Sunday 31 October 2010

10 things

I've been busy and distracted these past two weeks.  Birthdays and school holidays have added a pleasing measure of disruption to our regular routines.  The children go back to school tomorrow and while I shall welcome the familiarity of usual service being resumed, I shall also miss their company so much.  I don't think I'm never ready for the holidays to end.

C and O at the Royal Naval College in Greenwich, last week.

Here's what's on my mind, as our family birthday season finishes and we head back towards the familiar, steady comforts of the darker, colder, damper half of the year.
  • I need a new word for 'babysitting'. I looked after my friend's two delightful girls, aged 7 and 11, the other night and I may have offended them by referring to 'babysitting'. They're not babies!  I need a new word.
  • As soon as I've tracked down some red food colouring paste, I'm going to make me some red velvet cupcakes.  I ate an awesome one at this cafe a few weeks ago, and then Miss Moss Stitch made some last week which were simply delicious.  I need to have a go myself.
  • It is always good to end the weekend with a pan full of stock on the stove.
  • The garden is very wet and carpeted with layers of orange leaves from the cherry tree.  I am in denial.
  • The children are obsessed with Scrabble right now.  They've been staying up late to play each night over half term. C managed to put 'fezes' on a triple word score and we may be talking about that particular move for some time. I wondered how he knew the word 'fez' but he reminded me about the very famous recent fez scene.
  • I haven't been near my sewing machine in nearly two weeks.  I miss it.
  • I'm rather belatedly reading Brooklyn by Colm Toibin and loving it so much.  If you are also late to the party, read it now.  So good.
  • This is my absolute favourite bread recipe at the moment.  I use creme fraiche as the sour cream, and it works perfectly every time.  I am not normally a fan of white bread, but I really love this one.  Trust the strange instructions for kneading - they are improbable but do work, I promise.
  • I have introduced C and O to the delights of the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. They love it.  I fully expect words like 'vex' to appear on the Scrabble board very soon.
  • I have put these three little wooden carved animals, which I bought in Switzerland in the summer, in their own alpine meadow on the mantelpiece.  They are pleasing me enormously.

Thursday 28 October 2010

Obligatory autumn visit to Kew Gardens

It wouldn't be the school holidays without a trip to Kew Gardens.  The children and I spent the day there yesterday with my parents.

We saw (and smelled) this extraordinarily phallic titan arum in the Princess of Wales Conservatory.  This plant rarely flowers, but when it does it releases a most revolting smell - like vomit and something rotting all mixed together.  It smelled so bad that the children actually ran outside in horror rather than exclaiming 'cool!', which I thought they  might.

You can read more about this threatened species, and see an amazing time-lapse of it flowering on the titan arum page of the Kew website here.

After all that excitement we headed outside for some sweet-smelling air and autumn colour.  I took some obligatory photos of my new winter boots amongst the fallen leaves.

Someone else has been taking the same shot - except she has gorgeous green boots, and more leaves have fallen since she was there!

We wandered around all day, chatting, eating flapjacks, admiring the trees and taking dozens of photos.  Perfect.

Sunday 24 October 2010

Family fairness

Everyone knows that in a family, fairness is VERY important.  Things can't always be exactly equal, but if there is any perceived unfairness it usually gets highlighted pretty quickly.  When I'm sewing I can't make the same thing for everybody all at the same time, so someone always gets to go first.  With quilts, I made one for Cam first, because I felt he gets far fewer things sewn for him than his sister (skirst and dolls' clothes being far easier to sew than trousers or superhero outfits).  With cushions I made one for G first, as he gets even less sewn for him than Cam.

Since then I've made quilts for everyone except G and cushions for everyone except Cam.  The final cushion was made last week for his 11th birthday.  He wanted a Swiss-themed one so I cut into some gloriously kitsch printed cotton which I bought in Interlaken in the summer and made a simple, panelled cushion.

And happily the date of his birthday this year has a nicely quirky symmetry to it, which deserves recording for posterity in embroidery: 20.10.2010

So now everybody has a cushion.  That's fair.

My V&A themed circle cushion

G's watery themed log-cabin cushion

O's pink cushion, made with fabrics from favourite old clothes, and other projects

And nearly everyone has a quilt.

O finally got her strawberry quilt last month:

C has his orange-and-combat-coloured boy quilt:

And I have my spectacular red Kaffe Fassett quilt:

So that just leaves G.  

