Monday, 30 September 2013

A few 30s/40s family photos

I got sent a lovely thing this week: some photos of my family, mostly from when they were in Burma/Myanmar. I think the reason I'm so fascinated by the said of the family is because it's so different to my life and the British history I was taught in school. I remember my granddad talking about finding snakes under the house, or how he'd go walking into the jungle and bring back epiphytic orchids to hang in a tree in the back garden. I remember him showing me the curly Burmese writing.

Mr Robot and I are planning to visit Pyin Oo Lwin – formerly known as Maymyo, the town where Granddad was born and grew up. His sister Sheleagh is still alive, and now living in the UK, and it's her son who sent me these lovely photos. I believe their house is now the site of a Hindu temple, but we shall take a look at the road anyway, and lots of the churches, schools and other buildings they went to should still be there.

The first photo is of my great-grandmother Mary Florence, nee de Solminihac. She was from Kolkata (Calcutta, back then) and moved to Burma/Myanmar when she got married. I'm not sure what the uniform is – some sort of women's army support, I'd guess. The second is also her, on the steps of Rose Cottage, their family home. The third one is my great-aunts Molly and Sheleagh, plus Jean, Molly's daughter. 

I hope you like them. I was overjoyed to receive them.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

How to repair vintage enamel jewellery

It's easy to find vintage enamel jewellery, but at best it's usually 'nibbled'. What's more, it's easy to chip a piece if you're not careful. Today I repaired a couple of brooches, so I thought I'd share how I did it in case it's useful to anyone else.

What I started with
Two enamel brooches, both probably 1960s, made by Solihull company Exquisite. The oak leaves are part of a whole sequence of leaf brooches produced in that era, and I also have the horse chestnut, which was a gift from my friends Andy and Rachel. I found this one in my local Scope charity shop. The oak leaves were in pretty good condition, though the enamel had come off the tip of one acorn and was chipped on the leaf behind it.

The lucky heather was another charity shop find. Exquisite produced different sorts of heather brooches by the truckload, I believe mainly for the Scottish souvenir trade. It was all battered and unloved, so I thought I'd buy it, and when I got it out of the charity shop I realised just how badly the poor thing had been treated: someone had given it a really inept repaint at some point in its history, blobbing excess white all over what should have been leaves, and it had lost its diamante.

You may have a brooch, necklace or earrings to repair, but if your jewellery has this sort of enamel on, you can fix it. (NB: I am assuming you are handy with a paint brush. If you can handle gel eyeliner or painting metal wargames figures, you'll be fine.)

What you need
Enamel paints
Thinners
You can get these from your local model shop. Try to buy paints as close in colour to the item you're repairing, as this will save you having to mix a shade from several tins. Enamel paints are mostly used by people making model railways and military models, which means you'll have a far better choice of greys, greens and blues than bright pinks or purples. Also, make sure you buy as pot of white as some colours will require a base coat (more on that later). You might also need a pot of gloss coating if you can only find a matte version of your chosen colour.

Paint brush
Pick a smallish brush if you're doing fine work, a medium one if the area you're painting is one colour and requires a single swoop of colour.

Cocktail sticks
Tissues
A ceramic ramekin or a shot glass
A table knife
Some waste paper. 
You've probably got all these at home. You might also want a pair of tweezers if you have false nails.

What you do
Lay out your waste paper on your work surface in a well-lit, well ventilated area. I've taken my paper away for the photos as the print would be distracting, but I did work on some. Pour a little bit of thinners into your ramekin or shot glass - it's a waste to dip your brush directly into the bottle as this will make the whole lot murky.

Have a close look at your jewellery. Some colours might be painted over the top of a white base coat – this is most likely to be the case when you've got several colours used all together, as in the leaves of my oak brooch, or when red and yellow are used as these pigments are often more transparent than greens and browns. Decide whether you need to start with white.
Halfway through, with a white base coat on the acorn and leaf

Pick up your chosen tin and give it a good shake. Lever the top off with the table knife and set it carefully aside. Papa Robot, who taught me all I know about this sort of thing, uses tweezers for moving lids, and if you've got false nails that might not respond well to the thinners or paint, that might be a good idea for you too. Now stir your paint with a cocktail stick. Sometimes they settle, and this will ensure even colour and drying.

