several small pumpkins with a hand holding one
society of dabblers

In which I learn to needle felt

Back in spring of this year (when everyone else seemed to be learning to make sourdough), I decided to give a different hobby a try– needle felting! Why? Why not! Honestly, needle felting is something I’ve known about for a while and has been relegated to the “someday I want to try that” mental bucket, so with the extra time I had after finishing school in May, I decided to give it a whirl.

a wooden furniture top covered in small wool felted pumpkins
So. Many. Pumpkins.

Felt is made by interlocking animal hair fibers (sheep, goat, camel) into a thick mat and then shaping it into useful things. Felt making itself is super old. Like, suuuuper old: this textile-making technique dates back thousands of years. The oldest method is “wet” felting where the fibers are rubbed together with soapy water until they stick. Other methods like using needles to “dry” felt by punching the fibers together are more modern. Dry felting small things by hand (aka needle felting) has only been around for about 4 decades!

To create a needlefelt sculpture, you begin with “core wool” which is usually a natural wool color (mine is sheep’s wool and tends to be cream) and use needles to mold it into the rough shape you want. Then you layer on the colors and continue shaping the piece until it looks more and more like the object you want. Smaller needles do finer work, so you can add details after the bulk of the colors are on. You can see some of the process here: the body of the cat is just core, but I’ve already started adding color to the head, which I will attach once I’ve put color on the body as well.

cream core wool body of cat with black cat head sitting beside
This is a pre-capitated cat 😛

So. What have I been felting?

Pumpkins, pumpkins, and more pumpkins. Ha!

But I started much smaller– the kit I first purchased to try felting came with a tiny amount each of a wide variety of colors, a set of needles with a single needle handle (you can have handles that hold multiple needles, and my go-to is an 8 needle), and a foam felting pad to keep from stabbing the furniture. With that variety of colors, I started with tiny mushrooms.

several small felt mushrooms, red with white spots on cap
cute lil red Amanita muscaria

I also played with felting a bunch of really tiny animals. Most of the little animals have been gifts for people, so Jared got a really small otter eating an even smaller sea star. A friend who loves gorillas got a really tiny silverback as a going-away-good-luck-with-your-PhD gift. Another friend got a belated foxie birthday gift. (These are all very early felting projects of mine and you can see how small they are from the gorilla compared to my hand.)

The pumpkins grew with the season, of course. I had a bunch of wool bits in various orange colors from a shop in Michigan, so it made sense to turn it all into mini pumpkins like the kind people use as centerpieces in the autumn. Why not make some that would last a lot longer?

several small pumpkins with a hand holding one

Mostly I make little palm-size pumpkins, but I’ve made a few interesting ones as well. My favorite is this large pumpkin lying on its side; I tried to make it look like the giant pumpkins on the farm in North Carolina where we always used to get them when I lived there.

large felt pumpkin with a curly vine stem
the big pumpkin needed a bit stem

Don’t worry, I haven’t stopped making little animals, either.  I have a new set of needles that pulls core wool from the center of the piece to create a really cool layered, furry effect, so I made a porcupine friend to go with the black cat!

little felt porcupine with black bead eyes sitting on a table
little porcupine friend

So there’s a little sampling of my needle felting! It’s very satisfying to repeatedly stab something, but you’ve got to be careful and not be distracted or take your eyes off of the wool you’re working– my fingers have been stabbed so many times in the last six months it’s almost ridiculous. (I’m getting much better at not stabbing myself though. Heh.)

If you were going to try needle felting, what would you make?

society of dabblers

Natural History Art: Terrarium Sculpture!

If you read my last post about beetle spreading, you’ll know I’ve been playing with the intersection of natural history and art of late. This isn’t totally new, but I haven’t been good at blogging for the last few years (thanks, grad school). Here’s a project from last year that I didn’t have time to share until now: a terrarium sculpture!

What’s a terrarium sculpture? I’m probably the only person who calls it this, but I can’t think of a better description for what it is: a glass container with a sculpture inside made of natural (or naturalistic) items.

