Sunday, 26 October 2014


Warning - picture-heavy post alert!

Mum and I are both fans of Donna Leon's Commissario Brunetti crime novels, set in and around Venice. I've been to Venice many times but Mum had never been, so when a couple of months ago I asked her if she'd like to visit the city, I had barely got the question out before she said yes.

Mum's also a big opera fan, so the Fenice (Phoenix) opera house seems a good place to start, especially as it is the scene of the crime in the first Brunetti novel; Death At La Fenice.

The fairly plain exterior doesn't give much of a hint of what's inside. Apart from the stalls, the entire auditorium consists of identical boxes in four tiers.

The whole thing is topped off with an elaborately painted ceiling, with a massive chandelier at its centre.

I must admit that we didn't spend a lot of time looking at the main sights of St Mark's Square, partly because it was so busy, but we did take a few photographs to show to Dad when we got back. The front of the basilica is currently being restored (there is always restoration work going on in somewhere in Venice, as it fights its constant battle against the effects of so much water and salt), so a picture of the full frontage wasn't possible. Instead we made do with the parts which are visible.

The jumble of domes, arches, figures and marble that is San Marco

Byzantine mosaic and carving in a niche on the basilica front

The Doge's Palace

The clock tower and astronomical clock

We escaped the crowds and headed off to see one of my favourite buildings in Venice. Tucked away in a tiny courtyard down an unassuming side street is the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo. "Bolovo" is the Venetian word for snail, and with its curling external staircase it's easy to see how the palazzo acquired its name.

I always feel with Venice that you don't need to spend a lot of time visiting the 'sights'; just watching everyday life in a city which is built on water is endlessly fascinating. Mum admitted that she found it a bit disconcerting at first, but she soon got used to it. Everything which would normally be done by road, is done on canals. Deliveries of everything, from building supplies to fire extinguishers, are done by boat.

Police 'cars', fire 'engines' and ambulances are all boats.

Petrol stations serve boats, not cars.

Parts of the 'road' are closed off for building work.

Buses (bottom left) and taxis (the small white vessel in the centre) are boats.

Shops spill out of their buildings onto boats, like this extension of a tiny fruit and veg stall.

And the few things which can't be done by boat are put onto pontoons and towed into place, like these cement mixers!

Even mundane activities are housed in amazing buildings. I can't imagine that many places have a hospital which looks like this.

And while a fish market wouldn't normally be worth visiting for its architecture, the Pescheria certainly is.

Each of the pillar capitals has different, fish-related carving. I must admit that I don't know my haddock from my flounder, but I'm told that if you do, you can recognize the different species.

When you see all these buildings, it's hard to believe that they are not built on solid ground. Instead they are built on millions of long wooden piles, packed closely together and driven through the soft silt into the layer of firm clay far beneath. However the angle of some of the many bell towers does remind you that all is not quite as solid as it seems.

One day we visited some of the other islands in the lagoon. Originally Venetian glass was made in the city itself, but the fire risk posed by all the furnaces was so great that in the thirteenth century all glass manufacture was moved to the nearby island of Murano.

While Murano looks like a mini Venice, Burano, which is further north, looks very different. It's predominantly a fishing port, and the houses are all painted in bright colours - allegedly to help drunken fisherman find their own home after a night out!

Burano is also the home of Venetian lace, which is worth a post of its own, so here I'll just include a picture of the lace museum.

As well as glass and lace, Venice is known for its carnival, and of course its masks. Many of the masks on sale now have been made in China, but there do remain some mask shops which make their own, in the traditional way. Ca' Del Sol is one of my favourites.

The number over the door, 4964, is actually the house number! Venice is split into six districts, called sestieri (literally "sixth"), and within each sestiero the house number starts at one and just keeps going. In theory there should be six houses in the city with the number one, but so far I've only been able to find one of them.

Whenever I visit Venice, I'm always struck afresh by the fact that it's essentially a middle-eastern city, in Europe. This isn't surprising really; the city's wealth came from trade with the east. When I visited Morocco with the Ya Raqs girls some years ago, the old parts of Marrakesh really reminded me of Venice.

Doorways in Marrakesh (left) and Venice (right)

All around Venice you find figures in turbans, even one with a camel!

Despite my best efforts, there are a couple of pictures which I've not managed to fit into the narrative of our trip. They are the squero (gondola boatyard) at San Trovaso.

One of a handful of parapet-less bridges remaining in the city: originally they were all like this!

And a building with an amazing collection of windows and shutters.

Finally, I did promise you something sewing-related. Not far from the Accademia bridge is a wonderful shop called Il Pavone (The Peacock). It sells paper and textile products printed with designs based on Venice.

The notepaper block I use in my workroom came from there.

As did the tie Mr Tulip wore for our wedding.

