Sneaky peeks….jackets and skirts and shawls oh joy!

Today is rainy and miserable so I thought I’d cheer myself up with some crafting updates.

First up – progress on my Victorian walking jacket.

It’s slow going – I’m finding it hard to get the back of the neck to sit right and the problem with pinning something on myself is that every time I reach up to put in a pin I either stab myself or the whole thing moves around and I’m left taking random tucks. My method has been:  *try it on, squint critically, take it off, baste like my life depends on it, try it back on, wince, take it back off, unpick. Repeat from *.

I’m happy with bits of it. My embroidery has improved no end (considering I had zero embroidery skills at the start of the project, that’s not really very hard).  And the sleeves bring me joy. This may not look like very much to you but to me it is the pouffy sleeve of dreams (and of the late 1880s).

Authentic 1880s style

Authentic 1880s style – with a hint of my Mimi blouse by Tilly and the Buttons underneath

If I can persuade someone to take better pictures I’ll post better pictures soon. Once I’ve finished wrestling with the lining anyhow. At the moment, the lining looks like it’s making a mad dash for freedom. I had a mad idea of wearing it to the Roehampton graduation ceremony next week but I’m not sure if it’s going to happen…maybe the elves will finish it if I leave it out overnight?

Next Up: Vintage find of the week is this skirt kit.


Yorkshire Fine Woollens & Tweeds Skirt Kit

That’s right, a skirt kit, complete with lining and a zip and its own little sew-in label.

It cost me the princely sum of eight English pounds in a charity shop in Putney.  It’s a thing of wonder – mostly wondering where the hell it came from.  I haven’t been able to find out when Yorkshire Fine Woollens & Tweeds were producing these sort of kits or if there was a wide range of them.  There’s no company trading under that name now so I’ll have to do a but more investigating.  If anyone has any leads on skirt kits, please let me know!

This is definitely going to become a skirt though – I’m thinking a sort of Miss Jean Brodie style thing. The kind of skirt you can wear on a sit-up-and-beg bicycle with a basket of fresh bread and terriers on the front. Or the kind of skirt that you wear with thick boots and a scowl.

This past month, I’ve been taking part in a Terry Pratchett themed swap organised by Louise Hunt of Caithness Craft Collective and I’ve been busy getting a little package together for my swap partner.  I like listening to podcasts and audiobooks but I find I can’t use the sewing machine if I want to listen at the same time.[1] So over the last few weeks I’ve been doing a fair bit of knitting too – well, designing really. I’ve designed my first ever lace shawl.


Blocking the shawl…

I’m ridiculously pleased with myself about this – it brings elements of Estonian lace and English mesh lace together and it’s inspired by…well, I can’t reveal that just yet.  This is just a sneaky peek after all. I’m in the process of writing up my scrawls into an actual pattern that I will publish on this blog soon.


[1] My friend Jess once said my sewing machine makes a sound like a drunk person rearranging furniture – there might be something wrong with it but then again it’s ALWAYS made that noise so it might be OK.

Me Made May – the halfway line & the fabric dreams are made on…

So, I’ve passed the halfway mark of my very first Me Made May.  I know this veers away slightly from the old books and vintage crafts remit of the blog but, trust me, by the end of the post we’ll be back in familiar territory.

I’m not one for instagram or millions of photos of myself so I haven’t been recording the day-by-day stuff online.  I’ve made some discoveries though:

  • I have only two pairs of hand-made socks. I make a lot of socks. All the socks I make are for Karl. This is probably an injustice.
  • Me Made November would be kinder for knitters. Many of the sewn items I’ve made are very summery and I haven’t been able to wear any of the tops because the weather is stupid.
  • I have made a lot of things that don’t suit me. Why did I make them? What was I thinking? Some genius put me on to Wardrobe Architect which might actually lead to me sorting out what I actually want to wear and planning projects properly.
  • I buy a lot of fat quarters.
  • Fat quarters are not as useful as I often believe them to be.
  • I have a lot of buttons.

But so far it’s been an interesting and oddly productive month.