There are a few curiosity shops I follow who make things similar to this, but I really wanted to use what I already had (see last year’s No Buy project). I went digging into my crafting bin (and sourced an old raccoon skull* from an antique store), and set about seeing what I could make!

Here is where I started: some driftwood I found as a kid and have carried around for years, some crafting moss from when I used to make fairy doors, some decorative acorns, a big chunk of amethyst I had lying around, and a hot glue gun. (It’s amazing what you can find if you go digging through what you’ve got, right? Or is this just me?)

The first step was figuring out how to get everything into the bell jar (which I found at Michael’s for about $8). I played around with several configurations and decided I wanted the whole thing to be more vertical.

Once I had the driftwood base in place, I tried the skull in a few places and found just the right spot for it along one side of the sculpture. I added some of the bright green moss and dried grasses around the base to cover where I’d glued everything.

The rest of the process was really just filling in the blank spaces. I added a couple of the acorns and nested the amethyst into the base of the piece. I also ran dried lichen (from the moss collection) up to the top of the piece to give it some balance.

So here’s the final piece, with the glass dome installed! I really love how it turned out, though I think I will add one of my recently done beetles to the top of the piece, sitting on the wood. I don’t know that I’ll make many of these, but for a one-off art piece, I think it came out pretty well!

*I always try to find ethically sourced items like this so that no animals die for me to have an art project. Antique stores are pretty good because most of the stuff you find is so old I don’t feel bad taking it home.

society of dabblers

Natural History Art: Beetle Spreading!

One of the things I’m most excited for now that grad school is over is that I have time to dabble again. I’ve been a lifelong dabbler, always wanting to try new things and learn new skills.

Add into that the fact that a global pandemic has put a hiring freeze pretty much across the whole job market, and I suddenly have a lot of time to dabble! So I’m leaning into this and trying new things while I have the time!

I’ve always loved natural history, and having been in a biology program for the last few years, I have a newfound appreciation for field methods, as well as how they can be applied via art. Last winter, I got very interested in arthropod mounts, so I asked for a beetle spreading kit for Christmas, and last week I was finally able to try it out!

Here is everything that came in my kit: it includes 10 ethically-sourced beetles (please do some research on this if you’re going to try it at home!), taxidermy tweezers, stainless steel pins, and a “rehydration chamber” aka an airtight container.

I used a combination of insect spreading techniques from these two videos:

The beetles came dry, so the first step was rehydrating them to make them pliable. I dampened a cloth and sealed them up in the container overnight. (The bigger beetles needed to sit for 2 days, but I was able to do the smaller ones the next day!)

I started with two of the medium size beetles, cutting them out of their little packets as I was ready to work with them. For the first one (this green beetle), I decided to just see what it was like to work with an insect like this, and not to try pulling the wings out.

It turns out that spreading beetles is super easy! Once their legs and antennae are pliable, it’s pretty simple to gently pull them into place. The stainless steel pins are to hold the legs in place so that the beetle dries out again, but in a shape that looks like it’s walking.

(Ooh, action shot! Please ignore my chipped nails haha.) For the next beetle, I decided to be braver and try to spread its wings as well. This involved gently popping open the hard wing coverings and using the tweezers to carefully unfold the wings from underneath.

Beetle wings are folded up to protect them, but they are delicate and all the ones I worked with were transparent!

I carefully held the beetle’s body in place while using pins inserted at a very low angle to hold the wings open to dry without piercing the wings, and left them overnight.

This wing-spreading technique was okay with the smaller beetles, but for the bigger ones, I needed to use another tool: the clear wrapping from the packets they came in was perfect for holding wings in place so that I could pin them flat!

So there you have it! My first foray into the world of insect spreading!

I didn’t spread the wings for all of the beetles. Some of them I liked as they were, and some were so small I worried that without enough practice that I’d accidentally tear them. This is definitely something I’m glad I tried, and I would love to keep working with insects this way.

I also have some plans to turn these into art, so look for another post sometime in the future with a beetle-spreading update!

conservation ftw, joanna irl, society of dabblers

Travelogue: Anza Borrego Superbloom 2019

Thanks to all of the rain we’ve had in southern California over the last few months, this spring we are being treated to that spectacle of nature, a desert superbloom!

