Friday 28 September 2012

Deconstructive / Reconstructive Sewing

At least six, probably seven, years ago I bought an inexpensive, plain, A-line denim skirt from good old Marks and Spencer. I thought it would be useful and it turned out to be one of those exceptionally useful purchases you wish you had bought two of, but only realise this, once the item in question is no longer stocked where you bought it. I have worn and worn this skirt, in season and out of season.

It has worked warmly in winter, layered up with cosy cardigans on top and thick tights underneath and like a breeze in summer with bare legs beneath and light-weight fabric tops above. I've dressed it up and dressed it down. I have worn it almost literally to "a ravelling" like the Tailor in Beatrix Potter's The Tailor of Gloucester. It has served valiantly at every turn and survived its many launderings pretty hardily. Until now that is. Recently it has begun to show signs of giving up the ghost. The hem is fraying badly and the waist seam is beginning to disintegrate and is developing holes here and there. In addition, it has not been improved by a small accident suffered when I was making my patchwork bag and turning the handle the right way out using my old Victorian wooden knitting needle. The knitting needle slipped and made a sizeable hole right in the middle of the front panel of the skirt which I was wearing at the time. Although I mended this with a small piece of fabric placed behind the hole and a bit of judicious 3-step zig-zaggery with the sewing machine, it did not enhance the appearance of my favourite garment. So the time had arrived for replacement. But could I find a similar style and length of denim skirt out there? Could I heck!

Marks and Spencer, bless them, although they kept the design going for a few years in other fabrics, of course have long since moved on to trendier cuts, fabrics and lengths for their skirts and although I have hunted high and low both On-Line and in actual shops, when I have had rare real rather than virtual shopping opportunities, nothing remotely similar has turned up in any emporium that I've come across. I couldn't even find a commercial pattern that seemed to replicate what I was after, simple though the design was at heart.

"Why don't you take the old skirt apart and make a pattern from it to make a new one?" suggested my mother. My mother does this sort of thing all the time and breezes into such a project without a second's hesitation but I felt rather like Tigger in A A Milne's "In Which It Is Shown That Tiggers Don't Climb Trees" - "It's all very well for Jumping Animals like Kangas but it's quite different for Swimming Animals like Tiggers." For which, read, "It's all very well for Expert Seamstresses Like My Mother but it's quite different for More Tentative Sewers Like Mrs T!"

There are two reasons for my Tigger-like nervousness really. One: I didn't want to "take the old skirt apart" - yes, it's worn and does need replacing but it's not quite beyond wearing in the garden or in the kitchen even if it's not really respectable enough to go out and about in. Once deconstructed, there would be no returning because, as you and I both know, I would never have been able to put it back together again remotely as it was, once it had been snipped apart.

And two: although I make quite a lot of my clothes, especially summer stuff, and I do draw out my own patterns for simple craft projects, I am afraid, cravenly, I have always stuck to using commercial patterns for clothing, both for the critical pattern pieces and also the instructions for assembly and I've learnt the hard way that sitting light to these does not always give a good result. So the idea of leaving the safe slow lane of following a proper pattern and pulling out into the dangerous fast lane of making my own pattern without any instructions was enough to cause serious trepidation and determination to resume the search for a safer, commercially insured bet.

Nothing turned up however, until by accident I stumbled upon a reference to a book called "Sew What! Skirts".

This is an American book of Empowerment and Enabling to the nervous sewer who has clung to the slow lane! It demystifies the whole pattern business and tells you how to draw out your own pattern for a variety of skirt shapes using your own measurements. Deep breath here. I do not do "make to measure" unless it is a lining for a basket or a straightforward bag or something. But in the end I thought, "In the absence of anything better, why not?" and bought a copy for not much more than the price of a commercial sewing pattern. Sew far, sew good! (Sorry - couldn't resist the pun!)

Now, as you will know, if you are a reader of these pages, Mrs T and arithmetic do not get on terribly well. Never have and probably never will so it was with some suspicion that I embarked on filling out the page in my new book with measurements and doing the accompanying multiplication, addition, subtraction and division. Even more trepidation accompanied the drawing out of the pattern (although my hand was held by my old skirt who sat by as a bit of a guide). The pattern, once drawn and cut out, looked too small. Quite a lot too small. Always a fear of mine when making my own clothes although I have learned from my experience of making a skirt when aged 13 or 14 and I thought I ought to add an extra inch all round in case I put on weight and predictably the result never ever fitted. Anyway I measured and remeasured and it still came out the same so I took the plunge. I bought a couple of metres of inexpensive denim fabric of the kind of weight and colour I liked and went for it.

