Friday, 29 April 2011

Granny chic or granny-style: more fashion hints from one who knows

I have a tale of woe to tell, a sad story not of granny chic in all its retro stylishness, as epitomized by such icons of chic grannydom as Michelle at The Royal Sisters and Tif at Dottie Angel, but of plain granny.

Sadly, their retro stylishness sets the bar very high, and I, alas and alack, seem to have come crashing down at the first hurdle.

It all started with a cardigan, as most things seem to do in my life, a cardi of the imagination which would be a high point in granny styling.

I searched and found a pattern (Toasty in Rowan's Winter Gifts), and found the most wonderful wool in my secret stash cupboard (which the Head Chef thinks is where I keep my coats).

Duchess in Devonshire, a soft sage green, is one of the Skein Queen's delectable productions: her yarn is the stuff of dreams, and seems drawn towards my cottage by a mysterious process in which, as in a waking trance, I stalk the corridors of her shop in the ether that is the interweb.

I even have a tea dress in peachy-pink coloured silk decorated with little fans (a cast-off from my dear mamma), and I could borrow some green wellies from Princess Bunchy to complete the ensemble ... what more could an ageing mother of three want to complete her life but a fetching little green cardi?

And the buttons: I haven't told you about the buttons. I went a-rummaging in my button box, my inheritance from my own dear departed grandmamma, and found a set of very retro-looking peachy buttons  - genuine vintage, or certainly something very like.

The cardi was nearly a year in the making - things happened, events occurred - I picked it up and put it down, all the while fortified by an image of Pomona transformed into a glamorous granny.

But, woe is me, such a thing was not to be ... the cardi was finished and stitched. I began to feel uneasy.

'It's all in the blocking,' I told myself stoically. 'Just wash it, and it's bound to shape up.'

And lo and behold! Yes, it did shape up: into a cardi for a girl with coathanger shoulders and an ample bosom - just like girls were in the 1940s.

But for me, with inadequate foundations, physically and materially - there is not enough of me, shoulderwise or frontage, to fill the space. In short, the sartorial effect is just plain granny, and chic doesn't get a look-in.

You will see that in spite of Princess B's best efforts at styling and photography, and my efforts at putting my shoulders in various positions, the cardi reverts to type, and reveals that without a puff of something (muscle?) at the top of my arm, there is space to fill. And I did sew it up so carefully ...

So if you choose to knit Toasty, I recommend you go a size down, and possibly buy some shoulder pads.

Me - well, I have been on a régime of only one helping of cake a day, in order that the silk of the tea dress has nothing to cling to, but I can see that I have been taking the wrong tack.

And Princess Bunchy has come up with the solution: she made a very special cake to celebrate Royal Wedding day.

As you see here, it appears quite calorific, and expansive:  I will just have to up my cake ration and hope that rather than settling on the hips, it will come to rest a little higher.

And all is not lost on the green knitting front: I am very pleased with my green stripy socks, which have their own little tale to tell, but that, dear readers, is a story for another day.

Have a good weekend.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

On quilting, and appearing in the press, with a few pointers on fashion

You'll have to read to the end for my fashion hints, and the wonders that modern photography can achieve, but first to the important things like sewing. I have enjoyed a flirtation with patchwork for many years now, in fact more than I care to remember, and have accumulated quite a handy little stash of fabrics, all waiting for when I actually might get round to making quilts proper, rather than admiring them in the books I have collected, which also stand helpfully to attention on my shelf, ready for me to become a practical quilter rather than a wishful-thinking, imaginary one.

But now I have an announcement to make: I have just made my first patchwork quilt for a sweet little baby (not mine, I hasten to add - although, long in the tooth as I am, I do still have yearnings for a little baby to cuddle, but preferably one which sleeps all the time and doesn't need too much attention when I am busy).

So as I said, I have imagined myself creating quilts for some time - I have even cut out pieces, then become overwhelmed by the thought of producing 244 squares (or some such frighteningly large number), and keep finding 30 or so starters carefully tidied away at the bottom of one of my to-do drawers. I have puzzled over those rather prettily-coloured geometric diagrams in quilting books, and quailed at the thought of making the corners of triangles fit in the face of finger-wagging threats of the dire consequences of inaccuracy.

