Holiday Craft

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I wanted a better way to display our holiday cards. We’ve done the “sh*t, the tape on the back of the card peeled the paint” thing around the doorway, and the “floppy card on the mantle” display. I saw a little craft where string was strung between a doorway and from it, with clothespins, hung cards. When I rummaged through my ribbon box, I found this old roll of wintry themed ribbon – it’s super thick and vintage. I remember the yard sale I bought it at, along with a bevy of other ribbon, all for $1. It’s really almost too large to use to wrap a gift, that’s why it’s been tucked away for a few years, neglected. I pressed it, tacked it up above the mantle and swiped a few handfuls of clothespins from our drying line outside. I doubt the whole thing cost more than 10 cents, and it makes me smile to see the lovely cards we’ve been receiving (can you spot W’s grandma kissing “santa”?) every day.

Slowly, hints of the holidays are creeping into our house. In a highly uncharacteristic and timely fashion (!), I ordered cards online (made in the USA!) to send to family and friends. We’ve been listening to the perpetual loop of holiday songs on our local radio station when we cook dinner, we’ve brought out the cozy pajamas, and have been enjoying fires in the fireplace. W came home with a balled and burlaped (ie root ball intact) Blue Spruce, a few nights ago. We decided not to bring it into the house at all this year – it’s rather heavy (~300lbs) and an evergreen tree shouldn’t be brought in and then out of the house if you can help it, when it’s been cold outside. WV was napping when W strung it with twinkling colored lights – when he woke up, the grin on his face was priceless. That is our most meaningful, treasured gift – smiles on our babies’ faces. We’re looking forward to our annual post-Christmas tree planting.
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A Month of China-free: A challenge.

I look around me and wonder about the provenance of the things we own. Partially, I’m interested in our “stuff” because one of my hobbies is garage-saleing and thrifting – I’d rather buy almost everything used (reasonable exceptions: underwear, cars). Where did it reside before we owned it? Was it well loved or neglected? How can it be repurposed? The thrill of the hunt is fun and you never know what you might find. But I’m also curious about where things come from for political, humanitarian, and sustainability reasons. And what I’ve become aware of over the last several years is alarming: it’s ALL made in China. Insidiously, we’ve stepped onto this train as consumers with a purchasing muscle memory, not bothering to check the destination…and it’s the wrong train. Many of the things I use, value, and decorate with are made in China. I’ve checked. My coffee maker? Yup. This computer. Yes. The outer shell of the cloth diapers I lovingly diaper my kids with? “Responsibly” made there. The Tom’s shoes I wear (yup, that Tom’s – the ones that aren’t just foot coverings but hipster humanitarian statements)? YES, Tom’s are made in China. Start checking the bottoms of or the labels of things – you are going to find something that surprises you, guaranteed.

I’m depressed by the mass quantities of *things* made in China. Cheap plastic crap begets the “more is more” consumerist mentality that pervades our culture, and even worse, this begets the blind eye that is turned on the ethics involved in sending production overseas. Have you read the recent article about a college professor who was jailed in China and forced to work in a labor camp, the products of which were for an unsuspecting American company? China’s judicial system is fraught with shortcomings, and one is that you are guilty until proven innocent. The SCOTUS decision this week is an excellent example of the consumer-fueled rampant corporate hypocrisy that “Made in China” represents. Not only does Hobby Lobby sell things – oodles of things – made there (clearly their Christian values are in deference to corporate profits), but they hold stock in the very companies that produce the contraceptives they object to covering on religious grounds. I feel compelled to depress you, too, with these injustices because knowledge is power. As Maya Angelou said, “Now that I know better, I do better.”

There’s a whole other level to my “Made in China” hyperventilation, who’s surface is hard to scratch. Many products with a USA/Canada/name another country COOL (Country Of Origin Labeling) are sent to China, packaged, and then shipped back to that COOL. Laws governing how to label the trans-Atlantic flights your stuff (and food! – many chickens take this route) takes are lenient or non-existent. You may never truly know how much jet fuel the meal on your plate or the plastic in your “Made in the USA” stuff actually used. Also, China doesn’t have the greatest food safety reputation.

