Thursday, 30 June 2011

Upcycle this

I tend to agree with the statement that most of the best things in life are free. That dish marked 'Free' that comes with your Indian takeaway order, the one that is probably the ends of several different dishes mixed together? Quite often the tastiest one. This is my 'Free' of the month, pulled from the top of a neighbour's rubbish collection:

My friends and I used to derive great pleasure as children from pulling perfectly serviceable items out of the huge walk in skip that was placed near to our house for the Sunday market traders to dispose of their waste. To this day I have no idea why most of it found its way straight into the skip instead of a reduced pile, as this was the early to mid nineties when the majority were struggling economically (oh my how times change!). Amongst the cardboard boxes and rotten fruit we quite often found brand new items of clothing from the clothing stalls, slightly dented trays of juice drinks and even entire boxes of fresh fruits. I found a  plastic laundry basket once that was slightly scuffed - it served as our laundry basket for at least the next 10 years. I was most proud to take that home as the red colour matched our kitchen. For a good few years, we made a good living out of that skip, though our parents were tinged with more than a little shame at our activities.

I am still a Womble at heart and hate seeing perfectly good useful items go to waste. Unfortunately, many people balk at the idea of even donating their unwanted things to charity shops, let alone buying from them. No matter how many magazines and TV programs advocate 'upcycling', vintage living and thrifting - there is still a whole world of difference in many people's minds between those trendy pursuits and being seen to actually take something out of a skip or buy from a charity shop (and I am not suggesting that anyone needs to wade around in rotting garbage here). I haven't actually been criticised or looked at pityingly yet for this particular piece of scavenging, but previous instances loom large in my mind and there are plenty of people I know who wouldn't share my enthusiasm for it.

Shame shouldn't come from making good use of something discarded, something free for the taking - it should come from sending enormous quantities of useful things to landfill and sneering at those that would want to divert those things from the waste stream, whether out of material necessity or just because they hate waste. I live in a street where, luckily, vanity doesn't get in the way of common sense. People commonly leave unwanted items outside of their property for twenty-four hours with a 'free to a good home' notice, before they attempt to dispose of them elsewhere - and other people generally take them.

I suspect that the ongoing economic problems that swathes of the western world are experiencing will humanize us a little. I hope that the quite frankly vile lust for money, bling and superior social status that has been exalted by our culture for the last few decades will give way to a kinder, less wasteful society. A lot more people seem to be  reassessing their needs and just trying to get by - which in turn will lead to a greater respect for thrift and creativity and the conservation of precious resources. I hope, but then, I am a dreamer.

Anyway, two tester pots of paint and a few hours waiting for paint to dry and this is as good as new - and usefully storing all those little things that seem to clutter up surfaces for want of a better home. My year long  decluttering mission is now 'complete' - the rooms are relatively clutter free and now it is just the small task of finding the best place for our remaining possessions. T'is done. 

June harvest

OK - the allotment hasn't been going as well as we planned. By which I mean we haven't been sowing and tending as much as we planned thanks to Nick starting his work placement and me being increasingly tired and ungainly. The hellish end of May didn't help either. Still, a harvest is a harvest no matter how small; and June has been the first month where anything has actually made it back from the plot to our kitchen.

The tally so far, rounded to the nearest 100g -

Broad beans (The Sutton) - 4.5kg in pod, not including the several handfuls of tender young pods that never made it home as they were so nommable straight off the plant.  We eat the beans, the guinea pigs eat the pods. Next year we will devote a whole bed to these and pull a few plants as and when we need space for later legumes, because considering how little attention the 8 plants that took have had, they have cropped prolifically.

Garlic 'Solent Wight' - 2 bulbs so far harvested wet (about 100g). The rest will come up in about a month, if I can resist the lovely sweet bulbs as they stand now.

Courgette 'Black Beauty' - 2.1kg so far excluding one I forgot to weigh. 4 good sized tender courgettes and one heading for marrow-hood. Two of the three plants suddenly rocketed into action in the last fortnight and are thick with developing fruits. I hate courgettes from the shop, but fresh off the plant and sauteed with salt and pepper they are delicious.

