All this wool

I had grand plans, this spring, of spinning up all of last year’s fleeces before the new ones were even shorn. Needless to say, that didn’t happen, but I came closer than ever before. It’s such a learning curve, this spinning hobby of mine. The first two fleeces I was given – lovely piebald Jacobs’ – took me a full two years to work through. Last year I was given three more: two Scotch mules and a huge sack of what turned out to be alpaca. So when I found myself with half a fleece still to process when offered this year’s shearings, I wasn’t too downcast. I think I’m making good progress.

Progress is a good thing, as I’ve been offered several fleeces this year. Two are from my aunt who lives outside Edinburgh and has all sorts of rescue animals, including Ilse’s favourite goat. My sister Meg has eight sheep now, and I was offered four of their fleeces (four are this year’s lambs’, and will keep their fleeces against the coming winter). Two were absolutely enormous, with more than a year’s growth, and, to be entirely honest, more than I could handle. The other two were beautiful Shetlands, one mottled grey and one brown, or moorit, as I’m learning to call it. They are so small and light in comparison to the last three fleeces I’ve had that I made short work of washing and drying them in the good weather of last week.

Since those first two fleeces, which came from a commercial meat farm and which I washed, section by section in buckets of hot soapy water, I’ve adopted a far less intensive approach. Given than all my fleeces now come from either my sister or my aunt, both of whom care for their sheep with minimal (if any) use of chemicals, I much prefer to soak them in a bathful of cold water for a day or two, changing the water once or twice. The amount of dirt that drops out of them is extraordinary, but more importantly the suint (sweat) washes away, leaving a sweetly sheepy smelling fleece with ample lanolin for easy spinning. Then I pop them in an old pillowcase, spin them in the machine, and spread them first outside then finally inside on one of our airers to make sure they are completely dry before putting them back into the (washed) pillowcase with a couple of lavender bags for storage. I can’t tell you how much labour this has saved, and how much more I enjoy carding and spinning a fleece while it is still a little greasy.

I also used to process each fleece bit by bit, picking and carding and spinning and setting each couple of skeins before moving onto the next, but I don’t do that any more, either. Instead, I wait for a fine day and spend it sitting in the garden, picking the washed fleece open and discarding any bits of vegetation or nubbly second cuts. Most of the dirt falls out at this point, and I’d rather it fell outside. If the weather is kind, I card outside too (you should have seen the clouds of dust that came from the alpaca – no way was I carding that in our house). And I save the spinning for rainy days, with a film or an audiobook and one or two of the children for company, playing alongside with their own projects.

I’ve also learned a lot about spinning this year, moving on from carding and worsted-spinning everything (I made a cardigan so sturdy that it can almost stand up by itself) to combing for socks, chain-plying for strength, and spinning long-draw for jumpers and hats and mittens. Not only does long-draw spinning result in the softest, loftiest, cosiest yarn, but it’s fast. Or at least as fast as any (sheep) back to (human) back jumper can be described as such, which is probably very slow in non-spinners’ eyes.

Finally, I set the twist and give it a proper wash at the same time with a bit of eco-friendly delicates liquid, before labelling it and, usually, knitting with it immediately. I’ve made quite a bit from my own yarn this year: two pairs of socks (one woolen and one worsted, to experiment) a pair of sturdy (ahem) colour work mittens for my aunt, a surprise for another aunt (more of which in a later post), the softest, warmest and most beautiful Georgetown cardigan for myself, a cardigan for Ilse, and am halfway through a jumper for myself or Fliss from this last fleece. I plan to spin up the final rolags today and take all the wool on our last holiday of the summer to finish it off.

Ilse in particular has been fascinated by the possibilities of dyeing, and has just finished carding a basket of rolags from fleece that we kettle-dyed in the spring. I’ve promised her that I’ll spin that too, before our holiday, so that she can bring her crochet with her. There’s a big bag of avocado pits and skins in the freezer, just waiting for a spare white skein, and I can’t wait to try dyeing with elderberries for a pillowy purple-grey cloud. I suspect these coloured skeins – and any others that we make – will end up as colour work in something or other, against some plain white fleece.

Not all leftovers are dyed, though. When I didn’t know what to do with my first, inconsistent spins, I started crocheting a hydrangea blanket, which has turned out to be wide enough for a double bed and serves as a record, of sorts, of my spinning ventures. There’s a bit of everything in it: wool and alpaca, DK and aran, wobbly adventures in long-draw and neat inchworm chain-ply. One day, in about a million years, it’ll actually be long enough for a bed, too. So that’s where all the leftovers will continue to go: into a blanket that probably looks lovely to no-one but me but which tells the story of all this wool.

