On our recent trip to Vermont, Matt and I were fortunate enough to be there during sugaring season. For West Coast city dwellers like me (or anyone not living in the Northeast or Canada), who may not know what that is, it’s the short span of time where maple trees flow with sap and maple syrup is made.

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While I still don’t take it for granted, Vermont maple syrup is a staple in our life. We put it in baked beans, use it as glaze for meat and roasted veggies and let’s not forget the waffles. Whether it’s brought to us, or we bring it home from a visit, a quart of Vermont maple syrup makes it into our fridge at least twice a year. We’ve developed a taste for the good stuff, so it has to be Vermont maple syrup now. When we run out and have to buy it from Trader Joe’s (at $14.99 a quart), we realize how spoiled we are.

At first, our syrup always came from Matt’s step-dad’s buddy Bernie. We’d never met him, we just knew that the delectable maple syrup we enjoyed so much came from his sugarhouse. Then a couple of years ago, Matt’s mom and step-dad tapped some of their own trees during sugaring season and made a small batch of their own. The next year, they tapped a few more and made some to send us. It was of course delicious and I was impressed. It’s not something we can do here in the Pacific Northwest, as we don’t have the necessary weather or trees.

Matt and I had been talking about trying to time a visit to Vermont during sugaring season and since we are getting married there this Fall, we needed to go out there to work on some of the wedding details anyway. Since sugaring depends on the weather (warm days and cold nights) and we were going towards the end of March, there was no guarantee that we would be there at the right time. Boy, did we get lucky! In just four days, we were able to tap some trees, gather sap and do a boil from start to finish. We got to tour a couple of sugarhouses as well (one of them Bernie’s), to see how it is done on a larger scale.

This is a picture heavy post, and it kind of has to be to convey the whole experience, so I am going to let the pictures do most of the talking here.

 

DAY 1- Tapping Trees

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A view of Betty and John’s house from the woods behind their house, where we were tapping trees.

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John set out ahead of us on his ATV and placed the buckets at the base of the maple trees we were to tap.

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One of us would drill the hole, the other would hammer in the tap and the third would place the bucket.

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The sap immediately was running!

 

DAY 2- Sugarhouse Tours

There were so many things about sugaring that appealed to me and piqued my interest; the history, tradition, community, equipment and, of course, the finished product. I have no illusions about what hard work it really is though. Both of the sugarhouses we visited, stated that 80% of their time is spent in the woods (not in the sugarhouse), installing taps and then walking the lines to check for damage from deer or squirrels. Sounds fun on a nice sunny day, but maybe not so enjoyable on cold, rainy/snowy ones. I realize that I got to see the romantic part, the boiling, which is what they do in the evenings mostly, when all their other tasks are done.

First Stop- Donnie’s

  • Taps- 3,000
  • Make about 21 barrels a year (a barrel is 45 gallons).
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Donnie’s sugarhouse

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syrups by grade

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Sap pouring into a holding tank.

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Second Stop- Bernie’s

  • Taps- 6,000
  • Makes about 50 barrels a year.
  • On a good night can make about 3 barrels in 4 hours.
  • Wood-fired
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Taps running to trees via tubing.

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Bernie’s sugarhouse

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Wood for the fire and tubing coming into the sugarhouse.

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An old auger, once used for tapping trees.

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filtering system

We got to Bernie’s just as he was starting to boil and we were able to watch the entire process. John has helped him do boils before, so he jumped right into cleaning filters.

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John cleaning filters.

We saw the sap come into the holding tank and watched Bernie light the fire.

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Bernie

As the sap started to boil, woody, maple smelling steam rose off the evaporator.

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filtering the syrup

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finished syrup

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Bernie took the hose going into the barrel and filled a glass with piping hot maple syrup for us to sample.

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We passed that glass around several times and I could have kept drinking it. I have never drank so much straight maple syrup in my life, and I had a little sugar buzz when we got home, but man was it good!

As we walked away from the sugarhouse that evening, which was still aglow with more boiling, I reflected on the day. I got the feeling that to the native Vermonter, sugaring season happens every year and everyone there probably knows someone who makes it and has helped make it or made it themselves. That’s not to say they don’t think it’s something special. Bernie’s sugarhouse has been in his family for years and he said, with affection, that he didn’t remember a time when going to his family’s sugarhouse hadn’t been a part of his life.