First off – I won something! East London Knits were holding a May Day giveaway.  And I made out like a bandit.  Look at all this!

There are seven skeins of yarn – two laceweight in pale yellow, two laceweight in blue, and three DK-weight skeins of undyed silky lovely stuff. I’m not sure what it will become yet but I am thinking about lace projects and I’m toying around with a new design…

And on May 1st I started working on the Ginny cardigan which has been in my Ravelry queue since the dawn of time. Or at least since it was published. Same thing.

And so…to vintage crafts….

Yesterday I went on a lardy-cake eating, fabric-buying adventure to Witney where I found this:


I know it doesn’t look like much but it is the fabric for my Victorian Walking Jacket.  I first blogged about the jacket months and months ago and since then I’ve been looking for the right fabric. This purpley-auberginey stripey fabric is the stuff dreams, or at least Victorian jackets, are made of. I was restrained through. I even made myself soak it first.  Which was a good thing because huge amounts of dye came out of it.


The next step is to get hold of lining, piping, nerves of steel and huge amounts of tea and start making. That might be next weekend’s project…

And so to old books….

Tomorrow, I’m taking part in a short film about the University of Roehampton’s brand new collection of very old children’s books. The film will be part of our big announcement about the collection and I’ve a blog piece all about it ready to post as soon as I get the go-ahead!

In the meantime, here’s a sneaky peek of the collection:

Some day I will sit in the archive wearing my Victorian jacket and telling everyone who strays within earshot about my research. And because of my mighty sleeves and exquisite piping details, they won’t be able to get away.  It will happen. Soon.


#loveyourblog challenge: Ugly – a work in progress

love your blog creativity challenge with A Playful Day 1

This week’s theme for A Playful Day’s Love Your Blog Challenge is “ugly”.  It got me thinking about how ugly gets sidelined in favour of beauty.  Beauty is lovely.  Beauty got itself connected with truth and honesty and all kinds of great stuff. We like beauty – we stick pictures of pretty things on Pinterest and make sure we only upload the more flattering photos of ourselves to social media sites, and post nice pictures of perfectly finished craft projects.

I’m guilty of this.  We’re all a little too guilty of this.

So today I’m going to share all kinds of ugly. Specifically, my sad attempts at learning how to make bobbin lace.


Karl got me a lace-making kit for Christmas.  I had visions of me sitting pertly upright, making perfect, snowy drifts of lace. There would be classical music.  And a soft-voiced person would read excerpts of charming Victorian novels to me as I worked. I would be like this lady only more elegant and less squinted. And with better hair.

Vermeer's Lacemaker

Vermeer’s Lacemaker

And for once in my crafting life, I was sensible.  I decided to made the lace flower described in the kit and not go all ambitious dilettante like I normally do with craft projects.[1]

The first piece of lace I made was a piece of cake.  A little finicky to get started, certainly, but I got the hang of it easily enough.  One pair of workers, four pairs of passives, same stitch across and back, over and over.  Simple.  OK, it doesn’t look like much but I think it’s a pretty passable sepal for the flower.

tada! Lace sepal!

Tada! Lace sepal! Obviously will trim ends before wearing…

The next piece of lace I attempted was…well…see for yourself.



It’s a hot mess. I don’t know if lace-makers have an equivalent of the knitters’ term ‘frogging’.  But I frogged this.  Over and over.  Five times I got about four lines into it, got hopelessly tangled, pulled out the pins and then spent the guts of an hour trying to find which bit of thread belonged to which bobbin.[2]


After industrial amounts of tea and television, I felt like I might be able to face the lace again.

This sixth (seventh?) attempt is better – a little – the top edge of this piece is still really, really ugly.  All I can see are the mistakes.

But I’m going to finish my ugly flower and make it into a brooch.  Maybe the finished thing will be more than the sum of its parts. Maybe it won’t. But that’s OK too. Because lovely isn’t everything.


[1] I’m the kind of fool who goes straight to the back of the ‘learn to…’ books to get to the good stuff.  None of those boring beginner’s projects for me, no ma’am.

