Zeroing In On Your Dream Home (part 2)

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Last week, we looked at why most of the time it’s preferable to buy a home rather than rent. This week, I’ll go into our experiences house shopping and share what we learned.

House Shopping for Beginners

The house you choose, like the spouse you choose, can help you reach financial independence, or it can ensure you will remain a wage and debt slave your entire life. If your job situation is uncertain and you know you must rent, then you should still draw your circles and look for rentals in the magic area. The goal, always, is to reduce your costs and make your life better. This applies to renters just as much as it does to buyers. Eventually, you won’t be a renter anymore, so plan ahead.

Amy Dacyczyn in her Complete Tightwad Gazette talked about looking for her dream house. She and her husband chose their area. They then looked at 176 houses before settling on the one they bought, #177. What they found was that the more properties they looked at, the more they educated their eyes. They started to recognize whether or not they even wanted to go into the house, they began seeing potential problems that took houses off of their list, and that taught them to spot a great bargain when they found it.

This takes time, clearly. You may end up having to rent while you house hunt. Yet is that bad? You learn the area, where the services you want are, which neighborhoods meet your needs. You can’t learn this by buying a house sight unseen and in a hurry. My sister in Florida sold a house to out-of-town buyers. Only out-of-town buyers would have bought this place as everyone local knew that, even though the house was charming, the street it was on turned into a 55 mph motorway twice a day. Only local buyers knew that the neighborhood was becoming progressively unsafer, year by year. The out-of-towners did not know this either.

I remember quite clearly some of the houses I’ve looked at over the years. A house I saw in Norfolk had a view of the Elizabeth River from two different spots. You could see the river if you stood on the roof with a pair of binoculars and you could see it flowing in the unfinished basement under the wooden pallets. I also didn’t buy the house in the obviously skeevy neighborhood where you clearly needed two husbands and a big dog to feel safe in your kitchen.

A house we looked at here in Hershey showed the importance of being your own building inspector. At first, it appeared to be a charming house on a charming street. A closer inspection revealed suspicious stains on the ceiling and walls below the second floor bathroom. The second-floor bathtub had caulk all around it swirled and layered on like cake frosting. The basement had been subdivided into a warren of tiny cells. The addition on the back of the house clearly sagged. Floors seemed uneven. The kitchen needed a lot of work. How much of a hurry were we in? We could wait, so we made a lowball offer due to the obviously needed renovation costs and were refused. I have been grateful ever since that Mrs. Grenada (named after the street the house was on) wouldn’t make a deal. We walked away. She saved us tens of thousands of dollars in aggravation. How do I know this? Years later, I met the new owners of the house, and they described the amount of money they were pouring into it.

We only looked at houses in our price range and in our target area. We saw, both me and Bill, separately and together, many, many houses. We didn’t buy the house that had the shaking floors and bedrooms that also acted as hallways into the next room. We didn’t buy the house that was surrounded by freeways on three sides. We didn’t buy the house where sewage and water lines had to be installed by the homeowners. We didn’t buy the houses in the boondocks where you had to drive ten miles to pick up a gallon of milk. We didn’t buy the house that was right next door to an all night Kwicky-Mart or the no-tell motel.

This may seem like the perfect house, but don't be deceived by its curb appeal.
This may seem like the perfect house, but don’t be deceived by its curb appeal.
We didn’t buy the house in a flood zone in Harrisburg. That’s the one I most regret, because it was a gorgeous house, with original tile, parquet floors, high ceilings. Everything a house junkie could want and the price was well below what our top amount was. But, it was on a one-way street that became a four-lane 55-mph speedway every day at rush hour. Harrisburg also has some of the worst school districts in the state. And we knew the city had flooded during Hurricane Agnes in 1972. Most of Harrisburg did! Would this property flood again? We don’t know personally, but Hurricane Isabel blew through in 2003, followed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 which flooded much of Harrisburg. Then Tropical Storm Lee in 2011 flooded much of the midstate again.

There is a part of Harrisburg called Shipoke that is so low-lying that it floods with every heavy rain. People buy houses here regularly and are then surprised when they get the flood insurance premium and complain that the basement is full of water. What did they expect? If the potential house is built in a flood zone, you will get flooding! Regularly! Don’t do this to yourself and quickly walk away onto the next property.

I didn’t even get out of the realtor’s car at one house. We drove up to the edge of a cliff. All you could see was the plunging driveway with its mailbox and newspaper tube alongside it. You could not see the house; God knows where the photographer stood to take the picture in the real estate brochure. I thought about that driveway in a Pennsylvania winter, covered in ice and snow. I stayed in the car, and we moved onto the next house.

The moral is to take as much time as you can while house-hunting. Look at school districts, walkable services, the size of the yard, is the house in an HOA? Run away, run away, run away if you don’t like what you see. Look at road maps: is the house on what looks like a road in the country? Is that the only road between two larger areas? Is it a state or federal numbered highway? Expect that road to be widened in the future, giving you less front yard and more and faster traffic. How isolated is the house if you need fire, police, ambulance, snow-plow services? Does the house have access to gas lines, electrical hook-ups, newspaper delivery, cable, telephone, water and sewage hook-ups? If you want these things and the house doesn’t have them, you will have problems and major expenses.

Plenty of people around here get their new water from a well and have their used household water flow into a septic tank. These two things need to be spaced far apart or your well might pull in water that passed through your septic tank. Make sure you ask where the two are, in relationship to each other. Get the well tested for bacteria to be sure.

What can happen next, is that the sewage lines are extended as the area grows and the homeowner is required by the government to pay to install water and sewage lines. Never mind the preexisting well and septic tank. Did you know that septic tanks need to be regularly pumped out? Did you know that even if the septic tank is regularly pumped out, the leach field eventually fills up and the septic tank and its accompanying pipes needs to be moved to somewhere else in the yard? At the homeowner’s expense? A contractor told me that one. He wondered what people would do when there was no location left in the yard to move the septic tank to, particularly if the water came from a well. Install a new, more expensive system, no doubt.

Visit houses with a pair of binoculars, a flashlight, and a heavy marble. Use the binoculars to look at the roof for uneven ridge lines, leaning chimneys, and missing shingles. Use the marble to see how uneven the floors are. Use the flashlight to look into every single dark corner, cabinet, attic, and basement. Look for water damage, mold, missing insulation, suspicious stains. If you don’t like what you see, move on to the next house and save the cost of a home inspection. Start training your eye to see damage and potential problems.

A thought to keep in mind is that if the homeowner who is trying to sell the house can’t be bothered to clean up for you, the prospective buyer ready to hand over a bag full of money, then why would this person have done any of the routine maintenance? This is similar to going into a restaurant and facing dirty bathrooms. If the part they let you see is unsanitary, do you really think the food preparation areas are kept any cleaner?

Next week, we’ll look at what to do when you think you’ve found the house for you.

Attending Maria V. Snyder’s Book Launch

On Saturday, the wife and I abandoned the kids and crossed the river on an afternoon of chores. There was the annual visit with the accountant to finish up the taxes, which was a good excuse to hold the meeting at the Cornerstone Coffeehouse in Camp Hill. That went well. Questions were answered; to-dos were established before we (electronically) sign on the line that is No Longer Dotted. I had forgotten to bring the paperwork, but since Amazon had decided to twice send my year-end records that wasn’t a problem.

