Friday, 26 December 2008

Post-Christmas Greetings

On Boxing Day evening, I hope this finds all of you slowly emerging from your gluttonous turkey-induced slumbers, dragging your way out of piles of wrapping paper, and wondering what the hell to do in this slightly boring bit of the year between Christmas and New Year. It's not quite time to be doing anything useful or indeed anything that would require resolutions, like tidying the house or hitting the gym; those are what January is for. No, what this period seems to be for is watching the telly.

As I don't do the evil television, instead I will make you a present of some knitting-related videos. Can you tell I just worked out how to embed YouTube videos in my post the other day?

Firstly, and this is the one I would really recommend watching, a knitted music video by French-Canadian pop duo Tricot Machine. Yes, the name of their band is "knitting machine" in French. Apart from that, the song, "Les Peaux de Lièvres" is ethereal and lovely. I am a complete sucker for French pop, and piano-driven songs, and this is both, and gorgeous.

Isn't that wonderful? Effectively a knitted flick book. You can see as the camera is zoomed out at the start and end there are numbers on the knitted sheets which are presumably frames, just over 700 of them. Amazing. Their other songs are pretty good and I may be using my Christmas Amazon voucher from the future in-laws for their album.

Much less pretty, but fun nevertheless, another music video made of knitting. "Walkie Talkie Man" by Steriogram. It's probably a good thing that sound recording doesn't really involve that much yarn - the music would be all muffled.

Not music, this one's an art installation. Forget holding yarn double, here Extreme Knitter Rachel John knits a mattress using 1,000 strands held together. The only points to this, presumably, being the ones at the ends of her needles.

More of a point here - hideously annoying background music, but this does use knitting (or rather unknitting) to make illustrate the potential effects of climate change rather well.

You've probably already seen this a million times, but here are the Mason-Dixon Knitters with "Pardon Me (I Didn't Knit That For You)", which is pretty funny though I wouldn't expect a non-knitter to find that much amusement in it, or at least, not more than once.

To wrap up, news of something I'm very excited about: there's a film coming out in February of Neil Gaiman's "Coraline"! That in itself would be great (but scary), but even better, it's a 3D stop-motion animation (inherently cool) and has plenty of craft content. I mean, buttons for eyes and all... The trailer is here on the film's website and certainly worth a look, but I shall embed here for you a short film about the person who made the incredible minature knitwear for the puppets.


Tuesday, 23 December 2008

The Economics of Chutney

Greetings from down south, where I am already whiling away the holidays by spending too much time on the internet and eating too many mince pies.

Whilst at the hairdresser's this afternoon, I happened upon this piece in the Telegraph: apparently our illustrious Mayor of London Boris is giving home-made gifts of chutney this year.

I would very much like to try Mr Johnson's chutney - I expect it is made to very high standards with quality ingredients, him being that sort of chap. It's also, in a small way, nice to know that my elected representative can turn his hand to such things. Perhaps by next year he'll have learned to knit?

Interesting economic analysis and I did love the photo tag-line: "Home-made chutney is not the answer." What was the question?

Monday, 22 December 2008

Hark! The Herald An... Oh, Wait...

I don't believe in them, do I?

For the last few days I have been suffering with yet another cold, like most of London. I have been puffy of eye, impacted of sinus and snotty of nose. My fellow commuters have been staring at me with horror lest I cough over them, almost as bad as if I'd been bleeding from my eyes with the Ebola virus. I am, thankfully, better today, in time for the holidays.

Unlike my nasal congestion, I have been trying not to be too snotty about religion at this most godly (well, for the majority religion of this country) time of year. My own opinions are very strongly atheist, but I do make an effort most of the time not to foist them on people. I honestly don't care what anyone else believes, as long as they don't try to convert me or give me no option but to do things religiously. As an aside, I randomly found out this weekend that it is former Conservative MP and generally orange person Gyles Brandreth I have to thank for pushing forward the law to allow non-religious weddings in this country, during his time in office back in the '90s. Who'd have thought?

I do reserve the right to be highly critical of religion in my own home, and on this blog, which I really see as an extension of my lounge. But I won't enter into a conversation with anyone about it in public, unless they start it. But then, who does, in England? We're all far too polite. I rarely assume anyone has any firm religious feelings anyway, unless they bring it up, and it certainly doesn't affect my opinion of them otherwise.

However from time to time I will indulge myself by hanging out with the militant atheist crowd, which is how I found myself, armed with plenty of tissues, at Eight Lessons and Carols for Godless People on Thursday night at the Bloomsbury Theatre. This was billed as an alternative evening of celebration at this time of year where traditionally one would find oneself in church. Various comedians were billed, alongside the man who would be god if we had one, Professor Richard Dawkins. Aside from that, I had no idea what to expect.

The problem was, I don't think the organisers really knew either. What we ended up with was a three-hour-long variety show. Many, many comedians came on. All except the very famous ones got about a minute on stage. There were a couple of musical numbers, none of which were very good - one problem being that it's hard to sustain a musical comedic number for very long. The unfunny answer is to veer off into a whole other song ("Centerfold" by The J. Geils Band in one notable case) or keep trying to come up with more verses. This is why Mitch Benn does it so well, he keeps them short and knows when to stop.

