126: ambassador, you are spoiling us

Last week we ran out of the Furry Fiends’ usual Iams cat food, and as the Amazon subscription delivery was due in a few days I grabbed some Go-Cat from the local Co-op to tide them over. It received the kind of ecstatic welcome I’d expect from the Things if I turned up with a surprise McDonalds. There was winding round the ankles, head bumps, clean bowls and general excitement. Clearly this is junk food extraordinaire for cats: weird shapes, vegetables, that sort of thing.

Considering they are cats and can’t actually speak, they do a good job of communicating their needs to us. Bailey herds us to where we need to be – food, or water – and Ted is very vocal. Lulu is the teenage sulky cat who flops about the place or stalks off in a huff.

All three of the furry landmines came to us as adult cats: Teddy and Bailey from a new blended family where there was an allergy, and Lulu from a home where they just didn’t have room for a cat any more. Ted was four, Bailey was three and Lulu was one. Ted is a lilac haired British Shorthair, Bailey is a chocolate point British Shorthair and Lulu is a dark tortoiseshell domestic shorthair (your common or garden mog, in other words). Much like the Things, they have their own very well-defined personalities.

Ideally they would all love each other and sleep in adorably Instagrammable furry heaps. In reality, the boys hate the girl so every week we have to swap them between upstairs and downstairs. The boys will walk through any open door, Lulu has to be collected by stealth or physically wrestled: no matter who actually does the swapping it’s my fault and my ankles are at risk for the next few hours. The sight of a bag of kitty litter sends her into hiding as she knows what’s coming. For a cat that regularly falls down stairs when she rolls over on the top step and who has been known to miss when she jumps onto something, she’s pretty bright at times. Ted and Bailey will also walk straight into the cat carrier to go to the vets.

Lulu adores my Beloved and has been known to bring him gifts of unwary shrews that venture onto the catio. Last Christmas it took us half an hour, a wooden spoon and an empty cheese sauce pot to recapture a mouse she’d brought him. At least once she’s handed them over she loses interest, so we don’t have to retrieve them from her. She snuggles up to him on the sofa, can recognise the sound of the van and sit up meerkat-style when she hears him coming in, and she hurls herself at his feet when he approaches. The rest of us get our ankles attacked and our shoulders high-fived when she’s ensconced in her favourite box on the cat tree. The computer chair is her favoured sleep spot, and she’s happy to demand space from Thing 3. She also likes to make her presence known in the night by dotting her cold nose on any exposed limbs, or via a piercing mew close to your ear.

Teddy and Bailey are much more laid back (unless Lulu is within sight). Ted’s turned into a bit of a princess at the grand age of 10, seeking out cushions and comfortable beds. All paper work on the floor is fair game, and all pencils are his playthings. He goes through phases of sleeping on my head in the night, as pillows are his property, which leaves me with a cricked neck. I can occasionally employ a decoy pillow to distract him, however. His favourite trick is to demand attention and then to lie down just out of reach of the person attempting to stroke him. He has a loud miaow, which he deploys when anyone has the temerity to a) lock a door against him, b) be outside in the garden or c) not provide undivided attention on demand.

Both Teddy and Bailey can detect a tin of tuna being opened from three rooms away and can teleport to the kitchen. Pedigree cats are prone to gingivitis, so Bailey had a lot of teeth removed a couple of years ago which has left him with a fang on his bottom jaw. He has a faintly piratical air thanks to this and his bandit mask (like the Dread Pirate Roberts). He likes to stand on his back legs to demand attention, and does a silent miaow at you, especially in the mornings when he knows breakfast is in the offing. He’s partial to the odd Quaver or Wotsit, and also likes scraps of ham. His current favourite spot in the heat wave is under the desk in a dark corner, or on the corner stair next to the outside wall where it’s cool.

These two do collapse in furry heaps together, and I suspect Bailey would be open to a friendlier relationship with Lulu if Ted wasn’t around. We live in a house which has had cats since the 1960s and it felt wrong to be without one!

Other things making me happy…

This week one of my colleagues managed to take a photo of me that I didn’t hate, and Thing 2 also captured one of me in my latest attempt at creating work-appropriate pyjamas. (I haven’t tested them out yet as this week has been heatwave time again.)

  1. The red dress photo was taken at Oxford House, where one of my amazing colleagues organised an event for families on Monday. We had a great day meeting local families, playing with the blue blocks outside in the shade and finding out what makes them creative. They discovered what a curator does, saw some of the new ideas for the museum and designed some picture frames too. A local professional photographer, Rehan Jamil captured portraits of children with props while Will Newton, curator of the Imagine gallery, recorded their stories for the ‘This is Me’ section of the space. Naturally the team got in on the act for some test shots – of course I had my crochet with me in the shape of a new Dragon Scale shawl which is my current tube project. Our colleague on mat leave visited with her gorgeous baby, who is – fortunately – resigned to being cuddled by random museumites – the problem with people going on mat leave, I have found, is that you really want them to come back as you miss them but you also want their mat cover to stay as they are equally lovely.
  2. The work appropriate pyjamas are actually the Zadie jumpsuit by Paper Theory – online reviews were mixed on fit, and the PDF pattern was a nightmare to put together but the result was great. I used another 100% cotton fabric that I’d bought as an end-of-roll bargain last year.
  3. Fab lollies. Fab lollies are great. Although this week my beloved’s response to being asked if he’d like a Fab was ‘what time is it?’. That’s on a par with saying ‘no thanks, I’m not hungry’ to the offer of a chocolate. Weird.
  4. Trialling a giant pig in a blanket version of last year’s tree decorations. Chunky yarn!

And now I’m off for a swim! See you next week.

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

More Tales of the City/Further Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin

The Running Hare – John Lewis-Stempel

Swell – Jenny Landreth

88: 0/10, would not recommend

Well, that was a week of unparalleled misery, quite frankly – topped off by Thing 3 testing positive for Covid on Thursday. Thing 2 was off with the dreaded corona the week before last, I was knocked for six by labyrinthitis (which is not, sadly, a surfeit of David Bowie’s startling trousers) and now Thing 3. Enough already!

Labyrinthitis is a definite -1,000,000/10, do not recommend. It was so horrible I didn’t pick up a crochet hook for a week, or even a book for several days. That bad. NHS 111 recommended taking something called Buccastem, which is supposed to relieve nausea and vomiting related to migraine, and other people recommended Stugeron which made things infinitely worse. A tweet from a lovely museum person crediting my blog from a few weeks ago with making her feel reassured about her upcoming colposcopy made me cry, but so did the lovely Norwegian postal system’s Christmas advert celebrating 50 years since Norway decriminalised same-sex relationships.

Furry nurses are the best

It was Wednesday before I started feeling semi-human again, and Friday before I felt safe to go out of the house. My Beloved did a most excellent job with laundry and keeping the Horde alive, and the furry fiends did an excellent job of keeping me warm. Friends were amazing at relaying Thing 3 home from school, which at least we don’t need to worry about this week as he’ll be off with me isolating.

Lack of new output does, however, mean I can share a piece I finished a while ago but which only got handed over this week – despite the fact that I have seen Heather several times. We were supposed to have a ‘Grumpy People’s Supporters Club’ night out on Friday (well, they did, I stayed on the sofa watching Cowboy Bebop): the last time we saw each other all together was on the hen night back in June! The pattern can be found here and the seller was kind enough to offer to chart the names for me to personalise it as well. I’m told the bride liked it – she loves Art Deco and had a 1920s car to take her to the service, so it should be a good reminder of the day.

When I did manage to pick up a book again, it was with the intention of working through some of the digital shelf of shame on the Kindle – in the mood for something easy, I chose Colin Watson’s Flaxborough novels which were published between 1958 and 1982. Police procedurals which would probably be tagged with the awful ‘cosy mystery’ label these days, these are witty and terribly British, featuring the Viking-like Inspector Purbright and the eastern town of Flaxborough. I had three on my Kindle already and luckily the rest were cheap as I quickly got addicted.

Lying in bed unable to do anything meant I had a lot of time to do mental crafting, which is at least cheaper than the normal kind. I have a head full of ideas and no way to get to them, as my crafting space (OK, the dining room) is still full of stuff we haven’t put back after the heating was put in. My beloved has taken the opportunity to do small jobs upstairs while the place is already in chaos. I’m not saying I’m getting itchy fingers here but I have things that need making! Things 2 and 3 want new pants and there’s Christmas making to be done. This Hobbit Hole piece needs finishing, too: the pattern is by Vetlanka on Etsy. It’s been a while since I’ve worked on such a high count fabric, but the effect is so delicate.

