September again

16 September 1935

Why is it that while spring arrives so tentatively, autumn simply announces itself? Here I am, she says, and, like it or not, here she is. She’s here in fogged-up morning windows, in windfalls on the lawn, in retreating cucumber vines and tired children adjusting to new school routines. Like her or not – and there is much to admire in her red-haired-pale-faced beauty – she’s a stubborn one, and stares down the fast-fading summer.

I’d like to treat September as the start of a new year, and in many ways I do. I feel it in the children as they set off to school each morning, in their blackly polished shoes and trousers with growing room intact. I feel it in the evening when they tumble in the door, satchels full of new books with as-yet pristine covers. I approach the new year as they do, in my best handwriting, not wanting to spoil all that is fresh and clean and novel. This year, I tell myself, will be the year that I really focus on the piano. I’ve started to learn Debussy’s Arabesque No.1 and for an hour and a quarter last night I went over and over the passages, learning arpeggios, trying to commit tricky fingering to memory. If I did that every night, it really would make a difference. Just imagine how well I’d play, this time next year.

I’ve seen enough Septembers to know better. I’ve lived enough to know that it can’t really be the start of a new year, this slipping away of the sun. I’ve spent enough chilly hours at the piano to know that, blanket or not, there’s a limit to the time I’ll spend away from the crackling fire and other, cosier pursuits. And yet there is still enough of a sense of something new to incubate a little hope that, this year, something new will happen. Something will be achieved.

In the garden, cornucopia is no longer the word. It overflows no more. Today there was a measly solo cucumber on the vine; the season of courgettes morphed into monsters is done. Every day, there is a little less. Fewer beans on the vines, less spinach to cut and wash. And yet we are hungrier than ever. To make things stretch, our meals have many elements. Not just an omelette, but with beans and bread on the side and a hot baked apple to follow. Porridge and toast and – oh go on – an egg for breakfast. My usual soup, warmed up in the aga, is not enough for lunch without a thickly buttered roll. There was so little left of our roast last Sunday that the only leftover in our Monday pie was a single chicken breast, bulked out with gravy and copious veg. Mashed potatoes? Yes please, with everything. The children baked biscuits and cakes just days ago and, already, they are gone. Yesterday, there was nothing to add to the stone in our soup. For the first time since June, we need to buy more from the grocer.

And yet there is an odd sort of thrill in the end of the garden season. A new beginning is in the air – far off enough to be pristine and ideal in its conception. A weighing up of what went well and what… didn’t. My cosmos, for instance, have been a delight. The broad beans have not. This year, I grew the best potatoes we’ve ever had, and I’ll be chitting the same variety come 1936. And I have grander plans than that: for island beds of flowers tough enough to survive the hens’ attentions, and walls of willow waving in the breeze. In my mind’s eye, I’ll be digging a lot, this winter. Digging, and playing the piano, and making changes that won’t be washed away with the turning of the earth.

Perhaps that’s why September makes me feel so strange: both ill at ease and excited, all at once. Because in one way it’s another chance to get things right, to make a change, to move forward in my life. And at the same time, it is full of reminders that that’s just what life is doing: moving forward, taking my children with it. Those school books aren’t just a clean version of the previous year’s. What was to be, next year, is now. I can’t make out whether autumn is as lovely as she pretends, or whether there’s hint of  malice in those cold eyes. Whatever the truth, she’ll only give way to winter, but that in turn makes way for the gentle spring.

Cecily

How do you feel about September? And have you made plans for the coming year?

If you can knit and purl, cast on and cast off, you can make this

The first thing I ever knitted was a jumper. A grey jumper, with a v-neck, in some sort of wool-acrylic mix. I was twenty and staying with my parents for a few months. My mum, casting around for something to fill my evenings, took me to the local wool shop and bought me the pattern and the wool, and sat me down, and taught me to knit all over again.

I say all over again because like most people, I had knit a bit as a child. A wobbly teddy bear scarf, if I remember rightly. But it hadn’t stuck, and I certainly couldn’t remember how to do it.

