Holiday Decorating Ideas on the Cheap

We never really used to decorate too much for Christmas.  We’d have the tree, and our stockings would come out Christmas Eve, and if it happened to occur to someone, we got a wreath as well.  These days, since my parents have retired, they get a bit more into it.  Last year, because they were down in NYC visiting Ando’s family, it was up to the Pie and I to decorate the house for the holiday season.  This was the first year that my mother had let my dad put up white LED lights in the bushes outside (something he’s been wanting to do for thirty years, though I’m still holding out for the animatronic Santa on the roof).  So I knew we could go a bit more out there than we had in previous years.

The idea was to work with what we had, and my parents have collected a vast number of Christmas tree decorations in their almost forty years together.  So I took the biggest glass balls and suspended them from scrap ribbons tied to the banister on our upstairs landing.

Christmas Decorating Ideas

Coming down the stairs you can see your reflection in the closest ones.

Christmas Decorating Ideas

And the view from the bottom.

Christmas Decorating Ideas

Some of the more oddly shaped and heavier glass balls I looped around the curtain rod in the dining room.

Christmas Decorating Ideas

Then I took a garland that came from Ten Thousand Villages and some paper IKEA decorations and did this to the window in the living room.

Christmas Decorating Ideas

Christmas Decorating Ideas

For a wreath, I picked this one up at Value Village for $2.50.

Christmas Decorating Ideas

I pulled the artificial stuff off it and sprayed the actual grape vine underneath a nice bright copper.

Christmas Decorating Ideas

Christmas Decorating Ideas

Then the Pie and I went to Canadian Tire and went through their clearance decoration bin — this is where they sell off the bits of stuff that fell off other stuff the year before. We picked up a few wreath embellishments for about $2.40 in total, and I sprayed some silver.

Christmas Decorating Ideas

Other bits we bought were already copper.

Christmas Decorating Ideas

The finished product is simple, easy, and cheap, and cost me less than five bucks (I forgot to take a picture of it until AFTER I’d hung it up between the two doors). And all those decorations can just be pulled out and reused somewhere else if I feel like changing it up next year.

Christmas Decorating Ideas

So you don’t have to spend a million dollars to create some winter wonderland. Simple accents here and there can also express the holiday season in the same way!

Spinach and Mushroom Stuffing

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We made this for our Canadian Thanksgiving celebrations, but maybe the next time you cook up a turkey (say, for American Thanksgiving, or Christmas, or various other turkey-related feast days), you could try this stuff(ing) out.  You can make it all the day before and chuck it together at the last minute, which is awesome for big dinners.  It’s also the kind of stuffing that doesn’t actually go into the bird, so you can feed it to vegetarians, too!

Start with your bread.  You can buy bags of pre-cut, pre-toasted bread chunks specifically for making stuffing, but I kind of like to make them myself, because I can decide what kind of bread I’m going to use in my stuffing.  Here I used a loaf of Italian sourdough.

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I ripped each slice up into bite-sized chunks and spread them out across two baking sheets.  Shove them in your oven and bake them at 350°F until they’re dried out and lightly toasted, about 12 minutes.  Make sure to stir them occasionally.

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Dice up about a pound of fresh mushrooms.  The wilder the better.  Unfortunately all we had around were some oyster and regular white mushrooms, but feel free to experiment.  You should have about 9 cups diced mushrooms when you’re done.

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Chop up as well 2 large onions, so you’re left with about 3 cups chopped onions in total.

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And while you’re at it, go to town on 4-5 stalks celery, ending up with about 2 cups chopped celery in total.

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Find yourself some herbs.  These were all growing in our fall garden: sage, parsley, and thyme.  I thought about adding some rosemary to add to the “Scarborough Fair”-ness of the whole thing but managed to restrain myself.

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Chop up a couple bunches of each.  You can never have too many fresh herbs in your stuffing, so just go with what feels right.

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Dump 1/4 cup of butter and a tablespoon or so of olive oil in a large skillet and melt over medium heat.

