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 four: dw i’n dysgu Cymraeg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creative industry

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

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

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

Onesie and wellies optional.

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

25% of a Hydrangea Blanket

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

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

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

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

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

The Forest is Crying – Charles de Lint

The Spook who Spoke Again – Lindsey Davis

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

The Law of Innocence (Lincoln Lawyer) – Michael Connelly

The Good, the Bad and the Furry – Tom Cox

Week thirty three: here we go again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Onto more cheerful things…

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

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

I really must sew in the ends.

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

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

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

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

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

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

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

The Spook Who Spoke Again (Falco) – Lindsey Davis

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

Week twenty nine: the magic of stories

Well, this has been a pretty miserable month so far for those of us working in the museum sector. Last week the V&A announced redundancies as part of the ‘recovery programme’, and this week the Museum of London followed suit. They aren’t the first by any means, and they won’t be the last: the Museums Association have a redundancy tracker on their site which this morning stands at just under 3,000 across the UK. Thank heavens for the unions – if you aren’t in one, join now.

These initial phases overwhelmingly affect the front of house, retail and visitor experience teams: the most diverse, the lowest paid, the ones who were on the front line longest at the start of lockdown, and the ones who were first to come back when we reopened.

You know, the ones who greet you on arrival, help you around the museum, take your payment in the shop. The ones who interact with you and share their vast knowledge: not just about exhibits and displays, but where the best places are for lunch with your fractious kids, what there is for you to do, and what else you might like to see.

And they are so versatile and talented: they research objects for ‘objects in focus’ talks, based on their own passions and interests. They develop and lead family and public tours. They tell stories. They run activities. They manage school groups in their hundreds, juggling the ones who are late for their sessions with the ones who came too early, and they mop up the ones who’ve been stuck in traffic. Spare pants for a damp child? Somewhere to empty the sick bucket? No problem.

They are also the ones in the line of fire when the building is evacuated, when there’s a first aid emergency, when the object they came specifically to see is no longer on display, when the café is too expensive, when the toilets aren’t working, when the school groups are too noisy, when there’s too many children in the museum. They smooth ruffled feathers with a smile on their face (even if they then come to the learning office for hugs and emergency biscuits).

Outside their museum jobs they are artists, illustrators, poets, designers of all types, PhD students, writers, jewellery makers, textile artists. Those beautiful props and puppets that support the stories you bring your kids to? Chances are they made those.

Some are hoping that the VE role is the first step onto the museum learning ladder, and some of my favourite colleagues over the years have started here. They are the ones who have the greatest understanding of the visitors for whom they are programming content, and who are the most outward facing.

We understand that these are strange and difficult times and the choice is to shed staff or potentially face the closure of museums across the country, possibly permanently. This week the Culture Recovery Fund announced lifeline grants awarded to smaller organisations – up to a million pounds – which will make a huge difference to their survival. I was really pleased that the Epping Ongar Railway, in my village, is one of the recipients.

It seems particularly insensitive, therefore, for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to announce this week that MPs would be receiving a £3,360 pay rise next year ‘in line with growth in public sector pay’. It will be interesting to see if other public sector workers – nurses, police, fireman, culture and heritage workers, street cleaners etc – are awarded rises at the same scale. I don’t think I’ll put money on it.

Seeking comfort in the familiar

Its been suggested that people with anxiety disorders or depression seek comfort in rewatching familiar films or TV series. You know what’s going to happen and you don’t need to process any new information: which, this year, when we have had so much to take in, has been particularly important. My version of this is re-reading books, and probably explains why I can only listen on Audible to books I have already read!

So this week I have been thinking about books from my childhood that I still go back to now.

  1. I’m going to start with the wonderful Dido Twite books by Joan Aiken. Officially this series starts with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, but I was introduced to them with Black Hearts in Battersea. These have elements of steampunk, mystery, adventure, the Arthurian legend and more. I was really pleased to discover a few years ago that there were some later books in the series that I hadn’t read. Joan Aiken also wrote magical short stories – I loved the collection A Necklace of Raindrops, illustrated by Jan Pienkowski.
  2. The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. There’s eight of these in the original canon, and some that were published posthumously which were based on her diaries. Highly romanticised ‘autobiography’, these books follow Laura and her family from the little house in the Big Woods (Wisconsin) to the wilds of Dakota, through to her marriage to Almanzo Wilder and their move to Missouri. I introduced Thing 1 to these books when she was in primary school, and she loved them too.
  3. The Railway Children by E.Nesbit. First serialised in 1905, this story dealt with some quite adult themes for the period – the imprisonment of the children’s father for spying, Russian dissidents – and I cry every single time I read it. Don’t even get me started on the film – I love both versions. The Psammead books are great too (Five Children and It, for example), as is The Book of Dragons.
  4. The Anne books by L.M. Montgomery. Starting with Anne of Green Gables and finishing with Rilla of Ingleside when our disaster-prone, red-headed heroine is all grown up and sensible, I love them all. So do my youngest sister and my niece, and I have started reading them to Thing 2 when she feels the need for a bedtime story.
  5. The Moomin books by Tove Jansson. Thing 2 is named after the author. Moomins are small, hippo-like creatures who inhabit Moominvalley. The Moominhouse is always open to wanderers and people in need – mischievous Little My, who gets left behind by the Mymble who just has too many children; Thingummy and Bob, who find the Hobgoblin’s treasure; free-spirited Snufkin; the Hemulen; the Snork and the Snorkmaiden. Moominmamma’s heart and handbag are big enough for everyone.
  6. Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence. Arthurian legend brought into 1960s/70s England and Wales. Magic and legend. Good versus evil. Don’t watch the film, not even Christopher Eccleston could save it.
  7. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner. I do love the way magic appears in the real world – whether that’s fairies at the bottom of the garden, or the urban fantasy that I love now, I like the idea that there’s more to the world than we can see. I recommend The Owl Service by the same author, too.
  8. The Hounds of the Morrigan by Pat O’Shea. Pidge accidentally releases an evil serpent from a book, and he and his sister end up involved in a battle between good and evil. There’s lots of help from Celtic mythological characters, it’s funny and touching and I really, really wish the author hadn’t died before finishing the sequel.
  9. The Sword in the Stone by T.H.White. More Arthurian legend. This is the first part of The Once and Future King set, and it’s the one most people are familiar with from the wonderful Disney adaptation. The story of The Wart, an orphan looked after by Sir Ector and bullied by his foster brother Kay, this is the early days of King Arthur, before he pulls the sword from the stone. The rest of the books are pretty wonderful too.
  10. Honourable mentions go to The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley, Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories, Charlotte’s Web by E.B.White, C.S.Lewis’s Narnia books, the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome, the Green Knowe stories by Lucy M. Boston, Stig of the Dump by Clive King (and more – oh, so many more!)

