Sunday, 21 December 2014

Ready for the holidays and Fudge Recipe

I finished work on Friday (yay!) and have spent the last few evenings and Saturday finishing preparations for the holidays:  lots of housecleaning to get ready for guests, a final big late-night grocery shop to avoid the crowds, finding homes for the remainder of the Christmas decorations, and starting to make Christmas treats.  I've invited my knitting group to come round this afternoon for a knit & natter, and we've also invited the previous owners of the house round in the week to see what we've done with the place, then the in-laws are coming for Christmas.  So hopefully one clean up will last through all the visitors.


Fudge

I made the first batch of Christmas fudge, which is delicious but I think I had the pan a bit too hot so the fudge crystallised as I was pouring it into the pan.  Therefore it looks far too untidy to serve to guests and we will have to eat it all ourselves (Result! according to my son).  Here is our traditional family recipe:

- 3 cups light brown sugar (not dark brown, it doesn't work well)
- 3 Tb real butter (not marg)
- 1 cup milk (full fat - won't work with skim.  Works OK with 2% though)


Put all ingredients in a heavy bottomed saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring regularly to avoid sticking.  Bring up to a soft-ball temperature then immediately take off the heat and commence beating the mixture with a wooden spoon.  This is the part that is more of an art than a science.  Continue to beat until the mixture thickens,  and is just about to crystallise -  but about halfway through this cooling process beat in 1tsp vanilla extract.  At the right point in time, pour into a buttered 8" square pan.  Leave to cool and cut into squares while still warm.  Once cool, store in a sealed container, will keep several days but you'll probably eat it before then.

Notes:  I use a candy thermometer to see when I am getting close to the soft-ball temperature, but the real test is to drip a few bits of mixture into a glass of cold water, and push at the resulting blob with your finger.  It should hold its shape and resist your finger pressure but not actually be hard.  When beating the mixture, occasionally let some mixture wash up the pan side and let it drip down to see how thick it is.  When you are getting near the crystalisation point, the drips in the pan will be congealing and not dripping down any more.

Happy Christmas fudge making!

Here's our tree.

This is the quilted tree skirt I made a few years ago, with Santa and his reindeer

Christmas overmantle

Craft rooms

The last week I've been trying to lick my craft rooms into shape.  The sewing room is pretty much there apart from some tidying, and I also gave my handknitting room a good tidy up. I eventually removed some of the cube dividers because I prefer to keep balls of the same yarn together in bags and the bags didn't fit very well into a half-cube.



I've also been unpacking and assembling my knitting machines, although they need a lot more work to bring them into use.  The sponge bars are pretty much all shot, and the gubbins need a good cleaning and oiling.  It was rather challenging trying to find all the bits to put the machines back together, as clamps and brackets etc all seem to have ended up in various boxes - I don't know what I was thinking when I packed them away two years ago.  I've got two standard gauge machines: a Brother 881 and a Brother 950i (electronic) in the middle of the room, and then my chunky Brother 260 against the wall.  I may switch around the 260 and the 950i as the ports for the electronic machine are on the right side and the power point will be on the left.



Knitting

This week I finished the furry fingerless mitts in Sirdar Ophelia to match the tam I made earlier. They're very soft and silky, but as it's an artificial fibre they aren't warm enough for really cold weather.

I also knit a Santa Hat from a pattern in Let's Knit magazine, which uses acrylic DK yarn for the body, and an eyelash yarn for the 'fur'.  I wore this to Tesco supermarket for our big shop last night, much to DH's embarrassment. It's very comfortable.

 I knit up a free kit that came with Simply Knitting magazine a while ago, for a little change purse. The kit provided the purse frame, and the wool (Cascade 220 superwash), buttons and lining are my own.  I found it very difficult to stitch the frame to the purse neatly, there must be an easier way?



And I've been working on a hat in Rowan Big Wool based on a pattern called 'Misty Mornings' which was in Let's Knit magazine but is originally from a book called 'Winter Knits Made Easy' published by DK.  I've pulled this back a few times to get the right number of stitches for my big head, and because I didn't like the effect of having six purl stitches between cables in this thick yarn.  I've cut that down to three purl stitches and increased the number of cables accordingly.  This means I'm having to improvise the crown decreases however. I've had this Rowan Big Wool in my stash for years so nice to be using it up.

