Mother’s Love

The August issue of Let’s Knit comes out tomorrow and it features these fantastic headbands, designed by Jane Burns and modelled by none other than Katie and myself.

headbands I can vouch wholeheartedly for this design. Having worn the sample for the photoshoot I found it so comfortable, and so great for disguising bad hair days and unsightly root regrowth, that I didn’t want to take it off. Naturally we always return samples to our designers, so I knew I had to eventually give this one back, but the solution was obvious – I would just have to knit my own. I’ve since made not one but three of them!

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Here I am sporting the first one while enjoying a pint in one of my favourite pubs, the Dog & Duck in Soho. It’s made in Schachenmayr Extra Soft Merino DK, but any DK yarn would be fine, and it takes only 40g.

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Here’s the second. This was made in a subtly variegated yarn – no idea what it is unfortunately as it was label-less and dug from the very bottom of my stash. With hindsight a variegated yarn wasn’t the best choice because you knit the two crossover parts separately, so when you join them together they are inevitably at different points in the colour sequence. Despite my best efforts to avoid this I still have a visible join – although I don’t think it spoils it too much.

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And finally here’s one I made for Katie, from the wonderfully neon Bergere de France Barisienne.

These headbands are an easy, enjoyable knit and I know I’ll definitely be making several more, both as presents and brilliant speedy stashbusters.   The pattern appears in issue 82 of Let’s Knit, on sale Friday 4th July.

 

In Praise Of Pattern

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I’m a huge fan of patterns, and for once I’m not referring to knitting patterns (although I love those too!); I mean patterns as in surface decorations, like the kind displayed on these fabulous Mexican tiles I recently bought. The full set contains 24 tiles, all completely different – but such impressive variety is a mere drop in the ocean compared to the literally hundreds of designs in existence. There’s something so joyful about this exuberant use of shape and colour seemingly just for the hell of it. Whether on tiles, a rug, a piece of fabric, a retro teapot, or a piece of Fair Isle knitting, surface pattern doesn’t, on the whole, convey any meaning or serve any practical purpose, it’s just there to lift your heart and make you smile.

My plan for these tiles is not to actually tile anything with them (although it would be fabulous!) but just to have them dotted around the house – on the mantelpiece, on the windowsill, used as coasters – thereby providing a small but extremely lively dash of colour here and there.

Seeing these tiles together, it struck me how similar they were to something else I love – granny squares! Although in essence quite different, in many ways the Mexican tile and the granny square appear to come from the same feel-good family. Both get away with being absurdly more colourful than is generally acceptable, both are square and both feature symmetrical, repeating patterns that delight the eye with their aesthetic rhythm.

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I made the squares above a while ago to be the centrepiece of a picnic blanket. Having made nine large squares, I crocheted them together using Lucy from Attic 24s excellent tutorial, and then planned to go round and round the edge until either it was big enough or my yarn ran out, whichever happened first. Well, I clearly underestimated how much yarn crochet uses up! By the time I’d done a few rounds it was taking more than half a ball of yarn to do one lap of the edge, and I’d exhausted all my favourite colours. I could’ve bought more yarn but seeing as this was a project to use up oddments it seemed to defeat the object. So I don’t exactly have a picnic blanket, but I do have a very nice throw. Perfect for livening up a chair, and for bringing a little bit of joie de vivre into everyday life.

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Wild Weekend!

In my last post I mentioned that we were fans of Springwatch, which ended its annual run on Thursday, and last weekend felt a little like real life had taken over where the TV left off! Several weeks ago a pair of red-legged partridges made their home in the field next to our garden, appearing a couple of times a day to peck around the lawn, (and leave many an unwanted gift on the garden path). We got so used to seeing them we named them Terry and Jerry and would say hi to them as we passed by on our way to and from the car. We noticed they were gradually becoming tamer, especially when we started dishing out the odd bit of birdseed. They would follow us down the garden and eventually we even persuaded them to eat out of our hands.

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They became so familiar we started to think of them as pets, especially as they would sometimes come in the house to look for us when they got impatient for birdseed!

On Saturday I was sitting out on the patio enjoying a quiet ten minutes when I heard a familiar sound suggesting either Jerry or Terry were nearby, so I got up to fetch a handful of birdseed, and sure enough out popped Jerry (the female) from behind the fence. Imagine my surprise and delight when she was followed by no less than EIGHT tiny babies!

