Wednesday, 30 June 2010

The Cost of Knitting (emotional and otherwise)

Someone once calculated the actual price of a pair of handknitted socks if you take production time into account. I am a relatively slow knitter so it would cost me more. In fact every time I contemplate a garter stitch scarf on 10mm needles I am probably doubling the gross national product. Certainly at the speed I knit if you were to take into account time taken to make something it would not be worth it, but as I don’t sell my knitting and would only be playing with my hair, or twiddling my thumbs together and annoying people if I wasn’t doing it, I don’t worry. I do worry about the cost of yarn, though.

When I first started knitting I had a vague idea that you could easily knit a jumper with two balls of wool. Then I bought a Rowan knitting magazine (this was pre-Ravelry, pre-Knitty, goodness me), and this disabused me of that assumption. So then I thought that if you needed 12 or so balls – 12! gosh! – they must cost something like 50p each. As otherwise you might as well go and buy your jumper from Primark, and why would anyone bother knitting one (don’t tell me off, I have come a long way). So you can imagine that my first trip to buy yarn was quite a shock. It would have been more of a shock if I was capable of multiplication without a calculator, luckily I am not, and this shielded me from the worst.

This problem I had was not helped when early on in my knitting career I paid the shockingly enormous sum of £36 to buy some Big Wool (you know where this is going) and knitted a jumper out of it that made me look exactly like a gorilla. A nerdy kind of gorilla who none of the other gorillas fancy. £36! I thought, and look, I look ridiculous. If I had bought that in a shop I could at least have tried it on first and discovered that the shoulder seams come somewhere near my elbows and then gone and spent the £36 on something else. Possibly lager.

I am aware that other people may be different to me, i.e. they may have natural knitting talent. However, the crucial thing I did not realise when I started knitting, was that it takes skill to make something decent and wearable that is not a garter-stitch scarf, and skill comes with practice. So now when I knit things I am reasonably confident they will (ultimately, with some fiddling) end up looking as if they are meant to be worn by a Person and not a Troll, but I still don’t like spending a lot of money on the yarn. Call me a cheapskate if you like, I have been called much worse. So, I am experimenting with knitting with laceweight yarn, and I am going to make Citron. Because, drum roll, you only need one skein. Only one skein! And, look how nice it looks when it is knitted!

However, unfortunately, as you may remember, I had my moment of irritation in the Yarn Shop That Only Carries Natural Fibres, and I put down the laceweight I was holding and I left in mute and utterly ineffectual protest. Never mind, I thought, I will be able to buy some on the internet. And it was here, readers, that I entered the scary world of Proper Yarn. Because laceweight is bought by people who produce things I find completely terrifying. It is bought by Proper Knitters. And as such, you cannot look on a website and expect it to be in stock. You cannot do this, you naïve person. You have to plan ahead. You have to note the date in your diary when yarn will be put on the website, and then you must pounce, credit card held aloft. Now, I am sure the yarn you have to buy like this is absolutely lovely, and well worth the trouble. However, I do not feel I have this kind of time to devote to yarn buying. And I am unemployed. So I bought some laceweight from Violet Green, who had lots in stock. And do you know what? I ordered it at about 4:30pm yesterday – and it came this morning! See pic at top of page!

This is clearly special yarn. This is yarn that defies the laws of time, space and the Cambridge postal service. I don’t know if a tardis was involved, but I would not be surprised. And not only was the customer service great, but the yarn is lovely. I am very pleased. I am also having flashbacks to once when I made a (garter stitch, natch) scarf out of Kidsilk Haze for my Aunty Kath and I hated the Kidsilk Haze with a burning passion, but this new thin yarn is at least not hairy, so perhaps we will be alright. I will keep you updated.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Weekend plans

This coming weekend is the first weekend of Cambridge Open Studios. This is a photograph of a cat who was sitting outside one of the open studios which I took when we did this one year.

Yes, I ignored all the wonderful art and I photographed this cat, because he was so delightfully hairy and nonchalant. But! I am getting ahead of myself. Cambridge Open Studios is when artists in Cambridge open up their homes and you can go and look at where they paint/ make pots etc, and buy things and chat to them. It is completely free (obviously unless you buy something), and there is no pressure at all to buy anything, also the artists often want to give you tea and buns and things like that and are all very friendly and nice. It is a great idea.

I am, however, divided on Cambridge Open Studios. Half of me thinks it is absolutely lovely and a wonderful thing to do, and this half really enjoys going and seeing people creating and finds it really inspiring. The other half of me is still 15, and is embarrassed by going into people’s homes and having to chat. Cambridge is quite middle class, and I am not middle class. Partner, who is middle class, cannot however chat to people, and is absolutely terrified that I will make him do Cambridge Open Studios and that he will have to interact. Every year when I come home with the trademark long yellow leaflet he looks at it nervously and says ‘please don’t make me go round Open Studios with you, it is the most horrifically bourgeois thing I can think of, nobody wants to have to talk to me, we must spare the artists.’ Obviously in this kind of situation you need someone with killer social graces, and so my dad is drafted in.

My dad can talk to anyone about anything at all, in a charming fashion. He can also find someone he knows anywhere at all, wherever you take him, and in whatever country. Oftentimes we are somewhere or other and Dad is discovered to have disappeared and to be having a long discussion with someone he used to play football with when he was 7, even though he is 500 miles from home. So when we do Cambridge Open Studios me and my mum hang about outside people's houses muttering to each other you go in, no you go in, like Kevin and Perry, while dad strides happily along, making new friends and winning people over with his complete lack of self consciousness. Anyway. If you are in the area and you are not inwardly 15, like me, Cambridge Open Studios is a lot of fun and definitely worth doing, I enjoy it very much when I have taken the initial plunge.

