Making a Northumbrian piper’s plaid

When we moved to Northumberland in 2010, one of the things on Stephen’s list was to learn to play the Northumbrian pipes.  I won’t go into the Northumbrian pipes in detail (you can find more about them here), – just suffice it to say that unlike the Highland pipes which are blown, the air in the Northumbrian pipes is produced by elbow action. And they aren’t easy to learn to play!

(But they produce an enchanting light sound. According to organologist Anthony Baines, they are “perhaps the most civilized of the bagpipes …”)

Most impressively Stephen did learn to play them, and joined the Alnwick Pipers group, later setting up a local group, the Spittal Pipers.  These groups play for pleasure, and also at shows and exhibitions. In 2016, for BBC Music Day, the Spittal Pipers were asked to play on the Union Chain Bridge. They assembled early on an exceptionally cold June morning …All wearing their fine Northumbrian plaids – bar Stephen, who didn’t have his own, so was lent one … err, a lady’s one.  The difference is that the lady’s plaid is a short shawl, while the gents wear a magnificently long piece which sweeps right round the body.This year I decided it was time to give him his own plaid, and approached a fellow member of the Tweed Guild of Spinners, Weavers and Dyers, Janis Embleton of Flight Weaving for help because I knew she’d woven a shepherd’s plaid before.

However, Stephen didn’t need a thick plaid designed to keep you warm and dry in all-weather shepherding work.  He need a formal  Northumbrian plaid to match in with the other plaids in the Spittal Pipers’ group. So we turned to Stephen’s fellow piper, Lyndon, for advice – and the loan of his plaid.  Here he is being fitted in Lyndon’s plaid as a guide for length …When we knew exactly what we wanted (more or less a copy of Lyndon’s) and had a set of measurements for Stephen’s height, I went back to Janis to ask her to make the plaid.  She came up with a most generous plan.  She would weave the plaid, and I would finish it off – tassel, wash and pleat …

Janis works on a vintage Ulla Cyrus Loom, passed on to her by a fellow weaver some years ago.  To my ignorant eyes, it is a most beautiful – and very complicated – piece of woodwork. Parts are worn smooth and darkened from repeated handling, but it carries a story of the love and care it received from one weaver – and now another.

She sent me these fascinating photos of the loom when it was first set up to weave the black and white Northumbrian plaid. My goodness, what meticulous hard work is involved in setting up the loom for a large piece of woven cloth!Later, she welcomed us to her studio to see how the weaving was progressing. By this time there was a substantial piece of cloth already woven …She invited me to have go with the shuttle, and I can assure you it’s not as easy as it looks!I was struck by the complexity of the loom – all those interconnections …And in many ways, it felt as though there was an organic integrity between loom and weaver …When the plaid was completed, I visited again for a lesson in tassel-making. First Janis showed me how to remove the cotton bands which edge her weaving …Then the fringing was trimmed to the length we wanted …Starting to make the tassels with her dinky little tassel-maker …I finished the tassels off at home, and then came the terrifying moment when I had to wash the plaid …Despite testing for colour run before she started work, Janis had discovered the black wool was leaching colour onto her hands, so I was advised to handwash the plaid first in cold water – it did indeed come out quite black …Then it went in the washing machine for a 30 degree wash. Scary! How relieved I was to have it out blowing on the washing line, soft, clean and slightly shrunken!Now for pleating. Lyndon’s plaid was pleated with narrow folds over the shoulders, fanning out to wider folds at the hem of the plaid. Hard to find a clean floor long enough to lay out such a huge piece of fabric …Tricky – especially when I got help …Now for some very careful pinning and tacking all the way down the pleats.  I copied Lyndon’s plaid and machined the pleats in place at judicious intervals (over the shoulders) …Finally the whole process was finished off with some very damp ironing using a white vinegar/water solution.  I discovered this pleating trick from a very helpful website on historical sewing .  Apparently this was the old-fashioned method to secure pleats in place.  (My solution was 1 part vinegar to 3 parts water.) And yes – the room did smell like a fish and chip shop, but the smell has now vanished!Time for a fitting. Here’s my Northumbrian piper in proper piper’s plaid! Just magnificent! And here he is playing the pipes!This has been such a happy project.  The plaid isn’t just a beautiful piece of work by a very skilled weaver, it’s a record of history – and in particular, for Stephen and me, the lovely folk who helped bring it together.  Thank you so much Janis for so generously allowing me to work on this project with you – it truly made it memorable.  And we can’t thank Lyndon and his wife Heather enough for their patient advice every time we needed to consult on some technical aspect of pipers’ plaids.


