Saturday, 22 November 2014

The Firebird

Ahh, that last picture above is just so true to form!

Dear friends,

Despite the fact that night has fallen I hear a blackbird singing in the bedraggled cherry tree outside my window with such virtuosity its song carries hope through the air.  Today is my birthday - forty six already - and one of the most precious gifts has been the dazzling sunlight glimmering through golden leaves from sunrise to sunset.  It is an odd sensation, as autumn lapses gently into winter, to realise that the huge molten giant overhead burns as brightly and yet, because of the slight tilt of the Earth, when its rays strike at a shallow angle its touch is less fiery.

I usually settle into this season with contentment; what choice do I have?  Being a homebird I start dreaming of book-lined shelves and crackling fires, and I am happy.  And then I leave our house - several times a day - and sigh in delight at the regal apparel the trees bear for just a few days more.  Each yellow leaf, twirling downwards turns to molten gold for a few seconds before sinking to the finite ground.

The other day I took Tristan and Angélique to the bookshop.  Whilst they sat, book in hand, my sharp eye glanced around the displays and shelves and in a few seconds I had found, and grabbed, a treasure: my favourite French Illustrator, Charlotte Gastaut's, latest book, L'Oiseau de Feu, hot off the press.  A talented Illustrator gifts the reader a series of stage designs; the magic of a theatre show without leaving one's home.  This version of Igor Stravinsky's work, written for the 1910 Paris season of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes company, contains the ingredients of a fairy tale; an enchanted garden in which a tree bearing golden apples grows, a wicked sorcerer, a bevy of beautiful girls and a golden bird.  When I leaf through its pages I see bright ornaments, evergreen branches, a clash of colour with a touch of surrealism.  Charlotte Gastaut's distinctively Russian themed illustrations are as rich in colour as a cathedral's stained-glass windows and the découpage heightens the similarity with stage settings.

And today I wore for the first time my new handknitted hat; a beautiful, new pattern by Joji Locatelli fittingly named Lantern Lights.  I loved the idea of being crowned with tiny shining latterns to guide me through the chilly, dark evenings and that is why I picked a skein of Madelinetosh Merino DK in the glowing Candlewick colourway from my yarn stash.

My Raverly notes for my Firebird hat are here.

For those who would like to listen to Stravinsky's The Firebird I have had in my possession for a number of years now this version which I think is quite wonderful.

And, for all you music lovers out there I am sharing three of my birthday gifts today:

Carnets de Voyage by the violinist Nemanja Radulovic (here),
La Belle Excentrique by the Baroque singer Patricia Petibon (here),
 Rameau/Suites Livre III by the pianist Alexander Paley (here).

And now I must leave you as Mickaël and I are off out for the evening to celebrate this special day.  Thank you so much for all your kind and wonderful comments.  I cannot tell you how much I appreciate the fact you take the time and put so much thought into each one.

Happy weekend to you all!


Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Puddle Duck

Puddle Duck.  It's a pretty sweet name, wouldn't you agree?  After last week's creamy rice pudding knitting experience (aka Worsted yarn knitting) I was hungry for more.  I happily chanced upon Melissa Schaschwary's latest pattern on Ravelry, Puddle Duck, and I was hooked.  And then I became rather excited at the thought of knitting it in white and yellow; the colours of Beatrix Potter's Jemima Puddle Duck.  These are simple pleasures, dear friends, and I do not know whether it was that particularly cheery shade of yellow or the style of this sweater but that happy feeling accompanied me during every stitch.  Melissa's pattern though simple nevertheless taught me a few new techniques; the Twisted German Cast On method and Elizabeth Zimmerman's Sewn Bind Off, for example.  I opted also for adding pockets which Angélique finds very handy indeed for storing her neverending collection of stones and leaves.   Finally, the yarn - Madelinetosh Vintage in the Butter colourway - was a joy to use.  I would best describe it as robust and hearty which just shows how sorely lacking I am in knitting terminology!
On Sunday we took the long, winding route (made longer still by a charming-looking elderly man, sporting an orange silk scarf, who was driving a tiny, vintage and bright green car at a very slow speed) to one of my favourite villages, Azay Le Rideau, where we visited its Renaissance château once more.  It is a jewel in the crown of the Loire Valley historical monuments, built between 1518 and 1524, and even the fact that the gardens were closed for renovation did not dampen our spirits.  It is, I am sure you will agree, a delight to observe the children's enthusiasm on such outings.  Tristan was especially thrilled by the beauty of his surroundings and almost cried with disappointment when we finally left.  Therefore I chose to include some of his pictures here to share with you. 
And what a delight it was to capture so many glimpses of yellow through the diamond panes.  I am not certain whether my current craving for all shades of yellow stems from the short-lived beauty of autumn leaves, like detached pieces of sunshine, or perhaps I am instead in search of glowing light as days dwindle with every passing week.  Last night I read Victoria Finlay's chapter, Yellow, in her rich and wonderful book, Colour, and fell upon these words:
"No colour has a neat unambiguous symbolism, but yellow gives some of the most mixed messages of all.  It is the colour of pulsating life - of corn and gold and angelic haloes - and it is also at the same time a colour of bile, and in its sulphurous incarnation it is the colour of the Devil.  In animal life, yellow - especially mixed with black - is a warning. [...]  In Asia yellow is the colour of power - the emperors of China were the only ones allowed to sport sunshine-coloured robes.  But it is also the colour of declining power.  A sallow complexion comes with sickness; the yellow of leaves in autumn not only symbolises their death, it indicates it."
Colour, (Hodder and Stoughton, London: 2002) p.  225.

