extreme crafting?

glass rods used in glass fusing

glass rods used in glass fusing

I’m not much of a risk taker. Much to the dismay of my sister-in-law I’m the most boring & sensible person to play poker with and I managed to only spend £10 in  Monte Carlo’s casino when I visited – and most of that went on my vodka martini (shaken not stirred)!  Admittedly I have travelled alone a couple of times, broken my foot in a somersault flip when I slipped on some plastic, been gliding once and sang on a stage in French when I was 17 (aargh) but none of that was particularly extreme.  So I was quite excited when I read that the local college was offering a one day glass fusing workshop and I decided to make it my teatime challenge. I thought there would be heat and danger and I could live a little crazily and artily for the day.

Ok, so I was a little bit misguided!  I quickly realised this as I sat with the other equally ‘non-risk taking looking’ participants having a coffee (from a vending machine!) We would spend the day learning about compatibility and cutting up glass but wouldn’t even get near the hot kiln, I let the disappointment sink in as I waited for my smouldering “drink” to cool down. Then the teacher came to take us to the workshop room, she was very friendly with a great Scottish accent and I began to feel more positive. We sat around a large table where she gave us a talk about the different types of glass and showed us some samples of artwork. After a quick overview on how to cut glass, we were allowed to put on hideous goggles and have a go.

We started by cutting basic clear glass into the backing for our pendants. It was very tough and took a lot of scoring until it broke in half. After a while hacking away I finally had a couple of rough edged rectangles. Next came the fun bit of decorating the glass and making pendants. The teacher produced boxes of brightly coloured pieces of glass, glass rods, dichroic glass, glass chips, different wires and beads.  We could cut the coloured and dichroic glass into pieces and snap the rods to various lengths then everything would be glued into place on the backing glass ready for firing.

I thought that I would have a go at black patterned dichroic glass but it turned out to be a lot harder to cut than it looked. After a while I got a bit frustrated with it and decided to just heavyhandedly snap it. Within two seconds a tiny ribbon of blood was streaming down my palm and I decided that I needed a plaster.  Once I had been checked for glass splinters and been suitably plastered I was allowed to return to my pendant making. I continued on to make a variety of different pendants with dichroic glass and then set to cutting up the glass rods and arranging them in bright modern patterns. During that time I managed to acquire two more plasters but I was too engrossed in my creativity to notice the pain!

After lunch we made wall plaques out of the copper wire, rods and glass beads. I wrapped copper wire round light and medium blue rods and placed them onto a smoky brown glass to create a plaque in blues and browns to match the colour scheme in my bedroom. Next I cut out squares of orange and black and sprinkled them  with tiny red-orange glass chips to fit in with our lounge colourscheme. I was particularly proud of the lounge plaque as it looked like somethng that hotel chocolat would have on sale to eat.

Before all the pieces were glued down I sanded around the edges of the glass to make them smooth. It was an interesting process involving a wet sanding machine, a tap and some hosepipe. Glass is ground on “metal sandpaper” which is kept wet by a stream of piped tap water and it makes quite a satisfying noise! I had a good go with all of my pendants and then when I started to do my plaques the water pressure dropped. Unfortunately I didn’t notice it at first and managed to send a spray of fine glass chippings all over myself from my neck to my chest.  Luckily for me I was wearing my gorgeous goggles and my face was fine but as I began to brush the glass off my neckline I realised that I was cutting myself with tiny splinters in the process. In the end I had shake my clothes of all the bits and wash my neck and chest.

By the end of the day I was exhausted by my creativity and what had turned out to be a slightly more dangerous activity than I anticipated at the beginning of the day. I left about 10 pendants and two glass plaques to be fired ready to be collected a month later. I was very proud to show off my plasters the next day at work.

Several weeks later I got an email to tell me that my glasswork was ready to collect. I was particularly excited about my living room plaque and one of the pendants so got the bus out to the college to pick them up from reception. The receptionist handed me a bag of my artwork and I sat down to take a look at them. To be honest I was a bit disappointed after a month of waiting! The pendants were ok but the glass rods had melted around the backing making sharp points, the wire in my bedroom plaque looked old and rusty and there was no sign of my lounge plaque.

