Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The stole and the Sump Pipe: how a project changed my life

So. I don’t know if you remember my City Stole. Do you remember my City Stole? I tried to get a good outdoors shot for you, but, look! Look how windy it is! It’s windy all over the UK today I think, and now in Cambridge it’s raining, but I’m here on the computer with a nice cup of tea so I don’t mind.
This was the point at which I nearly had to rescue it from next door's garden
I thought when I finished my City Stole I might not wear it much, because I thought it was too long, but it turns out, it’s the perfect length, and I’ve worn it loads. It looks dramatic if I wrap it round once, and it’s just long enough to wrap round two times. The thing I wanted to tell you about it, though, is that this (portentous music – dum dum DUM) – is the stole that changed my life. No, I’m serious. It has changed how I think about things. And I shall tell you why.
Photography tip number 1: try not to do it in a gale
Those of you who are experienced/ adventurous knitters will be looking at this and thinking, hmm, a few yarnovers. That is not hard. And you are right: however, while I was knitting this stole, I was conscious that there was a point in my knitting career when I would not have been able to knit it. I would have become confused. I would have given up. There were points towards the beginning where I had to unknit quite a bit, and I managed to get back on track: once, I would not have been able to do this with lace. So while I was knitting it I was conscious that my skills were better than they had been at a point in the past. And as you can imagine, that was cheering.

The magic, however, was in the persistence necessary to knot this stole out of three long balls of string (I speak metaphorically). All my life (violins), I have had trouble sticking at things. I do not do sustained effort. I do one-off flashy feats of intense amazingness that are sufficiently amazing to compensate (almost) for the sustained effort issue. I think it is also fair to say that nothing in my life has ever particularly encouraged the development of sustained-effort skills, whereas the one-off flashy feats have always been rather popular. And this, readers, is not a great way to live. Because, there are many wonderful skills that one might wish to have, but without willpower and sticking at them through the tedious bits, the bits where you feel you are worse at it than when you started, the bits where you question why you are doing it anyway, the bits where you feel you’ve messed it up so much it isn’t worth finishing, you aren’t going to acquire them. And this is what this stole did for me. It showed me I could finish something and love the end result, even when the steps along the way are non-flashy and routine. It was an act of faith. It linked routine effort to result for me. It showed me I could stick at things. It showed me (violins swell to a crescendo now) I could change. It was like meditation: meditation in wool. I mean, where it got me was crocheting a million granny squares, but, look: I would never have been able to do that before the stole. Before the Stole Which Changed Everything.
I swear they wait and jump out at me. It's actually a bit alarming. Perhaps I'm just attuned. I hope I never start seeing goblins
The other week our washer broke and leaked water all over the kitchen (bear with me, this is relevant!). A John Lewis man came and patronised Partner terribly, because apparently we should have known we had a blocked Sump Pipe, then he charged Partner £60 for the privilege of being patronised and left. When I came home Partner told me he had been patronised, and did we ought to have known about the sump pipe? And I said, I was not going to feel bad about lack of sump pipe knowledge, because, I could knit lace and I was convinced the sump pipe man could not: and so as far as I was concerned, he could stick that sump pipe right up his bum. And then I rang John Lewis and told them off, and they refunded me £30. Because no-one is patronising a person who has knitted a City Stole (and if I had finished the epic granny square project I could probably have made them give me £60). You see, it is almost like having self esteem. I think the stole is magic. That is my firm belief.

Do you have a Project That Changed Your Life?

Sunday, 27 November 2011

On my travels again

So last week I was in Derbyshire (I get about, don't I? One day I'll buy a travelling bag without a hole in the bottom. Actually I might just sew up the hole, that would be cheaper). People! It was frantic! The crowds!
So, apparently there is a mountain next to my family's house, I discover this now after 25 years
The traffic jams, and having to wait to get along the roads!
Mind the cows! I want to be a farmer. No, I know I'd be rubbish
 God. It was just exhausting. We were constantly on the alert.
I may come and give you my paw, or, I may agitate for a dried pig's ear. I've not decided yet  
That's what it's like, though, when you're at the very epicentre of commerce, the cut and thrust of trading, where prices are set and fortunes are made.
Label on a crocheted blanket on Chesterfield Flea Market. No, it didn't have a price tag, and no, we didn't dare ask. Because I might have said, don't talk to me about extraordinary tasks. 108 granny squares! 51 black ones!
Chesterfield main street, scene of many happy youthful shopping trips. Can you see the crooked spire on the church? This is because the Devil sat on it, true fact
The only thing to do in this kind of situation is to try to snatch a few moments of relaxation over a Festive Chocolate Mince Pie.
Dad's pie. We all tried it and it was surprisingly nice. I would make a mince pie as normal but replace some of the flour with cocoa powder. In fact I might do
Because it's hard, this itinerant life, but someone has to do it.
Dan (brother), Milo (not a wolf), and I, with all our accessories bought from shops, shamelessly
Hope everyone had a good week and I shall be back and rambling soon. (Were you missing your passive-aggressive granny square updates? You know you were. Although, Aunty Kath! I've knitted you a Christmas present! I may not get to anyone else's, but, now there's one for you!).

