Week thirty six: if you go down in the woods today…

Over the last few months I have railed at the randomness of the learning collection at the museum: plastic tat you can buy at any English Heritage gift shop, for example, or objects too fragile to handle. I have been adding things to the ‘someone else might like it’ pile with abandon, and sure enough Fran, our brilliant Creative Practitioner, has been finding new homes for all sorts of strange things; including the House on the Hill Toy Museum and the New Vic Theatre. I have never understood the point of a handling collection that can’t be handled.

And then this week I got to the teddies. Oh dear.

Teddy bears have been around since the early 20th century, when two toy makers – Richard Steiff in Germany and and Morris Michtom in the USA – were inspired to create toy bears after a political cartoon was printed in the Washington Post. It told the story of a bear hunt, where Theodore (‘Teddy’) Roosevelt refused to shoot a bear that had been caught and tied up by a handler as it was unsportsmanlike. I won’t comment on the fact that they were out shooting bears in the first place, as that’s not the point here!

Cartoon by Clifford Berryman, published in Washington Post, 1902

Michtom saw the cartoon and was inspired to create a toy bear cub which he displayed in the window of his shop, with a sign saying ‘Teddy’s bear’. He’d sent a bear to Roosevelt and been given permission to use his name, although apparently Roosevelt himself hated being called Teddy.

Simultaneously, over in Germany Steiff designed a similar toy bear and exhibited it at the Leipzig Toy Fair. Both toys were an instant hit, and the world has been buying teddy bears – and other stuffed animals – ever since. Our most popular ‘Spotlight Talk’ (on-gallery short teaching sessions delivered by the brilliant Activity Assistants) was Teddy Bears. One bear in the museum – Little Tommy Tittlemouse – is a celebrity and gets birthday cards sent to him every year by members of the public. His previous owner started the tradition when he donated the bear in 1965 and it continued until his death in 1986. He even has a museum blog post dedicated to him. (In case you’re interested, his birthday is the 24th of November, so this week our Tommy turned 112)

The mohair has rubbed off, the wood wool is coming out of his paws, his nose is squashed but someone really loved this bear….

Early teddies looked more like real bears, with long noses, beady eyes and a hump on their backs. They were also a lot less cuddly than the bears we have today – stuffed with sawdust or wood wool, they were heavy and hard, but still lovable. Their ‘fur’ was mohair, which rubs off and so a lot of our older bears are bald and a bit battered. And really, really hard to give away. Own up – how many of you still have your beloved childhood bear? I know I do. He’s balding in places, a bit flat, is missing an eye and has some very amateur repairs but he’s mine and I love him. My mum never quite forgave her own mother for getting rid of her teddy while my parents were on their honeymoon.

My panda, given to me when I was born.

I knew there was going to be a problem when I unwrapped a particularly old bear…and started talking to him. Only an ‘ohhh, hello you!’ but still, it was a slippery slope.

The modern, mass-produced bears were easy to say goodbye to – they have no personality and most of them are brand new. I admit to hanging onto all the Paddingtons, of course, but the McDonalds Happy Meal toys, Beanie Babies and film tie-ins will be going to new homes. The very odd poodle toy (with detached ear and jewelled collar) was also pretty easy to say goodbye to.

Please look after this bear

But…the old bears have character. They have been loved, and their faces are a bit wonky and sometimes their fur is a bit patchy. I don’t know who they belonged to in most cases, but they have had a second home – even if its been in a box – at the museum. I mentioned this on Facebook the other day and a friend said that when she was buying a soft toy as a gift she deliberately looked for the one that wasn’t perfect. Sometimes a toy just calls out to you and you fall in love with it – my mum fell for a Hamley’s polar bear on a shopping trip to Bath, for example, and my dad went back to buy it for her Christmas present.

Our teddy collection ranged from the tiny, pocket-sized bears to much larger Steiff growly bears, nearly half the size of the six year olds who ‘demonstrate’ them in school sessions. Some were handmade, some were beautifully dressed in handmade clothes. There were also rabbits, cats, dogs and the box of more than 100 mice I have mentioned in a previous post.

Can you see why it’s so hard to get rid of them? I confess that a number of these are staying, if they can be handled. Teddies come on life’s adventures with us, after all, and some of them deserve to come with us to the museum’s next life too.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

What happens to rolls of double-sided sticky tape? Where do they go? I started a new one a couple of weeks ago when I was making my colleague’s birthday card and today I couldn’t find it anywhere. I managed to find a squashed roll in the shed, luckily, so my plan to frame various cross stitches wasn’t thwarted. I also found a stash of coloured aida fabric which was in the wrong box – that’s going to come in useful.

Nearly a whole sock!

