Bread, books, socks and swatches…….

sesame and spelt

I’m none too sure what’s happened to the past week, it’s pretty much flown by without me knowing and I don’t feel I’ve got all that much to show for it….mostly I’ve been poodling, drafting up new patterns, mostly reworkings of pieces to go into my Folksy shop (hopefully they’ll be ready next week) but also I’ve spent a few minutes tinkering with a pattern for a dress based on a dirndl skirt I cobbled together a couple of years ago from a mustardy floral pair of curtains I’d bought at a car boot…the fabric was a bit faded near the hem but I didn’t mind that, it’s one of those nice and comfy skirts that I’d wear everyday given half the chance.  I don’t have a whole lot of tops that really go with it though so I thought to make a dress version which is why I spent an afternoon in the bathroom pinning bits of pattern cutting paper to my thermals (I do have a dress makers dummy but sometimes I find just pinning to me a bit easier) before drafting out something that hopefully will be wearable and which I can stash bust with……

garter toe sock

I’ve also been knitting more socks, well a sock…and if truth be told I don’t even have one of those properly finished to show as this was a test run to understand a new to me pattern….there is a sock knitting kal running over in the Joeli Creates group on Ravelry for knitting socks without nylon….my Shetland spindrift socks I made earlier in the year were knitted without nylon and are so warm that I really wanted to knit another pair of pure wool socks….though I didn’t want to just keep repeating the same pattern as I’d already made so I decided to try knit a pair of toe up socks…..lovely Julia (who knits truly beautiful socks) bought me this pattern for Christmas as part of a small gestures swop….Anne had already been round earlier in the year to explain short rows to me (I do seem to get on better with someone showing me and talking me slowly through a process then just reading about it)….anyway, this is my first attempt, the toe seemed a bit gapey at the sides so I un-ravelled it and had another go and second time it looked much better (not the fault of the pattern but me being a complete numpty and forgetting to wrap my stitches)….I used this yarn just as a tester “have a bit of a play” attempt, the real sock uses some beautiful homemade strawberry ice-cream pink Blacker Classsic woollen yarn I bought from Brit Yarn  (sadly this colour has now been discontinued but I’ve got enough for at least two pairs of socks)……it’s taking a few attempts as I keep turning the sock inside out as I knit it, I’m also finding it hard to start a section of pattern with a purl using dpns so I’ve unravelled again and am just waiting for a 9 inch circular needle to arrive in the post which hopefully will make knitting them a bit easier….

famous tales book

A couple of weeks ago I met up with my friend Debbie for a coffee and as I walked in to town quicker than I thought I would, I had a few minutes spare to have a browse in some charity shops I don’t tend to visit all that often, which I should really make the time to visit them as I nearly always find something of interest in them….I’ve mentioned my love of fairy tale and folk story books on here several times before so was very happy to find this one for a couple of pounds.  The illustrations are by a selection of artists…most of the pictures are quite small black and white drawings but there are also a handful of very pretty watercolours, a bit on the bright and gawdy side but I like them.

big book of knitting 1973

And I also bought this book which is such good reading…..it’s from the early seventies and all the things in the book have been made by Swiss children.  The pattern instructions are at times a bit sketchy and left up to you to decipher, so I think you’re supposed to have a certain mount of knitty know how…..but I just fell in love with those little blue booties and knitted pony on the front cover.

A scarf by Beatrice

The illustrations inside are rather miserable black and white photos which don’t do any of the knits justice but you can get an idea of what things are supposed to look like…..dotted throughout the book are these little letters and notes made by the children who’ve knitted the pieces…it’s interesting to read how young some of these knitters are, and also their notes on pattern making.  I don’t think I’m up to making everything in here but there are a couple of sock patterns I’d certainly like to knit, and I need someone to have a baby so I can knit those booties.

shetland heather swatch

More knitting news…..I’ve finished knitting the Unicorn shawl, which I made for Louise Hunt’s brilliant un-kal, it’s currently washed and blocking….I’d forgotten that tapestry wool is a bit rum smelling when it gets wet…it doesn’t smell anywhere near as nice as something sheepy and lanolin rich…..it’s had a couple of tentative pokes by Bernard but on the whole he’s leaving it alone, which is a good thing as the alpaca/silk wants to snag just looking at it.

