The magic of kits

Last Thursday, as soon as I’d published my post about our Easter holidays, I wrote another post about my dismay at discovering that I have a stash. Yes, I know that this is a problem that I am privileged to face and yes, I know that many creative people love nothing more than a great big stash full of possibility. But the thing is that this is my life and my time, and I don’t want to spend it making things I neither enjoy creating nor really want in the end. Life is short, and our planet’s resources are limited. I like to make things that I need, want and will treasure, one at a time, using up scraps as I go. That’s what brings me creative pleasure.

Part of the reason I was so fed up about it was that I’ve spent a lot of time using up yarn scraps this winter. I’ve knit two lace baby bonnets and crocheted two snoods, as well and knitting colourwork wrist warmers and a long fairisle snood for my mother, amongst other things. The final snood was finished in the lake district, and in my mind, that was the end of the materials in stock. As I found, that wasn’t the case at all.

We’ve had the pleasure of a long weekend this week, with a Bank Holiday Monday, and with the luxury of time I took myself off to my little studio to finish off another nearly-there project – hand binding my new sewing machine cover.

One thing led to another, and before I knew it I’d grabbed the hoover and a duster and was giving the whole room a spring clean. I emptied out all three desk drawers, moved all the books and generally had a really good sort out before putting things back differently to before. Rather than having a drawer for all things woolly (spinning, knitting, crochet) and another for all things sewing-related (garments, embroidery, patchwork and quilting), I consolidated all the tools into one drawer and all the materials into another. (Various papers, including patterns and writing materials make up the third.) This time, though, I was a bit more ruthless about what constituted a material. Food dyes? Yes, actually. Brown luggage labels? Yes. Essential oils and seeds for the veg patch and bits of beeswax? Yes again.

I also did something very uncharacteristic and donated a length of viscose to the charity shop. It’s not that I’m against donating – in fact I’m all in favour of it. I just think that donation has become a bit of a get-out-of-jail-free card for many of us when it comes to thoughtless consumption. Normally, we really do use things up and wear them out to the extent that they are only fit for recycling by the time we’re done with them. But that fabric was making my heart sink every time I looked at it. I didn’t want to sew with it, and I didn’t want to see it on Ilse for a year or two.

Out also (to recycling) went a couple of other well-intentioned projects, one of which was the beginnings of my handspun blanket. It is made from my handspun yarn, crocheted out of leftovers from various projects. But I have been making it for three or four years now, and it is just over a foot long. Again, I only have one lifetime, and there are other things I’d rather spend it on.

Thinking about long term projects led to me cast a critical eye over my scrap quilt squares. I’d already used up the postage stamp blocks I’d made for the other side of the sewing machine cover, and honestly felt like I’d had enough of that. Instead, I put together a kit for an EPP sewing roll. Everything is planned and labelled and a beautiful lining fabric has been assigned. All of a sudden, what was a languishing long term use-up-the-scraps project is a new and exciting portable craft, ready to come out and about with me this summer. I can’t wait.

There’s a lot to be said for trying your hand at something before committing to a major project, and the drunkard’s path blocks were something that I had my fill of very quickly indeed. It wasn’t the curves – I quite like sewing curves after all my dressmaking – but rather all the pinning of the aforementioned curves that was just tedious. So the fact that the first sixteen blocks were trimmed too small (don’t sew when you’re sleep deprived) turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I turned them into a lovely new pair of much-needed potholders:

and went on the hunt for a new quilt pattern. In the end, I chose to make something very similar to this, only with a grey background instead of the white. I cut up my 10″ blocks and a bit of Liberty and all of a sudden my I’ll-make-it-as-I-create-scraps quilt is now a kit complete with everything I need to construct the top, bar a border. It is going to be my autumn project, with a view to getting it onto our bed by Christmas, and once again, I can’t wait.

What with a washed and dried fleece paired with some food colouring (Ilse and I have a date set for this) as well as all those frozen elderberries and avocado skins, I’m ready to see how much I can get spun during the Tour de Fleece this July.

The jar of tiny scraps is ready to transform my old handspun yarn tags into reusable Christmas tags (the magic of pencils and rubbers) and some cards.

A favourite pattern and the right sized needles have been selected for some September sock knitting:

and a couple of other quick and easy projects have been finished off and cleared out of the way, such as some visible mending of a much loved (and very much on its last legs) jumper.

