hair brush

The hair brush is probably about as ancient a tool as a knife; artifacts show up across every culture. In 1777 William Kent got started manufacturing them, and they haven’t changed a whole lot ever since. I’m partial to a wooden brush with natural bristles, a round one, or a flat one with pneumatic rubber cushioned bristles, like Mason Pearson made in 1885, around the same time as production started on my tried & true hard-rubber comb. As a child I admired an ornate silvery brush and mirror set in the family, the sort that was popular for brides for the last one hundred and fifty years. But it is the long traditions of brushing and styling hair that I’m even more interested in. I’m very pleased to have a guest who shares with me a delight and fascination with practices that ground us and connect us, the wonderful Kim McCabe. I like her perspective and asked her to give me her take on the tried & true hair brush, as someone who works with attachment and parenting.


My great-grandmother used to brush my grandmother’s hair one hundred times every morning.
My grandmother did the same for my mother.
My mother didn’t have time.

Now all too often we associate doing our daughter’s hair in the morning with hurry and stress. Tension arises as hair is tugged, child remonstrates, and mother chastises. We miss the opportunity that it gives mother and daughter to spend special time together. Tugging at tangles is not necessary. If we set aside ten minutes and take the tangles slowly, it can be a time of intimacy. It can be a pleasure for both.

Rather than approaching it with a sense of dread, brushing our daughter’s hair could become a morning ritual where we chat about the day ahead. It can be a ritual that continues long after she could be managing her hair for herself because it has become a precious way of checking in with each other at the start of each day. Sometimes things can be discussed that are not so easily spoken of face to face.

These daily snippets of quality time weave the strong web of the mother-daughter relationship. It is worth it, and it may even transform the morning mood at home.

My sweetheart likes to brush our children’s long hair while they watch a film together on the sofa. Then they come to me to show me their beautiful hair. It’s a sweet ritual, I hadn’t noticed it so much til now as a way to bring them close. I’ve grown my hair quite long and have been trying to persuade them all to plait it for me – and I’ve been practicing different knots and twists on the children’s hair. It’s such a friendly thing to do, I shall be keeping in mind another purpose beyond getting out all those tangles. Thank you Kim.

Kim McCabe works with mothers and their coming-of-age girls and writes the brilliant, perceptive Rites For Girls.


Like the bellows, the galvanised bucket, the snips, I often find the best tools are the simplest, strongest, most charming, and can be had for a song if you know where to look. I was ever so pleased to come across an antique grinder in a village shop, and knew it would be worth its weight in, well, breadcrumbs.

antique grinder © elisa rathje 2012

When I was a child one of my chores was to grind the dry crusts of bread into crumbs for this recipe or that. When the paper bag was full of crust, my mother would tighten the mincer onto the counter, and we’d cover the floor in breadcrumbs, turning and grinding. Excellent and useful tool, not only because it is almost entirely metal and likely will never break, not only for the economy of using up those crusts; but for people who suffer from food sensitivities, it is nearly impossible to find good organic, wheat-free breadcrumbs!

antique grinder © elisa rathje 2012

Of course, this is a mincer, for ground meat, and though the thought of the process does little for my former-vegetarian sensibilities, I must say it would be amazing to make my own sausages one day. For now I shall happily grind a hill of breadcrumbs.

(some time later…) My little one loves to mill and was so charming about it, I made a movie.


An essential tool in this little cottage is a pair of excellent snips. Sharp, sturdy, made entirely out of metal, practically unbreakable. I was delighted to find a set of five at one of those rare hardware stores that is filled top to bottom with tried & trues. I’m transported to another age in there, like being in a general store of great quality.

snips © elisa rathje 2012

This style of scissors has been made for over 300 years in China. Hand forged, they have a hard steel layer (for the sharpened edge) laminated to a softer iron backing that supports the more brittle hardened layer. They come razor sharp.