I’ve taken the opportunity to set up a Facebook page for this blog as well, where I can sell the various bits and bobs I make that aren’t destined for gifts, at least from me. You’ll be able to find it here and I really need to take some photos to get things online! Watch this space.

Anyway, I must head off – there’s PCR tests to do and a book to get back to.

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

Speaking in Bones – Kathy Reich

Coffin, Scarcely Used / Bump in the Night / Hopjoy Was Here / Lonelyheart 4122 / Charity Ends at Home / The Flaxborough Crab / Broomsticks over Flaxborough / The Naked Nuns / One Man’s Meat Colin Watson (Flaxborough series)

76: back to school

Normal service resumes after the last couple of weeks! It’s September after all, with the new school year kicking off: new shoes, new bits of uniform ordered if not actually delivered thanks to the shipping delays, driver strikes and shortages that definitely aren’t anything to do with Brexit, good heavens no, timetables downloaded, last minute coursework that Thing 1 assured me all summer she’d done, and so on.

Last weekend I braved Westfield (is it only me that feels the need to shout ‘Westfield! in a bad Radio 1 DJ sort of way?) with Thing 2 in order to buy school shoes. She has very very wide feet (an I fitting) so I knew Harlow at the end of August really wasn’t going to provide what we needed. Instead we had a mum and daughter day out shopping. We also needed school trousers, as we haven’t been able to find the particular style she wants online – the Next ones came up like thick leggings, the George ones were too high waisted, the suggestion of the Banner or Trutex ones either earned me a withering look or weren’t in stock (ditto New Look, Very, Tu, Morrisons, Matalan – everywhere!).

Tim Westfield! Westwood. WestWOOD. Not field.

Thing 2 has been, from a very early age, a child who knows her own mind. In many ways this makes me proud. In other ways it makes me want to slug gin in my coffee and leave her to it. Despite Westfield’s (Westfield!) many shops, we failed to find either shoes or trousers so I ended up buying shoes we could both live with online and she can either alter her thinking about the kind of trousers she wants or wear skirts for the year. I too can be stubborn. We did have a lovely lunch at Wagamama followed by bubble tea for her, and she chose some new clothes at Primark and New Look as well as some bits and bobs from Flying Tiger. I bought some more notebooks – I do love some stationery!* I took her over to the less shiny side of Stratford too, as she wanted some baskets for her bedroom: after Westfield (etc) I think the old Stratford Centre came as a bit of a shock to the system. I used to shop there when I first lived in London as it was the closest place to Forest Gate. It hasn’t changed much, really, in the last 25 years. The planners tried to make it look pretty by installing shiny leaf sculptures (or possibly fish) in front of it in 2012 in case tourists happened to glance in that direction on their way to the Olympics, but it didn’t really help. I suspect some actual investment might have been a better idea, except that just didn’t happen, and what they were left with was an island of Poundlands and Shoe Zones.**

The ‘Stratford Shoal’ by Studio Egret West in 2012. It’s not so shiny now.

*as it turned out I did not need to buy notebooks as I came home with many many new notebooks from the Digital Accountancy Show I worked at later in the week. Ah well. Still, you never know when you’ll need a notebook. Or ten.

**I could go on about the regeneration of Stratford for 2012 at length, but I won’t because it makes me quite annoyed.

Making and doing

I had a few days to recover from the ordeal of shopping with Thing 2, so obviously this involved fabric and leaving pins all over the floor, crochet and cross stitch. After the challenge of making Irish sister’s 1920s skirt I gave in and bought the Japanese Haori and Hapi pattern from Folkwear that I have been ogling for several years. They are not cheap patterns, but come with wonderful histories of the garments and traditional detailing information. They are also adding more and more of their paper patterns to their PDF catalogue, which makes me happy indeed.

I used a gorgeous fabric from Kanvas Studio – Moonlit Lilypads from their Moonlight Serenade collection, and for the lining some tie-dyed cotton that was sold as a star print but when it arrived the print was distinctly…. herbal. The fabric is a one way print which the pattern isn’t suitable for but I rather like how its turned out despite that.

I made the Haori option – a lined, mid-thigh length jacket which comes up quite long on me. The pattern was occasionally a bit confusing to follow, with hand drawn illustrations, but as long as I took it slowly and did a lot of pinning and tacking it wasn’t too bad to construct. My hand sewing is shocking, so if I ever decide to enter the Sewing Bee I’ll have to work on that, and I cheated by machine stitching some of the bits I should have slip stitched but hey, I’m the one wearing it. I love the sleeves, and this is quite cosy to wear so I think it should get a lot of use.

Continuing the Japanese theme, I used some of the leftover koi fabric from making a Simple Sew Lottie blouse to make this Nori Kimono bag. I lined it with some ladybird print polycotton fabric that was an ebay purchase, and it’s had a compliment or two already. I haven’t worn the blouse yet! I love this fabric, it’s so colourful.

As ever I have been cross stitching and crocheting: the temperature tree is up to date, the Hobbit Hole is finished, the Build Your Own Beehive Shawl and the socks are ongoing, and I took a break to make a chicken sweater as one of my lovely colleagues adopted some commercial laying hens (not battery ones!). These are all the bits I haven’t shared with you in my last couple of sensible weeks.

The chicken-adopting colleague, myself and two others also visited Tate Modern to see their summer activity – drawing freely in the Turbine Hall as part of the Uniqlo Tate Play programme. The artwork is amazing and it was great fun adding our little bits to it! I really want to make something out of one of those banners!

The latest thing I have been up to is dabbling in Dungeons and Dragons for the first time in about three decades – I filled in for someone who couldn’t attend a regular game on Friday and managed not to kill his character off so hopefully I’ll be allowed back! The host (Dungeon Master) and his wife have a beautiful gaming table so dice trays are very much the order of the day – I played around with an online tutorial yesterday, and using things from in the craft shed I made a collapsible fabric one and another using a shadow box frame. I’d forgotten how horribly velvet frays so I shall have to do something about the edges but it was quite quick and fun to make.

It’s been a very productive few weeks, as you can see! I’ll see you all again for week 77…now I must go and do the ironing I have been putting off for months.

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

Soul Music/Sourcery – Terry Pratchett

Thief of Time – Terry Pratchett (Audible)

Week forty one: goodbye 2020

The wish ‘happy new year’ has quite possibly never been said by so many people with so much fervency (is that a word?) as it has been this year. Don’t get me wrong, there have been some bad years before: 1994 was pretty horrendous, as was 2003, but those weren’t universally bad. I was glad to see the back of them but felt pretty hopeful about the future. And, to be honest, announcements of vaccines this week are giving me hope for 2021.

Have a cat, because there’s about to be a lot of text.

And 2020, despite all the challenges, hasn’t been all bad. Yes, there were the cancelled holidays, the various levels of lockdown, Covid-19 as a thread across the year, worry about my nurse friends and my vulnerable family members, Christmas without family and so on, but to end the year I’m going to share the things that gave me joy. In no particular order, I give you…my top ten of 2020:

  1. I’ve had six unexpected months with the Things, which is the longest time I’ve been able to spend with them since maternity leave. Maternity leave is wonderful, but you have a tiny baby, no sleep, you’re juggling any other children you have, and trying to remain an actual person at the same time. In my case, too, I had post-natal depression with both Things 1 and 2 which made the whole experience somewhat frightening, especially with Thing 1, when I didn’t know what was happening to me. So, six months with my children, spending time with them now they’re independent, finding out what they love to do, going on walks, learning new skills with them: thank you 2020, for giving me that.
  2. The glorious summer! Can you imagine being in lockdown without that wonderful weather, in a typical rainy British summer season?
  3. The garden. My beloved and I were both furloughed, and had we not had the garden we’d have been under each other’s feet constantly. We are lucky to live where we do, and the garden at the end of this year – thanks entirely to my beloved – looks amazing. It’s filled with birds at the moment: as I look out of the window I can see an enormous rook, wood pigeons, collared doves, a robin, blue tits and great tits. We have goldcrests, dunnocks, sparrows, nesting blackbirds, occasional woodpeckers and jays. This year I have learned to love the noisy, scrappy, playful brood of magpies that hatched in a tree behind the garden – and to have great sympathy for their put-upon mother.
  4. Open water swimming. We came late to this, starting in July, but it’s been a sanity saver for all of us. Swimming in the summer was wonderful, surrounded by the coot chicks and the grebes, but if anyone had said to me then that I’d be looking forward to getting in a sub-5 degree lake on New Year’s Day I’d have laughed. I never thought I’d take up an extreme sport but apparently this is ice swimming – and I love it. I’m a head-up breast stroker, not a front crawler, but at Redricks this is fine: everyone is made to feel welcome. The mental health and physical benefits have been heavily documented by other people in much more learned spaces, but I have to agree with them!
  5. Our local countryside – I live in North Weald in Essex, and I do a lot of walking anyway, having trained for and completed a couple of walking marathons. This year there are no events, so I have been walking for the sheer joy of it. Being at home for most of the year and being able to just ramble, watching the hedgerows and wildlife, not having to be anywhere: it’s been so mindful, just slowing down and watching the world and the seasons change. On any walk I may see rabbits, red kites, muntjac and fallow deer, and hares as well as fields of horses and cows, friendly cats and lots of dogs. It’s cheaper than therapy, too: my friends and I put the world to rights, and when Thing 2 joins me we spend time looking for tiny fungi and mosses.
  6. Zoom and WhatsApp: I may not have been in Wales with my family but we can still see each other and chat. This year we have had a wider clan WhatsApp chat which gets very silly at times, I have conversations with my sisters and with the whole family. We can still share the things that make us laugh, and then we realise that the whole clan shares the warped sense of humour.
  7. This blog! It’s been such a cathartic experience: sharing when I am down or angry or frustrated, talking about the things I love to do, taking you all on a journey through my creation processes. It’s not a curated lifestyle blog, or a foodie blog, or a crafty blog: it’s just me. I try and be honest, whether that’s about my mental health or my reaction to government policy. I try and be wry and look sideways at disasters. Hopefully I succeed! I use Facebook as a daily microblog, too – keeping a count of the days, with three highlights, positives or disasters of the day. In work writing these days tends to be figures, and proposals, and reports – I have loved the chance this year to write because I want to – and to write what I want to.
  8. The people I work with: Microsoft Teams has kept us all in contact, as has Zoom for those social moments. I am so lucky to work with a core team of brilliant people – we are tightknit, we care about each other, and we have felt supported by each other throughout. The museum we are creating is going to be amazing, and I can’t wait for the days when Monday meetings are round a table and not on screen again. I genuinely love my job.
  9. Making, of course. Crochet, dressmaking, cross stitch, quilting: 2020 has given me time to hone old and learn new skills. Obviously there’s still more to learn, but the act of creating and sharing my creations has given me such pleasure this year. Designing my own cross stitches and sharing those has boosted my confidence, too. I just need to get back to work now to wear all those clothes….
  10. My friends: socially distanced coffees in front gardens, people to walk with, to see over Zoom and Houseparty, to make plans with for ‘when things are normal’. I have never been that mum at the school gate as I have always been working, but this year I have really appreciated the chance to walk up daily with my neighbour and their puppy, to see other parents, and to feel part of village life.
  11. Staged, with Michael Sheen and David Tennant. A comedy that perfectly captured the 2020 zeitgeist: Zoom, spending so much time at home, turning our focus locally, working so differently. And Season Two starts this week! OK, so that’s 11 – but this programme is definitely a bonus!
My top nine Instagram posts (@ladybirdkirsty)

So, 2020 – thank you for all the above. Thanks also to the key workers – not just the frontline NHS crews who’ve really, really, really earned a pay rise rather than claps, but to the retail staff, the cleaners, public transport people, and – the unsung heroes – the teachers who’ve been juggling conflicting and frankly bonkers government advice, online and in-person teaching, pastoral care on unprecedented levels, given up their holidays to care for key worker and vulnerable children, who are now spending this holiday trying to plan mass testing, remote learning and more while being abused by the red-tops for ‘laziness’ and ‘cowardice’. The two schools my Horde attend have been brilliant throughout and their care and dedication is being echoed across the country.

I am not given to New Year’s resolutions, but if I were, mine would be to take the positives from 2020 forward into this year: to slow down and watch the seasons change, to appreciate the time I have with my children, to keep being creative and learning new skills, to keep writing and swimming and finding the positives.

It’s not Christmas without a Dalek

One of the things I like to do between Christmas and New Year is a big jigsaw – you may remember this one from my charity shop trawl before Christmas. It took three days, and those Daleks were trickier than they looked. Things 2 and 3 dropped in to help occasionally, and I took up most of the table, and thankfully it didn’t have any pieces missing – not bad for £1.75! And all finished in time for this year’s Doctor Who special on New Year’s Day which was fantastic, to quote Nine – sad to see Bradley Walsh and Tosin Cole go, but bringing John Bishop on board is going to be interesting. Catherine Tate was surprisingly good once I put enough distance between her and her sketch show characters, as was Matt Lucas, so why not John Bishop?

In crafty news, I’m still working on the Hobbit cross stitch… and have so many more geeky patterns on the to-do list! Not much crochet has happened, but it’s not going anywhere.

Do you think he knows about second breakfast?

Facebook memories threw up a quote I’d shared a couple of years ago the other day, and it inspired me to create pixel people of the family and to design a new pattern – I started with squared paper and pencils, as I’m not confident enough to work directly into StitchFiddle yet, and then transferred into the software afterwards. I made a lot more use of the floss chart, too, but need to test it against the swatch book as soon as I remember where I put it this time.

The pixel people templates came from here, and the fonts were from a book I bought a few months ago and this set on Etsy as I wanted to use a range of lettering. I am not sure about using the coloured dots in the ‘Friends’ font (the word ‘nice’), and I might go back to the original one from my pencil drawing. The idea was to incorporate some of the things the kids have enjoyed – Thing 1 binged Friends earlier this year, and Harry Potter is always a favourite.

The final pixel family – the kids love their minis, but my beloved thinks he should have a swagbag over his shoulder. Note that Lulu is next to him, as he’s her favourite human!

I’ve also done a lot of walking – very muddy, very icy, very beautiful.

I’m looking forward to my third dip of the week later this morning – we swam on the 29th and on New Year’s Day. We didn’t have to break the ice in the end, despite being a bit concerned as the temperature didn’t get above one degree on New Year’s Eve! It was so cold, but we felt amazing afterwards. The outside temperature right now is two degrees, but it is only 7am.

New Year’s Day at Redricks

On the subject of temperature, another new project I’ve decided on is a temperature cross stitch using this tree design, where you stitch the high temperature for each day. I’ve just seen that someone is doing two trees, one for highs and one for lows…. must. Resist!

So Happy New Year, everyone! Catch you at the end of week 42.

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

That Old Black Magic – Cathi Unsworth

The Not Knowing – Cathi Unsworth

Help the Witch – Tom Cox

21st Century Yokel – Tom Cox

Week thirty seven: bah humbug

I am not good at Christmas – well, I’m not good at the build up to Christmas. I am tense. I am stressed. The mere sight of a Christmas tree before December 1st turns me into the Grinch. My family – bless them – have been asking me for weeks what the children would like for Christmas. I don’t know. Ask them! Ask their father! He is good at Christmas. He has ordered presents. I have not ordered presents. I have not booked my Christmas delivery slot at Tesco (other supermarkets are available).

I have not done Christmas cards for anyone but family for the last several years – work colleagues in a normal year get a tree decoration, and I donate the cost of cards and postage to charity. This year it will be a food bank charity. Until last Sunday I was in deep denial and we ended up dashing to Tesco to buy advent calendars (which we eventually got in M&S, as everywhere else was sold out)

And don’t even get me started on that bloody elf. He could stay on the shelf for all I care, but Things Two and Three come downstairs and look for the stripy little sod every morning. The first year we had an elf, the kids went into hysterics and I had to promise to send it away. I rehomed it, but that didn’t last and their dad bought a new one in Poundland a couple of years later. I salute my neighbour who has two big elves and three baby elves, which is a whole lot of work. Luckily our elf – dubbed ‘Candycane’ by the children – just does what it says on the tin and sits on various shelves rather than getting up to twee mischief.

I am mellowing slightly, however, and Christmas lights are allowed to be put up this weekend. The tree goes up two weekends before Christmas and I am not budging on that. I have noticed that Thing Two has persuaded her dad to get their ‘bedroom tree’ down already, but I’m ignoring it. Teddy the cat was thrilled to catch his first bird as a result of this, however, and proudly dragged the fake robin downstairs to show us… he was practically strutting for the rest of the evening.

Teddy’s first bird…

This year – of all years – I am enjoying the Christmas lights on the way to school, and one of my neighbours always goes all out to decorate their house.

