The Joy of Jars

Last week, I talked a little about some of my sustainability and simplicity efforts, but my most consistent attempt to reduce my footprint has got to be my love of reusing glass jars. Sadly, my husband (who, admittedly, does most of the dishes) does not share my love of jars and has even insisted that I curate my collection a bit in recent years. But I love a good jar, and trying to be more sustainable and low-waste has certainly reignited my desire to keep every jar I come across.

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First of all, I try to find things in glass or metal packaging where possible because the bulk of a jar can be more easily recycled than plastic. I’ve been quietly switching things over to glass packaging where possible in most areas of my life. But the other reason I love buying things in glass is because I love to save jars. Recently, our store started carrying a new brand of French custard, which is delicious (and comes in chocolate, rice, and salted caramel!), but also comes in the most adorable tiny glass jars that are the perfect size for my own homemade pots de creme. Of course, my husband, who does most of our dishes, has a slightly less glowing view of my collection of jars and made me get rid of all but the number of jars that fits one batch of custard.

Jars are so useful, though. Lately, since I’ve been trying to shop in bulk more, I’ve found even more use for my collection of jars. I throw a couple into our reusable bag each week when do the shopping. It’s simple enough to take them to customer service to get a tare weight, and then I can get nuts or pasta or beans or rice or any number of things without any wasted packaging. Our store even has bulk honey, olive oil, and vinegars available, so I can get those (the olive oil goes into a bottle) without having bottles that will need to be thrown out. And since the honey is local, it’s the most sustainable way to sweeten. I’ve been using bulk hazelnuts, bulk salt, and bulk honey (and tap water) to make a milk substitute for my morning beverage lately, without any extra waste.

But jars are also not terribly bulky, especially when I save smaller jars, like the jar I got some beans in a few years back. It’s the perfect size to carry some home-blended tea to work, or pop into the shopping bag to get a treat from the bulk bins instead of a wrapped candy or trail mix. And I even recently used one of my tiny custard jars to bring some loose-leaf decaf Earl Grey to a brunch at a friend’s house because I know my mother prefers that and my friends didn’t have any decaf tea on hand.

The one tip for life with jars that I have is this: Know that standard mason jar lids are not stainless/rust-proof. This was never an issue for years (except for the one time I tried to store vinegar in a mason jar) because we hand-washed everything, but since moving to a house with a dishwasher, we’ve realized that the lids that came with our mason jars have started to rust. So the one new jar-related purchase we’ve made is to buy stainless steel mason jar lids. The fit is a little fiddly, and they’re not appropriate for canning, but it’s nice to not have two pieces of lid when I’m trying to pack up pumped milk or bring a jar of soup to work.

What about you? I’ve started up multiple conversations recently with friends and acquaintances who share my love of jars, so I’d love to hear about your favorite jars in the comments.

On Simplifying and Civilized Sustainability

The other day, while walking out of a meeting, my coworker commented on how “green” I was because I hadn’t printed out the meeting document, in favor of bringing an electronic copy on my tablet, along with my notebook for any notes I needed to take. I showed him one better and showed that I’d also brought my own cloth napkin to have a treat during the meeting (this month’s treat was cupcakes) instead of using a paper plate and napkin. It was nice to have these little efforts recognized because over the last several years, I’ve quietly tried to make small changes towards a less wasteful, more sustainable lifestyle, including bringing cloths with me to work instead of using so many paper towels and napkins.

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Probably the biggest change to my life that I’ve been trying to make, with varying levels of success, is my attempts to reduce my overall consumption. Whether I’m changing my buying habits of new (or new-to-me) clothes, reducing the way I use personal care products, or making small changes to how we eat, simply buying less is always going to be the most sustainable thing a person can do. Rather than buying new linen towels (linen is very eco-friendly, didn’t you know?), we’re using the towels we have until they’re no longer serviceable. Rather than buying new clothes, I’ve bought second-hand or even taken castoffs and loaners from friends. And my beauty routine is slowly creeping towards something very different from the sprawling, globe-circling routine that I’ve shared in the past.

Really, there is something very civilized about simplicity sometimes. I’m not Kon-Mari-ing anything (although we have been doing some of the decluttering that should have happened before we moved), but I’m trying to make steps towards reducing the need for such a chore. And, really, I’d rather wear the same two skirts for work all week than spend more than a little time on the weekend doing laundry or clearing out my closet. People view it as “strong personal style” rather than “wearing the same thing every week.” Plus, I’ve been quietly transitioning my wardrobe towards entirely natural fibers, and then towards more sustainable fibers (like the aforementioned linen). It’s expensive, so the process will be slow anyway. I’m less engaging in minimalism as I am asymptotically approaching it by bringing less into my life.

