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Wales, United Kingdom
Documenting one couple's attempts to live a more self-sufficient life.

Friday, 30 September 2011

Reducing car use

This week's Change the World Wednesday challenge is to replace at least one car trip with a bicycle or walking trip. Living out in the sticks, that's pretty tricky. I generally only use the car to go to places that are too far away to walk. The car journeys I'm making this week are:-

Visit Sarah in Capel Seion: 8 miles
Meeting in London - drive to Aberystwyth station: 12 miles
Club AGM in Warwickshire: 130 miles

The last is obviously out of the question, but the first two are the kind of distances that people cycle. Could I...? Have you seen the hills around here? My car struggles with some of them! This begs the question: Why am I hanging on to my bike?

My bike.

I bought it when we moved to the flatlands, determined to get fit and cycle to work (8 miles). Apart from the fact that my route to work was nowhere near as flat as much of the surrounding countryside, I discovered that it was very busy and the roads weren't wide enough for two cars and one bike. This is not good if you happen to be on the bike and there are two unbroken streams of cars. Frankly, it was all too scary, and I never did cycle to work.

Now I'm a lot fitter and the roads are less busy, but they're still pretty scary, with many twists making for poor visibility. They're also much steeper. When the shortest journey I make regularly is as much as eight miles (sixteen, counting coming back), that feels like a big mountain to climb. Do I admit that I'm never going to use my lovely bike, or do I man up and get in the saddle? I don't know.

I do reduce car use in other ways, though. I loathe going to the supermarket, so I go as rarely as possible. I've managed to reduce the frequency to one every five or six weeks - just ten times a year - which I'm pleased with. For perishable food we either go to the village shop (300 yards) or try to combine shopping with another trip. Ian volunteers as a community bus driver, which takes him into town once or twice a week. I give him instructions to go to the butcher or the greengrocer while he's there. This means that shopping very rarely means an extra car journey.

This is all very well, but none of this is helping with this week's challenge. There was one thing I could do with this week's car journeys. I picked up the phone:
Hi, it's Rachel. Do you want a lift to Sarah's tonight?
By offering a friend a lift, I cut out one car journey. I haven't always been in the position where car sharing is practical - I certainly knew nobody who did the same journeys as me where we last lived - but here it is, at least some of the time.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011


I slept badly last night and at some point amidst the tossing and turning I noticed that it was starting to get light. I got up and looked out of the window to see a beautiful clear dawn.

First light of dawn

Once out of bed, there didn't seem much point going back, so I got dressed, made myself a cup of tea, and went outside to watch the sunrise. I watched as the soft grey clouds turned vivid pink.

The pink faded and I stood, drinking my tea. I listened to the birds announcing the new day, sometimes just one, sometimes several. I saw a buzzard flying back and forth across the valley. I listened to the constant rush of the stream, loud enough to all but drown out the dawn chorus. I saw a bat circling, but got distracted before I saw where it went when it headed home to roost. I was taken by surprise by a baa! behind me, from a group of lambs not used to seeing a human so close at this time of the morning. I saw the trail of an aeroplane climbing from the horizon, first a dirty smudge in the sky, then a streak of pale gold as the sunlight caught it.

I saw the sunlight first on distant hills, then a while later the tops of the oak trees above me acquired a soft golden glow, then distinct shadows on the ground below, until they were fully, beautifully lit by the rising sun.

Sunlit trees, while the ground below is still in the shadow of the hills.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Fruit leather

Even when we can't grow fruit and veg ourselves, we still try to buy local, seasonal food, which isn't great for fruit in winter. Last winter I got pretty fed up of apples. In the interests of more variety this year, I've been thinking about preserving fruit by drying. I did try straightforward drying for a handful of blackcurrants, just by spreading them out in a basket in the conservatory. That worked, but took quite a while, and I'm not sure it would be so easy with larger fruit (and most fruits are larger than blackcurrants).

As an alternative to drying fruit whole, they can be pulped first and spread out to make fruit leather. I tried this for the first time last year using a mixture of rosehips and haws, and it was delicious, so I'm repeating that as well as extending the range this year. Haws (fruit of the hawthorn tree) are invaluable for providing pectin, which is essential for fruit leather. My first batch was made with blackberries and haws picked when foraging in Wiltshire. I stewed the fruit in a pan together, roughly equal quantities of the two kinds, and kept stewing it until most of the water had evaporated.

