What I did in the holidays

My list, made on the last day of the old term, mainly involved the garden. There was so much weeding to be done that I divided it over eight days, adding some planting or potting on to add interest, and, with a little help from everyone in the house, we did it. Fliss and I sowed dozens of seeds. John lifted a lot of edging that the nettles had got under, threatening to overrun my patch, and relaid them with a thick layer of cardboard underneath. Ben mowed the lawn, twice, and spread compost on all the beds. Seb and Ilse started a herbal remedies company, the main ingredients of which appeared to be nettles and dandelion roots, so I gave them couple of trowels and lots of encouragement. Perhaps best of all was when I came in from the garden last Tuesday, dirty and tired, to find that my very favourite dining establishment, Cafe Magnifico, was open for business. There were bluebells on each plate and Easter chocolates for dessert, and although the two charming proprietresses looked familiar they assured me we’d never met before. It stayed open that whole second week when John was back at work and I was pushing myself to get through my list, serving luncheon every day and even taking care of the washing up.

My only other real goal was to finish my cardigan in time for Easter which I did – in plenty of time and on Shell Island, in fact. I cast on for a pair of socks and got as far as turning the heel, knitting in the evenings. As it was all going so well I added some more to the list: to wash the fleece and a half that had been languishing in the shed since autumn, and to piece all eighty nine-patch squares for Ilse’s quilt. I did both, and what began as a session where Ilse and I laid out the squares on Sunday afternoon became a game for the whole family, moving things around, swapping one square with another to spread the colours out more evenly. I could – perhaps should – have retained more control of it, but it is just a little girl’s quilt after all, and they had so much fun. I glanced at it briefly once they were all in bed and it looked all right to me, so it’s all packed up in that order, ready to be sewn together this week.

When people ask what we did in the holidays I tell them we went camping in Wales, which we did, and we had a lovely time. There were day trips too, and lots of lazy days in the house and garden for the children, reading books and making potions. We had a glorious Easter lunch with Mother and Father, and Mother outdid herself once more, producing a simnel cake when we had just about recovered from the previous three courses. And there was time for resting in the sunshine by day, and by the fire in the evenings.

Yet Easter always feels like a turning point, however early or late it falls, and this is the holiday in which I end up doing most. Now that term is back in swing, it feels good to have new projects and new rhythms on the go. More time in the garden. The end of a quilt top within sight. Daily spinning while the supper cooks. If I hadn’t worked so hard during the holidays none of this would be possible. And it isn’t work, really – not if you choose to do it. It’s just another type of play. So that’s what I did in my holidays. I played, hard.

Lenten promises

Each year, partway through Lent, someone tells me what they’ve given up and I am struck by what a good idea it is, and how I should like to try that the following spring. This year it was moaning – no little moans or groans of quibbles about inconsequential things for a full forty days – much more inspiring than giving up chocolate or biscuits or, as in my own case, alcohol. Next year, perhaps, although I’m making an effort now, too. There’s no need to stick to just one promise.

Nor is there any need for Lent to be about giving anything up, either. It can, and really should, be about adding something good to your life. Daily prayer, for those of us who have yet to make a habit of this. Going out of your way, each day, to do something kind for someone else. Giving money or time to charitable causes. Smiling at strangers. It’s easy, really, to think of so many things to do which would enhance your relationships, both human and divine.

It’s been a very stressful time here, recently. There are pressures and frustrations in my life, just now. Add to that the inevitable worries and clashes that every parent faces, and the backdrop of so much political anxiety and strain, and it feels as though some days are nothing but a struggle to get from dawn to dusk. And yet, far worse things happen: this I know. There are many more good things in my life than bad. I know, deep down, that if this is all I have to face then I am lucky. Without really making a conscious decision, counting my blessings has become my lenten promise.

I doubt it will surprise you that, in counting blessings, I am helped by counting stitches. I spent all of Saturday knitting while John did the shopping and made tea and took the children to their ballet lessons. I added another few inches to my spring cardigan, and settled on its design. The leafy lace pattern is not my own, but comes from a book I bought a couple of years ago. It has such a lovely blend of geometry and nature, like the sunburst gates which are all the rage just now, or the art nouveaux of my childhood, or even the William Morris curtains in our two front rooms. It is wild and ordered, restless and peaceful, living and still.

