In my hands, by my bed

One of the things that I love about John is his habit of choosing me books. He watches the pile on my bedside table, topping it up when it gets low. Usually it’s a stack from the library, but last week, as a half-term treat, he came home with a brand new one, leaving it by my bed for me to find when we went up.

He knows me well. I go through phases of being fascinated by stuff, the objects that we surround ourselves with. In my dreams, and in our holiday-going reality, we travel light,  throwing a few essentials into a day sack: a change of clothes, a passport, a bar of soap. The thought of having too much is suffocating, and yet I can see how people find comfort in the things which surround them. We all do; we’d be lying if we claimed otherwise.

The Life of Stuff is a family memoir, probing the generations through the things they loved and the hoard they left behind. Its lays out a pattern of family tragedy which repeats itself through the generations, and the author’s determination to change things, to be different. It left me wondering whether my own relative lack of interest in stuff comes from the fact that we moved a lot when I was growing up. Home is where the family is, regardless of continent or climate or whether the container with our chattels has arrived.

The stuff I love is functional: quilts and clothes, trowels and teacups. The things I make are always about keeping us warm, fed and comfortable. They are made, they are used, they fall apart. New things take their place.

I wore my favourite white jumper into oblivion last winter, and so a new one is on my needles. The pattern is one I’m developing for release this autumn, comfortable and warm and easy to throw on. And although my tester will be making it from commercial yarn, mine is knit from my own yarn, raised by my aunt, sheared by my cousin, spun soft and light and woolen by me. That’s the sort of story the things in my family tend to tell. Well made, well loved, and, one day, well worn. The stuff of comfort.

Joining in with Ginny’s Yarn Along at Small Things

Madeleine

PS – If anyone fancies reading The Life of Stuff once John and I have finished, drop me a line and I’ll send it your way. UK readers only, I’m afraid, because, well, postage.

PPS – Thank you all so much for coming back, subscribing and reading again after my long hiatus. It really does mean an awful lot to me. Your ‘welcome back’ comments had me smiling for days.

Welcome, rain

On Friday afternoon, the sun shone and the air grew so thick that I abandoned all thoughts of cooking. Indoors, the couch and my knitting were beckoning, but instead I stayed on the patio, picking my way through another batch of fleece before carding it, ready for spinning. The thing is, you never know whether this will be the last day of sunshine for a long, cold while. So while the sun shone, I carried on with the dirty, outside tasks, like pulling the mucky tips off the wool and watching the dust fly as it moved from carder to carder.

Over tea – thank goodness for ready-roast chickens and shops within an easy cycle – I doled out jobs for today. Not a lot, just a little help from everyone, please. Strimming for Ben. Tying up the peas and beans for Seb while Fliss staked the fast-blooming alstroemerias and my new freesias. Ilse was to help me water and plant out the cucumbers and courgettes – the very last things to go into this spring’s veg patch – while I weeded it all and John made his usual rounds at the butcher and greengrocer’s on the market. A typical late spring Saturday morning.

And then on Saturday it rained, on and off all day, so that instead we found ourselves in the kitchen. A kettle on the Rayburn for endless mugs of tea, and more buttery crumpets smeared with Marmite as each new sleepy head emerged. Fliss stitched away at her old ballet skirt, embroidering it with golden swirls for a fancy dress costume. Seb appeared from the garage with a big stick and his knife, as well as the promise to work over a spread of newspapers. Ilse was colouring, and Ben rummaged through the spice drawer as he and John planned our meals for the week ahead. It’s the first time in ages that we’ve been in just one space, together, for so long. In the spring our house doubles in size as we spread out, away from the fires, into bedrooms and right down to the end of the garden to make much-needed repairs to winter-ravaged dens. But yesterday we all stayed together, held no doubt by the gentle warmth of the cooker and all five episodes of Death on the Nile, one after another, on the radio.