Spinning a cat hair comforter …

Two funny little cats, Eggy and Ilsa, came to live with us some 18 months ago …Unlike any other kits I have had (and I’ve had quite a few in my time) they need constant grooming. This isn’t surprising really as they are half Persian and half Exotic Shorthair, inheriting from their Persian father a gloriously luscious outer coat and a dense, soft undercoat. Left unchecked, this undercoat matts badly – so they need the regular grooming to keep their coats shiny and silky.

It occurred to me last summer that I might well be able to spin this undercoat. Why I had quantities of it available! The very cream tones are from Ilsa (on the right above) and the darker colours are from Eggy (on the left).But it’s not exactly a long staple, being just a couple of inches at most.  Sometimes there are guard hairs too, but mostly what I was getting from grooming sessions was the soft grey you can see by my fingertips below.I decided the best thing was to blend it with some of the Cornish alpaca I still had spare. This is a beautiful creamy lustrous fibre (once washed – it was almost grey with dirt and dust when I first acquired it), but similar in texture to the cat hair, so I expected the fibres to blend well. On with the alpaca to the carders then …Followed by the rather grubby cat hair (this I didn’t wash – full explanation to follow) …It carded very well together …Giving a beautiful silver grey rolag …Actually there were lots of tones in the rolags, reflecting the different colours of the cat hair.  I rather like this variation, being true to the original cats …What did the kits think of my work?  Were they at all interested in this processing of their hair?  After all it must smell of them … And they were about much of the time as I was busy carding and spinning …Ah yes! Look at Ilsa in seventh heaven padding away at my rolags!  Can you see the little bits of alpaca fluff floating up and catching in her whiskers? And Eggy keeping a sharp eye behind?!Eggy had her heavenly moments with the rolags too.  This looks like pure cat bliss to me too …Happy summer days …Why I was even tempted to card straight from source (as it were) …!Time to start spinning my rolags …With my not-so-helpful kitty companions … I spun the mixed cat hair and alpaca fiber very fine with lots of twist to hold the cat hair and fluffy alpaca in place.  Any relaxation of the twist and the yarn easily broke …Then the cat hair/alpaca strand was plyed with pure alpaca …Giving me a yarn that was 25% cat and 75% alpaca … (pure white alpaca in picture here to show the colour difference) …Time to get knitting! I wanted a very simple pattern, so adapted my knit from this Viewfinder cowl in Alexa Ludeman and Emily Wessel’s Road Trip. I’ve knit it before as a cowl, but this time wanted to knit a comforter ….. Are you familiar with the term?!  Well, it is the best word – in my opinion – for a shawl or scarf.  Time to consult our wonderful 1891 Webster’s! A knit woolen tippet, long and narrow. Just so – thank you, Mr Webster.  Only I would add: something to offer the physical warmth of succour … a woolly hug, perhaps … You see this comforter was planned as a gift for my daughter whose cats these really are.  They no longer live with her, but with the unwashed (now you see why the cat hair wasn’t washed!) comforter, she could wrap herself in comforting almost pure cat … So effective was it (and so pleasant to knit), that – having plenty of yarn still – I knit another comforter …You can see the catty variations in the spin quite clearly …And laid out you can see how the lacey stitchwork has distorted the rectangular comforter into something quite shaped with pointy ends …I decided to dye the second comforter, mixing up a vibrant fuchsia colour from my Easyfix AllinOne Dye powders …Such a pleasing result!Was I influenced at all by the colours of the season ….?You can see quite clearly the distorting effect of the lacey stitches as the comforter dries …The resulting knit matted a little bit in the process – but that’s not a bad thing as it stops the comforter shedding cat hair so much …And boy, is it cosy and comforting to wear!(Not mine for long as it’s off to give comfort with its predecessor …)

Glasgow weekend

Last weekend we had a very kind offer of cat-sitting so leapt at the opportunity to head off to unexplored places.  As it was snowy and icy, we decided the best thing was to travel by train, and settled on Glasgow, a city that we’d only visited briefly on a day visit last summer.

