Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Flâneurs and bowerbirds

I vividly remember my then-boyfriend-now-husband coming home one afternoon when we were studying for our degrees, and telling me about a lecture he'd attended which talked about 'the flâneur'. Neither of us had heard the term before and were highly amused to learn about a small niche of 19th century men who dedicated their lives solely to the job of strolling the streets, alone, appreciating the modern-day urban landscape, as 'botanists of the street'.

The french word 'flâneur' translates as saunterer, lounger, loafer, loiterer, dawdler*. The flâneur became a figure of fun in our lives at that time, who we gently mocked for living so self-indulgently, but also jokingly aspired to grow up to be, for no other reason than that it sounded like quite a nice life.

The term suddenly popped into my head recently, when I was scrolling through pictures on Instagram and saw photos capturing beautifully coloured buildings, rooftops at dusk and bikes chained haphazardly around iron railings and I had the realisation that in some ways Instagram encourages a modern-day form of flânerie, inviting us to stop, appreciate and record the architecture and urban landscape around us. I felt unexpectedly delighted that this term, which had seemed so antiquated when I first heard it nearly twenty years ago, has now been reabsorbed in a more sustainable way, that can run alongside normal life and jobs, no longer just a preserve of wealthy males, but free to anyone who can afford a phone with a basic camera and the wish to turn the journey to work or a trip to the shops into something more enjoyable.

I googled for information about modern-day flâneurs when I had this thought, and found that Susan Sontag had jumped on this idea nearly forty years ago (I'm only a little late in making this connection, then!) when hand-held cameras had become more commonplace: The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flâneur finds the world "picturesque". 

You may be wondering why I chose to illustrate this post with a photo of my cat on a sofa; a lack of more suitable photographic resources suggests I clearly did not grow up to be a flâneur. However, as I scrolled though my photos, I realised that I do take an excessive amount of pictures of creatures, sewing paraphernalia and woodland paths (also my family, but I don't tend to share those publicly), very much with a 'stop and appreciate' ethos.

I recently learnt that an intense appreciation for surroundings isn't just confined to humans. During a conversation with my sister, where I was discussing my wish (currently stunted by my husband on the grounds of potential wind-dispersal of my 'litter') to leave scraps of Liberty print fabrics in the back garden in the hope that birds would use them to make beautiful nests in our silver birch tree, she told me about the bowerbird. The male bower bird decorates an elaborately woven bower, with perfectly colour-coordinated bits of foliage, flowers and even rubbish, with the sole aim of attracting a mate. They can spend years perfecting the structure and the interior design of their wooing parlour. Here's a wonderful short video by David Attenborough about the bowerbird - the bower structures in this are incredibly beautiful, although modest in comparison to some! Do watch - it's five minutes of pure stomach-flipping wonder. I believe that a bowerbird would truly appreciate some Tana lawn, but I think trusting in wind-dispersal as far as Australia and New Guinea, where the birds are found, is overly-optimistic.

I'm quite unsure what the point of this post is, other than to tell you about words and birds that I've enjoyed thinking about recently. Do feel free to leave any of your own random thoughts in the comments. Chatting on the phone to my grandmother recently, she exclaimed warmly: Darling! You do remember an enormous amount of pointless information, don't you. So true. If only all the useful bits would agree to stay in there too.

It's one of life's mysteries to me how people retain important bits of general knowledge. I am often left nodding blankly when people assume that I have some basic bit of geographical, historical or religious knowledge in conversation. Yet conversely, I can remember the spine colour of virtually every book I've ever read; identify the titles of most songs I like going back 30 years from just the first few opening notes; and name the shop where each piece of clothing my husband owns has come from without looking at the label, having never made any conscious effort to remember a single one of these pointless things. I'm aware that I could spend time learning the capital city of every country and memorising where each country is on a world map, but certainly amongst my own family and friends, these pieces of information are things they claim to just 'know' and to have absorbed by osmosis, rather than by memorisation, in much the same way as I have done with my book spine colours. I'd love to know how brains decide which bits of information to retain and which to let fall through the sieve and how to influence this. While over the last few years, I've become much better at remembering names by mentally linking a face to other people I know who have the same name, I think it may make life feel like a bowl of spaghetti to think up brain games for every piece of information I'd like to retain. If you have any thoughts on this, I'd love to hear them - I find it fascinating thinking about how different people think or even whether it's possible to become a different sort of thinker.

