Putting ideas into practice…

Summer has gone away now… always a bittersweet moment, as the landscape settles down to doze gently through the winter down here in the soft southern English hills. And the rains have come; not just the odd grey day of gentle drizzle, but hammering squalls and vicious gusts tearing the beautiful autumn leaves from the trees. Not quite the weather I was hoping for, to tidy my allotment up for the winter.

So it’s time to put some of those crafty ideas into practice! Something I’ve been gathering resources for for a couple of years: a twined-weave rug made from moth-eaten (literally) & felted old blankets, on a warp of discarded polycotton duvet cover. It’s taken forever to get round to actually starting it; once I started, it just took the odd hour here & there over 3 days. The pile of holey old blankets has shrunk considerably (sorry, Remi, my miniature dachshund “grand-puppy”, who loves to sleep in them) but there are plenty more where they came from!

Rug made from moth-eaten wool blankets and old bedding

The loops of warp visible at the ends will disappear in a day or two, as the tension “relaxes” & evens out. I could use them to anchor a fringe, but I decided this rug should be “crisp”, with the stripes just speaking for themselves, if that makes sense. Although there seem to be about 5 different colours going on, there were actually only 3 blankets; the effect of any given “thread” depends on how I cut the blanket up; all 3 were plaid/check patterned, with different colours criss-crossing. Luckily I have a hand-cranked American strip-cutting machine, which makes light work of demolishing them, as it would have been a nightmare to cut them up with scissors. The bedding for the warp can just be torn into 2″ strips.

I finished it in between making our Christmas cake & pudding (slightly experimental, as I added home-grown quinces into both of these) baking some hob-nobs and cheesy flapjacks, making some “pink” soup (i.e. with home-grown beetroot) from leftover vegetables & gravy, and concocting dinner from what was left of Sunday’s roast. Tomorrow, I may do nothing at all… or I may escape to the allotment, weather permitting!

Miniature version of Experimental Christmas Cake. It worked! Now demolished…

A little sad, a little happy…

Well. Been busy again… a few weeks back, we had some frantic emails round the Committee of our local Guild of Weavers, Spinners & Dyers, of which I am a member. Some looms and spinning wheels from an old weaving workshop, including a very-historic original Huguenot silk loom, had been stored in a thatched rural loft, which had fallen in. If we couldn’t do something to rescue them fast, they would have to go into a skip…


So off a couple of us trotted, into the wilds of beautiful rural Dorset, where we found a muddle of loom parts in the loft, wherever the thatchers had stacked them, and some spinning wheels, in varying condition, stashed away in a tent on the lawn. Most of these things were hardwood, 30 or more years old, but in fair-to-middling condition, all apart from one wheel, made of softwood & ply, which had been rather well-nibbled. My colleague teaches spinning, with as many pupils as she can handle, most without wheels of their own yet, so she took the wheels. And the owner’s family & I arranged for the truly massive & very historic silk loom to go to the Huguenot Museum in Rochester.

Which left the rest… There were 4 complete looms; a big Harris upright rug/tapestry loom, which I got very excited about, as I’ve always wanted to weave Scandinavian-style rag rugs, an 8-shaft 3′ Harris table loom (and a stand & treadles which it will fit on, although not original) a 4-shaft 2’6″ Dryad floor loom and a curious little 8-shaft beastie with a very innovative system of pulley-operated shafts & upright split-metal heddles.


The rug loom came home with me, and the other three, and some oddments, went to a Guild friend’s barn. With the help of some of my fellow Ravellers, we’ve now identified the little sample loom as a Pioneer, from the NorthWest Loom Company . I got in touch with them; they reckon it’s about 50-60 years old, one of their originals, and should clean up nicely! So the Guild will be renovating that one & keeping it for shows and demonstrations. The other two are awaiting new homes…

Sad to relate, the upright Harris rug loom is just plain too massive for the only space in this house I could possibly keep it… as soon as we got it into place, I realised that it just wouldn’t be fair to my family to hang onto it; they’d be forever clonking heads on the bits that stick out, and our 24’ conservatory just seemed to have vanished! But it’s found a new & enthusiastic home already, I’m happy to report, with someone who is just back from studying tapestry weaving in Peru. So I shall be saving up like mad for one with a smaller footprint and a “lighter” presence.

