Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Madam! Free steampunk sock knitting pattern

Here it is - the pattern for the ankle-less socks I designed to give away at my talk at Waltz on the Wye 2012.

Madam! steampunk socks

The design was inspired by a couple of friends driving past me, winding down their car window and yelling, "Look at the ankles on that!". The sock architecture is fairly conventional, and it has a cuff based on Victorian vandyke lace patterns. So if you would like some extra steamy-steam times, knit yourself a pair of these. I cannot guarantee your safety in the presence of adults...

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Professor Elemental, The Indifference Engine/ More Tea? [music]

WARNING: Person who knows nothing about hip-hop attempting to review chap-hop!

Professor Elemental was the headline act at the ball at this year's Waltz on the Wye. Andy and Rachel, the organisers, got in a really good lineup last year, so while I wasn't sure what to expect of Professor Elemental, I was certain it would be entertaining. And it was! I don't know enough about urban music to know exactly what style the Professor performs in, but it seems like rapping over some very hooky repetitive tunes, and I really enjoyed his live show. Even more surprising, Mr Robot enjoyed the live show too, and he generally regards anything made after 1989, with the exception of Guns 'n' Roses albums and fruity girls, with utter horror.

We bought the two albums The Indifference Engine and More Tea? from Amazon after seeing the live show. (Here are the Professor Elemental albums.) We both love The Indifference Engine. It's got the same catchy tunes and comedic lyrics that we enjoyed so much at the ball, and the tracks include 'Splendid', 'Cup of Brown Joy' and his most famous one, 'Fighting Trousers'. The Professor is a steampunk explorer with an addiction to tea and battenberg, he has a monkey butler called Geoffrey and relates tales of his escapades in his songs, plus there are lovely little parodies and nudges at Victorian science fiction novels and cult SF films. The whole album follows this theme, and it feels consistent as a set of songs, while each one is distinct and enjoyable in its own right.

More Tea?... He says 'Herbal', I say 'No thanks', to misquote 'Cup of Brown Joy'. Musically, this is very different. To my ignorant ears it sounds closer to mainstream music, so while the lyrics are still very clever, we both found it much harder to get into. The 'Professor' character also isn't as consistent across all the tracks, which is a pity. More Tea? includes remixes of several of the more famous songs, and to be honest I vastly prefer the ones on The Indifference Engine. The only two tracks we really liked on this album were 'Animals', with Helen Arney, and 'Player Hater'.

Mr Robot is a big fan of comedy music and made the observation that The Indifference Engine has a similar feel, in terms of being full of personality, to work by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, and I could see what he meant once he said it. I'd definitely recommend seeing Professor Elemental live, and will be listening to The Indifference Engine lots on my iPod. We've also already managed to get one friend hooked as well! I probably won't listen to More Tea? very much, but if you're more au fait with urban music than I am (not difficult!), you might enjoy it.

See Professor Elemental 'Fighting Trousers' on YouTube. (The version from The Indifference Engine.)

Photos of Professor Elemental's performance at Waltz on the Wye 2012 are copyright PP Gettins.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Diesel in a steampunk world: Waltz on the Wye outfits

I'm always saying I'm more diesel than steam, and here's the proof, the outfits I put together for Waltz on the Wye. Just so you know, I'm 38 and plus-sized. You don't have to be young and slender to enjoy a bit of steampunkery! All items bought by me or gifts from friends, no freebies from companies.


Hat: Frederick Fox via Oxfam 
Dress: Monsoon (last season) 
Jacket: Passed on from a friend who'd outgrown it 
Tights: Seamed ones from What Katie Did 
Shoes: 'Valetta' by Hotter
Brooch: 'Cissie' by Acorn and Will, a gift from Charly at Landgirl1980 
Bag: 1950s Riviera, bought from Scarlet Vintage 

I was a little worried people might think I hadn't made much effort with this outfit as I've worn it for work in the past so it's not especially dressy, but everyone was really nice. It also shows how important accessories are. The dress is completely modern, but the hat and bag both add strong retro touches, and the brooch repeats the hat colour and turns it from a bunch of clothes into a proper outfit. Charly is doing an Acorn and Will giveaway on her blog right now, so get thee over there and try to win one. Things kicked off on Friday afternoon and there was a barbecue, bands on the bandstand and a magic show, but it's not the dressiest day. I saved my most impressive togs for the next day...

Aka, all Able Grable, all day!