The streets in Glasgow had been gritted and cleared of snow, but not so the pavements which were icy and treacherous …But walking up to the glorious Kelvingrove Museum in bright sunshine, that didn’t seem to matter …How the sunshine transformed the great hall …Opened in 1901, the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum is such an extraordinary statement of ostentatious Glasgow prosperity – with an organ, no less, in that Great Hall! It was comfortably busy and bustling when we visited – lots of children, visitors of all nationalities, people waiting for the organ recital (which was splendid, and I wish I could play it for you here) …I love the detailed craftsmanship on show in the museum itself – aren’t these brass door handles very fine?Just as much as I love the modern jostling with the old. The hanging heads are part of an installation by Sophy Cave of Event Communications …I wish all museums were as upfront about their display policies …There was lots and lots of tempting things to see, but what I most wanted to look at was:This is a very big year for Charles Rennie Mackintosh admirers because it is the 150th anniversary of his birth – and lots of big events are being planned, including a major exhibition at the Kelvingrove Museum itself opening in March, and the re-opening of his refurbished Willow Tearooms.

Another exhibition planned – much smaller but of considerable interest to me and my friends – is the Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers National Exhibition in July at Strathclyde University. This will celebrate its presence in Glasgow on this particular centenary with an exhibition of Guild members handmade jewellery in the style of Mackintosh. “Jewellery can be of any textile nature, for example, they could be spun, dyed, felted, knitted, crocheted, tatted, woven, braided – whatever shows the creativity of the entrant.”

What an exciting challenge!

So here I was to look at the exhibits in a particular way: to see how I could re-interpret Mackintosh’s work in a piece of jewellery.

I had to be careful first of all not to be led astray by some of the gorgeous exhibits by other Glaswegians. We were both immediately struck by this very beautiful wall panel from the Argyle Street tearooms, dated 1898-99. But this was in fact made by George Walton & Co. A pity – this is truly inspirational!And this fine washstand with those characteristic Mackintosh long lines (look at the side panels) is in fact by John Ednie c.1900.  We spent ages looking at it because according to the information tab it was made of oak, glass, metal, marble, ceramic and leather.  Blowed if we could see any leather!  Must be inside the drawers, we decided …So where was the Mackintosh in all this gorgeousness?  There was a chair, of course – and very intriguingly displayed next to others of the period.  It’s the centrepiece here – designed for the Ingram tea rooms …And it was in the Chinese Room from the Ingram Street tearooms, designed by Mackintosh in 1911 that I found my best inspiration …Two things particularly struck me – first the little pagoda light … And secondly this Chinese key panel which was carved over the doorway of Mackintosh tearoom … those square curls … Lots to think about – I’ll keep you posted …Intriguingly we found upstairs among the historic Scottish exhibits pattern work very similar to that of Mackintosh and his Glasgow style compatriots. Look at these curved axe-heads and the long lines of this bronze dagger.  They are part of the Gavel Moss hoard found at Lochwinnoch and dated 2000-1400 BC …This Thistle brooch is 10th century Viking work, but could happily sit downstairs with Mackintosh and his fellow Glasgow artists of the 19th/20th century …The snow plough was out gritting the streets of Glasgow on Saturday night – which made us chuckle – no sign of snow on the streets anywhere! But we laughed a little less on the Sunday as we set out on an icy grey snowy walk up to St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art. It was cold – and there was more snow …We were well wrapped up …I was wearing all my handmade, homespun, woolly knits (even sporting my handknitted felted handbag), so I was toasty! But Stephen disdains my lovingly-knit creations, saying they’re too scratchy.  Well, who looks most cosy here?!Lots of fascinating items covering the breadth of religious faith and worship in the St Mungo museum, but I was struck by two pictures – and intrigued by my reason for liking these two very different pictures.

This 1992 Aboriginal painting titled Kangaroo Wild Cabbage, Ceremonial Spear, Possum and Bush Carrot Dreaming is by Paddy Japaljarri Stewart, Paddy Japaljarri Sims, Bessie Nakamarri Sims and Pansy Nakamarra Stewart, Warlpirri People, Yuendumu. It tells the story of the Dreamtime travels of some of their many spiritual ancestors. I struggle a bit to understand this picture as such – this is all so different to my culture, I guess.  But what I really love are the colours and the patterns …And it is pattern which draws me to this picture too. It’s called The Sabbath Candles and is by Dora Holzhandler. What a pattern fest – pattern everywhere!By now the snow was coming down hard – a beautiful snow globe view of Glasgow Cathedral and over to the Necropolis …But we had a colourful treat for the end of our Glasgow trip – just time to drop into my favourite shop here: Paperchase!  Now if this colourfest isn’t sustaining in the snowy grey, I don’t know what it is.  And – on that note – time to go home …


Christmas cards

Visitors to our house at this time of year may be struck by what a lot of Christmas cards we receive …

