In A Flap – flip-flop denim fabric strap upcycle

The flip-flops.Summer is here (or so they say!). And whether you call them thongs or flip-flops, the three-point strap sandal is a mainstay of hot weather footwear. While I was getting a few bits and bobs in town the other day, I saw these fun flip-flops on a sale rack. I really want to like flip-flops, but I’m afraid they don’t like me! I can’t walk 100 yards in flip-flops with rubber or plastic toe posts without getting the most awful blisters between my toes. Ouchie!

Chop off the strapsSo those straps were going to have to go. There’s always something faintly satisfying about a spot of wanton destruction, isn’t there? Push the straps through the sole and chop them off with a pair of stout scissors. Congratulations, you’ve taken a pair of perfectly good, new flip flops and rendered them completely useless. Time to get mending!

I was planning to make fabric straps for these flip-flops out of some recycled cotton jersey, but I couldn’t find anything in my old-clothes stash in an appropriate colour. What I did find was a pair of Hubby’s old jeans. On reflection, denim seemed like a rather great idea, and the colour was a good match for the psychedelic print on the soles, too.

Of course denim poses some problems that cotton jersey doesn’t, not least in it’s tendency to fray extensively.  It’s also not famous for its stretchy characteristics, which means sizing will need to be more accurate, but I was pretty sure these were things that could be overcome.

Rough cutFirst up, I rough cut a broad and a narrow strap for a ‘test fit’. The narrow strap is tied in a reef knot around the wide strap and acts as the toe post. Push the straps gently through the holes and support them temporarily with safety pins while you offer up the sizing.  I tried the sandal on at this stage and showed it to Hubby to see what he thought. His verdict, ‘they’re quite, erm, rustic…’ felt a little bit short of an unqualified recommendation!

The principle seemed sound, though this mock-up stage proved one thing, which was that the narrow toe straps were literally going to fray away to nothing, and really quite quickly, too. Some reinforcement was going to be needed to avoid the whole thing coming apart!

Now, my sewing machine is a really very basic beast, more or less does straight stitch, zig-zag, not much else. But it has a rather neglected set of ‘special stitches’, one of which I admit I’ve never used in anger before today – it’s a sort of faintly-decorative compound zig-zag, which looked like it might do dual purpose for fray control while not being entirely unattractive! Well, it was worth a shot. A trial run on a narrow strap confirmed that I could run a length of the stitching, and then pull away the stray threads before trimming quite tight to the stitch line. The result seemed quite stable and robust. Excellent!

Rectangle of denimI chopped a rough rectangle of denim out of the leg of hubby’s discarded jeans. They were very well worn by the time they reached the end of their working life, so the denim is gorgeous and soft.

Cut the wide strapsUsing a ruler and cutting wheel, I sliced two wide straps 3cm wide, and two narrow straps about 1cm in width. If you don’t have a cutting wheel, mark the back and cut carefully, especially for the narrow straps.

I decided to go with a contrasting colour for the stitching to make a decorative detail out of it, and loaded up the machine with some bright yellow cotton.

With stitching completeEach wide strap takes two rows of stitches, as close as possible to the edges. The narrow straps get one row of stitches straight up the middle. If your machine doesn’t do a stitch like this, then a sensible width zig-zag is probably a good compromise.

Pull away your the threadsOnce the stitching is done, tease away at the threads outside the sewing, and gently pull it away until it ‘sticks’ in the stitching. Then, using a really sharp pair of scissors, trim the loose threads to within about 1mm of the edge of the stitching. This is all a little bit time consuming, but worth it in the end!

Now, all your straps are made, and ready to be assembled.

Straps complete before assembly

Fit the straps to the sandalTie the narrow straps in a reef knot around the approximate mid-point of the wide strap, and then feed all the ends through the appropriate holes. My denim isn’t an even colour because of the wear on it, so I used the darker end for the outside hole on both sandals, and the lighter end on the inside.

Straps on sole-sideThis is the experimental trying-on bit of the process. Adjust the straps until they’re all the right length and the fit is comfortable, using safety pins on the underside if necessary. Once you’ve know how long your straps need to be, it’s time to work out how to retain them. I’d considered the ‘tie a knot in it’ approach, and that seemed likely to work ok with the narrow toe strap, but didn’t seem as plausible for the thick straps.

