Category: Uncategorized

Jan 05

Twelfth Night




I still can’t believe it’s 2012. I should probably be conducting an annual audit of crafting done, projects tackled, targets achieved, areas for improvement. Well, I hope you’ll forgive me. As it’s Twelfth Night (the end of the 12 days of Christmas) and because I’m an incorrigible collector of trivia (and also because I’m really not in the mood for searing self-scrutiny) I would like to turn the spotlight instead on the intriguing qualities of the number twelve, just before the clock strikes midnight.

There’s something truly compelling about twelve. Would ten red roses be as pleasing? I don’t think so. How would your clock face look divided into, say, eight? Plain wrong, I say. Would you want to buy your eggs in tens or twenties? No, me neither. It has to be by the dozen. Or half-dozen.

The pull of twelve goes back a long way, all the way to our earliest myths, legends and belief systems. The pantheon of principal Greek gods, for example, numbered twelve, with Hercules performing twelve labours (some days, I think I know how he felt). The Chinese and the Western zodiacs contain twelve signs each. Twelve is sacred in the Abrahamic religions  (twelve tribes of Israel, twelve disciples of Jesus). Chief Norse god Odin had twelve sons. Twelve knights sat round King Arthur’s round table.

Twelve months form the basis of most calendrical systems.Twelve inches go into a foot, three of those making that esteemed measurement of cloth, the yard. Now, where would we all be without that? I happen to switch between metric and imperial when sewing (do you too?) but I’ll gloss over that. A dozen is a venerable old unit of trade (how many bottles in a case of wine, do you think?) and you can still purchase items in quantities of 12 x 12, termed a gross (a measurement presumably coined by a grocer… ouch!). I need hardly remind you that in Blighty’s old monetary system we used to have 12 pence in a shilling. It still mystifies me that people ever got the right change. Anyway, we can trace a lot of that 12-based counting and measuring (weights, hours etc) to the Ancient Mesopotamians. Shame we can’t ask them why.

I’ll spare you the geometrical details – decagons (12-sided polygons) and dodecahedrons (12-faced polyhedrons) –  because I’m keen to move on to some Old English etymology. Our word twelve comes from the Germanic compound ‘twalif’ – ‘two left’ – meaning that there are two left over if you subtract ten. Isn’t that neat? And more than a little strange, when you think about it: that we should be so deeply entranced by arrangements of twelve and yet define that number by ten. Go figure. Count it out on your fingers if it’ll help.

My younger son was born at the very tail end of 1999 so is almost always the same age as the year we’re in, which is handy. Last month his 12 birthday candles were arranged on his round birthday cake like a clock face – how else? My big son, who’s now studying Further Maths (a source of both mystification and pride to me because I’m relatively innumerate) long ago chanted his numbers as a typical toddler will, but with the added delight of backforming his tens from twenties, thirties etc so that  eleven became ‘onety-one’ and twelve ‘onety-two’. How beautifully logical.

Anyway, I wish you a very happy and fulfilling Twenty Onety-Two. If you’re also a maker, may the power of twelves strengthen your crafting arm and imbue you with creativity, focus,  determination, and (perhaps most importantly in these tricky economic times) all the commercial nous of a Mesopotamian grocer.


Dec 28

Keeping it reel

Christmas kitty

Festive kitty & cotton reel


Greetings from the 4th day of Christmas! How has Christmas been so far for you? At this point in the festivities I go into a kind of reverse-Scrooge mode and make a point of maximising Christmas, spreading it out over the full 12 days. Well, at least until New Year. I feel that I’m punching the tide, however. Yesterday I spotted my first discarded Christmas tree outside a neighbouring house. And today’s TV news trumpeted that Christmas is now entirely done and dusted and the season of sales has begun.

But why move on so fast? After all, we’ve all worked so hard just to reach Christmas, it seems a pity to ditch it quite so rapidly. I’d rather relish the muddy walks in the mid-afternoon dusk, the tedious board games, the new adaptations of Dickens, the belated-writing-of-Christmas-cards-and-round-robins, the pitter-patter of pine needles, the umpteenth pseudo-meal of Stilton & crackers, time almost slowing to a standstill.

I’m guessing that a lot of people can’t wait to leave Christmas firmly behind as too painful a time: too poignant a reminder of happier days past, hearts as yet unbroken, beloved souls not yet departed. That’s entirely understandable. My Christmas has certainly been peppered with more sadness and loss this year than I’d have liked. But before I bundle it all up and move on, losing myself in a frenzy of new-leaf-turning activity, I’m taking stock and practising some Christmas present.

Inside another old Christmas card — featuring a large reel of cotton and a needle on the front, and captioned ‘A “reel” happy Christmas’ — I found this timely message:


This reel and needle here I send

In case you have forgotten

That things that break,

and hearts that ache

Are mended oft by

Love — and Cotton!




Jan 28

Scrap map garland

Had a sleepless night this week, so it seemed as good an idea as any to start cutting out map circles at 4am, rather than pacing the floor. Very therapeutic, I must say, along with the two hot chocolates.

Oxfordshire map garland

Oxford scrap map garland, folded

I didn’t butcher any ‘real’ maps for these, you may be relieved to hear, just a pad of writing paper from around 1990, when buying stationery cut from redundant otherwise-to-be-pulped map stock was all the rage. This has been sitting at the back of a drawer for long enough. Heck, it even qualifies as vintage on Etsy! – 20 years plus – so it’s high time I used it. I didn’t like it as letter-writing paper (the ink didn’t quite soak into the paper enough: smudge city) so it needed another use, and the map showed through distractingly.