Of the comedians, Richard Herring, Stewart Lee and Natalie Haynes were all very funny. Tim Minchin was awesome, as he always is. But I must register my strongest possible objection to Ricky Gervais. The Office was great, and I've heard Extras was pretty good, but as a stand-up? Appalling. Seriously offensive. Jokes about raping an old woman with Alzheimer's on the basis that no-one will believe her, and about a father wanking over his young daughter's report of being molested in a park, are unjustifiable and (better or worse depending on your viewpoint) not even funny. Seriously, the man is supposed to be a national treasure, taking British comedy to the world? If so, I hope they don't let him get up on stage, or our international reputation is ruined.

Simon Singh and Richard Dawkins, of course, spoke brilliantly, but then they always do which is why we go to see them speak elsewhere for more than five minutes. The compere, Robin Ince, was very funny, full of the kind of scientific jokes about Richard Feynman that I love, and attacks on evil bitch Ann Coulter (yes, that's Dickipedia, the encyclopaedia of dicks) but it was a bit ruined by hearing him on the radio yesterday using all the same jokes. It always disappoints me when I realise that comedians aren't making it all up on the spur of the moment just for me. I never buy comedy DVDs for that reason. Some of the other acts were OK, others were pretty terrible.

The weird thing was, only a few of them were about Christmas/celebration/religion. Some were just nothing to do with it. There was even a fair bit of shoe-horning in of other "issues" - see the very funny rant on breeders with a sense of entitlement just for having babies, and a wholly unfunny (on purpose) discussion of access to AIDS medication in South Africa. Now, I agree fully with the points made in both of those, but not really what I was expecting.

And there were no songs! It's not a carol service without a bit of a singalong. Looks like I'm going to have to hypocritically go along to midnight mass again this year.

We were all issued with a free copy of New Humanist magazine, which I hadn't heard of before and probably won't be buying again on the basis that it's too dull and worthy for words. On my way home, I happened to sit down on the bus next to an older lady also clutching a copy so we got to talking about the event (her opinion matched mine: too long, too hot in the theatre, about half of it good and half not). She then produced a card and strongly encouraged me to join the National Secular Society. Uh, how is this different from a Jehovah's Witness trying to recruit me? Luckily conversation moved on to the air-time given to religion on Radio 4 (Thought for the Day, I'm talking about you, because I don't want god with my cornflakes and news broadcasting) and then I escaped the bus.

So for all of you celebrating one thing or another over the next few weeks, even if that's only getting some time off work and the opportunity to stuff yourself with Terry's Chocolate Orange, I leave you with my little light-up USB Christmas tree from my cubicle at work:


(Off to my parents' place now for the festive season, so blogging will be limited.)

Saturday, 20 December 2008


That sounds like it should be a spell in Harry Potter, doesn't it? Wouldn't that be a good threat, to turn someone into a giant bar of soap with a wave of your wand? Technically, humans can be turned to soap, but only once dead - it's what happens if you undertake (ha ha) your decomposition in cold, wet ground out of the reach of oxygen. Your fat bits will turn into adipocere aka "grave wax".

That's probably not the best way to start out a post about something that's meant to be nice, pretty, and hygienic, is it? But I couldn't resist, especially since having researched the above I have a new goal in life: to visit the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia to see not only The Soap Lady (a saponified corpse) but such other amazing attractions as The Big Colon! The Secret Tumor of Grover Cleveland! And a Freeze-Dried Cat!

Sounds on a par with the fascinating but sadly private Gordon Museum, which I was lucky enough to blag my way into whilst a student at King's College London. All the deformed foetuses in jars you could ever hope to see in one place, plus a great collection of stomachs as damaged by various poisons. I don't recall whether our soap-making friend sodium hydroxide was amongst them but I suspect it would have been.

This is not how I envisaged this blog post going. I should really plan them out in advance. So without further ado, on to the soap...

As you can see from the trays above, I made a whole lot of soap at the end of November, after the initial post. I wanted to have enough for general distribution to the knitting group (because fellow crafters know how to express appreciation for this sort of thing), to give to most of my friends and family in addition to regular Christmas presents (and therefore hopefully reduce actual expenditure on real presents), for swap packages, and, of course, to have enough for myself so that our household doesn't have to buy surfactants for personal use for most of 2009. I wanted to have plenty of variety to match scents to recipients, and, given the initial outlay on new pans, silicone bakeware, blenders and fats, I thought I may as well amortise the cost over as many bars as possible. It's all about the marginal cost, people. You can tell I'm an accountant, can't you?

I therefore made six different kinds in the end, ranging from two loaf tins and then some of the first lavender batch, to only five little round ones of the orange batch at the end. I have a much better idea now of how ingredient volume translates to bars of soap, but I don't have that to an exact science yet. Here are the six:

I shall introduce you to each in turn, in the order in which I made them.

Lavender Soap

You've seen this one, back in November. I used the basic soap recipe from The Soapmaker's Companion, to the letter, being coconut, palm and olive oils, plus lavender essential oil, lavender flowers and alkanet root to colour it. The grooves you can see are from cutting it and sort of forcing some of the flowers down through the soft bar on the edge of the knife. Since doing all these six, I've been advised that I'd get better results by cutting with a fine wire like a guitar string. Wish I'd known that before! There's a soapmaking group on Ravelry which has been brilliant for this sort of thing.

Anyway, the lavender soap lathers beautifully and looks very pretty. Lavender seems to be a very popular scent amongst my friends so it's good that I ended up with so much of it.

