Introducing my sewing pattern project

Over the past decade or so, I’ve been learning to make my own patterns. It all started when Seb and Ilse were tiny and I was at home, looking after the children full time. I’d bought a sewing machine to make some curtains for our new home and thought I may as well have a go at making myself some clothes as well.

I did use a couple of commercial patterns, early on, but not many. They were never quite what I wanted. I’d have an idea of what I wanted to make and then spend ages poring over the catalogues, unable to find the matching pattern. So I stuck to simple shapes: A-line skirts and sundresses that I drafted for myself and made out of old sheets and charity shop finds. Sewing quickly turned into an inexpensive hobby for me, perfect for filling wintry nap-times. I could have been so bored during those three years at home, but learning a new skill helped to keep my mind active and engaged. (In fact, I also relearned how to knit during those years, and drafted two novels, and started growing vegetables. Apparently I like to be doing…)

The lightbulb moment came in York Central Library (as it was) one sunny June day. I adore libraries. The fact that anyone – anyone! – can just walk in and immerse themselves in books is one of the most wonderful gifts society can give its members. There I was, browsing the craft section, when I came across an old edition of Winifred Aldrich’s Metric Pattern Cutting for Women’s Wear. I’d never heard of it – I am entirely self-taught and my degree in Philosophy was a million miles from this new enthusiasm. But as I flicked through its pages, something clicked, and I suddenly realised that here, in my hands, was the key to making anything I wanted.

Having seen me renew the book umpteen times, John bought me a copy for Christmas, and I’ve not bought a pattern since. That’s probably not the most sensible thing to tell you, given that I’m hoping to sell my patterns through this space. But I know that those who will want to draft their own patterns will do just that, whatever I say, and those who don’t, won’t. Not everyone likes the maths and the technical drawings, the measuring and imagining of three-dimensional alterations to a block. I really do. I love the puzzle of it, working out how to translate the item in my head into a two dimensional diagram, then back again. It’s just another form of problem-solving, made all the more fun by fabric and print and finishes.

So over the past few weeks I’ve been taking some of my oldest and simplest patterns, and recreating them for sale. Without exception, they have been chosen because they fulfil two criteria. First, they are items that I’ve made over and again, because they are good-looking and easy to wear. Secondly, they are simple enough for the novice or returning dressmaker to create. Over the years, I’ve made several more complex patterns, but the ones I’m going to release first are the simple ones.

I thought it might be interesting for people to have an idea of what the process of creating a sewing pattern is like, so I’ve taken some pictures along the way. Of course, I’ve tested and worn all of these garments, so what I’m really doing at the moment isn’t creating new patterns, but just formalising and grading some of my old favourites.

The first thing I do is create a size 12 (US size 10, European size 40) block. This is the basic shape of a type of garment – a tailored skirt, for instance. You use a chart of standard measurements and follow a series of instructions to get a life size block in that size. The reason you start with a size 12 block for graded patterns is that it is the middle size (for my patterns, anyway) so that there is greater accuracy as you grade up and down from it.

Next, you trace the block off and manipulate it until it stops being a generic shape and takes on the form of the garment you want to create. Here, you can see that I’ve cut the tracing open to introduce more flare into the skirt, and moved the darts. You then trace this onto pattern paper. If you were making the pattern in just one size, you would stop here.

However, I’m making the patterns available in five sizes, which means grading them up and down from the size 12. There are several ways to do this. I use the cut and spread method, which means cutting up your pattern along certain lines and spreading it out before sticking it down and tracing it off again. For example, a size 14 waist is 4 cm larger than a size 12, so I have to work out how much to spread each of the vertical lines on the pattern to make the overall garment 4 cm bigger in that direction. It is both incredibly simple and breathtakingly effective.

 

Finally, you have to mark the pattern pieces with their names, grainline, position of pleats or buttons and so forth, before writing up a set of instructions to accompany it. In this form, the pattern can be used as it is. However, I’m going to release one each month from September (starting with a couple of free ones) and create video tutorials and photographs to help people along. I’m also going to host a Q&A page and a link up for everyone to share their finished garments, and will of course answer emails from anyone who needs a little extra help.

The truth is that garment making is one of those things that baffles lots of people for no good reason. It’s just a skill, like anything else. People used to make their own clothes all the time – it wasn’t seen as anything special. What I really want to do, more than anything, is demystify the process and, over the course of a few years, enable others to make the same journey that I did, from complete beginner to someone who sees an item of clothing and can go home and make one for themselves.

Madeleine

PS – Of course, this is just the process for the sewing patterns. Writing knitting  patterns is different, but equally satisfying. Can you knit and/ or sew? Do you make garments for yourself? If not, what would encourage you to get started?

Desert Island Discs: Symphony of Sorrowful Songs

At nineteen I found myself starting my second year at Cambridge, four and a half thousand miles from home and the single mother of a three week old baby boy.

