75: delays to normal service continue

Ten years ago, on a bank holiday weekend much like this one, I came downstairs to find a message from London sister on the answerphone, left in the early hours of the morning: my brother-in-law had had a massive heart attack and they didn’t know if he was going to make it. I wandered back upstairs and told my beloved, who said – like we all did – ‘are you sure? what? that can’t be right’, or words to that effect. But he’s really fit and healthy, he’s only 36. That sort of thing. He had an undetected heart condition, apparently: scanning young adults is not routine, so it was never picked up. It’s the same thing that caused footballers like Fabrice Muamba and Christian Eriksen to collapse on field.

They had been out running and out of the blue he had dropped. She did CPR and with the help of a passer by – as she didn’t have her phone on her – had called the ambulance and he’d been raced off to hospital where they operated. He’d been half an hour without a heartbeat and was given a 10% chance of making it through the next 24 hours. I still go cold thinking about it now.

London sister and her husband met at school when they were 11, and did the whole playground ‘going out’ thing, so he’d been in our lives for 25 years at that point. They broke up, as you do when you’re 11, and got back together on my 20th birthday (which made remembering stuff a lot easier). He was a hugely talented guitarist, a sound engineer who had worked on some great albums with some very big names, a guitar teacher, a rock to the whole family when our Grandad Bill passed away. He and I hadn’t always got on, but I love him dearly.

They married in 2005, in a joyful ceremony (I’m not sure I’ve ever seen another bride turn round and give the entire congregation a thumbs up and a massive grin when the vows were said) with a reception where their first dance was to ‘If I had a million dollars’ by the Bare-Naked Ladies.

High Beech, 2011 – pre-cardiac arrest. Thing 1 nicking her aunty’s water

Things 1 and 2 adore their uncle (and aunty, of course), and Thing 1 treated him as a giant climbing frame. Thing 2 didn’t like a lot of people but he was one of them. I don’t think that that she talked to him much, but she did at least acknowledge his existence which was rare. At five and rising three they didn’t understand what was happening, and Thing 3 was only seven months old at the time. I was due to go back to work a few days later, at the end of my maternity leave. I am not sure how much use I was back at work, but there we are.

Both London sister and my brother-in-law are, fortunately, stubborn types. He pulled through, and after several months in hospitals he came home. He had to learn to walk, talk and eat again, and both their lives have changed irrevocably. The long – and ongoing – journey they have been on since then is not my story to tell. Thing 3 never knew Uncle Mk1 as he was too young, but he adores Uncle Mk2 and treated him as a climbing frame in much the same way as his big sister did. He was a sturdy child, to say the least, and had to be reminded to be gentle at times.

Thing 3 and his beloved uncle and aunty

The swift work of my sister and the NHS meant that we still have my giant, grumpy, funny, beloved brother-in-law in our lives, and my sister still has her soulmate. They have raised thousands for C-R-Y (Cardiac Research in the Young) and Headway since then, and I am proud to have been a small part of that when we did a half marathon together. Well, together at least part of the way – she finished before I did!

Twelve people each week under the age of 35 die due to sudden cardiac arrest. If more of us knew how to do CPR – I have the vaguest idea, having last done first aid training when I was a student teacher in the mid-90s – then that number could probably be reduced. There are defibrillators all over the country now, but I am not sure I would know how to use one.

When I went back to work I asked our HR team about first aid training: no, I was told, it’s only for front of house staff. While I wasn’t working on the floors, I was delivering sessions in basement classrooms without a radio or a telephone, or on gallery, so I was working with the public. Still not good enough, I was told. This seemed shortsighted, but they wouldn’t budge.

If they can find the space in the school curriculum to teach financial literacy and ‘British values’ they can find a space to teach CPR: a half day out of the school year isn’t that much and it could – quite literally – save a life.

Normal service returns next week, honest.

