the turning of the year

I am writing this in a single pool of light in a darkening, silent house surrounded by cold still trees in a thick chilly fog. The year is about to turn, and all that is old and worn and used-up and bored will miraculously become new and hopeful and welcoming. Allegedly.

Generally my response to New Year's Eve is rather mixed, but on the whole I am not very good at looking back. However, neither am I filled with any specially buoyant optimism for the future. Rather, I am glad to close the door on what has gone and start again, in a kind of cleaning-out-the-freezer sort of a way.

Many of you have done a rather nice mosaic of all this year's work, but I don't have much of a body of work yet, since I've only just restarted creative production after a hiatus of several years. I find myself asking questions about where I want to go and what I want to produce... hopefully 2009 will provide some of the answers.

I love what Gillian wrote recently: "The most important thing for me is that I recognise myself in everything I make, that all my work is a perfect reflection of me and my character and aesthetic". Gillian, I hope you don't mind if I borrow that as my goal for the new year.

Yarn-wise, 2009 is already looking up:

A tantalising assortment of merino, cashmere, lambswool and microfibre just waiting for me and my crochet hook...

... and a very exciting little bundle of soft pink Baby DK...

nature notes

Ever since I was a very little girl I have been madly in love with the English countryside. The memories of my childhood are threaded together with a deep emotional connection to the woods, fields, coast, rivers and gardens through which I ran and played.

I am lucky enough to have sensitive parents who not only love the British landscape and its wildlife but know an immense amount about it, and who were able to teach me as a child almost everything I wanted to know about its trees, plants, birds, animals, agriculture, geography, climate and history.

I also inherited from them my lifelong enjoyment of books and reading, and not surprisingly, one of my great loves is nature writing. I have always loved those little tucked-away paragraphs on the letters page of the newspaper about the arrival of geese on the Mawddach estuary and the first celandine in the Cotswolds, and my first introduction to this gentle genre was through the wonder of Ladybird Books, in particular What to Look for in Spring, What to Look for in Summer, What to Look for in Autumn and What to Look for in Winter. Much of what I know about the natural world was learnt from my threadbare copies of these four little titles by E.L. Grant-Watson and illustrated by C.F. Tunnicliffe, and many of the words and images will forever be engrained in my mind.

Sadly these books have gone missing from my shelves over the years, but I recently discovered that you can buy prints from all the Ladybird books here, and so for my main Christmas present this year I was allowed to choose eight pictures to frame. Despite their slight lack of definition in reproduction, still for me they wonderfully convey the seasonal beauty of the England of my childhood memories.

C.F. Tunnicliffe is one of my favourite artists, who in my opinion should be far better known and appreciated. Like many of my literary and artistic heroes he's not at all fashionable these days, but he illustrated many classic works and is probably most well-known for Henry Williamson's Tarka the Otter. His sensitivity of line and shadow is exquisite.

Another author whose work he often illustrated was the late great Alison Uttley, creator of Little Grey Rabbit and prolific writer of essays about the English countryside. I often get one of my Granny's old volumes down from the shelves for a bit of winter comfort reading.

She often writes about her own childhood memories and everything is tinged with a sense of magic and wonder.

My second best Christmas present this year was a long-promised copy of Susan Hill's The Magic Apple Tree, a collection of country notes from her cottage in Oxfordshire from my friend Anne, whose favourite book it is. I am reading it in very small doses to make it last.

In return I gave her a copy of another of my own favourites, A Year in Silverdale by Richard Norman, another beautifully written snapshot of a little-known part of England which happens to be one of my favourite places to go.

where did all the time go?

Like most of us, all my days and hours seem to be filled with jobs and preparations now. Anything left over is spent with a cup of tea by the Christmas tree, trying to remember what this time is all about and what is important.

I hope you find a moment to think your own thoughts and dream your dreams at this busy time.

A very Merry Christmas to you all

sashiko is not as easy as it looks...

My standard gift for weddings and christenings has for many years now been a hand stitched sampler, done properly in cross stitch on evenly woven linen, recording the names and dates and decorated with old-fashioned flowers and patterns. I love doing these, even though it takes forever and the technique seems to have falled out of favour with the embroidery fashionistas.

This time, however, I've left it far too late to make a proper sampler, and so I decided to try something different and hopefully a lot quicker. Japanese crafts are very on trend at the moment, so inspired by other people's lovely work on Flickr, I thought I'd have a go at sashiko embroidery. How hard can it be? It's only running stitch...

It's typical of me I'm afraid that I never try anything out properly before jumping in at the deep end, so this, my very first attempt, which should really have gone in the bin, has to be framed and wrapped up and offered as a christening present next weekend. I feel a bit embarrassed about this, but they're old friends, and hopefully we can make up for it with a lot of babysitting.

I think I will stick to my trusty split stitch in future. And I promise not to scoff at Japanese craft techniques for being easy peasy again. Sumimasen.

Flickr credits: 1. Landscape 3, 2. bluesewn-02, 3. spring has come cushion

cold and crisp

Winter has us firmly in its grip now and as we move towards the last week of advent I am beginning to feel 'christmassy'* at last. There comes a moment every year when I want to sit all by myself, without interruption and with a steaming cup of tea in my hand, and listen to my favourite carol, the piercingly beautiful Bethlehem Down. This I have just done, and there now follows a week of almost brain-burstingly frenetic activity, but I now feel that I am in the right place mentally to get safely through to next weekend.

I thoroughly enjoyed the Whitworth Craft Market yesterday and managed to sell quite a few things, as well as receiving many compliments from visitors. The best bit was seeing one of my teddycats fall into the ownership of the loveliest little rosy cheeked girl I think I have ever seen, who immediately cuddled her very close and tore around showing her to everybody in the room. I was also very pleased to meet Ness Donnelly and Jacky Cardy and see their lovely work, as well as many other gifted artists and makers.

