The first red autumnal leaves have started to appear in our garden. The oak trees that overlook the railway cutting are just starting to change, one leaf at a time turning to vivid red. And every now and again, the air has that slight chill, a crispy twang to remind you that something colder, and darker, is just around the corner. (We’ll ignore the part where the UK had the hottest September ever).
Last autumn was a whirlwind of moving house, travelling in California, jet lag, and unpacking boxes. This year I want to slow everything down and make some simpler plans…
Chris and I have fallen under the spell of Alastair Humphreys, the writer and proponent of ‘microadventures’. Eighteen months have passed since our three month wander around the world, and we’ve got more than just a tickle in the toes. We’re both stagnating a bit under weight of the daily cycle of alarms and commuting and office hours, and need to find ways to shake up the system a bit. So the idea of small adventures, little incursions into the outdoors to try new things, was like a tonic to the imagination. Something as simple as a candlelit supper in the garden, wrapped in blankets with the embers of the barbeque to see by. A world away from another meal on the sofa in front of Poldark.
Chris is already working on our next microadventure and buying a tent… watch this space!
Complete a sweater
OK, so we know that I have a problem with commitment when it comes to sweaters. So if I can complete even one before winter kicks in, I’ll be doing well. Luckily, the hard part of this Quarterback sweater from Wool and the Gang – that delicious scooped back detail – is done. Just the sleeves and the front to go.
Go to the seaside
My parents always used to go away on holiday in the October half term while we were at school. They would book a cottage in Pembrokeshire, and for one glorious week we would live in wetsuits, with salty hair and sandy feet. Long walks over the cliffs would finish with a roaring log fire, a glass of wine, board games, and ghost stories. Sure, the wind is cold and the days are short, but that’s sort of the point. We made the most of the precious daylight, and even more precious sunshine, roaming about the coastline and racing into the surf. And made the most of the dark stormy evenings with warmth and comfort and good food.
For the first time in a while, we have a little October seaside adventure planned, and already I’m dreaming of donning my beloved wetsuit, getting cold through in the surf, poking into every rock pool I can find, and braving the elements to watch for seals in the Irish Channel. Actually, while I think of it, no autumnal holiday would be complete without…
There is a Victoria plum tree in our garden, doubled over under the weight of its own fruit. Every evening when I get in from work, I’ve taken to wandering down to have a look at those plums, giving each a tentative tug to check for ripeness. Ripe plums and apples from the garden, combined with blackberries, running rampant over the hedge from the railway cutting, can mean only one thing: crumble. Apple crumble was my favourite pudding as a child, and as an adult it is still my favourite for experimentation, with different fruits, different sugars, and different spices. Cardamom, or maybe a touch of ginger, piping hot from the oven, served with a splodge of plain yogurt.
Light a few candles, slip into your best jim jams, grab a spoon, and put a good film on. This is winning.
The joy of socks
Apologies to anyone who doesn’t like feet. At least I had the courtesy to cover mine up in a delicious pair of socks.
Is there anything better than a really cosy pair of socks on a chilly autumn day? If you’re anything like me, then cold feet are a daily feature of life in the northern hemisphere, and a good pair of socks is tantamount to a religious experience. Technical and hardy, tucked into sturdy boots for a long walk in the twilight, or soft alpaca bed socks worn with thermal pyjamas. A good pair of socks is the stuff that dreams are made of.
What plans do you have for the autumn?
So Blogtacular was yesterday. I got up at 7.15am for a train to London at 7.50am, and a full twelve hours later stumbled back out of the train station carrying more bags than I started with, barely coherent, and clutching a wooden spatula bearing the command “Paint Everything”. I was swiftly scooped up by the waiting husband and posted into the car with a bag of takeaway dinner. This morning I woke up at the crack of sparrow fart with an overwhelming urge to Write All The Things.
During her opening plenary artist Lisa Congdon described a phenomenon called the ‘Vulnerability Hangover‘, and idea originally proposed by Brené Brown. That feeling of horrible uncertainty that follows a moment of vulnerability, a moment of putting ourselves out there. A feeling that is horribly familiar to most of us I expect, and one that I am painfully susceptible to. Even writing this, part of my mind is flitting back over all the little moments from the event where I probably made a fool of myself. I am experiencing the mother of all vulnerability hangovers.
