Monday, 15 October 2012

Living on the edge - a thrifty hint

Warning: the following post contains items of extreme thrift which delicate souls might find disturbing.

I felt that I should preface this post with a public health notice because I know that there are different types of frugal mindset, and while some go for the buy one, get one free, others are quite willing to explore the farthest reaches of soap recycling.

Which is where we are going today, so if a shiver of horror went down your spine at the words 'soap recycling', then please look away now. If, on the other hand, it was a shiver of excitement at the thought of a bit of cheeseparing (or, rather, soap paring, as you will see), then do stay with me.

These cakes are not for eating

How much you will save by recycling your soap depends, as with most thrifty hints, on how extravagant you have been in the first place. It is one of life's little ironies that the super-frugal have to be satisfied with saving pennies as their tight budget has already been slimmed down to the minimum, but the lucky old spendthrift can save lots more with much less effort.

My own first forays into soap recycling saved me lots of money - it started when I was given a set of Penhaligon's violet soap for Christmas many years ago. The bars came in a little set of drawers, and were really almost too nice to use, but I decided to prolong the experience of violet-scented soap by saving the soap ends and stretching them a little further. (The idea first came from reading The Penny Pincher's Book by John and Irma Mustoe, I think.)


So first catch your soap - every time a bar of soap gets down to the teeny-tiny bit which is too small to use, I let that little piece dry and pop it into a small jam jar. When the jar is full, I know it is time to get grating. Grate all those little pieces - thick or thin doesn't really matter.


Line a couple of ramekins (or any small container which you have to hand) with clingfilm (reused, of course).

Then fill the ramekins with the grated soap.

Press down and smooth
Add a few drops of warm water and pack down - this is where you need to go gently. You don't want a ramekin of water with soap gratings floating in it - aim for a ramekin of grated soap moistened enough to stick together. I do it gradually - add a few drops of water, press the soap down, add a little more grated soap, press down and smooth with the teaspoon. It needs to feel reasonably firm and not at all sloppy - just moist enough for it all to stick together and not crumble.

Aim for about an inch, or a couple of centimetres, deep of dampened and packed down grated soap (these are quite shallow ramekins so I fill them half full). Finish off by pressing down firmly and smoothing the top and then put the containers in a warm place - I keep mine on the shelf above the Aga, but an airing cupboard would do.

Check after a day that it is all sticking together - you can add more soap if it is too wet, or a drop or two of water if it is too dry, but when you have made it once you will get a feel for the consistency.

After a couple of days you can peel off the clingfilm, and turn the bars up the other way to dry further. I leave it for a couple of weeks at least before using, checking and turning occasionally so that the soap completely dries out.


And hey presto! you have made two new bars of soap out of little pieces that would otherwise have been thrown away. Perhaps not quite up to the standard of Penhaligon's triple-milled, but that warm glow of frugality makes all the difference. And the more you spend on soap to start with, the more you will save - isn't that a fun thought?


This post is dedicated to those two Queens of Thrift, before whom I feel quite humble: Angela at Tracing Rainbows and Mrs Thrifty Household. Do visit them for a continuous stream of Thrifty Hints and Tips and ways to elasticize your budget.


And tell me, which are your favourite thrifty books?  I am always on the lookout for books that will save you the cover price - I find it an infallible justification for the purchase.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Little apples, little people

As I manhandled (or maybe that should be womanhandled) my oh so very large and so absolutely Charming Flowers (I must think of a different name as I find that one quite painful) about the ironing board last night, I began to understand why so many quilters stick to wallhangings and baby quilts.

Spot the pesky squirrel

I am also quite geometrically challenged and with an almost square quilt I have moments of confusion about which way is up and which across, which resulted in my sewing my pieced strip along, rather than perpendicular to, the selvedge. (Unlike  my friend from Ted and Bunny, I do not find unpicking at all therapeutic, especially when it is 7 foot long and it is 10 o'clock at night and I know that I won't sleep easy if I don't unpick every last stitch and press out the holes before I retire).

Little Apples

So as a little light relief for the weekend I thought I would show you a nice little baby quilt I made earlier in the year (every time I say here's one I made earlier I think of the Blue Peter advent crown and a childhood where you could buy sticky-backed plastic off the roll in the back corner of Woolworths [this is a peculiarly British reminiscence and will no doubt be utterly mystifying to my international readers, but if I attempt to explain the significance it will involve a meandering disquisition on matters sociocultural and historical here in Old Blighty, and would involve so many parentheses and much venturing up byways, that I would be sure to get Lost and Distracted {which I fear that I may be already}]).