I’m quite excited about what’s curently now on my needles though…my first ever cardigan….it’s the Ramona cardigan by Elizabeth Smith.  It’s knitted top down and has nice, clean and simple lines, nothing too fancy but enough to make me have to re-read the instructions and sigh little “pfhoo” noises when I’ve worked a row of increases and my number count of stitches is right…I’m not a quiet knitter and do seem to pfaff, pfhooo and rustle my pattern pages, scribble down notes and observations…tut and sigh as I realize I’ve made a right daft mistake…..initially I was planning to knit this in some beautiful Aran wool from Jamieson and Smith, and while I love the pattern and love the yarn, together….it wasn’t making my heart skip….but then I remembered the Shetland Heather wool I’d started to use for an Open Sky shawl……it’s a murky old grey brown, flecked with quite a cold, clear blue……doesn’t sound like much of a catch but when it’s knitted up in stocking stitch is very pretty….it makes me think of the sea when we used to go to Southwold or Dunwich…not for us the bright azure blue of the Mediterranean waters……there’s about two weeks in August where you can go to the beach without a cardigan or a jumper, the rest of the time, it’s a bit nippy and you need to wrap up, so I thought the pairing of the yarn with this pattern would be perfect.

I’ve learnt my lesson about not making a swatch so knitted up this big boy (just over 10 inches wide) and I couldn’t quite believe it but my tenson gauge is spot on….I washed and blocked it, allowed it a few days to dry nicely…..perfect.  I’ve had it pinned inside a dress and it’s not particulary scratchy, I know it’s there but it wasn’t unpleasant so now it’s all systems go.

fat paws

Weather wise the past week has been proper rubbish…the odd day or even hour of sunshine, and then just as we pull on boots and a coat to go for a walk, the heavens open and it pours down…sometimes rain, yesterday hail.  Loads needs doing in the garden but everywhere is muddy and wet……the birds for the most part are busy gathering up bits of what we call “garden fluff” (this is often bought into the house by Bernard, he rolls around and his fur hoovers up all sorts of muck which he then proceeds to drop all over the carpet and up the stairs)….I keep making trips out with handfuls of fleece* for the birds, I stick it in an old fat ball feeder which has a littel roof so it keeps pretty dry inside, and then go and sit and watch the tits pull it about for nesting.  It’s so much fun as they seem like they’re pulling the fibres ready to spin it…..they gather up huge beakfuls til they look like tiny Amish farmers and then they go flying off with their woolly beards.

natural shades and lichens

When the sun does actually make an appearance Bernard goes trotting down the path to find a patch of sunshine for some outdoors wriggling….often he mews until I go over and rub his tummy and depending on his mood (mischievious or tarty) he’ll purr and purr fit to burst or suddenly grab hold of my hand and fingers, holding on tight with his claws and teeth……

sun wriggling

He’s really showing off his very own Nature’s Shades here as he exposes his tummy….such a mass of Weetabix scented** fluffiness…..I love those splotches of lichen on the pathway underneath him, silver sage and mustard, white and gold……I’m really hoping at some point to use those soft subtle greys of Bernard as a starting point for some stranded knitting….what a great kal that would be….match the colours of your cat’s coat.

*I bought a load of fleece years ago or needle felting but figure the birds seem to make better use of it.

**I’m not sure why but his tummy really smells of Weetabix, but figure that’s way better to when he’s windy and musical of bottom.

The calming scent of gingerbread and finding pieces of wool felt stuck to my elbows…..

 

It’s all a bit chaotic here at the moment, those precious early first hours of the morning of the past month are no longer for knitting but instead have given way to embroidering and hand sewing (too early to use the sewing machine as I’d wake half the house) … in between trying to keep my Folksy shop stocked up and the weekly Christmas fairs about to start, I’m getting a bit fraught and frazzled, feeling I’ve not made enough but barely being able to carry what I have made with me when I do a test run….and my first fair (which is a two day affair) is only a week away.

sewing the snowman scarf

Tiny pieces of felt cut out and all ready to applique on the stockings and snippets of embroidery thread are trailed around the house, pinned pieces are put down in between making pots of tea only to wonder where the devil I’ve put them (the times I’ve checked my elbows to find the wool felt stuck to a cardigan sleeve)…when it all gets too much I head outside, the marshes are bit boggy so I have to keep to the path rather than go off over the meadows but it’s just enough to  blow the cobwebs away, get a breath of air before another sewing session…

When I’m sewing early in the morning I’m aware of every noise, every creak of the scissors or the clink of them being placed down on the table, the delicate clutter and scrape of pins moving about…even the sound of the thread being pulled through the thick wool blanket fabric, a low dragging sound which I never seem to notice in the day time….trying hard not to wake anyone else….