Florence x

* I think saunterer, lounger, loafer, loiterer and dawdler are all such delicious words, especially when grouped together. I'd like to add the word 'lolloper' in there, just because it would fit so well, even though it's not an official translation of the word. And because it reminds me of a line from one of my favourite films that my sister and I watched repeatedly as teenagers, 'P'tang Yang Kipperbang', set in the 1940s, where a teacher says to schoolboy, Alan Duckworth: You're a lolloper, Duckworth!'.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

A sneaky way to shorten jeans

I always really dislike shortening jeans. It's one of those things that I'll put off for months and is eventually undertaken wearing sunglasses, as I feel so traumatised by the thought that when the needle inevitably snaps going over the massive hem-hump on the inner leg seam of jeans, it will fly off and spear my eye.

At the point of going over the hem-hump, my experience is that the stitches can falter and become irregular and ugly to look at. And then there's the issue of stitching on jeans being of so many shades of mustardy-brown, that a new reel of top-stitching thread* needs to be colour-matched and bought for each pair of jeans. The whole thing just feels slightly exhausting. But I've had a cunning tutorial saved that solves both of these problems and, yesterday, I finally tried it out. It's every bit as ingenious as I hoped it would be.

The tutorial shares a method that allows you to use the original hem of the jeans, meaning you don't need to buy any mustard top-stitching thread and you don't need to worry about what your stitches look like as you traverse over the hem-hump, as that will only be visible on the inside.

In the photo above, the top leg is completely unshortened and the bottom leg is the finished, shortened leg. The only thing you lose is the slight distressing of the denim above the stitching line. Visually, it's very slightly different to a conventional hem, in that, with a double-thickness of fabric in the hem, you'd expect it to be fractionally bigger than the rest of the leg of the jean, but with this method, it ends up fractionally smaller and the hem goes in very slightly at the side seams. Because this is viewed as a close-up above, the effect of this is very much exaggerated, but in reality, once you're wearing the jeans, it's barely perceptible at all, especially after an absolute pasting with an iron.

However, when I looked at these photos, I found the slight 'step' at each side intensely irritating, so I give it a another pasting with the iron, this time turning the jeans so that they were flattened out mid-leg with the side-seams more accessible and then pressing the seam upwards toward the leg, to flatten it better. This helped considerably. However, I do think this method of jean shortening is better suited to straight-leg jeans (see my husband's later in the post) than skinny jeans. Here's what the inside looks like:

You could make this look a lot nicer by using an overlocker to finish the hem, but I didn't feel enthused enough to get my overlocker out for the task...also I had visions of my overlocker really not handling the hem-hump very well and with its double-needle, you can imagine the visions I was having of what needle-snapping time would look like (my breakages seem to occur using a 100/16 needle, a jeans needle or any other kind of heavy-duty needle).

The above jeans are my own, but ones in the next photo are my husband's. Being 6ft2", it seems almost unimaginable that jean-shortening could even exist as 'a thing' for such a person; normally it's all about trying to find jeans long enough. But then I discovered that Boden make jeans for regular and giant men. While most shops seem to offer a leg length up to 34", Boden come in at just under 36". But the way that the jeans sit on my husband makes this a really long 36" when worn (and some of their trousers can be bought unhemmed with an inside leg of 39"!). It's a whole new world for the long-of-leg.

This photo shows the shortened jeans. I don't think that it's all that obvious where the join is and it's so good to have the thread and stitching style perfectly matching the top-stitching on the leg, that it seems worth the compromise.

The tutorial is fantastic. The only thing that I found unclear is when it tells you to stitch next to the original hem and shows a photo of the needle going in just next to the fabric edge of the hem. I tried this and the seam line looked really obvious, so I tried again, stitching right next to the original stitching line instead on the actual fabric of the hem, and that worked much better for me.

