Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The hunt for cruelty-free sheep wool

cute lamb
Just because I'm incapable of writing about animals without a super-cute picture
In my early days of crocheting I had the vague idea that, despite being a vegetarian and animal lover, using wool from sheep was OK as the sheep weren't harmed.  I imagined them roaming around the countryside freely (like the sheep you see all over the mountains of North Wales and the Lake District), being rounded up for a haircut once every few months, then happily ambling back off for a bit of grazing.  

Of course, when I think about it now, it seems really naive to have ever thought that an industry as huge as the global wool industry would be this humane.  At the time, I just didn't really put that much thought into it, but as soon as I did, I stopped buying sheep wool.

I don't have a problem with wearing wool from animals at all, but I do have a very big problem with the way commercial wool is obtained.  If you want to read up on the treatment of sheep in the wool industry, the Vegetarian Society is a good place to start.  Peta also have some useful info.  

I try not to bring upsetting facts into this blog, partly because I hate having distressing images and information sprung upon me without warning and partly because I believe people should find out things for themselves and make decisions within their own moral framework.  I do think at the very least, however, we should be aware of what we're wearing or crafting with.

  • 70% of the wool used in clothing comes from Australia, where the practice of mulesing is still common
  • Around one third of UK wool is skin wool, taken from slaughtered sheep, mainly lambs.

It was an easy decision for me to stop buying wool as there was no way of telling where it came from or how it was obtained.  Although there are plenty of alternatives out there, I've been looking for cruelty-free sheep wool for a couple of years now and it's depressingly difficult to find.  I am sure there must be plenty of specialist independent companies, humanely shearing their sheep and giving them the best possible life, but I've only found a handful.  I'm personally not comfortable using wool from sheep destined for the plate, so I've left out suppliers whose sheep fit into this category but I know there are many British farmers out there who give their flocks a good life before slaughter.

If you want to dress and craft cruelty-free, here are some of the options:

Cruelty-free wool

Based in Wisconsin, Homestead Wool  sell dyed/undyed/spun/unspun wool, refer to their sanctuary as a 'retirement village' and introduce you to all their animals.  Can I just say, I LOVE this website?

Insouciant Hair are another US company who sell yarns from rescue sheep.

Selling yarns via etsy, Wild Wool Farm not only allows you to see pictures of the sheep or goat your wool has come from, but also to 'adopt' them for a month.

The Farm Animal Sanctuary, based in Worcestershire, sells fleeces from rescue sheep ready to be spun into yarn.  This really appeals to me but I haven't got a clue how to start with day maybe...

Finally, they don't sell yarn, or house sheep, but I came across The Goat Sanctuary during my research and had to mention them!  I'd never heard of this place before but it's now on my list of places-to-visit-on-a-random-Saturday (if my poor, long-suffering boyfriend agrees).


I haven't bought anything from here personally, but Izzy Lane is proof that it is possible to run a successful business based on compassion for animals.  The sheep in Izzy Lane's flocks live out their natural lives in a sanctuary, cared for by shepherd Ernest.

The same flocks also provide wool for The North Circular.  While their handknitted goods are way out of my price range, I admire the ethos behind the company and think it's great that they've received so much press attention.

Alternatives to sheep wool

All yarn stores and craft shops will carry alternatives to sheep wool.  Here are the most common:


Cotton is great for crocheters and I use it for a variety of projects.  It's smooth, strong and available in every colour imaginable so it's brilliant for home decor and accessories.


Tencel is made from wood pulp and is fully bio-degradable.  It's wearable, drapes nicely and is generally considered more environmentally friendly than other materials.  It's also said to be “soft as silk, strong as polyester, cool as linen, warm as wool, and as absorbent as cotton", quite an endorsement!


I love working with bamboo yarn but it can be hard to find yarn which doesn't also contain wool from animals.  When I do find 100% bamboo, or a bamboo/cotton mix, I snap it up!  Bamboo is gradually becoming more popular and easier to find.  The picture below is of a bamboo/tencel mix and shows the lovely sheen natural fibres can produce:

Handpainted Yarn - 80/20 Bamboo Tencel Yarn   -- November --
Bamboo/tencel mix from Etsy

Linen is made from flax and when knitted or crocheted can make really luxurious clothes and accessories. Linen usually becomes softer the more it is worn making it ideal for cardigans and jumpers.


