Alison Crowther-Smith

Archive for August, 2011

Show and tell – cuffs; kit news; Sunday musings…

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

The Moulin Rouge Cuffs have been my best-selling kit since I placed the first kits on this site earlier this month.

Here is a pair, knitted in black with hot-pink details, silver beads and pink sequins, knitted by Sue:


I have added a new cuff to my repertoire – the Le Marais cuffs, which will be a kit as well, and these will also be the new ‘practice’ knit on my ‘Learn to love Kidsilk Haze’ course AKA Little Luxury Knits and one or two other titles, that I teach at retailers.  I’m going to add these cuffs to the site soon along with the new version of Star-Crossed, which will come in a wintry cream-and-silver colourway.

It’s raining hard now, here in Somerset, and has been all morning.  I’m glad it was fine yesterday for Mark was, very unusually, on holiday on the Saturday and we went cycling, a long and fairly hilly ride circling Taunton, thus taking in the Quantocks and a bit of the Blackdowns and some lovely lanes we hadn’t ridden before.  We almost postponed it to today!  The rain is making me restless because the garden is keening at me…the lawn is simply covered in apples, so many things need to be done, and our holiday is almost over.

So I am going to retreat to my dining room camp (should I light the fire?  In 3 days it will be September – and I doubt it’s above 16 degrees today?) and knit the Le Marais cuffs in the second colourway.  And I’m planning a new pair of mitts for Christmas Gift knitting in October.  Rainy days are therefore blessings.  Because they give you permission to just stay in and knit.

I’m reading a lot at the moment too, and also listening to audio books.  My ‘rule’ with audio books is that I only listen to that which I’d be unlikely to read.  So far I have listened to a very diverse range of fiction and non-fiction.  I’d never, for example, have read the Stig Larson books but as a listen, they work very well.  With this in mind, I downloaded some ‘improving’ literature, notably ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’.  This may have been a mistake…

In other news, there is just 1 place left on the January 2012 sock course.

Christmas cards

Thursday, August 25th, 2011

I have a limited number of Christmas cards for sale.  They come in sets of 10 cards, 5 each of 2 designs.  These are the images:

On the front, each card says:  ’tis the season to be knitting…

And inside it says:  Peace. Love.  Knitting.

They are standard size (A5) and are in a high quality satin print. 

The set of 10 cards costs £12 including first class P&P.  You can order them here.   So now you can give the knitters in your life a pretty knitting Christmas card and remind them that Christmas is a time to knit!

A love affair

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

The most romantic place in the world:  Paris!  Why have I never been there before?  A ridiculous oversight that I have now dealt with and intend to deal with again and again and again…

So, I’m back, having spent a week in Paris.  I know!  My usual modus operandi is a week or so cycling in Pembrokeshire, a cross-border foray into Devon or Dorset, maybe a day-trip to Bath.  Paris, ooh la la, we may as well suggest Mars.  But Mark insisted.  I was very, very reluctant, but he was right, it is a beautiful, amazing city and I did fall in love with it.  As my physio said (yep, physio is now a regular feature of life, sigh, but it keeps me running, and kicking and punching, so hey):  get you Ali!  Amsterdam, now Paris!  you jet-setter, you!  Oui, c’est moi.  Le jet set.

We all went, the boys having first been deposited with Aunty Hilda and Uncle Peter, where they were really rather naughty and badly behaved (they are now formed into a Dachshund-mould on the chair in the yarn-room, next to me as I type, snoring gently – no them, not me – exhausted from a week of terrorising that part of Puriton).  I have hinted before at the Olympic standard anxiety levels that I can achieve, a trait that I inherited from my father.  Imagine the levels I can attain before a visit to Paris.  Yes, epic.  It all adds to the drama and makes the subsequent absence of a disaster all the more piquant, mainly for Mark…

We rented an apartment on the border of a hyper-trendy district called le Marais and another one whose name I forget, but anyway, a boules-roll away from the Pompidou Centre, about 10 minutes stroll to the Seine, and a further 5 to Notre Dame.  The street was really a walk-way, about a car’s width and rarely used by vehicles other than the street cleaners and mopeds.  Into what was once a very grand 4 storey house, now apartments, via a giant door, and up the atmospheric stairs:

I never got tired of walking up or down this stairway, despite being on the 2nd floor and there being a lot of coming in and going out, because it was so lovely.  At the top of a flight of steps like this, surely one could write an epic novel?  Or create a heart-achingly beautiful sonata?  Or at the very least, knit a pretty little cuff, a small homage to le Marais?

