Tagged: Christmas

Dec 04

Keep-it-simple Christmas decorations



A local magazine asked me to put together the following brief article about making your own Christmas decorations. And I mean brief: the word count was 250-300 words (the briefest of briefs) so there was no space to explain or give instructions. But  it offers a few thrifty ideas to pursue, so I thought I’d post it here on the blog. If you’d like instructions – or even a film from me – explaining how to make any of these, just leave me a comment or email and I’ll be happy to demonstrate; I’ve been meaning to dust off the camera for a while now.


Place-marker cotton reels

Place-marker cotton reels


OK, so here’s the article…


Think laterally this year and make your own beautifully thrifty Christmas decorations.

1. Use what you have in the cupboard.  Jazz up sewing materials; coax a paper-clip into a circle with some jewellery pliers and position in a cotton reel to make a jauntily festive place-marker. Or thread buttons onto looped wire for a napkin ring, finished with a scrap-fabric bow. Turn functional kitchen items decorative; upend a jam jar to create a voguish snow globe*, and hang cookie cutters as tree bling.

Jam-jar snow globe

Kitchen bling


2. Display kitchen ingredients. Pull dried cinnamon sticks and star anise out of the spice cupboard to look and smell the part. String fresh red chili peppers this Christmas and they’ll slowly dry for your cooking throughout 2013.

3. Gather natural objects. Bring in pinecones and garden greenery.

4. Recycle broken paperbacks. Cut page lengths into 2.5cms /1”-wide strips. A pair of children’s scalloped craft scissors gives a fancier edge. Glue or staple strips into loops to form a paper chain.

Book paper chains

Old book paper chains


5. Turn newspapers into hearts. Old wrapping paper, greetings cards and catalogues also work for heart garlands. Consider investing in a specialist cutter (like a giant hole punch) if you’re making lots; good but slower results come from drawing round a template, such as a heart-shaped cookie cutter, and cutting out with scissors. Machine-stitch hearts together vertically or horizontally, with gaps close or wide to suit. Red thread sets it off nicely.

Upcycled garlands

Before: a newspaper, a sweater, a scarf, a map


6. Upcycle old clothes. Transform a precious wool garment accidentally felted in the wash into another pretty garland. Cut out graded circles (3 slightly different sizes look good). Arrange rounds pleasingly before stitching together on a sewing machine. Strengthen with a second line of stitching before decking the halls.


Scrap paper and felt garlands

Deck the halls with… junk!


I’m selling packs of 100 pre-cut book-page links in my Etsy store. I am also happy to supply you with finished chain, if you prefer. You can  see some of the finished paper-chain currently decking the halls of Topping Books, Bath, where you might also be interested in a lovely event this Thursday 6th December with Scandinavian Christmas author Trine Hahnemann, 6-9pm.  I’ll be there, sniffing the lingonberry gin fizz! Hope to see you.


* snow globe remarkably similar to this one spotted in Anthropologie, Chelsea for c, £22 pounds. Dear Reader, make your own!





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!




Dec 15

Christmas at War

I’m going to be making-do-and-mending with the Museum of Bath at Work this Saturday, helping them to celebrate a World War II-style Christmas. Pop by between 10am and 4pm on Saturday 17th and you’ll likely find me wreathed in brown-paper chains with a ton of darning mushrooms and other selected vintage notions, including some gorgeous Fair-Isle knitting patterns. The museum’s usual entrance fee applies, but you’re guaranteed to really get in the mood; re-enactment group the Blitz Buddies will be there, and I hear there will be music and dancing to make the experience come alive. Incidentally, this event kicks off the 70th anniversary commemorations of the Bath Blitz next year. Bath was bombed as part of the retaliatory Baedeker raids on 25th and 26th April 1942. You can find out more at the Bath Blitz Memorial Project. If you have memories of Bath during the war, the museum would be delighted if you’d come along on Saturday and share them.

