Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Commence 2014 RTW Fast!


Over the last couple weeks I've done more clothes shopping than I've done in the last two years. When I say "shopping," though, I don't necessarily buy anything. Instead, I've been trying clothes on and reminding myself that come January 1, 2014, my year of not buying any clothing* at retail commences. Bring on the Ready-to-Wear (RTW) Fast! If I want a new pair of slacks or summer t-shirts, I have to make these items by my own hand.

What have I gotten myself into?

This year is going to be a crazy-busy one for me. After a two-year hiatus, I rejoined my co-author Linda to build up our Renegade Writer brand--I'm either writing books or co-authoring them, as well as working with writers who are publishing under our Renegade Writer Press imprint. On top of this, I'm teaching my popular idea-generation-for-freelancers class and developing another class I plan to start in March. And perhaps I haven't mentioned this here, but I write fiction under a pseudonym and I've got a couple books there I need to finish up. I get palpitations thinking about it all! And on top of this, there's the knitting addiction I've got to feed, although after the last six weeks, my gift knitting has burned me out.

Despite my trepidation, however, I'm looking forward to January. January is one of my favorite months of the year: the days are getting longer, the holidays are over, there's a feeling of having a fresh start and a whole new year ahead of me, and there's those delicious Maine shrimp to look forward to at the end of the month. (Seasonal eating at its best!)

Though I love January, I'm not big on resolutions or annual goals, although I do believe in the power of goal setting--I just don't believe in doing it at a specific time of year. Here's what I'd like to do, though, with my RTW fasting:

* Make clothes that fit my lifestyle and not a dream vision of my lifestyle. You see, I love cocktail dresses and pencil skirts, but the truth is, I live in jeans, cardigan sweaters, skirts, and t-shirts. That said, I'd like to up the style factor on these items, get out of my comfort zone. My t-shirts, for example, don't have to be so boring!

* Sew more pants and skirts. I have a real need here.

* Sew a beautifully tailored blouse for myself. Yes, I know ... I still have to sew my husband's (ahem) anniversary present from last May. And I will do that. But I would really like a wardrobe of blouses for myself, including one of chambray and maybe even a Liberty of London print blouse? Sigh. Maybe I'll focus on this year being the year I master the tailored blouse, starting with the Grainline Archer shirt.

* Finish some of the other projects I've started/planned for including my Woodland Stroll Cape, the Angela Kane blouse where I had to recut the collar/collar stand, and the fabric I bought for my husband's holiday office party skirt. Unfortunately, his company decided not to have a party this year, so I've got three yards of taffeta and I'm not sure I want to use it for a maxi skirt. You can see where my mind is going: a cocktail dress, LOL!!!

* Knit with a purpose. I did okay with this in 2013, but I still could be better about knitting stuff I'll actually wear i.e. shawls are fun to knit, but do I actually use them? Better to spend my time knitting cardigans, pullovers, and socks.

Those labels in the picture above are a gift I bought myself. I have some woven labels with my full name sewn on them, but they don't really work when I give away handknits and such. I ordered these new labels just before Christmas and they arrived a few days afterwards. Nice!

OK, I'll end this with a funny story of what it's like hanging out with my family over the holidays. They're a tough crowd with acidic senses of humor, and if you show any weakness (meaning you take anything they say seriously), they'll tease you mercilessly. I'm usually the one who cracks first, thus why I'm picked on the most.

We decide to go out to dinner at a local Japanese restaurant, so I "dress up" in my hand-knit Aran cardigan and best pearls. I think I'm looking quite nice, thank you, but my brother Matt takes one look at me as we meet him in front of the restaurant and says, "Did you age 20 years? Is that sweater from the Judi Dench Collection?" I have to admit, even I thought that was pretty funny. But hey, at least when I walk into a T-Mobile store, employees don't mistake me for a bum. Just saying, Matt.

Happy New Year! Any big plans for the holiday and following twelve months?

* I get a pass undergarments (bras/undies), shoes, belts, purses, and athletic wear.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Cheese and potato soup


It's Boxing Day in the UK. And if you're in the U.S., it's another opportunity to hit the shops for some good deals on stuff that didn't sell for Christmas.

I'll be staying in, thank you, and enjoying some hearty winter fare.

One of my favorite winter soups is inspired by a soup I used to order years ago at a takeout place in nearby Concord, a cheese and potato soup that was thick, rich, and delicious. I once asked the owner how she made it, and she told me she used to throw in kitchen odds and ends: a bit of cheddar, the rind from some Parmesan. That might sound disgusting and a tad bit coy, but I know what she meant. My best soups are often made up of leftovers.

Here's my version of that fantastic soup, which you can rustle up with pantry staples and whatever is lurking in your cheese drawer. I've used Emmentaler here, a Swiss-style semi-hard cheese that adds a touch of sharpness to the soup. Try cheddar, Gouda, mozzarella, fontina, or Gruyère, too!

Cheese and Potato Soup

Serves 4

2-oz. unsalted butter
1 small onion, chopped
1 medium baking potato, peeled and chopped
1 32-oz. container chicken or vegetable broth, preferably reduced sodium
4-oz. shredded cheese
salt to taste
garnish, if desired

1. In a medium-sized heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt butter over low heat. Add onion once butter is melted and cook gently until the onions are translucent, approximately 7 to 10 minutes.