Oxford circuses

Map garland

My template was a 9cm scone cutter (the smooth top end, not the crinkly cutting end) and, yes, I laboriously drew round them all, then cut them out with scissors, then erased the pencil marks. As an anti-hair-tearing exercise, I’ve done a lot worse.

Map garland

Map garland, draped

It took 44 dots to make an approximately 4m garland. Sewing them together was fun; the crunch of the needle going through the paper was strangely satisfying. I decided to go for what felt like a cartographic red thread (actually Sylko D 45, Turkey Red), rather than subtle white.  Consequently, I think I may have added a curiously straight (Roman?) bridleway to Oxfordshire; maybe I should tell the Ramblers Association.

By the way, these are destined for a male relative with a big birthday to celebrate soon. I hope they’ll lend a certain restrained masculine joy to his big day. If he’s reading this, I’m sorry I spoiled your surprise…

Map garland

Map dots draped over pictures


Nov 04

Temporary spool

I’m throwing myself into World War II re-enactment mode. My son will be dressing up as an evacuee tomorrow with the rest of Year 6 at his primary school. I’ve booked him in at the barber’s for a short-back-and-sides this afternoon. There’ll be a brown label round his neck – held on with green garden twine – and he’ll be wearing some old wire spectacles, a hand-knit sweater (shame it’s not a fair-isle tank-top), short trousers (which he hates) and he’ll be grasping an old leather suitcase and his teddy for dear life.  I’m supposed to dress up appropriately in order to wave him off, chipper and bright, with not a tear shed. Keep the home fires burning…

I have quite a few war items of haberdashery which I hope to show the kids, but I thought I’d give you a sneak preview.

Make do And Mend

Make Do And Mend, reproductions of official WWII instruction leaflets, Michael O'Mara Books, 2007

Nothing flashy or majorly propagandist. No images of Hitler or reminders to keep your trap shut while you’re darning. But some good, honest examples of the austerity environment, and how ingenious manufacturers managed to reduce packaging while not skimping on the quality or quantity of the product itself.

Temporary war spool

Coats' temporary war spool with its regular demob cousin

For example, the two Coats thread spools above carry the same amount of thread. I don’t know about you, but I am really tickled by the idea of a “temporary spool”; it holds the same surreal place in my affections as “vanishing day cream” or “universal primer”.

Wartime Sylko thread

Regular Sylko thread and austerity version

While Coats’ spools got taller and thinner – much like the average land girl, I would guess – Sylko’s spools got squatter. The boxes shrank, but still held 12 spools of 100 yards of thread, thanks to the clever folk at Dewhurst’s. Here I must add the disclaimer that I’m not entirely sure which war the smaller Sylko box was made during, so it might be even older. If anyone knows, do get in touch. There’s a picture of the wartime lettering on the side of the box here.

British Snap

Snap to fit, austerity style

The British Snap people had a geometrical field day, arranging their haberdashery into lines instead of triangles. If only today’s packagers would take note.

Little Scraplet will be carrying this authentic World War II blanket in his case.

War Emergency Temporary Spool

Grace's utility blanket

It belonged to my mother-in-law and has been in constant use since she had it as a girl. It still sports its wartime utility label, her girlhood name tag (in lovely red deco lettering) and evidence of mending. But I’ll come back to wartime mending another time. There are some more pictures of this blanket, not to mention more of my haberdashery, on Flickr. I’ll also come back to the great little Make Do And Mend book at a later date.


Sep 01

Goodbye cucumbers, hello cabbages

I’m mightily relieved that we’ve finally hauled ourselves out of those slack summer doldrums into refreshing, pencil-sharpening September.

August is often referred to in the UK as “the silly season” when the everyone who matters is on holiday, the papers have nothing sensible to report, and thus their pages get filled with… er … filler, often of a rather mischievous kind. Much to my delight, the esteemed lexicographer Michael Quinion of World Wide Words had a brilliant entry referencing this time of year and other unusual terms used to describe it.

“Cucumber-time” is one that was widely used across Europe. It seems to derive from the tailor’s trade, being a term for the flat late-summer season when work was thin on the ground. Then a tailor would have to subsist on the cucumbers developing plentifully and  tumescently in his garden. The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, dated 1700: “Cucumbers, Taylers. Cucumber-time, Taylers Holiday, when they have to leave Play, and Cucumbers are in season.” As the Pall Mall Gazette explained in 1867: “Tailors could not be expected to earn much money ‘in cucumber season.’ Because when cucumbers are in, the gentry are out of town.”

In the wonderful sideways shift of word-development, tailors began thereafter to be known slangily as “cucumbers”, but I’d recommend you not try it out in Saville Row until your bespoke suit is already hanging safely in your closet.

Another revelation to me was the term “cabbages”: a word used to describe the waste scraps left over from cutting out clothes. The tailor could claim these as his own. As a correspondent to Notes & Queries helpfully explained on 5th November 1853: “Tailors are vegetarians, who ‘live on cucumber’ while at play, and on ‘cabbage’ while at work.” By all accounts, the term is still current in the clothing trade.

I’ve had a lovely summer, with not a few cucumbers (more of that later), but am still mightily relieved to be getting back to my cabbages. Hope you’re enjoying getting back into the swing of things too.

Cabbage-coloured knitted garment

Not proper "cabbage" but a thrifted cabbage-coloured knitted garment, awaiting felting and upscaling


May 17

Hello world!

I’m probably over on Twitter or Flickr at the moment. If not, lift the corner of a pile of antique fabrics and I may be under there. My first proper post is on its way. Honest. Back in 5.

– Eirlys x

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