Progress on the sock has slowed again as I was only on the tube two days this week, but I have started putting together squares for a blanket. I wanted a nine-patch effect, and am edging the squares and each block with charcoal grey. I like the stained glass type effect.

Zoom blanket

So that was week 36. Things 1 and 2 have both had days at home this week as there have been confirmed cases of Covid-19 in their year groups, and Thing 1 has to isolate for a fortnight as she’s been identified as being in contact with a case. I really can’t fault the school, whose communication with us has been effective, clear and timely; yes, they have a duty of care towards the school community but right now they are going above and beyond, working long into the night to make sure things carry on as close to normal as possible. Who would have guessed that a lockdown that didn’t include the schools might see cases spreading, eh?

Later this morning I’ll be heading to Redricks Lakes for my weekly dip – the water was 7 degrees C yesterday after a few frosty mornings this week. That’s a big drop from last week’s 9.5 but I’m still looking forward to it!

Let’s see what week 37 brings.

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading

Last Stand in Wychford (Witches of Lychford) – Paul Cornell

Gobbelino London and a Scourge of Pleasantries – Kim M. Watt

Sampleri Cymraeg – Joyce F. Jones

The Dark Archive (Invisible Library) – Genevieve Cogman

The Graveyard of the Hesperides/The Third Nero (Flavia Albia) – Lindsey Davis (Audible)

Week thirty five: this week’s post is brought to you by the letter C

Stir Up Sunday is when families get together to prepare the Christmas pudding, and it’s the last Sunday before Advent*. I first heard about it from my original boss at the Museum of London Docklands – I don’t remember this being something we did when I was a child. I have a vague recollection that my grandma used to make the Christmas puddings and when she got too old we either had shop-bought ones (that were usually still in the cupboard in May – who has room for Christmas pud if dinner is done properly?) or no pudding at all. I confess to not liking Christmas pudding anyway.

There was always a Christmas cake though, mum-made and usually with a disaster story attached – my dad is partial to a fruit cake so she made them throughout the year, but the Christmas one always went a bit wrong. This year London sister has made one for the parents and sent it in the post to France, and all they have to do is feed and decorate it.

I didn’t like Christmas cake, either – I still don’t like shop-bought ones. I’m not a lover of candied peel, glace cherries in anything, or unexpected bits of nut. When I became a proper grown up, however, I decided that along with being able to stuff a turkey without wincing (I usually remember to take the neck and giblets out…) I ought to make Christmas cake too. I’d won a Mary Berry recipe book in a Christmas party raffle a few years earlier and found the Classic Victorian Christmas Cake, so thought I’d give that a go – OK, it was the only Christmas cake recipe in any of my books, so it was an easy choice! I think it’s also the only thing I have ever made from the book.

Mary Berry’s cake. Not mine.

I left out the glace cherries and almonds, replaced the cherries with more dried fruit, and rather than soaking the fruit in sherry I used rum. Then I fed the cake with more rum. Mary wasn’t clear on how often you should feed the cake, or on how much you should be feeding it, so I erred on the side of caution and that first cake was a) very moist and b) capable of putting you over the driving limit. So that’s been my go-to recipe since then – I didn’t make one last year, as I usually end up eating far too much of it myself, but this year my budding Heston Blumenthal (aka Thing 2) has been putting pressure on me to make one.

So yesterday Thing 2 and I set the fruit to soak (in the last of the cherry gin, due to a lack of rum in the house) and on Tuesday afternoon we will stir up and bake our 2020 cake. Just before Christmas we’ll decorate it – madam has very strong opinions on cake decorating so I may leave her in charge of that.

*Yes, I know Stir-Up Sunday is technically next weekend, but never mind. I’m sure there will come a time when Thing 2 doesn’t want to cook with me, so until then I’ll make the most of it.

Work is the curse of the crafting classes

This week I have been working from home – an online symposium on Monday about Creativity in Education Now, run by Creative Schools and Creative Colleges. Interesting stuff: the keynote speaker was Bill Lucas, author of Teaching Creative Thinking and my new hero. There was a poor OFSTED rep there, who was trying really hard to say that there were lots of opportunities for teaching creativity in schools as part of the new(ish) inspection framework, but she kept hammering home that everything had to start with knowledge acquisition. She wasn’t open to ‘split screen’ teaching, where creative skills are developed at the same time: as she was an ex-art teacher that surprised me.

The rest of the week was spent on meetings, and on developing a set of learning outcomes for one of the new galleries in the museum. It’s going to be an amazing space – as with the rest of the museum, focused on building creativity in children, young people and their families – and the deep dive back into our thinking over the past year or so has made me excited about the transformation project all over again. It’s been hard at times this year to remember what a brilliant thing we’re doing – losing six months to furlough meant it’s taken a while to get back to this point – but this task has reminded me.

