Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Inspired to sew circles

There are pins in the arm of the chair again, which means there is hand sewing going on around here.
Miss Moss Stitch and I went to the V&A's quilt exhibition on Saturday, and I've struggled since to express how good I found it (most unlike me to be lost for words).  To read Gill's perspective, here is the blog entry she wrote about our trip when we got back.
We both came home so inspired.  I was inspired by:
  • the intricacy of the quilting
  • the tiny, tiny pieces of the patchwork
  • the frequent 'mistakes' we could see - women throughout time have mucked up their seam allowances just like I do!
  • the beautiful fabrics, almost always with miniscule patterns which worked so well with the tiny patchwork pieces
  • the frequent use of circles
  • the textured fabrics in the quilts - velvet, ribbons and satin
  • the hand sewing

So this week I've started a new project, suggested by all the things I saw at the exhibition.  There is hand sewing.


There are circles.

And there are scrap fabrics with small prints.
I have no idea at the moment what these strips of circles will become. Perhaps a cushion, bordered and backed with some of the limited edition fabrics I bought at the exhibition.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Primary baking

Those of you who weren't focusing on the generous size of my shot glasses in the previous post, may have noticed the bright primary colours of the bun cases and smarties.  Nice, bright, spring, rainbow shades are where it's at with my home baking at the moment.

The bun cases are re-useable silicone ones, from Amazon, Lakeland and John Lewis.  You need several sets, becuase no matter how much care you take they do occasionally get thrown away by accident.  And there's nothing worse than having eleven bun cases.

Today O wanted to make a big chocolate cake from her own recipe book.  She reminds me so much of my little sister sometimes, who at this age (and probably still now) thought the best thing to do with a long Sunday afternoon was to bake a chocolate cake.  Who can argue with that really?  O also has a ballet exam tomorrow morning and thinks that a slice of chocolate cake would be just the thing to have when she has finished.

So she made a chocolate cake, with only a very little help melting the chocolate, and then got stuck into my box of sprinkles.

I had been muttering to myself for a while about the dull, pastel shades of all the cake decorations for sale in the supermarket.  I suspect because of some anxiety about additives, they had started to use natural food colourings.  Normally I'd be all in favour of removing additives and artificial colourings from food, but I don't think cake sprinkles are the right place to come over all wholemeal and healthy.  Cake sprinkles should be nice and bright.  That's the whole point of them.

I admired the cake decorations that Dragonfly used on these cakes she made, and she pointed me in the direction of Make A Wish, which has pages and pages of vividly coloured sprinkles, sugars, glitters and other decorating delights for you to buy.  I stocked up a few weeks ago and O was very pleased to find new things on the baking shelf this afternoon.

Oh, and in case you think we're only about the chocolate cakes and damson vodka here, there's a picture below to show you that we also have herbs and a loaf of wholemeal bread to see us through the week.  Very nutritionally balanced.

Friday, 26 March 2010

End of the week, then start of the weekend

Our kitchen table, 8:00 am today, Friday.



  •  one peanut butter jar, finished
  • a jar of honey, finshed
  • a jar of strawberry jam, finished
  • a jar of raspberry jam, just started
  • three plates of jammy crumbs
  • three sticky knives
  • a postcard from Yorkshire
  • a discarded milk bottle top
  • G long since left for work
  • twenty spellings to be learnt
  • four raucous chickens to be fed   

Our kitchen table, 7:00 pm today, Friday.

  •  twelve large, and twelve small, chocolate-and-easter-egg buns
  • aprons drying on the clothes rack
  • a stack of recipe books
  • the chickens' empty yellow corn bowl
  • supper in the oven
  • an empty smartie egg packet, waiting to be put in the bin
  • an old Appletise bottle filled with my sister-in-law's homemade damson vodka
  • G back home from work
  • two empty shot glasses  

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Floaty pink top

front view

I've made myself a summer top this week.  This pink, floaty, gathered little number will be for the hottest summer days, over a pair of denim shorts, or for the cooler, cloudy days paired with a long sleeved t-shirt and jeans.

The pattern is from the Spring/Summer edition of Ottobre Woman.

I've read about Ottobre, and admired Ottobre clothes made by others for a while now.  When another magazine subscription expired recently, I treated myself to a subscription to Ottobre instead and I am so glad that I did.  I can see why sewers love this magazine so much.  In fact it is not really a magazine, but more of a pattern collection.

