Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Table Turning

Like most of the UK, our holiday plans have been radically altered by the severe weather.  Watching the  scenes of traffic benighted on the M6, we decided to stay put, rescheduling some of our visits for next week.  After all, it is seven hour's drive to Cumbria, through bands of snow and freezing fog - seven hours on a good day. 

Earlier in the year I had suggested to my husband that he motivate himself to work through a tedious patch of his big project by setting himself a deadline - why not have it ready for Christmas?  He has spent some long hours in his shed this week and yesterday moved to the assembly phase.

The table in our dining-room was second-hand when I bought it for £15 in 1984.  It had seen hard service, but had the advantage of an extra leaf which could be put in for bigger parties.  It is so old, it had almost become a fashionable item - solid wood, with a g-plan vibe to the design.  However, the top was badly marked, and the legs not totally steady.

Unlike the replacement.  This is the result of much research into Arts and Crafts models, the Gordon Russell Museum in Broadway, Blackwell in the Lake District  - every joint carefully checked out.  No glue has been used in the construction, and screws only in fixing the top.

Oak table

Note the pegs at the top of the legs, and the button on the cross bar.

Pegged joints

This is several hundred pounds worth of English oak.  It can be taken down, which is fortunate as it is too big to move through the doorway of the room and had to be assembled in situ.

I love it.  We will be christening it on Christmas Day.

Another Eleanor cowl from Knitty.  Such a satisfying piece of lace to knit, with different sized needles to give the flare at the bottom.  This was a merino 4-ply, so I added an extra pattern repeat.  It used almost all of one 50 gram ball.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Woad, Weld and Madder

Sounds like a firm of solicitors, but in fact these are three of the dyes a member of the Mid-Essex Guild of Spinners and Weavers used in the making of the gift I received from the Secret Santa.  She had done a demonstration dyeing session at West Stow Anglo Saxon Village and had a pile of small amounts of yarn in interesting colours.  This is what she made of some of it - it's a pot-holder.

The red is madder, the orange turmeric, the blue woad and the green weld overdyed with woad.

At rthe event, the wrapping was meant to be as creative as the gift.  To wrap the cowl I made, I put together a bag made of silk patchwork scraps, with a little pocket of tie silk which happenened to have Christmas trees all over it.  Unfortunately, I did not take a picture before I gifted it.  The parcel I got was tied with green ribbon with this madder-dyed flower attched.

This little group of miniatures were not made by my husband, but by my father.  In his retirement, he derived much pleasure from retreating to his garage where he had a work-bench set up.  Two of these items have huge symbolic meaning. 

The small box is a sailor's "Diddy-box".   In 1939, my father, who had already left Cumbria to work in Northampton, decided to "join up" for seven years.  He chose the Navy because his Uncle Nat had served in the Navy.  He sent my mother a postcard with a drawing of a pair of bell-bottom trousers on it  - she was supposed to work out the significance of this for herself.  They married in 1940, but it was 1947 before they were able to set up home together. 

Soon, they were able to buy the farm of the same Uncle Nat, who was just ready to retire.  They bought it "Lock, stock and barrel", and I don't doubt that a barrow just like the one above was part of the equipment included.  My father certainly "mucked out" with a barrow each morning for many years.  The muck was shifted out to the midden where it stayed until he loaded it by hand onto a cart, and put it out in heaps on the fields.  Then, again by hand, he spread each heap out.  Whenever we do this, as a leisure activity, on our allotment, I think of the toil which went into making a living.  Now, of course, farmers use mechanical scrapers and slurry tanks

Friday, December 10, 2010

Icy Blast

Cold weather gear.  Every year this padded jacket, christened by my husband "The Yak-Herder", comes into its own.  It was bought from a tiny boutique in Maldon but is made by Phool.  When I bought it, along with a heavy black cardigan with a double front, I remember thinking that I might not actually get much wear out of either of them.  But, both have been reliable companions.

Similarly, this merino Nordic knit.  It was there waiting for me in a charity shop, Brand New With Tags, as they say on e-bay.  Someone clearly thought it OTT in the cold light of day once back in Essex.  But I just love those reindeer trooping around the top and bottom, and the merino lived up to its reputation, smooth and snuggly.

