coracle

Since the earliest days of spring I’ve been visiting the pond on Old Plawhatch Farm, to document a project that grew out of a beautiful mentorship. A handmade boat. To celebrate the solstice and long days at the water, swimming days, boating days, I bring you the launch of the Flying Terapin.

coracle-beginning
When Callum, our 9-year-old mate in bushcraft, woodwork and art, first showed me the coracle, it was a skeleton of young coppiced branches stuck deep into the banks of the spring and woven together along the earth. Logs from a major pruning round the water (the algae on the pond needed to be reduced by exposing it to more sunlight!) weighted the top to create the boat’s shape as the young branches aged.
the coracle wood
This is the coppice where the new, bendy, sprouting branches were cut from. I love the tradition of building a boat beside the water where it will be set afloat, and using the materials found around it.
<the coracle woven
On my next walk on to the farm the framework had been woven together with more young shoots. In the farm shop one day I ran into Callum’s mentor, the affable Daniel Yabsley, and asked him about the project.
the coracle
Calico would be a traditional cover, but being fairly expensive, Dan helped Callum attach a tarpaulin to the framework instead. Canvas or animal skins were also used for these types of boats. One beautiful day in June a crowd of us joined the boatbuilders down at the old spring to launch the coracle. We flipped it over, off the bank and into the water. You can see the seat wedged in, not an easy project in itself.
the coracle launch
I think a mentorship is such a brilliant way to learn. One into the boat, two into the boat;
the coracle - they're off!
And they’re off! The boys used just one paddle and a wiggly sort of rowing.
coracle-passengers
Once round the pond and to the bank for passengers. The coracle is astonishingly stable! A race with the rowboat, and just about everyone (and their dog, truthfully) had a go.
the coracle © elisa rathje 2012 with thanks to james mccabe
Even me. What a thrill, to be out on the water on a beautiful day, in a handmade boat. Callum popped open a bottle of sparkling blueberry juice to mark the occasion.
the coracle © elisa rathje 2012 with thanks to james mccabe
(For the coracle thrill-seekers amongst you, you might like to know that one can spin round in circles rather quickly.) Such a wonderful old British tradition, coracle building. Happy summer solstice!

knaves acre

Knaves Acre is the 400-year-old cottage in Sussex that we had the utter delight to live in for a couple of years. Such a community, such wonderful countryside, and a beloved circle of friends. The old cottage is featured in the summer issue of the British interior design magazine, Heart Home. There are beautiful, inspiring spaces in every issue, do go have a look. Would you like to see Knaves from their perspective? Here are some of the images.

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In my studio, the hand-crank machine on the long antique table, usually covered in fabrics, papers, clay pieces, but sometimes transformed for a party.

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The old treadle. Those steps lead up to a reading room in the eaves, and the door opens to the deck and a spectacular view across the weald.

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I do love shelving in a studio for yarns and fabrics and excellent tools. I like to see my things, and know where to find everything at a glance.

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Our daybed, much transformed since we acquired it, with the pillows I sewed as studies in linen all across it. Friends would sleep here, and it is the best place to curl up with tea and a book. I’m very fond of the craft cupboard in the corner.

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We studied at the little round table in the mornings and shared our meals there in the evenings. I like to keep an old crate full of study books and pencils nearby, and basket for napkins and mats. I always thought of the ledge beside it as a mantel, though the little wood stove is opposite.

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The writing desk that I fixed up, and its companion, the painted chair. I love to have a place dedicated to writing and image editing, and all the small things that surround that sort of work. Well positioned between the wood stove and the windows! The doors lead to the rambling old garden, once an acreage, with a pond and a swing and a greenhouse in it. And a cliff!

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The settee is an upholstery project, my first. Next to it a table I revived, and my tall girl’s bluebird typewriter, with a story in it as always. The flowers all round the cottage were picked at Blooming Green.

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Up the steps are the bedrooms, with the painted bed and pot cupboard. The vaulted ceilings are something else! From that window we could see the Bluebell steam by in the distance.

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And through to the girls’ room, tiny but perfectly formed. The truckle bed helped the space function well, such a cosy little room in the eves. One wall was entirely lined with shelves full of books and beloved games.

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I loved this kitchen for its marble counter in one corner, bright windows beyond the hob, and open space to stack my own pottery along with pieces I’ve collected. (And for its old edition of Mrs Beeton’s.) It was fascinating, and so much fun, to watch the lovely editors and photographer Paul Craig working to tell the cottage’s story, looking at the space so differently and shooting from angles I’d never have expected. We ate the tarts I’d baked, and had a lovely time.

dyeing wool

The casual mentorship by family and friends in my life, introducing me to skills, tools, techniques, gives me tremendous courage. For months I’ve been actively avoiding a fleece, a wonderful big Jacob’s fleece that my sweetheart bought for a few quid at the farm shop. I’d never so much as watched someone washing or carding a fleece. Finally, my sweet friend Caz’s invitation to bring some wool and do some plant-dyeing over at Trefoil Farm School moved me to action. You know, the morning of our date. In fact it wasn’t difficult, or that messy. Out in the garden I clipped the tougher bits of wool from the fleece and put the rest into a tub of luke-warm, dish-soapy water, gently worked it, and repeated. Just to clean it a little and remove some of the oils. It’s amazing what scares me!

