Wednesday, 10 September 2014

My City: Hereford

Birmingham is huge; London quite a distance away; but there are plenty of cities in my part of the world – thanks particularly to the wealth of the area in the middle ages, when Cathedrals popped up here, there and everywhere, but mostly here. Cities in name, and in historical signficance, but not quite the metropolitan hubs you might associate with the title. On an infrequent basis, my office send me to Hereford, and I rather enjoy the chance to explore narrow streets, or pop into the independent shops. The high street has its share of the usual chains, and a newly opened retail centre is the talk of the town (though my impression is of identikit offerings which may be convenient but are unlikely to be really exciting).

The Wednesday market is lively as ever, and full of interesting and diverse offerings: from yarn to vegetables to hand-carved wooden objects to antiques to mexican street food, all against a backdrop of modern shops in rather older buildings, and with the Hereford Bull taking pride of place at the end of the road.

The added bonus of Hereford for me is that all of this is on my way from the station to work, so I have to walk past them and catch up a little; an enlivening route, on which caffeine is, if I'm honest, often collected too.

The real treasures of Hereford, though, are on Church Street... from the cafes and music shop to the independent gallery and jewellers. Tucked away, these might seem hidden, but it is a busy route, and relatively well-travelled. For sewers of all kinds, Capuchin yard is a must-visit; Doughty's have a haberdasher's and yarn shop on the Church Street which is well-stocked and useful, but their reputation is built on fabrics, and the fabrics are in Capuchin yard. 

Make your choice between dress and upholstery on the one hand, and patchwork and quilting on the other, and excellent advice, support and pattern help is available in both! Once your need for all the pretty fabric you can carry is exhausted, pop into for a healthy snack or salad and delicious pudding.

My new favourite spot for lunch is Rocket, where the flatbreads are literally warm from the oven, the ingredients fabulous and locally sourced, and the coffee excellent. Even better, the staff are welcoming and creative, and seemed to appreciate the need to photograph a finished object if you are to share it with the world!

If the sun is shining, then it is worth asking for a takeaway, since only 20 m down the narrow street opens into Cathedral close, where picnics may be enjoyed with a view of the Cathedral, and alongside Elgar and his bicycle. While my lunchtimes don't usually extend to a visit, the Cathedral is magnificent, and houses not only the Mappa Mundi, one of the oldest extant maps of the world, but also a chained library – from a time when books were worth their weight in gold.

Plus, you never know when it might be handy to have Elgar model some knitting for you!

Elgar in Alletta

Monday, 23 June 2014

And knit some more

If you look at the stash, you might think there was no need to add to it; considering the UFO oubliettes, you might conclude that I'm working on plenty of projects.

Sometimes, though, it isn't the right yarn at the right moment, for the right project. Sometimes you need to knit something very specific (a simple, small, shawl in a nearly-solid neutral). And sometimes, Eden Cottage Yarns posts photos of yarn and builds up temptation a drop at a time until you simply must buy all the yarn, right now!

So this was a project born out of that desire to just get something knit – to finish a project, to add to the wardrobe, to achieve something simple and practical.

Started on a train, it was finished within a fortnight, and pressed into service. Though I've knitted the Alletta pattern several times before, and I do like the variegated versions, I think this is my favourite – the yarn has a soft halo and a beautiful drape to it, while being woolly and robust enough for me to simply grab and go.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

When London becomes a day trip

I don't live near London. In the normal run of things, I would feel the need to make a weekend of it, and therefore go to the added expense of overnight accommodation, plus the concern of having too much to carry, especially given Britain's lack of Left Luggage lockers. However, I'm also someone who is willing to try anything once, and go to quite a lot of effort to save myself from feeling that I've missed out on something significant because it seemed like it would be difficult. So, when I'd got some LondonMidland free 1-day passes, and the British Museum was holding an exhibition about the Vikings, I decided London was where I'd go.

Side-note: If you happen to live in the Midlands, and are either cash-strapped or time-rich, it is definitely worth noting that a LondonMidland-only day return is significantly cheaper than other types, and gets you straight into London Euston, which is very close to the British Library and 10 minutes from the British Museum. It is the slow train from Birmingham, but it does allow plenty of knitting time!

Between an early morning and the train, I arrived in London by 9.50 and was able to wander through the sunny streets of Bloomsbury (past RADA and Le Cordon Bleu), and arrive at the Museum by 10.00. 

I should perhaps have pre-booked my ticket - I suspect that people arriving later may not even have managed to get in - but was able to slip into the 11.30 entry, and therefore to spend an hour looking around the newly-refurbished Anglo-Saxon gallery, including the Sutton Hoo treasure and a fascinating set of cases focussed on the different types of Anglo-Saxon decoration developed through viking interaction with other cultures (the Franks, the Magyars, the Celts etc) before going into the exhibition itself.