This was exactly the kind of sentiment that made me feel like I had just witnessed something pretty special. From the rush of the sap into the holding tanks, to the roaring fire and Bernie running around opening and closing valves and then the subsequent maple smelling steam coming off the evaporator, to sampling syrup so freshly made it is still too hot to drink, there is certainly an excitement and energy to it all. Maybe there has to be, since it is such hard work.

 

DAY 3- Our Boil

We had appointments with wedding vendors that day, so by the time we got back, John had already gathered the sap from the buckets and started a boil.

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This is what a home set-up can look like.

When the sap from John’s first gather started running low, Matt and I took the ATV out to check the buckets again.

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John’s clever gathering system. It’s an old water tank from an RV!

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John adding sap to the boil as it boils down.

It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of maple syrup. We checked the boil about every hour at first and if it was starting to get low, we added more sap.

Without all the fancy equipment that we saw at the sugarhouses, doing a home boil can take a bit longer. When it was time for bed, and the syrup still wasn’t finished, we turned the burners off and covered the pan. Sap can sit for a while if need be, but not too long, so finishing the syrup the next day was our top priority.

 

DAY 4- Maple Syrup!

When maple syrup is almost finished it will start boiling down even faster, so we checked it more often at this point. John stuck a candy thermometer in it and told me that finished syrup boils at about 212 degrees. Once it got close to that temperature, we would filter it and then take it inside and finish it off on the stove.

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Finished syrup should sheet off a spoon (or in our case spatula). This syrup is done!

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One more filtering.

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Look at that beautiful syrup!

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I was a very happy camper at this point. We not only got to make maple syrup from start to finish, but we got to see how it was done on a larger scale, which just completed the experience for me. I couldn’t believe how perfectly everything worked out. It was beyond my expectations.

Big thanks to my future in-laws John and Betty for having us out there and setting up the sugarhouse tours. Thank you to Donnie and Bernie as well, of course, for not only letting us visit your sugarhouses and watch you work during a busy time, but also for being such gracious hosts and answering all of our questions and letting us sample your syrups.

For a backyard operation like we did, tapping the trees, gathering and doing a boil seemed like a fairly straight forward process. If you are in an area where this can be done and want to know more, there are lots of great, more detailed posts at www.punkdomestics.com

Last week, Matt and I went to Vermont to do some of the planning for our wedding. We kept pretty busy while we were there, meeting with wedding vendors, hanging with family and participating in “sugaring” season (stay tuned for that post). I love Vermont. It is so beautiful and relaxing. Between things, I did get to squeeze in some knitting in Matt’s mom’s comfy sun room. It became my favorite knitting spot while we were there. I was almost finished with the body of my Miette cardigan before we left Seattle and was able to finish the last few rows of ribbing and bind off the bottom while I was in VT. It’s really looking like a sweater now!

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I am so freakin’ proud of myself that I have gotten this far, but also that I was able to fix a huge mistake I made BY MYSELF! Okay, not totally by myself, I used this amazing tutorial from the Twist Collective.

A couple of times, I made dumb mistakes, late at night, like purling where I was supposed to knit or accidentally knitting two together. On both occasions, I went to unknit and made it even worse. I then tried to fix that and the next thing you know I am crying and hyperventilating because I had either unraveled a bunch of stitches or ended up with extra ones. I have since learned my lesson about knitting late at night when I am tired.

The first time I did that, I was able to bring it into the knitting night I have been going to at Seattle Yarn. Ruth, who works there and is the owner’s daughter, was nice (and patient) enough to help me fix it. I was very thankful for that and I feel lucky to have that group as a resource, but part of why I tend to make mistakes worse is because I want to learn how to fix them myself. So the next time I did that (right when I was working on the last few rows of the lace pattern), I was determined to fix it on my own.

I am at the point where I can recognize a knit and a purl, unknit those if need be and pick up stitches. I am not so good at unknitting anything besides a knit or a purl, so when I made a mistake during the lace part of the pattern, I was way out of my league. I carefully considered my options. If I tried to unknit back to the last correct row, it would probably a) take forever and b) make things worse. There are also over 100 stitches in the body and with the lace pattern, if I tried to unravel it to the last good row, I would never be able to get all those stitches back on the needles correctly.

I had seen on the Twist Collective tutorial, that you could fix a pattern by just trying to fix the affected section, by inserting a double-pointed needle in the last correct row and then unravelling to that point.  I would then use a crochet hook to pick up the stitches correctly. That sounded more like something I could probably figure out. I just needed to know what stitch went where, so I could pick them up correctly. The solution for that was to make a chart of the lace pattern. Luckily I remembered seeing a link to this knitting chart generator on Gail’s blog.

