Half a year of Ronan

Poor Snuggly Jeff suffers rather badly from Second Child Syndrome: he hasn’t had a lot of update posts, and indeed, for the first few months of his life, I had enormous trouble remembering whether he was born on the tenth or the eleventh of March (FYI, past-self: it’s the eleventh). What can I say? I wasn’t getting a lot of sleep at the time, and things like precise record-keeping go somewhat out of the window under those circumstances. Now, though, we are all coming out of the fug, and we’re all feeling inclined to celebrate six months with the small dude.

Ronan has grown up a lot in the last while. He’s developing a proper little character: he loves swimming, avocados, mirrors, picture books, toast with marmite (just a scraping), and, somewhat inexplicably, Kate Bush (but emphatically not “Wuthering Heights”). Despite never having tried any, he’s absolutely obsessed with cake, and will try to climb into the plate if he sees any. He’s also desperately fond of his older brother: Eoin can make him smile even when he is at his most grumpy, and both boys absolutely light up in each other’s company.

I had such a lot of fear when I was expecting Ronan: I was terrified of another difficult birth and another extended bout of PND. Nothing could have been further from what actually happened: a calm, well-managed birth, and a chilled-out, relaxed, happy baby. We are very lucky to have him, and I only hope the next six months are as good as these. Happy half-birthday, little Snug: we are all very, very glad you’re here.


An anthology of one’s own

Warning: this will be somewhat picture-heavy, and may be a bit self-indulgent…

I’m sure I’m not alone in being a bit of a stationery geek: I can’t be the only person out there who feels a sense of longing when faced with shelves of beautiful blank notebooks in Waterstone’s, who lusts after Moleskines, who has bought a Traveler’s Notebook not because she needed to document a journey but rather for the sheer joy of possession. I do, however, tend to suffer from a paralysing indecision when confronted with the notebook of my dreams: what should I use it for? What should I write in it? What if I write the wrong thing, mess it up, make myself sound stupid or self-aggrandising or… Argh! Better just to put the book on the bookcase, untouched, and just admire it in its pure state, right?

One Christmas back in the mid-nineties, my uncle gave me what was, in those days, pretty much the platonic notebook. He brought it from America, and I had never seen anything quite like it before. It had thick, creamy pages, it was bound in soft leather and fastened with a thong. Basically, it looked like the sort of volume in which Leonardo da Vinci would have sketched embryonic helicopters, in which Count Almásy would record his affairs and his study of African geology alike, in which Dr Jones senior might document his search for the Holy Grail.1 I loved that notebook with all the strength of my unreasoning passion for stationery, but, of course, I hadn’t got a clue what to do with it. I kept it, untouched, until I went to university. There, studying Renaissance and eighteenth-century literature, I encountered the concept of the commonplace book, and all at once I knew what I was going to write.

Commonplace Book Collage

A commonplace book is, in essence, a sort of literary scrapbook: it’s a repository for extracts from and observations on whatever books the maker might be reading or studying at the time. Sometimes these observations are arranged thematically (John Locke, for example, came up with an influential method of compiling an index to such a book), but mine was more or less a chronological compilation of extracts, added because they resonated with something I was working on at the time. I added to it gradually, sometimes writing a great deal, and sometimes abandoning it for months at a time until another text piqued my interest. I finished my degree, moved to Leeds to study for an MA, then to Preston to teach part-time, then to Florence to take short courses in Italian and Art History. The commonplace book came with me, gradually becoming fatter, more battered, more stuffed with quotations. I finally finished it during the early stages of my PhD, and, for some time, the Commonplace lived on my bookcase, unopened. Recently, though, I took it down from the shelf and began to re-read the entries I had made. It feels horribly vain to say this, but I found it a very beguiling experience: some passages were very familiar, while others seemed to have been written by another person: a lot of time has passed, and I am no longer working in academia. If pressed for a quotation now, I’d probably be just as likely to come up with a line from one of Eoin’s story books. Re-reading the commonplace book was like looking into the life of the person I once was and, far from being the reductive, navel-gazing experience you might imagine, it was actually really interesting.

