126: ambassador, you are spoiling us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other things making me happy…

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

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

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

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

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

The Running Hare – John Lewis-Stempel

Swell – Jenny Landreth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Castles and cross stitch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To-do or not to-do…

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

Here it is:

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

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

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

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

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

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

Week fourteen: new jeans and sewing machines

A thank you, first of all – to those of you both here on WordPress and elsewhere on social media (and even in real life!) who took the time to read last week’s piece, to share it more widely and to talk to me about it. It meant a lot to me to be able to open the conversation. Thank you!

This has been a learning week – my challenge was to make a pair of jeans for myself. I bought the Closet Case Patterns ‘Ginger’ skinny jeans some time ago and it’s been lurking in my files for aaaaages. I picked up some black stretch denim on EBay – quite lightweight, without too much stretch (2% lycra), and very reasonably priced considering the potential for disaster in the project. There’s a lot of techniques in a pair of jeans I haven’t tried before – not least the fly – so I knew this was going to be a steep curve!

Who knew, for example, how many different pieces there are in a pair of jeans? I know I didn’t have a clue until I cut them out on Monday…

I decided to make view B, which is the high waisted, skinny leg option – I have never bought high waisted jeans, but I also rarely wore bold print clothes until I started making them myself, so I figure I’ll wear these jeans! Before I cut the fabric I used the shortening guide on the leg piece to take out 10cm, which is the usual amount I have to take off all trousers. If I make them again I’ll reduce that to 8 or 9cm for a wider hem at the bottom, as they were only just long enough in the end, resting just below my ankle after hemming.

The pockets went together quite well, except the coin pocket ended up on the left instead of the right (since it’s a pocket I never use, I can’t see a problem with this and would have been just as happy to have left it out), and one of the pocket stays is inside out. I need to put a couple of tacking stitches into the pocket to hold the facings inside as they have a habit of popping out above the pockets themselves. I used remnants of the deep red backing fabric from my red quilt to make facings and pockets, so my favourite colour is on the inside.

The fly was another matter, and I’m really not sure where I went wrong. I followed the instructions as best I could – they really aren’t that clear, and while I frequently say ‘trust the pattern!’ I think next time I’ll be looking out for a sewalong or tutorial to help. My zip is exposed, and the fly shield doesn’t sit over it – but my top stitching is very neat for a change, which I suppose is something as top stitching is one of my bugbears (hence using navy for the jeans!).

The back of the jeans went together well – the yoke gives the waistline a nice shape, and the slight curve on the back pockets is flattering. The pattern gives some helpful suggestions for pocket placements, as – as they point out – every bottom is different. I’ve never been very fond of mine (too flat) so anything that gives the illusion of a curve is a plus!

The designers very sensibly suggest tacking the front and back together to check the fit through the leg before you stitch them permanently together, and I’m glad I did as I had to take in the legs by a couple of centimetres. I was still left with some extra width in the the thigh, so I’ll try and work out how to take that out next time (possibly by grading between the leg and waist sizes on the pattern).

Overall I’m happy with them, and will be making them again – and I’ve also treated myself to the Morgan boyfriend jeans pattern.

The top I’m wearing in the picture above is also a me-made – this time a rub-off from one of my favourite vests. I like the slight shaping on it, and the length. The stripy fabric is another EBay bargain – it was sold as 100% cotton, but I have my doubts. It’s not very stretchy and the stripes are printed rather than woven, but as a test piece it’s worked quite well. If you look closely you can see a seam down the centre front where I didn’t have enough length (I had a metre of fabric) to cut both front and back on the fold. It’s a very stable knit, so putting a seam down the front didn’t take it out of shape.

Here you can see the vest in progress – the rub off, the marked up pattern and my kit (Burda tracing paper, Frixion pens, a couple of Celtic paddlestones from the garden centre for weights, pins, a long steel ruler and paper scissors!) – and the final vest next to the original. Please note the Bee-worthy stripe matching on the vest which I managed on both sides and down the middle.

Thoughts on sewing machines…

Both the jeans and the vest were constructed using my Brother 2104D overlocker for seam finishing, and on a Singer Samba 2 (6211 model) which – looking at the instruction booklet – dates from 1984. My Aunty Jo, who had it from new and who passed it on to me a couple of years ago, has made notes in the back of the booklet detailing what she made and the savings on shop-bought clothes. These are dated around 1986, and I can see she made Liberty print blouses, cushion covers, and did alterations for her son and herself. She was also a painter, and has been in my mind a lot recently as she is in hospital after a fall. I wonder whether this was behind my decision to use the Samba to sew this week?

