Monday, 29 February 2016

Patchworking...Part 3: Stitchin' ditches and goin' batty!

I've been quite taken up with the quilt this last weekend... (If you missed parts 1 and 2, then just scroll back through the posts to find them.) If you remember, at the end of my last post, I'd got this far:

Saturday morning saw me back at Quorn Country Crafts to purchase backing fabric and batting. I had it in my head to find a turquoise fabric, but there wasn't anything the right shade. Orange, I felt, would overpower the other colours. I looked at cream, but decided that might show the dirt too much. So I was left with the brown/beige option. I must've looked a bit daft, holding my quilt top up to the shelf to find a match...

Anyway, I found a rather lovely spotted beige which didn't look bad at all, so after a few mathematical equations (who knew it was so hard to work out how much you needed to buy for borders and backing?!) I had a metre and a half of fabric and the same of batting. Batting is the spongy layer that gives your quilt the lovely squishy feel when it's finished.


When I got home, I had a play with my new rotary cutter (SUCH a fab tool!) and discovered it will cut through four layers of fabric at once, though I can't cut in a straight line even using a proper quilting ruler. At least I had my borders; slightly wider for the top and bottom than for the sides.

Once they were sewn on, I could layer the pieces. Backing fabric face down, batting, then quilt top face up. I left quite a bit of backing and batting at the sides because I wasn't sure how much it would bunch once I started the actual quilting bit - as it turns out, I wasn't too far off from where I needed to be, so there wasn't much wastage.

Then I pinned everything together. Now, before I looked into this quilting lark, I hadn't realised the significance of the quilting - that is, the stitching which goes all over your patchwork. It's to keep the batting in place. If you didn't stitch across the patchwork, you'd probably end up with a lumpy quilt! So it's quite important at this stage to hold all the layers in place before you begin to stitch. 

The only problem I had here was that some of my safety pins were a bit thick, and when I took them out later, they had left holes in the fabric; only one or two, but I was annoyed.

Then I stitched a ditch. This is a technical term, which means you stitch within the seams you've already sewn. I figured that, as I'd mastered straight lines on the sewing machine, I'd be better off doing that than trying to do diagonals or free hand curves. Actually, I'm not sure my vintage Singer will do anything free hand...

My first ditch, stitched!

I sewed a quarter inch away from the seam on the first few squares - starting in the middle of the patchwork and moving out - and as I got further out, I realised I could use the width of the machine foot to get much closer - about an eighth of an inch. The ditches certainly got neater, I felt, as I made more of them.

Now, bearing in mind I'm not THAT au fait with the sewing machine or quilting as a technique, I discovered several things at this stage.

1. Remember I mentioned about the bobbin thread jumping out? Well, that was due to me not putting the bobbin in the right way round. It has to sit with the thread wound clockwise, not anticlockwise. Once I swapped the bobbin over, I had no more tension problems.
2. You have to try to start every new square's stitching with sides that are already stitched - and if you can, make sure that if you have to stitch from the outside in, you start on a side that's already got a ditch stitched or the fabric bunches up. (The quilt nearly went out of the window when I had unpicked the same square three times before I realised what might be causing the bunching...)
3. Even this small quilt takes a lot of managing on the machine. Most of my time was taken up by manoeuvring the quilt when I needed to turn the corners... 

4. Stitching ditches makes lots of ends to tie off. Lots and lots and lots of ends... I pulled every one through to the back and tied them off in pairs before threading a needle and pulling them through the backing fabric to secure them. It was like being in needlework class, aged 11, all over again...

Just a few loose ends...

I got all 42 ditches stitched by the end of Sunday, and today I stitched the outside edge to finish the quilt off. I probably didn't do it right - there are all sorts of ways of using binding to edge the quilt, but I went for simplicity. I wrapped the top layer over the batting, then folded the backing in on itself and sewed all the layers together. It took so long to fold and pin (and trim where necessary) that I forgot to take any photos of this stage. Suffice to say it was fiddly and took twice as long to pin as it did to sew. Some of the edges didn't end up exactly right, because the top layer moved slightly so the bottom layer shows a bit in places, but it's not too bad.

Last few ends to tie in and...voila!

One quilt. Finished size is 39"x 31" (99cm x 79cm) and it will be great I think for a cot or a lap quilt. I am very happy with it.

But now, I have to decide what to do with it. 

As I said in my first patchworking post, the colours are lovely, but they don't fit with the decor in my home. And the reason I started this project was really just to learn how to make a quilt - I wasn't too worried about the end result, if that makes sense?

So, I think I shall see whether anyone would like to buy it. Not to make anything for myself - I would ask only for the material costs (£30). If there are no takers, then I shall donate it to a charity. If you're interested, drop me an email...

But now, job done. I really ought to get back to the writing.  

Friday, 26 February 2016

Patchworking...Part 2

If you read the earlier post on patchworking, you'll know I'm not new to patchworking; I just haven't done any for literally years, and I did what I did then, by hand. Until a couple of weeks ago.

Inspired by the sewing bee where I made a quilt square - on a machine! - I went down to one of our local craft shops (Quorn Country Crafts) to browse the quilting courses. There was one that caught my eye because it used pre-cut squares of material, sold in what's known as a 'charm pack'. I figured that, having managed to sew straight lines at the sewing bee, I'd be able to manage making a quilt if all the hard work of cutting was done for me.

