120: this week’s winner is…

It’s Saturday night and I’m sitting in the front room watching Glow Up with Things 1 and 2. Even my Beloved is quite enjoying this one, although he has taken a break to go and pickle some beetroots in the kitchen. Thank heavens one of us is a domestic goddess, eh? I have the same feelings towards beetroot as I do towards boiled eggs: I don’t eat them so I don’t need to know how to make them. I was deeply mentally scarred by beetroot in primary school, where it was served cold with spam and lumpy mashed potato, and the beetroot juice turned everything a uniform shade of bright pink. And, it tastes like damp smells. Ugh. Anyway.

Photo by Eva Bronzini on Pexels.com. Yuk.

So, Glow Up. We are obviously late to this particular party, and we’re definitely not wearing enough slap, but it’s the same basic format as the Great British Sewing Bee/Bake Off/Pottery Throwdown/etc where there’s a set of challenges and someone goes home in tears at the end and talks about how much they’ve learned and how they’ll nevereverever forget their new best friends. This one has the rather irritating Stacey Dooley in presenter mode – as far as I can tell, she’s basically Ross Kemp with more hair and less war zones. If Ross Kemp did hospitals and homeless people instead of wannabe warriors, that is. She does seem to have found a niche, and good on her for that, but her constant use of the phrase ‘please may you’ gets right on my nerves. She also says ‘haitch’ instead of ‘aitch’. It’s a no from me.

We are enjoying it, and it’s nice to have something that 2/3 of the Things will watch happily together which isn’t a badly-dubbed Netflix thriller or a terrible teen romance angst movie. There’s always one contestant that you really want to go home in the first week and every time they survive a ‘face off’ you get to shout at the telly, and when your favourite survives you get to cheer. Thing 1, as I said the other week, is off to do Theatrical and Media Make-up at college in September, so she’s finding this interesting; I, on the other hand, am just stunned at the sheer amount of make-up these people feel they need to wear, filled with wonder at what people do to their eyebrows, and boggling at the lip fillers. The young make-up artists are proper drama queens, and at least one rushes off in tears in every challenge which doesn’t impress the judges. It’s unprofessional, apparently.

Bake Off is Thing 2’s favourite and she can get very critical about people’s Swiss Roll swirls at times. She loves to bake and experiment, and is a dab hand with meringues as she proved with a pavlova for my birthday barbecue last weekend. It vanished in minutes: perfectly crispy on the outside and melty in the middle, it was a hit with everyone. Bake Off always has a bit more of a competitive edge to it, and the congratulations are sometimes delivered through gritted teeth.

Not so the Great British Sewing Bee, which I am hopelessly addicted to. The latest series finished this week, and for once I was absolutely in agreement with Patrick and Esme about the winner. I have had my doubts in the past and on at least one occasion they have been plain wrong and I wanted a recount. Once Annie had found her feet she was brilliant, and some of her garments were gorgeous. Man Yee was also fabulous, and I’m so pleased she made the final along with Debra – Brogan shouldn’t have been put through, as her Origami outfit in the semi-final didn’t meet the brief. At least it wasn’t gingham or floral though. I loved Debra and her model in the final, slipping in and out of Welsh as they chatted. The contestants on GBSB are always ready to help each other with techniques and figuring out strange instructions, and I love the way they all hold hands as they find out the results each week.

The Great Pottery Showdown is another favourite: I adore Keith Brymer-Jones and the way he cries when he really loves something. The dynamic between Rich Miller and Keith is great, and the critiques of the challenges are so thoughtful and constructive. Siobhan McSweeney should present everything, preferably in role as Sister Michael from Derry Girls with full sarcasm. The last series, where at one point pretty much everyone was in tears, was great. Again the contestants are kind to each other, and that’s such a lovely thing to see. If you haven’t seen Derry Girls, it’s wonderful: funny, sweet and candid. Binge it now.

I was sorely disappointed by The Great British Dig, however. With that title, I had visions of a set of amateur archaeologists and some very neat trenches, and the best find of the week (Roman villa, King Arthur, Viking burial, Saxon hoard etc) would get to stay and the one who only dug up two plastic soldiers and a ring from one of those eggs you used to get for 10p from the machine outside the paper shop would get sent home. Anyone whose trench had a soggy bottom would get be haunted by the ghost of Mick Aston or something. This was not the case: what we got was a bunch of people putting holes in suburban flower beds and Hugh Dennis being smug about stuff. I think my version was better.*

You can keep your Love Islands and I’m a Z-lister, too. Maybe just put them all on an island and just tell them the cameras are on. Pop back in a year and see if it went all Lord of the Flies when they ran out of bronzer.

(I’m really not a big TV watcher, despite the above: unless I’m ironing or GBSB is on, if I’m on my own I won’t turn the TV on – give me music or a podcast any time if I’m working on something, or I’ll be reading if not. On the tube I’m listening to The Socially Distant Sports Bar, which is wildly inappropriate for children and does tend to cause me to laugh out loud. Mike Bubbins and Elis James can reduce poor Stef Garrero to helpless giggles. Don’t be taken in by the name, this podcast is like two hours in the pub with your funniest mates and while sport does occasionally get mentioned there’s a lot more to it. Go on, you won’t regret it. It’s very sweary though. Very sweary. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

Speaking of competitions, another highlight of the week was the Conference News Agency Awards 2022 event this week. My friend, swimming buddy and all round fab person Isla kindly invited me along to join her company table – I’ve been freelancing for her for five years or so, helping out at awards and conferences, and I remember her making the leap and starting up her own events business. She survived the pandemic by shifting online, diversifying into online events and experiences, focusing on sustainability. The company, We Are FTW Ltd, was nominated in the Small Agency of the Year category and Isla was so convinced she hadn’t got a chance (there were 10 nominees in this category) that she didn’t bother listening to the announcement. Her face when the presenter said ‘And the winner is…. We are FTW Ltd!’ was the perfect picture of disbelief.

The event was themed around Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, and the welcome reception featured strawberry daiquiri bubbles, edible balloons and cocktail mists which were great fun, but making the young women staffing the stations wear aprons printed with ‘I’m delicious, lick me!’ was a little weird…. Miriam, who also works for Isla when she’s not being a performance life coach, wore her amazing steampunk hat and looked fabulous, and there were a lot of bow ties in the room. No one dressed up as an Oompah-Loompah, sadly. I wore some completely impractical shoes, we ate very small but delicious portions of heritage beets, beef short rib and a fluffy raspberry mousse, and the afterparty was great fun.

Other things making me happy this week:

  • the final episodes of Stranger Things
  • an afternoon at the school fete, sharing my stall with Thing 2 and M’s no. 1 daughter
  • Launching the new Adventurers Assemble! assembly at one of our favourite Tower Hamlets primary schools: time travel, space hoppers, missing objects and a mission! Giggling kids and teachers, you know it’s a winner.
  • my new shed is finished and my old shed is accessible again!

*I also have a much better version of the second two Lord of the Rings films which would save us all a few hours.

Tomorrow I have to take Thing 1 to Westfield to do some shopping for her National Citizen Service thing – a week away sounds lovely, but they said I’m too old. Ah well. See you on the flipside.

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

Ingathering – Zenna Henderson

Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to British Birds – Bill Bailey

I Feel Bad About My Neck – Nora Ephron

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