Here's one I made earlier

So where was I, I think to myself as I extricate myself from a Parenthetical Thicket. Ah yes, a Rather Charming baby quilt which I made for a very sweet little chap earlier in the year (you will be glad to hear that I am dismissing all thoughts of Blue Peter from my head Quite Firmly, but I am finding that such a Firm Tone requires copious use of  the Upper Case).

The fabric I used was Little Apples by Aneela Hoey (she says in a Firmly Informative Tone), which I really like because of a family association with Apples and Squirrels (I must admit that the Squirrel Association is not an entirely happy one but the passage of time has enabled me to Smile at that Peculiar Irony).

Charming stitching

The pattern for this quilt is a Charmingly Easy one from the Cloud Nine blog - it is a free pattern and you will find it here. It is also a very good pattern for the Terminally Disorganized and Unexpected Arrivals, as it is genuinely very quick to make. The quilt is tied with embroidery thread in the centres of the panels, and the same thread is also used for some simple running stitch quilting along the edges and seam lines. (The Little Apples fabric is still available from JB Quilting and Ebay, she says helpfully, in case you wanted to make one later.)

So if you want a quilt that you can make in a weekend, one which will fit on your table for basting, can be pressed with not a hint of manhandling and which can be hand-quilted without tears in an evening, then this little cot quilt is for you.

Charmingly small

Unfortunately it looks rather meagre on a double bed, so it's back to wrestling those very Charming Flowers to the ground for me ...

In the meantime, hello to Lindsey and Mama Smith at Project Little Smith who is, rather intriguingly, an architect turned homemaker and takes very lovely pictures.


Thursday, 11 October 2012

Walking uphill; or, the beauty of a barn door

 I have great dreams of powering off to the gym every morning, and honing those muscles in preparation for the physically demanding tasks of basting a quilt top or casting on a legwarmer. But, alas and alack, they remain dreams - as the days get shorter, the nights longer and the mornings darker, it takes an even greater effort of will to heave myself from the warm and cosy nest that is my bed.

No quilt in sight

If I were left to myself I would spend the winter months huddled up indoors, never straying too far from the fire or sofa. But luckily I have the services of a personal trainer to keep me up to the mark.

An October morning

Several mornings this week I have tried to begin the day by sitting at my computer, thinking that I couldn't possibly go out in the cold and damp because I have so much to do, but no, there is no slacking - there is my trainer by my side, arms around me, whispering in my ear, come along do, you know it is time for our yomp, you know it will do us both good.

Personal trainer extraordinaire

She will brook no refusals, and shivering and resigned I find myself in the lane, wrapped up to the nines, wellied and ready.

The road less travelled

And she is right, you know.

Green and growing
It is the best thing in the world on a dreary grey morning to go out into the wide world to seek out the tiniest weakest gleam of watery sunshine peering from behind a cloud, to find the widest most open spaces you can, stand on the highest point you can reach in the landscape, get a little breathless, look far and near, and observe the seasons and the weather and the green growing things defying the turning of the year.

Poppies on the grattan

Nothing can match the bliss of walking out one mid-autumn morning and listening to the curlew crying and hearing the wind in the trees, the sound of far, far away traffic a distant hum, and the sound of boots slap, slap on the muddy lane the most insistent noise around.

More flowers in October

There is nothing better than this and I would wish myself nowhere else, with the soft ground underfoot and my faithful friend by my side.

Come on, keep up

There is some Welsh in her ancestry and I imagine her forebears as drovers' dogs, padding across the land, watching and listening, herding and keeping safe.


And I saw barn walls perfect for hanging quilts on, sitting waiting in the morning light, and now I am hoping that one fine day I will turn the corner and see there amongst the trees and the clouds a quilt hanging, blowing gently in the breeze, a vision just for me.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Sewing with Lola Nova

I am sure that the blog Lola Nova - Whatever Lola Wants needs no introduction, but if you have yet to visit, you are in for a treat. And so was I in for a treat today, when the truly beautiful book, Simple Sewing with Lola Nova appeared on my doorstep (it is not out officially in the US until the spring, but wherever you are you can get it already from The Book Depository, who will ship worldwide).

A surprise in the post

I was lucky enough to win this in the giveaway held by Lola Nova (aka the very talented Alexandra Smith) - it's not often that you win a book that is already on your wishlist, and exceedingly wonderful not to have to wait for Christmas to get a peek inside.

And I have to say that it is a really lovely book - quite different from your average sewing manual. The projects are different and individual, and the Lola Nova style shines through. So often when you read craft books you feel that you have seen it all before, but this book is full of projects with a difference, and there are lots that I want to try.

