Wednesday 27 May 2015

Pineapple Lanterns

Now it's the end of May, one can almost spend evenings outside without freezing to bits in this country. It's one of our national characteristics to maintain a valiant front that outdoor-living is well within our grasp, even when it's pouring with rain and when a wind, that cuts like a knife, is blowing in unfriendly gusts. And we espouse a touching, (if often misplaced,) optimism every year, that it will be a "barbecue summer", so we've reached that time of year, (that we reach every year), where shops and catalogues are full of "must-have" delightful, outdoor-living accessories to make the perfect mise-en-scène for those long, dreamy, summer nights - barbecue equipment; picnic-ware; bunting to string across your al fresco dining area; candle-holders to nestle among summery salads and jugs of Pimms; lanterns to hang from strategic branches and light the way from kitchen to table; all the accoutrements that make for enchanting evenings, wiled away on the terrace, on a balmy, summer night. Never mind the fact that, generally, we only get a tiny handful of evenings in the UK, where this is really viable without wearing a whole load of extra jumpers and huddling under blankets alongside a barbecue, ostensibly there for cooking sausages, but really for preventing hypothermia among the assembled throng. I may yet be surprised this year - I shall be very happy to be. So far however, I have not seen much evidence that this is likely. But it's early days.

But I love the idea of the whole outside-living thing though, and every year I have to fight down the temptation to give in to the purveyors of aforementioned, delightful, outdoor-living accessories. I remind myself that, "I am not my mother", who is a much hardier soul than I am and who picnics more or less, at any time of year, without a second thought, and regards swimming off one of our cold, English beaches as the crown of any holiday spent in this country. Last time I swam off an English beach, a few years ago, I went an interesting blue colour that took an alarming length of time to dispel. And gritting my teeth (to prevent them chattering) and trying not to shiver too obviously is not my idea of a fun summer evening.

But just as my sister and I - we were hardier as children, clearly - used to argue no end with my mother about wearing our lightweight, cotton, school, summer-dresses from the beginning of the summer term in April "because it's the summer term and everyone is wearing summer dresses, except us", I am not quite ready to give up on the idea of the outdoor-living vibe. It's summer after all! But I don't want to waste money on a lot of stuff that will only see the light of day (or night) very occasionally, if that. Enter a little homemade solution or two.

Resisting the temptation to spend multiples of £15 or £20 on charmingly atmospheric, outdoor lanterns, I've made some for next to nothing and best of all they work beautifully and atmospherically inside, as well as outside. In fact, I haven't  deployed them outside yet - it hasn't been warm enough. They also get round that irritating thing of using real candles outside, where the slightest gust of that balmy (or otherwise) summer breeze extinguishes their flames, almost as soon as they're lit.

Like a peek?

They are very simple to make and thrifty too. Here is a kind of broad-brush guide to how to do it if you want to have a go but it's not an exact pattern as the shape and size of your chosen bottle as well as your choice of pattern and yarn will affect the way it makes up.

What you need:

a clear, uncoloured plastic drinks bottle rescued from the recycling pile and washed out.

I used an Innocent Orange Juice bottle because I liked the cuboid, lanterny shape of the base but any clear, uncoloured plastic bottle will do.

a craft knife or sharp pair of heavy scissors

fine-grade sandpaper

a set of battery-operated LED fairy lights per lantern - available inexpensively from Amazon here

a lacy pattern for a crochet square whose finished dimensions will fit within the width of one side of your bottle - I used the pineapple design from Priscilla Hewitt's delightful, pineapple afghan pattern which you can get here but any lacy or filet design will work well - flowers, hearts, geometric patterns, whatever takes your fancy.

stitch markers

DK weight washable yarn in a colour of your choosing - 50 g will be more than adequate - and a crochet hook in the appropriate hook size for your chosen yarn. I used Cascade Ultra Pima Cotton from my stash in "waterlily", "mint" and "sage" with a  4mm hook for mine.

optional: a hole-punch and string or raffia

What you do:

Remove the label from your plastic bottle and clean off any residual stickiness with white spirit or "Sticky Stuff remover". We seem to spend a disconcerting amount of time in this house, de-sticking packaging of various sorts. It would make recycling at home much easier, if manufacturers used a nice, easily-dissolved glue for their labels, that would soak off cleanly in plain, hot water. Annoyingly, most labels seem to be stuck on with industrial-strength adhesive, requiring chemical warfare to remove it. Marmite jars are the worst, I find, which is a shame because the chunky, dark brown, 500 g size glass jars with their sturdy, yellow, non-corrodible, plastic lids are perfect for homemade chutney, but I digress!

Using a craft knife, or your scissors, carefully cut off the neck of the bottle just after where it starts to narrow and discard the top section you've removed. Sand off any roughness on the cut edge of the bottle with your sandpaper.