Floral Luxe Soap

This was the second batch I made. Exactly the same recipe as above, but with sweet almond oil added to the initial oil blend, and grated shea butter added at trace. Essential oils used were rose geranium, ylang ylang and bergamot - real rose being way too expensive. I added three whole rose buds to the bottom of each cupcake mold before pouring in the soap, and I'd hoped that they'd stay sunk so show on the top once turned out. Unfortunately they floated so they are on the bottom instead, and the above bar doesn't look all that special. They've also turned from pink to a more dried brown during the curing period, but still look OK.

This stuff should be incredibly moisturising, but I haven't tried it myself yet.

Marine Biology Soap

My darling's request - he is a biologist, aquatic in PhD subject, although freshwater rather than marine. This came about when he spotted the jar of chopped up bladderwrack whilst we were shopping for essential oils in Neal's Yard, and he asked if I could incorporate them into a soap. Why not? We then went to Holland & Barrett and bought spirulina, which not only provides more microbial content but is the natural green colourant recommended in the books. He saw bags of sea salt and asked if we could throw them in. Sure. I then thought it smelled just a bit too oceanic to be a totally pleasant washing experience, so I added peppermint essential oil for the refreshing (rather than slightly damp) aspect of the sea. I also added avocado oil to the initial mix, because he loves avocados, and it's very moisturising.

It is a bit of a rough diamond, this one. It looks exactly like he wanted - like something dried up and horrible on a rock on the beach. It drops lumps of salt everywhere because the crust is so thick it isn't all properly sealed by soap. It has weird black lumps of bladderwrack sticking out, and the green colouring is patchy, obviously due to some weird reaction of kelp, spirulina and lye. I can understand not wanting to use this. But having done so, it's brilliant! The lather is white, not green, the salt provides a nice exfoliating element if you use that side of it, and oh wow, it is just amazing on the skin. I was starting to get dry patches from the recent cold weather, and this has cleared them up wonderfully. Clean and soft, totally unlike a dead fish. So far, this is my favourite one to use in the shower. If no-one else wants it, then all the more for me.

By the way, some books extol the virtues of seaweed and spirulina as providing lots of vitamins in the soap.  Other books say all that's tosh as any there would be denatured by the lye.  I don't care, I just like the thought of having a shower with thousands of little creatures (each cell of the bladderwrack and each cell of the spirulina being a separate organism).  There's no privacy with this soap!

Lemon & Ginger Scrub Soap

Two new things tried with this: animal fat and layering. Traditionally soap has been made with mutton or beef tallow (look for "sodium tallowate" in your soap ingredients) or other animal fats, so I thought I should give it a go even if I never did it again. Besides, lard is really cheap compared to all the rest of the stuff I've been using, and is actually in the supermarket rather than having to mail order. So this became the regular coconut, palm and olive oils, with added slightly bacon-smelling lardy goodness (seriously, it no longer smells of bacon, but there was a hint during the initial melting of the fat). I did half the quantity on a Saturday night and added only ginger essential oil to it before pouring into loaf tins. The next morning, I did the rest, adding lemon essential oil, benzoin (a natural resin which helps to "fix" lemon scent into soap, as otherwise it's a bit ephemeral), poppy seeds and yellow iron oxide for colour. This is therefore the only batch I've made which is non-vegetarian and with "artificial" additives in the form of the colour.

The problem with this is that I had enormous trouble cutting it on the Monday. It kept sticking and dragging on the knife, which would have been helped by the guitar wire trick above if I'd known. Unfortunately, the drag meant that for a lot of the bars the layers were pretty much pulled apart. I sort of squished them back together and most are fine although I suspect some will fall apart when used. There'll be two perfectly good bars, one lemon scrub and one ginger, but not quite the layering I had intended. I've been trying to only give out the ones that were best stuck together. Apparently (thanks Rav!) next time I could try only leaving an hour or so between layers (so the bottom one is only just solid enough), raking up the surface of the bottom one with a fork, or spritzing the surface of the bottom one with alcohol. All these should apparently improve adhesion.

Manly Wood Soap

This was the boyfriend's initial request before he went off on the marine tangent, because he liked cedarwood when I was asking him to sniff essential oils. I decided to add sandalwood as well and fought the desire to call it the more smutty "Morning Wood".

New thing: an attempt to make Castile soap, which, like Marseille soap, has a base of pure olive oil. Actually, some sources I've seen has it as just requiring a base of pure vegetable oils, in which case everything made already but the lemon and ginger qualifies, but regardless, I wanted a go at pure olive oil. This requires the addition of melted beeswax into the oil, as otherwise it won't generate a hard bar. Otherwise, nothing else added. It is creamy-coloured, pure and lovely.

Orange Happiness Soap

In fact, stolen from the Manly Wood batch above, to indulge myself. During all the various sessions of essential oil choosing above, I realised what the true scent of happiness is: sweet orange. It just makes me feel better. I had to make a soap out of it, just for me.

Seeing as I had some to hand, I grated in the zest of a couple of oranges, before adding the sweet orange essential oil. It is lovely and will cheer me up when I need it. There's not much of it so I'm afraid I'm guarding this jealously, though I may make more in future.

So having done all of the above, let it cure for the requisite four weeks, and tested it to make sure my skin wouldn't fall off and turn me into an exhibit at the Mütter or Gordon Museums, I needed to distrubute it. That would require wrapping in something at the very least, probably some labelling too. And we all know packaging is important, don't we?