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

Mort / Interesting Times/Reaper Man – Terry Pratchett

74: peekaboo, I see you

Afghanistan has been all over the news for the last couple of weeks, as the Taliban take over the country once more and the US and UK evacuate troops and civilians in an unplanned, chaotic dash – but not, in many cases, other people who have links to them and who will now be left vulnerable in their home country. Activists, for example, promoting women’s rights or democracy: according to some reports, the Taliban are going house to house seeking out people with links to foreigners and the government. Twelve people have died simply trying to reach the airport in Kabul to get out of the country this week, from stampedes or gunshots.

You may be reading this and wondering what this has to do with my usual ramblings, and may be inclined to point out that this is hundreds – possibly thousands, given my tenuous grasp of world geography – of miles away.

You may be reading this and wondering why I am venturing into the world of international politics, given that I am usually going on about crochet and dressmaking and lovely ‘hello clouds, hello sky’ walks, with only the occasional rant about free school meals and things.

Well, this week I had one of those moments when world politics ended up within a few feet of me, in the shape of a small girl and her dad, and a pile of those blue blocks my colleagues and I have been carting round east London since the beginning of July.

This week we were at a children’s centre in Whitechapel, at a family play day, meeting children and parents from the local area to do some building and playing. The majority of the children we encountered were pre-schoolers: very small when the pandemic started, who had missed out on many of the baby groups to which they would usually have had access. Language and social delays are common.

We set up the session with figurative structures, which they could either interact with as they were or rebuild to make something else. We had a rocket car, a tunnel, a den, and I had great fun building a castle. We built very tall things and knocked them down, we engaged in Godzilla games, we made a finish line and cheered when people came through it. We wondered where you could go in a rocket car and we pantomimed and clowned around.

After a while a dad and his daughter arrived. She was clutching a doll which she wouldn’t let go of and her dad was trying to get her to build something with him, which is quite hard to do one-handed. So I began to build a castle, big enough to get inside. One girl from another family decided it needed a door, so she added one and after going in and out a few times she wandered off.

The finished castle

The dad came and started helping me to build the castle taller, checking it was OK: of course it was, and we built it taller and taller and then added a fabric roof. His little girl crept into the castle and stood there with her doll, so I began to play ‘peepo’ with her through the gaps between the blocks and the holes in them. It took a while to get her to respond, although she watched me very seriously to see where I would pop up next. Eventually she smiled when I appeared in a different hole and even, at one point, giggled.

My castle needed something to make it less blue, so I started using the gold foil cutouts to link some of the holes and to make tubes. Marble runs had been very popular, so I found the small plastic balls and began to roll them through the tubes. At first, my new friend just pushed them out through the gaps between the blocks, but after a few minutes of watching me roll them through different tubes each time she started to join in, and to try and push the balls back to me before they could drop. I added a second ball and she put the doll down so she would have both hands free to play.

Her dad began to talk to me: he had very little English, and he told me that her name was Raya, and her English was better but she didn’t talk much. She knew the animals and colours, he said, and she talked at home. She didn’t know many people. This was the first time she had been able to play outside safely, he said. She’s three. I assumed this was because of Covid – isn’t everything, after all?

After a while Raya came out of her castle, leaving the doll behind, and came over to her dad for a cuddle. He picked her up, so I made another foil tube and used it as a telescope – dad joined in the game and moved her closer and further away from the end, and she giggled some more. It’s hard to resist a giggling child, so we carried on playing.

A pair of the bigger boys – Eastern European, again with very little English – asked me using gestures whether it was OK to knock the castle down. Of course, I said, and we cheered as they demolished it thoroughly.

‘That is what they are doing in my country, too,’ observed the dad. ‘In Afghanistan. They knock things down.’

As we were packing away the kit, one of the children’s centre managers came over for a chat and was telling us that they had been phoning a local hotel where a group of newly arrived refugees from Afghanistan were staying, to try and get them to come along, but she didn’t think any had. The penny dropped and we talked about Raya and her dad, and how it had taken a while to engage the little girl but we’d got there in the end.

A new country. A new language. Three years without being able to play safely outside. Three years.

Raya and her dad, and our play session, have stayed with me all week. This country isn’t perfect, heaven knows, but I can take my kids to the park and they can play outside. They haven’t been displaced from their home, although if you listened to them for the first couple of years I’d ruined their lives by making them change schools.

