Thursday, 19 November 2015

Making in winter: crocheted pinecones from Little Conkers

In the coming weeks several truly excellent creative people will be writing about their version of Making Winter,what inspires their work and a little about their creative processes. Mirta Tyrrell of Modern Botanics described the painstaking gathering, sketching and printing process she uses to make her beautiful prints and 2016 calendars a week or two ago. Click here if you missed it.

This week I managed to lure Clare Trowbridge of Little Conkers away from her yarn stash and woolly harvest festival to tell me a little about what she's making just now. I first discovered Clare's joyous crochet designs on Twitter and was thrilled when she agreed to conjure a crocheted red nose for the Big Comic Relief Crafternoon Mollie Makes special earlier in the year. 

I lost count of the number of pictures of people (and sometimes dogs and guinea pigs) who sported a jaunty red woolly hooter and helped to harness the wonder of handmade into raising what was in the end an astonishing amount (£60,000). Clare is a handmade hero, maker of perfect amigurumi aubergines and one of my craft idols. Here's her tale of the potential in pinecones....

Pine cones are on my work table this week. They are quite definitely the thing I like to crochet the most. I just never get tired of making them. And looking at them, and rearranging them. Funny really, they’re simple little things, but like acorns and old man’s beard and of course conkers, they speak to some fundamental childhood satisfaction in finding and hoarding natural treasures.

I’ve quite suddenly started to look at them rather differently, however. I’ve been thinking about energy a lot lately – my husband and I have built a mini renewable energy plant near our home, so it’s a rather an occupational hazard.
Pine cones, conkers, acorns and all of nature’s fruits and seeds are stores of energy. The plants and trees have drawn energy from the summer sun and trapped it inside these little time capsules. This energy then powers the flapping of a bird’s wings, or the bounding of a squirrel, or makes a new plant. Our little renewable power station uses the energy stored in plants to create electricity.
So now when I look at my pine cones, or the seeds on the bird table, they don’t seem still and lifeless any more, they seem full of energy, little bundles of potential

I’m seeing this pattern in everything. For us in this part of the world, this season naturally seems a time to want to hoard and store. And then later comes the time to release the energy, rediscover our treasures, to benefit from the effort we put in earlier. So we knit and crochet woolies for our loved ones, we shop, wrap and stash, so that deep in winter we can release the energy and love we stored away.
Many of us are now baking for Christmas. My mother is making our Christmas pudding as she does every year, and next week, I’ll be starting our Twelfth Cake. (We have our Christmas cake on Twelfth Night, as was the tradition before the Victorians rearranged things.) Making the cake is a whole day’s worth of work, converted, contained and stored away, to be released in celebration in the midst of winter.
I’m adding one or two extra items to the weekly shop, to be squirreled away at the back of a cupboard and brought out to generate smiles and warmth on a cold, wet day – a little chocolate, some special cheesy biscuits.

Two years ago, our village had a four-day power cut over Christmas. The immediate lack of energy didn’t seem to matter so much: no telly, and the Christmas lunch of carrot salad, followed by a sort of giant fruit scone I managed to cook on the disposable barbeque we found in the shed. The church service lit only by candles was even more magical than usual. But it was the loss of the stored-up energy that was heartbreaking: having to throw away the contents of the fridge and freezer that represented so much careful planning and making, and the kiddies not being able to enjoy some of the gifts we’d so looked forward to them opening because of the gloom (it’s hard to do airfix models or colouring in the dark).
So this is what #makingwinter means to me. Storing up for the future, creating potential, putting in a little extra, hard-won energy now, in the knowledge it will come back to me in weeks and months like a gift.
The gorgeous glossy hand-dyed bamboo yarn I use for my pine cones is from Vinnis Colors. The patterns are based on an excellent one by PlanetJune.

Clare's Etsy shop is like a woolly harvest festival and you can find it here
Her individually hand crocheted pinecone ornaments are here and here
Her wonderful robin pattern which appeared in Lucy of Attic24's 2014 winter wreath is here
She's also on Twitter and her website and blog are here.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Good things for tough days

The last week has been a tough one. My energy seems to have flown off with the swallows and I confess to having slept for a fair bit of it*. Towards the end of last week Mr M suggested I had a night away so I spent 24 hours in Wells-next-the-sea - a tiny, lovely holiday that was much-needed.  The rows of starlings on the rigging of a ship shown above were a simple moment of joy whilst I was there. They were busy and chattery and kept shuffling themselves around like beads on a string.