Now, this is a headline-grabbing exhibit, and anything I have to say about it has no doubt been said, but I'm going to put in my tuppenn'orth anyway. The British Museum is of course free to visit (donations distinctly welcome), and I don't therefore mind paying entrance to a special visiting exhibition. It would help, however, if it were made clear at the point that you're buying tickets that audio-guides are extra, if only so that you've not packed your wallet to the bottom of your bag before you get to the audio-guide till. I'd also very much like to know whether those first few tracks lasted the 40 minutes it took me to step very very very slowly in the prescribed path very close to the exhibits in the first two rooms. The biggest problem was that in the large group let in at 11.30 with me there were lots of people who actually wanted to see them, and who very quickly came to realise that if you weren't pretty much pressed up against the cases, you wouldn't be able to read the curators' descriptions of the contents, since these were placed at hip height and in small print. Of course the exhibits are generally small – they're mostly grave goods, or from hoards buried to keep them safe. Of course people want to see them. But you don't necessarily want to spend 10 minutes craning to see the case, and 3 minutes speed-reading the case description before the next person moves up, and conscious that you're spending more time than you'd like accidentally watching other people's bottoms move along.

Thankfully, I had my knitting with me, and there were pretty pictures on the walls. Together with interesting quotes about the Vikings. If only they'd put more on those walls away from the exhibits, they could probably have managed the flow of people much better, especially in the first few rooms, when everyone was keen to pick out information, see everything, and would have had the focus to take in quite a lot of context, if it had been provided more accessibly. As it was, I was very glad I'd been up to the Anglo-Saxon gallery and picked up some information which I could apply here.

Complaints over – the actual contents of the exhibition were fantastic, and the cases about trade and the development of coinage, the reach of the Viking world and the early slave trade were full of things I only wish I'd retained better. The partially reconstructed ship (discovered at Rosskilde) on display was the highlight of the exhibition for me, and I suspect for others – the impact of it as a physical piece of history: so large compared to a person, so small compared to the sea, really brought home the scale of the challenge undertaken. I came out inspired, and have since added to my bookshelves in an attempt to learn more.

A final thought: while I'm very aware of material history, and of making my own mark through things, I'm also a very visual learner, very much a reader, and the purely archaeological data on display was destabilising. I realised that I don't have the tools to decypher the meaning behind such artifacts, and so have to rely on others to communicate it to me. A space to learn more, I conclude.

But this day trip wasn't just about the British Museum. It was also about exploring a different area of London – I was taking myself off to E17: Walthamstow, to discover the fabric possibilities detailed by Karen

A relatively simple tube journey later, and I found myself walking through a distinctly urban and somehow more familiar setting – as a non-Londoner, the metropolitan centre is on a little too large a scale, and so busy with people and tourists that it seems very alienating – with its bus station, library and shops. The market was not so dissimilar to markets in Bury or Burnley or Reading as to be hugely surprising – until you discover quite how much fabric is available! And that, both on the market itself, and in the shops behind. If I were more interested in trims and embellishments, I think I may have been lost for ever, and I was certainly dazzled enough by the choices available to have no details to report as to where the most exciting stands were... other than the most obvious: 'Man Outside Sainsburys'. His stall truly was a treasure trove, and thronging with women on a mission. He had some beautiful suitings, and I could easily have come away with the makings of half-a-dozen skirt suits, but I withstood temptation on the basis that Spring is coming, and my haul actually consists of floral prints and haberdashery:

I'm working on a project that requires a chocolate brown zip, and lots of bias binding: one of the stands on the same side as sainsburys and slightly nearer the bus station provided these at a fraction of the cost of my local House of Fraser (or equivalent).

But my 'may-be-bought' list was one more focussed on the edge of my comfort zone. I like prints (I like buying prints) and have found that the larger florals are growing on me with their current fashion-status, but I don't often have the confidence to wear them. So the hope was that I would find some striking floral prints at a price point which wouldn't make me worry about getting the project 'right'. Mission: accomplished – the three fabrics above came to £12.00, and I have enough for a top / dress in each. Now I just have to make them up before they fall out of fashion!

A tube back to Euston, and a coffee in the station complex left me with time to hop on the 1649 train, and be home by 9pm. It may not seem a very long day, but the early start ensured I was ready to come home, and the connection at New Street is such that you do not want to be too late arriving into Birmingham. So a day trip to London is possible, and can be pleasant indeed.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Mistress Minoru

The Mistress of the Jar may scold, but I'm toasting her continued influence!

