Monthly Archives: November 2011

A tour of makes & bakes

Last week I made the four-hour journey north to visit the Knitting & Stitching Show in Harrogate, North Yorkshire. Held in and around the wonderful Royal Hall, it was a real feast of yarns, fabrics and embroidery exhibits. Over the years, I’ve changed my show-going tactics. I used to set off with the focus of a few definite items to hunt down. Now I aim for a more relaxed approach and go with the flow of what grabs my attention when I get there. While this approach may not be so productive in terms of finished projects, it wins hands down for excitement. My purchases this time were a little random but I love them!

I started by falling for the grey woodland fabric. I love the silhouette animals and simple splashes of red for the toadstools, and quickly committed to half a metre of this. Then came the Paris map print (imagine having the plan out the repeats to print this!) and a fat quarter of the gorgeous retro floral. All came from the dreamy Eternal Maker. After this I was relatively restrained and only added two Liberty fat quarters, which spoke to me with the promise of a mini patchwork project.

As if the inspiration of all that fabric and yarn was not enough, the trip gave me a boost for my baking ideas too. I arrived too early for the show, so took a stroll around the centre of Harrogate. The famous Bettys Tea Rooms was on my must-see list and I soon had my nose pressed up against the glass of this amazing cake and confectionery emporium. Sadly there wasn’t time to take tea but I did pop into the stunning wood-panelled shop. It was a world of amazing bakes, from Christmas puds presented in their old-fashioned basins to the most exotic boxes of chocolates. My favourite item was something a little simpler , ‘mouse bread’. This small round loaf is made with an extra lump of dough fashioned into the shape of a mouse, made to look at if it is running across the loaf. Very cute but sadly not the sort of thing I could manage to carry around a show all day.

Having made my own Christmas cake last weekend, I could hardly buy another but I was very tempted when I saw this stunning red and white design. I’d love to recreate this for myself but I don’t think I can be that brave with an icing nozzle. (By the way, my cake turned out fine if a little taller than expected.)

After a crisis of indecision, I did buy a tin of Christmas biscuits plus a little something for a friend’s birthday. It’s his special day later this week, so I won’t reveal my purchase here just in case he’s looking!

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Filed under Baking, Sewing

Still blooming!

By the end of this week we’ll be in December, usually a month for gloves and scarves. So I find it a real treat that the window box outside my bathroom window is still happily blooming with bright geraniums. It will only take one frost to turn them into little blackened flags but they may even last a little longer as ground frosts are often not severe enough to reach their icy breath up as far as my first floor window ledges.

I was reading a gardening article earlier where the author declared “to be a gardener, you need to be an optimist”. For me the opposite is true. Sights like these flowers cheerfully hanging on long beyond their season lift my spirits way beyond expectations. When I arrived home with two small trays of bedding plants back in May, I was thinking only of how nice it would be to lie in the bath and admire them through the open window. I had no idea I’d still be enjoying the bright orange haze through the frosted glass as I made my plans for Christmas.

In my enthusiasm to give these cheery blooms a quick drink, I neglected to check if anyone was walking on the pavement below my window. A shout of “watch it mate!” soon revealed the error of my watering ways. My apologies if you were that person out for a sunny Sunday walk and encountered an unexpected shower!

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Celebrating ‘Stir up’ Sunday

I’ve always tried to avoid doing anything Christmas related until it’s actually December. I feel more excited about the preparations if I wait. It’s a practical consideration too as most of my family’s birthdays fall in November and early December, so it feels right to do these justice before getting festive.

This year I’ve broken with tradition. For the very first time I’m observing ‘Stir up Sunday’ by baking my Christmas cake. Like so many of our Christmas traditions, I think we have the Victorians to thank for this. The last Sunday before Advent is the time to make Christmas cakes, plum puddings and mincemeat as all of these benefits from time to mature. (There’s a whole heap more history here together with recipes.) Traditionally it’s good luck to gather everyone in the house to take a turn at stirring the mixture as it brings good luck. There’s only me here today. I can’t make up my mind if this is unlucky or it means I get a whole heap of luck to myself!

I wish you were here to appreciate the way my home is slowly filling with the rich aroma of the baking fruitcake. It takes an incredible four hours to transform the gloopy mixture containing brandy-soaked fruits into a firm, heavy treat to share. At the time of writing there’s still over an hour and a half to go on the kitchen timer, so today’s pictures are just the ‘before’, the ‘after’ is still down to my oven. I’m not a very confident cook, so I always view baking as nine parts alchemy and only one part chemistry. For now all I can do is peer through the glass of the oven door and cross my fingers. The cake is so heavily clad in baking parchment and brown papers, that it’s giving little away.

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The knitting forecast

They said it would rain in North Wales for my break. Thankfully they were wrong, well almost. On the one day it did pour down, we were rewarded with a glimpse of a rainbow spanning the estuary and seemingly ending at our house.

