Monday, 31 December 2012

Clickety clack, clickety clack...

What's that? Clickety clack, clickety clack - its the sound of a commuter knitting along the track. Well - not actually 'on' the track - that would be a hazard! Just as a train passenger (but that doesn't scan as well).

In my November blog about how I love reading, I confessed to having purchased in excess of 150 ebooks in a two year period. This was in no small part due to my daily commute, when there really isn't much else to do for 25 minutes either way, but

  1. sleep (but I might miss my stop and end up in London/Bournemouth or Manchester depending on the direction of travel);
  2. listen to other people's conversations (always entertaining - especially the two young ladies who I often end up sitting near to on the 8.10am, one of whom has possibly the worst housemate in the world)
  3. read - the Metro used to keep me entertained when I first started commuting, but my kindle quickly supplanted my news reading, as I'd always rather be kept amused by something made up, rather than being depressed by how awful the world/state of journalism has become.
Obviously there are some other options, but they're not very 'me'. If you're in the right carriage and have the right sort of earphones you can enjoy almost a full episode of something that wasn't a commercial success on the train TV. I know some commuters even work on their laptops, or email on their blackberries. I refuse to accept the latter (work have offered me one a couple of times) and although I have a laptop, it generally lives a snug and comfy life in our living room, only brought out to be taken as far as the sofa, or the dining room table.

So that leaves only one other pastime for commuting that can help keep my bank balance looking a little healthier - knitting! I really only thought of this because I'd wanted to make Izzy a scarf for Christmas, and as the second week of November loomed and all free time at home was spent in the kitchen on edible goodies, the only time left available to me for making it was during my journey to and from work.

The pattern is from the MillaMia Bright Young Things book and the yarn is Debbie Bliss eco baby (100% organic cotton) in mint and white. This was my first real attempt at intarsia, or stranded, knitting - and required me to learn the continental knitting technique (where the yarn is held in the left hand) for my second colour. I chose a cotton yarn because Izzy has sensitive skin and I didn't want it to be itchy, but this did mean that the scarf was a bit prone to rolling up, even after pressing, so I backed it with some organic fleece I had left over from another project (and which, by the way, turned out to be the first time I used my new sewing machine!). One toddler scarf, completed in 6 weeks of commuting (6 weeks x 4 days = 48 journeys of 20 mins or 16 hours + time to apply the backing, which obviously wasn't done on the train.)

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Homemade gifts (2) - thank goodness it isn't a trilogy!

The end is in sight - a manic fortnight of candying, preserving, baking and wrapping has almost reached its conclusion (and in time for the second class post, too!) I thought it would be illuminating to write a post about handmade gifts whilst this period of frenzied activity is fresh in my mind, as, too often, in the hazy post-Christmas glow I find myself downplaying the sheer amount of time and effort that goes into creating what is, in the end, only a handful of edible festive boxes. In the last two weeks I've alternately felt:

  • smug (that I'm giving friends and family something completely unique);
  • worried (that everything wasn't going to come together in time;
  • resentful (lets not go there...);
  • angry (with myself, for choosing NOW as a time to experiment with a new, completely untried recipe that resulted in a completely wasted afternoon with masses of sticky washing up and no 'gift element');
  • panicky (that no one will like what I've sent them/that some of the foods won't have kept well/that there isn't enough in each box);
  • satisfaction (as each box is packed up, with ribbon and trimmings);
  • boredom (trying to use the Post Office in central Reading on the second Saturday before Christmas results in a lot of standing around in a queue);
  • utter relief that it's all over for another year
Maybe next year I'll just do a bit of chifting (charity shop gifting to the uninitiated)....!

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Green Christmas gift guide: Homemade gifts (1)

An interesting piece in The Guardian today on 'Are homemade Christmas presents always better?' I'd have to question their premise though, as the reasons most of us give homemade gifts isn't to compete with a shop-bought alternative (on quality or price), but because we enjoy making and like to demonstrate our affection for our loved ones by spending not just money, but that other most precious commodity, time.

For the last two years I've made homemade gifts to give to friends and family at Christmas. Both years I've produced an edible hamper with a range of goodies from our garden raspberry gin, to mini Christmas puddings, to popping corn complete with homemade seasoning. Almost every component could have been bought from a shop, and unlike some of the examples cited in the Guardian article, I'm pretty sure that mine cost more to make! But if I'd bought everything, the hamper just wouldn't have been the same. And I certainly wouldn't have been able to bask in the glow of a job well done, or feel a sense of pride every time one of the recipients told me how much they'd enjoyed something.

