Sunday, 30 August 2009

The perfect day

Sometimes life gets too much, and rather than keep calm and carry on, the only possible course of action is to panic and freak out.

 And sometimes there is a necessity for neither. No action is required - just perception. Sometimes the perfect day in a perfect place ...  just happens, unexpectedly.

What made this day?

Wind in the sails ...

Pelicans in the garden ...

A gateway, inviting ...

Breakers and wet sand ...

Time to look at the clouds ...

Time to stand and stare ...

Flowers in the sun ...

Books to read ...

Time to sit quietly, knitting ...

 Beauty in the commonplace ...

 And a sea view.

Yesterday I went to a place where I found all of this - an English seaside place, where peace was to be found on an August bank holiday weekend.

I hope that you have found peace and perfection this weekend, too.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Stitched in time

I'm off to the seaside (again!) tomorrow, making the most of the last weekend of summer. This time I am going to be let out for the whole day (yippee!) and am taking myself and Princess Bunchy down to visit my sister-in-law the Seaside Landlady at her bijou holiday house by the sea, which you can see here. The Head Chef and the General are in negotiations as to who will welcome the B&B guests, and I will have to be up early to bake the cakes to welcome them, but the rest of the day is mine in which to have fun.

I have also been having a bit of stitching fun at home - well, maybe not unalloyed fun as there was a bit of unpicking involved, but I have finished yet another of my long list of outstanding projects.

And I took a photo of some of my sewing bits and bobs because they were looking so fetching - somehow having pretty little bits and pieces of equipment adds to the pleasure of sitting with needle in hand. I can understand why in the past women so often gave each other presents of needlecases and pincushions. The Cath Kidston pincushion will probably be familiar to regular readers from this post, the apple needlebook is from Paper-and-String, the matryoshka one from PaperFish, and the square pincushion from Henhouse Homemade.

All were put to good use yesterday, and I have finally finished this dress for Princess Bunchy, made from McCalls pattern M5458. Just in time for the end of the holidays. Although, as you might remember from here, the little princess tends to favour shades of blue and green, she was rather taken with the red check fabric in the photo on the pattern packet, and commanded me to seek out the same.

And find some I did: Creative Fabrics stock a red check homespun fabric, and I used a small check for the dress, and a co-ordinating larger check for the pockets. The effect is very pretty, but be warned, this is a loose weave and thus tends to fray, so is perhaps not the easiest fabric if you are a beginner. And if in a fit of absent-mindedness you sew up the armholes when attaching the facing, then unpicking also encourages a bit more fraying.

Such pitfalls aside, this is a fairly easy pattern, with no zips or buttons. If you are a complete novice then it is probably best to start with a simple gathered or A-line skirt, before moving on to a simple dress such as Miss Madeline from Samantha at the Handmade Dress which I wrote about here. You will then be ready for  gathering and setting-in sleeves which you have to do in this pattern.

So I can tick off another project from my unfinished list, but now I am in a slight quandary. I need some knitting to take to the beach tomorrow, but the blanket needs a bit more stitching, and then picking up round the edge. Not the work for company. And I have a jumper for Princess Bunchy which needs sewing up - for that I need a bit of peace and quiet. And the stripy bag - lots of different coloured balls of yarn - far too messy to take out for the day.

I could always start something new, I suppose ...

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Beside the seaside

This morning we found ourselves without incumbrances for a little while,  so we went on holiday to Whitstable, just for a couple of hours. Whitstable is now such a buzzing place that on summer Saturday afternoons parking spaces are not to be had, and the crowds spill from the pavements on to the road, but at ten on a weekday we had no such problems. Perhaps the clouds were keeping the crowds away.

But it was not always that way - fifteen or twenty years ago, Whitstable, like Faversham, had a rather sad and down-at-heel air. These were small towns which seemed to have been left behind as the century moved on, towns where money was tight and the small shopkeepers appeared to hang on by their  fingertips.

But as the world became wealthier so have these towns gained an air of prosperity - Whitstable especially. Where once there were only one or two interesting little shops, to be visited occasionally when there seemed nothing better to do, now each year the number of chic and trendy emporia seems to expand exponentially. And all the lovely old houses in the centre of town sport a new coat of paint.

Now dear old Whitstable boasts shops whose style (and sometimes prices) speak more of London than East Kent. It is no longer a backwater but a charming, stylish, happening, place to holiday - and a fun place to visit, quite apart from the delights of sitting beside the sea.