I’m a pretty dedicated introvert, so the prospect of 300 people in one place gives me more than a few tummy wobbles. And the prospect of flying solo into such an event is even more terrifying. In order to get anything out of an event like this I have to do the one thing that makes me feel more vulnerable than anything else: put myself out there. Launch into conversation with all the grace of a newborn albatross (they ain’t graceful).
This hangover needs more than an ibuprofen and a big glass of water. A stonking middle finger should suffice. I hope that by writing this I will remind myself of all the good things that happen when I make myself vulnerable. Last year’s Blogtacular felt very much about ‘hows’ for me – how to kick it at Pinterest, how to be more organised at social media, how to keep my blog secure. Safe, introspective things that allowed me to practice networking without being dependent on it. This year my mission was very much ‘who’. My little introvert heart has been crying out for some creative connection lately, and I was determined to put myself out there and Meet People. Vulnerability alert working in over time here. But you know what? Some really wonderful things happened.
So here are a few stories from my trip to Blogtacular, as a reminder that I am not always the awkward little albatross that I think I am.
- When I arrive at big events I like to take a moment of alone time to centre myself. Grabbing a coffee and some breakfast is a great way to do this. Being armed with a latte and a croissant gives me a ‘reason’ (introvert logic) to walk up to a table of people and ask to join. The first table I landed on contained Rachel and Emma, both sewing and making bloggers who enthused with me over the Sewing Bee and Tilly and the Buttons (Rachel’s handmade Bettine dress was gorgeous).
- On the way into the opening presentations, I turned to the stranger walking next to me, smiled, and asked what she writes about. Even though my insides were melting with fear. The stranger in question turned out to be Jen Gale of My Make Do And Mend Life, who more than shares my passion for living and crafting sustainably, and what started as a shy gambit at conversation turned into a day long discussion (punctuated by conference goings on) about everything from sustainable fabrics and a shared horror of consumerism, to finding our creative stories online.
- During the first break I spotted a gap at the genius bar and slid into it to strike up a conservation with Elaine. We got chatting at last year’s event, and this year the conversation picked up almost exactly where we left off!
- Every introvert needs a solo moment, and I decided to take mine to wander around the Marketplace. Behind the Waterstones stand I spotted a familiar face, and a second later she recognised me – fellow knitter and UCL PhD student Michaela, whom I hadn’t seen in many years. Blogtacular clearly has a new line in reuniting long-list friends.
I think it goes without saying that I am an enormous fan of what Kat and her team have accomplished with Blogtacular. This year the energy throughout the venue was lovely, and despite my fear of people in general and speaking to them specifically, the atmosphere was inviting and encouraging rather than intimidating. Not talking to people would have felt more odd than just inserting myself into conversations! Thank you guys for making an event where even the most awkward of albatrosses can feel a bit less flappy.
Ok, now my finger is hovering over the publish button, paralysed with anguish about making these vulnerable ramblings public.
How do you take down your hangover?
Not so long ago, on a long car journey, I came across an episode of the Freakonomics podcast that blew my tiny little mind. Entitled “How Can This Possibly Be True”, the episode explores a famous economic essay (bear with me) in which a pencil (yes, a pencil) makes the astonishing claim that “not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me.”
The pencil’s argument is that many millions of people contribute to the manufacture of a pencil, as each step and each material in the process requires the skills of millions of people. From loggers to factory workers, road builders to lighthouse keepers, miners to truck drivers, all these people have a hand, however slight, in the pencil coming in to being. But the most amazing part? Not one of those people specifically set out to make a pencil. Producing a pencil, or a toaster, or a nuclear submarine, for a reasonable price, is in fact a miracle of economics. The essay is intended as a libertarian ode to the power of the free market and global supply chains. But to me, obsessed with making things, the notion that no one, not one person, really knows how to make anything from raw components turned my brain inside out.
I like to think that I make the majority of my own clothes from scratch. However, according to the pencil I know nothing. After all, I don’t know the first thing about growing cotton, or breeding sheep. Never mind how to build a loom or create dyes. And as for manufacturing a sewing machine? Seems very unlikely. My contribution to the process is actually minimal. This is the miracle of a free market. But from a fashion perspective it is also a curse. A cursory glance at clothing supply chains reveals a catalogue of environmental issues and unacceptable human costs. This is the focus of Fashion Revolution Week, taking place all this week, a challenge to reconnect with the process of fashion, and to ask who made our clothes.As dressmakers we are often, I think, lulled into a false sense of security by our choices. After all, we make our clothes, and by making our own clothes we we have separated ourselves from sweatshop labour that keeps high street retailers in low-cost shirts.
