Monday 25 November 2013

Crocheted Christmas Wall-hanging

"On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me a partridge in a pear tree"

So the first line of the traditional Christmas carol goes.

I don't know quite what anyone would do with the gift of a pear tree containing a roosting partridge, but there you have it! For that matter, I am not sure what anyone would do with quite a number of the gifts in the song! Seven swans a-swimming? Eight maids a-milking?! I suppose the nine ladies dancing, ten lords a-leaping, eleven pipers piping and twelve drummers drumming might make quite a lively and effective entertainment troupe but some of the others might be more trouble than they were worth!

There's a school of thought that holds that the gifts are not quite as random an array as they seem but each has a hidden significance, indicating an aspect of the Christian faith. The idea is that the song may have developed in England, some centuries ago, when Roman Catholicism was persecuted and when to voice overt mnemonics of Roman Catholic belief was frowned on, at best, and personally risky, at worst, although in fact the symbolism is not exclusively Roman Catholic. Anyway the idea that the gifts are not random, but symbolic, appeals to me and gives the song a rather nice, additional dimension even though it may be a spurious theory and the random gifts may well be, despite the charming idea of the symbolism, just that - random.

Whether or not that's the case, the song is charming and it's captured my imagination and fuelled a happy, little, Christmas-hooky project because I got it into my head that it would be rather fun to hook up a little Christmas wall-hanging, a kind of hooky sampler illustrating the first line of the carol. Unlike traditional vintage samplers, worked on linen with fine thread, in cross-stitch or other embroidery stitches, this was never going to have any kind of improving text worked on it; it would just be the image. If the symbolism theory is correct, it would carry its own iconic message of Christmas because the first gift of the partridge in the pear tree is meant to represent Jesus himself. (The unusual pairing of a ground-nesting bird in the branches of a fruit tree, representing the unprecedented combination of the divine and the human, in the Christ-child.)

Unusually for me, I had a very clear idea of what I wanted it to look like in my head, before I started thinking about any kind of pattern I could use or adapt. The only question was whether crochet would lend itself to realising the image I had decided on.

I did some preliminary pencil sketches to see if I could come up with a simple partridge shape that might translate into crochet without too much difficulty and had a little play around with some circles and spirals.

A spiral shape in a soft taupe colour made a satisfactorily plump partridge body and a smaller rust-coloured circle, edged on one side, in the same taupe body colour, made a reasonable head. I added a small mother-of-pearl button as an eye and a small dark brown beak to the head and stitched on a leaf shape worked in grey to the body, for a wing. I now had a birdy that looked quite partridge-esque!

So far, so good! Next up was the tree, the top of which I simply made as a crocheted circle of different greens, adding a scalloped edge to indicate a leafy outline.

 A trunk was added from the bottom upwards by chaining a length for the base in dark brown and working decreasing rows of treble (UK) / double (US) crochet stitches for the root-ball,

continuing in narrow straight rows for the trunk itself and then increasing for a few rows to make the branches reaching up into the leaf canopy.

My partridge now had a roost of sorts! No pears as yet, though!

The pears were a little tricky to design at first and I made several initial attempts that ended up looking more like grapefruits!

In the end, a simple circle with a few extra rows worked on top and a woody stalk added to the top of each one, seemed to fit the bill.

Some of the pears are yellow and ripe - probably juicy Williams pears! And some are green and hard - probably Conference ones! I know, I know, how can they be growing on the same tree?! Artistic licence, that's what!

I wanted the background to suggest the colours of a setting or a rising sun in a winter landscape to set off the restrained palette of the bird and tree so I did a rough pencil sketch

and then simply worked it in graduating colourful sunset/ sunrise-coloured stripes of treble (UK) / double (US) crochet with turquoises and blues to indicate a frosty field at the base and the edge of a winter sky at the top.

It's turned out rather effectively, I think. Assembly was nice and straightforward - I just pinned the components onto the background

and used ordinary sewing thread, in colours to match the crochet, to oversew each piece in place.

I then turned over the top of the background to make a channel for a piece of wooden dowelling to be threaded through the top to provide a means to hang it. D was persuaded to drill a hole in each end of the dowelling with a fine drill-bit and all it needed was some string (purple of course!) to hang it up by.


I have actually had this hanging up for several weeks even though it's not yet even Advent because having hung it up, (just to see what it looked like!) I couldn't bear to take it down, but the intention is to keep it as a Christmas hanging that comes out at the beginning of December each year with the Advent candles and calendars and goes away again with the rest of the Christmas decorations at Epiphany.

