29 November 2011

kilty as charged

Ok,  I didn't manage to post every day in November.  But I have been wearing wool all through Wovember, maybe not down to my knickers, but there has been a very fair percentage of woolliness indeed.  I don't think I've mentioned it before but I tool a silent pledge not to buy any new clothes nearly two years ago.  I did allow myself to buy second hand clothes and new shoes (my non-employed life needed more flat shoes for walking!)  and for the most part I have stuck to it well with just a couple of brand new items.  As a consequence there has been much haunting of charity shops, much shortening of hems, some nippings in, a bit of darning.  It has all been most satisfactory even if I never quite manage to work through the pile of items awaiting adjustment or mending.

Thus it is that the kilt, and its happy sister the pleated check skirt, has come into its own in satisfying sartorial and sensual needs.  There's a plentiful supply in provincial charity shops,  and they are  forgiving when it comes to sizing, easily tweaked with a shift of a button or - confession- the addition of a bit of sneaky velcro.  Although they come in modest old lady lengths, you can just cut along the horizontal lines of the checks to get a perfectly neat edge.  Moreover, when you decide that there's still an element of frump, you can just go up another inch or two and no harm done.  I don't hem them, just ease the threads out along the bottom edge leaving a little fringe.  I pop them on the wool cycle, press the pleats back in, job done.  And most beautifully, they are soft, warm, 100 per cent wool, not just for Wovember.

Any suggestions for recycling the leftover lengths of woolly fabric gratefully received.

24 November 2011

in case I'm busy today

I have been reveling in the mistiness this week.  This was Sunday morning on the canal, me cycling south to my nine o'clock class (breathe one, two three; lovely one, two three), and the committed runners going north.  By the time I reached the Thames, completely shrouded in fog, my eyelashes were wet with fogginess.  I want to remember it because it was so delicious and I know if I don't write it down now, I'll forget how utterly lovely it was.

Getting up early(ish) and with purpose on Sunday morning fills me with enough sanctimony to last all week.  The concept of busy-ness is, of course, completely relative.  Without the discipline of the metaphorical factory whistle, or Microsoft calendar, my days elide one into the other .  I have to supply my own discipline these days.  It has become easier, but it has taken quite a while.   At least I'm dressed before porridge time now, packed lunch made for himself while my coffee cools down.  No more lazing in the bath listening to the history of the world in one hundred objects while the clock ticks on to ten o'clock.  (It's a metaphorical tick.  Working clocks are only available when the radio and laptop are switched on.)

There are still a hundred things to do but, without the urgency of a deadline, it is pot luck what comes first.  Library books are reserved and renewed electronically.  Bills paid by direct debit.  Shopping avoided by recycling.  Occasionally everything falls into place and there is a surge of productivity - emails sent,  blog posts written, skirts hemmed, aprons sewn, washing stacked, cakes baked, puddings steamed, holes mended, papers read, cupboards cleared, lists ticked.  Other days just pass in a haze. That might be why I enjoy autumn so very much.

23 November 2011

in the night kitchen

The sound of the christmas puddings steaming on the stove.

Sunflowers on the mantelpiece, surely the last of the year this time.

The scent of the mincemeat steeping in the bowl.

The comfort of wool.

The taste of beer in a posh glass.

Mostly without moving from my chair.

16 November 2011

leafy lane

Sometimes you have to take your leafy lanes wherever you can find them - in this case a bus lane.  I noticed as I was cycling down one yesterday that where the plane trees had shed their leaves on to the bus lane, the weight of the buses had compressed them into the tarmac, creating delicate coppery patterns.  This was taken in Cambridge Heath Road in Bethnal Green.  Sometimes the romantic rural names around here live up to there promise.
If you are interested in alternative floral forms, Annie is generously offering a giveaway of  Vic Brotherson's Vintage Flowers on her beautiful Knitsofacto blog and  it's open to all visitors.  It's a lovely blog and her post on developing her blogging voice is, as usual, very thoughtful.  Do pop in.

12 November 2011

awakening of cheerful feelings

We've been watching the Simon Russell Beale's series of programmes on the symphony and I was very taken with the inspiration for the first movement Beethoven's Sixth, the Pastoral: the awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the country. Uplifting, perhaps would be a word I would choose.  And it does not even have to be the deep countryside that does the trick- a walk in the park, a cycle along the canal, discovering a little corner, or like Knit Nurse, seeing the sunflowers you've guerilla planted.

As it happens, I felt very cheerful today.  I'd had a brisk cycle along the canal to my pilates class, speeding past the Sunday fair-weather and hardy runners. Then, a trip to Elmley RSPB reserve for a walk over the marshes in the sunshine along by the sea wall, wind bristling through the reeds and grasses.  You are encouraged to use your car as a hide so as not to scare the birds on the approach road, and there we watched a female kestrel hovering and diving in for a couple of kills, curlews, lapwings, marsh harriers, a sleepy heron, egrets, no end of waders and ducks and geese (I can never tell one from the other).  Of course this is only a small sample of what's there because I am hopeless at remembering any of the birds and have to rely on more expert opinion.

