Light ‘Em Up – candles in Christmas trees – Blog Advent (20)

Like Scrooge, we’re all haunted, a little bit, by the ghosts of our Christmases past.  In my ‘Blog Advent’ post on December 6, I wrote a little about my memories of St Nicholas, from the time I spent growing up in Switzerland as a young child.  These were my formative Christmas memories, so of course I hark back to them every year.

A very Swiss tree

One tradition which is still widely practiced in Switzerland and Germany – and not at all, in the UK – is the habit of putting real candles in domestic Christmas trees.  I love this – it feels so utterly ‘proper’ and festive to me!  Yes, of course it’s a fire risk – but so is any lit candle or open fire.  Our neighbours, in the small Swiss village where we lived, seemed to manage to avoid setting fire to their houses every year!

Tree candlesHubby is very British about this – the whole idea seems to him like a huge fire hazard just waiting to burst into a ball of flames.  I asked him to suggest a title for this post and his suggestion ‘Flaming Torch of Christmas Death!’ rather sums up his position on the issue!  It’s not so black and white, to me – after all, people were managing to set fire to their living rooms with the small incandescent Christmas tree lightbulbs well into the 21st century.

But all good relationships are about compromise, so while I wait for him to come around to my way of thinking (this, folks, may well be some time!) I picked up these pretty hanging baubles designed to take tea light candles.  Rather than equip them with a naked flame, I’ve used some LED tea lights which, while not *quite* convincingly the real deal, flicker gently with a warm golden light, and, at least out of the corner of your eye, might just be little candle flames in my tree.

Compromise candles

Not many days left on the advent candle, either!  I had so many bits and pieces I wanted to get done today – my last weekday off between now and Christmas – but instead I spent most of it gently nursing this nasty cold.  Here’s hoping it’s gone by the weekend!

Advent - day 20

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Life’s A Beach – driftwood decorations – Blog Advent (19)

It feels like a very long time since we were on the beach in Cornwall with Dave, back in October!  Dave adores the beach – the seaside is his favourite ever place.

Dave on the beach

After he was done posing for his portrait (well, doesn’t the backdrop suit him??), I indulged in a spot of beach combing along the strand line, and collected up some pieces of driftwood. Only small lengths, the longest was about 8 inches long.  They had to fit in my pocket!

Driftwood Christmas tree

I put them together into this small driftwood Christmas tree.  It’s lashed together with jute twine, a bit like the twig and twine star decorations I made earlier this month.  If you wanted it a bit more solid, it would be simple to add a blob of hot glue or other adhesive between the ‘stem’ and the ‘branches’ before wrapping with twine or ribbon in whatever decorative way you favour.  It makes a very pretty hanging decoration – I’ve got it on the end of a bookcase in the hall.

The scale is a question only for your imagination and your driftwood supply!  I had visions of making a tree a couple of feet high, possibly hanging, with a thick piece of jute rope threaded through a drilled hole in the centre of each of the driftwood branches.  An idea for the future, perhaps – I need to live a lot closer to the sea!

Advent - day 19

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Take Your Medicine – my perfect hot toddy – Blog Advent (18)

One of the Christmas traditions I don’t relish, but seem to ‘enjoy’ every year all the same, is my traditional pre-Christmas cold!  Well, it’s here again, and almost perfectly on schedule! You have to look for the silver lining at times like this, and the up-side of a filthy winter cold is the perfect excuse for a beautiful hot toddy.  It’s medicinal, honest!

Toddy ingredients

My toddy is whisky based.  But don’t use your best single malt – if your nasal passages are as stuffed up as mine, there’s no chance of you knowing the difference!  You also need some honey, a lemon, a few cloves, three or four whole allspice berries, and a cinnamon stick.  Oh, and some hot water.

Cut two thin slices from your lemon and stud each with a couple of cloves.  Put these in your glass (I use a big red wine glass which I know can take the heat – they’re the glasses I use for mulled wine – but a tumbler or a glass with a handle are more traditional!) along with your allspice berries and cinnamon stick.  From what’s left of your lemon, cut a wedge amounting to about a quarter of a lemon and squeeze the juice into the glass.  Add two teaspoons of the honey (more or less to taste – that’s my personal preference) and a double measure of whisky, and stir with your cinnamon stick until combined.

