Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Birthday girl

My birthday came round again recently. I used to have my birthday cake made by a friend who is a genuine French pattisiere, but she has moved to Jersey, so I had to make my own this year. Actually, having a birthday in mid-January is not great, even if you don't have to make your own cake. It's too close to the festive season for anyone - including me - to feel much like celebrating.

I made the winter plum cake from Nigella's How to be a domestic goddess. It is basically an almond cake with added tinned plums. Although not up to the standard set by my friend, my cake was still judged pretty good by the adults in our house. The kids were less keen, but that merely means dh and I will get to eat more than one slice each :-)

I also made a batch of espresso cupcakes from the same book, which incorporate my favourite dark chocolate and coffee. Predictably, no-one else in the house likes them. So I'll have to scoff the lot:

From this photo, you can see that I need more icing practice! I don't seem to have a very steady hand - and it's not 'cos of the booze, as I'm sworn off alcohol for January. Also, the muffin cases were too big, but I couldn't find any ordinary fairy-cake sized ones in my cupboard that weren't printed with festive snowmen.

For the Shrek cookbook fans, last weekend, ds and I also made "Swamp Rat* kebabs", or at least, ds prepared the marinade and helped cut up the vegetables. Then it was discovered that a new episode of Raven was on TV, so I had to finish off the kebab-making and grilling by myself.

*It wasn't really rat. It was lamb.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Piece of cake?

I could alternatively title this entry, "the perils of buying yarn on the Internets". On my monitor, shades of Cascade 220 looked perfect for this project; in real life, they weren't.

This tea cosy is supposed to resemble battenberg cake. Only it doesn't really, because the yellow is too dark and the pink is too pale.

This is a lesson for me, when I'm trying to colour match: better trust my own eyes to render colour accurately, not my monitor. Or, buy the actual recommended yarn in shades as stated in the pattern.

In case battenberg cake is not widely known outside the UK, I'll include a photo of this traditional English tea-time treat:

It is actually plain sponge, some with pink food colouring, sandwiched together with apricot jam and then surrounded in a layer of marzipan (almond paste). Sounds rather sickly, when I describe it, but in fact, it's wonderful. (Note: I had to buy a cake in order to take this photo, as it's far too fiddly to contemplate making my own, but it was no hardship, honest.)

The recommended yarn was James C. Brett Top Value. Now ordinarily, I avoid acrylic like the plague, preferring the handle and drape of other yarns - which are sadly much more expensive. But this time, in the interests of authenticity, I obtained the recommended yarn from ebay. It was super cheap, and the colour match is much closer*:

I've got loads of yarn left, so I can see Battenberg tea cosies forming a mainstay of future gifts. As this pattern is knitted double on 5.5mm needles, it takes only a couple of hours from start to finish. (In case anyone else wants to try this pattern, it is included in Tea Cozies 2)

*obviously, the handle is not quite so marvellous. But I daresay my teapot won't even notice.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Bella's mittens

Anyone who has a teenage girl in the house can't have failed to notice the Twilight series. I've now added these hand-knitted mittens to dd's Bella-related stuff. Which includes the books by Stephenie Meyer, the DVD & soundtrack, and several movie posters - along with flute music for Bella's lullaby, a guide to dating vampires, and a necklace with an apple on it (although the significance of this eludes me, actually).

These mittens are like the ones featured in the first film (watch the scene where Edward stops the truck from squashing Bella). The pattern is available from Subliminal Rabbit. It's an easy knit, once you've identified the right size needles for your yarn (See my earlier post on the importance of gauge)! I used Rowan Cocoon and 6mm dpns.

It's still pretty cold here, with another temperature plunge forecast for Monday, so the mitts also have practical application this winter. Dd has already worn them to school, which indicates approval, i.e. she's not afraid for her friends to see this hand-knit by her mum.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

What a difference a mm makes

This post is about gauge in knitting. Otherwise known as tension. For the uninitiated, this means how big your stitches are, which in turn depends on a number of factors - the size of the needle, the type of yarn being used, and your personal knitting style (how tightly you naturally hold or wrap the yarn during knitting). In knitting, working to the correct gauge can be important, because it can be the difference between a correctly fitting item and one that is too big or too small.

Both the mittens in the photo above were knitted by me, on double pointed needles (dpns), to the same pattern, in the same yarn, and for the same number of rows. However, the knitting at the top is on 5mm dpns; whereas the knitting beneath it is on 6mm dpns.

I clearly wasted time knitting on 5mm dpns. But for a small item, like these mittens, I don't usually swatch, for the simple reason that it's pretty quick to re-knit, if necessary. I also don't bother for blankets, scarves and the like, since fit is not such an issue.

