Archive for April, 2008

Bikes, socks and the promise of nettles

I have just taken delivery of a swanky, curvy, RSI-vanquishing ergonomic keyboard courtesy of the folks at the day-job, so please excuse any typos. It’s taking a while to get used to and is a bit like typing with one finger.

Seedlings continue to take over my living room. I’m kind of bored of talking about it now, but the peas are hardening off well and I let them stay out in the rain this afternoon for a while. I don’t know if this was good or not, but I thought they might want to get used to it before living outside. I wanted to plant them out this weekend, but we have to go and help the bf’s mum sort her house out before she moves (read: shift all the cr*p he refuses to throw away from her loft into our loft) and I don’t know if I want to be away for two nights while they’re all on their own in the big wide world… Gawd, I’m so pathetic. And demonstrably not bored of talking about it, clearly.

I’ve ordered loads of compost too, and this is a turn-up for the books: not only is Wiggly Wigglers’ organic, peat-free compost cheaper (including delivery) than the bog-standard stuff from the hardware shop at the end of the road (which is exceptionally useful in a crisis, so I’m happy to pay a bit more to support them and cover the running costs of an actual physical shop in an area of extortionately high property prices) but also cheaper than the bog-standard stuff at Wyevale. In fact, Wyevale is more expensive than the hardware shop. Economies of scale my *rse.

I have also acquired a bike on freecycle. Hurrah. It needs a clean and a new saddle, but it might have gears that work, which is a massive advantage over my current old banger.

Last night was the first meeting of Reading’s first ever sock club. Well, I assume it’s the first, anyway. ‘Sock club?’ I hear you ask. Yep, four of us from the knitting group have decided we want to learn to make socks, so I now have some scary dpns (why does the wool not fall off them??) and the world’s most gorgeous wool. Mmmmm…. Wool…….

Which, given that Sharon says that learning to knit socks is the single most useful thing you can do against the apocalypse, is very appropriate, I feel. I’m not normally one for taking part in challenges that people put on their blogs, largely because I have several ongoing challenges of my own, in addition to the general hassle of living and trying not to centre all of that around the internet, but this one is largely food related and is flexible enough so that it’s likely to fit around what I’m doing anyway. So I’m in. I have pledged that I am going to do two of the following things every week (thus by definition including a mandatory non-cooking one):

  1. Plant something
  2. Harvest something
  3. Preserve something
  4. Prep something
  5. Cook something
  6. Manage your reserves
  7. Work on local food systems

Hmmm… This week, therefore, I am going to plant some more herb seeds (I can’t face peak oil without four varieties of basil, y’know) and pick some nettles and have them for lunch.


April 29, 2008 at 3:36 pm 2 comments

Sod resilience; eat Spanish omelettes

Well, I was going to write a post about Grangemouth oil refinery closing, the hike in food and fuel prices and resilience and relocalisation, but I can’t be bothered. The long and the short of it can be summed up by two anecdotes: one of the hospitals I spoke to during my hospital food project last year after the town was cut off by snow and the food from the centralised NHS supply chain couldn’t get in, so they had to buy food in the local shops instead, and everyone also thought the food tasted better and was healthier (who’d’ve thought it); secondly, when we first heard the fuel protests of 2000 were going to happen, we stopped at every petrol station on the way home from school, every BP garage, every supermarket, and none of them had any petrol, and it was only when we got to the tiny garage near our house (after dithering about it because it didn’t seem likely they’d have any and if not it was an unneccesary detour) that we managed to fill up.

Ooh, we’re now having a thunderstorm and lots of rain. I don’t think my seedlings will be going outside today.

Yesterday was gorgeous, though. We went on a wild food walk at a park in Bracknell in the morning, which was quite interesting but a bit odd, as the person who was supposed to be running it hadn’t turned up, but instead of going home, a group of us went anyway as someone knew a bit about it. She promised to take us out looking for mushrooms in the autumn, but whether she’ll remember to email two total strangers in six months time is anyone’s guess.

