Erin Burke Harris

About Erin Burke Harris

http://www.houseonhillroad.com/

Erin Burke Harris is the author of Make Your Own Medallion (Lucky Spool Media, 2017) and QuiltEssential (Stash Books, 2013). Her sewing patterns have been published in a variety of books and magazines including Modern Quilts Unlimited and Modern Patchwork. Erin has been sewing since she was a young girl, crediting seventh grade Home Ec as quite possibly the best class she has ever taken. She also enjoys photography, knitting, oil painting, and cooking, and her days almost always include making by hand. Erin lives in Kentucky with her husband and two teenage daughters.

Posts by Erin Burke Harris:

More Yellow

 

Lured by a large percentage coupon code in my email, I click through to one of my favorite clothing websites. A certain sweater caught my eye immediately. It was a classic, fair isle, all-wool pullover – something I knew that I would wear again and again. It was stunning and just my style. I hesitated. It wasn’t the price or the fact that I really didn’t need a sweater that had me second guessing the purchase. It was the color. Yellow. A very pretty, golden, almost butterscotch shade of yellow. The problem? I don’t wear yellow. 

I turn my laptop so my husband could see the monitor. “Do you think I can wear this?” I ask. 

He glances at it briefly and then turns back to his newspaper. “You can wear whatever you want,” he replied.  

“But…will it look good on me?” I wonder out loud. 

*** 

In my mid-twenties, I had some medical issues that were not responding to traditional medication. My mother suggested that I see her physician who also practiced acupuncture. On my first visit, Dr. Lo handed me a questionnaire to fill out. I answered questions about my favorite foods, my preferences of temperature and seasons, and my favorite hobbies among other things. When I finished circling answers and filling in blanks, I received my treatment and went home. The following week, before we started, Dr. Lo suggested that I might have better success in alleviating my symptoms if I made some specific dietary changes. As an aside, he added, “You need more yellow in your life.” 

His statement struck me as strange, but I didn’t pay much attention to it at that time. Still, somehow it stayed with me. When contemplating a paint color for our living room, a friend suggested a buttery yellow. Normally, I would have dismissed the idea entirely. Then Dr. Lo’s words immediately popped into my head. Maybe yellow would work. 

With a day off from work ahead of me, I bought two gallons of yellow paint. I taped off the woodwork and poured the paint into the tray. Paintbrush in hand, I hesitated. I worried that this gamble would not pay off and that I would be wasting precious time and money on a color that I would have to repaint. As I rolled the paint onto the walls, the room was slowly transformed before my eyes. No longer gray and drab, the yellow paint was warm and felt like sunshine on a cloudy day. I smiled and kept going. When the paint was dry, I pulled the tape down and stood in the center of the room, thinking about Dr. Lo’s words. Maybe I did need more yellow in my life. 

*** 

Winter arrived late and hard this year. The furnace runs constantly, trying to keep the cold out of our old house. Our sweet dog, Hazel, usually anxious and excited for her daily walks, is slow to cross the threshold into the brisk air.  

I get it, girl, I do. I don’t want to go out there either.  

I pick up my phone to check the weather app: 8 degrees, feels like 0. Looking out the window, I am hoping against the odds. No sun in sight. I sigh. The gray is getting to me, wearing me out one day at a time. I put the kettle on and set about making tea to warm myself up. In the corner of the counters, I find a lemon. I slice it into wedges and squeeze the juice into my mug. The bright citrus packs a punch, leaving a pleasant zing in my mouth.  

Fortified by a small taste of summer, I pull on my boots, wrap myself up in a long down coat, throw on a hat and gloves and walk the dog.  

*** 

It’s snowing and school has been canceled again. I spend the better part of an hour cutting up a fabric color card into little tiles, each one a different hue. My daughter organizes the swatches in a clear divided box, putting them more or less in rainbow order. She comments, “I never knew there were so many shades of pink.” Neither did I.  

I smile and pull out the swatch for “melon,” the perfect grapefruit-y shade for my next quilt. I shuffle through the remaining colors, looking for complimentary hues to round out the palette. Immediately, “ochre” jumps out at me. The deep gold almost glows and is beautiful with the warm pink. I settle on a couple more:  “pesto,” a dark herbaceous green, and “roasted pecan,” a rich, orange-y brown. These are not my typical color choices of bright, clear blues and greens, but, somehow, they feel right today.  

