Roxanne O'Connell

Writer, Textile Artist, Plantswoman

May has come and gone…


This post is dedicated to my sister Elise who is 71 today. She was my first roommate and confidant, although I admit we did fight like cats when it came to things like cleaning up our room. I remember that on one of these occasions, my father strode into the room, took all the bedding off the beds and threw it all out into the hall. He then picked up everything else and tossed it on the pile he had made. “There!” he said. “Maybe now I can get some peace.” When he stomped off, Elise and I looked at each other and collapsed laughing. And then we cleaned up the mess and went out to play.

She has a mischievous sense of humor and a ready smile. A true healer, she is gentle, kind, patient and a gift to everyone who knows her. Elise, I hope you have the best birthday! No one deserves it more ❤️🎂❤️

Elise 70 years ago today!

The news media reports that May was the driest month. I don’t know where they got that impression. Down here in the southwest of Ireland, with the exception of a couple of days in the middle and the end of the month, it was gray, gray, gray and almost always wet, even when it wasn’t actively raining. Nothing got enough light and heat to actually dry out much. The ground was still too cold for things to come forth. Even the peas took at least a week longer to germinate and are only now starting to flower, some six weeks after I sowed them. In any event, with all that rain, everything looks lush and green.

Happily, all that rain meant I spent a lot of time knitting and piecing quilts. I have one quilt ready to put on the frame. I’m doing that one for my granddaughter. I’m planning another for a daughter-in-law. These will have to be finished by September when the family will be over here for a weeklong trip. I may get going on those projects this week. In the meantime, I’m finished with the second project (a cowl) in one KAL (Knit Along) club and coming to the end of another KAL (a cardigan). Sadly, I have not even started with the third one but as it’s a blanket throw made of twenty 10” squares I should catch up soon. I really must get my impulse to buy yarn and patterns and join project clubs under control! I had great intentions of using up as much of the wool in my stash as I could but my desire to learn new techniques and undertake the challenges of a mystery knit along is hard to resist.

I did get up to Dublin for a Mother’s Day theatre matinée. I’m lucky, I also get Irish Mother’s Day in March! I went to The Gate Theatre with cousin Paula Bán where we saw “The Pull of the Stars” based on a book by Emma Donoghue. It was amazing, moving, and powerful. At the end, even before the curtain call, the audience was on its feet roaring its applause. I want to read the book but it will have to wait until I can give it the space to be its own thing.

The day had threatened rain but cleared as soon as we came out and strolled down O’Connell Street (oddly the setting for the play) toward Dublin Castle to Café Max, a sweet little French bistro nestled in Parliament Street, the shortest street in Dublin, I think. Moules Frites, a Côtes de Provence white wine and great company. It was a lovely relaxing day. I think we’ll make it a tradition.

On the Blackwater Cruise

There were some family things in May that got us out of the house and back into the swing of things. Robbie’s cousin Leish brought the ashes of their cousin Cáit to be interred in the family plot in Carrick-on-Suir. The following Tuesday we took Leish and her husband with us on Tony Gallagher’s boat up the Blackwater—the long trip with a picnic in Villierstown. While the sun wasn’t actually shining (no surprise there), it was pleasant and almost warm and, as my mother would say, any day on the water is a great day. Later that month, Máirtín de Cógáin invited us to a session at The Local in Dungarvan. Robbie’s cousin Dónal was there with an amazing box player, Joseph Mannion—definitely a man to watch! Robbie reckons he’ll get the All-Ireland this year. At some point in the evening a Bodhrán solo started. It soon became FOUR bodhráns. Often that’s considered three too many but not this night! See the video: Bodhránimania!

It’s election time here, and we are voting for local councilors and EU representatives. Next year is the national election. We’ve had weeks of the doorbell ringing and campaign flyers in the mailbox. Friday, we went to the local school and cast our ballots and now we are keeping “radio silence” as nothing will be finalized for about a week and the airwaves are full of speculation until all the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc. votes are redistributed. It’s proportional representation here. You vote for as many candidates as you are willing to support in the order of preference. Counting the votes is time consuming.