Aah, the knitter's enemy.  Acrylic, nylon and polyester yarns can be bought from around 99p a ball and can be very unpleasant to work with if you buy the really nasty stuff.  There are some decent synthetic yarns on the market, however, so don't be put off.  A lot of big, chunky acrylics can be really soft and enjoyable to work with, giving a great end result.  Similarly, some of the pastel coloured acrylics meant for baby clothes are lovely and soft.  When buying synthetics, it's generally best to buy in person so you can see what the yarn looks like close up and avoid that horrible cheap look!

Banana yarn

Banana yarn has similar properties to silk and is often dyed in an array of vibrant colours.  It can look really dazzling and many banana yarns have a luxurious sheen making them a great choice for a statement scarf or accessory.

Banana fiber yarn, Etsy
Banana yarn image from Pinterest


While I'm happy with my cotton and bamboo most of the time, I would like to have more options when it comes to cruelty-free wool.  I'd love to buy wool knowing it came from a happy, well-looked after sheep who was humanely sheared and wasn't going to be sent off to slaughter.  If you know of, or come across, any companies or individuals who sell cruelty-free wool, please let me know!


Monday, 25 February 2013

Sweet potato and caramelised onion soup

I made this the other day and several people on Twitter asked for the recipe.  As I'm always happy to spread the joy of the humble bowl of soup, here it is:

(apologies for the photo quality; I wasn't planning on writing this up!)


Makes 4 bowls

1 tbsp olive oil
400g sweet potato, peeled and cubed
Two onions, sliced
Two large carrots, peeled and chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 tsp garam masala (or mild - medium curry powder will do)
1.5 tsp ground cumin
1 pint vegetable stock
Black pepper to season
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

Heat the oil in a large saucepan and add the onions. Cook over a low heat, stirring occasionally until they are soft and starting to caramelise. Add the garlic, cumin and garam masala and cook for another couple of minutes. Add the sweet potato, carrots and stock. Cover and simmer for around 30 minutes or until veg is cooked.

Leave to cool then blend. Heat then serve, seasoning with black pepper to taste.


Delicious, warming, full of vitamins!


Friday, 22 February 2013

Roast Butternut Squash and Goats Cheese Lasagne

My mum showed me how to make vegetable lasagne when I was about 11 or 12 and I've been cooking it exactly the same way ever since.  It became my staple meal during my uni days and I've cooked it repeatedly for friends, housemates, boyfriends and family for years.  

Deciding it was time for a bit of a change, and knowing I had a giant butternut squash in the fridge that I had no immediate plans for, I finally stepped out of my lasagne comfort zone this week and came up with this recipe.  I'd seen butternut squash and goats cheese lasagne recipes around but a lot of them looked way too long winded and excessively fattening so I thought I'd do it my own way.

Lasagne stick-in-the-mud that I am, I had never made one without chopped tomatoes before and I was worried the pasta wouldn't cook properly without all that juice. Indeed, it was a little crisper around the top edge than usual, but this added a nice texture and the rest of the sheets cooked perfectly.  Next time I make it (and there will be a next time, it's delicious), my boyfriend wants to use homemade lasagne sheets for an extra special touch but I'll leave that to him to sort out.

The sweetness of the caramelised onions and the roasted squash is delicious against the creamy goats cheese and salty Parmesan.  I'd seen other recipes adding sugar to the vegetables but I really don't think this is necessary as they're sweet enough already when cooked this way.

I kind of made up the recipe as I went along so some quantities might be a little vague, but that's the great thing about this kind of dish; you can pretty much use whatever quantities of ingredients you happen to have in.  


Serves 6 - 8

I used two rectangular dishes rather than make one enormous lasagne.


one butternut squash, peeled, de-seeded and cut into cubes
2 tbsp olive oil
3 - 4 unpeeled garlic cloves
2 finely chopped garlic cloves
2 red onions, sliced
2 red peppers, diced
thyme and sage (finely chopped fresh herbs ideally but dried is fine)
lasagne sheets (enough for three layers)
120g goats cheese

Bechamel sauce

50g butter
50g plain flour
1 pint semi-skimmed milk
dried parsley
50g Parmesan, plus extra for topping (Parmesan is not vegetarian so substitute if necessary. Bookhams do a great veggie alternative)
black pepper

Pre-heat the oven to gas mark 6

Preparing the filling

Toss the butternut squash and a generous scattering of the thyme in 1 tbsp of the oil. Arrange on baking tray in single layer, season with salt and pepper and add the unpeeled garlic cloves to the tray.  Bake for approx 40 minutes, or until squash is tender and starting to brown around edges.  Turn a couple of times during cooking.  When cooked, discard the unpeeled cloves of garlic.