What else has remained with me is that play truly is the universal language: you don’t need words to play peekaboo, or peepo, or whatever its name is where you live. And that sometimes the world lands on your doorstep in the shape of a small girl and her dad.

Normal service will resume next week, I’m sure.

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

Moving Pictures /Small Gods – Terry Pratchett

The Sandman – Neil Gaiman (Audible)

Addlands – Tom Bullough (from the Shelf of Shame)

73: constructing a history mystery

Previously on What Kirsty Did Next…

The pattern Irish Sister (let’s call her Steph, as it’s her name) and I chose over a Zoom call was the Cordelia skirt from Wearing History. These Resto-Vival™ Patterns are original historic patterns that have been restored and revived, and have had pattern markings and sizings added that the modern sewer is used to seeing rather than the basic perforations that were common in early sewing patterns. While making this I was watching the Great British Sewing Bee’s early series, and I had a lot of sympathy for the sewers encountering their first 1930s pattern! We chose to make the skirt in street-length (with no train) and in a plain grey cotton sateen from Ray Stitch which I thought would have the drape and weight needed for the shape we were after. Ray Stitch offers a thread matching service, which we took advantage of, as I wasn’t sure if I’d have the right grey in my stash. We also needed ‘belting’ which turned out to be grosgrain ribbon.

Steph sent me the measurements we needed, and as she fell between sizes we chose to go slightly larger for breathing purposes, and so she could wear the correct historical layers underneath if needed. She – like me – is not blessed with great height and this is a skirt that runs long, so I had to redraft the length and then the back: the shortening had to be done at about thigh length, rather than from the bottom. As so much length was lost I was able to cut out the skirt on the cross-grain, which meant I didn’t have to piece the fabric. The original skirt was made from one piece of fabric, seamed up the back and given shape through waist darts where the side seams would sit and further darts in the belting.

How straightforward, I thought! What was I worried about?

And then I realised it called for dress weights, which I had never used before although Google tells me they are still popular with various royals who need to maintain their dignity while getting off aeroplanes in windy places. Hurray for Google, eh? Neither were there any instructions for fastening the skirt, or indeed many for making the skirt up, despite it being only one seam and some darts. Basically: sew darts, sew skirt together, add the belt.

A quick message via Etsy to the very helpful Lauren, owner of Wearing History, solved the fastening question: she added a placket with snaps and a hook and eye. After consultation with Steph we decided we could get away with adding a zip as they were invented in 1913 and the character she will be playing on film is from 1921 (the centenary of the creation of Northern Ireland). I went for an invisible zip, as it should also be hidden by her middy blouse. Originally I put it in properly, but then I had to take it out as the skirt needed to be taken in after finishing it, so then went back to my much quicker method. The pattern weights were more of an issue as I tacked them in but they didn’t want to stay tacked. Every time I shook out the skirt they fell off. I didn’t want to fix them in permanently in case Steph didn’t feel they were necessary!

For once I was good and tacked the waistband in before stitching it down – I am not a tacker usually, as I am a lazy sewer and prefer pins. I’m glad I did, as I had to adjust some width out of the waist after I’d tacked it in. My dressmaking mannequin, known as Lucy, came in very handy this week for measuring as well as for keeping in progress pieces on!

Here is the finished skirt – I think it turned out OK, and it’s in the post to NI already. I just hope it fits…

I also packed off a pair of historic pockets – I have been obsessed with making these this week. The pattern is by Hamblemouse, who is starting a pocket revolution inspired by the parlous state of pockets in women’s clothing. I love adding pockets to things, so the idea of pockets that you can just add to whatever you’re wearing is genius. Women used to wear these under their clothing, and then handbags came along – but what if you need your hands free? There’s an excellent history of pockets on the site if you’re interested – I love the idea of keeping gin and kittens in them, frankly.

I started with a couple of sets made from leftovers from other projects, and then I got overexcited and used some leftover jelly roll strips to make some single ones, which might be the most gorgeous things I have ever made. They look like sunsets and they are perfectly pressed (for a change). These are too lovely to hide, and I may make them for every conservator I know for keeping useful things (and gin and kittens) in.

