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Gifts: Shopping-Free Gift Guide 2020

Each year, I think I’m going to be too busy to craft handmade gifts for the holidays. And each year, I end up doing it anyway. The idea of running around stores to the tune of holiday muzak and pouring money into stuff made thousands of miles away feels ultimately much more overwhelming.

This year, we have added incentive to be more intentional about gift-giving. First of all, many of us can’t physically be together for the holidays because of Covid. So we can be present for our loved ones through our creativity and the work of our hands, with truly unique gifts. Or, if we do buy gifts, let’s direct our patronage to local small businesses or small-scale artisans on platforms like Etsy, rather than the big chain stores and tech giants. Covid has hit small business owners especially hard. The online giants will be just fine.

For those of us who take the DIY route, the question always creeps up in September, October, or at the latest in November: “What to make this year?” Here are 12 of my favorite ideas from past years. There’s something for everyone and for all skill levels: knitting, crochet, sewing, body care, jewelry, and food gifts… And as I’m quite picky about gift projects — I don’t want to add more junk into the lives and homes of my loved ones — the crafts profiled here are all either beautiful, useful, or both. (I hope my giftees think so too!)

 

Lavender sachets for the linen closet

This is a quick knit from More Last-Minute Knitted Gifts by Joelle Hoverson. These pyramid-shaped sachets take just over an hour each to knit, and are filled with oh-so-fragrant lavender buds to protect linens, yarns, and hand-knits from moths.

 

Pointy elf hat

…also from More Last-Minute Knitted Gifts. A couple of years ago, I knitted one for each of my nephews, nieces and godchildren. That may sound like a lot, but these are incredibly fast and satisfying to knit, especially when working with bulky yarns in lovely bright colors.

 

Wool socks

A couple of years ago, I made a pair for just about everyone in the family. The pattern — “Rye” by Tin Can Knits — is available for free on Ravelry, and just lovely to make.

 

Firewood carrier

I made this firewood carrying tote a couple of years ago for Dan, and we’ve been carrying our firewood in style ever since. I actually used a canvas painting drop cloth that we already had, so the only material I had to buy was a 3/4″ wooden dowel from the hardware store! You’ll want to use canvas or other similarly sturdy fabric for this one. See tutorial here.

 

Vanilla brown sugar body scrub

…for pampering a loved one. I followed this recipe, but used dark brown sugar instead of light.

Lavender massage oil

This massage oil is really quick and easy to make, and will definitely be a welcome gift — especially with calming lavender, which is perfect for relaxing massages. This would make a sweet gift for a friend, or for your sweetheart for future date nights. It can also be used as body oil after a warm bath.

  • 4 oz grapeseed or almond oil (or combination)
  • 1.5 oz dried lavender blossoms
  • 5-10 drops lavender essential oil

Put the lavender buds in a jar and pour oil over them. Close the lid and let sit on a warm windowsill for 2-3 weeks. (To accelerate the process, you can gently warm the mixture in a double boiler for about 1 hour.) Strain the buds from the oil and add the essential oil. Bottle and store in a cool, dark place. Adding a sprig or two of dried lavender to the bottle adds a nice touch.

 

Handmade beeswax candles

You knew this one was coming, right? I make candles every fall and they make a gift that I love to give — and people seem to love to receive. I have a full tutorial for you, for making both taper candles and pillar candles, here.

 

Bird’s Nest necklace

I made these for my nieces, but I ended up liking them so much that I kept a couple for myself! See tutorial here.

 

 

Jar of home-made granola

— with recipe attached so that the lucky recipient won’t be forced to come knocking on your door when the goods run out.

 

Fingerless mitts

for the outdoorsy, wood-chopping kinda guys in my life (Ravelry link)

 

Pine cone key chains

After all of these knitting projects, here’s a crochet craft for you! These little woolen pine cones turned out so sweet. There are several patterns available on Ravelry — I ended up going with this one, as it has 6 different size options. The stitch pattern is easy to memorize and you can soon whip out one in an hour or so. I made key chains, but these would also make lovely Christmas tree ornaments.

 

Sleeve for laptop, tablet, or journal

by Maya Donenfeld — see the free tutorial here.

 

Hand-made natural beeswax candles

These are pretty dark days. Let’s make some light!