So, how do you feel about the ambiguous colour yellow?  Which things do you associate with it?  I always think of bees, the crocus and daffodil and lemon tart, of course, and real farmer's eggs with bright yellow yolks.   And cats too, obviously!  For those of you who haven't spotted her on my Madame Millefeuilles pages both here and here I must introduce you to Miss Primrose Kitten below.  I was very nervous indeed about making her for a wonderful lady who breeds pedigree cats in England but I am glad to write that she has found favour with her future mistress.  I have, incidentally, given curious Primrose a tail since this picture was taken when she climbed the old stone wall to admire the lichen and could not get down again!
 Happy week friends!  May your autumn days be filled with golden light.

Stephanie x

ps   For information, I purposefully juxtaposed the two photographs of the rear view of Angélique and the cherub sculpture.  I simply could not resist!

ps My Ravelry notes for Puddle Duck may be found here.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Oak Tree With Fairy Lights

For those of you who are not yarn literate 'Worsted' is the knitter's version of creamy rice pudding and apple crumble; instant gratification and comfort knitting.  In the constant toing and froing of everyday life, with a half-term journey to England with my two youngest children thrown in, I turned my back for a short while on lace-knitting and opted for a delightfully simple and quick pattern by Tin Can Knits, inspired by the mossy rocks and dripping rocks of the Pacific Northwest forests, named Old Growth.  Ever since knitting my Rosewater hat in early spring, also by Tin Can Knits, I've been following her latest patterns with interest.  I like the fact that this cardigan may be knitted for all sizes from newborn to fully grown woman and it looks perfectly lovely on little boys too.
And the yarn?  Oh, the yarn!  Julie Asselin made a batch of speckled yarns, which were sold by Paris's most enchanting tearoom/yarn shop, L'Oisive Thé, and flew off the shelves like hot cakes.  This colourway, 'It's My Party'  though predominantly green has many spots of gentle colour which are as beautiful as the Northern Lights.  Once soaked it becomes soft and squishy and Angélique has not taken it off since.  She particularly likes the fat 1970s pale green buttons.  My Ravelry notes for this cardigan (which I have named Oak Tree With Fairy Lights) are here.
Since our return from England a few days ago there have been brilliant blue skies setting off the yellow vines which,  now stripped of grapes, bask in the sunlight.  This is the colour which surrounds us from all sides.  There is red too. Bushes turning from sienna to scarlet and a few brave red roses enjoying the afternoon warmth like the few remaining butterflies swooping overhead and disappearing against a backdrop of golden leaves.  I think it's important to fill my children's lives with colour when the evenings draw in and Angélique, instinctively, clamours to pick flowers and so we bring confetti-colored zinnias and Brown-Eyed Susans into our home and make small wild flowers posies to grace our often cluttered table.

 I am hoping to write more frequently here over the next weeks.  Before I leave you I would like to share:
This scrumptious recipe which tastes of Autumn.  The children absolutely love it!
The most sublime Parisian perfume shop which recreates 1920s scents.  If you read the descriptions you will understand how much poetry there is in each glass bottle.  Imagine a perfum which conveys the atmosphere of a seventeenth-century abbey or Louis XV's Versailles gardens?  Beware!  They have an online shop.
Finally, this new (to me) garden writer  "Only a freehold will do, because when you plant a tree you want to think of its roots stretching down and down for ever, and its branches reaching up and up for all time, till in the end the blossom mingles with the stars."  Beverley Nichols' charming prose about the love and toil he poured into his ramshackle, eighteenth-century house and gardens will see me through the autumn evenings.

