Category Archives: Politics

Adventures in Hemstitching

Like a lot of people around the world, I woke up this morning and was pretty surprised to see that citizens of the UK voted to leave the EU. All I can say is that the people have spoken and I hope this ends up turning out well for all.

On to less political/hot topics … hemstitching! A few years ago, I purchased Fine Machine Sewing by Carol Ahles at a local sewing shop. To be honest, I bought it because of the pictures, not because I had a burning interest in heirloom sewing, which I associate with christening outfits and dresses for young girls.

But lately I’ve been thinking about how to give my sewing projects a little more oomph. I briefly investigated an embroidery machine, but I think if I were to embroider it would be in small doses i.e. by hand and very discreet. Plus, it’s another machine that requires specialty threads and stabilizers, meaning a whole new line item of cost.

I started researching embellishment techniques I could do by hand or with one of my sewing machines, everything from smocking to sashiko. And then I remembered Ahles book in my sewing library…et voila!

As I reintroduced myself to the text and pictures, I noticed many of the photos were of store-bought plain linen blouses that had been embellished by the author. I enjoy making blouses, but did I want to practice machine hemstitching on something I’d spent hours creating, only to ruin it with a poorly executed pivot? After all, hemstitching creates holes in a garment, holes you cannot hide or fix. The holes are created with a specialty needle called a wing needle, which has “wings” on either side of the tip that push fibers to the side and create a very visible opening. I decided the best course of action was to do a bit of practice on some linen in my stash and then follow-up with some practice on a store-bought garment.

I scored this week at our (semi) local Savers: an ecru Liz Claiborne linen blouse, size medium.


My original plan was to dye the blouse navy blue as there’s a grease stain on the back shirt-tail and I thought the ecru color would wash me out, but I guess ecru is one of my “colors” — it really flattered my complexion more than I thought it would. So plan B was to keep it undyed and remove the stain with my Dawn dish detergent and a sturdy brush, which never lets me down. If Dawn can take crude oil off sea birds,  it can handle oil on clothing, I say. The other benefit to plan B was that mistakes would be harder to see on an ecru blouse hemstitched with white thread than a navy blue blouse stitched in white.

I decided to use a Parisian hemstitch, which is commonly used on linen napkins and table cloths, as well as clothing. It’s elegant and subdued, and it was easier getting a good result pivoting around the very visible collar point. I did quite a bit of practice on scrap linen before I attempted the cuffs:


I would have liked to stitch around the whole cuff but I would have cut into the buttonholes. I noticed halfway through the first cuff that I’d inadvertently reset the stitch length and width I planned to use to the machine’s preset stitch length/widths. Grr. But I was committed at this juncture, so I carried on.

Next, the collar:


Here, I noticed that the holes were less pronounced and the thread was thicker on the inside row of stitching than they were on the cuffs. It was okay though; I liked the result and I managed to pivot around those collar points like a pro. 😉

Emboldened by my success with the collar, I decided to add hemstitching down the sides of the front plackets:


I was very happy with how this turned out. The holes were visible and the thread wasn’t bunched up as much as it was on the collar and cuffs. It looked like true hemstitching.

Here’s a picture of the “refashioned” blouse:


(You’ll have to click on the photo to zoom it; the stitching isn’t very visible at this resolution.)

I’m very happy with how this turned out. I don’t think anyone will walk up to me and say, “Wow, what fantastic hemstitching! Where did you get that blouse?” but it really gives a very simple blouse a much more elegant look that *I* will appreciate.

My plan now is to continue sleuthing thrift shops for linen blouses that I can play with before I attempt sewing my dream blouse: white linen hemstitched in delft blue thread. I would also like a French blue blouse hemstitched in white … and gray one, too.

I also scored in a different area at Saver’s this week … I found a copy of Connie Long’s Easy Guide to Sewing Linings, which is out of print and can be expensive on Amazon. I got it for $2.99. 🙂


Friends and acquaintances often ask me if I named my son Oliver because it’s a popular name in Britain. In August, Oliver was one of Britain’s top-ten names for boys, right after Harry. Harry? Who would name a kid Harry? Ah, that’s right.

Prince Harry

So who would name a kid Oliver?

