Thursday, December 29, 2011

Exciting Times in Ireland

Hello readers!

The Gingerbread Lady finds herself at home in windy Ireland in the bosom of her enormous family. All of the Gingerbreads send you their best regards, but I've already received dire threats to my well-being if any of them feature personally and named on this blog. Frankly, though, none of them have done anything interesting enough yet to feature in a blog entry ... with the exception of one brother who has a new girlfriend and is refusing to produce her for us to check her out. Apparently, the gimlet glare of eight mischievous Gingerbread siblings is the trial by fire that no young relationship wants to endure. Which is a pity, really, because we've already compiled a list of Interesting Things In Our Locality to show the new girlfriend :

1. The Swing
We have a pear tree with a frayed rope swing on it. It's very exciting. You can see it from the kitchen window, but nonetheless it's worth walking down to the bottom of the garden to see it in all its glory.

My nephew and niece, enthralled by the cattle grid.

2. The Cattle Grid
A cattle grid is a shallow pit covered by bars at the entrance or gate to a home. They're quite common in this part of the world, because local farmers often herd their cattle down the country roads when moving them from one field to another. Theoretically, they're supposed to deter frisky bullocks from paying you a social visit, though we've had occasions when a bull or bullock, hopped up on the excitement of a jaunt down the road, take a flying leap over the cattle grid and come thundering down the avenue of my parents' house (this is v. scary). In any case, a slow, ambling walk to the top of my parents' lane often culminates in an examination of the cattle grid, mostly because local wildlife falls down it quite a lot. Thus a simple stroll might even up in an emergency rescue operation to retrieve e.g. a recalcitrant hedgehog. This used to involve gardening gloves and a lot of bad language (hedgehogs like to roll up into balls, did you know that? And they're rather spiky, the little devils. And in their roundy state they're very hard to wriggle through the bars of a cattle grid.) Nowadays we would just build them a little ramp and sprinkle it with food and hope to goodness their little hedgehog brains figure out the rest.

3. The Place Where the Water-Pump Used to Be 
Our local attractions were slashed considerably when the villagers of Ballyroe took our water-pump (our = it was at the crossroads down the road from my parents' house). It was a quaint, functioning water-pump from a time before indoor plumbing was common, when local families had to drag buckets of water from this pump at the crossroads. I'm sure it was the centre of all kinds of gossip and malarky, but in recent decades it had become a curiosity rather than a necessity. One day the local council removed the pump and - coincidence? I think not - a remarkably similar pump turned up at the recently-renovated village centre at the heart of Ballyroe, five miles down the road. Aside from bitterly muttering, "That's our pump!" or "They stole our pump!" when cruising through Ballyroe, little else was done to recover our stolen property or, indeed, to even establish whether that pump really was ours. So nowadays we walk down to the place where the pump used to be and stare mournfully at the stump it stood on. We take visitors with us to indoctrinate them into this culture of begrudgery, so when they pass through Ballyroe's smart new village centre, they know they have to grumble at the thieving wretches who stole our pump.

And because Irish country people have elephant-like memories, people from our crossroads will still be whining about the stolen pump several generations from now.

4. The Big Tree
It is, as the name would suggest, a big tree. We like to walk visitors down the road to look at this tree. It often ends in confusion, as the Big Tree's attraction isn't instantly identifiable: it's a tree, people. And it's big. Look on it and be awed.

No doubt you need a stiff dram of whiskey after all of that excitement. You probably have to smooth your hair down after this rollercoaster ride of a post. Perhaps you're even thinking of booking a flight over here as soon as possible to view the swing and the stump of the pump with your own little peepers. So why oh why doesn't the Gingerbread brother want to show his girlfriend all the delights of our locality? She just doesn't know what she's missing.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Message in a Bottle

When I first started this blog in January two years ago, I felt horribly self-conscious. The internet is, like, massive. It's vast. It's huge. There are thousands of blogs, and possibly millions of websites and there I was, typing away on the keyboard of my rickety laptop, wondering if anyone was ever going to read anything I wrote. I mean, read it voluntarily and not because they were obliged to do so by the bonds of blood. Writing anything at all on the internet was like putting a message in a bottle and sending it off across the waves. You might watch it bobbing around for a bit but you have no idea if anyone will ever read what's inside.

