This week my walking buddy Jill (cover photo artist!) and I have made the most of being off for Christmas and headed out ‘early doors’ (she’s from Yorkshire) for a couple of welly walks. We love our walks: we put the world to rights, appreciate the scenery, stomp on icy puddles and squish our way through the muddy ones. Some weeks she is grouchy, other weeks it’s me. We test out ideas for work or catastrophise in the knowledge that we can go into the office the next day with our heads back on straight. It’s like therapy. There’s something about walking next to someone, not facing them, that allows stress and those wake-you-up-at-3am thoughts to spill out.
Some days we go further than others: round the roads to Tawney Common, or across to Toot Hill, or round past Dial House and the farm to see the cows, or the old golf course and flood meadows. Sometimes it’s the short 5k through the woods and back, or to the end of the village. Whatever, I always come back feeling better and ready to face the week.
It was a week of extremes: one day it was -4°c and the world was white. The sun was coming up in spectacular fashion, the puddles were frozen and we crackled our way down to the farm and home via the station. The plan was to check what time the light fantastic train was running that day so we could drag the kids up to Marconi Bridge to watch it go through, but they were only doing the Santa Special till after Christmas. We allowed ourselves to be seduced by the smell of frying bacon from the station cafe and indulged in a bacon roll and tea, listening to the brass quartet playing Christmas carols and watching overexcited kids waiting for Santa’s train to arrive.
The following day was much warmer so the puddles were squelchy once more (as you can see from the cover photo). That day’s route took us through the fields to the radio station (hence Marconi Bridge) and past North Weald Redoubt, finishing up at Jill’s house for tea and a rummage through boxes of craft stuff from a friend’s house clearing. I was very good and only came home with a few balls of yarn and some toy eyes. My plan this week was to try and destash some craft things from the shed, not bring home more – I did send some yarn up to Jill’s mum, and got rid of a whole lot of jewellery making stuff, which was a start.
I hope you’ve all enjoyed at least a few days off and will be grabbing the opportunity for a Boxing Day welly walk – we have A, H and the grandchild over today, but I’m looking forward to a few more walks this week.
All can now be revealed…
As it’s after Christmas I can share the gifts I made – the wall hanging was for our Dungeonmaster and his wife and I made them open it while I was there playing board games on Monday. The ‘Eira Owls’ were for their daughters. The little pigs in granny square blankets have been ridiculously popular and I ended up making more than 20 of them as Christmas ‘cards’* for colleagues and my swimming buddies, and then as requests for people who’d seen them on Facebook. They’ve gone off to Wales, Derbyshire, Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and London. I still have several to do after Christmas but I have to get two presents out in January and a couple for February first!**
(* I don’t send cards to anyone but immediate family, but donate to a charity every year instead – this year it was the Trussell Trust. I make little decorations that can be brought out year after year – I love seeing people’s photos of their trees with my work on!)
(** Yes, I am taking orders. They are £6 each plus postage!)
I hope you’ve all had a great Christmas with family and friends, that you’re all safe and warm and looking forward to 2022. By the time next week’s post appears we’ll be in a whole new year!
What I’ve been reading:
The Untold Story – Genevieve Cogman
A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens (Audible)
A Spool of Blue Thread – Anne Tyler
The Toast of Time – Jodi Taylor
The Long and the Short of it – Jodi Taylor (Audible)
Last week my walking buddy Jill said ‘I think I need a hobby!’ I am probably the last person you should ever say that to, as you know, but I limited myself to just the one suggestion and that was to take up cross stitch. It’s pretty straightforward: if you can count and thread a needle (and there’s gadgets to help with that) you have the basic skills to take up cross stitch. OK, OK, I know cross stitch for me was a gateway craft which has led to all sorts of other things – up to and including a shed – but I’m assured by some other people that it is possible to have just the one hobby. No, really, it is. Stop laughing!
As I have mentioned before, my adventures in cross stitching started when I couldn’t find a Valentine card for a boyfriend back when I was 21, and it all got a bit out of hand after that. I spotted a design in a magazine and decided it couldn’t really be that hard, so I took myself off to B’s Hive in Monmouth (a much missed town feature as I discovered earlier this week when I posted an image on Facebook of a paper bag from the shop). I bought fabric, needles and floss with the help of one of their very knowledgeable staff, and became hooked pretty quickly. Those were the days before internet shopping – 1995, in fact – and these bricks and mortar shops were treasure troves of yarn, fabrics, beads and buttons. B’s Hive even had a tiny one-table cafe. The boyfriend didn’t last, but the hobby did.
And now I have been stitching for 26 years, and have my own trove (well, shed) of fabrics, floss, beads, buttons, hoops, frames and all the other things a crafter accumulates over the years. You don’t really need all the bells and whistles, of course, but things mount up.