I have little faith that “ethically produced/made” in China actually exists. There is no getting around the serious human rights violations pervasive in this country that are inextricably endorsed by us when we buy from companies that outsource to China. Perhaps a worker gets a living wage, laughable, but possible. But that does not retract from the ever present elephant in the room – China’s complicated and deeply flawed One-Child Policy. It has engendered infanticide, one of the highest rates of abortion in any country, forced abortions and sterilizations, and suicides. In my estimation, it stands in history as gravely horrific as the Holocaust. There is nothing more.

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So. Every now and then on Facebook, I see a friend or a farm running a 30-day challenge – decluttering, spending more time out-doors, budgeting and being thrifty. I thought long and hard about something I’d like to do more purposefully and here it is: I will make a great effort to not knowingly buy anything made in China this month and beyond (truly, I’ve been trying to do this for some time now). I don’t want to be part of the chain that ends in a place where human and animal rights are brutally marginalized. We celebrate 238 years of freedom this month…I’ll be doing it by only buying things made in the good ole’ U.S.A. I don’t mean this to be a plague of austerity in our lives, but rather a concerted effort to value where and by whom products are made – I’m aware that some things that we “need” are solely manufactured there, and often the things I buy used are as well. But, I’ll repurpose, reuse, recycle, all to reduce my family’s dependence on things made in China. I challenge you to join me this month.

Happy Birthday, United States.

Bread Circus.

On the tip of a farmer, I’ve been calling a bakery in Richmond to see if they have any expired bread for cheap. He said he could load a truck for $20. Apparently they let it pile up, then dole it out, first-come, first-served. It’s called Hog Feed bread, appropriately, and that’s what we wanted it for. Saturday, they had some.

W, WV, and I drove out to investigate. I walked into the bakery and the cashier said to go around back to the loading bay. She had propped a door open with a loaf of bread (ha!) and left us to fill up on our own. There were 6 bread-pallet stacks, about 8 feet high each, stuffed with loaves, buns, bagels, and pita flats. We hesitated, not knowing how to exactly start, then began bringing loaves to the car, stacking them into the trunk.

The cashier came back and I tentatively asked, “So, erm, how much will this be?” “Oh, 10 dollars, you don’t have a very big car.” So clearly, the only logical thing to do was just STUFF the car with bread – it was practically free and hey, we were there. We started an assembly line: I triple-loaded pallets, stacking the empties, and W carried them out to the car, lobbing them in. WV sat patiently in his car seat, saying, “Mmmm!” every time a loaf was added.

We didn’t stop. We were a car-bread-stuffing machine. Twenty minutes in, and since I couldn’t see the car from the loading bay door, I began to wonder, how much room we really had left. W said he had to close the trunk door and was throwing the bread into the back to fill it up. It was like one of those “how many folks can you stuff in a phone booth?” game shows. When the back seats were full, he rolled down windows to stuff in more, to prevent back-spillage. I went outside to observe – and the sight nearly made me pee myself. Our car was a cartoon-like bread wagon! WV was surrounded by a mountain of bread, clearly google-eyed over it and wanting to eat some. We couldn’t stop laughing.

20140208_130633Finally we stopped, concerned that the bread was becoming a hazard to driving.

Officer: Excuse me, do you know why I pulled you over?
W: No sir, I don’t.
Officer: You have a lot of bread in the car.
W: I didn’t know there was a limit on bread in VA.

Haha, we were dying laughing at scenarios like these all the way home.

WV fell asleep in his back seat bread kingdom, and we were able to count the loaves – 398!!! – as we unloaded them. Some were giant flats of 20-30 buns, clearly meant for more than individual/family use. And guess where they are stored? The old shed! This is an insane amount of bread. It fills half the floor space, piled nearly waist high. And can we just be reminded that it cost about 2 cents a loaf? More than a loaf a day for a year! I think we have unrealistic expectations of how long it will last (demon preservatives), but until it goes bad, the piggies and chickens are going to have a real treat. And we discovered, some of it had just expired yesterday – we ate some for lunch, but decided we find store-bought bread pretty dang disgusting. We did debate the merits of feeding our animals such bread and settled on the logic that we don’t really know the source of the ingredients in their bagged pellet food either…and this was originally meant for human consumption, so we’ll live with it. Foraging on grass is best, but it’s winter and we don’t have a fence set up yet for the pigs.