Two years, several dozen blankets, quite a few patterns, a yarnpire, mermaids, the Bayeux Tapestry and a couple of dishcloths later, I feel like I'm not whispering in a large room,  I'm talking to a very nice and kind group of people - that includes you. Yes, it does. Thank you very much for reading.

So Christmas greetings to everyone who celebrates, and I hope that those who don't are enjoying the calm of a quiet day. Special greetings to you if you've spent the day alone or are lonely: a virtual hug to bridge the vastness of the cyber-ocean.
I'm glad this bottle washed up on your shore.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Part of Gift

At this time of year, I often while away the time spent in the serpentine queues before cash desks thinking about a story that appears in a Christmas reader for our students. Blithely ignoring the woman behind me, who's decided to remove the skin on my shins with her child's pushchair (no, really, misssus, shoving the vehicle in the back of my legs will not make the fifteen people before me magically disappear or even make them move faster), I think of the story of a teacher at an African school who explained the meaning of Christmas and how Christians celebrate - and how they give each other gifts in the Christmas season. Some time after, one of the children turned up at the school with a sea shell, which he presented to the teacher as a Christmas present. The teacher realised that the shell could have only come from the coast, several hours' walk away.
"You didn't have to go so far to get me a gift," the teacher said.
"Long walk part of gift!" the child replied.

This is my zen-mantra during the worst periods of Christmas shopping. While waiting in line for a free counter while the post office workers chat to each other beside the parcel depot, I grin brightly and think, "Long queue part of gift!" When poked in the legs by errant rolls of wrapping paper, I think "Weird bruises part of gift!" When I suppress the urge to smack the bottom of the wally that thought it would be a good idea to bring their red setter puppy on a last-minute Christmas shopping expedition at our city's crowded mall at 4 p.m. on the 21st December, I breathe deeply and think, "Great patience part of gift!" By the same token, when I hold the door open for someone and that person looks me in the face, smiles and says, "Danke schön!" I also think, "Small kindness part of gift!" 
I hope the recipients of my clumsily-wrapped Christmas presents appreciate all the extra intangible bits and pieces that have been wrapped up inside them, along with the gifts themselves.

In any case, I am simultaneously disorganised (72 hours and counting down!) and breathtakingly organised at the same time. First of all - the organisation:

I decided to knit a couple of soap socks for the colleagues that I work most closely with, the ones I see every day. Five or six, I guesstimated. (Pause for laughter.) Twenty socks later, my apartment smells of Yardley's Rose and Lavender soaps, and I can only thank the heavens that my husband has been struck by the near-death experience of a mancold (= do watch this. It will be familiar to many of you), rendering him incapable of smelling anything.

I've also made some yarn-covered pens. This idea is from my sister Emily, who has been doing Trojan work on her blog, coming up with quick and easy gift ideas for every day of Advent. Really: if you're reading this post with cold sweat running down your back, your pulse racing at the thought of all the uncrafted and unbought gifts on your list, have a look at her blog here. The yarn pens are super cute and quick to make (mine are a lot less neat and a lot more woolly than hers).

The disorganisation? No decorations up. No tree bought. No presents wrapped. No washing done, no floors vacuumed, empty fridge. Oopsie.

And how did the soap socks go down at my school? Well, after the astonishment that I'd actually made them myself had died down, and after I'd explained what they were and that, no, you didn't have to actually use them, you could also stick them in your among your bed-linen or use them to scent your drawers, one of my colleagues did a quick tally of the soaps knitted and said, "How many did you make? Have you been knitting non-stop for the last week?"
More or less, I thought. Long knit part of gift!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Plight of the Acrylic

You can tell by my silence that I've been a very busy woman - I don't need to tell you that Gingerbread Ladies have to work flat-out in the Christmas season. But because we are encouraged to think of others at this time of year, I would once again like to indulge in some seasonal do-goodery and prick your moral conscience on a topic close to my gingerbread heart: The Plight of the Acrylic.