Well we did, way back in 2001 when Oliver wasn’t a very popular name at all here in the U.S., and only a bit more so in the U.K. Here’s the story: had we a daughter, her name was already picked out. We were going to name a daughter after my beloved paternal grandmother, Elizabeth Cairns Forrest. Everyone thought I was going to have a girl in the early months of my pregnancy, even the Chinese doctor who was treating me with acupuncture for my 24/7 morning sickness and who assured me she’d never been wrong predicting a baby’s sex. I, on the other hand, had a sneaking suspicion there was a boy baby jumping on my bladder.

An ultrasound around month five confirmed there would be no daughter named Elizabeth.

My husband and I spent months going back and forth on boys’ names. It seemed he loathed every name I liked: Andrew. (Too common). William. (Too boring, too many nickname possibilities). James. (“Di, what is it with you and Scottish kings? Give it up!”). And then there were his names: Calvin. (Syllables didn’t work with our last name.) Neal. (Eh.) I can’t remember the rest, but nothing stuck. We thought about our father’s names, but we were already using his father’s middle name (another long story) for our son’s middle name. As for my father’s name, it’s nice but I couldn’t go there for personal reasons that have nothing to do with my dad, who’s a great guy with a great name.

One hot late summer evening we were in bed with the baby name books and suddenly my husband said, “What about Oliver?” I was about to screech, “Oliver? OLIVER? Are you nuts? That’s a terrible name!” But just then, the boy in my belly gave me a god-awful kick and I paused. I poked my tummy to get his attention and said to it, “Hey kid, what do you think of Oliver Sheldon?” And he gave me another almighty kick. So that was that. Today when Oliver complains about his name (which isn’t very often, to be honest), I tell him, “We consulted and you approved.”

Most people said they loved the name, except two members of our family. One I won’t discuss here. The other was my mother, who has name issues because of her own moniker–Agnes. She insisted kids would make fun of him at school and call him
Ollie or Oliver North.

“Mom,” I reasoned, “Kids in ten years won’t know who Oliver North is. Kids today don’t know who Oliver North is!” She was so upset over the name choice, she actually hung up on me! (She insists she didn’t hang up on me, but I swear, she did.)

The night our son was born, nurses kept telling us, “He looks like an Oliver!” I still hear that today. I can’t imagine Oliver being anyone but an Oliver, and no one has ever called him Ollie. Oliver is a name that’s figured prominently in my ancestral family tree, and I love that its Norman roots come from the word for olive branch, signifying peace … and for me, good food. 😉

Last week he came home and said, “Hardly anyone at school calls me Oliver.”

“Oh really?” I said.

“When I walk into class, everyone yells, ‘Hey Ginger!'”

Thank God we didn’t name him Harry.


The Great British Sewing Bee

Dropping in briefly here to say if you live stateside/Canada, have you checked out the new series running on BBC2 in the UK called “The Great British Sewing Bee”? I found the first episode on YouTube; the second will be airing tonight so fingers crossed we’ll be able to keep up with the show. I like it a lot! The judges are firm, but kind, and I love that the clothes are “wearable,” unlike the fashions that are designed and sewn on Project Runway. Let’s just say that Nina Garcia’s definition of wearable is far different from mine. 😉

I was very sad to hear of Margaret Thatcher’s passing yesterday. I actually saw her briefly, once, during a trip to London. I happened to be at 10 Downing Street when she was getting into her car to fly up to Manchester after the Kegworth air disaster (I just looked up the date; it must have been January 9, 1989 as that’s when she gave a speech about it). I remember her hair being more red than I thought it was and she waved at the small group of us tourists as her car passed. That is it.

Today I saw my first snake of the season, a 2′ long garter snake sunning itself in the path of my bike. I am so proud of myself for not freaking out and driving off the path and into the ditch. I calmly navigated around the little fellow, then stopped my bike to look at him. No pictures, sadly … I was afraid to turn my back on the beast. 😉

English king’s remains found

One of my favorite Shakespeare plays is Richard III. One of the few lines of Shakespearean drama I can remember years after college is the king’s dying cry on Bosworth Field: “A horse, A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”

Scholars have long searched for this medieval king’s remains, and today the University of Leicester, along with the Richard III Society and the Leicester City Council announced that remains excavated from underneath a city parking lot are indeed the remains of the last English king killed in battle. Mitochondrial DNA from the skeleton was matched to a Canadian man who is a direct descendant of Richard III’s sister, Anne of York.

