Archive | February, 2012

Holy Sews: Tiny layettes comfort grieving parents of stillborn children

26 Feb

 “I sewed and I cried and I sewed and I cried” — Regina Binz

BY RHONDA OWEN

    On the day after Thanksgiving in 2008, Regina Binz and a friend visited hospitals in Northwest Arkansas to offer them something she wished she’d had the year before, when her son, whom she named Ryan Henry, died in her womb 17 weeks into her pregnancy.

(Holy Sews photo)

    During the months since his death in 2007, Binz had been working through her grief by designing an outfit suitable for miscarried and stillborn babies, who are unimaginably tiny and fragile.
    She had refined her concept and created a tunic open on the sides, which could be placed over a baby’s head, then secured with a ribbon. Fetuses in early stages of development are simply too delicate and small for typical baby clothing. Even doll clothes don’t work because they have small arm and head openings, plus fasteners that could tear a baby’s gossamer skin.
    After much trial and error, Binz had a prototype for a workable garment. Her goal was to make and donate them to hospital delivery units so they would have something pretty, soft, durable and small in which to wrap the little ones before showing them to their parents.
    Her first stop was Mercy Medical Center in Rogers, Binz recalls. “We took our stuff in to show them. The nurse at the desk looked at us like we were crazy and she said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ Then she told me they had a mother delivering a stillborn baby at that moment and they needed the tunic right then.”
    Binz had been planning to keep the prototype, but handed it over — with an unexpected feeling of gratitude — after hearing the nurse’s words. Being able to offer such a gift to another mother was a balm to her grief. It also meant she was on the right path with her plan for the garments. Until that point, she had been ambivalent — she needed to find an outlet for her grief but she also knew she needed to focus on raising her daughter, Torrie, then 7 years old.
    “When I found out that mother was having a boy, it was like a moment of affirmation. The sense of affirmation and liberation is hard to describe.”
   

Handmade layettes by Holy Sews volunteers

 Since that day, Binz and the group she founded, Holy Sews, have made and furnished 700 to 800 layettes — each one with a tiny tunic, blanket, knitted cap (petite enough to fit the narrow end of an egg) and miniature teddy bear — to 32 hospitals in the state.
    The group meets once a month at Our Lady of the Holy Souls Catholic Church in Little Rock, where Binz lives, to cut, sew and embellish layettes. Many of the women have lost babies themselves, while others just want to help. The ecumenical group of volunteers spends an afternoon cutting, sewing, assembling and packaging the layettes.
    On a Sunday in October, the parish hall at Holy Souls was filled with the jackhammer-like sound of sewing machines and cheerful chatter. Binz pointed to a blue gown for a baby born prematurely on a stand next to a smocklike tunic about one-third the size of the gown.
    “This is what my son was wrapped in,” she says. “That was humongous, but that wasn’t on my mind when they brought my son to me. I wasn’t thinking, ‘I’ll make clothes for all the babies of the world.’”
    Her son weighed 3 ounces and measured 7 inches, barely the length of her hand. Binz and her husband, Kevin, wanted to see their son so the nurses brought Ryan to them wrapped in a regular-size hospital blanket.
    “My son was handed to me with his head folded over like it might break off,” Binz says. “It was very startling. That’s what I kept in mind when I was working on the tunic and blanket. I wanted to make something that would support the head so that wouldn’t happen to another mother.”
    With that in mind, she worked on her design, discarding idea after idea until she was sure she had created the ideal garment.
    “I sewed and I cried and I sewed and I cried,” Binz says. “It’s a simple design, but it took me forever to get right.”
    Among the first mothers to receive the Holy Sews layettes was Megan Garrison, who gave birth to stillborn twins Bella (6.8 ounces) and Paschal (7.2 ounces) on April 10, 2009. The boy and girl were 21 weeks old. Babies who die after 20 weeks of pregnancy are considered stillborn, while those who die earlier are termed miscarriages or “pregnancy loss,” according to the National Stillbirth Society.
    “As soon as I got them, I was so touched,” Garrison says of the layettes. A video montage of photos shows the twins first wrapped in white washcloths, then dressed in blue and pink tunics with matching caps and blankets. One photo shows Garrison smiling and holding both babies.
    