I can't say I feel quite myself now I'm back but I'm taking things slowly and hoping my energy returns.

Whilst I've been feeling rough I dug out some fairy lights and draped them round the living room and used a new textured crochet stitch to knock up some wrist warmers (see above, snapped grainily in the pub), using the slow, beautiful rhythm to cheer myself up.

I've also been seeking out good things: patterns I'd love to try, recipes I'm keen to make or plan to when I'm feeling a little better. Sometimes simply looking at something joyful is needed

It struck me that these things may help others who might be having a tough few hours or days so here is what I've found. Perhaps you could bookmark this for the times that feel like the old pants your Nan used to use as dusters.


Who has a 'Best in Show' Book?

Sally Muir and Joanna Osborne's knitted animal designs are full of joy and woolly charisma. They rather remind me of Victorian portraits of favourite pets or prize animals, standing poised and proud but with a gleam of mischief and possibly just moments from legging it around the garden or farmyard woofing or oinking at nothing in particular.

I have long wanted to knit my own dog show but as a slightly wobbly wielder of needles I'm not sure I have the skills to fashion a leg or ear. 

Simply looking at this pattern for a pig family (photography by Holly Joliffe) 

and this one for Lil the regal whippet cheers me up though. The thought that there are knitted piglets in the world is very lovely indeed and Lil reminds me so much of Minnie our sprightly old lurcher that it's uncanny. If you give these a try PLEASE send me pictures.

I have recently succumbed to Pinterest. I didn't think there could be any other online places I could become addicted to like extremely very much but I was wrong. I made a crochet inspiration board. And then I discovered the MINIATURE CROCHET AND TEXTILES.

Also I WILL be attempting this great tit.


Debs' apple blondies are one of the quickest and simplest recipes I've tried. The rapidity of preparation belies the deliciousness of these little appley spongecakes. I scatter pine nuts on the top but they'd be delicious with some cinnamon-isn crumble, pecans as she suggests or simply a thick layer of demerara on their surface. Apologies for the slightly crappola image but they never hang around very long once I've made them and this was a quick snap before they were demolished.

The Tuesday evening cosy cake, crochet and knitted budgie-filled #makingwinter hour on Twitter has introduced me to some excellent people. Folk join in to share they're favourite recipes, their woolly endeavours, new designs and the ways in which they're celebrating the new season or making it a little easier.  John Holland and his other half Chris are baking wizards. I do wonder whether one of them might end up on next year's bakeoff.

Printmaker Kathy Hutton tweeted some delicious-looking orange super simple fork biscuits and after a clamour she shared the recipe. It's next on my baking list...


When baking or making is just not possible here are these badgers scratching their bellies amongst bluebells,

these joyful sifaka lemurs who like to gallop about as though they're playing horsey - watch for a minute or so and it's like a particularly unusual version of the 2.30 at Newmarket.

This parody of Brief Encounter by Victoria Wood is one of the loveliest things on the whole of the internet.

Huge thanks to those who have linked up with November's Making Winter post. If you're making the grey days better with cakes, quilts, mittens, candles, lovely walks or simply celebrating being snug indoors then do link up if you fancy. Pop over for a peep at the wonderful recipes and making going on over on others' blogs

In a few days' time Clare of Little Conkers will be sharing a special Making Winter guest post about crocheted pinecones. There will be lots more guests coming up, including Kirsty Elson, Chetna Makan and Juliabesidethesea. You'll be able to read about how they feel about the colder season and how winter changes the way they work creatively. 

*Huge apologies if I haven't been answering your emails very promptly

Friday, 6 November 2015

My creative process: making jewellery with silver clay

Back in May 2008 I attended a workshop. During that brief 3 hours my creative excitement level flew off the chart, into orbit and may have collided with the International Space Station and a couple of asteroids. 


Fine silver blackbird commission perching on heather

It's a ceramic made from finely ground particles of silver reclaimed from the printed circuit boards of broken electrical goods mixed with particles cotton and paper and an oily binder. So far so excellently green.

It can be modelled into vessels (tiny POTS! OH yes! I shall be making some new tiny silver vessels in the coming weeks), nature-inspired shapes, birds and 3 dimensional flowers.

A longtailed tit for a commission, prior to firing

Leaves and seeds can be imprinted into it to, in effect, make silver fossils.

Seedy inspiration for new designs

It can be used to cast perfect, wearable replicas of tiny found objects with intricate textures and designs.

