For romping

Ever since Ilse got her mermaid romper last year, Fliss has been angling for one. I don’t blame her: were I not absolutely sure that 38 is too old for such a garment, I’d be wearing one already. It’s sweet and comfy, cool in the summer and made snug in the autumn and spring with the addition of woollen stockings and a hand knit cardigan. Who wouldn’t want one? So I let her choose a yard of floral tana lawn a few weeks ago and, Saga dress complete, I made this for her the very next day.

Oh, to be fifteen with the summer stretching before you! Old enough to stretch those legs of hers unaccompanied, young enough to dress them in something simple and naive. I wasn’t sure about her choice of fabric when it came off the bolt but as soon as I cut into it I knew that she was right. It just sings summer and sunshine and fun. It’s perfect for bike rides and picnics and trips to the sea, or camping, or berrying, or forays to the shops. It’s a million miles from her summer school uniform, all gingham and knee socks and straw hats, and just perfect for lazy days at home.

Spring is hopping and skipping its way towards us (and sometimes tripping over too, resulting in some wet and windy days), so Ben obliged me by giving the lawn its first rough cut on Saturday afternoon. Those funny hens followed him around, dancing about in their excitement as they searched out things to eat in the new-shorn grass. It’s bumpy and muddy and full of clover and worms, our lawn. It has holes dug by hens and chipped out by hockey sticks, and makes for some funny bounces come French cricket season. It’s not the easiest job, getting over that terrain with our old push mower, and I’m grateful that he does it without complaint. I thought a slice of cake might be in order, by way of a thank you, and when we finished at about the same time, he and I, Fliss slipped out in her romper to take it to him.

From beneath my many woollen layers I shuddered to see her out there in nothing but cotton lawn, but something caught my eye. Seeing her outfit against the grass, I couldn’t help but notice that they had a unifying purpose. Despite their many varied other uses, both were made for romping. Which, in my humble opinion at least, is a vital part of any childhood summer.

For Mother’s Day

For Mothers’ Day this year I had a lingering illness which might have ruined the day but for the gifts I received. They were carried in with the morning tea tray: a little handmade coaster, a bag of Pontefract cakes and a voucher. Oh, they know what I like, and what’s on my mind just now. They know I’d like nothing better than to be out in this glorious sunshine, setting the garden to rights, and that I just don’t feel up to it. So nothing could have been better than their voucher promising me a day’s labour out there. I don’t mind how many times they’ve given me this gift; I’ve never loved it more than I did this Sunday.

For my part, I did some fiddly little jobs – pricking out the tomatoes, pushing the onion sets into trays of compost to bring on indoors for a while. John cleaned out the hens and mowed the lawn and built an urgently required chicken-proof fence. Ben spread compost on the beds and turned the newer heaps onward through the bays. The younger three fetched and carried and helped out wherever and whenever they were needed, and from their bare feet and and legs and arms you’d have thought it was high summer.

I took Seb in the motor to visit my own mother with the gift of a bowl of violas. All the talk of allotments with Father sent me home keen to visit my own space: just a little amble, nothing more. John and I cut a basket of tender brocolli before the buds split into yellow blooms. We noticed that the damson has burst its first white tender bud. And when we opened the door of the greenhouse, the aniseed fragrance of fennel spilled out into the cooler, outdoor air.

In the last hour before supper I carried a rug and my old chocolate tin of seeds out to the garden bench. There’s something very pleasing about making a list of what needs to be planted when, and what’s already in. It made me disproportionately happy. Around me, the day dissolved from industry to play. The children soaked themselves in one last water fight before their baths; John hammered in the last stake; an easy Sunday roast was on its way. Thanks to them, I can sow the next lot of seeds as soon as I like, in the freshly composted beds now safe behind the fence. I needn’t worry about the height of the lawn. And no, nobody wanted to do the weeding for me, even if it was Mothering Sunday, but that’s all right. I’ve had a whole day of gardening despite feeling under the weather, and more has been accomplished than I could ever have achieved alone. And they did it all quite willingly. I couldn’t really ask for anything more for Mothers’ Day.

Focus on the rhubarb

I’ve not been feeling terribly well of late. I get tired out at the end of winter: tired of fighting off the cold and the germs and the gloom. The fact is that my reserves must be running low because I’ve succumbed to all three this last week.

Now, everywhere I look, there are things which need to be done. Cobwebs sparkle in the clean bright light of spring. Fliss is deep in hockey season, with endless early morning training sessions, which we parents know mean early morning get ups for the rest of us. Ben finishes school in a matter of weeks, and preparations for what comes next are gathering pace. I’ve done nothing in the garden, bar the weeding of three out of five veg beds, and the sowing of a handful of seeds which probably need thinning out already.

I can hardly bear to look. And then, when I was brushing my teeth this morning, I noticed that the spring cabbages had grown so much that I could see their progress from the upstairs bathroom window. That the purple sprouting brocolli had grown another meal’s worth of shoots. That the overwintering salads had put on so much leaf that they were pressing up against the glass. And that the rhubarb was just about ready for its first tentative pull.

