Thursday, 13 November 2014

Our evening meals

This is a slight detour from sewing, but as all sewists have to eat, I thought you might be interested in hearing about something we've been enjoying for much of this year. Up until April, we were in one of those slumps where I found myself cooking a rotation of the same meals every evening, either because I hadn't had the time to go out and buy any interesting ingredients or because I didn't have the time to research recipes in advance of actually cooking the meal. It went something like: pasta with tomato sauce with vegetables; gnocchi with a blue cheese sauce and asparagus; pasta with pesto and vegetables; jacket potatoes with grated cheese and vegetables…and over…and over. Everyone in our house quite likes these things, but it wasn't particularly exciting to be eating them in rotation every week. I actually really love cooking things from scratch…there's just a slight planning issue sometimes. Anyway, eight months ago, that changed when we discovered Hello Fresh. Each week they deliver all the ingredients I'll need to make three meals with full colour recipe cards for each. The quality of the ingredients is fantastic and the recipes are wholesome, hearty, unpretentious, but really, really good. 

The recipes are often quite involved, but it's this that means that somehow on a Wednesday evening when I've worked all day, got soaked on the school run, helped with homework and am trying to work my way through a washing mountain and would normally decide that some pasta, a jar of sauce and vegetables would suffice, instead I find myself whipping up something like a huge cauliflower and lentil dahl or Lebanese sweet potato wraps, without all the stress of planning or shopping for it. 

The recipes usually take between 35 to 50 minutes to make and I tend to put on a podcast while I'm cooking - it's a really lovely way to relax at the end of the day. It's completely transformed our week and I no longer have the guilt that I was beginning to suffer in feeling that my children would grow up not remembering me cooking particularly varied or interesting things for them (because a few years ago I did used to seem to have time and inclination to cook a lot more) or ceasing to being willing to try new things because they'd got out of the habit of it - I really minded about that idea. 

I have to confess that I don't actually eat many of the Hello Fresh meals myself as I have so many allergies and food intolerances - everything from gluten, to onions and garlic and a myriad of other common ingredients - that it's really rare that a recipe excludes all the things that I can't eat, but it's reignited my joy in cooking for others and the other three members of the family are really enjoying sampling all these new dishes each week. 

Hello Fresh don't really give you a huge amount of autonomy over what you cook each week. We order the vegetarian box for four people, but other than that, we don't get a say in what arrives. I quite like the surprise factor of this, although it does mean that I occasionally have to substitute something - for example, my daughter feels smoked paprika gives things a meaty flavour so I'll switch it for regular paprika from my own spice drawer and we always substitute any rare tofu appearances with some halloumi from our own fridge. 

I'd initially thought I'd want more than three meals a week, but actually it's perfect. We have one night a week where too many people are out to justify using one of the recipes and we also have an amazing local pizza restaurant that we tend to collect pizzas from on Friday nights and then the weekends tend to offer more time for planning out my own recipes anyway. I'd also thought it would be too expensive, but actually, what used to happen was that we'd dash out to the shops constantly to buy a few random bits and pieces and come back with far more than we'd intended to buy (often disparate items, that didn't really make a meal). I think our overall food bill is actually far lower now than it used to be. 

I really love how excited everyone is when the week's recipe cards are unpacked. At the sight of an enormous salad there are often sighs of disappointment, but it's been these dishes where everyone has usually said: I really wasn't looking forward to this one, but it's amazing! 

The fact that we've been getting Hello Fresh boxes each week for eight months now should be a good indication that I think it's a brilliant service, however, just to maintain balance, I thought I should also share the things I'm less keen on: very occasionally, an ingredient has been missing from our box - it's never caused a big problem as I've normally found something in the cupboard that I can substitute it for; you need absolutely massive pans and serving dishes to carry off Hello Fresh recipes with ease - the portions are invariably huge and often provide leftovers for the next day, which is brilliant, but you will need big pans; over the summer they changed over to new eco-insulation bags for the cold items (if you're out, the delivery company will leave the box somewhere safe for you, so the food really needs to stay cold all day in the summer). The eco bags drive me slightly loopy as they're huge and sometimes it feels as though they've wrapped one block of cheese up in the wool of an entire sheep to protect it properly, which even though it's an eco bag, feels slightly wasteful - I'm hoping this is a seasonal thing and that they'll go back to standard insulation now the weather has cooled. 

Anyway, if you'd like to try your own Hello Fresh box, you can get £20 off your first order by quoting my referral code GALEFS. When you get £20 off your order, Hello Fresh give me £12 off my next box as a thank you for referring someone (this is standard for all their customers - this isn't anything related to my blog and this isn't a sponsored post - I'm writing it because I love their service and after eight months of using it every week I feel really happy to recommend them here), so if you'd rather this didn't happen, but still want to try a box, just omit the code. 
    Florence x

    Ps. And if you do use the code: Cheers! We might end up cooking the very same thing one night next week. Freaky. 