So, as my family are coming up, this also involves a Family Dinner where we invite Partner’s mother, because, as Partner says, there is safety in numbers. I have booked a pub, and we will go and eat a meal. The pub website is very strict that Noisy Children Will Be Asked To Leave, but it doesn’t say what might happen if anyone begins to shout at their common-law daughter-in-law that they are a trollop with no breeding, as sometimes happens to me. I believe the etiquette in this situation is unclear, but so far I have gone for tutting sadly. If we are likely to be Asked To Leave, though, I hope accusations of lack of breeding are saved till coffee so I can at least have my dinner first.

Monday, 28 June 2010

I experiment with colours and discover my inner Anti-Yarn-Snob

I normally have a very effective method of choosing fabric. I go to a shop/ website/ charity shop and I find the loudest, brightest fabric I can, then I bring it home and I dig something even louder and brighter out of my stash to match it, and I am happy. I like the kind of print that threatens to bring on a migraine. This is my idea of subtle:

Fabric gets bonus points if there are people gathered round it pointing, saying, who on earth would buy that. I would! I love bright colours. Like many things it is all my mother’s fault, as she has taste and likes beige things, and was quite determined when I was growing up that I would share this aesthetic. Indeed I remember us once almost coming to blows in Jessops in Sheffield over what duvet cover I might be permitted to buy, during which argument it became quite apparent that our tastes were not aligned. My mother thinks my love of prints has skipped a generation as my grandmother was the same. This is my grandmother’s idea of subtle: (this is her apron).

However. I am trying to develop my colour sense in new and less lively directions. I’m fighting a lingering feeling that this is doomed to failure, but I’m trying. So, I’m going to make this dress (not a problematic and potentially unflattering choice at all for someone who is 36D, I’m sure you’ll agree) in these fabrics.

I believe you call this ‘a muted colour palette’. I will not lie: I am not sure I like it. However, I will make the dress and see how I feel about it when it is made. Because one of the things I love about patchwork is how you can put all sorts of odd things together and it somehow comes out coherent. We will see, anyway.

I was in a yarn shop last weekend (not the one in Cambridge, I was somewhere else), and in the 20 minutes I was in there, the assistant: implied that crochet was a rather strange thing to do: told a woman she ought to crochet a throw out of wool that was £8 a ball and should definitely not use cotton: and said that the shop ‘only stocked natural fibres’ in a tone of voice that implied stocking an acrylic mix would essentially be the same as putting a dog turd on the shelf next to the Malabrigo. It was like Yarn Shop Bingo. I didn’t rush to Ravelry and start a thread though, because I’m waiting till I buy some Noro and get a knot in it to do that. However, I did have a quite visceral reaction; I put down the wool I was holding and I walked out. It made me wonder quite why I was so irritated. Because obviously I do like nice yarns occasionally, and I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong at all in charging a lot for yarn, especially if it’s ethically produced/ by a small producer or something like that. In fact, I think we would generally be better paying more for fewer possessions. I also think, though, that in general I like the kind of knitting where you make things people actually use, and where it’s a natural part of life. And that involves acrylic as well as cashmere (at least, it does for me). I don’t like when craft becomes something else that makes you buy expensive things: expensive materials don’t make for better crafts.

And yes, I am looking at all my fabric guiltily as I type that!

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Frogging is not Fun.

Last night a balloon appeared on the other side of our street, so I nipped out to get a photo.

Isn’t that pretty? Blue skies. Balloons, floating about untethered. Possibilities. Freedom. Do you know where that kind of thinking gets you when you have PMT and you don’t keep an eye on yourself properly?

It gets you digging out the third of a blanket that’s been sitting in your cupboard for AT LEAST SEVEN YEARS and which can never be finished because a/ it would cost a fortune to buy enough wool and b/ when you knitted it you were wet behind the ears and you didn’t realise it wasn’t a good idea to mix wool and acrylic in the same project. (If I ever washed that thing half of it would felt solid and the other half would be indestructible.) Also c/ because if it was ever finished it would weigh so much that anyone attempting to use it would be crushed under its weight, and that would be a really embarrassing way to die, and would possibly be reported in the Sunday Sport.

You begin to unravel it. You get a knot (this was not the worst of it. This was at the point where I had stopped swearing for long enough to pick up the camera.)

Your partner wanders past and says helpfully, gosh that’s not a good idea for you to be doing is it Susie, because you have no patience at all, and then refers to Gordian knots because he is a Medieval Latinist. You contemplate leaving him. Then he will be sorry.

You assemble a motley collection of balls of wool and are not sure you have enough of anything to actually knit/ crochet anything sensible. You contemplate the impossibility of separating pure wool aran and mohair which were knitted together. You feel despair. You decide you will sleep on it and assess the results at a later date (but not SEVEN YEARS later.)

I think I shall go and watch the telly now, quietly. If anyone has any ideas of what I could do with about 150m of Debbie Bliss cashmerino chunky do feel free to let me know. :-(

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

A recipe for solid perfume

Here is my dilemma. I love perfume. However, sometimes it brings me out in a rash (I once had a very dramatic reaction to Gucci Envy when I was a young thing) and this forces me to think about what might be in it that possibly isn't very healthy or indeed very eco friendly. Indeed, I imagine it's one of those things that the more you look into how it's produced the more horrified you are. There was this article in the Guardian recently, for example. Anyway for these and various reasons I have been experimenting recently with making my own. First I tried adding a couple of drops of essential oil to Sweet Almond Oil, and I thought this worked ok (I will be doing this again, perhaps with alcohol.) Then a lovely person on Self Sufficientish suggested I could try making solid perfume out of equal parts oil and beeswax. So this is what I tried yesterday, because I love the idea of solid perfume, but the ones I have tried have all been a bit too solid, if you see what I mean, and I end up scraping at then with my thumbnail. This was the result:

And I have been dabbing it on ever since. I rather like it. I will tell you how I made it so that you can make some too (if you want to, obviously, don't feel pressured. We're all busy. I understand.)