I often wonder how history would have been different had a similar system be used in the United States for federal elections. For instance, would Al Gore have been clearly elected when Ralph Nader’s second preference votes were redistributed, assuming that anyone voting for Nader would have been unlikely to have chosen Bush as a second preference? Would we finally be able to divest ourselves of the Electoral College—an 18th century compromise institution that was invented when news travelled on horseback and now results in a handful of states wielding greater power than their populations warrant? From where I’m sitting, it seems to me that more people would actually vote if they could vote their conscience—if they could vote for the person they most strongly support first and then for whichever they consider the lesser of the remaining evils as second preference, and so forth. How much more invested would we be if the person who wins the election was someone we actually were FOR, even if they were our second or third preference? After all, no one has to vote for someone they absolutely do not support. That would feel unethical. All these questions (and indeed, this whole paragraph) is dedicated to my dear friend June who is herself an elected representative in Rhode Island as well as a professor of Political Science.

Back to less contentious matters. Below are photos I took throughout May (and maybe into June…). Now that we are a week into June, things are looking much better. The roses on the corner of the shed have never been so abundant, the potatoes we planted in the beds outside the studio have really come on—we scrabbled around for some early potatoes and, while they weren’t very big, they were very tasty.

Belated April Post

It appears that birthday wishes aren’t the only things that can be belated. I was taking photos and thinking about things for an April post all month long but never got there. I have inundated myself with various knitting projects (see links below) and, by the end of the month, got started on a new quilt. Keeping my hands busy has been my salvation through what has seemed an unending series of April showers and torrential downpours. To be fair, we did have a few days where the sun came out and it only rained after dark—but only a few. May, at least so far, seems to be following suit.

May (Bealtaine in Irish—click link for how to pronounce it) is supposed to be the beginning of summer in the Irish calendar. Hence, June 21st, the summer solstice, is called mid-summer’s eve. From that point on, the days will begin to shorten, but it’s too soon to think about that. Let’s hope next week will begin to show us the summer we’ve been waiting for.

I did get my tomato seeds sown in the greenhouse. It will be a while before it will be warm enough for them to thrive outside, if we do that at all. They may just have to stay in the greenhouse when everything else gets planted out. I will be potting them on this coming week, along with Cosmos, and Dahlias (Bishop’s Children) and anything else that’s in need of something more sustaining than seed compost. I sowed the sweet corn into regular compost in deep root trainers because it will be at least 6 weeks before I’ll be able to plant them out. I have Patty Pan and Butternut squash to companion plant with the corn and I’ll probably put in some climbing beans, but only one climber per stalk! Volunteer potato plants have sprung up in the beds I planned to use for the corn, squash and beans (see Three Sisters) so we’ll just harvest them for those little baby potatoes that we love. I’ll top up with compost and manure and put everything in when the weather is warmer and a little drier. Those are my grand plans. We’ll see how they come out.

Knitting Projects—All from Stolen Stitches:

  • Grianchloch Shawl #4 — for my Physio therapist. I told her if she bought the yarn, I’d knit it up for her.
  • Torc Cardigan — something for me 🙂 and a KAL (Knit Along) that’s still open to join!
  • Galway Blanket — using the wool from Galway Sheep
  • Blanket Club KAL — a collaboration between Carol Feller and Thea Coman
  • Celtic Knits Club — So far it’s been a hat and mitts… waiting to see what the next project will be.
  • Ravi Nua Cardigan — I’m planning this one for my dear friend Kate (since our dear friend June is getting a shawl.) The yarn color is “Hatters Teal Party”!

More about the Quilt project later this month when I have photos. It’s made entirely from HST (half square triangles) with a couple of borders. It’s something I can do down in my studio on these rainy days when I can’t be in the garden.