On the subject of creativity – I love what the Natural History Museum have been doing to support audiences. This lovely free Dodo cross stitch pattern is available to download, and you can also make a giant squid or a whole set of nudibranches. The patterns come with really simple instructions, too, and are part of a suite of equally brilliant craft activities. Nice job, NHM.

You can find the V&A’s own offer here – less for kids but some gorgeous Mary Quant patterns remade by Alice and Co Patterns, as well as other projects inspired by exhibitions. You could also check out the #LetsMakeWednesdays posts on the V&A Blog.

Where was I? Oh yes, working at home – that means no progress at all has been made on the portable sock project, which has the heel flap done on sock 1 and is ready to turn when I get back on the tube tomorrow.

Sock bristling with stitch markers

The Hydrangea blanket has a few more stripes, and I have also been working on rainbow jewellery which will hopefully find their way into an experience hamper at some point. The rainbow pattern is by Ever Laughter and you can find it here. She used aran yarn to make her applique, I have used Perle no 8 for the necklace and Scheepjes Cotton 8 for the brooches. I like the pastel one just for a change up! The pile of squares is the Zoom blanket underway in Stylecraft Special DK.

I’ve managed to sew up both the dresses I cut out last weekend, too. Both were pretty quick makes and came together in just a couple of hours each, and both have proper pockets to put things in. You can’t underestimate the value of pockets!

Being at home all week – with Lulu on downstairs cat duty – has reminded me how much that cat loves my beloved. The first picture is when she heard him come through the back door – Thing 3 is currently complaining that she jumped off him as soon as her human came downstairs. She’s not a lap cat like the other two, but will lean on you or cuddle up if you’re sitting down and if my beloved is not in the room. If he is, you haven’t got a look-in….

I’ll leave you this week with a picture of a clematis in the garden still bravely struggling on. I love the colours of this one.

See you at the end of week 36, when we can see how the cake turns out! This week’s cover photo is the woods on Stonards Hill in Epping looking very autumnal.

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading

The Penguin Killer – Ste Sharp

Enemies at Home/Deadly Election (Flavia Albia) – Lindsey Davis (Audible)

The Law of Innocence (Mickey Haller) – Michael Connelly

Gobbelino London and a Scourge of Pleasantries – Kim M. Watt

Week thirty four: dw i’n dysgu Cymraeg

Once upon a time, way back in the educational dark ages (well, pre-National Curriculum, anyway) Welsh was not compulsory in South Wales schools. I was at infant school in Cardiff, and Welsh wasn’t taught till juniors. When I was just seven, we moved to Monmouthshire where it wasn’t taught at all. My (English) secondary school headteacher, when the NC was introduced in 1988, campaigned to have the school classified as being in England as many of the pupils were bussed in over the border from Gloucestershire: he claimed that more people spoke Chinese in Monmouth than Welsh. He may well have been right at the time, but that wasn’t the point.

He was unsuccessful, fortunately, but as I was too late to feel the impact of the NC while I was still in school I didn’t get the chance to learn Welsh until I was doing teacher training in Aberystwyth. Conversational Welsh was offered as a weekly elective in the lunch breaks, so I was able to count to ten, talk about the weather and say hello. I could also understand drinks orders in the pub I worked in. This was helpful when the gang from Yr Hen LLew Du made their occasional forays into the English-speaking pubs to try and annoy the barmaids, who were invariably students. Not speaking Welsh at the time was a severe handicap when applying for jobs in Wales, as it was necessary to be able to teach the language as well, which I assume is why for many years Wales’ greatest export was teachers who had fallen into the National Curriculum gap.

Old College exterior – Aerial drone photoraphy Aberystwyth University Feb 14 2019 ┬ękeith morris (CAA approved commercial drone operator) http://www.artswebwales.com keith@artx.co.uk 07710 285968 01970 611106

My parents weren’t Welsh speakers either: they had been at school in Cardiff in the 1940s and 50s. At that time, Wales was still suffering the hangover of the Industrial Revolution. English landowners – who owned the mines and the steelworks – saw Welsh as the language of revolution, especially with the rise of the unions, and it was banned from being spoken in schools. Children who spoke Welsh in school were made to wear the ‘Welsh Not’ – a sign hung around their necks to humiliate them, much as a dunce cap might be worn. The influx of Irish and Northern English into the Valleys to work in the mines, the steelworks and the associated infrastructure industries further diluted the language.