Well, I have a confession to make: one of the most treasured parts of Christmas for me is getting out my old Christmas card box. Inside I have a large collection of old cards – and some of these old cards come out to swell the numbers (so to speak) year after year.  It is not that I want it to appear that we have a huge number of friends! – no, it’s because these are old cards that I love so much that I return to them year after year. Just to open the box makes me feel all tingly …Like many parents I have saved the cards my children made when small.  I find them fascinating to look at again because they reflect so clearly their changing interests as they grew up.  Helen aged 8 was drawing cats just about everywhere …Several years later she was still adding cats to the Christmas ensemble.  This is one of my favourite cards because I so love the joy she has captured on the surrounding faces – and especially Mary’s clasped hands.But then – one year we got this! (She was 17 by now). I wonder if you know who features here?!! At 9 my son James was all about dinosaurs and monsters ….Apart from my children’s cards, there are cards I save because I just love the pictures.  I’m always a sucker for a beautiful angel …And this is an enchanting nativity with that little bare-buttocked angel worshipping in the foreground …I love representations of the Madonna and Child that capture some small realistic moment in a child’s life, like this baby playing with his mother’s beautiful coral beads …And what a contented baby this is, playing with his toy apparently quite happily so that his mum can get on with her reading!There are Christmas tree pictures I have kept because I thought one day they might offer inspiration.  I am very taken with this embroidered tree …And I really like the clever simplicity of this paper tree, just a sharp fold in the centre of the card …I’ve always planned to copy in some way this beautiful Matryoshka card that we bought in New York’s MOMA …Other cards catch my eye for their humour …Or their charm …Some are topical …Some are just fun …And some are I think slightly weird (but still very fascinating) …There is often a knitterly card from my cousin Lucy (who, like me, loves to knit) …And we often get the most beautiful rabbit cards from my sister Marian – who keeps rabbits, of course …I’m a cat person myself so couldn’t resist keeping this card from an old work colleague …In some circumstances there is a family joke behind the keeping of the card.  The maths teacher (no, not Stephen!) who made this card was definitely not known for his happiness!This looks such an unremarkable little card …But inside – written in haste – the teacher’s thanks for timetable support look more like tit – oops, oh dear!This little card completely changed the way we see Christmas – why Father Christmas drops presents!! We must hurry outside to check there’s none around here!There’s another group of cards that have changed in relevance to me over the years.  These are cards that I originally kept because I loved the pictures.  Then, over the years, I came back to look at them only to find the people who sent them had died, so these cards have gathered an extra most poignant significance. The oldest one is from my grandmother – a tiny little slip of a card, but inside she has written in her very elderly shaky hand about the imminent birth of my first baby (her first great-grandchild) …I kept this most beautiful card from my ex-husband, Hugh.  We had a most acrimonious divorce, but his suicide in 2007 made me look quite differently at anything tangible we had left from him …This card came from my father, and I kept it originally because – as I described above – I so love Madonna and Child scenes where there is a glimpse of playful interaction between the mother and babe.  It is now extra treasured because my father passed away in 2015 – and also because it is a painting which belongs to his old Oxford College, Magdalen. He was very deeply proud of his time there …A work colleague of mine at Exeter Library sent me this card.  Angela always found the most distinctive and beautiful cards.  She passed away in 2011 – she was almost exactly the same age as I am …I so love this beautiful bird of peace card, sent to me by my dear Devon friends, Eileen and Len, some years ago.  Len passed away in 2016 – this card brings back very happy memories of a really lovely man …One of the most poignant cards I have is from my Uncle John. A talented artist, every year he would have one of his drawings made into Christmas cards. He was very ill with throat cancer when he sent this card and wrote inside how he could no longer “write, call, eat or drink or talk and am v. frail and shrinking.” He died soon afterwards …His is not the only card that I treasure because he designed it himself.  His daughter Polly always sends round wonderful cards. We have enjoyed making shared GiveWraps for the last few years, and this card is very definitely GiveWrap-inspired!Other Christmas cards of hers hark back to an older Christmas – womb-like and mysterious in ivy …And I too used to make Christmas cards! These are ones I made for the Westcountry Studies Library in Exeter. My work there entailed looking after their historic collections of prints and drawings, so it was a bit of fun to take an old picture and add a festive Father Christmas element …What I love about handmade and hand-designed cards is that everybody plays to their strengths.  My mother is a truly most gifted needlewoman – so her cards were always hand-stitched …My brother Henry makes a fine card, interplaying his photos of the season to give a glorious colourful montage …And Anya, Stephen’s ex-wife, always sends a strong print.  This is Mick Jagger, The Christmas Cockerel!  Isn’t he a fine bird?!Every year Stephen’s cousin Peter cooks up something witty and imaginative – I’ll let this one speak for itself …He comes from a family tradition of fine handmade cards.  Together his parents, David and Bar, created some wonderful cards.  David was the poet, Bar the artist. The front is not very prepossessing …But isn’t the inside clever?!This one is probably my very favourite of theirs …I love all these cards that I have shown you but my very favourite cards always came from Stephen’s Aunt Barbara (another Barbara) – she was a print-maker.And perhaps loveliest of all, because most simple – and most powerful – in its colour and message …There is something else in my Christmas card box – something that doesn’t really belong there because it’s not a card, nor is it Christmassy.  This is a cutting from the Crediton Parish Magazine sometime in the 1980s, – a prayer for the New Year. While my Christmas card collection is in many ways about looking back through my family and friends, this extends my thoughts to those I do not know whose experiences over the past year may have been very different to mine. Call it perhaps a Quaker-like meditation for holding all those others who we do not know in the light …Belated Christmas wishes and Happy New Year to you all – may 2018 be good to you! May you flourish like the bay tree!