2. Add potato to saucepan and toss to coat with butter and onion. Cook for 2 or 3 minutes.

3. Add broth and turn heat up to medium. When soup begins to boil, reduce heat to low, cover, and cook for 20 to 25 minutes, or until potato falls apart when pierced with a fork.

4. Using a stick blender or upright blender, puree soup in batches until completely smooth. If perfection is an issue for you, strain to remove any remaining chunks of onion or potato.

5. With the soup off the heat, stir in the cheese. The residual heat should melt it into the soup. Taste for salt; I use about a teaspoon of kosher salt, but you may like less or more.

6. Garnish with parsley or chopped chives. Serve and enjoy!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

How to become searchable under a hashtag on Feedly

Feedly_LogoFirst, I love Feedly. It's my reader of choice for the hundreds of blogs I follow.

The one thing that has been bugging me, though, is how to get my blog listed under a hashtag so that when people search for #UK, #sewing, or #knitting, my blog shows up in the search. When I searched for HailBritannia through feedly, no hashtags were associated with the feed. How could I add them?

The solution (I hope) was fairly straightforward: you ask Feedly to assign them to your blog using this request form. I just put my request into Feedly, and I'll let you know if it works.

Consider this my social networking Christmas gift to you.  Merry Christmas! :)

Monday, December 23, 2013

A knitted teddy bear

Knitted teddy bear

Last week I was listening to the Knitting Pipeline podcast, and my ears pricked up when I heard Paula and friends oohing and ahhing over a cute knitted teddy bear one of them had made. As I've mentioned here before, my son loves stuffed animals; in fact, he had a friend over last night, and when I woke O up this morning, Goatie (stuffed goat) was tucked under his arm. He just doesn't care if kids tease him and shrugs it off, reasoning that they've probably got some "childish" habits, too.

I checked out the pattern and it was, indeed, cute as all heck and reviews said it was easy to knit. Some knitters had completed all the knitting while watching a movie. That's my kind of pattern!

My teddy was knit with a partial skein of Bernat Pipsqueak, an acrylic novelty yarn that was perfect for this project: it knits up into a soft fabric that hides a multitude of seaming sins, of which I committed many. Like many knitters, I found this to be a quick knit; I accomplished all of it while watching Skyfall on Netflix. Mmm, Daniel Craig ... such a sexy Bond!

I wanted my little bear to have a Christmas-y look, so instead of knitting the scarf, I tied a tartan ribbon around his neck. As for the nose, or lack thereof ... I don't know. I kind of like him without one. He looks less threatening (O has a bear phobia). What do you think?

For the next couple days I've got to crank out the knitting and clean up the house. I wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 20, 2013

A trip into Cambridge

By Hand London pattern -- Anna

bike shop in Cambridge, MA

Since it was unseasonably warm day and I had a car (a rental) I drove into Cambridge to check out a sewing/knitting shop I've been itching to visit: Gather Here, just past Harvard University on Broadway. It was definitely worth navigating Cambridge's traffic-clogged streets and surrendering to its pitiful 30-minute daytime parking limit to have a look-see. And as you can see above, I got my hands on a pattern I've been dying to possess: the Anna dress by By Hand London. This style of dress is flattering to my figure, and I've loved almost every version I've seen on the 'net. Can't wait to sew it!

The service was excellent at Gather Here. I was greeted as I walked into the shop and asked in a very friendly fashion if I needed some help, then I was left alone to browse. When I did need help, it was cheerfully provided--really, a perfect mix for me. And for such a small shop, they really packed a lot in there: sewing patterns by By Hand London, of course, along with independent pattern makers Colette, Megan Nielson, Sewaholic, and even UK designers Merchant & Mills! However, the M&M patterns didn't suit my shape at all (they seemed boxy and angular, and this girl's got curves) so I just have to admire their aesthetic from afar.

As for yarn, I was impressed with the selection, esp. all the Swans Island organic bulky and fingering weight on display. If I weren't on a yarn diet, I would have gone nuts buying some up. But what really grabbed my eye was the large container filled with bolts of Liberty Tana lawn ... there was a multicolored floral on a cream background I was salivating over, but at just over $30 a yard, I could hear my debit card begging for mercy in my wallet so I resisted. I told the young woman who cashed me out I'd be back after the hols to buy some and she put the evil idea in my head to sew up my Anna dress in some Liberty lawn. Talk about luxury! I might do it if I had a swishy summer event coming up -- a wedding? -- but nothing on the horizon.

When I was heading back to the car, the cheerful sight of the Broadway Bicycle School and all those bikes racked up warmed my cold suburban heart. That's the one thing I like about Cambridge: it's even more bike friendly than my own town 15 miles out.

As I navigated through Harvard U's campus, I was also cheered by the realization of how far my driving confidence has come in 15 years. When I first moved to greater Boston, I was so terrified of driving anywhere near the city I avoided it at all costs, including driving to the airport, which is a fairly straightforward drive now that the Big Dig is finished. But now? I've whipped the rotaries into submission, and the one-way streets, crazy drivers, and narrow lanes can't budge my blood pressure. I didn't even need my GPS once I figured out where the shop was. That's a huge improvement!

