Archive for the ‘Traditional crafts’ Category

It has been a while since I last posted here. I think that may be because the last year was one of more “doing”. As much as I love filling Green Jam Jar with inspiring and informative anecdotes about green living- and I did so religiously for several years – about 12 months ago it began to lose its sheen. Weary from long stints sitting in a mental haze in front of a screen and keyboard, I wanted to spend less time on a computer. The day job is mostly digital orientated and after well over 2 decades of staring at a brightly lit monitor, the thought of using precious down-time to blog somehow lessened its appeal. I missed hand crafting. The tactile, slow work of making. To be lost in the physical act of creating instead of drunk on pixels.

So I did lots of experimenting, mixing and fabricating. In the kitchen and the garden – in other folk’s kitchens. Sporadic Instagraming filled the gap usually reserved for blogging. On the whole I didn’t record much of my play time (in hindsight, wish I had…), it was purely about the doing. I made more soap, baked some Yellow Dock seed crackers (interesting..), concocted roasted Dandelion root and Cleaver seed coffee (very drinkable..but really what you’d call coffee). I ground my own tooth powder, made moisturiser, started painting again and learned to make sourdough bread.


It’s good to have a friend with similar interests to egg you on. Mine is motivational-maker-and-baker pal Sharon, pictured above with Joe Fitzmaurice of Riot Rye.

Over a one-day workshop with bread hero, Joe Fitzmaurice of Riot Rye, the chemical process of fermenting flour and water was demystifyed. He walked us through simple step-by-step techniques for making our own bread using a rye starter. He talked about temperature, different grains and ways to score the crust. Each of us brought a dollop of the live culture home with instructions on how to nurture it. And I have been making bread ever since.

Working from a home office allows me to frequent the kitchen at any time. On bread-making days I zip away from my desk every half hour to fold the dough as it slowly proves. The velvety feel of dough on fingers is pure contentment. Watching the sticky mass of flour, water and starter expand over the day to a smooth, pillow-like ball and anticipating it’s transformation into a radiant, crusty loaf makes the work day glide by effortlessly. Somehow the discipline of half-hourly dough folding makes me more focused in the office and I tend to get more done. The slightly sour smell of baking rye is an added comfort, along with the reward of lunch being sorted. I enjoy the balance of hands-on baking punctuated with the humdrum of head work. Most of all I love the taste of organic, wild yeasted bread fresh from the oven. You’ll have to excuse me now- I’m off to give my dough a good stretch.

Check out the Real Bread Ireland website for more info on Irish bakers and bread makers.



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Soap making gearGoggles- check, mask- check, rubber gloves- check…….Yes, we did look like a couple of nerds about to embark on a scientific experiment. By this stage we had our equipment to hand and our ingredients organised. Our soap saga was ready to take to the next level –  the actual making of the soap. The process involves chemicals and (potentially hazardous) reactions so, as you can see, we togged out accordingly. Here’s how we proceeded:

Getting ready

  1. After decking the kitchen with several layers of newspaper we read our instructions thoroughly, and once more for good luck…
  2. We decided to use an infusion of herbs instead of pure water so first off, we poured boiled, filtered water over fresh herbs and and left it to cool before straining.
  3. Using a digital scales we weighed out all our ingredients, bar the caustic soda.
  4. Then we put on our protective gear (amid giggles and snorts).

The “scary” bit……

  1. Placing our small designated glass bowl on the digital scales we carefully measured the caustic soda and set it safely to one side.
  2. We placed our larger designated glass bowl on the scales and poured in the required amount of water (which was actually a herbal infusion.)
  3. After that we moved both vessels to the sink, close to a large open window (ventilation is important) and as one of us very carefully poured the caustic soda into the water* the other gently stirred the mixture with a hand whisk. We both held our breaths during this step to avoid inhaling any fumes. I’m pretty sure our faces went a funny colour…..*CAUTION: NEVER ADD THE WATER TO THE CAUSTIC SODA – IT COULD HAVE EXPLOSIVE CONSEQUENCES…
  4. When all was combined we left the bowl standing in a safe position in front of the open window to cool a little while we finally gasped for air.

