Small pleasures

This little bonnet took an inordinate amount of time to knit – or rather, not knit. February wasn’t a particularly productive month, what with all the other commitments we had as a family, and in the end I spent a couple of very pleasant days over half term finishing off a few odds and ends. As well as helping Fliss with her Jane Eyre dress, I sewed through the remainder of the projects I cut out in January, and had the pleasure of wearing my new tulip skirt to work yesterday. Best of all though, I spent a few hours in the bay window at the front of our house, listening to dramas on the radio and finishing this new baby gift.

Of course, now that I’ve made it, I think I’ve enough wool left over to make an even tinier version, too. It’ll look good in blue, with a white trim and strap.

There are a few more projects that I’d like to complete between now and Easter, because my lovely aunt in Scotland sent me home with two bags of fleece last weekend. Come Easter you’ll find me skirting, sorting and washing these. They came with plenty of lichen, and what with the elderberries that I never made into syrup, and the bag of avocado skins I’ve been amassing, there’s lots of dyeing on the horizon.

Before I get to that, though, there are a few other odds and ends that need using up. I’ve had my fill of colourwork knitting, having done so much of it over the past few months, so I’m going to crochet these piles of leftovers into a couple of snoods. There’s a ball of mustard yellow on its way to lift this little pile:

and a bigger crochet hook to enable me to crochet all three strands of these yarns at once.

It seems that I won’t get around to making another Winter Flora this spring, and while part of me feels that I ought to, another part of me just wants to play with these colours in a different (and quicker) way. And that’s okay. After all, hobbies are meant to be a pleasure, not a chore.

One very definite pleasure is the book on my bedside table this week, lent to me by a friend. The night I started it I stayed up far too late, reading long after my bedtime. As a result, I’ve set it aside as my weekend treat, when I can finish in long greedy gulps.

Between the fleeces, a good book and a spot of patchwork in the evenings, I’ve a lot to look forward to at the moment. Really, nine tenths of pleasure is in the anticipation. With that in mind, I’ve set aside half an hour this afternoon to start one of those yarny projects with a cup of tea and a hot water bottle, and I just can’t wait. Small pleasures, but pleasures nonetheless.

Madeleine

Joining in with Ginny’s Yarn Along at Small Things.

What are you reading at the moment? Any recommendations?

A small, sustainable wardrobe: dressing up

A series about the clothes we wear and the impact they have both on us and the world around us.

***

As you are probably aware, it’s World Book Day next week. Fliss has been planning her costume for months – literally: since last October. And sometime between then and now, I made the promise to help her make an 1840s dress from scratch.

Now, before you start thinking that I am one of those mums who spends days planning and making her children’s fancy dress costumes, can I assure you that that is most certainly not the case. My children are more likely to be pointed towards the recycling bin and told to sort themselves out than have much input from me. Partly this is because I have had years of dressing up days to contend with, but it’s more down to the fact that dressing up days are, in my opinion, all about giving children the chance to flex their imaginations and creative minds and come up with something all by themselves. I flatly refuse to buy or hire costumes for them – don’t have a look at statistics on the number of costumes that get sent to landfill each November if you’re of a sensitive disposition – because it is the most ridiculously wasteful way to approach the issue. Added to the fact that it doesn’t stretch the children at all, it sets my teeth on edge.

Why, then, did I promise to help Fliss sew an 1840s dress? Well, we started with something reused and upcycled – a charity shop sheet that had already served as a spookily enormous cloak last autumn. But more than that, I was swayed by her utter devotion to the project. She has spent ages poring over Victorian costuming books, fashion plates and illustrations in her own copies of classic novels. She’s begged me to watch the Dressing up as a … videos by Prior Attire, in order to understand all the different layers. And, in truth, it’s an area that I’ve wanted to dip my toe into for a while now. There are many incredible creators of authentic (and not-so-authentic) historical dress out there that it’s a rabbit hole easily tumbled down, I can tell you.