It's not just silver-coloured though. When these tiny ceramic items are fired on a gas hob or in a kiln the cotton and paper burn away leaving pure silver.

This knowledge still seems a little unreal to me seven years later. When I handmake a tiny silver berry, beehive or wren and fire it, the moment when I polish away the white oxide from its surface still holds a serious dose of wonder for me. I feel as though I'm a 16th Century alchemist who has been digging up and chucking acid at bits of rock for years and boiling what remains and sighing and experimenting and suddenly I realise I have made ACTUAL SILVER.

Jax's pieces being set on fire. Photo credit: Jax Blunt

Three people who have attended my workshops have cried tears of craft joy at this juncture. I keep an emergency lavender bag to hand in case of those who may be overwhelmed by silvery wonder and joy. 

I don't think I will ever tire of this magical* substance. Its possibilities are innumerable.

I am taking commissions for *whispers* the c-word. If you'd like to contact me about a particular design drop me a line on

Oh and there are 3 spaces left on my 5th December workshop and 2 new dates for 2016 in my sidebar if you'd like to learn how to use silver clay yourself. Spaces are £80 a head**. Email if you'd like to come along.

*I use this word advisedly, truly.
** includes 4 hours' tuition, 7 g clay, sterling chain and headpins, gemstones, homemade cake an document with instructions and supplier info and endless cackling opportunities.

Note: huge thanks for the contributions to Making Winter so far. The November link will be active until the 1st December if you'd like to share your cold weather creativity.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

November's Making Winter: the beginning

So, it's here, or at least it's just up the road, lurking round the corner.

I have done rather well with embracing it so far. There have been several of those golden-tinged days with the whiff of woodsmoke and leaf litter - days when the dreich weeks of January seem afar off and I have an urge to gather twigs for the fire whilst whistling a bit of Vaughan Williams and making a necklace out of crabapples. Days that gave me an urge to come home and crochet some tiny acorns with a tiny hook (1.5mm).

I'm not fooled though. It is a brief coppery season. The shiny conker brown before the mouldy grey. The freshly ploughed field before the slushy puddle.

In recent weeks our girls have just had two grim coughs back to back, with accompanying feverish, exhausting nights (for them and us). The airbed for small poorly folk is permanently occupied in our room just now (we may buy shares in Calpol). And so it begins...

Despite the lyrical blue skies and bright lights of the autumn leaves the clocks going back last week burgled sunlight from the late afternoons. Dusk looms early and makes my heart droop like a woolly swimming costume after a dip in the North Sea.


...tonight I'm starting the #making_winter hashtag on Instagram. If you went for a walk and a pheasant called across the fields and you found some lovely rosehips and it lifted your spirits

or you made some biscuits that helped you forget about the dishwater-isn skies outside,

or you mastered that quantum physics-like lace shawl,

...then you can post a picture, add the hashtag and enjoy the wintry glow. Others who may feel down in the knees in the coming months are bound to find it cheering. 

I've set up a bloghop linky below, which will remain here until the 1st December.....

If you've written about an emergency anti-drizzle cake (to cheer a day with incessant rain),

some therapeutic mittens,

the twigs you bent into a wreath to cheer the afternoon when you put your flip flops away,

or the blanket you're making that has helped you through the 'flu...

then you can share your post below, grab the code to pop the entire bloghop on your blog if you fancy.

My plan is for us to create a sort of electronic wintry crafting bee. A collection of heartening blogposts, a cosy instagram feed and a Twitter hashtag lined with quilts, yarn, hedgerow liqueurs, crochet cake and lovely twigs. A place of solace on the dreariest days. 

At the end of each month from now until March I'll be picking a favourite Instagram image or blogpost. I'm concocting four very lovely parcels of joy filled with things made by me, Mirta of Modern Botanics (see her work in my last blogpost) seeds for Spring from Benjamin at Higgledy Garden and OH all manner of treasure to cheer a winter's day.

We shall advance into winter armed with gargantuan cakes and crocheted guinea pigs and groaning nature tables and warming stews and frost-encrusted hedgerows. 

We shall not be defeated, and if all else fails there is always chocolate and youtube videos of teacup piglets. 