I may have taken this a bit too seriously. I went and bought some little brown luggage tabs and a rubber stamp kit. Observe my soap labels:

Aren't they cool? I did do a batch of just "Lucy's" instead of "Ginger Lucy's" for use with those who don't know about the blog (eg colleagues, parents), but if you're reading this, you'll be seeing the labels above.

I then spent whole nights of my life wrapping each bar in colour-coded handmade paper (no, not by me, from Paperchase), writing the ingredients on the labels, and adding ribbons. One day I'm going to learn not to be such a bloody perfectionist.

Here they are:

So the knitters have them already, and I have a couple of overseas packages to go out although they won't arrive by Christmas. If anyone reading this wants one and isn't already aware they're getting one, do let me know and I'll happily send you a bar.

My house smells like Lush, my friends are dead impressed, and my skin is clean and lovely - win!

Friday, 19 December 2008

A Little Birdie Told Me...

More birdies! These from the lovely knitters at the Wednesday Night Knitting (or WNK, snigger) Christmas Partay on, predictably, Wednesday Night at Pham Sushi (mmm, crunchy tuna rolls are now in my favourite sushi list, along with these from ThinkGeek).

Lotta made us all pairs of über-cute little birds from fabric scraps and buttons, stuffed with lentils and lavender. So clever! Can't decide whether they should go into the underwear drawer for scent, or stay out on show. Here they are with some yummy-sounding ginger cordial from her too:

Generous sweetheart that she is, she also bought me this gorgeous necklace in the shape of a peacock feather. Not sure of the maker but they are at Spitalfields apparently. Love love love it.

She also made this card out of lilac and silver leather scraps:

My WNK Secret Santa turned out to be Gail, and this is what she got me:

A lovely diary with fab, almost Art Deco birds (see, I am crazy bird girl already), and posh chocolate. I especially like the shiny blue bull on this. I don't believe in astrology at all, but if I had to pick one of the signs to be, I'm quite glad I'm a Taurus because I really like cows. If I could choose to have one physical feature from an animal as some sort of weird hybrid or Egyptian god effect, I'd want to have big spreading horns like a Highland cow, which I could brandish for effect. When people annoyed me, I'd toss my head and snort. If I had them, I'd probably get a nose ring too to complete the look, as I've always thought that would be a cool piercing. My darling would prefer me to have a fluffy squirrel tail or twitchy llama ears, but perhaps that's TMI...

Talking of which, my no-longer-Secret Santa gift to Ting was, in part, sheep stitchmarkers from Yarnimals, and at the same time I had to get myself a pair of squirrels. Here's an action shot of the "skwerls", as I like to call them, assisting with my nearly-finished Christmas knitting.

Yes, that's a top-down sock, but the skwerls are making even gusset decreases bearable. Look at the cute white tummy! Love them!

And finally, not animal-related but softer than a squirrel's belly fuzz, lovely wristwarmers from Jade Sapphire Cashmere 8-Ply in Berries & Cream. Mmmmm... Pauline and Lotta enabled me on this in Loop about a week ago, not that I needed a great deal of persuasion - they didn't actively dissuade me is all.

They also suggested and helped pick the buttons. Took me much frogging to decide on what stitch pattern would best show off the yarn without eating too much yardage, and after all sorts of slip- and herringbone-stitch swatchs, it ended up being the seed-stitch that won out. Just like the sample in the shop. How boring of me.

They are soft and lovely although I think they will pill like a bastard as soon as I dare to hold anything. I will love them regardless.

Finally, anyone for tea?

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Book Club

I saw this meme on Stash Haus' blog earlier in the week and coincidentally on a couple of others on the same day, so I thought I should give it a go. I was a bookish child and so got a lot of reading of the classics done then; now it's limited to commuting but that does allow me to motor through at least one novel a week and so I have done rather better than the "average" six (I know!). The below is actually quite useful in identifying what I should be reading in 2009.


1. Look at the list and highlight in bold those you have read.
2. Italicise those you intend to read.
3. Place * after the books you love - I did try to keep this to top five, but I think I've ended up with ten.
4. Post your list so we can try and track down these people who’ve only read six and force books upon them.

The list:

1. Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen * (A girly choice of favourite, but I was an impressionable 14-year-old when Colin Firth was getting his britches all wet and it has stuck with me.)
2. The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien (On an ill-fated holiday in France which we decided to share with another family, with whom we had nothing in common whatsoever. Thank god for Tolkein in that situation.)
3. Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte (I remember failing to read this at school and still managing to make up the right answers for a test on it.  But I've read it properly since.)
4. Harry Potter series - JK Rowling
5. To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
6. The Bible (From cover to cover, even. I just thought I should. I feel this means I can make an informed decision that it's utter bullshit.)
7. Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
8. Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell *
9. His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman
10. Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
11. Little Women - Louisa M Alcott
12. Tess of the D’Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy * (I adore how nasty Hardy is to his characters. Also, they're all set around where I'm from, in Wessex.)
13. Catch 22 - Joseph Heller (I've started this a couple of times.  No idea why I haven't managed to finish it.)
14. Complete Works of Shakespeare (What, all of it? Seriously? Even the poetry? I've had a good stab but can't claim to have read the whole lot yet.)
15. Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier
16. The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien
17. Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks
18. Catcher in the Rye - J D Salinger
19. The Time Traveller’s Wife - Audrey Niffenegger (Made me cry on a long flight to Bangkok, but then that may have been a side effect of being squished into a middle seat with no seat-back entertainment.)
20. Middlemarch - George Eliot
21. Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell
22. The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald
23. Bleak House - Charles Dickens
24. War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy (One day...)
25. The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams * (My absolute favourite book(s) of all time.)
26. Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
27. Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28. Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
29. Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll
30. The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame
31. Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
32. David Copperfield - Charles Dickens
33. Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis
34. Emma - Jane Austen
35. Persuasion - Jane Austen
36. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis (Why is this duplicating #33?)
37. The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
38. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres (Hated it, as it happens.)
39. Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
40. Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne
41. Animal Farm - George Orwell
42. The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown (And others by Mr Brown, I'm ashamed to admit.)
43. One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44. A Prayer for Owen Meaney - John Irving
45. The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
46. Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery
47. Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
48. The Handmaid’s Tale - Margaret Atwood * (So good I had to re-read it last week. I love dystopias.)
49. Lord of the Flies - William Golding
50. Atonement - Ian McEwan
51. Life of Pi - Yann Martel
52. Dune - Frank Herbert (This is a book? I have been forced by my darling to watch the film a couple of times.)
53. Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
54. Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen
55. A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
56. The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57. A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens (Ooh, shocker, what with all the knitting. Must correct over the hols I think.)
58. Brave New World - Aldous Huxley *
59. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
60. Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61. Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
62. Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov *
63. The Secret History - Donna Tartt
64. The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
65. Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
66. On The Road - Jack Kerouac
67. Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy * (Even more harrowing than Tess above. Great.)
68. Bridget Jones’ Diary - Helen Fielding
69. Midnight’s Children - Salman Rushdie
70. Moby Dick - Herman Melville
71. Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
72. Dracula - Bram Stoker
73. The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett
74. Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson
75. Ulysses - James Joyce
76. The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
77. Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
78. Germinal - Emile Zola
79. Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray
80. Possession - AS Byatt
81. A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
82. Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
83. The Color Purple - Alice Walker
84. The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
85. Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
86. A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
87. Charlotte’s Web - EB White
88. The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom
89. Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90. The Faraway Tree Collection - Enid Blyton
91. Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
92. The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93. The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks *
94. Watership Down - Richard Adams * (Just wonderful.)
95. A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
96. A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
97. The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
98. Hamlet - William Shakespeare (So is this in addition to having read The Complete Works? Do you have to read it twice?)
99. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl
100. Les Miserables - Victor Hugo

I think that makes a round 60 I've read, so I am ten times better read than the general population.  That makes me feel very smug indeed.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008


Even the news services are in on it now...

Firstly, the least annoying of the two and the most recent: this article on the BBC News website yesterday. Apparently we must crochet or knit presents for everybody because homemade presents are the way to survive the financial downturn.

Er, no. I mean, OK, the person who is advocating the cashmere wristwarmers is knitting from stash, so that's cost effective at least, but if you're the kind of person who already has a stash of cashmere yarn, you probably already know that making wristwarmers is an option and are either well on the way to finishing them or have rejected the idea. Anyone else? They're going to have a heart attack if they bound out to any of the London yarn shops in search of the required materials - if the price of the cashmere doesn't do them in, learning to knit on the recommended 2.5mm circs certainly will.

And ha ha, yeah, crochet makes nice, practical gifts. Not sexy or wanted, practical. Oh dear.

That reminded me about the second item, something I meant to blog about last month but forgot: an article in thelondonpaper (non-Londoners: this is one of the free ones and you only get spaces in your titles if you're paying for them) which I saw on my way home and had saved to scan and post as a picture, but it seems you can cleverly read it online, and zoom in and everything. All together now, ooooohhh, get you!

Go here and have a read, then come back to me, if your head hasn't exploded.  If the reader doesn't show the right page, you're looking for the 17 November 2008 issue, page 13.

OK, deep breath.

I shall ignore the fact that this is written by the faintly annoying DJ Johnny Vaughan.

Let's take the opening section by dear Johnny. Where do I start? So we're "Yappies" now: "young aged pensioners" because we like crafts. How patronising is that, both to those of us who are in their 20-30 year old category, and to actual pensioners, who, it seems, are the only people who are supposed to like crafts but for this recent turning of society on its head. We don't go out much, clearly. I should probably be watching TV right now, but, oh dear, I don't have one. If I'm feeling really really brave, I guess I could leave the safety of home (because crafts = agoraphobia?) and "venture out" to a "so called 'stitch and bitch'". It'd have to be at a "knitting nightspot [insert shriek of incredulity here]" and apparently there are loads of these! Funny, I've never seen one. We just go to bars and cafes like normal people but I guess we are just even weirder than the Yappies in the article and should be shunned and driven back to our acceptable special knitting venues, or preferably home, where it's nice and warm and safe, after all.

Then there's a whole heap of shit about cardigans and Pyrex. Oh please. When have people ever not worn cardigans? And Pyrex is fairly useful but I'm not excited about it as such. Silicone bakeware, maybe, but that would imply that I'm actually fairly cutting edge, and that wouldn't fit with the jam making, would it? (No, I haven't made jam, yet, but I've asked my grandma for a book on it for Christmas.)

It's OK, though. Johnny says "there's no shame in it", so I won't kill myself over being outed.