I asked to speak to an art teacher about my missing glasswork. We rummaged around in the kilnstore and managed to find half of the lounge plaque. It looked amazing – except the break and the missing bits – and the teacher could find no reason why it might have broken or indeed where the other half was. After a while considering my husband’s reactions, I decided to ditch my bedroom plaque as I couldn’t see me ever wanting to use it and the college could have it as a sample piece instead. I then spent half an hour sanding down my remaining pendants without a single shower of glass, I was very pleased. Unfortunately the sanded edges looked matt and had lost their lovely glassy shine but that could only be remedied by refiring them. I would still be able to make one or two of them into pendants.

That evening over a cup of tea and a cake I decided that glass fusing was probably not for me as it required a great deal more skill and equipment than I had but I’d enjoyed my teatime challenge immensely. I still fancy a go at the excitement of proper extreme glass blowing – and am currently researching into how to have a go…

The medallion from Raiders of the Lost Ark

The medallion from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark 1981

I’m a bit of a chocoholic. I can’t resist the sweet smell when I open up the wrapper and I love the taste and texture as it starts to melt on my tongue. For me “deep purple” symbolises a delicious treat – rather than smoke on the water – and I was quite disappointed when I went to America and discovered that Hershey’s kisses were more like a quick peck on the cheek. Despite being a admirer of Cadbury’s purple, I do prefer quality & handmade chocolate and am a big fan of the Cinammon chocolates at Chocolate Utopia in Nottingham. I also love Green and Black’s Maya Gold and am quite partial to Hotel Chocolat’s vintage buttons.Some people say chocolate is bad for you, indeed there’s been a few books written on the subject, but until its banned in public places, given an age limit or classified as an illegal substance I will continue to indulge at will!

This week on arrival at Debbie Bryan’s studio the first thing I saw was a cake stand topped in chocolate chunk brownies. Delicious! After a busy day at the office, I dived straight in and was left with a handful of crumbs in record time. I poured a flowery cup of tea and sat down at the workbench to discover what we would be making this week. Our teacher Jessica showed us our final challenge – a stamped brooch and a pair of earrings – which should be easy as we had learnt and mastered so many techniques. This time we weren’t working with sheet silver but instead silver rod which was the right thickness and width for a brooch. I was  quite pleased that I would not have to test my novice sawing skills too much and once the brooch had been finished with a metal file and sandpaper it was time to stamp something on it.

It’s strange how quickly your mind can go blank when you’re trying to find a word to stamp! It had to be arty but not pretentious, catchy but not cheesy and I was stuck. I started looking round the studio for inspiration but my eyes just kept seeing buttons and lace and those words weren’t really going to make the right statement. Then we found a tiny vintage book of common prayer on the shelf but “almighty” and “behold” weren’t quite what I was aiming for either. Suddenly I had an idea that I should try another language – I started with German but got stuck after “Filz” (felt) and “Kunst” (art) which wouldn’t look good on a brooch – finally I settled for the positive French phrase “joie de vivre” (the enjoyment of living). I enjoyed the stamping bit immensely – it was noisy and involved swinging a hammer – the problem was I got the stamp the wrong way round and my first E ended up backwards. Half a cup of tea later and I started again, this time the letters were the right way round. Then it was time to solder the pin on the back.

The previous week everyone else had soldered their pieces using a few snips of “easy” (low melting point) silver but I had done something different. With no experience whatsoever but tonnes of determination and encouragement from Jessica I carefully rested minute bits of silver on the brooch and the pin and turned my torch on. I attempted to heat all the parts of the brooch to the same temperature without ruining the pin before the solder melted. In my eagerness I managed to overheat the pin and the solder didn’t run quite right meaning that the pin probably wasn’t stuck securely. Everything was too hot to touch so it went into the pickle salts until it was ready to be tested. In the meantime I started on a pair of earrings and managed to break the only remaining drill bit in the process of making holes to hang pearls off of. Then came the moment of truth for my brooch – sadly it hadn’t stuck so I would have to solder it again. I positioned the brooch on the fire blocks, carefully placed the tiny bits of solder and started to heat it all up. I was feeling quite proud of myself for remembering what to do. I worked methodically heating one end of the brooch and then the other and just as I got to the point where I would turn the torch onto the solder it blew the tiny piece of silver off. How frustrating! I turned off the torch and tried to find my piece of solder, it seemed to have fallen between two fireblocks so I moved the brooch out of the way to get to it…