Doll-size knitted caps are part of each layette

Being able to see her babies, hold them and examine them — “they have all your features already” — was a “nice closure,” Garrison says. And seeing them dressed like other babies instead of wrapped in a piece of cloth used for bathing is a measure of comfort during an immeasurably painful loss.
    Treasure Grier, a nurse for four years in the labor and delivery unit at the UAMS Medical Center, says having the layettes on hand is a blessing for the nurses, who must present the stillborn and miscarried babies to devastated parents.
    “We love them, we love them, we love them,” she says of Holy Sews tunics. “They’re easy to place on the babies, they’re beautiful and we feel like we’re giving parents a pretty baby. That’s important because they don’t always look as beautiful as parents would hope or expect.”
    She said parents are always appreciative. “We’ve never had anyone respond negatively” to seeing their baby in a tunic and cap. “It creates a beautiful memory and we send it home with the family,” Grier says. “For the parents, it’s a tangible thing that their baby wore, their baby held.”
    Sometimes the babies are cremated or buried in the layettes at parents’ request.
    The need for the layettes is greater than you might imagine, Grier says, explaining that a week earlier, there were six pregnancy losses within two days at the hospital. “It’s never-ending. All we can do is try to make it easier on the parents.”
    Money for Holy Sews’ supplies comes solely from donations — sometimes from people who have received layettes but also from people who just want to help. Holy Souls church also provides funding, Binz says. Each layette is blessed by a Catholic priest before being given to a hospital.
    Word has spread about the project and Binz is mentoring four women in other states who want to begin Holy Sews programs. “Every day, I send them an e-mail. I’m trying to use that as an opportunity to write a procedure manual,” she says.
    Binz says the project has healed her and is doing the same for the other mothers involved. And she’ll always remember the day the healing began.
    “I never met that mother at Mercy Hospital, but I always think about her the day after Thanksgiving. After that day, I could move again. I became excited about Christmas again. I was liberated.”

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This article originally appeared in the Nov. 30, 2011, Family section of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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A fine edge

20 Feb

Some of the finest knife-sharpening rock is found in the Ouachitas

By Rhonda Owen
    PEARCY — My father always said that a dull knife is more dangerous than a sharp one because the extra pressure needed to cut something with a knife that has lost its edge increases the chances of the blade slipping. So he kept his knives — pocket, kitchen, hunting — micro-sharp, testing their edges by shaving hairs on his arm.
    He had a lot of knives, so it seemed like he was always sharpening one. I recall the biting whisper of steel on stone as he drew a knife toward him, covering the length of the blade with each sure swipe.
    Focused and flowing, the act of sharpening knives seemed like a type of meditation, a Zen-like ritual. Of course, he’d laugh at that, but no doubt he’d agree there was a certain satisfaction in the repetitive task.
    Sadly, I never asked him to teach me how to sharpen a knife. I don’t know why; perhaps I thought he’d remember the time I sliced a forefinger trying to whittle with my Brownie knife and worry that I might cut myself more deeply. Maybe I was simply respectful of his reverie, or so I’d like to think.
   

This four-sided sharpener features four grades of Arkansas stone. (Rhonda Owen/2011)

