Tag Archives: making

Picau-ar-y-maen – Welsh cakes

One of my favourite childhood memories is shearing time. I grew up on a sheep farm in the middle of Wales, with my grandparents next door and my aunt, uncle and cousins across the field. Some mornings throughout the year we’d be woken up early to get dressed in overalls (the only thing that will keep the clothes of a bunch of kids marauding across the Welsh countryside relatively clean) and wellies, and head out up to the top of the farm to round-up the sheep, bringing them down to other fields, or into the pens in the paddock if it was dipping or shearing time.

I never remember being told it was shearing day, just that I would wake up to the sound of hundreds of bleating sheep, the odd rattle of corrugated metal sheet fences as they were shuttled through the pens, the sharp smell of sheep shit and wool heavy in the morning air. My brother and I would dress in an excited flurry, hopping out the door with one welly on and overalls flapping, desperate to watch.

Sheep farming is a solitary business, and it takes more than one man to shear a flock – there must have been some complicated schedule around the village, because neighbours would come to help on our farm, and my grandfather to theirs – sort of like one of those barn-raisings you see in the movies, but with less singing and dancing. And a lot more sheep.

Everyone would be enlisted – the men to corral the sheep and do the actual business of shearing, the wives to gather and roll the wool and pack into huge, oily hessian sacks tacked up between fenceposts. When I was very young I remember being allowed to climb onto the roof of the land-rover to jump on the sacks and pack down the wool, but this was soon deemed too dangerous, much to the disappointment of everyone under the age of ten.

Instead we’d be enlisted to peel a mountain of potatoes and veg in big buckets outside my Grandmother’s front door, and help prepare for the big meal to feed the army of helpers.

Welsh cakes were a fixture of the day, thick with butter or sugar. I still associate them with home and shearing, and I bake them every St David’s Day as a token offering – along with a bunch of daffodils in a vase on the table – to my Welsh blood.

But it’s when the summer starts to turn to autumn that I make them now, and today with the rain sheeting down and grim, and because I’m feeling a little homesick, it was the perfect opportunity to make them.

You can buy them in M&S, and some supermarkets, but you’re missing out on their wonder if you don’t eat them when they’re homemade and warm from the pan.

Here’s the recipe, that I copied from my mum’s hand-written recipe book. I add more fruit and spice though, since I love things fruity and spicy (wink wink nudge nudge) but it’s up to you how much you put in. Traditionally these were cooked straight on top of the stove, no need for a pan, but sadly I’ve never actually made them like that, despite having both a stove and a coal-fired rayburn back home in Wales.

  • 8 oz self-raising flour
  • 4 oz butter or margarine
  • 3 oz mixed fruit and/or sultanas
  • 3 oz caster sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 tsp mixed spice

Sift flour, sugar and spice and mix well. Rub in margarine.

Add fruit and mix well.

Beat egg lightly and add. Mix to a dough (if it’s too dry add a bit of milk)

Roll out onto a floured surface till about 1/4 inch thick.

Cut out shapes. As you can see from the pictures above, mine never turn out particularly neat (probably because I use more fruit than the recipe calls for, but, meh, it’s a price I’m willing to pay) – but I use a round cutter about 3 inches wide). Lightly grease a frying pan with margarine/butter – if you can use a cast iron pan even better.

Heat pan over medium heat, and cook cakes for approx 3 mins on each side.

Watch carefully, they burn easily! I generally lose a couple to the burning, but I eat them anyway, because waste not want not eh? You can eat them with butter or sugar sprinkled on, but I think they’re best plain, hot from the pan, and with a nice cup of tea. Eat whilst curled up next to an open fire if possible, in a nice comfy chair with a good book if not.


Bus Station Kofta: lamb meatballs with egg in tomato sauce


I’m going to let you in on my secret recipe, the one meal that is super easy to cook and super easy to eat a shit-ton of too. This works best as the autumn nights draw in, and although it’s only September and was 32 degrees only a couple of days ago, I adore autumn and am trying to bring it on early just by sheer force of will, autumn clothing and warming recipes. It’s also really good if you’re feeling sad/heartbroken/homesick/generally sorry for yourself.