Once I had a thick, stodgy mess in the pan, I pushed it through a seive to remove the pips and stones. This is hard work and takes ages, but can be done whilst watching telly, so it's not too bad. When I got fed up of trying to separate pulp from pips and had a suitably thick paste in the bowl, I tasted it and added a bit of honey to sweeten. You could use sugar, but I fancied honey - not the runny kind, though, because I didn't want to add too much liquid. Once it tasted about right* I spread it thinly on a non-stick baking tray.

Spreading fruit pulp on a baking tray. This one's damson. I did have a better picture of an earlier batch, but deleted it by mistake. Sorry.

This then needs drying. In warmer weather I could probably do this in the conservatory, but it would need protection from flies. As it's pretty cold and damp here at the moment, I'm using the oven for drying. This means putting the tray in the oven on a very low temperature for an hour or two, then turning the oven off and leaving overnight. If it's still sticky in the morning, put the oven on again for a bit. I think opening the door periodically would probably help, too.

I did try being economical by putting one batch of leather on a low shelf while cooking cakes on a higher shelf. They don't need the oven very hot, so I thought that would be OK. It was OK, but the resulting leather had a strong taste of caramel, which might not be what you're aiming for.

When dry, fruit leather looks like this:

Fruit leather (damson again) being peeled off the baking tray.

As these were stickier on the tray side than the air side (unsurprisingly) I decided to fold them over so they stuck to themselves and made double thickness leather, which I then cut into snack bar sized pieces.

As you'll have picked up from the rest of this post, I've made several batches of this. The first was blackberry and haw, using the Wiltshire hedgerow fruit - most delicious. The second was bilberry and haw using local fruit. The bilberries were right at the end of their season and the haws were barely at the start of theirs, so neither fruit was at its best. This was OK, but not as good at the blackberry one. The next batch was damson (no haws in this one as damsons are high pectin themselves), using a pound of windfalls that next door's tree had dropped onto our driveway. I couldn't bear to see them sitting there going rotten! That one was very tasty but possibly a bit too sharp. I probably should have added a bit more honey.

I have another batch of damsons on the go now (I got permission from the neighbours to actually pick their fruit). This time I've left the stewed pulp fairly wet and hung to drip for cordial first, then I'll make leather with the remaining pulp. I'm assuming the flavour will be less intense as I'll have taken some off for cordial, but damsons have a lot of flavour to start with, so there should be plenty to go round. I'm also planning a rosehip one, as that was so nice last year... in fact, as the haws are now a bit riper, I might just go and do that right now!


*One advantage of fruit leather is that it needs much less sugar (or honey) than other methods of preserving fruit, such as jam,

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Save energy: Clean the fridge

I'm not talking about the cleaning the inside of the fridge, here, but the back. A fridge is a heat exchanger; it takes transfers heat from the inside of the fridge out into the room. The part that sends the heat out into the room is a radiator type attachment on the back. If this is coated with an insulating layer of dust, it's going to have to work harder to get the heat out there, so the fridge is less efficient, overall.

Cleaning it is such a no-brainer that I shouldn't need any prompting to do it, but... well, I'm rubbish at housework at the best of times, and out of sight is out of mind, so this job tends to get neglected. I am therefore very grateful to Small Footprints for this week's nice, easy Change the World Wednesday challenge: Check your fridge. This gave me the nudge I needed to go and do that small job.

It really is a very small job; move fridge away from the wall, dust back of fridge, move it back. Of course it wasn't quite that easy. I used a cloth duster first, and though that removed some of the dust, there was obviously still quite a lot left. I then tried a fluffy kind of duster, which wasn't much better. I decided that what I really needed was a paintbrush to get into all the little gaps, and wondered where I'd left the brushes after the last time I used them. A bit of poking about revealed one brush on the kitchen windowsill (not sure what happened to the others). That worked much better than the dusters, so then it was a matter of a few minutes to clean the back of the fridge.

Before and after photos of the back of my fridge. As you can see, years of neglect left it seriously dusty. I don't know why the grill in the right hand photo appears lower. I didn't move it, honest.

It's not completely clean now, but there's a lot less dust trapping the heat in the grill, so hopefully my fridge is now breathing a sigh of relief that it doesn't have to struggle against this blanket as it tries to do its job.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Foraging near and far

I'm afraid this is a no-picture post. I did have some, but I just deleted all 76 photos on my phone instead of just one, as I intended. Sorry about that. Anyway, on with the post.

