Sophie’s New Backpack

Last year I wrote an essay for The New York Times Motherlode blog titled “The Perfect Backpack.” You can read it here.

After all that, we ended up getting Sophie a new backpack this year. Two reasons: (1) Last year’s backpack was too small for a regular size piece of paper—and her preschool teachers suggested that students have bigger backpacks at this year’s orientation. (2) Sophie’s obsessed with princesses. Disney princesses, specifically.

So I asked Andy’s talented Aunt Susan to make her a new one.

Sophie loves it. I do, too. It has Disney princesses on it but is still homemade. Her name is embroidered on it. It has adjustable straps and a pocket inside. It fits regular size papers perfectly.

Susan sells her work on Etsy here, and she’s very much open to custom work, such as this backpack.

Thanks, Aunt Susan.

“The best thing about doing needlepoint for very small children is that they are so uncritical. The don’t say things like, ‘I see you’ve missed some stitches over here on the leg, was that intentional?’ or ‘Was this creature blinded in a fight?’ They will clasp it in their little arms and love it besottedly, inseparably as the thing becomes more and more rancid.” —Carole Berman and Jennifer Lazarus

A Pillowcase With Nini

(photos and captions courtesy of my mom)

Sophie cut most of the fabric …

worked hard on the pinning …

sang while she did her own ironing …

pushed the foot pedal for all the sewing (and made French seams) …

and made a beautiful pillowcase.

I think Nini found a sewing partner.

“It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.” —Albert Einstein

Beauty Found While Mashing Avocado


This past Christmas my parents gave my sister, brother and I each a handmade mortar and pestle, which they found at a little store called L’autedu during a recent visit to Cinque Terre, Italy. Andy and I spent a couple days in Cinque Terre on our honeymoon. Five villages hug a terraced coastline along northern Italy’s Riviera and it’s, by far, one of my most favorite places in the world.

It wasn’t until I graduated from college that I truly started to appreciate the handmade. Working as an editor at Popular Woodworking Magazine cemented my belief that a beautifully handmade item bought once in a lifetime, although more expensive, is, in the long run, worth much more than a similar item that’s mass-produced and of lesser quality. Yes, mass-produced is cheaper. But if you have to buy four dressers in your lifetime because the first three eventually wear out, is it, truly, cheaper?

Of course, I, unfortunately, don’t have the financial means to fill my house with patiently handcrafted pretty things. But, I try. I save up to buy things (the Target dressers Andy and I have in our bedroom are falling apart yet I’d much rather have two antique or handmade pieces 10 years from now versus replacement particleboard ones now). I opt for antique instead of new (we found Sophie a beautiful, dovetailed antique dresser for the same cost as a fiberboard one from Ikea). I’m constantly on Craigslist (our crib, changing table, dining room wool rug and living room couch are all items I could never, ever afford in the stores they came from but through luck and time I found them slightly used and greatly reduced in price on this great site). And, like the mortar and pestle shown here, I have been blessed with many gifts. Some are from stores. Others, including quilts and blankets and hand-turned salad bowls and necklaces and earrings and dresses and artwork and bibs and burp cloths and jewelry boxes and tool chests, have been made by people I respect and love.

I strive to not put much emphasis on things in my life. But at the same time, I love how a small thing of beauty can make the mundane act of mashing avocado for the boys’ dinner so much more enjoyable. I love how an object can take my mind from the kitchen to a place I think of often. I long to go back to Cinque Terre someday. And so moments like this, when my memory fills with the sights, sounds, tastes and smells of the Five Lands, help satisfy those longings, even if for just a few seconds.

