Friday, 27 June 2008

Grandma Rocks

So, I’m a self-confessed grandma, despite being in my twenties. There’s no getting away from my affection for things considered to be old fashioned; I knit, sew, bake, I’ve made something that could be described as a tapestry – I own more than one teapot for crying out loud! But these are things I enjoy doing and I’m always amazed by the number of people who quietly admit to me that they’ve always wanted to have a go at one of the above themselves (well, except for the tapestry maybe).

The fact is, your grandparents are cool. These are people who fought wars, made jam and know what the hell a clothes mangle does.

Mine are sadly long gone, but I still feel that nostalgia for a bygone era when people actually did stuff themselves and found entertainment away from a TV. Grandparents are really the ultimate DIY craftsters. So, in honour of some pretty cool folk, here are some ideas to unleash your inner grandma/pa:

How To Make Jam
The helpful chaps at Pick Your Own have some pretty comprehensive instructions here. So arm youself with some fresh fruit, a big pot and plenty of jars and you'll soon have a vat of handmade yumminess for friends and family.

Everything you could possibly want to know about fishing can be found at Anglers' Net (see what they've done there? Don't say fisherman don't know how to have fun). Although if you're looking for JR Hartley's book you may be disappointed.

Card Games
Contract Bridge was apparently invented in the 1920s, so set up your own speakeasy, stock the bar with gin and jazz and drape a gangster's moll over your shoulder. After that, you may not need the card game to entertain you, but you'll find instructions here.

Time was no girl could hope to get on in life without mastering their needlepoint in a sampler or two. Find ideas and kits here, or simply create your own and you'll be well on the way to being a fine lady worthy of a role in a Jane Austen book.

How to Swing Dance
If you fancy a go at kicking your heels up in a prom dress and learning the moves, the London Swing Dance Company is a pretty good place to start. And if you're out of town or outside the UK there's bound to be a group or club near you that can show you the steps. The same goes for burlesque, jazz, jive and ballroom - Fred Astaire eat your heart out.

Obviously a national insitution no matter your age, but if you'd like to learn the finer points, these guys have given it some serious thought, whilst over here they're more concerned about the pleasure of consuming the stuff.

Oh and if you're wondering about the clothes mangle....

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Why rectangles aren't square

So I've met quite a few people who have knitted a garter stitch or ribbed scarf but who'd be terrifed by the idea of a jumper, so where do you go if you want to try something a little more ambitious? Here are some suggestions (with photos of varying quality but at least I've got my camera working!).

One option is to stick with scarves but try a more complicated stitch pattern in the safety of your rectangle. There are some great stitches that create the effect of a woven fabric and almost don’t look like knitting which can be fun to play around with.

Or try a quirky, quick knit that's a variation on a traditional scarf (but still essentially a rectangle!).

Or try embellishing a plain scarf into something personal and unique - embroider a quote from a favourite book.

If you want to branch out from neckwarmers, try tackling another part of your body. Armwarmers or fingerless gloves are another good project as they’re much simpler than they look. You can either knit them in the round (and add another skill to your needle) or knit them in – you guessed it – a rectangle and simply sew up the side seams when you’re done. This led me to my first attempt at cables (not as scary as I thought) and it was a satisfyingly quick knit.

There's more to the humble rectangle than meets the eye....

Friday, 20 June 2008

More Than Words

Words are tricky things. Sometimes they can be deployed with pinpoint accuracy to perfectly encapsulate a single moment or a particular emotion. Sometimes they can be mangled beyond recognition and fail to make any sense, let alone any impact.

Lyrics are even more temperamental. My humble songwriting efforts so far have proved what I long suspected – lyrics are difficult. Or rather, good lyrics are difficult. And The Guardian has picked up on the theme today with this article about truly terrible lyricists. Fortunately they’re going to spend the coming days celebrating the giants of the form – Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and so on – but this reminder of the cringeworthy could be enough to make me give up entirely... or at least try and remember to avoid cliches, cocaine and coconuts.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Handmade in Britain '08

If you find yourself in Bath this weekend, then head for the handmade.

Handmade in Britain is a fantastic exhibition of the best contemporary craft and design from the UK and will be on at the Assembly Rooms from 20th – 22nd June. Showcasing a wide range of eco-friendly, handmade products, including jewellery, fashion accessories, millinery, ceramics, stationery and home accessories, which will be available to view, purchase or commission. You can see a list of the exhibitors here but a few which immediately caught my eye included The Old School Press, 100 Metres and Lou Gardiner.