I was fascinated by the comments left on my last entry.  I always used to think of our house as already standing at the time of Shakespeare, indeed, at the time of  Chaucer.  This used to amaze and thrill me.  It is possible that the space we live in was already in occupation as the central section between two cross-wings.  It would have had an external stair-turret and the fireplace would not have been where it is today; instead, there would have been a central, open fire.  Our roof timbers are said to be smoke-blackened.  It would have been open floor to ceiling with a lower roof-line than currently.  So then, later, the roof would have been raised in order to divide the space into two floors.

Alternatively, it is possible that there were two houses with a space between, and that in, say, 1635, the space was roofed over to make a third house.  However, what is certain is that timber framed properties can be stripped down to the timbers and completely reconstructed and reconfigured, so who knows? 

This is the Eleanor Cowl from Knitty Deep Fall 2010, and a very satisfying knit it has proved.  I'm not completely convinced of the utility of a cowl, but they seem to be everywhere.  This one is destined for the Secret Santa at the Spinners' and Weavers' Guild.  It is knitted from Yarnsmith's Pure Alchemy, the same colourway as my Swallowtail shawl.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Snow Days

Snow day: school closed!!  Oh, wait...It's my day off anyway.  But somehow, the insane excitement of sledges and snowballs fills the air - after all, I don't have to struggle through the traffic to work today.

Last week, to a big  public meeting on the project organised by the village Heritage society.  This project aims to establish the dates of properties in the centre of Coggeshall.   Our house is part of that centre.  The project has some very well-qualified people giving up their time in early retirement, and has secured funds from the Lottery to employ a dendrochronologist, to date timbers.  Our house has been selected.

Dating timbers is a tricky business.  Elm will not date.  Oak has to be of a certain girth and, preferably, with the bark attached.  The timbers have to be accessible and boreable.  North of the village is Monks' Wood, and it is thought that much of the timber for the village centre came from there, so there is oak rather than elm.

When our house was surveyed, we began to look at details with new eyes.  We had always enjoyed the exposed timber in our dining-room, but had never thought of it as belonging to the house next door. 

The large capital at the head of this upright has some moulding to it.  This, we learn is Jacobean, rather than late mediaeval. 

In fact, the part of our house which arouses most interest is the loft, which is unconverted, although it has ancient floor-boards.  Timbers which can be dendroed were found, along with evidence of a previous large bay-window.  Was the roof lifted, and original timbers reused?  Or were these timbers formerly in another property?  Always the question is: had this been the central section of a hall-house, with the neighbouring properties all part of the same structure?

The survey seemed to raise questions rather than answer them.  However, timber in another house just along the street was dated to 1386, the earliest in the village so far.  It seems odd to say this, but we were actually disappointed to discover that our roof timber dated to 1635, the summer of 1635.  We were very pleased to be included in the project, nonetheless.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

E. Z.'s Niece

The Baby Surprise Jacket and the Adult Surprise Jacket - immediately recognisable across a room.  Last Saturday, to the meeting of the Mid-Essex Guild of Spinners and Weavers, although I weave not, neither do I spin.  Instead, I drool over the inventive pieces being worked by my fellow guild members.

This time we had Tricia Holman, the daughter of Elisabeth Zimmerman's sister, giving a talk and running a workshop.

Tricia Holman

In front of her was a table laden with knitted items, all engineered in the E. Z. manner.  She told stories abou E.Z.'s life and made a brave attempt at demystifying the percentage system.  We were intrigued to learn that  E.Z.'s grandfather was a builder involved in the building of the Houses of Parliament and that Arnold was a brewer but left Germany carrying only a backpack after he had criticised a Nazi Building as looking like a public convenience.

  She encouraged people to knit steeks and cut their knitting, showing us a work in progress, steeks stitches clearly visible centre front.

Everywhere the shaping, inventive construction and patterns echoed those in "Woolgathering".  This striking sweater was said to be an interpretation of South American patterns.

A stocking cap with a variety of fairisle patterns.

And a lace stole.

