Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Last day of August

The last day of August here in Old Blighty and the only sunshine to be seen is courtesy of the sunflowers gleaming brightly against the dull and cloudy skies.

But our meteorological woes are as nothing compared to those of our friends across the Big Pond, and to complain of a little greyness about the gills is pure frivolity.

Today I am thinking of Karen in Vermont as she sits and surveys the wasted scene which surrounds her little patch of earth which is so precious to her. Maybe you could go over and offer her a few words of comfort to fortify her soul - a small thing, but perhaps a little good deed to start the day is no bad thing for any of us.

A wiser soul than I once wrote that 'the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts' which make 'things ... not so ill with you and me as they might have been'.

And as a small and possibly cheering postscript, I did try to photograph the sparrows clustered eagerly around the sunflower seed heads, pecking away enthusiastically, but alas my tread is too heavy, my camera too lightweight, and the presence of my Little Stranger (to whom small, fluffy and fluttery means tasty morsel) by my side had a certain hampering effect.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Working and making and creating

Often, working at home means that it is difficult to draw the line between work and not-work. Notice that I don't say leisure, as I am not sure what leisure means nowadays - is gardening a hobby when you are growing your own food, and food for B&B guests to eat? Does housework count as paid work when you are cleaning the guest wing of the cottage? Are sewing and knitting leisure activities when you aren't making things to sell, but making them to use or to give rather than buy?

The poet Philip Larkin talked about not 'let[ting] the toad work squat on your life', and amongst all the different things I do to earn a crust there are some toady bits, but I prefer D H Lawrence's poem 'Work'  which recommends work that 'absorbs you like an absorbing game' - this weekend I was able to take the Lawrence approach, banish any hint of squatting toads, and lose myself in some making and creating.

It is not finished yet but just looking at the happiness colours of the fabric, and the stitches taken so gently, sitting so quietly, listening to Anthony Trollope's The American Senator (I have never read it, but I am ordering it in post haste) on Radio 4, takes me back to a Saturday afternoon out of time and fret and fever.

And even on a Monday, when the toads wake and rear their ugly, swollen heads again, at home the kitchen is filled with the pungent smell of plum chutney (recipe here), the measurable result of work which is making and creating. And it has promise for the future: the pleasure of eating, pleasure deferred, is enhanced by the memory of sowing, and growing and harvesting and chopping, in a continuum from earth to table.

There is jelly in the making, drip, drip, dripping its taste and sweetness into a bowl on the table. Tiny purple-black bush plums from the hedgerow, no work to grow, nature's bounty to harvest and store in rosy and jewel-like jars for the winter.

The tomatoes and peppers fill baskets, prolific and red - more goodness to be savoured when the plants are long gone.

And what to do with the cucumbers - don't tell me to pickle them, please, but delicious while they last.

There is work where the end is concrete and visible, not something repetitious to tick off, but cyclical and seasonal and sustaining, work to look back on and revisit and remember when the toads are long gone, squatting in their stagnant pools, bitter tasting.

I know which work I prefer . . .

Friday, 19 August 2011

Fox and hens in the orchard hexie case; or, I should have been working

Following last night's unbounded optimism, and superfluity of good things, I was determined that today of all days would be distinctly free of sludge.

So after a morning spent poring over very squinty figures, I decided that this afternoon would be fun, fun, fun, and although a rush proofreading job came in over the wires after lunch (a Good Thing for the bank balance), somehow I found myself drawn towards my sewing machine. Those enticing pieces of fabric that I had cut out whilst burning the candle at both ends were calling me, calling me - and vainly I attempted to resist their siren sound (not such a good thing for the coffers, but good for the soul).

So Slack Alice I became, I abandoned the remunerative work, and headed for the fun stuff. (I fear that I will never be a Captain of Industry at this rate.)

A pesky squirrel in the undergrowth

And so I had a wonderful time a-trimming and a-piecing, and the result is a lovely Hexie Case made from the pattern I bought from my clever friend Amy.

An upside down hexie case

Please do admire how I managed to get the directional fabrics the right way up (thanks to a handy hint in the pattern at the crucial moment) and even managed a zip (thanks to the very clear instructions and helpful photos), all quite unusual for me.

Hens in the orchard

And please do notice how in a bizarre form of transference I have managed to encapsulate my life in the cottage in hexagonal form: the hens and the orchard and the flowers and the doggy footprints and the predatory foxes creeping along the edge and even the pesky squirrels and rabbits lurking amongst the trees in the distance.