I wish you all a wonderful week full of simple pleasures and a little magic.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

My Marrakech Patchwork - Around The World Blog Hop

Dear readers,
The colourful chaos and mad energy of the Imperial city of Marrakech has made a lasting impression on me.  It held me in the grip of its feverish imagination.  A thousand-year-old carnival with a multitude of soothsayers and storytellers, acrobats and orange juice sellers winding their way through the labyrinth of alleyways in the ancient Medina or settling instead for an evening on the great Jemma el Fna Square, the pulsing heart of the city.  Marrakech is part authentic history book and part storybook filled with bright, bold and intricate illustrations.  Marrakech is also overwhelming, disturbing and at times unpleasant.  And perhaps, that is why it appeals to me; it is a never-ending, exhausting paradox which leaves little room for bland thoughts.  I found in the sights, smells and sounds of Marrakech the definition of Baroque - a pearl of irregular shape - and fell for its innumerable irregular charms.  And yet the heart of Marrakech remains, in a sense, on an elemental level: in its light and earth and water and the importance held for its population scratching a living within its hectic walls.
I left Morocco after three long days both thoughtful and inspired.  On my arrival home I was greeted by a kind message from the very talented Debbie, who blogs over at The Crimson Rabbit, inviting me to participate in the Around The World Blog Hop.  I accepted, of course, and was delighted to learn that Debbie was first and foremost a writer who now fills her days with creating and designing; we really do share some common ground!  So, I will endeavour to answer the four questions about my creativity whilst keeping hold of the inspiration of Marrakech.

 1. What am I working on?
This week Autumn struck with a wet bang after a long, sun-drenched September.  As the rain fell I experienced my first creative 'failure'.  After two years of running my tiny business of creating heirloom toys I completed a hare, Mademoiselle Lavender, who did not make my heart sing.  It was terribly unsettling.  With a loss of confidence in my creative ability, how could I continue to work on the growing list of customer orders?  So, I followed a friend's advice and set my mind to creating something completely different - you will see it just below - and fortunately it has helped blow the cobwebs clean away. 
My memories of Marrakech have become fragmented over the past fortnight; shards of brightly coloured glass.  I am a lover of detail - I hope the pictures of Marrakech above convey this - invariably opting for close-up scrutiny.  On my return to France I noticed that early Autumn was very much like a patchwork of bright colours vying with subdued hues.  Late summer flowers, often boisterous and even gaudy, cohabiting with autumnal fruit hanging heavily from trees.  A kaleidescope of turning leaves outdoing the still green ones.  The paths, made muddy, between endless rows of yellowing vines as grape harvest begins.  And the sunrises growing technicoloured with the promise of  early morning rain.  I wanted to hold onto my memories of our holiday and also perhaps to the vestiges of summer and I decided, somehow, to create a  piece of clothing for Angélique using the simplest patchwork.  Most of the Liberty and batik fabrics I snipped and stitched were remnants of tiny clothes made for hares and mice created over the past two years.

It was painstaking work, a small labour of love of sorts.  I have never before used up so many spools of thread and now my respect for accomplished patchworkers has increased tenfold.  In truth I enjoyed this creative process which comes as no surprise as it is all about detail, isn't it?  And now I can visualise a whole series of these; one for each season, for example.  I have the most stunning snowflake fabric for a winter one...
2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I am sure that many of those who read my blog have noticed that I work according to themes.  As a child Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker fascinated me with its chocolate, coffee and tea dances.  The idea that music could be composed to create a visual image intrigued and inspired me.  A quick glance at past posts will reveal a strong desire to collect thoughts and images around a certain colour or idea.  I am quite incapable of doing things any other way.  I love the fact, for instance, that knitters on Ravelry must give a name to each of their projects.  I always enjoy dreaming up a theme when I am knitting.  A shawl can become a traditional English pudding, a flower or, perhaps, a fairytale character.  Add the delight of colours and choice of fibres and I am halfway to Heaven.