We've been away a fair bit this summer and when we were in Oxfordshire over the August bank holiday, I noticed elder trees laden with ripe berries, while the fruit on mine is still (even now) hard and green. The following weekend we went to my cousin's wedding in north Wiltshire (I'm not sure that's technically correct, but it sounds better than near Swindon doesn't it?) and stayed for the weekend, giving us much of Sunday free. I found a large carrier bag and set off on Sunday morning along a footpath beyond the church that my cousin had shown us last time we visted.

I was hoping to find elderberries, but didn't see them in the quantities I'd seen in Oxfordshire. I did see blackberries, but thought I wouldn't pick those as they're already ripe in Wales, too. I saw a few elderberries, and picked those I could reach. Then I spotted bright red haws (fruit of the hawthorn). As a fruit in its own right, the haw is pretty rubbish. It's small, mostly stone, and tastes very bland. However, it is very high in pectin and what flavour it has is similar to apple, which makes it very useful in combination with the dark berries that are ripe at this time of year. I picked some.

A little further on I spotted something very exciting - damsons! These may not be exciting to other people, but I've never seen them growing wild before. In fact, I had to look them up when I got home to be sure they weren't wild plums, or some other related species. Not that it would have mattered if they were, but I like to know. So, small plum-like fruit with dark skins and a beautiful blue bloom, sweet flesh and very sharp tasting skins - those are damsons. I picked some of those, too.

Moving on, I picked a few more elderberries, some more haws, then spotted such abundant, ripe, accessible blackberries that my resolve weakened and I gathered some of those - quite a lot, actually.

On my way back by this time, I tried a different turning, and found a large grassy area by a tiny lane, and here were the elderberries I'd been seeking! Two or three trees, heavily laden, with branches hanging low enough to make picking easy. I gathered as many as I could, along with some more damsons that were also growing there. Satisfied with my haul, and indeed struggling to carry the full bag, I headed back up the hill, deciding to pick no more fruit. But then...

Then, right on the footpath that I'd walked down earlier, I saw hazelnuts! It is very rare to spot these before the squirrels eat them all, and here was an entire tree's crop spread out all over the footpath. Again, my resolve weakened, and I stopped to pick up as many hazelnuts as I could find.

The final haul was: 5lb 2oz elderberries, 1lb 4 oz haws, 2lb 15 oz damsons, 2 lb 6 oz blackberries, and 1lb 14oz hazelnuts. In total, pretty heavy!

So what to do with this bounty? Whatever I did would have to be quick - berries go mouldy remarkably quickly, especially blackberries. After all that foraging (about three hours) and travelling back on Sunday, I didn't have any time immediately, but got to work on Monday. First the elderberries - the purpose of my mission.

I've heard that elderberries make excellent wine. My dad make elderberry wine once. I don't remember the quality, but a great deal of it was consumed at my eighteenth birthday party. I looked to the 'Ish forum for a recipe, and found a simple one. As I had five pounds of berries, I increased the quantities by about a quarter, i.e. added an extra half pound of sugar and a bit more water. I didn't bother with the lemon juice, though, as I didn't have any - surely elderberries are acidic enough anyway? I also couldn't be bothered with the freezing first, but I did spend quite a bit of time squeezing them, so hopefully that will make up for it.

After four or five days (I lost count), I laboriously strained the liquid from the pulp. This was complicated by the fact that I had plans for the pulp, so needed to keep it. Eventually I got the whole lot strained and into a demijohn. As instructed, I topped it up until it was pretty much full. This turned out to be a mistake, as I discovered it the next day trying to escape! There wasn't a huge amount of mess, but the top of the air lock had disappeared, being replaced by a cap of breathing purple sludge. I left it to calm down a bit...

Having set the elderberries on their way to becoming wine, I turned my attention to the other fruit. A little more jam wouldn't go amiss, so that was the destination of the damsons. I thought they'd be low pectin, but according to the internet they're not, so I didn't bother adding anything to them, apart from sugar, of course. Although the mixture passed the wrinkle test, the jars of jam didn't set entirely. Either I didn't give it long enough cooking, or damsons are, as suspected, low in pectin. The jam's a fairly thick gloop, so can be spread on bread, which is OK, but I could have used lemon pips to improve it.

