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

125: ooh look, a butterfly

This week I am feeling uninspired, which is not like me at all. The Things are off on their school holidays, the weather is nice and – as my role is formal learning – there are no teachers out there to harass so in theory I have lots of time to catch up on the to-do list. In theory. In reality, as always in August, my head is relaxing on a beach with a good book instead of focusing on the GEM conference presentation I ought to be writing. My butterfly brain has been fluttering from item to item on my to-do list, and lots has been started but not much finished. The first 800 words of the presentation are tweaked to perfection though…

Luckily my sewing mojo has come back so I have at least accomplished something this week. Sometimes sorting out the shed throws a fabric to the top of the pile and reminds you that you had a plan for it. I had a lieu day to use up so took advantage of a rare meeting free day to indulge in some midweek stitchery.

The fabric in question is a lovely dark red cotton with daisy-ish flowers all over it. I love the By Hand London ‘Anna’ dress pattern, and have made a couple of versions previously: a maxi length in a yellow floral digital print viscose (lovely feel, horrible to work with) and a knee length version in a black polycotton where I’d experimented with extending the sleeves. You can make it in a range of lengths and there’s a couple of neckline options to choose from.

I wanted this one to be maxi length but with the longer sleeve so I could wear it for work, and I chose the V-neck option for a change. Rather than front darts for shaping, the dress has a couple of vertical pleats on the front, with darts on the back. The waistline sits high and the skirt is panelled so it’s a flattering flared shape rather than the current trend for tiered flounces. I extended the sleeves to just above the elbow into a flared shape to echo the shape of the skirt, and I was really happy with the outcome and wore it to work on Thursday. Apart from the zip insertion bit where I diverged, the instructions are really clear so if you’re looking for a beginner project with a good result I’d recommend this.

I also used a cotton voile to make a red square top using the Seamwork Bo pattern, a black shirt dress using the Seamwork Jo pattern (and another Bo to use up the double gauze!), added a Moomin iron-on to the bag I made last week, and in the evenings I finished the Travel by Tardis cross stitch from Country Magic Stitch and updated the Climbing Goat Designs temperature galaxy.

Other things making me happy this week:

  • Absolute Classic Rock not playing Peter Frampton at any point while I’ve been listening
  • My beloved’s birthday
  • Swim and a bacon sandwich this morning in the sunshine
  • Lovely afternoon with board games and friends yesterday
  • Lots of dog walks with Bella-dog, Loki the puppy, Dobby and Kreacher and their lovely owners
  • Paper Girls on Amazon Prime Video

Same time same place next week? This week I have three days out in Tower Hamlets with actual people and the blue blocks, a new cross stitch to do and I’m half way through the current crochet project.

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union – Michael Chabon

A Change of Circumstance – Susan Hill

More Tales from the City – Armistead Maupin

83: where the hell are all the teaspoons?

…and other such middle aged concerns.

Back in the olden days (also known as the halcyon days when a good lie-in meant up in time for brunch, rather than 7am) I would wake up in the mornings, drift to the kitchen, make a cup of coffee and drink it while reading a book in blissful silence. I might have followed that coffee with more coffee and more book, perhaps even while enjoying a bath.

Mornings these days no longer look like this, not even on a Sunday. The only way I can guarantee a cup of coffee in silence is either to get up at 4.30am or, possibly, not to go bed at all. Recently Thing 1 has been waking up early and binging Chicago Med before school, and while I appreciate a hot doctor as much as the next person, I do love my early morning peace. Thing 3 has developed a penchant for asking difficult questions: Am I adopted?* What happens when cheese falls out of an aeroplane? What can I have to eat?

Today, as it was a swimming day and a Sunday, I managed to grab an hour of peace. The coffee ritual has changed so much in recent years. Now I accompany myself with difficult questions: have I taken my drugs today? What did I do with the mug I just got out? Why can I never find a teaspoon in the mornings? (and its corollary, what happened that pack of teaspoons I bought the other day?) Why does my ankle/back/neck/little toe hurt? What was I supposed to remember? Why is that song in my head? And the post-Covid classic, where am I supposed to be today?

