Monday, 10 August 2020

The Spice of Life Crochet Blanket (or what would Shaun Bythell think?)

I can virtually hear Shaun Bythell guffawing up his sleeve as I chose to base my recent crafty colour choices on the cover of his bestselling book.  

Last year on holiday I read The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell.  Apart from being a top book in my estimation, as its waspish humour made me laugh out loud, I knew I wanted to make something inspired by the cover illustration.  If you haven't had the pleasure of holding this particular volume in your hands, be warned - the author rejoices in taking pot shots at Kindles and I mean literally shooting electronic reading devices to pieces then displaying them in his shop as a warning to others!  It's described in the publisher's blurb as 'a wry and hilarious account of life in Scotland's biggest second-hand bookshop and the band of eccentrics and book-obsessives who work there'.  I'm aware that few things would give Shaun Bythell more cause for acerbic comment than a craft project based on his book's dust-jacket!

Shelving Mr Bythell for a moment, as authors may have limited input into their book's cover, the eye-catching illustration here is designed by Royal College of Art graduate Bill Bragg, with print design by freelance creative Peter Dyer.  Be sure to have your magnifying glass to hand as their credits at the bottom of the back cover are tiny.  I've now developed more appreciation for what is often an overlooked work of art in my hands and not just an invitation to explore the writing within.

So... Craft project... As soon as the Scottish government lifted the 5 mile travel restriction on 3rd July, I hot footed it to Baa!, the wool shop in Stonehaven I already had some crochet in mind and knew the yarn I wanted to use.  

In 2015, as a relative newcomer to crochet, I followed the make-along by craft blogger and podcaster, Sandra Paul known online as Cherry Heart, for the Spice of Life Crochet Blanket.
Admired by my sister-in-law, Fiona, I decided to make this blanket again for her birthday in early August.  I'd need to get my skates on and commit to some monogamous crochet!  The Spice of Life Blanket pattern calls for 13 colours.  I'd been tempted on a previous visit to Baa! by the practical, but beautiful, Scheepjes Stone Washed cotton/acrylic DK yarn.  There's a mouthwatering palette of 31 different shades in stock at Baa!.  Plenty of choice for me with the book cover in mind.
The sheet details the original colours called for in the pattern
So I started crocheting on July 10th
and enjoyed adding many rows during the retreat I staged for myself at home in the cosy craft corner I'd created.  
Podcaster Ellie of Craft House Magic kept me company
I crocheted outside in the sunshine, inside whilst watching my favourite podcasts, and even in bed!  The blanket grew and grew.
Three weeks later, on August 1st, I was adding the final rows to the turquoise border with the 3.5mm Prym crochet hook I used throughout
and the weather stayed fine as the blanket enjoyed a freshen up on the line - just like its 2015 twin!
Whilst in the making, I kept all photos of the blanket off social media so it would remain a surprise for Fiona.  
I was so excited to present it to her at our family birthday barbecue last weekend.
Safe to say, she loves it!
As for Shaun Bythell, I'm pleased to report his book is being made into a TV series - and he's written a sequel!  
Not more crochet?

Who knows what I might be inspired to make next with these colours?


Sunday, 26 July 2020

A Holiday at Home

Just as well it wasn't going to be our year for an overseas trip.  

We'd already been talking about a holiday in Scotland before the current pandemic, possibly a break in the Borders, with golf aplenty for Geoff, and a craft workshop or two for me whilst he strode the fairways.  But Covid19 ensured that wasn't going to happen either.

Seeing empty workshops prompt craft tutors to stage their classes online, and dispatch boxes of materials by post for participants to complete in the comfort of their own homes, a kernel of an idea was forming that I could stage my own craft retreat.  For me.  At home.
Print by @by.eilidh
Enjoying some 'Me Time'.

Perhaps I need to back up and explain what the summer holidays are usually like for me.  My job in school library means I only work in term time, giving me 6 weeks off in July and August. Despite Coronavirus, I continued to work my part time hours, in a re-deployed role at home, from Easter onwards so was delighted when the last day of term arrived.  Geoff's job at sea means he may, or may not, be at home during this time but he's been ashore for the last six weeks and won't be back again before I return to school.  So that left me with three weeks home alone to fill.  But, like everyone else who isn't a key worker, I've been at home since the end of March, sometimes with Geoff for company and sometimes just me and the dog.  
I needed to do something special to feel like I'd had a holiday.  A holiday involving relaxation and crafts, but not my usual routine.