I wasn't sure whether Ian would like the damson jam, and he was out at the time so couldn't give feedback, so I decided to make more jam with some of the blackberries. I know these are low in pectin, so I mixed them with half of the haws (10oz). I can't remember how many blackberries I used, but it was considerably more than the haws. I think I picked some more from the garden. Anyway, after more stewing, pushing through a seive, adding sugar, boiling and pouring into jars, I also have some blackberry and haw jam, or bramble jelly if you prefer.

I had one more plan for this batch of foraged fruit. I'd kept back half of the haws and a similar quantity of blackberries to make fruit leather, which I'll tell you about in a different post. Apart from that, I picked the leafy bits off the hazelnuts and spread them out to dry so they won't go mouldy. I can deal with them another time.

The title of this post is foraging near and far, but I've only told you about the 'far' as yet. A week later I went out foraging closer to home. I've noticed a few hazelnuts and beechnuts on the ground, so I was hoping to find more of both of these, as well as more blackberries and anything else I could find. I know I've seen roads lined with hazel trees, but I obviously misremembered the location, because they weren't there when I went out looking. I did find blackberries along that road, though, so I picked some of them.

I then went to a spot with several waymarked walks, including Ancient Beech Walk. If I was going to find beech nuts anywhere, surely they would be here. I did find the prickly cases on the ground, and when I prised them open they had small nuts inside, but they did look very small. Sure enough, when I stuck a fingernail through them, they turned out to be empty. I did try quite a few, but no actual nuts. Maybe I'm too early - is this the beech tree equivalent of the June drop of apples? Never mind, the trees were very beautiful. I wish I could show you pictures!

On my way to the beech tree walk I did find some more bilberries, proving me wrong about their season being over. Although they were small I stood and picked them, getting rather cold in the process, as the edge of Hurricane Katia was just starting to make itself felt. Further on, I found and picked more blackberries, and more haws, though had to move on because of the cold. Foraging is not a very energetic activity.

As I walked back across the fields, I looked out optimistically for more field mushrooms, but didn't see any. As I got back to the village, though, I did find a few hazelnuts on the ground.

What to do with this lot, then? Well the blackberries were destined for wine, as I'd read on the 'Ish forum that this wine can be drunk young, i.e. by Christmas. I'd have to wait a year for the elderberry, so it'd be nice to have some red that I can drink soon. The reserved elderberries were for this wine, too. They'd have plenty of wine yeast in them and hopefully give the wine a bit more depth of flavour. I stuck my pound or so of blackberries in a bucket with a pound of sugar, the reserved elderberries, and some water. I was too tired to do more with it that night.

The next day, I looked up recipes for blackberry wine. Most called for at least four pounds of fruit to the gallon, some considerably more. They also all required six months to a year of fermentation/maturing. Oh well. I obviously needed more fruit, and while there's plenty around, I do get a bit annoyed by websites that tell you that an hour's picking will easily yield five pounds of berries. Um, not when I'm picking, it doesn't. Even when berries are easily found and abundant as they are at the moment, I pick around two pounds in an hour. Not a problem - just saying.

I started by picking all the berries I could get to on the steep bit with the oak tree with only moderate risk to life and limb (it's steep). That brought my total up to about three pounds. More berries needed. I checked the railway timetable to make sure no more trains were due that day, and set off along the railway line. Blackberries always grow alongside railway lines, don't they? Sure enough, I didn't have to go far before I found plenty. Another hour and a half's picking brought the total quantity of berries up to 5lb 9oz. All these went into the bucket, along with another pound of sugar, and I mashed it up with a potato masher. I don't have a hydrometer (would it work in amongst all that fruit pulp?) but blackberries are quite high in sugar, so I didn't think I'd need too much. The total volume is rather more than a gallon, but there's an awful lot of pulp, so by the time I've strained all that out I may be down to a gallon. If not, then I'll have more wine!

I had about 6oz each of haws and bilberries, which I used to make more fruit leather. I will tell you about this, I promise, but right now it's bed time, so I'm going to stop blogging. Night night!

Zero waste week update

In fulfilment of my pledge for Zero Waste Week, I had planned to hem the offcuts of my new dress to make hankies and find or make a couple of pouches for keeping clean and dirty ones in my handbag. But I didn't get round to it. There was much foraging to be done (which I'll tell you about shortly), and though that's a fairly lame excuse, it's all I've got.

