Wednesday 27 March 2013

When Spring Won't Spring...

When Spring won't spring, every right-thinking chicken goes broody and retires to a cosy nest box ...

... out of the biting wind and icy garden with a friend or two for company.

This applies to all chickens in the vicinity - real ones and hooky ones! The real ones are sitting on their own eggs, the hooky ones on Cadbury's Creme Eggs. The latter look slightly surprised, as well you might if you'd discovered you'd laid a Cadbury's Creme Egg!

A friend gave me a very sweet knitting pattern for hollow Easter hens in which to hide Easter eggs but although she assured me it was "very simple" I felt it was beyond my very limited knitting powers and sent it instead to my French friend in Toulouse who knits beautifully, regardless of which language the pattern is in, and she made short work of it, within hours of its arriving through the post. So cute was the pic of the result that she emailed me that I felt I must see if I couldn't have a go at a crochet version which I had tracked down here at Delights-Gems. The shaping feels slightly counterintuitive, or so I thought to begin with, but it works perfectly and I've now made several of these little brown hens. I used an aran weight acrylic / wool mix in King Cole Moorland which happens to be the most speckledy-hen-like yarn I could find when I popped into my LYS. Not quite as variegated as my own bantams but passably speckledy!

Having made the hens, however, they looked chilly and egged on (sorry!) by the rapid spread of broodiness among the bantams, I decided a nest was the only way forward.

A hooky nest of course! I'm rather pleased with it and so are they!

It was very straightforward to hook up if you want to make one yourself.

You start off by making a circle of single crochet (US terms) and when it's the right sort of diameter you are after, you stop increasing and just single crochet without increases, on up, until you get the sides the right height. I used Jacquie of Bunny Mummy's lovely and very clear pattern and tutorial for crocheted bowls as a starting point for this and adapted it to suit the needs of my hooky hens.

I used two colours of yarn as per Jacquie's original instructions because it gives the nest enough substance and body so that it stands up properly but instead of changing colours regularly, I used the same two colours throughout - the brown I used for the hens and a green. The green is actually a totally different yarn, it's Forest Green from my beloved collection of Cascade Ultra Pima cotton. Works fine along with the aran weight acrylic / wool mix though, and a 5mm hook made a good tight fabric, without being too difficult to work the double strands of yarn.

I chose quite a dark green because I wanted it to blend with the brown and give a sort of mossy nest appearance. It's worked quite well, I think. To make leaves, growing, as it were, out of the sides of the nest, at intervals along the way, I periodically dropped the brown yarn and made little chain stems of 8 chain stitches out at the sides, just using the green yarn, then slip-stitching, still just in green, down the side of the chain, then picking up the brown yarn again and carrying on with the round using both yarns together. In the round after a round in which I had made stems, I made a 1 ch instead of a sc where I encountered each stem base and in the next round after, I crocheted my sc stitch into the chain loop for those stitches. This helped to turn the little stems outwards nicely. Can't show you a pic because I forgot to take one when the nest was still a WIP.

Once I'd finished the basic nest with a round of slip stitches, I then crocheted leaves onto each little chain stem so that the nest has the appearance of being made from leafy twigs. I crocheted the leaves using the principle of Lucy of Attic 24's leaves on her Happy Flower Decoration but with a slightly different distribution of stitches because I wanted slightly smaller leaves, so my chain stems are a little shorter than in the Happy Flower Decoration. There are twenty one leaves altogether, crocheted on seven little stems in each of three rows, dotted around the sides of the nest at varying intervals.

I used the same colour green yarn for the leaves as the stems but you could use a different green for a varied effect.

And of course I couldn't resist making a few pink blossoms to tuck in among the leaves. These blossoms are my own pattern - more fragile blackthorn blossom than frothy cherry, I think, despite the fact that blackthorn blossom is white, not pink - but any small flower pattern worked on a smallish hook and with thinnish yarn would work fine. Mine are crocheted in two shades of Patons mercerised cotton on a 3 mm hook.