The music I’ve chosen for this section of my life is the second movement of Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs:Lento e Largo – Tranquillissimo. After the horrors of the Second World War, Gorecki wrote a three piece symphony for solo soprano and orchestra. The second movement takes as its lyrics the words scratched on the wall of a Gestapo cell by eighteen year old Helena Wanda Blazusiakowna: O Mamo, nie płacz, nie. Niebios Przeczysta Królowo, Ty zawsze wspieraj mnie (Oh Mamma do not cry, no. Immaculate Queen of Heaven, you support me always).

Of course I would never dream of comparing my situation to hers, or to the suffering of billions around the world even today. Mine were first world problems, I know. The reason I’ve chosen it is that it voices the profound loneliness I felt. As well as the physical isolation of the long summer vacations, stuck in Cambridge when everyone else had gone home or was travelling, I was alone in my situation.

Even now, twenty years on, I’ve never met anyone who shares my experiences. But I have met other people who have come through difficult times and remained positive about the future. Because as well as being a sorrowful song, the piece I’ve chosen is also a bold one, and full of faith.

Waterlog

Each time of year has its antidote. In the dull damp cold of January it is whisperings of spring, of gardens awakening. In October it is tales of cosiness to come, with cold toes and shortened evenings pushed firmly to the margins. In July, it is water, and nature, and calm.

This time of year inevitably builds to a frenzy, with end of year assemblies, visit days to new schools, sports days, school plays, music concerts, holiday planning, and social visits that somehow didn’t happen earlier in the year. People are coming and going from the house at all sorts of strange times, for the day, or a night, or a couple of weeks in France. There are invitations to field and fit, like temporal tetras, into the family calendar. On top of that, I’ve been working full time, coupling my days at work with my own project at home – the beginnings of my business and rebirth of this blog – so that the usual rhythms of July days at home have been reassigned to the busy hours which bookend my working days.

While my days at home are spent writing and drafting paper sewing patterns, I’ve saved my knitting for the evenings. After a day bent over the dining table, measuring and drawing and doing sums, it is a joy to sit on the sofa in the kitchen and watch the chickens make their evening rounds while I add a few rows to my design. In all, I’m pulling together five sewing, four knitting and one embroidery project together for my first pattern collection. The idea is that I’ll release one a month, and support each with video tutorials, link ups and FAQs. This first year of projects is designed to help new sewers and knitters build both a capsule wardrobe and a repertoire of key skills at the same time, so that they can make clothes which are both achievable and beautiful.

Of course, the simpler something is, the more work goes into making it so. The little cast on of green is the beginning of a doll-sized shawl, one fifth the size of the actual design. I had started the real thing before deciding to test my pattern in a smaller format, to save time in case it didn’t turn out as I wanted it to – it’s going to be a crescent shawl with exceptionally simple shaping, and I’ve not seen one like it before. Should it work – and I think it will – the practice shawl will be a gift for Ilse, to wrap around her toy kitty.

Now that I’ve calculated the arcs and angles and figured out my gauge, I’ll have the pleasure of knitting through this little shawl over the next few evenings, Wimbledon on in the background, until it’s time for bed. But the tireder I get, the harder it is to sleep. I find this every year in July: there is so much to think about and do, so many decisions to make and hot stuffy days at work that it is hard to put my mind at rest. I have a little repertoire of antidotes, for this. The pre-sleep knitting helps, even if it’s just a few rows. This weekend I will bring in the lavender, which I’ll hang from our wooden ceiling airers and we will all drop off the moment our heads hit our pillows, lulled by its soporific scent. Most effective of all, though, is reading.

I always read before I go to sleep, but the book I find myself returning to again and again in these tricky July days is Roger Deakin’s Waterlog. I don’t know how many times I’ve read it; I tend to dip in and out of it, paddling randomly in and out of his outdoor swimming journey around Britain. There is something immensely soothing about nature writing. Reading it is like going home, or being hugged, or perhaps it is simply the literary equivalent of a long walk through green fields. Simple tales about what is both extraordinary and what has always been: training a hawk; courting hares; wild swimming through Britain’s landscape. These are the books that I fall asleep in, their cool waters closing over my head until I am a water baby myself, dreaming of clean skin and cool pastures.

When I opened this book, last week, I found a feather inside, bookmarking the middle of a chapter. I must have broken off, halfway through a bathe in its refreshing pages. I picked another and started to read, until sweet sleep overtook me and before I knew it, a new day had dawned.

Madeleine

Joining in with Ginny’s Yarn Along at Small Things

PS – What is July normally like, for you? I suspect that it varies tremendously, depending on whether you have children and whether they are still waiting to break up for the summer holidays.

