Estonian Lace Scarf

I finished a recent knitting project: a scarf. It’s blazing hot right now, so hot that I completed the last of the knitting with my hands directly in front of the fan (it’s impossible to knit with sweaty hands), so this will probably not get an inaugural wearing until cooler weather.

IMG_1707This was made from one skein of yarn, which I bought in York on the day of my PhD viva as a celebratory purchase. It’s definitely the nicest and most expensive yarn I’ve ever worked with, a merino/silk blend locally hand-dyed. And ooh! It was worth every penny. Like most knitters, I learned to knit with inexpensive acrylic yarn from the craft store, but since branching out into good wools I see what I was missing. This wool also has a smell, which I didn’t notice while I was knitting, but when I tried the finished product around my neck, I realised that it has a sweet, sheepy, haybale scent.

I did try my hand at designing a lace pattern to knit with this, but decided I just don’t have enough experience yet to design a knitting pattern except by random trial and error, so I decided on a hybrid approach, taking stitch patterns from a book but planning the layout myself. Both designs are Estonian, from a book called Knitted Lace of Estonia, the two ends comprised of a lace edging pattern and the main part a design called ‘ligonbery’. So I feel that the overall result is unique, even if the actual stitch patterns aren’t my own.

IMG_1712This project was also my travelling project for our recent holiday. Now that knitting is licit on planes again (it wasn’t for a while after 9/11), I like to travel with a new project. And I felt the pale green-blue, with its variegated shades, and the undulating lines of the lace pattern perfectly reflected the colour of the sea in the shallows.

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Getting Things Done: Reviewing

It’s been a while since I started a series of posts based on the book Getting Things Done, but I never actually completed all of the steps outlined in the book. Or, I should say, I never wrote about them all. I got this far:

Collecting
Processing
Organising

And, in fact, I would say that what I implemented in those steps has stuck, for more than  year now. Our file system has been maintained, the household inbox still exists and serves the same function, and I do periodic collections of stray items around the house and try to feed them into the system. I definitely feel more on top of things.

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Not pretty, but still functioning!

However, there was a fourth step that I never really got a handle on: reviewing. In the book, Allen describes reviewing as the process of looking over your whole organisational system in order to ensure it is up to date, refresh your memory on the status of certain projects, and see what you need to do next. You should review the whole system regularly, he suggests weekly. It’s quite clear that reviewing is a major lynchpin in the success of organisation. I would add, too, that regardless of whether you follow the Getting Things Done procedure exactly, no system will work without some kind of of reviewing. If you don’t update your lists, your calendar, or check them regularly, they won’t work because they won’t be kept current.

But frankly, reviewing is also the least interesting part of organisation. I think most people, myself included, will acknowledge that the initial gathering up of a load of clutter (physical and mental), sorting through it, and slotting it into a comprehensive system is very satisfying. But maintaining that system doesn’t have the same cathartic release as a major overhaul. Hence why I often get lackadaisical about reviewing.

However, I decided that I need to make it part of my weekly routine to review my system. For me, Monday mornings are ideal, because I start work (at my job) slightly later and thus have an odd hour, first thing. I thought to myself - I hate the idea of reviewing because it sounds stressful, but if I only have an hour, I can only spend an hour. No risk of an entire morning being sucked away in this horrific task.

So:

  • I made a pot of coffee.
  • I made a review list – oh yes! A list of items I ought to review each week.
  • I gathered all the stray receipts and input the grocery receipts into my account sheet.
  • I went over my master to-do list and updated it, ticking off things done and adding a few things that came to mind.
  • I went through my to-do folder and finally called the painter who needed to come fix our wall…after months.
  • I checked my schedule for the week and made sure all the details were there for appointments, any food prep necessary ahead of time, or due dates for certain tasks.
  • I checked my library books to renew any that needed it, and marked the day to return some of them.
  • I reviewed my list of sewing/knitting projects, updated completed items, and considered which to tackle next.
  • I went through the household inbox file folder, which contained odd bits of paper that needed acting on, filing, or data inputting. None of the papers went back in once I was done! I was a good girl.

In the hour allotted, I also had time to hang out a load of laundry and gather my stuff to go to work.

Although this is a lot of individual tasks, most only took a few minutes. That is one major point about reviewing: if done regularly, it should never be an enormous task. I hadn’t tidied up my system in a few weeks, so if I were to do so regularly, it probably wouldn’t have taken me even as long as it did today.

Moreover, the after this exercise I had such a feeling of clarity and peacefulness. This is just what is promised by Allen’s method: confidence that nothing was slipping out of control, no task was lurking half-remembered in my consciousness.

Concomitant with this feeling of mental clarity was a great feeling of power and control. Because I knew everything that was going on, everything I needed to do, and was confident in the completeness of all this information, I also felt that what I did would be my choice, not dictated by sudden emergencies. I also felt that because my system was functioning efficiently, if I wished, I could choose something else to accomplish. You’ll notice that in my list of review tasks I consulted a list of sewing and knitting projects. This isn’t household administration or PhD work, but I included it because they are projects I work on every week and I simply wished to take them seriously. And I think there’s no reason that, if you have a good organisational system humming along with regular reviews, you can’t simply throw personal projects into it and allow them to be administered as well. Reviewing one additional list isn’t a big extra task if you already review several others. Does this make sense?