A few years later, I wandered into a little wool shop in York. I was expecting our second child and wanted to knit a big cardigan to wear throughout the pregnancy. On the racks were some magazines and a couple of Debbie Bliss books and I flicked through the pages until I found a beautiful drapey affair in duck egg blue. The shop assistant helped me to choose an appropriate yarn and some needles, and I went home and stowed my new book on my bookcase and the yarn in a drawer.

And there it stayed. Because I couldn’t make head nor tail of the pattern. Clearly my mum had done all the tricky bits for me, the one and only time I’d knitted as an adult. In fact, I couldn’t even remember how to cast on, or, erm, knit. And this was in the days before youtube, or even the internet, in our house.

In the end, a friend showed me how to cast on and knit, how to purl, and eventually, at the end of a very long hat, how to cast off. I made a couple of hats, for babies, with pompoms on their ends, but they weren’t what I wanted to make. I wanted to make a cardigan.

Eventually, after borrowing just about every craft book in the library and a lot of sheer bloody-mindedness, I made one. Then another. And then I started to design my own.

I’ve found it really interesting, speaking to people about this particular sweater pattern. I carry my knitting around with me, and post photos of it on the internet, and so lots of people have made comments along the lines of Gosh, that’s really lovely. So I tell them that it’s a pattern designed specially for new knitters. Would they like a go?

Oh, no, they tell me. I can’t read a pattern.

The thing is, you don’t need to be able to read a pattern to make this jumper. It – like all my beginner patterns – will help you to learn to read a pattern. It will help you to go off and make all the standard, commercial, codified patterns you’ve ever dreamed off. But you don’t need to be able to do that yet.

If you can knit and purl, cast on and cast off, you can make this. Heck, if you can knit and purl and know someone who can cast on and off, you can make this. The entire pattern is written out in duplicate: under each section of knitting-pattern-code is a much longer section explaining exactly what to do in plain EnglishWith extra instructions for the bits you might find confusing, or tricky, or just odd. In other words, this is a pattern where I’ve written in all the things I’d say to my just-begun-knitting-friend Mrs. Piper if we were knitting it in the pub together (which we must do again soon, Mrs. Piper). On top of that, there’ll be a friendly week-by-week knit along taking you through everything with pictures – and I’ll leave it up permanently so that you needn’t feel rushed. Of course, it goes without saying that I’ll answer any questions you might have.

 

In my real life, beyond this blog, I’m a teacher. I’ve spent literally years learning how to teach people as effectively as possible. So when I decided to start selling patterns, it was quite natural for me to want to make the first collection for beginners. This jumper is my knitting primer, if you will. You start at the bottom of the back: just a bit of knit-every-row garter stitch to warm up. Then there’s straightforward stockinette all the way up the back, to really get your hand in. Once you’re happy with that, you can choose whether you want an extra (little) challenge on the front, in the form of bobbles, or whether you’d like to keep it plain and simple. We don’t cast off around the neckline, so knitting the edging on is a simple case of a few more rounds of knitting every row. The sleeves are knit two, purl two rib: the next step in any knitter’s journey, with some simple increases to keep them looking good. Then you just sew it all together and weave in the ends in front of a good film.

At the same time, though, for all its simplicity I wanted this jumper to be something I wanted to wear. What’s the good in making your own wardrobe if that’s where it’s going to stay, ill-fitting and lumpen and sad? So I added some flattering little details – notched side seams, an inch of extra length at the back, optional extra-long sleeves with thumb-holes for cold hands, a tiny bit of shaping around the front neckline so that the boatneck collar lies beautifully over your collarbone. The sleeves drop elegantly away from your shoulders, keeping it casual, but the body isn’t so big and baggy that it doesn’t show off your curves. Once I’d sewn in the last end, on Tuesday night, I slipped it on to find that it was all I’d hoped for: comfy and warm and cosy and attractive. I will be living in this, this winter.