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At the farm school, such a peaceful place, handmade buildings and everything beautiful, we set up at a table outside and the children all helped to card some wool. More about carding later – I’m very much in love with it!

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The wool and yarn were placed in hot water, to soak before the dyebath.

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Caz has a gorgeous collection of dyer’s books. We used Wild Colour, a copy of which I plan to get my hands on. Tansy!

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We used dried tansy, prepare the day before. I think Caz had cooked the plant material and left it to soak and release more colour.

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The plant-dye was strained off;

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A mordant, one chosen to pop up the yellow colour, was added, carefully;

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And all the wool added to the pot and set on the stove to heat for half an hour. The effect when dry was very subtle. More experimentation!

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Most exciting of this process of dyeing wool with plants is feeling like we can begin wonderful experiments in colour now, with that courage you get from being shown how by a good friend. I have a red cabbage in the fridge and nettles in the garden that I might try first.

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You might like a couple of images I made of the plant-dying, spinning and weaving projects Caz does with the sweet children at the farm school. I think her fibre work is so beautiful. Thank you Caz, and everyone at Trefoil for the tremendous inspiration!

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papermaking

Making paper is such simple pleasure. A little circle of friends made some together today. We began, like bread bakers, a day or two in advance, ripping a dozen sheets of paper into small pieces and leaving it to soak in a few cups of water. One family cooked theirs up and spun it through the food processor to get a fine pulp; the others just rubbed the soaked paper for a few minutes, til the fibres came apart, to make a rough, porridgey texture.

papermaking-screen

You’ll need a screen. We had ready-made screens and homemade screens. An embroidery hoop with a pair of fine tights stretched across it works surprisingly well. You’ll also need a tub wide enough to accomodate the screens, and for good measure, a bit of mesh and a sponge to help press the water out.

papermaking-flowers

The children ran round the garden collecting flowers and leaves to add to the paper;

papermaking © elisa rathje 2012

Plucked the petals from their stems and threw it all into the mixture in the tub, with a bit of extra water.

papermaking © elisa rathje 2012

Ready? Here we go. Slip the screen (screen-side-up) under the pulp, and lift it up to catch a layer of paper. If you don’t like the effect, tap it out and try again.

papermaking © elisa rathje 2012

If you choose to, lay the mesh over the pulp on your screen, and press gently with the sponge to release water, frequently squeezing out the sponge. I’m not sure it is necessary, but we admired the look of it after.

papermaking © elisa rathje 2012

Set the papermaking screen somewhere warm to dry for a few hours. It’s far too miserable to leave ours outside, sadly. We’ll pry up our homemade paper with a butter knife, and show you later!

writing desk

One of the traditional skills I’ve been studying is quite compatible with a predilection for fixing up old furniture. The fine art of haggling. I once read that if the seller doesn’t bargain, they always feel they should’ve asked for more, and if the buyer doesn’t bargain, they always feel they should’ve paid less; when they both negotiate, everyone goes away feeling quite satisfied with themselves. At any rate, between antique shops, online auctions and vintage markets, I’m in training. Just recently I bargained my way into a great deal on a neglected old painted secretary desk. The writing desk came home with us, to be refinished like several pieces I’ve worked on at the old cottage.

writing-desk

The yellowed paint was sanded a little and lightly coated with Old White chalk paint, and I removed old paint from the ornate handles with a dull scouring pad; they came up beautifully, though I admired some of the texture and left it. The good old fashioned leather inlay needed a gentle scrubbing and oiling to restore, it’s a beautiful surface to write upon with just a sheet of paper, though I’m usually working in a sketchbook or writing book. My fountain pen will be a natural match for the piece, when it returns from Germany where it is kindly being repaired, as I had the ill fortune to drop the lovely thing and crack it. Now the desk needs a coat of wax to protect its surface, but I’ve been too impatient to use it!

I adore this bit of furniture, I am thrilled to find it is such a well considered design. All of the drawers lock with a charming key, along with the desk that opens and shuts so elegantly. I love that I can lock up my work for the night, put it away, finished. I’m so pleased to have a devoted place for writing, with drawers and cubbies to keep all manner of papers and objects that didn’t have a good home before. My laptop fits it well, and having a dedicated place to work on it means that I don’t feel I am always working, and that work is everywhere. The top of the desk is just right for a collection of inspiring objects to gaze at, though I can see a bookshelf would also fit beautifully, and the leather inlay has clearly been used just as much for cups of tea as for writing. Ideal companions. If I could persuade my tall child to share, I think her typewriter would look debonair on it. My first experiment in painting fabric, an upholstered chair, had one more coat of a linen shade and is the perfect fellow to the desk, pretty, comfortable and ergonomic no less. When not in use the bureau looks dashing in the corner, which I consider an achievement for a workspace. Secretaire. Well made.

read more tried & trues.
read more stories about handcrafted things.

quilted quilt

Oh, I’m thrilled to finally have finished a nine-patch quilt. All patchwork, all piecing, all quilting, all binding finished today. It only took me three and a half years.

patchwork quilt © elisa rathje 2012

With a few interruptions. (Alright, interruptions like going to Canada for months, or working on seventeen other projects in between – don’t worry, it really needn’t take three years!) A second one is nearly done, so my children will each have a quilt.

patchwork quilt © elisa rathje 2012

I’m always delighted to complete a project. It looks just right with the bunting in their little room up in the cottage gable. I’m so pleased.