I bought these pots from Boots for £2:

However they were a complete waste of money. What I didn't realise was that they all screw on to each other, you can't separate them. So I shall struggle on with them for a bit and then I will look for some proper ones on ebay, or go and find some small pots that I can repurpose. I had some sweet almond oil already (you can buy this from Holland and Barrett), and I bought some olive wax (this is a beeswax equivalent) from Fresholi while I was buying some soapmaking supplies. I hadn't bought from Fresholi before, but I will definitely use them again – the delivery was so quick it actually took me by surprise, and I opened the door to the postman while wearing my furry booties. I think postpeople are trained not to look at you askance, but it was clearly an effort for him.

Anyway. As I was making only one tiny pot, I used one scant teaspoon of olive wax pellets, and I tried to melt them in the microwave. Reader, I tried and I failed. I don't know if this was because my pot was a stupid shape and didn't touch the bottom properly, or what, but I began to feel I would be standing there all day jabbing at the buttons on the microwave with tumbleweed blowing through our kitchen, so I sat the pot in some boiling water and melted them like that, stirring with a skewer. When they were melted (I did this a bit rubbish, you can see it looks a bit lumpy in the picture!) I added 1 scant teaspoon of sweet almond oil, and stirred till they were mixed well. Then I added essential oils. This was what I added as far as I can remember (give or take a drop or two, as I am a bit cackhanded this week.)

(Remember (this is my caveat) - I don't entirely know what I am doing with essential oils, I am still learning – they can be harmful to pregnant women/ people with various conditions – if this is likely to be you, please check!)

4 drops Sweet Orange essential oil,
4 drops Neroli essential oil,
2 drops Ginger essential oil,
2 drops Cedarwood essential oil,
2 drops Ylang Ylang esential oil.

Then I stirred thoroughly again, and left to set.

The oils have blended in well, and I think the amount per wax/ oil is about right (although the perfume is quite soft, so I might play about with the wax/ oil ratio.) This smells to me incredibly like Lush's Karma, but on balance I probably prefer this one. The ginger is quite a dominant note – definitely add it slowly and see how you feel after each addition. This is a lovely combination for people who like that kind of spicy fragrance. I don't, particularly, but I do quite like this, and I will wear it for a bit longer and see how it matures. The essential oil combination would probably work well in soap as well. (I'm going to be making another batch of soap soon. Woot! But I think I'm going to try patchouli and ylang ylang. Or perhaps lavender and mint. Anyway, we will see. Jo Malone probably doesn't have to be too anxious just yet.)

In other news:

I've signed up to Wardrobe Refashion. I've pledged for 4 months, to start 1st July. I'll post more details when I've started (and I'll try to think of some interesting projects to do!),

++ I just wanted to post a couple of interesting things I've read recently. Janel made a dress from her Spiral Skirt pattern – I love this, and I see one in perhaps some light corduroy for winter (over a long sleeved top and boots.) I love her spiral skirts, too, I must have a go (perhaps one for Wardrobe Refashion?)

Down to Earth did an interesting blog entry about how we've been frightened away from making our own stuff, and how this makes it easier to sell us things. This is so true – I won't bore you now (but I will definitely bore you some time) with my thoughts about all the bad things that come from separation from process of production. But let's seize the process of production back! (Or some of it, at least. I know I'm starting small.) :-)

Monday, 21 June 2010

A bit of fibre-craft progress FINALLY

One of the advantages of selling my soul on ebay is that it does give me mental space and motivate me to finish things. This is the advantage of Less Stuff. I seem very much to be in clearing-things-out mode at the moment. I think it is solstice related. Anyway, whatever it is I am taking advantage of it, because normally I am not good at finishing things, indeed I can leave them for years, languishing tragically at the bottom of boxes in dark cupboards (in fact one day I may get them out and photograph them so you can see the kinds of things I mean and possibly offer helpful and not sarcastic suggestions about what I should do with them.)

I finished the Granny Square That Grew And Grew, and here it is, sitting on the back of our armchair like an ironic antimacassar, ready for the temperature to drop below 16 degrees when I will huddle beneath it and complain about our draughty house:

The small blue cushion in the front is just two granny squares crocheted together over a bright cushion insert (which I made.) The white cushion is from Ikea, but I'm not sure the cover goes with the granny square theme: I might make a new patchwork cover for it.

And I wove in the ends on a neckerchief:

which is made from a nice Rowan cashmere yarn and feels really soft. I'm also making progress on the pair of socks I'm making. I've made good progress so far: I've discovered I really am as bad at Kitchener stitch as I thought I was! Self knowledge, though, is a wonderful thing.

Of course the flip side of all this organisation is that I'm now enthusiastically planning my next projects. I'm trying to do this in a way which doesn't involve spending money – especially as I'm considering buying a beginner spinning kit (this is Silver's fault, who has been posting a lot of lovely fluffy tempting things recently) – but I feel strangely drawn to this pattern in this yarn (the top one). Please could someone stop me? I never wear pink. I'm actually sitting here thinking whether I own anything pink at all, and I'm drawing a blank. So I'm not sure where this sudden desire is coming from. I could either end up with something delightful in a colour I ought to wear more often or a big pink daft thing I'll never wear. Which would it be? I fear I know the answer. (But I still want it. I never learn.)