I went on a patchwork training day (it felt like training, even if it was billed as fun), and there was more finger-wagging because I had not read the instructions and came with my fabric unwashed, no matching thread, and favoured colours which did not have enough contrast between my 'darks' and my 'lights'. And there was I imagining a lovely cottagey, washed-out, grandmothery effect ... traumatized, I felt that an undisciplined nature such as mine was not suitable for such a skilled craft, and retreated back to the knitting corner.

And then came one of those fortuitous concatenations of circumstance which propel one into a whole new world of making and creating: a friend had a baby, the first in a long line due this year, and I thought that I couldn't possibly knit for them all, so I had the idea of sewing a present. For some reason, sewing always seems speedier to me than knitting, probably because a sewing machine seems to whizz along far faster than I can knit.

The baby was boy, and I have rather an embarrassment of florals in my stash, but as I sat making a lavender bag for Mothering Sunday, it occurred to me that the fabric was green and geometric - surely that would work for a boy? I looked in the stash for anything vaguely not pink and flowery, and came up with a series of blue-green turquoise variations which seemed to work, and I thought of Laurie Lee's poem, 'April Rise', which talks of  'soapy green', 'Blown bubble-film of blue', and the 'emerald sun'. Perfect for the little spring 'blessing in the air' who had just arrived in the world.

And then the final loosening of the creative block came with Jane Brocket's book, The Gentle Art of Quilting, which demystifies the practicalities of quilting, and emphasizes colour and inspiration. Jane's book seems to me more about the inherent creativity of playing with colour and pattern, and less about complicated geometry and skilled cutwork. It seemed to give me permission to do my own thing, and not worry about whether I was making something in the right or wrong way - and, in my haste, I still forgot to wash everything first, but I quite like the idea of a slightly crinkly, timeworn look.

I don't think that I would pass any examinations with this quilt, but I made sure I stitched it full of love and happy thoughts, I think it will keep a baby cosy, and it looks pretty (and not too flowery, I hope). The fabrics were Jennifer Paganelli's Dance with Me for Freespirit (JP27 Grass and Green, JP27 Teal), Swell by Urban Chiks for Moda (31030-15) and Heather Bailey's Bijoux Tile (HB101 Ice) for Freespirit - all from stash, thrifty old me (just don't ask me how they got there, as that might not have been quite so thrifty).

For anyone who wants to make one, here's how to make your first baby quilt after years of thinking about it. The technical details are quite simple. I cut 5.5in squares (using a cutting mat and ruler, which really does make life easier), for a 5in finished size. The quilt is 5 squares by 6, so you only need to cut 30.

I then arranged the squares in a slightly random way, mainly because I had unequal amounts of fabric, and roughly alternating lighter and darker, although I don't think the contrast would pass a strict test. I worked with four different fabrics, although five or six would have made it easier.

Then make the 6 crossways strips by stitching 5 squares together in a row, with quarter-inch seams, ironing the seam to the darker side.

I then joined the strips together - if you have been reasonably accurate with cutting and stitching then the seams will line up, but don't beat yourself up if some don't, as I think a bit of unevenness just demonstrates the lovely handmade nature of the work. The edge binding will cover any imperfections anyway. However, it is worth taking a bit of care to 'nest' the seams together and think about which way to iron them to avoid lumpiness.

I then hand-quilted with a light bluish-grey quilting thread as I don't have a walking foot on my machine - Jane Brocket hand-quilts her creations, so I feel that I am in illustrious company. I just used a very small running stitch along all the seam lines, which was enjoyable to do, and not at all difficult.

I made the backing of two different fabrics, sewn together across the width - I quite like the backing to be made of more than one fabric - somehow it makes it more interesting. I made sure I had plenty of extra all round so that I could double-fold it to the front to make a self-binding, rather than attach a separate one. Measurements were not crucial here, I just did it by eye, but it was about 1.5cm finished width. I then slip-stitched all the way round - corners were squared off, not mitred - easier to do, and also I rather like the homespun look.

