Thursday, March 12, 2015

Things, stuff, collections

I'm travelling again. At present I'm in London where a house swap has provided me with a month's stay in a very swish apartment in Royal Docks. I like to travel because I like the glimpses it gives of other ways of living; other ways of constructing the everyday. Things, stuff, collections, what is more formally defined as material culture, are wonderful illustrations of ways of living. There are certain museums I like because they provide these kinds of insights into people's lives. I've been lucky enough to find some of them on this visit.

The Geffrye Museum in London's rapidly gentrifying east end, is one such treasure.

Geffrye Museum exterior

It's a simple, but very lovely 18th century building that was built as an almshouse. It's quite narrow as it originally was a series of independent dwellings - like a long terrace. But now all the interiors have been joined together so there's an enfilade through the building with a series of rooms opening off the hall.

Geffrye Museum interior

And the 'rooms' are just that - reconstructed living rooms that provide glimpses of how the 'middling sort' (the middle classes) lived from Tudor times to the late twentieth century:

Geffrye Museum 1790sGeffrye 1930s

The rooms above are representative of the late eighteenth century and the 1930s. As I child, I grew up with a living room in the style of the 1930s room above, even though it was the 1950s. Perhaps that says something about 'style' in Australia? I still use my parents' living room chairs from that period, though they've been reupholstered several times. Unlike many of the better-known museums the Geffrye had relatively few visitors other than a couple of school groups, so I could linger and wonder over the exhibits.

I also visited the museum exhibition that must thrill the heart of every collector or hoarder:

Magnificent Obsessions

This exhibition, of artists' collections of objects, was fascinating. The great temptation is to believe that the objects give you insights to the artists' work. I can't help but wonder just how these collections are stored and displayed in people's houses. Who dusts them? Are they regularly rearranged? Are they cataloged? Are they loved, or is the thrill in their acquisition? The exhibition raises lots of interesting questions - most centrally, when does 'stuff' become 'art'? Some of the collections, like that of Hanne Darboven, are wonderfully random, with objects of different kinds and different sizes crammed together. Others, like Sol Le Witt's collection of photographs are precisely ordered and displayed. Still others have a double level of obsession where one artist, Danh Vo, has curated, ordered and displayed the collection of another artist, Martin Wong:

Mag Obs Wong

Possibly my favourite of the many wonderful collections was Pae White's collection of scarves by prolific mid-twentieth century fabric designer Vera Neumann.

Mag Obs scarves

I'm not sure what engaged me most - the extraordinary range of Neumann's scarf designs or Pae White's persistence in finding and gathering the scarves. Either way, I can't help being fascinated by such obsessiveness.

It's not a museum in the usual sense, but I imagine Kew Gardens must be one of the world's best collections of plants. Wikipedia tells me it is the world's largest collection of living plants. There are thousands upon thousands of species of trees and plants which (at least to me) reflect Britain's history of travel, exploration and colonisation. The beautiful Palm House with its specimens from many more tropical countries is a particular example of collecting and curating:

Kew Gardens palm house

The gardens also reflect the British obsession with gardening and landscaping. We were a month too early for the renowned display of bluebells, and just a couple of weeks too early for the grand display of daffodils, though some early bloomings were a sign of the splendour to come:

Kew Gardens folly and daffodils

However, we were just in time for the display of crocuses and the occasional quiet snowdrops:

Kew Gardens crocuses
Kew Gardens snowdrops

Now I think about it, being a tourist is just another form of collecting, and museums are convenient ways of curating experiences for tourists - though of course they have other functions. I'll continue to blog about the experiences I collect - though I'm only too aware that I have been a much less dutiful travel blogger on this trip than I have been previously.

Saturday, January 24, 2015


I often wonder about the need so many of us have to document our lives in some way. On the top shelf of a cupboard I have a box of unsorted photos that I kept when my mother's house was packed away after her death. Many of the people in the photos are no longer identifiable, but I am reluctant to throw them away. Next to the photos is a smaller box of diaries that were kept (in a most minimal way) by my grandfather between the nineteen thirties and fifties. Then there are fragments of family history compiled by cousins and more distant relatives over many years. I think my own persistence in blogging, in the face of waning enthusiasm for blogging as a medium of social communication, is just another variation on this need to record; to document.