Can you sense the gratefulness pouring out of this photo that my jeans weren't any skinnier at the ankle! It's a perfect leg/arm fit!

However, even having found this great tutorial, I find that I'm still left thinking: why don't I just do what a non-sewing person would do and take them to the tailor and have them shortened for £10 on an industrial machine. The cost of the snapped needles, thread, extended procrastination when the jeans can't be worn (in my husband's case, it was a 3-month wait), time spent worrying over eye injuries, time spent doing the actual sewing, time spent taking the machine apart to fish out the other half of the snapped needle, surely amounts to more than £10. Sometimes being self-sufficient in this way can feel more of a hindrance than a help.

But either way, over the last few months I've had so much work to do that I haven't turned my machine on very often and in the evenings I've felt so tired that I've barely done any hand-sewing either. Having a relaxed afternoon of measuring, cutting and hearing the whirr of my machine again was a delicious thing; as was actually finishing something. It's made me turn my thoughts toward some summer dressmaking.  

Wishing you a lovely weekend,
Florence x

* If you aren't familiar with top-stitching thread and want to shorten your jeans in the conventional way, you can read about my bearded, heavy-breathing, and macintosh-wearing delight on discovering this thread back in 2010.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

After the election

I think the general election left a lot of people feeling a bit flat. I felt that way. I have always voted either Labour or Lib Dem (this year, fruitlessly, Lib Dem), but despite this I've been feeling disconcerted by so many people who vote on the left or middle-ground assuming a moral superiority that gives them the right to publicly attack anyone who votes differently from them, labelling them heartless, uncaring bastards. Usually with more swear words, vitriol and character assassination than that. 

In my own life, I know a Conservative who dedicates much of their time to charity work and helping others, and a life-long Labour supporter who is so mean-spirited that he leaves me feeling chilled every time I come into contact with him. I've found myself feeling disbelief at the mass over-simplification that would suggest that the way these two people live their day-to-day lives could be considered so insignificant that after making their voting choices, Mr Lovely-Pants is to be branded a villain who should go and eat coal in a corner and Mr Bad-Crumble patted on the back and sent straight to heaven in a post-voting glow of worthiness. I don't think these two people are voter-profile anomalies - I genuinely believe you'll find an equal amount of caring people on both sides, who just happen to have varying views on the country can best be run to preserve our benefits system and NHS in the long-term.  

The smog of abuse that's being thrown around on social media platforms seems like an opportunity to vent and bolster one's own status as 'one of the good ones', rather than a genuine defence of the poor and disadvantaged (which is always more persuasive when not calling someone a wanker). Minds can only be changed by discussion and the blanket abuse that's being hurled halts the prospect of any intelligent, lively conversation at a peer level for future elections - simply because most people on the right will not bother to voice their true opinions, but take them quietly off to the polling station with them. And who would blame them? 

I don't know whether I'm alone in this, but I feel like it's been a hideous week of stereotyping that's made my toes curl and my head feel noisy with how much hatred and negativity has been flying around online (when I say online, I mean newspapers, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram - I've never heard this kind of abuse being bandied about by people face-to-face. When I realised this delineation, I avoided looking at any of these things, but by then my headspace already felt polluted).

When I sat down today, I'd intended to write about something sewing-related, but that's not quite what's appeared on the page. So, in an attempt to re-balance, I thought I'd share a list of totally random things that I'm really enjoying at the moment. 
  • Let's start with the slippers at the top of this post. My husband bought them for me from Christmas. They're made by Ugg and are the comfiest, cosiest things I've ever worn and have allowed us to have our heating turned down a few degrees lower than usual this winter. I'm still wearing them now even in May - my feet feel naked (in a way that's more naked than usual foot nakedness) without them. (If you're planning to put them on your own happy wish list, it's worth noting that I'm usually an UK size 3, but that with sheepy Ugg slippers I take a UK 4.5.