Thursday, 29 October 2015

Modern Botanics: the creative process

I first discovered Mirta Tyrrell of Modern Botanic's designs on Instagram several months ago. The inspiration for her surface pattern was clear immediately: the shapes and forms of plants, their flowers and seeds. She seems to be as thrilled about the patterns made by humble species, ones that many may overlook or class as weeds, as I am. As an amateur botanist the sight of her prints on both fabric and paper in my feed made me realise that I'd found a botanical kindred spirit. I was also thrilled to discover a little more about some of the plants Mirta finds near Lake Como in Italy, where she lives, by examining her photographs and checking to see whether those species grow here in England on the edge of the Fens. 

Mirta has just finished designing and hand-printing her 2016 calendar. I'm thrilled that she has agreed to share the creative processes she used to make it here. Below is Mirta's account:

Each year I make a calendar and each year I set the bar higher for myself in terms of the creative techniques I use. I was keen to create my 2016 calendar using the longest process in making it that I know: I opted to block print each one, which it means a total of 13 individually made pages (there is also a cover design). 

I began by deciding on the design I would use for each month, I was keen to use some of my best known illustrations in the finished calendar but also adding some new ones.

I started sketching a bunch of new illustrations all inspired by my endless collections of little found objects. My studio is filled with boxes and jars packed with pinecones, pods, stones, dried wild flowers, my precious possessions gathered during my walks here at the lake or up on the hills and mountains right behind my village. Once I'm done with sketching I transfer what I like to carving blocks. 

And you know what? A couple of new blocks that I really loved didn't make it to the calendar because I didn't think they would fit with the rest. I worked so hard on the November block and at the end it didn't make it, it was a difficult decision, but I'm happy I took it. So these ones are now available as art prints.

I use several kinds of solid media to carve my blocks and various inks (all water based ones). Whilst making my 2016 calendar I used 3 different kind of rubbers and linoleum because I feel that some of my illustrations are better carved in certain materials than others. 

The calendar is printed on the best recycled paper I could afford, made locally in Italy by a small producer who I know and trust. I thought carefully about all the details of my production being right so I can offer a completely eco friendly and handmade option.

When I decided to block print each calendar I was a bit nervous, because I knew it would be a very long process with masse of test printing and potential mistakes and I knew that the end result would be slightly different for each copy. But then I realized that only making it in this way would make me entirely happy and proud. So yes, each one is slightly different from the other, because of the way the ink is absorbed by the paper, because I might place the block in a slightly different position, maybe because the weather is damper and the ink works in a different way. But I'm happy with this; each one is different, each one is unique and beautiful in its own right. 

And do you know what its the best thing about it? At the end of each month you can cut off the bottom part and keep the printed illustration as an art print. Or gift it to somebody else.

So I decided to print 20 copies and they're available in my shop now, I'll do a second batch if anyone would like more. I really hope you will like it as much as I loved making it.

Mirta's calendar is a feat of making - a labour of love and the result is absolutely beautiful. Not only that I am utterly blown away by her English and it has inspired me to improve my Italian a little. 

If you'd like to have a peep at Mirta's shop it's here and she's also on Twitter and Instagram, where she'll be holding a giveaway next week. Her blog is a beautiful place to visit.

Note: I have shared Mirta's calendar, prints and design process because her products are exquisite, we both revere plants and find endless inspiration amongst their shapes and I thought others may want to see and read about how she makes her work. None of of the posts on silverpebble are sponsored in any way.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Making Winter

Youngest in a wood last week

That slight feeling of foreboding as we move towards November is simmering, as ever, at the back of my consciousness. The 'w' word is looming -the time when I tend to feel at best rather flat and at worst like a hedgehog with a hangover who was just rudely awoken by a Roman candle. The dahlias have drooped, the roses are on their last gasp and even my sedum's looking seedy. Weeks of slate grey skies lie ahead. Winter is approaching.

Then I remembered the joy of the project I ran with Mrs Thrifty four years ago. During Making Winter we shared ways to embrace the colder months. It was a joyous combination of dense, comforting puddings, beautiful, soothing yarncraft, hedgerow liqueurs, cosying up round open fires, winter walks and gathering trips that led to nature tables and beautiful wreaths. There may also have been the odd hand stitched hedgehog.

A soothing, meditative wip

It seemed to provide a sort of online cosy crafting bee with added gratuitous pictures of cake. I felt rather sad when March 2012 arrived. It was over. The hundreds of people who joined in went their separate ways and travelled on happily into Spring. I missed them. I missed the cake-based camaraderie and the innumerable truly gorgeous ideas, recipes and patterns that made what can be the months of gloom immeasurably cheerier. 

Many people asked me if I'd run it again. 

Tiny spot of treasure

So I am.