I knitted a bit, not as much as I’d have liked but there was so much to see and do.  However, one day I wasn’t very well and so the family went out, in a clear, hot (almost 90 degrees at mid-day) day and I stayed in and knitted, here:

In a corner by a window of huge proportions that allowed in great light plus a dollop of real le Marais Parisian life, noise and scent, was an absolutely perfectknitting spot.  A comfortable but straight backed chair with no arms, which is my knitting preference, an old carved desk, a plug for my iPod speakers so I could listen to my book…I was really unwell, I’m not making that up, and yet, that day was in some ways my favourite day in Paris.  At times the music and laughter and shouted conversation from the bars and cafes that teemed below forced me to turn the speakers up loud in order to follow the book!  In the afternoon, someone, I think in the bar opposite, played about an hour of very loud music, Piaf and also American songs from the 50s and 60s but in French, (la Itzy-Bitzy-Teeny-Weeny yellow polka dot bikini, for example…).  It was almost a parody.  I did think at one point:  OK Paris, I get that I’m in Paris, there is no need to pour Piaf into my window, next you’ll be poking a baguette in the letter box – but it was really very magical too.  Eventually, 2 ladies from the hair salon next door went out into the alley and yelled, in a fairly good-natured way at the bar owner:  ‘Anthony!  Anthony!  Arret la musique pour le bien de Dieu!’ or something like that.  And he did.  30 minutes later…

More – much more – of Paris later, oh yes, mes amis, you will become tired of my Paris stories, but here I only shrug and say:  hard fromage, for there is more to come.  I will tell you tales of concerts in cathedrals and churches filled with golden light;  of dog-boutiques, museums and queues – and a meal that the stuff of nightmares is made of.  Do not ever say that I do not spoil you.  I will just tell you one more small thing now.  On our return, Mark, with a fairly Gallic flourish it has to be granted, produced a well-wrapped lump of blue cheese, that was not finished for supper and that I assumed had been binned.  But no, he couldn’t bear to part with it so he wrapped it in our clothes and fetched it home.  Voila!

For now, however, I leave you with some knitting-related news.  Look what is happening in the design room!  I have secured the services of a much sought-after knitter who has very kindly agreed to knit for moi!  Fiona is knitting this at the moment:


Mmmm.  I know!  Star-Crossed reincarnated in Shimmer and KSH.  I am very excited to see this in real life.  I love her work and her blog, and I know I am going to love this.  It will be a kit and a workshop…


Thursday, August 11th, 2011

In order to cheer up a frankly very disappointing August Thursday (do buck up, August!  I feel like a school Ma’am who is more sad than angry with this particular British summer:  ‘could do better’) I present Glow, interpreted by Andrea, who attended one of my classes recently:

Glow uses (used) Kidsilk Aura, now discontinued so I have re-designed it, taking the chance at the same time to change the ends, and make some other adjustments.  When a yarn is discontinued, there is a range of emotions, that I pass through, as a designer.  These span from amazement to ‘I shrug my shoulders, I could have told you that…’.  I am going to miss Aura, Kidsilk Haze’s big, fat sister.  But anyway, let’s not dwell and be sad, because these things also represent opportunity.  This time the opportunity was:  Shimmer!

I have re-cast the supporting role that Aura had in ‘Glow’ with Shimmer.  And just like in ‘All About Eve’:

Go to fullsize image

the supporting actress (Shimmer, playing the part of Anne Baxter) out-shines the real leading lady (Kidsilk Haze, giving us a very convincing Bette Davis). 

As you can see from the image of Glow in pewter Shimmer and Dewberry KSH, the new Glow has been further embellished by beads.  Now, I taught Andrea at a lovely yarn shop where I am often spotted, for it is my native habitat.  I find this shop, Spin-a-Yarn, is a rich hunting ground for me.  I think you are aware that my key objectives in life are:  discover a cure for freckles on the top-lip area;  make a sour-dough starter that doesn’t die a depressing and fetid death;  wear fitted dresses with sticky-out net underskirts at every opportunity;  and finally – convert the knitting world, one knitter at a time, to the joys of Kidsilk Haze, glitter, beads and sequins. 

Sometimes, a knitter who has had insufficient exposure to these elements, may make a small ‘mou’ of distaste when I suggest beads.  Often, sequins receive mixed reviews and Shimmer can encounter frank and open yarn-discrimination.  I find few resist us for long though.  And at Spin-a-Yarn, I have encountered some very promising material, resulting in being able to establish a new South West cell of glitter-knitters.  Andrea has now joined this cell.  I am proud of her!  Even I had not added beads to new Glow.  That over-sight will be addressed very soon.