I enquired about said course...and ended up as first reserve on it. The course was unfortunately already full, but there was a question mark next to one name, so they'd let me know in due course.

A week after putting my name down, and having researched quilt making on the web, I thought 'what the heck' and decided I'd buy a charm pack and have a play at home, regardless of whether I was on the course or not. (I've since discovered I AM on the course, so now I can do all the backing and binding and quilting bit under expert tuition which means I can be a bit more adventurous!)

Am I back to hand stitching the squares, then? No. Y'see, the Squidges do possess a sewing machine, rarely used, that belonged to Mr Squidge's mum.

Here it is, in all its beige, late 1950's or early 1960's glory; a Singer 201K. Apparently they stopped making these machines in 1963, so it's definitely older than me and, I found when researching it, classed as a vintage machine. What does that make me, I wonder? Anyhow - you can tell it's probably 50's more than 60's because of the instruction booklet - just look at that typeface and the clothes the women are wearing!

Betty died when Mr Squidge was young, but there is a legacy in photographs and slides of her dressmaking skills; both she and her sister made their own clothes in the 50's and Mr Squidge and his older brother are often found as toddlers in the late 60's wearing matching jacket and shorts combos, lovingly sewn by Betty...

I had my charm pack - 42 5"squares of fabric in co-ordinating colours and designs. Can't say it was 100% the colours I'd have chosen for myself, but it was the selection I liked the most of what was on offer.

Turquoise, orange, brown and cream, peppered
with hearts and flowers

It took a while to lay them out into a pattern I was happy with. To begin with, I had grand plans of cutting these 5" squares into four and repeating the 'thrifty' design, but with 42 squares you end up with a 6x7 grid which doesn't lend itself to the 3x3 grid pattern I needed. In the end I wimped out and kept them all complete...

I stacked the rows; left to right, from top to bottom, and started to sew.

I worked on each 'across' strip first, laying the finished ones out on the floor in the right 'top to bottom' order.

The first 'across' strip

All seven strips completed and laid out top to bottom

Then I worked from the bottom up, pinning the strips on the seams before sewing (I didn't do that on the first strip joining, so my seams didn't line up quite right)

And I ended up with this:


At the moment I have a piece of patchwork with the potential to be a quilt. But in getting it to this stage, I have at least mastered the sewing machine enough to be able to operate it comfortably. Although I do have to keep checking the bobbin, as the thread's jumping out which upsets the tension on the needle thread. Ooh - get me! Sounds like I know what I'm doing!

Result - one rather chuffed Squidge.

Patchwork Part 3 might be all about my adventures in the world of batting and backing...

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Patchworking...Part 1

My Granny, who was registered blind but had a small amount of vision, loved being creative. She was a talented and self-taught flower arranger, a needlewoman and an artist. I do wonder sometimes if I get my creative genes from her through my mum (who is also a talented, self-taught flower arranger and needlewoman). When I was a teenager, Granny tried her hand at patchwork - by which I mean the hexagonal version. Grandpa would cut out the paper hexagons for her and rough cut the fabric and she'd tack it to the template before stitching the hexagons together. Somewhere in my keepsakes stash, I still have the patchwork bag Granny made for me, to keep my knitting in...

Anyway. I decided, as an eighteen year old waiting for my A level results (after working only two weeks in the egg pickling factory, but that's a story for another day!) I would make myself a patchwork duvet cover.

I finished it just before I went to uni a year later (those first results didn't come through quite as I'd hoped, so I retook) and would you believe, it's still in occasional use today?

My room at uni - with the duvet cover on the bed

And just for a laugh; a 19 year old Squidge in that same bedroom...

Hours and hours it took, every bit of it: hand sewn. Even down to stitching the black onto the back - though I was too lazy to sew press-studs on so ended up with tapes instead!

Single duvet size, in case you were wondering.
And the hexagons are approx 4" across their widest point

Still proud of the teeny even stitches...

The reason it was hand sewn was pretty much because I hated sewing machines. Why? Because in secondary school, the Bernina electric machines frightened me silly! The way the needle whizzed up and down and pulled the fabric through at high speed...I could never quite believe that it was safe to get my fingers anywhere near the working area. In needlework classes (oh, the agony of neatening seams and tying off the ends of threads!) I always opted instead for the hand-cranked Singers.

Yea, you read that right. Hand. Cranked. I suppose you could argue that's as close to mechanised hand-stitching as it comes...and the beauty was that it would only go as fast as I was comfortable cranking.

There was also the issue that, being petite, I had to alter every pattern going to fit me (not that that was ever explained properly) or make something to the pattern and waste hours of effort on something I'd never wear. So me and sewing machines? We never really got on.

Until the other weekend.

I was invited to a memory quilt bee - an event where friends and family could sew a patch for a quilt that would be put together for a friend's Big Birthday. (Happy 60th Birthday, Pam!) I said I'd go, but wondered how I'd get on, as hand stitching wasn't really an option. I arrived, was given a simple quilt piece to make - literally just straight lines and squares of fabric, all pre-cut - and pointed towards a sewing machine which I approached with my heart in my mouth.