When all was said and done, I had a total of eight projects lined up for the next few months, all of which I am delighted about. I genuinely can’t believe just how much impact a simple shift – just collating materials into kits – has had on my attitude towards these materials. They have gone from being millstones to a series of treats that I am looking forward to getting stuck into, one by one. In fact, I was so keen to get started that I finally made some more progress on my holiday embroidery yesterday, and am planning another pleasant afternoon’s stitching very soon.

It has also inspired a flurry of other creative endeavours, with old projects being pulled out and dusted off all over the house; especially gratifying was finding some more scraps being added to a strip quilt last night.

It’s been such turnaround, from dismay to pure pleasure, over the past few days and I’m relieved that only the latter seems to be catching. I don’t know what the psychology of all this is, but I do know that there is something truly transformative about the magic of kits.

Madeleine

What are your tricks to make yourself excited about your materials again? Do you make up kits for yourself? Or do prep/ cutting sessions? Or is there another method that we should know about?

Away and back again

I often choose Easter as the time when one set of projects will end and another begins. Gardening, of course, begins in earnest around this time, as does the washing and spinning of a fleece. Because of this, I like to have my cold-weather knitting and sewing wrapped up, leaving me free to focus on the plants and some outdoor carding and spinning (raw fleeces are just too dirty for me to want to work indoors).

Of course, Easter is a moveable feast, which makes it an odd date to start the gardening year. It’s good to know I’m not alone in my madness: folk wisdom dictates that potatoes should always be planted on the equally moveable Good Friday. For me, though, Easter has two constants that makes it the perfect time for this changing of the guard. First, I always have a two week holiday in which to finish off lingering tasks and really get the garden started. Second, we always go away, if only for a couple of nights. I suspect that it’s this change of scene that has the greater influence on me, because we almost always go somewhere dominated by nature, which makes me almost ache to be in the garden when we get home.

This year we went back to the Lake District bothy that we hired three Easters ago. I think that it might be one of my very favourite places for an off-grid, switch-off and reconnect-with-one-another holiday. I love it there. I love that fact that there is no electricity, let alone wi-fi. I love the fact that there’s nothing to do on the candlelit evenings but play a game together, or snuggle into your sleeping bag with a torch and a good book.

Most of all, though, I love that fact that there’s nowhere else to stay on that side of Loweswater and in the mornings you have all this to yourself.

As everyone in the UK knows, the weather over the Easter weekend was sublime. It was perfect for early morning walks in the woods around Loweswater, admiring the gnarled trees and patches of bluebells.

I liked to finish my walks by approaching ‘our’ bothy via this green lane. Can you see it, nestled in the trees?

If you timed it right, there might be some breakfast or a cup of tea to enjoy on a log bench whilst watching the children play endlessly on the rope swing. We were very relieved to find it still there, three years later.

Despite the fact that I have done a reasonable amount of walking the in Lakes, and John has done a vast amount more, neither of us had ever been to Ennerdale, so we made that the object of our Easter Sunday walk. If you don’t know, Ennerdale is the dale which is being rewilded, which means that there are no cars beyond the car parks, no boats or bouys on the lake, and far, far fewer people than in other parts of the Lakes. We climbed the fell on one side before dropping down to walk through the most wonderful woodland, full of twisted roots and natural stepping stones, before stopping to have our lunch on a little pebbled beach. On the far side of the water was an Easter egg hunt which felt madly busy after the peace and tranquility of the first half of our walk, but we quickly left that behind and followed the curve of the shore full circle.

I completed what was to be my final yarn project of the season while we were there – far quicker than I would have done at home, as Ilse and I spent the first afternoon of our stay crocheting, reading and dozing on a hillside in the sun while the others did a Via Ferratta climb. Luckily I’d brought some materials with me to start an embroidered 2019 holidays diary, and set about sketching my idea whilst admiring Loweswater one evening.

I didn’t get terribly far with it before we came home, but I’ve been enjoying working on it since and it is coming along at its own pace. The plan is to add a stitched sketch of our lovely stay at Pale Hall in January, and then take it on holiday with me all year.

As you’ll probably have guessed, this was entirely inspired by Gillian’s holiday embroideries. I made one a couple of years ago, when we went to Greece with family for a couple of weeks, and never shared it on the blog. It hangs in our guest room and I love it in all its imperfection. There are many happy memories stitched into that bit of linen. (I do intend to share it here, but it is fiendishly difficult to photograph. One day I’ll surprise you with it.)