There is one thing that’s guaranteed to make me feel a bit more Christmassy, luckily, and that’s a Christmas movie (Christmas music, too, but we’ll do that another day). Thing Two refused to allow us to watch any before December 1st, but now it’s open season and I can indulge. So here, in no particular order, are my favourite festive films.

1.The Muppets’ Christmas Carol. Michael Caine in possibly his greatest role ever. Excellent ghosts. Muppets. It truly has everything.

2. Scrooged. You can’t go wrong with Bill Murray in anything, and this also has one of the best Christmas theme songs ever in the shape of Al Green and Annie Lennox’s ‘Put a little love in your heart‘. It’s not Christmas till Carol Kane has thwacked Bill Murray with a toaster, frankly.

Scrooged

3. Miracle on 34th Street – the 1934 version is my favourite, but I am quite fond of the Richard Attenborough one too.

4. Elf – The best way to spread Christmas cheer is to sing out loud for all to hear.

5. It’s a Wonderful Life – my dad’s favourite. James Stewart is wonderful as the frustrated savings and loan owner whose life never goes quite to plan. He’s so human, and if anyone deserves an angel its him.

It’s a Wonderful Life

6. The Christmas Chronicles – a late entry by this Netflix original, with Kurt Russell as a great Santa. Goldie Hawn needs to lay off the Botox though. Plus, a guest appearance by Miami Steve (Steven Van Zandt). The sequel is brought down by the really naff ending.

7. The Hogfather – I reread the book every year, and although this isn’t strictly a film its still part of my Christmas watch list.

HO. HO. HO.

8. Arthur Christmas. Another new one, but a great voice cast.

9. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. If only for the cat.

There are others, of course, but for me its not Christmas until I have watched this lot. (For the record, yes, Die Hard is a Christmas movie.)

I feel more festive already.

Lost: one (crafty) mojo

This week – quite apart from it being December – has been a bit challenging, to say the least. Thing One was already isolating after contact with a Covid case in the last week of November, and then on Monday we received an email telling us that the whole of years seven and ten now had to isolate as the number of cases had risen among both students and staff. Back to the home learning then, and I made the decision to work from home with them. While I could leave Thing One alone for a few hours in between my beloved leaving for work and me coming back, it wasn’t fair to expect her to supervise the (very determined) Thing Two. And yes, mum, I know where she gets it from!

Thing One had a great virtual parent/teacher conference this week which told me what I already knew – my daughter is brilliant – and she has worked really hard this week. One of her English tasks was to write a speech, and she spent far longer on it than the allotted lesson time as she was so passionate about her subject. She was writing about mental health; as someone who has been diagnosed with generalised anxiety, this is really important to her (and to me, as someone who lives with depression) and I am really proud that she is engaging with this in her work.

Thing Two is a different matter. She is still getting used to secondary school after six months at home, and unlike her big sister she is not a self-motivator. My work week has been punctuated by demands for assistance with geography, history, English and science (though she did at least get on with the maths by herself). The only plus was that she did the art homework she’d been resisting while avoiding her geography. I have found meetings having meetings with a bad-tempered little presence in the room quite tricky, especially as she’s a curious little bird and likes to come and see who I am talking to. Really I should invite her to the design meetings as she’s the right age and we could pick her brains!

I am tempted not to send them back for the last few days of term, to be honest: the infection rates are highest in the 11-16 age group, as secondary schools didn’t close during lockdown, and keeping them safe has to be my priority. I don’t want whatever Christmas looks like to be spent watching them for symptoms of the virus – Thing One is already fed up of me pouncing on her and feeling her head for signs of a temperature. Poor Thing Three is having to go to school still, as the girls aren’t showing any symptoms, but I suspect he likes the escape.

Having to wear the mum head and the work head at the same time is tiring, as you need to have separate brain spaces, so by the time we finish for the day and I have fed the horde crafting is the last thing on my mind. Dinner is nominally 6pm, but I am flexible as to time zone: it’s six o’clock somewhere, to paraphrase the song.

The very quick stitch I started last week is mostly a frame and some wording, very little has happened with either blanket and the sock is positively languishing in my work bag.

Sometimes when the crafty mojo vanishes it’s good to pick up something different just to get the hands moving, so I delved into my Ravelry library yesterday evening and whipped up a weeping angel amigurumi which will end up on the tree next weekend. The photos were taken on the kids’ mini tree which is lurking upstairs (yes, the one where Teddy ‘caught’ his robin).

I dragged Thing Two out for a muddy walk yesterday, through the woods to the rope swing. We tested out our new wellies, and looked for fungi and mosses. The winter sun was golden and lovely in the trees, and we followed deer tracks through the mud. There has been a lot of rain this week, so it was good to get out into the sunshine.

So that was week 37. Winter has set in with a vengeance, with sub zero temps – the lake was 5 degrees yesterday, so hopefully it won’t be too much colder this morning. We didn’t get to swim last week as the police shut it down as a ‘gathering’ despite the social distancing measures that Redricks had put in place. Is it weird to be looking forward to getting into freezing water?

See you at the end of week 38, when the tree will be up and I’ll be well into my list of festive films. Which ones have I missed out?

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

Crochet Hacking – Emma Friedlander-collins

The Dark Archive (Invisible Library) – Genevieve Cogman

Forged (Alex Verus) – Benedict Jacka

The Third Nero (Flavia Albia) – Lindsey Davis (Audible)

Week thirty one: No, I will not keep calm and carry on

I, like many of my friends, seem to have spent the latter part of this week in a state of rising fury: first ignited by the government’s decision not to extend the provision of free school meals to families in need over the holidays and then fanned by the increasingly terrible excuses for their decisions. This high profile campaign to help families through a period of unprecedented need has been spearheaded by professional footballer Marcus Rashford, who was given an MBE for services to vulnerable children only a couple of weeks ago. 322 MPS voted against. Some abstained. One MP resigned after defying the Tory whip and voting for the bill.

“Speaking to BBC Breakfast about being made an MBE, Rashford said: “It’s a nice moment for me personally but I feel like I’m still at the beginning of the journey that I set out to try to achieve. I think what I would like to do now that I’m in this position is just speak directly to the prime minister and really ask for the vouchers to be extended until at least October half-term because I think that’s what the families need.”

Marcus Rashford (image by Sky News)

Rashford is right: families need food.

There’s the usual self-righteous bleating about ‘poor families’ spending their vouchers on unhealthy food, about ‘absent parents’ needing to ‘take responsibility’ for their children, even – against all evidence – that children were being helped by the government pumping money (a ‘pledged’ £9bn) into the welfare system. That feeding needy families is ‘nationalising children’. The ‘uplift’ for universal credit claimants of £20 a week amounts to £1000 a year – and that’s £1000 they won’t have next year. Food has also become more expensive this year, so how far does £20 a week go to feed a family of five? There’s two of us working in this family, and there is still a lot of pasta, omelette and corned beef hash at the end of the month.

Well, here’s the thing; according to the Trussell Trust, the UK’s biggest food poverty charity, the huge surge in demand for foodbank use can be explicitly linked to the introduction of universal credit. With a five-week wait for the first payment, people are expected to survive on air, and when you have kids that really isn’t an option.

Here’s another thing: ‘unhealthy’ food is often cheap food, and it’s easy food, and in more and more cases the people claiming universal credit are not Waynetta Slobs sitting on their arses all day, smoking a fag and watching daytime TV. They are families where both parents are working, often full time, and they still can’t make ends meet. And they are tired. They come home from work and the last thing they want is to start peeling bloody carrots and whipping up a Jamie Oliver-approved vegetable-stuffed spag bol.

Free school meals are a lifeline, because they know that at least one meal that day is taken care of, it’s a hot meal and so they can perhaps get away with something smaller in the evening. This year – when the government has forced closure on businesses and expected people to survive on 80% of the wages they couldn’t survive on before – it’s been even more of a lifeline. The persistent Tory prejudice that people are on free school meals because they are single parents is deeply, deeply offensive, as is the idea that single parenthood is some sort of stigma.

I had coffee last week with a friend who works in a Tower Hamlets primary school and she told me that not one but two food banks were active in their school. Gone are the days when the food collected at Harvest Festival would be sent to the local old people’s home: now, increasingly, they are going back to children in the school. Food bank collections used to be a Christmas event, now the crates are next to the tills in every supermarket.