We moved on to the raptor viewing point at Capel Fleet as the light started to fade and the mist was rising.  The drive takes you across fields of sheep and low lying ground.  There was a collection of serious monosyllabic bird watchers there with giant telescopes and tick-lists, accompanied by the chafing sound of their super waterproof clothing.  A more friendly lady told us a couple of short eared owls were around and, on cue, they came up and swooped and circled low around the marshes in front of us.  A wedge of swans flew by, making that wonderful whistling noise as they passed.  "I love that sound" said the friendly lady.  (I bet Ludwig would have added it in to the second movement if only he had heard it.)

And because we were on the Isle of Sheep, I couldn't come home without one quick snap of the burr-covered girls posing in the last of the light.

Lots of reasons to be cheerful, I reckon.

11 November 2011

an education

I learnt how to finger knit a couple of weeks ago when I volunteered at a Craft Club event at the V&A.  It's part of the initiative to promote knitting and other crafts in schools.  It's good fun, but quite exhausting - if you turn your back for a minute little fingers seem to knot the yarn in an instant and you have to start all over again.  For my part I feel a bit of a fraud though.  I'm not much of knitter, though I know the basics, and so I work on the basis that I'm bound to know more than the average infant.  I've got away with it so far.  Then this week we agreed to teach some finger knitting at a local community centre where my friend Elizabeth occasionally runs little crafting sessions with a group of local Bangladeshi women with me as the sidekick.  (By the way, Elizabeth is a great teacher.  Her instructions are full of delightful similes and metaphors - "Take the yarn off your hand, hold it in the plam of your hand like it's a baby.  place your baby down ..."  And she can do that gimlet eye thing too and get instant attention.  ) So we turn up and do the finger-knitting thing, and we're having a laugh and so on, and I turn round and one of the women is suddenly doing extra loops round her fingers and making much more elaborate strands than the others.  "Oh I love to crochet and knit" she says "I learnt by watching one of the women in my village when I was a child, and I really wanted to learn properly but my mother said if I was going to crochet, then she would take me out of school.  So I carried on at school.  But I secretly carried on with the crochet too - I just made myself a hook out of a nail"

That's right.  A nail.

I was well and truly humbled.  And rumbled come to that.

08 November 2011

the wool shop

I like to check that this picture is still on display whenever I go to Tate Britain because it is one of my favourites.  It was there the last time I looked, at least.  The young woman playing with the wool, and a somewhat diminutive Stanley Spencer seemingly overwhelmed by skeins of yarn with a life of their own.  It exudes energy, the sensuality of new wool, and, according to this description, lustful thoughts on the part of Stanley too.  I like what he says in his notes of the painting: "Stonehouse  had several of these small local shops such as I remembered years ago in Cookham. The Cookham ones must have emigrated there."  The Stonehouse wool shop certainly looks more fun than the Shelstone's in Watney Street, the haberdashers I used to visit as a child with my Auntie Mary .  The best part was being allowed to sit - out of the way - on a high bentwood stool - until the serious business of making purchases was completed.  I still dream sometimes about those shopping expeditions.

Which reminds me that I didn't mention my outing to Walthamstow Village to a talk by Debbie Bliss organised by East London Craft Guerilla.  It was very informal, about a dozen of us sitting round yarning in a cafe, with Mrs Bliss telling us about her career as a knitwear designer and running her own wool shop - not very well, according to her. I was very taken with her - approachable, modest and very open about the challenges of being a knitwear designer - the years of being not very well paid, the copyright breeches, the boggledom of grading patterns.  Lots of questions afterwards from would-be designers and me asking why her range of yarns were from imported wool (originally because there was not a sufficient volume of high quality fleeces, but "watch this space"). She also said something interesting about the upsurge of interest in making and crafts during economic downturns.  Apparently sales of craft books and magazines increase enormously, but there is not generally a commensurate increase in sales of yarn.  It seems we are all dreaming of making stuff but not always getting on with the actual knitting or whatever.  Maybe we might if there were more lovely woolshops.

07 November 2011


Even though I missed the first of November - put that down to too much Halloween fun - I am attempting to post every day for the rest of the month, spurred on by the renewed energy I have found now that I have embraced the autumn.  Part of this uncharacteristic vigour is a determination to attempt some of the numerous recipes I have cut out from magazines and stashed away.  Today it was an Alice Hart recipe - soy braised tofu with butternut squash and spinach.  I like squash. I like spinach.  I like ginger and star anise and soy sauce.  It looked promising.  I followed the recipe slavishly and the finished dish looked not unlike the magazine photo.  I stood on a kitchen chair to avoid the rising steam and took a photo before I sat down to eat.  At which point I discovered that  I still do not like tofu.  Maybe I need to take Nigel Slater's advice and try again some day, though not for a good while I suspect.

So, what's with the photo?  Well those are from my first crop of Highland Burgundy, a small crop and with a few losses to a fungal growth in the sack, but in other ways quite a success.  Purple when cut, sweet when cooked, they keep their colour and taste much, much better than tofu.  Such a lovely name too.  I'll add a link to the recipe I used...when I manage to find it again.