I thought a photograph of it might make a nice Christmas card too, although I discover I should have thought through the proportions slightly more cannily, if I was intending to do this, as a standard size photograph chops off the top and bottom of the background, unless I have a bit of wall showing which isn't the card I envisaged! Tant pis!

What I particularly like about this little project is that it's stretched my abilities to crochet "off-piste" and experiment in a kind of free-form way, using what I've learnt over the last few years more spontaneously. And when all is said and done, each component is actually pretty simple. It's given me confidence to travel without a pattern sometimes.

I also find the result is very pleasing - it has a warm feel to it - both literally and visually - and a slightly three-dimensional aspect, which makes a cosy addition to the room on a winter's evening. Possibly I should add something to weight the bottom edge down a bit to make it hang a little better but there isn't enough crochet at the base to fold over and make another dowelling channel so I must think how I might best achieve that. Any ideas? All suggestions gratefully received.

If you fancy trying your hand at something similar, I'd encourage you to have a go - it was such a fun and satisfying project. You don't need to worry too much about what yarn or hook you use - just use bits and bobs of yarn left over from other projects, together with the appropriate hook for whatever weight of yarn you happen to have. It doesn't have to be all the same type or weight throughout, although obviously you'll want to make sure each component has a consistency about it and you may want to work the background in a uniform weight of yarn. You can adjust the sizing to suit your design and tension is irrelevant.

For ease and satisfaction of realisation, I'd recommend thinking of an image that can be made up of fairly simple shapes - circles, triangles, strips, squares or rectangles so that it's not too difficult to achieve the design you are after. But actually, even shapes that look initially complicated, like birds, can be broken down to simpler constituent parts so you may find your imagination is the only limit!

If you're intrigued to know what the other gifts are meant to stand for, here's the low-down:
  • two turtle doves - the two parts of the Bible
  • three French hens -  the three gifts brought by the wise men to the baby Jesus 
  • four colley birds - the four Gospels (colley birds is an old-fashioned name for blackbirds)
  • five gold rings - the five books of the Torah (ie the first five books in the Bible)
  • six geese a-laying - the six productive days of Creation, as described in Genesis
  • seven swans a-swimming - the seven acts of mercy deemed to be part of Christian duty 
  • eight maids a-milking - the eight Beatitudes, as listed in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount 
  • nine ladies dancing - the nine fruits of the Spirit, as listed by St Paul
  • ten lords a-leaping - the Ten Commandments
  • eleven pipers piping - the eleven disciples remaining after Judas had betrayed Jesus
  • twelve drummers drumming - the twelve points of Christian belief, as listed in the Apostles' Creed
Several of the gifts seem to have more than one possible symbolism but I've listed the ones that most consistently come up. And as I say, the theory, although charming, may, or may not, have much foundation in historical fact. 

But my hooky partridge makes me smile anyway 
and I hope he brings you a happy smile too!

E x

Tuesday 12 November 2013

Hibernation Strategies

It is dank in the UK at the moment. A few bright spells of sunshine lift the pall of gloom for a while and then it returns to form - damp, dark, gloomy and rather depressing. I find as I get older that it's not the cold of winter I mind so much, per se, as the dark. And at this time of year when the days are still rapidly drawing in, and will be, for the next month or so, it's definitely on the dispiriting side.

Every year hibernation seems more and more appealing. I envy those creatures that by now are cosily hunkered down in a warm cocoon, dreaming of Spring and insulated from the hostile reality of the world above them. Of course the cocoon of a hibernating creature is itself a dark one but somehow, asleep and with your eyes closed, I feel, it doesn't matter so much.

I suspect the appeal of hibernation is more than just physical - being able to switch off for a few months - no work, no stress, no endless list of "to dos", not even meals to get - sounds blissful doesn't it?

But in the absence of real hibernation possibilities, what to do? I have two strategies to meet this challenge which I thought I might share with you. One is the "gemütlich" strategy - ie one may not be able to hibernate but "cosy" sure is possible.

To cultivate "gemütlich" (the German word means a bit more than English "cosy" - a bit like the Scandinavian concept of "hygge"):

1 I bake. Anything. Muffins; scones; chocolate brownies; bread; flapjack; gingerbread - damp gingerbread cake and crisp, yet slightly chewy, gingerbread biscuits like these. The making is therapeutic as is the fragrant warmth that emerges from the oven. As is eating the results.

Especially accompanied by tea in a pink mug with a lucky toadstool on it!

2 I transfer my hibernating instincts to a substitute. Hence the urge to make these hooky hedghogs from the pattern in the November issue of Simply Crochet. The pattern is also available on Ravelry here. They are just made out of odds and ends of yarn left over from other projects, mostly the unwanted "string" colour from my sea-ripple blanket. The soft part of their stuffing is even more thrifty - it's just yarn ends - and as I didn't have any proper safety eyes, I used some black beads from my sewing basket.