Potato volunteer - 800g,  not from the allotment, but from a pot in the back garden. I was going to pull it but instead let it do its thing. We got a lunch out of it (a courgette potato rosti type thing) for absolutely no effort on our part.

TOTAL - 7.5kg. 

The sugar snap peas (Norli) were poorly supported and turned into a tangled ground hugging mass of knots, but The Boy got a few on-plot snacks out of them. They will be replaced by runner beans this weekend. The potatoes are almost ready to be lifted too and most other things seem to to be doing well. The tomatoes are sporting a few fruits. I get quite disheartened when I look at our little plot, it seems as though large swathes of bed are barren or weedy, waiting for stuff to grow and fill up the space. This year is a learning curve - next year will be better. That's my mantra and I am sticking to it.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Preparing for winter part 1 - gimme shelter

Yup, you heard right. The nights are drawing in once again and the days are getting shorter... I should have started preparing days ago : )

Which actually, I did. In one of the weird bursts of energy that punctuate these last few weeks of pregnancy, I finally nailed the replacement draught excluder to the bottom of the front door. I only chose this particular unfinished task of many because The Boy had taken to using said draught excluder as a rather expensive and sharp edged toy sword and I thought it better that it was nailed to the door rather than embedded unproductively (and expensively) into something rather softer - say, a cat. As the tool box was out I also filled a substantial hole underneath the door knocker and replaced the internal letterbox flap. So far, so self-satisfied.

Until I took a step back. The front door, now draught sealed, still comprises two panes of single glazing - and sits under a huge window extending from the top of the door to the ceiling. Draughts are the least of my hallway's worries. A glance around the rest of the house shows just how lax we have been about heat conservation the last few years. We have replaced thick-but-ugly-and-too-big curtains with flimsy-but-pretty ones. The cat flap in the back door blows open at the slightest breeze since our bruiser of a cat decided to crash through it when it was locked and break the mechanism two years ago. There are little cracks and crevices around the window frames that really do need to be sealed. The uninsulated kitchen extension has a concrete floor that you could spray with water and skate on in winter. All of the internal doors in the house have massive gaps underneath them or around them. The old fireplaces are not as amply stuffed with newspaper as they could be.

This is not to say we have been profligate with our space heating, our bills are well below average. What it does mean is that we have allowed the heat to dissipate faster than it needed to and made ourselves more uncomfortable than is really necessary. Both OH and The Boy 'run hot' and I grew up in a freezing cold old house with no central heating, draughts everywhere and no running hot water - I have a high tolerance for discomfort in this area. Except of course, I don't actually have to tolerate the discomfort any longer, I am in a position to do something about it - we just always seemed to have other priorities. This year, a combination of reduced income, energy companies making record profits and still raising their prices; and far too much reading about peak oil and economic turbulence; have inspired me to action.

We have had some genuinely uncharacteristic cold snaps (as you can see above - and yes I know that most of you, especially you North Americans, laugh in the face of such a light dusting). Late last year the country was brought to its knees by unseasonably cold weather and snow that persisted in some parts for months. I live on the south coast and in previous years, thanks to the Gulf Stream, have been able to venture to the corner shop on a December evening in a T-shirt without feeling too much discomfort. Besides, I know from experience that when we move to Norfolk, winter weather will be less clement, so I might as well get some practice in with the insulating and conserving.

We are lucky on several fronts- we have double glazing and there is loft insulation in the main part of the house. The carpets are underlaid. We rent, so the changes we can make are fairly superficial. Now is the perfect time to begin, not least because the costs of projects like this tend to increase with the urgency of completing them. A five month head start is good enough to get something done.

