Happy year of the horse! My 8 year old daughter is in the Chinese immersion program at school, so we might be a little more enthusiastic than others about all things Chinese.  This year Chloe made a lion mask out of a copy paper box lid for the school celebration (her own design - she wanted the "biggest eyes with the tiniest mouth and no nose, because that's how you make something adorable." She compromised and added an itty bitty nose.) She's also practicing to do a stick dance.  I can't wait to see it!

But all this Chinese New Year celebration has just served as a reminder of a REALLY long over-due to-do list item for me.  Last YEAR, in February, I hosted my book club, and served Chinese food.  After, I promised to post recipes.  I never did :(  So sorry ladies! Today felt like the perfect time to rectify that...since I pulled out those recipes to make for dinner tonight.
Before I get to the recipes though, a quick note about my book club.  It happens to be THE GREATEST BOOKCLUB IN THE HISTORY OF EVER! We pick our books to try and suit the month we read them (and if they don't, we come up with really excellent off-the-wall reasons to make the book fit). And we make the food fit the book.  It is amazing the treats these women come up with to work in with what we've read. Which is why I was making Chinese food.  I tried to do some Japanese food as well, but only managed to find some candies.  The book?  The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.  Love this book!  Love, love.
Now for some recipes:

Homemade Sweet  Sour Sauce (and you'll never go back to store bought!)
1c pineapple juice (I use a can of crushed pineapple because I like it chunky)
1/2 c ketchup
1/4 c vinegar
1/2 c brown sugar
1 Tbsp corn starch

-Combine pineapple juice (or can of pineapple, depending on preference), ketchup, vinegar, & sugar in sauce pan
-Stir until blended
-Cook over med. heat stirring constantly until sauce boils.
-Dissolve corn starch in 1/4 c water and add to sauce.
-Cook, stirring constantly, until sauce boils and thickens.
(see the lovely chunks of pineapple in the sauce? Makes it thick and yummy)

Meat Filling for Fried Wontons
1/2 lb ground pork loin
1/2 lb lean ground beef
2 eggs
1/2 c grated carrot
1 medium minced onion
3 cloves garlic, crushed (or 3/8 tsp of garlic powder)
1/2 tsp ginger
1 stalk scallions, chopped
1 dash sesame oil
1 Tbs brown sugar
1 can water chestnuts, chopped
1-2 packages wonton skins
soy sauce

-Combine all ingredients except eggs.
-Mix and marinade for at least 15 min.
-Beat eggs & pour over meat mixture.
-Mix for 5 min.
- Prep wonton wrapper by dampening two edges with water
-Fill center of wonton wrapper with meat mixture (about a heaping tablespoon or so per wrapper)

-Fold over wonton wrapper and press to close, using water on fingertips if necessary. (If wrappers are squares, your wrappers will now be triangles.  If they are circles, they will be half-circles) -Wontons can be left as triangles or half circles, or they can be folded into shapes, as shown:

-Fry wontons until golden brown

My kids' favorite part of the meal is the wonton chips.  Cut leftover wraps in half or thirds and fry them up.  They scoop up the chunky, homemade sweet & sour sauce in the most delightful way!

With the huge Disney hit, Frozen, making all things nordic popular this winter, it's quite the serendipity that I actually started my girls' Scandinavian dresses a whole year ago when I ran across the fabric for the skirts - long before I'd ever heard of Elsa or Anna!

That stripe, replete with birds, hearts, scallops & baskets just cried out for Scandinavian styling.  But I knew that, being a complete novice to embroidery, it would take me FOREVER to finish what I had in mind, and I'd need to start early.  I was right.  A whole summer & fall of design and embroidery (and a whole lot of picking things undone) had to happen before I was happy - and how surprised was I to discover that my stylings were well-timed to be completely in fashion and my girls could fit right in at Arendelle!

With embroidery and details that whisper winter in snowflakes and lace, this year's coordinating dresses each have their own unique flair.
How about we go littlest to biggest?
Evey's dress pattern was mostly a classic vintage (Butterick 2159).  I very much wanted to make the jacket too in a grey wool, but never got to it.  I obviously changed the sleeve from the original pattern- added some fullness (this is achieved by simply increasing the arch on the sleeve pattern piece then gathering instead of easing the sleeve), and increased the length of the sleeve to the wrist.  I also added a wide sash tie in back, shaped the neckline a little, and put trim around the neck & at the bottom of the skirt.  For the sweet, scandinavian look, the skirt trim is a scalloped lace with a scalloped grosgrain ribbon.
The embroidery on Evey's belt was a lot of fun!  Most of the designs for most of the girls' embroidery come from one of two gorgeous craft books by the same author: Christmas Crafting in No Time & Scandinavian Needlecraft both by Clare Youngs.  I have checked both of these books out from the library so many times I've lost count! Finally bought Christmas Crafting for myself.  Someday I'll own both...

