Saturday, 17 March 2012

My Beautiful Bag

The finished article!
I excitedly made my first Etsy purchase a few weeks ago. The purchase was not for a beautiful handmade item, but for the potential of a beautiful handmade item - sewing skills permitting. I’d been looking for a bag pattern for some time, and, there it was, waiting for me in StudioCherie’s shop: The Travel Duffle

Her listing said that the PDF would be emailed to me within 24 hours. I checked my email every 10 minutes for the first hour. I then calculated the time difference between here and the states, realized that it wasn’t, as feared, the middle of the night over there.  I then checked my email every 5 minutes. 12 checks later: you’ve got mail!

The excitement of the email’s arrival quickly turned “The Craft Zone” into chaos, as I emptied my fabric stash out onto the floor and, with the help of the dog, rooted around to find something beautiful. I settled on the crazy purple spot material – the one that I couldn’t quite bring myself to add to my friend’s toddler’s quilt (I shall still stick to my story that the pattern didn’t match the rest of the fabrics…) and cut out the pieces. For the lining I chose another of my favorites, pretty English roses, and started cutting away.

But then I became sad.

The pretty roses would be buried inside the bag, unseen, unadmired. But what I did have was some pink gingham fabric that I’d just bought for, yes, you’ve guessed it, my friend’s toddler’s quilt. Back to the cutting board.

Welly the Helpful...
The next week I set off to John Lewis on Oxford Street for the remaining supplies that I needed. I have very fond memories of trips there as a child with my mum; I’d come away clutching another furry toy kit and we’d spend many happy evenings sewing. So it was great to be back. I spent so much time admiring and stroking the Amy Butler and Cath Kidston fabrics that the staff started to give me funny looks. So on with the shopping. I was disappointed to find that they had no jute webbing and no batting. But undeterred and resourceful as ever (= impatient to crack on with the bag) I substituted some fleece and 2” wide cotton webbing that I planned to zigzag stitch together, and headed back home to the machine.

I’d decided to quilt diamonds, inspired by a rose quilt throw from my childhood. I won’t show a picture of my first attempt because it’s in the bin now, but once I’d found this tutorial on quilting diagonal lines, the smile was back on my face and I was unstoppable. 

Fiddly diamond quilting
The instructions were amazing, with great diagrams and clear step by step instructions. I was so proud of my creation I sent a picture to Cherie, who kindly added it to her StudioCherie blog.

As she points out, my bag doesn’t hold its shape like hers do, which in a way is a shame, because it was the shape of the bag that really caught my eye. But then I do quite like that mine’s a sort of floppy, lug-me-around-with-you-even-if-I’m-not-very-full type of bag.

I think I’ll make the next one with thicker batting. Well, I’ve got to do something with that pre-cut purple spotty material…

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Dog Ears

There was something so lovely about these little off-cuts from the corners of the patchwork triangles that I just had to photograph them. I probably also like them because they’re called dog ears.

Ah, that reminds me: I must cut the knotty lumps out from behind the dog’s ears… 

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

This is possibly the nicest, moistest, moreish carrot cake around. It’s the 'secret' ingredient of bananas that really makes it special. And the cream cheese icing is the right balance of flavours – I’m not a fan of overly sweet stuff. For this one I used half pecans and half walnuts. I also add a bit of freshly grated nutmeg into the mixture, and then grate some more over the top for flavour and effect. And because I like using my teeny tiny grater.

Also, this time I made it it had the added excitement of all three of the eggs (from the farm over the road) being double yolkers! 

Rumour has it that this cake will last for days without going dry, but we’ve yet to test that theory here.

Preparation time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 1 ¼ hours, plus cooling

3 medium eggs
175g soft brown sugar
175g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
175ml sunflower oil
175g walnut pieces
2 ripe, medium bananas, mashed
175g grated carrot

75g butter, softened
75g cream cheese
150g icing sugar, sifted
1 tsp vanilla extract
Chopped walnuts, to decorate

Preheat the oven to 170°C, gas mark 3. Grease a 20cm-diameter cake tin with removable base.
Beat the eggs and the sugar together until thick. Sift in the flour, baking powder, salt and bicarbonate of soda. Mix well then add the oil and walnuts, then the banana and carrot.
Pour into the tin. Bake for 1¼ hours or until a skewer comes out clean. Cover with foil if it begins to brown too much. Cool on a rack.

For the icing, beat the butter and cheese together, then add the sugar and vanilla. Spread on the cold cake. Finish with walnuts.


Monday, 12 March 2012

Springing into Action

Last weekend was glorious. Truly glorious. Spring had arrived and everyone and everything knew it. We sat outside in the sun for lunch, walked the dog without the need for coats and on the boat we dug out the sunscreen before the race. We substituted our Saturday stew and Sunday roast for braais. These weren’t our first braais of the year (I don’t think a month has gone by where we’ve not lit the charcoals at least once), but it was the first one where we didn’t need to knock the ice off the grill first, and where we could sit and eat outside. On the downside, there was no snow around to keep the beers cold.

