Saturday, December 28, 2013

Making Shift: 2013 in Review

This is post number 100 for Making Shift! And to celebrate this first year of Making Shift I wanted to share a few highlights from 2013.

Thank you, friends and readers, for celebrating this makeshift life with me.

Roasted homegrown carrots

Watering the fig tree with greywater
Camping in the backyard with friends
  • In December my article "Creating a Resource Inventory for Your Homestead" came out in From Scratch magazine. You can read it right here by clicking on the magazine below. My article is towards the end on page 86. I was really excited to be included in this new magazine, which is about to celebrate its first birthday. 

Homemade chicken tractor #1

Friday, December 27, 2013

A Recipe for Homemade Laundry Soap

My cousin-in-law, Melissa, shared her homemade laundry soap recipe with me. It makes a five-gallon bucket of laundry soap for a very small amount of money. She has three active sons and a husband with dirt-loving hobbies so it must do a pretty good job of washing. Here it is:

Melissa's Homemade Laundry Soap

1 bar Jabón Zote- white or pink
1 cup super washing soda
1 cup borax

Grate the bar of soap in a large pot then add 10 cups of water. Cook until all of the soap flakes are dissolved (you do have to stir this mixture occasionally). Pour the soapy water into a 5 gallon bucket and add the borax and super washing soda. Mix well. (I use a whisk just to help break up all the clumps.) Fill the bucket the rest of the way with warm water, making sure to mix well. Cover and let sit overnight. It will become like a gel. This 5-gallon mix will be concentrated because this recipe actually makes 10 gallons instead of 5. Use 1/4 cup per load for a front-loading (HE) machine and 5/8 cup per load for a top-loading machine. You'll want to use a bucket with a lid so you can cover your soap mixture.

Note: Zote is a big laundry soap bar from Mexico made with coconut oil and tallow. You can read more about it on the company's page here. It comes in white, pink, and blue bars. Melissa says she usually uses the white bar but has used the pink one before, too. Zote is easy to find in grocery stores in Texas but if you can't find it in your area you could use Ivory bar soap instead. The important thing is to use real soap (not detergent) and most bar "soaps" sold in the U.S. are actually detergents. Ivory is still real soap, though. You could also use homemade soap, although I would be loathe to use up so much homemade soap for laundry use. Washing soda and borax can both be found in the laundry section of well-stocked grocery stores.

Another note (12/28/2013):
I just grated a bar of Jabón Zote to make my first batch! I'll have to get the washing soda and borax the next time I'm at the store. Since my washer empties outside (a greywater system) I will make sure not to water any sensitive plants with this (since they might be bothered by the borax or washing soda). 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Joys of Old Sewing Machines

My sewing machine is older than I am. 

My mom won it in a raffle when she was in the eighth grade, which would have been 1963 or 1964. It is a Necchi-Alco and it is solid metal and mounted in its own wooden fold-out cabinet. My mom takes meticulous care of her things and this sewing machine was no exception. It was her only machine for many, many years and then she finally bought herself a Bernina to support her quilting habit. When I started sewing five year ago she gave me the Necchi-Alco. (Thank you, Mom. It is my prize possession.)

It is the loudest sewing machine I have ever heard in my life. My mother once frightened a repair man who was working in her house while she was sewing. When I first inherited the Necchi we lived in a house with an attached garage. I set up my sewing station in the garage because it was the only place where I could sew without waking sleeping children. At Christmas time, when the outdoor temperature dropped, you could find me sewing in the garage while wearing a coat, scarf, and hat. 

The best thing about this machine is that it is a total workhorse. I think the only piece of plastic on it is the spike that holds the spool of thread on top. Everything else is metal and the whole thing weighs a metric ton. It isn't the least bit portable, which is okay with me, but it does seem to be indestructible. It uses old metal bobbins and instead of a foot pedal it has a knee pedal. I think the knee pedal is harder to use than a foot pedal but I have gotten used to it. I took a sewing class last week at The Stitch Lab (which was AWESOME) and I kept smashing my right knee into the desk while trying to sew with my rented (foot-pedaled) machine. 