On the way home, we had to stop in on of my favourite spots to let some sheep meander across the road, and I took a final couple of photos to remind me of quite how big the world really is when I’m sitting at home in York.

There’s nothing quite like a mountain to put you in your place.

Home again, the children helped me in the garden for a couple of days. The vegetable patch was less than manicured. I like to tell myself that I was letting all those weed seeds germinate so that we could get them all in one go…

Whatever the justification, a couple of overcast days later all four beds were weeded and compost spread on the parts that had missed out in the autumn. Two more days saw them all the seeds that could be sown, sown, and the potatoes planted too. I can look at the next two photos much more happily.

I think the Easter holidays might be my favourite of all, coming as they do just as the world is waking up around us. With a short stay away, somewhere simple, to refocus my mind on the world around me and force me to look up from whatever might be in my hands. I love the forcefulness of spring: the way in which is bursts upon you, ready or not. And I’d like to think that I am, usually, ready, although this year I fear that I am not. But more on that next time.

Madeleine

Did you have a lovely Easter? Go anywhere or do anything special? Does Easter inspire you to make seasonal changes in the way you spend your time?

Colours, inside and out

Normally I’d be in the garden at the very first signs of spring, but not this year. This year, for sanity’s sake, I decided that gardening would commence at Easter, and not before. So apart from watering the odd seedling on a sunny windowsill, I have no jobs to do.

Instead, I pop into the garden whenever I get the chance, and just wander about. I rugged up on Sunday and had a cup of tea in our lopsided pergola, surveying the emptying vegetable beds. We’ve been enjoying the last of the leeks and the parsnips, and the first of the perpetual spinach and PSB. Mostly, though, I just wander around, looking at what’s coming back to life. The most urgent garden-related job is eating our way through the bags of soft fruit in the freezer from last year and even the year before that. We need to make room, you see.

It is surprisingly liberating. On my way into mass last week I heard an older man comment to his wife that it was time to get the lawnmower out, gesturing to the lush new growth in the church grounds, and I just thought oh, there’ll be time enough for that. One of my neighbours was out dealing with the first dandelions of the season, and for once I thought that ours could wait. I’ve not lost interest in the garden. Quite the opposite, in fact. I am very excited about my plans for the new season. But I’ll start them when I’m ready.

In the meantime, I am quite happy polishing off my wool supplies. I finished a second little bonnet at the weekend and have tucked it away in my handmade gift drawer, ready for a teeny-weeny head. It’s even smaller than the last – more of a newborn size than 3-6 months, and used up the end of a ball of sock yarn. Since then, I’ve been crocheting a simple snood using up the odds and ends from all this winter’s colourwork knitting. I added a ball of vaguely mustardy yellow to the mix and am enjoying playing with the colours, just choosing the next stripe. It’s brighter than my usual makes, but I do like it. I’m not sure whether this will be for me, or another ready-to-hand present.

All things considered, I am quite pleased with my new approach to spring, even though it is really a response to the fact that I don’t have the time at home to do everything I want to all at once. I’m even beginning to think that might be a good thing. It certainly feels like it, from my vantage point in a sunny bay window. I might do a little final planning by the fire this weekend, and check my supply of seeds so that I’m all ready to go when the wool runs out. But that’s as far as the gardening is going to get, for now at least, and for once I’m okay with that.

Madeleine

Do you hit the ground running in spring or sit back and watch it instead? I actually think I might be enjoying it even more than usual this year, by just paying attention instead of making mental to-do lists. What’s your favourite approach?


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?

All this wool

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whirlwind

Oh my. Turn your back for a moment and the pile of craft-jobs-to-be-done grows exponentially. Out of sight, in cupboards and drawers around the house, more scraps and old clothes and odd bits of this and that gather than I ever thought possible. I knew I had a few projects lined up, but with my push to use every craft material for the purpose I had bought it for earlier this year, I thought I was quite on top of it all. In a way, I was. Every single piece of fabric or skein of wool has been sewn or knitted into its intended product. But what I’m left with are the remnants and the lame ducks of the crafting world: worn sheets, crumpled scraps of fabric and outgrown and stained clothes.

