Old men’s shirts

So you’re a diligent mender and repairer (you’ve been mending from long before visible mending became a “thing” on social media), and you’ve repaired and repaired your husband’s shirts, adding patch on patch …You’ve diligently stitched over those elbow holes …You’ve turned the collars … And now yet more mending is required as the cuffs start to wear away. What to do?!I guess a lot of folks would consign old shirts in this sort of a state to the rubbish, or perhaps useful rags. But these are such old friends! They are worn so soft and tender by literally years of wear. And the memories! Here’s Stephen in New York (averting his eyes from the buttons – which he hates) in the red shirt with patched elbows above …And there’s Stephen in characteristic worn check shirt opening the doors onto the overgrown patio of our new home  …And here he is – intensely focused – as he started to learn how to play the Northumbrian pipes. He’s wearing the shirt with the very worn cuffs above …So I’m far too much of a sentimental, soppy sort of person to just dispose of these old soft friends.  Indeed I have a track record of finding new ways to reuse old treasured fabrics – way, way back I made us a quilt with exactly the purpose of preserving old fabrics with old stories.

This time I decided to make us a new duvet cover – something we badly needed anyhow. So not just a sentimental project, a practical one too.

I’d already picked up some ideas from fellow Instagrammers. Both these quilts used strong bands of colour to frame the disparate pieces of patchwork …So I dug out some strong plain colours from my stash …And assembled the old shirt pieces. These were all cut to the same length, but were of varying widths …I incorporated some of the patched pieces too …Laying out a rough template of what the finished duvet cover would look like …Here is the finished project!After a nice cleaning blow in the soft Northumbrian seabreezes …But there were lots more lovely soft pieces – hmmm, what to do with them? (Apart from letting the cat sleep there …)Somehow – I’m not quite sure how – they presented themselves to me as the perfect materials to stitch together for a little doodle stitcheryThe corresponding lines work so well together. And I could incorporate those old loving patches …Along with some fun re-interpretation of plackets and buttonholes … I used old cotton bags as the backing on which to place and stitch the pieces – you know the sort of ones that companies give out at every possible opportunity along with biros and mouse mats.   They are such uninspiring bags but they do provide fine firm fabric for projects such as this …I started just to stitch and stitch, not really knowing where I was going …Gradually the idea formed in my mind that I could make a nice bag of this. However my piece wasn’t large enough for such a project, so I had to add some more cotton fabric. A really good idea as it firmed the bag up where the handles would be fitted and a lot of the carrying tension would lie … Soon these extra strips were incorporated into the whole …Today, this is still very much a work in progress – I am in no hurry to finish it as I am enjoying the stitching so very much …

I have it mind to add some more of the buttons that I cut off from the shirts when dismantling them …And I also want to add some words – but I am still wrestling with exactly what words. I wonder if anybody can help me out with a poem about the pleasures of old fabrics, of soft worn shirts?

Definitely something more exciting than this is needed …There is still plenty more old shirt fabric to use …But don’t worry, I’ve left Stephen just a few shirts to wear for the moment …I am still stitching …

#veryhappystitcher

The gift of a book …

I have been thinking about Christmas presents – not really surprising given where we are in the year. But this married up with the annual attempt to clear out some books from our shelves – and resulted in this nice little unassuming discovery …The rather shabby Mr. Ingleside by E.V. Lucas – perhaps not a writer you’ve heard of? Neither had I, but I was curious so I  read it –  and found it unremarkable. In a nutshell – it’s the story of a man with two daughters and the girls’ search for employment.

What made it special to me was the inscription inside: my grandfather Vin had given this book to my grandmother for Christmas 1926.

Vin died in 1933, aged only 36. He had never recovered from the amoebic dysentery he’d fallen victim to when serving with the ANZAC troops in Palestine during WW1. As a family we know so very little about him now both his sons have died, so every small nugget of information is deeply precious … Christmas 1926 – my father was born in March that year, and my Australian grandparents, Vin and Dora, spent Christmas at the family holiday house, Uringah, at Cowes on Phillip Island near Melbourne …That’s my grandmother’s handwriting in the photograph album above, and it’s my grandfather’s in Mr. Ingleside. Why did he choose to give her that book, I wonder? It was published in 1910 so it wasn’t new.  Did he wish to make a point – that she’d found her profession with motherhood?

