Sunday, 11 December 2011

Gifts from the past

Travelling hopefully towards Christmas as the third Sunday in Advent arrives I feel the memories of Christmas past rising up to greet me, and this rolling out of the carpet of seasonal memories is one of those things that makes Christmas special, a time to take stock and think back and forward in both joy and sadness, as I once more pause to ponder with Floss.

Some of the memories are of things long since gone, and some are of the comforting continuities in life. And one of the continuities in our house is carpet farming - just as I think that those days are past, I find that carpet farming is once more underway and the riding school in business again - Princess Bunchy tells me that the riding school is an essential part of the celebrations for her, and that the mere sight of it makes her think of Christmas.

And the sight of my old riding school, so old that I couldn't possibly tell you how many years ago it entered my life, transports me back to the Christmas way back in history when this riding school was my special present - the Christmas when I was about five years old, one that stands out amongst many because it was one of those small tragedies of childhood that are never forgotten. This was the year that I woke up so very early and made a most tragically fatal mistake which cast a shadow over the whole day.

I awoke so early that all the family were still fast asleep, so early that it was long before the agreed time for waking my parents, and as I lay in bed in the dark I could see the mysterious lumpiness of the pillowcase overflowing with presents at the end of my bed, and the enticingly large parcel sitting alongside.

No one was stirring, the clock seemed to have stopped in its tracks, and I was consumed with desire to know what all those packages contained. And I could not contain myself but got out of bed, sat on the floor in the dim light, and started opening my presents one by one, all alone and solitary. I remember the riding stable, and the horses and riders, and fences and animals, but I don't remember one of those other presents - I opened every single one, with no one around to share my joy and excitement, and then a couple of hours later I had to sit and watch my sister open her own overflowing pillowcase of presents, very slowly it seemed, in the painful knowledge that I had burned my boats and jumped the gun, and completely taken the shine off the day.

From that year on, every Christmas eve I put my pillowcase out downstairs, safely out of temptation's way, and I resolved to open my presents as slowly  as possible, so that never again would I have to sit and watch others open theirs, but they could sit and wait for me to finish my careful unwrapping. And I have kept to that resolution ever since.

So Princess Bunchy's orderly arrangements of horses and sheep, and tractors and fences, all open up a box of memories of my childhood, my children's childhood, a long line of years marching back into the past, with faces long departed smiling out at me as my mind travels backward in time.

I hope that you have some happy memories of Christmas past, and more to be made and stored in Christmas present and Christmas yet to come.

Monday, 5 December 2011

The weight of tradition

I am running a little behind this week (It's only Monday, you say. But this is what is left over from last week, I respond, a touch plaintively.) and so I am still on the second Sunday in Advent, pausing with Floss, and only a day late (it's the thought that counts).

Festive vignette
Whether my thoughts will count, I am not sure, but I can feel that giant Tree of Tradition looming between me and the weak winter sun, and the weight of obligation swinging above my head.

Tradition can be a bit of a millstone, but don't let it shackle you by the neck - cut loose and walk on (being careful to drop it behind you, rather than straight on to your toes). The only obligation you have to others is to smile and be pleasant, and say please and thank you nicely and sincerely - the rest is optional.

Weak at the thought
If the thought of cooking for the 23 people squeezed into your very small house fills you with horror and keeps you awake at night, then think up a new tradition which will enable you to be a beaming host/ess rather than a snarling one.

A season of silly hats
Perhaps someone with a bigger house and more plates is desperate to hold the party, but thinks they can't because everyone absolutely has to squeeze into Aunty Grumpy's bijou residence whether they like it or not? Perhaps you could do two manageably small parties, or alternate years? Or maybe dig a great big hole in the garden and go and hide in it (just remember to arrange the leaves carefully on top so that no one can see your retreat) . . .

A season of thrift and recycling

Then you can concentrate on the happy traditions, the ones that transport you back down the long line of Christmases past, only pausing at the ones that are smiling to greet you. So often these happy moments come down from the attic in battered cardboard boxes (smelling slightly of mouse).