And then I thought I might knit this with some leftovers. Who will wear it though? I look ludicrous enough in hats at the best of times without wearing one that looks like a dead fish (although I will be making a live fish, not a dead one. Not that I'm wet.) I'm thinking perhaps I could give it to my brother, who is very tolerant of things he is given, but I have a pattern for a felted punk hat I wanted to give him as well* and perhaps two novelty unwearable hats might be a bit much even for a tolerant person. Perhaps I will go and browse Ravelry and consider a little longer. And perhaps I will ask someone to keep hold of my credit card until I've come up with a sensible pattern. Ha ha, though! I've memorised the number!

(Dan, would you like a fish hat though? It would be a talking point, although I appreciate you have a large hairy husky-shaped talking point already.)

* Look how much it costs to buy it, $130! I'm going to stop feeling like a cheapskate when I knit things for people rather than buy them something sensible.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

A lovely parcel + the yarn clearout continues apace

Something very exciting came for me in the post yesterday:

Some lovely plants, very kindly sent to me by Ialheg. The one on the left is sorrel, and the one on the right is lemon mint. I also had mint and a perky little strawberry plant (just out of the photo). They are resting in pots while they recover from the shock of having made a very long trip through the postal system with their bottoms in damp tissue, and then I will be clearing a space in my front garden for them to begin my herb garden. Exciting! I will keep you in touch with their progress. Ialheg warned me that they can be quite invasive. Ialheg, that is no problem: this is a garden that is a friend to invasive plants. If we had Japanese Knotweed in Cambridge, rest assured I would have a clump somewhere, causing trouble. Invasive plants are welcome here! She also sent me this:

A lovely stripey Morsbag! Well, I have a special place in my heart for Morsbags: I don't know if you know about them, but it's a movement to stop people using plastic bags at supermarkets and to encourage people to make their own – they give you a pattern on their website and encourage you to use recycled materials, get together in groups to sew them, etc. It's an excellent idea, and the Morsbags themselves are a very useful shape and size and much better than supermarket plastic bags in terms of durability (and stylishness.) A Morsbag was actually the first thing I sewed a couple of years ago after a really long hiatus, while I was doing The Most Unbelievably Stressful Job In Cambridge, in which sewing things wasn't the norm (histrionics and court cases were the norm, but sewing things wasn't). Strangely enough I haven't made any since, but in my last charity shop fabric shopping trip I saw so many curtains and bed sheets and things that would make wonderful Morsbags that I began to have vague thoughts about making some more, and I shall take my new stripey bag as a sign. So thanks again Ialheg, not only do I love my plants and stripey bag, but it's inspired me to get recycling.

I am still selling all my yarn on ebay. On the positive side I feel less as if I am drowning in a sea of unfinished projects: on the negative side I hyperventilate every time I list something really juicy. I'm fighting the urge to message people who have bid and say, you don't know how precious this yarn is, I hope you're going to appreciate it. I don't think that would improve my rating as a seller.

Friday, 18 June 2010

How to make your own washing powder

Before I start telling you about my washing powder, I’d like to start with an unrelated warning. You, like me, might be new to yoga. If you are, let me warn you that there is more than one kind. From my own experience, there are two kinds. One of them is very much about not pushing your body, being in tune with your breath, being conscious of how you are feeling, general happy fluffiness. The other involves straps, and putting your legs into positions not found in nature. It was into a class focusing on the latter that I wandered last night, and today I can’t walk. So be warned, and as soon as anyone brandishes a strap at you and expects you to lift your leg against a wall in a way you wouldn’t do normally, please realise that you will spend the next day complaining and whimpering. I’m sure it’s doing me good.

Right, washing powder.

I am washing some things with this as I write, and nothing has gone wrong yet (i.e. there are not suds all over the kitchen floor/ the washing machine hasn’t set on fire) but obviously since they haven’t come out yet I can’t say whether or not it is any good. It did look credible, though. This is based on a recipe from Make Your Place by Raleigh Briggs (which is an excellent book! And very cheap, go out and buy it!) but I have made it English by translating the ingredients and weighing them rather than using cups (so the weights might look a bit strange but I promise you I did it properly.) This makes enough for 3 washes. If it works out OK I will make a bigger lot. I have not worked out how much this costs per wash yet but I suspect it works out cheaper than Ecover (which is the one I buy normally), especially if you buy your ingredients in bulk.

Mix all the following in a bowl:

30g grated soap (I used some of my homemade soap – it used about 3/4 of a small bar. I grated it on the middle hole of the grater.)
115g bicarbonate of soda (this used up about 2/3 of one of those small tubs you get from the supermarket. I used this because it needed to be used up but you can buy this in bulk and it is cheaper.)
25g soda crystals (you can buy these in the supermarket, near the washing powders.)
45g borax (don’t get me started! I could only find this at

Then squash up the lumps (the bicarb and borax can be quite lumpy) and add a couple of drops of essential oils. If you are thinking that will not be enough to scent it, be reassured that our kitchen smelt like Lush. I put a third (a couple of tablespoons) in the washer, and I stored the rest carefully in a passing Tupperware.

I will let you know how well it works when I have done a few loads of washing with it. (I feel like one of the women on the soap powder adverts. How white will my whites be? Well, they weren’t all that white to start with. My standards aren’t high.)

Thursday, 17 June 2010

A late (but enthusiastic!) stab at Grow Your Own

One of the things I wanted to do this year was grow my own vegetables. I had seeds, I had a plan, and I had a book. However, I also had flu, from January until May, (seriously), and my seeds didn't get planted. However, given my new cheerful philosophy of, it is never too late to start doing anything (I just made that up now), today I got out my seeds to see if any could be still planted or if it was too late and I had to get rid of them. And, as ever, it is not as depressing as I thought it would be, because not only could some of the salady ones still be planted, I can just save the rest for next year. Hooray!

