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!

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!

plant-dyed-yarn-1

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!

plant-dyed-yarn-2

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

plant-dyed-yarn-3

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!

plant-dyed-yarn-4

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.

plant-dyed-yarn-5

The plant-dye was strained off;

plant-dyed-yarn-6

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

plant-dyed-yarn-7

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!

plant-dyed-yarn-9

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.

yarn_samples.jpg

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!

weaving_wool.jpg

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!

breadsticks

When I’ve made flatbreads or English muffins or pizza, I love to make breadsticks out of the last of the dough.

stick-dough

I use a simple recipe for everything inspired by recipes from the River Cottage Bread handbook by Daniel Stevens. Mine is 500g each of whole and white spelt, 10g of yeast, 650ml of warm water, though I usually make up part of that with sourdough culture to deepen the flavour, 20g of sea salt, and a good glug of olive oil. I knead that well and leave it to rise, covered, overnight before using it for various recipes. Preheat the oven to about 200 C/375 F.

Roll out a good handful of the dough to a half centimeter on a floured surface.

cut-dough

Slice lengths of about a finger’s width;

spirals

Arrange them on an oiled tray in shapes as you please. The spirals are delightful, my children adore them. I like to drizzle the bread with garlic-infused olive oil and sprinkle them with coarse sea salt.

garlic-baked

Bake them through, about 18-20 minutes. I once made the mistake of putting them in a piping hot oven I’d been baking pizza in, and it swiftly turned them to charcoal.

breadsticks

Breadsticks! So great for simple meals out in the garden.

soapmaking

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.

tufted pillow

Next in my series of linen pillows, those little textural studies in sewing. I find tufted furniture quite entrancing, much like kissing pleats and smocking. Something about the sculptural qualities of tufting is so appealing, and I made a cushion to try it.

how to cover buttons with fabric

I love the tradition of accentuating tufting with buttons, from early vintage pieces to the Barcelona chair. Time to learn to cover my own buttons. My button jar had odd ones that I wasn’t sure how to use, so I bought a set of four with reassuringly simple directions printed on the back. Cut out the template and use it to cut your fabric. Sew a running stitch round the edge, pop the button in on the wrong side and pull to gather tightly. Smooth out the fabric and press the washer into place. Magic! Suddenly I was transported to my youth, wearing my mother’s 1960’s blue skirt & jacket, with cloth-covered buttons to match, just the same size as these. Very Jacqueline Kennedy.

handmade tufted linen pillow

I marked out four spots on each side of fabric before I began the piece. After covering the pillow in two shades of linen, I used some sturdy thread to sew through a pearly button back and out through the front, fabric-covered button, pulling as tightly as possible. Back and forth between the buttons til securely fastened, much wrestling and squashing of the cushion involved. I think the tufted pillow makes a fine addition to the daybed, quite cosy. Now I have rosettes in mind for the next cushion, though as winter steadily approaches, it must wait its turn til I’ve finished the nine-patch quilts.

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handmade tufted linen pillow