I owe Tasia and Karen a drink. Unlike my knitting, which continues to maritnate and ripple along – even if I'm barely knitting, I'm probably thinking about shapes and textures – my sewing has always been more product forcussed, and I'm conscious that my confidence and skill have waxed and waned over the last decade or so, as I've started experimenting with costume design and alteration on a massive scale (costumes to be made for the entire cast of Carousel? OK. Late 19th Century daywear which the actress needs to strip off on stage? No problem. Design and implementation of costumes for a 17th-Century play set in the 'Forest' in Algeria? Can do), made dresses and cravats for my wedding (much less terrifying than the thought of shopping for them, if you really want to know), and then sort of stopped... or at least, worked within my comfort zone. Lack of time is one reason, the relative ease of buying appropriate office attire another, but mostly, I think, I ran out of ambition. The things I don't know how to do properly – tailoring techniques, couture finishing, true pattern drafting and fitting to my decidedly pear-shaped figure – seemed somehow too difficult to learn when what I want to do it just knock something up in a day or two. Finishing things properly (so that they last, and I'm not self-conscious in them) seemed to take just too long, and the risk of messing them up seemed just too high.

And then I found Tasia's brilliant line of patterns in which I am a straight size 12 – not a 12, 10, 14 with attendant fit problems – but a proper 12 all over. I ordered the Minoru Jacket, the Cambie dress, and the Tofino pants... and put them in my pattern stash. Looking at the Minorus popping up all over online, I found a perfect lining – a brushed cotton plaid including my favourite teal, but could not decide what sort of outer fabric might work best. I wanted something warm, something slightly showerproof, but didn't want to risk the hood or tackle the notion of taped seams. This was to be a Spring/Autumn jacket, and the main thing I wanted was to find a fabric that brought out the teal of the lining. Queue a lot of browsing, but no finding.

In the meantime Karen's Pyjama party (2013 rerun) got the Tofinos made, to great success (and I've made two more pairs since, for friends), and I braved the concept of piping and a faux fly. Still no sign of the right Minoru fabric though.

Autumn came, and while window shopping in Hereford, I came across a collection of needlecord in bright colours. I've worked with wide-waled cord before, and found the scale a little too reminiscent of the seventies, but this finer fabric seemed to have the qualities I was looking for – warmth of feel, and of look, a balance of dressy and robust casual style, and they had some good colours. I just needed to get back with my lining swatch for comparison. Unfortunately, they ran out before I could get back, and so I found myself resorting to online shopping once more, but with a much better idea of what I wanted. A little virtual rummaging, and Ditto's came up trumps – not only did they send me a swatch at speed in the week before Christmas, but they held onto the 3.5 metres I needed until I could confirm that it was the right colour for me!

So, I had fabric and pattern for 10 whole days before the Mistress of the Jar would be calling me to account... 10 days in which I spent 5 with family for Christmas, and 2 at work. Shirking my duty it may have been, but I chose to trace and cut the pattern pieces (a practice I've decided makes sense, even if it does take longer), and then stop, and breathe.

And then sew, and sew, and sew some more. In January I cut all the pieces, and decided at that point to use a little nous in my construction order: I hadn't made a muslin, so I would put the lining together first, making the pockets and hanging loop the first elements of the project to be done, and allowing me to test-run the neck gathers and raglan sleeves on my lighter lining fabric, rather than on the stiffer, thicker cord. Given that I was not making the hood, I opted to emphasise the dramatic collar by interfacing the outer piece as Tasia suggests in the sew-along for the Minoru – a resource which I would whole-heartedly recommend to anyone undertaking the Minoru as a challenge-project. In the past, I suspect that I would have attempted to make the topstitching as close to the seams as possible; with Tasia's example before me, I decided that the width of my presser foot was ideal, and am very pleased with the consistency of the result, which I do not believe would have been achieved without deciding on a wider margin.

I added in-seam pockets, which are eminently useful, though I did carefully pull the pockets out while working on the hem to ensure they weren't caught up in the lower seams of the jacket, and lifted the elastic channel by about 1.5” to ensure it hit me at my narrowest point.

One thing I will say is that the sleeves are definitely on the long side. I have long arms and generally have to lengthen them, but on this project, I wanted to make it as written, and the cuffs fall almost to my knuckles. I found the gathering rather a challenge, but I think that was in part due to the thickness and nap of my cord, which on a narrow band like the cuffs seemed to work against the gathering stitches.

It may be a few months late (and even later because it takes me ages to get photos!), but I'm satisfied that I have not only made myself a jacket that I'm happy to wear out (and which has already survived a drenching) but finished it to a high standard, and paid attention to the details.

So thank you, Tasia, for a fantastic pattern, and the extra details and hand-holding of the sewalong, and thank you, Karen, for the stimulus for me to make progress.