I see many old sewing machines in thrift stores and they usually cost about $20-40. If I were planning to buy my first machine I would buy one of these old beaters for cheap and then spend some money getting it fine-tuned. I think you end up with a machine that is likely to last much longer (and suffer your first sewing mishaps much better) than the cheap plastic sewing machines you can find at Walmart these days. Plus, I would love thinking about who used my sewing machine before me and what they made with it. My own machine is a fixture in my childhood memories and I think it will be a fixture in my own children's memories, too. 

Viva lo viejo! (Long live the old stuff!) 

Monday, December 9, 2013

Pickled Okra

I have been secretly hoarding these okra pickles in the back of the pantry since July. My aunt and uncle made them with okra from their own garden and gave them to us at our family reunion. Since they were freshly made at the time of the reunion my uncle told me not to open them for at least two weeks to give them time to finish pickling. I knew from my small amount of pickling experience that they would be even better if I waited longer so I hoarded them in secret. 

On Sunday I was craving something sour so I finally opened the precious okra pickles. Lordy, they were so good. Firm, medium-large okra pods stuffed in there with garlic, a jalapeno pepper, dill, and the salty vinegar. Little Sister and Brother wandered through the kitchen so I plied them with "pickles", omitting the part about them being okra. Little Sister must have eaten at least five. Brother ate two and then changed his mind about them. Mr. Chanclas was an immediate fan. 

I am picky about how I like to eat okra because of the slime factor. They can be mucilaginous when boiled so I never boil them. (I do love me a good gumbo, though, so I make exceptions.) Fried is traditional and wonderful but sliced and roasted in a hot oven makes them dry and crunchy, too. I think that pickled they are best of all. Crunchy and tangy and the perfect size for the jar!

Saturday, December 7, 2013

A Knitting Man

Cats make great knitting companions
Mr. Chanclas has mad skills. I knew this when I married him but his skill list is even longer twelve years later. When Brother was about to be born six years ago Mr. C decided he was going to knit a hat for his new baby boy. Specifically, a hat with a skull and crossbones image knitted into it. I told Mr. C that there was no way he could knit a skull and crossbones hat in the two months remaining until Brother's birth considering he didn't know how to knit and the skull and crossbones image would make the project extra difficult. Through some twisted form of marital "telephone" Mr. Chanclas heard, "You can't knit a hat." So he set out to prove me wrong. (Never tell Mr. Chanclas that he can't do something. Just don't.) 

Shortly afterward he spotted an ad for a free knitting circle at the Barnes & Noble bookstore near our house. He was pressed for time but managed to get several little old ladies to teach him how to knit in about twenty minutes. He came home and started producing scarves, hats, cell phone sleeves, and even a beautiful felted handbag. He is constantly challenging himself with increasingly difficult projects. He was quick to pick up the circular needles, the double pointed needles, and the specialty yarns. He still hasn't tackled the art of intarsia (knitting images into things) but I wouldn't be surprised if he eventually made that skull and crossbones hat that started it all.

I don't come from knitters (my mom is a quilter) so watching a scarf grow off the needles was like magic to me. I couldn't figure out what actually happened to make the knitting grow. What magic happened between those needles? Did the knitting grow from the top or the bottom? What makes the different textures and patterns? I didn't know.

Finally, last winter I asked Mr. Chanclas to teach me how to knit. I learned that knitting is just a lot of making knots ("stitches")and that the amazing thing is there are really only two knots to learn (knit and purl). Different combinations of knit and purl stitches make up the different patterns. Knitting is deceptively simple. 

Mr. Chanclas teaching Big Sister how to knit

I still haven't mastered the purl stitch. Even so, I have made several scarves and cowls with just the knit stitch (which results in a pattern called garter stitch). If you have ever thought about knitting but decided it would be too hard let me dispel that myth right here. It is very simple. It does require practice but less than you think to get started. 

You don't need to spend a lot of money on it, either. Craft stores often have yarn on sale. I like to use yarns that contain at least some real wool and my favorites are 80-100% wool. I have amassed a large collection of knitting needles bought in thrift stores. Many of them were made in the 1950's and 60's and had hilarious images and prices stamped on their original packaging. Even if you have to buy your needles new, they are often on sale at the craft stores, too. (Or you can get coupons online.) And let's not forget the least expensive way to get some materials: ask someone who knits to share theirs. Do you have an aunt or a grandma or a neighbor who knits? They might have supplies to share or hand down and they could help you get started, too.

