Old Faithful R.I.P.

It’s sort of been one of those weeks.  There’s been a bit of this and a bit of that and all that tangly wool and the WEATHER …!  I had just got excited about some rather pretty shopping and thinking I had time to photograph it and write about it and my camera died.  I felt like I’d lost the use of an arm.  There are wordsmiths out there who write beautiful blog posts and paint their own word pictures, but I NEED to illustrate my ramblings.  First thing this morning I set off through the rain and wind to Norwich and the London Camera Exchange clutching my Fuji FinePix F650 with the lens well and truly jammed.  It’s been making a weird graunching grinding noise for weeks (months?) and I’ve been trying to ignore it.  Apparently the thingy has worked its way off the helix and the whatsits had worn (you can tell I know exactly what I’m talking about) and the price of repair was far more than a new camera… so that’s what I’ve got, a natty little Olympus FE-4000. 

So now I can write about my shopping expeditions last week with full colour illustrations.  I know I should be working hard to finish the hand dyed project, but when it got a little derailed last week it sent me off to socks.  Socks have been popular in the blogs I read lately, both Vanessa, of ‘Do you mind if I Knit’ and Jane Brocket have succumbed to the spotty lovelies to be found at Boden, but I have been indulging in the meditative appeal of sock knitting.  There is something about the smallness of the work, the little needles feel like extensions of your fingers rather than separate tools, everything tucks into your encircling hands, and the whole thing can be popped into a pocket and taken on the bus, the doctors’ waiting room or even, if you are not actually turning the heel, to the cinema!  My only problem with socks is that you have to knit two the same, and I’m really bad about repeating myself.  I have got round that by having more than one pair on the go and alternating them, deliberately creating even more odd socks than my washing machine does!  The final reason for extolling the joys of sock knitting are the glorious colours in which the sock wool is dyed.  Sitting in the warm with a handful of Technicolour sunset is the perfect antidote to the wet darkness outside.

The  second shopping trip took us to Anglia Fashion Fabrics.  This is the place to go in Norwich for everything you could possibly need for sewing and making, and now it has opened a second venue called Make Place offering tuition for complete novices to learn how to sew, which is a brilliant idea.  On this particular day there was also a MakePlace Market with stalls selling beautiful  bags and clothing made from recycled items, felt hats and scarves, jewelry, al sorts of yummy things, but alas, no camera!  Having been inspired by this, it was essential to go next door and check out the actual shop where I succumbed to this..

polka dots

because I’m having a bit of thing for polka dots, especially red and white ones…this..


Because no-one who sews can possibly turn down the chance to have a fabric called ‘Stash’ …and this..

Well…you can see why.  There are dachshunds, how could I resist?  I think this will probably end up being a bag to keep all his stuff in.  For a small dog he does have a lot of stuff!

So I think the time has come to step away from the laptop and start being creative, so I’ve got something to tell you about later in the week!


Christmas Garlands

Our Knit and Stitch group got together over cake and wine this week to work on the finishing touches of our joint contribution to the Crib and Wreath Festival at our local church.  We have been allocated the font which is great as it gives us a focal point, but it has to be quite a statement as the font is directly in front of the main door.

It was a bit of a challenge to come up with a design for something eye-catching but simply made, which could be shared amongst the members, worked on at home and assembled at the meeting, but I was pleased by the final design.  Although the final wreath will encircle the font, it will dismantle into four individual parts which can then be hung over a fireplace or door as a swag.  I think the rich deep colours will look lovely against the old stone in the church, but I want to adapt the design using red and white, stripes and gingham to give it a more Scandinavian feel. Just thinking about it makes me feel Christmassy!

It’s a really simple construction which I will endeavour to pass on. I used an assortment of fat quarters of christmas fabrics which I partly unfolded and then cut into strips using a cutting wheel.  My strips were about  2″ wide.

I then opened all the strips out…

and cut them in half…

Take each piece and fold it sides to middle, overlapping the edges in the middle by about a centimetre.  Make two rows of stitching each side of the centre, making a channel for threading.

