Monthly Archives: February 2014

An Upcycling Tale of Creativity

I am working on a new upcycling project this week. There’s nothing especially notable about that in itself as upcycling is a concept I have been crazy about forever … so that’s a long time before the word ‘upcycling’ was even first coined! I love the positive notion of upcycling and its environmentally friendly connotations.

However, this particular upcycling project emerged from a curious mixture of inspirations that happened to me within a fairly short time-frame of just a few days. These ideas tumbled together in my head like a ripple effect – each individual source of inspiration built on and fed into the others.

The result felt like a huge wave that rolled on with the tide until eventually it crashed, sending a series of rivulets rushing up onto a calm sandy beach. As on a beach when each rivulet carries with it a new mixture of pebbles, shells and ocean detritus, so each of my rivulets of creativity carried with it its own collection of creative nuggets. Each rivulet is now a germ of a whole new idea.

What was in my wave of inspirations?


1. “Mat Making”

I’ve been reading a book recently about an historical form of upcycling in my local region. The book is called “Hook into the Past: The Story of Mat Making in North East England” edited by Ellen Phethean. The book describes the craft of making rugs, locally known as ‘mats’, from pieces of old clothing and textiles that had reached the end of their useful lives.

Hook into the Past: The Story of Mat Making in North East England
Hook into the Past: The Story of Mat Making in North East England

The ‘mats’ were made mostly by working-class people to put down on the floors of their homes as shop-bought carpets were largely unaffordable. Families and neighbours worked together to make the mats. These ‘hooky’ or ‘proggy’ mats were essential household items for North East working people right up to the middle of the twentieth century.
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Hook-into-Past-Making-England/dp/1857952073

2. “creativity” of WordPress bloggers
I follow certain tags on WordPress. One of them is “creativity”. I find it produces a serendipitous array of creative ideas that I can then filter through my personal ‘creativity fishing net’. Some ideas will become my ‘big fish’ whilst others might just prove to be useful ‘shrimps’. I find there’s always a good range of ideas on offer to satisfy my creative hunger.

On a recent trawl through the “creativity” of bloggers on WordPress a couple of posts particularly caught my eye. The first was entitled “Polyethylene macrame” and showed a colourful image of plastic shopping bags knotted together by their handles – which I learned is something of an art form in Beirut’s supermarkets.

Austin Kleon's new book, Show Your Work!
Austin Kleon’s new book, Show Your Work!

The second “creativity” blog post that grabbed me was a poster from Austin Kleon’s new book, “Show Your Work! 10 ways to share your creativity and get discovered”. The blogger who had shared the poster likes the way Austin Kleon captures his ideas in simple but effective words. I do too. His ideas work for me in several areas of my life. Hello Lillian and thank you for posting this poster 🙂

3. Spring … and cleaning!
Some of my regular readers will know I am excited about the imminent arrival of Spring and have been avidly seeking signs that we are progressing towards it. One of the less exciting aspects of the changing season for me is the lovely Spring sun shining on those forgotten dusty household corners revealing the need for prompt clearing out and cleaning when I would much rather be outside checking on Nature’s progress!

Such a moment occurred on Saturday. However, in the process of cleaning I unearthed a rather large number of supermarket carrier bags that had amassed over time. Initially I intended simply returning them to the supermarket for recycling. But then my creative wave took over and I had an idea for an upcycling project …

Crocheting red carrier bags with a hand carved hook
Crocheting red carrier bags with a hand carved hook

… but that will be another story.

J Peggy Taylor

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Winter sunrise

John Martin, Thomas Bewick and Chinese brush paintings

We are fortunate in North East England to have a wealth of wonderful art galleries and museums to feed our cultural souls. On a recent town trip we enjoyed some new artworks and some old favourites.

Our first stop was an exhibition of Chinese brush paintings in the Newcastle City Library. This was part of the city’s celebrations for Chinese New Year – The Year of the Horse. The paintings in this exhibition were the work of members of the Northern Chinese Brush Painters’ Society. Chinese brush painting is a very distinct style of painting, often featuring flowers and animals associated with China, as well as classical images of Chinese figures.

Viewing Chinese Brush Painting Exhibition at City Library
Viewing Chinese Brush Painting Exhibition at City Library

We like to take our time when we’re exploring an exhibition and really absorb the feelings different works evoke. Having visited previous exhibitions of Chinese brush painting we were ready to appreciate the skillful brushwork that goes into this style of painting and the artists of the Chinese Brush Painters’ Society really are very accomplished. The exhibition was a visual treat. There were wild birds, cockerels, peonies, roses, landscapes, waterfalls, a tiger (a favourite with our boys), and of course, a horse – all beautifully represented in Chinese brush work.

