Monday 17 February 2014

And I Feel So Boho-emian Like You

I am currently working on a few craft projects but as they are all as gifts I cannot share them until after the events. I did, however, take a quick break tonight and make something for me! I came across an amazing boho bag tutorial and pattern on-line last summer. Since then I have made six of these bags as gifts and my own tonight is the seventh. I think they are great casual bags and would easily fit the essentials in. I have had so much fun matching fabric to people. It is a really versatile bag and I have used everything from soft cord fabric to bright batik fabric and I love the way it sits across the body.

I have not added any step by step photos here as it is all laid out so well in the original blog. I would advise checking seams really carefully before turning it the right way around as there is nothing worse than having to turn it back through to fix a small hole. I did not add pockets to mine as I made some of them reversible. It took me a while to get the pattern the right size but that probably says a lot about my use of a photocopier than the pattern itself. All of the details are there on the pattern to check that it is the correct size.

Aqua Boho Bag

For my bag I used "Simply Colour for Moda Aqua Leaf Stripe" and "FX4 Peace Garden by Fabric Freedom". I decided to use a plain white cotton to line the bag as I didn't want it to feel too dark and I am not intending to reverse it. I had the pattern already cut and thanks to my practice it took 90 minutes.

Close-up of fabric print

Tasty Gnocchi And I Am Sure Jamie Would Forgive Me The 6 Seconds

On Saturday I returned to one of my favourite 15 Minute Meals, sausage gnocchi with warm kale and bean salad. It is tasty and a great meal on a windy day; it also uses lot of vegetables which keeps it from being too heavy. I timed my cooking, so I followed the suggestion in the book of getting all the pots out, the ingredients ready and a kettle boiled. This seems like a bit of a "faff" but I had been shopping so it was easier to unpack to a tray than into, and then out of, cupboards.  I managed to do it in 15 minutes and 6.69 seconds. This is partly down to having done it before and partly down to using sausages. There are loads of 15 minute meals using squashed meat but I spend a  lot of time making sure it is cooked all the way through. This recipe uses the inside of sausages so its really easy to break it up and know it is cooked.

I have not been able to find good chilli sausages so I tend to use good quality sausages and a blob of "easy chilli". This time I used normal broccoli and frozen green beans as the quality of the fresh green beans and tender stem broccoli was not good. Neither made a difference, I just made sure that I use a thin slice setting for the broccoli stalk and cut the florets small. In the past my husband has made fresh gnocchi which takes longer but tastes amazing. If you are not making your own gnocchi I would say that there is no noticeable difference  in taste between the vac packed gnocchi that is found with the dried pasta and the vac packed gnocchi in the chiller, however the stuff in the chiller is more expensive. In my opinion it is better to spend the money on the sausage than the gnocchi.

This is a big rustic dish and in many ways is not a pretty as some of the others, but it is incredibly tasty, the fennel seeds with the chilli heat and tomato bring a lot of flavour. It is meaty and the gnocchi is a welcome change from pasta. The greens are fresh but with a hint of salty bacon, sweet honey and crunchy hazelnuts. Looking at the ingredients I was worried that the bacon and nuts would overpower the greens but they don't at all. This dish is very balanced and didn't generate too much washing up either.

Sausage Gnocchi with Kale and Beans.

5x50 and a Jogging Plan

Last year I decided to learn to run, this was for numerous reasons
1) I could not run properly and looked like an injured penguin when I tried
2) I want to be a good role model for my little girl and not a sports day embarrassment, and
3) I needed a way to get fit that was cheap and would fit in my lunch break.

So I signed up for the 5x50 challenge, 5Km a day for 50 days; the site includes walking, cycling, swimming or even 30 minutes of exercise. This is a great event with the £5 entry going to sport relief and a fantastic and supportive network. I had to record my details each day which spurred me on to do it and keep it up. I set my own challenge which was only jogging or going for a walk, with the intention of doing more jogging than walking over the course of the challenge. I also made sure that my walks were an actual walk and not just part of my daily routine. I did log my walking from my pedometer as well separate to the 5km.

To get myself to the stage where I could jog 5Km I used the NHS couch to 5Km podcasts. I found this a great way to get up to the distance and it is a fantastic free resource. It was not easy and there were days that I cursed the woman talking on the podcast (Laura). Saying that it was oddly reassuring having her talking me through it.

