Caring Instinctively

Needle felted fruits, veggies and circus balls awaiting packaging

Hello readers!

Well, here I am, feeling joyful and relaxed after 90+ hours of work on a recent wholesale order. Many little N&N lovelies are currently on their way (back) to Canada where they’ll join other natural and eco-friendly toys available for retail. My work has been a gratifying experience lately, and I am taking a moment of reprieve to lay out my plans for the shop for Spring/Summer.

If you have visited Niko & Nonnie’s Etsy shop lately, you will notice that it has been given a makeover of sorts. I have greatly reduced the inventory and done all new photography for the products I do have available.  I have done this for a number of reasons. As we reach onward toward May, the shop will be celebrating its one-year anniversary, and it is just par for the course that the urge to change things up comes to the forefront of the creative process.  While I haven’t applied this recent makeover to nikoandnonnie.com, I will be evaluating what goes and what stays in the days to come, and hopefully to find time to sit down and hammer out the details, make essential edits, etc.

Packaging materials

Harvest Veggies

*New* Heart Jingle Ball, fully customisable

Mixed Veggies

Felt+wood necklace

Deluxe Cookie Sampler

I am also feeling the desire to slow down, both mentally and physically, as we prepare for our little one to show “le bout de son nez” in July. It is quite warm down here in Austin, and looking after two very spirited children while developing a daily homeschool curriculum can be, well – very tiring some days.  We had the wonderful treat of having ‘Papa’ home by 6pm yesterday, and we were able to go for a walk as a family, have dinner at our usual spot, and still have an evening ahead of us to spend together.  This kind of time is absolutely invaluable to us; it does not happen very often, but when it does, I feel a great deal of weight suddenly lifted from my shoulders. All four of us pitched in to get the house in order last night (I had been slipping behind a bit this week – and it is amazing how just having another pair of adult hands helps to make things go so much faster). I came downstairs this morning to gleaming countertops and extremely tidy living spaces.

If I could achieve my ideal, everyday would be like today where we find a tidy home, stocked refrigerator and pantry, laundry folded and put away, cupboards full of clean dishware, and our little homeschool set up exactly as planned in the dining room.  I would have a clear idea of what I was going to cook or bake, a list posted to the refrigerator of things that need doing, and all of our mail and parcels would be neatly stacked up by the doorway, ready to go.  How completely untenable a plan!

Instead, what life actually looks like most days is waking up to the repeated chime of my husband’s snooze alarms, the pair of us picking up our phones and checking our email and messages before our eyes are barely deemed open, making a mental note of what requires a response, trying to wake up my feet (which have fallen asleep from the cat sleeping on them all night), then sidling our way downstairs as said cat leaps and scratches at my legs demanding his breakfast. This is usually followed by my opening the refrigerator, sighing, and then preparing iced coffees, cheese and a few wedges of fruit while I move to the computer, sit and keep track of the baby’s movements, and check in with all things Niko & Nonnie. Grant will be alongside me, reading the New York Times online and responding to his Twitter (which is @chefgrantm, just in case you’d like to follow him!) which is the perfect medium for him, seeing as though he barely ever responds to emails (I used to have to go into his account and ‘respond’ for him, which I have now given up entirely); having to write short, succinct messages limited to 140 characters really works for him in a way that other communication methods do not. Then it is time to lament having not gotten up 30 minutes earlier when the alarm first chimed, wishing Grant a good day, and trodding back upstairs to wake up A+F, sleeping beauties extraordinaire who could sleep til 3 in the afternoon if I permitted them.

As a homeschooling mother, it is of the utmost importance to me to ensure that A+F are receiving as well-rounded a learning experience as I possibly can give them.  There is an endless amount of resources out in the world, from the internet to mothering/homeschooling groups, to forums and I thankfully draw from all of these for inspiration and motivation. Researching curriculum and methodology adds extra time to my day which, while I can not always find the time each day for it, remains high on my list of priorites for what needs to be accomplished each week.