I do so hope you’ll join me in making one of these over the course of the next few weeks. Knitting a jumper is such an autumnal thing to do: a way to make the darkening days appealing, somehow, like cinnamon and candles and long walks through reddening woods. The pattern is, of course, to be entirely free for the duration of the knit along, and is yours to keep thereafter. If you are a new – or even an aspiring – knitter, make this the autumn of your first jumper, and one day you’ll be telling your own story to the people you teach how to knit.

Madeleine

If you’re already a knitter, do you have a story about when you first learned to knit?

New knitters (and old!) feel free to ask any questions in the comments below!

If you’ve not already subscribed, you might want to, just so you don’t miss the pattern when it comes out.

This way for free patterns

Last week the children went back to school, so I picked a bunch of the prettiest double-click cosmos to take to work with me in my little studio upstairs. It’s a tiny room, just big enough for a desk, a chair, and my spinning wheel tucked into a gap at the end. Nestled between two bedrooms at the front of the house, it’s the space above the porch, and I can look out of the tall sash window at passers-by while the sun streams in and fills the room with warmth. In fact, it’s the cosiest room in the house, which is perfect for wintry days when I’m the only one at home. With the door shut, a cup of tea and perhaps a hot water bottle on my lap, I can settle in for hours. Or that’s the hope. It’s only been mine since the spring.

Normally, at this time of year, I do a little stocktake of my wardrobe and plan the things I’d like to fill the gaps with. Not one to enjoy excess, I keep a smallish wardrobe of under 40 items, including tights and wellies and suchlike. I know that limiting options is not to everyone’s taste, but I enjoy the challenge of creating a versatile collection. All of my clothes can be dressed up and down and mixed and matched, and so three dresses and tops and bottoms and jumpers and shoes result in a surprising variety of looks. And if you happen to feel that the sartorial more is the merrier, my clothes give you all the more options to play with.

Inevitably, I find that I need to replace one thing from each category: a new dress, a new top, and new bottom of some sort, and a new jumper (sweater). That’s the way I’ve structured the patterns for this year: one of each, with a few essential accessories like knickers and Fairisle wrist warmers. The plan is to release one a month, to match what I like to make as the autumn shifts towards winter and, blissfully, spring. I know I’m not alone in considering the autumn to be knitting weather, so the first pattern will be my new jumper.

I’ve explained before that the patterns are aimed at new or newish makers, and the knitting patterns are no exception. One of the hardest things about learning to knit is learning to read a pattern. We can all make the stitches long before we can decipher that secret code. So my knitting patterns have the standard pattern written in bold, then a detailed set of jargon-free instructions and photographs beneath. They are clear enough for anyone who can cast on, knit and purl to follow.

As it’ll be the first pattern to be released, it’ll be available completely free through this blog for a limited period of time. So if you fancy making a comfy, boxy knitted jumper with (or without) popcorn bobbles on the front and super-warm ribbed sleeves (I’m thinking that it’ll go perfectly with a cosy body-warmer when out and about), stick around. There will be photos of the finished jumper and more details about it next week. It’s probably a good idea to sign up for email notifications so that you don’t miss either that post or the pattern when it comes out, as it won’t be free forever. (You’ll find the sign-up under ‘Join our community’, in the sidebar.)

If, on the other hand, knitting is not your thing, don’t despair. There’s a rather lovely but very simple lined A-line skirt coming out in October – perfect to pair with your new jumper or any others in your collection. This, too, will be a free first pattern for a limited time, so that you can see just how I’ve constructed and written it to make it completely accessible to anyone who can work a machine (or is willing to sew all those seams by hand). Again, sign up for email notifications so that you don’t miss out.

There are lots of other plans in the offing: other pattern giveaways, FAQ pages, tutorials, a photo gallery of your finished projects and link up parties to your posts about the patterns. There will be a toe-up stripy sock pattern – aimed squarely at beginners – as well as a gorgeously flattering pencil dress, an embroidered tee, the blousiest summer blouse… All of which makes me think that I really ought to be getting back to it. I’ll be upstairs in my studio, if anyone needs me. (Those words still send a little thrill down my spine.) It’s going to be such an exciting year, I just can’t wait for it all to begin.

