Sunday 21 January 2018

A very crafty christmas

Emer O'Reilly-Hyland

For some women craft means plucking the perfectly arched eyebrow. But I'm a little more hardcore, as I have a sneaking admiration for those ICA and English-county types who can make, bake or knit something wonderful out of a few leftovers or a bit of baler twine.

You know the types, capable is their middle name and at Christmas they go into overdrive. The craft goddess's yuletide home is a Santa's grotto of fairy lights, multiple swags, and scent of pine cones and mulled wine; their gifts are wrapped and personalised with some simple yet effective frippery; their Christmas cakes have been fermenting with whiskey they've been adding since it was baked in June and their mince pies are most definitely not shop-bought.

I gobble up Christmassy magazines for inspiration but until this year I've never truly committed to craft.

You see I have a DIY dilemma: time and effort versus quality and value. Or to put it bluntly, I'm all for creativity but if you can buy it as cheaply and it looks as good, then what the hell are you giving yourself all that grief for?

And then Kirstie Allsopp, the Queen of Craft, comes rollicking on to our TV screens (Channel 4's 'Kirstie's Handmade Britain' and the repeats of 'Kirstie's Handmade Christmas') and she's so utterly wholesome and jolly hockey-sticks and makes it all look so simple, that I'm inspired.

Call it nostalgia or, in these days of economic uncertainty, a hankering for a safer time, but I'm going for it.

This Christmas, armed with glue gun, green felt, sewing machine, oasis, ribbons, and lots of sparkly stuff, I've turned my house into a hive of activity but, it has to be said, with mixed results.

I'm a bit of a jack of all trades and master of none, but I'm not afraid of oasis, and with a dozen red roses from Tesco (€6), bay leaves from the garden, some berry decorations, a candle (€4) and an old terracotta pot, I was off to a flying start.

This Kirstie lark's a doddle, I thought! Next up was the glass hurricane lamp (€50, LSA at Brown Thomas, including candle) and ribbons from Hickeys (€4), easy peasy! And, hey ho, what did I discover?

That yes, I am creative and my good visual sense is actually very useful when it comes to crafting. But I'd got cocky and then came my nemesis, the pot pourri.

The simple instructions were to dry orange slices in a low oven for four hours; 10 hours later it's midnight, I'm knackered and the fruit is too, but it's nowhere near dry.

Another eight hours in the oven the next day and it's finally done. I put the slices in a plastic bag, but when I went to mix them with the cones and cinnamon sticks, I opened the bag and smelt ... boiling marmalade, yuk!

I rescued it with scented pine cones (€6.95 from Kilkenny) and between that and the cost of the electricity, not to mention the hassle, and you're talking more DICry than DIY.

So I phoned up Kirstie Allsopp. Help! I cried. This is supposed to be easy, fun, and it's a bloomin' mess! "Emer, you're experimenting," she said patiently. "Learn to do something well, then give it to lots of people. But it's only worth doing if you enjoy it and you're pleased with the product."

This coming from the girl who says that machine embroidery is the crack cocaine of the craft world! Maybe I'm just not cut out for this craft lark. I really don't have the time to be faffing around, I moan. But Kirstie's all tally-ho.

"Anything is possible if you just set your mind to it," advised the woman who has just designed another new wallpaper range for B&Q . Give up on pot pourri, try something else, but keep that TV switched off and do some craft."

Then Marie McGurk from the ICA took me in hand and told me how to make delicious red or green pesto and cranberry and red shallot chutney (see page 30 for recipes) and Josephine Helly, who gives sewing courses at An Grianan, made a festive tote, great for shopping or for display in a bedroom or bathroom. You do need a sewing machine for these bigger projects and, with Josephine's encouragement, I decided to tackle a sewing project of my own.

With Kirstie's words ringing in my ears, I decided on a special advent calendar made out of tea towels. Why tea towels? Because I have lots of them. Why? Because people keep giving them to me as 'presents'. Do I look like someone who'd like tea towels as a gift? Domesticated I may be, Mrs Bridges I am not. But every year they arrive from different 'friends' and each time my heart sinks. Now, not only am I channelling Christmas goodwill, I'm getting revenge on the tea towels in slasher-movie style.

I used a new Penneys' one (€1.50) and took great pleasure in chopping up another three to use for the 25 pockets, added a bit of trim, tiny Christmas tree pegs (€2 from Penneys), and that new sewing machine and I were steaming. It was tricky, I'll admit, but worth it to see Elizabeth's face. She's six, busy and beautiful, and she really thinks it's the most brilliant thing on earth. In each pocket is a small gift, bobbins, a ring, glitter pens or a chocolate; in some there's a small verse I've written for her.

Each pocket also contains the name of a loved one written on a small card and we have to do something nice or say a little prayer for them that day. This stems from the advent bowl my mother and I used to do at Christmas and the memory has stayed with me. I hope I'm creating a similar memory for Elizabeth; that really would be worth it.

Has my attitude changed about craft? Yes, to a certain extent. I still maintain that life's too short to stuff a mushroom or to make pot pourri, but I've discovered that I'm good at making things and can transform the ordinary (those bloomin' tea towels) into something really special that makes people's faces light up, and that is like finding a secret super power.

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