If you don't want to crochet the stems for the leaves as you go, you could always make free-standing leaves and just stitch them in place. Even if you do crochet them integrally with the nest, as you sew in the ends, you may just want to put a small, strategic stitch into the back of each leaf to anchor it against the nest at the jaunty angle you want. That's what I did anyway.

If the hooky hens can be persuaded to stop sitting, the nest will make a nice container for tiny foil-wrapped Easter eggs but at the moment I can't shift them, or only momentarily to be photographed!

When Spring won't spring, unlike the hens, I don't go broody, but I do find myself travelling in two directions at once:

1: I back-track to Winter and make seriously sweet puddings like sticky toffee pudding or syrup tart* with a really deep filling - twice as deep as the recipe says to make it. My version uses 8oz homemade white bread crumbed in the food processor, the juice of a lemon (or may be two) to sharpen the sweetness and a generous slurping of warmed golden syrup - don't ask me how much; this is one of the rare things I measure by eye but by a generous slurping, I do mean pretty generous - the mixture needs to be quite slack and not at all stiff or the result will be tough and not melting. I stir this lot together, pile it into a homemade pastry case,  bake it for 20 minutes in a hot oven and eat it with a spoonful of crème frâiche on the side. You only need a small slice as it is so sweet but it is a very good antidote to lack of sunshine and the bitter cold that currently creeps into every crevice of the house.

* I grew up calling this pudding "syrup tart"; I know many will know it better as "treacle tart". In a way I prefer "treacle tart" - it's more euphonious but my version doesn't actually contain treacle and I like the childhood echoes of "syrup tart" so "syrup tart" it remains.

2: I fast-forward to Summer, dreaming of sunny days to come by beginning to sew a floaty summer dress from this Japanese book:

Hopefully, before long, I will be travelling in just one direction again! And I don't mean the cold one!

In the meantime I think the broody hens have it about right! 

E x

Thursday 21 March 2013

Cherry Blossom Shawl

The last of my Lent Prayer Shawls is finished and will shortly be on its way.

Like my other Lent Prayer Shawls, it's made with a variegated yarn. This is James Brett Marble Chunky in pink, or rather in colourway, MC30, if you want its official, rather prosaic, name! It's not as variegated as the other yarns I've been using but there is still a clear shading of deep magenta rose to lighter, softer blossom pink. And these nuanced petal shades are what have given the shawl its own particular character.  They reminded me overwhelmingly of clouds of soft, pink cherry blossom and so the shawl became a Cherry Blossom Shawl. I wanted to reflect that in the pattern and so I chose the "Sisters Shawl" pattern from The Crocheted Prayer Shawl Companion where the groupings of single, half double and double crochet stitches make a kind of star-shaped flower pattern in the crochet fabric. 

It's simpler than the Catherine Wheelers and lighter too, which was good because I wanted the shawl to have a lightness about it, like the gossamer blossom it evoked.

I grew up in one of the leafy suburbs of North-West London in a house that was called "Cherry Trees" and when my parents bought the house in February 1971 there were no less than four glorious cherry trees in the front garden. They flowered late, not before the end of April or even early May often, but when they did, the flowers came in great clouds of the palest pink blossom; innumerable, soft, cushiony bunches of flowers; and as a small girl I loved gently to bury my face in them. The trees were quite short ones and by standing on tip-toe on the front step of the porch, I could reach the lower branches fairly easily. Unscented and fragile, yet overwhelmingly beautiful both to the eye and the touch, they were iconic markers of the passing seasons and although, depending on the weather, the blossom might not be there for long, full to the brim with blossom is how I remember the trees, rather than in their more prolonged, leafy, but flowerless, state.