Each of my heirloom toys is created according to a theme.  One will capture the essence of midwinter, another the nostalgia of a summer garden.  I spend hours mulling over colour combinations and how, with embroidery, I can best capture the image I wish to represent; mistletoe for Christmas and tiny violets for spring.  Sometimes I can spend far too much time dithering over choices.  I recall making a Goldilocks rag doll, inspired by one of my favourite French illustrators, Charlotte Gastaut, and spending hours hesitating between embroidered porridge bowls or tiny bears sitting on red chairs.  In the end I chose neither!  I think that my fascination for detail works its way into my creations.

Finally, I will add that the majority of my work is inspired by my love of gardens.

3. Why do I write/create what I do?

As a writer - my specialities are garden and performing arts aesthetics - I attempt, through words, to honour the beauty created by others.  This may seem overly simple but beauty is essential to me.  It is also entirely subjective and yet, I firmly believe, we are all capable of communicating through words, music, and any other art form, our own vision of beauty thereby sharing it with others.  So, the desire to create stems from a need to share our sense of aesthetics.  I'm back again with Tchaikovsky and his ability to create images with music.  For example, one of my thesis chapters, later adapted for a Hortus Magazine article, was centred around Louis XIV's potager gardener, Jean de La Quintinie, in Versailles.  Naturally I touched upon his gardening techniques and accomplishments but I revelled mostly in the poetic language he used to describe the array of apples and pears he cultivated behind those high garden walls in Versailles.  Indeed, his thousand page treatise is simply beautiful to read.  De La Quintinie was able to make the king's garden flourish and well as describing in his own words the aesthetic value of a pear.  He was a most gifted man.

My mother used to remind me as a child of the importance of performing a good deed on a daily basis.  Nowadays I measure my days by how much beauty I have shared with others; even if it is just a freshly baked cake or a bunch of wildflowers! 
4. How does my writing/creative process work?
Whilst in Marrakech we first entered the Souk around midnight on Saturday.  On returning there the following day I was dismayed to find myself experiencing a mild anxiety attack.  For those who have not yet visited Marrakech the Souk is an intricate labyrinth of ramshackle alleys with corrugated iron roofs bursting at the seams with handmade goods, people and at times dubious-looking vehicles and, yes, donkeys too.  It is also of course a retelling of One Thousand And One Nights; a colourful and enchanting experience which quite simply sucks you in.  I was afraid I would never find my way out.  I also have the story my mother recounted of a friend who took his bride decades ago to Marrakech for their honeymoon only to lose her in the Souk.  She was never seen again!
My creative mind is a little like that Souk.  I mostly think in a complex, convoluted manner; straight lines baffle me.  And like the Souk my head is constantly brimming with creativity.  Many of my ideas are large-scale and detailed; that's the thesis writer in me.  If I were happy with straight lines I would probably write lists, but, I don't.  I rarely jot my ideas down either which is quite odd for a writer. I do possess a plethora of beautiful notebooks, many of which are filled with scribbled garden history research notes, and I do hope that some day soon I will set down in words my creative thoughts.  I don't write them down because as a mother of three my time is always limited and so I prefer to spend it simply creating. 

Whilst my project ideas remain in my head rather than on paper I approach them with the same meticulous planning I used to organise my lessons during my seventeen years of teaching; the same applies to my blog posts.  However, like the majority of teachers, I know that some of the best lessons are created spontaneously.  I love that element of surprise despite the fact that a graphologist in Paris once told me that I was wary of the unexpected!

We live in a fairly small home which is ideal in the sense that my working inspiration - my books, yarn, threads and fabric - surround me constantly giving me the visual stimulation I require for thinking up new projects.  So, in short, my working process happens in my head whilst the children natter to me and whilst I organise our daily lives.  I think that makes me very similar to a lot of other mothers, don't you?

Finally, I always work on one creative project at the time in a dogged fashion - I'm not good at multitasking - and I always relish long stretches of quiet time during which I work meticulously and also try out new techniques.

Now, I must choose three other ladies who inspire me creatively to join in the Around The World Blog Hop although there is absolutely no pressure ladies, please!

Lori at Lori Times Five
Amélie at Bateaux de papier: a Diary for Elsa
Susan over at Mary Jane's Tearoom

Thank you, as always, for taking the time to visit me here.  I appreciate every single comment and mail I receive so very much.  Thank you also for bearing with me today.  I'm not terribly good at writing about myself but it was a honour to be invited by Debbie.

Marrakech photo credits: Céline Haudebourg, one of our dear travelling companions who designs the most exquisite bridal gowns and, like myself, is a lover of detail.  I leave you with one last picture:
Guess who?
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