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Plop in your mushrooms and sprinkle them lightly with salt and pepper.  Sauté those suckers until they’re all squishy and starting to brown, about 8 minutes.  Dump them in a large bowl for now.

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Slide another 1/2 cup butter into that skillet and let that melt.

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Add in your onions and celery and cook, stirring, until the veggies are tender, probably 12 minutes or so.

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Sprinkle in your herbs and cook for another minute.

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Then plop in a whole package (5oz) fresh baby spinach.  Toss in the skillet (maybe use a lid) until the leaves are just wilted.

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Chuck all that stuff into the bowl with the mushrooms.  If you’re making this ahead of time, this is where you stop.  Let the stuff cool, cover it, and bung it in the fridge overnight.

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When you’re ready to get this on the go, preheat your oven to 350ºF and butter a large casserole dish or 9″ x 13″ baking pan.  Whisk 2 eggs and some salt and pepper in a bowl.

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Pour in 1 cup low sodium chicken broth (you may need more if you find it dry) and stir that around.

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Toss your bread bits with your vegetable mix and pour your broth/egg stuff over top, stirring to make sure it makes it all the way through.

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Jam that into your baking dish and bake without covering until it’s brown and crusty on top, about an hour.  Let it stand a few minutes before serving (like, take it out when you start to carve up your bird and you’re set).

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Pfft. I can do that: Ali Does It turns three!

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Can you believe it?  I’ve been Doing It Myself for THREE FREAKING YEARS now!  Well, it’s been longer than that, but today marks the third anniversary of when I started putting my foibles and failures (and too many pictures of my dog) up on the internet for you to enjoy.  And I hope you’ve enjoyed it!

How to commemorate this, though?  I’ve been doing a lot of cooking, so I didn’t really want to do that.  And because Christmas is over and we’re moving in a couple months I don’t have any real crafty/fixy projects on the horizon.  But.  I saw this back on Etsy a year or so ago and I thought, I could TOTALLY make that myself.  It won’t be as GOOD, mind you, but I could totally do it.  So I’m gonna.  Here goes.

Because I can never do anything in half measures, I decided to make THREE bowls instead of just the one, and they’re gonna be nesting bowls.

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So I needed three bowls of approximately the same shape but different sizes.  Fortunately I have three stainless steel ones that will do just fine.

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You also need a barrier between the bowl and the paste.  You can use plastic wrap but I didn’t want to deal with wrinkles so I used petroleum jelly, which is the only thing I didn’t have on hand and had to buy.

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I still have stacks and stacks of newspapers to use, and so I tore a bunch of those up into thin strips, following the grain of the paper.

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And you need paste as well, obviously.  I went with the same recipe I used for the magnificent and popular papier mâché helicopter piñata I made a few years ago, which is 2 cups flour to 3 cups water.  BAM.

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Make sure to spread newspaper or drop cloths or garbage bags on your work area so you don’t have to deal with errant splashes of dried paste later on.  This, incidentally, is a good project to do while watching movies/television on a bad-weather day.  I curled up with Supernatural, which is not a very good series, but that Jensen Ackles is pretty enough to make it worth watching, and the plot is never too heavy that I have to keep my eyes glued to the screen a hundred percent of the time.

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Start by smearing the outside of your bowl with petroleum jelly.  Try to put it on as smoothly as possible, but make sure it’s pretty thick at the same time.  If you’re using plastic wrap, try to avoid too many wrinkles, and wrap the plastic around the edges of the bowl as well.

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Then have at it, pasting up your strips of newsprint and sticking them to your bowl form.  Do a layer or two, allow it to dry completely, then do another one.  I did a layer, waited an hour, then did another layer and let that dry overnight, then repeated the process the next day.

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This project will definitely take you a couple of days, so make sure to keep your paste tightly sealed when you’re not using it.

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When the bowl is as thick as you want it to be, and it has dried all the way through, use a thin knife to carefully pry the bowl from the other bowl.

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Wipe off any excess petroleum jelly or peel away the plastic wrap. I found that a cotton tea towel did the best job at getting all the petroleum jelly off.

