Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Dear Lord.

I know you have a sense of humour, I pretty much worked that out when my first baby was born in the 30 seconds it took for the midwife to go to the toilet. I have to admit, that was quite funny.
 The second time round, sending the midwife out, having her basically call me a wimp and then going home? I know, you had me going too. The baby popping out half an hour later was quite a nice twist.
 The Down Syndrome thing, ok, you were pushing it a bit with that one, but you know, we've come round to it now.

So, I'm pregnant again. Any chance of some help this time?


Sunday, 14 July 2013

Summer sewing and Simplicity 1800

Well, now that everyone should finally have started to recover from the whirligig that was “The Joy of Washcloths”, I thought that it might be safe for me to have a little blog.

Dressmaking for me is a little like being a serial killer.

I tell myself over and over again, “this is the last one. This will be the perfect one, the one that completes me” but I’m always wrong.
It’s the same every time: you start out all meticulous planning and careful cutting, then the adrenaline kicks in as you realise you’re running out of time and you’ve got to just finish it, no matter how much of a mess you make, then it’s done and for about 24hrs, you’re all smug and serene. But it never lasts, and within a couple of days you’re rifling through patterns and groping fabric swatches and the whole thing starts again.

I tend to stop knitting around April and start sewing for the summer. In a lot of ways, dressmaking is far more satisfying that knitting- it’s just that much faster (which makes sense when you think about it: when you sew a dress you work with a piece of purchased fabric, but when you knit, you have to actually create the fabric to start with).

I’m incredibly lucky, in that I have two little girls who sleep very well, and a husband who doesn’t tend to notice the dust until it starts to form little bunny colonies in the corners, so I’ve got a lot of sewing done this summer, vintage and modern.

One of the first things I made was this dress, from Simplicity pattern 1800. 

I get my patterns from Sewing World, they're quick, reasonably priced and their customer service is always excellent.
 It’s actually a very good pattern- the instructions are clear, and the whole thing came together beautifully- all the problems I had with this pattern were through my own mistakes.

For a start, the fabric wasn’t the right choice- I love the pattern on this dutch wax print cotton, but think it’s too much for the dress, it obscures details like the way the princess seams extend down to the pockets.  (I’m willing to overlook it though, for £2.50/m)

 The other problem was the sizing, I cut a size twelve, thinking that it would be a little big, and sewed a 6/8” seam instead of 5/8”. Turns out this was a mistake- there wasn’t as much ease as I’d imagined, so although the dress does up fine, it is very snug around the bust and the empire line sits a little high. All in all, rather more Nell Gwynn than the casual fit on the pattern envelope.  The sleeves are a little too big in all directions but the neckline is lovely and the skirt is great.

I will make it again- I’ve got this lovely feather print cotton which I think is less likely to drown the design. I’ll make the short sleeve version, and use the proper seam allowance and I think I could have a really hard working dress in my wardrobe.

I bought this at Fabrics Galore in Battersea, where it's £7/m cheaper than at John Lewis.

 Buckle up kids. Lots more dresses to come.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

The Joy of Washcloths

(I know it sounds like I'm channelling a 1940s issue of Good Housekeeping but I promise, it’s at least slightly interesting)

As of 7:40 this morning there were 8,795 hits on ravelry for “dishcloth” and 8,269 for “washcloth”. Any charity, movie or childrens’ cartoon character has a Washcloth in its honour- they range from completely plain Gt st squares, to extraordinarily fancy stitch patterns like this one, the downright doilyesque. (Actually, I’m pretty sure that is a doily, masquerading as a dischcloth. I don’t know anyone who would clean their dirty plates with anything that fancy)

When I first signed up to Ravelry, I found the proliferation of dishcloths really disconcerting. I’d never come across knitted ones before, and dismissed it as a waste of time. I didn’t even consider knitting them myself until I was ill last May, but suddenly my head felt like a medical waste dump and all my existing projects started to loom menacingly over me like lacy, socky Mafiosi. So I pulled out a ball of cotton and started knitting a diagonal square. Within a week I’d made about ten, and had run through three balls of cotton dk- I was completely addicted.
The thing is, it never occurred to me that they might actually work, but they do. They clean dishes far more efficiently than the sponges you can buy in the supermarket, but they’re gentler on good china and non-stick bakeware and because they're made from 100% cotton, you just throw them in the washing machine when they’re dirty. Unless you’re really bad at getting laundry done, you’ll never run out of cloths and have to wash up with a grimy sponge again. They’re also great as facecloths, so they make nice little baby gifts if you want to make something small and original, and you can incorporate baby’s initial, or a cute image if you’re so inclined.

