Hugh’s on the Warpath – but is bin-shaming really the way to tackle food waste?

Last night the indefatigable Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall launched onto British television screens with a new crusade, ‘Hugh’s War On Waste’. After taking aim in previous campaigns at factory farming of poultry and against the practice of discarding fish catches at sea, this time his target is the vast scale of food waste in our homes and in the supermarket supply chain.

Let me start by saying, first of all, that I completely agree with Hugh’s view that food waste (and waste generally in our society, whether that’s disposable fashion or indiscriminate upgrading to the latest electronic gadget) is a disgrace. Perfectly edible food is wasted in the supermarket supply chain, downgraded for failing to meet the ‘Stepford Vegetable’ cosmetic standards the supermarkets insist that the British Housewife demands, or thrown in a skip when past the sell-by date. The food that makes it home with us is scarcely better off, discarded from our kitchens by the bag-full, whether this is misguidedly premature, led by confusion about food safety advice and the best-before date conundrum, or genuinely putrid, neglected and forgotten in the back of our fridges and the bottom of our fruit bowls, the victim of overbuying and poor meal planning.

Processed meat selectionThese two things, it seems to me, are very different problems; I think naming and shaming supermarkets (and other food businesses) for abusive contracts and wasteful supply chain practices is entirely worthwhile – they’ve shown that they don’t like having daylight shone on their dodgier business practices in the past – and has potential not just to reduce waste, but also to improve the situation of their farm suppliers, but I’m not all sure that rooting through people’s wheely bins on telly and shaming them for throwing away food is likely to have any useful effect on waste from homes.

Why? Well, people throw away food essentially for one reason – because they believe it’s ‘off’, and not good to eat.

Sometimes they’re right, as the hairy, slimy green peppers that I occasionally discover at the back of my fridge bear witness. But often they’re mistaken – much the food being discarded from kitchens is perfectly sound and being discarded on a precautionary basis by worried families without the food knowledge to tell the difference or the cooking skills to make great meals from ‘bits and bobs’ or ingredients which may be past their best, but remain perfectly edible.

People up aren’t throwing away edible food because they’re stupid, thoughtless, or enjoy throwing money away. They’re wasting food because they’re afraid of it. And the reason they’re afraid of it is, fundamentally, because of a huge gap in food skills that has developed in this country (and, I suspect, in many countries in the developed world).

Young adults in the UK today, if they’re unlucky, could be two generations away from the last person in their family who regularly cooked at home from fresh ingredients. Their grandmothers will have entered the workplace during WW2, and in many families, never left it afterwards. The war years with food rationing would have been inconceivably difficult, and the advent in post war years, first of domestic freezers, and then  of ready meals, would have seemed an incredible boon to these working families. As a result, many baby-boomers grew up in households where meals were rarely if ever cooked from scratch and their children, in turn, are now raising families of their own, stripped of the skills and knowledge that their grandmothers would have taken for granted, and with no obvious way of bridging the gap. It isn’t a matter of money, class, or even of general education, but rather a family-by-family lottery.

People I’ve known and worked with over the years illustrate this issue vividly. Lovely, intelligent ladies, all, and half a generation older than me for the most part. One refused to have anything in her fridge that wasn’t a sealed packet – anything, once opened and not consumed, was thrown away. My enquiries about leftovers were met with a look that I can only describe as alarm. Another fed herself, and her family, almost entirely on take-aways and what she called ‘ping-meals’ (microwave ready meals). Any jar she opened was labelled in permanent marker with the opening date and disposed of no more than seven days later – including very stable foods like jams and chutneys. Another admitted – and readers who grow their own veg might want to look away now – to furtively disposing of vegetables given to her by her allotment gardening neighbour, because they were ‘dirty, and had holes in’.

I genuinely don’t know how we solve this problem – but until we do, no amount of telling people it’s wrong to throw out food is going to make them eat something they suspect will harm them – quite probably wrongly, but nevertheless, or that they can’t see how to make into a meal. The lady with the bacon and eggs, shamed by Hugh into taking them back inside, is not, I suspect, going to eat them, no matter what she’s told. This skills gap, of course, has implications for problems beyond waste, including, most obviously, on heath.

I was incredibly lucky to have a grandmother who taught me a lot – not just about food and cooking, but in her attitude to life. Grandma, like many of her generation, considered wasting food to be almost sinful – I do wonder how we’ve come so far from this view now that we so often think of it as a normal part of life!

