All the knitting

There is definitely a seasonality to making. I don’t just mean gift-making in the run up to Christmas, or cotton-frock making in May. Of course I do both those things, but there’s a deeper pull towards certain kinds of crafting at different times of year. In the new year, I want to do nothing but sew. Come spring, I’m ready to spend most of my time in the garden, perhaps with a bit of hand-sewing or embroidery for rainy days. The long summer holidays open up time for spinning and the dyeing of wool. And when September comes, I want to spend all my evenings knitting in front of the fire, right up to the end of the year.

There are always things that I end up doing out of season – I sewed a skirt last month, for instance – but on the whole I’ve come to anticipate this yearly rhythm. Which is why I thought I’d better pull out my stash of wool and remind myself of all the knitting I want to do before the year comes to an end.

First up are the Christmas knits. Just to be clear, I am the sort of person for whom Christmas starts on December 24th. That’s when we put up the tree, festoon the staircase with lights and ivy, and put holly everywhere we can. But the Christmas crafting needs to start quite a bit earlier than that. In fact, once I’ve made the Christmas cake  in October half term, November is upon us and it is high time to get started.

First on – and off – the needles this year was Ben’s hat. A quick and easy knit, it’s just waiting for its bobble. I’ll have a bobble-making-hat-finishing afternoon when all three hats are done, so this one is put away for now.

In progress is a longer project, which I am not going to write about here for tip top Christmas secret reasons. I’m knitting bits of it in between each of the other projects. Suffice to say that it is going swimmingly and it will be a test of my love to give this one away.

Currently on the needles is a second sock, which is both a first-time-sock-knitters’ pattern I’m writing, and Ilse’s Christmas knit. I’ll finish it off this week, but have to keep stopping to shoot the next part of the tutorial in daylight.

Fliss’ hat will be next: this lovely snuggly one in shades of heather. I love it, she loves it, I can’t wait to begin.

Seb’s hat  – the same as Ben’s but in different colours – will be the last of the knits for my children. My auntie Fiona gave me  the lovely book that all three hats are from in the spring, and it is just full of beautiful patterns. I have my eye on a hat I’d like to make for myself, one day, as well as a couple of the snoods. It has inspired practically all my Christmas knitting this year.

There are two more projects that I’m not even going to post the materials for here, as they’ll give the game away. One is a knitting project that I’m collaborating with one of my children on, and the other is a sewing project. Enough said.

Once the hats are all made, I have plans for all the leftover Shetland wool. First up will be a fairisle tea-cosy, as I’ve been meaning to make one for literally years. I don’t have a pattern yet and will probably just make one up.

I bought the pink wool especially, to tie it all together. I like pink a lot, just now.

And then I need a new pair of cuffs. My last pair were discovered hiding in a white wash that had just gone through at a hygienic 60 C. Let’s just say that while the sheets were better for the cycle, the cuffs were not. I might make some from the book, or make up something more fairisle-y and colourful.

Then there are three balls of Drops Alpaca for a new knitting design that is floating around my head. I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but let’s just say that it involves some of my very favourite winter flowers.

And finally, when all that is done, I am going to knit myself a new pair of socks. This is a bit of an annual thing now: making a new pair to replace the oldest and most worn out. I suspect these will be cast on in the new year, because despite my love of wintry sewing you do need to have something to keep your hands busy while you’re relaxing by the fire of an evening.

I make it five weeks until Christmas, and then another week until the new year. I’ve got five Christmas projects to finish, not counting the first hat, the sewing project or the collaboration. Then three more to work through after that. Then there’s the small matter of a job, patterns to publish and oh, a family. The knitting might just go on a little further into the new year that I’d planned. Ahem. But then again, there are worse things in life than a surfeit of knitting.

Madeleine

Are you making anything for Christmas this year? How’s it going? Wishing you good luck and happy crafting!

Little Flurries knitalong part two: the back

Welcome to the second part of the Little Flurries knitalong. This week, you’re going to be working the back of the sweater. As the bottom hem of the back is identical to that of the Snow Day sweater, I’ve used the text and photos from that tutorial for the first part of this one. However, you’ll notice that the colour of the yarn changes partway through this tutorial. That’s because the neckline of Little Flurries is completely different to the neckline of Snow Day – so that part of the tutorial is brand new.

Let’s begin at the bottom hem. You’ve had a bit of practice casting on and knitting while you were making your swatch, so this should be a breeze. In fact, if you get the first 26 rows done over the weekend, you’ll have lots of lovely mindless stocking stitch to relax with in the evenings throughout the coming week.

The first thing you need to do is cast all the stitches onto your larger needle (the one you swatched for). This just makes knitting that first row much easier, as the stitches will be a bit looser than if you cast them onto your smaller needle. However, the smaller needle is used to knit the rest of the hem. So you literally hold the larger needle (with all the cast on stitches on it) in one hand, and the smaller needle in your other hand. I’m right handed and knit in the UK way, so in the photo below the cast on stitches are on the larger needle (on the left), and I’ve just started to knit them all across onto my smaller needle (on the right).