And that’s the crux of it, and part of why this is a quiet effort and not one that I would really recommend to anyone, because it’s part of a very personal value judgment. For me, I know I can “get away with” wearing as much of my pre-pregnancy wardrobe as possible, and buy a few necessities, so that if I spend more money to buy from a seamstress who makes all her pieces herself and charges accordingly out of sustainably-grown fabric, it doesn’t matter that I can really only afford one new piece of clothing every month or so. Or if I decide to make my own new skirt for the coming cooler months, I can choose to order my fabrics carefully and spend a month sewing it by hand, rather than needing to get a fall and winter wardrobe all at once. But not everyone has that luxury.

Or in the case of my skin care. I’ve already spent years honing my skin care routine and determining my skin’s general likes and dislikes, so I can buy products with relatively confidence online, so when I want to transition from less plastic packaging, I can try a new facial oil or cleanser or hydrating serum without as much of the unknown looming. And it helps that my skin has calmed down incredibly since my pregnancy (touch wood). So far, I’ve transitioned most of my skin care to simpler products that are largely produced by small companies (or people I know somewhat personally, through social media) and are mostly packaged with less plastic. There are a couple things I know I cannot swap out, despite their plastic bottle, but I know where I can recycle those containers now. Once I’ve tested the last new potential product, I’ll do a skincare update, I think.

And I’m fortunate to have the support of my husband, who has made great strides in reducing his use of papers towels and coffee filters. We’ve now almost entirely switched over to using cloth towels instead of paper ones, especially for our napkins. Somehow using cloth paper towels was an easier leap than trying to use our stock of gifted cloth napkins because the napkins seemed fancier. Now we have an eclectic pile of napkins and towels that we use at meals or for small spills. And Dan uses a cloth coffee filter in his coffee cone every morning. It seems very civilized, but really, it’s just a way to make less trash. Like using a fountain pen: I see a way to generate less waste in the form of discarded pens because I can simply refill the cartridge, but also, it’s a fancy pen and I look fancy using it.

Of course, the quintessential civilized sustainability swap for me is my tea. Now, I don’t pretend that my tea is at all a sustainable habit. I get most of it shipped from halfway around the world in single-use packaging, despite my attempts to save tins and reuse them. The fact is that tea has to be sealed to prevent it from going stale. But using loose leaf tea with my tea ware (much of which is either handmade or secondhand) offers a bit of an offset, as I don’t create any additional bits of litter in the form of teabags. And I can have several cups of tea from one serving of leaves, rather than using many teabags per day. Plus, as far as hobbies go, sitting quietly and enjoying the outside with a cup of tea is far simpler than many others, and helps to quiet my mind so that I can find contentment with what I have, which is the ultimate sustainability.

Tea Review: Craftedleaf Teas

NB: This sample set was sent to me for the cost of shipping for review, but all opinions are my own.

Recently, someone from Craftedleaf Teas got in touch with me and offered me a chance to try some of their teas for just the cost of shipping. Honestly, I was on the fence about getting more review samples, but I’d seen a few other friends on Instagram raving about their Bilochun and I was intrigued by their Lapsang Souchong, so I accepted. If you follow me on Instagram, you’ve seen me tasting them over the last few weeks, and you may have caught my recent video where I tasted one of their teas, but I thought I should organize my complete thoughts into a longer-form review here.

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First of all, their website is rather gorgeous, and relatively easy to navigate. Every listing gives the full information for the tea, along with instructions for brewing gongfu style and Western style, which is nice, particularly if you’re like me and lose the little packet of instructions that were included in the box! It’s nice because the instructions are obviously tailored to each tea, rather than just giving the same instructions for everything.

I received the Fullhouse Sample Set, which retails for $23 and includes 10 grams each of six different teas, two oolongs, a green, a white, a raw pu’er, and a black. Shipping from Hong Kong to the US was $8, and it arrived twelve calendar days after I placed the order. They also included a 5-gram sample of another dark tea. Looking at the prices, Craftedleaf tea is not as inexpensive as a place like Yunnan Sourcing, but they’re not outrageously expensive, especially for quality tea. Plus, the extra information on the website and the sense of curation suggests a higher-touch experience. Interestingly enough, the founders of the company both come from the two regions of China that lay claim to the origins of gongfu brewing. I particularly appreciate that they are able to use language on their site to express their careful curation, without resorting to calling themselves “luxury.”

When my tea arrived (much sooner than I expected), I broke into the box almost immediately. The seven sleek, white envelopes were carefully packed along with a little book of paper slips containing the information and brewing parameters suggested for each tea. While I jumped on the Bilochun right away, it didn’t take me long to try every tea, sometimes brewing more than one per day (something I haven’t done since before I got pregnant last year). I’ve now tasted all the teas at least once, and some more than that.