In the meantime, here are my top five tips for reducing kitchen food waste –

1) Buy the smallest fridge you can survive with, and the largest freezer you can find space for. And freezer baskets.

This makes sense when you think of how much perishable food goes into fridges only to be pushed to the back, forgotten, and allowed to go rotten. We have a much smaller fridge here in Cornwall than at our old house, not, initially, by choice. But by reducing the amount of fresh food we can keep to a couple of days worth of meat or fish and less than a week’s worth of green vegetables, we have dramatically reduced the amount of it that gets a chance to become inedibly past it’s best before we manage to eat it.

Sliced lemon and lime, bagged for freezingA big freezer gives you the capacity to freeze anything that you’re not going to get the chance to eat before it goes off, as well as freezing leftovers into home-made ready meals for later use. It also means you can keep a good variety of frozen vegetables which are a great, healthy, and low-waste alternative to perishable fresh vegetables.

Having access to a large freezer also means you can buy in bulk when you get the chance, and save money – but always remember to break large packs into sensible sizes before freezing – in our house packs of four chicken thighs are much more useful than trays of 20! But things can easily disappear into the back or bottom of large freezers, not to be seen for years – freezer baskets and a spot of organisation are essential to keep your frozen foods accessible and easy to find.

2) Don’t buy fresh meat, fish and vegetables from the supermarket. Definitely don’t buy ‘prepared’ vegetables.

Supermarkets sell fresh, perishable produce in pack sizes to suit themselves, not you. Then they often price them – with the help of 3-for-2 style offers – to encourage shoppers to take more home than they bargained for. The extra food may seem like a good deal, but unless it’s thoughtfully frozen, it will often end up going uneaten and ending up in the bin.

In addition to this, fresh fruit and veggies in supermarkets have sat in their supply chains for an awfully long time, far longer than you might expect in some cases – apples are stored in temperature controlled, oxygen-free warehouses which dramatically slows their deterioration, but that process cracks right on with a vengeance just as soon as the produce emerges from their enforced hibernation. Fruit and veg ‘fresh’ from the supermarket shelves often just doesn’t keep the way you’d expect.

Prepared fruit and veg – trimmed beans, peeled apples, diced mangoes, and the worst offenders of all, washed and bagged salads and stir-fry mixes – are some of the worst culprits in the food waste stakes. Despite the ‘protective atmospheres’ that these products are packed in, peeling, dicing, slicing and shredding vegetables dramatically reduces their shelf life (take two apples, slice one in two, leave the other whole, and stick them both in the fridge for a few days if you don’t believe me) making them much more likely to go to waste. And that’s without even considering the huge amount of packaging waste that also results from ‘prepared’ products.

A final reason not to buy fresh produce from supermarkets, is that their purchasing practices are pretty universally awful, full of waste and focused on supply-chain characteristics and cosmetic appearance far above flavour or nutrition.

So what are the alternatives? Well, find your local butcher and fishmonger, and buy from them. You’ll be able to get exactly what you want, in exactly the quantity you want – the quality will almost certainly be better than the supermarket, the butcher will likely be able to tell you about their origins, and you won’t end up paying over the odds, either. As for fruit & veggies your local grocer, if you have one, is ideal. That way, you can buy what you want, when you want. Veg boxes are great, but require a flexible approach to cooking and a willingness to try new things depending on what arrives in your box, so if this doesn’t honestly describe you, they may not be the right answer.

3) Meal planning

I admit, I’m bad at this one! But if you’re the organised, list-making type, it can save a lot of waste, not to mention a lot of money! If you can’t manage that, then try to keep a close eye on the contents of your fridge, bearing in mind what you’re going to eat today, and tomorrow. If there’s anything perishable in there that you’re not planning to eat in the next day or two, consider freezing it now – you can always defrost it again if you change your mind!

Not every food in your fridge will lend itself to freezing, but most will if you learn a trick or two. Meat and fish will usually freeze fine as it is. Milk, cream, butter and cheese, incidentally, can also be frozen – cream will often need to be whipped after defrosting, but is absolutely fine for cooking with. Vegetables often won’t freeze straight from fresh, but many will freeze really well after simple cooking such as dicing and roasting in the oven, or par-boiling.