Hat: A gift in a steampunk swap on Ravelry, from Ravelry user benegesserit. 
Dress: Miss M, Able Grable
Bag, tights, shoes: As Friday. (New clean tights, obviously!)
Perfume: Caron En Avion

I love this dress, and this was by far the most popular outfit I wore all weekend, and probably my favourite too. The dress is so streamlined it makes me look like I have a proper waist. People seemed to like the dress and hat equally, the hat has little built-in glasses, although they don't help my sight.

Earrings: Can't remember the name of the maker, I bought them over a decade ago. 
Dress: Dream Girl 1932, Able Grable
Bag: Vintage 1930s, from Penny Dreadful Vintage
Tights, shoes: As Friday. 
Perfume: Caron En Avion

I have to confess, I had a bit of a crisis of confidence about this just before going out. I'm not thin, and satin highlights lumps and bumps, but this was the dress I'd taken with me, so this was the dress I had to go in – and I was working on the photobooth processing images, so no-one would have given a nadger what I looked like anyway. This photo was taken when I was helping Mr Robot test the flashes, positioning, backdrop and so on, and I saw it and realised I was being an idiot. With my shape and size, I'm not going to put on something and turn into Myrna Loy, but it's a beautiful dress, the flow of the skirt is magical, and I love the little capelet shoulders. The bag is adorable, with stepped chrome along the top.

Several people told me how much they loved the colour of this dress. I have a picture showing it, but it does mean seeing me with shiny red drunkface, having harassed Professor Elemental to pose with me. Ready? I have warned you...

Yup, lovely colour, and the Prof was a gent.

No pics, but it was my good old Miss Marple suit which I've worn loads before, with my £4 handbag and Miss L Fire Clara shoes. Basically this outfit with a new blouse, ivory peachskin with a pussybow. I did worry that it was a bit Thatcher, but people assured me it wasn't. I was giving a talk on Victorian and Steampunk knitting that day and had The Fear, so for perfume it had to be Mitsouko, honey badger in a bottle. Mitsouko don't give a sh!t!

If people allow me to post pictures of them I'll do a post featuring my favourite outfits I saw on other people later in the week.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Contrapular Spectacular 2012! Steampunk contraptions at Waltz on the Wye

Phew! I've just got back from this year's Waltz on the Wye steampunk festival, and I thought I'd share with you some of my favourite items from the Contraptions Exhibition. One of the things I love about steampunk is the immense energy and creativity of steampunks, and it's expressed best in their contraptions. Contraptions don't have to be functional, but they do have to be unique and made with skill. Waltz's exhibition was held in a room in Chepstow Castle, a really wonderful location and one that meant members of the public could come along and enjoy seeing the items too. Here are some of the items that were on show this year.

Jarkman's pocket watch was voted 'Best Contraption'. It looks a pretty thing, and it is truly lovely when you hold it. You might think, "Well, it's a watch, there are lots of watches around", but this really does exemplify the amazing craftsmanship of the contraptions. The case was machined from a block of ebony, the facing plates are custom-made and engraved, and he even machined the winder and made the chain. (Here's how he made it.) A thing of beauty, and a deserving winner.

'Maus Digitalis' by Arfon Jones. Arfon is the chap also responsible for last year's frozen dinosaurs and the stuffed womble I mentioned earlier this year. No childhood favourite is safe from him - he'll probably have Morph floating in a jar of formaldehyde before long...

Cephalopod head by Mark Cordory. (Dr Who fans, he was Head of Department for props fabrication on the show for two years!) I don't think I met Mark over the weekend, but he had a number of items in the exhibition, all beautifully made. I liked this one for not being made from wood and brass, but being a more organic item.

Inflatable Glow Fish by Andy Dingley, one of the festival organisers. This motion-sensitive puffer fish lights up when you walk past. Great fun.

(Now a couple of photos taken by Mr Robot on a proper camera, so in a different style to my iPhone snaps.)

James Richardson-Brown, whose steampunk K9 was last year's winner, brought this enormous and intricate Terminator this year. It's articulated, and when the jaw is pulled down, there's the barrel of a gun behind the teeth.

Matt McCall displayed some fantastic accessories, including this hat. (You can see the reverse of James' terminator in the background.) What's great about his creations is how functional they are: brass goggles with UV lenses in, and an incredible working pipe with all sorts of valves and widgets on.

So these are some of my favourites, but there really were too many for me to cover them all. I did a stint watching over them and talking to people about them on Sunday morning, and my head's been buzzing with creative ideas for something to make ever since. In particular, a giant tapestry of a kraken in a William de Morgan/ William Morris style. Because, y'know, It's not a contraption, but it'd look ace on the castle wall. Now, who's got some spare time?..