Things to make and do
The photography by Yuki Sugiura is really atmospheric, and the design as a whole really conveys the Lola look. I love the way that the sections are called Boho, Natural, Vintage, Eclectic and Whimsy, which really give you an indication of her individual take on crafting - this really is crafting with a difference, and with a very definite and unique sense of style.

Sweet dress
The range of projects runs from things for children to wear to adornments for your house and office and even some beautiful stitched and embellished notecards - things for you to make for yourself and for you to give as presents.

Pretty skirt

There are very clear step-by-step photographs and instructions to get you through any tricky bits, together with templates for all the patterns, and each project is labelled with the skill level required.


I am rather pleased to see instructions for a Lola-style multipurpose Hook Book, and also a rather snazzy bag, both of which I have admired on the blog and in the Lola Nova Etsy shop before now, and am also planning to make some Everything Baskets. The Artist's Pouches would be good to mass-produce for Christmas presents (Princess Bunchy already having placed an order for presents for friends).

Snazzy bag
 So all in all,  I can genuinely highly recommend Simple Sewing with Lola Nova by Alexandra Smith - thank you Lola Nova and well done!

Monday, 8 October 2012

Nesting and barn walls: more essentials for quilting

It is a deeply grey day, and now the rain is teeming down, washing all the colours of the world away. But early this morning I managed to get a photograph of my latest quilt top before the rain began to descend, braving the proleptic leaden skies and chill dampness in my eagerness to record another show and tell.

And this is the entirely unedited result.

A trick of the light

That damp grey autumn light filtered through the camera's beady eye has done the weirdest thing to the colours of this quilt, making them appear eerily dayglo and intense against the sinister grey-green backdrop.

The fabric is Rose Parade from Moda, and the pattern is PS I Love You from Sweet Jane , (photographed upside down so you won't notice the deliberate mistake, entirely the fault of Radio 4, which distracted me so much when cutting out blocks that I cut out a 10in and 11in, rather than two 10.5in. Hmm, you may say, and so did I, but very cleverly I sewed the selvedge edge trimming back on, and most of it will disappear into the binding, honest).

So this brings me rather to another essential for a quilter - a suitably photogenic place in which to photograph your quilts. I hanker after a barn wall like Amy's or even two tall sons at home to stand behind holding it up for me in the sunshine ... All in short supply here at the moment.

But before I am accused of being too morose, I should like to engender some positive associations in connection with the use of the seam ripper. No longer need you experience thoughts of anger, despair or destruction when you catch sight of the little stiletto in your sewing box.

I saw the light when I did a sewing course at the London College of Fashion some years ago - it was supposed to teach the amateur to sew in a professional manner, and I am sure that I am not one of the success stories, especially as we weren't allowed to use pins, and I still harbour a lingering attachment to pinkind. But the trick I remember is the use of the seam ripper, not for ripping seams, because of course real pros don't do that, but to guide the fabric through the machine, like so.

Some gentle guidance
The clear piecing foot with the handy little guide at the right is a godsend - and allows me to whip out the pin at the last minute (again using the seam ripper as a grab), so the needle does not hit the pin.

I think she needs to clean the fluff from her machine ...

The seam ripper really comes into  its own with those lovely little nested seams - I love the concept of nesting seams: the terminology, the cosiness and togetherness of the concept, and with (sshh!) two pins and a seam ripper, no squiffy nesting, no underside seams jumping back the wrong way.


I must go now - the Head Chef has come up with the most divinely delectable variation on the best flapjack recipe ever, and having eaten some for morning coffee, I plan to consume quantities for lunch. Let me know if you would like the recipe, and I will be sure to photograph some before I eat them all up ...

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Essential tools for quilters (I)

Weekend industry
Normally on a Sunday evening I go to the gym - I know that sounds rather extreme but when a princess is powering up and down the swimming pool, I feel that a yomp in the gym with London Calling ringing in my ears is more constructive than sitting on an uncomfortable sofa in a deserted cafe, leafing through the dregs of the Sunday papers.

But today was different. I was so very close to finishing a quilt top for the sofa, just another quarter of an hour ... when the phone rang. And by the time I had dealt with that, it was time to depart into the darkness in pursuit of health and fitness. The choice was painful, but I volunteered the Head Chef for swimming club duty (a chance for him to sit down for an hour and read the papers, I said, considerately).

Dear readers, you will be glad to hear that I have finished my quilt top, and done my favourite bit, attacked it with a steam iron and beaten those seams into an orderly submission. Having started out with dressmaking, and having been taught to apply copious amounts of hot steam at every opportunity, the technique of gentle pressing without steam, as recommended in all the patchwork and quilting books I read, requires a most astonishing act of will on my part.

