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…

 

Introducing Snow Day, completely free

My first commercially-available knitting pattern is ready for release. May I introduce you to Snow Day? A simple, modern textured knit, Snow Day is a sweater pattern aimed at beginners and experienced knitters alike.

I demand a lot of my knitwear. It needs to be flattering. It needs thoughtful details, to make it stand out from the crowd. If intended to be worn in the depths of winter, as Snow Day is, it needs to be warm. But it also needs to be soft and robust and made of natural materials. The Snow Day jumper ticks all those boxes, and I have to admit, I love it.

It is also, dare I say, very stylish. What with its elegant boat neck and bobble-stitch texture on the front, it brings together some of the most timeless elements of what we’re wearing now. The notches on the side seams, along with the longer back section, echo many of the sweaters available from high end stores. And those ribbed sleeves, particularly when knitted long with thumb-holes to pull over your hands, are the cosiest I’ve ever had. It is most certainly fit for a day in the snow.

This is a sweater with a mission. This is a First Sweater: the sweater that newer knitters can accomplish well and without tears. All my care and expertise lie behind each detail: the simple breadth of the neckline that requires no picking up of stitches, the easy-to-attach drop sleeves. I’ve said it before: if you can knit and purl and cast on and bind off, you can make this. Because those are the only prerequisite skills.

As promised, the pattern is written twice. First, each instruction is written in the standard knitting-pattern format. Then, beneath each coded direction, is the translation. Each italicised translation contains the same instruction written out in full, and extra information on how to accomplish it.

There are also five tutorials waiting to be published on consecutive Fridays, taking the beginner through each stage of the construction. We begin, this Friday, with choosing yarn and needles and making a swatch. I’ve deliberately left enough time for your parcel to arrive in the post. Then we move on through the back, the front, the sleeves and, finally, the making up. With every instruction comes a photograph, showing exactly what you need to do. Not that any of it is complicated. As I say, if you have basic knitting skills, you can definitely make this jumper.

Once I’d knit my handspun prototype, I cast on again in a different size and the recommended yarn. I could not be more pleased with the Drops Alaska. The springiness of the wool, combined with the round 3-ply yarn, results in a texture that positively pops. Fliss put it on for her photoshoot, and I had to persuade her out of it at bedtime. It is soft and thick and warm, and looks lovely with a t-shirt or blouse peeping above that sweeping neckline. Hers is knit in the smallest size – 32″ – and perfectly appropriate for a girl approaching her teens. Her version looks playful and modern and sweet.

Knit up in a neutral and worn without the tee, it is a far more grown-up affair. I’ve been wearing mine both ways. In fact, I’ve barely taken it off since the shoot.

John took the photographs on the beach at Sandsend, last Saturday afternoon. The waves were huge, egged on by the equinox, and as the only sunlight was in the shallow water, I pulled my wellies on and waded in. Needless to say, it wasn’t long until a particularly big wave got me, and for the second half of the shoot I was soaked from the waist down.

Which only goes to show what a versatile jumper this is. Throw on a gilet and a snood and I was toasty, despite the sloshing in my boots. From elegant to everyday to layered up for a chilly afternoon by the sea, this jumper fits the bill.

If you’d like to make one yourself, the pattern will be available completely free from Friday 28 September until Wednesday 31 October. The online tutorials will remain free, on this blog, indefinitely. You can take as much or as little time over this as you please.

I, for one, won’t be hanging around. There’s nothing I want to do more, in October, than curl up with a good pattern and a basket of yarn. If you feel the same way, pop back to the blog on Friday and leave a comment, and I’ll send you the pattern as a free PDF. My treat. And in the meantime, I’m looking forward to seeing all the different Snow Days produced in the weeks to come. I hope you’ll join us.

NB From 1 November 2018 onwards, the pattern will be downloadable directly from its Ravelry page.

Focus on the rhubarb

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

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

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

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

Feels like spring

Now, I do know that it is only February, and that Spring Proper is quite a way off yet. But there’s no harm in pretending. After all, the bulbs are flowering around the garden bench, and it was warm enough to work in the garden in only a jumper yesterday. The washing has been flapping on the line. It feels like spring to me.

Never mind that those bulbs are actually the winter flowering snowdrops and crocuses, and that I solicited the help of a child to drag the bench into their midst. Let’s forget that we had to pull the washing in before the heavens opened yesterday afternoon. We’ll pretend that I wasn’t wearing thermals and a snood while I worked in ‘just a jumper’, and that much of the warmth came from the bonfire of winter clippings we had finally got round to burning. At the tail end of winter, it pays to see things selectively. It feels like spring, to me.

It felt like spring to the children, too. They spent the whole of the day in the garden for the first time since I don’t know when. Ilse discovered that her irises had flowered in her little patch of earth under the lilac, and came racing up the lawn, shouting in her excitement. She spent the next hour diligently weeding them, much to my delight, and spying the emerging crocuses which are not quite out. Seb spent ages digging up strawberry plants from their unproductive shady site and replanting them in a strawberry pot I’d bought for that very purpose a mere five months ago. Fliss laid plans for a hen-proof fence across the middle of the garden to protect the vegetables from the chickens’ beaks and claws once they are all out and about again – an upgrade from last year’s hodgepodge of brassica cages and hastily constructed barriers. I wandered round the garden and made a list of all the tasks which ought to be done over the next month, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it might actually be doable. Weeding, mainly, and a final spread of compost, before the seeds go in. We’d got more done over the winter than I’d remembered.

