April 2009 Archives

Is Making Your Own Clothes Economical?


Twenty years ago most fabric stores carried a large variety of fashion fabrics  so that the home sewer could, without too much effort, make clothes for herself/himself and the family for less expense than buying the same ready made clothes from stores.  Since that time most fabric stores have converted themselves into craft stores that carry mostly printed cottons for quilting with much less stock in fashion fabrics.  Another big change is that the price of good fabrics has risen while super cheap ready made clothing discount stores have proliferated to the point where asking if making your own clothes is worth it is a damn good question.

I would like to point out that whether it is economically worth your while to sew your own clothes depends on quite a few factors.  It is possible to save money sewing your own, but these are the main factors which must be considered:

What do you spend on your clothes now?

What is your sewing skill level?

What fabric resources do you have available to you?

What do you spend on your clothes at ready-made stores? If you are buying designer clothes (and most people I know are not), whether at full price or discounted price, you will obviously be able to save a tremendous amount of money making your own.  Designer patterns are available to those with the sewing skill to use them.  Most of us, I'm willing to bet, buy our clothes from more mid-range companies from department stores (looking for sales), or we scour the racks at places like Ross hoping for $5 shirts that fit.  If you are buying from heavy discount stores you are the one most likely to be saying that there is no way that sewing your own clothes can save you money.

Pricing it out (the average cost of a home made shirt):

Most decent fabrics cost between $7 and $15 per yard.  The average shirt takes between 2 and 3 yards of fabric.  Working with averages we can estimate the cost of making your own shirt: 2.5 yards x $11.00 = $27.50.  You must also figure on thread.  An experienced sewer generally has enough thread that it doesn't need to be included in the price of every project, but let's say you need the thread.  That's going to cost you between $3 and $5, depending on the brand and spool size.  So let's just stick with averages: $27.50 + $4 = $31.50

A lot of shirts require buttons and not everyone has a huge collection of them on hand, so you must figure the buttons as well.  You're likely to spend between $1 and $10 on buttons (depending on whether you go for the discount type of simple button or fashion buttons) so let's say you're going to spend an average of $5 on buttons.  That brings your average home sewn shirt up to $36.50.

However, unless you've been collecting patterns for years in all different sizes (or know how to make your own), you will need a pattern too!  Patterns vary widely in price from $1.99 to $30.  So let's add that onto our average home sewn shirt cost: $36.50 + $16 = $52.50  Wow, that doesn't seem like a bargain when most of the shirts you can find at Ross cost less than $20.  So why would you spend your time and resources sewing your own if you're not saving anything, and might in fact, be spending more to make your own than to buy ready made?

Cost cannot be looked at solely from the dollar perspective. This is true for many things.  When you're considering home economics you have to consider quality.  The reason why designer clothes are so expensive is not just to gouge label-loving losers (a common belief, not shared by me) but because the quality of the fabrics, the care and time taken to make the fit of the clothes exquisite, and the attention to details in construction which make a garment last for years longer than their cheaper counterparts all go into the cost of designer clothes.

If you haven't ever tried on or touched a designer garment, you should do so just to understand the difference.  I have rarely bought designer clothes but I have tried them on and examined them closely.  Details such as bound button holes, linings, tighter stitching, and enclosed seams all contribute to a garment that you can pass down through generations if it's taken care of.  You will not find such care in design and construction in any shirts that cost less than $50.  Either the fabrics are cheap and will pill up quickly (or tear), or the stitching is shoddy and comes undone with too much wear.

The home sewer has control over many of these factors through her/his skill level.  Using shorter stitch lengths, back-stitching, seam treatments, and fabric quality are all factors that you have control over.  You can also custom fit a garment at home if you take the time to take your measurements and adjust your pattern accordingly.  If you do fittings before you're finished you can make the waistband fit properly which is not a service you get when shopping at J.C. Penny.  You can make a $52.50 shirt seem like a bargain if you make it something that will last like a designer investment.

Although I have used average prices to illustrate the cost factor here, there are many ways you can cut down on the cost of your home sewn clothes.  It depends on what resources you have available to you in your area, or what you can find on line.  Shopping for fabrics on line is not always wise when you are buying fashion fabrics unless you are buying from a familiar seller whose quality (in general) you have confidence in.

