Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Pice ar y Maen (Welsh Cakes) for Breakfast

The weekends are a time when roles are reversed and invariably I have to get up first and, as it is the weekend, I am expected to return with breakfast. Usually this will be toast, but this morning as I was lying there, contemplating getting up, I realised that we were out of bread and that being a Sunday the deli wouldn’t open until 10am. For some reason (genuinely I have no idea why) I suddenly thought, ‘I’ll make griddle cakes!’. Which is odd, because I have never made them before; perhaps it was my distant Welsh blood speaking through the mists of time. 

I will be making them again though – a real success and very easy. It must have taken no more than 15/20 minutes, including making the coffee.

A Welsh Cake cooking in the traditional way.

Image from National Museum of Wales

Traditionally Welsh cakes would have been cooked on a bakestone (in fact one name for the actual cakes in Wales is Bakestones), which is a flat slap of stone that was heated in a fire and then used for cooking. More recently cast iron has replaced stone and they are cooked on a griddle pan over a range. Sadly we don’t have either, however we do have a panini maker that my mother bought me some time ago and which turned out to be just perfect.

They kept their shape so well during cooking that for afternoon tea, when using up the rest of the mix, I used shaped cutters instead of a round one. Once we get the bee-hives up and running I am looking forward to trying these out with honey rather than sugar.

If you look carefully at the image at the top you might see two things that would make my Welsh fathers turn in their graves. One thing that is there and shouldn’t be and one that isn’t there and ought to be... I’ll let on at the end.

Pice ar y Maen or Welsh Cake Recipe

(250g) 8oz self-raising flour
(75g) 3 oz butter
(1/4 tsp) pinch of salt
(75g) 3 oz currants or raisins
(75g) 3oz caster sugar
1 egg
a little bit of milk
Some extra sugar to sprinkle

They kept their shape so well I couldn't help
but use a different cutter for afternoon tea
Combine the fat and flour and then add in the sugar, salt and currants. Break in the egg and pour in enough dashes of milk to make it bind. Roll to the thickness of your little finger and cut using a cutter of your choice. Pop onto the griddle, bakestone, panini maker or heavy saucepan and cook until brown, turning once. Then sprinkle with sugar if so desired.

Do try these, they are so lovely and yet really easy. And the two historical errors in the picture? Well the Jam would certainly be frowned upon, whilst the lack of currants would have me banished from the sacred land!

Friday, 24 February 2012

Homemade Warping Frame

The completed warping frame with its first warp
We got our loom just before Christmas 2010; it is a Harrisville 36” loom with 8 shafts and 10 treadles. It belonged to someone who had come over from the states and then had to return, unable to take it back with them. Having cluttered up the bedroom of their friend for some time we saw an advert asking if anyone wanted it before it went to the dump... We jumped at the chance and have been the proud owners since. I cannot imagine that there are many Harrisville Looms in England as there is no distributor for them here.

That first Christmas we learnt to use it by weaving three scarves and two ties, which were given away as presents. These were made with a weaving book in one hand and the beater in the other, with the last one only being cut off and fulled late into the night before we set off to be with family. 

The frame is oak and
the pegs hazel
Given that we didn’t really allow ourselves much time to learn the process of weaving they came out quite well. However, one area where we did struggle was with the tension as we didn’t have a warping frame and so was using various Heath Robinson style contraptions involving chairs and sofas etc., none of which really worked satisfactorily.

I briefly looked at the Ashford warping frame, but at £75 ($120) pretty quickly dismissed it – not only on cost, but also because it was made in New Zealand and shipped over. I am sure that it is very nicely made, but it is only four bars with pegs coming out and so I set to making one. It has been an on/off project all through last year, but finally it is finished and we can return to weaving, as we haven’t touched it since the last scarf came off the loom that Christmas.

How to make a warping frame

Full plans for the warping frame can be download in .pdf by clicking here.