The instructions are condensed, but clear enough - particularly if you've made clothes before. 
I didn't know what raglan seams for sleeves were, but a quick google sorted that out.  Nothing too taxing. 

My only real mistake was not reading the information about seam allowances before I started.  The seam allowances are not included on the pattern peices and you need to add them youself before you cut out your fabric.  Luckily with such a floaty top, it didn't matter at all for the front, back and sleeves.  The neck and sleeve bindings ended up being narrower (and therefore more fiddly) than they should have been, but I managed.  And I've now written a reminder on the envelope of pattern pieces.

The pattern I made is this one:
I love how Ottobre use models of all ages and sizes.  The model's top is made from a very lightweight voile, but mine is made from quilting cotton.

As with O's strawberry top I treated my first attempt at this top as a muslin, and made it with whatever fabric I liked and had enough of.  It has so many gathers that I knew it would need a very lightweight fabric which drapes nicely to avoid the 'is she pregnant?' look.  The quilting cotton is absolutely fine, but I will invest in some Anna Maria Horner voile for my next one, because I think it would look and feel fabulous.  A few gathers in a top can be a tricky look to pull off, but this top has so many that, happily, it looks floaty rather than pregnant when I put it on.

back view

I need to get some labels to go in my handmade clothes.  I have a reel of this 'With love' tape, which is nice if I am giving something away, but looks a bit odd in something I've made for myself.  And I need labels in my clothes to be able to tell the front from the back and make it feel finished.

There are several other things in this issue of Ottobre that I want to make.  A simple silk dupion skirt with a shirred waistband, a straight skirt with patch, combat-style pockets and the beautiful dress on the cover.

But first, perhaps another one of these in that inky blue voile I've been coveting!

Sunday, 21 March 2010

A strawberry top

There are plenty of good online patterns and tutorials for clothes for babies and toddlers, and many of the sewing books I own have some lovely clothes patterns for this age too, but I find that there are not many patterns for older children - pre-teens and teenagers. (The exception to this is Oliver + S whose current patterns go up to age 8, and whose new spring-summer patterns are going to go up to age 12).

I really want to make O a wardrobe of pretty summer dressees, skirts and tops this year - and I particularly want to make some of her school summer dresses, because the ones I buy never fit her properly and always look so sack-like and unflattering.

So I decided to go old-school and buy some traditional dress patterns.  I bought a few but the one I've made first is Simplicity 2986.  As always with traditional paper patterns from the big manufacturers, you have to work hard to think past the strange fabrics and trims and odd sketches they always put on the front of the packet, and imagine your own version made with fabrics you like.

This pattern is very versatile:
  • it makes a dress or a top,
  • in five sizes,
  • with two choices of yoke - a square or round neck
  • and two choices of sleeve - a little capped sleeve or straight elbow-length one
  • it is positively begging for embellishment with ribbon, buttons, ricrac or ruffles.
For the first version, I've made O a top, with the square yoke and capped sleeves.

The yoke is where most of the pretty detail in this pattern lies.  There are pintucks on the front of the yoke, and the front and the back of the top are then gathered to fit the yoke.  Gathers and pintucks require concentration and patience, but aren't difficult, and look much more impressive than the skill required would suggest.

The capped sleeves are the only other part of the design that requires a little fiddling and patience.  I've made gathered capped sleeves before on dolls' clothes, and that was much worse because of the tiny scale required for dolls' clothes.  The way I tackle sleeves is to pin carefully, then tack everything together by hand (with bright contrasting thread) and only then machine sew it all together before snipping out the tacking stitches.

I finished the hem with ribbon, which is a marvellous technique I discovered on the Oliver + S Lazy Days Skirt pattern.

Because this was a first attempt at this top - almost a muslin version - I just used whatever fabric I had to hand.  This is a strawberry printed cotton from Cath Kidston, and is not particularly suitable for dressmaking because it is a little thick and stiff. 

It looks so sweet though, and O does love her strawberries.  The school dress regulation gingham fabric is on order from Doughtys and I think it will drape better than this quilting weight cotton because it is a thinner fabric with a little bit of polyester mixed in.  When I've  saved up some money (ie. fed the children on nothing but jacket potatoes for a week) I will be ordering a whole pile of the Anna Maria Horner voile fabrics from Etsy to make some more summer tops for both O and me.