I entered in the stitches from the last part of the repeat, of the last few rows of lace work, at the bottom of the cardigan, since that is where I made my mistake.  I only entered in the the right side/knit stitches and left out the wrong side/purl stitches. This is what I got:

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The mistake had only effected two stitches, but somehow ended up several rows down after I tried to unsuccessfully fix it the first time. I was able to find the last row that was correct, three rows down, so I inserted a double-pointed needle into three stitches in that row. The next part was the scary part. I then let my knitting unravel to where the mistake was, but since the double-pointed needle was there, it kept it from unravelling any farther. Then I had the task of picking up the stitches the correct way, by using the chart to see what stitch was supposed to be where. I should have taken some pictures while I was doing this to better illustrate it, but was lacking foresight in my stressed state, plus I had no idea if it would even work. I was so nervous that I was shaking. The best I can describe it, is that it was like knitting surgery. The result… I was somehow able to correctly pick up the stitches and “my patient” lived!

In summation, I find knitting to be so relaxing, until it’s not, but man was I proud of myself when I successfully fixed my mistake! All I have left to do now is knit the sleeves. I’m going to need a little help to get that part started, since I have never knit in the round and am not totally clear on how to do that or how to pick up the couple of stitches in the armpit. Once I figure all that out, I am betting the sleeves will knit up quickly, since there are way less stitches to knit than the body. I’m on the home stretch!

Whether I am gardening, cooking or crafting, I am a big time notetaker and organizer. Keeping my sewing projects organized is partly a necessity, as my studio is on the small side, but I also kind of just love buying office supplies. The notetaking is so I can remember what I did and refer back to it if need be.

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As with planting the same crops year and after and learning from that, patterns can be sewn over and over again. Once you cut the pattern out and have adjusted it for fit, making that pattern again is a snap if you save your pattern pieces.

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I found these great Martha Stewart binders and accessories that I am hooked on now. I have already filled one binder, and am just starting a new one, so I figured this would be a good time to show you guys my system.

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Like I said, my studio is pretty small, so I have to utilize the space wisely. I installed hooks behind the door to my studio, for storing works in progress, but there are only enough hooks for one or two projects at a time. When I have completed a project, I have to put my pattern pieces somewhere else, in order to make room for the next project.

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All I do is take the pattern pieces, fold them up and put them in a sleeve in a binder. If and when I do go to sew that pattern again, the pattern pieces can be ironed flat again at a low setting. I am a tracer, not a cutter (of patterns) and use Swedish tracing paper for my patterns, but this will work with any kind of pattern pieces.

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I also include a fabric swatch and notes about the project.

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I have a smaller book that I write more detailed notes in as I sew and I’ll review those to write notes in my binder, about what adjustments I made and how the fit turned out. I write notes on top of notes! It may seem like overkill, but that way if I do sew that pattern again, I can quickly see if I need to do more adjustments or do anything differently.

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It’s a pretty simple system and since I haven’t sewn too many patterns yet, it is working out for me so far. These binders only hold about five patterns before they get too thick, so I could potentially end up with quite a few of them. If anyone has a good system for storing larger quantities of patterns, I would love to hear it!

Also, what do you sewers do with your muslins? So far, I have just been throwing them in a scrap box. I keep thinking it would be funny to pull them all out at some point, when I have more of them, and make people wear them at a party or bar crawl or something!

I keep getting asked how the wedding dress is coming and there has been progress. I have the pattern and the fabric now!

The Pattern-

Based on what I had said I was looking for, in my post announcing my engagement and that I was making my  own wedding dress, a reader suggested the Victory Patterns Ava. It did seem quite perfect. It had all the elements I wanted and didn’t seem to be outside of my skill level, so I ordered one up. I’m going to be making the version on the left, but with the cap sleeves from the version on the right (instead of the pleating).

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The Fabric-

Buying the pattern was the easy part. The hard and somewhat nerve-wracking part was picking out the fabric. I have learned a lot about different fabric types in the last couple of years, but have mostly just worked with casual apparel fabrics such as cotton and rayon, some knit fabrics and, most recently, a vintage polyester blend of some sort. That’s the most slippery fabric I have worked with yet, so knew I would need to see and touch my wedding dress fabric before purchasing it. Lucky for me, I am close to the Pacific Fabrics in Northgate and they have a “galleria” that specializes in bridal and special occasion fabrics.