Time is an interesting concept for everyone on this planet -we never seem to have enough of it, and the rare times when we do, we are not always quite sure how to use or manage it effectively. Ours is a family that practices natural and attachment parenting, and sometimes that means having to allot more time while seeking increased tolerance and patience in various situations – following the lead of our children’s rhythms, being flexible about our routines as well as open to new ideas and suggestions. Attachment parenting has been invaluable to us; it has not only been instinctual and intuitive but has also helped to dispel anxieties and frustrations, build an extremely close bond with our children, and most of all, be responsive and attentive to their needs, by never letting them “cry-it- out” or feel as though we are ignoring their methods of communication.   As such, it also requires us as parents to demand more from ourselves and to push ourselves harder on those days when we are feeling less patience or tolerance. I do not believe for even one millisecond that little children are manipulative or that they can be “spoiled” (how I despise that term!) Perhaps later on when they are teenagers, I could see some manipulative aspects emerging, but as far as babies, toddlers and school-aged kids are concerned, I do not even see this or consider it as a possibility.

We are all, of course, entitled to our own opinions and strategies as far as child-rearing is concerned, and I often find that listening to those of other parents, even though we may not necessarily agree with their choices, helps to teach us something about ourselves and to clarify our own methods. Caring instinctively is an impulse with which we are all endowed, and in listening to our inner voices, our “gut feelings,” and most of all, our hearts – we can provide our children with a sense of well-being and security to stand the test of time.

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Springtime + Old West Austin

‘All through the long winter, I dream of my garden. On the first day of spring, I dig my fingers deep into the soft earth. I can feel its energy, and my spirits soar.’ -Helen Haye


The City of Austin and its surroundings of Travis County and Central Texas were blanketed in an apocalyptic-style thunderstorm that nearly washed us away Monday night. Nearly 4.5 inches of rain fell in about 1-2 hours, as if bottomless buckets of rain were literally being dumped from the sky.  This thunderstorm, and its incessant display of lightning’s best doom and gloom, was probably the worst we have ever experienced. While mopping up our living room floor in the middle of the night (be it known that apocalyptic rains do not discriminate and will flood your house at 2am), we learned that this storm covered approximately 1,000 miles – from Northern Mexico to St. Louis, MO. The weather report insisted on playing video of the Texas State Capitol and chattering about how awful and frightening the lightning was there…which, to us was not the most appreciated, seeing as though we live just down the street! Handily, Grant channeled his inner MacGuyver and managed to quell the flooding with some cleverly wound butcher’s twine and an old towel hoisted about our door.


When we awoke this morning, after a long night spent calming the phobias of children and cat, the city was fresh and the sun plentiful.  Those violent rains ushered in a most fragrant and gentle spring, the kind you only read about in books depicting halcyon days in the southern United States.  The air hangs with the scent of jasmine and honeysuckle, urging you to breathe deeply and take it all in. Seeing as though we finally had a day off to enjoy, we decided to venture to Old West Austin.  


Living downtown as we do, Old West Austin is only a few blocks west of us.  Old West Austin is filled with heritage and historic houses, buildings of great architectural interest, and sprawling gardens, some manicured, some untame. Most of all, when exploring Old West Austin, you are reminded that Austin is indeed Hill Country. Every street is like an individual hill with its own summit, and the sidewalks are filled with stairs rising up and down to meet the steep inclines. Grant and the children do remarkably on these hike-walks, but with me entering my sixth month of pregnancy now, I need to take it a bit slower and pay attention to my footing.

After you’ve hiked up the hill – more stairs!
Something very appealing about this old house

What strikes us about Austin lately, and I suppose Texas in general, is how unfamiliar we are with the flora and fauna. While we can recognise and identify the various irises, roses, daisies and other flowering plants, there are so many with which we are unfamiliar; there are many species of birds we have never seen before and insects that are large, alien and oftentimes – scary. When they say that everything is bigger in Texas, it applies on so many levels!  


Here are some bits of visual interest from our day:

Cactii, budding leaves and prickly pears
Majestic sidewalk horse and flowering vines

A lifetime supply of rosemary, free for the taking

Think of all the tequilla you can make from that giant agave!