Here are some ways you can cut down on the cost of making your own clothes:

  • Use coupons: I am generally not a big fan of coupons but JoAnne's Fabrics frequently has 40% off coupons available for non-sale fabrics.  This can be an incredible boon for when you wish to buy costly wool blends, linens, or knit fabrics.  I sign up for their flyers and have used their coupons many times.
  • Locate a discount fabric store: bigger cities often have fabric stores dedicated to "end of run" fashion fabrics, or "end of bolt" fabrics.  These are often at a good price.  Smaller towns lack the industry that makes these stores likely to crop up, however, if you are visiting a big city near you, do a little research and see if you can find one.
  • Buy by the bolt: this is not generally possible to individuals but always ask if there is a whole bolt discount.  A bolt comes with 15 yards, generally.  This is worth buying if you buy something like a heavy cotton twill for making shorts, skirts, pants, or jackets.  You can probably get 5 garments out of a bolt.  One example of an online store that sells fabric to anyone by the bolt for a 40% discount is the Fabric Depot in Portland Oregon.
  • Buy undyed fabric. I know of only one source for this: Dharma Trading in San Rafael California.  The quality varies on their fabrics from decent to excellent.  The catch is that they come only in white/natural (a couple of them come in black) which means you will have to dye them yourself which is a cost, to be sure, and takes more time, but the price of their silks make it worth considering as an option.
  • Buy patterns on sale: most pattern companies such as McCall's, Vogue, and Simplicity, have periodic sales on their patterns- often for 40% off.  Most of the stores that carry them will have at least one of those three on sale at any given time.  Sometimes you will see patterns on sale for $1.99.
  • Copy patterns from friends: copying patterns from friends is a great way to save money on patterns.  You will need pattern paper to do this well, but it's worth it.  Do not cut out the pattern size you need, just lay the pattern pieces underneath the dot paper and trace the size you want including all the piece numbers and markings and notches.
  • Thrift stores: you can find good fabric, notions, and patterns at thrift stores but you need to be aware that patterns are often not complete and are already cut out to a specific size.  Sometimes it's worth taking the chance for the huge cost savings.
  • Save buttons from old clothes: Buttons used to be so costly that no shabby garment would meet its resting place in the hearth until the buttons were removed and saved.  If you find you have to retire a favorite shirt or coat- save the buttons.  You can use them again!  I have (thanks to a favorite online friend and a local antique store) a very nice button collection.  I also buy buttons I like in different sizes when they are on sale.
Using the tips I've shared above I can make shirts for myself for as low as $10 a shirt,  but at a higher quality than I can buy from a store.

When it comes to home economics it is important not to find yourself unnecessarily spending $10 just to save yourself $1.  It is easy to get swayed by cheap prices of products and services offered by stores like Walmart.  I once bought a pair of pants at K-Mart for $15 which seemed like a great bargain at the time but when I put them on the next day they ripped within the first two hours of wear!  The fabric they were made of had no tensile strength which means that it was probably made of cheap short fibers.  I didn't save myself $20 by not spending $45 dollars on a better pair of regularly priced pants, I WASTED $15.  Period.

It is telling, in my opinion, that while cheap clothes from deep discount stores have come and gone through my dresser drawers and closet ruthlessly fast over the years, the clothes that I still have, that are still in perfect wearing condition, are the ones I have made for myself.

We encourage questions here at The Farmhouse Finishing School, so if you have any, please speak up and we will do our best to answer them!

How To Preserve Citrus


Preserving Citrus

By Riana Lagarde

When Life gives you Lemons

In the Orient's colorful markets you will see bright and sunny foods reflective of the desert landscape: green and black olives all-shades from sand to khaki to midnight, heady spices in conical stacks of saffron-red, turmeric-yellow, and burnt-sienna coriander. I am a lemon fanatic--I can eat them raw with just a little salt like an apple--thus I am always drawn to the gorgeous Suns: salt-preserved lemons bobbing in clear glass jars in those sultry markets. Dreams of chicken, artichoke and preserved lemon tagines (see the end of the article for the recipe) dance in my head to the same dizzying beat as the whirling dervishes.

Besides lemon jellies and marmalades, freezing lemons' peels and their juices in ice cube trays, you can preserve the entire lemon. The ancient Arabic method of preserving lemons is easy and only requires three simple ingredients: lemons, lots of salt and plenty of time.

Once they are preserved the idea is to scoop out the soft flesh which you can use for something else, then finely chop the soft peel before adding to your savory dish - they're best added towards the end of cooking. This procedure comes from the ever-reliable Claudia Roden.


