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?

Snow Day knitalong part one: gathering and swatching

I have been bowled over by the response to this pattern! Thank you all so much for your positive comments; it is a delight to read each and every one. I am beyond excited about the sheer number of people who have requested a copy, and so looking forward to seeing Snow Day jumpers popping up here, on Ravelry and on Instagram.

As the response is so big, can I ask you to be patient if your pattern doesn’t arrive immediately? Please give me 24 hours to send one out, and if you haven’t received one by then, just drop me a friendly email or a comment here and I’ll sort it out. Right, back to the knitalong…

Welcome to the first part of the Snow Day jumper knitalong! I’m so excited that you’re taking part, whether you’re an old hand or are newer to knitting.  The pattern specifically designed as a first jumper (sweater) pattern for newer knitters, with a little shaping for a flattering fit and a bit of texture for interest. If you’re new to the pattern and need convincing that you can knit this, read this post. The rest of us will wait right here for you.

Feeling more confident? Excellent! The next thing to do is to get your hands on the pattern, which is available entirely free from today until 31 October 2018. All you need to do is leave a comment (below), and I’ll email it to you as a PDF. Needless to say, your email address will only be visible to me, and I won’t use it to send you anything else at all. (Not even knitalong updates, which you might actually want. To receive email notifications of all my posts including those, sign up in the Join Our Community box in the sidebar/ near the bottom of your phone screen.)

Now that you’ve got the pattern, you’ll want to know a little bit more about the recommended yarn, and alternatives to this. Obviously I’ve knit this jumper twice, once in the recommended Drops Alaska, and once in my own handspun. Both were 100% wool, because it provides the structure and warmth that this pattern calls for. I ordered mine from here, and was very taken with both the mustard and dark turquoise colour ways. But my Drops version wasn’t intended for me, so I let Fliss choose the colour she liked the most. She chose the grey pink, which I must admit I wasn’t all that excited by in its balled state. Once I started to knit with it, though, it revealed all sorts of lovely marly qualities, with strands of yarn varying in colour from deep pink to purple to grey, with flecks of navy here and there. In the end, I liked it very much. Not all of their colours are mixed like this, but the ones that are are stunning.

I chose Drops for several reasons, the first and foremost being its affordability. I would really encourage you to knit this jumper with real wool, but some wool is really expensive. I’ve used Drops for several projects, including (but not limited to) Fliss’ Foxgloves cardigan, Seb’s Stars jumper, and Ben’s Big Softie. It washes and wears very well, and is a pleasure to work with.

However, I hope that the fact that I also made this in a wibbly-wobbly handspun gives you the confidence – particularly you more seasoned knitters – to go off and use whatever yarn you deem appropriate. Of course I can’t be responsible if it doesn’t turn out exactly like my Drops one. But that’s all part of the fun! I can’t wait to see what you choose, and how it turns out. You need an aran weight wool (17 stitches and 22 rows for a 10x10cm swatch).

As you’ll see, the pattern tells you how much yarn you’ll need for a hip-length jumper in your size. If you want to knit a longer jumper – and there’s no reason why you can’t, and this would be lovely as a tunic – order an extra ball or two of yarn. If in doubt, buy extra, as you can’t always get yarn from the same dye lot again, which is incredibly frustrating when you are four inches from the top of the second sleeve. Don’t ask me how I know that.

Once you’ve got your wool, you’ll need to determine what size needles to work with. Cast on using the size recommended on the ball band – 5mm for Drops Alaska. Work in stocking stitch as this is the main stitch used (knit 1 row, turn, purl next row) for 22 rows. This is enough to establish the width of your knitted swatch. Gently uncurl the edges and hold it flat, without stretching it at all. Measure the width. It should be 10cm almost exactly – you can see from the photo below that mine is.