While squash is cooking, heat 1tsbp oil in large frying pan.  Add the red onions and cook over a low heat for around 10 minutes or until they have softened and are starting to caramelise.  Add the red pepper and chopped garlic and cook for another 10 - 15 minutes.  Add sprinkling of sage and thyme.

When the squash is cooked, add this to the pan of onions and peppers and mix in. 

Bechamel sauce

Melt the butter in a saucepan.  Add the flour, stirring over a low heat until well combined and the mixture starts to bubble slightly.  Add one third of the milk, stirring constantly until you have a smooth, thick paste.  Add another third of the milk and repeat as before.  Add the final third, stirring until you have a smooth, thick sauce.  Remove from heat, stir in 50g grated Parmesan (or substitute), add a sprinkling of parsley and season with black pepper.

Assembling the lasagne

Spoon enough bechamel sauce into your lasagne dish to cover the bottom then add a layer of lasagne sheets, making sure the sheets don't overlap.  Add half the vegetable mixture and crumble over 60g of the goats cheese.  Drizzle over some of the bechamel then add a second layer of lasagne sheets.  

Add the second half of the vegetables and another 60g of goats cheese.  Drizzle over a little more bechamel, then add the final layer of lasagne sheets.  

Spread the remaining sauce over the top, scatter with grated Parmesan then bake at in the middle of the oven at gas mark 6 for approx 30  minutes or until top is golden brown and the lasagne is bubbling away.

Serve with green veg or leaves.



Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Little Cotton Flowers

There is something very pleasing about crochet flowers. They're quick to work up, they look pretty and the possibilities of how to use them are endless.

I've been making these little flowers from cotton yarn whenever I have a spare few minutes over the past couple of days and I think it's in danger of becoming an addiction.  

They'll probably end up being made into a delicate flowery garland but for now, I'll keep on adding to the pile and they can remain under the watchful eye of Fluffy.


Monday, 18 February 2013

Guilt-free Chunky Chips

I love chips and anything resembling them - fries, wedges, fried potatoes, crispy potato skins, anything - but they can be pretty fattening.  Cooking them this way is quick and will satisfy your cravings for fried carbs without too many calories.  I often make wedges in the oven using the same ingredients, but frying them this way makes them more chip-like.

Lots of my friends are on Weight Watchers at the moment, so I even calculated the WW points for you!   One serving comes in at 8 points, which is a lot less than a similar sized bowl of fries.


Serves two as a lunch or generous side

600g of medium sized potatoes
1tbsp olive oil

Scrub the potatoes and remove any eyes.  Prick the skins several times with a fork and place on a plate in the microwave.  Cook on full-power for 15 minutes, then turn them all over.  Cook for 10 more minutes then check.  If they're all cooked right through, put them to one side to cool for a few minutes.  If they need longer, cook for a few minutes at a time, checking frequently.

Heat the oil in a frying pan.  Slice each potato in half length-ways, then slice each half length-ways again  so you've got four big chunky chips from each potato.

Place the first batch of chips into the hot pan and leave for a couple of minutes until one side of each is golden brown.  Turn over one chip at a time and leave until the next side is golden brown and then the same for the third sides.

Serve in bowls with a sprinkling of salt and a side of ketchup or BBQ sauce :-)


Wednesday, 13 February 2013

(Almost) Instant Wall Art


A Sunday morning
1 or 2 old episodes of Friends
A cup of tea
Large handful of buttons
1 x artists canvas
A few drops of PVA glue

Sometimes the simplest crafts are the most rewarding!


Monday, 11 February 2013

Pro-craft-ination - Lamp Makeover

As well as running my own little shop, Bluefinch Boutique, I'm a freelance writer.  I work at home from my little office or, if that's too messy, the kitchen table.  As I'm trying to expand my client base and get together a decent portfolio of writing at the moment, I sometimes have to work on briefs that may not be exactly in my area of expertise and it can take a while to think of an angle for my article.

I'm trying not to turn anything down at the moment as a) it's all experience, b) you never know which unlikely little jobs might lead to bigger and better things, and c) I have a serious addiction to bamboo yarn, I love holidays and I need a new bathroom.

