Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Eve

I have been so busy this week that it's been difficult to find time to post! My husband and I are visiting my mom's house and having a wonderful time. It's his first time visiting the house where I was born and it's been really special to be able to share with him all of our Christmas traditions!

I am having such a good time here! I re-discovered a treasure trove of my mom's needlepoint and design books that I can't wait to share with you all! I also found an abandoned needlepoint project (a rose pin-cushion) that is keeping me busy!

It's probably going to be pretty difficult to find much time to post before New Years' (that's when we are returning home). I hope everyone is having a great Christmas!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Homemaking as Activism

I found this article on crafting through a link on the Buy Handmade website It was very interesting! "Craftivism: Is Crafting the New Activism?"

A few years ago, the feminist movement generally dismissed traditional women's work as "anti-feminist" and encouraged women to find "meaning" in their lives by pursuing careers and activities outside the home. That is beginning to chance, and today, third-wave feminists are returning to activities that have been traditionally labled as feminine (knitting, sewing and other crafts) and arguing that these activities are important as well. How refreshing! If you follow this idea to its natural conclusion, it also means that homemaking can also be celebrated by feminists as a valuable, viable career choice. If crafting can be activism, can't homemaking be a form of activism too?

One of the problems with the early feminist movement was that it discounted the value of traditional feminine pursuits. While first and second-wave feminists accomplished a great deal we can all be thankful for, it doesn't mean that feminism can't evolve! I learned about this from my own mom. She taught my sister and I that we could pursue any career we desired, though she had chosen to be a career homemaker and home-educator. I never saw this as being at all self-contradictory. I really admired her growing up and I hope to one day follow in her footsteps.

Have you ever read Laurel's Kitchen? It's a vegetarian cookbook that, along with my mom's example, laid the groundwork for many of my attitudes towards homemaking. It came out in the mid-1970s and the book's attitude towards being a wife and mother is incredibly positive. In the original edition the author begins by describing her disappointment with the junk food she'd been feeding her kids. After meeting Laurel she follows her around for months picking up on her cooking techniques as well as a wholistic philosophy of homemaking. The book has a heavy emphasis on the importance and value of giving our families healthy, "slow," food. While I'm not a vegetarian, I find that I still take the book of the shelf on a regular basis just to remind myself that caring for other people is a valuable goal in life (interestingly, I just noticed that Carol Flinders, co-author of Laurel's Kitchen has written a book called Rebalancing the World: Why Women Belong and Men Compete and How to Restore the Ancient Equilibrium interesting! I'm putting it on my wishlist).

I'm glad to see that these ideas seem to be getting more attention. Perhaps more of todays women will fight to have the value of their traditional crafts and activities recognized!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Chirstmas Shopping for the Romantic in Your Life

I first discovered Past-times when I was touring England in highschool. Their shop in London was just gorgeous--I spied a book on chivalry in the window and popped in to check it out. I didn't have that much room in my suitcase and I was delighted to discover that they ship worldwide! Their website is: Here are a few of the items from this years' catalogue that are bound to bring joy to the heart of any romantic.

This dressing table mirror is 65 pounds (about 130 dollars). It will certainly add a touch of romance to your boudoir!

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has an amazing selection of gifts and is a great place to shop online for art lovers.

This "Unicorn in Captivity" pillow is based on a design from the Netherlands that dates back to 1495. The tapestry on which it's based is one of the best preserved from the period and is likely meant to portray the taming of the beloved (okay, so, it's a little medieval, but what do you expect?). The pomegranates in the background represent fertility and marriage. It's a beautiful gift, and at $40 for non-museum members, it's reasonably affordable as well.

I have several other favourite sites for Christmas shopping.

Gaelsong is a great site for celtic gifts

Victorian Trading Company always has good victorian gifts, though I think their print catalogue is a bit better than their online selection

The PBS online store also has a great selection of things (Anglophile alert: be sure to check out "British Drama" under "shop by interest"--they've got some great stuff there)

Last, but not least, BBC America has a great store as well. If you're a fan of BBC productions, their dvd store is the place to go. Check it out at

Happy shopping!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Morris on Art and Design

I picked up a great book at the library on Friday. Morris: On Art and Design, edited by Christine Poulson. It's a great little collection of William Morris' letters and essays. If you are at all interested in the details of the work done by Morris and Company, the book has tons of info on the process of natural dyeing, glass making and a number of other crafts.