Faversham, lovely old town that it is, struggles a bit more. Yes, there are some great gift shops and a wonderful market, as well as some other little gems - but it cannot support the range of independent food shops that you find in Whitstable. And the reason, I am sure, is that on one side of the town is a large Tesco, and on the other the old Co-Op is soon to be a Morrisons supermarket.

So it was very worrying today to see that planning permission is being sought for a large supermarket in the centre of Whitstable. I hope that doesn't happen, for what would become of the wonderful cheese shop, the butchers (plural), the delicatessen, the cupcake shop, the sweet shop, the ice cream shop, the greengrocer selling the sort of produce you could have grown in your garden if you had one ... In truth, all the things that make Whitstable such a wonderful little town.

And today - what did we visit on our holiday outing? We had a quiet coffee in Samphire, and I knitted for a bit. (You can tell by the name of the cafe that it was a very good coffee.)

We spent rather a long time in the bookshop on Harbour Street - which in a tardis-like way has the most wonderfully compendious and comprehensive collection of books on knitting, crochet and cookery - it has other books, too, but you can probably guess where my interests lie. Not only that, it does cards, and mugs, and notebooks by Rosehip and Moleskine. I could have spent all day there, but parental duties called, and once more we found ourselves in company and homeward bound.

But I thought of you, too, and brought back some lovely photos to show and tell - the joy of small things, once again.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

The last breakfast of summer?

I woke this morning to a distinct nip in the air - the sun was shining but the air was damp, and for the first time I felt that certain chill which tells me that it is a real hop-picking morning. And I'm not far out - hop-picking starts on Thursday, so summer is truly on the wane.

The chimney sweep is booked, the Aga man is coming tomorrow afternoon to service our old friend and light her up again, and the evenings are darkening rapidly - we must be careful to shut the hens up that little bit earlier each night.

But I will enjoy these last days of August whilst I can. There surely won't be many more days when I will be able to eat out of doors, so this morning I resolutely donned a cardi, and took my breakfast outside. Some autumn raspberries and rapidly cooling coffee - such is the state of things in England, now!

But the sunflowers still march across the garden, all lined up to greet the morning, and the Met Office has cancelled the rain they promised, so gather your rosebuds while you may, and take your croissants out into the last of the summer sun.

Monday, 24 August 2009

A tragic tale of chutney

The Head Chef sat down to lunch recently and suddenly found himself in the midst of a deep personal crisis. The picture below is the the clue to his discomfiture - he discovered that he was not only down to the last jar of spicy plum chutney, but also down to the last inch of the last jar.

So being a man of a decisive, do-it-now nature (or not, as the case may be), he decided to take the matter in hand and a day or two later bought a tray of plums from our neighbour. We have planted a range of plums, damsons and gages this spring, but they have yet to produce, and given the lack of rain this year, I shall be glad if they merely survive their first year.

The tray of plums only spent a day or two on the scullery sideboard, before they joined the bowl of plums which had been sitting on the kitchen table for a few days more - the Head Chef is not one to do things lightly.

But this weekend he set to work - all that chopping and bubbling was a good excuse to spend the weekend in the kitchen in the company of this radio.

Those of you who are cricket lovers might recognize the place on the dial, but for the innocent I will relieve you from your mystification - just think Test Match Special - and if that doesn't help - have a look at Sal's blog where she has a wonderful picture. Leather on willow, cakes in the commentary box,  and all that jazz. It was a very exciting weekend for cricket lovers - in fact, almost painfully so - but isn't England playing cricket always a bit painful? But it was all right in the end, and we won the Ashes, and all went to bed happy, unless their ticket was for today.

But back to the spicy plum chutney - this has been our most popular chutney ever, and friends and relatives beg to be given some for Christmas. I do sometimes succeed in sneaking jars out of the house, but only when the Head Chef is not looking. They usually have to be signed out, and the recipient and occasion approved in triplicate.

We use varying combinations of plums (nice big juicy ones), Bramley apples, raisins (preferably flame), onions, garlic, dark muscovado sugar, demerara sugar, whole allspice berries, whole cloves, cinnamon sticks, ground ginger, salt, and cider vinegar. We tend to adjust the spices according to how much we have in the cupboard when we make the chutney. The recipe is based on an original in a very old, dog-eared copy of Delia Smith's Complete Cookery Course from the 1980s, so I don't know if it is still available, but for 6lbs of plums we would use 2lbs each of apples, raisins, muscovado and demerara, and about the same of onions, but the exact amounts are not crucial.  The spices are also adjustable to taste, but for this amount of fruit, rough quantities are a large tablespoon of cloves, 2 large cinnamon sticks, 2oz allspice, 6 cloves garlic, 4 very heaped teaspoons of ginger, 4 tablespoons of salt and 4 pints of cider vinegar. There is no need to be particularly accurate in your measurements, though  - there is quite a lot of leeway for adjustment in chutney.