This leads me to my final thought, one further reason why I really want to incorporate a regular review into my schedule. This is that while reviewing everything, and feeling on top of everything, I felt like I could take myself seriously as a person capable of doing things. I often find – and I suspect this is common – that I have a lot of aspirations that live in a limbo world: ‘I’d love to ____, but I suppose I probably won’t.’ I don’t mean big life aspirations, but more short-term projects: learn a skill, cook a certain dish, knit a certain sweater, write something, maintain a blog, or even just have guests over more often. But because I label those things as ‘personal’, not ‘work’, I don’t take them seriously, and because I often fail to follow through with them I’m never willing to grant them real ‘project’ status because that would just make their failure that much more official. But I find that all of this tends to make me timid in undertaking things, self-depreciating about my abilities, and genuinely doubtful whether I can accomplish any of the things I think about. Thinking about things and never accomplishing them is depressing after a while. Today, when I was reviewing my little administrative demesne, I realised that simply being regular in this kind of review-and-update routine would enable me to accomplish things, if I wanted. Not everything all at once, but it could bring certain personal projects out of pie-in-the-sky status and into the status of something regularly pursued and taken seriously.

So here I am, saying that I intend to start reviewing my system regularly! What do you think? Is reviewing something you do, or think would be useful?

Practical Sewing

I’ve started sharing more of my sewing projects here, but one temptation in getting to ‘show off’ your creations is the temptation to focus on little details, complex construction and fitting. I’m going to share a project today that has nearly none of those things!

This is a skirt I made, the first time around, at the end of last summer and wore just a few times before the weather cooled down too much.

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The style is called a dirndl, which is a skirt consisting of a large rectangle gathered onto a waistband – very simple and traditional, and something you would often encounter in the national dress of various countries. Stylewise (not a real word, but useful), it can be a bit controversial because it’s not always easy to make it flattering to all figures, for the obvious reason that there are gathers right at your waist, hence bulk. Keeping the waistband wide and snug and ensuring that the hem has enough body to stand out a little are the best ways, I think, to make this style pleasantly vintage rather than simply frumpy.

I mentioned that I made this skirt ‘the first time around’ last year. Well. I made it a second time this year because I just wasn’t happy with a few things about it – and by ‘made a second time’ I really mean cutting up the same skirt and sewing it all over again. After some tweaks, it was better. Then I redid the waistband a third time and finally got it right.

With the tweaks, I have reached for this skirt a lot once the weather warmed up here. On our recent holiday, I wore it at least four times during the week. It’s incredibly comfortable, cool in the heat, and easy to mix and match with other things.

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Now, in my head, this skirt is also the perfect ‘Brits abroad’ style, and as I was packing my suitcase my sartorial imagination was dancing with images of white and cream linen and all the lovely fabrics of warmer climes. But my husband reminded me that my concept of what British people wear on holiday comes from Audrey Hepburn and not present-day reality. Also from Agatha Christie and Daphne du Maurier, so apparently I can’t claim to be a paragon of contemporary style.

More seriously, as I was incessantly wearing this skirt, I decided it was worth a mention because it’s a perfect beginner sewing project, and actually very full of flaws. I’m not even that proud of my handling of it, and yet I have loved wearing it. In fact I am wearing it right now as I type. If there are any beginning or aspiring seamstresses out there, please know you don’t necessarily need advanced skills to begin to make garments that are quite wearable. For this style of skirt, you don’t even need to buy a pattern, because you can draft one based on your own measurements.IMG_1343

Nor did I really invest a great deal of love (or money) into my materials for this project. The fabric was the lining left over from a set of curtains from which I made a dress. It’s nothing special – a polyester cotton blend would be my guess. I also messed up the pockets, so there’s a little pucker of fabric on the side seams. My zipper is imperfect, and I’m not sure about my handling of the back of the waistband, where I tried to put some little panels of elastic to give some breathing room. And yet, I love it anyway!

Isn’t the setting of these photos beautiful? Obviously they are from our holiday. Mike chose the location, and I felt quite pampered.

For anyone who is interested in making a skirt like this, here are some good online tutorials. I didn’t follow either exactly, but used them as general guides.

Tilly’s version from Tilly and the Buttons:

Gertie’s Full Gathered Skirt part 1

Gertie’s Full Gathered Skirt part 2

Homemakerly Thoughts

Recently, PhD events have meant that, for a while, I have a lot more time on my hands. For a few months I have been in some kind of occupational limbo, and though I have a part-time job, other than that I have felt that ‘homemaker’ well represented a large portion of my role for now.

IMG_0318Today, for example, I cooked some eggs for breakfast (we’re trying to learn to like them), and set off with a long list of errands in town, in preparation for an upcoming trip. I also did over an hour of ironing (how did that happen?), baking for a friend’s party, and developing a knitting pattern for a project I’d like to work on while we’re travelling.

If you know me, you know that this is something I have always loved – and that the description above is basically a paradisal day in my opinion. I’m an introvert, a homebody, and good at finding things to occupy myself. When I got married, I was excited to have a home and an outlet for my love of homemaking, more than I’d had before. I have been curious, however, to see whether in practice I really enjoyed this role, or whether it always seemed so desirable just because everything else was always getting in the way – the grass is always greener, etc.

One of the biggest challenges of homemaking is, I believe, simply our perception that these activities are menial, unimportant, unenjoyable, or basic necessities and nothing more. I don’t feel able to parse all the cultural trends that contribute to this view, but there’s something insidious about it because while I do not overtly believe any of this about domestic work – contrarily, I have always thought it interesting and certainly valuable, and personally quite enjoyable – I feel the constant need to justify this view because I feel inherently insecure in it. I’ve noticed the same with stay-at-home mothers, the genuine belief in the value of their occupation with a simultaneous insecurity and defensiveness. It is, I suspect, due to some kind of internal conflict between what we really think and what we think we should think – or what we think others think we should think.