4) Make and grow your own

I know this may seem impractical if you’re short on time and space, but even if you only grow a few salad leaves, some fresh herbs, or a single strawberry plant in a sunny window box, there’s something transformative about growing your own food.

Once you’ve planted the seed, cared for it, and watched it grow and ripen with anticipation, the idea of letting it go to waste is almost inconceivable. I go to great lengths to make sure I use every last thing I grow in my garden and polytunnel – freezing, pickling and preserving what I can’t use fresh – because the idea of wasting any of it makes me feel awful. That feeling can’t help but extend itself to food I buy, which, after all, has been grown with care and attention by someone else.

Tear & enjoyThe same principle extends to baking your own bread – one of the most wasted items in our kitchens. Once you’ve made your own glorious fresh loaf, believe me, it won’t be wasted. And you’ll go off the spongy supermarket rubbish pretty sharpish, too!

5) Up-skill!

Take every opportunity to improve your food and cooking skills and knowledge. I don’t mean by watching celebrity chefs on telly – that’s just sight-seeing. And you don’t need to go to expensive masterclasses or kitchen-school weekends.

Indian kebabs, servedKeen cooks are usually keen to share what they know – just look at the number of food bloggers out there! They will exist amongst your friends, your family, and your colleagues, so why not ask if you can cook with them? Perhaps there’s something else you can offer to teach them in return?

Practice. Experiment. Buy a few good cookbooks. And seize any opportunity to learn from others – from your grandparents, if they’re still with you, and other peoples’ Grannies, should the opportunity arise. Seek out older members of your family and learn what you can about your family food traditions. You never know, you may learn about a lot more than food!

Have you got any top tips on reducing food waste at home? Any bright ideas on how to close the food-skills gap? What do you think of Hugh’s approach to solving the food waste problem? Please comment below!

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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.

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

 

 

New Year, New Home – our plans for the garden

Crikey, we’re half way through January 2015 already – how did that happen?? It seems like only last week we arrived here, but it’s been over six months now since we moved, in the height of summer.

The house

It’s going to be an exciting year for us, and hopefully plenty of opportunities to showcase new skills and techniques here on the blog, too! Those of you who read here regularly will know that we were forced by the HS2 rail project to move from our lovely little cottage near Banbury. We decided to bite the bullet and make a big move – the move to the South West that Hubby and I had always told ourselves we would make ‘one day’, when the right opportunity arose. I have to say I’d always suspected the ‘right time’ might well have ended up being be 20 or 30 years from now, when we were thinking about retirement, so while it was a scary move, and stretches us financially, I’m delighted that we find ourselves here in Cornwall now, while we’re still young (well, relatively, hah!) and fit and able to work and build a life here and contribute to our local community. Even if it means we’re skint working-age folk rather than comparatively well-off retirees!

After an initial 6 months doing temporary contract work to keep our heads above water, I’ve started a new, permanent job for the new year, closer to home and with saner hours (occasional days off!) which will hopefully allow me to draw breath from time to time and spend a little more time making, doing and writing too!

So, as today is one such day, I thought I’d share a little about the projects we have coming up here at our beautiful new home in the course of the next year.

In the garden –

We’re amazingly lucky to have five acres of land with our new home, and in due course we hope to slowly build it up into a productive smallholding. For the time being we’re renting the pasture land to our neighbours for their sheep to graze, while we concentrate our time, effort, and resources around the house and gardens.

Dave dog on the paddock

Yes – gardens. I never thought I’d have gardens in the plural (well, if you ignore a scrap of front driveway!) but we have two, three if you count the old sheep fold where we’ve planted the orchard trees that we dug up and brought with us from our last home.

South gardenTo the south of the house, sloping away gently, we have a triangular garden with Cornish hedges on both sides which is going to be our ‘pretty’ garden. It has gorgeous views over Bodmin Moor and will be perfect for relaxing in on summer evenings if we ever get any time to rest!

The fish pondHubby has dug a pond here for our fish, who are settling in nicely, but otherwise this patch of land is likely to have to take a back seat for a while while we concentrate on more productive projects! With a bit of time and attention (ten years or so should do it!) I have high hopes for it being an even more beautiful place to be.

To the west side, we have an almost square, level garden with the house to one side and Cornish hedges to the other three sides, which essentially makes it a walled garden and the most protected growing space we have. This is an important factor as we’re nearly 900ft up on the edge of Bodmin Moor, and the winter weather and winds here can be a bit ferocious!