Foxes creeping along the edge

Such flights of imagination were facilitated by the lovely Anika organic fabric which I bought from Kate at M is for Make - she does a fat 16th bundle of the range for only £4.50 which I think is a perfect way to buy some coordinating bits for small projects such as this. The orchard print is Nature Walk by Cloud 9, another organic fabric, and also from M is for Make. I originally bought a range of naturalistic prints in small amounts for my Farmer's Wife quilt - as a record of my life, I particularly liked the idea of including some foxes and hens and trees in that, and I have enough left of the fat 16ths after making the Hexie Case to provide plenty of pieces for the quilt. For the lining I used a fat quarter given to me by the lovely Sarah at Red Gingham a little while ago - it coordinates rather well, has a nice gardeny feel, and not being directional was really quite relaxing.

Flowers in the garden

If you would like to make your own Hexie Case, you can find Amy's pattern here, and some really pretty examples made by her here - as she says, I think they would be perfect school pencil cases, as they are generously sized, although I think I might use mine as a sock knitting bag as it will comfortably accommodate some DPNs, yarn, and an orphan sock awaiting a sibling. Perfect presents, too, but this one I am keeping for myself, I am afraid.

Have a good weekend - may it be full of making and creating!

Thursday, 18 August 2011

One good thing: a ruched happy bag

I read somewhere that the key to happiness is to finish off every day by thinking of three good things that have happened to you during the day, and it will make you even happier if you write them down.

Today having turned out to be one of those days which has involved some metaphorical trudging through sludge, I decided that I must attempt the happy route this evening. So I raked through the gloom of the day and couldn't find anything to cheer me, but then I decided to look at my photos in the hope of finding something to smile about.

And lo and behold! I found the Ruched Happy Bag I made a little while ago. The lovely Amy at During Quiet Time asked me to test her pattern (just so that she could be sure it was idiot-proof), and here is the one I made. It was the very first zippy bag that I ever made, and I feel that it turned out rather well, especially as I made it when my dear Rose was away being fettled, so I had to use the clunkiest, crankiest sewing machine I have ever encountered in all my born days (and it didn't even have a zipper foot).

It was a very lovely, easy to follow pattern (and completely Pomona-proof), and I am going to make some more, as I think a Ruched Happy Bag will make a very happy present. And I might even make one for myself, for I am sure you can guess who laid claim to the butterfly one as soon as she spotted it. If you want a pattern for yourself you can get one in Amy's shop, but I warn you, she also sells other rather tempting things (don't ask me how I know . . .).

So that is the first happy thing. And the second thing is when a Little Stranger licks your face rather than trying to chew it.

And the third thing - I have had a lovely blogger and her husband come to stay in our B&B (do go and visit Barbara at Ramblings from an English Garden, she has such a nice blog), although it was sad to see them leave our little cottage.

And I have also bought a copy of Amy's Hexie Case pattern, and the pieces are all cut out and interfaced ready to go - that's four things already, so I am on a roll.

There, I think that I am heaving myself out of the sludge, and though the last lights of the west have gone, I can almost see morning at the brown brink eastward . . .

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

More fun with cushions

I speak to you all from between the sheets - unfortunately, though, I am not lying down all snuggled up in bed (more's the pity), but the great tide of bedlinen has abated (I was going to say momentarily, but I now realize it means the opposite across the Pond) for just a moment, and I have been able to sneak back to sit in front of Hermione's sister and say hello, which is very cheering to the soul of a washerwoman extraordinaire.

The moments available for me to sit plying my needle have been far and fleeting, but the project to recushion my world moves on in fits and starts. You may remember the red flowery triangle number I made with my handy dandy little Go! Baby fabric cutter, while the Princess was 'enjoying' (I use the quotation marks advisedly) her sojourn at the Lowood Holiday Camp. Of course, on her return she immediately emitted covetous noises, and hoping to keep this cushion on my kitchen sofa (where it looks very fetching), I promised to make her (another) cushion of her choosing.

And so the unicorn cushion came into being - luckily those jolly nice bods at Cico Books had sent me a book which I had been hankering after for some time - Cute and Easy Quilting and Stitching by Charlotte Liddle -  and it turns out to be a jolly nice book (just as I thought) with lots of pretty things to make. Including two cushions which meet the most exacting requirements of one of the princess class, but the sheets constantly entangling me, I have just made the unicorn one to be going on with.