Doctor
I did get in to see the doctor about my hand on Monday.  He thinks it is likely rheumatoid arthritis and sent me for blood tests which came back negative for the RF factor.  But apparently about 30% of people test negative even when they have it, so I need to go back to see him again to see what the next step is.  The good news is that as far as I can tell from googling, it isn't going to make anything worse by knitting, and in fact many doctors have recommended their patients keep knitting to help keep their fingers supple.  So I don't have to restrain myself from knitting anymore, although I am trying to remember to take more breaks and to do finger stretches before and after.  So I was relieved about that and to read online that loads of people keep on knitting and crafting with RA although they have to adapt how and when they can do things depending on symptoms. I was afraid that I had a house full of stash in various hobbies that I wouldn't be able to use up!

Happy Christmas! Hope Santa is packing lots of crafty goodies to bring you on Thursday.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Feeling Christmassy

Yes, it is beginning to feel a bit like Christmas. DS is home from uni for the holidays, and I only have three working days left before I'm on holiday until the New Year.  Here's a shot of our hallway with the tinsel running up the stairs. I bought plain greenery-type tinsel, and decorated it with red bows and bits of fake holly bought from Wilkinsons. It looks surprisingly nice - DH says he feels like he's staying in a hotel for Christmas.


We were out last night at DH's office Christmas party, which is always a nice dinner followed by a disco generally at a hotel.  This year it was at a comfortable mid-range country house hotel and we stayed overnight so we didn't have to drive. We took Friday off and stopped in St Albans to visit their charming German Christmas Market next to the cathedral and did a bit of Christmas shopping, then went to the hotel early to relax in their swimming pool before getting ready.  The theme was 1960s, so I back-combed my hair for the first time in my life and, in another first, applied false eyelashes which miraculously stayed on all night although they felt very weird. My Agent 99-look was completed with a retro dress, white tights and white strappy heels, and a chunky white necklace I picked up at a church bazaar.  A lot of fun having a bit of a dance but we're both quite tired today as we don't have much stamina now that we are getting on  in years :)

On the way back today, we stopped into The Bramble Patch quilt shop so I could visit their Christmas quilting exhibition (DH settled in the cafe with a mince pie and coffee). This is a small exhibition of quilts made by students and customers.  There were several nice pieces but I was particularly taken by this quilt by Tracy Slavin which used a technique I'd not seen before, of crayon-tinted redwork designs (done in brown) with the embroidery carried right over onto pieced blocks.

The elaborate design is of a witch's kitchen and with no disrespect to Tracy, struck me as probably a copy made from an American pattern (there was no attribution given on the quilt labels).  A bit of Googling when I got home, and I tracked the pattern down:  it is "Calendula Patterdrip's Cottage" from Crabapple Hill Studio.  I rarely try embroidery so I wasn't familiar with the designers but they have some some lovely patterns.  I've ordered this pattern now and also a Christmas design. It may be beyond my skill level however.

I also liked this quilt which I'm guessing might be pieced from vintage linens rather than newly embroidered.

And in the coffee shop they had class samples displayed, where I quite liked this embroidered townscape by Gillian Travis,  It's for a class in May but on a weekday so I couldn't get there. It would be fun to try something similar.



After that we headed for home, but stopped and bought the Christmas tree on the way. We wanted a big one to take advantage of our tall ceilings, as usual we overestimated and had to cut off the top foot of the bare stem at the top to fit the tree in. Looks good though and we will decorate it over the next few days.

Knitting

Knitting has been a bit intermittent as I've been having quite a bit of soreness in my hands, particularly the right one.  I've now got a doctor's appointment for next week.

I finished my Seven pointed Star Tam which I blocked over a dinner plate.  I'm really pleased with it.





I'll have to wait for a warmer day to wear it, in the colder temperatures we are currently having, I need to have my ears fully covered.

Sewing room

This week I put together the design wall for my sewing room.  First of all I duct-taped the eight expanded polystyrene insulation panels together in our front room. It was great to have enough space to lay out the panels - I couldn't have done that at our old house.  However, the flaw in this plan was that the resulting panel was too big to get down the stairs into the cellar so had to be folded in two even though I had already taped the flannel cover onto it.  Luckily it all held together somehow - hurrah for duct tape.


The cover was done on the cheap, so it's a king-sized brushed flannel sheet with the elastic corners cut off, and the resulting squares patched in with additional flannel cut from a matching single sheet.  The flannel is stretched tight and held with pins into the polystyrene around the edges, and also duct-taped at the back.  The entire structure is held to the back of the bookcases with screws through cup washers.  It's all a bit low tech but is so much better than what I used to work on.


The blocks are from the jellyroll quilt that I started while we were at the rental house, which have been languishing in a bag for the last several months.  I hope to start work on it again, possibly over the holidays.

Season's Greetings to you and yours!