What’s even more intriguing to me as his granddaughter is that he’s inscribed the book to Dordy, not Dora – but Dordy was what we grandchildren were instructed to call her! It makes me wonder if she spent her whole life missing him …

So, this find led me on to thinking about Christmas (and birthday) presents in general and how very much the culture of giving has changed. In the old days – when I was a little girl (and way back from there when my parents and grandparents were young) – Christmas and birthdays meant the gift of a book. No, I didn’t say “books”, I said “book”. Because so special was this book in a world where there wasn’t much “stuff” that it felt like the most special gift in the world. And because this gift of a book was so very special, it deserved a very special inscription.

Dora – when much younger (aged just 18) – was given music for Christmas 1917: Chopin’s Nocturnes. Purchased from Allan’s at Collins St in Melbourne …This copy has been much played (by me as well as her). These are her pencil marks. There is an indefinable connection in playing from sheet music that you know your grandmother once played …The inscription in my copy of  Pepita by Vita Sackville-West also tells a story from my grandmother’s life …This was a gift to her for her birthday from her good Australian friend Kate Wight in 1937. Kate had featured in my grandmother’s photograph albums of the 1920s. Here she is (on the right) with her sister Peggy in their father’s garden at Kyabram in Victoria … By 1937 Vin had died and Dora had moved to England and re-married …In fact, 1937 was the same year that Dora married her second husband Roger at Chislehurst church in Kent – and there is Kate in the centre of this picture of wedding guests. Did she come to England specially for the wedding, I wonder …Gifted books in my other grandmother’s family also raise questions. My other grandmother Doris was given A Day in a Child’s Life by her father Otto in 1900 – she was 5 years old …It’s a really exquisite book with enchanting illustrations by Kate Greenaway – actually so special that it’s in very good condition and looks like it’s never been read – or played … Did she perhaps not like it very much? Far more likely, I think, is the possibility that it was considered so very special that she was barely ever allowed to look at it. Certainly I never handled it as a child.

She’s the one of the left below, perhaps 2 years old here  …?By contrast with A Day in a Child’s Life, Baby’s Opera has been very much handled, and is really in tatters! There’s no inscription of it being a gift to her inside. Is that perhaps what gave license for this book to be used more frequently?! Marvellous illustrations, this time by Walter Crane …The inscription is from her to her grandson James (my son – and her first great-grandchild) for his first birthday, 25th December 1981 …These little nuggets of inscriptions make me wonder so much about the people involved. This book, John Hullah’s The History of Modern Music , published in 1862 Was a gift to my great-grandmother Mathilda Rose Herschel from her mother on her 19th birthday, 15th July 1865. Quite a dense learned book …Rose was certainly an accomplished musician. In later life the family lived near Cofton in Devon. They were regulars at the tiny church there and she played the organ for services. It’s lovely to have discovered that music with her name on it is still kept at Cofton church …As a family we don’t remember Rose so much as a musician as an artist. She painted prolifically – this (unfortunately photographed through glass) is her son, my grandfather, perched on the stairs, perhaps aged 3 or 4 …?1934 was a good Christmas for my 10-year old mother Mary shown here about that age (looking rather fed up) with her younger sister Jill on the left …She was given two books! She must have loved The Book of the Heavens, because it is sadly coming apart …It was a present from her parents. I wonder if she was given this charming little bookplate for Christmas that year too? It’s clearly written in a childish hand – and been written out once – unsatisfactorily, one presumes – and erased and written again …By contrast, Mrs. Lang’s The Book of Saints and Heroes, is a lot less thumbed. Perhaps a little worthy … A present from her grandmother Grace – not her grandfather Otto. This is clearly a family that gave presents separately. Perhaps they couldn’t decide on what to give …?My parents Dick and Mary continued the tradition of marking birthdays and Christmas with an inscribed book. I was given Lavender’s Blue for my third birthday – and it’s been well-used!My mother’s handwriting of the inscription is sadly smudged …Charming pictures throughout … But the book is in absolute tatters …And has been lavishly (and not very well) coloured in …I’ve even stuck pictures in to the back. Perhaps this indicates a passionate love for this book – but no, I don’t think that’s true. It’s just a good friend that travelled with me and met overfamiliarity …I do look a bit of a wild child …When we were older, my father Dick loved to give us Folio Society books – most of which, I am afraid to admit, I have never read – and they have vanished from my shelves. But one hasn’t …Poems by Gerald Manley Hopkins, a Christmas present from my parents Dick and Mary in 1974 is a book I really treasure …Several years later they gave me Mary Gostelow’s Embroidery …I asked for this book for Christmas. In those days you waited for books and clothes that you wanted – you couldn’t buy cheap second hand on Ebay nor did you have the disposable cash to go out and buy what you desired immediately. You waited. And this book was worth the wait – lots of lovely inspirational illustrations …There are other books on our shelves not connected to my family but which also were at one time given as Christmas gifts. I really like Needlecraft from Elizabeth Craig’s Household LibraryWhich was given: To My Darling Alice, Christmas 1952. But did Alice ever use it? I like to think it was a gift from her husband but it may have been from a parent. Whatever there’s no evidence that she actually liked it because the book is as pristine as a book published in 1950 could be …All that wonderful useful information gone to waste!By contrast, Continental Knitting by Esther Bondesen has been well used …And rightly so – so much of delight therein. Who wouldn’t want to make an ear-warmer like this …?!It was a present from Gwyneth to her grandmother for Christmas 1953. Lucky grandmother is all I can say! (And lucky me because it only cost me £1.50) …And while I’m on the subject of craft books, this treasure of a book, Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them by Ruth E. Finley … Has a cracker of an inscription on the flyleaf! I don’t know who Katherine Matthew and Alice Ogle were, but I’m hoping that Katherine considered Alice as good a friend. Perhaps she even gave a book back – hmmm, I wonder if it was a crafting book …It’s a lovely book …Then there are books that were given as prizes …