Instead, I had a dig about in my button box and found six small stout little white buttons, just the right size for the recessed gaps in the bottom of the sandals.

For the toe strap, join both halves together with a horizontal row of stitches, before fixing the button between them, then trim the ends with about a cm spare and fold the straps over, securing the ends down again as firmly as you can.

Fixing toe strap (1)  Fixing toe strap (2)  Fixing toe strap (3)

For the broad straps, start by identifying the attachment point you need, secure your thread firmly and then sew the button into the centre of the strap. Trim the strap and then sew the corners down over the button, before securing the strap below the button into a round shank, wrapping a few times with the thread to help you hold the shape.

Fixing wide strap (1)  Fixing wide strap (2)  Fixing wide strap (3)

In essence, that’s it. Make the second sandal the same way, trying to get the strap lengths to match.

Finished straps

If you were just going to wear them indoors, you could probably leave it at that. I had in mind using a blob of hot glue both beneath and finally on top of the strap and button assembly to secure and stabilise the lot, and add some waterproofing and abrasion resistance to stop the first rough floor surface wearing the thread away and letting all the hard work come apart again. But then I remembered that I’ve finally got my hands on some Sugru, so I think I’m going to use a blob of that over the top (and possibly a cuff underneath) as the rubber texture seems likely to be nicely compatible with the rest of the sole. I’ll post final photos once I’ve done this (in the next few days, all being well!).

Finished sandals with home-made denim straps

I can think of some possible variations (and having done this ‘make’, some I wish I’d thought of before I started!). Satin or grosgrain ribbon would make great straps (you’d want a matching pair in 25mm and 6mm widths, I would guess, and a metre of each will be plenty) – and might even be quite ‘dressy’, with the right choice colour and plain dark-coloured sandals.  I suspect – though I haven’t tried this, so if you do, please let me know! – that you could just tie knots in the ends of the ribbons, embed the knots in a little ball of  Sugru, and just sort of ‘squidge’ it into the recesses in the sole, reducing the whole make to a five or ten minute job.  Hot glue would probably work pretty much the same, too (but don’t burn your fingers)! Next time I see a set of dirt cheap flip-flops in a pound shop or market, I’m definitely giving this variation a try!

I’m really thrilled with this, actually. These sandals are *comfortable*, and they look pretty cool too, though I say so myself. I’m definitely planning to take them on holiday, and I shan’t be one bit embarrassed by them by the pool – the finished effect is certainly more ‘handcrafted’ than ‘homemade’. So do give this a try, and please, let me know how you get on?

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The Key, The Secret? – spicy pickled ash keys

I first came across the idea of pickled ash keys in Adele Nozedar’s lovely book ‘The Hedgerow Handbook, which I reviewed last year. I was intrigued at the time, but it was the wrong time of year to forage nice young ash keys (actually, I think I may have been a little late this year, too, but more of that later).

A lovely veteran ash treeAsh trees have been in the news lately, at least in the UK, with the arrival last year of ash dieback, a fungal disease now threatening some of the great, veteran trees of the British landscape. Historically, oak, elm and ash were the ‘big three’ trees in these parts, majestic and long-lived, our elms sadly disappeared for the most part several decades ago, succumbing to Dutch elm disease, and it seems now as if the ash, too, may be at risk of all but disappearing from our landscape.

Ash keysBefore too long, ash keys (the twisted seeds of the ash tree, which hang in luxurious bunches from the branches of some – but not all – ash trees at this time of year) may be a vanishing treat, the caviar of the forager’s larder. So why not try them now, before it’s too late? Incidentally, don’t confuse the common ash with the mountain ash, or rowan tree, which produces clusters of (also highly forageable!) bright orange or red berries in autumn.

So, you’ve found a local ash tree positively dripping with lovely young, green ash keys. What now?

After pickingWell, first, you’ll need to pick some, obviously. I made rather a large batch of pickled ash keys, starting with about 800g (approximately a mean couple of pounds). The older they get, the tougher and stringier they will become, so pick them as young and tender as you can.