A quilt for the man I love, however, seems so loaded with difficult design decisions.  Should I go with a water theme again?  He does love swimming, but I've already done a watery cushion, so I feel I should do something different for his quilt.  He also loves his bikes so very much, but something involving wheels or spokes sounds like it might be a quilting challenge too far.  Mountains, forests and trees are other great loves of his and I think those may be more easy to incorporate - perhaps with some applique, which I've not used on a quilt before.

I need to make a decision soon.  It really isn't fair that he has had to wait so long for a quilt - he feels the cold more than any of us and would love nothing more than to curl up under a quilt of his own on a winter evening.  What's more he has a significant birthday coming up early next year, so I really should crack on shouldn't I? 

Friday 22 October 2010

Birthday season

In the past few days we've had:
  • 2 birthdays
  • 1 spooky birthday party
  • 3 packets of little candles
  • 24 cupcakes with orange icing
  • 3 big, gooey, chocolatey, peanutty, gloriously decorated birthday cakes!

Wednesday 20 October 2010


Amateur aromatherapy has been a part of my life for nearly twenty years.  I go through phases of using it regularly, and phases of leaving it all in a box on a shelf, but I always come back to it.

I first discovered it when I was at university, studying for my finals. I bought some essential oils and a terracotta oil burner from The Body Shop and made myself a 'study blend' of lemon and rosemary oils, that was meant to aid concentration and study. I used this same blend of oils a few years later when I was studying for my accountancy exams. Even now, if I put those two oils together it feels as if I should be sitting down and doing some work.

When I was pregnant I switched my attention to the safe, calming and relaxing oils. Lavender at first, and then further into my pregnancies I used geranium and clary sage oils too. Both geranium and clary sage oils are very good for any problems to do with a woman's hormones or reproductive system. Painful periods and menopausal hot flushes are both very much soothed by geranium oil.

I had grand plans for various complicated and useful oil blends while I was in labour, but both times I ended up with just lavender oil - getting rather obsessed with it though and demanding imperiously that the oil burner be topped up, or that someone warm up my lavender wheat cushion in the microwave again, while I sucked manically on the gas and air canister.

When the children were young, and in that phase of endless teething, coughs, ear infections and poor sleeping I started to investigate oils that were suitable to use with very small children. Lavender and chamomile were the two oils that got me through these years. Chamomile is a very drowsy-making oil, and just one drop, together with one drop of lavender, on a cotton wool ball placed behind the radiator, would pretty much guarantee a decent night's sleep from a sickly child. We find that one drop of chamomile knocks out adults with insomnia too - it is an expensive oil, but powerful, so even a tiny bottle will last for ages.

At this time I also discovered the miraculous properties of an oat bath, which was the only thing I could find to soothe C's eczema. A large handful of porridge oats, tied into a thin muslin cloth and then dropped into the bath is an extraordinary thing. The creamy 'juice' from the oats is released into the water and calms inflamed or itchy skin in a wonderful way. Add a drop of lavender or chamomile oil to the oats and you have a bath that will soothe an itchy child AND send them off to sleep afterwards. Brilliant. One muslin package of oats will do two baths.
Having discovered this I also began to make other body care recipes. Sugar scrubs, face masks and bath bombs are very easy. Lip balms, hair conditioners and hand creams are only slightly more complicated. I don't make them because of any aversion to commercial products - and anyway, Radox is awesome - but because it is a fun thing to do, and the smells in body products are far stronger and more personal if you make them yourself.

There are two indispensable books to acquire if you want to find out more about aromatherapy or making your own beauty products: The Fragrant Pharmacy by Valerie Ann Worwood and Natural Health and Body Care by Neal's Yard Remedies. Both of them have all the information you will ever need, and a whole load more.

The Body Shop no longer sells essential oils, but it does still sell really good value terracotta oil burners. Culpeper and Neal's Yard Remedies are the two places I buy all my essential oils from now, as well as the more obscure ingredients I need for making beauty products like beeswax and raw cocoa butter. Tisserand and Napiers are also excellent sources of essential oils.

I haven't made any beauty products for a while, but this half term I'm planning on making some with the children.  They both love lavender oil, and smellies for the bath, lip balms and hand creams.  Our house is going to smell divine!

Thursday 14 October 2010

A ballet bag for Bella

One of the nicest things that happened this week was being asked to make a ballet bag for a friend's little girl. 

Bella is four, loves her ballet lessons and all things girlie and pink.  The old plastic carrier bag she was carrying her tutu around in just didn't cut it any more, so her Mum asked me if I would make her a ballet bag.  It had to be roomy enough for her tutu and also girlie enough to satisfy Bella's style requirements.  What an excellent brief!