In 1847 a set of Parliamentary Blue Books were published on the state of education in Wales:  

“It concluded that schools in Wales were extremely inadequate, often with teachers speaking only English and using only English textbooks in areas where the children spoke only Welsh, and that Welsh-speakers had to rely on the Nonconformist Sunday Schools to acquire literacy. But it also concluded that the Welsh were ignorant, lazy and immoral, and that among the causes of this were the use of the Welsh language and nonconformity.” (Wikipedia)

Evidence for this came mainly from Anglican clergy (who didn’t speak Welsh) at a time of burgeoning non-conformism in Wales, from landowners (er, ditto) and none of the commissioners were Welsh speakers. The argument that the Blue Books put forward was that embracing the English language would allow the Welsh to achieve their potential and take full part in British civic society – the authors were apparently concerned with the wellbeing of the Welsh (how delightfully colonial!). Non-conformists were often Welsh speakers, and a lot of them headed over the sea to the Americas where they set up Welsh communities and the language survived* – and handily provided me with a dissertation subject for my degree in American Studies. (Welsh migration to the USA from Prince Madoc onwards, in case you’re interested!).

The suppression of Welsh actually started a lot earlier than the Industrial Revolution, with the Act of Union in 1536 when it was decreed that English should be the only language of the courts in Wales, and that Welsh speakers could not hold public office in the territories of the king of England. This didn’t work terribly well at first, as the majority of the population were Welsh speakers, so a lot of interpreters were used in the courts. The upshot of this was the growth of a Welsh ruling class who were fluent in English, and Welsh became confined to the lower and middle classes. From 1549 all acts of public worship had to be conducted in English, though Elizabeth I wanted churches to have Welsh versions of the Book of Common Prayer and the Bible from 1567. The first complete Welsh translation of the Bible came in 1588.

A radio broadcast called ‘Tynged yr Iaith’ (The Fate of the Language) by Saunders Lewis in 1962 marked a national change in attitudes to the language, and you can read much more about this here. Welsh was on the up again…

Back to me (it’s my blog, after all) and my adventures in Welsh. Road signs were in Welsh, and our family holidays were in west Wales where much more Welsh was spoken. My Aunty and cousins spoke Welsh, so I’d always heard and seen snatches of the language. I’d wanted to learn but ended up working in east London as a teacher, and Welsh language courses were thin on the ground.

My London sister started learning Welsh with Duolingo and Say Something in Welsh a couple of years ago, and she encouraged me to learn too. I say encouraged – she signed me up to SSIW’s six minutes a day programme as a birthday present. The end of Duolingo is in sight for me now, though I can’t say the same for SSIW which I find really hard and have had on pause for ages.

I am a lifelong learner, as I’ve mentioned in an earlier post about my adventures in crafting, and it’s been suggested that language learning ‘boosts’ brain power by exercising the parts of the brain that process information. Learning a new language also contributes to a growth mindset, and understanding something you didn’t expect to is a great motivator. My fellow museum bod, gig buddy and Welsh learner Jen and I went to see Elis James and Esyllt Sears doing stand-up comedy in Welsh at the London Welsh Centre last year: I was really excited to be able to understand – or at least get the gist of – about two thirds of the show. (As an aside, we chatted to Elis James afterwards and he was really lovely).

Duolingo is excellent for vocabulary building and for sentence construction, but I have real problems with SSIW. I’m a visual/kinaesthetic learner – when I did the VAK assessment for a management course a couple of years ago I scored equally highly on the Visual and Kinaesthetic scales and extremely low on the Auditory. It wasn’t anything I didn’t know already but at least it explained why I was having terrible trouble with SSIW!

I learn by doing, or by seeing – if my hands aren’t doing something then I tune out very quickly. This means I take a LOT of notes in meetings. It’s not diligence, it’s self-preservation – if I’m not taking notes I tune out. My previous line manager used to be able to tell when I switched off if a meeting went on too long!. I crochet my way through conferences or use a fidget toy, as if my hands are occupied I’m able to focus on what’s being said. SSIW, as it’s entirely auditory, really doesn’t suit my learning style at all – writing down the week’s sentences in advance was useful, but ideally I would be writing them down as I went along. But not knowing how to spell most of the words made that quite tricky, as did the fact that I generally did the SSIW sessions while I was ironing and refereeing the Things. Perhaps I need to sit down, on my own, with a pen and paper and try my usual learning method of copious note taking. I have a Welsh dictionary, and a grammar book, so there’s really no excuse.

*As an aside to this, there have been a lot of jokes on social media in the last couple of days that a Welsh-speaking nation have finally beaten the All-Blacks at rugby….sadly, it was Argentina, so Max Boyce probably won’t be memorialising this in song.

Creative industry

Despite being back at work full time it’s been a productive week! Normally at this time of year I’d be making jewellery to sell at the Christmas markets but this year I don’t have any booked for obvious reasons.