Palm frond bushes
Quite possibly the largest rhododendron – ever!
Highlighting our path – literary lovers

I also thought I would share some candids that Grant took of me with the children this afternoon.  I am never one who enjoys having her photograph taken, in fact I am usually the one behind the camera. However, when I am pregnant, I allow Grant to be as free with the photo-taking as possible.  A+F are so in love with the baby in my belly, and their adoration is captured here so beautifully.

I recently read about a woman who, like me, always preferred to be behind the camera. With two young children of her own, she realised that there weren’t many photographs of her with her children, that somehow her own misgivings about herself held her back.  She encouraged parents everywhere to allow themselves to be photographed with their children, at any moment, in various situations.  In the end, your children don’t care about how your hair looks or if your clothes are wrinkled, whether you are having a bloated day or whether you feel like posing or not. They only care about seeing their parents captured on film alongside them, telling their story – and creating memories that last a lifetime. How simply liberating.


XO.
N&N

In the swing of things…SXSW

Neighbourhood terraced graffiti park…and a castle!

If there was ever a time to come and experience Austin, it most likely would be right now. This already happening city is alive with musicians, filmmakers, artists, celebrities, foodies…It’s the yearly incarnation of the South by Southwest Festival, most commonly abbreviated as SXSW.  Over 2,000 musical acts in over 90 venues are set to perform, with many big names stopping by Austin City Limits to do live concert recordings as well (my husband was even treated to an impromptu Radiohead concert  on his walk home from work last week).  Jay-Z, The Magnetic Fields, famous Austinite Willie Nelson, Cheryl Crow…these are just a small sample of the talented entertainers and bands that are gracing the stages in this city.

In fact, Twitter got its digs here at the festival in 2007 and as we all know, it has been a massive social media superpower ever since. Even with such an enormous concentration on music and film, SXSW also focuses on interactive, which has now become one of the most popular features of the festival. Tonight’s lineup includes Al Gore and Ryan Parker discussing the landscape of new media – which you can livestream from the comfort of your own computer.

Speaking of interactive, I often discover some surprise photographs when I check my phone during the day, courtesy of iCloud (one of the world’s savviest inventions, as far as I am concerned!)  I am able to have all the photographs my husband takes on his phone immediately placed in the photostream on mine, and vice versa.  Last night I came across some new pictures of food that Grant must have taken at work that evening…I often enjoy these little surprises throughout the day, it is like a little glimpse into his cooking world and his kitchen… and the plates looked spectacular.  When he came home, knackered and dehydrated after he and his team had done nearly 350 people for dinner, he whipped out his phone and swiped through his pictures.  “How does the food look?” he asked. “Fabulous, did you take those before service?” I asked. “Nope, I took those after we’d done about 250 covers. Still looks pretty good, no?” I honestly was speechless. Now that’s quality control for you, and moreover, a brilliant way to keep yourself and your team on track.

I asked him if he felt extra pressure because of all the high profile individuals in the dining room this week in particular, and he just shrugged his shoulders. “You can’t think about it like that. Sure, we see the names on the bills and some celebrities have unmistakeable names and don’t use an alias. But if you start concentrating on their tables at the expense of others, that’s when it all goes to hell in a hand cart. It doesn’t matter who you are, we still crank out the same level of food.”  I love how well-grounded and level-headed he is and I think his philosophy is very insightful. I recalled the many nights over the years he’s arrived home from work late and I’d given him a bit of a hard time because he hadn’t phoned- sometimes I get so anxious for him to get back, and he often cannot stop what he is doing in the kitchen to let me know he’ll be much later than expected. The nights when Grant would come home rolling his eyes and apologising because Lou Reed came in with only five minutes til close, and was “slow to decide what he wanted to eat” or Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel came for dinner again and “you know how they like to linger.” Yes, honey. I know. Well, actually I don’t…but I’ll take your word for it!

