Friday, 21 December 2012

Thank you

It's not unusual at this time of year to reflect on the past year and to think about the good things that have happened, the less good and the changes and opportunities that have opened up. 2012 has been a very memorable year for me for all these reasons.
Sadly at the beginning of the year my dad died - suddenly and painlessly but as you can imagine was a dreadful shock to our family. We have been coming to terms with it, preparing ourselves for parting with our family home with happy memories by holding one of the loveliest weddings I have ever been to in the garden and realising what a supportive and kind group of people our friends and family on the Isle of Wight are.
At the end of May my contract as project manager at Knit for Peace came to an end as the funding ran out and after a few months rest and reflection,at the beginning of November I took the step of becoming formally self employed as a freelance knitting teacher, designer and doer of anything else fibre related. I have been extremely fortunate to be able to work and teach in some of the loveliest yarn shops in London, do some one to one teaching, launch my first paid for design and start working in an east London school as knitting teacher in residence to their parents group.
It's this last role that I just wanted to talk about in this post as it's the part of my working life that really draws together my enthusiasm for sharing my knitting skills and my belief that if you can bring people together through some sort of creative activity the community can benefit a number of ways.

I was asked to work with the group by a wonderful woman that I have worked with before in her role as a school governor at a school I worked with last year. She has been appointed as attendance and community liaison worker in a school where attendance and absenteeism are really problematic and the relationship between parents and the school has been very poor.

We started the knitting group about a month ago and it has grown every week. Most of the mums are originally from Bangladesh, many of whom speak very little English but are very keen to learn to knit and crochet. Everyone starts off by knitting a small piece to go towards making a group banner then we move on to something the women want to knit for themselves or their family. We have bottle covers, scarves, hats and snoods on the needles now. We were delighted to welcome a Somali lady this week who despite speaking no English and never having knitted before had mastered the knit stitch by the time she left.

While I am working with people on their knitting skills my colleague is able to engage them in conversation and start to understand what some of the issues around school attendance and the relationship with the school are in an informal and non threatening environment. Such has been the success of the group we have secured funding for me to continue working with them for the whole of next term.

And to absolutely put the icing on the cake, one of the mums who I taught to knit a couple of weeks ago reached into her bag and produced this mug and thank you cosy for me.I'm not ashamed to say that I had a tear in my eye.

Moments like this remind me that I have made the right decision to do something I really believe in. I may never make my fortune but some things are way more important than that. I have discovered that I have some absolutely wonderful friends who have supported me and put opportunities my way and I hope I have done the same for them.

I'm really looking forward to what the New Year holds. There are bound to be ups and downs but it will be exciting.

I hope everyone who reads this blog has a happy and peaceful holiday season and a lovely new year.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Introducing the Glasgow School Mitts

I am very excited and a little nervous to bring you some news today. I have just released my first pattern for sale on Ravelry. May I introduce the Glasgow School Mitts. They were inspired by my visit to the Rennie Mackintosh Church in Glasgow where I was lucky enough to attend the Glasgow School of Yarn so, as Charles Rennie Mackintosh was a member of the Glasgow School it seemed an obvious choice.

The mitts can be knitted in any fingering weight yarn. The example above are knitted in Yarn Yard Toddy in Stormy Monday. The yellow version are made from Malabrigo Sock in Ochre. One pair of mitts only takes 50g of yarn so they are a very economical way of getting the most from a 100g skein or to take advantage of thoughtful sellers who market their yarn in 50g skeins, allowing us a more affordable treat in these difficult times.

Speaking of which I am delighted and honoured to tell you that my lovely friend Rachel who I taught to knit socks five years ago has gone from strength to strength and has not only tech edited this pattern but is running a giveaway on her blog of this pattern and a skein of yarn donated by another friend whose support I can always rely on, Natalie of The Yarn Yard so please go over to Rachel's blog and leave a comment - you might just be the lucky one. For us, this giveaway is a real celebration of our friendship and how we bring our skills together.

The pattern is also available for £2.50 from my Ravelry Shop here.

Monday, 26 November 2012

You don't know what you've got till it's gone....

This post is another courtesy of the lovely people of Cecil Sharp House in my role as a social sharer. Apparently, one of the reasons I was selected is because I am neither a journalist nor an expert on folk music but have inhabited my own little niche in cyberspace for a while and know one end of social media from another. They are interested in my reactions and those of the people that read my blog who might not have come across our folk music tradition before.

