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.

Image

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.

P1000063

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.

Bake Fail!

Many knitting or crafting bloggers also excel at baking, but sadly I’m not one of them. If you’re hoping to see images of mouthwatering baked goods appearing on this blog, like this from Nothing But Knit, I’m afraid you’ll be sorely disappointed. I’m rubbish at baking. That’s not to say I can’t cook! I make great sauces, and a mean moroccan chicken, and last year’s Christmas dinner was a triumph! But anything remotely sugary is generally a disaster, or at best mediocre. It’s almost uncanny how often it goes wrong. And so it is with these chocolate fairy cakes, baked and ready for Katie to sell at school tomorrow for Sports Relief.

Image

Now, don’t all rush to pin this on Pinterest! Perhaps they taste better than they look but I wouldn’t bank on it. Despite following the recipe carefully the cakes came out small and a little bit hard. Then we came to make the icing and discovered that not only were we short on chocolate, we also didn’t have enough butter, so we made up the difference with I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter (I know! know!) This is probably why the mixture refused to adequately mix – no matter how much we stirred it, great yellow lumps were still visible in the piped icing. Yuck. Perhaps ten-year-olds won’t be too discerning – for the sake of charity I hope so. I’m sure I’ll be sharing recipes for delicious savoury items on here in the future, but when it come to cakes, forget it!

Vanilla knitting

DSC_0126

In stark contrast to last week’s flamboyant efforts, this week’s work-in-progress is much more sober. Last Saturday I took Katie to one of our local yarn shops, The Cheap Shop in Tiptree, to choose yarn for a sweater. Alongside some of the other projects I’m working on I fancied some undemanding TV knitting, so I planned to work up a copy of her favourite H&M jumper in a different colour scheme.

IMG_0058

As you can see, it’s a simple raglan with minimal shaping, so easy enough to duplicate. The tough part, however, was finding a yarn we both liked! Our choices weren’t limited; The Cheap Shop stocks a wide and appealing range of yarns, including Rowan, Sublime, Debbie Bliss, Louisa Harding, Rico, Bergere, Colinette, Noro and King Cole. So many lush fibres! So many contemporary colours! Possibilities abounded. Unfortunately, Katie doesn’t really like strong colours, so all those delicious modern palettes from the likes of Sublime and Rowan, with their mustard yellows and deep teals, were immediately rejected. Neither is she keen on fuss, so anything textured or mottled – eagerly suggested by me as an easy way to add interest – was also no go. Instead, her yarns of choice were insipid baby acrylics costing roughly a penny a gram, in shades of pink and blue. She thought the colours were pretty and couldn’t understand my dismayed reaction at the thought of knitting a garment in a cheap and squeaky baby yarn.

baby-shimmer-double-knitting-wool-yarn-james-brett

Bergere de France Eclipse had already been rejected on account of its two-tone shade and crinkly appearance, but then Katie spied a swatch of the Venus shade, one of many usefully knitted up by the shop to properly showcase the yarns. This is a great service as it’s often so hard to visualise the effect of a yarn from just looking at the ball. Another example of the value of bricks and mortar shops! Katie was sold, wanting not stripes but a whole sweater entirely in that one colour. The shop also helped me again when I had a minor mental block over how much I would need for a 1o-year-old’s sweater, the lady at the counter helpfully looking up a few patterns to confirm that six balls would probably be about right. My commitment to our 2014 Love Your Yarn Shop campaign was very much reinforced!

IMG_0049

Given that we’re using only one colour I have asked Katie if she’d like me to add some lacy bits, or perhaps a little cable on the front, but no, she wants it pure vanilla. So, pure vanilla it is!

Yarnbomb!

IMG_0037Over the last two weeks I’ve been involved in a yarnbombing project, co-ordinated brilliantly by Alexandra Davis of Stitch n’ Bitch Colchester. Last night came the exciting moment when the yarnbomb finally went live

IMG_0034What a spectacular sight! If you’re based nearby and wish to seek it out it covers a ten metre wall just off Queen Street, very close to the Firstsite gallery.

I’d known about the plan for a good few months but I confess I only began my contributions when the final call went out, frantically knitting as much as I could in the final week! You know what they say – if it wasn’t for the last minute nothing would ever get done. I managed to churn out a couple of lurid panels of fuzzy blue and pink stripes which you can see in the image above.

DSC_0083

Over the last five months, thanks to Alex’s regular call-outs, an amazing collection of knitted and crocheted pieces had built up, from tiny decorative swatches to full-on blankets. Then came the task of stitching it all together, with which I lent a hand

IMG_0017

So finally it was finished, and on Friday evening in the rain it was ceremoniously stapled to the wall!

IMG_0039I think it’s a fabulous thing and I hope it gets lots of press coverage. I plan to revisit with Katie in a couple of days and take some proper photos – apologies for these; they were taken on my phone at 6.30 at night! Still, I think the gloriousness of it still shines through. I love the eclectic way the pieces have been assembled, making for some really interesting sections.