I am not going to say that you could do this in an afternoon, or even a weekend - I find that sort of target just depresses me at my lack of productivity. Let's just say that the baby was a month old when he received the quilt, but I was doing other things as well ...

And to those of you who saw us in the Sunday Telegraph at the weekend and very kindly said that I looked glamorous - I want to thank you wholeheartedly (I know one compliment came from my mamma, but truly, she has never called me glamorous before, and I think I am still in a state of shock, and she certainly sounded distinctly surprised when she rang me at 8am on Sunday to convey her opinion to me). Me - glamorous? I have never aspired to such an elevated state, as I have always had rather a crumpled air, and am definitely not shiny enough. I am still basking in the glow and am considering myself in quite a new light as I inspect my grimy fingernails and mud-streaked jeans, and debate whether I can put off washing my hair for another day. And for those of you interested in sartorial detail, my cardi was third-hand, and my frock came from a charity shop, although my wellies were not preowned. There's hope for me yet ...

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Tea, cake and a good book

Sometimes it is quite frankly too hot to labour in the garden, and the thought of standing at a counter potting on seedlings just makes you feel too wobbly for words.

And that is the moment that you need to sit quietly with a cup of tea served in one of the few intact Emma Bridgewater mugs that you possess (why is it always the Emma Bridgewater mugs that hit the floor, while the ugly one that you bought with tokens collected from instant coffee jars when you were sixteen seems to be made of cast iron?) ...

... and eat a piece of cake made by a Princess ... even though you have over-run your cake ration for the day (and why also is it that once you reach a certain age, cake has a gravitational pull towards your midriff, even if you go to the gym and do a lot of gardening in an effort to counteract it?). 

Photo courtesy of Princess B (and she has made another one today, with even more butter icing, and a lovely silver shoe on the top. The gym beckons with wagging finger.).

What is needed also is the company of a good book, and sometimes you come across such a lovely book that you have to share it - and I have been reading just such a one.

Today I have been reading All My Eggs in One Basket by Francine Raymond (who also has a lovely blog and shop here), and have to say that it is the most charming book, perfect company on a sunny afternoon. 

Full of the most heavenly pictures taken in her beautiful garden and house in Suffolk, the book is a wonderful mix of recipes, talk about gardening and plants, advice about henkeeping, things to make, and anecdotes about her life.

In the form of a seasonal journal, she takes us through the year while covering everything from the pain of bereavement to the joy of the everyday in an eclectic mixture of small vignettes of her life as gardener, crafter, cook, teacher, which engage the reader in a gentle and enchanting way, all illustrated so copiously with the most gorgeous photographs that I know that I will be going back to this book again and again, purely for the visual joy.

One of Francine's other publications, The Big Book of Garden Hens, has been one of those seminal influences on our life here in our trying-to-be-self-sufficient little cottage, one of those books which fed our dreams of a garden farm in the years when it seemed just that, a dream, along with John Seymour's Self-Sufficiency and Paul Heiney's Home Farm.

The Ploughboy in his youth used to get up early on Sunday mornings and make us scones for breakfast from the recipe in The Big Book of Garden Hens: the scones were crisp, small and flat, but deliciously full of love and enthusiasm, and I salute anyone who manages to have such a benign influence on a twelve or thirteen-year-old boy. He is still as lovely and enthusiastic, but unfortunately gets up a lot later on Sundays, so the scones are part of wistful memories of times past.

We were lucky enough to meet Francine recently, when she came to interview us in her role as gardening journalist: our brief moment of fame is upon us, and who knows, you might even spot us in the Sundays tomorrow!

Not only does the gym beckon, but so do the seedlings.

That's the trouble with self-sufficiency: a princess may make a cake, and I can eat it right away (more's the pity), but if I don't pot on my lettuces now, there won't be any salad on the table in May, so I must gracefully (and cakefully) take my leave. Adieu, she said, adieu ...

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Thrift in action

There is a lot of talk about thrift at the moment, and I note that dear Floss is posting daily. Such valiant efforts are quite beyond me, but to enter into the spirit of things, I thought I would take you on a journey on one of my little hobby horses.