Our dress falls very definitely into the not-so-authentic category. For starters, we used a polycotton sheet, because pure cotton sheets are hard to come by in the charity shops around here. We didn’t have the time, inclination or fabric to make copious numbers of petticoats to support her skirts. And of course she doesn’t own a corset – not that she needs one! Instead, we dug out a 1950s style net underskirt that was in the dressing up drawer (full of ghosts of costumes past, and heavily drawn upon) and layered her ballet character skirt on top.

The deal was that I would make the bodice while she made the skirt, and that we had from exactly 10am until 4pm to get it done. (Otherwise I could have spent days on this, and I have other things to do this half term.) This was a fast, furious and not particularly careful sew. I took the speedier, electric machine and she took the 1916 Singer, which she prefers anyway. We simplified the skirt, deciding upon a simple elastic waisted one instead of making cartridge pleats and then fixing it to the bodice – her ‘dress’ is actually a skirt and top. I wanted her to be able to make it quickly and easily and all by herself, which she managed with aplomb.

Thanks to York libraries we had access to a fabulous book, and this is the earliest of all the Victorian projects in it. And while we took shortcuts with the skirts, I am proud to say that I constructed the bodice authentically. The only things I changed were not lining it (to save fabric) and bias binding the neckline (because I ran out of piping). My favourite thing about this dress, apart from how wonderfully Victorian she looks in it, is how Victorian the bodice looks laid open, with all the seams in the right places, and not a dart in sight.

The pattern was surprisingly easy to draft. Because Fliss is still significantly smaller than the adult size given in the book, I scaled it down using not much more than common sense and intuition – not something I’d do were I making her a modern blouse. But that’s the thing about Victorian patterns – to my limited knowledge, anyway. They were made to be taken in and let out, adjusted as they changed owners and body shapes. The seams are left exposed and unfinished for a reason – and you can change the fit of the garment quite easily. I fitted the bodice on Fliss while we worked, pinning it into place and then sewing. The shawl front, which is actually a whole second layer on top of a fitted bodice, is simply attached at the neckline and pleated before the top and bottom edges are finished. The sleeves are set so low that they are actually identical. In modern garments, there’s always a left and a right sleeve, to allow for more fabric (and ease of movement) at the back of each shoulder. Not so in this outfit. And so the sleeves were the easiest I’ve ever set in. Finally, I pinned the back together so that it fitted nicely, folded back the excess fabric and sewed on a row of hooks and eyes. I didn’t trim any fabric, so that she can let it out as she grows. I know I’d want to, if my mum and I had made a Jane Eyre costume together.

Much as I’d like to show you a photo of the full effect, head included, I don’t put pictures of my children online, so you’ll have to make do with some headless Victorians instead. Think of her as the friendly household ghost. I can, however, show you the back of her practice hairdo:

which really completes the look.

Most of the time I groan when the children tell me about yet another dressing up day, but this was even more of a delight to make than I had anticipated. I think we might have sown the seeds of a new passion, for me if not for her. I can see myself making another such outfit, by hand, in natural materials, from the inside out. Practising my skills by cording petticoats before moving on to embroidering a shift, knitting some stockings, and maybe even constructing a pair of stays. Who knows if I’ll ever make the time. I’ll certainly keep reading about it.

And, from the reception that her Jane Eyre dress has had, I expect that Fliss will be wearing it to dress up whenever the occasion allows. Who knows, it might even go into a box when she heads off to university one day. Surely that amount of wear would make it a very sustainable costume. Which makes me very happy indeed.

Madeleine

What have you been sewing lately? Anything fun?

Please forgive the grainy phone photos! I ran out of steam after all that speedy sewing, and was too busy in the garden to take proper photos the following day…

Preparing for spring

Over the past few years, I’ve come to make the winter months precious by filling them with winter-only activities. Come spring, I’ll be needed in the garden, and I’d like to immerse myself in a fleece or two on rainy days. That means that there won’t be much – if any – time for knitting. So I’m doing a little pre-spring cleaning, and using up the bits and pieces left over from other makes.

