Thursday, 24 February 2011

I dream of pinny

This week my dreams have been plagued with dreams of bias binding.  I wish I was joking or at the least, exaggerating, but I’m not.  Every time I’ve set my head on that pillow and steered a course for sleep, I’ve dreamt of sewing.  It all started last week when I decided I wanted to make a 50s style pinny.   A rather rainy and turbulent Saturday morning led me to sequester myself in the house protecting myself from the elements; and it seemed the ideal time to get the sewing machine revved up.

Now I’m no sewing prodigy (aside from being too darn old) so I had bought a pattern and once I’d cut out the pieces for my chosen option it became immediately clear that something had gone awry.  Where was the pocket?  Was I meant to cut out two pieces for the main skirt?  Had I missed a piece?  Why had the number "6" appeared ominously in the instructions but not on the list of pieces to cut out? 

And then a wonderful thing happened.  I started to improvise.  Not by glaring at the pattern and wondering whether I could make this bit work if I used that bit, or finding other bits from the papers and trying to overlay them to the pattern.  No, I tore up (metaphorically – you never know when you’ll need it after all) the notes, and started working from my own imagination.  I wondered if this was how Kasparov felt when he first started playing chess beyond the text book.

It was liberating, but also daunting.  All those creative ideas that have lain dormant during the last few years of office life, suddenly started stretching at the edges again, albeit in a very “sleepy mole in a hole in the midday sun” sort of way but certainly something was happening.  I felt as if a small part of my brain was unfurling and it was a great feeling.  The daunting bit came from the knowledge that any mistakes would be my mistakes; I couldn’t blame them on the pattern being off or the instructions being wrong.  It was all down to me.

After a couple of hours measuring, drawing onto tracing paper, muddling through, I had the various pieces that I needed, and had a better idea of where I was headed... and at that point I got lured out.  It was Saturday night and it seemed a good idea to have a glass of wine and a mull over next steps.  So to Sunday morning and bouncing out of bed at 8 a.m. raring to get going.  Three hours later and I had a pinny.  It was pretty much exactly what I wanted.  The finishing was rather wonky and I’d managed to leave about 2mm without bias binding at the top of one side which I know will irritate me every time I’m hovering by the hob with it on, having a ponder while I’m stirring and seasoning.  Nonetheless, I reason that it was my first attempt and, despite it being very simple to make (no zips, no pleats, no darts etc) one doesn’t get a check mate without some practice first.

And the bias binding dreams?  For some reason, on a dark and rainy Saturday afternoon, I could not for the life of me figure out the best way to get the stuff sewn onto the edge of the skirt.  On Sunday morning, after spending most of the night dreaming about different ways of attaching the binding (although in one of my dreams one of the bindings was a lovely Broderie which I was quite disappointed to find on waking I didn’t actually have), I’d cracked it.

My appetite is whet now and I’m ready to take on a new challenge.  A friend is moving into her new home this weekend and I’ve already designed a new pinny.  It will have a contrast waist band, and a three section pocket (including one pocket to perfectly fit the handle of a wooden spoon – an homage to the new domestic sophistication of the noughties) and with a cat motif to keep her going until she is able to have a cat of her own.  Am also mulling about knitting her and her husband matching egg cosies.  Why the devil not, eh.

In other projects, this week I sewed the sleeves onto my dress.  I actually had the sweat of fear a couple of times and found it pretty stressful.  The easing is the bit that really threatened to fox me, and it didn’t help that I’d forgotten to put two of the corresponding dots on the back of each sleeve but I muddled through and Egads! if I didn’t have two sleeves at the end of it. 

Sleeves are a real feat of engineering and I've found myself staring at people's shoulders in actually quite a creepy way since Tuesday.  To avert impending grievances from colleagues, I've found some pictures online of sleeves to marvel at, either for their incredible architectural dimensions or for beautiful simplicity.

Sleeves, beautiful sleeves 

Shoulders - tricky 

Shoulders that are big

Shoulders that are beautiful 

Next week am powering on with the zipper, collar and hems and then I’m done.  I’m still finding zigzag stitch my absolute sewing nemesis.

I’ve also finished my snood – the 1K1P rib has made it very stretchy so it’s a little longer than I’d anticipated – extreme snooding if you will - but it’s very soft 100% merino wool and incredibly warm; handy given the recent plummet in temperature. 