A season of recycling memories
As you pull out the decorations, one by one, the memories come flooding forth, attached to those glitter-encrusted confections of polystyrene and cardboard that your children made in the days when their needs were simple and their vocabulary limited; the bird with the broken beak which is the sole relic of your childhood dreams; the box of carefully coordinated bells and bows marked 'Good taste 15 years ago', which now possess a disappointingly tawdry air.

Beware of the mistletoe
And then there are the words: Christmas is full of words - carols, and stories, and insincere thank you letters, and heated arguments over the right way to cook a turkey. And everything has been said and done and written so many times before, and so much better, that Christmas is a work of fiction from start to finish, an imaginary narrative of bonhomie and homecoming.

Dreaming of a white Christmas
I have my own special Christmas book full of poetry and prose, carols and songs, quotations and verses, and a warm glow of pictures of the past. It was a present to me twenty years ago and (unlike so many presents) I have continued to treasure it, and get it out again every December to wallow in the words of imaginary Christmases in story and history. There is no weight of tradition to burden one here - these Christmases are long gone, and so are those who people the pictures, smiling out of the pages, frozen in time and silently acquiescent in our dreams.

A new tradition in the making
But these stories also show that Christmas can be anything you want to make of it: happy or sad, remembered or forgotten, treasured or dreaded. The important thing is to write your own story, just how you want it, choose your own colours for the pictures, and remember that if it doesn't go quite how you wanted this time, it's like gardening - there's always next year waiting to give you a chance to do it differently.

A present from a friend far away

And if you want to bask in a warm glow of festive nostalgia, my special Christmas book, although out of print, is still available on Amazon here and here - starting price only a penny (which of course sets off a whole new train of nostalgia and reminiscence about geese and old men . . . .).

And here is one that I made earlier, accompanied by a steady gaze

Sunday, 4 December 2011

An unsuspecting rustic and a couple of winners

I told you that I would find an unsuspecting rustic to pick out the lucky winners of Amy's patterns, and luckily the Ploughboy bought three home for the weekend so I was able to buttonhole the nearest one as they attempted to leave the premises en masse.

I am rather good at this sort of thing
The Little Stranger tried to move in on the deal, but I feel that the attention has gone to her head rather, and she shows signs of living up to her Scottie heritage and thinking herself Top Dog, in spite of her nearness to the ground, so unsuspecting rustic it had to be.

A strategically placed chair soon put paid to any delusions of grandeur on the part of a Scottie dog with a stripy tail (no, it's not paint so I don't think she will be heading off to Crufts any time soon, unless she finds a bootleg source of Grecian 2000).

Was that you?
Such nice boys as these agricultural types are, he cooperated most charmingly and graciously, holding out the names for the camera, although I suspect that the smiling and bemused air veiled a most uncertain understanding of the significance of 'picking winners for my blog giveaway'.

The hands of an unsuspecting rustic

And so congratulations to Mary Jane's Tearoom (or Mary Jane's teapot, as Princess Bunchy so helpfully wrote down on a piece of paper in case anyone was mislaid or took wings in the breeze) who will soon be the proud possessor of a Ruched Happy Bag pattern . . .

An agricultural encounter
 . . . congratulations to dear Frances, too, whose picture is a teacup, and thus continues the comforting theme of tea and cake from my previous post; a Hexiecase pattern is yours, my dear.

Tea and cakes all round
So if the lovely winners could please come forward to curtsey before the cheering crowd and simper fetchingly at the unsuspecting rustic, and then apprise me of their email addresses, I can forward these to the lovely Amy.