So I have been out with my compost and pots, I have cleared a little space, and I have planted my lemon balm, a strawberry plant, some lettuce seeds, some radish seeds, and some spring onion seeds. And I will wait eagerly to see if anything happens. You can see my lemon balm in that pot there, with a strawberry plant behind it. But, you say, why is your strawberry plant squashed to one side in that big pot? Does it have imaginary friends? Have you left room for the slugs? Well, no, it is even more exciting than that. Ialheg, of I Spy With My Altered Eye, is going to send me some plants! This is very kind, and I am thrilled. So I have left a space for the new plants, which are winging their way to me in the post, and when they get here I will take pictures. Thank you, Ialheg! And I will be putting yours in the post to you tomorrow!

Something else exciting arrived in the post today. After I searched for Borax in Homebase on Tuesday, I bought some mail order from At the time I didn't think this was a very satisfactory solution, as I would like to be able to buy something like that locally as and when (although to be fair the postage wasn't very expensive), and the website seemed to say that it would take forever to come. Well it didn't, it came this morning, which is great, and I will be experimenting with making my washing powder tomorrow (the recipe seems quick and easy.) I'm not sure whether I have high hopes of this or not, but I think it's definitely worth trying. I have the other ingredients hanging about anyway, so it hasn't been a big expense.

And these are my roses, in full bloom, looking very pretty.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Cheesecake, herbs, but sadly no Borax

I've been trying to eat healthily, because since about January I feel as if I've been in a biscuit-eating competition. And I've won! So now is the time for vitamins and fibre. So I was pleased, when we went to Scotsdales the garden centre earlier, that they had a good, healthy, non-indulgent lunch for me. I could feel it doing me good even as I ate it.

We'd gone to Scotsdales because yesterday I went out on a mission to buy 2 items: Borax to make my own washing powder, and a Lemon Balm plant so I can make this lovely lipsalve Mumma Troll gave the recipe for on her blog the other day. Well, I won't say I walked the length and breadth of Cambridge looking for these two items because I didn't, I mainly popped into Homebase and then into a more general DIY-type place, but I drew a complete blank. I've looked for Borax also in Tesco and Waitrose and nothing. Don't you think it's odd that you can buy 90 different kinds of things to put in your washing machine and not one ingredient to make your own? I do, in fact in Waitrose I started muttering about being oppressed by capitalism which was a bit hypocritical on many levels. You can buy caustic soda in Homebase, though (you make soap with caustic soda – it is sodium hydroxide, lye) which is useful to know for when I run out of the supply I've got at the moment. (I have a soap-related confession, actually. You're supposed to let your homemade soap cure for 4 weeks, but I used mine last night after only leaving it a fortnight. And it's great! I'll put more scent in the next batch, but really, for a first attempt, I'm very happy. I shall be putting some soap in the post to my mother tomorrow who is going to risk her skin PH and try it out for me (no, really mum, it'll be fine, you'll survive.))

Anyway, after I couldn't get any lemon balm either I started to think there had been a great big meeting of shopkeepers in Cambridge, and they had somehow tapped into my brainwaves as I slept and worked out everything I might ever want to buy so they could make sure they wouldn't ever stock it. Note to shopkeepers: procion dyes and spindles. You get destroying your stocks. But my fears were unfounded. Scotsdales had loads of herbs:

And I got a nice big pot of lemon balm. I think it's too small for me to strip it of leaves this year, but I will wait to see if it establishes and get ready for next year. This will be the start of my herb garden.

This is my lily which is blooming at the moment, soon I'm hoping it's going to be joined by some friends. The bees aren't keen on it though, surprisingly. They prefer a scruffy bush just opposite. There is no accounting for the aesthetic senses of bees, they are mysteries to me, mysteries with fuzzy white bottoms.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Taking photographs is more difficult than it looks

Now, before we start tonight's post, I want you to understand, very specifically, that in real life I am not particularly unattractive. I look perfectly normal. Children do not see me and cry. Small puppies do not whimper and shrink away. Now, having got that out of the way, I am going to show you quite how unphotogenic I am. Partner took these photos, and he was fine. I had to explain what a digital camera was (Partner is an Academic Medieval Latinist) and he was momentarily distracted by fascination with the viewfinder, but I can honestly say that, given the material he was working with, he carried out his part with aplomb. I was trying to model a bag. When I next do this I will wear make up. However, clearly I subconsciously thought that my natural beauty and grace would carry me through. It didn't. This was our first attempt.

I am a zombie cult member. Would you like to join us? We're a friendly bunch. Our belief system is based around patchwork bags. Come, come and join our cult. Well, clearly this wasn't going to be any good. Even Partner, who is used to my not looking good on photographs, thought this was going it a bit. 'Why don't you try not smiling?' he said, tactfully. That seems like a good idea, we thought, taking our positions once more.

Dear Lord. Is the world too much for me? Have I been exhumed and propped against a door for the purposes of bag modeling? Am I weighed down by ennui and lassitude and a strange light effect that makes me look as if I have one black eye? Oh, hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère! Would you buy a bag from this woman?

I would like now to show you a photograph where I suddenly realised how to pose and look bright-eyed and happy (but NOT MAD), and a stylish backdrop to the bag. I cannot do so, however. Because one does not exist. We had more success when we took me sideways from an angle but, I think the euphemism is, there is work still to do. Models. They earn their money. I will persevere though. I know now why I see so many things on etsy being modeled by people wearing masks, and I'll never tut and mutter 'ooh those ironic hipsters' again.