Before I moved into museums I was a teacher in Tower Hamlets and Hackney, in the days before universal school meals for primary school children in Tower Hamlets and for KS1 everywhere else. One of my clearest memories was opening a child’s lunchbox for him and finding a crust of bread with margarine, and nothing else. His sister had the other crust. This child’s mother worked and didn’t qualify for free school meals, but there was no other support. Both children were on the verge of malnutrition but social services were so stretched that they were slipping through the net. Another child used to sneak into the classroom at breaktime and search for food to eat. We would save the milk from the nursery and send it to other classrooms. Free fruit at playtime was a start, free meals were even better.

Back then, those children were the exception. Now schools are dedicating chunks of their ever-decreasing budgets to providing many more children with food parcels, with clean clothes, with helping parents to fill in forms to claim benefits so they can get help. Period poverty, in 21st century Britain, is a thing: girls missing school every month as they can’t afford pads.

I pray that every selfish decision by our current selection of MPs is another nail in the Tory coffin. I am not suggesting that Labour is the answer, but I believe it’s time the people in charge start caring for the people they are in charge of. And thank you to those in the hospitality business who are among the hardest-hit this year, who are stepping up and feeding people anyway.

It is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it… anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.

Douglas Adams

The rest of the week

It seems a bit reductive to now turn to everything else this week, really, but it might help me calm down a bit after that rant!

I have FINALLY finished the Coast blanket, which I am telling myself I started four years ago but I suspect it might be five. I have even woven in the ends, and never have I congratulated myself more for at least starting to do this as I went along.

The tiny squares of the Zoom blanket are piling up, and all the remnant balls from the Coast blanket will be added to that – I WILL get through the stash.

Next up will be the Hydrangea Blanket, also by Attic 24, although I am thinking about making a wrap rather than the whole blanket as – apparently – we have enough blankets. Is that even a thing?

And that’s me for the week. Half term is here and my beloved has most of the week off, so I will be the one in the very dusty classrooms decanting the learning collection. Let’s see what treasures week 32 brings!

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

The Zig Zag Girl/Smoke and Mirrors (Stephens and Mephisto series) – Elly Griffiths

Saturnalia/Alexandria (Falco) – Lindsey Davis (Audible)

Week twenty-eight: when is a learning collection not a learning collection?

This week I have been braving the Central Line (well, on two days at least) and going back into the museum to make a start on sorting and decanting the Learning Collection. The tube is still quite busy in the early mornings, and I am puzzled by the number of people who don’t know how to wear a mask properly.

One morning I got off the tube at Mile End and walked up the canal to Victoria Park, which meant I spotted this gorgeous kitty watching the world go by from one of the houseboats.

The learning collection, as it currently exists, is a large, unwieldy and somewhat random selection of items relating to childhood: toys and games, dolls and teddies, children’s clothing and shoes, nursery items, dollhouse items and so on.

Some things are charming – the collection of tiny mice, for example. Bride and groom mice, magician mouse, Welsh lady mouse and many more. They are dressed beautifully in Liberty fabrics, and the detail is wonderful – but what are they for? They aren’t the sort of things children would play with, being more ‘collectable’ than practical, but they are a wonderful example of a child’s collection. How does a collection like this start? How did the child display them? What can I do with them?

Some are practical – objects designed to introduce a child to the grown up world of work. Working sewing machines and typewriters, small tool kits – in solid metals and woods, not the brightly coloured plastics of today. These are objects designed to be used, to build a child’s skills.

There are, of course, hundreds of items of children’s clothing, from the ceremonial to the practical, and a lovely dressing up collection which echoes the museum’s own collection of fancy dress costumes. Some are handmade or hand embellished, some are worn and much loved. Many predate the fashion for colour as a gender identifier for children – the older clothes are white and cream and colour comes in with the more modern items. Like in many collections, it’s often the ‘fancy’ clothes that have survived – the ones bought for special occasions or ‘kept for best’. But there are so many examples – how many baby bonnets and barracoats does one collection need? And how do I decide which are the ones to keep?

And the shoes – oh, the shoes! It’s a family joke that I have too many books and too many shoes (I don’t believe either of these concepts) so to find a box of tiny footwear in the cupboards was a treat for the eyes. Party shoes in pom-pommed satin, marabou-trimmed baby slippers, practical Start-rite sandals, a single, much repaired boot, kid ankle-straps, handmade quilted pram shoes and more.

There are boxes and boxes of card games (some very non-PC) and board games, of Hornby train sets, terrifying dolls, teddies, model farms, toy cars, construction kits. Toys that children have coveted at Christmas and written hopefully on birthday lists: Weebles, Playmobil, Barbies. An excellent collection of learning toys by the designer Fredun Shapur – brightly coloured and eminently touchable. Toys that bring joy to the people that see them – but they are so rarely seen by anyone except the learning team and the odd student or researcher. These thousands of objects are stored – exquisitely wrapped and catalogued thanks to years of hard work by some very dedicated volunteers – in tissue paper, calico bags and archival quality boxes. In dark cupboards, in basement classrooms, and no one ever sees them or touches them. They don’t spark joy any more, they just get audited every so often. Occasionally I have taken a few objects out – some to sessions at the V&A, working with dementia sufferers as part of an ‘arts prescription’. Some have been to Great Ormond Street or other hospital schools, but these excursions are the exception rather than the norm.

One of my jobs at the moment – now that we have no schools in the museum – is to decant this collection, rationalising it to meet the vision and purpose for the new museum. I also want to rebrand the collection as a handling collection, not a learning collection: to make its practical purpose explicit and, most of all, to get it out of those cupboards. We’re a museum, so we have lots of cupboards full of objects that people can’t touch – both the glass ones on the visitor floors and the treasure troves below. We don’t need any more.

We need a learning collection that people can get their hands on and learn from: does that teddy feel as soft as it looks? What happens if I turn him upside down? How do I make that train set go? What does that button do? Children – and adults! – are curious by nature, and we learn best through play and experience. A learning collection that you can’t do either with isn’t living up to its name.

It’s a daunting job but an interesting one! It’s going to take a few weeks, and then I need to find homes for the objects we are not going to keep. I’d like to see them go to other museums, to schools library services, to schools and to historical interpreters. If you’re any of these things – or if you can add to this list – please do let me know!

Here’s some of my favourite odd objects from the cupboards to be going on with, taken when I was auditing the collection in 2018….

And – as a brilliant segue into this week’s crafty section – here’s a sampler…

Castles and cross stitch

A couple of weeks ago I shared a Princess Bride reference cross stitch I’d made and turned into cards for my family to make them laugh. That was someone else’s design, but it got me thinking about other quotes I’d like to see in stitches.

One of these is ‘Have fun storming the castle!’, which Valerie calls after Westley, Fezzik and Inigo leave to stop Buttercup’s wedding to Prince Humperdinck (yes, he of the to-do list). I had a look on Etsy, and there were some designs but none of the castles were quite right. Some had turrets. Some were positively Disney-esque. Some were pink. None of them looked worthy of storming, so I had a go at creating my own.

Being from South Wales gives you pretty firm ideas of what a castle should look like, and most of them have been stormed at least once in their histories and (mostly) survived to tell the tale. I grew up in Raglan, which has an excellent castle, so I knew the impression I wanted to give with my design.

Raglan Castle: worthy of storming.
(Image by Charles Taylor, http://www.ecastles.co.uk/raglan.html)

I’d mapped out the lettering a few weeks ago, using a shaded font from a book I have had for about 25 years. I remember buying it in the craft shop in Aberystwyth while I was a student there. It’s now out of print but does appear on Etsy or Ebay occasionally. I wasn’t happy with the spacing so with the aid of scissors and sticky tape I adjusted the spacing and started to transfer the pattern.

Once I’d placed the lettering on my graph paper I knew how wide the castle needed to be. I wanted towers, a big door, arrow slits, battlements. I wanted pennants. I wanted windows. (I also wanted a moat but decided that was one step too far).

I started with a main tower with a slightly smaller one on each side, but I couldn’t get the crenellations even on the central one, so I played with the widths: there’s still three towers but its a lot less symmetrical. I’m using several shades of grey to create different areas (which would have been a LOT easier if I’d been able to lay hands on my DMC shade card) and will use backstitch to highlight areas of stone. I’m using 3 strands of cotton over 14-count white aida for good coverage, and it’s coming on well so far – lettering is complete apart from backstitching. The variegated thread is DMC 115, my favourite shade.

I have put the Bento Box quilt top together this week too. As you can see, Bailey was being incredibly helpful. Not shown is him digging under each block as I laid it out, which made the whole process a lot longer!

