Saturday, 10 December 2016

Gift Ideas

Do you remember the Frances books about a characterful young badger*? They were written by Russell Hoban, a kind and generous observer in the telling of stories that often encompassed Frances' own inner turmoil as she struggled to do the right thing in life. In one story, A Birthday for Frances, Frances bought a Chompo bar and two gum balls for her sister's birthday and then faced much anguish over the idea of parting with them. She wondered if Gloria was too young to eat a whole Chompo bar by herself and while she was pondering this, she absent-mindedly ate the gum balls herself. Discussing her desire to keep the Chompo bar for herself with her friend Albert, he confessed that he bought his younger sister a yoyo, knowing that she would be too short to use it! Frances did eventually manage to graciously present Gloria with the Chompo bar and it's a story that instilled in me the idea that the best gifts are often the ones that you'd really love to keep for yourself. So when putting together a post of gift ideas, many are really just based on things that I regularly use and love myself or which, like Frances, I'd like to keep for myself.

(A note to the mothers on both sides of my family, my husband and also my children: if you are reading, stop right here and press the back button - there is nothing for you to see in this blog post! xxx)

Let's begin with something for stationery obsessives while the lovelies mentioned above remove themselves from the area. I use these pens and propelling pencils every single day and they live in a rope bowl on the corner of my desk. I've accumulated quite a collection over the last few years and this week when my LiveWork propelling pencil broke, I realised that I felt absolutely lost without it and invested in three more in a fit of terror-buying, propelled (oh yes) by the worry that at some point they may be discontinued. They're beautiful to look at, but also practical: the pencils are fine, hard and give a perfect line, so I always use them when I'm drawing on template plastic for my English paper piecing.

As I store my pens and pencils in rope baskets, it's worth saying that they too make wonderful gifts - you can find my free tutorial here. I have them all over the house. I think it would be quite nice just to fill one with sweets for a Christmas gift!

Above is a peek of what I've bought for my mum, who always wears beautiful scarves and shawls in winter. Like Frances, with her a Chompo bar held tightly in her warm little paw, I'm as excited to give this as I am torn by wanting to keep it all for myself! It's made by Hilary Grant, a small business who makes delicious knitwear up in Scotland, you can find the full range, here.

Several years ago, my husband surprised me with some Liberty print covered magnets for my white magnet board (which my daughter has since appropriated). They were one of my favourite gifts that year - it's often the small but perfectly-chosen gifts that bring the most delight. You can find some similar ones, pictured above, here, if there's anyone in your life who might like them too.

I mentioned these earlier in the week on Facebook (thank you to everyone who has followed/liked my new page - I have surprised myself and found that I actually LOVE being able to quickly post about little things that I've seen or noticed, as well as following other people's pages), but I recently came across these Binding Babies handmade by Doohikey, in Australia. I don't actually have any bias binding that needs holding, but I will make some especially to dress these dolls if they appear in my stocking. They went straight on my own wishlist...everyone has an inner Frances want-monster.

Also, this lamp, which is basically my dream lamp. It doesn't need plugging in, so can be moved around the house; it folds up to be completely flat for travel; can be extended or contracted to be used at any height or angle; is rechargeable with a USB; has an LED bulbs that don't get hot, which means it can be balanced precariously on the sofa without risking starting a fire (yes, I'm the person who you'd want to watch a film beside); has two different strengths of light; is beautifully made. I love it with my whole heart and it has made my eyes feel sprightly and much more youthful in the evenings. I can't recommend it highly enough. I've bought one in black as a gift to my mother-in-law, as she sews in the evenings too, but I think it would be wonderful more generally for late-night readers, woodworkers, crafty sorts and those who don't like to sit in the dark. My daughter wants one purely because of the colour.

Next, scissors. For you or someone else. I am completely obsessed with scissors. Just the sight of them makes me happy: they feel like one of those objects that hasn't changed greatly since their invention and they also carry a delicious sense of familiarity, perhaps because they don't often need replacing, so it's likely that many of us will have grown up with the same pair in the house throughout our childhood. I can still remember the feel of the button on my mother's dressmaking shears that could be pressed in and out to change between blades - so satisfying! And they were so incredibly weighty and shiny enough to see my own reflection in - I often requested to be entrusted with them as a small child - while they were far too big to actually wield properly myself, they were perfect for some early years scissor appreciation. As an adult, I still notice and appreciate lovely scissors every time I pick them up - it is never an absent-minded action - so they feel worth investing in.

I have some Dovo embroidery scissors myself (above) and have bought a similar pair to give to my mother-in-law this Christmas (she sews a lot, so I hope she will love them). They're made in Germany and seem very hard to come by in the UK, but this shop stocks them and they offer wonderful, friendly service. I bought a pair of much larger Ginghers for my mother-in-law a few years ago and also have a pair myself - I'd say that I rate the Dovo scissors more highly, but I think it's probably quite a subjective thing and they're also different types of scissor (my Gingers are dressmaking scissors), so aren't directly comparable.