The video above explains how the remains were discovered. A friary once stood in place of the city parking lot. The king’s body was rumored to be buried in the choir area of the church. Since researchers knew the geography of the former church, once they started digging and found location markers, they were able to figure out where the choir would be. Luckily, the rumors were accurate! One thing I’ve never thought about is how often archaeological remains are found and we never know much about the person they once were. In this case — what a story!

A strange week for women

The past week has been a strange one for women. Writing about the 2012 election season, New Yorker writer Margaret Talbot wrote,“If there was a war on women this year, it looks like the women are winning” with a record 20 women taking U.S. Senate seats next year. Candidates who made extremely unpopular (and I must add offensive) remarks about women and rape did not win their elections. In this respect, it was a good week for American women.

Then I read Expat Mum’s blog yesterday, who alerted me to the delicious irony of Liz Jones. Jones had been invited to speak at a mom-blogging event in London and really put her foot in it declaring herself not a writer but an artist. In her column she ridicules the women who stay home with their children and blog for income. Because, you know, brand-dropping, divulging one’s marital woes in excruciating detail, and insulting one’s neighbors in newsprint is what real writers — I mean artists — do.  Given the chance, I think Liz Jones would defend Todd Akin if she knew it would give her more page views.

And today? Back across the pond we’ve got a massive DC sex scandal that gets stranger by the day. At the center, two women, one who had an affair with the head of the CIA and the other, it’s reported today, was dallying with the top U.S. general in Afghanistan and who also happened to be the target of hands-off-my-man e-mails from the woman who had the affair with the head of the CIA. The mind boggles! The older I get, the more I believe that some women never evolve past seventh grade and men, no matter how smart they are, are guided by the heads in their pants. Anyway, I think this sex scandal is going to be a potboiler. I sense offers from Playboy for the two women. Two steps back. I can’t help but wonder what U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton is thinking of all this as she’s traveling in Australia with the U.S. Secretary of Defense today?

Today I’m 48. Here’s one of my birthday presents from a secret admirer, a skein of sock yarn from The Woolen Rabbit in New Hampshire in the most appropriate colorway, Scottish Heather. Sorry for the cruddy picture but it’s very dark and gray here today, a common occurrence on my birth day. I love the muted purples and heathery greens of this yarn; it will make a perfect cowl to go along with my gray down jacket.

Election 2012

It’s finally here. Election Day 2012. After months of sitting through the interminable television ads for candidates, chiseling out legitimate mail from our mailbox jammed with postcards from the Democrats, the Republicans, the Greens, the Reds, and political issues vying for our attention, walking and biking past lawn sign after lawn sign, listening to my mother rant about the Evil [insert political party that shall not be named]s, blocking discord mongers on my Facebook feed, and waving off pollsters at grocery stores, today I can take a nice bike ride down to the middle school, cast my vote, and be done with Election 2012.

I hope.

It’s not all over but the shoutin’. I’ve read reports where we can expect recounts and charges of voter fraud before one side can claim victory. So much money has been spent on this presidential election, yet most people I talk to are voting to prevent “the other guy” from winning or they’re picking the candidate who’s least objectionable to their beliefs and values. I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s genuinely crazy (in a good way!) about their candidate. I’m not someone who believes one party or presidential candidate is the be-all-and-end-all solution for our country’s problems, but I do like to see citizens charged up for change. It  feels like people have, I don’t know — given up? don’t give a rat’s ass? — about who gets in because we’re heading for another four years of Been There, Done That, Drank the KoolAid. In fact, I know a few folks who’ve grown so apathetic and discouraged they’re not even bothering to vote this election.

I’m always curious how other countries view our election process and what they think of our candidates. The Guardian has a geographic roundup of perceptions of U.S. presidential candidates. Bottom line: the apathy I’ve noticed on the domestic front crosses international borders.

What do you think of the U.S. elections this year? Are you ready for election season to be over already? Hopeful for the future? Add your comment below.

Meanwhile, I do have an election first: I’ll be biking over to the polls instead of driving. 🙂

Election time

Last week O came home from school. Excited. He was clutching a green form and couldn’t wait for me to read it over.

“I’m running for student council!” he said. Then he plopped himself down at the dining room table and started drafting his platform. This kid had it all figured out. Each classroom can have two students on the council, and rather than have the students vote for the candidates, the teachers pick based on the quality of answers to the two questions they posed on the green form.

