Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Challenge Number 15 - Learn Something Crafty

I really envy people who manage to fit craft activities seamlessly into their everyday lives. (As well as people who naturally fit in exercise.) For some, these hobbies must just be naturally under their skin. I’ve always really enjoyed doing art and craft activities (particularly drawing and painting) but once they stopped being part of the school curriculum I have always struggled to keep them up. I’ve always meant to, but hardly ever do. The year after my mum died, the realisation that life can be far too short and that nothing should be procrastinated propelled me to do all sorts of things - buy new clothes, go to New Zealand, stop working so hard, blog for the first time. And as part of this, I did some watercolour and drawing classes at City Lit. But unfortunately I haven’t done anything since we moved up to York, despite meeting a couple of fanatical quilters and going to the artists’ open studios every year, which I always find really inspiring. Hence the challenge, although – as suggested by several friends - this was about learning something new.

A few months into the challenge year, I realised that my learning of something crafty would have to be accomplished in a single day rather than a series of evening classes, and returned to and properly practised when Charlotte starts pre-school and I might have a little more energy left by nightfall. It would also have to be something that wouldn’t cost a fortune in teaching costs and materials since we are flipping skint at the moment. And something that wouldn’t make too much mess or take up too much space, since we have a house full of toys and splats and stains as it is.

Initially I booked myself onto a one-afternoon fused glass jewellery making course at York Central Library. I know, I know, this requires a kiln, which is hardly cheap or small, but the course at least was reasonably priced. But unfortunately, the course was cancelled at the last minute owing to low numbers. I was pretty disappointed, and there were no plans to reschedule. Glass appealed as a medium as it was something I had never worked with before. So I was pleased to discover that a friend who makes rather wonderful stained glass (here is a link to her website) also gives two-hour one-off lessons so I arranged one with her for a Monday morning when the little messy toddler would be at nursery. 

The two-hour stained glass lesson with Naomi cost £25 (including materials and a cup of tea and biscuit) and you choose to make either a butterfly or a boat. Naomi recently moved to the neighbourhood’s most spectacular house, which gave her enough space to convert a room into a proper workshop for herself, which contains any mess and stores all that she needs. How lovely to have everything permanently set up ready to go, so you can just start work immediately whenever you have a spare second, rather than needing to constantly unpack things then tidy them all away again, wasting precious time. Naomi does Tiffany-style stained glass rather than the traditional leaded stained glass used on church windows. Tiffany-style glass is soldered, whereas leaded windows have the glass slotted into grooves within strips of bent lead. I decided to make a purple butterfly for Charlotte, purple being Charlotte’s favourite colour, and the butterfly houses at Tropical World in Leeds one of her favourite places.

Naomi is fanatical about reuse and recycling (she is one of the moderators for York’s Freecycle website), so it was no surprise to see that there was to be absolutely no glass wastage in Naomi’s workshop. We chose the glass colours (there were three for this particular pattern) and then looked for smaller pieces of the same glass from her boxes of odds and ends.

You start the process by drawing the shapes of your template onto glass – as glass is see-through you can just trace the pattern from a piece of paper underneath. Naomi uses paint pens for drawing as they are more waterproof than marker pens.

You then have to cut the glass. You use a cutting tool to score a line across and then snap the glass along the line using either pliers or your bare hands. The cutting tool is like a cross between a pen and a set of compasses and has a tiny circular blade. It’s amazing how scoring a thin line that barely seems to penetrate the surface causes the glass to break so neatly. It’s quite tricky learning to hold the pen at the correct angle and apply just the right amount of pressure. The pliers have to be held a certain way up to snap the glass, and you must snap the glass in the same direction as if you were breaking squares off a bar of chocolate (now that IS something I am better practised at). Goggles are necessary, needless to say. Work is done on top of a plastic mesh of squares so that the little shards and splinters have somewhere to fall.

You may not necessarily cut and break the glass along the lines of your template (and you certainly don’t if you are a complete amateur like me) but you aim to get as close to them as possible. You must of course take care never to go inside the lines so the glass pieces don’t end up being too small. To get the glass to fit the lines of the template exactly, you smooth it down using an electric grinder. In my lesson, Naomi tidied up my cutting a bit first so that I didn’t have to spend too long grinding. As you are holding sharp-edged glass, you need to wear rubber thumb protectors during grinding. Grinding was immensely satisfying as it neatened everything up so beautifully. The grinder uses water which does still manage to wash off the lines of the waterproof paint pen eventually (partly because the rubber finger protectors also rub against the pen), so you will have to redraw from the paper template from time to time. You need to keep matching the glass against the original template anyway to check that the lines are as they are meant to be and the size is correct. For a butterfly it is also important to check the symmetry for a perfect result.

Then the edges of all the pieces of glass have to be covered with a thin strip of sticky copper foil tape. You wind the tape around the glass, making sure that the edge of the glass runs down the middle of the tape. Then you either use your fingers or take (of all things) a dolly clothes peg to smooth round the tape, and then you press the edges of the tape down over the sides of the glass (with either your fingers or the peg). Once you have gone all the way round you use the head of the dolly peg to gently bash along the sides to ensure it has stuck. Naomi claims you can do the foiling in front of the television, but I found it needed full concentration and made you go slightly cross-eyed. Stained glass making really is a painstaking and time-consuming process, especially when making designs as large and complex as the ones Naomi does. I am full of admiration for her skill and patience!

