And so to bed

Brace yourselves, because that was the only vaguely pretty photo that this garden post has to offer. November is descending into darkness and we spent a final Saturday afternoon putting the garden to bed together. I snapped a few quick photographs on my phone just as the sun was threatening to slip below the city-stunted horizon, and empty beds are not the most photogenic of subjects. Yet when I’m reading about other people’s gardens, I want to see the work behind the scenes, and not just the glamour shots of sweet peas in all their finery.

My task this weekend was to clear the cut flower bed and protect the tender plants. A couple of old fleeces, too full of second cuts and noils to be worth my limited spinning time, had been put aside for just this purpose. They’re protecting the incredibly productive alstroemeria, some freesias and, for the first time ever, my gladioli bulbs. I’ve always dug them up and overwintered them in the garage before, so keep your fingers crossed for me. I still have a mountain of compost and leaves to dump on top of the whole bed, to protect and feed it over the coming months, but I’m waiting for some muscle to come home from university for that particular task. That, or a burst of energy and enthusiasm one bright morning. I have shifted a lot of compost over the last couple of weeks and need a bit of a break.

The veg patch is done, for now. Before dealing with each bed, I worked out the crop rotation for next year so that I can treat each accordingly.

Two beds got a few inches of compost.

This one will have roots in it next year, so it only gets a layer of cardboard.

The fourth bed (just out of sight to the left) has this winter’s roots and other veg still in it, but it’ll get a mountain of compost dug in come spring, and the beans and peas that will be planted will be perfectly happy in there.

I still need to prune the fruit bushes, so didn’t think to take a photo of the fruit patch. It’ll be pruned and each bush given a top dressing of organic fertiliser. I love growing fruit; you get maximum output for minimum input.

My PSB are loving the colder weather, as are the leeks.

The perpetual spinach still has a couple of meals left in it,

and although the parsnips look unimpressive above ground, they are one of my consistently huge harvests every year. We virtually never buy them, and we dig them up all winter.

I do need to bring in and use the end of the beetroot though, before we get any serious frosts.

The flower bed by the patio has been mulched by the apple tree above it, and I’m inclined to leave it like this, apples and all. The birds and other wildlife love them and it makes a convenient blanket for this bed.

I have to say, fresh air and excercise apart, there is something faintly sad about a November garden. There’s a line from a Carol Ann Duffy poem that pops into my head every time I go out there at the moment: The trees have wept their leaves. They certainly have. But there’s also pleasure to be taken in doing things for the very last time this year: the last bit of strimming, the last mow, the last weeding of a bed. The garden is fast becoming a blank canvas, ready and waiting for spring.

Not all is asleep out there though. For the first time ever, I filled our hanging baskets with violas and they look so pretty, these little flashes of colour either side of our front door. Seb spent some of his pocket money at the pet shop this weekend, and filled his bird feeders with fatballs again. Bulb lasagnas have been planted. The hens are still laying, just about. We’re planning a night-time birthday party out there, with a big fire and a barbecue and hide and seek in the dark. The garden might have been put to bed, but it’ll be lying awake for some time yet.

Madeleine

Have you put your garden/ pots/ patio to bed for the winter yet – or are things just waking up into spring where you live?

 

Haddon Hall

You could very easily miss Haddon Hall. There’s a signposted car park, then you are directed over the road and past an unassuming little shop and ticket office towards a turn in the path, a bridge, and the hall on the hill above you.

Everything about it is understated. When we arrived, the woman on the door advised us as to the best route to take. Please do take the time to visit the chapel before going into the house, she said. It’s worth a look.

Having seen the 2011 version of Jane Eyre a couple of times, I was familiar with the front of the hall, its wide stone steps leading down into the courtyard. I had a good sense of the grounds, with the trees and river and low bridge straddling it. I could picture the steep slope that Jane half-runs, half-tumbles down at the very start of the film. And I was prepared for beautiful panelling in so many of the rooms, and a large, sunken kitchen.

What I was not prepared for was the chapel. Worth a look turned out to be the understatement of the month. Inside the tiny house of worship was an reredos of mesmerising detail and beauty. I captured only one tiny part of Christ’s journey to the cross. The walls, whitewashed during the reformation, had been restored to their frescoed glory, with wonderfully imagined depictions of the garden of Eden, the ship of fools and three skeletons stirring a cauldron as just some of the highlights. There was a marble tomb of a small boy, his little form preserved in Victorian memorium. Wooden choir stalls flanked the chancel; the font stood waiting in the baptistry; the pews were still in place.