But what if it isn’t? Not to worry. We all knit with different tension, and even needles purporting to be the same size can differ. All you do is go up a needle size (if your swatch was under 10cm), or down a size (if it was over 10cm).  Knit two rows (no purling) to create a garter stitch line across your swatch. It should now look like the photo below (see that row of purl stitches at the very top?).

Carry on in stocking stitch again, until you’ve done another 22 rows and can measure your swatch again. Keep adjusting your needle size until your swatch measures 10 cm across. Here you can see that by changing to 6mm needles, my 17 stitches yielded over 11cm, instead of 10. Needle size makes a big difference.

 Don’t worry overly about how many rows you knit per 10cm, as long as you are in the right ballpark (22 rows per 10cm). The pattern will tell you how long each part needs to be, not how many rows to knit (apart from at the hem and neckline). The important thing is to use the right sized needles to be able to consistently knit 10cm across with 17 stitches. I used 4mm needles with my handspun, and 5mm needles with the Drops Alpaca. As you can see, wool varies. As long as your gauge is right, your jumper will fit.

You will also need a pair of needles 1mm smaller than the size you have decided upon. You don’t need to swatch with these needles, as they are just for the collar and hem. For example, because my larger needles (the ones I swatched for) are 5mm, I’m going to use 4mm needles every time the pattern calls for my smaller needles.

 You can cast off your swatch, wash and block it, if you like, but I must admit that I never do. Instead, I frog it, wind it back on the ball, and cast on again for the back.

Speaking of the back, that tutorial – including photos – will be available next week, same time, same place. Hopefully you’ll have gathered your wool and needles and made your swatch by then. If you have any questions at all, you can either post them in the comments below, or send me an email direct at mrscecilygraham@gmail.com. In the meantime, why not snap the odd photo of your parcel of wool arriving/ swatching in front of the fire/ general knitting love and send them to me so that I can include them in next week’s post? Alternatively, you can use the hashtag snowdayjumper on instagram, or add your photos to your Ravelry account. I look forward to seeing all the yarn that everyone chooses!

Madeleine

Who are you making your Snow Day for? And is it your first ever jumper pattern?

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.

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?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Madeleine

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

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

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

This way for free patterns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Madeleine

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

A new sort of garden to grow

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

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

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

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

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

Joining in with Ginny’s Yarn Along at Small Things

Madeleine

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

All this wool

I had grand plans, this spring, of spinning up all of last year’s fleeces before the new ones were even shorn. Needless to say, that didn’t happen, but I came closer than ever before. It’s such a learning curve, this spinning hobby of mine. The first two fleeces I was given – lovely piebald Jacobs’ – took me a full two years to work through. Last year I was given three more: two Scotch mules and a huge sack of what turned out to be alpaca. So when I found myself with half a fleece still to process when offered this year’s shearings, I wasn’t too downcast. I think I’m making good progress.

Progress is a good thing, as I’ve been offered several fleeces this year. Two are from my aunt who lives outside Edinburgh and has all sorts of rescue animals, including Ilse’s favourite goat. My sister Meg has eight sheep now, and I was offered four of their fleeces (four are this year’s lambs’, and will keep their fleeces against the coming winter). Two were absolutely enormous, with more than a year’s growth, and, to be entirely honest, more than I could handle. The other two were beautiful Shetlands, one mottled grey and one brown, or moorit, as I’m learning to call it. They are so small and light in comparison to the last three fleeces I’ve had that I made short work of washing and drying them in the good weather of last week.

Since those first two fleeces, which came from a commercial meat farm and which I washed, section by section in buckets of hot soapy water, I’ve adopted a far less intensive approach. Given than all my fleeces now come from either my sister or my aunt, both of whom care for their sheep with minimal (if any) use of chemicals, I much prefer to soak them in a bathful of cold water for a day or two, changing the water once or twice. The amount of dirt that drops out of them is extraordinary, but more importantly the suint (sweat) washes away, leaving a sweetly sheepy smelling fleece with ample lanolin for easy spinning. Then I pop them in an old pillowcase, spin them in the machine, and spread them first outside then finally inside on one of our airers to make sure they are completely dry before putting them back into the (washed) pillowcase with a couple of lavender bags for storage. I can’t tell you how much labour this has saved, and how much more I enjoy carding and spinning a fleece while it is still a little greasy.