Monday, 14 June 2010

An extremely radical knitting decision

I'm suffering from knitting constipation (yes, I did just make that term up. It's an attractive image, isn't it?) I can't finish anything because I don't really want any of the things I'm making, apart from a pair of socks which is buried in my knitting bag under everything else. I'm haunted by unfinished things that can apparently never be dealt with or finished adequately. I'm particularly haunted by things like this:

What on earth is this, you ask. It's a knitted cupcake. Yes, not only did I at one point think that I would be able to find a good use for a knitted cupcake, but I also managed to ignore gauge and common sense to produce one whose base is bigger than its top. It isn't a cupcake, it’s a deformed mushroom. It haunts me. What shall I do? Shall I just throw it out, walk away and not think things like 'well that's 20 yards of Rowan All Seasons Cotton gone to waste?' And what about this?

It's the Poster Boy bag from Stitch 'n Bitch Nation. Now, I love this pattern, and I want to be able to do stranded colour work. I want that beyond all things. So I knit it, and I discovered I’m not good at knitting stranded colour work with two hands. It looks crap. In fact, I'm not sure I've conveyed properly in the above photograph quite how crap it is. The face is all stretched and long. Look at a close up of the stitches:

And my stitches are normally very even. This is because all the strands are pulled tight across the back. What do I do with this? Unravel it? Use it and cringe? But if I use it I'll have to knit a handle and line it, and that'll be a lot of work, just to end up with something crap. Oh, I wish it would just evaporate into another dimension and take the confusion and guilt with it. I haven't even started on the half-done Ugly Blanket yet. I don't have a clue what to do about that. I don't even feel strong enough to tell you about it.

Anyway, I've decided to sell all my current stash on ebay and I'm starting again. I know this is radical. I know some people may read this and hyperventilate. But I am getting rid of it all and from now on I'm only going to knit things I will use. There will be no knitted cupcakes. There may be a dalek, but I think that's something every home should have.

I've made a couple of bags – this is one of them. I decided the world didn't quite have enough rainbow patchwork in it yet. So I finally have some things to list in the shop tomorrow. Partner has been enlisted to help take photos so I can model them. Partner is not known for his skills as a photographer and I am one of the least photogenic people you will ever meet (I have this tortured expression as soon as anyone points a camera at me, unless I’m paralytic) so I'm not sure how hopeful I am that this is going to be an aesthetic success; but I'm sure it will be an interesting process...

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Art around Cambridge

I’ve been out and about taking photographs of street art in Cambridge (actually I’ve been out looking for fabric, but I took photographs while I was on my travels).

This is under the underpass near the big shopping centre. There are four tunnels in the underpass, and each one has a different theme. This one appears to be ‘things inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry.’

This one seems to be ‘what Cambridge looks like’, and it is very accurate. This is exactly what Cambridge looks like. Miles and miles of small terraced houses. We don’t have smoke coming out of our chimneys any more, though. There are laws about that sort of thing.

And this one is, ‘things that are based on a vision of hell and will give children nightmares’. Look at the face in the corner. Why would you put something scary like that in the underpass, which is a bit scary anyway? If I was a child I would be terrified of this and would refuse to walk past it.

This is the sign on the Paradise Women’s Housing Co-operative. I think that tiger’s trying to bring down the patriarchy through peace, love and flowers. I hope she succeeds, don’t you?

This is the sign on the Mill Road bridge. I find that writing the street art equivalent of Comic Sans MS, although obviously I approve of the sentiment.

This used to be a record shop (I imagine), but it is no longer. It is a Ghostly Sign. There used to be a really nice bit of graffiti just across the road from this which was a girl holding a balloon. It was Banksy-esque but now it is gone, as the shop which owns the building seems to have decided that their corporate branding has more aesthetic value.

And this is graffiti but I don’t know what it says. I hope it isn’t dodgy. It reminds me of those words that you have to copy when you leave a comment on a blog. They almost look like proper words, but not quite.

And I did get some fabric as well - it has a hippo on it! I will take a photo when I've dug it out of my bag.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Making Elderflower Cordial

I am a relatively new Wiccan (last couple of years) and one of the things I am trying to do this year is mark each sabbat with some kind of appropriate ritual. I am not doing marvellously well so far, as I keep having a failure of imagination, and then we end up just lighting a candle and focusing on it. And I have to ask partner to light the candle as I am scared of matches (I am, really) and he can be quite sarcastic. Anyway, for the summer solstice (I am preparing in advance) I am making elderflower cordial to use in some kind of ritual. Because if anything is the taste of midsummer, it is elderflower cordial. The ritual may end up being, drink the elderflower cordial and say ‘hooray, it’s the summer solstice’, but even if we get no further than that I think it is a good way to celebrate. So, today I have been out foraging for elderflowers in Milton Country Park. Because I am scared of the whole concept of foraging and secretly feel I will be arrested, I have been doing a number of recces to see where the elderflower trees are. Well, I hadn’t found all that many, but today I went with my secateurs and there seemed to be hundreds, so clearly today was the day to do it (but there were also loads of police! I don’t know what had happened, but they didn’t arrest me, so they clearly had higher priorities than a shifty-looking woman snipping furtively at trees.)

In case you want to do this yourself but are unsure what an elderflower tree looks like, there is one I photographed earlier at the top of this post. (If I am wrong and it isn’t, please let me know. I am saving some of the cordial for my brother who is being brave enough to host a Family Gathering in July, and let me assure you that at the moment it wouldn’t be a good thing for him to be innocently giving aged relatives anything hallucinogenic.) The trees didn’t seem to have any scent when I was snipping them, but when I got the flowers home they were quite heady. I am following this recipe from Self-Sufficientish, which is one of my favourite websites, and it seems to be going well so far. Here are the flowers when I had put them in my multi-purpose large pan (I encouraged the larger of the beetles to relocate elsewhere):

And here is the mixture when I had added the lemon, sugar, citric acid, and water:

They sell citric acid in chemists, and it is not expensive. I think mine was £1.20 and it seems to last a while so you probably don’t have to buy it new every year (you only need a bit). I must now leave my cordial for five days, stirring it twice a day, and then I strain it and bottle/ freeze it. I think I may freeze some to have with champagne at the Winter Solstice.