The Plastic Age

3 July 1933

When I was a child, learning history in school, we went back beyond the Spanish Armada, beyond the Anglo-Saxon kings and queens, beyond Boudica and Alexander the Great and the Hittite rulers to what my teacher used to refer to as The Ages. These Ages were indefinably long and unimaginably long ago. First came the Stone Age, cold and uncomfortable to our childish minds, without eiderdowns or kettles or books. The Bronze Age was next, and then the Iron Age, bringing war in the form of swords and spear tips – as if they hadn’t existed before. It was all such a muddle of materials and history, dinosaurs and cavemen rolled into one impossible account. As I child, all I could imagine were the things those people didn’t have, and how their lives must have had kettle- and eiderdown-shaped holes. Now, of course, I understand that new materials bring new technology and that it is the subsequent possibilities that matter and change the world for ever.

Lately, though, after whole history books of materials staying largely the same, we have entered a new Age: the Plastic Age. We’ve had these queer, malleable products for some time now – even my grandfather had a MacIntosh coat. I grew up with India rubber-soled shoes and bouncing balls. Increasingly, though, there are new plastics available. There are three pairs of luxurious rayon stockings in my drawer, cheaper than silk but just as smart. I have a dress and a blouse in washing silk. It was slippery to cut and sew but such a delight to wear: lightweight and smooth and elegant. It isn’t as though I wouldn’t have had a blouse or a pair of silk stockings before – of course I did. But now, when I would have worn a cotton blouse, I can choose a silky one instead for a fraction of the cost of real silk. There are cheaper alternatives to rubber products, which don’t disintegrate due to grease and sunlight. There are vinyl records behind the sliding doors of the gramophone cabinet, next to the more brittle shellac. And our new telephone is bakelite, which is as weightless as its name suggests.

It seems as though the pace of plastics is accelerating all the time. I wonder, did the people of the Bronze Age feel the same about small shifts in their technology? Only yesterday John came home with some Scotch tape that he’d been testing at the factory – a sticky plastic strip for holding parcels closed. Before, there was nothing wrong with string, but it suddenly feels second-rate. I wonder what will be next – our bags? Our books? The pots and pans in my kitchen?

It is remarkable how many things can be made from these new materials. We see them in and about the house, and they make little improvements to our lives, but I wonder about how they might be used in hospitals and schools and – heaven forbid – another war. If I think of Now as the Plastic Age, rather than just 1933, it puts me in mind of the evolution of the sword and the cannon and, finally, the machine gun. And then I have to remind myself of the stove, and the motor car, and the wheelchair. I suppose there aren’t such things as good or bad materials. Their virtue depends entirely on what we make from them.

Cecily

PS – I was trying to imagine how Cecily would feel about the advent of plastics. They were beginning to sell in the 1930s, and then the Second World War happened and it was after the war that they really took off as consumer goods. I suspect she would have felt the way a lot of people felt about the internet – aware of its possibilities, but also aware of its dangers and limitations in a vague, nameless sort of way. Or maybe I’m wrong, and she would have just embraced them wholeheartedly. I am by no means an expert on the topic – it’s just a little thought experiment. What do you think?

PPS – I’ve very deliberately included some naturally derived materials in Cecily’s post. We don’t think of rubber, shellac, rayon and the like as ‘plastics’ today, but apparently they did, back then. Plastic means ‘malleable’ (hence ‘plastic surgery’), and so all these new malleable materials were included under the same name.

Desert Island Discs: Find the River

After three years in Jordan, we moved back to Dar es Salaam, where we stayed for five more years before I left home for university. Returning somewhere is a strange experience. Nothing is quite as you left it. The student body of international schools is constantly shifting, so that the people you left behind will often have moved on themselves. New faces take their place. Most of all though, is the change that takes place in you, and the shift from age ten to thirteen is a dramatic one.

Still, though all the buildings had shrunk and the number of familiar faces dwindled, there were widening horizons to explore. No longer content to hang out on the school campus, time was spent at friends’ houses or at the beach or, when I was a little older, at the Yacht Club (which sounds far posher than it was). Nonetheless, I did have a little sailing dinghy – a secondhand Laser – and we spent most weekends messing about on the water, racing each other, crewing for friends’ parents on their Wayfarers or catamarans, and eating junk food in the bar. We sailed through great swarms of white, plate-like jellyfish, and occasionally alongside dolphins. For a time, our favourite thing to do was to put a sandwich and bottle of water in the little watertight cubbies at the front of our boats and sail out to Bongoyo Island for a day of lazing in the sun. We had tropical beaches and reefs on our doorstep, and I quite naturally transferred my love of horses to the sea.

Of course school was school, as it is wherever you grow up, but life around the edges was rich with new experiences. There were family safaris and then, as I got older, safaris with friends. Although I never had a car, several of my friends had use of their parents 4x4s and I will never forget our trip to camp in the Usambara mountains, which were then almost totally cut off from the world we knew. We lit a fire, stored our food carefully to avoid attracting unwanted animals and spent the evening diving into plunge pools of icy mountain water. The following morning I ventured upstream, picking my way over boulders, only to look up and find myself completely surrounded by a troop of baboons. They looked at me for a while and, thankfully, went on their way. It took some time for my pulse to return to normal.