As for me, I worked on the knitting I’d been so keen to get to the previous day, which is a pattern I’m developing for the autumn. I got through all the counting and onto the easy stretch before Poirot solved the murder, which was satisfying. The rain let up, just a little, after lunch, so that I could run out and plant the freesias that my dad had bought me on Friday, staking them against the weather. And then, later, there was Paddington to watch again and, best of all, a pile of rolags ready to spin from that sultry afternoon the day before. There’s a time and a place for everything, you see. Tasks for sunshine and tasks for rain. That way, whatever the weather, there’s a way to make it welcome.

Madeleine

Half term happenings

June 1, 1933

 

The younger children have been on their half term holiday this week, free of the classroom just in time to soak up the end of the late spring weather. It just so happened that Ben came home on the very first day, his summer break already underway, so that for the first time since Christmas we are all under the same roof. We were all excited to see him, but Ilse particularly so, as they had a special outing planned. Ben’s first and most important job was to take her to choose a new hamster.

In the end there were eight of us who went along: Ilse, Ben, Seb, Fliss, my brother Pete and his two children, and myself. Crowding out the little pet shop we found only one hamster available, a fluffy white one with a pink nose and faintly buff patches on either side of his face. We can’t imagine why he was left til last; he is very sweet if still a little nervous. Ilse has named him Albus, and Ben is helping her to handle him every evening.

Apart from wandering through the village to the pet shop, and a day in York enjoying, amongst other things, ices in the Minster Gardens, all the cousins really wanted to do was spend time with one another. Seb had been given a brand new game, Monopoly*, which they played no fewer than six times in four days. When the sun shone they spread a rug under the apple tree and played there for a long afternoon, punctuated only by a water fight. They know each other very well, despite the distance between Yorkshire and Devon, and each visit seems to develop a theme. This time it was Monopoly; in the past it has been devising plays, or dressing up, or, in Greece, swimming in the warm Aegean Sea.

We saw Mother and Father as much as we were able, and I must say that four late nights of sitting up and chatting rather took it out of me. I’m sure I used to be able to stay up much later, but I will confess that having taken them to the station to catch the southbound train, I came straight in and fell asleep on the settee, wireless on, knitting in my hands. An early night was had, and another one tonight should do the trick. Having guests is rather like going away on holiday: it forces you to break with routines and makes it so much more of a holiday. Time is spent sharing news and stories, rather than doing the weeding, and that is just as it should be. The jobs can wait. What matters is spending time with family, building connections between those in the new generation and strengthening existing sibling bonds.

It seemed that the jobs would wait today, too, as Father and I headed to a little farm on the far side of York to make a few pleasurable purchases. First were the flowers for the pots in Father’s yard: bee-loving annuals, and a spill of cheerful red geraniums. After that, we walked past the donkey and the little field of goats, through a gate where there were new puppies to pet, and on to the chicken shed. There must have been a hundred pullets in there, and we spent fifteen minutes chasing them around, failing to catch a single one, while Ilse looked on and laughed. Eventually the farmer reappeared with a box to put them in and caught two, just like that. One is a grey, speckled hen with a white bib, rather like a barn owl, so we’ve named her Hedwig. The other, black with a collar of copper feathers, puts us in mind of a phoenix, and of course she is named Fawkes. So although the cousins have gone home and the house is suddenly quieter, we have three new residents who need to be sat by and gazed at. Which means that we are still very much on holiday, and the jobs will just have to wait until next week. There’s plenty happening this half term holiday as it is.

* Actually, Monopoly came out in 1935, so the children wouldn’t have been able to play it in 1933. However, they could have played Coppit, which came out in 1927 and was a firm favourite when we were children. Or Touring England, which lived in a cupboard in my grandad’s dining room and came out every time we went to stay.

Please would you be kind enough to resubscribe?

During my break from this blog, I’ve had so much fun dreaming up all the things I want to do with it. Cecily’s voice, for a start, is something that I’d like to keep alive. One day, I’d like to draw my favourite posts together into an ebook, if only for me to read when I’m old. And yet I also want to express myself as a modern woman: someone with an education, a career, a family, and choices. I want to talk about all the places we go and things that we do – that we simply wouldn’t have been able to do in 1932. I’d also like to link up to or talk about other people’s blogs that bring me so much pleasure, and the inspirational attitudes and achievements they portray.