Monday, 21 November 2011

Making your own chocolates

I am indebted to Denise of Knitting Kitties for initial encouragement and advice which set me off down the path of confectionery making; and at the moment that sugary path is leading to chocolates.

These chocolates are supposed to be for my brother Dan whose birthday is this week, but, Dan, I am not sure I fancy my chances of getting these out of the mould in one piece and then lugging them up on the train, so I apologise in advance if I don’t manage it. (I would like at this point to commend my brother Dan, who is excellent at hoovering up culinary experiments and indeed was the only person brave enough to drink my sloe gin. Also he once ate an entire slab of fudge without cutting it up into bits first).
An unmoulded chocolate with a shamefully scruffy bottom
Although I am not sure about these ones, in general, chocolates are not that hard to make. Isn’t that useful to know? I have only experimented with a few fillings so far, but, actually, all you need to know is the principle and then you can make the rest up, and I am going to explain that to you now (although I also have this book: Miss Hope’s Chocolate Box, which is actually very good and inspiring and has the recipes I have been using. Also it is very funny, and I do recommend it). Then you can make chocolates for everyone for Christmas, and they will all think you are showing off and will go in the other room and drink sherry and talk about you. Get her, they will say. And the Guardian will write articles criticising you and all your kind and the horse you rode in on, although, all I can think is that if that man who wrote the article could see my giant bag of crochet squares all the same colour it might actually kill him and then where would we be.

So. To make chocolates. You need to buy a flexible silicone chocolate mould. I bought mine from Lakeland Plastics for £5.99, and I got one with a lot of holes in, because then I thought I could make a lot of chocolates at a time (working there on the basis that the more chocolates the better). You can make different chocolates in the same mould and whip it in and out of the fridge, so you don’t need to have a lot of separate ones unless you want different shapes (if you make them all the same shape, you won’t be able to tell which flavours they are unless you do some plain and some milk or attempt marbling or something).
Try not to be distracted by any shameless black squirrels who come to nibble your nuts (ignore the scruffy garden. Look at the posh fence!)
First you melt chocolate and coat the mould. You do this by breaking your chocolate up into small bits (a 100g bar is enough for about 8-10 chocolates, allowing for mistakes and eating some with a spoon), and microwaving it on full in bursts of about 20 seconds. When it is mostly melted but some of it is still solid (in my microwave this takes about 60 seconds), you take it out, and stir it till it is all liquid. This is called tempering. Then you coat the moulds with a teaspoon, not too thickly. If you get gaps and can’t fill them, put the mould in the fridge for 5 minutes until the chocolate has set and then just give it a second coat, then it will be easier. (If you have one of those posh silicone brushes that might work better, but a teaspoon is ok if not).

Then, you just fill your chocolates with something sweet. So far I have tried caramel and peanut (not together). The recipes are in the book, so I can’t really give you the exact quantities, but basically the peanut filling is peanut butter, a splash of double cream, and some sugar (you make quite small quantities – you only need a bit), and then you melt it together, so you could just have a go and add sugar to taste. For the caramel you could use any toffee sauce recipe (mine just uses cream and sugar) – it is ok for it to be fairly liquid, so you don’t have to mess about with a sugar thermometer. (Note from me: when you are boiling sugar, never stick your thumb in it to test it. You may think, God, no-one would do that, but, I did once and it hurt very much).
Lady, after I've watched you empty your handbag to find your camera to take a picture of me and get Strepsils, receipts, and a great big cabbage everywhere, I can only say it's a travesty that it was your species that got the opposable thumbs
You could also try making a ganache, and flavouring it with various things, to use as a filing - I am sure you will have lots of ideas (you could be like Heston and make bizarre things. I bought garam masala chocolates from a posh shop on the Ile St Louis for Partner when I was in Paris, but he has not eaten them yet because he likes to save chocolates, like a mad person). When you have filled all your little holes apart from the hole within you which will only be filled by Self Knowledge, stick it all in the fridge for a bit to firm up.