06 November 2011

more trees and a touch of tweed

I like it when friends call out of the blue and ask if they can come to London for the day.   No fussy planning just "see you tomorrow at 11".  It means you have to make the effort to have a bit of an outing.  So we took  a walk through the foot tunnel to Greenwich and up into the park to see the avenues of sweet chestnut trees.   Whether John Evelyn had a hand in designing the avenues seems open to dispute- he seems to be given credit for a number of sweet chestnut trees in England.  Not that it matters much.  The trees are immense and ancient and altogether awe inspiring.  Just thinking about them makes me feel tiny.

We thought the venerable trees would make an altogether suitable location for celebrating Wovember, and the first outing of my sweet chestnut toned Irish Tweed winter coat (courtesy of Oxfam, Dalston)...

and John's autumnal Harris Tweed jacket (Save the Children, Cambridge).

Our friends were very patient.  Can't help thinking we should have had a glass or two of Black Sheep afterwards.

05 November 2011

autumn window

Cafe window (old church), Cambridge

One of the things I like about the first few weeks of dark afternoons is the light shining out onto the street from windows.  It's a good time to take a walk to the shops, or just a mooch around.  For some reason I find it very comforting even though I'm on the outside looking in.  It's a time of year that I like to take a trip to Cambridge, when it's a bit misty, but not suffering from those easterlies that make you ache with cold.  Our afternoons there generally follow the same pattern: walk round the market, buy a bag of flying saucers and maybe some fenland celery with the dirt still on it, look at the Think! shoes in the shoe shop, walk up to Kettles Yard, crossing the river on the way, pop into a couple of charity shops, visit to the Fitzwilliam.  Cup of tea somewhere along the way, maybe a bowl of soup.  Walk to the bus stop.  Home in time for a jacket potato, a fire, a glass of something and a murder, preferably Scandinavian.

VG and star.

04 November 2011

greening the city

Birch trees, Tate Modern

I went to a lovely little exhibition at the tiny Garden Museum at the weekend.  It was pure rus in urbe - all about creating, reclaiming or saving of green space in urban environments, from the natural greening of London bomb sites in the 40s to Richard Reynolds campaign to save the plane tree woods on a deserted council estate in South London.   I came across Helen Babbs book and blog, and was particularly taken with her post on finding fruit for free in the city.  It got me round to thinking about my own favourite trees - the fig tree in Sidney Square where I ate figs for the first time,  the bent eucalyptus in Meath Gardens planted in memory of an Australian Aborigine cricketer who died here on tour, the little plantation of birches in front of Tate Modern.   And it reminded me of the places that might have been covered in trees once.  Like Ratcliffe Orchard.  All that's left of that is an alley that runs from the Highway through Cranford Cottages to Cable Street.  Except one day, I found this in the gutter there ...

and wondered where it might have come from.

03 November 2011

season of ...

It was pouring with rain.  I opened the door to find him standing there soaked, holding a big bunch of sunflowers, the very last to be picked today from one of his school gardens.  They are gorgeous, and certainly brought a bit of light into the kitchen as it got dark outside.  Nevertheless, I do find it somewhat unnerving.  I've been bracing myself for the change of seasons for weeks now,  holding on to summer for as long as I could, then mentally preparing to batten down the hatches.  It put me on edge.  I suppose it didn't help that I'd been reading The Long Winter and immersed myself during insomniac nights in blizzards, frozen livestock, a monotonous diet potatoes day in day out.  We had a couple of days in the middle of October when the wind got up and litter and leaves were scattered up the street and  mistiness seeped along the canal in the morning. And after the clocks turned back and the darkness started to creep in earlier, it finally felt that the season might have turned at last.  Then sunflowers on the kitchen table.

Oh, and he tells me he saw three peregrines too today, all at once.

02 November 2011

first class

Back of work 
It seems like forever since the weekend.  We - that's my friend Elizabeth and me -  had the most lovely Saturday afternoon at Tom of Holland's Darning Workshop at Prick Your Finger.  We sat upstairs in their workspace in the late afternoon light with a nice cup of tea and learnt how to Swiss Darn and then do proper neat darning.   Fortunately Tom had, in prescient fashion, made a beautiful large scale sampler with bespoke hole to demonstrate - he must have intuited that I would come without my specs.

Tom's darned sweatshirt
I'm not sure we were the best pupils because we spent a lot of time getting our swiss darning up to scratch.  By the time we got round to the weaving in and out (top tip: use a l-o-n-g darner) the light was beginning to go and I really could have done with my missing specs, found since then having slipped off my bedside cabinet and into the bag of important things at the side of my bed.  That's my excuse for not quite reaching Tom's very high standards.

Lovely neat front of work
We didn't even have time to see the Speedweve in action, so we are hoping that Tom will have an improver's class.  By that time I just may have got round to practicing on the pile of darning hiding in my back room.

Thank you Tom! And thanks to Louise and Rachel for the tea too.  It certainly set us up for Wovember.