I found this quote from Ruskin's Unto This Last (1860) particularly inspiring:

"THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings; that man is richest who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others. "

Well, I'm not so sure about "widest influence" bit--personally I think a rich influence on the lives of a few people can be just as vital--but I love the overall sentiment.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Kelmscott Chaucer

The term is drawing to a close and I've been marking exams in the library 24/7. This afternoon I took a bit of a break from marking and wandered over to the Chaucer section, where I came across a stunning facsimile of the Kelmscott Press edition of the works of Chaucer.

The illustrations are by Edward Burne Jones. Considering the size of the volume (554 pages) there are a remarkeable number of drawings. (the book also includes a glossary, which can be quite helpful if it's been a while since you last read Middle English!). What really struck me was that Burne-Jones never really repeats a border. I am truly in awe that someone could be so creative!
I would love to get a copy, but after doing a brief search on Amazon, I discovered that this lovely volume has gone out of print (if I'm wrong, please let me know!). Beautiful books like this are so inspiring to kids--the difference between reading a fantastic book like this and a dull paperback is immense. Maybe if there were more books like this around, people would be more inclined to pick up the works of Chaucer!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

More on William Morris' Philosophy...

"If I were asked to say what is at once the most important production of Art and the thing most to be longed for; I should answer; A beautiful house; and if I were further asked to name the production next in importance and the thing next to be longed for; I should answer; A beautiful book. To enjoy good houses and good books in self-respect and decent comfort, seems to me to be the pleasurable end towards which all societies of human beings ought now to struggle."
~William Morris

Well, there you have it from the man himself! Morris' mania for beautiful things is well documented. And it's no secret that books and houses were two of his chief obsessions. As a designer, writer and publisher, he devoted himself to human comfort and education. But is he being a bit excessive to argue that human beings ought to "struggle" so that people can enjoy beautiful houses and books "in self-respect and comfort." Is Morris going a little over the top here? Shelter and an education are important, to be sure--but why the emphasis on comfort and beauty? And are these things really significant enough to fight for?

This is a difficult question. While Morris is widely recognized as an early socialist thinker, I would think that many socialists would have a difficult time with his emphasis on beauty and comfort. Many would read a quote like this and say to themselves, “why should I bother with a beautiful home and collecting possessions like books? How bourgeois!”

Today Morris' impassioned idealism seems almost quaint when he argues that “all societies of human beings ought now to struggle” in order “to enjoy good houses and good books in self-respect and decent comfort.” But is Morris talking about having a gorgeous McMansion to show off and a showy bookshelf? Morris’ philosophy of life was rooted in the writings of John Ruskin. Ruskin argued that modernity had turned a whole class of people--the working class---into something less than human beings. For Ruskin, the assembly line was the nadir of human innovation, reducing a group of people into mere cogs in the wheel of society (this is one of the important distinctions features of Morris' and Ruskins' political philosophy--it was socialist, not communist, and placed tremendous weight on the importance of the individual). Morris and Ruskin felt human beings deserved work that gave them a feeling of distinction and pride, rather than treating them as yet another machine required in order to produce cheap, shoddy, production-line goods.

If you've ever worked a summer flipping burgers, stuffing envelopes, or doing similar monotonous work, you probably know what this feels like. Now, compare that feeling with your pride when you've produced a beautiful piece of needlework, cooked a fabulous meal, or finished another satisfying project. Pretty different, eh? And while our protestant work ethic society tries to tell us that we should feel satisfied and proud in our minimum wage jobs, we somehow still can sense the difference.

Work does not have to be "white collar" in order to produce a feeling of accomplishment (a day of landscaping might be as satisfying to some as a day in the office). In fact, it might be even more soul-killing than less "elevated" pursuits (cooking dinner). A beautiful home does not need to be extravagent. Indeed, a remarkably simple home was what Morris advocated most. The important thing is that one's house/apartment/room is comfortable and satisfying. It should be a place that reflects your personal values and makes you feel proud of your accomplishments.

The same should be true of one's books. I will take this idea one step further and argue that this also applies to one's education. Books were one's education, for the most part, in Morris' day, so I don't think it's too much of a stretch to argue that our children deserve to be educated in an environment where we are respected and treated with dignity. Unfortunately, far many schools, highschools and universities treat their students as a means to an end. Children are taught not to expect too much from their lives and unversity students are urged to choose careers that "fill the market's needs" rather than one that satisfies their own longings for personal development.