And that's why I'll be making presents again this Christmas.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Green Christmas gift guide: Gifts of membership

Added to my Green Christmas gift ideas board on Pinterest today - some ideas for those of you looking for something a little different for your eco-conscious friends and relations: gifts of membership.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

John Lewis: I love you and I hate you (with an aside about M&S)

Ah - the first Saturday in December in Reading town centre. Truly hideous! Still, I was on a mission to by my new sewing machine, and after weeks of research and prevaricating, today was the day I'd go to John Lewis and buy it. Or not. And I'm afraid this has led me to list the reasons why, John Lewis (Reading), that I love you and I hate you:

  • I love you because: of your business model. It's a good one, and more organisations should consider following it and having actual principles to act upon, rather than corporate social responsibility waffle.
  • I hate you because: your model doesn't go quite far enough in today's society. Where is your commitment to fairtrade, to British-made, to organic in the products and concessions you stock/support?

  • I love you because: you have an excellent, child-friendly cafe.
  • I hate you because: you only have a single toilet in the parent room, and toddlers don't like waiting.
  • I love you because: you have an actual haberdashery, one of only two (that I'm aware of) in Reading town centre and by far the better stocked.
  • I hate you because: you've now moved it to a difficult-to-access mezzanine area, meaning I can't just pop in to browse if I've got the pushchair with me.

  • I love you because: you're never knowingly undersold - and that's a good promise.
  • I hate you because: of the experience I had today. Sewing machines aren't really very big, or heavy, in the grand scheme of things, so why can I not just go into your store and pick one up to take away with me (after paying for it, obviously)? The only options I was offered by the surly sales assistant (after the clueless till boy had gone off to get some assistance) was to pick it up 'from Mill Lane' or have it 'delivered'. 
'Where is Mill Lane?', I asked.
 (Vague pointing) 'Oh, over that way, by the IDR - easy to get to by car.' 
'I don't have a car', quoth I.
'Oh. Well you can have it delivered for free.' 
'When would it be delivered?'
'Oh, within the next 10 days - we can't guarantee when.' 
'But I'm at work on week days so would need to know when it was arriving.
'Well, you could pay £50 for Parcelforce Delivery.'

No thanks - I think I'll just go and buy a machine from Argos, where I can order it online and the item will be waiting for me to collect it, at an easily accessible store, within a few hours. Of course, having just looked at the John Lewis website, this option also appears to be available to me, if I buy a sewing machine from them too (I can specify that I want to collect from the town centre store, rather than Mill Lane) - would have been helpful to be told that by the 'assistant'.

Oh, and Marks & Spencer - what's the point of having a Plan A to support, amongst other things, the environment and then having your heating turned up so high at the beginning of December that your staff are all wearing t-shirts?!!

Friday, 30 November 2012

A new craft habit: crochet

Whilst I've always dabbled with a range of crafts, my staple needle-based activity has always been knitting. No longer - not only am I about to be the proud owner of a Singer Tradition sewing machine, I've also - finally - mastered basic crochet (thanks to a quick tutorial from a crochet-master friend, and an evening class at the wonderful Make & Do).

My first project - a blanket for Izzy for when she's in the buggy - was officially finished this evening! Although now the problem is, of course, that I've even more potential future projects to consider...

The blanket dimensions are 600mmx700mm. The pattern is taken from First Crochet by Lesley Stanfield but I changed the colourway, the dimensions (from a full-size throw) and added extra edging to make a thicker border. The main yarn used is Scappa Aran, an exclusively hand-dyed Scottish wool, in scarlett, pillar box and cream. I picked up 2x100g balls on a break in Edinburgh a few years ago and they've been waiting for the right project ever since. The grey highlighter yarn came from my stash, left-over from the very cool Lotta Striped Bolero I knitted for Izzy from the Millamia Bright Young Things collection, using their own-brand extra fine merino yarn.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Green Christmas - Pinterest ideas

Just a quick one tonight as I've been ill today. My inbox is being inundated at the moment with Christmas-related emails from the many eco companies I've purchased things from over the last few years. Some of the ideas for gifts and decorating are pretty cool - so I've started a pinterest board to share them all with you. First up - a range of items from Nigel's Eco Store - an excellent place to find quirky and unusual gifts for the greenies (light and dark) in your life. They've also got some quite different presents for children - we bought Izzy one of their cardboard toddler chairs last year, and she loves it (although we've yet to get round to decorating it yet - maybe next year!)