IMG_0040

IMG_0044IMG_0042The vest is definitely one of my favourite bits!

There’s more about the yarnbomb, plus some much better photos, on Alex’s tumblr here

Local Heroes

images

As a teenager twenty years ago, when I discovered knitting and my obsession steadily grew, the tiny, fusty old wool shop in my home town played a key part. It was an unwilling part, to tell the truth. As I entered the shop, which was narrow and stacked from floor to ceiling with yarn, a pair of tightly-permed, haughty ladies would look at me askance from their counter, clearly confused as to what this young, and, even worse, unconventional-looking person was doing in their shop.

Despite repeated visits they weren’t disposed to be friendly to me. I would do things that troubled them, such as buying small quantities of mismatched yarn that clearly weren’t enough to knit a jumper. Warily they took my money, and entrusted me with their purple mohair and novelty acrylic with obvious reluctance.

Image

Me and my knitting circa 1992. I can’t imagine what their problem was!

However, the point is that despite the less-than-warm welcome, I loved my local yarn shop.

I went there to be surrounded by yarn and be inspired. I was continually amazed by all the different types of yarn available – so many textures and effects; so many possibilities. And if something desirable was in the bargain bin, well, as a student with no money,  the opportunity was too good to miss. The excitement of spontaneous yarn purchase was exhilarating. Without this formative encounter with the wonders of yarn I might not have become the knitter I am today.

logolatest_Layout 1

Twenty years on, knitting has changed hugely, and yarn shops on the whole are friendly, inclusive, welcoming places, even more inspiration-filled than they were back then, with so many more beautiful yarns to showcase. However, much like the rest of the UK high street, bricks-and-mortar yarn shops are having a tough time. Rates are high, footfall is low. Competition from veritable online giants with fewer overheads is taking its toll. And the UK’s weather this past year has not been knitting-friendly; a hot summer followed by a wet winter, with barely a frost, let alone a snowflake in sight.

wild-ducks-swim-in-the-water-in-the-rain

Nice weather for ducks. Not so great for knitting shops.

In my day job on Let’s Knit I’ve heard steadily more frequent tales of closure and general doom and gloom, and things became particularly bad in the run up the Christmas. As a lover of yarn shops and an advocate of ‘shop local’ it troubled me to hear of the struggles shops were having. Much as buying online is convenient, I hated the thought of there being nowhere knitters could go to ‘smoosh’* yarn, to compare colours and generally wallow in fibre.

Then one day I had an idea.

header-Strap

As well as being a knitter, my teenage self was also a huge music fan, and record shops were another big part of my formative years. Having gone into decline – hardly surprising with the advent of downloads – bricks and mortar record shops are now experiencing something of a renaissance, and this is partly due to an initiative called Record Store Day. Started in the US, it’s an annual day when shops host a wide range of events – live appearances, signing sessions, limited edition releases – to entice people in, and remind them of what’s great about a record store. And with the backing of stars like Jack White it’s proved a roaring success, creating a healthy knock-on effect of renewed interest in stores that goes well beyond the designated day, and partly responsible for the surprising, sustained upturn in vinyl sales.

grimriper_roughtrade_TC_L140409.blog

Image © The NME

I’d been aware of Record Store Day for a couple of years – we now celebrate it in the UK – and suddenly, a couple of months before Christmas it dawned on me – why don’t we do the same thing for yarn shops?!? They perform a very similar service, dealing in a product that can be readily bought online, but are able to offer advice, camaraderie and a host of other non-virtual experiences that enhance the transaction greatly – in fact you could argue even more so in the case of yarn shops as yarn is a tactile product (we’re back to smooshing again).

So, the idea was voiced, the wheels set in motion and now Yarn Shop Day 2014 is a reality!

12480459

Ramshambles in York is one of the stores taking part in Yarn Shop Day

If you’re in the UK and you love knitting make sure you put Saturday 3rd May in your diary. All sorts of exciting events are planned, from competitions and book launches to full on workshops in stores across the country. Updates on who’s involved will be posted regularly on the LK website here, but so far the ambassadors who’ve signed up to pledge their support include Erika Knight, Louisa Harding, Sarah Hatton, Sue Stratford, Jenny Watson, Jane Burns, Anniken Allis, Lauren O’Farrell, Sarah Hazell and Julie Ferguson to name but a few. I recently attended the Craft, Hobby, Stitch trade show at the Birmingham NEC and talked to many people in the industry about Yarn Shop Day and I can tell you, everyone from the biggest spinners to the smallest shops is incredibly excited about it.

So, if you believe in ‘shop local’ and you love yarn please help us make the 2014 campaign a success. Spread the word! Tell every UK knitter you know, and cajole your LYS into taking part. Help make 2014 the year of LOVE YOUR YARN SHOP!