Blending ingredients

  1. The bain-marie was then brought to the boil, using a large saucepan of water and an equally large pyrex bowl, to melt the hard fats. The liquid oils were added to the melted fats/butters. This was also left to cool down a bit as the temperature of the lye and the oils must both be within a certain range- between 40°C and 50°C .
  2. We used one thermometer to read the temperature of both bowls making sure to wipe it well after dipping in the lye- we were still wearing our gloves and being very cautious. On reflection – 2 thermometers would be handier….
  3. After about 5-10 minutes we had reached the correct temperatures and it was time to carefully pour the lye into the oils. This is where the stick blender comes in, making sure to use it as low as possible in the pan to avoid any splattering.
  4. We blended until the mixture became the consistency of custard. What is known as “trace” occurs at this point. When you lift the switched-off blender out of the mixture and run it across the surface it should leave a line or trace for a few seconds before the surface becomes smooth again. Time to stop blending when this happens.

The final stage

  1. This is the time to add the smelly, scrubby elements. It’s important to work fairly quickly to avoid the mixture becoming too thick to pour. We swiftly mixed in the essential oils (and for one batch, our poppy seeds) stirring the mixture well.
  2. Next up, the whole lot was poured into our moulds. We had a mixture of plastic moulds. Some were specifically for soap making – one large tray for a slab-like block that would require cutting (not best choice) and another with individual sections for complete bars (good choice)-  and then some small takeaway containers which had lids (perfectly adequate- lids a plus). We later made a mental note that silicon moulds would be the easiest to work with.
  3. The moulds were covered with cardboard (plastic lids for the takeaway boxes) and left in a warm place for 24 hours before removing them from their moulds. We cut the larger slabs of soap into bars (no need if you have dedicated moulds) and left all the soap to air. We did have some difficulty removing the large blocks from their moulds, even after 48 hours and had to cut the soap in its container first. Leaving it in the fridge for a spell can help with loosen the soap- if your container is small enough to fit. We then placed the soap bars on cooling racks in a dry dust-free spot to air for 4 weeks. The soap needs this time to cure.We’ve been using the soap for a few months now and find it lovely and creamy with a great lather. The lavender version is my favourite.

And that, is how we made our own soap! I hope I have demystified the process enough for you to give it a go. I imagine we will be making the ritual a bi-annual event so that we have enough for our familes and some for gifts. Have you made any interesting soaps? I would love to hear your recipes and stories.

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By now you should have all the hardware and equipment to hand to make your first batch of cold-process soap. Next you need to pinpoint a recipe and source all your ingredients. There are zillions of recipe ideas to be found online but the basic elements will consist of  fat, lye and some “flavour” ie. nice smelling stuff.. You may also want to add some texture that will allow for some gentle exfoliation while you wash, such as poppy seeds, oats…etc.. You can also use clays to add colour but we haven’t progressed to that level yet!

Often it is the use of lye that cause folk to shy away from making their own soap. Lye is a strong alkaline called sodium hydroxide or caustic soda (bit confusing as it has highly corrosive acid-like qualities, but that’s chemistry for you!) which is added to water. This is then combined with the oil/fat ingredients (the actual acid in the equation) to produce a chemical reaction known as saponification. And that is how a hard bar of soap is formed. Extreme caution is needed when handling and preparing the lye – protect your skin against any contact and avoid inhalation of fumes. It is worth noting that all the sodium hydroxide evaporates from your soap and will not be present in your end product- it is just needed to instigate the saponification process.

Our soaps are based on the following basic recipe with variations in the herbal tea and essential oil ingredients :

  • 400gr Spring Water or Herbal Tea
  • 150gr Caustic Soda
  • 550gr Solid Fats: 300gr Coconut Oil, 200gr Beef Tallow, 50gr Cocoa Butter
  • 500gr Liquid Oils: 250ml Olive Oil, 250gr Almond Oil
  • 25ml Essential Oil

When devising your own recipes you need to work out the water/caustic soda/oils/fat ratio. Consult a Lye Calculator to get exact measurements- there are many more online to help you. Alternatively you can follow our basic recipe with some personal variations. Most recipes beyond the most basic ones call for a mixture of both oils (liquids) and fats (solids). Many oils have unique properties that when combined form a well balanced soap. This link provides information on the differing qualities of each. For instance, coconut oil makes fluffy suds and olive oil is very moisturising.