I’m back with my Australian grandmother Dora now. She was given these two fine volumes on the English National Gallery to mark that she had been head girl at Merton Hall, Melbourne Girls Grammar School ...She started at the school when she was 16 in 1915, and I’m guessing this photograph must have been taken about that time …It is such a fascinating reflection on Anglophile and Anglocentric Melbourne that she was given these books on the English National Gallery despite the fact that Victoria had its own National Gallery from 1861 … My English grandfather Percival won the most distinguished prizes. This beautifully bound copy of Smith’s A Smaller Dictionary of the Bible (small it may be but it’s a really great reference book for obscure biblical names and places) … Was awarded to my grandfather in 1908 as the Toplady Memorial Prize for Divinity. It would be quite intriguing to read what my grandfather wrote to win such a prize …Another award book that has found its way to my shelves once belonged to my father Dick …He was given Van Loon’s The Arts of Mankind for the holiday task he completed in 1938 …To be perfectly honest, it’s not the most interesting of books – a bit out-of-date and old-fashioned. But it remains on our shelves because it brings to mind this young man on the left, shown here with his mother Dora and younger brother Bill (not yet in long trousers) and I wonder if this photograph is a glimpse of the end of the holiday in which he did that work …Not all book prizes in our collection were awarded to members of my family. I found this copy of The Faber Book of Modern Verse in a second hand bookshop some time ago and it is kept in the car in a rather small glove pocket (for those dreadful times when you are stuck in a traffic jam and there is no mobile coverage). It is in woefully poor condition, but a book I am very fond of …I hope the poor condition wouldn’t offend the one-time owner, Tim Bliss. who was runner-up for the Gonner Prize for Literature awarded by Dean Close School sometime in the 1950s. If you check out his Wikipedia page to read about this distinguished neuroscientist, you may be able to guess why this book went on the pile of books to go to the local charity shop …Perhaps the most intriguing of our books are those where we cannot identify the donor. The Fireside Book of Folk Songs is just such a book …On the flyleaf, my mother has written below her name and the date the intriguing initials R.H.D …Some years ago she very helpfully wrote her memoirs and I know from those that she went to Moscow in 1948 for a couple of years as PA to the Economist’s Foreign Editor. Her brother John was working at the British Embassy there then, so she had an interesting and most enjoyable time mixing with fellow expatriates and exploring Moscow.

But nowhere in her memoirs does she identify anybody with the initals R.H.D. A mystery!

It’s a lovely book, with beautiful illustrations …And a wonderful – and eclectic – range of of music. I really treasure it …I forget where Stephen picked up this copy of Ancient Collects and Other Prayers. Good value for 3/6! It once belonged to C. Honora Blandford and rather coyly she notes it was given From a Friend on the 9th June 1870. Is one to understand that A.E.B. are the friend’s initials, or are they some other subtle allusion? I don’t know, but it remains very intriguing all the same … Perhaps I will solve these mysteries one day. I was certainly thrilled to be able to place the story behind my little Book of Psalms …It had two helpful clues – the name on the flyleaf …And the purple permission stamp for the prisoner-of-war camp at Bad Colberg in Saxony …You can read what I discovered about the provenance of this little book here

And then there are husbands!