I shamelessly mention my Three Bears Sleeping Bag pattern every Christmas, just because it makes such a wonderful gift for small children. You can find the PDF pattern here and a guide to stuffing more peculiarly-shaped animals inside it, here. And if you make one, I'd really love to see, so please do email or tag me with it.

Continuing with gift ideas for small children, one of the hardest things about my own children growing older has been leaving behind the books that we used to read together. I am sometimes struck with an unexpected physical pain in my chest when I see a wonderful children's book and realise that I have no-one to read it with. But for those who do, A Tower of Giraffes features Anna Wright's beautiful illustrations (I bought one of her Dancing Penguins mugs for my father a few years ago). This book combines all my favourite things: collective nouns, illustrations that feature swatches of Liberty print and fascinating little details about how the real creatures live. And I've also learnt, courtesy of Anna, that the collective noun for robins is A Bobbin of Robins...isn't that lovely?

Which reminds me of a book that my sister sent to me, which you may like. We'd been to the V&A museum and finished with some time in their shop, where they've curated the most amazing selection of children's books. I was particularly taken with Stina and I think my sister could see that I was having one of those heart-pangy moments over it. It arrived in the post a few days later with some chocolates - I was so surprised and delighted. 

It's a children's story about a girl who doesn't like the cold; she knits warm things and has retreated somewhat from the world, but the story ends as she finds a way to brave the outdoors. It's a delicious book of knitty images, bonkers plans and thoughts about the cold that I can identify with. Knitters will undoubtedly love it, but as I don't knit myself, maybe it will appeal to anyone. 

Persephone books, with their matt grey covers always feel extra special. My favourite has been The Homemaker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher.

If you're already a fan of Persephone books and like traditional diaries, their 2017 version has the first sentence from one of their books on each page, as well as the beautiful end papers that Persephone are known for throughout. I really wish I kept a traditional diary so that I could make use of this - it's beautiful!

Also, my sister's clothbound poetry anthologies that she has created for Penguin - they are so beautiful and make such lovely gifts (if you're keen for it to be clothbound, make sure you're buying the version labelled 'hardback', as they're also out in paperback).

My family have a small mountain of lovely presents accumulating on top of my wardrobe, but when 2016 has been a year filled with humanitarian crisis, I've felt drawn to try and incorporate a few gifts under the tree that acknowledge this in some small way. I tried to choose charity gifts that would reflect my children's own passions, because I think they'll be really delighted by it that way, so through Save the Children, I've donated money to pay for a football to be given to a child on my son's behalf and an art set for a child in a refugee camp on my daughter's behalf. And I've also bought my husband a goat, not because of a secret goat fetish, but because I know he'll love to think of it at the other side of the world providing a family with milk and goaty cuddles (and possibly all manner of entertaining goat mischief). The goat in question was half-price, which is a slightly curious idea for a charitable gift, but I was able to make an additional donation at the checkout to negate that.

I'd really recommend Save the Children (certificates left and right of the photo above) if you're donating a gift on behalf of a child or grandchild, as while ultimately it's about how the money is being spent, the presentation is perfect and is likely to appeal far more in terms of looking thoroughly gift-like. It also came with a second print out that contains a really engaging image of a child receiving an art set/football and a little information about what their lives are like and how the gift will make a difference to them. For putting charity gifts under the tree to work well, rather than feeling overly wholesome and self-righteous (I think it's a horribly thin line), I really think it needs to make the donating recipient's heart leap almost as much as the actual recipient's. I feel happy that I believe these really will.

Note that the certificates don't come with Liberty print post-it notes embossed on them - they were just placed there temporarily to cover my children's names.

If you have any of your own recommendations for interesting things that you're buying for others or enjoying yourself, I'd love to hear, as I still have a few gifts left to buy.

Wishing you a lovely weekend,
Florence x

* After going to the cinema one night, a friend and I sat chatting in my car when, around midnight, we suddenly saw a badger appear from the passageway between two houses and then waddle off down the pavement. I haven't actually seen a live badger before (just many dead ones on the road) and so wasn't quite prepared for how adorably they walk, how wonderfully vast their bottoms are, or for their propensity to use pavements in a human way. It was a wonderful sighting. I'd always thought Frances was a bear and hadn't noticed her badgery stripes until revisiting the images just now, but being able to now tie that in to my recent sighting, I don't feel too distressed by her change of fur.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Small-Scale Sewing, Large-Scale Tidying, Choosing Fabrics & a Facebook Page

I've been working on the same English paper piecing project for months now, but recently I've had a short break to tend to some piecing in Liberty Tana lawns, a snippet of which is shown above (frustratingly, both are for different projects that I can't share here until next year). The change of project gave me that feeling I have in the depths of winter when I've been wearing the same jumpers in rotation for months and then someone hands me a new one to wear (I'm not sure who that nameless jumper-hander reality it's likely to be a delivery driver as it's probably one that I treated myself to). But either way, like the jumper, the sewing project was shiny and new, and therefore invigorating.