This meal was cooked for us when my brother and I went to stay with some of his old uni friends in London, a good few years before we both ended up moving here ourselves. My brother’s friends Ollie and Fi cooked it – with the story that one, or both of them, I can’t remember, had first tasted this recipe whilst traveling in Morocco. Apparently this sort of food is served in bus stations across the country, hence the name: Bus Station Kofta. I’m not even going to talk exact quantites here, because this recipe is so easy and relaxed  it really doesn’t matter.

Basic ingredients

Packet of lamb mince

Olive oil



Chopped onion (optional)

2-3 tins of chopped tomatoes


Fresh coriander

Basically, make the meatballs by mushing together the lamb, breadcrumbs, and a fair sprinkling of cinnamon. You can use onion if you want here but I find it makes the meatballs fall apart too easily in the pan. You can also use an egg to bind them but as lamb mince is quite moist anyway I don’t think it really needs it. The breadcrumbs are to bind the meatballs too – I usually use one or two bits of bread (the ends work better, or if it’s slightly stale), but again sometimes you don’t even need this. Either put it all in a big bowl and mash together, or use a blender to mix it all up. Then form into as many little meatballs as you can – about ping-pong ball sized normally works well.

Heat up some olive oil in a big pan and brown the meatballs, rolling them occasionally with a small spoon so that they’re evenly cooked. A big sauté pan with a lid is best for this.

Once the meatballs are browned all over, pour in the tinned tomatoes, adding another good sprinkling of cinnamon and a handful of chopped coriander, mixing it all in.

Allow to cook for a bit, keep the heat so it’s just bubbling nicely. About 5 minutes or so later, make a few hollows in the sauce and crack in one egg per person. Cover the pan with a lid and allow the eggs to poach.

Once the eggs are done serve with chunks of warm crusty bread (homemade is better), lashings of chopped coriander, and, if you’re feeling healthy, some salad.

You’re welcome.

Sew for victory!


A little while ago I finished making this dress, and thought I’d post a little something about it in case anyone else out there would like to make it (it’s taken me literally years to find a modern pattern for a 1940s dress. Years.) It’s a pattern by Butterick (B5846). Ignore the crappy ’80s style artwork on front of the pattern, here’s the example on the Butterick site:


Which is actually pretty similar to the kind of 1940s style dress that I’d been looking for for years…dubarry40s

I’m by no means an expert sewer: I enjoy sewing but I find the details difficult, and patterns fairly incomprehensible when it comes to the directions. I’ve never been good at thinking in reverse, and often find that after “finishing” a piece of sewing I’ve somehow manage to sew the wrong sides together, or on the wrong way around. Or my hand. This time, I wanted to take it slowly and try and get it right.

It came out fitting perfectly, although it takes a while to get used to the very ’40s fit (fitted waist, roomy up top: it has 6 pleats at the front and 6 at the back, so it really tapers up in the boobage-area)

There was a lot of unpicking that went on here, but it worked in the end (even if it did turn out a bit more like an old lady’s housecoat than I’d intended). And I managed a ton of complicated stuff I’ve never tried before: sleeves! A collar! Piping!

And best thing ever: IT’S GOT POCKETS.

“Fences are failing all over the park!”

Screen Shot 2013-05-29 at 10.23.36

I knitted this. With my own fair hands. Okay, so it’s a bit rough around the edges, but still! A  T-Rex, man!

If you’re interested the pattern is from a book called Baby Knits Made Easy by Dorling Kindersley (Bringing You The Best Books Since, Well, Forever) that my mum bought me, knowing how much I’m loving knitting but have the patience and skill for only very teeny things. The pattern is also free here if you want to have a go. As it’s for babies it’s good to use very soft wool, so I chose a bamboo cotton mix thingy that’s like, well soft innit. It wasn’t too complicated (especially since the book explains a lot of the stitches) but it was pretty fiddly, so if you have tiny hands like a T-Rex you might find it challenging.


(photo used with permission)

Pili-pala is butterfly in Welsh – isn’t that lovely? It’s a fluttery sort of word, somehow.