Friday, 18 May 2012

Why I was a rubbish blogger in April

The reason April's posts weren't as frequent as I'd have liked is that I was reviewing a bunch of films for the new SFX special, which I'm pretty sure is out today, although I can't find it mentioned online yet. However, Rhian at The Crafty Geek has her copy already, so it's definitely imminent.

I don't normally talk about work on the Robot, but the special lists the 100 greatest SF/fantasy films of all time, as voted for by readers, and there's a really good spread from silent films to the present day. Of the five I did, three were from the 1930s, one from the 1980s but set in the 1930s, and one more modern but with a distinct noir feel. I didn't get to do any of the silent films. (Note use of word 'any'. Yes, there was more than Metropolis in there!)

I can tell you right now that I don't know what film came top. All of the reviewers were given word counts for the films they were doing, which is a rough indication of how the films ranked, but we never saw the overall list of rankings. My bet for top 3 is probably going to be 3: Blade Runner 2: Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring 1: Star Wars: A New Hope (I had trouble deciding between Blade Runner and Alien for number 3 when doing those ratings, but if both aren't in the top 10 I'll be extremely surprised.)

My favourite of the films I reviewed? Raiders of the Lost Ark. It's one of those films where just hearing the theme tune makes me feel happy and excited. But if you want to know any more of my thoughts on the matter, the truth is out there...

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Two albums of film stars

I spotted these two books of 1930s cigarette cards in a local bric-a-brac shop weeks ago. (In case you're too young to have heard of such things, brands of cigarettes used to come with collectable cards in. If you wanted to collect the set, or your children were pestering you to give them the set, you had to keep smoking that brand.) Anyway, I hit the point where I could resist them no longer, and for £3 each they were a nice cheap thrill. Both were completely full, with the pages a little speckled and the staples rusted, but otherwise in good nick.

Whoever chose the stars to go in the books picked well, almost all of them are still big names among film fans today. I was jolly pleased to see Alice White, one of the forgotten flappers, still 'on the cards' in the 1930s.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Send for the waaaaaaahmbulance!

My dress for the ball at Waltz on the Wye appears to be lost in the post. As it's from a highly reputable dressmaker – Able Grable – whose shipping and quality of workmanship I am already familiar with, I fully believe it went in the post in plenty of time and is utterly wonderful.

Royal Mail's web site told me that the item's status will only be updated when it's been delivered. That's right, they're only going to tell me where it is when I don't need to know any more.
I rang up, quoted my tracking number and they said, "That's Guernsey Post, you need to try them."
Guernsey Post's website automatically redirected me to Royal Mail when I put my tracking number in.
Parcel Force's website told me it's been 'Processed but not yet delivered'. This seems like a step forward, right? But no! I phoned Parcel Force, only to be told, "That's a Royal Mail tracking number, you need to call them." I have to say, while the chaps at Royal Mail and UK Customs and Excise were both polite and helpful, suggesting other people I could try talking to and actually listening to my concerns, the woman at Parcel Force stuck to her script to the point of being obstructive, refusing to say anything other than "That's a Royal Mail tracking number, you need to call them." No wonder everyone I've spoken to is critical of Parcel Force.

Anyway, that's the benefit of privatising bits of the mail system - look at how much more choice I have about who delivers my parcel, and how much more efficient it is!

As I said, this is in no way a criticism of Able Grable, who are brilliant, more a rant about the postal system going awry at probably the only point in the year where I'm desperate for a thing to arrive on time and don't have the time or money to go out and get a substitute.

On the plus side, my daytime outfits for the event have come together better than I'd hoped (the seamed tights I ordered from What Katie Did at 2pm on Friday arrived first thing on Saturday morning, so the Royal Mail aren't eating ALL my post) and my prep for my talk is going excellently – I should have the knitting pattern I'll be giving away completed by the end of today, and my samples finished and blocked by Wednesday. If I have to wear last year's ball dress again, worse things have happened.

Photo: Last year's dress. You haven't seen the back of it yet!

Monday, 7 May 2012

Back to the 1990s / Crinoline Robot's Vintage Week

I haven't done a general week posting for a while, but you know what life is like: even when it hasn't been all thrills, there are usually little things going on. I've been asked to join in a blog tour later in the month. I don't know how much I can say in advance, but vintage knitting fans are going to love it! And on the knitting front, I'm cracking on with a pair of steampunk socks, free pattern to be given out when I do my talk at Waltz on the Wye. Inspired by a couple of friends who once bellowed "Look at the ankles on her!" from a car window at me, I have designed – oh, the smut! – a pair of ankle-less socks. Yes, a woman (but probably not a lady) can don these and have warm tootsies and gloriously naked ankles. Given how often she wrote about Albert helping her remove her stockings in her diaries, it's fair to say that Queen Victoria would have been amused... in private. I'll put the pattern up on the blog after doing my talk.