Our second stop was the 18th and 19th Century Paintings on the first floor of the Laing Art Gallery which is conveniently just across the road from the library. The Laing is one of our regular haunts so our boys are very familiar with many of the works in this part of the gallery. They feel at home here and happily wander off to study the various paintings. In this gallery we have works by John Martin, Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds, William Holman Hunt and, one of my favourites, Laura Knight, among others. Then after we’ve wandered we meet up at particular family favourites and talk about something that has caught our eye.

On this occasion we were standing by John Martin’s “The Bard” – at over 2 metres high and a metre and a half across, it is an imposing and truly mesmerising painting that we never tire of viewing and discussing. It depicts the medieval story of Edward I and his armies conquering Wales, with the last Welsh Bard standing high on the mountainside from which he is about to leap to his death.

We also contemplated the smaller works by John Martin that are hung adjacent to “The Bard”. One in particular drew our attention, entitled “Solitude”, as it depicts a lone figure gazing out across woods and moorland towards the kind of glorious sunset we often see in winter across our own valley. The sunrise I’ve added as the header to this post demonstrates the amazing sky colours we experience. This is a raw image taken in early January.

The final part of this cultural tour was to view an exhibition currently at the Laing Gallery showcasing works by another very famous North East artist and his pupils, “Thomas Bewick and His Apprentices”. Thomas Bewick is renowned for his wood engravings, many of which were published as book illustrations.

Thomas Bewick's engravings
Thomas Bewick’s engravings

This exhibition partly showcased Bewick’s own work, but also that of the apprentices who worked with him at his workshop. There were engravings but also paintings by Bewick’s apprentices in the exhibition, including a wonderful watercolour of Tynemouth Priory by Luke Clennell. The following link takes you to part of the Tyne & Wear Museums website where you can see some of Luke Clennell’s work. We discussed how the subject matter and style of some of these paintings were similar to some of the works of John Sell Cotman.

We had a very enjoyable and informative day, experiencing and appreciating an interesting range of works by North East-based artists past and present. It was certainly a wonderful way to spend a damp winter’s day.

J Peggy Taylor

Catching up on Nature’s Calendar

Today I was catching up on my Spring nature records – I had my Elder bud-burst to record from Sunday and then today (as I’d anticipated in my last blog post) at lunchtime I spotted our snowdrops had opened their flowers to this morning’s warm sun. Unfortunately, it started to rain at that point so no photos yet … perhaps tomorrow.

Recording  Snowdrops on Nature's Calendar
Recording my Snowdrops on Nature’s Calendar

Phenology sounds like a phenomenally important kind of science I always think – and it certainly is. But the great thing about phenology is that many of us ‘just do it’ in our own small way without even thinking about it. As we go about our daily lives we notice nature’s own events – we spot snowdrops or bluebells coming into bloom, buds bursting on hedges, trees sprouting new leaves, frogspawn in a garden pond, a butterfly … and so on. We comment too on whether it is earlier or later than we saw them last year.

I tend to record my ‘sightings’ in a small notebook and take photos if possible. I’m usually fine with photos as long as the subject can stand still for long enough! So, flowers and frogspawn, yes; birds or deer, no!

As well as keeping my own notes and photographs I also try to share my nature records. Nature’s Calendar is one of the places where I submit my seasonal sightings. Nature’s Calendar is the Woodland Trust’s web-based phenology project and is also a really good source of information for anyone wanting to learn more about nature and the timing of seasonal events in their local area. This ongoing wildlife survey covers the whole of the UK and it’s easy to use and free to register.

As you would guess, currently Nature’s Calendar is recording Spring sightings as they occur in different parts of the country. Here is a quick peek at the key Spring events Nature’s Calendar would like us to record.

Recording Spring events for Nature's Calendar
Spring events for Nature’s Calendar

Together all of these records help to map changes in natural events over the years so every record submitted really does count. We have taken part in numerous ‘citizen science’ projects as a family and as well as being educational we find they are also lots of fun. … and of course grown-ups too can enjoy recording and learning about nature! So if you’ve never tried your hand at something like this before, why not take a look at Nature’s Calendar … beware though, it can become addictive!!