Jane Grigson’s Fish Cookery has been a well-thumbed guide to my cooking life since 1981 …And the inscription really speaks for itself …And yes, he did go and change the nappy!Charles Williams’ Taliessin Through Logres is a rather obscure and dated poetry epic. I think – were I to be truthful – that this book would have gone to a charity shop were it not for the inscription …Way back in my university days …I made a friend who was then with another lady but is now my husband …Still Shining On – but now together! Christmas 2020 update: I was given four beautiful books. No inscriptions, and somehow I don’t miss them. Which is a pity because how will future generations be able to tell the stories behind them as I have done here … ?!

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 …

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.

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 …

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 new baby in the family …

What a delight to have a new baby in the family! Welcome little Felix, born on the 7th July, just two weeks ago as I write today.

This lovely photograph is of my daughter Helen with her new little baby Felix right after he was born …
Helen & Felix, 7th July 2019Just a year ago today, my step-daughter Zacyntha gave birth to little Reuben. What a beautiful expression of incredulous delight is on her face!Zacyntha & Reuben 2018I was so struck by the emotions captured in these two pics that I went back to look at other mothers in earlier generations …

There’s me, of course, with my babies. First with my oldest, son James, in 1980 … I think there’s wonder – and perhaps new mum nerves there too.  Baby James, with his hands over his ears, clearly doesn’t want to know …New mother Katherine with baby James 1980And here talking to my new baby Helen in 1983, a more confident mum, I think …Katherine talking to baby Helen 1983 Going further back, here’s my mother Mary with me in 1954. I’m just over two weeks old, and look pretty engaged …
Mary & Katherine 1954I guess she’s proud and delighted but on the back she’s written that I look rather like a little pig!Mary's note that K looks  like little pig 1954.jpgBut what an enchanting photograph this is of one-year old me feeding my mother with icecream!Katherine feeding Mary icecream 1955She looks enchantingly happy too with my sister Marian in this 1957 photograph … Marian with Mary, Leicester 1957My grandmother Doris looks thrilled with her baby son John as she rocks him in the pram in 1921 …
Granny with John, Dublin 1921But it’s Nurse Taylor who’s been captured lovingly reassuring my mother as a baby in 1924, not my grandmother. Different times, sometimes less hands-on mums …
Nurse with Mary, 1924But not always so! I love this 1926 photograph of my Australian grandmother Dora with my very newborn father Dick – she’s so clearly new-to-the-job, with the baby rather clumsily  bundled up …
Dora & Dick, Gnoll, Melbourne 1926And the sense of her joy positively leaps out at you from this photograph of them some six months later …Dora & Dick, Cowes, Australian, Xmas 1926Skip a generation back, and here’s my grandmother Dora with her own mother Nini. I’m guessing a first birthday photograph, so taken in November 1900.  It’s a very affectionate photograph even if it is a formal sitting.Nini & Dora c.1900By contrast the photograph of my great-grandfather Charles with his baby daughter Dora is most uncomfortable! I think you could say he’s holding her at arm’s length, which is perhaps rather strange seeing as she was his fourth child.  He clearly wasn’t what you might call a hands-on dad …Charles Church with his daugher, Dora c1900Which is atypical of the dad photographs.  Even going right back to the last century, there are many pictures of men in the family deeply involved in parenting.