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

'Nanny watchdog'?! Oh good grief!

Not sure their Picture Editor is on the same page as the Sub Editor, though. The 'Families should even sell their car to end the 'bad habit' of using it for trips of less than a mile and walk instead' header is illustrated by a picture of a smiling, happy-looking family, all of whom look as if they're not only enjoying their 'enforced' walk, but that they may even be the healthier for it.

And of course, in true Mail fashion, they appear to have picked on the one contentious matter in the whole report, which is basically about how to get more of us walking and cycling, for our health, for the environment and for the economy. Go figure.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

What happens when you build on a floodplain?

You get flooded.
This is a picture of part of the railway line near Oxford, this morning, on my commute.

What we all tend to forget as the water rises, posing a risk to our homes, our possessions and our already fraught commutes, is that flooding is a natural occurrence. At the most basic level, floodplains provide somewhere for excess water to go after a period of heavy rains. River waters leave behind silt-rich soils which are excellent for agriculture, and which is why man began to build on the floodplain, despite the risks. 

The problem is that we've kept on building. According to a report by the Chartered Insurance Institute 'While new building in flood hazard areas has virtually ceased in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it has continued in England.' This means that English planning authorities are being especially short-sighted about the impacts of building on floodplains. Even flood defenses -  built to protect a town - can have an impact further up or down the river, causing flooding in areas previously unaffected, or making existing floods worse. It will, however, be the public that suffers from 1 July next year when the Government's agreement with the insurance industry for providing cover to properties at risk of flooding expires and is unlikely to be renewed. According to the Environment Agency 'Over 5 million people in England and Wales live and work in properties that are at risk of flooding from rivers or the sea' - that's a lot of people who are suddenly going to find it difficult to insure their homes against flood damage, at least without paying a premium that many won't be able to afford. 

And that's just the cost to humans. The problem with modern building materials - like tarmac and concrete - is that they don't allow for the slow draining away of flood waters into the water table, instead dumping the excess water straight into our overwhelmed sewer network, which then overflows into rivers and other water courses, creating new environmental problems such as the poisoning of fish and other creatures, or encouraging the build up of algae. 

We desperately need to find a way to build and live more in harmony with our environments, rather than trying to impose our presence at the cost of ecosystems and habitats, and ultimately, our homes and our own safety. Maybe we could start by banning any further development on floodplains?

Monday, 26 November 2012

All bark, no bite for the supermarket watchdog

About 10 years ago I read a book which had a big impact on how I thought about food, and particularly food shopping. Bad Food Britain: How a Nation Ruined its Appetite by Joanna Blythman really brought home to me the shocking state of our British food culture, and how we should all, ultimately, be responsible for thinking about what we eat, as well as how our food gets to us, and make choices which support sustainable and ethical practices both here and in the increasing number of developing countries which support our desire for, among other things, out-of-season salads.

Fueled by information from Blythman's Shopped, Felicity Lawrence's Not on the Label, and Paul Robert's The End of Food WH and I gradually moved to a situation where, whilst without giving up a supermarket shop entirely, we were purchasing (and continue to purchase) the majority of our food from a combination of local suppliers and an organic box scheme. As I've commented many times before, we've long been in the habit of making about 90% of our meals from scratch, we bake our own bread and we make an effort to grow and preserve our own.

However, for those of us juggling commutes, small children, demanding jobs, and time spent with friends and families, supermarkets do offer the convenience of picking up a range of essentials in one fell swoop. The Cooperative, Marks & Spencer and Waitrose consistently come out top in polls looking at ethical supermarkets, but sadly in a 2011 poll by The Grocer, a supermarket's ethics are the top driver for where we shop for only 6% of us, meaning that any sweeping change to how supermarkets operate still needs to be driven by regulation and government oversight.

Making it doubly disappointing that the government's promised Supermarkets Ombudsman has already been downgraded to an adjudicator - thus focusing on a reactive approach relying on complaints being brought, rather than a proactive curb on abuses relating to suppliers, food adulteration, price-fixing, etc, etc. Not to mention how such a watchdog might have been able to address the negative impact supermarkets have on jobs, average wages, animal welfare, and the environment (at the local, national and international level).