I think it's the shortest day of the year, which means only one thing: the days will now start getting longer and SPRING IS ON THE WAY!!!!!! Cool

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The fallout

We got about 6.5" of snow yesterday--light, powdery stuff, the kind of snow that makes me twitchy for skiing. Unfortunately my skiing days are over (bad knees, sketchy back) unless the resort has long, gentle runs down the sides of the mountain as they do out west--I'm thinking Vail and Beaver Creek in Colorado. If I ever get the chance to visit Banff, however, this Vermont girl will throw caution to the wind to experience one last glorious run. One recurring dream I have is a happy one: I'm skiing down a mountain from the very top, and I'm doing jumps, moguls, and sharp turns effortlessly. The dream is always so thrilling I'm a bit sad to wake up and creak out of bed in the morning.

Speaking of creaking: tonight I have my second outpatient physical therapy appointment in Concord. Monday night I had my initial evaluation and the PT seemed impressed by my recovery. When he asked me to bend at the waist and try to touch the floor with my fingers, I surprised him by getting my palms flat on the floor without bending my knees. "Gymnastics team in junior high," I explained. Which explained to him why my lower back has such a pronounced curve. He told me a lot of former gymnasts have this problem. The goal for these visits is to help me build my "core" to support my weakened spine.

Last night's snowstorm had my husband coming home after midnight. The commute out of Boston/Cambridge earlier in the evening was longer than two hours for some people, so he decided to wait it out. The 35-minute drive home took him about an hour, which wasn't so bad, but today he's working at home.

Which leads me to a question: do any of you have spouses who wait until a car craps out before taking it to the garage for fixing? My husband does this and it. Drives. Me. NUTS. For months, now, he's had this noise coming from the rear wheel wells. I asked him about it and suggested he take it in to our mechanic, but he insisted the problem wasn't a major one ... it was just a piece of metal flashing that would be expensive to remove and not fixing it wouldn't hurt the car. The noise has gotten louder and louder, so I've kept at him. ("Maybe you should bring it over today since you're working at home--I really think you have a brake problem," says I, multiple times. "No," says he, multiple times, "It's nothing.") It got to the point where when I had to drive to Connecticut for family stuff, I refused to take his car and rented one instead because I knew the problem was more than a loose piece of metal flashing.

Sure enough, when I woke up this morning he said the brake indicator lights had started flashing during his ride home  (meaning the car should not be driven at all!) so that's why he was staying at home today. Yes, I rolled my eyes because if he had taken the car in months ago like I asked him to do, the fix would probably be a lot less money than it will be now.

I used to have a wonderful mechanic who worked on my Volvo and we would always get to talking about this and that when I brought my car in. He always loved working on my car because I took such good care of it. (214,000 miles until an au pair totaled it, grrr.) He told me that his female customers were much better at getting problems checked out and keeping up with regular maintenance than men were. He said my husband was his typical male customer. Interesting! So I'm off to rent a car later this afternoon. At least I'll have wheels for a few days.

O has a short day today, and with DH home I won't get as much done as I'd hoped to. My co-author Linda and I are writing a new book, which I'm very excited about. It's called The Introverted Entrepreneur, about how introverts can develop, grow, and promote an online presence without crushing their souls. Both Linda and I are major introverts; I'm an INFP in Myers-Briggs parlance and off-the-charts introverted according to other psychological tests I've taken. We were talking about it and noted that we've succeeded by doing things our way, so we figured, Hey, there's probably a lot of introverts out there like us who would like to know how we built our brand despite our hermit-like proclivities. Let's write a book!

If you are an introvert and have an online presence (blogging, Etsy store, Internet marketing site), please contact me. I'd love to interview you for the book. :)

Tomorrow I plan to have some knitting to show off.


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Another snowy day

English toffee

Knitted teddy


Around noon we got the automated call: schools were being let out early because of the impending snow storm. Yippee! I'll let you wonder if I'm being sarcastic. My brother Matt was up here last weekend from Rhode Island and brought the tail-end of a cold with him, which I'm now valiantly fighting off. It's, unfortunately, leaving me very sluggish and unmotivated to work. No production, no pay: the glamorous life of freelancing!

So I've been finishing up holiday projects, stuff that needs to get done by ... oh my gosh, is Christmas next week? The top photo is the first batch of English toffee. It has been tested liberally, thus why I'm feeling sugar-sick. I'll be making several more batches over the next couple days and sending packages off to friends or delivering goodies in person. The recipe is from the Cooking for Engineers blog and it has never failed me. This batch was made with milk chocolate instead of semi-sweet; I'll be making future batches with the darker stuff.

The bottom photo is my first effort at knitting a teddy bear, and I have to say, it turned out quite well! When it's completely finished, I'll post details of the pattern. I've been putting off sewing the back to the front, though ... must get cracking on that. I'll be tying a red tartan ribbon around the bear's neck and sticking this cutie in O's Christmas stocking.

My 12-year-old is unabashedly fond of stuffed animals. He would probably kill me for saying this, but my favorite parenting moments involve walking into his bedroom in the morning and finding Taffy (a Bernese mountain dog), Goldie (a huge golden retriever), Softener (a mixed-breed stuffie), or Nordie (a wooly mammoth I bought in Norway many years ago) snuggled into his arms while he sleeps. The sight reminds me he's still my little boy.

What are you up to today? Are you getting snow where you are?

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Great British Sewing Bee Christmas Special

I know what I'll be watching at lunchtime today! Or I should say "who" (mmm, Patrick Grant!)

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Snowy Sunday (and a finished object)








Our first major snow of the season and a good day to take photos!

I have to admit, I hate being photographed. It stems from my mother always saying, "You never did take a good photo," so whenever a camera comes out, I freeze and feel self-conscious.