There, that’s made me feel much more cheerful!

Jumper weather

I finished the crochet cardigan this week, and I LOVE it. It’s so cosy and warm, and the alpaca in the yarn makes it very soft. It’s oversized so I can fit layers underneath, and I can see this getting a whole lot of wear this winter. Thing 1 kindly modelled it for me, even though she protested as it wasn’t Goth enough.

The (Corona)Virus Shawl is also complete, using three balls of Drops Fabel – it’s not huge, so will be more of a scarf. What am I going to do in queues now?

I have started a stashbuster blanket for my new portable project – tiny (three round) granny squares in DK, using up leftover yarn from a couple of other blankets. I’m going for a patchwork effect this time, with lots of bright colours. My Coast blanket has another couple of rows – it just needs to be a foot or so longer, I think. The trouble with making giant blankets is that you get so toasty that you need a nap…

As you can see from the link, the Coast blanket is by Lucy at Attic 24 who designs the most gorgeous colourways and blanket patterns. It’s a shame to keep them in the house, really, so I am tempted to make one of her bags to carry around.

Tiny magic

Thing 2 has been going out for walks this week with some of her friends and their dog – she’s growing up and is enjoying being a bit more independent. Yesterday they were out with other friends so she went for a walk with me instead. Her only stipulation was that it had to be a muddy walk, so we duly donned wellies and headed off in search of puddles.

We ended up by the rope swing after tramping through the fields, and after a bit of play we wandered back through the woods. Thing 2 spotted some hearts in the trees while I was looking at textures, and then we started seeing lots of tiny things – tree fungi, mushrooms and moss that we enjoyed taking close-up photos of.

It was lovely to have some time with her. We crunched through leaves, looked under fallen branches and she even wanted to hold my hand occasionally….

This morning the intrepid Perimenopausal Posse headed off to Redricks for our second week of winter swimming – 11.8 degrees in the water, and sunny. Colder but less rainy than last week which really made a difference! Apparently we should be practising with cold showers in between swims….ha!

So that was week 29. I wonder what week 30 has in store?

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading

A Song for the Dark Times (Rebus) – Ian Rankin

The Postscript Murders (D.S. Harbinder Kaur) – Elly Griffiths

The Accusers/Scandal Takes a Holiday (Falco) – Lindsey Davis (Audible)

Listening to…

You’re Dead To Me (podcast) – Greg Jenner

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-five: pink hair, don’t care

There are definitely days when I feel a lot of sympathy for my parents, who brought up three daughters and lived to tell the tale. We have all turned out to be fairly normal and well-adjusted adults, despite the usual teenage (OK, and adult) decisions that probably had mum and dad tearing their hair and added a few ‘natural lights’ (as my hairdresser says) to those hairs that remained.

Monday was one of those days. During lockdown Thing 1 has been ‘experimenting with her aesthetic’ (so she tells me) and has pretty much settled in as a punky Goth. Not a problem – the black hair, the eyeliner, the (fake) septum piercing, the Docs*, the ripped tights and fishnets are all things I can live with as they’re temporary and the look suits her. We’ve been at home for an extended period, after all, and rules have been relaxed in many ways to make the separation from their friends easier.

The one thing I have been firm about, however, is that any extreme hair changes would need to be cut off before going back to school – yes, their big sister could bleach the ends out and they could have any colour hair they wanted until September. Hot pink, punk purple, bright green, mermaid blue, whatever – but it had to go before school started. Thing 1 went for a short bob quite early on and her dad did an undercut for her which her big sister had bleached and dyed, but that could be hidden. Her school rules say ‘no extreme haircuts and any hair dye can only be in natural colours’. The black dye she was sporting was fine, in that case, and the bleached undercut could be cut in again which would remove the bleach. She had been complaining that her roots were showing, and I had said that we’d get some hair dye next time I was in the supermarket but apparently this wasn’t fast enough.

So, on Monday I went off to get Thing 2 from school as she hadn’t taken the bus by herself at this point – Thing 1 wasn’t back in till Tuesday. When we got back Thing 1 was wearing a headscarf and looking suspiciously innocent. She had dyed her roots and her scalp magenta**. I mean, really magenta. Definitely-not-a-natural-colour-by-any-stretch-of-the-imagination magenta.

Then I noticed the eyebrow slit.***

At which point I turned into my mother.

*Apart from the Docs, which are obviously a design classic and I wear them myself.

**I made her wash it out the following day – top tip here people: Head and Shoulders shampoo is great for removing excess hair dye. The roots are still pinkish but at least her head is a normal colour.

***There isn’t much I can do about the eyebrow except take a lot of photos and use them to embarrass her when she’s older.

Cake and cover ups

I mentioned last week that I was off to make an apple fudge cake to try and make a dent in the glut of apples from our little eating tree in the garden. I have no idea what variety they are but they are a pretty pinky-red and the flesh is pink-tinged too, but the texture is a bit woolly. Thing 1 and my beloved are not fans of fruit, Thing 2 and I prefer a crisp, tart apple and Thing 3 can’t be expected to eat them all himself so I have been using them to bake in place of cooking apples. We had a cooking apple tree until a few years ago, but sadly it fell victim to honey fungus and we had to take it down.

I’ve used this recipe before and while I find it a bit dry, its great with custard or some vanilla ice cream. It’s a Simon Rimmer one from Something for the Weekend, and its very simple to make. I used Thornton’s Dairy Fudge as it was all they had in the Co-op, but I expect you could jazz it up with a flavoured fudge – a Baileys one would be delicious!

On the rare chilly mornings up at Redricks Lake – and as we start thinking about how we’ll keep swimming through the winter – we have been eyeing up people’s Dryrobes and wincing at the price tag. I was pretty sure I could make something similar that would keep me warm and allow enough room to get in and out of a wetsuit, so I had a go this week at a trial version.

I started with a wearable blanket pattern in adult size – in this case, the free (and very easy to follow) Billie blanket by Do It Better Yourself Club, which comes in two lengths and can be lined or left unlined. I chose to make the lined version and used softshell fleece fabric for the outside, two large (bath sheet sized) microfibre towels for the body lining, and cotton jersey for the cuffs and hood lining.