I’ve also made a cross-back apron, using this fabulous free pattern and tutorial from Hey June Handmade – a colleague was wearing a calico one for a workshop last weekend and it reminded me that I had wanted to make one. Toast have one for sale for £69 – mine was made from denim leftovers and bound with home-made bias binding left over from a quilt last year. The leftovers are from the Morgan jeans I cut out weeks ago and started making this week – all done apart from buttons and rivets, as I discovered I had run out of jeans buttons.

Seven years ago I cut out a pile of Japanese knot bags, made one for a teacher gift for Thing 2’s Year 1 teacher, half finished a couple of others and then left the rest. These are also handy small bags that slip on your wrist, so I have FINALLY finished them this week (every year I have got them out and added them to the to-do pile, and every year I have put them away again…).

My final make of my week off was a dress, using the Ariana midi dress pattern from Sew Magazine – a free template download of a buffet-style dress. I used some lovely star print fabric (at least, it was lovely till I started trying to cut it) that I bought last year – I’d been going to make an Anna dress with it but it’s too fine. The bodice is lined with plain black polycotton sheeting, and for some reason the pattern calls for a lined bodice and a facing. I left out the lining fabric facing as it was totally unnecessary. Much cursing was done over the gathering of the tiered skirt – I think I should just be grateful it was only two tiers – as well as over the bodice instructions. It’s turned out OK but is definitely a maxi rather than a midi – I should have taken a few inches out of the first tier, I think. If I make it again…. oh, who am I kidding? I’m never doing that bodice again.

My last sewing job this week has been to go to a friend’s house and help get their daughter started with patchwork – she had a sewing machine for Christmas and what with Covid etc it’s taken a while to get round to the promised lesson! I started with straight line sewing on paper and then we made a simple nine-patch block, which hopefully will get her going!

Tomorrow I am back to work so the sewing machine will be getting a rest! I have two blouses cut out, from a favourite Simple Sew pattern, but they can wait….

See you next week! I have to start thinking about school uniform soon, and the annual trauma of the school shoes….

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to Happiness – Bill Bailey

Lost for Words – Stephanie Butland

From the Shelf of Shame:

Addlands – Tom Bullough

Meadowland – John Lewis-Stempel

72: it’s not goodbye, it’s au revoir

This week I have not done a lot, really – work, read, enough stitching and crocheting to make my arm and shoulder ache, watched a lot of films (with Jason Statham in, for some reason – not my choice) and fed a lot of children.

I did go out on Wednesday: to give blood (donation 24! The things I do for a mint Club) and then into Bethnal Green where we said goodbye to the old Museum of Childhood before the base builders etc move in for the next couple of years. It was a quiet goodbye, with a lot of faces missing from the team I joined four years ago: a few through natural career progression but more thanks to the many restructures that we have been through in that time. I also ate at Chiringuito in Bethnal Green for the first time (fish tacos) and learned more about flying ants than I ever thought I needed to know. This is what comes of working in museums, where we acquire random bits of information through being incurably curious about pretty much everything. Top tip for you people out there – curators and other museum people are good to have on pub quiz teams*.

Photo by Helena Rice

For the next two years we are wandering souls, washing up in small groups in corners of the V&A at South Kensington, clutching our laptops and wondering where we left our pen last week. 40% of our time is ‘on-site’ at the moment, though for the learning team that time is currently out and about with our blue blocks, which is great fun even in the rain. (I am writing this on Saturday morning, by the way, as tomorrow I will be out with the team all day at The Get Together in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park).

