The Gift Stash

Ever find yourself needing a last minute gift with no time to run out to buy something? Ever gone to the store for a gift and not been able to find a thing that fits the person or occasion? I think this happens to us all at least occasionally and it can be a source of unnecessary stress. I solved this problem by creating what I call my “gift stash.”

I have a drawer in my home dedicated to little gifty goodies that I purchase as I’m out and about. I pick up soaps, lotions, candles, kitchen and bath items, hand towels, gourmet foods, and other things that I can assemble into a nice gift whenever the need arises. I take advantage of sales and I try to keep items on hand that I think would appeal to most people I know. I stash these items away so that I am always prepared whenever an occasion comes up that necessitates a gift.

The items I gravitate towards tend to be things I’d personally enjoy receiving. They also tend to be somewhat practical in nature. I think just about everyone enjoys a new dish towel, pretty picture frame, scented candle, or a luxurious bar of soap. I also keep a few gourmet items and extra bottles of wine stocked in my kitchen for gift giving. For example, a jar of gourmet olives, a hunk of tasty cheese, and a box of fancy crackers presented in a pretty serving bowl would be much appreciated by a foodie friend.

I also maintain a supply of gift wrap and bags, baskets, cellophane paper, ribbons, tissue paper and other wrapping supplies to make the presentation effortless. I look for good deals on these items at the end of each season when they can easily be found on sale.

Keeping a stash of gift items and supplies is easy to do and doesn’t require a lot of space. You can dedicate one drawer in a dresser, a shelf inside a closet or cabinet, or simply keep a box under the bed. Additionally, keeping a gift stash makes each shopping excursion fun as I perpetually keep an eye out for interesting items to stock it with.

Do you keep a stash of gifts at the ready? What kinds of items do you find make great gifts in a pinch?

Healing Energizing Eucalyptus

I recently purchased a bunch of seeded eucalyptus as filler for a flower arrangement and noticed that the eucalyptus long outlasted the rest of the arrangement. I didn’t want to toss out this fragrant plant material and considered how I might reuse it. Knowing that the lovely fragrance would intensify with steam, I decided to tie it up with some kitchen string and hang it from the handle of my shower.

Eucalyptus has a clean, menthol-like fragrance. When exposed to steam, it releases beneficial oils that are thought to have numerous health benefits.

It is antiseptic and soothing to wounds. It is also antibacterial, antifungal, antimicrobial, antiviral, anti-inflammatory and decongestant in nature, which makes it a useful ingredient in many medicines that treat respiratory problems, including allergies, sinusitis, and bronchitis. Using it in the shower is a perfect way to open up stuffy sinuses.

The moisture from the shower extends the life of the eucalyptus and makes the entire house smell wonderful.

Eucalyptus oil also has a cooling, refreshing effect that is thought to remove exhaustion and mental sluggishness. Who wouldn’t benefit from that when getting ready in the morning?! It can also be used as a bug repellent and in homemade cleaning solutions. Added to a carrier oil and massaged into the skin, it is great for sore muscles and arthritis.

I think it looks pretty hanging in the shower and it makes me happy just walking by.

Could you benefit from hanging a bunch of eucalyptus in your shower?

Ironing Monograms

While perhaps viewed as remnants of a bygone era, few household items are more elegant and luxurious than monogrammed linens. If you are lucky enough to have inherited some heirloom monogrammed pieces, I encourage you to use them! But if, like me, you didn’t inherit such works of art, take heart. They can be easily found at estate sales, antique shops, and of course, online. They can also be purchased new. Knowing how to iron these beautiful pieces is key to making them look their best.

There are only a few essential supplies: a spray bottle filled with water, spray starch (if desired), a clean fluffy towel, and a hot iron.

Using a spray bottle filled with water, dampen your fabric evenly and thoroughly. You definitely don’t want it dripping wet, but it should be damp enough to produce some steam when ironed.

Fold your items loosely and let sit for at least 15 minutes. This step is crucial to getting a nice smooth finish. Letting the fabric rest allows the fibers of the fabric to absorb the moisture and relax before ironing. This also applies to cotton and linen clothing, so don’t forget this step if you want a crisp finish.

Then set your iron on a high setting. (Usually the settings for cotton or linen work well, but know your iron. Some irons run significantly hotter than others and you don’t want to scorch the material.) Lay your monogram face down on a clean terry cloth towel. I like to use a bit of spray starch at this point, but it is not necessary, just a personal preference. Begin ironing on the backside of the monogram.