I did make some progress, though. Commenting on my post, Eco Cat Lady advised that old T-shirts are easier because they don't need hemming. This was very useful information! I have a big heap of old T-shirts reserved for gardening, as they're not fit for wearing in public (actually, some of them probably are these days, as my standards have slipped somewhat). I fished one out from the bottom of the pile, set to with the scissors, and made myself a heap of washable tissues.

Next, I found a plastic box that used to have fruit in it, and a little plastic pouch in which underwear were sold. These became my new tissue box and dedicated bin/laundry bag for the used hankies.

Replacement for box of tissues and bin

The theme of this year's Zero Waste Week was Reducing waste away from home. Hmm. Replacing the tissue box is very much at home. Well, I did go out a few times, and I stuffed one of my new tissues into my pocket, so that when I needed to blow my nose, that was what I used. I didn't quite do what I intended, but I succeed in reducing waste and I can say that I have used no disposable tissues since making the pledge.

Friday, 9 September 2011


I decided that the best way of preserving my blighted potatoes would be to turn them into frozen chips. We used to buy chips ready frozen, so making them from scratch is something I've learnt to do in the past year. I had some trouble finding instructions for how to do so, and eventually found what I was looking for in Jane Grigson's Vegetable Book.

She starts by saying that deep frying has no place in a domestic kitchen, especially with children around: I know we should not over-protect them, but I draw the line at boiling oil. Having said this, I admit the book would be incomplete without instructions for making these delicious kinds of potato. I tried making chips according to her recipe, which involves cooking them in small batches. They're crispy enough when they first come out of the oil, but by the time enough small batches have been cooked for a meal (and there are only two of us), most of the chips have gone soggy.

I started experimenting with an alternative method. We used to cook oven chips, so could I replicate those? The final stage of cooking is obviously in the oven, but they're coated in fat before we buy them, so I'd need a first stage of cooking to apply that coating. I tried deep frying, but that still led to sogginess - probably too much oil absorbed. Then I tried shallow frying, again in fairly small batches, which was much more successful. I experimented with different fats, including sunflower oil and various meat fats, before settling on beef tallow as my favourite, closely followed by lamb tallow. Lard is no good as it burns too easily.

The recipe is pretty simple:
  • Cut potatoes into chip shapes, thickness according to preference.
  • Heat fat in frying pan to a medium heat.
  • Add chips to pan, in small enough quantity to make a single layer with a bit of room to move about.
  • Stir constantly while cooking, to coat chips all over in fat and keep them from sticking to the pan and each other. Any bits that do stick to the pan should be scraped off so they don't burn.
  • When chips are just starting to colour, transfer to a baking sheet.
    --- Chips can be frozen at this stage, if storing ---
  • Cook in oven preheated to gas mark 6/200°C/400°F for 10 min (longer if thick, or if frozen. Even longer if both thick and frozen).

Chips after first stage of cooking, ready to freeze or finish cooking in the oven

We think of chips as being high in fat, and the deep fried kind certainly do absorb a lot of oil. However, when I look at how much fat is absorbed when cooking a portion of chips this way, and consider how much butter I'd add to boiled or baked potatoes, I find it's about the same. For me, then, chips are no more fatty than any other way of eating potatoes, but that probably says more about how much butter I put on my spuds than the healthiness of this chip recipe!

Thursday, 8 September 2011

I have to do something about those slugs!

Last time I posted about slugs eating my veg, Mrs Green asked whether I was sure it was slugs? Perhaps it might be voles or mice? Well, we certainly have those, and that would explain why my attempts at slug-deterrence were utterly useless. But...

Caught in the act

... yes, I am sure.

It's clearly time for action. Actually, it's well past time for action - I should have done something about this ages ago. My problem with slugs, apart from the fact that they're eating all my veg, is that I can't bring myself to kill them. This is entirely illogical as I want them dead. I would be very happy if a hedgehog or a toad, or preferably whole families of both, moved in and munched through the lot of them. I just can't make myself deliberately turn a living creature into a dead one, not even the most vile and repulsive creature on the planet that is the slug.

I need another approach. Graham suggested relocating them - that's something I could cope with. At least, I could if I could face handling them. Yeuch! I donned gardening gloves and lined a flower pot with some weeds. There were several reasons for doing this. 1) to close up the holes in the bottom of the pot, 2) so that the slugs wouldn't all be stuck to the sides of the pot when I tried to tip them out, and 3) in the hope that the slugs might be less inclined to escape if they had some nice vegetation to munch on. This last turned out to be in vain.