Then we looked in at the Pennsylvania Fabric Outlet in Lemoyne. The place was going out of business. Pity. It’s one of those businesses dedicated to one particular subject, the kind where if it hit your sweet spot, you wouldn’t think to go anywhere else and you’d recommend it to your friends.

The wife had been a regular customer for years, until she got so much fabric and trim that she realized she needed to use up what she already acquired before coming back for more. This time, she was hoping for small items like trim, but the wait to be checked out was two hours, minimum.

She decided she didn’t need the trim that much.

Bookending those two tasks were visits to Cupboard Maker Books for Maria V. Snyder’s book launch. I had intended to drop in, get “Shadow Study” signed (her fourth book in the Poison Study trilogy; like Douglas Adams, her fans had wanted more, and who was she to say no?), then move on.

Silly me. This was a full-blown launch. The bookstore had laid out a festive spread of snacks, including delicious cheezy dough from the pizza restaurant down the street. Snacks and cookies. A sheet cake with the cover photo on it. And the place was jammed.

Maria V. Snyder book signing cupboard maker books
Not seen to the left: 30 people ahead of me, some with multiple books.

I had zoomed in, so you’re not seeing the crowded jammed at the front of the store. We got there at 1, the accountant meeting was at 2, buying the book took time and I had to factor in the time to get to the cafe. It was easy to see that nothing else was going to happen.

If we had stopped there, we would have chalked the day up as a wash. But when we were done at the fabric outlet, we decided to drop by again, at least to chat with Michelle, one of the owners.

Maria was not only there, but conducting a radio-show-style reading.

Maria V. Snyder bookstore reading from Shadow Study

There were a few people left, so I got the book signed and chatted briefly with her.

I intend to get started on the book, as soon as Ivan’s done with it.

Ivan the cat posing on "Shadow Study"
I asked him what he thought. I think “rowl”! means a rave.

Then we went shopping. The wife had noticed that the bookstore had made some changes in their stocking, and Michelle confirmed this. They moved a lot of their nonfiction into another room. For the next hour or so, we prowled the stacks, pulling up whatever we could find.

Tucked in there: Herbert Asbury's "The French Quarter"
Tucked in there: Herbert Asbury’s “The French Quarter”

The most amusing find was “Bitch! The Autobiography of Lady Lawford.” Peter’s mother, about whom this Amazon review probably sums her up nicely:

The transcripts give an effortless insight into the mind – if we can so dignify it – of Lady Lawford, snob, socialite, and mother of Rat Packer Peter Lawford. Lady L has one genuinely interesting trait, which is that she is entirely disgusted by sex, and hit on the brilliant trick of wiping bloody meat on her nightie so she could pretend to be having her period.

I’m looking forward to this one.

Buying A Home (part 1)

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An awful lot of people concerned about the upcoming difficult future think that you should have a large property somewhere way out in the rural areas of the country. This can certainly be a worthwhile goal: after you have dug yourself out of debt, built up your emergency food storage, learned a lot of skills, got in shape, and did everything else you should be doing and if you can pay all the bills for the place you live in now and for the place way out in the woods that you only visit from time to time.

buying a home
Having a second property that you don’t actually live in? Who is going to be minding the store when you aren’t there?
For most of us, this is unlikely. Having a second property that you are paying for that you don’t actually live in? Pretty damn expensive and who is going to be minding the store when you aren’t there? I have friends with a beach house and that second property, while a very nice getaway, also eats money and life energy. A second property has its own set of bills just like your main home does. Taxes, utilities, HOA or other residency fees, and, until you pay it off, a mortgage. Plus you have to wonder what is happening to the property while you aren’t there. Burglars? Vandals? Storm damage? Fire? Burst water pipes in the winter? Everything that can happen to your main home can happen to your second property and you may not be there to keep a small problem (missing shingles on the roof) from becoming a big problem in a hurry (wind storm tears off remaining roof, house is flooded by rain, contents of house ruined).

The other problem with a second getaway property is how do you get there? If the city you live in is being evacuated in a panic because of, because of, well! the mind boggles! Fire, terrorists, riots, pandemics, earthquakes, hurricanes, make up your own list. If you’ve ever tried to leave town when every one else does, like say Friday afternoon on a three-day weekend, then you know how much time you’re going to spend sitting in traffic with the rest of the sheep.

Buying a second property to run to, hundreds of miles away, demands very careful thought. Can you afford it? Can you handle the additional work? Can you trust the caretakers or neighbors (whom you barely know) to take care of the place and call you if there is trouble? Can you get there, with your family in a hurry? If you do manage to get there, escaping the burning city, will the neighbors who don’t know you from Adam welcome you with open arms? All points to consider.

But if you live on your 500 acres in the wilderness and take an active role in your community, then this doesn’t apply to you. You already made it. You make enough money at whatever job you do to pay for everything. Hopefully, you are not commuting three hours a day to said job as that is time that could be better spent. Commuting time also increases drastically when everyone else is fleeing the city, so you are back to the problem of how do you get to your property way out yonder.

I believe, very strongly, that you should own your home and that it should come with land. The ideal situation is one where you have a single-family house, i.e. with no shared walls, and a tenth of an acre or more of land, on up to whatever you can afford, in a small town, and a commute to your job of less than half an hour one way. This is an achievable goal, with the benefits of a bit of land, some security, and without being isolated from family and friends. Since you have to live someplace, why not focus on making it the best it can be?

As an aside, one of the benefits of owning your home free and clear is that it is harder to lose your house. If you are having significant cash-flow issues and you own your house, you can risk dropping your house insurance. You can delay paying your property taxes. The state doesn’t foreclose nearly as fast over unpaid property taxes as a bank will over an unpaid mortgage. I don’t recommend either of these options; they can make other problems down the road even bigger.

My father firmly believes that you should go into retirement with a paid-for house, no debt of any kind, a paid-for late model car, decent health and money in the bank. This way, you have a margin for error when bad things happen to you. The house you choose can strongly determine whether or not you can pay it off early and meet this goal. Select too much house and you will never be able to pay off the mortgage ahead of time and still meet the taxes, insurance, and utilities, and pay for all the maintenance, and pay off all your debt and have money left over in savings. A house you can afford means, eventually, a place to live that you don’t pay for, other than the usual things: taxes, insurance, and utilities; all of which you have to pay for a rental as well as the place you own.

When you share walls and roofs with other people, their problems quickly become your problems.
When you share walls and roofs with other people, their problems quickly become your problems.
Of all the housing types, a single-family home is the best choice. I’m not keen on townhouses and row houses and duplexes and other arrangements where you share walls and roofs with other people. If the neighbors have roaches, you have roaches. If the neighbors have wild parties, you get to share every single minute of them, whether you were invited or not. If the neighbor above you teaches tap dancing classes or the one alongside gives tuba lessons, you get to practice right along with the students. Their neglected portion of the roof means you can get water damage. Their mold is your mold. Their termites are your termites. Their rodents, pets, and children become your varmints, critters, and annoyances. If the neighbor neglects to clean their dryer vent and their house catches fire, so does yours. In the last four years, a building in the apartment complex across the street caught fire, destroying not only the apartment it originated in, but at least a dozen others.

I understand the benefits of townhouses. They make good use of land. They promote density, meaning more services within a walking distance. Townhouses mean you still get a little land for food growing and privacy. Sharing party walls means sharing heat in the winter. They tend to be more affordable than single-family residences. You have close (very close!) neighbors who might be willing to keep an eye on things in the neighborhood, neighbors ready to help you when you need it.