Having managed to complete my 50 days with 30 jogs and 20 walks last year I am eager to do better this year. I also want to get my 5km time down to less than 30 minutes. The challenge starts in March so I need to get jogging again. I have let things slide in the winter so it is back to the podcasts to get me ready. I am getting over a cold so I am starting at the beginning again, my first jog was far better than last year so I am hoping to do less runs in the early part of the couch to 5km and get onto the longer runs for preparation. Excitingly this year I have friends in other places doing it as well so I have them to keep me going and share the pain.

Sunday 16 February 2014

No Country for Old Men

After giving Fargo a good star rating on Lovefilm we received No Country for Old men. If I had not known they were directed and produced by the same people I would have figured it out quickly. It has the same deadpan delivery and the same stark landscapes. The film is set around a hunter who comes across a drug deal gone wrong and takes the money from the scene, he is then pursued by a ruthless and relentless killer.

Where Fargo had snow this has an expanse of vast and unforgiving desert with no shelter or comfort - this beautifully mirrors the main villain. Javier Bardem give an eerie performance with his huge stature and unwavering attitude. There is a lot of violence but oddly the cringes come from injuries. It has a 'wild west' feel but is undeniably modern with the vehicles and drug trafficking. There are also deaths that are left 'off camera' which in some ways are equally effective as it leaves it to your imagination.

It is filmed almost as if you are following a character as opposed to watching the events unfold from a distance and this gives a more intimate and at times harrowing perspective. One of the most striking things is that they are not afraid to use silence. This works incredibly well, there is no forced mood music or a need to fill screen time with dialogue. Yet again the performances are intentionally emotionally barren with dispair being the only emotion that reoccurs.

It does not have as much humour as Fargo, it is a sinister thriller set where crime is a regular backdrop and with a greater body count. They say the difference between a Shakespearian Comedy and Shakespearian Tragedy comes down to the end, and I think the Coen Brothers work on a similar principle.

Wednesday 12 February 2014

Up Helly Aa

The last Tuesday is January is the Lerwick Up Helly Aa. This is the largest fire festival in Europe and is dominated by Vikings. There is a buzz around Up Helly Aa that is hard to avoid or ignore, the shop fronts in town all have displays and a lot of places close on the Wednesday after. I also felt more of a build up this year by attending children's activities with my daughter. After a special Bookbug session (music and stories) with songs such as "Old Man Olaf had a Farm" and a special craft afternoon at the museum making shields and helmets I was very much in the mood. It was lovely to see a group of children in a procession around the museum knowing that they will be the squads of the future.

Things start to warm up before dawn when the Jarl squad unveil the proclamation in the centre of town. The proclamation is a tongue in cheek look at local news and events. Later in the morning the Jarl squad parade through the town with the 'galley', a specially made longboat, before spending the day visiting local schools and groups. The parade is accompanied by a pipe band and a brass band. Normally the galley is taken down next to the Bressay Ferry terminal in front of the harbour for photographs, however this year it was moved to the town hall due to the gales.

The main procession takes place in the evening with all of the squads lighting their torches simultaneously from flares. This year there were 47 squads/ groups of men with the Jarl squad being the squad that dress as Vikings. The other 46 squads have a theme and fancy dress. They parade through the town carrying the torches, singing and following the galley. At the end of the procession the galley is burned (in a children's park of all places). The costume of the Jarl squad is a well kept secret and the craftsmanship is amazing. This year it was all black and white with amazing chain mail and cow skin capes. The helmets were incredibly heavy and the shields were beautifully decorated. Sadly it was very windy but the procession went ahead and it is a fantastic spectacle to see thousands of men march through the town shouting and cheering following a galley. The burning of the galley is impressive as is the ceremony of the whole thing. There is a firework display after. The atmosphere is great and there is a definite buzz of excitement.

Torch lit procession
Following the procession we headed to the hall. The halls are run by a dedicated team of volunteers and for most halls you need to get a ticket from a host or hostess. Each hall is different but the one I was at had a great atmosphere and an amazing band who played through the night in between acts. There was food served along with hot drinks and soft drinks all night. The 47 squads tour around the halls each performing an act. The quality of these acts varied greatly but all had something to offer from sleek choreography, a local campaign, an in-joke at the Guizer Jarl or just men in drag dancing to Beyonce. They were all fun and entertaining. In between the acts there was dancing, I am awful at Ceilidh dancing and have only picked up bits in the last few years but the atmosphere was great and people were more than happy to talk you through it. There were slots allocated to the hosts where they take over the kitchen, I was happy to help my hostess at this point and it was great fun with a lot of banter and a lovely atmosphere. The home bakes that had been donated were amazing and I went through the night on some very yummy cakes.