You will be glad to know that the Princess is most pleased with the result - she oversaw my work very carefully, and we picked out some fabrics that we used in the cushion using the Star Delight pattern which came with the Go! Baby cutter die, and added one or two extra. Being a log cabin patchwork cushion, it is a good design for using up leftovers from other projects, although I did buy a fat quarter of a figured white fabric for the background to the unicorn.

Cute and easy unicorn

You will see from the pictures that we did not follow the instructions exactly - Princess Bunchy vetoed the rosette, and I somehow forgot the lacy edging to the embroidered panel, but luckily no one noticed (I was probably thinking about sheets). We used ordinary embroidery floss rather than cotton perlé as suggested, just because of what I already had in my stash, and all the buttons and beads were from stash, too. The tail was made by plaiting embroidery floss and folding the plait in half to make a double plait, which I then couched down with little stitches and beads.

Why is my unicorn facing the other way?

If you make this cushion, I would suggest doing the log cabin in the normal way by cutting long strips to  width, and then trimming after sewing. The pattern suggests cutting the log cabin strips to fixed lengths, but I found myself in a bit of a pickle when I got to the outer long sides because my strips were not long enough (which I think could well have been due to my inefficiency, as I was a little, shall we say, distracted at the time). It makes a lovely big 18in/45cm cushion, and we (the royal 'we') are very pleased with it.
Lecien fabrics (I think)

There are several other projects in this book on my to-do list - I have just acquired some fat quarters for the tea cosy pictured on the cover.

Moda Fig Tree & Co Strawberry Fields (and another)

I also love the pincushion idea, which I might make as a little present for myself.

And then there is the rosette cushion for Princess Bunchy - I have the rectangular cushion pad (after much searching, I have found that John Lewis is the best place for a really wide range of cushion pad sizes), and the ceremonial selection of fabrics will be undertaken shortly.

And if you know a baby, there is a wonderful pattern for a pair of the most heavenly pair of baby shoes that I have ever seen in all my born days - enough to bring on those broody feelings.

Very cute baby shoes

The only proviso I would make about this book that it is not a learn-to-sew type of book suitable for an absolute beginner - the projects are not difficult, and the instructions for appliqué and embroidery are very clear, but it does help to have a little experience - and actually this is what makes the book more interesting for me, as it goes beyond the run-of-the-mill projects that I have seen repeated in so many books.

So all in all, I think Cute and Easy Quilting and Stitching is a sewing book worth having - there are plenty of things that I will make, and there are some really lovely ideas for embellishments that could easily be used for other projects. It really is a bit different and thus I have found it quite inspiring.

And now, the sheets are calling . . .

Monday, 8 August 2011

Holiday fun: fabulous brownies on the beach and the wedding dress of the year

It seems to me that Geoffrey Chaucer was wrong about April being the month that folk go on pilgrimages: hearing of the epic length of the queues on the M25, I find myself thinking that August is the month in which folk undertake their peregrinations. And, quite unusually for me, I have also been doing a bit of peregrinating, too, and yesterday found myself on a girly visit to the Big Smoke, a place I tend to avoid in high summer. But off we went to Buck House to see that dress: for me the high points were the video of Sarah Burton, the designer, explaining how the royal wedding dress was designed and constructed, and the wonderful paintings by Rembrandt, Poussin, Winterhalter et al; the low points were the queues to get in, the queues for security, and the general overcrowding which made it difficult to stop and study things. And at £17.50 for an adult, £10 for a child it is not a cheap day out - being of a Frugal Turn, and the Great Wen being so very full of the most wonderful things which are completely free of charge, I rarely pay to see the decorative arts, and in my rustic innocence have no idea how these prices compare with other attractions, but it is certainly a lot more than I am used to paying.

Unfortunately for me, there were also long queues for the cafe in the garden, so I did not get the chance to sample the tea and cake - my fellow pilgrims regaled me with tales of the magnificence of the royal garden party teas, to which I being insignificant and anonymous, and on one occasion, a married, rather than unmarried, daughter, have never been invited (sob).

But all is not lost: this week I have had the chance to sample copious quantities of the most magnificent cake (and baked by a princess and a fairy goddaughter), so opportunities to expand my waistline have not been wanting.

I received in the post an utter chocfest of a book called Fabulous Brownies, written by Annie Rigg, and published by Ryland Peters and Small, who very kindly sent me a copy to review. 

And I have to say that for chocolate and cake lovers, they are pretty fabulous brownies to eat - not only that but the book provided two days of fabulous holiday activity for Princess Bunchy and Fairy Goddaughter. 