But clearing away that cobweb of confusion, it’s not particularly groundbreaking to say that if you don’t see your work, whatever it is, as having both some kind of inherent reward as well as being valuable beyond your own enjoyment, you will either be grimly depressed or else hopelessly defensive about it. I would say that for anyone finding themselves in a non-job occupation, whether a role of caring, homemaking, child-rearing, or simply an unintentional period of unemployment, contentment and patience in that role will depend on finding a way to see it as valuable.

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In my case, I have never struggled to find homemaking enjoyable, but here is my first point: during this phase of ‘occupational homemaking’, I have needed to find ways of seeing my daily activities as valuable.

But let me anticipate criticism and say – I don’t want this to sound like a project of defending lazy time-wasting by making up ways to see it as valuable. Rather, my second and closely related point is this: I have also needed to have an honest look at my time to find ways to make this role valuable.

In particular, some days have really felt like a lot of ‘pottering’ around being generally active while accomplishing very little that I deemed important. Certainly very little that was interesting to tell Mike when he got home – I washed the dishes, I altered a dress, I cleaned the bathroom, I spent half an hour doing home admin phone calls. Although for the most part I enjoy such a day, it was hard to feel that it had any claim to being really useful or important. At such times what I found most helpful was to ask how the particular advantages of my position could be used for things I did perceive as valuable. Thus, I have reframed quite a bit of housework in my thinking as not merely ‘doing the needful’ that any old body could do, but as serving, chiefly Mike but also as part of serving anyone I cook for or invite over. Because my time is freer, I’ve also been able to visit a few people who have had babies or been ill.

Let me make a third point, though. Namely that I am beginning to wonder if it might be a good thing not to see all your work as hugely valuable in a grand sense – or rather, in the usual senses in which we define valuable work. Maybe having a humbler opinion of one’s own work really represents a more mature understanding of much of the work we actually undertake? Let me explain. It’s becoming fairly commonplace now to malign the overly busy ethic of contemporary Western society, the impulse towards doing things faster, doing more, and so forth. There’s a book on my shelf right now about this very topic, called In Praise of Slow, which I intend to read soon. Of course many reasons are proposed for why we have an addiction to busy-ness, but I often feel that one cause is simply that we are trained that what we do needs to be hugely valuable and important. We are told that we can ‘make a difference’, and that we need to get the skills and do the work necessary to achieve that. And I think we expect that somewhere out there is our true vocation, a career that will verify our meaningful contribution to the world by being so important. It’s natural (I think) to wish to do something meaningful with one’s life, but I wonder if it’s much more culturally specific to us, now, to channel this desire so forcefully into ‘work’ or ‘occupation’ specifically.

If, however, we see our work as hugely important – or feel a need to convince ourselves that it is, or convince others it is – it creates a very clear sense of priority which makes other activities much less worth our time, and hence the objects of scorn and impatience. Isn’t it our scorn for ‘lesser’ activities that makes us rude drivers, grumpy in the post office queue, infuriated with paperwork, or stressed by a host of little things that inhibit us doing what we consider the big things? In which case, I wonder if thinking a little less of our ‘work’ might really be better for our stress and for others around us.

To take a small example, in my errands this morning, I decided to buy some fruit at the market in town but didn’t have enough cash. No problem, there’s a cash machine nearby. For some reason it ate my bank card, with a little internal shudder; it ‘told’ me what it had done via its emotionless blue screen, and didn’t even have the dignity to advertise itself as being subsequently out of service. The nerve. This is the kind of irritating event which has been known to ruin a whole morning for me at times when I had lots of PhD work I ‘ought’ to already be doing. Losing my card created admin to be done, delayed my errands, and of course happened right before a trip so that I can’t even get a new card in time for travelling – nor buy the foreign currency I intended to buy in preparation for said trip. I almost lost my cool. But then I realised - None of what I had to accomplish was really that important or urgent. Neither was a half hour of my time to sort out the mess really that important. I’m a household manager right now – dealing with household problems is part of my job.

Of course there are a few lessons this episode could teach: the value of stopping and breathing, the value of a less jam-packed schedule, or just ‘how much time you have on your hands when you aren’t working full-time, duh’ (I do recognise that). But as a person who easily stresses out over plans gone awry, I noticed my lack of stress and my reasoning for it (the unimportance of a little time), and took this lesson: there is a great relief and freedom in seeing my work (in the form of my to-do list for the day) as being needful but not groundbreaking, useful but not urgent, beneficial but not revolutionary.

In short, this phase of homemaking has both required me to look for value within it, but also to appreciate that the very desire to ascribe so much value to specific work is a crippling habit, and not really necessary to enjoyment or or accomplishment. Dare I say it, the obsession with seeing any work as magnificently important, though apparently so altruistic, is easily a bit self-centred. So I feel that it can be beneficial to look for more unconventional value in the unimportant work, as well as to view the common forms of ‘important’ work in humbler perspective.

Maxi Dress

This dress is a recent project which I planned for a while but saved for after I handed in my thesis. I wanted it to be something I took my time with, rather than filling the role of stressed-out sewing as some garments do. In the final result I love this dress, and so far it is probably the handmade garment of which I am most proud.