Is Morris being a trifle idealistic? Perhaps, but that's what I like best about him. And I'm willing to join in the struggle for self-respect and comfort!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Origins of Christmas Celebrations

As Christmas approaches, it's sometimes interesting to contemplate the role of ancient traditions in our modern celebrations. Looking around today, I noticed a number of bloggers were writing to protest either Solstice or Christmas depending on their religious/philisophical persuasions. For my part, I see nothing contradictoray at all in celebrating both at once.

Most of us are aware that Christmas falls very close to midwinter solstice (Kwanzaa and Hannukah aren't that far off either). The date for Christmas was set by Rome in the third century AD in order to coincide with (and hopefully to supersede) the pagan festivals devoted to Saturn (King, 134).

Many of our modern celebrations of the holiday are clearly derived from Roman customs surrounding the Saturnalia fire festival. At this time of the year, homes were bedecked with "evergreens, candles, and specially constructed lanterns"(King, 134). Gifts were given and were even giftwrapped in coloured cloth!(134) Special foods such as exotic fruits, nuts, sweet bread and "pastries pressed in the shape of stars" were eaten along with cider and mulled wine (134).

The midwinter celebrations of the Celts had more to do with sun-god. Yule log superstitions have existed for many years in Celtic society. Despite numerous claims, it is not known whether the Christmas tree phenomenon originated with the Druids. I'm always suspicious of claims regarding "the first Christmas tree"--whether Martin Luther or the druids are credited, and it seems safer to me to stick with Queen Victoria since she's the first person we can be sure about having an actual Christmas tree.

The burning of the Yule Log was connected to the sun-gods purifying abilities and bringing the wood inside was a metaphor for inviting the sun-gods blessing into the home (135). Interestingly, the word Yule is derived from the Middle English "yole" and is perhaps related to our modern English words "yolk" and "yellow"(King, 135), which would make sense, since the sun appears yellow to our eyes.

Holly and Ivy are still probably the plants we most associate with Christmas. In ancient times, they were connected to the worship of Saturnalia, whose "club was of holly wood" and whose "sacred bird, the gold-crested wren, nested in ivy" both plants were also associated with the druids(King, 136).

There are many theories as to why the Roman empire chose to celebrate Christmas at this time of year. Some staunch traditionalists argue that Christmas falls at the same time of the year as Christ's actual birth. Others believe the holiday was set to occur at yuletide as a means of distracting pagans from their former rituals and giving them something else to celebrate. There are even christians who argue that Christ's birth should NOT be celebrated at this time of the year, since it comes dangerously close to glorifying the pagan past...

Regardless of which party is correct, I think it is perfectly fitting that Christmas comes at this time of year. In the Northern Hemisphere, Solstice marks the point in the calendar when days grow longer and the nights become shorter. What more fitting point in the calendar to welcome the birth of the "Son of God" or "Light of Lights"? Alternately, if one is of the pagan persuasion, I should think Christmas must seem far more innocuous than, let's say, Easter, since it's a celebration of life and new birth (which fits quite well with many neopagan religions). I guess I'm just a little sad everyone can't just get along. It seems to me that everyone--Christians, Atheists, Pagans and people from all religions--could benefit greatly from a little celebration at this time of the year, no matter what they're celebrating.

Reference: King, John. The Celtic Druids' Year. Blandford: London, 1994.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Loreena McKennit: A Winter Garden

I've been a big fan of Loreena McKennitt's music for years. I think I first heard "Mummer's Dance" on the radio or at some New Age bookshop. My mom started collecting her CDs soon afterwards, and my whole family became huge fans. I heard her described somewhere once as "Enya with a library card," but I think she's a lot more than that. She's an incredibly talented musician and her music will simply transport you.

I thought I'd heard pretty much every one of her albums until I ran across this little gem at Chapters the other day. I've always listened to To Drive the Cold Winter Away obsessively during the Christmas season and I had no idea she had another Christmas album. A Winter Garden was a revelation for me.

The first three of five tracks on A Winter Garden will be familiar to listeners. "Coventry Carol," "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" and "Good King Wenceslas" are Christmas standards sung with their traditional tunes, through McKennitt has created interesting arrangements for them.