The baby jumper I started knitting last week is also coming on apace – I’ve finished the front, am halfway through the back and the sleeves look pretty simple so I don’t anticipate them taking too long.  Sock knitting needs to be bumped back up the agenda now as I have a lesson in two weeks on the fine art of cabling and I promised I’d have a sock at the point where cabling was a distinct possibility.

Am seriously considering taking a few days off work so that I can focus on crafts full time for a bit but all those exciting HR type queries don’t answer themselves you know (they do, actually).  There’s also a bit of mulling going on about buttons.  I think it could be guilt at my current obsession with vintage buttons and the pounds I may or may not have spent on a few different, end of line enamelled and filigree buttons recently.  I’m hoping that writing about it will act as a form of catharsis for the spending guilt - honestly, living on baked beans for two weeks but surrounded by beautiful buttons is not how a grown woman should live.  They were just too, too beautiful to leave behind – never leave a good button down, that’s my (current) motto.

Friday, 18 February 2011

The jumpsuit

There’s no love more constant than the love a woman has for an article or type of clothing, first worn when one is young and the loss of which is always mourned.  The defining style moment forever setting the course of your fashion evolution and which, years later when it may no longer be appropriate to wear, you look back and pine for the days when you could.  For my mother, who had great legs and neat slender ankles, it was the mini skirt; for my sister it’s her flares which, at nearly forty, are probably too stark a reminder of having been around for them the first time to still wear now.  For me, I’ve always loved the jumpsuit.

As a friend rightly pointed out, the jumpsuit is everybody’s first foray into fashion.  We’re all in rompers from day one – they’re convenient, adorable and you can get them in multipacks so when the inevitable happens, one goes in the wash and the next one’s there and ready.  Growing up, I hankered for the convenience and obvious stylishness of the one-piece.  I dabbled with dungarees during my first few years at school – they were a welcome escape from the restrictions of the shirt, skirt and itchy tights combo of school uniform.  Then for my ninth birthday I found a cotton onesie in Marks and Spencer.

In my head, I had a 1970s style ideal of a silken belted number which I could accessorise with a flowing headscarf and big sunglasses.  But I was nine and this was west London, and the bit beyond the fringes of the cool and bohemian.  Plus, it’s definitely a look that requires height, something I am sadly lacking.  Despite its failure to live up to my aesthetic aspirations, I absolutely loved this jumpsuit and wore it proudly after school every day and most weekends.  It was the one thing my mother had to wrestle from me to wash and guarantee it was around again to wear the next day.  Unlike those adverts, I didn’t have a teddy bear I couldn’t part with.  I had a giant romper suit. 

Well, I don’t want to go into the sartorial rights and wrongs of it – and really, don’t we all have a photograph tucked away in which we’re wearing an all-in-one of some description.  I was making do with what was available and I did try and jazz it up with a snappy belt or a jaunty hat where I could.  Sometimes I’d wear a floral vest underneath and leave the poppers undone (I should clarify that it only had poppers on the top half; it wasn’t a real romper after all).  I tried once to wear a long-sleeve t-shirt underneath and tied the arms around my waist but the navy blue colour made me look decidedly mechanic-like and that wasn’t really where I was heading with it.

A few years later, and in my mid-teens, I found a skin tight black cat suit.  Bodies were all the rage at the time, and the body-con aesthetic of the eighties was still wrestling with the softer lines of the early nineties so it was a tricky thing to wear convincingly.  I don’t think I’ll ever forget the look on my friends faces when I turned up at the flicks on a Saturday afternoon wearing this, with my hair curled and big hoop earrings.  I’m not sure if they thought I’d confused myself with Sandy from Grease, or that I’d strayed from my Catholic upbringing into the world’s oldest profession.  Either way, I felt a million dollars.  Saying that, I did then buy a black chiffon artist style tunic to wear over the top which had the dual effect of covering me up and preventing the ear ache of my mother telling me that a girl my age shouldn’t really dress like that or I’d attract “the wrong sort of attention”.  As a fairly gauche teenager, all attention was the wrong sort and that created a terrible tension between my clothing desires and my ability to wear them out in public.