I finished the above commission for a lovely lady recently – she’d seen my Shanghai Butterfly headpiece (below) and wanted something similar in red and blue to wear to a wedding of a friend. I tracked down this gorgeous crimson silk dupion for the piece, and sewed the emerald-blue silk dupion “eyes” with hand-painted veins and detail. I’m really pleased with it, and I think the customer was too!

Shanghai Butterfly headpiece for sale here on Etsy.

I think these butterflies are possibly my favourite of all the hats and headpieces I make. Each wing is sewn separately with a thin wire frame, which means you can bend and shape it to fit the curve of your head, or have it sticking out for a bolder look – and the wire also means it flutters a little as you move!

I’ve made big ones, small ones, and teeny ones that fit on hair slides so far – and have also started branching out into dragonflies! With a thinner and more defined shape, the dragonflies make a slightly bolder statement than the butterflies – smaller but with more impact! I was recently commissioned to make one in peach silk with brown and gold detail, and it looked really lovely. (Hopefully post pictures soon).

I’m open to commissions on both the dragonfly and butterfly headpieces, so if you’d like one or know anyone who’d like one please drop me an email! Granted I can source the fabric (or in some cases dye it to achieve the right shade) I can make them in any colour you might like. The upside of commissioning your own headpiece is that you can have input in all the design features – and know for sure that no one else will have anything quite like it atop their heads! Think of all those dreadfully dull “fascinators” and hats at the Royal Wedding earlier this year! BORING! These are individual, hand-made, and made to suit you.

Enough self-publicity? Okay. I’ll just leave you with this lovely photograph by Adam Hobden, with the lovely Sophia Louise modelling my Shanghai Butterfly hat at a bridal shoot last summer – wouldn’t it look gorgeous on a bride?

Step by step: Blocking a felt hat…

I’ve been teaching myself to block felt hats for the past year now – I’m by no means an expert, having no formal teaching or training at all, but I’ve learnt a bit over the year and thought I’d post it here, for anyone who is interested, or interested in having a go themselves.

There are some great courses available where you can learn the basics, but this can be a bit costly, so I decided to try and go it alone. Everything I’ve learnt so far has been through a useful book called Design & Make Fashion Hats by Karen Henriksen, judicious use of Google, the lovely helpful girls at Atelier Millinery in Soho (who incidentally run greatcourses in hat and fascinator making), and an awful lot of trial and error.

Blocking felt hats isn’t easy, but neither is it hard if you have a bit of common sense and a lot of patience. It does though require a bit of specialist kit, which can be expensive. However, if you factor in how many hats you’ll be able to make once you’ve got your hands on a block, some felt stiffener and a good iron, it doesn’t work out too expensive, especially if like me you’re a bit of a hat fanatic. Trilbies, cloches and fedoras are already flooding into the shops for the autumn season, and you can expect to pay anything between £30-£60 for a nice one in a high-street store. This way you get the fun of making hats, as well as full control over how you want it to look. Remember though that a block has only one size setting so you will only be able to make hats in that particular size.

To block hats you’ll need the following:

  • A paintbrush (I use a cheapy one about an inch and a half wide, though be aware that the cheaper brushes will malt all over the felt and you’ll need to pick these off)
  • Felt stiffener
  • A small bottle of water with spray nozzle and/or a wet flannel or old tea-towel
  • An iron with a good steam setting
  • A felt hood in your chosen shade
  • A hat block
  • Some clingfilm
  • String or old ribbon
  • Drawing pins and fabric pins
  • Whatever ribbons, feathers or trimmings you might want to use.

(Please see the note on costs and sourcing below to find out about all these materials)

Ready? Set? Go!

1. First of all cover your hat block with clingfilm. This is to protect it from the water and the steam as much as possible.

2 .Now, turn your felt hood inside out, and paint it all over with the stiffener. There’s a bit of a nack to this – you want it to permeate the pile of the felt, but not come out the other side too much. I’ve found the best thing to do here is to not get too much stiffener on your brush, and use a stippling action to work it into the pile. You can always put more on at a later stage, depending on how firm you want your hat to be. Also be aware that too much stiffener can leave that side of the felt scratchy and marked. This isn’t normally a problem as this will be the inside of your hat, but if you intend to fold your brim over (for instance, for a tricorn hat) then what was once the inside will now be the oustide and fully on show.

