Stitching a yukata

When my mother moved to a nursing home several years ago, she gave me lots of her sewing treasures. Among them was this rather insignificant bolt of fabric …Of course, it isn’t insignificant at all! – it’s a Japanese cotton yukata fabric which I think she probably bought when we were living in Tokyo in the 1960s. There are some pictures in her photo albums of a visit to a yukata dyeing factory so I wonder if that is where and when she got it …?And when you spread it out a bit, you realise how lovely the patterning is …I’ve treasured this fabric so long – got it out regularly, stroked it – and put it away again. Too precious to use …

But, a month or so ago, I decided the time had come to make myself a yukata from it – especially as I had a lovely old Folkwear pattern to guide me …Yukatas have been a bit of a family tradition in my family, and we all have worn them/still wear them as outer night wear. 

I was born in Tokyo in the 1950s, a time when Western influence was not quite all-pervasive. The lovely ladies who looked after me (Takagi-san on the left and Mitsuko-san on the right) always wore kimonos and yukatas so that’s what I grew up with …The earliest photo of me wearing a yukata is when I was about 18 months old. I don’t look very happy but then my parents had put me in for a children’s fancy dress competition as we sailed back to England on board the RMS Carthage …In the next few years the family expanded, and of course there were yukatas for all us children …My father’s work took him to and fro Japan, so we found ourselves living in Tokyo again in the 1960s. To escape the summer heat, we would move for several weeks to a little holiday house in the cooler north on the shore of Lake Chuzenji (leaving my father behind in hot, humid Tokyo – no air-conditioning in our home, so he slept in the office).

It truly was a very special place to holiday. We had a little Japanese house with tatami floors and shoji (wood and paper) room partitions. Of an evening my father would light the wood fire under the boiler, and we would all troop into the bathroom, scrub up, and climb into the very hot bath. Then we’d put on our yukatas for an evening’s family fun of Mahjong  …Sometimes he would read us traditional Japanese stories – a favourite was  The Vampire Cat of Nabeshima. Quite terrifying – we didn’t sleep well after that! Perhaps this is one such occasion because my mother looks rather fed up! I stuck with the yukata tradition in later life. Here I am in hospital at the birth of my son, and of course, wearing my yukata …Three years later at the birth of my daughter, I’m wrapped in another yukata. A man’s one, I think – not sure where that one came from …And then my children as they grew up also wore yukatas …A couple of year’s later and Helen’s wearing that yukata and James has moved on to another one …Breakfast in bed with their grandmother was a treat, and she has another lovely yukata …Many years later (this is 1998) my parents still continued to receive gifts of yukatas from their Japanese friends. This is such a happy picture of my mother wearing a most beautiful iris-patterned yukata …So, now in my mid-sixties, I have rather a lot of very treasured yukatas – acquired from various sources. Some are gifts from travellers back from Japan, some I’ve bought on Ebay, and I’ve found some in charity shops.

This bank of yukatas was to prove most useful to me when I started to make my own yukata because each one has been made quite differently. Only one – the shibori one, third on the right, – has been made traditionally  …Traditional yukata fabric is woven to a very narrow width. My bolt is just 35 cm wide (and 1074 cm long). This is so clever because it means that a yukata can be made with the minimum of seam finishing.

First I laid out the fabric to see how I wanted the prints on the fabric to join. It was clear that I didn’t need to worry about this. The patterns are designed to marry into each other wherever they meet.

A yukata made of a traditional narrow bolt takes two widths of that bolt for the back …When I looked at my old yukatas, I was amazed to see how differently they were made. The shibori yukata was made of two narrow bolts which had been joined down the back with a hand-stitched seam …By contrast this very pretty yukata featuring Japanese ladies and cherry blossom had no seam down the back which indicates it was not made from traditional narrow-woven fabric …
You can see that for the traditional yukata, there is no seam over the shoulders – another economy of effort! A narrow piece of fabric (half the width of the bolt) is attached to the front pieces to add fabric to wrap around the body. The placing of this front piece (and the width of the seams) allows you to make the yukata to fit a larger or smaller person …I studied all my yukatas carefully, deciding in the end the shibori one fitted me best so I matched the widths of my seams to those of this yukata …The shibori yukata was all handstitched – really beautiful work …But though I toyed with handstitching mine, I decided in the end to machine it …There was just a little bit of handsewing involved …Where necessary I used French seams to tidy as is traditional. For just one small section I sank to the modern technique of zigzag machine edging …Most of the seams didn’t need edging because they were selvedges …The shibori yukata has an inner yoke of plain fabric to strengthen the area which gets most stress, so I copied that and cut up an old nightie for the purpose …My only mistake – and was I irritated with myself at this! – was the sleeves. You can see how the sleeve lengths vary here. I didn’t want a sleeve as long as the formal sleeve on the right so I cut from the shorter sleeve pattern on the left – and then found it was too short! Maddening! I had to add a piece in to make it a bit longer …All this time I’d been sewing from the unwashed bolt. I know this is not recommended sewing procedure, but there was a lot of dressing which helped with the sewing.

The time finally came to give the yukata a good wash – get rid of all those vintage years of sitting in cupboards unloved. After a good blow in the soft Northumbrian breezes, it is soft as soft …Now it’s proudly joined all my other yukatas …

Do I have a favourite? Hmmmm …. I’ll have to think about that …

Revisiting Yeavering Bell

It was Vibeke Vasbo’s The Song of Hild (1991) that took us back to Yeavering. We were last there in 2017, and we’d always talked of revisiting sooner, but somehow other walks and climbs got in the way …I’d read a review which praised this book highly, and as I’ve always been interested in the northern saints, I added it to my reading list.