The machines were, I imagine, the Rolls-Royce of sewing machines; their price tag was just shy of £1900. They were rather wonderful to operate. They had a button to pick the foot up or drop it down rather than a lever...handy guide lines for seam allowances...the needle seemed less hostile... I loved using it! And in just over an hour, I'd pieced my quilt square together in a pattern called... 'thrifty', I think it was.

All of which set me thinking...

Years ago, I promised myself a rainbow patchwork duvet cover. But it's such a big project, I've never attempted to begin, because hand sewing that would take years and years and years, and I don't have the benefit of long hot summer holidays to take advantage of...

The ease of using the sewing machine...the straight lines... set me wondering whether I could finally think about getting on with a bigger project if I was prepared not to hand stitch?

To know what I did next, you'll have to wait for Patchworking Part 2!

Saturday, 20 February 2016


Well, not me personally. Things in general, especially (thank goodness) the writing.

You might remember that a week ago, I posted briefly about something I wanted to write not going well, and that the fresh look I was taking at Rurik had stalled too?

I'm pleased to say that since then, Rurik's going better. I've cut around a thousand words already, and the story's feeling a lot tighter and faster-moving. Interesting that some of the characters are behaving a bit differently too... Maybe I'm just getting better at letting them tell their own story, rather than directing it for them?

I'm not sure whether the end result will be worth the rewrite, but there will definitely be improvements made! As I read through, marking up a paper copy, I found myself writing 'bleurgh!' or 'boring!' or 'ugh!' or 'rethink' next to certain sections.

Now, I thought the story was good. I have worked on it A LOT. It had a major edit back in the days when I had an agent interested in my work (though the result of that edit meant that our association ended, so obviously it couldn't have been THAT good...) The second major rewrite came after I did the Writer's Workshop Self-edit Course, after which I posted off to another agent.

Unfortunately, the use of rings as a device in the story let it down; 'too much like Lord of the Rings'. Which it isn't, but the association, once made, is hard to get away from. So I changed the whole 'ring' aspect and focused on powers and mages - instead of being Book 1 of a series called Rurik and the Rings of Issraya (which, as someone pointed out, is not a good title if you have a speech impediment), it became a standalone title called Adventure in Ambak, with the potential to be the first story about Rurik in a series called The Issrayan Chronicles. 

Even then, poor old Rurik's story wasn't getting the nods of approval I was hoping for from agents etc. Not exciting enough, still too nice... So I set it aside, believing that no writing's ever wasted, I've learnt a lot, it doesn't matter if it never gets published...

Who was I kidding? Myself, mainly. Seems I can't give up on it, so Rurik's out of the closet and being pulled into a different shape.

I think Kingstone's made the biggest difference to how I'm approaching this current edit. In Kingstone, I let the characters write themselves, I did a lot of playing around in a notebook before writing up the story, I kept it lean and mean and got into Katia's head...which meant it was her telling her own story, not me. (As an aside, I've had good feedback from beta readers and I'm now waiting to hear back from BInk to see if they think Kingstone is publishable...)

I'm hoping that, as I know Rurik's story inside out by now, I can edit it to be more Kingstone-like in its feel. I'm trying not to be too constrained by what's already there - it's so easy to think 'that bit's good, I'll keep it' when in fact, it doesn't fit the new style and you end up with a disjointed feel to the writing. I am being pretty ruthless and killing lots of my darlings...

I'll keep you posted. Who knows, it might just be Rurik's time...?

Monday, 15 February 2016

Tea and elephants

Time for another India blog, I think.

Half way through our visit, we took a five and a half hour drive to Valparai, a remote town in the middle of the Western ghats, where as far as the eye can see, there are tea trees.

The drive itself was interesting - not least because of the thousands of pilgrims we saw, walking barefoot along the side of the motorway. (If you want to read a bit more about my impressions of spirituality and India, check out this earlier post). And wind turbines - hundreds and hundreds of them. I did try to spot whether any of them were related to Bob, our turbine, but I think most were distant relations at best...

And the landscape changed. Gradually, we moved into much more agricultural land, with groves of coconut trees and rice paddies and other vegetable gardens lining the road. That's one thing that never ceased to amaze me about India - how green it was, in spite of the heat.

Finally, we saw the vague outlines of the mountains; indistinct and hazy, as though someone had pencilled them into the landscape and rubbed them half-out again.

We began to climb.

The road into Valparai has 40 official hairpin bends - every single one of them is marked to tell you exactly what number you're up to. I would love to know whether there are official angles for hairpin bends, as I'm sure a lot of the non-official bends made it into the 'hairpin' category in my head!

We stopped at one point to take in the view over a lake. Below us, the road twisted and turned through the green-ness, a dark ribbon along which the occasional bus, lorry or motorbike would rumble. (You had to hope you didn't meet them on the bend, because there was no right or wrong side of the road in that situation, just an 'I need to get round this corner' vibe.)

What was a little alarming at this point was that half of the retaining wall of the viewing platform had already collapsed - leaving nothing between us and the long, long drop down the mountainside. In fact, when we stood at the side of the platform, there was a huge crack in the stonework of what remained, which makes me think that at some point, quite a bit more of the platform might disappear too...

We carried on through the hairpins (the only time I felt car-sick in the whole of my time in India!) up and over the mountain and into the tea gardens.