Craeft

I went to see Alex Langlands speak about his new book, Craeft, as part of York’s Festival of Ideas. John booked my free ticket as a surprise, knowing my abiding love for Tales from the Green Valley, the predecessor of the BBC Victorian Farm series. (Actually, John appeared as an expert in one episode of Wartime Farm, which is a source of much pleasure and not a little envy to me…)

The talk began with an investigation of the word craeft, which Alex explained is more to do with power than skill. In a pre-industrial, pre-consumer age, this makes sense. To engage in craeft is to exert power: over the landscape, raw materials, the very climate itself. Craeft is a transformative power in its own right, but also requires our physicality, our vitality, to drive the process. In turn, both the skills of the craftsperson and the products that ensue result in yet more power, further shaping the landscape, both agricultural and political.

Having listened to Alex speak about making use of the world around him, sourcing free materials from the landscape and squeezing his passion for craeft into his spare time, I was surprised by some of the questions people asked. Don’t you think, asked one member of the audience, that to engage in craeft presupposes a certain level of privilege, in terms of time and money? And although Alex dealt with this well, it was a recurring theme.

Once home, I raised this with John. For me, craeft is the opposite of consumption. I keep a list of the things I buy for projects, and it is ludicrously short. The odd ball of wool, when I know I can’t spin to that specification. Two or three lengths of Liberty lawn, a much savoured part of a trip to London. Thread. Always thread. The odd packet of seeds, although I save and swap as many as I can. The vast majority of what I make with comes completely free, either as a gift, salvaged from other people’s cast offs, or gathered from the natural world. Once people know that you make things, they send all sorts your way. I have my entire family saving old shirts and keeping their avocado pits in the freezer. Last week my aunt texted me to say that she had two freshly shorn fleeces ready and waiting. Another aunt, Fiona, taught me to make baskets one rainy afternoon in Derry. But it comes from further afield than family. There are guilds of craftspeople desperate to share their expertise. My spinning wheel, which I think must date from the 1960s, was a gift from a woman I’d never met, who wanted to pass it on to someone who would use it. Craeft in public and people will stop to share tips with you. And when I do spend money, I spend it on high quality materials and tools that will last and last. All my patchwork is done on a 1916 Singer, bought from the charity shop down the road for £20. Not only does it sew smooth and straight, but it is quiet and beautiful and easily repaired. To see craeft as consumption is, I think, to miss the point.

It is the difference between spinning from prepared, dyed top, and being given a slightly stinky fleece in a old feed sack, dags and all. In the first case, you can choose your method of spinning. With a raw fleece, though, you get to make all the choices. How aggressively are you prepared to skirt it? Are you going to scour it, cold soak it or spin it in the grease? Will you blend the fibres from across the fleece or spin each section separately, to preserve their distinct qualities? Should you card it or comb it? Spin woolen or worsted? How and when might you dye it? Both are examples of spinning, yet one clearly involves more power, more control.

The other issue is that of time. It wasn’t until we had two children and a third on the way that I began to make making a part of my everyday life. At the very point when I had the least time, the act of making became more important than ever. It keeps me sane, having something in my hands. Craeft isn’t something special, kept for days when John takes all the kids out of the way. It is a part of our everyday lives, undertaken while I’m waiting at the dentist, or for the potatoes to come to the boil. And rather than children being a barrier to craeft, they are a reason to engage in it more often. So much of our making is done alongside one another: one project inspires another and another until, in little pockets all over the house and garden, things are being made, and everyone is at peace.

Having said all that, I think that our different attitudes to craeft run deeper that our perspectives on time and money. There was much discussion of lost crafts – of the fear that we are not training people in certain skills so that, in ten years’ time, we may no longer be able to mend clocks or engineer a cricket ball. Yet I think that we are in danger of losing something far more fundamental. It is an issue of phenomenology as much as skill. To be a person who engages in craeft, in the true meaning of the word, is to adopt a certain schema. It is to look at the world in a very particular way, one which sees it as something malleable, something both transformative and to be transformed. It is, in short, to have a different sort of relationship with the world. To see the potential in every thing, not just in classes and courses and kits, but in weeds and animals and hedgerows. It is to go for a ramble and bring back not just lungfuls of fresh air, but pockets full of fallen lichen for dye, bits of fluff for lighting fires, a bit of wood to be carved, dogwood to add colour to a basket. To walk not through a picture postcard of a landscape, but a living, creative world.

