Hurrying

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

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

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

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

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

Show week

Oh Mummy, aren’t you EXCITED? whispered Ilse, slipping into bed with me this morning. It took a moment for me to wake up and realise what she was talking about. This week is Show Week: tutus, makeup, jazz shoes, waistcoats, new satin ballet slippers, tap dancing jockeys – the works. This is the week they get to go on a real stage, in a real theatre, and show everyone how well they can dance. Who wouldn’t be excited?

They’ve been working for this for a long, long time. Show week comes but every other year, in between exams for which the syllabus must be perfected, and I’m not sure which my children enjoy more. What with the fact that everyone is involved in the show, the levels of adrenaline reach new heights at show time. There are top secret dances which are only whispered about amongst the children, and quick costume changes to be rehearsed. And while exams call for new socks and shoes and leotards, the show requires a whole other level of pizzazz. There’s a fuchsia tutu with Fliss’ name sewn in, and the most beautiful handmade peonies pinned onto the waist and hair. I know they must have taken the mother who made them hours and hours, and they will be taken off and treasured long after the tutu has been outgrown. There’s a white satin waistcoat, fluttering with feathers at the neckline for my dove, Seb, and the other boy in his class, stitched by me, with winglike epaulets painstakingly put together by Mrs Roberts. She’s made a hopping, leaping knot of frogs too, with webbed hands and feet and shimmering wet splotches on their waistcoats, and a party of elves to dance amongst the peonies. One of the grannies has created a classfull of tippety tapping penguins, with little dickie bows and white bibs over their black catsuits, and when Ilse tried hers on and did a funny little penguin waddle round the room it made up for the hours of careful sewing.

Because there have been hours of sewing, all around, with people helping each other, sharing their skills and time. I helped Mrs Roberts with some waistcoats; she made goodness knows how many epaulets as well as tails for the flock of girl doves. In the changing room, parents are showing one another how to stitch a flower, or a feather, or a name tag to an outfit. Tips are being swapped for getting those satin slippers light pink again instead of grey, and how to keep them clean (rugby socks over the top, backstage, I hear). And there’s still all the chaperoning to be done, and the ferrying to and fro, and the waiting outside the stage door for the technical rehearsal to be done.

But watching Ilse hugging herself with the thrill of it all made it worth every single moment. Come next Sunday, she’ll be in an exhausted, exhilarated little heap. I suspect the others will, too. Between now and then, though, there’s magic to be lived. It’s finally, wonderfully, ecstatically here. Show week.

Snippets

I can scarcely believe that more than half of January has slipped by already. What with Mrs P’s convalescence (she is getting a little stronger every day – thank you for asking) on top of the usual hurly burly of family life, the days are flying by in a blur of laundry and cooking, ironing and cleaning, music practice, gardening and errands. And somehow, in the brief moments between all that there is time to help finish a jigsaw, and read a bedtime story, and admire Ilse’s drawings.

I suspect you know by now that I don’t like waste or other unloved leftovers. When the remains of last year’s stitching is waiting in the upstairs cupboard I simply cannot bring myself to buy new fabric for next season’s clothes, and so, in January, I use up every last little snippet. After all the gifts have been made for the coming birthday season, and a quilt pattern decided upon to use up the rest, there are still odd scraps left over when all those two and three inch strips have been cut out.

Last year I cut my quilt fabric in the summer, and in September used those crumbs to make a runner for the kitchen table. This year I settled upon cards, and bought several sheets in various pastel shades to stitch my snippets to. There wasn’t much of a plan, beyond using every last little bit, beginning with the largest. Thus apples and pears gave way to tulips and fir trees, which in their turn moved over to leave the final sheets of card to those scraps tiny, skinny or insubstantial enough to only be good for bunting or crazy quilting. Forty six cards later it was done, and every friend and family member has one ready and waiting with their name pencilled lightly on the back. The boys did raise an eyebrow (and question my sanity) when they found me making Christmas cards in January – and this January in particular – but I have to admit that I found the whole process immensely satisfying and incredibly soothing. Having a shelf full of cards and presents for the year ahead does not make the world a better place – of course not. But it is much more pleasing than a tangled mess of unravelling fabric stuffed into a paper bag.

This done, I embarked on some new yardage this afternoon: white satin ballet outfits for Seb and the other boy in his class to wear for their upcoming show. Not my favourite kind of sewing, to be truthful, but good to have underway. And then? Well, suffice to say that some new fabrics made their way into the weekly wash today.