Commiserations to those who did not encounter the youthful hand of agriculture - however, I will be joining in the Sew Mama Sew Giveaway very shortly in a festive bonanza not to be missed, so pop back soon. And if you would like to buy yourself one of Amy's patterns to make a few last-minute pressies, they are available in her Etsy shop here.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Sew many reasons to be cheerful

[If you were looking for the giveaway, you will find it here.]
No reason to be crabby
I am showing my age when I say that 'Reasons to be Cheerful' by Ian Dury is part of my cultural hinterland, but when I saw the confluence of two bloggy positive thinking initiatives, Planet Penny's Reasons to be Cheerful, and Lily's Quilts Fresh Sewing Day, I felt that it was a good idea to stir my stumps and come up with my own reasons to think positive.

First of all, thank you most kindly to all of you who have enquired about my hand. Yes, it is still there on the end of my arm, and it is still encased in rather revoltingly coloured plastic, which I have embellished with orange and white Sugru (if you would like some, too, they tell me there is a discount code until 19 December, which means you get your fourth pack free - just write YAYCHRISTMAS in the box). But I am quite reconciled to it all really, if a little frustrated when I try to put my coat on, and patience is a virtue, etc.

But I did of course manage to crack in a little bit of sewing before things went awry, and so when Princess Bunchy was working out her Christmas presents I was actually quite pleased to find that we had enough little purses (from the Keyka Lou Pleated Pouch pattern) . . .

. . . and wallets (from the Keyka Lou Basic Wallet pattern) to go round, including one for the £2 Secret Santa (I think whoever gets this gets a good deal!), and moreover, I have a couple left over for emergencies (you know, that feeling you get late on Christmas Eve when you are wrapping the presents and find that you have fewer presents than names on the list [which of course doesn't happen in well-regulated households]).

So in spite of a little hurdle along the way, my sewing for November is something to feel quite cheerful about (all thanks to the discipline of the Christmas Challenge, I am sure).

Quite astonishingly we still have lettuce in the garden, and a few flowers, too, and I can even feel cheerful about the rain, the more the better in fact, or it will be hosepipe bans all round next year.

So Reasons to be Cheerful, one stitchy, two horticultural, and three meteorological - what more could a body want? Apart from tea and cake, that is . . .

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

A happy/hexie giveaway

As some of you might recall, my handmade Christmas looked like it was about to hit the buffers with a resounding crash when my hand decided to give up the ghost and go into retirement just as I was about to embark upon a mass manufacture of Ruched Happy Bags.

But luckily my friend Amy of During Quiet Time, whose pattern it is, chose that moment to line up some ruched bags of her own making neatly upon the shelves of her Etsy shop which quickly found their way into my shopping basket. These came winging their way over the oceans to arrive on my doormat and save me from much weeping and wailing and frothing at the mouth at my temporary incapacity.

Such beautiful bags they are, the recipients can't fail to be pleased with them, and I am most please also with the little Kokeshi Doll ornament which kept them company on their journey to Old Blighty. She is such a sweetie, and there are a whole bunch of her friends in Amy's shop if you fancy one yourself.

Now Amy, the kind soul that she is, has offered two of her patterns as prizes in a giveaway to you, dear readers, so that you may have your own handmade Christmas. One prize is a Ruched Happy Bag pattern (and to prove how easy it is to follow, here is my own version).

And the other prize is a Hexiecase pattern - here, in best Blue Peter tradition, is one I made earlier:

All you have to do is go to the During Quiet Time Etsy shop and come back and tell me which item in the shop you would put on your Christmas list (and also tell me if you have a preference as to which pattern you would like to win).

The giveaway is open to all, wherever you live, and I will find some unsuspecting rustic to pick the winner at the weekend - so that's a guarantee of howling gales and teeming rain, as is the tradition when I pick winners. For the weather today, I will refer you to the first paragraph of Jane Eyre.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Popping up all over the place

I am quite taken with the concept of the pop-up shop (little one-off shops that pop up in obscure locations and exist for only a very short time). I went to two last weekend - both quite different but equally entrancing.

