Reviewed – “Back to Basics – Your Essential Guide to Make Do and Mend”

I was really excited to be asked to review this brand new ebook, ‘Back to Basics – Your Essential Guide to Make Do and Mend’ edited by the lovely Jen Gale. Jen has been somewhat in the forefront of the eco, thrifty, make-do-and-mend trend in the blogosphere and social media over the last few years. During that time, she has accumulated a mountain of practical experience (do take a look at her website, http://www.makedoandmend-able.co.uk, if you haven’t already) and connected with individuals with a wide variety of practical skills, many of whom contribute chapters to this ebook.

[Full disclosure: ‘Back to Basics – your essential guide to Make Do and Mend’ came to me free of charge as a review copy. Screenshots are used with permission. Any links provided are for interest and convenience, I don’t profit from them in any way. Jen is a twitter friend, and while I obviously wish her well with her project I have tried very hard to be fair and impartial in giving my opinions here.]

What’s in this book? Well, all kinds of things. Don’t know how to fix a puncture on your bike, or wire a plug? The instructions are here for you, alongside more ‘crafty’ tutorials on sewing skills – biased towards mending and altering – basic introductions for knitting and crochet, helpful hints on caring for your clothes and fabrics so they last you longer, tips on painting and re-upholstering furniture to refresh tired pieces without needing to buy new, and lots of other things besides.

Contents Page

Darning SkillsThis is intended to be an entry-level guide, and because it covers such a broad range of topics, some of the chapters will already be familiar territory to practical minded readers – that said, I did pick up a few extra little tips even in areas where I consider myself to be reasonably proficient (Tom Van Deijnen’s tutorial on darning knitwear is particularly good, as is Lauren Guthrie’s really comprehensive general overview and introduction to using and caring for your sewing machine).

Re-making GarmentsAlongside these, there are a few chapters that cover what I would regard as more advanced-skill level making do and mending – Franki Campbell explains how to break down a garment and make a new sewing pattern from it so that it can be recreated (and possibly modified in the process), something which scares me enough – I’m a muddling-along standard home sewer who can make curtains, blinds, and the odd garment for myself; I can imagine it being rather baffling to the novice sewer.

Crochet flowersThere are little projects included with some of the chapters, too, and these can be a weakness of the book. Some are excellent, like this little crochet flower broach. On the other hand, the knitted dish cloth ‘project’ (no more than a sample square of garter stitch, which you are expected to source brand new cotton yarn for) was a bit less inspiring.

I think this is probably an inevitable consequence of a book put together in this way, from a variety of contributors. The focus, skill level, and quality of these chapters does vary, and on occasion it can make the whole feel a bit ‘bitty’ and unfocused. But that said there is some really excellent material here, and if you find even a handful of the chapters useful it may well turn out to be a good purchase for you.

Cover ShotWho is the ideal reader for this book? It might make an good gift for a teenager heading off to university or to their own home for the first time – a really modern housekeeping guide for the 21st Century young adult. Older readers, looking to (re)discover crafty, thrifty DIY skills may also find a lot to like here. It’s a very beautifully put-together ebook, and a lot of hard work has obviously gone into the design and photography.

“Back to Basics” is available in ebook (PDF) format only, priced at £8. You can find out more, and download it here.

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We’re here! Just starting to get settled into our new life in Cornwall.

Thank you all for your patience in the recent blogging hiatus! We’ve moved (actually, we’ve been here four weeks now, I just feel I’ve barely had a chance to pause to draw breath since then!) and are starting to settle into this beautiful spot – and really start to realise all the work that is to come…

From the garden

This really does feel like a special little part of the world. We’re well off the beaten track, without mains water or drainage (mains gas is a wild and distant fantasy!) but with the amazing quiet and stunning scenery that comes from being just that extra little bit out of the way. The broadband is serviceable – good by very rural standards, actually – but any need for a Netflix subscription is a long way off… We’re lucky to have found ourselves with lovely neighbours, who we hope will become very good friends in time, and have been made wonderfully welcome and introduced to everyone in our great local pub. So far, no one seems to mind that we’re incomers, but are pleased that we’ve come to make a life long-term in their community, which is heartwarming.

 Sunset  At dusk  Meadow sunshine

I’ve been taking a few photos from the garden (because it’s just so pretty I can’t stop looking at it!) – that’s Bodmin moor, in the background of those photos. Our nearest village, Altarnun, which is mostly famous for having been the parish of the dodgy vicar in Dapnhe Du Maurier’s ‘Jamaica Inn’, has a gorgeous church, a little river running under an ancient stone packhorse bridge, and is exactly as full of whitewashed slate and granite cottages with flowers out in front as you might imagine.