Then you remelt the chocolate which is left over (20 second bursts again and keep checking), and cover all the little holes with a layer. Then, leave it all overnight to set properly, and take the little chocolates out of the moulds carefully. Remember to try to share the chocolates with other people and not eat them all on your own in 5 minutes, even though that is what you will want to do. I think they keep for about a week in the fridge, so if you do want to make these for Christmas you will have to do it at the last minute, but that’s fine, it’s not as if you’re going to be busy over Christmas, is it? (Just remember. The more you make yourself, the less probability there is that you’ll be standing in Waterstones at 3:45pm on Christmas Eve looking at that £14.99 hamster calendar, and at least when you’re standing in your kitchen slaving over a hot bowl of chocolate you can have a nice cup of tea. With brandy in it. And you can eat the chocolate with a spoon).

Saturday, 19 November 2011

I never realised this, but,

Gerard Manley Hopkins once tried to crochet 99 granny squares, and wrote a poem about it! Isn't that amazing? I don't think this poem could have been about anything else, so, no, I don't really think any other interpretation is possible. Spiritual and social alienation versus another round of double crochet in black acrylic? I think not.

NO worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief        5
Woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing—
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No ling-
ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief’.
  O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap        10
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.   

68 down. 31 to go. {Flexes fingers which are cramped like Gollum's around the One Ring}.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Smelling of catnip

I think I must smell of catnip. As I have indicated before, the cats in Cambridge seem to have no natural predators, because not only are there no cat-eating creatures in England, but a lot of the Cambridge roads are of the sort where one car goes past a day. So it's feline anarchy. They have no fear. As I go along they actually shout at me, ('miaaaaaaow!!') and then they throw themselves at me. I am serious. I have to be giving off waves or something.
Who's that trip-trapping down my nice middle class street? Don't you know you've got to stop and pay homage?

OK, yeah yeah, you've told me you've got to get to the Co-op and I'm in your path. Stand there and look at my claws while I do my rolling-over thing

Can you do this at yoga, inadequate human? Thought not

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Failure to convey the complexity of fibre arts

It is a truism of the knitting part of the internet* that non-knitters do not understand how long it takes to knit things, and therefore will occasionally expect you to whip up a super kingsize bed cover in a weekend for £4.50. This is fair enough as I would have no idea how long it would take to, for example, make a table, but you might want to be aware of it so you can wave them and their £4.50 away if necessary. I can now, however, exclusively reveal that non-knitters also do not know how long it takes you to knit things even when they sit next to you every evening looking at you curiously and going, ‘oo!’, every time your wool touches their thigh.
I wonder if handknitted socks have ever been taken as an exhibit to Relate counselling? (Actually, they probably have)
Scene: this morning. Partner and I are moving a million black crocheted granny squares so he can sit down (I’m on 41. 41! When I get to 50 I will be over half way and I will open the champagne/ Asda Prosecco).
Me: If I ever again decide to crochet 99 granny squares I want you to stop me. That’s your responsibility.
Partner: I thought of that good way round it. If you’d listened to me, you’d be nearly done by now. (Partner had previously suggested I should only crochet half of the squares and ‘make a feature of the holes’).
Me: No, but that wouldn’t work, would it, because the pattern only looks good if it’s entirely solid.
Partner: I’ve got another idea.
Me: Have you? Is it a helpful one?
Partner: What you could do in future if you want to make people things is, you could just knit them socks.
Me: Just knit them socks?
Partner: Yes. Because you knit those very bright socks. It’s as if you’ve got an inexhaustible supply of those very bright socks.
Me: ???
Partner: Socks for everybody!
Me: But, but, socks take a bit of time as well, though, you know.
Partner: No, they don’t. They only take you an evening. I’ve watched you do it. You like it! It’s knitting for fun!
Me: No, honestly, they take much longer than an evening.
Partner: No, they definitely only take an evening. Quick bright socks! (Picks up paper). There we are. Sorted.

So there we are, readers, if you want to knit for Christmas, a pair of socks will only take you an evening. You’ll be able to kit out all your family, all your friends and possibly the local rugby team as well if you start soon. It’s no more effort than walking into Marks and Spencer and buying them a gift voucher and a miniature of Tia Maria**. Should I be pleased that I make it look effortless? (Note in case I do actually end up giving anyone any socks: it isn’t effortless! Socks are not an afterthought!).

*That would be about 20%. The other 80% is 79.99999% cats in boxes and the rest varied.