[2] No exaggeration, the neighbours will attest to the violence and volume of the swearing…

Resolutions, Ripper Street and Tiny Toiles

This year’s new year’s resolution is to learn how to sew better.  I want to get to grips with hand-quilting, embroidery and dress-making.  In particular, I want to make some vintage clothes from old patterns.

This year sees the start of a new research project on material culture in children’s literature.  I’m taking a semester’s research leave to get started on a monograph and I’m surrounded by all things Victorian at the moment…books, catalogues, advertisements, cartoons…and so I decided that my first project of the new year should be something Victorian that ties in with my research.

Outside of the library,  I’ve been getting a regular fix of rollicking, romping, ripping Victorian entertainment through Ripper Street.  I know people complain because it’s not historically accurate.  I know that while it’s theoretically set in the late 1880s, there are all sorts of anachronisms and some things (like Jackson’s gun) appear WAY ahead of their time whereas other things (like some of the slang words used) are more than a little archaic.[1]

But I don’t care.

I don’t care because the whole thing is filmed in Dublin and I love watching to see if I can spot bits of the sets – Trinity College[2], the Dead Zoo[3], Dublin Castle[4]

I don’t care because the dialogue has a rhythm and a register all of its own that makes the world of the story unique.

I don’t care because even the small characters are brilliant and have their own little lives to get on with.

And mostly I don’t care because I adore the clothes.

The sleeves! The standy-up collars!  The skirts! The mad turquoise and orange palette that the third season rocked!  Everything Long Susan wears!

Behold her mighty sleeves. And those hats.



How I want to get a hat like that and stick it to the front of my head like a mad Victorian unicorn…I want to sit in a room wallpapered with gold and teal peacocks and snark at anyone that comes near me in an inferior get-up…

And so when the latest (and maybe last?) season of Ripper Street came to an end I decided that what my little heart desired most was a jacket like Long Susan’s.  Preferably one that I could actually get away with wearing in real life without small children pointing at me on the street.

So – to research!

My recent searches of late 19th century periodicals turned up some beautiful pictures but sadly no practical patterns.  I found some nice modern patterns that are based on old designs but that felt a little bit like cheating (bear in mind that I will cheat heavily when it comes to actually making this this…there’s no way I’m going without interfacing or my sewing machine so cheating at the pattern stage too makes the whole thing dishonest).

Then I found The National garment Cutting Book of Diagrams from 1888.  It’s from exactly the right period and it is a many-splendored thing.  It’s full of wonderful, strange, outfits with big bustles and enormous sleeves.  I love sleeves.

I was tempted by some of the coats and the dresses – even the aprons looked like fun.

But I loved this jacket the best.

Ladies’ Street Jacket, The National Garment Cutter Book of Diagrams 1888

The pattern is…not what I’m used to.

Here it is in its entirety.


That’s it.  One page.  There’s no indication of how any of these bits fit together and the only advice for sizing is “use scale corresponding with bust measure”.  The description says ‘in ten pieces’ but only nine are drafted here.  Thanks Anonymous.  That’s so helpful.

After some serious moping, Karl suggested that I make a miniature version as a sort of tiny mock-up toile.  And so I did.

I traced over the pattern pieces as they are printed and cut the pieces out of some left-over quilting cotton (bad choice in retrospect because it frayed so much). It was a bit strange to sew sleeves that only had space for one or two pins.

Here it is.

Apart from the woejeous[5] stitching and the gammy[6] bits under the armscye I’m rather pleased with it. I did eventually (after some swearing) figure out where all the bits went and how the pieces fit together.

So, this weekend’s project is to make a full-size toile.  I have some canvas, a lot of pins and a heap of enthusiasm. And I’ll be following the (anachronistic) advice from Singer the whole time.


I’ll let you know where it gets me.

[1] Vanessa Heggie has an excellent blog post that points out that it’s not as far-fetched as it seems initially

[2] My alma mater…it doubles as a surprising number of buildings.

