Our cheap and cheerful Xmas

Here is what we are planning for our own Christmas. As we are in rental (again), we have not unpacked all the decorations, so it's down to a smallish artificial tree and other random bits and pieces scattered all over the kitchen diner and hung on the banister of the staircase (a wooden nativity, a soft Santa with fake pine reindeers, sundry candles, tinsel garlands and ceramic festive figurines).

I got a tiny tree from a charity shop to sit on the huge TV (my partner is hoping it will die soon so he can buy an ultra slim one, but it's still working well so we are stuck with the 45kg monster).

Some decorations are hanging in the lounge, partially hiding the mound of boxes we cannot squeeze in the garage (click here for photo of our wall of shame).

As mentioned previously we are going for an Italian menu. We are finalising it but these are the options:

Smoked salmon
Affettati (slices of Parma ham, Bresaola and salami)
Duck pate' served with toasted chunks of bread

Ravioli with ragu (meaty sauce)
Roast beef in wine sauce with fried carrots


Other dishes that didn't make it include: Russian salad (insalata russa), cappelletti in brodo (stuffed pasta in broth), brasato al barolo (sliced roast beef with Barolo wine sauce), capon (fattened castrated cock), panettone farcito (stuffed panettone with all sort of goodies), castagnaccio (chestnut pudding), panna cotta. These are all traditional dishes in northern Italy.


Recycled Christmas - be jolly and green

Do you remember that hat I knitted recently? Well, the white yarn was recycled from a cute hoodie wrap, outgrown by my daughter. If you see this post for the first time, scroll down and you will find the pattern for the hat.

I have been kindly included in a green carnival and was fascinated by the contributions, which are creative, beautiful and ecofriendly. Click here and enjoy!

Happy Celebrations!


Cambridge Cheapskate's day

Just over 15 months ago I used to be a London Cheapskate and ran a website about cheap and cheerful (or indeed free) things to do in London. Then I was a Rugby downsizer, as my income took a hit as soon as I left London and started to work from home. Now I'm back to Cheapskate status, my income is still low (thanks a bunch credit crunch), but I'm hoping that living in a city will unlock some monetary opportunities.

But I disgress, I'm posting to share a very satisfying afternoon that cost me nothing, except leg power. I strapped my daughter in her stroller and pushed all the way to St Giles Church in Castle Street and we visited the Festival of Trees (click here for details), which is free, although I gave Michela some coins to put in the donation box. The trees, decked by local organisations are magical - Michela loved the one where most of the decorations are knitted, including a lovely nativity at its feet.

Then we crossed the road to visit Kettle's Yard's house and gallery. These are both free, but do visit their site before you go as they have unusual opening hours. The house is wonderful, full of art, with the books and objects of the previous owner in display. You cannot touch the objects but you can sit on the wonderful chairs and banquettes throughout. If you go with a small child, the house has lots of steps, so it's best if she/he is in a sling or if she/he can walk.

The gallery has changing exhibitions and they often have free events such as concerts and talks.

From there we walked into the centre, it's a lovely stroll and at one point you walk on a Bridge over the Cam and can stop to watch the slow progress of the punts.

At the Lion Yard shopping centre, we visited the newly refurbished library, which has a great children's section. Michela sat at a tiny table for a while and started drawing with the crayons, played with the fittings (there is a cute train with wagons full of books and some ducks made of fabric) then I read her a few books.

On the way back she fell asleep, exhausted, no doubt by all the stimulation. What a lovely day and it didn't cost a penny (except donation to the church, which is optional)!



Testing, ignore this...

Cheap Christmas Cheer

I have recently written two articles on budget Christmas celebrations, which can be leaner and greener. You can read the latest here. I hope I have proved that you don't have to be a Scrooge to save!

On several forums (or should I say fora), this is being discussed in earnest, so here are some tips I have gathered while lurking around. Many come for the great NCT group for editors.

