Our brick collection

It has been busy, busy, busy at Seaview what with elections, visitors, – and a film crew! A certain film company read my blogs on our beach treasure collections and our local seaside walk and thought we might fit into the storyline they were working on. So one blissfully hot Sunday in May, we had an invasion …They snapped up our view ….photographer capturing the viewWhile we laid out our curious beachy collections ….In preparation for this visit, I had tidied up our brick collection (as you do) ….Bricks outside our conservatoryAnd since I mentioned our brick-collecting in Sanquhar in my last blogpost, I thought I would continue here with more of our brick story.

We started collecting  bricks the first winter we were here. Over that icy first winter of 2010/11, our walks regularly took us to the spit (the sand mound between the river and the sea at Spittal Point). At this time the spit was a long protruding neck of sand running along the Tweed opposite Berwick.looking over to Berwick from the SpitThere were all sorts of treasures washed up on these shifting sands, midway between the river Tweed and the open North Sea.washed up treasures on the SpitAmong them were bricks …Finding bricks on the seashoreAccording to one local we spoke to, workmen demolishing buildings in Berwick’s Marygate to make way for the bus station (now in its turn demolished) threw the old bricks into the river Tweed. Gradually these bricks are being washed up onto the local beaches.

I say gradually because that first winter we found a lot of bricks. Then the sands of the spit shifted, moulded by storms and floods and wind and weather, and our brick-collecting almost stopped. For a long while we found very few bricks on the beach. Now I’m delighted to report the bricks are back again!

Back to that first winter: we would regularly carry a brick back each from the beach – if not two. What has really defined our brick-collecting is the writing on the bricks. They all tell a story.

Let’s take Niddrie as an example.The Niddrie brick works was on the south-east of Edinburgh. Founded in the 1920s to accommodate the expansion in house building, the brickworks were demolished in 1991. If you’ve ever visited the Fort Kinnaird retail park, you’ve visited the site of the Niddrie brickworks! I love Niddrie bricks – this one is warmly golden and we know they were solidly made because we often find them undamaged.Other bricks from other places. Glenboig, Castlecary and Boghead Glasgow all hail from areas round Glasgow. Backworth is a Durham brick, and like many brickworks adjoined the local colliery. A ready supply of fuel and waste from the mining often supplied the perfect materials for the brick making.

A couple of Castlecary bricks in this collection below indicate the variety of brick that might have been produced from a single brickworks.The Sandysike brick below comes from an area north of Carlisle. This is an area that has a history of brick making dating back to Roman times.Our interest in these local bricks has inspired enthusiasm in other family members. It’s not unusual for us to send a car back to the Westcountry laden with Dougall bricks. You betray your age here: the young fondly remember Father Ted, and I hark back to The Magic Roundabout. Either way, this has nothing to with the real history of the Dougall brickworks. They were made at Bonnybridge, north-east of Glasgow, from 1896 to 1967.In turn our Westcountry family has supplied us with some nice bricks. St Day hails from a Redruth brickworks. And I particularly like these old tiles designed to protect electricity cables which were also a gift from the Westcountry.Of particular relevance to Berwick with its history as a long-time grain exporter are these granary bricks. The holes in the bricks were designed to aerate the grain. I believe they were made at a Nuneaton brickworks, north of Coventry.Some are superior to others. Compare the glazed brick here (reminding me so much of Victorian jelly moulds!) with the rough-cast granary brick below. The added patina of green mound is from sitting in damp parts of our garden.I am deeply indebted to several knowledgeable and brick-loving websites for all the historic information which I have linked to, and I have listed my sources at the end of this blog. I guess those writers and researchers, like me, are fascinated by industrial archaeology and the ordinary stories of human labour and habitation tied up with brick manufacture.

For me the pleasure in bricks also lies in the tones, shapes and colours of all the different bricks and how they marry up with the flowers in our garden. Poppies and forget-me-nots self seed in the gaps.A collection of bricks sits around Gary, our classy garden gnome, and the planter, here full of spring flowers …And here, later in the season, featuring poppies ….The bricks come in handy about the house for all sorts of purposes.Actually, our present abundance of bricks makes me chuckle – when I lived in Devon I was always short of bricks! Some twenty years or so ago, I had a spell of making doorstops from half-bricks and would guard those few bricks I found jealously. You’ll recognise my language obsession here too. This doorstop is a pleasing play on Francis Thompson’s poem, The Kingdom of God: “Turn but a stone and start a wing.”And here, from the same poem: ‘Tis your estrangèd faces, That miss the many-splendored thing.”I don’t think these compressed lines from Dylan Thomas’s poem Fern Hill perhaps work so well here (I’ve used too many colours): “Now as I was young and easy […] Prince of the apple towns […] Time let me play and be golden […] in his mercy.”There are an odd few doorstops that are a bit wonky and without words.Nowadays I find myself more drawn to bricks than ever. They stand out on an ordinary walk round the countryside … or a nearby village ….We were delighted to find this wonderful brick sculpture by Julia Hilton in the beautiful and mysterious boggy gardens at Paxton House. Her sculpture, aptly called Entrances, is made of old bricks from the Armadale brickworks.And a visit to the local builders’ merchant offers new unexpected delights!!As to that film crew – well, we’re still waiting to hear too ….