First raised bedsThis is going to be our kitchen garden, and as you can see the work has already started, the hens are settling in nicely, and the first three raised beds are planted with winter veggies.

We’re going to build a shed and a small seedling greenhouse here and add some more growing space as we go along. The soil is quite stony as we’re on granite and slate bedrock, but seems good and fertile so with a bit of luck and lots of patience and stone picking this should make for a lovely productive working garden. As long as we can keep the rabbits & mice at bay…

We plan to build a polytunnel outside the gardens to the side of the pasture paddock, to allow us to grow more tender plants like chillies, tomatoes, peppers and maybe even melons, and take even greater advantage of Cornwall’s lovely mild climate (well, by and large – it’s blummin’ chilly today!) and long growing season. The hens might even enjoy hanging out there in future winters, in the dry and out of the wind.

The hens nicely settledThe hens are doing OK now, after a disaster back in November when a stoat broke into the run and slaughtered three of the five girls we’d brought with us from Banbury. Of course, it killed my favourite, Midge, and I was completely heartbroken over the whole thing. We managed to find four new pullets to make up the numbers and all of them seem to be getting on really well now.

We’ve had far less trouble than on any previous hen introductions so we’re obviously getting the hang of this process. The new girls all have their own characters and temperaments and seem very chilled out around Dave dog, which is lovely.

There’s so much to do, but it’s so exciting! I’ve got some chillies in the heated window sill propagator (and rapidly realising I need a much bigger one!) and the first have germinated during the past few days. It won’t be long before every window sill in the house is full to bursting with seedlings – at least they’re nice thick walls, over two feet of solid granite for the most part, so I have plenty of ledge space.

Green shoots!

We missed out completely on last year’s growing season, which was torture. So even though we really should probably be focusing our time and efforts in other places, I refuse to let another whole growing year go by the wayside – it’s so very exciting to have seeds in compost again and to be seeing the very first green shoots of what should hopefully be our first great productive Cornish growing season!

Recycled cold frameIt’s a very conscious decision to concentrate our time and expenditure on the productive aspects of the gardens first – after all, the kitchen garden will go some way to feeding us. Landscaping and decorative planting, no matter how attractive, doesn’t help keep the larder stocked or reduce our food bills. We’re very much doing this on a budget, too – our rather lovely pair of cold frames are made from the glass out of the shower cubicle we had to replace when we got here.

Over the next few blog posts I’ll share with you some of our plans for the house – especially the kitchen – and for our outbuildings. Buckle up – it’s going to be a busy year!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Take A Seat – how to re-upholster a dining chair, for complete beginners

So your dining chairs are looking a little tatty. Perhaps the seat fabrics are stained, marked, torn, threadbare, or just looking rather dated and no longer suit your decor. Time to throw them out and start saving up for some new ones, perhaps? Don’t be silly! For a start, chairs are really expensive (I mean, easily £100 each for nice ones!). If the chair frame is still sound, then DIY re-upholstery or re-covering of the chair pads is a job which should be within the grasp of anyone with a few basic craft and DIY skills.

Before and after

In order to do this job properly, you will require –

  • A chair or chairs in need of restoration
  • Staple-removing tool or tools
  • Heavy-duty staple gun suitable for upholstery tasks, and staples
  • Replacement covering fabric, of the mid to heavyweight upholstery type
  • New bottoming fabric (non-woven synthetic material)
  • Replacement seat foam (optional, see later)
  • Basic everyday tools such as scissors, screwdrivers, iron and ironing board
  • Adhesive spray and stain-repellant spray may also be useful

The right tools for staple-removingIt is possible to cut corners on the equipment list, of course – you can remove staples using a flat-headed screw driver (not one you’re particularly fond of, as it will never be the same again!) and a reasonably heavy-duty desk stapler could be pressed into service instead of a staple gun, but having the right tools will make the job an awful lot easier and quicker, not to mention safer for you! A staple gun and hinged-type staple remover should set you back about £10 between them, so won’t break the bank.