Here they are:
  • Save on Christmas presents. Go for a Secret Santa or a ‘present grab'. Secret Santa is an American tradition where each person buys and wraps just one gift, giving it anonymously. In some workplaces names are put in a hat and individuals pick one without revealing who they are giving the present to. One word of caution, make sure that all the names are correct and in the hat, I once took part in a similar initiative for a birthday and a child ended up with two presents, while one went without. Things were eventually rectified but it did spoil the secrecy of the scheme. Present grab is apparently a Swedish tradition  and involves just one gift per person, but the gifts go on display (still wrapped). You select one in turn. However, anyone can choose to grab someone else’s gift if they prefer, as long as everybody ends up with only one! Hard to do with kids as it might trigger tantrums, but fun for adults! 
  • Make your own gifts for relatives and encourage your children to do the same: grow plants from seeds, decorate boxes, make jewellery with kits, bake cookies, etc.
  • Get some things for free: swap things with friends, clothes, accessories and toys (with your children’s permission). Check on Freecycle for free stuff and on swap forums.
  • Give a little money to charity or buy a charity gift. It seems hard if you are on a budget to give money away, but a small amount may be cheaper than buying lots of expensive gifts that aren’t needed.
  • Make the most of stockings: fill with cheap and cheerful items. Charity shops are really good for this, many sell new items, so you're doing a good deed too.
  • Find free fun things to do such as go to a nativity play, church or  community activity. Festivals of trees are very popular and they are great fun for kids.
  • Share a meal with family or friends, this is cheaper than hosting a party or paying for a whole meal and it's fun, too.
  • Deck your halls with love not cash! Get your kids to help making decorations and cards.
  • Get a small Christmas tree in a pot so you can use it year after year.
  • Save money on postage by sending free email cards or email out a message with a photo. This can save the planet as well as your cash!
  • Mix glitter with porridge oats and give it to the children to sprinkle in the garden, after dark, on Christmas Eve. This is to encourage Santa's reindeers to stop and not for the kids to eat. Find your own family traditions that don’t cost anything and enjoy them.

Pick up more saving top tips from www.christmasonabudget.co.uk


How to knit an easy hat with straight needles - free pattern

Most knitting patterns for hats require circular needles, but what if you want to use straight needles? If you follow this free pattern, please email me photos of your creations!

This hat is so easy to knit it's foolproof
You can easily adapt this foolproof knit by bearing in mind that I used 5mm straight needles and my sample in stockinette knit measured 3.5cm (5 stitches) in width and 2.5cm (4 rows) in height. I used two different yarns together to thicken the yarn.

I started the border, which can be folded up, with rib knit (alternate 2 knits with 2 purls till the end of each row). Bear in mind that you need to cast off an even number of stiches. I casted off 76, as my head circumference is 54cm at its widest (you work out the number of stitches from your sample's size).

Each row starts with 2 knits and ends with 2 purls, if they don't, you made a mistake somewhere along the line. In doubt, unmake and restart.

I knitted 3cm of rib knit in height ending on the right side of the knit. Then switched to stockinette knit (one row knit, one row purl and so on). I knitted stockinette for 10cm (in height), ending with a purled row.

This is where I started to decrease. I knitted 10 stitches, knitted 2 stitches together, then knitted 10 stitches and so on till the end of the row. I purled the whole row without decreasing. Then knitted 9 stitches, 2 together, knitted 9, 2 together and so on till the end of that row. I purled the whole row without decreasing. Every knitting row I decreased the number of stitches (8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1). There was no decrease in any purled row. The last row was knit 2 together throughout.

I was left with seven stitches. I cut the yarn leaving a good length and pulled it through the seven stitches using a needle, leaving a loop of yarn at the start. I inserted the end of the yarn in the loop and pulled. This tied up all the stitches together and formed a point. The overall shape of the hat is like a fat bell and all you need to do is sew the sides together.

The colourful tassel is made by grouping yarns and tying them together. The petal effect around the tassel is achieved by sewing loops around it.

Inspiration from other knitters - more hats with straight needles, including tutorials: 

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Home renovation for less

I have started writing a series on renovation on the cheap. The first article, which you can find here,  is about the renovation of a horrid 1970s kitchen, one of the most awful rooms in my first house (damp, with peeling wallpaper, horrid lino and coakroaches behind the units). The house was an ex rental, late Victorian and badly renovated in the 1970s, where all the internal period features disappeared.