Hopefully it’ll only take a moment to pull out each card before sending it off to each person on their special day. And, hopefully, there are enough cards without names on the back for all those other people I’m bound to want to send one to as the year goes on – a thank you for a Sunday lunch, an invitation to a party, or a welcome-to-the-world for a brand new baby. Oddly, there’s never enough time to make a single card when you want it. But when it comes to making them in bulk, they fit themselves neatly into little snippets of time here and there.

After the storm

Mrs P came home today, wrapped in blankets in the back of an ambulance, to trees blown bare of every last lingering leaf and streets scoured dry by the wind. After the storm, the sun came out, and it was in this sunny interval that she made her careful way up the stairs to bed. She’s in safe hands, that’s certain, and there isn’t a neighbour or a friend who hasn’t visited with beef tea or broth or both.

As well as the branches littering the streets, and bins blown sideways in front gardens, there was a pile of scraps by the side of my sewing machine, and thread and fluff all over the living room floor. I sorted and tidied with no small satisfaction: everything big enough has been cut into strips for Ben’s quilt, or made into little bags or other gifts. Only a pile of crumbs remains, and those are destined for an afternoon of sewing cards. Order restored, it was time for a cup of tea and a daydream, watching the yellow light spill in through the window and stain the room with coloured beams. A little daydreaming, for the what feels like the first time in ages. A reverie.

Which is the name of the piece I’ve just started learning, oh so hesitantly, at the piano. After my lesson I did wonder if I’d set my sights a little high, but after half a painstaking hour this morning I had begun to string the notes of the first few lines into something resembling music. I set the needle on the record and let the gramophone play it properly while I sewed the last few pieces. Sometimes I wonder whether I choose the music to suit the mood I’m in, or whether my mood is dictated by the music. It’s probably a bit of both. Today was most certainly not a day for Mahler: although there are sunbursts in his symphonies there are also many storms. Today was a day for something gentler, something soothing and delicate and beautiful, after recent worries.

By mid afternoon the wind had dropped and the clouds moved in once more, uncompromisingly dark. Yes, after the storm there is always the sunlight, but it often passes all too quickly at the moment. Today everything was right in my little world, but I am increasingly aware of the angry and the dispossessed. Since the crash it seems that it’s not only our economy that has suffered: our tolerance and generosity has, too. We had a leaflet through our letterbox last week, inviting Ben and Fliss to join the youth arm of Mosley’s New Party. They didn’t, of course. I worry, though, about where all this is heading, only fourteen years after the Great War. Yet at the same time, when the light slips in through the windows and good friends are on the mend, it seems impossible that such madness could ever reoccur. After such a storm, there should be sunlight for a hundred years at least.

What the doctor ordered

Rest, fluids and warmth, in that order. Our dear friend Mrs P has come down with pneumonia, and there isn’t much else that anyone can do for her. She’s in York Hospital at the moment, stable after a frightening weekend when her chest fluttered feebly through 48 hours and we thought the worst might happen. But she is, as she herself would put it, a tough old bird, and thank goodness for that. The worry hasn’t passed, but there are glimmers of the woman we know and love and, fingers crossed, she’ll be bossing the staff nurse around soon and sent packing home to Acomb.

What with worry over our old friend and the combination of a new term and awkward hospital visiting hours, it’s been a bumpy few days. There’s not been a lot of sleep, or a lot of calm in general. Add to that the grey skies and near incessant rain, and it’s enough to drive anyone round the bend. Thank goodness that it’s Mrs Thistlebear’s party this week: some time spent making things is just the medicine I’m after. So I’ve prescribed myself some fabric, in easily swallowed doses. There’s been some stitching – six pot holders, the top of a starry table runner – but mostly there’s been cutting. Nothing fancy: squares for little make-up bags, rectangles for larger sponge bags. A growing pile of snippets to turn into birthday cards. And lots and lots of scrappy strips which are the start of Ben’s going-away quilt. I want to include as many different fabrics in it as possible, so that he’ll remember all of us each time he uses it.

I know that it’s only sewing – and mostly only cutting out at that. But what else can I do when it’s not quite time for bed and my thoughts are too distracted to settle to a book? I’m not just cutting; I’m making order out of chaos. I’m planning for the future: a future that brings all the things we hope for. Hot pans full of meals. A table to sit around, and eat. And Mrs P, home again and well enough to join us.

Feast

The new year started with a feast, which is by far the best way to start a year, to my mind. I can take or leave the seeing out of the old year – I was reading in bed when 1931 slipped away – but I like to see the new year in with a special meal and plans for the months ahead.

Mother cooked this year: one of her spectacular meals where the whole afternoon slowly unfolds into course after course, with brief rests in between. There was salmon and salad to start, followed by a ham and vegetables, then two puddings and finally, before heading home, apple pie and crackers and cheese. We certainly needed our walk up the hill afterwards, and I was glad I’d skipped breakfast.