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At the risk of sounding twee I couldn’t quite get over how adorable these tiny, fluffy fledgelings were, making their first ever foray into the big wide world under mum’s watchful guidance. And doesn’t Jerry look proud! A little while later they took an afternoon stroll up the length of our garden path and I managed to make a video:

 

I’m looking forward to seeing the babies develop as I don’t suppose they’ll stay this small for long. I also don’t suppose all of them will make it through to adulthood. It pains me to think how vulnerable they are!

Talking of which, on Sunday we came across another fledgeling, one in desperate trouble. We were cycling back from the pub when James suddenly felt drawn to investigate a disused farm building. We’d been discussing activities in the local area during the war and he’d wondered if this building held any historical clues, but instead of a makeshift aerodrome what we found was an owl with it’s leg trapped under some debris.

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This was a young Little Owl, and because its leg was damaged it was unable to take off and could only flail around on the ground. We therefore had little choice but to take this beautiful creature home and try and work out what to do.

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Although obviously injured the owl, whom we christened Chequers (after our local pub where we’d just had a very nice Sunday lunch!), looked bright-eyed and not sick, so we were hopeful for his prognosis, but pessimistic about our chances of finding a wildlife refuge open on Sunday evening. However, the wonderful people at Wildlives in Thorrington agreed to take him in, even though they were technically closed for admissions. This is an absolutely wonderful organisation, entirely funded on donations but dedicated to rescuing every specimen of sick, injured and orphaned wildlife that comes their way. On arrival Katie was transfixed by a tank full of baby hedgehogs, and they had several tawny owls and other baby birds. However, Chequers was the first Little Owl they’d had this year.

P1000794I called Wildlives this afternoon and I’m delighted to say that Chequers is doing much better; he’s fine in himself and his leg seems to be on the mend. When finding an injured animal it’s such a comfort to have organisations to turn to who know what to do. Wildlives is run from owner Rosie’s house, often at personal expense, and is staffed by volunteers. I would urge everyone who loves wildlife to check out the their site here, and if you’re in a position to make a donation they would be heartily grateful.

 

All Change!

May is almost out but my #maychallenge cushion definitely won’t be finished. My initial Fair Isle design has now been ditched; I decided, having knitted about 10cm of the full-size piece, that on a large scale I really didn’t like the effect – it was far too busy. From a distance the colours simply merged into one, despite my efforts to maximise the contrast between them within the palette I’d chosen. I do have a plan for the pattern – something on a smaller scale – but for the cushion I had to go back to the drawing board. And the result has meant a move over to the dark side – intarsia!

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Using larger blocks of colour has created the much more painterly effect I was looking for, doing justice to the beautiful shades of Rowan Felted Tweed, but yes it is fiddly. I’m using nine colours at once and my method of controlling each bobbin is with clothes pegs – not ideal but it stops the yarn unravelling. The main issue is that I can only knit at the table! But I’m happy with how it’s going – at long last! Starting from scratch is a pain but I’m a firm believer in following your gut instinct: if you know something’s flawed or not working then no matter how much time has been invested, don’t be afraid to move on  – just chalk it up to ‘development’!

Being unable to knit in front of the TV has been a drawback this week because unusually I’ve been watching quite a lot: the reason – It’s Springwatch! This venerable British institution has returned to our screens. Whilst we normally tune in anyway, this series holds a special significance because on Tuesday we were lucky enough to visit Minsmere and see behind the scenes as guests of one of the presenters, Martin Hughes-Games. We had a brilliant day, the highlights of which were visiting the hut and sitting on the very sofas normally occupied by Chris Packham and Michaela Strachan, and seeing inside mission control where they monitor the cameras 24/7. Plus Katie managed to photograph the ultra-rare bittern – Martin was very impressed!

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May challenge

I’ve been a bit unfocused of late; picking things up, putting them down and not really committing to anything. To cure this inertia I decided to set myself a monthly challenge, and this month’s is an idea that’s been brewing for a while – to design and knit a cushion for our living room.

Here’s the scene that greets you as you enter the room:

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This much-loved sofa is generally referred to in our house as ‘the comfiest sofa ever’, but looks-wise I’ve always felt it could do with a splash of colour. All that’s required is a colourful cushion to add a bit of ‘pop’, but I’ve never found quite the right one; they’ve always been either too bold or too busy. So I set myself the task of designing and knitting my ideal cushion.