But don’t forget the pencil. The pencil calls bullshit.
The fabric is an obvious one. After all, how did that roll of printed cotton come into being? Through the combined input of millions of people – farmers, dyers, weavers, truckers, road builders. Now ask yourself how, with all that input, that roll of cotton can possibly cost as little as £3 per metre. I can’t help feeling that someone somewhere is loosing out on that deal. And let’s not even start on how sewing machines, or consumables, or notions, or any other creative paraphernalia come into being.
With all this information charging through my brain, I made a simple choice to engage more. To care about where the materials for my handmade garments came from. For 2016 I have three simple pledges that I want to adhere to in my dressmaking and beyond, a little Sustainable Creative Manifesto if you will.
- Be selective. Research fabric retailers and always ask where there fabric comes from, who made it and from what. Question the price tag, and ask is it too good to be true. Choose beautiful, sustainable fabrics and yarns that will bring longevity to my handmade clothes.
- Buy less, buy well. Sure, sustainable fabrics are often hard to come by and expensive, but finding them is part of the process. Save up for the right fabric, take pride in the process and enjoy the finished garment.
- Make less. Bring sustainability and longevity to handmade clothes, not quantity.
There are many messages to take from the story of the pencil. That free markets are a good idea, that global interconnection makes impossible things happen, even ‘yay capitalism yay’. But for me the key message is to examine, explore and understand. The pencil asks us to witness these systems and be awed. And I am, I really am. I marvel at this invisible, imaginary force with the power to move resources around the world and enable my little creative world. But more than anything, I want to see that force working for the good of everyone involved. And that requires a little skepticism, and a few tough questions.
Up yours pencil.
P.S. I’m slowly amassing a list of fabric retailers that I can reliably go to for sustainable fabrics and materials. I’ll keep adding to this list as I go!
Now in my book sustainable means a range of things, from fair trade fabrics that focus on getting a good deal for farmers and manufactures, to organic fabrics that have better environmental credentials. And many of these decisions come down to personal preference. Take leather for example. I would prefer to work with real leather because it is biodegradable, unlike many alternatives that are made out of plastic. But for some people the animal cost of leather is a price they are unwilling to pay. Both decisions have their costs and benefits, and the importance of those differences is an individual choice.
Cloth House [People focussed]
Sadly the e-commerce shop has now closed, but if you are ever on London this gorgeous Soho fabric specialist should be at the top of your list. They are focussed on getting their sourcing right and ensuring a fair deal for their suppliers. And they only stock leather alternatives if that’s your bag.
Merchant and Mills [UK suppliers]
As well as achingly chic sewing patterns, M&M are a great spot for British wool and Irish linen, produced in the UK. Think delicious Harris tweeds and chunky felted wools. They also have a lovely selection of organic cottons.
Ray Stitch [Organic cotton]
Just an eye-watering array of organic cottons, from fine cotton poplin to lovely soft jersey. Always my first calling point if I’m looking for a cotton fabric.
John Arbon Textiles [UK grown and spun]
If I could buy everything from this Devon-based woollen mill I would. I purchased my first ever UK grown and spun yarn from John Arbon, and the quality is stunning. Also their handmade alpaca bedsocks are completely divine.
Wool and the Gang [Transparency]
One of my favourite knitting brands, what I love about WATG is their handmade, slow fashion ethos and commitment to sourcing yarn sustainably. The brand is probably best known for the insanely chunky ‘Crazy Sexy Wool’, but their ‘Jersey Be Good’ yarn also has a great back story, made entirely of recycled selvedge offcuts from garment factories.
When I was about ten I planted one row of radishes and one row of lettuces in a corner of my parents’ garden. Slugs destroyed the lettuces in that single-minded way that slugs do, but the radishes flourished and even managed to taste quite respectable.