If you’ve never made natural beeswax candles before, now is a great time to give it a try.

Handmade candles add magic and comfort to your fall and winter nights. You can also save money by making your own. But it’s not just about the end result. The process of making candles itself is calming, almost meditative: you’re in a warm kitchen, fragrant with the grounding scent of beeswax, slowly dipping tapers in molten wax one after another until, layer by layer, they become beautiful, thick, smooth candles.

 

Materials you’ll need

This is what you’ll need to make a dozen pairs of taper candles and a couple of large pillar candles:

  • 3 lbs beeswax
  • 3 lbs soy wax
  • stearic acid
  • wicking: thick square braided wick for pillar candles, #2/0 Square Braid Cotton Wicking for taper candles, individual 3-4″ waxed wicks for small votive or container candles
  • for pillar candles: something to seal the wick hole at the bottom of the mold (I use QuakeHold museum putty or Play-Doh)

A word about waxes: I can only speak to making candles with natural beeswax and soy wax — I’ve never made candles with paraffin. I’ve made candles with 100% beeswax, but the last few years my preference has been 50% beeswax and 50% soy wax. The candles turn out a lovely light yellow color, and the soy wax also lowers the total cost as natural beeswax is not cheap.

Different waxes behave differently. Soy wax is softer than beeswax. It can still be used for dipping tapers, but it needs a longer drying time between layers.

If you can find a local source of beeswax, consider yourself lucky. Failing that, here are some online stores specializing in candle making supplies:

 

Equipment

  • a pouring pot or dipping vat dedicated to melting wax
  • a large pot to set up a double-boiler (get a cheap used stock pot at a thrift store)
  • molds: aluminum pillar candle mold for pillar candles, or small votive molds for votive candles

 

Preparing to make candles

You’ll need some kind of a rack for drying taper candles. You can get creative with a laundry drying rack or a coat rack. A drying rack for handmade pasta would also double as a candle drying rack.

Make metal rigs for dipping taper candles in pairs. I made mine out of old clothes hangers with wire cutter and a pair of pliers.

Lastly: wax is a real pain to clean. Do yourself a favor and protect counters and any other surfaces with newspaper or brown packaging paper. (For cleaning up any spills or utensils with wax on them, paper towels dipped in olive oil seem to work best.)

Now you’re ready to begin!

 

 

Hand-dipped Taper candles:

Prepare your wicks. Cut a length of wicking — it needs to be at least twice the length of the desired length of your taper candles.

Each end of the wicking needs to be weighted with something initially to keep the wick straight. The weight can be any cheap metal object such as a screw, a nail, or a nut. Don’t use anything you value because it’s going to be forever encased in beeswax!

Slide the wicking through your rigs so you can dip two tapers at once.

Set up your double boiler (pouring pitcher inside a large pot filled with water) to melt your wax. You want all the wax to melt before you start dipping. Keep an eye on the temperature and consistency of the wax. The ideal temperature for dipping tapers is about 165F. If its’ too hot, the wax will just melt off the wicks. Too cool, the wax forms wrinkles on the candles when you dip them. Finding the Goldilocks temperature of “just right” may require sometimes taking the dipping vat off the burner or out of the pot completely.

Dip your tapers. Allow several minutes to cool, then repeat. The dipping motion should be slow and steady, as shown in this video.

About halfway through the process, cut the weights off, and then dip a few more times.

Repeat until you reach a desired thickness.

Pillar candles:

Usually I make two dozen taper candles and then use the remaining wax to make pillar candles.

Before pouring the wax into molds, you need to add some stearic acid to your wax. The stearic acid hardens the candle and makes the wax shrink just a little, which makes it easier to slide the candle out of the mold once it has set.

Add stearic acid at a rate of 3-6 tbsp per pound of wax.

Next, prepare the mold: Thread the wick through the wick hole at the base of the mold. This can be a somewhat maddening task. If the wick end gets frayed, try dipping the end in melted wax and forming a pointed end with your fingers. Tie a small, tight knot at the base just outside the wick hold.

Secure the top of the wick by tying it to a pencil or a skewer on top of the mold.

Seal the wick hole on the bottom with mold seal to prevent leakage of the molten wax when you pour it into the mold. I have used QuakeHold Museum Putty or, in a pinch, Play-Doh (pictured here). Press it firmly into place.