Tasting Notes:

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Spring 2019 Dong Ting Lake Bilochun: Because this was the first tea I tasted, I tasted it three ways. I first brewed it gongfu style, using 5g, as suggested; then, I tried it Western style with 3g; finally, I brewed it grandpa-style, by simply putting the remaining 2g into a mug and sipping on it throughout the day. This is a remarkably delicate tea, with a sweet fragrance and mild liquor. It doesn’t get bitter or unpleasant, even brewed for a long time. And I was able to re-steep it even when I brewed it Western style.

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2017 Ba Da Shan Wild Tree Raw Puerh: This tea, I steeped using Marco’s ten-step tasting process that I outlined in my last video. It is a remarkably well-balanced tea, with the aromatic complexity I expect from a sheng, but without the bitterness you might fear from one so young. And, wow, I got some serious energy off this one, even after just one steeping.

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Spring 2019 Wuyi Golden Horse Eyebrow: This was the extra sample that was included in my order and I’m so glad they included it. This was an absolutely fascinating tea. The damp leaves after the first steeping smelled of rich, black pumpernickel bread, and the tea itself had that flavor at first. But then, over later steepings, the most glorious sweet rose scent and flavor came through. Of all the teas I received, this is probably the most likely that I would buy for myself (once I’ve gone through my stash!).

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Spring 2019 Song Dynasty Old Bush Milan Dancong Oolong: This was the most disappointing of the bunch. Despite the description, I found the roast on this to be too heavy. I love Phoenix Oolongs and I was sad that the roast seemed to obscure a lot of the honey and orchid flavors, to my tastes. But it was still enjoyable, especially if you like a smokier tea.

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Spring 2019 Golden Tip Lapsang Souchong: This was the one that both excited me and worried me. My only experience with Lapsang has been the smoked Western-style variety and I am not a fan. I felt a little thrill of contrary joy when a tea sommelier on a podcast I listened to recently called it “bro tea” because I felt somewhat vindicated. But I know that Lapsang, as a category, is well-loved, even among tea connoisseurs. So I was eager to try this one. And it did not disappoint. It has a pronounced caramel sweetness and a rich body, but with bitter notes more akin to really good chocolate than an astringent tea. I even got a bit of pine aroma from the leaves after the last couple of steepings. And I got a bit of energy off it.

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Spring 2019 Organic Wild Baimudan: I may have come to a realization — I don’t think I actually like Baimudan. Now, what does this have to do with this tea? Well, this is probably the most enjoyable Baimudan I’ve ever had. It was a balance of flowers and hay, without too many off flavors, and a pleasant thickness in the mouth without being cloying or syrupy. And yet, I personally found it only okay. But my conclusion is that if I didn’t like this Baimudan, I probably just don’t prefer the tea as a type, because this was a good Baimudan.

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Spring 2019 Premium Anxi Tieguanyin: Tieguanyin is one of my favorite teas, which is why it is odd that I saved this one for last. Perhaps I didn’t want to color my opinion of the rest of the samples if this one turned out to be disappointing. Well, I needn’t have worried. This is an exemplary TGY. It has an unctuous, creamy liquor with a fragrant floral aroma and flavor, the creaminess punctuated by a citrus brightness that is really quite enjoyable. And look at those leaves! They’re huge, and hardly a stem among them.

So those are my honest thoughts on the Fullhouse Sample Set. One thing that struck me throughout my tastings was that every tea seemed very thoughtfully selected. They all had complexity and interest, even those that weren’t my favorites. I’m glad that I had the opportunity to investigate this company that I might not have otherwise found.

Adventures in Historical Baking: Bath Buns

As I mentioned in my “Tea with Jane Austen” video this weekend, one of Austen’s favorite treats was the Bath bun, an enriched, brioche-like bun that has been referenced since at least 1763. Austen wrote in her letters of “disordering [her] stomach” with them. So as part of my video, I wanted to try to recreate them.

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I’ve been able to find many 18th- and 19th-century cookbooks freely available on Google Books, and it’s not only been a boon to my historical series, but also just great fun. So I looked through a book from 1805 called The Housekeeper’s Instructor by W. A. Henderson and I found this recipe for “Bath Cakes or Buns”:

“TAKE a half pound of butter, and one pound of flour; rub the butter well into the flour; add five eggs, and a teacup full of yeast. Set the whole well mixed up before the fire to rise; when sufficiently rose add a quarter of a pound of find powder sugar, an ounce of carraways well mixed in, then roll them out in little cakes and bake them on tins; they may be eat for either breakfast or tea.”