I make this point as a weak excuse for the fact that I actually hadn't heard of Will Pound or Dan Walsh and their special guests, Lee Sankey on harmonica and Cormac Byrne on bodhran until Saturday night but having been given the chance to experience new things by Cecil Sharp House I thought I would brave the damp autumn evening, go along and find out.

If I am completely honest, when I heard that Walsh and Pound were a harmonica and banjo duo I rather wondered if the music would be for me. My companion,Laura a veteran of the American folk scene also muttered darkly about the suffering of harmonicas in the jaws of Bob Dylan so we took our seats gingerly...

Despite the show taking place in one of the smaller rooms the crowd was somewhat thin when things got underway. The lighting (what there was of it) was somewhat idiosyncratic in that the musicians were entirely lit by a purple spotlight. I offer this by way of apologies to the musicians for the rather unearthly quality of the photographs but trust me, after a couple of hopeless blurs I threw caution to the wind, slapped the camera into manual and trawled my memory for the little I know about low light photography.

 I considered manipulating the colour with photoshop but honestly, they really were this purple! My apologies to guests Lee Sankey and Cormac Byrne for my one rather blurred impression of Lee and my total failure with Cormac but trust me - he looked fine!

 But enough of the jabbering. We have dealt with my anxieties about the instruments and photography - what about the music? I really don't know where to start with the music. The repertoire of traditional and modern songs and tunes with Irish, English, American, Middle Eastern influences, original songs inspired by train journeys, beer, road safety films and Jeremy Kyle just kept on spiralling away into places that I had no idea such instruments could go.

The apparently loosely put together set masterfully added layer upon layer of musical virtuosity until the room, now magically filled with spellbound listeners all leapt to their feet for the most spontaneous standing ovation I have ever seen.

I understand with some chagrin that this is the last time Walsh and Pound will play as a duo but I'm starting to get the hang of folk family trees and am sure that they and their wonderful friends will be popping up in all sorts of projects and incarnations.

 I can certainly guarantee one thing.

I'll be there.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Are you a white sheep or a black sheep?

I was pottering around the garden this morning warming my hands around my first cup of coffee of the day when I thought you might like to see my favourite mug. I like a mug which is large, solid and robust with a nice big handle you can really get hold of. My tastes are usually for quite plain, graphic styles but you can understand why I was seduced by this one. 

The mug is by Jennie the Potter who has created a sheep motif that is simple but fun and characterful without being  too cute or sentimental.I also like the way that you can really see the artist's hand in the piece with the way the image is carved into the clay. I bought it when I visited the New York Sheep and Wool Festival at Rhinebeck three years ago so it also reminds me of the wonderful time I had there.

But the best thing of all about it is whilst you might think the mug is covered in white sheep, I know there is a black sheep on the other side.

Do you have a favourite mug?

Thursday, 8 November 2012

This is not a food blog

I think that I am really fortunate to have this time to try and make a living doing the things I love best, sharing my enthusiasm for knitting and all things woolly by teaching and designing. It does mean, however that I have had to learn to live on a much lower income. Mind you, spending much more of my time working from home means that I have time to prepare and enjoy good, healthy food than back in the days when I was working 10 hour days, rushing from meeting to meeting and living mainly on shop bought sandwiches and bags of crisps. Although I am now eating much better food, I spend far less than I used to.

This month, a group of us on Ravelry have been doing what we call the Store cupboard Challenge where we share ideas and recipes for using up food in the store cupboard, fridge or bargains we've found in the shops creatively. Today I made celeriac and apple soup with smoked mackerel which was really tasty and filling so I thought I would share my recipe with you. Bear in mind, however that my idea of a recipe is a sketchy idea of the things I put in and stirred about a bit rather than a precise set of instructions.

Celeriac and Apple Soup with Smoked Mackerel

1 celeriac, peeled and chopped
2 Cox's apples, peeled,cored and chopped
2 sticks celery, chopped
1 onion, peeled and chopped
Slosh of olive oil
1 tablespoon of horseradish sauce
Enough vegetable stock to cover
1/2 teaspoon caraway seeds
1/2 teaspoon celery seeds

Packet of smoked mackerel
Yoghurt to serve

Sweat the onions,celery, celeriac and apple in a large saucepan with the olive oil until the onions are transparent but not brown. Add the caraway and celery seeds and stir for a minute. Cover with stock and cook until the veg is tender then whizz with a hand blender until smooth. Skin and tear up a fillet of mackerel per person and put at the bottom of a large soup bowl, pour soup into bowl and top with a swirl of yoghurt.

