The day I learnt how to flip a sheep…

Well, the title got your attention, didn’t it?

One of the  things I do quite regularly is take myself off on long walks. I’m lucky that I live near the countryside and so it’s always pleasant to go off on a wander. A few months ago, I saw that the council was looking for volunteer shepherds- ‘lookerers’- who could help out by checking the sheep they put in certain areas of the city, checking the fences and so on. I figured that, as I go up there regularly anyway, I could probably help out a bit. After all, I’m a knitter. I like sheep. I applied. And on Sunday, I attended a course.

First of all, I had to follow a trail of little wooden sheep to get to the council rangers’ office. I felt like I was in a slightly surreal version of Hansel and Gretel.

I'm following a procession of little wooden sheep and for some reason this tickles me:

Once I got there, we went over the day- we were to spend the morning out in a local area called Sheepcote Valley, where the council is currently grazing sheep: a mixture of Cheviot, mules and, my absolute favourite, Herdwick sheep- which literally do not have time for any of your nonsense, thank you very much. They’re quite sassy and don’t really have the herd mentality of the other types of sheep.

Sam, the farmer, invited us to have a go at flipping sheep. He makes it look easy. It is not easy. First of all, even in a pen, it’s bloody hard to catch a sheep. They jump and then huddle together in a huge, fleecy puddle of ovine nervousness. Then, you’ve got to get their head just so on one side. If you manage that, they then relax. You can then tip them onto their bottoms, legs in the air, looking like some little Buddha statue; a picture of content. As long as their feet aren’t on the floor, they’re cool. Could I manage to achieve sheep nirvana?

No. I have no upper body strength. I have decided that, if on my rounds, I find a sheep that needs looking at, I will call somebody. I have also come to the conclusion that, if there was a life or death situation involving me and a sheep, we’d probably wing it instinctively.

Also: this sheep below watched the whole thing as my fellow lookerers-to-be made earnest prats of ourselves. I quite liked her. I thought she looked a bit like a rabbit- she had an amused face and seemed to be quite glad that she was on the other side of the fence.

SHEEP!:

I also saw a skylark and a buzzard whilst out on the Downs. I had no idea what they were until the ranger, Lindsay, told me. I am such a city girl. I mean, I had nail polish on, for God’s sake.

In the afternoon, we learnt about why Brighton and Hove use grazing animals to look after the chalk grassland surrounding the city (it’s an incredibly rare habitat for lots of flora and fauna.) We also learnt the basics of sheep anatomy and how the lookerer system works. I’m looking forward to getting stuck in in  the spring. I’ve even signed up to work out at the new site at 19 Acres that will have New Forest ponies. I am scared of horses. I am going to have to have pony training. This will be fine. Fine.

On a more personally interesting note, I learnt that fleece from a sheared sheep sells (often) for less than £1.50. This seems confusing- after all, yarn is expensive and, even after you consider processing, marketing and so on- it still doesn’t seem to tally. It seemed daft that, at a time when farmers are struggling, that it doesn’t seem to pay to keep sheep for their wool any more. I left determined to learn more about the wool process and how it can help local farmers- could I buy yarn from certain farms? It’s on my to-do list and I’d like to knit a jumper in yarn from a single source (a bit like fancy coffee or chocolate, I suppose.) I also left thinking about how I could use my garden more sympathetically to that unusual soil makeup and support the butterflies and insects that are being eradicated from Sussex.

But could I flip I sheep? Could I billy-o.

 

Why I am all about hygge

I’ve been reading quite a bit about the concept of hygge lately- there was obviously a press release recently sent out, as both the BBC and The Pool have had features on their websites. ‘Hygge’ is apparently the Danish word for coziness and I am all. over. it.

If you follow me on any social media (particularly Instagram), you’ll know that my life generally revolves around books, tea, the odd bit of baking and knitting-particularly handknitted socks. So I’m not sure whether I was made for hygge, or it was made for me.