It seemed straightforward enough, and because much of the recipe is given in weight, there was little confusion as to how much of things to use. The one confusion was the “teacup full of yeast.” Of course, it was not calling for a cup of dry powdered yeast, as we use now, but likely meant a cup full of the liquid yeast slurry known as “barm.” James Townsend has a great video about yeast, in which he gives a recipe for an approximate substitute from the barm that would have been used (jump to 3:40 for that). Barm was a by-product of beer brewing and using it in bread-making allowed for the production of sweeter breads, rather than the sourdoughs that would have been produced before. For our sweet Bath buns, “yeast” likely meant barm, which also accounts for the lack of liquid in the dough, apart from the eggs.

As this was considered a relative of modern brioche, which is a milk-based dough, I decided that instead of making barm with beer and yeast, I would simply replace the “yeast” in the recipe with a packet of dry yeast activated in some warm milk. So I warmed a cup of milk, added the yeast, let it sit for 15-20 minutes and then proceeded with the rest of the recipe.

And I was left with an incredibly loose batter, rather than a dough! I ended up having to add much more flour to make it into a dough, which threw off the ratios of the sugar and butter as well. So it seemed the recipe required more sleuthing.

The first thing I realized is that I didn’t actually know how big a “teacup” was in early 19th-century cooking. I simply assumed it meant a cup, but looking at most of my teacups, that seems a rather poor assumption. So I found this list of somewhat obscure cooking measures, which helped. It turns out a teacup is the same as a gill and is equal to two wineglasses (or a half a cup, in modern terms).

Next, I looked at my eggs. I use standard large eggs in my baking, and most recipe I find these days call for large eggs, but in the past, eggs would have been smaller. So I hunted around for references and found that 19th-century chickens probably produced eggs that today would be considered small-to-medium. Now, rather than buy different eggs, I looked up conversions and five small or medium eggs is about four large eggs.

Thus armed with new knowledge, I took up my recipe again. This time, I produced a very loose, sticky dough, but it was cohesive enough to be picked up and formed roughly into blobs, which I baked in a muffin tin. They look a bit like muffins, but inside, they have a fine-crumbed, enriched bread texture, with a lovely sweetness and a good flavor from the caraway seeds. I can see why the caraway seeds fell out of favor in modern incarnations, but I rather like that old-fashioned flavor. They are, indeed, lovely for breakfast or tea, especially slathered with a good bit of soft butter.

Bath Buns
makes a dozen buns

Ingredients:

1 lb. of flour
1/2 lb. (2 sticks) of salted butter, at room temperature
1 packet of dry active yeast
1/2 cup of whole milk, warmed to 100F
4 large eggs
1/4 lb. (4 oz., by weight) of granulated sugar
1 oz., by weight, of caraway seeds

  1. Mix the warm milk and yeast together and set aside for 15 or so minutes.
  2. Rub the butter into the flour well, until it resembles coarse crumbs.
  3. Mix up the eggs and the milk mixture and then add to the flour and butter until a loose dough forms.
  4. Cover with a damp towel and set in a warm place for an hour or so, until it doubles in size.
  5. Preheat your oven to 375F and put paper cases into a 12-cup muffin tin.
  6. Add the sugar and caraway seeds to the dough, and mix well.
  7. With damp hands, to prevent sticking, form the dough into 12 buns and place each in a muffin cup.
  8. Bake for 20-30 minutes, or until risen, brown, and hollow-sounding when tapped (or until a thermometer reads at least 190F).
  9. Enjoy with tea.

A note on the amounts: I kept the ingredients by weight and I mixed the dough by weight, except where specified otherwise in the original recipe, so I don’t know how much I used by volume. I highly recommend you get a kitchen scale for baking, but there are a few sources online of the approximate conversion of weight to volume for each ingredient. Remember that a pound of flour and a pound of sugar will be different volumes, so you will need to look up each separately.

Finding Solitude When You Don’t Live Alone

The inimitable Cathy Hay posted her Costume College vlog/recap last week and it was, of course, unique and brilliant. In it, she talks about attending large conventions as an introvert, someone who finds large groups of people exhausting and needs time alone to recharge. One of the things that stood out to me was when she referenced that fact that she lives alone in the country. I remember my own days living alone with some fondness, particularly when I was in college in a small upstate-NY city, but of course, I no longer live alone.

Anyone who knows me personally probably knows that I am an introvert. This may come as a surprise to people who only know me when I’m “on” — in stage shows or at work in my networking-heavy job — but I thrive on alone time. Of course, I’ve been married twice now and even have a child (plus I had to live with housemates most of the time I spent before moving in with Dan after my divorce), so I no longer live alone and have to find ways to get the solitude I crave. This has been particularly challenging since having Elliot, but it is still possible.