Urgh, urgh, don't let it touch me!

Although screaming like a big girl's blouse isn't entirely conducive to deliberate action, I had a plan. Along one edge of our garden, there is what must be a pretty effective barrier.

Surely not even the most determined of monster slugs would cross
a railway line in search of carrots?

A dozen or so slugs have been relocated to the other side of the railway line. I will repeat this operation for as long as I see their horrid slimy bodies making for my veg, and hopefully get the population down to a number I can live with. None would be nice, but I'd be happy with any number that allows me to harvest a few courgettes and maybe a pumpkin.

Field mushrooms

Chatting to my sister about a year ago, we both agreed that our quality of life would be improved by the ability to confidently identify even one wild, edible mushroom. Well, now I can!

I was out for a walk with Ian recently, crossing a sheep field when I spotted these:

Field mushrooms, but not actually in a field. Sorry.

I rushed over and started picking them. Ian was less enthusiastic, Don't eat them! No, it's OK, I said, These are good. They're field mushrooms. An old lady of his acquantance had told him that it's a good time of year for field mushrooms, so that gave some credence to my claim. I promised to look them up carefully when I got home, which I did, and this confirmed my identification, so I added them to the pasta sauce we were having for dinner that night (well, to my serving. Ian doesn't like mushrooms).

Did it improve my quality of life? Well, yes. My dinner was improved a little and it pleased me greatly to be able recognise a common edible mushroom.

WARNING: Do not rely on this photo to identify field mushrooms. Consult three reliable field guides and pay particular attention to poisonous mushrooms that look similar. In this case, the death cap mushroom looks remarkably similar from above.

Bilberry fields forever

I should have written this post a couple of weeks ago. Bilberries have a long season, but not forever and I suspect they're over now. Even when I went out looking for them in mid August, I worried that this might be all I'd find:

One slightly withered bilberry clinging to a bush

My sister was staying in early July and while we were out for a walk, she spotted a good place for bilberries, complete with several people who had clearly just been picking said berries, and were at that time wiping the juice off their fingers. Being a bit slow to get round to things, it was over a month later that I set out with plastic tubs in my backpack, down through the dark forest...

I'm not sure whether this picture captures just how steep that path is,
but let me assure you, it is steep.

... to the nature reserve beyond, where many bilberries may be found:

Bilberries as far as the eye can see. Well, not quite, but lots of them.
The purple bits are flowering heather.

Bilberries are never very densely packed on the bushes, but I was relieved to find that they weren't quite as sparse as I'd initially feared.

Several bilberries, all on the same bush

For those who don't know, bilberries are similar to blueberries, but smaller. They grow wild in moorland and hilly areas, including this bit of West Wales. With such an abundance of wild fruit on my doorstep, I feel almost duty bound to collect it, though it did take rather a long time. After about three hours of foraging (you really have to enjoy this activity to do it - the returns aren't worth the time invested otherwise), I had a couple of pots full of berries...

Bilberries in a pot

... and a husband on the phone wondering if I was planning on coming home, you know, ever? He kindly offered to come and fetch me in the car, which meant I didn't have to climb up that very steep path.

I would have climbed this path, but I wasn't looking forward to it

It took Ian longer than he'd expected to get to me (short walk along the path, long drive around by road) so while I was waiting, I picked a few blackberries that were growing near the spot we'd agreed to meet. By the time we got home it was well into the evenings (hence the phone call) so I left processing the berries until the next day. I did, however, put a desertspoonful of lemon pips, saved for this purpose, into a small pot of water to soak overnight. The reason for this is that bilberries are low in pectin, so won't set easily as jam, and lemon pips are a good source of pectin. Preparing the berries the next day wasn't really that much work, just checking them over and picking off the stalks, but it still takes a while. I weighed them...

1 lb 5 oz of bilberries

... put a few aside for adding to cakes, and started stewing the rest, with the lemon pips in a little bag, to make jam. They mushed down pretty quickly, and I shook some sugar in. I wasn't very precise about this, but I was aiming for about a pound, to then add more until it tasted about right. OK, about half a bag goes in... oh hang on, that's a TWO KILO bag, not two pounds! PANIC! First I added the ounce or so of bilberries I'd put aside for cakes - that wouldn't make much difference, though. I also added the blackberries, which I'd decided not to use in jam because of the pips. Still not enough. I rushed outside with a colander and picked blackberries growing by the driveway, along the railway fence. The train only goes past four times a day, so the pollution shouldn't be much of an issue. I've no idea what quantity of fruit I ended up with, but the resulting mixture ended up tasting pretty much like jam - a bit too sweet, but not excessively so. Phew!