I’ve shared walls and hallways and other communal spaces and I really like a single-family house better. Townhouses and other communal-style houses can be much more affordable, but careful house hunting can compensate for this. As with single-family housing, there is a lot of variation in townhouses in terms of age, quality of the building, tenor of the neighborhood, rules and regulations; all the usual things. A townhouse may be your best compromise in terms of housing costs, commuting time, and some yard space, while being located in the ideal small town that you can’t afford to live in otherwise. So shop carefully.

The ideal place: Small-town living

The ideal small town has services like a hospital, decent schools, grocery stores, some retail shopping for essentials, library, churches, banks, all the things you need for daily living. You know your neighbors, they know you. You participate in the community via church, school activities, local government, scouting, whatever you and your family like to do. You can walk or bike to a lot of what you need to do, locally. You spend your money locally, keeping the community more economically healthy. A healthy community, of which you and your family are a known and valued part, goes a long way to being stronger and more resilient in an uncertain future.

Having a short commute means that you have more time to spend on the things you need and want to do, and more money left over. A short commute also means that you have a prayer of getting home if you are forced to do it on foot. Very few of us are up to walking more than ten or fifteen miles in a day. If your job is much further than that from your home, you may want to think about how you would get home if you couldn’t use your car. So closer is better.

So if you are starting out or thinking about relocating, this is what you want to look for: a single-family house in a decent school district (if you have children) with some land and services nearby that is within 20 miles of the main jobholder’s job.

This is what you want to look for: a single-family house in a decent school district with some land and services nearby.
This is what you want to look for: a single-family house in a decent school district with some land and services nearby.

How do you find such a dream property? You start with a map. Purchase or print one out that has a small scale, i.e., local or county level versus the entire state.

Take your map and put a pin into it where the main job is located. Now using a compass, draw a 20-mile radius circle around the job’s address. Use the distance scale on your map to get the circle size correct. Start looking for property inside this area. A 20-mile radius circle is 40 miles across, giving you potentially hundreds of square miles of houses to choose from.

If you must have two jobs to bring in enough income, then draw a 20-mile radius circle centered on each job location. Your target area is where the circles intersect. If they don’t intersect, then either draw bigger circles until you get a joint area or one of the two job holders should consider changing jobs so as to spend less time commuting and more time living. If you are in this position, you should also seriously consider your living expenses and what can you cut back on.

Your long-range goal should always be Financial Independence. Cut back, cut back, cut back and use the second job to pay off all the debt. Then, when your household is debt-free, use the second job to build a fat cash stash. When you reach this position, it’s time to think about ditching the most-hated job.

Rough Draft 5: ‘Crazy for You’, Mystery Bookstores & Nerdist Mom

The family saw “Crazy for You” at the high school last night. It was a treat for the kids, who helped build the sets, and it was fun to hear George and Ira performed live.

Crazy for You at Hershey High School 2015This is the second high school musical we’ve seen, and I always have to struggle to enjoy the effort the students are putting into their roles, admire the ones who nail their parts, while telling the inner critic with his advice and fault-finding to piss off.

The shows also bring out the vivid memories from my high school days on the boards. I had absolutely no confidence in my abilities, yet somehow I played Jonathan Brewster in “Arsenic and Old Lace” (the Boris Karloff role) and the Father in “Six Characters in Search of an Author.” If there were rave reviews I didn’t hear it; it’s only now, decades later, that a glimmer of a suspicion arises that I might have been at least acceptable.

More kids should try theater in high school, whether it’s in front of the audience or backstage. It’s one of the few times you work with a group to create something that will be seen by people other than your parents/fellow students. It gives you a chance to try something new, to stretch, to think about how you project your personality and carry yourself. Occupying another skin for a couple hours is probably the closest you can get into someone else’s head. The problem with many actors comes when they prefer to stay there.

At the high school level, it’s also interesting to see the actors that make you think they might have a future in the business. The girl who played Irene, for example. She plays the hero’s longtime fiancé who he doesn’t want to marry and eventually gets dumped (don’t worry, she marries the hotel/saloon owner in South Dakota; it’s that kind of musical). She seduces him by singing “Naughty Baby” in a smoky voice that’s perfect for the role. It’s a show-stopping song and she played it for all it was worth, and you could hear echoes of Mae West in the way she sold the lyrics. Some actors deliver their lines like messenger boys. Seeing someone embody their part gives you a hint of how the theater can be magical.

• • • • •

My wife handed me the program and asked me “what font did they use?”


And I blanked out. I knew it was used a lot in the ‘80s, and that I used to know it, but the mind tucked it back in the crevices along with my knowledge of ‘80s bands and last week’s lunch menu.

Today I googled ‘1980s fonts’ and there it was. Harlow. Taken from the 1930s, hopped up and modified for the ‘80s. Good choice.

• • • • •

It’s nearly the beginning of March; time for book reviewer Alan Caruba to release his list of book picks for the coming month. I was thrilled when he placed “Writers Gone Wild” on the list a few years ago and I’ve been following him and occasionally picking up on his recommendations for non-fiction, fiction and children’s books ever since. Among the books that caught my eye were “Nazi Oaks: The Green Sacrifice of the Judeo-Christian Worldview in the Holocaust” by R. Mark Musser, “The Rule of Nobody: Saving America from Dead Laws and Broken Government” by Philip K. Howard, and the mystery “The Dead Key” by D.M. Pulley. Check the list out.

• • • • •

Mechanicsburg mystery bookstore March is also reminding me that I have two appearances coming up this month: a book-signing 2 p.m. March 28 at the Midtown Scholar, and a talk on Sherlock Holmes and Victorian murder at 2 p.m. March 29 at the Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookstore. The line of Peschel Press books will be available for signing and selling, including “The Early Punch Parodies of Sherlock Holmes,” and the collected parodies from the Victorian era (title still up in the air, right now it’s “Sherlock Holmes Victorian Parodies & Pastiches: 1888-1899.”

• • • • •

Speaking of mystery bookstores, Susan Elia MacNeal wrote about visiting Murder by the Book in Houston, Texas, and the publicity manager added what happens during a day in the life of the bookstore.

• • • • •

I’ve been meaning to get this in for awhile but it kept slipping off my plate. The Nerdist podcast celebrated its 5th anniversary with a special live show, including an appearance from host Chris Hardwick’s mother. She was a pistol, sharing unvarnished opinions about sports and people, and proved capable of returning volleys from the comedians on the show. It’s clear where Chris got his comedy chops from, and to give you a taste, here’s a few minutes from her appearance (probably NSFW for the cursing).

• • • • •

From the Quotebook: Two comments on culture:

Cultural memory is not bestowed upon us from above. The story of how we live, love, hate and laugh is passed down and across the generations. We have the choice of having our view be as unrestricted as the gaze across the Kansas prairie, or as narrow as the white dot, all that’s left when the television set is turned off, before it darkens into oblivion.
Zora Neale Hurston

We [Maori] like to say that our ancestors are not behind us, they are in front of us. So every time I engage in a book, I am engaging with the ancestor in front of me, the ancestor who interrogates me on who I am, where I come from. The very essence of who Maori are and where we come from is under threat. And I don’t like it. I see my writing as drawing a line in the sand.
Witi Ihimaera

• • • • •

Today’s Panel Without Context

From John Allison's "Scary Go Round"
From John Allison’s “Scary Go Round”

• • • • •

Before I closed this window, I just saw that Spock has moved on. Leonard Nimoy was noted for only one role, but what a role!