The Christmas at War organisers have broken it to me gently that I’m expected to dress the part. I’ve decided to go land-girl style, sporting a Fair-Isle tank top. Fair-Isle knitting was a great way to use up stray odds and ends of yarn (one had to unpick worn-out knitted garments and re-knit) but its popularity during World War II possibly owes as much to an interesting rationing loophole: whereas knitting wool was rationed (two ounces of knitting yarn took one precious clothing coupon), mending cards not exceeding one ounce were exempt. Yarn producers cottoned on to this and duly produced mending cards in an array of colours to meet the demand. Cunning, eh?

Mrs. Sew-and-Sew darns

There were, of course, five Christmases celebrated while the nation was at war. The festivities of 1939 weren’t so different from those pre-war, though new blackout restrictions ended the sight of lit Christmas trees in front windows. Rationing hadn’t kicked in yet, and people spent quite freely on gifts, in spite of the Chancellor’s injunction not to be wasteful.

1940 was the first real wartime Christmas. Britain was under siege. The Blitz had kicked off in London in September, and November had seen the devastating bombing of Coventry. Food rationing had begun in January. Practical Christmas gifts were in: gardening tools, books, bottling jars and seeds, with the most popular gift that year being soap.

Clothing and textiles were rationed from June 1941, and food rationing increased to its peak by Christmas. Petrol and manpower shortages prevented home-delivery of shop goods, so people now had to carry their purchases. Wrapping paper was very scarce, and toys were in short supply and (when they could be found) shoddily made and expensive. Home-made or renovated gifts were the thing. Yet this was an optimistic time because, with the Allies now in the war, Brits felt they would definitely beat Hitler.

By Christmas 1942, two popular gifts had succumbed to the ration: soap and sweets. In order to prepare for the festive season, food coupons had to be saved for months ahead. Homemade decorations were the order of the day; the Ministry of Food made the helpful suggestion that, though there were ‘no gay bowls of fruit’, vegetables could be used instead for their jolly colours: ‘The cheerful glow of carrots, the rich crimson of beetroot, the emerald of parsley – it looks as delightful as it tastes.’

Christmas 1943 saw shortages at their height. There was little chance of turkey, chicken or goose, or even rabbit. Much Christmas food was ‘mock’ (i.e. false): mock ‘turkey’ (made from lamb) and mock ‘cream’ and ‘marzipan’.  Make-do-and-mend presents were the order of the day; magazines printed instructions for knitted slippers and gloves, brooches made from scraps of wool, felt or plastic, and embroidered bookmarks and calendars.

Mending threads

Vintage mending threads

Christmas 1944 was probably the least joyful of the entire war. People had hoped it might be all over by Christmas, after the Allied Normandy invasion of June,  but mid-December saw the Ardennes Offensive with thousands killed on both sides. German air attacks (now V1 and V2 rockets) began in June, with 30 hitting England on Christmas Eve. One surprise benefit of the pilot-less doodlebugs was that blackout restrictions could be lifted, so churches lit their their stained glass windows for the first time in 4 years. DIY gifts were once again a necessity; the book Rag-Bag Toys gave instructions for making a cuddly pig from an old vest, and a doll from old stockings.

The unconfined joy of VE Day 1945 suddenly makes a lot more sense to me. I think I will be relishing my Christmas turkey and tree lights as never before this year!

The Museum of Bath at Work can be found on Julian Road (the Lansdown Hill end), tucked behind Christ Church.










Oct 27

Apple windfall chutney

Late October is when I start to crave the warmth of the kitchen: spices, applesauce, cinnamon, hotwater bottles, endless cups of Lapsang Souchong…

Happily, I’ve been given a couple of bags of windfall cooking apples. And, when life hands you windfalls, what better to make than chutney? Even more happily, yesterday I realised (when autumn-cleaning my kitchen cupboard: a task long overdue) that I had all the necessary ingredients.

I followed a slightly haphazard recipe from Feast Days by Jennifer Paterson, one half of the 1990s Two Fat Ladies TV cook combo (remember them from the pre-Jamie Oliver era?) and food writer for the Spectator. The recipe, actually called ‘Patricius’s Pickle’ (on page 69, if you’re inspired to investigate) was a little light on particulars, not really giving an idea of how long to cook or quite how to know when it was done, but I occasionally find an absence of detail in cookbooks strangely liberating.