Madeleine

PS – Are you a knitter or a sewer or both? Or are you just starting out in your me-made wardrobe journey? What’s in the pipeline for you, this season?

A new sort of garden to grow

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

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

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

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

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

Joining in with Ginny’s Yarn Along at Small Things

Madeleine

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

Thoughts from the mill

2 September 1933

Months ago, when spring was late and it wouldn’t stop raining, my good friend Mrs Bow and I planned a trip to Quarry Bank. Ever since reading Mrs Gaskell’s North and South, I’ve longed to visit a northern cotton mill, see the machinery in action and learn more about the workers’ lives. Fliss read the novel this summer and fell in love with the unromantic town of Milton (as well as, I suspect, the very romantic Mr Thornton), and Seb, Ilse and Mandy Bow will all be learning about the industrial revolution in their history lessons soon. More than any of that though, Mrs Bow and I decided that we were in need of a good day out, and so plotted this little field trip for the end of the summer holidays.

Of course, the mill is still a working factory, but on Tuesday some of the longer-standing members of the workforce were holding demonstrations of cotton processing through the ages. Although the children seemed to find the cottager hand-carding and -spinning the raw fibres a little mundane (apparently spinning is so everyday) I had to resist climbing over the baskets and having a go myself. Cotton must be more difficult to spin than wool, and the woman was using a small version of a great wheel, which she spun from while seated. Most wheels nowadays have a treadle to drive the mechanism, which leaves both hands free to draft and spin the fibres. On a great wheel, you use one hand to turn the wheel and the other to draw the fibres back as the twist runs into them. The woman was quite skilful, and I was impressed by the fineness and evenness of the thread she produced.

If I’m honest, there wasn’t much about the cottage industries of carding, spinning or even weaving that we didn’t already know, as we’ve read a lot about this over the past couple of years. Nor was the operation of the spinning mules a mystery; we saw some in action in Wales last year. What I didn’t know was how cotton was spun nowadays, and when I asked I was sent up to the top floor where the modern machines were in action.

It turns out that the iconic spinning mules, with children crawling forwards and backwards to clear and reuse the waste cotton beneath, were superseded fairly quickly by the American invention of the ring spinner. Yet because British mills had already invested in expensive mules – of such quality that they are still in operation today – works such as Quarry Bank have only invested in ring spinners in the past fifteen to twenty years. The quality of the cotton produced is much the same, but the ring spinner is much faster and, more importantly, requires far fewer people to operate. Suddenly we have a machine which, despite rising standards of living for the workers, is still cheaper to produce than it was last century. No wonder cloth is more easily available than ever.

With the memory of the Great War still fresh in our minds, we are in little danger of taking cheap cloth for granted. Clothes are still too expensive, whether ready made or home sewn, for people to discard them on a whim. Most people I know will still make things over, and mend them, rather than buy new. But the bolts of bright cottons in the shops in York are very tempting, and we are well enough off for me to indulge the girls when they ask very nicely for a new summer frock even if they haven’t quite outgrown their old ones. Looking at the whole process under one roof, from the bales of fluff shipped in from around the globe, to the smooth and colourful finished article, makes it seem like an awful lot of resource to spend on something new to wear. Never mind the historical human cost: the children scrambling to get away from the heavy iron in time, the fluff on the lungs, the Indians who lost their fingers to the cruel British stranglehold on the industry – there must be other human costs that we don’t or won’t see even today.

All in all, our visit to the mill left me better educated and resolved to stick to my self-imposed rules about fabric. As someone who sews, it would be so easy to have a whole cupboard full of lovely prints and textures at my disposal. Instead, I try my hardest to buy new only when I really need to, and from a trusted source, and to make every purchase something so beautiful and so special that I’ll treasure it until the last scrap has been sewn into the most kaleidoscopic of quilts. Having said that though, I did buy a little pack of their fabrics to sew into the quilt I have planned for this winter. If nothing else, it’ll remind me of our visit to the mill and what I came away thinking.

Cecily

Across the water

We booked our holiday to Ireland on a bit of a whim. We’ve fallen into a pleasant pattern of having one summer’s holiday in the UK and the next aboard, and this was meant to be a UK year. But by the time June came round, I was itching to go across the water, so we looked at ferries.