For Chloe's dress, I used a McCall's pattern - 2661 - also vintage.  I've made this pattern before, with the vest, and that's what I planned on making for Chloe.  She had other ideas - as always.  I wanted the vest in red with embroidery on it - she picked View A because she liked the placement of the trim. I admit it, she was right.  I LOVE the way hers turned out!
Modifications to this pattern include: sleeves (they were cut out per the pattern, but when finished, Chloe didn't like how "poofy" they were - she said she felt like a pirate.  So I cut them down to a slim silhouette and added a red trim to match the bodice) and skirt (this one was a DOOZIE! As is, the skirt is not at all full. It is almost straight with only a tiny bit of gathering.  I wanted FULL.  But with the empire waist, I didn't want a tiny maternity dress either. So instead of gathering the whole amount in to the waist, I only gathered in what the pattern called for, then I inserted gores at the sides, front and back - triangles that tapered out at exactly the waistline.  This made for one of the most difficult hems I've ever encountered - trying to get it straight was a nightmare - but it gave me the result I wanted in the end.)
 For the embroidery, I used several of Clare Young's designs from her books, coupled with some of my own ideas.  I'm including a pic of my design sheet to show the process.  Starting with a copy of the pattern piece, I trace out general ideas, then add in details.  As it develops, some of the elements don't fit quite right - note how the flower is replaced with another taped on top.  At the bottom of the page I have several rejected doodles for potential ideas.  If at first you don't succeed...

The finishing touch on Chloe's outfit was a tatted snowflake made by a dear friend.  She didn't even know she was making a perfect accessory for us! (And don't you love that scalloped ribbon? Hobby Lobby!)  I think tatting is stunning!

And finally, Lily.
 Miss Lily's dress was made from an amazing pattern from a company I'm not sure is around any more - Advance 8352.  Can I tell you how full this skirt is?  Yummy.  I didn't change a thing.  Kept the 3/4 length sleeve that is eased at the shoulder but full at the elbow - kept the perfect skirt length - kept everything! The shape of the "belt," which is actually an inset not a belt, is an ideal canvas for embroidery.  I decided on the image of the bird that is common to scandinavian design, and as I couldn't find one that was exactly what I wanted, I designed one, which you can download here as a .pdf. Enjoy!
One bird looked strange and huge though in the middle of the belt, and it was my graphic designer brother who came up with the idea of two birds facing. Voila! LOVE! I also added a bunch of snowflakes & a few hearts to the border of Lily's skirt - getting more varied and adventurous as I went along because I got so used to doing them and was no longer using any pattern but completely free styling.
  Most of the embroidery on all three dresses is done in a simple to learn whipped-back-stitch, with many French knots throughout.

I wanted to do Lily's hair in a crown braid, but it has been so cold this winter, and her beautiful long hair keeps her warmer.  So I tried a modified crown that picks up in the front and wraps the back. It is lovely! I need to start doing some hair tuts ;)

As a footnote, a tiny bit of linguistics.  I have called my inspiration "scandinavian" throughout.  But as I began to finish dresses, my husband, who lived in Switzerland for a year, asked if I had designed them to make him nostalgic for the Swiss.  I've had others compliment me on the adorable Austrian outfits.  Others asked about my Nordic designs.  Which left me thoroughly confused and curious.  For Germany, Austria, Switzerland I finally found a word that pulls them all together: Alpine.  But I'm still really confused and not sure if my dresses are Scandinavian, Nordic or Alpine - all I know is my girls love them & look cute in them!
My book club gave me this pin.  It's not that I'm not a movie fan - because I love movies.  It's just so rare that movies get anywhere near the experience of the book.  When I read a book, I feel like I'm walking around in the world and I'm smelling the smells and feeling the wind or the rain.  It's  immersive.  Movies rarely hit that level.

I make exception though for all of the Middle Earth films.  I'm going to go all fangirl when I talk about it, but that world is so exquisitely well done, down to every minute detail, that I can't help but believe.  And oh, how I'd love to go there!  The Middle Earth tour in New Zealand is definitely on my bucket list.
I can settle for the next best thing though and create my own little piece of gorgeous with some hints of the Shire in my home.  I found this blog post about Middle Earth inspired hardware pieces that inspires me to put the same attention to detail in my home that Jackson put into his sets.  The website is called House of Antique Hardware, and the post is called Create your own House Under the Hill.  All of the pieces evoke somewhere not only ancient, but also mystical.

