Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Winter harvest

After the excesses of christmas, it's good to turn to more simple fare. I never want to see mincemeat again, at least, not for the next eleven months :-)

These vegetables came from our winter garden: brussels sprouts top (the sprouts themselves are still on the small side) and baby turnips. I cooked them in a warming winter stew, with braising steak, organic carrots and onions (from our delivered box). Just the ticket for a palate ever so slightly jaded from rich food.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Deck the halls...

...and other seasonal preparations:

Decorated fir tree - check.

Glitzy glittery stuff - check.

Angel chimes (annual tradition) - check.

Snow topped spice cake - check.

Other festive tea-time treats - check.

All done (except the present-wrapping).

Merry Christmas to all my readers!

Monday, 21 December 2009

Apple Strudel Cardigan

After months of procrastination, I have now finished knitting the Apple Strudel cardigan I first cast on for back in February - even before I had started writing this blog! It had a long period (seven months!) sitting in my UFOs basket, but I picked it up again about three weeks ago, and since then have knitted both sleeves and button bands.

The pattern was in Yarn Forward magazine issue 7.

I can't recommend this pattern wholeheartedly, as there were errors in it. The sleeve decreases are wrong - if you followed them, you'd end up with sleeves hanging down near your knees. The number of stitches at the cuffs do not work for 2-2 rib in the non-cable sleeve. The pattern instructions for the button bands are the wrong way round (since the buttonholes must go in the left hand overlap, to be on the cable side of the front).

The finished item is, however, really lovely. Even my hard-to-please 14 y.o remarked it looked like something you would buy in Topshop. Now that really is praise, as it's her favourite clothes shop.

I especially love my buttons, which I bought at vast expense in John Lewis:

I could, optionally, add facings to the button bands. I bought some embellished organza expressly for this purpose, but now I'm wondering whether it will be easy to sew button holes in sequinned and embroidered fabric? Also, I think it might make the garment a bit too seasonally festive, which is OK right now, but probably not so good in January. So I'll have to think of something else to do with this:

I have half a metre. If anyone has any suggestions, do let me know.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Biscuit batch

Ds and I enjoyed a little biscuit-making for christmas, over the last couple of evenings. (For the benefit of my American readers, in UK English, a biscuit is a hard, crunchy object - maybe what you might call a cookie, or perhaps a cracker?)

The recipe is very easy: sugar, butter, self-raising flour, cinnamon, ginger and grated orange rind, all mixed together to make a dough.

We used our assorted festive cookie-cutters to cut out various stars, christmas trees and bells, plus round cutters to make snowmen shapes. I thought they looked rather nice plain, but ds had other ideas.

The decorating is ds's favourite part. The snowmen biscuits, on the right below, are destined to be gifts for his teachers.

Term ends tomorrow, so we're bang on schedule.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Snow globes

I've always admired those little glass globes you can buy, with a christmas scene inside, and a whirling snowstorm when you shake them. However, since they have no real use - merely decorative is all they are - I find it hard to justify spending my hard-earned cash on them. So this year, I decided to see if we could craft an equivalent at home.

It was hard to photograph them with the snowstorms in full swirl!

Ds and I made these together, using small, clean glass jam-jars with screw-top lids, plastic christmas cake decoration figures, plasticine, glitter, waterproof glue (we used UHU plastics glue) and glycerine - which you can buy in small bottles in shops which sell cake-decorating supplies. (Ours came from the wonderful kitchenware specialist that is Lakeland).

Tips for making your own snowglobes:

  1. Make sure you start with clean jars. If you can't wash them in a dishwasher, try sterilising them by boiling.
  2. To raise the figure inside the jar for maximum visibility, use a folded piece of plasticine inside the jar lid.

  3. Glue the plasticine to the inside of the jar lid, and glue the plastic christmas figure on top of the plasticine. Giving the glue sufficient time to set is important, as the glued figure will eventually be immmersed in water.

  4. Put a spoonful of glycerine in the bottom of the glass jar. The glycerine slows the fall of glitter within the water making for a more satisfying snowstorm effect. Pour the glitter into the glycerine.