And that’s what I’ve been up to, quite apart from the hurly-burly of everyday family life and running a micro-business, and that’s why I’ve been a little bit quiet for a while. Trying to house the loom forced me to clear a lot of the mess and excess stock lurking around in the conservatory, so there have been benefits in this little escapade for all the family. And now I can see my way clear for where to put the next one…

Rainy days…

It was quite tempting, this morning, to pull the wool over my my eyes and stay in bed… I have a lovely cosy wool duvet, which has proved to be a sound investment as it’s lasting really well and seems to keep me at the perfect temperature, winter or summer; no mean feat, with a lady of a Certain Age. Anyway, the wind was howling through the holly tree and the rain was hammering against the window panes; not exactly conducive to leaping out of bed with a happy smile and a willing heart.

But rainy days, like the clouds that spawn them, have silver linings. It’s a chance to catch up with some cooking – a batch of hob-nobs, some chicken stock & soup, and an aubergine bake all got done this morning – a little light housework (though it’s far too dark & grim for spring cleaning) and one or two projects that have been sitting on the back-burner for a while.

A number of vintage dressmaking patterns have been checked over before being offered for sale, and my neighbour’s handcranked sewing machine has been sorted out – I hope!

And this sturdy but curious little suitcase had been tripping people up in the conservatory for months. I’m not sure what it originally held – a musical instrument, maybe? – but it had a dark red plush lining, part of which had been ripped out. But I couldn’t help thinking that it would benefit from being introduced to some of the leftover sofa fabric… Result!

And here’s my “find” of the week: a set of 5 pristine vintage aluminium pans, most likely from the late 1940s. They came in with a vast collection of old knitting patterns, dating from the 1930s through to the 1970s; it seems from the few letters, etc. amongst them that the lady who collected them got married some time in the 1940s, and these look very much like a wedding present that had been stashed away and never used. They do have all their lids, and were separated by brown paper bags from Bourne & Hollingsworth of Oxford Street, W1.

Off now to sort out the best part of 1,000 vintage knitting patterns!

Ooooh – nice!

Bit of luck yesterday – I went down to the Tip with loads of cardboard, polystyrene (aaaargh – horrible stuff!) and wrapping from the utility room revamp. “We’ve got something for you!” Lee greeted me. “Some alpaca, in fact.”
Curious, I trotted over to the covered skip, thinking most likely I’d find a bit of raw fleece from an older animal that someone had meant to use for toy stuffing, perhaps. But no – two big bags of absolutely gorgeous-quality, squishy-soft, white, crimpy, supremely spinnable fluff, labelled “weanling”… the sort of stuff I’d have to hand over at least £30-£40 a bag for, if I were inclined to actually buy any. I love spinning (and wearing) alpaca, but don’t usually feel I can justify spending that much on my hobby – maybe £4 for a little bag once in a while. I spun up a quick sample skein last night and enjoyed it hugely; it almost spins itself. There was also a bag of washed Jacob’s fleece, which I shall give to my neighbour, as I already have 4 bags of it. I have to ask  – who throws these things away? There’s no sign of moths or  mice or anything else that would make me reject it. It may have belonged to someone who isn’t spinning or felting any more, for whatever reason, but how come they couldn’t find anyone to give it to, rather than just dumping it? Not that it matters; luckily the gents were alert & it’s made its way into my stash now. Into the very top, the next-project bit of it, as it happens.

What a lovely find! I’m a very happy bunny. Thanks, gents…

And I’m hardly even going to mention the pheasant – poor little fellow threw himself in front of a car (not ours, I hasten to add) on a country road at the weekend whilst we were helping with the move. We drove one way; the road was clear. We offloaded & drove back again 10 minutes later; there he was, dead as a dodo. He was on a bend & anything much shorter than a human would have been hugely at risk of being squished themselves, trying to drag him away – so who could resist? A large pot of delicious stock & several tasty salads later, I’m very grateful to him…

Well, I feel quite let down…

…by Google!