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Feeling quite proud of our bread haul…need a bagel?…come on over!

It’s even inspired poetry (thanks Dad!):

A rumor of ten-dollar bread
(there were four hundred loaves, it was said)
made its way to New York
on the wings of the pork,
and now it is stored in the shed.

This post is shared with The Prairie Homestead’s Homestead Barn Hop and Oak Hill Homestead’s HomeAcre Hop.

Replacing the Air Filter(s) In the Civic

Time for another automobile maintenance post for those who are following along. Was able to get this done before starting my new job and before the “heavy” snow arrived. This one is a two for one – the air filter AND the cabin air filter replacement. As most of my auto maintenance posts are, this one uses our 2009 Civic as the example, but this procedure is pretty straightforward and the same basic steps can be followed for most other vehicles.

Different manufacturers recommend different intervals on when to change your air filter. But the easy answer is to replace it when it gets dirty. I’m ashamed as to how long I waited, you can see the pictures below. The reason you need a filter is so dirt, dust, and other particles don’t get sucked into your engine, acting as abrasive little demons shortening the lifespan of your engine. The reason you need a clean air filter is because your engine needs a certain ratio of air (oxygen, really) to gasoline to operate efficiently. If your filter is too dirty then the flow of air is reduced, therefore making your mixture more rich with gasoline, causing you to use more gas than necessary to run your engine. So you want a clean filter.

If you don’t know how dirty the filter is, then take it out and look at it. If you don’t know where the filter is, crack open your user manual, check google, or just look for the tube that looks like it is sucking outside air into the engine. Here is where it is in the Civic:

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A zoomed in look shows the clamps you have to unclamp:
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Remove the filter housing, look at the filter, and decide whether it’s dirty enough to replace:

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Put the new filter where the old one, put the housing back, re-clamp, and you’re done. Take a look at this side by side:
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The second part of this post involves the cabin air filter replacement. This is important because it keeps harmful particles out of your AC system and also out of your lungs. Check your manual for where it is; it’s normally behind the glove box. Here is the step by step shown in pictures:

Press the sides where the glove box connects to the dash. Some cars you need a screwdriver or socket wrench:

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Ensure you have emptied the contents of your glove box or else they will end up on your floor. Behind the glove box is the housing for the cabin air filter. In the Civic, just press these side tabs and pull out.

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Here’s the old one next to the new one:

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Make sure your filter is installed properly (look at the arrows on the filter and the housing):
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Pretty simple stuff, huh? Took me about 5 minutes, mainly because I had to stop and snap pictures.

Polar Vortex Planting.

Single digit degree weather is the perfect time to plant lettuce…indoors.

Over New Year’s a friend was interested in how I double the lettuce I buy by regrowing it after I eat it! I thought I’d share my technique with you to save you money and green up your blistering cold winter, too. It escapes me who first showed me this neat trick.

P1070606First, I buy organic romaine hearts. Instead of ripping off the leaves, I cleanly chop off the bottoms, then score them and put them in a bowl of water for a few days to begin rooting and sprouting. After 24 hours you will see the new growth, which is pretty sweet. After a week, you’ll notice tiny rootlets sprouting from odd places on the bottom nubbin. I change out the water so it doesn’t get yucky as frequently as I can. After two weeks (or so, as in the pic directly below), they’re ready to plant in soil.

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In our county, even though plastic produce containers are labeled as recyclable, they are not, so I’ve been saving them for seed starting. WV and I punched a few holes into the bottoms and cut off their tops, to be used as drain trays. Then we filled the containers about 2/3 of the way full with dirt (after we defrosted it by a vent for most of the day), planted the growing lettuces I’ve had sitting by the sink and some seed lettuce as well! We had fun making a little bit of a mess inside, since it was too cold to go outside and dig in the dirt.