Another let down from this coalition government.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Eat me/Drink me

If there's only one area where I'm actually on schedule this year, its in the preparation for lovely Christmas comestibles. Today is Stir-up Sunday but in a break from the (recent) tradition of a No 27 Christmas Pudding, 2012 will see my first attempt at a Christmas cake and tonight it has had its second 'feed'.

Because I can never stick to an actual recipe, this cake has the potential to be wonderful or dreadful. I substituted a fair amount of the dried fruits, increased the amount of nuts, and rather than sticking to the more traditional brandy or whisky for the spirituous ingredient I've mixed it up with some of our homemade raspberry gin from last year.

Watch this space towards the middle of December as there's bound to be a post about the trials of attempting to decorate the cake (hubby has already demanded a complicated Christmas scene featuring a range of characters and cake furniture - all to be handmade, whilst I was thinking more along the lines of a nice snow scene, with maybe a touch of 'frost').

Saturday, 24 November 2012

What did you buy today?

Or did you leave your purse at home in support of Buy Nothing Day? The event (or should that be 'non-event') has been running since the '90s, when it was first thought up by Adbusters - a Canadian, not-for-profit magazine looking at the impact our consumerist society is having on our physical and cultural environment.

It seems like a great idea - everyone can stop shopping for just a day, right? However, if the idea is to start people off with baby steps towards a more environmentally- and socially-conscious purchasing life, then why stage the event:

a) on the last weekend in November, just as the Christmas shopping mania is kicking off?
b) on a Saturday, when the majority of people 'need' to do some kind of shopping - for food, for example?
c) with almost no real promotion?

And I think it is the latter that is the most confusing. It feels like the green movement has always been a little slow on the uptake - they started out by vilifying the computer age as a wasteful succession of gadgets, rather than embracing the communications opportunities these technologies afford us. Similarly, advertising still seems to be seen as the poison of the Big Bad Corporates, and as such can't possibly be applied to anti-consumerist campaigns and activities.

But perhaps if more people knew about Buy Nothing Day, then more people would have taken part. The green movement has had some great successes in recent years as more charities and organisations have woken up to the idea that the majority of people, when presented with an option, won't make the 'greener' choice unless it is explained to them why they should. I'm all for less consumption - the 20% of us in the developed world are consuming more than 80% of the planet's resources after all. Surely 'Buy Nothing Day' should be something that is in the public consciousness and not a hidden sidebar in a couple of niche publications aimed at those who're already sold on the green lifestyle.

A social media campaign seems like a no-brainer, but neither I, nor my far more social-media-dependent husband were aware of anything. As it happens, I didn't buy anything today, but that's just a reflection of the fact that Saturday mornings the other half takes our daughter into town and I get a lie-in, coupled with the fact that we had visitors this afternoon and I'm still in the planning phases for my Christmas purchases. Still, maybe next year I'll consciously choose to support 'Buy Nothing Day'. I might even help them spread the word a bit more...

Friday, 23 November 2012

National Tree Week

Every week seems to be 'National  Week', but 24 November to 2 December in the UK is the week of the tree. 

National Tree Week is run, predominantly, by The Tree Council who organise events around the country in support of their campaign to get us all thinking about, and planting, trees. The idea has been around for almost 40 years, since the government introduced the idea of the National Tree Planting Year in 1973 to encourage the public to help replace the millions of trees killed by Dutch Elm Disease.

With pests and diseases threatening some of our most iconically British trees in recent years, such as oak, horsechestnut and ash, our woodlands and forests need our attention and protection more than ever. If you don't have the outdoor space to plant a tree, you could consider getting involved with the Woodland Trust's initiative to encourage community planting: find a piece of land in your local area that would benefit from trees, ask the permission of the landowner and get other local people involved, and then apply to the Trust for a free tree pack. The packs are worth up to £420 and are 'themed' around the type of situation, resource or habit you are trying to create from bee-friendly groupings to the provision of community firewood. The offer is also open to schools.