Softshell fleece has a woven shower proof front and a microfleece backing fabric, which means its wind and water resistant as well as warm and breathable. It has a similar feel and handle to a scuba fabric, so it’s quite flexible and easy to sew. I used my overlocker for the whole construction, which made it super speedy, and only used my sewing machine to topstitch around the hood to hold it in place.

I first made the blanket as it says in the pattern, though I didn’t do a proper hem as a) I wasn’t convinced my sewing machine would like the four layers of fabric and b) I really couldn’t be bothered to measure it. I just sealed the outer and inner together with the overlocker. It was HUGE! This was the XL size as I wanted it to be roomy enough to change in – frankly, we could all have changed in there. At the same time.

Size XL. My own personal tent.

Once I’d tried taking it on and off, I decided that it might be easier if it opened down the front, rather than having to take it on and off over my head, particularly in cold damp weather when you just want to wrap up in something warm.

So, I sliced it down the centre and overlocked those edges together too, which has made it much more manageable. I’ll use sticky velcro down the front for a quick seal and will also put some down the left front, so it can be wrapped more closely.

The microfibre towels had enough fabric to line the front and back, though the back is a bit of a box and cox job as I had to piece it together! It’s very cosy and weighty enough to be comforting, and I think it’ll be good for the winter. It probably took about 4 hours to make and the cost was considerably less than a proper Dryrobe. Can’t wait to test it out!

I’ve also been working on a different sort of cover up, using some Stylecraft Alpaca DK yarn in lovely autumn colours that I have been hoarding. I had started making a self-drafted long waistcoat with it, but wasn’t inspired by it and wasn’t sure I’d wear it, so I unravelled it last weekend and put the yarn back in the shed until the right pattern came along.

On Wednesday I beetled off to the shed and got the yarn back out again, as in this month’s Simply Crochet magazine the perfect pattern appeared. Well, not perfectly perfect as the recommended yarn was aran weight and mine was DK, but I made a tension square using a hook two sizes larger and it came up to the right size. I just hope I have enough yarn as Stylecraft have discontinued this line – it’ll be down the EBay rabbit hole if not!

Image and Pattern copyright Cassie Ward for Simply Crochet

The pattern is a Bishop-sleeved cardigan – they have used a pale pink as their main colour, but I’m using a lovely red with some toning colours for the sleeve stripes. Using two strands held together it’s working up quickly – I have almost finished the back now.

Hi ho, hi ho…

…it’s not off to work I go. It’s quite odd trying to get back into the swing of work and our major capital project while still being at home, although I must confess it’s been a lot easier this week with no children around to ‘help’! On Tuesday I attended whole Teams meetings with no one wandering behind me to see who I was talking to, typed complete sentences and wasn’t interrupted once with demands for food or mediation. I do feel as if my head may well start spinning on my neck and explode as there’s so much to take in, but by Thursday I was up to this month’s emails. Hurray!

That was my week then! The cover photo was taken at sunrise on Monday, looking towards Ongar from the top of the common. The image below is from the same walk – I loved the way the trees were framing the sun – and the wasp nest is from a fallen tree at Dial House. This was only part of it – it must have been hge!

Wasp (?) nest in a fallen tree at Dial House

See you at the other end of week 26!

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading

A Capitol Death (Flavia Albia series) – Lindsey Davis

Further Adventures of Carlotta Carlyle: Three Mystery Stories – Linda Barnes

Two for the Lions/One Virgin Too Many (Falco series) – Lindsey Davis (Audible)

Week twenty: are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…

I have mentioned before that I’m a bit of a reader and have been since an early age. I suspect, given that my parents are also big readers, that it was partially self-defence and then it became a habit. Both parents read to us and created their own stories – Galumphus the Dragon was my dad’s character, and Jeremy John stories came from my mum. I continued to listen in when my much younger sister was being read to, and for me one of the joys of teaching was story time at the end of the day; whether that was a picture book or, further up the school, a chapter book.

One of the last sessions I created at the Museum of London Docklands was a sensory, interactive story called ‘The Cinnamon Birds’, as an introduction to the idea of international trade for Key Stage 1 and family groups. I loved telling it – from gathering my audience Pied Piper-style, moving through the museum with a beautiful dragon puppet on my shoulder, to casting a story spell with tales of cunning merchants and wafts of magical scents and treasures from a pirate chest.

At the V&A Museum of Childhood, we had a hardcore of parents and children who would come every day for the Animal Magic session at 2pm, led by the Activity Assistants who used puppets, music, projection and more to bring both classic stories and their own work to life. It didn’t matter how often the families heard We’re going on a bear hunt! – this time was part of their daily routine. (Lia, one of the former AAs, has now set up her own business with her mum creating sustainable story sacks, with all the contents and materials sourced from charity shops and community markets. I love this idea – check them out, they are Oranges and Lemons and their product is wonderful).

I still love listening to stories – when I’m commuting I can be found on the Central Line listening to audio books and crocheting my way to work. I refuse to confess to the number of times I have missed my stop as I was distracted by an exciting bit…

When my Horde were small I took the opportunity to gather the books that I had loved as a child, as well as discovering new stories. So here are some of our favourite picture books*….

