Posts Tagged: kristine jepsen

Artist Feature: Sew Nuts! Knitting with Bev Bakkum


Purl Up and Get Cozy with local knitting expert Bev Bakkum

Story & photos by Kristine Jepsen • Originally published in the Winter 2011-12 Inspire(d)

“SOS! SOS! I’ve dropped a stitch and I can’t move forward!”

It’s a typical distress call, and Bev Bakkum is on it. She arranges the specimen gently under her scope, adjusts her 2.0 reading glasses, and peers at the problem, her eyes searching its tissuey edges.

“Ah, ha!” she says, laughing, both hands already at work, fingers delicately separating strands. Within another minute, she pulls the partially knitted sweater, made of a luxurious black wool yarn, from her examining table and pats it triumphantly. “You dropped a stitch when you started from the wrong side, but I found it,” she tells her friend and sometime student Bonnie, who is making the sweater as a gift for her husband. “You’re good to go again.”

Bev_AdjustedBakkum is an “incurable” knitter herself (as in, knits with her first cup of coffee, on her lunch break, in the evenings while watching TV, maybe even in her sleep) and teaches a host of classes at Decorah’s Blue Heron Knittery.

The teaching part weaves easily in and out of her work on her own projects, which usually (and concurrently) include at least one sweater, a throw or blanket, and several smaller whimsies like a Christmas stocking fringed in a pink “frou frou” yarn – mostly gifts for others. Several of her finished items go on display at Blue Heron, either on mannequins or in the windows – until the appointed recipient’s birthday or anniversary rolls around, and the gift is given. Several have taken top prize at county fairs.

“I grew up where children were seen, not heard; so to keep me occupied when I was little and noisy, my Grandma Geraldine would hand me two needles with eight stitches on them and I would spend all afternoon in the window seat just sliding those stitches from one needle to the other. I never knitted anything, of course, but each time I came back, there’d be a couple more rows on the needle. Of course, she was doing it, but she’d congratulate me and pat me on the back, and it kept me fired up to keep going.”

froufrouyarnThese days, Bakkum tries some of the most complicated patterns she can find, most recently including a square in the Great American Aran Afghan pattern that had 64 threads (or start/stop points) within just one of the 4-inch-by-4-inch cable-knit sections. “The fun part is all the skills and techniques,” she says. “You either knit [v-shaped stitches] or you purl [bead-like stitches], but there are hundreds of variations to learn, and you’re never so advanced that there’s nothing left to learn.”

Another of Bakkum’s major talents is tailoring. In fact, she ran her own business, Sew Nuts, out of her rural Waukon home while raising her nine children, alternating cutting and fitting with cooking and bathtime and bedtime book reading.

“The sewing started when I was 10,” she says, “and my mother gave me a sewing machine and a stack of fabric and told me ‘I’m not buying any more clothes, you’re going to make your own.’ Well, let me tell you, I wore a lot of ugly clothes, and the sheer embarrassment of it all encouraged me to get better. Quick. Also, my mother was a perfectionist, and I can’t tell you how many seams I had to take out to get them just right. I guess that’s where I got a lot of my sense of what’s ‘good enough’ to call finished.”

basketyarnAt Blue Heron, owned and managed by returned Decorah-ian Sarah Iversen, Bakkum indulges her multi-tasking by assisting others who are working at different rates on various sweaters, afghans, or other patterns. “Regulars” of Blue Heron’s drop-in knitting sessions groan and roll their eyes when Bakkum’s tailoring experience comes up.

“Beware: she’ll make you do a swatch,” Shelly says. “And if it doesn’t come out right, she’ll make you do it again ­­– with littler needles.”

“Or larger needles,” Bakkum interjects. “A swatch is a small sample of a garment pattern that allows you to test the weight of your yarn and size of your stitches. Then you can mathematically recalibrate the pattern to your target size for the finished sweater. If you’re going to spend 300 to 500 hours and buy maybe 900 to 1600 yards of yarn for a project, you darn well want it to fit!”

“The trouble is, she’ll make you do a swatch every time you start a project, even if you just finished one like it!” another member, Theresa, says.

“And that’s because as you get better at knitting, the tension of your stitches changes,” Bakkum soothes. “You won’t even notice the improvement until you’re another several hours in. I’m telling you, the swatch is absolutely necessary.”