That was the point when I realised that I should have used the tweezers! I don’t know if you have ever seen the part in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” where the evil Gestapo man reaches to pick up the medallion from the flames – and ends up imprinting the pattern into his hand? Well this was my Indiana Jones moment – all of a sudden I had a bright red brooch shaped line on my thumb and finger. I ran to the sink and stuck my hand under cold water for quite a long time and slowly the burnt bits turned to white. For a crazy moment I was worried that I had ruined my fingerprint but to my relief it was all still there. My fingers began to throb and I felt that if ever I deserved a chocolate brownie this was the time!  I took a sympathy break to chat to Debbie and marvel at the imprint on my finger.

I’m pleased to say that my little mishap didn’t put me off. As soon as the pain subsided I asked Jessica to supervise my final attempt at the solder. This time she gave me instructions like “left”, “right” and “middle” and the solder finally melted into place. Once the brooch was suitably pickled I anodized the silver to highlight the letters and finished by filing it to give the surface a matt silver finish. All I had to do then was melt some silver into tiny balls and solder them and some posts onto my earrings. By this time the lesson and the course had come to an end and it was time to say our goodbyes. I promised Debbie I would drop in for a cup of tea and a studio browse in the near future and warned Jessica that I had enjoyed her course so much I might try another one!

So one of my first major teatime challenges is now over!  I have learnt to make silver earrings, pendants and brooches. I have experienced the joys of hammering and stamping metal, pickles and anodizing. I may have broken drill bits and sawblades and burnt my fingers but I have created some wearable pieces, eaten some yummy cakes, had a great teacher and really enjoyed myself.

What to do next? Time for some internet research and a cup of tea …

The enticing window of Lee Chapman's gallery

The enticing window of Lee Chapman's gallery

On Sunday morning I woke up very early and found the most beautiful autumn sunrise out my bedroom window. The ploughed farmers fields were cloaked in a fine fog and the trees were silhouetted against a deep orange sun. I ran outside into the chilly morning air in my pyjamas to take a few pictures. My neighbour was quite suprised to see me up and about so early with what must have been very fetching bed hair leaning over a hedge in my pjs clutching my camera!

Well the stunning view got me reminiscing about my recent holiday to the lake district. We spent a week in a static caravan on a working farm deep in the heart of the countryside. In fact it was so far from civilisation that we had no phone signal and there were more sheep than people. When you looked out of the main lounge window there was an amazing view across the “mountains” and if you opened the door you could hear the river Lickle racing through the leafy valley far below. It was all very green and the waterfalls were beautiful but we soon found out that it was because of 6 weeks of constant rain that rarely let up the whole time we were there. Our holiday became a week of dodging raindrops by visiting shops, more shops, galleries, cafes and pubs, walking with big umbrellas and getting wet feet.

On a morning that started off bright but turned to drizzle we headed towards Brantwood – home of John Ruskin and contemporary arts. Sadly it wasn’t a day for enjoying the landscaped gardens and the weather made us feel like eating cake rather than taking a walk round the house so we went to Jumping Jenny‘s cafe overlooking Lake Coniston. Now Jumping Jenny is a place where they know how to make good cake and their cakes and pudding selection is a celebration treat of all things sweet! I recently moaned about an incorrectly iced carrot cake but the slice I had that day was absolutely heavenly! More suprisingly, my husband had the banana cake and after tasting it I was actually regretting my choice. The rain continued to pour so we went upstairs to look at the Coach House gallery which was a great way to spend a rainy afternoon (unfortunately I have been unable to find a website). There was handcrafted jewellery, lots of original paintings and prints and sculptures. I loved a painting of two hares in the moonlight and I have tried in vain to remember the artist’s three word name but have had no luck so far.

