Thursday 12 February 2015

"Life Is Too Short To Stuff A Mushroom"

Shirley Conran's famous maxim is not a bad one to live life by - don't sweat the small stuff; don't get bogged down in frippery detail; don't waste time on what is inessential. All pretty sound. But there's also the view point that life is too short not to stuff a mushroom. If a stuffed mushroom makes your heart sing and you enjoy the process, that is. This post is not remotely about stuffing mushrooms, in a literal sense, but it is about making something that is the hooky equivalent of a stuffed mushroom. So a health warning first up: this is about making something frivolous and let's face it, fairly useless; something nicely decorative but also something that might well qualify as a dust-trap; it is inessential and frippery; the world will not be a better place if you make one of these! So if you feel this post is heading in a direction not for you, waste no more time and click away! If, however, you have sneaking mushroom-stuffing tendencies, you might just find that this idea delights you. And experiencing delight in the world is a Good Thing, I believe. So, if that is you, read on....

I don't know why I got the idea in my head, but after Christmas I kept thinking about making a crochet gingerbread house. I've made simple houses in real-time, baked gingerbread to give away at Christmastime sometimes and I thought to myself, why not in crochet? I had a little search to see if there were any patterns around and indeed there are some, but not free ones, and I thought to myself, "Well how hard can it be to crochet up panels, without a pattern?", so I did, and this is what resulted:

I love it! (Especially sitting in the snow!)

It's made up of panels of crochet stitched onto inner plastic panels, lined with fabric and stitched together.

I made it in stages. A bit here and a bit there. A pick-up-and-put-down project for odd winter moments when I wanted a break from blanket-hooking.

It is not totally useless because the house is actually a box and the roof forms a lid that lifts up on a hinge. Like a peep inside? It's lined with some pale, turquoise, Lecien Floral Collection fabric called "Flower Sugar" - difficult to find a fabric more obviously suited to line a gingerbread house!

The actual crochet "gingerbread" is made from Schachenmayr SMC Catania Grande yarn in "cinnamon"and the icing is in the same yarn, in white. The glass of the door and windows I made in thinner Phil Coton 3 yarn in "jade" which was the closest I could get to a clear, mint-flavoured, boiled-sweet colour.

The "sweets" that decorate the walls and roof, I hummed and hawed about. I tried buttons but the ones I had, in the colours I liked, were too big. I tried embroidered French knots but they were too small. I spied one of the coasters made from little felt balls that I bought in Amsterdam, and had a eureka moment!

I cut the retaining threads that linked the mat together and hey presto the tiny multicoloured felt balls were just right!

The thing was a joy from beginning to end.

The initial mock-up that I made from cardboard, (culled from tea cartons, in the larder), seemed to replicate the idea I had had in my head fairly easily.

The crochet was simple - it's basically just single crochet. (Double crochet in UK terms)

The sewing was straightforward.

The thing went together as I wanted it to.

It was inexpensive and un-stressful, it brightened up some dark winter afternoons. What was not to like?!

On a slightly more serious note, as a project, it's also taught me not to feel too enslaved to patterns but to treat my hook and yarn a bit like a sketching pencil, trying out numbers of stitches and rows and adjusting as I went rather than feverishly counting and blindly following a path already laid out for me. It was liberating. I made mistakes of course and so I simply ripped out the mistake and tried again with a stitch fewer or a row more. It wasn't a big deal to undo trials that turned into errors because the panels were all quite small and the idea was so basically simple.

Now, if you're feeling that you might like to give such an idea a go yourself, I have good news for you. At the top of this page you will find a tab for a page with a tutorial guide with all the details you will need to make your own gingerbread establishment. I should preface this by saying that it's not a precise and definitive pattern, as such. Because tension and the yarn and hook size you choose will all affect the exact stitch and row count you will need, but I've shown you, hopefully nice and clearly, how to do it and given you all the wherewithal you'll need to rustle one of these up, should you wish to, either for yourself or for your children or grandchildren.

I wondered about saving this up to post near next Christmastime but I reflected that actually it makes more sense to post it now when it's fresh in my mind and there's plenty of time for anyone else, smitten with gingerbread-building urges, to make one for next Christmas without getting hatched up in the Christmas preparation-rush that descends any time after Michaelmas.

I haven't quite decided what to keep in my gingerbread house so it's been standing empty and unoccupied since I made it.

But if you leave a house empty, sometimes new occupants move in surreptitiously ...

... that seems to have happened here!