This seems to be a fairly normal work pattern right now, as far as I can tell. Hybrid working, blended working, whatever you want to call it, seems to be here to stay, certainly in the non-people-facing jobs. It’s good not to have to commute all the time, and platforms like Teams and Zoom are making it easier to stay in touch with colleagues, but I do miss the spontaneous Friday lunches and the kitchen chats, or feeding the ducks on a lunchtime walk. It’s too easy when working at home to not have those social moments. In ‘normal’ times you spend 36 hours a week with your colleagues, and if you have good ones (I do) they become your work family. I miss the kettle moments (water cooler moments, presumably, in those nations less reliant on tea for functioning), team problem solving in the office (gang, have you got a minute?), people popping in and out to raid the biscuit tin. Our office was the home of the biscuit tin, which meant we knew what was going on on the floor as people came in for Oreos and hugs. Mostly I just miss people!

*However, a whole quiz night made up only of museum people is a terrifying experience. If you are the quizmaster/mistress, be very very sure that your answers are correct, or the likelihood of a dawn duel with historically accurate weaponry is high. You have been warned.

Why my arm aches…

This week I started the shawl pictured here – the Build Your Own Beehive Shawl CAL by Fleabubs and Lala. I did not need another project, but this was such a pretty pattern and I already had the yarn sooooo…. the yarn is Stylecraft Batik Swirl in the Rainbow colourway. The shawl is made up of ten-row repeats of three different stitches – trellis, pollen and honeycomb. It feels a bit more scarfy than shawly to me at the moment, despite increasing the starting chain from 60 to 80, but my friend Ruth who pattern tested it says it pays for blocking. I hope so – when it comes to scarves and shawls I definitely lean towards the dramatic swish and swirl rather than the single wrap! Perhaps this is what comes of working in historic buildings, where ‘work blankets’ are definitely a thing in the winter.

I’ve also made progress on the Hobbit Hole – only the lettering to go now, which is exciting, and then I need to frame it and find it a home.

I am off work next week. About half an hour after booking the time off, Irish sister messaged me…

How could I resist? So this week I’ll be making a skirt for a 1921 schoolmistress, using a historic pattern that is very light on instructions. That’s the problem I have found with vintage patterns: the publishers assumed that all women had been taught the basics of sewing and garment construction and knitting and crochet, either by their mother or in school. That’s not the case these days, sadly, so this week will be a learning curve all round!

I am off now, as we are going to see Timeshare 1 and the grandson shortly. See you next week!

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

The Lost Tribes of Pop – Tom Cox

Stardust – Neil Gaiman (Audible)

From the shelf of shame….

Jigs and Reels – Joanne Harris

Holy Fools – Joanne Harris

Meadowland – John Lewis-Stempel

71: rain did not stop play

This week has felt almost normal: two days of delivery and a day in the office, drinks with colleagues on Wednesday and a noisy evening in a pub on Friday night. Never mind that one of those days of delivery was outdoors, with sessions bracketed (but not cancelled) by torrential downpours – we were doing our job, the reason we went into learning in the first place. I did have to wring out the bottom half of my dress while I was wearing it, as we cleaned 100 or so pieces of play equipment under a shelter made pointless by the rising waters and the horizontal rain, but there we are. We had a great day! It was noisy, joyful and inspiring.

British summertime…

I have mentioned the Imagination Playground Big Blue Blocks we are using before: it’s quite well-known and is used all over the world. We also have a kit designed by CO-DB which can be used to create pop-up spaces for craft workshops and more, and we had some of those pieces with us as well. As soon as we started to put out wooden structures we were surrounded by children who had some very firm ideas about how they thought it should be set out: they wanted to build a house, and when there weren’t enough pieces they collected other objects from around the playground to make their creation. They carried across tables and chairs, a giant Connect-4 game, and PE equipment. The house was initiated by a couple of small boys and others soon joined in, bringing their own ideas to the game.

My role that day was supporting our Informal Learning producer. Later in the day we were joined by an artist, Matt Shaw, who has been commissioned to create a ‘plus’ set to add to the Blue Blocks – he brought some rolls of corrugated card with him, some cut up plastic pipes and connectors and large pieces of fabric, to see how they added to the play. The Theory of Loose Parts is behind this. We introduced those about halfway through each session, when the children were evaluating their creations to see how they could add or improve them – something they did independently, rather than directed by us.