Although I did not consciously make an effort to order my book thematically, a number of distinct patterns emerge. A lot of the entries are concerned with stories and storytelling: the first entry is a selection from an essay on narrative by Ben Okri, which I found in one of those tiny 60p paperbacks which were all over the place in the mid-nineties. Remember the Penguin 60s? I was an indiscriminate collector both of these and the Phoenix versions, from which I took this extract.

Ben Okri on narrative

Of course, no reflection on stories and storytelling would be complete without a passage from the Arabian Nights:

Scheherazade and the Fall of Troy

The manuscript illumination on the facing page concerns the popular medieval myth of the Fall of Troy and the founding of Britain. Elsewhere, I’ve inserted some passages from A.S. Byatt’s collection of fairy stories, The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye. The quotation below is from “The Story of the Eldest Princess”: here, in defiance of the usual fairy tale tradition, the eldest princess of three refuses to fall prey to the usual hubris of elder children in quest-fables, and instead forges her own destiny. The quest is then fulfilled by her sister, the second princess, while the youngest princess realises that she is left with no story: “She felt giddy with the empty space around her, a not entirely pleasant feeling. And a frisky little wind got up and ruffled her hair and her petticoats and blew bits of blossom all over the blue sky. And the princess had the idea that she was tossed and blown like the petals of the cherry trees”.

A S Byatt,  Job, Pastiglie

As you can see from this opening, I’ve also quoted from the Book of Job. Reading through the book, there’s a certain amount of Biblical and liturgical quotation, which is unsurprising given that a lot of the literature I was studying at the time was steeped in these traditions. But, my word, there’s a lot of Job. I happen to remember the reason I wrote down this passage: it’s engraved on a glass panel in Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge (because I’m a good librarian, I found the record here).

There’s more Job elsewhere in the book, alongside Shakespeare and Madame de Stäel: in this case, I think the passage stuck in my mind because reminded me of Lord Sepulchrave in Titus Groan (it’s the owls).

Tempest, more Job, Corinne

Hidden under this amaretto wrapper is yet more Job (it was, in passing, the first amaretto I ate: I was amazed by the fact that you could light the papers and watch them float): owls excepted, I think the fascination with the particular book stemmed from the fact that I was reading a lot of Blake and listening to a lot of Vaughan Williams at the time of writing. Hey, I was a Cambridge undergraduate: being a bit pretentious was practically in the job description.

Dickens, Dante, even more Job and an Amaretto wrapper

This passage and the Dante on the previous page were both added after I’d visited the Tate and spent a long time admiring the Blakes (obviously: see above) and Rossettis.

Other frequently-occurring topics, appropriate for an embryonic librarian, were heteroclite collections and unusual taxonomies. As a postgraduate, I did a lot of work on Victorian periodicals: my MA dissertation was on representations of the Great Exhibition in the popular press, which meant that my fascination with apparently unrelated artefacts and texts being jammed together into one varied, eccentric entity was particularly strong at that point. I still love this passage from Foucault which I found at that time, on the arbitrary nature of the ordering principles behind some collections (I wish the Chinese encyclopedia were real, though sadly I suspect that it isn’t):

Foucault's "Chinese Encyclopædia"

This is the beginning of the description of Felicité’s bedroom in “Un cœur simple” by Flaubert: the passage continues, enumerating the pieces of bric-a-brac and the unconsidered trifles the old woman has collected, and which have meaning only for her, and, of course, for the reader.

Flaubert on collections

I’ve just noticed that past-me made a mistake in passage above: “peigne” should, of course, be “peignes”. Oh, the shame… 

Most of the extracts, though, simply passages which caught my attention, without any real thematic connection. As well as Flaubert, there’s Baudelaire and Barrett-Browning, Eliot, Shakespeare and Sappho.