Earlier this year I decided, dammit ... it's time to get comfortable in front of the lens. It would be really sad if someday O didn't have any nice pictures to remember me by. That sounds terribly morbid, but one thing I love to do is look at old pictures of my parents, grandparents, and other family members. I can't imagine not having those photos to remind me of all the happy times we had together.

Today's goal was not only to get a good shot of me, but get one of me and O, as well as some photos of the dropped stitch cowl I finished a couple weeks ago. The picture of me and O together didn't really work out because O hates being photographed, but what I did get is kind of arty and nice. The cowl is a gift for someone who loves this shade of blue/green. :) I knit another in a rich gold, which I'm keeping for myself, and will be knitting up another in a variegated blue/green/cream yarn for a dear friend.

As for the photos, I have to admit I like the silly one of me at the end the best.

I was going to go snowshoeing this afternoon, but I know my snowshoes will slip off my boots and put me in an irritable mood (they're about a size too big for me). Last weekend I was looking at new snowshoes up at REI in Reading ... I'm pretty sure they'll be going on sale after the holidays, so I'm going to hold tight, but it's tough with all that pretty snow and miles of trail behind our house.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Holiday knitting

steam and brass kerchief

When I was in Mystic, Connecticut, a couple weeks ago, I saw a sample of The Age of Brass and Steam Kerchief knitted up in sock-weight yarn (the pattern specifies a DK-weight yarn). The ruby-red sock yarn I purchased that day was so soft and pretty that I decided it would make an equally lovely kerchief. My mother really loved the color of the yarn (by Other Kingdom, a dyer I cannot find on the Web!) so this is a Christmas present for her. She looks terrific in this shade of red.

My mother doesn't read my blog, so no worries about her finding out. :)

It's a very enjoyable knit with lots of stockinette broken up with rows of eyelet, an easy pattern to remember, and something I can work on in front of the television or while waiting for an appointment. I figure I'll have this "wrapped up" by the weekend so I can move on to my next gift knit.

So far in my gift knitting, I've finished two cowls, two earflap hats (stranded colorwork), one and a half socks, and a hot water bottle cozy. Just a couple more things and then I can move on to some selfish knitting. ;-)

This week has been a trying one, professionally and personally. Professionally it has been a week of rejection after rejection, then having people (mostly PR) play bait-and-switch with me. Frustrating!

And maybe because of the cold and darkness, my temper is running a lot hotter than normal, esp. with my family. Last week I "bragged" about my son. Well this week he came home with some pretty bad lab/test grades in science, math, and social studies. I was really angry about the social studies grade because he had brought home a two-sided study sheet but insisted and argued with me that the test would only be on the first side. I kept telling him, "Let's just learn the facts on the second side," but he wouldn't have any of it. You can guess what happened ... the test included all the facts he didn't study on the second side. When I asked him what kind of grade he's expecting, he tried to put a positive spin on it by saying, "I'm sure I didn't get an F." I told him I wasn't going to be very happy with a D or a C, either.

Then yesterday O had a half day. The town was giving out free flu shots after school, so I told O I would walk up to school to pick him up and we'd walk over to the town hall. The walk to school isn't bad at all; it's just a mile down the bike trail and a cut through the woods. However it was bitterly cold and windy, and the trail was covered in ice, which made it hard for me to walk. I get up to the school and O comes bounding up to me with his backpack ... and no coat.

"I left it at home," he said.

I was pretty ripped because there was no way he would be able to walk home in that cold in just a t-shirt and flimsy sweatshirt. Sure enough, on the short walk over to the town hall, O complained about the wind, that his ears were hurting, that his throat ...

Oy! Enough already!

We ended up popping over to a new pizza place in town to kill some time. Since my husband and I had an appointment at school later on that evening, the plan was we'd hang out in town until DH could pick us up. However, I was sitting there in the warm restaurant, I started wondering if I'd turned the iron off in my sewing room. I'd sewed a holiday table runner that morning (seen above in photo) and I couldn't remember switching the iron off. So I told O he'd have to wait at the library until his father could pick him up. There was no way I could sit around for two hours wondering if my house was in flames. Cue more whining.

The walk home was even colder (and longer because I was walking home from town). All that worry for naught: the iron was off. Then I started getting texts from O complaining about being bored so I told him to read a book and leave me alone, and my husband was being difficult ... argh. I know the common belief is that women are difficult to live with, but in this house, it's the male species! I ended up blockading myself in the bedroom with my hot water bottle and a novel to avoid the two of them.

OK, moving on. We ended the evening with an appointment with O's math teacher, who was generally positive about O but agreed he could use an extra push at home. The good news is that his teacher said he'll recommend O to move into the highest level math class next year because of his grades and MCAS scores. The bad news is that we've got to play some hardball with O because it's clear he hasn't been working as hard as he should be. We are very generous with him because he's a good kid, but we have an understanding his #1 job is schoolwork and when he doesn't perform to his abilities, he gets things taken away from him ... like his iPad.

I was hoping the week would end on a good note, but I have a feeling it's going to get worse before it gets better.


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Recumbent trike update

My new trike!

