Saturday, 23 December 2017

Christmas is ...

... a time for giving

Christmas 1966

... a time for decorations

... sometimes a time for snow


... and always a time for family

In the middle of all the last minute preparations I try to pause to remember Christmases past and to look to the future. At this time of year I always think about my first Christmas as a single parent with a five year old and a toddler and I make a donation to Gingerbread, the charity that supports single parent families. Back in the early 1990s single parent families were still seen as 'not proper families' and I think that, all to often, this is still the case. 

So, to all those celebrating Christmas on your own with children this year, I wish you a very Merry Christmas ... oh and try to take some pictures. It took me ages to find one with both children in (and sitting still).

My apologies to those in the above pictures but it's a Christmas tradition to embarrass your nearest and dearest with old photos. And in case you're wondering, that's me with my new doll's house and also in the snow.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017


I've been playing around with crochet puff stitches recently (as you do) and I came up with this little flower pincushion.

Now it's quite nice but the bit I really enjoyed was the domed top with all those puff stitches. So I dived into my pile of Stylecraft Special DK and pulled out some rainbow colours (I know, I'm so predictable) and came up with this ...

It's a rainbow puffball, isn't it nice? The trickiest part was working out how to join the two halves invisibly; in the end just sewing them together with a sort of mattress stitch did the trick. 

There are seven rounds in each puffball, one for each colour of the rainbow so, naturally, I got a bit carried away and made seven of them, starting each one with a different colour.

Each ball is about 5 cm in diameter so they're just the right size for babies or for juggling. Or ... you could crochet a hanging cord and use them as Christmas baubles. Tolly cat finds they'r just right for practising his pawball skills. He's getting quite good at that, although what looks like clever tricks may just be him getting his claws caught in the ball.

As ever, you can download the free pattern from my Ravelry page. There's still time to make one or two (or seven) for Christmas.

Let me know if you'd like me to turn the pincushion into a pattern too.

Friday, 1 December 2017

A Year of Mini Quilts

Today sees the publication of the last pattern in my 2017 series of mini knitted quilts. It all began back on January 1st with this little snowman ...

January Quilt

... and then carried on each month. In the season of April showers there was little girl ...

April Quilt

... and the start of the school year was marked with this one ...

September Quilt

Each little quilt is about the size of a postcard and you can hang them up or incorporate them into other projects. There are some lovely calendar blankets in the pipeline which I'm looking forward to seeing. Maybe I'll be able to share some photos of them here next year.

So, I felt December's quilt should have a Christmas theme but I didn't want to do yet another Christmas Tree pattern (I've done more than my fair share of those). In the end I took my inspiration from old-fashioned tree baubles and came up with this ...

December Quilt

I'm particularly fond of the one with the sunburst embroidery.  All twelve of the mini quilt patterns are free to download on Ravelry. As ever, if you like them, do think about donating to the charity I support, The Children's Liver Disease Foundation through my fundraising page. I know a lot of people donate to charity at this time of year so I hope you'll help me raise even more money for this very worthwhile cause - over £16,000 and counting so far!

My little quilts have been hanging in turn from the handle on my bread bin all year ... which has been a bit awkward every time I want to get at the bread. I should really choose a more practical place for next year.

As well as knitting a little quilt each month this year, I've also been making matching fabric quilts and sending them to my daughter. I think she had to wait a week or so for one but, other than that, I've managed to send them off for the start of each month. I've tried to make them copies of the knitted designs but sometimes this works better than others. This month though I think the fabric quilt is as good as (perhaps even better) than the knitted version. What do you think?

I like the embroidery with the gold thread, even if it is a pain to sew with. Those little gold things that look like bats are actually meant to be angels.

I hope everyone taking part has enjoyed knitting and displaying their little quilts. If you didn't finish them all this year you can always catch up in 2018. 

There's still lots of knitalong fun to be had though. My Advent series of patterns is underway now with the first decoration for the Tree Sampler and, in the New Year, the adventure of Frankie's Blankie will start. Happy Knitting!

