Wednesday, 29 November 2017

A Driftwood and Eucalyptus Advent Calendar

Last Sunday, I was up in the loft going through the Christmas things looking for the advent boxes I made last year. I had intended to get them out again, but when I found them all I just wasn't feeling it. Some of them were in quite a bit of disrepair, while others were empty since the contents had been eaten or played with. The thought of sorting them out five days before the start of Advent made me feel a little faint, frankly. They were a wonderful thing to make but they took a really long time. 

So I decided to do something different this year, something quick and simple. I usually hang my advent garland down the banister and add chocolates and treats for the children, but I'm aware that that will be very tempting and chewable for Ziggy this year, so I'm not going to risk the garland being chewed to death, or Ziggy eating chocolate. Both would be disastrous. 

I wanted something I could hang on the wall: puppy proof but accessible and fun for Bella and Angus. Based on a few ideas I'd seen on Pinterest, I decided to hang 24 small parcels from a driftwood stick decorated with eucalyptus. Simple and plain, nothing complicated. Choosing the contents was fun. I aimed for two thirds food, one third gifts, and sticking to a tight budget so shops like Poundland, Home Bargains and supermarkets were where I did my shopping. For non-food based gifts I chose things that both children could enjoy, as each little parcel contains two gifts, like stickers, erasers, key rings, Christmas socks and lip balm.

For the food, there are of course chocolate and sweets in those little parcels, but I added things like those individual flavoured hot chocolate sachets, and those funny little milkshake straws that you put in plain milk - in short, the kind of things the children wish I would buy in the supermarket but that I always say no to.

Wrapping was fairly quick, a couple of minutes per parcel. I don't think I will ever tire of the brown paper and string look for gifts. It's cheap, can be recycled unlike most foil based Christmas wrapping paper, and is suitable for any occasion. Plus it's just really pretty. And that ball of red and white baker's twine is about to go into it's third Christmas. I remember it was a huge ball when I bought it for something like £8 or £10 but when you think that you can pay a couple of quid in the supermarket for a metre or two of ribbon I think it's pretty good value to buy it this way. 

The fiddliest job by half was hanging them all onto the wooden stick. It's also quite heavy, what with 48 small things dangling from a piece of wood, and I wasn't sure that a little picture hook would take the weight. Bless John, who drilled a hole into the wall for me last night, with a proper wall plug and screw, just so I could hang the calendar in the dining room. He rolled his eyes and huffed a little (another one of Gill's crafty ideas....) but I'm sure he loves me really...

I really like it's position in the dining room, in a funny shaped wall space next to the asymmetrical chimney breast and shelves.

I hope the children like it. My two are almost eleven and eight but, with Bella off to secondary school next September, I realise that I may not have that many more years of wrapping small toys and chocolate snowmen (parents of teenagers - what on earth do you put in their stockings?!) at Christmas. This may be the last year she puts things like Sylvanian Families on her Christmas list. She's the only one in her class not to have a mobile phone. What I'm saying is I want to make the most of these sorts of traditions for the children before they lose interest. What I'll do then is make an advent calendar for John and I - twenty four little bottles of gin perhaps?

Thursday, 23 November 2017


I've been busy here, these last few weeks. Not the usual school/work/life kind of busy, but a pleasant weekend pottering sort of busy. I've been baking and preserving, stamping and crocheting - trying to get ahead of myself for what is coming over the next few weeks.

I made our Christmas cake. It's only John and I who eat it, and I make a much smaller one than I used to, but it's a tradition that I really cherish and enjoy. I also made one for my mother and father in law and nine mini ones, cooked in little 200g baked bean tins.  I baked them for one hour at 150°c using my usual recipe (from Nigella Christmas - I'm sure it's available online somewhere) and they came out better than I could have hoped. The only tedious part was lining nine individual tins. They will all be individually iced and wrapped in cellophane closer to Christmas to be given as gifts.

And, another tradition in which I like to indulge - making preserves for Christmas. I usually make cranberry chutney but this year I fancied trying something else, so I made chilli jam

Compared to chutney is was wonderfully simple; no mounds of fruit and vegetables to peel and chop, just chillies and red bell peppers blitzed in the food processor before being cooked in sugar and cider vinegar.

It's so good, like sweet chilli sauce but not quite so sweet and a lot thicker. Jammier, you might say. And then I thought it would be fun to buy a little chilli stamp and got rather carried away stamping fabric jar toppers and labels. 

I used a white tea towel and heat sealed the ink with an iron. 

The end result is rather pleasing though. The only problem I foresee with this gift is that I do not want to give it away, and may have to make more for myself.