    Tuesday, 11 November 2014

    Links to good things

    Last week, in the midst of painting the hall, stairs and landing, I also filled in a small chunk of missing plaster that was knocked out when we had a new kitchen installed about six years ago. The hole was about two inches square, half an inch deep and sat just above the wooden worktop upstand. Sometimes I would put things in front of it, so that I could pretend it wasn't there, but mostly those things got moved by my family, not realising that the recycling pot had been strategically placed, and so most days when I cooked, I noticed it and minded about it. At first, when I was happily pottering around in a new kitchen, my thought was optimistically always, I must fill in that hole tomorrow…but gradually, over six years, that thought turned to wondering what would propel me into action to fill it and whether it would always be like that, until perhaps we were struck by a mad flurry of efficiency if we came to sell the house. I felt slightly envious of the people who would live here next who would never have to see the bit of missing plaster. It's odd how these things which would take five minutes to fix, can sit there for years, making you feel guilty and slightly exhausted on a low-level each time you catch sight of them. Anyway, now that it's finally done, I can report that there are seemingly few things that could make you feel quite so victorious and jubilant than checking something off a mental To Do list that's been nagging at you each time you've caught sight of it for over half a decade…I'm not sure quite why I'm sharing this with you, other than to say that if you have your own metaphorical missing chunk of plaster that will take five minutes to put right, I'd implore you to stop reading and go and tend to it (and then report back once it's done - I'd love to hear what yours was. Next on my own list of 'Things that I am Really Going to Do this Week!' is gluing the small air vent grill, that sits at the bottom of our chimney breast, onto the wall, so that it doesn't fall out every time we open or close our bedroom door!)

    Anyway, I thought you might enjoy a bullet-pointed list of interesting things from around the internet. Bullet-pointed, because that seems an appropriate medium of conveying information for someone who is so ultra efficient…or at least the best course of action for one who still has slightly painty fingers and needs to go and declog them at the earliest opportunity, rather than think about breaking up paragraphs nicely.

    • I've been meaning to tell you about Lysa Flower since May, so the fact that she's appearing in this blog post now, whilst belated, at least means that I can say that I'm sharing her work quicker than I can fill a hole in the kitchen wall. If you haven't discovered Lysa Flower's work yourself already, I think you'll love it. Lysa creates beautiful drawings of people's fabric stashes or favourite pieces of haberdashery. Rendered in coloured pencil on a plywood base, there's something I find just incredibly lovely about Lysa's drawings.

      When I asked Lysa why she first decided to draw on wood, here's what she said: Hmm, why did I settle on wood? All this started with drawing dresses but they were on paper. It seemed no matter how I framed them they wouldn't lay flat. I had seen these wood canvases at the art supply store and thought I'd give it a go. I was really happy with the results and felt it kept everything fresh and clean looking. However my main goal was for it to look modern. Lysa is happy to take on commissions, so do get in touch if you fancy having a part of your own stash captured on wood before you cut into it. Lysa also collaborates with Warp and Weft, where she's been sharing a free downloadable calendar image for each month this year. I adore October, featuring Elizabeth Olwen's Wild Wood line for Cloud9.
    • Co-incidentally, fabric distributors, Hantex, sent a delicious bundle of Wild Wood to me recently, which was very lovely as it's been one of the collections that I've been most excited about this year - you can find their list of UK stockists for this line here and scroll up and down admiring the real fabric and the Lysa's drawing of the real fabric as many times as you'd like (that's exactly what I've been doing while writing this post, anyway).
    • I have no idea what the recipe details are, as they're in Japanese, but I've fallen in love with these adorable biscuits and the step photos look easy enough to follow to achieve the same thing with your own recipe. 
    • If you love seeing all the photos from Quilt Market where designers unveil their much anticipated new fabric collections to the industry and retailers, Abby Glassenberg has written a well-researched and eye-opening article about how this works from a designer's point of view and just how little money, and quite how much hard work, can be involved in the process. It's a really interesting post and the comments are well worth reading too. 
    • One of my lovely sponsors, Elephant in my Handbag, is offering a 10% discount on your first order with them, using the code 'Flossie' at the checkout. You can find the code on their button in my right hand sidebar too, if you ever want to click directly through. 
    • Have you watched this wonderful three-minute video about how the thousands of ceramic poppies were made which have been placed around the Tower of London to remember each soldier who died? It's really worth watching. 
    • I've really enjoyed reading the Motherhood Around the World series on the Cup of Jo blog. Each post featured an in-depth interview with an American mother who had emigrated to a different country and shared her thoughts on the cultural differences that exist in raising children in her new home. In the final post, the tables were turned and Joanna interviewed nine mums who'd moved to the States from elsewhere to hear what their take on the differences were too. The interviews are fascinating reading - I loved every single one of them. 
    As always, if you have any interesting links of your own, please do share them in the comments. And thanks to my sister, Laura, who prompted this post - after an unplanned three week hiatus - with the text: When the devil are you going to blog again? I miss you! xxx. (We had actually been speaking on the phone, texting and even seen each other in person the week before, so it was a doubly sweet text).