Tree Sampler 1

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Frankie's Blankie

Well, what else do you call a blanket designed by Frankie? I'd like to introduce you to a special sampler blanket that I will be running as a KAL throughout 2018 - and actually into the first few weeks of January 2019 too.

I see this project as a masterclass in knitting. There are 48 different squares to knit, each one featuring a different stitch pattern. Half the squares are worked in one colour using all sorts of techniques and patterns. The rest of the squares are knitted with both the main colour and a rainbow of other shades. These coloured squares all use slip stitch, possibly my favourite knitting technique of all. Just look at those colourful patterns in the picture above to get some idea of how versatile slip stitch can be.

Some of the stitch patterns come from the Barbara Walker Treasuries, others are inventions of my own ... and then there are those which are a combination of both. By the time you've knitted Frankie's Blankie, not only will you have a lovely blanket to treasure but also a resource to refer to for future projects. When next you want an interesting pattern - for a scarf perhaps - you can choose a stitch pattern from your blanket.

Speaking of scarves ... should you not want to knit a blanket, the individual patterns could be used in other ways. How about a sampler scarf or shawl? For each of the 48 squares I give details of how to knit different widths using the stitch pattern and I also tell you if that pattern will lie flat and whether it looks good on both sides. All particularly useful for scarf knitting.

The yarn I've used for this blanket is Stylecraft Batik DK. This is a lovely soft yarn which has a subtle flecked look, reminiscent of hand-dyed yarn but is very reasonably priced. To complete the blanket you will need to buy 600 g (12 balls) of the main shade (Biscuit, 1901) and one 50 g ball in each of the following ten colours:

Cherry          1904
Coral            1903
Pistachio      1910
Olive            1911
Sage             1908
Storm           1913
Teal              1909
Violet           1912
Plum            1907
Raspberry    1905

The colours are changed every four rows or so (it varies), giving a rainbow effect. This will give you lots of ends to darn in but slip stitch makes quite a thick fabric so there’s plenty of room to hide them. If you would prefer to use only one contrast colour per square, I would suggest buying eight colours and working three squares with each. Be warned though, if you do this, I can't guarantee that you will have enough yarn for the edging which rather eats up yarn.

I bought my yarn from Wool Warehouse and I can recommend them wholeheartedly. They offer a very quick service, their yarn comes packed in useful drawstring bags and, best of all, you get a special discount. Just quote the code FRANKIE10 at the checkout to get 10 % off your blanket order. Within the UK the postage will be free as it's over £25, details of their International shipping rates are on their website. Rates vary between countries but there's a particularly good deal for customers from the US as they will send a package up to 2 kg in weight (which would cover all the yarn for the blanket) for just £2.99. 

You've got plenty of time to buy your yarn now before the KAL starts next year. The first pattern will be published on January 1st. the second on the 8th, the third on the 15th and the fourth on the 22nd of the same month. There will be four patterns published each month for the rest of the year, always beginning on the first of the month with the other three being published at weekly intervals. I hope that makes sense. This will give you a slightly longer gap between patterns at the end of each month to catch up and to sew the squares together as you go.

So, by the end of 2018, you will have knitted 48 squares and sewn them together. Then there are two more patterns to complete the series, first for a knitted on border and then a colourful edging that really brings the whole thing together. These two patterns will be published in January 2019 - which seems a ridiculously long time away at the moment.

I'm particularly proud of this knitted edging which looks just like crochet. It takes ages to do but it's the last of the 50 patterns so there's no rush to get it done.

I'm really excited about this project and look forward to lots of you knitting it together next year. We will be chatting, comparing notes and generally admiring each others work on my Frankie's Knitted Stuff ravelry group so do come and join in the fun. It's going to be a wonderful year.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Two Artists

If you could choose these things, I would love to have been an artist. Given that I can't draw and even copying takes me ages, I have to content myself with admiring others' work. Recently I've had encounters with two illustrators' work which have both delighted and inspired me.

