The gift of giving

Isn’t it a wonderful thing to receive gifts from other people? I particularly love it when a gift is unexpected and homemade, and in the same vein, I love to make and give bits and pieces to other people. Homemade gifts are such beautiful things that it’s a shame we so often shy away from the idea of them. I think there are three main reasons for this.

1. Time (or at least, a lack of it). In lives that are so full of busyness and rushing around, it’s often hard to find the time, energy and enthusiasm to make something. So much easier to go to a shop or online and buy something . . . but perhaps it’s exactly because we are so busy that we should try and find a little time out for ourselves do something for others? There is much pleasure in making, after all.

2. Perfection. Modern consumerist society offers us a dizzying amount of products to buy, many of them very beautiful , most of them standardised. If we buy something that seems less than perfect, we return it as faulty.  Homemade gifts are beautiful precisely because they may not be perfect. They are not the same as every other one coming out of a factory or workshop: they are unique, and their little quirks and imperfections are what make them so special.

3. Money. How often do we set out to buy a gift with a fairly precise cost in mind? It’s almost like gifts have to say, ‘Look, I’ve spent this much on you’ because the amount of money spent reflects our feelings for someone or the level of esteem in which we hold them. The problem with that approach is that it confuses price with value: they are not the same thing. How can you put a price on the thought, effort, care and love someone puts into a homemade gift for someone else? The cost may be a few pennies, the value is priceless.

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So, this is a gentle plea for giving simple gifts that are homemade with love, maybe not always (life after all tends to get in the way of the best laid plans) but at least some of the time. I believe that everyone has creative talents – even if they insist otherwise! – and there is much pleasure in using them to make lovely things; all you need is a little imagination and the courage to give it a go. You don’t need to have the original idea, either; there is nothing wrong with borrowing other people’s ideas – see my wedding blanket gift below. I tend to veer towards textile-based gifts because that’s what I love to make but in the past I’ve done many different things. I’ve baked and decorated cakes and biscuits or made boxes of chocolates and jars of special preserves. I’ve created hand-tied posies from garden flowers and filled boxes and baskets with fresh, homegrown produce. I’ve tried my hand at new things: making herbal handcreams, plaited corn dollies and colourful origami Japanese cranes. I’ve even stepped far outside my comfort zone to make a wooden birdbox, complete with a blue tit painted on the front. As I’d be hard pushed to say which of my ‘skills’ sets are the more dire – drawing or carpentry – you will appreciate just what a labour of love that one was! However, I had a lot of fun and learnt some new things . . . and I understand the birds are using it, which is a relief.

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Homemade gifts don’t have to be ‘things’, either. Sarah’s father-in-law writes humorous poems to read out at family occasions. What a wonderful way of bringing everyone together in love, laughter and celebration! One of the most incredible and touching gifts I have ever been given was a song written and performed by a very talented young lady I had the pleasure of teaching. It couldn’t be wrapped and labelled, it isn’t sitting on a shelf gathering dust . . . but the poignant beauty of that haunting melody – and the creativity and heart that went into it – will stay with me for ever.

Try ‘experience’ over ‘stuff’, too. Sometimes, just spending a little time with others – rather than money –  is the greatest gift we can give. Nothing complicated, perhaps a walk somewhere, a simple picnic, a chat over coffee . . . shared moments with a focus on being together and enjoying each other’s company. I still smile at the memory of a surprise moonlit walk to the top of a hill, a flask of real hot chocolate and apple muffins still warm from the oven shared beneath the stars. You can’t buy that from a shop.

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By way of example of a homemade gift, here is my latest creation. When Sam and Adrienne announced their engagement last August, I knew immediately that I wanted to make them a special gift to mark the wonderful occasion of their wedding. Making things for weddings has been a bit of a habit of mine in recent years and it’s one I love; as I have been in full crochet mode this year, a beautiful blanket seemed like just the thing.  No question about which design, it had to be the Moorland blanket from Lucy’s Attic 24 website. Sam and Adrienne, like myself, are both great fans of moorland; no surprise really, it’s the landscape in which they grew up, albeit the hill country of south Shropshire and mid-Wales rather than the Yorkshire Dales. Sam had popped the question in a whimberry patch, August sees our house here surrounded by swathes of purple heather and I knew that Adrienne had seen and loved the blanket design so it seemed very apt. Also – and I do have to confess this – on a very selfish note – I desperately wanted to work that design but couldn’t justify making another blanket for us . . . so this way I would have all the pleasure, and hopefully a meaningful gift at the end of it.