Then there were school trips. The most exciting was the Kilimanjaro climb, for which we took long practice walks along the coastline. Kilimanjaro is the highest peak in Africa, but scaling most of its 5,895 meters (19,341 feet) is nothing more technical than a very long walk. You do, however, ascend extremely quickly and the altitude sickness can be quite a challenge. In the end, I never made Uhuru peak – I was just too ill. I did make it all the way to the last of the huts, but I just missed out on the final dawn ascent. One of my very favourite things about that climb though, was the chameleons. They were absolutely everywhere on the lower slopes, with their roving eyes and grippy opposing toes, and I must admit that we did test their colour-changing abilities on our waterproofs…

If I had to choose just one album to sum up those teenage years, it would have to be R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People. I heard it first in a friend’s bedroom and still have it, downloaded from CD onto iTunes, and it is still a favourite. I could have chosen so many tracks for this part of my life – Nightswimming would have been quite obvious – but Find the River sums up my impatience and wonder and longing to find my own path through the world.

Recently I was having a conversation with someone who knows Tanzania, and he commented that he couldn’t think of a nicer country in which to grow up. It is so gentle, so serene, so relaxed and conflict free. Of course, as a kid you never appreciate how lucky you are. I can remember my last few weeks so vividly – exams over we would gather at Coco’s beach bar for late-night bouts of monopoly punctuated by dips in the moonlit sea. I had a vague sense that something was coming to an end, but more than that I was impatient to be moving on, beginning something new. Within a year I would so have been so happy to have gone back and sat on that terrace in front of a dukah, sipping beer and worrying about nothing more pressing than the next roll of the dice. But then, I was so busy waiting for life to begin that I didn’t realise how much of it was coming to an end.

Madeleine

PS That’s me, in the white hat with the blue brim. We were in one of the huts, partway up Kili. Do you have a photo or song that takes you right back to your teenage years?

Celebrating Plastic Free July

You know how sometimes things seem to come together and fall into place just perfectly? Over the past few weeks I’ve been increasingly uncomfortable about all the plastic our family seems to be getting through. Then my brother told me about a packaging free shop in the town where he lives. And Seb read, on the back of a Morrisons receipt, that the supermarket is inviting customers to bring their own containers to take home fresh meat and fish. And yet somehow we are putting the bin out more often than we used to. So I went online to look up plastic free options and inspiration and stumbled upon Plastic Free July.

Originating in Australia in 2011, this year looks set to have millions of participants in over 150 countries worldwide – including me. I’ve pledged to give up single-use plastics… forever. It goes without saying that I won’t succeed and I like the way that they acknowledge that directly. It doesn’t bother me at all, setting myself up to fail in this way, because I won’t view it as failure. Instead, I’m going to celebrate each and every piece of single use plastic that we don’t use. There are bound to be all sorts that slip the net: medical blister packs, butter ‘paper’, single-use plastics that we already own. But there are bound to be plastic items that we refuse, and that’s why this can only be a win-win scenario.

So much has changed since the first time I made a concerted effort to reduce the single-use plastic in our lives – about ten years ago. Back then, it felt a bit niche, to be honest. Nowadays it feels positively mainstream. I told my car-share buddy about it on the way to work and she enthusiastically told me that she’d like to give it a go, then sat down with me to create a resource to share the opportunity with the rest of our organisation. Beth Terry‘s blog was the only one I could find on the topic, way back when. Now there are several excellent blogs which look at everything from plastic-free living to zero-waste lifestyles in a realistic and encouraging way. Best of all, a quick internet search turned up all sorts of options in and around York, from the market to Whittards to a farm shop that is literally on my way to work and sells both fresh and frozen food sans plastic, as far as I can tell. (The aforementioned car-share buddy and I have a stop planned for later in the week.) Then there are all the online shops specialising in plastic-free living: I ordered my first tin of non-nano suncream along with a few other consumables that we are about to run out of. I couldn’t find those sorts of products the last time I looked.

If I am honest with myself, I had become complacent about certain plastics. Things that I never used to buy: punnets of grapes, tubs of hummus and yoghurt, rigid packs of organic mince – had become regular features in my online trolley. Thanks to the powers of habit and the efforts of my husband, we had stuck to several ingrained behaviours, such as using the market for fruit, veg and most meat, and getting our milk delivered in glass bottles. However, I knew that the teabags thrown onto the compost heap contained plastic; I was just tired of swilling out the teapot. I knew I needed a wake-up call and some inspiration. What I hadn’t appreciated was how much I needed to feel that lots of other people were trying to do this too. Thanks to co-workers and my  children and my lovely husband who took our own containers to the butcher to see what they would say, this doesn’t feel like such an uphill battle any more.