Keep them well watered, in full sun (if possible) and harvest when you see fit! Mine don’t seem to ever achieve the size of the originals, but they get close.

And it’s like there’s a little bit of spring in here; houseplants and giant cactii do not have the same aura as veggies growing.

How To Change Your Motor Oil

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Ok, I know this might be rudimentary for many of you readers out there, however, with the unexpected popularity of my post on changing the third brake light, I figured why not? My reason for writing that post was to reach at least one person to save him or her from unnecessarily spending too much money, so that same reasoning applies here.

If you have never changed your oil before, fear not! This is one of the easiest jobs to do yourself, there is very little risk of screwing things up, and you’ll be able to save yourself a bunch of money! All you need are a few tools, some elbow grease, and about a half hour and you can be a back yard mechanic too. It’s also a great father/son bonding experience (my dad taught me, his dad taught him, I’m sure Sr. taught Jr., and I’ll teach WV when he’s a couple years older).

In this post, I will show you how I change the oil in our 2009 Honda Civic. Different manufacturers (and even different models from the same manufacturer) will have things moved around a bit, but the basic principles still apply. Bottom line up front, here are the steps (explained in further detail below):

Step 1: Elevate the front of the vehicle.
Step 2: Remove drain plug, let oil drain into pan, replace drain plug.
Step 3: Remove filter, let oil drain into pan, replace filter.
Step 4: Refill engine with new oil.
Step 5: Clean up.
Step 6: Check for leaks.

P1070581Here’s a list of what you need:
Ramps or jack stands
Oil pan (that can handle the volume of oil in your engine)
Socket wrench (our Civic takes a 17 mm socket)
Towels/rags
Replacement filter
Replacement oil
Funnel (optional)
Filter wrench (optional)

If you’re not sure what weight/volume of oil or filter type your car needs, consult your owner’s manual. If you cannot find your manual (or the information), then Amsoil has a pretty good app to find out what you need (assuming your vehicle is a 1980 or newer). You don’t have to go with Amsoil for your oil and filter, but the site tells you what your car needs so you can get whatever brand you prefer. Plus, it gives you the option to choose metric or not, so you normal people who use a base 10 measuring system and us silly Americans with our nonsense measuring system can all get the right volumes (1 qt ≈ 0.946 L).

Step 1: Elevate the front of the vehicle. I use ramps. You can get a good pair for around $50, check your local AutoZone/Advance/Pep Boys/etc. Some people prefer to use jack stands, but I think they’re too much of a hassle for changing oil; it’s much easier to set out ramps and drive on up. Heck, you could drive one side of your car onto the curb if you feel like it (and you have a curb). Whatever you do, make sure that the car is secure (parking break on ramps!) before you go crawling underneath it. DO NOT CRAWL UNDERNEATH THE CAR IF IT IS ONLY SUPPORTED BY JACKS. Get yourself some jack stands or ramps, it’s not worth the risk to save a few bucks and be crushed by a car.
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Step 2: Make sure the engine is warmed up, but not hot. If you’ve been driving around, put the front end up and let it sit for a while. The oil can get really hot and burn your hands. On the other hand, if it’s really freaking cold outside and the oil has just been chilling (literally) in your engine, then you want to crank the engine and let it run for a bit so the oil flows a little better. Position your oil pan underneath the drain plug, keeping in mind that the laws of physics (gotta love fluid dynamics!) will ensure that the oil will initially shoot farther in the x-direction (using the ground as the x-axis, x = 0 is the point on the x-axis directly below the drain plug) and the stream will gradually move back towards x = 0 as the engine drains. It doesn’t matter which way you define as positive, you don’t want the oil to overshoot the pan. Loosen the drain plug with the socket wrench, and then slowly twist it out with your fingers, keeping pressure against the plug so it doesn’t shoot out and get lost in the oil pan.
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Once the oil is done draining, clean up the drain plug, clean around the area where the drain plug goes, and screw it back in there (you can use a torque wrench, but a normal-strengthed person with a normal socket wrench will most likely not over-tighten the plug). Some peoplemanufacturers recommend replacing the drain plug each time you replace the oil. Some cars also have a crush washer that goes between the oil pan and the drain plug that crushes (hence the name) when you tighten the plug and prevents the plug from getting even tighter. Manufacturers also recommend to replace these each time*. The first time I changed the oil in the Civic, I threw away the crush washer. I am still using the same drain plug. See any evidence of leakage in the picture above?