So I wandered outside, still in my night-things, to take a closer look. And yes, there were lots of weeds, but I can deal with those. They are just a minor detail. The important things, the things which must be sown and planted seasons in advance, were getting along just fine without me. Rhubarb, and brocolli, and resilient children with the right values tucked deep inside their hearths. A loving home, despite those pesky cobwebs. I took a mental picture to remember all this by, and yes, there were weeds in the corner of it. But they’re a minor irritation, a detail, a blip. Today, I’m focusing on the rhubarb, and everything it stands for.

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.


Here are the things which were different about yesterday: I was so warm, coming home from town, that I had to take my coat off; Ilse and Fliss disappeared to do their prep in the tree house; the fish pie I’d prepared suddenly seemed the wrong dish for such a day.

Sometimes all I need is for things to be different. For John to take a day off work and spend it with me instead, doing nothing more exciting than crossing off a list of household jobs. Being two, instead of my usual one, or six. For the sun to shine all day, uninterrrupted. For a new blouse to wear, or the summer shoes to break out of the cupboard.

This is what I love about this time of year: that there is something different about each and every day. A new seedling pokes its head above the soil, or we find that we want salad in place of soup. Stumbling across that yellow, blooming in the sunlight. Nothing big. Nothing fancy, or expensive, or particularly special. Just a change.

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.

Under my feet

I made it into the garden this morning. It’s time for a spot of weeding, for reconnecting with my other, outside room, and taking in a little of  the newfound springtime sun. Under my feet, the lawn is soft and soggy. The brick paths of the veg bed are alternately springy with moss and slick with errant mud. I keep expecting to clear the beds for sowing but there’s so much out there, waiting to be eaten. Three dozen leeks. Ten swedes. The first tender sprouts of brocolli. A bed of winter salad, barely touched, which will soon come into its own. Tiny green cabbages which, having held on all winter, are taking off in this gentle, tentative sun. Even the greenhouse is full of out-of-season fennel, tucked in there in the autumn.

The moment I set foot outdoors the hens are at my side, tripping me up in their excitement. I’d forgotten how much fun it was to have them trail, Pied Piper style, in my wake. They follow me up and down the lawn as I admire Ilse’s winter garden, a smudge of purple from afar, up close. And when the trowel comes out they vye for top position, as close as they can get to the worms each little spadeful brings. We find a knot of them in the base of a rotting swede, enough for everyone to share. An unexpected feast. There are plenty to go around. In fact, I think there are more this year than ever before, and certainly more than when we first dug out our veg patch. I like to think of them all, burrowing through the good earth, helping the garden grow.

Soon we must erect a hen-proof fence, and sow the first seeds in the warming soil. For now, new life sprouts in the airing cupboard before being moved to a bright windowsill, safe from that little gang of hooligans with their scratching claws, keen beaks and destructive bathing habits. But we can’t hold on forever. Spring is on its way. I can see it in the blooms on nude branches, the nodding daffodils, the crocuses which open their hearts to the sun. In the softening outdoor air. And in the moist dark soil which whispers promises to me from just under my feet.

Working through the pile

There has been a lot of sewing of late. A lot of thinking about sewing, a lot of talking about sewing (sorry, John) and a lot of actual sewing. I’ve nearly worked my way through all the bigger projects-in-waiting on my shelves, and it feels wonderful to have them out of my head and into our lives.

Exhibit one is a Thai silk cocktail dress. Father bought the fabric for me as a gift over ten years ago, and in its first incarnation it was a tea dress, drafted by my own fair hand before I had much experience with such things. Consequently it didn’t fit all that well, and spent most of its time as a glorified skirt, the too-large top covered up with a cardigan. Too lovely to give away, it has sat on my fabric pile for years and been overlooked every time I’ve gone to make something, but a week or two ago I unpicked the bodice from the skirt, removed the sleeves, turned the back into the front and spent some time with a lot of pins in front of the mirror et voila! A party dress is born. I had meant it for me, but Fliss is already making noises. Perhaps we’ll share it, turn and turn about. It may as well be worn.

Also frightening me was a lovely length of Liberty lawn in browns and greens and pinks and purples. John’s mother gave it to me last summer, and the combination of its loveliness and the fact that she’d stored it away for years made cutting into it slightly daunting. Spurred on by my last Liberty success (and Eternal Sewing Optimism) I drafted a boxy pattern inspired by one I’d admired from afar, with a two inch Peter Pan collar. I like the resulting blouse very much indeed. I like it, loose and comfortable, over a pair of slacks. I like it tucked into the high-waisted skirt I made last autumn. And I like how the green of the piping turns it into a brown-and-green blouse, when it could so easily have been brown-and-purple or brown-and-pink instead. Little details make such a difference.

