Monday, 7 April 2014

On the Subject of Collecting

Someone asked me a few weeks ago whether I collect anything.

At the time, I think I said, "Well, I er, collect books..."

"Yes, but lots of people collect books," he said.

Oh. After a bit of thought nothing else had come to mind, so I declared myself, when it comes to collecting, a rather boring sort of person, and said that no, I didn't collect anything, really.

Later I realised that this isn't strictly true, and that actually, collecting is a rather subjective term. What makes a collection, a collection? And what makes a collector, a collector? It's a question that has been ambling round my head ever since.

I thought about the jars I keep on a shelf. One houses buttons, another shells, another washi tape and another ribbons. I think of purchasing for these jars as 'keeping up the stocks'; making sure I always have supplies in for my next craft project or commission. (Yeah yeah, great excuse!) But their contents have been collected and curated, bit by bit. I also have bags of yarn, tubs of beads and pots of paints.  Does that make me a collector?

I thought about the vintage plates I use to furnish my glass desk. I bought them so as to make my desk aesthetically pleasing... but in doing so, did I become a collector of plates? Do I collect vintage crockery, or do I just happen to own a fair amount of it?

My brain really got going then and I thought about the mountain of jazzy socks I own because they're always wandering off, the DVDs in my bedroom and the Beatrix Potter-related items dotted around my home. What about the fact that I have more teapots than the Mad Hatter? Does a collection simply mean 'having lots of something', or does it constitute a certain amount of curation, seeking items sharing similar qualities? Does a collection have to be proudly displayed and boast its own dedicated dusting apparatus to qualify as such?

In the end I came to a conclusion (you'll be relieved to know this).

1. Collectors are always interesting, though their collections may be interesting to many, or only to themselves.

2. Collections comes in many forms, but to qualify as a collection its items must have been gathered with a certain element of pride and joy. The fun is in the collect-ing, not just in the collect-ion. That's why we all owned so many Pogs back in the day, and why some can't ever open the drawers under their beds for fear that the TY Beanie Babies will finally burst their vacuum pack bags and the secret will be out. To qualify as a collection, its owner must be proud of it or find joy in ownership of it.

3. It's never okay to collect porcelain dolls. I'm sorry, but this is my blog, they are scary and stare-y, and that's just a fact. Moving swiftly on...

Am I a collector? Why yes, I am. And if my collecting ever goes too far and I stray into the category of hoarder, it'll be the books that are my downfall. And I actually own a fair few collections within my book collection, too. I own every book Roald Dahl ever wrote, I leap on 1970s Enid Blytons wherever I find them and have a hefty shelf packed full of children's books (I so wish The Gruffalo had been around when I was a kid.) I also collect craft materials with a certain amount of pride. If you ever pop round for a cuppa, don't ask to see my fabric stash. You'll be there forever.

So, are you a collector? What do you collect? And is it something you'll admit to next time an intellectual type challenges you at a cocktail party?

PS: I'm not an intellectual type, so you can tell me :)

PPS: next time I am put on the spot with that particular question, I will now be prepared. I shall sniff, examine my nails, and say, "yes, I collect bodies. I have lots in my cellar at home." And then smile cheerfully and sidle off to admire the buffet.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

New Beginnings: An Update on Seasonal Affective Disorder

In January last year I wrote a post about Seasonal Affective Disorder. To my surprise lots of people have been in touch since, to tell me that they suffer from SAD too, or to say that they read this post and came to realise why it is that they feel like a different person during the dark winter months. I've come to a significant decision in my dealings with this disorder in the past week, so I thought now, as we emerge from another winter, might be as good a time as any to give you an update on how I've coped with it this year, and other little positive habits I've picked up in doing so.