  5. Holding the jar over a sink, fill the jar right up to the top with cool boiled water (using boiled water will also help prevent the formation of mould or development of cloudy water). Now invert the lid with the figure attached, and screw it tightly on to the jar. Some water will probably be displaced as you close the jar. Gently shake the jar to test the seal is watertight - if any water escapes, try re-screwing the jar top closed, adding more water first if necessary.
We made two of these little snowglobes, and even though they are obviously home-made, ds absolutely loves them.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Zakka bunny pencil cases

Here's this weekend's sewing: two bunny zippered pouches from Therese Laskey's Zakka Sewing. According to the book, they are for pens or pencils, but I can see them being used to stash hair accessories, or perhaps for other essentials, who knows?

This was a thrifty project, as I already had all the required fabrics in my stash, and was able to use some small pieces.

These are not quite finished, as I'm not satisfied with my first attempt at a fabric tail. I'm going to try making a woollen pompom instead. Also, this was the first time I sewed a zippered pouch, and I had a lot of trouble getting the zip in correctly.

#1 is for dd, who declares she likes it, #2 is a christmas gift, which means I have now almost completed three presents. Already that is three times as many home-made gifts as I achieved last year - not bad at all, and there are still a couple of weeks left to go.
ETA: Both bunnies now have pompom tails and are complete.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Snowflake stencilled gift wrap

A few weeks ago, I blogged about how we usually make our own wrapping paper at christmas. We always base our home-made efforts on recycled paper, and also aim to produce something that is also recyclable afterwards (in our mixed dry recyclables bin).

We have pretty much exhausted potato-printing options in the last couple of years (robins, Santas, christmas trees and snowmen), so this year, we've tried a stencilling alternative, aiming for the effect of snowflakes.

It was very easy - my seven year old did most of it!

For this craft project, I bought a packet of paper doilies in assorted shapes (ours came from the Lakeland kitchenware shop), a roll of recycled brown parcel wrapping paper and some ready-mix white poster paint.

We used assorted doilies as stencils, using a thick children's paint brush to dab white paint through the holes, then lifting the doily away to reveal the pattern. We found a single doily would last for about three stencils before starting to disintegrate.

I'll probably vary my parcels a bit by using plain coloured (recycled) tissue paper and sticking leftover doilies on top for decoration.

If you want to look at more ideas for sustainable gift-wrapping options, take a look at this:

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

A christmas reading list

Every year I have a pre-christmas reading ritual.

I read the whole of these two:

I was a big Rumer Godden fan as a kid. I read The Story of Holly and Ivy to ds for the first time last year. I wasn't sure he would like it, as it's partly about dolls, but he listened spellbound. Readers, if you want your heart to be warmed, this is a good choice.

The Thirteen Days of Christmas is about a possible source of the carol about the partridge in a pear tree. It's historical as well as being funny, and features some old christmas carols too. My copy, which has Shirley Hughes illustrations, is rather old and tattered now - I've had it since I was ten.

I also like to read extracts from some titles, which aren't strictly christmas books, but which have relevant parts:
  1. Dicey's Song by Cynthia Voigt: where Dicey goes christmas shopping for her brothers and sisters.
  2. What Katy Did at School by Susan Coolidge: chapter 11 - the Misses Carrs' christmas boxes, which were "always quoted in the Nunnery afterwards, as an example of what papas and mammas could accomplish, when they were of the right sort and really wanted to make schoolgirls happy".
  3. End of Term by Antonia Forest: pages about the Shepherd Boy, which forms part of the girls' christmas concert.
  4. Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder: when Mr Edwards crosses the Verdigris river to bring presents to the little girls. Although I wonder what my kids would say, if their christmas consisted of a penny, a tin cup, some candy and a little white cake. How times have changed....
After that, I move on to some titles for adults. Yes, it's true: I do also read books for grown-ups!

Once I've worked my way through this list, I'll feel like I'm all mentally prepared for christmas.

Do you have any festive reading in preparation for the winter celebrations? Want to recommend a few more titles for me? I'm sure my list could stand a few additions.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Blue Bird of Happiness

Here's yesterday's sewing. I finished off this cushion cover from instructions in Sew Hip issue 10.

I decided to use metallic thread to give a more glitzy effect. And wished I hadn't, as I re-threaded the needle about a hundred times. (OK, I exaggerate just a little...) Funny, though, that the bobbin thread was just fine - all the trouble was in the top thread.