Sometime last year I began using instagram. I'm not really an early adopter of new forms of social media. I usually join in rather reluctantly because increasingly they are the best way of keeping up with friends and family. But I've taken to instagram with some pleasure. I like taking photographs, though I hate lugging around a heavy and conspicuous camera. As instagram relies on smart phone photos I can be forgiven the not-so-great quality of my images. At the beginning of the year I had the idea of posting an instagram image each day across the year. I think I had an idea that this might capture the nature of my daily life; that over the year it would become an aide memoire to reflecting on my experiences and concerns.

By January 23 and I'd posted 22 images. Early in the month, before I'd really established the picture-taking habit, I seem to have missed a day. Never mind. Already, I can't help classifying the posts to see what they say about my life. There are posts about Sydney (top left is the Queen Victoria Building). I first came to Sydney in the early 1960s, before the advent of shopping malls in the suburbs. The city centre was where I shopped for everything except food, and this is a habit I've never broken. I shop in the city for clothes, for books, for gifts. I often go to the movies and concerts in the city and I meet people there to catch up. Of course, all this is possible because I'm only a 5 minute train ride from the city centre. I love Sydney and I love keeping a photographic record of the bits of it that I frequent.

Sydney QVBEveleigh windowWatertower gardenKnitting - grey jumper

Then there are images of my neighbourhood - of Redfern, and other surrounding areas (top right is a window in the old locomotive workshop at Eveleigh that's next door to where I live). Redfern's an old suburb and is now a mixture of old industrial sites that have been 'repurposed', public housing, new apartment buildings and old terrace houses. There's lots of visual interest. This is where I live my daily life, buying milk and bread, going to the doctor, having cups of coffee, taking daily walks and visiting some of the lovely old parks in the area.

Some days I spend at home. I enjoy my small apartment and the furniture and objects that I've accumulated over time. I've now lived in the same apartment block for nearly thirty years and am part of the small community of my neighbours with our shared concerns. (The flowers bottom left are from our communal garden which kind neighbours tend).

And, of course, there's my knitting.

I imagine that my city, my neighbourhood, my home and my knitting will be the subjects of my instagram record of the year. So far I'm enjoying the small project of visually documenting my days...and I think I'll enjoy looking back on a year of images when the year ends.

If you wish, you can follow me on instagram where I'm smark31.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Knitting 2014

I'm running rather late with my knitting round-up for 2015. I finished fourteen projects in 2015 - perhaps fifteen if you count the Honey Cowl that I've not yet figured out how to block. This is an increase over 2013 when I only managed to complete eleven projects, though I think there were more large pieces of knitting in 2013 than in 2014. I've decided to continue my tradition of awarding my projects prizes in various categories as it's a fun way of reviewing just what I've achieved.

First, the prize for the project of which I'm most proud. Hmmm. This one's difficult, so I've decided to award it jointly to the four hats I knitted to experiment with fair isle colour and motif combinations.

I've really enjoyed playing around with fair isle knitting. Thank you Mary Jane Mucklestone for both your personal inspiration and the book '200 Fair Isle Motifs'. I'm now a bit loaded down with hats and I'm wondering what other garments or objects I can use for playing around with fair isle - maybe wrist or arm coverings? Maybe cushion covers?

Then there's the prize for the project most favourited on Ravelry. There was a clear winner in this category - my Copenhagen shawl:

The shawl was knitted to Melanie Berg's Ashburn pattern using Geilsk Tynd Uld (thin wool) in toning grey and pink colours. Two skeins of the yarn were a generous gift from Bente Geil, the designer of the Geilsk yarn during my visit to Copenhagen in August last year. I think the drape and texture of this shawl shows just how suitable the 'sticky' Scandinavian yarns are for shawl knitting.

