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?

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…

Everything but the knitting

It is still light when I get home from work, and I am feeling a tremendous urge to do everything but the knitting. Remember this shot from a couple of weeks ago? It hasn’t been touched since. Despite several bouts of feeling that I really ought to finish it off, it just isn’t happening. But that’s okay, because everything else is.

It’s half term here next week and I am very much looking forward to a few days off with the children, as well as tackling a few projects around the place. I am desperate – desperate – for some time in the garden. I know it’s early, but perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I am spending so much more time indoors these days, at work. Whatever the reason, that’s where I’ll be spending a whole day, as well as any little snippets of free time I stumble across. Just now, it is in that funny late winter state of being both a terrible mess (think blown down brassica cages and piles of sticks still waiting to be burnt) and beautiful (think bulbs). The crocuses are up and they are just the loveliest little blooms, minding their own business here and there until someone takes the time to crouch down and appreciate their charms. I love them. As well as admiring the flowers, I also want to sort out some chicken-proofing and get on with planting lots and lots of seeds. Having decided against a full vegetable garden in the autumn, I have now done a U-turn and intend to plant a full vegetable garden. Will I curse myself for this in June? Maybe. But I want to get my hands into the dirt, and have endless salad for free. And there are few things more therapeutic than a spot of watering after a long day at work.

In the spirit of getting ready for spring, I am also going to spend a day or so ploughing through the end of all those sewing projects I cut out at Christmas. The last two weekends were completely obliterated by the children’s ballet show, so I’ve got a couple of things that haven’t made it to the machine yet, including a prototype skirt for next year that I’m very keen to start wearing. And I’d also like to do a spot of pre-spring cleaning, while I have the time.

Conscious that I’m quite capable of spending the entire week ticking things off a project list, the children have each been told to choose something that they’d like to do for an entire day with me. In no particular order, the three younger ones have chosen: playing cafe with real food all day (the menu has been in progress ever since), making a mid-Victorian dress so as to dress up as Jane Eyre for World Book Day the following week (I’ve got a book out of the library to help) and doing a spot of twitching in a bird sanctuary (we’ll be choosing the warmest day for this). We’re also going to be seeing Ben, and are looking forward to seeing what he chooses for us all.

Doubtless I will also find time to finish that lovely little baby bonnet, which will be very satisfying indeed. After which, I’m inclined to put away my needles for the time being. I’ve a garden to grow, and plenty of sewing to do in the form of quilt blocks and pattern samples. We’ve been saving avocado pits and skins in the freezer, as well as the elderberry harvest, and are hoping to spin and dye a little fleece on rainy days. Then again, if it snows you’ll probably find me by the fire once more, casting on for something or other. I blame it on the weather.

Madeleine

Have you had half term this week, or are you off next week like us (or not at all, if you live outside the UK)? Done anything fun? We’re open to recommendations!

These days

I’ve been making a real effort not to say I’m so busy, although truth be told I catch myself doing it all the time. Yesterday afternoon, collecting Ilse from my parents house, I found myself doing my usual must dash! – and it was true. John has been out of the country for work this week, which has been the cherry on the cake of a very full life.

The trouble is that the word busy doesn’t have the best connotations. There’s something self-important about it, as well as pointless. They call it busy work for a reason: something to keep children occupied and make them think they are getting somewhere whereas, in fact, they are standing still. There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with a bit of busy work, as long as it’s a conscious choice. I’d count knitting something simple as grown up busy work, really. But I don’t want to think of my life as busy. I want to think of it as full of the things I love.

These days, I am working four days a week outside the home and one day on my pattern designing business, and I am loving it all. Around the edges, though, I’ve chosen to keep going with the other things I enjoy, rather than putting them on ice for when the work dries up, or, worse, the last of the children leaves home. Like most people, I like finding out about how other people spend their time and, as this has been so much on my mind lately, I thought I’d share a week with you.

On Mondays, I just go to work. Normally, nothing happens in the evening, which is the loveliest end to the first day of the week. John and I take it in turns to come home and take care of the children and the chores, or stay late at work. As a result, I either switch off by cooking and doing the ironing, or walk straight into a house with a lit fire and tea on the table. I like both.