The move itself was more than a little more ‘interesting’ than it might have been – one of our lorries was involved in a road traffic accident en route, and was held up for nearly a week while a new lorry was found and the contents transferred – the driver was blessedly uninjured, thank goodness – unfortunately for us the lorry contained all our plants and trees, which got to spend a week locked in the back of a lorry in a freight yard in full sun. We asked for them to be watered and I think that must have happened as they turned up in far better shape than we had feared – a few broken branches but not dried up husks. Otherwise, we’ve suffered the usual small number of breakages – thankfully though, nothing irreplaceable.

All of that somehow pales into insignificance now that we’re here. The insect and bird-life that we’ve seen just in the last few weeks is amazing – we have house martins nesting in the barn, and flycatchers and bullfinches join the more common sparrows, dunnocks, wrens, robins, blackbirds, thrushes, a variety of tits and some pretty serious birds of prey – buzzards definitely, but quite possibly kites, too – that we see in the garden, on the bird feeder, and out and about. At night, the swifts and house martins give way to lots and lots of bats.

I’m completely in love with the Cornish hedges – which are no such thing, of course, they’re mounds of granite packed with soil, as many an unwary motorist has discovered to their cost over the years. These are to all intents and purposes vertical wildflower meadows stretching for mile after mile, full of clovers and vetches, foxgloves, meadowsweet, cranesbills, honeysuckle, ferns of all shapes and sizes, and wild strawberries, so very lovely and unusual to see up at head height or above, walking between cornish hedges is a bit like lying face-down in a meadow, without the inconvenience and grass stains! I’m sure the hedges – and the grazing that they surround – are the reason we have so many wonderful butterflies, bees and other insects, and the amazing bird life in turn.

The houseThe house itself is beautiful, with bags of character, thick granite walls, slate floors and open fires, but it’s over 200 years old and was always likely to be troublesome – its first ‘surprise’ for us came in the form of a curtain of water running down the dining room wall when Hubby was having a shower a couple of weeks ago. The long and the short of it is we need to completely re-fit the shower and the bathroom tiles, something that we were planning to do in due course but wasn’t a priority for our currently rather strained finances. Ah well…

Apart from taming the overgrown grass, we haven’t even started on the garden yet… but the ideas, at least, are starting to come together.

Last weekend I started making the curtains and blinds for the living room from the gorgeous floral tapestry-like fabric we found for a bargain price on the Goldhawk Road market last time we were down in London. It’s not the easiest fabric to work with, but I think you’ll agree the results are quite rewarding? (There will be a blog post on how to make roman blinds coming up – the executive summary though? Very efficient on fabric yardage, but a lot more trouble than curtains in terms of time, effort, and required accuracy!)

Working on the blinds  Finished blind

I’ve discovered, meanwhile, that some beautiful fabric I had bought to make bedroom curtains for our old cottage – and never got around to because it soon became clear we would be moving before long – is *just* long enough to make two pairs of curtains for the new bedroom, even accounting for the inconveniently long 62cm pattern repeat. This discovery has made me implausibly happy.

Bookshelves!Just today we’ve managed to empty a load of book boxes onto the shelves. It’s amazing how much more lived-in – and less echoey – full bookshelves make a room seem! The cookbook collection finally has some space to spread out, a whole bookcase to itself! Of course I’m weeks behind with Cooking the Books now – who knows if I’ll ever manage to get caught up??

And of course, when we’re not trying to sort out the house, and I’m not at work (which feels like all the time at the moment!) there’s the wonderful Cornish coast and countryside to enjoy. Dave dog is absolutely delighted with his at-least-weekly visits to the seaside, something that could only be a very occasional treat when we were in the Midlands. We were even greeted by a swim-by of a pod of dolphins at Trebarwith Strand, Dave dog’s favourite beach.

What it's all about!

The weather has been absolutely gorgeous since we got here, which is both a joy and a torment, when I’m stuck at work sweltering staring at a beautiful sunny Westcountry summer’s day out of the window. Too warm, sometimes, for doing the things that we need to do around the house and garden – the pond remains un-dug and the trees are not yet planted – but at least the paint dries quickly!

I’ll stop rambling now as it’s a gorgeous sunny evening and while I’m sat in here typing, I’m not out there enjoying it! Hopefully the blog will feel a little less neglected over the next few weeks, though as I seem to be working all the hours, I’m not making any promises… All the stress and upset of the compulsory purchase of our lovely old cottage does seem to be fading into memory, and though I’m not a fatalist, something about how I feel about this place makes me wonder if we were meant to end up here all along..?

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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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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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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

I’m trying to write a post a day during Advent, so, please come along with me while I try to Blog Advent – the Country Skills Way – and forgive me if I don’t quite manage it!

