Tuesday, 29 August 2017

An Embroidered Holiday Diary: France

My embroidered diary of our holiday in France is back from the framers, a whole week earlier than expected and now sitting on the mantel. 

I am very happy with it. It's not technically perfect and I have a few issues with the composition, but this is just me being my perfectionist self. Overall, I love the look and feel of it, I loved every second I spent stitching it, and most importantly it's full of good memories of our holiday in Brittany.

I thought you may like to know a little more about how I made it and what I decided to include. 

I hadn't really thought about the composition before we left for our holiday. I just took a piece of white cotton fabric with me and my bag or embroidery threads, and it was only on the second day, when I finally felt like I had a moment to stop and think, that I sat down and sketched out a rough grid. Twelve squares for twelve days, drawn roughly with a fading ink pen.

There was no plan beyond that, I just tried to go with what we'd done that day and keep it as free and spontaneous as possible. I generally decided what to sew at the end of the day and started it on the next, as I liked to plan it in the daytime when my brain was awake and the light was good. Some days I spent an hour sewing, others three or four. It totally depended on the detail of what I was sewing, and how much time I had to stitch that day. I got more done on rainy days than sunny ones!

Day one was easy, a Tricolore flag, the same as the one that flew on our ferry, to celebrate our arrival in France. With most of the motifs I drew straight onto the fabric with the pen and stitched straight over the top.

I don't think we did anything in particular on our second day beyond an enormous supermarket shop, but I do remember enjoying my first long, leisurely lunch of bread, cheese and salad.

On the third day I stitched a Breton style top. This classic design is for sale everywhere - cheap versions in the markets and pricier ones in the boutiques - and it's worn widely by all kinds of people, not just the tourists like me. 

It seems like every day is market day in France and I did love wandering around them, browsing the stalls. Below I decided to sew a fruit stall using lots of tiny French knots. You can see that I got quite carried away here and enjoyed choosing the colours and adding details like leaves, and this section took quite a while.

On the fifth day I chose one of the oyster shells I'd picked up on my morning run on the beach. I didn't feel confident drawing this shape straight onto the fabric so I sketched onto paper first then, when I felt happy with the shape, traced it onto the cotton with the fading ink pen. Oysters are a huge part of the Brittany fishing industry and are in fishmongers, supermarkets and restaurants. I didn't try one. I've never tried one. I am probably missing out but something about them, I don't know...they just don't appeal. I like the shape of the shells though.

The sixth day, Friday, it poured with rain all day long and so we explored the nearby walled town of Vannes with it's Medieval streets and prettily painted timbered buildings. This was another day which took a long time to sew, and I got quite carried away adding things like shutters, window boxes and balconies.

Agapanthus is so widely grown in Brittany, in both public and private gardens, down the sides of roads, on roundabouts, and sold in the markets too. It's not a flower I'd really noticed or considered before, but I associate it with this area now.

Day 8, a Sunday, was a beach day. 

As was the following day, the one really hot day we had there, and we all bought ice creams and ate them as we walked down to the beach. The shop, called l'Igloo, had a selection of flavours that was almost overwhelming, there were so many to choose from, but I chose violet. It tasted of parma violet sweets, which I think you either like or you don't. I love them. 

On our tenth day we took a boat to the Ile des Moines, in the Gulf of Morbihan. This isn't the grubby old tub we chugged along in, this is a much prettier boat I snapped from the deck. (I think a little artistic license is acceptable...)

I honestly can't remember what we did on the eleventh day, and it was probably nothing remarkable, but we certainly drank some of the local cider. Brittany is known for it's apple production and cider and Calvados (apple brandy) are sold everywhere. You can't really tell but that "cidre" lettering involved only one strand of thread and was very fiddly.

And finally the white and black Gwenn-ha-du which is the Breton flag. In Brittany the sense of local pride and identity is strong, and this flag is printed on bottles and packets in shops, hung outside houses and in towns, displayed on street signs, sold on postcards.

This is what the back of the piece looks like. I know some people get hung up on what the reverse of an embroidery looks like, how tidy it is. As you can see this is a mess, but I don't care, it's like a deconstructed, slightly abstract version of the tidy front.

Sometimes I think my favourite part is the fruit stall, but then I think no, it's the ice cream, or the boat, or the agapanthus. I can never decide. I love the beach scene too. Maybe my favourite part is the Breton sweater, I like it's shape and simplicity. I don't know. I would love to know if you have a day or motif you particularly like. 

Thursday, 24 August 2017


Our days this week have been filled with fresh produce and flowers and our feet have barely touched the ground. We've been out and about; walking, picking blackberries, visiting gardens and farms, picking our own fruit and vegetables. The kitchen is in overdrive as I turn elderberries, blackberries and windfall apples into hedgerow and bramble jelly. Crumbles are made as fast as I can pick the apples and blackberries. Last night we ate fresh corn on the cob, picked that very morning by Angus and Bella in a field. I have a kilo of Victoria plums in a bowl, some ready to be baked into a cake and some gently stewed with sugar and spices into a compote to eat with vanilla ice cream.

I love this time of year. The leaves are starting to fade and yellow in places but the air is still warm and the fields and hedgerows are full of so much life and colour. This is when I start to really get back into cooking, into baking and preserving, and I can see that I'm already beginning the gradual retreat from time in the garden into time in the kitchen again.