Earlier this fall I decided to extend the Carless in Suburbia experiment for another year until October 1, 2014. The experiment ended up offering many unexpected benefits beyond saving money and reducing fuel consumption. I found that using my bicycle to get around during the week reduced my stress levels considerably--slowing down has helped me enjoy the process of getting from "here" to "there." Because my in-person shopping options are limited to what I can find downtown, my impulse purchasing has gone way down; shopping is no longer something I do to kill time. Most of all, I feel happier inside. It's kind of crazy, I know. I think it's because I did something I didn't think I could do (give up my car for a year), and not only did I do it, but I signed up for another year of "car freedom."

Right after I made this new commitment, though, I landed in the hospital for three days with a herniated disc, and then a week later, developed a case of deep vein thrombosis (DVT). Biking as I knew it was out. Enter the recumbent trike, thanks to my husband's insistence this was the bike for me. (I didn't really buy into it until I tried it out.)

I've had the bike for a month, and I. Love. It. More than my Trek 700 commuter cycle. When I ride my regular cycle up a hill, it's exhausting. Not so with my recumbent--I seem to fly up hills with only my legs feeling the stress. But when I returned home after biking on the commuter bike, I didn't feel like I got much exercise. That's definitely NOT the case with my recumbent. I usually feel wiped (in a good way) and I can tell that even after a few weeks of triking, my thighs and butt have lost some inches. I also can trike in colder temperatures; it used to be that I wouldn't bike if it was under 40 degrees F, but I went triking when it was 35 degrees F and it wasn't bad at all. I guess I'm burning more calories i.e. generating more heat!

It has been snowing here in Boston for a couple days so I'm not sure when I'll be out on my trike again. I sure do miss it though! This weekend I was at REI, and I came close to buying a new pair of snowshoes. (My old ones slide off my boots annoyingly.) I find the key to staying happy and sane during the winter is to a. get outdoors as much as possible and b. to find outdoor activities that are enjoyable. For me, that's triking when there's no snow, and snowshoeing when there is.

Oh, and here's something else that's interesting about the switch from biking to triking: people are a LOT nicer to me, especially people in cars. I honestly didn't have much of a problem with cars when I was biking, probably because I have the philosophy of "I might have the right-of-way here, but I'm going to be the loser in a battle with a 2,500-lb. piece of metal so best to stay out of the way." The most irritating thing is when I walk my bike across crosswalks and drivers don't stop--they don't seem to understand that once I'm off my bike, I'm a pedestrian, not a cyclist.

However, when I'm on my trike at a crosswalk? People hit the brakes and very nicely wave me across before I can stand up! They also give me tons more room on the road, even though my trike is only 10 cm wider than a regular bike. It finally hit me one day: drivers think I'm disabled. I asked a couple people I know in town what they thought of my theory, and they agreed. My buddy Gerry down at the hardware store said it's the bright orange flag I have on the back of my trike. Just what I thought!

Monday, December 9, 2013


Friends and acquaintances often ask me if I named my son Oliver because it's a popular name in Britain. In August, Oliver was one of Britain's top-ten names for boys, right after Harry. Harry? Who would name a kid Harry? Ah, that's right.

Prince Harry

So who would name a kid Oliver?

Well we did, way back in 2001 when Oliver wasn't a very popular name at all here in the U.S., and only a bit more so in the U.K. Here's the story: had we a daughter, her name was already picked out. We were going to name a daughter after my beloved paternal grandmother, Elizabeth Cairns Forrest. Everyone thought I was going to have a girl in the early months of my pregnancy, even the Chinese doctor who was treating me with acupuncture for my 24/7 morning sickness and who assured me she'd never been wrong predicting a baby's sex. I, on the other hand, had a sneaking suspicion there was a boy baby jumping on my bladder.

An ultrasound around month five confirmed there would be no daughter named Elizabeth.

My husband and I spent months going back and forth on boys' names. It seemed he loathed every name I liked: Andrew. (Too common). William. (Too boring, too many nickname possibilities). James. ("Di, what is it with you and Scottish kings? Give it up!"). And then there were his names: Calvin. (Syllables didn't work with our last name.) Neal. (Eh.) I can't remember the rest, but nothing stuck. We thought about our father's names, but we were already using his father's middle name (another long story) for our son's middle name. As for my father's name, it's nice but I couldn't go there for personal reasons that have nothing to do with my dad, who's a great guy with a great name.

One hot late summer evening we were in bed with the baby name books and suddenly my husband said, "What about Oliver?" I was about to screech, "Oliver? OLIVER? Are you nuts? That's a terrible name!" But just then, the boy in my belly gave me a god-awful kick and I paused. I poked my tummy to get his attention and said to it, "Hey kid, what do you think of Oliver Sheldon?" And he gave me another almighty kick. So that was that. Today when Oliver complains about his name (which isn't very often, to be honest), I tell him, "We consulted and you approved."

Most people said they loved the name, except two members of our family. One I won't discuss here. The other was my mother, who has name issues because of her own moniker--Agnes. She insisted kids would make fun of him at school and call him
Ollie or Oliver North.

"Mom," I reasoned, "Kids in ten years won't know who Oliver North is. Kids today don't know who Oliver North is!" She was so upset over the name choice, she actually hung up on me! (She insists she didn't hang up on me, but I swear, she did.)

The night our son was born, nurses kept telling us, "He looks like an Oliver!" I still hear that today. I can't imagine Oliver being anyone but an Oliver, and no one has ever called him Ollie. Oliver is a name that's figured prominently in my ancestral family tree, and I love that its Norman roots come from the word for olive branch, signifying peace ... and for me, good food. ;-)

Last week he came home and said, "Hardly anyone at school calls me Oliver."