And stone the crows, it's worked! In fact more than that, it fits and hangs far better than the old skirt! And I cannot believe how simple it turned out to be. The book not only tells you how to draw out a pattern to your own measurements but it also gives assembly instructions and not just for one type of skirt either. Basically it gives you options and you follow whichever section applies for what you've chosen.

I am so delighted with this I can't tell you! It's nothing particularly ground-breaking to look at and you're probably thinking, "What's so special about a plain old skirt like this?"

Well, there isn't anything particularly special about it apart from the fact that it fits like a dream - in fact I don't think I've ever had a skirt that has fitted so beautifully and I have discovered I can do something I thought was way beyond me. I wondered about jazzing up its austere plainness with some braid along the bottom or a few bright buttons at the side but I've passed the temptation up. The plainness of a garment like this is actually what makes it so incredibly versatile for teaming with other colours and fabrics depending on mood, weather and choice. Adding other colours and trims at source, as it were, would compromise that, so I've left well alone. Apart from on the inside!

On the inside, I have indulged myself to compensate for the austerity of the outside even though nobody will ever see apart from me. I know, I know - I am a sad soul! But I couldn't resist turning a fat quarter of deliciously pretty quilting fabric into homemade bias binding and finishing the edge of the facing with it as well as using it to create a false hem at the bottom. I often make hems like this, especially on a curved hemline as it's just so easy and avoids the bunching and crinkling of folding up a double layer of the skirt fabric.

You just line up the raw edge of the bias binding with the raw edge of the hem, right sides together and pin in place. You then whizz along with the sewing machine all the way round, following the crease of the bias binding which is about a quarter of an inch in from the raw edge. Press and then simply fold up the bias binding to the inside and hand stitch the folded edge in place. Very neat and unbulky. It's worked particularly well with this skirt, as denim is a heavy fabric to make turnings in. I wasn't sure that a fat quarter would make enough binding but it did, although it had to have joins, of course.

I like these frippery touches that are outwardly invisible and arguably unnecessary - they give the skirt a kind of "made with love" feel and a satisfyingly "finished" appearance, to my mind anyway.

I am now on a roll and may never buy a commercial skirt pattern again! If anyone else feels like Tigger on his branch, reluctant about jumping off and making to measure instead of following commercially prepared instructions to make something like this, I can only echo Roo's gleeful encouragement "Come on, it's easy!" And I hope that, like Tigger, you will have a go and find out "how easy it was"!

Sunday 9 September 2012

September Muffins

If Blackberry Ice Cream was Blackberry Bliss, Blackberry and Apple Muffins are close blissful seconds. And this is their month. I adapted the recipe from my recipe for Blueberry / Blueberry and Raspberry Muffins which I devised to take out some of the stress that can accompany muffin-making. You know, that ominous thing that haunts some muffin recipes about "Not Overmixing Or Else"!

It works a treat with these September fruits. The muffins are versatile and freeze beautifully so you can make a batch when you have time and defrost them individually as required. They make quite big muffins - packed with all that fruit - so if you want smaller ones, use an additional tin and put less mixture into each wrapper.

These are American-style muffins and accordingly the measurements are in cups.

What you need:

(Makes 12 big muffins)

2 1/2 cups plain white flour;
1/2 cup soft brown muscovado sugar;
2 tsps baking powder;
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda;
2 tsps ground mixed spice (or cinnamon);

2/3 cup light, neutral-tasting vegetable oil (I use almond oil);
1 cup wholemilk yoghurt;
1/4 cup runny honey;
1 large egg;

approximately two eating apples, three if they are on the small side; (The intact bits of partially damaged, fallen apples are fine - just cut away any bruised bits and use the equivalent amount of apple you estimate you'd get from two or three perfect ones.)
about 150 - 200g blackberries, washed and dried on kitchen paper

What you do:

Preheat the oven to 190 C and line a 12 hole muffin tin with muffin papers.