Vibeke writes a good story about the life of St Hilda of Whitby (c.614 – 680 AD) – but it is very much a story. Almost all that we know of the life of St Hilda is from St Bede, and he certainly did not describe her marriage to Penda, the Mercian king! Nor did Bede recount that she spent her childhood at Edwin’s court of Ad Gefrin at the foot of Yeavering Bell.

But part of the delight of Vibeke’s novel is that she writes delightfully about Hilda’s youth there:

“Ad Gefrin was the children’s favourite place, and a very safe spot when Edwin first imposed peace in the region …Best of all was a spot just beyond the stream at the foot of the Hill of the Goats. Before you reached the next stream there was a little meadow with the most glorious thick grass … On a summer’s day, when the sun had been shining for a while, it was the most blissful feeling, eyes closed, listening to the beck alongside and the skylarks and curlews above.”Later, as an adult, Hilda revisits her childhood home:

“[Hilda]  had reached the summit of the Hill of the Goats … there was a fierce wind blowing, and she had to sit in the lee of the wall … she wanted the vista for herself!”

I can see why!It’s quite a racy and very graphic read, but oh – how I struggled with this book at the early stages! The history is new to me, and I was particularly confused by the names – so many Æ names! I really struggled to distinguish Ædelfred from Æthelfrith,  Æthelberht from Ædelthryd. And as for Oswald, Oswine and Oswy! So I filled the back pages with notes, trying to give myself a grounding in basic dates and characters of the time …When I’d finished The Song of Hild,  I wanted to read a proper history of these times, and turned to Max Adam’s The King in the North (2013) – another challenging book at the start! This isn’t just a book about St Oswald, King of Northumbria (604 – 641/2 AD). Adams begins with pre-Bedan history – Colm Cille and Iona – and his sources are difficult and obscure for a beginner to this world like me. But once he’d gathered pace with Oswald’s life, I found it riveting.When he describes the court of Oswald’s royal predecessor, Edwin, Adams too takes us to Yeavering, to the royal estate of Ad Gefrin at the foot of the mountain:

“The place where hundreds of Bernicians underwent the rites of  salvation was another royal residence, one with the strongest heathen overtones: Yeavering … Yeavering is pre-eminent among the excavated settlements of Early Medieval Britain, investigated in the 1950s and 1960s by an archaeologist of rare talents … Here Hope-Taylor believed that he could actually identify structures commissioned by the historical King Edwin … “And Adams take us back to Yeavering again when describing Oswald’s life as an established king:

One of the most important [ancient routes] linked the ancestral seat of the kings at Bamburgh with the tribal holy mountain and cult centre at Yeavering. I imagine Oswald and his court making that journey of twenty miles or so towards the end of April because May Day, or Beltane in the British calendar, seems to have been the date when cattle renders from subject kingdoms were collected … At Yeavering the infrastructure for such ceremonial taxation was present in the great palisaded enclosure, a corral enclosing nearly three acres …

Here looking down on the now-completely-vanished township of Ad Gefrin with its huge corral (located in the centre of this picture) from the summit of the hillfort on Yeavering Bell …Now I was getting my teeth into this history, I was not to be stopped! After all, I was filling in some of holes of the history I had been taught at school. I raided our bookshelves, libraries, abebooks, and came up with a bookpile …Hillforts. Prehistoric  strongholds of Northumberland National Park by Al Oswald, Steward Ainsworth and Trevor Pearson (2006), was particularly useful because it focussed on the Iron Age hillfort …It’s only human to wonder – as you pass through the great entrance to the Yeavering hillfort – what this place was like those thousands of years ago when earlier humans lived here  …What was life like in the round houses spread over the enclosure – some 125 at least identified by surface traces …And Hillforts fills in some of the gaps. It is thought that by the Iron Age there would have been relatively little of the original wildwood left. So looking down to the valley with our imaginary ancestors standing beside us we guessed we would have seen an agricultural landscape too – but certainly rougher and less managed than ours (definitely no rectangular tree plantations!) …Yeavering. People, Power and Place by Paul Frodsham and Colm O’Brien was my final read, and a good choice for that as it draws together so much.  It was written in 2005 so is of a time with Hillforts, but it draws all the archaeology of the site together.  This was particularly important for me because I was struggling to hold all the timelines together in my mind.

On the one hand there is the Iron Age Hillfort, dated variously to some time in the first millennium BC,  and situated on the summit of Yeavering Bell …Then there is the site of Ad Gefrin, on the whaleback below Yeavering Bell, and dated to Edwin’s rule in the 6th century AD. Brian Hope-Taylor’s excavation of this site ran from 1953-1962 … And in addition to all of this there is plenty of Bronze Age archaeology in this environment as well. Quite a lot to hold in the mind – each element of these stories is full of interest and history.

And Yeavering touches on all of them – not least the remarkable 20th century tale of the chance discovery of the Ad Gefrin site from the air in 1949.

All of this history filled our minds as we set out on a extraordinarily sunny late September day to ascend to the summit of the Bell …The ascent was just glorious …Though steep at times, still that springy soft turf underfoot …The sun catching the top of the hillfort ahead of us …Climbing up through the heather …Approaching the fort entrance …Reaching the cairn at the top …And glimpsing the view beyond …That view looking over the walls ..Finding a good picnic spot …A little piece of heaven …Cheers to that!Then – down from the heights, at the entrance to Ad Gefrin …Of the mighty royal estate of Ad Gefrin, there is now no evidence…But the Hill of the Goats remains …

A summer of Covid times…

At the beginning of May I wrote about our life in Lockdown, here on the north-east English coast, starting with a glorious pic of the view from our home. Writing now – some four months later – I can’t help but reiterate “the banner pic really says it all – it is glorious as ever at our Seaview home, even in these Lockdown times. How very lucky we are.”