It was a wonderfully creative five days with woodland walks (so many acorns!), plenty of time to catch up and chat and a goodly amount of knitting. It was even warm enough one afternoon to knit outdoors on the big stone balcony. The stripes on my project progressed slowly and surely as the tide crept its way up the estuary. I could see down the wooded slope to the water, and just make out the tower of the ‘Camera Obscura’ marking the end of Portmeirion Village. I even baked scones in the tiny kitchen. The old oven of a rented holiday house is obviously unused to such activity and rebelled by taking almost half an hour instead of the usual 15 minutes to bake my scones. Eating a warm, if rather hard, scone and jam as the light fades on an autumn afternoon is certainly my idea of heaven

Thank you Sir Clough Williams Ellis for opening up your crazy dream of a place for us all to share. My quest for holiday souvenirs led to the purchase of a tea towel (why is this the object of choice for so many souvenir makers? A flashback to magical moments while tackling the mundane?) and a mouse mat. It makes me smile that this wouldn’t quite have been Sir Clough’s vision for his village when he started to build back in 1925. I chose the mouse mat for the philosophy printed around the edge of the design: “Cherish the past, adorn the present, construct for the future.” I’m quite content with my mission to adorn the present.

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Filed under Baking, Knitting, Musing

A favourite place in appliqué

This week I will be lucky enough to be staying in this wonderful coral-coloured house in the village of Portmeirion, North Wales. The weather forecast is set for rain and more rain but this doesn’t dampen my spirits as I will be spending time with my best friends and have packed some knitting and a little embroidery project to play with. I can’t think of anything better than cosy days in a beautiful place with good company and a bag full of things to make.

This place means so much to me. I spent several wonderful family holidays there in my teens. (Come to think of it I must have been a pretty strange teenager, content with my parents’ company!) It holds wonderful memories mixed with sad ones as it was the place we enjoyed our very last family holiday only three moths before my Dad died suddenly in 1996. I didn’t think I would ever be able to go back. Then last year my Mum surprised me by booking a winter break in the village to celebrate her birthday. I had mixed emotions as we drove up the leafy drive to house just as dusk was falling. The strangest thing was that it actually felt like coming home. We spent an amazing long weekend re-exploring the woodlands and walking the estuary at low tide. So this year we’re going back again – no nerves this time, just excitement.

On those teenage trips to the village, I longed to be able to capture the spirit of the place in photographs but it was the days of film when every shot was precious and quite often disappointing when it was eventually developed. Things have looked up and moved on, as returned to Portmeirion last year as the very proud owner of a shiny new DSLR. I went crazy in the bright autumn sunshine and took over 400 pictures in three days! I won’t comment on the quality of most of them but I’m having fun learning.

When it came to Mother’s Day earlier this year, I was inspired to celebrate our times at Portmeirion. For my Mum I created an appliqué picture based on one of my photos. I was surprised how quickly it came together with little scraps of fabric and a few simple embroidery stitches. I presented it and felt like I was a five-year-old again, bringing home a painting from school. My Mum put the picture on the wall straight away and it now has pride of place in her living room. This feeling makes me smile whenever I see the picture there.

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Tiny feet

The pitter patter of tiny feet has never been louder in my small circle of friends. I’m having a job keeping up with the booties production required. Ok, I could make other things for new arrivals but nothing beats a teeny tiny pair of handmade booties for cuteness.

My latest makes are for my friend Stacey, who starts her maternity leave this week to await the arrival of her first baby in December. These woolly wellies seemed just the thing as a little gift to wish her well. Most of my mums-to-be have opted to find out if they’re having a boy or girl but I admire Stacey for taking the old-fashioned approach and keeping it a surprise for everyone including herself. So a neutral colour of wool was required.

Last weekend I settled down with a ball of cream Rowan ‘All seasons cotton’, a pair of  3.25 needles and a copy of Erika Knight’s Natural Nursery Knits. A few hours – and a couple of DVDs – later, I’d created two rather odd-looking flat shapes that thankfully stitched up into something cute. I love the leap of faith of following a pattern, not quite being able to figure out how something will work, and finally the magic moment when those strange shaping rows make perfect sense.

I’ll definitely use this pattern again but not before delving further into a new book, entirely dedicated to bootee patterns. Made in France: Baby Booties by Caroline de Hugo has 18 different styles to choose from. Below you can see my first efforts for my friend Liz who had baby Claudia almost two months ago. You actually do the shaping when you stitch them up rather than while knitting, which made them so speedy I even had I had time to make a little shoe bag to present them in.

I do wonder if French babies have unusually large feet – just look how big the newborn size bootie looks in my hand. I may have gone rather over the top with the size of the pom-poms but I couldn’t help but get carried away with my new pom-pom maker. It’s a revelation to anyone like me who was brought up to wrestle with two circles cut from a cereal box.

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Mollie Makes winner!

It’s the end of the month, so it’s time to find out who has won my Mollie Makes giveaway. Thank you so much to all 295 of you who took the time to enter with a comment. When I asked what you like to make in the autumn, I had no idea how busy everyone is with everything from making chutney and jams to creating cosy knitted treats. I’ve loved reading every comment.

The lucky winner of my fabric apple kit is Louise, picked using a random number generator. She said:

“I love making hearty soups with ‘autumnal’ foods – butternut squash, pumpkin etc. Itching to start crocheting though, so hopefully will graduate to cosy throws for next year.”

The fabrics, felt, embroidery threads and beads will be sent off soon!

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