 My father was old-school, keeping a finely honed edge on his blades with natural sharpening stones that he bought in Hot Springs. While he occasionally acquired other types of whetstones, he preferred the Arkansas stones because “they were the only good ones.”
    Using a whetstone as my father did takes more time and skill than using sharpening products popular today — electric grinders, rabbit-ear ceramic rods, manmade diamond stones, two-sided V-shaped devices that let you pull the blade through carbide and ceramic surfaces, to name a few. These are favored by the kitchen variety of knife users; sportsmen, woodworkers and knifemakers still hone the edges of their blades with stone, although not all use novaculite.
    Sharpening a knife with an Arkansas whetstone is a natural for Arkansans because the state’s generous deposits of novaculite put it first in the country for production of silica stone abrasives, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. The dense white-to-grayish-black microcrystalline quartzite stone quarried and cut in mines west of Hot Springs is valued as a premiere sharpening material throughout the world.
 “The Arkansas stone is the only stone on the market that actually polishes as it sharpens,” says Richard Hall, owner of Hall’s Arkansas Oilstones at Pearcy. Hall mines all grades of novaculite from a quarry he leases from the federal government in the Ouachita National Forest in Montgomery County. He says novaculite removes less metal from a knife, or whatever’s being sharpened, than a manmade stone does.
    “Arkansas stone” is a term recognized by hunters, butchers, master knifemakers, cooks and others all over the world, says Dan Kirschman, owner of Dan’s Whetstone Co., also at Pearcy. Kirschman has been in the business of mining and cutting novaculite for personal, commercial and industrial applications since 1976.
    “Arkansas stone has been used for probably centuries and is well known for sharpening capabilities,” says Lin Rhea, blacksmith and knifemaker at Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock. “Among stones in general, the Arkansas has the best cut and qualities. We’ve got Arkansas medium soft, Arkansas translucent, black novaculite surgical … I prefer using it because it’s natural and because I learned to sharpen with it growing up.”
    Hall says he and Kirschman are among only a few businesses still mining their own Arkansas stone today, but at one time there were at least 10. Hall deals in whetstones of all sizes — from “bench stones” that are 4 to 12 inches long to pocket stones that are 3 to 4 inches long.

A block of quarried novaculite is cut into smaller pieces by a diamond saw. Dan Kirschman, owner of Dan’s Whetstone Co., says the pieces are then processed into whetstones. (Rhonda Owen/2011)

 Kirschman’s novaculite products include whetstones (among them two-, three- and four-sided honers), but he also produces flints for antique flintlock guns, triangular and cylindrical sharpeners for getting into small spaces, black stones used by gemstone companies in Germany for testing gold karat weight, small wheels for polishing diamonds and larger wheels for sharpening tools such as axes.
    His biggest market is the dental industry, for which he makes tiny triangular rods for polishing dental instruments. Companies that make dental equipment buy only the whitest of the translucent novaculite “because it symbolizes purity,” Kirschman says.
    Novaculite has been in use for centuries and longer, he says. Prehistoric American Indians fashioned it into tools and weapons. Arrowheads uncovered in areas throughout Arkansas are made of novaculite from the Ouachita Mountain range. Early settlers used the stone to sharpen woodcutting tools.
    According to Kirschman’s web site, “mining records indicate that settlers … began mining in the early 1800s near Magnet Cove in Hot Spring County” and mining has remained constant since 1885.
    Most working quarries today are in Garland, Hot Spring, Montgomery and Saline counties, but ridges of whetstone quality novaculite are primarily confined to Garland and surrounding counties.
    All grades of novaculite from Arkansas are technically Arkansas stone, but the term refers specifically to the most fine-grained novaculite, Kirschman says. A second category of Arkansas novaculite is the coarser and less dense “Washita stone.”
   

Stacks of novaculite wait to be cut and processed at Dan’s Whetstone, a family-owned operation at Pearcy, Ark. (Rhonda Owen/2011)