Enjoy then return to your kntting.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

P/Hop at Glasgow School of Yarn

I have been blogging today, but this time not on my own site. I am very lucky to have been involved in P/Hop or Pennies per Hour of Pleasure, the knitters' and crocheters' fundraiser for Medecins Sans Frontiers since it was established four years ago but recently I have been able to spend more time with the project, taking over looking after the blog from Clare who has done such a good job wit it up to now.

Anyway, last month I put P/Hop in a box and headed for Scotland and the Glasgow School of Yarn. You can read all about it here but be warned, we raised a staggering £773.39 so as you can imagine there are so people to thank it ended up reading rather like an Oscar speech.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Comfort Knitting

Since I decided that I would see if I could make a least some of my living from knitting, my life has been filled with knitting related activities, teaching, designing, test knitting, and writing about knitting. It can be a little hard to switch off but, perversely what I find really helps towards the end of the day is to have a piece of fairly mindless knitting so that I can make a cup of tea, put my feet up, switch the television or radio on and just allow the simple rhythmic movements of making one stitch after another clear my mind ready for sleep.
Today I wanted to show you the piece of mindless knitting currently on my needles. One very important factor is to have something that feels good under the fingers, that produces a fabric that you feel happy to touch and enjoy how it develops and grows. For this project I raided my precious stash of discontinued yarns for this Rowan Yorkshire Tweed 4ply which is a yarn full of character that produces a drapy but quite matte and tweedy fabric. This shade very much evokes the 1950s for me. 

The project I am working on is a shawl called Line Break by Veera Vallmaki. Veera specialises in garter stitch shawls in bold graphic, asymmetric designs which use colour and short row shaping. This shawl uses short rows but only one colour, interest being added by rows of eyelets.

Whilst there is a great deal of garter stitch in this shawl the short rows make the knitting process interesting without being too challenging.

I have just reached the eyelet edging so if you will excuse me, I'm off to put the kettle on and knit a few rows before bed.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

A Mystery Hat with Spoiler alert!

As this is nominally a knitting blog I thought it was probably time I included a little bit of knitting. One of the ways that the online knitting entertains itself is to organise occasional mystery pattern knitalongs. These consist of a designer issuing a pattern in instalments with the participants knitting each instalment without knowing what the finished article is going to look like.This is something of an act of faith so it helps if the designer concerned has a good track record.
The name of Ruth Paisley, aka Woolly Wormhead is synonymous with good quality hat designs so when she announced her annual Mystery Hat Knitalong it was hard to resist. I need to mention at this point that if anyone is participating and doesn't want to see spoilers (ie photos of a finished clue) please don't scroll down further.
 The first challenge was yarn choice. The instructions called for a sport weight which for us English girls sits somewhere between a 4ply and a DK. The yarn that I chose is Well Manor Farm Gotland Lambswool 2ply in a mossy green achieved by over dyeing naturally coloured grey yarn with yellow. As you can see, my photography skills were not up to getting a consistent representation of this complex colour but you get the general idea.

And here is Clue 1, the brim completed. I had never knit with Gotland before and having once unsuccessfully tried to spin it I was worried that it would have too much of a hairy halo but in fact knitted up very nicely. It doesn't have as much bounce as a merino so I knitted the largest size to ensure a fit.

There was one other thing that persuaded me to join this Knitalong - the need for a button to sit on the brim overlap. Now as knitters we often discuss the size of our yarn stashes but many of us have little 'sub stashes' of related items of haberdashery. Some people have fine collections of beads. Some of us have a weakness for buttons so it was a real pleasure to rummage through my button tin in search of the perfect button. The trouble is, sometimes it's a bit difficult to choose.

I have made a shortlist.

 This is a hand painted wooden button.

 This is Bakelite with a mother of pearl centre. It's hard to do it justice in a photograph.

 Bakelite again. This is a really tactile button.

This is probably the most sophisticated piece with a real art deco feel.

I think I will probably wait until the final shape of the hat is revealed before choosing my button but it has been a lot of fun. At the moment I'm leaning towards the brown and red wooden one. What do you think?

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Grandmother's Footsteps

Today's post is about another inheritance from my family home - my maternal grandmother's sewing machine,  left to me by my mother and now, finally under my roof. It has been part of my life ever since I can remember. As a child I used to turn the lid upside down, squeeze into it and pretend it was a boat.

I used to love watching my mother sew, whether it was summer dresses for my sister and I or 'sides to middling' old sheets to give them a few more months of wear. The gentle rhythm of its simple mechanism is a sound that takes me right back to childhood.

So here it is, so much of a domestic fixture I have taken it for granted but really didn't know very much about it. After a little bit of internet searching and asking some very knowledgeable friends I now know that it is a Singer 28k with Ottoman rose decals...

 and a trailing vines faceplate.