Because I'd added the pip-laden blackberries I seived the mixture before boiling it to jam-stage, which was a nuisance. After that came the boiling and the wrinkle test, then I ended up with seven jars of slightly-too-sweet bilberry and blackberry jam. It set nicely, or possibly like toffee - I haven't tried any from a jar yet, though I had a little that never made it into a jar, and that was very tasty.

Bilberry and blackberry jam

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

First project on treadle sewing machine: Party dress

It may seem like an ambitious place to start, but I needed a dress to wear to my cousin's wedding. I had a dress I'd worn to another wedding earlier in the summer, but that was a) an evening dress, so not really appropriate for a daytime wedding, and b) in need of many safety pins to hold it up. So, with just under a month to go before the happy occasion, I decided to make myself a new dress.

Taking inspiration from a dress worn by a friend recently (that I've just spent, oh, far too long trying to find a photo of) I had an idea of the design I wanted. This consisted of a simple top - basically triangles over the bust, though I'd want a bit of shaping - set into a high waistband, with a skirt made of curved strips of different fabrics. Sorry I couldn't find a photo to make this clearer!

The first step was to find some suitable fabrics. As I no longer work in an office, I have no need of office-wear, so headed to my wardrobe and identified several shirts in co-ordinating colours that could plausibly be turned into a dress.

I no longer need these - they shall be sacrificed!

I decided to start at the top. I'm not sure why, but it seemed as good a place as any. When I say top, I mean bust, not straps. I chose the plain purple shirt for this bit, and the obvious place to look for fabric was the equivalent part of the shirt. Unfortunately this didn't suit, as a shirt is not entirely symmetrical, having buttons on one side and buttonholes on the other. Nevertheless, I started unpicking, and as I got to the top of the sleeves thought, That's quite a nice curved shape there. Use what you've got - that curve became the top line of my dress. Having identified my pieces of fabric, I cut them approximately to size and set to work rearranging the flat pieces to fit my not-flat chest. There was much holding of fabric against myself, pinning and adjusting. No, you don't get photos of this bit! Once I'd decided where to make darts, extensive tailors' tacks were applied to mark the positions, so I could transfer them accurately onto the other piece before stitching.

Extensive application of tailors' tacks.

Now I was ready to start sewing. Well, not quite ready. I'd found a small space in the spare room for the sewing machine...

A space for sewing

... but hadn't actually tried using it yet. Soon fixed. I picked on the cuffs as unlikely to be of any use, and tried a few lines of stitching.

Test stitching looking OK, actually

After a few goes, I was happy with it and stitched in the bust darts and moved onto the next bit. I picked the collar and cuffs of the striped purple shirt as a suitable waistband. Together, they were easily big enough and had the added advantage of a button and buttonhole to close the back (use what you've got), though I'd need another to go with that.

Opening the collar/waistband to fit the top into

By the time I'd stitched those together, I essentially had a large bra. I did try it on, but no, you're still not getting pictures! Next step was the skirt. I measured my waist, the length of the drop to somewhere below my knees, and the length needed at the hem (I looped the tape measure round my legs and adjusted until it was about loose enough). I divided two of these by six and transferred these measurements onto a piece of paper, then drew freehand curves connecting them all up.

Pattern for one of six skirt sections

As I drew, I realised that one curve was longer than the other, so I measured along that curved edge, and drew another line for the bottom edge, to make sure they'd fit together.

Adjustment to pattern so the pieces would fit together.
Quite advanced, I thought.

I'd thought that I'd need to make these pieces up in patchwork, but when I looked at the shirts I realised that if I went across the shirt, I'd be able to get the length and, get two pieces out of each shirt...

First skirt piece

... just.

Second skirt piece. Of course that fits! Who needs hems?

Right, we're really going some now! Cutting and pinning, cutting and pinning...

Skirt pieces pinned together

Pebble helped.

Once I'd got the whole thing pinned together, it was time for another fitting.

First fitting of pinned-together dress

For once, I'm glad this photo's terrible because it was at this point that I realised I'd forgotten one crucial measurement: My hips. Oops. Oh well, all was not lost. I'd been fairly generous with the hem allowances... maybe if I just moved all the pins closer to the edges it would be OK. I tried it on again, and it was definitely better. A little tight, but probably OK. I sewed it up.