They've come out a bit larger than I was anticipating but I've made a virtue out of necessity and by stuffing them partly with plastic pellets, to give them weight as well as bulk, they are perfect paperweights and are sitting happily in my in-tray, weighting down the pile of papers and reminding me every time I look up from my desk that they are hibernating on my behalf!

I am wondering whether the autumn leaves provided for hedgehog-hunkering-comfort might improve my in-tray to boot! By Spring, if I leave it well alone, all that paperwork might have broken down into lovely compost!! Or not, as the case might be!!

3 I go round lighting candles. Any shape or size. Plenty of them. On the supper table; in the bathroom; on the kitchen work-surface. These are just little jam jars which were passed on to me by my mother-in-law for jam-making but the lure of a little, pink, hooky treatment, (courtesy of an adaptation of Sue's pattern, in Granny Squares) and a nightlight was too great!

4 I make homemade soup and serve it in a cup instead of a bowl. I know - why should a cup rather than a bowl make any difference? But I think it does. H agrees with me so it's not just me, either.

My other strategy is resistance-based.

To combat my feelings of creeping inertia and any desire to shut down:

1 I go for a walk as often as I can get out there. Even when the light is failing or it's pouring with rain. But especially if the sun comes out and there's a bright window of opportunity, even if it's only short-lived.

2 I have a clear-out of cupboards, drawers etc. I know this is associated more with Spring-cleaning than autumn or winter but I find it's therapeutic and the feeling of increased space and order, instead of squashed chaos, bolsters my energy levels. I won't post you a pic of before or after - too shameful, I fear! No, H, you may not post that incriminating pic you took of my larder!

3 I avoid drinking any alcohol for a bit and drink plenty of water. I find, this too is an energy-booster and believe it clears my head and skin and probably benefits my liver. Don't disillusion me!

4 I try to think of a way to expand my skills at something - be they crafty, culinary or (if I'm really desperate!) mental arithmetic. This year it's been knitting!

And yes, you do see, not one, but three, pink knitted houses here!

I have always wanted to live in a pink-painted house ever since I was very small. I haven't managed it - yet! But I have not given up hope and in the meantime I am knitting them. If I can bear to part with them, they will become Christmas presents - more dish cloths / face flannels. You can find the pattern on Ravelry here - it's called "Nineteen Hundred House" and it's by Amanda Ochocki. I absolutely love the sash windows and the gabled roof shape.

If you have any tried and tested hibernation strategies you'd recommend me to add to these, I'd love to hear them.

In the meantime, I shall try to resist hibernating with my hedgehogs 
as I have a new and, for Mrs T, slightly ambitious, knitting project to launch into!

x E

Tuesday 5 November 2013

Crochet By Numbers

Did you ever have one of those "painting by numbers" kits as a child? I did and found them fascinating. Especially when you couldn't really see the end picture clearly, to begin with, and had to follow the key to see the image emerge slowly, but surely, as you painted.

I've been irresistibly reminded of those kits over the last little while, as I have been dipping my hook into the world of tapestry crochet. Tapestry crochet is simply a way of working with more than one colour of yarn at a time and switching between colours according to a chart to create patterns and pictures. I suppose it's the hooky equivalent of intarsia or Fairisle knitting. It's fun and not nearly as difficult as I thought it might be. The technique is very prominent in traditional crocheted articles in Guatemala and in the Cameroon where beautiful, geometric designs are hooked into hats and bags.

I got started on the idea by reading Jules' of Little Woollie's post and tutorial here. Dish cloths / face cloths seemed a good place to start - not too big or daunting in case it all went horribly wrong! But I'm happy to say it didn't. And Jules' tutorial is excellent - very clear and easy to follow.

I fancied trying something a little more pictorial than geometric and looking at the way tapestry crochet designs are worked, realised that they are very similar to the way in which cross-stitch patterns are drawn out on graph-paper. As with a cross-stitch pattern, each square represents a single stitch.  And if that was the case, all I needed was some squared paper, some coloured pencils and a fairly simple linear image in my head to transfer. Obviously designs involving a lot of curves are rather difficult to realise unless you use a very fine yarn and a very thin hook, so that the straight-sided nature of each stitch is less visible, but if you stick to a basically linear image, it works like a dream, even using aran weight yarn and a bigger hook.