Instead, I’d used the morning free from cooking or eating to look to the months ahead. I don’t make resolutions, but I do make lists and sketches and plans. The garden has been mapped out for the coming spring, and the order form in the back of the seed catalogue carefully filled in and dropped in a postbox on our way to my parents’ house. Onions and leeks, swedes and parsnips, broccoli and broad beans and a whole new bed for salads: 1932 will hopefully be slow revelation of the seasons through the tastes and textures of the veg patch. After an icy day out there last week, the garden is ready and waiting for the days to grow long again, and I can hardly wait.

It’ll be a while though, which is why I’ve made other plans for the meantime. A list of sewing and knitting I’d like to work through in the dark evenings between now and then. Pot holders and bookmarks and birthday cards, two blouses and new school dresses for the girls. My annual summer frock. The pair of socks I’ve just begun, and a cardigan for Mrs Eve’s baby, and another jumper for Ben and something pretty and lacy for myself. Will I get it all done? I doubt it. But I’d rather have too much in my plate than too little, especially when the days lend themselves to gloom and and chill and inertia.

That wasn’t something I had a problem with on the First. There was plenty on all of our plates, and stories of our Christmases to share, and the next few weeks to talk about. I hope you too have plenty to look forward to, this coming year. Happy new year. Welcome to 1932.

While there’s light

It took a very long time for me to realise that, no matter how organised I was, the time between the end of school and supper was always going to be busy. For years I had visions of sitting down after tea with a spot of sewing or knitting, and while it does happen from time to time, those times are few and very far between. There are simply too many people around in the early evenings, all needing me for something or other: to listen to their scales or their reading, to mend skirts which somehow got caught on a branch on the way home, or simply to chatter to about their day.

So I’ve given up on making supper after lunch or in the morning. They’ll come rushing in and out of whichever room I’m in, so I may as well be in the kitchen, chopping carrots. Which leaves a little bit of time vacant in the day. And now that it is getting dark so early, there’s only one thing to do with a bit of silent sunlight. I can knit and make beds and roll pastry by electric light, but in the sunlight, I’ve been counting threads and making tiny, tiny crosses, over and over again.

Lots of people have been saying how satisfying this is, and they were right. With or without a murder mystery on the wireless, half an hour with some cross-stitch and suddenly the world is a wonderful place. In fact, I can’t imagine why they call it cross-stitch, as it’s the least cross thing I do, these days.

By the time the children roll home from school it’s time to draw the curtains and begin on the next round of tasks, but that’s alright by me. That little snowflake is proof that the sun did rise, today, and that I made the most of it. It’s fast becoming a favourite time of day, the early afternoon. Sitting in the window seat, stitching while there’s light enough to see.

Twice two

One is the number of skirts I had a week ago; twice two is how many I have now. Twice two because there are only two, really, but each one is made to be worn on both sides, doubling both their warmth and the number of options I have on a chilly morning.

That’s my favourite thing about making my own clothes: the fact that I can have precisely what I want, and need settle for nothing less. Lined woollen skirts? Plain on one side and patterned on the other? Colours which co-ordinate with the rest of my little wardrobe? But of course. Whatever you want, Madam, as Ilse would say.

I don’t like having too many clothes to choose from. There are more important things on my mind in the morning. I make up for it by spending idle moments planning the next addition to my wardrobe. Cleaning out the hens I decided on a sleeve length for my Liberty blouse. Walking to the shops I thought a green sundress would be nice. This kind of thinking goes a long way, when you can open the wardrobe and fling on the nearest thing, knowing that it will all go together reasonably well. And then, when you have a moment over the ironing or the wash, you can stop to appreciate the pretty shell buttons that you chose, or the neat way you bound a hem.

The blue skirt is the one I made last year, and I liked the wooden buttons so much I bought three more to sew on the other, new side. I had the feathered fabric left over from some cushions, much too nice to languish in a cupboard. That was a speedy evening sew.

The red skirt is wholly new: a simple quarter circle skirt where the brown wool-silk herringbone of the other side spills over at waistband and hem. That was Sunday afternoon, bar a quick walk around the vegetables at Beningbrough Hall, to see how their garden grew. I finished the hand sewing while the potatoes crisped up, and the whole house smelled of chicken and spiced apples in an almond sponge. That was a good day.

So I have twice two skirts to choose from now, shivering in the dark before the fires have been lit or the Aga stirred back into life. Ah, well. It makes getting dressed on wintry mornings at least four times as fun.