On our daytrip to Keswick in the north of the lakes I discovered what has to be my favourite gallery which is run by Lee Chapman.  I could have spent hours looking at all the artwork! Lee has an amazing range of  sculptures, ceramics, textiles, prints and jewellery by  some of the best contemporary British artists and designers. We were particularly impressed by his  photography of the local area which is displayed on all the walls. He has captured lake district scenes which are so stunning and full of light that I was at a loss for descriptive words!  His website sums it up best … “Inspired by the wilderness of America’s National Parks in particular, Lee found the landscape of the Lake District National Park equally dynamic and challenging … This allowed him to wander the lakes … searching for that elusive and magical light, which can transform the ordinary landscape into something extraordinary.” My sister fell in love with a handcrafted bat hanging over the desk and as for me after the photos, my favourite items were the little badgers nestling in a group in the window. They would have been perfect on the [future] shelves in my lounge room at home when we finally get them up! It would be a great way to use my interior design qualification in a teatime blog so watch this space…

a yummy cheese and pickle sandwich

a yummy cheese and pickle sandwich

Not too far from where I live is the lovely Vale of Belvoir village of Colston Bassett which is famous for its cheese. I got to try some at the historic village inn when I had a cheese and pickle sandwich along with a pint of  local ale.  It was delicious albeit pricey from sitting in the most stately room that I have ever seen in an inn! I hate to admit it but I’m quite fascinated by British cheese and have occasionally daydreamed that I could write a cheese travel guide or maybe even a blog – but for now I’m more interested in its best friend –  pickle. My friend had a guinea pig called Pickle, my sister swears by piccalilli in a sandwich and I like the occasional gherkin! However I learnt that there is a different types of pickle – pickle salts – which will never see a vegetable or the inside of a sandwich but are used in silver jewellery making.

This week I was determined to produce wearable jewellery and after a busy day at work, I was pleased when Debbie put the kettle on and we started off with a kick of caffeine and a refined crispie cake to get us all motivated. I could have taken the easy way out and make something very simple but I thought it would be best to have a go at as many techniques as possible. I’m happy to say that I only broke one saw blade as I cut out a much more passable circle and set around hammering it into a cup shape. Admittedly it was still slightly “organic” but I have decided that I prefer my jewellery this way, it has more of a natural feel to it and I deliberately added a few extra grooves into the edge to give it more character. Next I drilled two tiny holes into the sides of the curve for threading my pearls. After this I cut and soldered a jump ring onto the back  so that I could put a chain through it. My favourite part of the whole process is when the hot metal is put into cold water and it makes a cool “tsssch” noise.

This was where the pickle salts came in – the soldered silverwork is dropped into a very weak warm solution for a few minutes to clean it up and remove any tarnishing from the solder. Whilst I was waiting for the pickle to do its job I made a second square shape and hammered the surface to give it a textured finish. I decided that I wanted to string some beads on it so I also made it into a cup shape. Again I drilled two holes at the sides, soldered a jump ring onto the back and popped it into the pickle solution . I also cut some lengths of fine silver wire and melted the ends so that they had a tiny ball on the end before adding them to the pickle.

I took a break and had a cup of tea and another lovely crispie cake. Debbie walked me round her gallery to show me some new pieces of art. We also had a chat about the prestigious Origin craft fair in London which Debbie is taking part in this year. I would love to go to it but don’t think I’ll be able to make it however I plan on going to Lustre in Nottingham, the Harley Gallery’s Christmas fair and my mother-in-law is also taking me to the Country Living Fair in London.

The pickle salts had done their worked and I fished out my silver with a pair of tweezers and washed it in some water. At this point the silver looked almost white in colour so I filed around the solder and rubbed it with the green bit of a washing up sponge until it started to look silver again. It is possible to polish it back to a bright shine but I prefer a matt finish. I then threaded freshwater pearls onto one of the pieces of silver wire and attached it to the rounded cup shape pendant finally I twisted the fine wire around the jumpring and it was ready to wear (time for a celebratory cup of tea!)