As well as your ash keys, you will require –

  • 1.5l / 3 UK pints of white distilled malt vinegar (spirit vinegar)
  • 3 tbsp of paprika
  • 3 tbsp of curry powder (I used a medium madras powder, because it was what I had on the shelf)
  • 1.5 tbsp of cayenne pepper
  • 4 tbsp sea salt
  • a heaped teaspoon of whole mixed peppercorns
  • a level teaspoon of whole yellow mustard seed
  • 6 – 8 garlic cloves
  • 12 small hot dried red chillies (I used my own home-grown and dried little chillies left over from last year)
  • A large stainless steel or enamel saucepan or stockpot, a smaller pan (also non-reactive), large colander, a fine sieve and a piece of muslin, and enough jam jars for your batch.

Washed ash keysPick all the ash keys free from their bunches, and wash them carefully. The first part of the process involves gently simmering your ash keys for about an hour and a half, in all, in four changes of water.  This process, while irritatingly time consuming and faffy, reduces the bitterness of the ash keys which would otherwise make them rather unpleasant to eat.

Simmering the ash keysThe smell that this process generates is not very promising – it will smell rather like you’re boiling up a pot full of bits of tree, which you are, of course. But this abates each time you change the water, and after the fourth water change the colour of the ash keys is closer to olive green than to the bright green that you started with, and if you have a speculative nibble on one (I couldn’t resist), it’s quite stringy, not particularly strong tasting, but not noticeably bitter.

Spiced vinegar steepingWhile your keys are simmering away gently, you need to make your spiced vinegar. In your smaller saucepan, combine the spirit vinegar, paprika, cayenne pepper, and curry powder, bring to the boil and then take immediately off the heat.

Strain the spiced vinegarThis smells quite marvellous. Once it’s cooled a bit (you can help it along by sitting the saucepan in a sink full of cold water), strain it through the muslin in the sieve, and if you’re not quite ready to use it, you can use a funnel to put it back inside the vinegar bottles for safekeeping. Incidentally, I’d forgotten I had some muslin and initially tried to strain the vinegar through a paper coffee filter. I can report this was very frustrating and a huge waste of time, effort and coffee filters. So, now you know not to bother!

Ash keys mixed with saltOnce the ash keys have done their four turns around the simmer 20 minutes, strain, change water circuit, they’re an olive-green colour and ready to be stewed (yes, some more!). Add the 4 tbsp of sea salt, and plenty of fresh water, and bring to a brisk boil for a quarter of an hour, before turning the heat down, covering, and simmering for another 60 minutes before finally straining again.

At the end of this, they will have softened a fair bit, and have a gently salted taste, and you will probably be royally fed up of boiling up ash keys. Don’t worry, it’s nearly done!

Strained spiced vinegar, set aside  Chillies, peppercorns, garlic & mustard  Ash keys in spiced vinegar with garlic and chillies

Now, add to the strained ash keys the spiced vinegar, along with the whole dried chillies, peppercorns, mustard seeds and peeled whole garlic cloves. Bring to a brisk boil for 15 minutes, and take off the heat. That’s it, you’re (essentially!) done, and your house probably smells like a very strange hybrid of a chip shop and a curry house. Set the pickled ash keys aside to cool. I left mine overnight, because it was pretty late by the time I finished them, and my big stock pot holds its heat quite stubbornly.

Fill your jarsWash, dry and sterilise your jam jars in the oven, then allow to cool before filling. I used 13 little ‘dumpy’ jars and two 330ml pickle jars for my batch. Assume you need at least the volume of your vinegar, and probably a bit extra, in jar capacity. Pack the ash keys, along with the chillies, garlic, peppercorns and mustard seeds, evenly but quite tightly into your jars. Once you’ve done this, fill the jars right to the brim with the spiced vinegar, and seal.

Filled jars of pickled ash keys

Don’t they make a pretty little lot? They need to be matured now in a cool, dark place for at least 2 – 3 months. But I did have a taste, and the omens are really promising – there’s a long but gentle heat from the combination of the whole chillies and the spiced vinegar, a little garlic note, and out of nowhere a subtle but noticeably ‘olive’ flavour from the ash keys themselves.  The acidity is not at all harsh, which is unexpected, there’s an almost sweet character which must come from the keys themselves as there’s no sugar in the pickle. They are, though, still a bit stringy (though much less so than earlier in the cooking process) – I think if I’d picked in May rather than leaving it until June, this may have helped! I expect they’ll continue to soften while they steep in their jars of vinegar.