**Does anyone know if you can buy miniatures of Tia Maria? Only I've got this Nigella cake recipe that uses it, but I don't want to buy a big bottle because it's expensive and I'd never drink it. (God. Sometimes I feel like that bit in Miranda where Stevie didn't want to go to a nightclub and said, 'I'm too old! I'm in my thirties! I want to grow my own vegetables and make ratatouille!'. Note to younger readers, you too will one day find yourself getting excited over a Nigella cake recipe and thinking briefly, gosh, I used to leave the house after dark occasionally wearing the kind of makeup you don't just poke on with your index finger and have the ability to attract men, whatever happened).

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

And my other thing I am making which I'm not sure about yet

I thought I would show you my other thing that I’m in the process of making but I’m not sure about.
Knit 1 inch ribbing, then think, thank God that ribbing's done, and go and have a biscuit
So, I have posted this before but I will do it again otherwise this post won’t make sense (worse than usual). One of my favourite poems is Catullus 85: Odi et amo/ quare id faciam fortasse requiris/ Nescio. Sed fieri sentio/ Et excrucior, which translates in my not-very-good Latin as, I hate and I love. Why do I do this, perhaps you ask. I don’t know. But I feel it happen, and I am tortured. Well readers, haven’t we all had someone like that in our lives? Let’s all take a brief moment to be glad they aren’t now sitting on our sofa (unless they are, in which case, don’t put him on your credit card. I learn this from Judge Judy). Anyway, I had this idea (bear with me) that I should make mittens with Odi and Amo on them. Because, people have Love and Hate tattooed on their knuckles, don’t they?* So, it would be like that! Only much more pretentious! So I made a chart. This does not look like it took blood, sweat and grinding of teeth, but it did. In case you want to make one too, I just used Excel, and it is easier than you would think. I started off with graph paper and a pencil but that took forever.
Ream? Or, like, totally unream? So hard to know
I have only charted the Odi mitten so far, and I have cast on and been knitting it up in Palette, but I have not got very far.
I am very sorry. This is just a bad photo. Look! Fuschia! Try to imagine!
This left hand mitten will be a fuschia background with the text in white. The right hand Amo mitten will be a white background with the text in fuschia, and where I have put the ampersand, I will put a heart. If I get to the point where I have knitted them, adjusted the chart and am test knitting others versions, I will try to do the ampersand and the heart in a different colour, but, this will involve stranding three colours over quite a few rows, so you can see I would want to work up to it.

What do you think? Odi? Amo? Good idea? Bad idea? Thinking of other three letter words to put on mittens? Thinking no-one really has love and hate tattooed any more? Think again.

* I used to know someone with Love and Hate tattooed on his knuckles. So I know people do.

Monday, 7 November 2011

My thing I made

Before I show you my thing I made, I just need to emphasise – because this has become quite a big thing in my life – that the secret granny square project involves making 51 granny squares in black. Have you ever made 51 granny squares in a really intense acrylic black so you can’t see where you are putting your hook? If you haven’t, I do urge you to, because it’s always useful to get a foretaste of the things they’ll make us do in Hell. I am eyeing up Partner and wondering if he could be trained to make a few. Would it be wrong of me to go back to the pub next Wednesday, find the excited men, feed them Stella and crochet instructions and have them cranking a few out? Perhaps in exchange for a glimpse of ankle or collarbone? Hmm? Would that really be so wrong? Yes, ok, don’t say it. I know it would.

Because their tension would be different to mine. Such a shame! Anyway, I lay the 20, yes that is only 20 and we are going for 99 in total, granny squares I have created, together in various combinations, and I can see that this will indeed be a very cool pattern (provided I don’t take Partner’s advice, which is, ‘just do half of them and make a feature of the gaps’). So I will crank them out with a good will and by the end I will be saying, black acrylic, that is no challenge. These days I only crochet with invisible yarn and occasionally worms, as otherwise I find it all just too easy and I particularly enjoy the challenge of tensioning the worms around my little finger.

Anyway here is my thing I made. Readers: do you have double pointed knitting needles stabbing you in the bottom whenever you sit down? Do you find them randomly laid carefully along bookcases? Are they in the toothbrush mug? Do you lose them and find yourself knitting a sock with a combination of 5mm, 2mm and 3.5mm and thinking oh, it will all even out? Well I did. So I made a case to round the little buggers up:
Reclining on a furry throw
Look how subtle that outside is. Are you impressed? Are you thinking, Susie is exploring new horizons in her patchwork as normally it is very colourful. Perhaps the inside is blue as well or a very subtle grey.

It is not!