I bought this house in London in 2002 and resold it in 2005 after it was completely renovated. It was my first step on the property ladder, followed by house number two (bought with my current partner), a beautiful Victorian semi, which we sold last year when we left London for greener pastures. This semi was in good condition with great period features, but we added an original cast iron fireplace and changed it into a cosy family home as it was previously owned by a childless couple.

We are now renting but we are looking to buy, so roll on renovation number three (unless we find a spotless house).

PS. I published another instalment in the renovation series, about building a conservatory on a tight budget.


Credit crunch crafting: raid your cupboards to make a wallhanging

This lovely hanging cost me nothing except for the time it took to make it. The fabric came from a swatch book I was given by a journalist who is sent lots of samples from shops - you don't need to be a journalist to get them, as many shops chuck away sample books regularly (previous season, discounted stock, etc). I asked a shop once and got some amazing swatch books that were going to be thrown away. The key is to ask posh shops as smaller shops might want you to pay for them!

This swatch book is precious to me as it reproduces William Morris' designs. I used to  live opposite the William Morris Gallery in London, I bought that house because it was across the road from this wonderful, free museum not many people know of. The archive of Morris's designs belongs to Sanderson, which sells reproductions for soft furnishings and of course wallpaper.

I found matching ribbon and thread among my stack of sewing materials, the bamboo canes inside the top and bottom of the panel are gardening canes I cleaned up and I had the hooks in my DIY box!

So look inside your cupboards, among your sewing materials and even in your garage, you might find unused materials to make a stunning hanging like mine.

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Jazzing up a jumper the easy way

I have recently read the excellent Reconstructing Clothes for Dummies by Miranda Caroligne Burns and got inspired to look into my wardrobe and dig out something I hardly wear but cannot bear to give away.

This beautiful black jumper was hand knitted and embroidered several years ago but lost its appeal. I don't wear black tops anymore and the wool is scratchy, meaning that in the past I had to wear something underneath. This means it was not suitable as workwear as most offices are stuffy nor for partywear. I only wore it around Christmas time when the weather got really cold.

As the embroidery is really beautiful and the jumper fits me so well, I didn't want to give it away so I kept it folded in a clear sleeve with a bunch of dried lavender to discourage moths.

Our imminent (I hope) relocation means that I need to declutter, so if something is not getting used, it has to go to the charity shop or must be freecycled. I wanted to keep this jumper, so I unstitched the sleeves, then routed around my bags of embellishments to see if I could jazz it up.

I tried to find material that matched the embroidery, which has silks in red, yellow, purple, green, brown and pale blue. I threaded the sleeve with silver and red threads, pulling the red string a bit to curl the opening. A broken garter belt provided the lacy (and racy) collar, while a 1980s corsage that previously decorated an old pair of woollen gloves made a shining centrepiece.

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Make a toy blanket

Making toys is good fun and you can recycle materials in the process. This toy blanket is an easy and satisfying project that requires basic sewing skills.

You only need two small offcuts of fabric (soft cotton or fleecy material), some ribbons, needle and thread (and/or a sewing machine if you have one).

This toy is suitable from birth onwards. If you don’t feel confident making it but love to get one, you can buy a taggies blanket from www.nctshop.co.uk, whose profits go to the NCT (a registered UK charity for parents).

This toy is a great gift for a new baby. I made this for Michela when she was a few months old but she still loves inserting her little fingers in the ribbon hooks (she is two and a half now).

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Making mint tea

Last week I tidied the gardens (front and back) and cut the grass (I hope it's the last time since we are moving soon). Everything is looking autumnal already, the apple trees are shedding apples (I am not making jam and chutney this year as we are on the move, so it's purees galore for my little girl and myself) and there are plenty of seed heads all over the flowerbeds. I have collected a few but I'm leaving most of them for the birds and for the garden so there is a good display next year.

As I own a good mint bush (last year I bought a pot of discounted mint at a supermarket, divided it in three plants and planted one in the ground and two in pots. The one planted in the ground did very well, the potted ones are tiny) I decided to make mint tea as it aids digestion and soothe a sore throat if you add honey.

It was my first time, so I researched the subject and came up with something that suited my needs. I collected the mint (discarding any flowers), tied the bunch with a piece of string, inserted it in an envelope and hanged it in a corner of the garage. If you don't have a garage, a wardrobe with doors or any other cupboard would work.