Sometimes the fabric shrinks up around the monogram after washing, so you may need to pull the fabric taut to help it lie flat. Pressing the monogram into the plush terry cloth allows the monogram to gain dimension and “pop up” from the background fabric.

Once it is smooth, flip the fabric over and iron the other side, being careful to avoid ironing on top of the monogram.Take the pointed part of the iron and get as close to the monogram as possible without actually touching the monogram.

I used the same technique on this delicate embroidered runner. Ironing the floral design face down on a thick towel makes the needlework “pop up” and creates dimension.

This also works for dimensional embroidered items where you want the design to stand out.  I used this technique on this beautiful embroidered runner and the flowers nearly leapt off the background!

Heirloom linens are sturdy and can be used regularly. Knowing how to iron them properly is essential to bringing out their beauty. This technique will enhance the appearance of your linens and keep them looking sharp for years to come.

Flowers and Scotch Tape

What do flowers and Scotch tape have to do with one another? Well, they go together perfectly when you want to make a flower arrangement in a wide-mouthed container and don’t have any floral foam or a flower frog to secure the stems!

Floral foam (or Oasis) is probably the most widely-used material for flower arranging today. It is similar to styrofoam but is more delicate and holds a considerable amount of water. Easy to use, this medium allows the arranger to simply push stems into it. Floral foam must be soaked in water before it can be used. Otherwise it will be buoyant and will not secure your arrangement properly.

Floral foam can be found at any craft store. It is quite malleable and is easy to cut to fit the shape of your container.

Popular in the 1920s and 30s, vintage flower frogs are another great way to anchor stems. Placed in the bottom of your vessel, stems are inserted into the holes, indentations or needles of the frogs. If the frog is much smaller than your container, it may need to be secured to the bottom with a little floral putty to keep it from moving around.

Here are some nice examples of vintage metal flower frogs. Picture courtesy of Ellie Campbell of http://froggoestomarket.blogspot.com
Frogs were also made from glass and ceramics and came in different colors, shapes and sizes.  Picture courtesy of Peter Tholl of Crow Ridge Studios.

My collection of vintage frogs is currently packed away and I had no floral foam on hand. I wanted to use a wide-mouth bowl for my arrangement and lacked a way to keep the flowers upright. I remembered seeing my mother use this easy tape technique and thought I’d give it a try.

Simply place tape in a grid pattern across the top of your vessel, making sure the ends are pressed down and secure. Then fill your bowl with water. Try not to get the tape too wet. However if some water gets on the tape, don’t worry. As long as the ends are firmly secured, the grid should stay in place.

Now insert the stems in the grid openings. You don’t have to fill every opening in your grid. Just distribute the flowers evenly and in a pattern that is pleasing to you. This technique is particularly effective for loose, informal arrangements.

My stems were a little short and I had to move them around a bit to get them to stay where I wanted them.
After adjusting my arrangement, the tape ended up getting rather wet. Still the structure held up nicely and the tape didn’t come off until I removed it.

This technique works for most containers with a wide opening. Next time you find yourself without the usual flower arranging tools, remember Scotch tape and flowers go together beautifully!

 

Removing Stains from Vintage Linens

Do you have any old family linens packed away that you never use because they have stains or yellowing that you can’t get out? Or have you ever come across an inexpensive tablecloth at a yard sale or thrift shop and passed it up because you thought the stains were permanent? Since I learned the secret to removing set stains from vintage linens, I no longer let stains deter me from enjoying the linens I have, or from purchasing great pieces when I find them.

I had an antiques shop several years ago and learned the secret to stubborn stain removal from a fellow antiques dealer who sold the most pristine sparkling white linens I’d ever seen. I asked for her secret and she was kind enough to share it with me. Since then I’ve used the technique numerous times with excellent results, removing most stains from natural fabrics (cotton, linen, hemp).

This is the starting point. There are quite a few stains, mostly around the border of the tablecloth. They are not terrible, but they are noticeable and I would probably not use the tablecloth in its current condition.

I recently came across a damask tablecloth with eight napkins at a thrift store for the ridiculous price of $5.00. The napkins were in great shape but the tablecloth had quite a few well-set stains and yellowed areas from storage.  Given that there was no structural damage, I decided to purchase them knowing that it was likely I would be able to remove the stains–or at least improve the situation substantially.

I enhanced the contrast on the camera so that you could better see the stained areas. They are old stains and may not come out completely, but I think I can substantially improve upon their current state.