This is my second completed christmas present. Hopefully the recipient will like it. She lives in a crafty family, so is likely to appreciate a hand-made item.

Friday, 27 November 2009

On the needles

I'm pleased to report that my ruffle bag had the desired effect of prompting some knitting, even though I did not go to the knitting group, as to be honest the timing is not so good for me. At tea-time, I feel I am supposed to be at home feeding the kids, not sitting knitting in cafes, no matter how good the cake is!

Another spur to re-starting the knitting was being given a copy of this book:

I didn't buy it (as I'm sworn off new books for environmental reasons) - it was an early christmas present. I've looked through it, and now I long to knit the Battenberg Slice pattern.

However, I hate having more than three knitted UnFinished Objects on the needles at any one time (otherwise I just feel overwhelmed by the stress of UFOs...), so I have to finish something first.

The Apple Strudel seemed the easiest project to complete. Also, now it's turned cold, an aran-weight cardigan seems suddenly desirable. The body is done, so there are just the sleeves to finish, and then the button bands to pick up and knit. I've actually nearly finished the first sleeve this week, so I'm hopeful of finishing this quite soon*.

I also sped to John Lewis in my lunch hour and bought six reels of thread, including some in metallic silver. So I'm ready to do more work on my next sewing project - another planned christmas present. So far I've managed the princely sum of 1.5 completed hand-made gifts. Which is not untypical, but is still annoying.

*Footnote: My "quite soon", in a knitting context, equates roughly to other people's "in a few weeks".

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Homely Quilt

I finished off the little house mini-quilt from Sew Hip issue 8 yesterday.

Below you can see the lovely little house fabric better. I got this from Summersville on etsy. (As an aside, I see she also does a pack with this fabric print in turquoise, purple, black and snow - that would be a lovely alternative version.)

To be truthful, it's a little more mini- than I anticipated. If I make another, I will re-work all the measurements, as it seemed that the instructions had not factored in any seam allowances - I had to do a lot of trimming whilst piecing the quilt top. As well, the binding instructions were somewhat lacking, speaking as someone who had never bound a quilt round any corners before. Luckily I had Carolyn Forster's excellent instructions for mitred corners in issue 10 to refer to - that helped me fill in the gaps.

This is actually going to be a christmas present. Also, the cheerful red gingham I used for backing the quilt has given me an idea about festive napkins, if I can find some slightly heavier weight fabric.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Sweet treats

I came across this seasonal craft idea for making a candy wreath whilst browsing the web recently, and thought it was a lovely way to present candy at christmas.

My son was spellbound as he watched me make it. It really is very simple - all you need is an embroidery hoop (I bought one from a charity shop for 50p), some curling ribbon, a pair of scissors and a lot of wrapped sweets - they must be wrapped, because the technique involves wrapping curling ribbon round each wrapper end to secure the sweets to the hoop. The scissors are there to cut the sweets off when you feel like a treat!

Full instructions are here:

For this wreath, I used 750g of sweets - one pack each of fruit sherberts, toffees and chocolate eclairs - plus a few mini-candy canes and chocolate lollipops.

It was fun to make, but it seems a bit mean to have it in our house, because dd is not supposed to eat chewy caramels, toffee or hard candy owing to her orthodontic braces. So I plan to donate it to ds's school christmas fair. They have a sweet tombola and a raffle, so I daresay they will find a use for it. Ds is also in favour of that - he plans to buy a ticket to try and win it!

I have kept a few sweets and a couple of the chocolate lollies back, so my kids won't miss out altogether, in the event that ds fails to buy the winning ticket.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Send a Smile Appeal

Ds and I did a little crafting together today. We made two gowns for this year's Blue Peter Send a Smile appeal.

It didn't take us long. We basically cut clean, outgrown T-shirts down the back, made some holes and threaded them with ribbon for ties:

Then ds decorated the fronts with smiling faces, using felt and fabric glue. Finally, I sewed black buttons on the eyes to be the pupils.

