Thursday, December 17, 2015

Review of Simplicity 1318, View D

Short story: A while back, I found a lovely pattern and just had to make it as a selfish sewing project. Except it was supposed to be fast. And at the last minute I gave in to incorrect thinking and made a different view than the one I fell in love with. Still, I am very happy with the results.

I bumped into Simplicity 1318 in the vast recesses of Pinterest and just loved the example, View C. I do not wear kimonos generally, or even a bathrobe, but I have an unnatural affection for wrap dresses and I liked this so much I was, for the first time ever, able to mentally embrace the potential of a hi-lo hemline. Craziness.


My plan had been to simply make a version of view C as well, using 3 yards of a lovely, vaguely tropical, floral printed poly crepe de chine I had purchased via thrift 6+ years ago for about $3. Did somebody say stash busting? Yes, I am so proud of myself. I figured view C would swamp my petite proportions so I had planned to shorten it, but at the last minute, with scissors glinting over still creased tissue paper, I figured, what the heck, I’ll make this one view D and use a georgette or chiffon for a view D closer to summer.

Ummm… wait, what? As you can see in the line drawing, view D has literally MILES of hand sewing to secure the inside of the wraparound band. Like 10 miles. Anyway, I began cutting into my $1 paper pattern. I cut it as offered for a size medium but eliminated the back seam and extended the sleeves several inches (it’s winter, after all), and then added bands to them too a la view C. Because why not add 2 more miles of hand sewing when you have the chance? I quickly realized the way this was going down but figured it would be character building and I could work on my technique. *Newly older and wiser me rolls her eyes.*

 The construction was fine until the bit where I was supposed to be sewing a concave band to a convex front section or two. The end result was also fine, but it was pretty finicky going and I was not at all sure it was going to turn out right in the end. I pinned like a crazy woman. There was much sweating. It wasn’t pretty, but in the end it came out like a peach. Except it wasn’t done. There was the hand sewing. That part took 3 days of here and there stitching. Again, the end result is beautiful… just as lovely inside as out. I had used French seams (and notched and reinforced them in three places under each arm), so I was clearly in a perfectionist mood. I cannot say with certainty that my ladder stitch is any better now than 12 miles ago, but I’d like to think I did take home a little fortitude.



View of the inside of the band. Not too shabby…


I used the last little bits of fabric to sew a long sash to rein in the volume and define the waist, before the holidays while I still have one. It’s not really designed to overlap, so it’s a bit awkward doing that but the bold print hides all manner of fashion sins and I will continue in my errant ways. I think the mild hi-lo situation (in this application only) is actually flattering… it breaks up what would otherwise be a eye-hogging horizontal line across a wide area. Again, I’m astounded that I’ve just admitted that. I’m old, I know…



Overall, I am incredibly pleased with the end result, even for as much pain as it was. I do love the fabric, and I think it can dress up or down as the occasion requires. I wore it out with dark jeans and a black camisole and felt stylish, but I think it would also do well with a black pencil skirt to fancier events. And in that regard it was a total success… a multitasking wardrobe builder. I am not sure when I will go about making a view D in a sheer fabric, but I have confidence that it will turn out again should I ever attempt it. And, if I ever get my act together to take photos of this project on my actual body instead of my stand-in, I’ll be sure to update this post.

Monday, December 14, 2015

White Chocolate Cherry Shortbread

This is a recipe I tried for the first time this year… initially stumbled upon this gem at closetcooking.com. They were cute… but were they tasty?


I am happy to report that these adorable morsels of cherry-studded shortbread are, in fact, very tasty indeed. The beauty is that they can be altered to suit your tastes, like most cherished icebox recipes can. I made them with white chocolate morsels, but you could just as easily use dark chocolate. Or green cherries (eww) or dried cranberries (might have to try that one). I gave these a decorative drizzle of Ghirardelli Dark Melting Chocolate wafers, and I will certainly make them again, though I may spring for fancier cherries next time.