 As a project they have plenty to recommend them. They’re very quick, and very simple. They’re compact and can fit easily in a handbag, so they make perfect mindless commuter knitting as there is no faffing around with a pattern, stitch markers or tape measures. They make an excellent way to try out new stitch patterns or yarn and the end product is far more useful than a simple tension square.

It’s best to use 100% cotton yarn for washcloths. I like Adriafil Memphis Cotton , which comes in lots of lovely colours, is hardwearing and can handle being machine washed on a hot cycle and even tumble dried very well.

As I promised at the end of Knitting for babies and toddlers pt 2, below is my “recipe” for a very basic wash cloth, but if you fancy something more exciting, the ravelry library is here.

Basic Washcloth

4mm needles and 100% cotton yarn, dk weight.

[Make a slip knot on one needle.
Knit into the front and back of this slip knot to make 2 sts. Turn.
Kfb in both sts.]

K2, yo, k to end. Repeat this row until your washcloth reaches the desired width. 50-60 stitches is usually sufficient, then continue as follows:
K2, y0, k2tog through the back loops, knit to last 4 st, k2tog, k2. Repeat until 4 st remain.
K2tog twice
Bind off final stitch.

Of course, there's no reason why this pattern has to be a washcloth- knitted in smooshy wool and made much bigger it would make a lovely, simple baby blanket, or lots of small patches joined together would make a nice afghan.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Disabled babies: The New Chihauhuas?

 In the last few years, there has been a huge trend emerging for actors and models with Down’s syndrome and “disability” storylines in popular shows. In fact, if you look around, Down’s syndrome is everywhere at the moment.

It started at the end of 2011 when, in the US, Target chose a 6-year old boy called Ryan to feature in their new advertising campaign (you can see the advert and read a nice little article from Time Magazine here: Target handled it brilliantly, simply because they didn’t handle it at all- there was no press release, no trite “special clothes for special people” slogan, just a cute little boy lined up with a load of other cute kids. Then over in the UK, Taya Kennedy,
 were all signed up by major modelling agencies, with the companies using them prominently ranging from small, organic clothing company Frugi Organic Clothing, to huge companies like M&S, Next, and Jojo Maman Bebe.

Television and radio got in on it too- Glee had two actresses with Down syndrome in significant roles (although one was killed off) and then in the UK, Upstairs Downstairs, Eastenders and even The Archers have run storylines about Down syndrome. Just last week Call the Midwife centred on the impact on a family whose child is born with spina bifida. A casting website called Star Now recently ran an ad reading, “Wanted: Actors (male) with Down syndrome”. If this fashion keeps up, I’m going to have to buy a great big designer handbag to carry Iggy around in.

So what’s my point? Honestly, I’m in two minds about the whole trend. Part of me is concerned that it is just a cynical fashion, and that in six months some other “difference”, Tourette’s, maybe will be all the rage, or alopecia. I feel as though there’s some concept group at BBC HQ jumping up and down waving and saying “look! We’ve got one over here! And look! Look how inclusive we are, there’s one here too!!” in the same way that towards election time all the major parties scrabble to prove that they’ve got decent reserves of lesbians, disabilities and ethnic minorities before polling starts.

That said, I do think this is a move in the right direction- getting these conditions in the public eye is the first step, once they’re there we can tackle the issues of how they are portrayed. The thing I’ve found in the last year is that the majority of people actually have no idea what Down syndrome is, which makes it more intimidating, so consider this a public service bulletin. Pay attention, here comes the science part:

The DNA of a normal person is composed of 21 pairs of Chromosomes, totalling 42 individual chromosomes which carry all the genetic information that determines what a person looks like, how naturally intelligent they are, their gender etc. In Down syndrome the 21st pair has an extra copy- the official name for the condition is “Trisomy 21” so, a total of 43 chromosomes in all[1]. That’s it. No virus, no disease, just a little extra DNA. It’s why it’s impossible to predict what an individual with the condition will be capable of, in exactly the same way that you can’t look at an ordinary newborn’s DNA and know whether they’ll be a lawyer or a marathon runner. The aptitudes of the child are still inherited from their parents, and their intellect varies just as it does in “normal” children. You can set very loose parameters “they’ll learn to walk, they’ll be able to read” just as you can for any child and you can even give a very vague time frame, but there is absolutely no hard and fast rule. Put bluntly, Iggy is a mutant, a very cute, not very coordinated mutant.

In the real world, this is what the X-men look like.
So, now that we’ve established that DS is simply genetic information, just like hair colour or height, perhaps it’ll be easier to understand why I object to the current trend for “tackling” the issue.
The problem with tokenism is that, far from making differences less of an issue, it actually isolates them. All of the programs I’ve mentioned above, with the notable exception of Glee have used these actors in storylines specifically centred on their disabilities. Imagine a world where the only time black people were allowed to appear on TV was in a story about how hard it is to be black, or where tall people only ever featured in “hard hitting dramas” about the persecution of tall people. It would be weird.
Dexter would just be a show about a guy trying to overcome his hair colour.