So here, for anyone who might be thinking of taking up cross stitching, is all you really need* to be getting on with it:
Something to stitch. This could be a kit, of which there are millions out there to choose from, or it could be a pattern. I’d suggest a kit to start with, as they come with the fabric and floss that you need, a needle, and sometimes a hoop that you can use as a display frame when you have finished using it to hold your WIP (work in progress). Black Sheep Wools or LoveCrafts are good sources of quality kits for beginners with good instructions. There are a lot of cheap kits on Amazon, of course, but many are from Chinese sellers and the instructions may not be as helpful as you’d like. You could also choose a chart to start from – either a paper chart from a shop or website, or from a magazine or book, or if you’re a nerd like me you’ll find designs from every fandom and for every level of ability on Etsy. If you choose to start with a chart, you’ll need to buy all the other bits to go with it, like….
Fabric. ‘Proper’ cross stitch fabric is a woven grid with holes in so you know where to put your needle to make each cross. I usually use aida, which comes in a range of colours and sizes. The ‘count’ of the fabric refers to the number of holes per inch – I like to work on 18 count aida but for a beginner I’d recommend a 14 count. This is the same fabric that many people encountered in school, with much larger holes – usually a 6 count binca for young children. You’ll also see evenweave, linen, jobelan and more – but the key thing is that they all have an even grid of holes. Aida fabrics are quite starchy, which helps keep your stitches nice and even. With the higher count fabric – 28 or 32, for example, you’ll usually work over two threads otherwise your design will be tiny.
Something to hold your work. Some people like hoops for all their projects, others prefer to work ‘in hand’. For small projects like cross stitched cards I like to use a hoop (they come in a range of sizes) that’s a bit bigger than the design I’m working on, as I find that moving the hoop around can crush the stitches. For larger projects I use the Elbesee easy clip frames which also come in a range of sizes. You don’t need them, but you can buy a seat stand or a floor stand to hold these, which keeps your hands free for stitching. There are lots of tutorials on YouTube on how to mount fabric in hoops and frames.
Needles. I use size 24 or size 26 which you can buy in packs from any needlework supplier, and these are usually the ones that come in kits. Gold plated needles are nice, but I find the plating comes off easily and then they catch the fabric. There are easy threading needles, ball point needles – all sorts of needles, but all you really need is the basic one.
Floss: Six stranded cotton, embroidery silks, threads. These are the colourful skeins of thread you see on carousels in the stitching shops – you may even have bought them to make friendship bracelets back in the day. The two main brands in the UK are Anchor and (my preferred brand) DMC although some places stock some beautiful hand dyed threads, and you can often pick up packs of unbranded floss in places like Poundland. Beware of the quality of these though – some of the cheap ones get knotty and fray easily and are really frustrating to work with. There are specialist threads too – metallics and rayons, but wait till you’ve conquered the basics as these can put a beginner off for life. Trust me on this! You cut your length of thread from the skein and peel off the number of strands you need for your design – two or three strands for 14 count, for example.
Sharp small scissors. Nail scissors will do, or embroidery scissors. Small scissors give you more control over how close to the fabric you cut your threads. Hide them from your family in case they use them to trim bacon or something. Bacon does not add to the finished design.
Something to store your threads in. You can buy special plastic or card bobbins, or stitchbows, but I use basic envelopes – the kind you buy in packs from all paper shops etc. I write the number of the floss on the top right hand corner, and when I am working on a project with lots of colours I draw the chart symbol on it too so I don’t have to keep referring to the key. When I am done with the project the envelopes get filed in numerical order in plastic storage boxes (again, nothing special – I think these were from The Range) and then I can easily see what numbers I have.
A cotton bag – this is where all those free tote bags from conferences come in useful. Keeping your project in one of these, or a pillowcase for larger projects, keeps it clean. Unless you have a cat, in which case tweezers will be your friend for removing the stray hairs you have just stitched in. I say embrace the cat hairs or you’ll drive yourself mad.
A highlighter pen for marking off the stitches you have already done on your chart. This is very useful, especially if you are doing blocks of a colour and you have to put your work down a lot. I’d also advise photocopying and enlarging your chart to make it easier to see – you can’t photocopy a chart to give someone else due to copyright, but you can make a copy for personal use. If you have an Android tablet there’s a new app called Pattern Keeper which is brilliant for keeping track of where you are on the chart, and allows you to highlight the colour you’re working on.
And lastly – this is a new entry to my top ten – magnifying specs. You know, the kind you can buy in the chemist for reading. I have only got the 1x strength but as my eyes get older along with the rest of me they have made stitching SO much easier.
*this is a very personal list, of course: everyone has their favourite gadgets and methods! You also need good lighting, a comfy chair, someone to make you copious amounts of tea on demand, and an ability to ignore the housework in favour of stitching. This last item comes magically the more you get addicted to your new hobby. You can thank me later though your family probably won’t.
As for the how to cross stitch, there are so many tutorials out there – pick up a cross stitch mag from the newsagent and you’ll find a how-to in the back of very issue, look on You Tube, buy a book, ask a stitchy friend for a crafty bee afternoon.
The year of the handmade gift
I have decided that this is the year of the handmade gift, so if you know me IRL you’ll most likely end up with something crafty this year. If you are one of the lucky recipients (and even if you don’t like it) know that if I have made you something it’s been chosen because I think you’ll like it, because I like you enough to spend my time making you something, and that a lot of thought and time has gone into it.