Burning the Galley
More photos of the day can be found here

Tuesday 11 February 2014

Northern Lights

Photograph of Northern Lights, Sandwick Shetland 07/02/2014 Kevin Riley

There are lots of advantages to living in Shetland and many beautiful things to see and experience. The winter night sky is one of them; it is fantastic on any clear night and shooting stars are a regular occurrence. This winter has been dominated by great views of Jupiter and some of it's moons. The Northern lights are a real highlight and there is something special and spectacular about an aurora especially when it catches you by surprise. This photo was taken by my husband who was out stargazing and no aurora had even been forecast. We get a faint glow quite often but a 'full show' like this is special, it gets really light and the sky ripples as curtains of light move across.

We have been lucky to catch five such auroras that stand out in the five years we have been here. Each one being different and having its own merits from being right overhead to having red amongst the green and huge 'curtains'. It is stunning and it makes you feel rather small in the universe. The more I think about the particles causing it the more mind blowing it becomes. This photograph has not been manipulated and it taken from a bridge camera with a long exposure. I like it as it is a good reflection of the strength of the aurora albeit not able to do the ripples justice.

Putting The Cat Amongst The Flowers

Choosing a theme for my little girl's card was almost as difficult as choosing a cake theme. There are so many options. I wanted something simple as I was working on her gift at the same time. I keep a memory box full of things she has been sent and liked the idea of her cards off us documenting the trends she goes through. It was because of this that I decided to go with a 'Timmy Time' character. She loves all of the characters and we spend a lot of time talking about what has happened in the latest episode. I imagine she picks up on our enthusiasm for Aardman as well.

I chose Mittens as she loves cats at the moment and is very excited as a friend of ours is fostering one. I found a nice picture of Mittens in the flower garden and it allowed me to use a lot of colour. I taped the design and the fabric to a window and traced the design on using a soft pencil. I am sure at some point I will invest in washable fabric markers but it is a technique I have used for a while now. I went with a simple backstitch outline with French knots for the middle of the flowers. I liked the basic flower design as it allowed it to look almost as if a child had drawn it. I used some dark grey single thread to pick out some of the facial features (The threads I used were DMC 721,727,739, 742, 777,  906, 963 3799 and 3837). I was pleased with the result. It is always difficult using thread to depict something that is usually made out of clay.

The main thing is that my daughter could tell who it was.

Monday 10 February 2014

A Despicable Cake

For our daughters Birthday we decided to make a Minion cake. It was hard to chose as there is so many things that she likes at the moment. The minion won over as it is colourful, fun and recognisable. I cannot take all of the credit for this as it was a joint effort between myself and my husband. We used a 18cm by 25cm cake tin. My husband drew a template to match the dimensions and cut out the features from greeceproof paper. I made two cakes using a very basic sponge recipe, 4oz self raising flour, 4oz stork and 4oz caster sugar and 2 eggs in each cake. I used the usual method of creaming the butter and sugar, adding the eggs gradually and then folding in flour.

I made the coloured icing using ready made royal icing kneaded with a paste made from icing sugar and food colouring. It is time consuming and I dyed my hands blue but it allowed me to get the colour I wanted without having to buy a huge quantity or a mixed pack. When the cakes were out and cool we sandwiched them with jam and covered in a thin marzipan layer. I then rolled all of the icing out and cut out the pieces using the templates. My husband then positioned all of the pieces on the cake, sticking them with water and adding finishing touches including the arms and legs. The mouth took a while to get right but the beauty of using a minion is that we could take advantage of there being so many that all look a little different that we were bound to match one. Our daughter loved it and instantly recognised it, we also got some compliments from some hard to impress friends and family. It tasted quite good too.

Matching Millie

My little girl has just turned two so there has been lots preparation in our house for this. For Christmas I made her a patchwork quilt out of the "Melly and Me: Snug as a Bug" book, it was great fun and I was pleased with how it turned out.