I mentioned in last week’s post that my plan for the rest of the day was to finish the Bento Box quilt. That’s the one I quilted as I went along, so after I’d backed it I was able to add another few lines of quilting in the ditch just to hold it together, and then bound it. I backed it with a 100% cotton sheet I’d bought in a sale, and bound it with a ready-made cream bias binding from Bertie’s Bows. Just to recap, the coloured fabrics are Stuart Hillard’s Rainbow Etchings designs for Craft Cotton Co, and I used nearly two jelly rolls to make it. The blenders, wadding and multicoloured quilting thread are from Empress Mills, and I used this tutorial.

I also promised I’d show you the Winter Swimming cross stitch when I’d finished it…the wording is my own work, using DMC stranded cotton, alphabets from this book, and the mug design can be found here. Despite the fact that I can hear the rain hammering on the conservatory roof right now and it’s still pitch dark at 7am, I’m really looking forward to getting back in the socially distanced lake this morning!

Onesie and wellies optional.

The Hydrangea blanket is coming on nicely – I am just about a quarter of the way through it now. It’s such a relaxing pattern to do, and I am following Attic24’s colour order as well. The yarn is Stylecraft Special DK from Wool Warehouse, where the official Attic24 shop can be found. I really love the faded colours.

25% of a Hydrangea Blanket

Yesterday’s job was to cut out a couple of dresses as I haven’t done any dressmaking for a while and at some point I’m sure I’ll get out of jeans and leggings for work again – at the moment I am mainly surrounded by dusty boxes and ladders, so looking tidy is not a priority. Both patterns are by Simplicity – K9101 was free with Sew magazine and the Dottie Angel (8230) is one I have made before. It’s great for throwing on as a top layer. I’m making version A with the double pocket from B, in a pinstriped denim. You can see the back of the fabric I’m using for K9101 behind – it’s a cotton duvet cover I picked up at The Range. I’m using the navy side for this, and there’s a purple side as well which may well end up as an Avid Stitcher drop-sleeve top. I do love a layer.

The weather this weekend has been truly atrocious, so yesterday Thing 3 and I spent some time doing jigsaws together. He has loved puzzles from a very early age (I do too), and when I declared a screen-free afternoon yesterday we had a few games of Dobble and then made a 3D puzzle of a baseball boot and a couple of Star Wars puzzles.

Thing 2 played a couple of games of chess with her Dad and Dobble with me – Dobble is like extreme snap and trickier than it sounds! I foresee a massive boom in the sale of chess sets, by the way, as a result of the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit. We’ve just binged it and the finale had us on the edge of our seats.

Now excuse me, Duolingo has just told me it’s time for Welsh….see you at the end of week 35! I’ll leave you with a photo of a Little Egret who was hanging round the brook on the High Road all day on Friday.

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

The Forest is Crying – Charles de Lint

The Spook who Spoke Again – Lindsey Davis

The Ides of April/Enemies at Home (Flavia Albia) – Lindsey Davis (audible)

The Law of Innocence (Lincoln Lawyer) – Michael Connelly

The Good, the Bad and the Furry – Tom Cox

Week thirty three: here we go again

You know, I’m tired. I’m really, really tired. And fed up. And angry (though regular readers will have spotted that this is becoming a far more frequent state of mind for me). And resigned. And sad. And all sorts of other emotions that are probably common to a lot of us right now.

On Thursday, we entered Lockdown: The Sequel here in England. Wales and NI very sensibly started their ‘firebreaks’ a couple of weeks ago, before half term so the kids were off school anyway. The trouble is, like many sequels, this one just doesn’t seem to be quite as good as the first – I mean, it’s not as bad as High School Musical 3, but it’s still a bit rubbish.

The kids are still in school, for a start, which means that they’re mixing with their friends: admittedly within their bubbles but, logistically, this means that in a multi-form entry school those bubbles can have just under 100 children in. Those children may have siblings in other bubbles, so no bubbles are sealed. They also have parents and carers, who may still be working – some in schools, with other bubbles – and using public transport and things. But apparently it’s fine because those children aren’t allowed to see each other outside school, and we have all got the message that Covid-19 is only contagious in your house or garden, or where no money is changing hands or being made.

I get to go to work three days a week in this lockdown, because there is work that’s impossible for me to do from home: assessing and decanting thousands of handling collection objects, for example, and packing up the office ready for the move. I didn’t go in on Thursday but from what I hear from those who did, there was little difference in transport and travel. When I do go in, I’ll follow the guidelines: social distancing as far as possible on the tube and in the museum, wearing a face covering properly, washing my hands frequently and so on. I’ll carry on travelling outside peak times – I’m in the office at 6.30am and leave at lunchtime, logging back in at home to finish my day and picking up Thing 3 from school so he’s not going to childcare.