I have drawn on these excellent internet sources for historic information on brick making:

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To Cumbrae and back through the Scottish borderlands

Last Monday we left our home near Berwick and drove over the country to the Scottish west coast, roughly on exactly the same longitude as our home in England. It has always fascinated me that we are so close, have so much in common … and yet are so different.To our delight, whilst English Berwick on the east coast was bitterly cold, Cumbrae, in Scotland on the west of the UK, was sky-blue – shorts and sandals weather! We waited for the ferry to take us from Largs to the Isle of Cumbrae.Our visit to the Isle of Cumbrae was prompted by my wish to visit West Kilbride and some very talented Scottish craftswomen there.  Stephen was tasked with finding us somewhere to stay in the locality … and he came up with the College of the Holy Spirit, which adjoins the Cathedral of the Isles on Cumbrae.These establishments were designed by William Butterfield in 1851, at the request of the 6th Earl of Glasgow, George Frederick Boyle. Boyle was an enthusiast of the Oxford Movement, believing in the reinstatement of older Christian traditions.  He wanted the College to train priests for the Episcopal Church – perhaps like the men enjoying the College grounds in this old print below.Alas, Boyle, an enormously generous and devout man (he was also pouring money into the building of Perth Cathedral at this time) depended too much perhaps on divine providence – Dominus Providebit (God will provide) is the Boyle family motto – and went bankrupt in 1885.Luckily the College Chapel had been consecrated as Cathedral for the Scottish Episcopal Church United Diocese of Argyll & The Isles in 1876, so the Diocese was already responsible for these buildings.

The Cathedral Spire towers over the island, even when glimpsed from the hills above.We first glimpsed it through the trees. You get an idea of Butterfield’s original concept from this drawing that appeared on the front of “Butterfield Revisited”, edited by Peter Howell and Andrew Saint, and published by the Victorian Society. The Cathedral stands proud, surrounded by manicured lawns, with a young avenue of lime trees.That’s not how it is now!  The Diocese may have funded the Cathedral buildings, but there was no money to pay for garden upkeep.

By a magical transformation, those uncared gardens have become wild and more beautiful than one could imagine. Trees have grown up everywhere – the lime avenue is enormous. Underneath the trees, are masses and masses of flowering ramsons (wild garlic).The fine lawn banks host bluebells as well as the ramsons.I do so hope George Boyle is not turning in his grave as he contemplates the changed garden!  He is indeed buried here – in the large flat tomb in the foreground of this picture. He must have loved this place very much. It is extraordinary to find such buildings on such a tiny island. Butterfield’s vision of this small group of buildings is harmonious and elegant.  Here you have the windows of the Lady Chapel, the Cathedral and the Refectory – all varied in pattern and size, but united in stone and form. And look how very deftly Butterfield has highlighted the Cathedral window with the descending dove of the Holy Spirit above it.We stayed in the North College which had once housed the choristers. Our room was the upper left hand window, set amidst the tiles.  We had the place to ourselves for the first couple of nights, and after that only another couple came and stayed at the other end of the building. It was extraordinary!The rooms are called after Christian virtues.  Ours was Fortitude ……hmmm.Inside was all dark wood and heavy carving. The corridor …The fireplace in our bedroom ….. huge and cumbersome!The common room …What I didn’t like was the inside of the Cathedral.  It looks OK from here …But once you go up into the Chancel, you get tile madness!  I don’t care for the Victorian tones of green and brown anyhow, but, that to the side, it looks to me as though some student was told to see what variety of patterns they could come up to fill the space available. It’s truly tile pattern madness!Sometimes we joined Warden Amanda and Lay Chaplain Alastair for morning and evening prayers – quiet and peaceful, though the Scottish rite (just slightly different from the Anglican one we know) caught us out a bit …Outside the calm inner sanctuary lurked danger … In the evenings we explored Millport.  I don’t think the authorities meant us to take this image away with us ….And we chuckled at this …..There are lots of boarded up properties round Millport, looking just a little bit sad and unloved … Masses of rabbits everywhere … (not an easy place to be a gardener, I guess) …Including several black ones (or was it the same one and it just got round a lot?)  …After our evening walks, we went back to the College and lowered the ecclesiastical tone, sitting in the warm, evening sunshine with a bottle of wine …The road round Cumbrae is perfect for cyclists of all ages.  This looks like a 1960s group setting out to enjoy a bicycle ride en famille.You can hire all sorts of cycles …We hired two quite ordinary bikes to get round the island.  This was extremely brave of me since I haven’t been on a bike for well over 15 years.  It was a glorious ride, and despite much moaning on my part (the seat was horribly uncomfortable), it was a wonderful experience.Picnic lunch and an opportunity to enjoy the view of the islands of Bute and Arran (grey and lowering in the far distance).I don’t think I have ever seen a war memorial as powerful as this. It is dedicated to the men and women of the British and Allied forces who have no known grave.After our bicycle tour of the island, we spent a couple of days on the mainland about West Kilbride. I got to do the workshop that I have longed to do for so long with lovely Lorna of Chookiebirdie.  We spent an entire day sewing together …. Oh, just look at this sewing heaven!Lorna was teaching me to make paisley botehs like these ones of hers.And I was so thrilled with what I made that I have only just stopped carrying it round with me!Another day I finally got to visit Old Maiden Aunt’s yarn shop in West Kilbride – somewhere else I’ve longed to go to for ages! So many gorgeous colours.  And we got to peak into her dye studio too. As an amateur dyer, it’s fascinating for me to see her professional systems – though perhaps the multi-coloured spatters behind the pots is the give away that Lilith herself might not call it that …I have to confess that I find yarn buying overwhelming.  I may have decided that I am going to make a green scarf, and need green wool, but when I see the yarns available, all my carefully thought out plans go awry.  This is what we came away with – all lovely stuff, but not a lot of green, and certainly not the grassy-greens I had in mind …At the Barony in West Kilbride we found an amazing exhibition of Radical Craft. Doesn’t this Landfill Tantrum by Pinkie MacLure just say all you really long to say about waste and rubbish and pollution?!!Who could not love Rosemary McLeish’s What I Do When I Don’t Do The Ironing ?! Dedicated I think to all those who hate this chore …But the pièces de résistance for me were these two works paying homage (as it were) to Angus McPhee.  They were both made by Joanne B Kaar – the boots are copies of Angus McPhee’s orginal boots (those too fragile to be exhibited now) and she made the hats in the spirit of his work. I came upon the story of Angus McPhee from Donnie Monro’s song, Weaver of Grass.  As far as I can see the pop song world is dominated by mostly saccharine love songs, so  it amazes and delights me to hear such a glorious song about a mentally ill man. Perhaps it is really a love song in another guise …..