I do enjoy a bit of foraging, and the WWW has been my constant companion & advisor, both in identifying plants and in working out how (not to mention whether) to use them. I love walking in our beautiful countryside or along the riverbank, seeing what I can find to supplement & broaden our diet, and cooking & preserving the assorted goodies that Nature gives us. But not all my foraging takes place in the wild; our local market is often an excellent hunting ground for astonishing bargains, like the £1 sack of organic parsnips I bore home triumphantly a few weeks back. I shared that with a couple of neighbouring households, and Googled parsnip recipes (NOT Woolton pie) and we’ve had some lovely cream of parsnip soup, rösti, and roasted mixed vegetables over the last few weeks.

On Friday I found one of the fruit & veg stalls selling entire boxes of blueberries for £1; that’s 12 of the little supermarket punnets, which sell for about £1.75 each. Admittedly they were not in the first flush of freshness & one or two were suspiciously stuck together; I knew there’d be some sorting out to do. But I also knew that if they were too far gone to use any of them, I could use them for dyeing some of the tonnes of fleece & wool that’s hanging around the place. In the event, when I sorted them out this afternoon, less than one punnet’s worth had to be thrown into the compost & the rest were fine, so, having just been given some nice clean jam jars, I decided to make some blueberry & lemon jam.

The sort of thing I need Google for is to find out whether any given berry or fruit will gel left to itself, i.e. how much pectin it contains. I do have plenty of old recipe books, but were blueberries available to Isabella Beeton? It might take me hours to find out; it’s far quicker to use the computer. But could I find a definitive answer to how much pectin there is in blueberries? Not in a hurry… Some sites claimed they were high in pectin, and some that they were low in it. The rather-useful Pickle&Preserve was hedging its bets with a “medium” rating. I do have some pectin in the cupboard, but I always prefer not to use additives, however natural, if I don’t have to, so I decided to get on with it & see for myself. If it didn’t gel, I could always call it a coulis.

Well, I’m firmly on the “high” side. I would swear that the masher I used to smash the berries up as they were heating & the sugar was dissolving had trainee jam on it. And it had only been boiling for a very few minutes before the drops on the cold plate – I do own a sugar thermometer, but a cold plate is far less bother & much easier to clean – wrinkled straight away. Time will tell; it hasn’t cooled yet, but it looks like we have nearly 4½lbs of blueberry & lemon jam, for the grand sum of about £2. I feel a scone-baking session coming on…

And just an update on the mincer front; the little blue one found a new home without any trouble yesterday at Boscombe Vintage Market but in the meantime another one has landed in my kitchen. This one is a slightly rusty old “Potter” about the same size as the Spongs; it doesn’t have the slicer/grater attachment, but it does have a grain grinder and it screws onto the tabletop, rather than sticking down as the Spongs do – or rather, don’t, as our wooden tabletop isn’t smooth like the Formica surfaces they were designed for. Once I’ve cleaned the Potter up, I will have to choose which one stays & which one goes. Lovely, and effective, though the beige Spong is, it’s not that practical to use for slicing/grating in my particular kitchen, as I need three hands; one to push the food down, one to turn the crank, and one to hold the machine itself down! So that one too may end up on my stall next month.

Come to think of it, I have a whole porch full of “kitchenalia” – maybe I need two stalls…

Use up your scraps!

It’s been a good week, in many ways – any week in which an elderly Bernina virtually lands in my lap is a good week. But yesterday I enjoyed best of all; I sold one of my scrap-yarn shawls, crocheted on a 15mm double-ended Tunisian hook, and the gentleman who bought it for his wife evidently thought it was the most glamorous thing he  could possibly have found for her, which was lovely. And then I did a fingercrochet workshop.

How could I have gone so long without the wonderful feeling of creating something useful and hopefully attractive too, just using my fingers and yarns that no-one wanted, or that were otherwise surplus to requirements, in a  very short space of time? It’s so simple, it’s easy to forget how rewarding it is. For those of you who haven’t yet come across it, fingercrochet is exactly what it says on the tin – crochet done on your finger, without a hook. You just wrap the yarn around a finger – I’ve recently discovered that my ring finger works best – and use that instead of a hook. Because it’s a fairly big implement, in my case at least, you need to use either very chunky yarn, or several strands, to achieve any kind of “coverage” but because the stitches are so big, you can make a hat up very fast. You soon find that your finger, although not as smooth as a metal hook, is rather more helpful and bendable, and that you can feel the tension in a way that simply isn’t possible with a hook.