In the afternoon, I put some potatoes in and sat in the garden doing important research, trying to work out where I’d put things. I’m dependent largely on containers this year, but I noticed that one side of the garden gets a lot of direct sunlight and the other is much shadier. I wonder how you’d do a proper crop rotation like that: surely at some point you’d end up growing peppers against a north-facing fence and lettuces in direct sunlight.

For supper, we had a great Spanish omelette, loosely based on Jamie Oliver’s frittata in the Jamie at Home book (which I bought last week with a book token from Easter) only with less chorizo and more greenery and a bit of goat’s cheese on my half. And most of a bottle of red wine.

Ooh, I just saw lightning. I’m going to get away from the electrical device now. 😉

April 27, 2008 at 8:56 am Leave a comment

Potatoes for Victory!

I really wish, when I confidently declared to Scientist Boyfriend the other day that, in the light of rising food prices, climate change, peak oil, the GM issue and biofuels, it was my moral duty to grow potatoes, that I had remembered that the bin I was going to plant them in* had harboured some pork bones for a couple of months. Of course I remembered as soon as I went out to inspect its potential potato-growing capacity. Oh yes, they’d smelt so bad I’d put them out there instead of in the kitchen one as the bins weren’t going to be collected for another few days. Well, I can tell you, two months later on, that really would have been the lesser of two evils. Yeurgh. Maggots. Yeurgh.

My seedlings are coming on nicely. I have actually potted on the Brussels sprouts and the peas (I accidentally decapitated a sprout… I’m a bad mother…) and the peas’ roots were SOOOO long already. I will now have to consult my gardening books, my forums and my dad and learn what to do next. I think it is that strange thing known as ‘pricking out’. Or ‘hardening off’. I wonder if there’s a difference. Some squash and pumpkins are coming through, and even some of the butternut squash seeds that I saved from a squash from the farmer’s market and kept in a mug over the winter cos I never got round to roasting and eating them are maybe, possibly, starting to possibly think about germinating.

Ruddy peppers resolutely not though.

The bf finished his exams last week. We walked an hour through the forest to get to the ‘village’ down the road to get to a celebratory curry and everyone thought we were nuts. At the weekend we put a big vat of chardonnay (mmm…) and stout (erm…) on to brew, which basically meant we spent the whole weekend washing up, and I tried to fix my bike and bent half the cutlery drawer getting the tyre off and then it turned out to be the valve not a puncture, and I’m actually tempted to get a new bike because that one is so rubbish I almost resent spending any more money on it. I had to get the back wheel replaced (or something… the bf did it while I was at work and he didn’t really know what he’d spent £40 of my money on) and that was almost the worth of the bike. There was a 1930s ladies’ bike for renovation on Freecycle, but I didn’t get it. Meh.

I’ve splurged and bought the Jamie at Home book, because I’m actually warming to Jamie Oliver (even if I say it through gritted teeth) and we’re having courgette carbonara tomorrow.

I’ve also bought a bokashi bin. I have come into some money – not very much money, not enough for a smallholding or anything fun: enough for a woodburner maybe, but not for a Clearview – and since the world is going to hell in a handcart, I thought that as well as whacking some of it into savings and praying it didn’t get swallowed by the banking crisis monster, I should invest some of it in sustainable things, so some of it is on the way to various useful charities and some of it earmarked for the furtherance of backyard sustainability.

I bought compost-related items.

With free seed potatoes.

My mother, who spent countless holidays and Christmases quietly tearing her hair out while my father and his father and sisters discussed chitting and ericaceous compost and carrot fly over the breakfast table, is close to disowning me as it is. She was only wincingly enthusiastic about the seedlings. She fears I am lost.

I didn’t tell her how excited I was about getting grow-bags.

Free seed potatoes though. Don’t care if it is a bit late, I’m so enthusiastic about potatoes saving the planet I had potato salad for lunch instead of pasta or a sandwich. Get me and my reducing my grain dependency.

* This plan may be scuppered by the fact that bins tend to lack drainage and it doesn’t seem polite to drill holes in the bottom of someone else’s property, even if it is your contribution to alleviating the food and fuel crisis.