White Chocolate Cherry Shortbread

Ingredients
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup confectioners sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup maraschino cherries, chopped (I pulsed them briefly in the food processor because I’m lazy)
1/2 cup white and/or dark chocolate chips
1/2 tablespoon vanilla extract
White or dark chocolate melting wafers
Directions
Cream the butter and the sugar. Mix the flour and the salt. Mix the dry ingredients into the wet until it starts forming larger clumps. Mix in the maraschino cherries, white chocolate and vanilla extract.
Form the dough into the shape that you want, wrap it in parchment paper or plastic and let it chill in the fridge for at least an hour. Cut the log into 1/4 inch thick slices and place them on a parchment lined baking pan with one inch of space between them.
Bake in a preheated 325F/170C oven until they just start to turn lightly golden brown on top, about 10-15 minutes. Let cool completely.
Melt the chocolate wafer in a zipper baggie in a cup of near-boiling water. Massage occasionally until all is melted. Drizzle the chocolate over the cookies, place on a sheet of parchment paper and let cool until the chocolate sets.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Sweet Orange Scones, Baked with Love

Scones. Moist, tangy, sweet orange scones. We'll get there. Make a proper cup of tea and stick with me...

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It is the nature of people to be reactionary. And this post is a bit of that... Life going on amidst the rubble of devastating realities in our world, in our country, in our community. My heart is weighed down with so many things, including the very recent suicide of the son of a dear teacher. It's enough to suck the happiness right out of my soul and replace it with blackness. It isn’t the first time the shadows have reached for me and it won’t be the last, and this post is a reminder for myself as much as it is anything else.

I have decided that I am not going to be robbed of my joy, or my faith that humanity, even in the face of grim circumstances and frightening events, can be beautiful and brave. If I let my little light be snuffed in sadness, the world gets even darker, and I won't be able to spark joy in those who need it. Like so many people, there are times in my own life where I've felt the icy despair of depression. And I am grateful for that life experience because I am better equipped to embrace the pain and suffering around me. But with a heart rooted in the hope of Heaven, I will defend joy, I will find beauty in the darkness, and I will share it.

Mr. C, the ageless teacher who just lost his 20 year old son, is an amazing example of that. He taught me as a 7th grader (way back when), and continues to teach my kids' generation at our wonderful school. He stopped into the school just a couple days after the tragedy and left this note on his chalkboard for his students, a bright beacon of joy even from his own broken heart:

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Say what's in your heart. Hug tighter. Make peace. Make memories. Find beauty. Share joy. Be grateful. Give love.

Also on that list for me is bake. I bake when I grieve, I bake when I celebrate, I bake when I'm happy and when I'm sad. Food made by hand involves skill and knowledge and commitment. When given as a gift, even as a simple family dinner, it communicates nurturing love and gratitude for the company of those who partake in it. Food itself is not the solution to troubles of the heart, but it can be a language to express the otherwise inexpressible. And it fits handily into the directive:

Whatever you do, do everything for the Glory of God.
I Corinthians 10:31

And, sometimes, scone is just the word you're looking for. I made a batch of these and took a couple of them over when visiting a dear friend who feeds my soul. We laughed, we sewed, we made memories over scone crumbs.

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Sweet Orange Scones with Butter Icing
(original recipe from mybakingaddiction)

Scone Ingredients:

1/3 cup sugar

2 tbsp orange zest

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup butter, cold or frozen

1/2 cup sour cream

1 large egg

Icing Ingredients:

3 tbsp butter, melted

1 cup powdered sugar

1/2 tsp vanilla extract

2 tbsp freshly squeezed orange juice

Directions:

Preheat oven to 400. Place parchment paper on cookie sheet. Mix sugar and zest in large mixing bowl. Add in flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Grate cold butter into the flour mixture and combine. In separate bowl, blend egg and sour cream. Add egg mixture to flour mixture and stir with a spoon, then use your hands to form it into a well-combined ball. Pat the dough into an 8" disk of fairly uniform thickness, then cut into 8 wedges and place on the prepared cookie sheet. Sprinkle with demerara or granulated sugar and pat it into the surface. Bake at 350 until just beginning to brown on the bottom and at the points, about 15-17 minutes.