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Trim the edges of the bowl if you like with a sharp pair of scissors.

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I left mine to cure another day like this, after sealing the open edges with some white glue.

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I flipped the glue over and discovered that it was actually called Troll Booger Glue.  I can’t begin to tell you how delighted I was by that.

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Now, the bowls on Etsy were lined with gold leaf, but I ain’t got the time nor the money for that.  I do, however, have some copper-coloured spray paint.  So I’m going to use that (taking all the necessary precautions, of course).

I couldn’t find my breathing mask so I went with a bandana.  The Pie took one look at me and started laughing so I thought I’d share.

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If you’re using spray paint on your bowls, make sure to do the inside of the bowl first.  That way you can avoid getting the wrong colour on the wrong side of the bowl.

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Once the inside is done and dried, flip the bowls upside down and do the outside, being careful to direct your spray so it doesn’t get underneath the bowls.  I used blue, white, and black.

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It took a couple coats to make the lines of print disappear.  I thought I had some white spray paint but it turned out that I only had gesso.

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And the gesso only worked so well so I ended up spraying over it with blue.  After that was fully cured, I gave it a once-over with some spray varnish, for added sheen and protection.

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And that’s it.  Not bad, not bad at all.

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Oddities in String Art: Arr, Sweet Arr, and the Howling Wolf

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Okay so I’m definitely behind the trend on this one, but it looks like so much fun that I had to try it out.  When I asked Stef what he and the Stone would like me to make for them for Christmas, he suggested some form of decoration for their home.  And as Stef is my favourite pirate, I made him a skull and crossbones. For a little bit of contrast I used gray crochet thread on the crossbones part, so you could differentiate it from the rest of the skull.  Then I thought it would be cute to add a cross-stitched platitude to the bottom in a nice bright red.  Instead of Home Sweet Home, I thought that “Arr, Sweet Arr” would be more apropos.

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These beautiful copper carpet tacks belonged to my great-grandfather (who never threw anything away) and they look fantastic against the wood.  You can use any kind of nail you like, provided it has a decent-sized head.

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For the People Downstairs, whose last name is lupine-related, I made a slightly cheesy wolf howling at the moon.  To get the template, I simply drew a large circle and then freehanded the wolf silhouette.  It took a couple tries, because I am not the artist my mother is, but it ain’t bad. It only kind of looks like a corgi.  But that’s cool too.  I used a more delicate white thread to pick up the slightly more elaborate pattern.

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Because of my latent inability to cut anything in a straight line, the Pie was kind enough to do the sawing for me, as I had to cut this piece of craft board (which I bought from Kent) into smaller pieces.  The wolf piece is 12″ x 12″, and the pirate piece is 12″ x 16″.

String Art 1

Spray paint the boards the colour of your choice.  Black is a good go-to background.

String Art 2

You can see how there’s a mottled texture to my paint — I ran out of one can of spray paint partway through, and like a good little soldier I sat there and drained all the air out of the can so it could be properly disposed of.  Because it was occasionally spitting paint at me while doing this, I figured I’d do it while pointing it at my painted surface.  And thus the weird texture.  But I’m going to roll with it. It adds character.

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While that is drying, work on your design.  On a piece of paper, sketch out the outline of the shape you want.  Mine are obviously pretty simplistic, due to my lack of artistic skill (I’m the only one in the family who can’t draw, go figure), but you don’t want to get too complicated when it comes to string. Basic and slightly embellished shapes are probably your best bet.

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Temporarily tape the design to your board, and carefully hammer in nails along the lines you’ve drawn, spacing them out evenly.  My board is only 1/4″ thick so I had to be careful not to hammer them in too far.

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I found a pair of pliers kept me from hitting my fingers.

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Once you’ve got all the nails in you can rip off and recycle the paper.

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Now, with your thread or wool or string or whatever you’re using, tie a knot around one of the nails and start weaving the thread around the nails, back and forth across the space you want to fill.  Don’t worry too much about a pattern (unless that’s what you’re going for).  Stop when you’ve filled it as much as you want to.  It’s a pretty fluid thing.