Looking back on what else I wrote in May, there was gardening, pottering round our home, sewing and knitting projects – and of course, walks! All of which have continued much the same.

But there have been the relaxation-of-lockdown treats. Going back to the hairdresser for one …Stephen opted to attend my Seaview barber shop (complete with cat comb and my best dressmaking scissors) in late May …And very best of all – visitors! The first lot came up from London,  here socially-distanced on our lawn in early July …Followed by more family in August, this time travelling up from Devon and Cornwall.  The weather started cruel (particularly considering it was August) …But then turned benign … And there was the first meal out at lovely Atelier’s in Berwick … That felt like a very big thing as Berwick and our local coast have been packed with visitors who – presumably – couldn’t get to their usual continental destinations for their holiday.

A repeat walk to Cocklawburn beach in August left us very taken aback! Look at all those cars – and revisit my May blog to see how empty this beach was in early Lockdown. Very good for local business, of course – but just a trifle discomforting for us locals …That lurch from cruel to benign and back again has been the story of the last few months’ weather (and perhaps other things in the national covid story).

The black poppies flowered exquisitely in July …And then the pots had to be brought into the house to protect the flowers from the powerful gusty – and unseasonal – winds. It has been so very windy this summer! I  think the winds of summer 2020 will remain in my memory longer than the covid restrictions …There have been a awful lot of damp and foggy days – this was June … And even though the flower beds looked glorious with August colour, so many days have been overcast … Sometimes it’s been nastier than overcast – truly a miserable August day here, but, yes, there was light on the horizon …And, of course, when the weather’s gloomy, the beach empties – but it is still insanely beautiful … And fascinating to explore the seafoam – even us adults can’t resist …Despite some awful weather …We have been to the beach often enough to find some fascinating new beach treasures. I’ve never found old leather shoes before … This has to be one of the haggiest hagstonesUndeterred by the ups and downs of the weather, we have walked and walked, exploring inland Northumberland as perhaps never before. The countryside is so immensely varied round here – we have managed to find delightful places to explore for every sort of weather the gods have deigned to send us.

In late June’s scorching temperatures we headed for Hepburn woods to walk in  the shade of the trees  …It had a primeval feel to it …July saw us walking along the Tweed from Horncliffe – a day of sunshine and showers. Not my favourite walk – I can’t quite put my finger on why. Perhaps because it was overcast most of the way so the Tweed definitely wasn’t looking its best, and perhaps because this is all very much managed angler country. Still beautiful …Mown pathways – really to provide ease of access for anglers – make for easy walking …Interesting to see the weirs …July also saw us heading up Humbledon Hill on the edge of the Cheviots. This lingers in my memory as a star of a walk. For starters, the summer flowers were stunningly lovely. Whether it be banks of wild thyme …Or the intermingling of flowers and grasses and views …Or heavenly walking on soft springy grass up gentle gradients amid majestic surroundings …Or the view at the top – it was all just lovely. I dream of it still …But then July’s Cornhill walk was good too. This was along the old railway track that used to run from Berwick to Kelso. Wonderful wild flowers, easy level walking …And old bridges making such a powerful statement in the landscape … August saw us back in the Cheviot’s – this time walking up Great Hetha. We’ve climbed Great Hetha several times before, but never followed this particular route previously. Starting in the College Valley, we headed up through forestry plantations to little Trowupburn Farm, nestling in the folds of the hills …Then – on and up and up – To the glorious top – and the view …What a place for a picnic!We were back walking the old railway line again in September – these are great walks when the weather on the coast is just too windy for comfort. This time we followed a circular walk from Wark-on-Tweed …In the weeks since we last walked the old railway line, autumn has come …Fields have been harvested. So very beautiful …Last week we headed back to Hepburn woods, not to walk there but to use it as a base to climb up to Ros Castle Camp. Stunning views of the Cheviots and the Glen valley were the reward for this steep climb … Up and up through the heathery moorland …Then the next climb up to Ros Castle Camp itself …At the Sir Edward Grey memorial on the trig point at the top …With views over the moorland to the North Sea …And a brief stop at Chillingham Church on the way home – but alas, the church was still shut under Covid regulations … Back at home most of the fields have been harvested now …The last of the summer flowers are still hanging on as the golden field is ploughed brown …Our thoughts are turning – with the rest of the country – to winter and the fears of another Covid outbreak. At one time there were reports in the news of cats carrying the Covid virus …Are we bovvered? say Eggy and Ilsa – Naaaah!Alas, I cannot say with the cats that I am not “bovvered”. Our Seaview sanctuary has offered great solace through these summer months, but fear and worry are not far away. Some of the younger members of our family are looking for employment and some are travelling back to work again. Older folk have Covid in their care homes. Hearts for so very many are heavy. Stay safe.

Got my knitting needles sorted!

Many many moons ago my mother stitched me a fabric roll to contain my knitting needles. She made it beautifully, and I have treasured it and appreciated it for all these years …Thirty eight years ago, in fact …But over those 38 years, my knitting style had changed, and I have acquired modern needles that just don’t fit in the old holder. So I also had a box of knitting paraphernalia that looked like this…Recently, I saw this nifty little knitting needle holder on my Instagram feed, and a germ of an idea was sown. That’s just what I need! So I assembled my fabrics and treasures. It was very important to me that I make use of some of my nicest pieces of material for this project as I knew I was going to make something that would be a good friend for quite some time. In particular, I had quite a few pieces of beautiful Japanese fabrics and I thought they would look very well together.

