors, and takes much less pressure to pierce the paper. The other trick to remember is that the paper moves forward, not the scissors. This may sound strange, but try it before you start. Take your scissors and push them into the center of a piece of paper. Now start the cutting motion with your scissors, but don’t move them forward or back. Instead, use your other hand holding the paper to push the paper gently into the motion of the scissors. This is what you want to do with paper cutting. You will only be using the very tip of the scissors to cut with, so there really isn’t much point to trying to push the scissors forward into the paper. It may seem a little strange at first, but if you practice, you will find much more control by pushing the paper into the scissors, instead of the other way round! Just remember, this isn’t like cutting large pieces of paper in half; you will be making very small cuts with your scissors, so you want to control the motion much more than usually done with cutting.

This is a Christmas design that I have cut out numerous times to frame and give as gifts. It is also a single fold design. Again, changes can be made, such as leaving the top medallions solid for painting or writing in. On something like this, cutting the smallest areas first is best, to keep as much stability as long as possible. It would also be a good idea to color in the areas to cut out, so you don’t remove parts of the design you want to keep.

When you are finished with the Scherenschnitte design, you can either give it to someone as is, or more commonly, mount it on a contrasting color paper backing to frame. I have used dark jewel tones of cover weight paper to mount designs on before framing, but you can also cut the design out of a darker paper and mount it on a light backing if you want. (Seeing the design to cut out is easier on light paper, but using a white lead pencil on dark paper is also possible.) When putting the design onto its backing, it is best not to put the glue onto the design, which will cause it to tear or wrinkle. Instead, use a drier glue like a gluestick to put the glue onto the mounting paper, and then carefully place the design onto the glue area. This is a tricky part of the presentation, because it can be easy for the delicate design not to lay flat if you are not very careful. I recommend using a low heat iron to flatten out the Scherenschnitte design before mounting it. This is also where using a good quality paper will help, since it is less flimsy, and won’t twist around easily when placing it on the glue. Make sure you have the design centered on the paper before applying glue, and marking the area for the design before applying the glue on the mounting paper is often a good idea. Be very careful not to pull in any one direction as you place it gently down on the glue covered mounting paper; one technique is to have a center line to use as a guide, and set the cut design centerpoint gently down on that first, then allow the two sides to just fall to the paper. This will keep you from shifting the design from top to bottom or side to side, which can cause it to bunch up onto the glue base. You will have a few minutes to make any adjustments to small points on the cut design while the glue is still moist; using a straight pin to shift small points is the safest way. Press gently with your hand to ensure it is stuck on the glue, and you could put a slick covered book on to press it for about 30 minutes. DO NOT put a piece of paper or other cover that could stick to the glue on top of the still wet glue-and-design. There is no way to remove other paper getting stuck to the glue on the mounting paper without destroying the cut design. That is a lot of work to destroy at the very end! If in doubt, just let it dry completely without any weighting, and press after the glue is dry. Frame and enjoy!

This is a quarter fold pattern. Quarter folds are a little bit more difficult to cut, since you have four pieces of paper to cut through at once, but they are usually less complicated. They also take less time, since you are creating twice as much of the design area with each cut.

The Annual Leaf Pilgrimage

The end of the Annual Leaf Pilgrimage has arrived. If anyone reading this gardens, you probably know about mulching to preserve moisture and keep weeds down around plants and in a garden. Well, if you have never used them, leaves are a great way to mulch, and they act as a slow fertilizer when they break down. So every fall since I was a kid (and that was some time ago!) we have always gone around the neighborhoods in my city and collected leaf bags from anyone who put them out for the city to pick up. As you may have gathered from previous blog posts, my mother is a big gardener, and since she is happy to help take care of my yard as well as her own, I am more than happy to help her get leaves each fall. This annual drive-around usually takes a couple of weekend days, usually in mid- to late-November. My mother also has particular taste in leaves; not just any will do! These pictured are primarily Willow Oaks (in the south we usually call them Pin Oaks), Maple, some Red Oak, and various decorative trees such as Crepe Myrtles. Pin Oak is a favorite, since the leaves are narrow, which allows water to get to the ground through them, but they don’t break down too quickly, making them great for both moisture retention and mulching in garden rows. (The soil in our area is also unusual for NC, which is usually a bit acidic. Instead, we have more neutral to alkaline soil because of chalk that runs about 18 inches below ground. This means that the tannic acid in the oak leaves helps balance our soil, instead of causing problems.) Maples are fine; even though they are wider than Pin Oaks, they are also quicker to break down, and they don’t matte up to prevent water from getting through. Red Oak, Pecan, and others like that are okay, though they are not the premium leaves. The types we’ll just leave out are White Oak, Sycamore, or Magnolia. They are just too big and won’t break down easily, which makes them bad for both letting water through, and for fertilizing mulch (and walking on them isn’t great either). Using leaves is a lot cheaper and better for the soil than buying landscaping mulch, so Mom wants about 200 bags of leaves each fall. The main difficulty is getting them to fit into the shed! (We did pretty good this year.)