I will follow the guidelines, not because I trust our government or because I like to do what everyone else does, but because in 2020 so far I have missed my niece’s first confirmation, my sister’s 40th birthday, my family holiday, going to live music events and author talks, and being able to see my London sister with the kids. I’ve missed my culture and cocktail afternoons with my best friend. I’ve missed pink-wine-fuelled Chinese meals with the Pink Ladies gang. I’ve missed my own birthday barbecue. Things One and Two couldn’t have proper birthday celebrations. I’ve missed impromptu Friday afternoons in the pub garden. I’ve missed sneaky weekday lunches with colleagues and walks round Victoria Park to see the dogs and ducks. I’ve missed my stepdaughters and grandson being around the house whenever they want. I haven’t seen my parents or the Irish contingent in more than two years, and I miss them. My dad is going to be 80 in February and I’d really, really like to be there.

In the grand scheme of Covid-19, I’ve been very lucky: no one in my family has been hospitalised. None of my friends have either, though many of my friends are nurses and they have lost friends and colleagues. I’ve been able to swim outdoors regularly (though that was cancelled this weekend). I live in the countryside with a lovely garden, so I have outdoor space. I’ve had an unexpected six months with my children, which has been wonderful. Christmas will happen, whatever the red-tops are saying about ‘saving’ it: it’s never been about the parties for me. It might look a bit different this year, but it’ll still happen.

But I’d like to believe there’s an end to this, and until an effective vaccine is in place that’s not going to happen. So until then I will wear the face covering to protect other people, and I will wash my hands, and I won’t hug my friends even though this year we have needed hugs more than ever. And I expect I’ll carry on being angry, and tired, and sad. But it won’t be forever.

Onto more cheerful things…

This week hasn’t been all bad, really. I’ve fitted in a fair bit of making, including finishing the Marble Floor cross stitch design that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. I decided to include rainbow colours, as they have become a bit of a symbol for 2020 and the museum has also collected a lot of Lockdown Rainbows for a display that was due to open at the V&A this month. I’ve also included a phrase which comes from Ren & Stimpy but has become a bit of a catchphrase at work. It needs a bit of an iron, but I think its turned out OK – the geometry feels quite elegant, and I really like the effect of the colours across the middle. I used 18 count ivory aida fabric and DMC threads – two strands for the black (310) and one for the colours (from left to right: 666, 740, 973, 907, 3845, 336, 333). You can find the basic chart here if you’d like to make your own.

I have also been making progress on the Hydrangea blanket: the colours are muted and lovely, and the pattern is simple and repetitive but effective.

I really must sew in the ends.

On the tube I am making socks from one of this month’s crochet magazines. I frogged the first attempt as they were too big, but the second attempt is coming up better! I’m using a Cygnet Yarns wool-rich patterned sock yarn in shades of pink and purple.

One good thing about not swimming this morning was going out for a walk through the very misty woods. We sensibly wore wellies and stayed off the paths a lot, as they are quite churned up after the very soggy October we had. There’s some beautiful fungi in the woods again – you can see a Fly Agaric in the cover photo this week that I spotted up near the fishing lake yesterday, and today’s spots are below. I have no idea what they are but I love the autumnal colours (and don’t plan to pick or eat them!).

It would be remiss not to mention the best news of the international week, which of course is the American presidency: I am more excited about Kamala Harris than Biden, but mostly I’m just happy for my US friends and colleagues. I’ll never forget going into work the morning after Trump was elected and finding my American colleague devastated and googling how to renounce her American citizenship.

My plan for the rest of the day is to finally bind the Bento Box quilt after backing it yesterday, and then settling down with cross stitch and Midsomer Murders. We are watching recorded episodes at the moment and the adverts really give you a sense of who is watching ITV3 of an afternoon – mobility aids, life insurance for the over 50s, charity appeals, and conservatory blinds. Still, it’s always entertaining to see just how bonkers the murders can get! It really is a guilty pleasure, and good company on a crafty afternoon. Thing One is now getting into it as well.

See you on the other side of week 34, when I promise my normal cheery service will be resumed. Everyone is entitled to an off day.

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

Now you see them (The Brighton Mysteries) – Elly Griffiths

The Spook Who Spoke Again (Falco) – Lindsey Davis

Nemesis (Falco) and The Ides of April (Flavia Albia) – Lindsey Davis (Audible)

Week thirty two: a roundabout tour of my shed

Last week, post swimming, I designed a new cross stitch pattern as – inevitably – one of us forgets something important. Jill is notorious for forgetting her pants, Sue and I both turned up without a towel one (fortunately hot) day, all of us have had to borrow a tow float or buy a new hat. A checklist was needed, so I had a bit of fun with the graph paper and pencils. I’ll share a picture here when I have stitched it up, but the point of this story is that when I’d finished the design I headed to my shed to find the materials for making.