It was an interesting day: we had children ranging from Early Years to young teens, and we were presenting them all with exactly the same base equipment. We wondered whether the older ones would engage with the blue blocks or if they’d think they were too babyish for them, but we were surprised by how much they enjoyed it. All the sessions started with free play so they could see how the blocks worked together and could be connected, and then we threw in a challenge to finish off. Often this was to make the tallest structure they could, which they then enjoyed knocking down. Matt’s fabric was used to create dens and sails, and some ripstop fabric lengths became roofs for a shelter built by a team of girls called ‘the prime house’ because it was all primary colours. We asked one group to design and build a way to cross a river, so we saw some great bridges: we’d tested this with schools in early July.

The free play was interesting, as every age group made some kind of fitness equipment, often from a starting point of a dumbbell made from a noodle shape and two round pieces. The oldest group made theirs very elaborate, with a bench press and a leg machine, while the younger ones were more basic. Most groups made a marble run: if two sets of children started making one and discovered there weren’t enough pieces, we encouraged them to team up and create one large one. It was brilliant to watch them testing angles to make sure the ball would move smoothly, tweaking things to ensure it didn’t fly off, and solving problems together. The activity brought children together: this was a council play scheme which had only been open a couple of days, with children from all over the borough. Many had never met before that week, and the blue block activity got them talking to each other for the first time, according to the adults.

Of all the loose parts the children chose to add to their creations, the most popular were a set of marker cones which had been left in the playground – so much so that we will be adding them to our own kit for other events. They became decoration for houses, stoppers on the marble run, wheels, eyes and more. So simple that we wouldn’t have thought of them ourselves, but every group added them in to their creations. They also enlivened the Blue Blocks, which are otherwise just – well – blue.

The idea behind our participation in this playscheme, the school sessions I have mentioned in previous episodes, play streets and festivals is to support creativity and the skills that creativity builds: confidence, communication, collaboration and more (yes, they all begin with C) and I think we saw that in spades this week.

My other delivery day was at Spotlight, an amazing youth space in Tower Hamlets where I was supporting our Creative Producer. This was part of a local transition Summer School for Year 6s going into Year 7, and were working with School of Noise who run workshops encouraging the exploration of music and the science of sound. I learned loads – about how sound travels, chladni plates, about making sound effects and more. The students were really engaged too, and were amazed at how the sounds they could make with their bodies could create music. We tried some Foley in the afternoon, making the sound of fire with bubble wrap, tin foil and a plastic shopping bag, and we saw this video which left us in awe of Foley artists. I have had some strange requests from my Foley artist neighbour over the years but this video really put them into context.

Just having these days with the team in real life, and Friday in the office at South Kensington, reminded me why I love my job and the people I work with. We went out on Friday night to the Zetland Arms in South Ken to say a goodbye to our wonderful director. I saw people I had previously only met on Teams calls, and others I hadn’t seen since before lockdown – it made the ludicrously expensive G&Ts worthwhile. (Lovely director has just messaged me to say thank you for the letter and crocheted angel I handed her on Friday night – when she arrived two years ago we had just been through a horrible restructure and we found guardian angels on our desks waiting for us, so it seemed right to send her off with one too!)

And now it’s August. How did that happen?

Biscuit, anyone?

All this travelling on tubes has meant that I could spend some serious time crocheting daft things – more jammy dodgers, in fact. Here’s eight I made on the tube – there would have been nine, except a small girl was entranced by what I was doing so I gave her a finished one. I think it made her day. These are very satisfying to make, as other than weaving in the ends there is no construction: you join as you go. They will either end up as brooches or tree decorations – these are made with the 2mm hook, rather than the larger one, so the stitches are tighter.

The background is, of course, the Hobbit Hole – I am now onto the bottom half and will be starting a new page this evening. And now I am off to do some other sewing. I should be constructing jeans but I have a PDF that needs sticking together for a dress, so let’s see how far I get!

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading

The Shadow Wing (Crow Investigations) – Sarah Painter

Good Omens – Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman (Audible)

From the shelf of shame:

Bring me the head of Sergio Garcia – Tom Cox

Jigs and Reels – Joanne Harris