I cannot express in words how green the tea bushes are, and what a distinctive landscape they are part of. It was breathtaking. We stopped briefly at a tea shack in the Waterfall tea gardens, where a team of pickers were at work. The ladies consented to having their photos taken, but I didn't take any at that point - I think I might have mentioned on earlier posts that sometimes, taking pics felt like an intrusion, depending on the circumstances.

Valparai itself  is a town built on steep slopes either side of a river; it is busy and bustling and was in full festival mode, as we discovered when the nearest temple (massive complex with lights to rival Blackpool illuminations) began loudspeakering prayers at 6am the next morning, which woke us up in spite of the double glazed windows in the hotel. And which is the reason why I found myself watching the sunrise before walking round the town at 7am, jotting notes and sketching the amazing view...

Sunrise in Valparai

Looking down to the river...
My scribbly sketch of the same view...

From the road just behind the hotel, looking back at
where I stood to take the previous photo...

We spent two days in Valparai, visiting remote churches (each tea plantation has its own community facilities, which often includes a small church building), on wildlife safari (we were accompanied by Rev William who is a fabulous photographer - you can see some of his pictures here on facebook - and Dr Relton, a wildlife expert from Bishop Heber College. Without them, we wouldn't have seen half the animals and birds we did), and a tea factory.

Over the course of our stay, we heard a lot about the tea plantations and workers. The men and women tend to do different jobs; women pick the tea (managing between 300 and 400 bushes a day) while the men transport the bags full of leaves, spray pesticides and work in the tea factory.

When you next brew a cuppa, bear in mind that the people who made it possible face lots of dangers in the tea gardens. They might look idyllic and peaceful, but in these isolated areas, there's a very real risk of snakebite from king cobra...being trampled by elephants...attack by leopards, sloth bear or wild dogs...cuts or neck problems from using mechanical shears...

The tea factory itself was a huge revelation. I'd always thought the tea was picked as a harvest - once a year, probably. I hadn't realised it was year-round. And the process was completely opposite to how I'd imagined; I expected the leaves to be dried and then chopped up, but in fact it's the other way round. Providing I can remember the process correctly ( we weren't allowed to take photographs and it was sometimes difficult to catch all that the manager was telling us because of the noise levels), this is what happens:

The tea comes into the factory and is chopped up. Because it's wet, it is dried and allowed to oxidise. Then it's dried again, in huge tea-tumble-driers fed with warm air heated by enormous furnaces (the woodpile certainly put Mr Squidge's efforts to shame!) and ground again. The resulting different tea types come out as granules, not leaves, and are graded on a variety of categories before being packed and sold. Every hour, the tea is tested by the tea taster, and depending on how it tastes compared to the standard, slight adjustments are made to the process to bring the flavour and appearance back into line.

Mind you - it was also an eye-opening experience with respect to health and safety. No ear-defenders, no thermal gauntlets for opening the furnace doors, no cages around hot or bladed equipment... Which is one of the reasons these kind of visits aren't usually allowed, because Western folk tend to get a bit upset about the safety aspects. Given that knowledge, it was a real privilege to have been allowed into the factory, both to understand the process and to witness the working conditions. (And there is part of me that thinks that by removing all risks in our society, we do future generations a disservice, because how will they be able to judge risk for themselves if they are never exposed to dangers?)

There were known to be elephants in the area at the time of our visit. Indeed, the manager of the tea factory told us about his 'pet' elephant, which had several times trampled his garden or damaged part of the house, yet had also seen off strange elephants from 'his' patch. (Oh - and the leopard which had eaten his dog...) He was erecting an electric fence to try to protect his home, but there had been stories of elephants taking logs to knock the wires down before they trampled gardens or broke into houses. We saw elephant damage; a huge hole in the side of the house...

Anyway, Dr Relton made a few phone calls to try to pinpoint the elephants' location.

Now. Just before Christmas, one man had been trampled to death when he surprised an elephant on his way to work early one morning. And days before our visit, some tourists had been injured as 'even the click of a camera shutter can make the elephants mad.' Oh - and did you know that an elephant can run at 40 mph? I didn't. I also didn't know that they can run uphill easier than down - which went completely against my natural 'if-you-need-to-get-away-from-an-elephant-give-it-a-gradient' instinct.

So we headed deeper into the hills to look for elephants. We turned onto a private road and were stopped by the factory workers; it turned out we were waiting for a guide, a tea worker who had seen the elephants a short while ago. We were told it was best to leave the car and walk.

I won't lie - I was really nervous. We had no chance of outrunning an elephant, and now we were on foot, looking for one? Sheesh. After ten minutes or so, we came to a steep slope that led down to the river, where the elephants had been seen. And we heard them! My heart leapt, 'cos now we knew we were close...

Our guide began to walk down the path between the tea trees, and I remember asking M 'at what point do we say we're not comfortable with this?' If I remember right, he shrugged and we kept descending...

There was a track across the slope, so we spread out and watched the jungle on the opposite side of the river. We saw a tree shake - definitely something in there - and I was glad we were on the opposite side of the water.

Then we saw him...a tusker, framed in a small clearing between the trees. He was there only moments before he moved off and was hidden again, but it was a real, live elephant, with tusks and everything! Unfortunately I only caught his back end by the time I got my camera out...

See that brown lump in the middle?
Look closely...

Walking back to the car, our guide pointed to something on the track; elephant footprints. Each one the size of a dinner plate, and we'd been totally unaware of them on the way down. Mind you, I also hadn't noticed the porcupine poo (imagine rabbit poo but bigger and more ovoid), porcupine quills (SO sharp at the business end!) and mongooses which scuttled away from us under the tea trees...