The top row is an inch shorter than the rest and I am not quite sure how that happened! I’ll have to do a block extension in the same colours and hope no one looks too closely! I’m going to back it with a cotton double sheet and I am considering whether I need a border. I have fabric left from all the colours, so I am tempted to do a striped one if it won’t detract from the Bento Box blocks.

I also got round to picking some of my Chinese lantern plants (physalis) for drying – they look so pretty in my shed, and when they are dried I think I’ll add them to the vase with the crochet daffodils.

To-do or not to-do…

And now it’s October, and I have to work four days a week – practically full time! Back in week one I made a to-do list of things I wanted to do during lockdown. This feels like a good time to check back on that and see what I managed.

Here it is:

  • Purple jacket (a 1950s design that the sleeves wouldn’t work on, so I gave up in a huff and its been hanging from the curtain rail for about four years)
  • Crochet diploma – I made it to lesson 7, so need to pick that up again
  • Say Something In Welsh course – no progress made. Duolingo is coming on well though!
  • Coast ripple blanket (Attic24 pattern) – several rows done, and the weather is cool enough to work on this again
  • Long waistcoat – frogged the whole thing and reused the yarn in a cardigan that I only have one sleeve to go on
  • Attic window quilt (that I cut out when I only had one child)
  • Mini quilt (er, ditto)
  • Seurat cross stitch – at least I only started this last year! – ok, two years ago. I have nearly finished the whole top section, so some progress has been made.
  • Couch to 5k (again) – made it to week 4, twice, and damaged my ankle both times. I did take up open water swimming though!
  • Spring clean the shed, evicting the winter spiders…and being realistic about what I will actually use in my stash, then donating the rest

OK, I didn’t achieve everything but I don’t feel lazy – there’s been a lot of things made that weren’t on this list, and I have made a sizable dent in the stash through quilting. And I’ve really enjoyed writing this blog! The discipline of posting every week has been good for me.

So, that was week 28. Let’s see where week 29 takes us…

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

Heartbreak Hotel/Night Moves (Alex Delaware) – Jonathan Kellerman

The Jupiter Myth/The Accusers (Falco) – Lindsey Davis (Audible)

Week twenty-seven: in defence of craft

Here I am again, having survived my first trip to Tesco in two months. Survived is the right word – I haven’t seen it so busy since March, with people stocking up on goods in case the country goes tits-up (the technical term!) again. I’d just like to say I’m not hoarding anything except chocolate malted milk biscuits. Fat chance! The freezer is full, the cupboard is overflowing….and I bet I’ll still end up in the Co-op at least once this week. How does the Horde eat so much? Will their father eventually turn into a chocolate digestive? And…what did I forget?

On Friday I virtually attended an inspiring Zoom conference run by the Craft Council, entitled ‘The Future of Craft in Education‘, which was fascinating (catering was awful though…). I didn’t think staring at a screen for the best part of six hours at the end of the week would be possible, but it was over almost too soon. The organiser ensured talks were short, breakout groups were well-organised and I am in awe of the person who managed the tech as it was seamless.

What happens when you clear a space for your tablet and notebook.

Imagine my horror when the head of one of the big academy chains declared that in order to help children ‘catch up’ with their education they would be abandoning creative subjects in favour of maths, English and. Science. The head of my daughters’ academy (who is, tellingly, from a drama background) was keen to reassure us that they would be looking at how to build core subject knowledge into the rest of the curriculum so students didn’t miss out. Much as I rant about the National Curriculum, it does set out the need for a broad and balanced education. I could wish that the cross-curricular links made explicit in Design Technology were mentioned to other subject teachers, but that’s another conversation!

However, during the pandemic ‘craft’ has come into its own, both as a source of well-being and as a way to do all those little things around the house that people haven’t had time for before: upcycling and mending clothes, cooking and baking, DIY, as well as the things we would more commonly identify as ‘crafts’. In August, Hobbycraft reported a 200% boom in online sales since the start of the pandemic, and as a dedicated online craft shopper I know that demand was high across the sector. There’s been a lot of focus across the cultural sector on the benefits of arts on well-being, and a slew of articles (like this one and this one) have been written on why craft is good for you. Lockdown – particularly for those of us on furlough – has given us permission to craft, to take up new hobbies and to revisit old pleasures. Various friends have taken up embroidery, started sourdough baking, experimented with cyanotype printing, made furniture, followed Bob Ross tutorials. I have loved seeing all their beautiful work on social media and it would be sad if these activities stopped when the world goes back to ‘normal’. The Crafts Council launched their brilliant ‘Let’s Craft’ initiative during lockdown, providing packs for families in need, via food banks and community hubs. This was really important at a time when some families were struggling to put food on their tables and luxuries were – literally – not on the menu.

The last ten years or so have seen a huge drop off in the take up of creative subjects at GCSE and above, especially Design Technology: perhaps due to the government focus on EBacc achievement, perhaps due to a belief that a ‘creative career’ isn’t one you can make a living at, and that all your education should be focused on an end goal of a ‘good job’ rather than on the transferable skills like problem-solving and team working that creative subjects can foster in children. My own secondary school pushed two routes: academic and vocational. I really wish I’d taken some creative subjects at GCSE, as I have definitely found more use for those skills than I have for French and Computer Studies!

And while this recognition of the benefits of craft is long overdue, it’s also a further threat to craft in education. Craft is currently being touted as something that can help children’s recovery, with their wellbeing, but not as a proper subject. Back in the eighties when I was in school there was a subject called ‘CDT’ or ‘DCT’ – craft, design and technology (or design, craft and technology) so craft was right there in front of us. It was in woodwork, in metalwork, in textiles. You could get an O-level with the word ‘craft’ in it – it was a proper subject. You learned how to use machinery (and hopefully how not to cut your finger off like every CDT teacher ever), how to transform a flat drawing into a 3D object, and how to make an apron. Technically the word still exists in the subject ‘Art, Craft and Design’ – but more often this also becomes just ‘art’ or ‘art and design’.

Somewhere along the line that word ‘craft’ was dropped and with it the importance of making. Design became the whole of the thing, even though even Sir Terence Conran said that

…I have always been concerned with the practical aspects of design, and relate my work to the manufacturing process. I have never designed anything that I wouldn’t know how to make myself.

The word craft became associated with craft fairs, with the sort of crochet your gran does, with the WI or the Mothers’ Union….with women, in fact. It became marginalised. It’s not a coincidence that the take-up of DT is mainly by boys, and the reverse is seen in art take up.

Yet…

Craft is democratic. It’s the great leveller – anyone can do it, and the past six months shows that they have. You can have a degree in it if you want – but you don’t have to. There’s so many tutorials on YouTube, on Craftsy, in books and magazines, that you don’t need to go to school to learn it. I crochet, quilt, cross stitch, make clothes – and I have taught myself to do these things.

Craft is community. Manu Maunganidwe, one of the speakers on Friday, spoke of his first experience of craft in the Somali village where he grew up. People came together to build a new house – they brought time and skills and they made a house from the ground up, because you can’t build a house by yourself. He spoke passionately about the need for children to experience tools and making.

Craft is haptic. It connects you through the sense of touch, through the experience of materials: choosing the fabric for a dressmaking project by stroking and folding it to see how it creases, squeezing the yarn at a yarn show, the squish of mud when a child makes mud pies. It is sensual. The process of making is sensory – sanding wood to make it smooth, smooth clay, the pull of embroidery floss through fabric.

Craft is resilience. You make a mistake, you try again. Later, when you begin to design your own projects, you try something out, you tweak it, you try again. This is the same iterative process that designers go through.

Craft is cross-disciplinary: You apply knowledge to solving problems: maths is invaluable across all manner of crafts (to crochet a sphere you need your times tables!), yarn dyers use science, a crochet pattern is a simple code. Last year I made a crochet model to demonstrate hyperbolic planes (negative space) for a maths session, mimicking shapes in nature.

Craft is cultural. Children from all communities grow up surrounded by traditional crafts in their homes: fabrics, art, cooking, embroidery, hairstyling. This is not reflected in the current curriculum. A key part of the day was about how craft could help with anti-racism, and my resolution is to seek out diverse makers for the new schools programme to reflect our local area.

Craft is expression: emotional and artistic. I can’t draw but I can make. No, I can’t draw yet. I will draw.

Craft is co-ordination. Barbara Hepworth, the sculptor, wrote that she had a thinking hand and a doing hand. You need hand-eye co-ordination to hit a nail with a hammer, to direct a needle to the right hole. I am a kinaesthetic learner and I learn by doing, through muscle memory. Crochet helps me focus. I can make a granny square while watching a Zoom conference without looking at my hands. If my hands are empty I find things to fidget with.