Sadly those four trees are long gone and, for some unknown reason, my parents have never replaced them. Parents often have odd kicks to their gallops, much to the puzzlement of their children! I say that, perfectly sure that H thinks that about me sometimes! But whenever I go home to my parents' house, whether it's May, November or anywhere in between, the cherry blossom floods my memory and my mind's eye and it always will, even though all that remains of the original trees is their stumps, now festooned with rather a lot of ivy.

In Japan, the home of flowering cherry trees par excellence, going to see the cherry blossom is a major event and not purely a superficial or aesthetic one. The activity even has a special name - it's called "hanami". And the word for cherry blossom - "sakura" - does not just stand for the flowers themselves but the reflections of transience and fragility that the flowers evoke. Japanese poets have written haikus and other poetry about them for centuries and they have become icons. Desirable, sublime, exquisitely beautiful yet also fleeting, ephemeral and elusive, like Life itself and the Japanese custom of going to view the cherry blossom each Spring is also an act of Reflection On Life.

There is something both poignant and exquisite about that reflection. We are not here forever, despite the subtle undertow of much in modern society that either tries to avoid recognising our mortality, or deliberately represses it. I have a feeling that this has become the last taboo of the 21st C - one of the things one may not say or talk about much, if at all. Facing the truth however, need not and should not, I think, prevent us from living the time we've got as fully and as delightedly as we can. In fact, I think, the effect of facing it, enhances life rather than the opposite. Although the realisation is tinged with wistfulness, if anything, for me, it sharpens my focus and my depth of vision on what life's about and all it has to offer and be in the present moment.

There's a lovely extract from an interview by Melvyn Bragg with Dennis Potter shortly before he died in 1994 which makes this point exactly. The playwright talks about all sorts of stuff but knowing he has only a few months left to live, inevitably he gets on to living and dying.

"We're the one animal that knows that we're going to die and yet we carry on paying our mortgages, doing our jobs, moving about, behaving as though there's eternity in a sense and we tend to forget that life can only be defined in the present tense.

It is "is"; and it is now only. As much as we would like to call back yesterday and indeed yearn to and ache to sometimes, we can't. It's in us, but we can't actually; it's not there in front of us. And however predictable tomorrow is - unfortunately for most people, most of the time, it's too predictable, they're locked into whatever situation they're locked into ... Even so, no matter how predictable it is, there's the element of the unpredictable of the you don't know. The only thing you know for sure is the present tense, and that nowness becomes so vivid to me now, that in a perverse sort of way, I'm almost serene; I can celebrate life. 

Below my window in Ross, when I'm working in Ross, for example, there at this season, the blossom is out in full, there in the west early. It's a plum tree. It looks like apple blossom, but it's white. And looking at it, instead of saying, "Oh, that's nice blossom, last week looking at it through the window when I'm writing, I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomiest blossom that there ever could be and I can see it.

Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn't seem to matter - but the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous."

You can read a full transcript of the interview, if you're interested, here.

Lots of things in life can remind us unexpectedly of our mortality. One doesn't want to dwell on that aspect of them unnecessarily or morbidly but if they make us see the world and ourselves more intensely and vividly, they are strangely precious gifts that may make our lives more alive than ever before.

I wanted to photograph my Cherry Blossom Shawl against one of the flowering cherry trees in my current garden but the appalling Siberian weather the UK has been suffering - three sudden inches of snow here on Sunday last - means that I would have had to wait until Lent was long gone, for any blossom to be out and I wanted to send my shawl off to its recipient. So when looking to nature fell short, I looked to art to fill the void and made my own crocheted cherry blossom.

Using the long tails left over from crocheting them, I tied them to a bunch of hazel twigs brought in from the cold that are now happily surrendering their furry catkins for bright new leaves in the warmth of the house.

A passable imitation for the real thing, at least until the real thing flowers outside!

I searched the Internet for suitable cherry blossom patterns, having drawn a blank in my little (but slowly-growing!) library of crochet books. The pattern I chose is perfect for the effect I was after, although I have to say, it was a tad fiddly to do. It's by Meli Bondre and you can find it here. It makes gloriously puffy, frothy flowers, just like the ones I remember from my childhood home.