Why an envelope? Because it makes a dark, breathable environment for the drying mint and you don't get any shedding. When it's dry (it might take up to a week), I put the mint on a tray and detach the leaves from the stems, placing them in a jar. I keep the jar in a cupboard in the kitchen. When I want to make tea I soak some leaves in a jug full of hot water and strain the tea when it's ready. If I'm making just one mug I use a little nut that is designed for leaf teas so you can infuse a mug without any debris floating in your tea. If you don't know what I'm talking about, here is a little sketch.

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Credit crunch cooking: frittelle di riso (rice fritters)

My partner loves rice so he cooks masses of it to go with his yummy curries. I like rice less so there is always a leftover rice box lurking in the fridge. As I hate waste, I went back to my cash-strapped childhood when Mum made delicious rice fritters for my brother and me. Here is my take on this traditional Italian dish...

200g leftover boiled rice, cooled
130g plain flour (plus a little bit for your hands)
150g grated cheese: traditionally it is Parmesan only but I mixed it with some grated Cheddar
3 eggs
salt and pepper to taste
frying oil

Add all ingredients to the cold rice, except for the oil, stir well till you get a gloopy mass. With floured hands, shape your fritters, then fry them in the hot oil in a suitable pan. If you use a non-stick one, you will need little oil. When golden on both sides, place your fritters on a plate covered by two sheets of kitchen paper (to soak the oil) and wrap with a sheet of foil to keep your fritters warm.

Buon Appetito!

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My bosom buddy

As soon as I got pregnant my breasts ballooned - I gradually went from a 32C to a 40C. When my baby got on well with solids, my breasts started shrinking and I'm now a 36C. While on this boobyride, I bought different bras, then thought... hang on, there must be something I can rig up! Pictured above is my very own bosom buddy, a homemade extension for bras. It has been perfectly adequate as I have maintained the same cup size.

It's not a thing of beauty but it was made in a hurry with materials I already had (and as you can see from the state of the hooks/eyes, it has been well used). It's basically two elastic bands sown together with lots of hooks and eyes sown on. You can make it prettier by using a nicer elasticated band in a bold colour with perhaps contrasting hooks and eyes (ie a shocking pink band with black hooks/eyes or what about silver hooks and eyes on a cool blue band?).

If you get to make one, please send me piccies!


There's life in a dead head

In the past two weeks, the sunny weather meant that a lot of flowers faded much faster and seed heads appeared all over my garden. I've been dead heading my plants to encourage them to flower again and the results have been good, as you can see in the picture above.

I have kept all good seed heads in plastic fruit containers and hopefully I will harvest good seeds out of them. Daisies don't seem to produce good seed heads but many other plants do, including blue bells (but leave them to dye off the stem if you want the goodness to return to the bulb), roses, poppies and countless others.


Watch this space....

After the success with the dress, I'm going to sleep and dream of other projects... What creation will emerge from this lot? Notice the dress from the previous project...

Craving for crafting

Today I was longing to craft but all my materials are still boxed in the garage. So I rooted around the house and found some overgrown children's clothes that were so stained or otherwise ruined I had earmarked them for the rags' bag. I piled these sad specimens on the floor and considered various options: patchwork hanging/mat, Arlequin dress... Then I picked up a dress that was too small and had a stain just on the front. I measured it against my toddler and realised I could easily fix it for a new lease of life. All I needed to do was to replace the straps that were too short and create a motif to hide the stain. I rummaged into my bags of ribbons, found matching ones and sew this solution pretty quickly. Judge for yourself! I was so inspired by the result that I'm going to making more clothes!


Lingering in limboland

I'm ready to move again.
Four weeks ago we put an offer on a house in Oxford and they are taking their time in acknowledging it. In the meantime, most of my stuff is in the garage, ready to go. That means no craftwork and no wardrobes in our rented abode!

Our garden is glorious, though. I've lavished heaps of loving care to the lawn and flower beds and it is thriving. It will be sad to say goodbye, but in true cheapskate's style, I have been collecting seeds and taken cuttings of favourite plants.

The photos were taken a few weeks ago, including the pretty posy of garden flowers I made for Mother's Day.