Two weeks ago while J was on leave, we took a day trip out to Anza Borrego State Park in the eastern part of the county to visit the desert and see the blooms for ourselves. We were not disappointed!

The first thing to know about Anza Borrego is that the town beside the state park is very small, and if you’re going on a weekend, they may close down the roads if they run out of parking. Go on a weekday if you can and you’ll have no trouble finding parking.

The second thing to know is that this is very much a choose-your-own-adventure type of outing, and that there are dirt roads that really require AWD vehicles. (I love taking our Subaru Outback on adventures!)

Finally, NEVER pick or trample the wildflowers, even if you REALLY want that one really cool pic that everybody is posting on instagram. Walk with caution, and be aware of your impact because if we aren’t careful, there won’t be another bloom like this for years.

Okay, now on to the good stuff! Anza Borrego is a pretty open desert park, and there is a small visitor center with bathrooms and accessible trails so you don’t have to go far to see desert flora. They post bloom updates on their website as well, so you’ll always have a good idea of where to go. So helpful!

We pretty much just headed out into the park after a quick stop at the visitor center to buy a day pass (this gets you into all of the day use areas, including the trailhead to Palm Canyon, which is in the back of a campground).

Palm Canyon Trail goes back between two ridges, and when we visited had free-flowing water running through the middle of it. There is a stand of palm trees at the very back and a small waterfall that lets you know you’ve reached the end of the trail.

The flowers in Palm Canyon were gorgeous, but the thing that really set this one apart for me was that we saw bighorn sheep! I’ve wanted to see sheep in the wild for years, but always just miss them when we’ve been out hiking in the desert. The day in Anza Borrego we got lucky– there were FIVE, all hanging out on the ridge just above us! Of course I didn’t have my good camera with me, but it was still a breathtaking experience.

(If you look VERY closely, you MIGHT be able to see a little white dot at the top center– that’s a sheep!)

After Palm Canyon, we grabbed lunch at a local Mexican restaurant (which was slammed even on a weekday because of the superbloom, but worth the wait) and then headed out to see a massive outdoor art installation: towering metal statues in the middle of the desert.

Many of them are ice age creatures, some are dinosaurs, there were giant insects (see photo above), and there was even a huge dragon that goes “under” the road. The area is just open ground and you can offroad out to most of them on trails that are pretty easy to see.

From there we headed even further out into the park, and spotted a lot of wildlife apart from the flowers: turkeys, coyotes  (spotted from the car), and even a black-footed jackrabbit!

There was an area where the ground was covered in desert lilies as well, and we stood in the sunset light watching everything. The desert is so much more colorful and fascinating than I ever thought it would be, and I’m amazed every time we go out into it.

Have you seen the desert blooming?

conservation ftw, joanna irl, society of dabblers

Carlsbad Flower Fields: for your flower photo fix!

There’s something really cool about standing in the middle of acres and acres of flowers, the color spreading around you in the springtime air, and the scent of them floating on the breeze.

Confession: I was really excited to go see the hillsides covered in poppies this year with the superbloom. The traffic backlog was the first thing that deterred me, so we didn’t go out when they first bloomed….and then I started reading about the massive impact that humans were having on the flowers and the hillsides. Trampling, erosion, destruction…. Gross.

And then I remembered the Flower Fields in Carlsbad! This is a historic flower farm that grows giant ranunculus plants to sell, and they open to the public for the months of the year when the flowers are in bloom.

This place is massive and beautiful and worth the ticket price. Plus for an extra $5, they’ll even let you take a tractor ride out around the edge of the fields to save the walk! There are also toilets and snacks and places to sit and designated places to sit/stand/pose with the flowers so there is zero impact on the environment. Total win!

The flowers are arranged by color, which creates a rainbow effect across the hillside, a floral spectrum that makes for fantastic photos but also helps the growers organize which bulbs are where for harvest.