As a rule, we try not to fly. The number of long haul flights I took before the age of 25 must mean that I’ve used up my – and probably my children’s – fair share of flying for a very long time. We’ve taken the children on planes a couple of times, but we do try to take the train whenever possible. It’s surprisingly easy and you get an incredibly strong sense of where you are going, and how far away it is. The furthest we’ve got by rail is Sorrento, which took a couple of days and involved spending a night on what was essentially a youth hostel on wheels, which everyone thought was lots of fun (except perhaps the poor French teenager who had to share our compartment). But of course you can’t get the train to Ireland, so we booked onto the Liverpool-Dublin overnight ferry instead. When we booked we were warned that it was not a passenger ferry, but one the lorry drivers use, so we didn’t really know what to expect.

It was fantastic. As soon as we boarded we were fed the most enormous meal – salad bar, puddings, hot main course, the works – before settling into our two very clean ensuite cabins for the night. Then we were woken up by the announcement that breakfast was being served and we’d be docking in Dublin in an hour. Sixty minutes later, full of yoghurt, croissants, hot drinks and a fry up we rolled off the ramp and set off towards Galway. If I were a trucker, that’s the way I’d travel. In fact, it’s the way I’ll be getting to Ireland from now on.

 

If I’m honest, the whole holiday was a little bit slapdash and last minute, which is the way our holidays often are, but it seems to work out fine. We wended our way cross-country, stopping for lunch and to take in a little sheep show before arriving at a lovely campsite and booking in for the first two nights. The site was relaxed and friendly and best of all, had its own beach literally just over the wall. Given that the weather was unusually warm and dry, we spent the whole of our second day on that beach, dipping in and out of the Atlantic, peering patiently into rock pools and knitting on a rug while others built a model of Newgrange in the sand. I love that sort of day, just pottering and knitting and knowing that there’s nothing more to do but cook some sausages for tea, but one day of that is also quite enough. The following day we set off north along the Wild Atlantic Way, taking in the scenery until we reached the National Museum of Rural Life.

 

Now, John and I had been to the National Museums in Dublin before, when we were over for a wedding, and if you’ve ever been you’ll agree that the collections of bog bodies and torques are breathtaking. The Rural Life museum greeted us with a tiny house just by the car park: a dwelling made up of all the traditional styles of Irish building, from wattle and daub to stonework, various thatching styles and lime plaster. I’m afraid it only fuelled my dreams of building or repairing an traditional dwelling one day, and everyone was very patient as I examined it and took lots of photos. I think they must have groaned inwardly when we then came across a traditional travellers’ caravan, but I managed not to linger too long there. I’d like my little house to be a little bit bigger, and probably fixed in one place. Unless it’s a houseboat, of course. But that’s the topic for another post.

 

Inside, I saw and read a lot of things that I already knew, but the children learned a lot and some of the craft displays were very interesting. I had no idea that so much was made from straw – everything from armchairs to saddles, hen houses to babies’ rattles. That, and the ‘lazy bed’ method of growing potatoes, fascinated me. Ireland continued to be a nation of tiny farmsteads for a very long time, and the ingenuity of people in what can be an extremely challenging environment, where the weather can make or break you, is not something that I encounter in my daily life. It might seem an odd comparison, but it reminded me of Tanzania, where everything around you can be used for some purpose or other, and where, even within one country, styles of housing and agriculture differ according to the climate.

We had our own taste of Ireland’s particular challenge – rain – that evening as we found a campsite at 6 and rushed to get the tent up before the black clouds broke. We’d stopped in a port town in Donegal – Killybegs – and as we erected our tent we saw the QE2 pull out of its deep harbour with thousands of passengers waving from the uppermost deck. Before they were out of sight the heavens opened, but thanks to John the children were perfectly cosy and dry, tucking into first soup then pasta before snuggling down with a book of Irish folk and fairy tales.  By morning, the wind and rain had gone and we were given the most beautiful view across the bay and out to sea.