A lament for litter …

I’ve been meaning to write about the litter that we see in our locality for several years, but everytime I started it got pushed out of the way by another topic.  As a result what started as a gut-reaction to the rubbish pollution we saw on the beach sort of took off.  And I started looking for rubbish – and found it all too easily – everywhere (actually I think know I became a little obsessed with looking for it).  Our cities are full of it. Nobody seems to think twice about leaving empty food and drink packaging around, even in the most iconic places – here captured at the impressive Scotsman Steps, just off Edinburgh’s Waverley Station.Sadly neither does the beauty of Durham’s Peninsula Walk beside the River Wear deter people from ditching their empties …Durham rubbishI suspect everybody is all to well acquainted with this sort of sight – a  casual disposal of something that one shouldn’t have had in the first place – here seen along beside one of the roads into Edinburgh.rubblish driving into EdinburghI could go on and on – but there’s no need, because all of us are just too familiar with these sights.  Come back to Spittal then, and our home beach and local paths and what do we find? Take the tracks leading to the beach …

There is a favoured spot for parked cars on the sea-cliffs above the beach. Such a fine view. Young and old, we regularly see people sitting in their cars here, eating takeaways, smoking (no comment on what exactly they’re smoking).  And then they drive off and leave mess like this – bottles, food packaging, toilet roll, plastic bags.  Just horrible – and I cannot understand it, because what is the problem with putting all this detritus in a plastic bag and driving with it just a couple of hundred yards or so to the council rubbish bin?  Or – how about taking it home with you – it’s not going to foul your car if it’s in a carrier bag?  rubbish during Spittal festivalThat photograph was taken during Spittal’s Seaside Festival in August this year (you can see the marquee and the entertainments behind on the promenade) so perhaps one could excuse festival visitors who don’t know the area well … (I’m making every effort to be charitable here) but actually such a picture is not the exception – it is more or less the rule. Almost every time we walk past this spot, we see sights like this ..Spittal festival rubbishrubbish spoiling the viewrubbish ditched from carsCouncil workers and locals pick up this rubbish here – we have met them and shared their irritation.  Nowadays we arm ourselves with disposable gloves and large plastic bags before we set out from the house.  Disposable gloves, I hear you say?  Well, yes, because another horrible aspect of the rubbish we find ditched in the locality is dog poo bags …dog poo in hedgedog poo chucked asidedog poo and bottle rubbishLook carefully in the lower picture, and you will see several nasty little packages lurking right at the back of the undergrowth.

No words.  There just are no words.  It’s so unpleasant.

I’m going to be charitable with the dog poo glimpsed in this beach picture, because I’m assuming these carefully places little pink packages were waiting for somebody to deal with after their walk …dog poo bagsOf course, all of this – unpleasant as it is – is just a sideline to my real beef: the rubbish on the beach. Here there is rubbish – and rubbish.  There are days when the beach is littered with leaves washed down the neighbouring river Tweed …natural rubbishThey make magnificent compost, so we (and others) can be glimpsed regularly bagging up goodies to take home …collecting rubbish for the compost heapCompost, of course, is the operative word here.  Mostly what we see on our local beach looks more like the coloured pieces here and does not decompose …washed up rubbishOr this …collection of beach rubbishHud's head beach rubbishYup. Bottles and plastic.  And we all now know where this is going. According to an article in the Times newspaper a year ago close to 36 million plastic bottles are used and discarded daily.  Of those almost 16 million are not recycled.  Some will go to landfill, some will just get ditched on beaches and in the countryside. A plastic bottle ditched on the beach will erode, battered by the winds and the waves, until you get a sort of plastic flower like this …fragile plastic bottle flowerThere’s a terrible sadness in that beautiful flower because the missing plastic bottle erodes into smaller and smaller particles of plastic.  Eventually they are small enough to be ingested by fish and other marine life.  Recently I read that microplastics are so pervasive in the environment that you are hard put to find sea-salt that does not contain tiny particles of plastic.