A week today, on the 1st of November, Making Winter '15-'16 shall begin. It shall be a creative survival guide to the colder months. A place to come when dinginess creeps in in February, when the lead up to the 'c' word is making you want to build a raft out of wooden crochet hooks and set sail for uncharted waters where there is absolutely no tinsel, accompanied by a seagull called Dave. 

I hope to rebuild that gorgeous, handknitted, homebaked, slightly twinkly, supportive, encouraging 'we CAN keep chipper (ish) till March' precious yet transient group of both lovers and haters of winter who for a few short months got together to make our way to Spring. 

Made in one of my workshops recently

I've invented a hashtag for the Instagram: #making_winter if you fancy sharing the ways in which you're celebrating or cheering yourself through the coming months.

Do you find winter tricky? Perhaps this can help. If you adore the weeks between November and March then it would be wonderful if you could share your favourite homemade recipes, patterns or tips to help others (including me) enjoy what they usually just about endure. 

The joy of Namolio's stall at Yarndale

I'll be hosting a bloghop during the first few days of every month until March 2016 starting next Sunday, 1st November. If you fancy posting during that week with:

what's on your needles, 
your baked triumphs, 
treasures you may have found in a hedgerow, 
the beanie you knitted for Bernard 
the afternoon you simply had to scoff your body weight in cake because it was so blimmin'' dreary outside 

and linking up it would be WONDERFUL-others can then leg it over to yours to see the heartening joy. I have some lovely guest bloggers lined up with seasonal loveliness and I had so many requests to exchange handwritten letters with me during the summer that I plan to link people up with one another for the new wintry version of handwritten project. Snailmail to cheer a dreich January day? Oh yes. 

Dedication eh? But needs must when the skies are the colour of last Sunday's dishwater. 

Let me know below if you fancy joining in...

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

A crochet shawl that should be on prescription

I have crocheted another shawl.

Only this time it's serious 

(and much much bigger).

When I made my first South Bay shawl a friend told me that it may be too tricky to tackle with my fledgling crochet skills. Which, of course, made me all the more determined to make one. Val was right really. At the time I found the pattern calculus-like in its complexity and would gaze at the pattern for hours, trying to translate the new language into stitches. I frogged metres of yarn and muttered many swears, but as I added more rows and the little arches of trebles and tiny woolly triangle grew, the movements of my hands as I made the stitches and the ways in which the elements of the pattern fitted together began to make sense.

At the time I remember marvelling at people who could actually make crochet patterns up though. How was such a thing even possible? It is surely tantamount to solving the riddle of the Higgs boson, but with hook and wool.

When I came to 'break wool and weave in ends' on my first South Bay I had become so familiar with the pattern that I spotted it being worn by someone else in the street and recognised it immediately. I nearly asked her about her yarn choice and hoped for a spot of SB camaraderie, but crochet shyness held me back. Her version was made in super chunky yarn, was so large that it reached down to her waist and was made in a soft muted wool the colour of lichen. I had a pang of envy and inwardly planned to make another, larger SB.

Something about the chunky smooshiness of this delicious, natural yarn (chunky Blue Faced Leicester roving by the West Yorkshire Spinners) makes my new shawl as cosy as a cardigan. What's even lovelier is that the fleeces of the Blue Faced Leicesters that graze on West Yorkshire hillsides seem to make the shawl stripy. The yarn colour shifts from cream, through grey skies to slate and to dark, weathered wood. As I've mentioned before, yarns that change colour avert woolly boredom for me and the dread UFO* doom.

As excellent as its snugness and stripes though is the meditative, soothing effect that this beautifully scalloped two row repeat has on the day's stresses. Once you've learned the pattern it's a project that can be turned to when cortisol levels are high, sunshine is nowhere and the dog just burgled the cake you made for tea. Making each lacy row helps to put trickiness aside, lets your brain breathe a sigh of relief and what's more your shoulders will thank you when you step out for a walk. This isn't the only crochet shawl pattern with a beautiful repeat though: the German Scallop, Virus, and a whole host of beautiful lacy scalloped two or three row repeat numbers are over on Pinterest and ravelry, like shelves full of gentle, cosy, woolly remedies.

This excellent pattern has been a jumping off point - the beginning of an urge to design my own shawls.  I'm keen to conjure super simple patterns though, that would appeal to beginners and seasoned wielders of yarn and hook alike. I've finished one (it's even been tested by a friend) and have been tinkering and twiddling with another.

Watch this woolly space...

*unfinished object