That said, I do think that any commentary on my solitary tendencies would not be complete without my waxing rhapsodic about the solo apartment of my later two years of college. I lived in a town where I could get a large one-bedroom apartment for less than a studio in the area where I currently live, so when my friend was trying to get out of his lease, I jumped at it. I had a large bedroom, living room, bathroom, and kitchen all to myself, along with a giant arched window to let in glorious amounts of natural light. And it was far enough away from campus to avoid much of the weekend partier traffic, while being close enough that walking to class wasn’t onerous. Of course, when finals weeks made my solitude even more profound (I would often go days without speaking), I would occasionally make a point to get breakfast in a cafe to have some interaction, but I was largely happy to exist alone.

Moving for graduate school made living alone financially impossible, and then I eventually moved in with my first husband. Then, the divorce again made living alone impossible, and the apartment I was finally able to rent on my own after that ended up being a poor fit for me. And then, I moved in with Dan, and eventually, we married and had our son.

So over the last more than 10 years since college, I’ve learned how to live with people and still maintain a sense of solitude. I now live in a suburb of a major city and work in the city, so I am almost never alone. Couple that with the fact that a new baby means lots of visitors, and I’ve had to hone my skills at finding alone time.

I think the cornerstone of my solitude practice is rising early. When I went back to work, I started rising between 5:30 and 6 a.m. to shower before Dan woke up, and try to make a cup of tea (or chocolate) and have some time to read before anyone else woke up. This time in the early morning is the only time that I feel truly alone sometimes. And it is especially nice on the weekends, when Dan sleeps in rather late (sometimes until 8am!) and I have a longer time to myself. Those who met me in the last ten years may be surprised to learn that I have not always been a morning person. I forced myself to start rising earlier when I started running in grad school so that I could take advantage of my time before classes started (and cooler weather in the summer). And I will say that training my body to rise earlier has been one of the single best ways for me to retain a sense of solitude, even while growing our family.

This weekend, for example, I woke up naturally around 5:30 a.m., and decided that, rather than trying to go back to sleep, I’d rather make myself some tea and have a quiet morning to myself while Dan slept in with Elliot. I wrote some letters, sipped my tea, and walked to the post box just before Dan and Elliot woke up. It was lovely and calm and let me reconnect with myself and my own interests before jumping into a day of family togetherness.

My Historically-Inspired Morning Routine

I’ve written before about my vintage-inspired routines, but lately, I’ve been finding myself going even further back in history for inspiration. Because the summer always makes me yearn for airy muslin dresses, I’ve been stuck in the Regency period lately. And because I never just limit myself to fashion or beauty, I’ve found the practices of the Regency period bleeding into my morning routine.

Since having a baby, the early morning is often the only time I get entirely to myself, and adding childcare to my morning routine has meant that I have to rise particularly early. While my hours may be more akin to that of a Regency servant, I’ve taken some inspiration from Regency middle and upper classes to carve out a few quiet moments to myself in the morning.

I rise between 5:30 and 6 a.m., and wash up. I shower every morning, although it is often a very quick shower to wash my body and face, while I keep my hair protected in a cap or turban. I spritz my clean skin with rosewater and apply a few drops of facial oil, put on a robe, and go into the kitchen.

One thing I’ve learned is that I no longer wake ravenous, so I don’t need to make a full breakfast immediately upon rising. In true historical fashion, I’ve started eating my breakfast around 10 a.m. in my office. But I need something to get me through my commute, so I’ve been making a cup of drinking chocolate. I’ll share more about my particular recipe a little further on, but while my chocolate boils, I usually have enough time to prepare the few things I need to bring to work for my breakfast and lunch: some sliced bread and cheese, a couple boiled eggs, some fruit, and a salad.

To make my chocolate, I bring water to a boil, add chopped chocolate, spices ground in my mortar and pestle, and sugar. I stir until the chocolate melts, and then bring it to a simmer. Then I remove it from the heat, add cream, and whip it to a froth. This is poured into a cup or mug and enjoyed with a chapter or two of a book. I’ve lately tried to keep myself from opening up my devices too early in the morning (although I often fail to resist temptation), and instead have been reading classic books. I recently finished Jane Eyre and enjoyed it immensely.

By the time I finish my chocolate, Elliot and Dan have usually woken up, so I sit and nurse Elliot while Dan takes his shower. Once both have finished, I can make the final touches to my skin care by applying sunscreen, and then dress my hair, dress my body, and put on a little makeup. Then, I can gather my things and leave for the train station, my little oasis of calm having thoroughly prepared me for the day.

Regency-Inspired Drinking Chocolate
(inspired by this post)

1 oz. unsweetened chocolate
2 cardamom pods
3 allspice berries
1 Tbsp. of sucanat (unrefined sugar)
1 cup of water
2-3 Tbsp. heavy cream

Bring the water to a boil in a small saucepan. Break open the cardamom pods and empty the seeds into a mortar. Add the allspice. Grind the spices to a powder with the pestle. Chop the chocolate. Add the chocolate, spices, and sucanat to the boiling water. Stir until the chocolate has melted and blended with the water, then bring back to a simmer. Remove from the heat and add cream. Whip to a froth and serve. Makes one generous cup.