Done? Right, now before you forget, put that larger needle away and pick up the other smaller needle. You should now be working exclusively with your pair of smaller needles. The pattern tells you to knit some rows of garter stitch. Just to remind you, that means that you knit every row. Don’t purl anything.

Once you’ve knitted the required number of rows of garter stitch, you’re ready to work on the notches. In this next section, you’re going to be knitting stocking stitch in the centre of the work, and garter stitch at either end. It’s actually really easy.

You also need to start using your larger needles again. So pick up one of your large needles and use it to work all the stitches of the following row.

We start on the right side, and just knit the whole row. Put the smaller needle (that you’ve just emptied of stitches) to one side, and pick up your other larger needle. You’re going to be working with your pair of larger needles for the rest of the back. Turn your work.

Then, on the wrong side, you need to knit the first five stitches only. In the photo below, that’s precisely where I’m up to. Can you see how the first five stitches are still in garter stitch? That’s because we’re still knitting both sides of those first five stitches.

However, we want the central section to be stocking stitch, so you need to purl all the way across the row until you are five stitches before the end. Don’t forget to bring your yarn to the front of your work before you start purling, like so:

When you get to those last five stitches, stop. Move your yarn to the back of your work again, ready to knit. Then knit those last five stitches, to create the garter stitch notch on the other side of the back.

Take a look at your work, without turning it. From the wrong side, which you’ve just finished working, it will look like the photo below. Those are the first five knit stitches (on the right), and then the purl stitches stretching off to the left. There will be five more purl stitches on the far left edge of your knitting.

Turn your work, and knit the whole row. By the time you finish this row, your work should look like the photo below, on the right side (the side you’ve just finished working).

Can you see the garter notch beginning to emerge on the right hand side? Work a few more rows (in the same way as the previous two) and it’ll be much clearer:

Carry on in this manner until you’ve worked as many rows as the pattern tells you to. Then stop and have a celebratory drink/ dance/ pat on the back. That’s the hardest part of the back done.

Now all you need to do is work the rest of the back in stocking stitch until it reaches the required length (see the pattern to find out what this is in your chosen size). That means that you knit all the stitches on the right side and purl all the stitches on the wrong side. Easy.

Done that? Then it’s time to create the neckline and work that envelope opening.

Working the neckline

The first thing that you need to do is knit the garter stitch section at the front of the neckline, while keeping the shoulder sections in stocking stitch. This is much easier than casting off and picking up stitches to work a separate collar.

All you have to do on the first row is knit the whole thing. On the next row, which is a wrong side row, you need to purl the first 17 stitches. This ensures that this bit of the work will remain in stocking stitch. You can see that I’ve done this in the picture below.

Your yarn will be at the front because you’ve been purling. Move it to the back, ready to knit, like so:

and knit all the way to the last 17 stitches. In the photo below you can see the difference between the first, purled, stitches, and the knitted ones. My pencil is pointing at the first knitted stitch.

Bring your yarn to the front again:

and purl the last 17 stitches. Turn your work. It should look like the picture below, with the stitches at either end still in stocking stitch, and the garter stitch edging beginning to emerge in the middle. My pencil is pointing to the place where the change occurs.

Work the next 4 rows in the same way, knitting the right side rows and doing a combination of knit and purl stitches on the wrong side rows, as directed by the pattern. Please note that the number of stitches you purl changes each time.

Now you’re ready to cast off those centre stitches. Knit the number of stitches specified by the pattern. You can see that I’ve done this, below.

Then knit two more stitches. My metal needle is pointing at the stitch that we are going to bind off first (below). Can you see why you needed to knit two more stitches? If you hadn’t, you would have bound off too early.

Bind off that stitch as normal, by carrying it over the end of your right needle. In the picture below, my metal needle is pointing to the bound off stitch.

Continue to knit one stitch and then bind off the previous stitch until you’ve bound off the required number of stitches. Remember, when binding off you count each stitch as you actually bind it off, not as you knit it. When you’ve done the correct number, you should have one stitch remaining on your right needle (plus the shoulder stitches at the far end) and the number of stitches you are supposed to knit, minus one, on your left needle. You can see this in my photograph below.

Knit the rest of those stitches, and you’ll have the correct number of knit stitches on either side of the bound off section. Your work should look like the photo below. Can you see the two shoulder sections, with the bound off neckline in the middle? (Ignore the bobbles: the front neckline is worked in exactly the same way as the back, so I took these photos while working the front – hence the bobbles.)

The next thing to do is to decrease those shoulder stitches so that they can be sewn together later to form a toddler-friendly envelope neckline.