[3] For non-Dubliners, the Dead Zoo is like the normal Zoo but it’s full of taxidermied animals rather than living ones. It’s a fantastic place and there are many wondrous things to see, including a lion who obviously died of natural causes.  Probably the mange.  It’s the saddest looking lion in the whole world. He’s gone all baldy and sideways in his case and the moths have been at him but he’s kind of brilliant because you won’t see a manky old dead lion so proudly displayed anywhere else.

[4] Also where they filmed The Tudors.  That’s less exciting to watch because history has already given out the spoilers.

[5] A word I learned from my mother which means very bad, worthy of woe, grief-inducing

[6] Unable to function normally due to chronic injury or pain (in this case, pain caused to my fingers)

Mary Lamb and needlework

I’ve been pretty quiet lately, I know.  This is partly because at the start of the month I fell from grace down a flight of stairs while holding a scalding cup of tea that put me out of crafting action for a bit.




It’s also partly because of the nature of academic terms – they tend to happen in short, intense bursts of teaching, marking, meetings and writing and, naturally, crafting takes a bit of a back seat.  I have been working on a couple of things but progress is slow and it feels like it’s taken months and months to get to the point where it’s even worth taking pictures.  So far this term I’ve made a cardigan

The pattern is Braid Hills by Kate Davies and the yarn is Shilasdair DK in Hawthorn.  I love the colour (none of these photos show the colour properly, it’s a semi-solid and veers between a deep blood red and a brighter berry colour) and while I found the cables a little fiddly at first I got the hang of it.  I’ll post more pictures once I’ve finished the second sleeve, had a chance to do some industrial blocking and found some buttons.

I’ve also make some socks…

these are in WYS sock yarn ‘bluetit’ which Karl is obsessed with at the moment.  He likes the first pair so much he has demanded a second pair. I’ve combined the WYS yarn with what I had leftover from the Balbriggan Harbour socks to make a nice stripey pair.  It’s a straightforward bit of bus-knitting to be honest but I like the effect. This is the first one…


Not a Balbriggan heel this time but just a simple short-row one


And while I’ve not been doing any designing lately I’ve made appointments with two archives – the Southlands materials archive in Roehampton University and *squee* the archives at Liberty’s of London.  So much of my research is about planning at the moment and organising trips to archives.  It can be tempting to just run in and start pulling out boxes of things but that can lead to ferret-shock (Helen explains this as the paralysis caused by overwhelming choices) and it’s better to be a crafty fox – suss out the place first and then steal inside to get one or two really useful things.   Like this guy:



Good research practice also means keeping in touch with other researchers who work on similar topics.  While I don’t deal with eighteenth century things or early nineteenth century things, the chance to attend an event on a children’s author who happened to have been a crafter is too good to pass on. So I’m looking forward to going to a study day on Mary Lamb organised by Felicity James from the University of Leicester on Saturday November 29th 2014.

Mary Lamb

Mary Lamb – owner of snazzy bonnets and some serious opinions about needlework

Mary Lamb is famous for two things, being her brother’s sister and for killing her mother.  She had a sad life.  After her father lost his job in 1792,  she became the principal earner in the household and made money by sewing mantuas and gowns.  She also cared for the family – her mother had had a stroke and her father suffered with dementia and her older brother John had been injured in a workplace accident.  By 1796 she began to show signs of mental illness. It got progressively worse and on the evening of September 21st 1796 she killed her mother.  Sarah Burton writes that:

Because the court considered Mary to be insane at the time of the murder, she was treated not as a criminal, but as a lunatic. After a period of confinement in a madhouse she was released into her younger brother’s custody on the understanding that he would be responsible for her proper care and confinement, when necessary, for the rest of his life. As far as was possible, Mary’s illness was kept a secret. When well, she was, as her friend Thomas Noon Talfourd explained, “remarkable for the sweetness of her disposition, the clearness of her understanding, and the gentle wisdom of all her acts and words”.

After their father’s death, her brother Charles took her home and they lived together in a ‘double singleness’ for the rest of their lives and occasionally wrote god-awful adaptations of Shakespeare’s stories for young readers.

The study day I’m attending next Saturday does not focus on Mary Lamb’s work on Shakespeare, nor on the (frequently sensationalized) details of her private life but on an essay she wrote in 1814 under the pseudonym Sempronia.

