This week has drifted by in a fuzz of nothing much: the weather has been grey and rainy, and it’s one of those weeks where I feel I have achieved very little. I know I have, of course: we finished packing up the learning office and the handling collection at work with a week to spare before the deadline, sorted the boxes into deep storage, accessible storage and ‘wanted on voyage’ piles; I had some very useful meetings and spent a lot of time staring at spreadsheets. The cutting adrift of the team from the museum for the next couple of years is imminent: there is no dedicated office space for us elsewhere, so I expect I am just feeling a bit lost!
So as the weather was being temperamental again yesterday I decided I’d cheer myself up with a day of watching a favourite film or two. I ended up watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which is endlessly quotable and entirely silly, and the compilation of sketches And Now for Something Completely Different. I love Monty Python: its absurdism, and the sideways look at Britain and the British in a way that Little Britain took a bit too far at times. Sketches like the Dead Parrot or the Four Yorkshiremen are instantly recognisable, even to non-fans, as they have entered the public domain, and without groups like Python the alternative comedians of the ’80s probably wouldn’t have existed. Not the Nine O’Clock News, for example, or Naked Video and Absolutely.
I was first introduced to Monty Python at uni in the early 90s, along with many other geeky things like graphic novels, and role playing games (we did Middle Earth). One of the things I really loved about uni was that it was suddenly OK to be a geek and to love SF and fantasy, superheroes and quotable films, in a way that it wasn’t at a small town secondary school where the slightest hint of difference made you odd. Uni was full of people who didn’t think it odd that locating the local library was top of the to-do list (alongside the local student pub, of course).
Museums are also full of people who happily sit in the nerd camp: the Pratchett fans, the D&D players, the people who start phone calls with “‘ello? I’d like to make a complaint!’ or ‘Do you want to come upstairs?’ and brighten your day by making you laugh. At the start of a meeting this week my line manager informed me that she’d woken up with a pain in the diodes all down her left side: well, it was Thursday, and it’s hard to get the hang of Thursdays. I work with Lego fans, with people who think it’s perfectly normal to sit on the top deck of a bus in London to look at buildings, Potterheads, D&D players, Discworld fans, Whovians, gamers, and more. This is why I love my job: it’s a joy to go to work when you have found your tribe.
I came home from work on Wednesday unable to think about anything except chocolate cake, for some reason. Luckily I have an excellent recipe that belonged to my Aunty Jan, where you throw everything in a bowl, beat it for two minutes and then bung it in the oven and the result is a brilliant cake that even I can’t get wrong. With a dollop of Mallow & Marsh raspberry marshmallow spread in the middle and a cocoa glace icing, we had cake for pudding after dinner and I was able to get on with my life.
As you can see, I finished the Hairspray cross stitch and handed it over to the birthday girl this week – she loved it. I don’t often get to hand things over in person these days, so it was lovely to see the unboxing. Sock one of the Vappu use-up-the-ball socks is complete, and I have also begun this Cow with Calf crochet pattern.
I’ve also finished the next gift in the year of handmade gifts, which will be heading off this week, so I have achieved more than I think I have over the last seven days! This week I am having a sneak preview of the new V&A exhibition with some children from my favourite Bethnal Green primary school: I went into school to visit them on Friday and it was so good to see them again after more than a year!
And then next weekend London sister and I are going on an adventure, which I am REALLY looking forward to. I don’t even care if it rains (though sunshine would obviously be nice!).
So, that was week 60. Nothing much happened, but there we are. See you for week 61, when I will be coming to you from North Wales.
What I’ve been reading
Inspector Pel and the Faceless Corpse – Mark Hebden
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.
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!
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!
See you at the other end of week 26!
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)
It’s the end of August which means the annual ordeal of purchasing the school shoes. And it really is an ordeal: whether you are the parent who has to brace themselves at the cost of the things; the child who has to wear them; or the shop assistant who has to measure about 3,000,000 feet a week at the moment while soothing the shredded nerves of the end-of-tether parent and the child whose idea of school shoes is often very different to their parent’s.
It’s only in the last few years that I have been able to enter a Clark’s shoe shop without having a full blown panic attack, and I had to work up to that via their franchises in the local Mothercare before they were big enough for school. Even now this shop is always my last resort, even though Clarks school shoes are excellent quality and worth every penny.
Let me tell you a story….