The frame has mortise and
tenon joints, secured with
copper pins

I used 20mm (¾”) oak for the actual frame as I have a pile of solid oak floorboards, but you could use any easy to work straight grain timber. I guess you could even use softwood as it isn’t under much load. The width of the frame timber is 45mm (1 ¾”).
The uprights are cut to 80cm (31 ½”) in length and 25mm (1”) long tenons are cut at the end, at a width of 6mm (1/4”). The horizontal members are 103cm (40 ½”) as this allows the spacing from peg to peg to be around 1m (39 ½”), which makes for an easy rough and ready warp length calculation. If you are more comfortable with imperial measurements you could always adjust it to make them a yard apart. I then cut the mortises in the horizontal members.

It is easier to drill the holes for the pegs before you assemble the frame, although I put them in at the end. For my pegs I used hazel; it is a local wood that grows in coppices and hence the rods are reasonably straight. It isn’t a particularly strong wood, but by simply debarking it and using it ‘in the round’ I am retaining the strength of the grain. It is quite important that the pegs are straight as a significant variation throughout the length of the peg will be reflected in the warp. However, it does only really need to be straight on one side (i.e. the outer one around which the warp turns). Quite whether these hazel pegs are straight enough I am not sure – I guess time will tell – if not I will replace them with oak dowel. The pegs are 16.5cm (6 ½”) long and around 12mm (1/2”) in diameter (in actual fact the diameter of the pegs are quite varied being hazel rods – which I love – but dowel would obviously give a consistent finish). Drill the hole slightly smaller than the pegs.

It is important that the pegs be square to the frame
On the left upright the centre of the top hole is 16.5cm (6 ½”) from the tenon shoulder, with the centre of the holes below being at 14cm (5 ½”) intervals. For the right upright the centre of the first hole is 3cm (1 ¼”) and then again they are every 14cm (5 ½”). All the holes are in the centre of the wood and each side has 5 pegs.

The upper horizontal member has the centre of the first hole 10cm (4”) in from the left handside, then two more, both at 20cm (8”) intervals. The lower member is the same, except you measure from the right hand edge. 

Assemble the frame and either glue the tenons or, as I did, peg them. Given that these were my first mortice and tenon joints I wasn’t about to risk drawboring with wooden pegs (I’ll save that for another day), but at the same time I am not keen on glue. So instead I pinned them with copper tacks, two in each tenon, straight through the side of the mortise – which has worked really well.

Download a .pdf version of the plan by clicking here
Once the frame is together it is just a matter of fitting the pegs with a wooden mallet, gently trimming the end and then tapping them home. Be careful that you don’t make it too tight and split the member, but tight enough so that they won’t fall out (no glue should be needed). Likewise stop and check them every so often with a set square to see that they are going in straight.

Finally screw in four brass hooks so that the frame can be mounted on the wall.

And there we are, another tool handmade – saving me money, teaching me new skills and reducing my impact on the environment. I dare say the Ashford one is a little more ‘polished’, but I rather like the natural look of ours. Right, time to get going on our first warp...

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Recycling Wool

I love jumble sales. They are a real antidote to what is wrong with the world. For a start they are almost always for a charity – be it children, wildlife, historic buildings, cats or anything else that needs care. Secondly they rely on people recognising what it is that they no longer need and then offering that up for others to use. Likewise for the buyer it offers the chance to acquire a real range of stuff (far more eclectic than you’ll find on most high streets) at prices that are affordable. It is a wonderful celebration of what life should be like.

However, as anyone who has ever been to a jumble sale will attest to, all these high minded ideals can be a little hard to find once the door is opened and the baying crowd is unleashed on the tables, all overseen by a formidable army of older ladies eager to ensure that every item is found a new home and that, more importantly, every 20p is collected. In the heat of the moment there is little time for cool calm contemplation...

