November 17, 2014 § 5 Comments
For as long as I can remember, I have loved words. As I child I lapped up books and was, apparently, desperate to learnt to write once I had mastered reading. My mother taught me the basics but what I really wanted was to emulate her pretty, old fashioned hand.
I loved the writing classes in my first years of primary school, in which we were taught joined-up writing from the word go, first in pencil and soon thereafter in fountain pen. (I went to a very old fashioned school!) Over the years my hand improved only to deteriorate rapidly when I went to university and then on to work. Madly scribbling down what people said, whether whilst interviewing them or negotiating contracts, eroded my previously elegant handwriting. However, I still like to get out a bottle of ink and pen a note in a more careful hand. And it would seem, I am not alone.
For all our addiction to the digital world, with messages exchanged by email and SMS, many of us still long for beautiful, tangible forms of words. Much in the same way that vinyl records and analogue photography have been rediscovered, so have more traditional ways of committing words to paper, like the elegant art of calligraphy.
A couple of weeks ago my bookish friend D and I attended a workshop organised by Quill* to learn the basics of this art. In the back room of the wonderfully named pub, The Blacksmith and The Toffeemaker, our tutor Imogen Owen guided us with a mixture of enthusiasm and calm reassurance into the world of modern calligraphy.
This style of is a far cry from the austere Gothic script of the late Middle Ages, painstakingly written with a square nib, and a lot easier than the rule heavy elegance of Copperplate. It embraces the ‘swirliness’ of traditional Copperplate but is much more free with scope to vary the slant and size of letters to suit personal preference and style.
We spent the first twenty minutes or so practicing lines, U shapes and circles, dipping our old school nibs in indelible ink and trying to relax the hand whilst simultaneously varying the pressure. Then we moved on to writing out the alphabet in upper and lower case, which definitely triggered flash backs to those first days of primary school.
As the afternoon light faded, we turned our attention to joining up letters into words, titles and short phrases. As the shapes of many letters in modern calligraphy closely resemble those of my handwriting, the trickiest part was to avoid just producing my normal script with a calligraphy pen. Instead, I had to slow myself down to emphasise the thick and thin strokes so typical of this stylised decorative writing.
As with any skill, it will take practice to achieve a relaxed, even style but within three days of the workshop I had worked my way through the stash of practice paper contained in our starter kit and had ordered some more. I am completely hooked by this slower, more considered way of writing. Family and friends can definitely expect future gifts and cards to come with more elegant labels and notes!
* If you are in London and fancy trying this workshop, do regularly check out Quill’s website as it often offers an early bird discount.
November 11, 2014 § 7 Comments
Mr M has been watching my latest knitting project with more interest than usual. He is always fascinated by the four double pointed needles I use to knit socks, which strike him as a cross between ancient torture implements and some type of divination tool. As the socks I’m currently working on involve a cable pattern, I’m using a fifth needle, which thoroughly intrigues him.
All joking aside, Mr M is genuinely fascinated to see a sock take form, just as I am. No matter how often I knit them, I never stop marvelling at how it’s possible to transform one-dimensional yarn into a complicated three-dimensional object, without cutting the yarn or seaming various pieces together. And to think that for many years I put off knitting socks.
I didn’t start until about four years ago. I was wary of the tiny needles (typically a 2 or 2.5 mm set), the fine yarn (usually a 4-ply/fingering), instructions that look as if they’re from a book of spells, but most of all the fear that it was too difficult. Although I had years of knitting under my belt, knitting socks seemed like magic that was beyond all but the most advanced knitter. How wrong was I!
Finally, sick of shop bought socks that were neither warm nor durable, I turned my hand to making some and discovered that knitting socks actually is magic. Not in the sense of witchcraft but rather in terms of alchemy. The process taps into my childlike curiosity. It stirs my desire to understand what I see around me even if I lack the jargon to describe the concepts or the formulae to articulate the mathematical or scientific principles. When you stop to think about it, turning the heel of a sock (i.e. the process that takes you from the leg section into the foot) is pure engineering, akin to tunnelling around a corner. Without understanding the mathematics, you watch the stitches combine to achieve all kinds of complex trigonometry. And binding off in Kitchener stitch to close the sock at the tip of the toes is to wool what brazing is to copper: a way of seamlessly bonding two planes of material.