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String Art 20

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And there you have it.  I screwed hanging hardware into the back and that is that.

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Adding Festivity, the Lazy Way: Paper Wreath

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Seeing as we’re in Ottawa and not St. John’s for the majority of the holiday season, the Pie and I rarely trouble ourselves to decorate Elizabeth for Christmas.  But this little thing was so easy, and so quick, and the days here in St. John’s have been so very gray, I needed a little festivity … but I was too lazy to do anything too complicated.

So I have here some rolls of wrapping paper that I picked up from IKEA about seven years ago, and which I rarely use (seeing as I still have a chunk left).  The nice thing is that the wrapping paper, since it came on a roll, has a natural curve to it that I used to my advantage.  I also have a large paper plate with an extremely ugly design on it.  I don’t even know how I came to own these things, but I was cleaning out a cupboard and there they were … You will also need a pair of decent scissors and some tape.  Any kind, really, as you won’t see it.  A ribbon is optimal but also optional.

Lazy Festivity 1

First, we need to make a wreath form out of the paper plate.  If you want something bigger (or less ugly), you can make your own ring out of cardboard or whatever is handy.  With the paper plate all I had to do was cut out the middle section.

Lazy Festivity 2

Then I cut about a 5″ wide strip from the roll of wrapping paper.  I folded it in half lengthwise, so it was then about 2.5″ thick, and then folded it across itself widthwise a couple times, until I had a small rectangle about 2.5″ x 5″.  Or whatever works for you.  This just makes it easier to cut a bunch of leaves at once. This is where having a nice sharp, strong pair of scissors comes in handy.

Lazy Festivity 3

Then I cut a leaf shape out of the rectangle, leaving the bottom a little flattened (for optimal tape-age), and ended up with a handful of little leaves.  I did this twice for each colour of wrapping paper I used, so six times in total. I have no idea how many leaves it was, but it was exactly enough for the size of my project, which was pretty convenient — almost like I had a plan.

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Lazy Festivity 5

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Then I started taping them onto the plate, putting a wee bit of tape at the flattened end of the leaf, and making them kind of flow around the circle.  Don’t worry about making them arrow straight, and try to pick up different colours at random.

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When you put on the next haphazard row, it overlaps the first and hides the tape (this is called imbrication – like the layering of scales or roofing shingles).

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Imbrication … (I learned the word today so it’s rather convenient that I have this project for you)

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When you come full circle (and I don’t mean that metaphorically this time), just fold up the leaves already there and tuck the new ones into the space to fill the gap.

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So that’s the whole thing.

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I had a scrap of blanket binding leftover from the baby blanket I made for the Incredibly Little Hulk way back when, so I tied that on as ribbon.

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Then I added another ribbon to hang it on my door.

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This took me half an hour, from start to finish.  Change the colours of the paper leaves and I’m sure you could apply this wreath to any season (black and orange for Hallowe’en, purple and green for spring …).  Easy peasy, blamo kablam, it’s done!

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Imbricaaaaaaaation: an overlapping of edges as in tiles or scales.

WOOO! It’s Ali Does It Herself’s 500th Post! And we’re making CAKE!

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So on the 15th day of March, 2010, I caved to peer pressure (*ahem*, Kª), and I started this blog.  Ali Does It … Herself.  That sounded about right.  The Pie and I try to be as self-sufficient as possible, and having been raised by very DIY-oriented parents, I figured I might as well start telling the world about my own experiments in grown-up living.  Five hundred (!) posts later, we’re still going strong.  Ali Does It has been featured THREE times on WordPress’s Freshly Pressed page, twice on FoodPress.com, and last year won third place in both the Canadian Weblog Awards and the Canadian Blog Awards competitions.  I’m so grateful for the 1600+ subscribers who visit regularly and for everyone who has come to see and read in the past almost-three years.  If you’re reading this, then thank you so much for coming!