You are going to work the right shoulder (what would be the right shoulder if someone was wearing it) first. The stitches for the left shoulder will still be on your needle, but just ignore them for now.

The right shoulder actually uses slightly more complicated decreases than the left. They aren’t difficult at all, but it might take you a while to remember them as they have a few steps. However, they are important because they make the collar curve away in the correct direction as the stitches are decreased.

You start with a wrong side row. Purl the number of stitches specified by the pattern. Then stop. This is all I’ve done, below.

Now you need to make your slip, slip, purl (ssp) decrease. In order to make the decreases point in the right direction, you need to twist them by slipping them onto your right needle as if you were going to knit them. So you insert your right needle into the next stitch, as if you were going to knit it, as shown here:

and just slip it off your left needle. Do this again, and you should have two slipped (but not worked) stitches with all those purled stitches on your right needle. You can see them in the photograph below.

Next, you need to get those two stitches back onto your left needle, so that you can work them. But you don’t want to twist them back to how they were in the first place. So you need to insert your left needle into both stitches, from left to right, and slip them straight back onto the left needle. You can see how I’ve inserted my left needle to do this, below. Don’t work those stitches at all, yet.

You can see in the picture below that they are back on my left needle, in their new orientation, and not worked.

Now it’s finally time to work those two stitches. You need to insert your right needle into them ‘through the back loop’. This means that you insert your needle as if to purl, but you pick up both stitches at the same time, and you insert your needle from the left hand side at the back. It might all feel a bit tight and awkward, but persevere. You can see my right needle inserted in the picture below.

Then you just purl that stitch as normal. In the next picture, you can see that the last stitch is just a purl stitch, except that it has purled two stitches into one. That’s the slip, slip, purl stitch (ssp) done.

Move your yarn to the back of your work (as shown below) and knit the rest of the stitches. All of your wrong side rows will be worked in this manner, although the number of stitches to knit and purl varies. Just follow the pattern.

When you get to the end of the row, turn your work. Now you’re going to work the first right side row.

Knit four stitches. Now it’s time to work the slip, slip, knit stitch.

Slip the next stitch onto your right needle as if you were going to knit it – but don’t work it at all. You can see my needle, inserted as if to knit, below. We are slipping stitches knitwise again in order to twist them around – just as we did for the slip, slip, purl stitch.

Do the same for the next stitch. You can see two slipped stitches on my right needle, below.

Now you are going to knit those two stitches together, but ‘through the back loop’. You do this by inserting your left needle into both stitches at the same time, from right to left. I find it easiest to hold my needles almost parallel:

Once your left needle is inserted, move it so that your needles are perpendicular again, and knit those two stitches together as if you were knitting a normal stitch. You can see my needles in position, ready to do this, below.

Then knit the rest of the stitches in the row.

Carry on working all the wrong side rows with the ssp stitch, and the right side rows with the ssk stitch, until you only have one stitch left. Don’t be put off when you have to work an ssp at the start of a new row, or a ssk at the end of a row. Just carry on working the stitches as explained, above. Your work will decrease by one stitch in every row.

Then snip your yarn with a nice long tail and pull it through that final stitch, to secure it. Your right shoulder is done! It should have a nice curve, and the decrease stitches should all point outwards, as below:

Now it’s time to work the left shoulder. You start working this on the wrong side, and you need to rejoin your yarn. The first stitch is a knit stitch (even though you are working into a purl stitch), so insert your needle as if to knit, and lay your yarn across your right needle with the loose end to the left (see below). Knit the first four stitches.

Now you are going to work the ‘purl two together’ (p2tog) stitch. Bring your yarn to the front, ready to purl.

Insert your needle as you normally would to purl, but instead of just inserting it through one stitch, you need to insert it through two stitches at the same time:

Then purl those two stitches, just as if you were purling one normal stitch. That’s the end of the p2tog stitch. Now you just purl to the end of the row.

Turn your work, ready to work a right side row. Knit the number of stitches specified by the pattern, then stop.

Now it’s time to work the ‘knit two together’ (k2tog) stitch. Insert your right needle into the next two stitches at the same time, from left to right, just as if you were knitting one normal knit stitch.

Then knit the two stitches, exactly as if they were just one normal knit stitch. That’s the k2tog stitch done.

Now knit to the end of the row.

Continue working the wrong side and right side rows just like this, remembering to follow the number of knit and purl stitches for every row, because it changes. Don’t be put off when you have to purl two together at the end of a row, or knit two together at the start of a row. You just do it exactly as you’ve done it before.

Keep going until you only have one stitch left, then cut your yarn with a nice long tail and pull it through that final stitch to secure it.

The left shoulder should look like mine, below, with a tail from the joined-in yarn, and the decreases pointing off to the right.