Live long and prosper he did.

Leonard Nimoy

Update: That most excellent Sherlockian website I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere explores Nimoy’s detective roles.

Rough Draft 4: Pauly Shore, 21 Jump Street and Vulgar Comedy

The Pauly Shore interview on the Nerdist podcast illustrates the difference between seeing your life from the inside versus how others see you. He says that his popularity of his idiot persona faded because of bad movies such as “Biodome,” and he lamented that there seems to be less tolerance or interest in letting stupid people be stupid. From my seat on the other side of the screen, his persona was a collection of tics and catchphrases that was tolerable for the length of a sketch, but not for a 90-minute film. Contrast Shore with Pee-Wee Herman highlights the difference. Pee-Wee has an essential sweetness and an ability to defend himself that leavens his weirdness. He’s a more rounded personality.

• • • • •

I’ve been on a comedy kick lately. The wife and I settled on the couch and saw “21 Jump Street” Sunday night. Comedy in general is tough, but well-done vulgar comedy raises the bar. It’s an easy laugh to use obscenities, but a well-timed use of the word, in an inventive situation, brings a bigger payoff.

I’m reminded of that scene in “Ghostbusters” when the EPA official is arguing with the mayor about the illegal containment facility.

Dan Ackroyd: Everything was fine with our system until the power grid was shut off by dickless here.

EPA official: They caused the explosion!

Mayor (to Bill Murray): Is this true?

Murray: (deadpan) Yes, it’s true. This man has no dick.

“21 Jump Street” was “Ghostbusters-level” good, beginning to end. And in the previews, we even saw an example of horrible vulgar comedy: Adam Sandler’s “That’s My Boy.” Not a laugh in it.

• • • • •

The night before, we watched “L.A. Story” (trailer), Steve Martin’s early ‘90s romance that’s also a love letter to the city. It cycles through all of the jokes you’d expected about L.A. — the traffic, the earthquakes, the lack of culture, the architecture (one joke: “We’ve got buildings that are more than 20 years old!”), the weather — and they could have become tedious (“Futurama” played with that trope in one of its episodes). But the movie played off them successfully by making them part of the background, or integrating them into the story.

Biggest laugh: During a tender love scene, when Sarah Jessica Parker moves Martin’s hand down to her breast.

Martin: Your breast feels . . . funny.

Parker: They’re real.

Another L.A. joke, but it caught us by surprise.

• • • • •

Today’s quotes come from the “Rituals” section of the Writers Gone Wild Quotebook:

If I’m at a dull party I’ll invent some kind of game for myself and then pick someone to play it with so that I am, in effect, writing a scene. I’m supplying my half of the dialogue and hoping the other half comes up to standards. If it doesn’t, I try to direct it that way.
Evan Hunter

When I really do not know what I am saying, or how to say it, I’ll open these Pentels, these colored Japanese pens, on yellow lined paper, and I’ll start off with very tentative colors, very light colors: orange, yellow or tan. … When my thoughts are more formulated, and I have a sharper sense of trying to say it, I’ll go into heavier colors: blues, greens and eventually into black. When I am writing in black, which is the final version, I have written that sentence maybe 12 or 15 or 18 times.
Gay Talese

• • • • •

Illustrated-Times-Cover-1b-smallTo put on my to-do list: Write about the latest book coming from Peschel Press. “The Times Report of the Trial of William Palmer” is for fans of Victorian true crime with a deep interest in the notorious poisoning case. It’s a reprint of the trial transcript, published in newspapers, with 50 woodcuts, most of them restored. The text has been edited to eliminate spelling and factual errors. More than 250 footnotes have been supplied to add context to the testimony. Sometimes, excerpts from other transcripts have been added, as well as coroner’s reports and material from newspapers and memoirs. The trade paperback version comes with a glossary of medical and scientific terms, so you can tell antimony from strychnine and why invalids were fed arrowroot and toast-and-water.

This was a passion project of mine, inspired by the mention of Palmer in Dorothy L. Sayers’ novels. What began as an entry in the Wimsey Annotations blew up into what I call The Rugeley Poisoner series. “The Times Report” is volume 2; “The Life and Career of Dr. William Palmer of Rugeley” (1926) is volume 3; and volume 1, the 1856 “The Illustrated Life and Career of William Palmer” is in the works.

Versions: Amazon Trade Paperback; Kindle; Smashwords; Barnes & Noble and Nook versions; and Kobo.

• • • • •

223B-Cover-Vol-1-600pxjpgNext from Peschel Press: The first volume in the series reprinting parodies and pastiches of Sherlock Holmes during Conan Doyle’s lifetime. Volume 1 covers the Victorian period (1888-1899). I’m building the trade paperback edition now, with the goal of putting that and the ebook version into production by the end of the week.

If you want a glimpse of the contents, I’ve put four stories from the collection online: The Sign of the ‘400’; A La Sherlock Holmes; The Identity of Miss Angela Vespers (with a female Sherlock!); and by J.M. Barrie. The book will have another 26 stories, with the usual footnotes and introductions you’ve come to expect from the Peschel Press.

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Today’s Panel Without Context

From "Luann"
From “Luann”

Home Operational Security

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Suburban stockade introductionOperational Security is a military term and is commonly abbreviated as Opsec. Opsec has plenty of real-world value and should definitely be a skill you add to your daily living toolkit.

At its most basic, Opsec means you don’t tell people what they don’t need to know. How does this apply in normal, daily living? Let me count the ways.

Good opsec can become a habit, a good one, and one that helps you live safer.
Good opsec can become a habit, a good one, and one that helps you live safer.
Opsec is why you shred your personal documents, especially the ones with bank account numbers, SSNs, credit card numbers, and other ID numbers. Carelessness with this information leaves you and your family open to identity theft.

Opsec is why you may want to use two credit cards. Your Visa card remains in the real world only and your MasterCard is used only online. This does mean having to keep track of two credit card bills. It also means that if mysterious charges appear (such as $5,000 for airline tickets to Jakarta, which happened to us years ago!), you may have a better chance of figuring out where the card got compromised. You can cancel the dead card and still have a viable card while waiting for the dead card’s replacement.

Opsec is the reason for paying cash. Not only do you tend to spend way, way less (improving your chances of Financial Independence) but you and your spending habits can’t be tracked, nor can your accounts be hacked. It is both interesting and informative to look over various card statements and see how your movements can be reconstructed. You bought gas in Hershey, Pa., again in Roanoke, Va., and then in Atlanta, Ga., all in the space of one day? Followed by a hotel room in Atlanta? Meals along the way? That was one incredibly long day you spent driving but you did start at 5 a.m. according to the time stamp on the Hershey gas receipt. Who are you going to visit down south? Your credit/debit card receipts give a lot of information away.

Opsec is the reason you may not want to use EZ-Pass. Every time you pass through the scanner, a snapshot of your movement is taken. This information, taken together with your credit card statements can show clearly where you have been and when.

Opsec is the reason for spending your cash in the real world as opposed to using credit cards in the on-line worlds. The more you shop on-line, the more the on-line world knows about you, your family, your tastes, and your spending habits. Buying a case of diapers at Amazon leads to plenty of targeted ads for your new baby, whether you want them to or not. Buying a case of diapers for cash at Wal-mart leads to a case of diapers and no-one knowing anything at all about potential new additions to your household.