I love writing and once I get started on an article, the words generally flow with ease. Before I can actually sit down and get to that point, however, I tend to procrastinate in crafty fashion.  Generally, I'll be idly looking around the house when my eyes will land on something and I'll think "Oh, I'll just quickly paint/strip/cover/mend that before I get started on the writing" and before I know it, it's 2pm and I've forgotten to have breakfast.

These ugly little lime-green lamps had been sitting in my bedroom for a few months.  I used to have two really pretty white lamps in there but somehow they both got broken.  I actually bought these as a temporary replacement at a ridiculously low price but they outstayed their welcome so, sick of waking up to them, I gave them a quick makeover:

lime-green lamps....non
white and florals...oui
I painted the bases in white acrylic paint, adding a layer of clear varnish as a top coat to avoid the paint scratching off, and covered the cheap lampshades in a really lightweight floral fabric using glue.

I love the finished result and they look so much better in my bedroom now.

The dream is that, one day, my home will be so perfect that I won't be so easily distracted and won't have any desire for procrastination crafting.  Let's see how that goes...


Friday, 8 February 2013

Door sign for a little girl's bedroom

If you follow me on Twitter or know me in real life, you probably get sick of hearing all about my four year old niece.  I do talk about her a lot but that's because she's awesome, cute, clever and hilarious.  I'm currently gathering together bits for her new bedroom which I'll be decorating as soon as it's got  new flooring and central heating in place and am building up quite a little stash of pretty accessories.

I made this bunting the other week and as I had a quiet evening in when Glyn was off at a poker tournament this week, I thought I'd make a little door sign.  Although I tend to have several "big" projects on the go at any one time, I'm a huge fan of anything that can be completed in an hour or so, and this was perfect for instant craft-ification.

I had some tiny canvases knocking around that looked the perfect size so I quickly embroidered the words "Sophie's room" onto one, added a crochet flower and some crocheted picot edging, et voila!

To hang it, I got a piece of broderie anglaise style trim, folded it in half, tacked it together and stapled it to the back.

So simple, so quick, so effective!  


Tuesday, 5 February 2013

French Memory Board Tutorial


I've been seeing all these gorgeous fabric-covered memory boards around for years and have always wanted one.  Laziness combined with a lack of a staple gun stopped me from making one, and an unwillingness to part with the obscene amounts of money the ones I saw in the shops were selling for prevented me from buying one.

I finally "treated" myself to a staple gun the other week and set about covering a generic cork noticeboard right away.  I love how easy these memory boards are to make, but I do not like staple guns.  The last time I used one was when a friend and I were helping a teacher to decorate a classroom wall when we were in Year 3 (It wasn't called 'Year 3' then but was so long ago that I've forgotten what it WAS called).  Staple guns are loud and a little bit scary and I don't know why I was allowed to use one of these dangerous things in infant school.  Possibly because 1980s kids were just tough.

There is no shortage of tutorials out there in Internet Land for making these, but as with everything, I tend to cut corners and make things easy for myself, so here is my tutorial for an easy and quick French Memory Board.

You will need:

 Cork noticeboard or a cheap artist's canvas (I prefer the canvas, see below!)
♥ Fabric measuring approx 6cm wider and 6cm longer than your chosen board
♥ Wadding or batting cut to a rectangle approx 1cm smaller than fabric
Ribbon or tape*
♥ Staple gun
♥ Buttons
♥ Needle and thread

* I used approx. 2.5m of ribbon for a 30x40cm board and approx 5m for a 60x40cm board, plus a little extra for hanging

1. Place wadding on floor and place board facedown on top of wadding, ensuring even border all the way around.  Snip off a triangle of wadding at each corner.  Wrap wadding round one edge of board and staple several times along the length.  Repeat on opposite board edge, keeping wadding taut.  Next, do the remaining two edges, pulling fabric as taut as you can.

2. Repeat Step 1 with the fabric.

3. Take your ribbon or tape and, starting with the piece that goes from top left corner to bottom right corner, staple into place on the back of your board.  Working outwards from the central ribbon, and ensuring each ribbon is evenly spaced, staple all the parallel ribbons into place.  Keep the ribbons pulled taut as you work.

4. Now for a little weaving.  Using an under/over weaving pattern with the existing ribbons, place your top right to bottom left ribbon in place.  Work outwards like you did with the first layer of ribbons.

5.  If your memory board is to be wall-mounted, and not just resting against a wall, staple another length of ribbon onto the back for hanging.