While the scones bake, mix all the icing ingredients until a thick but pourable consistency is reached, adding more sugar or orange juice as needed.

Allow scones to cool for 10 minutes on a wire rack, then drizzle/spoon several layers of icing over the scones and allow it to firm up as it cools.

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Before you feed them to anyone, be sure to spellcheck:

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Please always remember that you are here for many reasons, one of which is simply to bring your own brand of joy to those around you. No matter who you are, the world is richer simply with you in it.

Red heart

Friday, November 13, 2015

Seasonal Musings, 2015 Edition

Despite the lack of blogging, I’ve been plugging along in my role as homemaker and generally getting done what needs to get done for all the people who live here, with the semi-frequent home improvement project thrown in for the sake of progress. But recently the speed of life seems to have accelerated and we’re now cruising into the Christmas season under full sail. Well, maybe that isn’t the most apt description… it isn’t that life is moving faster, it’s just that there are more details to handle in the same amount of time, which makes everything feel rushed and leaves me feeling perpetually behind schedule. Which is a funny place to be when the one setting most of my goals is me, and those goals are fairly arbitrary. I think there are a lot of opportunities to improve on this situation, and the simplest seems to be praying for the motivation to accomplish the tasks I can, and the grace to let go of the tasks that I can’t. I want to truly enjoy the season in a meaningful, substantive way… to be able to internalize the meaning of it all, to relish the delightful, and to accept whatever sudden changes of plan may come our way in terms of inclement weather or quarantine-level illness.

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Around this time every year I try to begin working out the Christmas Gift Situation (CGS). The biggest challenge with CGS is trying to elucidate gift ideas for the kids to provide those who ask while also keeping some viable and fun options for ourselves to give them. Nearly on par with that is brainstorming thoughtful gifts for people who don’t really need anything. How to show love without giving knickknacks or labor-saving devices? We fail a lot. This year I have managed to keep track of a few things that each kid really wants. Specific reading material, a memory foam pillow, some rubber ducks to add to an existing collection. Nothing profound, but something that will be enjoyed. I have ordered some things already. I have also decided to just try to be more accommodating and generous with my time on a day to day basis… they may not remember 10 years from now what I gave them for Christmas, but they might hold on to a feeling that I cared about what they were interested in and helped them to accomplish it.

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More important than the gifts, we are lucky to have so much family and so many friends, and so close, that we have a long and full Christmas season with many and varied seasonal events spanning mid-December through the New Year. And that is not a complaint…  We live a charmed life. But we also MUST plan ahead. Some events require nicer clothing for the fam, each might need us to bring some foods, and a couple need white elephant gifts to amuse and bewilder. I see why some people start planning these things in July. I believe everyone has a set of nice enough clothes that fit and I am going to forgo coordinating outfits of any kind. I’ve never been that organized, but this year I am not going to even feel guilty about it. And, Christmas tree aside, I am not decorating beyond whatever strikes my fancy… Letting go of the trivial 20% is so liberating.

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I am also looking forward for some massive Christmas cookie production in early December… enough to take to all the family/friend events, some to give as gifts, and a tin or box or plate for each of my husband’s big clients. This is a great opportunity to make a memorable personal impression, and for a sales guy, one not to be missed. But that will require some coordination (how many clients? how large of a tin for each?) and planning (personalized cards? when will they need to be ready to deliver?). I forget how  many plates I made last year but it was a lot. In order for this task to be fun and not grueling, I need to be on top of the baking schedule and stick to it. I am optimistic, as always :) I am approaching this as a delicious creative outlet rather than a chore, and I am sure it will prove satisfying.