So if you fancy warm toes and want socks that will last (and even when they wear thin are actually worth darning), don’t procrastinate as long as I did! And to help you along, here are some tips and suggestions to bear in mind when you decide to tackle your first pair.
- Pick a simple pattern to start with. Ones that are ribbed as far as the ankle and then stocking stitch/stockinette for the remainder are ideal. There are plenty of free patterns on Ravelry, including very simple ones.
- Although the needles look complicated, remember that you only use two at any one time, as with any other knitting project. You can use a set of double pointed needles (DPNs) or two circular needles. There’s also a technique using one long circular needle, known as the magic loop technique, which some people love and others avoid like the plague.
- Short ladies’ socks typically require about 350 to 400 metres of 4-ply yarn. Remember that socks are hardwearing so don’t go for anything too delicate. And if you want to use up various skeins of 4-ply left over from other projects, go ahead! It is only convention that dictates that socks should match and by knitting your own, you’re already flouting conventions!
- Follow the pattern to the letter. At times you may wonder at it and be convinced that it contains errors or is missing something but stick with it. These sections usually tee up the point where the alchemy begins.
- If you’re unsure about any techniques, check on YouTube for advice. There is a fair chance that somebody has asked the same question and another knitter has obligingly posted a demonstration.
Most of all, just give it a go and have fun with it, and before long you too may be participating in a most constructive little act of rebellion!
*I used the Collinwood sock pattern by Rachel Coopey for these socks. I picked the wrong yarn as the self-striping wool does not show off the lovely design particularly well, but I love the pattern and will be using it again. It is a bit involved so not really suitable for a novice. However, Rachel’s patterns are very precise and easy to follow so I would definitely recommend looking out for her designs if you’re bitten by the sock knitting bug.
(This recommendation is based purely on my experience and has not been paid for, sponsored or induced in any other way.)
November 8, 2014 § 6 Comments
It’s a couple of months now since I radically changed my intake of tea, and new habits, routines and tastes have definitely replaced old ones.
Drastically cutting my tea consumption has certainly improved my sleeping patterns as I’m no longer tossing and turning until the early hours. And after decades of being a night owl, I’m increasingly crawling into bed before midnight and waking up feeling more refreshed. My mother was right (again): an hour before midnight really is worth two after midnight!
Besides feeling better rested, I also enjoy tea much more these days. I now really look forward to each cup and experience them as markers in the day. Elevenses mean I have broken the back of the writing and my afternoon cup of tea means I’ve almost finished my research for the day. There is also something really lovely about the ritual of making a proper brew rather than robotically popping a teabag in a mug. The few extra seconds it takes to warm the pot and decant tea leaves turn a quick cup of tea into a proper break from hours in front of the computer screen.
Flavour or convenience?
The biggest revelation, however, relates to flavour. Now I have depleted my supply of English Breakfast tea bags and have switched to tea leaves, I realise how much better loose leaf tastes. There was nothing wrong with the teabags I previously used but, in hindsight, they were just a little… bland. My new Fairtrade® English Breakfast tea leaves are nothing out of the ordinary but do produce a richer, more interesting brew.
Intrigued by the difference a humble tea leaf could make, I compared loose leaf tea to the tea from my remaining Earl Grey teabags. Even discounting the different shades of these distinct blends, the difference between loose leaf tea and that from a tea bag is instantly apparent. Loose leaf tea really looks like it has come from a shredded, dried leaf. By contrast, tea from a perfectly respectable brand of tea bags looks like shavings or dust. The finer consistency is intended to infuse faster but definitely does not produce as interesting a taste. By shifting to loose leaf tea I have realised, yet again, how easily we are seduced into sacrificing flavour for perceived convenience.
