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?

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…

 

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?

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.

On hold

I have been meaning to make elderberry syrup for three weeks now. Mrs Beeston raves about it. Mr Winter has been tempting me with tales of his bottling exploits. Even Mrs East keeps asking whether I’ve got round to it yet. Three weeks on, the answer is still No. But at least the berries are no longer on the tree.

Instead, last Thursday, I made five minutes to run out and cut a basketful of the drooping clusters. All day, while I was waiting for the kettle to boil or for a reply to an email, I ran a fork through the tiny branches, knocking the berries into a tub, before sticking it in the freezer. They, like so much else right now, are officially On Hold.

These past couple of weeks, everything that can be shoved in the freezer has been. Pears? Freeze them. Tomatoes? Freeze them. A box of softening purple plums? Fr – ooh, actually, lets stew those with brown sugar and cinnamon and have them on our porridge. And everything that can be dried, has been. The airer on the landing, that sifter of warm upward drafts, is currently hung with mint and hydrangeas. The garden is collapsing, and I am catching what I can.

The thing about putting things on hold is that it doesn’t make them any less important. I still want to use that bag  of avocado pits for an weekend dye session; its just that I have neither the time nor the fleece just now. When I’m pickling cucumbers (eight kilos and counting) I can’t deal with the marrows, too. And while I’d like to claim that it’s just the rush of September that knocks me off my feet, the truth is that things are put on hold all the time, in this house. I left half the elderflowers on the tree in May because I was tired of preserving them. On hold, they turned into the berries I picked last week.

The trick is to know what’ll keep, and what won’t. Some things get better, given time. French beans are maturing into dried haricots – and next year’s seed. Cooking apples just keep getting sweeter. But those gladioli won’t keep coming forever, and there’s a limit to the number of days I’ll have cosmos by my desk. There’s already an empty seat at the after-school teatime table. Neither I nor all the science in the world can freeze these fleeting years.

One day – a foggy, November day, perhaps – I’ll pull those berries from the freezer. Knowing Ilse, she’ll be with me to stir our witchy brew. Another day, perhaps when everyone else is out at dance or Scouts or just visiting their friends, Fliss will help me draw and dye and fix that elusive pink from the avocado stones. Only last week, Seb spent a happy afternoon turning frozen black bananas into a raisin-studded loaf. Ben’s stashed a bag of sloes against a home-for-the-holidays gin session. And, thanks to John, that fruit will slowly become next winter’s crumbles and puddings and pies.

It’s not a case of putting things off. I’m just saving them for the right moment. When they can be a focus, and not a distraction. A pleasure, and not a chore. And a welcome reminder of all this rush in the still and frozen days to come.

Madeleine

And you? What are you putting on hold?

Small pleasures

First, there is pleasure in giving. Fliss has been asking for a waxed fabric sandwich wrap all summer, and I finally made her one on Sunday evening. The best part was letting her choose whatever she wanted out of my fabric stash. She chose what is also my favourite: this beautiful vintage floral green, and I know it brings her as much pleasure every lunchtime as it would me. We are neither of us fans of the cumbersome, and a simple wrap-come-tablecloth that folds away into nothing beats a lunchbox any day.

Then there is also pleasure in deliberating. I don’t have much of a stash, as a rule, but I did a bit of shopping while we were in London to make up new pattern samples. The teal linen, which is heavy and rich with drape, was to be a new Sharpen Your Pencils dress, only now I’m dreaming of a new lined A-line skirt in it instead. The floral viscose was to be a Beat the Blues Blouse, but wouldn’t it make the most satisfying of secretly-lovely linings for my skirt? Extravagant, yes. But I think I might be persuaded.

On the more frugal side of things, plans for my scraps are evolving. This little heap of 2 1/2″ squares were to be a postage stamp quilt, and maybe they still will. Or perhaps they’ll be an English Paper Piecing project, instead. I’m thinking of a tea cosy constructed of tiny hexagons, nestled together to keep the pot warm. It is the sort of long slow project that I would like to reserve for weekend afternoons, before the sun slips away behind the hen house.

Speaking of hens, our little flock of chicks is not quite old enough to join the ladies in the big house, but it won’t be long. For now, they are taking it in turns to enjoy the garden. They set out with such determination, arguing over fallen apples and particularly satisfying scratching spots, before ending up in the inevitable chicken cuddle under a tree. Even when the grown girls are out and the little ones are safely in their run, the hens nestle up to the wire. Perhaps we could let them all out together, but I think the small ones aren’t quite big enough to deal with the jostling yet. Sorting out the pecking order can be a stressful business. Everyone is happy, just now, so we’ll keep it this way for a while yet.

Generally, one or the other of us keeps an eye on the chicks while they’re free-ranging, because there are a lot of foxes about just now. We can see them from the kitchen window, but Seb is quite happy in the hammock with a blanket and a book, and John has been sanding this chair on the patio. Spotted for sale in a front garden, I brought it home in early July and put it in the garage. It sat there, untouched, until I lost the ability to see past the dark varnish and faded seat and began to regret the purchase. It was on its way to the St Leonard’s Hospice shop to earn its second lot for charity in two months when I found John halfway through the project. I’m so glad he didn’t ask, and just got started, because I’ve fallen for it all over again. A new seat cover will take no time at all, so once he’s finished with the mouldings and fed the wood with beeswax, we’ll have a new chair for our bedroom.

I am under no illusions that either of us will actually sit on it. No, it’ll be where I lay my clothes out for the following morning. Old habits die hard, it seems, and it is so much easier to ease yourself out from under the covers if no thought is required. Besides, a pile of clothes you made yourself is always a little thrill. This morning’s selection was particularly pretty, in my eyes. Soon it’ll be too cold for my chambray peg trousers, so I’ve a pair planned in chocolate tweed as a second sample and winter alternative. The only question is which floral to use for the inner waistband and pockets.

First, though, I have another Snow Day jumper to knit. I let Fliss choose the wool, as it will be for her. This grey-pink is a little too lilac for my taste, but she loves it and I love knitting for her, so all is well. If you need me, I’ll be in my studio, knitting and taking tutorial photographs. Probably with a tea tray and a drama on the radio. Now that is a pleasure, and not a small one. I am looking forward to those hours.

Yet what might not come across in this post of crafting highlights is the hustle and bustle of our surrounding life. I got up at some ridiculous hour yesterday to take John to the station to catch a flight to Sweden, before a full day of work then home to children (who I love) and homework and dinner and packed lunches and laundry and ironing and washing up (which I don’t) and trying very hard to stay awake until it was time to collect them from Scouts (which I managed, only just). In between all of those things, nestled a row here and a row there of my Lionberry shawl, begun at the weekend and continued, all too briefly, in bed after my morning-taxi-driver run. I’ll be putting it aside now, until the sample jumper is gauge-swatched, knitted and blocked. But it’s there, coiled in the base of my basket, waiting for a moment when I need just five minutes of the small pleasure of wrapping wool around a needle and watching what emerges.

Madeleine

What’s bringing you pleasure at the moment?

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?