The completed gowns are to be sent to hospitals in India for use during cleft palate operations. Each gown provided through the appeal will save the Operation Smile organisation about £3, which is then freed up for other expenses, enabling more cleft palate repair operations to be carried out. There is a collection point in ds's school, so we'll drop these off on Monday morning.

I especially like this appeal because I appreciate being asked for practical help in the form of items for use, rather than being asked for money. For anyone else interested in making a few gowns, which are needed in all sizes and which do not have to be decorated if you are short of time, there are drop-off points in all UK branches of PC World, Curry's and Curry's Digital.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

TLBG: Planning for a green christmas

The current topic for That Little Big Greener is how environmental concerns shape christmas present-giving.

I try hard to achieve the reduce principle (as discussed previously), but this is not so easy at christmas, with two children in the house. Santa fills the kids' stockings with little bits, and whilst recognising that a lot of the little bits are, in fact, unnecessary tat, I'm too soft-hearted to bring an end to this family tradition. I have asked Santa to scale down the contents slightly, though.

We have stopped present exchange with various friends' children, because all our kids were drowning in an excess of presents. Also, for several years, dh and I have bought items needed for the house, as a joint present to and from each other - just like Laura and Almanzo in their first married christmas - they chose a set of glassware from the Montgomery Ward catalogue (See The First Four Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder).

For the presents I do give, I sometimes give home-made food gifts. However, I very rarely give sewn or knitted items, only if I am sure the recipient will appreciate the item. (I'll gloss over my poor record at crafting to deadlines, which means I might not reliably finish projects in time for the holidays!) Anyone who wants to give home-made presents might like to take a look at, where there are some lovely craft ideas, categorised by recipient.

We also make our own wrapping paper. Last year ds and I potato-printed snowmen, christmas trees and robins onto (recycled) brown paper to make our gift-wrap. We also made strings of paper beads to hang on our christmas tree.

I wonder what we'll make in this year's christmas crafts session. No doubt I'll post about it here in due course.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Home Sweet Home

I had hoped to have another finished object to show you today, but unfortunately my sewing time was limited. I did complete the cutting out stage though. The lovely little house printed fabric came from Summersville on etsy.

I then had to cede the sewing machine to dd, who is on a deadline for her first piece of GCSE Art Textiles coursework. Here she is in action, making a first attempt at applique:

For dd's exam board, assessment is all through coursework. There are three pieces to be completed altogether, one of which is to be done at school under timed conditions. This will most likely mean we'll be competing for sewing machine time for the next 20 months. Hopefully we'll find a way to co-exist for the duration!

Friday, 6 November 2009

Shrek's recipes

Ds and I had a cookout session with the Shrek cookbook recently.

I previously mentioned my plan to make the three little pigs' apfelstrudel, and this turned out to be very easy. We just melted butter with a little sugar, softened the apples, then stirred in a couple of tablespoons of maple syrup. The cooked apple mixture went on sheets of filo pastry, which I'd bought ready made. I like to simplify as much as possible when ds is in the kitchen! Then we wrapped it up, smeared melted butter on top, and baked it in the oven for 15 mins.

Ds likes a healthy scoop of whipped cream on his desserts. (Maybe that should be, unhealthy!?)

We also made "frogspawn" jelly - basically lemon jelly with added passionfruit.

Ds's major role was in scooping out the seeds from the passionfruits.

The whipped cream was good with this too!

I feel I should add here that I only make desserts (and cakes) at weekends and in school holidays. The rest of the time, the kids eat fruit or yogurt.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Ruffle Bag

I made this bag over the weekend, using the Ra Ra Ruffle Bag pattern in Sew Hip issue 8. It's been on my to-sew list for a while, but as any regular reader of this blog will know, my productivity fell drastically over the summer.

This pattern is a good stash-buster, as it needs small amounts of different fabrics. Although I did buy a few extra half-metres of Tanya Whelan fabrics, from the Darla range, as I simply couldn't resist them.

Here's my cut-out fabrics ready to sew:

I found no errors in the pattern instructions, although I did do a couple of things differently.

Rather than hemming the top ruffle all the way round and sewing it on top of the front piece as instructed, I preferred to use a joining method. I cut the top ruffle 1/2 in wider than the others, and cut the front bag piece 1 in longer than stated. I hemmed the bottom and sides of all four ruffles, lined them up on the bag to my satisfaction and attached the bottom three on to the top of the front piece as per the instructions.