The essay “On Needlework” or “Needle-work and Intellectual Improvement are naturally in a State of Warfare” is a fascinating one.  It’s about craft, certainly, but also about rage.  The rage at finding craft disregarded and overlooked as a legitimate form of employment.  The rage at  seeing crafting treated as ‘leisure’ when, she rails, it was a kind of self-imposed slavery for her.   Lamb argues eloquently that needlework should be seen as work.  And the never-ending need to improve the home, to clothe its inmates and furnish its rooms prevents women from entering into other pursuits and improving their minds.

The study day is a bicentenary celebration of “On Needlework”.  Things have changed in the 200 years since Mary Lamb wrote her essay – the rise of cheap textiles and the emergence of a global textile trade, the arts and crafts movement, the late 20th and early 21st century resurgence of home craft, the new passion for sustainability have all affected, one way or another, our relationship with making and crafting.  But there’s still much to discuss – why do we think a hand-made suit should cost more than a hand-knitted item?  Why is crafting still associated with domesticity? (I’m not arguing that it should not be, I just wonder why…)What is the relationship between work (including needlework) and leisure?  And why is Lamb’s essay, which deals with feminism and economy at a time when they were seldom linked together, overshadowed by the mawkish adaptations of Shakespeare?

There’s a great line-up for the day with speakers from around the UK and it looks to be a very interesting day.  The full programme is here: Study_Day_Poster_2014 (2). There are tickets – only £5! – available and it’s on in central London.  If you’re interested, get in touch with Felicity James.

For those who can’t make it to London, I’ll give a full account soon!

 EDIT:  Just found a Facebook page for the event here and I should also put in the link for The Charles Lamb society here


On Doilies

Today I discovered something that changed my life.  The scales have fallen from my eyes.  Mind blown.  Everything is changed, changed utterly.

I found out what doilies are for.

Doilies – [also  doileydoylydoyley, or even erroneously d’Oyleyd’oylie according to the OED] are weird lacy napkins-type things that look like soft tea-saucers.

My childhood was haunted by doilies – specifically by the doilies that adorned my Auntie’s sitting room – every table, every chair, every solid surface had one – one long runner-one along the back of every armchair, one small round one on the arm of each chair, one underneath every ornament on the mahogany shelf, one in every place where you might conceivably put down a cup or rest your hand. Even the lampshade had lacy etched glass that look (to my young and foolish eyes) like a see-through doily. The only thing Auntie hadn’t got was a doily-shaped ceiling-cosy.  I’m pretty sure she would have got one too if she knew where to buy them.

I always thought they were pointless – worse, they were a nuisance.  They were always slipping onto the floor and crinkling up and then they’d have to be taken away and washed and fresh doilies, stiff from the hot press[1] would be laid down.  I hated them.  And the doilies hated me too.  I only had to look at them and they’d get grubby.  Then I’d get blamed.  When it all was the doilies’ fault.  Or, really, let’s be honest, Auntie’s fault.  She bought the doilies in the first place.

But then, today while doing some teaching prep[2]: a revelation. Once upon a time, doilies had a function.

[In the 19th century home] coal residue was omnipresent, both as dust when coals were carried to each fireplace and then, after the fires were lit, as soot thrown out by the fire, blackening whatever it touched.  The most common system of protection was to cover whatever could be cover, and wash the covers regularly. (Judith Flanders, The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed (2004), 10)

Doilies were part of a whole system for fighting against coal dust

 …housekeepers simply had to accept that soot and ‘blacks’ [flecks of coal dust] were part of their daily life.  Latches to doors – both street and inner doors – had a small plate or curtain fitted over the keyhole to keep out dirt.  Plants were kept on window sills to trap the dust as it flew in; or housewives nailed muslin across the windows to stop the soot […] tablecloths were laid just before a meal, as otherwise dust settled from the fire and they became dingy in a matter of hours. (Flanders, The Victorian House, 70-1)

Far from being totally useless, doilies are exactly as useful as houseplants.

Actually, there seems to have been a craze for putting aspidistras and doilies together.