Sure, there are lots of horrifying statistics and videos out there, and they deserve our attention. But when searching, with Ilse, for some child-appropriate information (good old Newsround) we discovered that a company is developing a product designed to clean up the big bits of plastic in the oceans. I simply cannot believe that future generations are never going to dig up our landfill and develop the technology to recycle it. And pressure is mounting to ban or tax more forms of single-use plastic than just the bag.

I’m not anti-plastic. In fact, Cecily is going to make a very excited appearance on the blog next week, writing all about the wonder material that has so much potential to improve the world. When I was a kid in Tanzania, plastic was a pretty rare and precious thing. My mother kept her UK-shopping plastic bags neatly folded, and used them over and over again. Ice-cream tubs would live on for years alongside the tupperware. In the run up to Plastic Free July, I keep rescuing plastic from the recycling. There won’t be many more squeezy bottles or freezer bags coming into our home. Plastic plays a significant role in our lives, and a shift in mindset makes it suddenly invaluable.

I’m not planning on writing about the issues surrounding plastic or offering comprehensive lists of tips – other people have already done that extremely well. What I would like to do is share this journey with you once in a while – because I’m sure it will be a very long and bumpy journey – and invite you along for the ride. Like every adventure, it’ll be more fun with company.

Madeleine

Are you already a plastic-free pro, or just interested in finding out more? I’m really curious about what you think. And I’d love to know if you do sign up to Plastic Free July. You could leave a comment, or drop me a private email. Whatever you do, big or small, alone or as part of a community, I hope we can celebrate every small refusal of another bit of unnecessary plastic – and cheer each other along.

Notes from the garden (and beyond): June

Last year (and the year before, I think) I ran a weekly Garden Notes series, documenting the changes in our garden over the coming year. Reading about other people’s gardens is one of my favourite things: garden posts are the ones I simply can’t resist and I go back to them in the depths of winter when I am missing the green and can’t quite believe that it’ll ever be warm enough for anything to grow out there. With that in mind, and the simply beautiful weekend we’ve just enjoyed, I thought some garden notes would be in order for today. Only this year I’ve amended the titleto include some of the natural world around us. We are holidaying in the British Isles this summer – England and Eire, to be precise, and probably Scotland – and I want to track the course of this summer as it melts into autumn.

Saturday evening saw us make a foray into the countryside just outside York, at the home of some dear friends of ours. It was so balmy that we sat outside long after the barbecue and deserts had been enjoyed, catching up with each others’ news and watching our children play on the hay bales in the field just over the fence. Later still, when the moon hung in the still-light sky, we took a stroll down the track which leads away from the road and towards the farmer’s house, between fields of luminous, shifting wheat and broad beans in full bloom. In the quiet of the night the animals were out, hunting and hiding as they must. A pair of buzzards started from a bale and flew away to the camouflage of a tree grown tall in the hedge. Time and again the barn owls flew, soft and silent, over the stubbled fields. And Ilse told me that she and my friends’ daughter had been the last in from the bales and looked round one last time to spy a doe on the edge of the woods, watching and waiting for them to leave.

At home, even my suburban garden is bursting with life. There are insects everywhere, and the little garden birds swoop low across the lawn to catch them. We have been careful to keep the bird bath full, and it has become a regular watering and bathing spot in the rounds of the neighbourhood flocks. Our makeshift pond, which I am still hoping will entice some frogs or toads, has long been wriggling with various larvae and in the heat of Sunday I noticed various long-bodied insects hovering above it. I have yet to identify them: that will be a project for Seb and I to enjoy together. For the first year in many we haven’t seen a hedgehog or a vole cross the patio in the evenings, which is a little worrying, but the piles of rotting wood and undisturbed weeds are a standing invitation to all and sundry. We’ve gardened organically since before we moved here, and year on year the volume of life in the garden swells as we create new habitats.

It was with all this life that I shared our space, pottering around on Sunday, watering and weeding and feeding this and that. I had to wait for a bee, drunk on nectar and overheating in his wooly coat, to bumble his way off the brick path so that I could see to my burgeoning tomatoes. The fruit patch was genuinely loud with little beasts enjoying the autumn raspberry blossoms as I checked the progress of the summer canes. Ben and I had an exploratory nibble here and there on our rounds: fat blackcurrants and the first of the sweet mange tout. Further along the same bed, the broad beans have set sail with more blooms than I can ever remember, and I am looking forward to that first crop with such anticipation. Even the new potatoes are in bloom, and the time is fast approaching when they’ll be placed on the table, their burst skins fat with butter, speckled with pepper and mint.

When I think of my garden at the moment, the word that occurs to me is cusp. We are on the cusp of so much goodness that it is easy for me, impatient as I am, to spend too much time dreaming about what is coming next and fail to focus on what we are enjoying just now. Each morning begins with fresh baskets of lettuce, rocket and spinach. There are flowers at my bedside – sweet peas and English marigolds – to wake me as they flow with scent each morning. And on Saturday I took my favourite of all gifts to our hostess: a bunch of home grown stems wrapped in newspaper, which is only possible in these warmer months. There is so much happening now to be connected to, to savour and relish and store up against the coming cold.