    Florence x

    Tuesday, 21 October 2014

    A new English paper piecing project

    Thank you so much for all your lovely comments on the last post - I hugely enjoyed reading what you're reading and listening to.

    Kim B is our winner who wrote: Oooh, love to discover new UK fabric shops! As for what I'm reading, after finishing your recommendation of "Love, Nina" by Nina Stibbe, I moved on to Alan Bennett's journals! (well, the two books of his collected writings, which include his journals). I kept waiting for him to refer to Mary-Kay's nanny Nina, but it never happened. But he did talk about Mary-kay and Sam! in paper book fashion, I'm finally indulging in my first John-Banville-as-Benjamin-Black murder mystery and wondering what took me so long!!

    Kim's comment may make very little sense to anyone who hasn't read 'Love, Nina', but I loved it as I know that I would have read Alan Bennett's journals waiting for him to mention Nina too. Kim, please do send me your address and I'll pass it on to Fabric HQ who will despatch your goodies.

    This is what I'm currently working on - it's some english paper piecing, which I'm also intending to write up a pattern for, if anyone might be interested. It's not quite finished yet though as it's taking a frustratingly long time for me to decide on just the right colours for the next round of shapes. It uses some Liberty prints and some solid Oakshotts. 

    You wouldn't believe quite how many things I cut out or even sew together and then realise that I'm not happy with the colours. All of the rosettes below (I actually made three of the patterned rosettes in the first photo, before deciding I wasn't happy with them!), won't actually be used. I think by the time it's finished I may have enough rejects to create a whole 'B-side' version though! 

    Despite being so indecisive, I'm enjoying it hugely though and it's fun to be working with some shapes that are different from those in my Passacaglia quilt, as they've been my sole focus for the last six months and I decided I needed a brief break from them. My new project still involves a little bit of fussy-cutting, but isn't dominated by it, which again, I'm finding feels refreshing.

    Wishing you a lovely week,
    Florence x

    Friday, 10 October 2014

    An unapologetically Christmassy giveaway!

    This is just a really quick post to invite you to leave a comment to have the chance to win these gorgeous fabrics from my sponsor, Fabric HQ, who have recently launched a shiny new website, as well as opening up a real-life, you-can-actually-touch-it shop in Buckinghamshire.

    I know many people are hideously offended by thinking about Christmas in October, but for me, the moment three family birthdays are over at the end of September, my thoughts turn to how excited I feel about Christmas, so these bundles are unapologetically seasonal! However, I've already seen some people beginning Christmas sewing over on Instagram, so I do wonder whether sewists are naturally willing to embrace the whole thing earlier, just because we sometimes need longer to prepare our gifts if we're making them!

    There's a fairly well-padded Christmas section, but I also love this 'Autumnal Woods' panel, which actually looks deliciously wintry to me.

    But when not thinking about Christmas, Fabric HQ do offer a fantastic selection of fabrics. From memory, most of the prints in this stack are ones that I bought there when I first started on my Passacaglia quilt six months ago. But they also do some amazing dressmaking fabrics (rabbits and hares, and leaves!). If you want to keep track of what's coming and going at Fabric HQ you can sign up to their newsletter by clicking on the button that's right at the bottom of every page on their website

    Anyway, how to enter - I'd love it if you'd leave me a comment telling me what you're enjoying reading, listening to or looking at, recently. 

    Personally, I'm currently reading the newly published 'Us' by David Nicholls, author of the book (and now film), One Day. My sister actually sent me an Amazon gift voucher (with an incredible dancing dogs animation and a 'happy birthday' message even though it's not my birthday until March. It was quite thrilling - she knows just what's going to delight me) for this book so that I could download it to my Kindle and read it at the same time as her. We're both unsure of how much we love the characters yet, but we're both huge fans of David Nicholls' writing. I'm also reading-by-proxy, Bounce: the Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice by Matthew Syed (by proxy as I bought it for my husband, but he's relaying it to me chapter-by-chapter as he reads and we've discussed the ideas in it so much that I feel like I've read it myself - it's a sports psychology book and a really inspiring, empowering and fascinating read, irrespective of whether you have a direct interest in sport - so much of what's written in it is applicable to wider life). 

    I'll announce a winner next week. Rae is happy to post the fabric to anywhere in Europe. Really looking forward to reading what you're enjoying at the moment.