And chutney does seem to be a fairly forgiving concoction, embracing all sorts of fruit, vegetable and spice combinations, depending on your particular glut, the contents of your store cupboard, and the limits of your personal taste. The key seems to be not to stint on sugar and vinegar, the essential preserving elements; that said, you could freeze a low-vinegar, low-sugar chutney, so long as you remember to remove it from the cold a day or so before it’s to be consumed in order to mature the flavours.

I rejigged Jennifer’s ingredients a little, and here’s what went into mine:

Chutney before cooking

Ingredients compiled and chopped in the preserving pan


  • 3lbs cooking apples, peeled cored and chopped. The original recipe didn’t specify if this was the weight before or after peeling etc. I went heavy on the apples and opted for 3lbs finished weight.
  • 1lb 6 ozs onions which was less than the original recipe (which called for 2lbs) but this was all I had, and mine were mostly red, which has no advantage but looking pretty in the “before” pictures, so use whatever you like.
  • 1 quart cider vinegar instead of the white malt variety called for by the original recipe. Again, it’s just what I happened to have in the cupboard.
  • 1 lb raisins
  • 7 ozs haphazard mix of forgotten, back-of-cupboard dried fruit, including sultanas and bing cherries, but the recipe called for 1 lb of dates.
  • 1 lb soft brown sugar
  • 1 tspn cayenne pepper
  • 1 dessertspoon of rock salt
  • remaining spices tied in a muslin bag… 1/4 oz each peppercorns, cinnamon (I took this to be sticks of cinnamon, broken up), whole cloves.

In it all went.

Chopped chutney ingredients

Chopped apple, onion, plus dried fruit


And quite a lot of  frequent stirring (so it didn’t burn), and an hour or so later, out it came thus…

Apple chutney & cheddar cheese

A marriage made in heaven


I’ve tasted it (someone had to!) and am happy to declare that it is stonkingly good on cheddar.

A note on when to stop cooking it: Jennifer’s advice is not to let it become too dry as it will dry out further in the jar. She also advises letting it cool completely before potting up. I gather that you can also bottle it when piping hot, but avoid doing so when somewhere in the middle (warm is bad). Mine went hot into rather utilitarian jars (scrupulously clean, of course) which Little Scraplet helpfully slapped my hastily scribbled labels onto.

Apple chutney

Roughly labeled


But, nicely presented, these would make lovely Christmas gifts. Who could resist?

Apple chutney & cheddar cheese

Perfect partners


Sep 27

Knitting needle bracelets

Vintage Knitting Needle Bracelet

Vintage knitting needle bracelet

I’ve just popped this onto one of the eye-level shelves in my Etsy store.

My sons call these upcycled bracelets “knit-knacks” which I think is a fantastic name for them. I’ve sold quite a few at fairs and am gearing up to making a new batch for Christmas.

Though the knitting needles need to go through a certain level of abuse to reach their final elegantly curved state, I don’t feel too bad about it because most of them are slightly wonky before I set to work on them. If I find perfect vintage needles, I do tend to sell them on intact. Well, I hope that sets things straight (as it were) with the upcycling authorities.

These ones are made from a particularly nice quality of plastic in shiny cherry-red. There are lots of other colours and thicknesses available so if you’re looking for a particular style, shade or even brand of knitting needle, do enquire and I’ll have a rootle around for you. I’m happy to combine different needles if you’d like to mix and match for a desired effect. You’ll find details of the dimensions of this particular one on the Etsy listing.



Jan 14

Scrap of the week #9

I keep forgetting to post a Scrap of the Week. I usually do this on a Monday, but as the weather is just as miserable as Monday’s was (grey and drizzly) I’m sure nobody will notice the difference. Ladies and gentlemen, I’m delighted to present… [cue drumroll] my first scrap of 2011!

C&A sweater label

C&A felted sweater

This is from the bag of felted sweaters given to me by the very generous Becky Button.