The first was Design Den in the Curve gallery in the Barbican foyer - modern, design-led, with an interesting range of products ranging from the supercool to the quirky - and the source of one or two interesting and unusual presents for me to tuck into the family Christmas stockings.

And the second pop-up shop couldn't have been more different: in a private rather than public space, and with a beautifully mellow and seasonally rustic feel.

This shop was hosted by my great friend Francine Raymond, of Country Living magazine fame: you may know her as the 'Chicken Lady', although her talents extend far wider than that epithet would imply. It was held in Francine's new house in Kent, which she has transformed in her inimitably stylish way since she moved from Suffolk earlier this year.

Princess Bunchy and I were quite overcome with the delights and ticked off a good few names on the old Christmas present list.

There was a wonderful array of original, reasonably-priced gifts - it is always good to find things that you have not seen anywhere else.

There were Francine's beautiful handmade wreaths and garlands, which were featured in the Sunday Telegraph on 27 November and are also going to be in a forthcoming issue of Farmers' Weekly. She also runs courses where you can learn how to make your own wreaths - information here.

Francine sells her distinctive books and cards through her website, Kitchen Garden Hens (there is a special offer on, as you will see). Princess Bunchy and I were rather taken with her new children's book, Three Little Hens (and we bought one of her other books, too, but we can't tell you which, as that is classified information).

And we also loved the painted wooden decorations from L'Atelier de Pascale  - to be honest I could have bought every single one of them, they were so perfectly beautiful and stylish, but had to restrict myself to one as a present for someone very special. (If you fancy one of these for yourself, email pascalem [at] tiscali [dot] co [dot] uk for details.)

I always encounter this problem when I am shopping for Christmas presents - I can find a hundred and one things that I would love to find in my very own Christmas stocking, but you will be very glad to hear that I am quite strict with myself, and resolve to allow myself just one modest present (although often I don't even have the decency to wait until the big day to open it).

And I have already bought my present for myself, if I see anything else I like I will have to buy it for the Head Chef. Only last night I was discussing with friends the concept of the 'house present' for husbands  .  .  .  and with that 'handy hint' I will leave you.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Pausing for thought

But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? Yes, it is the seasonal light show flashing on and off in a street near you. The countdown has truly begun, the days roll on apace, and time snaps at the heels of the unwary laggard.

What is that approaching over the horizon?
It is the first Sunday in Advent and Floss is encouraging us all to take a pause and ponder as we wait expectantly for Christmas.

Free decorations
I am well aware that my readers come from all around the world, and that many of you may not celebrate Christmas, through choice or custom. There are many paths to enlightenment and who am I to presume upon the efficacy of one over another? But the reality in this country is that Christmas has become more of a consumer festival than a religious one, with all the attendant stresses and strains associated with an impending deadline, impossible expectations and not inconsiderable financial outlay.

So while some wait in eager anticipation for the long wished for day, others watch its advent with a sense of impending dread. The last payday in November has arrived, and with it comes the shopping for presents and the draining of the bank account.

So perhaps it is time to think about what we can give for free. Given confidence by a lovely little present I received from dear Ang who spends her time Tracing Rainbows, I have in my pocket some pearls for my readers.

I have been lucky enough to be the recipient of a couple of gifts of wisdom over the course of my life, and in the spirit of giving I will hand them on to you.

The first is that a smile costs nothing at all, so of smiles you can give many, and such is human nature that you will receive an abundance in return.

And the second is that 'sorry' and 'thank you' are two of the most important words in the world - sometimes it seems that they cost a little more dear, but remember that your purse will remain unscathed.

And my further thought is: forget about the tit for tat, and the matching of gifts, which means that the wealthy receive most, and the poorest the least (and that goes for the poor in spirit, too). Give only what you can truly afford, but give it without thought of return, and with a generosity of spirit which can make small things precious.

And the most precious things of all are kindness and love: I know that love can be a bit of a tall order at this season of surfeit, especially when the surfeit is of relatives, but kindness is easy - just try it. It is quite possible to be kind to someone you don't like or don't know, and it will certainly make you feel better, and might even make them feel better too.

