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.)