The secret is twofold. First, put two tablespoons of Oxiclean powder into a container. Add a cup of boiling water. The mixture will immediately bubble up and dissolve. Dampen the stained areas and apply the hot Oxi mixture directly to the stains.

Then fill your wash basin with very hot water and put the entire piece in.  Extremely hot water is key!  I usually add two kettles of boiling water to a tub of my hottest tap water. Wearing rubber gloves, give it a good swish and make sure the soapy water permeates all the fabric.

Your wash water will get lighter in color with each subsequent change of water.

And here is the second and most important part of the secret to stubborn stain removal: let it soak for as long as it takes for the stain to release.  Set stains often need a prolonged period of time in the washing solution to loosen up the fibers sufficiently to release the stain.  Sometimes an overnight soak will do the job but it often takes longer. Believe it or not, I have soaked linens up to three weeks before the stains lifted!

If you are doing a prolonged soak, repeat this process daily, changing your soaking water with fresh hot water and more Oxiclean.  It takes a bit of patience but it’s very little actual work. Once you have your solution mixed up and your fabric soaking, you can walk away and forget about it until the next day. Check on the status of the stains by holding the wet fabric up to a window during daylight hours.  You should be able to see any remaining discoloration when the fabric is wet.

This picture shows the stain after 2 days in the soaking solution (center). You can see it has lightened substantially. I’m feeling optimistic that in another day or so it will be completely gone.

Whatever you do, please don’t put stained linens in the dryer or iron them before working to remove the stain. The heat will set the stains making them much more difficult to remove.

I do not recommend using bleach on vintage linens–ever.  It is much too harsh and can weaken and erode the fibers.  If after an extended soak you are still unable to completely remove a stain, try using a little hydrogen peroxide. Dampen the fabric first and apply to the stained area.  This mild bleach will often take out any remaining shading.

I ended up soaking the tablecloth for four days. It is shown here lightly starched and pressed. Upon close inspection, I saw only one area where a very light amount of yellowing remained.  I doubt anyone will notice when this tablecloth is put into use.

Always be sure to rinse your linens well.  Yellowing occurs when soap residue is left behind. Rinse until you see no further suds. As long as the fabric is not too delicate, I put my linens through the regular wash cycle in the washing machine without detergent to remove any remaining soap residue. If you plan to store your linens for an extended period of time, adding a half cup of white vinegar to the final rinse can help prevent future yellowing.

Finally, to get your white linens to truly sparkle, lay down an old sheet on the lawn and spread them out in the bright sunshine for several hours. This trick will also help with any remaining discoloration.

I encourage you to pull your family linens out of storage and put them to use! And if you find a gorgeous bargain piece with a few stains–go for it!  Knowing how to remove stubborn stains should make you fearless about using and enjoying these beautiful items.

Pressed, lightly starched, and tied up with a pretty ribbon, my $5 tablecloth and napkins are ready for my next dinner party.

 

 

Flower Arranging Tips

 

Fresh flowers are a small extravagance that bring a touch of elegance and beauty to daily life.  With a little effort and some basic knowledge, a typical grocery store bouquet, which can cost as little as $5, can be stretched into several gorgeous displays that can last for 2 weeks or longer.  Here are some tips that will make them go further, last longer, and look better for the long haul.

Tip #1:  Don’t be afraid to cut long stems.
Long stemmed flowers can be beautiful but I think they look best in large arrangements, like the ones you see in hotel lobbies or restaurants.  In most homes, the arrangement needs to be scaled down and that means cutting the stems to a more manageable height.

Before: This grocery store bouquet has simply been removed from the plastic sleeve and had about an inch trimmed from the stems in order to allow fresh water uptake. It is lovely of course, but lacks fullness and has a spindly appearance.
After: Here, the stems of the same bouquet have been trimmed about 5 inches. The arrangement looks much fuller and more deliberate.

 

Remember, it is important to always cut at least an inch from the bottom of the stems before placing them in water.  The stems seal over and cannot take up fresh water so re-cutting is vital to keeping them alive. A diagonal cut is more effective that a straight-across cut because it provides more surface for water uptake. Also remember to change the water every day or so to keep bacteria at bay.

Tip #2:  Add elements from your own garden or yard.  While I recognize that those of us with yards are lucky and apartment dwellers may not have the same type of access, it’s possible to gather nature’s bounty just by walking in your neighborhood.  Last December I saw tree trimmers working on our street and noted lots of beautiful magnolia tree branches were being cut and tossed into a chipper.  I immediately ran out and grabbed several branches for my holiday decor!  I’m not advocating breaking any laws, here.  Just use your common sense and if you find a situation where you can legally gather some useful plant materials, go for it!