What I would really love to see is a storyline where the actor happened to have DS, but in which the storyline had nothing to do with their condition- can you imagine how people’s own prejudices would be tested if a story about theft, or sexual harassment showed someone with DS in a less than favourable light? Because that’s the point; once you accept that people with DS are just wired a little differently you can start to actually treat them as equals. You can accept that they are just as capable of disliking people, of being rude or unkind or inappropriate and stop making excuses for it.

There is only one thing about having a child with Down syndrome that drives me up the wall, and it has nothing to do with Iggy. 

I wish well meaning people would stop being so bloody sensitive. 

The Archers have been covering this issue brilliantly- the way they’re writing the story of Bethany illustrates very well how difficult it is to know how to react to news of a child with a chromosomal abnormality. I completely understand how hard it must be for the recipient of the news, but sometimes the hardest part of telling people is the guilt you feel afterwards for making them uncomfortable. At home, Iggy’s DS is no more of an “issue” than Gwen’s gigantic feet.[2]  Parents of “special needs” children don’t feel like they’ve been short changed in any way- I still think my kid is better, and cuter, and nicer than anyone else’s, and I don’t feel sad or jealous when I look at normal babies. However, on the odd occasion that I have tried to make a joke on the subject, it has been met with stunned silence followed by uncomfortable laughter. Once, after telling a couple of ladies about Iggy’s condition I tried to break up the awkward silence that followed with the quip “It could have been worse, she could have been ginger”. It didn’t go down well. I think they might have thought I was genuinely saying that to have red hair is worse than to have Down syndrome.

The point I was making is that all kids, whoever they are, get picked on at some point. I don’t know anyone who wasn’t teased about something at school or uni. It’s not pleasant for anyone, but it is a natural part of growing up and it’s wrong to say that picking on someone for DS is somehow worse than teasing someone about big feet. It is something that actually makes them more like other children and it is far more isolating to put someone on a pedestal and say that you can’t treat their condition lightly than it is to afford them the same level of camaraderie and banter that you would an “ordinary” child. Watching Gwen with her sister has been amazing, because of course, at 2 and a half, she doesn’t understand that her sister is different, so she’s just as mean to her as she is to all the other kids. I don’t want anyone being mean to my children, but if they are going to, I wish they’d be mean to them both equally.

The fact that children with disabilities are out of the asylums and onto the TV screen is great. But if we’re only putting them out there to shine a spotlight on their differences, they’d be better off at home. Isolde, just like any other child with Trisomy 21 has 42 totally normal chromosomes in addition to her extra “special” one. That’s more than enough normal to cancel out her stumpy arms and gappy toes. If everyone could just relax a little it would be more comfortable for everyone, and I wouldn’t have to hear the sharp intake of breath every time someone overheard me call her Spackerdoodle.

Admit it. You just did it didn’t you?

[1] Ha! My kid’s got more chromosomes than your kid.
[2] Seriously, they’re huge.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Practical Knitting for Babies and Toddlers: Part 2

This post, rather like an inconsiderate baby, is rather overdue. I’ve actually had the notes knocking around for about a year, but never got round to typing them up. But should you want to read the original post on yarn choices for babies and toddlers, you can do so here:
 In fact, in the year since Iggy made her appearance I have learnt quite a lot of useful stuff about what to knit (and not knit) for babies. It turns out that the getting the yarn choice right (see above) doesn’t guarantee success. Once you’re made your completely appropriate and well informed yarn choice you have to decide what to make with it, and how. Trust me, a bad choice of garment can make the nicest baby look like a gremlin although frankly, most babies look like gremlins for the first few days. More than that though, an inappropriate gift puts the parents of said bundle of joy in a very awkward position. So, some points to consider when deciding what to knit:

Gratuitous picture of handknits. Patterns to follow.