They have so many fabrics to choose from there, that I was a bit overwhelmed at first. I had some criteria the fabric had to meet, such as I wanted something that wouldn’t be too hard to work with, wasn’t see through (in case I didn’t want to line it) and wouldn’t wrinkle too much. I also knew that this would probably end up being the most I had ever spent on fabric and that once it’s cut there’s no going back, so I really wanted to get this right. I wandered around the store for about an hour trying to figure it out on my own and was feeling like I might be leaving empty-handed.

The sales lady (who I had chatted with briefly when I first got there, but had been busy with other customers) must have sensed my elevating distress, from my pacing from one side of the store to the other, because once she had a free moment she came over to me again and that’s when things got better. I told her my criteria, the biggest one being the wrinkling, and she walked around the store with me doing “wrinkle tests”. She just took the fabric in her hand and balled it up, so we could see what it did. By doing that, we finally found a satin silk Shantung that seemed perfect. It didn’t seem to be fraying too much, was holding a wrinkle way less than anything else we looked at and was a nice weight and not see through.

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Here is the fabric draped over my dress form.

I’m making my own wedding dress more for the experience and less to save money, but the fabric did cost way less than a ready-made dress would have. It is still the most I have ever spent on fabric, so my heart was racing a little bit as the fabric was being cut. The sales lady assured me that I would love working with it and told me about how she made her own wedding dress and what a great experience that was, so it was just what I needed to hear.

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Thanks to the amazing customer service I got, and some research I did about silk Shantung after the fact, I feel really good about the fabric I bought. It is very pretty. It’s hard to see in this photo, but because of the satin weave, it has a little tooth to it that I really like.

I also picked up a stretch lace for the sheer yoke that matched well color-wise and the sales lady said it would be very comfy. It was not very expensive and I only needed a yard of it, so it could change if I find something better, but for now I am liking it.

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Next Steps-

1. Figure out what I am going to wear under it.

I’m thinking this bustier and a crinoline of some sort. I’ll want to wear whatever bra or bustier and crinoline I plan on wearing, during fittings, so I get the fit right in the bodice and the length and width right in the skirt. There is a store not too far north of where I live, called Petticoat Junction, that I plan on checking out for crinolines.

2. Cut out the pattern.

3. Muslins, muslins, muslins!

I bought some muslin fabric for doing a rough fit and then plan on doing a wearable muslin, possibly out of some rayon I have in my stash, so the drape and stretch will be closer to the silk.

Questions I have- 

With everything I have sewn before, I always pretreat the fabric before I cut it. So if it is machine washable, I run in through the machine. If it hand washing only is recommended, I hand wash it first. This fabric says dry clean only. Should I have my fabric dry-cleaned first or does it even matter, since I am only going to wear it once? My fear is that the dry cleaner will damage it somehow. Does anyone have any advice on this?

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Last week, I shared my list of important planting times. Now, I’d like to share with you my list of seed varieties*.

I like to try new varieties, but if I find something I like, that grows well here in Seattle, I will buy it year after year. Below is my list of go-to varieties that I have found are very tasty, and perform well, in my climate.

Beets
Early Wonder
Chiogga- these are the cool looking striped ones, I am always talking about, that taste so good!

Broccoli
Thompson- nice big heads and high yields.

Carrots
Bolero, Purple Haze

Cabbage
Derby Day

Lettuce
I don’t know if there are really any lettuces that won’t grow well in Seattle, but here are some of my favorites; Green Deer Tongue (loose-leaf), New Red Fire (loose-leaf), Mascara (loose-leaf), Devils Tongue (romaine), Drunken Woman Frizzy Head (butterhead), Buttercrunch (butterhead). The names alone are so great.

Mustard
Green Wave

Peas
Sugar Snap

Pole Beans
Blue Lake Pole- good canning size.

Potatoes
It says Bintje in the photo above, but my new fave is Yukon Gold.

Radishes
French Breakfast

Spinach
Olympia

Swiss Chard
Bright Lights

Zucchini
Black Beauty

*These are just the seed varieties I like. I buy my warm season crops as starts at the Seattle Tilth May plant sale. That is why I have not listed any tomato, eggplant, squash or pepper varieties, since I buy them as starts later in the year. I do have some favorite tomato varieties. For example, Sungolds are the best cherry tomatoes and taste like candy. I’ll do a post about that when the time comes. I often just pick those varieties based on the descriptions in their veggie list and what is left. Stuff goes fast there!

If you are looking to order any of these, Organic Gardening Magazine just posted a really great list of their favorite seed catalogs.

Do you guys have any seed varieties that you love? Am I missing out on anything? I love kale, but don’t have a favorite variety yet, so I would love a recommendation!