I like to think that at least some of these questions will be answered over the course of the day, but I’m not holding my breath. Especially about the teaspoons.

(*no, sweetie, you’re stuck with us)

Sewing b*&!

It’s technical fabrics week here in the atelier studio dining room, with my first attempt at swimwear – a two piece in some funky fish fabric from Pound Fabrics. I chose the Oasis Mix and Match swimsuit by Ellie and Mac, which was one of their ‘wacky‘ patterns a few months ago. Each week they have a selection of patterns reduced to $1, which is about 77p – they also have their bestsellers reduced to $2 and a range of freebies, so well worth keeping an eye on. I have their duchess coat waiting on my to-do list, which is dramatic and swingy and I’m looking forward to swishing about in it when I get round to making it!

I used the print at home PDF pattern option, which has to be stuck together but they have trimless pages and you can also choose to just print the sizes you need which makes it easy to cut out. One reason for making this myself is that I’m different sizes on the top and the bottom, so could mix the sizes up for the best fit for both.

As with all their patterns, the pictorial instructions are step-by-step and really clear, and there’s a good range of options to make. I chose to make version one of the two-piece, with the high waist bottoms and the tie back. The thinking was that a two piece will be easier to get out of after a cold-water swim – I tested it this morning and while it was easy to get off I think next time I’ll make the extended strap version which ties at the front. I used a turquoise power mesh lining and was making it on my basic Brother LS14, which has a very limited range of stitches. It’s a great little machine but is best with wovens. I ended up doing most of the construction on the overlocker because of this, but the elastic had to be done on the Brother which meant a lot of creative cursing.

It’s not perfect but it didn’t fall apart in the lake or the washing machine so I’m counting it as a win!

I also made the Kaleidoscope dress from issue 98 of Love Sewing – dramatic sleeves and a swishy skirt. I used a 100% cotton double duvet cover I’d bought in a sale, with large Japanese-style cranes on one side and a plain dark green on the reverse. I love duvet covers for the sheer amount of fabric you get – eight square metres, so great for circle skirts. There wasn’t quite enough of the crane print for the whole dress so I used the plain side for the bodice, and print for the skirt and sleeves. I added pockets (why would anyone design a dress without them?) and pleated the sleeve head rather than gathering. The PDF pattern left a lot to the imagination – mislabelling pieces (shirt instead of skirt, for example) and very few markings so I wouldn’t advise it for a beginner. This is an issue with a lot of the craft magazines – they don’t appear to have proofreaders (or if they do they need new ones).

The dress went together quickly – I hate setting in sleeves so added them as ‘grown on’ ones, which combines a few steps. The channel for the elastic was a nightmare, and the sleeves really need to be finished better as a result. I wore it to work on Wednesday, however, and it was a showstopper: it needed a belt so I added a burgundy obi-style one, and so many people commented (the sleeves! the fact that it was made of a duvet! the dress!). The cotton fabric gives it some structure, rather than the drapey viscose the pattern recommended, and I’m glad I chose it! I can see this one coming into heavy rotation. I do love a dramatic frock!

And that’s been my week, mostly! Thing 2 had her 13th birthday on Friday, so this week I will be heading into Westfield with her and two of her buddies for a shopping trip, as well as visiting a children’s centre and an arts centre. My beloved is off for half term with them, so I get to go to work. Lucky me….

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

The Onion Girl/Dreams Underfoot/Spirits in the Wires – Charles de Lint (Newford series)

76: back to school

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

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

Tim Westfield! Westwood. WestWOOD. Not field.

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

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

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

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

Making and doing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

Soul Music/Sourcery – Terry Pratchett

Thief of Time – Terry Pratchett (Audible)

73: constructing a history mystery

Previously on What Kirsty Did Next…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to Happiness – Bill Bailey

Lost for Words – Stephanie Butland

From the Shelf of Shame:

Addlands – Tom Bullough

Meadowland – John Lewis-Stempel

72: it’s not goodbye, it’s au revoir

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

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

Photo by Helena Rice

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

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

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

Why my arm aches…

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

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

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

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

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

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

The Lost Tribes of Pop – Tom Cox

Stardust – Neil Gaiman (Audible)

From the shelf of shame….