That’s the back done! Come back next week for the knitalong tutorial for the front – time to start working those bobbles…

Madeleine

Who are you knitting your Little Flurries for? Have you gone for a Christmas tree version, or one of the other options?

 

 

 

Little Flurries – we have a winner!

I’m delighted to announce that my Little Flurries sweater pattern is now available via my Ravelry shop and also my Etsy shop! Please see this post for further details of this 1-5 years beginners’ knitting pattern.

Thank you so much to Carol and Susanne for entering my Little Flurries giveaway. As there were just a couple of entrants, it seems churlish to pick just one, so you both have a pattern on its way to you. Happy knitting!

Madeleine

Little Flurries knitalong part one: gathering and swatching

Welcome to the Little Flurries knitalong! I’m so pleased that you’re making one, and hope that these tutorials make it a fun and confidence-building experience for the even the newest of knitters. The pattern has been designed to be as simple as possible, while still incorporating lots of details to make it a cosy, cute and comfortable sweater for the little people in your life. It is suitable for confident beginners, and assumes that you can cast on, knit, purl and bind off.

Rest assured that these tutorial posts will stay up on the blog for free indefinitely, so there’s no need to rush. Take your time and feel free to leave a comment with any questions or suggestions you might have. If you’d like to receive email notifications of future tutorials and other posts, sign up in the Join Our Community box in the sidebar/ near the bottom of your phone screen. Oh, and don’t be confused by the changing yarn colour. It seems silly to photograph and write up the process of swatching for every different design I make, so I’ve used some photos from the Snow Day tutorial, as well as some new ones.

The yarn that I’ve chosen for Little Flurries is Drops Karisma, for a number of reasons. First, it’s pure wool, which provides the structure and warmth that the pattern calls for. However, I was careful to choose a superwash wool, because I know from first hand experience that most busy parents do not have time to hand wash baby knits. Karisma can go in your machine on a delicates cycle at 40 degrees. Thank goodness for that.

However, like most superwash yarns, Karisma does have a tendency to g-r-0-w, so don’t say I didn’t warn you. For this reason, I strongly recommend that you wash and dry your swatch as you would wash the finished jumper. Then you can pick a smaller size/ change needles as necessary.

Second, it’s a DK yarn. When I designed this pattern’s big sister, Snow Day, I wanted a thick enough yarn to make it almost chunky, and ended up choosing Drops Alaska, which is an aran weight. That would have been far too thick for little people, though – I’m not sure they would be able to move their arms in 2×2 aran weight ribbing! – so I scaled down to a double knitting weight instead.

Third, I loved the colour range. Karisma comes in lots of bold and bright colours, perfect for cheering up a grey and wintry day. (Ignore the pinks in my box above; they were part of the same delivery but for a different project.)

Finally, it’s inexpensive and widely available. We don’t all have big budgets for expensive yarn and overseas shipping costs – although it’s lovely if we do – and I wanted everyone to be able to make this little jumper.

 

If you’d like to make your jumper in another yarn – perhaps an acrylic for those sensitive to wool, or a more luxurious yarn for a special gift – go for it. I’d love to see how they turn out. Just make sure that it has a fairly rounded structure (3 plies or more) to make the bobbles and ribbing pop, and that it has a gauge of 21 stitches and 28 rows over 4×4 inches/ 10×10 cm.

Once you’ve got your wool, you’ll need to determine what size needles to work with. Cast on 21 stitches using the size recommended on the ball band – 4mm for Drops Karisma. Work in stocking stitch as this is the main stitch used (knit 1 row, turn, purl next row) for 28 rows. This is enough to establish the width and length of your knitted swatch. Gently uncurl the edges and hold it flat, without stretching it at all. Measure the width. It should be 10cm almost exactly – you can see from the photo below that mine is.

But what if it isn’t? Not to worry. We all knit with different tension, and even needles purporting to be the same size can differ. All you do is go up a needle size (if your swatch was under 10cm), or down a size (if it was over 10cm).  Knit two rows (no purling) to create a garter stitch line across your swatch. It should now look like the photo below (see that row of purl stitches at the very top?).

Carry on in stocking stitch again, until you’ve done another 28 rows and can measure your swatch again. Keep adjusting your needle size until your swatch measures 10 cm across. Here you can see that by changing up a needle size, the same number of stitches yielded over 11cm, instead of 10. Needle size makes a big difference.

 Don’t worry overly about how many rows you knit per 10cm, as long as you are in the right ballpark (28 rows per 10cm). The pattern will tell you how long each part needs to be, not how many rows to knit (apart from at the hem and neckline). The important thing is to use the right sized needles to be able to consistently knit 10cm across with 21 stitches. I used 4mm needles with the Drops Karisma. Wool and knitters vary. As long as your gauge is right, your jumper will fit.