It used to be said that if you sat around too long in Pomona's cottage, you would be turned into a bag, but today's thrifty little idea is even easier than than that: a quick way to give yourself a warm glow of economic domesticity, and assuage the guilt you feel when you catch a glimpse of the immoral quantities of fabric and yarn you have stashed out of masculine view.

First, take your husband's shirt - preferably an old one, unless he has been particularly tiresome this week. You will note that shirts often wear out around collars and cuffs, or have mysterious indelible stains down the front, but the back provides an expanse of pristine fabric. You do not even need a tubby husband with voluminous amounts of shirting - a modest size 15 will be enough for our purposes.

Now, after thriftily removing the buttons and tucking them away into the overflowing box full of boring shirt buttons, for which you will find no earthly use except to be bequeathed to your children, you can snip and rip out the back panel (ripping is more fun), and consign fronts and sleeves to the oily rag drawer (Thrifty Hints 1 and 2).

Iron the back flat and remove any little gathering stitches, then we need to straighten the edges and cut out a big square - you might have guessed by now that your husband's shirt is metamorphosing into a hankie.

If you are feeling nice, and the pattern is not particularly fetching, you can make the handkerchief for him (I tend to keep the more attractive fabrics for myself). For a big, snorty man-size hanky you need a square of 18-20in (45-50cm), 14-16in is more ladylike, and 10-12in is moving into the realms of dainty and child.

So taking it that we are going for snorty, straighten the edges (easiest to use a rotary cutter and ruler as in the pictures), fold the fabric into four and cut a 10in (25cm) square.

Put the scraps in the compost bin - cotton is compostable (Thrifty Hint 3).

Now you need to turn a double hem* - 1cm is quick and easy, but you could always go narrower or even rolled if you are feeling skilful.

*For a double hem fold over 1cm of fabric and press, then fold over another 1cm and press again.  I find that 1cm is easy to do by eye and iron flat, thus avoiding the need for pins.

In fact, I do the two steps in one making it even quicker. This is not tailoring - all measurements can be very approximate, and I usually do the whole thing by eye.

Stitch all the way round - remembering to check that the bobbin is full, the tension setting is correct, and you are also using the appropriate presser foot. Don't ask me why I am reminding you of such simple things ... but if you stitch the whole way round with an empty bobbin case the bits won't stick together, and your daughter will point this out to you. (You will then realize that you really do need to go and get your eyes tested, and most probably have to buy some new glasses, or possibly just wear the ones you have more often.)

And hey presto! You are the proud creator of a recycled handkerchief.

I always stitch a couple of little hearts on the corners of the hankies I so kindly fabricate for my husband using the fancy stitch on my machine (just the ordinary thread, though, to remain thrifty), as a small reminder to him of how wonderful his wife is (Thrifty Hints 4 and 5).

A word of advice: cotton shirting and dress fabric is a perfect weight for hankies, but those blue Oxford shirts are quite thick and scratchy - not suitable for delicate flowers like ourselves, but absolutely fine for chaps with big, snorty noses (Thrifty Hint 6).

And on the strength of a little hankie-making, you will find that your reputation for thrift is only enhanced by returning from the shops with lots of carrier bags marked 'SALE'. Just remember to save the bags for when you want to go to the shops outside the sale time - those big bags hold an awful lot of fabric, yarn, or whatever you want to smuggle back into the house without tarnishing your thrifty halo (Thrifty Hint 7).

So that's it: a week's worth of Thrifty Hints, and it honestly took less time to make the hankies than it did to write about it. Take it from me - just start ripping up his shirts, and make the world a better place.

Sunday, 17 April 2011


All sorts of green and growing things are emerging, just showing their heads above ground. 

Sunflower seedlings in the greenhouse, promising a bounty of blue skies and seeds and yellowness.

A self-sown foxglove, nestling in the protective shadow of Lamium maculatum, first cousin to a nettle, but quiet, unassuming, and quite harmless. 

And soapwort - commonly known as Bouncing Bess. I should love you but I don't, your habits are too pushy and even the pale pink flowers going on into August when all else is looking dry and sad are not enough to atone for your invasive nature.

I think that I might be peeping over the parapet as well. The sunshine and spring bring all sorts of living things out of their hidden caves.


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