I've only experimented with a few designs so far - the little white, red-roofed house with blue windows on a blue background in my first pic and a green Christmas tree on a turquoise blue background and a couple of others. The first version of the little house came out rather thick - it was before I realised the need to go up in hook size so I've backed it with a square of cotton, quilting wadding and some red and white fabric and made a virtue of necessity and turned it into a mat / hot pad rather than using it as a dish cloth.

Using it as a mat, rather than as something to mop up spills, has the advantage of avoiding discolouring the lovely white walls with too many stains, hopefully, too!

The Christmas tree versions I worked using a bigger hook (8mm for the initial chain and then a 6mm hook for the body of the crochet) with the same weight of cotton yarn (aran) as the little house one and that gave the right amount of density to the resulting fabric - not too thin to be business-like but not too stiff or inflexible either. They would work equally well as a dish cloth or a face flannel. They are designed to be stocking-filler Christmas presents wrapped round a bar of homemade soap.

I had a go at a flower, using thinner yarn and a smaller hook but it's a bit too geometric for my liking. And as you can see, there are a few mistakes where some of the stitches weren't made through both loops of the stitch, in the row below, if you look carefully. I'm pleased with the feel of the resulting fabric though - it's beautifully soft and floppy. (It was worked using Puppets Lyric 8/4 cotton yarn on a 4mm hook.)

Raiding my embroidery bag I found an old, cross-stitch, penguin design I'd drawn out for a Christmas card about twenty years ago and I thought I'd give him a go too. He was a bit more complicated than the others as he needed more than two colours on the go in places and that was more tricksy to juggle but I think he's sweet and he is joining the stocking-filler pile!

Fancy having a go? A handful of tips you might find useful.

1 You can use more than two colours of yarn at once but as you carry any colour you are not using along with you, the more colours you use, the thicker the crochet fabric becomes so I found it easiest to restrict myself to working with only two colours at a time, although you can swap which two by simply cutting the yarn and knotting a new colour on by way of replacement.

2 Because even with only two colours of yarn, you are always carrying one extra strand as a kind of "sleeper", you need to use a bigger hook than you would normally expect to, for the weight of your chosen yarn, otherwise the fabric is very thick. You might want it good and thick of course - ideal for mats or pot-holders but for a dish or face cloth the fabric needs to be floppier. So using an aran weight cotton yarn, I found making my initial chain with a 7mm hook and working the body of the cloth on a 5mm one was insufficiently generous. An 8mm hook for the initial chain and working the body of the cloth on a 6mm one worked much better.

3 The designs that work best are essentially simple ones - I'd avoid anything too complicated, at least to begin with and, as I say, stick to images that are basically linear in shape as these work most effectively.

4 For the design to work properly you need to use, effectively, a square stitch, ie in UK terms you need to use double crochet stitches and in US terms, single crochet stitches. Using taller stitches such as trebles or half trebles will distort the shape of your design.

5 Always remember to complete the last stage of the stitch before you wish to change colour with a strand of the new colour, or you won't get a clean colour shift.

6 Draw your design out on a piece of squared paper, remembering that each square represents a stitch and you can't subdivide a square, either horizontally, vertically or diagonally. Colour in your chosen design to see how it will look, but only lightly, as you need to be able to see the divisions between the squares to count how many stitches you are making at each stage and if you colour in the squares too enthusiastically you can't see what's supposed to go where. Guess who found this out the hard way?!

7 Additional details / colours can be added by a bit of surface crochet or embroidery, like the stars on the top of my Christmas trees.

8 It's helpful, especially if you are an erratic counter like Mrs T, to number the rows on your design and to mark on a Post-It note or similar, stuck to your pattern, which row you are on. I keep a tally system of marks and add one mark for each row I finish. I also mark the number of squares for each section on my design, to avoid error. Not infallible, but it helps!

9 If you go wrong and need to frog some stitches or even a row or two, (perish the thought!), it's easy enough to do so; you just need to pull on the relevant colour of each section of stitches in turn. As you work the crochet, the yarn does twist on itself a bit and it's a good idea, every few rows, to untwist it so you don't get in too much of a pickle!

10 What are you waiting for?! Grab your coloured pencils and some squared paper and start doodling! For a nine inch / 23 cm square suitable for a dish or face cloth I found an initial chain of 35 was about right but experiment with a starting chain with your chosen hook and yarn and your own tension to see how many stitches will make the right size and do this before you finalise your design, otherwise your proportions may be out.

I've got a thing about little houses at the moment and as well as my crochet-by-numbers one here I've been knitting a few. Yes, you did read that correctly! More on these aberrations from my firmly non-knitting path in due course! I've found them strangely addictive to make and if I'm not careful will be had up for overcrowded housing development!