I would definitely replace the seat foam if the chair is imported, or is older than the 1988 UK fire safety regulations, as upholstery foams before this date (and some of those still in use overseas) can be incredibly flammable. If you know your chairs are more recent than this, and the seat foam is in good condition, not stained or breaking down, then it’s reasonable to re-use what you have. This is what I’ve done in this tutorial, as I know the chairs are at most six or seven years old and were originally manufactured here in the UK. Obviously this is a DIY job for my own use, the chairs won’t be labelled as complying with the regulations after re-covering, and consequently will not be suitable for sale or for use in a furnished rented property.

I want these chairs to last me many more years, so I’m doing this properly – yes, you could just wrap an extra layer of fabric over what’s there already and staple it down, it’s a quick-and-dirty approach which will save you a lot of time and effort, but you will inevitably add bulk, particularly at the corners and underneath, and the seat pads may very well not sit properly afterwards. Stripping the seat pads down is pretty hard work and takes time, but for me it’s worth it in terms of the quality of the eventual finish.

Right, to work!

Chair in need of re-upholsteryThese are the chairs I’m re-upholstering. I bought them from eBay to match four I already have, but they are very stained and all my stain removal efforts have failed. If you turn your chair over, it’s very likely that you will find the seat pad held on by four screws through the base, one at each corner. Remove these and set the screws aside, you’ll need them again later.

Seat pad - bottomRemove the seat pad and turn it over. The view that greets you will probably be a bit like this one, a sheet of bottoming cloth held on with staples all the way around. This is light non-woven fabric, generally, and while it’s tempting just to rip it off, you’re going to want to remove all the staples anyway, so you might as well get started. Leaving staples in situ is a tempting effort-saving decision (trust me, it will once you’ve taken a few out!) but will interfere with neat tidy fitting of the new fabrics later on, and may affect the way the seat pad fits back into the chair.

Personally I find having one of the wooden-handled, curved, pointy staple removing tools a real benefit, even though they’re quite expensive (expect to pay about £15 for a new one – but it will last you a lifetime) – I use it on the staples first, just to ‘break’ the back of them and make a little space in the centre. Then I use the jointed plastic handled tool, which grips the staples to pull them out evenly. You could save a little money and buy just one or the other – they will do the job on their own but the curved tool struggles sometimes when one side of the staple comes free first, and you’ll need pliers to pull out the other end. The plastic tool has a chunkier tip and is much less easy to squeeze under the tight staple to start with.

The wrong tools for removing staplesI mentioned you could use a screwdriver – well, you can, but it’s not the right tool for the job, you’ll damage the corners using it for leverage, and will require a lot more force to use, too. All of which means it’s a lot more likely to slip, and damage parts of the chair you want to keep. Or, you know, your fingers. Obviously you should keep all your fingers *behind* any tool you’re using like this (be it a screwdriver or a proper staple removing tool). Don’t say you haven’t been warned!

Once the bottoming fabric has been removed, you’ll find even more staples holding on the top fabric. You’ve guessed it, these all need to go too. In all, it’s quite likely there will be well over 100 staples in each seat. It’s a long old job and until you get the knack of it can easily take over an hour for each chair. But it’s worth it for the quality of the eventual result.

Finally, you’ll have all the fabric off the seats. Probably, what you’re left with will be a wooden (plywood or chipboard usually) board and a foam pad, which may or may not be glued together. If they’re not glued down, or you’re replacing the foam pad, then it may be worth turning the board the other way up before re-fitting, particularly if it’s chipboard and crumbling a little where the old staples have been. If you’re replacing the foam, it’s easiest to take one of the existing pads to a foam supplier and ask them to cut replacements the same size and shape for you – most will be happy to do this though they may charge you something to do it. I’m keeping the foam pads, because they’re relatively new and in good condition still.

Cut out fabric and mark wrong sideYou’ve probably chosen your replacement fabric already, and really anything could work, so let your imagination run wild! The fabric I have used is actually salvaged from a pair of heavy cotton curtains we found in the house when we got here. I’d taken them down and washed them as I didn’t like them where they were, but the subtle neutral check pattern makes a great seat and goes really well with the natural oak of the chair frames. And also, you know, it’s free, which is awesome!

If you’re buying fabrics to use, a thrifty option could be to have a look at the second hand curtains for sale in local charity shops, where you may find a real vintage bargain! Try to choose a fabric of a similar weight to the one that you’ve removed, as this should make the seat pad fit back into position best, without unexpected gaps or excessive thickness. If you’re buying new, don’t feel you need to restrict yourself to upholstery fabrics – for a little job like this, clothing fabrics like denim or a heavyweight woollen cloth could make great alternatives. Do bear in mind that a fabric with an obvious check or stripe, like mine, will show up any wonkiness and uneven tension in the fabric re-fitting much more than a fabric without!