I also used to process each fleece bit by bit, picking and carding and spinning and setting each couple of skeins before moving onto the next, but I don’t do that any more, either. Instead, I wait for a fine day and spend it sitting in the garden, picking the washed fleece open and discarding any bits of vegetation or nubbly second cuts. Most of the dirt falls out at this point, and I’d rather it fell outside. If the weather is kind, I card outside too (you should have seen the clouds of dust that came from the alpaca – no way was I carding that in our house). And I save the spinning for rainy days, with a film or an audiobook and one or two of the children for company, playing alongside with their own projects.

I’ve also learned a lot about spinning this year, moving on from carding and worsted-spinning everything (I made a cardigan so sturdy that it can almost stand up by itself) to combing for socks, chain-plying for strength, and spinning long-draw for jumpers and hats and mittens. Not only does long-draw spinning result in the softest, loftiest, cosiest yarn, but it’s fast. Or at least as fast as any (sheep) back to (human) back jumper can be described as such, which is probably very slow in non-spinners’ eyes.

Finally, I set the twist and give it a proper wash at the same time with a bit of eco-friendly delicates liquid, before labelling it and, usually, knitting with it immediately. I’ve made quite a bit from my own yarn this year: two pairs of socks (one woolen and one worsted, to experiment) a pair of sturdy (ahem) colour work mittens for my aunt, a surprise for another aunt (more of which in a later post), the softest, warmest and most beautiful Georgetown cardigan for myself, a cardigan for Ilse, and am halfway through a jumper for myself or Fliss from this last fleece. I plan to spin up the final rolags today and take all the wool on our last holiday of the summer to finish it off.

Ilse in particular has been fascinated by the possibilities of dyeing, and has just finished carding a basket of rolags from fleece that we kettle-dyed in the spring. I’ve promised her that I’ll spin that too, before our holiday, so that she can bring her crochet with her. There’s a big bag of avocado pits and skins in the freezer, just waiting for a spare white skein, and I can’t wait to try dyeing with elderberries for a pillowy purple-grey cloud. I suspect these coloured skeins – and any others that we make – will end up as colour work in something or other, against some plain white fleece.

Not all leftovers are dyed, though. When I didn’t know what to do with my first, inconsistent spins, I started crocheting a hydrangea blanket, which has turned out to be wide enough for a double bed and serves as a record, of sorts, of my spinning ventures. There’s a bit of everything in it: wool and alpaca, DK and aran, wobbly adventures in long-draw and neat inchworm chain-ply. One day, in about a million years, it’ll actually be long enough for a bed, too. So that’s where all the leftovers will continue to go: into a blanket that probably looks lovely to no-one but me but which tells the story of all this wool.

Craeft

I went to see Alex Langlands speak about his new book, Craeft, as part of York’s Festival of Ideas. John booked my free ticket as a surprise, knowing my abiding love for Tales from the Green Valley, the predecessor of the BBC Victorian Farm series. (Actually, John appeared as an expert in one episode of Wartime Farm, which is a source of much pleasure and not a little envy to me…)

The talk began with an investigation of the word craeft, which Alex explained is more to do with power than skill. In a pre-industrial, pre-consumer age, this makes sense. To engage in craeft is to exert power: over the landscape, raw materials, the very climate itself. Craeft is a transformative power in its own right, but also requires our physicality, our vitality, to drive the process. In turn, both the skills of the craftsperson and the products that ensue result in yet more power, further shaping the landscape, both agricultural and political.

