Thursday 22 January 2015

Blanket Alchemy

There are some things that seem relatively commonplace to make at home and some things that seem faintly exotic, unexpected or even downright daring, if you know what I mean. What is homemade around you as you grow up, has a lot to do with what falls into which category, I think. Different for each person, by definition. My mother always baked cakes and biscuits, made her own pastry and preserves, wove baskets and sewed most of her own summer clothes so I take it pretty much for granted that these things can come via the homemade route. There's nothing exactly ground-breaking to me about making them yourself. She didn't bake her own bread, (or only very rarely as a kind of scientific experiment); we never made yoghurt or churned ice cream. She never sewed a pair of trousers and there are sundry other things that never made it on to the "make it yourself" agenda when I was a child. So these things, which in other households might well seem run of the mill to make yourself, seem very much not-run-of-the-mill to me, but instead, quite adventurous.

Blankets are one of these items, although in many ways they are an obvious and straightforward thing to make. But to start to make a blanket from nothing more than a ball of yarn and a hook (or a pair of knitting needles) has always felt to me slightly like a daring venture into strange and exotic territory.

Uncharted waters where magical creatures might lurk or an iridescent mermaid might pop up. I can't explain it quite. Especially when having made a handful of blankets, the mystique really ought to have gone by now. But it hasn't.

Of the two types of homemade woolly blankets, the modular sort, (made from lots of small, repetitive motifs that get joined together, either as-you-go, or at the end), and the incremental sort, (made by adding rows continuously to a single piece of ever-growing fabric), I slightly prefer the incremental kind, as I find it harder to keep going with the modular sort, on anything of any significant size. I get bored and lose momentum. Mrs T has the attention span of a gnat, clearly!

Being January, a cold, bleak and rather colour-drained month at the best of times, despite the odd, beautiful icy sunrise - these pics are all taken around 7.30 in the morning on my cold, early morning forays into a dark and bracing countryside when I walk, think, and breathe great lungfuls of icy air, to fuel the day ahead -

it seemed like a good idea to begin a new chapter of adventurous blanket-making and so I've started two. One of each type. The first is Sandra's utterly gorgeous "Painted Roses Blanket" - the link will take you to her post about it with a link to how to access the pattern. I've changed the colours of the flowers slightly -  mine aren't pink and red, some with gold and some with black centres, but all have black centres and dark red and deep magenta petals. You would think that these two colours would do nothing very exciting when placed together, other than fight, perhaps, but somehow the opposite is true and in a strange and wonderful, hooky alchemy the two colours glow and sing with one another and lend the flowers even more of a three dimensional sense than the pattern already gives them.

They look like those deep-red, old-fashioned, velvety roses, that grow in forgotten corners of old gardens, where not too much tidy gardening has happened; the kind you find tumbling against crumbling stone in a tangle of briars with a heady wall of fragrance coming off them that would be oppressive, if it were not so subtle. My grandmother had such a rose. I can't remember what it was called but it was a monumental plant that grew round the back of the house from where my grandmother would pick the flowers and put them in a Victorian rose-bowl in the sitting room or on the old Welsh dresser, whose cupboard I loved to bury my head in, as a small child, inhaling deeply the heady smell of old wood, fine linen, green baize and bone-handled cutlery that resided behind its latch.

I've developed a cunning strategy to outwit my dwindling attention span and have allotted myself a fixed target of squares for each week - not too many, but not too few either, and am joining them in rows of eight as I accumulate them. (The finished blanket will contain 80.)

The pattern is a lovely one - complicated enough to be interesting but not so complicated that you can't commit it to memory. It's got enough variation of colour for interest but doesn't require so many colours that you have to cart a hundredweight of yarn around with you, on the move.

So far, so good! I'm half-way and just need to keep going to get over the awkward two-thirds point when the end is not quite in sight but one feels one has been going at this for quite some time and is getting a bit tired. It's a bit like playing the board game "Ludo" or "Sorry"* when you have four counters to "get home" and it's tempting to focus on just one or two, abandoning the others to their fate. Which, as we all know, is not the way to win!

*"Sorry", if you don't know it, is a 1930s English board game, similar, but not identical, to Ludo. You turn up cards that tell you how many squares to move along a board, rather than roll dice, and if you turn up a "Sorry" card you get to take one of your counters that hasn't started yet and put it in place of someone else's which is hopefully at least half-way round the board, sending your opponent back to the beginning again, with a polite "Sorry".