    Florence x

    Thursday, 2 October 2014

    A tiny piece of Liberty Jack

    I made this a few weeks ago at my daughter's request, as she said that she'd really love something with a Liberty print Union Jack on it for her birthday. Coincidentally, it was around the time of the Scottish independence referendum when there was a lot of discussion about how the Union Jack would change if the Scottish St Andrew's element were to be removed, so while I was sewing I realised that it may be a last opportunity to sew it while it was still in circulation as our current flag. However, as a fairly unpatriotic person, I don't feel any real attachment to the Union Jack for what it represents, but I do feel a huge affection for it from a sewist's perspective. The way the pieces interconnect, the potential for using different fabrics, the variation in thickness of lines - they all combine to make it a perfect focus for patchwork. 

    Several years ago, like many others, I fell in love with Janey Forgan's Liberty Jack quilt, which was shown as part of the V&A's Exhibition, 'Quilts 1700 - 2010'. You can see a little corner of it in the book I had out while I was sewing here (the book doesn't give a pattern for the quilt as it's a book discussing the pieces at the exhibition, rather than a pattern book) or see it in full in this old post.

    My finished Union Jack measured, from memory, just less than 5" x 2.5", so I decided to foundation piece it as some of the strips were too small for English paper piecing. I've done foundation paper piecing a few times in the past and never really enjoyed it as the whole process feels so counter-intuitive, but this time I felt quite delighted by it - perhaps because it was enabling me to do something that I couldn't do at that scale any other way - I'm normally a fan of anything that facilitates me working in miniature or with fiddly pieces. [If you're not sure of the difference between foundation paper piecing and English paper piecing: the former is where you machine sew fabrics onto a printed paper template, whereas English paper piecing is where you wrap fabrics around paper templates and then sew them together by hand - the method I use most of the time in my sewing].

    It was very much trial and error as it was my own Union Jack print out and my own learn-as-you-go methods. However, afterwards Kerry gave me lots of helpful tips which I'll try out next time I do some foundation piecing. If you're new to FPP too or thinking of dabbling with it, you can find all Kerry's foundation paper piecing tips and tutorials here and one that particularly helps with dealing with templates for diagonals, which feature heavily in a Union Jack, here. Kerry also has patterns in the shop which she co-runs, Sew Ichigo, which look to come with full instructions so are probably perfect for beginners as well as experienced FPPers.

    I used the Union Jack panel to make a little zippered p-o-u-c-h (There. And breathe. Such a hideous word) for my daughter. I'm really tempted to make a whole mini-quilt of them though. Since having more plain white walls of my own to decorate, I feel much more taken with the idea of making some mini-quilts and my husband has also requested some, for practical purposes, for his own walls. When we had the extra layer of rooms added to our house, he turned our daughter's old bedroom into an office/music room. Even though it's tiny, with no soft furnishings in there it has dreadful acoustics for recording any music - it seems that a wall of quilts would be the perfect thing for dampening the sound down, although they'll need to be Manly Quilts, which I'm not sure are so much about pastel Liberty prints and possibly more about some Parson Gray. Have you seen any quilt patterns that have an Esher feel to them maybe?

    Florence x

    Sunday, 14 September 2014

    My new sewing room!

    Finally, some photos of my sewing room! I can only put the delay down to an initial flurry of it feeling more urgent to use it than it was to photograph it! I've always loved seeing how people set up their work spaces, whether it's a huge studio or a corner of a dining room, so this is a very photo-heavy post with all the tiny details included! If you're also interested in seeing how I made a multi-tasking room work for me, you can read about it in this post as, until a few weeks ago, I've spent the last eight years sewing in our bedroom.

    At the outset, I should say that everything apart from my desk chair is from Ikea, as it's relatively inexpensive, they do a huge range of white furniture (which is what I wanted) and it's flat-pack, which meant we could get it up the stairs easily. I've had Ikea furniture in the past and developed an allergy to the fibre particle-board (which sits inside the white outer casing), when it became exposed when I broke part of it during construction! This time, I decided to go down the allergy prevention route of asking someone more adept than me to construct it - that is a winning solution in so many ways!

    Above, shows a bit of my design wall with some Passacaglia cogs in progress, the making of which I blogged about in more detail here. It also shows my cutting table. I spent much of the time that our loft was being converted agonising over how big the cutting table should be. It's not a big room, but in the end I decided to go for something that was a super-sized beast of a table, on the grounds that often sewing projects take just as long to cut as they do to sew. I also knew that I didn't want an ironing board in the room. I'm terribly accident prone and have lost several irons when I've knocked them onto the floor. I've also spent the last eight years alerting my children to the iron whenever they've walked into the room - so I wanted the cutting table to be large enough to also house a pressing pad, so that we'd all be safe, including the iron!