So grab your tissues and be prepared for an emotional rollercoaster. This post is especially for Susie from Useless Beauty, who is equally unafraid to tackle hard-hitting craft-related issues.

Once upon a time, there was no more common sight in Merry Olde Englande of the 1960s than the pastoral idyll of the Acryllic Shepherdess. These ladies - dressed impractically in poufy hoop skirts and big bonnets - kept a loving eye on the baby acryllics as they frolicked around the pastures and meadows of England's green countryside, occasionally sticking to trees in an excess of static electricity or burning to a small puddle of plastic when struck by lightning.

 The yarn spun from these little creatures was highly desirable: in fact, entire generations were clothed from and comforted by it. It was a desirable alternative to the scratchy wool favoured in the past: it didn't felt when washed inappropriately and, more importantly, the wearer didn't smell of wet dog when it got damp (and, frankly, if you lived in the British Isles, woolly socks and jumpers got damp a lot.)

But in the past decade or so, something has changed. Other yarns - fancier yarns with artisan titles - became more popular. In fact, slapped with adjectives like "sumptuous" or "luxurious" or "decadent", yarn became sexy:
And with it came a nasty wave of anti-acrylic sentiment, leading to some very regrettable bullying:

While I appreciate the value and craftmanship of some of our finer yarns, and have even blogged in a similarly-passionate fashion about the exploitation of mermaids, I would urge you, the crafter, to be gentle in your assessment of the role of the little acrylic. It has a place in our crafting world and we should not look down our noses at it.

In fact, if I may leave you with a final thought: if and when there should be a zombie apocalypse, my gut feeling is that the only things that will survive are cockroaches, granny square blankets and those tough little acrylics. So choose your side carefully before you disparage or condemn this yarn.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

TUTORIAL: Crocheted Cupcakes

You can download this pattern as a PDF here: this link leads you to an external PDF hosting site called MediaFire.

You need:
scraps of yarn (cotton, WW or DK acrylic) in brown (for the cupcake base) and some pastel colour for the icing / frosting.
hook - use a hook that's one or two sizes smaller than the one recommended for your yarn weight. You want a firm, tight stitch
stuffing - I buy cheap cushions at the 99c store and re-use their innards. You could also use chopped up tights / nylons, or yarn scraps
buttons or sequins to decorate
a sewing needle to attach your cupcake decorations

This is more of a guideline than a pattern. You will have to experiment a little bit to adapt it to your gauge. But don't fret - we'll get to that later!

This pattern uses American terms. The British terms are in [brackets]. Stitches used are:
ch = chain
SC [DC] = single crochet [double crochet]
HDC [HTR] = half double crochet [half treble crochet]
ss = slipstitch

Cupcake Base
Use a brown or biscuit-coloured yarn.
Start with a magic loop or by chaining 3 and joining with a slip stitch to form a little circle.
Round 1: Chain one, then do a SC [DC] in the same stitch below (this counts as your first SC [DC] here and throughout), then do 7 SC (DC) into the circle. Join with ss to first SC [DC]. (8 stitches in total)
Round 2: Chain one, then do 2 SC [DC] in the same stitch. 2 SC [DC] in next seven stitches. Join with ss to first SC [DC]. (16 stitches in total)
Round 3: Chain one, then do 1 SC [DC] in the same stitch, 2 SC [DC] in next stitch, *1 SC [DC] in next stitch, 2 SC [DC] in next stitch.** Repeat from * to ** around, ending with 2 SC [DC]. Join with ss to first SC [DC]. (24 stitches in total)
Round 4: Chain one, then do 1 SC [DC] in the same stitch, 2 SC [DC] in next stitch, *1 SC [DC] in next two stitches, 2 SC [DC] in next stitch.** Repeat from * to ** around, ending with 2 SC [DC]. Join with ss to first SC [DC]. (32 stitches in total). Chain 2, yank tight and cut yarn.