You will also need a pair of needles 1mm smaller than the size you have decided upon. You don’t need to swatch with these needles, as they are just for the collar, sleeves and hem. For example, because my larger needles (the ones I swatched for) are 4mm, I’m going to use 3mm needles every time the pattern calls for my smaller needles.

Having said that I never wash and block my swatches, you should when trying out a superwash yarn, because it does stretch – quite a lot. Many people suggest putting superwash items in the dryer to shrink them back to size; I don’t have one. Instead, I pressed mine gently, using a pressing cloth. Whatever you plan to do, try it out on your swatch first. Then you won’t get any horrible surprises when you finally wash your finished jumper.

Speaking of the back, that tutorial – including photos – will be available next week, same time, same place. Hopefully you’ll have gathered your wool and needles and made your swatch by then. If you have any questions at all, you can either post them in the comments below, or send me an email direct at mrscecilygraham@gmail.com. In the meantime, why not snap the odd photo of your parcel of wool arriving/ swatching in front of the fire/ general knitting love and send them to me so that I can include them in next week’s post? Alternatively, you can add your photos to your Ravelry account. I look forward to seeing all the yarn that everyone chooses!

Madeleine

Who are you making your Little Flurry for? And which of the options for the front have you chosen?

Introducing Little Flurries – and a giveaway

November is upon us, and any knitter worth their salt is casting around for ideas for Christmas. Enter Little Flurries, a could-be-for-Christmas, could-just-be-a-lovely-jumper pattern for ages 1-5.

At its most festive, this is the jumper that gives you a cosy crafternoon with the little people in your life. Knit it for them, then present it to them with a jar of buttons, tinsel, embroidery silks, little trinkets – the more the merrier. Show me a 3-5 year old who wouldn’t want to wear a jumper with a Christmas tree that they’d decorated all by themselves on the front. And for the under 3s, you get to retain full creative control, as there will probably be far too many choking hazards involved for them to get involved. But as long as everything is securely sewn on, there’s no reason why even the tiddliest toddlers can’t be dressed for the festive season.

My children started by playing with buttons…

before raiding the real Christmas tree basket for some tinsel…

when Ilse suddenly remembered a bracelet which had snapped, leaving her with lots of lovely beads.

I still rather like the button option, especially for younger children. And of course, you could use embroidery, little badges (or buttons, as I believe they are called on the other side of the Atlantic), or whatever you have lying around, really. This is the ultimate project for rooting around in your craft drawers.

Of course, for the budding minimalists among the pre-school set, there is always the refined option of simply wearing it as a lit up tree. Or a tree with multicoloured baubles knitted in. Or even an entirely green tree, to make an understated environmental point.

Being someone who doesn’t like waste, I do like the fact that you can remove the tinsel and the trinkets and turn this back into a simpler sweater to wear for the rest of the winter, before passing it on to someone else to decorate the way they’d like the following year.

Or you can knit one of the three everyday options: bobbles in the same colour as the rest of the jumper, no bobbles at all, or a two-tone version with darker sleeves and bobbles against a lighter body. One model’s mother went for the latter version and I have to say, I love it in the teal. It is pretty and practical and very cosy indeed. My tiniest model will be showing it off next week, but here’s a preview of it in progress:

The bobble-less version, for those who are not so keen on bobbles, still has lots of texture thanks to the warm ribbed sleeves.

I’ve put a huge amount of thought into the development of this pattern. Even before the launch of Snow Day, I was toying with the idea of a pint-sized version. The bobbles and ribbing look lovely in the adult pattern, and I had some ideas for turning them into a sweet little toddler sweater. It wouldn’t be enough to simply resize the pattern; small children would be simply swamped by all that texture in an Aran weight yarn. Mealtimes, playdough and time spent outdoors meant that the jumpers would need to be machine-washable. Yet I wanted the sweater to retain its warmth and its characteristic bobbles and ribbed sleeves. 

So along came Little Flurries: a toddler-sized, DK, envelope-neck version of the Snow Day jumper. I’ve kept the uneven hem, to cover nappy-enhanced bottoms, and added a traditional neckline welcoming to even the most enormous of heads. Instead of thumb holes, the toddler version offers an optional foldover mitten, for quick trips outside when wrestling with real mittens is a step too far. And, of course, I’ve had a lot of fun with the bobbles. The Christmas version – outrageously silly as it is – is my favourite. My children had a huge amount of fun decorating the sample jumper, and as they’re all far too big to wear it, they have started a campaign for bigger ones. Maybe next year.

Whichever version you use, it goes without saying that there will be a knitalong, with a tutorial each week explaining each step with photographs to help you out. This is about the same level of difficulty as Snow Day. It uses some of the same skills (those bobbles and that ribbing) and some different ones too (the shaping is worked with decreases, and there is no increasing at all). The making up is, if anything, slightly simpler, as there is no neckline to knit on.