I then cut the front bag piece in two, 1/2 in above where I wanted the top ruffle to start when complete. I sandwiched the ruffle between the two front bag pieces and sewed a seam with a 1/2 in seam allowance. Here's how the pieces of fabric were laid out at the pinning stage - bottom of bag front, right side up, ruffle on top, also right side up, top of bag front, right side down:

I think the result looks neater than the magazine sample. A closer photo is below. If you want to try this, do check the ruffle is oriented correctly when it is still pinned. (On another occasion, I did not check, and inadvertantly attached a ruffle upside down!)

Another change I made was in the step order. I'm still a relative beginner when it comes to machine buttonholes. So I sewed the buttonhole into the tab piece before I assembled the bag - rather than after assembly as instructed. I figured if my buttonhole was inadequate, I could simply make another tab piece, and there would be no seam ripping involved.

I love my new bag, and intend to use it to tote my knitting to a group. Perhaps if I have my knitting in a prettier bag, I might actually do some!

Saturday, 31 October 2009


We keep hallowe'en here, in a small way.

This morning, ds and I made two jack o'lanterns. The small green one on the right in the photo above was off ds's own pumpkin plant, the large orange one I bought in the supermarket. Note for nervous readers: I used the sharp knife. Ds was limited to a spoon to scrape out the seeds.

During the week, we also made these hallowe'en lanterns, using jam jars, black sugar paper, orange and green tissue paper, and tealights. They look pretty good all ranged together.

Ds is off out with his dad to collect a sweetie haul, while I stay home to answer the door to other revellers. If you keep this festival, enjoy your hallowe'en celebrations!

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

TLBG: Water Conservation

I'm a week late with this post, but never mind.

Last week's topic on that little bit greener blog was water conservation.

A few years ago, our family invested in a dishwasher. At the time, I felt some environmental guilt about this, even though it was an A-rated appliance, because I had the impression that dishwashers used a lot of energy and water. Still, a lot of our personal energy was being wasted, standing over the sink. And certainly I never realised how much time was involved in washing up, until my evenings were liberated by not having to do it.

Since then, I've discovered that actually a dishwasher is a good thing, environmentally speaking, compared to washing up by hand. Apparently a day's washing up by hand typically uses 20 gallons of water, whereas a modern dishwasher uses less than 8 gallons. Look here if you want to read more

I'm not sure our dishwasher is quite as wonderful as all that, even though we routinely use the economy setting, because it is several years old now, and new ones are probably more energy efficient.

I also suppose it depends on how many people live in your household, and how much washing-up is actually generated. We are a family of four at home, and run the full machine once a day (except when I've had a baking session, when I might need to run a second load.)

Friday, 23 October 2009


From this:

(c. seven weeks)

to this:

(seven years!)

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

A glut of Autumn apples

I collected these windfalls in our garden yesterday. The tree is still loaded with apples, so there'll be more to come. Our apple consumption has shot up: baked apples on Friday, apple crumble for Sunday lunch. I've now started palming apples off on friends and neighbours, as we can't possibly eat them all. We'll have to keep a few in reserve, though, as ds has expressed an interest in apple-bobbing at Hallowe'en.

In the search for ideas of what else to do with the apples, I came across this yummy-looking recipe, in ds's Shrek Cookbook (which is unfortunately now out of print):

I shall also be turning to A Little House Cookbook, which contains collected recipes and food history related to the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. PP 122 - 133 cover apple turnovers, apple pie, birds' nest pudding, fried apples and onions, and apple-core vinegar.

I've learned a lot about frontier foods, and American cookery in general, from this book. I was surprised to discover that the "biscuits" referred to in the Little House books are actually what English people would call a dinner roll! Over here, a biscuit is a hard object, such as Americans might call a cookie, or maybe a cracker?

However, it's not always easy to transpose the recipes for an English kitchen. The amounts are in American measures, which is not insurmountable, but it is impossible to buy salt pork, or some of the other supplies, over here, and I also have no idea how to translate "homogenized milk", "lima" or "navy" beans into UK English. If any American readers know the answer to this, please leave a comment and enlighten me!