So every time I drink a cup of tea, I'm transported back to the green-ness, the peace in the tea gardens, the hidden dangers, and how much work it takes to pick the leaves that make my brew...

Tea will never taste quite the same again.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Playing with flowers

I know - I should be writing. But I'm struggling with something I really WANT to write - the story just isn't clear at the moment - so I'm revisiting Rurik. Unfortunately, that made me a bit despondent, because he needs  lot of work to bring him up to StarMark and Kingstone standard.

So I did something different and completely non-wordy instead.

Squidgeling T enjoys musical theatre - performing it, that is. Over the last couple of years, we've watched his confidence grow on the stage, resulting in a lead role in the musical We Will Rock You (performed last week at school), and a small solo part in Grease, performed by a local amateur youth musical theatre group - ACT One.

ACT One spend a lot of time raising money for their productions, and one of the ways they do that is to hold a raffle at every performance. To support them, we've donated raffle prizes, as do a lot of other families and friends of the young people.

This year, I offered a flower arrangement. I wanted to make it Grease-themed, but not so much that it was intrusive. Yesterday, I headed into town to find some inspiration...

The obvious choice was to use pink flowers for the Pink Ladies. But how to incorporate the T-birds? I toyed with the idea of finding a 'Greased Lightning' car, but that's pretty specific and I don't think Matchbox would do a 1950's car now... On to other ideas, then.

I'd had a sneaky peek at the set when I was helping front-of-house on Wednesday evening, so I knew there were black and white steps on stage. This led me to black and white checked ribbon and black and white tissue paper, and then I found images of the text stitched on the back of the jackets worn by the cast...


Here's what I created this morning;

For the flower arrangers among you, I used baby pink roses, white-edged pink spray carnations, gypsophila, a bit of ruscus, and ivy from my garden. They were arranged in a flat dish on top of a plastic circular bowl filled with black and white tissue paper, with checked ribbon tied around the join. I added a couple of 'badges' stuck on the top of barbeque skewers; my nod to the musical without it being overpowering.

Let's hope that on Saturday, it encourages folks to buy the raffle tickets, because then the young performers will be able to continue putting on their amazing shows and concerts.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Saratha's and saris

We arrived in India around 3pm on the Saturday afternoon, Trichy-time. One of the first things we did was head to the textile shop, because one of my travelling companions is being consecrated as a bishop later this month and wanted some clerical shirts made in Bishop Purple (if that's not an official colour, like emerald green or sky blue, it should be!), while my other companion is a curate and needed clerical shirts in black. (Plus he'd bought a shirt order from another vicar too!)

So, off to Saratha's in Trichy we went...

On foot, we negotiated oncoming tuctucs, two-wheelers, cars, carts and pedestrians in the narrow market street to reach the 1.5 million square feet complex. Started in Trichy in 1969, it claims to be the largest textile showroom in India, with a huge range of fabrics and ready-made clothing.

What an experience! It took some considerable time to find the right shade of Bishop Purple. "Too pink. Too bluey. Too purpley." Yes, really...Bishop Purple is actually a sort of pinky-purple that nudges towards cerise, but isn't. A bit like this:

Anyhow, suffice to say that finding black was a lot easier - though there are actually a lot of different shades of black. And white, which I'd never appreciated before.

The next step was a churithar suit, for me. Oh...boyoboyoboy!

Now, you know when you walk into a UK clothes shop, and there's just THE colour, for that season? And the shop has nothing except that colour in it? (It's a revolting mess of mucky green and grey and black and camel for this spring, it seems). And nine times out of ten, you can guarantee it's not a colour that suits you?

Well, in Saratha's churithar department, there's none of that. You need to know your size - I'm apparently a 40, which sounded huge for my petite frame but did fit; I tried a top on, much to the interest of shop assistants and customers because I took off my shirt and was wearing a vest top under, thus exposing shoulders and cleavage (what little I have) which is NOT the done thing in India.

Then you choose your colour. Simply go to the shelf or rack with that size on it, and the assistants pull out pile upon pile of folded suits, spreading them out for you to take your pick of the myriad colours available. It was like being in a candy store. Contrasting colours, toning colours, pastels, brights, glitter, embroidery...I could've spent hours there, drinking it all in.

Ready-made churithar choices...

More choice if you want to make them yourself...

The devil's in the detail...
The one I finally chose was pink with brown embroidery, brown trousers and a pink-printed brown scarf. It was sleeveless, and I asked about getting one with sleeves - what I didn't realise is that the sleeves are never attached. It's up to you to get them sewn in if you want to.

A rather bad selfie...

Embroidery detail around the hem

When you've decided on your purchase, there's none of this wandering around, stuffing it and other items into a mesh bag to go to the tills at the end of your visit. Oh no. One of the (thousands, I'm certain of it!) shop assistants is called over, given the item that you wish to purchase, then you follow him - and it's always a man, the only female assistants we saw were on the bra counter - to the cash desk, where the process of paying begins.