Now top up with water from the kettle, which you’ve allowed to go just off the boil.   If you’re not *that* keen on cinnamon, take the stick out at this point, otherwise leave all the whole spices in.  Stick your nose in the glass and breathe deeply – you should be able to appreciate the spicy aromatic hit through even the thickest head cold.  Then sip, and enjoy.  All the Christmas spices with a bonus dose of vitamin C, and some lovely soothing whisky.  Drink it while it’s still piping hot.

How could something that tastes so wonderful fail to be good for you???   You know, I think I may be poorly enough that I need to take a second dose!

Advent - day 18

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Mon Beau Sapin – Blog Advent (15)

Grabbing a few quick minutes to blog this evening before some very lovely former colleagues turn up for food, drink, and hopefully some special memories (ahem!).  Since I’ve been tidying ahead of their arrival, I thought I’d show you this year’s Christmas tree.  Here he is – isn’t he grand?

The Christmas Tree

I’m very pleased with how he’s turned out – and that he fit! Is it just me or do they always look much smaller when you’re choosing them than when you get them home?  Every so often I consider choosing a smaller one, but then where would I put all my beautiful decorations?

The title of the post, incidentally, refers to the French language version of ‘Oh Christmas Tree’, to the same tune – I grew up with the francophone version, and have always preferred the lyrics.  They seem less contrived, somehow!

Only ‘ten sleeps’ ’till Christmas now.  Hasn’t it all come around fast? The advent candle is more than half way burnt down!  Hope all your Christmas plans are coming along nicely!

Advent - day 15

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Get Stuffed – filled glass bauble decorations – Blog Advent (11)

Just a quick decoration ideas blog this evening – a lovely personal way to brighten up plain glass Christmas baubles.

Filled baubles

These are a handful I made this evening, using some feathers I gathered up from my hens earlier in the year when they were moulting, as well as some left over metallic skeleton leaves from last year’s Christmas crackers.  Last year, I made a few with shredded up knitting wool – the little tutorial I wrote then goes through the basic process, so I won’t repeat myself.

Glass bauble with feathers  Metallic skeleton leaves  Chicken feathers

The rather scary surgical-looking forceps in the image above aren’t compulsory, but are a very useful tool for feeding feathers and leaves through the small opening to the bauble, and arranging them inside if necessary.  I picked these up in a pack of mixed instruments for a couple of quid from a craft supplier on eBay, they’ve come in very handy for one thing and another!  But if you haven’t got anything like that, a pair of tweezers will work almost as well.  Do get real glass baubles – they’re much more attractive that the plastic ones and usually much easier to break into, too!

You could use anything you like, of course – pretty sand from a favourite holiday beach, little shells, glitter, or artificial snow with some small Christmas decorations might make an interesting seasonal twist?  I’m really looking forward to getting the tree up on Thursday to see how they work with all my other decorations!

Advent - day 11

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Warm Fingers Never Felt So Good – mittens from washing machine felt – Blog Advent (10)

A couple of months ago, I shared a bit of a teaser with you about working with washing machine felt, with a simple technique for making a pair of five minute fingerless gloves.

These mittens are slightly more time consuming, but still really really simple and quick, an easy little hand sewing project to do in an evening in front of the TV.  Better still, they’d make a great personal gift!

Machine felt mittens

You’ll need the following –

  • A washing machine felted sweater.  See here for details on the (easy!) process.
  • Some scrap cardboard, a pencil and scissors for the mitten template.  A tailor’s chalk pencil is useful but not essential.
  • Some thick thread for assembling your gloves.  I used some multicoloured scrap knitting yarn in contrasting / coordinating colours.  Knitting yarn, incidentally, makes really really *rubbish* sewing thread, so see if you have something better – embroidery floss would be great, or how about some really thin (3mm) ribbon? Decorative and contrasting is good – I like the effect – but you could go for something to blend into your sweater felt if you prefer.
  • A really chunky hand sewing needle.  I used one intended for use on sacking fabric with a bit of a spade-end, which makes a nice big hole in the thick felt so that the double thickness of thread passes through more easily.

TemplateTo start creating your template, draw around your hand on the cardboard.  This is the time to decide how long you want the cuffs of your mittens.  Also, I suggest you have your fingers in a relaxed position slightly apart, not all cramped together – this should make the mittens more comfy later!