We patrolled the garden with a combination of excitement of what we could do with it this year, and also with great trepidation at the amount of work needs to be done. Our lawn (I use the term very loosely) is not lawn grass, it is field grass. On a bed of clay soil. It is a textured landscape of lumps and bumps, and humps and clumps. And holes of varying size. Some are tiny, made by the sweet little shrews that live under the bird table. They dart out, glossy and fast, to collect the seeds that the messy birds fling to the floor. Nature’s version of Tesco delivery. This year, however, they’ve started to venture further afield, and the perfectly round entrances to their extensive underground shrew city now cover the entire garden. Hmm. Not overly impressed. And it drives Welly nuts. He’ll run from hole to hole, nose sniffing wildly. And then it gets too much for him, and he digs. So now some of the holes in a lawn are not so tiny. Hmm.

But, as so kindly demonstrated by Welly, the ground was perfect for digging, so we put in a couple of new veg beds. We’ve had to move one of the ones from last year because not only did they not get quite enough sun to be a success, but also because that’s where we’re going to put the chicken coop. (Chickens! Yay! We’re getting chickens! Very, very excited.)

At the end of our day digging and weeding and tidying we sat in the spot where we'd planned to put our deck, beer in hands, loyal hound at our feet. The smell of wood smoke and grilling lamb chops wafting over us as the sun slipped down below the horizon. A noisy flock of starlings murmerated over the tree tops the other side of the vineyard, moving as one fluid organisim, hypnotic and magical. Then day turned to night. The starlings dropped together out of sight at some unseen signal, and the haunting call of the tawny owls replaced their chattering. The red sunset faded and gave way to glittering stars; jupiter and venus were out, bright and close. The wind stirred in the trees and the first bat of the year flitted overhead.

Life is good. 

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Maya's Quilt

My wonderful friend Renee’s beautiful daughter will be two in May, and I thought I’d make her a quilt. Renee will only find out whether their next baby’s going to be a boy or a girl in April, so I need to keep myself busy before I know what colour schemes I’ll be working with for the next little one.

I found this pattern for a quilt made of two star blocks, one is ‘eccentric star’ the other is ‘friendship star’ – both seemed fitting!

After spending far too long trying to decide which fabrics to use in which position in which star, I came up with this:

And I hate it. 

I hate the way the top one (eccentric star) looks so busy pattern-wise. And how the centre fabric is too modern and tiny to look good next to the intricate swirly flower patters of the other fabrics. I'm happy with the friendship star though; nice and bright and funky.

So, now to re-do the eccentric stars...

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Warm Thoughts in Winter

Welly and I crunched our way across the garden. The sound of furry slippers and furry paws treading on the carpet of glittering snow startled a blackbird from the bushes. We stopped, and the world descended into that almost tangible silence that can only exist in the presence of snow. While I scraped the thick, squeaky frosting off the dial of the weather station, and tapped the glass to make sure the needle hadn't frozen in place, Welly made yellow snow. 

Yellow looks so shockingly bright and artificial in this land of black and white. By being deprived of the variety of greens and browns and greys that make up a normal winter landscape, you see things as if through new eyes. Our garden birds aren't really drab little brown-feathered visitors at all. The breast of a male chaffinch is a rich, startling pink, making the red of a robin look too bright to be anything but man-made. Blue tits and great tit start to look more like exotic canaries in comedy combinations of blues and yellows, and goldfinches fight over the perch on the feeder in a blur of fiery reds and golds. 

I looked at the reading of -9 and we crunched hastily back to the warmth of the house. 

Evan had to work this morning, so he was up and out to defrost the car. He brought the water bottle in from the car and the remaining couple of inches had frozen. Strangely, this instantly brought back memories of the tropics. Of walking in flip flops along the sun baked, pot-holed streets of Suva on my way to work at the Fijian Ministry of Health. Of the torrential tropical downpours that would flood the streets in seconds, but once the rain had stopped pelting down the steam would start rising from the tarmac and within minutes rain would be a distant memory. Umbrellas were permanently open in Fiji; essential during the downpours and doubling up as innovative sun shades for the rest of the day. I'd carry with me a 2 litre bottle of boiled then frozen water, so that I'd have cool drinking water throughout the day. On these walks to work the ice would be clunking and heavy against my leg, cold drips of condensation mingling with beads of sweat.

Snow there was just unimaginable for the majority of the population; a distant concept too bizarre to be comprehended. The papers once reported that "Extreme Cold Hits Fiji" - it had gotten down to 12 degrees that night, and an uncharacteristically chilly 17 during the day. We'd sit there, melting in the heat of the day, unwilling to move because you'd just need to go and shower again, and fantasise about being cold, about snow, about red wine warming in front of an open fire, about woolly jumpers and mittens. At Christmas we crammed into the local Methodist Church that would have felt full with a congregation of half the size of the one that turned up. It was an old colonial building, panelled in wood throughout, with a gallery above the main room. We sat up there in the rafters, in 45 degree heat and 98% humidity, cross legged on the floor, shoulder to shoulder with Fijians twice our size, watching the single ceiling fan turn listlessly above us as the choir sang a beautiful rendition of In the Bleak Midwinter - without even the merest hint of irony. 

