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I made my first bicycle powered flour mill in 2001 while living in a big group house in college. I first bought a hand-grind flour mill simply because I thought it would be poetic and lovely to watch whole grains turn into flour. Flour is such a ubiquitous food item, and yet plenty of folks don't have any idea where it comes from.
We did so much baking in that house--from bread to pie to pizza dough--that I could often hear the mill grinding while I was busy in my room studying Rousseau, Marx, or Thoreau. In fact, one day in the kitchen I noticed that someone's Karl Marx Reader found its way onto the cook book shelf, which made for quite the entertaining image. Would anyone like some revolution for dinner?
The second bicycle mill I made was for The Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, CA. And the third was bartered away in exchange for lovely accommodations at an artist retreat.
Conversion to Pedal Power
The conversion of a flour mill from hand-power to bicycle-power is not as complicated as it may seem. I had a machinist make a pulley, which he then mounted to the wheel. Next, I added a v-belt and built a wooden base for tension and stability.
If you want to take a crack at making a bicycle-powered flour mill yourself, this DIY article by Jack Jenkins is a must read. The mill I used is the Country Living Grain Mill and it's great for converting to bike use because it already has a large iron wheel with a groove for the v-belt. It's also available via Amazon.com with free shipping. There is also a wooden handle you can attach to the wheel to grind by hand.
Special Flour Sacks
When I'm not grinding flour at home to bake cookies, I sometimes take the bicycle mill out for demonstrations around town. It appeared at the Velocipede Mania show at the Rock Paper Scissors Collective in Oakland, CA way back in 2007. I designed a special cotton flour sack on the occasion of that exhibit and folks ground their own flour and took it home in one of our hand-silkscreened sacks.
Flour sack reuse has a wonderful history, which you can read a bit more about via our Changing Clothes project. The original "pedal power" sack design was inspired by the vintage sack (see photos below) in my collection. After a 1930s mom used up all the flour, she would cut out the doll pattern and stitch a toy for her child to play with. My sack makes a little stuffed bicycle about four inches long. A lego man could ride it, or it makes a great pin cushion.
Cookies with Spokes
For a special one-night art show, I also exhibited bicycle wheel cookies that I made with my home-ground flour. Fresh flour has much more flavor than store-bought flour--even if it's the whole wheat variety--so it's wonderful for baked goods. Thanks to Anastasia from Indie Cakes in Berkeley for giving me a quick tutorial on icing piping!
It was a sweet treat to spend a morning with my dear friend Chris Kerr's high school class in Oakland, CA. Mr. Kerr teaches "DIY Publishing" at the Oakland School for the Arts and invited me to do a "show & tell" session with his delightful students. He encourages them to think creatively about how to "make public" their work and he suspected I might be able to expand his students' notions of all the ways they can "publish" their original content. As an introduction, I held up my hand-stitched uniform from our World's Smallest Post Service, passed out tags from our clothes tag exchange and showed them the yarn kits we created to go with our Knit the Sky scarf patterns. After "show & tell," I led the students through a crafty writing project that I designed especially for them.
Each student received his or her own ready-to-go sugar packet bookmaking kit. The paper was chopped, the holes were punched, the thread was pre-cut, and the sugar packets were all collated in advance. Thank you to the Oakland chapter of Bread for the Journey for the generous grant that covered the material costs for this experimental writing adventure.
First we emptied all the sugar packets and punched holes along their edges. Then we inserted interior book pages and threaded our needles. So, how to teach all 27 students the special bookbinding stitch? I knew I couldn't just hold up a two inch tall sample at the front of the class without providing binoculars for everyone. Solution: make a giant model! We binded our tiny books in unison, one stitch at a time. When the bell rang for break, one young man looked up briefly and said "Why would anyone want to take a break when they could keep making these?"
These little "sugar books" are certainly adorable, perhaps even squeal-able. But there is more. They aren't designed to merely look nice on a bookshelf. In fact, they're meant to be released out into the world, hopefully in the service of making us all a little bit sweeter and a touch more thoughtful. To that end, Mr. Kerr's students will be writing short pieces inside each sugar book on the theme of "sweetness" and then surreptitiously placing them around town in cafés and restaurants for the rest of us to stumble upon and enjoy. Each student might write about the sweetest thing that someone has ever done for him or her. Or he or she might simply offer sweet words of encouragement to the stranger that happens to grab a sugar book instead of the expected sugar packet.
If you live in Oakland, and especially if you frequent coffee shops downtown near the Oakland School for the Arts, I suggest you reach for your next sugar packet with an attentive eye. If you're lucky, you just might grab the heartfelt handwork and carefully chosen words of one of Mr. Kerr's students.
Thank you for hosting me, Mr. Kerr's class! I can't wait to see and hear how it all turns out! And remember, if you want to make more sugar books at home, but can't track down fancy waxed linen thread, just use dental floss!
For everyone else, stay tuned as we plan to publish a more detailed "sugar books" DIY post in the weeks ahead.
Last spring I had the pleasure of working with Helena and Amber of Alula Editions on a tote bag for the Open Engagement conference in Portland, OR. The conference was about a kind of art many people have termed "social practice" or "relational aesthetics." As such, we wanted to design and make the bag in a way that embodied these concepts.
We heard about Portland's vibrant food cart culture, so we invited a bunch of fun folks to go out with paper and Sharpies to draw food carts, such as The Big Egg and Wicked Waffles. We then turned these drawings into a repeat pattern for fabric and a bunch of generous helpers up in Portland silk-screened and sewed them. Conference attendees were greeted with a tote bag full of conference materials that doubled as a guide to Portland food cart cuisine. Thanks to everyone who participated!
By the way, Alula Editions is totally cool. It is an art subscription service where you receive four limited edition textile objects a year made out of original fabric designed in collaboration with both artists and everyday folks. Their first official edition is made with Jason Jägel (see below). And their second, based on plant drawings made by hikers, is also in the works. Check 'em out.
Fabric for first object edition, Alula Editions with Jason Jägel.