I have to admit, I broke out into a little sweat when I saw how excited he was about joining student council. On one hand, I’m happy that he’s excited about an extra-curricular activity. O isn’t much of a joiner, although he’s an outgoing and social child. You know those parents who have their kids signed up for karate, piano lessons, fall soccer, spring baseball, math tutoring, and fifth grade chorus? Well, my husband and I bear no resemblance to them. We’re happy to sleep in on a Saturday morning while our neighbors schlep grumpy kids and gear to chilly soccer fields at 7:30 a.m. With dismay I noticed that should O get selected for student council, he’d need to attend before-school meetings every other week.

“That’s okay, Mom,” he said. “I have a lot of stuff I want to bring up in those meetings. I won’t have any trouble getting up early.”

Never mind that we’ve got to drive him there.

O is getting to that age where I look at him and see that he’s his own person and the whole concept just blows my mind a little. His interests and traits are all his. When he was in preschool, his teachers told us O was the classroom conflict resolver; the other children would turn to him when there was a problem and he’d try to solve it. I remember my husband and I looking at each other, and I’m sure we were both thinking about how when we were in school, we were the ones causing the conflicts. O loves working on a team whereas his father and I are classic introverts, happy to be left alone in our own little worlds. How could we end up with a kid who plays well with others? How did we get a politician???

We’ll find out in the next week if O was picked. He wrote what I thought was a compelling answer to why they should pick him, and he ran out of room on the sheet listing all the problems he hoped to resolve for the school this year, everything from buying a tetherball for the playground to developing a campaign to get kids to wash their hands after using the toilet, which, according to my slightly OCD son, doesn’t happen as much as he would like.

I’m not sure fifth graders are impressed by public health initiatives, so I’m glad the teachers are picking.

Subaru to hockey moms: When you die, you can go to hell


Did Subaru’s advertising agency pay attention to what Shane McGowan is singing in If I Should Fall From Grace With God?

Although it’s one of the catchiest sounding songs ever IMO, the lyrics are pretty depressing. It’s a song about what should be done with the singer’s body after death if the “angels won’t receive [him]” and he can’t be buried in consecrated ground. “Coming up threes boys” must have given them the idea to put three cute little boys in the ad, when really, it’s a reference to the old wives’ tale that drowning men come up for air three times before succumbing; bad luck and death also come in threes.  The song has references to the longstanding Anglo/Irish conflict, and if I understand the lyrics right, McGowan is basically telling the English they can go to Hell with him (“Let them go down in the mud/where the rivers all run dry”). (ETA: I reread the lyrics and the “them” could also refer to “our fathers.”)

I’m guessing like most Americans, the agency creatives love the energy of the music. So do I! I’m sure some of them were in college in the 80s and remember getting shit-faced at parties, the Pogues cranked in the background. Still, every time I see the ad I can’t help but think they’re telling hockey moms to go to hell. In which case, maybe they wanted to slip a sly sense of humor past the client.

What do you give the couple who has everything?

A couple days ago, the office of the Prince of Wales released lists of gifts given to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (that’s William and Kate/Catherine) and a separate list of gifts given to the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall (or more familiarly, Charles and Camilla). There was the requisite round of grumbling from the British press, especially when it was revealed via another list that the Countess of Wessex had accepted expensive jewelry from the Crown Prince of Bahrain during an official visit. Bahrain’s human rights policies give Amnesty International plenty to work with, to put it mildly, so accepting such gifts seems a bit of a brow raiser to me. Kate and William also received some expensive gifts during their visits to North America, Australia, and New Zealand in 2011, but none from despots or dictators.

Much like the President of the U.S., British royals must declare gifts and they are not allowed to keep them, although they may use them. The gifts belong to the state, which is, actually, a very nice policy since I assume the cost of insurance and upkeep then falls to the taxpayers. Sweet deal!

If you want to check out the gift list, click here. So they got some nice gifts but they also had to lug home loads of hats, t-shirts, Vegemite, a ball point pen, three pairs of shoes, and a dog toy. It made me think of the crap I’ve lugged home from trade shows. At least they had some diamonds mixed in.

P.S. Don’t forget that I’m giving away a copy of Rose: My Life In Service this Friday the 13th. All you have to do to enter is leave a comment at the end of my book review.