Sung as a Bug quilt

It was far from perfect but I learned a lot including some very handy tips on how to piece squares and how to bind. The video below is full of really helpful tips to get consistent blocks.

I decided to bind my quilt using the backing fabric as I felt it gave a nice edge and saved me trying to get the front and back straight. For Christmas my daughter also got a BHS Millie doll which has outfits to match hers. Matching pyjamas were a huge hit so I therefore decided to make Millie a little quilt to match. I did not have a lot of leftover fabric as I had planned how much I would need and cut really carefully. I made it 35 squares of 8cm by 8cm (before seam) and laid out what I had. I tend to plan patchwork as if I am doing a sudoku - no matching bits touching each other etc. I used the same backing as it is nice and soft and stitched in the ditch to quilt it. It was small simple and still not perfect but she realised what it was straight away and Millie has been nice and warm since.

Nobody Wants to Make Superman Wear Lipstick

As it was my husband's birthday recently so I have been sneaking about trying to plan a card and cake without him knowing. This is quite a difficult task as I often ask his advice and run ideas past him, I also get him to do the whisking for cakes.

I chose to use a superman pixelpower pattern that I had bought last year. I love pixelpower designs, they are stylised yet still recognisable. I stitched mythbusters and R2D2 last year for cards and they went down really well. There are a lot of things I love about the designs, they are very specialist and quite geeky. There are a lot of designs that are good for boys/men which are generally harder to find. You order online and the patterns are sent to you by e-mail. I found the service quick and friendly as well as being convenient as you do not have to wait for posts. He has special offers from time to time and some amazing free patterns on his facebook page. I really want to do the futurama one as it is amazing. The patterns in the most part are all whole stitches with very little backstitch and just a few fractional stitches for eyes. Although there are multiple characters in each series, they stand alone well and would be a great starting stitch for a child. The patterns are well laid out, easy to follow and in colour. My one criticism would be that I sometimes feel that there should be more contrast between similar colours. I had this issue with Superman as the colour for the mouth was too close to the colour of the face and as a result he looked like he had no mouth.
Original mouth - not showing up as much as I would have liked.

I ended up unpicking and putting in another colour. This was all trial and error as too red and it looks like superman is wearing lipstick, and nobody wants to make superman wear lipstick. I also found a colour that I thought was dark enough but it still got lost. I think that colour combinations for stitching can be quite personal and some people like close colours with little variation. As the colour difference in the pixelpower designs often picks out features however, due to limited use of backstitch, I feel the gradient could be stronger without spoiling the design.
Finished card with altered mouth.

I was pleased with the finished card though I cannot help but feel this card by my little girl beat it...

My little girls hand print on a card for her Daddy.


I often make birthday cakes with characters and roll on icing, this year I wanted to do something different for my husbands birthday, I wanted it to double up as a pudding, be a little bit classy but also a lot of fun. I decided to go for a chocolate cake with white chocolate ganache and a coco powder stencil. I had a lot of thoughts about what to stencil, although I will not discuss them now as some may well be used in the future. I decided on a dalek as they lend themselves to an outline and are quite iconic. Not to mention that my husband is a Dr Who fan. I used a chocolate cake recipe I had used before, I found a Mary Berry ganache recipe that looked great and halved it as hers was for a two tier cake. The stencil was a picture I found and put on card - cutting all of the bits out. The circles were hard so I made a series of small slits an pushed them through which was effective. The cake was easy to make but took a lot of whisking so I invested in a hand held electric whisk. The ganache was yummy and easy but you need to leave yourself adequate time between processes to let things cool and set. It is very rich but I found that serving it with fresh raspberries cut through nicely.

Double chocolate Dalek cake.

Sunday 9 February 2014

Various Pets Alive and Dead - Marina Lewycka

This is a great book. It is a story told from three perspectives, a Mother and two of her children. On the surface it is a story about their lives over the same time period with a lot of reflections and reminiscing about their past living in a commune. There is also an underlying mystery that the characters still think about and touch upon.

It is a wonderful mix of characters and everyday circumstances with them coming together in very amusing situations. Lewycka always finds a way to bring slightly extravagant characters into slightly surreal situations in the most believable way. The characters are recognisable but not stereotypes, there is a fantastic range of perspectives. The chapters are short and change between characters which again keeps the book and plot moving at pace in the same way that McCall-Smith does with his Scotland Street series.