The recipes are divided into four categories: Simple (everyday variations on the brownie theme), Pretty and Indulgent (which would be good for special tea parties, or dinner party puddings), and Kids. 

Not only does the Kids section appeal to children in terms of look and taste, but the instructions are very straightforwardly written and easy to follow, so that two girls of 11 and 12 could be left to themselves in the kitchen to create the cakes and their mothers could sit in the garden undisturbed and have a Good Natter - which to me constitutes the ideal holiday activity for children. 

We of course did not neglect our offspring entirely - we were always on hand to taste the results and offer advice and encouragement from a safe distance, whilst we put the world to rights and caught up on many months of news and anecdote.

So if you want to keep your children quiet and amused this holiday time, Fabulous Brownies could be just the answer: just take my advice and put pinnies on them first, because the kitchen did get quite chocolatey (as did their faces, hands and Princess Bunchy's trousers).

We then took the brownies (and the children) to the beach: the sunniest, warmest evening ever spent on Knitstable beach (before the grey skies set in again). I actually had to remove my socks and plimsolls, and found no reason to don my great big granny cardigan, the last word in festival chic (I bought it at the Big Green Gathering, so festival wear it is). 

Fish and chips, Brownie Owls and Brownie Wheels, and a bottle of rosé as the sun set over the sea and the gulls wheeled and cried overhead - what more could any of us want? 

I have also done a little light sewing. I am unable to cope with anything too demanding in the dog days so I just ran up a trio of cushions for a ballerina who has taken to loft living.

You might notice from the picture that these cushions are not in a loft but reclining on a bench: they were very nearly kidnapped en route, the Amy Butler Love fabric being so enticing, but I am happy to say that they made it up the stairs and are now enjoying the high life.

So there's what we did in the summer holidays: a bit of stitching and a bit of travelling, up to London and down to the beach - don't tell me I don't lead the high life, too . . .

Sunday, 7 August 2011

A little stranger

I don't know why it is, but every time that I have to pick a giveaway winner, the weather takes a turn for the worse. This afternoon it is blowing a complete hoolie, just perfect for blowing little bits of paper right across the garden, and whipping up the sheets (yes, more sheets to iron) so that they cast a long shadow.

So I hope that you will all sympathize with me, cutting up 160 something bits of paper, and folding them all up neatly, and then battling the gales outside - I promise you not one of you got lost until after the draw when things fell apart rather.

Mad Dog was not available to do the draw this time, having been taken off by the Ploughboy to chase rabbits. And in spite of her strict régime, the vet tells us that Teddy-Face is still not as svelte as she might be, so not being sure of the calorific content of paper, we needed another contender. I turned around, and lo and behold! (it's getting to be a habit round here), there I found a little stranger.

Being a particularly little stranger, I thought a particularly shallow dish would be best, and one quite broad in the beam moreover, and the Little Stranger does not have quite such a snouty snout as the Mad Dog.

She was also a little slow on the uptake and much as I would love to give you all an Accuquilt Go! Baby fabric cutter, there is just the one on offer, so turfing all of you onto the grass was not really a way to make progress.

As fast as I piled you all back in, the Little Stranger nuzzled you back out, and then Teddy-Face joined in the party, no doubt on the prowl for extra calorific intake.

After one heave-ho too many, I decided that a jump-off, or possibly nuzzle-off, was the fairest option. So everyone who was on the grass was scooped up into another, more confining bowl, and we had another go.

Having satisfied herself that there were no treats to be had from this receptacle, the Little Stranger picked up a paper in her mouth and trundled off - and thus we had a winner.

The Head Chef swooped to retrieve that winner, at considerable risk to life and limb, as the Little Stranger was quite unwilling to give up her prize and snarled most ferociously.

But all's well that ends well: the Little Stranger found something far more interesting to bite, and dropped the little piece of paper by the wayside.

Before I reveal that lucky person, my commiserations to all of you who didn't win this time. Remember, as a consolation prize you can click on the picture below and Accuquilt will give you two PDF booklets of patterns for quilts and blocks suitable for cushions, etc. There are patterns for all levels of skill, and if you are signed up for the Accuquilt newsletter, they do send out special offers and discounts on the cutters and dies. (I think there are going to be a few dies on my Christmas list this year - I rather fancy some strip cutters for some log cabin work I have planned, so I might just sign up the Head Chef as well.)

22 Free Patterns - Download Now

So after all the cutting and folding and battling the element, here is the winner: susan I will be emailing you shortly. Congratulations on your win - all thanks to the Little Stranger.


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