For in reality, tea leaves really aren’t an inconvenience! I still use an old fashioned mesh strainer but I also own a little red teapot with a removable metal infuser, which some may find more convenient. Pouring tea leaves out of either of these pots into my little recycling tub is less inconvenient than sieving plastic teabags out of well rotted compost. And for those who prefer tea in a mug rather than a pot, there are mesh or pierced loose leaf tea holders that are easy to fill and clean.
Brewing tea with leaves has another unexpected benefit. As loose leaf provides a more robust cuppa, it’s entirely possible to brew a second pot from used tea leaves. The result is a little weaker but perfectly fine in the afternoon, and a welcome lower caffeine option.
In a related tea development, I’ve also been pondering the use of teapots, and especially pots of tea offered to impromptu guests.
As I shared my father’s aesthetics – think Regency and Art Deco – I was the only siblings who was interested in my parents’ bone china. On his recent visit to the UK my brother kindly brought over two boxes of plates, terrines and yes, teapots. As a result, I know own five teapots (as well as an elegant china coffee pot). This is obviously more than anybody needs but three were gifts from Mr M and the others belonged to my parents and I am loathed to part with any of them!
I use the small ones that Mr M gave me regularly: the red one-person pot for English Breakfast, another little one for the distinct flavour of Earl Grey and a traditional bulbous brown one at the weekend when my husband and I share a pot of tea. My parents’ old teapots outshine these little ones in style but as they serve four to six people, they don’t see much action in our home.
One weekend as I served Mr M tea from one of these larger than necessary teapots, it occurred to me that during my childhood we often shared tea and cake with friends, whether it was chums coming over after school or my mother’s friends popping by at the weekend. Maybe it’s due to the size of London, with local friends dotted over miles of this sprawling city; or busy schedules; or catch-ups being scheduled in the evening over wine rather than on a weekend afternoon… Whatever the reason, I really miss having a good chat over a cup of tea and some homemade biscuits or cake. In my book, it’s a pleasant tradition that is due a comeback!
November 3, 2014 § 4 Comments
I have to admit it, I’m obsessed with dirt. Not with dirt in the cleanliness-is-next-to-godliness sense but soil. As a grower of edibles I know there’s a direct correlation between what I dig into my pots and beds and the produce on my plate. This obsession with soil is nothing unusual amongst gardeners but for a boutique gardener* like me, it adds a surreal world of smell, colour and scavenging to my life.
Many gardening programmes and books will include information on compost making but how and where do you start if your combined growing space is the size of some of the compost heaps featured in such shows or books, and urban landscapers have stripped any form of soft landscaping from your street?
What and where?
Pallets make great compost bins but are rarely suitable for tiny gardens, balconies and rooftop terraces. I therefore settled for plastic compost bins**, squeezing two into a corner of the garden to be hidden by three foxgloves and a couple of cosmos flowers. If space is even more constrained, it’s possible to make a compost bin out of a dustbin or crate. My friend Wendy (of Rooftop Veg Plot) uses an old wooden trunk with holes drilled in, which she treats as a cross between a compost heap and wormery.***
Air is important to ensure the materials break down so drill extra holes in the container if necessary and regularly turn the contents with a fork. Some people aren’t fond of this job as a compost heap emits different smells depending on the stage of decay. However, regularly turning the compost allows me to keep an eye on its progress – the appearance of thin pinkish worms is an excellent sign – and tweak the ingredients if necessary. It also helps keep rats at bay as they hate changes to their environment.
Heat speeds up the process so placing the compost in the sun is helpful. As many boutique gardens are tiny and sunny spots are prioritised for food or flower growing, siting the bin involves tough decisions. I have accepted that I need to sacrifice some tomato growing space for my two bins but the wholesome compost is definitely worth it. Next year, I’ll try to plant a courgette in one of the bins to maximise the space, nutrients, sun and heat to the full!
Brown and green ingredients
To make compost I scavenge for ingredients from various sources. This may sound like a chore but it’s quite easy as I’ve trained my eyes to see resources rather than waste.
Compost involves a mix of green (nitrogen) and brown (carbon) waste and the balance needs to be broadly right to not end up with a mushy sludge (a sign of too much green waste). I’m not sure what an overly brown mix looks like because a lack of green waste (kitchen scraps, leafy prunings…) is rarely a problem for urban boutique gardeners.