As well as printed products they sell rubber stamps, including stamps for bookplates. I have a smallish reasonable large-and-still-growing collection of sewing books, and I'd been thinking for a while that it would be nice to put bookplates in them. In Il Pavone I found the perfect design, and they even put my initials into it!

A lady busy at work at her sewing machine. What could be better?

Thursday, 23 October 2014


2014 is the University of Chester’s 175th anniversary, and to mark this event a group of quilters have been making a commemorative quilt. The quilt consists of 25 blocks, each reflecting aspects of life at the University of Chester, both now and in its past. You can read more about the quilt here.

Now normally when reading any article about quilts, or about any form of needle art, my attention would be focused firmly on the sewing. However when reading the blog post I was completely distracted by this amazing sewing box cake, made by the university's catering department. Even the cotton reels, scissors and buttons are edible!

The only problem is, I can't imagine how they could bear to cut it!

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Happy holidays

I've been away on my hols for a week, with Mum. I'm only just back, and it's a bit late to start a long post all about where we've been, but here are a few clues.

Alright, so that one's not a lot of help! Try again.

It's a place with a lot of spectacular old buildings . . .

And a lot of water . . .

The language in this picture should give you a clue . . .

OK, I'll make it really easy . . .

Water, gondolas, Italy - yes, we've been to Venice.

More details (including a sewing-related purchase) next week.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Winter wardrobe planning

We’ve been lucky enough to have a very warm autumn this year; just a week ago I was sitting outdoors in a short-sleeved dress, and feeling perfectly comfortable. However the weather has finally taken a turn for the cooler, and it’s time to start thinking about some new winter clothes for work.

My plans to do this last autumn were totally disrupted by circumstances. Now I find that I really, really don’t want to wear black (my work clothes are almost all black or navy), so I have more incentive than ever to crack on. I work in a large, well-heated office, so my clothes don’t need to be especially warm and toasty; just making things with linings should be enough.

First up is New Look 6184, view D.

Now on the face of it a sleeveless dress is not remotely suitable for a winter wear, but I have A Plan. I use New Look patterns a lot; I like their style, and they only require a simple bodice alteration to fit me perfectly. (They do tend to be a bit short in the skirt, but that’s easy to fix.) So I’m confident that I’ll be able to frankenpattern some sleeves from one of my other New Look patterns.

This is the fabric I’ll be using. I bought it from Fabrix, a wonderful fabric shop in Lancaster which Mum and I visited on our trip to Morecambe in July.

Yes, it does have a certain amount of black in it. What can I say, old habits die hard! But I love the way that the blue flowers really pop out from the background.

My second dress is New Look 6070, in the longer-sleeved version. In fact, all of my plans are for dresses; I am firmly a ‘dress girl'. Part of this is practicality; I’m really not at my best first thing in the morning, and anything which halves the what-to-wear dilemma is to be welcomed with open arms!

The fabric for this one is a John Kaldor crepe, also from Fabrix. John Kaldor fabrics are not the cheapest, but you definitely get what you pay for. They never need ironing (yay!) and seem to go forever without showing the slightest signs of wear.

The next two dresses in my plan use the fabric I bought from Watson and Thornton on the recent Shrewsbury trip. Both of the patterns are Vintage Vogue, for a reason. I didn’t have any pattern details on me, and Vogue was the only pattern book I could find with full yardage requirements included, so it was a case of searching for patterns which I knew I had at home, and making a note of the amounts needed.

This fabric clearly needs an unfussy dress, in order to show off the striking design.

Vogue 8875 fits the bill nicely.

One review I’ve since read online said that the sleeves were tricky to do. However when I read the instructions I discovered that they use the same technique as my Vegas Night dress, so I can always refer back to my notes if I get stuck.

Incidentally, while looking online for an image of the pattern envelope I found this.

It’s interesting to see how closely the illustrator for the re-issue followed the original artwork.

Vogue 8850 requires a fabric which is the same front and back, as the underside may be visible on the skirt drape. This lovely rich red rayon should be ideal.

Dresses I am reasonably confident with making, but I’ve set myself a challenge. Way, way back, when I was in my 20s and more inclined to just have a go at things, I made a coat. I loved the end result, but I’ve never made another. However the impossibility of buying a coat which fits me properly has inspired me to have another go. I’d got the pattern, Vogue 1266, but was struggling to find fabric. Suiting was easy to get, coating far less so.

However at Watson and Thornton I found myself spoiled for coating choice. I kept coming back to this subtly patterned wool mix, and there was just enough on the roll for me to make up one of the double-breasted versions. Actually, Vogue patterns are always too long on me, so I’ll probably have more than enough. In Lancaster Mum and I had found a wonderful haberdashery called Hester’s, with a mind-boggling selection of buttons. I’d bought these grey ones with no idea what to use them for, I just really liked them. And guess what? They’re the perfect size for the coat, and I bought the right number!

So all in all, I’m definitely not short of things to do!