In my childhood this was a quiet and refined game played at my grandparents' house with courtesy and gentleness. Inherited from them, it now resides with us and has been nicknamed "Killer Sorry" by an innocent bystander who, on an occasion of happening upon a round under way between H and me a few years ago, was slightly taken aback to find that what appeared, at first sight, to be a quaintly old-fashioned, harmless parlour game could be played at a speed and with a level of competitive aggression and strategic thinking, more at home on a professional rugby field than a children's board game. Mrs T hangs her head in shame and blames H! Hope he doesn't read this or that will come back straight over the net at me! Probably with good reason!

In our defence, I have to say, that played like this, it has a pace and absorption it never had when I played it as a child and on the sundry occasions when the electric power supply has failed here, like it did last winter, it has proved a valuable replacement for more sophisticated forms of electronic entertainment!

But I digress! My other blanket adventure is the stripy incremental affair in my first pic above. Here it is again in a slightly wider shot.

It's one of those sampler-style blankets that use different stitches in different rows and lots of different colours. I've seen a number of these around - Little Woollie's amazing Mixed Stripy blanket is perhaps the most splendid - huge, colourful and extravagantly generous in every regard. (Julie's pattern for her wonderful blanket is published in Edition 18 of Simply Crochet if you want to have a go.) But I didn't want to make anything quite as big or complex as this - I know my limitations! So instead I've gone for the Seaside Blanket design in Handmade Glamping which is a simpler, but still sampler-style, affair. I wanted to make it slightly smaller than the original pattern so I've reduced the basic stitch count to 187 from 204 after a lot of pencil scribblings and painfully tortuous efforts to get my head around the arithmetic. Miraculously it seems to have worked out OK for the different stitch patterns, although I strongly suspect that that's more by luck than judgement. No matter! Who cares, if it works?

I love the different stitches - simple half-treble-crochet rows, mixed with granny stripes and popcorn bobbles. I particularly like the pale turquoise bobbles that pop up from the cream rows, which is an idea I've borrowed from Julie's Little Woollie design and inserted into the pattern run of the Handmade Glamping blanket.

And that faint sense of adventure and daring exploration persists. Both blankets are some considerable way off finishing but they have grown and are growing each week, slowly but surely - magically somehow. Sometimes I look at my basket of yarn and feel like the miller's daughter in the Tale of Rumpelstiltskin who faces spinning all those bags of straw into gold by dawn and knows that the task is too big for her.

More often than not though, I feel more like Rumpelstiltskin himself, happily absorbed in the twist and twine and colour of each strand and with each stitch, feel that I am gradually turning, not straw into gold exactly, but those balls of yarn into magical, cosy layers of warmth and brightness and some strange but happy alchemy is at work.

No mermaids have popped up from among my stitches nor any strange sea-creatures although every now and again, to begin with, a gremlin crept in on the act of the stripy one and the sequence of colours did not flow easily but jarred and grated and had to be ripped back and rethought. Now though, the pattern and colours repeat evenly and smoothly and, like a Medieval alchemist turning base metal into gold, I am steadily turning a pile of yarn into a wealth of blanket-coverage to keep the bitter cold at bay. Straw into gold, or yarn into blankets? Not sure which is more magical but I think the blankets might just have the edge. Sorry, Rumpelstiltskin!

E x

Sunday 4 January 2015

Epiphany - Virtual vs Reality

Epiphany is nearly upon us. Christmas is over; the New Year is here and with the arrival of January, come the kings, riding out of the dawn-darkness of the land of the rising sun, tracking the star that has hovered ahead of them over the preceding weeks and months. The three kings have always fascinated me - their questing curiosity, their determination and willingness to travel; their strange but wonderful (and aromatic gifts); their search for the truth which takes them far from their comfort zone into the heart of Herod's unpleasantly efficient bureaucracy and out to a small, rural village to find a new-born child; a search for truth which leaves them changed men. St Matthew's Gospel, which is the only source we have for the story of the three kings, sums the episode up in a phrase that makes my spine tingle every time I read it, or hear it. "They returned to their own country by another road." Obvious in one sense, with Herod's heavies breathing down your neck, to pick a road home you didn't travel out by. But subtly significant, in a more metaphorical one too - the kings go home, "changed men" - they have seen and realised something that makes stepping back to how and who they were, impossible after their discovery. The term "Epiphany" means - "revelation"; "discovery"; 'disclosure"; "dawning realisation" - take your pick as to which you prefer. I like it that even the word "Epiphany" itself is slightly mysterious; veiled and elusive somehow; enticing me in a strange way to discover epiphanies in my own life.