Time then to say goodbye to the little Isle of Cumbrae. The weather was changing as we headed back to Largs …On to sunny Sanquhar – another place I’ve wanted to visit for a long time because of their famous knitting designs.  The little Tolbooth Museum there is a gem …Holding information about and examples of lots of historic Sanquhar knitting patterns …..We were also interested in the displays there about the local brickworks.As it happens, we have a small collection of lettered bricks.  This started with us finding them on our local beach at Spittal.  There is an entire history of northern English and Scottish collieries and brickworks to be revealed from those names.  Luckily the lovely museum attendant at the Tolbooth Musuem knew just where to send us!And so we found ourselves quite unexpectedly rooting around the old Sanquhar brickworks.There were the sad remnants of the buildings ….And we found a brick or two …..Most poignantly, Clarks Little Ark, an animal rescue shelter at this site, have constructed a memorial wall of the old bricks for those dear ones they have lost.Finally our last stop in Sanquhar, the Euchanfoot B & B – and, yes – would you believe it! – more bricks!  (along with a very comfortable room and delicious breakfast).Norma, our lovely hostess, explained that the collapsed old mill buildings which stood at the end of her garden were now just a pile of local bricks.  So there we were, brick-foraging again ….Time to go home – perhaps crawl would be a better description for our heavily-brick-laden car. The weather got nastier and nastier as we travelled up through the Lowther hills …Still extraordinarily beautiful ….We had decided to travel back via the source of the River Tweed, high up in the Lowther Hills. There, masked in the mist and murk, we found this sign. From this point, a tiny stream and all the little tributaries that run into it flow eastwards to where it meets the sea on Spittal beach.This is an iconic spot to many (including us) because it is a great river. Appropriately there is a finely ornamented stone, incorporating words that speak off the Tweed: “it is one of Britain’s cleanest rivers …”Sadly, it was not a clean site.  The rubbish was disgusting and a terrible reflection on lazy, casual visitors. I have an uncomfortable idea that people feel they have license to behave so because Dumfries and Galloway council have not provided a litter bin ….Oh dear, what a negative way to end a great holiday!  So I won’t.  As we travelled through the Borders, the sun shone through the damp leaves, and we slowed down to enjoy the wonderful countryside …. and an antique Rolls Royce … Festina Lente!

Tape measure tidies

Some eighteen months ago I posted this picture on my Instagram feed. These are small felt tape measure containers that my mother made.original-instagram-pic-october-2015Several people were kind enough to be interested in these little containers, and I was asked if I had a pattern.  Well, I didn’t, but now – over a year later – yes, I do!

I started by examining the oldest tape measure tidy quite carefully. It’s all made from felt with just a cardboard inner at the base and in the lid. All the stitching is buttonhole stitch (also known as blanket stitch), but it is a little bit fancier on the lid, with some woven threads to enhance the buttonhole stitch. It’s very old (with a few mothy marks on the bottom). I’ve had it as long as I can remember, and I really treasure it.examining-oldest-tmt-carefullystitches-joining-pieces-of-original-tmtinside-old-tmtdiscovering-cardboard-base-of-original-tmtI think my mother made the other two tape measure tidies much later in life for sale at her local church.  Although she’s used a different stitch (an Oversewing stitch), the decorations on the lid and the rest of the work are very similar to the old one. The only real difference I can identify (apart from the stitches) is that she has lined the cylinder with card.exmining-top-of-one-of-the-old-tmtsexamining-bottom-of-old-tmtsinside-other-tmtsTo make one of these tape measure tidies, you will need:

  • Thick cardboard to make your own templates
  • Thin cardboard for lining
  • Felt
  • Beads
  • Embroidery floss (I used three strands of DMC or Anchor embroidery cotton)
  • Fabric glue (I used Impex Hi-tac Fabric glue)