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I had been contemplating maxi dresses for a while, because since they came into fashion a few years ago I thought they were a really practical, lovely style – comfortable, easy to move in, elegant, and useful for those summer days (common here at least) when you never know when it might get a tad chilly. However, I honestly never saw a maxi dress in any store that really called out to me in any special way. Admittedly I have a lot of requirements of my clothes. So I never bought one.

One reason I am so pleased with this dress is that I drafted the pattern myself, and instead of rushing I purposefully took a lot of time getting it just right, making a few mock-ups of the bodice out of old charity shop sheets, and tweaking it through several iterations. Because I purposefully postponed working on this dress, I had time to think through a few design features before starting the drafting, which I should probably do more often.

The fabric is a cotton poplin print from Ray Stitch in North London, and not really like any maxi dress print I have seen in stores. To me, the basic maxi dress shape most clearly evokes either early nineteenth century styles (think Jane Austen) or early twentieth century straight ankle-length skirts, and hence to me the fabrics it calls for are filmy pale cottons or small garden prints.

The shape and style of this dress are not revolutionary, but I worked out a lot of small details that I feel really made it work the way I wanted.

I included the little back neckline darts to which my mom introduced me, which help garments to sit more evenly on my (rather bony) shoulders. I often find that I am tugging dresses forwards or backwards because somehow they don’t sit with the right balance on me – these darts eliminate that problem.

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I also raised the waistline about 1/2″ above my natural waist, which helps the comfort a great deal by giving some freedom at the waist, but still gives a waistline seam close enough to the waist to wear a belt.

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Finally, the back waistband has elasticated panels which cinch the back to fit while still allowing some give. You will often see shirring performing this function in purchased clothing – parallel lines of thin elastic along the inside of a garment. I opted instead for an inset panel with nine (NINE!) separate horizontal casings, each with elastic inserted. It was the most fiddly part of the sewing, but makes for a nice, clean finish.

I added pockets, aligned the repeats on the print of the fabric so everything is symmetrical and matches up at the seams, and put the zipper in by hand.

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Pockets!

Overall I am so pleased with this project. I’d be making another in no time if it didn’t require so much fabric! I guess maxi dresses will have to remain a splurge.

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Overdressed: A Book Review

I recently read Overdressed by Elizabeth L. Cline, a book which according to its subtitle is about the shockingly high cost of cheap fashion. From reading reviews beforehand, I knew it was a book about how the West buys its relatively inexpensive clothing, and the global systems which support the industry: about ‘fast fashion’ as the phenomenon now seems to be called. In case you’re interested, I wanted to give a short review here, and also share some reflections on the subject. I’m not really interested in ‘fashion’ per se (defined as trendy things, designer things and such), but I am interested in clothing, its history, its part in culture, and its part in how we all manage our own households and budgets and the related decisions in our personal home economies.

First of all, this book traces the rise of fast fashion from an American standpoint, as manufacturing of clothing moved overseas through the mid-late twentieth century and as prices for clothing dropped. Meanwhile, clothing stores selling cheaper clothing – in contrast to traditional department stores – promoted frequent shopping by replacing their stock at quicker intervals, effectively creating multiple ‘seasons’ per year and meaning that shoppers could return to the same store every single month and see something new. As fashionable shoppers became accustomed to lower prices, they also adjusted their expectations of what clothing ‘should’ cost and became unwilling to spend more than the amounts they would pay at places like H&M, Target, Old Navy, or Walmart. Indeed, the impression for consumers becomes that nicer department stores are simply ‘marking up’ goods far beyond their real value, or else charging more for designer labels when you could have a non-designer equivalent for a tenth of the price.

Cline spends a large portion of the book investigating the overseas factories that have made such low prices possible. In some sense, this information is now becoming more common knowledge – i.e. poor wages and working conditions, and long hours for workers in factories in China, Bangladesh, and South America. These factories don’t always have good waste disposal practices, meaning that air pollution is bad and that farmland is damaged as well. For comparison she investigates some domestic factories in Los Angeles, where manufacturing is still done, most notably for American Apparel, but even there it appears that the ‘good’ factories are perceived by employees as being merely ‘less bad’ than the others. A factory in the Dominican Republic does receive a fairly good report for working conditions and wages, interestingly staying afloat against cheaper factories because it produces college apparel (i.e. t-shirts, hoodies and the like with university branding) for colleges where students staged large-scale demands for ethical clothing.

One particular result of the rise of fast fashion which Cline identifies is the growing gap between cheaper fashion on one end of the price scale, and designer fashion on the other. She paints a picture of two types of consumers. Some, like the people she interviews in the book, have tight budgets – or simply shop frequently – and consider anything over $30 to be expensive. Others chase designer items as status symbols and pay anywhere from $200 to $2,000 for a piece of clothing. She says that designer brands have gotten wise to this and raised prices, realising that people will pay them. Meanwhile, as she points out, there’s a huge gap in the middle for mid-priced, quality, domestically (or ethically) made items which for the most part don’t exist.

But concomitant with fashion’s cheapness is not only its affordability but its ‘cheapness’ in the grander sense – it simply doesn’t last, but because it is inexpensive we don’t mind that it doesn’t last. We may also suffer a misconception that donating our worn-out clothes to charity redeems what would otherwise be wasteful, but as Cline details, charities are overrun with a surplus of clothes; there is no need that is being met by many of our castoffs.

The overall argument of the book is that cheap mass-scale clothing production has often resulted in compromised ethics, the inability of fashion companies to account for how their garments are produced, and a decrease in clothing’s disposability (and hence waste).