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Positive affirmations

Short week since my last post was only on Tuesday, but since then most of my free time has been spent planning out my display for the craft fair and getting ready for it.  I had Thursday off so packed up all the quilts, price tags, laundry instructions, bags, clothes pegs, display racks and went to the bank for some change.

I was quite nervous as I haven't done a craft fair for about three decades and my knitting group had been full of doom and gloom about how my efforts would be received by the more income-deprived of our local citizens.  With that in mind, I had priced things quite cheaply compared to what it cost to make them: wall hangings for £10, bed quilts with a top price of £40 for the biggest ones. Not a business model that Lord Sugar (of TV programme 'The Apprentice' and no, I don't watch it) would approve of.  But the whole point of this was to pass things on to new homes that would cherish them.  I've had my fun of making them, displaying them, and using them for many years and a couple of house moves, and it was time to break up the museum collection and create some space at home.

I had puzzled over how to create vertical hanging space, and in the end improvised with our laundry airing rack, and a wooden quilt ladder that my f-i-l built for me last Christmas.  When I arrived at the fair, I found I had been allotted a good location in the entrance lobby facing the entrance door. The downside being that they left the door open all day at temperatures down to below 5 degrees C so it was quite chilly.  I had anticipated being cold and had dressed in layers with a quilted jacket to top it all off but I was still cold.


I had braced myself to sit there for six hours and not sell a thing, but in fact it turned out to be quite a positive experience.  I sold about half my stock, and was flooded by positive comments and appreciation for my creations.  Several other stallholders bought things, I think because they are all makers and appreciated the work that had gone into my items. There were a couple of people saying they loved them but couldn't afford them, but those people were outweighed by the people telling me I was selling things too cheaply.  I had several nice chats with other quilters and crafters who wanted to tell me about what they make, and loads of people stopped to tell me how beautiful the work was.  My favourite was the woman who came by with her husband, turned to glance at my stall, and her jaw literally dropped.  You read that in books but don't often see it happen in real life.  She stared for a while at the quilt ladder display and shut her mouth, but then moved over the the lefthand display and her jaw dropped again.  She was quite excited and I was hoping she would buy something she liked, but in the end after talking to her husband she didn't.

It was really nice for me because for the last couple of years my quilts have just been 'stuff' that I didn't have room for, had to pack up, had to store and pay for them to be stored, then to be moved by removal people who obviously felt I had way too much of my stuff. I think my work had become very devalued in my mind almost to the point of being an expensive self-indulgent waste of time. But at the craft fair I could see again and again that my quilts were making people happy. Purchasers bought them with specific people in mind and told me so: "This is going to make someone very happy at Christmas", "I know someone who is just going to love this", "I don't know where I will put this but it is too beautiful not to buy it", "This will look lovely on my sister's sofa".

So all in all it was a very positive experience plus I made enough money to buy a great Christmas tree and some Christmas treats. I can see myself doing it again perhaps in a couple of years, but one of my friends (Hi Anita!) is counselling me to start up an etsy shop as a better economic model. She's probably right, she's very sensible about things like that.

Other stuff this week

While I was sitting at my craft stall, I finished the second one of my Fetching fingerless mitts.  I actually put them on as soon as I finished them, to help stay warm.

I've also been knitting on my Seven-pointed Star Tam which I'm still really enjoying. I'm currently decreasing towards the centre. I didn't plan it that way but the colours seem so Christmassy. I'm still getting sore hands though doing stretches before and after knitting seems to help a little.

We put up some Christmas tinsel in the dining room, hanging it from the picture rail Victorian-style. I'm going to buy some more of this to strand up our staircase as well.


And in keeping with the Christmas spirit, I tried roasting chestnuts over an open fire, using our little fireplace shovel in the dining room pictured above.  It worked really well apart from when one blew up in my face when I was leaning over to turn them over with tongs. It made me jump which caused me to smack my head on the mantel, so when DH came running in to see what the ruckus about, I was feeling pretty sorry for myself and covered  in bits of chestnut.  But the surviving chestnuts were delicious and I've now ordered a safer chestnut roaster from Amazon.



Are you making Christmas things? Are you on a deadline for handcrafted gifts?

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Sewing room is taking shape

Bit late blogging this week, sorry about that.  We've had a few days off and it's mucked up my weekly schedule. I can't believe it's December already - where did 2014 go??

A week ago I spent most of Monday working on my sewing room and it's pretty much there now bar the sorting out of piles of books, piles of fabric etc.  I planned out how I wanted the pegboard and then installed all the hooks, then screwed the whole thing to the wall above the ironing board.  It looks great and everything is so handy now.  I also put up some of my decorative objects on the walls, and improvised some 'light fixtures' across the fabric storage area because the bookshelves block the light from the main ceiling fixture.