Step 3: Using the filter wrench (or a leather belt, or your hands if you’re Paul Bunyan), loosen the filter, then slowly twist it out using your hand(s). Be sure to keep pressure in the opposite direction, though, otherwise as soon as that filter comes free of the threads, it will slip out of your oily hands and plop right into your oil pan, splashing oil everywhere (yes, I know this from experience). Let the oil drain out of there, wipe out around where the filter screws in, then dip your finger into the used motor oil and spread it around the new filter’s gasket (to ensure a proper seal), and screw the new filter into place. I normally go hand tight (not so I’m straining) plus 1/4 turn with the wrench. Look at all that nastiness from the winter roads on the filter…
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Step 4: Double check that you put the drain plug back in (again, speaking from experience). Locate on your engine (under the hood) where the motor oil goes, and unscrew the cap. Using a funnel (or very steady hands), pour the new oil into the opening. My grandfather (and father, and now me) always said “You pay for the oil in the bottom of the bottle,” so I let the bottle sit there and REALLY drain. Screw the cap back on, close the hood, and you’re good to go.
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Step 5: Clean up. I transfer the used motor oil into an older container (you could even use the oil bottles you just emptied), stuff the old filter with paper towel, put it back in the box, and put it in a plastic bag with the hole facing upwards so residual oil doesn’t come out. Most shops and municipal waste collection facilities can recycle old oil and filters for you – call around and check. And look at how clean that new oil is compared to the old!

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Step 6: Bring the front end of your car back down to the ground, crank it up, check for leaks. I normally let the engine run for about 10 minutes, check underneath for leaks, then check the level with the dipstick. If I did it right, I’ve got the exact level of oil I need. If I didn’t, I either need to drain some or add some (it’s a lot easier to add, so better to undershoot). Take it for a spin (or just leave it running for a few minutes) and come back and re-check for leaks.

I will say, I’m so glad that I finally have my own garage. For the past few years I have had to change the oil (and do all other car maintenance) completely outside. And it always seemed like I chose the windiest day of the year to change the oil. Now I can do my work INSIDE A GARAGE and be somewhat protected from the elements. And eventually I’ll insulate it so I can stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer!

It’s entirely up to you whether you want to use conventional or synthetic oil in your vehicle. I use synthetic, since the Amsoil synthetic is good for 25k miles or 1 year, whichever comes first. A little more expensive up front, but the savings do add up. For full synthetic and the filters (the Amsoil filters for the Civic are only good for 15k miles, so I get two), the total cost comes out to about $60. That’s it. For the entire year. Most shops (at least around here) charge between $20-$30 for a conventional oil change, which has to be done every 3,000 miles. If you drive 15k miles in a year, that’s between $100-$150 you’re spending a year on oil changes. If you’re driving 24k miles a year, you’re up at $160-$240 a year. Even with the up front cost of buying ramps ($50) and tools ($10-$20) you’re spending less in that first year, and the savings add up for each subsequent change. Not to mention saving you the hassle of dropping your car off, waiting, or getting someone else to pick you up and bring you back, and losing the whole day.

So if you’ve never changed your own oil before, go ahead and give it a try. It’s not terribly difficult, and it’s really hard to screw it up. It takes less time and money than taking it to the shop, and it gives you that nice sense of accomplishment of doing something yourself and sticking it to the man!