  1. The Tiger Who Came To Tea – Judith Kerr. This is more than 50 years old now and still wonderful. Also her Mog books, and her autobiographical ones. When we get back to whatever normal looks like, keep an eye out for the touring exhibition from Seven Stories.
  2. Where the Wild Things Are – Maurice Sendak. Another classic from the 1960s, and I love it. A wild rumpus always sounds like fun.
  3. Dear Zoo – Rod Campbell . My bunch all loved lifting the flaps and shouting along with the words, making animal noises. I bought this one at Stansted Airport on the way to France with Thing 1, and her Grandpere spent a lot of time reading it to her on that holiday.
  4. The Very Hungry Caterpillar – Eric Carle. Another one they loved to recite with me, or finish the sentences when they were very small.
  5. Hairy McLary from Donaldson’s Dairy – Lynley Dodd. We had a CD with these stories too, and David Tennant was perfect as the narrator. Thing 2 also loved The Dudgeon is Coming.
  6. Is it bedtime, Wibbly Pig? – Mick Inkpen. Every parent knows the torture of bedtime! Wibbly Pig’s Silly Big Bear always makes me cry.
  7. No Matter What – Debi Gliori – big thinking for little people.We still love them even when they’re naughty!
  8. My Big Shouting Day – Rebecca Patterson. Another one of Thing 2’s favourites. I think she identified with the main character (so did I).
  9. Dinosaur Roar! – Henrietta and Paul Stickland. We got this one free from Bookstart and Thing 3 LOVED it.
  10. Tiddler – Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. All this pair’s books are wonderful, but this one was their favourite.
  11. Funnybones – Janet and Allan Ahlberg. Thing 3 thought this was hilarious. They also loved Each Peach Pear Plum and hunting for the fairytale characters in the illustrations.
  12. Tell Me A Dragon – Jackie Morris. I fell in love with her glorious, magical illustrations through another Bookstart book – Can you see a Little Bear? – which she illustrated for James Mayhew, and when Tell Me A Dragon came out with a dedication to Terry Pratchett, I bought it for myself. Of course I read it to the children too. Her work with Robert Macfarlane in The Lost Words is exquisite and I was lucky enough to catch the exhibition at the Foundling Museum in 2018.
  13. The Dancing Tiger – Malachy Doyle. Thing 2’s nickname is ‘Tiger’ so we read a lot of books about tigers! This is one of my favourites. We don’t stop dancing when we get old!
  14. The Mousehole Cat – Antonia Barber.We discovered this one via a CBeebies bedtime story, read by Shobna Gulati, and bought our own copy. Thing 1 loved the Storm Cat.
  15. That Pesky Rat – Lauren Child. Runner up here goes to Who wants to be a Poodle? I don’t – I love her collaged illustrations.
  16. I Really Want to Eat a Child – Sylviane Donnio. Another of Thing 2’s favourites! She has always been the most anarchic, subversive child and this story really appealed to her.
  17. Lost and Found – Oliver Jeffers. All of us loved this one – there’s a beautiful TV adaptation too.
  18. Penguin – Polly Dunbar. This one was a library story time discovery when Thing 1 was small. Inevitably she would have fallen asleep in the buggy on the walk to the library but I always stayed for the story!
  19. Not Now, Bernard – David McKee. Poor Bernard! And poor monster…
  20. Whatever Next – Jill Murphy. Thing 3 solemnly informed his playschool aunty that ‘Mummy said I am allowed to go to the moon….but I can’t go up the chimney.’ That one took a bit of explaining.

Special mentions also to Mayer Mercer’s There’s a Nightmare in My Cupboard, The Bear’s Toothache by David McPhail, Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss, and – finally, I promise – Lost in the Toy Museum by David Lucas. So many schools read this before visiting the museum that we eventually offered it as a session, and it was very popular.

Thing 2 still occasionally asks for a story – we read The Ordinary Princess by M M Kaye earlier this year, and we’ve started Anne of Green Gables. Thing 3 likes to listen in… he is the biggest reader of them all at the moment.

Even once children have learned to read themselves, there is magic in hearing a story well told. Reluctant readers may find their way in to reading this way, and I always told worried parents that as long as their children were reading, it didn’t matter what it was. Reading schemes, while worthy and phonically sound, are often boring. Find what they want to read and let their imaginations fly!

What are your favourites?

(*not affiliate links, just Amazon. Other book sellers are available!)

Morgan jeans finished at last…

.and they are my new favourite thing. I bought the pattern after making Closet Core’s Ginger skinny jeans, which I wrote about in Week Fourteen. The fly hadn’t gone well, but I liked the process of making the jeans and thought I’d try something in a style I wouldn’t usually wear. I bought some bargain midweight rigid denim from The Textile Centre – the first package disappeared in the post but they were really helpful in replacing it. I buy from them quite often, as they are very reasonably priced and the fabrics are always great quality.

The pattern instructions were very clear – the indie designers are far better than the Big 4 (Simplicity, Vogue, Butterick, McCalls) pattern companies at providing step by step instructions, and usually have good photographs of the process.

Well, these were a dream make, even when I put one of the pocket linings on backwards and had to frog it. I was trying to take special care with the pockets as I’d got them the wrong way last time. I even re-cut one of the pocket linings as I was using a directional print and didn’t want it upside down, even though under normal circumstances no one will be looking at the inside of my jeans! The maneki neko fabric was from Ali Express, and it’s a good 100% cotton quilting weight. Expect to see more of it in a future quilt!

In terms of sizing, I took out 5mm from the straight leg seam allowance, but I don’t think I needed to so I’ll leave it in next time. I also took out some length in the leg – 5cm, this time – and I think this was about right. I like the cropped length with my trusty Birkenstocks.

I was very careful with the fly, after last time, and this time I got it right. I also went the whole hog and added rivets, belt loops and made my own ‘brand’ patch using a woven label from The Pink Coat Club. Both the jeans buttons and the rivets came from EBay.

Overall I am pretty pleased with them, though a sewing friend suggested I made the pockets a bit smaller and placed them a bit higher to be more flattering, which I will do next time. I have some black cord that will work well with this pattern, so there *will* be a next time! I wore them on Tuesday, when I ventured onto a train to take one of my stepdaughters to an appointment, and they were so easy to wear, even as the temperature rose.

I remembered my mask, too – home made, of course.

Foxy!

I’m still working on my attic windows quilt, and will hopefully finish the top this week. I am going to attempt sashing between blocks, so let’s see how that goes! Here’s the different blocks laid out on the fabric I have chosen for the sashing. I’ve tried to be quite accurate with my sizing – I trimmed the single window squares to the same size and squared off the edges before putting them into the larger blocks, and the larger blocks have been squared to 11 3/4″. I’m not entirely sure how big this is going to end up! I have a double duvet cover (well, the reverse of one -the front is going to be a circle skirt) for backing, so hopefully that’ll be large enough!

Attic window blocks

As an aside – I have a Quilting board on Pinterest, and I opened up the site in a new tab to remind me to have a look at it when I’d finished writing this. An hour later, I realised I’d fallen down the rabbit hole and rather than looking at the pins on the board, I’d got about 30 tabs open, had pinned a whole new set of ideas and still hadn’t finished this post!

Adventures in the great outdoors

I haven’t done quite as much swimming this week as one of my buddies was working up in London, but we have managed a couple of early morning plunges and a late afternoon dip, which was most welcome when the temperatures were in the high 20s. We swam just as the sun was starting to go down, surrounded by damselflies and ducks, and it was quite blissful. We did about a lap and a half, so just over a kilometre.

Early morning walks have been good too – we are more than 70% of the way towards the August 30k challenge I mentioned last week. One morning we went round the fields via the flood meadow (see this week’s cover photo) which is filled with wild flowers, and on another via the farm where we finally coaxed the little black barn cat close enough to pet. There’s a lot of black cats on the farms round here! His marmalade friend joined in with the fuss too. Next time we walk we are going to take boxes and pick blackberries, as the hedges are groaning with them.