Measure the circumference of the base of your bottle and work out how many repeats of your pattern you want to have. I opted for two pattern repeats, so that there is one pineapple on the front and one on the back. Work out how many stitches you need for each pattern repeat and then add on enough to make a ring big enough to fit around your bottle base. Make a note of the number of extra stitches you are adding and mark where you will begin your pattern repeat with stitch markers as you go. Chain the appropriate number of stitches and join with a slip-stitch to make a snug fit around your bottle. Try it on for fit.

Now crochet up a tube or "sleeve" for the bottle, following your chosen pattern for the patterned sections and filling in with simple double crochet (UK treble crochet) stitches in between. Join each row with a slip stitch before carrying on. Begin each new row with a chain of three to get yourself up to the right height.*

*These instructions assume your pattern is basically in double crochet (UK treble). If your pattern uses half-doubles or singles, you'll need to make the fill-in sections in the same stitches or you'll get into a war of stitch-height difference!

The pattern sections should finish before the bottle starts to begin to taper at all. Once you've got to that point, carry on using your plain double (UK treble) crochet stitches (or whatever stitches you are using) and decreasing a few stitches in each row to keep the fit snug. You have to do this by trial and error, so keep trying the fit of the cover over the bottle to check. Begin by decreasing two to three stitches per row and seeing how it goes. The rows are quite short so it's not a big deal to undo a row and redo, with more, or fewer, decreases. Once you are nearly up to the top, you might like to end with a row of single crochet (UK double) just to make a neat finish. Or you might not - up to you. When you're finished, simply fasten off your yarn and sew in the end.

Bingo! Now fit a couple of  AA batteries to your fairy lights' battery box, shove the string of lights inside and switch on. You can either hide the whole battery box inside the bottle or you can leave it outside and tuck it behind. It's unobtrusive either way. If you're going to hang the lantern up, the box would be better tucked inside completely.

You can punch a couple of holes in the thin plastic at the top of the bottle and thread some string or raffia through, if you want to hang them up. You can even crochet a simple granny square in the same yarn to insert inside the bottle, underneath the lights, to avoid too much light shining through the bottom when it's swinging aloft in that balmy, summer-evening breeze! The beauty of these lanterns is that they're very lightweight - you don't need a cast-iron bracket or anything similarly robust to support them and there is no molten wax to worry about, once they're lit, so you don't even have to keep them level.

They look nice in the daytime, unlit ...

but they really come into their own once it's twilight or dark and you can light them up ...

And if like me, you are leery about sitting outside, before it's a respectable temperature, (by which I mean over 20C), worry not! Pop your lanterns on a table, or shelf, inside and enjoy them there.

Or hang them in a window. They feel very summery indeed to look at and you can enjoy them whatever the weather, even in the UK's "barbecue summer" that never seems to materialise.

Of course if you are lucky enough to live somewhere with real "barbecue summers", go for it and enjoy them "à la terrasse"!

I've got another little cheap-and-cheerful, homemade "summer-living-accessory" on my hook too. Here's my progress so far. Any guesses as to what it will be? (It's not a blanket.)

I expect it will be a couple of months before I actually need to deploy it, so it's quite a relaxed project. Something to be said for the slow-to-appear English summer after all!

E x

Tuesday 5 May 2015

Lily Pond Crochet

Have any of you found yourselves dipping your toes, or perhaps I should say rather, your hooks, into the Lily Pond Blanket Crochet-Along designed by Jane Crowfoot, in conjunction with Stylecraft Yarns? 

There is something very appealing about the idea of replicating a lily pond with a hook and yarn and I am afraid I just couldn't resist the notion. It's an entrancing project to work on, as the Spring shifts towards early summer and my own little garden pond beckons. Have a look here for the free pattern instalments and details of Jane's exquisite design. Jane's blog has some extra, and very helpful, notes here, if you're interested.

The blanket is designed to be hooked in Stylecraft Life yarn which is an acrylic / wool mix yarn in a fabulous range of colours. You can buy special packs for the project from Deramores and you can pre-order Stylecraft Life packs from Janie Crow here. I think there have been some supply problems with the Stylecraft Life but Deramores do a Stylecraft Special version, pretty close to the original pack.

But here I came face to face with a snag, caused, not by supply problems, but by my own prejudices and / or fussiness. I know this is a heresy in the hooky-blogging sphere and I may get disapproval / criticism for "letting the side down" and saying that "the emperor has no clothes on", but I generally don't like making blankets from yarn whose predominant fibre is acrylic - I find a lot of it is quite scratchy and not very nice to work with. There are exceptions, of course, as with everything, but generally speaking.

This is, quite frankly, a big, old nuisance as predominantly acrylic yarn is far cheaper; it tends to come in nice, fat balls, not 50g tiddlers you have to keep replenishing, and the colour ranges in something like Stylecraft Special, are, without question, first class. I've tried using it, but I always reach the same conclusion a few rows into whatever project it is - I don't like the feel of the finished fabric; I am not all that keen on the look of the yarn itself; and I don't much like working with it, to the extent that the sensation and sound of the run of it, down my hook, can set my teeth on edge. And if I am going to invest a good many hours in a project, I don't want to work with something that puts my teeth on edge all the time, or to end up with something that I don't like touching or looking at in the light. However cheap the yarn may be, or however extensive the colour range.