You can read about my own past with SAD here. If you've not visited this subject with me before you'll find it helpful to read that first, then come back, (hello!) But just to clarify - for some people SAD can take the form of crippling, life halting depression during the darker months of the year. They can become suicidal even, and have no choice but to rely on anti-depressants to help them through until Spring. SAD does not manifest in that way for me. I have suffered mild depression in past years due to SAD - enough to make me very unhappy and feel the need to seek official diagnosis - but I cannot comment on what it's like to have chronic depression, and wouldn't even try to. I feel it's important to make that distinction for the sake of those who will tell you that this is a disorder that can be incredibly debilitating, so we must be aware that there is a spectrum of suffering.

Anyway, I'm pleased to say that the Autumn/Winter of 2013/14 has brought no symptoms of depression for me at all this year. I'm not sure why this is, whether it's the result of coping strategies or luck. I have felt down and frustrated at my lack of energy and productivity, but I could see that had a direct cause. The downside is that I have noticed feeling much, much more tired than in previous winters. That feeling of being a bit like a badger, the desperate need to crawl into bed and hibernate, has been particularly strong. I have felt physically tired, and wanted to sleep much more.

This isn't surprising, because if you think about it, this very wet, mild winter has meant that we haven't had that very bright winter sun in the mornings and at sunset. As much as I have appreciated not having to drive to work on icy roads, the absence of the sun that tends to accompany very cold days has meant that we in the UK have spent weeks at a time in dull grey light - the very worst for those of us who need as much sun exposure as we can get at that time of year.

I work full time, work part-time on the side and have a very active life around my work. While I have functioned in my jobs, I've really felt the need to ration other activities over the winter. I have never said no to a social activity, but it might mean that a coffee with a friend is all I do that day. I might spend the whole of Saturday on a day out, but it would be a few days before I scheduled anything else. I found myself doing this subconsciously, allowing gaps in my diary for recuperating and going to bed as early as I liked.

The side-symptom to this need for hibernation has been feeling mentally sluggish. I've been more forgetful, preoccupied and felt generally less on-the-ball than I would normally. I feel like I've dropped a fair few brain cells somewhere! This can feel very frustrating, and has meant high-concentration activities like driving and keeping track of ongoing projects at work have been more tiring. I've had to stop myself during tasks, to re-focus and step back and check what I'm doing. I've definitely been making more silly mistakes and felt more ditsy, and that has meant having more 'bad days' where I chastise myself and get annoyed that my brain won't work at full capacity.

So that's the negative. Onto the positive and my decision. You can read my post of last January to see how I cope year to year with SAD, and if you're starting to think you're a sufferer too I hope you'll find the tips useful. Here's what I've added this time round:

  • I have bought The World's Best Alarm Clock. I need to wake up at 6am every morning for work, and SAD sufferer or not, most people say it's the worst part of the day during the winter. This clock by Lumie starts to very gradually light up half an hour before my get up time, and wakes me with imitation daylight. No more being jerked awake by a harsh alarm, then having to fight to find the light switch before my body pulls me back into sleep again. No more tiredness headaches in the morning. Huzzah! It's a bloomin' expensive alarm clock, but has been the single best investment I have ever made for dealing with SAD (and mornings in general), because it works with my natural circadian rhythm. It's also going to help now that the clocks have gone forward an hour and mornings will be darker again for a while. It's not nearly so hard to get out of bed now. It also helps to have a dog who is very fond of breakfast.
  • Happy music in the car. Like many people I spend a lot of time every week in my car. I'm a morning person so the drive to work is usually okay, but the real danger when you have SAD is that it's either dark or getting dark when you're on your way home. Dark = drowsy. Drowsy = very dangerous. My most sleepy time of the day happens to be the time I need to be most alert. So it's happy, bouncy music only in my car during the winter! The boppier the better. It keeps me singing (badly), improves my mood, and keeps me awake. I also listen to lots of audiobooks on familiar journeys, to keep my brain ticking over (it's been quite nice, driving home through the rain, listening to Harry Potter, Enid Blyton and Paddington Bear, you should try it!), and I vary the route I take whenever I can. If you have the option of walking part-way or cycling to work, I'm sure that will make a big difference to your mood and energy levels. 
  • Wee Willie Winkie ain't got nothing on me. I don't care if it's only 9pm. If I'm so tired during the dark evenings that I'm getting a headache, I allow myself to retire to bed. It's far better than languishing on the sofa, unable to function and feeling miserable, and the extra sleep helps me to function better at work the next day. If I have something on in the evenings, fine, I'm there and I'm taking part, but if the day's work is done and I start sighing and wondering whether to flop in front of the tv, I don't. Bedtime. I've also started getting ready for bed much earlier, so that by the time I decide I'm sleepy I don't have to start having a mental argument about taking my make up off, showering, making lunch for the next day, blah blah blah.
  • I'm like a whirling dervish in the mornings. I refuse to let SAD steal away six months months (half my life!) of energy and productivity every year, so I have to work smart when I'm at my best each day. For me that's the mornings. I make a colour-coded to-do list without fail the night before (usually while sitting in bed with just the one eye open!), and I try to do as much of it as I can by lunchtime. It's pretty good practise all year round, actually. SAD has forced me to become much more organised!
  • I still believe exercise is the best answer. Yep. It's the toughest part. The last thing in the world I want to do is stride around the streets near my house in the dark during the winter. It's cold, I'm sleepy, and it takes an age to wrap up in layers. Not to mention cleaning the mud off Bea when we get home, and that annoying thing where my socks come off with my boots. Gah. But I got a dog to trick myself into exercise, because she needs it every day, and I know exercise wakes me up, puts me in a better mood, and stops me feeling quite so sluggish and lethargic. I've also just bought some running shoes...
  • It's the simple things. It's always a good thing to notice the small pleasures in life and be more mindful, but I find it particularly helpful during the winter, when I'm more easily stressed and a worrier. I've planted seeds to grow in the office at work, made sure I always had a craft project on the go, varied my packed lunches much more, and dozens of other little things to brighten the day and give myself something to look forward to. Not one of them took much energy, but it's nice to wake up in a morning and think, "I wonder if my seedlings have appeared yet," or "ooh, houmous for lunch today!"

So, onto my decision. I'm a great fan of planning, making lists and setting myself big and little goals. The traditional time of year to do this is, of course, New Year. The prospect of a fresh new annum, full of possibility has always appealed to me, and it's one of my favourite rituals to spend some time in December planning ahead and setting exciting new challenges. 

Except. We're now a quarter of the way into 2014. I have spent that first quarter feeling like my biggest achievement has been to get out of bed every morning and just about function until it's time to flop, exhausted, back onto the pillows again at night. Some days are better than others between January and March, but generally it's not the ideal time for me to be springing into action on my new year's resolutions. I adore Christmas, but I tend to find it tiring (I had a three-hour nap on Christmas Day last year), and by New Year I'm worried about where on earth I'm going to find the energy to bounce into January with much enthusiasm. I'm just too tired.

I was musing on this problem one evening last week in the bath. I thought about how happy I am that it is now Spring. I'm starting to feel back to my energetic Tigger-like self, interested in everything and anything, bursting with creativity and plans and feeling full of mischief. And it occurred to me (as the best ideas do when in the bath) that it's a really rubbish idea for me to run my year from January to December. What's the use in making all sorts of exciting plans and goals, then feeling so tired that I can even begin to make a dent in them, and ending up declaring myself useless and a failure? Would it not be better to turn a little bit Pagan about the whole thing, and shift my year to begin when I'm at my best, in the Spring? 

So there, folks, is my significant decision. My year now runs April to March. This means I can put all that enthusiasm for a new year into action immediately and see results as the new leaves are forming on the trees, the lambs are skipping round the fields, and the sun is shining. 

"Aha," you might be thinking, "Aha, hold on there Skippy. You still have to have winter at some point in your year. What then?" 