NorwegianSweaterIn addition to her natural proclivity to task-mastering, Bakkum helps other members unravel small mistakes and interpret cryptic pattern instructions. “There’s no standard for knitting as there is for lace crochet, for example,” Bakkum says. “I can pick up a book in Korean or German and accomplish that lace just by reading the charts, but with knitting, there’s no established instruction. And some writers are better teachers than others.”

When she gets fed up with a pattern’s gibberish ­– or sees ways to improve the design – Bakkum simply writes her own and prints copies for class members. That’s where this year’s Christmas stocking pattern came from. “It’s a big stocking – eight inches across at the top,” she says, laughing, “because we want it to actually hold those stuffers, not just look pretty on the mantel.”
The pattern is simple and encourages flourishes of frilly yarns, trinkets stitched onto the Christmas tree design, and bold contrast of color on the heel and toe. Throughout each class, Bakkum offers tidbits from her own leftover yarn bag and reminds the others to just have fun with the project.

“Yeah, don’t let her fool you,” Shelly mutters with a smirk, ribbing Bakkum without looking up from her stocking. “The reason she’s got so many great remnants in her leftover bag is that she always buys up the coolest new yarns.”

“That’s true,” says another member, Kris, whom the others say can’t turn down anything sparkly or fluorescent. “You don’t want Bev here the day they open a new shipment of yarn.”

“I can’t help it!” Bakkum retorts. “When I was kid, my only choice was Red Heart acrylic. Now, anything you can imagine, there’s a beautiful yarn made from it – soy, bamboo, corn silk, angora, cashmere, alpaca, hand-dyed wools, etc… There are so many gorgeous yarns to choose from.”

Blue Heron’s core group of 10 or so knitters gathers each Monday night (a time designated for drop-ins) and/or Wednesday night (social knitting time) and Saturdays sometimes, too, depending on class scheduling. The group united a year ago when they all tackled a pattern now referred to as the “Lucy Shawl.” At the time, the group included a Monona, Iowa, resident of Cuban descent named Lucy, who would drop in after her work as a translator at Decorah’s hospital.

LucyShawlIt quickly became Lucy’s joke to complain about counting the pattern’s 1095 starting stitches in English. “She’d say, ‘Can’t I just stop at 1,000? What do I need those others for?’” Bakkum recounts with a chuckle. Eventually, though, Lucy mastered the shawl and went on to make nine others from memory.

When Lucy was killed in a car accident in March 2011, the other members of Blue Heron’s knitting classes made variations on the shawl in her memory. They are displayed on Blue Heron’s west wall, an undulating tribute to creativity, knitting as meditation, and, of course, the unapologetic honesty and humor in their camaraderie. To illustrate for others why they spend their odd hours together, members are considering custom printing t-shirts that feature short-hand familiar to knitters:
(across the front)
Do you know the code?”
(across the back)
“Knit 2 together”

“We talk about all kinds of things,” Theresa says. “World politics, husbands [or wives], yoga stretches that are good during our breaks, YouTube videos we found to explain some stitch we didn’t understand, whatever is irking us that day…you know, the usual. This place is like a general store with an old-fashioned pot-bellied stove. You just want to be near the warmth of it.”


Kristine_Spring14When she was little, Kristine Kopperud Jepsen made lots and lots of hideous clothes from old curtains. She has since sworn off polyester and prefers to buy more naturally occurring couture from talents like Bev Bakkum.

Blue Heron Knittery, 300 West Water Street, Decorah
Knitters of all levels of experience are welcome to drop in for company or assistance anytime the store is open, with scheduled gatherings weekly. The store offers two areas for work and conversation: one with tables and one arranged like a living room. “And there are comfortable chairs for spouses who must wait for their shopper,” Bakkum adds.

Paula Brown – The Goods


By Kristine Jepsen • Originally published in the Fall 2015 Inspire(d)

If you spend any time in or around Decorah, you probably know the incurable creative behind The Goods by Paula Brown.

Paula works her main magic – amazing jewelry, purses, and knitted wear – out of an eclectic gallery/shop in her rural Decorah home, but you’ll also find her behind the bar at the Hotel Winneshiek in Decorah – her part-time gig – several nights a week.

Toward the holidays, you might catch her standing on a chair, styling the displays in the hotel lobby for the annual Gift of Art artisan craft show, an event she founded and sponsors.