Opsec is the reason for being careful about on-line searches and trying to keep your computer clean of cookies that track your surfing behavior.
Opsec is the reason for being careful about on-line searches and trying to keep your computer clean of cookies that track your surfing behavior.
Opsec is the reason for being careful about on-line searches and trying to keep your computer clean of cookies that track your surfing behavior and sells it to marketing companies. In the absence of enforceable regulations, companies are free to root about in your searches, looking over your shoulder as you surf the net, and offer ads that match your behavior.

For example, over the summer, I had to sell a junk car. A few casual on-line searches led to constant ads popping up on unrelated sites about selling my junk car. It was creepy, knowing that someone was watching me. I ended up going local, which got me more money and less oversight from Big Brothers.

Home operational security
Your anti-government diatribes? The NSA sees them.
Opsec is the reason for being careful with social media. You should never, ever consider anything you put on-line as being private. It is up for all the world to see and it is up forever. Your drunken party pictures? Future bosses will see them. Your out-of-town plans? Potential burglars will see them. The party you only invited some of your friends to? Your other friends know you didn’t want them. Your anti-government diatribes? The NSA sees them. The NSA is probably seeing this now, but I am a tiny fish in an ocean of chaff.

You should never, ever consider anything you put on-line as being private.
You should never, ever consider anything you put on-line as being private.
Opsec is the reason you don’t have loud conversations on your cell phone while out in public. You know, the ones where you discuss your child’s drug use, your angry divorce, your cancer treatment, your upcoming vacation, or your scandalously behaved minister. Nor do you place orders using your credit card, reading it out loud both to the telephone operator and everyone else in earshot.

Opsec is the reason you empty your mailbox promptly and always stop the mail and the paper when you travel. Or, you have a trusted neighbor pick up your mail and paper when you travel. Either way, you don’t let mail and papers build up, alerting burglars to an unattended house.

Opsec is the reason for a post office box in another town, when you really don’t want that vicious ex-husband to find you.

Opsec is the reason for being careful what you order on-line and have delivered to your home. Your postman knows perfectly well what magazines you subscribe to, what catalogs you buy from, and who writes to you. If you regularly order stuff, then the UPS guy and the FedEx guy start getting an idea of what interests you too. In fact, the U.S. Post Office has a program that law enforcement agencies can request (with a warrant). The postman records the return address and any other identifying information for each piece of mail that is sent to your home. Then the mail gets delivered to you, as always. You, the recipient, never see a single difference in your mail delivery. The report on who sends stuff to you then goes to the law enforcement agency who requested it. Pay cash locally and no-one knows what you buy or who you buy it from.

Opsec is the reason why you break down the boxes that your big screen hi-def TV came in, along with the boxes for ammo and guns, fancy gaming platforms, new high-end computers and anything else that signals “I got good stuff so rob me!” Break down and dispose of those boxes; don’t leave them at curbside sending signals you don’t want to send.

Opsec is the reason you don’t leave mail with the address visible in your car. Addresses can be correlated with license plates giving a potential identity thief more information about you.

Opsec is the reason you ask for identification of anyone entering your home to do work on it. Opsec is the reason you stay and supervise those workers. Are most contractors, cable installers, furnace repairmen, electricians and plumbers as honest as the day is long? Yes, they are. But if you get a dishonest one, you won’t know until its too late. You may also get a “surprise” visit from a man who says he’s from the utility, sent to check out threats. What he’s really doing is checking out your home and your valuables.

Opsec is the reason you don’t show pictures of your arsenal and your year’s supply of food around. There are people out there who consider your preparations as a reason they don’t have to make any of their own. They will just come to your house and take what they need.

Opsec is the reason you close your shades and drapes every night so people walking by don’t see into your house, noticing what you have waiting to be stolen. Opsec is the reason you have sheer curtains at every window so no one can see in during the day. Opsec is the reason for the 6-foot chain-link fence surrounding your property that is lined with an 8-foot hedge of yews and thuja. No one can see through that hedge to your extensive food gardens, tilapia ponds, rain barrels, chicken coops, and bicycles.

Opsec can make it difficult to discuss preparations for an uncertain future. You don’t want to spell out exactly what you have done and what you own, lest unwanted persons show up on your doorstep with their hands out. But you do want your family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors to be as prepared as you can get them to be. The best way around this is to talk about disaster preparedness, sustainable hobbies, and Financial Independence. These topics can lead the recipient, slowly and over time, to being better prepared themselves. Look for teaching moments using current events, novels, and movies. “Boy, I sure don’t understand why people who live in earthquake zones don’t store water and canned food and own working generators.” That sort of thing.

Opsec means thinking, every day, do I want the bigger world to know this part of my business. If you don’t care, then go ahead and talk! If you do care, then shut up. Good opsec isn’t always easy but, like any other skill, it can be learned. Eventually, it becomes a habit, a good one, and one that helps you live safer.

Home Sewing Beyond Patterns (Part 5)

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Whew! After a month of posts on sewing, we’re approaching the home stretch. For those of you entering here for the first time, in part 1 we looked at how cheap clothing manufactured overseas killed home sewing. In part 2, we discussed simple clothing repairs. In part 3, we looked at the types of complex clothing repairs you can learn how to do. And in part 4, we looked into working with patterns. This time, we’re wrapping up the series with moving beyond patterns into the wide world of creative sewing.

(And if you want to start the Suburban Stockade series, discussing how to preserve your family’s wealth and health in the 21st century, start here.)

So, what else do I sew? One-of-a-kind garments I can’t buy or can’t afford to buy. I want a collection of stylish coats as that is what everyone sees me in for much of the year. What I want is not likely to turn up at the thrift shop and I certainly can’t afford to pay retail for what I see in my mind.

I buy basic sweaters that are the right color and fit at the Jubilee Thrift Shop and then I trim them out to make them unique. I’m not keen on sewing knits and I can’t knit a sweater so this is my work-around.

I make all my curtains, drapes, window quilts, pillows, bed quilts, shopping bags, lingerie bags for fine washables in the washer, and pot holders with heat-resistant fabric. On the to-do list is a fabric bag to put a cooking pot into — similar to a haybox — for saving cooking energy. I can, for damn sure, make a cloth cooking bag for far less than Amazon charges. A salvaged ironing board cover and pad, which I already have, plus more batting and a fashion fabric from the stash and I’m good to go. I want to sew a roman shade for the dining room window to save heating energy. Again, like other unusual home-dec items, I can make this for far less than I would be charged at a store.

Queen of Hearts costume for Halloween.
Queen of Hearts costume for Halloween.
When the kids were younger, I sewed complex Halloween costumes. These got used both for trick or treating and for the annual Hershey Halloween Parade and Costume Contest. Sometimes I even won prize money.

Some of the garment sewing I do really does save money compared to commonly available ready-to-wear. I like good quality flannel or fleece pjs for me and the family as we keep the heat low in the winter (64 degrees during the day, 55 degrees at night). Better flannel goods such as Lantz of Salzburg are gaspingly expensive, and I don’t like the patterns they come in. But if I shop carefully for a good sale on flannel and pick out the best, I can make simple pajamas for far less money than I can buy them. I use the same pattern over and over so I only pay for the pattern once.