This week I have handed over two cross stitched things:
The off centre framed picture was a 40th birthday present for a friend – I saw the design on someone else’s timeline and immediately thought of Miriam (happy birthday Miriam!). She loves purple, so I found some mottled pale lavender coloured aida for the fabric. I handed it over yesterday with apologies for the wonky rush job framing as I thought her birthday was next month… the design is from an American mag called Just Cross Stitch (the Halloween 2020 special) and I bought it from Annie’s as a PDF.
The card was inspired by the news at the beginning of a team meeting that a colleague has had her contract extended, and by the note to herself that she had written to remind herself to keep us on track during the meeting. I occasionally describe her job – interpretation producer – as more akin to herding kittens as we do tend to head off after metaphorical balls of museum wool on a terrifyingly regular basis. Her note said ‘facilitate!’ so I immediately thought dalek. Lettering by me, Dalek-19 pattern by Highland Murr Blackwork.
Thing 2 has been enjoying tie-dying over lockdown so I challenged her to dye a piece of fabric for me for a watery design – this is what she came up with and I love it!
And finally here’s a blanket update and some French knitting with six pins!
We dragged all the children outside yesterday for a walk round the burial park in the village – it’s in local ancient woodland, part of the Gaynes Park estate, and it’s lovely. Thing Three was concerned about zombies, but as his father kindly pointed out, I’d had my morning coffee and would probably be OK till I got back.
The woods are filled with bird and bat boxes, and we spotted a mouse on a tree trunk, and the burials themselves are simple and marked with wooden memorials. There are dedicated benches and trees, and lovely carved wooden statues and figures like this hare below.
Thing Two stomped in puddles while One and Three complained that they were tired, their legs hurt, they didn’t like being outside…. I enjoyed it, despite.
In our own garden I discovered that we have some very early primroses, the skeletons of last summer’s physalis, and that fungus has colonised one of the trees.
This week’s cover photo shows the glorious sunrise over Tawney Common this morning: so beautiful that we kept stopping to take pictures as the light changed. You can see more of these on my Instagram feed as they have for some reason not pulled through into Google Photos yet.
And it’s finally snowing, so I am going to leave this here and go and watch the Horde playing outside.
About this time last year. my walking buddy Jill and I decided that the fields were so muddy and we spent so much time shrieking as our trainers got soaked by puddles that we’d just start wearing wellies instead. With the wellies came much more freedom: not just because we could stop picking our way across the swampy, horse-churned paths, of course, but we also found ourselves actively seeking out muddy puddles and splashing through them. We mutter ‘squelch squerch, squelch squerch’ as we squish through the mud – can’t go over it, can’t go under it, got to go through it! We stomp on icy puddles to hear the crack, and this morning we chose to come back through the fields behind the station as we knew it would sound really crunchy as the footprints – both people, dogs and deer – are filled with ice. Who would have thought that such practical footwear could spark such joy?
The fields are breathtaking this morning: it’s still below zero out there, and the trees are rimed with ice. It was still dark when we went out, the freezing fog was still hanging around, and the white trees loomed in front of us like bloody great ghosty things. A phone camera doesn’t do it justice, as you can’t capture the atmosphere, but these are from our walk this morning:
Walking through the ancient woodland on our way back was a more close-up experience: the frost was outlining leaves and turning the grasses and seedheads into architectural sculpture. It plays havoc with your walking pace but the wearing of wellies turns a walk into a less purposeful, more mindful experience – the word ramble comes to mind. With walking boots or trainers I always feel I should be pushing onwards.
Walking this week, both with Jill this morning and with Sue and the Bella-dog in the afternoons, has been a lifesaver. I had forgotten the home school/work juggling act, trying to focus on a meeting when there are two out of the three children either arguing with each other, with me or asking questions about their set work. Thing One – hurray – just gets on with it. Thing Three – mostly – just gets on with it but is susceptible to being wound up by Thing Two, who occasionally gets on with it but generally accompanies herself with a stream-of-consciousness blow-by-blow of whatever she’s up to. The Spanish lesson – accompanied in Spanglish – was particularly tricky (for me, at least).
However, I am so grateful to all their teachers for providing high quality work for them, as well as making daily contact via Zoom for Thing Three. Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, has put both his feet firmly in it this week by telling parents to email Ofsted and complain if the remote learning wasn’t high quality enough: I believe Ofsted were quite annoyed as well. Parents took to their email and to Twitter to praise schools instead, especially given that on Monday schools were ‘safe to open’ but by Tuesday they were all closed until half term. Twelve – twelve – hours to move entirely online, as the address by the man (described beautifully by my friend Chris as the ‘bloviating haystack’) wasn’t made till 7.30pm.
The other thing saving my sanity this week is – as ever – crafty stuff.
I finished the ‘Second Breakfast’ cross stitch, and have started the temperature tree that I mentioned last week. So far it’s all tree and no temperature, and I have used almost a whole skein of DMC 839. I chose to use sparkly white aida fabric for it for no particular reason other than that I had some and I like it!
And that was my week: it’s been a quiet one, and for that I am grateful. Today my plan is to sort out my craft book shelves and see if I can organise them a bit, and to make oat and raisin cookies as they are a family favourite.