Blog Navigation

My blog posts will be about a wide range of subjects (this blog is ‘a little about everything). All of them will appear in reverse order on this page, and you are welcome to scroll through. However, you may be interested in only certain subjects. To read those without having to search through them all, you can click on a category heading located at the top of each post, or a tag link found at the bottom of each post. The categories will be subjects such as Gardening, Poetry, Cooking or general Blog Posts. The tags will be sub-categories, such as Seasonal (Gardening), Poetry Author (such as Emily Dickinson), Recipes, and other similar sections. Clicking on those links will give you just the posts from that category or tag. At the beginning this will be a small number for each group, but hopefully it will make navigation easier when there are more listed here.

Building a Terraced Garden

I started building gardens because my mom has always been a big gardener, and I never wanted to do all the upkeep it takes, but I love planning and building things. So I started building new garden areas for her to plant and upkeep. It meant I got to do what I love, and she got to do what she loved, so everyone was happy! (Dad went along with it, since he likes figuring out how to build things, too!) I started about 20 years ago by building a couple of ponds and designing walkways for the back yard, then made a rock wall about 2 years later that used about 13 tons of rocks, and just kept going. I do a lot of the planning and physical labor, with Dad helping with problem areas. So for this entry, I’ll describe the first half of building a terraced garden on a steep hill at the back of the property. One thing I always do is use whatever we have around to build with, so that we buy as little as possible. I think it also makes the finished product look more natural. So this garden started with a really overgrown hill about 20-25 feet down and about the same across. First the ivy and undergrowth had to be cleared, which was done by pulling it all up by hand. We really hate to use poison, and ivy will actually come up pretty well by just pulling it up. I’ll confess, I didn’t do this part (thanks Mom!).

After that, I planned out where the logs would go for terracing. For pictures of this process, check out my Gallery page, and you can get an idea of how steep and big this space is. There was a lot of precarious balancing when I was digging in the first places for logs. Once I had a platform dug for a log, I rolled or moved it down from above, and then put in rebar to hold the rest of the logs in place. Generally, I did 3 or 4 logs up to create a terrace. Once these spaces were created, I threw down dirt from the top to fill in the new space. There were also some small terraces I created to have smaller areas to plant down the hill. One of the things I like to do is look at the shape of the space, and work with it. I don’t try to force my own design on the land, but just look at what is already there, and make it a little easier to plant. I also built a staircase from old pieces of slab concrete, some of them from when my parents moved into the house (my dad grew up on a farm, you don’t throw away useful stuff😉).  For the staircase, I dug platforms into the hillside, starting at the top, put one of the slabs in place, then worked my way down the hill, building stairs as I went. I would slide the heavy concrete pieces down beside the staircase as I got further down, some of the bottom ones were probably about 100 pounds.

Once all of the stairs were in place, I built some more terraces along the side for planting areas. The final addition was putting in the railing about 6 months later, using uprights driven into the hill, and screwing on tree limbs from fallen trees to create the rail (Dad does the drilling; at under 5 feet tall, I have some problems with leverage!). It worked out pretty well!

If you are considering doing something like this, the main thing to keep in mind is to plan, plan, plan. It is a lot easier to adjust what you want to do later, if you have planned the steps to get there from the start. ‘Winging it’ rarely works out well, or at least involves a lot of cursing!

About the Website

The reason I started this website was for a grad school assignment, but the reason I designed it this way is to continue doing what my whole career has been about – helping people learn new things about history, science, people, and sometimes just trivia that is neat to know! I have divided the site into some different areas. This blog is where I will put descriptions of projects I have done and what I learned while doing them, some of the activities and skills I learned to do while working in a living history museum for over 20 years, and suggestions for anyone wanting to try out any of these things themselves or just learn more about them.  The gallery will have pictures that relate to any of these blog posts, so that visual learners can get more out of it. I also love collecting quotes and poetry that speak to me, so I will have some of those highlighted in their own sections. I also plan to include a Recommendations page that will give some books and websites that I like or have found helpful.

So that’s a run down of what I plan to do with this website. I am learning how to work the design tools while I go, so if you are here early in the process, be patient with me! I have a lot of experience with writing text for media, training, and the public, but I have never run a website design before, so hopefully the information will be fun, even if the design needs a bit of work!

Back to Top