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Further out than Christmas, even, is the school auction. It is early February this school year which means things have some real potential to clash with December plans or make January a train-wreck. I am in charge of managing 10 class projects, hopefully to be completed in the vicinity of Thanksgiving, as well as assembling the baskets for the silent auction once all the items are in in January. I am hoping those tasks don’t overlap much, but I am mentally acknowledging my own humanity and the fact that I cannot control anyone else, nor am I responsible for any one else’s actions or inactions. Stressing out over this does me no good, so I’m giving it up. Instead, I plan to sew myself a fabulous Alfred Shaheen-style sarong dress to wear to the auction… The theme is Tropical Paradise and I believe that a little sunny weather sewing project amidst the  inevitable snow and ice will be an ideal mood boost. Challenge accepted, Winter. ((The pattern I currently intend to use is Butterick 6019, Patterns by Gertie… I don’t have fabric yet but I am looking for a fabulously kitschy print!))

Well, that was fun… now I am going to go do something on my To Do list. Till next time…

Monday, September 14, 2015

“But what do you do all day?”

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Today is the first day I am home while all of my kids are at school. Last week, during the first two mornings my little guy was at pre-school, I ran errands. It may have been to accomplish the mile-long list of tasks that had been waiting for some “free time”, or it may have been to avoid this moment. I’m. Home. Alone. It seems fitting that today is also my oldest child’s 11th birthday… on the anniversary of another life-changing day, I am once again experiencing a major life transition.

“But what do you do all day?”

This weekend I was talking with another mom of an 11 year old. Her daughter is an only child, so she’s been dealing with the concrete reality of this question a lot longer than I have. No one has yet had the chance to ask me… impertinently… accusatorily… what they think is rhetorically… about my lifestyle. She says she hears it all the time. That feels so wrong to me, but… now I’m fair game too, right? And haven’t I asked myself this same question? What the heck am I going to with these hours now that the baby is in pre-school? What can I possibly do with this time, other than find employment outside the home, that won’t leave me feeling ashamed of myself when someone asks me that question?

Isn’t that sad? (Now that is a rhetorical question.)

Mothering doesn’t stop just because no one is home. And neither does being a human being, for that matter. There will always be parental involvement spanning the “off hours”, no matter how many or few of those hours there may be. And perhaps, after 11 years of necessarily trading self-care for childcare, it’s okay to take a few extra minutes in the shower, or eat a meal while it’s still warm, or smell the flippin’  roses. I happen to have 4 kids, but if I had more or fewer that would not be material to this question. Mothering is mothering… it is many things but it is NOT a part-time job.

I don’t think that I should feel compelled to frantically use this time to clean my refrigerator, or better myself through further education or guilt-induced exercise, or get a paying job, simply so I can answer to the satisfaction of strangers about what I choose to do with my time.

So, do you know what I’m going to do all the blessed day?

I’m going to use my time to take care of my family first, myself second, other people third, and - if I have any minutes leftover - I’m going to do whatever the hell I want and not care a bit what anyone else thinks.

I know this a is a good plan because anyone could ascribe to it and the world would still be better off. If you sum up the heart of what the most admirable people do, you’d find this to be true as well. It’s universalizable… a hallmark of moral decision-making. Just ask Kant. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I am going to ice some dinosaur cupcakes…

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Sunday, September 13, 2015

Maxi Skirt to Midi Dress Refashion

If this post had hashtags, they would be #desperatetimes #desperatemeasures.

I find myself in need of warm weather clothing even as the brisk weather of Fall approacheth. The fam is taking a trip to what is self-acclaimed to be the Happiest Place on Earth, and it’s going to be HOT and also humid.

The solution here is twofold:

a) Quick, find some shorts I don’t hate. ((I’ll work on my pants sewing skills another time))

b) Buy or whip up some skirt and/or dresses appropriate to the situation.

I have managed to solve a), but b) has not been as forthcoming. I just have not liked anything I am seeing in actual stores for actual money. Granted, it’s the end of the season, but still. I guess I am old since I can’t accept current fashion trends. Sigh. However, while hunting for some school necessities for my kids, I found a clearance maxi skirt at Kohls that I like. The problem? It was a size 3X.

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I am a medium sized person generally, so this was going to be a problem. But the $8 skirt had a lot of fabric, with pre-matched chevron stripes that I couldn’t resist. So… time for a quick refashion!

While holding it up to my own body to figure out if it would be long enough for a dress, I folded the waistband down and was inspired to flip the bodice upside down for a quilty, stripey diamond pattern. Here is what I did:

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My bodice pieces were made from a rub-off of a tank top I had. No darts… embrace the knit!