There are still plenty of lovely things left to buy in my shop, including these handpainted tree decorations:

There are also some lovely new vibrant lime green and brown bags, and don't forget you can get a nice 10% discount by entering the code NOTEBOOK at checkout.

I think I am getting better at packaging and presentation now - what do you think?

Over Christmas I hope to continue thinking about the direction my work will go next year, including looking at old sketchbooks, going through my enormous pile of reference material and art/craft books, and doing some new drawings and paintings.

Sketchbook page

But first, a trip to the post office with the cards...thank goodness for the invention of non-lick stamps.

*Michael McIntyre is so funny about this, but fast forward to about six minutes to avoid the awful John Cleese bit.

sunday market

On Sunday I am going to be having a stall here:

If you live in Manchester why not come along? It is going to be a really good market with lots of stalls all selling handmade paper and textile things.

You can also see the brilliant Cloth and Culture Now exhibition which is having its last day on Sunday.

I am going to be selling all my usual bags and accessories plus some new lime green and brown flowery bags that I am finishing off in a hurry this week.

Hope to see you there.

a curious story about a suitcase and a mouse

This year we spent our summer holidays in lovely north Norfolk, a very beautiful part of Britain which is one of our favourite places. We were lucky enough to be there for the monthly auction at Burnham Market, a brilliantly mad and wonderfully English experience where a bizarre assortment of items are laid out on the village green, given a number, and sold to the highest bidder, usually for next to nothing. A leathery faced man with a money belt and a stubby pencil moves up and down the lines calling out the lots, followed by a knot of onlookers.

Last time I went, I came back with an oak picture frame and a little wooden box. This time, along with an enamel bread bin and a galvanised watering can, I proudly struggled back to the car with this funny little suitcase, once the property of Colonel Hallet of Blakeney, Holt:

I expect you are wondering why?

This is why...

Inside the suitcase were ten beautiful blue tins with handpainted lettering on the side that read Tapioca, Currants, Raisins, Sago, Rice, Sugar, Tea, Coffee, Sultanas, Semolina. In addition, there was a little box full of tiny tins of spices.

I can't begin to convey how excited I felt when I opened the case and found this wonderful little piece of someone's domestic history. What were all these tins were doing in Colonel Hallet's suitcase? Were they Mrs Hallet's? It seemed that none of these tins had been opened or used since about 1972. Each one contained the most exquisite little packages of ingredients, many with their original price labels, which immediately transported me to the magical shelves of my Granny's little pantry. I used to be allowed to shut myself inside and just stand marvelling at the rows of jars and packets and tins and cooking utensils.

I loved that pantry partly for its own beauty but also because it invoked yet another deeply loved and special image: the magical, miniature world of the dolls house kitchen in Beatrix Potter's Tale of Two Bad Mice:

Look closely and you will see that Hunca Munca's tins are almost exactly the same as my blue Norfolk tins. Sadly, for her they proved a terrible disappointment, as they contained nothing but red and blue beads, but for me, they summoned a deep nostalgia for everything that comforted, reassured, inspired and delighted me as a child, as well as fulfilling the deep-down belief that we all share - that magic and surprise and undiscovered delights are still to be found in our world.

all is calm, all is bright

It's December already?

How in the world that happened I have no idea. But suddenly, it's winter.

Outside there's a hard, cold frost, it's snowing lightly, and the birds are feasting gratefully on windfall apples and their own special bird crumble to keep out the bitter cold. The weak thin sun is low, low, low in the sky. We've had quiet, still, freezing fog. The radio is playing carols and advent music. There is chocolate on the mantelpiece to unwrap each time we open a little door on the advent calendar.

I love this time, yet I always, always get caught up in a rush of fear and panic as I begin to realise that a turkey needs ordering, decorations must be found, food must be shopped for and made, and... presents!

Does that word fill you with the same fear as me?

I am pathologically unable to think about Christmas before the first of December. It seems all wrong. Yet the price I pay is the surge of alarm and terror that is running down my spine right now. What, for who? Where from? How much?

But, still my beating heart! Calm down. Take a deep breath. I am determined to do things differently this year. I desperately don't want to get caught up in shopping madness and plastic packaging hell. I want to stay calm, I want to stay quiet this winter.

So, it seems, do many others. There is a tremendous creative undercurrent rising up from the art, craft and design world. Let me quote to you from the wise pages of the Purl Bee*:

"Breathe. This year may be different. There's a new feeling out there. A feeling of what is really important, of what brings us back to ourselves and to our families and friends. For so many of us who knit and crochet, we find rich meaning in the process, in the sensuality of natural materials, in the deep connection to an ancient craft. To me, this is what feels real this holiday season."

It's wonderful to feel part of something bigger here, to sense the energy and passion that others are sensing, to feel like we can make a difference*. You might have noticed the little link button right down there at the bottom on the left hand side of the page. Some time ago, I took the handmade pledge, and I intend to stick to the spirit, if not the letter, of the law (as far as I am aware, you cannot buy handmade noise-cancelling headphones of the sort coveted by teenage boys). Each year, I try to make as many presents as I can, and this year I want to improve on that by reducing the packaging I use and thinking more carefully about every aspect of our Christmas celebrations. It matters.

If you need any more incentive to join in, read this inspiring list of 101 Reasons to Buy Handmade compiled by Poppytalk.

1* They also have some gorgeous ideas for crafty presents that made me ache with desire.

2* A movement, or a non-movement? Something to think about here.