My one “pupil” was very dubious that she would be going home with a fully-formed hat inside two hours. But not only did she complete it, she had time to make a pompom to add to the top! I’ve added a new page for the pattern (and also now for a matching collar) so that all of you who crochet can make one at home… I look forward to seeing your photos, here or on Ravelry.

Sarah models one of the fingercrochet hats...

Been MIA for a bit…

…and “missing in ACTION” it certainly has been. My feet haven’t touched the ground for the last couple of months, but it’s been great. You know you’re actually reaching people when someone walks into your shop and the first thing they say is, “Aha! That’s the very sofa itself! I read about that on your blog!” And indeed she (and her husband too) have spent some time cosily esconced on said sofa, over the last few days, weaving happily away on their new-to-them peg loom and cutting rags into strips.

I’m just beginning to find my feet now and find a little time for writing – which is just as well, as I have an article to write before going off on holiday. It may seem a little perverse, trotting off on holiday just when things were getting off the ground, but believe me, I need it…

I’ve been surprised and delighted by how I do seem to have found a real gap in the market; people are genuinely pleased to find affordable stuff and somewhere they can just try things out. They may already be expert-level at, say, P&Q, but wanting to have a go at crochet, without committing to weeks of lessons or a jumper’s-worth of yarn. Or professional cardmakers who’ve always wanted to try their hand at knitting. I’ve done a whole lot of wet-felting, too; seems to be the one thing everyone wants a go at, even people who’ve done it many times before!

Here’s a link to a nice tribute from one of my friends – great to see you last week, Carrie! – and here’s one to our local newspaper’s account. And below is something I made earlier… it’s great to have some time & space just to sit & make things, and a good excuse to do so!

It’s been a while…

…because I’ve been busy. Very very busy, in fact, in the nicest possible way, because there suddenly seems to be a lot of interest in what I’m doing, So I’m taking the plunge & have rented a small workshop/shop in the centre of our little town, to open up TheCraftSpace.co; website to be set up over the next few days.
I’m really excited but there’s a lot of work to do; the unit needs painting & some other stuff like hot water & flooring sorted out, and I’m trying to source just about all the fittings secondhand, recycled or reclaimed, with one or two exceptions for electrical safety’s sake. There’s a side room for my VintageCraftStuff, and also some gallery space to display our own creations and those of other local crafters. There’ll be human-powered sewing machines & spinning wheels, giant knitting needles, inkle looms, spinning & felting supplies, handspun yarn, and reclaimed fabric, yarn and buttons for sale, and of course, books and magazines… open for retail Mon-Fri, 11-4 pm.
The idea is to run FREE lunchtime “craftalong” sessions – bring your sarnies, or buy something yummie & inexpensive from the Riverside Cafe next door, and sit & stitch/knit/crochet/whittle – whatever, as long as it’s creative! – for free in good company, anytime from 12-2 pm. Then 2-4 pm will be inexpensive have-a-go themed workshops, probably about £4 per person including materials (if it can be done) on simple basic stuff – cardmaking, scrapbooking, bookmaking, wet felting, needlefelting, learn to spin/knit/crochet/stiitch – and there will be expert workshops in the evenings & some weekends, with more advanced tutors. Everything will be small scale, partly because of space limitations but also because it’s nicer & easier to learn that way.
There’s a little garden space at the back to grow a few dye plants, herbs & flowers in tubs & baskets, and sit & stitch or spin in the sunshine on nice days. The river runs right outside the door, so it’s a very green & natural space for a town-centre location.
So I’m really, really busy trying to sort all the background stuff like insurance, website & fittings out right now. I’ll post again just before we open, so wish me luck, watch this space & plan to come & visit us when you’re down this way!

If at first you don’t succeed – don’t panic!

It’s been a hectic few weeks, ferrying offspring around to exams, job interviews etc. And I had a Guild challenge looming, and everything that possibly could go wrong with it, did.

Last summer, I took on the challenge of a 200g bag of Polworth fleece, “do with it what you will!” The person distributing it said when I took it, “It’s  the last bag; I’m afraid it’s a bit ropey, but I’m sure you’ll do something interesting with it…” which made me want to do something exceptionally fine with it! Knowing that Polworth is a very, very fine fleece, I thought I’d be very, very gentle with it, then spin some delicate laceweight, crochet something floaty but functional and let the fleece speak for itself. But I didn’t have time to tackle it until about November, when I popped it into a rainwater bath, as recommended by some older Guild members, outside in the garden. You can imagine my horror when I checked it about a month later and found it had gone green…

“Fermented Suint” as this method of cleaning fleece is called, needs warmth, and it wasn’t warm. You also need to exclude light (I’d used a glass lid) or algae will develop. Oooops.