So, in the next five months I need to:
  • Line or replace existing flimsy curtains, or install window quilts throughout the house. This will also help with the light pollution - and would actually be useful now in keeping the house cool during this mini heatwave we are experiencing.
  • Install curtains or quilts at the front door and window - these must be removable in the day to allow daylight into what is a dingy passageway and living space.
  • Install a magnet operated cat flap that will stay closed.
  • Make draught excluders for the front door and for the door leading from the kitchen to the living room.The kitchen, with its lack of insulation and heating, is always going to be a weak link, so cutting it off at night seems like the best option. 
  • Do a feather test and replace missing sealant around the window frames.
  • Find a hard wearing washable rug for the kitchen floor.
  • Pack the old fire places tightly with newspaper to stop draughts and convection currents - and try to make peace with the fact that the hollow chimney breasts are funneling heat straight from the walls and  out of the house anyway. Sigh. 
I think that I need to acquire a sewing machine. I think I should have started two years ago. I think that one day I will learn important lessons about not putting off till tomorrow what you could do today. One day.

Anyway, some useful resources I have stumbled upon in my quest for inspiration:
Preparing for Winter I and  Preparing for Winter II  forum threads over at Money saving Expert. Very long and chatty, but some good lists of things to do to prepare and lots of resources relevant particularly to the UK.

Draught proofing  information from The Energy Saving Trust

Make Window Quilts with these instructions from Many Tracks.

How to make a draught excluder from the Guardian of all places.

The Integral Urban House - worth borrowing from the library, this American 'Appropriate Technology' book explains in simple terms how heat moves and is lost in buildings and some ways to deal with it. Also lots of information about growing food, composting, rainwater harvesting and related self reliance topics.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Simple sewing

I am no sewer - sewist - seamstress? - what name do you talented people that turn yards of flat fabric into useful objects go by? I have failed many a time when I picked up a needle and thread - catastrophically so if it involved a sewing machine too - and so have not generally bothered, apart from to affix the odd button. You may remember that I gave away most of the vast aspirational stash of notions that I had accrued over the years, when it finally sunk in that I would probably not be picking up needle and thread for a very long time, if ever again.

Well, times are a'changing again. I wrote over at The Co-op of my desire to be a better stitcher. Being able to cut and sew 'waste' fabric together is one frugal and green skill that is worth its weight in gold. I think this might also be a case of pregnancy hormones affecting my brain again - I keep seeing pretty sundresses and hats everywhere and thinking (probably somewhat over-optimistically) 'I could make that...'.

Patchwork has always appealed to me precisely because it was traditionally all about creating useful items from meagre scraps at a time when fabric was expensive and waste wasn't seen as beneficial to the economy. In more recent years it has been turned into an art form - fabric being bought, cut and patched together to to fulfill a preconceived design. The results are usually beautiful, but it is the roots of the craft that appeal to me, rather than the potential for artistic greatness. So as not to ruin my chances of successfully completing something, I am starting out really simply with a stack of old jeans. Really simply:

1) Wash the jeans and cut along the seams so that you have nice flat long swathes of fabric to use - the legs. Iron said swathes.

2) Cut out a square template of the desired size from an empty cereal box and reinforce the edges with sellotape. Be happy that your Other-Half has taken to eating prepacked sugared-cardboard breakfast cereal again instead of nice wholesome-but-minimally-packaged oats.

3) Lay the template on to the fabric, lining up the edge of the square with the grain of the fabric as best as you can, avoiding the worst of the tears, paint and mud stains. Draw around the template using one of your child's (sharpened) colouring pencils in a nice contrasting visible colour.

4) Cut out the square leaving a 5mm seam allowance around the edge.

 5) Place two squares, right (unmarked) sides facing each other, and pin together at the corners, ensuring that the pin passes through the marked corner points of both squares to align them. Add a pin in the middle of the line for good luck, again ensuring that it passes through both marked sewing lines. Sew together along the pencil line with a crude running stitch which will improve with each attempt.

6) Repeat with a third square along opposite edge to form strips of patches 3 squares in length.

7) Iron  the strips so that the seam allowances lie flat all in the same direction. Stand back and be impressed they are even vaguely straight.

8) Pin the strips together in the same manner as for individual squares, ensuring the corners and marked lines match up. Sew the strips together into blocks and iron once again.

9) Stand back and be disproportionately proud of your slightly lumpy skewiff handiwork.