Once the stearic acid combo has melted into the wax, pour the wax into your prepared mold. Let cool completely before proceeding to the next step. This can take a few hours or even a day for very large candles.

Remove the mold sealer and cut the knot at the base of the candle. If it’s completely cooled, your candle should slide out of the mold when you turn it upside down. If it doesn’t, try placing it in the fridge for 20 minutes — the cold will further shrink the wax.

Trim the wick to desired length. Your pillar candle is done!

naturally dyed yarn

Colors from the Garden: Growing Natural Dyes

How would you like to be able to grow your own colors in your yard? To have non-toxic, natural dye pigments for dyeing textiles, wool yarns, or even children’s art supplies and soaps?

If you have a garden, chances are that there are already some plants there you could dye with. Some of the most common garden plants can be used as dyes since they release pigment when simmered in hot water:

    • marigold
    • Black-eyed Susan
    • coreopsis
    • tansy
    • purple basil
    • fennel
    • marjoram
    • onion (skins)

Even if you don’t, many so-called weeds — plants that grow wild by the roadside or in wild patches — make great dyes:

    • stinging nettle
    • pokeweed
    • goldenrod
    • yarrow

You could easily get started with these plants.

But if you’re really drawn to the idea of über-local, non-chemical colors on your textiles, and if you have access to garden space, I encourage you to create a designated dye garden. You get to participate in the process of choosing your plants/colors, growing and tending them through a growing season, and then experimenting with different combinations, plant parts, time of harvest, and the various mordants and afterbaths that help to modify your colors.

 

planning Your Natural Dye Garden

Choose a site that gets good sun, ideally at least 6 hours a day. Decide on the shape of your dye garden area. It’s better to start small the first year, and then expand later if you find that you can manage what you have so far.

Many dye plants tolerate poor soils, but they’ll be more productive in rich soil. Prepare the soil as you would a vegetable garden bed: remove any plant debris and the sod, then dig deeply to loosen the soil. Work in compost, aged manure, or other organic matter to improve soil structure and drainage.

Then the fun begins: what plants — what colors — will you grow? Take a look at the list of common garden plants above: many of them are incredibly attractive as they bloom in the summer, and provide nectar for pollinators. Even if you just plant marigolds, Black-eyed Susans, zinnias, and purple basil, you’ll have a striking flower bed all summer long, and can harvest colors ranging from sunny yellows to sweet pinks at the end of the season.

But besides these plants, there are some that are usually specifically grown as dye plants — and for a reason: they have unusually strong and colorfast pigments:

  • madder root (reds)
  • Japanese indigo (blues)
  • woad (blues)
  • weld (yellows)

You’ll probably have to source the seeds or the plants from a specialist seed company or nursery (see Resources below). But it’ll be worth it.

 

My Dye Garden

For me, choosing the location for my dye garden was easy. On one side of our property is our neighbors’ retaining wall, built out of railroad ties that likely contain creosote. I’ve done enough research on creosote to not want to grow anything edible near them. So I turned that entire strip, behind and surrounding our greenhouse, into a dye garden.

 

In designing my dye garden, I started with a handful of dye plants that both look gorgeous in the garden, and make strong dyes: marigold (for yellow), weld (for yellow), madder root (for red and orange), Japanese indigo (for blues) and zinnia (for beige to light yellow).

In future years, I can easily expand and add new plants. Elsewhere in the garden, I also grow purple basil (for pink), fennel (for green/yellow), and stinging nettles (for green/yellow).

Here are a couple of my favorite dye plants that made their way into my dye garden plan without any hesitation.

Japanese indigo (Polygonum tinctorium) is, like the name indicates, a source of blue color. It has pretty pink flowers in the summer and the leaves can be harvested for the loveliest blues — not quite the strong dark blue of real indigo, but a strong dye nevertheless.

Space the plants about 10 inches apart. You can harvest the leaves several times in the course of the growing season.

Madder root (Rubia tinctorum) is an age-old dye plant (pigment from it was found on cloth in Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s tomb!) for reds, ochres and oranges. As the name suggest, you harvest the dye from the root. Madder roots have to be minimum 3 years old before you can harvest a strong red dye from them. Madder is a sprawling, vigorous plant that will spread, so it’s best if you either give it plenty of space, or plant it inside a raised bed box to confine the roots. Other than that, it’s one of the easiest plants to grow: you can virtually ignore it and it will thrive.