You can imagine my delight over the last few years since the playsuit’s resurgence.  They’re not fooling anyone – we all know they’re jumpsuits… and I love it.  My heart actually skipped a beat as I pressed myself up against Topshop’s virtual window at and eyeballed these marvellous things.  Slightly awkwardly, they were all cut super short and, once you get to a certain age, or at least a certain level of acceptance of the reality of a pear shape, those were never going to work.  I scoured the high street for longer legged versions, and eventually found two – one Hennes and one Oasis – both were absolutely perfect.  I’ve lived in them for the last two summers, totally content and utterly confident that they go with everything.  Dressing up?  Whack on a pair of heels, some natty headgear, a beautiful belt, and a smile.  Heading to the beach?  Put your bikini on underneath, roll the legs up, stick on some flip flops and you’re good to go.  Hanky on the head is optional but always advisable.

My big fear was that the jumpsuit may have had its moment and mine are certainly looking a bit tired.  Is it possible to love something too much, I pondered.  Giving myself a good shake, I reasoned that we’re constantly sold the idea of lifelong love and why should sartorial love be any different.  I determined to recommit to the one-piece; my joy when I started looking round the high street and realised they’re still out there was boundless.  They’re becoming increasingly sophisticated in a fantastic variety of shapes and fabrics.  They are certainly hanging on in there and, more than that, there is sufficient variety to keep the sceptical or downright dubious as happy as the ardent fans.  At the moment you can get an array of styles from soft and drapey batwings to sheer balletic fabrics and florals, a veritable homage to the wonderful Margo from the Good Life; as well as sleeker, more fitted versions and the occasional nod to Bardot-esque Monaco daywear.

Of course, in the terrible but inevitable event of a dwindling in playsuit popularity I’m wondering if it’s worth learning to make one.  Having a look around the internet, I found the DIY Couture website ( who are producing a pattern for a make-your-own jumpsuit which should be out over the summer.  This way the opportunities are limitless – you can play with length, waist, cuff and sleeve style, bagginess of trouser, fabric and colour.  This is definitely the way forward.  They also have a fantastic ethos of understanding where your clothes come from and engaging with the process of production.  Similarly, a quick Google search reveals a wealth of interesting vintage jumpsuit patterns that should keep the onesie phenomenon interesting for the diehard fans at least. 

Making your own and defining a personal aesthetic go hand-in-hand, and that’s a good position to fall back on once the high street moves on from the inimitable jumpsuit.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Snoo'dun it

I’m just home from a lovely weekend in the Lake District, walking up Skiddaw which I was told was my first Munro, although obviously slightly too far south for that really.  There was some dissent about what constitutes a mountain and Google failed to bring us to consensus.  It is 900 metres to the summit though so while there was no base camp or nights spent huddling for warmth on a rocky outcrop in a caterpillar shaped sleeping bag, I did have a rucksack, or “day pack” as those in the know about walking lingo would have it, two unnecessary walking poles, and a Yorkie.  All of which, to me at least, constitute my first “mountain climb”. 

We were walking in extremely low cloud with limited visibility, and so thick with moisture it felt as if we were walking through very fine cobwebs which hung off our eyelashes.  Despite that, the climb was lovely and the landscape once we popped out of the cloud on the way down was stunning.  There is also a wholesome friendliness with walkers, and everyone we passed (including three very hale and hearty fell runners) had a word to spare which is always heartening especially when my “halloos” on the London streets are often greeted with total silence (or in one case an elderly gentleman falling into a hedge when he apparently thought I was going to steal his wallet – oh dear).

Anyway, it was a weekend spent indulging in breathtaking views and rather too hearty food and wine. Coming home the weather was filthy, reflecting my mood every time I head back to the Big Smoke.  His view is “we shouldn’t leave London as traffic means it’s a nightmare coming back”, while my view is “once we leave we should stay out” – but then I’ve lived here for all of my years so the novelty has worn thin, which is a shame as it is a great city really.   I think it might be one of the few parts of the country that manages to look incredible no matter the weather mind you.  On the way home through the Lake District my eye was caught by the sheep who looked pretty dismayed by the incessant rain.  Every one of the beautiful Cumbrian stone walls was peppered with the critters pressed up against them for shelter.  