This diversionary project was at a much smaller scale than my current one and that brought an interesting revelation with it: it produces a very diminutive pile of off-cuts and fabric debris. Afterwards, it felt like tidying up the desk in a doll's house. (Which incidentally, does the fascination with those ever go away? We had one that was handed down and it had tiny light bulbs suspended from the ceiling of each room controlled by miniature switches on the walls. I haven't seen it for years, so I'm imagining it may have been lost in a house move, but I think I could still happily spend hours decorating one - I may keep that in reserve as a project for when I retire...a mere twenty-five years away).

Although the cutting table by-products were small in scale, the room was in just as much disarray as with any other project while I was deciding on what combination of fabrics to use. My parents happened to pop over and ventured up to the loft to see me one day when Tana lawns were strewn across the floor and their lovely faces looked discretely aghast, as though they'd just discovered that the messy teenager who they believed they'd said goodbye to twenty years ago was still actually alive and well. I realised the difference is that the messy teenager didn't care who saw the mess...the grown-up version felt slightly mortified. I'm not sure that people can comprehend the way that fabrics can quickly snowball into massive piles all over a room unless they sew themselves. Every time that I tidy my sewing room (which is often as I like to at least start with a blank canvas), even I lose the understanding of how it happens! But even with the best intentions, I find it almost impossible to tidy-as-I-go. For me, creativity has an element of 'mad professor' about it that doesn't seem to combine well with the neat-freak that lives in me the rest of the time. 

The fabric-choosing process is something that I've been thinking about quite a lot recently. In every other area of sewing, I feel completely happy in my own company barely noticing the hours drifting by, but sometimes when I fail to find a combination of fabrics that work well together after several hours of trialling them, I can begin to feel oddly lost and lonely in the task of chasing that elusive well-balanced combination. I'd been discussing this with my sister shortly before embarking on this project and once I'd begun she very kindly appeared at the end of my phone as a sounding board and not only analysed every combination that I ran by her, but also texted over images of swatches that she'd found online of possible alternatives that might work. On Sunday evening my mother joined in too and I finished that weekend of choosing fabrics with my sanity thoroughly intact. I think there's a case for there being a website dedicated solely to the process of assisting other sewers in choosing fabrics. Typing that, I'm suddenly remembering a book by Arabella Weir that I think came out about 15 years ago, entitled Does My Bum Look Big in This? This website could be something more along the lines of Does My Quilt Look Good in This? And unlike the first question, where the only answer is 'No, your bottom looks awesome in everything you put on it', posters on the site would be actively hoping for constructive criticism and honesty. 

In other news, I was talking to someone recently about Facebook. I don't really love Facebook as a platform so I've never given it too much thought, but when he said that having a page was a really good way to document things that: a) didn't merit a whole blog post b) weren't necessarily visual enough to want to put on Instagram and c) required more words than Twitter allowed, I suddenly realised that he may have a point. I barely use Twitter because of the 140 character limit as it's too time-consuming trying to work out how to convey a message while still maintaining basic levels of grammar and punctuation and I probably only post a photo to Instagram once or twice a week. So, if you'd like to follow my new Facebook page, you can find it here - I'll probably be posting about fairly random stuff (I know I'm tempting you with my focus and clear vision for my page!) - I'm guessing it will be a mixture of sewing, books, news, podcasts, films and generally things that I've seen and found interesting and I will also let you know when there's a new blog post up here. 

Despite having run a Facebook page for Squeebles for several years, there are still things that I found confusing about the set up process for my own page - like why it says that I'm not permitted to have an @username and why it won't let me change my page name from what sounds in retrospect rather long and convoluted...but I'm going to ignore those things for now. 

Finally, thank you so much for the interesting conversation following my recent post about needles - I have ordered some Bohin needles to trial at one commenter's suggestion and will report back! But otherwise, I'm still happy with my John James, even though one poster raised concerns that they're actually made in China! This was rather crushing news, but when I phoned and asked, John James said that they still make many needles types in Redditch, so not everything is outsourced at least. 

This weekend, I am nursing a cold, so will mostly be sewing and watching films or listening to audio books. If you have any recommendations, please do leave them in the comments. 

Which reminds me, while sewing the pieces at the top of this post, I watched Somerset Maughan's The Painted Veil on iPlayer and it was wonderful and would possibly go down on my list of top ten films. As per the trailer, the first portion of the film depicts a relatively shallow and formulaic life, but once the location has shifted to the site of the cholera epidemic things seems to completely change - the scenery is stunning and atmospheric and the on-screen chemistry between the characters is incredible and the storyline totally captivating. Sadly, it's now fallen off iPlayer, but it is available to buy for a little over £3, here, if you're interested. 

Wishing you a lovely weekend, 
Florence x
A few of the books/products that I link to on Amazon from my blog contain affiliate links and very occasionally, I'll mention a product that I've been given free of charge. I choose the things that I recommend carefully and my priority is to only share things that I love.