Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Craft nemesis

Next week is quite an important one for me. Two things are happening: a meeting in London and a meeting of sorts in my studio. Both require a mass of preparation and one may need a new frock so it's ever so slightly frantic round here. Writing, planting, pruning, spider rehoming, photographing and weeding have been going on for a couple of weeks. The need for the odd twenty minutes of down time is more important than ever. I'm thrilled that I'm able to turn to crochet for relaxation. It took me thirty years to become familiar enough with those intricate loops that it stopped being a source of frustration and is now like yarny meditation. 

Crochet was my craft nemesis for decades and I've written about how it eventually became part of the everyday and a kind of woolly yoga for me in Standard Issue magazine. I made my first how-to video too. It's here if you'd like to learn how to make a foundation chain - it's the casting on of crochet.

Have you heard of Stitchlinks? Betsan Corkhill runs this excellent organisation, working with the medical profession to investigate the beneficial effects of yarncraft. There's no doubt that in recent months when my Mum in law was unwell and I was rather overwhelmed by the task of promoting the Comic Relief craft magazine crochet came to the rescue. The combination of hook and string seemed to drive down adrenaline.

Does cow parsley grow where you live? It lines every field and hedgerow here and the three or four plants that have found their way into out garden are about to flower. This photograph was taken last evening as the sun began to dip. I wondered whether I could make some with crochet for a friend's belated birthday. I think it worked (see top image) and this is the project I've been working on in between hacking at nettles, although I may try it on a smaller scale too. This will become a garland eventually. Do let me know if you'd like me to write out the pattern...

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Creative medicine

I was rather taken by surprise at the Spring fluey cold that crept up on me three weeks ago. It seems funny time of year to be feverish and confined to bed but I hear that it's been clobbering people across the country. It slowed everything down, including my giveaway announcement. Thankyou for your entries. As ever Mr Random Number Generator came to my aid in choosing the winner. It's CJ of Above the River. Congratulations! Drop me an email with your address CJ.

Between healing naps my concern about my neglected inbox and the three British bird commissions that had to be made were eased by crochet. There's a soothing joy in each loop that can distract from an unfortunate nasal situation.

There's no doubt the shawl I was making was medicinal and as it got larger I was draping it around my shoulders as an extra layer of cosiness.

There was another source of creative medicine whilst I sat amongst wool, quilts and antipyretics. Instagram has been something I've dabbled with but I decided to hop on board and explore it a little more (I'm @silverpebble2). Each image is like a miniature blogpost and it's lovely to catch up with friends over there. Some images are highly styled, some have filters and effects added and some are untouched. I've been experimenting with what I post. I admit that it may seem daft to fiddle around with flowers or pebbles but I confess I love to make images that echo one of my lifelong favourite books: Keble Martin's concise British flora in Colour. This is my version of patchwork and it's as soothing as crochet or weeding for me.

The images in this post are ones I've posted on Instagram. Have you tried it? Does it lure you away from blogs or do you find it too frenetic? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.

Friday, 24 April 2015

It is time

I've written about overcoming my fear of them (just about), Val once held my hand whilst I wrestled one into submission in the pursuit of some pyjama bottoms and my yearning for a barcelona skirt I've made myself is still strong. I've reached a crossroads -I think it's time I had my own sewing machine. 

I have to admit I'm still rather wary of the needle and the calculus-like workings of these miraculous machines but the potential for making small twirly skirts for small twirly daughters is undeniable and very alluring. Crochet was my craft nemesis for thirty years. My urge to make a woolly flower was so strong that my treadle trepidation was forgotten. I'm trying to design my own crochet shawl just now and last night I crocheted part of a slipper boot so I think the hooky hurdle may be conquered. 

I think I've chosen one. It's basic, several people recommended it on Twitter and, well, it's duck egg. blue. DUCK EGG BLUE. 

Admittedly it does not have a nifty fan attachment like the spectacular number below.