I was also keen to restrict myself to what I could find in my own stash. Fabrics, of course, but also buttons, zips, ribbons etc Some of my early ideas (such as incorporating this charming rabbit embroidery as a flap to keep the needles in place) never materialised …It was definitely a very red project …First I made myself what all good dressmakers will know as a muslin (from an old sheet) …This was absolutely key to my whole project, and I referred back to it again and again as I progressed. It made clear to me, for example, that I had so many 4 mm needles that I would need a double pocket for them.

My muslin came our right at the beginning, before I had even cut any of my fabrics up, as I worked out exactly what size I was going to be working to …This then is the back layer (a wonderful piece of Japanese fabric my daughter gave me one Christmas) stitched onto the wadding (an old mattress cover), and ready for the second layer …Here is the second layer, and you can see how I used the muslin to mark out the pocket spacings …Kindly Ilsa dropped by at this point to cast a critical eye on my work …No, Ilsa, that’s not helpful!With Ilsa out of the way, it was now time to fit the third and final layer of back fabric …And once again consult the muslin for the placing of the pockets …Marking the stitching lines carefully with water erasable marker … Adding a few pieces from old dresses of mine to complete the centre panel … Just a little bit tricky to embroider the numbering …Getting a little carried away with the embroidering now …With the inner centre panel completed, it was time to move on to the side panels. I planned to make pockets to hold various knitting aides – stitchmarkers as well as the wires for my Knit Pro Symphonie needles …There was just enough of this fabulous scrap of Japanese silk  for the right side … I cut up a light net bag to make two see-through pockets to lie on top of the silk scrap …These were machine-stitched into place …But I had to hand-stitch the poppers to close these bags …On the other side, I decided to make two zippered pockets (reusing old zips of course). This fabulous batik printed lobster was part of my wedding dress – amazing really Stephen didn’t flee away quick …I handstitched the zips into place so as to be sure to get a really tight fit, and then machined the surrounding fabric to make secure pockets …Now for the outside cover. As it happened, I had been indulging in a little bit of happy mindless doodle-stitchery over the summer. This was an old dress passed on to me by a kind friend, and it lent itself so well to a bit of embroidery …It wasn’t quite long enough by itself, but was easy to extend with another piece of treasure from my stash. Now to quilt it all together …Just a few final touches now. My knitting needle holder needed an edging to finish it off.  What could be better than these lovely little Japanese flowers … Perfect edging for this project! You’ll see that I also added a couple of strips of vintage ribbon, roses on the right, and on the left – most usefully – a centimetre tape measure. And in the top right hand corner … ?Why – feeling smug after all this machining –  I gave myself Mrs Random-makes badge of sewing excellence!Just finally one thing to finish it all off before I put my knitting needles and accessories to the test – my own initials and the date …In go all my knitting and crochet accoutrements! A place for everything, and everything in its place!I think the outside is just as pleasing …But it’s also a thrill when it’s all scrolled up. With great good fortune I happened to have a lovely  Wallace#Sewell scrap in my stash  just perfect for holding my fabric scroll stylishly together …And even the cherry blossom binding gives me a frisson when seen all scrolled up like this ..Now I can’t wait to start a new knitting project because first I’ll have to get some knitting needles out of my new knitting needle organiser! 🙂

Alabama Chanin Style

I started my Alabama Chanin style dress well over two years ago – though it had been bubbling away in my mind for much much longer. Now I will always think of it as a Lockdown project because it is over these last few weeks that I have worked with most dedication and enthusiasm.

Way, way back in 2016 I was looking carefully at two little Japanese books I’d inherited from my father’s family. Nobody in the family today seemed to know very much about them. These pictures below show the covers, frontispieces and a couple of content pages …There were pages and pages of wonderful illustrations and designs  …I can’t read Japanese, and my father (who had been able to read Japanese) died in 2015, so I decided to put these illustrations up on my Instagram account in search of a translator …And I got one! Apparently these two little books were published in Tokyo in 1884 and 1881 respectively. The top book contains arabesque patterns for kimonos and the lower book shows crests and symbols of Japanese clans and families.

How did they come to my family, we wondered? Luckily my mother remembered the answer to that. Apparently my paternal great-grandmother had been an enthusiastic patron of all things Japanese, and is believed to have acquired these little books for her library … what treasure … I couldn’t really believe it …Anyhow – jumping forward to me and my humble little stitching plans, I found myself with a most fabulous resource of illustrations just made for embroidery and other designs ..

What I’d always wanted to do was to stitch myself a dress using the Alabama Chanin style of embroidery. This involves working with a double layer of fabric. Cutaways and very simple embroidery stitches make the pattern …I started with a practice piece using a variation of the leaf pattern above and working with old cotton t-shirts (as recommended in the book). And yes, I got a little bit carried away with the embroidery, but most importantly what I discovered was that I hated sewing cotton knit fabric. My needle struggled to pierce the fabric …As it happened,  I had found a double layer dress of very light woven cotton on Ebay … Just perfect, so now to find my pattern. I went back to my little Japanese pattern books, and selected a beautiful and quite simple design of falling maple leaves …I particularly associate maple trees with my father. He was always trying to make little bonsai trees with them during my childhood …With the image scanned from the little Japanese book, I then enlarged it and printed it out on stiff paper. That’s my template sorted. Now to cut the leaves out …I worked very slowly at first, sometimes adding pattern by tracing through the template …And sometimes building up the design by placing the maples leaves cut out from the template where I thought they might be effective …Either way, there was always that tricky moment of cutting the fabric …But then the fun starts and I could start stitching! Very basic running stitch round the leaves …Using a washable marker to ink in the maple leaf details …Stitching the details in with stem stitch …The stalks were stitched in chain stitch. Adding more colour …I’d completed the front of the dress …And moved the pattern over the shoulder and round to the back of the neck …When I came to a halt.  Not really sure why. But the project sat unloved for a year or so …