In short, I’d like the blog to be a place where I can express the many different aspects of who I am. A place where I can publish a short story that I’ve written, or just muse about daily life. I want to talk about the modern flute music that I’ve been learning, or about spinning alpaca fibres, or choosing patterns from Ravelry. I also want to start sharing some of my own patterns – some for free, some for sale – which will mean writing about them sometimes.

As I suspect you know, GDPR comes into force tomorrow. I’m by no means an expert, but it’s a set of regulations intended to protect individuals’ data. Because I would one day like to try selling some of my sewing and knitting patterns through this blog, it makes sense for me to make sure that my mailing list complies with these regulations from the off. That means that I need everyone on my list to have actively clicked through a couple of steps to confirm that they really do want to be on my mailing list. You’ll notice that there’s a new paragraph in the ‘Join our community’ box – this is there so that you know what you are signing up for. There will be a second email coming out today, asking you to resubscribe. I’ll have to delete my previous mailing list this evening. I hope you don’t find this all too off-putting; as I say, it is just to ensure that I comply with regulations from the start. I promise I’ll stop bombarding you with emails and get back to normal from tomorrow!

With all the official stuff said, can I say that I am practically hopping with excitement to start sharing my designs with you? I love to teach, and this first set of patterns is designed with people who are new to garment-making in mind. Given the number of people who have commented on my hand-made wardrobe and said that they’d never know where to begin, I thought that I could help. And now that means complying with GDPR, even if you are reading this from outside the EU.

I hope that this doesn’t scare you off. I have no intention of the blog becoming a hollow marketing ploy. I just want to share what I’m making, and see if there’s any sort of future in it.

In the meantime, there’s a spot reserved for me just in front of my spring flowerpots. The met office has promised sunshine for later today, and so I’ll take my knitting out there, with Wuthering Heights on the radio for company. Before that, though, there’s the hoovering to do, and a post to dream up while I do so, about Ben’s first flight into the big world this year. Fledgling, I think I’ll call it, and add a photo of the quilt I made for him to take. He’s heading home for the summer next week, and the medium-sized cousins are coming to stay. It’s going to be a houseful. I can’t wait.

Hello, from 2018

Blogging as Cecily Graham used to be perfect for me. It’s tremendous fun, reimagining your life in a different era. I don’t think I’ll give her up entirely – the thirties is still a time I look upon with so much fondness, probably because so many of my favourite novels were written then. But after two years the format became somewhat limiting. There were things I wanted to write about that simply didn’t exist in the thirties. And there were elements of me that a nineteen thirties wife and mother simply couldn’t portray. Much as I love the era, I love the opportunities and freedom of the present even more.

Even so, I didn’t intend to stop blogging quite so abruptly, and for that I do apologise. I kept meaning to write a farewell post but never quite found the words. Quite a few things happened last August – nothing bad, I assure you – and as life morphs I find my horizons shifting. The world gets bigger every year, it seems, with new opportunities and more time to explore them.

I did miss this space, though. I missed curating this tiny corner of the internet, celebrating brief moments of Cecily’s days. Recently, reading through old posts, I was surprised by how much I’d forgotten. We did a lot of lovely things over those two years. We’ve done more since, and although I’m sorry that I didn’t share them here it was right, because a break and a change were in order. As Cecily’s voice felt increasingly limiting, I was gaining confidence in my own. It can be quite a frightening thing, putting yourself out there on the internet to be seen and judged by others. I’m always impressed by people who do that from the off. It’s taken me two and a half years to make that decision.