Those radishes were playing on my mind over the weekend as I shouldered my fork and trowel to start some spring planting. Up until this point, I wouldn’t call myself a gardener, save for the carnivorous plants I tended lovingly on my London windowsill. But our new garden in Surrey comes with a garden. A rather beautiful garden, lovingly laid out and planted. Over the past few months we’ve watched in awe as the borders spring to life, first green foliage, then white snowdrops, yellow daffodils, golden primroses, bluebells, delicate forget-me-nots and best of all, big scarlet tulips all blooming from the soil.Now, when faced with a garden that has been so well-loved, beautiful dark earth wrangled into tidy geometric raised beds, I felt the latent stirrings of something green-fingered in my soul. As part of The Maker’s Year I’ve been trying to pay extra attention to these cravings, to explore those little niggles and see where they lead. Whether that be furniture restoration, woodworking, painting, or indeed seed potatoes. I’m rather proud of my seed potatoes.
Potatoes are relatively easy: place your seed potatoes on a tray in a well-lit frost-safe place and leave them to sprout. Once the sprouts are good and big, create a trench a couple of inches deep and pop them inside, spaced about twenty centimetres apart. Cover them over completely, mark the row, and move on to the next one. I say easy, but maybe we should come back to that as and when I actually harvest any actual potatoes.
With help from my Dad, I set our greenhouse to work as a nursery for broad bean seedlings. We filled small pots with compost, soaked the compost completely and placed a single magic bean inside each. I covered the pots with cling film to keep the moisture in, and then left them to sprout. And sprout they did! Just check out these beanstalks.
Just stunning. Broad beans may not be my favourite food, but dammit I am going to find some decent recipes for them if I get a crop from these babies. I gently wiggled the root mass and compost free from the pot and placed each one in a ‘drill hole’ (yeah, I’ve got the technical garden lingo down) with a fresh handful of compost, and tucked them in.
Of course, the acid test for my green fingers will be whether my potatoes and my beans grow, flourish and produce. But in the mean time I have plans. Shallot and leek-shaped plans. Because the creative brain niggles are demanding more planting, and I for one am going to keep chasing this scheme to see where it ends up. Who knows, there might even be radishes.
I used to describe myself as an accidental Londoner. I must admit, I don’t really understand the appeal of cities. In my introvert brain all the amenities and culture in the world cannot make up for that many people. Or the tube. I grew up surrounded by woods, fields and open sky; in that environment I feel like the best version of myself. Our new home in Surrey isn’t in the deep heart of the countryside, but it’s pretty close. Close enough to breathe deeply and easily and energetically, without risking the disapproval of fellow commuters.
As part of the makers year I’ve been trying to take my camera out and about with me more, particularly when the low winter sunshine is this beautiful. I love my trusty Nikon DSLR, but often I tend to use it as little more than a tool for creating blog posts, rather than a different way to see the world. I’d love to be a more technical photographer; I know what I like in a photograph, and sort of how to create it, but I couldn’t tell you why one photograph is actually better or worse than another. But now that my beloved outdoors is more or less on the doorstep, I want to take my time to enjoy it, explore and learn.
Getting to grips with our new pace of life has been exhilarating. Chris is learning woodwork; I’m preparing to grow seed potatoes (and am the proud owner of a border fork, oh yes). My Dad telephoned me the other day to ask if he could pop over for tea at the weekend, something that would have been impossible in London. There is no shortage of picturesque villages and beautiful solitary walks to be explored. And if I want to I can curl up in the study window in the early morning before the world is awake, work on my knitting and watch the sun come up over the garden with nothing but birdsong, and the occasional passing train, to disturb my row counting. Towards the end of last year I more or less forgot how important it was to make that kind of time for myself, resulting in a pretty spectacular crashing burnout. I’m not talking about making the most of my spare time, although I had very little of that, but about allowing myself time to stop and breathe. For this year I’m making a conscious effort to give myself room to enjoy just existing.
This weekend I have nothing more strenuous planned then reading Pompom Quarterly from cover to cover, rustling up a Papercut Patterns Rise turtleneck top (or two) and maybe taking my new car out for a spin. In fact, that is probably the main reason that my Dad wants to come by! You didn’t know I was a petrolhead did you? I say new, my baby is a 25 year old classic, and I am completely in love with it. Friends on instagram will have already had a sneak peek! There’s something so very joyful about driving a classic car; everything from the noise of the engine, the wheeze of the turbo, to the turn of the steering wheel makes me grin from ear to ear.
How do you find and make time for yourself?