Finally, in light of these problems, Cline makes some suggestions for how individuals can adjust the way they buy and care for their clothes. I had a conflicted response to this final section of the book. On the one hand, Cline’s focus throughout is so sweeping and global that her final recommendations seemed a little mundane to me – not really the revolutionary approach I was expecting. She suggests making clothes last longer by altering and repairing them, planning a few thoughtful purchases of good-quality clothes, looking for sustainable fibres like organic cotton, wool, or recycled materials, and avoiding trends (and their coming and going) in favour of a more personalised style with more longevity. In a sense I felt that this was advice I already knew. However, on the other hand, I realise that her concern is to pose practical options for normal people, so in this sense I grant that her recommendations are precisely what is needed.

Personally speaking

I really want to share a few of my own thoughts on this subject, bearing in mind that none of this represents a fully-formed way of thinking; simply some things I’ve pondered in the last few months.

First of all, lately I’ve been thinking about the value of labour and the work involved in production. For those of us who engage in ‘knowledge work’ as our profession – pushing information around, generating it, thinking about it – we can pass through an astonishing amount of our lives surrounded by the results of (physical) labour without ever witnessing or knowing anything about it. Often, the only ‘production’ in which I engage is cooking, taking raw ingredients and processing them as necessary to produce the final result. I think this kind of knowledge-work lifestyle ironically fosters an ignorance about the production of common goods and the relation of labour to the finished product. My home is full of stuff, but for the most part I have little idea how it was made, by whom, how long it took or how much it cost in raw materials, and what wages were paid to the people who physically put it together. I’m not talking about wanting some quasi-spiritual connectedness to others via my physical stuff, but rather simply wondering what human (or other) situations are being funded by my money. What factory, what working methods, what wages am I ‘voting for’ when I spend my money on a given item?

Likewise, a lack of knowledge about production and the labour involved leads to an ignorance about what things are really worth. At the end of her book, Cline asks (and I think it’s a really important question), ‘What should clothes cost?’ She’s not talking about overpriced designer items that ‘should’ cost less than their name-brand markups; she’s talking about it the other way around, normal clothes that probably should cost us more than they do, if they were responsibly manufactured by workers fairly paid and well treated, etc. If we know nothing about how clothes are made, our only system for gauging what something ‘should’ cost is price comparison, yielding conceptions of worth which can be quite skewed from the actual materials and labour involved in a garment.

I’ve been asking myself lately what I think clothes should cost. My own sewing repeatedly makes me realise all that is involved in constructing even a simple garment (and even mass production still relies on people to run individual sewing machines to stitch every seam). Sometimes I calculate the cost, in labour and materials, of what I make, and it’s rare to come in under about £60 for something simple. Now, I realise that if I were involved in clothing production, I’d have cheaper materials bought wholesale and probably faster production with better equipment and less time lost to undoing mistakes (oops). But even so, I’d never be able to make a tee for less than £20, and of course that doesn’t include any business overhead or store markups. For a dress with a lining, I reckon I’d have to sell it for £200, easily, just to make ends meet. Indeed, as I did some looking around online, I saw that Pendleton Woollen Mills in Portland – a US-based and vertically integrated clothing company – charges $200-$300 for some of their basic (albeit nice) skirts. That feels totally out of my price range – but I venture to suggest it’s probably a fair price considering the materials and labour involved.

That brings me to a final thought, a soul-searching one. One possible knee-jerk response to all of the above is this: Okay, that’s all fine for the wealthy, but I can’t afford to spend more on my clothes. Actually, this is my knee-jerk response. And Cline at least touches on how cheap fashion has a certain traction in our culture because its affordability makes it ‘democratic’ in a sense; advocating for clothing to cost more, can, frankly, seem elitist. Firstly, if that’s your thought, don’t let it put you off reading Cline’s book, because I actually found it to be quite down-to-earth in that regard; she doesn’t pose as someone who used to love designer fashion and now spends $10,000 a year on ‘ethical fashion’ instead, but as someone whose closet was full of clothes for which she paid an average of $30 apiece but who now approaches buying differently. In other words, she addresses an audience of people on relatively normal budgets. At least I felt this from her book.

But secondly, I find that knee-jerk responses – like I can’t afford that - are often the ones I need to re-examine; that they can be defensive rather than truthful. Personally speaking, my clothing budget is not huge; it’s kind of moderate, I’d say. But could I, for example, go for a year or even two years without buying anything new? I could; in fact I have done so before just out of necessity. I could save two years’ clothing allowance and in the third year buy a few excellent garments, well-made, that would last. I could also, for example, in a given year buy half the number of new clothes as I normally would and spend twice as much money on each item. I could also have fewer clothes. And those options don’t even take into account making my own clothes (which suddenly seems fantastically affordable), shopping secondhand, or taking care to ensure that things last well.

I don’t want to be guilt-mongering or suggest how you should spend your money. I have come to realise, however, that for my own part there are some ways I need to reexamine how I buy and value clothing.

Sourdough Update

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about making sourdough bread, and promised to update on the results of my attempt. I’m pleased to say that I’ve made several successful loaves of bread since then.

Here is my first one. Its major flaw is the very tentative cut across the top. I was afraid to press too hard and deflate the dough, but I should have made a much deeper cut. The slit, made just before baking, apparently helps the dough rise upwards instead of spreading outwards. And indeed, my second loaf had a better slit and rose much more impressively. But despite its funny appearance, this first loaf was delicious, and as promised by all the proponents of sourdough, it lasted a good three days on the counter while remaining soft.