I love my shed. It came from Freecycle, and it only had three sides and no floor so it’s tucked up against my beloved’s shed. It doesn’t have electricity or really enough space to work in, but it’s my shed and it fills me with joy. It’s the home of my frivolous shelves, which you can see in the cover photo this week and in more detail below. Jars of seaglass and buttons, pretty crockery from charity shops, my beautiful hares from AP Ceramics, ladybird rocks, things that remind me of holidays in Aberaeron, and my crocheted bunting.

As the top of the garden is a bank, I had to dig out the hole for it myself – 10′ x 6′, and nearly 3′ deep at the back. Then we laid broken paving slabs, tarpaulin and plastic pallets, gave it a new plywood floor and I painted the inside white and the outside with wood protector. I added a laminate floor made of offcuts from our kitchen and from Freecycle again, and for my birthday a year later my beloved bought me some decking and a trellis so I could sit outside the shed and make things in the garden. It has a solar panel so I can power LED lights, and plug my phone in when I am pottering about up there.

My moongazing hare lives on the deck and only occasionally gets used as a doorstop. I have some Black-eyed Susans on the trellis, and a tiny fairy door. Next to the shed is where I attempt to grow hydrangeas, hollyhocks and the sad plants I bring home from the garden centre on my rather grandly named ‘terraces’ that we created with tree trunks and the earth from the shed dig.

In the shed – and this is really the point of the story, I promise – are all my craft materials and with them the history of how I ended up doing all the things I do.

As a child, I dabbled. My mum tried to teach me to knit during the Odpins craze in the 1980s – Odpins was knitting using one big needle and one small, which meant garments worked up quickly. Not quickly enough, of course, as she ended up finishing the garment for me. (A batwing cardigan, as I remember). Someone gave me a printed tapestry kit of a squirrel for Christmas one year, and I remember loving that, and even attempting a very ambitious design when I was at university that I carted around for years but never finished. That was in the days before I discovered the joy of graph paper and stranded thread. I am glad I never finished it, it was supposed to be a present for my mum and I suspect it would have been so awful it would have ended up in the craft equivalent of the freezer where my school cookery attempts went to die.

I think I had something like this kit as a child as well – I remember making the purse and the scissor keeper. I found this in the handling collection this week, and it triggered early crafting memories!

So how did I end up with a shed full of craft materials after all those early disasters?

Well, counted cross stitch turned out to be my gateway craft. Way back in 1995 I was looking for a Valentine card for my then boyfriend and couldn’t find one I liked. In the paper shop where I was looking I saw a cross stitch magazine with a pretty pattern for a card on the cover, so I thought I’d have a go. The result wasn’t perfect (much like the boyfriend, in fact) but I loved the process. I was working on the card in the pub where I worked part time, and a customer said his wife did the same thing, and offered to pass me the pattern she was using when she finished with it. It was a Dimensions kit of nine cats in a garden, and again it wasn’t perfect but I really enjoyed making it. I still have the framed picture in the attic – my cats are distinctly cross-eyed and wonky in places, and I’m not sure I used the right colours as I was matching from scraps, but I was so proud of myself.

I like smaller cross-stitches as you can do them on the tube on the way to work – for a few years I was working in Chelsea and living in Epping so I had a long commute! All my Christmas cards for a few years were done on the Central line, in fact, as were many Flower Fairies. I like giant cross stitches too, but there’s only so many you can put on a wall.

In the shed the other day I found my file of finished cross stitch pieces, and I am determined to start using them so they see the light of day. One – a Margaret Sherry cat – has been turned into a birthday card this week. I have a box of kits to work through, too, and that might have to be my 2021 resolution as I am really enjoying cross stitch again at the moment.

Next up was knitting, which I never really mastered as I can’t get the tension right and don’t enjoy enough to persevere with. While I was expecting Thing One I experienced some very odd cravings: Walkers salt and vinegar crisps, Bruce Willis films, and the urge to knit. The last one can probably be put down to a nesting instinct but the less said about Bruce Willis the better. I even watched Hudson Hawk.

Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock (1550563a) Die Hard: With A Vengeance (Die Hard 3), Bruce Willis Film and Television

Anyway, I bought a book (of course!) and taught myself to knit. Very badly – I created a wonky small blanket, a cardigan where one sleeve was twice the size of the other, a bag I have never used and eventually settled on making phone socks which you really can’t go wrong with. I don’t knit any more but that was really the start of my love affair with self-striping sock yarn.

