Friday, 29 July 2011


For so long, it seems, I've been making Grand Plans about all the complicated, indulgent and time-consuming things I was going to do once the ironman was over and family life wasn't dominated by G's training schedules.

But it turns out that its not about Grand Plans at all.  It's about the joy of going back to a more flexible, unstructured life with time to spare for the small things.

We sat in the garden together, early this morning before G went to work and while the children were still in bed, drinking coffee and listening to the chickens potter around.  A formation of geese flew overhead, so low that we could hear the swoosh of air from their wings.  I watched a caterpillar crawl up the lilac tree and we talked about books.

Early morning coffee in the garden

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Race weekend

The race weekend begins on Saturday when we drive up to the National Water Sports Centre in Nottingham with a car full of kit.  The children are staying with their grandparents for the weekend, which means that the race bike doesn't have to suffer the indignity of travelling on a bike rack, it can sit on its very own blanket in the back of the car.

bike bits
The gleamingly clean bike (in bits) on its special yellow blanket in the back of the car

The day before race day

There are three important things G has to do on the day before race day: registration, racking and race briefing.

Registration takes place in the main building at the National Water Sports Centre.  Most people, including G, are wearing club sweatshirts.  The lady at the registration desk knows G's swimming coach and makes a special fuss of him because he is the only competitor from his club, East London Triathletes.

At Registration

The nice registration lady gives G his race number, which he will wear on a belt around his waist all through the race.  He is also given his timing chip which he will wear on a strap around his ankle all through the race.  The timing chip records his finish time as well as his times for each separate discipline and at various other points around the course.

Run number and name
His race number, which he wears all through the race.  It has his name too, so people can cheer him on!

Once registration is done, we go back to the car and G gets everything ready for racking.  Racking means leaving the bike in the bike racks ready for the race the next day, and also leaving the bike kit (helmet, bike jacket, socks and special clippy bike shoes) in the Bike Transition. 

Transition is where you switch from one discipline to the next.  In Bike Transition you peel off your wetsuit (you will be wearing a tri-suit underneath), and swimming hat, put on your bike kit and load your pockets and your bike with snickers bars and water bottles.  In Run Transition you take off your bike kit and put on your running kit (a new pair of socks and your running shoes - still wearing your tri-suit).

Getting ready for racking, G has to be very organised and concentrate to make sure he is leaving everything he needs in the correct place.  Triathlons are complicated!  Luckily G is a very organised person, so this bit is trouble free.

The car boot - full of kit
The back of our car, full of kit being prepared for racking.

We take the bike to the bike racks and G is pleased that the slot for his bike is easy to remember - at one end of the second row.  He won't be dithering in Bike Transition looking for it amongst the hundreds of others.

Racking the bikes the day before
Hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of bicycle in the bike racks. Early in the afternoon - the racks filled up much more as the day went on.

He leaves a labelled bag with his bike kit in at the Bike Transition, and another labelled bag with his running kit in at the Run Transition.

Then G heads back into the main building for an hour long race briefing.  He finds out important things like what time he has to be in the water ready to start the swim (5:50am) and what will be available at the feeding stations on the run course (bananas and water).

I stand on the balcony of the main building, admiring the view of the lake (usually used for rowing races) and wondering how far the swim actually is.  When G comes out of his race briefing I ask him.

We leave the Water Sports Centre and drive into Nottingham to check in at our hotel and get everything ready for a very early start the next day.

Race gear prepared the night before
Everything he needs for race day, laid out on the hotel floor the night before

Race day

We set our alarms for 3:30 am.  G gets up and makes himself breakfast: muesli, wholemeal bagels with peanut butter, and fruit smoothies.  I make a pot of coffee and put it in a flask for later.  At 4:15 we leave the hotel and set off for the Water Sports Centre.  We are there in plenty of time, and G goes to the bike racks to check that everything he needs is in the right places at Transition, and to pump up the tyres on his bike.

The moon was still up at the start of the race
The sky was dark and the moon still up when we got to the Water Sports Centre at 4:45am

We go into the main building and while I sip my flask of coffee he inches his way into his wetsuit.  Swimming wetsuits are made quite differently to surfing or diving wetsuits.  They are eye-wateringly tight, and take a good ten minutes to put on.  I watch everyone else wriggling into theirs, and rubbing vaseline around their wrists and ankles to stop any chafing.  Seeing hundreds of men peel themselves into skin-tight wetsuits is a bit much at this time in the morning, actually.  I sip some more coffee and avert my gaze.  Wives are applying suncream to husbands' ears and necks, and I put some on G too.