"Oh really?" I said.

"When I walk into class, everyone yells, 'Hey Ginger!'"

Thank God we didn't name him Harry.


Saturday, December 7, 2013

My "new" Singer 99






Not sure if I've mentioned this here, but I have a "thing" for old sewing machines. It's ironic because when I was in junior high, my father bought me a used 1963 Singer Spartan, and I turned my nose up at it because it wasn't one of those fancy 123-stitch variation machines that were all the rage. It just did straight stitch and zig zag and weighed almost as much as I did. These days I adore my Singer Spartan ... it sews better than any other machines I've had or have, including a multi-stitch Brother machine I've since given to my stepmother and (gasp) the very expensive computerized Viking 400 on my sewing table, a machine that can be a little finicky on its bad days.

Besides the Singer Spartan, which I've since discovered was made in Scotland the year before I was born, I own a heavy-duty vintage Japanese sewing machine that's pale gray and cream and weighs about 50 lbs., another Japanese machine in turquoise that needs mucho work, and a Brother 1034 serger that's a workhorse, even though it's a modern (re: lots of plastic parts) machine.

For the last several years I've been scouring Craigslist for a vintage Singer, ideally the 99 since I wanted a machine that just did straight stitch. Once you've been sewing for awhile, you realize all the fancy stitches rarely get used ... what's really important is a flawless straight stitch, and these vintage Singers are hard to beat.

Anyway, yesterday I was sitting at my computer and realized it had been awhile since I trawled Craigslist. And bingo: my first search revealed a Singer 99 in its original case for only $30 over in Concord. It had been listed five days before so I said a little prayer to the Craigslist gods that it would still be available ... and it was! This morning, we drove over to pick it up. The gentleman who sold it to me admitted he'd found it at the town dump, which made me ill. Not that it was a dumpster item, but that someone would put such a beautiful piece of machinery in the garbage. :(

These pictures aren't the greatest; my resident photographer was irritated I'd dragged him away from a rousing session of Minecraft. But I hope you can see that despite it being found at the dump, the machine's exterior is in excellent condition: no chips, no scratches, just some minor wear that can be buffed out with wax. Without changing the needle and ancient thread, I sewed through two pieces of leather and the machine handled the job beautifully without any hesitation. I hate to think what would have happened had I tried that on my Viking 400! The only mechanical problem is the knob for the stitch length is missing, so I can't change stitch length. ETA: the stitch length is changed by loosening the thumb nut to the right of the red indicator and moving the lever up or down. Otherwise it sews like a dream.

Now and then friends and family ask me, "What kind of sewing machine should I buy? Are the ones at Joanne's/Walmart/Target good enough?" I usually tell them to pick up a used mechanical machine through a dealer, or if they're mechanically inclined, to buy one off Craigslist, spending no more than $50 and making sure the seller lets them test it. For most people, that's all the machine they need. Old mechanical machines are hard to break--your foot will break easier than the machine if you drop it; it's easy to care for (oil and cleaning are fairly simple, straightforward tasks); and you'll probably get a better quality stitch than anything you could buy new.

Off to play with my new friend. Hope you're having a great weekend!

Friday, December 6, 2013

Thistle stole


[caption id="attachment_2480" align="alignnone" width="480"]thistle_stole_1 (Photos posted with kind permission of Mary Scott Huff)[/caption]

Like most knitters on Ravelry, I am constantly adding patterns to my queue. The problem is there's not enough time in the world to knit everything I would like to knit.

But now and then, a pattern comes along that stops me in my tracks, and I tell myself, "I must knit that NOW. If I get to my deathbed without having knit that, I will enter the afterlife with a very unhappy soul."

Thistle by Mary Scott Huff is one of those soul-stirring patterns for me.

Huff is one of my favorite knitting designers, so it's not really a surprise that I fell in love with this gorgeous stole. She specializes in colorwork, and her patterns are stunning. I'm pretty sure the pattern for Wedding Belle in her book The New Stranded Colorwork got me back into knitting.

What I love about the stole of all stoles: obviously the colors--the bright green edging, the multi-shades of purple. But that it has thistles, the national flower of Scotland, made it irresistible to my Anglophile sensibilities.

Huff writes in the pattern headnotes, "Legend has it that during the King Haakon's Viking invasion of Scotland, the Norsemen tried to surprise the sleeping Scottish Clansmen. In order to move more stealthily under the cover of darkness, the invaders removed their footwear. As they crept barefoot, they came across an area of ground covered in thistles and one of Haakon's men unfortunately stood on one. Shrieking out in pain, he alerted the Clansmen to the advancing enemy. The Scots then defeated the Vikings at the Battle of Largs, saving Scotland from invasion. The important role the thistle played was recognized, and it was chosen as Scotland's national emblem."

And while I'm not a huge fan of tassels, here they work. My stole shall have tassels, too.

I have to wait until January to begin this project as I have so much holiday knitting/sewing to plow through in December. I've sent my mother a picture of the pattern, and I'm sure I'll be getting a gift certificate for yarn in return. My mother is such an enabler; I, on the other hand, encourage her! ;-) Meanwhile, I continue knitting up my Christmas gift list of cowls, boot socks, and hot water bottle covers and dream of Thistle.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Mom brag

O's report card came in the mail today, and there's cause for celebration: he got eight As and two Bs, which puts him on the high honors list. He got As in all his major subjects (math, science, English, etc.), including an A+ in science/chemistry. My father, a chemist, will be thrilled to hear that since I was such a disappointment in this branch of science.