Until the virus struck this summer. I came back to the project like a madwoman – I guess Lockdown has a strange effect on us all. I found myself stitching madly and enthusiastically …Adding pattern to the sides of the dress …So that the maple leaves moved down the back, and round the body …Producing this trailing effect …I love this pic of the dress held up to the light so you can see all the little maple leaves silhouetted through the body …Finally just to hem it … and ta-dah! It’s finished! I am so pleased with the way it spirals round the sides …Under the arm …And, of course, down the back …What a fascinating mix of cultures and times and history are worked into it – the historic Japanese prints, the South-Eastern American techniques of Alabama Chanin, and me, at the vortex as it were, with a family connection to Japan, stitching away in the very north of England in the early 21st century Coronavirus Lockdown …

Lockdown Life

Well, the banner pic really says it all – it is glorious as ever at our Seaview home, even in these Lockdown times. How very lucky we are.

We continue to potter round in our garden with the help of our funny feline friends, Eggy and Ilsa …Who are eager to help with almost everything …Especially anything wheelbarrow …And of course the planting out of sweet-pea seedlings …In the greenhouse there has been sowing and growing of seeds …Which has necessitated some energetic digging to prepare veg beds for the new seedlings …Stephen has got the once-weekly shop down to a fine art, no longer arriving  to find a long queue …Being second in the queue is much more manageable …We celebrated Easter with tradition. I found this enchanting tablecloth in a local second hand shop, and it is my special Easter treat.  I don’t allow it to be used for long less somebody spill something on it … And I have been busy making Face Masks for family and friends …I was given this fabulous butterfly fabric by an internet friend, and thought it just right for a Face Mask  – but on second thoughts, perhaps it’s a little too extreme Silence of the Lambs for me … I’ve sent it to my daughter in London and she loves it …Still making more …We have the local beach in Spittal almost to ourselves …As the car parks are closed off …But very best of all are our weekly walks along the sea cliffs to the limekilns on Cocklawburn beach …On some trips the weather has been just a little challenging ..Especially if – like me – you wear glasses …But, even in the damp sea mist, Cocklawburn is very very lovely …No problems with social distancing here! Just the odd ghost train …Cattle huddled together …Most of our trips to Cocklawburn are more promising …The sea cliffs along the way are at their very best right now, sprinkled with tiny primroses and heavily scented with gorse …You can barely make out that powdering of primroses as you look down to the sea …But if you climb down a bit, why – that’s heaven on a plate! Primroses interspersed with violets …The cattle are a lot more friendly these days …We were amused to see on our return walk that this nursery encourages a post-prandial nap for the young!There is so much of fascination on this beach – never a dull moment. Sometimes visitors leave their own marks …Sometimes there are sad reminders of the harsh world outside …Always there are miracles in the sand like these beautiful ephemeral sandtrees …Often we find Cuddy Bead (those little circular crinoid fossils) treasure …And there is ancient as well as relatively modern history at the limekilns sitting above the prehistoric stone formations …An occasion for a birthday drink (we walked down here on Stephen’s birthday) before setting home … More likely a drink to the end of Lockdown …Like most of you, we miss our friends and family so very much, and the hardship and sadness of this difficult time is creeping ever closer to our Seaview sanctuary with loss and separation.  Beautiful it may be, but the heart can be very heavy. Stay safe.

Yet more knitted blankets …

Our house is full of knitted blankets – we really do not need any more!Nevertheless, over the past few years we’ve made several more, two more of them this last winter. They are all quite different in construction and size, but they still a pleasure to use on these wintry days …That’s Ilsa,-  cosily settled on the ruched throw I’ve recently completed …This is a really lovely pattern which you will find knitted in more muted single-colour tones on Ravelry here. I loved knitting it – and so did the cats, cuddling up with me as I beavered away on wintry nights …And it used up some (not all!) of my stash of handspun yarns …

It’s such a simple pattern, all knit in garter stitch.  The striped part of this blanket is doubled in stitches when it comes to the plain dark knit – thus giving a ruched effect.  I crocheted round the entire blanket several times to tidy the edges of my rather raggedy homespun …We all love this light little throw – perhaps the cats most of all. Indeed, there’s a possessive look to their presence here which is perhaps a little worrying …I really like knitting small blanket/throws. A year or so back, I knitted a green-toned one.  This was an adaptation of a pattern I found on Ravelry here. The Scrappy Lengthwise Scarf uses slip stitch  to make a scarf, but this pattern adapts very nicely to making a blanket.Such an convincing woven effect!While I wove all the ends in, Anne Wheaton used this pattern to great effect to make a fringed blanket. I stuck to habit and crocheted round my blanket …My only critcism is that slip stitches are very easy to catch!Definitely this winter’s pièce de résistance is the blanket we made of Stephen’s machine-knitted swatches …We’ve written before of Stephen’s machine-knitting designs and another blanket we have made from our knitted swatches.