As for me, I need to go and get to knitting on some Christmas gifts. Knitting is strictly a winter hobby for me!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Experimenting With Homemade Soap

I made two more batches of soap last week. Since it takes new soap about four weeks to cure I wanted to make it in time for Christmas gift-giving. My first batches of homemade soap, made back in September, contained olive, coconut, and palm oils. This time I didn't have any palm oil so I made a plain batch with an olive and coconut oil base and no additional essential oils. It is curing up nicely and smells so nice and clean and unadulterated. I used the following recipe (7% superfat):

Simple Soap
50 oz olive oil
12.5 oz coconut oil
8.3 oz lye
20.6 oz water

For the second batch I got a bit experimental and I can't tell yet if my experiment has worked. I had a mostly full bottle of Burt's Bees Insect Repellant lying around that nobody wanted to use because it is so oily. Indeed, it is made entirely of oils- a blend of soybean, eucalyptus, and lemongrass oils. I decided to use it in a soap and I developed the following recipe using the lye calculator at Bramble Bee.
Eucalyptus Blast Soap (still unproven)
50 oz olive oil
3 oz Burt's Bees Insect Repellant (=2.1 oz soybean oil + 0.75 oz eucalyptus oil + 0.15 oz lemongrass oil)
6.634 oz lye
17.19 oz water
plus about 0.25 oz eucalyptus essential oil added at trace
(makes a 7% superfatted soap)

The saponification process seemed to go fine. The soap set up fairly quickly in the mold but not as quickly as the simple soap mentioned above. I cut it into bars the morning after making it but it was still a bit sticky and slightly soft. I probably should have waited another day or two to cut it. I expected the eucalyptus smell, which was very strong at time of process, to dissipate a lot as the soap continued to cure those first few days. However, the smell seems as strong as ever one week later and the soap continues to feel slightly tacky. If I were to make this batch again I would leave out the additional essential oil that I added at the end. I was really curious to see how the Burt's Bees repellant would behave and I ruined that experiment by adding another variable (the essential oil). 

Blast of Eucalyptus Soap for Vicks Vaporub lovers
My father-in-law loves eucalyptus so I'm hoping to give him some of this soap for Christmas. He also has a poor sense of smell (due to an illness many years ago) so maybe a really strong eucalyptus smell will be perfect for him. (Assuming the soap is otherwise okay, of course.) We will see.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Building A Woven Wire Fence: Part 1

Whoever hung the old fence loved baling wire as much as I do
Last week we started our latest big project: fencing the goat yard. When we bought this house it had a 20' x 50' fenced dog run out back. The fencing was a combination of wood posts, T posts, and floppy 7-foot wire panels with 6-inch square openings. I wanted to use that same space for our goats but the fencing was not nearly tight enough. It is a challenging location because it's on a slope so the current fence gapped horribly at the bottom. The previous owner of this house had filled in all the gaps with big chunks of limestone (there is plenty of that around in our soils). 

Big sister removing limestone chunks from the fence line

Our first step in rehabbing the dog run into a goat run was to tear down most of the old fence. First we recruited the kids to help us haul all the chunks of limestone to a central pile. We used a rusty old  Radio Flyer wagon I found in the trash about a year ago. When I got home with that wagon I regretted picking it up because it was just too rusty but it was perfect for this job: less tippy than a wheelbarrow and easier to fill. 

The growing rock pile with a little chivito on top
After we had hauled off the rocks I cut down the wire fence panels and we stripped them of the honeysuckle vines that had been growing on them for years. I have been throwing the honeysuckle vine into the temporary goat pen like big tumbleweeds and they have been eating it up like crazy. Honeysuckle vine is like chocolate pie for goats.
Mr. Chanclas doing battle with the honeysuckle
Next we used the shovel and the pickaxe and a lot of brute force to remove the T-posts. This required Mr. Chanclas' good pickaxin' skills. I couldn't believe how solidly those things were buried in there. I am pleased because we will be using T posts for the new fence, too. The corner posts will be wood set in concrete.