Again, I recommend going on a weekday (as with most things), but if you’ve got to go on a weekend, go early or late in the day. We spent about an hour out on the grounds, and stopped for popcorn and homemade lemonade at the end, which was a nice way to end the visit.

joanna irl, society of dabblers

Easter Weekend at the Chicago Botanic Garden

This will mostly be a photo post, because I think there is plenty to see and I couldn’t add that much to what already exists. This weekend we went to the Chicago Botanic Garden to see the early spring blooms.The garden is free, though there is a per-car fee to park, except for military, which get in for free. Thanks, Botanic Garden! ^_^

Just the first bulbs are up right now, the rest of the garden still sleeping after a long winter, but those first bursts of color are hope physically formed after all the snow.


We walked along the water where the white trees are still waiting for their leaves.


And we sat in a field of giant crocus, running rampantly out of their plantings.


All in all, it was a wonderful way to spend the day before Easter.

(Even MORE photos below.)

Continue reading “Easter Weekend at the Chicago Botanic Garden”

joanna irl, society of dabblers

Tiny Things and Fairy Wings

DSC_7779On Monday we got a surprise snowing here in Chicago. At first when I was up at 4:30 with J to bid him goodbye for the day (and goodnight because I certainly don’t actually get up that early) I was irritated. Then when I got up for the day finally I wasn’t sure how I felt about it anymore and spent a good chunk of the morning staring out the window. This was how my day kind of went.

8:00am: Get up. Stare out window at stupid snow.
8:13am: Walk into kitchen to feed cats. Stare out window at stupid snow.
8:17am: Make tea. Stare out window at stupid snow while tea brews.
8:24am: Eat breakfast. Stare out window across the room from me where I can still see the stupid snow.

DSC_7789And so the morning progressed. The snow started again, and fell thicker and thicker, to the point where it looked like we might even get completely buried.

10:29am: Huddle by fireplace. Stare out window at stupid snow.
12:34pm: Eat lunch. Stare out window at stupid snow.
1:23pm: Suddenly remember I have a macro lens. Dig parka out of closet where I stuffed it on the first day of spring because I’m done participating in winter, pull on snowboots, run outside like a weirdo and start flailing around taking pictures of snowflakes.

snowflake 8
1:58pm: Remember I have a box of fairy doors that would also be fun to photograph in snow. Run back upstairs and pack up a waterproof bag of Tiny Things including the little doors and run back outside.

fairy door 03
3:43pm: Realize I’ve been outside over two hours total. Figure it’s time to go back inside.
4:00pm: Make tea. There’s always reason for more tea.

I took a lot of snowflake pictures. I mean, a lot of snowflake pictures.

snowflake 17I’m only putting a handful of them here, but they are a general representation. I tried a few different methods, too, including catching them on a plastic bag, which you can see above. The flakes themselves were fairly huge but melted quickly because of the warm air.

snowflake 19
This one was one of my favorites, by far. Another plastic bag catch, and didn’t last long, but I liked the way the edges looked.

snowflake 7 (flake cluster)You can see how light and fluffy the snow was in this one, just lots of little flakes piling up in a geometric sort of way. Much less solid than I expected.

DSC_7853This shows you how big the flakes really were. You can see an individual one on my glove!

snowflake 15 (flake cluster)This one reminded me of those little magnetic building pieces kids use. I forget what they’re called, but the snowflakes built themselves up just like that.

So there’s a tiny peek at some tiny frozen water bits. I will post fairy door pictures another day, because they were fun to photograph, too. As of today most of the snow is melted (much to my relief) so I’m glad I grabbed the opportunity when I had it.



society of dabblers

Feeling artsy: dragons and owls

Dragon sketch postcard

I was going to do a wrap-up of my week, but I really didn’t do much this week that would make a post (that I haven’t already written, anyway), so here. Have a dragon postcard.

The postcard came from a scrapbooking store and I drew the dragon myself. I haven’t really drawn anything much in several years, so I decided to see how rusty my skills were. They weren’t too bad, but I found that I haven’t progressed at all for the obvious reason that I haven’t practiced at all. I did find that I’m a lot more confident with cartoon type sketches, though, and doodled some owls the other day.