What advice might you have for a person embarking on such a crucial craft relationship? Do you have any sewing machine-related tales (please omit any involving smoke, flames or stitched fingers until I'm feeling a little more brave)

Images from here

Note: I have drawn the winner of my Country Living bookazine and antique necklace giveaway and will announce it in my next post, Many thanks for all the entries x

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

The canine Judi Dench

Our dog, known variously as Hairy P, Four-legged Pebble, Pog and Minnie Mitchell is quite a hound. She was born in a stable in August 2000, has had a road traffic accident, a drug-related misdemeanour, has stolen innumerable cakes and sausages, knew I was pregnant before I did and has a spidey sense for all soft furnishings. She barks wildly at Countryfile as she thinks the sheep are ALL IN THE ROOM WITH HER and despite being over 100 in dog years still flirts with a dog called Des from down the road. If you'd like to read more about Minnie pop over to Standard Issue.

This online women's magazine is just a few months old, contains frank articles about everything from crochet to IVF and its writers include the lovely Chetna Makan from last year's Great British Bake off who shares original recipes, Jess Fostekew whose 'hoovering' column about eating out is excellent and Sarah Millican. I'm super honoured to be writing for this ace publication and it's a bona fide antidote to many women's publications that offer little more than discussions of 'beach bodies' and the latest vertiginous heels. It has substance and wit. Oh and if you like any of the articles you might find over there a 'recommend' click can really help us to know if our content is being enjoyed. 

Huge thanks for all your lovely comments on my Country Living bookazine and antique button necklace giveaway. I'll be keeping it open until Friday so it's not too late to enter.Just pop a comment on my last post.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Country Living: 'Turn Your Hobby into a Business' (necklace giveaway)

I'm so thrilled to have been included in in a special one-off Country Living magazine that was published a week or so ago entitled Turn Your Hobby into a Business. I say magazine but it's really more of a book (230 pages long). It's absolutely packed with tips on starting a small business based on creative talent, from business plans, through to finances, networking and ensuring you have a little space in which to work in even if it's the corner of the kitchen.

I'm really enjoying the exquisite photographs of other makers in their studios, their wares and, of course, the beautiful styling accompanying the inspiring case studies.

I'm immensely honoured to have been selected to be included alongside Poppy Treffry, Merchant and Mills, the Stiffkey Stores, Pump St Bakery and, one of my favourites, Eve O'Neill , whose exquisite needlefelted and intricately detailed British birds (shown above) have rushed to the top of my wishlist.

My studio was photographed in 2011 by Alun Callender, along with several of my designs including birds, hares, enamelled floral motifs and a necklace made using 19th century and wartime buttons and vintage beads.

Today I made another button necklace. Each of the mother of pearl buttons I have used was made in the 19th century for handmade baby or dolls' clothes and has been intricately handcarved.

These buttons were treasured and saved for just the right little frock or Christening gown. I have built up a small collection of them in the last few years. I interspersed the buttons with a 1920s freshwater pearl, a facetted aquamarine and two tiny genuine Roman* beads (I'm very excited about these)

I am giving this necklace away along with a copy of this wonderfully inspiring Country Living publication.

Pop a comment here if you'd like a chance to win both the necklace and the magazine. Oh and *whispers* if you mention this giveaway on your blog I'll enter you twice. Please ensure that you leave an email address if it's not on your google profile so that I can let you know if you've won. Many thanks!

Good luck!

Note: there are just a few spaces left on the silver flower necklace and jamjar posy workshop at Common Farm Flowers on 5th May. Click here to find out more

*made between 100 and 400 AD.

Monday, 6 April 2015

The end of hibernation (includes pattern for little crochet nest)

This weekend we have done very little. Mr M took last week off and for the first time in three years we have been able to relax properly. Nana (Mr M's Mum) is well. She is in remission after the myeloma that was diagnosed in 2012, is out of hospital after her problems with blood salts and energy levels, is eating more and when we visited her last weekend was on fine, cheery, chatty form. It was wonderful to see her a little more energetic again. It's made me relish and enjoy the last few days so much more. It's difficult to enjoy even the loveliest moments when there's a persistent nagging worry that someone close to you is unwell and not able to enjoy life as they should.