We head down to the lake and I say goodbye to G before he heads into the competitors' area and lines up at the edge of the lake.  I am suddenly utterly overwhelmed by the enormity of what he has to do, and burst into tears, but he is grinning his very widest grin and looks ready to take on the world.

Supporters at the swim start, 6am
And he's gone. Spectators outside the competitors' area at 5:40am, just after I said goodbye to G

The start of the race

The race is a 2.4 mile swim, followed by a 112 mile bike ride, followed by a 26.2 mile (marathon distance) run.  He is hoping to do the whole race in twelve and a half hours.

I next see him early in the afternoon, about a quarter of the way into his run.  I stand on the grassy bank with loads of other supporters and shriek madly when I see him running towards me.  He is pleased to see me, is still beaming, and high fives me as he runs past.  The next time I see him, about an hour and twenty minutes later he is still looking good, although the grin has faded a little.  He has one more lap to go.  I move closer to the finish line and start to get very excited and nervous.  He is nearly home, and it looks like he is going to be much faster than he expected.

I finally see him coming into the home straight at 12 hours and 3 minutes - a full half hour faster than he expected.  The grin is back and I shriek with excitement again and shout to the world how wonderful he is.

He did it!

Outlaw Bike

Outlaw Finish

Outlaw Finish

I push my way through the crowds and press myself against the railings separating the spectators from the finished competitors.  We have lots of sweaty kisses and he disappears into a marquee to collect his medal and eat some pasta.

Later still, he retrieves his bike, wetsuit and other kit and comes through to the spectators side wearing his new t-shirt, his medal...and that big grin!

My hero

Outlaw in his Finisher t-shirt

His brother and sister were also there to support him and we all tell him how amazing he is and how very, very proud of him we are.  Tears are shed (mostly by me) and dozens of photos are taken.  It has been an amazing weekend, which we will all remember for the rest of our lives.

Graham with his very proud brother and sister
G, with his incredibly proud brother and sister


The race, though, is just one day. 

The training for this race has been a full year of complete dedication and focus on G's part (on top of seven previous years of competing in the usual shorter-distance triathlons), as well as sacrifice, compromise, thoughtfulness and determination.  It is for these qualities that he gets my admiration and pride.  He has truly been an inspiration to me.  Nothing with value comes without hard work, and the race day is a celebration and illustration of all that hard work.

Friday, 22 July 2011

His and hers packing

He is packing:
  • 8 snickers bars
  • 1 tub of vaseline
  • assorted lycra outfits

Ironman packing

I am packing:
  • maps
  • walking boots
  • my knitting basket


Knitting basket

Two different approaches to the Ironman race this weekend.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Strawberry notebooks

These are for the children's teachers.  Who doesn't love a nice notebook? 

Strawberry notebooks - presents for the children's teachers

The notebooks are from Muji.  They have thin card covers, and are crying out for decoration.  They would look beautiful with pen and ink drawings on them, but I cannot draw so I put fabric on them instead.

I first came across the idea of decorating notebooks with fabric in the excellent Last-Minute Patchwork and Quilted Gifts by Joelle Hoverson.  She uses a zigzag stitch to attach random shapes of scrap fabric to the smallest size of Moleskine cahiers.  I made some like this to give as Christmas presents a few years ago.

Pimp my Moleskine

I like the original ones, but this time I wanted a clearer design so I went for a simple, summery strawberry instead (strawberries being about the only thing I can successfully draw).  I cut out the facric, held it steady with a few dabs of glue stick, and then sewed it with a plain running stitch.

Strawberry notebook - end of year teacher's present

They are very satisfying to make, and have a low effort-to-prettiness ratio, which is always good at the end of a school term.

There is just one more day to go for us.  Just one more day.  I cannot wait.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

The Wedding Dress

I finished hemming it and binding the waist seam this morning.

Finished dress

It may be the only wedding dress in the world with nice, deep pockets.

Wedding dress - inside

I'm pretty pleased with it.

Colette wrap dress

The pattern is the Crepe Wrap Dress from Colette Patterns.  It is categorised as a 'Beginner' pattern, which at times I thought was wrong, but now I've finished I think is pretty fair. There are no zips or buttons in this dress, which is primarily why I think it gets its classification.  However, it is full of curved seams and darts, which I always find very fiddly, despite having done them many times before.  I personally find putting in a zip much easier than sewing facing into curved armholes!  I think the arms and neckline would be pretty challenging to someone brand new to sewing, but if you've made a few pieces of clothing before you wouldn't find any of it too tricky.