Salt Preserved Lemons

8 unwaxed lemons, preferably organic, if your lemons are waxed, it will not work

Around 4 Tablespoons of coarse sea salt

Cut each lemon into quarters, without going all the way through to the end. That leaves you with four petal star shape which you then pack with course sea salt. Squish the lemons into a sterilized preserving jar pressing down to release the lemon juice; seal and leave the jar on the counter for four days, so the salt draws out more the juice (it is very decorative as well). The skins will soften and the jar will be full of juice. You want high acidity, so top off the jar with fresh lemon juice; seal again.

Leave in cool (refrigerator or root cellar) place for about a month before beginning to use.

If the lemons are not covered by the juice all the way, they may develop a white mold which Roden says is harmless and should be washed off.

You can keep the juice after you've used the lemons, and start a new batch of lemons in the same jar. You might see a kind of lacy white substance in the jar as the lemons mature.

Use a wooden spoon to remove lemons from the jar.

Once you have your batch of preserved lemons, you start to wonder: What would I use preserved lemons for? You want to put them in everything! Anywhere that a little bit of mysterious lemoniness would be nice, preserved lemons are the ticket.

Consider: tossed in a green salad, potato salad, or pasta salad; over asparagus; over broccoli; over spinach; in melted butter for dipping artichokes; in couscous; in a stew of whatever, along with olives; in Spanish rice; with baked or mashed winter squash; as a garnish for carrot soup; as part of a Mediterranean-style gratin; with lentil stew; with penne and fresh tomato sauce; as part of a Greek egg-and-lemon soup; in a olive-oil pasta sauce; minced to the point of puree and mixed with butter and herbs to make a spread for cucumber sandwiches.

Two favorite preserved lemon uses: 1) Cut up and toss with root vegetables and whole unpeeled garlic cloves and olive oil and fresh ground black pepper and (opt) rosemary . Roast on a cookie sheet until all these things are soft as the lemons and crusty brown edged- with a good bread to mop it all up.



Types: Satsumas: Very sweet, seedless, medium sized, free skinned
Clementines: Small, very orange, few seeds, very sweet

Canning: To extend the season of mandarins, they can be preserved as well. Peel, separate the segments, pack in jars with a sugar syrup (I add a touch of rose water) and be sure to process in a simmering hot water bath (30 minutes for pints, 35 minutes for quarts).

For desserts, use your syrup preserved mandarines over pound cake or ice cream with sprinkles of orange liqueur. Mandarin orange juice is good plain or blended with ice cream for a cool refresher.

Mandarins can also be used in marmalades, sauces, ciders or glazes or use the delicious segments topped on a spinach salad.

Rock-salted Tangerines If you add extra lemon juice to up the acid for preserving, you can bottle your tangerines in the same fashion as salt preserved lemons. Then you can use them for savory dishes (omitting the salt in your recipes) like duck l'orange, chinese orange beef, minced meat pies, and spicy lamb tagines. I also chop them finely and mix with a black olive marinade for chicken or fish, and bbq sauces.


Lemon Chicken Tajine

from Claudia Roden's Arabesque


3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 onions, finely chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, crushed
½ tsp crushed saffron threads or saffron powder
¼-½ tsp ground ginger
1 chicken, jointed
salt and freshly ground black pepper
½ lemon, juice only
2 tbsp chopped coriander
2 tbsp chopped parsley
2 small preserved lemons, peel only (don't substitute fresh lemons for preserved; the taste and texture are completely different, and preserved lemons are super-easy to make. All you need is patience, a clean glass jar, and lots of salt.)
12-16 green or violet olives, either stoned or left whole
9 artichoke bottoms

1. In a wide casserole or heavy-bottomed pan that will fit the chicken pieces in one layer, heat the oil and add the onions. Sauté, stirring over a low heat, until softened, then stir in the garlic, saffron and ginger.

2. Add the chicken pieces, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, and pour in about 300ml/10fl oz of water. Simmer, covered, turning the pieces over a few times and adding a little more water if it becomes too dry.

3. Lift out the breasts after 20 minutes and set aside. Continue to cook the remaining pieces for another 25 minutes, then return the breasts to the pan.