April 22, 2008 at 9:44 pm Leave a comment

Things I have been reading lately

Some interesting things in the news today:

Exposed: the great GM crops myth from the Independent.

A good article by Michael Pollan (of ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’, a truly excellent book, fame) in the NY Times on the merits of individual action. The bit on the second page about specialisation is really interesting.

“Because the climate-change crisis is at its very bottom a crisis of lifestyle — of character, even. The Big Problem is nothing more or less than the sum total of countless little everyday choices, most of them made by us (consumer spending represents 70 percent of our economy), and most of the rest of them made in the name of our needs and desires and preferences.

“For us to wait for legislation or technology to solve the problem of how we’re living our lives suggests we’re not really serious about changing — something our politicians cannot fail to notice.”

“Here’s the point: Cheap energy, which gives us climate change, fosters precisely the mentality that makes dealing with climate change in our own lives seem impossibly difficult. Specialists ourselves, we can no longer imagine anyone but an expert, or anything but a new technology or law, solving our problems.”

Going personally green is a bet, nothing more or less, though it’s one we probably all should make, even if the odds of it paying off aren’t great. Sometimes you have to act as if acting will make a difference, even when you can’t prove that it will.”

Good point, Mr Pollan. I’d better go and make some yoghurt.

April 21, 2008 at 3:13 pm Leave a comment

Fabric won’t bite

Seeing as I am making such good progress with my antique sewing machine and my new suit, it seemed like a perfect time to lecture you all on why making clothes is really, really easy and everyone should do it. =)

Blogging is an odd fish. I can spend ages constructing a post about the moral case for fighting climate change and nobody says anything, and then I can scribble a few lines about my greasy hair and provoke a flurry of comments. You’re an odd lot, you lot. 😉

The thing that has provoked most interest and comments has been my dressmaking course, and I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest (given that this was how I felt) that it’s because it’s the kind of thing that everybody really wants to do (cos it’s useful and you get to play around with pretty fabrics and have clothes that fit you) but that seems horrendously complicated and nobody thinks they can do. My granny used to ‘manfully’ make clothes for my mum and auntie (as my mum put it), but never really enjoyed it, and my mum presumably learnt some things at school, but her dressmaking skills extend as far as sewing on buttons and (after much pleading) taking up my trousers. The most useful thing she passed on in that regard was that sellotape is a foolproof alternative to that invisible hemming.

So my maternal lineage singularly failed to teach me anything of much use in the sewing department and my school was even worse: my mum had been told at 13 that she was ‘too bright’ to do domestic science to O Level and made to take Greek instead. This seems to be the way education has gone, and my academic hothouse of a school didn’t even bother to try to teach me anything useful. We were the first year group to have cookery replaced by IT (no room for both), but that was okay, because we were all going to get 10 GCSEs, 4 A Levels, a place at a top university and a decent job, so we could just pay other people to grow and prepare our food, mend our clothes, repair our electronics and clean our houses.

Ah well, peak oil kinda b*ggered that plan. Never mind.

I’m also a funny shape. Having an immensely robust sense of self, I’ve decided that I’m actually quite a healthy shape. I don’t have any problem with my hips or my chest, I quite like them, in fact – I have issues with my knees, and I think my arms are too skinny, but overall, my problem is with the fashion industry that says we shouldn’t have breasts and hips. Or that if we do, we shouldn’t be short. Seriously, after years of finding that any trousers that fit around the hips are several inches too long or that any shirt that closes is too baggy around the shoulders and tummy, I just cracked. I will not be dictated to by corporate fashion houses about what shape I should be. For anybody who rolls their eyes and asks if our grandmothers chained ourselves to the railings outside Parliament only for me to start baking bread and making clothes, I say this is an act of defiance and empowerment in the face of disposable fashion, the sickening attitudes towards women’s bodies you see in the media and our culture of dependence on corporate giants who want to tell us what shape we should be, what we should wear and think it’s okay for 9-year-old Bangladeshi girls to make it for us.