Other materials eventually degrade.  Curiously we found old car parts on the beach below Huds Head. old car partscar part rubbishThere is a sort of sculptural fantasy in these rusty pieces … (coupled with the reassurance that they will eventually degrade – not that I’m recommending the disposal of old cars off the cliffs!)rubbish caught in old car rubbishAll this littering is just awful – it’s ugly, it’s wasteful, and it has terrible consequences as the pelleted plastic story demonstrates. Alas, I cannot but blame my baby boomer generation particularly for its cavalier attitude to the abundant materials we have had from this planet.

The grim news is that there’s no magic way to deal with all this plastic pollution.  Of course we can take heart that this sort of behaviour is no longer acceptable …image from yesteryearAnd it is encouraging to see authorities such as Transport Scotland putting out this message on their electronic noticeboard just over the border at Lamberton: Keep roads tidy and take your litter home ….Road sign about rubbishLet us roundly applaud CalMac Ferries for their strong message seen on the ferry between Largs and Cumbrae earlier this year …Calmac sign about rubbishProbably best of all more and more ordinary folk are joining in beach clearances.  We saw this on the beach at Holy Island. It’s jaw-dropping to see what sort of rubbish they’ve collected! Car wheel hubs!  Garments!Holy Island rubbishI guess too there’s some very small comfort to be taken from the UK Chancellor’s commitment in the Budget earlier this week that he will consult on taxes for throwaway plastic. It’s a very small step in the right direction.

Before I finish this blogpost, I want to acknowledge all those people we see picking up rubbish – on our local beaches as well as in my Instagram feed. (check out #2minutelitterpick). And I also want to apologise for the rant – if you are one of the souls who always picks up your dog’s poo, who loves to sit savouring the view from your car parked above Spittal Beach and never dreams of leaving any rubbish behind – I apologise to you.

As ever artists say it best. I just love the expression of lashing-out rage Pinky MacLure captures in this amazing stained glass lightbox which we saw at the Barony in West Kilbride earlier this summer. She’s called it Landfill Tantrum. She writes:

“The dustmen complained about the used needles poking out of the bin bags. They buried them, along with all the other stuff.We’re overwhelmed by all the buried rubbish, it’s everywhere, it pushes its way back up and it’s killing the ancient birds and beasts.” Pinkie Maclure 'Landfill Tantrum Stained Glass

(Many thanks to Pinkie for giving me permission to reproduce her image here).

Completing my father’s embroidery

When my parents moved to their Surrey nursing home several years ago, my mother had to clear out her sewing and knitting things to make space in their new smaller home.  She passed all these goodies on to me.

Among the many bags of wool, patterns, fabrics and threads etc was this tapestry that my father had stopped working on. Sadly towards the end of his life, he lost interest in so many things. I put it away, along with all the other things my mother had given me, and forgot it for a while.

Then, this summer, remembering what pleasure I had had stitching tapestries in previous years over the long light days (when I can see clearly!), I looked to see what I might stitch this year. This tapestry came to hand.  Sufficient time had passed since my father’s death in March 2015 for me to feel ready to pick it up again.

It was somewhat unusual for a very conventional man of his time (born in 1926) to do tapestry work, but his step-father was also a very talented stitcher, and perhaps that was what inspired my father.  Whatever, in retirement, my father did a lot of tapestry work, making pieces for many members of the family. I wish I could show you a picture of him stitching, but although I have combed the family albums for such a pic, alas, I cannot find one.  But I have found a pic of him knitting – KNITTING?!! I never knew he knitted! It’s a lovely happy pic of him with grand-daughter Bel.Before I could start work, it was important for me to look at his other work to pick up ideas and influences.  As you’ll see, he had such a distinctive way of working. I sent a call round the family – and these are a few of the pieces that turned up.