Another excellent option as the festive season approaches is to gift the planting of a tree in existing forest or woodland to a friend or relative. There are a number of schemes around the country to help you achieve this; I've been both a recipient and a giver via the National Forest's plant a tree scheme. I'm still yet to take them up on actually seeing my tree planted (and may have missed the window for this, sadly), but we'd love to take Izzy in the next year, to plant the tree we 'gifted' to mark her birth. I can see this being something of an anniversary activity, where each year we visit the National Forest to see how 'her' tree is getting on - certainly better from an environmental standpoint than some joyless party in a stuffy, overheated eatery or over-merchandised kiddy theme park.

I was sceptical to start with, but maybe National Tree Week has its place after all - even if it is just to act as a reminder to me to dig out the information about our respective tree-planting gifts. It certainly makes more sense to me than National Engineers Week (17-23 Feb) or National Careers Week (4-8 Mar)Farmhouse Breakfast Week (20-26 Jan) on the other hand ...

Thursday, 22 November 2012

I love reading

I love reading. This has always been true, although if I'd been writing this book a few years ago, I would probably have - mistakenly - phrased it as 'I love books'.

It might not be in the best interests of the traditional publishing industry, but ebooks and ebook readers are here to stay. I was very much in two minds about getting a Kindle - I was concerned that I wouldn't enjoy the experience of reading from a screen in the same way as I enjoyed turning the pages of an actual book, but my 'early-ish adopter' husband persuaded me to give it a go, and after another week of lugging my library books to and from work in order to be able to read on the train, I succumbed.

And I've never looked back, supporting my main Kindle with a download of the Kindle reader software on my laptop and to my work iPad, so that I'm not even limited to reading on the initial device, but can access my library on whatever machine is closest to hand or most appropriate for the circumstances.

And library is really the only way to describe it. In the two years I've had my Kindle, I've purchased in excess of 150 ebooks. I'm not sure if it is the lower price point, the ease of the one-click payment system, the speed at which I can access the next book (I tend to be drawn to trilogies at best, series at worst) or just the joy of discovering new authors (and rediscovering old friends), but my already voracious appetite for books (which used to have to be supplemented by regular library visits in order to protect my bank account) continues to be met. Best of all, my Kindle weighs less than your average paperback book and takes up less space in my bag. Indeed, this device was the only thing that kept me sane during the 4 months I managed to breastfeed our daughter as it meant the hour she spent feeding was also a time I could look forward to relaxing with a good book, without having to worry about how both to hold the book and turn the page with only one hand.

The even better news is that, by significantly reducing the number of printed books I buy (I've still bought a handful over the two-year period) I'm also helping the environment. According to a report from the Cleantech Group an average book has a carbon footprint of 7.5 kilograms of CO2 over its lifetime. Surprisingly, there are also fewer toxic chemicals used to manufacture an ebook reader than in the ink required to print a book. Who knew?

Happy reading!

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

BLW - one year on

Last September I spent some considerable time sharing our adventures in baby-led weaning (see here). Slightly more than one year on, and it feels like a good time to revisit the issue to relate what impact this style of weaning had on our family, and in particular, on our daughter's eating habits.

Izzy is now 22 months old and is hitting the toddler stage that every parent loves to hate (terrible twos). From everything I've read (and heard from friends and peers), many toddlers express their budding independence through eating, and refusing to eat. Our experience has been that, by following BLW, we've encouraged our child to feel in control of her eating right from the start. She has been encouraged to handle a wide variety of different foods, and experience a range of tastes and textures - we didn't spoon-feed anything, or puree anything, and she always ate exactly what we did. Izzy was able to choose what to eat, how much of something to eat, and when to finish and I think that this has resulted in a toddler who, whilst pushing at other boundaries all over the place, is relatively relaxed around meals and continues to eat a wide range of foods (most days!). She will occasionally be 'picky' and refuse an item that has previously been acceptable, but this seems only to last for a couple of months at most, before the food will be eaten again without comment - I've often wondered if this is more to do with developments in her tastebuds that change the way certain foods taste or feel in her mouth.

I think that following BLW has also helped us as parents to be more relaxed about eating. From what I have gleaned from my fellow mummies, the puree/spoon-fed approach seems to go hand-in-hand with a concern for measurement and quantities-consumed, which is continuing into the toddler years. With BLW, most of the meal is on the floor, or baby's face, so it is almost impossible to tell how much has been consumed, meaning you may as well not worry about it! Now, if Izzy refuses to eat a meal (a rare occurrence) we tend to accept it as a 'not hungry' day and move on (although keeping her at the table whilst we finish can be a bit of a challenge!)