The lack of clubs means that Monday nights are when I tend to finish off – or at least work on – whatever craft project I started at the weekend. This Monday just gone I finished a couple of waistcoats for an upcoming ballet show (don’t worry, I’m not actually in it. I wouldn’t inflict that on any audience).

On Tuesdays, I go for a swim in the evening. We decided to enter an outdoor swim this summer, so since December I’ve been swimming twice a week (more in the holidays) at our local pool. There’s a women’s only session on Tuesdays, which is the perfect time to do interval training in the pool as everyone is very polite and knows that you are not trying to race them for a couple of lengths before going maddeningly slowly for a bit. At least, I hope so. Maybe they all just think I’m annoying.

On Wednesday evenings, I have a music lesson. At the moment, I’m working on the piano. You might remember that I also play the flute, but I find that one instrument to practice (hopefully) every (most) day(s) is quite enough to have on my plate at the moment, thank you very much. One day I am going to do my flute diploma. But I am enjoying playing the piano so much that I’ve decided to go for my grade 8 on that first. It might take forever, but I’m enjoying the journey and I’ll get there eventually.

Thursday is my day when I work at home on my business, and in the evening I head out to my adult ballet class. To be entirely honest, John often has to give me a shove out the door. Having spent a day blissfully cacooned in my own little world of sewing and knitting and writing, the thought of donning a leotard and going out into the cold and doing what is always a really challenging class is not a little daunting. Then I get there and I love it. Every. Single. Time.

On Fridays, I like to come home and cook and then watch something in front of the fire with everyone. I might, if I’m feeling energetic, do a little knitting. I always have an early night. Now that I’m forty, I don’t even pretend to want to stay up late.

Saturday mornings are probably the hardest part of the whole week, involving cleaning the house, planning meals and generally catching up with the debris of the week. Suffice to say that I have streamlined this to within an inch of its life. I will never enjoy it, so it may as well be got over with as quickly as possible. I know that there are people who love this more than anything, but I just don’t. If I could travel through time, I’d go and get myself a Victorian housekeeper – you know, one with really high standards who would take care of everything. Sadly, I can’t. At least everyone pitches in.

I do, however, love Saturday afternoons, because this is often when I start a big new crafty project. If you remember, I did a lot of cutting out of fabric during the Christmas holidays, and last week it was a joy to be able to just pick up those waistcoat pieces and start to sew. There is no way I would have had the wherewithal to grade and cut the pattern, but sewing? I can do that. Especially with a pot of tea, some Christmas cake and some good company.

If I’m not sewing, I’m swimming, because the weekend is the best time to get into the pool and just swim for as long as I want. Sometimes I have company that gets bored after about an hour, and sometimes I go on my own and stay in much longer. I don’t mind when in the weekend I go, or how far I swim, as long as I go and do at least 60 lengths of crawl. I am astonished by how much progress I’ve made in two short months.

Sunday has long been family day in our house, and in winter that often means a walk. Last Sunday it was just a short one: an hour along the Fulford Ings and back. The week before we all went to see Mary Poppins, instead. Next weekend is Residents First weekend in York, when all the local attractions and restaurants and so forth are open at a very reduced rate to anyone with a YorkCard. There’s a lot to choose from, but I’m hoping for a trip up the Minster tower as it’s been literally years, and perhaps a visit to Barley Hall or the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall. We’ll see.

I can’t quite decide whether this is the most boring post in the world (I suspect it is – sorry) or actually vaguely interesting to those of you who don’t know me in real life. But I think I’m going to publish it anyway, for my future self. There’s been a lot of dedicated diary writing in our house, lately, and I caught myself thinking that I really ought to keep one again. And then I remembered that I do, after a fashion, right here on this blog. One day, when this big old house is much emptier and I have time on my hands, I’d like to look back at the way things used to be. The longer I live, the more I realise that life changes, imperceptibly, all the time, and what was just the norm one year is completely forgotten the next. So this is a little record for myself, really, of these fleeting months at the start of my fifth decade, and how I chose to fill them.

Madeleine

What are you choosing to fill these days with?

The best bits

Sometime in October we decided that we were going to keep Christmas really simple this year, and just do the best bits. So over a few evening meals (and telephone calls to Ben at university) we established what everyone’s very favourite parts of Christmas were, and got rid of the rest.