While we were in demolition mode we also removed one wooden post from the back corner of the run and we are not going to build again in that corner. That corner post prevented us from having vehicle access to the back of our property, which may be necessary at some point. I now have enough space to get a car or truck through the trees and into the back forty. (Okay, okay. The back half acre.)

My next step is to get out there with the machete Mr. Chanclas gave me for my birthday. I need to trim back the vegetation along the fence line. Then we will dig holes for the wooden posts and cement them into place. After that it will be time for T posts and hanging the woven wire fencing.

I bought a 200-foot roll of 2"x4" no-climb horse fencing. It was expensive (about $230) but I don't want to have to rebuild this fence ever. I'm going to make a fence stretcher out of a couple of two-by-fours and some bolts and we will use that and our neighbor's come-along to stretch the fence nice and tight. Wish me luck on that part because I have never hung fence before and it sounds hard! Anybody with fence-hanging skills is welcome to share advice, tips, and hilarious stories with me.

Creating a Resource Inventory for Your Homestead

I wrote an article for this month's edition of From Scratch, an online homesteading magazine. My article is about creating a resource inventory for your homestead. Here is a snippet:
"What exactly is a resource inventory? A resource inventory is merely a more or less organized accumulation of salvaged materials intended for some future use. Useful materials for homestead use include: food-quality containers, gardening containers, wire, bricks, stones, gravel, screens, lumber, plywood, pipes, wood pallets, tires, and large sheets of cardboard"
Just click on the image above to read the whole article and see why you need a resource inventory, too. (It's the Dec/Jan edition, page 86.) 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Recycled Family Christmas: A Fun and More Interesting Alternative to Black Friday

Since when did Thanksgiving turn out to be all about the shopping? Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday because it has all the good food of Christmas with none of the stress of gift-giving. Yesterday one of Mr. Chanclas' coworkers asked him if he would be doing any shopping on Black Friday. He told her that he would rather be shot in both kneecaps. Tell us how you really feel, Chanclas. 

We do not have to participate in the feeding frenzy that is American Christmas shopping. We can just opt out. Really! It is more fun to opt out and we won't be contributing to the production of more crap or maxing out our credit cards. 

Lindsey over at Northwest Backyard Veggies has a great post today about deliberate gift giving. Reading it inspired me to write about a tradition we have on my side of the family: Recycled Family Christmas. Every year in mid-December we get together with my side of the family to exchange gifts. This includes the five of us and my parents, grandfather, sister, brother-in-law, niece, and nephew. There are twelve of us in all and sometimes we draw names so that each person is only responsible for one other gift. The catch is that all gifts must be recycled, reused, homemade, thrifted, or otherwise invented. (We are pretty loose with our definition of "recycled".) We freely regift items, pull books from our own collections, give food, or buy gifts at thrift stores.

Brother snuggled up with his great-grandpa at Christmas
Last year my parents gave me a bag of pinwheel steaks from the local butcher which I savored all through the month of January. I gave my grandfather a giant container of chocolate chip cookies which he rationed out (two per day) for an insanely long time.

One year my folks gave me a dead oak tree from the city park. Really. They knew I always needed firewood so when my mom saw it in the park she decided to grab it for me. My dad, being the law-abiding citizen that he is, was hesitant about the legality of stealing downed trees from city property,  but my mom just said, "Hush and help me get this in the back of the truck!" My mom even wrapped up a couple of logs so I'd have something to open. (The rest were outside in the yard.) That was an awesome gift and one I will never forget.

My parents once gave my sister a dishwasher rack full of other gifts. It was hilarious and she was thrilled because the rack in her dishwasher had rusted and she needed a new one. My mom had found a replacement at the thrift store. While dishwasher racks are not especially sexy, it was a timely and funny gift.

In past years I have sewn tote bags or stenciled T-shirts and totes. Mr. Chanclas stenciled a tote bag for my dad that had an image of an ionospheric scintillation device on it. I don't make this stuff up. My dad had built an ionospheric scintillation device in his backyard that year and Mr. Chanclas memorialized it for him on a canvas tote bag. (Gosh. And you thought I was weird.)