I found the children in the kitchen, making wands of sticks, rosemary and twine in the midst of ancient sinks and steps so deeply worn they looked like drainage. There was a tray of herbs and spices and a great heavy pestle and mortar to grind and blend them before tying the witchy concoctions into scented muslin sachets. The great hall was so inviting, with its three piece suite arranged around a massive fire, that we stopped and sat a little before heading up the stairs and through the other rooms.

There aren’t many big houses that are so hands off in their stewardship, or so simply displayed. Really, we were free to wander at will through room after panelled room, each offering up its own surprise in the form of stucco or furniture or views. I adored the long gallery, with its thousands of tiny panes of glass ushering the light in on the coldest and wettest of days. Like everywhere else, decoration was confined to a vase of flowers, dried seedpods, or leaves, and it was beautifully done. The garden itself was as unfussy as the rest of the hall, relying on the vista to please the eye as much as the planning and planting.

When we got back to York, we spent a quiet afternoon rewatching Jane Eyre in front of the fire. I know that many, many other films have been shot in that house, but this was the film in which it first caught my eye. We kept picking out spots we now knew: the wedding in the chapel, the scene in the kitchen when the servants are all preparing for the arrival of a large party, panelled rooms through whose windows Jane longs for the world. Ilse jumped when she saw Rochester shooting across the landscape from the very three stone steps that she had declared her favourite spot in the place. Something about the informality of our visit made us feel that we knew it in a way that we didn’t know other, fussier great houses. When you’ve seen as many grand homes as I have, they can begin to blend into one, with all their fine furniture and cordons and wardens in every room. Haddon Hall really was something quite out of the ordinary. When I mentioned our visit to a friend, she agreed with me at once. In fact, we decided that it wasn’t just out of the ordinary, but that it was really quite extraordinary in its quiet and peaceful way.

Madeleine

Have you visited anywhere recently that really surprised (and delighted) you? Any recommendations for days out? Do tell!

Little Flurries knitalong part two: the back

Welcome to the second part of the Little Flurries knitalong. This week, you’re going to be working the back of the sweater. As the bottom hem of the back is identical to that of the Snow Day sweater, I’ve used the text and photos from that tutorial for the first part of this one. However, you’ll notice that the colour of the yarn changes partway through this tutorial. That’s because the neckline of Little Flurries is completely different to the neckline of Snow Day – so that part of the tutorial is brand new.

Let’s begin at the bottom hem. You’ve had a bit of practice casting on and knitting while you were making your swatch, so this should be a breeze. In fact, if you get the first 26 rows done over the weekend, you’ll have lots of lovely mindless stocking stitch to relax with in the evenings throughout the coming week.

The first thing you need to do is cast all the stitches onto your larger needle (the one you swatched for). This just makes knitting that first row much easier, as the stitches will be a bit looser than if you cast them onto your smaller needle. However, the smaller needle is used to knit the rest of the hem. So you literally hold the larger needle (with all the cast on stitches on it) in one hand, and the smaller needle in your other hand. I’m right handed and knit in the UK way, so in the photo below the cast on stitches are on the larger needle (on the left), and I’ve just started to knit them all across onto my smaller needle (on the right).

Done? Right, now before you forget, put that larger needle away and pick up the other smaller needle. You should now be working exclusively with your pair of smaller needles. The pattern tells you to knit some rows of garter stitch. Just to remind you, that means that you knit every row. Don’t purl anything.

Once you’ve knitted the required number of rows of garter stitch, you’re ready to work on the notches. In this next section, you’re going to be knitting stocking stitch in the centre of the work, and garter stitch at either end. It’s actually really easy.

You also need to start using your larger needles again. So pick up one of your large needles and use it to work all the stitches of the following row.

We start on the right side, and just knit the whole row. Put the smaller needle (that you’ve just emptied of stitches) to one side, and pick up your other larger needle. You’re going to be working with your pair of larger needles for the rest of the back. Turn your work.

Then, on the wrong side, you need to knit the first five stitches only. In the photo below, that’s precisely where I’m up to. Can you see how the first five stitches are still in garter stitch? That’s because we’re still knitting both sides of those first five stitches.