J Peggy Taylor

Beechwood sun and shadows

Weekend Nature Round-up – Signs of Spring

We probably all have our own little ways of noticing that Winter may be gradually releasing its icy grip, though this year perhaps ‘soggy’ would be a more appropriate adjective. I have noticed several of my Spring signs this weekend.

Late in the afternoon on Friday as I was busy with my usual housework I was treated to a glorious burst of singing, interspersed with a curious mix of clacking, clucking and peeping. This was one of ‘our’ starlings, singing his little heart out in our eaves. I’m not sure if he knew it was Valentine’s Day but I think he definitely sounded like he was keeping his toes crossed!

Today we took advantage of a sunny and relatively mild February Sunday and headed off into the woods for an afternoon’s ramble. As usual, being an avid nature-watcher I was on the look-out for several signs of a hopefully fairly imminent Spring.

Snowdrops almost blooming
Snowdrops almost blooming

The first of these was right outside our front door – our snowdrops are looking healthy and fit to burst. We’ll have to see what this week’s weather brings, but I’m sure those flowers will be opening very soon.

My second sighting, just a few metres into the wood, was the beautiful golden globes of the Winter Aconites Eranthis hyemalis. I always think of these flowers as ‘the’ promise that Spring is not too far off, so it is always a delight to see them. Rather like the snowdrops, they were just waiting to burst open. I’d thought today’s sun might have tempted them, but they mustn’t be quite ready.

The golden globes of Winter Aconites
The golden globes of Winter Aconites

The third sighting, close to the Winter Aconites, was my first bud-burst of 2014. The elder’s purple buds had burst forth just showing the tips of its tiny purple first leaves.

We stopped to admire the amazing reflections of the winter trees in the deep and muddy puddles along our path. The sun was still quite high and the reflected colours were much greener than a few weeks ago.

On we went, up through the sunlit beechwood, the shadows dancing across the mossy floor. This part of the wood is always full of interest, from fungi to flowers to fruits to creatures, there’s always something to discover. Today we were spotting new fungi growth on some old fallen timber – it was the fairly common Hairy Stereum Stereum hirsutum. Watching an old tree rot may not seem the most exciting thing to do, but deadwood is an amazing haven for wildlife and is especially fascinating to children [like ours] with a keen interest in both fungi and the invertebrate world.

Green shoots that promise bluebells in Spring
Green shoots that promise bluebells in Spring

At the ‘top of the forest’ we spotted the last of today’s new signs of Spring. Under the beech trees some familiar-shaped shoots were beginning to flex their glossy green fingers as they thrust their first leaves towards the encouraging sunshine. Here we saw the promise of bluebells! It will of course be some time yet before we are greeted by their glorious scent drifting on the breeze – but that is definitely something to look forward to.

J Peggy Taylor

Chinese Dragon, Lion and Unicorn dance

Celebrating Chinese New Year in Newcastle-upon-Tyne

We always try to get along to the Chinese New Year celebrations in town and so off we went on Sunday morning. As usual, hundreds of other families turned out too. There is such a wonderful atmosphere at this event.

We normally start by taking a wander around the mini-fairground including some tastebud-tempting Chinese food stalls. Then we make our way up onto Stowell Street and join the crowds thronging the pavements to await the arrival of the traditional Dragon, Lion and Unicorn. Stowell Street is at the heart of Newcastle’s ‘Chinatown’ and is lined with Chinese restaurants and food shops, so the air is full of delicious aromas.

Chinese Dragon and Lion dance
The Dragon and the Lion arrive

Soon the dragon’s arrival is announced by the loud rhythmical beat of the huge drum that accompanies the parade. The Dragon appears and is closely followed by the Lion.

Chinese Lion dances by
The Lion dances by

As they dance their way along Stowell Street the crowd follows behind. Small children are hoisted onto adult shoulders as we all crane our necks and wave our cameras and phones in the air trying to snatch another glimpse of the dancing parade.

Chinese Dragon, Lion and Unicorn dance
Dragon, Lion and Unicorn dance

In the centre of the street, outside of the North East Chinese Association, the parade stops briefly and the Unicorn joins the Dragon and the Lion in their ongoing dance. The parade sets off again, the crowd follows and the dancing continues to the end of the street then finally round to the Chinese Arch. The following crowd doesn’t quite make it that far as the event stewards must carefully ensure everyone’s safety … and there’s another crowd already waiting by the Arch!