One sleeve completed during the craft conference

Craft is revolution. Not just in the William Morris Arts and Crafts Movement sense of revolution, but a quiet, beautiful revolution. Yarn bombing is a public, visual way to express an idea or an issue. After the terrorist attacks in Manchester and on London Bridge thousands of us knitted, crocheted or sewed hearts with a message of support and love for the residents of our cities as well as the victims of the atrocities. I sent some to Manchester and yarnbombed Canary Wharf and the Central line with messages of hope and love. Craftivism is a thing. This week on Radio 4’s Four Thought there was a fascinating programme on ‘gentle protest’ that you can find here.

In how many of these statements can you replace the word craft with the word art?

I know there are things I have missed here: please do share what craft is to you, and why you do it!

The last act for the conference was to make a pledge to craft education – something the Craft Council have been asking people to do for a while. Mine is to carry on pushing craft to anyone who’ll listen, and to be proud to be a ‘crafter’.

And while I’m on the subject…

Here’s the finished crochet puppy for the small girl who isn’t allowed a dog – at least she won’t have to pick up after this one! The cardigan is lacking one sleeve, but I have done the cuff so it won’t take long. We are watching the new series of Ghosts so I am staying awake long enough to finish things!

I also have a giant pile of fluffy quilted blocks – I had to make three more in the end, which still need to be quilted, but then I can start putting the bento box quilt together.

Wild wanders

I went out for an early walk this morning for the first time in a while. The weather has been a bit blustery for the last couple of days, and it really feels as if Autumn has arrived.

The clearance of scrub on the fields behind us is now finished and the brambles have been piled up in stacks all over the place, exposing the pylon anchors left when they put the power cables underground in the 90s. They reminded me this morning of standing stones – twentieth century monoliths. I am heartbroken at the damage to wildlife habitat – there were no deer to be seen this morning, though there was a prowling fox, several green woodpeckers, and lots of rabbits.

There have of course been a few swims – one late afternoon on Thursday. The light is so different at that time of day, with the sun low over the trees. The water is getting colder – around the 17 degrees mark, and I did feel it when I got out of the lake on Thursday. I am in charge of hot chocolate, which always reminds me of post-swim treats when I was young. Machine hot choc back then – I hope mine is better!

The temperature in the lake this morning was 13 degrees, the coldest we have swum and we very sensibly got out after half a lap (about 400m). I tested the DIY dry robe and I was positively toasty! However, this will be me for the rest of the day:

Teddy has autumn nailed

So that’s my week! It flew by. Next week I am going in to the office – how exciting! Is there still life west of Epping? It’s been a long time…

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading

Breakdown/Heartbreak Hotel (Alex Delaware) – Jonathan Kellerman

A Body in the Bath House (Falco) – Lindsey Davis (Audible)

Week twenty four: back to school

September has turned up already (anyone mentioning how many weeks it is till the C word will be met with short shrift – be warned!) and 2/3 of the Things are back at school. I am back at work three days a week for the next month, which will be putting a serious dent in my crafting time. Still, it was good to see the gang over the Teams app on Tuesday – less exciting were the 1000 emails lurking in the inbox after four months off. There’s exciting plans afoot, and I’m looking forward to getting to grips with our redevelopment project, making contact with my forum schools and perhaps even seeing colleagues in the flesh at some point.

School started for Things 2 and 3 on Thursday – first day of secondary for Thing 2 and Year 5 for Thing 3. Thing 3 is pretty pragmatic and when he heard which teacher he’d be having his response was ‘cool, he gives out sweets’. He loves learning and soaks up information like a sponge, so being back at school is going to be good for him.

Thing 2 was a bit worried about starting her new school. Only one person from her primary school was going to the same school, and although they were in the same form their teacher made the children sit alphabetically so they were separated. Her older sister doesn’t go back until this week so she didn’t even have the safety of knowing someone further up the school.

Diving straight in on day one was a challenge for her, too. From a very early age she has preferred to sit out and watch what’s happening around her, and to join in when she feels confident that she has the knowledge to navigate the activity. She doesn’t like to ask people for help as this would mean talking to unfamiliar adults. This has applied to school, to birthday parties, to new people – when she changed primary schools she was outraged on her first day as ‘people tried to play with [her], and they didn’t even introduce themselves!’ She was very quiet when we picked her up, and didn’t want to go in the next day at all. Luckily she had a better day on the Friday, and felt more confident.

The nice thing about working from home is that I can be around for the school run – better late than never! I rarely made it to school run when they were younger as I was always working. When Thing 1 was in Year 3 my beloved and I both went to pick them up from school and one of the other mums was very confused: “I hadn’t realised you two were together!”

School runs right now are a feat of almost military precision – all three of them now have different start and finish times, and the two schools are three miles apart. It’s going to be a juggling act over the next few weeks for sure. Still, both schools are doing an amazing job co-ordinating the return and making sure the children and parents are feeling confident about sending them back. The secondary school welcome was lovely, with the head and his team standing at the school gates.

40% crafty

As I said, this whole work thing has put a bit of a dent in my craft activity! I did whip up a new batch of face coverings this week as the edict came down that secondary school children were going to need to wear masks to move around school, if not during lessons.

I used the same pattern as last time but adapted it to be three layers rather than two – a quilting cotton weight outer layer and two finer cotton layers made from an upcycled curtain lining. The main curtain fabric was used as a quilt backing a few weeks ago, and the curtains themselves were from a local charity shop. (Full length ones and there’s still lots of fabric left! I paid about £5 for them so this fabric was an absolute bargain)

One of the outer fabrics (hot pink with added cats) was Thing 1’s primary prom dress that she wouldn’t fit any more and Thing 2 wouldn’t wear (she doesn’t do pink!), so more upcycling there – I’ll cut the rest of the dress into quilt patches. I was also quite lazy and overlocked the whole of the bottom edge rather than turning through a hole. The final alteration I made was to stitch the pleats down with two rows of stitching so they feel more secure.

On Friday and Saturday I worked on the Bento Box quilt I started a few weeks ago, using this tutorial. I ran out of the blender fabrics and had to wait for some more, so that held the project up. This week I pieced the final blocks together, ending up with a total of 33 although I may make some more. I have decided to do this one using the ‘quilt as you go’ method. I’ve never tried it before but it must be easier than wrestling six foot by five foot of three layered quilt sandwich through the machine, right? I’ve found a few tutorials on Pinterest, of course, so now I have a huge pile of blocks pinned to squares of batting and I’ve had a practice on one square so far. Stay tuned!

On a side note – I put this on my Instagram feed yesterday and tagged the fabric designer (Stuart Hillard – the fabric is his Rainbow Etchings range) and he commented on the pic. Did I fangirl? OF COURSE I DID.

I do like to be beside the seaside

We had a last summer holiday hurrah on Wednesday, packed our flip flops and towels and headed to Walton-on-the-Naze for the day as the kids have been desperate to go to the beach – so have I, to be fair. I hadn’t planned on going in the water as we usually go to Clacton and the water is brown and murky, but Walton – even though its only just round the coast – seemed much nicer. We got there just before high tide and the beach was underwater, so we wandered off in search of some lunch – this turned out to be some very good pizza which we ate on a bench in the shelter watching the seagulls. We did share our crusts with the seagulls, throwing them out over the sea where they caught them on the wing.

After lunch the beach was reappearing so we headed to the south of the pier and found a spot to colonise. The kids headed straight into the sea and demanded I joined them, so we had an hour or so bouncing through waves at neck height – the water was about the same temperature as the lake, so it was cool but bearable. The kids loved dodging the waves on the other side of the breakwater, and the adults enjoyed what was left of the sunshine.

Talking of lakes, I’ve had a couple of dips this week – the temperature is slowly falling and was 16.8 degrees this morning. On Monday Sue and I headed up with one of her children – it was chilly and rainy and we definitely earned the hot chocolate afterwards! On Saturday four of us went up together – slightly warmer at 17 degrees, but there was a general agreement to maybe think about getting some warmer gear. The hot drinks and brioches afterwards were most welcome.

This morning I did one lap in wetsuit and one in skins, much to the bemusement of my swim buddies. I have never been described as ‘hardcore’ before and I doubt I ever will be again!It wasn’t too cold but I definitely felt alive after – akin to the sensation of tea tree and mint shower gel, I’d say….