Mostly, it just felt good to be outside again. What with all the sewing that’s been going on around these parts, most of my free time has been spent inside. Productively, but by the fire. Just to step outside made it feel like spring again, and has set the ball rolling for a couple more days in the garden this weekend. By the time I’d burnt all the winter prunings, though, I’d had enough for one day and went indoors to bathe and wash the smoke from my eyes and hair. It was tempting to reach for a new-sewn cotton blouse, given the day I’d had, but even I couldn’t stretch the imagination quite that far, and settled for a clean pullover instead. Yes, my mind tells me that it feels like spring, but my body says that it is most certainly still winter.

Primroses and other winter flowers

The snowdrops are out, and the hellebores, and yellow daffodils nod from the market stalls. Winter flowers, here to make the most of the new light, before the trees come into leaf and steal the sun.

I was given a gift of yellow primroses in a miniature watering can, as a thank you for a little sewing task, and it sits on the kitchen windowsill. Now, every time I cook or go to do the washing up I can look at it and the flowers just beyond the window, beneath the apple tree, and beyond them too to the daffodils and crocuses, tulips and irises emerging from beneath their earthy blanket. It is still very much winter, but the sight of all those flowers is drawing me outside. There’s not a huge amount to be done just yet, but there’s enough to keep us busy over a half term week at home. There’s a bonfire to be had, with a picnic lunch and hot cordial for its minders. There’s a bed I want to dig with Ben. There’s an empty strawberry pot, needing to be filled while the little plants are still dormant. And into the earth can go the very first seeds: parsnips and garlic and shallots. More than anything, I just want to be outside, enjoying those flowers while they last, and planning some more for the summer. Of all the flowers of the year, perhaps it is the primroses and other winter flowers that I notice and savour the very most.

Hurrying

Although there was ice in the hens’ water, my six middle-aged ladies had laid another five eggs today: a sure sign that spring is on the way. Unlike me, the hens and other animals aren’t fooled by a sudden cold snap. They watch the sunlit hours grow longer, and know that the time has come to make haste for spring.

There is so much to do before the good weather arrives, both inside and out. As a matter of fact, I’m inclined to ignore the ‘outside’ part of the equation and focus on finishing the indoor tasks before I am out in the garden every day, pulling weeds and planting tiny little seeds in the warming soil. Despite the fact that I have been diligently sewing for weeks now, I’ve made very little progress on items for our family. Cards and presents, yes. Costumes for the show, yes. A cardigan for Mrs Eve, and some lovely socks for Mother, yes indeed. But not a lot for the people who live in our house.

So it was that I spent Sunday finishing off a quick project I’d started the previous week: re-covering Ilse’s tatty old eiderdown. I’ve been dithering about this for ages – which fabrics to use, how to go about it, whether I’d be able to hand quilt through a layer of fluffy feathers. In the end, all my questions answered themselves. The blue fabric I bought back in the 1920s, for a dress for myself which never got made because it would have been yet another blue summer dress, and if I’m not careful all my dresses are blue. I’ve had to resist blue again for this spring, but I think I’ve found the fabric I want to wear this summer. The other fabric, the brown and cream, was an old linen curtain which didn’t fit any of our windows in this house, so I unpicked the tape and lining and found there was just enough. It only took an hour or so to sew them together with a bit of bright pink piping and stuff the old eiderdown inside.

It turned out that I couldn’t hand quilt all those feathery layers, and have newfound admiration for those who can. My stitches were uneven and I couldn’t get the fluffy layers to lie flat enough to avoid puckering the back. After a couple of feet I ripped it out and opted to tie it all together instead, and Ilse found some embroidery silk to match the piping in her Christmas sewing kit. In no time it was done and on her bed, and I love the pink ties against the brown of the flowers and vines. Things do have a way of working themselves out. It sat atop her blankets and quilt just in time for the hard frost of last night and the misty start to this morning.

Oh, there is still so much to be done, but it is a good sort of hurrying at this time of year. Racing against the arrival of the spring is the best way I know to cope with the final weeks of cold and dark and damp: making them precious, making them count. I need at least another seven or eight weeks of inclement weather if I’m to sew all those dresses and other summery things in time. I’ve another whole cardigan to cast on for, even, before I give up on big knits for the season. Stay with us, winter, just a little longer. I’m not tired yet of knitting by the fire or taking my latest creation along to Mrs Thistlebear’s winter parties. I’m hurrying, but in the nicest possible way. After all, the only thing that can beat me is the spring, so whoever wins I’ll be happy.

Onwards and upwards

Even on the coldest days I spend an hour or so outside: hanging washing in the winter breeze, cleaning out the hens, digging veg or surveying the garden with an eye to spring. I never plan to be that long – just fifteen minutes, is what I tell myself, but then I’m always pleased when I come back in and the kitchen clock tells me just how much fresh air I’ve had.