I took the square pendant home unfinished as I didn’t want to use pearls again. I went to the Nottingham Bead Shop the next day where I bought some small round dark amethyst, pinky fluorite and white moonstone beads which I finished off on the silver wire. I now have two lovely pendants to wear with many thanks to pickle! Next Tuesday my final silver teatime challenge is brooches…

brunch and microscopes

Beautiful painting by John Conolly

Beautiful painting by John Conolly

The smell of toast and fresh coffee brewing as I walked into the office this morning got my mind wandering onto the subject of brunch. I love a good brunch and I’m lucky that there is a great deli near to one of my local art galleries. One lazy Saturday after filling up on a tasty organic breakfast at the Malt House Deli in Bottesford we popped over the road to visit Joanna Jones. She has a lovely gallery set in a 17th century building which provides a backdrop for some stunning pictures, jewellery, sculpture and glasswork. In fact the bright coloured glasswork inspired me to have a go at glass fusing which I will tell you about in a teatime blog. What I found particularly impressive was the light and texture in  John Conolly‘s paintings.

On the way back to the car we did a double take as we looked back through the deli window to see my sister-in-law and her family also having brunch. My nephew was not looking foward to a clothes shopping trip to Birmingham so was very happy that we offered to look after him for the day. There was just one catch – he had to come to an art exhibition with us in Nottingham. Although he wasn’t so keen it wasn’t going to be as bad as lots of dresses and skirts with his mum and sister so he agreed to come along.


The Obama Family by Willard Wigan

The tiny creations by famous microsculptor Willard Wigan were on display in a city centre art gallery at that time and we were lucky that the artist himself was there that day. We marvelled at the near invisible sculptures as we peered through the microscopes – it was almost impossible to believe that Willard had painted the miniature US flag on the Obama sculpture using the hair from a fly! Willard showed my nephew how he was able to keep so still so that he didn’t destroy his creations in the process of breathing. We were captivated! If you ever get the chance to visit the exhibition – go take a look. It was great to look at but I won’t be making microart one of my teatime challenges – yet!

delicious amaretti biscuits

delicious amaretti biscuits

Whenever anyone at work goes abroad we always bring back something yummy for the office. We’ve had some dubious chocolate from India, lots of Czech goodies, Tiramisu from Bosnia and everyone’s favourite – amaretti biscuits from Milan. Amaretti are an endangered species in our office as they don’t last very long! Although they don’t dunk they go very well with a cup of tea or a cafetiere of coffee. They’re so tiny that they just melt away into nothing without you realising you’ve eaten 3 or 4! The most disappointing moment is when you approach the packet all excited about your next almondy fix to discover that it’s empty except for a few crumbs.

Last Wednesday I went to the first part of a silverwork course and was delighted to find a lovely china cakestand covered in amaretti and pink wafer biscuits alongside a beautiful teapot and lovely proper teacups. The course was held in Debbie Bryan’s lovely gallery in the Lacemarket area of Nottingham (www.debbiebryan.co.uk) which is full of amazing local artwork including some beautiful pieces by Debbie.

I was sent an email in preparation for the course that instructed me to wear sensible shoes so that I wouldn’t injure my feet if I dropped a hammer and an apron so I would “look the part.” I’m not sure what part I was supposed to look in the world of silversmithing with my old “Guide to Italian Pasta” apron! I decided to ditch the apron on arrival when noone else produced one. Good that I took the sensible shoes though as I did manage to drop a variety of items on the floor mostly saw blades as I broke them.

Our teacher, Jessica Elizabeth, showed us how to cut a circle out of silver sheet and hammer it into a perfect cup shape before piercing a hole in it which a normal earstud could go through. Her lovely interchangeable earrings looked quite straightforward and I approached my silver sheet with great enthusiasm. After a few minutes I found myself reaching for the amaretti in consolation, my circles were a disaster and the more I tried the worse they became and the more tiny saw blades I snapped. My teacher encouraged me to continue as they were “different” and could end up looking “organic.” Eventually I had a set of two similar hacked shapes which I could hammer into a “cup”. I spent an eternity filing and scrapping until they were no longer lethal and then decided to turn my hand to making the top of  an earstud.