And because this shawl had become a Cherry Blossom Shawl in colour and pattern, I couldn't resist adding a few blossoms to one corner of the shawl.

Have I gilded the lily, or rather, the cherry? Possibly I have, but I couldn't resist!

These less puffy blossoms are from the pattern by King Soleil here which makes nice neat flowers that lie flat against the shawl fabric.

If the recipient finds them too much of a good thing, she can always snip them off! But I hope that regardless of this she will enjoy the idea of snuggling herself in a nest of soft pink cherry blossom and that whatever avenue her reflections take her in, this shawl will bring her as much vivid delight as I have had in making it.

I have to confess that I am slightly sad that Lent is drawing to a close. It has been such a creative time and I can only hope that what I have made for others gives them even half as much as making has given me. It's been an extraordinary adventure and one which I relinquish somewhat reluctantly. But all good things come to an end and there are WsIP a-plenty a-calling me, not least my Sea-Ripple, some projects left over from the first half of last year (ahem!) and one or two newer ones as well as some anticipatory summer sewing! So onwards and upwards!

 But secretly, and just between you and me, I am already looking forward to next Lent!

E x

Friday 15 March 2013

In My Kitchen In March

Joining in with Celia's In My Kitchen series here, in my kitchen, in March, have been:

eggs - a sudden early Spring glut from the bantams who are now laying for Britain after a bit of sabbatical during the winter. I especially love the speckled shells although I've no idea what makes some shells speckled and others, from the same hens, on the same diet, plain.

and as a result of all the eggs, sponge cake with strawberry and mascarpone filling - very easy and absolutely delicious - tip a pot of homemade strawberry jam and a tub of mascarpone into the food processor and blitz just enough to combine, before sandwiching a pair of sponge cakes together with the resulting dusky pink, strawberry-scented cream. A sturdy spoon and a strong arm would probably do the job without the food processor but Mrs T is lazy and this month is rather short of time. And using the food processor meant that there were scrapings to be gleaned and tested just to make sure the mixture was as good as it looked! (In case you're wondering, it was!)

blood oranges - I adore the colour of these and have been squeezing them for breakfasts most mornings. I don't think their vitamin content is any different from orange oranges but I feel they ought somehow to be more packed with good things on account of their vivid crimson juice;

hot cross buns - I know it's a wee bit early for these but never mind. I am lazy and do not make pastry crosses on mine but simply dip a sharp knife in flour and then make cross-shaped cuts into the buns before baking. Much less fiddle, although you do need to dip the knife into the flour before you make each cut, or it gets stuck! I make my buns according to a variation of Delia Smith's recipe - half wholemeal flour and half white and adding two teaspoons of cinnamon and one of mixed spice as well as a good grating of nutmeg. I only use currants as the dried fruit. I don't know why, especially as of all dried fruit, currants are probably my least favourite - I much prefer sultanas, say, or golden raisins, but in hot cross buns they just feel right, so currants it is!

hooky potholders with daisy-shaped fabric appliqués - Astri got me into making these in her post here and her two previous posts. I really like the combination of crochet and fabric and they are curiously satisfying to make. Partly because they hook up quickly and partly because the fabric appliqués work surprisingly well on the crochet even though you might think they could be tricky to do. I did use Bondaweb to iron the daisies on first before zigzagging round with my sewing machine in case they "walked" but they've slotted into place as thought they were born there. The double layer of crochet combined with the appliqué layers also means they are very ergonomic in function.