When it comes to the addition of fat there is much debate over the use, or not, of animal fat. Palm oil is commonly used as it ensures a hard, creamy soap bar. Recently, however, it has fallen out of favour due to it’s extensive, monoculture cultivation. This in turn leads to widespread deforestation of valuable rainforest and the destruction of Orangutang habitat in SE Asia. Not wanting to take any chances we opted to use animal fat. It is available locally and a by-product of the meat industry- more good reasons to use it. I assured my butcher he was doing his bit for the conservation of Orangutangs when he handed over the beef “dripping”. He still smiles nervously when I go into his shop…. Before I get too side tracked by the ethics of palm oil- I just want to add that some palm oil is actually sustainable produced and is a valuable income for small farmers in Brazil, Africa and Asia so I am not endorsing a total boycott. More of check-the-label-first tactic. It it doesn’t say sustainably produced then it probably isn’t…

Essential oils not only add gorgeous scent to your soap but have therapeutic benefits. For instance we used lavendin for it’s calming effect. It helps ease aches and pains and has a positive effect on the respiratory system. Lemon aids the removal of dead skin while eucalyptus is mildly antibacterial. We combined both with some scrubby poppy seeds for a more invigorating morning wash. You’ll find a lot of ingredients in your local health food shop. For the more specialised products there are many online providers. Have fun tailor choosing your ingredients and drop back soon for the finale….deh,deh,dehhhhhhhhhhh….Soap-making part 3 – the METHOD!

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Last year my friend Sharon and I completed a very informative soap-making workshop run by Natasha and Martin of Sun Rose Garden. Since then we’ve been plotting a soap-making Saturday where we could make enough soap to keep us and our families squeaky clean and fragrant the whole year round. Commercial soap brands can contain nasty chemicals and additives under the guise of perfume and colorants so our homemade suds would, first and foremost, be made of natural ingredients. The skin is the largest organ of the human body. Whatever it comes in contact with is absorbed into our bloodstream and other organs so it pays to be picky. A good general rule of thumb is: don’t rub anything on your skin that you wouldn’t feel safe eating. If the list of ingredients on your shop-bought soap reads like a pharmaceutical bunfest then chances are it’s not the healthiest option for you.

First time soap-making requires much planning. There are gadgets to gather. A multitude of containers are needed. For the inexperienced it’s useful to work out a system. Sharon made a spreadsheet. I scribbled all over it. Between us it took about 3 weeks to gather enough paraphernalia and bravado to make our first batch of soap. You’ll need a free afternoon and access to a well ventilated kitchen. As you’ll be handling sodium hydroxide, aka caustic soda, you’ll need to declare your space off-limits to kiddies and pets for the few hours. Once your equipment, ingredients and head are all in place then the process moves along quite quickly. But the prep work is key. For that reason this post is dedicated to the bits and bobs you need to gather before you touch on the fun part- recipes, ingredients and the endless possibilities for smelly, scrubby or colouredy combinations.

Soap-Prep illustration


  • Moulds in which to pour your soap- the easiest ones are silicone cup cake moulds or loaf tins. Used plastic take-away containers are also fine. You can buy specific soap making moulds but hey- you’re a beginner! Save the fancy pants stuff for later.
  • A glass or heavy plastic container for measuring the dry caustic soda granules
  • A Bain Marie to melt the fats: A large saucepan and a pyrex bowl to fit over the top
  • A glass/stainless steel bowl to mix the caustic soda and water


  • A whisk to mix the caustic soda and water
  • A thermometer (without plastic or aluminium fixtures)
  • A digital weighing scales
  • A hand blender (a cheap and cheerful one is just fine)
  • A scraper (silicon or tough plastic)

Protective ware

  • Rubber gloves
  • Old towels and newspapers
  • Goggles and a mask (seriously, I’m not joking)
  • Geiger counter (ok – now I’m joking…)

You have now assembled all the equipment for your first soap batch, and all the other batches from here on in. Well done! The next time will be a less stressful experience….provided you remember where you have stashed away your dedicated soap-making-equipment-box……

My next posts will cover ingredients and our actual soap-making experience. So, stay tuned!

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I’ve been very quiet on the blogging front of late. Don’t be too hard on me – I have good reason. Our world has been topsy turvey for several weeks not with not much let up in sight. The builders are in. Yes, following a month of having our wooden floor dismantled to fix a leak we are now extending to add a granny flat. A year of changes all round as “granny” prepares to join us here. So yeah, there’s been a lot of disruption and heavy lifting of furniture. Not to mention the noise and dust, blah, blah, blah…….