  • A friend bought me The Year of Living Danishly for my birthday, as she'd read and enjoyed it herself. I found it completely fascinating and inspiring reading about how Danish society operates. Did you know that their quest for a socially equal society runs so deep that when you buy a second hand car, the law dictates that the number plates must be swapped for new ones to avoid there being any social stigma around the newness of car one can afford?

    The book also introduced me to the term 'hygge'. You know when you have 'a thing' that doesn't have a name in your own language and then you discover that someone else's does and you feel so happy that a whole nation sees this 'thing' as deserving of a name? That was discovering 'hygge' for me. It's the cosiness of everyone gathering in, turning their backs on the outside world and nestling down to make merry with their family and friends for days on end. It's the lighting of candles; the warmth of big, home-cooked meals; time spent chatting around a table; and copious amounts of alcohol being drunk. As a homebody, I have a vast appreciation for hygge. I think that we have it to different extents throughout the year, and like the Danish, more so in the Winter than summer. The long Christmas holiday is the height of our hygge, where we play board games for hours on end, drink more than we do for the rest of the year put together, cook enormous meals and spend extended time with a lovely family friend, who comes over most days over the holiday and is so hygge (because apparently hygge can be a verb or an adjective) that there is no need to actually get dressed to enjoy his company. 
  • The same friend made this fudge recently. I'm not sure there's anything more joyful than someone randomly arriving at the door with a tin of fudge. I didn't think I liked fruit or rum in my confectionery - I would have said I disliked both, in fact - but I am now ruined for eating any other type of fudge. This was the best thing I've ever tasted. I have no recipe to point you towards, so I feel slightly mean posting this. Sorry. But my reason for posting was more to comment on how special I found handmade food feels when given as a gift. I really loved it and I'm determined to bake random bits of sweetness up for others more often myself in future. 

  • I recently bought a book called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying, by Marie Kondo, purely because I find tidying so comforting that I thought it would be a really enjoyable read. It sparked an absolutely massive decluttering session. Marie Kondo said two things that really resonated with me and I realised had previously stopped my tidying being truly effective. The first was that you should tidy by type rather than location. When she elaborated on this I realised how true this is - we had shoes in our understairs cupboard; in the cupboard in the hall; under our bed and a few other places around the house. When you get everything out in one place, you're suddenly able to view duplicates clearly and then tidy them away so much more effectively when you give them a home all in one place - you wouldn't believe how many places this left empty in our house - in fact, we got rid of the hall cupboard entirely, because we no longer had anything to put in it. Tidying by this method will also reveal some startling neuroses that you may not have been aware of having: I clearly have a real fear of running out of dental floss as 12 packs of dental floss were unearthed from various drawers and handbags over the course of one weekend.  

  • The other thing that Marie Kondo said, which I initially thought was madness, was that you should store your clothes vertically, rather than horizontally. This is not madness at all; getting dressed each day is now a joy and done in two minutes as I can see everything immediately. I'm also able to see that I dress mainly in stripes or in shades of blue and grey. My clothes rarely need re-ironing before I wear them now either. The really colourful scarf at the front of this photo is one my mother bought me when I was 21. It's a very lovely Missoni one that I couldn't afford myself at the time, but loved with all my heart. I no longer wear it on the grounds of it feeling too colourful, but it gives me joy every time I see it and Marie Kondo says that that kind of hoarding is fine. 
  • I absolutely love wearing eye make-up and mascara, but am less enamoured by dragging a cotton wool pad over my eyelids each evening to remove it before bed. But a few weeks ago, Natalie Fergie (aka The Yarn Yard) posted on Twitter asking if anyone had used Clinique's Take the Day Off Cleansing Balm. I hadn't, but I looked at the reviews on Boots.com and decided that I wanted to try it. This stuff is amazing. You put on the balm, massage it gently over your face and eyes for a few seconds while it emulsifies into something slightly oily and weird-feeling. You then rinse it off and your face is left completely spotless, with no horrid dragging around 'the delicate eye area' (I love that when reading about anything beauty-related it's never just an eye area - always 'the delicate eye area'). I have very sensitive eyes and am allergic to several brands, but happily this doesn't give me watery eyes. I love it. 
  • We've watched some fantastic films recently: The Imitation Game, about the life of Alan Turing and the attempts to crack the Enigma code during the second world war; If I Stay, which my daughter and I wept our way through; The Greatest Game Ever Played, which was incredible, even though no one in our family has even the slightest interest in golf.