You see, it's just a mental shift. By the time Autumn and Winter come along, I'll have had my most productive time of the year, instead of starting it in my worst. I'll be winding down my year as the weather turns colder and the nights draw in, and I'll have the satisfaction of knowing that the biggest challenges of my year have been met (or not, but I will have tried) and I can plan for the more slow-paced goals, such as maintaining my current fitness levels, learning a new craft or reading certain books, etc., when I start to feel woozy again. As I've mentioned before, I actually enjoy many elements of autumn and winter, and it would be nice to be able to relax and enjoy curling up and resting, without beating myself up and rushing to meet un-ticked goals before the year ends. 

If Spring is all about new beginnings and rebirth, it doesn't make sense for me to start my year in the cold and dark, when the natural world is sleeping and my body wants me to do the same. So I am realigning my year to fit with nature's way of doing things. 

So, Happy New Year from me! What about you? SAD sufferer or not, would you change the very fabric of how your year works? I'll be interested to read your thoughts!

PS: Check out my SAD Pinterest board

Monday, 31 March 2014

First Crocheted Project: Beatrix's Bunting

I crocheted an actual thing! Instead of spending my evenings frowning over the basic stitches and sticking to nice, safe practise rows, this week I finally bit the bullet and made something.

I decided to have a bash at this 'my name is' bunting from Granny Chic by Tif Fussell and Rachelle Blondel, as I must admit to a certain fondness for Tif's best friend, Little Olive. She very much reminds me of Bea in the way she helps Tif with her crafting, and one of the things I love most about living with a dog is when Bea snuggles up in her bed after a walk and has a good snore, while I sit with a cup of tea and watch her and smile to myself. For me this picture says it all:


Since I moved house late last year Bea's bed has just been placed in the spare room out of the way. She sleeps in there quite happily every night, but knowing how important it is for a pooch to feel they have a space to call their own, I thought this make would be a nice way cordon off a little area just for her, where she can arrange her favourite tennis balls and blanket just how she pleases, and dream of adventure.

I think she likes it. After such a gratifying first crochet make there's no stopping me. It's onto a snood next (say it with me... SNOOOOOD!), and then it's onto Ali Campbell's Crochet for Beginners Who Want to Improve for my next challenge. But first, I have a knitted scarf, two large embroidery projects and a mixed media piece to finish! 

Wish me luck!

Monday, 24 March 2014

A Day's Crafting at Hope & Elvis

On Saturday I was lucky enough to spent a day crafting to my heart's content at Hope & Elvis, in the beautiful grounds of Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire. 

I first read about this magical workshop space in Mollie Makes issue sixteen, when I had one of those, "ooh, that's local, why haven't I been there yet?" moments. Past and future guest teachers include such big names of the craft world as Tiff Fussell (Dottie Angel), Rachelle Blondel (Ted & Agnes and together of the book Granny Chic), Julie Arkell and Tom of Holland. It's been an ambition of mine to visit for a long time. And so it was with a skip of glee that I journeyed along on Saturday, to be taught how to make intricate nostalgic jewellery by the talented Judith Brown.

Isn't Judith's work stunning? She uses fine wire and beads, as well as fasteners, hooks and eyes and other haberdashery items to make her delicate, lace-like pieces with a vintage feel. I think the beauty of this workshop for me was that at the start, when I ambled over the admire Judith's work, I couldn't even begin to fathom how we were going to go about attempting to make anything similar. And as Judith says, the story behind her work is that it isn't immediately obvious what her jewellery is made from; it's only on close inspection that the familiar components make themselves known.

As you know, I love the idea of making something new from something old, so this notion really appealed to me.

Fancy a look around the Hope & Elvis studio? Here we are...

As you can see, Louise Presley, owner of Hope & Elvis, has a real eye for collecting vintage materials, and she also uses this space to make her own creations. 

...Sigh. Meanwhile, back over at the workshop table, I had made my first attempt at 'sewing' with fine wire. My piece turned out rather... 'loopier' than I anticipated (stop that), which surprised me slightly, as I'm often saying that all of my crafts tend to be detail-focused and intricate. Anyway, the Gods of Craft are fickle beings, and on this occasion I ended up with quite a bold effect, compared to others' more neatly sewn creations. I'd never worked with wire before, or made jewellery, so it was great fun to give a completely new craft a go.

