07 June 2014


We've had a run of lovely fine weather these last few days and, perversely, it's been a bit of a strain. Firstly because there always seems to be an obligation to be out and about when it's fine, at least in my mind; I put that down to having to catch up after working indoors for too many years. But secondly, and more currently, because the blackbirds have built a nest in our holly tree. Maybe it's because each of our three cats are black that the birds hadn't cottoned on to the fact that there were three potential killers around. So it has been totally nerve wracking  with the constant and exhausting alarm call of the male bird each time one of the cats goes out, adding to his burden of having to find food for the nestlings. Apart from some initial curiosity, including a half hearted and failed attempt to climb into the holly tree by one cat (ha, ha! it wasn't a bad choice on that score then), the cats have ignored the racket. The Mitten Cat continued to pursue her inexorable search for the perfect warm spot in the garden, mostly on next door's polished black granite slabs, and the Fluffy one just stretched out on the baked asphalt roofing of the other side's garage, as per usual. The little cat just slept indoors all day, recovering I think from a luffing by the look of her eye. None of this stopped the blackbird getting into a parental frenzy that put my nerves on edge so much that I had to seize the creatures and lock them indoors to be driven mad instead by their mewling to be released.

Just listening to the rain this morning has been, then, an interlude of great peace. It's stopped now, and so I think have the alarm calls. The fledgelings must have moved on to a neighbouring space.

Paws crossed.

04 June 2014

a family, a tree, a story

There is something very absorbing and meditative about making a quilt - the pleasure of choosing the fabrics, shifting colours and patterns around to get the right balance, the uncomplicated rhythm of sewing and quilting a simple design. This one was a special pleasure not only because it celebrates a birth, but because it has a story to tell. The design is taken from Cassandra Ellis's book "Quilt Love" and is inspired by "how a baby is a mix of both its parents as well as its grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins...".  Ideally the quilt would contain some old fabrics, but the new parents, both born overseas, travel light (and often), so most of the fabric had to be bought new and with consideration and purpose.

This was the quest. Mother is from Malaysia and observes Chinese festivals and culture so certain colours and shapes are symbolic. Father is from Martinique - his memories are of trees, the green hills, the sea. The challenge was to find patterns and colours that would reflect these elements and meld into a coherent tree of life. So we have red and gold for luck and wealth, green for health and harmony. There are lots of leaves, and those greens fabrics were also a reminder of the baby's grandmother and great grandmother. There are some puns - the seed heads, birds in the clouds and the bright orange fabric are all puns on the parents' surnames and the baby's forename. There is also a fabric designed by Spitalfields based textile designer Anna Maria Garthwaite to represent London where they live.

One of the things that surprises me about making quilts is that they develop a life of their own. You might start off with some ideas, but as you gather the fabrics what seemed to be quite fixed ideas shift and change leading to and all sorts of surprising outcomes. That orange for example - I love it, but would never have imagined it would be a choice I would have made. It's almost as if the quilt made the decision for me. Moreover you would have thought that after spending hours gathering, cutting, sewing, hand quilting and pressing that you might be reluctant to say goodbye to the finished object. Not a bit of it. Handing over your finished work to somebody else is the best bit of all.

Here's hoping baby Clementine enjoys the story.

(And this one's gone too! With love.)

03 June 2014

a life in frocks

That's me on the right with the spotty frock and the gappy smile. I would have been coming up for seven. My cousin is on the left. The name of the girl in the middle is a bit of a mystery- Linda? Barbara perhaps? It was her brother who had the camera and he took several photos on the that day, Procession Day, the day we paraded around Tower Hill, dressed in our long dresses and holding posies, the streamers of banners depicting the saints pressed between our gloved hands.  It was early summer and a big event in the social calendar. The kerbs were whitewashed in John Fisher Street and, with the exception of Thomas Moore Street which wound through the dock walls, there were temporary altars all along the route. Friends, families, neighbours, whatever their religion, would assemble to watch and afterwords there was a party atmosphere. Here we've changed into our Sunday best at the end of the day, though we still have our parade sandals on - I seem to remember being particularly jealous that my cousin had been allowed to wear kitten heels but the mum-made dress, well, that was a pearl.

Crepe paper, Mum-made, fancy dress at holiday camp as Miss Kitty (!), aged 3/4

So this is how you develop a taste for frocks. Dress- up. A frill here, petticoats there, a fabric with a bit of body so that it stands proud and facilitates a swish or a twirl. You may go through various phases - the uniformity of navy blue serge at school, turquoise paisley bell-bottoms or denim jeans, tailored mohair suits as a teenager or clipped woollen suits to prove that you can compete with the men at work. But if you want to enjoy dressing up, it really has to be a frock, or maybe a skirt, something with a bit of gentle architecture.