How does your garden grow?

Closer to home, the garden is looking beautiful – one of the sunflowers is now nine feet tall, and hasn’t flowered yet! The sunset-coloured one below is probably about seven feet tall (you can see the stalk of the big one behind it), and the bees love them. The squirrels will also love the seeds when the flowers are finished.

We also made a trip to the garden centre for compost and came home with more sad plants – these two Black Eyed Susans outside my shed, these flame-like celosia that look like Calcifer from Howl’s Moving Castle, and some heliotropes and calla lilies.

Bailey and Teddy are making the most of their catio, as you can see – they love being able to come outside and watch the birds close up. The catio is made of a dog cage, bits of fireguard and a lot of cable ties. We keep adding bits on to try and stop Lulu escaping, as she’s a bit of a Houdini!

Hey, what happened with that job interview?

We heard mid-week that we hadn’t been successful but the consensus view is that we don’t mind! We enjoyed the process and we can continue to work together on the project at our own museum with a new understanding of each other’s skills and experiences, and how well we work as a team. Hopefully we also started people thinking differently about how job shares can work, and got them thinking about what innovation might look like in a multi-site organisation!

You can find out more about the V&A East project here and about the Museum of Childhood transformation here.

And that’s it from me for the week – I have a kitchen full of kids causing chaos, more in the tent in the garden, and I probably ought to supervise!

Same time next week for week 21 then!

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading

American Demon – Kim Harrison (the new Hollows novel! Yay!)

The Pearl King (Crow Investigations) – Sarah Painter

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

Week seventeen: The Case of the Disappearing Nine Patch

I confess to being a little bit down as I write this, as – had it not been for some pandemic or other – I should be tapping away on my tablet, sitting in the garden of a farmhouse in sunny Pembrokeshire surrounded by my family, some of whom I haven’t seen for two years. Yesterday my mum and dad would have arrived from France, my far-away sister and brother-in-law and their children from Northern Ireland, my London sister from the other side of of the M25, and my beloved and I and the children from Essex. We’d be planning a day on the beach at Newport or Newgale, or a mooch around St David’s or Fishguard, making a stack of sandwiches and coffee and counting the windbreaks. At some point in the week we would have seen the extended Wales family of cousins and hopefully my beloved’s Welsh family as well. Instead, here I am in rainy Essex, suffering from mosquito bites after a bike ride on Friday (how do they bite through leggings? How?) and waiting for the kids to emerge from the tent demanding Sunday pancakes. I bear a strong resemblance to Tove Jansson’s Little My in temperament today.

Friday marked the end of the school year for Things 2 and 3, and for Thing 2 also her final year of primary school as she will join Thing 1 at secondary in September. The school organised a socially distanced leavers’ assembly on Friday morning, so they didn’t miss out on all the usual events: yearbooks, a chance to sign each other’s T-shirts (not while they were wearing them for a change!) and to see their friends. Thing 2 is not going to our local large secondary, and she won’t be in the same school as most of her little gang so it was quite a sad moment for her. I think the teachers have definitely earned their summer holiday this year (as they do every year, of course) but this year some won’t have had a break since February half term, and their heads are probably spinning with all the things they have had to adapt to – remote teaching and pastoral care, social bubbles, and much more. I have said this before but I really hope that people start recognising the amazing work teachers do not just this year but every year – and trust them to do what’s best for our kids rather than scapegoating them.

Thing 1 had a birthday last week – she was 14 – and despite a few wobbly moments of anxiety leading up to it I think she had fun. Two of her friends came over and they had a cake picnic in the park, frightening the local youngsters with their mad hair, and taking a lot of selfies. She had her undercut dyed pink on Friday – one of the good things about lockdown is that it’s allowed her to ‘experiment with her aesthetic’ (as she tells me) without the restrictions of school uniform requirements. It’s done wonders for her confidence, and I am loving the baby Goth look she’s developed – I have serious envy of her birthday-money shoes! My hands are still tinged with hot pink from the dye-fest – I did her older sister’s hair too, and forgot the gloves.

Baby goth – Hello Kitty Gothcore, I am told.

I was abandoned on Thursday by my walking buddy, who had a bad back. I went out solo and enjoyed the sunshine on a four mile ramble through the lanes and fields on one of my favourite routes past Dial House and North Weald Redoubt. The hedgerows and verges are now showing the fruits of the flowers from earlier in the season, and they’re alive with insects still – ladybirds and crickets, and so many butterflies (none of whom would stay still long enough to photograph).

There’s also a new set of wildflowers popping up – the bank of willowherb on the farm track is a luscious wall of pink, and the purple of thistles and vetch is lovely.

Back to the title – what’s that all about?

The Case of the Disappearing Nine Patch..

I’m a reader. A big reader. A REALLY big reader. One of the first things I did when I started uni both in Preston and in Aberystwyth and when I moved on to London and Essex later was to find and join the local library. I can sniff out a second hand bookshop or charity shop at a hundred paces. When I visit you, if you leave me alone in your living room I’ll be snooping your bookshelves. I am that person on your Zoom meeting who’s peering past you at the bookshelves. The joy of finding a fellow series fan is unbounded – meeting a fellow Pratchett fan in the wild, noticing a Rivers of London reader on the Tube, those who know the significance of the number 42. (The museum world is a good place to find these people, by the way). We be of one blood, you and I.

But the first series I really got into – I mean, really got into – was Nancy Drew way back in the early 80s. I read them all from the library, snapped them up on market stalls, bought them when they went on the discarded stock shelf. Classic Nancy – not the later series. One of my best sewing buddies was introduced to me first as ‘Ah, Alli likes Nancy Drew too – you two will get on really well’. (We do) I wondered what happened to them all when I left home and then a couple of years ago a younger cousin messaged me and asked if I wanted them back. Why yes, I said, the kids might like them.

Who was I kidding? *I* wanted them back. I wanted to read them all again. I wanted to immerse myself in the adventures of the titian-haired detective, her tomboyish friend George and Bess, the girly one. Cool coupes! Lawyer dad Carson! Ned Nickerson, the handsome boyfriend! Honestly, that girl could not go anywhere without falling over a clue, a secret, a mystery of some kind, which she would solve with her loyal girlfriends and her brilliant deductive skills. I never trip over mysteries – except the old ‘where did all the money go this month’ one that we all encounter once we hit adulthood.