Carefully dab your brush into the colour. I start by simply running the tip of my brush on the cocktail stick. It saves wastage, and you only need a tiny bit of paint on the brush anyway. Remember, it's easier to put on another thin layer than it is to remove a badly-done blobby layer. If you're doing a white base, apply it ONLY to the damaged area. If you're using a colour straight away, decide whether you also want to blend it in a little to the surrounding paint. Paint!

Now wipe your brush on a tissue to remove excess paint, dabble it in the thinners to remove the rest, then dry your brush on another bit of tissue. Wait five minutes or so for your paint to dry, then start on your next colour.

Here are my finished brooches. As you can see, after putting the green on the oak leaves, I added some streaks of brown to replicate the original pattern and hide the 'join' between my repair and the original enamel. I found a little diamante to finish off the lucky heather.

The finished repairs!

Thursday, 26 September 2013

More Colleen Moore!

I was really pleased this week to discover that two of silent superstar Colleen Moore’s films have been rediscovered. (The news has been out there for a while, I was a bit slow to pick up on it.) Colleen Moore is one of my style icons and, more importantly, helped set the flapper look of 1920s America, which spread around the world. However, because many of her flapper films have been lost, she’s largely missed off of any modern lists of 20s trendsetters.

The rediscovered films are Synthetic Sin and Why Be Good? Colleen’s last two silent movies, made in 1928. They were found in Milan, but are now back with Warner Brothers, who are taking good care of them. Film and acting changed so rapidly in the 1920s, it will be interesting to see what these films are like – Colleen had a great gift for comedy, and I’m hoping the more natural style of acting favoured in the later part of the decade will allow that to shine even more. What’s more, the two have a full-on deco look that’s sure to please any lover of the Jazz Age.

According to the news reports that I’ve read, the films are currently being restored for release on DVD. Oh, how I hope they do a Region 2 release!

Sunday, 22 September 2013

A couple of gorgeous London pubs

In the back room after the family have gone
Pussycat, pussycat, where have you been? Well, not up to London to visit the Queen, but to London to see my brother graduate. After years of hard study in addition to doing his day job, my little bruv has got a BSc in Social Sciences, and can pursue his dream of being a teacher. He did it through the Open University.

I have massive respect for anyone who studies with the OU. For non-Brits, it's a university where the work is done mostly through home study in the students' spare time, with additional tutorials and summer schools. It's backed up with programmes on the BBC, too. It has the same standards as other British universities, but the way it's structured means people who can't study full time because of work or family commitments, or who might find accessing a bricks-and-mortar university difficult (eg people with severe physical disabilities) can get a degree, masters, even PhD.

Another view of the Fox's back room
Anyway, in addition to seeing Dibbles* get his certificate we had lunch with family in a pub called the Fox and Anchor. I found it via the daily Emerald Street email. I'm not usually one for girly bobbins, but Emerald Street really is good and the email always includes a bar or restaurant review. They send out separate emails for London, Birmingham and Glasgow/Edinburgh – I get the London one, but I wish they had one for Bristol!

The Fox's website says it's in Clerkenwell, but it's definitely round the back of Smithfield Market. Is Smithfield Market in Clerkenwell? I don't know! At any rate, you just need to walk round the meat market to find it. We needed somewhere easy to get to from the graduation venue (the Barbican Centre), as one of the party wouldn't have been able to walk far, with a traditional menu, as another was a fussy eater, and the Fox seemed to fit the bill. It's lovely inside, all dark wood panelling. At the back there are even little mirrored booths, where perhaps once upon a time Victorian blokes entertained loose women, or worked out a dodgy deal or two.

The food was jolly nice, though I hadn't realised you needed to order vegetables separately and my chicken-and-ham pie came all on its own so I quickly ordered some additional veggies. My brother ordered the pork pies with mushy peas, and they looked really good. The beers were excellent.