    The cutting table is made up from four Ikea Kallax units, with a huge white desk top (also from Ikea) placed on top. I've used sticky-back velcro to keep the table top in place as I didn't want to drill it onto the units. The cutting table has a huge amount of storage under it. I've kept the most frequently used things in the more easily accessible storage boxes and the rarely used items sit in pull-out boxes behind the books.

    I've left a gap in between the two sets of Kallax units, where cutting mats and perspex grid rulers are stored for easy access. At my father's suggestion (always surprisingly practical!), I chose to omit one of the shelves to make space for my knees, so that I can stand comfortably when I'm cutting. There are small pre-drilled holes exposed by doing this, but they're easily covered with little white sticky labels. I also wanted to raise the whole thing up to make it the right height for me to cut at, and also to leave room for my feet to tuck under the units, so there are legs attached to each of the Kallax units. The cutting table is about 33"/86cm tall by the time the top and legs have been added - it's perfect for my height and I've already spent many happy hours cutting there without backache - that feels like a huge luxury.

    I keep my work-in-progress items stored in the open part of the unit…the coral and navy stripes are a jersey top that I've nearly finished.

    I made the pressing pad from a large piece of wood, cut to size at the DIY shop. I then covered it in a thin layer of cotton and a layer of linen. I read quite a lot about making ironing pads before I did it and what I discovered I found really interesting. Have you ever had that thing where you make a quilt block perfectly and then you press it and it suddenly looks slightly distorted? Apparently, it's because regular ironing board covers have too much padding and 'give' in them, which can lead to the fabric distorting slightly. When I first pressed something on this board I could instantly feel the difference and understand why this would hold true.

    I have no idea why, but one of the things that's always really bothered me when I'm sewing is having to bend down and turn the iron on and off constantly in between stitching seams, as it feels like a task that disrupts work flow (and may in part be the reason for my knocking the iron on the floor so frequently). So I planned out my space around this. There's an extension lead that comes up behind the cutting table and sits on top of it. As each switch can be controlled individually it means that I can just flick the switch on and off without having to unplug it and it's right next to my pressing pad. It's such a small thing, but it makes me disproportionately happy!

    My rotary cutters and scissors are all stored right below the cutting table in the little drawer unit I've put inside one of the Kallax cubbies.

    Finally, above the cutting table are the tiny framed Liberty Tana lawn swatches, which I posted about here.

    On the other side of my room is my sewing desk. I wanted this to be fairly long for several reasons: I wanted to be able to leave my sewing machines out (although most of the time, I actually store the overlocker in one of the cubby boxes under the cutting table - it's just out in these photos as I've been using it this week); my sewing room also needs to double as my office for when I'm working on the app business that I run with my husband, so I need space to have my laptop and all the paraphernalia that entails spread out; my daughter had said she'd quite like me to have a desk where she could use my second sewing machine and sew alongside me if she felt like it (we haven't done this yet, but it's nice to know we could if we wanted to).

    I wanted to pack in as much storage as possible, so I've got two different types of Alex drawer units beneath the desk, but one of them is on castors, so that I can move it easily if I want more leg space to flit between two sewing machines. The photo above shows the desk when the larger set of drawers has been wheeled out of the way to make more space for sewing one evening last week! I only tend to store work things in that unit, so all my sewing paraphernalia is still to hand in the right-hand drawers.

    The other thing that I really wanted in the room was something that would be a really comfy place to do some hand stitching; a tempting place to lure my husband upstairs to chat to me during the day; somewhere for the children to lounge around while I'm sewing; and perhaps most importantly, somewhere for my mother-in-law to sleep when she comes to visit; and something that offered flexibility in terms of how much space it took up depending on what I was using the room for. We put a huge amount of thought into this bit and we even went to Ikea for the first time in over a decade to test out the options for comfort! In the end we chose the one-seat section of the Kivik sofa and a footstool to go with it (for reference, it is a much firmer seat than the chaise longue from the same range, which felt too squashy to sleep on). This means that if I want to baste a quilt on the floor, I can move the footstool to the other side of the room, but the rest of the time, it stays where it is, as in the photo below. When my mother-in-law visits we add another footstool to this and then cover the whole thing in an obscenely well-padded mattress cover that somehow fits and makes the whole thing feel really quite lovely. She told me it was really comfortable and luckily she doesn't mind being surrounded by sewing paraphernalia as she's an obsessive quilter herself. 

    Above with footstool. Below, with footstool moved aside to make a bigger floor space.

    The chest of drawers as I come into the room holds all my fabric. The bottom two drawers have all my quilting fabrics inside.

    I've sorted the fabrics into rough colour order as I find it easiest to work that way. 