Hand Sewing the Lila + June Wrap Skirt

I finished my first proper sewing project from a pattern this weekend! I’ve been sharing some little updates along the way as I work on this lovely skirt, but I thought I ought to write a longer post detailing my process, how I deviated from the original pattern, and lessons I’ve learned along the way. Perhaps others who might be interested in sewing this pattern, but who don’t have a sewing machine, might be interested in my thoughts.

So first of all, I chose this skirt because 1.) the pattern is free, 2.) it’s a wrap skirt so sizing is very forgiving, and 3.) I know Kirsten, who owns L+J. Also, I’ve been spending a lot of my time exploring sewing YouTube videos and it’s inspiring me to sew, plus I enjoyed the embroidery project I picked up recently. I find the physical act of stitching to be very relaxing. But my one experience with a sewing machine, when I tried to “help” my mother with my Halloween costume one year, went poorly and I don’t really have a good place to put a machine right now anyway. So I decided to see if I could hand-sew the entire thing. Yes, I’m a little mad. But we’re all mad here, so here we go.

Fabric Choice:

I chose a medium-weight, quilting cotton from Fabric.com because it was inexpensive, solid colored, and machine washable. I didn’t want to break the bank with my first project because there was always a chance I’d fail utterly and have to scrap it, but I wanted something in a color I would wear, and solid so I could pair it with more tops. I also chose some all-cotton green thread.

Of course, when the fabric and thread arrived, I discovered the pitfalls of shopping online, namely that the colors don’t match as well as I’d have liked. But they match well enough and the very little stitching that is visible on the outside of the garment isn’t too jarring. When my fabric arrived, I washed and dried it, and then got ready to go!

Time Commitment:

So from the day I cut out the pattern until the day I tied off the last stitch, it was exactly a month to make this skirt. I did sit on the fabric for a little while because it arrived while we were in the process of moving house, and for a while I didn’t really have any space to lay out fabric. But after the initial move finished, I found myself with the time. But I will say that I only worked on the skirt maybe two days per week because I have a full-time job, a baby, and family and friends who insist on claiming some of my time on the weekend. If I had worked on it for a few hours every day, I might have been able to finish in a week or two. One day, perhaps I will take off a week from work to test this theory.

The biggest time sink was the hem. It’s a circle and then some, so that’s understandable. And I chose not to do the topstitching on the waistband and ties to save some time. Surprisingly, I found the side seams to be relatively quick. I actually cut the back panel of the skirt on a fold to save myself a seam, but in retrospect, one more seam wouldn’t have been that much work, and it would have been nice to have that center back seam to line up the waistband.

Stitches:

When I first started out, I was inordinately grateful for this video from Bernadette Banner on the basic stitches for historical hand-sewing. I found that going to historical practice blogs and YouTube channels was really helpful because they’re the ones using hand sewing to construct garments, rather than just for finishing or decorative work. I also appreciated this page on hand-finishing stitches. I used her Frenched seam finish on my side seams, rather than sewing each seam twice like you would on a machine.

I did my side seams in backstitch, finished the seams with a whip stitch, and felled the hem. I backstitched on the waistband, twice (my pride and joy is the inside waistband seam, which I backstitched without pricking through to the front), and used a slip stitch to close up the rest of the waist ties. As mentioned before, I skipped topstitching the waist band and ties. Those are the only deviations from the printed pattern.

So that’s my skirt process. It’s delightfully twirly and I’m thoroughly enjoying wearing it. Of course I welcome any questions you might have for me! Let me know if you have any sewing projects you’re working on, as I’m definitely planning my next project.

Treating Myself: A Brightening and Hydrating Facial from Silver Mirror Facial Bar

NB: I was given a 20% discount on this service when I offered to review it. All opinions are my own.

When I was in my last few months of pregnancy, walking from the gym to work in the mornings, I noticed a new facial bar along the way. It opened recently, and I finally remembered to jot down the name of it when I was walking from my favorite pastry shop, and emailed them for information. Silver Mirror Facial Bar was originally opened in New York City by co-owners Cindy Kim and Matt Maroone with the mission of making regular facials more available to US women. Kim was also a co-founder of Korean Beauty retailer Peach and Lily and was inspired by the skin clinic culture in Korea.