This is what we are in danger of losing: the zeitgeist that craft is for everyone, by everyone, for the good of everyone. That it is ordinary and everyday. That there is beauty in the simplest of things, well-made and well-loved. And that all you need to get started is the willingness to try.

Madeleine

PS What do you think about craeft? How important is it in your life? How do you think we can best encourage others to participate in its resurgence?

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

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

Bound

What a lazy Sunday – not at all the sort I would expect in May. A morning spent knitting a quick and chunky snood in peacock hues, ends woven in and blocked by lunchtime: the fruits of one of my very first attempts at spinning. A spot more spinning while it soaked. And then an afternoon in front of the fire, hand sewing the back of the binding onto Ilse’s quilt while outside continued windy and cold and grey and someone else took care of the supper.

The pace of crafting in this house tells me that it isn’t quite as warm as it ought to be, for May, and we would like a little more sunshine, please. We are still wearing our coats when we go into the garden, only shedding them once this task or that has warmed us up. Mrs. Drummer and I went for an evening of knitting in the pub on Saturday and there was no chance of our sitting outside. She finished a lovely moss stitch scarf and I cast on for my snood, and it didn’t feel unseasonable at all. Very pleasant, in fact, if somewhat oddly autumnal.

So, rather than spending hours in the garden and just enough to keep the quilt ticking over, my time is being spent the other way around, and I don’t think it’ll take me until the end of May after all. There’s been a change of plan, too, which will speed things along just as soon as I unpick what I’ve already done. Having quilted nine of the sixty-three white squares I don’t like the effect at all. They break up the chain effect and make the pattern revert to one of nine-patches and white blocks. Instead, the centre square of each nine-patch will be quilted, emphasising the intersections between the horizontal and vertical rows of diamonds – much more in keeping with the trompe l’oeil. There’s no need to stick slavishly to an original plan and anyway, it’s a good excuse to unpick those wobbly first lines of quilting stitches.

Hopefully it won’t be done by the end of May because that will mean that the weather has turned gorgeously warm and bright and I’ve been unable to resist the charms of the great outdoors. It won’t matter anyway, because Ilse will be far too hot at night to want such a thick and heavy quilt draped over her. But if things stay the same I shan’t mind too much, having something warm and interesting to look at spread over my lap as I stitch.  Either way, it’s bound to by finished by autumn.

At the mill

It was on a rainy afternoon in Wales that I picked up a leaflet for Trefriw Woollen Mill and suggested – half jokingly – that we go and have a look around their factory. This was met with some moans and groans and, although I thought it would be interesting, I didn’t think we’d actually end up going. But John pointed out that it was very nearly on our way home and so we took a little detour north before heading back over the border and goodness me, I’m glad we did.

I didn’t even take my camera in with me, that’s how little I was expecting. We looked around their shop which was full of the most beautiful woollen goods: skirts and jackets, jumpers, slippers, hats and mittens, knitting patterns and balls of wool. What really caught my eye was the display of tweed, woven on the premises and available by the metre, and it took some stern words with myself to walk away. You’re allowed to wander through the little cafe into the factory beyond, and the very first thing we found was a traditional Welsh bedspread being woven on a beast of a machine, roaring and clanking as the fabric grew, weft by coloured weft. Ilse didn’t like it much and Seb lost interest fairly quickly but Ben and Fliss were almost as transfixed as I. The loom is set up with a chain which tells the machine which shuttles to send across when, creating the traditional patterns. At the same time, the man operating the machinery was winding new bobbins on an old bit of kit which seemed to work in almost exactly the same way as the bobbin winder on my 1916 Singer. In the room beyond was the little hydraulic electricity plant which drove the whole factory, filled with plants from all over the world which liked the warm, damp conditions.

I thought that was it, until John pointed to some iron stairs leading to the floors above. The first – the whole first floor – was given over to carding the wool. Huge cages of the stuff, ready scoured and spilling out through gaps in the wire, was picked up by the steel needles of the first drum. From there it worked its way along the whole floor, drum to drum, until at the end of it all there was roving, thinner than I’d seen before, and quite ready to spin. We followed the painted arrows up again to the second floor where spinning mules dominated the space, doing in a minute what it would take me many hours to achieve at home.

I’ve never actually seen a spinning mule in real life before. I’d seen pictures of them at school, when we were studying the Industrial Revolution, but to see them in action was quite breathtaking, and not only for the wool enthusiasts among us. It took only one man to operate a full row of them, spinning perhaps two hundred strands at a time, the roving stretched out for a yard or two as the spools ran backwards on iron rails set in the floor. Then the spinning began, the roving oscillating and dancing in tiny standing waves as it grew more and more taut until the gears changed and the bobbins ran back towards the body of the mules once more, winding up the spun wool as they ran.