Which is the main reason why that lovely jumper I had been so pleased to find, was in actual fact an XL. I suppose that I could have taken it to a charity shop as there was nothing wrong with it, however it was made from Scottish spun tweed wool and in the end I decided to unwind it and recycle or upcycle the wool.

The jumper part way through being unwound
Ask almost anyone who has a wartime memory (as both my father and aunt do) and they will tell you that recycling wool was a perfectly normal thing to do as fibre had become hard and expensive to acquire. But even today the economics of it are surprising and, although I shudder at the idea of deciding what is worth doing by whether the pounds and pence add up, it does actually make financial sense.

I purchased the jumper for 20p and from that I obtained just over 600g (21oz) of usable Scottish tweed wool. If I was to go and buy that from Rowan it would be £5.90 per 50g (plus P&P), a total of around £72 ($112). It took longer than usual to unwind it (see below), maybe 6hrs, but it was a happy little task that I could do whilst listening to the radio and even in the car (no, I wasn’t driving). Of course if you get jumpers in angora, cashmere or alpaca the savings can be considerably more.

In weaving projects I have done before I have used recycled wool as the warp, but I have decided here to use the wool for both the warp and weft, in a straight forward tabby weave. It will be first time I have used the full 36” width of the loom, having only done scarves and ties before. For weaving I don’t do anything with the wool other than wind it onto a bobbin and then it’s always under tension during the process of weaving. For knitting you would certainly want to steam or gently wash the wool on a niddy-noddy for a while to release the crinkle. This particular yarn has a new texture to it, slightly raised where it has been on the outside of the jumper, however with this type of wool I think it only adds more interest.

How to unwind a jumper

Slightly vintage labels like this can be used
as a reminder of the fibre and its origin.
Firstly it is really important to ensure that your jumper was made in the correct way. There are two methods in making them up. The first uses panels and a stitch up the seams, usually from the same wool as the jumper is knitted in. This can be quite hard to see, but gently pulling the seam should show a thread running back and forth between the two panels. This is the one we want, because the second method – using an industrial overlocker – stitches the panels together (often with a cotton thread) and then cuts the end of the woollen seam. This results in a cut stitch at the end of each row and so lots of short lengths.

Once you are sure that you have the right sort of seams (and that you do actually want to loose the jumper!) cut along all the seams, being very sure to only cut the woollen thread holding them together. If you are successful you will know because you end up with two panels, the ends of which are uncut. Often at the base of the seam it will be strengthened by cotton thread stitching and it is almost impossible to unpick this. You just have to do the best you can and accept a few rows of lost wool - likewise up and around the shoulders. It is a process that is much easier to do than describe.

If you get to a problem (perhaps a damaged or stained area) you can cut out strips, so long as you do so along the row and not down through the rows. Then take off any sort bits until you get continuous rows again.
On this particular jumper the main body came away two rows at a time, which was slower as I had to wind it on to two bobbins.

Calculating how much wool you have.

Calculating the wraps per inch (wpi)
Once you have your wool into a ball or on a bobbin you can weigh it and calculate how much you have obtained. I got just over 600g (21oz) from this very large jumper, with 60g (2oz) of ‘waste’ wool that we will use for stitching or filling, plus there was a zip. If you were going to knit a jumper try to get a size or two above the one you are going to make or one that uses more wool (e.g. a polo neck). If it is vintage or attractive the label can be attached to remind you of the yarn’s fibre.

To calculate the length of the wool take a ruler and wrap the yarn around it, laying each wrap one next to the other along a 1” gap. To make it easier I have set a set square to a one inch gap, one day I’ll make a wooden gap with the calculations on the back. This particular wool is 16 wraps per inch (known as wpi) so therefore I am likely to have around 2400m (2,600 yds) of yarn. How did I come by this calculation? Well by using the many, many charts on the internet – of which each one says something different. You have to have a look at a few and then average them out and certainly when you are planning your project you need to allow a bit for error. A more accurate way would be to wind it around a known length (such as a niddy-noddy) to create skeins.