Jigs and Reels – Joanne Harris

Holy Fools – Joanne Harris

Meadowland – John Lewis-Stempel

70: I promise you, you’ll love it

Sometimes you get handed a book, or a recommendation for a book, that a friend or family member has loved and you read it….and it’s okay. It’s not life changing, and you probably wouldn’t say it’s great, but it’s readable. There have been many books like that- and that’s fine, because there’s a lot of different authors and tastes in the world and as Terry Pratchett says many times it would be a funny old world if we were all alike.

Sometimes the book is so terrible you question why you’re so fond of that person.

Sometimes you recommend a book that you have absolutely loved to people you like and they think it’s….okay. Not life changing, not great but…okay. I find it’s best not to take these things personally as clearly those people are wrong, or just need to read it again properly, or aren’t in their right minds.

Sometimes a book has rave reviews, and/or a massive marketing budget, and shoots up the bestseller lists, and films are made of them starring people who you may or may not have heard of, and that’s fine too. Sometimes these are good books and terrible films, sometimes these are terrible books and okay films. Sometimes they are terrible books and you can’t bring yourself to watch the film.

Sometimes – just sometimes – you get given a book and it’s wonderful: it keeps you awake long after your bedtime and stays with you so you can’t wait to pick it back up in the morning. This can be for many reasons: the adventure, the need to know what happens next, the lyricalness of the writing, My recent read ‘Once upon a River’ by Diane Setterfield was one of these books. Others include:

  • Boy’s Life – Robert McCammon
  • Hearts in Atlantis and The Body – Stephen King
  • The Once and Future King – T.H. White
  • The Outsiders – S.E. Hinton
  • The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Stardust – Neil Gaiman
  • The Travelling Cat Chronicles – Hiro Arikawa
  • Ring the Hill – Tom Cox
  • The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Nieffenegger

This week I have added another one to the list – a birthday gift from my colleagues but I detect the hand of my wild swimming colleague in this one. Wild Woman Swimming by Lynne Roper, which is a journal kept over five years of wild swimming in West Country waters. It’s a poignant read: Roper took up wild swimming after a double mastectomy and built a community of swimmers around her, as well as becoming a key member of the Outdoor Swimming Society. Sadly she died five years later of a brain tumour, but she filled those five years with adventure and wrote about them in exquisite, immersive prose. I’ll be recommending this one to friends, but I might not lend them my copy….

There may be many more of these magical books on my shelves of shame, or lurking on my Kindle, and I really ought to get round to reading them. I always swear I won’t buy any more books until I have finished the ones I have (I know, I laugh too) and then the BookBub daily email comes in, or I find something wonderful in a charity shop, or someone recommends a book they have loved and suddenly there’s a new addition. Perhaps I need to make a reading resolution that every other book I read is one from the shelf…. that sounds more realistic, at least!

In the meantime, if I promise not to buy them, will you tell me which are your favourite books to recommend to people?

Trial and error, error, error

You would think that if you have sewed a neckband onto something the wrong way up that it would be a straightforward job to unpick it and put it on the correct way. This was not the case with the blouse hack of the McCalls 8104 dress, which I had to unpick three times before I worked out which way was the right way, and which bits I’d sewed together wrong in the first place. I also managed to sew the bodice and lower bodice pieces together upside down when I started it on Monday, so I am amazed I got it finished at all.

The lovely turquoise cotton fabric is from Higgs and Higgs, and I bought it with my birthday Amazon vouchers – I love the statement sleeves and the slightly fitted waist on it, and the fact that there isn’t a standing collar. I’m not sure what it is with sewing patterns, but every collar I have made is just too seventies – indie or big four, it’s a bit of an issue. I shall just have to learn how to redraft them.