Despite being pretty heavy this is, apparently a three quarter sized portable machine. I'm not sure I could get very far with it. The serial number tells me that the machine left Singer's Clydebank factory production line in September 1902. As my grandmother was born in 1897 it may even have belonged to her mother.

It's wonderful to have this simple machine, still in perfect working order despite being a little worn in places and to think of all the women who sat at it before me.

Now I just need to learn to sew.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Big in Latvia

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I share my home with two black cats called Riga and Talsi, adopted from the Mayhew Animal Home a couple of years ago. Not wishing to appear like a stereotypical cat loving knitter they tend to only make the odd cameo appearance here. The other day, however they made a rather larger than usual impact on the Internet.
At this time of year, charities such as the Mayhew Animal Home and the Cat's Protection League mount campaigns to highlight the plight of black cats who, it appears are not as easy to re home as other colours of cats and on average spend longer in animal shelters. The Mayhew mentioned this campaign on Twitter so I thought I would send them a supportive message about having adopted Riga and Talsi from them and what good company they are.

As you can see, Talsi is quite a handsome chap.

A few hours later I was surprised to get a message from a tourist service in Riga, Latvia asking me why my cats are named as they are. Many knitters will know that there is a fine knitting tradition in Latvia, particularly for brightly coloured mittens. I replied that as a knitter with an interest in traditional knitting they seemed like suitable names. This clearly impressed my correspondent who posted this message on Facebook. A few minutes later I was contacted by the Latvian Institute who have written this. Earlier this week I was interviewed by a reporter from a newspaper in Talsi. I find it quite staggering and a little chastening that a pretty ordinary post on Twitter can lead to all kinds of interesting consequences.

Talsi is busy ensuring he is presentable.

Normal knitting transmission will soon be resumed.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

More music - and a plan....

Apparently November is national blog post month so I have decided to attempt to blog every day for the next month. In theory this shouldn't be too hard as I have been really busy doing all kinds of interesting things. Now the evenings are drawing in, the theory goes, I will have time to curl up on the sofa and use the blog to reflect on some of it. We shall see.
Anyway, November starts with another musical post as I have been down to Cecil Sharp House again, this time to see Fay Hield and the Hurricane Party. As I mentioned before, my path into the appreciation of folk music has been very much from contemporary, political singer song writers so it was interesting for me to come and listen to someone whose songbook chiefly consists of interpretations of traditional words and music.

I was confident that the music would be beautifully played as the Hurricane Party really is a who's who of some of the best folk musicians on the scene or as Fay put it - 'My fantasy folk band'. The line up of Sam Sweeney, Rob Harbron, Andy Cutting, Roger Wilson and Jon Boden was never going to disappoint.

A less than full house meant that the acoustics for the first few songs were a little chilly but as the band and the audience warmed up the sound soon filled the room. Faye's clear passion for the music and its universal storytelling were infectious as was the ensemble playing which allowed the instruments to speak for themselves.

The programme showcased tracks from the new album 'Orfeo' . Stand out tunes for me were Sir Orfeo and  'The Cuckoo'.
All in all I really enjoyed the performance and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in the story behind the song. Dr Hield is clearly deeply knowledgeable about her material but communicates with clarity and enthusiasm and a twinkle in her eye.

Impressive musicianship.
And a jolly good knees up.

Monday, 15 October 2012

A Musical Interlude

Whilst this has always been primarily a knitting blog, I have from time to time talked about other loves in my life, travelling, growing, making and music. Over the next few months there will be more music, specifically folk music here. I have been appointed by Cecil Sharp House, headquarters of the English Folk Dance and Song Society to be one of their Social Sharers, a new initiative where people who are used to using social networking such as blogging and Twitter are invited to attend shows and in return talk about them online to encourage a wider audience to be interested in folk music. I am charmed, delighted and amused that they chose a knitblogger!
I have been mulling over the particular contribution that I can make. I am no musician, in fact I couldn't carry a tune in a bucket but have a lifetime's interest in all kinds of popular music, particularly singer songwriter, indie and folk. My journey towards folk music detoured the folk revival of the 1960's and 70's, coming in through new wave artists such as Billy Bragg, John Cooper Clark and  Joe Strummer, whose work told the story of the times we were living through. Discovering where they sit within the 'folk' tradition has been a real joy over the last few years as I have explored the music in more depth. This parallels rather neatly with my love of making things by hand. As a spinner, knitter, teacher and designer who learnt her skills from the hands of her mother and grandmother I recognise that I am creating pieces that are contemporary and relevant but sit firmly in a folkcraft tradition.
So without further rambling and meandering, last Friday I attended my first show as part of this project - Show of Hands with Miranda Sykes and special guests Leonard Podolak and Matt Gordon. I have been looking forward to this for some time as I have seen Show of Hands several times over the last few years and know their work well. This show is part of the tour to launch their new album, Wake the Union so my American friend and I were keen to hear how the new material celebrating the folk traditions of both our countries would be incorporated into their live set.
Unsurprisingly, the show was sold out so the show opened to a large audience of mixed ages.