You first need to select your felt colours.selecting-the-felt-colourwayHere are the templates I worked with, devised from my mother’s old work.cardboard-templates-for-new-tmtsUse the templates shown above to cut:

  • one large rectangle (3 x 11.9cm) of felt for the outside of the cylindrical case
  • one smaller rectangle (2.7 x 11.6cm) of felt for the inside of the cylindrical case
  • one smaller rectangle  (2.7 x 11.6cm)of thin cardboard for the lining of the cylindrical case
  • three large rounds (3.8cm diameter) of felt for the outer base of the cylinder and the top and bottom of the lid
  • one small round (3.5cm diameter) of felt for the inner base of the cylinder
  • two small rounds (3.5cm diameter) of thin cardboard for the linings of the base of the cylinder and the lid

First assemble the pieces to make the cylinder and its base.cut-out-pieces-for-bottom-of-tmtGlue the inner cardboard to the outer felt. glue-cardboard-to-sides-of-feltAnd then glue the felt lining to the already glued pieces to make a felt-cardboard-felt sandwich.glueing-felt-innerBefore the glue dries, it is important to work this sandwich into a curved shape.bending-glueing-bottom-side-piece-before-glue-sets Then you can glue the round base pieces similarly (outer felt base, cardboard lining, inner felt) and leave both pieces to dry for an hour or so.glued-pieces-of-bottom-of-tmtWhen the glue has dried satisfactorily, overstitch the top of the cylinder sides with blanket stitch (or oversewing stitch if you prefer)buttonhole-stitch-along-topWhen you have completed working round the top of the cylinder, join the two ends together, still working in buttonhole stitch.joining-cylinder-with-buttonhole-stitchAnd work down the side of the cylinder, using what I believe is called Buttonhole Insertion stitch (you can see a rather more elaborate version of that stitch here)joining-cylinderUntil you have completely joined the sides of your tube together.completing-felt-cylinderThen you can join the felt base to the tube, again using Buttonhole Insertion stitch.joining-base-to-cylinderAnd working all the way round until you have joined bottom and sides completely.completing-joining-of-base-to-cylinderIt should look like this.completed-baseNow to make the lid.

In one of my early attempts (the purple and pale blue example below), I followed the same procedure as when making the sides and base. I made a felt-cardboard-felt sandwich of two larger rounds of felt and one smaller piece of cardboard (see measurements above). When the glue was dry, I stitched round the circumference and sewed the lid to the base.

Now to have some fun with decoration, I thought!  I glued on some leaves, let them dry, and then started to stitch. Big mistake!  Because, of course, the completed lid is really inflexible at this point making it very tricky to sew.embroidering-completed-lidI did manage to sew some beads on … stitching-on-beads-to-complete-lidAnd add a little stitchery to the leaves. But it wasn’t at all easy – didn’t allow for anything really fancy.finishing-embroidery-on-completed-lidSo, what I recommend is that you embroider and decorate the top felt layer of the lid before you stick the lid parts together. I decided to work a Chain Stitch pinwheel on this lid.working-the-lid-pattern-in-chain-stitchchain-stitch-pattern-on-lid-completedThen I added some beads.adding-some-beads-to-lidcompleted-lid-embroideryAnd when that was completed, I stuck the three layers of felt – cardboard – felt together.glueing-lid-pieces-togetherWhen the glue was dry, I blanket-stitched round the circumference, and finally stitched the lid to the base.stitching-round-lid-edges-and-sewing-lid-onTo finish, I sewed on a bead fastener, and made a buttonholed loop to hold the tidy shut. Et voilà! My completed Tape Measure Tidy!buttonhole-stitch-loopNo, better than that, seven little Tape Measure Tidies!  My trials and experiments along with the three old ones my mother had made.seven-tape-measure-tidies-old-and-newShould you wish to make a Tape Measure Tidy of your own, I hope you’ll find this tutorial helpful.  If any bits are muddled, incomprehensible or downright wrong, please let me know ….

Mending

The penalty for having such a nice time before Christmas making all sorts of fun creative gifts was that a large pile of mending didn’t get done!  Despite the exciting projects bubbling away in my mind with the start of a new year, I knew that I had to be strict with myself and clear the decks of some these mending chores before I started anything new. I know I won’t be alone in needing clean, fresh space and a clear mind before starting new projects. It’s deeply important to how I approach a new idea that all the old bits and pieces associated with previous projects be put away.  Not so much the slate washed clean – more the spare room bed (AKA my Woolly Room) be emptied of clutter.

So to the mending then! We are great menders here.  At the heart of it – far beyond the desire to help our planet (though that’s important too) – is the fact that we like our old things, and it makes us sad to get rid of them.  Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than with Stephen and his attitude to his clothes.  He loves his existing stock of check shirts with a passion …..err, no, I wouldn’t go that far.  But they are part and parcel of our lives, being mostly hand-me-downs from a motley selection of family.  His very favourites came from his oldest daughter’s ex-boyfriend, and have never been superceded in affection.