If anything, now that we're in that terrible, dichotomous stage where toddlers at once feel they must be independent, but also long for reassurance, Izzy is 'choosing' to be 'babied' at mealtimes. She regularly demands that we "hulp!", pushing the spoon/fork into our hands. This does tend to wear off as the meal progresses and she'll often be happily spooning/forking/picking up her own food by the time we're all finishing. Still, an interesting outcome and one that just goes to show that, regardless what weaning method you choose, your toddler will still be the one calling the shots at the end of the day. Perhaps the most important thing I've taken away from the experience is the security of knowing exactly what my baby has eaten during a crucial stage of her development - yes, I won't be able to keep her away from junk food indefinitely, but she's had an excellent grounding in 'real' food, prepared from fresh ingredients, and it has made it easier to strike that balance between 'normal' foods and 'treats' that is likely to serve us well in the years ahead. Here's hoping, anyway!

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

A little more conversation, a little more action please!

What is this picture doing here? Read on!
I will begin this break in my blogging hiatus with an interesting picture and a lyrical paraphrase. I shall descend into mangled cliche - How time flies when you've got a little one - before getting to the meat of the message, which is that I can't quite believe I've not posted anything since July and it is now November!

However, a conversation with a friend at work this morning touched on the subject of blogging and what a useful discipline it can be for just forcing one to write something - anything - every day. I've spent a lot of time over the last 5 months thinking of subjects to blog about, without ever putting virtual pen to paper, but have managed to miss this fairly crucial point.

So here is my late-autumnal resolution for you - to blog, at least a little bit, every day for the rest of the month of November to see whether this is enough to get me back into the habit of posting content on a regular basis.

Carrying on with my thought for the day on 'a little more action', here's something that should be of interest to all my fellow greenies out there on funding for a new research project at Oxford which could have a massive impact on the development of our solar energy industry by exploring the development of biomimetic (using technology to mimic a natural system - keep up!) solar cells. According to Oxford's Press Office "Amongst the many photovoltaic technologies currently being developed biomimetic solar cells are especially appealing as they offer the promise of converting sunlight into energy without relying on scarce, often toxic, materials." In the words of the lead researcher (Dr Feliciano Giustino) "'I would like to ... fill the gap between the fundamental science and the technological applications of bio-inspired photovoltaics. Given its far-reaching societal implications, solar energy research calls for a multifaceted approach where we ask ourselves two questions at once: what are the fundamental mechanisms of biomimetic light harvesting, and how can we use them to harness energy..." (Full story)

Although in tandem with this news release we also have a story about "oil and gas giant" BP funding scholarships at some of the UK's top universities (including Oxford). One step forward, two steps back - is this the equivalent of the energy Foxtrot, Strictly fans?!! *This is where the picture comes in and I've even given you a little link so you can watch 'The Riley' strut her stuff)

Monday, 16 July 2012

This green and pleasant garden

Well, St Swithin’s Day (15 July) has come and gone and we are once again being rained upon (thinking about it, maybe this could be a new weather saying -it even rhymes!) Whilst it didn’t actually rain yesterday (where we live, at least), it wasn’t the glorious day of sunshine the Met Office had been predicting, so I think we’re fairly safe to assume that the weather for the next 40 days and nights will be more of the same (rain, lower-than-average temperatures, more rain, etc). Sadly, the St Swithun’s Day saying:

    St Swithun's day if thou dost rain
    For forty days it will remain
    St Swithun's day if thou be fair
    For forty days 'twill rain nae mare

is based in meteorological fact, relating to the settling of the jet stream from mid-July until the end of August either to the north (continental high pressure moves in and we get sunshine) or to the south (pushing up Atlantic weather systems and we get rain). 

Looking back through my posts for this year, I notice that our garden and growing as a subject has been pretty patchy. This is probably because the growing season itself has been pretty patchy. The low spring temperatures meant that all of our plants were slow to germinate and the lack of sunshine over the past month is now affecting the ripening of fruits. The garden is currently lushly, densely green, with very little colour. Our peas and beans bed is the exception to this, as I underplanted the frames with some nasturtiums which are vibrantly orange, but peas and beans are some of the only crops we’ve had so far this summer.