In the meantime though, both O and I are delighted with this little strawberry top.  The sun has come out just in time to enjoy it properly!

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Inheritance :: the bomb glass

Inheritance :: possession by transmission from past generations
Chambers Concise Dictionary

I don't usually wear gloves when I garden, but I really should do.  Our flowerbeds are full of pieces of glass.  These are the seven pieces I found from digging one small wallflower-sized hole this morning.

The glass is there because roughly seventy years ago, during The Blitz, a bomb was dropped on the terraced street behind ours, badly damaging about twenty houses.  Their windows were all blown out, and they were so structurally unsound that they later had to be pulled down.  There is now a low block of flats, built in the late 1950s, behind our house rather than the Victorian terraced street that used to be there. 

All along our street, the back gardens are still full of shards of glass from the windows that exploded that night.  As the worms rummage through the soil, the glass gets worked up to the surface.

I never find these pieces of glass without thinking about the people who lost their homes that night.  We don't live in the part of the East End that was really heavily damaged - we are not near the docks or the gasworks - but the people who lived in our house then must have had nightly air raids during the Blitz and would have been terrified to hear the bomb drop so close. Then perhaps they would have been relieved - and maybe have felt a little guilty for being so fortunate - that it had fallen a street away from them and that their own house - our house now - was safe.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Expensive accessory fitted - I may never take it off again

No, not a hat or a new pair of shoes - something MUCH more exciting.  A walking foot for my sewing machine!

I bought it back in November, when I bought my new machine, because I was thoroughly tired of getting to the end of a long seam and finding that the two fabrics I was sewing together were now half a centimetre out - even when I had pinned them with all the pins I owned

A walking foot is an expensive piece of kit.  Mine cost me nearly £40 and a several guilty pangs in the shop that I was paying this much for what was really just a small piece of metal and plastic.  I got it home and put it onto my machine with great anticipation and excitement.  But I however I fitted it, I couldn't get it to work.  The packet was useless - Janome had a great deal of information on how this foot would transform my sewing experience, but crucially no instructions on how to attach it.

I went back to the foot (and the Janome website) every few weeks after that, but never managed to crack it.  This weekend I thought how ridiculous this was getting (and that £40 was starting to weigh on my conscience more heavily) and so I had one last trawl through the internet to see if I could find any hints or tips that might be useful.  And happily I found this blog entry which agrees with my confusion over how to fit the damn thing, and crucially also gives a link at the end to a proper set of instructions.

The walking foot is now finally working and I must say that it has been worth every moment of anguish I've had about it since November.  I love it.  And although I can now fit it and remove it quite happily, I have left it on my machine because it makes pretty much any kind of sewing so much easier.

That first evening I made three quilted coasters (using no pins and with all seams and edges perfectly matched up throughout). 
"Look!" I exclaimed to G, "Just look how neat and well lined up everything is!  I didn't even use pins!" 
And G nobly made all the right noises and said how marvellous everything looked (we've known each other for a very long time - he's used to this sort of thing).

Today I made C a letter satchel (from Amanda Blake Soule's Handmade Home) to keep his notepaper, envelopes, address book and stamps in.  He's been writing letters of complaint to the editor of The Beano regarding the lack of catapults in recent editions.... 

This is just the sort of project where a walking foot comes into its own.  When I made one for O two weeks ago, without the walking foot, by the time I got the bottom of one of the zigzagged side seams (a mere 19cm long) the seams had shifted and puckered.  For C's, they were perfect.

You can't tell of course.  At all.  But I can, so that's worth the forty quid I reckon.

I love how O opted for informal alliteration on her embroidered label, but C wanted his initials in full, which seems only right and proper for someone who dashes off letters of complaint that Dennis is not as menacing as he once was.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