Baudelaire and Barrett BrowningPhlebas the Phoenician in French

Shakespeare and terraced houses

Sappho, Gissing and lots of pressed flowers

Lest anyone worry that I was getting really above myself when I added the Sappho, I should note that Buffy fans may recognise it from the last episode of Season 4 (it’s the poem Willow paints on Tara’s back in “Restless”): I got access to a television during my MA, and it somewhat toned down my attempts to be intellectual!

Historically, many commonplace books were beautiful, lavishly illustrated documents: Henry Tiffin’s commonplace book in the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum, documented here, is one of the loveliest I’ve seen. Similarly, judging from the evidence of Pinterest, an awful lot of people now keep a sort of commonplace book in the form of an illustrated journal, typically heavily decorated with scraps, stickers and washi tape, and often very beautiful. My book was made a long time before these techniques became popular, and I don’t have anything approaching Henry Tiffin’s artistic ability. As you can see, though, I did add photographs, postcards, tickets and suchlike to my commonplace book. Some photographs, like this one of the sea at Lytham, were fairly successful.

Fishermen at Lytham

Others, like this view of Haworth churchyard, were more questionable: I had forgotten I was using a colour film instead of a black and white one, and took all my pictures that day with the addition of a red filter.

Photographic problems

As you can see, it ended up looking rather as if I had taken a day trip to Hades instead of to the Brontë Parsonage Museum. Later on, evidently while I was still thinking about the Brontës and Haworth, I added a postcard of my favourite square in Florence, the less-fashionable Piazza Santo Spirito:

Haworth Churchyard/Santo Spirito

I finally completed the commonplace book during the early years of my PhD: though I tried to start another one at the time, my heart was, for some reason, not in it. I wrapped my finished book up, put it away, and carried on living an un-recorded life. Looking back on it now, though, after some years, I find that the book I made, while it would not win any prizes for being a well-planned aesthetic object, is really rather dear to me. It’s a sort of a time-capsule in volume form, a glimpse back into the life I had a decade and a half ago. Indeed, for the first time in years, I felt the urge to start another commonplace book: I found a Moleskine, wrote my name and the date on the endpaper, and started collecting. I doubt that this book will be in any way as stereotypically learned as the first, made as it was with all the zeal of a student of English Literature. It will, however, be a reflection of my life now (tellingly, it already contains quotations from Elizabeth Zimmerman and Maurice Sendak, and an extract from the Dewey Decimal Classification), and that, after all, is part of the point.

1Apologies for the declining seriousness of these comparisons: I did say it was the mid-nineties, didn’t I?

Making round-up

People often say that, when you have a second child, you don’t really get the same benefit from maternity leave as you do with the first: you can’t nap when the baby does (if the baby does nap at a convenient time and place, that is, and I’m smelling a lot of “if” coming off that plan), you can’t just slop around the house in your pyjamas with your similarly pyjama-ed baby because there’s another vocal person who needs to be taken out and entertained. You certainly shouldn’t find that you have more time for general knitting and sewing: perish the thought! This is probably true if you are either a stay-at-home parent, or if you go out to work at a regular 9-5 type of job. I, however, usually work from home. Now, I love my job, but there is one inevitable downside to the situation: I’m usually not able to start work until 7 or so when Eoin goes to bed, and tend to carry on late into the night. Suddenly, on maternity leave, my evenings have become free, and, though my priority a lot of the time is to catch up on lost sleep, I do have far more time to get into the sewing room and let loose.

Rather than writing separate posts for the ever-growing pile of finished objects, I thought I’d do one big round-up of All The Things. First, though, I need to give a little shout-out to the most important creation of the last six months, Snuggly Jeff himself. Here he is, in more conventionally-masculine garb than he has been wearing recently, determinedly masticating a rubber giraffe.

Snuggly Jeff

He’s five-and-a-bit months old already, and scarily huge. He also has a wonderful laugh, a great interest in books (usually to chew, admittedly), and a mercifully high level of tolerance for being dressed up in crazy outfits. Good baby, that one.

And now, the finished objects!