Rather than write a biography, I’d just like to set a few things straight. The rest will doubtless emerge bit by bit, but I don’t want people to be confused. Like Cecily, I am married but I have three children, not four. I always wanted four and so indulged Cecily in that regard. However, I’m going to keep writing about all four children as I found it an effective way of including what my kids were up to whilst muddying the waters enough to keep their lives truly private. I’ll also keep referring to my husband and other people by their fictional names. I work part time, and though I love my job I won’t be writing about it here. We live in York, and are lucky enough to have a house with a big garden for the hens and the veg patch and so forth. It’s my little bit of countryside on the edge of the city.

In case you’re wondering about the knitting in the photograph, it’s a Georgetown cardigan, knit out of my own handspun alpaca. (It still gives me a thrill to say that.) It’s lovely and soft, and a straightforward knit which is just what I’ve needed over the past couple of weeks. But I’m hoping to get it off the needles soon, in order to get back to another project that I can’t wait to share with you.

Which only leaves me to thank you from the bottom of my heart for coming back to read this post, and beg your forgiveness as I update the website and emails over the next couple of weeks. I’ve got lots and lots to do, but it’s so good to be back.

Madeleine x

On our way*

Laundry done, lists made and amended and amended again. The children have been taken into town to choose a new book each, not to be opened until we are on our way. Frocks have been deliberated over, bathers tried on for size, dark glasses packed against the bright Greek sun. I’ve taken most of the toys out of Ilse’s bag – the entertainments she packed just in case – and replaced them with smaller, more versatile playthings. A tin of coloured pencils. Her favourite teddy bear. And in the other children’s bags, something for all of them to share: a deck of cards, a rainbow of embroidery silks. A ball to inflate on the beach.

The garden is weeded, the hens cleaned out, a note rolled in a bottle for the milkman. Mother and Father have visited for full watering and hen-care instructions – without which we wouldn’t be able to go away at all. Sandals have been bought, or passed on, so that everyone has a pair that fits. I’ve made myself a double-sided hat to shade me from the sun: the others each have one from holidays past. Greek drachmas have been ordered and collected from the bank. Tickets and passports, checked and double-checked, await a final checking in the hall.

One more sleep, if you can persuade yourself to do such a thing with a head full of heroes and ruins. One more day of waiting. And then, almost unbelievably for the littler ones among us, we will be on our way.

 

* Actually, we have now been to Greece and back and had a really wonderful holiday, which I look forward to writing about next week. Oh, and I lost my hat. C’est la vie.

 

 

Sweet

Sweet peas by my bed, so that I fall asleep and wake to their scent. The fact that they keep coming, a few more every day.

Wide open days with nothing whatsoever planned, so that we can ask that most delightful of questions: now, what shall we do today?

Produce from the garden and beyond: warm tomatoes, fleshy cucumbers, baskets of strawberries from a nearby farm.

The thud of the first windfalls, and the cinnamon-spiced preserves that sound heralds in this house.

Children and chickens on the lawn, doing nothing extraordinary. Just footling about, lost in their own little worlds.

These summers, with all of them here, more precious every year.

Bittersweet, yes. But let’s focus on the sweet.

When rain stops play

Typical English summer weather: sunshine up until the last few days of term and then rain, rain and more rain. Or that’s what it feels like, anyway.

Between downpours the children and I have been outside: playing, building obstacle courses, constructing dens and tending to the garden. Under a sky of clouds, outside looks less than appealing but once I begin I don’t want to stop. There’s always one more thing to weed, tie in or feed. And then the heavens open once again and we all rush in.

It was at the start of the holidays that Seb announced his summer projects: building his new den and completing a number of airfix models. For when it’s sunny and when it rains, he explained. Oh dear. More of us rubs off on them than we imagine. Because that’s precisely how I organise my summer projects too: gardening and quilting, for when it’s sunny and when it rains.

More than that, though, is the fact that we both save one outdoor task til last, just in case the rain does come. Under an umbrella of leaves – me under the apple and he sheltered by the pine at the far end of the garden – we can carry on outdoors if it’s only a gentle shower. And then if rain really does stop play, we each have another project waiting for us indoors.