I’ve knit two of these in the past three weeks, and my mum knit the other one for me. They fairly fly together, if you set your mind to it, in little flurries of knitting on autumnal evenings. For those little flurries otherwise known as small children, of course. Make one. Make two. Make more, if you’re a speedy knitter. However many you make, and whichever design option you choose, I hope you enjoy making your Little Flurries as much as I have.

As with my A-line skirt pattern, I’d like to run a little giveaway for the Little Flurries pattern. I’ll be giving away one copy of the Little Flurries pattern to every ten people who enter. I will round up the number of commenters to the next ten – so if 11 people enter, I’ll give away two copies of the pattern, for example.

If you would like to enter the giveaway, please leave a comment on this post by Thursday 1 November 2018. Please only leave one comment per person, and make sure that you use a valid email address so that I can contact you if you win. I’ll be drawing the winner(s) and sending out the pattern(s) on Friday 2 November. Please note that you need to leave a comment in order to be entered – emails will not count. And if you’d like to leave a comment but don’t want to be entered in the draw, just say so in your comment! You are very welcome to enter both giveaways.

The pattern is suitable for confident beginners. It will be available through my Ravelry shop  from Friday 2 November, and my Etsy shop from Monday 5 November.

Madeleine

Dare I ask if you’ve started any Christmas knitting yet? How would you decorate Little Flurries, if you were to make one?

Balm

We have a habit of collecting those tiny pots of jam. You know – the ones which arrive with a B&B breakfast, or a cream tea, containing an individual portion of conserve. Waitresses smile as the children pocket them, still half full, to eke out onto slices of toast at home. Honestly, you’d think we didn’t have a cupboard full of homemade conserves just waiting to be eaten.

But I don’t mind really, because I know that jam, like most things, is more fun in miniature. I also know that, once nothing else can be scraped out of the tiny pots, they’ll go through the dishwasher and then they’re mine, to refill as I choose.

Sometimes they are simply filled with jam again. Whenever I make a batch, I tend to fill a tiny jar and put it aside to go with a certain red-suited gentleman’s festive gifts. Recently, since we made the change to plastic-free toothpaste tablets, we pop a tiny jarful in our toilet bags for travel. Sometimes they liven up a packed lunch, full of mayonnaise or mustard or ketchup. This week, I filled a few with balm.

I used to make beeswax balms a lot, until, somehow, I fell out of the habit. Instead, I’d taken to buying similar products. There is no moisturiser on earth as richly nourishing as a beeswax balm, and, homemade or not, I wouldn’t face the winter without one. They don’t contain any of the wonder ingredients touted on expensive face creams, but they are the most protective and healing thing I know of. And you can use them anywhere: on your face, of course, but also on chapped lips, hands, knees, elbows, to smooth down flyaway hair, to highlight a cheekbone. Depending on your choice of essential oils, you can use them for other purposes too: as perfume or decongestant, an aid to sleep or a special treat for weary skin. In case you can’t tell, I love my balms.

This week, I made a single pot of lavender-scented balm when I came in from work one evening. John was busy making tea so I took advantage of the hot Rayburn to quickly melt some beeswax. I hadn’t made balms in some years, and wanted to test my proportions before making a larger batch. Happily it was a success, so with John and Fliss requesting pots of their own, and the fact that I wanted to make a Vicks substitute for the approaching cold season, I made three more this weekend.

Follow my method by all means, but do remember that I am in no way a herbalist, doctor or anything of that ilk. This is just a commonsense approach to getting some goodness into your skin, hair and nails. Beeswax is incredible stuff, and forms a protective barrier on your skin which keeps the cutting winds out and the moisture in. I used almond oil this time, but I’ve used olive oil in the past, and will no doubt try something different in the future. None of us are allergic to anything, which makes it easy, but do bear such things in mind, especially if you’re going to give these as a gift.

Finely slice – or grate – some beeswax from your block. Put it directly into your jars. I aim for a quarter to a third of beeswax by volume, and just judge it by eye, but if you were using pellets you could get your measuring spoons out. Top the jars up with your olive, almond or alternative carrier oil.

Now fill a pan with water, drop a steamer basket in, and add your jars. You want the water to come partway up the sides of the jar, so that the beeswax melts in the water bath. Put it on to come to a gentle simmer.

As the beeswax melts, give it a stir to mix the oil and wax together. I happened to have some wooden skewers to hand, so I used one of those. It’ll make an excellent firefighter, later.

When all the wax has melted, carefully remove your jars from the pan, and add some essential oils. I used ten drops of lavender for a very gentle fragrance, ten drops of eucalyptus to invigorate John, and about 40 drops of eucalyptus for my pot of decongestant. Give them a good stir, taking care not to mix the scents. I used both ends of my skewer.

Put the lids on and admire. They should look like tiny jars of liquid honey.