The bar at the Black Friar – look at the frieze!
After a long meal Mr Robot and I waved goodbye to my brother and the rest of the family, had one more beer, and set off on our photo safari. We were walking round the edge of the City of London, where it meets the City of Westminster. A loop round Old Holburn, Fleet Street and the Embankment meant we ended up in the splendid turn-of-the-20th-century Arts and Crafts pub, the Black Friar. I've just bought a new camera, so hopefully these last two photos will give you a clearer idea of what we love about it - there's just nowhere else like it, with its marble walls and brass reliefs of monks brewing beer.
The back room at the Black Friar
*My brother doesn't read this blog. Good job, eh?

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

How to find your perfect jumper

Late 1940s: short sleeves, squarish shoulders
I had a brief chat on Twitter about jumpers over the weekend, so I thought I’d share some Thinks on the matter with you. Knitters probably think more about fibre and fit in jumpers than non-knitters, and as much as I'm coming to appreciate the boxy styles of the 1960s, I can't help thinking the simple, square shapes that came into style then and never really disappeared are at least partly responsible for the way the general public see handknits; a perception of poor fit and lack of style that knitters are still struggling to overcome. This isn't to say simplicity can't be stylish, but it needs to be done well, with careful attention to drape and shape.

Everybody looks for different things in their woollies, so I’m not going to be prescriptive about whether body X should wear woolly Y, but I am going to make suggestions according to what you might be looking for, with reference to vintage knitting styles. Knitted garments haven't changed massively over the years; if you're buying your knitwear on the high street, stick to the silhouette of your chosen era (boxy shoulders in the 1950s, emphasis on the waist in the 1950s) and choose a period-appropriate gauge of knitting (smaller stitches for pre-1960s styles, but not so fine they couldn't be handknitted) and you can't go far wrong.

I don’t want to add bulk  
Choose a fine knit. If you’re knitting your own garment, don’t go over a DK/worsted weight; I’d opt for 4ply/fingering or lighter. Here in the UK, DK started becoming more popular in the late 1950s, so look for patterns produced before then if you want the widest choice of designs knitted in fine yarns. If you’re shopping for woollies, it’s fairly easy to find fine knits, but don’t go for anything too fine – you don’t want to cross the line between ‘jumper’ and ‘long-sleeved T-shirt’.  

I don’t want to add bulk but I still want to be warm 
Choose fleecy animal fibres. The fibres usually have qualities that make them far warmer than the plant-based or synthetic alternatives, and they’re also breathable so you won’t get horribly sweaty and then chilled when you cool down. Nowadays all sorts of exotic fleeces and blends get spun into yarn, but you really can’t go far wrong with good old wool. Most of my vintage winter patterns (pre-1960s) specify a wool yarn. Silk, while an animal fibre, has a very different handle and drape from fleece fibres, and isn’t as warm. My current favourite yarns – and no, I'm not getting paid to say so! – are King Cole Merino Blend 4ply, Wendy Merino 4ply and Excelana 4ply. I adored Sublime's pure wool 4ply, but the rotters discontinued it...

Mulesing (the removing of part of the sheep’s skin to prevent their hindquarters getting filthy, which encourages fly strike, a very nasty condition) is being phased out in sheep farming, and is banned in many countries already but if you’re worried about that, why not look for a locally-farmed wool so you can be sure of the source? You could get a beautiful jumper and help support rare breeds in your area. 
Ribbing at the waist gives shape

I want something satisfyingly chunky 
You do get patterns using thick yarns from the 1930s onwards, but really, look to the mid-1950s and later for the best choice of chunky knits. Initially the thicker yarns were used more for jackets, but by the 1960s when lightweight, easy-to-dry synthetic fibres were being used to make yarn, designers embraced the opportunity to make all sorts of bulky knits with big stitches. Later in the 1960s and into the 1970s, Aran styles took off in a big way.  

I want to show off my waist  
Ribbing pulls inward, so look for garments with ribbing in the waist area. This could mean the entire garment is knitted in a ribbed pattern. You’ll find plenty of short jumpers ending in a deep ribbed band at the waist, as in the first picture on this page, but it’s also possible to find patterns for longer knits with a ribbed section at the waist point, as you can see in the second. Hunt through designs from the late 1930s to mid 1950s. Ribbing is often used in designs with ‘negative ease’. This means the finished knit is actually smaller than the wearer’s body, and stretches to match the wearer’s shape.  