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This first loaf was all white flour. The next one I used all whole wheat, and it looked beautiful and worked fine, though it was more dense. I do also think that whole wheat flours seem to need more water, so my dough was a bit stiff; next time I would just add more water. The loaves after that one I made with a mix of white and whole wheat flours, which gave a slightly better rise than 100% whole grain. Currently I’m experimenting with a loaf that has a bit of honey and oatmeal added. Although the final results have differed based on the type of flour used, so far none of my loaves using this starter and recipe have been a failure.

This week, interestingly, I also decided to give sourdough tortillas a try. I’ve made tortillas a couple of times before, but in my opinion they were never great. The batch I got ‘right’ tasted and looked fine, but didn’t last well at all; I had a hard time keeping them soft enough to roll up even the day I made them. Of course, that’s why any store bought tortillas are full of dough conditioners that keep them pliable, but these are the ingredients that make me frown and then resolve to make my own tortillas. But the recipe I used promised that the same longevity which sourdough provided to bread would be provided to these tortillas.

Making sourdough tortillas is similar to making sourdough bread, but there’s a lot of fat in the recipe; otherwise the main annoyance is having to cook them one at a time. How did they taste? That was my main concern, because I worried they would taste sour and interfere with the flavour of the fillings they would contain. When I tasted one on its own, it did taste a bit sourdough-y, but not horrifically so. I decided Mike would be my real tester. I told him I’d made the tortillas and asked his opinion of them, but didn’t say they were sourdough. He said they were good, and couldn’t tell they were sour at all, and was unbothered when I told him. For myself, I actually felt that their yeasty savoury flavour contributed something to the burritos, rather than detracting.

Finally, I was pleased to find that these tortillas remained soft a long time. I left them sitting out between the afternoon and dinner, and without being reheated they were still soft enough to roll. Then I covered the leftover ones and we ate them the next day, warmed a little in the oven, and once again they were perfectly soft – no breaking edges. I was so-so about making my own tortillas before, because although I don’t like the artificial ingredients in store-bought ones, I didn’t feel like going to extra trouble to make something that turned out like dry flatbread. However, I think I am a convert to sourdough tortillas!

In any case, my rye flour starter has passed its probationary period and been upgraded from a temporary covered bowl to a Kilner jar in the fridge.

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Apparently there’s a bit of a movement going on advocating ‘real bread’, i.e. traditionally made breads without additives, including (especially) sourdough. I found this out while browsing the bookstore today and finding this. I suppose the Real Bread Campaign is one facet of the slow foods movement. (I’m not affiliated with this organisation, just linking up in case it’s interesting to you.)

What if Good Enough Were Good Enough?

About a month ago, a strange feeling came over me. It was a strange sort of happiness with the idea of my thesis being good enough.

Now, for years I have ended many a project with the reminder to myself, ‘It doesn’t have to be perfect.’ So I have handed in many an imperfect, but still good, piece of work after convincing myself that it was okay for this to be the case. I have never rationally accepted that something must be perfect to be considered done to an acceptable – or even excellent – level. But this rational acceptance was a sort of ‘official position’. ‘It is our official position that the finished product does not have to be perfect.’ (Meanwhile my perfectionism crouched; imagine the way squirrels dig and munch, shifty shifty, nibble nibble, out of the way but still scuttling about; that is the manner of perfectionism.)

However, this time around, the odd feeling of happiness with imperfection differed, because it was a spontaneously arising belief, an unforced satisfaction. I didn’t have to convince myself that good enough was okay. I already believed it.

I confessed this feeling to Mike one night and said, ‘Is it wrong that I feel that way?!’ As soon as I had verbalised to myself that this feeling was a willingness to call my project ‘finished’ without caring whether it were ‘the best it could be’, a host of imaginary voices criticised me. ‘Clearly you don’t care about your work.’ ‘Clearly you aren’t cut out for this, if you’re happy with something being blandly good.’ ‘Clearly you don’t have any genuine drive.’

Mike said, ‘I don’t think it’s wrong. I think it’s healthy.’

Still feeling a bit renegade, I did recognise that labelling this acceptance of imperfection as a strange, new, unfamiliar feeling suggested what a perfectionist I have always been. I sat with this new feeling and wondered what else in my life would benefit from being simply ‘good enough’.

The things I could do!

If you are a perfectionist, I’d encourage you to reflect a little on what things you don’t do, or don’t finish, because you are afraid they won’t be perfect. The imagine what you’d do if you were free from those stringent standards.

What would I do, or do more often and with more enjoyment, if I accepted that good enough were good enough?

Well, for one thing, I would blog more. I genuinely enjoy sitting down to write a post, and while I know this isn’t a particularly professional blog, writing is enjoyable to me. But I can’t tell you how many drafts I begin and then abandon because I either imagine someone out there would disagree or nitpick (which is always true, by the way), or because I have a standard in my mind of quality, length, or profundity which I think I can’t meet. I’ve written so many posts that might genuinely be interesting ‘tidbits’, certainly to me but probably to a few readers, but I never post them because they aren’t polished enough. What if I just posted them in their imperfect state?