hania's stocking 009

In the middle of all this I decided to make some gingerbread and a couple of days later I can still smell a faint waft of spices and treacle in the kitchen….the gingerbread came out really well, very dark, sticky and so spicy scented (I use both fresh and dry ginger, plenty of cinnamon and a good dash of clove go in too….and rather than chop the fresh ginger I like to use a ginger grater which you can buy at health food shops or at an Asian foodstore.  There’s something about making it which calms me right down, just opening the cupboard doors and seeing those familiar tins of golden syrup and treacle…green,gold and red tins which I grew up seeing in our pantry and also when I’d go up the road to Nanny’s house, she’d also have them tucked away on a shelf. Tins of comfort….oh Tate and Lyle please never ever change them.

gingerbread man 003

(gingerbread man made by my friend Sasha)

The smell of melting butter, syrup, treacle and sugar, the soft warm aroma of spices from far far away (well to be fair I buy all mine from Gareth and Jane on Norwich Market but it’s lovely to imagine the hot and exotic lands they come from)….lining a baking tin, mixing in cream and eggs, flour….stiring and making wishes (I always make a wish with gingerbread)……then just letting it sit quietly in a warm oven where it slowly rises and fills the whole house with the smile inducing, “this is the smell of Winter” scent of spices and sugar…..

pinning branch

I’m very generous with the amount of spices I use, evoking proper old European spice cakes (rather than an insipid flavouring added in high street coffee shops) and then make a thick lemon juice icing to be spread on top (in my eyes gingerbread is medicinal, it doesn’t count as cake and the more spices and lemon juice in there , well the better it is for you.)…I also add a couple of tablespoons of dried rose petals which are ground really fine that I can dust them in like icing sugar….no one ever can tell they are in there but I’m aware when I don’t use them.

In my mind I associate gingerbread so much more with The Brothers Grimm or other European folk and fairy tales than Christmas time really, it’s the smell and scent of those stories…..I only make it in the Winter months (I can’t imagine eating it in the Summer…nope, just tried and screwed my face up with the very idea of…) and once I make the first sticky, spicy scented batch of cake then I feel like my Winter has begun, we might not always have snow, but I’ll always have a batch of dark, treacley gingerbread in a tin in the kitchen.

embroidered bird

So the first “spell” of Winter has been cast…the gingerbread is out of the oven and as the scent of spices and warm baking fills the house, so does the feeling of calm and happiness. The pace of the sewing slows, becomes a little less frantic, a little less fraught.

 

 

Once upon a time………..

The blue book

 

A couple of weeks ago I found this lovely copy of Andrew Lang’s The Blue Fairy Book in a charity shop and as if by magic it seemed to find it’s way home with me……I’ve got more fairy tale and folk story books than you can shake a stick at but they have been my favourite stories to lose myself in since I was a little girl and first learnt to read.

Once upon a time……when you open a book and it starts with those four magical words you just know you are going to be swept up in a story of wishes and wonderful things, dark woods and gingerbread houses….

I’ve been wanting to write a little bit about my love of these stories for a while, and it seems suitable to do so now that the weather has become cold and the nights dark…these are the books I reach out for to read when I go to bed and can huddle down under a mass of quilts and crocheted blankets.

 

United Kingdom folk stories

 

Even now I’m all grown up I still love them….my favourites being the Charles Perrault ones (Beauty and the Beast and Red Riding Hood), old English stories such as Mister Fox (he certainly isn’t the same fantastic gentleman written about by Roald Dahl) and Kate Crackernuts and wonderfully rich tales from Russia, which include Vasilisa The Beautiful  (Baba Yaga and her walking house are in this story.)

Something I particularly like about the English folk tales is that there is a old earthiness about the stories, and often they use snippets of old dialect or words that have fell out of common usage.  A lot of the stories collected by Katharine Briggs and Ruth L. Tongue are good examples of this.  They are as comforting and familiar to me as a saggy and worn cardigan, and at this time of year are as satisfying as a rooty casserole and fat steamed dumplings.

 

European Tales

 

One of the things I love about these type of tales are the magical qualities or just wonderfully described clothing or cloth that often plays a central role in the tale…..without her red cape, Red Riding Hood would have been a quite ordinary little girl on her way to grandmothers house, the princess in The Princess and the pea would probably have slept just as poorly on just the one mattress and eiderdown (instead of the umpteen mentioned) Cinderella has her wonderful dresses…like the stars, like the moon, like the sun…and let’s not forget those glass slippers, then there are shirts knitted from nettles, magical boots, Catskin’s furs, hair combs and bodices laced too tight……

 

Annointed tales

 

I didn’t really understand the significance of spinning flax into gold in the Rumplestiltskin story until quite recently, I watched one of the brilliant “farm programmes” * with Ruth Goodman (possibly the most wonderful tv historian I can think of…she’s so lovely and enthusiastic, I could happily watch her all day.  She truly makes the past come alive with it’s richness of smells and sounds and tastes), the flax is beaten so the outside husk drops off, and eventually as the flax is whipped/beaten the fibres break down and it looks like beautiful long blonde hair.  It really does look like golden strands and it doesn’t take much to imagine it being real gold.