The prize for the most frequently worn project is also easily awarded. It goes to my Saffron Hap:

This is Kate Davies' pattern, A Hap for Harriet. I love everything about this shawl that's really a wonderfully drapey scarf. I knitted it from Cascade laceweight Forest Hills yarn that's a mixture of merino wool and silk. It weighs almost nothing but is warm when needed. I particularly like the colour and frequently declared when wearing it that yellow is the new neutral as it seems to go with everything (well, it looks great with grey and black which is mostly what I wear in winter).

And finally there's the prize for the project that was the most fun to knit. This is more difficult, as I think my fair isle hats are also a contender for this category. But in the interests of being generous to my knitting I'll award it to the Unmatched Mitts:

These were fun because they were quick and unproblematic and because knitting with Noro yarn is always fun. I have a self-imposed Noro rule which is to knit with it however the colours fall, even if I've been unlucky enough to have bought one of those problematic balls of yarn that reverse the colour sequence as you're knitting. In this case, sticking with the colour sequence resulted in a completely unmatched pair of mitts. Fun! I didn't really need a pattern for this knit but I used Best Friends Mitts by Sandra Ruppert as a guide.

If I were feeling optimistic I could judge it a relatively successful year of knitting. But if I look back exactly one year to a similar blog post from January 2014 I have to admit that I've not been very diligent about achieving the goals I set then. I wrote:

Of course I want to be more productive - what knitter doesn't? I think the best way of achieving this is to finish some of the part-completed relatively major projects, so that's my first goal. Then, a practical goal. I want to knit another go-to cardigan for my grand-daughter. And finally, I want to face up to the unadventurousness of my knitting and learn some new techniques and challenge myself.

Completing some part-completed major projects? Fail
Knitting a cardigan for my grand-daughter? Fail
Learning new techniques? Probably, given my experimentation with colour-work.

Maximum achievement, one out of three. This year I'm not going to declare any goals...though my grand-daughter still needs another cardigan.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Reading cooking

I read a lot. There's no particular virtue in this. I grew up in a small Australian country town before television arrived and listening to the radio and reading were my entertainment and my escape from the everyday. I read through the children's section of the local library and at around 12 was allowed to borrow from the adult library, under the censoring eye of Mrs Cooke, the librarian. Even so, my tastes were distinctly lowbrow. I'm not at all sure that the library held the great classics of literature; if it did, I never discovered them. I remember reading Frances Parkinson Keyes, Elizabeth Gouge, Georgette Heyer; writers whose books I've not seen for years. It was only in my last year of high school that an enlightened teacher introduced me to Jane Austen, Dickens and EM Forster, and then university study had me devouring the great nineteenth century novels. Even so, my main purpose in reading was enjoyment and, mostly, escape. I can remember a very distinguished professor of literature once telling me that I had excellent taste in second rate novels. Even today you can tell that I'm stressed or in need of solace when I'm rereading Anthony Trollope or Margaret Oliphant.

I still read for pleasure and escape. For some reason I've recently been rereading quite a bit. Partly this is because of a slight guilt I feel at spending so much on books (even frequently purchased Kindle books mount up over time) and partly it's because I read so much and with such distracted attention that I often forget the detail - or even the overall narrative - of what I read. When I was helping to pack my daughter's books for her house moving I came across an old copy (originally mine!) of Nora Ephron's 'Heartburn' and galloped through it. Read this book if you haven't already done so. It's a fictionalised account of Ephron's bitter marriage break up with Carl Bernstein of Bernstein and Woodward Watergate fame, and it's larded with comfort food recipes that have butter as a significant ingredient. (Ephron once said in an interview 'You can never have too much butter – that is my belief. If I have a religion, that's it') While there's some bitterness, it's laugh-out-loud funny and ultimately life-affirming (as we used to say in english literature tutorials in the 1960s).