So for three days last week I did just that.  It took a bit of planning - but that was half the fun.  First, I thought about how I could create a sanctuary and set about making a spare bedroom into the ideal guest venue, installing fresh flowers, scented candles and mood lighting.  
Here's a wee video :
To truly be able to relax in my own house, I spent the two days prior to my retreat making sure my regular household chores and laundry were all up to date.  As someone who enjoys cooking, and makes most meals from scratch, I entrusted my dinners to Marks and Spencers ready meals which also ensured minimal washing up.
I let M&S take care of my lunches too, and chose foods I love but wouldn't normally buy.  Scotch egg and pork pie- you are my guilty pleasures!  Sunny days meant I could enjoy eating them outside.
Naturally, I managed to keep myself adequately hydrated too.  You'll note that I took the 'treat' part of 'retreat' very seriously! 
I kitted out the shower room with toiletries from Scottish Fine Soaps after drenching myself in the Sea Kelp range during a luxury mini-break at Foyers Lodge on the banks of Loch Ness last autumn.  The Au Lait Noir hand and body fragrance I chose is decadently delicious.
I factored in some home pampering too with a beauty mask for each evening.  It was a happy coincidence that my hairdresser rang during my retreat to say she'd had a cancellation and was able to offer me an appointment for my first professional haircut in 5 months.  I've saved you from the sight of me in my Simple Face Mask but did feel my radiance was boosted, exactly as promised!  The Superdrug Foot Mask left my feet feeling lovely and soft once I'd got over the initial disconcerting cold squidgy feeling.  In the end, I didn't use the Elvive self-heating hair mask I'd bought as I felt my hair was pampered enough by my own lovely hairdresser.

Each afternoon I enjoyed a different craft activity, thanks to the kits I'd purchased.
The brainchild of Bristol based community artist, Tasha Bee, the kit contained everything I needed to create my own handmade ceramic being, and even included a tiny live plant.  In fact, I was able to create two planters through judicious use of my clay.  Tasha's kits were created during lock-down with the specific purpose of allowing people to be creative whilst stuck at home and I really enjoyed the YouTube instructional video which made me feel like I was at a pottery class with Tasha herself.  I'm very proud of the wee pot heads I made.
On day two I made my own chocolates using the dark chocolate truffle making kit I bought from the award winning ethical chocolate business Cocoa Loco.  
As a self confessed chocoholic, these are a delicious little bites of chocolate heaven. 
Some for me - and some to share.

On the final day of my retreat I made a fabulous scented Rainbow Candle using the Rainbow in a box candle kit I purchased from Falkirk business, Candle Shack.  Again, everything was included in the kit.

The fun instructional accompanying video on YouTube guided me through the necessary steps to make this huge, stripey, fragrant candle.  
There's some waiting time whilst the layers set but it was another sunny day and I was able to sit in the garden and crochet, read my book or just relax and listen to the birdsong.  
And that's what a retreat is all about - giving yourself the gift of time for yourself.  If there happen to be holiday keepsakes, then that's a bonus!

I have a lot more to say about each of the craft kits and intend to make each one a blog post of its own.


Sunday, 12 July 2020

A tale of two tops

My daughter, Maddy, came to visit us in February, just before Corona Virus had such an effect on all our lives.  She lives in London and travelled home, quite apprehensive, with hand sanitiser and a pack of cleansing wipes tucked into her pocket.  Little did we know we wouldn't be seeing her again for months to come.  

I offered to knit something for Maddy as I imagined I might have more crafting time then usual and showed her this pattern by Jessie Maed Designs.  She loved the Ripple Bralette, chose yarn from my not inconsiderable stash, and airily waved a hand over the pattern, stating she was usually an XS.  So I cast on for that size.
Cookston Crafts 4 ply in the Hairst colourway
It looked like it would fit my upper thigh but I persevered because blocking* can solve a multitude of sins. (*blocking is the process of wetting or steaming your final piece of knitting to set the size and even out the stitches.)
Whilst blocking achieved all these things, it can't work miracles and didn't actually make the top any bigger.  It was clearly way too small for Maddy, even if she is a beautifully willowy 22 year old who normally wears XS!
I must stress that any errors were of my own making and not the fault of the pattern.  It is inclusive when it comes to sizing and includes a useful schematic as well as a table of dimensions.  The trouble was I didn't really look at it before I cast on - then I doggedly continued knitting without reference to the likely finished outcome.  So the fact that it just didn't fit is entirely down to me.