Andrea also knitted new Glow in an inspired palette of shades that, on the day of the workshop, we christened Fairytale:

With silver Shimmer and pale pink and soft yellow-green Kidsilk Haze, this makes me think of fair-grounds and – I say this in a good way, cos I love them – My Little Pony-Land.  It looks like the colours of candy flos and pony-manes…

Who wants to watch ‘All About Eve’ now?  We may as well, it’s cold and wet outside, being August 11.  Right, I’ll pop the kettle on, you grab your (sparkly) knitting and I’ll meet you on the sofa in 10.

Patience patience…

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011

Not my greatest virtue, patience.  I do have patience with some things, such as knitting.  And gardening.  Oh and queuing, I am very English about queuing and don’t really mind it.  I have little patience in some respects such as, this week, my sour-dough starter.  It’s not working.  I know that making-bread-the-River-Cottage-way (my new mantra) is slow, but seriously, I have been 8 days and 3 lots of starter at this now and still no loaf!

However, the break-making clutter and flour has arrived.  I have an artisan bread-stone, a peel to lift bread (had I any) out of the oven, I assume; a proving basket and some artisan flour.  All redundant.  I might start my sour-dough starter again with the new flour, maybe artisan flour is more, er, sour and yeasty…?

People, please advise me about what I ought to be doing with my sour-dough starter.  I need to know:  ought the lid on the container be sealed or would a gap be better?  I imagine the wild yeast, you see, that River Cottage tells me is all around us, maybe trying to get in.  I also need to know if the Aga in the kitchen is maybe making the sour-dough too hot.  I don’t park the sour-doughs – there are now 2, equally inert – next to it but it’s not a big room and it does get quite warm.  I started sour-dough starter no 2 off with half of no 1, and added some wholemeal flour and (cheating a bit) a spoonful of brown sugar as a food supplement.  I left the other one, after feeding it with flour and water as instructed, as a test starter. 

Sometimes, the starter does seem to push out the odd bubble.  Mainly, it just separates, floury silt on the bottom, semi-clear flour-water on the top.  Ought I to stir it?  I do stir it, by the way, finding this irresistible.  In this question, as in many others, I have consulted both Bread, the River Cottage book and the Gods of the Innernets, all to no avail.  I am possibly in danger of becoming a bit obsessed with the success of this, but I did go on the course and therefore I know this is ‘easy’ and also ‘essential’.  I have to stop checking it though.  Every time I pass through the kitchen – and sometimes when I am not but make a special trip – I have to have a good look at them both.  First I stare at them through the (glass and plastic) lids.  I then remove the lids, prop my elbow up on the counter and settle in for a really good staring session.  Nothing.  Is it dead?  Actually even I am worried now by how much this has gripped me, note to self:  get out more;  do not attend any more life-style artisan courses;  consider therapy;  buy bread…or at least, buy yeast…?

But I can’t give up now, I’ve just sourced the clay to make the outdoor clay bread oven!  And a lady from the gym whose husband is a keen wood-worker, is bringing me 2 carrier bags of wood shavings on Friday, another oven-essential, it says in the blasted book…

In happier news, the old lavender hedges are both now history, the paths are being re-edged and a whole pack of new lavenders is on its way, by post, from Norfolk.  I am very excited.  I am assured that these will not grow more than 2 feet high and 2.5 feet wide, unlike the giants that we had before.

Kits are available on the site

Monday, August 8th, 2011

It’s like making bread, the River Cottage way, me and my kits.  Slow.  However, the first 6 are now on the site, under kits.

More will be added this month, taking us to 10 or 12 kits and then some autumn/winter designs will be added in September and October as we rev up to peak knitting time.

I hope you like them.

Garden slavery; bread

Friday, August 5th, 2011

The title of this post is not a complaint.  I have been slaving but so has Mark which of course makes it far quicker and spares my poorly shoulder a bit.  Despite the weather, the garden is booming away and 2 days ago, on a rare, still, sunny and warm day, I took some pics, in which I thought how dreamy – if a little shaggy – it was looking.  Some of this shagginess has now gone:

For example, the lavender paths that go towards the cottage which you can see above.  Gone.  All cut back and then dug up.  I said I was going to and I have.  That hedge was about 7 years old and thriving in parts, dying back in others, but mainly, just far too big for the space, despite purporting to be dwarf.  Hmm.  The space it has opened up is lovely.  I was dreading it but it’s fine.  Now we can re-form the gravel paths and re-plant.  I’m still thinking lavender, but really dwarf as the last lot of dwarfs reached well over 3 feet tall.  I’ve also removed some roses that never thrived despite their eye-watering price at the time, and a Hebe that was done for in the snow last year and was half dead anyway.  So I will have more depth to plant into.