The quickest way to do this is to feed the folded pieces through the sewing machine one after another in a continuous line, without cutting off between each piece.  When you get to the end, feed them all through again to do the second row, then cut them apart.  There is not going to be any strain on the stitching so you don’t need to tie off the threads.

Then thread the pieces on to  a thick piece of yarn. 

You need it to be thick and fluffy so it grips the fabric and allows you to gather up each little ‘bow’ section and fluff it out

To finish it off, make ‘berries’ by cutting out circles about 2″ across from a plain fabric, running a gathering stitch round the outside, stuff with toy wadding or cotton wool, pull the thread tight and stitch to close. 

I stitched the berries in groups of three on to a ribbon which I then tied at intervals on the garland.

This is not the best tutorial as I rather worked backwards and it assumes a degree of sewing knowledge, but if you are sewing novice who needs to know more, please tell me and I will be more explicit.  I will definitely be making more, so I can improve on the instructions.

I am really looking forward to photographing the finished wreath in situ, all around the font, with the christmas crib knitted by one of the Knit and Stitch members in pride of place on the top.

All Booked Up

I’ve just spent the weekend sheltering from the wild wet November weather with a lovely group of ladies making books. Outside the wind raged and the rain lashed down, but inside the atmosphere vibrated with concentration as everyone wielded rulers and scalpels and flexed their mathematical brain cells with varying degrees of success. It’s painful for textile practioners to get to grips with the unforgiving nature of paper and card. There’s no scope for cunning little stretches, or a few discreet gathers, and while there is no point trying to make a handmade book look as if it’s been machine made, a degree of accuracy is essential if the finished piece is going to work.

I go through agonies of self doubt in the run up to teaching a course. Even my years as a mature student haven’t erased the self doubt left by my schooldays.  Miss Marshall has a lot to answer for!  Although I’ve been doing it for a while, I’m suddenly struck by the fact I may have a degree to say I can do things, I don’t have a piece of paper to say I can teach those things to other people! As I draw up the lesson plan I have visions of everyone saying ‘Well, I knew that already’, of having exhausted all my ideas by midday of the first day or of everybody falling asleep with boredom! I’m pleased to say, that hasn’t happened yet!

Once we’d worked our way through the accuracy thing, which happened remarkably quickly, the atmosphere soon lightened into enthusiasm, and that feeling we had all escaped from the daily round to do something just for ourselves. Having mastered the basics of accordion folds and simple pamphlet stitching we moved on to a ‘wrap’ book,which needs very little glueing, and  even makes a good cover for a little purchased notebook. 

What is lovely at this point is to see all the different directions in which the same  basic instructions will take people.  Once all the’ bits and pieces’ bags had been upended everyone had a amazing variation of materials to realise their individual little books, and as they chatted and compared notes all sorts of new ideas came into being.

By the end of the day, even a visit from Higgins hadn’t distracted the students too much, although Joy inexplicably thought he was gorgeous and adorable and wanted to take him home…if only she knew!  As I left for home Alison, who was staying over at the centre, was still at her desk, and was there the following morning when I arrived.  I was assured she had gone to bed at some point!

After the second day, when we had covered stitching signatures into a codex, different types of hard and soft spine covers and  Origami books and folded pages, the room was a frenzy of activity.  Despite a brief hiatus when the torrential rain, coupled with a howling wind came in through the Victorian windows of the old school and had to be stemmed with an entire drawer of teatowels, by the end of the second day I counted well over 30 completed books, and a pile of stitched pages ready for working on at home.

Usually when a course is over I, and my trusty sidekick Kit, have so overdosed on the course subject we want to go home and do something completely different – bunjee jumping anyone?   This time we are both full of even more ideas, and as we saw everyone off it felt more like the end of a party with friends than a working weekend.

