Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Low-tech bird mobile

My friend Rachael is about to have a baby... she has endured some 18 months of living in a caravan, including a good chunk of her pregnancy (no, she is not a particularly peace&love, tree-hugger sort of girl, and she likes her shower, but she had to go through this hippie period while her house was being built).
I thought, given that her new house was self-built, maybe I should be making a handmade, low-tech present for the new baby, so to keep in theme.
I saw this super-cute owl mobile on Homemade by Jill, and I wanted to make something similar.
So I came up with this bird mobile (can you recognise the birds from the felt playhouse? ah ah! well spotted! They were designed by a blogger, Country Kitty, who makes really sweet things - you can find the template of the birdies in this Italian online magazine, Country Dreams).

I started sewing the birds by hand, using blanket stitches, but boy! it was taking ages and I was going to see my friend the day after! So one little bird was lovingly hand-stitched and the others had to be sewn by machine...I have to admit, the hand-stitched one looks so much prettier...Note to self: next time try not to rush through a project (but why good ideas pop into my mind only two days before an event???).
Anyhow, my friend loved it and said that she was thinking of decorating the nursery with birds so, did I read her mind?

Spot the difference!

On another subject, World Book Day is coming up soon and, guess what?, I have to come up with a cute, easy and quick to make costume based on a book character for little monkey...

I have a couple of ideas, but do you have any suggestions based on toddlers' books???
Any help greatly welcome!

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Weekend baking delight: sugar-free banana cake

We just said goodbye to a couple of dear friends, who have a three-year-old girl, after a weekend of food, food and more food...this is what usually happens when friends stay over at ours, the whole weekend revolves around two questions: "what do we eat for lunch?" and "what do we eat for dinner?".
Both my husband and I immensely enjoy entertaining and cooking, it's our way of showing love to the people we care about.
This time, while the girls played nicely, I decided to make my favourite baby-friendly cake. It is so popular with little miss that it was her first birthday cake last summer.
This fruit cake is lovely, sweet and moist, yet it's sugar-free, as all the sweetness comes from the banana and the dried fruit. Using wholemeal floor adds fibre and makes this a very nutritious (and yummy!) treat.
I found this recipe in a book called "The baby-led weaning cookbook" when looking for healthy treats for my baby (as a new mum, you read every single label and often are shocked by the amount of junk you can find in pre-packed baby food...so whenever I can, I make food for her myself). 
The book has lots of useful tips on weaning a baby without going through the fiddly (and messy) carrot purees, and although I didn't follow it word by word, I did take the advice very often with happy-baby results!

So here it is the Sugar-Free Banana Cake

  • butter for greasing
  • 100g self-raising wholemeal flour (or 100g plain flour with 2 tsp baking powder)
  • 1/2 tsp ground mixed spice
  • 50g unsalted butter
  • 75g raisins (I use a mix of raisins and dried cranberries, they give a slightly tangy flavour to it)
  • 200g mashed ripe bananas
  • 50g walnuts, ground or finely chopped (optional)
  • 1 egg, beaten

for the filling / topping:
  • 200g cream cheese (but I use mascarpone, I think it works better)
  • 50-100g 100% fruit spread (I use strawberry or figs)

Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4 and lightly grease a 450g loaf tin.
Sift the flour  into a large bowl and add the spices.Cut or break the butter into small cubes and add it to the flour. Using your hands, or a food processor, rub the butter into the flour until the mixture looks like fine breadcrumbs. Stir in the dried fruit and make a well in the centre of the mixture.
In a separate bowl mash the banana, add the walnuts and stir in the egg. Pour the banana mixture into the flour mixture and fold in.
Put the mixture into the cake tin and put it in the oven, turn down the oven to 160°C/325°F/Gas Mark 3 and bake for 45-60 minutes. Let it cool on a rack.
You can serve it plain, with natural Greek yogurt, or you can mix the mascarpone and fruit spread and make a filling and topping for your lovely cake.