    On top of the chest of drawers are some treasures: favourite books, most given to me by my parents (spines rapidly fading, so perhaps it's not the best place for them); the lego sewing machine my husband and children gave to me nearly five years ago; printing blocks from sister showing an old Singer sewing machine, along with mine and my husband's initials; a special teacup and saucer (a gift bought with money from my father); a terrarium made by daughter the summer before last; a framed segment of the patchwork Liberty dog bed that I made for Nell.

    There's also quite a big, but oddly sized cupboard built into the corner of the room to the left of the drawers. I'd quite like to store a vacuum cleaner in there at some point when funds allow the buying of a second one, as it suddenly feels that the one in the utility room two floors down is a very long way away.

    Finally, here's the room in action. The thing that I appreciate most of all perhaps, is not having to tidy up a mess like the one below before I can go to bed at night…but also how much more quickly it can all be cleared away when I do tidy it all up. As you can see though, a cutting table can never actually be too big!

    Sorry for the extreme photo overload - it's rare for photos to outweigh words on my blog, but I think I've actually managed it here! I hope you enjoyed it though. I feel like I've spent eight years designing and planning this room in my head and even when it was being built (just five weeks from start to finish!), I couldn't actually believe that one day it would be finished and that I'd really have a sewing room of my own - it feels slightly unreal. My favourite thing about the whole room isn't really anything to do with sewing at all though - it's the light. I'm now wishing we could balance all the rooms of our house on the roof so that every room could have skylight windows in it - they offer dramatic sunsets that must have always been there, but that I've been missing; the racket of pounding rain; and a feeling of complete privacy and not being overlooked.

    Florence x

    Monday, 1 September 2014


    It's been a very, very long time since I've made a piece of clothing that I'm completely delighted with. So long in fact, that I'd almost decided that it may just be safer to stick to quilts, which always fit just right and never pull under the arm or unexpectedly transform me into a blancmange the moment I come into contact with it.

    So this particular spate of dressmaking was entered into with low expectations. If I'd have picked out a label to sew into this top it wouldn't say 'Made by Florence', it would say 'Made by Eeyore'. My last unfortunate make a few months ago never actually made it onto my blog: it involved a pattern which seemingly looks amazing on everyone else in the entire world, some utterly delicious Atelier Brunette fabric and a huge dollop of optimism at the outset, but I was left with something that was just wrong in every single way. As part of an extensive mental post-mortem of the 'wrong' top, I realised that although I often wear blouses in summer, most of the time I really enjoy wearing things made from knit fabrics which just feel incredibly wearable and lovely. I wrote this post all about lovely knit fabrics and the Colette Patterns book about sewing with knits and then went back to some English paper piecing and ignored the lovely knit fabrics because I had had enough of sewing ugly clothing for the time being.

    But then when I took my daughter to an art lesson in town last week, I happened to see some delicious drapey striped fabric in my local sewing shop and found myself buying it and telling myself that it was time to try to make some ugly knit clothing, instead of ugly cotton clothing and that maybe it would be less ugly than the ugly thing which had gone before it.

    In my dressmaking history, the things that fit me the best are also those that I've drafted the pattern for myself, so I decided that for the preservation of sanity, I should go down that route this time. I made a really similar top to this one a few years ago, but have since lost the pattern pieces I drew up for it, so I set about re-drafting it, basing it again on one of my favourite tops that I bought about six years ago and which is so well-worn that it even has a hole darned up in one place!

    So here is my top. I am really, really pleased with it, which doesn't feel like an entirely humble or seemly thing to say, but if you could see the amount of ugly things I've made I think you'd forgive me. I love it not because it's brilliantly made (it isn't) or an amazing design (I really like it, but it's nothing special and it doesn't have a Peter Pan collar, which is what makes things really special!), but because it fits really well (apart from at the neck, which could do with some refining, but which doesn't stop it from being wearable), it's really comfy, it was the first thing I reached for to put on when I went to get dressed this morning and because it has restored my enthusiasm for garment sewing, which I really do enjoy because I love clothes and I love the instant gratification of making them (compared to quilts…which can take me years, because when it comes to quilts I seem to like doing things slowly!).

    You can see in the photo above that I'm wearing my new top and am straight back to cutting some more pieces out for some English paper piecing, which I'm going to carry on doing really s l o w l y, but that's okay, because I'm wearing my speedily made Breton top (which is proof that I have two speeds), and because I can also say (in my head…I don't actually ever say it aloud) that I'm someone who makes clothes again…which I haven't said for a while, but is a really happy thought.

    It's almost worth making ugly clothes for the sense of having reached the top of the mountain when I finally make something wearable. Does everyone go through phases like this, or is it just me?