Everyone who comes to our house lately knows our doorknob is completely screwed up.  How fantastic would this be for a replacement?

This collection satisfies both my yen for fantasy, and my Frank Lloyd Wright sensibilities!

But as much as I drool over this decor, the coolest ideas I got from the article were incorporating hardware into costume design.  If you know me at all, you know how much I LOVE making costumes, and with the new Spring Comic Con just around the corner, and my kids already bugging me about costumes, I'm so intrigued with the ideas to use hardware more creatively.  I love the suggestion of using this pull as Elrond's broach! Super cool idea.  Check out all the fun ideas here!

I can use all the ideas I can get to top last year's Comic Con!  Luckily we had Halloween costumes to draw on, and it was our first Con, but the bar has been raised. When people were stopping our Hobbit to get their pictures taken with him, it sets a precedent.  This year, FULL ELVEN ARMOR!  Seriously.  Because we obviously take our LOTR seriously.  (We won't even mention my Legolas standee.  Nope, we won't.)

I got to go to my very first "blogger" event last Saturday, thanks to an awesome friend and much more seasoned blogger.  We had a little reception, and then were treated to a screening of the Zack Braff film Wish I Were Here.  Yay, Sundance!

I might start off with a warning - a disclaimer.  There were people who walked out of this film.  Sundance doesn't put ratings on its movies.  The language is rough, especially at first.  There are many instances of the "F" word.  And a couple of questionable scenes. I wonder, some days, if "artists" will ever realize how much it belittles rather than elevates their art to include "edgy" material.  The film begins with Robert Frost's profound and amazing poem, The Mending Wall, and I can't help but wonder if anyone, anyone has ever thought that poem could have been improved upon by throwing in a few F-bombs.  And yet, if you see an art house film, if you go to Sundance, it is a statistical likelihood you will be shocked or offended by some of the subject matter, language, imagery, etc. Because that's art. Apparently. But if it is, what does that make Robert Frost? Just sayin'.

So now, off that soapbox, because I really do love this film.
Wish I Was Here tells the story of Aidan Bloom, who is a struggling actor (played by Zack Braff), who is rather clueless about his own life. And though the film focuses on Aidan and his journey, what makes this story so beautiful is Aidan's family and how through them he comes to so many realizations about himself.  His wife, Sarah, and his kids Grace and Tucker, create a dynamic that makes the journey really about all of them. Aiden, due to financial straits that force his kids out of private school, opts to homeschool.  Of course, we anticipate antics and are not disappointed. But then it goes deeper, and while never an ideal schooling situation, the scenario turns out to be essential for father and children.  With humor throughout, but heavy, serious subject matter, the film is compelling and well-paced.  And for me, it hit really close to home.
I was glad for the dark theater, because I was teary for a lot of the movie.  Probably in places that might seem odd to other people.  I understand a husband who is so passionate about living his dream that almost nothing else matters.  During a conversation between Aidan and Sarah, when she demands in frustration, "when did my life become about supporting your dreams?" I admit I cried a little in sympathy. And yet, in the very next scene, when his dreams are attacked, when Aidan is being told to give up on acting, to grow up and support his family and get a "real" job, Sarah is the one to rush to his defense! She fiercely declares her undying support.  Oh, how I understand that insane contradiction! It doesn't make any sense to simultaneously resent and be so amazingly proud of the same thing at the same time, but I get that.  I just adore Sarah's character.  I love her strength and joy despite being so weary.  I love her hope and belief in the people around her despite disappointment.  I love her prioritization of others while also being determined to find her own passion.
In the film, the central movement of action revolves around Aiden's father, played by my absolute favorite, Mandy Patinkin, who is dying of cancer.  Again, this falls so close to our own lives, with my husband's father having passed away from cancer four years ago.  Watching Aiden go through that experience was almost too much for me, since there were already so many associations in my mind.  But it was handled so beautifully.  And Mandy Patinkin is simply amazing.
In the end, there were odd moments - quirks of the film that didn't sit well with me that I found incongruous.  I felt it could have been a little more.  I wish it had been a little more.  But something about that itself makes sense to me, because it is a very human work, and don't we all have a few oddball, unpolished bits about us? Can't we all be a little more? That's kind of the point.
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