Take this blurry snap of me in the jumper below, for example:

My favourite scruffy jumper is out of its summer hibernation #helloautumn:

I cannot explain to you the EXCITEMENT I felt when the first chill of autumn appeared I could legitimately get this out of my ‘winter clothes’ drawer (we had a spare drawer. Don’t judge.) It isn’t great quality and I keep promising myself that I’m going to knit myself a nicer version out of some good quality wool, but there’s something about this one that makes me happy. In fact, I love it so much, I’m currently wearing it as I type.

See also handknitted socks:

Hand knitted socks!:

Every article I have read about the idea of hygge has been illustrated by the feet of smug people which are smugly adorned in handknitted Scandiweigan socks. These were knitted for me by my friend Jan and I love them. I do knit socks, but no one knits a comfier sock than Jan does. Ergo, these are my favourites and very ‘hygge’, despite me not having an open fire to display them next to.

Obviously, I am well suited to this idea of hunkering down for a long, cold winter. The holly tree out back is already festooned with scarlet berries, which I am told is a sure sign of a long, cold winter. I don’t mind. I grew up in the wilds of the North (er, Leeds) and I have a hardy constitution. I dress my child like a sherpa at the merest whiff of cold weather, so I imagine he’ll be fine too (he is desperate for snow, as there hasn’t been any since he was teeny tiny, so he can’t remember it.)

So if embracing hygge is an actual thing, rather than a clever marketing ploy- and if it’s the latter, congratulations! I’ve generated some content! Please feel free to offer me an all expenses paid trip to Denmark- I am quite happy to participate. As long as I can stay indoors, have the heating on, drink tea and read a good book.

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The Thrifty Knitter (and Reader… and Other Things Too)

I am at that awkward stage of the month where I have enough money to get to and from work-with maybe the odd Diet Coke thrown in- and to pay my phone bill. It’s OK, though, because I don’t need anything extra and the house bills are paid; I know I’m in a fortunate position. I have started thinking though, because D is now in nursery, which is more expensive than our previous childcare and we don’t get the extra help that comes when he turns three (in October) until January. So, with birthdays and (whisper it) Christmas on the horizon, I’ve been thinking about how to save a bit of money. I have form for this- when on my maternity leave three years ago, I had to do some financial gymnastics- but now we own our own house, have a car and live further out of town, so things are a bit more complicated. I’ve written in the past about my love of eBay shopping for clothes, but here are some more ideas I’ve had.

money-vintage

For example, take knitting and my other crafty pursuits. I have loads of basic materials- yarns, needles, fabric, patterns and books. Do I usually buy more without too much thought? Yes. Could I instead think about what I have and use that instead? Yes. I have tons of knitting books and yarn stashed in most rooms of the house (and garage). I need to start using this up instead of automatically going on Ravelry to find something and then buy new wool. If I don’t have the wool, I don’t make it. Simple. I am going to finally start knitting the jumpers I’ve promised D and finish off a few WIPs.

books

I am a huge believer in libraries. I credit them with helping me through the dark days of early motherhood, when often the library was the only place I could get to. Most of the books reviewed on my book blog are library books and I’m lucky that Brighton and Hove has a brilliant library service. I also have TONS of books on my shelves that have yet to be read. But still, I am a compulsive book buyer and I buy every book with the intention of reading it. People buy me books too, as they know how much I love them. So my goal is to read more of what I have. I’m thinking for every three of my own books for every book I bring into the house- library or new.

vintage-woman-makeup

One of the hangovers from maternity leave is that my makeup budget is still quite modest. I generally buy cheaper brands (but, oh, I dream of owning a Chanel lipstick in the ‘Pirate’ shade, because who wouldn’t?) I do have a tendency though to go a bit mad when the new A/W shades are released though… so this year, I have decided that I won’t buy anything new until something is used up. Also, one of the first things to go in any lean period is my Lush habit. I can forgo bubble bars!