4. Stir in the lemon juice, coriander, parsley, preserved lemon peel and olives, then lift the chicken pieces and put the artichoke bottoms in the sauce beneath them. Add a little water if necessary and cook for about 10 minutes until the artichokes are tender. Serve with the olives and lemon peel on top of the meat.

Tangerine Marmalade

4 tangerines or oranges
1 lemon
1 quart of juice and pulp
2 quarts water

Slice oranges and lemons is thinly as possible. Add the water and allow to stand covered in the refrigerator for 24 hours.

Cook over low heat until the rinds become tender. Cool and cut rinds into small pieces. Place in refrigerator and allow to stand another 24 hours.

Measure out fruit. To each quart of fruit add 1 quart of sugar. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until marmalade thickens and the oranges are clear.

Ladle into hot sterilized jars and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.


Preserved Manderin Pudding

1 cup orange or mandarin juice, blood orange juice is beautiful for this
1 cup of syrup from the preserved manderins
10 preserved manderins divided into sections and pips removed, if any
1 ½ tablespoons corn starch or arrow root
seeds of ½ a pomegranate
1 cup heavy whipping cream,

Bring the orange or mandarin juice to the boil with the syrup and manderine sections, remove any pips.

Dissolve the cornflour in 250ml/9fl oz of water and pour it into the simmering juice, stirring vigorously. Continue to stir - in one direction only - until the mixture thickens, then cook over a low heat for about 15 minutes. Stir in cream and cook for five more minutes.

Let the orange or mandarin mixture cool and pour into a glass serving bowl, cover with clingfilm and chill in the fridge for a few hours.

Sprinkle the pomegranate seeds over the pudding and serve with more whipped cream if you wish.

Editor's Note: Riana Lagarde is an intrepid urban homesteader living a slow life in Southern France.  Although she's been professionally writing about food and travel for magazines for several years, she has recently given up magazine writing to concentrate her efforts on raising chickens, gardening, and writing for her own publications.

Pantry Ideas: Using It Up


The idea behind preserving food is to get us through the months of the year when good quality fresh produce is hard to come by.  You stock up on all the things you are going to want to eat later on that are in season now.  If you're like me, that means that you froze a bunch of strawberries, sour cherries, blueberries, and roasted vegetables.  You canned pickles, dill beans, tomatoes, jams, and juices.  You dried herbs and like my friends Lisa B and Nicole, you may have even dried some vegetables.

If you have been holding back on using the things you preserved for fear of running out, now is the time to use it all up; especially any items that are over a year old already.  The quality will not improve most food with time* so you want to make room to store fresher produce this year.  What to do with it all?  Do you need some inspiration?  Here are some ideas on how to use what you've preserved:

Pickles (dill or sweet):

  1. Potato salad- I always add chopped dill pickle to mine.
  2. Grilled cheese sandwiches or hamburgers- a classic.
  3. Egg salad- I love the salty crunch.
  4. Put out with sharp cheddar cheese as an appetizer.
Tomatoes (diced, stewed, sauce) (You still have some?!):

  1. Give yours to me- I'm almost out.
  2. Spaghetti- it's obvious but a no fail.
  3. Add to winter vegetable soups- adds a bright note.
  4. Make a tomato bread soup- such a luxurious light meal.
Grilled frozen eggplant:

  1. Add to pasta with sun-dried tomatoes, olive oil, and garlic.
  2. Add to a tomato sauce (diced) with a little balsamic and some onion.
  3. Heat up and eat in a sandwich- will remind you of summer.
  4. Add to lasagna- I just used ratatouille for a lasagna sauce!
Frozen or pickled hot peppers:

  1. Add to a black bean chili- perfect for chilly early spring.
  2. Use in a frittata with sharp cheddar cheese and fresh cilantro.
  3. Use them in tomales- I am hankering for this right now!
  4. Spanish rice- I just learned how to make this.
Frozen Fruit:

  1. Yogurt smoothies- I'm craving these right now.
  2. Added to muffins- easy to do, don't defrost first.
  3. Cooked with a little sugar to make a compote- for pancakes, or deserts.
Are there things in your freezer or pantry that you want to use up but are having trouble getting inspired to use?  Tell me what you have and I'll help you come up with new ways to use them (be sure to tell me what you've already been doing with them so I don't repeat those ideas).  Let's get our freezers and pantries cleaned out and ready for the new season!  We make the food so we can eat the food.

Are you doing something you love with your home preserved goods right now?  Share it with us all in the comments.

*Fruit cheeses and wines are the exceptions here.