Next, I measured around the knuckles on my hand and compared the measurement to the appropriate part of the flat silhouette drawing on the card.  You’ll find the circumference is more than twice the silhouette measure – your hand has depth! – for me this was about an extra 2cm.  I don’t need a seam allowance for these mittens (more on this later) so I added about 5mm all the way around the hand silhouette.  Smooth the shape off at this stage to make it nice and pleasing.  [Those of you who have ever drawn a glove or mitten patten will spot my deliberate mistake here – if you haven’t, then I suggest you read the rest of the post *before* you go ahead and cut out your template!]

Mark up feltCut out your cardboard pattern, and using tailors chalk if you have it (or anything else that will draw on your felt, if you don’t) mark up four copies onto the felt.  Arrange the cuff end against the waistband of your felted jumper – this way, you get to cheat and use the waistband detail from the jumper for the cuff of your mittens.

Mitten halvesThe great thing about washing machine felt is that you’ve taken a knit fabric that would unravel, and solved this problem.  You can slice it up just as you like and it behaves very much like polar fleece (and actually, if you have some scrap polar fleece – or you’re allergic to wool – it would make a great substitute fabric for this project). Now cut out your four mitten shapes and assemble them in pairs.

I mentioned earlier that I wasn’t including a seam allowance in the template.  This is because the felt is really quite bulky fabric – great for nice warm toasty fingers in your mittens, but it would be really very cumbersome if you had it doubled – or more – at the seams. I’d guessed there must be edge-to-edge stitches, though I hadn’t used them before, and a bit of googling turned up a perfect solution for this project, which is called ‘Old German stitch’.

Old German stitchHopefully this image illustrates it usefully, but briefly, you assemble the two edges to each other, with the thread emerging on top of one edge, passing into the gap, and going into the other piece from below, emerging on top, passing back through the gap, and so on.  This produces an edge to edge seam without overlap which, because the thread crosses through the gap every time, is protected from the problem of the edges overriding which you’d likely get if you used a slip stitch.

Sewing around to thumb, with insert pieceNow, you can start to sew.  I started at the wristband on the little-finger side of the pattern, and worked around progressively until I reached the tip of the thumb.  I’ve mentioned that knitting yarn makes horrible sewing thread.  This particular yarn tended to shred itself, after a while, and had hideous knot-holding properties which made it really challenging to start, finish, and join.  Don’t say I haven’t warned you!

It’s at this point that my rookie pattern-cutting mistake becomes painfully obvious.  The mitten is the perfect size on the palm and fingers, but far far too narrow on the wrist.  A quick bit of wrist and mitten measuring confirmed that at the cuff, we were going to be about 5cm short.  The only solution – other than starting again with a new sweater! – was to add an insert piece – a triangle, 5cm across the short edge, and as tall as the distance from thumb-tip to cuff.  You can see this in the photo just above.

Three pieces, assembledIf you don’t want to make this as a three-piece pattern, then you should get this wrist circumference incorporated properly into your pattern template in the first place, adding an extra ~2.5cm to the cuff end below the thumb.  Actually, I really like the three part shape, though it was a complete accident.  I think it adds a nice detail, and gives proper ‘depth’ to the thumb construction.

Finished mittensYou’re done at this stage, if you want to be.  I decided I wasn’t bored of hand sewing yet, so I went on to add a row of blanket stitch along the cuff.

These are really great, warm, practical mitts. I’ve been wearing them loads over the past few weeks.  They’re not waterproof, but they’re warm and cozy and have stood up really well so far to plenty of use.

Better still, the world is your oyster in terms of colours (so go on, raid that pile of old sweaters in the back of your wardrobe!) and detailing.  You could even embroider the back of the hands, if you were feeling especially keen!

So, if you want to create a special, warming handmade gift this Christmas, you still have plenty of time to make these.  Go on, you know you want to!

Advent - day 10

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Can’t See The Tree For The Lights – invisible outdoor decorations – Blog Advent (8)

I know I’ve said I don’t like outdoor decorations much, but I make an exception for simple, fresh, crisp white lights.  I love the solar outdoor fairy lights that have become available over the last few years, for very reasonable prices.  The last couple of years I’ve strung a string through the bare branches of the small apple tree in our garden – but I thought I’d try something different this year!

Light Tree

This outdoor ‘tree’ smothered in light is so simple and very effective!  You need a set of outdoor solar lights – this was a string of 100 lights on a 12m strand, six bamboo canes – mine were old 6ft ones I had lying around from the veg patch this summer, and some string.  You could obviously make a bigger or a smaller tree, depending on your preferences and the lights you have available.