Stone and halve the plums, chop the apples and onions, crush the garlic. All the whole spices are put in a muslin bag and then hung from the pan handle, otherwise you have nasty crunchy bits to stick in your teeth when you eat the chutney. All the ingredients go in the pan together - a preserving pan is best, two even better, bring to the boil and simmer on the lowest heat possible for hours until it has thickened up - the slower the better. Just watch that it doesn't stick or burn on the bottom. Pour into sterilized jars while still piping hot.

The whole house smelled of chutney all weekend - now, for me, that really does herald the beginning of the end of summer. And I have come home from work today to more chutney smells - the Head Chef is now boiling up the ones that got away on the marrow front.

But you know what the real tragedy is - chutney needs time to mature, three months at least, and the taste gets even better as it ages. So Christmas is really the time to crack open the new season's product.

Do you think the Head Chef can make the final inch of last year's chutney last that long?

Sunday, 23 August 2009

A thing of beauty

Much as I love sunsets, today I have something for you to meditate upon which I think is possibly even more beautiful. Sunsets give us a vision of heaven on the infinite and eternal scale; here I can show you heaven in a wild flower, in a piece of art which enables you to hold infinity in the palm of your hand.

This is the work of my friend Tom Meek: he is the most incredibly talented heraldic artist and calligrapher, and I feel very privileged that he has allowed me to share with you this most exquisitely beautiful piece of art.

The camera and computer screen cannot actually capture the incredibly bejewelled luminosity of his work - the effect in real life is that of a medieval manuscript or book of hours, and the amazingly fine, three-dimensional detail evident in each petal or wing is flattened out on screen. A pixel is too large and coarse, too lifeless, to capture the minutely-rendered details of the creatures and flowers - this art is too alive to be reproduced properly by technology.

Tom actually uses similar materials and techniques to medieval artists, and these flowers and insects are so realistic that they almost hover above the paper, whilst the gold illuminations shimmer quite magically - they do really seem to offer a glimpse of the infinite and the eternal, all encompassed in the beauty and complexity of these natural works of art. Which, of course, was the original purpose of the medieval books of hours.

As well as pieces such as this, which are truly breathtakingly exquisite, Tom does family trees and coats of arms, and the most wonderful illuminated initials, which I think would make the perfect wedding or christening present. He works to commission so each piece is an absolute one-off. There are more pictures on his website, so go and take a look and marvel at his work, and also at the wonder and beauty inherent in the natural world from which he derives his subject matter.

If one of the purposes of art is defamiliarization, that is, encouraging you to see the world in a different way - making you look again at the familiar and everyday, and see it again through the eyes of the artist, then Tom's art certainly does that. He makes his subjects seem so intensely, wondrously beautiful that it does make you appreciate and value the world around you even more, and look at those familiar flowers and creatures with different eyes.

Have a good Sunday - I hope you, too, find some beauty in your day, and thank you, Tom, for sharing your vision of beauty with us.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Stitching memories

In my recent excavations amongst the foothills of projects unfinished I came across a needlepoint cushion, in progress, shall we say, rather than uncompleted, and spent a quiet and happy afternoon, sitting on my holiday sofa, stitching.

I first started doing needlepoint in the mid-nineteen-eighties at around the time Kaffe Fassett published his book Glorious Needlepoint. He had a wonderful exhibition of his work at the V&A and I remember sitting in on a seminar he took, where he was trying to encourage the concept of creativity amongst the audience, and stressing the importance of designing your own work, yet the bulk of the questions seemed to be variations on the theme of when he would produce his next kit!

There was definitely a craze for needlepoint at the time, or so it seemed to me – whenever I went away for the weekend everyone sat around chatting over canvas and wool. In terms of skill required, needlepoint kits might be akin to painting by numbers, but it was certainly how I rediscovered needlework after being put off by the tedium of school sewing.

And as I worked away at my latest needlepoint this week, I thought of how many cushions I had stitched, and when I gathered them together, I was quite surprised to see how many I had finished. And you can see them above, all lined up along the sofa.

I missed one out by accident – I had been using it on my office chair, and in fact the colours are rather unfortunate – petrol blue and old gold (you see what I mean) – and have never really matched anything in my house. But the hours of work involved and the cost of having it blocked and turned into a cushion have always made me reluctant to cast the poor thing aside.