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This was no stroll in the park, I have to say. Those first few rows were horrendously tricky; for some reason, it took a long while for my brain to assimilate the stitch orders and my eye to understand where I was in the pattern. However, eventually it all clicked and I started to revel in the rhythm of those waves. This is such a clever pattern.  The way those colours weave and meld into one another is quite magical, it’s like making sweeps of watercolours across a sheet of cartridge paper. I love the subtlety of the colour combinations, too, and it was fascinating to see the colours of a moorland landscape develop. In fact, working my way up the blanket felt like a wonderful walk. First, the peaty browns and earthy greens brought to mind the short tough grasses, bright mosses and deep black boggy puddles so typical of the landscape. Next, I meandered happily through swathes of purple heather, climbing towards the hilltops and the evocative call of curlews; here there would be whimberries, too! Finally, the beautiful blues of a late summer sky. I could imagine soft clouds scudding past and skylarks trilling up high.

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For me, the greatest part of making this gift has been the time spent thinking about the recipients – two very precious young people with a wonderful shared life ahead of them – which means that my love and hopes for them have literally been worked into every stitch. That’s what makes homemade gifts so special.

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I probably should apologise for the sheep, mind you (moorland just isn’t moorland without sheep in my book) as there is more than a hint of dog about that face, don’t you think? Still, if I wanted a perfect crocheted sheep-looking sheep I could buy one ready-made from a shop . . . but where’s the fun in that? 🙂

Home, Sweet Home!

What makes a home? For me, it’s always been a place where I live with people I love. I have shared ten homes with Roger – in Cyprus, England, Wales, France and Spain – every home has been different but each time there has been an awareness that we are simply custodians passing through. Even if you live in the same house for your whole life, you are still just a small part of its history, so for me ‘home’ isn’t about the bricks and mortar (or wood, stone, thatch, canvas, whatever) and it certainly isn’t about the ‘stuff’ within. Over the years as our family grew, so did the size of our homes and the amount of possessions needed to fill them; now I am blissfully happy living in a smaller space with the minimum amount of stuff and maximum amount of living! How wonderful to have the time and energy to enjoy simple pleasures and moments every day.

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Moving home might be a pretty stressful and exhausting activity but it’s also a great opportunity to reflect on what we have in our lives and how much of it we actually need. Moving to Spain last year was a huge opportunity for us to reduce our ‘stuff’ and bring only the things we needed and a few bits and pieces that make our house feel like home; it all came down to a transit van, car and two trailers.

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Having reached a point in the renovation and decorating this week where we are finally beginning to see a clean and comfy living space emerge from the chaos, I have spent a happy time rearranging things and unpacking a few bits from the boxes they have been patiently inhabiting for many months. It has given me a chance to look around and reflect on what we chose to keep and why, those special things that make this ‘home.’

First, pictures. We had collected so many pictures, it was ridiculous, especially as I have no idea where most of them came from and if I’m honest I didn’t even like many of them. I suppose it’s just habit – there’s a wall, better hang something on it. Why? I actually prefer lots of empty space on walls – there’s no need to clutter them – with just one or two special pictures which will make far more impact. So, just two have gone up on our kitchen/living room walls this week and I think that will do for now. At the kitchen end is a cross-stitch calendar I made many, many years ago when I obviously had far more patience and better eyesight. It was my ‘holiday’ activity, something to work on in quiet moments when the children were happily occupied or settled into bed; it took me years to complete and I have to say more of those stitches were made in a wet tent than I care to remember . . . but still, there are a lot of happy memories in there and I also love the simplicity of the pictures, all seasonal wild flowers, weeds and leaves.

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At the opposite end of the room is a picture of one of the homes we passed through, painted for us by my father-in-law and framed by him, too, in a solid wooden frame. I love the bright colours and slightly abstract style which seem to suit our mountain house down to the ground.

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Just look at that pile of fruit beneath the picture! Healthy eating has always been central to our lives and fruit is something we have never stinted on (although we only ever buy what’s fresh, local wherever possible, seasonal and usually on special offer. December strawberries? Never). We are so blessed here in being able to pick fresh fruit every month of the year; we are currently enjoying the last of the figs and pears in anticipation of the kiwi glut. We have enough pears in storage to last all winter and a freezer full of peaches, but we still supplement our homegrown produce with bought fruits in order to enjoy a wide variety. I was so thrilled to see the citrus season well and truly under way this week and of course we are lucky to live in a country that does them rather well! The persimmon (kaki in Spanish) are also fantastic and so big that we can happily share one. Anyway, back to special things: the turned wooden fruit bowl on the left was made by Roger at school and the bowl on the right was a gift from my brother after a trip to Morocco. I love them both and it’s a pleasure to fill them . . . and then munch my way through their delicious contents.