Daily view of Austin

When you work in the service industry, you have lots of these sorts of experiences. I used to rib him about how ‘unfortunate’ it must be having to cook for individuals that ordinary people would love to even catch a glimpse of on the street, but I totally understand his perspective. When you are tired and rushed off your feet after a long day of cooking, sometimes you just want to go home, see your family, have a snack, and watch mindless television. That’s really what it all comes down to. But I must admit, some of his stories are pretty hilarious, from musicians who are so bizarre in real life they have frightened other diners, to actors with a stench so potent, nearby guests in the dining room requested to have their seats changed just to escape the odour.  There have been sweatpant-clad actresses who randomly pop into the kitchen to hang out, heads of state who eat more candy than you can shake a stick at, “trainwreck” popstars, understated sports legends and highly neurotic figure skaters.  Not short on entertainment value, it all becomes fodder for the novel that will never be… or will it? 😉

Seeing as today is yet another sunny day with warm temperatures reaching 28C/82F, will we ever really get sick of all this beautiful sunshine? I’ll have to get back to you on that one. To beat the heat,  A+F and I have taken to making popsicles.  The recipe we are using is taken from a mouth-watering book called Paletas: Authentic Recipes for Mexican Ice Pops, Shaved Ice and Aguas Frescas by Fany Gerson, our new go-to book whenever cold treats are concerned.  Living in Austin, we consume more water on a daily basis than we ever have before; iced drinks, shaved ices and pops are a necessity after an afternoon out with the sun beating down upon you. We also find that keeping well-hydrated helps us feel refreshed and keeps our use of A/C to a minimum. I say this now…but when the temperatures hit 43C/110F when I’m 9-months pregnant in June, I might be changing my tune!

Since we decided to make these rather last minute and do not have any limes in the house, we are substituting meyer lemons. Do we manage to put meyer lemons in almost anything? Quite possibly. Although, grapefruits are sold in 20lb bags here at the grocery stores here in Austin – for normal household consumption – and I don’t think our meyer lemon obsession has quite reached that particular weight…Yes, 20lb bags! Makes us feel pretty lightweight lugging home our 5lb bags of clementines with pride, right?

LIME ICE POPS

Here’s what you’ll need:

2 cups water
2/3 cup sugar
Grated lime zest (approximately that of 2 limes)
3/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice (about 10 small limes)

Popsicle-making essentials

Shiny meyer lemons + a lime

Begin by grating your zest into a bowl.  

Measure out 2/3 cup of sugar and 2 cups of water.
Bowls from West Elm are perfectly sized for ingredients

Toss your grated zest, water and sugar into a saucepan and bring to a boil. 

While you wait for the ingredients to boil, juice 10 of your fruits.  Don’t worry about getting the seeds in there, you can always use a fine sieve to strain them out later.


Once your mixture has been brought to a boil and cooled to room temperature, pour it through a strainer and add it to your freshly squeezed juice.

Pour mixture into your  popsicle molds, being sure to leave a bit of a gap at the top to allow the liquid to freeze and expand.

Be sure to pose with your finished work…
Then pop them into the freezer…

And ask your mother to take them out again so you can beg to eat one immediately…

Give the cat a little nose rub while you wait patiently for the popsicles to freeze

Relaxing on the couch with cat and belly bump

The recipe suggests freezing the popsicles for 5 hours. We’ll see if the little elves can resist eating them for that long. I hope to post some pictures of finished popsicles, but given the amount of pleading that is resounding in our house at the moment, I am doubtful!

Topo Chico bottles awaiting agua fresca

DIY Shadow Puppets

Shadow puppet witch

As Spring Break begins and we prepare to wind our clocks forward this week-end, you might be looking for a simple craft idea to do with your little loved one(s) to keep them from going stir crazy. Shadow puppets are a wonderful diversion but more importantly, an excellent way to practice fine motor skills through tracing and cutting. We made some together during the art portion of our homeschooling this week and A+F really enjoyed them.