And the crochet. The first gift isn't for Christmas, but for my goddaughter who turns five tomorrow, but her birthday is close enough to December to feel like festive present making and I was on a tight deadline this week, frantically hooking this up at the last possible moment. What can I say, I work well under pressure.

This beauty is from the brilliant Edward's Menagerie: Birds, a book I know I've mentioned here before lots and cannot recommend highly enough, or it's predecessor Edward's Menagerie.

I also bought some delightfully squishy balls of Drops Andes yarn to make some chunky colour block cowls for gifts. I am thinking about this pattern, or this one, or I may just make up something of my own. 

Please don't be fooled into thinking that all this industry equates to any kind of organisation. In fact I am behind in just about everything else in life; housework, emails, washing, Christmas shopping, buying and posting gifts, blog reading. But hey, I crocheted a flamingo!

Happy thanksgiving to my American and Canadian friends and readers - I hope you all enjoy a calm and happy day with your favourite people.  

Friday, 17 November 2017

A November Cowl

Some crochet projects require a lot of planning, some a lot of yarn, some a lot of money. Most require a good amount of time. And then sometimes, a wonderful little crochet project pops into your head that requires the smallest amount of planning, a little yarn, no money (yay!) and only a short amount of time and, since it's an easy project, it's the most relaxing kind of crochet that can be done in front of the TV when you've had a glass of wine or two and you're actually a bit sleepy and really should go to bed, but, you know, just ten more minutes....

I began this project a couple of weeks ago when I was going through my stash of yarn. While I haven't exactly been on a yarn diet this year, I have made a massive effort to reduce the amount I buy and, particularly, to use up or give away half used balls that I know I don't want to use again. While sorting the yarn out, I came across a bag full of cashmerino scraps (I never throw that stuff out - too blooming expensive!) which I had collected and added to when my mum gave me a load leftover from a cushion she made. Mostly grey, with some pink, yellow and pale blue, they weighed together around 200 grams, the same as four new balls. Definitely enough for a project.

I decided on the simplest of patterns, a granny square cowl. I used this pattern from the brilliant crochet blog Annaboo's House as a starting point, but shortened the starting chain quite a lot, and used my own colour selection.

I don't know why, but I find it inordinately satisfying when a project uses up every last scrap of yarn. It's so pleasing, and with this in mind I decided not to break the colour changes at the end of each row, as you usually would, but to continue them up into the next row, and use them until they were completely finished, knotting in the next colour as I worked. 

This brings differences in the colour play, as some colours are next to each other for a short amount of time before another is introduced. The only real planning I did was to make sure I kept back enough black yarn for a final round at the end of the cowl to balance the black starting chain and first round at the start.

I love it. It has just the right amount of drape and the colours all came together really nicely. Plus that cashmerino is a dream to work with, and to wear, and it's neither too light or too chunky.

The colours feel quite November-ish to me, dark and grey with the odd pop of colour, but nothing too light or bright, just rich autumn tones. I think of it as my November cowl. 

Monday, 13 November 2017

November Days

I feel like the days are racing past us at the moment in a blur of school, work and dog walks. I can't believe we're almost half way through November already. Bonfire Night, with it's fireworks and parkin cake, already feels like a long time ago. 

The weather has turned cold. It's often frosty in the morning and the wind is biting. We light the stove most nights and we've all put blankets on our beds. Ziggy has a very smart new coat, a dark green waxed jacket with sheepskin lining. He's snug as a bug in it, but it is a little on the large side, so he looks like he's been eaten by a well dressed monster, but at the rate he's growing I'm sure it will fit him perfectly in a month or so. Our weekend walks have been a pleasure, if a little muddy, and it's wonderful to take Ziggy to all our favourite places and let him sniff and greet other dogs. The woods are beautiful at the moment, especially when we go out for walks late in the afternoon and the light is low and golden.

I feel a bit better about Christmas. I've written some serious lists (with sub-headings and everything) and feel more in control. I mean, if it's written on a list, that's half the job done, surely.

I finally made that pumpkin pie cheesecake. The recipe is from the first Smitten Kitchen book, The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, and is a cheesecake base filled with pumpkin pie filling, then dotted with cheesecake mixture. You swirl the two together and bake it. I found it lighter than the more traditional pastry-encased pumpkin pie although I suspect it probably contains just as many calories. I really do love pumpkin pie. I'm not American but it's become something I'm starting to seek out and and bake every autumn. I just love the way the pumpkin puree is the perfect carrier for all that ground cinnamon, ginger and clove. Autumn spices. 

Thank you so much for your warm reception to my last post and the Making the Seasons idea. I love to know what you all think, whether you agree with me or not, because I know that crafting is probably as important to you as it is to me.