I like it too that in the northern hemisphere, Epiphany falls in the dead of winter at the darkest and coldest time of year. It seems entirely appropriate to have a festival centred around disclosure at a time when the whole landscape is laid bare and its contours and character are revealed now that the curtains and drapery of leaves and summer growth have fallen away.

Like a great, old painting which, when cleaned of layers of yellowing, old varnish and the accretions of grime and time, gives up the secrets of its painterly formation to plain view, there is a winter clarity and austere beauty, even in ordinary objects that it's easy to pass by at other times of the year. The graceful shape of dark-armed trees against a winter sunrise; the sharp fur of frost on a fence-post or dead leaf;

the lines of the horizon clearly and boldly defined without the softening of leaves or colour; the intense energy of dark, winter flood-streams swirling between banks that hold only an indolent trickle or sluggish pools in summer.

All these things challenge me to look again; to question assumptions, to be open to the new; to change, myself and to travel into the future "by another road".

I've been thinking about this quite a bit over the last weeks of 2014.

Particularly in relation to how I spend my time. Do you ever tot up and worry about how much time you spend surfing the virtual waves? It seems to me that it's a bit like those lifestyle questions you get asked by your GP periodically. You know the kind of thing: "How many cups of tea or coffee do you drink per day?" or "How many units of alcohol do you consume per week?" And of course when you actually sit down and tot up what the totals are, they often are rather higher than you thought they were. The tea and coffee question always makes me feel  uneasy as I know one is only supposed to drink three cups of caffeine-containing fluid per day but this wouldn't even get me beyond breakfast-time! The actual number of cups of tea I drink daily is at least in double figures. My GP eyes me and, knowing full well that the figure I've given him needs to be augmented by at least the fifty percent that he automatically assumes I've decreased it by before telling him, and probably more, suggests I switch to herb tea instead of Earl Grey. I mumble something non-committal and try to move the conversation into safer waters like the fact that I don't drink coffee at all. He's not fooled for a minute of course, and probably mentally marks my notes as "caffeine-addict".

But never mind tea or coffee-addiction, back to time. And in particular time spent on the Internet. Which I had begun to feel was, in my case, getting disproportionate and over the last weeks of 2014 the need to redress the balance with real life felt increasingly pressing. Which is why I haven't been blogging in December. It's been all too easy for me to fritter away an hour or two (or more), hopping between sites, reading, writing here and there, surfing images and ideas and, up to a point, none of that is bad, on the contrary, it's inspirational, creative and horizon-stretching, all of which I am all for, but the point is "up to a point" and beyond that point I'm not so sure that it's so creative a way to spend time. The virtual can take over from reality as well as emulate it. And that isn't so good, it seems to me. Virtual living instead of real living.

So the New Year finds me taking stock of this particular epiphany as well as the oriental kings' one. 2015 is a watershed year for me in various ways. Not least in that I turn 50 this year. Time to take stock; time to evaluate and think about the time that is still to come and the time that is now gone; time more than ever, I feel, to live for today as well as for tomorrow. Because in the scheme of things, there won't be as many tomorrows as yesterdays.

That isn't a negative or gloomy reflection, I'm finding - on the contrary, it's energising and I've made some decisions that feel positive and uplifting about investing in the "now" - a few adventures beckon and that's exciting. One in particular about investing in a little creative retreat space - not a second home or anything grand, but, well, wait and see! Suffice it to say for now that I am reading this book that H kindly gave me for Christmas with focused interest and new projects are lining up a-plenty for my hook. 

I hope that what will emerge will provide a small space of recreative possibility by means of which I can travel, not by a different route exactly, as the same route in a different way, which perhaps amounts to the same thing. Not quite, may be, but near enough. I'll post some proper pics once it moves from virtual pipe-dream to hard and fast reality. Some time in the early summer, I hope.

This feels like a big step for me as it does involve some significant financial outlay. I am a banker's daughter and although bankers' reputations in recent years have tended to indicate a tendency to profligacy rather than frugality, I was brought up to save and husband money carefully and thriftily. To be spendthrift was a cardinal sin at home and neither my sister nor I were allowed to be, either with money or any other resource. It was a good training although at times frustrating when we wanted to spend our birthday or Christmas money and it disappeared instead into the joyless vaults of our Post Office savings accounts. It has meant that as an adult, regular saving, however meagre the amounts might be, and often they've been tiny, is second nature to me and it has stood me in good stead when money has been pretty tight from time to time. Correspondingly, spending money on any significant level can make me feel guilty. But while saving for future rainy days will always be in my blood and I am not intending to blow my life's savings at the drop of a hat, I am coming to realise that there is a balance to be struck. "There are no pockets in shrouds", after all, as the old Jewish proverb puts it.