    Florence x

    Ps. I'm considering a second version in this Bari J knit fabric.
    Pps. There are some sneaky peeks of my new sewing room in these photos. More to follow. x

    Thursday, 28 August 2014

    My summer reading

    We stayed in the South Downs this summer, which isn't so very far away from where we actually live, but somehow offers a dramatically different landscape: big skies, vast open spaces, hours of walking uninterrupted by roads. Most days we did little else other than planning out a walk (normally with a cake or a pub at its heart) and walking for seven or eight miles. The landscape with either lush green or sparkling gold, as the wheat had only just been cut.

    Our evenings were spent eating out at a local pub that did amazing food, which could be reached by walking through some fields and woods…which meant that our evenings were typified by a relaxing meal and then a frantic scurry through the woods trying to reach the other side before the light had faded entirely. Once home we read or played board games. It was a very simple sort of holiday, but utterly restful.

    I thought I'd share some of the books I've read this summer, as I've read a lot, largely because I've been going through a Kindle phase, which seems to facilitate more instantaneous book purchasing and quicker consumption of the new books! However, I read a study last week reporting that users of e-readers, when tested, have a poorer recall of chronology within a book, perhaps because of the brain not being able to sense the rising stack of the read pages on the left and the decreasing wedge of pages on the right as they work their way through a book, which would help to give a physical marker of where different events occurred within the book. Occasionally, if I read a book that I think my daughter might like, I lend her my Kindle to read it on…research like this puts me off it becoming her main source of reading material though…I love the idea that our brains are clocking all these tiny details to help process details at a deeper level.

    So here are the books that I've enjoyed:

    Tiny Beautiful Things - Cheryl Strayed: Last summer, I recommended a book, The Examined Life, by Stephen Grosz, which I know many of you bought and loved because I've had so many lovely emails since, saying how much it resonated with you too! (If you missed it the first time, I talk about it at the end of this post). A year later, it's still one of the books that I think back to most often and which is on my to-read-again list. Anyway, Tiny Beautiful Things feels like a continuation in that vein of reading, not least because Cheryl relates to people with the same kindness and empathy that's apparent throughout Stephen Grosz' book (although her language is less formally based in the world of psychiatry and psychology and her writing style more personal and unconventional). Like The Examined Life, Tiny Beautiful Things is not a self-help book, more a study of what it is to be human and why we do the things that we do. It's a collection of readers' letters and the beautifully written, insightful, and empathetic replies that Cheryl wrote during her time as an 'agony aunt' writing the Dear Sugar advice column at The Rumpus. The terms 'agony aunt' and 'advice column' do a complete disservice to the scope of these letters and answers, making the concept of the book seem trite or gratuitous - it's far from it. Sugar walks around a problem and looks at it from angles that at first don't appear relevant but that ultimately make sense of it and give the letter writer a different way of looking at a problem, understanding themselves or the people around them…and as a reader, you're somehow given a better sense and understanding of the world at large, because her replies normally take in some of the bigger picture.

    I've always loved psychology books (I did a sociology degree, with some modules of psychology mixed in and have always regretted not doing a pure psychology degree…or just something textile related...). For me, Cheryl Strayed and Sephen Grosz' books feel like a continuation of some of the texts that I read at that time, but with a more commercial, easy-to-read bent. But more so, I find that the more I can understand people and their motivations, the more compassion I'm capable of - it's a way of making sense of the world. I know that many people draw on god or spiritual guidance to find compassion, my own route is through psychology and literature.

    Onwards. Do you remember that a few years ago, I recommended R J Palacio's 'Wonder'? A number one on the New York Times Best Sellers List, it's a book that's had incredible success and seems to touch everyone - both young and old - who reads it. There's now a follow-up to it called The Julian Chapter, which tells the story from the point-of-view of the bully, Julian. As it's relatively short, it's only available as a download, so you'll need a Kindle or similar to read it. My daughter and I have both read it now, and agreed that it's just as strong as Wonder.

    I've continued to devour what's classified as 'young adults fiction' this summer. I read an article recently that was discussing how many adults are now seeking out YA fiction over and above adults fiction, because it's just so incredibly well written, perhaps because teenagers are a tougher audience to please: whereas adults will often persevere with a novel because of who it's written by or in an attempt to see its literary merit or just because it's meant to be 'good', teenagers are apparently far more likely to just refuse to read it if it's not absolutely compelling. I don't know whether I entirely agree with this, but I do know that I no longer really differentiate between Young Adults and Adult fiction - I'm equally happy reading either, although I do often find the characters in YA fiction to have a more refreshingly honest feel to them. Either way, Out of My Mind, by Sharon M Draper was truly wonderful and the moment I finished it, I passed it straight over to my daughter, who loved it just as much as I did. Out of My Mind is about a girl called Melody, who has Cerebral Palsy, and tells the story of what happens when, aged 10, she is finally given the ability to communicate with others via a computer, shattering their assumptions about how much she really understands. It's about her family and their struggle to get Melody what she needs; her school as they begin a program of 'inclusion classes' for the children with special needs who had previously been unintegrated; and her classmates who, to varying degrees, struggle to accept Melody. Which all perhaps sounds rather earnest and hard work for a fiction book, but although it's a book that takes in all of those things (- wonderfully - and makes them not seem earnest or hard work for a fiction book), ultimately it's a book about Melody herself - a character so fascinating, compelling and likable that it was a book that I really didn't want to end.