While in Keswick I popped into two craft shops.  One seemed an homage to Debbie Bliss and her lovely Cashmerino bunny – there were pictures of it everywhere and many many versions in every imaginable colour dotted around the shop.  I resisted temptation to buy the kit on this occasion – not sure who I could give a bunny and at my age I’m possibly too old to justify a stuffed bunny on the bed.  It is just about the softest yarn I’ve come across so far, but then its early days so I don’t want to commit too soon, despite it being Valentines.

About three doors down, there is a slightly more traditional yarn shop, the sort we probably all grew up with on the high street.  It was a cornucopia of all things woolly from rainbow shades of yarn to first knitting kits and patterns for baby jumpers, plus everything you could possibly need for embroidery and crochet.  After I’d eyeballed a crochet hook or two the owner very kindly gave me an impromptu lesson.  After assuring me she was “cack handed” she promptly rattled off a two inch square of the most beautifully executed trebles before handing me a ball of yarn and a hook, telling me it was as “simple as that” and sending me off to practice.  She clearly spun magic with that hook, and despite her excellent tuition my two rows of chains and slip stitch still looks like an aubergine string bean.  Onward with the practice!

The one thing her shop didn’t have was a ball winder, which I’ve struggled to find anywhere.  Having spent several hours last weekend with skeins of sock yarn wrapped around my feet to wind them into balls, and on the recommendation of a learned knitting instructor, I’ve decided this is an essential purchase.  I will persevere in my hunting and if I find somewhere that stocks them I will add them to the blog as they will be my newest craft hero.

In terms of current projects, I am about half way through my first ever sock following a lesson last weekend to teach me the fine art of turning a heel.  This is even trickier than it sounds and I don’t think it’s going too far to say it requires patience, cunning and focus.  I deferred heel turning last night on the grounds of tiredness – no point bodging it having spent several hours getting the sock to this stage.  Having finally got to grips with the double pointed needles (they have two ends for goodness sake) I’m really enjoying knitting in the round.  The sock yarn and fine needles mean you get up close and personal with your stitches and it’s slightly embarrassing how much I’m marvelling at the sock as it emerges - it’s down to the materials I know, but I keep beaming with pride and have been heard asking the OH “look how this bit looks like the top of a real sock” more times than would generally be considered normal. 

But it is fiddly, and sometimes you just want to yomp through a project so at the same time I started the sock, I cast some chunky stitches onto the fattest circular needles I could find and am working a snood in a 1K 1P rib in khaki.  This is essentially a copy of a snood I saw a friend wearing.  I’m not ashamed to say that I counted the rows and stitch pattern while she wasn’t looking.  Much as with the socks, this is not a cost effective way to dress.  However, hers was bought from a well known high street retailer for pennies and is 100% acrylic.  She doesn’t know its provenance, how it was made, by whom and how far it travelled to get to the shop.  Mine will be lovingly handmade, including something that I still can’t fathom – there wasn’t a yarn change or a dropped stitch but still a hole does seem to have appeared – could I have slipped a stitch by mistake?   It is also 100% pure wool, and although it will come in at around £35 for the finished article I know where it comes from.  Far less worthily, it is also a very quick project and great fun seeing something so usable for a chilly being coming to fruition quickly.  Another evening in front of the telly and I think it will be done, keeping my neck warm for weeks to come.

On the sewing front, week four of dress-making is tomorrow.  I am slowly getting to grips with the machines and have completed the darts and pleat detailing for the front of the dress (I’m trying Simplicity New Look 6000, pattern C).  I am, however, pinned at the top and down the sides and ready to let loose with the Janome.  Tuesday will be the day I get that bad boy going with the sewing.  What’s heartening is that I’m starting to understand the funny marks on the tissues so I am definitely learning something.  The teacher is very patient, and talks through each stage before we have a go while she gives us ongoing individual instruction relevant to the pattern we’re using.  She’s warned us that the first dress we make will be fairly amateurish but I see this as a jumping off point and am determined to make a dress to wear to a friend’s wedding in July.  This gives me plenty of time to bond with Bobby, my sewing machine*.