It’s amazing what this blogging experience has taught me to do.  Previously, I cooked, and fixed stuff, and did crafty things, and I was pretty good at it, but I never really tried to venture too far out of my comfort zone.  Now, if someone sends me a message saying, “do you know how to do this?”, my answer is usually “why yes!” (ha. rarely), or “no, but I’ll figure it out.”  And then I do.   It’s very empowering to know that doing stuff on your own is not as scary as you think it is.  The internet (and my parents) are very good teachers.

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My very first post was about cake — wedding cupcakes, to be specific.  And if you’ll look below, you can see all the other posts I have made about cake and cupcakes since then (not to mention the posts about cookies, and brownies, and knitting, and sewing …).  In commemoration of that, I think I’ll make another cake!

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I’ve been brainstorming with the Pie and our friends about what to create for this particular occasion, but they’ve been absolutely useless.  They keep suggesting that I make a cake THAT I’VE ALREADY MADE.  What would be the point of that?  Well, it’s not called Ali Does It on the Advice of All the People She Knows, after all, so I started thinking about what *I* wanted.  Something a little bit fun, not too big, not too complicated, but a wee bit different. And something that I have made up all by myself. So here goes.

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What about a berry cake?  I want something pink.  And I have a temptingly large container of partridgeberries in my freezer, which I picked up from Bidgood’s in the Goulds over the summer. If you know anything about this place, you’ll know that Bidgood’s is where you go to get stuff like this. That same day we picked up moose burgers and a rabbit pie. Both excellent.

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Now, I’m making this into a layer cake with icing, but you could easily skip the cutting and frosting and have it as a nice coffee cake. It’s a versatile little thing, and it will freeze beautifully, unfrosted. So. Take your favourite 9″ x 13″ baking pan/casserole dish and butter it generously. Plop a sheet of parchment in the middle and butter that, too. It will just make it easier to get the cake out in one piece. Preheat your oven to 375°F while you’re at it.

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Grab yourself some partridgeberries.  You’ll probably only find them frozen, but if you’re in a part of the world where they come fresh, then more power to you.  If you don’t know what a partridgeberry is, it looks like a small cranberry, but isn’t as tart.  You may know it better as a lingonberry or a cowberry.  You could substitute other berries in this recipe, obviously.  If you go the cranberry route, though, I’d add a bit more sugar.  Anyway, you’ll want about 2 cups partridgeberries for this cake.

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Plop them in a pan with about a tablespoon lemon juice and 1/2 cup granulated sugar, and stew on medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the berries are thawed and juices are running everywhere.  Pop a few with the back of your spoon to increase the juiciness, and remove from the heat so they cool down a bit.

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In a large bowl, cream together 1 cup butter with 2 cups granulated sugar.

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Add in 6 eggs, one at a time.

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Then jump in your stewed berries, along with 1 cup sour cream.

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Almost ready — now, a little bit at a time, stir in 3 cups all-purpose flour and 1 teaspoon baking soda.

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Smooth your batter into your prepared pan.  I love that delicate pink colour.  Too bad it never lasts through the baking without artificial boosts — blech.

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Bake your cake on the middle rack for about 45 minutes to an hour, depending on your oven.  Mine took 47 minutes.  Place it on a rack to cool, and when it’s cooled enough to tip out, let it cool completely on a rack before frosting.

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A note on frosting:

Now, you don’t HAVE to frost your cake.  That is entirely up to you.  But I’m going all out here, and I feel that fruits like this need a bit of cream cheese in the frosting to make me super happy.  If you’re going to layer this cake, make the full amount of frosting I’ve set out here.  If you’re just going to frost the top, then make about 1/3 to 1/2 of the amount laid out below.  And if you want a non-chocolate version (also yummy), substitute vanilla for the Kahlua and leave out the cocoa.

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In a large bowl, beat together 1 cup butter and 1 250g package plain cream cheese.  Make sure both of them are soft but not melty.

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Tip in about 5 tablespoons powdered cocoa together with 1 tablespoon Kahlua (or other coffee/chocolate liqueur of your choice) and mix that in thoroughly.  Once you get that in, add about 3 1/2 cups confectioner’s (icing) sugar.  You may need more or less depending on your preference.  Beat that to a pulp.