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In keeping with the relaxed, slightly rustic look of our living room, with its faded navajo rug and wooden beams, I wanted something colourful yet soft and subtle. Rowan Felted Tweed DK seemed the ideal yarn choice, as the multi-coloured neps give its gorgeous hues a muted, timeworn look. Having picked the yarn I set about choosing colours, an agonising task as you can never truly tell if your palette will work until you’ve knitted it up in a swatch. Needless to say I didn’t get it right first time. I’d opted for the six above because each pair seemed to give a contrast whilst none of the shades were too strong, but therein lay my mistake, because Fair Isle works on the principle of foreground and background. The colours may be varied but these shades are all essentially background, with nothing primed to stand out. Here’s the horrible sludgy result when they were knitted together:

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It was clear that I needed to introduce a bolder colour, so I opted for a fiery red, and attempted my swatch again. Things didn’t go much better!

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I think I preferred the first one! Clearly something was wrong in the mix, and it didn’t take long to work out that it was the brown. Included to ensure that my cushion looked suitably rustic, its muddy hue did nothing for the overall look of the pattern, and instead of rustic I just got something that looked dirty. A complete rethink was in order, so I chucked out everything I’d already done and instead of trying to chart out the pattern first I decided to design on-the-needles, just seeing where the colours took me. With Mary Jane Mucklestone’s 200 Fair Isle Designs on hand for reference  I set about swatching, and here’s the result of my efforts:

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Finally an idea I’m happy with! I settled for pink as the background, a shade that provides a pleasing contrast to all the others. Well, the cushion is now cast on, but I haven’t left myself long to finish it before the month is out!

At last – the big day!

Last Saturday was Yarn Shop Day in the UK. Typing that feels so funny, because I can hardly believe it’s actually become a reality. Little more than six months ago Yarn Shop Day was just a whimsical idea, but thanks to the tenacity and vision of the team behind Let’s Knit, who grasped the bigger picture and then worked so incredibly hard to make it happen, Yarn Shop Day 2014 was a stonking success.

My Yarn Shop Day was spent in Ely, at the fabulous Yarn on the Square.

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Here I am squeezing some yarn – because that’s one of the things you can do when in a yarn shop! Yarn On The Square is a beautiful boutique store boasting brands like Sublime, Millamia, Manos, Jarol, Louisa Harding and Katia. It was so much fun to spend a day there, stroking the yarn, admiring the knitted samples (I plan to knit at least two!) and chatting with the customers, of which, I’m delighted to say, there were many!

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Plenty had come specifically for Yarn Shop Day. As well as discounts on many yarns, there were pop-up shops from Mirasol and Libby Summers (Libby has been a fantastic supporter of Yarn Shop Day. Check out her gorgeous yarns and products here), so it was a great opportunity to pick up something special. Plus – last but not least – there was also the chance to do your bit for the community and help knit the Ely eel!

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Here’s Katie having a go. The annual Eel Festival, which commemorates the historical importance of eel fishing to the city’s fortunes, also took place on Saturday, and eventually this giant knitted eel will be part of an art display in the cathedral. Lots of people joined in and by the end of the day the eel had grown considerably!

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So I came away with some yarn of course, including a beautiful 100g skein of Paqa Pura by Mirasol. Nice as it looks, it’s a yarn that simply has to be smooshed to appreciate its full glory.

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So, what was going on elsewhere? All manner of things! Ysolda Teague drew a raffle in Glasgow, Gillian Gladrag yarnbombed a campervan in Dorking, Pauline Turner taught crochet in Yorkshire, Louisa Harding said hello at Stash Fine Yarns, Jane Burns taught beginners in Essex, giant needles were wielded in Hackney, Sarah Hazell upcycled bangles in Birmingham, Sachiyo Ishii knitted tiny pandas in Surrey, Zoe Halstead gave lessons in Loughborough and Nottingham, Anniken Allis did surgery in Devon, Tracy Todhunter crafted in Northwich, Lynne Rowe made bows in Crewe – I could go on!! We’re so grateful to everyone who gave up their time to take part – it was a fabulous effort. Check out this post featuring some of the days top tweets. Now all that remains is to start planning Yarn Shop Day 2015!

Easter break

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We’ve just returned from a ten-day break in Malta, during which time I forgot about screens and social media and indulged instead in family time, reading, relaxing and other neglected pleasures. We also did a fair bit of exploring, amazed by how much there was to see in such a tiny place. You can drive across Malta in an hour and yet it’s packed with history and culture, enough to fill several separate day trips.

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St Paul’s Co Cathedral in Valetta

For me there was also the delight of endless photo opportunities. Not just the beguiling fishing boats and gorgeous vistas – although these were great – but plenty of my absolute favourite subject; elegant decay (or, as it’s sometimes more expressively known, ruin porn).