 

My 6-year-old is now old enough that we can work on dye projects together. We play witches, stirring potions in big pots and magically creating colors. I promised her that if we get a range of colors on wool yarn, I’ll knit her a rainbow hat and mittens with colors from the garden.

So far we’ve got blue from Japanese indigo, yellow from marigold, green from marigold with iron afterbath, and pink from purple basil… We’re well on our way!

Resources

Books on natural dyeing:

Online suppliers of dye plant seeds and starts:

Simple Herbal Remedies from the Garden

Making your own herbal medicine may seem daunting at first if you’re new to it. Medicine tends to seen as the domain of specialists — and for a good reason, as this year’s events attest.

I’m not formally trained as an herbalist. I’m a gardener, a cook, and a maker, and my herbal medicine making has evolved pretty organically as a result of learning to use plants. Many simple medicine-making practices have become a part of my routine — making herbal teas, putting chewed-up yarrow leaves on wounds to stop bleeding, or resorting to elderberry, honey, thyme and garlic to keep the winter colds away. I wouldn’t claim to be an expert.

 

But my point is that there’s a lot that you can do with a basic skillset. Most garden plants with medicinal properties — familiar plants like chamomile, red clover, yarrow, mint, or garlic — are absolutely safe and hard to go wrong with. Just find a reliable, go-to resource that you consult before making or taking herbal medicines.

 

I’ve had Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide pulled out from the bookshelf all summer long. Whenever I’ve noticed something ready to harvest in the garden, I’ve checked out what she has to say about that particular plant, and tried to find a time to process it into a tincture, a tea, or a salve. Other books I use regularly are Herbal Healing for Women (also by Rosemary Gladstar) and Richo Cech’s Making Plant Medicine.

Crafting herbal medicines is a great activity to do with kids. This summer, my six-year-old has accompanied me to harvest blossoms and leaves into a colander, fill up the dehydrator, or put herbs to infuse in oil, vinegar or brandy on the windowsill. I call it our “witch magic” and that’s enough to get her fully engaged in the process.

Because making tinctures, vinegars, and oils feels a little bit like being witches or alchemists: we’re mixing potions with fresh herbs and leaves and, after a few weeks of those jewel-toned jars steeping on a sunny windowsill, the solvents inside have become potent with the plants’ power. It’s like magic: transforming one thing into another. Who doesn’t love that?

Below are five safe and simple remedies using common garden plants.

 

Calendula lotion

Calendula is an all-purpose healing plant for various skin problems, such as cuts and rashes. In a family that’s into gardening and adventures, we get cuts and scrapes a lot! I’ve made calendula salve before, but Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs also has a recipe for a luxurious moisturizer that uses calendula flowers, olive oil, beeswax, and lavender essential oil. Whipping up oils, beeswax and essential oil in a blender until it thickens and becomes opaque is one of those alchemist moments that both kids and grownups love.

 

Herbal Teas

Making tea out of herbs is a simple process of harvesting leaves, steeping them in hot water, straining, and enjoying. I use herbal teas primarily for their mental health benefits: they help to soothe anxiety and stress (not that any of us have any reason to soothe those this year!).

Good tea herbs with calming, anxiety-reducing properties are chamomile, tulsi (holy basil), lemon balm, anise hyssop, spearmint, and lavender.

Thyme honey

I love using thyme in cooking, but it’s also traditionally valued as a cold and cough remedy. Just pop a few of its fresh leaves onto your tongue and you’ll see why: it has an almost menthol-like freshness to it.

Honey makes a great base for a thyme syrup, since it not only extracts the healing properties of thyme, but also has beneficial enzymes of its own. Thyme honey is the simplest natural remedy to make: gently warm honey to 100 F, add it to a jar half full of fresh thyme leaves and flowers, and keep the jar in a warm place for a couple of weeks to steep. You can take it straight or mixed in herbal tea, where it adds its own healing properties to the tea.