Baby pants I stenciled for Christmas gifts

My grandfather, who is 95 years old and pretty much housebound, always has interesting gifts for us from his own life collection. One year he gave me a beautiful pewter salt and pepper set that I treasure to this day. He also gave me some black and white 8x10" prints of my dad and myself as babies. Nobody else could have given me photos of my dad as a baby so it was a unique and special gift.

We have also gifted books off of our own bookshelves that we thought family members would enjoy. When I started sewing five years ago my mom gave me a huge basket of fabric and notions from her own extensive stash, which was amazing for a beginner like me. (I will be using that stuff for the rest of my life.) Mr. Chanclas sometimes knits scarves and hats as gifts, too. (Knitting is so time-consuming that he can never knit for everyone, though.)

You don't have to be a baker, knitter, or a sewer to give a good homemade gift. I often make photo calendars for my parents, my grandfather, and my in-laws. Then they get to look at cute photos of their grandkids (or great-grandkids) for the rest of the year. I order them from Shutterfly and there are usually coupon codes out there at this time of year. Last year I forgot to make them and was reprimanded for it through February!

If you aren't sure how your family members would respond if you suddenly started giving recycled/upcycled gifts, then you might play up the idea of a recycled "theme" Christmas. Then everybody is giving recycled gifts so nobody feels weird about it. Also, you don't have to be giving the gift of dead trees from your local park the first year. You can ease folks into it with some more traditional handmade/homemade stuff.

Lindsey has some other great suggestions for deliberate gift giving such as Etsy, the farmer's market, etc. Check out her post when you feel Black Friday begin to creep up on you.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Goats in the House (Literally)

What's not to love about a face like this?
Our new goats, Kiki and Clementine, are settling in quite nicely. We had a sudden cold snap hit on Friday and the daytime temperatures suddenly dropped into the 30's, which is absolutely unbearably cold for us Central Texans. We are miserable. I have lived in Wisconsin so I know that human life can be sustained in colder temps but only just barely. We had only had our goats home for three day when the cold started and I didn't know what to do with them. Their outside home was a small rigged yard with a dog house for shelter. It just didn't seem like enough when I was wearing wool socks, jeans, three shirts, and a sweater indoors. So I consulted the lovely, helpful people at The Goat Spot and Backyard Herds. Most folks agreed that the goats could stay outdoors in this weather but one woman made a good case for bringing them inside if I was going to be worried about them.

Yes, they are wearing sweaters.
 That is how we came to have two goats in our house all weekend. It turns out that goats are far more suited for inside living than many dogs I know. And some cats. (My goats would never poop in your suitcase on purpose.) The first couple of days the goats were here they were terrified of us, which made them hard to handle. I plied them with raisins and honeysuckle branches and now they bleat nervously when I leave the house. We have a mudroom with a concrete floor at the back of the house, just off the kitchen, and that is where we put the goats. Goat poop, in case you didn't already know (I didn't), is really inoffensive stuff. Their diet consists of wood and hay, for goodness sake, so their poop is just tiny little odorless balls. It's easy to sweep up. I put an outdoor chair cushion on the floor for them and instead of lying on it they use it to pee on. Which is fine by me because the fabric is waterproof so I just come along and wipe up the pee with a paper towel. (The cushion will get tossed when all this is over.)
Little Sister adores the goaties
The best part of having the goats indoors these few days, besides the humor factor, is that it's given us all a lot more opportunities to get to know each other. They come up to us now and even sit in our laps. They don't scream or make much noise at all. I plan to put them back outside in a couple of days when it warms up but in the meantime it's pretty fun having house goats. When they escape through the baby gate into the rest of the house they look hilarious. Their little hooves go tap tap tap on the tile floor. One of our cats, Lupe, is obsessed with the goats and has spent a lot of time with them. We saw the smaller goat, Clementine, try to headbutt Lupe, which was awesome because they are basically the same size.

Clementine, the reddish brown goat, weighs 11.5 pounds. Kiki, the black and brown one, weighs 13.5 pounds. They are tiny, about the size of my cat but heavier for their size. Before I decided to bring them inside I made them sweaters out of old toddler shirts. I just cut off the sleeves and stuffed the goats into them. How's that for makeshift (and hilarious)?

My goats are better dressed than my children or myself