I love this picture of my great-grandfather William rather tentatively giving his grandson (my father) a bottle …Graandfather WHGE feeding Dick 1926There are wonderful pictures of his son Vin with my father. He’s proud – and confident!And that look of glee on my father Dick’s face as he clutches his father’s hair!Vin & Dick 1927The hands-on confidence my father learned from his father is reflected in the beautiful pictures of my father with me.  This photograph just creases me up – the look on my father’s face really defies description …Katherine (8 days old) & Dick 1954Like his own father, my dad was perfectly happy to hoist me up on his shoulder – but what a hoot of a photograph this is – that expression on my face, and that pipe!Dick & Katherine, Chuzenji 1954He wasn’t alone to think that pipes and babies go perfectly well together.  Here’s my uncle John and my cousin Polly in 1953.  A lovely expression on his face – but I think she’s worried about that pipe!John & Polly 1953This pic of my uncle Bow with his son Tim in 1961 just has to be one of the sweetest of dad pics …Maritn with Tim 1961My father was lovely with his grandchildren too.  Here he is with his oldest grandson James in 1980 – a beautiful thoughtful expression on both faces …Dick with James 1980 DevonAnd new father Hugh is clearly having a very deep bonding moment with his baby son James …Daddy Hugh with baby son James 1980Some of the most fascinating pictures are of older children connecting with new babies. There are clearly deep thoughts in my older son James’ mind as he gazes on his new baby sister Helen …brother James and baby Helen This is my daughter Helen with her cousin Louisa in 1994. Helen was just old enough to realise how very special it is to hold a baby …Helen & Louisa 1994Here is the 3 year old Louisa talking to new baby Johnny!  What a conversation!Louisa & Johnny, 1996Coming back to the two new babies in our family, there are several other very touching photographs.  I love the sharing of joy between my husband Stephen and his other daughter Ellie when they meet little Reuben for the first time …Stephen & Ellie & Reuben, August 1918And how can you not smile when you see new parents Helen and Elias beaming down love on little Felix …Helen, Elias & Felix, July 2019It was a deeply emotional moment for me when I met my first grandchild Felix for the first time last week …Katherine & Felix, July 2019In later years may there be many happy times spent with these new little lads.  This is a charming photograph of another great-grandmother of mine, Mathilda Rose, here shown in about 1890 with her two little boys.  It’s my grandfather Percy with his back to us, and his brother Bill looking at the camera.  Were they reading together, I wonder?  Or perhaps it’s an impromptu nature lesson on that daisy-filled lawn …Mathilda Rose with Bill & Perks, Devon c. 1880My grandfather Percy went on to have four children of his own. Despite having a demanding work schedule, he had very happy family holidays with his young children in the 1920s in Devon. That’s my mother Mary comfortably cuddled between his knees …Waterfield family 1920s DevonThis 1959 photograph is a lesson on how not to be all together for a family photograph! My grandmother Dora and aunt Shirley smile glamorously, but how miserable my mother Mary looks – and as for those harassed dads! And I don’t think you can say anything nice about those wriggly, grumpy and bad-tempered children!family pic 1959No, let there be the best of holidays – just as my young parents are enjoying here. A positively glowing photograph of them with me and their dog Chad …Dick & Mary & Katherine& Chad, Chuzenji 1954Here’s to happy children, happy times! (cheers to my sister Marian and her little daughter Bel!)Marian & Bel, Christmas 1997

 

A cat crisis …

There we were – on the afternoon of Tuesday 11th September – quietly enjoying a balmy early autumnal afternoon in the conservatory with our two cats, Eggy and Ilsa. Some serious bird watching going on too.A few minutes later I went into the garden to water the plants, and Ilsa followed, ambling off somewhere …

Suddenly – noise – drama – and there down the path I could see Ilsa in the forecourt, but ….. under 5 dogs. There was a terrible din – they were all barking furiously while the dog-owner and his young son tried frantically to pull the dogs off her. I don’t really know how to convey in text my absolute panic and horror.  Suffice it to say I dropped everything I was carrying and tore out into the forecourt, yelling blue murder to those dogs and their owner.

Miraculously Ilsa escaped the dogs and fled over the neighbours’ wall, but then – perhaps in her panic – she continued into the nearby field.  So the dogs followed her – as did we all. At last we were able to pull them off her, and,  with her scooped up in my arms, get her away from the dogs.

At first it wasn’t clear how wounded Ilsa was, but she was breathing extremely fast, and I didn’t want to explore her wounds then and there for fear of making her more anxious.  So we had a brief sort of conversation with the dog-owner (who seemed as stunned as we) and his son, and set off for the vets.

The vets were lovely – professional and quick to give immediate treatment.  It transpired that Ilsa had been bitten on her rear right leg and her lower belly and was bleeding quite heavily from this wound.  However, they were particularly concerned that her breathing was so fast, and feared she might have also sustained a puncture wound on her lung.  So she was hospitalized for the night with antibiotics, painkillers, and tender loving care.

But she was OK.  Extraordinarily for such a dog attack, she hadn’t been ripped to shreds and left as meat.  The more I think about it, the more amazed I am that worse hadn’t occurred.  Had the dogs just been playing with her?

After leaving Ilsa at the vets, we went to see the dog owner. In part this was because I was aware that he’d had his young son with him who had been extremely distressed and tearful during the attack, and I wanted to give reassurance to this little boy that she would be alright.  I’m glad that we were able to do that because his mother reported that she’d put him to bed looking like he’d seen a ghost.  Poor little lad.