  1. The long-awaited Aidez cardigan (designed by Cirilia Rose), ravelled here: I’ve blogged about this before, but I finally managed to finish it two months before Ronan’s arrival. Now I’m not pregnant, it’s a little baggy in the body, but I can live with that. A word of warning to any large-busted knitters planning to make this, though: you will need to conduct some substantial modifications to the front: you could go for bust-darts if you are that way inclined, but you are likely to have to widen the fronts substantially too. I’d say planning for button-bands from the beginning might be the best way to go.
  2. High Water jumper by Veera Välimäki, ravelled here. A lovely design which would work for boys or girls. Unfortunately, Eoin objects to the yarn in which I made this: apparently it’s too scratchy. Ah, well…
  3. More High Water. He’s smiling under duress, all the while muttering, “It itches”.
  4. Scraptastic hat by Jane Tanner, made from the remnants of my Color Affection shawl, another Veera Välimäki design. Ravelled here. I managed to make it a little too roomy, but I’m calling that a design feature. Slouchy, you know?
  5. Turn a Square hat (Jared Flood, ravelled here) for Stephen. Stolen by Eoin, despite the fact it was (a) ridiculously too big and (b) made from the same much-complained-about yarn as his High Water. Clearly his head is made of sterner stuff than the rest of him.
  6. Antler cardigan (tincanknits, ravelled here) for Eoin, knitted in a fit of pique after he refused to wear the High Water jumper. I gave him shortlists of yarns and patterns, and asked him to choose his own jumper on the understanding that he would actually have to wear this one. It turns out he has good taste!
  7. Longus Socks for Ronan (ravelled here) from Clare Devine’s fabulous Sock Anatomy collection: if you’re interested in sock construction, I’d advise you to check this out. Every design uses a different heel and toe combination, so you get to practice tons of techniques while making adorable socks for small feet. Two of the patterns are also available in adults’ sizes.
  8. Nathaniel the squirrel-cushion, from Ysolda Teague’s Whimsical Little Knits 2. Knitted when I was in full-on nesting mode, obviously, and ravelled here. A word of warning to prospective Nathaniel-knitters: he really does need the button eyes, although they are not specified in the pattern. Without them, he looks less like a squirrel and more like a big grey amoeba.
  9. Ronan’s Pixi hat, from Robynn Weldon’s Elfbaby pattern. Ravelled here. Cute, cute, cute!
  10. Puerperium cardigan by Kelly Brooker (ravelled here), which fitted Ronan until about three months and stood up to many soakings with various bodily fluids.
  11. Pebble bodywarmer (Nikol Lohr, ravelled here), which also did sterling duty until about three months. It was also made from the “scratchy” yarn (it was an unfeasibly giant single ball: I still have tons left), but Ronan was stoic, and did not complain.
  12. Pumuckl Hat, also from Robynn’s Elfbaby pattern (ravelled here), also adorable. I’m hoping it will fit into the winter.
  13. The first of the sewing projects! This is a Coco from Tilly Walnes’ pattern (available here): I think this is being classed as a wearable toile for the moment: I demonstrated my usual lack of sizing awareness and made a 6 when I really should have made a 5. I suspect I’ll be talking more about this in a future post: sizing is a bit of an issue for me as I perpetually seem to think I’m a lot bigger than I am, which means I end up with sack-like garments. See how I’m holding the waist in in this picture? There’s a reason for that…
  14. Another Coco, this time the tunic version. Also a 6, so a bit on the big side, but I don’t think this is such an issue with a top. I also think I managed to balance the print and plain sections better on this: I’m a bit of a stranger to playing with prints, and I think the first dress came out a bit Minnie Mouse-ish, while this is a bit more balanced.
  15. Another Coco! This one is a size 5, and a much better fit. I also kept this one short (I added a couple of inches to the length of the first dress) which, I think, works much better: the high neckline needs to be balanced by a shortish skirt, otherwise the dress looks a bit puritanical. I’m very pleased with this version.
  16. Simplicity 2226, in the shorter of the two lengths. Again, I mucked up the sizing of this: I made an 18 (to approximate a UK RTW size 14), and I could get a friend in there with me. Simplicity seem to add mad amounts of ease to their patterns! It’s a lovely style, though, and I’m planning another version in a smaller size.
  17. Clémence skirt from Tilly Walnes’ book, Love at First Stitch. As you may be able to tell, I’ve developed a bit of a Tilly obsession: her patterns are simple yet elegant, and her instructions are fabulously clear. I used a parasol-print cotton which I have had in my stash for ages: it dates from the time when the Cambridge John Lewis was in the Grafton Centre. I realise this will mean nothing to most people, but Cambridge-based readers will be shaking their heads in dismay at my long-term hoarding tendencies.
  18. Vogue 8295 in an appallingly badly-chosen fabric, also from Grafton-era John Lewis. It’s a lovely print, but I had no concept of drape or body when I chose this. The skirt nearly ended up in the bin years ago when I couldn’t make it come together, so I’m impressed I managed to salvage it. This is also an 18, and I can confirm that Vogue do not add much ease to their patterns. Breathe in…
  19. Botanical-print Delphine skirt from Love at First Stitch. I need to blog about this in more detail, but for the moment, I invite you to admire the fabulous fabric! Ikea FTW.
  20. More botanical Delphine. I’m very pleased that I managed to get the beetle to sit right on my thigh.
  21. New Look 6576 for Emer, fetchingly modelled by Ronan, and blogged here.