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Then pour in 1 cup cream, whipping cream if you’ve got it.  Or leave it out, if you want a frosting that is a bit stiffer.  Lovely.  Chuck that in the fridge to chill while you wait for your cake to cool.

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Then I simply cut the cake in half down the middle, like so.

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Then cut each half horizontally so I had four slabs of cake.  Slather on some icing between layers, plop the next one on, rinse, repeat.

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It reminds me of a massive peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

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I didn’t bother with a crumb coat when doing the outside, and I didn’t really go to too much trouble getting the icing all perfect (because I really don’t roll that way, don’t you know that by now?).

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I think I have laundry on the brain — I seem to do it often enough.  It’s not quite the celebratory bunting you were expecting, eh? Fitting, though.

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Thanks for seeing me through 500 posts as I learn to be a grown-up.  Here’s to 500 more!

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Thirty-Four other posts about CAKE (brownies, bars, and other eatables and noneatables not included, but feel free to use the search function on the sidebar to find whatever you want!):

Cardigan Cozy

Cardigan Cozy

We know that I’ve done things with cardigans, and I’ve done things with cozies.  And now for something completely different.

My mother is an artist, and she spends many long hours perched in her chair, leaning over her drafting table. That can lead to a sore back after a day of drawing, and, in the wintertime, a cold backside.

In her living room, she has a new fireplace, and so spends a lot of time cozied up to the flames.  But upstairs in the studio she has no such luck.

Now, this sweater was knitted for her by my grandmother eons ago.  It no longer fit her, so she gave it to me, because it’s beautiful.  She even switched all the buttons for me and make all the buttonholes fit properly with the new hardware.

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Alas, I’m a little longer in the torso than my mother and so the cardigan doesn’t suit me at all.

But here’s my idea.  We all know about “magic” bags, those sacks filled with buckwheat or rice that you microwave that keep you toasty.  The Pie and I use them nearly every night in the winter, to heat up the foot of our bed.

Why not turn this cardigan into a heating pad that will fit on the back of the chair?  It will slide over the back of most, and for the ones where it doesn’t, well, you can always use the arms of the sweater to hold it in place, right?

Cardigan Cozy

So first I had to come up with the heating pad itself, because I’m not going to stick this sweater in the microwave.  This heating pad is going to be removable, something I can button inside the cardigan.

What I need is a big, flat, rectangle, which I will fill with rice.  To keep the rice from falling to the bottom when the pad is in place inside the sweater, I’m going to sew it into little pockets.  I’m basically quilting, but instead of using batting, I’m using rice.

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To make the bag, I measured (roughly) the inside of the sweater.

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Then I cut out a square of folded fabric.

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It was my goal to sew ribbon loops into the four corners to serve as button holes.  I messed it up, but I also fixed it later.

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So here I am, sewing up three sides of the folded cloth, including the fold side.

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Turn it inside out, and sew again to create the frame for the rice.

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Sew up towards the opening, in equal spacing.  These will be the columns for the rice.

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I scooped 1/3 cup uncooked rice into each column.

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Then pinned each column shut.

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And sewed it up — to make a quilted pocket.

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Continue that way all the way up.

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The finished pockets.

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Then I sealed the top, added some more loops of ribbons to attach to more buttons, and sewed that under.

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Now, because I’d made the loops too small, I used the loops instead as an anchor for another ribbon, which I tied around the buttons, which I of course sewed into the sweater.

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I used extra buttons along the top edge because I was concerned about the weight.  All that rice is nearly 4lb!

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Then I sewed a velvet ribbon into each of the sleeves so that I could tie them together and they wouldn’t dangle.  I figure if this cozy ever goes onto a chair where it can’t slide over the back, you can always use the ribbons to tie the arms to the chair.

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So here it is on a chair.  Gren is not impressed. He’s a hard one to please.

Cardigan Cozy

My mother’s studio chair is a bit more substantial, more like my office chair.  So here is how it looks from the back.

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And the front.  Cozy, huh?

Cardigan Cozy