With a few sprigs of ivy from my yard tucked in, the arrangement now has more fullness, texture and dimension. Be open to all kinds of plant materials. Herbs add fragrance, while a delicate twig would also be lovely mixed in.

Tip #3:  Break up the flowers into several arrangements.  This is one of my favorite tips.  After you have added in extra greenery, you may find that the arrangement has suddenly grown much larger and can be divided into two arrangements.  I feel I have gotten “two for one” when I can get a second arrangement from the same bunch.

I removed a few of the flowers from the original bouquet and placed the remaining flowers in a different container, roughly the same size as the first vase. This container had a wider mouth which enabled me to add more greenery from outside.  When you select flowers, try to find bunches that still have unopened buds to extend the life of your arrangements.
Here’s the second arrangement from the same bunch.  I took the Gerber daisies and a sprig of the chrysanthemums and cut the stems much shorter for a smaller vase. I had camillias in bloom in my yard so I added a few white blossoms to the mix. This smaller arrangement in the bathroom is a cheerful greeting first thing in the morning.
The roses and the initial lily blossoms faded after about a week. These two lily blossoms were just buds the first week. I removed some of the additional greenery I had in the previous arrangement and moved the flowers to a smaller container.

Tip #4  As individual flowers fade, remove them and downsize the arrangement.  Just because a few of the flowers in your arrangement have started to lose their petals or wither doesn’t mean it’s time to toss the entire arrangement!  All you need to do is pull out the bad ones and downsize to a smaller vessel. Remember you can continue to plump up the arrangement with cuttings from the great outdoors.  The picture on the right shows how this same arrangement looked after the first week.

My smaller arrangement in the bathroom evolved as well.  I replaced the camillias and greenery as needed.  The Gerber daisies are slightly less vibrant in color but it otherwise it still looks great. The camillia blossoms tend to fall off every couple of days but since I have an abundance in my yard right now,  I added fresh ones as needed.

Here’s the final arrangement. While not quite as impressive as the first arrangement, it’s not bad given that these flowers are nearly 3 weeks old!

By day 17, the chrysanthemums and Gerber daisies continued to thrive.  I changed up the container again and added fresh greenery.  I got another 4 days out of this arrangement before I had to toss it out.  Three weeks of fresh flowers in my home for about $5?  Now that’s a pretty good deal!!

If anyone has tips on how to keep the cat out of the flowers, please let me know!

Preserving Fresh Herbs

Did you ever have a basil harvest that was a little too abundant?  Or have to buy way more cilantro than you needed when the recipe called for only a tablespoon?  While there is nothing like the tremendous flavor boost most dishes get from fresh herbs, they can be expensive and tend to go bad before they get used up.  If, like me, you have tossed out too many slimy bags of wilted herbs, here is a tip for you.

Next time you have more fresh herbs than you can use at one time, try freezing them in olive oil.

Take the leaves off the stems and put them in a food processor or blender.  Give them a good spin and then slowly start adding olive oil.  As soon as the oil is incorporated, stop blending and spoon them into an ice cube tray.  Top off each section with more olive oil until they are covered (this helps the herbs to stay green).  Pop them into the freezer for a couple of hours and when they have hardened, place the cubes into a sealable plastic bag.

You now have all the goodness and flavor of fresh herbs anytime you want it.  Toss a cube into a pot of soup or sauce.  Or defrost a couple and use as a pizza topping. Blend into a smoothie or add to an omelet.  Each cube equals about one tablespoon of minced fresh herbs. You can pretty much use them just as you would fresh herbs.

I’ve shown basil here but this tip works equally well with parsley, cilantro, mint, oregano and most other herbs.  Preserving fresh herbs is not only economical and easy,  I think you’ll also find that the flavor is amazing!

A Simple Ironstone Bowl

I collect antique and vintage ironstone.  I love its simplicity, versatility and its usefulness.  Whenever I visit flea markets, yard sales, thrift stores or travel, I always keep an eye out for it.  I used to see it frequently but now it’s a rare treat to find a piece.

On my recent visit to Paso Robles, I stopped in an antique mall downtown and found this lovely bowl.

I didn’t have a bowl like this in my collection and knew immediately it would be useful in a variety of applications.

My lemon tree is loaded with ripe lemons.

 

My camillias are in bloom.

 

I have a pile of Christmas cards that need a place to call home.

 

And tonight’s dinner calls for a simple green salad.

It will also be a great addition to my ironstone collection.