These are small ideas and kind of buy into (ha! PUNS!) the idea of consuming less, which is always a good thing. I’ll also be thinking about when and why I go into town- if I want to see friends, can I invite them here and bake a cake, instead of going out and buying a slice for the same amount it would’ve cost to make a whole one? Do I need more tea if I have some at home? I’m finding myself questioning whether I NEED or WANT stuff and find that, often, I can take or leave what I’m looking at. If I can leave it, then I can save a bit more money.

What are your thrifty tips?

Bye, summer…

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This week- the last week in August- has felt more like the end of September. We’ve had a difficult week (we lost my grandma last week, the funeral is next week) and the weather hasn’t helped to lift the familial mood.

Yesterday, Benn suggested we take a walk in the rain and I readily agreed. D could only be coaxed out by the promise of hot chocolate with marshmallows afterwards- he’d seen an episode of Show Me, Show Me in which Chris and Pui enjoyed fake hot chocolate and suspiciously rubbery looking marshmallows. On the verge of cabin fever, Benn and I agreed.

(The ominous figure in the background is actually just Benn in a cagoule.)

(The ominous figure in the background is actually just Benn in a cagoule.)

I’m mentally preparing for autumn; D is about to start nursery, I’ll be going back to work and we’ll be gearing up towards D’s third birthday in October. I don’t mind, I quite like it when the nights draw in and Strictly’s back on the TV…

I’ve already started painting my nails in ‘autumn’ colours- navy, grey and dark red- and today I dressed for a wet, windy day. It’s much more my natural habitat than summer clothes! Tights, cardis and Doc Martens boots in dark colours are more me than floaty dresses and pastel hues…

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I’ve also been commissioned to knit winter socks, which is obviously focusing my mind on the coming months. It’s really upped my game in terms of skills; what will work as ‘oh well, that’ll do’ for myself is sometimes not good enough when someone is paying you. So I’ve been revisiting my (ahem, quite large) library of knitting books and approaching technique in a more professional manner, which is a good thing- there’s always room to learn and I do like a challenge!

Bring it on, autumn. Bring. It. On.

I’ve fallen back in love with knitting

Katharine Hepburn knitting

Katharine Hepburn knitting, 1930s

I’ve found myself desperate to get home and knit recently. This is not new, but it is a renewed sense of longing.

Despite the warmer weather, I love knitting at the moment. My pattern of choice is a light and airy cardigan, Hitofude, which is designed along Japanese principles. It’s a deceptively simple (well, so far) knit and the pattern is satisfying. But is it just the pattern that’s sparked my interest?

I don’t think so. I think it is a symptom of the fact that, at the moment, I am quite content with my lot in life. I’m finally feeling relaxed and work is not dominating my life for the first time in a while. At a time when mindfulness is de rigeur, knitting is definitely a kind of yoga for the mind (I apologise for the description, but it’s true.) I like to get out the knitting, make a good cup of tea and just sit down in front of Netflix. At the moment I’m knitting to RuPaul’s Drag Race. It’s fabulous.

I'm not sure anyone can top Marilyn in the glamorous knitting stakes.

I’m not sure anyone can top Marilyn in the glamorous knitting stakes.

Knitting also means I’m looking ahead. Don’t get me wrong, I’m enjoying the good weather, despite not being a summer girl, but I’m designed for cooler climes and making knitwear means that a time that can be grim, cold and depressing can be a time that’s cozy, warm and pretty. I can pick patterns and yarn and imagine the finished product.

There’s also the element of love. D has asked me to make a jumper for him- and matching ones for his toy monkeys, Larry and Barry. And I’ll do it, because if I make you something- whether it’s knitted, stitched, grown or baked- it’s because I like/love you.

I’m devouring knitting magazine, scouring blogs and Pinterest and revisiting my quite large library of knitting books for inspiration. What’s in your queue at the moment?

