Welcome to my Country Days Blog!

I’ve lived in Devon for over 20 years and while I spend most of my time working in my studio, or in front of a TV camera or on an exhibition stand, country living does give me some time and space… to think about my next project!

A crafter in the country is never bored – nature is a huge treasure trove! Beachcombing, while taking our dog Welly for a walk, or rummaging about in hedgerows (while Richard pretends not to notice) produces all sorts of goodies. Shells, feathers, wildflowers, leaves – natural things are so often the ‘light bulb moment’ that gives me an idea for something new!

I have hundreds – actually, make that thousands ­– of ideas and projects from crafts to cookery to flowers that I thought I could start sharing with you through a weekly country-inspired blog.

I love hearing from fellow crafters and swapping ideas and useful hints and tips, so do please feedback your comments on my blog, I’m sure it will be a lot of fun!


When being ‘fleeced’ is a good thing!

Sometimes, you pick something up, or buy something, and you wonder: ‘How ever did we manage before we had this?’ Last night, when it was a bit nippy, I snuggled up on the sofa under a lovely fluffy fleece blanket and I thought ‘Goodness, what ever did we do before we had fleeces?’

Well, of course the good old sheep’s fleece has been keeping us warm for thousands of years, one way and another. But what about this marvellous soft, warm, synthetic material that we have now? It’s available in every colour, is stretchy and easy to wash and is available in the lightest weight for sporty types right through to big thick fluffy weight for sofa snugglers, like me!

Usually referred to as ‘polar fleece’, it is used in jackets, hats, sweaters, gym clothes, blankets, and high-performance outdoor clothing. It makes an excellent alternative to wool if you are vegan and, what I really like, is that it can be partially made from recycled plastic bottles – how fantastic is that?

It was created in 1979 and the head of the firm that developed it, Aaron Feuerstein, chose not to patent it, which is how the material suddenly came to be produced so cheaply and widely. When I looked him up, I discovered Mr Feuerstein is an American philanthropist and has done several quite extraordinarily generous and good things in his long life, letting fleece be produced widely and cheaply being just one of them. 

A lightweight, warm and soft fabric, fleece holds less than 1% of its weight in water and retains much of its insulating powers even when wet. It’s a good alternative to wool and can be made out of recycled PET bottles, or even recycled fleece. For the elderly, or anyone confined to bed, it’s a wonderful thing as it is so lightweight, providing softness and warmth but no painful weight.

It’s a pretty amazing fabric, but there are some disadvantages… it’s not windproof and, as I know to my cost, it does generate a high amount of static electricity, which causes the accumulation of lint, dust, and, wait for it… pet hair! I sometimes think I have more dog hair on my snuggle blanket than Welly has on his entire little doggy body – ugh!! But luckily it does wash and dry brilliantly… erm, as long as you don’t then try and iron it – big fail!

You can buy it cheaply and easily these days online and, because you don’t have to edge it, it’s a great fun product for making fancy dress outfits for children, or even adults, should you feel so inclined! It’s great for toys, cushion covers and the like and I am sure there are lots of crafty uses too…

And of course, we’d better not leave out that great development in leisurewear… the fleece onesie! While it is not a garment you will ever catch me in…ahem, I’m sure some people find them very warm and, well, cosy! I was stunned at the variety available online for adults, never mind babies and children. I think my favourite had to be this flying squirrel model (below)… sorry couldn’t resist that!

I’ll bet you have at least one item of fleece in your wardrobe, or somewhere around your house. So do you snuggle up, or do you go out jogging in yours? Or if you are not a fleece person, what couldn’t you live without…? Let me know, I love to hear all your comments!


Planning for a Merry Christmas!

Ok, so it’s too early to start sending festive greetings but last weekend, I thought it really was time I got down to more card making. I can’t say a whole load was achieved but lots of preparations, die cutting and cardstock organising got done!

Here’s an example of a card made with the Margaret Tarrant cardmaking pad. It works really well building a slightly larger card around the main image that appears on the sheet. This means the 6” x 6” pads can be flexible – ideal for smaller cards or by adding layers as on this card, they can make far larger cards too.

The ivy in the corners is using my much loved (by customers and myself) Signature die ivy corner. This and the ivy flourishes are definitely the most popular dies that we sell and I love using it in green obviously but here in white it looks really beautiful.

The diecut backing piece behind the design is a Sue Wilson die entitled Spanish background which makes a lovely border.

How are you getting on with your Christmas planning?



The myth of the magpie

I was watching a magpie in the garden yesterday, a big bold bird, its black and white feathers pristine, with iridescent blue among the black, and thinking how handsome it was. Its eyes were bright and fierce and it was watching me with what looked like real intelligence. But these belligerent birds stir strong emotions among people, and are widely hated, so I fell to wondering why,..

When anyone mentions magpies I think we tend to think or three things: The rhyme “One for sorrow, two for joy…” the hip and trendy kid’s TV programme of that name, popular when I was a teenager, and the fact that magpies are thieves. Seeing a magpie when I was a child was quite rare. Now it is one of the most common birds in the UK. They are described as challenging and arrogant and, love them or hate them, you can't miss them. Their numbers have increased by 112% over the last 30 years. They are scavengers and collect objects and ‘cache’ food just in case there’s a shortage later on. They are also seen as predators, eating other birds' eggs and their young, as well as plants

Where suspicion of the bird exists it often goes back to folklore and myth where magpies were thought to be bearers of bad omens and associated with the devil. You can even find negative comments as far back as Shakespeare's time, when their "chattering" was complained about.