When you actually stop and think about it the book is about far more than just the lives of a group of people though. It is a look at socialism, society, politics, education and economics. Love is a key theme in the novel and it is explored in so many ways from family, monogomy, lust and even unrequited fascination. I giggled at the philosophy that cheesecake is better then men. It is not a love story, however romance or even a lack thereof, plays a part in the story of each character. One of the characters has Down's syndrome and her story is handled really well. One of the things that I liked was that as a character she was presented as being as flawed as the others. I have read books in the past where the author has seemed afraid to say anything that could be construed as negative in anyway which can feel unrealistic and two dimensional. I think the beauty of having a few different threads is that you find not only characters you can relate to, but also characteristics that you associate with.

Lewycka describes the financial crisis in a simple and effortless way without patronising or talking down to anybody. The use of the Fibonacci number is fascinating and so nicely incorporated. It is used in a similar way to the talk of adhesives in "We are made of glue". The end of this book is perfect and the final chapter is a lovely little twist and while it sums up so may threads beautifully it leaves a few questions open a little, which is a great touch as it leaves the reader thinking.

Stitching for Babies

I love stitching for babies. It is just so exciting and you can use lovely colour combinations. My first real project on my sewing machine was backing a cross stitched Afghan blanket. I do admit I love stitching full stop but you can find such lovely ideas and patterns for babies and I loved it when I had hand made gifts for my little girl. They all got tucked away in a memory box after use. For her birthday this year my daughter got the most beautifully quilted height chart and I am just in awe of it.

The neighbours of my Mum and Sister have just had a little boy and I was asked to make a couple of designs that I have made before for the new arrival. I would love to say this was a "commission" but in reality because it was for family it was more of a request with a charity donation as payment. My little sister loves owls so I wanted to pass that on to the recipient and they have cats. I chose two lovely embroidery designs of owls and pussycats (but sadly no pea-green boat!). I used sublime stitching designs. They are iron on transfer designs which saves the hastle of tracing and gives clear lines to follow. I love the designs as they tend to be different, modern and simple. The outlines allow you to do a simple backstitch to just use the shape or fill it in if you decide to.

As good as some complex iron on patterns look all of the detail prevents you from just stitching outlines. I decided to do a simple outline of the two owls but using variegated thread. I find the variegated thread give a simple and effective result. The owl design makes me smile because the parent owl is looking half awake checking on the owl chick. I did however come across another interpretation from a friend who thought it looked like the parent owl was winking in a sinister way as if thinking about pushing the chick off! As disturbed as I was by this theory it was a kind reminder that everybody looks at things differently. I will let readers make up their own mind and keep my fingers crossed that my sister's friends see it my way!

I think one of the great things about this design is that I have stitched it three times and each one is different. The first was raising money for charity so was bright and unisex to appeal to as may people as possible, the second was for a friend so was bright and bold and used her favourite colours. The last one has a more subtle colour palate, as that is what was requested, but it is still colourful with the orange and blue. I adore the cat design with the kitten following, again it was very easy to personalise as you can just alter the ribbon colour. I felt that adding a fur effect would have been overkill. One of the things to keep in mind is that the back of the bib is on display so you need to make sure you have a really neat back with no lose threads, loops or anything that little fingers can get into! I am normally very neat with my backs anyway but if in any doubt with a bib I just put some whip stitches round.

The other item I made was a "taggy owl". I noticed when shopping for toys that there lots of comfort blanket type toys about. I then found a couple of examples online that I really liked so I decided to make my own. I made my pattern from scratch using greaseproof paper. With things like this I tend to design on a folded piece of paper and cut my fabric on the fold so it is closer to being symmetrical. I made one for a friend's little boy at Christmas but used different fabric so they are different and  unique. It was great fun choosing fabric and ribbon mixing lots of textures and extra bursts of colour. I made sure my ribbon was folded so that you can rub the sides together and added details to the tummy. The tummy ribbon has textured squares to make it soft and give the effect of feathers.

I added all of the detail to the front and then layered it so it was inside out and sewed a seam around making sure the wings and ribbon were in place. I turned it through a small turning gap and sewed the gap after. It is really straight forward but fun to make.
My first taggy owl
The new taggy owl