Finally, we drove up to Derry to visit family for a few days. My mother comes from Derry, and I spent half of every summer there throughout my childhood and teens. Two of my mother’s siblings still live or work on the farm there, and I hadn’t been over in years. We had such a lovely time, seeing them: the children were spoiled rotten and announced that it was the best part of their whole holiday. When you’ve moved around as much as I have, there’s something very comforting about going back to somewhere you’ve known your whole life. It was fun, reminiscing about all those summers and the odd winter holiday when there were calves in the shed and I was given the task of teaching them to drink from a bucket by letting their rough tongues lick my hand. My uncle has a daughter Ilse’s age, who invited she and Seb out for the day. Later they played an epic game of Monopoly with my cousin Mary, home for a holiday, while my aunt and I talked craft. She’s studied traditional Irish crafts properly and is a superb basket-maker, and treated me to an afternoon of willow-work. I have a lot to learn, but she sent me home with such a quantity of willow, books and moulds that I can’t wait to get started. Best of all, I think I may finally have found a craft that John’s interested in as well, and I have high hopes for some cosy wintry evenings making all sorts of baskets, platters and plant supports together.

Going somewhere as an adult that you are used to visiting as a child is a very strange experience, and I saw Derry through different eyes this time. As a kid, I stayed out of town, playing or helping about the farm or riding at a nearby stables. This time we walked the walls and visited the Free Derry museum with Fliss, who learned a lot about her history and where part of her comes from. I’m really glad that we did book that ferry when we were bored and restless on Monday night in June. Really, it’s only a short hop to Ireland from York. Just drive to Liverpool docks, and head across the water.

Photo shoot

Every so often, this blog forces me to do something miles out of my comfort zone. This week, it was the photo shoots for the sewing patterns I’ve been developing.

If I’m entirely honest, it’s probably a good thing that I didn’t think about this part of the process when I decided to start selling my patterns. I knew, in a vague sort of way, that there would have to be photographs of some sort, but as long as it remained a hazy and unspecified prospect that was fine by me. Finally, though, my hand was forced by the fact that I’d made an appointment with a very talented young woman and that my photographer is due to go back to university soon. Given the choice of now or never, I went for now.

All I can say is: do not underestimate the amount of skill and confidence it takes to style an outfit and then be photographed in it. My friend’s daughter, Ella, arrived at our house with two suitcases of clothes and accessories and proceeded to throw on my clothes with such style and ease that absolutely everything looked right. Ben, our photographer for the day, had the privilege of clicking the shutter at someone who knew how to stand or sit, and had only to focus on the lighting and framing of the shot. My friend and I quickly left them to it, busying ourselves with folding and ironing and many cups of tea. It was one of the most inspiring and fun days I’ve had on this project, and the photographs are better than I had dreamed of.

I loved seeing a seventeen year old wear my clothes with such flair and inventiveness. She could have gone on and on, creating different looks for different occasions. I keep a very small wardrobe, relying on my clothes to be versatile enough to be dressed up for work or a wedding or down for gardening – there’s little I wouldn’t do in any of them. I tend to do simple shifts in formality: swapping heels for Chelsea boots or a knit for a tailored coat. Ella’s outfits were far more inventive and striking, and left my girls in awe. I can’t wait to share her photographs with you.

At the same time though, I love to see clothes on the person who made them. There is something symbiotic about the relationship between conception, execution and the physical reality that ensues. When I design, I think about who I want to be in a particular item: sharp and stylish, patterned and a little bit vintage, or just someone who is off to dig the parsnips. I love it when bloggers post photos of themselves in their creations, but never fully appreciated the effort until it was my turn.

Suffice to say that I have a lot to learn, and that Ben is very patient. The end result is a series of very honest photos: these are the clothes that I have designed and made and that I wear on a daily basis. They show how I wear them, and what they look like in use. I’m so pleased that we persevered with the shoot, because now we have photos of the clothes styled and modelled in two very different ways, but on two ordinary people, using the contents of their own wardrobes, on a slightly overcast day, in and around my house and garden, photographed by a novice. None of us had ever done anything like this before, and, although some of us were better at it than others, we all worked together to achieve an end product to be proud of. I couldn’t have hoped for more.