In the name of sorting out my shed I have gone through the hundreds of sewing patterns (mainly free magazine gifts) with a view to handing them over to a friend who has just qualified as a DT teacher – if she doesn’t want them herself she can donate them to school! My August resolution is to have a good tidy up in the shed and donate anything I really won’t use to people who will make good use of them. Things 1 and 2 have just had their ears pierced, so Thing 2 has been making earrings and jewellery with one of her friends which is making a dent in the stash already!

I haven’t done a lot else, really – my sourdough starter has been in heavy use this week as Thing 3 has decided he really likes the bread, and with the discard I have made pizza (always a hit) and cinnamon rolls which were soft and delicious. I’ll definitely be making those again!

So that’s my week! I’ll be off now to do a bit of reading over lunch and then start constructing the jeans I cut out last week….

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

Wild Woman Swimming – Lynne Roper

Raising Steam/The Truth – Terry Pratchett

How to Sew Sustainably – Wendy Ward

The Ultimate Sashiko Sourcebook – Susan Briscoe

Visible Mending – Arounna Khounnoraj

Cider with Rosie – Laurie Lee (Audible)

Good Omens – Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman (Audible)

Week thirty two: a roundabout tour of my shed

Last week, post swimming, I designed a new cross stitch pattern as – inevitably – one of us forgets something important. Jill is notorious for forgetting her pants, Sue and I both turned up without a towel one (fortunately hot) day, all of us have had to borrow a tow float or buy a new hat. A checklist was needed, so I had a bit of fun with the graph paper and pencils. I’ll share a picture here when I have stitched it up, but the point of this story is that when I’d finished the design I headed to my shed to find the materials for making.

I love my shed. It came from Freecycle, and it only had three sides and no floor so it’s tucked up against my beloved’s shed. It doesn’t have electricity or really enough space to work in, but it’s my shed and it fills me with joy. It’s the home of my frivolous shelves, which you can see in the cover photo this week and in more detail below. Jars of seaglass and buttons, pretty crockery from charity shops, my beautiful hares from AP Ceramics, ladybird rocks, things that remind me of holidays in Aberaeron, and my crocheted bunting.

As the top of the garden is a bank, I had to dig out the hole for it myself – 10′ x 6′, and nearly 3′ deep at the back. Then we laid broken paving slabs, tarpaulin and plastic pallets, gave it a new plywood floor and I painted the inside white and the outside with wood protector. I added a laminate floor made of offcuts from our kitchen and from Freecycle again, and for my birthday a year later my beloved bought me some decking and a trellis so I could sit outside the shed and make things in the garden. It has a solar panel so I can power LED lights, and plug my phone in when I am pottering about up there.

My moongazing hare lives on the deck and only occasionally gets used as a doorstop. I have some Black-eyed Susans on the trellis, and a tiny fairy door. Next to the shed is where I attempt to grow hydrangeas, hollyhocks and the sad plants I bring home from the garden centre on my rather grandly named ‘terraces’ that we created with tree trunks and the earth from the shed dig.

In the shed – and this is really the point of the story, I promise – are all my craft materials and with them the history of how I ended up doing all the things I do.

As a child, I dabbled. My mum tried to teach me to knit during the Odpins craze in the 1980s – Odpins was knitting using one big needle and one small, which meant garments worked up quickly. Not quickly enough, of course, as she ended up finishing the garment for me. (A batwing cardigan, as I remember). Someone gave me a printed tapestry kit of a squirrel for Christmas one year, and I remember loving that, and even attempting a very ambitious design when I was at university that I carted around for years but never finished. That was in the days before I discovered the joy of graph paper and stranded thread. I am glad I never finished it, it was supposed to be a present for my mum and I suspect it would have been so awful it would have ended up in the craft equivalent of the freezer where my school cookery attempts went to die.

I think I had something like this kit as a child as well – I remember making the purse and the scissor keeper. I found this in the handling collection this week, and it triggered early crafting memories!

So how did I end up with a shed full of craft materials after all those early disasters?