However, we want the central section to be stocking stitch, so you need to purl all the way across the row until you are five stitches before the end. Don’t forget to bring your yarn to the front of your work before you start purling, like so:

When you get to those last five stitches, stop. Move your yarn to the back of your work again, ready to knit. Then knit those last five stitches, to create the garter stitch notch on the other side of the back.

Take a look at your work, without turning it. From the wrong side, which you’ve just finished working, it will look like the photo below. Those are the first five knit stitches (on the right), and then the purl stitches stretching off to the left. There will be five more purl stitches on the far left edge of your knitting.

Turn your work, and knit the whole row. By the time you finish this row, your work should look like the photo below, on the right side (the side you’ve just finished working).

Can you see the garter notch beginning to emerge on the right hand side? Work a few more rows (in the same way as the previous two) and it’ll be much clearer:

Carry on in this manner until you’ve worked as many rows as the pattern tells you to. Then stop and have a celebratory drink/ dance/ pat on the back. That’s the hardest part of the back done.

Now all you need to do is work the rest of the back in stocking stitch until it reaches the required length (see the pattern to find out what this is in your chosen size). That means that you knit all the stitches on the right side and purl all the stitches on the wrong side. Easy.

Done that? Then it’s time to create the neckline and work that envelope opening.

Working the neckline

The first thing that you need to do is knit the garter stitch section at the front of the neckline, while keeping the shoulder sections in stocking stitch. This is much easier than casting off and picking up stitches to work a separate collar.

All you have to do on the first row is knit the whole thing. On the next row, which is a wrong side row, you need to purl the first 17 stitches. This ensures that this bit of the work will remain in stocking stitch. You can see that I’ve done this in the picture below.

Your yarn will be at the front because you’ve been purling. Move it to the back, ready to knit, like so:

and knit all the way to the last 17 stitches. In the photo below you can see the difference between the first, purled, stitches, and the knitted ones. My pencil is pointing at the first knitted stitch.

Bring your yarn to the front again:

and purl the last 17 stitches. Turn your work. It should look like the picture below, with the stitches at either end still in stocking stitch, and the garter stitch edging beginning to emerge in the middle. My pencil is pointing to the place where the change occurs.

Work the next 4 rows in the same way, knitting the right side rows and doing a combination of knit and purl stitches on the wrong side rows, as directed by the pattern. Please note that the number of stitches you purl changes each time.

Now you’re ready to cast off those centre stitches. Knit the number of stitches specified by the pattern. You can see that I’ve done this, below.

Then knit two more stitches. My metal needle is pointing at the stitch that we are going to bind off first (below). Can you see why you needed to knit two more stitches? If you hadn’t, you would have bound off too early.

Bind off that stitch as normal, by carrying it over the end of your right needle. In the picture below, my metal needle is pointing to the bound off stitch.

Continue to knit one stitch and then bind off the previous stitch until you’ve bound off the required number of stitches. Remember, when binding off you count each stitch as you actually bind it off, not as you knit it. When you’ve done the correct number, you should have one stitch remaining on your right needle (plus the shoulder stitches at the far end) and the number of stitches you are supposed to knit, minus one, on your left needle. You can see this in my photograph below.

Knit the rest of those stitches, and you’ll have the correct number of knit stitches on either side of the bound off section. Your work should look like the photo below. Can you see the two shoulder sections, with the bound off neckline in the middle? (Ignore the bobbles: the front neckline is worked in exactly the same way as the back, so I took these photos while working the front – hence the bobbles.)

The next thing to do is to decrease those shoulder stitches so that they can be sewn together later to form a toddler-friendly envelope neckline.

You are going to work the right shoulder (what would be the right shoulder if someone was wearing it) first. The stitches for the left shoulder will still be on your needle, but just ignore them for now.

The right shoulder actually uses slightly more complicated decreases than the left. They aren’t difficult at all, but it might take you a while to remember them as they have a few steps. However, they are important because they make the collar curve away in the correct direction as the stitches are decreased.

You start with a wrong side row. Purl the number of stitches specified by the pattern. Then stop. This is all I’ve done, below.

Now you need to make your slip, slip, purl (ssp) decrease. In order to make the decreases point in the right direction, you need to twist them by slipping them onto your right needle as if you were going to knit them. So you insert your right needle into the next stitch, as if you were going to knit it, as shown here:

and just slip it off your left needle. Do this again, and you should have two slipped (but not worked) stitches with all those purled stitches on your right needle. You can see them in the photograph below.