Owl with cake

So there you go. I like that he looks a bit worried and also fat, like this isn’t an unusual snack. There were a lot of less-cute looking owls before this one that I won’t show you, but I’ve found a nice little “template” that I can reproduce, which is cool. No use for them at the moment, but maybe at some point I’ll think of something other than simply filling my sketch book.

joanna irl, society of dabblers

Hiking in Blue Sky: aka The Lake is a Lie

Blue Sky welcome sign

Maybe instead I should say the lake was not what we expected. At any rate, the other day, J and I broke out my (until then) unused Hikes of Southern California book and picked one that was relatively close to home. It was in the eastern part of the county, at a place called Blue Sky Nature Reserve, and a level 1 to 2 (so “kid friendly”) and described an amble along one of the river beds that used to be all over this part of the state, until they were dammed for water sources. (This should have been our clue; after all, we JUST learned about that stuff a couple of weeks ago at Casa Grande, where the entire landscape changed after the water was diverted.)

But I digress.

Blue Sky wooded trail

The first part of the hike was as promised, and we descended into a little valley with a small creek, tons of birds and other wildlife, and a few early wildflowers.

Blue Sky tree branches from fire

The area fell victim to fire back in 2003 and many of the old trees are still standing, their blackened, bare branches curled against the clear sky and reaching out from the new growth on other trees. It’s a little strange, but beautiful nonetheless.

Blue Sky honeybees

Then, as the book had described, the path forked and we could choose to go left to Lake Ramona, or right to Lake Poway. We chose left to Ramona and kept walking down the (now wider) track. After a while we passed (very quickly) under a tree that was vibrating with the hum of thousands of honey bees, flying throughout its canopy. Finally the path came out of the trees and opened into its main portion.

And we saw the climb.

Blue Sky hiking to the dam, Lake Ramona

In an effort to be optimists, we thought that SURELY this hike wasn’t up to that dam WAY UP THERE (see it? almost in the exact center?) and the path seemed to curve around to the left and away, so we started.

Slowly the slope increased, and we gained elevation, and the path doubled back above itself…. and over halfway there we realized we were DEFINITELY hiking to the dam.

Blue Sky, the hike back

Dear California Hike Guidebooks: When you SAY “hike to a lake” but you really mean “climb a mountain to a dam,” that’s a LITTLE misleading.

Blue Sky at Lake Ramona

After a last push up the final incline, we finally made it to the man-made Lake Ramona. It’s lovely and blue, but still… just strange. At least the view was spectacular, and we were actually above (the also man-made) Lake Poway, so we could see it across the valley.

Blue Sky western fence lizard

We also saw some really interesting wildlife, including a type of hawk we didn’t recognize, some songbirds, a woodpecker, several types of lizard (including the western fence lizard in this photo), plus evidence of snakes (they leave trails in the dust– see below) and possible tarantula burrows (which are actually kind of fascinating).

Blue Sky snake trail

Overall the hike was definitely worth it, just not AT ALL what we were anticipating. Both of us kept remarking how glad we were that we wore trail shoes and packed sunscreen, despite the “gentle, shaded” description. The rest of my photos (along with some of wildflowers) are in this album, if you’re interested. ^_^

joanna irl, society of dabblers

Easter Weekend in Balboa Park

Easter Balboa Park J and J

Easter weekend was beautiful in San Diego. J and I didn’t “do” anything in particular this year, but we did spend some time walking through the Balboa Park, including the rose garden, which is in full bloom this time of year.

Easter Balboa Park pink rose

I found a new feature on my little point and shoot that will make a photo black and white except for a single color, so we played with that. Highly entertaining.

Easter Balboa Park butterfly

We also saw some caterpillars and the first few butterflies of the year, hatching out of their chrysalises and stretching their new wings in the warm sunshine. Appropriate for Easter, I thought.

Easter Balboa Park yellow rose

If you like this sort of thing, I have a whole album of the flower photos (plus a couple of J and me and caterpillars and whatnot).