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.

cecil collins

Lying in bed ill - especially if you are not too ill to read webpages on the laptop - allows for an amiably non-scholarly kind of research into all manner of varied and tenuously connected subjects.

A chance meeting with an old scrap of paper that fell out of my sketchbook reminded me that I had been very much taken with the work of Cecil Collins at the Blake exhibition in March, and so it began...

Quite a long time and much exclaiming and clicketyclicking later I am fascinated to find that this brilliant artist spent several years living in a village less than ten miles from my childhood home in the Buckinghamshire hills, where he was near neighbours with the iconic yet deeply pervy Eric Gill and where he met the illustrator and poet David Jones who I hadn't known about, but should have, because someone I know of through work has written masses about him.

Collins, who taught alongside all sorts of amazing people like Mervyn Peake and Bernard Leach, is probably most famous for his Fools series of paintings and drawings, but I like his more organic, curvaceous and visionary works better.

Another interesting thing I discovered about CC is that he was born in 1908, making this year the anniversary of his birth, another good reason to post about his beautiful work.

Hope you like it too.

All the images are as usual copyright of their various owners, used by me only as illustration for my amateurish musings and mustn't be used for anything important.


So, now even the gentle art of blogging has been appropriated by the so-called slow movement. A recent article in the New York Times describes the 'small, quirky movement' of slow bloggers as affirming 'that not all things worth reading are written quickly'. Well, that's certainly true enough. But do we really need this explaining to us and given a name?

And why, I always wonder, do journalists generally describe imaginative or slightly different people as 'quirky'? Definitions of quirky include 'eccentric' and 'peculiar'. Often what I do is labelled this way just because it is different. Is it really eccentric to consider things carefully, write well and thoughtfully?

Basically, giving something the 'slow' label - be it food, work, lifestyle or blogs - seems to be synonymous with focussing wholly on the job in hand, doing it to the best of our ability, and doing it with pride and pleasure. Trying not to do too much, valuing what we have, and not spreading ourselves too thinly. That is, exactly how many of us have been getting on with things for years.

I know some might see it as cynical, but I can't help recalling the words 'emperor' and 'new clothes'.

Am I alone with these thoughts?

Angel 3

Here's something that wasn't written quickly. Angel at St Lawrence's Church, Ludlow.

With thanks to Book Girl for her excellent post on this subject which got me thinking.

mouse shop is now open!

Hooray! You can now buy all my handmade things at the new shop. Click here to go there now.

There are reusable shopping bags, embroidered bags, linen hearts and pincushions, and a few Christmassy things as well.

There is even a Wedding section...

Please do visit and have a look, and then tell me what you think! I'd really value your feedback. And as a little thank you to you all, there's 10% off your orders for the next two weeks! Just enter the code 'NOTEBOOK' at checkout.

bryan's ground

Today I'd like to introduce you to one of my most favourite gardens. It's wonderfully hidden away in the countryside near beautiful, secretive Presteigne, which is itself hidden away in the magical, historic Marches - neither England, nor Wales, but both.

It's owned by David Wheeler and Simon Dorrell, who as well as making a beautiful garden also publish Hortus, probably the most exquisitely lovely gardening publication you can buy.

I am a bit unusual in that I don't favour brightly coloured, tidy gardens with everything neatly kept. I like a bit of mystery, a hint of wildness, the opportunity to get lost, and a lot of green: a sort of managed semi-abandonment. Bryan's Ground hits all the right notes for me: it's quirky, overgrown, romantic, full of shady, hidden places to sit, totally idiosyncratic, yet hugely welcoming. The reason it succeeds so well is that David Wheeler and Simon Dorrell are enormously knowledgeable about plants and design and nothing happens without being planned or anticipated by them.

I have been twice now, and loved it both times. I would go again tomorrow, but it is not open in 2008, for a rather sad reason: David Wheeler is recovering from cancer. He is, at least as far as I know, well again now, and you can read his affecting and inspiring story here.

I've got my fingers crossed that the garden will soon be open again. I love this beautiful, timeless part of the country, and will doubtless be returning next year. I would not like to miss my visit to Bryan's Ground.

lessons learned

I absolutely promise that this is the last post about the ***** craft fair.

It was a very mixed experience which was often quite difficult for me, a natural introvert who is not good at selling herself. Yes, perhaps it would have been better to have stayed at home, but I wanted to push myself and have some contact with buyers, and see what people liked and didn't like.

First things first: I covered the stall fee, and made a small profit too, so that was a huge weight off my mind.

However, I didn't sell as much as I'd hoped, and to be honest I think that had more than a little to do with the standard of the fair and the quality of the other sellers. Apart from a lovely potter called Sylvia, there was not much else there to interest me, and quite a lot else that positively set my teeth on edge. I'm not being snobby here: many stalls were selling stock that they'd quite obviously bought in that was of a very low standard: Power Rangers hats and scarves, metallic fake leather handbags, plastic rucksacks. Not the sort of thing I expected to find at a National Trust property craft fair, but that was my first lesson: always check your craft fair very, very carefully. If they don't vet the sellers, be wary.