Paying in Saratha's - a step-by-step guide.
1. Assistant hands item(s) to till man no.1.
2. Till man 1 asks if you are paying cash or credit.
3. You hand over your money or card.
4. Item and money are given to the cashier. He sorts out your change. AT THE SAME TIME, you are given a receipt by till man no.1 to say how much your purchases were and that you've handed some money over.
5. You move along a line, trying to keep tabs on your item(s) and hand over your receipt to till man no.2 to show you've paid.
6. Till man no. 2 (or 3, I rather lost track) gives you back your change, your stamped receipt and your purchase in a Saratha's bag.
7. Repeat as often as necessary, depending on how many different departments or counters you make a purchase from...

If you want to see how fast these guys work, take a look at this video clip...Cashiers! 

On the Sunday evening, we went back again - this time to look at gold fabric for other bishop-y accessories (we nearly had a disco-bish when we were shown gold-sequinned lace...!) and to purchase a sari - for me, not the almost-bish - because we were going back to Pudukkottai village on the Monday and Sarah, Reverend Benjamin's wife, had agreed to dress me in a sari for our visit to the school.

I chose a rather beautiful pink and gold silk one, because the Women's Fellowship in the village wear a uniform sari of pink and gold; mine didn't exactly match, but it would be a link. Then we headed off to buy a ready-made sari blouse and petticoat. The gentleman on the counter took one look at me, said "34" and found the right shade of pink to match the embroidery.

Sari bling...

Now - I digress a little from the Saratha's experience here, but if ever you buy a sari for yourself, be aware that most of them come with a blouse bit. This is an extra length on the material which is cut off to make a matching blouse. Except I didn't know that, so poor Sarah had her work cut out when she was trying to use up an extra metre or so of fabric in the draping when she dressed me.

Back to Saratha's...

We had a rest day later in the week, and N and I planned a shopping trip, to buy gifts for our families. Clothing is cheap and there is such a wide choice we headed back to Saratha's again. Another visit to the churithar suit counter, but for N's wife this time; I'd enjoyed wearing the pink sari so much, I decided to buy a second, lighter one. This time, we were accompanied by two teachers from Bishop Heber Secondary School, Shineo and Josephine, who helped us with our purchases. And this time, I had my camera...

Now, there was so much choice, I could have spent hours and hours choosing. In fact, this must've been the norm, as we saw families sitting on the floor in the shop eating lunch, they'd been there so long...
Look to the left, where folk are taking a rest...

I ended up making quite quick decisions, in spite of the teachers encouraging me to keep looking. I couldn't properly explain how having such a massive choice was alien, that I was used to having limited options and found the variety somewhat overwhelming!

Anyway, purchases were made. I left with shirts for Mr Squidge and T, a shawl for J and a purple and lime accented, black and white patterned sari with black blouse and petticoat for me.

You'd think that would have been enough, wouldn't you? Nope.

*whispers* We managed a fourth trip!

And we did it on our own, on our last afternoon in Trichy, this time because N wanted to buy himself a dhoti - the traditional sarong-like item that a lot of men wear - and I wanted to purchase a second churithar suit.

Dhotis were purchased, with the help of a dhoti-dressing team; a young man who had been appointed our guide and four of his mates on the towel counter, one of whom spoke a bit of English and took on the task of showing N how to wear the dhoti. (Some of them have velcro!). Then it was churithar time again...

I was torn between a wine-and-lime-green or a turquoise-with-chocolate version. I could've bought both (good job I didn't, as my suitcase would never have closed) but resisted, as I felt that my Western materialistic side was beginning to rear its head at that point and I felt a bit greedy. So I plumped for wine-and-lime and we set off back to the hostel on a tuc-tuc ride that I will never, ever forget...

Hem embroidery

Neckline detail

I loved Saratha's. The wimp in me, who didn't like the thought of bartering, found the price tags much easier...and next time I go to Trichy, I will book an entire day in the shop I think!

The weird thing is, back in the UK, the gold on my pink sari has lost its gleam. There's something about the light here, about the way we're all wrapped up and the grey skies that seems to suck the colour out of everything. I was moved to write a poem about it the other day;

Indian colour.

Gilt thread, which gleamed in Indian sunlight, 
has lost its brightness in the pale winter light of England. 
The glitter of diamante is replaced with tacky slogans, 
elegance by shapeless leggings and baggy jumpers. 
That coloured world is gone, replaced with black and grey and denim blue. 

Before, there was baby pink with lemon yellow,
wine with lime,
royal purple with satsuma orange,
turquoise with chocolate brown,
forest green with midnight black.
Stiff silk, chic chiffon, cool cotton and luscious linen.
Patterned, embroidered, printed, plain, 
gilded, silvered, jewelled.
No two the same, no ordered rainbow, 
simply a feast for the eyes, 
satisfying an appetite with rich shades, fresh pastels, unexpected contrasts or subtle blends

I wanted to drink in the colour until I was full -
so that I need never feel colourless again.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Writing around a language barrier

This morning, I had the privilege of working with 26 ESOL students on a creative writing session. The ladies who attended are learning English as a secondary or other language - they came from Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Portugal, Romania, Poland, Thailand - and other countries beside!

It was a challenge to plan the session, partly because of the language issue; the ladies can speak and write English, but for some of them, it's not fluent. After discussion with the tutor, I came up with a simple plan - an easy starter to get everyone warmed up, a picture prompt for a 'take a walk' exercise to explore the senses, followed by looking at objects the ladies were asked to bring with them to use as prompts for poetry or prose work.