Unfortunately, it is now too dark to photograph the quilt top, but earlier today I was having some very deep thoughts about the tools which I find most useful for quilting, the ones without which it would all end in tears.

And so I thought I would share these thoughts with you, in the hope that perhaps one quilter, sitting miserably amongst a heap of disorderly pieces of fabric might find my handy hints of help.

Bulldogs should be colourful

So for me, essential quilting tool no 1 is a basket of bulldog clips and miniature sticky notes (the teeny tiny ones can stay in the fabric until it is safe for them to leave and they don't get in the way of the gentle pressing, but their presence will preclude you from committing aggressive acts of steam). I set out my quilt pieces on a sheet on the B&B sitting-room floor in the gaps between guests, and so they have to be gathered up again immediately (and even if we don't have guests, we have canine marauders with muddy feet and a penchant for scuffling up any textiles found underfoot).

Pin your post-its

So to avoid much wailing and gnashing of teeth, I pin numbered sticky notes (at the very least at the beginning and end of a row, to indicate position and orientation), then pick the pieces or blocks up in the correct order, and fasten the stack with a bulldog clip. (Please don't rely on the adhesive qualities of your sticky notes - go for belt and braces with a pin. [I know this from bitter experience.])

Future proof

These stacks are then windproof, dog-proof, and generally forgetting what you are about in the middle of a row proof.

I feel that it is important to have brightly coloured bulldog clips as it lends an air of jollity to the proceedings, but have less strong feelings about the colour of the sticky notes, probably because the numbers and letters give them a serious, businesslike air, which does not take heed of such frivolity.

And one last little thrifty hint - write on those little tickets in pencil. It allows for mistakes, and you can reuse them for the next quilt. Presuming that there will be a next quilt, but of course there will be because these handy little tools for your quilting will increase your productivity no end, and you won't be stomping around with a seam ripper trying to find someone to blame for sewing the pieces together in the wrong order, and not noticing until you have nearly finished the quilt.

{Your eye may have been drawn to the most excellent velvet pincushion. This pincushion was one of the very first things I made with my very first sewing machine (before you go ah, how sweet, bear in mind that I was about 30), and I gave it to my grandmamma for Christmas. Along with the rest of my family, she was most surprised as I hadn't shown any signs of creativity beforehand. Things had changed by the time her house was being cleared and the pincushion (long-forgotten by me) was given to me as the stitchy one in the family. So now when I sew I have by my side a lovely remembrance of my dear departed grandmamma.}

And before I go, I must say hello to some new followers who have come on board: Naturally Carol who has just done a lovely post about gratitude, Poppy at Poppy's Frugal Life (being frugal), Rosie at Old Magnolia Tree (who needs some advice about fashion and knitting), Chey at The Other Side of the Pond (just starting life in the UK), Sharon Souter at Sharon's Sunlit Memories (who designs the most wonderful paper dolls), and Tammy Chrzan at My Journey. Please go and say hello and welcome too!

 I would love you to tell me about your essential tools for quilting (or sewing or knitting) - especially the ones which prevent family discord. Next time I will give you a hint about the non-violent use of seam rippers, so watch this space.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Anxiously and impulsively covering up

I fear that this post may be in the nature of a confession, a baring of the soul which reveals a deeper truth about my nature. Or then again it may not, but that is for the reader to decide.

So I take a deep breath and reveal that I have a penchant, perhaps it may even be termed an addiction, certainly a compulsion, for filling my life with notebooks. And please note the plural - this is not one modest little notebook deep in the recesses of my bag; this is notebooks lined up on my desk, a notebook by my bedside, a large notebook in my filing tray, and spare notebooks waiting, in case of emergency, on my shelves.

In the past I have been quite free and easy in my choice of notebook, and was particularly attracted by pretty covers, but then in a fit of sophistication I moved onto a flirtation with black Moleskines in the hope that I would benefit from the Chatwin/Hemingway association. However, I began to find the weight of tradition, not to mention the weight of the notebook in my bag, a little oppressive.

Then I discovered the Moleskine cahier, and such is my enchantment with the wonder of the Moleskine cahier I am sure that I am not exaggerating if I term it an obsession.

Their infinite variety is most beguiling: they come in three different sizes (small, large and extra large) which I find a useful correlative to purpose. And with lines or squares or plain pages, depending on whether one feels literary, mathematical, or artistic - needless to say that I have dallied with all three. Cahiers also come in packs of three, which is strangely comforting (rather like having those mega packs of loo roll in the cupboard, it means that the chilling prospect of running out in an emergency is averted).