And then we come to that old saw - give and you will receive. The oldest ones are the best ones - give a teeny tiny bit of kindness, give a teeny tiny bit of joy, such a small amount that truly you will hardly know it is gone, and my oh my, you will be quite overwhelmed with the return, which will come scudding back to you some time, somehow, and in a way you cannot anticipate, but such are the mysterious ways of the universe that one day as you scan the horizon you will see a ship coming in carrying an enormous gift back for you.

And if you still feel stressed about Christmas, then try reading this. It certainly helped me to put things in perspective . . .

Friday, 25 November 2011

Have a crafty weekend

First of all she says thank you, thank you most kindly, and curtsies awkwardly. Quite, quite touched, I am sure, and positively overwhelmed by all the kind thoughts.

And now she will set you some homework for the weekend.

Time to get crafting

This rather beautiful book, Christmas Crafting in No Time, by Clare Youngs, dropped through my door this week, courtesy of Cico Books, and in my incapacitated state I thought that I would only be able to look at the pictures and dream of next year.

But I was quite excited to find that there are quite a few projects in here to entertain me and Princess Bunchy over the coming weeks, even with a gammy hand.

Admittedly, I had to resist the urge to set to on some lovely sewing projects such as these little felt owls which would make sweet little presents, or folksy decorations for the Christmas tree (if you want to see some real life examples of the owl pattern in practice have a look at Andamento blog, where you will see some beautifully crafted versions in lots of different colours).

There is also a pattern to stitch some rather sweet owl fodder (not that one should call to mind nature red in tooth and claw when looking at such cuddly cuties).

Actually, I personally am going for the edible owl fodder - there is a recipe for sugar mice, which have been something of an obsession of mine since reading The Tale of the Kittie Poosies when I was a just a little scrap.

The Kittie Poosies have been a seminal influence on my life from the days when I marched my poor mother around every sweet shop in every place we visited in search of sugar mice, and Mama Pudditat's house has had a lasting influence on my decorative style - not to mention the feminist ideas encapsulated in this proleptic tale of a single mother becoming an entrepreneur in order to support her family with not a father Pudditat in sight. So we are definitely making sugar mice in order that I can surf towards Christmas on a wave of nostalgia.

I think Clare Youngs must have read the same books as I did, as she also includes a project related to the other deeply influential text with which I engaged most fully as a child - The Tale of the Gingerbread Man, and to this day the eerie howl of a fox at night, or even the glimpse of one running like the wind across the fields, engenders in me a visceral fear. My children always took the most eager and teasing pleasure in biting the heads and limbs off gingerbread men in front of me, as I felt the urge to run, run as fast as you can, for fear of being chased and eaten (I hope that there are no psychologists reading this - I can feel them nodding their heads in a most benignant manner). Luckily these little gingerbread people do not show a gender bias, there is not a fox in sight, and most important of all they are not edible.

 Perhaps it is better to bring light into my darkness by making some pretty teacup candles, which are definitely within reach of the one-handed, and now that all the decluttering upheavals have tossed up my decoupage scissors in the tide of objets swilling from cupboard to cupboard (No dear mamma, I have not seen them, and if I did use them I put them away in the wrong place where no one will find them for a year and a day) Princess Bunchy can cut me out some white tree decorations to go with my tasteful new white-painted house.

So in sum, I am jolly pleased with this book, and can recommend it as a something for everyone type of craft book, with projects ranging from easy to skilled, and lots of potential for family participation, and holiday activities.

And thank you again for all your lovely comments and emails - I am truly grateful to you all.  I am working my way through to reply to all the emails, but sadly I can't respond to the no-reply ones (this happens if you don't have your email in your Profile) as they come without a return address.

Have a very crafty weekend, don't let the preparations get you down, and if you are the Head Chef, I'd love a box of violet creams in my stocking, just click here.


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