On the way home, far, far past her bedtime, Ilse was wide awake and talking about all she’d seen and done. Playing on the hay bales was so much fun, she told us. Do you remember, Mummy, how Laura’s Pa told them not to play on the haystack but they did anyway? Now I know why they did – it’s the best fun there is. It makes me happy, that my twenty-first century daughter finds as much fun in a hay field as her heroine did in pioneer America. It makes me happy that Ben wants to walk the garden with me, and taste and wonder over all that grows there. Or that Seb will sit and sketch and look up bugs and birds, or Fliss give up her Sunday morning to carry cans of water to thirsty plants. I want my children to feel connected to the natural world around them, to know its beauty and its unstoppable power. And to cherish and care for it, as a matter of course. As for myself, I felt unspeakably connected as we drove home through the darkening night on Saturday: to the earth, to the creatures that we share it with, and to our friends, with whom those connections had just grown deeper.

Madeleine

PS – What’s June like in your part of the world? And, if you have a garden, what stage is everything at? Has your harvest well and truly begun?

Desert Island Discs: Everything I do, I do it for you

On my thirteenth birthday, one of my friends invited me round to her house for a sleepover, or so I thought. When I opened the living room door there was everyone, as only a teen would say, jumping out from behind the sofas, shouting ‘Surprise!’, putting presents in my hands. We stayed up very late that night, as thirteen year olds are wont to do, watching the film of the moment: Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, and my favourite present was a tape with the theme song on repeat on both sides.

Cut off as I was in a bit of a Middle Eastern bubble, I didn’t know that Bryan Adams’ Everything I do, I do it for you was number one in the UK charts for 16 weeks, and it wouldn’t have made any difference if I had. It was a song which summed up a lot of the kids’ films of the age, with their reckless yet intelligent heroes fighting their way through history. When we lived in Tanzania, a socialist state, privately owned televisions and video players were illegal, so we didn’t have one. Our neighbours did, though, and every Saturday they would invite all the kids on the campus round to watch a film. There were three for us to choose from: Crocodile DundeeChitty Chitty Bang Bang and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The last was my favourite by far, and sparked hours of daydreaming in which I was, of course, Dr Jones and not his yet-to-be-empancipated female companion.

Once we moved to Jordan I spent a lot of time in my head, unhappy at school and struggling to make friends. I found myself in a bilingual school, scrambling to catch up with the native Arabic speakers around me, moved up a year halfway through the term (which never makes you popular), and because of my late move, separated from the small group of other non-native speakers. To cap things off, Saddam Hussein decided to invade Kuwait the following summer and so I found myself held responsible for the actions of the British and American governments by some of my less-than-reasonable fellow students. So I daydreamed a lot, sitting on the back seat of the school bus with the posse of 18 year old boys who had taken it upon themselves to keep an eye on me and always saved me a seat.

Of course, the impact that the first Gulf War had on my life was insignificant compared to that which it had on others, and it did have some positive outcomes. Several families – presumably those who could – left their lives in Kuwait City and came to live in Amman instead. Classes were reshuffled and gradually I made some really good friends. By the time I hit thirteen, life at school was pretty good again.

There was one thing, though, that I loved about that school from the start. In Jordan, as in many Islamic countries, the working week runs from Saturday to Wednesday. On Thursday morning we had what was known as Thursday School – an optional set of activities to choose from – and one of them was riding. I had wanted to learn to ride for years, but it wasn’t really an option in Dar. In Jordan, though, there are horses everywhere. Heads bent, dull from the dust and heat, pulling carts of watermelons for sale. Decked out in their finest, waiting next to a row of camels for tourists to mount and have a photo taken. Best of all, in the studs, where the stallions twitched and shuffled, impatient to be off. In Amman, riding is largely a male sport, and so as the only girl in the group I was always given the same horse to ride: a beautiful bay named Adham, which means Polite. I adored him, and was always slightly afraid of his power and will. I will probably never ride a horse like him again – he must have been worth a small fortune – but what an animal to learn on. So different from the horses that my grandad would take me to ride during summers in Ireland: great heavy mounts that you had to really tell what to do. In Jordan, we rode with precision and grace – or at least, I tried to. In Derry, though we practiced jumps and so forth, we would more often head out for a hack through tree-lined lanes, or leave the saddles behind and canter, bareback, through soft green fields. I loved both.

We had wonderful holidays both in and out of Jordan: to the UK to visit family but also to Aqaba, the Dead Sea, Jerash, Petra, the lush and vibrant Jordan Valley and camping, like Lawrence of Arabia, in Wadi Rum. We saw mirages in the desert and drank tea with bedouin, and were there the year the snow fell so deep that the army had to airlift them out of the desert. We also visited Jerusalem, crossing the border in a little bus and staying in a convent in the heart of the city. The region was awash with tourists, that first year. Then the war began, and all that changed.