Anyhow….. as we have been forced to move our shared studio to a more compact space I’d been going through years of accumulated items reserved for that extra special project that never quite manages to manifest itself. I hate to chuck stuff away. The more obscure and downright useless the object the more potentially interesting that special project is going to be. So with steely resolve to free up some space I set to the difficult task of decluttering. I struggled with an ancient bag of musty Letraset* fonts (mine) and architectural symbols (Z’s) and just as it landed on the for-God-sake-just-BIN-it heap Cathy Dineen’s email pinged in my inbox. Cathy is an extraordinarily talented illustrator who just happened to send out an unusual request for any Letraset that may be gathering dust in design studios around the country. She had plans to transform it into a beautifully crafted piece of art. I emailed straight back- I just love it when junk is rendered useful! I got to meet Cathy over a cuppa and hand over what could have been wheelie bin bumph to be creatively upcycled into something incredible. AND I got a beautiful hand crafted gift in return. A more than fair barter methinks.


I came home to my builder infested house oblivious to the Kango hammering and plaster blobs on my floor. With my original Cathy Dineen pottery pieces I was well pleased with myself. Not only had I done the sustainably responsible thing I’d made a lovely new friend in the process.

*Letraset was used by dinosaur designers such as myself before the invention of computers for rendering text on visuals. The letters/images were rubbed onto the surface. They are essentially obsolete and I imagine kinda hard to come by. I don’t miss them.

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Springtime has me thinking of creative projects. An Easter themed lino print is just the ticket – mostly because bunnies and hares are great images to work with – but also it’s a fun way to make your own greeting cards or framed prints for your loved ones. Why not give it a go – when you get the hang of home printing a whole new world of crafty possibilities will open up to you! Here’s how I went about mine:

Transferring the illustration: First off I dug up a drawing I had done a while back featuring a hare bounding across a newly ploughed field. Pick a simple, black and white image with not too much fine detail. Then I mirrored the image by taping the drawing to a window, facing the glass so that the light coming through the paper enabled me to pencil over the lines on the opposite side. I rubbed the original drawing with a soft lead pencil. Placing the drawing over a piece of lino with the mirrored image facing up and the pencil-rubbed side down, I then traced over the lines again with a heavy hand, transferring the image onto the lino.

Carving the lino : this is the best bit- it’s very therapeutic! Using the various heads on my lino cutter I cut out the illustration. Please mind your fingers as the cutting tool heads are sharp. If you are using old fashioned lino block it’s may not be very pliable so heat it up on a radiator first to make it easier to carve. Bear in mind that everything that is cut away will not carry any ink and everything that is left will be printed.

Inking the block : Next up I squished some black water based lino ink onto a glass sheet and ran my roller through it several times before rolling a layer of ink onto my freshly cut lino.

Printing : I gently placed the paper (I used a quality textured tissue paper) on top of the lino and burnished it lightly with the back of a wooden spoon. Yes, nothing fancy pants – a good ole fashioned wooden spoon. No printing press is required. Then peeling it off – tadaah! -print number one is finished and put aside to dry. You can print as many as you like but make sure that the ink doesn’t build up and smudge your masterpiece – wash the lino regularly with warm water and dry it thoroughly before starting over. You can print onto any paper and most fabrics but heavier paper works best with oil based inks and fabric will require a fabric paint. It pays to play around with different materials.


Lino block, lino cutting tools, water based ink and Japanese tissue paper are all available from art shops.

Enjoy your Easter weekend!


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I’ve done it. I’ve made the commitment and there’s no turning back. While surfing through a great blog, choc-o-block with creative posts, I stumbled on the love what you wear project. Immediately taken with the whole idea, in a gush of upcycling fevour I threw my hat (formerly a jumper sleeve) into the ring. The project explained in the words of initiator Morwhenna:

From the 01 November 2012 – 01 November 2013 I won’t buy any new clothes (with the exception of shoes and undergarments!) When I need something – I’ll either make it, re-purpose what I have or buy secondhand. Why not come and join me and take part too?

I was relieved to find that blog has loads of useful links for the nervous amateur like myself. There is help at hand if I need it. The idea of being able to transform items of clothing that would normally be thrown or given away is very appealing although I did consider rushing out to my favourite clothes store for a last stock up on lovely frocks….afterall there is the local economy to think of…… But no. For better or for worse I’m in it for the long haul..*gulp!*

Ellen Cullen sewing

This illustration doesn’t feature in the book- I’m saving it for the graphic novel…

When I wrote a book about my family history I discovered that great great granny Mary Ellen Cullen was a dab hand at making clothes.

The Cullens were forced to downsize, moving first to Gorey in Co. Wexford and then to Kenilworth Square in Dublin. Mary Ellen became an adept seamstress and frugal housekeeper managing to uphold the illusion of financial security. 

Who knows. Maybe a little of that adept seamstress-ness is lurking somewhere in my DNA.. Time will tell.

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