And to end, a preview of what I’ve been working on today:

As I cut these fabrics out, I progressed through these thoughts: Oh God this isn’t going to look right/ Oh God they look rubbish next to each other/ Bugger, I will have to buy another colour to pull them together/ Oh I can’t even be bothered to finish/ Wow! It looks amazing!/ I won’t want to sell it!

It’s strange how you don’t entirely know what patchwork is going to look like until you’ve actually got everything cut out and arranged. I imagine that’s very good psychologically for people who are controlling, like me.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

In which I learn a new skill.

OK. So today I bit the bullet and I decided I would learn how to sew buttonholes. Because it is completely ridiculous not being able to sew buttonholes when actually I can sew quite well. As the author of one of the first books I bought on sewing (which I am not naming, pls note restraint), many many years ago, says, if you can’t sew buttonholes or zips you’re restricted to ‘making sack-like things’. Actually this is completely untrue and, I have to say, a bit rich coming from someone who has written a book where it is suggested that you may wish to sew 4 placemats together to make a jacket:

I think, actually, this book is the reason I didn’t learn to sew properly a long time ago: I think I felt subliminally that as soon as I reached a certain level of competence someone would come round and force me to make this:

or to customise my husband’s shirts in a winsome fashion. And I haven’t got a husband! In fact, this book’s probably why I didn’t learn to sew buttonholes earlier as well. Yes, it’s all the book’s fault! (Can I blame it for the serger incident? Hmm. Might have to think a bit harder about that one.)

Anyway, here they are:

These were my very first attempts and look, they look like buttonholes. So if there is anyone out there who is scared of buttonholes, you don’t have to be. You do have to be scared of sergers: you have to be really scared. You need iron nerves and the sewing competence of one of those women who sews couture Chanel in a Parisian atelier sustained only by the consciousness of her own superiority and the occasional croissant before you should be let near a serger. But buttonholes are fine. Nothing can go wrong. Trust me. And now I can make jackets! (But I’m sorry, I won’t be making them out of placemats. Call me conventional...)

Monday, 7 June 2010

My rainy weekend, in pictures

In my continuing attempt to Break Gimp’s Spirit, I thought I’d have a go at a collage. It’s not perfect so I’m trusting you not to magnify it to 200% or something and laugh at the joins. That would be mean.

My rained-out weekend in pictures, left to right

1/ Wholesome things in bags in the Wholefood Co-operative. But they don’t sell Borax, which was what I was looking for. Never mind though, I’ve tracked some down to (partner says, since I can never buy the things I want anywhere but have to track them down online, that should tell me something.)
2/ A snail, wandering across the garden after the rain.
3/ Sky after rain, seen through the cherry tree in the garden.
4/ Cold enough to wear My First Handknitted Socks. This was before I realised you could line up the colour repeats so your socks bore some vague relation to each other. Seen with the frill of a skirt I bought from From The Fig Tree on etsy. As I love that skirt I feel compelled to say to you that it looks very attractive when I don’t wear it with stripey socks.
5/ Poppadums, to eat before Spicy Lentil Soup, in front of repeats of Coach Trip.
6/ CD s to listen to while sewing. We are old skool here, in fact we still have a turntable. Rock Heroes (patchworking to Bonnie Tyler), The Felice Brothers, Pink Martini. If you are the only person in the world who hasn’t listened to this Pink Martini CD I must warn you against it because it has a song on it that is so catchy you will never get rid of it but will wander for years like a wraith muttering ‘et puis, je fume’. Save yourself.
7/ A crochet cushion I'm working on, with this month's Good Food magazine. Sadly the nice cakes in Good Food magazine don't seem to cook themselves through osmosis, I think there needs to be some effort.
8/ Pins!
9/ Rain on the window. Never mind, though: je veux seulement oublier. Et puis, je fume. (I don’t, I’m too boring.)

Hopefully there will be some sun tomorrow. Do you know what I’m going to do if there is? Pick elderflowers and make cordial (partner: ‘You can buy it in a bottle in shops, you know’.)

Saturday, 5 June 2010

The best salmon sandwiches

When I was a teenager I used to work at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. I wore a maid’s outfit and served ice creams in one of the kiosks, and I also helped out in the restaurant. A woman once stopped me and told me I had ‘the most Victorian eyebrows’, and it has been a theme throughout my life that people feel free to tell me whatever they think of my appearance whenever and wherever the fancy takes them. Sometimes the things they say are flattering, sometimes they are not. Normally they are equivocal at best. With blood relatives and medical professionals it is an absolute free for all, as they can poke me for emphasis. I don’t know why it is, as you wouldn’t look at me in the normal course of things and think, she looks like she can have no possible anxieties about her appearance, I shall go and tell her what I think about her feet. Perhaps I will start doing the same and will stop people in the street and say, gosh what an amazing beard, do you brush it. It would no doubt be very freeing. Anyway, the two things I loved about Chatsworth (the thing I didn’t love was the hereditary privilege, natch) were the beautiful fluffy-footed chickens that the Duchess kept and which roamed about the grounds, and the poached salmon sandwiches in the kiosk which we weren’t supposed to eat for lunch but did. This remains one of my favourite things to do with leftover salmon. I am not sure it is very thrifty to have leftover salmon to start with, but, if you do have leftover salmon, this is a much better thing to do with it than throw it away.