  • Finally, Nell's desire for you to sit and hold her paw in your hand. It is the most delicious, simple thing. That her life-long quest to elicit displays of your love for her AT ALL TIMES can be quelled for the duration of some very human hand-holding always make my heart ache a little. In a good way. 
Right, I'll stop now as I feel I may be in danger of overloading you with the things I'm enjoying - this list could go on for a very long time as I feel like I've read so many interesting things lately! Please feel free to add any of your own joyful discoveries in the comments. 

With all good wishes, irrespective of how you voted, 
Florence x

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Magic Mirrors (and tooth kaleidoscopes)

I haven't had much time to sew lately, so when I finally had a few hours of stitching time last weekend, I felt very clear that I wanted to actually do something that involved a needle and thread, rather than to just spend the time trialling fabrics. When the trialling involves painstakingly fussy-cutting each fabric (you can find my tutorial on fussy-cutting here), cutting a paper for it and then wrapping it with said fabric enough times to get a good impression of whether that particular fabric will 'work', it's a time-consuming business. Especially when you wrap several pieces and you take it to your most trusted consultant and he says, looking slightly like a deer in the headlights: I just don't know; I can't imagine it properly until you've cut more of them!

I'm not sure why I haven't thought to use the set of mirrors I invested in over a year ago earlier until now, but possibly because I wasn't entirely clear how they worked and thought it may involve having a perfect right angle on which to place them. This is lunacy. They are so easy and effective to use and no right angles are necessary, so I thought it may be a good idea to share the magic with you here, just in case you'd find them useful too, and didn't know about such a thing.

Magic mirrors are made for especially for quilters. They consist of two mirrors, with a strip of tape forming a hinge. Because they are special magic mirrors for quilters they are quite expensive, but there's nothing to stop you from taping two square mirrors for regular people together and ending up with the same product accompanied by the warm glow of thrift. However, finding two frameless square mirrors can be tricky and so the purchase can be justified by these being slightly safer for being made from acrylic - in a workroom which can quickly become a chaotic mess of unfolded heaps of fabric (which the mirrors may take to hiding beneath) and heavy scissors and rotary cutters being tossed about over the cutting table, this seems like a good feature. 

With the magic mirrors, you just need to cut the smallest sampling of pieces and then place them on your fabrics (see above), and your selection will grow into a fully-formed round and you will see this:

Or this...

What would normally require the cutting of many pieces, much careful blurring of eyes, indecisive nose-wrinkling and intense imaginings to try and picture the whole effect, is reduced to an entirely painless process. I was able to take comparison photos of several different completed colour schemes all laid out with no imagination required for proper analysis. The green one won. The fabrics are all from Bari J's Petal and Plume range for Art Gallery Fabrics, by the way - sent to me in one of Hantex's care packages (in reality, they're marketing packages, but they always seem to arrive on a day when a surprise parcel of fabric is just what I need, so I've come to see them as 'care packages'). Annie stocks a few of the prints here.

Sewing was undertaken in the evening sun, I already knew what the completed cogwheel would look like (which is good, as it's still yet to be fully stitched) and all was well with the world. But stop the clock! There's more.

For anyone* who, the moment they're faced with triple mirrors, feels delighted by the opportunity to be the Beverley Sisters for a brief moment, there's a treat in store. Yes, these magic mirrors for quilters aren't just for quilting. They're also good for making tooth kaleidoscopes.

I did consider not telling you about this. But in the end, I felt it was too good not to share. Enjoy.

Florence x

*I originally thought this was everyone, but my husband, who said: 'you're so weird', when I told him about this, clearly didn't do this, so maybe it's just a girl thing, or maybe it's something that just runs through my family, because my grandmother, mother, sister and I and my daughter all do this with no tuition or encouragement.
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