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All Things Bright And Beautiful – Blog Advent (3)

I’ll be honest and say, I’m not a huge fan of outdoor Christmas home-illuminations!  Yes, sometimes you see some gorgeous efforts – a beautifully lit tree in a front garden, or some little tasteful icicles adorning a gutter – but so often, they’re really really naff!

This little home-made decoration is my concession to fairy lights around the front door, and hangs in the tall thin window which we have just to the side.  I think it’s really lovely, festive and welcoming, don’t you?

Front door lights

It was so quick to make, out of a small piece of left-over silver organza, and a cheap string of LED Christmas lights, so I thought I’d share it with you lot.  You can easily adapt the idea to fit any window or door which particularly needs a bit of sparkle!

Centre joinConstruction is very simple, it’s just a tube, closed at the top, and open at the bottom.  My fabric was too wide and not long enough, so there’s a join in the middle – this isn’t a problem! The open bottom needs to be hemmed, but nothing else does. I think the seams add a nice additional texture in the way the lights play on the fabric, so I didn’t make any effort to cut them really narrow or press them flat.  This is the reason I’ve left the long seam in the middle of the decoration, too, rather than trying to hide it away to one side.

Top detailThe wire for the lights goes in at the bottom (conveniently, your plug socket is likely to be down there somewhere!), and loops over a  few stitches up in the top of the tube before hanging back down again.  If you’re making this for a wider window, you could have two or three of these supporting clusters of stitches, and loop the lights over each in turn.  Finally, there’s a little loop right at the top to hang the decoration from.

Front door lightsI used my sewing machine, but it’s simple enough that you could easily run it up by hand if you don’t have convenient access to one.  This is what it looks like from indoors, it makes a lovely addition to the doorway from both sides, I think!

This is likely to be our only real decoration until we get the tree in a week or two – but it gives us an exciting promise of sparkly pretty things to come!

Advent - day 3I’m trying to write a post a day during Advent, so, please come along with me while I try to Blog Advent – the Country Skills Way – and forgive me if I don’t quite manage it!

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Felt Like This – washing machine felt, and five minute fingerless gloves

I have a confession to make – I can be a bit of a hoarder!  I’m at my worst when it comes to clothes, even when they’re worn out, damaged, or utterly unsuitable, not even good enough for the charity shop, I look at all the lovely fabric and can’t bring myself to throw them out. Instead, they end up pushed to the back of the cupboard, or in bags and piles for ‘doing something with’, one day.

Finished fingerless gloves

Browsing around the web a few months ago, I came across a reference to washing-machine felt, a technique for taking unwanted woollen knitwear and turning it into a wool felt which can then be used in other projects.  All the tutorials I found seemed to hinge on also having access to a tumble dryer (which I don’t), but I had a dig about in the back of the wardrobe, rounded up three dead jumpers (two of which had already suffered and shrunk a little in the wash) and decided to give it a go.  It’s important that the jumpers you’re felting are entirely – or almost entirely – made of natural woollen fibre, as polyester and other synthetics won’t felt properly.  Mine ranged from 80% to 100% wool.

The 'donor' jumpers, before feltingI threw them all in the washing machine with a scoop of normal detergent, and selected a 60 degree cotton wash with all the ‘extras’ selected – extra dirty, extra spin, you know the sort of things.  Kids, this is not a good or friendly thing to do to knitwear (do kids these days even wear woollens??).  The jumpers came out of the machine half the size they went in, and undeniably now made of felt.  Success – and no dryer required!  After a couple of days drying, I was ready to have a play.

The fabric you’ve made will now behave very much like manufactured felt (though it’s a bit thicker than the stuff you buy by the square foot at the craft shop – and rather more robust) or polar fleece. You can cut it without it unravelling, and the edges don’t need finishing.

Cut lengths from sleeves

For a really quick satisfying up-cycle from your first washing machine felt sweater, how about a pair of fingerless felt gloves?

Work out how long you want your gloves, and cut the appropriate length from the sleeves of the felted jumper.

Offer up for thumb position

You’ll probably want the cuffs of the sleeves to be the cuffs of the new gloves.

Snip thumb holesNow decide where you want your thumb holes, turn the sleeves inside out, and snip out that part of the seam from the inside of the sleeve, leaving a slit of the right length to fit your thumb through.  Err on the small size, you can always cut more later.

Completed fingerless gloveThat’s it, if you want it to be!  Not even five minutes work.

But you can embellish these gloves really easily, if you like.  The sky’s the limit, really, for embroidery and embellishment, but I decided simply to add some blanket stitch to the unfinished edges and thumb holes, using some pretty multicoloured contrasting knitting wool I had lying around.  Blanket stitching the cut edges, like I did, has the added bonus that it should stop the seam coming undone as time goes by.