So, I think I’ve made the most perfect winter hat ever

I love hats. I love grey. I love cold winter weather and the fact that I have to wear hats most days (as my hair grooming is minimal, hat hair is actually a useful frizz tamer in my case. Seriously.) Anyway, for many years, my go-to hat has been a version of Ysolda’s Snapdragon Tam I knitted at least five years ago. I remember knitting it in a camel/merino blend that was lovely and warm and the pattern was the first complex design I attempted. I loved that hat.

However, it was getting old and I couldn’t find it after the move anyway. The winter of 2014-15 required a new hat. I set about searching Ravelry for a new hat that I could knit in grey (it is my favourite colour for knitwear, after all.) I found and fell in love with the unisex Dustland hat by Stephen West/Westknits.

How it should look. Image: Stephen West/www.westknits.com

How it should look.
Image: Stephen West/www.westknits.com

I eagerly bought the pattern and the yarn- I chose Drops Merino Extra Fine in Light Grey mix. I bought two balls and used one and a half when making the small size.

I LOVED this pattern. It’s simple, but with enough stitch variation in the construction- knit and purl used to make interesting patterns that WOULD NOT BE PHOTOGRAPHED BY ME FOR LOVE NOR BLOODY MONEY- that I stayed interested. I love the style too; it’s a slouchy, relaxed hat that can have the addition of a button to tack down the extra fabric if need be, but I chose not to add this, as I liked the style as it was. It’s a smart, yet comfy and sloppy-in-a-good-way hat that I think I will be wearing for years to come. You have to make it.

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This was the best photo I could take of me wearing the hat, but at least it’s proof I finished it! Anyway, knit it. Even if you’ve not knit much before, you should be OK with this. Trust me, I’m a knitter.

It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas…

I love Christmas. I especially love it at the moment because D is find the whole thing equal parts interesting and bewildering (I’ll refrain from saying ‘magical’. He thinks the Universal logo at the start of a film is ‘beautiful’. The kid has no concept of magic.) Unfortunately, he also has a penchant for helping himself to decorations off the tree, so my beautiful Nordman Fir is frequently denuded and its carefully placed* baubles are now all over the place. Between the toddler and the cat- who likes to see if it’s possible to climb up the tree without me noticing- my poor tree looks like it was decorated by aliens with no concept of taste.

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Christmas has also coincided with the onset of the Terrible Twos, which have come about WITH FORCE. Hooray.

I used the garden to good effect the other day, by gathering some evergreen plants we have. One of the main plants is a huge holly tree that has lots of foliage and berries. I also figured that by taking some of the bottom of the tree, I was saving the birds from Bronte’s inept ‘hunting’ efforts. I also included a little ivy, some twigs from an old Christmas tree at the bottom of the garden and some rosemary (we have at least two good-sized bushes.)

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I tied the whole shebang together with some cheap cinnamon sticks (50p for two at the local spice shop- it’s there for looks, rather than smell, as it doesn’t smell much at all) and some glittery red ribbon which I picked up from Tiger for £1. My friends and family are actually asking me to make up there own bunches of evergreens, so I think a new Christmas tradition has been born. It was also really nice stepping out into the garden for the first time in weeks, although I did feel a little overwhelmed at how much I want to do out there- but that’s another post for another time…

I’ve also done a little Christmas knitting, but decided to limit myself to one present, as I left it too late to co-ordinate myself efficiently. So I’m making a pair of Fallberry mitts in Drops Alpaca for a friend- lovely pattern and lovely yarn! I’ve knitted this pattern before, so I know it’s a quick(ish) knit that looks lovely.

Image: Knitty

Image: Knitty

How are you preparing for Christmas? On Wednesday, I’m going to post about how I’m getting organised for hosting Christmas this year… Leave any tips in the comments!

Why learning to make my own clothes is a feminist pursuit…

The other day, I was talking to somebody about my continuing (and often disappointing) quest to make my own clothes, whether through knitting or sewing. I was describing how I was making progress and asking my friend for her own advice when someone piped up. “But Steph, aren’t you a feminist? Why are you making your own clothes? It’s a bit… old fashioned housewife-y.” And, lo, a blogpost was born.