This is a bit of a mammoth post, and hurrah for you if you’ve stuck with me up to this point. I’m planning to write about a couple of the projects in more detail (I also need to cover my ongoing struggles with the concept of ease), but I hope this quick overview is interesting. If anybody would like to know more about a particular project, let me know!

I heard there were over 200 cases of forced transvestism involving Mr Sweeney last year.

It’s a sad fact that, in general, sewing patterns for little boys can be a pretty poor show. You can knit some pretty excellent jumpers, hats and so on, but, when it comes to sewing, an awful lot of the boys patterns on offer are at best a bit “meh”, and at worst, not the sort of thing I’d dress a child in for fear of them having the living snot beaten out of them. I know that designers like Rae Hoekstra are keen to redress this, and I’m certainly keen to have a go at Rae’s Flashback t-shirt since I’ve got over my fear of sewing knits.  All the same, I do find myself drooling over girls’ skirt and dress patterns (The prints! The pintucks! The tiny collars!); I don’t have a girl of my own to knit for, but I do have a small and very cute niece who is still too young to protest about me dressing her up in whatever crazy fabrics come my way. I just finished New Look 6576 for her, but I wasn’t sure about whether or not it would fit: I needed an appropriately-sized model, and, well, one thing led to another and this happened:

He's not scarred for life. Honest.

Poor Ronan: the indignity of it. Cross-dressing is obviously all very well if it’s your own choice, but it’s quite another thing to have your mum up and put a dress on you out of the blue. Fortunately he wasn’t too fazed by it, and I was able to get a good idea of how the sizing worked out.

Once you look past the icky styling on pattern envelope (Wow! Such appliqué! Very Sequin! etc), NL 6576 is a very simple a-line shift dress which should act as a good canvas for some of the printed cottons in my stash, but which also ought to work well in a heavier-weight fabric as a pinafore.

New Look 6576This is the medium size, which is a bit large on 5-month-old Ronan, but a much better fit on 7-month-old Emer. It’s a roomy style, and I suspect that the large would fit up to 18 months, though you might be getting more into tunic territory in terms of length. The fabric is a crysanthemum-print cotton which I’ve had in my stash for ages: I was aiming for something which was feminine without being twee, and I hope that this sort of bold floral works. I made the facings out of a fat quarter of purple cotton with a smaller floral sprig, and I edged them with orange bias tape because, hey, there’s always room for bias binding, right?

Contrast facing

That photo is a bit ropey, I know, but it turns out that tiny, cute dresses can be a bit tricky to make and photograph due to their small scale. I had a bit of a wrestle with the facings, and, in the end, I decided to topstitch them rather than attempting to understitch all those minute curves. All the same, I’m pretty pleased with this, and I’m looking forward to making it up in some other fabrics: I have a comic book advert print featuring decoder rings and moon shoes which is calling my name rather loudly. I have some alternative children’s patterns to try out too, but for the moment I’m happy to see what I can do with a simple shape and some interesting fabric.