The pattern itself is twenty rows long: ten to form one set of leaves and then another ten, offset, to form the next. I spread the finished portion of it on my knee on Saturday morning to admire all eleven inches of it before decreasing for the shoulders, and saw that I had made a mistake, setting two lines of leaves one above the other a full six inches back. I blame knitting in the dark as the most likely culprit: it doesn’t work with lace. I very nearly groaned. And then I thought, oh well, more knitting to enjoy, and ripped it out at once. It only took one day to get me back to where I’d been, one day of John giving me his time, one day of happy children doing their own things, one day of counting stitches and paying attention to rows. I like this sort of knitting, in Lent. The sort that fills your head – not completely, mind you, but just enough to keep the other thoughts from crowding in, and by the end of it I felt more awake and full of cheer than I did in the morning.

So I’ve made one more Lenten promise, but this one is just to myself. I’d like to keep working on this above any other project, and finish it by Easter. That’ll mean a lot more counting stitches, a lot more checking rows, a lot more finding pleasure in something simple and easy and small. And all those little things add to something bigger: a cardigan for Easter Day, yes, but also a calm and happy me, which has got to be good for everyone around me.

Just socks

After all those hours, those evenings and mornings and snatched half hours in the afternoon, I finally cast off and sewed in the ends to find… just a pair of socks.

It’s an awful lot of effort for something which will be hidden on my feet, tucked away inside boots or slippers or wellingtons most of the time. And although the pattern is deceptively simple, they’re still not quite as simple as a pair of toe up socks, with simple short row toes and heels. These socks sport a lovely, wavy pattern reminiscent of the Seine (and our own, closer-to-home Ouse). They have a thick and padded eye of partridge heel, and a double cast off at the toe. There’s a nice bit of shaping as the heel narrows into the foot, with a neat row of slanting stitches standing proud of the rest. And yet they’re not a cardigan or a hat or even a little snood. No, they’re just socks.

I’ve knit three such pairs of socks this winter: one for Mother and two for myself, as well as a pair last summer. There will be more this coming summer as I use up all the odds and ends in a stripy pair or two. To be honest, there’s still an untouched skein of yarn in the bottom of my wool basket. But for now, that’s where it’s going to stay. Because for someone who doesn’t like making the same thing more than once, even with variations, three is a lot of pairs in a row. I’m moving onto something new, as soon as I’ve sketched out the pattern. A proper winter knit, to keep me busy until spring.

There will be more socks in my future, that much is certain. I always tire of them before they’re done, and have to force myself on through the last few inches. But then I wake up on a chilly winter’s morning and pull on a pair and it’s the nicest start to my day. All those little details – the heel and the pattern and the colour of the yarn – make a functional piece of clothing a little bit of luxury. They might just be socks, but oh! What a treat.

Oh so tiny

You’d think I’d be a dab hand at guessing the scale of baby clothes by now, but it seems that I’ve forgotten quite how tiny babies are. It took me two attempts to get this started, and in the end I had the trust the measurements on the pattern and adjust my gauge accordingly. But it was a pleasure from start to finish, knitting this little number. And once underway, it fairly flew off my needles at a rate that my own children’s knitwear no longer does. Five inches per arm, I tell you. Even Ilse’s latest cardigan feels enormous in comparison.

Quite apart from the speed, though,  I wanted to make a present for a friend as she sets out on her own adventures in motherhood. A little something to keep her firstborn warm through February and March, and into April too. You see, lovely Mrs Eve is expecting an arrival any day now, and we are all very excited. It’s one thing, knitting or sewing a garment and imagining all the expeditions and discoveries a child might make in it. But knitting for a yet-to-arrive baby? Well, they could turn out to be anyone, and perform any number of ordinary and extraordinary feats.

Still, knowing Mr and Mrs Eve, I felt confident that this little cardigan would suit. Cosy round the neck, with snug cuffs and an I’m just off to the library air, I hope he or she will like it. More than that though, and much, much more importantly, I hope all goes smoothly with the little one’s arrival. I’m so looking forward to meeting Mrs-Eve-the-mummy, with an oh so tiny baby in her arms.