On top of this, O scored in the top 2% of fifth graders on the science portion of the MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) last spring, and placed in the "above average" category for math and English.

Normally I wouldn't brag about my kid like this. But two years ago, when he was in fourth grade at a private Montessori school, he was an unhappy, poorly performing student. He kept telling me he was bored, and his teacher was frustrated that he couldn't/wouldn't get his work done. We went in circles with her, trying to get her to understand he needed more structure and more challenging materials. She, and others at the school, went so far to tell me we should consider holding him back ... which, if you ever met O and talked to him for two minutes, is ludicrous. This is a kid who wanted to do a science project on astrophysics (and was shot down--no pun intended--by said teacher). Montessori wasn't working for him anymore, but rather than admit this or open their eyes, the school was willing to keep him in their program -- as long as we held him back. We couldn't get out of there fast enough. I wanted to pull him out in March, but he wanted to stay because of his friends.

He started fifth grade the following September in our local public elementary school, and we warned the principal and his teacher that he'd had problems at the private school. Putting him on the bus that first day was nerve-wracking for me. The Montessori school had about 100 students total, with only two other students in his grade. The elementary school had 180 students in fifth grade alone! When the bus dropped him off at the end of the day, he came running across the lawn toward me with the biggest smile on his face. "I love it!" he said. "I can't wait till tomorrow!" I heaved a sigh of relief. Later that week his teacher e-mailed me, puzzled by what his old school had said about him. He was clearly a bright kid and he was fitting in with his classmates.

He did wonderfully in fifth grade, earning high grades and the respect of all his teachers. He made dozens of new friends and was chosen for student council. Moreover, he would come home at night and do his homework without being told, something he still does to this day. Our only problem? He was grumpy on Friday nights because there was no school on Saturday and Sunday! Public school is much more structured, unlike the Montessori school, where a lot of learning is self-directed. O is definitely a kid who thrives with structure, likes knowing when to do X and knowing when Y is due. This year he's in middle school. The transition has been harder moving from elementary to middle school than it was going from private to public school, but obviously he's coping well.

I'm writing this as a reminder to myself that a lot can change in two years. Many of my friends have had similar challenges with their children and they put a lot of faith in the system that's supposed to support their kids. I was one of them two years ago, even though I had an inkling my son wasn't the problem: It was the school's philosophy/teaching style that wasn't working for him. I try not to be angry with the old school; it's hard because I feel like they came close to crushing O's self-confidence and one of the administrators behaved abominably near the end of our tenure there. I have few kind thoughts in my heart for her! Today when people ask me about Montessori, I'm careful not to disparage it; some children thrive in that kind of learning environment. O also had several wonderful teachers there: his first-grade teacher "R" who he adored and we still keep in contact with; his kindergarten teacher who was such a gentle presence in the classroom and clearly loved all "her" children, and even a couple teachers who never taught O but who were interested in his development. When I feel bitter about that last year, I try to remember the good teachers he had -- and thank the heavens that all it took was a change in learning environments to help him thrive.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Operation Holiday Glam

Every year my husband's company holds a holiday party and every year I find myself down at Marshalls or TJ Maxx desperately trying on dresses. In my early 30s when I was single and had a corporate career, I owned a closet full of party dresses. Now my closet is filled with jeans, stripey t-shirts and a whole lot of wool sweaters--clothing befitting of a suburban stay-at-home mom. Glamour gets short shrift at Casa HailBritannia. :-/

Last year a few of the women dressed to the nines: gowns! Sequins! Cleavage! By comparison I felt under-dressed in my sweater dress, tights, and boots. I made a vow that night for holiday party 2013, I'd dress in something a little more glam.

The original plan involved silk Shantung and a vintage 50s ballgown pattern, but I've had to scale back Operation Holiday Glam as I recover from my herniated disc. I've always wanted a long, swishy taffeta skirt, and since a skirt is fairly easy to make, plans have been modified. I had a Living Social gift certificate for Fabric Place Basement in Natick, so last week I braved the chill and pre-holiday shoppers so I could get a small jump on things.

It took me two hours of walking around the huge, cavernous store to decide. I really wanted a tartan plaid, but come on--that's not glam, that's just giving in to my Anglophilia. Then I fell in love with some gold double-weight silk charmeuse...until I saw the $49.99 a yard price tag. Yikes!

fabric for holiday skirt

I finally settled on three yards of iridescent gold/green taffeta. It's not silk but the fabric manager promised me it sews "like cotton." I even had enough money on my gift certificate to buy some gorgeous dark green Bemberg rayon to line the camel windowpane plaid wool cape I'm making...you know, so I can look like a female Sherlock Holmes out on my bike. ;-)

The plan is to make the skirt over the next week -- I'm pretty sure I can do it without a pattern. (Pattern? Who needs a pattern!?!) I'm thinking gentle gathers with a waistband--not too poofy--with a matching sash to tie around. I might even be able to get away with an elastic waistband, especially if I go with the sash.

As for the top, I have an Anne Fontaine blouse (white, of course) I bought in Paris: it's pretty but a wee staid. So now I'm wondering if I have time to whip up a simple short-sleeved sweater out of something like Rowan Kid Silk Haze? Perhaps the wiser course of action is to look for an angora sweater I can buy off the rack before my 2014 ready-to-wear clothing fast begins.