All in all, then, a bit of a revelation, these ash keys! I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I don’t think it was much like this! I can’t wait to see what they’re like in a couple of months time, but I think they’ll make a very nice substitute for olives or capers, and will probably go a treat with a nice mature cheddar.

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Simple Summer Sewing – make a quick, cheap, pretty beach and pool cover-up

I can’t take the credit for the idea here – I’d seen a photo of something similar on Pinterest some time ago, and tracked instructions on the ‘Vie en Rose’ blog (and you should go and take a look at these, the rest of the post will make a lot more sense!) at the time. Then I more or less forgot about it until I started thinking about what to pack for our summer holiday. It seemed the perfect alternative to a sarong, easier to wear and a bit more ‘shaped’.

So I picked up some remaindered floral print cotton jersey on Ebay for about a fiver, and got started with it on my day off a week or two ago.  I’d offered up a sarong to get an idea of how wide a piece of fabric I needed, and came to the conclusion that the ‘ideal’ size was about 10cm wider than the width of fabric I had.  Slightly irritating.

Rather than chop a lengthwise section from my 2.5m length (seemed wasteful!), I decided to take a punt on the 1.6m width and hope the bit of stretch in the jersey and the inherent ‘forgivingness’ of the pattern would let me get away with it.  This decision rather forced my hand in terms of hemming – no spare fabric for this, and worse, I was going to have to use the selvedge, rather than trimming it, too. I know, I know, two cardinal sins of sewing and dressmaking just there. But do bear with me, this is quick and cheerful stuff, but the result is surprisingly good!!

Decide roughly how long you want your wrap, measuring from about armpit length downwards, and make this the width of your piece of jersey fabric.  Make sure all the edges are nice and straight as you cut your piece, as these will be your finished edges. I used a cutting mat and roller for speed and convenience, but you could manage carefully with fabric scissors.

Shape the armsThe only piece of shaping required is around the arm holes. I used a strappy top I own as a reference template. Line it up at the top of the ‘body’ and mark out the arm shape. If you fold the fabric in half, you can cut both sides together, so they’ll be symmetrical.

Cut the arm shapingMark (this is the reverse side!) with a pen or pencil. Then just cut carefully along the mark.

Now it’s just a question of working out how to attach a for each shoulder. I measured the strappy top from where I’d stopped shaping the arm hole, up to the seam at the top of the shoulder, and then back down to the seam at the underarm.

Measure for the strapsThis gave me a length of about 40cm as an estimate for the strap length. The blog tutorial I found made braided straps, and you could certainly do this.  I had my sewing machine conveniently to hand, so it was just as quick to make tubes – I cut two lengths about 2.5cm wide and 40 cm long, sewed along the length with right sides together, trimmed the seam allowance and then turned them carefully the right way out.  This was actually pretty fiddly and time consuming, but I think gives a nice finish.

Straps sewn in placeOnce your straps are ready, safety pin them in place and try on your cover up. This will allow you to adjust the strap length to suit your preferences (I shortened mine by about 5cm in the end).  Now, I can see no reason at all to post photos of myself in my bathing suit on the internet, so you’ll have to refer to the original tutorial for fitting photographs. Once you’ve decided on the right strap length, hand sew the straps in place firmly.

If you’re using a solid coloured fabric, this should give a pretty nice finish, but you can see with my contrasting print it’s all rather scruffy!  But it’s done. Try it on and flounce about in it a bit, pretending to be standing by a beach bar somewhere delightfully tropical.

Buttons!I wasn’t quite happy with the strap sewing, so I gave it some thought. Eventually it was a colleague who suggested buttons, which were an inspired solution.  I had a dig around, eventually found my button box, and excavated these four pretty little off-black beauties.

Strap with buttons in placeSewn in place over the strap joins, they completely conceal my scruffy sewing.  Hurray!