This isn’t really a recipe, it’s a ‘best way to do the salmon sandwich from experience’ type thing.

I cook the salmon (or trout) like this: I put 2 steaks or fillets in foil, with olive oil, tarragon (dried is ok) and bay leaves (about 2 leaves per steak.) I would put a splash of white wine in as well if I could prise the bottle away from my partner. Cook the steaks/ fillets only for long enough that they are no longer opaque: I did mine last night at 160 degrees C for about 15 minutes and they definitely didn’t need any longer. Take them out before they’re ready, if necessary, and let them finish cooking in the foil. Save about half-2/3 of a steak for each sandwich. Then the next day (having put the leftovers carefully in the fridge overnight, i.e. you eat some for dinner) make the sandwich with: 2 thick slices granary bread (this has to be homemade), mayonnaise spread thinly on each slice (this ought to be homemade as well, I’m sorry to be prescriptive. I do use Hellmann's as well, though, and it’s fine so long as you’ve got decent bread), the salmon/ trout, flaked with a fork, watercress, and salt. Then cut into quarters and eat.

I don’t know if this is my favourite sandwich, but it’s probably up there in the top five. What’s yours?

Friday, 4 June 2010

Patchwork Without Commitment

I've had fun today making tiny patchwork cushions to put in the shop.

It was great: it was Patchwork Without Commitment, trying out ideas I might want to make into something bigger one day. And they're brightening up the craft room, sitting there waiting for their openings to be whip stitched, bright little puddles of colour. And I used up some of the scrap bag, which is great: I'd always rather the scrap bag turned in to something nice than got thrown away. (And also, the Scrap Bag does sometimes threaten to overwhelm. In fact sometimes this room feels like one big Scrap Bag with me sitting in the middle trying to stay afloat.)

Thursday, 3 June 2010

It doesn't have to be perfect, it just has to be done (eventually)

When I was small, I used to like drawing pictures of people. I used to sit happily with my packet of felt pens and a pile of paper, and I used to take a sheet of paper off the top of the pile and, at the top, draw the outline of a head. And then I would sit back and consider. Perhaps the head wasn’t quite the right shape: perhaps it was too close to the top of the paper: perhaps my felt pen line overlapped slightly where it met. Whatever it was, if it wasn’t perfect, I would put the sheet of paper to one side, take another one from the top of the pile, and start again. Eventually we had a pile of discarded paper with outlines of heads at the top. Dad took them to work, cut the heads off with a guillotine, and gave the pile of (slightly smaller) paper to another child. Who wasn’t completely neurotic.

Because let me tell you, perfectionism on this level doesn’t work as a character trait. It most certainly doesn’t bring happiness. It brings paralysis, and a pile of unfinished things. But I am self aware, and I fight it. Ha! Take that, unhelpful perfectionism! One of the things I do, is I force myself to finish things. Even if they are not perfect. Even if they are really, really not going to end up perfect. Like the Granny Square That Grew And Grew. I’m going to accept that this is never going to be bigger than a lap blanket. I’m going to accept that if I buy enough yarn to finish it I’m going to have to take out a second mortgage. So I’m going to finish it with a beige – yes, beige – border. And then I’m going to weave in the ends, and I’m going to use it. I’m sure it’ll be good for me (I’m not saying this through gritted teeth. Honestly).

It's been beautiful in the garden today. The yellow tree (I don’t know what it’s called) is doing its yellow tree thing.

And the roses are starting to come out: they’re mostly still in bud, but they’ll all be out soon. I live in a house with roses round the window: I’m very lucky. (They aren’t all perfect: some of them have been nibbled by something or other. They’re still beautiful, though. Look, I’m trying!)

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Finding Inspiration

I have a collection of old craft books. I love them because often they have useful notes on techniques, and unusual ideas. I always think, there are no bad crafts, there’s only bad execution and styling. For example:

No, I’m not sure I’m going to be wearing this down the pub, either. But perhaps integrated into a tshirt? In purple? A bit more angular? Hmm, I’d better get sewing some tshirts so I can experiment.

But sometimes the execution is pretty ropey.

Is it an advert for Dodgy Trunks? Should I be admiring the regularity of the thigh hair? Why, no. It’s the setting chosen by the writers of Stitch By Stitch: a home library of sewing, knitting, crochet and needlecraft to show off their crocheted poncho patterns. Writers of Stitch By Stitch: I imagine you were trying to sex up crochet. Did this work, writers of Stitch By Stitch? Did it? Really?

I’ve got a crocheted poncho! And now I’m going off to pose behind a man in dodgy trunks! No, it’s not what I initially envisaged when I told everyone I was going to be a model. But I couldn’t wait for Vogue to ring forever, you know, I had to earn a living. And every time I ring mum she tells me I ought to come home and be a secretary. It's all very trying. Poncho! Yes, I am emoting, thankyou. Poncho, Yay!

And then yesterday I bought a new book - Homemade. I walked past Heffers feeling miserable: it was a bad combination. It’s a nice book, but it’s essentially Domestic Porn. You know what I mean; beautiful pictures, but nothing challenging: iPod covers out of expensive yarn, cupcakes, that kind of thing. It’s got some nice ideas, and I do like that kind of book sometimes, but mostly I like books that have difficult-looking diagrams and/ or instructions to wear goggles. I’m more of a Radical Craft girl, myself. I like to expand my skill set.

But I did like this skirt very much (you can’t see very well, sorry – I had to prop the book open with my elbow while I took the photo.) It’s made of odds and ends of patchworked shirts, and it’s a plain aline shape. I like the juxtaposition of the smart shape with the scruffy fabric. Well, funnily enough, I’ve just cleared out another cupboard - and I’ve found some old shirts. Another project for the list?