   White and black novaculite are the most prized, but the opaque stone is found in many colors (often within the same piece of rock) — pink, gray, rust, blue-black and brown.
    “If two grades of stone are the same color, the general public has a difficult time determining the difference,” Kirschman says, explaining that color typically isn’t tied to variations in hardness or grade of a stone. He also notes that the terms quality and grade aren’t interchangeable when referring to novaculite. In fact, most of the terminology used to describe novaculite isn’t clear to people outside the industry.
    “Grade is the texture, while quality can mean either workmanship or natural variations in the material. We have classifications of grades of the different qualities. People don’t realize there isn’t a lot of difference in the grain size from a coarse stone to an extra fine stone.”
    What determines the quality of a stone is not the size of the grains within it but “density and specific gravity” or the compactness of the grains and the void between them.
    An enlargement of a microscopic picture of the surface of novaculite looks like a piece of quartz — craggy and pitted, with points of all sizes. Without magnification, however, the surface appears smooth.
    All those pits and points are what shave and capture tiny bits of metal removed when sharpening a knife, Kirschman says.
    “An Arkansas stone is a maintenance stone because it doesn’t take off a lot of metal in a hurry. By the same token, it doesn’t deface and scratch a knife up. It actually polishes as it abrades.”
    Novaculite also is unique in that it doesn’t wear down or hollow out with consistent use, he says. But to maintain its surface, it needs to be oiled with a light mineral oil with each use. If treated right, an Arkansas stone lasts for generations.
    “You’d be amazed at how many people have their daddy or grandfather’s Arkansas stone and are still using them.”

SHARP ADVICE
    Here are steps and advice for honing a knife using an Arkansas stone — also called an oilstone because it requires oil — provided by Lin Rhea, Dan Kirschman and Richard Hall.
    “The single most important thing is the consistency of the angle of the knife,” Hall says.
When sharpening a general purpose knife (most knives), the knife edge should be held against the stone at a 22 1/2-degree angle. A thin filet knife should be sharpened at a 15-degree angle.
    Kirschman’s whetstones are mounted in wooden frames that provide a guide for the most common angle. Hall describes how to establish an angle without a guide:
    “Lay your knife flat on the stone, then look at the width of the blade from the sharp part to the top part. You want onethird of that blade off the back of the edge of that stone. Then lift the back end of the knife about one-fourth of an inch. At that point, you can get your pointing finger on the edge.”
    Once an angle is established, pull the knife right to left across the stone, moving the knife so that the length of the blade is sharpened with each swipe. “Start closer to the handle of the knife and cover the entire stone and entire length of the knife blade,” Kirschman says. Pull 10 times on one side, then flip the knife to the other side and pull it across 10 times. The point is to sharpen the edge evenly on both sides of the blade.
    Always apply honing oil to the stone before use (honing oil is usually included when you buy a stone).
    “Oil will float the microscopic pieces of metal that come off with every stroke. It floats them up and away and allows the stone to cut better,” Rhea says.
    After finishing a sharpening session, wash the oil off of the stone with soap and water.
    When sharpening a knife, you can either use only the medium grade of novaculite or use medium and fine. The medium stone will sharpen the knife; use the fine stone next to refine the edge.
    Anytime you sharpen a knife, you’ll establish a “burr,” which is “a little foil edge waiting to be removed,” Rhea says. The average knife user probably wouldn’t finish polishing the knife to remove the burr (which would come off during normal use) but knifemakers and others would do so using a third tool — a leather strop that has been coated with a polishing compound.

A version of this article originally appeared Dec. 11, 2011, in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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Serenity in motion

10 Feb

Last weekend, my boyfriend and I spent an evening at a couple of casinos at Tunica, Miss. I’ve never been a fan of casinos — the energy is wrong.

Tension that pierces the nerves like glass needles, over-the-top emotions, desperation, despair … that even more than the gloomy haze of cigarette smoke tightens my chest and steals my calm, my breath. And I just know some of the glassy-eyed people slumped at the slot machines had slipped way, their spirits lost in some soulless triple-line exchange. Made me wonder if there was a body detail lurking behind some door, waiting to slip in and scoop up the dead losers while the ones still breathing were distracted by a frantically wild craps shoot.

Many might consider the drive back to Little Rock through the winter-bare Delta to be a bleaker experience, but that’s where the beauty lives, the energy feels right, I’m able to focus and breathe, recapture calm.

Setting things right were sweet moments of serenity in motion like this on Hwy. 70 near Brinkley, where we happened upon a flock of geese resting in a flooded field.

What casinos?

Catching a breath

Serenity in motion