So I washed it in nice, gentle washing liquid, rinsed it three times, the last time in rainwater, and left it to dry before carding it, whereupon luckily the green tips mostly broke right off.  But then I discovered it was full of neps, tiny short bits of wool, that leave bumps in your yarn if you don’t get them out. I’d been given some money for my birthday & Christmas, so I decided to invest in a set of woolcombs, which are the only real way of getting debris out of your fleece. But sadly they are only available made to order, and the winter was very cold, so the maker was unable to get out into his workshop, and I didn’t get the combs until the beginning of May – too late for the challenge fleece.

In the meantime, the fleece had somehow become horribly sticky. I now know that sometimes it takes more than one wash to clear lanolin out of a fleece that’s been stored for some time, as I gather this one had been. But I didn’t then; what to do with this horrible, sticky, lumpy mess? I decided, what the heck, go with the flow, and ordered some more neps, multicoloured ones, to card into it and make a novelty yarn. With great difficulty and a lot of swearing, I eventually produced a lumpy, chunky yarn that I then “wrapped” with some thin commercial multi-coloured machine-knitting yarn to hold it all together. I only had a week left… but when I washed the yarn to felt it slightly and set the twist, some of the stickiness dissolved. So I washed it a second time, and ended up with something soft enough that I felt I could actually work with. Almost enough to make a scarf, perhaps?

After an interlude of spinning up some midnight-black Hebridean to team it with, then finding that as it was the last of last year’s it wasn’t soft enough to wear around my neck, I picked some soft brown yarn I’d spun for a weaving project that had turned out a tad too chunky. Out with my trusty giant double-ended crochet hooks, which are a wonderfully fast way of making things, and a day later I have a finished, wearable scarf, with a whole 48 hours to spare… I even quite like it, and will wear it with pride!

When it all went wrong, I just wanted to throw the fleece away and forget all about it. But I felt I couldn’t, and now I’m glad, because I have learnt several lessons on the way. Which is what challenges are all about, I suppose!

6' scarf made with Guild challenge fleece - eventually!

How can I reconcile myself…

… to having become bionic? There’s nothing recycled about my new hip; it’s all-new titanium, ceramic & plastic grafted onto my somewhat-protesting femur & pevis. I think basically I am going to have to think of it that by replacing a worn-out part with something new to keep me on the road, I myself have become recycled.

So my opportunities for recycling-in-action have been somewhat limited for the last 7 weeks, though I’ve spent a lot of time sitting in my very-comfortable leather-effect ergonomic chair with matching footstool, gleaned from the Tip for a fiver when I realised we had nothing the right height for me to sit on after the op. So I’ve spent the time learning new skills & practising old ones, unashamedly using new materials – some bought-in pre-prepared handpainted wool tops, for example, to take part in the first round of the Ravelry UK Spinners Scraps Swap. But I did dye my own for Round 3… I also invested in some garden twine; I bought a book called “Quick Crochet, Huge Hooks” secondhand from a fellow-Raveller, and it sparked a little bit of inventiveness on my part. I looked at one project & thought, “That’d be even quicker & easier in double-ended Tunisian…”   Three hours later I had this:

String bag made from garden twine

But I forgot how they stretch, and made both the bag & the handle a bit too long (doesn’t matter, I can always wear it cross-ways anyway, better for my back) so I sat down for a further 2 hours & 10 minutes & refined the idea a bit further to to this:

A smaller, more manageable version of same...

 …which is a little more manageable. I’ll get round to posting the pattern shortly, whilst you go & research “double-ended Tunisian crochet” on YouTube & work out how you’re going to make or get hold of a 15 x 50 cm hook…! I bought mine from Mike Williams realising that it was going to be a worthwhile investment, but now I think I might have a go at “bodging” one up for rough projects like this. I’ve picked up a windfallen good straight cherry-plum stick to try with , so watch this space!