The marathon training

Supporting someone who is training for a marathon requires many skills:
  • Being able to cook pasta on a regular basis, and find new and interesting ways to do so that don't leave everybody else in the family jaded (Jo Pratt in her excellent book In The Mood for Food gives a wonderful recipe for pasta meatballs in chianti which she devised to feed her husband when he was marathon training).
  • Being able to recall at a moment's notice where abouts in the washing cycle the favourite pair of running shorts is (there will be three seemingly identical pairs of running shorts, but one will be better than the other two).
  • Washing stinky running kit ALL THE TIME (or don't wash it, but then don't moan when someone else leaves it festering for days and then puts it in the machine a minute before you really needed to do an emergency school uniform wash).
  • Not laughing, teasing, or taking photos when the marathon trainer does his stretches on the bedroom floor.
  • Being tolerant of their enormous capacity for sleep.  Long distance runners are either going for long runs for hours at a time, or sleeping off long runs for hours at a time.
  • Concentrating when listening to descriptions of their long runs.  In particular try not to get muddled between kilometres and miles and remember what times they're aiming for so that you can say helpful things like "10k in under forty five minutes?  well done, darling!" rather than unhelpful things like "so are you going any faster yet?".
  • Nagging them to rest and do yoga or swimming for a couple of days whenever the knee support puts in an appearance.

I've not watched many of G's triathlons over the years, and I won't be watching his first marathon in Brighton next month.  But both of us know that a supportive partner is one who is there for all the endless months of training, self doubt, dirty washing and angst that go into such events.  The races themselves are the result of all that training and they are exciting and satisfying for the competitor, but generally pretty dull for the spectators (and especially dull for children). 

So I've recently stopped feeling bad that I don't go along to most of the races.  The supportive role is a deeply unglamorous one, but one that is essential to everyone's wellbeing, and much appreciated around here.  I shall be at home on marathon day, cooking up a big supper for when G gets home.  It probably won't be pasta though.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Little means quick

Time and again I find that I'm drawn to small, quick projects.  And that's always true when I'm in the middle of something long and slow.  Currently I'm well into the second sock of the pair I wrote about here, knitting a little bit each evening or when I'm sitting at the community centre while O has a ballet lesson.  But socks aren't knitted in a day (not by me, anyway), so I find myself wanting to sew something speedy at the same time.

I've been making a great many of these little zip pouches, using the pattern from Bend The Rules Sewing.  If I cut out the fabrics and find the correctly sized zips one day, then I can sew the pouches up in about fifteen minutes another day.  I love separating those steps of preparation and putting together.  Even though doing the whole thing  - cutting, pressing and sewing - from start to finish would probably take considerably less than an hour, having a ready cut pile of fabrics to sew makes me feel nicely efficient.

Baby clothes are the other obvious quick project, and happily I have two baby nephews who are not enough to object to appreciate funky fabrics.

For two-month-old L, I made this pair of little house trousers using the leftover Amy Butler fabric from the trousers I made for C at Christmas.  I used the pattern for the kimono pyjamas from Amy Butler's Little Stitches book - just making the pyjama bottoms.  All Amy Butler's patterns seem very long and complicated when I first look at them, but in reality they are straightforward because she explains every step very carefully and clearly.  That's what makes the patterns look so detailed.

I didn't think the elastic was tight enough in the waistband, so I cut about an inch and a half off, and I might take off a little bit more when I see L and can try them on him.  There was just enough fabric left for me to make a little reversible skull-cap hat as well, which I am hoping will not look too girly once it's on.

And when I took the trousers outside to photograph them on the washing line, I just had to dig C's out of the cupboard and hang them up next to L's to remind myself how much they grow!

Next on the list is another pair of these house trousers for my other nephew, and then some Clothkits projects that have been waiting patiently for me to get around to them for too long.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

A rather strange cake

I've made a rather strange cake.  It is a light, delicately flavoured, iced orange cake, which is very tasty and refreshing and goes nicely with a cup of Lady Grey tea. So far, so normal, but the reason that it is strange is that when I cut open the oranges to make the cake, I discovered that they were blood oranges.  That'll teach me not to read the leaflet that comes in my veg box.

The cake is a simple sponge cake, flavoured with the zest and a little bit of the juice of one orange.  It is topped with a fancy buttercream icing, made from butter, icing sugar, orange juice and a little bit of white chocolate.  If you were to use a regular orange, the whole cake would be a subtle, sophisticated shade of light orange.  However, if you make it with a blood orange it comes out PINK!

The recipe is based on one in Rachel Allen's book, Bake, and also on one that my mother used to make on Sunday afternoons when I was very little.  Both Rachel Allen's and my mother's cakes are sandwich cakes, filled with buttercream and topped with runny icing made from icing sugar and orange juice.  However, I prefer making traybake cakes to sandwich cakes for everyday.  Sandwich cakes are lovely for a birthday or a special occasion but they are a pain to store and it is difficult to cut little slices of them for an after school snack.