Of all birds it is probably the poor old magpie that is most associated with superstitions. However, most superstitions regarding magpies are based around just a single bird. Throughout Britain it is thought to be unlucky to see a lone magpie and there are a number of beliefs about what you should do to prevent bad luck.

In most parts of the UK people will salute a single magpie and say “Good morning Mr Magpie. How is your lady wife today?” By acknowledging the magpie in this way you are showing him proper respect in the hope that he will not pass bad fortune on to you. By referring to the magpie's wife you are also implying that there are two magpies, which bring joy rather than sorrow according to the popular rhyme.

Other things you can do to prevent the bad luck a lone magpie may bring include doffing your hat, spitting three times over your shoulder or even flapping your arms like wings and cawing to imitate the magpie's missing mate! Fortunately, as we are now pretty much overrun with the things, I don’t think I shall need to do much spitting and flapping! 

As the well known rhyme "One for sorrow, Two for joy, Three for a girl, Four for a boy, Five for silver, Six for gold, Seven for a secret never to be told,” shows it is only seeing a lone magpie that brings bad luck and groups of magpies are said to predict the future. There are many different versions of this rhyme with some counting as high as 20 birds.  Like many other birds, magpies mate for life and this may be the inspiration for this rhyme.

Here are a few magpie facts, rather than myths and superstitions: 

  • It takes a pair of magpies around 40 days to build their large, domed nest.
  • A typical magpie clutch is six eggs.
  • Only the female magpie incubates the eggs - it takes 24 days for them to hatch.
  • Young magpies leave the nest around 27 days after hatching.
  • Magpies are omnivorous, eating a wide variety of food, ranging from grain and fruit to carrion.
  • Magpies have been recorded catching and killing frogs, lizards, snakes, bats, mice, voles and even rabbits, as well as small birds.
  • Magpies will cache surplus food during times of plenty.
  • They are extremely intelligent and have been shown to mourn their dead.
  • Magpies can recognise themselves in a mirror – the only non-mammal to do so.
  • They can talk (imitate) as well as mynah birds and jackdaws – in fact most birds can be taught to talk… but that’s another blog altogether! 

Christmas wreath workshop on the doorstep!

For those of you that live in the Devon area, I thought you might be interested in some workshops that I’ve just discovered. Karen Morris is a florist who lives in my village and often helps me with amazing flowers. She is very skilled and, when we were chatting yesterday, she told me about the workshops she is running this year. Now I am a workshop junkie and, if there’s a chance I can learn anything new, I am keen to try – see the piece about my furniture-painting course not long ago.

This is a chance to make your own wreaths for Christmas and create a lovely display in your home – or what about making some as gifts? Karen will help you if you are a beginner and encourage you to have a go, all taking place in a fun atmosphere with mulled wine and mince pies apparently… hmm maybe I could come as a spectator then?!

The picture of the wreath with hydrangeas (right) gives you a rough idea of the kind of thing you could easily make in the class and the other pictures are more elaborate wreaths Karen has made for various Christmas commissions. The classes are well priced and held in both afternoons and evenings.

If you think a wreath making course might be your sort of thing then contact Karen via her website and you can like her on Facebook and all those things!


A step in the right direction! 

Top to bottom: The gradual build up of the paint effect on the steps.The paint effects course I recently went on with my partner in crime writing, Julia, has come in unexpectedly handy! Rather than a nice coat of wax on a wardrobe or a bit of light distressing on a dresser, Julia decided to ‘go for it’ on a grand scale and create a paint finish on her front doorsteps. I’ll let her explain…

It all started when my Other Half (OH) decided to replace our steep, crumbling and positively lethal steps up to the front door with nice new, wide concrete steps. Fine, I said – although secretly wishing for granite – but needs must and he was keen to get on with it… Eventually, we were the proud owners of three drab, hard edged, business-like concrete steps up to our nice old house. They looked awful! If Prince Charles had dropped by he would have described them as a “carbuncle on the face of an old friend”… or whatever it was he once said that got him into hot water.

I decided to make the best of it and, with the OH’s blessing, bought masonry paint in different colours. I bought one big tin of a sort of stone colour and then small sample pots of various different colours including black, terracotta, ochre and white. My aim was to try and dull down the steps and make them blend in better with the granite that is everywhere here on Dartmoor from the cobbles in the yard to the walls all around the house and garden. 

Having slapped on two coats on the base colour and let it dry, I got down on hands and knees and started stippling with a stencil brush. I covered about one square foot in an hour – this was not going to work. Then I tried a hard roller to skim over the top of the rough concrete surface – better, but not ideal. I then tried crumpled up newspaper – messy, a scrunched up plastic carrier bag ­– OK but very slippery.

By lunchtime, I was suffering from sore knees, backache and arm ache, so I decided to throw in the sponge – a nice big bit of natural sponge that I had forgotten I owned! Ideal! I was able to dab on the different shades in a random pattern and splodge away to my heart’s delight. The soft sponge got into the dips and bumps and the irregular texture of the natural sponge meant nothing looked regimented and regular.

It was almost dark when I finished, but I was pretty happy with the result. By the time it has weathered and got mucky and a bit of moss growing on it, I think it won’t look too bad. 

As you can tell, this isn’t one of Joanna’s master classes in crafting, but it does hopefully show a few things:

  1. Don’t be frightened to ‘have a go’
  2. Improvise – if your initial idea doesn’t work, try something else
  3. Make sure you use the right paint for the job – this had to be masonry paint to be durable
  4. Experiment – if you discover a good technique, try it on something else.
  5. Don’t be afraid to think big
  6. If all else fails – just paint over it and forget you ever started!