I reckon we could've written a recipe book after the sharing of favourite foods! There were common themes - favourites were often linked to family, to the tradition and culture of native homelands, or to sheer indulgence (95% cocoa chocolate with salt...) But this simple activity got everyone writing and talking and mixing, because two different ability groups had come together specially for the morning.

The picture prompt - that was interesting. Each group worked together to list sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feelings that might be associated with the place. Then, individually, they produced a paragraph or short piece of poetry about the place. We had poetry about fairytale castles, sensory walks through the forest, a description of Loughborough Fair, the beginning of a fairytale for the little house in the woods, and memories of a river that had been swum in during childhood.

This is when I began to realise that some of the ladies were finding it easier to work from their imagination than others, who were still basing their writing on fact.

Now, some of this might have been due to language - it's probably easier to write about what you have experienced and translate that, rather than imagine something that you can't express in the foreign language. But there also seemed to be a cultural element in play. Ladies from certain countries struggled much more with imaginative work than others, something which the tutor has also observed in the past. (We had quite a discussion afterwards about how we could enable or coax the students to make that jump from fact to fiction in a more structured way, especially for those who are not comfortable stepping into an imaginary world.)

And then we got onto the objects. I'd taken a selection with me from India as well as a few bits and bobs from around my house and most of the ladies had brought something from home as well. I saw beautiful hand-decorated fabrics, the most amazing shell sculpture, souvenirs from special places and jewellery, all quite personal objects with strong memories.

After they had shared something about the objects with their groups, it was time to write - and again, there was a distinct split between those who 'got' the creative approach and those who stuck to the facts...

There was a lovely piece of poetry, called Heart With Wings, based on a metal heart with wings that hangs in my lounge. It was deeply felt and written from the heart, covering themes of freedom and fulfilment, I think. A cross-stitched tablecloth, around 50 years old, was the starting point for some beautiful imagery of what the stitcher might have been thinking as she sewed. There were accounts of trips to Mecca and Dubai, and a description of a beautiful jungle and its wildlife which also had an environmental message buried within it. There was also a story about a girl who had dreams of having her own business, but she's now a mother and a housewife and she's lost her dream...

It's always very humbling, I think, when people share their writing, especially if it comes from the heart and personal experience - as so many of the pieces obviously did. I was shown poetry that was full of emotion, which the author felt had lost something in translation. I can't say I noticed - I was moved by the beauty of the imagery in the translated version, so it must have been wonderful in the original.

At the end of the session, I asked the ladies to draw on a smiley face chart. You know the sort - you've got a lot out of it, so big smile. Straight line, you're not certain. Unhappy face...well, then I've failed in my objective to deliver a fun, creative and worthwhile learning experience! Here's what I ended up with on the whiteboard:

The three at the top are my examples...

It was a really lovely morning, and I learnt a lot from it too. not to underestimate the effect of culture on a learning experience; if traditional culture relies on storytelling for example, those of that culture may be able to join in a creative task more easily than others. I needed to have used a slower pace; it takes a lot of brainwork to write creatively, even more so when you have to convert your thoughts into a language you aren't fluent in and try to maintain the gist of what you are trying to say. And I needed to have included more structure; although I'd picked some of the simpler NIBS exercises, I might have been better using a format I'd normally use in school as a step-by-step to story writing.

The students seemed to have enjoyed themselves though, and I hope that the session will have sown a few seeds for those who'd never attempted creative writing much, or built the confidence of those who already write in their native language to try writing in English too.

And next time, I shall be more aware as a facilitator of the effect of language and culture on a creative writing session...

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

On India and spiritual matters...

I've been told that you can't really go to India without experiencing something of the spiritual, whatever your opinion on faith-related matters.

Based on what I encountered, it's true.

One of my travelling companions, M, who's been to India several times before, said that when he steps off the plane, it's as though a weight has been lifted from his shoulders, because suddenly you're in a place where possessing a faith - celebrating it, being open about it - is normal. And it's at that moment he realises how much matters of faith are hidden - too strong a word, let's say 'not advertised' - in the UK.

But this isn't a post to debate that fact; it's a post about the effect that Indian spirituality had on me during my recent visit. And it might be a bit longer than my normal blog posts, so feel free to have a cuppa in the middle of reading or come back to it later...

In Tamil Nadu, there is a higher than average percentage of Christians (around 5% instead of 2.5%) and in Trichy District, where we were based for much of our visit, the percentage is even higher - around 9%. That said, the majority of the population are practising Hindus, a fact made very obvious by the loudspeakers of the nearest temple, located a short distance from the hostel we were staying in, which transmitted music and prayers until 11pm on our first night (and often relayed a few more for good measure around 3.30am most mornings!)

So let's start with Hinduism first...

I don't know much about the faith, I'm ashamed to admit. I know there is one god, worshipped in different forms. I know there's karma - that if you do good in this life, you will achieve better in the next. But I didn't need to know much to be able to see what impact the faith has on Indian society.

It's hard to comprehend how visible and all-pervasive the Hindu faith is; there were roadside shrines, garlanded gods and men in business shirts praying openly on the pavement. Men and women (mostly men) would be smeared with sandalwood paste on their foreheads after morning prayers, schoolboys would have green or orange prayer scarves (I assumed) over their school uniforms, and I saw both buildings and factory machinery smeared with blessing patterns, as three fingers daubed the same stuff onto things rather than people.