All in all, at the beginning of this New Year, I am in the process of a rebalancing act - balancing  epiphany with practice; virtual with reality; unchangeable circumstance with choice and possibility. That will colour things here a bit in terms of frequency of posts, I think. And you may get more pics and fewer words. No bad thing, you might say! It will also, I suspect, reduce my wider involvement in the blogosphere which I shall miss but there just are only so many hours in the day.

I hope you don't mind my little ramble of reflection but I wanted to explain that I haven't just disappeared down a mouse-hole to those of you who are kind enough to read here. Thank you so much for your reading, for your comments, for your friendship - virtual and real - and for your inspiration - I send you a virtual hug across the fibre optics and wish you all a very happy New Year and some happy epiphanies that will keep you healthy, happy and the you that you are intended and in your heart long to be.

And, as a little Epiphany thank you gift to you all - a virtual thank you that can become real in your own kitchen - here is my recipe for Epiphany buns for you. They are, if you like the idea, symbolic food - they contain spices and fruits as reminders of the wise men's wealth and gifts of frankincense and myrrh. At their centre is the gold - a gilded disc of marzipan buried for safe-keeping in the spiced and fragrant dough and the rolled up form of the buns represents the circuitous route home that they took.

But you don't have to bother about the symbolism, if it isn't your thing - they are just gorgeous light and sticky buns with echoes of Christmas. They are in a different tempo from classic Christmas cake or mince pies though - not so heavy or intense - perfect for a dark, damp post-Christmas January afternoon with a large mug of (non-herbal!) tea. I make these in my bread-maker which makes everything easy but you can of course make them by hand - you may want to cut the liquid back a bit if you are making them by hand to make the dough easier to handle.

What you need:

1 tsp fast action dried yeast
500g strong white flour
1 tsp salt
3 tsp mixed spice
zest of 1 orange
100g unsalted butter, cubed
2 tbsps dried skimmed milk powder
1 tbsp treacle
2 tbsp brandy
1 egg whisked with enough water to make, along with the brandy, about 350 ml of liquid altogether

75g raisins
75g sultanas
75g glacé cherries, rinsed in hot water, drained and halved

c 225g marzipan (preferably homemade) at room temperature

1 egg whisked with 1 tbsp milk to glaze before baking
4 tbsps demerara sugar boiled until frothy and syrupy with 2 tbsps water to glaze the buns while they are still hot from the oven

What you do:
Put the yeast, flour, salt, mixed spice, orange zest, butter, milk powder, treacle, brandy, egg and water into the bread-maker bucket and switch it to its "white raisin dough" setting, adding the sultanas, raisins and cherries to the raisin dispenser, if your bread-maker has one. If it doesn't, put the fruit in a bowl and add it when the "raisin beep" goes. On no account add all the fruit to begin with or it gets mashed up in the first part of the kneading cycle and don't miss the raisin beep either because adding the fruit half an hour too late doesn't go well either and leaves the fruit in unincorporated clumps. Nasty!

Let the bread-maker do its thing and then preheat the oven to 190 - 200 C depending on your oven. (My oven is quite hot and a fan one and I find 190 C is good.) Tip the soft dough gently out onto a floured work surface and press out with your hands to a rectangular shape about 35 cm by 20 cm.

Roll out your marzipan to a sausage that will stretch the length of your dough rectangle. Place it along the long edge nearest to you and roll up the dough around the marzipan.

Line a couple of baking sheets with non-stick baking parchment.

Using a knife dipped in the flour bag before each cut, cut slices approximately 1.5 - 2 cm thick of the rolled up dough and place with the cut side facing upwards onto the baking sheets. I get about 15 slices from these quantities.

Glaze the buns before they go in the oven with the egg and milk mixture and then bake for about 15 minutes until nicely risen and golden.

While they are cooking, bubble up your brown sugar glaze in a small pan, stirring to make sure the sugar dissolves.

When the buns are baked, remove them from the oven and transfer them, still on their paper to wire racks and brush immediately with the hot brown sugar glaze. (The paper will catch all the sticky drips.) Allow to cool before tucking in - if you can!

E x