It is however my usual practice to test for gauge for larger, fitted items, such as the apple strudel cardigan I finished recently. I test gauge by knitting a tension square - also called a swatch - before starting on the project proper.

Here are my tips for swatching:

Cast on and knit a square a bit bigger than required to test your tension, using the needles stated in the pattern. Most patterns state tension requirements for a square of 10 cms / 4 ins, so you'd need to knit a square of about 12 cms / 5 ins. It's important to use the right kind of needles, e.g. swatch on a circular needle for a project on circs, because the type of needle being used can influence your knitting style.

Measure and place a couple of straight pins to mark a 1o cms / 4 ins square on the swatch. Count the number of stitches (horizontally) and rows (vertically) in this square, then compare this with the stated gauge for the pattern.
  • If there are too many stitches / rows, this means your stitches are too small. Try again with a slightly bigger needle
  • If there are too few stitches / rows, this means your stitches are too big. Try again with a slightly smaller needle

If there are the right number of stitches / rows, your luck is in!

Actually, it's the number of stitches that is most critical. If there are the right number of stitches, but there are too many or too few rows, you may be able to address this simply by knitting more or fewer rows when following the pattern.

I hear the super-organised label up their completed tension squares, with a note of the yarn, needle type / size, and achieved gauge, so they can use the results for future patterns. Somehow I can't see that being immediately achievable for me, although I did sort out my yarn stash recently, so perhaps there is hope.

Saturday, 9 January 2010


January in our garden is a snowy winter scene:

Ds and I made molten lava soup for lunch, out of the Shrek cookbook. Actually, it was mostly tomatoes. Just the job to counteract the winter chill.

I shan't be venturing out of doors today, but intend to spend a cosy afternoon with my knitting needles.

Monday, 4 January 2010


I've been thinking a little about the coming year and what I'd like to achieve.

My main goal for 2010 is to stay employed. My employer is making staff reductions; I don't want this blog to focus too much on the negative, so I don't plan to dwell on this, except to say that the odds are not so bad. Needless to say, I don't plan to volunteer for redundancy.

In crafting terms, I think I'll set my goals as follows:
  • to complete at least one of the items on my languishing list (as I write this, there are four items on it)
  • to do a little more knitting, as in 2009 I managed to finish only four knitted items. I've joined the Ravelry Harry Potter House Cup group, which will hopefully encourage completion of a few more items in 2010.
  • to learn a new craft skill. I'd like to know how to crochet, or to make myself a beaded necklace. I don't like setting myself too many targets, so just achieving one of these would be fine!
I also plan to spend less time on the computer, which I have found a terrible time-sink in the latter part of 2009. But I still intend to post regularly on this blog, so hopefully my readers won't see much difference. It's playing Bejeweled Blitz and otherwise frittering time pointlessly that I'm hoping will reduce.

I will review my progress towards these goals in April.

How about you, reader? Do you have any craft-related resolutions for 2010?

Friday, 1 January 2010

Festive Round Up

I'm summing up after the festivities. We were away at my parents' house for Christmas itself, in a snowy winter wonderland, but I unfortunately forgot to take my camera so there are no pictures.

As a surprise, we had bought the kids a Wii as a joint present. This has had two unexpected benefits: firstly, they play on it together without arguing (fabulous!) and secondly, the Wii is set up in the dining room, so dh and I now have opportunities to sit on our sofa, drink wine and chat without the TV on. Aside from the Wii, dd has new clothes, Twilight flute music and Friends Scene-It, and ds has horrible science stuff, a marble run and a remote-controlled tarantula. And I have some lovely coffee cups:

They are Highland Stoneware, handpainted in Lochinver, Scotland. My parents bought them for me while on a camper van tour.

On the handmade front, I gave six hand-crafted items as gifts this year - more than I ever managed before. I made my own wrapping paper, and some snowglobes as decorations. Not to mention teachers' presents in the form of home-made biscuits. So altogether I do feel quite satisfied with my handmade gift efforts.

I'm less content with my attempts to buy handmade. I bought a bracelet for dd off etsy, but it is still not here. Perhaps I didn't shop early enough to allow for overseas shipping. Ten days left, otherwise it'll be a Paypal dispute.

I had to go to work between Christmas and new year and that brought a swift end to the holiday feeling. New Year's Eve was pretty quiet at our house - dh and dd stayed up to watch Jools Holland's Hootenanny, but I retired defeated before midnight.

I wish you all a Happy New Year; hope 2010 brings everything you are hoping for.