 I made them in Puppets 8/8 cotton - like my heart-themed dishcloth  - in assorted colours, on a 4mm hook. The loops are made from off-cuts of homemade bias binding and are stitched in place with a little judicious three-step zig zag stitching before I joined the two crocheted discs together with Astri's neat picot edging. With a little careful hook-work I managed to use the missed stitches in the edging pattern to cover the place where the loops are attached so that the edging runs without interruption, at least on one side. They are washable, cheerful and practical - I love things like this in my kitchen!

homemade shampoo bars curing in my saucepan cupboard, on slatted racks lined with greaseproof paper. The saucepans don't seem to mind and no one has complained that their pasta or soup tastes of the strong aromatic scent of rosemary, lime and euclayptus that currently flavours the shelves! I have been dabbling in soap-making recently and these are my latest creations. I'll post a bit more about making them when they've cured fully and I've seen whether my hair likes them!

Spring flowers sitting in my new little trio of jewel-coloured, glass vases, basking in the sunshine, which through the glass of the window is now perceptibly warm, even though March, so far, has been bitterly cold here.

Have a look at Celia's blog, Fig Jam and Lime Cordial for a glimpse of other kitchens in March!

Thursday 7 March 2013

Catherine Wheel Shawls

After my little foray into Catherine Wheel stitches with my Fantascot at the beginning of the year, I discovered I'd got a bit addicted to them and, in order to combat the setting-in of withdrawal symptoms, I thought I'd see if I could make a Catherine Wheel shawl as part of my Lent prayer shawl project.

I am pleased to say the experiment was rather successful and a happier Catherine-Wheeler than Mrs T would be hard to find. In fact, I've made two Catherine Wheel shawls. The first was a bit experimental and has a few odd quirks in it so I'm not sure whether it's good enough to give away, but the second is quirk-free and will shortly be on its way to the recipient I made it for.

The quirks are not so much to do with inaccuracies in following the pattern (although they could well be, knowing you, Mrs T!) as in my control-freak attempts to control how the variegated yarn played out. Instead of letting the yarn do its thing, I thought I could do better and force the wheels to correspond in terms of colour by cutting and reattaching the variegated yarn so that the colour pooled as I thought it should do. Bad idea. The making of my first Catherine Wheel shawl taught me I should not be so silly as to think I could play King Canute and turn back the waves of colour. Rather as with life, whatever my secret aspirations and assumptions, it's out of my control and learning to flow with that, rather than fight it, is rather important. But Mrs T is a self-confessed control freak and the lesson is hard learned! In yarn, as in life! Once I'd realised I was on a wild goose chase in trying to control which colours pooled with which and learned to flow with how it came out, it all fell into place. Ut lana varia, sic vita. Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest, Mrs T! I fear it will take me  a lifetime!

But all things considered, it was a joy to make. As was its sibling!

It wasn't enormously easy to find instructions for making Catherine Wheel crochet stitches, as I found when making the Fantascot, although there are several YouYube videos out there which you might want to cast an eye at, if you want to give it a go, but I like clearly written instructions that I can follow at my own pace and carry around with me in a hard copy and these were less easy to come by. Eventually I found a very clear pattern for a bag using the Catherine Wheel stitch pattern here at Manner's Crochet and Craft blog which I adapted and it's worked very well. The pattern is written in US terms and my notes are also in US terms. If you prefer using UK terms remember that single crochet means double, double means treble and half-double means half-treble throughout.

Both my shawls were made with Stylecraft Harlequin chunky 100% acrylic yarn, The first is in the colour-way Cerise / Turquoise and the second in the colour-way Flame / Forest. Both are beautifully evocative of the firework Catherine Wheel, in terms of the way the colours spark and change. To begin with, I was a bit disconcerted at the way the colour could suddenly change in the middle of a row, let alone within a pair of rows, but actually it rather works, I think. And it's a good metaphor for life itself - unpredictable, mixed and inclusive, in a rag-bag way, of the bright and joyous as well as the more muted and sombre.

A few initial notes that you might find helpful before you start Catherine Wheeling yourself, if you want to give it a go. (I would have done anyway!)

1 The Catherine Wheel pattern emerges over four rows and each of those four rows is slightly different at the beginning and the end so it's worth keeping a note on a piece of paper as to which row you are on.