Here is a fennel, growing in the stones round the little pond, with another lavender behind it.  I love the softness of the foliage and the yellow against the fading mauve of the lavender. This lavender is a survivor, it is in a perfect place, just right for its size, with a companionable jasmine next to it.  It has now been shorn of its fading flower spikes and looks very smart again, if a little shorn.

In another part of the garden, by the kitchen, is some summer clutter:  the watering can, not needed much this year; our tea mugs, the hose because we were pond-cleaning.  And the geraniums, which have done well despite the wind, cold and rain.

The agapanthus that I grow in huge pots under the kitchen window and opposite the summer house are almost over, the seed heads are more apparent than the blue petals.  Here is Arthur strolling by…


A master-poser at work:  Rupert, more grey at the muzzle than ever, but so distinguished, we feel.

We wish we had a little more time for this, above.  Looking at this image I see something is missing – Mark and I, for one, and also, a table, upon which ought to be placed 2 large glasses of home-made lemonade…or chardonnay.

The lawn, 2 days later, is well sprinkled with apples from the ancient trees in this part of the garden.  The Michaelmas daisies are almost out, the Japanese Wind-Flowers are out (very early, but I think due to the very cold June and still fairly chilly summer since).  The garden has that alluring end-of-summer feel about it.  I love that.

In other news, my bread-making has taken a knock.  My sour-dough starter has died.  This should be almost impossible.  Sigh.  I’ve got to start again and since I’ve ordered a ton of bread-making clutter, I feel I must persist.

Oh.  And the first kits are going on this weekend.  Not all of them, just a taster.

Bread and knitting

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2011

Bread is a food I have avoided for some time now because I stopped enjoying it and it often made me feel – not ill, but not well.  It disagreed with me.  I went to Glastonbury and bought spelt flour, organic bread from the wholefood cafe there and that seemed OK, if very, very filling and heavy – and anyway, it’s a long way to go for a loaf of bread.  So I sort of gave it up.  No big deal.  Except, I like bread and I missed it.

When a friend suggested that we go on the River Cottage ‘Bread’ course, I was keen and that was, if I’m honest, mainly because I was convinced that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall would be there.  He wasn’t.  Celia, with whom I went, was quite right.  I don’t think he goes there much, mainly to film for the telly I suppose.  But anyway, it’s a very cool and interesting place, River Cottage HQ, AKA Park Farm.  For example, they pick you up from the car-park in a tractor-pulled trailer.  Ouch.  That is one long, bumpy track down to the farm.

(Note:  it said in the literature that we should wear sturdy footwear.  So of course I wore black and silver, chunky high-heel-and-platform Doc Martens, which were fine as I wear these shoes or similar all the time and can walk miles and teach all day in mine, but it/I kind of didn’t fit it.  I shrug, they looked fab.  Here they are:

Diva Marlena Mary Jane

Yes.  I know.  But I am used to wearing them and they are dreamily comfy, so I don’t care.  Just because we are making bread, does not mean that style must be abandoned at the farm gate…)

It turns out that even ‘good’ bread – let’s say you’ve gone to all the time and trouble of going to an up-market supermaket for a wholemeal loaf – is likely to be kind of ‘hurried’ in its production.  Fast food, by bread standards, using dried ‘express’ yeast, not having enough water, too much salt, maybe accelerators, over-processed flour, fats may be added, and the whole thing happens really quickly. Aidan, our master-baker and tutor, who owns and runs the Phoenix Bakery in Weymouth explained that real bread making is a slow process.  That is not to say that you are involved all that much.  It’s slow – but not time-consuming.  You can go away and get on with your life while, for example, your sour-dough starter is growing.  This is a clever and ancient method of harvesting wild yeast from the air and growing a sort of culture to make your own bread – no need to even use bought yeast at all.  You just have to accept that it will take days to start the sour-dough off and then the proving of your loaves will take a lot longer too because you are using this slow-working wild yeast.  That’s fine.  I like the slow-lane.  The longer the process and the better the ingredients, the more ‘wholesome’ your bread will be, less likely to upset your tummy – in fact, it’s rare for people who are unable to tolerate bought bread to have a bad reaction to bread made in this long slow way.