Cupcake Side

Row 1: Chain 10. In second chain from the hook, do 1 SC [DC]. Crochet 1 SC [DC] in the next four stitches. Crochet 1 HDC [HTR] in the remaining four stitches.
Now turn this wriggly little chain in preparation for the next row. Take a look at it - from now on, we're going to have a front and a back to our work, and to make this clearer, we are going to work in the front or back loop of the previous row.

Row 2: Chain 1. Crochet 1 HDC [HTR] in the front loop (the one closest to you) of the next four stitches, then 1 SC [DC] in the front loop of the next five stitches. Turn your work.

Row 3: Chain 1. Crochet 1 SC [DC] in the back loop of the next five stitches. Crochet 1 HDC [HTR] in the back loop of the next four stitches.

 Look at your work. You should have a clear ridge on one side of your work. This is the front. It might help to thread a bit of coloured yarn or a stitch marker through one of the stitches to remind you which side is the front. 

From now on, you will crochet into the back loop when the front of your work faces you and into the front loop when the back of your work faces you (Aha! So now you understand why it's not a bad idea to have a visual signal for the front and the back!)

Continue like this till the skinny side of your, um, curvy trapezoid fits around your cupcake base when you stand it upright in its cupcake shape. I recommend that you make it smaller rather than larger than the base.

Now, here's where you cheat. Take two strips of the yarn you used for your cupcake base and thread them through the top and bottom of your curvy shape on the back side. (I've used a contrasting colour, so you can see it. You should use the same colour so it can't be seen.)  These two pieces of yarn will give your base a better shape and some stability.

Sew the base to the side, with the ridge on the inside. Sew up the opening. Tug the pieces of yarn to pull in the cupcake's sides and tie it when you think your cupcake base looks suitably cupcakey. Turn it inside-out (so the ridge is now on the outside).
Stuff it with as much stuffing as you can fit inside it.

Cupcake top

Use a pastel-coloured yarn. Start with a magic loop or by chaining 3 and joining with a slip stitch to form a little circle. Crochet as per the instructions for the base (rounds 1-4).
Round 5:Chain 1. Crochet 1 SC [DC] in same stitch, then 1 SC [DC] in each stitch around. Join with ss to first SC [DC].
Your circle should be approximately big enough to sit on top of your cupcake base.
Round 6, 7, 8: Chain 1. Crochet 1 SC [DC] in same stitch, then 1 SC [DC] in each stitch around. Join with ss to first SC [DC]. You should have a little dome that sits atop your cupcake base like this:
We now have to widen it a bit to fit on top of the base better. We do so by increasing with double SC [DC]s
Round 9:  Chain one, then do 1 SC [DC] in the same stitch, 2 SC [DC] in next stitch, *1 SC [DC] in next four stitches, 2 SC [DC] in next stitch.** Repeat from * to ** till you come back to your starting SC [DC]. Join with ss to first SC [DC].

Round 10 and 11 (optional): you can continue by doing 1 SC [DC] in each stitch around. The cupcake top should be approximately as tall as the base.

The dribbles
 When your cupcake top is tall enough, create 'dribbles' of icing/frosting, by crocheting stitches of different heights around the edge:

Sew your buttons and sequins on top and stuff the cupcake with as much stuffing as you can get into it.

Now the tricky bit: sew the two pieces together. You will probably find that these two pieces don't actually want to be stuck together, and you may have to pin them in place beforehand. I usually use the pastel yarn and sew the top to the base along the last row of SC [DC], leaving the dribbles free to ... well, dribble. You will probably find that you'll need to stuff even more filling into the cupcake before you sew it up completely. They need to be really, really full.

And there you go - cupcake completed! But be warned - once you've made one, you'll have to make many more ...