And all the swearing over getting the neckline to curve correctly is completely worth it.  I think this is such a pretty pattern.  It is hard to photograph nicely without a mannequin, or someone to model the dress, because it has a 1950s-style, flared, curvy shape to it, but you can see a little of what it will look like on, from these pictures.  I think I may try and get hold of a 1950s petticoat to go underneath it on the day and flare it out a little more.

I've made it entirely with vintage fabrics that my Grandmother has given me.  My Grandmother won't be at the wedding next month so I like the idea of her contributing via the fabrics she has given me.  The main fabric is a vintage sheet which is machine embroidered with trailing pink flowers.  I spent an entire afternoon working out how to place the pattern pieces for the bodice and one of the skirt panels on the sheet, so that when it was finished, the flowers would trail diagonally across the dress.

Wedding dress - close up of waist and neckline

The sash is made from a piece of vintage yellow silk tafetta.  It is the perfect fabric for a structural sash like this - stiff, thick and full of shape and texture.  It feels almost papery when you sew with it.  The sash fastens the dress and ties in a big bow at the back.

Embroidery detail and sash

Wedding dress - back view

The last fabric I used was a length of yellow vintage ribbon to bind the inside waist seam.  You can see the binding in the second photo, at the top of this post.  Binding an inside seam is not something I would normally do, but I'm glad I bothered this time, as it makes the dress seem that little bit more special.

The Colette pattern was very clear to follow, and as I mentioned in this post, the booklet format is an absolutely genius idea.  I would love to make more clothes from their patterns.  I particularly love the Parfait dress and the Nutmeg underwear patterns.

My next sewing project though needs to be a wedding outfit for O, who has very clear ideas about what she would like....  I should have started negotiating with her a long time ago.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Exam day

Bee-yewtiful hair

  • sunshine
  • rain
  • hairspray
  • bags
  • hairpins
  • leotards
  • tea for the examiners
  • teenage helpers
  • final trips to the toilet
  • nerves
  • giggles
  • parents waiting to collect
  • photos
  • flowers
  • giggles
  • smiles
Beaming after her exam

Monday, 18 July 2011

The inevitability of fruit picking

There is a cycle of inevitability about my visits to the PYO farm.


I love the idea of marching around the fields, picking punnet after punnet full of glorious, jewelled fruit .


I bring the children with me, and forget how fast and efficient they are at picking fruit.  They are no longer toddlers who spend five minutes looking under every strawberry leaf for caterpillars. These days they can strip a blackcurrant bush of it's fruit before you can say 'Ribena'.

Blackcurrants and blackberries

I loose all sense of perspective as I stand in a massive farm, with fruit bushes, trees and neat rows of vegetables stretching away literally as far as the eye can see.

Bag of beans

My trolley full of punnets and bags looks really quite modest in this context.


I get back home, unload the boxes of fruit, and realise that I have got carried away at the PYO farm.  Again.  This happens every year.

PYO fruit haul

I stay up until gone midnight, scaring myself witless with boiling sugar - jamming and canning all the fruit.

Scary volcanic jam

The next morning I look at the stash of jars, piled onto the top shelf in the back kitchen and feel so proud of myself.  Here is a collection of summer fruit which will see us through the winter very happily.


Jam and preserved fruit stash

I'll definitely be back again next year to repeat this cycle all over again.  You can find some of my previous years' adventures at the PYO and in jamming herehere, here and here.

This year's statistics:

  • 2 big punnets strawberries
  • 1 big punnet plums
  • 1 small punnet raspberries
  • 1 small punnet blackberries
  • 1 small punnet blackcurrants
  • 1 huge bag French beans
  • 3 courgettes
  • 1 pot of honey
  • 1 enormous plum crumble
  • 1 blackcurrant and almond cake
  • 10 pots strawberry jam
  • 8 pots blackcurrant and blackberry jam
  • 4 large jars of stewed plums
  • 1 enormous strawberry and almond crumble
And we still have 1 punnet of strawberries and 1 punnet of raspberries, keeping cool and available for greedy scoffing whenever we like.  That's the best bit.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