Making bramble jelly is one of my seasonal rituals, something I really look forward to doing at this time of year. It heralds the gradual ending of summer for me like nothing else. When I first started making preserves, I experimented with so many different fruits and flavour combinations, trying different things, building my confidence and skills. But I've narrowed it down to three I make: bramble jelly in late August, some kind of chutney in October (for Christmas) and marmalade in January, when the Seville oranges are in the shops. These jamming sessions punctuate my year and I look forward to them, set time aside for them.

Yesterday we visited a wonderful Pick Your Own farm only fifteen minutes away, I can't believe I've never been there before. It has a farm shop and cafe, and field after field of fruit and veg to pick. I thought Bella and Angus might be bored but they absolutely loved it. All of it, seriously, I had to stop them picking everything there. And I discovered the wonder that is a Pick Your Own cutting garden; a large patch of dahlias, cosmos, cornflowers and sunflowers, and you cut as much as you like and pay by weight. One huge bunch of glorious dahlias cost me £1.22. I'm already planning when I can go back.


On a separate note, I've been thinking about cameras a lot lately, about how I use mine in my life and here on this blog. It's pretty central to most of the things I do. I adore taking photographs and take far too many, every day, of anything and everything. I always - religiously - used to take my big DSLR out with me everywhere I went and used the photos I took on that camera here on my blog. The camera on my phone was always for Instagram and family photos and I just didn't think they were good enough quality to publish here. 

But, increasingly, I'm leaving my heavy "proper" camera at home and just using my phone for most photos taken out and about. Partly it's the weight of the DSLR, but mainly it's because the camera on my phone is really quite good. It was my sole basis for choosing the phone I did, in fact, a Samsung Galaxy. Five years ago, when I started blogging, you could really see the difference in quality between DSLR and a phone camera, but now I am struggling to tell the difference. I still use my DSLR for any photos taken around the house and garden at home, but I'm not ashamed of my phone photos any more. All the photos taken above at the Pick You Own Farm (except the two of me which were taken by my friend Rachel on her phone) were taken with my phone. I've edited them a very little, mainly just cropping, levelling horizons and a little tinkering with light or colour, but I think they hold their own. What do you think, can you discern much of a difference in quality?

Saturday, 19 August 2017



Thank you for your comments on my Brittany post. It's fun that so many of you share my love of foreign supermarkets. In many ways they're more interesting to me than the street markets, perhaps because they're so similar to how I shop at home, but with different products, packaging and smells. Thank you also for your well wishes for my Grandad, you are all so kind. He's doing incredibly well and how been moved from ICU to a regular ward, and plans are being made for his return home. 

I forgot to tell you in my last post that I kept another embroidered holiday diary while we wre away, like I did when we went to Cornwall in 2014. Twelve little motifs or vignettes for twelve days. Some took longer than others, but I was able to work on it for a couple of hours each day (in daylight hours too - such a holiday luxury!) and finished it last weekend. It's off to the framers next week then of course I will show you all. I can't tell you how much I enjoyed stitching each image, and how much fun it was choosing what to sew and how to sew it. 

I enjoyed sharing stages of the progress on Instagram while we were away, but I thought some of you might also like to see a few pictures. I'll show it to you all properly when it's framed.

The days are flying by so quickly at the moment and I don't really know what I'm doing with them. I don't seem to be able to account for my time at the moment, but does that even matter? Apart from a couple of days with my friend Abigail in London earlier in the week, we've been at home mainly. Getting on with jobs, seeing people, pottering around the house and garden. The weather has been a typical August mixture of sun and showers, and it feels cooler in the evenings than it did a month ago, and darker too now that I come to think of it. I've been rearranging and refreshing rooms and shelves here and there, moving plants, adding throws, switching on fairy lights. The chevron crochet you see above is to be a wall hanging for Bella's bedroom. It's almost finished, I just need to block it and add tassels. My next project will be crocheted fruit which I'm really excited to start.

The holiday feeling did linger for a while, as I unpacked and arranged souvenirs and washed the shells I'd collected, but now it's hard to believe we've been home a week. I feel like I've caught up with the garden a bit now, reconnected with it, and I've potted the planters on my door step with dahlias. They were £1.67 or something per plant from Lidl, so cheap, and I always feel better about the garden if the pots on my door step look presentable. I'm astounded that I'm still picking sweet peas, maybe five or ten a day and, even though they're looking so straggly and brown, I'm reluctant to pull them all up just yet. Just one week more, then I'll replant the planter with cosmos and dhalias. The courgettes have gone mad in my absence and there are loads, and they're supermarket size now. I feel like I grew these by accident really. A colleague gave me a plant, I planted it, did nothing to it, then loads of courgettes appeared. That's my kind of gardening, if I'm honest.

I popped in to see my sister, Katy on Friday morning. I don't know if I've told you about her garden before, but she lives in an Edwardian terrace and it's really long and narrow, and you can't see the bottom of the garden from the house due to the way it's been planted. It has huge, overgrown borders, winding paths, apple trees, the most incredible climbing roses, a pond. It's really magical, but a huge amount of work, frankly, to even keep on top of it. They plan to remodel it in the future, but for now she was more than happy for me to pick a bunch of wildflowers, dig up a few plants (including a Japanese anemone), pick a sack load of cooking apples and a handful of wild blackberries. Oh, and I borrowed a cookery book too. Not bad for a morning's work.