So just as soon as I finish my current series, I am opening up that box of delights and taking a trip back to my childhood.

That sort of childhood passion doesn’t really go away, of course, and I still have a sneaky fondness for ‘girl detectives’ though they (and I) are much older now. I’m currently working my way through the wonderful V I Warshawski novels by Sara Paretsky. I first encountered VI at uni, where I was reading American Studies and Indemnity Only was one of the texts on a unit called ‘Images of the City in the American Mind’. VI is a tougher, more streetwise version of Nancy, who fights for the underdog against corporate America. The joy of Kindle is that I don’t have to wait for the library to reopen, of course, to catch up on the later ones.

VI opened up a world of grown up ‘girl’ detective novels – I won’t go into them all in detail but here’s some of my favourites:

  1. Kinsey Millhone by Sue Grafton. I am heartbroken that the author died before ‘Z’ was published.
  2. Stephanie Plum by Janet Evanovich. Brilliant cast of comic characters.
  3. Ruth Galloway novels by Elly Griffiths (and an honourable mention for her Stephens and Mephisto books too)
  4. Carlotta Carlyle by Linda Barnes. Tough Boston PI who drives a cab on the side.
  5. Rev. Merrily Watkins by Phil Rickman. Set in Herefordshire, so makes visits home a bit spooky at times.
  6. Kate Shugak novels by Dana Stabenow. Alaska! Moose! Bears!

Mentions also for Dr Temperance Brennan, Bubbles Yablonsky, Trixie Belden, Jimm Juree and Precious Ramotswe.

I don’t limit myself to girl detectives, of course, but my heart will always hold a sneaky place for these feisty, clever, quick-thinking females.

Their male counterparts will have to wait for another day, but will probably include Harry Bosch, Marcus Didius Falco, Brother Cadfael, Dave Robicheaux, John Rebus, Dr Siri Paiboun, Bryant and May, DI Thomas Lynley, and Richard Jury. Perhaps detectives and their sidekicks are a whole other topic…

If they come with a side-order of the supernatural, so much the better! I’d better come back to that one as well.

Where did that nine patch disappear to?

It hasn’t disappeared at all, really – it’s the name of the quilt block I ended up using this week. Its not one from the book I mentioned last week, or any of my quilt pattern books, but one that popped up on my daily digest from Bloglovin’.

I’d spent a couple of days trying to decide what to do with the blue charm packs I’d bought, and had pretty much decided to go with basic squares again. I discarded the brighter blue solids and some of the prints, as they didn’t quite fit, so I was left with teal, candy blue, buttermilk and buttercup for solids. I still wasn’t entirely happy with the basic layout so I didn’t start to stitch them together – and I’m glad I didn’t! So I grabbed some of the leftovers from the row layout and did a test block, then abandoned the rows entirely in favour of these nine-patches.

Test block

Since each row had been sorted for colour already, I started to build the nine-patches from the rows, making sure I had one of each solid colour in the block with five different print patches. I ended up with 20 blocks, which I trimmed to 12″ squares before stitching them together to make the final quilt top. Some of the patches had directional prints which limited which way up they could go (in my head, anyway).

I really like the way this has come together. It needs a border as it’s not quite wide enough, but I think I have enough neutral solids left to make one, and it’ll need to be backed and quilted before it’s finished. I’ll be backing it with a large curtain I picked up in a charity shop ages ago, so I won’t need to piece a backing.

This week I am going to finish the commission dolls, try open water swimming with friends, try some more drawing, and try not to feel too out of sorts about not being in Wales. At least school is over…

See you at end of week eighteen.

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading

V I Warshawski series (only 1 more to go!) – Sara Paretsky

Last Act in Palmyra – Falco series by Lindsey Davis

Learn to Draw: Buildings – David Cook

Week sixteen: the pinwheels of my mind

This week has been all about the patchwork! Regular visitors to my little corner of the web will remember that I had a birthday the other week and, as guilt free shopping is always good, I was given a couple of Amazon vouchers. I have a rule that birthday money should always be spent on presents for yourself, and not on anything practical like new washing machines or cat food: therefore, much of my crafty wish list found its way into my basket!

Throughout furlough I have been really enjoying patchwork – starting with the mini charm quilt and the Attic Window quilt that had been in the UFO pile for years, and then working through various charm packs and fat quarters that were lurking in the stash.

Like most people who sew, I end up with lots of remnants. Prior to lockdown, I used to take all my cotton/polycotton remnants to work where they would be used to dress the thousands of peg dolls children made every term, and in April I gave a lot of fabric to a woman in the village to make masks from as she wasn’t charging for them. Since then, the pile has been building up again.

One of the presents I bought myself was ‘Use scraps, sew blocks, make 100 quilts‘ by Stuart Hillard and it’s been a bit of a game changer. I had a couple of books of traditional quilt patterns already, as well as Quilting for Dummies, but as they are all in black and white I found it hard to get inspired by them. I always enjoy Stuart’s column in one of my sewing magazines, so this seemed like a good book to buy. As you can see, it’s already bristling with sticky notes! Every time I look through it something else catches my eye.

Bristling with sticky notes already!

It’s a very practical book – suggestions for organising your scraps by cutting them to useful, regularly-used sizes before you chuck them in a box, or for cutting a strip off every fabric you buy and adding to your patch pile might seem obvious but as a newbie patcher I really hadn’t thought of that before. Having this sort of hoard also means that you see how colours and prints work together in a way you might not have expected.

The instructions for piecing together are very clear, and Stuart has simplified the cutting process for each block (I love his quick half-square triangle method!) to make them feel less daunting for newbies. The virtual quilt illustrations are really useful alongside the photos of the gorgeous finished quilts and make me feel as if I could actually make one of these artworks.

On Stuart’s advice I bought a 45mm rotary cutter and a proper transparent quilter’s ruler – I had a larger 65mm cutter that I don’t use much, probably as it’s blunt, and normal steel rulers, but the quilting rule has angles and centimetres. I wish it had inches as well, but there we are. I felt ready to put all these top organisational tips into action , so I wandered up to my shed and sorted out a pile of remnants to cut into nice tidy pieces. I did make a start, honest…I cut up some Japanese florals and Kokeshi prints into 6″ squares to go with a set of Totoro panels, and then I got distracted. Again.

I knew all those polyfiles would come in handy.

One of the pre-cut charm packs I discovered in the stash was a set of 4-inch squares with florals, ladybirds and butterflies – I think I bought it at a stitch show years ago as I find it hard to resist anything with ladybirds on! In the remnant pile I found some cream polycotton left over from making the Colette Sorbetto top, and it looked as if it would pair nicely with the charms. I ended up making half-square triangles and then spent several days playing with patterns.