No waist, but no less chic!
I don’t want to show off my waist 
Obviously, look for a woolly that goes straight up and down: 20s styles are great for this, and tend to reach to somewhere between the waist and hips, but some of the nicest examples I’ve seen from then combine knitting and crochet, so you’ll need to be bicraftual to make them. Patterns from the 1960s are straight but can be very plain, as simplicity was part of the midcentury modern look. 

By the mid 1950s, squarer knitted jackets came into style, and so did hip-length cardigans, so you can pop these on over a more fitted knitted top. If you want a 40s or 50s look without drawing attention to your waist, opt for patterns that pull the eye upwards: fair isle yokes, for example. 

I need versatility  
BRING FORTH THE TWIN SET. I love twin sets. Many combine a sleeveless or short-sleeved top with a long-sleeved cardigan. You can wear the top on its own in milder weather, pop the cardigan on over other things, or wear both for maximum warmth on really chilly days. What’s more, nothing says ‘vintage’ like a nice knitted twin set. If you like to show off your waist, pick a pattern where the cardigan element is a bolero or cropped design and the underlying top is nicely fitted.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

The Wartime Farm Sleeveless Pullover in all its glory

Hoorah, my latest column for Simply Knitting is now in print, and that means I can share a few more photos of the Wartime Farm Sleeveless Pullover with you. I actually completed the knitting back in May, but didn’t want to put any photos up until I could be sure I wouldn’t inadvertently use a duplicate of whatever ones the magazine printed.

My aim in writing the column was to tell readers who aren’t massively active online - and certainly when I was on Simply Knitting fulltime there were lots of those - all about Susan Crawford and Charly Surry’s (Landgirl 1980) work in getting permission to do the pattern, creating it and publicising it to raise money for the Women’s Land Army Memorial. I hope a few of those knitters do decide to go online to buy the pattern; it’s a really good cause.
 
Mr Robot did not enjoy posing for the photos, as he hates having his photo taken. But pose he did! He doesn’t seem to hate his tank top, as it’s nice and warm. He’s even worn it in public to 1940s-themed events. I quite fancy a fair isle knit myself now. They’re jolly versatile, as well as great fun to make. However, it will have to wait as I have Sarah’s wedding cardi and then the never-ending navy cardi to complete first.
We couldn't resist an imitation of the Mollie Makes covers!

You can find Simply Knitting issue 112 in the shops right now or via My Favourite Magazines. It’s got a pattern for a great pair of Frankenstein mitts, and comes with a Christmas knitting booklet that’s got a fantastic Fair Isle hat designed by Mary Henderson. (I know I already have a Fair Isle beret, but I’m tempted to knit another, Mary’s design is so nice!)

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Time for a new old coat!


I’ve fallen into buying secondhand winter coats by accident; I came across a really nice, long grey woollen one last year, and wore it pretty much all winter. Then I found this beige Dannimac raincoat for £6 in Scope over the summer. I’d wanted a classic raincoat for ages, so it was too good a bargain to pass up.

Unless I see something absolutely incredible from a small firm, I’m not sure I’ll bother buying a new coat ever again. The last time I bought brand-new was about four years ago, when I got a gorgeous long green velvet coat with black satin and lace cuffs, plus a black woollen ‘bustle jacket’ from The Dark Angel. I love those coats, though the green velvet doesn’t make it out of the cupboard much. Those are actually my only two flamboyant coats; I tend to favour quite classic coat styles, and it seems silly to pay loads for them when they’re so easy to get secondhand. By now pretty much every charity shop should have its Autumn/Winter stock in, so if you’re likely to need a ‘new’ coat, you’ll have the best choice if you go now.

If you go on a coat hunt, don’t forget to keep an eye open for some super woollen skirts while you’re there. (I’m probably preaching to the choir here; I always whizz quickly through my size garments on all the racks when I’m in a charity shop and you no doubt do the same.)