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The construction was basic… I sewed together the top (preserving the wide elastic waistband), then the skirt, then attached them and finished the neck and armhole edges.

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I preserved the original hem which caused the sides to be a tad longer than the front and back. That might have bothered me were I not quite so desperate, or if the skirt had been long enough to accommodate a new hem that would have still been long enough for my thirty-something sensibilities. As it is, I will call it “character” and leave it at that :)

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And, for posterity, a super awkward dress-in-action selfie. Yep… Hi. My name is Karen and I’m a dork :)

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I really do like the end result. This is a dress that is not completely pretty on the inside, but I don’t care. I like the stripes, I like the gray, and it is super comfy. It is far from perfect but who cares? It’s at least as well constructed as what is available ready-to-wear. I harbor secret desires to make another dress before we go, but I don’t know if that’ll happen because REALITY. But we’ll see :)

New dress? check.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Where did summer go?

School starts tomorrow! This summer has blown by, with a bazillion home improvement and décor projects (some lingering in various states of completion), some lovely trips (exhausting but memorable!), lots of good food and spending time with the many and varied people who enrich our lives. It has been truly truly a wonderful summer! But today is the very last little itty bitty bit and we’re trying to pull it together for a new school year adventure. The kids are ready. I still need the handful of short hours I have left…

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Summer in SE Michigan seems to be hanging on for dear life too… it’s beyond hot and muggy. Even my insulated cups are sweating in our no central AC lifestyle. But it’s good to feel like we really got all the summer out of summer this year… last year I felt a  little robbed with a back injury and recovering from the move.

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My baby (not really a baby anymore!) starts preschool this year. In addition to all the obvious good that he will get out of this deal (our school has an amazing preschool), I am really looking forward to having some solo time on a regular basis. I don’t have huge aspirations of getting my habitation objectively clean for the first time in over a decade – maybe next year when school is an everyday affair for all the kids - but I do hope to be able to get to a lot of tasks which, in my home and with my people, could easily have been exchanged for the eternal torment of Sisyphus. Tasks like organizing a bookshelf. Or laundry.

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Whatever the Fall will bring, I pray that you and I both have the confidence to meet all challenges with optimism, the willpower to let go of inevitable frustrations, and the ability to find a source of joy every day. Let’s get to it…

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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Ann Arbor Art Fair 2015

Growing up in Ann Arbor, the Art Fair is an annual fixture in the hippie artsy culture of the area. I used to go more often as a younger person. I haven’t gone much in the past 12 years… As an adult with 4 kids in tow, it generally seems more like an opportunity to lose a child than gain a greater appreciation of art. But with an adventure seeking mate, he convinced me it would be a good thing to take our underage entourage for a brief foray into the big wide world of the art fair. And so we went.

It was hotter than hot and we only stayed an hour or so and only saw less than a quarter of the entire fair. But it was edifying to see some pretty works, some funny pieces, vast arrays of metal garden art, as well as some truly disturbing and bizarre “artwork”. I snagged a few business cards of a few vendors that I liked. Picture taking of the artwork was not permitted so I can only share links… 

First up was Of Nature by Sandy James. Metal plated leaves… hardly a description worthy of such gorgeous pieces. If I had a million dollars I would have bought something… anything… a patina-ed gingko leaf in some wearable form. I love gingkos (as much for their graceful shape as well as their story of evolutionary survival… bio nerds are gonna nerd). Loverly work, no?

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One booth the whole family liked was Tiny People Big Laughs by JJ Johansen. Un-photoshopped images of tiny model railroad figures doing funny things… a delight for all ages :) I don’t want to reproduce his images here, but check out the gallery website for some good times. One of my favorites is here.

Another family favorite was Carl Zachmann, Machine Artist. He welded little robots out of metal silverware, tea strainers, bolts, and other salvaged materials. His little bots were so clever and detailed, but unfortunately he doesn’t currently have any of them on his website. But I’ll link anyway in case he ever does.