    Next, I read Nina Stibbe's 'Love, Nina', which, in contrast to any of the other books I've mentioned here, is very light-hearted. It's a series of letters sent by Nina to her sister during her time working as a Nanny to the children of Mary-Kay Wilmer, editor of the London Review of Books. It's published with Mary-Kay Wilmer's consent and is just incredibly funny. I read it during our holiday and my husband's most-asked question that week seemed to be 'Have you finished that book yet?' because I so frequently woke him up shuddering with laughter in the middle of the night as I read. In her letters, Nina frequently recorded the dinner table conversations that she'd had with Mary-Kay, her sons, and their regular dinner guest, Alan Bennett, and there's something delightful about her relationship with Mary-Kay particularly. They clearly adored one another, but neither seems to have very many fluffy edges to their personality, so their exchanges tend to have a very amusing formality to them as they discuss all manner of random, but fascinating, subjects.

    While we were on holiday I also read the wonderful classic, 'The Peppermint Pig', by Nina Bawden, to my children - we've still got to find time to finish it now that we're home. I remember my own mother reading this to me and my sister when we were children - it's lovely to revisit it.

    I also read and enjoyed  We Were Liars by E. Lockhart; Severed Heads, Broken Hearts, by Robyn Shneider; Butter, by Erin Lange (I didn't love the latter quite as much as the others somehow, but it was still very readable).

    I'm currently part way through Cheryl Strayed's 'Wild' and Heather Ross' 'How to Catch a Frog' and when I feel like looking at something with more pictures, I'm dipping in and out of Carolyn Friedlander's 'Savor Each Stitch', which is wonderful and very inspiring (even though I'm struggling a bit with the fact that the title hasn't been anglicised for the UK market - I don't normally mind this with the word colour…I think it's because I didn't know that the word savour was actually spelt differently in the US, so it just looks like a glaring misspelling to my unaccustomed eyes). Which brings me onto a conversation we had on Instagram last week when I posted this photo of Nell in a cornfield.

    'That's not a cornfield!' a chorus of commenters said: 'That's a wheat field!'. After an Instagram consultation with a real live farmer's wife (who asked her husband for official clarification), we discovered that farmers in England use 'cornfield' as a generic term to describe wheat, barely and oat crops, whereas American farmers would call a wheat field a wheat field. And they'd say that a cornfield contains only maize (corn-on-the-cob), while we call a corn-on-the-cob crop, maize (topically, the children and I went to a maize maze yesterday with friends - it was lovely by either name - cornfield or maize). I love discovering these strange international differences that exist that you have no idea of until you inadvertently use the 'wrong' word. These differences always make me think of my lovely Australian friend, Rhiannon. When I was four, Rhiannon and her family came to live with us in England for a few months (we would later move to live near them in Australia for a few years when my father's job took us there). When Rhiannon and I put our minds together we just seemed to come up with badness. Over the years, together we sprayed our hair green without permission and then wept in the shower together while undertaking vigorous hair washing following parental fury (aged 7), inexplicably painted bookshelves in a mixture of talcum powder and orange juice to 'clean' them (aged 4); broke a neighbour's toilet seat when we climbed out of a bathroom window together (aged 6), plotted against our older sisters who were so incredibly good and lovely; and did all manner of other awful deeds. But as much as we were partners in crime, we were also frequently at war with one another and a pretend game of 'shops' could suddenly cause a full-scale living-room war, when whoever was the shop keeper referred to the pretend money in the till as 'pounds', rather than 'dollars' or vice-versa. When our parents eventually came into the room we would then vehemently hurl our respective country's words of 'Dobber!' and 'Tell-tale!' at one another. We really were beastly and it's incredibly fortunate that we were separated by a vast expanse of ocean for the entirety of our teenage years. I'm pleased to report that whenever we've been reunited as adults, we've found that we're no longer afflicted by badness, although my children do love hearing tales of it.

    I'd love to hear your recommendations or your thoughts if you've read any of the books that I've mentioned here. What did you read on holiday?

    Florence x

    Ps. None of the Amazon links in this post are affiliate links (although there are a few elsewhere on my site), so you may click away freely if you're someone who prefers that bloggers don't share in Amazon's profits. And just in case you're wondering why they're not affiliate links, it's because they take longer to produce and install on my blog and it's the summer holidays, so I don't have time to create them! x