I rummaged through my piles of fabric, and came across a piece of this wonderful Alexander Henry apples and pears fabric that was just big enough.  I have used it in so many projects over the past few years that I can't remember them all.  I was amazed to find this last piece lurking at the back of a shelf, just big enough for bag making.

I made a large tote bag, and boxed the corners to make a wide, flat base.  I embroidered Bella's name on one side of the bag and sewed some suffolk puffs on the other side.

I made straps long enough for Bella or her Mum to sling the bag over a shoulder, and lined it with the last remnant of the thick white sheeting I acquired from my Grandmother and used here and here.

Then I really wanted to add a pocket too, because I know from years of O's ballet lessons that there are so many little extras required for ballet that would get lost at the bottom of a big bag - the hairpins, hairbands, little pink socks, a hairbrush and so much more.  I didn't have quite enough of the apples and pears fabric left, so I made a pocket out of this green Tanya Whelan fabric instead.  I love the way it contrasts so well with the white lining, and picks up the green in the apples and pears.

Cutting up the green pocket fabric made me think what an excellent fabric it would make for an apron, so today I made the rest of it into another reversible apron for the shop.

And it looked exactly as I had imagined it would - always so gratifying!  The reverse side is made from a vintage French cotton that I bought this summer in France.

Then, because I was on a roll I made another apron for the shop - this time in pastel pinks and oranges, on one side using some more French vintage fabric bought this summer, and on the other side a really lovely, bold print from Ikea.

And now I have to stop sewing for other people and turn my attentions closer to home. Next week both the children have their birthdays and C has asked me to make him a cushion.  Here is the one I made for O's birthday this time last year.  C wants a Swiss themed one, and happily I did go mad in two fabric shops in Interlaken and Brienz when we were on holiday so I think I may have just the right sort of out though, there may be edelweiss and fondue sets involved!

Sunday 10 October 2010

London on a warm, sunny, October afternoon

Seen on the District Line, between Embankment and Mile End this afternoon:
  • 4 people, slumped asleep
  • 1 tourist consulting an enormous fold-out map
  • 1 young man in a vivid yellow polo-shirt, frowning at his laptop
  • 2 tired children, reading books
  • 2 pairs of suede loafers (one brown, one pale blue)
  • 1 young couple munching crunchy apples and grinning at each other
  • 3 pairs of sunglasses, perched on heads
  • 1 baby, covered in ice cream.
We went to explore the newly renovated Museum of London in the City of London.  It was always one of my favourite museums to visit - curiously unhyped, and with a palpable sense of history to it.  The whole museum has undergone a massive £20m refurbishment over the past couple of years, and it is now fully re-opened.  It is now, without doubt, my absolute favourite museum in London.

We spent four hours there, and felt like we barely scratched the surface of what there was to see.  I loved the amazing River Wall where there is a display of hundreds of prehistoric objects found in the Thames.  Most of them would have been thrown in deliberately as offerings to the gods.  There were so many skulls!

I showed the children the display of suffragette memorabilia, and they were shocked at this part of history they had not encountered before.  The film of Emily Wilding Davison throwing herself under the King's horse on Derby day horrified Cam, who said he couldn't believe the suffragettes' fight was only a hundred years ago.

We ended at the glorious Lord Mayor's Coach, and chatted to the curator about all the preparations that begin next week to get it ready for the Lord Mayor's Show.  I've never been to the show before, but perhaps this will be the year.

When we came out of the museum, blinking in the unseasonable October sunshine, we decided it was too nice to go home so we went for a stroll along the river to the Embankment.  There were even more treats waiting for us.

A beautiful church in the City, with a very cool name - St Botolphs-without-Aldersgate

St Paul's Cathedral - simply stunning in the sunshine

A plaque on a bench in the City - oops!

The Tate Modern and the Millennium Bridge

A great many people crossing the Millennium Bridge

Beautiful dolphin-entwined lamp posts along the Embankment

Sea Container House and the London Eye

The RNLI lifeboat crew, stopping for ice creams alongside the Embankment

The London skyline in the sunshine, including the London Eye and the Houses of Parliament

My almost-eleven year old, and his lovely long eyelashes!

Friday 8 October 2010

Needs must

Sometimes only a pint of coffee will do.

Thursday 7 October 2010

There were some autumn colours after all

I was so busy looking up at the grey skies, and despairing, that I'd failed to notice that all around me Autumn had been quietly arriving.

What a difference a day makes - the picture above is taken from South Woodford tube platform at 9 o'clock in the morning, just like the grey one in my previous post.

With the sun shining, there were so many flame colours to photograph on the walk home from school this morning.

I do love autumn.  But only when the sun is shining and I can see it properly.