Well, counted cross stitch turned out to be my gateway craft. Way back in 1995 I was looking for a Valentine card for my then boyfriend and couldn’t find one I liked. In the paper shop where I was looking I saw a cross stitch magazine with a pretty pattern for a card on the cover, so I thought I’d have a go. The result wasn’t perfect (much like the boyfriend, in fact) but I loved the process. I was working on the card in the pub where I worked part time, and a customer said his wife did the same thing, and offered to pass me the pattern she was using when she finished with it. It was a Dimensions kit of nine cats in a garden, and again it wasn’t perfect but I really enjoyed making it. I still have the framed picture in the attic – my cats are distinctly cross-eyed and wonky in places, and I’m not sure I used the right colours as I was matching from scraps, but I was so proud of myself.

I like smaller cross-stitches as you can do them on the tube on the way to work – for a few years I was working in Chelsea and living in Epping so I had a long commute! All my Christmas cards for a few years were done on the Central line, in fact, as were many Flower Fairies. I like giant cross stitches too, but there’s only so many you can put on a wall.

In the shed the other day I found my file of finished cross stitch pieces, and I am determined to start using them so they see the light of day. One – a Margaret Sherry cat – has been turned into a birthday card this week. I have a box of kits to work through, too, and that might have to be my 2021 resolution as I am really enjoying cross stitch again at the moment.

Next up was knitting, which I never really mastered as I can’t get the tension right and don’t enjoy enough to persevere with. While I was expecting Thing One I experienced some very odd cravings: Walkers salt and vinegar crisps, Bruce Willis films, and the urge to knit. The last one can probably be put down to a nesting instinct but the less said about Bruce Willis the better. I even watched Hudson Hawk.

Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock (1550563a) Die Hard: With A Vengeance (Die Hard 3), Bruce Willis Film and Television

Anyway, I bought a book (of course!) and taught myself to knit. Very badly – I created a wonky small blanket, a cardigan where one sleeve was twice the size of the other, a bag I have never used and eventually settled on making phone socks which you really can’t go wrong with. I don’t knit any more but that was really the start of my love affair with self-striping sock yarn.

I also tried patchwork after Thing One was born, after a crafty friend and I picked up mini-quilt kits at a stitch show. I finally finished that tiny kit in lockdown this year, along with a much larger Attic Window quilt I started at the same time. There’s nothing like an ambitious beginner!

I stopped knitting but carried on with the cross stitching, and tried my hand at simple embroidery. After Thing Two was born I used a bag with an aida (cross stitching fabric) panel to stitch a design of a pair of penguins. Bag charms were quite a thing at the time, so I found myself in the Ebay rabbit hole and discovered beads and findings. One penguin bag charm turned into making jewellery which I still do for school Christmas fairs and gifts, and several boxes full of shiny things. Things One and Two have enjoyed making ‘goth’ jewellery this summer, with ribbon chokers and charms. One of the things I like about making jewellery is that you can combine it with other crafts – I have made crocheted earrings with granny squares and Christmas trees, cross-stitched pendants, origami leaf jewellery, and tiny polymer clay charms.

My mum gave me her sewing machine many years ago, which I never got to grips with, and then after Thing One was born my mother in law gave me her 1960s Husqvarna Viking, which terrified me. We didn’t do much textiles back in school – I have written before about my creative education – and I made a stripy apron back in the one 10 week block we did in first year comp and then nothing else. I used it to back a cross-stitched afghan for Thing One’s first Christmas (that makes it sound a lot easier than it actually was as I has no idea what I was doing!) and then put it away in a cupboard where it lurked until after my MIL died and we moved to North Weald. I became determined to learn how to use it, and started dressmaking. There were a few disasters there, but a friend of mine was learning at the same time so we formed a mini support group. Crafty friends can’t be underestimated: company at the craft shows, someone to share triumphs and disasters with, sources of advice, ideas sharers and crafternoon bee buddies. I have some excellent ones, online and off!