Stir the first five ingredients thoroughly together in a large bowl, mashing up any lumps of brown sugar as you go.

Stir or whisk together the next four ingredients in a jug. I am using my own bantam eggs here which is why there are two yolks rather than one in the jug as I find two small bantam eggs are the equivalent of one large ordinary hen's egg.

Peel, core and dice your apples and put on one side with the blackberries.

All easy peasy so far. Now for the bit which can be stressful. You are supposed not to overmix muffins as it can make them lumpy and tough which always makes me a bit nervous in case, in my efforts to avoid raw clumps of flour, I've gone past the limit and am heading for concretesville but I find this recipe and its method is pretty good-tempered so take heart if you are a nervous muffin-maker and grab your spoon without a qualm!

Pour your jug of mixed liquid ingredients into your bowl of dry ones and mix with a large spoon well enough and confidently enough so that the mixture looks cohesive and there aren't patches of flour glaring at you. As I say, this recipe is good tempered, I find, so if you want to give an extra turn or two of the spoon to make sure things are mixed properly, go ahead and don't worry about it.

Now add your fruit and fold in with your spoon. Try to be gentle here as, regardless of any issues of toughness, you don't want to bash the fruit about too much. Doing the mixing in two stages makes things easier, I find, as the muffin mixture is basically already mixed by the time you add your fruit. Alternatively you can use frozen berries which can take rougher treatment in the mixing but you will need to cook the muffins for longer in this case. May be up to another ten minutes. The only snag with using frozen fruit is that it can be a fine balance between getting the insides cooked and not over-browning the outsides!

Spoon into your waiting muffin papers, filling them two thirds to three quarters full for generous ones or if you want to make more smaller ones, just fill them half full and move onto your second muffin tin.

Sprinkle the tops with a little bit of demerara sugar, if you like, before popping them in the oven for about 20 minutes until they are well-risen and their tops golden and streaked with purple from the blackberry juice. Leave the muffins in their tins - they are quite fragile while hot and leave to cool on a wire rack.

Once cooled, enjoy them fresh or freeze them in freezer bags for some other time. Fabulous with tea or coffee, any time of day (or night).

I find they make especially good (and reasonably healthy) term-time breakfasts when time is short. They can be defrosting quickly in the microwave while I hunt down missing rugby, swimming or rowing kit and H packs the books that he was supposed to have packed in his bag the previous night. There is then time to wolf down a now-warm muffin and get out of the door for the school bus at 7.30 am. Those happy term-time days are now back upon us - in fact they no longer even feel new! Where does the time go, I wonder?

A blackberry muffin on a blackberry plate.
The plate belongs to a tea set my mother took up to university with her back in the early 1960s.
Sadly most of it has got broken over the years but I cherish this plate and what better to eat a blackberry muffin on?!

Saturday 1 September 2012

Sea-Change Crochet

Having finished the dahlia flower cushion for my mother and dabbled with my American Peaches & Creme yarn in sea colours to make a face flannel or two, my hooky fingers have been itching to start on something new. Of course it's not that there aren't already some other things in production (two bags, to be precise, in varying stages of completion!) but you know how it is, there are times when the creative part of one's soul just wants to start something new and not just anything new, something big! I have had a lull from a big hooky project for a while and it's been nice pottering with more containable things but I've hit that moment when I want the long distance to open up and begin something that will see me through into the winter and possibly beyond.

The obvious solution is another blanket of some kind. But what kind? While I was away for my all-too-short week by the sea I was struck afresh by how fickle and changeful the colour of the sea is - you know what I mean, one minute it is all grey, louring and sulky-looking and the next it is sapphire-blue, deepening to ultramarine and indigo. A constant slave to the light, it is by turns delicately silvery and opaquely moody. And where the depth of the water varies you get further subtler and more beautiful variations, even off the British coast, - dark blue lightens to shades of green, aquamarine, spruce and vivid turquoise. And where the colour of the water ripples unbroken for a stretch, the cresting waves add a rhythmic splash of pale foam; white, cream, buff and soft pearly grey highlights against slatey grey-blue, duck egg turquoise or deeper, bluer blue.

