Sunday, August 28, 2011

New skill - winding yarn

While in Estonia last week, one of the few souvenirs I bought was about 250g of local wool. It was quite a bit cheaper than wool in shops here and looked like it might be handspun, but it wasn't clear, so I only bought one skein.

Friday, August 26, 2011

On my mind: We haven't changed as much as we think

This is a Friday photo feature that anyone with a blog can join. To take part, post a photo on your own blog, write a short caption explaining it, and link it back to here from your blog by saying you're part of "On my mind". Please write a new post, don't link to an older one. When you've done that, come back here and add a comment below, with a link to your blog.

This is my first 'On my mind' post, and I am joining Rhonda from Down to Earth for this. I have just this evening arrived home from my travels in Finland and Estonia, of which more later. One of the main themes of the trip for me, as we looked at buildings and museum collections and landscapes mapping history from prehistoric times to the present day, was how little cultures really change. The earliest finds include objects which you could still find in a bathroom cupboard - combs, mirrors, razors, tweezers. The gap between modern and prehistoric people is not so great as we think - we essentially use many of the same tools, we just have more high-tech versions of them.

Which brings me to this:

I hope you can see it. The pictures aren't great but I couldn't use flash. It's chewing resin, and it's among the earliest pieces of evidence for the presence of humans in Finland.

It's 9,000-year-old chewing gum.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Looking for alternatives

I'm actually feeling a little bit annoyed with myself - because yesterday, I had the opportunity to challenge myself to find an alternative to muffin cases. After all, there were cupcakes before cupcake cases (I presume, anyway!) When a friend made several very practical and frugal suggestions, including one I could have implemented without making any additional purchases, I felt a little bit ashamed that I didn't think of them. I guess I still have a way to go in thinking outside the box.

In many cases, this comes down to focusing on the result you want to achieve - preventing the cakes from sticking to the tray - rather than the tools the recipe tells you to use.

Well, thanks to my friend's suggestion, I will look carefully at muffin cases and at her suggested alternatives, and make a selection that balances practicality with frugality. I think I may go for baking parchment, which I can cut into squares and use. I think this will be more cost-effective than cases.

One good thing did come out of my search - I didn't find cases last night, but I did find affordable gelatine sheets, which I have seen in several recipes but been unable to find to date.

Thursday, August 18, 2011


City fail. I have been into no less than EIGHT SHOPS looking for cup-cake or muffin cases, and NO ONE stocks them. I am more than slightly appalled. Someone has suggested I try a kitchenware shop in the city centre, but that means that I will not have time to make the cupcakes for at least a week. Grrrrrrr....

Another example of the frustrations of expat life - something that would be so easy in a Tesco or Morrisons becomes such a challenge. Especially when no one knows the French word, nor is it in my dictionary. Anyone out there know how to say 'muffin case' in French or Dutch?


Does anyone else feel smug about knowing that they've cleaned behind and underneath the cooker?*

This morning, finally - finally! - FINALLY! - our oven was repaired. We may actually be able to bake and roast and things. I took advantage to hoover underneath and to clean up the grease spills left by previous occupants of the flat.

This is very good news, because one of the things I really want to embrace as part of building a 'simple life' is baking bread - aside from the fact that I really enjoy kneading the dough, the magic of watching the bread rise and the smell of baking bread, I also really noticed the difference at lunch. The few days I have managed to bring in a sandwich made from homemade bread, it was much nicer and much more filling, meaning less temptation to battle in the afternoon. I am really looking forward to the day when I will be able to say that I only eat homemade (or locally baked) bread.

Another of the small changes I hope to make is giving up bought-in cakes and biscuits. Aside from the fact that homemade treats are nicer, cheaper and contain less crap, because they are time-consuming to make I appreciate them more and will probably eat them less often!

When the oven was repaired, the leaky tap** and the dodgy lightbulb on the stairs were also fixed. I am a very happy bunny, and my sister would despair at how happy this makes me. Most of my family look on my attempts to make my own, do it myself and go without as amusing idiosyncracies which I will grow out of.

*Please note - I have not yet cleaned inside the oven, a prospect which looms before me with no little amount of intimidation.

** The now not-leaking tap makes me VERY happy, because the leak was causing a build-up of residue on the sink which I CANNOT get off. Lemon juice helps but hasn't got it all - does anyone have any tips?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Discovering the secrets

I have discovered the secret to a clean and tidy home with no effort! This miraculous revelation really is having a huge impact on my life - I can't stop reorganising, sorting and streamlining my stuff.

1. Don't allow pile-ups - doing the washing up every night before I go to bed and wiping down the surfaces means that I basically don't need to clean the kitchen - it's always clean. (Well, apart from the floor).

2. Every item should have a home - if things are in cupboards and on shelves, you can hoover the floor. This sounds so obvious, but it's been such a pain keeping the living room tidy with stuff everywhere. Now that (nearly) everything is on a shelf, it's so much easier to keep mess and dirt under control.

3. Not all homes are created equal - by this I mean that, again strikingly obvious, if I either never put things in their home or never get them out of it, it is almost certainly because I'm trying to put it in the wrong place. I have found that by moving things to where I want to use them, and putting stuff I don't use in storage or giving it away, I suddenly have a lot more space and I am using it so much more effectively!

These three simple things are so obvious, but I have not always been very good at following them. Over the last month, since our big clean out, I have been sticking to them more and the flat is actually tidier and cleaner now than it was when we moved in... And I keep getting more ideas! I actually woke up in the middle of the night last night, thinking about how I could store my fabric and wool stashes more effectively so that my sewing kit would be more useful. I tried it out first thing this morning, and it's looking good. Now I have space for more fabric, rather than so much fabric I can never find what I want.