And then one morning I woke up with an overwhelming urge to learn to crochet. My mum and my late MIL (who was an avid crocheter of cat blankets for an elderly cat rescue charity) had both attempted to teach me in the past and I had never got past a wonky chain. I had both yarn and hook, and with the aid of Bella Coco, a couple of handy books and a lot of swearing I taught myself to make a granny square. Crochet quickly became my go-to commute craft, and one unexpected side effect of this has been the number of lovely conversations I have had with people of all ages.

Anyone in London knows that talking to people on the tube is not done but – as we used to find with historic interpretation – anyone doing a ‘domestic’ activity becomes approachable. Sometimes crochet feels like performance art!

My favourite moments have included the two ladies who were watching me put an amigurumi unicorn together and spontaneously applauded when they worked out what it was, and the elderly gentleman who struck up a conversation about what I was making and ended up telling me about his mother’s ‘bottom drawer’ crocheted and embroidered table linen which was always kept ‘for best’. As we got off the tube he thanked me for bringing back happy memories of his mother who had died many years ago. Just this week I was finishing off a square for the Zoom blanket as I was waiting for the bus, and a woman stopped to watch, confiding that during lockdown she’d started embroidery again after not doing anything for 30 years. Craft breaks the ice and makes the world a community. It also makes the inevitable hanging around in tunnels much more bearable.

In 2019 I ran a 10-week after school craft club at my favourite primary school in Bethnal Green – eight children, and we made pompoms, paper plate wreaths, and miles of crochet chain. The real joy of that for me was not the craft, but the conversations that the children and I would have while we sat in the classroom. As we crafted they’d tell me about their day and the things that mattered to them, and going to the school became a highlight of my week: reminding me why we were making a new museum about creativity, and how happy the act of making can make us.

All the materials for my crafts live in my shed, and when I feel the need for inspiration I potter up there and see what makes my heart sing that day; whether that’s a ball of sock yarn, some lovely material or a cross stitch kit. I also have a library of books to fall back on – sometimes just flicking through a book can spark ideas, and the pages of beautiful projects never fail to make me happy. I love a charity shop mooch to find new books, and the Etsy, Pinterest and Ravelry rabbit holes have stolen hours of my life. I don’t mind at all…

So this week I have been working on the Hydrangea crochet blanket, another post-swim robe for someone up at the lake (who described it as like being wrapped in a hug when she put it on this morning), and the Marble Floor crochet. And ALL of them have made me happy.

So there you have it: how I ended up with a shed, a lifelong addiction to craft shops and a whole set of post-apocalyptic life skills.

Let’s see what week 33 brings…apart from Lockdown part two. Stay safe!

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

Alexandria/Nemesis (Falco series) – Lindsey Davis (Audible)

The Blood Card/The Vanishing Box (The Brighton Mysteries) – Elly Griffiths

Week twenty-six: “When I was your age, television was called books.”

Wow, six months into this blog and the world still isn’t looking normal, with the R-rate between 1.1 and 1.4 and local restrictions in place in many areas of the UK. The testing system is failing again (offering people in Northern Ireland a test in rural Essex is definitely not a mark of success), and advice from the government is inconsistent around keeping bubbles open or closed. Apparently you can go on an organised grouse shoot with 30 people but your kids can’t socialise outside school with a group of children they have spent the day inside a classroom with.

Anyway. This is not a political blog so I’ll mooch on back to the things that make me happy, like books.

Crime fiction is one of the world’s best selling genres and there’s a host of theories as to why this might be. Exploring human nature, sensational crimes, the tension and excitement as the protagonist come closer to the perpetrator and inevitably finds themselves in danger, our need for justice and the triumph of good over evil. Or is it – as Dorothy L. Sayers wrote in 1934 – that “Death seems to provide the minds of the Anglo-Saxon race with a greater fund of innocent enjoyment than any other single subject.” Whatever – a good detective novel sucks you in, keeps you on the edge of your seat and wide awake till the last page. Our heroes always have to break the rules a bit to get the job done, too. Don’t we all want to be a bit maverick sometimes?