And then, once cool, they look like my very favourite set honey, with a hole in the middle where I presume the mixture contracts as it cools. Aren’t they soothing, just to look at?

Next time, I’d like to try some different scents – perhaps something orangey and spicy to carry me through December. I also adore the smell of wintergreen and might make a pot of that for my soon-to-be dry, sore hands.  Fliss wants to find some tiny tins and fill them with a more highly scented blend, to give to her friends as solid perfumes. I might make some with honey in, as lickable lip balms, and I’m on the lookout for rosehip oil.

This time, though, I happy with my choices. Lavender is nothing short of a wonder oil, in my opinion. Ever since Ilse was badly burned on the upper lip by a stickily hot marshmallow, and a doctor advised lavender essential oil to combat scarring, I’ve been complete convert. It’s one of the few things I pack in my little toilet bag whenever we go away. It was what the midwives added to my bath, after Seb and Ilse were born, to help with healing, and what I drop onto people’s pillows when they can’t sleep. Just the other evening, Seb was still awake some time after going up, and a smear of balm under his nose sent him off to the land of nod in no time.

Eucalyptus, on the other hand, is invigorating and cleansing. The pot of stronger balm will be what I rub into the children’s chests – and my own – when we come down with coughs this winter, and around their poor sore noses when they have a cold. It is antibacterial and antifungal and a very effective decongestant. Plus it just smells wonderful.

So there you have it: beeswax balms. There are recipes for these all over the place, I’m sure. However you end up making yours, I hope you enjoy using them as much as I do.

Madeleine

Do you make any medicinal or beauty products for yourself? Do tell…

 

Twelve days

The first day is the big one, or course. Christmas Day: a day for church and presents and rather too much food. A capon, and stuffing and parsnips and sprouts. Paper crowns. Wrapping paper everywhere. Leftovers on the kitchen counter.
Boxing Day: a walk in the wind. Cold meat and vegetables baked in a pie. The start of a jigsaw.
Not much on the 27th. Playing with some new toys, finding homes for others. Thank you letters. A stroll to the postbox.
On the 28th old fabrics are pulled through, and plans for using them up are afoot. We do a little sewing, or model making, or reading. There’s a trip to the pictures.
The 29th and 30th are spent outside, the former in freezing fog and frost, the second in a sudden thaw. One day in the garden, pruning shrubs and trees, and the next wandering around the woodland of Fountains Abbey with the rest of the Graham clan.
On the 31st, plans for the following year are germinating. By the first, they are complete. Mother makes a feast.
The second brings a trip to the countryside in the motor in the morning, and more sewing in the afternoon. The schools go back on the third. On the fourth I bake a cake, and give the house a clean.
Today, the fifth of January, is the eleventh day of Christmas, and also my 38th birthday. We’ll eat the cake, and have something special for supper. It is the last in a long list of recent celebrations, and really we are all ready to get back to normal. Which is why it’s a good thing that it’s the twelfth day of Christmas tomorrow. A day to take the greenery down and put it on the compost. To pack the decorations away in their box, ready for next year. For the house to feel clean and sparse and bright again. Twelve days, each with its own flavour. Our Christmas, in a nutshell.

Humbug

… the hamster, that is – not my attitude to Christmas. In fact, I loved Christmas this year, and there are moments of the past three days that I intend to relish for a very long time. Like settling on the sofa to read The Night Before Christmas to discover that Ilse has learned the poem by heart, or she and Seb adding their own secretly homemade presents to the pile under the twinkling tree. The children all climbing into bed with us on Christmas morning – even Fliss, even Ben – to unwrap the books and socks and stationery that Father Christmas had so carefully chosen for each of them, and seeing that he’d got it right. Or watching their faces as they unwrapped surprises on Christmas afternoon.

It really is better to give than to receive, and I saw the children watching as their gifts to us and one another were opened and admired. From Ilse: coloured card cut into paper stars to hang upon the tree. Sweets from Ben and Fliss, which I can only assume they made in Mother’s kitchen as I’ve not been out of ours for days. And last minute whittling from Seb: birds and paper knives and other little things. They were lovely presents, carefully dreamed up and executed with muted excitement behind closed doors. I love that our children all love making things.

The presents I received were all about making, too. Sock wool in just the right shade of muted green; a length of tweed from Abram Moon in the colours of the late September moors; piano books full of Chopin and Deubussy to master; a new pattern book to pore over and unpick. There’ll be no shortage of projects on my list next year.