April In The Kitchen Garden


April is a difficult month in the garden because it's still cold enough in many places that snow is still falling in fits and although we see blossoms everywhere across the country telling us that the sap is flowing in the fruit trees and the soil is beginning to warm up, it still isn't time for planting warm weather crops such as tomatoes and peppers except in those southern states where spring starts in February (Florida, Southern California, Texas, for example).

Although it's tempting to begin buying tomato starts as they are appearing in the nurseries right now, it is best to wait at least another week to buy them.  Because there are so many different regions in the U.S. with different micro-climates, I will keep my information fairly general.  What each gardener needs to do is be very clear on what their USDA zone is (or use some other more specific zoning chart such as the Sunset Zones) and be sure to find good resources for information specific to your gardening zone that will help you map out what you should be planting and when.

To find out your USDA climate zone you can look them up on line at The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map.

Another great resource for anyone who needs local information on when to plant things is to call your local Extension office to find out what information they have.  Sometimes they will have detailed free brochures that tell you when to plant things in your region.  The Extension Services. These services generally get their information from the most local universities and from reputable sources like master gardeners or agricultural instructors.

You can also get information on local planting guides from books printed specifically for your region.  Be sure to check your local library for any good regional vegetable gardening guides.

The best resource for the Pacific Northwest is The Maritime Northwest Garden Guide produced by the Seattle Tilth.  If you live and garden in the Pacific Northwest and don't have this magazine sized guide then you need to get it.  It cost $10.00 when I bought my copy at Powell's Books in Portland.  It covers gardening month by month in all the regions here and lays out not only planting guides for vegetables, but flowers, herbs, and perennials as well.  It is also the guide the Master Gardening program gives out to its students.

I will be doing some research and soliciting some help from experienced gardeners to help me map out what gardeners need to be doing in their kitchen gardens month by month because this is very important information we all need and I'd like it to be handy right here.  But that will, of course, take some time.

In the meantime I would like to give a very general idea of what should be planted in most gardens this month:

Dark Leafy Greens: kale, chard, spinach, Asian greens
Lettuces: all kinds of lettuce greens, and herbs
Cold weather crops: broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, turnips, beets, carrots
Onions: shallot bulbs, onions, bunching onions, leeks
Peas: peas, favas
Late April: all the warm weather crops such as tomatoes, peppers, squash, beans, and melons.

Now get out there and plant some seeds!

Welcome To The Farmhouse Finishing School


Long before the current recession hit us all in the face my friend Chelsea and I were getting excited about learning to do things like can jam and make quilts.  We spent a lot of time together cooking and talking about projects we could do ourselves.  She lives up in the hills in a rustic house on acreage doing her laundry outside like a hillbilly.  I lived in town and got to do my laundry inside but was obsessed with growing as much of my own food as possible.

Together we learned a lot of new/old skills and at some point we got to talking about how so few people were learning to do the kinds of things we were learning to do from their own parents.  It used to be that you learned to can vegetables from your mom or your grandmother.  You learned to quilt from them as well.  They taught you how to mend clothes, darn socks, and cook a basic pie crust.  It occurred to us that all of these skills were still important and that someone needed to be teaching new generations how to do things like take care of their furniture and plan meals so that food isn't wasted.  In fact, someone needs to teach everyone to do basic cooking.

We thought it would be great to start a finishing school for people interested in urban homesteading and everyone who's interested in increasing the quality of their lives through mastering the home arts.  We had so much fun imagining ourselves as the head mistresses of the school and planning the curriculum.  Neither of us has any money to open an actual school but the desire to open such a school has never stopped exciting me.

What I finally realized is that with a website (or blog) I can do the next best thing: online courses!  With the use of photos, instructions, and even some video instruction, I feel that we can teach each other to do almost anything.  I am fortunate enough to know and be friends with nearly every kind of crafts person and I have solicited their help to provide useful information and instruction on all kinds of topics such as: raising chickens, growing herbs and vegetables, making your own medicines, sewing, and home economics.

My goal is that this become a great reference for urban homesteaders with only the highest quality information and writing.  Hopefully it will feel like a fresh, bright, and inspiring place to come.

I already have a lot of recipes to upload once they get finessed just a little so be patient as I begin to build the content up.  Come back often and feel free to make suggestions on the kind of content you most desire us to cover or questions you would like to have answered.

Please come and visit again!

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