So, though my heart sinks when I see his shirts with frayed collars and hole patches on the elbow like this …stephens-shirts-needing-repairI know how very much it means to him, that with a little loving attention …old-repairs-need-new-attentionActually, particularly loving attention, and very hard work when they get as bad as this …collar-of-shirt-in-a-very-bad-wayThey can be carefully re-pieced ….machining-black-cat-repairIt’s worth it in the end … when they are almost as good as new …black-cat-repair-on-shirtIronically enough, the more loving repair and attention his shirts get, the more precious they become, and the less likely it is that we will throw them out ever!repaired-shirtEven his trousers needed repair this time.  I minded this less, because although trouser repairs are hard work, the only damage to these jeans is where he caught the leg on barbed wire …trousers-requiring-repairA new patch carefully stitched on …careful-trouser-repairsAnd a little loving sashiko work …sashiko-work-on-the-trousersI may criticise Stephen for hanging on to old friends for far too long, but truth to tell, I’m just as bad.  This chiffon leopard print scarf once belonged to my grandmother, so even though it was as worn as this …worn-out-animal-print-scarfIt’s worth putting in the repairs (even though the fabric is perishing as I stitch)…repairing-the-animal-print-scarfFrom a distance you might say it ended up as good as new …animal-print-scarf-mendedI finally got round to sewing on the replacement buttons on my vintage alpaca coat …replacement-buttons-on-my-winter-coatThey don’t really look that special like that, but up close and personal you can see how very beautiful these buttons are.  They also belonged to my grandmother, and I have longed for ages to find a garment worthy of these beautiful mother-of-pearl buttons.  Aren’t they just gorgeous!!mother-of-pearl-buttonsSo that’s the clothes sorted.  Now you might think that I could rest on my laurels, and turn my attention to a new project.  But no, there is more repair work to do!

This is an old wooden red lacquer tray – so worn that the picture has almost completely disappeared. Can you just make out a faint Japanese scene? I broke it a couple of years ago …broken-red-lacquer-trayI must have picked it up carelessly, because the corner just crumbled off in my hand, the wood so friable that it just snapped.  Luckily, very easy to glue together, and the tray just looks a little bit shabbier.detail-of-broken-traySome repairs have hung around waiting for love and attention for a long time – because I really don’t want to do them.  The laundry basket was just such a case.detail-of-damaged-laundry-basketI won’t tell you in so many words how the damage occurred.  Let the picture speak for itself …naughty-ilsa-destroying-laundry-basketI hesitated to get started with repairs because I wasn’t really sure how I was going to tackle it.  But once I started – with some of my homespun, hand-dyed yarn – it sort of fell into place. Binding round the edges … starting-laundry-basket-repairsAnd then a little weaving to tie in the broken bits …repairing-the-laundry-basketI am so pleased with the end result!laundry-basket-repair-completedAnd so, I think, is Ilsa!ilsa-loves-the-laundry-basketAnother sort of repair project that I have just completed was to make a cover for the old leather photograph album which housed the photographs of my father’s Australian childhood. Old leather powders and sheds which isn’t only unpleasant because it leaves brown dust everywhere, but causes further damage to the leather.  It was housed in an old plastic bag, but plastic can’t be good for leather, so I decided to make the very precious album its own special cover.

I cut up an old tablecloth that I found at a local charity shop and machined a cover together, and then decided to stitch a label on the cover.  First to print out a mirror image of the words I wanted to embroider …preparing-lettering-for-transferThen to iron the text on …transferring-lettering-with-the-ironNow the embroidery work …stitching-lettering-on-photo-album-caseIt looks OK …rehousing-the-old-photo-albumA very satisfactory result for a family treasure …newly-covered-photo-albumHmm …. that’s almost it.  But there’s one more chore that I made myself face with beginning of the new year.  I unravelled my blue homespun cardigan. You may have been one of the kindly folk who gave me advice on this knit – and if so, thank you so very much.  I thought I long and hard about what to do with it, and for quite a time, I really wasn’t sure.  frogging-my-blue-cardiganThen a new project bubbled up from my subconscious.  What about if I used the blue yarn for a blanket project like this little swatch here …..?! Oh, inspiration! Definitely time to frog!unwound-blue-yarn-and-a-new-project-perhapsWhew! That’s it, folks!  Am I glad to have finished this batch of repair and mend!  Wouldn’t it be easier to just chuck some of these damaged things out, and just buy new?  After all, a new laundry basket won’t break the bank …

I couldn’t do it.  I grew up with parents who had lived through the second world war, and they saved and scrimped every little thing.  Mending was core to their way of life. It’s definitely sunk deeply into my psyche.

Goodbye 2016!

So many ups and downs in 2016! It’s been a topsy turvy year – a year of sadness and upsets for my family and a deeply shocking year in global politics. I have travelled through the year with a pervading sense of loss.