PaulaBrownOr maybe you’ve seen her throw back her blonde head of hair and laugh, revealing a stack of hand-knitted scarves that fit together like bangles, or a riveting necklace of hand-selected turquoise. Ask for her card, and she’ll dig it out of a hand-knitted, felted, and dyed tote. Yup, of her own design.

“I make things,” the Dubuque native says with a shrug. “I don’t fit in a box creatively. It’s what people need or what people want,” – she often takes cues from the folks she meets tending bar. “I can get lost in the process” – for example, spending a whole day crafting a wallet of upcycled corduroy to match one of her purses – “how do you stop?”

Paula (pictured, right – photo courtesy Paula Brown) creates her own designs for goods, and then, even when something sells well at craft shows or in her shop, she’ll modify and remake the designs, turning always toward something new. “I want to make things accessible, whether that’s the value of small earrings or a shoulder bag,” she says. “People change. Their interests and tastes change. It gives me a chance to change and evolve, too.” Take the scarf bangles, “Nec Lux,” as she calls them. “I had customers asking me about different textures and colors of yarns, and I thought, ‘Why wear just one at a time?’” And so, the idea of mixing and matching the narrow bands was born.


It’s the same with her purses and tote bags, which she hand-knits or cuts from unique or vintage clothing scavenged from thrift stores. Each bag features a natural emblem – a tree, a bird, or a palette straight out of an Iowa sunset – but the sizes and shapes are unique. “I had moms ask me for a backpack purse – something unique but durable, that would stay put when you have a kid by the hand and bag full of water bottles and snacks.”

She’s big on this kind of function, noting that quality fasteners, clasps, zippers, and finish stitching mean her pieces will live up to living. “My work is meant to be worn. And washed. And worn again,” she says. Any problems? She’ll repair it.

And while running a shop from her country home might seem removed from mainstream commerce, it’s a deliberate step toward making a living from her artistic tendencies. (Below photo and bottom hat photo courtesy Paula Brown.)


Since starting at a flea market her first year of high school, Paula has traveled thousands of miles and hung thousands of handmade goods on her 10-foot-by-10-foot display at art shows across the region, even as her family grew to include her husband and two sons. She’s also built a website and shipped items to customers, but none of those outlets afforded the joy of watching art transform someone in person, she says, having them see right where it was made, amid her hand-drawn design sketches and scraps of fabric on her cutting table.

“I love seeing customers touch a fabric, or feel a smooth pendant or handmade button, or try something on – and then there it is – that joy,” she says. “That’s why I do it. It’s me saying, ‘I made this just for you.’”


Kristine Jepsen understands the compulsion to ‘make things,’ as evidenced by whole drawers in her home of light-gage wire, glitter, beads, fabric scraps, papers and, especially, writing instruments. She’s proud to call the Driftless home, where creatives are far from the exception.

Want to see more?

You can visit Paula Brown’s The Goods Studio Store Saturdays, 10am-3pm or by appointment.

The Goods is also a stop on the Northeast Iowa Artists’ Studio Tour October 2-4, 2015

The annual Gift of Art sale, organized by Paula and featuring six local artists, will be Saturday, December 5, 10 am – 7pm in the Hotel Winneshiek lobby. She also manages the local artwork on display throughout the hotel year-round, including a new collection of her own paintings. Visit The Goods Studio Store on Facebook for details.

Science, You’re Super: Compost!


It’s a dirty Business…but it’s worth it!  Shutterstock photo/ Marina Lohrbach

By Kristine Jepsen • Originally published in the Spring 2015 Inspire(d)

You know you’ve wondered about it – that heap in your neighbor’s yard. Or, maybe your child came home from school and breathlessly told you a classmate had buckets full of garbage-eating worms in her basement. Perhaps you yourself have saved kitchen scraps with the hope of turning them to the ‘black gold’ known as compost, rich and weighty and uniform as it crumbles through the fingers.

It’s not magic, but science! Composting is one of the most transformative and successful processes on the planet. It’s a specific series of biological and chemical events that harvests the raw elements from anything once living – blades of grass, banana peels, wood chips, newspaper – and returns them to their most accessible form: soil teeming with life-giving nutrients. Dust to dust.