The last big thing to do is to put up the design wall, which is going on the backs of the bookcases.  We went to the DIY store on Saturday and bought eight small sheets of expanded polystyrene one-inch thick, and I picked up a couple of cheap brushed cotton sheets from Matalan to cover them.  It would be better to have one big sheet but that wouldn't fit in the car. I'm going to tape the sheets together with duct tape and then screw the whole thing to the back of the bookshelves.  At least that's the plan, hopefully it will work.

I had a nice surprise this week: I received a prize in the post that I won from a dollhouse magazine competition.  It's two stitching kits from Janet Granger for an elephant tea cosy and a tea tray with stitched cloth, all in 1:12 scale for the dollshouse.


I've planned out what I would like to do with the dollhouse room, which is basically to install secondhand kitchen cupboard with worktop on them to support the display of houses while also providing storage.  I've started to hunt for secondhand cabinets on eBay.

I also finished putting together my two cross-stitched christmas cards.  The canvas turned out to be too small to fit the apertures of the card blanks that I had, so I improvised by fraying the edges and gluing them to some christmas fabric first.


Yesterday DH had the day off and we went down to London for the day.  I can travel 'free' on my season ticket but we had to book ahead for his ticket.  We had a fun day enjoying the capital all dressed up for Christmas.  The first thing we did was head down east to the new cable car that goes across the Thames.  We did a return trip and enjoyed the spectacular views of the Millennium dome, the Olympic Park, Docklands, the river, the Thames Barrier etc.  I read in the paper that the cable car operators aren't getting anything like the traffic levels they had hoped for. Based on our experience, I would say that it is the price (£6.60 return discounted with an Oyster card) which compares unfavourably to the Tube for crossing the river, and the lack of training for the ticket clerk who was so clueless that we gave up and bought a ticket from the machine instead.

We went to DH's favourite bookstore, Skoob, had a lovely Chinese lunch at the nearby Hare & Tortoise, went to the Constable exhibition at the V&A (I enjoyed it, DH thought it was all gloomy and boring), walked through Leicester Square where they were welcoming stars to the world premiere of The Hobbit part 3 behind a lot of barriers, to Fortnum & Mason for some christmas shopping, then enjoyed the christmas lights at Covent Garden before heading back to St Pancras station to dine on the heated patio at the Betjeman Arms.

  People looked like they were having fun on the outdoor skating rink at the Natural History Museum.

 Gingerbread Houses at Fortnum and Mason - god knows how much they cost, because I looked at a single decorated biscuit and it was £8!!!

The christmas tree at Covent Garden.

I wanted a portable knitting project to take on the day to London, so I started a new pair of Fetchings using some Debbie Bliss Merino Aran I had in my stash.  I find I am wearing my original pair a lot because they are so warm.


I took a three-day break from knitting this week to rest up my sore hands and to see if that helped any.  It was really hard for me, watching TV just seemed such a waste of time when I wasn't knitting.  My hands are somewhat better and I am trying to take more breaks and stretch more. Dr Google suggests that it might be osteoarthritis - yay.

I realised after a few charts of my Seven-pointed star Tam that I hadn't increased enough after the ribbing band. I was looking at other projects on Ravelry and someone pointed out in their comments that the increase instructions were confusing, and that's when I realised.  So I had to pull it back to the band and start over again, but it's coming on well now. I really like the colours, very christmassy.


And the rest of the time off has been spent on working on the house: I've installed new locks on the three study windows and also installed the new blinds that I had previously ordered.  They're pretty cool because they are a new type of blind that has two panels of horizontal bars separated by mesh, and if you pull the cord you can either set it to be a solid blind or to be alternating bands of mesh and solid allowing you to see outside.  Or you can raise the whole blind up out of the way.

Short week this week because we are having a Christmas lunch at work tomorrow so hopefully not having to return to the office afterwards, and I have Thursday off.  Thursday I will be making final preparations for my craft fair debut on Saturday.  I hope I actually sell something after all the hours I've put into planning my display.

Christmas is coming!  I hope you are getting into the Christmas spirit.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Long live the pay cheque!

Yes, my Director took me to one side on Wednesday to deliver the welcome news that I am continuing in employment, and staying in the same job.  Whew! A big relief and we celebrated with some half-price champagne that night.  It removes the immediate worry of no pay cheque at all, leaving us with the ongoing worries of how to pay off our credit card balances while also paying for my outrageously expensive season train ticket renewal next month, DS's university living costs, Christmas, and the new shower we wanted to have installed in the spring. I think the shower might have to wait.