So far, three such projects have graced my needles: a long-awaited (we’re talking years) tea cosy for our house, a pair of colourful wrist warmers and the start of a sweet little bonnet for a soon-to-be-born little person. I started the bonnet on Sunday afternoon while watching a film with the girls and went wrong twice before finally reading the pattern properly. I have to say, I didn’t mind a bit. I was so cosy, wrapped up on the couch in front of the fire, and working on something so small that it was the work of an hour to pull it out and start again. The yarn is leftover from the socks I designed, with the idea that the busy new parents will be able to throw it in the machine when it gets grubby. I’ve been there.

The wrist warmers were a bit of a slog, if I’m honest. Not because they were hard (they aren’t) but because there were three yarns used in every colourwork row, so I had to keep dropping and picking up two of them. They were one of those projects that I had to set an end date for. I’m glad I did, though, because Fliss loves them and I’ve set them aside for next Christmas.

Bringing me the most pleasure, though, is the new tea cosy in my life. This is going to sound ridiculous, but why did I not know how effective these things are? They keep the tea piping hot for ages, even in our somewhat chilly house. I used a pattern from this book, and have plans to make little birds with the last of my leftover scraps. More Christmas presents, you see. The pile on the present shelf is growing, as there have been some little sewing additions too, of late, and it is so satisfying to reach for a gift you made a few months earlier with just that person in mind. Come next Christmas, it really will feel as though the elves had made it all.

With the lengthening days, the urge to read about the natural world has come again, and I found myself scanning the library nature writing section. In the end, I plumped to reread The Shepherd’s Life. We’ll be going to the Lake District in the spring, and journeying through its pages feels almost like setting off on that little jaunt a few weeks early.

I love having so much to look forward to, but instead of thinking I can’t wait, I find that really, I can. I can because I have so much to enjoy doing between now and then. Next up will be another pair of wrist warmers, and a second snood, and perhaps even a second little bonnet to tuck away for another, as-yet-unknown baby. A few little birds might find their way into the children’s rooms. There are winter walks to enjoy, still, before reading about the rest of the year indoors, in the warm. Come the spring, I’ll be out there all the time, with my hands in the cool dark soil. For now, though, I’m preparing for spring in the most pleasurable ways I know.

Madeleine

Joining in with Ginny’s Yarn Along at Small Things

How are you preparing for spring? Or is it not on your mind just yet?

Three more

This weekend I finished off all three of the hats I’ve been knitting for the children for Christmas. Having knit to the top of the last one, I spent a couple of hours on Sunday evening weaving in ends, making pompoms and sewing name tapes in. (Yes, even Ben got a name tape. He’s just about old enough for it to be ironic, and I still have about a hundred of his in my studio upstairs. Better safe than sorry, when it comes to lovingly hand-knit hats, I always say…)

These were not fast knits, as hats go. The yarn is fine (a jumper weight 2 ply), and there’s a lot of colourwork. But they were very enjoyable knits, as it is so much fun to watch the patterns emerge as you knit. The book that they came from, Knitting from the North, is full of beautiful projects, and I do have a few more earmarked for a later date. That said, I have to be honest and say that there are a surprising number of errors in the patterns. It’s not uncommon to find the odd mistake in a pattern, but every pattern my mum and I have tried so far from this book has had something or other wrong with it. As a confident and experienced knitter, this didn’t faze me at all, but I wouldn’t recommend the book to anyone who wouldn’t spot the mistakes for themselves. I ran out of yarn on my first hat, too. Admittedly I was using a different brand, but it was the same sort of wool (Shetland woollen spun 2 ply) and actually had more yardage than the pattern suggested. I also had to do a bit of rethinking of the colour distribution for Fliss’ hat – again because I could see that I was going to run out of yarn. It wasn’t a problem for me, but it might really throw a newer knitter. So in short, these are stunning projects, but you need to pay attention and correct as you go.