For no particular reason I then reread Lisa Chaney's biography, 'Elizabeth David'. I suspect every Australian woman who moved out of home and began cooking in the 1950s or 60s has a Penguin edition of at least one of Elizabeth David's cookbooks stashed somewhere. I grew up with the then-accepted Australian diet of plainly cooked meat and veg, and a vast array of cakes, biscuits, slices, and everyday desserts. Elizabeth David's books came at just the right time for me, when hitherto unknown vegetables such as zucchini and eggplant were available in greengrocers' shops, and modest Italian restaurants were almost within reach of a student's budget. Elizabeth David was a pernickety perfectionist who became even more difficult as she aged, but her recipes, her evocative writing style, and more importantly, her insistence that good, local, fresh food was within any cook's reach, revolutionised many people's approach to food.

Cooking books

More than a decade after Elizabeth David's first books, Julia Child published her voluminous 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking'. Julia Child has recently had a resurgence of recognition through Julie Powell's 'Julie and Julia' and the same-named film starring the wonderful Meryl Streep. I raced through my rereading of 'Julie and Julia'. Fun, fun, fun. Julia Child, by the way, shares Nora Ephron's love affair with butter - such a guilty pleasure nowadays. It's interesting to compare Elizabeth David and Julia Child. The similarities are obvious in that they shared the desire to place fine food and good cooking within the reach of the everyday cook. But they do this in very different ways. Julia Child's recipes are painstaking - every step is outlined and every difficulty anticipated. Elizabeth David, on the other hand, is more interested in inspiring her readers by evoking the traditions and spirit of the recipe. She encourages you to improvise and above all, to sacrifice all to freshness and seasonality.

I feel much more at home with Elizabeth David than Julia Child, though there are recipes from both that are still very much part of my go-to cooking repertoire.

After all this cooking reading I was inspired to bake. This happens infrequently nowadays. I had some peaches that were nearing the end of their usefulness and I remembered a recipe for peach pie in 'Heartburn'. But my copy of 'Heartburn' has disappeared again - I expect recaptured by my daughter. I retreated to one of those recipes I've made so many times that it is foolproof. It came to me from my old friend Erika as an apple cake recipe, though I never knew her to make it with apples; I've eaten her cake with apricots, berries, plums (yum), but not apples. I've made it with apples many times and it's great, but I thought it would also be good with peaches. It was. So, in the spirit of Nora Ephron's recipe-laced prose I offer you...

Erika's Apple (or Peach) Cake.

120g butter
100g sugar (white or natural - whichever you prefer)
3 eggs
1 teasp vanilla
200g self-raising flour (I've used white flour, but 50/50 wholemeal and white is also good)
2 apples, quartered (or 2-3 peaches or plums, or whatever)
3 tabs milk
1 tablespoon extra sugar

Beat sugar and butter till well-incorporated. Add eggs one at a time, while beating. Add vanilla. Fold in sifted flour, roughly a third at a time, alternating with milk. Place mixture in greased cake tin and press in quartered or chunkily cut fruit. Sprinkle with extra sugar (and cinnamon if using apples). Bake in preheated 175 celsius oven for around 35 minutes. The cake is fine by itself, or good served with cream or sour cream.

If you are feeling energetic, you can make a crumble of roughly mixed butter, flour and brown sugar to sprinkle on top of the cake before baking.

Peach cake

This is what my mother would have called a 'plain cake' - one to be served everyday to family or farm-workers, but not the kind of cake you make if you wish to impress someone with your baking!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Colours, and more colours

I have been knitting lately; though perhaps not as much or as productively as I would wish. One of my knitting hopes for 2014 was to do more colour-work, and classes with Mary Jane Mucklestone on my transatlantic knitting cruise added both to my enthusiasm and my technique in approaching fair isle knitting. So, I've been knitting hats:

Four hats

Hats are a perfect project for practicing colour-work. They can be knitted in the round, which is almost compulsory for colour-work. Then, they're just the right size to see if a fair isle pattern works well, but they're not so big that it's a major disaster if the colours or the motif mix don't work too well. I'd bought some 'sticky' fingering weight yarns in a mixture of colours during my visit to the USA - some Harrisville Designs Shetland and some Elemental Affects Shetland Fingering, so I was able to begin by playing around with possible colour combinations. In her classes Mary Jane had given excellent advice on combining and balancing light and dark colours in fair isle knitting, but I found the advice unexpectedly difficult to implement. One of the things I've always taken for granted in my knitting is a capacity to choose and combine colours, so I was unprepared for the amount of experimentation needed to find satisfactory combinations. One thing I think I learned at this stage is that you can never have too many different coloured yarns for fair isle knitting as quite minimal variations in hue can make a significant difference.