I also tried patchwork after Thing One was born, after a crafty friend and I picked up mini-quilt kits at a stitch show. I finally finished that tiny kit in lockdown this year, along with a much larger Attic Window quilt I started at the same time. There’s nothing like an ambitious beginner!

I stopped knitting but carried on with the cross stitching, and tried my hand at simple embroidery. After Thing Two was born I used a bag with an aida (cross stitching fabric) panel to stitch a design of a pair of penguins. Bag charms were quite a thing at the time, so I found myself in the Ebay rabbit hole and discovered beads and findings. One penguin bag charm turned into making jewellery which I still do for school Christmas fairs and gifts, and several boxes full of shiny things. Things One and Two have enjoyed making ‘goth’ jewellery this summer, with ribbon chokers and charms. One of the things I like about making jewellery is that you can combine it with other crafts – I have made crocheted earrings with granny squares and Christmas trees, cross-stitched pendants, origami leaf jewellery, and tiny polymer clay charms.

My mum gave me her sewing machine many years ago, which I never got to grips with, and then after Thing One was born my mother in law gave me her 1960s Husqvarna Viking, which terrified me. We didn’t do much textiles back in school – I have written before about my creative education – and I made a stripy apron back in the one 10 week block we did in first year comp and then nothing else. I used it to back a cross-stitched afghan for Thing One’s first Christmas (that makes it sound a lot easier than it actually was as I has no idea what I was doing!) and then put it away in a cupboard where it lurked until after my MIL died and we moved to North Weald. I became determined to learn how to use it, and started dressmaking. There were a few disasters there, but a friend of mine was learning at the same time so we formed a mini support group. Crafty friends can’t be underestimated: company at the craft shows, someone to share triumphs and disasters with, sources of advice, ideas sharers and crafternoon bee buddies. I have some excellent ones, online and off!

And then one morning I woke up with an overwhelming urge to learn to crochet. My mum and my late MIL (who was an avid crocheter of cat blankets for an elderly cat rescue charity) had both attempted to teach me in the past and I had never got past a wonky chain. I had both yarn and hook, and with the aid of Bella Coco, a couple of handy books and a lot of swearing I taught myself to make a granny square. Crochet quickly became my go-to commute craft, and one unexpected side effect of this has been the number of lovely conversations I have had with people of all ages.

Anyone in London knows that talking to people on the tube is not done but – as we used to find with historic interpretation – anyone doing a ‘domestic’ activity becomes approachable. Sometimes crochet feels like performance art!

My favourite moments have included the two ladies who were watching me put an amigurumi unicorn together and spontaneously applauded when they worked out what it was, and the elderly gentleman who struck up a conversation about what I was making and ended up telling me about his mother’s ‘bottom drawer’ crocheted and embroidered table linen which was always kept ‘for best’. As we got off the tube he thanked me for bringing back happy memories of his mother who had died many years ago. Just this week I was finishing off a square for the Zoom blanket as I was waiting for the bus, and a woman stopped to watch, confiding that during lockdown she’d started embroidery again after not doing anything for 30 years. Craft breaks the ice and makes the world a community. It also makes the inevitable hanging around in tunnels much more bearable.

In 2019 I ran a 10-week after school craft club at my favourite primary school in Bethnal Green – eight children, and we made pompoms, paper plate wreaths, and miles of crochet chain. The real joy of that for me was not the craft, but the conversations that the children and I would have while we sat in the classroom. As we crafted they’d tell me about their day and the things that mattered to them, and going to the school became a highlight of my week: reminding me why we were making a new museum about creativity, and how happy the act of making can make us.

All the materials for my crafts live in my shed, and when I feel the need for inspiration I potter up there and see what makes my heart sing that day; whether that’s a ball of sock yarn, some lovely material or a cross stitch kit. I also have a library of books to fall back on – sometimes just flicking through a book can spark ideas, and the pages of beautiful projects never fail to make me happy. I love a charity shop mooch to find new books, and the Etsy, Pinterest and Ravelry rabbit holes have stolen hours of my life. I don’t mind at all…

So this week I have been working on the Hydrangea crochet blanket, another post-swim robe for someone up at the lake (who described it as like being wrapped in a hug when she put it on this morning), and the Marble Floor crochet. And ALL of them have made me happy.

So there you have it: how I ended up with a shed, a lifelong addiction to craft shops and a whole set of post-apocalyptic life skills.

Let’s see what week 33 brings…apart from Lockdown part two. Stay safe!

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

Alexandria/Nemesis (Falco series) – Lindsey Davis (Audible)

The Blood Card/The Vanishing Box (The Brighton Mysteries) – Elly Griffiths