10 things

  • C's triathlon last weekend was a triumph.  He swam, biked and ran really fast and with great enthusiasm, and earned a medal for all his hard work.  G and I are enormously proud of him, although I am also a little apprehensive that this will mean ANOTHER bike has to come and live in our house.  I am strongly campaigning against this.
Finished his first triathlon!
  • There is great excitement down our side of the street this week because there is a blockage of old bricks down one of the main sewer pipes that runs under our houses. Thames Water have been investigating with cameras and high-powered jet hoses.  There have been 18 blokes in high-vis jackets marching up and down the street looking important and rummaging around in our back gardens looking for manhole covers.  There are a great many people at home during the day in our street, so the water blokes have been made lots of cups of tea and been fed lots of slices of cake.  Despite (or perhaps because of...) this, they have not managed to clear the bricks yet.  The drama continues.
  • The Dress is progressing slowly but steadily.  I really love how the Colette patterns are in a booklet format rather than on both sides of a great big sheet of A3 paper.  I wish more dress patterns did this.  It means that each step is much more manageable and I am not wrestling with big sheets of paper as well as big pattern pieces and many metres of fabric.
  • Colette sewing pattern
    Colette dress pattern
  • I am on Pinterest and have come to realise that I am completely obsessed with notebooks and mugs - who knew?
  • Both children are reading Harry Potter - all the way through from books 1 to 7.  C for about the fourth time and O for the first time.  O is utterly immersed in the world and would read at the dinner table if I let her.  She didn't see much of her brother's triathlon because Harry playing Quidditch was much more interesting.
  • Harry Potter is much more exciting than her brother's race
  • On my reading pile at the moment: The Art of Camping, The Hare with Amber Eyes and The Thirties.  Love, love, loving them all very much.
  • G has just over a week to go until his Ironman race.  He is now in the part of his training called 'tapering'.  This involves doing about half the amount of exercise he usually does, so as to be in peak form for race day.  I am enjoying it all very much.  He is awake!  He is not eating everything in sight!  He is not endlessly discussing his 5k split times!  It is a tantalising glimpse of what life will be like once the Ironman is over.
  • My new favourite baking book is this one, which I was given for my birthday.  Even if the recipes were no good, it would be a lovely thing just for its cover.  However the recipes are amazing, and include such delights as fig rolls, treacle tarts and marshmallow teacakes.
  • New favourite baking book
  • My new favourite savoury cookbook is this one, which I ordered from the library and then made so many recipes from it I had to go and buy my own copy.  The recipes are all for healthy, nutritious food with wonderfully strong flavours.  The flatbread recipe is worth the price of the book alone.
  • New favourite recipe book
  • I am getting very excited about the three day Vintage festival at Southbank later this month.  I am going to be all over it like a rash, but possibly dithering too much at the moment about which ticket(s) to get.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Emotionally charged sewing

I'm not someone who has always had a dream of what her wedding day would be like.  I never drew pictures of wedding dresses when I was a child (unlike my own daughter...) and I've never hankered after the fuss and attention of a wedding.

Our plans for this summer are to have a marriage without a wedding.  So there will be no fancy car, no wedding cake, no official photographer, no honeymoon, no disco, no hen party and no floral arrangements.  Just G and me at the local 'mairie' for a 5 minute civil ceremony, with our parents and our children, and then out for a long lunch and a few kir royales.

And yet...despite this much wished for simplicity and minimalism, there is still The Dress.  I am making my own and I've come to realise over the past few weeks that I have been avoiding starting it.  I've done plenty of knitting, read several books, been baking up a storm and was diverted for several weeks by an Important Sewing Project for my sister-in-law's birthday.  All this to avoid embarking on an item of clothing so loaded with emotion and meaning as to almost have a personality of its own.

Everybody remembers The Dress.  I can remember all the dresses from pretty much every wedding I've ever been to.  I can picture my Mum's dress so clearly just from years of seeing the black and white photo, sitting on top of the piano, of her and Dad's wedding day.  The Dress is charged with sentiment and emotion.  I will remember this dress for the rest of my life, and people might see pictures of me wearing it long after I am gone.

So yes.  Denial has suited me just fine for the last couple of months.

But we leave for France in a matter of weeks, so I'm running out of time.  I have calmed myself down and decided that it is just like making any other item of clothing.  I cut, pin, sew seams, iron on interfacing, embroider and hem.  I've done all this before and if I stop being so dramatic and emotional I can do it again.