Eager to make amends, and create a summer top whilst it is still summer, I went in search of another pattern and selected the Spotty Totty top by Katie Jones.  This is made from seven colourful crocheted squares.  I already had all the cotton yarn I needed in my stash, leftover from other projects, so there was nothing to stop me.
I challenged myself to make one square a day.

And by the end of the week, I was joining the squares together...
and getting the finished top ready to post.
But what about the other top?  

Maddy chose merino sock wool dyed by Claire at Cookston Crafts.  I remembered Claire has a young daughter the top might fit so I parcelled it up and sent it off - along with Haribo for her big brothers.  

Here's six year old Ailsa modelling the tiny top...
And Maddy wearing hers!
I've also plenty of the original yarn Maddy chose to make her a Ripple Bralette one day.  But I'll be getting my measuring tape out first!



Sunday, 21 June 2020

A Post About Post

During the lock-down period, I've been able to liberate a number of knitted items and send them off into the world.  My craft room was becoming overcrowded and it was high time they were popped in the post.
I sent this shawl to my friend Ann.  Knitted between February and May this year, from a beautifully soft combination of merino/alpaca and mohair/silk yarns, it's light as air but warm as toast and has a beaded edge to add a little weight and glamour.
Pattern is Winter Wander Shawl Yarns by Dragonfly Dyes and Henny Penny Makes
Ann is my mosaic tutor, as well as lovely friend, and someone you just have to hug when you meet.  Since it's still going to be a wee while til I can hug her in person, this shawl will act as a virtual hug in the meantime.
Another dear friend to benefit from my knitting skills is Vicki.  She admired this colour-work hat after I'd made it in January and I decided to give it to her.  While we've been unable to meet friends lately, Vicki has been giving a wave to her pals each week from one of her rural walks and sharing her photo on social media.  In this latest picture, she's wearing her hat!

Vicki is a nurse so it's particularly appropriate that she should be wearing this design called Harriet's Hat which has raised over £50,000 towards the Shetland MRI Scanner Appeal.  I bought this fundraising pattern last September when I learned the good folks of Scotland's northernmost isles were aiming to raise over one and a half million pounds to purchase an MRI scanner for their hospital in Lerwick.  Islanders must currently travel to Aberdeen by ferry for half a day, through one of the roughest crossings in our waters, then stay overnight at hospital before sailing home again.  The lady behind the pattern is Shetland knitter extraordinaire, Harriet Middleton, and her intricate design can now be seen in knitted hats, gloves, mitts and cowls, all over the world.
I used local yarn from J C Rennie, leftover from my Korat Sweater, to knit Vicki's hat plus some Kingcraig colours from a variety pack purchased at Dornoch Fibre Fest in 2017 and my chosen colours echo the appeal logo.  Isn't the star crown just beautiful?  You can purchase Harriet's Hat pattern here knowing 100% of the cost will benefit the Shetland MRI scanner appeal.

I knitted some tinier hats early in the year after a post on Instagram alerted me that a Glasgow hospital was running low on baby bonnets.  I always have suitable wool to hand, and hats can be knitted in a couple of evenings from just a little yarn.  Ideal telly knitting.  
This quote from Esther Rutter's enjoyable hand knitting travelogue around the British Isles I was reading at the time, This Golden Fleece, captured my feelings perfectly as I packaged my wee bonnets ready for posting:
...and in hospitals babies are welcomed with minute hats made by hands they'll never know

It was a request on a Facebook craft group I belong to that led to me knit these hearts for my local hospital.  I mentioned them in a previous blog post and now they've been carefully packaged and posted.  
Here's what the nurse who requested the hearts said:
Patient's families are so appreciative to have that little connection with a loved one near the end.
These hearts were mostly knitted during the hour of Sunday morning worship on television, since actual church services are not an option right now.  It's such  a small thing for me to do but obviously means a great deal to the recipients.

Tributes to the dedication of NHS staff throughout the Coronavirus pandemic have taken many forms as the nation shows its appreciation.
My own contribution to one such hand made tribute is this knitted letter for a banner stating 'East London Knitters say thank-you to all the NHS workers'.  I was allocated letter 'K' after Maya from Wild and Woolly shop in Hackney asked makers on Instagram to knit, crochet or weave the required rectangles.  Also involved are Knit With Attitude in Stoke Newington and Fabrications in Broadway Market as well as knitters from East London - and further afield.  

But I'm from North East Scotland - why would I join in?  Well, both my daughters live in London, not that far from these creative outlets, and I know I will be able to visit the capital, hug my girls and even see this banner in real life - at some point in 2020.  Something to look forward to - and a blog post of the future, no doubt.