If I wanted a fast turn-around on a knitwear design, I’d never be a hand-knitter.  That is what M&S is for.  I think, reflecting on the day at River Cottage with Aidan, that making bread his way is like knitting, my way.  I’m not fast and I have stopped trying to be.  I spend ages thinking and designing and planning – as evidenced by the time it is taking me to get the kits ready, for example.  I think these are the main analogies I came away with:  buying a mass-produced loaf is like buying a cheap knit from a mass-production High Street retailer with bargain basement prices.  Making your own bread but using fast-acting yeasts and having a loaf banged out in a morning is like knitting with a knitting machine.  Aidan, on the other hand, bakes bread like I design and produce hand-crafted knit-wear:  slowly.  Carefully.  With my own energy in the product. 

I was not 100% happy with my loaf.  It’s not a thing of beauty.  But Aidan said, quite rightly, that doesn’t affect the taste.  I suppose I am applying knit-wear expectations to it, in which my designs have to be both beautiful (in my eyes at least) and practical.  I will have to work on this with my future bread-making.  For example, I wouldn’t wear an ugly scarf just because it was warm.  So I need to make my bread look better (or stop worrying that it’s flat and squat…), but this was my first attempt and it does taste very good!

We also made pizza, a food I dislike usually, but these were actually delicious.  I was a bit freaked out by the 20 plus people rammed into the tiny kitchen of River Cottage HQ, though it was also great to see the real place.  The oven in which they usually make pizzas was inexplicably missing as were the bread ovens usually in the classroom area, so there was a certain amount of improvisation – the bread oven in the little inglenook was literally going like a furnace, with flames jetting out of it, so the burning logs had to be dragged out and left to burn in the inglenook.  By this time the small room was approaching melt-down temperatures.  Aidan whose unhappy task it was to cook the blasted pizzas, one by one, was heroic.  I’d have said:  knickers to that!  and we’d have had to forgo the best pizzas we’d ever eaten…but no, he manfully went in again and again to post and then retrieve the food, which came out like molten lava (and sometimes burned and crispy or with bits of charred log adhered to it, but there was so much of it, it didn’t matter). 

Now we’d been told that these would be the best pizzas we’d ever eaten and that they Were Not Our Lunch, i.e., don’t utterly gorge on them as you will lose your appetite.  Well, it was like a feeding frenzy.  Honestly, you’d have thought that half these folks had never had a hot meal, despite the evidence to the contrary.  My pizza was the last but one to go in and to be honest, I’d got a bit bored of the pizza bit of the day by then, and I had also offered to share my dough with a small, very shy and quiet lady who was even more retiring that I was and who therefore had no dough of her own.  So I said:  you shape it, I’ll top it!  Oh dear, it was shame that she was a vegetarian.  I never thought to ask, as I adorned the pizza with fat bacon and salami….oopsie.

To be honest, it can’t have been a great day for her because just before lunch, Ollie the chef – very young, very, very enthusiastic and really charming but mainly disturbingly passionate about curing meat – got us all into his kitchen to look at three butchered pigs that he was happily – no, not happily, manically – rubbing down with a rather yummy smelling salt/sugar/juniper/bay mix.  As he rubbed, he slapped the meat, showed us how fat it was (fat in a good way) and talked dreamily of curing bacon and pork.  I do like to see a man happy in his work.  Ollie is delirious.  But I do see that being a veggie at River Cottage, where Ollie also produced a lunch of slow-braised brisket of beef about which he eulogised first (the vegetarian lady got a lovely alternative, but still left it all and all her pudding…) might be a challenge.  Before we went I saw that they said in the literature:  any dietary requirements?  and then it said, rather cajolingly:  if you are a vegetarian, do you eat fish?  This is of course a pitifully hopeful River Cottage attempt to get them to eat at least some once-living thing, but it did make me laugh because vegetarians don’t eat meat or fish.  At all.  I am now an enthusiastic meat and especially fish eater but I used never to eat meat (though I always ate fish and was therefore, not a vegetarian).  I don’t mind or even care what choices people make as long as they eat responsible and fair food.  But gosh, I bet Ollie finds it all a bit baffling!

Anyway, I have now read the River Cottage Bread book that we were given, started my own sour dough starter that will provide the yeast and a rather tangy taste for my bread, and I have become obsessed with making my own clay oven in the garden, step-by-step instructions for which are also in the book!  This will require 8 pails of squidgy clay – any ideas, people?  At River Cottage they dig it out of their lake.  Here we are on sand…But I am undaunted, and one day soon, I will have a clay oven like this, outside the back door:

Bread in clay oven

I’m very excited!  Aidan says his own bread book will be out in the next few months and I will certainly be getting that because his ways of bread making are even slower than the recipes in the River Cottage book – and I am a slow-food, slow-living, slow-lane girl.  Except for shoes.  And cycling.  Oh, and running…but apart from that.