Some of the choices were things I could have anticipated: the roast dinner is staying, as are most of the trimmings. John and Seb – its biggest fans – are taking care of that. A visit from Father Christmas is mandatory and, as I told the children, fine by me as I have nothing to do with it. Ben and Ilse insist that it wouldn’t be Christmas without an afternoon spent watching Christmas films, eating lebkuchen and making paper chains from the recycling bin. Fliss loves snuggling up to watch whatever children’s special the BBC has conjured up, as they are always her favourite books from when she was little. There will be presents. And candles. And I am going to boil and glaze a ham on Christmas Eve, and serve it with garlicky potatoes dauphinoise and a mountain of steamed brussels sprout tops. That’s my favourite moment.

While we have never gone in for extravagant Christmases, this one feels especially relaxed. We’ve gone to the odd advent service, including the school one, held in York Minster, where Fliss sang in the choir. John and I made a list and did all the Christmas shopping in town in a single afternoon. We took the children in a couple of weeks ago to enjoy the lights and buy their little gifts to one another. By far and away the biggest effort I’ve made this Christmas has been in all the knitting, and that is neither stressful nor a chore in my book. We’ve put up the children’s advent calendars and a few strings of fairy lights, and the house feels just a little more twinkly than usual. I haven’t even been tempted by a poinsettia, happy instead with the cyclamen blooming festively on the dining table.

What I am looking forward to now is the coming weekend, when Ben comes home for the holidays and we’ll all be together again. There will be a couple of highly excitable days where the house gets festooned in paper chains and greenery from the garden. We’ll decorate the tree on Christmas Eve and I’ll enjoy watching Ilse’s face as the presents emerge from hiding places all around the house.

And after the day itself, I’m looking forward to a few long walks, a bit of non-gift knitting and probably the start of a new scrap quilt. Lazy mornings and lackadaisical breakfast-come-lunches. Long evenings in front of the fire. Watching the children play endless rounds of Monopoly and – the new favourite – Dungeons and Dragons. Just a restful winter holiday at home, really.

Before you start thinking that this all sounds a little too lovely to be true, I can assure you that there are bound to be some squabbles, let-downs and grumpy moments. There are also, given my total lack of a list, bound to be some things that I’ve forgotten (crackers? pudding?). I’ve just decided not to care, because nobody else seems to. After all, as long as we’ve all got our very best bits of the festival, everyone should be happy, and that is probably the best bit of all as far as I’m concerned.

Madeleine

Are you doing anything differently this Christmas, or do you do it exactly the same every year? However you’re doing it – or whether you’re not celebrating at all – may I wish you a peaceful, restful break.

Trying for a lower-waste Christmas

Having been trying really hard to reduce our consumption of plastic this year, it goes without saying that we’re trying to have a lower waste Christmas. We don’t tend to produce much more rubbish than usual over the holiday, but there are some improvements that can be made. Having said that, I’m not going to announce a plastic-free or zero waste Christmas around here, because that simply isn’t going to happen. So, as usual, I am counting every bit of plastic avoided as a little win.

One area that we don’t have any control over is how friends and relatives wrap presents for our children. Some of them are very like us and reuse paper and ribbons, which makes life easy. Others use plastic or ‘foil’ wrapping paper and copious sellotape. Things come in shiny (read: plastic) gift bags, and cards come with more ‘foil’ (plastic again) or glitter (yes, more plastic) which render them unrecyclable.

I can’t actually remember the last time we bought any proper wrapping paper, because for over a decade we’ve been cutting off the tape, smoothing it all out and reusing it. We deal with the plastic paper by reusing it the following year. Cards – whether plasticky or not – are cut up to make labels and the remnants recycled. Envelopes are opened up and added to our scrap paper ‘notebook’ (a pile of paper held together by a bulldog clip) and we often give gift bags to the local charity shop to sell again next Christmas.

Our own presents – those that will be unwrapped in the house – are usually ‘wrapped’ in a (reused) cloth gift bag or a (again reused) pretty box tied up with a ribbon. I keep good bags and boxes when we are given them, and you don’t need many. I don’t use tape unless I’ve run out of ribbons, and when we do, it’s the paper stuff. When there’s nothing big enough, plain brown recycled paper (which we found in red last year) does the job, and can easily be rolled up and used again. And thankfully Father Christmas is most obliging, wrapping everything in either newspaper or scraps of wrapping paper too small to be of other use, and because it’s all plastic-free it becomes ready-scrunched tinder for the stoves.