Another piece of nightwear I don’t seem to see in ready-to-wear is a flattering nightgown in flannel-back satin. The idea here is to be attractive and warm. It is possible to find a flannel-back satin nightgown, but they are uniformly tent-like in appearance, Grandma wear at its finest. This thought was confirmed when I was in Boscov’s where I saw the Isotoner gloves and the fleece shawl mentioned earlier. Since I was in the store, I spent some time looking over the ladies nightwear. It was divided up into two looks. “Put the money on the dresser” and “Don’t ever touch me again.” I was appalled. There has to be some middle ground. Am I the only woman in the world who wants to look fetching and not turn blue from cold at the same time?

home sewing nightgowns
I spent some time looking over the ladies nightwear. It was divided up into two looks. “Put the money on the dresser” and “Don’t ever touch me again.”

Moreover, the non-slut nightgowns came in two equally unfortunate looks. Solid baby-colored pastels or worse, nursery prints suitable only for baby blankies! I ask you, how can you look desirable when your muumuu-like night gown is covered with dancing lambkins and cute cows.

home sewing simplicity nightgown pattern 1260Back to the sewing machine. I spent some time going over patterns and settled on Simplicity 1260, view D. Now imagine it in deep purple satin (flannel backed for warmth, of course) with wide creamy lace and teal blue satin with narrow strips of black lace. Warm and pretty. And, they are something that I cannot buy in ready-to-wear.

So this is why I sew:

  • I sew to repair and reuse garments until I’ve extracted every possible minute of use out of them. That saves me cash, suits my philosophy, and keeps things out of the waste stream.
  • I sew to remake old clothes into new, more personal garments. This saves me more money and lets me express my personality in a way that I can never find down at the mall.
  • I sew completely new garments from whole cloth to advertise my design and sewing skills.
  • I sew to get exactly what I want, for me, my family, and my house.
  • I get clothes that are unique.

So should you sew? Yes, at a minimum you should learn to do the basic mending and repair work, and learn to rehem pants. It will save you some money and prolong the life of your clothing. After that, it gets harder. Everyone has to eat so everyone should learn basic cooking. But sewing clothing and household items is a more complex choice. Clothes are readily available and very cheap at the price. Drapes and curtains range in price from thrift shop to Wal-Mart to the sky’s the limit. Sewing all these things from scratch can be quite time consuming, taking time away from other things that have to be done. But you express your individuality and get exactly what you want while learning a new skill set.

Sewing depends, I think, on what you want from it. If you just want to keep your body covered while saving money, use the yard sale, thrift shop, the consignment store, and the clearance racks. Participate actively in pass-along and hand-me-down circles.

But if you want one of a kind clothes for you or your family, then you either pay big bucks to someone else or you learn to do it yourself. Start with remaking old clothes into new ones (altered couture). As you learn how garments are put together, think about finding the time to make some of your own clothes from patterns you design or select and fabrics you choose. Begin small with a top or an elastic waist skirt and see how you like it. Progress to simple fleece or flannel pajamas and see if you enjoy the work. If you do, you may have found a new, useful hobby/skill that shows off your designing abilities and may even make you a little money when you do sewing work for non-sewing people. If you don’t like sewing, you will still know how to do basic repair work and you will have a better understanding of how a garment should be made when you purchase ready-to-wear.

Your Basic Sewing Library

Overall, I love the Singer Sewing Reference Library series. There are dozens of books in the distinctive black bound series, covering every possible sewing topic. They are lavishly illustrated and very detailed. I buy them on sight at thrift shops and library sales. I can’t recommend them highly enough. They are wonderful.

Another amazing series is Time-Life ‘The Art of Sewing”, a 16-volume set published in the seventies. Each volume addresses a separate topic and is bound in a coordinating fabric. They are beautiful, lavishly illustrated, and go into great detail on every possible topic that is sewing related. Look past the clothing styles and be amazed at the wealth of techniques the books provide.

Basic Mending & Repair

Clothing Care and Repair (the Singer Sewing Reference Library); the editors at Cowles Creative Publishing; 1985

Handmending Made Easy: Save Time and Money Repairing Your Own Clothes; Nan L. Ides; Palmer/Pletsch; 2008

The Mender’s Manual: Repairing and Preserving Garments and Bedding; Estelle Foote, MD, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976.

Mend and Make Fabulous: Sewing Solutions and Fashionable Fixes; Denise Wild; Interweave; 2014

Mending and Repair: Essential Machine-side Tips and Techniques; the editors of Singer Worldwide; Creative Publishing International, 2007

Mend It Better: Creative Patching, Darning, and Stitching; Kristin M. Roach; Storey Publishing; 2012

Sewing 911: Practical and Creative Rescues for Sewing Emergencies; Barbara Deckert; Taunton Press; 2001

Remaking Old Clothes (aka Altered Coture)

GladRags: Redesigning, Remaking, Refitting All Your Old Clothes; Delia Brock and Lorraine Bodger; Simon and Schuster; 1974

How to Make Something Out of Practically Nothing: New Fashions From Old Clothes; Barbara Corrigan; Doubleday; 1976

New Clothes from Old; Gloria R. Mosesson; Bobbs-Merrill; 1977

Wardrobe Quick-Fixes: How to Lengthen/Shorten, Loosen/Tighten, Update, Embellish, Repair and Care for Your Clothing: Jan Saunders; Chilton Book Co., 1995

Clothes From Your Own Patterns

Design It, Sew It, and Wear It: How to Make Yourself a Super Wardrobe Without Commercial Patterns; Duane Bradley; Thomas Y. Crowell; 1979

DIY Couture: Create Your Own Fashion Collection; Rosie Martin; Laurence King Publishing; 2012

Dressmaking: The Complete Step-by-step Guide to Making Your Own Clothes; Alison Smith; Doring Kindersley; 2012

The Illustrated Hassle-Free Make Your Own Clothes Book; Joan Wiener Bordow and Sharon Rosenberg; Skyhorse Publishing; 2008; This is a reprint of a 1971 edition. Get past the hippy-dippy text and illustrations and this is quite a useful little book.

Clothes With A Pattern

the Burda Style Sewing Handbook: 15 Creative Projects and 5 Master Patterns; Nora Abousteit and Alison Kelly; PotterCraft; 2011

The Magic Pattern Book: Sew 6 Patterns Into 36 Different Styles!; Amy Barickman; Workman Publishing; 2014

Dozens more titles on sewing can be found at any library, book store, library sale, thrift shop, ABEbooks, sewing store, and at Amazon. Quilting books do not, as a rule, ever talk about garment construction unless they specifically tell you in the title, so don’t waste your time and money on them unless you want to quilt.

Home Sewing with Patterns (part 4)

This is the four part of the series on sewing. In part 1 we looked at how cheap clothing manufactured overseas killed home sewing. In part 2, we discussed simple clothing repairs. In part 3, we looked at the types of complex clothing repairs you can learn how to do. This time, we’ll look into using sewing patterns.

Any piece of clothing much more complex than a poncho requires a pattern. But, you can learn to make your own patterns if you don’t want to use the ones from Simplicity or Vogue. Making your own patterns is really empowering, and it lets you see how you can more easily adapt commercial sewing patterns. Homemade patterns tend to be for simpler, less tailored garments but when you are learning to sew a garment from scratch, that’s what you will be making anyway. I don’t recommend that you start out by making a complex three-piece suit from Vogue. Start small with a pullover-style top or an elastic waist skirt.

So you get a very basic book like “Design It, Sew It, and Wear It” by Duane Bradley and work your way through all the variations. When you’re finished, you have a small wardrobe, some sewing chops, a much better understanding of fit and making two-dimensional pieces of cloth shape themselves around a three dimensional body. Moreover, all these garments were made with fabric you liked as opposed to what the clothing factory thought was cheapest and would sell.