So, in the spirit of this week’s photo shoots, I leave you with the first up-to-date photograph of me published on this blog. It was another overcast day and I was hoping the sun would come out – and then it did.

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.

Castles and coves

We love the sea. We love it in the morning, when the coast is fresh and empty and still sparkling with dew. We love busy midday sunshine beaches, when everyone and their dog lays claim to a patch of sand. Best of all though, we love it in the late afternoon, when the striped windbreaks and bright buckets are packed away and the coast empties of tired children complaining of sand in their shoes and the long walk home.

From about three o’clock the sand is at its warmest and the sun still high enough to revive you after the chilliest of dips. John invariably heads in for a proper swim, while the children splash about or jump the rollers. In and out, wet and dry and wet again, stopping for an ice-cream (madness) or reaching for the flask of tea (far more rational in these parts), the swimming and sandcastle making goes on until about six, when people start clamouring for their tea, and John lights his little Trangiar and the sausages are soon fizzing and popping in the pan. A bread roll, a salad or two if we’re feeling fancy, and everyone is full and warm and ready to doze on the long drive home.

We’ve visited several beaches over the past couple of weeks. In Cornwall we had a couple of balmy evenings in Poldhu Cove, where we were not the only family to turn up and start cooking supper on the sand. Kynance Cove merited a fast and furious visit, leaping through the icy breakers on a moody morning. Having decided that the water really was too cold and that I would only go waist deep, I was swept off my feet on more than one occasion, much to Ilse’s delight. We needed fish and chips – sat in – to warm up after that particular swim. Sadly we didn’t manage our usual Devon bathe from pebbly Beesands, with the gale force winds blowing us into a cosy cafe for a wet-and-wild-night-of-camping-recovery breakfast instead. But we did make a special pilgrimage to a site John has wanted to visit since he was about ten years old: Tintagel Castle, and its cave-speckled cove beneath.

If you’ve ever visited Tintagel, you’ll know that the castle itself involves no little toil up and down a lot of steps, and the soaring temperatures on the day of our visit meant that the cove beneath was packed with people cooling off after their endeavours. We pottered about for an hour or two, looking into local shops and sampling the superb pasties from the cafe by the ticket office, and by the time we traipsed back down to the cove it was almost empty. We were the only people in the sea, with a few families on the shore, their knicker-clad little ones squealing with glee as the cool water washed over their toes. It was our last day in Cornwall before a drive north through the gathering night, and perhaps my favourite day of all. A castle and a cove, pasties and a cream tea: everyone was happy, which made me so. I couldn’t have asked for a nicer end to our little southern holiday.

So when John announced that he’d like to spend an afternoon and evening at Sandsend, near Whitby, I was only too happy to comply. I packed a basket or two with sausages, a couple of salads from our bursting garden, and a chocolate cake nestled in my tin, and we had one more glorious afternoon by the sea, all of us this time, mucking around in the sand and admiring the crystal clear water. Seb built a birthday monument for his dad, Fliss and Ilse stood on the empty steps and belted out some Abba, Ben and I admired the many shoals of little fish, different types of jellyfish and the odd transparent crab. John, of course, went for his swim, and then we had our hot picnic tea before heading home to sandy showers and fresh clean sheets and beds that rocked gently in our sleep.

Gardens, home and away

While I planned the London leg of our trip south, John was in charge of the week we spent in Devon and Cornwall. The Devon part was easy – every other year my brother and his family throw a huge weekend-long party in their woodland, and that, coupled with a visit to their home in Totnes, is a well-practised part of our summer holidays. The Cornish visit, however, wasn’t planned until one hot evening in London, when John checked the weather forecast, pulled together a plan, and booked a couple of campsites.

There were so many things we could have done in Cornwall. We could have visited more National Trust sites. We could have gone to the Tate in St Ives. We could have pottered along the north coast, taking in the pretty towns with their Enid Blyton coves. But knowing how much I like my plants, and how hard we’d all tried to be plastic-free and reduce our footprint recently, John arranged for us to visit a couple of world-famous gardens.