Perhaps this might sound Scrooge-like, saving paper from one year to the next, but to tell the truth I rather like it. It’s much more creative, finding ways to make everyone’s present look pretty without just turning to the latest shiny offering from WHSmiths. Sometimes the children like to potato-print the brown paper packages, sometimes we attach pine-cones and the like to ribbons. I’ve some rather nice two-coloured handspun that I’m going to use, left over from a project, on people who I know will use it again. And there’s always a medley of colours and patterns under our tree.

Filling the advent calendars took a little thought, because I have used plastic-wrapped sweets and chocolates until this year. I made the children’s calendars years ago, and they were one of my very first crafting projects. I sketched out the scenes, worked out a colour scheme and set to work doing some simple embroidery and appliqué. They are far from perfect, and no doubt I’d do a better job now, but the children love them and that’s all that matters.

I toyed with the idea of unwrapped sweets, but they would make the pockets sticky and I don’t want to wash these. In the end, we visited one of the lovely traditional sweet shops in central York, where the woman was incredibly helpful in making sure that I’d have at least the 72 sweets I needed. Then Seb and Ilse spent a happy afternoon wrapping them in scrap paper and stuffing them into the pockets. Before you ask, they always fill their own calendars. They like to put their favourite sweets into special days, and love the whole process.

Christmas cards are not something we’ve ever really got into, and we have no intention of starting now. But there are certain relatives who we do give them to, so a pack of ten is ample. We like to buy them from Oxfam, and I was pleased to find this almost plastic-free pack there. (It has a pointless velcro tab holding it closed.) There’s a hare on five of them…

and a partridge on the others.

Needless to say I’ll be cutting up the cardboard case itself and using it as a couple of postcards.

Food is another thing that won’t really change: we buy most of our Christmas lunch direct from the market stalls and little local shops that we buy from week in, week out. Our butcher will have an unwrapped bird ready for us. The greengrocer will have everything unwrapped, as usual, on his stall. Milk comes from the milkman, and I’ll add a couple of reused glass bottles of juice to our order, for the children. And there are a few glass bottles of frozen elderberry cordial waiting to be paired with some sparkling water from the sodastream. I just need to make sure that the prossecco comes with real corks…

Everyone in our house gets a handmade gift from me, which is pretty low waste, given that I’ve got plans for a tea cosy and some wrist warmers from the leftover yarn. Ilse, Ben and Fliss’s knits are almost done (the hats still need bobbles), and I’m casting on Seb’s later today. I won’t post about John’s here, because he sometimes reads the blog, and Mother and Father’s are going to remain tip top secret. But the children know about their hats, as they no longer all go to bed early enough for secret knitting to take place.

Which brings me to the biggest change we’ve made this Christmas: shopping locally. In previous years we’ve done a mixture of local and online shopping. This year, we’ve enjoyed going into York and getting it all done in just a couple of focused outings. If you take your own bags and choose wisely, it can be virtually waste-free. There have been just a couple of things that I’ve not been able to find in the shops, but I’ve made sure to request minimal plastic, and it hasn’t been too bad.

We took the children into town late on Saturday afternoon, to see the lights and do their little bit of shopping. If you’ve ever been to York in December, you’ll know that it gets absolutely packed, with coach loads of tourists bussed in to enjoy the medieval shambles and independent shops. York feels very Dickensian in the winter, and I can see why people love it. After a while though, the crowds all got a bit much, so we went for a stroll through the deserted Minster Gardens. The stained glass of the minster was glowing, and coming out on the far side of the park, the Treasurer’s House was all lit up for Christmas.

We popped into a favourite little Italian for supper, and it was lovely, sitting there in the noise and the bustle, the last of the shopping at our feet, getting warm and cosy in the ancient heart of the city. Of all the changes we could be making, this must by far be the most pleasant.

I know that we could make even less waste by avoiding Christmas altogether, but we’re not going to do that. Instead, we’re just being that little bit more careful. Over the years we’ve become increasingly conscious of how we celebrate, and to my mind, little shifts made over many years are more effective than one big gesture. Nothing feels painful, the changes are sustainable.