It transpired when talking to the dog owner that he’d been walking staffies and pit bulls and a chihuahua, and it had been a single disobedient staffie that caused the damage to our cat.  I really want to emphasize this because it’s not really what we are led to expect about such dogs. The dog owner immediately said he would pay the vet’s bill.

Of course, the problem only occurred because he was walking his dogs off the lead past our group of houses …..

The next day we brought Ilsa home.  It turned out that she hadn’t experienced any lung damage.  And we were reassured that her wound should heal fine – but take time as she was pretty bruised.

Oh, poor little Ilsa.  This what a cat does when it feels terrible – burrowing deeply into nice safe soft places (my unspun fleece basket) …Nevermind we thought – she needs to take her time as the vets said. But she’ll be back to normal soon.

But she wasn’t. Over the weekend she deteriorated and next week she was so poorly we headed back to the vets, only to be told that the antibiotics hadn’t worked and the wound was infected. So they whisked her back into surgery, put drains in her infected belly and gave her different antibiotics. Her poor belly looked awful …We’d been warned that suppurating drains make a terrible mess, so drugget preparation was necessary.  Our sitting room became a hospital ward (cat litter included) …Perhaps nastiest of all (to her!) she’d come home with the dreaded cone …Now a cone is horrible on all small animals, but is also a particular problem if you happen to have a very flat face.  Drinking required almost full immersion …Perhaps most worryingly she stopped eating, so we embarked on a program to syringe liquid high energy food into her mouth at regular intervals over the day and night. I made myself a bed in the sittingroom …Despite all this love and care, she was getting more and more unwell, so back we went to the vets as a second weekend approached.  We were at this stage more than slightly dazed from lack of sleep and worry about Ilsa and the growing vet bills (no, of course we didn’t have pet insurance) …

Horrific news.  Her wound was now so infected that the vets had to clean out a great hole of necrotic tissue (mercifully not on any of her organs) and she needed to spend the weekend at the vets on a drip with more antibiotics.  Her huge wound required sluicing out a couple of times a day.

We were allowed to visit Ilsa on Sunday in the surgery, and frankly it was almost more disturbing than not seeing her.  They were looking after her beautifully – faultless efficient medical care, very lovingly administered …But our little cat wanted to come home!We finally got to take her home on Monday, but had to return her to have her wound washed out every day that week.

The good news was that she didn’t require a cone, and coped very well with living with her horrible hole …How we welcomed the news after a week of regular expensive sluicing trips that she could have her wound stitched and stapled! It doesn’t look very pretty …But she really did seem to be so much happier – and so were we!Apart from anything else the dog owner had given us a decent contribution to the vet bills. It nothing like covered the whole expense of course, but at least made us feel that he recognised the damage that his dogs had done.She was starting to get back to normal pursuits, joining Eggy in the woolly room with me …And even taking tentative steps outside – tail up, a happy cat!Even back to a little mousing with Eggy …Whew!

Today Ilsa went to the vets and had the staples removed.  The stitches lying under the staples come out in a couple of days.  She’s been pronounced nearly back to normal – well, almost.  The bite damage to her leg is lasting and she will never quite have the mobility she once had with that leg – and there’ll be a scar!  But hey …

It’s been an overwhelming month.  Partly the horrifying initial attack – though that did not turn out be as bad as we originally thought – but even more the rollercoaster of worry about her increasing infections and the rising costs of veterinary care.  We felt out of control.

So we haven’t been out and about on long trips, but there has been quite a bit of quiet sewing and crocheting …

After my malaise earlier this summer which I wrote about in my last blog post, I was suddenly inspired to ask my cousin, Polly, if she had any of her fabric prints that I might embroider. (You can read more about her fabric printing in our earlier GiveWrap posts). These are some of the prints she sent me …I was very taken with the deep orange print with swirly yellow lozenges. It’s quite small, but once pieced together with similarly toned fabrics gave me an interesting start …The lozenges spread out …Until I reached the point where I am now with the piece propped up on a tall chest of drawers while I decide about the edging.  I can either go for the darker spotted fabric (on the right) or the lighter fabric (on the left).  What do you think?That embroidery was very pleasing to do – calming and meditative – and helped keep me occupied in difficult times.

I also crocheted these little Toft elephant friends for some little girls who have a new baby sister – a very belated welcome present to all the family.  When I wrote about my listlessness earlier this summer, somebody wisely told me that there is nothing like making presents for others to give you your mojo back.  Thank you, friend, you were quite right!What a relief to be back to normal!(Cats find mice in the darndest places!)

Making a Northumbrian piper’s plaid

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spinning a cat hair comforter …

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

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