6. Sew a button at each ribbon intersection to ensure your pictures and cards stay in place.  If you're using canvas, you can just jab your needle right through to the back of the canvas which is quick, easy and anchors the button well.  For my first memory board, I used a cork board which meant I couldn't do this so it was a bit more awkward just sewing the button to the ribbons, fabric and wadding.

Some tutorials use drawing pins or tacks, but I prefer the look of the buttons.  I found that Broderie Anglaise style lace trim made a really pretty and reasonably priced alternative to ribbon.

I'm currently making one for my niece's bedroom with polka dot tape but she's only 4 so I'm not sure how much she'll have to display in it just yet...

I am also thinking of making one as a Mother's Day present for my mum but pre-filling it with pictures and memories of her family.


Monday, 4 February 2013

Turkish Pide recipe (Turkish Pizza!)

I've been holidaying in Turkey on and off since I was 9 and it's one of my favourite countries.  I adore the culture, the people, the scenery, the way of life and, of course, the food.  Turkish is considered one of the world's great cuisines, which often comes as a surprise to people who've never been and think it's all kebabs.  In actual fact, it's a vegetarian's paradise, with tons of meat-free dishes all made with the freshest, most delicious local produce.

I've been staying in the Turquoise Coast town Kalkan for the past 6 years (and am lucky enough to be going twice this year - just 3 months until my first trip, eeeeep!).  Kalkan is famous for its food, and while it's nice to eat a gourmet meal in a luxurious harbourside restaurant, sometimes you just want something simple.  This is where pide comes in.   It's the Turkish version of pizza and it's dirt cheap, with prices starting at a couple of pounds in little family-run lokantas.  It's famous for its distinctive 'slipper' shape and is made with a variety of toppings.  It makes a great lunch when shared between two with a big bowl of salad while on holiday, but in the cold, miserable UK weather, it also works as brilliant winter comfort-food.

I don't pretend to be an expert on pide but I've made it many times and while the homemade version will never be the same as those made under the Mediterranean sun by a chef with decades of experience, it's still delicious!  This is my recipe, adapted from several others and tweaked over the years:

Turkish Pide

(Makes 2 large pide)

1 tsp dried yeast
half tsp sugar
75ml warm water
150g strong white flour (plus extra for dusting)
half tsp salt
4tsp olive oil (plus extra for brushing)

1. Dissolve the yeast in the warm water (follow instructions on packet if necessary) and add the sugar.

2. Sift the flour and salt into a large mixing bowl then gradually add the yeast and sugar mixture and the olive oil, stirring constantly.

3. Knead the mixture for several minutes until all the ingredients are well-combined and you have a soft dough.

4. Cover the bowl in cling-film and leave somewhere warm for approximately one hour, or until the dough has risen and is at least 50% larger. (I put my bowl on top of a radiator cover so it's warm but not too hot.)

The dough before...

...and after

5. When your dough has risen, pre-heat your oven to Gas Mark 7/220C.  Knead the dough for several more minutes then separate into two equal chunks.  Dust your work surface, rolling pin and two baking trays with flour, then roll one piece of dough until you have a long, 'slipper' or 'boat' shape.  Carefully place the pide onto a floured baking tray.  You may find your pide is a really irregular shape so you might want to stretch it and tidy up the shape a little now it's on the tray.  Repeat with the second piece of dough.

6. Add your toppings, leaving a border of approx 2cm of dough all the way round.  Roll/fold these edges up and squeeze all around with your fingers to create a crimped effect.  Brush with a little olive oil and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the toppings have cooked and the crust is golden brown.  Cut into slices and enjoy, preferably with an ice-cold bottle of Turkish beer!

The tomato topping

You can always buy pizza topping and use that, but it's really quick, easy and tasty to make your own.  I use the following  recipe:

2tsp olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 large clove of garlic, finely chopped
400g tin of chopped tomatoes
black pepper

1. Heat the oil in a frying pan, then add the onion and garlic.  Cook over a low heat until the onion has softened then add the tomatoes and a pinch of black pepper.  Cook over a low heat, stirring occasionally, until the sauce has thickened and most of the liquid has evaporated.  You should have a spreadable, rich mixture.

The top topping!

I usually use grated mozzarella as my basic topping then add whatever I have in.  My favourite topping is:

75g grated mozzarella
25g crumbled feta
finely sliced green pepper
finely sliced red onion

I often also add a few halved black olives and sliced mushroom.  My meat-eating boyfriend sometimes adds a few slices of pepperoni or chorizo as well.

Glyn's green olive & chorizo version

Glyn's rapidly disappearing pide