Feast

The new year started with a feast, which is by far the best way to start a year, to my mind. I can take or leave the seeing out of the old year – I was reading in bed when 1931 slipped away – but I like to see the new year in with a special meal and plans for the months ahead.

Mother cooked this year: one of her spectacular meals where the whole afternoon slowly unfolds into course after course, with brief rests in between. There was salmon and salad to start, followed by a ham and vegetables, then two puddings and finally, before heading home, apple pie and crackers and cheese. We certainly needed our walk up the hill afterwards, and I was glad I’d skipped breakfast.

Instead, I’d used the morning free from cooking or eating to look to the months ahead. I don’t make resolutions, but I do make lists and sketches and plans. The garden has been mapped out for the coming spring, and the order form in the back of the seed catalogue carefully filled in and dropped in a postbox on our way to my parents’ house. Onions and leeks, swedes and parsnips, broccoli and broad beans and a whole new bed for salads: 1932 will hopefully be slow revelation of the seasons through the tastes and textures of the veg patch. After an icy day out there last week, the garden is ready and waiting for the days to grow long again, and I can hardly wait.

It’ll be a while though, which is why I’ve made other plans for the meantime. A list of sewing and knitting I’d like to work through in the dark evenings between now and then. Pot holders and bookmarks and birthday cards, two blouses and new school dresses for the girls. My annual summer frock. The pair of socks I’ve just begun, and a cardigan for Mrs Eve’s baby, and another jumper for Ben and something pretty and lacy for myself. Will I get it all done? I doubt it. But I’d rather have too much in my plate than too little, especially when the days lend themselves to gloom and and chill and inertia.

That wasn’t something I had a problem with on the First. There was plenty on all of our plates, and stories of our Christmases to share, and the next few weeks to talk about. I hope you too have plenty to look forward to, this coming year. Happy new year. Welcome to 1932.

Tiddely-pom

It isn’t snowing around here, but it is pretty cold and dark and foggy. Bad weather for walks and scenic drives; good weather for toasting your toes in front of the fire and speeding to the end of a pair of woolly socks.

They’ve taken rather longer than I anticipated, largely due to the fact that things got very busy around the heels, and by the time I sat down each evening I was so tired that I kept going wrong. I had to wait until a Sunday to make the turn, and even then it was another week before I got going properly on the feet. I was very glad indeed to reach the toes: a pair of socks shouldn’t take so long to knit. If I hadn’t been making them two at a time I might have abandoned them until after Christmas. But it’s cold now, and I have every intention of pulling them on the moment I get out of bed tomorrow, unblocked as they are, to wear to Mrs Thistlebear’s December party. Time enough for blocking in the wash, I say.

With the coming of the cold and the long evenings, the retreat inside is very nearly complete, and the shelves of books and games have been thoroughly reexamined. Our library visits have gone up in frequency, if such a thing is possible – I wish I had the leisure to read as voraciously as the children do. Although I can remember ploughing my way through a novel a day, I am still taken by surprise when, at the end of the weekend, those towering piles they bore home so happily have been devoured. Last week’s hoard included Anne of Green GablesThe Riddle of the Sands, and The House at Pooh CornerWe did so enjoy reading those poems and stories again. And while I was knitting, the plodding yet skippety rhythm of The more it SNOWS (tiddely pom) kept marching around my head, reminding me of the parlous state of my own toes.

Well, they’re done now. Homemade woolly socks – a little pre-Christmas present to my toes. There seems to be a theme emerging, of nice little things to keep us all going until Christmas. This week: summer jam and woolly socks. Next week, nativity plays and carol concerts. I think Pooh Bear has the right idea really, approaching the cold and the wet with a cheerily unconcerned tiddely pom. In fact, looking at the calendar and my ever-growing to-do list, I think it might be the only way forward. Perhaps he isn’t a bear of so very little brain after all.