I have been so busy knitting and working and generally living that I completely forgot about Ginny’s yarn along last Wednesday, so I am joining in a little late this time. I’ve been reading a little more slowly than usual, managing just a couple of chapters a night before I fall asleep, but that is par for the course in December. A good re-read is always a wise idea when you know the going will be slow, so when John brought The French Lieutenant’s Woman home from the library I was happy to pick it up. I know the story well enough not to lose the plot, and the constant shifts in scene and time are holding my interest despite my lack of pace. The first thing I ever read by John Fowles was The Collector, which I borrowed from the school library when I was about 15. I might need to read it again.

What with the socks for Ilse, and John’s present out of the way, that’s five Christmas presents made. I’d love to say that I’ve finished all my Christmas crafting and that it’ll all be downhill from here, but the truth is that I have two more projects to get on with. One is very nearly done – I’ve been working on it in between each hat, as it is a much bigger knit – and the other is a not-yet-started but should-be-reasonably-quick-once-I’ve-made-a-pattern job. I’ve given myself until next Sunday to get them both done. My evenings are reasonably free, so it should be doable.

And after that? Well, I have some leftovers plus a ball of pink wool I bought specifically to tie them all together, and I’m going to knit myself a fairisle tea cosy in a very footle-y, no pressure, meandering way in the last week before Christmas. That will be fun. I’m not sure whether I’ll use a pattern, hack a hat pattern, or just make something up. Whatever I do, I intend to enjoy every single stitch, in front of the fire, while I wait for the Christmas holidays to begin.

Madeleine

Joining in with Ginny’s Yarn Along at Small Things.

Do you have any recommendations for tea cosy patterns? And how’s your Christmas crafting going – or are you not doing any this year?

A small, sustainable wardrobe: practical knitting

A series about the clothes we wear and the impact they have both on us and the world around us.

***

My copy of Practical Knitting Illustrated: The Key to Hundreds of Garments You Can Make Yourself doesn’t have a date inside. Looking at it, I thought it looked quite 1940s, and the fact that all the illustrations are black and white would fit that theory. A quick internet search gave me one copy dated to 1947, which sounds about right.

I don’t think that a volume entitled Practical anything would sell particularly well nowadays. Despite the resurgence in craft, knitting and dressmaking patterns seem to be sold as novel! easy! quick! or fun! This book doesn’t claim to be any of those things – although it does bill some of the resulting items as such. Instead, it focuses on how hardwearing, warm, comfortable and versatile the garments inside will be. And although I wouldn’t want to wear all of the garments listed (a knitted beach suit, anyone?), those are the values that I like to apply to my own designs.

It goes without saying that British knitters of the late 1940s were approaching their craft from a rather different place than we do today. At the height of rationing, each adult civilian was entitled to the equivalent to one new set of clothes and shoes a year. Clothes – and materials – rationing was on the cusp of coming to a close, but there would continue to be shortages for several years yet. Although you could theoretically go out and buy whatever your wardrobe needed after 15 March 1949, you were unlikely to be able to in practice. Goods in short supply were managed by price control. Despite this, clothes were expensive and had to be made to last.

This issue is reflected in the advice given on buying yarn. Sold by the ounce, yarn quantities are one of the most confusing things about vintage patterns because how long is an ounce of wool? It seems that it depended on the quality, and readers were instructed to buy the best they could afford. The best qualities although more expensive to buy, are cheaper because they go farther in the knitting through having more rounds to the ounce. And it only took 5 ounces – about 140 grams – of yarn to knit a women’s 2 ply jumper. How’s that for economy of materials?

I would imagine that higher quality yarns would also work out cheaper in the long run because they would wear better and not need to be replaced as quickly – saving both money and labour.

It’s the labour in the book that I can’t quite understand. Although the book pictures 24 different types of yarn, it’s clear that finer yarns were the order of the day. Shetland yarns – which I assume were like the traditional Shetland jumperweight 2 ply yarns still available today – cannot be recommended too highly. Having knit a 2 ply fair isle allover myself, I know how much longer it takes to knit a jumper in a finer yarn. John’s cabled cardigan – in DK as it was – nearly finished me off. Yet here, women (because this book is clearly aimed at women) are encouraged to knit everything for the entire family. No wonder virtues such as hardwearing and plenty of room to grow were included in the descriptions of products. Keeping a family in vests and socks must have been a Herculean task indeed.