Old mill bobbins with the recycled wool
So there we have it two 100-year old mill bobbins being used again to hold recycled wool that is going to be used again! Such recycling should be the stuff of life...

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Does the world need another blog?

William Morris: Hopefully not as serious
as he always looks and someone who
understood so much.

No, probably not. But then it is unlikely that we need half the stuff that modern life creates and yet still there it is. So I am sure that one more blog won’t make much difference. I think we can fit it in. Just.

So what’s it all about then?

Life. And a deep down belief that the current way of doing things just isn’t working, for us or for the planet.

Currently satisfying the needs of life (the things we need to survive) is causing the world great problems, and yet the irony is that the meeting of them presents the greatest opportunity for us to fulfil our innate creative desires, in a sustainable way. The problem is a great disconnect between the things around us and their creation – both in a global sense, but also in a very personal one. I doubt that many of us would purchase so many of the things that we do if we saw the environment in which they were created, devoid of compassion or care. And that flows over into the object – it is impersonal, identical and dead. We have no connection to it, no involvement in its production other than its consumption. Perhaps if this was just one or two objects in our lives it would be bearable – the almost unavoidable computer or phone. But it’s not, it's everything.

The moment that we take a step back from that, no matter how small, is an act of great love and compassion, towards ourselves, others and the earth. When we say, ‘no I am not going to buy that’, it is a great liberating step. It might be that you realise you don’t actually need it or that you can get it second-hand, but it might also be that you can make something to meet your needs.

That is really what this blog is all about, what happens when you try to live as lightly and yet also as creatively as possible. I am not unique in this aim by any stretch, but this is my story of what happens when I try it.

John Lane's Timeless Simplicity
says everything in 100 pages
that I could hope to express
in a lifetime.
It’s modest – really modest. But actually it is also just a little bit profound. Because to do all that you can to try and lessen your impact on others is all that anyone can ask you to do. And actually if we all did that many of the problems would pretty much disappear. The really sad thing is that in an effort to convince us that life is best bought with a 30-day money back guarantee, they have made us think that homemade is second best, that poor means poverty. And the truth is that whilst that can be the case, it needn’t be.

Of course it isn’t easy. Society makes sure of that. If you want to herd sheep you put up hedges and send out dogs so that the only easy route is the one into the pen. And I’ll try to fight my own pride in an effort to be honest about the challenges I face, but I passionately believe that it has the potential to be the most richest and rewarding of lives.

The rhythm of life (is a powerful thing)

Because the blog will follow the projects I work on it will develop a natural rhythm and journey. At the moment it is likely to be quite woodworking and indoor crafts focused, as its winter. Come spring and summer there will be much more from the allotment. Likewise the books and texts I read seem to come in patterns; for a while it will be several on one subject and then perhaps I will have a flight of fancy and immerse myself in something else. At the moment it is traditional woodworking and more specifically the traditional uses of different trees, but I can feel a change coming and have already ordered some library books on reading and interpreting the historical landscape.

It all sounds very heavy!

Yes, it does a bit doesn’t it? And perhaps I should be wary of setting such grand hopes. Certainly I want the normal posts to mix the very practical with a bit of background information, so perhaps this is as deep and heavy as we’ll go, but anyway we’ll see how we get on. 

I hope to avoid any egotistical ‘Hey, look at me and what I can do’, and instead use the blog to share some of the things I am working on or thinking about so that others may share their experiences too or be inspired to try it themselves. I am no creative genius, nor super talented crafts-person (as you’ll all too clearly see!) and so if I do succeed along the way the chances are that you’ll be twice as successful, if only you’ll give it a go.

"Let's go back to basics and remember that all we really have to do is put a roof over our heads and meals on the table. Beyond that our time can be better spent enjoying our lives, being with the people we love, creating things we love that don't harm the earth, and contributing something meaningful to the world." Elaine St James