3. Once you’ve covered the felt hood completely in stiffener, turn it inside out again (so that the right side is facing out once more) and put it on the hat block to dry. After 30mins to an hour the felt should be completely dry. Meanwhile clean your paintbrush- just dry it as best you can with some paper towels and wrap it in clingfilm. Do NOT use water – the stiffener reacts with water and essentially turns from a liquid to a solid. This is why it works with the felt – once the steam hits it the stiffener inside the felt reacts and holds the shape you want it to……but if you have a spare moment and want a laugh put a drop of stiffener in an old jug or cup, add some water and watch if puff out instantly into a sort of weird white…..stuff. Icky fun.

4. Fill your iron with water and set it to the steam setting. It’s a good idea to get somewhere well-ventilated for this – you’ll have the iron on the steam setting for a long time so unless you want to turn your place into a steam-room, it might be best to open a window. Once your iron is hot and ready, place the wet tea-towel or flannel on the felt hood and steam and iron over the top of it, pulling the felt down and stretching it as you go. This takes a lot of time and effort to pull and stretch the felt, so don’t get impatient, just keep going. You’ll want to manipulate the felt until you have a smooth shape over the crown of the block with no folds or bumps. Like I said, it takes a while, don’t give up! (If you’re feeling brave you can spritz the felt with some water and put the iron directly on the felt which is sometimes good to smooth out a particularly troublesome fold, but be careful as you can mark the felt like this sometimes). I’ve ironed my hands many-a-time here, so also be careful with that – it’ll be really, really hot, take it from me!

Note: Here if you want to make a trilby but don’t have the right shaped block you can use the side of your hand to mark the dent in the crown. You can basically shape it any way you want by manipulating it with your hands alone, though this is a bit trickier than just ironing it over a block or mold.

5. Here you can try the hood on or try to estimate or measure where you want your brim to start. Mark it by tying the string tight around the felt so that it is tight against the block. You can use drawing pins to stick it to the wood here but sometimes this too can leave marks in the felt so be careful. Any marks you do make here though can be covered with a hat band or ribbon, so don’t worry too much if it looks a bit untidy.

6. From here you can really go a bit freestyle with the design if you like. I don’t normally have a definite idea about how I want the hat to look as I’m still experimenting, so I usually just let the felt itself determine the style. You can put deliberate creases in by pinching the felt and ironing around it, pull the brim up, twist it around – whatever you like. However if you want just a basic cloche hat then I usually take the hat off the block (keeping the ribbon marking the end of the crown in place with sewing pins) and start ironing the brim flat on the ironing board. If you want a sloping brim you can use your hat block brim if it has one, or anything around the house that has the desired slope to it! You basically just want something hard to iron it against. If your brim is too floppy then you can stop, let it dry off (important, remember what I said the stiffener does when it meets water?) and then paint the inside again with more stiffener, then go back to ironing once it’s dry.

7. You’ll probably get some puckering around where the brim meets the crown – essentially you want the felt to shrink over the crown to fit the head, and then stretch where it meets the brim, which is a tall order. Just keep trying to iron out the puckering. Felt shrinks with heat and water so keep at it and it should smooth out. If you’re really struggling in the past I’ve tried getting the area that’s puckering really wet and sticking it in the airing cupboard for 24 hours to try to help it shrink. You’ll probably need to really pull at the felt brim to stretch it – this takes a bit of muscles and you’ll probably feel as if you’re not getting anywhere, but keep going, it’ll come!

8. By now you should have a hat-shaped object – well done! Now you can trim the brim to the size you want and start to think about the trimmings and finishing touches. You can roll the ends of the brim under and sew to give a nice finish, although I must admit I haven’t perfected this yet as it’s very hard to sew tidily in a circle on the felt on a sewing machine. If you’re a tidy hand-stitcher you could try it by hand, or leave it raw and trim it with ribbon or grosgrain ribbon, or just cut it tidily and leave it raw and un-trimmed. I sometimes use the excess felt that I’ve cut off from the brim as a hat band, or a bow, or fashion it into some kind of trimming for the hat. Go crazy! You can use ribbons, feathers, beeds, buttons, fabric, flowers, fruit, whatever you want!