Then you move up to a slightly harder book like the “The Illustrated Hassle-Free Make Your Own Clothes Book” by Bordow and Rosenberg. Overcome your distaste for the hippy-dippy text and the very dated fashions and see that underneath those distractions is how to make skirts, pants, tops, dresses, etc using your own body measurements and copying clothes you already have.

From "DIY Couture: Create Your Own Fashion Collection"
From “DIY Couture: Create Your Own Fashion Collection”

If you then work your way through the modern books like “DIY Couture: Create Your Own Fashion Collection” by Rosie Martin or “Dressmaking: The Complete Step-by-Step Guide to Making your Own Clothes” by Alison Smith, you’ll end up with quite a selection of clothes. Consider your fabric choices carefully. You can make the exact same pattern several times in different fabrics and get different looking garments. The illustrations for clothes tend to all be drawn as though everything is made of lightweight cotton and the garments will only be worn in the summer. Use a heavier fabric such as fleece, make the sleeves long and raise the neckline and the pattern you learned to make for a summer-weight top becomes a winter-weight garment. The models in the books all tend to look like 24-year-old coathangers but don’t let this stop you. Since you are making the patterns yourself to fit your body and you are choosing your fabrics that suit your taste, the end results don’t have to be teenager wear.

Before you purchase any of the books I recommend, get them from the library and read them over to see if you can use them. If you really like a book, you may want to buy it, particularly if it comes with patterns, either paper or on CD. The library won’t thank you if you cut up the patterns. Make copies so the original patterns remain untouched. You may want to do this even if you buy the book so that the patterns can be reused by someone else of a different dress size.

Going Commercial

Commercial patterns don’t have to cost you as much as you fear. Not many of us pay full retail for commercial patterns from Vogue; we buy them when Jo-Ann Fabrics or Hancock Fabrics run a $3.99 sale. Simplicity, McCall, and Butterick go on sale regularly for $1.99 or even 99 cents each. A really good pattern sale lets you stock up on patterns that you think you might use later. The risk to this method is you end up with a filing cabinet of patterns that you never use.

To round out the talk about pattern prices, commercial patterns such as Burda or KwikSew rarely go on sale. You just have to pay full price. Independent pattern companies that advertise in the back of sewing magazines never go on sale at all, but they are often the most interesting. If you really like the pattern that an independent is offering, just pay for it and use the pattern several times over to get your money’s worth.

Other places to find patterns include the stashes of any sewing friends and relatives, thrift shops, yard sales, and eBay. The only thing to watch out for is that you have all the pieces and the instructions. I don’t buy patterns that have been cut as there is always a chance that some of the pieces never made it back into the envelope.

Fashions change, so patterns change all the time. The age of your pattern sort of matters; a Nehru jacket just has that particular look of no lapels and a high mandarin collar. You make the jacket exactly as the pattern calls for and use a modern material like fleece and suddenly, that garment doesn’t look so retro. Fabric also goes in and out of style so a vintage pattern in a modern fabric doesn’t quite look the same as if you tried to get a period appropriate fabric. Lapel shapes, collars, cuffs, pockets, plackets, yokes: they all can be style markers and they change as the fashion industry changes. Even how a sleeve is set in can change as the styles change, but the pattern is still perfectly usable. I think the real difficulty with using old patterns is that the directions may not be as thorough. Again, like old cookbooks, the old patterns, even the very easy ones, assume you already know the basics.

When you buy patterns, you need to know your real body measurements. Any decent sewing book will tell you how to do this, as do all the make your own clothes books listed below. Patterns are sized by tape measurements, not whatever the garment industry is currently calling a size 10. This means that if you have a 42 inch bust, you look at the back of the pattern envelope for that bust measurement and that is your size. Never, never, never assume that if you currently wear a size 12 from Dress Barn that your pattern size will be a size 12. It won’t be even close. Your pattern size may be an 18 or even larger. Get over yourself and buy and cut out the pattern that fits your actual body.

The most expensive part of making your own clothes is the fabric. A pretty basic long sleeved shirt with two front panels, back, collar, cuffs, yoke, and placket will use about three yards of 45-inch wide fabric. If you spend five dollars a yard, then the cloth alone will run you fifteen dollars, not including the thread, any pattern, interfacing, and buttons. Then factor in your time. That thrift shop shirt for three bucks starts looking pretty good.

So again, why sew your own clothes?

I sew many of my own clothes because I want something that no one else has. I want my clothes to fit reasonably well, not always easy with ready-to-wear, and I want my clothes to be well made and not fall apart in the wash. Clothing becomes an expression of myself, an artistic statement. My clothes also show that I know how to sew, which is useful when someone asks “who can mend my garment? sew my custom costume? rehem my prom dress? make my kitchen curtains?” My clothing can become my advertisement for my home sewing business, should I choose to start one.

M3253I got tired of wearing boring old t-shirts so I made myself an assortment of surgical scrubs using McCalls pattern 3253. A surgical scrub pattern lets you make a v-neck pull-on T-shirt type top with no buttons, zippers, snaps, collars or set-in sleeves. It is, other than the pivot point at the base of the v-neck, fast and easy to make. The first few tries took a little practice and some hand basting; fifty shirts later, I zip right through that part. And, because the garment design keeps the fashion fabric as one, uncut piece, I could take advantage of huge all over design repeats, the kind where the design motif is 18 or even 24 inches across.

surgical-scrubs-three-stoogesThe point of making the scrubs was not to replicate what dental hygienists and LPNs wear. It was to show off amazing, wow, look-at-me, fabulous fabrics. It is very showy to wear a scrub printed with a flowing stream inhabited by life size, accurately colored koi. This shirt pattern was so successful that I made fourteen of them, plus plenty more for Bill, older son, younger son, nephew r, nephew b, and friends. All unique. All one of a kind. Just like the people wearing them. This is why you sew.

Finding Fabric on the Cheap

So if you want this unique look, then how do you find affordable fabric to make it happen? The first thing is to get on the Jo-Ann mailing list. They run regular sales on all kinds of fabrics and always provide a 40% off coupon to ‘make your own sale’. Check out the weekly sales flier in the paper closely or go online to their website and then think carefully about what you want to make before you set foot in the store and spend your cash.

Then you spread the word that you will take unwanted fabric (and any other sewing notions) from relatives, friends, and neighbors. This is the fabric they can’t use, won’t use, don’t know why they bought it, someone gave it to them, they had stopped sewing for some reason; the list is endless. The important thing is that you take everything that is offered to you, no matter how repellant that orangey brown double knit polyester is to you. Why, you ask? Because the minute you say ‘I don’t want those grungy old shop rags the offering person will think ‘I guess you don’t want that 7-yard piece of Thai silk either.’ But I do want the Thai silk! I do want the 5-yard piece of brocade home-dec so suitable for tote bags! I do want the Christmas patterned cottons! Say yes to everything and the universe might deliver more than you bargained for. This is how you get the pickup truck load of material when the elderly sewing relative dies and you get her entire stash.

On rare occasions, I have found fabric being thrown away. I’ve picked up dressmaking cottons, home-dec upholsteries, and bags of scraps. I wash it and find it a home in my stash, or pass it along.

Other places to find fabric are at yard sales and thrift shops. Cloth here is sometimes yardage that someone didn’t want. More often, it is yardage already made up into something else like table-clothes, shower curtains, sheets, curtains and drapes, ball gowns, or wool coats. A rarely used table-cloth or queen size sheet will provide a lot of fabric, excellent for making a practice garment before you cut up the expensive fashion fabric. A set of draperies can sometimes offer two pieces of material for the price of one: the fashion fabric and the Roc-lon blackout lining, which costs regularly costs seven bucks a yard at Jo-Ann all by itself.