I began with the Shwook hat - a pattern from the admired Shetland knitter, Hazel Tindall.

Schwook hat on ACSchwook hat close-up

The colours for this hat worked well, but on reflection I thought I had played a bit too safe, and so began another hat. This time I used the basic pattern for the smallest size of the Shwook hat but decorated it with two of the motifs from Mary Jane Mucklestone's '200 Fair Isle Motifs: A Knitter's Directory'. I used one of my favourite colour combinations - yellow and blue. My fair isle pattern designing skills are not yet sufficiently developed to invent a pattern for the crown of the hat, so I've repeated Hazel Tindall's design.

Yellow and blue hat on AMYellow and blue hay top

I tried Kyukker, another of Hazel Tindall's hat patterns because I liked its busyness, and was also attracted by the way that a deceptively floral motif had been devised from the squared-off grid that's the starting point for all fair isle. This time the colours didn't work quite so well as the yellow is too bright for the more subtle mauve and blues of most of the hat. I hope I'm learning a bit more about colour combining with each attempt.

Kyukker hat 3Kyukker hat 2

By this stage I was feeling limited by the limited colour palette of my initial yarn purchases and so ordered more yarn, including the lovely rosey colour that was the basis for my next hat. This time I used the idea of Brooklyn Tweed's Turn a Square hat, adapted the pattern for fingering weight yarn and then combined some more of the traditional fair isle motifs from Mary Jane's wonderful book.

Rosey hat on AMRosey hat square top

I think I had some vague memory of a Kaffe Fasset hat that combined stripes and florals (or maybe I've invented that recollection) and so striped the crown after completing the fair isle body of the hat. I'm not sure the combination has quite worked, but I think there is a good idea in there somewhere.

Now my problem is what to do with all these hats. My grand-daughter, whom I persuaded to model a couple of them (reluctantly) says they're 'too prickly'. Hmmm. I've offered them to my daughter as last-minute gifts, but she's said, most reasonably, that you can't give someone a warm hat in the heat of a Sydney summer. Maybe I'll just put them away till cooler weather comes and then think again.

Four hats vertical

Friday, December 19, 2014

Bye-bye Brisbane

Brisbane view

I've just returned from what will probably be my last visit to Brisbane for some time. My daughter and grand-daughter, who have been in Brisbane for nearly seven years, are returning to Sydney, so I'll have no reason for visiting as regularly as I have over those seven years. There are things I've grown to like about Brisbane. Particularly when I've visited in winter, the old tourism slogan of 'beautiful one day, perfect the next' has seemed to describe the bright blue skies, the pollution-free air, the meandering river and the almost tropical landscape with its profusion of flowering trees and bushes. Summer, of course, is a different matter with its heat and humidity. Urgh!

There are two things I'll particularly miss about Brisbane. One is the Tangled Yarns store with its interesting range of yarns, its bright, welcoming space, and its colourful displays. I wrote about my admiration for this store earlier this year. But even if I were continuing to visit Brisbane, this pleasure would no longer be available because the store is, sadly, closing. It will be greatly missed.

I'm also an avid fan of the gallery complex at Brisbane's South Bank so I took a break from helping with house packing up to visit the latest exhibition at the wonderful Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) - 'Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion'.