Whoa, okay, that was a big side-track. Where was I? Yes, you lot were interested in my battles against 23 years of ignorance and a sewing machine.

I even had a specific request for help. Natalia wrote (way back in March, sorry Natalia – it was on an old post and I’m afraid I didn’t notice it for a while):

Hi everybody 🙂
I’m trying to find a place here in New York City to take some sewing classes. I could go to FIT or Parsons and take some CE, but I have two problems: 1. I’m learning english, all those words are new for me and 2. it gives me panic that somebody shouts me again because I can’t understand what they are trying to tell me, trust me! I had an experience of: Don’t you understand me? once and I felt like… terrible… Some suggestion to begin? as soon as I feel confidence about what I’m doing I’ll go straight to FIT with a big smile. Please 🙂

Now, I’m a very long way from New York City, so I can’t really help you on finding a class or a teacher, but I can tell you, and everybody else who seemed impressed and faintly awed that I was learning to make clothes (you know who you are 😉 )

don’t be scared.

There, I’ve even written it in a non-threatening colour.

Firstly, I’m English, have a degree in linguistics and have worked as an English teacher, and all those sewing words were totally new to me too. When I got my sewing machine, I got some books on dressmaking out of the library, even quite promisingly titled books such as ‘Dressmaking Made Easy’, and was totally baffled, it seemed like a foreign language – selvage? darts? yoke?

I thought maybe I could handle curtains (they’re square and they don’t have hips or breasts or anything), so I got some more books out of the library, again called things like, ‘Soft Furnishing for People who Really Haven’t a Clue.’ Yeah, right. I couldn’t mitre corners when I started reading, and I couldn’t when I finished. In fact, I only have a hazy understanding of what mitred corners are and I still hang blankets over my windows at night.

Books, people, are not the way to go. While I contend that a moderately intelligent and extremely patient person could probably teach themselves to knit with a good book of beginner patterns and the videos on Knitting Help, I think if you want to learn how to use a sewing machine to actually make things, you really need somebody to show you what to do. I know that I was incredibly lucky that my teacher was so enthusiastic and inspiring. My mum said to me, ‘Well, you’ll probably make a cushion cover, and then an apron, and then an a-line skirt,’ which sounds to me like a 1960s home ec course, and it was nothing like that at all! Right from the off, we were told to make things that we wanted to make. One girl had done the course the previous term, had never sewn before that and had designed a jacket from just a picture in the People Tree catalogue finished it a few weeks ago. It looked amazing!

I know that having a teacher you don’t get on with is really scary, but I think that in this day and age, most people who have ‘traditional’ skills (like making clothes, knitting, home-brewing…) are just very pleased when someone shows an interest in learning from them. They’re probably quite used to the fact that most people haven’t got a clue what any of the words mean. Well, in my experience anyway. Granted, some teachers might seem a bit jaded after years of being incarcerated with ungrateful brats and following a dictatorial curriculum, but most people who teach evening classes generally do it because they’re really passionate about whatever it is and are keen to help others.

So – don’t be frightened to take classes. I really think it’s the best way to learn how to sew, and it would be a shame if you let one impatient teacher put you off learning for life.

One thing I would suggest is not buying a commercial pattern. Not to start with, anyway. Seriously, you’ll open this envelope and get loads and loads of tissue paper, which you cut into shapes that don’t look like they’d fit together in any way, then you’ll pin them to the fabric and they’ll tear and they’ve got all these little symbols and marks on them that are supposed to be some kind of code for how to make it fit over your individual lumps and bumps….. If you have someone who can explain what it all means and when some of the things they recommend in the instructions are unnecessary it makes it a lot easier.

To start with, I’d suggest getting a selection of clothes out of your wardrobe. Basically, all clothes are made up of a number of ‘panels’ of fabric, with about 1.5cm extra around the sides which are the bits you stitch together (the seam allowance). You draw these panels on paper (or get a commercial pattern where they’ve done that for you), then pin the paper to the fabric and cut them out. This isn’t particularly complex – the trick is in being really careful. I’m a particularly neurotic person, so I was good at this part. =) Oh, and have a separate pair of scissors for cutting fabric – if you cut paper with them, you’ll blunt them.