So I've posted my knitting, and knitted in response to posts on social media, but sending it out into the world would be pointless without the postie!  I'm thankful that Royal Mail staff have been working throughout the lock-down period, ensuring everything I posted reached its destination.  
Colour in picture by Catherine Redgate Art
I'll be leaving my colouring-in inside our postbox to show my gratitude to our own postman.


Sunday, 31 May 2020

Predominantly Pink

Whilst the supermarket shelves were being denuded of loo roll and pasta ahead of lock-down, and most people were making sensible domestic and culinary choices for the weeks ahead, spent staying safely at home, I was at the local craft shop ensuring I had the necessary supplies to make a project bag!  Endeavouring to view my enforced isolation in a positive light, I could see an opportunity for my sewing machine and I to become better acquainted.  Also - Maddy had given me this beautiful bundle of  Liberty fabric strips for Xmas and I was keen to start making use of them.
The pink art nouveau style print really called to me so I delved into the fabric box to see what treasures might coordinate and was able to put my hands on some dark teal and pink spotty cotton.  I bought a zip, thread and fusible fleece and was good to go.
As the Liberty fabrics are long and narrow, I chose to follow the Squishy Bag tutorial by Erika Arndt which uses strips of material for the outside with a contrast lining.  I was especially happy it included the words 'easy' and 'beginner friendly' in the description!  
The seam ripper had a fair bit of use to correct my wonky sewing but I gave myself a thumbs-up after improving the box bottom liner - all the more impressive as it's inside and will be seen by precisely no-one!  No scrap of precious Liberty fabric went to waste thanks to this tutorial for a scented sachet by Bev at
Considering the construction involves quilting and zip insertion, I think the bag turned out fine.  It's even got  a wee handle.
Knitters (and crocheters) can never have enough project bags.  They house the yarn, pattern, needles and notions for a particular project and keep everything tidily together whilst the work is in progress.  My new bag now needed a project and I was dying to start knitting a jumper with some of this wool from last year's Aberdeen Yarn Fest.
I had four skeins of a luscious merino/silk blend DK hand dyed by Sheila, an indie dyer from Livingston, also known as Dye Ninja.  Her colours are beautiful and she specialises in small batch, hand dyed luxury fibres*.  My yarn is scrumptiously soft and drapes like a dream.  I chose to knit the Arcade Sweater by Isabell Kraemer.  It's knit from the top down so you can try it on as you go.
Sheila's Dye Ninja colourway is named 'Flowering Cherry' - appropriate for this time of year as there's a cherry tree right outside my craft room window.  Though ours isn't the typical cultivated pink variety but a Scottish native wild cherry, or gean tree, which has white blossom.  Seen here from my window at the end of April, and from the garden in mid May (by which time Geoff had power washed the whole patio!) 
I nipped on with my knitting, completing my jumper in the months of lock down as the gean tree finally blossomed with all the promise of spring.  
I grew up on a street lined with flowering cherries.   A sudden strong wind could abruptly finish the blossom, leaving petals strewn like confetti, and no more flowers til the following spring.  As a child I remember quite a philosophical discussion with my father as I bemoaned the short blossom season.   Dad asked if I thought it was better to enjoy brief beauty or long term mediocrity.  I was at an age when I still wanted it to be Christmas every day so I pleaded for long term beauty.  With 50 more Christmases behind me, it's December again before I know it and  I'll admit to slightly guilty relief as I tip into bed on 25th December, exhausted but content that it's only one day and it's all over for another year!  

At my age I'm happy to enjoy the seasons, and the blossom, and accept their transience.

Whilst feeling incredibly lucky just now to be able to enjoy country dog walks from home, and enjoy my neighbour's cherry tree shown here in full bloom, it's impossible to be unaware of the loss and  suffering in the country due to Coronavirus.  
I noticed that a ward at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary was appealing for pairs of hearts to bring comfort to families unable to be with loved ones at this time, one heart remaining with the patient while its twin would be given to the family.  Pattern is Hearts by Amanda Berry.
In colour psychology, pink is a sign of hope.  It is a positive colour inspiring warm and comfortable feelings, a sense that everything will be okay**.  

If that's the case then I'm glad my crafting world has been predominantly pink lately.  Even our evening sky has been joining in.

Photo from 21st May 2020 by my friend Vicki who lives just over the hill - used with kind permission

Dye Ninja has a sale on merino and camel/silk yarn throughout 2020 to help crafters keep crafting in this difficult time so pop along to Sheila's website and drink in her beautiful colours.

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