Elderberry cold syrup

Elderberry syrup is a potent natural remedy for sore throats and other cold and flu symptoms. The berries of the elder tree (Sambucus) have anti-viral, immune-boosting properties and are high in vitamins A, B, and C. The syrup is really easy to make and it’s one of the best-tasting herbal syrups out there. You can use either fresh or dried elderberries. Simmered in water with ginger and cloves and steeped in honey, they turn into a luxuriously deep-red and sweet-tasting remedy. You can either take this syrup preventatively to ward off the cold or, if the sniffles and the cough already got you, to speed recovery.

Here are a few different recipes for elderberry syrup:

 

Tinctures

Tinctures — concentrated liquid extracts of herbs — are one step up in the herbal medicine making game, though still easy to make. They take a few weeks to steep, and you also want to take care in choosing the proper solvent. The most potent tinctures use 80 to 100 proof alcohol like vodka or brandy; for children or adults who don’t want to use alcohol, you can use vegetable glycerin or apple cider vinegar instead. The amount taken daily is very small, 1 to 2 teaspoons per day. That’s a dropperful, taken straight or mixed into a water or a beverage.

(Sometime I wonder if I make tinctures just because all those little bottles look so darn cute in my herbal home apothecary…)

Basic instructions for making tinctures:

Chop the herbs fine and put them in a clean glass jar. Pour in either 80 to 100 proof alcohol, vinegar, or vegetable glycerin, enough to cover the herbs by a couple of inches. Put the jar in a sunny spot and let soak for 4-6 weeks, shaking daily. Strain and store in a clean bottle or jar. Take as directed either by the dropperful or diluted in tea or water. A tincture will keep for 1 year if you used vinegar, 2-3 years in case of glycerin, and several years with alcohol.

Good beginner’s herbs to make tinctures with: echinacea, cinnamon, tulsi, yarrrow, St. John’s wort, dandelion, burdock, and valerian.

How to Get Started with Making Cheese

This week, I made my first-ever Parmesan cheese.

Even as I try to eat an increasingly local diet, Parmesan will probably stay on the list of the almost-sacred imported foods we’ll keep eating at my house, along with chocolate and olive oil.

But now that we’re all playing this game of “let’s see how long we can avoid going to the store,” I figured it was time to learn to make my own Parmesan. Watching the Salt Fat Acid Heat episode on Italian cuisine was an added inspiration.

I made a small wheel and it looks beautiful.

Of course — and it was hard to break the news to my family — Parmesan needs a minimum of 8 months to ripen before you eat it. So it’s not exactly a pandemic self-reliance food that will feed us tomorrow… (Although we’ll probably enjoy it very much when we pull it out next winter.)

But there are several quick and easy, instantly rewarding cheeses we can all make at home. Lemon ricotta is my go-to beginner’s cheese that’s very forgiving and almost invariably tastes amazing. Yogurt cheese is also super easy. Feta and mozzarella are good intermediate cheeses to try.

But there’s another reason, besides time, that I think any beginning cheesemaker should start with these, and not go straight to hard cheeses like Gouda or Cheddar, or “stinky cheeses” like Gorgonzola.

 

In my cheese-making classes, I like to repeat the good advice of my own first cheese-making teacher, Ruby Blume:

First learn how to make the easy beginner’s cheeses, and succeed in each of them about five times before moving on to hard cheeses. The reason is this: having a basic familiarity and ease with the fundamental processes of making cheese makes the entire process so much less stressful. The basic steps of cheese-making — heating up milk, adding cultures and rennet, cutting, cooking and draining the curds — are more or less the same in making any cheese. The more you do them, the easier they get.

Making hard cheese involves the same steps, but many, many more of them, and so it usually takes the better part of a day, if not more. If cutting up curds, or catching whey and curds in a colander without something spilling over is something you’ve never done before, it’s pretty stressful to try it when you’re already several hours into the process and still have several hours to go. Learn these basic steps with the easy cheeses until they become routine, you do them with confidence, you know exactly what tools you’re going to need… and then you can actually enjoy the process.

Because it IS really fun. You get to feel like a magician, or alchemist, watching milk go through all these transformations and achieve different textures, from shiny Jell-O like cubes to spongy, bouncy cottage-cheese like crumbs to the rubbery, yellow salted shreds after cheddaring (yes, “cheddaring” is a verb).