The trendy youngsters I work with asked the ritual question on Friday of 'what's everyone up to on the weekend?'  They of course were variously going out clubbing, drinking etc. and their faces were a picture when I delightedly rattled off all the craft fairs and vintage fairs that I had scheduled for Saturday.  Isn't it great being middle-aged, you can do what you like without worrying about being 'cool'.

Our first stop today was  the Post Office depot to pick up my final shipment from KnitCrate (sob). I've really enjoyed receiving them but it's a luxury which has to be cut while we are digging ourselves out of our credit hole.  The final shipment has two skeins of totally luscious Madeline Tosh Merino Light in exclusive colourway 'Cotton Candy', a Needle Keeper to hold circular needles safely, and some fruit sweets, along with a pattern by Amy Hendrix for 'Catherine's Shawl',


Then we were off to the DIY store to pick up a new fluorescent tube for the dollshouse workroom, as the existing light was flicking on and off every few seconds.  I've never had to buy a fluorescent light fixture before, what a palaver. This was our second attempt, the first bulb we bought was too short, this time we took the old bulb along. The old bulb is quite fat and now obsolete, but we found a skinnier tube that also fits the fixture. Sadly it too is flickering so now I need to try replacing the little spark plug thingie to see if that fixes the problem.

Then we headed off to Bedford, about a half hour drive, to the nearest place where I was able to source pegboard.  I ordered by telephone, and checked at least three times that he was ordering board with one-inch spaced holes because that's the size I need for the hooks I had already bought.  "yes, yes yes, it's one inch" etc.  Only it wasn't.  When we got it home, the hooks don't fit because the holes are 2cm apart rather than 2.54cm.  It's already been cut to size and I can't face driving all the way back there again, so I'm just going to drill a second hole where I need it for each hook.  A nuisance and removing the flexibility that pegboard is supposed to give you, but it will still work.  So I screwed a bunch of battens on the back and started painting it white.  This will go on the wall of the sewing room over my big ironing surface, and will hold lots of tools, quilting rulers etc. It's 90cm x 2m (about 3' x 6').

Heading back home, we stopped at a church craft fair which had about 20 tables (some of which were rather loosely interpreting the word 'craft'). In my previous post I talked briefly about people underpricing themselves at craft fairs.  Look what I picked up for £2.


These are handwoven, I think using wire, and are just so adorable.  They were also selling little christmas trees, little reindeer, and many exquisite necklaces.  Even if you are a total whiz at beadweaving, these earrings must still take, what, at least an hour each?

We also hit a Christmas street market (didn't buy anything but enjoyed looking at the continental food stalls) before ending up at a local shopping precinct where they were having a vintage fair that included a lot of crafty things.  I enjoyed looking but with the tight purse strings in mind, I managed to avoid temptation but we did have lunch from a gourmet burger and sausage stand (very nice) and tour around the newly expanded antique store there.

On the way home we hit one more church Christmas bazaar, which had a stall of sewn and patchwork crafts including this adorable little sewing kit that looks like a miniature handbag.  I've not seen one like this before.  It is stiffened with card, and held together by hair elastics secured onto buttons.  Inside is a little needle keeper, a little pin cushion, two elastics to hold scissors etc., and a little pocket.  I bought it for my m-i-l as a Christmas present for £7 (again, ridiculous price considering how long it must have taken to make this) and because I think she will enjoy showing it to her quilt group.



My crafty week

I'm getting on fairly well with the Itineris Shawl in my Socks that Rock yarn.  The stripes are pretty subtle - alternating six fat stripes with six thin stripes - but I think will show better once it is blocked and stretched out a bit.  I'm almost finished knitting the centre triangle, the next section is a vertical rectangle joined up along one side of the triangle.


I've finished the first Sirdar Ophelia Fingerless Mitt, I took them right out to the tips of the fingers because I usually find I am trying to tuck my fingers inside my fingerless mitts anyway for warmth. This way I can stay warm but still have my hands free for fishing out train tickets etc.

I started a really fun project from the Colourworks knitting book by Susan Anderson-Freed that I bought a while back at the discount book store.  It's a lovely fair-isle tam and I am once again using Jamieson & Smith 2ply jumperweight from my stash.  Love knitting fair isle with this tweedy yarn and seeing the colours blend and come together.


However, somewhat worryingly, I am getting a lot of soreness in my finger joints, particularly in my right hand.  I notice it most in the mornings when I wake up, when my hands are quite stiff and sore for a few minutes.  My mother suffered a lot with rheumatoid arthritis so I feel worried about my future when I use my hands for so many crafty things.  It may just be over-use with so many knitting projects on the go at the moment.  I need to do some research into remedies.  Any suggestions?

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