Last week I made this year's crop of blackcurrants into jam.  Who would have guessed that five pounds of currants would produce so much jam?  I ran out of jars by the end, but I was glad to free up space in the freezer. 

Finally, some more examples of my husband's craft: turned bowls, the light one in holly and the darker one turned from a slice of yew.

Thursday, November 18, 2010


Last Friday to London, and first, a visit to the mothership, on the grounds that press reports speak of  a much increased haberdashery department.  And I actually need a 3mm circular.
I find Christmas in full swing, am amazed that classic blouses in Liberty prints now cost £85, and check out the construction of plaid skirts by Vivienne Westwood.  I buy only the 3mm circular and leave.

I am meeting my younger sister at the Foundling Museum, to visit the Threads of Feeling Exhibition, as suggested by Colleen from Rus in Urbis.  Two clear signs of ageing: I am delighted to find a leaflet at the railway station offering a two for one deal at the very museum I am visiting anyway, and taken aback when a younger woman offers me her seat on the train.

The exhibition is of tokens left with babies handed in at the orphanage, many of which are small fragments of textile: an embroidered baby sleeve, or a bunch of ribbons.  These are survivors of eighteenth century fabrics of the poorer kind and form a unique archive. 

Sadder and more shocking, though, are the accounts of how many infants were turned away, presumably to die in the streets.  Very moving, too, is the little display of contemporary items: a letter and a T-shirt, expressing the mother's love of the child she cannot keep.

A very civilised space, the Foundling Museum, with a good cafe.

We move on through Russell Square to visit the shop of Margot Selby where woven items make us drool.

A different kind of token: my husband's piece de resistance, dating from the early nineties. In the great storm of '87, an old apple tree in my garden was lost.  My husband helped me save some other, younger trees which had just blown over - we put guy ropes all round one, like a tent.  But this one had had it.  We saved the bole, which had a burr.

Some five years later, my husband had retreated to his workshop in late October.  He came in after dusk one day clutching his hand: copious amounts of blood were pouring from it and  continued to soak through bandages.   He had no choice but to defer work on this very special box. 

It is built on a plywood carcase, and is made of applewood veneer in oysters, hand-cut by my husband.  The darker stringing is mahogany and the lighter a pale exotic called ramin.  The colouring of the veneers is a lovely golden tortoiseshell.

Finally: knitting.  I plod on with the Aeolian Shawl.  the rows are now very long and there are many different charts, so I can only cope with this in daylight.  Meanwhile, it being the season, stealth projects are afoot.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Colour Therapy

 First, knitting.  In Sudbury, a little Suffolk market town about ten miles north of here, are several working silk mills.  Stephen Walters, a firm with historic origins in Spitalfields, has a mill shop, and I find myself drawn to it as a moth to a candle.  They weave silk to commission: their Christmas display, which was being assembled, featured fabulous brocade with rich metallic threads.  "Altar-cloth, woven for a customer who sells vestments," I was told.

 I try to resist the bags of patchwork pieces, since I have a few at home already.  But I am powerless when it comes to linen thread on cone - four cones for a pound, admittedly only small quantities of each.  The swatch on a size twelve needle suggests that lace, possibly of the table-centre variety, will suit the blond cones.  but what of the lovely subtle green, or the denim blue?

On Sunday, to Marks Hall, an arboretum just a mile or so north of our village.  This has a curious history:  Early in the twentieth century, Thomas Price, owner of the estate wrote to Kew gardens asking for advice on how best to preserve the timber on the estste.

 He was an older man married to a younger wife, and clearly could not have foreseen that the mansion itself, in the Strawberry Hill Gothic style, would not long survive its use an airbase during the Second World War.  His wife did not die until the sixties but it was decades before the Trust developed the estate into this fascinating and beautiful arboretum, with collections from different parts of the world.

In the distance, you can see clusters of mistletoe hanging in the tallest trees.

Finally: another example of my husband's handiwork.  This was a birthday present from the mid-80s.  The frame is mahogany, but the drawer fronts feature burr elm veneer, and a very rich colour it is too.

Thursday, November 04, 2010


A brillant, cheery bouquet, sent to me by an old friend.