How do you choose which patchwork design to use? I moved things around on my drawing board, and every time I chanced on another layout I loved it just as much. I ended up taking photos of every block and posting them on Facebook, and asked my friends what they thought at block and layout stages – quilting by committee! Some of the layouts used the prints randomly, others put them together, and I even tried putting two different blocks together to create something quite chaotic. Opinion was divided – some people liked the same pattern together, others preferred the mixture of patterns, but the clear winner was the pinwheel or windmill block (centre bottom).

I went with the majority vote and I am soooo pleased with the outcome. It worked well as a stashbuster, which just goes to show what a good investment the book was! As well as the cream print in the triangles I made the bias binding myself from the remnants of the backing fabric from the red quilt from a few weeks ago using this tutorial, and this quilt top is backed with a cot sheet that I had kept from when the kids were little. I used a double layer of batting, as it’s the 2oz one and I wanted a puffier effect, and I quilted in the ditch along the diagonal lines. It’s not a huge quilt, coming out at 33″ x 26″, but it’ll be a good baby gift.

There will be more patchwork in the future, I suspect! This week I am going to try and be good and finish chopping remnants into organised scraps, and possibly have a go at the Morgan jeans if the fabric arrives. I’m still working on the two commission dolls, which just need to be given hair and clothes, and yesterday I managed a whole round of my virus shawl while queuing for the Co-op and the post office.

Musings….

This week my annual pension statement arrived from my previous job and reminded me that I have another 20 years of work to go (on current reckoning, anyway – who knows what the next two decades have in store?) on the same day that my eldest, Thing 1, decided to go Goth on me. She is 14 this week and looks so grown up – it doesn’t seem that long since the ridiculously hot summer of 2006 when she arrived, and I wanted to take her back to the hospital as I really didn’t feel capable of being in charge of this little being. I’m told this is quite normal!

There’s still days when I’m not sure I’m ready for the responsibility, but it may be a little late to change my mind now. One of the wonderful things about furlough is that I have had time to spend with the three of them that – as a working parent – I wouldn’t otherwise have had. These months have been the longest time I have had away from work since my last maternity leave (in 2011!) and while I love my job and wouldn’t want to give up work, I do feel lucky to have had this chance to enjoy my children now they are a bit bigger. Maternity leave is great, but it’s also a lot of hard work with a tiny person and a lot of overwhelming emotions, especially if – as I found – post-natal depression comes into the mix. It’s a cliche but your babies don’t stay little for long!

I also ventured further from home this week than I have done since lockdown started – a whole five miles, in order to make my 21st blood donation over in Theydon Bois. It was all very well organised, with triage as you enter and no waiting around. The worst part was when my Kindle crashed about a minute into my donation – nothing to read!

I started giving blood in 2011 after my brother in law suffered a heart injury which left him in hospital for several months and with permanent impairments. My youngest child was still tiny and I couldn’t be with my sister as much as I’d have liked, so donating blood helped me feel a bit more useful. I love getting the texts that tell me where my blood has been issued to! Only 4% of people who are eligible to give blood actually do, so I try and encourage friends and colleagues to visit the vampires – it’s an hour out of your day a few times a year, and you get a drink and a biscuit afterwards. Orange Clubs, if you’re lucky – so go on, head to http://www.blood.co.uk and find out where you can donate.

This week’s cover photo is of a field between North Weald and Tawney Common, where the farmer has left a wide and beautiful border of wildflowers around the field. My phone camera doesn’t do it justice but the butterflies and bees were loving it!

Next week is the end of term: no more home learning till September, and hopefully we’ll be back to some form of normal by then, at least in terms of going back to school. Thing 2 is having a socially distanced leavers’ assembly this week in the school playground, so please wish us good weather!

See you on the other side of week 17…

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

Use scraps, sew blocks, make 100 quilts‘ by Stuart Hillard

V I Warshawski series – Sara Paretsky

Poseidon’s Gold (Falco series) – Lindsey Davis (Audible)

and if you want a couple of film recommendations, head on over to Amazon Prime Video and check out Adult Life Skills (with Jodie Whittaker – I wept) and The Great Unwashed.

Week fifteen: sourdough and split ends

I am not a natural chef. There are things I do well: banana bread, for example, a foolproof chocolate cake, and according to the Horde I make a very passable chilli. There are things I do very badly: scones and pastry, and Anzac biscuits. I quite literally cannot produce a consistent boiled egg, let alone an edible one. It’s not that long ago that Thing 3 responded to the smoke alarm by running off to his daddy shouting, ‘Dinner’s ready’. When my beloved installed an extractor over the cooker I tried telling the children that dinner couldn’t be burned, as the alarm hadn’t gone off: Thing 2 looked at me, looked at her admittedly charcoal-toned dinner and said, ‘You cheated, mummy, you turned the thing on.’ Thing 1, memorably, peered at the grill pan once while I was making fish fingers and said, ‘Haven’t you burned them yet, mummy?’ This, at the age of about four.

I used to envy those classmates who did Home Economics at school. Note for young people: this is now called Food Technology, and comes under the DT syllabus. Back in the olden days it was a whole separate subject.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes… my classmates that did Home Ec. They got to go off down to the art block at lunchtime to do arcane things like ‘feeding their Christmas cake’. I, on the other hand, got one out of ten for fruit salad (really, don’t ask). When I took my bread and butter pudding home – quite proudly, I will admit, as it wasn’t burned – and handed it to my mother she said, ‘how lovely, let’s put it in the freezer and we’ll have it another day,’ and it was never seen again. Luckily for my parents, we only did a half term of Home Ec every year.

My London sister, on the other hand, is a talented and brilliant person in the kitchen and whips up clever things. When lockdown began, she had recently been made redundant and she decided to try making a sourdough starter. Christened George, we had daily updates on his progress and she began to turn out beautiful loaves of bread. A whole new vocabulary comes with sourdough: words like levain, and discard, and bannetton (a proving basket, I think).

For my birthday. she arrived bearing a pack of N’duja* (the good stuff, I am told) and a jar containing a little bit of George. I have christened it Kevin. An email followed with instructions on what to do with Kevin to make him earn his keep, and photos illustrating the joy of sourdough.