I have squatters! 

They show no sign of any inclination to depart either! May be when the Spring arrives, but pro tem, they're staying put and I haven't the heart to evict them!

E x

Tuesday 3 February 2015

In The Winter's Pale

"The red blood reigns in the winter's pale" I love this image from Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale" (IV.iii.4) - it's a good reminder at this point in the winter, that under the surface, things are already beginning again. Life is afoot and beginning to reach for the thin sun; the washed-out world of winter pale is beginning to get restless for colour; sap and blood flow deep beneath the surface of frozen ground, in hibernating burrows and in the creamy, close-packed flesh of bulbs and roots.

I've needed a temporary distraction from my blanket-making - something quick and pleasing and if with a nod to the mood of the season, so much the better. So with "the winter's pale" hovering in my head I thought I'd hook up a "winter's pale" bowl.

Just because. I find crocheted bowls very useful - they hold balls of yarn, reels of thread, fresh rolls from the oven, letters to answer, pens and scissors, muffins, ribbons and candles. Not all at the same time, or in the same bowl, of course! I make them in mercerised, washable, cotton yarn so they can be easily washed if the rolls are floury, say, or sticky, purple, blueberry juice oozes from a muffin and the bowl's next use up, is for yarn or fabric pieces.

The pattern I use, as a starting point, is Jacquie's lovely crochet bowl pattern which you can find here but there are lots of similar patterns for crochet bowls if you have a little search - basically you crochet a circle, increasing the number of stitches in each round up to the point where you have the diameter you want and then carry on crocheting, without increases, to form the sides.

A few things that are worth remembering, if you fancy a foray into crochet bowl or basket-making yourself and haven't tried it. If you want the bowl / basket to stand up nicely without reinforcing you need to create a dense fabric with a bit of stiffness to it. To do this, you need to use a smaller hook size than you normally would for the weight of yarn, or, use the same hook size, but use the yarn double, which is what I do as per Jacquie's recommendation in her tutorial. You can use any crochet stitches for your bowl but I find the neat tightness of single crochet (double crochet in UK terms) works best. It's quite hard on your hooking fingers, working the yarn so densely though, so you may want just to do a few rows at a time.

I got carried away and made my thumb rather uncomfortably sore. You just don't know when to stop, Mrs T!

Alternatively you could use a single thickness of yarn and your normal hook size and then line the finished bowl with some stiffish fabric or spray it with spray starch. But I prefer the double strand of yarn method. Partly because it makes the colour changes potentially so interesting.

I change colours alternately so that each pair of colours pairs up with another pair in an overlapping kind of way. I use each colour for four rows at a time in total. If you use colours that are quite close to one another, you get an interesting shaded kind of effect which I really like.

The bowl is rather taller than I intended because the colours got carried away with themselves and wouldn't stop. But the result is nicely roomy which is no bad thing. Holds plenty of balls of yarn, even if here, it's lost one into the snow!

I've made another bowl in slightly warmer colours -

- the colours of rhubarb emerging from the papery, brown wrappings of its crown into deep magenta and crimson, fading as the stem gets taller to pale pink, mint and cream and with a sudden blush of cerise before its final, deeper green, umbrella-shaped leaves.

This too seems appropriate to the season even though the rhubarb in my garden is nowhere near ready to pick but it's there, beginning to show its pink stems and reminding me again that "the red blood reigns in the winter's pale."

It's pale and interesting outside today with the first proper snow of winter.

I know snow and ice can be a nuisance but I do like a bit of proper snow. The quietness; the clean strangeness of the landscape;

the stillness of the air; the pure blueness of the light in the early morning;

the swift delineation it gives to everything.

A day to make soup.

This looks pale and not very interesting but it's rather good.

Clean trim and chop a couple of leeks and a bulb of fennel and cook them in a spoonful of olive oil until softened. Add 1 cup of green split peas*; season with 2 tsps salt, some black pepper and freshly grated nutmeg; pour in about 2 pints of water and cook in a pressure cooker for 9 minutes until everything is really soft; then whizz to a purée in a blender with a dash of lemon juice and a bunch of fresh dill. Don't be tempted to omit the lemon juice - it needs it. Cheap as chips and more delicious than somehow it really ought to be, when made from such homely and humble ingredients!

*You can of course use yellow split peas, if they're easier to obtain. I like the green ones purely for the slightly glaucous, green colour they give the soup.

Wishing you a day of happy, pale inspiration!

E x