Pre-wash, dry, and then carefully iron your fabric before cutting out. I hate ironing as much as the next person (in fact, I pretty much only ever iron at all if I’m doing a sewing or textiles project!) but do go to the trouble of doing this, it’s important I promise! Washing your fabric first should both shrink it, if necessary, and improve your chances of removing stains from it in the future, should you need to, without causing colour run.

Using the old seat fabric as a template, cut out your new seat covers. I prefer to cut a little larger, and to cut to square corners, without ‘scalloping’ them out. This just provides more of a margin of error for the fitting process! If there’s any risk of confusion, mark the ‘wrong’ side of your fabric clearly when you cut it out, to ensure it goes on the chair right-side-out! If your seat foam isn’t already glued down to the wood, consider using some spray adhesive to do this, as if the two are fixed in position already, it will make stretching the fabric over them much more straightforward.

Fix straightest edge with staple gunThen, starting along the straightest edge of your seat pad, secure the fabric with your staple gun. The first side is simple, but of course it gets a bit trickier after that. Do the opposite side next, so that your fabric is nice and straight. While it *is* possible to stretch, hold, and staple the fabric on your own, this task is a lot easier if you can recruit a glamorous assistant to help you (hello, Hubby!).

Wrap over fabric snugly and fix opposite edgeYou will want to pull the fabric as tight as you can, and this will curve and round-off the cut edges of the foam in the process. Work slowly and keep the tension even. I tend to work in a divide-the-difference pattern, placing each new staple in the centre of a gap, rather than trying to work along a line from one end to the other.

Then fix sides, maintaining desired tensionThen do the same with the two other sides, though you might find it easier to work on both sides alternately, rather than securing one side and then the other. Just keep checking your tension is even and appropriate as you go along, and don’t be nervous of taking staples out and trying again if you’re not happy with the result!

Once you’ve finished the sides, fold the corners over neatly and secure these too.

Finally staple down corners

With a bit of luck, you’ll end up with seat pads that look a bit like this.  Now just to finish the bottoms. You could re-use the bottoming cloths that you took off in the first place – if you managed to get them off without tearing – but they’ll look tatty and new non-woven fabric to replace them is very cheap (it’s usually available in black, grey, white, or beige and costs a couple of pounds a metre, so choose the one that will blend in best). You could even forget about it and just re-fit the seats as they are, but that will leave the raw edges of your covering fabric exposed and these will eventually fray.

Cut out replacement bottoming cloth using old fabric as templateA word to the wise – take it from me, and do not attempt to iron your bottoming fabric. Doing so (even on your iron’s lowest setting) will result in ruined fabric and a nasty sticky mess on the bottom of your iron. Do you really need to ask how I know this..?

Attach new bottoming cloth with staplesCut out the bottoming cloth using the old one as a template, and then staple this in place over the seat bottom, concealing all the rough edges and staples securing your top fabric as you do.

Treat seat pads with stain-repellant sprayMindful of why I had this job to do in the first place, I got out my trusty can of Scotchgard spray (other stain repellant products are available) and treated the re-upholstered seat pads before re-fitting them. This would also be a good time to make any repairs to the wooden chair frames, and oil, varnish, or even paint these if necessary.

Finally, fix seat pads back in position with screwsOnce everything is done, re-fit the seat pads using the screws you set aside at the beginning, and stand back and admire your handiwork! Aren’t they fine? I’ve only got another four to do, now!

Just consider the possibilities – old dining chairs in need of re-upholstery sell online and in general auctions for pennies on the pound compared to new ones. Doing the job yourself takes a little time and effort, but you can produce a really professional looking result, save a heap of money, and bring a great vintage feature into your home, too!

Admire your finished chairs!

 

Still doubt that this is a beginner’s project? Well, these chairs are the first things I’ve ever upholstered. If I can do it, I have no doubt that you can, too!

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Basic Butchery – how to spatchcock a chicken (or any other poultry!)