I don't know, I keep buying Knit Pro even though that one broke when I sat on it
It actually looks more impressive when it is empty, but I felt if I took the needles out they would all instantly disappear again into quite unhelpful places around the house and so I left them. It was fun to make. The outside is a job lot of a cotton/ linen mix which I got from a man who sells fabric for excellent prices at Trumpington Village Hall: if I have any Cambridge readers, he will next be there on 30th November until about 3pm and I may pop along to see if he has any tweed for a winter skirt, I don’t know (that doesn’t affect you, I’m just remarking). The inside is leftover tie silk which I bought from Mountain Heirlooms on etsy ages ago – I bought a big box and felt very guilty, but good Lord that box of silk has lasted well.

After I had made this, I actually had an idea for tweaking this design so that it would be rather cool. So I am going to make a few more and experiment. If they go well I will put them in the shop, if they do not, well, I will just look at them sadly.

Now please excuse me. I have a daily granny square target to meet, and I am behind on weaving in my ends!

Thursday, 3 November 2011

My touching faith in The Gingerbread Lady, plus advice on How To Catch A Man

Readers, I have faith. (Swelling music).

I have faith that possibly the ugliest granny square known to mankind (which is actually a rather perky flourescent green. You can’t see it in this photo. My camera, which is normally very biddable, balked. I said, it balked)
Practice those grateful faces, family, that's right, teeth gritted
will become something rather cool. This pattern, which I am not going to link to yet as it is for Christmas for someone, is by The Gingerbread Lady and is one of those ideas which is simple (well, ish – me and granny squares, hmm) and comes together into something really cool, in a how-can-no-one-have-thought-of-this-before kind of way. So I have faith that my alien-snot-green and black squares are going to be transformed into something rather funky, yet retro and ironically urban. Moreover, I have faith that I will be able to produce enough of them without going out and poking people with my crochet hook in frustration.
Knitting Noro stripes stresses me out of all proportion. O my God! I've got two pinks coming up together!
And as well as faith, I also have advice. Ladies: would you like to meet the kind of men who, urbane and charming as they may be in their day-to-day interactions, go out of an evening to watch things on large screens in pubs, and grunt? Do you feel starved of male attention? Do you sometimes think, gosh, if only I had a group of men drinking lager sitting close by watching me with avid attention and making semi-explicit jibes in an aggressively playful kind of way? Because if you have ever thought that, then, this is what you must do. Go out and sit in a pub with other women and knit/ crochet something. Because, I have joined a small knit group, and last night we sat in a local pub near some men who were so fascinated they could not wholly give their attention to Sky Sports and pints of Stella. ‘Oy! Oy! Oy! Love!’ they said. ‘Knit us a cock sock!’. There is only one response to that: it is, we don’t like knitting tiny things, and one of our number gave that response straight away so really there wasn’t anywhere to go from there. But that could not be the end of it, because, they were just fascinated, and every time I lifted my head up from my sparkling mineral water (look, I have to go to yoga today. Have you ever done a down dog with a hangover?) I could hear mutterings about what we could knit for them or how we should give them what we had made or things like that. Readers, I know those men were just dying to be taught how to do a treble cluster and would have been thrilled but look, I had just done with the bomb squad, I did not have the energy. So, for anyone reading this who is doing a feminist PhD on gendering of public spaces and threats to masculinity I am happy to be interviewed, and for the rest of us, you know you read those mad stories on the internet about how people whip out their wool and cause a commotion, and you think, no, surely, that does not happen? Well, it does! (and people find grenades in their gardens as well!).

Shall we all go out and find someone fly fishing and heckle them to get our own back?

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Garden Improvements. Do not do it

OK. Do you remember my advice about home improvements, i.e. do not do it? Well, I am now going to expand that advice to garden improvements as well and in fact I am forced to make it more emphatic. Today a man came and laid a base for a shed and found two hand grenades. I have had a policeman, the bomb squad, and two reporters from the local paper doorstepping me. They (the bomb squad) had their sandbags ready and were going to do a controlled explosion, but luckily they were able to x-ray my grenades with their equipment and they were dummies which you use for training. Why would there be dummy hand grenades in my garden? Was it in former times a hangout for Dad’s Army? What in God’s name will I find next? So now I am nervous of engaging with Hard Landscaping, and feel that the black squirrel is the least of my worries (he was watching. He was fascinated).

On the bright side, I cast on a sock. The policeman remarked that it would be very useful for winter, which indeed it will be, and it is to his credit that he did not say, look at you, knitting through bomb squad manoeuvres.