Quickest, simplest fabric recycling project ever, isn’t it?  Anyone can do this, so give it a go!

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Adventures in Quilting – my first jelly roll, and baby steps in a new craft

A couple of weeks ago, friends introduced me to a wonderful local quilting shop, The Bramble Patch in Weedon, Northants.  All those beautiful fabrics made an impression on me, and I’ve been thinking about possible projects ever since.  Today I was back for a return visit, and whereas last time I escaped with five pretty fat quarters and a relatively small hole in my wallet, today’s visit was a bit more costly!

Jelly roll, fabrics & batting

I came home with a jelly roll – my first *ever* jelly roll – ‘Reunion’ by Moda, a metre of quilt batting, a metre and a half of a matching fabric from the Reunion collection to use as backing, as well as a couple of necessary bits and bobs.  I love the idea of jelly rolls – little strips of lots and lots of co-ordinating fabrics.  I would never buy even fat quarters of such a wide range of fabrics, and the diminutive size of the strips (just 2 1/2 inches wide) is its own challenge.  This collection is particularly lovely – in turns fresh and colourful, classic and muted.

Reunion by Moda fabric collection

My project, after consideration, is a set of six place mats and a co-ordinating table runner. I hope that the small size of the working pieces and the limited scope of the project should make it one I can pull off without too much stress or anxiety!  In deference to my complete lack of prior quilting experience, and relative lack of sophisticated general sewing skills, I’ve chosen the simplest possible pattern – just stripes of colour laid next to one another, edged by turning the backing fabric to the front side.  It’s such a pretty fabric and it saves a lot of faff with binding!

Finished place mat - front     Finished place mat - back

This is my first place mat – the size was chosen with my narrow dining table in mind and is about 22 x 36cm.  The more observant among you will notice one doubled seam where I messed up slightly – this just adds to the cosy hand-made feeling, in my opinion, and in any case is only visible from the back.  I’ll post a full how-to in due course once I’ve finished making it up as I go along – although talk about the blind leading the blind!  The backing fabric was folded over and the corners mitred by hand before being sewn down in a single row close to the edge.  I’m quite pleased with the final result, not bad for a first effort, eh?

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Piecing It Together – fabrics, quilting, and an amazing shop

I discovered the most amazing Aladdin’s cave of a fabric shop yesterday – friends took me along to The Bramble Patch in Weedon, Northants, and oh my goodness I was in heaven!  The Bramble Patch is really a quilting shop, but houses a veritable treasure trove of fabrics (including hundreds of fat quarters), patterns, kits, and accessories.  Kid in a candy store just doesn’t describe my feeling about places like this!

Fat Quarters at The Bramble Patch

I’m slightly in two minds about quilting – I think the end results can be stunning – particularly some the contemporary abstract / geometric patterns, and would love to have a gorgeous family quilt and be able to say ‘I made that’.

On the other hand, I’m a quick and dirty sort of seamstress.  I can’t see much merit in taking twice as long over a sewing project to achieve perfection – ‘good enough’ is good enough for me!  Quilting – and I would love to be proven wrong here – strikes me as the end of the sewing crafts spectrum that rewards accuracy and carefulness, rather than my ‘that’ll do’ attitude!

The range of patterns and kits on offer is really quite impressive – not to mention tempting! – in particular, some very sweet jubilee and union jack cushion covers.

Fat QuartersMuch to my husband’s apparent relief, I managed to escape with only five new fat quarters for the fabric stash – what he doesn’t quite appreciate, I think, is the brain-full of ideas and inspiration I’ve come away with too!

I’m extremely tempted to go on one of the quilting courses they offer (and no doubt much more of my hard-earned cash is liable to go their way in the future!) – in the meantime I’d welcome any tips and leads on utter-beginner quilting skills & project ideas you might know about!

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With Apologies for the Hiatus – it’s been a busy month!

There’s been a lot going on the past few weeks – my little sister’s wedding, the reason for the wedding bunting I’ve been making since Christmas, beginning a new job, and finally, now that we’re home from a much needed holiday, spring is well under way and we’re seriously behind on our garden preparations!

Congratulations to the bride and groom on a gorgeous wedding – very much their personal style and lots of beautiful handmade touches to the ceremony and reception. I was particularly taken by the home-grown baskets of bulbs as table centres, and the handmade pyrography favours.  The bunting was pleasingly well-recieved!

At the wedding

Normal service on the Country Skills blog will be resumed very shortly – including a round-up of my volunteers’ thoughts on their big bacon challenge results, more foraging tips, and how to make your very own home-cured ham!

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