On a Boxing Day, though, we left all the gifts at home after a late and lazy breakfast, and headed out for a walk under a bright and wind-scoured sky. It was freezing and sunlit and a million miles away from the small excesses of the day before, and it whet our appetites for the leftover pie at home. With the end of Boxing Day comes the end of Christmas proper, to my mind, although the lights and other decorations will stay up until Twelfth Night. Sitting by the tree on Christmas evening I looked across to see Ben, paper crown shining in the firelight, with a look of utter contentment on his face. From within his folded arms poked an inquisitive little nose, happy to snuggle now that the excitement of meeting one another was done. Dark brown with a white stripe around his middle, Humbug is easily as sweet as his name suggests, and a not a bit of a Christmas Scrooge. Despite all the gadgets and gizmos available in 1931, we knew that a soft and furry friend was just what our boy needed to take him through this final year of exams and upheaval and change. I was, by that point, too tired to get up and find the camera and snap the two of them together, and I don’t think I needed to, anyway. Of all the moments from this very happy Christmas, that’s  the image that’ll stay in my mind’s eye forever.

Bit by bit

What are we doing tomorrow? is often the last question of the day, asked over the banisters on the way up to bed. I had wondered if the younger ones were beginning to get fed up with pottering around the house. Fortunately, ‘tomorrow’ was a day with definite errands, activities and an outing built in. Well, I need to go the the greengrocer and the butcher, and then I thought we might make some gingerbread, and then we’re going to visit your great-grandmother for tea. A look of slight concern passed over Seb’s face. Will we have some time at home? I’ve got so much more to do for Christmas.

Bit by bit, everything is coming together. As far as I’m concerned, only my favourite parts remain: wrapping the children’s presents in front of the fire one evening with John; Christmas Eve in the kitchen, making custard and stewed cabbage and pigs in blankets. Laying first the marzipan and then the icing over the rich fruit cake, and deciding how to finish it this year. Boiling the ham and baking dauphinois potatoes for a meal so rich that only something green and frugal can sit beside it: the cabbagey tops of the sprouts I’ve grown especially. Laying out the stockings at the ends of beds and, finally, trying to sleep so that Father Christmas might arrive.

In the meantime, other important preparations are being taken care of by our household team of elves. There’s a snowstorm on the kitchen windows, and paper chains dangle from every permissible angle. The gingerbread we baked was duly tasted, decorated and tasted again. The pile of homemade cards and little presents is growing, day by day. I’ve a secret slot booked in the kitchen with Ilse. And although they are itching to bring in the holly and the ivy and festoon every picture frame in the place,  that and the tree must wait until Christmas Eve, when everyone needs something to channel their excitement into.

Which left me free to dust off my spinning wheel last night and turn a pile of rolags into yarn. While I did, I thought about all the things I’m going to make in that quiet week between Christmas and New Year, and the walks we’re going to go on, and the people we’re going to see. And then I thought: what are we doing tomorrow? and realised that the answer was: nothing, especially. Well, how lovely is that? I think I’ll do a spot of wintry gardening, and then maybe add a bit to Ilse’s quilt. This is just the sort of holiday I needed: calm and quiet, while the children busy themselves with Christmas fun. I wish you the sort of holidays that you need, too, whatever those might be. Have a very happy Christmas, everyone.

That’s better

Well, we finally made it. The children broke up on Friday, John has taken two weeks off work, and the holidays have begun. It took us until Sunday for the truth of it to sink in, and until today for me to begin losing track of time, which is always the mark of a good break. But it was yesterday morning, walking across Hob Moor as the sun broke through the mist, that I stopped to pay attention. The children travel  this way every single school day, cycling over this little nature reserve on the edge of the city, with John or I in attendance more often than not. At the start of each new term we marvel at its beauty, or stop for  an impromptu picnic tea, but as the weeks wear on I stop looking and simply pedal, head down, into the wind or the rain.

To me, enjoying the little pleasures that winter affords is one of the joys of the Christmas holidays. When we are all at home, sharing out the daily tasks, there’s time to lie on the rug in front of the fire and savour a fat satsuma. There’s time to visit Mother and Father for mulled wine and her delectable mince slices: shortbread with an apple mincemeat topping. And time for parties, of course, fuelled by a fridge full of fizz. When else would I get to settle down and listen to whole of The Box of Delights with the little ones, or take all four of them to the flicks? And yes, there are cards to be written and homemade presents to complete, and there’s lots and lots of wrapping to be done. But with a spicy drink and some carols in the background, it’s no trouble at all.

Yet the nicest thing of all about the Christmas holidays is that almost everyone I know is having a little rest. It’s the one time of year when holidays across the country coincide so that bankers and teachers and schoolchildren and shopkeepers can collectively look forward to a few days off. Even the farmers and the doctors strip their tasks back to the essentials. And beyond these shores, in many other countries, more people than I can picture are celebrating the same feast in more ways than I can imagine. I like that thought very much: a collective sigh of peace and goodwill from all over the globe.

Because I know I’m not the only one to see an old route with new eyes at this time of year, or to look forward to renewing old traditions. Bit by bit, our house is filling with greenery and light. Touches of gold sparkle in dim corners. And every so often I catch myself taking a deep breath and thinking: ahh, that’s better.