The bar offers just facials, with 30-minute and 50-minute offerings, as well as extras and add-ons. I received a 50-minute Brightening/Dryness Facial, in part because of some rough dryness I’d had around my jawline, and just a general desire to look a little more awake after months of an uncertain sleep schedule. Walking into the facial bar reminds me a bit of a mix between a fancy salon and a minimalist doctor’s office, with a white reception desk, a minimalist shelf displaying the products they sell, and a small waiting area. I checked in on an iPad and the receptionist offered me a drink (it was one of the hottest days this year), which I accepted gladly. I spent just long enough in the waiting area to finish my cup of watermelon water before my aesthetician Olga met me and showed me back to the treatment area.

True to their minimalist, clinical aesthetic, the treatment area is just one large room with curtains to separate different clients’ beds during facials, somewhat like a chic emergency room. There was a bin for my purse, a charger for my devices, a mirror, and a bed. I did not have to remove anything (although I did remove my shoes), but simply lay on the bed in my clothes. Olga covered my legs and feet with a blanket, my neckline with a towel, and wrapped my hair out of the way, and then began.

The facial began with the typical steam and cleansing. She did a double-cleanse using a brightening facial cleanser with vitamin C and lactic acid. This was followed with an enzyme mask, a delicious-smelling lavender toner, and then extractions. After extractions, she used some high frequency to zap bacteria. I’d had this done before years ago, but somehow it was less zappy than I remembered.

Up until this point, the facial was like virtually every other facial I’d had and I wondered if I would be disappointed. Then, she brought out the derma roller.

Derma rolling uses a wheel of tiny needles to make micro punctures in the skin to increase product absorption and improve collagen production. It feels a bit like someone is rolling a miniature version of those “bed of nails” mats all over your face. Not painful, but not what I’m into. She applied a hydrating serum over most of my face, skipping over the more sensitive areas, and then applied a hydrating sheet mask under a warm towel for a few minutes to hydrate my skin deeply.

After that, she used the bar’s signature vitamin-and-oxygen mist, which felt incredibly soothing after my derma rolling experience, and then set me up with eye protection so I could rest under LED to help with anti-aging and brightening (red light). An application of SPF finished off the facial. I looked in the mirror and found myself pink-cheeked and fresh looking, and then went back to the office. The whole experience was exactly 50 minutes, though it packed more in than many 1-hour facials I’ve had in the past.

Of course, as with any facial at a salon that sells product, there was a bit of a sales pitch at the end. Olga brought a package of the lavender toner, the delicious scent of which I’d commented on during the facial, and offered it, though without any pressure. When I said “not today,” the subject was dropped.

Over the course of the day, I noticed that my skin felt the ambient heat a little more, and I had a bit of sensitivity on my walk home. But when I woke up the next morning and washed my face, I was amazed at how smooth my skin looked. While I have pretty good skin to begin with, the facial brought it to the next level. And my normal forehead wrinkle has remained much softer in appearance. I’m rather impressed the results of this facial, and I’ve already made an appointment to return for a 30-minute facial entirely on my own dime so that I can see if the shorter facial is similarly impressive. Perhaps I will become one of those women who gets a monthly facial.

On Self-Care, Skin Care, and the Changes of Motherhood

I like to keep up with Stephen Alain Ko’s Beauty Recap each week (especially now that he has made it easier by posting swipe-up links in his Instagram Stories). And the other day, he linked a great article in Verily Magazine about the distinction between self-care and skin care. I’ve already been thinking a lot about beauty standards, skin care, and how capitalist colonial ideals inform our standards of beauty, but this was a fresh look at the fine line between encouragement and marketing when discussing self/skin care. Of course, skin care can be immensely powerful, as evidenced by my introduction to Korean beauty, Jude Chao’s seminal work on skin care and depression, so I thought a little about how skin care has fit into my ideas of self care and how that is distinct from buying product.

I happen to be undergoing a period of rapid change and, often, stress in my life. I had my first child and have been working to rebuild the shaken foundations of my self image while also existing on not much sleep and even less free time. Oh, and I’m now back at work full-time, too. So it’s been difficult sometimes to find time just for myself. I always have my tea and I’ve been making time for crafts, but both of those things are often things I do while I’m with Elliot and Dan, so beauty has become my true private time during the day.

When we met with our doula, her most important postpartum recovery tip was to have a morning routine and an evening routine that is simple enough that you can do it every day. She wasn’t talking about skin care; she literally meant that you should have something to separate day from night during those first few weeks when you’re awake basically around the clock. Because I’d had a c-section, I was supposed to limit my time walking up and down the stairs, so my main morning and evening routines were transitioning from upstairs to downstairs, and vice versa, but my skin care routine added an important element of reconnecting with myself. Each morning, Dan would give me at least five minutes to wash my face and put on moisturizer, and then in the evening, he would take Elliot for an hour or so, which gave me time to do a full skin care routine and take a nap before he brought Elliot up.