Aunty Jo’s Samba 2

Sewing machines, it turns out, are like cats and tattoos – it’s almost impossible to stop at one. I am currently at 5, including my overlocker!

My first sewing machine was also a Singer, which I never got to grips with and which eventually expired past resurrection back when I still lived in London. My mum was given it for her 21st birthday in 1965 and she passed it to me as she thought her days of sewing were past and my crafty journey had just begun with my discovery of cross stitch. She was wrong, of course – my youngest sister is an historical interpreter working in schools, museums and heritage sites in Northern Ireland and the top of ROI, and mum has been sewing costumes for her (which reminds me, I have to make a suffragette sash for her!) as well as making curtains for their home in France.

My second sewing machine came much later, when my eldest daughter was very small – this time, it was given to me by my mother in law, as she no longer used it. Again, it was from the 1960s, as we found the original receipt in the case. It’s a Husqvarna Viking 19E, and it had been regularly serviced and much used. I learned to sew on this beauty, and when the drive belt perished a few years ago and couldn’t be replaced as the parts are no longer made I was very sad. I still have it, and have a search alert set up on EBay in the hope that a belt will come up second hand. I can’t bring myself to get rid of it. My mother in law died in late 2012, and this is one of the links I have to her – I was very lucky, as she and I got on well. She was a crocheter, and tried (and failed) to teach me which was one reason I was so determined to learn later.

When the Viking died I was in the middle of a project, so I bought a Brother LS14 – a basic model but it does the things I need it to do, and it’s been used recently to teach Thing 2 to sew. It’s a bit rattly, as it’s quite lightweight, but its reliable and great for a beginner. I started to sew more regularly, and to share what I was making on social media, and suddenly people saw me as somewhere to pass their old machines on to (I have learned to say no now, and to suggest alternative people who might be able to provide a loving home – but if I had the space I would rehome them ALL!). As well as the Singer Samba above, I also have a New Home machine – this one dates from the late 70s, I think, and belonged to a friend’s mum who no longer used it. It’s a good, solid machine and I think I’ll have to get it out soon.

Vintage machines are reliable, but they do need a bit of TLC at times – a bit of oiling, and a bit of a dust – and we are also lucky in this area to have the fabulous Rona sewing machine shop in Waltham Cross. They are helpful, knowledgeable and expert with all sorts of machines – highly recommended if yours needs a bit of a tune-up or if you’re looking for a new one.

My overlocker was a treat to myself – bought in a sale, and it’s been worth every penny.

In case you’re wondering, I have also learned to say no to more cats – three is enough! For the moment….

Level up!

I turned 47 on Friday. I haven’t worried about age since my 27th birthday, when I cried all day.

Why 27? Wayyyyy back in infant school, our teacher Mrs Price asked us for a mental maths exercise to work out how old we’d be in the year 2000. To six year old me, that seemed like a million years away and 27 sounded so OLD. That feeling stuck with me and when I finally hit 27 in the millennium year I had a bit of a meltdown…and no birthday since has ever had the same effect. Perhaps that was my equivalent of a midlife crisis (I hope not).

This year was a bit out of the ordinary, of course, as we’re still socially distancing. I have a large garden, and despite the forecast thunderstorms, my best friend and my London sister came to visit me armed with gin, cake and a sourdough starter which apparently I have to name. Suggestions welcome! It was a lovely gossipy day, sitting in the shade as the promised rain threatened but never appeared, and I felt very spoiled.

One thing about being a maker and a sharer of makes is that it’s rare that anyone gives me a handmade gift, so I was incredibly touched to receive a beautiful hand embroidered card from my colleagues at the museum, with personal messages and art inside. I miss them all very much and am looking forward to going back to work at some point…

Anyway, here is a happy Moominmamma (it was a Moomin themed birthday, as the crew all know my passion for these little hippo-esque trolls) embroidered by Katy:

Moominmamma

Another colleague, Alan, used a photo of our Teddy-cat that I’d sent him captioned ‘draw me like one of your French girls’ – and did exactly that. I love it!

Teddy is currently stretched out on the chair in a very similar pose….

I’ll leave you with this week’s cross stitch update! I have always loved this painting – I had a book about it as a child called ‘Take a Good Look with Johnny Morris’ that delved into the people on the Island, and I’ve had a print of it on my bedroom wall for the last 29 years – I bought it at a poster sale in the Student Union in Freshers’ Week and it’s been with me ever since!

Lots of dark blues in this panel!

I’ll see you on the other side of week fifteen – have a great week!

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

V I Warshawski novels – Sara Paretsky

The Iron Hand of Mars – Lindsey Davis (Audible)