Now, I know that I could send some of this off with the rag and bone man to be rewoven into shoddy, but I genuinely want to make these things. So last week I gathered everything together into one tremendous heap on the dining room table and went through it all, sorting it into projects as I went. There’s the end of the fleeces I was given last summer to spin up. Three old white sheets to dye. Lots of snippets of fabric to trim into useable sizes for the three quilts I have lined up. Wadding for each one – two threadbare blankets and Seb’s sorry-looking eiderdown. A stack of granny squares which just need sewing together into a dolly blanket to set aside as a gift. Two pieces of fabric large enough to make a sunhat for our holiday in Greece. Some linen and some embroidery silk to turn into two more labels. The list goes on.

Literally nothing in the pile was new. Nothing had been bought (or given to me, with the exception of the fleeces) for a particular project. But it seemed such a waste to throw it all away when I could see all the potential in it. So I made a list of each and every project I had in mind, and made myself a kit for each.

In some cases, this was easy. The linen and thread went together with my hoop and needle: done. The fleece was already washed and sorted. But all that scrap fabric needed trimming, with sheets and scraps being divided between three different patchwork tops. And those old clothes? Well, they needed the collars and cuffs chopping off before they could even be cut up into strips. Seb, whose room the finished product was intended for, was keen to begin, and he and Ben and I made reasonably short work of turning a heap of old clothes into a basket of fabric yarn.

The simple act of preparing the materials has made them so much more appealing. By the time the yarn was made, everyone wanted to have a go at plaiting it. It’s trickier than it looks, because the balls have a way of making a sort of inverse plait beneath the real, intended one, but you find ways of dealing with this pretty quickly. Seb did a little bit – a yard or so – and I did the rest in two long evenings with John and the wireless for company. An hour of stitching round in spirals and the rag rug which had been waiting for well over a year was done. It’s by the reading chair in Seb’s new bedroom, and he’s nominated it the place to sit on the floor when he’s playing with his soldiers. Cheery and bright and completely recycled, we all rather like it.

Next up is that dolly blanket, and then the embroidery I think. And all the while, whenever I feel like it, I’ve been chopping away at that fabric, and building three kits for quilts. I keep thinking about how much fun it’s going to be, sewing it all together. And about how simple it is, to turn something cumbersome into something new and inspiring. The dining room table is in a state of flux, there are measurements and sketches building up in my little notebook, but I’m amazed at how quickly I’m whipping through these projects. In a whirlwind, in fact.

Squares

They are curiously compelling, these little squares. I had intended to make a few each summer, using up odds and ends of aran until one day I might have enough to make a blanket. It was a plan for dealing with the sort of balls that aren’t big enough to be worth casting on with. And as the pile of such balls grew smaller they went from pesky to precious. I found myself divvying them up with care: these ones for the centres, those bigger scraps for outer rounds, so that each square would still change colour with each row.

This is a portable craft – more so than knitting. A hook and a ball of wool can be slipped into a handbag, or a knapsack’s outer pocket, or a basket for the beach. By the time we came home from Filey I could have made them in my sleep: three triples, one chain, three triples, one chain, until you get to the corner and do everything twice. Once home, Fliss asked me to show her how it was done, and for a day or two she commandeered my hook and a half-ball of double knitting, until her surprise for Ilse’s birthday was complete, and wrapped carefully in tissue in her highest drawer.

Before I knew it, the aran was gone and there were no more squares to be crocheted. It was back to the leftover 2 ply for a pair of fingerless gloves with leaves growing up the wrists: fiddly and comparatively slow. Sometimes it is fun to make something you have to think about, but sometimes it is the repetitive twist and pull that we long for at the end of a busy day. So a second blanket was begun, simply a giant double knitting granny square to which colours will be added whenever there is wool left over, or a child’s pullover outgrown and frogged.

Because, really, it is when our hands are busy that our minds are free to wander. Perhaps I should have been thinking of more important things: of politics or literature or the people I know and love. Perhaps, another time, I will. Just now, though, I found myself content to plan a blanket or two. I’m quite looking forward to a bit more crotchet, once the last little knits are done. It’s a soothing shape, a square: predictable and easy. It doesn’t matter where you start from, or where you have to pause. I might keep them all small, or pick a single shade to link them all together. Other colours will be added as new jumpers are knit up, but the steady brown and cream will be the same. I’m not after a wild old time, just at the moment. The school year is coming to an end, there’s a riot in the garden, there are bigger projects underway. All in all, this was a good time for these squares, and I may not wait until next year to make some more.