No doubt we’ll do something else differently next year, and then again in the future when the children have all grown up. But for now, this is how we’re trying to have a lower-waste Christmas, and still celebrate the occasion.

Madeleine

Are you trying to reduce your waste/ consumption this Christmas? How are you doing it? I’d love any hints and tips…

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!

The A-Line skirt pattern is now available!

It is with no small amount of excitement that I’m writing to let you know that my first ever dressmaking pattern is now for sale! You can find it in my Etsy shop. I cannot begin to tell you how much I’ve learned through this process – in fact, it could be the subject of another whole series. For now, allow me to share a couple more images with you.

We took the photos while we were on a family holiday in Derbyshire this half term. My parents booked the most beautiful house for all 14 of us, and this was the view from the kitchen windows:

So naturally it became the location for a little photoshoot. The stone steps with flowerbeds take you down from the back of the house to the lawn.

I had planned to give this skirt to Fliss, but having styled it for the photoshoot I think it’ll be filling a skirt-shaped hole in my wardrobe until I try out another pattern. It is as elegant and easy to wear as I remembered – perhaps even a little more so.

We had such a lovely time, pottering about and having a little outing every day. One day most of us went down a local mine. Another – rainbow-filled – day we spent in the grounds of Chatsworth:

And my personal highlight was our visit to Haddon Hall. I’d never been there before and I was blown away. I’ve been to a LOT of stately homes and never seen anything like this. No wonder they shoot so many period films there. I’m going to write a post all about it next week, but for now let me share just a glimpse here and there…

When we got home, I spent a couple of days finalising the pattern pdfs for the Little Flurries jumper and the A-Line skirt, before doing more pottering around my own house and garden. The week culminated in a big 40th birthday party of a friend, which meant a night away in Harrogate, before starting the Christmas knitting in front of the fire (and Doctor Who, of course) yesterday. It has been such a lovely holiday, and I feel refreshed and ready for the next couple of months.

But for now, let me leave you with one last photo of the skirt. The sewalong begins tomorrow, and you’ll find full photographed tutorials to accompany the pattern published every Tuesday in November. Do let me know if you make one, and how you get on. It’s always a pleasure to hear from you!

Madeleine

Do you have a good basic skirt pattern in your collection? Which patterns do you turn to again and again?

The Saturdays

As a child, one of the books that I read over and over again was The Saturdays. In Enright’s tale, four New York siblings are bored every Saturday, until they decide to pool their allowance and let one person have an adventure with it each week.

It’s a very long time since I had a long and empty Saturday – what a treat that would be! But, busy as they are, they can still be boring. Between the cleaning and the shopping, the homework and mountain of logs to be stacked, Saturdays can be a bit mundane. This year, though, we seem to have stumbled upon a bit of a plan.

It turns out that a plan was just what we needed. (Who would have guessed?) With the children being the ages that they are, little rhythms have fallen into place. I make a vat of soup, to last the week. John visits the fishmonger, to buy something delicious for tea (moules frites, anyone?) Birthday cards are made and posted. One or another of the children bakes a cake. And then I have a little crafternoon, with anyone who wishes to join me.

It’s only a little crafternoon, because by the time the house is clean and piano practice done and the fridge full up for the week ahead and so on and so forth, there are usually just two or maybe three hours left to play. But that’s enough time, if you’ve planned ahead, to achieve something quick and crafty. Last week, I made beeswax balms. The week before, I worked on my Lionberry shawl while Ilse crocheted a snood with impressive speed. Before that, we made some beeswrap. Having everything to hand, ready to begin, is a wonderful thing. With a bit of preparation, cakes get baked, chairs waxed, pots filled with protective goodness.

This week, inspired by all the fun with beeswax, Ilse suggested that we use the candle-making kit she received for her birthday and, knowing that this Saturday was going to be particularly full of jobs, I agreed. We aren’t really a kit-making family, to be honest. We generally tend to make things up for ourselves. So it was particularly pleasant to set out the chopping board and a couple of sharp knives and look on, knitting in hand, as Ilse and Seb worked their way through all the candles in the kit. Apart from the odd bit of tricky cutting, I wasn’t really needed at all. I was quite happy, then, to nibble my chelsea bun, sip tea, and admire their progress – all the while knitting furiously on another jumper sample.