This blanket started with me crocheting round the edges of his swatches and ironing them flat …Then they are laid out as we struggle to work out which pieces will fit where ..Not easy when Stephen has knit each piece to a different size! (Eggy doesn’t help either …)

Then there’s a long time while I stitch them together and we both get very fed up with the pieces lying on our sittingroom floor.  Finally the blanket goes into the washing machine for a light wash (to get rid of all that smelly machine-knitting oil), and out it goes to blow gently in the balmy Northumbrian breezes …The designer checks it out …It has an occasional home in our new (old) caravan. It doesn’t just look cosy, it really makes sleeping in there very cosy indeed …So it was well worth the effort.  But can I face next basketful of swatches?! Perhaps next winter …While I’m left contemplating the next knitted swatch blanket, I’ll hand you over to Stephen for him to explain the whys and wherefores of some of his patterns:

Inspiration for my patterns come from all over the place, from 60s op art to designs found in the built environment.
Several years ago we stayed for a few days in Ripon and explored the ruined abbeys of North Yorkshire. We found little surviving of Byland Abbey above ground level, but came across many medieval floor tiles still in situ, including this one.
I first designed a pattern to replicate it in knitted Shetland wool:
I then developed it to a second pattern adding a bit more interest
This is still very close to the original pattern. But my third pattern is much more developed, and it is quite hard to pick out the underlying original pattern:
The next pattern was designed and knitted in response to the Manchester Arena bombing. The bee is the symbol of the city, and both Katherine and I joined others all over the country showing our solidarity with the city in this terrible time by making small bee-patterned items. K made a padded heart, and I made this bee swatch to wrap it in.
The next pattern  is one I designed myself, and knitted in tuck stich – this was actually a tension swatch I used for scarves I knitted for my daughters last Christmas. The fascinating thing about tuck stich, where the wool is caught of the needle but not knitted, is that it distorts the pattern, with straight lines ending up slightly curved. In extreme forms of tuck stitch, when several rows of wool are not knitted, the tensions in the knitting make the fabric buckle and pucker in rather unpredictable ways.Finally, a pattern based on a very simple quadrant motif treated in several different ways.  Here the motif is put together in opposite pairs, and between the left and right side as shown the colours were reversed. Very effective, particularly when framed by Katherine’s crocheted border.
I used this pattern to knit several large panels for covers for our sofas. For these I also used another element that I like using in my designs, that of pure randomness. The width of each coloured band, and its colour was selected at random, using a simple computer program. Which version do you prefer, black quadrants on coloured stripes?
Or coloured quadrants on a black backgroud?
Food patterns for thought, hopefully!

Seaside gardening

I guess I should be honest … I’m really writing a gardening blog because – on a cold winter’s day – I badly need to remind myself how lovely summer can be in the Northern Hemisphere … Not that our garden has always been as it appears above … We moved to an unkempt wilderness, and, since we neither of us had any previous experience of coastal gardening, we turned to the authorities …

I treated myself to a copy of Mrs. Bardswell’s book on Sea-coast Gardens and Gardening …Her references made me laugh! Lady Battersea’s Overstrand garden is really rather grander than is relevant to our little Northumbrian coastal cottage garden.

… Salt airs stir leaves in broad plantations, red and white Roses stud smooth lawns, Lilies flower happily in the half-shade of trees, and pond-flowers are blooming in sylvan lake and pool. …

I think not for us!

But she did make valuable points, among them the importance of plant protection from the prevailing winds.

Success in sea-coast gardening is really a question of shelter. That must never be forgotten. If natural shelter be lacking, however, it is not difficult to build it up.

My elderly copy of Scotts Nurseries catalogue (veritably a gardening bible!) says much the same …

Once a hedge is established to keep out, or even filter, the drying salt-laden sea-winds many tender plants will flourish in our equable coastal climate …

Perhaps the most touching (and expert) advice came from my Aunty Jilly, here enjoying her lovely Edinburgh garden …These are her recommendations for planting for shelter … (somewhat disconcertingly she refers to First and Second Line of Defence as though preparing for a military siege) …So we did indeed plant for shelter – but from the prevailing and often boisterous westerly winds … hollies (variegated for effect), sea-buckthorn, rosa rugosa, ribes …Making a solid protective border of shrubs which the birds and smaller plants love … On the coastal side – looking south-east to the sea – we actually removed the existing defences … taking down the five foot fence so that we could see the sea …Sometimes we pay the price for this folly – as when vicious easterlies sweep in and burn … Just look at the bottom of those raspberry plants … But we can see the sea!We also got advice and inspiration from another source.  A local garden, designed by the wonderful Gertrude Jekyll …Lindisfarne Castle is just over the sea from us – it’s that bump on the horizon, glimpsed here in the soft glow of the evening light …In 1906 Gertrude Jekyll stayed at Lindisfarne Castle a couple of times while the architect, Edwin Lutyens, was also there. Lutyens had been commissioned to renovate the Castle by its owner, Edward Hudson.  It was Hudson’s idea to turn the old walled vegetable garden into a tennis and croquet lawn and develop the valley between it and the Castle into a pretty water garden.  In the event the pretty water garden never materialised – and the old vegetable garden became the Castle Garden where gardening wizard Jekyll worked her magic … We first visited the garden in the winter, so what struck us were the bones of the structure …Even in the winter it was clear that stachys lanata (aka lamb’s-ear) was the plant to grow in this locality … It does indeed flourish very happily in our garden. I think I’d go as far to say that it is one of the most contented of our plants … self-seeding happily … And that splash of silver sets off the other plants so well …Last summer we visited the garden for the first time in the summer months – July.  Normally we avoid the Castle and Garden at that time of the year as it is so busy.

It was indeed busy when we visited. But it was worth it.  And somehow the Garden felt very comfortable with all this busyness – perhaps because it is so fabulously beautiful and everybody was enjoying it so gently.

This is the view looking from the Garden back to the Castle – presumably the area where Hudson wanted his water garden …And if you angle your head a little bit more to the right you can see the mainland over the sea …Great swathes of colour everywhere …But the structure still strong and clear …Masses of sweetpeas …A bench from which to admire the view …Is it folly to take you now from this wonderful wonderful garden to our little patch of Northumbrian heaven to show you what we learned from Gertrude Jekyll … ?! Probably, but I’m going to risk it.