My second lesson was about stall design: you need height, and you need to create order. People like to feel in their own little world, and height at the back makes it seem more like a shop. Also, too much busyness confuses the eye. On day two I rearranged everything in rows and blocks and this worked a lot better.

My third lesson is a bit vaguer, but has to do with psychology: I need to learn when to give information, when to gently push, and when to apparently immerse myself in a paperback. Again, not all things that come naturally to an introvert, but which I must work on if I am to be successful in the future.

I came home both days utterly exhausted and rather depressed, but a couple of days of mental recharging has allowed me to regroup and start to feel positive and creative again. The house also feels a lot better after a serious blasting to rid it of dust, dirt, and a million little threads trodden over every carpeted surface.

My next job is to get my online shop up and running, so it's time to put my computer nerd specs on and pull my anorak hood up over my head. Come back soon and see if I've succeeded, or whether I've been eaten alive by html....

More pics on Flickr, if you can face them...

hanging on the telephone

In an attempt to restore some order to my life and house today, I have done a pile of washing, vacuumed up my threads from where they have been trailed all over the house over the last fortnight, sorted out loads of admin, and waited on hold for over an hour to arrange a new phone upgrade.

This is how I passed the time while I was on the phone.

All of these photos were found on Flickr and are copyright of those who took them. Please don't use them without getting permission. 1. crow tree, 2. Crow Tree, 3. crow & berries, 4. The bird and the moon II, 5. Bird & Moon, 6. Full moon., 7. birds, 8. Birds at Dusk, 9. Bird Tree

all ready

I'm sure you are all sick of looking at stuff for the craft fair, so here's some lovely lovely buttons instead.

At last everything is ready for tomorrow. Tagged, priced, labelled, ironed, packaged and tucked up into four large plastic crates.

It's my first craft market so I've no idea what to expect... my lovely friend Julia is coming to help me, so at the very least we will have a giggle and drink lots of tea. Hopefully I'll sell something...

And now I feel the urge to go and paint my short, stubby, needle-pricked and ink-ravaged fingernails dark purple.

Keep everything crossed for me.

the sounds of a quiet house

Today the light is very dim. The earth is moving gradually further and further from our sun and each day will become shorter and shorter over the next five weeks.

This is bad news for people who are wanting to take photographs of bags and accessories... but I have had a go and you will see a few bits and pieces throughout the length of this post.

This week as I've been stitching and snipping, printing and stapling, painting and packing for hours and hours and hours, I've been hugely aware of my senses. For the most part my eyes and hands have been too busy to notice much other than the few square inches in front of me, but my ears and nose have been wide open.

The sounds of the house and the space around us: crows in the tall trees, the wind, the distant traffic, the gentle hum of my laptop, a far-off train, the hiss and click of the iron. The smell of paint and ink and paper, the way each fabric smells different when it's ironed, the bouncing unruliness of polyester ribbon.

And at some point in the day - at least just for a time, because I like the silence too - the comforting tones of the radio, filling the room with stories, plays, odd little programmes about cider or 24-hour shopping, and repeated late-night music shows.

So that's been my week. What are the sounds of your house?

return of the clones

Here, then, are the successful ones, the happy ones, the perfect ones, the ones who are going to be allowed to show off at Quarry Bank Mill craft fair this weekend.

They are celebrating by doing a little circle dance.

If you'd like to come and see them dance, and you are lucky enough to live in Manchester or Cheshire, please pop along:

Quarry Bank Mill Craft Fair
This Saturday and Sunday 15th and 16th November
£1 adult entry

Quarry Bank Mill and the Styal estate is well worth a visit if you haven't been. There are woods, a winding river with places to play Pooh Sticks, and a fabulous working cotton mill. It's National Trust so the website will tell you more.

Hope to see you there!

meet the family

Shhh... don't let them hear, but despite their cheerful and stoic faces, this poor little family have all been cruelly rejected on grounds of appearance and technical ineptitude.

They are lined up in order of experimentation: I wasted a whole day on this yesterday, each time hoping that this one was the final one, and each time finding problems with the face, the ears, the stuffing hole or the roundedness of their bottoms. Poor little catbears.

Anyway I am pleased to report that some sort of perfection has now been achieved and the new superduper smartypants catbear will be appearing soon at craft markets in the north west of England, sporting a variety of attractive outfits.

I will get him to pose for a photo before he goes.

a frenzy of making and sewing

So far November has been bonkers. I've hardly left my artroom except to eat, sleep, and today, to come to work - a welcome rest. The day after I signed up for Art Every Day Month and the Christmas Ornament Swap I decided it would be nice to do a Christmas craft market this year...

Now the house is overflowing with bags, hearts, tree ornaments, gift tags and pincushions...

Which is nice, but... will there be enough? Will I get everything done in time? Will my family still be alive at the end of next week?

Oh and another thing...

What if nobody buys anything?

corners of my house

Today I'm sitting making embroidered linen hearts for a craft market that I'm doing in ten days' time. Too busy sewing to write very much, so I thought I'd show you some things from my house instead.

holiday ornament swap

I'm excited to have signed up for this:

A brilliantly simple idea hosted by Cake and Pie and Freshly Blended, which, in return for a little making and packaging, should see ten different handmade Christmas ornaments plopping through my letterbox in December!

How lovely is that?

Come and join in!