A 48 hour jumper

Should you wish to make your own, here is the recipe for a 48 hour jumper.

You will need:

An overambitious plan for the month of October, involving double the usual number of patterns in only three quarters of the usual time

Plenty of other commitments which have wiped out the rest of the week

A date set for a photoshoot with an adorable little model (and his equally lovely mum)

Five balls of yarn, only one of which has been knit up so far

Straight needles in sizes 3mm and 4mm

A copy of my soon-t0-be-released toddler jumper pattern

A sore hand from knitting the same jumper in age 5 the previous week

A huge sense of relief and gratitude that your mum is knitting the third test jumper

Method:

Realise that knitting four balls of wool means two balls a day over two days. Try not to think about that while enjoying a rare date night with your husband on the Friday. Cocktails, anyone?

Get up on Saturday morning and put two balls of wool in your knitting basket. Set yourself up with a hot water bottle, blanket, and a drama on iPlayer. Finish the back.

Worry about whether you have enough wool. Do a quick check and realise that Wool Warehouse has sold out of that dyelot.

Enjoy chatting to your children when they come home from their sleepover with their grandparents. Keep knitting.

Help with homework. Keep knitting.

Supervise piano practice. Keep knitting.

Drink tea. Keep knitting.

Realise that you are getting very sore already and that you need to pace yourself. Stop for lunch and stretches.

Visit your husband’s 100 year old grandmother. Knit on the way there. Knit on the way home. Try not to feel carsick. Knit quite a lot of the time you are there. Be grateful that you are doing something portable like knitting. Be pleased that you are talking about something other than knitting.

Get home. Keep knitting through the rest of the evening, stopping for tea (moules frites again, because they are in season, and thank you John).

Finish the front. Cast on for the sleeves, intending to do an inch before bed. Don’t do an inch before bed.

Sleep like a log until 10.30 (which is almost unprecedented), when your significant other wakes you up because they know you have to start knitting. Be amazed that you slept for so long.

Catch up with the Archers omnibus. Start knitting.

Knit all day, stopping to stretch every 45 minutes, which is how long it takes you to do an inch on your two-at-a-time sleeves.

Take a ‘Stretch with Fliss’ class at 3 pm. Realise that your arm and hand are starting to feel better thanks to all this stretching. Get told off for not pointing your toes properly.

Play a bit of Debussy, to stretch your hands out with all those lovely arpeggios. Get back to the knitting.

Snap a grainy, blurry photo for your blog post. Keep knitting.

Eat an enormous roast dinner.

Knit through Dr Who, the Strictly results show and a spy drama.

Declare the sleeves done at 10.53 pm.

Look forward to making it up, handing it over, and taking photos of a very sweet little person in it. Hope that he likes it.

Vow to set yourself more manageable targets next month.

Madeleine

Do you set yourself ridiculous targets? Any other marathon craft sessions out there? I suspect we’ve all been there…

 

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?

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?

Castles and coves

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

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

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

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

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

Desert Island Discs: Something Changed

John and I had no business meeting each other. It really shouldn’t have happened: he was a starry PhD student in another subject, at another college, while I was still an undergraduate with rather a lot on my plate. Yet one June evening, a supervisor drove me out of Cambridge for dinner at a country pub, and on the way home he parked his car at the back of Trinity. We wandered back to St. John’s through Great Court and there we bumped into a friend of his, covered in chalk dust, an ice axe in each hand.

I’d come back from Syria, where I’d been having some time out, to spend May Week in Cambridge before returning for my final year the following October. At the end of year, after exams, there are a couple of weeks of pure fun: garden parties; May Balls that go on all night; dinners and punting and lazing around all day on the gloriously sunny Backs. My supervisor, seeing that I was smitten, invited me to his garden party the following afternoon as John was going to be there, and the rest, as they say, was history. I don’t think I’d ever had as much fun as we had in those first two sunny summer weeks. They remain in my mind as a time of pure happiness.