I could go on and on about this topic. The environmental and financial soundness of buying less by buying better quality. The importance of surrounding one’s self with beauty. The importance of supporting craft. And yet, I’m also embarrassed by this topic as I’m not a craftsman. I’ve tried sewing (I got a “B” on a stuffed bunny in 7th grade Home Economics because somehow I lost my needle inside of it). I’ve tried woodworking (with great, great help I’ve built an Arts & Crafts bookshelf, a Windsor chair and a Shaker end table but I never felt fully comfortable with the tools and I never felt like it was something I wanted to do on my days off). I’ve tried card making (my sister puts me to shame). I’m in awe of people like my mom who grows her own lavender, finds gorgeous antique linen and can put together a beautiful scented satchel in an afternoon. Or my mother-in-law who can take a handful of gorgeous beads and string them together into a small work of art you can wear around your neck. I suppose writing is a craft. But it’s not a tangible one. You can’t mash avocados with it. But I guess you can be taken back to a cobblestone street lined with colorful doors and laundry hanging from every window, the smell of homemade pesto, lingering, in the act of it. But still, you can’t hold it.

Maybe someday, when the kids are all in school and the February days seem long, I’ll find a craft I love and can excel at. Until then, I’ll simply appreciate those who have already found their calling while tossing salad in our hand-turned bowl, watching a movie while cuddled under a hand-knit blanket or mashing avocado in a handmade mortar and pestle bought in one of my most favorite places in the world.

“There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price only are this man’s lawful prey.” –John Ruskin

Sophie’s Room



Sophie’s room is slowly coming together. Months ago Andy’s Dad painted her bead board white, three walls a soft pink and perfect stripes on the wall behind her bed (quite different from the grownup, wallpapered nautical theme it used to be, when we moved in). And recently my mom brought over a beautiful, handmade quilt for Sophie’s bed—a birthday present, and something my mom, I know, spent hours and hours on.

And even though it’s not finished, Sophie loves her room. Anytime someone comes over she insists on showing them her room.

We’re so lucky to have the help of our parents.

Thank you.

“The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.” —Nelson Henderson



The word “tsutsumu” means “the Japanese art of wrapping items in an attractive and appropriate manner.” I’ve long loved homemade gifts and Sophie received many this holiday season. My mom made this one. Wrapped, it looks like this.


Unwrapped, it looks like this—a delightful play land perfect for a strong and budding imagination. Sophie loves it.

My mom discovered the project in a Japanese sewing book, which she found in a small shop in California.

The project proved more difficult than many things she’s made for us, in large part because the instructions were, well, in Japanese.


But it’s just a lovely plaything for Sophie. Unwrapped, Sophie moves small, wooden animals and trees (from Haba) around on Japanese linen. When finished, she simply piles the wooden pieces in the middle of the fabric, pulls the corners together, loops them shut and stores the entire package in a wooden cubby in our entry. (Although, it’s probably more accurate to replace “she” with “I” in that last sentence.)


“In Japan, it is said that giving a gift is like wrapping one’s heart.” —Kunio Ekiguchi

Christmas Around Our House



Last year Sophie made this beautiful painted wreath with Nini as a surprise Christmas present for Andy and me. This year my mom transferred a picture of her making it onto fabric and sewed it on the back. We used a tension rod to hang it across the middle window behind our window seat. I love it.


I needed to turn our dining room centerpiece (Japanese Lantern Stems in a Profile Vase, both from Crate and Barrel) into something more fitting for winter. So I ordered some Iced Birch Branches from Nettleton Hollow, which, I think, did the trick.


Finally, we have an advent calendar. Sophie enjoyed moving the marker (when we would remember).


This year I used velvet ribbon from Sundance to wrap presents—upon its arrival I thought it looked so pretty I put it in a handmade wooden bowl and used that as a centerpiece on our kitchen table.



My mom has made stockings for all of us and this year she had two more to make—one for Owen (top) and one for James (bottom). She continued the tree theme (and each stocking has a small, heart-shaped button near the root of a tree). James got stars out of respect for his middle name—Orion. They’re perfect.


lighted snowflakes in the window



Andy’s mom ordered handmade Christmas outfits from her sister, Susan. The kids looked so cute in them and they served as nice bedroom decorations while waiting to be worn.


Sophie and I spent a particularly cold morning making a Christmas paper chain out of red and green construction paper for her art area—the boys watched the process from a blanket on the floor nearby.


Christmas cards


backyard snow

“Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful.” —Norman Vincent Peale