Back here, at minus nine, as I poured hot coffee into Evan's Thermos I remember how in Africa we used to make coffee in a jam jar, wrapped in a tea towel to keep it warm. We'd head out at dawn then stop by a watering hole for a breakfast of coffee and biscuits, watching the heat from the fat golden sun distort the air into shimmering ripples.       The richness and depth of the colours would be almost overwhelming. The deep blue of the huge sky, the lush green of the leaves and the warm red of the earth. By mid-day the strength of the sun would physically hurt your skin, as though you were leaning hard against a radiator set on high. It would be time to seek sanctuary in the shade, and lie there praying for even the slightest breeze. 

Today though, at minus nine, in this land of black and white, it's time to bundle up in hats and scarves and gloves and jumpers and thick socks and coats and boots, and embrace this glorious winter weather.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Things aren't what they seem...

Richard Wiseman (psychologist, magician, sceptic and general amazing funny man) made my day the other day. That's the second time he's managed that. The first time was when he came to my work and did one of our lunchtime seminars. Our seminars are usually science/research based - always very interesting but often a bit heavy on the overcrowded powerpoint slides of methodology, data and statistics. Richard Wiseman walked in and stunned the room with magic tricks. I have never seen a room of professionals light up quite like that before. It was He continued to captivate us with magic, psychology, ghosts and luck for the rest of the seminar and almost a year on his name is still whispered in the corridors in awed wonderment. We're an easy bunch to impress.

Anyway. I then started following him on twitter. (In fact, I joined twitter just to follow him, but this isn't the post for me to go into my stalking habits in detail.) The other day he tweeted "Like Magic? (yes) Like Knitting (you BET ya!)" and added a link to Illusion Knitting.

Oh. Em. Gee.


And wow again.

Being who I am, I went through my usual set of motions. I watched the videos. I wondered in amazement. I called my long suffering husband over and made him watch them while I wondered in amazement. And then I decided: "I'm doing to do that".

After some frantic googling, I found a free pattern and dived right in. Much to my long suffering husband's surprise (?) it took about 5 minutes of needle clicking before I was swearing. The first (ok, and second) attempt was unravelled in a blaze of expletives and I crossed-my-heart-and-hoped-to-die that it was the pattern's fault and not mine.

Never one to be defeated - well not for more than half and hour anyway - I soon found another pattern and got clicking.

OK, so it's not quite the Mona Lisa, but it's not bad for a first attempt:



My only regret is that I didn't try something more ambitious. Better rectify that.

And to give credit where credit's due:

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Welsh Lesson

We have a Welsh Springer Spaniel called Llewellyn, or 'Welly' for short. We collected him from a little village near Carmarthen in South Wales when he was an 8 week old fat tummy on stumpy legs. As a true Welshman, he's named after a long line of Welsh Princes, great rulers and war heroes, though I doubt many people got away with calling any of them Welly. As with all great nobility and gentry, there's something a little, erm, 'special' about him; in-breeding in the Kennel Club is probably as common place as it is amongst those of blue blood. Some people might say he's vacant, though, as adoring 'parents' we'd rather describe him as 'thoughtful' or 'pensive'- well, he is a Celt...

As anticipated, we had a few problems with puppy training - though we came to the obvious conclusion that he only understands Welsh and we only speak English:

Me: "sit"
Welly: puzzled head tilt
Me: "Welly, sit"
Welly: puzzled head tilt in the other direction, followed by a slightly confused look.
Me: "Welly...sit"
Welly: yawns. Plonks bottom onto floor.
Me: "Good boy! Have a biscuit."
Welly: puzzled look - but hey, here comes a biscuit, so his tail starts wagging.
And it's tricky to sit on a waggy tail, so he has to stand up again.
Repeat cycle.

We started a Welsh course a couple of weeks ago - only partly so we could communicate with the dog better, honest - and it now all makes sense.

The word 'sit', in Welsh, means 'how'. So, if we translate:

Me: "how"
Welly: puzzled head tilt = How what?
Me: "Welly, how"
Welly: puzzled head tilt in the other direction, followed by a slightly confused look. = No, don't get what crazy lady?!
Me: ""
Welly: yawns. Plonks bottom onto floor = ooh, this makes me tired! Better sit down and have a think about what you mean.
Me: "Good boy! Have a biscuit."
Welly: oooh! A biscuit, yay! Wagwagwag

We've tried this now:

Me: "Welly, eistedd"
Welly: sits

Biscuits all round.