Suddenly, we were the only visitors, everywhere we went. It must have been devastating for an economy which relied so heavily upon tourism. Jordan is a beautiful country and its people amongst the most hospitable I’ve met and, overnight, there were no guests. We’d be the only residents in hotels, the only people picking our way around an abandoned Roman town, the only group out picnicking and wadi-wading for the day. In the photograph above, I am standing in the doorway of the Monastery in Petra, and there was no-one but us in the place. It was one of our favourite destinations, and there is so much to see and learn that we could have gone back indefinitely. Empty of visitors, it was so quiet and eerie that we could have been Johann Ludwig Burckhardt ‘discovering’ it in 1812, or David Roberts sitting on a rock to paint his lithographs in 1832.

Imagine my delight, then, when Steven Spielberg chose Petra as the site of the third Indiana Jones film – The Last Crusade. Not only had I been to many of the locations that they used, but here I was, in Petra, with the place virtually empty and several horses available for hire. The happy afternoons I spent riding up and down the gorge were quite literally the stuff of my dreams. Which is why, although I wouldn’t listen to it now, Everything I do, I do it for you has got to be my song for this part of my life. Pure fantasy with a hefty dose of history thrown in, a dash of heroism and… horses. What more could a girl want?

Madeleine

PS – Do you have a song which sums up your pre-teen years? I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who daydreamed endlessly at that age – who did you want to be?

But first, the hens

Now that summer is in full swing, my days at home have taken on a new routine. I find that, if I get up early enough, I can have breakfast with everyone and still be ready to settle down to work on this blog and the pattern book by nine o’clock. Come three, it’s time to hop on my bike and cycle the six miles to Ilse’s school and back, along the edge of the Knavesmire and across Hob Moor, with its current herd of young cattle grazing on the daffodils.

It is a beautiful ride, and we often stop for a quick picnic on the way home – just a couple of biscuits and a flask of tea, under the hawthorn trees, watching the other cyclists and dog walkers and pram-pushing parents go past. It clears my head after a day of writing and measuring and drawing all those lines, and brings me back down to earth in the most delightful way.

Before any of that, though, before the bike ride or the writing, there are things to be done in the garden. Flowers to be picked, the day’s greens to be brought in and washed, pots to be watered and eggs to be gathered. All it takes is for one of us to open the kitchen door and there they are, pacing indignantly at the wire of their run, waiting for me to open the door to their house and let them loose on the garden.

They have the run of the place, with established dustbaths and scratching spots and the whole lawn to chase insects across. Instead of fencing them into one area, we have fenced them out: out of the veg patch, out of the cutting garden, out of the patio with its table and pots of flowers. Apart from when we are all out, or at night, they are free to enjoy it as they wish, and the rest of the time they have a large and shady run attached to the side of their house.

So large, in fact, is their house that it’s been a bit underpopulated of late. We bought another six rescue hens home last summer and, while they were still in a separate tractor, a fox got in and killed the lot. I found four in the coop, and a trail of feathers all the way up to the gate by the side of our house. One by one the others have been getting older and, quite literally, dropping off the perch. So Father, Ilse and I went on an expedition at half term to bring a couple of new pullets home. Hedwig and Fawkes have settled in quite nicely now, and are keeping Eggletina Harpsichord company in a little flock of three.

Come next winter, though, they could do with a few more bodies to keep their house warm through the night, and to that end we ordered a dozen hatching eggs by post. They arrived on Friday and, once rested, have been sitting, warm and cosy, in a little incubator in the kitchen. We are expecting chicks two weeks on Saturday, and I’m not sure whether Ben or I is the most excited person in the house. The eggs are numbered according to which breed they are – we ordered a mixed batch – and Seb has been poring over the guide, coming up with names for each type of bird. So far he’s come up with Cotton for the Silkie, which I so hope will hatch, and Champion for the Gold Top. In the meantime, I am turning the eggs several times a day, and making sure that the water reservoir is topped up, and dreaming of electric hens. Fliss and Ben have promised to fix up the tractor, which will be perfect to house them once they are big enough to go outside, and we have chick sitters arranged for when we go on holiday.

It seems such a long time – eight years! – since we bought this house and hens became a very real possibility. I can’t imagine not having them now. They make the garden feel alive, somehow, with all their pecking and scratching and lounging, spread-eagled, in the sun. They give us the richest, most orange-yolked eggs with whites that sit up firmly in the pan. Best of all, though, is the way they demand my presence in the garden each morning, by pacing at that wire. I might be able to ignore the lettuce, out of sight in the veg patch. I might pretend not to see the spinach bolting. I could even choose to leave the sweet peas for another day. But I can’t ignore our girls and then, once out there, I may as well do the watering and the picking and the trip right down to the compost. Whatever else a day at home might hold, the hens always seem to come first, and for that I am very grateful.