This is a very straightforward craft that gears up your child for imaginative play.  You create the shadow puppets together during the day and then when evening falls, dim the lights, get out a flashlight  and play puppeteers! For this particular craft, you don’t really need many materials as such and most likely can use what you have around the house.  Here’s what you’ll require:

Shadow puppet materials

Materials:

-Stencils or cookie cutters
-Graphite pencils
-Black art paper (or similar)
-Scissors
-Craft sticks (or similar)
-Glue stick or tape
-Small hole puncher for additional details (optional)

Any stencils that appeal to your child will do. I would also recommend cookie cutters (such as the little bear seen above) for children that are a bit younger and find it more difficult to trace more nuanced shapes.  We used black art paper because it has a great weight to it and will not flop around once attached to the craft sticks. If you do not have craft paper, you can use black construction paper, but I would advise a double layer, perhaps mirror-imaged and glued to each side of the craft sticks.  Of course, the children could always use plain white printer paper (double-layered) and colour the shapes in with a black crayon to achieve the desired effect as well.

It doesn’t take long to make each puppet so be sure to have enough stencils and shapes to create a full company for your shadow puppet theatre.

3 simple steps:

1. Trace your stencil onto the black paper

Stencils traced with graphite on black paper really show up well

Step 2: Cut out your shape

Step 3: Attach a craft stick with tape or glue – and you’re done! Wasn’t that ridiculously easy?

What evils lurk behind the castle walls

We’ll be back soon with more simple crafts to create over spring recess.  Enjoy your twilight theatre!

XO.
N&N

Building villages and community

The beginnings of our Yorkshire paperclay village…

I wanted to begin this post by first stating that my heart goes out to all the individuals in the United States who have been ravaged by tornadoes this week. Each day I have been sitting online, reading news reports and wiping the tears from my eyes. I just finished reading an article on an Indiana woman who managed to save both of her children (ages 5 and 8) by binding them together with a blanket and using her body as a human shield to protect them as a tornado literally ripped right through their house.  She lost both of her legs in the process – but managed to keep all of them alive. Alive, by the grace of a moment and one mother’s extraordinary bravery…

It’s during times such as these that a grounded sense of community comes to the fore – neighbours and strangers will find each other, bound together by the commonalities of their existence. Living always in cities, I have often found it difficult to find that sense of shared experiences.  New York may be where I grew up, but it can be the loneliest place in the world. New York City and its various suburbs in the tri-state area add up to over 30 million inhabitants – the entire population of Canada! You would think that in a city so large, teeming with people, that you would find community everywhere you look. Indeed you can, and quite often do. But there are also times when you feel so anonymous, like a tiny pin prick swimming in the centre of a billowing plume rising all around you.

Montréal, Vancouver, and now Austin… my search for an established community continues. Years ago, Hillary Clinton was mocked mercilessly for her “It takes a village to raise a child” approach, but I think she was hitting on a point that we often overlook. While we all are products of our genetic composition as well as products of our environment, we are also the embodiment of each other. Of course villages have now been replaced by modern-day neighbourhoods, divided by the “haves” and the “have nots.” Affluence can be outwardly measured by the brand of car(s) sitting in the driveway and whether or not you strung your own Christmas lights on your property this year. But less cynically, neighbourhoods can also be measured by community gardens, libraries, food banks, extracurricular groups, recreation centres and a general willingness to create togetherness.

On a recent trip this past week-end to our local grocery store, we remarked at how many people were there on a hot Sunday evening. People were literally spilling out of the store and all of the benches, tables and chairs outside and on the upstairs patio were occupied. There was laughing, eating of take-out and ice cream, and just hanging out in general. What spoke to me about this seemingly attractive meeting place, was that this is a grocery store…and mind you, there is a real scarcity of supermarkets in Austin, so this very large one downtown is quite popular. But at the end of the day, it is clear to me that people are longing for a sense of community; in a world of social networking, smartphones and long work days, they are seeking it out in the most quotidian of places.    

Recently, I have taken to sculpting clay in the evenings. I am forever finding new ways to divert my attention when there is other work to be done! What started as a bit of tinkering around for me has now turned into a new family activity. We listen to music and sit at the dining room table, pounding out our clay, pinching it into shapes, and using whatever we can find around the house as makeshift sculpting tools. Pen caps seem to work quite well! The children have brightly coloured modeling clay and Grant and I use paper clay (one of the only varieties of clay safe for pregnant women) which I later have him top with varnish in a well-ventilated area. A+F have made all matter of things – slices of watermelon, flowers, starbursts, trains, cheeseburgers with all the fixings, and basically anything that pops into their heads. They are so creative in that way, it is very inspiring.