QAG entrance

Visitors are not permitted to photograph the items in this exhibition, but the advertisement on the Gallery site gives an impression of the more outrageous designs. What it doesn't really show, however, are the items I found most inspirational; the folded, sculptural, deceptively simple shapes that so revolutionised fashion in the 70s and 80s. There has been some rather critical discussion recently of the phenomenon of displaying 'fashion' in art galleries. But it's a move that has been undeniably popular and has opened galleries to a wider range of people. In the case of this particular exhibition I think it's also not just about what is 'fashionable' but about notions of the body and how it is presented and perceived. It explores how two-dimensional designs can be translated to the unpredictably three dimensional and mobile human form.

I found this special exhibition both thought-provoking and beautiful, but I was equally engaged by a number of the Gallery's own exhibits as I meandered through the lovely (cool) spaces of the Queensland Art Gallery on my way back to the bus stop. There is a shimmering colonnade that on closer inspection is composed of VHS tape.

QAG Kempinas columns

The information on the work noted that the Lithuanian artist, Zilvinas Kempinas 'is interested in the way that magnetic videotape holds images of the past, but these will soon no longer be viewable. Rather than its promise of progress, technology often reveals instead dead-ends and monumental failures'. As someone who constantly worries about what will happen in the future to the images and other documentation I now have stored on today's technology, this was a poignant reminder of the probably inevitable transience of the records of our lives.

The walls of the main entrance space of the Gallery are currently elegantly hung with dance masks and zugub (dance machines) from the Torres Strait Islands:

QAG George Nona
QAG Patrick Thaiday Zugub

One of the things I've admired across my many visits to the GOMA and QAG is their commitment to exhibiting art from the Torres Strait Islands, and the Pacific more generally. Sydney is a very multicultural city and when here I'm conscious, in many different ways, of our location in Asia. But Brisbane reminds me much more immediately of our Pacific connection. Maybe it's the climate, and the visibility of Pacific Islanders within the community, but for me these relationships have been reinforced by the galleries and their collections.

And finally, just before I exited the Gallery, I was distracted by the ceramic collection and its current display of works by Australian potter Gwyn Hanssen Pigott.

QAG pots
Gwyn Hanssen Pigott

I just stand in front of these works and sigh with pleasure. They are perfection. Each of the pots is perfect in itself, but placed together each of the shapes increases the perfection of the others. They remind me of Alberto Morandi's paintings, which also make me sigh with pleasure.

It's not often that you have the opportunity to get to know another city reasonably well through informal visits over some years, when there's no pressure to see as much as possible in limited time, but I've had this opportunity with Brisbane. But for now, bye-bye Brisbane.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Summer knitting?

Oooof! Yesterday we had 33 degree heat (94 fahrenheit) and 93% humidity - and in the afternoon a thunder storm and downpour of rain where flooded streets were unable to cope with the sudden deluge. Today's predicted to be more of the same. February weather in December. And this comes after the hottest Sydney November on record. Climate change, anybody? So it seems a bit perverse to be blogging about a winter shawl that I've finally managed to block. But knitters will not be surprised by this unseasonable behavior; we know knitting's not a seasonal activity.

Copenhagen scarf

This is such a great pattern. It's Ashburn by designer Melanie Berg and combines some of my habitually loved elements - garter stitch and stripes - with blocks of colour, some unexpected textured stitching, and a single picot edge.

Copenhagen scarf picot edge

I notice from Ravelry that many of the knitters who've completed Ashburn have chosen to do so in bright colours, and it looks wonderful done this way. But I had yarn where the colours melded into one another, and I think it also looks good in this more tonal variation.

Copenhagen scarf 2

I wanted continue my fascination with 'sticky' yarns that are so much a part of knitting in Scandinavia and so I used the Geilsk Yarn that I'd acquired in Copenhagen. Two of the skeins were a generous gift from designer Bente Geil who uses New Zealand wool processed in Denmark for her own range of yarns. The shawl has softened with soaking and blocked beautifully.

At the moment I can imagine few things worse than wearing a woolly shawl. It will need to be carefully stored away for quite a few months. But I know I'll enjoy it next winter....or maybe I could plan some northern hemisphere travel to escape this weather?