Once upon a time, back in the dark ages when I was at school, buying school shoes involved a trip to Cardiff to the Clarks shop to have our feet measured and to buy sensible school shoes. Now, I am blessed (or cursed) with wide feet with narrow ankles and my youngest sister has very narrow feet. Middle sister has middle sized feet. Every year, my Dad would choose this date above all others to Give Up Smoking. This was something we would all have liked him to do (and which he wouldn’t manage for another thirty years or so, as it turned out). He liked smoking (heck, I liked smoking) and by the time I was born in the early ’70s he’d been doing it for about twenty years and it had become a bit of a habit.
So, on a hot August Saturday at the end of the month, when the whole world and their mum were converging on Cardiff to – yes, you guessed it – buy school shoes, we would hop in the car and head to town. By this time Dad hadn’t had a cigarette for about nine hours and the lack of nicotine was starting to show. We would find our way to the multi-storey carpark, where Dad would drive past many, many, many car parking spaces in order to find the perfect one while middle sister became increasingly travel sick. Still no nicotine. Having parked, we would make our way to Clarks.
I dreamed of nice school shoes. I really did. This being National Welsh School Shoe Shopping Day, there would be a long wait for feet to be measured, in the hot, busy shop filled with whinging kids (three of which were his own) and there would still have been no nicotine. His fingers would be twitching towards the breast pocket of his shirt, but he was GIVING UP SMOKING.
The ritual of the foot measuring complete, the real trauma fun would begin: trying to find a shoe that we liked and that both parents thought was suitable and sensible. The cracks would begin to show at this point, as this was an impossible compromise. Dad would be muttering (mostly) under his breath as the parade of buckles, lace ups (these were the days before velcro straps) and classic t-bar sandals grew ever longer. Eventually all three of us were fitted with shoes (“They’re black, they fit, you’re having them!”), and we would leave the shop at speed. Back on Queen Street, in the August heat and the Saturday crowds, my mum would hiss, ‘For God’s sake Robert, GO AND HAVE A CIGARETTE’.
And thus was Dad given tacit permission to smoke for another year. The year I started secondary school I tried to head this off at the pass by agreeing with the first pair of shoes that fitted me. They were absolutely hideous lace-ups, and the heel was so wide that it shredded my poor ankles into blisters so I had to wear horrible heel grips to keep them on. And he still got told to go and have a cigarette.
And that, dear readers, is why Clarks is always my last resort.
My own beloved children have also been blessed with wide feet – in the cases of Things 2 and 3, not only wide but deep, if that’s a thing. I blame their father. We have always had to size up for those two, for this reason, and it does limit their choices. Thing 1 was prescribed Doc Marten boots to support her ankles as she’s hyper-mobile, and her feet haven’t grown since she got them (hurray!).
Last year was simple – 2 and 3 were at primary school and we bought them both plain black trainers: Skechers for the girl and Kangol for the boy. They lasted the year, so that was a win. This year, Thing 2 is starting secondary and has to have black shoes which can be polished. Thing 3 just wanted shoes which didn’t lace up, so it took approximately ten minutes to find a pair of Kangols which fitted. Thing 2 wouldn’t countenance anything but slip-ons (mum, straps don’t go with trousers) so dismissed all Skechers out of hand.
The size 6s were too tight, the size 7s were too big. There were no other shoes. And that’s how we ended up in Clarks.
Can I have a cigarette now Mum?
Spray starch to the rescue
Ever since Liz made a yellow tea dress on the Great British Sewing Bee this year I have wanted a yellow maxi, and with this in mind I bought some yellow pixel-style flower print viscose back in April, which has sat on the pile as I’ve had nowhere to wear a nice dress! The fabric is soft and drapey, and I was really looking forward to using it. The By Hand London Anna pattern has been in the digital stash for ages, and when looking for a project this week I decided to pair the two.
The Anna pattern is very straightforward – no sleeves to add, pleats rather than darts on the front, and a simple panelled skirt with a rather dramatic split up the front. You can cut it to midi length, and I’m sure it would make a pretty above-the-knee too if you left the split out. Before cutting the fabric I shortened the pattern by 20 centimetres – now, I am ‘average height’ at five foot four-ish, so I can only assume they are designing for giantesses. 20cm! The instructions are clear and friendly, with good illustrations, so an adventurous beginner could tackle this easily.