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Is it just me or does anyone else get carried away at the sight of peeling paint, rusty wrought iron and crumbling brickwork?

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Wherever possible we always try and avoid hiring a car on holiday and use public transport instead – I think it helps you feel more connected to a place. I lost count of how many buses we took in Malta; they’re numerous and extremely easy to use, although admittedly quite slow as they stop everywhere. You can’t complain about the price though – for €1.50 you can use them all day and go as far as you like (50c for kids!). Sadly Malta no longer has its brightly painted fleet of vintage buses – these have been replaced by modern vehicles which are far less romantic but probably a lot more efficient.

We used the buses to visit many fantastic places including, of course, the capital Valetta. The photo above shows a typical Valetta street. I love h0w the streets are made up of hundreds of individual townhouses sandwiched together, each several stories high but absurdly narrow, and completely different to the one next door.

Quite often these houses have a shop or business at the bottom, each one tiny and narrow just like the building, often with a deliciously retro sign above the door. Chain stores are refreshingly non-existent in old Valetta. I could have gone round observing these quirky businesses all day.

 

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However, we had other priorities to attend to, including stopping for a beer in the pub where Oliver Reed downed his very last pint before toppling off the bar stool and, indeed, this mortal coil.

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(If you have a similar morbid curiousity it’s called The Pub and it’s in central Valetta.)

Out now in paperback!

The paperback version of Morning Frost by James Henry (aka my other half) has now hit the shops, and this time, three books down the line, we have something we’ve never had before – a London Underground advertising campaign! It’s really quite exciting. The posters can be found right across the network. Maybe you’ve spotted one?Image

Sublime spaghetti

P1000039I had promised to share with you some savoury treats to make up for my baking inadequacies, so this is one of our favourite Friday night suppers, mackerel spaghetti, or Mack Spag as it’s known in our house. It’s a rich, tasty dish that’s quick to make, as once you’ve boiled the spaghetti you simply chuck the main ingredients in a wok and heat them through. My favourite part, though, is the final stage when you take the wok off the heat and stir in a raw, beaten egg – the heat of the dish cooks it slightly, but not much. To me there’s something quite exotic about this part – I mean, it’s almost raw. Anyway, the dish goes fantastically well with a crisp, Italian white wine (my favourite is Gavi) and I think of it as my weekly injection of Omega 3. Here’s the recipe:

Ingredients

150g spaghetti
tbsp olive oil
250g ready-t0-eat mackerel fillets, chopped
bunch of spring onions, chopped
75g butter
Squeeze of lemon juice
Big handful of chopped curly parsley
1 egg, beaten

Method

Cook the spaghetti. Drain, add the olive oil and fry in the wok for one minute. Add the mackerel, chopped spring onions, parsley, butter, and lemon juice and cook until the butter has melted and the ingredients are heated through. Remove the wok from the heat, stir in the beaten egg and serve!

Enjoy!

 

 

Finished vanilla

Last weekend I finished making Katie’s ‘vanilla’ jumper – a plain stocking stitch sweater in a relatively plain yarn. She was delighted with the result I’m happy to say, and even wore it to a friend’s party on Saturday night.

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The jumper was made without a pattern using one of my favourite tricks – copying the shape of an existing, well-fitting garment exactly. I’ve employed this cheeky, shorthand method of garment making numerous times, and it’s perfect when you want something fairly quick that you can pretty much guarantee will fit and look good. In this case I’d agreed to knit Katie a jumper before suddenly realising it was March and that she wouldn’t exactly get much wear from it if I didn’t hurry up! It took exactly three weeks from buying the yarn to completion.

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Working out the shaping and dimensions was easy – a case of carefully measuring the original and creating a template of shapes, and then plotting out how many stitches and rows in my chosen yarn would create these shapes. The ribbed parts initially threw me a little; unusually they’re the same width as the stocking stitch, so extra stitches had to be cast on and then decreased. I like the pleasing modern shape this creates. Aside from that there was limited shaping so very little faff.

The yarn is Bergere de France Eclipse. It knits up quickly enough but oh boy is it splitty! It combines a thin thread of cotton and a hair-like strand of sparkly polyester loosely twisted around a core of roving-style acrylic. This mixture of three fibres gives it a crinkly appearance, providing my finished vanilla knit with some much-needed texture; it’s also extremely soft and has a beautiful angel-hair sheen. I fully expect it to fuzz and pill like mad, but at this point, freshly off the needles, it looks very pretty.