10) Work out what use you are going to put them to. I am thinking a rugged picnic blanket eventually, perhaps with some embroidered motifs, though I will need a lot more denim than the four pairs of jeans I have gathered. This could be a WIP for several years.

So far I have four blocks and have been too busy to cut any more patches this week. I think I will cut all of the fabric in one go so I have patches on hand in my spare moments. I have realized just how much I like denim - the faded, nubby surface of worn denim is quite beautiful, yet it doesn't appear anywhere in our house bar the wardrobe. It still has years of life left in it, albeit in a new form. The squares actually only take a few minutes to pin and sew each, much much quicker than I was expecting - and even when I made a mistake, each length is so short, it wasn't too much of a chore to unpick and resew. The strips can be stacked up and ironed in batches when the mood strikes. In short, a perfect pick up and put down project, which is good as my crafting time is about to get even shorter and fragmented.

So, what are you all working on at the moment? Feel free to leave a link if you have blogged about it - I enjoy being nosy looking for inspiration : )

Thursday, 16 June 2011


I am three weeks from my due date and mental and physical energy really is escaping me now. I have to confess I haven't done much of anything this last week. I have pottered about, I have tried to keep on top of all the things that need to be done - but mostly I have done an awful lot of lazing around. The nesting instinct is still strong and housework is getting done in short bursts of activity. Walking anywhere seems to take three times as long and sap my strength 3 times as fast.  Mostly I don't feel much like leaving home, or the sofa for that matter.

I have taken the chance to socialize a little the last few weeks, forcing myself even, when necessary. I regret that in the past I have been reluctant to socialize regularly, partly out of shyness, partly laziness, partly that my house was too messy to have people round - even close friends. A barbecue, a few evenings with friends, a visit to the local community arts cafe today, even dinner out with Nick - a once a year occurrence these days - have all been enjoyed, even if they have left me shattered. New babies don't leave much time, will or energy over for socializing, so we might as well make the most of it whilst we can. I am naturally a bit of a homebody, but once I am out of the house and amongst good company I am as happy as the next person - something I will miss out on perhaps for the rest of the summer.

One of my focuses for the next year will be to become more involved with my local community. I am quite reserved and find it hard to just turn up to things where there are big groups of people, but it would be good for me to involve myself a little more. We have good friends, we know a few of our neighbours, but I can't describe us as being embedded in a community. I am yet to take The Boy to any form of structured toddler group and know very few people with children locally - and as a result have probably made this parenting lark a lot harder for myself than I needed to. Now I want to go out and make connections with people and better late than never.

On Saturday we went to a healthy living picnic event at a local park. Considering my lack of energy I surpassed myself and we took along a bean salad, vegetable sticks, sweet potato wedges with homemade smoked paprika mayonnaise, homemade bread and some fruit and ate a leisurely picnic amongst all the other families, surrounded by trees, healthy living stalls and children tearing about in sack races, making the most of all the sunshine. The Boy had his first go on a bouncy castle; a terrifying ten minutes for me; thankfully he just giggled every time he came close to being flattened by the overly energetic seven year olds sharing it with him.

This week has been a good one, for which I am very grateful.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Well that's annoying

To put it mildly. I did write and publish a post yesterday, which published as if I had finished it in May (when I first started it). Then it disappeared - completely, not even a saved draft. It was definitely there yesterday. I liked the new Blogger interface, right up until this morning when I realized what it could do in my absence.

I hold out hope that it will reappear, in the meantime I will write something else. Teach me not to back up my posts offline.

Friday, 3 June 2011

That was the fortnight that was

I am a person that doesn't relish drama. I know lots of people do, many of whom would deny it to the hilt; but drama - emotional, financial or social - really doesn't do it for me. I go out of my way to avoid it. This has been a fortnight full of dramas, hence my absence here - I really didn't realise it had been so long. Good stuff has also been happening, I just haven't had the enthusiasm or energy to report on it what with all the annoying distractions.

The dramas are mostly dealt with and things are looking bright, so hopefully I will back here in a few days with a little more energy and more interesting stuff to report.


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