A bank in Valparai

There were brightly decorated temples of varying sizes, tucked away in streets or in the middle of tea plantations or built atop great rocks, like the one in Trichy itself.

Looking down on the main Rock Temple in Trichy
from teh smaller shrine further up the rock.

There were stone monoliths, built thousands of years ago and still centres of prayer today. And there were pilgrims...thousands upon thousands of pilgrims, dressed in green or orange or red, walking.

A handful of pilgrims - nothing like the numbers we saw
in the days after this pic was taken

It was festival - and therefore pilgrimage - season. I will never forget the sight of the masses, walking 200km to say their prayers, following motorised shrines or carrying kavadi, extra burdens to show the sincerity of the prayer. The rest stops, where a van loaded with cooking pots would set up by the side of the road, waiting for a particular group to come past. The centres where pilgrims could be fed - free, by a village community who happened to be on the route - or get checked over by a doctor, or take rest in the shade. Pilgrims of all ages (babes-in-arms to grandmothers), all intent on making the journey.

I couldn't help remembering walking through my own town on Good Friday in a 'walk of witness' a few years back, self-conscious and a little bit fearful of our reception...

Faith in India is normal, part of the everyday, essential...and that was just as evident in the Christian community. There were several things that really stood out for me as challenges to my own faith.

For a start, Christians work together. They are Christian first and foremost; denomination comes second. I saw examples of Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Church of South India Christians working together to build schools, hostels and churches with different communities. How often have I dismissed an action or worship style 'because that's what THEY do', losing sight completely of the core of the faith we share?

Secondly, whatever our view on the Empire and the way the British treated natives of their colonies, at no point did I get the impression that Tamil Christians were forced towards Christian conversion. In every church we visited, whether it had stood for hundreds of years or relatively newly built, there was a list of priests and presbyters to be remembered - because the missionary fathers are looked upon with gratitude for bringing the faith to India.

Right back to the late 1700s...

Memorial to Schwartz, one of the missionary
fathers, in Christ Church - Fort, Tanjore

What you have to understand is that many Christians in India are of the Dalit castes. The untouchables, the criminal castes, those who worked on the land and did the jobs no-one else wanted to do. Officially, there is no caste system in India now, but I saw things which led me to believe that it's not gone from society yet. (And I could write a whole other blog on this subject, so I won't delve into it too much now.) The message that Christianity delivered - that you are loved by God as you are, that all are equal in His sight, that Jesus Christ came to save, combined with the example of the missionary fathers to educate lower castes and work with men of all faiths - was received like water in a desert. Christianity cut through the restrictions of caste and colour and showed how life might be lived instead...

How often do I look back at the people who've helped me to develop my faith and live it out in the world? Not as often as I should.

And the Christian faith is lived in India. I'm not saying it isn't lived here in the UK - I know many whose faith shines from them in their person and their actions - but I'm beginning to think that I could learn a lot from being more visible, more open about my faith. I say 'I'll be thinking of you', when what I mean is 'I'll pray'. But I don't say what I mean for fear of how it might be received. Yet in India, we were asked to pray with groups and clergy and families, rooting our meetings in a relationship with God. Yes, I do pray - in public and private - but I wouldn't dream of going for a coffee with Christian friends and ending our social with a prayer.

Maybe I should.

The last thing which left a deep impression on me was the overwhelming generosity and genuine welcome we received. Food, shawls, gifts, traditional welcomes and blessings, being taken under the wing of the Women's Fellowship to be dressed in sari and have my hand hennaed, being driven miles by the wonderful (and very safe) Michael, being greeted everywhere we went with so many smiles...and being given sugar cane by an elderly woman in a Dalit village, where the diet was so poor the villagers themselves lived on white rice flavoured with spice because they couldn't afford meat or vegetables. I didn't feel as though I deserved any of it.

Bananas over St Mary's, Pudukkottai church door
- a traditional sign of welcome

Being hennaed...and having a go myself

Going native

I looked at myself then, long and hard. How overwhelmingly generous is my God to me? And how often do I really, truly, acknowledge that fact?

Not often enough.  

The other thing I found while I was in India was that it was so much easier to find God. To spend time with Him and feel the presence of the Holy Spirit. That probably had an awful lot to do with not having to look after a family, just myself. Or it might just have been the spirituality of India, which sort of seeps into you and sets your faith connections tingling...

One moment in particular stood out; we visited the Hindu Rock Temple - all hustle and bustle and heat and noise - and then visited the Jesuit church, a most beautiful place. I walked into that church and had an overwhelming sense of peace (in spite of the main road and the usual traffic chaos right outside), of being in the right place, at the right time...and I cried, because I felt immensely blessed to have said yes to a trip that had scared me and pushed me so far out of my comfort zone but felt like it was what God wanted me to do. But it was by no means the only 'moment' I had...

Holy Trinity Church, Valparai - where the lady seated told me
how glad she was to see Western 'missionaries' and how she was
praying for her daughter's marriage...

I can't say that my spirituality has been awakened by the trip - it was already present - but I do feel that I have been challenged in my faith by my experiences. I hope I can rise to the challenge and apply some of the lessons I've learned, so that when I go back again - oh, yes, I'll be going back! - I will be a better Christian than I am at the moment.