Arrange your canesStart by arranging the bamboo canes in a rough circle.  This is really easy in our lawn this winter because it’s been so wet recently!

Form into teepee shapeNow tie the tops together firmly with some string or wire, whatever you have to hand, so that the canes are in a teepee shape.  You don’t need a garden, of course, you could also create this in a pot planter on a sunny patio or balcony.

Wrapped with lightsFinally, set up your solar lights.  Usually these come with a small photovoltaic cell on a spike – you can install this in the centre of the ‘tree’.  Then, starting at the top, just wind the lights around and around your tree, spreading them out as evenly as you can.  Secure the ends with string if necessary, leave the lights to charge and wait for sunset.

I like it just simple as it is – but you could add some extra ‘tree’ details if you liked, like a star topper or some cheap plastic baubles.  I rather like the fact it almost entirely disappears into the garden during the day, and only becomes a feature after dark.

Advent - day 8

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A Festive Welcome – recycled fabric wreath – Blog Advent (7)

For many years I made a Christmas wreath every year out of spruce, holly and ivy, around a straw wreath-form which had been knocking around for years.  Eventually it fell apart, and instead of buying a new one, I made this – it was made really quickly, and I didn’t expect it to last as well as it has, but it’s now been our front door decoration for four or five years, and looks as good as ever.

Fabric Wreath

It’s another recycled craft, really.  At the base, it’s a wire coat hanger, shaped into a circle with the hook folded over into a triangular hanger for the wreath.  I wrapped this around with the sort of brown packing paper that turns up in all your festive purchases from online retailers at this time if year – just scrunch the paper lengthwise into a sausage shape and wrap it around and around, securing with some sticky tape here and there when you need to.  Use newspaper, if you haven’t got packing paper.  You could even use plastic packing wrap, or bubble wrap – whatever you have to hand, really, as long as it ends up with your coat hanger fairly evenly wrapped.

Now measure the circumference of your wrapped hanger, and get the long measurement from the hook all the way around the outside edge.  Add about an inch for hemming, and this is your fabric requirement.  I was lucky to have some blue and green-based tartan curtain offcuts, but you can use whatever you like.  Fancy a runched-effect?  Use a longer piece of fabric than you need.  If you have a sewing machine to hand, roughly sew your half inch hems on all four sides of your rectangle (I did this really really roughly, with a wide zig-zag stitch!).  If not, then just press them down with an iron to fold them over.

Back view - seamWrap your fabric around your homemade wreath form, starting at the hanger.  Slip-stitch the long seam by hand in as discreet a colour thread as you have. Don’t worry about making this beautiful, though, since it’s going to end up on the back!  Once that’s done, join the two ends of the tube around the hook.  Perhaps ladder stitch this part to make the join as tidy as possible, though if you look at mine I’ve covered the evidence with ribbon!

Really, that’s it – find some pretty Christmas ribbon in a coordinating colour and wrap it around, perhaps add a bow at the top.  Hang it on your door to welcome your festive guests!

Advent - day 7

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We’re On A Roll – recycled gift box – Blog Advent (5)

Just a really quick, simple Christmas gift wrapping tip for you all tonight – I can’t even claim it’s original, since I saw the idea on Pinterest a few months ago, but it stayed with me as something cute, and really rather useful!

Finished wrap

You will require...Here’s a cheap, quick, attractive, and recycled way to wrap small gifts this holiday season, using only things you already have – the cardboard centre of a toilet roll (or kitchen towel roll, or the centre of a roll of wrapping paper), some small scraps of wrapping paper, and some ribbon, raffia, or twine.  Yep, a toilet roll centre.  Nothing but the best here at the Country Skills Blog!

Wrapped and flattenedStart by wrapping the cardboard roll in a piece of wrapping paper – I had some gold tissue paper lying around, so I used that.  Tuck in the ends.  Now flatten the tube.

Fold over endsThis is the cute bit.  Simply fold the ends towards the centre to form a small curved box.  You’ll need to form the fold along a bit of a curve.  It’s worth playing with an unwrapped tube first, just to get a sense of the shape you’re after.  Hell, it’s something to do instead of the sudoku while you’re sitting on the throne!

Completed boxAnd here’s your completed box.  Just tuck whatever special little gift you’re wrapping inside, perhaps folded into an extra piece of tissue paper, and tie it up in a bow with some ribbon, raffia, twine or even knitting yarn!  Gift boxes can be so expensive – this one looks a million dollars, is a great solution to the ‘fiddly little package’ problem, and costs nothing!