For another thing, I would write more letters and emails to friends. Similarly with blogging, this is an area where I expect more than I can deliver in the course of normal life. Partly this is because I used to have the time and focus to write massive emails to many different friends. When I lived alone, it was an enjoyable way of feeling connected to people. However, gradually, I’ve simply had less of that sort of time – three-hour chunks of evening or weekend. The thing is, what’s really wrong with writing a couple of paragraphs in 20 minutes at lunchtime? Isn’t it better to contact people briefly than not at all? If I could accept that a brief update email was actually good enough, I’d probably keep in better touch with people than if I required myself to write a huge epistle every time.

I would also do more crafty projects. I’m sure you can tell from reading this blog that I enjoy making things, but besides what I finish there’s always a host of projects that I begin but set aside, or avoid altogether, because I can’t meet my own standards.

Case in point: Last year, I decided that I wanted to start making yearly photo books in lieu of getting photos printed or (usually) just keeping everything saved on my computer. I was feeling the nesting instinct, and thinking that as our family (hopefully) grows in the future I would really like to have a good record of its history. I love looking through my family’s photo albums, and occasionally we will sit down together to reminisce, looking at the photos of my parents’ trips before they had kids, our baby photos, and so on. I want to ensure that I can do that with my kids later. I actually kept up, at intervals throughout the year, with a photo book, intending to finish it off with December photos and then print it. Have I printed it? No. Because I always wonder, What if I didn’t include all the photos and missed some by accident? Should I have been more thorough? What if I want to change something later? If good enough were good enough, I would finish that album and print it already!

Let me tell you, when I made this list it was liberating. So here I am. I am writing this blog post without even a satisfying conclusion or any pictures!

A Course in Sourdough Bread

My thesis has been consuming most of my time for the last few weeks, so housekeeping has been minimal. However, now that I am in quite a final stage (yikes!) of my thesis, I felt relaxed enough to catch up on things today, including laundry and some potted plants and getting my sewing machine fixed.

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Now that my rosemary is happy, I am addressing one of those ‘skills I’d like to acquire’ projects: making sourdough bread.

I never even thought about this until last autumn, when a few things I’d been reading about diet touted the advantages of sourdough bread (more on that below). The rise in sourdough comes not from the usual baker’s yeast but from natural yeasts which occur in grain and are cultivated by fermentation of a ‘starter’. This bubbly flour-and-water mixture is added in small amounts to water, flour and salt to leaven the whole loaf. Now, this appealed to my love of DIY – homemade yeast! But it also made me remember what I know of early American cooking, when sourdough was used for bread and biscuits, and feeling the urge for some ‘living history’ I really wanted to try it out myself.

Short story to tell, I eventually gave up. Here’s what happened. I read multiple sources on how to make your own starter, and followed the directions, mixing small amounts of flour and water, adding to the mixture each day, and watching it become bubbly as the yeasts became active. This part did genuinely work, and nothing got mouldy. I even put it in a nice glass jar and had visions of myself, Homemaker Extraordinaire, whipping up tangy homemade breads every week from now on and forever, living a life of vitality and handcrafted goodness.

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The first sourdough loaf I baked did rise a little, but not much. It smelled like strong cheese when it was baking, really a bizarre smell from bread, but I chalked it up to the whole ‘fermentation’ thing. In fairness, it was edible, but very sour and not particularly nice in texture. I ended up slicing it thin, into little rectangles (the loaf was half the height it should have been, so no squares), and toasting it well. It was something akin to melba toast, okay with cheese but pretty tough on the teeth.

After this, I did notice that my starter (which I kept dutifully feeding with more flour and water) changed in smell, turning from sour to pleasantly malty. Taking this cue, I made another loaf of bread. You know what? This one was amazing. It rose, was golden in colour, had a nice soft crumb and a beautiful multilayered crust, and tasted a little tangy but definitely like bread (not strong cheese).

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After that, though, a few other loaves turned out very much like the first: sour, acidic, dense. I put my starter in the fridge while we were gone over Christmas, having read that this would slow it down and enable it to survive without feeding for a while, and when we returned home after the break I started feeding it again. But with one thing and another, I forgot about it, it got pinkly mouldy and dry, and I eventually threw it out and decided to start over later. Mike was very glad to see that ‘the evil flour’ was gone; I think its silent, pale, gaseous life of fermentation over by the boiler always creeped him out a little.

Why bother with sourdough?

This brings me to the implicit question – other than historical interest or idle curiosity, why is it worth bothering to make sourdough bread?

There are certain ‘traditional diet’ advocates who say that sourdough bread is not only the most traditional form of bread making, but is the only type you should eat, because the fermentation process breaks down certain ‘anti-nutrients’ in the grains which inhibit your body’s ability to absorb nutrients. This beneficial activity doesn’t happen with modern baker’s yeast because it thrives at a different pH than naturally occurring yeasts in grain, and the right pH is crucial for these anti-nutrients to be broken down. Sourdough bread, the claim goes, is easier to digest and more nutritious because more vitamins are available for your body to absorb.

I actually did some investigation on this at the British Library, and although I’m not aware of any extensive scientific studies, I found two that were interesting. In one pilot study, Celiac’s patients (who can’t eat gluten) were given sourdough wheat bread every day for 60 days. None of them showed any adverse reaction, and the researchers postulated that the sourdough fermentation process rendered the gluten tolerable to their systems.* Obviously this is interesting for those who are gluten intolerant, but it strikes me as particularly interesting given that gluten and grains in general are getting a pretty bad rap these days, some people suggesting that nobody should be eating grains and whatnot. I sort of wonder whether perhaps it’s a problem of needing to prepare the grains properly, rather than avoiding them altogether. Just a thought.