I know there are very many people who love it and who get wonderful results from using it, but it just doesn't work for me, so in the first instance I thought the Lily Pond blanket would have to be shelved as a nice idea, but not practicable to realise. While wandering along Deramores' virtual shelves, however, and humming and hawing about whether I could put aside my aversion to acrylic scratchiness, I found they also offer a version of the Lily Pond CAL colours in Stylecraft Classique Cotton.  This is a pure cotton yarn, un-mercerised and soft; it is a dream to work with and while the colour range is not as comprehensive as its acrylic-based Stylecraft siblings, it's nonetheless good and not too far from the palette required for the blanket. Aha!

So far, so good, especially as I had quite a few of the required colours in my stash and didn't have to buy the whole pack. But it wasn't quite as straightforward to make the switch to a different yarn, from that recommended in the design, as I'd hoped. The length of yarn in each ball is considerably shorter, for a start, so you need more balls of the Classique Cotton than the number specified in the pattern for the Life. Probably two, for each one of the main colours (the greens and teal at least). And the colours in the two ranges although similar, are far from identical. The suggested substitution of the pale blue "Sky Blue" (Classique) for "Mint" (Life), for example, just didn't work for me. I tried replacing it with the deeper and greener, "Tropical Jade" (Classique Cotton) but this had the effect of unexpectedly bringing out the yellow component in the other greens ("Leaf" and "Soft Lime" in the Classique Cotton) and gave the whole panel a most off-putting, sickly, yellowish tinge. The kind of colour, reminiscent of stagnant water, full of unspeakable sludge and suppurating duck-weed, that has been sitting in the sun without any refreshment of rain, for some weeks in a dry summer, and from which a heavy and unpleasant odour assails you, if you approach too close. Nasty! Certainly not what I wanted to replicate in my throw which I wanted to evoke a cool, clear, limpid pool into which you might, on a hot day, feel tempted to dip your feet. A few frogs and fish in there perhaps, to tickle your toes, but no rotting pond-sludge or decomposing waterweed, thank you!

In the end I have substituted the dark blue "Nocturne" in the Classique Cotton for the pale bluey-green Life "Mint" which is quite a bold swap as the two colours are quite different. It works though, I think. I much prefer it to the "Sky Blue" or the "Tropical Jade" anyway.

The pattern is being released at fortnightly intervals. The third instalment was released today. It's a lovely way of doing it, as you never face too much at any one time and so it feels nice and manageable. Of course you don't have to complete each stage in the first fortnight of its release, but if you want to, it's been well judged in terms of what it asks, I think.

In the first instalment you make part of the pond - rippling stripes of greens and blues to represent the water. Among the first few rows there are flecks of colour - to represent the goldfish swimming among the depths and perhaps the waterlily roots. I love the idea of that. The bright flick of a tail, caught by the sunlight through the water, before it disappears into the cool, dark shadows. So evocative. But here I've made another swap. The pattern instructs you to use pink for the flecks of colour which is fine for representing reddish waterlily roots, or budding leaves perhaps, but I'd got stuck on the idea of the goldfish and have you ever seen a pink goldfish? No. Me neither, so the pink had to go and orange "Seville" has replaced it. I am conscious that this also is a bold swap (which may backfire on me) because potentially I may have disturbed the harmony and equilibrium of the overall blanket by introducing a rogue colour element. Orange features nowhere in the rest of the design and it may stand out like a sore thumb, if I am not careful, sparing though the flecks of orange are. I may have to add a judicious hint of orange to some of the flower centres, perhaps. We'll see. Too early to tell as yet. But in a strange way these slightly unexpected colour conundrums are making the creative journey of the blanket not stressful, but rather exciting. Unpredictable, but alive, if you see what I mean.

I was so taken with the water panels I thought I'd make a waterlily to sit among them just for the sake of it. This isn't part of the CAL blanket but is a most beautiful three-dimensional design by Esther Chandler of Make My Day Creative. You can find her free pattern here.

I've made this in Cascade Ultra Pima mercerised cotton in "Pink Sapphire" and "Buttercup". The pad I made up myself and is in Cascade Ultra Pima "Sprout". I took the water and the waterlily with its pad outside to photograph on a mirror under the big cherry tree currently in bloom in the garden and I love the effect of the deep-blue, Spring sky and the foamy, white blossom reflected alongside my hooky efforts.

The second instalment of the pattern was for the first batch of lily-bud squares - I haven't quite finished these. They need some surface stitching in deep pink to highlight the petals.

But I love the way the frame-work, that surrounds the flower in each square, has a slightly lacy, fragile quality to it, while the outer rows are quite solid for joining to the other panels.

Today's instalment is for another version of the lily-bud square with a slightly bigger, more open flower. I am looking forward to starting it very much.

Has anyone else embarked on this project and made any creative adjustments? Do share, if you have. I find that part of creativity, and reading accounts of others' experience of it, fascinating.

E x