A nice little pocket at the back

But I must admit these notebooks have one drawback - the buff cover has a sort of minimalist, even scholarly, appeal, but they do not look quite a pretty as I would like when lined up on my desk.


Luckily Michelle and her patterns have come to my rescue - Michelle does a pattern here (called a Swatch Book Cover) which is for a really easy to sew cover for the small and large sized Moleskine cahiers, and I have been running up pretty covers for all and sundry (it is an excellent pattern for last-minute presents it is so quick to make up).

You don't need a lot of fabric, so it is a great way to use up fat quarters, or left-over pieces from other projects.

And Michelle has also put me out of misery at my uncovered extra large cahier - she has just released a pattern called an Idea Pouch which fits the extra large cahiers (as well as iPads, but sadly I don't have an iPad) and joy of joys, it has pen slots and buttons on the front. You will not be surprised to hear that I have bought this pattern and am in the process of making the all-important fabric decisions. But first my Book of Recipes for a Frugal Housewife needs a cover - I feel that this combination looks suitably culinary. What do you think?

And before I go I will just leave you with a very deep thought. A renowned French philosopher and cultural theorist by the name of Jean Baudrillard took it upon himself to write about the significance of covers in the domestic interior. He uses the word redundancy, and sees such 'overworking of signs of possession' as indicating not only the 'intention to possess, but to show how well one possesses' in 'an anxious compulsion to sequestration'.* As I anxiously go to count my doilies and refold my tablecloths, I wonder at what point domestic coverings become redundant. Are patchwork quilts allowed, or is it irredeemably bourgeois to sleep under anything but a solitary, scratchy grey army blanket? I feel sorry for Mrs Baudrillard - I bet she wasn't allowed flowery notebook covers on her desk.

*Jean Baudrillard, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1981)

Monday, 1 October 2012

Washed up on the shores of the future

Stepping out
The year has wheeled and turned, summer is most definitely over and gone, and today the rain has had a relentless quality, insisting on the advent of autumn and the darkening of the days. The all-too-brief Indian summer has disappeared with the morning mist.

Looking into the distance
 The silence seems all-enveloping as I sit in the quiet and listen for the ticking of the clock and ponder on the contrast with the noisy and joyful weekend when my boys flew in for a day, two days, and flew out again, off and away.

It strikes me that I miss most dreadfully the seemingly endless squabbling and jostling of years past, the trail of socks on the floor, the sideboards heaped with homework, and the multiple trip hazards ascending the stairs.

Our meals are no longer large, disputatious events, but sedate little finishings-up of scraps from the fridge. Even the fridge looks bare, with no need to buy 20 litres of milk every week and gigantic catering-size blocks of cheese, or to make two loaves of bread a day.

Christmas is coming ...

We are quite shrunk and denuded, two Aged Ps with one not-so-little Princess, who is more often out singing and sporting and studying than she is at home sitting quietly and amiably at her desk. I have spent many years saying over and again that it takes two to make an argument, and I am now most definitely proved right. The peace and stillness bring that home to me today.

You wouldn't really want us to stay at home forever, they say, and such certainties seem, well, somehow more contingent.

I think back to those Sunday nights when I was the one setting off for the excitements of the world, and departing into the dusk; catching trains and heaving my bags on and off interminably delayed replacement buses, or driving three hours to the back of beyond in the dark and cold without a second thought, always looking forward and never back.

And now I am the one left behind, silently slipping into a new role where I will count down the days to the next visit and eagerly await the considerate phone call dutifully made. I am grateful that I still have one fledgling wanting me to discuss French verbs and common denominators, and after years of firefighting and taking each day as it comes, I begin to think about the importance of setting myself goals, and casting around hopefully for unfulfilled ambitions.

My faithful friend

If only I had the time, I said to myself for so many years, if only I had the time, just think what I could do. Now I can walk the dog for an hour at sunrise, and sew quilt squares together in the wrong order, and knit orphan legwarmers for stumpy legs; my afternoons don't end at three, and my day begins unconscionably early.

And now indeed there will be time, time for me to consider Bergsonian notions of le temps and la durée (as I noted so carefully in my copy of 'The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock' in those years when time was at a premium; I have been rather fond of old Prufrock for many a long year now, and also note with unease a certain personal identification with his plight); perhaps I could learn Latin or sign language (both of which seem rather tempting at this point), or even take those stumpy legs Nordic walking, which would be sure to make them svelte and my socks fall down. Maybe even take photos with the horizon straight.

I'll let you know how I get on.


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