So let’s start with the brown waste. In an ideal world I would add tree prunings and other twiggy matter but as my garden is a fenced patio, these are thin on the ground. Instead I use uncoated paper and cardboard, like egg cartons and toilet roll tubes, ripped into small pieces, and hair clippings (Mr M’s rather than mine as my hair is dyed).
Then there’s the green waste. This comes mostly from the garden itself. Pretty much anything I dig out, prune or clip is an ingredient for the compost heap, although leaves go on a separate pile to make leaf mould. I even add weeds (except bindweed) to the compost bin but steep them in a covered bucket of water till the slurry reeks to the heavens. Technically it’s not necessary to steep annual weeds but I’m too lazy to separate my weeds.
Although I’m a food waste avoider, the kitchen offers some ingredients for the compost as there’s always incidental waste, like vegetable peelings and tops, woody stalks, egg shells, coffee grounds and tea leaves.
Speeding it up
Generally gardening involves patience but as compost is essential for reinvigorating the soil, I like to speed up the process as much as possible.
Heat and aeration definitely help but so do certain chemicals. This word scares many as we automatically think of pharmaceutical products but we all have access to a perfectly natural, free chemical mix that helps activate compost: urine. This may be a step too far for some people but in this boutique garden I occasionally pour a jug of human pee on the compost heap and it works wonders!****
I’ve found another easy, compact system that accelerates the composting process and also increases what food waste we can recycle in situ: Bokashi.
Cooked starches (like bread crumbs and pasta), meat and fish cannot be composted on a regular compost pile as they would attract vermin. A Bokashi bin, however, is a little anaerobic digestion system in which enzymes in special bran (rather than air) fuel the decomposition process.˄ To minimise the amount of air that gets to the waste I collect all our food scraps, including fish bones,˄˄ for two or three days in an old yoghurt tub – which intrigues guests – before adding them to the Bokashi bin with a sprinkling of bran. Once the bin is full, we allow the anaerobic digestion to do its work for at least a fortnight before adding the content to the compost heap. As my kitchen is as boutique as my garden, I store the Bokashi bin into the toilet, once again baffling our house guests!
Emptying the Bokashi bin onto the compost heap is not for the fainthearted. After a couple of weeks the content should have grown lots of fluffy white (rather than green˄) mould and will stink of bile, which makes perfect sense as enzymes are breaking down organic matter. The key is to take a deep breath, decant it quickly, fork it over, cover up the compost heap and just wait for nature to do her bit.
Is it worth it?
Some question whether all this ‘effort’ (i.e. the collecting and mixing of ingredients and waiting patiently) is worth it in a small garden? This year Mr M and I harvested about 300 litres of crumbly, rich, clean smelling, peat-free˄˄˄ compost, which will turbocharge three of our tiny raised beds and several large pots. We’ll definitely need to buy more for growing potatoes and tomatoes but as our beds and pots should supply us with a significant number of our vegetables, converting waste into rich compost is most definitely worth it… even in a boutique garden!
* I’m using the term boutique gardener not to diminish what I and others like me are doing or because our plots are luxurious or pretentious but to distinguish our reality from that of the large ‘small gardens’ featured in mainstream media and to emphasise the skill, imagination, resourcefulness and vision that go into making tiny plots productive and beautiful.
** Many UK councils subsidise compost bins and occasionally wormeries too so do check your council’s websites.
*** Wormeries typically require less space than compost bins so are especially worth considering if space is very tight.
**** Diluted with water (at least 10 parts water) human urine also makes a good liquid feed for plants.
˄ I bought my Bokashi set (two bins and some bran) at a time when my council still subsidised them. Since then, I have bought another 3 kg bag of bran which will last us about two years.
˄˄ I don’t add tea leaves as these are too moist and could cause green mould. Instead I pop them straight into the compost bin. Technically you can add meat bones but if you want to use the compost within a year I wouldn’t as they take longer to break down.
˄˄˄ As peat bogs are important carbon sinks (i.e. efficient natural carbon capture storage systems), peat-free compost is a non-negotiable for me.