Madeleine

PS – What gets you outside every day? Or are you one of those people who doesn’t need any prompting? I find that, on holiday in Italy or Greece, I can’t wait to greet the sun, but in England I often need a little more persuasion. Of course, once out, it’s hard to drag myself back in again…

Rhubarb and roses

19 June 1933

It was only after the last cap was tightened last night that I realised that there’s been a bit of a theme to our recent preserving: fruit and flowers. Gooseberry and elderflower, lemon and elderflower and, last of all, rhubarb and roses.

Normally, I make rhubarb jam earlier in the season, adding crystallised ginger to the pot to give it the sort of sweet heat I crave in the dark days of March. The first, forced rhubarb is slender and pale and, when bottled, shines pinkly from the larder shelves. But this year the rhubarb has been so abundant and lush that we took it for granted, almost forgetting that it would soon come to an end. Which is how I ended up making a batch when the roses were in bloom.

At first I thought I’d use the roses from the bush which towers, two or three meters high, above the hen house, but although they have a lovely scent, it’s not sweet enough to eat. So I turned to my little rambler, still in its early years but laden with its open, cut and come again heads of loose and sweet-smelling petals.

Taking a handful indoors made me think of the little bottles of rosewater perfume that we’d make with our grannie in Ireland, when we visited each summer. She’d save a variety of small containers for just this purpose, and send us out to pick the blooms, pluck the petals from each one and leave the mixture to brew overnight. Then she’d tell us to use it up, but I never did. It was too pretty: the dark pink curls suspended in what was no longer simply water. So I’d keep it, jealously, until the pink turned to brown and the high summer fragrance became something sour and earthy.

I did wonder whether the scent would survive the rigours of the jam-making process. At first, the panful looked akin to an Arabian delicacy: a mound of rose and pistachio Turkish Delight, strewn with petals to serve. Before long, though, the sugar drew the juices from the fruit and the whole lot came to a raging boil, setting quickly in the jars with whole chunks of the softened stems suspended in the jelly. I have to admit, I licked the spoon myself. And the pan. Goodness knows what the children were doing to resist that scent, but whatever it was, I was quite happy not to have any offers of help with the washing up. The rhubarb was softened, somehow, its flavour mellowed but still true, and above it sang the rose, confident and clear.

We are so enjoying bottling this lovely June that it didn’t take Ilse long to persuade me to get on with the elderflower cordial, before the last blooms turned brown and brittle on the trees. We were just in time, bringing in a basketful on Saturday afternoon a mere half hour before the heavens opened. All we had to do, cosy in the kitchen, was boil the kettle for a cup of tea and pour a share of the hot water over the blooms, as well as the zested rind of some citrus fruit. The following day we strained the brew, added sugar and the juice from the same bright fruit and brought it to a simmer. Then it was bottled and put away on the larder shelves. Apart, that is, from the one vessel which made its way to the soda syphon, for tasting purposes.

So much older now than when I made that rosewater – and hopefully a little wiser – I’ve been resisting the urge to save all our preserves against a rainy day. I don’t want to find chutney from two years ago at the back of a shelf, and wonder if it is still good to eat. Of course, it almost always is, but that’s not the point. We don’t make these things to sit in jars for posterity, as evidence that summer was here and that we made the most of it. I’d rather have that proof in the form of good tastes on my tongue. Invariably, I wonder whether I have put aside enough – enough jam, enough chutney, enough bottled fruit – to last the cold months through, and invariably we are still eating it up when the following summer’s bounty flows into the kitchen once more. In this spirit, Fliss made a crumble for our Sunday roast, with the last of the blackcurrants and pears, and it was a delicious precursor of the harvests still to come. This year, for the first time, I have almost got it right. The shelves are nearly empty, bar the bottles and and jars I’ve added over the last couple of weeks. There’s one lot of plums still on hand, which I’ll use to crown a pavlova, and some bottled raspberries which will disappear the moment they grace the table. The only stumbling block is the gooseberries: we are drowning in gooseberries. Not only are we nowhere near polishing off last year’s crop; the two pounds for last week’s jam barely made a dent and the rest are swelling to enormous proportions with all this sunshine and rain. Now that the rhubarb is just about done, I’ll have to turn my culinary attentions to those lovely, prickly-sour little fruits. Perhaps John can find a recipe for gooseberry wine or spirits. After all, that’s what he did with the last lingering sticks of rhubarb. And, somehow, I don’t think that his rhubarb gin will still be hanging around in a year.

Cecily

PS – How about you – are you busy making preserves yet? What do you have an abundance of, in your part of the world? Are you still eating up any stock from previous years?

PPS – If anyone has any suggestions for what to do with all those gooseberries, please let me know. I’m particularly keen on the idea of a gooseberry chutney or relish – something to add a bit of zing to a plain cheese sandwich, or to have with cold meats or fish. Or ways of eating them fresh as part of a savoury dish. We’ll have enough sweet fools and crumbles over the next few weeks as it is!