Then! Then there's the actual box about knitting itself. If anybody ever said to me anything about being "26 not 86", they'd feel the sharp end of my needle, I can tell you. And "the money I save" - ha! At least this person bucks the normal trend of knitting = cheap by admitting that this might not actually be true. "Yarns of wool"? Who says that?

I could live with all of that, you know, were it not for the last sentence here. She wants to convince her friends that her FOs are from a "pricey boutique". For the love of god, why? What's wrong with being proud that they're not from a fancy, expensive shop, being proud that you've made them yourself, showing off your unique and beautiful crafts? Wazz writes about this kind of thing far more eloquently over here (in the context of the execrable Janet Street-Porter), whereas I can scarcely type for fury.

I'd better go and have a fish finger sandwich for dinner, or else the modern world might frighten me so much that I can't sleep tonight.

Happy Yapping.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Wool in the Wild

Just a couple of random photos to pass the time:

Another shop window with a knitting theme - here we have cones of yarn at Benetton, I think, on the corner of Oxford Street and Regent Street. No apparent reason other than that it's cold and people might be encouraged to buy woolly things, I guess.

Startling knitwear seen in Ping Pong on Great Marlborough Street, whilst unsuccessfully waiting for a table after the Liberty cardholder night. Thanks Mel for posing so that I could surreptitiously "take a photo of your hand".

From your roving (ha ha) reporter.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

It's that time of year again...

Yes, it's Shoppingmastime again. This year is even worse as the increasingly desperate retailers practically fall to their knees in front of us and offer us sexual favours if we'll only buy some stuff! Please!!! Our Darling Chancellor thinks that knocking two and a bit percent off everything by cutting VAT will help. I doubt it. The massive discounts at the shops will though, and you'd be a fool to buy anything at full price at the moment - there's bound to be a sale on somewhere of pretty much everything. What the hell are the January sales going to be like - free?

So, I got most of mine done with the magical power of the internet but did briefly venture to the high street for a couple of the big discount days at the department stores. Selfridges, for once, was very disappointing, with their 20% off promotion really not applying to very much at all once actually in store - not food, not drink, and only 10% off in beauty - and that was all the bits we wanted to buy. Oh well.  Liberty was much more satisfying with one of their regular cardholder evenings with free drinks and 20% off, including in yarn, including stuff ordered on the night (I wouldn't know of course, ahem). There was 50% off in the more fashionable departments, not that I ventured in. This was the scene in handbags:

Pauline, you in there?

The nice ladies in the knitting department really do need to be allowed to check the rest of the shop though. I found this knitted cardigan mislabelled as crochet in the Gaultier section:

And vintage DPNs being sold in sets of two, because, yeah, that's useful:

Outside, giant snowmen were bouncing down Carnaby Street:

And there were some fantastic metal sculptures of animals in the windows of an office on Great Marlborough Street:

More esoteric shopping was to be had at two, yes two, craft fairs at the same time on Saturday. No idea why the organisers held them in competition - some of the stallholders expressed displeasure with this scheduling clash as well. Luckily (sort of) they were both very small, though good, so could both be done in one session, but one bigger one would have been far better.

Because it opened earlier, I went to the We Make Christmas (by We Make London) fair first. There was a nice professional, colourful sign:

But this one was more suited to a craft fair in a church hall, really:

Here's the scale of the fair:

I'll go through what I bought at both in a moment, but this one was mainly good for cool greetings cards, and at the back on the stage was an awesome cake stall from Simply sCRUMBlicious. I need to work out the recipe for the banana and chocolate marbled cupcake I had, perfectly moist with milk chocolate chunks, buttercream icing, a dried banana slice and drizzled chocolate on top. Marvellous, especially as I'd had no breakfast. There were a few stalls selling knitted goods, but I didn't partake as I can do my own.

Then it was on to probably the bigger of the two, the Bust Christmas Craftacular. I arrived just before the official start time of midday, to find posters:

And a queue! To get into a craft fair!

Most likely because the first hundred people got goody bags. I was one of them but wasn't all that impressed - really the only things in there were a free copy of each of the sister publications Yarn Forward and Sew Hip, neither of which I would buy. The We Make Christmas goody bag was actually much, much better, with badges, sweeties, postcards, and even earrings (I don't have pierced ears but they'll be good for a present at some point) and a knitted flower brooch. Learn, Bust, learn.

Inside, this one was also tiny, but much more packed and very hot:

Whereas outside, it was so chilly that someone had decided the lampposts needed crocheted cosies:

So what did I buy? Well, it was mainly (a) necklaces and (b) things with birds on, including one necklace by Jess Turnbull that was both, like a Venn diagram but with plastic swallows:

Incidentally, I should take this opportunity to show off the silver, rosewood and mother of pearl necklace I got from Amy Bengtson recently, not at Bust:

I then picked up this necklace from Eclectic Eccentricity. I am kind of tempted to take the rose off, but not yet sure:

And then I saw this one by Me Me Me at Hannah Zakari, and knew I must have it:

It is insanely smooth and tactile and makes me think of the Black Rabbit of Inlé from the animated film of Watership Down. I can't wear it, it looks ridiculous, but I own it as some kind of talisman. I can't explain it. After the show I had to go to her website and buy the other, cuter and more wearable, ceramic sitting bunny, which is on its way to me now.

Bunnies are great, they so are, but a bird will win my heart every time, and, unfortunately for my wallet, they were everywhere. On tote bags:

(Goody bag at WMC decorated with a felt and button birdie from My Aphrodite, pictured with a very cute diary from Fur Will Fly.)