·         The tastes of the child’s parents (or, realistically, the mother). It’s probably unwise to delve into your stash of frilly vintage matinee coats and lace bonnets if the parents in question are ultra modern in taste ( Likewise, if the mother likes pretty, girlie things, intarsia skulls and crossbones are perhaps not the best choice (like this, for example
·         Consider the time of year at which the baby is due AND the size of your garment- a summer baby won’t have much need for a first-size snow suit, but if you’ve got your heart set on knitting a particular pattern you can always scale it up to fit later. If in doubt it’s better to err on the side of caution and go slightly bigger. Bear in mind that fairisle and stranded patterns are double thick, and therefore much warmer, while lace, being full of holes, is cooler but it’s easy for tiny fingers to get tangled in both.
·         The age of the intended recipient. Dresses are lovely, but on tiny babies who aren’t able to sit up, they tend to get scrunched up uncomfortably under baby’s back. For small babies, things which fasten under the legs are more practical. My toddler can’t be trusted in anything flimsy, frilly or delicate at the moment, and so needs her knits to be tough and washable. Also, if the child is potty trained, or in the process thereof, they have to be able to get the item off quickly and easily.
·         Fastenings. Beanie hats are cute, but don’t really stay put- while bonnets might not be as modern they do at least stay on heads. When looking at vintage patterns, be aware that many old onesie patterns don’t have a crotch fastening. This is stupendously impractical and well worth fixing, if you can come up with a simple way to do so. Poppers are more practical than buttons and zips always make me slightly nervous around babies.
·         Upkeep. As well as choosing yarn appropriate to the mother’s lifestyle, bear the same factors in mind when choosing patterns. Very few non knitters can be trusted to hand block a precious lace shawl, but most are imminently capable of chucking a pair of hand knit socks into the bath with baby at bedtime for a quick wash.

Once you’ve decided what to make, read the pattern. All the way through. Before you even get your needles out. It will save you from any nasty surprises later on when you realise that you have no idea how to do half of the techniques needed. How is the garment constructed? Most modern patterns aim to be as seamless as possible, while vintage patterns are almost always knitted flat and seamed. I tend to recommend converting a pattern to in-the-round wherever possible. As well as being quicker and less hassle for you, it’s smoother and more comfortable for a baby who will be lying on it and one less thing to come undone under the abuse of a boisterous toddler.

  If it’s for a newborn- are there pockets? Do you really need them? Think about it, what would a two week old baby need a pocket for?

  If you’re making leggings for a child from about 4 months up, it’s worth adding some reinforcement to the knees, either with patches or Swiss darning ( Are you going to add feet to the leggings? I prefer to make leggings footless and make a matching pair of booties to go with them, as it prolongs their life as the baby gets longer.

Are you going to make booties or mittens? It’s always a good idea to make three. While most mothers are careful with their hand knits, accidents do happen and it’s so easy to miss a sock or glove being tossed out of a pram. By sending three, not only do you extend the life of the gift, but it sends a subtle message to the mother saying “it happens, don’t worry about it”. This might seem like a small thing, but my overwhelming memories of the first few months of motherhood are of guilt directed randomly and liberally, anything a gift giver can do to assuage the inevitable newborn remorse is helpful.
Otherwise, always put mittens on a string, not only does it guard against loss, but if you just leave the mittens in the coat, they won’t be forgotten when you go out. A simple crochet chain is the quickest way to do this, but I-cord looks smarter and is stronger.

When sewing on buttons, it’s really important to make sure they’re secure. Use a button thread if you can get it, or normal cotton held double. It might be a faff, but it isn’t worth the risk of a baby choking on a loose button. Another thing I forgot when knitting for Iggy is that it doesn’t matter how superwash your yarn is, if the buttons on your garment are too delicate for the washing machine.

Finally, include the ball band with your gift. It shows the fibre content and care instructions. My mother makes hers into pretty cardboard labels, but I tend to just tuck mine inside when I wrap up. It also shows that the item is handmade- not everyone can tell at a glance.

Finally, the lists below are my suggestions for summer/ winter babies’ gifts, with links to a few of my favourite patterns. I have a few patterns of my own which need to be written up, proofed and test knitted. Anyone willing to undertake a test knit for me, I’d be supremely grateful!

Gifts for Summer Babies:
(Ideal yarns include cotton, linen, tally, soy and silk)
·         Sunhats
·         Cellular blankets
·         Sleeveless/ short- sleeved onesies (Pattern to follow once it’s been tested)
·         “Mary Jane” booties
·         Sunsuits

Gifts for Winter Babies:
(Can’t go wrong with good old superwash wool)
·         Wool blankets
·         Leggings, with or without feet (pattern to follow soon!)
·         Mittens, (pattern to follow)
·         “traditional” booties

Gifts for Any Time of Year:
·         Socks (Pattern on its way)
·         Washcloths (Pattern will follow, but honestly? It’s a cotton square, end of)
·         Knitted or crocheted dummy clips
·         Shawls (they make excellent breastfeeding cover-ups, and will be treasured for years)
·         Stuffed toys- especially if you can make a favourite TV character.

I think the most important thing to remember when knitting for children is not to be precious. Yes, you have spent time and money creating something, and yes, that gift should be cherished, but it should also be used. I would hate to think of something I’d made for a baby never being worn because the mother was too scared that it would get dirty, or was too intimidated to stick it in the washing machine. Raising children is a messy, sticky, smelly business, If the prospect of seeing your hard work pooed on and then chucked in on a normal wash cycle gives you the shivers, baby knitting probably isn’t for you!

Nothing says love like a baby covered in knitting.