Smooshing: the act of squeezing yarn to experience its full yarny goodness

This week I’ve been getting excited about…

1. Granny Squares

DSC_0063I’ve made granny square cushions before but this is my first attempt at a blanket. I started out with a great big heap of multi-coloured DK yarn, but quickly found myself returning to the same small range of colours, in particular that lovely calming blue. So instead of the technicolour frenzy I’d originally planned I’ve ended up with a palette of just seven colours. Funny isn’t it how varying those few colours within one granny square creates such a different effect. I love how this is turning out – it’s sort of evolving of its own accord, and I’ve no idea how it will eventually look. I think I’m going to stop at nine squares and then join them together in blue before creating some sort of border to make the blanket nice and big. But there are so many possibilities for taking it further in a totally different way. What would you do?

2 Holidays

Camino_cA few years ago I came across Summer Crochet, a pattern booklet from Rowan. Lovely patterns, but what really transfixed me were the stunning location photographs.

Corsica_a Ever since I saw it I’ve wanted to go to Malta, where it was shot. I don’t know how selective the Rowan photographer was, but on the evidence of this booklet Malta looks to be brimming with character, of the rustic, crumbling, sun-bleached, slightly dilapidated type that particularly appeals to me.

SCIncidentals_hI absolutely love to photograph ‘dilapidated chic’. To me, a bit of faded paintwork on an ancient doorway is as picturesque as any grand monument, as my Flickr photostream will testify. I also love islands and a nice bit of sunshine. So imagine my excitement when this week, on the spur of the moment when opportunity knocked, we booked a holiday to Malta! We’re going just before Easter, so it’s only about nine weeks away. Very excited. I need to invest in a new compact camera before I go, as my DSLR is great but cumbersome to take everywhere, and my brilliant Finepix F30 is on it’s last legs, sadly. Once I’ve got that I’ll be all set for what will hopefully be a photography fest! So be prepared for a few photo-based postings on this blog when the time comes.

Tesco-tastic!

Just before Christmas our Advertising Manager, Julie, came to work wearing a fab lace cowl that immediately caught my eye. Long and wide, it featured elegant lines of chevron stitch that draped stylishly when worn. Straight away I knew I wanted to make one. There wasn’t a pattern available for it though – it had come from the local supermarket! However, the stitch pattern looked relatively easy to replicate. Here’s a photo:

DSCF0634

As you can see the original was dove grey which, lovely though it is, isn’t a colour that features much in my wardrobe – another good reason to remake it. I needed a 4ply yarn and I didn’t have to think long to come up with a gorgeous choice – the aptly named Scrumptious by Fyberspates (a combo of merino and silk) in a colour I’d long admired – their luminous Gold shade. And here it is on the needles:

DSC_0049

It took trial and error, along with a fair amount of cussing, to replicate the pattern exactly. Indeed, most of Boxing Day was spent getting cross with it, but eventually I had a Eureka moment and worked out exactly where those decreases should go. My version does differ from the original – it’s narrower by two strips, and each of my repeats is one row shorter. It probably would have been better to have the longer repeat (I just miscounted – doh!) but making it narrower meant I could obtain the same lovely draping length with a mere one skein of yarn! Amazing! Here it is blocking:

DSC_0038(Don’t look too close – blocking really shows up the errors!)

The knitted piece prior to blocking looked very ‘spiky’ because the knitting kinked each time it changed direction, but blocking resolved that problem and allowed it to grow to the desired length of 150cm. With cast-on and cast-off edges sewn together I can wrap it round three times if I want to, although two is a more relaxed way to wear it. Unfortunately my usual photographer is on strike so the best I can do is a selfie of the finished cowl:

DSC_0051I quite like it, and it’s certainly divine to wear. It never looks the same twice because the stitches always fall differently, and it’s proved excellent at providing plenty of warmth without feeling stuffy. The pattern itself is a nice, easy, somewhat hypnotic knit. If you’d like to make one I’ve written up the pattern and added it to my pattern library on Ravelry here. I make no claims to it being an original design, obviously (although it appears in ‘my original designs’ on Rav because I’m adding the pattern myself) but as far as I’m aware the prototype is no longer on sale anyway, so at least we knitters still have a chance of owning one! .

In other news, I took a tiny step towards my resolution of growing things ready for a summer barbecue – I bought some seeds! I could hardly resist them as they’ve been marketed specifically for that purpose. Although I’m not sure I’ve ever barbecued a beetroot, and at £6 I’ve probably been well and truly done, but I enjoy eating all of these things so for me it’s a good selection, whatever its dubious barbecue credentials.

DSCF0720

Burns Night Delight

I didn’t think I would get a Burns Night supper this year – January has been a busy one, with a string of birthdays and curry dates scuppering my haggis-eating plans. However, some last-minute calendar flipping has meant that unexpectedly, tonight is free, so we’re having a Burns Night after all – hurrah! Being a day early gives me the chance to heartily recommend The Hairy Biker’s recipe for Clapshot and Whisky Sauce, the perfect accompaniment to haggis, which you’ll find here.

DSC_0031

Ith gu leòir! (Eat plenty!)