Emerging from my usual woollen-swaddled, quilt-wrapped wintry hibernation I ventured up to our village wood on Saturday. There are little islands of cherry blossom and blackthorn in the hedgerows. I spotted a muntjac deer ahead of me on the path. He seemed quite happy to saunter along and I'm sure he was aware of me. It was a lovely moment. I took a few twigs of blossom home and since I took this picture the girls have hung the usual assortment of painted wooden eggs on the blossom to make an Easter tree.

Another important, almost ritualised moment of Spring happened yesterday. I emerged into the garden. For six months I have been focussed on making a certain magazine and my garden was even more neglected than usual throughout the winter. It had that guilt-inducing Sleeping Beauty look and was swathed in crispy bits. old leaves and brambles that seem to have sprung up from nowhere. No knights galloped up to help hack at things with swords, but Mr M did climb in to the green bin to squash everything down as I'd filled it to the brim. Then he started jumping to compress the contents and the bin fell over. He needed 8 plasters.

I've written about my approach to gardening before - I let everything self seed and if it's a thistle or a skunk cabbage I yank it out. My shameful neglect really has paid off. Yesterday I discovered self-seeded violets, celandine and, most excitingly for me, six cow parsley plants. One of them is in the pot with shards of blue and white bowl in it. This picture was taken this morning - my first morning tea in the garden, wellies and cardi on over pyjamas and accompanied by a feisty song from a wren and daughters making a 'ladybird zoo'. Oh, and I found the first bluebell opening in our front garden.

Finally, I've been on a bit of a crochet odyssey in the past year. I'll be writing more about this but when I bought a crochet stitch encyclopedia a week or two ago I knew my relationship with hooking had become serious. This weekend I managed to conquer arcade stitch, a two row pansy trim (see above) and inspired by the nest on Julie's blog a few days ago I made up a quick and v easy crochet pattern for a little nest. I'm posting it a little late for Easter eggs - sorry! There's still lots of Spring left though. I'd love to hear if you make one of these.

As each of these moments happened I remembered to be aware of and remember how good they were and feel grateful rather than realising afterwards and regretting not relishing them more. Emerging from hibernation has never been lovelier.

For a quick crochet nest (uk terminology):

6 dc into a magic ring
Round 1: Ch2, 2 tr into each dc, sl st to join
Round 2: Ch2, *2 tr into 1st tr, 1 tr into next tr* rpt between ** around, join with sl st
Round 3: Ch1, 1 dc in each tr around. Join with sl st
Break yarn and weave in ends.

I hope you've had an ace few days.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

The redemption of the bourbon biscuit

Eastery and Spring-themed crafts are perhaps my favourite. Winter is over and colour returns. Joy.

Sprigs of blossom in a vase? Yes. Painted eggs? Obvs. Eggs hanging from said blossom? Deffo. Pompoms in the colours of French macarons? Affirmative. Hats made of daffodils? Oui.

The edible stuff offers the ultimate joy though. Last week I made chocolate All Bran mini egg nests that required half a tin of golden syrup and were denser than lead. They spread joy thoughout the land (well throughout my family anyway).

Ganache is quite important to chocolatiers at Easter time. Legend has it that it was made by mistake in a posh French restaurant when an apprentice dropped some chocolate into warm cream. When these two met the former melted slowly and gently in the latter to form a thick, glossy, chocolatey cream that cooled into a dense cocoa- and dairy-laden delight. The chef called the apprentice an ‘idiot’ for his mistake. The French for idiot is ‘ganache’.  It’s one of the finest substances known to humankind and it makes me do unseemly groans. Grab lumps of it, roll them into rough balls, chuck them into cocoa powder and you’ve made your own truffles and can pretend you’re Juliet Binoche grinding things in a twirly fifties frock and smiling saucily at Johnny Depp.