(Printed tote from Mr Wingate and purse from notes.)

And on paper goods:

(Notebook actually from Liberty on the cardholder night, and inspired gift tags with international bird stamps by someone whose name I failed to get at Bust but I think it was one of the cake sellers.)

I am going to get a reputation as the crazy bird girl soon.

And a rather cool thing left until last. I was buying these gorgeous padded leather brooches from a stall called Love from Hetty & Dave:

I was paying by cheque as at most of these things, they don't take cards and I never have quite enough cash. Asking the name to make it payable to, I realised that the owner "Zo Zo" was in my year at school back in Bournemouth! And now she's all famous as Amy Winehouse wears her tattoo-like brooches, and she has given up the rat race to craft full-time. Great to see a local girl made good, and best of luck, but I am soooo jealous. Sigh, but I suppose the rate race lets me buy this stuff. Must keep buying those lottery tickets...

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Rubbernecker Redux Swap

Another swap questionnaire answer post which will be totally boring to all of you except my swap partner.

What form of fiber manipulation do you prefer? (Particularly, do you spin / would you welcome roving in your swappypack?)

Knitting and spinning. I'd like to crochet but I'm veeery slow at it so can't be bothered to get faster. My spinning is also slow but I'm getting a wheel for Christmas so that should improve.

What fibers do you prefer?

All of them. I'd rather not be using 100% acrylic but a bit of man-made stuff in a blend is fine.

What yarn weights do you prefer?

I do have a weakness for lace and sock yarns, but then when it comes to projects the ones I actually get around to knitting are the bulky instant gratification ones. So all of them really.

What colours do you prefer?

Most strong colours throughout the spectrum, and blacks, whites and greys. I'm not a fan of pastels, partly because they're just not forthright enough and partly because they make me look washed out. I don't like muddy greens/browns/yellows although the clear/bright versions of those colours are fine. Oh, and having collected a vast amount of variegated sock yarn, I'm more inclined towards shaded solids now for a bit of subtlety.

Would you be amenable to noms in your swappypack? Any allergies your buddy should know about?

Absolutely. No allergies, but a strong dislike of coconut.

Do you have a wishlist? If yes, where can it be found?

I do have one here at The Loopy Ewe for yarn, and also here at Amazon for books.

Do you have a blog? Where?

You're here!

Is there anything else you collect?

Other crafty stuff eg beads, ribbons and buttons. I've just started making soap but I guess I'm more collecting inspiration than physical items for that. Recently I'm having trouble resisting notebooks and letterpressed stationery, and anything with birds on or anything scientific.

Any books, yarn, patterns, or needles that are out there that you are dying to get your hands on?

Apart from the stuff on the wishlists above? Well I was fortunate enough to get some Knitpicks Bare for dyeing in my last swap but I'm still curious about the rest of the range from the-company-which-will-not-send-here. I'm also curious about those needles with a square cross section.

Thank you!

Monday, 1 December 2008

Look what I've got

I collected this today:

No, don't worry, we haven't eloped, that's a certificate "for" not "of". Effectively a marriage licence. That means we've given notice, and nobody objected in the period allowed, so we are good to go.

It is valid for a year, but actually you can only use it on the specified date at the specified venue (with the specified people, obviously). I think we are allowed to shift the time without getting a new one, but that's about it.

If that seems inflexible, try getting the thing - the registrar's office is only open for truncated office hours, closing at 4pm, on weekdays, at the town hall. And no, they won't post it, and no, of course they won't take the next step of actually sending it to the place where we're getting married - that's our job. I feel a rant growing with phrases such as "despite all the council tax we pay" and "how much did we pay for this certificate".  At least I'm the sort of person who likes admin, and, well, seeing it and sending it off myself appeals to my control freakishness in that at least I'll know it's done.

However it does seem rather unfair that, to get married in this country, the absolute minimum seems to be the ability to take at least two afternoons off work to do the admin (once to apply for the certificate and once to collect it) and at least £400 of fees for the legal niceties in our home and wedding districts. Surely if "they" wanted to promote marriage, and generally when people say that they mean to people on lower incomes (and that probably goes hand in hand with less flexible jobs than mine), they should make it a damn sight cheaper and possibly ask registrars to keep more sensible hours - even one person there to hand out certificates that are ready until, ooh, 5.30pm? Bloody local government, defining bureaucracy since the Domesday Book...

Sunday, 30 November 2008

A Dyeing Art

I've been quiet (again!) on here these last few weeks, because November is my busiest time at work, with most things I do having a deadline of the end of the month, so that other people can then work on the data generated for year-end close. This means lots of late nights, but I don't mind that for a couple of weeks a year - my last job involved that every bloody day so this is a great improvement. It doesn't stop me actually going out and doing stuff in the evenings, but that leaves no time for blogging. It's all finished now, so I can catch up on some of the things I've done in that time. First up, dyeing!

I mentioned back in October that I'd received some undyed yarn and Kool Aid in a swap, so I was eager to give this a go. Being a hopeless overachiever, I was not content with my first go being plain or even random splodges that would knit up with no purpose. Oh no, I wanted self-striping sock yarn, with contrast heels and toes, and god damn it, that's what I was going to do.