By this date last year I’d already made 4 different types of preserves from strawberries, blackcurrants and raspberries. This year I’ve made a single batch of strawberry jam (8 July), the blackcurrants are only just ripe and the raspberries are mostly still green. It looks like the single batch of jam will be all we’re getting from the strawberries too, as the rain has caused quite a number of the fruits to rot on the plants. In fact, I’ve had to resort to imported citrus fruits to satisfy my preserving bug, off this year’s batch of limoncello (lemon-flavoured vodka) and then in the fine tradition of waste not, want not, using the resulting lemon juice combined with some sad-looking fridge oranges, to make a St Clements curd.

Maybe sunshine in a jar is the best we can hope for this summer.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Great expectations...

At the beginning of June I decided I was going to be very strict with myself about finishing craft projects once I’d started them. I discovered when I was making a little pair of shoes for a friend’s new baby that there was more satisfaction in starting, working on, and finishing a project in a couple of weeks, rather than my usual project timeframe of months! 

1 t-shirt with mark and some fabric scraps
My plan was to start with another small project, which would take maybe a week. I’d recently purchased some second-hand clothes for Izzy on ebay, and one of the t-shirts had a slight mark on it. “What better small project to start with than a bit of appliqué?”, I asked myself. So, having decided on a Cath Kidston flower motif, I sat down one Monday evening with my fabric stash, some bondaweb and a steam iron, and proceeded to cut out and arrange my flower. Except, once I’d started, I got a bit carried away. A single flower became a layered, decoupage affair using a mix of two fabrics (a cotton and a felt). The single flower became a more pleasing arrangement of three blooms, each layered, and to be finished off with a decorative button from my button pot.

Use an iron to activate the glue
Hmm. The first stage was misleading in its simplicity. Trace motif onto bondaweb, iron bondaweb on to fabric, place motif on t-shirt, iron again. But then I came to the embroidery part. Satin stitch is a pretty time-consuming stitch, if you haven’t ever dabbled in the fine art of hand embroidery, involving creating lots of little stitches, placed very closely together to cover an edge. In this case, I had 7 edges to apply the stitch too, at some points working through four layers of fabric: the thick organic cotton t-shirt, two layers of cotton fabric and one layer of felt.

The three flowers ready for the embroidery
Needless to say, this one week project became two. Then three. Then four. As I haven’t done any embroidery for quite some time, my first flower looked a little shoddy, and so when I’d finished I had to go back to cover up the gaps and bits of the first layer where I’d sewed too close to the edge of my patterned cotton fabric and it had started to fray a little. I got a blister on my finger from forcing the needle through the work and strained the muscles in the back of my hand. 

But the most important thing? Even when I really, really wanted to just put the project aside and move on to a new one for a bit of light relief (I’ve got a lovely little knitting project lined-up), I didn’t. I persevered and although it may be a small thing, I’m still quite proud of myself. 

Finished, at last!

Sunday, 17 June 2012


Today I'm feeling a bit unravelled as our dd kept us up for half the night with her latest teething/cold/who-knows-what extravaganza. So what better way to spend the quiet time whilst she was napping this afternoon than by experimenting with unravelling something else?

I've been on a bit of a declutter kick since reading Miss Minimalist by Francine Jay a couple of weeks ago. If, like me, you'd understood minimalism to be a term applied to a relatively dull design concept (think white rooms with no furniture), then think again. Minimalism is, or can be, an all-encompassing way of life - for the eco-conscious, it also provides some useful guidelines, or timely reminders, for how to live life more lightly, without using unnecessary resources or falling prey to the twin powers of capitalism and consumerism. If you want to know more, I'd suggest you read the book (I, appropriately, bought the Kindle edition, to avoid adding another physical book to my existing collection).

One of my decluttering goals has been to minimalise my wardrobe down to a single closet and a single chest of drawers, rather than needing to bring out and pack away a summer/winter wardrobe each year. Having looked at the clothes I actually wear all the time, the clothes I'd lost under piles of unworn things and the clothes that just don't fit or flatter, I came away with 4 large carrier bags-full. 1 bag of clothes from the upper end of the high street, all in excellent condition (the perils of sales and impulse buying) to hopefully be sold on to our local clothing agency; 1 bag of clothes in completely tatty condition to be recycled; and 2 bags of clothes destined for the charity shop.