There’s a catch (a ganatch). If the temperature of the cream is too high something awful happens- the chocolate splits into a dull brown, grainy, cement-like goo with an accompanying oily liquid. Its fancy chocolatier moment is gone forever and it will never tumble happily in cocoa powder.  It’s all too easy to balls up ganache-making so I’ve only attempted it twice. The first time I made a bowl of truffley joy that lasted approx. 9 minutes before it was gobbled up by my family and I. The second time I could have grouted my bathroom with the matter I made. It was a thick sludge of sadness (although it still tasted pretty good).

Recently my youngest daughter returned from Beaver Cubs. ‘Mummy!’ she exclaimed ‘I’ve made CHOCOLATE CONKERS’. She was clutching a paper plate covered with some dubious-looking smears and seven wonky brown lumps in paper cases. Ever encouraging to my offspring’s handmade endeavours I said:

‘Oooh lovely! Er, what are they made of?’

‘Biscuits and cheese’ she replied proudly, then scampered upstairs.

I eyed the paper plate with trepidation. Several questions sprang to mind. Why has an entire troupe of Beaver Cubs made plates of what look like small donkey poos? Was she right about the cheese? Shall I eat one? Tea was still an hour or two off so I decided to be brave and bit into a lump. Presently a small choir of chocolatey angels began singing in my insides. It tasted like creamy ganache. I needed to know the recipe immediately. After grilling my six year old she offered ‘chocolatey rectangle sandwich biscuits with little holes in and creamy cheese in a tub.’

Bourbons are the most disappointing of biscuits. They promise so much: creamy filling encased by two crisp rectangles, all apparently laden with chocolate, but they never deliver. The cocoa flavour is shadowy – it’s barely there, the filling is insipid and the biscuits taste almost dusty. I shunned this biscuit at an early age after being duped by a bourbon in my Aunty Mabel’s biscuit tin. By eating this wonky lump made by a six year old in a village hall I felt I had experienced something momentous: the redemption of the Bourbon. By bishing it up with the end of a rolling pin and mixing it with Philadelphia a sort of divine ganache-like substance had been generated. Archela/Barn Owl/BeaverQueen is clearly a genius.

Today I made a batch of this miraculous, instant, cheaty, delicious ganache-like substance. I chilled it in the fridge, scooped lumps out of the bowl, rolled them into (slightly wonky) eggs and coated them in chocolate. Then I put pretty things on them and pretended I was a swanky chocolatier with a chocolaterie in the Rue de la Doo Dah in Paris. OH YES.

After that I ate three.

You will need
Half a pack of Bourbons (around 8 or 9 -own brand are fine)

Half a tub of cream cheese (about 120-140 g philidelphia or own brand work equally well)
1 desertspoon of good quality cocoa powder (I used Green and Blacks)
Your favourite chocolate, melted (optional)
Sugar paste and sprinkles (also optional)

Put the bourbons in a ziplock plastic bag (if you have one) or a big bowl. Either roll (if in bag) or bish (if in bowl) with the end of a rolling pin until they become crushed into sand-like crumbs.

Place the cream cheese in another bowl add the cocoa powder and start adding the crumbs, blending them with the cheese with a spoon. Continue adding the crumbs and blending until your mixture is a uniform creamy brown.

Pop into the fridge for 15 minutes. Remove from the fridge and take lumps of the mixture, roll it quickly in your hands and pop on a baking sheet covered in greasproof paper. Put back into the fridge for 20-30 minutes to harden a little. Eat straight away if you’re hungry

If you want to coat your truffles/eggs melt your favourite chocolate in the microwave on low. Place one of your truffles into the chocolate and roll it about gently using two forks. Lift out of the bowl, allowing excess chocolate to drop back in and place onto a baking sheet covered in greaseproof.

Whilst the chocolate is still wet place decorations onto your eggs/chocolates.

Allow the chocolate to solidify then scoff with glee