Most of the basic equipment required for making cheese you probably already have in your kitchen: pots, bowls, colanders, spatulas. The only other tool I consider essential is a dairy thermometer (I’ve used this floating one for years). If your recipe calls for a cheese press, you don’t need to buy one — I have a DIY wooden cheese press and it works great (instructions here).

If you’re a complete beginner, start with this basic lemon ricotta recipe. Here are some other ideas.  Check out the resources below and get inspired!

 

Cheesemaking resources:

These 3 are my go-to resources for supplies and recipes:

The Cheesemaker

Cultures for Health

New England Cheesemaking Supply Co.

 

And this is my go-to cheesemaking book:

Home Dairy with Ashley English, by Asheville local Ashley English

DIY Natural Household Cleaners

I’m probably not the only one who’s become much more conscious about cleaning my home these days.

But what to do when you run out of basic household cleaners, and are trying to avoid going to the store?

DIY eco-friendly household cleaners to the rescue!

I’ve been making my own all-purpose cleaning spray for almost a decade, and occasionally make a batch of laundry soap. But this week, out of necessity, I added a new project to my repertoire: homemade dishwasher tablets. My daughter and I made them together, and I must say they make for a great homeschooling project. We were both giddy watching our mixture bubble up and become a marshmallow-like foam — and with the most heavenly citrus scent imaginable (and you know how I love citrus).

Even though I’ve always avoided toxic commercial cleaners with unpronounceable ingredients lists, I’ve noticed that even the “eco-friendly” options in stores tend to get sustainability ratings of orange and yellow, as opposed to green. I’ve never felt great about using them. If you make your own cleaning products, you always know exactly what ingredients have been used. The ingredients are household items that you might already have at hand, such as vinegar and baking soda.

Check out the recipes below!

 

 

ALL-PURPOSE CLEANING SPRAY

I use this all-purpose spray on most surfaces. It’s effective, incredibly easy to make, and so nice-smelling that I probably clean up more than I otherwise would… Give it a try!

Get a 32 oz (about 1 liter) plastic spray bottle and fill it with 2 cups of water. Add:

  • ½ cup white vinegar
  • 1 tsp Dr. Bronner’s liquid pure castile soap
  • ¾ cup hydrogen peroxide
  • 20 drops tea tree oil
  • 20 drops essential oil (lavender or peppermint are my favorites)

 

CITRUS-SCENTED DISHWASHER TABS

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup baking soda
  • 1/3 cup Epsom salt
  • ½ cup citric acid
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • 30 drops of citrus essential oil (this is what I used)
  • silicone ice cube tray

Instructions:

  1. Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl. Squeeze the lemon juice into a cup and add the essential oil. Add the lemon juice and essential oil mix to the dry ingredients. Do this one drop at a time, because the mixture will foam up. Mix well until the mixture feels like grainy wet sand.
  2. Scoop the mix into silicone ice cube trays and let dry at least 48 hours. Store in a glass jar or other airtight container.
  3. Use one tab per dishwasher load.

DIY Laundry soap

Ingredients:

  • 1 bar (4.5 oz.) bar soap, such as Dr. Bronner’s or Fels-Naphtha
  • 14 oz. borax
  • 14 oz. Arm & Hammer washing soda

Instructions:

Grate the bar soap with a cheese grater. Add the borax and the washing soda and mix well. Store in a glass jar or other airtight container.

 

Happy cleaning!!

Homemade Ginger Beer

DIY bubbly drinks!

Who doesn’t like the refreshing, popping sensation of fizzy drinks? We don’t drink a lot of soda in our house, but we do have a fondness… and a sometimes-addiction… to ginger ale.

Homemade ginger beer is a really easy DIY version — and you can adjust that ginger-y bite to your liking if you experiment a bit. It’s a non-alcoholic, effervescent delight that kids love too.

All you need is ginger, sugar, lemon, water — and time (2-3 weeks). My go-to resource with all fermentation processes is Sandor Katz’s Wild Fermentation, and you can find this recipe there.

Start by making the “ginger bug”: 2 teaspoons grated ginger and 2 teaspoons sugar mixed in 1 cup of water. Leave it in a warm spot and “feed” the mix with the same amount of ginger and sugar once a day until the mixture starts bubbling (within a week). Then you’re ready to make the ginger beer: you add another 2-6 inches of grated ginger (less for milder ginger flavor, more for a real punch) and 1.5 cups of sugar to 2 quarts of water, bring to a boil for 15 minutes, and cool. Then add the ginger bug and the juice of 2 lemons and mix.