I worked out that I’ve knit three jumpers in the last month, and cast on for one more yesterday evening. There is no shortage of craft in my life. In fact, I fully intend to do less knitting as soon as the latest pattern is launched, for fear of doing damage to my hands. They are beginning to seize up a bit. So why, you might wonder, would I want to do yet more crafting on a precious Saturday afternoon?

I suppose it’s the difference between work and play: making something just for fun, as opposed to creating something with the intention of publication. Then there’s the family aspect of it – I love watching my children’s creativity. And the pleasure of bashing something out in a couple of hours flat, rather than taking days and days to get it right. Plus the satisfaction of ticking something off the ‘I’d like to…’ list.

Not all Saturday crafternoons are crafty, strictly speaking. Sometimes Fliss draws. We have plans for a Christmas cake quite soon, and a batch of garden chutney. But they are the sort of activities that don’t quite fit anywhere else in our week. Too long for a weekday evening, too short to fill a luxuriously lazy Sunday. As long as we’ve thought ahead and got everything we need, we can make these things in a couple of hours in an otherwise bustling day. Who knows how long it’ll last, how long before no-one wants to sit and knit with me. No doubt the family rhythms will shift again, before long. But for now, this is how we spend our Saturdays.

Madeleine

Please excuse the flatness of these photos – we’ve had high winds, grey skies and lots of rain, none of which are helpful in taking a decent photograph!

How was your weekend? Do you have a rhythm on Saturdays, or is every one different?

And breathe

What I needed, after the excitement and busyness of last week, was a breather. A quiet weekend. A chance to pause and take stock. And, in a funny sort of way, that is exactly what I got.

A chance to set things straight around the place, to plan the meals for the week ahead, to empty the fridge into the soup pot and refill it with fresh veg. To chat with my children, home and away, and share a new project with them each. Somehow, in between the Saturday comings and goings to the market and the ballet studio, the house was cleaned. I read a novel – a whole, 595 page novel – in one weekend: a treat which is unlikely to be soon repeated. Seb baked a seed cake. Ilse, between piano practice and dance lessons and copious amounts of homework, started a snood with the leftovers from Fliss’ Snow Day and presented it to me, last night, complete. I added a few more rows to my Lionberry shawl. John finished sanding the fiddly bits on that ugly old chair I’d brought home, and gave it a coat of wax. It was to go in our bedroom but looks better in my studio, so there it’ll stay for now. Its seat has been recovered deliberately lackadaisically, using one of the fat quarters purchased at the mill, back in August. I want to be able to whip the fabric off again, and use it in a quilt, in a new year’s flurry of making.

Mother and Father joined us for our Sunday roast, and it was one of those glorious affairs which seemed to cook itself, everyone taking care of just one of two parts of the process. Seb peeled a sinkful of spuds, and put them on to boil. Fliss picked the fattest pears from the tree and tossed them in brown sugar and cinnamon, before Ilse topped the fruit with an almond sponge, to make an Exmoor In-and-Out. I cut vegetables from the garden, and left them ready in a pan. And John pulled it all together: roasting the potatoes, making a gravy, carving the rested bird. By the time the girls’ gently fragrant pudding was brought to the table, I felt entirely myself again.

Yes, it was one of those weekends where we pottered about and everything we did was like a deep and calming breath. There is something so pleasing in the familiar, when you are regaining your balance. Make soup – inhale. Cover a chair – exhale. On it goes, through bookish cuddles on the settee and the sound of someone making steady progress up and down their scales. Family life, with all its familiar rhythms, has restored my bumping heart to something steady once again.

This morning, at the start of a brand new day, new week, new month, I got things ready to begin again. While seeing to the hens, I picked a fresh bouquet of cosmos to grace the windowsill in my little studio. I tidied the debris of the last design into the children’s craft cupboard so that my basket is waiting, empty, for the wool I’ve ordered to arrive. The desk is clear. There is a fresh title in my design book, gracing a clean white page, ready to record the calculations of the day. Colours have been chosen, little details settled upon, test knitters primed and waiting. A pot of tea, the radio for company: there is comfort in the familiar. A deep breath, a clean space, and I am ready to begin again.

Madeleine

And you? What did you do this weekend?