As I’ve worked out the sizing, there shouldn’t be any need to press my model into service for future fittings. It’s a pity, though: he does manage to rock the look.

Ronan rocks his dress

A big tip of the hat to Roisin of Dolly Clackett, who kindly allowed me to copy her title format: I couldn’t resist the Father Ted reference. Poor Ronan has been known as Mr Sweeney since I put the dress on him on Friday… 

Elfbaby Hat: we have a winner!

My lovely assistant has helped me to draw a winner out of the hat (or, in this instance, out of the red plastic bowl). Here he is in action:

And the winner is…



Congratulations to (Mrs) UKScone: I’ll send a copy of the pattern over asap. Commiserations to everyone else, but thank you all for entering!

Giveaway time: it’s the fabulous Elfbaby Hat!

I’m very excited to be able to offer a second giveaway: it’s another gorgeous hat, but this time it’s one primarily intended for the small people in your life. Robynn Weldon is the creator of several lovely patterns for babies and children; the Elfbaby hat is her newest design (you can read more about its genesis here), and, as you can see from this picture of Ronan, it automatically makes any baby wearing at least 50% cuter than normal.

Ronan being cute, in Pixi

Elfbaby is a pixie-style hat, with a long point and a choice of three decorative borders: Pixi, Pippi and Pumuckl. Robynn was kind enough to ask me to test-knit the pattern, and, being in the nesting stage of pregnancy at that point, I whizzed through two of the possible border patterns in record time (you can see the third, Pippi, on Robynn’s blog, here).

The pattern is sized all the way from newborn to adult: it looks adorable on babies, as you can see, but that needn’t stop you whipping up a larger size for yourself. It’s worked in sock-weight yarn, so it’s toasty-warm while still being small enough to squish handily into a pocket. It’s also a great way to use skeins of variegated sock yarn (if you’re anything like me, your sock yarn stash probably multiplies like Tribbles).

You can buy the Elfbaby hat pattern through Ravelry (there’s a 50% discount until the end of August if you enter the the code ONLY5YEARS at checkout), but Robynn has very kindly offered me a copy of the pattern to give away to a reader of this blog (come on, I know there’s at least half a dozen of you!): all you need to do is leave me a comment to say which version of the hat you would knit first, and for whom. A week from today, I’ll pick a winning comment at random. So, get your thinking caps on, and good luck!

Summer flags

The Esplanade is looking particularly shipshape at the moment, with this rather impressive flag display:

I wonder if they’re trying to spell out a message to passing ships? I imagine that, if they are, it’s something along the lines of “It’s fierce hot out! Please send ice-cream immediately.”

Not to be outdone, the Cardiff Arcades are sporting a fine line in stripy bunting:

I’m having a strong desire to get out my pinking shears and start stringing little flags all over the house: it seems that the combination of hot sun, general summer festiveness and an overabundance of fabric may have gone to my head…


I’ve already tweeted a version of this picture, but I decided to post it here too, as I’m really rather pleased with it. It’s only an iPhone image, but the setting is so splendidly spooky that I think it’s worth a post.

This morning, we woke up to quite spectacular mist and fog. We live on the coast, so this isn’t unusual, but it is unusual for me to be scarcely able to see a few metres down the road when I come out of the house. On my way back from dropping Eoin at his childminder, I stopped on the Esplanade to see how the Pier was looking under the unusual weather conditions. Well-nigh invisible, it turns out, at least until you were right on top of it. I only had my phone with me, but I took some pictures while clambering precariously on top of one of the seafront benches in search of some much-needed extra height.

I enthusiastically shared my misty photographs online, but I felt that I could improve on them with a little bit of digital tweaking. A couple of filters later, and I feel I have an image which is closer to the eerie scene by the Pier.