So why aren’t more people drinking this Kool-Aid? Well, because watching dead things come back to ‘life’ isn’t pretty. There are mushy, squishy parts and lots of bugs. Composting also takes time – ranging from a few months to a year or more, depending on ambient temperatures and handling. And, if proceeding under less-than-optimal conditions – i.e. without the right ratio of materials or influx of oxygen – it can get stinky. Really stinky.

But it’s totally do-able, even with Midwestern winters as they are. And it could save 25-30 percent of your household waste from the landfill, where organic plant matter has little chance of breaking down organically.

There are three common types of composting: 
Aerobic – in which the microorganisms doing the dirty work require oxygen;
Anaerobic – actually called putrefaction, in which microorganisms go to town in the absence of oxygen, releasing ammonia, methane gas, and hydrogen sulfide; and
Vermicomposting – a subset of aerobic composting where the work is done primarily by species of worms that adore digesting food scraps and fiber waste.

In the aerobic setting – the fastest and most common in nature and most often replicated by humans – the perfect scenario is to feed dry, carbon-rich “brown” ingredients (newspaper, wood chips, leaves, dry-ish coffee grounds) in proportion to wetter “green” ingredients (vegetable scraps, fruit peels) in combinations that result in the total chemical composition of the pile achieving a ratio is 25:1 or 30:1 (carbon:nitrogen).

This ratio exists because the microorganisms – bacteria, bugs, fungi, etc – that metabolize compost use carbon as fuel, oxidizing it and respiring it as carbon dioxide, as well as combining it with nitrogen and other nutrients to make their own cell protoplasm. It does not, however, mean the pile needs 25 parts brown ingredients to 1 green. This is where it gets a little more confusing: Each food source contains some proportion of brown to green as well— it falls into one camp or the other depending on how dry it is when added. So, all told, a good rule of thumb is to add two parts green to one part brown, or even one-to-one. (See resources below for a link to a handy compost “recipe” calculator.)


As bacteria chow down and oxidize carbon it generates HEAT (photo by Kristine Jepsen)! Under aerobic composting conditions, just one gram of glucose molecules can release up to 484 to 674 kilogram calories (kcal) of heat – enough kilowatts to brew 4-6 pots of java in the average coffee maker. As compost is digested and microorganisms multiply, the pile heats up and those best suited for each range of temperatures – and the changing food supply – take over.

A compost pile both introduces and sustains a wide variety of bacteria, fungi, and actinomycetes (those wispy, branching growths that often form an extensive colony, or mycelium).

Successive waves of bacteria that tolerate the hot-getting-hotter interior of the pile include mesophilic bacteria (50-115 degrees), which give way to thermophilic bacteria (150-160 degrees – by comparison, the average hot water heater is set around 125 degrees.) After the first 10 days, the original materials in the pile lose their definition and the pile shrinks substantially. Beyond 160 degrees, bacteria die off or run out of sufficient oxygen to continue, and the pile starts to cool, requiring stirring or turning to put undigested materials back in contact with remaining bacteria.

By contrast, compost fungi and actinomycetes cannot handle the hotter interior, restricting them to growth within the first 2-6” beneath the surface. There, they break down much of the tougher plant matter in the pile, usually near the end of the composting period or “curing” when the temperatures have begun to drop and they can survive across a larger part of the pile.

Toward the end, mites, millipedes, centipedes, springtails, beetles and earthworms also flourish and add their castings to the nutrient density of the mixture. In fact, the size of the organisms present in the pile can indicate the mixture’s maturity, as the organisms on each level of the food chain keep the populations of the next lower level in check.

Compost – or humus – is ‘done’ when it ‘stabilizes’ and its internal temperature returns to ambient temperature, even when turned or stirred. Most of the original materials should be unrecognizable, though tough, woody items like sunflower stems, corncobs, and avocado pits will still be intact. These can be removed (laden with beneficial bacteria) and incorporated into a new pile for another round. The remaining, sifted compost —reduced to about a third the volume of its original inputs! — should cure or rest for three or more months before use as potting soil, mulch or a soil amendment. It will be deep brown in color, uniform in particle size (small), and smell ‘good’ and earthy – like a forest floor.