No wonder the cottage spinners went out of business. No-one could possibly hope to keep up with production on this scale: not with the carders or the spinners, nor the looms, nor even the machines which twisted the spun yarns together into two-plys for knitting. And yet this wasn’t modern machinery. This was old-style industry, run by water and producing high quality, skilfully made products. This was a mill which was embracing the past – just not as far back in the past as most home spinners and weavers go. On our way out we found a little dyers’ garden, with all the native herbs and flowers labelled by name and by the colour they would produce. We recognised several from our own garden and the hedgerows roundabout. I’ve never been that interested in dyeing my own wool, but Seb and Ilse leapt at the idea and keep asking to borrow my drop spindle. Perhaps we have a couple more wool-lovers in the family after all. Perhaps they’ll forget about it when they go back to school. Either way, I pulled a few handfuls of white wool off one of the Jacob’s fleeces in the shed and set it to scour in a bucket of hot water. Either they’ll use it or I will. I’ve run out of washed wool this week. It was almost the first thing I reached for when we got back from Wales: to make a few rolags and spin them on my wheel. For the first time, I felt reasonably pleased with the results, despite the fact that I’ve barely spun a thing all winter. Now I’ve got a plan for all the wool I’m making, and there’ll be a few more bucketfuls set to soak before the week is out. I don’t mind sharing if it fuels the children’s interest. Even it it’s on nothing like the scale we saw at Trefriw Mill, there’s plenty of wool for us all to play with.

The saga dress

So here it is: the very last piece of uncut fabric pulled from my shelf and turned into its intention. Dressmaking teleology in action. How very satisfying that is.

The end product, that is. It was not the most satisfying sew for much of its construction. I’d started casting about for ideas as early as Boxing Day, having received the wool as a Christmas surprise from John’s mother. This picture has been held between the leaves of my notebook for some time, and every so often I would pore over it, trying to work out the details of its construction amid the crisscrossing lines of plaid. Finally, on a Friday evening, I drafted a pattern from my block and cut the pieces out. It should be done by Saturday evening, I calculated wildly, and ready to wear on Sunday morning. I had everything I needed: wool and lining cut, plenty of coordinating thread. Then I woke on Saturday morning tired and grumpy and convinced that it needed a little something extra, to lift it and make it special.

I won’t bore you with any more details of this particular saga. Suffice to say I have a valliant husband who rode off into York to buy the ribbon while I sewed, yet came back empty handed. Allow me to hint at the pitfalls of trying to pattern match a large check for a dress which left only the tiniest of scraps. By Saturday night the dress was not complete. I had darted the woollen pieces and tried to pleat the front with varying degrees of accuracy. Sunday afternoon was spent unpicking the wobbliest of the lines while Seb held his electric torch to help me separate thread from weave. In the end, I had to accept those pleats for what they were, with no small feelings of frustration. Then the neckline wouldn’t lie flat, and had to be sewn three times. I still needed to find some trim. I trust you understand.

But then, barely an hour later, it had come together and I discovered how much I loved it. I love how the pleating of the bodice falls open into a generous skirt. I love the long sleeves, rolled down for warmth or up for a touch more style. I love the deep soft pockets, designed solely for the purpose of warming my hands. And I love the darts and shaping at the back, turning what could be shapeless into a dress with a definite line, yet still loose and comfortable and easy. I waited two weeks for the velvet ribbon I had ordered to come into the shop, but it was worth it. Everyone who lives in a cold climate should have a dress like this. It is essentially a blanket, lined and fitted round your body. Ilse keeps sidling up and slipping her hands into my pockets to warm them through, and I can’t blame her. I’d do the same, if I were her. In fact, I might have to make she and Fliss such a dress each, next winter.

Most of all, though, I like the unfussy, folksy look of this dress. It is the type of dress I imagine women might have worn in rural homes before fashion became so ubiquitous. Or perhaps this simply was the fashion, once upon a time – not this, exactly, but something of this ilk. Something practical and beautiful all at once, something which is first and foremost just a lovely thing to wear. I can imagine women telling stories, in dresses quite like this, around fires in northern longhouses. Sagas, of men and monsters who meet their rightful ends. Which is why I’ve named this dress the saga dress, rather than focusing on its own rather trying story. Like the best sagas though, this one had a happy ending, and I have hardly taken it off since.

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.