To turn a set of pinch-pleated draperies into yard goods, you need a seam ripper and some time. Rip out all the hems and the pinch pleating, iron the press marks out flat, wash it, iron the entire piece flat, and you have some seriously large yardage to work with. I don’t generally rip seams in the skirts of prom dresses and ball gowns unless I need every inch possible as the margins are too narrow to bother with. Hems and pinch pleating, however, can offer up as much as six extra inches of material to work with. I rip the hems in sheets and table-clothes for the same reason; the added fabric is worth the added labor.

It is well worth pawing through the bargain bins at Goodwill looking for draperies in fabric you like. Remember that you need never tell anyone where the material came from; just let them guess how you could have afforded that lovely ivory fabric (former shower curtain!) with the pattern of woven squares that you turned into a stylish coat.

Then you find all the other places in your area that sell fabric and notions. Wal-Mart sometimes sells fabric in addition to its selection of notions, patterns, and thread. The Wal-Marts that carry fabric usually have a bargain bin with dollar a yard fabric and up; start there. I do buy fabric on spec if the price is right and I really like it.

There are fabric stores besides Jo-Ann and Hancock, many of them locally owned and operated. Look around, ask around, and you may be rewarded. A terrific local shop in the Hershey/Harrisburg area is the Pennsylvania Fabric Outlet in LeMoyne which carries the most amazing array of home-dec, trim, and notions I have ever seen. It is very difficult to walk out of this store without buying something.

You may have a quilting shop in your area. Quilt shops don’t, as a rule, sell clothing patterns, buttons, interfacing, or anything else you need to make garments, but they do carry very nice cottons and cotton blends. There is absolutely no reason why you can’t make a shirt out of a fabric sold for quilting. If you like how the material looks and feels, then use it.

Whatever shop I am in, I always check out the bargain bins. You never know what you will find. As I said, I do buy fabric on spec if the price is right and I really like it. I don’t do this very much anymore as I really do need to use up the enormous amount of material I already have. That pickup truck load of material I got was overwhelming and it will take me years to work through it.

Many people buy their fabric online. I very rarely do this as I have real fabric stores in my area and I like to see and feel what I buy before I spend any money. There is no question that if you want a specialty item like Cordura or zippers by the foot, and you don’t live in a major city, you will have to go online. Try to get samples first if you can, so you can see before you buy, and make sure you know the return policy.

"I had the interesting experience of Bill discovering just how much fabric I had when he had to move all the RubberMaid bins."
“I had the interesting experience of Bill discovering just how much fabric I had when he had to move all the RubberMaid bins.”

When people give you fabric, you take whatever they give you and pass along what you don’t want or can’t use. If you are going to spend your own money on fabric then make sure you really love it. Don’t ever spend money on cloth when you are unsure of what you will make with it unless you absolutely love the fabric and can’t imagine living without it. You can fill up a lot of RubberMaid storage bins this way if you aren’t very careful about saying no to great buys. When we recarpeted our finished basement, including the sewing closet, I had the interesting experience of Bill discovering just how much fabric I had when he had to move all the RubberMaid bins. At least half of the bins were full of fabric that had been given to me; I didn’t lay out any cash for it. But I still had 100s of yards of cloth I’d been given. Gradually, gradually, it is being used up or given away. The only control to buying more fabric is shopping your own stash first. If you have sewing friends, then shop their stash and let them shop yours before you go out shopping in the real world. This saves money and gets that fabric sewn into the beautiful garment that it wants to be.

Next week, we’ll move beyond patterns into the wide world of creative sewing. See you then!

Rough Draft 3: Bob Hope, Gore Vidal, and Gilbert Gottfried

Coke is now offering a line of premium milk that’s twice the price of regular. This will probably end as well as New Coke.

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Harper Lee plans to release a sequel to “To Kill a Mockingbird.” With their typical flair for marketing, her publisher decided to publish it now to capitalize on the Gregory Peck movie.

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Terry Teachout is having more fun dancing on Bob Hope’s grave than reviewing the new biography”>than in reviewing the new biography. Yes, Hope was one of the most popular comedians in America and now forgotten today. You know what? So’s Louis Armstrong”>Louis Armstrong, H. L. MenckenH.L. Mencken and George BalanchineGeorge Balanchine. It’s not our culture anymore.

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From the Writers Gone Wild Quotebook:

”Coming away from a violent discussion at Magny’s, my heart pounding in my breast, my throat and tongue parched, I feel convinced that every political argument boils down to this: ‘I am better than you are,’ every literary argument to this: ‘I have more taste than you,’ every argument about art to this: ‘I have better eyes than you,’ every argument about music to this: ‘I have a finer ear than you.’” — Goncourt brothers

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Committees exist to provide cover for mediocre decisions. Focus groups provide support for bland products. When a committee uses a focus group, you have mediocrity squared.

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Michael Mewshaw’s memoir of Gore Vidal contains an example of how publishers — in his case Doubleday — can rob writers. During the discovery phase of a libel lawsuit over his book “Life for Death, Doubleday claimed the book sold 6,000 copies in bookstores, and 275,000 copies through book clubs. Vidal showed him his statement for “Creation.” It was 90,000 in bookstores, 30,000 through book clubs. “That’s the normal ratio,” Vidal said. “Not your absurd numbers. Probably the publisher is distributing copies of the trade edition and accounting them at the book club royalty.” Turned out he was right.

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I’ve been having great fun listening to Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast. Incredibly vulgar at times, but you get to hear from artists who were popular in their times but aren’t heard from much, like Mickey Dolenz, Barbara Feldon, David Steinberg and Frankie Avalon.

Today’s Panel Without Context

From "Hi and Lois"
From “Hi and Lois”

Rough Draft 2: Gore Vidal, Secret Adversary, Gospel of Mark

These are luxurious times we live in. When on a cold night I can turn on the faucet and get hot water, I’m living better than 99.9 percent of every human in the whole of existence.

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The latest Author Earnings report is up, showing that there’s a 30 percent shadow market in ebook sales that is not accounted for by publishing experts and surveys. So when if you hear from an industry “expert” saying that ebook sales are declining, that they are a fad, this is what they’re missing.

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Maybe I’m overthinking this, but Michael Mewshaw’s memoir of Gore Vidal seems to reveal the author’s curious attitude toward African-Americans. Writing about how American movies are dubbed in Italy, Mewshaw mentions “blacks, whether street-smart, dirt-road dumb, or Uncle Tom middle-class, sounded Calabrese.” This sentence reads like he’s equating improving your lot in life with selling out.

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Mewshaw’s attitude reminds me of the people, who are always liberals, by the way, mourning that they miss the dirty, broken-down New York City of the 1970s.

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Dustbury links to an archaeological discover of possibly the earliest find of the Gospel of Mark. Would love to see the translation.

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I must not visit #setlock. I must not visit #setlock. I must not visit #setlock.

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Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence have always run a distant third behind Poirot and Miss Marple, so I’m happy to see someone mounting a “play with music” version of “The Secret Adversary.”

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Today’s Panel Without Context

From "Gil Thorpe"
From “Gil Thorpe”

Author, Editor, Anthologist, and Owner of Peschel Press, the Publisher of Histories Behind the Mysteries