For little miss' birthday, I made this cake in a round cake tin using double doses and decorated it as a giant ladybird. It was my first attempt at cake decoration using sugar fondant. I made the fondant myself, and I don't know what went wrong (therefore I'm not giving you the recipe!), but the sugary paste started cracking horribly while I was laying it on the cake...the night before the party, my husband and I spent nearly 6 hours to decorate this cake, and thank goodness he is a very skilled guy when it comes to crafts...you can see him in these pictures trying to painstakingly smooth the surface of the cake (and you start to understand how he often saves me from disastrous situations!)

The final result looked and tasted good, I thought, and you can see how not only the kids enjoyed it...

Our friend Alessandro with crumbles all over his face

Monday, 13 February 2012

Book covers for book lovers: a tutorial

Tomorrow is Valentine's day, as you know...Oh, you forgot?! Well, there is still time to make something pretty and useful for your loved one! If they love books, why not making them a book cover?
On the tube I've noticed that many people cover their paperbacks with folded white paper or newspaper...I've always wondered: are they all secretly reading something Oh La La! (for the 80's movie lovers among you, remember the book featured in Back to The Future II??? if not, go and watch that masterpiece!), or is it just to preserve their books when thrusting them at the bottom of their bags in a hurry? perhaps the latter; so I thought, wouldn't it be nice to have a cover that you can reuse for the next book, and the next one, and the next one...??

My wonderful Alison Smith's The Sewing Book has a book cover project in it, but with the quilting technique involved, I just didn't feel it was the 'quick 'n' easy' project I was after (you'll see, I am most of the time really after quick 'n' easy when it comes to crafting stuff, I just can't wait ages to see the results).

So this project, which is of my own making, is a sort of happy compromise which will take no more than a couple of hours to finish. See? You still have time.

Materials (to cover an A5 paperback):
  • 46cm x 25cm of any fabric you like for the cover exterior. I've used some lovely Amy Schimler for Robert Kaufman cotton fabric; I just love that retro, funky look. You can get similar, great fabric on Etsy or Fabric Rehab
  • 46cm x 25cm of any lining fabric you like that would match the cover fabric
  • 21cm x 33cm of a thick fabric for your wadding; I've used a white upholstery fabric oddment. Just be mindful of the fact that depending on the fabric you choose for the outer section, if your wadding has a pattern you may still see it through the finished cover. Plain is better.
Place the cover fabric right side up, then place the lining wrong side up on the cover fabric, so that the right sides are facing each other. Stitch them together on the long sides and on one short side, and leave one short side open.
Turn this envelope to the right side and press. Place your wadding inside the envelope, making sure the corners of the envelope poke out nicely. Fold the open side of the envelope 1 cm towards the lining side to make a simple, single hem. Press and stitch the hem.

Fold the short side of the cover 6cm (see picture on the left) towards the lining side, and stitch the top of the fold to the body of the cover, very close to the edge, along the long side; stitch the bottom of the fold in the same way: this will be one of the two pockets in which you will slide the paperback cover.
Repeat at the end of the fabric cover to create the other pocket.

Et voilĂ ! Job done.

Now, it's really easier to do than to describe in words, but if you need extra help...I've created a little sketched tutorial that I hope will explain a bit better:

I hope I've helped you making your loved one smile!

Happy lovers' day everyone!

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Two in a day...Mei Tai baby carrier

Don't get too excited, my dear (one) follower, this isn't going to happen very often, but obviously today I'm very excited about my glorious brand new blogger career, so I decided to post another little project of mine.
Also, after the huge effort of the playhouse, don't expect me to post about a sugar paste life size cathedral, or something, it ain't gonna happen.