Its particulars:-

Item: gent’s v-neck long-sleeved sweater

Fibre: 100% lambswool

Colour: marled grey

Make: C&A [By the way, this label looks like the old C&A to me, but I’m no expert. Anyone have any insight?]

Size: originally large, but now substantially smaller

You can see the slippers I made with this in my last post. I used this sweater because it was about the thickness of felt recommended in the Martha Stewart pattern: 1/8 of an inch. That pattern is one that’s freely available on her site. Given that it’s offered free, it would be unreasonable to expect a huge amount of detail or hand-holding. I’ve made some observations on how best to approach this pattern later on.

Working with felted garments. It can be tricky, when working with reclaimed garments, to assess whether you have enough material to meet your pattern’s requirements. This started out as a large gent’s sweater, and I was surprised that it took most of the front and back to make these size 8 slippers. The arms and some useful scraps – including the ribbed edging – are left to use on other projects. Something else to bear in mind is that some felted garments have a radically different appearance on the right and wrong sides, so it’s wise to be consistent in using one side or the other. In this case, I decided that there was a nicer texture to the inside.

Sweater to slipper

Deconstructing the old garment

My notes on the pattern:-

Enlarging. First you have to enlarge the little templates of the two pattern pieces to the required shoe size. Helpful enlargement guidelines are given on the pattern. Bear in mind that it’s in US sizes. Another word of caution: don’t take the enlargements listed as gospel; I found that they came up very small. It could be that my photocopier isn’t as good at maths as Martha’s is. Fortunately, I had a proxy for the slipper recipient at home (with same shoe size) so was able to test it before committing to cutting out. I had to enlarge by 400% in the end to achieve a size 8; that’s the biggest enlargement my photocopier extends to, by the way. But I’d recommend drawing around the slipper-wearer’s feet, just to double-check for errors. Remember to factor in a small seam allowance of 3/16 of an inch all round the sole.

Cutting out the side

Cutting out an instep

Pattern adjustments. In terms of the shapes of the pattern pieces, I thought they could do with some light revising. I liked the shape of the sole, but the instep curve (that seam on the top of the foot) could be just a little more shapely and have a more graceful sweep. I’d also like to try lowering the cut of the entire instep to make the slippers easier to get into, allow a snugger fit, and maybe a prettier shape for a female foot. But I’m not really complaining. Martha offers another slipper pattern, made from a single upper, which seems to check the boxes on the prettier girl shape.

On to the sole, the instructions advise using two layers of felt for the sole, and that worked fine. You could try using a single layer of really thick felted garment instead. Or maybe put some padding between the two felt layers of sole; Vintage Violet had a very precise product suggestion to that effect in the comments of my last post (Thanks, VV!).  I’d also like to try making it with other materials: a suede or leather sole, perhaps, as this slipper is really a house-with- immaculate-carpets slipper, not a cold-stone-floors slipper (which is really what I need).

Cutting out. There’s something very pleasing about cutting out felt with a nice sharp pair of scissors. I’d liken it to walking on fresh snow. Do keep your wits about you as you cut, though. If you have felt with a pronounced right side, pinning little paper labels to that side of the fabric leaves nothing to chance. Otherwise, it’s so easy to get confused.

Compiling pieces

Most of a slipper, ready to go

Bear in mind that you need two right side insteps, two left side insteps (one for each slipper). You also need 4 soles (and possibly an inner sole for added padding, though two nice thick layers of felt weren’t bad). Do check and check again during construction that you are doing a pair, not two identical shoes. It’s an easy mistake to make; halfway through tacking on the 2nd sole I realised I’d done two left feet… Nyarg!