I’m going to have to wait until November when the show comes to London, but it sounds like a great event, whether you’re looking for inspiration, a special gift or a unique, handcrafted treat for yourself.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Do It In Public

Go on, I dare you. Throw your inhibitions to the wind and whip it out.

Yes people, knit in the open!

Of course it turns out I've just missed the official World Wide Knit In Public Day which was on 14th June (there really is a holiday allocation for everything it seems) but there's no reason you can't do it any day you like. It might be a bit embarrassing and you’ll feel a bit self-conscious at first but it’s really ok. I often knit on public transport and I’m always fascinated by the reactions I get.

For some reason, it’s usually men who end up staring at my hands, following the needles, trying to work out exactly how the hell you knit a sweater anyway.

I once had a Danish lady move down the carriage to sit next to me and show me an ‘easier’ way to knit. Between my non-existent Danish and her broken English, trying to convey that I’m hopeless at knitting with the yarn in my left hand was tricky but I loved that a complete stranger felt compelled to share her knowledge.

Visiting a friend in hospital and setting to work on a scarf prompted an elderly gent in the opposite bed to strike up a conversation. He seemed very pleased that us young ‘uns were still knitting.

Passing time in a doctor’s waiting room with a half-finished sweater I found myself chatting to one of the nurses about yarn substitution and patterns for knitting a sweater all in one piece.

For some people these are conversations they would die to avoid – yarn substitution? Seriously? – but it’s not so much the content as the act itself. In most public places we all keep our heads down, keep our faces neutral and try to avoid the knitting weirdo in the corner. But a smile as a ball of yarn rolls down a carriage, a compliment on a fancy bit of lacework, the passing on of a knitting tip or two, these are all little connections that remind us we’re not really travelling solo. There are 8 million people in this town. Anything that prompts you to say hello to one of them can only be a Good Thing.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Hey Joni

Feeling rather proud of myself as I have written a song. Yes, indeed, it has a chorus and a couple of verses, something you could charitably describe as a bridge; hell it even has a title.

Now let’s be clear, it’s not a very good song and I haven’t played it to anyone else (there isn’t anyone I’m keen to torture at present). It’s pretty derivative in an angsty, minor-key, chick-with-a-guitar kinda way; its subject matter is hardly revolutionary; so I’m not reinventing the wheel here.

But still, it’s a song and I’m pretty chuffed with it.

And I’ve discovered the whole thing is worryingly addictive. I'm carrying around a notebook and jotting down lyrics on the bus, I'm idly strumming away in front of the TV trying different chords and find I've already put together a couple of others. Once I get on a roll with a particular lyric or find a chord sequence I like the sound of it can take less than an hour to hammer out the basic idea and then it’s a case of tweaking the details - very satisfying.

Still, very early, experimental days. As everyone says, you always sound like the music you listen to to start with but then we all learn by copying at the beginning. The theory goes that over time your own individual style or voice will start to come through (perhaps), so I’m trying not to worry about originality too much at this point and just keep plugging at it. And, in the meantime, it’s a lot of fun playing at being Joni Mitchell in your living room.

Monday, 16 June 2008


If you ever thought there were limits to what could be done with a needle & thread and an old pillowcase then you have yet to discover the wonders of Craftster.

As the name suggests, this is a community for all things craft. Whether it's sewing, knitting, crochet, interior decorating or good old kids activities for a rainy afternoon, this is the place to go. A sort of Blue Peter nirvana. People are surprisingly generous about providing instructions for those who want to recreate their design and there's a great sense of collaboration to the place.

Current favourites include the Spiderman pillowcase finding new life as a seriously cool skirt, a prom dress made entirely of Skittles wrappers (yes, really), wallets fashioned from trashy novel jackets and, last but not least, something no home should be without - a knitted bath tub (complete with Jared the Goblin King aka David Bowie).

Friday, 13 June 2008

Chicks with Guitars

I know, painful cliché. So I’m sorry that I can’t claim to be rewriting history here but what can I say – I like playing the guitar. It’s portable, not too expensive for a beginner, and you really can teach yourself, so what’s not to love? Plus you can strum along to your favourite tunes, taking your shower karaoke to a whole new level as you play out your personal musical fantasies in the privacy of your own home. I just hope you have some thick walls or you won’t be too popular with the neighbours.