The first one was Clara Vulliamy who has illustrated many classic children's books, as well as the wonderful Dixie o'Day series written by her mother Shirley Hughes. Clara is also responsible for bringing Mary Plain back to life in new editions of some of the classic books by the Welsh author Gwynedd Rae. The first of the Mary Plain books was published in 1930 and generations of children have loved this independent and willful little bear. In my family my Mother, myself and my daughter have each in turn relished her adventures. I remember liking the fact that she was a real bear, rather than a teddy bear and I think I also identified with her confident, self-importance! Here she is, watching the kettle boil. As ever, she's very interested in everything.

Mary also has her own special way of writing, mixing pictures and words. Here's the message on the cover of one of the new books.

Isn't it good? This inspired me to write like this when I first read the books; perhaps I'll do that again. How about some picture messages in the next knitting pattern? That would certainly make them more interesting.

Anyway, Clara did her first Mary Plain event in Wantage a few weeks ago and my daughter and I, lured by promises of cake and rosettes, decided that this was something we had to go to. We were in fact the only adults present without children but who cares? It was lovely to meet Clara in person, having chatted to her on twitter and the afternoon was wonderful.

She introduced Mary to us, drawing the characters as she talked. This was probably my favourite part of her talk - watching an artist drawing is so exciting - and then we had a go at drawing Mary for ourselves. All I can say is that mine turned out with short legs, slightly dislocated from her body. It was fun though. Clara had made special Mary Plain rosettes as rewards for good drawing; some of the older children didn't put theirs on but we wore ours proudly for the rest of the day.

My new books and the all-important rosette

Clara spent a long time signing books and chatting after the talk. We just about managed to let the children go first before monopolising her for the rest of the time. As well as our new Mary Plain books, we'd taken some old favourites for her to sign and my daughter wanted to give her this special present. A little wooden Mary Plain she'd carved for her, complete with her own label in picture writing.

It was such a good day.

The other artist I want to talk about is Quentin Blake who has illustrated many, many excellent children's books. I saw an exhibition of his work at Compton Verney recently and it made me realise just how many of his books we've enjoyed over the years. Perhaps the best part of the exhibition for me were the two films of him working in his studio. Again, seeing an artist draw was magical and it was fascinating to see how he builds up the illustrations and shapes them with the text. 

One of the books he talked about was actually a wordless story Clown which tells of a toy clown thrown in the dustbin with other toys.

Clown manages to climb out of the bin and sets off in search of a new home and to rescue the other toys (don't worry, it has a happy ending).

Quentin Blake draws with pen and then adds the watercolours - working quickly and not worrying about keeping in the lines. this was a revelation to me - who knew you could do that?

These glimpses of artists at work have inspired me to do more drawing. Clara was very encouraging about it being all right to copy drawings to learn how to do them. I'm not the only one who feels like this - look at the birthday card my daughter drew for me ...

So, I used some birthday money to buy myself  a book by Peggy Dean called 'Botanical Line Drawing: 200 Step-by-Step Flowers, Leaves, Cacti, Succulents and Other Items Found in Nature'.

This is a brilliant book; it's basically a workbook with step by step drawings for you to copy. I've been having a lot of fun practising some basic leaves.

The book has spaces for your drawings but that was far too scary for me (also, draw in a book? not me) so I've been using my little sketch book. This gives me room to try each leaf lots of times which is just as well.

I did buy some drawing pens but haven't been brave enough to use them yet. Perhaps when I've got a bit more confident. I'm really enjoying trying my hand at this. When I was at school, art was only for those who were really good at it so it's only recently that I've realised that, although I may not be naturally good at it, it's a skill that can at least be improved by practice. It's funny really that there's a general feeling that learning to play a musical instrument is within most people's reach but not learning to draw.

That's enough arty thoughts for today. In my next post I'll be revealing my big knitting project for next year. I've been working on it for months and it's the biggest series of patterns I've written so I hope you're all suitably excited.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Tree Sampler

For some years now I've been designing a big pattern for Christmas and publishing it daily throughout December as a sort of advent calendar. It's a good opportunity to work on projects that are too complicated to fit into one pattern and I really enjoy all the chat and companionship about the patterns on my Ravelry group each year.

It all started back in 2011 with the Advent Garland.