Although we didn’t listen to any Pulp during those first two weeks, I’m always reminded of them when I hear Something Changed. My whole life turned on a chance encounter on a golden Cambridge evening. Not just finding my life partner – although that would be enough – but finding my independence again. It’s all very well, believing in fate (I don’t), but even if you do, it’s what you do with your opportunities that counts. My whole life turned on the head of a pin in those two short weeks. In a funny way, I became myself again, free and unafraid.

I had a fantastic summer that year, diving in Australia and spending a couple of months with my parents in France and then Aleppo, Syria. When I returned to Cambridge in the October, John and I, who had been writing all summer, decided to make a go of it. I made new friends – through John but also, for the first time, through my course: proper friends, people who built me up. I started to take my studies seriously, spending my days tucked in a corner of the labyrinthine University Library, periodically meeting John for tea and scones in the cafe, and in the end I did rather well. When the time came to graduate, I didn’t want to leave. I loved those final twelve months, working and playing hard, encouraged and inspired by the people around me. They made what could have continued to be a very tough time not only manageable, but a joy.

If I think of my life as a series of events, the significant moments weighing heavy on an unbroken thread, that chance meeting was one such moment for me. How lucky I was, to bump into the love of my life just then, when I least expected it. It wasn’t just something that changed that day; it was everything.

Celebrating Plastic Free July

You know how sometimes things seem to come together and fall into place just perfectly? Over the past few weeks I’ve been increasingly uncomfortable about all the plastic our family seems to be getting through. Then my brother told me about a packaging free shop in the town where he lives. And Seb read, on the back of a Morrisons receipt, that the supermarket is inviting customers to bring their own containers to take home fresh meat and fish. And yet somehow we are putting the bin out more often than we used to. So I went online to look up plastic free options and inspiration and stumbled upon Plastic Free July.

Originating in Australia in 2011, this year looks set to have millions of participants in over 150 countries worldwide – including me. I’ve pledged to give up single-use plastics… forever. It goes without saying that I won’t succeed and I like the way that they acknowledge that directly. It doesn’t bother me at all, setting myself up to fail in this way, because I won’t view it as failure. Instead, I’m going to celebrate each and every piece of single use plastic that we don’t use. There are bound to be all sorts that slip the net: medical blister packs, butter ‘paper’, single-use plastics that we already own. But there are bound to be plastic items that we refuse, and that’s why this can only be a win-win scenario.

So much has changed since the first time I made a concerted effort to reduce the single-use plastic in our lives – about ten years ago. Back then, it felt a bit niche, to be honest. Nowadays it feels positively mainstream. I told my car-share buddy about it on the way to work and she enthusiastically told me that she’d like to give it a go, then sat down with me to create a resource to share the opportunity with the rest of our organisation. Beth Terry‘s blog was the only one I could find on the topic, way back when. Now there are several excellent blogs which look at everything from plastic-free living to zero-waste lifestyles in a realistic and encouraging way. Best of all, a quick internet search turned up all sorts of options in and around York, from the market to Whittards to a farm shop that is literally on my way to work and sells both fresh and frozen food sans plastic, as far as I can tell. (The aforementioned car-share buddy and I have a stop planned for later in the week.) Then there are all the online shops specialising in plastic-free living: I ordered my first tin of non-nano suncream along with a few other consumables that we are about to run out of. I couldn’t find those sorts of products the last time I looked.

If I am honest with myself, I had become complacent about certain plastics. Things that I never used to buy: punnets of grapes, tubs of hummus and yoghurt, rigid packs of organic mince – had become regular features in my online trolley. Thanks to the powers of habit and the efforts of my husband, we had stuck to several ingrained behaviours, such as using the market for fruit, veg and most meat, and getting our milk delivered in glass bottles. However, I knew that the teabags thrown onto the compost heap contained plastic; I was just tired of swilling out the teapot. I knew I needed a wake-up call and some inspiration. What I hadn’t appreciated was how much I needed to feel that lots of other people were trying to do this too. Thanks to co-workers and my  children and my lovely husband who took our own containers to the butcher to see what they would say, this doesn’t feel like such an uphill battle any more.