Chinese New Year parade
Dancing off to the Chinese Arch

The sights, the smells and the sounds all combine to create a truly memorable occasion. Having returned home with only photos, I wished I’d thought to record the fabulous drumming that accompanies the traditional dances. Also adding to the ‘official’ drumming are many children and families in the crowd joining in with their small Chinese drums too. The noise is amazing.

Kung Hey Fat Choi!

J Peggy Taylor

Inserting the final willow rod around the base - using a Phillips head screwdriver!

Staking-up not staking-out

Today I continued the next phase of my basketmaking. For readers who don’t know the beginning of this story, I am attempting to teach myself the craft of basketmaking in 2014. I am working from a very helpful book by Georgia Crook, simply entitled “Basketmaking”. Readers who saw the first phase of this crafty tale may recall that so far I have made something remarkably resembling a willow basket base.

Today’s task was to add a set of willow rods around the base and to bend them upwards to form the main framework of my basket. I also continued to learn the various pieces of basketry terminology as I worked through this task.

My chosen willow rods and the base I made previously
My chosen willow rods and the base I made previously

I chose my upright rods from a bundle I had cut for this purpose. These 24 rods needed to be just a little thinner than the sticks I had used in the base. I prepared each rod by slyping the butt end (cutting the thick end of the rod to a point on one side).

Knife and some slyped rods ready for use
Some slyped rods ready for use

Next the rods were to be inserted into the weaving of the base. Using a greased ‘bodkin’ (I improvised with a Phillips head screwdriver 😉 )the rods are pushed into the pockets at either side of the base sticks. This sounded fairly straightforward, and to an extent it was, except working a set of rods each slightly over a metre long into a circular base meant I ended up working with something like a giant willow octopus … but with 24 arms!

Inserting the first four rods into the pockets of the base weaving
Inserting the first four rods into the pockets of the base weaving

I should probably have carried out the whole of this task outside rather than attempting it in the kitchen. Fortunately nothing came to grief … quite … though a pot of willow cuttings in water had a close shave! However, to continue my basketmaking, I decided it really was necessary to remove my willow octopus outside, which required a few extra helping pairs of hands. Thank you helpers!

Willow base and rods - like a giant octopus
Willow base and rods – like a giant octopus

To form the uprights the willow rods have to be carefully bent upwards around the basket base. This is done by pressing a knife blade gently into each rod where it protrudes from the edge of the base. Then with a slight twist of the knife the rod neatly kinks so it can be bent upwards at a right angle, but without snapping. Clever! … and it even worked for me as I managed not to snap any of my 24 octopus arms!

Kinking the first uprights  with a knife at the edge of the base
Kinking the first uprights with a knife at the edge of the base

Now it was time to control my octopus … in other words, bend up those carefully kinked rods and catch them together in a loose willow ring. I made a quick willow ring from a left-over rod. My instruction book advised folding up the rods from opposite sides of the base, so this was how I began.

Catching up the rods from opposite sides in a loose willow ring
Catching up the rods from opposite sides in a loose willow ring

Unfortunately, my ‘loose’ willow ring was evidently just a tad too loose and came undone, spilling my neatly collected octopus arms back down onto the ground. Ohh! Sigh! … and start again …

All the upright rods in the second willow ring
All the upright rods caught in the second willow ring

This time I made the willow ring slightly tighter to avoid a similar fate. Perhaps as a result of the willow rods being flapped up and down rather more times than they should, I found a couple of my carefully slyped rods had crept out of their basket-base pockets and needed to be firmly replaced.

However, eventually, I ended up with a satisfyingly-shaped willow barrel, with all the upright rods neatly caught in the willow ring. Now I’m ready to start ‘waling’ so I can finish my ‘upsett’ … though I should reassure you that I’m not expecting to shed any tears!

J Peggy Taylor

Sunny Saturday in the woods

New month: Nature roundup

We seem to have spun through January and reached February already in 2014. I am relieved to say in our northern valley, apart from periodic bouts of strong winds and gales, we have not suffered with the extreme weather conditions that are being experienced elsewhere in the UK.

Walking out in our local countryside in mild winter sunshine on both days of this weekend I couldn’t help thinking about the people of Somerset and others who are still suffering flooding – a month on – with the weather forecast again offering them little in the way of respite.

In recent winters we’ve had snow that lasted for weeks but this year on the first weekend in February, muddy paths and busy burns were the only signs of winter weather we encountered. The sunshine was very pleasant and we remarked on it with other walkers we met along the way.