*** 

The three-day weekend has grown to six days. Outside, the snow is falling so slowly that I can count the individual flakes. The house is quiet for a short while before the girls are up, making breakfast and watching Netflix. After my shower, I consider throwing on sweats. But as I glance over the sweater shelf in my closet, I change my mind. I put on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, and then pull my new wool sweater over my head. I look in the mirror, surprised at how good this sweater makes me feel. I am still not sure that it looks good on me, but I know it is the right color. More yellow, indeed. 

 

Words and image by Erin Harris.

The Perfect Gift

Ten years ago, I asked my husband, Fatty, if he would make me something for Christmas. He gave me a quizzical look and I blurted out, “I don’t care if you make me a playlist and burn it to a CD. I just want someone to make me something.” He was quiet and slow to respond. I could tell that he wasn’t sure where this was coming from.

“Um, okay, I guess,” he answered.

“And, maybe we should all make each other something,” I suggested. “I’d make something for you and Jane and Kate. You’d make us each something. We could help them make gifts for each other. What do you think?”

“Hmm.” I could see him thinking. “Okay. Sure. We could do that.”

I admit it was a strange request. Fatty is not a crafty guy. That is my department. I have made many handmade gifts for my loved ones over the years. From sewing appliques onto t-shirts and making aprons to knitting dozens of hats and stitching quilts, I have crafted my way through birthdays and more holiday seasons than I can count.

The process of choosing the perfect gift idea, and then literally making it, suits me more than buying something from a store. While I am sewing or knitting, I think about who I am crafting for and by the time I have finished, I’ve done more than just create an item: my love has been poured into it. I wanted my daughters to experience this themselves, to realize there is value in giving something handmade. And I secretly, and selfishly, hoped we would start a new tradition of making gifts for each other.

On Christmas day, we exchanged presents. We practically pushed the boxes into each other’s hands, eager to see the reactions. I knitted something for each of the girls and made Fatty a cook’s apron. He made the girls playlists and burned them onto a CD. The girls drew designs that we screen printed onto t-shirts for Fatty. Jane made Kate a bracelet and Kate painted a picture frame for Jane. All the gifts were thoughtful and made from the heart, just as I had hoped.

The last three boxes that remained under the tree were for me.

I carefully opened the first box, pulled some tissue paper aside and I gasped. Inside was a perfectly round, glass ornament speckled with blue, green, and white dots. It was from Jane, and I was amazed. The second box contained another exquisite ornament in pinks and purples from Kate. The third was the ornament that Fatty made me out of glittering green glass with red and gold speckles. All three were absolute treasures. I looked up at them, smiling, saying nothing. My words were gone, but tears sprang to my eyes. I was touched.

I had a mental list of all the things I thought I might receive from my family, things like paint-your-own pottery, a bookmark, photo frames, or even the playlist on a CD that I had suggested. But I had never imagined something so special and delicate. I didn’t know that you could blow your own ornaments. And how was it possible that our six- and eight-year-old daughters could manage that? The three of them hurriedly told me stories of sneaking to the glass studio one weekend afternoon and how they made the ornaments. I sat there, listening, and thinking that Fatty outdid himself. I got way more than what I wished for.

When the holidays came around the next year, we considered making gifts for each other, but quickly realized it wasn’t practical. Fatty suggested that we all go to the glass studio and make more ornaments for our tree instead. I called and made an appointment.

The next weekend, we went downtown to the glass studio. After checking in at the showroom and choosing the colors we wanted, we made our way to the hot shop. As we walked through the door, I was overwhelmed by the extreme heat from the glass furnaces. I shed my coat and helped the girls off with theirs. They were chatty and, along with Fatty, excitedly explained what was happening as we watched the group before us finish their ornaments.

When it was our turn, the girls went first to show me how it was done. I watched them blow into a small tube, adjusting their breath as the glass artist told them to slow down or give a big puff. The glass grew with their breath and, once completed, the artist added a swirl of glass to the top for hanging. He then placed the ornaments in a large box where they would cool until the following day. Fatty took his turn and then I took mine. I was a little nervous, but I didn’t need to be. It was simple, easy even. All I had to do was follow directions and breathe.

Every year since our one and only handmade Christmas, we have gone to the glass studio as a family and blown four ornaments. Our collection is quite large now – thirty-nine ornaments, soon to be forty-three. When it’s time to decorate the Christmas tree, we start with the boxes of hand-blown ornaments. As we pull them from the bubble wrap, we look at the colors that we have and discuss what new combinations we might add to the mix. Someone always wonders out loud how we can possibly fit more large ornaments on the tree, but no one suggests we skip ornament blowing this year.