Another study found that certain nutrient levels in grains were elevated after sourdough fermentation, including zinc and B vitamins. (I think I have notes from this article but I’ve lost them, so am not sure of the reference.) Once again, it’s interesting to me that a simple process can render the same food more nutritious.

One other advantage of sourdough bread is its keeping ability. One frustration of homemade bread is how quickly it goes stale and dry; of course commercial breads include additives to help prevent this. Most sources I’ve read remark that sourdough bread stays soft naturally for 3 days, and will last a whole week at room temperature without going mouldy.

You can actually buy proper sourdough breads, though often not at the cheaper supermarkets. I’ve found a couple of varieties at Waitrose that are very tasty, but…usually around £2 a loaf. I have never been fussed about making homemade bread all the time simply because you can buy a cheap loaf (even wholemeal) for about the cost of making it. However, in the case of sourdough, that doesn’t appear to be true. Hence, I decided to try again to make it myself.

Another attempt

I really recommend this book, which I got at the library. The author won my heart when she started the book with sourdough as the most traditional type of bread, and placed ‘modern [yeast] breads’ in the second section; not that I hate ‘modern breads’, simply that you don’t always find cookbooks with a sense of history.

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I made a fresh starter with her detailed instructions, and my first experimental loaf is rising as I type. My ultimate goal is to use wholemeal flour, but I decided to work my way through the book sequentially, beginning with the basic recipe, as a way of giving myself a proper ‘course’ on the subject.

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[See this post for an update.]

Getting Things Done on a Thesis (Coffee Break)

IMG_0804Here I am, taking a coffee break in the midst of my first round of thesis proofreading. I wanted to discuss something I mentioned a long time ago, namely how I’ve been trying to implement some new strategies for organising my PhD work, based on the book Getting Things Done. I’ve discussed this book at length already in relation to managing general household projects, but not in relation to my thesis. So, since I am in the midst of working using this method today, I thought I would share the day’s work as a case study.

The project and the problem

Right now, I have a printed copy of my entire thesis and I’ve already read through it and made annotations on the paper copy. Those annotations obviously represent lots of tasks, but they’re jumbled together in no logical order: small edits of typos, citations needed, information to double-check at the library, or whole sections that need rethinking.

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I’ll tell you what would happen if I sat down to work my way through making these changes on a 200-page document. I’d breeze through a couple of easy edits, get stuck on a whole paragraph that needed rewriting and sink into an indecisive depression, decide to fix it later and move onto checking a reference against some notes in my files, meanwhile discover an article I’d photocopied that I realised I needed to re-read, randomly remember to ask my supervisor what an ‘Author’s Declaration’ is and whether I need one…

Not that this wouldn’t work, but it’s hard to complete so many different tasks in the same chunk of time. My fear, when going through the document, would be that if I didn’t tackle an edit immediately, I’d forget to come back and change it. So I would comb through the whole thesis multiple times, each time looking for changes of a certain type, invariably missing some, etc.

Inbox and Processing

What I’ve been doing today is treating the whole document, with my annotations, like an inbox. As I go through it, I’m ‘processing’ items from an inbox, not editing the document. 

This means that as I process each annotation, I observe the following rules:

  • If the change is a quick one requiring less than 2 minutes of time (which also means no serious decisions) - I do it then
  • But if the change will take me longer than that, involving hunting for something, asking a question to someone, finding a reference, rewriting a section or simply thinking and deciding what change to make - I transfer the item onto a list to ensure it is recorded as a task

For example, I find this annotation:

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Immediately, in less than 2 minutes, I delete the word ‘specifically’

But on the same page, I find this:

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This is a two-pronged note. I need to change the ‘s’ in brackets, which I can quickly do immediately. However, finding this mistake also reminded me that my supervisor had told me about this specific issue (changing capitalisation in quotes) and I need to look through the whole document for instances of this and fix them all. I transfer that task onto a list of things to check systematically throughout the document, using a find a replace function.

On that page, I also find this:

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Simply a note to myself that I’m not sure whether I’m misreading or misinterpreting something, and I need to review and think it over. I transfer that task to a list of chapter-by-chapter edits to make. Later, when I’m not bogged down by deleting ‘specifically’, I can re-read that section and think about it. Nor do I have to worry that I’ll forget to come back and do it, because it’s clearly written on a list outside the document itself – I don’t need to hope that I remember to look through the document again page by page.

The point

Has this achieved anything that the straightforward ‘read through and make changes’ method doesn’t? I think it has.

  • First of all, making only the simple and quick changes now means that I don’t interrupt the speed of going through the document by trying to make decisions for harder problems. Any serious thinking is deferred for a time when it can be tackled in its own right.
  • Ideally, I only have to comb through my annotations once this way, because every change marked is either done when I encounter it, or transferred to an external list. I won’t need to go through the whole document again and again. In other words, my ‘inbox’ will be ‘empty’.
  • Because I’m not making every change when I encounter it, only the 2-minute ones, I can get through the whole document of annotations in a single day (namely today) and, at the end, have a definitive picture of the work remaining to be done. Everything not already completed will be written on another list: search and replace functions to run, questions to ask my supervisor, items to check at the library. A few pages of lists are much better than a series of unknown tasks still hidden in the margins of the document itself.

Back to work now! I hope this has been helpful for some at least. None of this is rocket science, but I often think that because academic work is ‘intellectual’ I don’t submit it to the same methods of tracking and organising I do for ‘real job’ work. I have found that treating it in a systematic way has really helped manage this final stage of work on my thesis.