Wedding dress construction

Wedding dress construction

Cutting up vintage silk for wedding dress sash

So it is underway.  I tell myself I am making a simple Colette wrap dress from embroidered cotton and silk, that will be worn to a wedding this summer.  If I don't like how it turns out I've still got time to call this a practise version and make myself another one.  I'm not sure my nerves would cope well with that though so I'm being as careful and precise as I can without getting too overwrought.

Friday, 8 July 2011

One row at a time

It has been a busy week for C.  He's nearly 12 and in his last few weeks of Primary School. He's growing up - maturing (intermitently).  He's growing upwards - rapidly.  And he's starting the beginning of a (hopefully) long process of growing away from us.  These changes are all quite subtle and incremental by themselves, but sometimes I see examples of all three of these things together and it is really rather startling.

We walked the fifteen minutes up the hill to his new High School, for his induction day, on Wednesday morning.  He chatted to me about Topshop, Warhammer, bread recipes, the school play and his baby cousin's love of cars. I turned to him, laughing at something he said, and thought 'he's nearly as tall as me - I look across at him, not down at the top of his head these days'

A couple of blocks from school he suddenly said 'It's okay - I know the way from here. See you later'. I know a cue when I hear one, so I said goodbye and walked back home thinking how did this happen so quickly?  I love his new independence and the emerging young man, but it really only seems a short while since he would clamber onto my lap for a story, or want to buy Action Man stickers when we went shopping.

Tonight he's at his Leavers' Prom.  I heard him on the phone to his friend earlier, discussing what sort of shirts they'd be wearing.  C opted for a check shirt and skinny jeans.  He looked taller and slimmer than ever.

And this Sunday he's doing his first ever triathlon.  He's apprehensive, but excited too.  He's focusing on the finish line rather than his nerves, which I think shows an admirable presence of mind.  He doesn't mind admitting he is a bit intimidated - as little as a year ago he would have bluffed and blustered his way through it all, or more likely simply not have wanted to do it.  He's maturing.

And while all this has been going on I've been knitting myself a baktus scarf for the autumn.  I knit very slowly, but doing a row here and a row there, it is growing steadily, and without me really noticing until I stop and look at it.  There's a metaphor in there somewhere.

Baktus progress

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Fabric possibilities

Several people gave me fabric for my birthday.  I love how the fabric is all very 'me' but all so madly varied.  Do different relatives and friends really see such completely different sides of my personality?  What do these fabrics say about the way they see me...?

Definitely the maddest fabric I was given is this Brokeback Mountain inspired print by Alexander Henry.  I have wanted this fabric for the longest time, but could never justify buying it for myself as, well, it is just so very mad.  It is therefore a top present!

Birthday fabric - Alexander Henry

This selection of camp men camping are destined to be transformed into a large camping floor cushion, which is something I've been meaning to make for a long time.  A waterproof back and a madly exuberant camping print on the front will make a great cover for a large, square floor cushion.

I have a little longer to decide what to do with this glorious Mother Christmas fabric.

Birthday fabric

My Grandmother gave me a pile of plainer Christmas fabrics a few months ago, which teamed with this saucy 1950s style fabric might make a rather fabulous reversible Christmas apron.  I rather like the idea of stirring the gravy on Christmas day wearing something featuring these laydees!

This Amy Butler print just says summer skirt to me.  I love the 1970s Laura Ashley vibes it has going on and the mustardy tone of the colours.
Birthday fabric - Amy Butler

I have a big piece of this fabric, so once I've made a skirt there will be plenty left over for other projects.  It would look lovely as a bag or in a quilt, paired with some solid fabric in a sky blue shade.

These next two fabrics might end up as anything at all.
Birthday fabric

Birthday fabric - Tanya Whelan

The very pretty pink floral fabric could well end up in an item of clothing, because I love the colour pink and I love florals, and I wear a great deal of both.  But then it would also be delightful as a lining for a bag or a denim skirt, and it would make a great quilt fabric or a summery sunhat.  The geometric pattern would also be fun in a quilt - maybe as a  border because I'd enjoy hand quilting around those shapes.

I love all the possibilites that these fabrics inspire, and I shall continue to gaze at this pile of new fabrics sitting on my desk for a while before I make them into anything.

I'm embarking on the first version of my wedding dress this afternoon but it is unlikely that any of these fabrics will feature (except perhaps the pink floral one).  My patient Mum and Dad have taken my unconventional wedding plans with very good grace and humour so far, but turning up in a dress festooned with camp men camping, might just be a bit too weird.