I hadn't really thought about any of this until I paid a visit to Stereochron Island, the imaginary state without clocks. Cathy Haynes had invited us to create our depiction of how a life might be mapped. What with the rediscovery of the photo and my recent obsession with trying to find the perfect dress pattern/ fabric combination, I realised that my life could be mapped in frocks, or as a cross section of a map with peaks and troughs. (I still remember the thrill of learning how to draw a cross section from an ordinance survey map at school, you see.) And this is the result - with limited materials - and time - available.

Navy viyella, blue spot, made by my friend Chris, my boy's christening, October 87

Just now I am in a gaudy frock phase. It was a a conscious decision when I stopped work not to wear jeans, or trousers. I would mend or modify old or second hand clothes or create new ones and severely rein in the purchase of any brand new clothes to a couple of items a year. It's amazing how easy it is to adapt, and how much you can learn along the way. And if you have kept some frocks for a very long time, like me, there is a great deal of pleasure to be taken from a revival of an old favourite.

African wax fabric, me-made, Madison bodice, self drafted full circle skirt, May 2014
Is it so very bad to remember what you were wearing on high days, holidays and the most ordinary of days when your spirit was lifted by the texture, the colour, the heft or lightness, the drape or swish of a well-loved frock? And what would your map of time look like?

19 May 2014


A few days of sunshine has brought on the strawberries and by some twist of good fortune we managed to get there this evening before the invading hordes of slugs and snails. The asparagus we cropped has been griddled and eaten for supper. There are three jars of Glencar jam* on the table, left from the batch I made a few days ago - in a row of course - and more rhubarb steeping in sugar, ready for another batch to be made tomorrow.

We'll rise above whatever has attacked the garlic, razed the brassica seedlings, chomped the pea seedlings, brutalised the emerging runner beans, and instead admire the architecture of our very own Shard...


* I don't use candied peel, though I do use the zest of the fresh lemon

15 May 2014

four in a row

If you are thinking of getting a pet and remain unsure about whether you have the time to look after it, perhaps you should think about experimenting with a sourdough starter. You'll know then that if you don't manage to get to Day 7 then you're really not fit to have a pet. If you already have a houseful of cats or dogs who need feeding and grooming at regular intervals, it should be simple. Shouldn't it? Well it is. What nobody tells you however is is that you'll end up with jars of the stuff and it will take over the kitchen table, if not your life.

Now I'm sure there's plenty of advice out there on how to make a sourdough starter and you may indeed have tried it yourself.  I followed Dan Lepard's advice in Short and Sweet, though he doesn't  cover all of the practical issues (though this article does). It is all quite exciting in a Quatermass kind of way. And I'm sure if you read the recipe properly the resultant loaf will turn out fine. Mine didn't because Dan's recipe is narrative and it seems I can only follow lists if I've any chance of getting something right. But even though I missed out 100g of flour and the rise was not airy enough, my loaf  had a fabulous crust and tasted wonderful, if somewhat dense and chewy.

I'm going to be trying again. There may even be a picture of a row of one when I manage to get it right.

14 May 2014

five in a row

It's the same pair who raised five last year on the canal. I was walking home from Stereochron Island*, the nest was empty, the Rangers didn't know whether they'd hatched or not, then I saw them all out together a little further on in a little flotilla, escorted by cob and pen.


*More to come.

29 April 2014


"The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You're one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you're two months back in the middle of March."
From Two Tramps in Mud Time, Robert Frost

April. You leave home wrapped in a tweed coat in brisk wind with showers forecast and half an hour later there is steam coming out of your collar. One minute you are beaming, the next piqued.

Take Sunday.  We visited my friend whose new baby was curled up and lost in the stupor of learning how to feed just a week ago, and this week had lengthened perceptively, eyes trying to focus, placid, and just as quickly on the brink of a yowl. Amazing. 

Still on a high, we rushed to Somerset House, only to find the Boro quilts we were hoping to see (again for me) dismantled. A cup of coffee gave us a boost, but a few minutes later we were cast down again to find Temple station closed just as we needed to get home quickly. Then, taking a different route, we discovered St Clement Danes ringing out the hour with a peal of Oranges and Lemons.  All these years, and never heard those bells until yesterday. Very jolly, cheered us up. 

Unlike St Saviour in the Marshes for whom the bell tolled this evening. Quite the emotional rollercoaster.

20 April 2014

ooh, er...

They don't look very happy, do they? Perhaps we should have stuck to chocolate.

But my internet connection seems to have been restored, which is good news. And even if the rain is threatening the canopies of spider webs spanning the gutters, this is not altogether unwelcome.

Have a Happy Easter day.