Attaching the sole

Pinning on the sole

Making up. Remember that the seams are on the outside; I know it sounds obvious, but some of us start sewing on auto and then get into trouble. The two top pieces go together easily; you can just pin them together at the back and instep and sew them straight off on your machine, leaving the recommended 3/16th of an inch seam allowance. Despite what you may have been told, you can usually sew right over pins on your machine, though you must have the pins lying perpendicular to your seam, and try to have the tips of the pins poking through the upper side of the fabric so that they don’t scratch your machine bed. When I stitched these, I removed each pin as my presser foot approached it as my machine just wouldn’t have made it over all that thick felt plus a pin too. The soles, though, were a little more fiddly and required careful easing, pinning (beginning at the centre of the heel) and tacking (at which point pins could be removed) to prevent the pieces sliding apart during sewing. I set my machine for a fairly big stitch (approximately 9 stitches per inch), and used vintage Sylko Dark Elephant thread on Josephine (a vintage Singer 99k). The use of vintage materials and tools is not obligatory, but I would obviously contend that it enhances the sewing experience. [winks]

Pinning the sole

Eased and pinned

Embellishments. I left these slippers plain. The instructions recommend embroidering a big “X” on each slipper, but the embroidery opportunities are endless. I’d like to try constructing the sole seams with hand-stitched blanket stitch instead of machine stitching, for a different effect. A pattern of punched holes around the top edge would also be a fun. You could add a label to the inner sole before construction (machine- or hand-sewing it in), or a loop of ribbon to the back of the heel at the end. Oh, the possibilities!

Sole close-up

Finished slipper sole

These were very quick and satisfying to work, even with all the fiddly pinning and tacking, so I hope you’ll give them a go. Just to remind you that there are more pictures of the finished slippers – which were a gift to my brother – over here. I can’t wait to make more. Little Scraplet has already ordered an orange pair, which should be quick and easy  to do as he has such little feet. Off to rootle through my stash…


Jan 13

Sweater to slipper

I’m finally catching up on some of the jobs I meant to do before I got ill in mid-December. This is one I’m fairly pleased with.

Felt slipper

My brother's slipper

I’d promised my brother a pair of slippers for Christmas, and found this pattern which looked pretty quick and easy. I’ll post more about it tomorrow as a Scrap of the Week, including some work-in-progress pictures.

My raw material was a sweater which came from the wonderful Becky Button (who kindly donated me a huge bagful of sweaters when she came to Bath late last year, insisting she’d never use them).  This marled grey sweater made me smile as the label said C&A (I haven’t seen that name in years)  and was 100% lambswool. Becky had even pre-felted the entire bag of sweaters for me! How much do I love thee, Becky? Let me count the ways!

Anyway, the pattern wasn’t perfect but I’m fairly happy with the result. They turned out slightly too baggy for my liking, more loose than they strictly need to be, even allowing for the fact that they slip on. My sons thought they looked a little comical and dubbed them “elephant feet” (not helped by the fact that I used a big vintage spool of Sylko Dark Elephant thread to put them together), but I liked them.

Christmas slippers

Elephant feet?

The only problem is that my brother (who lives in care) has developed a habit of throwing away things which he finds annoying. Feeling annoyed can strike at any time, somewhat randomly. I took the slippers out to him yesterday and it’ll be interesting to see whether they have safely passed the annoyance test or hit the bin before my next visit in February.


Jan 10

Getting organised

Kind family members gave me this Orla Kiely notebook and filing box for Christmas. They are just perfect!

Orla Kiely gifts

Favourite Christmas gifts: Orla Kiely stationery

I didn’t have a single thing designed by Orla, but do love her optimistic, retro naïve style. And I tend to struggle just a tad with organisation and the containment of paperwork (aherm) so this is even more perfect for me.

Orla Kiely book & box

Orla Kiely book and filing box

It gives me new impetus to clear the decks, and I have just the project in mind for them both. Thanks, kind family members!

Orla Kiely notebook

Pristine notebook


Dec 25

The kindness of strangers

I hope you’re enjoying a wonderful Christmas in the bosom of your family.

However, if it’s not going so idyllically, here’s a thought. Someone I don’t know sent me these dryer sheets – without my asking, and without any obvious benefit to herself.

Laundry gift

They are utterly lovely. I remain very grateful, as they eclipse anything equivalent that I’ve located closer to home, though I try not to use my tumble-dryer (but this is England in bleak midwinter, for goodness’ sake…).

Merry Christmas!

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