Go to your wardrobe and dig out a selection of clothes. Find some jeans and some tailored trousers and compare the backs. You’ll probably notice that jeans have two long panels for the legs and an extra piece between the tops of the legs and the waistband. That is the yoke. Tailored trousers will probably have some darts in (seams that don’t hold bits of fabric together but are just there for shaping).

Look at a variety of skirts and notice which ones are more complicated. The pink skirt I made was very simple – big panel at the front, big panel at the back (both the same size) and short bands to line the waist. More fitted skirts might have more panels or a separate waistband.

Once you start really examining your clothes in detail to see how they fit together, it might all seem clearer. If you like, I’ll post some pictures of this later in the week and see if I can find some way of showing it all visually, as it’s much easier to grasp then, but the bf is currently asleep in the bedroom so going and digging around for clothes might be a bit mean.

One easy way to make patterns is to find an item of clothing that already fits. Once you’ve identified the panels, get yourself a tracing wheel

and some paper (preferably ‘dots and crosses’ paper, but any tracing paper would probably do)

and draw round the panels, using a pencil for the edges of the garment and the tracing wheel to trace the other seams. I promise it won’t destroy your fabric (though maybe best not to use it on silk or something). Hey presto, lots of bits of paper that you can use as a pattern for making something! (If you’re really brave, you can now go and buy designer clothing, copy it, make it yourself and then take it back.)

If none of this makes any sense, why not try looking at this blog. Not only will it make you really enthusiastic about making clothes, but she also did a great series of videos entitled ‘Things to know before you sew’ that you will find if you search her blog for ‘things to know’.

And, Natalia, she’s even based in New York. Maybe she could recommend a class or a teacher.

April 20, 2008 at 9:48 am 2 comments


Just saw this over at Powering Down.

April 20, 2008 at 8:25 am Leave a comment

Wildlife gardening???

Oh, oh, oh, I don’t understand. *stomps foot and throws organic gardening book at the wall*

We keep getting visits from neighbours’ cats in our garden, I’ve seen at least two different ones. Now, cats might eat or at least deter the rat in the compost heap… but they might also eat and deter birds…. which are useful, because they eat things that might eat my vegetables… so I should feed them…. but I should also protect my seedlings from them because they might eat them instead…..

And comfrey… Comfrey can be used to make comfrey tea to fertilise plants, but it’s also taking over my garden and apparently if you pluck bits off it, it only goes back stronger.

Are birds good or bad? Do I want the cat or not? How can I get rid of the rat? How do I make sure I have the right amount of comfrey to be useful without it choking everything else? How can I encourage ‘good’ wildlife into my garden without the ‘bad’ wildlife wreaking havoc?


And… breeeeeeeeathe…..

Sometimes I’m not surprised people reach for Roundup and slug pellets.

Though I suppose my wildlife neurosis is part of the ‘must… control… nature…’ thing. Maybe the trick is not to panic.

April 19, 2008 at 3:55 pm 3 comments

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April 2008
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The Heritage Crafts Network

Rob Hopkins, Transition Handbook

“Environmentalists have often been guilty of presenting people with a mental image of the world’s least desirable holiday destination – some seedy bed and breakfast near Torquay, with nylon sheets, cold tea and soggy toast – and expecting them to get excited about the prospect of NOT going there. The logic and the psychology are all wrong.”

Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

"Food is that rare moral arena in which the ethical choice is generally the one more likely to make you groan with pleasure."

Carlo Petrini

"A gastronome who is not also an environmentalist is an idiot. An environmentalist who is not also a gastronome is, well, sad."

Sharon Astyk

"I am, of course, firmly opposed to consumerism and corporatism in all its forms, and I believe that we are deeply confused about material needs and wants. Now let me explain how books and yarn are totally different than the material things that other people want ;-)…."

Raj Patel, at Slow Food Nation

"Biofuels, which is the preposterous policy that we should grow food not to eat it but to set it on fire."