Strain and bottle in sealable bottles. I admit that this is one of my favorite parts: getting to line up nice shiny bottles and put caps on them with a bottle capper.

Keep in mind some basic precautions about bottling carbonated drinks. With carbonation, pressure does build up in the bottles, so if you are using glass bottles you’ll want to be safe and minimize the possibility of a bottle exploding. I follow the advice of Sandor Katz’ The Art of Fermentation: brewing the ginger beer inside a box in the closet, keeping track of the timing, and opening a “test” bottle every few days after 2 weeks, and I’ve never had issues.

AAANNDDD with homemade fizzy drinks, you’re not supporting the big soft drink corporations that are sucking dry communities’ groundwater around the world and are responsible for a bulk of the world’s plastic pollution. Just sayin’.

Climate-beneficial Wardrobe

Everyone is talking about the carbon footprint of food, and the search for the most “climate-friendly” diet sparks lively debates. But clothes, too, are something we choose and need daily. Clothing is an intimate matter. It touches our skin all day long, like only someone very dear to us gets to do. It keeps us warm and protects us from the elements. For that reason alone, it matters where our clothes come from and how they were made. But our wardrobe choices also have a climate impact, whether we think about it or not.

Of course, there are already plenty of garments on the racks of clothing stores labeled “sustainable.” The movement variously called “sustainable fashion” or “ethical fashion” or “slow fashion” has prodded us to ask where our clothes come from, and put pressure on clothing manufacturers to address the massive ecological and ethical issues in the industry.

But the regenerative fiber movement goes further. Instead of minimizing damage in the current processes of clothing production, it boldly insists that our clothes can and should be produced in a way that actually restores degraded ecosystems and soils. The raw materials of natural-fiber clothing—unlike synthetic fabrics, which are essentially fossil-fuel derived—come from the land: from fields where cotton, hemp or flax grow, or from pastures where fiber animals graze. Our clothes come from the ground up. The regenerative fiber movement focuses on what happens at the ground level on these farms.

It’s an innovation of the most old-fashioned sort. Clothing production that has the potential to help slow down climate change is happening, not in the high-tech labs and factories of major textile manufacturers, but at the grassroots level — literally. Where the hoof of a fiber animal meets the soil on the pasture. Where the farmer is monitoring the health of the grasses and forbs and the soil and the animals, and the plants are doing their work transforming sunlight and water and air into things we earthlings enjoy.

It’s simple, really. Degraded, eroding soil — what characterizes most conventionally managed farmland today — is a major source of CO2 emissions. Healthy soils with vibrant plant life, in contrast, draw down and store excess carbon from the atmosphere. One type of farming contributes to climate change, the other one helps to mitigate it.

Regenerative agriculture, also called carbon farming, refers to farming practices that have been shown to rebuild healthy soil, and as a result increase the soil’s ability to draw down and store carbon from the atmosphere. The practices most appropriate for fiber farmers are different types of managed intensive grazing, compost application on pasture, and planting trees on pasture—a practice known as silvopasture.

The products of farms that have implemented these practices are not just “sustainable”; their very production helps to slow down climate change. In the case of fields of hemp or cotton or flax managed in this way, or fiber animals on pastures managed in this way, the end product is, in fact, textiles whose very production helped to pull out carbon from the atmosphere. A climate change solution you can wear, you might say. A “climate-beneficial” wardrobe.

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As I write this, I hold in my hands a skein of wool with the words “Climate-Beneficial” written on the label. Fibershed, a California-based non-profit promoting regional and regenerative fiber systems, rolled out its Climate-Beneficial™ certification program a few years ago to recognize fiber grown in regenerative farming systems. Fibershed supports farmers in transitioning to regenerative farming practices such as managed grazing, conservation tillage, and compost application on pastures, and spearheaded a pilot project to produce a fabric made of regeneratively produced wool.

What does this mean for you?