In the early days, when I could barely stand long enough to shower, this often involved a lot of shortcuts, like cleansing water and toner pads, and has evolved nearly back to my full, complicated routine. Contrary to the consumerist ideal of shelfie skin care, I’ve discovered a profound comfort in stripping my skin care routine to its core and using the same products over and over again. It does not make for good Instagram photos, but when I never know what my life will look like on a given day, it’s nice to know that my cleanser is an old standby. I haven’t felt nearly as much need to experiment with products, despite the importance of my skin care routine in maintaining my sense of normalcy postpartum.

But the one thing I have added to my routine is a nightly facial massage with my stone gua sha. I use this video tutorial from Sandra Lanshin Chiu to inform my routine. Each night, after I’ve fed Elliot and put him in his crib, I sit at my vanity and perform this nightly ritual. With most of the lights in the bedroom off to allow Elliot to sleep, I often do my massage by the light of a lavender-scented candle. I start with a few sprays of pure rosewater for some hydration, and then press in a generous amount of rose hip oil, but it’s not about product. You can use whatever you fancy and have on hand. I don’t use anything particularly expensive for this because I use a lot and apply it to my face, neck, and shoulders. Then, I begin smoothing my gua sha tool over my skin, feeling the coolness of the stone, and the pressure when it encounters a knot in my muscles. I can feel it help relax my neck, shoulder, and face muscles, relieve mild headaches, relax stress and worry that I’m holding in my face and neck, and stimulate blood flow.

Usually, Elliot is sleeping while I do this, but every once in a while, he doesn’t fall asleep during his feeding, and he will stay awake in his crib, watching me from across the room. I like the idea that he will grow up with memories of his mother caring for herself, although at this point it must be pretty boring because he is usually asleep by the time I finish. Other than an occasional silent observer, I am alone for this ritual while Dan finishes the washing up. There are no demands on my attention other than what I am paying to myself. And when I finish my massage, I apply my moisturizing lotion and get into bed.

I have other forms of self care, but so much has changed since becoming a mother. I can no longer make as much time to go to the gym or do theater. But my skin care routine is still there, even without any shiny new products, and it has helped me maintain a connection to my sense of self, as well as take time to center as I enter motherhood.

In my Cupboard: Investigating the Gaiwan

As my Instagram followers may know, I have a varied collection of teaware from around the world, in many different styles. I’ve decided to start a series where I talk a little bit about the different styles of teaware I use, their history, and how I use them.

When I wrote my tea primer, the third “level” was the use of the gaiwan to brew tea using a technique called “gong fu cha,” or “tea with great skill.” In modern times, the use of the gaiwan of a brewing vessel, from which the tea is decanted into serving vessels, is taken largely for granted, but offhand comments of people on Reddit, as well as what I’ve seen on historical dramas, suggested to me that the gaiwan was originally used as a brewing and drinking vessel. Intrigued, I decided to do some digging and explore how the use of the gaiwan has changed over its history.

One of the seminal works on Chinese tea preparation is Lu Yu’s Classic of Tea (or Tea Classic), and yet this work makes no mention of the gaiwan, instead describing a method of preparing tea by whisking powdered tea in a tea bowl. It is believed that the gaiwan was developed during the Ming Dynasty. It’s not known exactly when the gaiwan began to be used, but it was a regular part of teaware in the early 18th century. Sadly, this means that the depictions of gaiwan that delighted me in the Yuan dynasty courts of Empress Ki were probably an anachronism.

The blog Tea Guardian offers this pictorial history of the gaiwan, which shows a vessel that is recognizable as our modern gaiwan, which dates to the early 18th century, though predecessor lidded bowls also exist. In a post on using the gaiwan as a cup, the article states that the Manchurians began using the gaiwan as a brewing and drinking vessel. They favored green and jasmine-scented green teas, which are brewed at a lower temperature, and can be easily drunk from the gaiwan before the tea steeps long enough to become unpleasant. Other sources suggest that this would have been an early form of tea cupping, where the tea is sipped throughout the steeping process in order to determine at what point the tea is to the drinker’s taste.

Armed with some research, I resolved to try drinking from the gaiwan. I chose a gaiwan with a deep saucer, and the tallest one I own, in order to  adhere to the suggestions in the post above. And I chose a Longjing tea, which was a favorite of the Qing Dynasty, when the gaiwan arose for certain. Drinking from a gaiwan is similar to drinking grandpa-style, though the smaller quantity of tea makes it easier to finish a cup of tea before it overbrews. There is a unique sense of both informality and ceremony in it, as the tea is not carefully timed, but the ritual of tilting and holding the lid, and carefully holding the cup by the saucer rather than touching any part of the bowl itself feels special. It is oddly one of my favorite ways to drink tea at my desk now.

And if the depiction in my favorite drama is anachronistic, I do still feel a bit like a fancy court lady.