Next, you need to get those two stitches back onto your left needle, so that you can work them. But you don’t want to twist them back to how they were in the first place. So you need to insert your left needle into both stitches, from left to right, and slip them straight back onto the left needle. You can see how I’ve inserted my left needle to do this, below. Don’t work those stitches at all, yet.

You can see in the picture below that they are back on my left needle, in their new orientation, and not worked.

Now it’s finally time to work those two stitches. You need to insert your right needle into them ‘through the back loop’. This means that you insert your needle as if to purl, but you pick up both stitches at the same time, and you insert your needle from the left hand side at the back. It might all feel a bit tight and awkward, but persevere. You can see my right needle inserted in the picture below.

Then you just purl that stitch as normal. In the next picture, you can see that the last stitch is just a purl stitch, except that it has purled two stitches into one. That’s the slip, slip, purl stitch (ssp) done.

Move your yarn to the back of your work (as shown below) and knit the rest of the stitches. All of your wrong side rows will be worked in this manner, although the number of stitches to knit and purl varies. Just follow the pattern.

When you get to the end of the row, turn your work. Now you’re going to work the first right side row.

Knit four stitches. Now it’s time to work the slip, slip, knit stitch.

Slip the next stitch onto your right needle as if you were going to knit it – but don’t work it at all. You can see my needle, inserted as if to knit, below. We are slipping stitches knitwise again in order to twist them around – just as we did for the slip, slip, purl stitch.

Do the same for the next stitch. You can see two slipped stitches on my right needle, below.

Now you are going to knit those two stitches together, but ‘through the back loop’. You do this by inserting your left needle into both stitches at the same time, from right to left. I find it easiest to hold my needles almost parallel:

Once your left needle is inserted, move it so that your needles are perpendicular again, and knit those two stitches together as if you were knitting a normal stitch. You can see my needles in position, ready to do this, below.

Then knit the rest of the stitches in the row.

Carry on working all the wrong side rows with the ssp stitch, and the right side rows with the ssk stitch, until you only have one stitch left. Don’t be put off when you have to work an ssp at the start of a new row, or a ssk at the end of a row. Just carry on working the stitches as explained, above. Your work will decrease by one stitch in every row.

Then snip your yarn with a nice long tail and pull it through that final stitch, to secure it. Your right shoulder is done! It should have a nice curve, and the decrease stitches should all point outwards, as below:

Now it’s time to work the left shoulder. You start working this on the wrong side, and you need to rejoin your yarn. The first stitch is a knit stitch (even though you are working into a purl stitch), so insert your needle as if to knit, and lay your yarn across your right needle with the loose end to the left (see below). Knit the first four stitches.

Now you are going to work the ‘purl two together’ (p2tog) stitch. Bring your yarn to the front, ready to purl.

Insert your needle as you normally would to purl, but instead of just inserting it through one stitch, you need to insert it through two stitches at the same time:

Then purl those two stitches, just as if you were purling one normal stitch. That’s the end of the p2tog stitch. Now you just purl to the end of the row.

Turn your work, ready to work a right side row. Knit the number of stitches specified by the pattern, then stop.

Now it’s time to work the ‘knit two together’ (k2tog) stitch. Insert your right needle into the next two stitches at the same time, from left to right, just as if you were knitting one normal knit stitch.

Then knit the two stitches, exactly as if they were just one normal knit stitch. That’s the k2tog stitch done.

Now knit to the end of the row.

Continue working the wrong side and right side rows just like this, remembering to follow the number of knit and purl stitches for every row, because it changes. Don’t be put off when you have to purl two together at the end of a row, or knit two together at the start of a row. You just do it exactly as you’ve done it before.

Keep going until you only have one stitch left, then cut your yarn with a nice long tail and pull it through that final stitch to secure it.

The left shoulder should look like mine, below, with a tail from the joined-in yarn, and the decreases pointing off to the right.

That’s the back done! Come back next week for the knitalong tutorial for the front – time to start working those bobbles…

Madeleine

Who are you knitting your Little Flurries for? Have you gone for a Christmas tree version, or one of the other options?

 

 

 

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

Snow Day is now available as a pay-for pattern via Ravelry.

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?