I’ve considered shaping the short edges on a slight angle to cut away the worst of the selvedge, but although I know it’s there, it really isn’t obvious, so I’ll probably leave it for now. If it annoys me later, I’ve always got the option!

Finished beach wrapWell, there it is! I’m really pleased with it, I think it’ll work beautifully as a cover-up over swim wear, for the beach of the pool this summer.  It’s such a quick ‘make’, not sure I agree with the ’20 minute’ assertion, but certainly well under an hour, all told. And all for well under a fiver. Practical summer style on a serious budget!

Fun crochet beach bagIncidentally, I’ve also finished the crochet beach bag I was working on a few weeks ago. I’ll  do a full tutorial at some stage when I re-make it (there were a few details I got wrong with this one that I’d like to do right next time!), but I’m still pretty thrilled with it, it’ll do very nicely by the pool this summer with plenty of space for a paperback, the sunscreen, sunglasses, and of course the cover up!

I’m feeling rather excited about the summer now… Bring it on!

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Grow A Taste of the Exotic East – propagate & grow your own lemongrass

It was James Martin, during the masterclass I attended last year, who first whetted my appetite for growing my own lemongrass. Two things were worrying me, though. Firstly, we have cold winters here – it’s usual to get nights down to well below -10C during the winter, and lemongrass is a tropical plant. Secondly, and more prosaically, was where on earth I was going to get hold of a lemongrass plant?

Some months later, with the idea still in the back of my mind, I stumbled across a blog which suggested you could propagate lemongrass successfully from stalks bought for cooking – yep, those rather dry, slightly disappointing bunches of grey-white woody stems from the supermarket. (I regret I didn’t make a note of the blog that inspired me, and I can’t find it now, so can’t give credit.) But the process was very simple.  Immerse your lemongrass stalks in a bit of water, in a vase on a bright window sill. Change the water daily, and wait for it to root. Once you’ve got good roots, plant them out. That’s it.

The lemongrass stemsWell, that sounded like a horticultural challenge at my sort of level! And what was to lose, apart from a quid or so for a bunch of lemongrass. (The observant among you will notice there are two different ‘sets’ of lemongrass stems here – the shorter bunch came from the supermarket, whereas the slightly taller ones came from our local Thai market. Neither cost more than a pound.)

The first thing you’ll see, within a few days, is some fresh green growth emerging from the top of your stems.  Then, after a week or so, with a bit of luck, root buds will appear.  Do change the water for fresh every day (I forgot for a few days and it all got a bit manky, algae-ish and unpromising-looking in there), and try to keep them in a nice bright, warm situation.

Growing nicelyFour weeks later, my stems looked like this (I separated the different sets of stems into two separate pint glasses because they looked a bit crowded as the roots started to grow) with primary and secondary roots showing, and lots of new top-growth. With secondary roots present, I felt pretty confident potting up the lemon grass.

Good root growthI’m surprised – but thrilled – to be able to report that *every single one* of the stems rooted successfully.  The Thai market lemongrass rooted a bit faster than the supermarket stuff – I suspect it was rather fresher! – but a week later, that was ready to pot up, too.

Potted up and in the greenhouseI decided to split the stems up and pot them on into three terracotta pots.  Keep these well watered especially for the first few days, since the roots are pretty puny and they’re used to having all the water they can drink. I kept them on the same sunny window sill for a couple of weeks, as the nights were still rather cold, but now they’re out on the greenhouse staging.

I’m thrilled to see some brand new stems emerging over the past few days.  Of course, I’m anticipating them coming back indoors onto a sunny window sill through the winter – like other warm climate plants like chillies, they don’t appreciate temperatures below 10C, so somehow I can’t see them surviving outside, even in the unheated greenhouse!

New stems emerging

All I can say is – propagating lemongrass like this is cheap, it’s simple, and it works – try it! If you enjoy cooking Thai or other East Asian food, or fusion dishes, there’s nothing better than your very own freshly grown and harvested lemon grass! I can’t wait!

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Chive Flower Vinegar – a liquid taste of summer – make this NOW!

If you have chives in your garden, and live in the northern hemisphere, it’s a good bet you’ve got chive flowers now. Please, if you do nothing else this weekend, don’t let all that beautiful chive blossom go to waste – seize the opportunity to make some chive flower vinegar!