Because of my fondness for all things miniature (they do take up less space and we all know how I feel about clutter), Grant and I have started to make a little village. Recalling my days living in the urban centre of Leeds, England and the gorgeous dales and moors surrounding the city, this seemed like as good a starting place as any.  I am not sure how big our village will turn out to be, but I am hoping we’ll put up a shelf in our dining room to house this new “imagined community” (to borrow from Benedict Anderson).

Where do you find community? Do you actively seek it out where you live? I would love to hear your thoughts.

XO.
N&N

From the N&N Studio…

Needle felted apricot, apple, tomato and strawberry



I have spoken in a previous blog post about the benefits of using wool as a material. Not only is it a natural fibre that will last a lifetime, but the positive aspects as far as your child’s health is concerned far outweigh the use of synthetic materials. While I’m certain that mass-produced, plastic toys will never go out of style, mostly because they are available the world over at lower price points, it is reassuring to know that you will never find handmade woolen toys on a product recall list.


What is needle felting?

Needle felting is a technique whereby you sculpt forms out of raw carded wool using a very sharp barbed needle. Each needle felted piece is jabbed thousands and thousands of times in order to create a finished product.  Needle felting is a very enjoyable art form, but also extremely labour intensive! Each of these fruits takes me approximately one hour (or more) to make.  All of Niko & Nonnie’s needle felted play food items are very firmly felted and geared toward gentle imaginative play.


Here’s what organic lambs’ wool batting looks like after it has been vigorously sculpted with my needles. These items are going to be a banana and a lemon, respectively. 



The next step after sculpting the clean, carded wool is to apply the colour (as in the picture at the top of this blog post). I most often use merino or corriedale, and always purchase hand-dyed when available.  The raw materials for these items are costly, but they will in no way compromise the health of your child – ever. As a shop owner, it can make it a bit more difficult; labour put into an item is not necessarily appreciated by a mass audience.  As consumers, we are so accustomed to seeing factory produced, machine-sewn goods that we often balk at having to pay more money because an item was crafted by someone’s own two hands.  For instance, if you were to take the price of my raw materials and factor in the hours of labour for the items I produce … well, I probably would be pictured on some exposé tv show where they blow the whistle on worker exploitation. This often gives my husband and I a good laugh. 

Work-in-progress Jingle Ball

A close up of my needle felting process



If this is the reality of many artisans, why choose to have a shop, to be a handmaker of children’s toys and accessories when I am decidedly not the next heir to the Fisher Price fortune?


One word: fulfillment.


When I am writing, crafting or needle felting, my mind travels to a serene, creative space where my artistic impulses can be nourished.  I am able to work out any stresses I feel are weighing me down. My spirits lift, my mind clears itself, and I receive a vast amount of joy and fulfillment in return.  At times, stress can be so overwhelming that it affects the creative process and prohibits the necessary juices from flowing to the brain. If this happens, I walk away from what I am doing and wait until I am in a different head space to return to it.  I have tried many, many times to work through the notorious “blocks” and each time, I end up producing something I greatly dislike – which can only add to one’s frustration!


Today I did not feel like working per se, so I played around with some new product shots from some orders I’m completing instead.

Circus Ball Jingle Rattles – perfect for a new baby!



When you buy one of the above Circus Ball Jingle Rattles, your package will arrive looking something like this:

N&N packaging



I sew wool felt sheets into little pouches, then add a needle felted heart clothespin, and sew on a hand-stamped tag. On the back of each tag I write a small description of the item, any age-appropriate warnings, and of course my materials – 100% organic lambs’ wool. True, I cannot tell you the names of the actual sheep that produced such lovely wool, but when you feel the products in your hands, you will thank those anonymous, fleecy wonders for their generous contribution to the world of toys.

Just add pectin! 

Until next time,

XO.