Next year we are taking the whole thing further, with coptic binding , Japanese stitching, slip covers and book boxes.  I will take a copy of the positive things written in the visitors book home to look at when I get my wobbly moments and the spectre of Miss Marshall hovers threateningly…

A Colour Infusion

I try so hard this time of the year to convince myself I like autumn.  I look at all the beautiful photographs in Country Living of autumn leaves, and snuggly coats and interesting things to do with sweet chestnuts.  I read articles about the joys of crisp mornings and hot chocolate by a roaring fire and, while I like all these things, nothing can make up for the shortening of the days, and the prospect of the colour gradually leeching out of the surroundings as winter approaches.

Today has been glorious and I took the camera out to capture the last few flashes of colour in the garden


So while it’s sunny outside I make the most of the colour left in the year, and when the weather turns, I, and my studio assistants, Henry…

…and Higgins…

…(Oh dear, you can’t get the staff!)… get stuck into the dye bath and making our own colourful landscape.  Using the microwave has been a revelation as far as dyeing is concerned.  I’ve never really used it it much in the kitchen apart from defrosting things, heating up my wheat bag and exploding custard (don’t ask).


Using the Easifix dyes I’ve been able to work out a foolproof method of mixing the dyes, getting reliable results and not ending up with multicoloured hands and splashes all over the walls. I had the most wonderful time experimenting with mixing the powders and the amounts and have been really excited by the variety of hues possible just using the four shades, Turquoise, Golden Yellow, Ultramarine and Magenta. I have been so organised! colour swatches

…and now I have a whole gardenful of beautiful yarn to play with…

If I never made anything with all these gorgeous colours I would happily sit and look at them, but I do have a project in mind…

In Search of Rose Pink

You’d never know, would you that my favourite colour is blue?  I’m not quite sure how the whole pink thing came to loom so large in my life.  I suppose it’s a statement, a sock in the eye, in a way that blue can’t be, unless you count the chroma blue used in film making and that’s far too scary.  It’s got better associations too, no-one wants to feel blue, but its nice to be ‘in the pink’.

I’m definitely ‘in the pink’ at the moment.  Sunday’s introspection has been wafted away by a new project.  Among the colourful blogs I gaze at with longing are ‘Attic 24’ and ‘Do you mind if I knit’.  Both are filled with the most lovely, colourful, woolly objects and I want to do something colourful and woolly NOW.  Unfortunately I seem to have accumulated a wool stash from other peoples leftovers consisting of brown, dull green, beige, maroon..why can’t I ever say no? 

The rainbow of woolly loveliness I envisage would require a small mortgage if  bought all at once from Rowan or Debbie Bliss…but I have DYE!  And now, thanks to Ebay, I have wool.  500 grams of soft sheeny 4ply Bluefaced Leicester wool yarn.

I’ve decided to break the habit of a lifetime and be methodical about this!  If I am, there’s a slim chance that if I produce something wonderful I can replicate it. (This never happens when I’m cooking)  Thanks to Ewa’s tuition, I’m all set up for microwave dyeing. You really aren’t supposed to use the same microwave  that you scramble your eggs in, so I have a cheap and cheerful one in the utility room, and an assortment of dyes left over from Art School.  The easiest to use though are the Easifix All-in-one acid dyes from Colourcraft, so I’m working my way through Golden Yellow, Ultramarine, Turquoise and Magenta.

Magenta.  That’s really, really pink.  That’s what I used to dye the wool for my felt hat.  It’s not subtle. 

Having carefully read the instructions and done some sums (Sums!) I decided to wind off 25g hanks of the natural wool, and to dye a hank at a time, recording the results.  (Mother-in-law would be proud, she was an industrial chemist)  I started with the Ultramarine and after 15 minutes in the microwave had a gorgeous blue, and still some colour left in the pot.  In went the next hank, a sky blue this time but althought there was still a tinge to the water I couldn’t believe it would have any effect on the wool.  I did the same with the Golden Yellow and was surprised at the depth of colour in the second batch. 

Then on to the Magenta.  This was scary at six o’clock in the morning (I have a puppy you know). Even the second batch was shocking.  I peered into the dye bath, so pale I couldn’t believe it had anything left to give, chickened out and put a teeny, tiny bit more powder in.. big mistake, more big pink.   So, final hank, I put it in the barely tinged dye bath, back in the microwave  and lo and behold…Rose pink! A beautiful delicate pink, and the dye bath water was faintly yellow.  Now I know just how far I can take the dyes my multicolour creation is getting more ecomical by the minute.