This is a really useful kitchen skill to master – and really straightforward! If you can portion a chicken, you can definitely do this – actually, spatchcocking is quicker and simpler. Why spatchcock a bird? Well, it’s a fantastic way to prepare a whole bird for the BBQ or oven, it opens up the carcasse, making it more even in thickness, and allowing the air to circulate evenly around both sides. And if you’re adding flavour in the form of a marinade, it’s easy to coat the bird generously on both sides.

Whole chickenIf you want to prepare a whole bird for the BBQ or grill (and why wouldn’t you – it’s so much more exciting and impressive-looking than chicken portions!) then this is the very best way to go.

Start by un-trussing your chicken, removing any string or elastic from it.

Cut from parson's nose towards neck endTurn the bird breast side down, and identify the ‘parson’s nose’. Now, with a stout pair of kitchen scissors, start to cut from one side of the parson’s nose, straight along the length of the bird towards the neck end. You’re cutting just to the side of the backbone, and through ribs and other quite solid grissly bits (this will be much less obvious on a poussin, quail, pheasant or other small bird) so don’t worry if it seems a bit tough!

Repeat the process the other side of the parson’s nose and backbone, and remove it altogether. See, simple as that!

Remove backbone  With backbone removed  Flatten breast area

Turn the bird over so that the breast side is up,and press down firmly over the breast area so that the wishbone snaps and the bird lies flat. Trim off the knuckle parts of the legs, and any loose skin from the neck area to tidy things up.

Finally insert skewers to hold shape

Finally, take two long skewers (ideally you would use metal skewers but mine are too short – bamboo bbq skewers like these are fine though) and starting at the thickest part of the breast, thread them through diagonally, ending up passing right through the thigh on the other side of the bird.

You’re done. How easy was that? Marinade them however you like (how about a whole jerk chicken using my fabulous dry jerk rub?) and get that BBQ going! What better treat this Bank Holiday weekend!

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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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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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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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Halloween Rib Cage T-Shirt – five minute fancy dress

Oh no – you’ve got a Halloween party this evening, and to call your costume an afterthought is, sadly, dramatically to over-estimate the amount of thought that has actually gone into it so far!  We’re just back from a lovely week in Cornwall, eating great food and walking the dog on the beach.  I’d completely forgotten about our village pub’s ‘costume optional’ Halloween event this evening until we got home about an hour ago!

Halloween Rib Cage T-shirt

But, all is not lost.  Look at my natty outfit (kindly modelled here by Hubby)!

This really is a five minute costume project.  It’s thrifty, too, and no sewing required.  You’ll just need to round up the following –

  • A ‘sacrificial’ black t-shirt,
  • a white-t-shirt that you’ll get to wear again,
  • a cutting mat, small rotary cutter, and a tailor’s chalk / pencil, and
  • a basic grasp of human anatomy (google images can help you with this bit!)

Find the approximate centre lineStarting with the black t-shirt inside out, mark out the centre line as best you can.  This will be surprisingly difficult to do with any accuracy as the quality control on these things is always shockingly poor, so a decent best guess at it is perfectly alright.

Mark out ribsNext, using the tailor’s chalk, mark out a set of ribs to one side of your centre line.  There are lots of rib cages in google images to look at, and I found the PDF template for a much more complicated version of this project on marthastewart.com was a useful guide to the general size and shape of the ribs.  Remember to offer up to the white shirt you’re planning to wear underneath to make sure you’re not massively ‘out’ when it comes to necklines.

Fold for cuttingNow, fold the t-shirt in half along your centre line, so that you have both halves of the front of the shirt front-to-front and your chalk markings showing, and the cutting mat underneath.

Cut along markings with rotary cutterCut carefully along the rib markings with your cutting wheel, through both layers of t-shirt, so that the pattern is cut as close as possible to identically on both sides of your chest.

That’s it, unfold your t-shirt, and put the cutting mat inside so you can tidy up any bits the cutter hasn’t cut cleanly.

And you’re done.  Simple, or what?

You could do the back now – but don’t cut the same pattern, as the back of the rib cage differs quite a bit from the front!  But if you can’t be bothered, pair it with a cape (or a long dark coat!), dark trousers or a black skirt and knee boots, and – if you’re feeling especially keen! – a scythe made from a broomstick with a cardboard and tinfoil blade.  You’re all set!

Time to get ready to party without feeling like you’ve completely failed to go to any trouble!  Enjoy your parties, folks, and have a ghoulish good time!

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