Making the dress, however, was an absolute nightmare. Cutting out the pattern was very hit and miss, despite deploying about a million pins and my new pattern weights, several rocks and a few tins of beans – it moved about with the scissors, stretched out of shape and slithered over the table. I made the bodice – the pleats are a wild guess as marking the fabric accurately was also almost impossible. Then I remembered a top tip I’d seen for working with slippery fabrics – spray starch! That made life a lot easier – I starched and pressed the skirt seams before I constructed it, and did the same with the zip and hem.
Flushed with the success of my starchy sewing hack, I decided to try another hack to put the zip in – using sticky tape to hold the zip in place instead of pins, given how much this fabric moved about.
NEVER AGAIN. My needle hated it – it skipped stitches, gunked up, on three occasions actually snapped. The thread snapped. I snapped. It took forever to get the zip in and I think the kids learned a few new words as well.
Eventually the dress was done. The hem – starched to within an inch of its life and made with the help of the Clover hot hemmer – was the easy bit in the end. You can see the frock on my dummy above – luckily it looks better on me than it does here! Since the weather has changed dramatically in the last couple of days I’ll be styling it with DMs and layers rather than sandals, but grunge is always my winter go-to so that’s OK. If I make it again I will size down, I think.
My second make of the week was much easier – I saw a pattern on a sewing group on Facebook and fell for it. Thumbhole cuffs? Hood? Pockets? Yes please!
I’ve had a lovely Moomin print jersey in my stash for a while – a bargain from Ali Express – and I was saving it for a pattern that would show it off. This Double Down Dress from Little Ragamuffin was it. I had enough Moomin fabric for the front and back centre panels, the sleeves and the pockets – with some black jersey for side panels and the hood, it was perfect.
The pattern has three neckline options, an open back option, inseam pockets (and there’s a free patch pocket hack on the LR website) two hood options, three cuff options, three different lengths and at least four sleeves to choose from. It also has options for different cup sizes so you don’t have to do a bust adjustment if you’re blessed with boobs (I am not). I bought the pattern bundle with the Vegas sundress so you can also layer the two.
I chose the assassin hood style, and chose not to line it as the fabric is quite lightweight, the above-the-knee length, inseam pockets and the inseam thumbhole cuffs. Again, the instructions are pretty straightforward and if you’re printing from a PC you can use the layer option to print the size you need.
Using the overlocker for most of the construction meant that it was speedy to make up – the inseam thumbhole and the hem do require the sewing machine, but that was it. It might possibly be my new favourite dress and with so many options I can tweak different versions. I love the flared skirt.
I finished the custom dolls this week and handed them over – they are quirky portraits of a couple who live some distance apart. My brief was to make the girl doll ‘witchy’ which was fun! The basic pattern is the Weebee doll (available on Ravelry) and my customer is a member of an RPG group whose DM had already commissioned character dolls for me (his was a Cyborg!). I loved doing these – adding the little details like the beard, the temple greys and the girl doll’s short fringe made them really personal.
It’s also cool enough now to pick up a blanket project – I am working on the Coast blanket from Attic24 (started in 2017, oops) in double bed size. You can see it in this week’s cover photo.
Autumn is on the way…
This week’s swim was definitely on the bracing side – the water was 18.5 degrees on Friday morning and we swam in the rain as the weather was very changeable. We’d earned the hot chocolate we indulged in afterwards! I am looking forward to winter swims though.
My beloved and I dragged Thing 3 out for a ramble around the Common one afternoon – we were lucky enough to see a large group of deer, but we are sad about the devastation the landowners are wreaking as they clear the brambles and trees. The feeling is that building on the land is now inevitable, which will leave a lot less space for wildlife. I can’t believe they have started the clearance while birds are still nesting – we have another set of baby blackbirds in the garden, looking ridiculously scruffy and grumpy – and they have grubbed up the area around the badger sett too.
I made the first of this year’s apple cakes, using eating apples from the garden. The recipe was my late Aunty Ruth’s and it’s delicious with butter – hot or cold.
My furlough comes to a part-time end this week – I go back remotely three days a week for September, and four in October. The children start going back to school on Thursday – Things 2 and 3 this week, and Thing 1 goes back the following week. The uniforms are labelled, the PE kits are sorted and the school bags are packed.
Let’s see what week 24 brings! Who wants to guess how many emails are in my inbox?
What I’ve been reading
The Dresden Files – Jim Butcher (I’m up to #5 now)
Three Hands in the Fountain – Lindsey Davies (Falco series – Audible)