Coventry Carol is hauntingly beautiful and the arrangement is quite traditional. The arrangement for "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman" is overtly Celtic and might require a bit more getting used to (it sounds like a marauding band of ancient gypsies doing their own interpretation of the tune). "Good King Wenceslas" is a bit more modern in feel, it is still very traditional.

My favourite piece from the album is "Snow," a poem by Archibald Lampman (1861-1899) set to McKennitt's own music. It has that tremendous mystical and romantic quality that is the hallmark of her work. My only real quibble with the album is that this song should come at the end. It forms a nice bookend with "Coventry Carol."

The album's final track "Seeds of Love" is also composed by McKennitt and is the weakest link in the album. The melody is lovely, but the lyrics themselves, though traditional, just aren't as powerful as those of the other songs. Nevertheless, the album ends to quickly--it will leave you wanting more. I think it's time she came out with another Christmas album!

Monday, December 10, 2007

Art objects in the home: the antique toast rack

The toast rack is truly a remarkable invention, if somewhat obscure these days.

Toast racks were developed in order to spare clever Britons the shame and ignominy of soggy toast. If any of you have ever been forced to vulgarly stack buttered toast on a plate then you are probably entirely too familiar with the inconvenience of damp toast. Horrors! Of course, the racks are entirely unnecessary, which contributes immensely to their snob appeal.

I've been in love with these clever gadgets for some time. Like sterling silver ice cream servers, they are the kinds of accessories that speak to a sort of rare and gentrified need for comfort that seems to be slowly dying.

Apparently the toast rack is not so entirely out of vogue that it doesn't possess its own wikipedia entry (I checked) --though it's rather sparse.

This lovely sterling silver rack is being auctioned by Dargate auction galleries for $500.

Young Fogies

I found this site while surfing the net and it brought a smile to my face And I thought I was the only young fogey/luddite around! It's comforting to know that there are others out there. It seems that there's a growing movement out there!

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Lady of London Tea

My husband and I went for a walk this afternoon and stopped to have a cup of tea. There's nothing like a hot cup of tea on a cold day!
I got hooked on tea when I was about eight years old, when my mother started taking me to visit the tearoom on Saturday afternoon after ballet class. We would sit in there and order high tea after chatting politely with the owner. I still remember that my favourite tea was "Lady of London." The name of the tea alone sounded so romantic to me that I couldn't wait to order it. I would sit up very straight and ask Mrs. Stevie (a charming elderly british womnan who worked at the tea room on Saturdays) in my very best British accent if we might please have some "Lady of London." I was convinced that I always said it best after I'd already had some tea.

That experience alone probably condemned me to a lifelong appreciation for all things British. One thing's for certain, it certainly engrained in me a deep love of tea.

Unfortunately, I'm not entirely sure what tea "Lady of London" was. I think perhaps it was Lady Grey, from Twinings of London. I can't be entirely sure.

I love Twinings tea, of course. For some time I've been quite the tea snob, so I prefer the loose leaves to bags. If you make them in a french press, they're better for the environment! Harney and Sons is an amazing company out of the states that carries one of the widest varieties (if not the widest variety) of loose leaf teas on the planet. If you get the chance, try their apricot black tea--it's to die for!

Friday, December 7, 2007

Fountain Pens for Romantic Writing

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There is nothing like an amazing fountain pen to get you in the mood for some serious writing.

Fountain pens are incredibly romantic, particularly when used with a good ink well. How can you possibly keep a good journal without a decent writing instrument? How could any proper Victorian lady write with a ballpoint pen?

Everyone has their favourites. Personally, I prefer Waterman, but there are many amazing brands out there. Just make sure that the nib is of good quality. A poor nib can destroy your pen experience and discourage you very quickly.

I ran across a great website for detailed information on how to choose a pen Check it out! The author has obviously devoted a lot of time to researching writing instruments.

A fine fountain pen is incredibly luxurious. It makes sublime what might otherwise seem a rather mundane activity. It forces you to slow down, to refill your pen and to truly contemplate your work. As a fine home cooked meal is to MacDonalds, so a fountain pen to ballpoint one. There really is no comparison.

Christmas Card Art

Time is running out to send your Christmas cards! When I was a little girl I always thought writing Christmas cards was a terribly grown up thing to do and I couldn't wait to start sending out cards of my own. I did it last year for the first time, and I did it again this year!