There’s even a doily on the cover of Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying


I think I’ll do a post about Aspidistras soon.  Flora Klickmann had some very severe opinions about them.  Maybe I’ll even design a doily based on an aspidistra.  Probably not though.

If you do decide to make a doily, there are some really beautiful patterns out there.  As well as crochet patterns for home-decorating doilies like the Crocus Doily from JoAnn and  this giant crochet rug made out of t-shirt yarn, there are lots of patterns for knitted lace shawls like the gorgeous Queen Anne’s Lace Shawl from Men Who Knit, Jared Flood’s lovely Hemlock Ring Blanket, and these doilies from Yarn Over. I’m sure any one of them could be adapted to make a fine ceiling-cosy.

I’m still slightly afraid of doilies so I won’t try making one anytime soon.  Maybe when I buy an aspidistra and need some to stand it on, I’ll give it a go.

This week, I’ve been mostly working on winter scarves  (woo! Layers!)

This one is based on Rose Anne’s Braidheart pattern.  I made one ages ago in a dark charcoal grey and I wear it all the time so I decided to make something of a similar weight and style.  I’ve also started working on a shawl pattern from the book I found in the bin.   It took me a while to decipher the handwriting and make sense of the pattern but I’m getting there…slowly.


[1] A hot press is like an airing cupboard but in Ireland.

[2] Real work, I swears it on the precious.

Sewing, or, a farce in three acts

So far, this blog has mostly been about knitting.  I knit a lot and I’m good at it which means I knit a lot and so I get better at it.  But there’s loads of crafts I’m not very good at and I know I should practice more and get better.

Take sewing.

I have a complicated relationship with sewing.  I’m happy to put on buttons, take up hems, make little bags and easy patchwork blankets and whatever.  But I really want to be able to make my own clothes.  I have high ambitions.  I blame my mammy.  She’s great a making clothes and so I have a skewed opinion on what ‘homemade’ clothes should look like.  She’s keen for me to learn too – she bought me a sewing machine for Christmas a couple of years ago.  And for ages I told myself that the reason I didn’t do much sewing was because I didn’t have enough space or time or space/time or whatever.

So, I bought myself a craft table earlier this year.


There it is.  As idle as a painted ship or something.

I shouldn’t have done that.  Now I have to accept my own role in this farce.

And it is a farce.  It starts with noble ideals and descends, first into comedy and then into buffoonery.   The whole thing is bathetic.

Act One: I trip down to the haberdashery.  I select fancy fabric.  I watch in awe as the haberdasher snips a tiny bit of the cloth and then just RIPS the rest of it down.  And in a perfect straight line too. I can’t do this so I am jealous and impressed.  And then I get the stuff home and it sits around in a bag for months making me feel guilty. I ignore it and knit instead.

Act Two: I get a sudden urge to sew ALL THE THINGS.

Which isn’t practical because craft should be a slow delight rather than a sudden act of violence.

My sewing is a bit like a one-woman riot.  I fight with the fabric and fight with the patterns and stab myself with pins and have to put band-aids everywhere and then I’m even clumsier and then instead of practicing sewing, I just practice swearing.  My sewing skills are not nearly as good as my swearing skills.

Act Three: And in the end I hate the things I’ve made because all I can think of is the hot hours of stabbing, swearing frustration and I can’t wear them.   And then they sit in the press and glare at me and make me feel guilty.

Cue hysterical laughter and curtains.

I tried sewing at the weekend.  I had great intentions. I picked out a pattern and traced it out on nice tracing paper and got the iron out and everything.

And then there wasn’t enough fabric.

And then I was miserable.

And then Charlotte (crafter and clever person) sent me this.



And it’s all clicked into place.  Obviously, the problem with my sewing is that I’m secretly afraid that a visitor will call and interrupt my fabric raptures.  And there is, clearly, a direct correlation between my sewing skills and the general untidiness of my hair.  Bald people are probably brilliant sewers sewists dressmakers.

So, next weekend I’m going to try to look neatly put together and see if that makes me any better at sewing.  I’ll keep you posted.