If you can sew or knit your own, you can begin to create your own climate change mitigating wardrobe, at however small a scale. Knitters, crocheters, weavers and spinners can look for yarn and fiber certified as Climate-Beneficial™ on the Fibershed Marketplace. If you sew, you can check about the availability of Fibershed’s Community-Supported Cloth woven out of wool from Lani Estill’s Bare Ranch, the first certified Climate-Beneficial™ fiber farm, and produced as regionally and sustainably as possible.

Even if knitting or sewing is not your forte, there are other ways to stay warm while keeping the climate cool. Some big-name clothing brands—most notably Patagonia and The North Face—have collaborated with Fibershed to create pilot lines of clothing for which the fiber was sourced from regenerative fiber farms.

Here are the beginnings of my own “climate-beneficial” wardrobe so far: an apron dress, a scarf, a hat, and mittens. (I wrote about sewing the apron dress here.)

Apron, hat, scarf, mittens. I know. It’s not exactly enough to keep me clothed year-round. But, first of all, it’s a beginning, and there is power in beginnings, right? Even more importantly, these items of clothing serve as a tangible point of connection for me. When I put them on, I’m not merely putting on some clothes. Because I know where the wool fiber comes from, and that the soil on those pastures is being revitalized through regenerative practices, I put them on and actually, viscerally feel a connection to the pastures, the sheep, and the soil from which they come. Lastly, these handmade items become a handy tool for introducing the concept of regenerative fiber to others. When someone comments on what I’m wearing, I tell them the story of where the wool comes from and what makes it different. Sometimes it elicits a mere “Oh.” But at other times, it sparks an excited conversation about the possibility of farming, of producing what we need, in ways that are not destructive but restorative.

My most recent knitting project was probably the most meaningful one yet. The lustrous, fog-colored fingering-weight yarn for it came from Heartfelt Fiber Farm in Sonoma County, California, for which I had the opportunity to develop a Carbon Farm Plan in 2016. As I was developing the plan, farmer Leslie and I walked the land of her small farm many times and I got to know her animals—the rare, tiny Ouessant sheep, Icelandic sheep, and Cashgora goats—by name.

When I cast on a knitting project with fiber from her land, from a sheep that I know by name, I felt like the fibers that run through my fingers connect me to the soil I sampled and the landscape I mapped and to farmer Leslie’s hard work and dedication. The knowledge that the very production of that fiber helps to build fertile, carbon-sequestering soil and address one of the biggest challenges of our time probably warms me as the knitter and the wearer more than the wool itself.

Quick & Easy Ricotta Cheese

Blessed are the Cheesemakers! I don’t know which motivates me more to make cheese: the promise of the satisfying flavors at the end, or the process itself. The sweet smell of milk being heated and the way the cheese curds get transformed before my eyes makes me squeal inwardly with glee. Shiny white blobs of curd draining in my colander make me feel like an alchemist that has just figured out the formula for making gold.

A basic repertoire of easy cheeses also means that, with a source of local milk, I can always keep cheeses on my plate during this local food month.

Ricotta, I think, should be everyone’s first cheese you try to make. It’s an easy and a relatively quick affair: the preparation takes no more than 30 minutes and an additional 1-3 hours of draining, depending on how firm you like your ricotta. All you need is milk (I always use whole milk), lemon juice or vinegar, a dairy thermometer, strainer or colander, and cheesecloth.

 

Ricotta Cheese

 

Ingredients:

  • 1 gallon whole milk
  • ¼-½ cup lemon juice (can be freshly squeezed)
  • Instead of lemon juice, you can also use ¼ cup vinegar, 1 tsp citric acid dissolved in ¼ cup water, or buttermilk (1 quart per 1 gallon of milk)

Heat milk to 175 F degrees. Add lemon juice and stir. The cheese will curdle within 5 minutes. Pour into a strainer or colander lined with cheesecloth, tie the corners of the cloth together securely, and hang the cheese to drain until it is the consistency you like. I use hooks attach to the door handles of kitchen cupboard doors, but feel free to improvise. When the cheese is ready, take it out of the cheesecloth. At this point, you can flavor it as you wish. I make an herb spread by mixing in some minced fresh herbs, minced garlic, and salt to taste.

Wondering what to do with the whey that collects as the cheese drains? You can use it, for example, instead of milk in pancakes or baking. I also give it to the chickens for extra calcium.