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.

Union Chain Bridge

When our first visitors came to our new Northumbrian home, often their first request was to go to Scotland.  Easy peasy – we are just a few miles from the Scottish border so it’s a quick drive up the A1 and there you are, in Scotland.

However, we soon discovered that it was much more fun to take people who wanted a quick trip over the Scottish Border to the Union Chain Bridge. looking over the bridgeFirstly, we go because it is just beautiful.

It sits over the Tweed, a magnificent and beautiful river, and you are particularly well placed to admire the river from the bridge.Looking at river Tweed from bridgeSecondly, we go because it makes us laugh.

On each side of the bridge, the respective Scottish and Northumbrian councils have placed signs to ensure that you fully appreciate this is a border crossing and know which country you are in.

As you cross the bridge into England, there is a modest English sign. (Here James, our very first visitor in January 2011, helpfully points out the sign.)James and Stephen at England signOn the other side of the bridge, however, the Scots want to make sure you really appreciate that you’re in Scotland.  There’s a big, big sign – no two signs, actually,  (as Ellie and Jak point out here on their May 2012 visit).Ellie and Jak at bridgeAnd you’ll notice that the English, true to their proverbial reputation of reticence, make a simple statement of country. (Zacyntha’s first visit here, March 2011).Zacyntha and Stephen at the English signWhile the Scots come over all friendly and effusive and actually welcome you! (Ted and Helen’s visit, September 2011).Helen and Ted visitNot any more, they don’t!  Was it an irate English or Scots man that finally took matters into his own hands with this result?!broken Scottish signWhatever, it is now a rite of passage for first visitors to our Northumbrian home that we take them to the Union Chain Bridge.

Here’s Wenny and Jenny with Stephen on their April 2013 visit.Jenny and Wenny visitLater that year, in May, Katherine brought her mother, Mary to see the bridge.Mary's visitKatie was here in September 2011.Katie's visitAnd James brought Barbara here in March last year.Jam and Barbara's visitMike and Zacyntha also came in March last year.Zacyntha and Mike visitSo many happy visits! (and fun – really exciting to be standing on the bridge when a car drives over, and you are all of a wibble wobble.)

But back to our topic.  The third reason why we visit the Union Chain bridge is because it is a great bridge, a great engineering feat with a great history.

It is the oldest surviving iron suspension bridge in Europe.

It was built by Captain Samuel Brown RN in 1819-20.  During his time in the navy, Brown was working on the development of wrought iron anchor chains.  After he left the navy, he set up a manufactory in Millwall for the production of these chains.  He was still developing his ideas, and in 1817 he filed a patent for the production of flexible chain links for suspension bridges.  The opportunity to try out his new invention came when he was asked to build the Union Chain Bridge by the Berwick and North Durham Turnpike Trustees.  (And, completely incidentally, in the famous photograph of Brunel, the great man is posing in front of chains produced by Brown’s later company, Brown Lenox & Co.).

The flexible chain links are still evident now, but in very poor condition.rusted boltsThe bridge took less than a year to build so cost the Trustees only £7,700 – far far less in cost and far more quickly built than a traditional stone bridge.

It attracted great interest, not least among fellow engineers.  Robert Stevenson and John Rennie were here at its opening,  and both Marc and Isambard Kingdom Brunel also came to see the bridge.  A plaque on the English side, records Captain Brown’s name for posterity.plaque with Captain Brown's nameIt also records that additional strengthening work was done in 1902-3 with the addition of steel cables.  You can see the newer grey cables strung over the original green bars here.newer grey cables and old green bars belowWhat the plaque does not record, is that the bridge was thoroughly overhauled and renovated again between 1974 and 1981 – defective chain links were replaced with spheroidal graphite cast iron links.spheroidal graphite cast iron linksSadly, the bridge is once again urgently in need of repair.  ironwork rustingEverywhere you see the signs of decay, wear and tear.wooden joints perishingIndeed, the local councils are so concerned about safety that stringent warning signs lead up to the bridge. On the Scottish approach…Scottish approach to the bridgeAnd on the English approach … English approach to the bridgeOver the last few years, there has been worrying talk of bridge closure.   A horrifying thought for the locality!  The bridge isn’t only essential for drivers and walkers crossing the Tweed, it also carries cables transporting electronic data.

There were rumours of council bridge repair funds having been re-allocated into other budgets.  A friends’ pressure group was formed to push for repairs and proper appreciation of this fine bridge.  Their sign has joined the others on the bridge approaches.  (The friends have an excellent website with historic pictures and lots more information: http://www.unionbridgefriends.com )Become a friend signThe really good news – and extremely hot off the local press (just published in the February 19th edition of the Berwick Advertiser) – is that the Scottish Borders Council has now agreed to contribute £550,000 towards the restoration work, matching the funding already on offer from Northumberland County Council.  Now they can approach external funding sources, including the Heritage Lottery Fund, to secure the required balance of some £3 million (some say nearer £5 million).  The bridge needs a new suspension hanger system and upgraded parapets.

So – hopefully, it may indeed be fully repaired and in fine fettle to celebrate the 200th anniversary of its opening on 26th July 2020!looking up at the bridgeThere is yet another reason why we admire this bridge so much.  It is not called the Union Chain Bridge for nothing.  On each of the parapets, there is a motto:  Vis Unita Fortior.   Clumsily translated from the Latin, that reads: United strength is stronger.

I now have to come over all political.  Yes, I do believe united is stronger.  The United Kingdom is the better for its unity.  Europe too is stronger and better for the European Union. Many countries all over the world are better for the Commonwealth.  We are all the better for the United Nations.

Time to echo John Donne:

No man is an island, entire of itself.  Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.  If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.  As well as if a promontory were.  As well as if a manor of thine own or of thine friend’s were.  Each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind.  Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.Vis unita fortiorThank you Ellie, for prompting this post on the lovely Union Chain Bridge!Ellie looking down from the bridge

Busy old fool, unruly Sun

Sun right behind Bamburgh castleIt’s now 18 days since the winter solstice, and although each day that passes lifts my spirits as the minutes of daylight increase, there’s an accompanying sadness.

We are losing our sunrise.

Our house looks south,  out over the North Sea coast,  so on a good day we clearly see the castles of Lindisfarne and Bamburgh.View of Lindisfarne and Bamburgh castlesNo view of sunrise, you would think.  But that’s where you’re wrong.  Until I came to live here some 4 years ago, I hadn’t realised that because of the tilt of the earth, during the winter months sunrise moves over across the eastern horizon towards the south.

Imagine our excitement the first winter we were here in 2010 to see this magnificent sunrise exploding over the snowy fields.  At this point  sunrise has moved to half way between the two castles.Sunrise over snow between Lindisfarne and Bamburgh castlesA more furious sunrise here; now the sunrise has moved right up to Bamburgh Castle and you can just make out the silhouette of the castle with the sun rising behind.more furious sunrise behind Bamburgh castleChristmas Eve last year, just a few days after the solstice, and the sunrise is far past Bamburgh Castle.  But it’s started out on its journey back.sun starting return journey to Bamburgh castleOh, busy old fool – teasing us with all that promise  ….sunrise - teasing us with all that promiseto when you make your cosy little egg yolk first appearance ……sun making first little egg yolk appearanceto playing mean and moody………mean and moody sunrise over snowto coquettish, mysterious ………Sun looking coquettish beyond Bamburghto simply gorgeous ……simply gorgeous sunriseI don’t want you to go –  I shall miss you!