But, in the last few days I’ve been indulging myself drawing up a #bestofnine2016 for my Instagram feed. I’ve looked through all the pictures I’ve posted online, and selected the nine pictures that most capture 2016 for me.  It has taken me quite a time to finally make a selection, but it was a good exercise because after that, I didn’t feel so bad. So many little ordinary happinesses and pleasures that I have taken for granted!  Here are my chosen nine:bestofnine2016Top left: That’s my dearest husband Stephen and our lovely cat, Poe, who passed away in her 20th year, this August. This photograph was taken on her last night of life, when we knew she was extremely ill and would have to visit the vet next day, probably to be put down. She is curled up asleep, comfy and trusting, next to Stephen, on the sofa, as she regularly did. RIP Poe, faithful friend.stephen-and-poeTop middle: Lots of little pleasures here. My knitting, my nails – and my travel knitting bag! Those of you who know me well will know I almost always have my nails painted – and doesn’t this colour match the knitting so well! The Solace bag was a generous gift from Rebecca of Needle & Spindle and symbolises to me the constant comfort of knitting, and the friendliness of the wonderful online community of knitters and makers.solace-bag-and-knittingTop right: This is our lovely local beach, just five minutes away from our home, and my very grown-up children, visiting from London, on a beautiful blustery day.  Stephen and I walk here several times a week, and watch the tides and waves and sands move, the holiday visitors with their families come and go.  To share this with my own family is the greatest of all pleasures.j-h-on-spittal-beachMiddle right: A golden GiveWrap, made with the Japanese and Indian silk scraps I was given for my birthday, and mixed up with some very treasured pieces of old clothing.  It’s been another year of GiveWrap making, sharing the ideas with my cousin Polly, and spreading the word about sustainable wraps.golden-givewrapBottom right: I wrote about the poppies that we grow here in a recent blogpost. They are the best of our gardening in this wonderful place, right up on the north Northumbrian border, exposed to all the elements.  Lots of plants won’t grow here – it’s too salty, too windy, too cold.  But poppies flourish, and best of all, they self-seed.  They grow where they will, not just where I choose.  Don’t they adorn the view so very well …poppies in laneBottom middle: In the turmoil of family events earlier this year, two little cats, Eggy and Ilsa, found themselves needing a new home – so they came to Seaview!  And look how these little smilers love it here! These little London softies have become Northumbrian toughies.  They’re good at mousing, chasing the neighbours’ cats, exploring their territory, and finding the comfiest places in the house to sleep (usually some special fabrics I have carefully laid out).eggy-and-ilsaBottom left: Nothing says Seaview to me as much as the big skies with their endlessly-changing weather stories.  Through the winter months, we are privileged to watch the sunrise as it moves over the south-eastern horizon. So often it is explosively dramatic and exciting. Perhaps best of all, the sun doesn’t rise until a decent time (8.38 as I write on 31st December), so I don’t sleep through it … You never tire of these skies.seaview-sunriseMiddle right: On the 23rd June 2016, Great Britain voted in a referendum on their European Union membership – and we all now know the result.  In the days leading up to this referendum, those of us who hoped to stay in the European Union became increasingly worried about the result – as indeed there was good cause – and I was inspired to stitch my Love letter to Europe, incorporating some lines from John Donne’s poem No man is an island.  Embroidery isn’t really my thing, so this was a textile experiment for me. It wasn’t, of course, an earth-shaking contribution – really rather feeble – but it was very comforting to stitch at the time.  Now it hangs up our stairs, and it speaks to me of our continuing membership of Europe, even if we lose the membership of the European Union.love-letter-to-europeCentre: We saw this little 18th century ladies patch box on display at Traquair House – a very happy daytrip to a most interesting place to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. So there are lots of things bound up in this picture for me: my very happy marriage to Stephen, the pleasures we have out and about exploring this beautiful part of the world, and above all else it speaks of hope.  More than anything else in these unsettled times, the message of this little box comes back to me, and I find in it great, great comfort.  At some time in its history, it must have given hope to another person.  Now again, it is holding a hand out to a dodgy future.patch-box-from-traquairGoodness knows what I will be writing at the end of 2017.  But hope isn’t a bad travelling companion.  So thank you for your company on the journey through 2016, and may you all be sustained by hope in whatever comes your way through the next year.  Happy New Year!

Bags of fun

I find great solace in my little Woolly Room – there is fabric, and wool, and books, and buttons, and knits, and pictures …  and there are also bags!  If you are hoping to hear about Gucci, and Louis Vuitton and Michael Kors, then read no further.  These are handmade, vintage, passed down, charity shop finds.  Yes, there is the odd Orla Kiely or two, chosen because of my passion for pattern, but they don’t really count as designer in my eyes (sorry, Orla!).

There are bags I’ve made for myself, and there are bags others have made for me. But let’s start with some of the very oldest.  These are bags that have come to me from my grandmothers.Grandmothers' bagsI’ve never used the teeny weeny one at the top –  the silk is perishing and it is very worn. It came from my maternal grandmother, but I think it is Victorian and may well have belonged to my great ( perhaps my great-great?) grandmother.  A real treasure.

On the top right is a beautiful little petit point bag – and petit is the operative word here.  The stitches are teeny tiny!  I used it quite often when I was much younger – but now I am older and appreciate the workmanship more, I’m a bit reluctant to use it.

As for the bag on the bottom left  – it is one of my favourites and it comes out for special occasions like weddings. It’s stamped leather work, Florentine, very soft. The handle had perished so I replaced it with a ribbon which I can change to match my outfit.