That's a bra ring, in the middle there.

Here was my afternoon effort - a work in progress. My nan recently gave me the lace sleeves from her wedding dress with attached pearl buttons, with the instruction that I have to turn them into something (no pressure!) so I intend to finish below with a pearl drop button, and one of my other grandmother's traditional pearl buttons in the middle. It will be a celebration of grandmothers!

Others in the group managed much more sophisticated techniques than I, and I think we were all impressed by the collection at the end of the day!

Thank you so much to Judith for her patience and excellent teaching skills on the day - it's never easy to teach small, detailed work to a group. And thank you to Louise for making me feel so welcome, providing a fantastically yummy lunch, and allowing me to amble around her studio with my iPad snapping photos. I'm so pleased to have been able to visit at last!

Visit Louise's website to learn more about booking your very own Hope & Elvis experience.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Hillarys Blinds Country Crafts Competition Entry

When I saw on Craft Blog UK that Hillarys Blinds had launched a competition for craft bloggers, I thought it would be the ideal chance to throw myself into a sewing project for the first time in... well, about a year! The brief was simple - choose a sample from their new Country Retreats fabric range, make an original design, and write a blog post about it.

This beautiful fabric, 'Bird Parade' leapt out at me straight away, especially as it would give me the perfect excuse to make and paint a peacock button to go with it, so all I needed was to decide what to make.

The next day I was at work - I work in a large college - and it was pouring with rain. We sell Pink Pig sketchbooks (made in Huddersfield - I love them), and I was trying to find a large carrier bag for a student, who was upset that her portfolio had not only got wet, but was getting repeatedly bent at the corners from being carried back and forth to college every day. I'd just stocked up on fresh sketchbooks myself the day before, and so it hit me - I'd make an A3 sketchbook folder, to protect my Pink Pig when out and about!

So I used my shiny new Pink Pig to sketch out a design...

...And visited my local market to buy delicious ribbon and cotton thread. As I was waiting to pay I admired a huge carousel of stunning embroidery threads, and it gave me an idea for adding embellishment to the back of the folder.

Using my sketchbook as a guide, I cut my peacock fabric and the inside grey cotton to size. The Hillarys fabric was already nice and thick, so I just added fusible interfacing to the lining fabric, and then used spray starch to give both pieces some extra structure. 

Someone decided to 'help', of course!

Before I could start sewing I needed to add the embellishment to what would become the back of the folder. I settled on a large, sweeping peacock feather design. This is where I was nearly defeated, because it turned from what I thought would be a couple of hours' worth of embroidery into fourteen hours' work over the space of two days! I was worried I wouldn't be able to finish the project before the deadline, but I took my embroidery hoop to work with me and put my lunch breaks to good use.

After that there was lots of pinning, a bit of arm flapping as I got nervous about running the fabric through my sewing machine, and eventually the project came together. I made the button and enjoyed using fluorescent blue paints to give Mr. Peacock a bit of grandeur.

I added a magnetic popper as a fastening, which was interesting as I've never used one before...

I knew I wanted to add quite a bold rosette to the front of the piece to make it look like the feathers on my handmade button were extending outwards. The latest issue of Mollie Makes provided me with an idea for making a rosette out of felt, so with a little improvisation I had what I wanted. 

I gave the finished folder a last spray of starch so it can easily be wiped clean.

Phew! It was great to get stuck into a sewing project for the first time in a while, and it was good to remind myself of the importance of taking my time in ironing and re-ironing my fabrics, measuring, and paying attention to getting nice straight hems - something I've always struggled with! I love using bird and animal motifs in my crafts so using one of my buttons allowed me to add in some extra personality.

Now my beloved Pink Pig sketchbook won't be getting wet and bent next time I'm on the move!

You can see the other fabrics that were available to choose from for the competition here

Have a crafty week!