And it was whilst looking at, in particular, some of the perfectly serviceable men's woollen jumpers (shrunken hand-me-downs from WH) that it occurred to me to wonder if I shouldn't be thinking about salvaging some of this yarn to reuse in my own knitting projects, rather than forking out on virgin yarns every time. Top of the pile was an off-white, GAP over-sized cardigan, which was much-loved one particularly chilly summer, but washed and worn so often that it completely lost its shape. So this afternoon, I sat down with this particularly useful blog post, some scissors and the item in question to see how difficult it would be to unravel myself some yarn.

And the answer? Surprisingly easy. Although also, surprisingly messy! Still, one fair-sized ball of yarn just from unravelling one sleeve is pretty good work for a sleep-deprived mummy on a Sunday afternoon!

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Baking fest

Cheese and leek pasties for tomorrow's dinner?
Lovely Easter muffins?
Newly-invented ginger and cranberry scones?
Tasting will commence in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1...

Saturday, 31 March 2012


Craft and gardening. They might seem like an odd combination of hobbies – one active and one relatively passive; one that is outside in all weathers and one that is comfortably undertaken indoors; one that ties you to a location and one that is (in most cases) portable. 

But there are actually many similarities. They both provide me with an outlet for my creative side. With crafting this is an obvious and overt thing, involving materials to be chosen and arranged and combined into a harmonious whole. But the garden too is about texture and colour and pattern, requiring both an eye for detail and for looking at the bigger picture or end result. There is very little in our garden that is not edible or of some homecraft or medicinal use, but this doesn’t mean that it is purely functional or unpleasant to look at. An underlying structure of raised beds at different heights and made from different materials, a dog-legged path and vertical features, such as our pergola, hazel wigwam or bean and pea supports, provide a three-dimensional frame for the colour and texture of our plants as they emerge, grow, bloom, fruit and die-back as the seasons change.

There is also something incredibly satisfying about taking an idea from concept to completion, whether that is in the planning, production and finishing-off of a jumper for our daughter, or sitting down to a meal made up entirely from foods we’ve grown ourselves. Perhaps this is also due to the fact that, whilst you can garner the basic skills and techniques from books, the internet or even courses or chatting to other practitioners, gardening and crafting require an element of experience and a dash of alchemy to be successful. Every single garden is different, in terms of micro climates, prevalent pests, soil type and condition; and every craft project is impacted by the exact materials used, the methods employed and even the atmosphere in which an item is created. Both require thought and dedicated time spent to ensure success; as well as genuine interest in, and enthusiasm for, the project or plant at hand. If you don’t really need another scarf, chances are you won’t finish the project, or if you do, it will be with the sense of a chore completed rather than with excitement at finally being able to wear or use your creation. If you don’t really like courgettes, then you’ve chosen a very bad plant to nurture from seed to plate, as they are easy to grow and crop prolifically, leaving you with a mountain of food to be grudgingly munched through, or, worse yet, wasted.

Both pastimes have their fair share of frustrations and setbacks too, although with gardening these are largely caused by external factors, such as pests, diseases and – particularly this year – the weather. Plants you’ve grown from seed in a propagator, carefully potted on in an unheated greenhouse and then gradually acclimatised to outdoor temperatures don’t appreciate being transplanted to their final destination just as a heat wave/cold spell/drought/days of downpour set in. For me, setbacks with my craft projects tend to be of my own making: I’ll start a new project before finishing an existing one, leading to piles of 80-90% finished items mounting up in my cupboards. Equally, there are the setbacks inherent in any skill-based task, where more experience leads to fewer mistakes. I hardly ever follow a recipe exactly as written, so often my preserves, homemade drinks and cosmetics won’t have quite the right consistency or taste the first time I make them, but I always take careful notes and jot down thoughts and ideas for how I can improve the item next time around. 

Both hobbies are useful and generally productive pastimes, but not essential to daily survival as they would have been in the past. Although we enjoy growing an ever-increasing number and quantity of fruits and vegetables, we are a long way from self-sufficiency, even within these food groups. However, we are supplementing our diet with a source of food which is better for us than meat, dairy or grains, as well as reducing our food miles and maintaining an organic system – which are all arguably good and useful things. As a modern-day housewife, I may not *need* to make and mend, but by making the choice to do so, I am exerting more control over the materials and ‘products’ entering my home. And finally, gardening and crafting allow me to ‘beat the system’ by refusing to conform to the expectations of our increasingly consumerist society – bring on the revolution!