“Commander, I always used to consider that you had a definite anti-authoritarian streak in you.”
“Sir?”
“It seems that you have managed to retain this even though you are authority.”
“Sir?”
“That’s practically zen.”

Terry Pratchett, Feet of Clay

This week’s reading (and listening) list has all been male detectives – not planned, just what’s been coming up as I finish one book and choose something new from the virtual shelf of shame on my Kindle. I wrote a while ago about my love for girl detectives, so it’s really only fair that the boys get a look in too.

My first experience with Nancy Drew’s male counterparts was – of course! – Franklin W. Dixon’s Hardy Boys series. While I was never as fond of these as I was of Nancy and her girlfriends, I did pick them up from the library when I saw them. As I got older and was allowed freer range on the parental bookshelves, I read my way through John D.MacDonald’s Travis McGee books (starting with The Deep Blue Good-By). Luckily both my parents appreciate a good crime novel, so I had a lot of choice! So here, in no particular order, are some of my favourite ‘boy’ detectives – let me know who I’ve missed.

  1. Marcus Didius Falco – by Lindsey Davis. Set in Ancient Rome, these are well-researched and funny.
  2. Sam Vimes – Terry Pratchett. Discworld again (Not sorry. All human (and human-adjacent) life is here).
  3. Inspector Lynley (and Sgt. Barbara Havers as his common-as-muck sidekick) – by Elizabeth George. Posh but resisting it. Touched by tragedy. The first one I read was Playing for the Ashes and then I hunted down the rest.
  4. Richard Jury (and posh sidekick Melrose Plant) – Martha Grimes. A few of the later ones got a bit existential but they’re back on track now.
  5. Harry Bosch – Michael Connelly. I have my friend Elaine to thank for this, as she gave me Angels Flight when she’d finished it and off I went to the library for the rest. What would we do without libraries?
  6. Dave Robicheaux – James Lee Burke. Wonderfully flawed antihero here, beautifully written and set in a very atmospheric Louisiana.
  7. Nick Travers – Ace Atkins. Also set in the American south. A blues detective!
  8. Stephens and Mephisto – Elly Griffiths. Set in Brighton, a policeman and a stage magician. Elly Griffitths’ female creation – Ruth Galloway – was in my last list, and her YA novels are shaping up nicely too.
  9. Dr Siri Paiboun – Colin Cotterill. Set in 1970s Laos, Dr Siri is the chief coroner, occasionally possessed.
  10. Inspector Singh – Shamini Flint. Set in Singapore.
  11. Alex Delaware – Jonathan Kellerman. Consultant psychologist to the LAPD, helping his friend Milo Sturgis.
  12. Lord Peter Wimsey – Dorothy L. Sayers. Witty and very of its time – Sayers described him as a cross between Bertie Wooster and Fred Astaire.
  13. Myron Bolitar – Harlan Coben. A sports agent with a posh (but psychopathic) sidekick.
  14. Elvis Cole and Joe Pike – Robert Crais. Elvis cracks wise, Joe is the strong and silent type. Very strong, very silent.
  15. John Rebus – Ian Rankin. Possibly the ultimate maverick cop. Atmospheric Edinburgh this time – I do love it when the landscape/cityscape almost becomes a character in its own right.
  16. Commissaire Adamsberg – Fred Vargas. Honourable mention for her Three Evangelists series, too.
  17. Kenzie (and Gennaro) – Dennis Lehane. Another beautifully drawn city – this time Boston. Accidental library discovery when I was making up my book numbers.
  18. Kinky Friedman – eponymous. Slightly mad, very funny.
  19. Leaphorn and Chee – Tony Hillerman created the characters and his daughter Anne has continued the series. Navajo mysteries, full of legend and landscape.
  20. The Vinyl Detective – Andrew Cartmel. We never find out his name.
  21. Easy Rawlins – Walter Mosley. A charity shop discovery when I picked up Blonde Faith
  22. Dirk Gently – Douglas Adams. Solving mysteries through the interconnectedness of all things.
  23. Last – but not least – Brother Cadfael – Ellis Peters. Medieval monk with a crusader past, set in Shrewsbury during the Anarchy (between King Stephen and Empress Matilda (or Maud))

I’ll stop there, I promise! The wonderful thing about books is that there will always be more people with the urge to write, there will always be friends to recommend new discoveries and – I hope – there will always be libraries.