I’ve been wanting to visit the Eden Project since it opened in 2001, and the space-age view of the honeycomb biospheres in a lush green valley did not disappoint. Parts of the Mediterranean biosphere reminded us strongly of holidays in Greece, Italy and southern France, with the grapes and the olive oil and the kitchen gardens overflowing with good produce and impossibly fat lemons. Some of the plants in the South African section were familiar to me too, from my trip there many years ago but also from Tanzania. The Californian section was the newest to us, as we’ve never visited the west coast of the USA. Wandering around, marvelling at the dry-weather plants, put me in mind of the early settlers, deciding whether to go further north or south as they approached the Pacific Ocean in their covered wagons. I’d always assumed I’d go south, but perhaps life would have been easier a little further north, where the weather patterns were more familiar. Whichever they chose, the climate must have been a shock to settlers from Britain and Ireland, with our temperate island seasons. We have neither blizzards nor deserts, and – usually – water in abundance.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the wave of familiarity that swept over me as we entered the Tropical biosphere. There is no other way to describe it except that I felt as though I’d suddenly come home. Even now, after all these years away, I could name so many of the plants, and tell the children about their dangers, uses and temptations. How we never climbed snake-trees (ficus) as they were a favourite haunt of mambas. How the swiss cheese plant reminded me of one we had in our living room when I was growing up. The cinnamon, pomagranate and papaya trees from which we would nibble as we went about our play. Hibiscus – the vibrant red kind, with its prominent yellow-dusted spear. Ginger, which grew as an ornamental in our back garden, alongside the traveller’s palm, and the enticing frangipane under which we dug tunnels and built dens and made mud pies. I hadn’t realised how many plants I could name, nor how firmly they were etched into my mind. There was something new and familiar around every corner and it almost felt like showing the children around a place where I had grown up.

I do think that it matters, being able to name the plants around you. I think that it changes your perspective of the world if you can name the living things which inhabit it. We care more for the things that we can name. Around the outdoor gardens, which we loved the scope and variety of, we learned the names of many plants that we hadn’t known before. I do love a garden with labels. We could have spent all day there, learning about plants, their habitats and their uses, so we did. Fliss was so inspired that she is writing a herbal: a botanical volume of plants, their identification and medicinal uses. There has been much careful research and sketching since we got home. I came home to two weeks of vibrant green growth, which is both delightful and alarming all at once. I picked four kilograms of cucumbers on Sunday, and have bottled my first jars of tomato sauce. There are more courgettes than we can shake a stick at and flowers in every room of the house.

The children are probably relieved by the abundance because I was sorely tempted by the vegetable and flower gardens at the Lost Gardens of Heligan. John reckoned that our back garden is about half the size of their vegetable beds, and this observation quickly disintegrated into my enthusiastic suggestion that if we dug up the lawn, we could be self-sufficient in vegetables. How Good Life of me. Seb was particularly horrified, and his reaction, coupled with the fact that the chickens would have nowhere to roam and I do actually have a limited number of hours in the day, won out. Oh, but it really is the sort of garden to inspire those One Day dreams. John and I were making plans the whole way around – one day we’ll have an orchard with a pond for the poultry to live in, and a small woodland for fuel, a huge vegetable patch and a couple of pigs. And then, walled off and civilised, something akin to the Italian Garden, which is so far from what I normally aspire to yet took my breath away.

There are other jaunts to write about – involving castles and coves, sausages and swims – but I wanted to set the gardens down first, as they are in my mind’s eye. Both were vast, ambitious spaces, managed far more skilfully than I will ever manage mine. I’ve come home with a head full of plans to implement over the coming autumn, winter and spring. Really, though, those two days of gardens have deepened my love of plants and the natural world. I won’t be starting an Eden Project any time soon, or bringing an abandoned landscape back to its former glory. But I will be outside every day, watering and cutting, pruning and weeding, caring for my little piece of the planet.