The bottom right beaded bag is Japanese, and what a labour of love! Teeny, tiny beads, subtle patterning.  Just very, very occasionally I go to a very, very special evening event, and then this is my bag of choice.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have started with bags of such quality – where to go from there?!  Well, I have lots of other bags in my Woolly Room.  Let’s see what I’ve got hanging on the wall.bags of fun wall displayRight at the centre back in the photo is this bag which I made about 10 years ago for my father who died last year.  It was for his 80th birthday, and I’ve recorded the date and details on the strap (“written” with my sewing machine).  It’s a bag I treasure especially because I know he treasured it too.Strap of RHE bagIt’s a knitted bag (lined with quite stiff fabric to stop it sagging), and I had a lot of fun picking out words and patterns that were important to him.  He excelled at his classical language studies in his youth, and a love of Greek and Latin stayed with him for the rest of his life.  You will find μηδὲν ἄγαν (the Greek writing on the left)  written on the temple of Apollo at Delphi in Greece.  It means: Nothing in excess – or Moderation all things.  On the other side, the Greek writing could be translated (roughly) as Everybody chooses the best path for themself.  Both these mottos were important to him, as were the Latin words from the Book of Psalms: The Lord is my illumination (on the left) and In you, Lord, have I trusted (on the right).  And I have knitted Greek key patterns all over the bag – great fun to knit.Back and front of RHE's bagSo you’ll realise I love to work with words, to incorporate language into my designs.  I also studied Classical Greek as a university student, so this next bag celebrates a motto that sums up the thought of the ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus: Πάντα ῥεῖ.  It means (very roughly): All is flux.  Life is constant change.  The fabric was once my grandmother’s curtains!   It’s a very coarse linen weave, hand-embroidered with these wonderful wild flowery patterns. They were magnificent curtains, but don’t they just lend themselves to a fabulous bag?  I just love that huge flower on the cover.back and front of Dordy's curtains bagPart of the fun of making your own bags is the nice surprises you can put inside.  And the buttons!inside Grandmother's curtains bagOften the fabric suggests the bag – as my grandmother’s beautiful curtains above did.  But with this next bag, I made the fabric myself. That is to say, I knitted the pattern I wanted, put it in a hot washing machine wash to felt it – and then cut the resulting fabric up to make the bag.Felted bagThe interior treat is this gorgeous Alexander Henry fabric, featuring these terrifying knitting ladies.  That is some knitting!  They reminded me strongly of the three Fates of ancient Greek myth, the Handlers of the Threads of Time so I’ve added that story to the Alexander Henry one.  You’ll see that I’ve embroidered the names of the three fates in their hair.  In the Greek legends, Clotho (on the left) was the spinner of the thread of life, Lachesis ( on the right) measured each person’s lifeline, and Atropos ( in the centre) cut the thread of life.  My Fates here are knitters not spinners – but still wickedly witchy women, and I have a sure feeling that they are knitting and measuring and finishing the knitting of my days. inside felted bagIn recent years, I’ve been particularly drawn to the poetry of Mary Oliver, so several of my bags feature her words.  This bag utilises boldly patterned fabric to make a statement with : Tell Me.Tell me bagI’ve always longed to be accosted by a stranger, asking “Tell me – what?!”  Nobody ever has asked – but since you do, I’ll show you the answer, which is, of course, inside.  This line is much-quoted, and justifiably so.  It’s a good thought to carry about with you.  Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life.Inside Tell Me bagI also used a poem by Mary Oliver for my green leaf bag.  Again, the fabric – a leaf-green printed batik – inspired the pattern.  When I’d embroidered all the leaves in place on a plain background, I felt the bag needed something else, and searching through Mary Oliver’s book, Thirst, I found “When I Am Among the Trees”.  Just what I needed.  It captures the sway and the breath of the trees calling out. “Around me the trees stir in their leaves and call out ‘Stay awhile.’ … And they call again, ‘It’s simple … you too have come into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled with light, and to shine.'”

Exactly. Thank you, Mary Oliver.  How do you always manage to say it so well.

(I’ve altered her words slightly to fit the space on the bag)Both sides of green leaves bagOther poets inspire me too.  How evocative is this  line is from John Donne’s poem of impossibilities!  “Go and catch a falling star.”Falling star bagLots of other little bags hang on the walls of my Woolly Room.  This little group below features a charmingly hand-embroidered sewing bag, a colourful beaded bag from Monsoon below, a glam little evening bag cleverly made by my daughter from a gorgeous scrap of one of my grandmother’s dresses – and a Little My brown paper carrier bag!  It takes all sorts!Mixture of little bagsThe next two little bags are both Japanese.  My father worked in Tokyo for many years in my childhood, and my mother acquired a lot of beautiful Japanese fabrics while there.  These don’t get much used, but they are much treasured.Japanese bagsThis piece of daughter Helen’s work glitters and glams it up.   Featuring Alex from the Clockwork Orange, it’s a student piece of hers, made when she was a beginner seamstress. It’s just cool!Clockwork orange bagSome thirty years or so ago (goodness!) I had a spell of enthusiastically painting patterns on fabrics.   I wanted a commodious bag for a family trip to Paris, and this bag was just perfect.  It brings back very happy memories.painted bagThere are lots of green bags, of course (my favourite colour).   That’s an Orla Kiely bag on the far left; next is an amazing mock-croc I found in a charity shop; then, there’s my embroidered leaf bag; next is a bag made in the Phillippines of recycled packaging (so ingenious); and on the right, a ditsy little grass effect bag – much faded, alas, but still convincingly grassy.Line of green bagsJust – very occasionally – I will buy an expensive bag.  I found this bag on Ebay, whilst searching for felted bags, and  – it was irresistible.