Age UK is my happy hunting ground for winter skirts – I got the one I’m wearing in their £1.49 sale over the summer and it’s already a real favourite. I can’t wait to finish knitting my navy cardigan as I think it will work brilliantly with the navy/beige/olive/rust fabric of that skirt.

 One note on the Neosens shoes: I bought two pairs, these and a black pair with nothing ‘over the foot’. I’m a 5.5, and while these are fine to wear, the black ones fall off when I walk! Even heel grips haven’t helped. So if you’re a half-size and considering buying Neosens shoes, so down in size, not up! My black pair has a piercing detail down the sides, so I’m trying to decide whether to thread ribbon through them to keep them on, see if a steamy friend can attach leather straps, or just find them a new home with someone with bigger feet. I’m reluctant to take the latter option immediately, so will probably try the ribbons to star with.

Coat - Dannimac, from Scope
Jumper - me-made, pattern is 'Jersey With a Soft Bow' from A Stitch In Time vol 1 and the yarn is Fyberspates Scrumptious 4ply (Note: I made mine too long in the body!)
Skirt - label just says ‘Edinburgh’, Age UK
Shoes - Neosens, from Sarenza
Handbag - Norvic, from British Heart Foundation

Monday, 9 September 2013

Dominion, CJ Sansom [books]

What would have happened if Lord Halifax, rather than Winston Churchill, had become British Prime Minister in 1940? That's the starting point for CJ Sansom's alternate history novel Dominion.

Most of the story takes place in 1952, twelve years after Britain and France have both pursued appeasement policies with Germany, the United States has remained neutral, and Japan is still waging war on China while the Russian front is still causing massive casualties. Two years previously, rigged elections led to Churchill, Attlee and their supporters going underground, forming a resistance movement. Civil servant David Fitzgerald has been quietly working for the Resistance all that time, going into the Ministry at weekends to photograph important documents.

David's old university friend, Frank Muncaster, has a visit from his brother, who emigrated to the US. Frank is socially inept and painfully shy, and while both are scientists, his brother loves to lord it over him. Drunkenly, his brother reveals the terrible secret of what he's been working on - successfully - for the Americans. Frank pushes his brother from a window in fear, and ends up in an asylum. The SS get wind of what Frank might know, as do the Resistance... and David is tasked with getting Frank to safety before the Germans can obtain the scientific secret.

I really love Sansom's Shardlake novels, but wasn't quite so keen on Winter In Madrid, his novel set during the Spanish Civil War. (That said, I think I need to go back to that and re-read it.) The spying and action sequences in Dominion were a lot more interesting to me than the other story interwoven with it, that of David and his wife Sarah having lost their child two years before, and the subsequent decline in their relationship. It made the story more human, more realistic, possibly, but it also detracted from the action somewhat. And relationship drama can have a place in the spy story; John Le Carré's The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is a masterclass on espionage with a love affair. However, in this case I felt it slowed things down too much, and made things plod a bit.

Dominion is a really enjoyable book, though. It's well over 400 pages long, and still I was keen enough to finish it in a weekend. Sansom switches between characters, including German officer Gunther Hoth, who has been sent to Britain to obtain Frank's secret, so whichever bit you prefer, espionage or relationship drama, another chunk comes along fairly rapidly. Also, you really don't know how it's going to end. Right up until the final scenes I had no idea who would live and who would die – or, indeed, whether anyone would live at all. Suspenseful stuff!

SOURCE OF BOOK: I got my copy in Waterstones – it was a buy one, get one half price offer, but this was a pricy book as it's so big, so it would have been the full price one anyway.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Televisual delights coming your way

Sorry I’ve been quiet this week – I’m still up to my ears in freelance in my spare time. The work on Sarah’s wedding cardigan is going well, however. I’m that short of time, I’ve been working on it in the car as Mr Robot drives us to and from work.

If you think this looks creepy, wait until its eyes move and it writes its name...
One thing I did find time to enjoy was Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams, a documentary on eighteenth-century automata on BBC4, because I can knit along to the telly. I had no idea the automata were so complex, nor that so many of them had survived. It’s fascinating, and the swan automaton is absolutely amazing. If you’re into steampunk at all, these incredible contraptions will give you plenty to think about. It's available on iPlayer for a few more days.