I don’t suppose that any women, no matter how dedicated, fulfilled all their family’s requirements in this way. I’m told that my husband’s grandmother, who must have bought or received this book as a newlywed, was a prizewinning knitter, and I would love to have been able to ask her about what she did and didn’t knit for her family. While I keep myself in socks, other people receive them from me as gifts rather than as a matter of course. I’ve never knit a vest (undershirt) in my life. But baby knits and children’s jumpers? Yes, I’ve knit many of those in my time and it’s true: the more hardwearing, warm, comfortable and versatile they are, the more wear they’ve had by one child after another.

I’m as guilty as anyone of wanting things done yesterday. I knit almost a whole jumper in a weekend recently. And yes, it is hardwearing, warm, comfortable and versatile. But I didn’t enjoy making it more because it was fast! In fact, I definitely enjoyed it less. So when I cast on for a new pair of socks last night, I opened Practical Knitting for company, and enjoyed its words of wisdom on the subject of socks for your sons. These three-quarter length socks are excellent for sturdy schoolboys who are always on their feet, it told me. For holiday times, make them with Fair Isle tops. Now if that isn’t taking pride in your craft and making the most of the materials you have, I don’t know what is. Practical doesn’t have to be boring. It can be as fun and creative as you like. Just like the rest of the deeply practical wardrobe I aspire to.

Madeleine

Joining in with Ginny’s Yarn Along at Small Things

Do you prefer to make things quickly or slowly? What’s the most painstakingly made thing in your wardrobe? Did you make it yourself? And is it practical?

Distilled

I am a reader of books. Always have been, always will be. And yet, over the past few months, I seem to have gone back to the way I read as a child: hungrily, greedily, savouring every last word. Rushing through the last chapters of a book, wanting the ending, hating the end. I have read more books in the last few months than I can remember reading for many years. I have reverted from someone who will enjoy a few good pages each night before sleep to somebody who sits and reads all Saturday afternoon. Who wakes up on holiday mornings and goes back to bed for the next chapter or two or three.

I couldn’t think what had brought this about until I waved the children off to the school bus this morning and realised that it must be because I am no longer knee deep in toddlers. My friends and I talk about many things, but a current favourite is book recommendations. What are you reading? we ask one another. The conversation has shifted over the years from nappies to schools to bedtimes, and now we can talk about books again.

The book I opened last night came out a few years ago. I remember hearing about The Shore, probably on the radio, but it wasn’t until I saw a copy in the library on Monday that it came home with me. Three chapters in, I am transfixed. Short stories are a joy. They are the rock pools of the literary world: all life in microcosm. And The Shore is a whole coastline of them, linked by the tides of family life, by genes and marriages, affairs of the heart, and bloody determination. I am planning our next sojourn over a lunchtime sandwich.

In the meantime, I have knitting to do, and a pattern to work out. It came to my mind in fits and starts all weekend, so that by Monday morning all I had to do was sketch it out and begin on the work of explaining it. I am loving writing these new patterns, and this one, just like Snow Day, is aimed at new knitters. How, I thought all through Monday afternoon, do I make this as simple as possible? The challenge is in rethinking traditional solutions to create something that a person who can just knit and purl can make. To make something simple is devilishly elusive: it is the knitters’ equivalent of those equations that have to be simplified, reduced, distilled to their purest form. You puzzle and frown and then – oh! – you have it, and even the newest knitter can make sense of it all.

I suppose that’s what I’m loving so about The Shore. A book about many generations of a Virginia family, it could so easily have been a multi-volumed saga, full of extraneous details of who said what to whom. Instead, each tale strikes to the heart of its protagonist, so that we know, from a single encounter, who they are, what they stand for, where they came from. I can’t wait to find out more.

Madeleine

What are you reading? Do you have any recommendations?