Sure, there are lots of horrifying statistics and videos out there, and they deserve our attention. But when searching, with Ilse, for some child-appropriate information (good old Newsround) we discovered that a company is developing a product designed to clean up the big bits of plastic in the oceans. I simply cannot believe that future generations are never going to dig up our landfill and develop the technology to recycle it. And pressure is mounting to ban or tax more forms of single-use plastic than just the bag.

I’m not anti-plastic. In fact, Cecily is going to make a very excited appearance on the blog next week, writing all about the wonder material that has so much potential to improve the world. When I was a kid in Tanzania, plastic was a pretty rare and precious thing. My mother kept her UK-shopping plastic bags neatly folded, and used them over and over again. Ice-cream tubs would live on for years alongside the tupperware. In the run up to Plastic Free July, I keep rescuing plastic from the recycling. There won’t be many more squeezy bottles or freezer bags coming into our home. Plastic plays a significant role in our lives, and a shift in mindset makes it suddenly invaluable.

I’m not planning on writing about the issues surrounding plastic or offering comprehensive lists of tips – other people have already done that extremely well. What I would like to do is share this journey with you once in a while – because I’m sure it will be a very long and bumpy journey – and invite you along for the ride. Like every adventure, it’ll be more fun with company.

Madeleine

Are you already a plastic-free pro, or just interested in finding out more? I’m really curious about what you think. And I’d love to know if you do sign up to Plastic Free July. You could leave a comment, or drop me a private email. Whatever you do, big or small, alone or as part of a community, I hope we can celebrate every small refusal of another bit of unnecessary plastic – and cheer each other along.

Rhubarb and roses

19 June 1933

It was only after the last cap was tightened last night that I realised that there’s been a bit of a theme to our recent preserving: fruit and flowers. Gooseberry and elderflower, lemon and elderflower and, last of all, rhubarb and roses.

Normally, I make rhubarb jam earlier in the season, adding crystallised ginger to the pot to give it the sort of sweet heat I crave in the dark days of March. The first, forced rhubarb is slender and pale and, when bottled, shines pinkly from the larder shelves. But this year the rhubarb has been so abundant and lush that we took it for granted, almost forgetting that it would soon come to an end. Which is how I ended up making a batch when the roses were in bloom.

At first I thought I’d use the roses from the bush which towers, two or three meters high, above the hen house, but although they have a lovely scent, it’s not sweet enough to eat. So I turned to my little rambler, still in its early years but laden with its open, cut and come again heads of loose and sweet-smelling petals.

Taking a handful indoors made me think of the little bottles of rosewater perfume that we’d make with our grannie in Ireland, when we visited each summer. She’d save a variety of small containers for just this purpose, and send us out to pick the blooms, pluck the petals from each one and leave the mixture to brew overnight. Then she’d tell us to use it up, but I never did. It was too pretty: the dark pink curls suspended in what was no longer simply water. So I’d keep it, jealously, until the pink turned to brown and the high summer fragrance became something sour and earthy.

I did wonder whether the scent would survive the rigours of the jam-making process. At first, the panful looked akin to an Arabian delicacy: a mound of rose and pistachio Turkish Delight, strewn with petals to serve. Before long, though, the sugar drew the juices from the fruit and the whole lot came to a raging boil, setting quickly in the jars with whole chunks of the softened stems suspended in the jelly. I have to admit, I licked the spoon myself. And the pan. Goodness knows what the children were doing to resist that scent, but whatever it was, I was quite happy not to have any offers of help with the washing up. The rhubarb was softened, somehow, its flavour mellowed but still true, and above it sang the rose, confident and clear.

We are so enjoying bottling this lovely June that it didn’t take Ilse long to persuade me to get on with the elderflower cordial, before the last blooms turned brown and brittle on the trees. We were just in time, bringing in a basketful on Saturday afternoon a mere half hour before the heavens opened. All we had to do, cosy in the kitchen, was boil the kettle for a cup of tea and pour a share of the hot water over the blooms, as well as the zested rind of some citrus fruit. The following day we strained the brew, added sugar and the juice from the same bright fruit and brought it to a simmer. Then it was bottled and put away on the larder shelves. Apart, that is, from the one vessel which made its way to the soda syphon, for tasting purposes.