I’ve also been enjoying Radio 4’s British New Wave season. I was quite surprised to discover how much I enjoyed listening to Georgy Girl. I expected it to be depressing, but there was humour in with the more serious side of the story. Next week from Monday to Thursday, Radio 4 Extra is going to have a different spy story in the 8:30-9pm slot, so there's more radio goodness to look forward to, starting with The Living Daylights (Ian Fleming, of course) on Monday.

BBC 4’s probably my most-watched channel nowadays. They’ve got a three-episode documentary on music in cinema coming up as part of the Sound of Cinema season. The first episode, The Big Score, is being broadcast on Thursday the 12th of September, and will be all about the rise of the orchestral film score, so should have lots of 1930s delights. I’m hoping for a good dollop of Fred and Ginger. Part two (not sure yet when that’s being broadcast) covers the introduction of pop and jazz to film soundtracks, and part is about three avante-garde soundtracks, including the theremin in Hitchcock’s Spellbound. Films broadcast as part of the Sound of Cinema season will include The Ipcress File (12 September) and King Kong (15 September).

Also on BBC 4, Susan Crawford is going to be talking about knitted swimsuits (modelled by Fleur de Guerre) in Fabric of Britain: Knitting’s Golden Age on BBC 4 on the 19th of September, so I shall definitely Tivo that.

 Have you any telly to recommend? Anything good coming up?

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Outfit post: An outfit for Tim Weaver’s book launch


On Thursday I went to my friend Tim Weaver’s book launch. One of the really fab things about my job is that I’ve been able to work with loads of people who are as talented as they are nice. Tim was my editor about a decade ago when I worked on a games magazine; now as well as working in games magazines he’s an established crime novellist. His fourth book, Never Coming Back, is now out, published by Penguin, and it’s been picked up for Richard and Judy’s book club, so if you go anywhere near a WH Smiths for the next few months, you won’t be able to avoid seeing it.

(Incidentally, another of my favourite authors, Christopher Fowler – not a friend, but a writer with an excellent blog – has been selected for the Specsavers Crime Thriller Book Club on ITV3 this autumn, so it's looking like a great season for crime novel fans.)

Anyway, clothes. I thought if he was supplying wine and nibbles and reading from the latest book for our benefit, the least I could do was turn up not looking like an utter scrote. Some shabbiness was guaranteed as I went swimming at lunchtime, which meant I had to wear things that would be easy to get in and out of, but I did my best to polish up before the book launch.

The dress is by Fever, and it’s the ‘Vivienne’ in Ivy from their AW12 collection. (The colour is truer in the first pic; I'm guessing the lights outside the Garrick's Head in Bath threw out the colour in the second one.) I like the style so much I bought an identical one in cobalt blue, though I always worry that that one looks a bit Thatcher-as-air-hostess so the green is definitely my favourite. I currently measure 41-35-43, and this is a size 16. I reckon if your hips are a few inches bigger than mine a size 16 would still fit as I’m lacking in booty and the skirt’s reasonably loose on me, though if your waist is a lot smaller you might also like a belt. I love this style: the v-neck draws people’s eyes up from my fairly shapeless lower half. Buying it was a revelation; I’d always thought that apple-bodied figures like mine couldn’t really wear fitted dresses, but I love how this looks. Fever are high on my go-to list for workwear nowadays.

The brooch was a gift from my workmates when I moved magazines. I’m sure it’s 1960s. I love this brooch. Watching The Hour and seeing Bel’s outfits is what made me buy the green dress in the first place, and the brooch matches perfectly. I The Norvic bag cost me £4 in a charity shop; I’m pretty sure it’s vintage and I’d guess it’s 1960s too, though the label looks later. It’s got that midcentury look, anyway. The jacket is half of my 1970s Edinburgh Woollen Mill suit.

This is the sort of outfit I wear to work. We have no dress code, but it's nice to look smart. It makes going casual at the weekend more enjoyable.

Images courtesy of PP Gettins; he's also blogged about Tim's book launch with more photographs