The evening started firmly in the North American tradition with a very well received set by Leonard Podolak and Matt Gordon. Playing claw hammer banjo and fiddle and mouth organ respectively they got the evening off to a lively start with a selection on Old Time Appalachian String Band music and flat footing.

I had a chance to have a quick word with Matt at the interval. He told me that since he has been here he has gained a real appreciation of the English Ballad as well as a great deal of respect for the musicianship of Show of Hands. He hasn't tried Yorkshire pudding yet.

After the interval Show of Hands launched into their performance. Songs from the new album were blended with old favourites.I don't propose to give a set list as this is the beginning of a tour and I wouldn't want to spoil the surprise for others. Having seen the band live several times over the last year or so many of the new songs such as 'Stop Copying Me' have already become a familiar fixture of the set,reinforced by the characteristically active encouragement to join in.

The standard of songwriting remains consistently high and overall I would thoroughly recommend it. Podolak and Gordon are excellent guests as their enthusiasm and musicianship gives an infectious joy to the performance. Mind you, to accommodate any additions some stuff has to go. One of the things that I have always enjoyed about the band is the importance they place on the link to the history of ordinary people that folk music provides and have included some beautiful traditional music in their shows. There are less traditional songs and more examples of the songwriting skills of Steve Knightly. Whilst he continues to write more and more beautiful and relevant songs,this has led to a little less showcasing of the individual talents of Phil Beer and Miranda Sykes. With the exception of the haunting and somehow newly relevant Innocent's Song and a brief and poignant verse from The Bonny Light Horseman, Beer and Sykes confined themselves to backing vocals. Having seen Phil Beer as a solo performer I felt the loss.

All in all, however, we had a wonderful night and emerged feeling energised and uplifted and remain firm Show of Hands admirers.

We would like to thank Cecil Sharp House for this opportunity and really look forward to more shows, particularly to discover new musicians and styles. We appreciated the help of the staff in looking after my companion's mobility problems. She was, however, a little crestfallen when she discovered that the cafe were unable to offer gluten free cake. Whilst I was enjoying my large slice of delicious lemon cake she was not to be mollified by her consolation banana.

Do visit the blogs of the other two Cecil Sharp Social Sharers (say that when you have had a couple of pints). They are:

Folk Witness and Diaries of a Really Big Adventure

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Out of my way Luvvies!

One of the entertaining things about living in London is that every so often the word goes out around the knitting community that volunteer knitters are required for some sort of event. I am by nature curious and these opportunities often lead to finding out about organisations from the inside out, to be a participant rather than an observer. When Stitch London asked for knitters for an event at Tate Britain last weekend it seemed like just that sort of activity.
Apparently, a group of young people have been curating a participatory event where they choose an artwork and organise activities around the theme of a  piece in the current exhibition of Pre Raphaelite artists. In this case the chosen work was 'The Lady of Shallot by John William Waterhouse. Taking a stanza from the  poem of the same name by Alfred Lord Tennyson:
'She knows not what the curse may be
And so she weaveth steadily'
I found myself teaching anyone who came by how to use a tool I remember from my childhood, a Knitting Jenny or Nancy as it was known in our house to make cords.


These cords were used to make this spider's web.

 One of the things that I do recall from childhood was that after producing a metre or so of this cord, being the utilitarian that I am I would start asking myself what on earth I was going to do with the stuff. Coming up with a blank, this was the point at which I put it aside and went off to do something else. If only someone had shown me that you could make things like this horse's head, perhaps I might have carried on. You may not be able to see because of my rather blurry IPhone photography but this piece is made entirely of cord made on the Knitting Jenny and painted.

All in all whilst rather tangentially connected with knitting I had a really good time chatting with people and taking part in this event. Thanks to Stitch London for coming upwith the idea We were told that of all the activities happening as part of this project ours was the most popular.

Best of all, I was especially entertained when I got home and read what it said on my identity badge. I'm not just a knitter - I'm a performer!

Out of my way luvvies!