24 miniature knitted decorations to hang up one day at a time. This was the pattern that taught me that English Christmas traditions are not universal when knitters from the US kept asking me what the little knitted cracker was. This led to a lively discussion on my group, ranging from postboxes and robins to the exact purpose of sprouts.

Since then there have been several three dimensional Christmas projects: a Gingerbread House, a Christmas Tree and, last year, a Christmas room.

Gingerbread House

Needle Tree

The Night Before Christmas

This year's pattern is decidedly more modest - simpler to knit and only 21 rather than the normal 24 December patterns. Inspired by clean and uncluttered Swedish design, Tree Sampler is a wall hanging made up of 21 small Christmas trees. Each one is decorated with a different stitch pattern, worked in red and cream yarn. 

You can see why it had to be 21 patterns, can't you?

So far I've only published the pattern for the basic green trees. You have to knit 42 of these so the idea is to get them ready in November and then there will only be the little decorated panels to knit each day in December. In case you're wondering, there are 42 trees because they need to be sewn together in pairs to make them sturdy enough to keep their shape. I only realised this at the last minute ... turns out you can knit 21 Christmas trees in two days but I wouldn't recommend it.

I like the overall look of this one and have to confess that I'm rather fond of the back too.

It's so orderly and I like the negative spaces. As it's such a simple design, you don't need to buy lots of materials for this project (I thought everyone deserved a break from all that plastic canvas of the last few years). All you need for the Tree Sampler is some green and brown DK weight yarn and thinner 4 ply yarn in red and cream. Oh, and 21 little red buttons to sew on to the tops of the trees, together with some green sewing thread.

The nice thing about choosing stitch patterns for such small pieces of knitting is that even the trickier techniques like Fair Isle that knitters may normally avoid are quite manageable. Any of the individual trees could be used as hanging decorations and I've also included instructions for knitting a little pocket to hold a chocolate should you want to knit an Advent Calendar.

The first of the decoration patterns will be published on Ravelry on 1st December and the others will follow daily after that. I can't wait to see how everyone gets on with this project. If you're not there all ready, do come and join my group Frankie's Knitted Stuff where there'll be lots of Christmas chat around the pattern.

As ever with my patterns, if you enjoy them do think about donating to my fundraising page for the Children's Liver Disease Foundation. You can do this from any of the pattern pages on ravelry or by clicking on the pink 'Frankie's Fundraising' button at the side of the blog.

As the song says ...

Thursday, 9 November 2017

And I'm Back

After many many months of work, I'm glad to say that I've finally finished the mammoth series of patterns I've been working on for next year. The first pattern will be published on January 1st but I shall be telling you all about it later this month. On Tuesday I spent over 13 hours proofreading the whole thing for the last time, determined to get it done; it was a huge relief to print the last page and turn the computer off. For the last hour or so I was playing that fun game of 'will the ink cartridges run out before I've finished' but luckily they lasted until the end.

So ... now that's done I can emerge blinking into the light and catch up with lots of other stuff. Like this blog for example. I have several posts in my head, just waiting for me to have time to write them. First of all, I wanted to tell you about my birthday a few weeks ago.

Both my grown-up children were here for the day. I use the phrase 'grown-up' hesitantly as I'm not sure if I'm grown-up yet and, if I'm not, then how can they be? Anyway, this is where we went ...

This is Compton Verney, a beautiful house with grounds landscaped by 'Capability' Brown which also happens to be a National Art gallery. It's in the middle of the countryside between here and Stratford-Upon-Avon and I've recently re-discovered how good it is.

We went to see two exhibitions there - more of that later - and we also had a birthday picnic at a bench overlooking the lake. A small bird flew past us, close to the water and, when it dipped its wings (I assume it was some sort of birthday salute to me), we saw it was a kingfisher. These little birds are very beautiful, very fast and very tricky to see. It's only the third time I've seen one and the first time I've actually seen the bird rather than just catching a glimpse of blue out of the corner of my eye.