Of course, I have ordered the Scarlet dye, the Leaf Green, Deep Violet…oh, and another 500gms of Blue Leicester 4ply…

Um…Tim isn’t reading this, is he?

A Feeling for Felt


Spending the weekend with Ewa and the rest of the Felt Hat Gang has made me think afresh about my whole love affair with woolliness and how it evolved.  You can see that living on Planet Penny with a Pink Sheep has made me pretty woollyminded!

When I started at Norwich School of Art and Design (as it was called then) back in 2001 I had had a long history of dabbling in textiles under one guise or another.  I went on to the Visual Studies Degree Course determined to find out what else there was out there. Visual Studies is a unique course in that it gives you the opportunity to explore every medium to find out exactly how you want to express your ideas.  In the first year we had workshops in photography, welding, Photoshop and web design, textiles, etching, silkscreen printing, woodwork, blacksmithing, casting, machine embroidery, creative writing…At the end of that, if you realised that your raison d’etre was to create a wonderful three dimentional steel, patchwork edifice on a wrought iron base etched with embroidered poetry you knew it would be possible. 

To begin with I struggled with the fact that despite trying all of that with varying degrees of success, in the end my heart was still firmly textile bound.  I struggled because it felt like laziness.  But I realised after a while that  I now had a whole new perspective on making, and materials and what they could do.

I also rebelled against the expectation that to be Art it must be uncomfortable, even unpleasant.  Ever since Duchamp shocked society with his urinal ‘Fountain’, it seems to be obligatory to be outrageous, to the point of tedium.  It doesn’t matter if the message is lost, create your piece with pigs blood and elephant poo and it must be good.  I was even told that I would ‘get over’ my desire to make things which would make people happy!!

So my little corner of the communal studio became a little oasis of comfiness.  Because of the M.E. I had to have a comfortable chair to retreat to, and there I sat, and I knitted.  I knitted tiny tiny things, a huge sock you could use as a sleeping bag, a cocoon into which you could retreat while you worked on becoming a butterfly.  I wound a huge ball of wool using all the oddments of wool that Norwich’s charity shops could supply which prompted endless debates around ‘what would happen if ‘ scenarios..  Once I started deconstructing wool, discovering the sacks of Merino rovings in the college supplies shop, the rainbow of dyes in the textile workshop…

I’m not going to write a dissertation of how amazing wool is, or the history of felt or any of the things I found out about it, and myself on the ‘journey’ (popular buzzword) that was my degree.  However, my theme for the degree show, which had hovered scarily in the the background all through the preceeding years, became obvious to me as I explored the protective qualities of felt.

Hence my attempts to stem the coastal erosion at Happisburgh with a cosy wrapping of red felt…

 and needle felted cocoons for the safe transportation of glass. 

A late discovery of needle felting led to the arrival of Tallulah, a slightly raddled old stripper who has seen better days,

… and to continue the cosiness, a nice pot of tea.

Getting ahead with a hat…

Absolute bliss this weekend to creep off and leave the boys and spend two days having fun!  Ewa always turns up with yet another cunning plan to make felt making slightly less hard work and I’m all for that.  I’ve always felt slightly scared about making hats because of hat blocks and steaming and all the things you see in the more intimidating manuals.  It’s a big outlay if you turn out to be rubbish or you only have one hat in you. 


By the end of the first day of measuring and drawing, deciding on the colour schemes and laying out the fleece, we ended the day with each studio table holding a large amorphous shape of soggy wool, covered in plastic.  It was hard to imagine that any of them could posibly be transformed into any sort of head wear.

That’s what I love about felt making though, the magical transformation from a wet sheep to something with form and structure, colour and substance.  Wool absorbs dye so well, the colours are intense and saturated, a visual feast.

I was pretty pleased with my hat, just the thing to wear on Planet Penny…

…now… a hat block…I’m just off to Ebay!