In other news, I finished the first ever dress!! It's a bit big, so I will adjust it. Pictures to follow. I am also making a lining for the drawer dividers I made yesterday with some scrap fabric. Is crafting addictive? I can't seem to stop...

Has anyone tried crocheting baskets or anything out of raffia? I'm not sure how durable it will be, but want to use something cheaper and more neutral in colour than wool or cotton.

Friday, August 12, 2011

My first dress

Well, this is obviously not my first ever dress, but it is the first time I have tried to make a dress. My addiction to craft programmes and passion for doing it myself have prompted a friend more than once to suggest I try sewing, and even gave me the Cath Kidson "Sew!" book (which, like almost all of my craft books, is in storage...)

Well, after working up the courage through two hand-stitched tablecloths, I bit the bullet. Following my friend's recommendation, I thought a Vogue Very Easy pattern was definitely the way forward, hopefully offering a balance between doability and wearability. Then fabric from my new favourite shop in Brussels, which HAPPENED to be having a buy 1m, get 1m free sale - it's called 'Le Chien Vert' (the Green Dog), and has a section out back for odds and ends called 'Les Puces de Chien Vert' - the Green Dog's Fleas (Market)!

I'm on the home stretch now, and it is starting to look recognisably like a dress - albeit a rather shapeless one... Still, I will remain hopeful until the whole thing is finished, and even if I do look like I'm wearing a potato sack, I can still wear it around the house and enjoy doing so!

At any rate, I've got some scraps for patchwork and rag rugs!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

On the limitations of being English

Don't worry, this isn't a rant about national identity or frustration about how Brits are viewed abroad etc. This is about one particular thing which I have been barred from for being English.

Blood donation.

I went to the blood bank today (because it stays open a bit later and I could go after work) to give blood and to give a sample for the bone marrow donor registry. All went well for the first 45 minutes, despite a few French/English communication problems and the most UNHELPFUL doctor on the planet. She was just standing in the room, arms crossed, staring into space. I asked a question. She said I had to go through the procedure properly and speak to Doctor A (currently engaged with a patient) before speaking to her. I explained that I had already asked Doctor A this question, and he thought I was asking for a translation of a word rather than an explanation of the risks the word referred to. She just said, you can ask him. Great.

Finally got in to see Doctor A, who looked about 85. Took my blood pressure, asked my weight, looked at me in some surprise and condescension when I confessed I didn't know my height in centimetres. To be honest, I was more surprised that they had nothing to measure me with. Are the budgets so tight they can't manage a tape measure up a door frame?

Well, we made it through the medical questions more or less. Finally after 45 minutes of paperwork, waiting and questions, we got to this one:
Did you spend any time in the UK between 1980 and 1996?
I had ticked yes, and this totally confused Doctor A. He asked why I would be in the UK at this time. Please note that at the top of my file it says that I am British and born in London (before 1996, as you might guess). Nevertheless, he cannot think of a reason I might have been in the UK in those years. I patiently explained that I had lived there.

He then explained to me that, because I happened to live in the same country as a mad cow disease outbreak fifteen years ago, I would never be able to give blood or any blood products in Belgium. Can anyone explain the medical reasoning behind this to me? Or why, in the UK, there is no such restriction?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Blast from the past: Crab apple jelly

Well, I have finally managed to establish a connection between my laptop and my camera, which means (a) no need to buy a new camer and (b) I can finally share pictures of long-ago-mentioned craftiness.

You may recall this entry on my attempt to make crab abble jelly. It eventually turned into crab apple glue, but I had so much fun trying! Finally, I can bring you the pictures! The best bits of the whole process were (1) the lovely appley smell, which I cannot obviously convey by internet, and (2) the amazingly warm colours. Feast your eyes:

I particularly love the colour in the last one. If only I had a crab apple tree now! But alas, my parents have moved and I live in a fourth floor apartment in the city centre - therefore trees, at least, are rather beyond my capabilities at this time. Oh, for an organsed forage!

Monday, June 6, 2011


Well, it's been a long time since I posted here but to be quite honest, between moving into a new appartment and starting a new job, a new Spanish course and taking up several additional activites, I've barely had time to breathe!

I have been very active on the crafty front. I have long wished to dive into the deep end of sewing, but lacked a sewing machine. I looked at second-hand and cheap options, decided that even if I had the money I didn't have the space, and squared up to my options: handsewing or handsewing.

Now, there's not a huge amount of information about handsewing kicking around on the web - a bit of embroidery stuff, and that's pretty much it. I also felt that many of the free patterns were rather uninspiring (in direct contrast with free crochet and knitting patterns in places like Ravelry). My family already have this rather negative stereotypical image of me as some DIY-ecofreak-hippy nutcase, so if I make my own clothes, I really want them to look (at first glance and from a distance) as though they are good enough to be bought. Mostly for that - "where did you buy that?" - moment.

The daunting prospect of spending lots of money on patterns and fabric only to never get around to finishing the stitching then loomed before me - I am very bad at procrastinating and rarely finish projects. So I started simple (but not small) with a tablecloth - fun fabric, very basic stitching. And voila! I am sitting at my kitching table, writing this, with a red cotton with white polka dots cloth which delights my soul everytime I see it.

So now the second tablecloth is in production, and most exciting of all! A dress pattern I ordered has arrived - Very Easy Vogue. (I'm stacking the odds in favour of success!) And I've just found a funky independent not-too-expensive fabric shop. Three guesses what I'll be shopping for on Saturday? :D

Again, I am reminded by how much I love making things. There is such a sense of satisfaction from creating something, from leaving behind me a small legacy of (hopefully) pretty and functional objects which would never have existed had I not decided to make them. The thrill of the tablecloth was even enough to make me do the ironing this week, for almost the first time ever, because I couldn't bear to leave it rumpled...


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