 Blogger thinks that this is my hundredth post, but I know better.  In the early days, I inadvertently posted an empty title and then the post in a second try.  However, It was my birthday this week - the sort of birthday which makes you think: "Where has all that time gone?"  Then you have to ward off your Larkinesque tendencies; "Life is first boredom and then fear"etc...

A new topic:  My husband's woodwork.  This miniature chest of drawers was made for me some twenty-five years ago.  It is of the genre sometimes called "prentice pieces", but his skills were already pretty well honed when he made this.

It is of mahogany and veneered in mahogany to make a feature of the flaming on the front.  a
Note the full-sized chair legs behind.

 The top opens to access the upper drawers: who would not be charmed irresistibly to find their initial inside?

 The lower drawers work as drawers.  Here, the dovetails are in evidence - he always checks the dovetails on old furniture; they are a mark of quality.

In fact, the only things which have not worn well are the handles, and he didn't make those.

This is last week's skirt, in that heavy, felted fabric.  The selvedges had this unusual feature: it is on a knitted base which has a two-way stretch, so turning it sideways should not cause an issue.  I am very pleased with this, although it is so thick it will be for cold days.

This year's present from my husband: Fiskars' dress-making scissors.  I chose these because they do actually fit my hand, an ergonomic design.  He is at work on a long-term woodwork project, on a larger scale.

Finally, an autumnal bouquet from my niece; all the lovely rich colours of the autumn.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Home Ground

Half-term and I feel as though I am "nivver off t'road", as my mother used to say.  First, we visit the in-laws in the Cotswolds on a bitterly cold weekend.  Somehow, freezing fog seems to gather over Stratford-upon-Avon.

Next, by train to this northern city, Carlisle, its streets studded with Georgian treasures like this one.

Georgian street in Carlisle.

To Wigton, birthplace of Melvyn Bragg, the very essence of a run-down and depressed small town, although this memorial looks bright enough.  Sample"crack" in the charity shop I visited:

"How come he had a 36 inch flat-screen telly when he was burgled and he's nivver had a job in his life?"

"Mebbe somebody was just pinching it back."

Highly edifying, but if one was planning a slice-of-life drama set in the north...

Wigton, Cumbria

To Caldbeck, where John Peel has his grave, and where the Wool Clip, and the cafe above it at the Priest's Mill, is a place of pilgrimage:

Caldbeck Church

Click the picture to read the date over the door on this cottage.

It was wet and windy while I was in Cumbria, but weather like that creates the most dramatic lighting effects.  Here, the play of light over the fells as seen from the A596.

Finally, knitting.  I travelled up by train and entered the usual conversation with a lady of a similar age to me, as I showed her my progress on the Aeolian shawl in the lovely Cascade silk.  Why is it that people imagine you could sell hand-knitted items at a profit, or that you would want to?

This last, a cushion made from a failed attempt at a Starmore sweater, which was impossibly bulky. The buttons are Icelandic reindeer horn, gifted to me by my sister.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Period Details

A brilliantly sunny day last Sunday: so wonderful I cannot bear to be indoors.  We took down our bean row and began the last of the heavy digging on the allotment.  Courgettes, beans, leeks, swede and the two butternut sqashes -all gathered in.

 A walk up Church Street takes you past some fascinating period details.  Bow-windows with bulls-eye glass:

Full timbered houses, some of which have been shops at one time:

Carved bressumers:

And woodwork revealing previous use as a butcher's shop;

A quaint, country inn:

And a clothing warehouse, last remnant of the trade that built the wealth of the area over the centuries:

At last to the church, St Peter ad Vincula, with its "flinty, fifteenth-century tower", as Betjeman has it, although, in this case, war damage necessitated a rebuild at that end.

I don't think that this is the brass of Thos. Paycocke and his wife, but it is of the right period.

Finally, this week's tweed.  I can't tell you how happy this fabric makes me.  It's a jersey base, with the other threads felted on to the surface.  At Ally Pally, I saw a commercial stall selling a coat with panels of this fabric.  I plan to make the usual basic  skirt, the only dilemma being whether to feature the plain edges as the hem.