In my hands

In the evenings, when I’m tired of chopping and mixing and spooning hot food into jars, I’ve been knitting, instead. And so, in a week, this little cardigan has almost been completed. It’s Ilse’s, of course – the one she chose the wool for at the fair. The one she’s been asking me when I’m going to start. And now her eyes are as big as saucers as I let her try the top-down garment on for size, and she can see that it is almost there.

It is a simple little knit, with a clever pattern to form the rippling rows around the shoulders. The neck and hem and button bands are finished in childish garter stitch: the first stitch I ever learned, which lies flat and wiggly all at once. Only the sleeves remain, and the buttons to sew on, and ends to be woven in. I’ve knitted a lot this week, because it has been such a sad week, and I knit when I am sad. I’ve dropped a lot of tears on this little woolly number. And because of the way the things I make remind me of the times I made them in, this cardigan will always remind me of my grandad, and when he died.

If last year was all about pattern, this winter is all about texture. Ben’s cables were the start of it, and now the rise and fall of these sweet waves. I bought some sock yarn at the fair and want to try three different pairs, one homely, one botanical and one Parisian. That’ll take me up to Christmas, I should think. I’ll have something to bring to each of Mrs Thistlebear’s parties between now and then, and make new friends over. And between parties, with my hands busy, my mind can wander freely to wherever and whenever it wants to go.

When sad, some people walk. Some talk. Some sit and gaze out of the window. Myself, I like to knit. It’s a good thing to have in your hands, wool. It’s soft, and warm, and strong. And later, when you look down at what you’ve spent the evening making, you realise that all the things you couldn’t say are in your hands, instead.

Big softie

Ben’s jumper is finished, and I’m sure it’s the softest thing I’ve ever knitted. What with all the alpaca spun into the wool, and the thick lofty yarn, and the depth of the cables and ribbing down the front, it is the kind of squishy, silky, snuggly pullover everyone ought to have. I think I need to add five more to my list of things to make.

Beyond his admiration for the cleverness of cabling, Ben has never shown much  interest in knitting. I taught him to make a wobbly and very holy scarf for his favourite teddy when he was little, just as I have all the others, but that was his first and last attempt. Like me, he loves to make things; unlike me he does not like to make them out of wool. But it’s astonishing how the fact that a jumper is for you makes the process so much more interesting. I can’t think how many items I must have blocked over his lifetime, and yet when he came in from Mother’s on Saturday and saw his jumper drying on an old towel he really wanted to know about the process, and what it does to the stitches, and why it matters so.

Everybody else, on entering the dining room, made the same announcement: it’s huge! Well, so is he – in height at least. It fits. But he’s a very gentle giant. He gives good gangly hugs, bending from the knee to make up for the fact that he’s at least eight inches taller than me. He’ll happily spend a day helping his granny pick and wrap her apples, or carry chairs from the top of their house down four flights to the kitchen. A day spent helping Father file or type is a day well spent, in his eyes. I find it hard, sometimes, to equate this tall young man with the solemn chubby baby in the photos, until I remember that even as a toddler he was generous with his chocolate.

It’s been such a pleasure, knitting for my biggest child. He hasn’t wanted anything more than hats for several years but now, at eighteen, he has come to his senses once more. What could be nicer than a mum-made jumper to keep you warm while you study? Pardon, Ben? Spending the night with your granny and grandad? Walks in the woods with your father and Ada? Teaching the little ones to build the best dens? Sitting round a campfire with your pals? Oh, alright then. But you can wear your new jumper while you do all of those things.

Two steps back

Never mind two steps forward, one step back – I seem to be moving in the opposite direction. My autumn plans seemed entirely reasonable at September’s start, but here I am, faced with a list which keeps growing rather than shrinking as the weeks flip by. Two weeks before half term and I’ve made half a jumper, one dress with bunny pockets and some wobbly wool on my wheel. That leaves two school dresses and a long-legged romper for Ilse, a new skirt for myself and another which needs relining, two eiderdowns which need covering again to keep the stuffing in and a blouse for myself which may or may not happen. What I want to sew is Ilse’s quilt, the pieces for which are all cut out, a Liberty fabric soft case for my flute, and tiny crumb quilt covers for Christmas present notebooks. But I’ve forbidden myself all of that until the other sewing is done, which is why I’m spending so much time knitting instead.