This is a short and sweet little project I undertook a few months ago, just before a trip to France - way too close to the day we had to leave, in fact; to my husband's delight, at 2 o'clock in the morning the day before the trip, I involved even him to try and finish this in time!
I wanted an easy, light way to carry around my baby daughter, who proverbially hates her very expensive Mamas and Papas pushchair; I also wanted something that wouldn't cost me a fortune. She was then already a 20 pound baby, so "sturdy" was also on the priority list. Since when she was born, I carried her most of the times (no wonder she hates her pushchair!) in a Kari Me: really great, flexible baby carrier for new borns which, unfortunately, started becoming looser with the increasing weight of little monkey. I definitely needed something heavier duty.
So, I looked and looked and read hundreds of reviews - I'm a bit of a nerd when it comes to buying something on the Internet, I need to read lots of reviews until I'm convinced to buy/make something.
A Mei Tai, a traditional, Asian-inspired baby carrier, seemed to be what I was looking for. You'll find on the Internet lots of colourful examples, with the main panel made of beautiful and stylish fabrics.
I wanted something simpler, cheap and, frankly, I only had two days to make it so...again a trip to my friendly local street market to choose the right fabric, and lots of it (you need about 4 yards of bottom weight (9-10 oz) fabric, e.g. canvas, twill, corduroy, or denim); back home, I found a great tutorial on La Casa nella Prateria, a blog by Claudia, a fellow Italian, emigrated like me (thanks to her for the clear instructions and pics and a pattern in English to print and cut , which you can find here), and I was set to make my very own baby carrier.
The tree-hugger in me exulted!
Excuse the state of my hair, but we were on a ferry to Calais
It was done in a couple of evenings - well, only thanks to my other half, who managed to get my broken sewing machine to work by using masculine strength...I still use the Mei Tai, now that Little Miss is almost two, I can wear it on my front or on my back, it's the most comfortable thing ever, and she loves it too!
I even used it to do a 4 mile walk last summer...!
On a mother/sleeping baby 4 mile walk in Suffolk

Introducing Virtage...and felt playhouse

Here I am, a young-ish Italian woman, living in Hertfordshire, UK, with a great passion for homemade everything: food, cards, toys, clothes, you name it! Born and bred in Sicily, my mum is as passionate about making stuff as I am...my grandmother was a tailor. Well, you get it.
I'm pretty much self-taught though, as when I was a child and a teen I tenaciously refused to learn anything that would keep me still for more than a hour...now, at the wise age of 30 something, arts and craft give me so much satisfaction and pleasure that sometimes I think: I should go out more!
So, down to business now; let me show you my little masterpiece, and probably the best way to start a blog on crafts...

A felt playhouse, made as a Christmas present for my little monkey. The idea isn't mine, I have to admit, but the one of a really clever lady who writes a fantastic blog from America, Jill. Her blog, Homemade by Jill is one of my favourite reads after a long day at work. She has made the most incredible felt playhouse a few years ago and used her kitchen table as a structure. I have to say, that was a no-no for me, our kitchen table is permanently covered with, in no particular order: fruit, unpaid bills, books, toys, leftover food, empty (dirty) cups, crumbles etc etc.
So, I have decided to buy a cheap playhouse off eBay, I immediately threw away the super-toxic vynil cover, and started my gigantic project, armed with felt bought by the metre at my local street market, some A4 felt sheets bought over the Internet from The Felted Rainbow, and lots of ideas coming from Jill and this other incredible lady who sells homemade felt playhouses, Julie from Wisconsin.
I loved making this house, but I have to say, the toughest 6 weeks of my crafting career! I never embarked before in such a big project, felt is pretty bulky too, and a challenge when everything is sewn, but you have to make it go through the sewing machine to stitch up the "walls"...But, how much satisfaction in seeing my little miss' face when she looked at it, rubbed her little eyes (on Boxing Day's morning, I didn't make it for Christmas, in spite of all my best efforts) and said "Wow! Casa!" - she is only one and a half, and obviously her vocabulary is limited to single words, mostly in Italian...still, big achievement!

The details I love the most are perhaps the pick-able apples and carrots - little miss started loving carrots and broccoli from the day I made this house with felt vegetables you can pick -, the little birds (from a template featured in this craft online magazine, Country Dreams) and the animals: a cow, a pig, a cat and a dog, which I can proudly say, are the product of my own making and thinking.
Credit to my mum who has made the cute curtains, the only non-felt element in the whole lot, only using my description over the phone as a basis.
And after a number of mistakes and a not-so-perfect ensemble (I know where I could have done it better), here it is, little miss' house.