My next door neighbour, Patti, who used to sew a lot of her own clothes, has also suggested we take on a joint project to make a summer skirt and I’ve leapt at the chance.  She is an eminently stylish woman who manages to look impeccable despite juggling full time work and a toddler.  I’ve sent her a potential pattern, Amy Butler’s Barcelona skirt, and have already scouted my fabric.  Sure I’m behind the times discovering this, but I have to mention Owl and Sewing Cat (see the "Sites I love" section).  They have two stores, one in Bexhill-on-Sea and one at Eastbourne, and a fantastic website.  Stocking a disarmingly large range of beautiful fabrics ranging from the traditional to the chintzy (in a good way) to the quirky and retro, it took a while but I ordered MODA’s Fandango Floral for the skirt in the end – I had a few questions and the customer service was impeccable and friendly so a strong recommendation for any habby needs.

Rightyho, I’d best get on – that snood won’t knit itself so the sooner I post this, do a day’s work and get myself home the sooner I can get back where I belong (or so it feels), behind those knitting needles.

* Bobby (s)Ewing, don’t judge me

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Cupid proves he's a useful chap to have onside

Day two of blog-land and I am absolutely over-the-moon to see my first ever article in print.  The Stylist is a fab weekly read and a friend nudged me in the direction of the reader columnist opportunity.  Rather excitingly, they've printed an article I submitted last week and here it is ...

Monday, 7 February 2011

Launching myself to the blogosphere

Hello there to all those already out in the ether.  By way of introduction, it will rapidly become clear that I am a luddite trying to wrestle with the confusing lingo, jargon and who knows what else of the blogosphere.  I'm determined to persevere, in a very intrepid if trepidatious way.

So, what's the point of this blog when there are already loads of fantastic sites out there forging the craft revolution and dedicated to the renaissance in all things stitched, knit, handmade and generally home spun.  They present such a wonderful opportunity to get back in touch with a range of skills that our mother's mothers took for granted, found boring even, but that we have lost over the years in the morass of feminism, post-feminism and proto-feminism, and the upsurge in the long-hours culture that has made it impossible to commit real time to recycling, upcycling and the making-do and mend mindset.  Who has time to darn socks when you can pick up five pairs for a fiver, or turn up your own hems when you're working twelve hour days before coming home, feeding the family, managing a house etc.  Or even just coming home and plonking your exhausted self in front of the TV.

As well as being a luddite, I utterly agree with feminist principles despite having over the years enjoyed getting a little crafty, purely in a stitching sense and armed with yarn rather than anything more sinister; and don't see the two as mutually exclusive.  I'm just lucky that as a thirty-something anachronism my moment has finally arrived, albeit rather unfortunately at exactly the same moment that the economy has imploded and we're all having to make-do and mend rather than it being a positive choice in lots of cases.

My view is, however, that we should reclaim this moment and see it as an opportunity coming out of dire times.  A chance to start understanding the process of production, where our clothes and knick knacks come from, appreciating the skill and labour that goes into making the things we use and wear on a daily basis.  There's an element as well, of simply loving the idea of knowing that some things aren't disposable.  My family all have handmade things that have survived the generations and there's something lovely about knowing that my grandmother laboured at an embroidery which has hung in two further generations of houses since the war.

Here comes the honest truth, however.  I've always been a rather fair weather crafter and that's where I hope this blog is different.  As an enthusiastic amateur, there are more mistakes than successes in the things I stitch, and for every bootie that gets knit beautifully there are three more that have been frogged (a totally new word to me - I love that these crafts have their own language).  I'm not going to be writing this as a "how-to", more of a "how have you?" to other crafters out there.  I will share my attempts at dress making, knitted socks, and embroidery and ask if other people have had the same experience, understand where I'm getting stuck and, when I find them, share the solutions that I've found for overcoming some of the tricky technical aspects.  I hope there will be opportunities for me to find new crafts to learn as well, and when I find a great site or shop that really tickles my fancy because it has a crazy yarn, stocks a hard to find pattern book or just sells beautiful things it would be nice to share that with others who appreciate that these are the finer things in life, as much as any new purchase.    And also because no one learns a language overnight or gets things right first time and I much prefer the excitement of learning in a group environment.

Hopefully someone out there will read, but if not I love the thought of having an online creative journal as a way of tracking what I hope (but can't guarantee) will be progress to being seriously crafty and actually a productive enterprise.  Next stop ... a pair of socks ...