A ready-to-wear fast in 2014

Ok, I did something crazy yesterday ... I committed to a ready-to-wear fast in 2014. That's right: I made a commitment that I would buy no clothing from January 1, 2014 all the way through December 31, 2014. Instead, if I need clothing, I will either sew it or knit it. I'm making an exception for bras, underwear, athletic socks/tights, shoes, purses, and belts, all items I don't tend to overspend on, except for bras, which are a necessary expense for my girls. I haven't purchased a belt in donkey's years, so who knows if I'll get to it ... and maybe I'll make one instead!

Why am I doing this? The main reason is that I like to challenge myself and was encouraged by Sarah at Goodbye Valentino, who went on a ready-to-wear fast a couple years ago and is doing it again in 2014. I was blown away by the beautiful clothing she created during that year (and beyond) and was doubly impressed when I learned she hadn't really sewn much in the 25 years prior to making that commitment.

I sewed or refashioned a lot of my clothing in high school, but put my machine away once I went to college where I took up knitting. (Smith College has a strong knitting tradition among students.) During my late 20s and 30s, I sewed mostly home dec, then when my son was born, I started sewing for him. Sewing kids clothes helped me hone my skills so that when I gingerly started sewing for myself again, I had more successes than misses. I'm confident of my basic skills.

Other reasons for a ready-to-wear fast include not wanting to buy cheap throwaway clothing created in an exploitative economic system usually found in developing countries; a desire to wear clothing of impeccable quality (not that my skills are impeccable, but at least I can get the details the way I want them); to eliminate the bulk of my extensive fabric stash; to improve my SAHM jeans-and-t-shirt wardrobe to something a little more tailored and elegant; to give myself a creative outlet from my day job as a freelance journalist; and maybe to save a bit of money, although don't kid yourself--home sewing can be an expensive hobby, especially if you're anything like me and swoon over fabrics like silk charmeuse, Irish linen, and wool from Scotland.

It's a bit mad to commit to this: 2014 is going to be a crazy-busy year for me. Economic circumstances dictate that I put off the MSW, so my co-author (and friend) Linda and I are building up our Renegade Writer business. We have big goals with lots of deadlines attached to them. On the other hand, most people who sew (and knit!) have full-time jobs, too.

So wish me luck if you're so inclined. And if you're interested in giving up ready-to-wear clothing, you can commit to it on Sarah's blog. I'll be curious if you go through with it as I plan to do. :)


I'm getting a jump on 2014 by heading off to Staples to print out a pattern for my next project: Liesl & Co's Woodland Cape! I mentioned this pattern last week on the blog. It's not quite Sherlock Holmes, which I think would look a tad ridiculous on me, but cape-y enough to satisfy. I bought this camel/rust/olive windowpane wool at Fabric Mart a couple weeks ago, and I'll be lining it with olive Bemberg rayon I bought at Fabric Place Basement in Natick. The only thing left to purchase are three leather toggles and two buttons.


Monday, December 2, 2013

Rainy days and Monday


You have to be of a certain age to get that title.

This weekend I rented a car and drove down to Connecticut to spend some time with my mother, who has been very sick. My mother is the type of woman who can't step out of the house without her hair and makeup just so (and it can take hours to reach perfection!), but she promised me this time she wouldn't fuss if we went out because all she would be doing is sitting in the car while I did her bidding with errands. It worked out well! By the time I left Sunday afternoon, she was feeling much better. :)

I was able to collect my birthday present as well, and I broke my yarn diet by visiting Mystic River Yarns downtown. In under ten minutes I'd chosen a skein of Other Kingdoms sock yarn in a rich ruby red and two skeins of Jamieson's of Shetland wool (cream and a soft blue) for my Shetland wool stash. I'm turning the sock wool into an Age of Brass and Steam kerchief, which I'll be giving as a Christmas gift.

While I was in Mystic, I had a chance on Saturday to visit Stonington Borough, a classic New England seaside village not far from my mother's home in Mystic. I stopped in my tracks when I stepped out of the car to get a breath of fresh air at the southernmost tip of the village, where you can see three states: obviously Connecticut underfoot, Rhode Island to the east, and New York's Fishers Island. The smell of salt air and the sound of the mournful foghorn transported me back to my childhood, where I spent summers with my maternal grandparents on the Connecticut shoreline. Memories came flooding back all day: climbing over slippery rocks with my brother, gathering mussels, periwinkles, and hermit crabs from the tide pools; afternoons scooping crabs into nets; the foghorns calling me to sleep at night. I think of myself as a Vermont girl, but I guess Atlantic has its pull on me, too.

Sunday night back home in the Boston 'burbs, O and I watched the mid-season finale of The Walking Dead. I don't think O has ever cried as hard over a tv show. I finally got him laughing by telling him the actors that got axed probably asked for too much money during contract negotiation time or that Martin Scorsese offered them roles they couldn't refuse.

I finished a cardigan last week but it has been so dark and dreary I haven't bothered with pictures. Soon, I promise. It's a practical bit of knitwear, nothing fancy, but I love it because the wool came from Drumlin Farm Animal Sanctuary over in Lincoln. When it gets damp, it smells like sheep. When I told my mother that, she wrinkled her nose. She's definitely not a Vermont girl!