Commercial compost – for sale at garden centers – is regulated by state agencies, says Marty Grimm, who sells bulk commercial compost from his farm east of Decorah through his company, Upper Iowa Organics (pictured above, photo by Kristine Jepsen). His windrow-style piles, centered on his 34 acres, must maintain an internal temperature of 131 degrees or more for 15 consecutive days, measured by a recognized compost thermometer, before it can be ‘screened’ to remove any ‘overs’ (oversize particles). Then it cures for 3-9 months before it’s ready for sale. “That’s the state’s regulation for ensuring harmful pathogens don’t survive,” Grimm explains. “Compost is quantified and classified as a fertilizer, just like the synthetics.”

If you don’t have room or desire to build a bin or pile, vermicomposting is aerobic composting in miniature – where the red wiggler or manure worm (Eisensia foetida) or the red worm (Lumbricus rebellus) chew up the layers of brown and green inputs, leaving rich, uniform castings.

Plastic worm bins need to be perforated with several holes on all sides for ventilation, and a coarse cloth (coconut mat, burlap) should line the bottom of each bin. When a bin is full and castings uniform, the worms can be ‘removed’ by stacking a new bin containing fresh food on top or alongside it. After mere days, the worms will migrate through the ventilation holes to the fresh grub.

“As with most things, worms will thrive if you just pay attention,” says Jim Tripp, an avid gardener and founding member of Decorah Urban Gardens (DUG). “If they’re slowing down, you have to adjust.” Is the air temp colder? Are they not getting through the wetter materials and need another sheet of newspaper laid on top? “Also, no discussion of worm bins should go without stating: ‘Worms LOVE coffee grounds. Love them.’”

Just think about that next time you’re tossing a filter in the trash.

Who knows? You just might find yourself commissioning a scrap bucket to keep under the sink.


Every windowsill in Kristine Jepsen’s home has at least one plant in it. And she pots up jade starts rather compulsively. It’s time to cultivate compost, too – no more excuses! In addition to writing for Inspire(d), she publishes creative nonfiction and other projects on her site:


How to get started with aerobic composting

Choose a well-drained site and a retaining structure, if desired (wooden pallets, for example, or a rotating bin – you can purchase special bins just for composting that are built on a “spit” for easy spinning)

Alternate 2-4” layers of brown and green materials, roughly adding equal amounts by weight (which means adding more of the drier, lighter brown stuff to balance out the heavier green stuff). Some sources propose adding this volume of material and just stirring it uniformly, instead of messing with layers. Water compost lightly as layers are added.

Keep the site 3’x3’x3’ or thereabouts so the work of stirring it or turning it is manageable. ‘Turning’ means removing everything from the bin and putting it back in, moving material from the edges of the pile to the middle, as possible. Keeping the site compact also encourages bacterial activity and keeps the heat from dissipating in cooler temperatures.

Continue to add material to a pile, as warranted by the space, burying food scraps in the center and covering each green addition with a layer of ‘brown’ inputs, such as dry leaves.

To ‘finish’ a pile, stop adding new material and let the compost cure until turning no longer generates bacterial activity (heat).


Composting gone wrong: Common mistakes and how to fix them

Don’t overwater or overfeed with nitrogen-rich “green” ingredients. The microbes, including worms, can’t keep up. If your pile or bin feels more moist than a damp (not dripping) wash rag, back off on the green stuff and add some dry “brown” stuff to restore order.

Stinky, slimy mess? Turn the pile uniformly or stir the worm bin. Every phase of aerobic composting requires an influx of oxygen. Check your carbon-to-nitrogen ratio of ingredients to adjust for moisture, too. Keep in mind that some ingredients can go either way: Grass clippings are full of nitrogen (green) when they’re fresh and wet. They’re more in the ‘brown’ camp once they’ve dried.

Won’t heat up? The pile likely contains too much carbon (brown ingredients). Mix more green inputs into the pile and aerate thoroughly. If still too dry, water the whole pile and stir again.

Don’t compost pet droppings, bones or meat scraps, which often contain pathogens that aren’t killed in the range of thermic activity in the average home compost pile.

Don’t compost colored paper – the dyes that create the color may contain metals and other chemicals that harm beneficial composting bacteria.

Avoid composting yard waste containing weed seeds, which are also difficult to kill.


Interactive compost recipe calculator

Comprehensive how-to from Texas A&M Extension Service

The chemistry of composting

Florida’s state site for home composting

Guidelines for testing finished compost

Good list of browns and greens — with their carbon:nitrogen ratios

List of ‘greens’ and ‘browns’

Source for vermicomposting worms

Or, ask around town – an active composter might even have worms to share!