What makes it so very fascinating is that the pattern is completely created by the embroidery – and what an extraordinary range of embroidery stitches there are! Was it a sampler?   So often I have looked at it and wondered who CF was, and when she (he?) lived.  I’m guessing it was done in the 1920s-30s – what do you think?Both sides of Ebay embroidered bagThere are working bags of another sort – my sewing and knitting bags.  This is my much-travelled Solace bag which accompanies me with my knitting when I go away.  It was a gift from Rebecca of Needle & Spindle (so had quite a journey in the first place to get here from Melbourne), and it does indeed give me great solace.  Portable solace, you might say.Solace bag in useAnd there are still new bags coming!  This is another needlework/knitting bag, and another generous gift.  I just love the lemon-slice print – thank you so much, Issy.Issy's bagNot just bags of fun – bags of happiness, inspiration, memories, treasures, generosity … and love.

A Judi Dench embroidery pattern

In the deep deep distant past of the 1980s, I used to have a subscription to a magazine called Pins and Needles.  Oh how I loved it!  I was a young parent with small children, a marriage on the rocks and a very isolated rural existence in a small Devon cottage.  The monthly arrival of Pins and Needles was in many ways my salvation.  It had so many exciting projects and articles in it!  Of course, I couldn’t afford to make most of the items featured in it – nor would the cool 80s hairstyles and shoulderpads have been very relevant to my rural existence if I had been able to adopt them.  But I could dream….. and just occasionally an article would spark me into action.

One such article was an interview in the September 1983 issue with Judi Dench about her embroidery.Judi Dench embroidering, Pins 1983 - with Michael WilliamsIt’s a lovely article. She was rehearsing at the time with her husband, Michael Williams, for the television comedy series, A Fine Romance.  In breaks, her embroidery would come out and she would stitch away.

“I can’t work without doing something,” she told the interviewer.  “I’ll tapestry during a play and the nearer we get to opening the quicker I go at it.  It may be nerves that are spurring me on, but the wonderful thing is that it looks so calm.”

According to the article, all the designs were her own, and her production rate was so prolific that she would give away her finished designs to other actors, her little Hampstead cottage being far too small to house all her work.

I was very taken with this pattern, and it stayed in mind until many years later (in the 1990s) I was looking for a travelling embroidery project.  From the picture below, I was able to work out the basis of the pattern.  I’ve no idea what colourway she was working in, but mine was to be orange, yellow, green, red and a little brown – oh, and some fuchsia for “lift”.Judi Dench embroidering, Pins 1983 3The embroidery travelled round with me for a while, but then it fell into disuse, and I realised that I preferred to take knitting with me rather than this embroidery work.

It’s rather a sad reason why this had occurred.  I’d chosen to do my embroidery in a great range of colours, many of them very close to each other.  And I have to admit that now I am in my 60s, I can no longer see the colours so clearly – except in clear daylight.  In trains, other people’s darker homes, I just couldn’t make out exactly which shade of red or green I needed.  It’s a particular problem for me even at our own home when the days are grey and dark.  We have small windows, and when there’s very little sunlight outside – it’s pretty grey inside too!Misty grey daysWhen I was a teenager, my family would work on a large jigsaw puzzle together over the Christmas holidays.  And how clearly now I remember my mother lamenting that she could not see well enough to distinguish between subtle colours under electric light.  My turn now.

I still love the colours and the pattern of this old embroidery, and this summer, I decided to have a go at finishing it off while the days were long and light.stitching away on summer daysI’d run a bit low with some yarns, but – most conveniently – my mother’s move to a retirement home meant she had passed on to me many of her sewing materials, including this large fabric bag which she had made, tied up tight against moth.family bag of embroidery threadsInside were more bags.sorted bags of embroidery threadsAll is revealed!  Inside each old carrier bag were masses and masses of embroidery yarns, all carefully sorted by colour.  Embroidery thread bags opened and sorted into colourThese yarns go way back – my grandparents on both side of the family did embroidery work, as did my father.  Before I chose the yarns I needed, I couldn’t resist laying out all the different yarn labels I could find.  embroidery threads - different makesTime to get to work and finish it off!Nearing completionWhen I poured through my old copies of Pins and Needles, searching for the original article so I could write this blogpost, I discovered that Judi Dench actually delights in a particular quirk with her embroidery. “I like the thing the Elizabethans did of hiding initials.  They used to put little messages secretly in their work and I think that was a wonderful idea.  We’ve got a cushion that I did during Much Ado About Nothing at Stratford that’s all little squares of tapestry in different colours, and in it are hidden our initials, Michael’s and mine.  Nobody knows they’re there unless they really look.  I like that.”

Oh, that passed me by – I wish I’d remembered that and put some secrets in!  Even more intriguingly she admits that “it’s also a wonderful ploy for incorporated rude words into a design.”

I will have to embark on another Judi Dench-inspired embroidery one day, if only to incorporate some interesting words!  For now, here is my completed and anodyne cushion.completed cushionIt fits very well in with the other cushions on our sofa.completed cushion in new homeActually – the sofa usually looks more like this.How it really looks