Besides, some chicks and their guitars invert the clichéd stereotype and make it their own. Look at Laura Marling – she’s about six, and already sounds world weary and wise beyond her years.
Or Martha Wainwright, with the best song title ever and a nifty line in parental revenge. Or St. Vincent, who manages to rock out with a waltz about the French Revolution.

So whilst the guitar may not be the most original instrument to pick up, there’s no denying it’s pretty versatile. And if you think the guitar is soooo, like, 2002, you could try the Ukulele. Currently enjoying something of a resurgence thanks to some counter-culture folk like these. Although I still can’t quite shake the image of George Formby cleaning his windows.

I've got the luxury of the weekend all to myself, so will definitely be trying to get some practice in. Hope the neighbours don't mind too much...

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Knitting - An Introduction

To get things rolling, I reckon I should start with what I know best and what most people find a little weird – I knit.

I get a lot of strange reactions to this confession. Most of them are positive but usually they’re a little baffled too. People treat knitting like some kind of alchemy; a secret, ancient ritual they don’t understand – kind of like hopscotch. The only secret about it is that it’s really not that hard. So here are some ideas to get you started:

The classic knitting bible these days is Stitch ‘n’ Bitch, which I can highly recommend as a place to start. If you want help from a person, rather than a book, pop into your local yarn store (yes, you do have one somewhere, trust me). In London there’s the wonderful Loop, where I feel like I’m in one of those retro sweet shops with jars of coloured goodies everywhere; or the charming and helpful I Knit. Both run classes from the shop and I Knit is also a well-known knitting group that meets in a pub each week. Pop along, say hello, and some kind soul will show you how to work the needles.

Supplies can easily be found online – the fabulous Texere stocks anything to do with fibre, so if you want to knit, weave, spin, make rugs or paper this is a one-stop-shop, but there are loads of others out there.

If you're looking for patterns there are freebies over at Knitty and an endless choice of magazines and books from places like Rowan and Interweave. (Although remember, any pattern free or otherwise, is still someone else's design so you can't sell it or the garment you make from it - respect the copyright, people).

And if you need a little inspiration take a look at the fantastic Keep and Share. Ethically sourced, carbon-neutral, beautifully handmade, designer knitwear. I’m still saving my pennies for one of these beauties. Sigh. So if you thought knitwear was only about matching Arran sweaters, this should put that myth to rest. All the way over in New York you’ll find Brooklyn Tweed, proving that knitting isn’t just for girls. His Cobblestone Sweater is probably the best knitted gift I’ve made and his yarn photography makes me drool – just beautiful.

Once the knitting bug catches you, find a fellow obsessive in the Yarn Harlot. This Canadian author always makes me chuckle and her talks all over the States give you an idea of just how many knitters are out there…

And finally, once you are One of Us, head on over to Ravelry and prepare to be amazed. Sort of like MySpace for knitting.

Knitting will be a recurring theme here in Hoxton Towers, so why not give it a go? I’ll be posting some of my very own patterns too, once I get my camera working…

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Use Your Hands!

So, first post. As I'm clearly writing to myself at this point, I'll keep things short. Enjoy this while it lasts, brevity is certainly not the soul of my particular wit.

Basically I like to make stuff, create things, generally keep my twitching fingers busy, and I'll be blogging about that here. Knitting, sewing and playing the guitar are the main hobbies at the moment, but I'll throw in a little baking/cooking and DIY as occasion demands.

If you're fed up of mass-produced, plasticised, ethically dodgy products then why not make your own? Fed up of throwaway consumer culture (or perhaps, like me, you simply can't afford it) then opt out and get back to doing it yourself. Not only will you avoid the faux-pas of turning up to a party in the same outfit as someone else, but you can bask in the smug, guilt-free-glow of having done something to save the planet too. Recycling, reclaiming, reinventing - it's all good.

Always wanted to learn an instrument? Well pick one up for goodness sake! Teach yourself the guitar, piano, ukelele. Form a band. Write some songs. Reveal your emo-ridden angst or your country and western heartache to the world.

Been watching those endless programmes about how to grout your bathroom/install a garden deck/transform your living room into a replica of the Sistine Chapel? Have a go yourself and transform your space. Don't let Ikea fool you - a home cannot be flat-packed.

Determined to unleash your inner domestic goddess? It's not all preparing fudge brownies in a negligee to eat in a foam filled bath tub by candlelight you know - although I'm not saying it's a bad idea. Try out some local, seasonal produce; cook from scratch with stuff that didn't come in a vacuum pack and rediscover what food is supposed to taste like.

It's all about the handmade.