2 Because the pattern repeats over four rows, I found it quite hard to do entirely from memory and it was very useful to have the written instructions always to hand.

3 For the pattern to work as it's meant to, it's important that the number of stitches in each section remains correct so it's important to count, count and keep counting, although once one has got the hang  of it, the counting becomes more or less second nature, even for a faulty counter like Mrs T. And if Mrs T, with her appalling arithmetical abilities can manage it, anyone can! If you find you are out in your count, I am afraid there is nothing for it but to frog back as soon as you realise or the pattern won't flow evenly.

4 The fabric the Catherine Wheel pattern makes is quite dense (and yarn hungry - the pattern would make a great stash-buster for those of you keen to diminish your yarn-mountains! - my shawls used ten and nine 100g skeins respectively) so bear this in mind when you are choosing your yarn and the length of your starting chain. My first Catherine Wheel shawl is quite heavy, possibly a bit too heavy, so I made the second slightly narrower so that the finished shawl was a bit lighter.

5 The sequence of stitches to make the pattern is (a multiple of 10) + 6 for the ends of the rows  so when you are making your starting chain you need to chain (a multiple of 10) + 6 for the ends of the rows + 1 for turning. My first Catherine Wheel shawl began with a starting chain of 77 giving me a total of 76 stitches and my second, slightly narrower, shawl began with a chain of 67 giving me 66 stitches.

6 It's easier to work the first foundational row of the pattern into a row of single crochet rather than the starting chain so I recommend doing a base row of single crochet before you start on the pattern proper. (Go into the second chain from the hook and remember to chain 1 when you finish the row and turn before you start Row 1 of the pattern proper.)

7 The bottom half of the Catherine Wheel stitch itself (which you form in Rows 2 and 4 of the pattern), is really just a series of half-completed double crochet stitches that are finished by putting the yarn over, one final time, and drawing through all the loops on the hook. I found it easiest to do this in two groups of four loops rather than pulling all eight loops off in one go.

8 Catherine Wheel stitches are addictive - you have been warned!

To make a shawl like one of mine, make a starting chain of 77 or 67 (depending on preference) using a larger hook size than the one you will be using for the main part of the shawl. I always do this when beginning blocks of crochet otherwise I find I always chain too tightly and get a curved rather than a straight bottom edge but if you find this isn't a problem with your tension, you may not need to use two sizes of hook. I used a 10mm hook for the chain and switched to a 7mm one for the rest of the shawl. 

I finished the shawls, when they were almost the requisite length of 60"/ 152 cm, by making one more Row 2 from the pattern and then added a row of hdc stitches to give a neat finish. You need to even out the stitches along the row so you end up with the same number you started out with but it's not too critical because it's the last row. I worked one hdc into each sc stitch, three into the first chain space of each wheel, one into the CW spoke and another into the centre and then two into the second chain space of each wheel which gave me the same number of stitches I started with and made a nice, neat, even edge into which to hook the fringe. You can see the final row in the pic below in the soft green colour.

I added a fringe by cutting 12" / 30 cm lengths of yarn. The number of lengths being twice the number of stitches to make the fringe in both ends. I simply folded each strand in half and pulled through each chain / stitch loop with a hook and secured with a simple slip knot. I then misted the fringe, which was slightly curly from being yarn at the end of the skein, with a light spray of water, gave it a light press through a cloth with a medium hot iron and trimmed it with scissors so that the lengths were all even and fall in a lovely silky waterfall from the shawl ends.

Have fun, if you decide to give it a whirl! The fabric the Catherine Wheel stitch makes, would be great not just for a shawl, but for a bag or a cushion cover or anything where you want a textured quite dense fabric. As well as being visually appealing, it's incredibly tactile which I love.

But remember, I did warn you, -

Catherine Wheeling is addictive!

 - just so as you know what you might be getting yourself into!