In an age of email, there's something very special about receiving a hand-written note. Christmas cards are a great opportunity to start writing letters because you don't feel too much pressure to keep writing hand written letters throughout the year.

Choose some beautiful writing papers. There are plenty of beautiful designs for Christmas cards that will inspire you. UNICEF has beautiful cards every year, and the money goes to an excellent cause. Crane always has amazing designs. And you don't have to go all out, but a fountain pen makes the entire experience far more romantic.
Happy writing!

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Saint Nicholas Day

Today is Saint Nicholas day!

I'm always reminded of this because it's also the birthday of one of my closest friends. It's more of a German/European holiday than an english one, but it's a fabulous idea nonetheless.

The celebration in Holland is probably the most well known. Children place their shoes out during the night of the fifth and they are filled with presents from Saint Nick during the night.
The most famous story about Saint Nick revolves around a poor man had three daughters but couldn't afford their dowries. When Nicholas heard about their situation, he decided to help them, but not wanting anyone to know of his gift, he snuck into their house during the night and left gold for the girls' dowries. Inspired by his generosity, people began leaving anonymous gifts to the poor in his honour and the tradition continues today!

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

William Morris

The Arts and Crafts movement began in London, England in the 1860s. William Morris was one of the main founders of the movement. After reading the writings of John Ruskin, Morris became convinced that the medieval world was superior to the world of the post-Renaissance because it was more close to natural world. In his book The Stones of Venice (1853), Ruskin noted the connection between art, nature, and morality. Morris picked up on the idea and began to question the industrial revolution's mechanized production and the affect it had on artists.

In 1861, Morris founded the firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., later known as Morris and Company with his friends Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown and Philip Webb. The company worked at producing environmentally sensitive, nature inspired products that were intended to make the insides of homes exist in harmony with nature. Morris was particularly celebrated for the revival of tapestry weaving, producing beautiful works of art that seem straight from the pages of arthurian legend.

Morris was not only a splendid artist, but also an accomplished writer. The name of this site is taken from his most famous work, The Earthly Paradise. Morris founded Kelmscott Press in 1891. The press revived traditional handcrafted bookbinding and focussed on woodcuts and handcrafted fonts.

William Morris' work was ahead of its time. His most famous saying is "have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful." His commitment to quality over quantity was a reaction to the excesses of Victorian society and remains appropriate for our own times. As the people gradually grow weary of the consumptive frenzy of our modern age, perhaps the Arts and Crafts movement will be revived.

If you would like to learn more, check out the William Morris Society Website

Oatmeal, Porridge, Stir-about...

It's certainly getting cold these days! I woke up this morning and just HAD to have porridge. Nothing warms the soul quite like a nice bowl of hot porridge!

When I was a kid we had it practically every day for breakfast. I wasn't too fond of it because my mom always put raisins in it. But if you like them, knock yourself out!

I like the following recipe. A friend of mine introduced me to the idea of putting milk in my porridge while cooking it. It makes it sort of like rice pudding, only better!
Oliver Twist would definitely have wanted some more of this!

Anyway, here goes:

The Perfect Porridge

1 c. rolled oats (or steel cut oats, if you have loads of time)
1 c. milk
2 c. water
salt to taste

Top it off with real maple syrup for a real treat!

Enjoy! We had it for breakfast this morning and I had it for lunch as well!

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Beth Russell Needlepoint

Well, I've been so busy lately it seems I haven't had much of a chance to blog at all!

The Christmas season is here and I'm enjoying dragging all my Christmas music out and playing it 24/7. I had a full day of decorating the house last week and now feel there's enough holiday cheer to brighten up the cold winter days! Winter weather always makes me want to engage in some sort of cozy hobby. I've decided to buy a needlepoint kit.

If you aren't familiar with Beth Russell's needlework kits, be sure to visit her website Her artwork is amazing and she has fabulous reproductions of William Morris designs that you can create in your own home! My mom has done several of them (the Compton Cushion and Strawberry Thief) and they look just fabulous. The quality of the wool is incredible, as is the canvas. She sells pattern books as well, but unless you are incredibly patient and have the spare time to search heaven and earth for all the supplies you'll need, the kits are the way to go.

I'm currently trying to decide what kit to purchase. The husband is quite fond of the Sunflower pattern (pictured).

In other news, I'm thoroughly enjoying the return of Victoria magazine, though I'm a bit concerned that it's altogether too Southern in feel.