Another story that I’ve always loved and which makes my fingers tingle somewhat in sympathy is The Wild Swans by Hans Christian Anderson (it’s one of the few stories by him I really care for) poor princess Elisa has to gather nettles and knit (or spin) them into shirts which will transform her brothers back into boy after they’ve been turned into swans.  In the story poor Elisa has blistered sore fingers and hands from handling the nettles….Actually this isn’t all just story, nettles really can be made into cloth. (in the New Year I’m planning to make a shirt out of nettle cloth, with embroidered nettle stems and leaves and the odd lone feather as a nod to this fairy tale)

 

The Far East

 

Along with the European stories with their deep dark woods, and brave youngest sons or daughters, I also like reading tales and legends from China and Japan and who could forget the wonderful 1001 nights with Scheherazade telling the Sultan all those fantastic stories….(many of these are rather eye opening and I don’t think they’ll ever be made into a panto!)

Some years ago I watched a television adaptation called Arabian Nights…..Mili Avital was Scheherazade, Rufus Sewell was Ali Baba, and John Leguizamo was the most magnificent genie of the lamp you’ve ever seen….there were some lovely details in it, in the Aladdin story, Aladdin (played by Jason Scott Lee) finds a hidden terracotta army deep in a cave underground, it was really scary and brilliant and very good to watch.

 

Virago

 

Back in the very early nineties, Virago published a wonderful couple of fairy tale collections compiled by Angela Carter…these are more suitable for a grown up reader (and they are now available in one beautiful hardback with gorgeous woodcut illustrations).  They also published a book about witches which is great to read and the rather saucy and utterly brilliant “Erotic Myths and Legends”…..some of the stories in there made me laugh out loud, and others are somewhat more racy and made me reach for a fan!

 

Academic

 

I also enjoy reading about what makes these stories resonate and speak to us, Marie Lousie von Franz was a Jungian psychologist and she wrote a series of books connecting the psychological wisdom of fairy tales to everyday life (and it’s chores and repetitions).  She’s a favourite author and I particularly like her Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales and The Interpretation of Fairy Tales.

Another book I like is called Women who run with the Wolves by Clarrisa Pinkola Estes.

 

Familiar but with a twist

 

As well as traditional version of these tales I also like reading newer versions…there is a wonderful collection of Angela Carter stories called The Bloody Chamber (there is a short story in there called A Company of Wolves and this was the basis for the beautiful and slightly gothic eighties film directed by Neil Jordan….I first saw this when I was a teenager and have loved it ever since…..and it taught me to always be wary of men whose eyebrows meet in the middle.)

Jane Yolen edited a wonderful series of books that are all re-workings of tradtional fairy and folk tales…..again I think these are more suitable for a grown up reader.

Lastly, and this isn’t a book but it’s so so so a thousand times fantastic, and just perfect to watch now the nights are dark and it’s cold outside, and if it’s a bit early still for watching Christmas movies…..There was a wonderful series on television years ago called The Storyteller.  It was made by Jim Henson and it is just so ….ohhhI’m almost lost for words because it’s totally and utterly brilliant.  If you’ve not seen it then pop to your library or just buy it, you won’t be disappointed.  (we watched it at home, me, my sisters, my dad….my mum was probably in the kitchen getting tea ready….but we all loved it) It’s a marvellous collection of an assortment of European folk stories with a cast that is sure to make you smile….Sean Bean (before he was Ned “Winter is coming”Stark), Jane Horrocks, French and Saunders, Steven Mackintosh (one of my all time favourite actors), Miranda Richardson, Jonathan Pryce, James Wilby……and not forgetting John Hurt as the narrator (when he becomes a hare it makes me laugh and breaks my heart both at the same time).  The stories told are both familiar and slightly different, the costumes are beautiful …and the narrators dog does somewhat steal the scenes he’s in.  Their version of a Cinderella story (in this it’s called Sapsorrow and in English folk tales it’s known at Catskin) never fails to make me get a tingly nose and a bit weapy…her dresses are just amazing.

It captures the essence and how we imagine these tales to look so perfectly…..it’s both the magic of a fairy tale and the magic that was Jim Henson.