This tapestry cushion was made for my uncle and aunt’s wedding anniversary in 1980, and now belongs to their daughter, Polly. It’s very characteristic of his work in that he includes initials, dates – and lots of Latin, Greek and Japanese quotes (all languages he was very familiar with). He’s made a most distinctive feature of the Japanese character at the centre – very bold, and very effective.I don’t need to offer any translation, because Polly had the initiative to ask him for one –   Brilliant foresight, Polly! Another early piece (also of his own design) is this cushion which he made for me in 1982 to mark the occasion when I gave up smoking (and oh, boy, was I a dedicated smoker, so it was indeed a big occasion – and shared especially with my father as he too had given up smoking a long way back). You can see how very skilled he was in featuring words and characters. The Greek text at the centre – πᾶς γὰρ νοῦς αἱρεῖται τὸ βέλτιστον ἑαυτῷ  – is from Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics: Everyone chooses the right path for themselves.  According to my father, the Japanese characters round the side mean: Good health. No smoking. This cushion is very dear to me.I don’t remember this Viking cushion below commemorating any particular event (sadly wonky – I have taken the pillow out to reveal the text and side patterning but it does not really show the cushion to its best). It’s interesting because it shows a change in his style of working.  At some point, he started to purchase pre-designed tapestries, but continued to make them his own with the quotes and initials that he added.  What prompted him to add, I wonder, La vie est trop, trop est pas assez (Life is too much, and yet not enough) and La Vie et un poème, un poème inachevé?  (Roughly meaning life is like an incomplete poem, not going as one would wish.)The other striking thing about this Viking tapestry is that he started to break tapestry rules here.  I cannot trace the original kit, but I am sure that the designers did not encourage stitchers to work those wheels in that casual manner. And look at the freehand patterning in the border just below the wheels! How very effective!One of his finest tapestries is this piece which he made for my mother to celebrate their ruby wedding anniversary on 25th October 1992 – alas, so difficult to photograph because it is behind glass.  On the back he has stuck a note (that’s so typical of my father) informing us that he bought the kit in Esztergom in Hungary in 1988. It’s a beautiful design, but how much lovelier it is for my father’s addition in Latin: Uxori JME Dilectissimae. (for my most delightful wife JME) He’s smuggled his initials (RHE) into the piece too …And this is a beautiful tapestry that he did for my cousin’s wedding in 1994. Again a pre-designed pattern to which he’s added their names and the date.He obviously liked ducks because two of his granddaughters got duck embroideries from him! This is the one he stitched for granddaughter Bel in 2000.  A fine duck embroidery. I couldn’t translate the Japanese character, but I am indebted to Robin for her very helpful comment below this blog that “The character in the lower left corner of the duck tapestry represents “snipe”, pronounced “shigi” (with a hard ‘g’). If you see that the character has both a left-hand and right-hand side, the right-hand side can also stand alone, representing “bird”, pronounced “tori”.” Such a pleasure to know my father’s purpose in adding this character – thank you, Robin, very much indeed!And my daughter Helen got this one which most conveniently lives with me so I was able to refer to it for patterns and designs for my project.Two more fine tapestry cushions live with my sister in Cumbria. This beautiful 1981 work is a wonderful mix of patterned motifs and borders set in a particularly lovely colourway – and with the usual sprinkle of quotations.  I couldn’t translate the Japanese character in the centre, but I have been informed by cousin Hermione that this character means truth or reality. As for the Greek, thanks to her sister, Katy, I now know that it is from the Corpus Hermeticum: God is without sin; it is we who are sinful. Not biblical (as I originally thought) but from the Gnostic tradition. (Perhaps a more fitting biblical quote might be: Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy – can you see that tell-tale hole? )It’s a challenge to do justice to this next cushion because the writing sits on the rounded border.  Many thanks to Hermione, I know now that the Japanese characters refer to the seasons. Top left is spring, top right is summer, bottom left is autumn and bottom right is winter.   That fits so well with the Latin. It’s from a very famous Horace poem Diffugere nives (The snows have fled), and has a familiar melancholy tinge: Immortalia ne speres, monet annus et almum quae rapit hora diem. (Housman’s translation is most elegant: The swift hour and the brief prime of the year Say to the soul, Thou was not born for ay.) A particularly lovely cushion, I think – and Horace was a favourite poet of his.So it was with all these very distinctive tapestries in mind that I picked up my father’s work earlier this summer. My first task was to find some proverb or poetry to add to the piece. I searched through poetry books, collections of quotations, and then suddenly I saw it – why up there on my noticeboard! Almost top right.No need of the list – the lines from Lao-Tze were just perfect: What the caterpillar calls the end, The rest of the world calls a butterfly. It related to the picture, and there were just the right amount of words for me to fit them around the embroidered butterfly.Now for some elaborate calculations to work out exactly how to fit the words to the tapestry. I decided to use the same font as that used on his Viking cushion. So now for a bit of stitching …With the Lao-Tze text surrounding the butterfly completed, I was ready to think what more I might add to his embroidery. I knew that I wanted to add some words that explained how I was finishing what my father had started. This time there was less room for expansive text so I consulted an old book of embroidery designs that I had given my father for Christmas in 1979  (also part of my mother’s gifted treasure trove) …And came up with this: Started by RHE c 2000. Finished by KMD 2017.I thought that would fit in nicely in the space between the butterfly and the lower border.As well as this embroidery, my mother had given me all her old notes and designs. It was very moving to look through these – patterns and notes dating back to her teenage years. Here is a pattern she had copied from her childhood bedroom carpet.Along with careful drawings and colour plans, there are odd bits of schoolwork …But, most usefully for me, there were also her designs for when she was first starting to make embroideries for her new husband.  She had met my father in Tokyo in the early 1950s.  He was a young diplomat at the British Embassy, and she was looking after her brother’s child (her brother also worked at the British Embassy).Ah – a fine Japanese character! Just the sort of thing I could well incorporate into the butterfly tapestry!  But I had no idea what it meant … Luckily, my daughter’s friend, Yuki, was able to help and with a little Instagram communication she was able to tell me that it’s a Buddhist symbol meaning good fortune, happiness and in olden times was also associated with giving alms.  It was just perfect for my generous and very kind father.At this point I happened to put my developing embroidery on my Instagram feed, and among many interesting comments, I had one from a French friend: A quatre mains! she declared.  Why just so, thank you, Isabelle, because this piece is a sort of duet.  And it fits perfectly, balancing the Japanese characters on the top right so well.As the embroidery progressed, I was regularly consulting the other tapestry pieces I had to hand.  I’d copied the little motifs that my father had embroidered round the duck to fill in the gaps of my butterfly text (those little blue flowers amid the orange)  and then I came back to these small flowery motifs again for the finishing touches. I wanted something else in all that empty space – after all, my father was known to cram patterns in very effectively!The motifs at the bottom found their homes easily,But I struggled to work out where to put them at the top, eventually having to fiddle around with some paper cutouts.Through the lovely light summer months, there were happy days of stitching …Visiting Red Admiral butterflies … a sort of blessing on my project …Steadily, slowly all the background was filled in … (great train journey occupation) …And then I just had to stitch a small border pattern.Finally, there is was – completed!With a handsome red velvet backing.I made a special cotton inner cushion for it, and stuffed it with clean fleece – my father would definitely approve: he loved my fleece habit!And here it is – comfortably among our other tapestry cushions …It’s been a most happy summer stitching companion – I have so enjoyed working on this project. It’s brought back many very happy memories of my father and made me reflect on some of the ideas that were important to him – all those quotations! I think he’d pleased with what I did …