Joining in with Ginny’s Yarn Along at Small Things

A new sort of garden to grow

Needless to say, the school holidays have a rhythm and ritual of their own. At first we dash away – to London this year, then on to Devon and Cornwall to camp. Then there’s a spell at home, when the children and I set the house and garden to rights, and shop for new uniforms, and visit the shoe shop to see whether their feet have grown too much for last year’s shoes to see a little more service (inevitably, they have). Then there are nametapes to sew into new shirts and trousers, a mouthguard to fit to the newest secondary school pupil, bags and bottles and lunchboxes to check over and football boots to pass down to the next in line. Apart from Ilse, who was understandably thrilled by her new uniform, we find this part of the summer best got over with as quickly as possible. Then there’s another trip away – to Ireland, this time – before a last few days at home, tying up loose ends.

On my list this year were the children’s scrapbooks. All year, we collect bundles of their memorabilia: ticket stubs, maps of visited cities, postcards they write home to their future selves when away on foreign soil. Photographs that arrive in the post after a special weekend with a grandparent, and little notes written by friends, adorned with swirly lovehearts and impossibly scrolled signatures. Last year, and – dare I admit? – the year before that, we never got round to collating their precious bits and pieces into their scrapbooks. This summer, SCRAPBOOKS was scrawled insistent and bold across the top of my master list and, finally, in that last week of August, we cut and reminisced and glued and admired until they were all done. Fatter now, and on their second volumes each, they have rejoined Ben’s and mine on the shelf in the front room.

That said, I am not one to finish a holiday with a job, no matter how delightful that job turns out to be. Oh no. In this house, the last day of the holidays is sacrosanct. Everybody knows that, on that last day, we will all be going out together. In years past it’s been a walk along the Nidd Gorge, or a drive out to a castle to watch a falconry display, picnic and all. This year, York was lucky enough to have a new attraction: a pop up Shakespearean theatre called the Rose, and the children had been to see Macbeth there (with my parents) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (as Fliss’ birthday treat). As the cast took their bows at the end of the latter, John and I looked at each other, the same thought in both our minds. Once home, we booked groundling tickets one last time, to see Romeo and Juliet on the last afternoon of the holidays.

Walking into town that day, Fliss counted that she’d seen no fewer than seven plays this summer. Isle and I had seen five, Seb six, John four and Ben – well, he’s been doing his own, university student, things. Whichever of Fliss’ seven we’d shared with her, we had to agree that it had been a pretty spectacular summer of theatre. For me, two of the York productions had been the very best: A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Secret Garden. The children had loved those, as well as Matilda, which we took them to while in London. And although I had been expecting the big, expensive productions to be good, I was blown away by the far more modestly priced Secret Garden, which could have given any of the others a real run for their money. The lighting, the magically transformative set, the eerie music and sheer convincingness of the actors cast a spell over us all. Even if it hadn’t been one of our favourite children’s stories, we would have fallen in love with it that night. In fact, Ilse has asked me to read it with her again, and so a little of the summer is winding its way into these early September evenings, when uniforms have been exchanged for pyjamas and the children are tired and excited by the newness of it all.

There was just one project on my list that didn’t get ticked off before the start of term, but it’s one that I’m quite happy to be finishing off this week. A jumper, started long ago now, but that I had to stop and spin the rest of the wool for, is still on my needles. I’ve finished the second sleeve now, and all that’s left is to work out the configuration of the top of the body and how much ease to work into the pattern for a neat but comfy fit. I can’t wait to finish it off, partly because the days are drawing in but partly because it’ll be available here, soon, as a pattern of my own designing. And then? Why, of course I have the next woolly project lined up, but you’ll have to wait and see what that is. I am loving September this year, despite my own season in the garden drawing to a close and the ever-challenging winter on the horizon. Loving it because of this space, and all the plans I have for growing it, and seeing what blossoms and blooms.

Joining in with Ginny’s Yarn Along at Small Things

Madeleine

PS – What projects are you planning for this autumn – knitting or otherwise?

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?

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.

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?