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Staying with Morocco, one of our most loved and most used pieces of kitchen equipment is a tagine (well, in fact we have two, both gifts from special people). We love this style of one-pot cooking, it is so efficient and a fantastic way of making small amounts of meat or fish go a long way and using whatever vegetables are to hand. A road trip to Morocco is definitely on our wish list (one day . . . ), I would love to see and sample all those wonderful sacks of spices first hand. In the meantime, we spent a lovely time making some preserved lemons this week. These are the easiest things on earth to make and bring a wonderful flavour to so many dishes. Note the smart new chopping board, made from the piece of  beechblock cut out of a worktop to fit the sink. Waste not, want not! Roger has treated it with tung oil which is a great non-toxic ‘feed’ for wood and now it is set for many years of serious food preparation.

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Sticking with the woodwork, Roger has also recycled some scrap wood into a nifty wine rack to fill a useless pace between a cupboard and the stove; each slot holds two bottles and in such a warm spot, it should keep the Rioja at just the right temperature.

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What a very happy time I had hauling a couple of boxes in from the barn and filling our empty bookshelf once again. This is our entire collection of non-fiction reading material, including almost a shelf and a half of recipe books (yes, we love cooking!). So many of these books were gifts, so many of them are well-thumbed and dog-eared from years of use.

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They are like old friends; what should have taken no more than twenty minutes from start to finish ended up being an hour of browsing happiness – gardening, self-sufficiency, spinning and dyeing, herbal medicine, quilting, Spanish study, travel, birds and beasts, flowers and fungi . . . I was completely lost in other worlds. Funny what little bits fell out of them, too: recipes scribbled on old envelopes, quilting templates traced onto greaseproof paper, a pile of ivy leaves I must have pressed for making seasonal cards and decorations. I was truly thrilled to be reunited with my favourite non-fiction book ever, The Therapeutic Garden by Donald Norfolk. I first borrowed this book from the library years and years ago; after the sixth time, I thought maybe I should buy my own copy! I have read it at least once a year ever since and  – even though I can probably quote paragraphs verbatim – I never tire of it. This is not a gardening book but rather a gentle argument for the benefits of humans spending their time in a garden, exercising, breathing deeply, relaxing, connecting with nature, nuturing, eating, socialising, loving and laughing. It typifies so much that I believe in and many of the quotations are from or about people I admire, such as Henry David Thoreau. Happy, happy days . . . I’m reading it once again.

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Now that mug of coffee brings to mind another little thing that makes me feel at home; it’s a silly thing, really, but that’s the point – home should be about those little special bits and pieces. I am a great tea drinker; I like a cup of good coffee as you can see from the picture above (and I have been known to enjoy the occasional glass of red wine!) but tea is my favourite tipple. Roger doesn’t like tea so it’s a pleasure I enjoy all on my own,  but I do have to admit to being a bit of a tea snob. I really can’t get with the whole dunking a teabag in a cup thing; sorry, but I like my tea (a rich malty Assam being my first choice) to be made in a warmed pot and brewed properly for several minutes. So, here is my little one person pot and the tea cosy I made years ago to keep it snug during those all important brewing moments.

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I love this tea cosy because it was made completely from scraps of fabric and wadding left over from a quilting project and a few odd buttons I’d collected over the years. I used a pair of compasses to construct a hexagon template on the back of an old cereal packet and stitched the whole thing by hand – I do have a sewing machine but there was something so lovely about working tiny stitches with a needle and thread and creating something out of nothing.  As I said, a silly thing really, but I love it.

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On a similar theme, left to my own devices for three weeks in May I had a lot of fun messing about with yarn. One of my projects was to design and make some bunting from scrap yarn to hang above the bedroom window. Our windows here are very small and all have built-in blinds or shutters so there is no need for curtains but I wanted something simple and pretty just to liven the space up a bit. Decorating done and hooks found, it was time to hang the bunting at last.

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With the ‘heavy’ building work done and space opening up in the house, I decided it was time to blow the cobwebs off another old friend and bring it in out of storage. Oh, I am so happy to have this back in my life!

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A good polish for the wood and dubbin for the leather and the rickety old thing was back in action once more, although it’s so long since I’ve spun anything that I felt a bit like a learner all over again. Never mind, I have a couple of skeins of Jacobs wool to work on over winter which will hopefully be transformed into a Very Important Bear for our grandson William.

Finally, the washing line. Now I know this might seem a bit of an odd choice but I love to see a line of washing blowing in the wind; to me it is such an important part of our home and I love to peg the laundry out then bring it in dry and sweet-smelling once the wind and sun have done their business, all for free.  We do have a bit of a problem here with a complete lack of flat land so instead of one long line and a prop, we have two shorter ones; as you can see, it’s a constant battle trying to find enough drying space between the fig tree and kiwi.

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No problem. For me, the promise of snuggling down in those sheets so soft and scented with fresh air is one of life’s great pleasures. Simple, yes. Homely, definitely. . . but then, that’s the very point, isn’t it? 🙂