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*I have a hypothesis that stealerships and garages just take an impact wrench to the drain plug and the crush washer prevents them from torquing (not twerking) so hard that the oil pan cracks. This is also why manufacturers recommend replacing the washer and drain plug, because they know people will torque the hell out of them and render them non-reusable. The first time I changed L’s oil in her car when we were dating, I was doing pull-ups on the breaker bar trying to get the dang plug to turn! The manufacturer recommendation is about 30 ft-lbs. At the time, I was about 180 lbs, give or take 5. My breaker bar is 18 inches.

First Craft.

I had this Pinterest-inspired hallucination that I would create one crafty item per day in 2014. AHAHAHAHA!!! Hillllarious, folks, hilarious. But, I did manage to create something rad with W on the first of the year – so here it is: a little tutorial on how to make an inverted fruit-basket hanging lamp. P1070537

Some background: The people we bought our home from not only vied to tie Kim Kardashian in swiftness of marriage disintegration, but the world record for number of ugly-butt chandeliers in one house. They are everywhere – in each bedroom (chandeliers in bedrooms?!?), in the dining room of course, the hallway, the kitchen, and they actually took the ones from the barn that were hanging there when we toured the house (the only ones we liked). Anywho, not only are they not “us,” but they cast what appear to be giant grey arachnid shadows (incidentally, W’s idea of a good heavy metal band name). Gotta go.

I’d been hemming and hawing over cool lighting for way too long. My cousin, who we lived with in DC over the summer, always had giant Restoration Hardware catalogs lying about, which were good for drooling, but amusingly not in our price range, and I really like the feel of the lighting at Barn Light Electric. But nothing got purchased. Then recently, in Carytown, I spotted several hanging lights made by a local artisan out of non-traditional sources like repurposed baskets. I knew I could recreate those $75-$200 lights myself! In fact, in purge-mode, I had tossed an old hanging fruit basket that I once bought for $1 at a garage sale into our scrap metal pile, which I immediately fished out when we got home.

A quick trip to Lowes (with a 10% off coupon) garnered a 12-ft lamp cord wire ($5.80, only a portion of which I ended up using…more DIY lamps to be made!) and a keyless socket adapter kit ($3.58) that I thought I could string together to make a hanging light (we’ve become trial and error electricians over the last 3 months). I also bought a canopy kit ($4.61), which is a face plate/finial that covers the ugly hole in the ceiling where all the important wiring resides.

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First, I debated whether or not to spray paint the basket, which had some rust spots, opting finally not to in the name of “rustic charm” and it being frigging freezing outside. Then I turned the basket upside down and reattached it’s four chains to the bottom, to make an umbrella-shaped hanging wire basket. I cut off the cord’s plug and wired it to the socket. The instructions that came with the cord didn’t actually match the cord, so W did a little sleuthing to find out which of the two wires was the live/hot (sometimes labeled as “black,” in this case it just had writing on it) and which was the neutral wire (sometimes labeled as “white”). I then attached the little brass finial that came with the socket to the underside of the basket after threading the wire through it. I used a piece of the chain to secure the wire to the basket too, at the top where the “X” is made) so that it didn’t swing around. Then we cut the wire slightly longer than the length of the chain so that we had room to make the connections in the ceiling.

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A few quick screw turns and the godawful hall chandelier (really the worst in tarantula-like shadow offenders) was thankfully removed. Then W attached the wires from our new chandelier to those in the ceiling and installed the canopy kit (thread the wire from the hanging lamp through it first, before connecting the wires to the ceiling). Oh yes, and we turned off the circuit prior to all fiddling in the ceiling, of course!
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Last step was to screw in the vintage-inspired lightbulb I had purchased ($6.28…the most expensive piece!). No degree required! I experimented with threading lace ribbon and strips of burlap through the basket weave, but finally removed them all b/c it looked too hodge-podgy. Plain basket for me!

Oh, I love this little home made chandelier so much – it casts an unobtrusive basket shadow and the low wattage bulb isn’t too bright to look at directly. Total cost of materials: about $20. Boo-ya!

Go make one!!!

This post was shared with Fluster Buster’s creative link-up party.