This unphotographed cushion reminds me of George Eliot’s line in her novel Felix Holt, The Radical published in 1866. Eliot writes that a ‘little daily embroidery had been a constant element in Mrs Transome’s life; that soothing occupation of taking stitches to produce what neither she nor any one else wanted, was then the resource of many a well-born and unhappy woman.’

In that simple sentence we learn so much about Mrs Transome, her situation and her life – all conveyed through her needlework. And this was one of the little occurrences that impelled me to begin to research the practice of needlework in nineteenth-century literature, which eventually ended up in my PhD thesis on that very subject.

And when I look at my needlepoint cushions all neatly arrayed on the sofa, I recall so much about myself and my own life. I did a lot of needlepoint when the children were small – I remember those afternoons when they played around my feet and I could stitch away happily, supervising them but pleasantly occupied as well. Needlepoint can be picked up and put down – you don’t have to remember your place, and no harm will come to it if it is grabbed by a little hand.

The knot garden kit above was given to me by my dear, departed grandmother one Christmas – she was a very keen stitcher and made rosy chair seats by the dozen for dining room chairs, piano stools, and the like. And when I became a mother to a little girl, after two boys, I bought the Candace Bahouth sampler, with its candy colours and picture of a little girl, from Ehrman, to do while I watched my own little girl play and grow.

The hen cushions have memories, too – the small Jolly Red one has a chewed corner from a naughty puppy, the Ploughboy’s eighteenth birthday present to himself. This puppy also showed a penchant for munching on bamboo knitting needles when she joined the family, and still takes pleasure in removing polyfill from her own cushions.

The larger speckled hen cushion is a repository of sad memories. I came home clutching that kit from what had been a pleasant day at the Country Living fair, only to find out that my father-in-law was very ill. He died before it was finished, and woven into the fabric of that cushion is the memory of hours of anxious waiting as I sat and sewed away, and recollections of a long, grief-stricken winter. And my stitching was so tight, and it made the canvas so badly distorted, that even after blocking and making up its crookedness is still visible. And yet again I cannot bring myself to abandon it to its fate.

The Candace Bahouth Maytime cushion with its Clunyesque flowers, and the warm tones of the Stitchery beehive, presents from my grandmother and mother respectively, conjure up images of happier winters and sitting on a sofa indoors by the fire. Kaffe Fassett’s apple proved impossible to do by night, though, and my grandmother had warned me of this when she saw it. ‘All those shades of green,’ she said, ‘You will never be able to tell them apart in artificial light.’ And she was right – so I would only get this cushion out in the summer, and it took quite a few years to finish.

I am not sure what memories the bees in this cushion will preserve for me – only time will tell. And I think this might be a long time in the making – because now I knit and stitch in different ways, and the needlepoint goes to the back of the queue because my life has changed – my children are growing and have grown, and there is no one to grab my work from my lap in an insistent demand for attention. In fact, nowadays I have to demand their attention if I want it, and I look back with a kind of longing for those days when I did not have a moment to myself.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Parcels in the post

Just a quick post today to bridge what might be a bit of a gap – parcels have been winging my way and one very big one contains a shiny new computer to replace my own old lady, who is slowing down with age. She has given me five good years of service, though, and nursed me through writing 100,000 words of thesis, so I can’t complain. And she’s still sprightly enough to cater for the modest digital needs of Princess Bunchy and the Head Chef. And what sort of computer does Pomona have? An Apple Mac, of course! I think that I would buy one just for the name, but this will be my fourth Mac, and I am a devoted acolyte of these easygoing, friendly computers – not like the horrid awkward PCs that I have to use at work.

But as well as a big heavy parcel I have just received two nice small packages – the first was from Designed by Jane, and contained this absolutely exquisite brooch. The colours are so vivid, and it really is a thing of beauty. Princess Bunchy was quite covetous, and it would make the perfect present, but I really want to keep it for myself.

And from beauty to utility with the last parcel – the little pumpkins did not come in the post, but I thought that they were rather photogenic, and being so small they are not much use for anything else. The Head Chef picked them by mistake, thinking that they were patty pans (I don’t think he could have had his glasses on), rather than leaving them until autumn when they would have had a chance to grow to a useful size.

The little parcel is the answer to a troubling need. My handbag is weighty enough with all the paraphernalia that I feel the need to transport about, and my plastic box of mini Moo cards adds to the burden.

But I have just received the most nifty solution to this dilemma, courtesy of Tia at Who Ate My Crayons – tiny little business card boxes made from recycled paint colour charts. It is such a clever idea – and they are perfect for carrying my cards. Thank you, Tia!