So much older now than when I made that rosewater – and hopefully a little wiser – I’ve been resisting the urge to save all our preserves against a rainy day. I don’t want to find chutney from two years ago at the back of a shelf, and wonder if it is still good to eat. Of course, it almost always is, but that’s not the point. We don’t make these things to sit in jars for posterity, as evidence that summer was here and that we made the most of it. I’d rather have that proof in the form of good tastes on my tongue. Invariably, I wonder whether I have put aside enough – enough jam, enough chutney, enough bottled fruit – to last the cold months through, and invariably we are still eating it up when the following summer’s bounty flows into the kitchen once more. In this spirit, Fliss made a crumble for our Sunday roast, with the last of the blackcurrants and pears, and it was a delicious precursor of the harvests still to come. This year, for the first time, I have almost got it right. The shelves are nearly empty, bar the bottles and and jars I’ve added over the last couple of weeks. There’s one lot of plums still on hand, which I’ll use to crown a pavlova, and some bottled raspberries which will disappear the moment they grace the table. The only stumbling block is the gooseberries: we are drowning in gooseberries. Not only are we nowhere near polishing off last year’s crop; the two pounds for last week’s jam barely made a dent and the rest are swelling to enormous proportions with all this sunshine and rain. Now that the rhubarb is just about done, I’ll have to turn my culinary attentions to those lovely, prickly-sour little fruits. Perhaps John can find a recipe for gooseberry wine or spirits. After all, that’s what he did with the last lingering sticks of rhubarb. And, somehow, I don’t think that his rhubarb gin will still be hanging around in a year.

Cecily

PS – How about you – are you busy making preserves yet? What do you have an abundance of, in your part of the world? Are you still eating up any stock from previous years?

PPS – If anyone has any suggestions for what to do with all those gooseberries, please let me know. I’m particularly keen on the idea of a gooseberry chutney or relish – something to add a bit of zing to a plain cheese sandwich, or to have with cold meats or fish. Or ways of eating them fresh as part of a savoury dish. We’ll have enough sweet fools and crumbles over the next few weeks as it is!

In my hands, by my bed

One of the things that I love about John is his habit of choosing me books. He watches the pile on my bedside table, topping it up when it gets low. Usually it’s a stack from the library, but last week, as a half-term treat, he came home with a brand new one, leaving it by my bed for me to find when we went up.

He knows me well. I go through phases of being fascinated by stuff, the objects that we surround ourselves with. In my dreams, and in our holiday-going reality, we travel light,  throwing a few essentials into a day sack: a change of clothes, a passport, a bar of soap. The thought of having too much is suffocating, and yet I can see how people find comfort in the things which surround them. We all do; we’d be lying if we claimed otherwise.

The Life of Stuff is a family memoir, probing the generations through the things they loved and the hoard they left behind. Its lays out a pattern of family tragedy which repeats itself through the generations, and the author’s determination to change things, to be different. It left me wondering whether my own relative lack of interest in stuff comes from the fact that we moved a lot when I was growing up. Home is where the family is, regardless of continent or climate or whether the container with our chattels has arrived.

The stuff I love is functional: quilts and clothes, trowels and teacups. The things I make are always about keeping us warm, fed and comfortable. They are made, they are used, they fall apart. New things take their place.

I wore my favourite white jumper into oblivion last winter, and so a new one is on my needles. The pattern is one I’m developing for release this autumn, comfortable and warm and easy to throw on. And although my tester will be making it from commercial yarn, mine is knit from my own yarn, raised by my aunt, sheared by my cousin, spun soft and light and woolen by me. That’s the sort of story the things in my family tend to tell. Well made, well loved, and, one day, well worn. The stuff of comfort.

Joining in with Ginny’s Yarn Along at Small Things

Madeleine

PS – If anyone fancies reading The Life of Stuff once John and I have finished, drop me a line and I’ll send it your way. UK readers only, I’m afraid, because, well, postage.

PPS – Thank you all so much for coming back, subscribing and reading again after my long hiatus. It really does mean an awful lot to me. Your ‘welcome back’ comments had me smiling for days.