I should probably say something about the experience of using the treadle at this point (given that I didn't say it earlier). Obviously it was more difficult than an electric pedal. My big problem was keeping the wheel going in the right direction. Because I was going slowly, it kept stopping and reversing, which tangled the thread round the bobbin and broke it. I found that if I put one foot right across the treadle and one with just the toes resting on the edge, I could get better control, but I still liked to keep my hand on the top wheel to stop it going backwards.

I got better at it with a little practice, and I certainly had plenty of practice with this project. The only really difficult bit now is going backwards - I need one hand on the wheel to make sure it's going forwards and one hand on the reverse button, which leaves no hand for guiding the fabric. Still, once I got into the swing of it, I was quite happy with the results.

Stitching. Not perfect, but quite tidy.

Anyway, back to the fitting. Um, no, it wasn't OK. Right then, unpick and add another bit in. Then do it again. Then tweak that seam again. Then squeeze another bit of purple in there...

There was quite a lot of unpicking involved in this project.

Unpicked thread

When I was finally happy that I had enough fabric in the skirt, it was time to hem the bottom edge. All that fiddling around made a mockery of my carefully aligned pieces, so I needed to start again with finding the length. Luckily I have a nifty little hem marker gadget. I thought I had a photo of this, but can't find it. I have a cat draped across my arm now, so I'm not getting up to take another pic. Here's an identical one that was for sale on etsy:

Don't you just love the box?

This gave me a series of white chalk dashes around the hemline...

Marking the hem

... which enabled me to sew a more-or-less straight hem.

Getting there now. At some point in the many tryings-on I noticed that the top wouldn't cover my bra at the back, so I needed more fabric there. Remember me thinking the purple cuffs were unlikely to be of any use? Wrong! They were exactly what I needed. So, more unpicking before adding another row of cuffs to the back. Straps were added, made from the lower sections of the pink collar (use what you've got), then I had to face up to the extra buttonhole.

Buttonhole fail

Hmm, that didn't go very well, did it? I gave up on that and did it by hand instead.

All I had left to do after that was to iron the dress into submission, and I think that brings me to the end of the project. No... not quite. I tried on the dress and asked Ian's opinion. Um, it does look a bit Madonna. I'd set the bust darts too close together and given myself a torpedo bra - really not suitable for a wedding! Minor last minute adjustments later, and..

...Here I am wearing the dress at the wedding, posing next to the cake that I had piled fruit on earlier that morning.

I was quite proud of that cake, if I do say so myself.
The dress was OK, too ;-)

Friday, 2 September 2011

Pledge for Zero Waste Week

Next week is National Zero Waste Week, and Change the World Wednesday has adopted it for this week's challenge, making it a truly international event! The idea is not, in spite of the name, to avoid producing any waste at all for one week, but to take steps towards producing zero waste in the long term. In other words, don't do something just for the week, make a change in your habits that you can keep up all the time. Even if that change is quite small, the cumulative impact will be greater than making a big effort for a short period of time.

I do try to make changes like this on an ongoing basis, the most recent example being the way I store cold meat. When we've had a roast dinner, I cut the remaining meat off the bones, boil down the bones for stock, and put the meat in the fridge. I've always put the meat on a plate and covered it with foil, but I realised that I could avoid using that piece of foil each time if I just use one of my extensive stock of plastic boxes instead of the plate.

Making use of a box saved from a chinese takeaway had with friends about a year ago.

However, the theme of this year's challenge is Reducing waste away from home. This really is a challenge for me, because I spend most of my time at home these days. These means that when I'm out it's not part of my daily routine. Making changes to my habits that apply in non-habitual situations takes a bit more effort. Then the other day, I was looking at my dressing table and thought, I must put that back in my handbag, shortly followed by, That's a wasteful thing I could tackle. What was the offending item?

Wasteful packet of tissues

It was a small packet of tissues. These are particularly wasteful as not only is each tissue thrown away after use, but for every ten tissues there's a plastic packet that is also thrown away. I confess I have a weak spot for disposable tissues, both at home and away, and I really need to address that. Now is the time! I pledge that for National Zero Waste Week, I will replace the packet of tissues in my handbag with washable hankies (and some suitable containers to keep both fresh and used hankies).