I took Ben’s jumper with me to the ballet studio on Saturday while I was waiting for Ilse to finish her lesson, and was pleased with the progress I’d made until I got home and spread it out and realised that I’d held a cable needle to the front and not the back five inches ago. Oh well, at least it’s chunky wool. And at least I know myself well enough to rip it out at once, lest it become a reproach, sulking in my basket. By lunchtime my funny feeling head had given way to a sore throat and nose full of sneezes, so I spent the afternoon strategically resting by the fire in the hopes of heading it off at the pass. No such luck: I woke up on Sunday to a full head cold and a list as long as I had left it.

Sometimes there is nothing for it but to grit one’s teeth and get stuck in. I retrieved the cut out pieces of Ilse’s grey school dresses from where I’d hidden them from myself and got to work, determined to complete the bodices at least. It only took me until the stay stitching to realise that I’d cut the back bodice wrongly: as a whole, instead of two half bits to button together. Thankfully there was just enough left over to cut it out again, and doctor the pieces I had. And thankfully Mrs P was here and chose that moment to appear with a pot of tea for two, emergency buttered scones and some well chosen words of advice. Thus bolstered I sewed on long beyond my goal of two neat bodices, making puffed sleeves with gathered cuffs, little button holes all down the back, understitched linings and pleated skirts until suddenly, nearly four hours later, I had two fully lined wool dresses, all finished bar the handsewn hems and buttons I have yet to buy in town. And when Ilse tried them on they even, miraculously, fitted.

Perhaps that counts as two steps forward – or one, at the very least? Yes, it rained off and on again all day yesterday so that the apples are still on the tree. Yes, there are still trays of winter seedlings waiting on the kitchen windowsill, hoping to be planted out. Yes, it’s getting colder and I don’t have a single decent skirt to wear. But those two dresses which were holding up my stitching are almost out of the way, and I feel a surge of productivity coming on as soon as I feel better. I finished the front of Ben’s jumper last night as I recovered in front of the fire and as I held it up to him this morning I noticed a tiny mistake in one of the ribs near the top. Time to start ripping again. What was that saying? Two steps forward and one step back? Oh well, at least that’s better than the other way around.

Goodness

 

It seems almost silly to be knitting with such a colour when October sunlight saturates the world. Outside are verdant lawns, wanton berries, roses which throb pinkly in the dawn and evening light. Inside, I am knitting with the colour of summer: the sea washed out by overhead sunlight, the faded greens of favourite cotton frocks. And oh, goodness, how I love it. The time for plums and teals and ruby reds is fast approaching, but not here yet. I’m happy knitting with the ocean, on sticks of driftwood beige.

While this jumper looks like summer, it feels like bed on a winter’s morning: plump and soft and comfortingly warm. I’m not sure I’ve ever knitted with anything quite this thick, or on needles wide as tree trunks. After months and months of 2 ply it felt a little wrong, but only until I looked down to realise that I’d knitted the whole of the back of Ben’s jumper in two short sessions. Then it felt just right: fast and compelling, keeping pace with this sudden onslaught of autumn. I’m cabling the front already, and watching the pattern emerge. He’ll have this jumper in a couple of weeks, all of a sudden, having waited all last year. Ah, well. Sometimes that’s the way it goes.

Once done, it’ll be on with Ilse’s, in seasonal royal plum blue, paving the way to Christmas. Then, after the feasting, I’ll rip out my old white aran and make it over in a way that’ll feel just right for January. Frugal. Austere. Necessary and good. I’ve decided to join Mrs Thistlebear’s winter project parties, this year, and take along a new project at the start of every month, which leaves room for Ilse’s quilt as well as those two raw fleeces, bits of which are already twisting their way onto my wheel.

Truth be told, I’m not all that happy about the arrival of autumn, but little bits of goodness are cheering me along. Sitting by the fire and knitting. Holding onto the colours of August for a short while longer. Dashing through a jumper to warm my patient boy. Simple things, but kind. Thank goodness for wool, and knitting, and boys who ask for jumpers in subtle summer hues.