Whilst I would say our winter has been relatively mild, we were still very surprised on Saturday when within a short stretch of a favourite woodland path we spotted Hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium) in three different stages of growth.

Green Hogweed in February
Green Hogweed in February

The first example was particularly remarkable as it was not brown and broken as you’d expect in late winter, but green with newly-formed seed pods! We normally see it at that stage in August not February!

Seedhead stars on old Hogweed stems
Seedhead stars on old Hogweed stems

A little further on, along the stretch of path where summer finds us spotting curious insect-life, some brown stems of last summer’s Hogweed were still standing proud above the remains of other plants and grasses. I love the way the winter light reflects from their starry seedless heads. These old stalks still have beauty to offer yet.

Hogweed with seeds - in February
Hogweed with seeds – in February

Across the path in the lea of the towering mature pine trees we saw our third state of Hogweed. These ones were in full autumn glory, their heads sporting a full complement of perfectly formed seeds – again, a beautiful sight with the morning sun catching them as they danced in the light breeze.

Opposite-leaved Golden Saxifrage by the burn
Opposite-leaved Golden Saxifrage by the burn

As we retraced our steps homeward we stopped by the burn to seek out any signs of early spring flowers. No Dog’s Mercury or Wood Sorrel yet, but the very-small-flower-with-the-very-long-name was looking promising by the waters-edge. I’m talking about Opposite-Leaved Golden Saxifrage (Chrysosplenium oppositifolium)- which, as you can see, is indeed a very long name for so small a plant. The tiny golden flowers were ready in their buds so I’m sure will appear very soon.

Sunday brought another chance for a sunny walk under azure blue skies. Today’s walk was in a different direction, along the valley side on an old mineral line before dropping into another woodland below. The spring signs I was seeking here were Blackthorn blossom, Gorse, Broom and Primroses. I found two out of four, so wasn’t disappointed.

The Blackthorn buds are filling up but none had burst forth yet. Both Gorse and Broom grow along the old railway line. I thought the Gorse looked particularly beautiful against the amazing blue of the sky.

gorse-against-blue-sky

The birch trees with their white trunks and purple twigs also caught my eye as I walked along.

winter-birches-blue-sky

There was lots of mud in the wood … but no sign of primroses today. Still, there’s plenty of time for them yet.

J Peggy Taylor

hands hooking the yarn for single crochet stitches

Craft a Willow and Hemp Curtain Ring

I’m in a bit of a willow and hemp phase at the moment. Willow needs little introduction. There are many species of willow (Salix)growing in many parts of the world, and varying in shape and size. As it is quick growing and pliable, willow has long been grown as a basketmaking material. This week I have been discovering myself a little of how wonderfully versatile a material it is for basketmaking, but now I am also experimenting with making it into other forms.

This particular experiment involved making a natural ring and then crocheting a binding around it. The ring is made with a 60cm/24 inch fine willow rod simply coiled around to form a ring about 7cm/3 inches across.

Materials needed to make the curtain ring
Materials needed to make the curtain ring

To make the crochet binding I used some spare hemp yarn I had left over from another project. The hemp I am talking about here is agricultural hemp. Agricultural hemp, like willow, is another wonderfully versatile material. It is also truly environmentally friendly and I believe deserves a much bigger role as one of the sustainable solutions we need for an ecologically sound future.

Hemp yarn is soft and strong. The hemp yarn I am using in this project is a beautifully rich deep terracotta. The yarn is hand-coloured but is also colour-fast, making it washable. Another aspect I particularly love about this yarn is its lustre. The natural hemp yarn has not been bleached as part of its processing, so it retains its natural shine, allowing the light to pick up on highlights in a finished piece.

The curtain ring I am making in this tutorial is experimental at this stage, but I thought I’d share the idea with you. However, I have made similar willow curtain rings without a binding and they are certainly still giving good service a year later.

You can find my tutorial (with photos) for making the willow and hemp curtain ring here on its own page.

The finished willow and hemp curtain ring
The finished willow and hemp curtain ring

You will notice the ring is neither flat nor rounded, but rather undulates as it follows the thicks and thins of the willow base. The crochet stitches will be shorter or longer to accommodate the variations. I quite liked this. I think this gives the curtain ring more character and also the undulation will play well with the lustre of the hemp yarn as the light reflects.

J Peggy Taylor