Having listened to Alex speak about making use of the world around him, sourcing free materials from the landscape and squeezing his passion for craeft into his spare time, I was surprised by some of the questions people asked. Don’t you think, asked one member of the audience, that to engage in craeft presupposes a certain level of privilege, in terms of time and money? And although Alex dealt with this well, it was a recurring theme.

Once home, I raised this with John. For me, craeft is the opposite of consumption. I keep a list of the things I buy for projects, and it is ludicrously short. The odd ball of wool, when I know I can’t spin to that specification. Two or three lengths of Liberty lawn, a much savoured part of a trip to London. Thread. Always thread. The odd packet of seeds, although I save and swap as many as I can. The vast majority of what I make with comes completely free, either as a gift, salvaged from other people’s cast offs, or gathered from the natural world. Once people know that you make things, they send all sorts your way. I have my entire family saving old shirts and keeping their avocado pits in the freezer. Last week my aunt texted me to say that she had two freshly shorn fleeces ready and waiting. Another aunt, Fiona, taught me to make baskets one rainy afternoon in Derry. But it comes from further afield than family. There are guilds of craftspeople desperate to share their expertise. My spinning wheel, which I think must date from the 1960s, was a gift from a woman I’d never met, who wanted to pass it on to someone who would use it. Craeft in public and people will stop to share tips with you. And when I do spend money, I spend it on high quality materials and tools that will last and last. All my patchwork is done on a 1916 Singer, bought from the charity shop down the road for £20. Not only does it sew smooth and straight, but it is quiet and beautiful and easily repaired. To see craeft as consumption is, I think, to miss the point.

It is the difference between spinning from prepared, dyed top, and being given a slightly stinky fleece in a old feed sack, dags and all. In the first case, you can choose your method of spinning. With a raw fleece, though, you get to make all the choices. How aggressively are you prepared to skirt it? Are you going to scour it, cold soak it or spin it in the grease? Will you blend the fibres from across the fleece or spin each section separately, to preserve their distinct qualities? Should you card it or comb it? Spin woolen or worsted? How and when might you dye it? Both are examples of spinning, yet one clearly involves more power, more control.

The other issue is that of time. It wasn’t until we had two children and a third on the way that I began to make making a part of my everyday life. At the very point when I had the least time, the act of making became more important than ever. It keeps me sane, having something in my hands. Craeft isn’t something special, kept for days when John takes all the kids out of the way. It is a part of our everyday lives, undertaken while I’m waiting at the dentist, or for the potatoes to come to the boil. And rather than children being a barrier to craeft, they are a reason to engage in it more often. So much of our making is done alongside one another: one project inspires another and another until, in little pockets all over the house and garden, things are being made, and everyone is at peace.

Having said all that, I think that our different attitudes to craeft run deeper that our perspectives on time and money. There was much discussion of lost crafts – of the fear that we are not training people in certain skills so that, in ten years’ time, we may no longer be able to mend clocks or engineer a cricket ball. Yet I think that we are in danger of losing something far more fundamental. It is an issue of phenomenology as much as skill. To be a person who engages in craeft, in the true meaning of the word, is to adopt a certain schema. It is to look at the world in a very particular way, one which sees it as something malleable, something both transformative and to be transformed. It is, in short, to have a different sort of relationship with the world. To see the potential in every thing, not just in classes and courses and kits, but in weeds and animals and hedgerows. It is to go for a ramble and bring back not just lungfuls of fresh air, but pockets full of fallen lichen for dye, bits of fluff for lighting fires, a bit of wood to be carved, dogwood to add colour to a basket. To walk not through a picture postcard of a landscape, but a living, creative world.

This is what we are in danger of losing: the zeitgeist that craft is for everyone, by everyone, for the good of everyone. That it is ordinary and everyday. That there is beauty in the simplest of things, well-made and well-loved. And that all you need to get started is the willingness to try.

Madeleine

PS What do you think about craeft? How important is it in your life? How do you think we can best encourage others to participate in its resurgence?

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.