Anybody want a peanut?

My family’s all-time favourite film (and book) is The Princess Bride. I know I have found kindred spirits when they can quote the film at length and they know what to say to the word ‘Inconceivable!’ We first saw it on VHS (yes, that long ago!) on Bonfire Night in the 1980s, before we went to Monmouth to see the fireworks, and it immediately took on favourite status. I think all of us have our own copies of the book and the film, and it was one of the first ‘proper’ films I sat down with my children to watch.

Theatrical release poster (image from Wikipedia)

The book starts with the line “This is my favourite book in all the world, though I have never read it,” and author William Goldman maintains the conceit that it’s an abridged version of ‘S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure”. It’s got everything, it really has:

““He held up a book then. “I’m going to read it to you for relax.”
“Does it have any sports in it?”
“Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison. True Love. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Hunters. Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest Ladies. Snakes. Spiders… Pain. Death. Brave men. Cowardly men. Strongest men. Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles.”
“Sounds okay,” I said and I kind of closed my eyes.”

It also has the greatest to-do list ever. On being invited to see Count Rugen torture our hero Westley, Prince Humperdinck tells us:

“Tyron. You know how much I love watching you work, but I’ve got my country’s 500th anniversary to plan, my wedding to arrange, my wife to murder, and Guilder to blame for it. I’m swamped.”

So when this pattern turned up on the Snarky and Nerdy Cross Stitch group on Facebook I knew I had to make it – the designer shared it as a free PDF, bless her. I couldn’t find any of my black thread skeins anywhere, so ended up using perle cotton, but it looks OK.

I’m also working on a crochet dog for a small person’s birthday – its become a tradition for these two children to challenge me to make things, including a shark and Totoro. I haven’t made a dog before, but found this pattern on Ravelry. I’m using Stylecraft Alpaca DK from the stash, as it’s quite fluffy and tactile, so I hope she likes it!

This week’s last make has been a smaller version of the giant blanket for a friend’s daughter. She chose her own softshell fabric, in a pretty pink with a quirky umbrella print, and wanted it ‘between short and long’. I put kangaroo pockets on the inside and outside, and as there was fabric left over I whipped up a matching drawstring bag. Here it is being modelled by Thing 2, who’s a bit taller than the recipient.

The bishop-sleeved cardigan now has one front section and the back – the yarn is holding out so far!

Hello, hello…am I on mute?

Still working from home! It’s been a good week though with some interesting conversations, notably with the brilliant Bilkis from You Be You. We met first way back in March, shortly before lockdown, when we had an inspirational conversation about breaking down gender stereotypes and how we could work together in Bethnal Green. I do love meeting people whose default response is ‘how do we make this happen?’ rather than a ‘let’s think about it’. I felt really motivated after our Zoom chat!

The other thing in my mind this week is our Learning Collection, which is huge, unwieldy and – to be frank – occasionally terrifying. There are some beautiful objects in there but also boxes of dismembered dolls, damaged wax and porcelain dolls and more. I am terrified of masks and dolls, so I do like to know what’s in a box before I open it. We need to edit the collection to make it relevant to future learning, so I’m very keen to get back to site and start! Preferably before we go back into lockdown…

So that was week 26. Half a year. What’s the last quarter of 2020 going to bring?

Kirsty x

(cover photo by Isla Falconer)

What I’ve been reading

Dark Sacred Night (Bosch and Ballard) – Michael Connelly

The Wedding Guest (Alex Delaware) – Jonathan Kellerman

Ode to a Banker (Falco series) – Lindsey Davis (Audible)

Week twenty three: the annual ordeal of the school shoes

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.

Anna dress

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.

Happy hooker

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.

Mini-Joe and Mini-Kat

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.

Aunty Ruth’s apple cake

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?

Kirsty x

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)