I was amused to see the 1990s have now been declared vintage (mainly by Wayne Hemingway) as I still have a few bits and bobs from that time in my wardrobe, leftovers from my university days and early days in Bath. I have to say I won't be wearing them much, partly because I was eight and a half stone then and I'm 12 now so they're mostly all far too small, and partly because it'd be akin to having a 'Best Before' date stamped on my forehead. (That said, I'm wearing an early 90s Fields of the Nephilim T-shirt today because I've been a lazy spud and haven't done any ironing.) I wasn't very impressed with the 1990s at the time, my main gripe being that I'd missed seeing the Sisters of Mercy and The Mission at their peaks, and instead got lumbered with Britpop, grunge and the arse-end of Stock, Aitken and Waterman. Anyway, short version: that particular vintage bandwagon can roll along at whatever speed it likes, this passenger will not be climbing on board... But what about you? Remember the 90s and want to go back there? Can't remember the 90s but want to go back there? Don't care whether you remember them, they're still not vintage? For me it's too soon. 1999 was less than 15 years ago. It's within teenage memory. Too soon to be vintage to me. I'd love to know your feelings on the matter.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

A hat that fits

Being a bear of very little brain, I have a teeny head, which having flat shiny hair does nothing to pad out. It's not something I have a particular problem with, until it comes to hats. Modern hats are so large! The one-size-fits-all ones never fit me, and even M&S's small-to-medium size is too large. I don't know whether ladies in the past had smaller heads, but I do find it much easier to find vintage hats to fit or simply to make my own.

Being a fussy sod, I won't settle for any old hat, so I've spent ages trying to find one that's just right. Mr Robot spotted this one in Oxfam yesterday when we were doing our weekly butcher shop/ trawl through the charity shops. It fits! And it suits me (I think). This photo was taken just after I'd bought it, so I'm in Saturday slob mode, wearing a jersey top and no makeup, and it's not quite pulled on. I like the picture even so!

The hat is quite a good label: Frederick Fox, who carried the Royal Warrant and made hats for Diana, Princess of Wales as well as the Queen. Mine's got the Royal Warrant logo inside, so it has to date after 1974, but that aside I have no clue when it's from. I have a suspicion from the font on the label and the floppy-brimmed style that it's most likely from the 1970s – 1980s hats were much stiffer and more architectural – but it could be from five years ago for all I know. I like it, it fits, and for a fiver it would have been foolish to leave it...

Mr Robot is also small of skull – we both have quite fine bones. It's easier to find hats that fit him, though, as men's hats seem to come in many more size options. He's wanted a summerweight hat for a while, so for his birthday this week one of the presents I gave him was this brown canvas fedora by Jaxon, bought from Village Hats. Bruce who blogs at Eclectic Ephemera recommended the firm, and I was very pleased with the speed of service, quality of hat and price overall.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

How to plan a tea party away from home

My editor had a birthday recently and we decided to throw her a tea party at work. I ended up doing most of the baking, so I thought I'd share some tips in case you're doing a tea party that's not in your own home.

Before you make anything, how much time do you have? If you have a whole day beforehand you have time to make pretty much anything, but most people are more time-limited. I had several evenings before the party, which meant I could spend one evening baking things that would keep for a couple of days in the freezer (scones and fairy cakes), one on things that would keep in a tin for a couple of days (carrot cakes) and the last night on things that needed to be very fresh (pastries) plus icing the cakes, with the final freshest bits (sandwiches) being done in the morning before work.

If you only have a short time, be prepared to say 'Nuts to it!' and buy some stuff, and if you do have to buy stuff, make the things that are easy to transport and buy in anything potentially messy.

You need cakes and savouries, ideally at least three sorts of each.  Mini tartlets and cheese scones make nice non-sandwich savoury additions, and tartlets can be prepared the night before and scones several days earlier and frozen until the night before. This is a big timesaver as sandwiches have to be fresh, and if you only have to make one sort on the day it's a lot quicker. If you prefer to do only sandwiches, do vary your breads – three fab fillings won't be half as appealing if they're all served on sliced white. At the risk of making a generalisation, men tend to like savoury things. Something like individual bacon and egg flans or even spicy chicken bits on cocktail sticks go down very well.