Book Review and Giveaway! Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor

ETA: I’ll be closing the comments section on this post at 5 p.m. ET on January 13

Here stateside many of us are eagerly counting the hours to the premiere of Downton Abbey’s second season on PBS (Sunday at 9 p.m; check your local station to confirm). The word from the UK is that this season is a bit of a dud, but I’ll still be watching simply because I love the cast of characters and am willing to give the anachronisms a pass.

Anyway, earlier this week I was contacted by Penguin Books to see if there was any interest in an autobiography they were reprinting called Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor. Written by Rosina Harrison, Lady Astor’s lady-maid of decades, it details what it was like to work “in service” during a bygone era of British aristocracy.* Since Rose grew up in the village of Ripon, which figures in Downton Abbey, Penguin wondered if I would be interested in reading an advance copy of the book. But of course!

Last night I crawled into bed early with my book, intending to skim a few pages, but I ended up reading a full three chapters. This simply written story starts by detailing Rose’s upbringing in a loving working-class family and how she knew from an early age her career would be working in service for her social superiors.

I was drawn in by the descriptions of Rose’s childhood and the expectations her parents — nay society — had for her. Children worked and worked hard at the turn of the 20th century. Almost as soon as Rose could walk, she was helping her mother with the backbreaking work of washing clothes (her mother, a laundress, took in the neighborhood aristocrats’ laundry). She was also responsible for polishing the stove each week (again, another grueling chore especially when you remember stoves back then ran on wood or coal) and helping her parents take care of their younger children. There’s no hint of complaint in her recollections, although she remarks:

“People have often said to me how lucky I was to be brought up in a village in the beautiful countryside with the freedom of the fields and lanes, the simplicity of life among animals and above all in peace. It sounds lyrical as I write it and perhaps in a way it was, but most people forget and sometimes I do that for the most part life was continual hard work even as a young child.”

She later writes that people often dismiss the struggle and low wages as relics of a different era, but she wrote:

“Things were different. There was no National Insurance, so there was the constant fear of getting ill, of being out of work, of growing old without a family to look after you and being buried in a pauper’s grave. There was no electricity, no sewerage, no running water, no refrigeration; fruit and vegetables came and went with the seasons.”

It’s clear that Rose is a smart girl, which serves her well in service. Her parents scrimp and save so she can be tutored in French and acquire finer sewing skills to become a proper lady’s maid, which will afford her the chance to travel and see the world, something Rose desperately wants to do. As a knitter myself, I giggled at her complaint of having to knit her father’s socks, which seemed to go on forever, round and round, but seemed to get done as she kept him in new socks for years. I got as far as Rose’s first placement, a lady’s maid to two daughters of a wealthy London family. Her experience here gives her insight into her role as a servant to the upper classes. She describes her relationship with one of the daughters:

“We weren’t friends, though if she was asked today she might well deny this. We weren’t even acquaintances. We never exchanged confidences, never discussed people, nothing we said brought us any loser [sic]; my advice might be asked about clothes or bits of shopping, but my opinions were never sought or given on her music or the people we met or on anything that was personal to either of us, nor did I expect it or miss it at that time. That was the accepted way of things.”

I thought that was a fascinating illustration of how times have changed, especially with those words “miss it at that time.” Today, such chilly separation between employer and employee would be unbearable, don’t you think?

Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor was first published in 1975 and is being re-published by Penguin this month. Along with my copy, Penguin has send another copy for me to give away to a lucky Hail Britannia reader. All you have to do is comment below, making sure you add your e-mail address to the appropriate field — it will not appear on the site! — so I can contact you should you win the book. I’d also love to hear whether you’ll be tuning into Downton Abbey this Sunday — or, if you’ve already seen it, what you thought of the 2nd season. I’ll be picking a winner a random next Friday (lucky Friday the 13th!) and yes, the contest is open to anyone no matter where you live, although if you’re overseas it may take some time for the book to show up. Just can’t wait? Order the book on Amazon.

I am counting the hours until bedtime so I continue reading this treasure of a book. I’m eager to find out more about the relationship between Rose and her witty, yet often tempestuous, mistress.

* An interesting note. Lady Astor, whose birth name was Nancy Langhorne, was a spirited American lass who moved to England in the early 1900s after a disastrous marriage to a fellow American. In England, she met Waldorf Astor, also born in America but resettled in England, and married him, thus becoming Lady Astor. Later, Lady Astor became the first female member of Parliament. Which just goes to show, with enough money, even an American can stand in Parliament.