So I will be back very shortly, just as soon as the General has opened the box, plugged in the Mac and had a good play. In a day or two, when the novelty has worn off, I might be allowed to take possession of the new toy – so until then, au revoir!

Monday, 17 August 2009

A shameful confession

I am afraid that I have a very shameful confession to make. I won’t beat about the bush, or prevaricate, and I will come straight to the point, hard though it might be to bare my darkest secrets in public. I will be honest with you, although I feel that I should only mutter this in a quiet whisper – I have rather a lot of unfinished craft projects tucked away in boxes and baskets in my sewing space. There! I have said it. I feel rather guilty about this, especially in the face of all the wonderful blogs I read that record so many completed projects – and I quail in front of all the people who are so good at finishing things that they are able to run a business selling the end results.

I think there are two reasons for my sorry predicament: one is that my enthusiasm always outruns the time I have available in which to sit quietly in a corner with my head bent over my needlework. So I only have to start knitting one thing, or sewing another, before my unbounded optimism impels me to buy the materials for the next exciting project, and maybe even another still, if I have had a particularly productive day. And the second reason is that I am very good at working to a deadline, but I think that I am a bit of a slacker without externally-imposed sanctions. When I was doing my PhD I lived in continual fear of not completing my thesis, but what focussed my mind particularly was the veiled threats from the grant-making body that I would have to pay back my funding if I didn’t come up with the goods. And if I over-ran the time allowed, I would have to start paying my own fees. So, needless to say, I finished the whole thing on time.

So I had the idea of revealing all my sins of omission to my lovely readers, in the hope that the associated shame at confessing all my misdeeds, or, rather, non-deeds, would provide that necessary impetus towards productiveness.

And you know, I think it has worked already. As I started to investigate all those little baskets and boxes of work in progress, the potential embarrassment in displaying all of this incompleteness, and the realization that there were some things that I could finish off really quickly, made me sit down and do some work yesterday after ministering to the B&B. And here are some of the results.

There were some legwarmers I had knitted for Princess Bunchy using Sirdar Crofter and pattern 9135. All I had to do was to sew up the seams – the knitting was finished. I think that this is a problem I have with knitting – when I cast off I feel that I have finished, and I am not very keen on the process of sewing up, even though I enjoy hand-sewing with needle and thread. Knitting is for a different mood and mindset from sewing, and my brain obviously has trouble in conflating the two.

Although I generally prefer to knit with natural fibres, Princess Bunchy is very attracted to the more novel yarns when we go shopping together, and so I am often persuaded to try something a little different. You will see from the picture that I have also knitted her some handwarmers from a different shade of Crofter using the same pattern. The yarn quantities specified were on the generous side, as you can see from the leftovers, so I will be able to make her some socks (is that another project coming on?). And I also knitted her some legwarmers in Hug (using pattern 8921) – a yarn that I am not particularly impressed with, as the legwarmers have become quite matted quite quickly, and I suspect that this yarn might not take to frequent washing.

I also finished the second of these two little needlecases, intended as presents. They were inspired by the wonderful colours of felt stocked by Sarah of Paper-and-String – you can buy packs of the whole range of colours, and having used up my usual favourites first, I experimented with, to me, some different combinations, picking out the shades of purple and green in some sweet bird fabric (bought from Fabric Rehab), which lends itself to fussy cutting. I even mended a bath mat and apron which had been sitting patiently by my sewing machine for, ahem, some weeks now.

And then back to my knitting, some of which you have already glimpsed by candlelight. I have finished all the squares for a small person’s blanket, but actually have a way to go to finish the blanket itself, as the squares must be stitched together, heart motifs embroidered, other heart motifs stitched on, and then all picked up and knitted round the edge to make a border. Casting off the squares was in no way the end, however much I felt that I was nearly there. And being the undisciplined type, I have a spaghetti of ends to weave in before I can do anything else. I recently spotted Hen’s gorgeous crochet blanket in progress at Henhouse Homemade – all beautifully blocked and stitched together as she goes along. Hen, I will try to follow your example. I have a big bag full of knitted squares for a patchwork blanket (going back more years than I really care to mention) which I can hardly face – all the ends to sew in and squares to stitch together – ugh!

But I sat down (on the holiday sofa) with a will because there is a deadline looming for this project, and I was beginning to panic, - and thus I made some progress, the evidence of which you can see below.

But then today I found out that the little person will be with us a couple of weeks later than I had thought, so perhaps I could just quickly cast on a pair of socks, or maybe finish that dress for Princess Bunchy …


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