One last personal favorite was the cultural portrait photography of Jim Spillane. Just gorgeous colors and captivating faces.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Big Scary Repair: Taking Apart my KitchenAid Mixer

I mentioned last Monday that my mixer stopped working. It was a sad day but, even sadder, it was not unexpected.

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I was mixing some bread dough a couple months ago when my dear mixer made a really loud clunk (but kept mixing).  I turned it off immediately. I knew it wasn’t good, so I decided to take a peek inside and see what was going on. Long story short, when I opened the gear case it became clear that  one large gear (the worm gear, it turns out) had lost a tooth from extreme forces generated by the gear at the end of the drive shaft. I removed the newly-freed metal bit that I could see to prevent further immediate damage, then closed it back up and kept using it cautiously. It was louder than it had been, and I knew it wasn’t going to last.

And it didn’t. Cause of death: pizza dough.

I opened it up again…

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…and discovered a stripped part of the worm gear. The silver area on top of the large gear, center of the photo, is the stripped bit.

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It is always sad when things we love fail us. I have had this mixer for less than 10 years, so it seems sort of shocking to think of a professional KitchenAid failing in so short a time, when other people can bequeath their still humming mixers to their grown children. It’s easy to feel like a victim and cry, “Why me?”. However, like other well-made machines, this one was designed to fail. When the load from years of mixing heavy dough gets to be too much the worm gear is designed to fail to protect the motor. So even though it felt like a devastating disaster… I mean, it stopped spinning!… in reality it was really a small disaster designed to prevent the devastating disaster.

After accepting the horror of not having a working stand mixer, my options at this point included trying to get it serviced locally or sending it somewhere that would involve paying crazy shipping for this heavy duty beast, not to mention the actual cost of the repair. Or fixing it my own self.

Having nothing to lose, I bought a new worm gear on Amazon for about $17.50. I also bought some 3M brake cleaner and a can of food-grade grease to replace the contaminated grease in the gear case. And I followed the directions in this excellent video (except I needed fewer replacement parts).

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It was not rocket science, though I did encounter some metal-on-metal tightness in both removing the follower gears and replacing them once cleaned, so I had to use a PVC tube and a rubber mallet to get things back where they needed to be without adding insult to injury. I also used needle-nose  jewelry pliers instead of the retaining ring pliers that would have made this job much simpler (I am mentally adding them to my estate sale shopping list). I am learning that ingenuity goes a long way in these sorts of situations to make up for a lack of specialty tools.

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I cleaned out all the gunky grease with popsicle sticks and Q-tips. About a million Q-tips.

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I took the dirty gears outside and cleaned them (in a cardboard box to absorb the grease) with brake cleaner and a little “old toothbrush scrubby action”. ((Also: Ventilation! Solvent-proof gloves! Eye protection!)) It was amazing how, when the solvent dissipated, there were tiny silver bits everywhere. Gear case glitter. All the wear on the parts over time left metal debris laced throughout all that grease, and that would surely cause further unnecessary wear on everything in the gear case over time. Clean it out!

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I did not replace the worm follower gear, but you can see some real wear in its teeth. I have enough grease left for 3 more full repairs, so I will plan to clean it out again in 2-3 years or so, and I will inspect all the gears again at that point and probably replace this guy.

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My hands were covered in the new replacement grease* while putting it all back together so there are no real pictures of that part, but rest assured there were no leftover parts and my mixer is purring like a kitten again. I made pizza dough again just to make sure all was well. It is. I can rest peacefully again :)

Things I learned:

#1: I can do it myself!!

#2: There’s truly no reason to be afraid when you have nothing to lose.

#3: Some disasters are blessings in disguise, even if they don’t feel that way at first.

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*PSA: I will also add that projects like these are where you want any brand of that “orange pumice hand cleaner” readily available from any auto parts store anywhere, and probably any grocery store. It removes grease like a boss and leaves your hands silky and smooth. And it’s durn cheap. And it works better to exfoliate than fancy schmancy stuff that costs 5 times as much. Also good for dried paint removal from skin. The more you know…