Chive flowers growing in the garden

I made this for the first time last year, just a small batch in a 330ml jam jar, with white wine vinegar and about a dozen chive flowers from the garden. It was *glorious*.

The vinegar is somewhere between a slight blush pink and a brash almost pinky-purple, and has a lovely fresh onion flavour which complements salads and savoury dishes perfectly. I guarded my single bottle of 2012 vintage chive flower vinegar jealously, knowing it would be a year before I’d be able to make any more.

But this story, sadly, has a tragic end.  On Christmas Eve, while I was buzzing around the kitchen trying to do all of those last minute things, I opened an over-full kitchen cupboard and my precious bottle of chive flower vinegar tumbled off the shelf, bounced on the counter, and smashed into a million pieces on the slate floor. The kitchen was filled with the gorgeous fresh smell of chives. I could have cried. Instead, I mopped, not at all comforted by the fact that the floor came up absolutely *beautiful* from its vinegar rinse!

It’s fair to say that I’ve been waiting for chive flower season ever since. And now it’s here. Usually, I’d wait to blog a recipe or process like this until it was complete and I could show it to you all the way through. But you need to make this now – not in a few weeks time when the vinegar will be infused and ready to bottle – so here goes.

So, for your very own, glorious chive flower vinegar, you will need to get together the following –

  • Gather all your lovely, fresh, open chive flowers.  Even if you only have about a dozen, it’s worth making a small batch (I successfully made about a 330ml volume of vinegar in a large jam jar lat year). Pick them with as little stem as you can, and give them a good shake to dislodge any resident insect life.
  • I like to use white wine vinegar, though I know others use cider vinegar, rice wine vinegar, or even white malt vinegar. Champagne vinegar would be a ‘premium’ choice. Choose something light coloured to bring out the  lovely colour of the chive flowers.
  • A jar the right size to take all your chive flowers and vinegar. A kilner-type jar with a rubber gasket is ideal, but a large jam jar will do fine, as long as it has a plastic-lined lid. Wash and dry the jar carefully before use.
  • A colander to wash the flowers, and a salad spinner, if you have one (I don’t).

Wash and dry your chive flowersI’m going to come clean here, and admit that I didn’t grow all of these chive flowers. Hubby was able to scrounge them from a lovely kitchen garden!  After removing as much of the stalk as you can, give them a good wash to remove any bugs and insects – a few ants were all that seemed to come in on these ones – and give them a good shake to remove any water, or put them in a salad spinner for a few turns.

Put the flowers into your jarThen put all your flowers in your jar. Mine is a 2l kilner jar but use whatever you have conveniently to hand – probably not something quite this large! Mine happens to be filled but it doesn’t need to be, 1/4 to 1/3rd full will still give you a lovely infusion, though the colour won’t be so striking.

Top up with vinegarNow top up with your choice of vinegar. To give you an idea, the 2l jar filled with flowers took just over 1.5l of vinegar to fill it all the way to the top.

Keep the vinegar bottles – you can re-fill them with the infused vinegar later. As an extra bonus, the labels came off these bottles pleasingly easily!

Now, close your jar, and put it somewhere cool and dark for a couple of weeks.  I’m planning to infuse it for 3 – 4 weeks, but  keep an eye on it and have the occasional taste, as it may be that you’re happy with it earlier. Once you’re happy, strain the vinegar through a fine sieve or a muslin back into the vinegar bottles, label, and store in a kitchen cupboard or larder until you’re ready to use it.

Infusing in kilner jar

There you go – simplicity itself! It’s thrifty, too – just the price of some basic vinegar, and a little bit of time, give you this gorgeous very special condiment. Make some this weekend, I promise you won’t regret it. In a few weeks you’ll be enjoying this gorgeous, fresh, oniony-summery-savoury note with all your favourite salads and summer dishes.  But keep some back, too, for later in the year. Like elderflower cordial, it brings an amazing bottled aroma and taste of summer to your table in the colder, darker months!

Look at this amazing colour!

P.S. Just a quick update to give you an idea of the colour – this is my vinegar jar after just 48 hours infusing in the cupboard under the stairs. Gorgeous, isn’t it?

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