Dave's tube!I was going to show you a bigger one made from a section of wrapping paper tube, but Dave thought better of the idea.  He says you all seem like smart people and he’s sure you can work it out for yourselves!

Now I’ve got a little confession to make – last night, while I was writing up the hazel and twine Christmas star decorations, I took my eye off the advent candle and we got a bit ahead of ourselves – all of today’s candle burned and half of tomorrow’s!  Oops!  It looks a bit sad tonight!

Advent - day 5

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Star of Wonder – simple twig and twine decorations – Blog Advent (4)

Blogging on work nights is a bit of a challenge – but here’s what I’ve been up to the past few days, in bits and pieces, finished off during my lunch break today – some really pretty, simple, twig and twine Christmas star decorations (I wrongly described these as Star of David decorations – they’re not of course, but you could easily make those if you prefer them!).

Hazel stars

Preparing your twigsMine use some thin hazel ‘whips’ we pruned from our hedge a few weeks ago, but anything would do – willow or ash would be particularly suitable as they tend to grow nice and straight, but a quick scavenge around the garden, park or woods should yield something you can use.  The only other things you need are some string (I used jute twine because I think it’s pretty, but raffia or plain cotton or linen string will do just fine), and some fabric glue (I’ll get to this later).

Arrange your piecesCut your twigs into even lengths using garden cutters – I wanted different sized stars, so I cut the thicker ends of the twigs into longer pieces than thinner bits.

Now, I’m going to pause the how-to quickly to teach you a little trick you really need to know, and it’s a knot known (to me anyway) as a ‘packer’s hitch’ – I’m informed by my sister, who knows better, that it’s properly called a clove hitch!  It’s a self-tightening double loop, so is ideal for this sort of job – or any other situation when you’d otherwise be calling out for someone’s finger to hold the knot for you!  I’ve illustrated it below, but basically you form two loops in the same direction, then take the second and pass it behind the first.  Anything you pass through the centre of the two loops is caught in your noose, pulling the ends tightens it but because the way the knot is constructed, it’s very unlikely to loosen itself again.  Tying a second throw over the top, as in a reef knot, secures the hitch permanently.

How to tie a packer's hitch

Points of star, tiedForm a packers hitch, and use it to tie the tips of two of the twigs together.  Don’t complete the knot with a second throw at this point, you’re just loosely securing the ends.  Work your way around all five points of your star.

Now, have a bit of a play with your twigs to make sure you’re happy with the shape, the more even the better, but twigs are an organic thing, so the aren’t always straight or completely even!  That’s part of the beauty of these little decorations.

Knots placedOnce you’re happy with the shape, start tying the twigs together where they cross over in the centre. I use a knot which crosses over to stabilise the joint.  Make sure you arrange these so that the knots are on the same side as those from the packer’s hitches!  Just like these hitches, don’t complete the knots, just tie the first throw.

This is the time to decide which point of your star is the top, if you’re planning to hang it.  If so, replace the packers hitch on the top point with one made with a much longer piece of twine, so there’ll be plenty of length to work with.  If you want a string of stars, do the same thing with the centre point at the bottom, letting a long tail hang down.

With centre knots completeNow, go around all of these knots and put a blob of glue on the knot – I used fabric glue, because it was what I had to hand, but anything which goes on or dries to clear should be fine.  Now tie your knots nice and tight, and add an extra throw, if you like.  The glue is to stop the knots unravelling when you cut the tails off really short, which is what you’re going to do next.  Now do the same with the packers hitches at the points, making sure that you tie everything as tight as possible before securing the knots down with a blob of glue.

Finished starsIncidentally, I apologise for the classy ‘Costcutter’ bag, it was protecting my table at work from the consequences of my lunchtime activities!

That’s it, you’re done, if you want to be.  I think they look great ‘au naturel’, but I’m planning to get out my gold spray paint and just add a slight ‘burnish’ which I think will really add that final detail to the finish.  You could spray them any colour (or combination of colours!) to suit your decor.  Also consider adding glitter, beads… whatever takes your fancy!

This would make a really good kid’s Christmas craft, I think – no dangerous parts (assuming a grown up cuts the twigs up!), fiddly enough to be challenging without being overwhelming, with a pretty end product, and knot-tying skills to boot!  Perhaps one to try with a group of children at a Christmas party, club or youth group?

Advent - day 4

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