The five excellent scissors live around the cottage where they are most needed. The smallest pair hangs on a corkboard in the kitchen to help with opening papers and packages and letters. Another hangs in the greenhouse, a third gets moved round my studio, one more comes along in the trug for gathering sorts of walks. They’re indispensable.

galvanised bucket

Having grown up in one rainy village and moved across the world to another, I’m quite fond of any object that can emerge with grace from a wet winter. The patina on a galvanised steel bucket only improves with weathering and age. The ones I’ve found around this old cottage, and picked up for a fiver at markets nearby, are thick with stories. I guiltlessly leave them out in the wet, forgotten between the compost and the greenhouse when we’ve headed out for a walk in the hills. A couple of them are understated in such an appealing manner, they’ve been invited inside. I keep one next to my treadle to catch threads and snippets, and another stands upstairs beside the tub. Their dull, perfect grey inspired the resolution of a long-considered project, which I hope to show you tomorrow.

the old bucket © elisa rathje 2012

There aren’t many materials that age so beautifully. The stone chimney pot looks better and better, and the deck chairs are growing a distinguished grey, the terracotta pots are patterned with lichen, but most other objects acquire a distressing coat of slippery green in this climate, or worse, they sport mushrooms.

In 1742, French chemist Paul Jacques Malouin described a method of coating iron by dipping it in molten zinc in a presentation to the French Royal Academy. In 1836, French chemist Stanislas Sorel obtained a patent for a method of coating iron with zinc, after first cleaning it with 9% sulfuric acid (H2SO4) and fluxing it with ammonium chloride (NH4Cl).

Zinc-coated. Endlessly useful object, the galvanised bucket, the sort one might comfortably have around for generations without really noticing.


Soapmaking is one of those traditional skills with a long and ancient history. Making soap yourself grants access to possibilities for variation that is ever so satisfying. The purity of materials is in your own hands, this way. I’m very fond of that deep sense of connection to history and the independence that making things by hand allows. Baking sourdough bread, sewing clothes, throwing clay pots, preserving foraged foods, this is the kind of work that makes me feel grounded. And industrious. I traveled by train to the beautiful seaside village of Clovelly, Devon, to study cold-press soapmaking with Sarah Harper at The Clovelly Soap Company.

soap-making © elisa rathje 2011

A few natural ingredients are required, and a willingness to calmly, carefully handle the dangers of sodium hydroxide, no worse than chemistry class, but far more exciting, I should think. We dressed in long clothing, with aprons, rubber gloves and protective glasses, and kept a spray bottle of vinegar nearby (to counter the alkaline sodium hydroxide, if necessary).

soap-making © elisa rathje 2011

First we measured out coconut oil, sustainable palm oil, and olive oil.

soap-making © elisa rathje 2011

Melted it.

soap-making © elisa rathje 2011

Measured out the sodium hydroxide with great care. The name sounds slightly daunting, but if you responsibly handle boiling water, lighting fires, pumping a car with fuel, or driving one, frankly, you’ll be alright.

soap-making © elisa rathje 2011

We took this step outside and refrained from inhaling nearby. Adding the sodium hydroxide to the water is safest, stirring til dissolved. The chemical process heats up, so the next project is to cool the melted oils and the sodium hydroxide & water to the correct temperature range. This is the challenging bit, to pay attention to the dropping temperature when one does get lost in conversation, exploring beautiful things in the studio.

soap-making © elisa rathje 2011

Once the temperature is reached, we mixed the two liquids, added essential oils, and whisked them rapidly til they thickened and the wake of the whisk left traces behind it. I used geranium and rose oils.

Excellent process. Once the mixture reached trace we poured it into the moulds and covered with cling film, wrapped in a blanket to slow the cooling process, and went out for a walk along the stone harbour in Clovelly.

I’ll be unmoulding and cutting my soap soon, and leaving it to cure for a few weeks. If you’d like to make your own soap, you can follow Sarah’s guide, first published in the winter appleturnover newsletter. Or if you are a lucky thing and can visit Devon, go and see Sarah and her Clovelly Soap Co.