Then you arrange the foiled glass pieces on top of the template ready to solder them together. Naomi did the first few daubs of solder to ensure that the pieces were attached to one another. Then you no longer require the paper template. To get the solder to stick to the copper foil, you brush the edges with flux (a solution of crystals dissolved in water). Then magically, solder sticks to the copper foil unbelievably neatly, and doesn't stick to anything else. The soldering iron reaches a ridiculously hot temperature, so this bit is best done sitting down. You have a strip of solder in one hand and the iron in the other, and you just touch the tip of the iron onto the solder, melt a blob, then run this blob around the edge of the uppermost surface of the glass object. Then you work on the central seams, which require a thicker amount of solder. To get a smooth finish, you can melt and rework at whim. The solder hardens instantly as it cools. Any dollops that end up on the glass can be lightly rubbed or picked off.  You work on the top and bottom surfaces with the glass flat on the bench, but have to do all the side edges holding the glass upright in a standard clothes peg (which means you can’t hold the piece of solder any more, but this isn’t a problem when you have a teacher standing beside you). It’s not that fiddly but I nonetheless got what felt like writer’s cramp after a while. For the butterfly antennae and to create a means of hanging it up, we folded a strip of tinned copper wire into the right shape and then attached it with solder.

Then the glass is cleaned with Vim powder and scouring pad. To make the solder turn black, you coat it with patina, an acid that is applied with a sponge. Rubber gloves must be worn. Then the glass is smeared with car polish and left to dry. At this point in my lesson, as it was being transferred to the drying rack - gasp! - my beautiful butterfly flew out of Naomi’s hands on to the floor, but thankfully it simply bounced and remained intact. Time then for the cup of tea and a biscuit and a chance to admire Naomi’s works of stained glass around the house. (Her panel of a view of Rowntree Park is simply stunning.) Once it has dried, any excess car polish is removed with a shoe brush, and the glass gets a final buff up with a cloth.
The finished butterfly

I really enjoyed the lesson and it was great to do something completely different. But I think I am too clumsy to take up making stained glass as a new crafty hobby. A butterfly for the butter fingers: glass would be lethal in my hands, and the thought of any little shards getting near a toddler’s foot makes me cringe. It would be expensive to get all the kit and to buy the glass, and we just wouldn’t have the storage space required. It’s definitely a hobby requiring a big investment and a lot of commitment.

So I needed to have a go at something a little more cost-effective, compact and portable. Therefore I asked my friend Sam, from whom I borrowed the 40 challenges idea in the first place, to give me a knitting lesson. There are a lot of knitters in my family - both my grandmothers, one of my aunts and now three of my cousins. Even my mother was known to have a go from time to time. But I haven’t tried to knit since I was seven years old, when my aunt Judy tried to teach me and it all ended in a tantrum and tears. (So technically this isn't a new craft for me, but I think doing something only once when you were seven still counts as pretty new.) Certain wools give me eczema so I’d never been that keen to take it up again. But the wool used for baby clothes is so soft and there are so many trendy garment patterns and beautiful multi-coloured wools on the market these days that I found fresh inspiration.

Sam and her family came down from Newcastle to York on a very rainy day and, while our respective husbands and children went off to the railway museum, she and I spent the morning with two needles and a ball of purple wool, ready to knit and natter, purl and patter or just plain stitch and bitch. Sam is very patient. I am not. My hands and fingers felt like lead as I inarticulately tried to cast on and twine wool and slip a needle in and out of loops. Stitches dropped more than they were made, and I was as usual talking far too much and failing to concentrate. I kept giving up and thrusting the wool over to Sam, back to my seven year old self stropping with Charlotte's stock phrase “Mummy fix it!” 

Sam is left-handed so prefers to use a rather unusual way of stitching taught to her by her mother. I decided to give this a go too as she made it look so easy, but in the end we just went for the more conventional way of doing garter stitch which I started to pick up more quickly. But by the end of a couple of hours I was pooped. Charlotte, Dave and the others then arrived home for lunch. Charlotte was very excited to find “Mummy knitting!” just like Pingu’s mummy. “Charlotte do it!” she then announced, snatching the needless off me and starting to unravel the ball of wool. It was time for the hobby to be placed safely out of reach upstairs.

Here is a photo of my feeble efforts. You can probably spot the bits that I did and the bits that Sam either demonstrated or rescued, though the last few rows are all my own work. We didn’t even start purling, or get round to learning casting off. There’s only so much you can fit into a first lesson. However, I found casting on so confusing that I’m not sure I’ll actually ever be able to start another piece of knitting. In the afternoon, we went into town and went into a couple of knitting shops to look at what they had in stock. In one of them, the very friendly shop assistant invited me along to her knitting circle, which meets in a pub on Wednesday nights for knitting and beer. Which sounds like a very good idea indeed. As long as someone will cast on for me.

So two purple crafts for patient people. I probably still haven’t quite found the definitive one for me.

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