I armed myself with this article from Knitty, on how to dye with Kool Aid. I decided to go for a colourway in the red part of the spectrum, using the three flavours of cherry I'd been sent and the colour chart in the article. I planned on using Cherry as a bright red for the contrast yarn, then stripes of Blastin' Berry Cherry (pink) and Black Cherry (purple) with white stripes in a pink-white-purple-white sequence, with four rows per colour, ie a sixteen row repeat.

I must pause here to share my horror at Kool Aid. This is food? For children? Even before opening the packets I was struck by the strong, sweet, violently chemical smell. Opening the packets nearly made me gag. This was not something I'd be prepared to put anywhere near my internal organs. It just can't be good for you.  That's not even counting the Jonestown connotations of drinking it.

OK, so I'm not entirely stupid, I did start with the easy bit. In my stash was a 50g skein of undyed Bonny (75% wool, 25% nylon, fairly rough, hardwearing, unknown washability) from The Yarn Yard, which was included as a freebie with an order I made ages ago. I figured that in dyeing that solid red for the contrast yarn, I'd work out anything else I needed to know. I dissolved two packets of Kool Aid in a large glass of water (water quantity doesn't matter by the way, just enough to cover the yarn) and put it into a bowl. Merrily, I started off by completely ignoring the first step of the Knitty article, which was to wash the yarn. Why on earth would I need to do that? It was clean yarn and was going to get wet anyway. Here's why:

Dry yarn doesn't soak in the dye solution properly. Damn. I poked it with a spoon, a lot. It got pretty wet but not entirely. There were loads of dry, white sections which just kept repelling the liquid. Bugger. I put a lid on it anyway and put it into the microwave for a few minutes minutes, as directed. On having a look, it was better-soaked, but there were still white patches, so I added a third packet of Kool Aid, aiming at the paler parts. Another two minutes in the microwave and I had this:

Pretty even-looking, I thought, and I was impressed by how clear the water had gone, as if by magic! All the dye had been taken up, hoorah! So I rinsed it and hung it up to dry, like so:

However, here was the dry yarn the following day:

Far too patchy. I therefore washed it with actual detergent this time, to use those surfactants to get it properly wet. I then repeated the dye job with my fourth and last packet of Cherry. The result was much, much better:

Buoyed by my success, and determined to include the washing step this time, I started on the main event, the Knitpicks Bare (75% merino, 25% nylon, very soft, superwash) from the swap package. So how do you get self-striping yarn? By dyeing a sequence long enough to give a set number of rows per colour. I wanted a sixteen row repeat, so I had to make a skein that was 16 rows' worth round, and then dye the first quarter pink and the third quarter purple, leaving the second and fourth quarters undyed. First of all, I had to work out how much yarn one row of sock would take. Unusually for me, I swatched:

As you can just about see above, I marked with a red pen where my sock row ended. I then frogged back to the start of that row. I measured how much yarn that was between the DPNs and the mark:

It was roughly 30 inches, which meant my big skein would need to be 480 inches or 40 feet around! Luckily my main living area is an open plan lounge/kitchen/dining room. I placed two dining chairs the right distance apart and started the rather boring task of walking round and round the room, stringing out the yarn into a giant loop, like so:

You can see from the picture the usual general disarray in my flat - I am not a tidy person. I tied off the skein and also added further ties at each quarter point so I'd know where I was. This skein was not going to be able to go into the microwave so it was time for some hob-top dyeing:

Above you can see quarter one in a pan containing the pinky-red Blastin' Berry Cherry, and quarter three in with the purplish Black Cherry - needless to say this was after I'd washed them. The linking sections, ie quarters two and four, are just in another pan (with no water) to keep them out of harm's way. As directed, I brought the two dye pans up to nearly boiling, then covered them, turned off the heat and let them sit for about an hour. Again the water was nicely colour-free as can be seen better with the pink than the purple:

Except, well, they aren't really pink and purple, are they? More like red and brown. I don't know why, maybe because the yarn was superwash? For whatever reason, the Bonny took the dye true to the Knitty colour chart, but the Bare had a much more yellow-toned cast to it. Oh well.

Anyway, the big skein was rinsed (a fair bit of excess dye came out but the colour didn't fade) and hung up to try all around my kitchen:

I then had to put it back into a workable format, which was tricky as my swift obviously can't handle a 40 foot skein. I had to drape it over the sofas and walk around it again, very slowly and carefully winding onto a wooden spoon. It was intensely frustrating, even more so when I had to then wind a proper ball from the spoon. I've since invested in a niddy-noddy from here to save my sanity next time. But here it is, ball-wound:

And here are the two together:

Not bad going, apart from the colour-tone issue. What I didn't want was for the red of the contrast yarn to just look like an odd dye lot to the stripes, I wanted it to be distinctly different. Just slightly different would have been bad. As luck would have it, the contrast red is exactly the same colour as the stripe red, even though they are different flavours of Kool Aid - you really can't tell. It must be the yarn bases. I do quite like it, and it is very arterial and venous blood against bone. The balls smelled faintly sweet for quite a long time afterwards.

Just to prove that my sums worked, here's how the socks are knitting up:

More than that's been done now, although I've stalled because I've reneged on my commitment to do no Christmas knitting, so I'm working on that at the moment.

Finally, look what it did to my hands!

This was with me being very, very careful not to get it on anything, but I still ended up stained for several days afterwards. Even more grossly, breathing in the airborne powder stained my snot reddy-pink - yuck! And surely if it dyes yarn so well, what is it doing to your digestive tract? Again, people drink this stuff? Disturbing.