October 28, 2014 § 8 Comments
I recently read that the number of electrical appliances in an average British home has increased three and a half times in the last 20 years and the overall number of electronic consumer gadgets 11 times in the last 40!* In other words, the number of electrically powered consumer toys and domestic devices has ballooned in my lifetime. As Mr M and I still call the radio the wireless and I’ve only recently acquired a digital camera, we’re hardly the leading the charge where electrical gadgets are concerned but how do we fare with the household appliances?
Looking back at the appliances my parents owned around 1990 and those in my own home, I am struggling to work out what all these new or additional appliances are? My parents were an average professional family with modern comforts but it was not as if our family home was crammed with electrical stuff. Neither is my current home. So what equipment accounts for this appliance inflation?
Surely the average household only really ‘needs’ one oven, one fridge/freezer and one washing machine. Our house came with a dishwasher, not strictly necessary of course but an appliance that was not uncommon in the 1990s. I also bought a clothes spinner – a gift from heaven when drying clothes without a tumble dryer – but mum had one of those too for the same reason. In fact, mine is almost a carbon copy of hers as the design hasn’t changed since the seventies! There’s an iron and vacuum cleaner too but these are hardly revolutionary new electrical tools. Perhaps small kitchen appliances account for the gigantic growth in electrical household goods?
Despite cooking and baking from scratch, my list of small kitchen appliances is short, very short!
There’s my trusty workhorse: a Kenwood mixer, which looks and works just like my mother’s one from the late sixties, and has done sterling service for over seven years. As I suffer with arthritis, this appliance really makes kneading bread a lot easier. And thanks to it’s traditional three attachments it can also whip up cake mixes, cream and egg whites in no time at all.
Second on the list is a mini-chopper/blender, which is my go-to appliance for most savoury concoctions. The blade and bowl fitting chops and whizzes ingredients into pesto, tapenade, tartar sauce… in seconds while the stick attachment turns it into an efficient soup, bean paté, falafel mix… blender.
Finally there are those old favourites: an electric toaster and kettle because breakfast is the key meal of the day! And the wireless, of course, as the absence of endless whirring, grinding and pinging means I can actually listen to Radio 4 whilst cooking.
Am I inherently opposed to electrical appliances in the kitchen, or around the house in general? Hardly. If I had the space, money and time, I would invest in an overlocker and a bandsaw tomorrow, and I wouldn’t say no to a MIG welder either. I have my aspirations like anybody else!
However, as I’ve generally lived in small homes, with tiny kitchens, I have never gone in for a plethora of appliances. In the kitchen I would much rather devote limited cupboard space to ingredients, crockery and essential equipment. I also can’t bring myself to waste money on single function tools, whether electrical or not, unless they are really necessary. Most of all though, on the occasions when I’ve used small kitchen appliances, I’ve realised that many don’t really save time or effort.
I used to own an electric hand whisk before the engine burnt out but invariably I would resort to a wooden spoon when making a small cake as it was faster to work by hand than dig the appliance out of the back of the cupboard, fish the whisks out of the cutlery tray and clean the appliance afterwards. As long as I leave butter out to soften beforehand, using a spoon does the same job easily enough and involves less time overall. Similarly if I’m only whisking up a couple of egg whites or a little cream, I’ll use a balloon whisk as it is faster than dragging the Kenwood out of the cupboard and cleaning it when the job is done. Ditto for orange or lemon juice. Many years ago I had an electric juicer but ended up giving it away as washing the various parts was such a bore. Instead I use a classic glass juicer and a little elbow grease.**
Of course, electrical appliances and gadgets are not inherently bad but the gigantic increase in their numbers in and around the home explains why for all the improvements in technological efficiency, our electricity consumption has actually gone up in the same periods.***
At the same time, with electrical options becoming the default, the availability and quality of hand tools has plummeted. A couple of years ago I was looking for a traditional hand whisk. After much searching I eventually found one but it was made of poor quality metal with pinions of plastic that was so flimsy that they didn’t bite on the main wheel. Similarly, as it is assumed that everybody has a magi-mixer these days, hand-cranked mincers are all but a thing of the past. Not to mention a hand-operated coffee grinder to grind just enough beans for a fresh brew!