For my future self

There’s an awful lot of thought involved in sewing, but exponentially more when you are trying to use every last scrap in a number of long-term projects. If I start with quilt A, I’ll want a bit of that fabric for variety, but what if I don’t leave enough for the cornerstones in quilt B? Yet I can’t start with quilt B until I know that there’ll be enough wadding left over from C. Then there are old sheets to be divided three ways and dyed all the right colours, and all in all it is far too much to think about when I have a scant hour to get my machine out and sew in the middle of term.

These quilt packs, then, are a little gift to my future self. The summer holidays are the perfect time to sit down and work out patterns for the two that I’ve designed myself, and make lists of all the types and sizes and numbers of pieces required. It’s not something I’d normally do, cut three quilts out at a time, but in this case it really is the only way forward. Some of it is straightforward: cut the background fabric for one quilt and slice the rest up into strips and squares to enrich the other two. Other elements are a little more nail biting: could the wadding set aside for one quilt really stretch to two? Just – with a lot of crazy piecing for the one which will be quilted so heavily it won’t matter. And should I use those fabrics on the fronts, or save them to piece a back? There’s lots of measuring and calculating, but I think I’ve got it all worked out, and written instructions for my future self to make sense of each fat pack.

It would be so much easier to throw this lot away and buy a few yards of brand new fabric to make each quilt top. I could buy a roll of batting, and some extra wide yardage to back them all. But that seems very wasteful when it turns out that I have just enough after all. There’ll be a single trip to the haberdashers to buy the thread needed to sew each quilt, but that will be that.

Originally, I’d anticipated diving straight into one of these quilts as soon as the packs were complete, but now that I’m in the mood for thinking, I might press on with a couple of other head-scratching projects and get them done. One is a little rocking chair we’ve had for a couple of years now, waiting for a sanding and a brand new cover. The other is a wingback chair I bought on a whim for a song a couple of weeks before I realised quite how many projects lurked around the house. Ben’s already sanded that one for me, and it too needs new upholstery. So perhaps I ought to tackle them before the hurly-burly of term begins again.

From the outside it may seem dull, all this maths and cutting and sorting, but in little increments it’s rather fun. I make a pot of tea, put the wireless on and before I know it I’m joined by one or other of the children, wanting to make something too. Yesterday Fliss cut into some lovely florals she got for her birthday, to make a little teddy quilt. They are much, much prettier than my crazy-paving wadding. And as I had my eye on that gorgeous aqua print, she cut me a couple of strips to add to Ben’s scrappy quilt. I tucked them away with the other pieces, looking forward to getting them out one rainy autumn afternoon. I think she’s rather lucky, my future self.

Into the pot

Now that I’m into it, these quilt kits are proving great fun to put together. I finished cutting the main fabric for Seb’s eiderdown cover last night and put it into the dye pot today. It’s going to have a patchwork top: improvisational stars on a navy blue background – the words ‘winter’s night’ keep running through my head. Both of the bed-sized quilts I’ve made so far (Seb’s Devon quilt and Ilse’s Diamonds) have featured lots of white, which was a happy marriage between the effect I wanted and the materials I had to hand. But although that wasn’t what I had in mind for these next three, the fact is that all our sheets are white and they keep being worn through at a steady rate by one or other of us.

It’s been a while since I dyed anything – three years at least – and I’d forgotten how much fun it is. Having got everyone out of the house at the same time, two hours of solitude seemed too good an opportunity to miss, and I spent a happy while in the garage, listening to the wireless and stirring a pot of naviest blue. There’s something a little bit witchy about it, to be honest, and a little bit addictive. There are plans to dye the sashing for Ben’s quilt (grey, yawn, but it’ll bring the rest of it together) as soon as I have it all cut, but dying isn’t quite as utilitarian as that. Today’s session has already had me dashing in to cut a few more strips to throw into the pot and add to my basket of precuts. And I bought a two-pound bag of salt, which means that I’ll have half a pound left over. Hmmm, we can’t have that cluttering up the cupboards. I’ll just have to dye whatever bits of sheet are left over once all the kits are made. Pink, I think. Or perhaps green! Or aquamarine…? How will I ever choose?