Low hanging fruit

There were times, towards the end of October, that I thought we’d never get the apples in. There was always something more urgent or important to be done. The days slipped by and the weather steadily worsened. Fliss and I spent the finest afternoon of the holiday at Father’s allotment, helping him to bring his own crop in. But at home the Bramleys languished on the tree, occasionally thudding onto the kitchen roof or the patio or lawn.

That is until one day, when Seb and I were home alone, and decided to go out and pick the low-hanging fruit. Just an hour, we promised each other: an hour and a couple of crates. We didn’t even get the stepladder out, but picked whatever we could reach with our feet still on the ground, laying all our bounty on the garden table. In under an hour we had well over a hundred apples picked, wrapped and packed, and I could bear to look at the tree again.

Needless to say, the apple- picking squad assembled the very next day, ladders and all. But I like to think they wouldn’t have, if Seb and I hadn’t got the ball rolling. Whatever the reason, we have apples enough for a whole winter of puddings, and compotes and roasts.

Reaching for the low-hanging fruit has become a bit of a theme around here in the past couple of weeks. The Liberty blouse I have planned seems far too onerous a task to begin. So too does my simple quarter circle skirt, the materials for which are laid out ready on the dining table. Instead, I’ve embarked on a little cross-stitch project, which is mesmerising and beautiful in its novel imperfection. I’ve been knitting simple things. I hear that Father Christmas has started his list with the presents he gives out every year: socks and books and foil-wrapped chocolate coins. Tick them off, I say. It’s got to be done anyway, so you may as well start with the low-hanging fruit to get you in the mood for a bit of stretching at the top of a rickety ladder.

Two steps back

Never mind two steps forward, one step back – I seem to be moving in the opposite direction. My autumn plans seemed entirely reasonable at September’s start, but here I am, faced with a list which keeps growing rather than shrinking as the weeks flip by. Two weeks before half term and I’ve made half a jumper, one dress with bunny pockets and some wobbly wool on my wheel. That leaves two school dresses and a long-legged romper for Ilse, a new skirt for myself and another which needs relining, two eiderdowns which need covering again to keep the stuffing in and a blouse for myself which may or may not happen. What I want to sew is Ilse’s quilt, the pieces for which are all cut out, a Liberty fabric soft case for my flute, and tiny crumb quilt covers for Christmas present notebooks. But I’ve forbidden myself all of that until the other sewing is done, which is why I’m spending so much time knitting instead.

I took Ben’s jumper with me to the ballet studio on Saturday while I was waiting for Ilse to finish her lesson, and was pleased with the progress I’d made until I got home and spread it out and realised that I’d held a cable needle to the front and not the back five inches ago. Oh well, at least it’s chunky wool. And at least I know myself well enough to rip it out at once, lest it become a reproach, sulking in my basket. By lunchtime my funny feeling head had given way to a sore throat and nose full of sneezes, so I spent the afternoon strategically resting by the fire in the hopes of heading it off at the pass. No such luck: I woke up on Sunday to a full head cold and a list as long as I had left it.

Sometimes there is nothing for it but to grit one’s teeth and get stuck in. I retrieved the cut out pieces of Ilse’s grey school dresses from where I’d hidden them from myself and got to work, determined to complete the bodices at least. It only took me until the stay stitching to realise that I’d cut the back bodice wrongly: as a whole, instead of two half bits to button together. Thankfully there was just enough left over to cut it out again, and doctor the pieces I had. And thankfully Mrs P was here and chose that moment to appear with a pot of tea for two, emergency buttered scones and some well chosen words of advice. Thus bolstered I sewed on long beyond my goal of two neat bodices, making puffed sleeves with gathered cuffs, little button holes all down the back, understitched linings and pleated skirts until suddenly, nearly four hours later, I had two fully lined wool dresses, all finished bar the handsewn hems and buttons I have yet to buy in town. And when Ilse tried them on they even, miraculously, fitted.

Perhaps that counts as two steps forward – or one, at the very least? Yes, it rained off and on again all day yesterday so that the apples are still on the tree. Yes, there are still trays of winter seedlings waiting on the kitchen windowsill, hoping to be planted out. Yes, it’s getting colder and I don’t have a single decent skirt to wear. But those two dresses which were holding up my stitching are almost out of the way, and I feel a surge of productivity coming on as soon as I feel better. I finished the front of Ben’s jumper last night as I recovered in front of the fire and as I held it up to him this morning I noticed a tiny mistake in one of the ribs near the top. Time to start ripping again. What was that saying? Two steps forward and one step back? Oh well, at least that’s better than the other way around.