There were two exhibitions on in the house that we wanted to see: The Lost Words and Quentin Blake: Inside Stories. I'll leave the Quentin Blake to another post but, after seeing the kingfisher, it seemed appropriate to talk about the other one here.

The Lost Words is a beautiful and completely original book that's taking the book world here in the UK by storm at the moment. It's written by Robert Macfarlane and illustrated by Jackie Morris and is part poetry, part art book, part nature guide ... and so much more than that. The book was inspired by the rapid disappearance of words for natural things from children's vocabulary. If we have no word for something, how can we value it? So, 'The Lost Words' is a sumptuous book of spells, designed to be read aloud by children and adults to help conjure the words and the creatures and plants they describe back into view.

The book itself is huge - you could fit four average sized paperback books on its cover - and it's a joy from start to finish. Each word has three page spreads: first there's a picture of the landscape as it would be without the thing being described, then there's a glorious painting of it, together with the spell and, finally, a picture of it restored to the natural world.

For example, here are the 'before and after' paintings for the Starling ...

... and here's the bird itself ...

A photograph can't do these wonderful paintings justice

The spell for the starling conjures up the glistening array of this bird's colours 'Should green-as-moss be mixed with blue-of-steel be mixed with gleam-of-gold' while also remembering its tendency to copy from us 'if you sampled sneaker-squeaks and car alarms and phone ringtones you'd still come nowhere near the Rooftap riprap stree-smart hip-hop of starling song'. These few lines give you some idea of how musical these spells are - they just cry to be read or even shouted out loud. I think there are lots of echoes of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the great Victorian nature poet here.

In contrast to the long strings of words of the starling's spell, the magpie's is short and to the point.

It begins 'Magpie Manifesto: Argue Every Toss! Gossip, Bicker, Yak and Snicker All Day Long!'
You get the general idea. One more thing about these spells, they're also acrostics with the first letter of each line spelling out the word. This is a wonderful book, do go and find it if you can. I haven't spoken as much about the paintings as they're difficult to reproduce here; you need to see the book or, better still, go to the exhibition to appreciate them in all their glory.

After all that excitement, I still had birthday presents to open. I'll just show you a few, mostly books again.

New books on Jane Austen. I was ridiculed here when we re-arranged the books recently and they discovered just how many books about her I had but, nonetheless, these two arrived on my birthday. As you can see, I've started the textual criticism one already (note the use of my best bookmark) and it's really good. It's already had me pulling out some of my oldest editions to compare them with those mentioned.

Would you believe that both of these - early twentieth century editions of 'Pride and Prejudice' and 'Northanger Abbey' & 'Persuasion' (these two in one volume) - were only a few pounds in charity shops? I bought them some time ago but, even so, that's got to be cheap.

Both books feature illustrations by Hugh Thomson which are wonderful, if a little whimsical. From 'Pride and Prejudice' here's the start of the chapter after Mr Collins' proposal ...

... and look at this one, 

... Mr Bingley and a few cupids in a tug-of-war against the influence of his sisters and his friend.

One of my favourite books as a child was Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses so I was delighted to be given this picture book version from 1951.

It was illustrated by Alice & Martin Provensen, 20th Century American artists whose work I knew from this book, 'A Peaceable Kingdom: The Shaker Abecedarius'.

Anyway, back to my 'The Child's Garden of Verses'. Here's the start of a poem I remember very well, I used to chant the opening lines out loud - yes, I was an odd child.

I also got this beautiful new children's book, illustrated by one of my favourite modern artists, Karl James Mountford.

Last Stop on the Reindeer Express is written by Maudie Powell-Tuck and tells the story of Mia's magical journey to deliver her Daddy's card in time for Christmas. The story is restrained and well written and the whole book is a beautiful to hold and explore, with cut-outs and rich colours throughout.

I didn't just get books for my birthday though. Amongst other things, I got three new CDs to add to my collection.

Two violin and one recorder. So far my favourites are the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D major and Dvorak's Serenade for Strings. I heard this last piece at a concert given by the Adderbury Ensemble in a candlelit church just before Christmas last year and it was such a joyful experience. Here's a taste of it for you.

That's all for now. I shall be back soon.