The earstuds were fun to make and involved using a very hot torch. It’s fascinating to watch a bit of silver melt into a shiny blob and I loved the hiss that it made as it hit the water to cool down. Two blobs later and I soldered them onto silver earposts. Success in something at last! Time for a celebratory cup of tea and a pink wafer…

The other ladies on the course were at various stages of silverwork and even the beginners were by now cutting out pretty flower shapes. I tried to blame it on my tools – the saw was damaged, the silver was too thick or the wood I was leaning on was the wrong shape – but my teacher was having none of it. So I mustered up some determination and set about a pair of squares for the back of the earrings. I was very pleased to find that I could manage straight lines and with a bit of gentle-ish hammering the squares looked quite interesting.

I had a quick wander around Debbie’s gallery. She has some unusual brooches  made from Nottingham Lace – in fact a man walked in during our course to say that he had worked in a lace factory and had produced one of the pieces of lace displayed on the wall. I love it when you find a personal history behind an object, especially as the designs for many of the pieces of lace have now been destroyed so they can never be made exactly the same again.

Debbie made me a final cup of tea as I went off to try anodising the cup parts of my earrings. I liked the danger of painting toxic chemicals onto the surface and watching as the silver darkened before washing it all off. When I finally put my earrings together I had to admit that they didn’t look too bad for a first attempt!

Next Wednesday, my teatime challenge will be making a silver pendant. Hopefully I won’t have to cut out circles for that. In the meantime I might have a go at making some amaretti


my new bureau

I’m not good with ebay, bidding usually turns me into a nervous wreck as I wait till the final seconds count down and I check and check again to see if the price is still green. But last week I decided that if I was going to get seriously crafty I would need to have some type of workspace with storage and after scouring the autumn winter catalogues it was obvious that ebay was the only affordable solution. So I took a deep breath, reminded myself it would be a challenge and placed my bid. After a week of doubt and determination, nervous lunchtime checking and late night bidding my hotmail account congratulated me on my win. I never win anything so I always get excited even if I have to pay for it! I managed to persuade my husband that we needed to drive to Leeds to pick it up and decided to research the local cafes for good measure.

On Saturday morning I plied my husband with lots of postcodes for the sat nav and we set off up north. After a few minor traffic jams and some fascinating observations of cars adorned with football scarves we parked our car in a multistorey and went for a wander round Leeds. My research had pointed out that Leeds Museum had a good cafe so I turned my city centre map round several times until I found our location and headed in the direction of Millennium Square. What a great square! – I really love the buildings especially the electric press and the one with the golden owls!

The Museum cafe was quite good although my carrot cake had  buttercream icing instead of the usual cream cheese but that’s the problem with carrot cake in general, there’s no set recipe and you get something different every time. You can never go wrong with a coffee and walnut cake or a slice of Victoria sponge but it’s always a bit of a gamble as to the consistency, nut content and icing when you go for carrot cake. Still it went down well with the cappuccino! A bonus was the museum which is well worth a visit and very interactive – however it would have been handy to check the smells display before I sniffed the cut grass sample! (I’m a great sneezer). On leaving the cafe we wandered round the streets of Leeds which had been taken over by Barclays bank trying to cheer people up in the credit crunch by spending lots of money on music, balloons and men dressed in blue beefeater outfits. My favourite part of Leeds are the Victoria arcades – a great place to see quality architecture.

At 3 we headed to pick up my bureau – thank goodness for sat navs when it comes to finding your way in cities! I like the feel of a real map but I just can’t instruct people to stay left and bear right in the way that the sat nav woman does. We reached the house in just a few minutes and I was really pleased that we managed to fit the whole bureau (it came in two pieces) in the boot. I now have a lovely little Queen Anne style bureau in a mahogany colour just waiting to be sanded down and painted.

So one of my teatime challenges will be furniture restoration and I’ll keep you informed of what I decide to do with it…