If you would like to make your own pink-orange cake, here is the recipe.

The List Writer's Rather Strange Pink-Orange Cake

For the cake you will need:
  • 225g plain flour
  • 225g caster sugar
  • 225g butter or soft margerine
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • zest and 1 tablespoon of juice from one blood orange
For the buttercream icing you will need:
  • the remaining juice from the blood orange
  • half a block of butter - softened
  • six squares of white chocolate
  • a good shake of icing sugar
Switch on the oven to Gas 4 and line a traybake tin with baking parchment (I have this one, from Lakeland). 

To make the cake, cream the butter, sugar and orange zest until pale and fluffy.  Beat in the eggs, one at a time, adding a spoonful of flour with each one, to prevent curdling.  Then mix in the rest of the flour, the baking powder and one tablespoon of the orange juice.  Spoon the mixture into the baking tin and bake in the centre of the oven for 25 minutes, or until a toothpick, pushed into the middle, comes out clean.  Leave the cake to cool completely on a wire rack.

To make the icing, melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water.  Put the icing sugar, butter, remaining orange juice and melted chocolate into a large bowl and beat thoroughly until smooth.  If it looks too sloppy, add some more icing sugar.  I never weigh icing sugar - it goes everywhere and I always end up having to add more anyway, so just use your judgement here.

Spread the icing over the cooled cake and enjoy its remarkable pinkness!

Friday, 5 March 2010

Seen on the Tube

On the Central Line, this morning:
  • A man with clear skin, bright blue eyes and a very shiny wedding ring, reading "Film Studies: an introduction".
  • A heavily pregnant woman with dramatic eye make-up wearing elbow-length black snakeskin gloves.
  • Five people in one carriage wearing yellow hi-vis jackets.  This season's new trend perhaps.
  • A young woman with a new manicure, blowing her nose on a Miffy handkerchief.
  • Three long, handknitted, chunky scarves, wound round the necks of three men with bad colds, all sitting next to each other.
  • Seven bossy instructions at the entrance to Leytonstone station.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Ten things

  • The embroidery hoop is back.  I stitched this lovely little ball of yarn for part of a friend's birthday present.  The pattern is from Sublime Stitching and I just love all her patterns.
  • I finished a very good book today.  I started the book yesterday and raced through it in almost one greedy sitting.  The main characters' path to love is close enough to mine and G's to be spooky and slightly confusing.  I was so absorbed in the story that I started to feel that it was our story - just slightly distorted.
  • But in the end I realised it wasn't our story at all, and I don't want our ending to be like the book's thank you very much.  So do go and read the book if you haven't already - it is very good.  You must be intrigued enough now!
  • I have been revisiting some old, favourite sewing projects and making more of the same.  I've made another bath mat and another letter satchel from Amanda Blake Soule's Handmade Home, and I've made some zip-up pouches from Amy Karol's Bend The Rules Sewing.
  • And another project has been revisited.  The beautiful, expensive ribbon that I bought on my trip to Sussex at half-term (and the last time I wrote Ten Things) is now on my denim skirt, and looking very fine indeed.
  • It is British Pie Week this week, so go and make yourself a pie!  You know you want to.  I made a very good chicken, celery and leek pie, with a crunchy breadcrumb topping, on Tuesday.
  • I've been doing ballet hair again.  I just can't take enough pictures of her like this.

She looks so elegant.

  • Helen, over at Angharad Handmade sent me a link to this article about an exhibition of lists which is currently on at The Smithsonian in Washington DC.  I may have to move to Washington DC.  Check out Picasso's list and the wonderful illustrated packing list by Adolf Konrad.
  • I made a very chocolately chocolate cake at the weekend.  And I will always love my sister for giving me the recipe.  My sister has many wonderful qualities, but her chocolate-cake-making skills are among some of her finest.
Arctic Mum tagged me for this list.  If you haven't already read her blog, do go and have a look.  I have a cousin who also spends a great deal of time in Norway - working above the arctic circle tracking lynxes - and the photos he emails back, and Arctic Mum's blog, both really make me want to go and explore the country. 

Mind you, not right now.  The temperatures are nicely up here in London, and there are daffs to be admired on the mantelpiece.  It finally feels as though spring has sprung!