So that’s been my week! Thing 1 goes back to school on Tuesday to start the first year of her GCSEs. All three have decided they want packed lunches so that’s one more thing to remember. I have promised to make some flapjacks this afternoon for them to have as snacks, so I’d better get on with that. I also have an apple fudge cake on the list as we have a whole lot of apples that need using up and we’ve already had apple cake and apple and blackberry pie this week.

Teddy is taking everything in his stride…

See you for week 25!

Kirsty

What I’ve been reading:

Oranges and Lemons (Bryant and May series) – Christopher Fowler

Three Hands in the Fountain/Two for the Lions (Falco series) – Lindsey Davis (Audible)

Week twenty one: Harlow – not just a geography case study

I seem to have spent large parts of the past month or so travelling through Harlow on my way to or from Redricks Lakes for swimming, including one this week as the sun rose and one in the pouring rain. I really am addicted to this open water swimming – I am not fast, and I can’t do front crawl as I don’t like putting my face underwater, but the sense of well-being I get from being in the water is enormous. You can read more about the health benefits here. I am very aware of the water around me, the wildlife I’m sharing the space with, and my surroundings in a way that you don’t feel in a pool. Today I swam two circuits of the lake – just under a mile in total – which is the equivalent of 60 lengths of my regular swimming pool. Swimming that distance indoors would bore me senseless – and because I tend to swim before work its hard to relax into the swim as I’m very conscious of what I have to do that day. There is always a clock ticking away in the pool too, which you don’t have in the lake. I have no idea how long the two circuits took me today – but it doesn’t matter!

Anyway, back to Harlow!

Harlow was one of the first wave of ‘New Towns’ created by the New Towns Act of 1946 to relocate people from bombed out areas (in Harlow’s case, mainly north east London). It sits about five miles to the north of our village and it’s where we go to the cinema, to buy school shoes and so on. It has a LOT of roundabouts. (I really mean this. A LOT.) Municipal Dreams (one of my favourite blogs) has a couple of good posts on Harlow New Town.

Welcome to Harlow (Image from BBC)

The first time I heard of Harlow was way back in secondary school in south Wales, in geography lessons as part of a case study on New Towns. To be honest, I didn’t take a lot of notice back then as Essex seemed a remote and exotic place peopled entirely by blondes in white stilettoes and Capri drivers named Kevin (this was the ’80s, and the ‘Essex Girl’ was a thing. Sorry, Essex people…). I certainly never dreamed I’d be living here – or that all three of my kids would be born in Harlow. We learned about the large quantities of concrete, the first pedestrian precinct, and the fact that the first residential tower block was built there. There’s also large areas of green space (Gibberd’s ‘Green Wedges’) and sculptures all over the place by all sorts of famous people. The town was rebranded in 2009 as ‘The World’s First Sculpture Town’. Museum Mum visited the town during lockdown and followed one of the trails – you can see her post here, and you can find the trails here.

The masterplan for the town was drawn up by Sir Frederick Gibberd, a modernist architect who spent the rest of his life living in the town. His home and its gardens were left to Harlow Council for the benefit of the town.

So this week my neighbour (and swim buddy) and I decided to drag our hordes away from Minecraft and TikTok and carted them off to Harlow to experience a bit of culture by way of a trip to the Gibberd Garden. Sadly the house is closed, due to the coronavirus restrictions, but the gardens have reopened. You pay for entry – £5 for adults, and children up to 16 years old are £1 each – and another pound for a really well produced map/trail that the children enjoyed using to identify the sculptures. There’s not a lot of information about each (spot the museum person….) but that’s what Google is for! Naturally Sue and I ended up carrying the maps in our usual role as parental packhorses, as soon as the children discovered the castle fort (complete with moat!) and giant swing.

The sculptures are scattered throughout the gardens, which are laid out over nine acres – some are items of architectural salvage, like the columns and urns from Gibberd’s reconstruction of Coutt’s Bank on the Strand – and you come upon them accidentally as they peek out of hedges and grottoes. There’s a beautiful walk alongside the Pincey Brook, which has been dammed to create deep shady pools as well as diverted to feed the moat. The children particularly loved the ‘Rapunzel Tower’.

The Gibberd Garden is currently open on Wednesday and Sunday afternoons, there’s lots of free parking and refreshments are available – including lovely local ice cream which for the children was the best bit. I had a gorgeous, tangy lemon sorbet. I don’t think we managed to see all the scupltures, so we’ll be going back when the house reopens.

We were back in Harlow the following afternoon – this time for a trip to Harlow Town Park. The park was designed by landscape architect Dame Sylvia Crowe, who was a consultant on the Harlow New Town development from 1948 -58. One of the largest urban parks in the country, it’s got pretty much everything you could ask for including a Pets Corner, skate park, adventure playground, inclusive play area, sensory gardens, a paddling pool, water gardens and ducks. This being Harlow, it also has the odd sculpture…

We parked near the Greyhound pub in the pay and display car park – there’s a war memorial there, with a beautiful yarnbomb installation of knitted and crocheted poppies and forget-me-nots. It was also where we found the ice cream van, which is always what the children are looking out for. There is a nice cafe, I’m told, but we didn’t make it over there.

The weather was a bit erratic, with thunder and the odd shower, so we didn’t cover the whole park but we did spend some time at the outdoor gym before heading to the adventure playground where Thing 2 made a beeline for the top of the spiderweb climbing frame.

We walked over to the water gardens and through to the paddling pool, which is empty but the kids managed to find a puddle to jump in. They found a hill to roll down too, and spotted a carp in the pools. The ducks seemed a bit bored!

As an aside – I do love a bit of architecture and town planning, and developed a walking session called ‘The building of Bethnal Green’ for secondary and university students for the formal learning programme. This one focused on a section of Bethnal Green where you could see evidence of every urban planning movement from the original slum clearances of the late 19th century to the late 20th, including a peek at the last bomb site which is now a nature reserve. It covers Keeling House, designed by Denys Lasdun, which used to be the view from my bedroom window on Hackney Road.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

It’s been a quilting week again! I finished the Space quilt (Lockdown Quilt 7) and I’m pretty pleased with it. The attention to detail in trimming the blocks to size paid off, and the sashing looks quite square even if some of the cornerstones are a bit out of line. I tried using a walking foot to quilt but the machine (the Singer Samba again) didn’t like it much so some of the quilting is a bit skippy. I used some bicycle clips to help hold the quilt while I quilted it, which you can see in action below. You can also see my diagram for working out how many sashing strips and cornerstones I needed, and a cat who was not inclined to move while I tried to photograph the quilt laid flat.

It’s come out at just over 5′ x 4′, and it’s backed with a double duvet cover which meant no piecing. I used the backing fabric for a folded border as it echoes the stars theme. I LOVE the glow in the dark panels, and I added a little label – I bought some printed ones to add to my makes.

The next project is a Bento Box quilt using Rainbow Etchings jelly rolls by Stuart Hillard for Craft Cotton, and some pretty cream-on-cream blenders from Empress Mills. I cut the pieces yesterday, and raided the cupboard for all the plastic boxes I could find to separate the warm and cool colours and the different sized strips. I’ve never really thought about colours in terms of warm/cool before, so I bought a cheap colour wheel which helped me sort things out.

Here’s the first block finished. I have cut and sewed all the centre pieces, so now need to add the outer pieces – I’m going to try the quilt-as-you-go method with this one. I’ve broken out the other vintage sewing machine as on that one you can drop the feed dogs, so if I’m feeling brave I may try some free motion quilting. Possibly! It’s a high shank machine, so I’ll have to buy an adapter to be able to use the snap-on quilting foot I have.

Vintage Janome sewing machine.
Block 1

Things 1 and 2 have also been creating this week! Thing 1 has been customising a denim skirt that she bought in a charity shop (and raiding my jewellery making stash to do it!). She used my mannequin so she could work on the skirt easily.

Thing 2 has been tie-dyeing everything she can get her paws on. She bought a tie dye set with a voucher from her Granny, and it’s been great fun. Co-op reusable bags have never looked so good…

Thing 3 has been creating in Minecraft. All three of them enjoy building in the game, and play quite nicely together.

I’ve heard this week that I should be back to work part time from 1 September, which I’m very much looking forward to! Still working remotely for a while, so not back in the museum yet, but how exciting!

See you at the end of week 22…

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

Low Action (Vinyl Detective) – Andrew Cartmel

Peace Talks (Dresden Files) – Jim Butcher

Time to Depart (Falco series) – Lindsey Davis (Audible)