(The Red Admiral butterfly tapestry was designed by Elian McCready for Ehrman Sadly she passed away in 2010.)

A final garden fling

It’s a strange time of year, no doubt about it. So many signs of summer lingering and not really proper autumn …

Over the last few weeks, we’ve had days when the garden bench is still inviting …When it is good to sit and smile at the sun …Or find a quiet sunny spot for a bit of punch-card preparation …The cats are still in playful summer mode …There is still plenty of colour to be enjoyed …Still flashes of intense green …Lots of red fruits and red flowers …The rose is having a wonderful second flowering …And there are still butterflies about, enjoying the flowers …The sweet peas continue to amaze …! why only yesterday I picked a bunch as good as this!So I’m still deadheading like mad  …But the shadows are long …And I’m beginning to clear up and cut back …The compost heap is filling up. The compost on the right will be going out on the flower beds soon (when I’ve hardened my heart and uprooted that fine poppy).Our big beds show well the mix of the seasons: summer flowers jostle next to autumnal seedheads …There are days of weird and beautiful light …Sparkling sunny days …But we’re starting to get proper misty-moisty days as well …Which throws everything into a strange new perspective …Not that a bit of mist could dim the glorious oranges here …I love the fabulous new silhouettes the misty garden is throwing up …Spiders’ webs everywhere!But we’ve had the first of the autumnal gales blowing the pots around …Some days it’s better to be inside …Where we are putting on extra layers of cardigan …Time to put away the summer duvet cover …And get out the quilt …Or perhaps Stephen’s knitted blanket … ?Yes, I think Ilsa prefers the blanket!And over these last couple of weeks, the fields have changed from brown, brown, brown …To green again!Weird and wonderful …