All this week the sun has been shining, and it has been a pleasure to do those little outdoor tasks. On my return from the compost I noticed that the bulbs are pushing up in Ilse’s little ‘garden’. We bought crocuses and dwarf irises to add to the daffs I’d pushed in the previous autumn: easy flowers that the hens will leave alone. Woodland flowers, perfect for filling the bare earth in the shadow of the lilac. They’ll distract from its spring twigginess and be over before the shrub is in full leaf.

Bulbs are so wonderfully tenacious. Frost or snow, they push their blunt little noses onwards and upwards whatever the weather. Today they were getting plenty of sun, although the wind was bitingly cold. I chopped a birch log into kindling to warm myself up again and went indoors to light the fire. As I set the match to the paper, the sun streamed in through the window, heating the chill air. When it catches the grate I can barely see the dancing flames within. Even the dull days are growing longer, and there is more birdsong in the air. I’ve a list of jobs as long as my arm, but the sun makes it all feel so manageable. Onwards and upwards, I say. I think it’s time I got started.

Frozen

The seasons lag behind the sun, dragging on their mother’s hand. The winter solstice was over a month ago and yet it is colder now than it was then, with hail and sleet and frost in the last three days alone. On paper it looks as though spring is not far off, but a glance outside dispels this theory in an instant. We are in the middle of winter, and every twig, every blade of grass, is frozen.

By noon there were dark brown molehills against the winter white where I had pushed my fork through the icy crust and pulled food from the crumbly soil: knobbly Jerusalem artichokes for a smooth and creamy soup, parsnips to sweeten a wintery stew. The eggs  were still warm when I wrapped my fingers round them, and the hens have puffed their feathers into little fluffy eiderdowns. I spread a fresh layer of straw in their house for them to scratch in, and threw in a handful of mixed corn. They don’t mind this weather as long as their crops are full.

As I went back over my lists last night, snug by the sitting room fire, I was glad to see how many weeks I had to finish all the inside jobs before the warming earth pulls my attention elsewhere. What’s the hurry? There’s a pile of beautiful fabric awaiting my attention, and some soft new wool to knit. The children are still playing with their Christmas toys and puzzles. We’ve visited the library. One way and another, I’ve got better at wintering as the years have gone on.

In Clydebank, though, there are many families for whom winter has just got worse, with the work on the Queen Mary grinding to a halt. There will be a lot of people without a fire to make their idle lists by, or new fabric to run contented hands over. When it gets as cold as this, I wonder how those without a roof survive at all. How do you coax yourself through another day of ice when spring is two months off, at least? I used to think about men in frozen trenches and wonder how they bore it; now it’s mothers who gladly send their children off to  school with its heater and free meals.

It’s a beautiful thing, a frozen world, when there’s hot toast and dripping at the end of your constitutional. And if there isn’t, then little kindnesses can go an awfully long way towards making sure there is.

 

Lull

Outside, the silver frost has hung on all day. The whole world seems suspended in the timeless twilight between Christmas and New Year. We get up a little later every day, and breakfast is in danger of merging into luncheon. And why not? I’m sure these precious days at the end of one year were made for readying us for the next.

How I love this little lull. If I were to wander around the house, I’d find a jigsaw on the dining table, and Ben’s books, and my sewing machine in full swing at the other end. In the sitting room John has been doing just that, and galloping through his Christmas books at speed. There is evidence of knitting on the couch, and some embroidery, and new music on the stand. On the stairs the fairy lights twinkle and beyond them, in the kitchen, Seb is touching up his latest diorama. Ilse’s new colouring book lies open on the table, a tropical scene half alive with colour. It’ll have to wait to be complete, like the jigsaw and and knitting and the little embroidered house. They’re all at the pictures with John, and I am in the quiet house on my own in the middle of the lull in these holidays.

There’s something about the turning of the year that makes me want to neaten up loose ends. These are the days in which I rifle through old offcuts, and make a plan for each and every little piece left over from the previous year’s projects. We covered two notebooks this morning, Fliss and I, for a twins’ birthday party she’s going to next week. I’ve made a quick potholder from the leftover crumbs. There are toilet bags and bookmarks and pretty fabric roses in the offing. I’d like to clear the decks by the end of January, in time for the spring sewing to begin. We all need a dose of optimism in February.

Then there’s the ground to clear for next season’s growth, the tips of which are already poking out above the soil. A day or two in the garden should do it, if we all work together, and pave the way for an excitable evening with the catalogues.

And yet it isn’t all tasks. Some days are set aside for other things. Best of all are those mind-clearing walks that only cold air and bright sunlight through bare branches can achieve. We found the first primroses yesterday, small and pastel yellow in the otherwise barren ground. Soon the buds will be on the trees, soon the snowdrops will be out in force. For now, though, we can walk through the silent woodland and over the icy moor and wonder at the peace of it all. Of this welcome, gentle, unassuming lull, before the earth shifts on its axis and plunges us into the coming year.

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.