I’m pragmatic enough to realise that the loss of such hand tools does not signal the end of civilisation, but the disappearance of simple mechanical solutions that involve quality workmanship and an appropriate expenditure of energy for the task in hand just might…
* Andrew Simms and Ruth Potts, The New Materialism, Bread Print and Roses, 2012, p. 5.
** To extract the juice even more easily with an old school juicer, roll the orange or lemon over the counter top first to break down the fibres in the segments.
*** Department of Trade and Industry, Energy Consumption in the United Kingdom, London, p.23.
October 20, 2014 § 11 Comments
Although it is unusually mild, the light is starting to fade and I’m aware of the long fingers of winter tugging at my mood. Over the decades I’ve found ways to manage the seasonal blues. Spending time in the fresh air during daylight hours definitely helps, whether it’s a stroll in the park or pottering in the garden. Wrapping myself in gorgeous woollens also lifts the mood as does surrounding myself with golden and russet hues, whether in the form of fabric or flowers. In short, come autumn I look to pique my senses to keep the blues at bay, and no where more so than in the kitchen.
As it’s still warm, I am not yet longing for hearty stews, ragù or fish soups, like Mr M’s superb venison goulash, a rich pheasant ragù or a steaming cullen skink. Instead I look to foods charged with herbs or spices to soothe my melancholic disposition and, in particular, to tapas/meze style food inspired by the Mediterranean, Maghreb and Levant.
A mix of meze
An array of small flavoursome dishes not only tantalises my sense of smell and my taste buds, it also looks good on the table. What is more, in my experience, the more tasty a dish is, the more satisfied I feel with smaller portions. How many of us feel replete after tapas or meze starters in a restaurant?
At the weekend Mr M and I enjoyed a particularly satisfying meze meal. Pretty much everything on the table was homemade and some of the ingredients had been homegrown too for good measure.
The dishes included aioli, using The Zero Waste Chef’s recipe and homegrown garlic, served with crudités, including our carrots; hummus, once again complete with my garlic and smoked paprika (but minus tahini for allergy reasons); chestnut mushrooms sautéed in oil and, yes, garlic; the last of the fresh garden beans cooked in tomatoes and our oregano; and some flatbread that I rustled up.
And in true contrary style, the meal was all the more enjoyable as virtually all dishes were served in bowls made by yours truly… Talk about taking homemade to its natural and gloriously satisfying extreme!
Flatbread, an ancient staple
Flatbread is ridiculously easy too make. This humble ancient staple is barely given a second thought but is worth having in your armoury as it is a quick and efficient way of making at least some of your own bread.
For two people simply, take 4 oz of plain or bread flour, stir in half a teaspoon of salt, a small glug of olive oil (officially half a tablespoon but I tend to work by eye and feel) and about half a small glass of warm water (approximately 75 ml). Knead the ingredients together by hand to form a smooth dough. It’s worth doing this manually as the mix is easy to manipulate and it allows you to gauge when the dough starts to feel elastic. This consistency is a sign that the gluten in the flour is working, which makes the flatbread puff up a little despite the lack of yeast.
Set aside the dough in a bowl for 30 minutes to an hour. Recipe books tell you to wrap it in cling film but as I consider film one of the most pointless plastics known to man, I just cover the bowl with a tea towel. After all, it’s a method that has worked fine for centuries!
Just before you’re ready to serve dinner heat a frying pan or griddle. Turn the heat up high but don’t add any fat. Break the dough into walnut sized balls and roll them out very thinly. (Use plenty of flour on the counter top/pastry board to stop the breads sticking!) Pop a flatbread in the pan and cook it for about two or three minutes on the first side. Don’t flip it over till it starts to puff up. Then give it a couple more minutes on the other side. Pop the bread in a bowl or basket and cover it with a tea towel or serviette to keep it warm while you cook the others.