Variety of cake is just as important. Fruit scones get a big plus for keeping (hello, freezer!) but think about how you'll transport and serve the cream and jam. I baked fruit scones as part of my editor's tea party, then decided against taking them when I realised I'd need dishes for cream and jam, and there was a risk that my knives would disappear into the canteen cutlery drawer if people left them lying around by mistake. The fewer things on your menu requiring cutlery, the better.

Double a basic sponge mix and you can make several different cakes. Make small cakes as they bake more quickly than large ones and don't need cutting. Take some of the mixture and stir in chocolate chips to make choc chip fairy cakes, ready to top with chocolate fudge icing. Grate lemon zest into some of the mixture, bake in little square tins, top with lemon glace icing and you've got deliciously different cakes from the same mixture. Add vanilla essence, bake in paper cases and top with pretty coloured buttercream for nice fairy cakes. This means you can make several very different-looking cakes all at once, a few days, in advance, with only one big mixing bowl to wash up. Excellent!

Flapjacks are also good, but look less impressive. I'd avoid biscuits; they need to be done the night before and for the time and fuss they take, they don't have nearly enough impact.

Charity shops are treasure troves. You can find really large platters and pretty cake stands for just a couple of pounds. If you're very organised – I wasn't – and having the party somewhere where you go every day, like an office or college, you might be able to take the crockery in a day or two early, so you only have to transport food on the day.

Roses and Quality Street tins hold a good amount of food and fit really well into the blue heavy duty shopping bags from Tesco. I managed a stack of three tins of food in each bag, with plates and cake stand shoved down the side.

The initial moment when people see everything is when it's most important to use nice things, so sandwich plates and cake stands are the priority items. Worry less about what people are eating off of (but do provide something). For our tea party, as portability was key, we used paper napkins and plastic cups. Paper and plastic are not as pretty as proper china, but I could carry (and afford) everything I needed. If there are several of you involved, see if other people can supply tableware: my workmate Cara brought along the most wonderful tablecloths, including one embroidered by her great grandmother. If you must have tea cups but you're doing the baking, see if someone else in the group can bring cups or everyone can bring their own.

It's easy to organise a tea party absolutely anywhere. Birthday tea party at work? Simple! Hen tea party on the beach? Piece of cake! Surprise tea party picnic for Mum? You can do it.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

British Library digitising WWI memorabilia

The Today programme this morning (BBC Radio 4) had a feature on the British Library's appeal for people to allow the digitisation of their World War I memorabilia. The digitised items will be put on the 'virtual museum' Europeana 1914-1918. This is a pan-European site that will show as much of the history of World War I as possible, covering all classes, countries and sides.

Europeana are holding roadshows that you can take your items along to, or you can put stories and photographs up yourself at the Europeana site. (The next two roadshows to go along to are in Slovenia.) Of course, you still keep your treasures! That's the beauty of this project, that it enables everyone to share their family history with people around Europe and the rest of the world, while still owning their items. I know many people reading this blog have a love of vintage items and may own some fascinating things from the Great War. If you do, please do consider sharing it in virtual form via the Europeana site.

See some photos of World War I memorabilia already digitised by the British Library on the Today programme's website.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

What goes with navy?

Following on from What goes with brown and What goes with black?, here's what Good Housekeeping had to say about navy back in the 1940s. It may seem odd that there are so many more variations for brown and navy, but I think it's actually that the options for things to go with black were much wider (pretty much any colour dress except navy or brown - anything as long as it wasn't neutral) whereas with brown and navy there are specific dress colours and so on assigned.

Leather accessories Navy
Costume and coat shades Navy
Etceteras (also frock or sweater) Yellow, claret or scarlet; mid blues or green, or navy
Hat Navy (plain or trimmed etcetera colour)

Leather accessories Navy
Costume and coat shades Grey
Etceteras (also frock or sweater) Yellow, claret or scarlet; mid blues or green, or navy
Hat Grey or navy (plain or trimmed etcetera colour)

Leather accessories Navy
Costume and coat shades Camel
Etceteras (also frock or sweater) Bright red, green or navy
Hat Camel or navy

I think it's the third option I find most fascinating because it's hard to imagine anyone nowadays pairing navy shoes and bag with a camel-coloured suit and bright red scarf. This summer navy does seem to be making a resurgence, but paired with mint green - very different from those 1940s combinations.

Image from Stitchcraft April 1949