Image: Library of Congress

Image: Library of Congress

It was one of those moments where I wish I’d been quick and witty with an answer but alas, I wasn’t. However, the comment stayed with me for the rest of the day: was my attempt to make my own clothes a genuine feminist pursuit? There are undoubtedly some feminists who would say that I was a terrible feminist and that I’m subjugating myself to do traditional ‘women’s work’, that our predecessors managed to free us from.

But from my point of view, I believe making some of my clothes is a good thing:

  • It frees me from what society ‘thinks’ I should wear and a shape it ‘thinks’ I should be. I am therefore liberating myself from a narrow arena when it comes to buying clothes.
  • I know where my clothes have come from; I haven’t participated in the exploitation of workers in poorer parts of the world. In this vein, I am starting to seriously research where my raw materials- yarn and fabric- come from and how they are made. As well as being ethical, it’s also an environmental issue.
  • I am not forced to do this, I choose to do this. Previous generations of women had no choice but to make clothes for their families in a bid to save money. I’m lucky that I’m not in the position where I HAVE to make stuff, but I CHOOSE to make stuff. (This is clearly a “check-my-privilege” moment.) I understand that not everybody has this luxury.
  • In a funny way, I feel connected to my female ancestors: a lot of my family came from the wool mills and cotton factories of the north and these would have been prized skills. I feel like I’m learning what they did.

So, to the person who asked whether it was feminist to make my own clothes, I say yes- and that it’s fine if others think that it’s not. My feminist credentials are not affected by my ability with a knitting needle.

Knitting is my therapy

Recently, I’ve found myself retreating more and more into myself and wanting to be at home. The thought of going out has often been a bit grim, although I do force myself out for D’s sake and the exercise and fresh air. However, at the end of the day, when D’s in bed and I can relax, I find myself itching to get my knitting out.

The Artist's Wife Knitting by William James Glackens Image: WikiPaintings

The Artist’s Wife Knitting by William James Glackens
Image: WikiPaintings

In times of chaos, stress and general ‘meh’, I find that knitting really helps me focus and calm myself; the repetition, concentration and flowing movements are hypnotic to me. There really is nothing better than having a good drama on TV (although if it’s a foreign one on BBC4, I need to make the project simple!), a cup of tea and being curled up on the sofa. At the moment, I’m in a lace phase, but I’m picking patterns that I can pick up quickly.

Little Girl Knitting by Albert Anker Image: WikiPaintings

Little Girl Knitting by Albert Anker
Image: WikiPaintings

I’ve written before how knitting has helped me through bouts of depression; at the moment, it’s an enjoyable hobby, rather than a lifeline- but I’m always grateful for the fact that I have something I know can make me feel better about the world. I’m not a control freak, but I choose what I make, what I make it from and, if anything goes wrong, it’s not the end of the world. Also, I actually use some of the maths I learnt at school!

What makes you feel better about the world after a stressy day?

A finished OWLS jumper!

I’ve been wittering (twit-twoo-ing?) about this jumper since February and, finally, on the hottest day of the year I finished it! (Hence why there’s a surprise extra blogpost today. SO EXCITED.)

Cue a photo of me trying to look like a catalogue model, but ending up just looking smug:

It does hide a double-chin though...

It does hide a double-chin though…

I approached this jumper as a learning curve, not beating myself up if anything went slightly wrong, which it did. There were slightly too many stitches, meaning that the owls are only on the front. I also had to restart the yoke at one point, after I’d taken the stitch markers out, so my waist shaping is at the front of the jumper. Hey ho, I still love it and am quite proud of it! Had I not had a small human to look after, I probably would have done this in a couple of weeks.

Here is a close up of the owls:

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I’ll be making one of these for D, mark my words. It was SO easy!