Maximum benefit from minimum input
Although making flatbread is really easy, it’s worth making more than you need – I typically make double the amount – as it will keep for a day or two. I generally reinvigorate the flatbreads in a dry frying pan before serving them but you could just pop them in the toaster for a few seconds. Cut them into triangles or strips and serve them as an alternative to nachos or pita bread with aioli, tapenade, guacamole or bean paté, particularly as it is almost impossible to make these in small portions.
Alternatively, you can heat the flatbreads in the pan for a few minutes to soften them and pile them up with a beans, chilli or leftover chicken, some soured cream* and a healthy helping of salad and serve them as a light supper.
Food is a great way of beating the winter blues, and by taking inspiration from the lands around the Mediterranean, dishes needn’t be large, complicated, meat-heavy or expensive to have a real impact!
* If like me you’re not a big fan of dairy products and struggle to finish a whole tub of cream, don’t bother buying soured cream. Instead go for double cream. Use half of it for desserts (e.g. stewed fruit, crumbles, scones…) and squeeze some lemon juice into the rest to achieve a taste similar to soured cream. It saves money and avoids waste!
October 16, 2014 § 6 Comments
This week I stumbled across an article that extolled the virtues of wobbly pots. The author was promoting a range of bowls and plates from an ‘executive’-style interiors shop that cited the wobbly imperfections as their USP. I had to chuckle. When I first left home, I kitted out my kitchen with cast-offs from home and wobbly bowls, only in those days we called them rejects. Isn’t it remarkable how a little marketing speak elevates a reject to an object of desire!
Now I’m not suggesting for one moment that wobbliness or imperfections are anything to be ashamed of, or avoided even. In fact, as a maker and aspiring craftsman I celebrate wobbles and flaws and no more so than with my own bowls.
Markers of progress
In the spring I finally indulged a longstanding interest and signed up for pottery classes. From the word go I was hooked. The first lessons were frustrating yet addictive as I learnt to handle and then control the clay. For weeks my pots and bowls were minute as I shed three quarters of the grey lump I had started with and wonky where my centering had gone awry. Despite such imperfections, many were still perfectly serviceable and now hold salt, pins, paperclips…
As the lessons progressed, I grasped how to manage the clay and centrifugal forces with my hands, breath and core, and my pots have started to improve. They are gradually growing a larger, thinner, more shapely and decidedly less wonky. I’m still a long way off throwing a ‘perfect‘ pot but when I examine the bowls and vases to decide which ones to fire and keep, I get to know their wobbles. The flaws teach me what to focus on next: where I need to apply more pressure; where less; where I can be more decisive with the rib; or more confident when turning…
And with such scrutiny comes a certain attachment, not just for the lesson the imperfections teach me but because the flaws are fewer than the weeks before. They signpost not only where I’m going but how far my skill and technique have come.
Accepting the alchemy
Pottery, like any craft, involves honing technique, developing muscle memory and an eye and building an instinct through experience. However, it also teaches us that for all our skill and know-how, other elements might have the last word. Even when I produce a well-thrown and elegantly turned bowl and dip it in tried and tested glazes, once the pot goes back into the kiln, I have no control over the chemistry.
Two pots dipped in my current favourite colour combination of reactive grey and Greenwich green can come out looking completely different. Sometimes variations are down to me, due to the thickness of my pots or the layers of glaze, but the imperfect colour match can also be due to where the pot was positioned in the kiln or what other pots it was fired with. I’ve had to learn to accept that the chemical composition of glazes on an adjacent pot can influence mine and vice versa. At times it’s frustrating but often it feels like alchemy, producing an unexpected but wondrously beautiful result.
And anyway, are colour mutations due to a chemical reaction imperfections or are they an integral part of the craft?
Artefacts of joy
Mastering a craft, whether it’s potting, carving, spinning, ironmongery…, is a process of learning and practice, frustration and breakthroughs. Of developing technique, getting a feel for the material and its quirks, of endless practice, of coaxing an object out of the medium whilst recognising that not all elements can be controlled. However, for many practicing a craft is also a source of joy, relaxation, satisfaction, pride… so even an imperfect handmade object can be an artefact of the maker’s joy. They certainly are for this maker!