02 April 2014

making space

It was warm yesterday - bare-leg warm by the afternoon. It had been a busy morning, the last of a series of weekly workshops I'd been running with some women in Whitechapel, bittersweet to say goodbye and good luck. I'll miss them. There was a lot to do back home, but that British summer time lost hour takes some getting used to, so in the end I thought the best thing was to get to the plot and do nothing, absolutely nothing. No sowing, no sewing, no reading, just a bit of space and quiet.

I cycled along the back streets, cut across the Bow roundabout and nipped onto the River Lea path to Three Mills for the last leg of the journey. It's a ride I enjoy because you're below the main roads and it's quite spacious. For now. A pair of swans were nesting, quite possibly the foolish pair who normally make their nest on the tidal part of the river further round by Three Mills, only to have their nest flooded and their eggs scattered on the mud.

Hopefully they'll pull it off, this year at least. Behind them a new red fence has gone up, and behind that the remaining industrial buildings have all but disappeared. This time next year the view will be completely different as the building work proceeds. It's no good whining about any of this, not for too long anyway. The pace of change around here is taxing, it always has been in London, but just now it seems to have accelerated.  People probably felt the same when this pretty as a picture collection of industrial buildings were erected. All the more reason to find a bit of space now, however small it might be.
Three Mills - view from river path exit by Tesco overflow car park
When I reached the allotment, I pulled out the old comfy chair and sat on our tiny bit of lawn to enjoy the space and the warmth. It wasn't quiet exactly. Huge peacock butterflies did that fighty thing in the air, and when they'd finished with each other, chased off the orange tips.  Hoverflies and solitary bees flitted through the overgrown rocket and the yellow flowers of gone-to-seed mizuna. There was the sound of building work near the new pumping station;, a very slight drone from the main road; an intermittent drilling which was, I think, a woodpecker; a blackbird starting that late afternoon singing; and could that possibly have been the sound of rooster nearby - really? 

Where the Prescott Channel runs at the back of the plot opposite, some swans flew across a couple of times, quite low down, following the water and just in view, then some wildfowl and a few gulls. At one point there were even three ducks in a row using the sky and trees as their wallpaper. Great tits flew around making that repetitive tweeting and the silhouette of a wretched magpie was just about visible in a tree. 

Such bliss. Inside my head I may have heard those Numskulls responsible for vitamin and endorphin distribution  calling out "More, more!".

(Map here.)

27 March 2014

the sewing class

Every Wednesday during term time I get my bag of bits and ride over to the sewing class for three hours. I love it. We are all women, around a dozen of us on busy days, from all over the globe, a range of ages, and the most brilliant teacher who clearly loves her job and manages to be both encouraging and firm with us at the same time. Some women come year after year, others come to learn something specific and then leave. There is a whole range of projects going on - this term we have a man's shirt, a denim jacket, a sari-silk dress, an african print kimono, a gorgeous coat made out of tapestry curtains, a restyled winter coat, a summer frock. On the quietest days, there is a meditative quality in the room. You can sense the concentration as people take on more challenging tasks - drawing a new pattern, making buttonholes for the first time, inserting invisible zips; or the trepidation at using the old industrial machines and overlockers, marked up with the names of engineers long gone along with the manufacturing industry they served. I've developed a tentative affection for one in particular with its purry sound as it slices off rough edges and turns them out with sweetly serged seams; get it wrong and it could be disaster. Then there are the days when we chat gently, share mishaps, enjoy the companionship of common cause, imagine what we might make next.

That thinking about developing our skills and having a talented teacher is one of the best things about being in a class and this year's Sewing Bee has been an inspiration too. It's all too easy to sit back and do the same thing again and again, so I've really enjoyed watching the sewists' determination at mastering the demanding challenges. If they can do it...

Which brings me to the Merchant and Mills Madison I made. Rachel asked for a picture and here it is, the only one, better perhaps at showing the hosiery than the dress.

What can I say about it? It's a simple pattern, requiring basic skills and, made in silk, it was a great dress for a British Spring wedding. I liked the plainness, lightened by the flattering neckline. The long sleeves were perfect in the cool shade, and I really took pleasure in the detail of the three vintagey-looking darts in the sleeves to stop them going baggy (you can't see them, alas). What's more, I was delighted that the dark blue silk dupion which I bought in Singapore around fifteen years ago finally saw the light of day. A bit like me.

Sewing for yourself can be a bit hit and miss. Often your vision doesn't quite materialise in the way you imagined and sometimes a bit of realism and self-discipline is required to avoid disappointment. But when it all comes together - something you enjoy wearing, understanding the skills that go into making even a simple dress, the value of the time it takes, well, it's a kind of enlightenment.