Tiny extracts from my pics taken of the sea a month ago
showing some of the variations in colour that started this project.
Predictable and yet unpredictable variations on an age-old theme. This is not a new observation, of course, but it did strike me afresh this year. Partly because the weather was quite changeable and what you looked out at one minute was very different from what you might see the next depending on the light and the shifting sunshine and cloud patterns.

I began to toy with the idea of replicating some of this sea-change in a piece of hooky and even made a few preliminary sketches with some water-colour pencils.

When I realised that a blanket-size project was a-calling it seemed obvious to marry the two.

Not difficult to pick a pattern either - with the sea-theme it could only be a ripple. Having already satisfactorily made a baby ripple blanket last year and having enjoyed vicariously the making of various other ripple blankets via sundry blogs over the last few months I knew this would be a happy choice. The pattern (Lucy of Attic 24's ripple which you can find here) is easy and enjoyably repetitive to work and the effect is very pleasing. All good news, especially for a big project.

I was heavily influenced, I have to say, by one particular ripple blanket that Sonia of Fabric and Flowers has been making this year although she has drawn her inspiration from the sky rather than the sea. Sonia has hooked, is still hooking, month by month, the colours of the skies of 2012 into a blanket. A hooky snapshot of a year's horizons. She doesn't know what the next months' rows will look like because who knows what skies will unfold to dictate them? She has sensibly limited her colour palette to a predetermined selection of blues, greys and whites so there is an overall unity but also an exciting unpredictability as to what will emerge. I absolutely love this approach. I think the technical name for it is "Conceptual Knitting" or rather "Conceptual Crochet". Whatever its name,  I find it energising and free-flowingly creative in a most inspiring way and, well, I think it's art as it should be. You can read about Sonia's sky blanket's journey here. Sonia began her blanket at the beginning of January so she only has another four months to go and then she can snuggle under 2012 quite literally!

If I lived by the sea I would love to use this approach. Going each day to observe and record the sea's colour and mood and to weave those colours (or rather hook them) into place. But as I don't live near the sea, I have regretfully had to abandon the idea and have more boringly decided to adopt a more predictable, but hopefully, interestingly varied, colour palette.

From my preliminary sketches it quickly became apparent that to get the effect I was after, I was going to need a lot of colours.

Some were already in my stash which was a good start. But there was no doubt but that a few additions to the yarn mountain under my bed were also going to be required! All good clean fun but of course this lovely yarn stuff isn't cheap. So I have been buying it frugally, (all things are relative!), in instalments, with left over birthday money and some repaid expenses money over the last month. I now have twenty seven glorious sea colours and I've had to make a colour swatch card to keep track of what colours are going to go alongside others. Janice of childhood, uninterrupted gave me the idea of the colour swatch card in her post here and it's fantastic. Can't think why I didn't do this before when juggling umpteen colours and trying to remember what order I'd decided they were supposed to go in.

Interestingly there are some colours outside my normal palette of sunny blues, pinks and bright pale greens - soft grey and ivory are in there, slatier and moodier blues and smudgier greens than my normal choices figure and there is even a soft, neutral buff colour, unappetisingly called "String" which I would never normally go for. As I said in my post on my dahlia cushion, working with colours very much outside my normal palette has changed my perspective a bit. I like it. What next I wonder?!

My life-saving colour swatch chart made from holes punched in the side of a packet of Earl Grey tea
 with the name of each colour (and its code) carefully noted against each strand for when I need to re-order!
Anyway this homemade colour chart has saved a lot of trouble and means I can now vacuum the bedroom floor where previously the balls of yarn were all carefully laid out. Woe betide anyone who came in before and disturbed one of my arrangements with a careless shoe or a helpful hoover!

The first eleven colours of my twenty seven.
I won't be able to say that my blanket will be the sea of 2012 or 2013 in the way that Sonia will be able to say that hers is the sky of 2012 but I hope it will convey the essence of the changing seas of this year, next year, some time and ever. And in my land-locked existence it will be a happy reminder of the liminal possibilities that the changing sea reminds me of. "Everything is in flux" was the hallmark of one of ancient Greece's philosophers, Heraclitus. Profoundly true and good to be reminded of it sometimes. Nothing ever stays entirely the same; neither the good, the bad nor the indifferent. Living life to the full is often, I think, about learning to flow with that, rather than against it. So hopefully my blanket will carry a gentle philosophical reminder of that too!

The beginnings of my sea-change ripple.