When I asked Fatty to make something for me all those years ago, what I really wanted was for him to give me that special time and attention that I was giving of myself when making gifts for others. What he gave me was bigger than that – it was a tradition, year after year of the four of us making the ornaments together. Those are memories I will hold forever.

 

Words and image by Erin Harris.

And So, I Knit

hello there, friend

I back my car out of the garage and before I get farther, I realize I have forgotten something. I throw the car in park, look at my teenage daughter and mumble, “Be right back.” I dash inside quickly and grab a small bag.

Back in the car, Kate asks, “What did you forget?”

“My knitting,” I reply. She nods, knowingly. We drive on.

After we have arrived at the doctor’s office and have checked in at the counter, I unzip my bag and pull out a sock I am working. We sit down to wait our turn and she recounts her day to me. I knit around and around on tiny needles as she talks. I ask what she had for lunch (Caesar salad) and if she has homework (not too much). Soon her name is called and she stands up. I finish my round, grab my purse, and follow her. I keep the knitting out, knowing full well that this doctor often runs late and we will likely wait some more.

The first time I picked up needles and yarn was right before my twenty-first birthday. I spent the semester studying in England and was making my way through Europe, staying in hostels and traveling on a Euro-rail pass. One of my stops was in the south of France where my best friend from high school was living. When I arrived at her apartment, one of her roommates was knitting. I watched as she made rapid movements with her hands and mysteriously transformed the yarn into fabric. Seeing my interest, she stopped and looked up at me. “I can teach you,” she said.

When my visit ended a few days later, I shoved a pair of metal knitting needles and ball of navy blue wool into the side pocket of my already-stuffed backpack. During the remainder of my travels, I would pull out my knitting in the quiet, in between moments on the train and practice what I had learned. Every single stitch required my complete concentration and I gripped the needles tightly, determined to get it right.

That project was never completed. I made so many mistakes and dropped stitches without realizing it – it wasn’t salvageable. Still, I kept at it. Determined to learn to knit, I bought a new ball of yarn and a book that covered the basics. From the small black and white photos, I taught myself how to cast on and then how to knit and purl.

It’s been twenty-five years since I learned to knit. At the beginning, I knitted at home while watching TV or in the quiet of a weekend morning. I made sweaters and hats; some for myself, but most for gifts. When I became a mother, and my crafting time was limited to naps and evenings, I dropped the yarn and needles and pulled out the sewing machine more often than not.

I am a maker and have been for my entire life. I sew, I paint, I embroider, I bake, I cook and, of course, I knit. Keeping my hands busy creating is a daily affair. Taking raw materials and manipulating them into something entirely different and new, grounds me in a way that nothing else does. It’s my joy and my meditation, my unique brand of prayer.

When my oldest daughter, Jane, started first grade, Kate and I spent 20 minutes every afternoon in the carpool line. I tried to read as we sat parked in the school parking lot, but Kate was often too chatty for me to keep up with my book. How I wish I could say that I was content to sit there and just be, but I wasn’t. My crafting time was limited and precious and I did not want to waste an opportunity to do something. I started carrying yarn and needles with me, building hats from the bottom up as Kate regaled me with stories of her day. I knitted row after row ten minutes at a time, engaging with my child all the while.

These days, I have more time of my own to spend creating. When the house is empty, I can be found in my third floor studio, making quilts and other sewn items. As the mother of a teenage driver, I rarely spend time in the carpool line. Those pockets of down time that I filled with my needles clicking are fewer and farther between. Still, I find myself gravitating towards knitting more and more.

Earlier this year, I realized that I only have three more years with my girls at home. How can that be? Wasn’t it just yesterday that they were tiny people who needed so much of me? It seems inconceivable that I have a child entering college next fall. I do not want to miss a moment that remains. I want to be present, when they need me and even when they don’t. I’ve stopped squirreling myself away upstairs sewing. Instead, I sit at the kitchen table and I knit.

Friday afternoon, I hear the garage door go up. The girls come in, drop their book bags and purses, and get a snack. They pile onto the couch and I sit in my favorite chair, my knitting on my lap. I pick up the needles and get myself situated while Kate queues up the previous night’s Project Runway. We talk about the designers, the craziness of some of the fabrics, the dresses we like and those we don’t.

I feel the wool as it slips through my fingers and loops on and off the needles. My muscle memory is strong. My hands know just what to do. I no longer have to concentrate on each and every stitch. I don’t even have to look to know what I am doing. My sweater sleeve starts to take shape as the models walk the runway. The girls and I chat as we fast forward through the commercials. This is just where I want to be: in the thick of it, making all the while.

 

Words and photos by Erin Burke Harris.