9. Aaaand that’s basically it. Here I’ve pulled the brim up and incorporated the folds into the design, using the excess felt as a band and also some excess from a previous brown felt hat I’d blocked. If there are places where your hat is a bit floppy, just paint the inside with a bit more stiffener, but don’t go too crazy with it. Remember that if your hat gets wet – or worse, hot AND wet – it might lose its shape. But now you know how, you can easily re-shape or block it.

Voila, with added feather (from my dad’s fly-tying box, thanks dad!):

Costs and sourcing materials and kit

You can buy trimmings, felt hoods, stiffener and hat blocks at a millinery supply shop like Atelier Millinery, or online – I like thetrimmingcompany.com. The felt hoods are normally around £5ish depending on size, the stiffener about £18 for a large bottle that’ll see you through about 6 or 7 hats. The hat block is the most difficult thing – hat blocks are wooden molds. The crown will be in your chosen hat size (measured around the widest part of your head) and you can sometimes get them with a detachable brim (though I’ve found the brim is not strictly necessary). They come in all shapes and sizes, and can be very expensive. However I believe you can hire them from somewhere like MacCulloch & Wallis off Oxford Street, or other millinery shops, but you may need to check this out. They also sometimes come up cheap on ebay, etsy or amazon. If this is still too expensive for you, you can search online for alternatives like plastic hat molds or polystyrene blocks, or buy some polystyrene and shape one yourself. I’ve even heard of people using upside-down bowls, or papier mache ones (though these would have to be incredibly thick and strong). The wooden ones are the best but they’re just stupidly expensive – I was very lucky indeed that my wonderful Grandpa turns wood and made me a basic round-crown block to my own sizing. This does mean though that I can currently only make hats for people with heads the same size as mine….

Winter warmers

At this time of year I always find myself longing for autumn, my favourite season. I get homesick for the countryside – cosy nights by the fire hearing the rain and wind on the window panes, smelling woodsmoke and wet leaves on walks outside. I love the shorter days, the autumn colours and (when we’re lucky) the crisp bright mornings. But I also really love the autumn clothing – lovely knit scarves, jumpers, gloves and hats (of course, hats, this is me we’re talking about). I’ve never been much of a knitter but I just love making things – and I especially love it when you can take something like a ball of wool and turn it from a long thin bit of nothing to a piece of clothing – something that can be worn, something practical, something with a purpose. It’s the same kind of amazement I get from turning a felt cone into a blocked hat, that alchemic moment when it becomes something other than the separate parts, and as if by magic it’s transformed into one single object.

So I’ve picked up my knitting needles once more and tried to progress from something other than a scarf in the most basic knit stitch, which is all I’ve ever managed in the past, and began a couple of projects – one of which I’ve finished (but is top secret at this stage as it’s a gift for someone). This is what I’m going to start work on for myself soon – working with circular fixed needles, so a bit of a leap!

The pattern is by Rowan, and I’ve bought two balls of the most beautifully soft green Rowan wool for it, so I can’t wait to get started.

I’ve also always really loved knitting patterns – not the actual pattern itself as until very recently they seemed to be written in a complex code that made no sense to me at all. No, I really really love the styling and photography in these patterns, like the one below from Rowan:

Here’s one I’d love to try, by Sublime, complex as it looks, but I’d perhaps make it a bit longer and wear belted around the waist:

They remind me of Mori girls – a really lovely Japanese style genre. Normally Japanese styles are a bit too full-on for me, plus I’d find it difficult to commit completely to only one style, day in and day out – I prefer to be a jumble-sale of a girl.  But Mori girl style is really beautiful and wearable in an everyday sense, and probably the one I’d choose if I had to stick to one style for the rest of my life. It apparently means “girl of the forest” and they tend to dress in lots of vintage-y style knits, checks, soft natural fabrics and antique lace.


Spoon magazine



And this one, because it’s just beautiful and theatrical and brilliant:


Here’re those pictures and many more knitting patterns. The first lot are Rowan patterns and can be found here, and the white background ones are by Sublime available to buy here. Mori girl pictures linked above.