Now, despite the fact that she’s my little sister and tormented me for many years by doing things like telling new boyfriends that I lived next door when they came to pick me up, singing selections from Annie through the letterbox at me, or locking herself in the bathroom with the notes from a lovelorn swain (that I had torn up) and reading them out very loudly, I do trust her when it comes to cooking.

So, on Monday I broke Kevin out of the little pot and began my first sourdough loaf. Kevin Junior (the levain) didn’t bubble properly or grow to twice his size, just produced a few halfhearted holes and he didn’t grow much on the first rise. The second rise was more successful, and apart from the fact that I didn’t brave the slash before baking and the ‘dark’ crust was more charcoal than expected, the loaf tasted delicious. I made bread!

The next day she remembered to tell me that I should be using hand-hot water to make the levain and to feed Kevin, so last night (I’m writing this bit on Thursday as I was inspired!) I started my second loaf. Warm water is definitely the way to go – Kevin Junior doubled in size, and the overnight rise was very successful. I was out walking at 6am this morning and started the second rise when I got back – he’s currently shaped and supported by tea towels in the conservatory. I’m hoping not to burn this one…..

Kevin Senior is in a Kilner jar (minus the seal) in the fridge – I am now a slave to the sourdough. Kevin’s bitch. Oh dear. (*the N’duja remains unopened. One thing at a time, people.)

Update: yesterday I made sourdough pancakes from the discard (thumbs up from the Horde), and discovered that ham and Emmental sourdough toasties are the food of the gods. Next mission: pizza.

My other experiment this week was home made peshwari naan bread, British Indian Restaurant style – and it was AMAZING. The kids prefer peshwari to plain naan, and they don’t sell it in the little Co-op in the village. I used this recipe from The Curry Guy and though it took longer than I expected it was SO worth it. They tasted just like the ones from our local restaurant, and I could leave one plain for Thing 3 who doesn’t like sultanas. We’ll be making those again!

That was the week…

…that I also got completely fed up with my split ends. My hair is (or was) longer than it has been in about ten years. It’s the best part of six months since my last haircut, and my poor tresses have been treated to several home dye kits since then. I decided to take a leaf out of the kids’ book and watch a YouTube video on how to cut your own hair. My hair is pretty straightforward apart from being a bit unruly/wavy/curly: I have a heavy fringe as I’d still like to be Chrissie Hynde when I grow up (minus the veganism), and layers as that helps the curl behave. I watched this one by Liz Liz and this one by Marianellyy Diaz – much the same content, but the first one shows you how to layer round the face and the second how to take out the V-shape at the back. I think it was quite successful – I cut my fringe in carefully using the same technique. The colour is a very faded Schwarzkopf Live colour in Amethyst Chrome – supposed to be permanent but I find they fade quite quickly on my hair.

Layers! Post-straightening.

I got more practice in on the technique afterwards, as Thing 2 decided to cut her own fringe (luckily quite long, but a bit too wide) and I had to do a repair job to turn it into a layered cut for her as well. Thing 1 got an undercut, courtesy of her dad and his clippers, under her short bob (by me the other week). She now wants to have her whole head cropped, and to go to fashion school – she is equally excited by both things, and I have promised that this week I’ll start teaching her to sew (I knew she should have chosen Textiles at GCSE). She has been researching courses and summer schools already!

On the subject of sewing, I finished the green and yellow quilt that I laid out last week, as both the backing fabric and the binding arrived. I prewashed the backing fabric and I am very glad I did, as it lost lots of the lemon yellow dye. Putting it in with a light wash was a bad idea but – honestly – who doesn’t need lemon yellow pyjamas and running socks?

I had an idea that rather than quilting in the ditch between the squares, I’d use a button on every corner as I had some pretty wooden ones in the button tin, but when I tried it the effect wasn’t quite what I was hoping for so I snipped them off and went back to the machine (the Singer I wrote about last week). I was looking for a puffy effect, but because I was using 2oz wadding rather than the 4oz I used last time it didn’t work. I may try again with more wadding at some point! Fortunately I made the choice to change back after only eight buttons went on.

Buttons.

I have learned from the last two quilts, where the fabric bunched up during the quilting stage, to stitch my lines outwards from the middle and to make sure the fabric is flat as I sew. This time round I stitched outwards from the centre point to form a cross dividing the quilt into quarters, then worked through each quarter from the centre towards the edges. I did the horizontal lines first and then the vertical, and the bunching is much less in evidence. I also increased my stitch length slightly to accommodate the wadding, and that seems to have resolved the tension issue I experienced with the red quilt. The binding isn’t quite straight, but I think the sage green works well with the yellows and greens and picks up some of the florals nicely.

The next one will be blue – I have picked up a couple of charm packs from Amazon and some Kona solids in different blues from Ebay, and the plan is to make a larger one that might actually cover a bed! My bed, for preference…

No cross stitch update this week as I have been mainly crocheting. Late last year I was asked by a D&D playing friend to create a set of ‘voodoo’-style dolls of their RPG group – they were on a story arc in New Orleans, and he wanted some props. One of the group contacted me last week to ask if I could make dolls of him and his girlfriend, so they have been on the hook this week. I have been using the Weebee doll pattern by Laura Tegg on Ravelry (my user name is LadybirdK over there) as it’s super-simple, there’s some really cute outfits that can be adapted easily and – this is important! – there’s permission to sell the finished dolls. Here’s the first of the pair, awaiting hair and clothes. He liked the button eye aesthetic that the game dolls had, so we have stuck with that, and has requested that I make the doll look ‘witchy’. I love these commissions, they are such fun to make!

Doll 1

The rather dramatic header image this week was taken on my regular Sunday walk – this week we followed one of the Millennium walks through the flood meadow nature reserve to the local church and then back through the fields. The local farmers have planted a lot of borage this year, and the fields are the most heavenly blue colour that my phone camera completely fails to do justice to. A bit of Googling told us that borage is also known as starflower, is a source of Omega-6 fatty acid and is good in salads. It’s safe from pigeons and slugs, too.

The boxes in the second image are bee hives, and the field next to the flood meadow is covered in them – local honey must be on the way! There was a lot of industrious buzzing, I know that much.

So that was week 15! The pubs reopened yesterday (I didn’t go, but the noise last night suggests that some people made the most of it!). I made my monthly trip to Tesco on Tuesday and still can’t get any soy sauce but home baking goods are back on the shelves which made me happy.

See you on the other side of week 16!

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

V I Warshawski novels (I’m up to #12 now – only 8 more to go!) – Sara Paretsky

The Iron Hand of Mars/Poseidon’s Gold (Falco series) – Lindsey Davis (Audible)