Then there were a couple of simpler projects – Ilse’s eiderdown and a soft carrying case for my flute – as well as my other Liberty blouse and those underthings. Finally there is just one project left on that shelf: a length of soft woven wool which will become a dress shortly.

I’ve come to realise that this is how I like things to be. When I started to sew I dreamed of having a shelf full of fabrics. What fun it would be to run my hands over the piles and choose just the perfect cloth for whatever I wanted to make that day. Over time a little collection did build up – old curtains and sheets and garments to be reused, as well as purchases and gifts. But contrary to my expectations I didn’t feel a creative freedom when I looked into that cupboard. Instead I felt a sense of obligation: all those fabrics lying dormant, just waiting to be put to use. I liked them all, and enjoyed sewing with them, but they dictated what I could sew, rather than the other way around. Sometimes that’s great fun: I love receiving a gift of fabric and deciding what it will become. I love using up all of my scraps, each January, and setting the right ones aside to grow into a quilt. What I don’t particularly like, though, is that feeling of having lots of older things to sew before I can get to my latest idea.

So what I hanker after now is just the next project on the shelf. One length of fabric, ready and waiting. Some matching thread and a small selection of buttons and ribbon and other notions. A pile of scraps to be used when the fancy strikes, then obliterated each January. Another pile, carefully edited and cut, which will one day be a quilt.

I’m very nearly there. Of course, there will always be an ebb and flow as wardrobes are tidied twice a year and old clothing relegated to the pile, or when somebody makes me an unexpected but very, very welcome present of something crafty, or when I get carried away on a trip to a jumble sale, or London. I was trying to explain this to Ilse, who has been hoarding the pretty set of fabrics we gave her with her sewing kit for Christmas. Use it while you love it, and while it is still exciting and a little bit scary to cut into, because that means that it’s still precious.

Of course I know that other people, many far more serious and accomplished sewers than I, would balk at my approach, and rightly so. It wouldn’t suit them at all. My approach is just that – my approach – and it leaves me excited and full of ideas and motivated to sew, which is surely the whole point.

There were snowdrops. And peacocks. And miniature rooms.

We had a few very spring-like days last week in the midst of much cold and stormy weather and as luck would have it, those just happened to be the days that we had plans to be outside. One of those was Friday, which John had taken off work and so we all piled into the motor and set off into Ryedale.

After all these years of living in York I’d never visited Rievaulx Terrace – in fact, none of us had. A man-made feature, it has that lovely combination of the wild and the constrained, urging you to wander along a smooth and grassy terrace as you enjoy the shifting view of the trees and ruined abbey below. We began our walk, though, by heading through the woods to the far end of the grounds, before wandering back to the temple for luncheon (well, a talk about the meals we might have had in it had we arrived by invitation and carriage two hundred years ago). And everywhere were great swathes of snowdrops. I thought they’d make a lovely photograph, pure white against the browns of leaf and trunk and earth, but just as I was focusing Ilse asked if she might take it, so I handed the camera over.

It wasn’t until I wanted to take a picture of the children that I reclaimed the brownie, only to find that Ilse had used up all the film. Ah well, no matter. We had seen her creeping quietly through the woods, presumably photographing something wild. A deer, perhaps, or the woodpecker we had heard. She assured me that her pictures were well worth it.

So it was with a cry of dismay that she arrived at Nunnington Hall to find a peacock posing for his portrait on top of a garden wall. And the banks full of snowdrops in the sun, and the funny old scarecrow in the cutting garden, and the wishing tree, its bare branches bright with ribbons. She would have liked to have taken photos of all this, but her disappointment was short lived. After all, there was an attic waiting, full of miniature rooms to examine and sigh over.

We’ve visited Nunnington many times over the years, and that collection of tiny rooms in the attic is an enduring highlight. They are not the kind of thing that I’d ever be tempted to make, being small and fiddly and utterly useless. But they are certainly something to wonder over. Who, for instance, has the patience and skill to render shelf after shelf of inch-high leather-bound books? To make a workshop full of shining woodwork tools, complete with a project in progress, miniature shavings curling on the floor? In spite of the grand entrance hall and period drawing rooms our favourites are the day and night nurseries, with their rows of thumbnail marching redcoats and a set of stacking rings, abandoned mid-play on a little table. There are shelves full of tiny toys, on top of which stands a doll’s house in a doll’s house, which prompted my children to search for yet another within. And on a chair by the cot lies the nanny’s knitting: the beginning of a diminutive red sock grown on double ended needles the size of pins.

We had such a lovely day that I opened the envelope of photos with some anticipation, right there in the chemist’s. There were some older ones of earlier parts of our holiday. There were one or two that I had snapped, early on our walk. Then there were four of John, one of me and seven of a pheasant, growing ever closer and less blurred. I picked the best, to give to Ilse for her scrapbook as evidence of our day. But there were also snowdrops, I assure you. And peacocks. And delightfully miniature rooms.