We don’t actually grow that many of the same plants as Jekyll and following gardeners have planted in the Lindisfarne garden. Sweet peas, yes, we do grow them, and they flourish very happily …

Sunflowers can be found both in Jekyll’s garden and ours … Undoubtedly the strength of our garden lies in the poppies which flourish all summer thanks to repeat sowings. They do grow poppies in the Lindisfarne Castle Garden (look behind that bench above) but not in the numbers that we do … Ours are not exclusively red … The other striking feature in Jekyll’s garden is that she’s not afraid of colour – great splashes of it!  Nor are there coy toning colours. Just glorious perhaps vulgar-in-some-eyes colour …We aren’t afraid of colour either.  Look at the strident yellow here: the broom echoing the local farmer’s rape field behind the fence …I think Jekyll would approve of the riot of spring colour provided by the wallflowers … And a little later in the year … lilies, alchemilla mollis, pinks, calendula … (and the ubiquitous poppies) … in vibrant clashing glory … Later in the year too when the crocosmia and loosestrife clash comfortably before the harvested field … In my opinion the most important thing for a seaside seaview garden is a good bench …And I’d like to think that Gertrude Jekyll would agree …

Stash heaven

A new year …. new projects, new thoughts, new ideas … And, after the rush of Christmas and its busy preparations, January offers such space, such time!

I promptly filled the space with a new project – one of my favourites.  Out came my fabric stash. This is messy play in our small house on a grand scale …And the cats love it!I dig deep into my stash for various projects – doodle stitcheries, patchwork quilts, and, of course, GiveWraps

But my stash is a great sentimental and luscious pleasure, so this week (as my husband was away and I could take time with my mess) I indulged myself on a slow journey through these beautiful fabrics and some of the stories behind them.

The core of my stash came to me via my Australian grandmother Dora, then in her second incarnation as a grand Leicester lady. Married to a local businessman, she would often have occasion to dress up glam, and she could really go to town properly.  Here she is at a smart event in the 1960s …And a few years earlier at a London wedding …These beautiful beautiful dresses were made for her by her Leicester dressmaker, Fernanda. I have very vague memories of visiting Casa Fernanda when my grandmother attended for a fitting – wish they were more vivid!  But what I do have – perhaps even more precious – is scraps from the dresses of other Leicester ladies which Fernanda would save for my grandmother. I doubt if any other of the Leicester ladies wanted these pieces, but my grandmother, my mother – and my great-grandmother – were enthusiastic patchworkers and treasured these scraps.

Later, the leftovers came to me … I don’t have many of them left now, but those I do have are Glamorous! See that tiny little gold piece in the middle? Far too small for me to ever do anything with it, but I keep it as a memory of the gorgeous ostentation of those Leicester ladies …My grandmother only went to Casa Fernanda for the seriously smart stuff. The rest she made herself. She had a particular penchant for batiks which has left a lasting influence on my own taste, – and what sits in my fabric stash.  Here she is in her beautiful Leicester garden, wearing a dress made of Egyptian cotton – and yes, I still have pieces of this material …As I do have of this batik dress that she is wearing outside her London garden in 1971 …I wonder how representative a sample this is of my grandmother’s taste that still sits in my stash?  There’s certainly lots of batik and Indian fabric, also some Thai silks and you might just be able to make out a scrap of fabulous pinky-green tweed. She wasn’t afraid to wear vibrant colours and strong patterns …When she died in 1980, a great many of her batik dresses came to me – I guess nobody else in the family wore such patterns. They were mostly shift dresses which the younger me disdained, so I re-pieced them into other styles. As there wasn’t a great deal of fabric in a shift dress, my trick was to mix several of her dresses into a very 70s-style smock dress. The irony is that now I am in my 60s, I wear lots of shift dresses, and would happily wear these dresses of my grandmother’s. But they are long cut up and re-pieced …

A major contribution to my stash (and my mother’s as well) was a donation of imperfect tie silks.  My parents were living in Kent at the time, near to a factory where fine silk ties were made – and these are just a few of the fabrics. I still have lots left. Indeed, I was amused when I looked these pieces out to see that some of the bundles are still wrapped in elastic bands as they were when they arrived. I guess they’ve just never been used …These have been fabulously useful pieces of strongly coloured material, used in so many projects. Again, there wasn’t really a lot of any one piece of fabric, so the trick was to be ingenious with their use – as here, lining sleeves with different coloured fabrics.  Who would ever know?I wonder if some of you will find my next collection of scraps as evocative as I do? They are so much of my 1970s youth!

Clothkits, Liberty and Laura Ashley really made such a big contribution to our fabric world – and in those days people really did make their own clothes.  John Lewis in London had the entire ground floor dedicated to sales of fabric and cloth. We would pick up fantastic Tana Lawn and Varuna Wool fabrics at Liberty’s in the sales.  Many of these pieces are too small to ever be much use in a project – just look at the snip of red with white spots fabric! – but they won’t be thrown away any time soon …In the 1990s another wonderful gift came our way with a bundle of unwanted church silks. My parents had moved to Wells in Somerset, and my mother – a very find needlewoman – offered her services to the good ladies who repaired the cathedral altar clothes and clergy vestments.  If you know your Christian year, you can identify the fabrics below: red fabrics (used for the commemoration of martyrs), purple fabrics (used in seasons of penance like Advent and Lent) and yellow or gold (used for days of celebration like Easter).  Not much green because that was the fabric of ordinary time and so probably the most used. But aren’t they wonderful?!  So wonderful that I just get them out, stroke them and put them very carefully back again – no, sometimes, I allow myself to use just a little …I’ve been so very lucky – all sorts of people have given me their old dresses so I can make use of the fabrics. These are just a few of them. I particularly love that yellow scrap – from a dress either my mother or grandmother wore in the 1950s.  How I wish I had more of it!But it’s the green fabric with black/brown flowers that really sparked my imagination and sent me off on my first doodle stitchery. Thank you so much, Mandy, for passing this dress on to me …These are all scraps from my clothes – not necessarily my handmade clothes.  Some of these are dresses I wore as a child which my mother made, and some of them are from garments I purchased readymade.  In those cases, I loved the fabric so very much that when the garment no longer suited/fitted me, I kept the fabric for sewing projects …Perhaps a preponderance of red and orange …? Yes, I did use to wear a lot of orange when I was younger …And I did get married in orange batik too, which must say a lot for my taste …More generous donations – this times animal print fleece. I have very little of this left, I guess because I must have used it up on children’s projects …Clockwork Orange scraps left over from my daughter Helen’s art school studies …Look at this wonderful collection of pieces that Helen found for me from another art school! I am struck by the OTT glitteriness of these fabrics – they remind me rather of the fabrics the Leicester ladies wore in my youth …And this is batik heaven! The imagery and colours used by African wax designers is really unsurpassed. My Instagram friend in Nice, Isabelle, shares my passion for batik fabric and has given me many of these lovely pieces. Thank you so very much!And, of course, I’m still wearing batik fabrics …Yet more fabulous fabrics have come my way from other friends on social media.  A big, big thank you to Claire, Anne and Louise.  These pieces are all treasured and admired, lingering in the mind as little nuggets of inspiration …I think what I love most is the picture fabrics …So what did I make from this heavenly stash play, I hear you ask …? Well, I made some GiveWraps, my stock of GiveWraps being reduced by the Christmas season of giving …

This GiveWrap use pieces from an old Japanese yukata which I loved so much that I wore it out.  It is good to see these beautiful Japanese ladies taking pride of places amid the other fabrics.  I guess I won’t be passing this on any time soon, as this fabric is so very precious to me …Quite a contrast here! These strong fabrics are almost all from old dresses of mine …Orange – rich glowing orange. The centerpiece and many of the side pieces are fabric prints made by my cousin, Polly …More of Polly’s prints here – a mixed bag … I hope the colours I’ve used draw them together …And my favourite – orange and purple – what a heavenly strong mix! Just a glimpse of a butterfly from one of Isabelle’s statement batik fabrics in the centre …That’s what I did in the first weeks of the new year.  And then my husband came home and I tidied away the fabrics for another month or so … (He doesn’t mind my fabric mess really …)

I’m struck by the generosity of so many friends, businesses and organisations which has gone to make up this collection. It gives me so much pleasure. Thank you all so very much. And Happy New Year!

A summer’s stitching …

I can tell autumn is on it’s way – not from that chill morning smell in the air, nor the blowsiness of the garden … No, it’s because I am all stitched out for this summer …

Last year, a visiting American friend brought me some lovely presents – two little hand-made bags and an exquisite glass heart – all charmingly wrapped up in a little flowery handkerchief …About the same time, another dear friend (this time from Nice) sent me some of her left-over fabric scraps – knowing how much I enjoy piecing odd little stitcheries together …Well, somehow these bits and pieces came together, and before I knew what it was June – and that little handkerchief was the centrepiece of a summer doodle stitchery … I don’t know why earlier incarnations of this piece escaped the roving eye of my iPhone, but there it is, they did.  I think it is because I struggled – I really struggled – to get this piece going further. Frankly, I struggled even to enjoy the stitching …

What changed for me round about June was that I eventually began to train myself  to look at my stitchery differently. It continued to be a bit of a struggle for a while. But I found I could stop aiming for a finished product, and focus on the particular, the different constituent parts of this embroidery. And how very different they all are!

There are twittering birds. With embroidered French knots those little birds began to twitter more and more …The cats’ glasses became even more extravagant …Their bow-ties flashier …The Mayan figures (scraps from my daughter) got glasses too …And little Japanese doll companions …One Mayan figure sprouted cats from its head …Which grew more and more elaborate as the stitching went on …Until there was a great totem pole of be-glassed cats …In the centre of the panel the flowers grew more ornate …With little decorative centres …Embroidered dragonfly hovered about them … (Copied from another stitchery of mine) …Another fabulous fabric bundle of scraps arrived, this time from my friend Claire …Did you see the silk cloud fabric just peeking out at the top from under the cat? Well, all of a sudden there were clouds in my stitching … little ones …And big ones too …And medium sized ones as well …And some time in the stitching, it began to snow little cherry-blossom flowers …I spent many evenings cutting out these fiddly little fabric pieces …Pinning them on …Suddenly there were loads of them …I am sad to say (but not surprised to record) that the kits were no respecter of my work …Finding it a comfortable pad from which to survey their domain …And boy does Eggy love my embroidery basket!Earlier this month I realized I was approaching the time when it all needed to be drawn together – it needed a border. Perhaps blue seashell fabric? Hmmm, I think not …But I could pick out that turquoise spotty fabric? No, too swimming … Now how about some dark ikat fabric? Ah, now that’s worth trying! It’s a surprisingly light fabric so needed some gentle wadding folded into the frame …And a nice bit of stitching along the ikat border to hold it all in place …Now for some final cherry blossom snowflakes to tie it all together …The outer dark ikat border is transformative, sending the inner dark border of the original handkerchief into recess, as though a window opening onto another world.  I am so very pleased!  It has to be time to finish stitching …

My weird and wonderful world of birds and cats
with glasses …

Just a bit of summer fun …