Until then, here is the garden update:

Needlecraft Updates

Knitting productivity is rampant! I’ve blocked three shawl-scarves and started another shawl with Stolen Stitches, Cois Farraige (Seaside). I literally knitted myself out of a migraine last night with working out this pattern. Sometimes, when you’ve taken everything in your medicine chest for the thing, deeply concentrating on something other than your headache will get you some relief.

Two of the shawls were 1 skein projects I found on Ravelry when I looked for what I could do with two skeins I had bought when the yarn shop in Warren, RI folded. That was probably over 15 years ago and I finally was able to do something with them. I finished knitting them around Christmas but, since I didn’t have anyone in mind, they just sat there, unblocked, unfinished. Talking to a neighbor today, I learned that her sister, Patricia, is in hospice and I asked would she like anything… maybe one of these shawls. My neighbor thought it would cheer her up no end so I went straight to work with blocking it. It should be dry tomorrow and be ready to be sent up when my neighbor goes to visit her sister in Waterford city. That is the trick, for me, of getting something finished—figure out who will get it.

I’m not sure who will get this one, but since I was doing the one, I may as well do both. Normally I would block using the interlocking mats, blocking wires and pins, but that was being used for Patricia’s shawl, I took a leaf out of Carol Feller’s method of using interlocking exercise mats… more than twice the size of my fancy blocking mats. Well I didn’t have those but I did have my yoga mat! I just unrolled it and set everything up on the floor. My studio is DEFINITELY a NO GO area for the CAT now!

Finally, I have my Grianchloch shawl all blocked and finished. It is so lovely and light and soft. I can’t wait to wear it. I have bought MORE yarn for another just like it in blues for my dear friend June who is almost always wearing something around her neck 🙂

March may be half over but it can be a very long month if there’s no knitting to do. I don’t think that’s going to be a problem!

Signs of Spring Garden Post

While the weather is nothing to boast of—3 1/2″ of rain over the past two days, much of it last night—the temperatures are rather mild. A quick gander around the garden shows signs of spring that gladden the heart.

I planted 16 seed potatoes in two of the raised beds outside my studio so we could just nip out and dig some up for dinner in June. I might do a few in bags. I’ll be sowing peas in a week or so, as soon as I get fresh seeds from Quickcrop.

I’ll probably sow some lettuce in the greenhouse along with some Bishop’s Children dahlias and a few other flowers. It’s just getting warm enough to spend some time out there, although not dry enough to clear everything out and get things in order. Lots of things to pot up (dahlias, pelargoniums, and some peonies I got on sale that we’ll want to plant out in a new area.) But all that can wait until the end of the month. March is still too soon I think. Too much rain and too many weather surprises.

Grianchloch MKAL shawl done!

To be honest, the finishing of a knitting project is hardly ever my favorite part. Blocking, weaving in the tails of the yarn, all a bit fussy and laborious. And yet, on a misty, rainy day, with no new project on the needles, what else can you do? So, to the sink to wash and wet the garment, wrap it in a towel and squeeze out any extra moisture, and on to the floor to open it out with long wires, pins and interlocking blocking squares.

It took a few hours but I’m happy with how it is shaping up—literally.
I carefully closed and latched the door. If there’s anything the cat likes more than going to sleep on the quilt stretched on my frame, it’s finding T-pins (or ANY kind of pin or needle) to play with.

And now, I need a nap.

Doing an MKAL with Stolen Stitches

MKAL = Mystery Knit Along! Where you make something based on the written directions in the clues that are published periodically. No pictures. Kind of like doing a jigsaw puzzle without the box cover.

A little over a year ago I knitted a shawl (actually 3 of them now) that was originally a Mystery Knit Along kit from a favorite wool site, The Fibre Co. I loved how much I learned from it. But it was never a mystery for me because I bought the kit well after the Mystery/Clue phase was done.

Recently I started viewing tutorials from Carol Feller and found a treasure trove of projects and MKALs, past, present and future! And the bonus for me is that Carol and her studio/shop are right next door in Cork! No more dealing with import VAT and duty and the long wait for stuff to arrive.

The MKAL I’m doing now is called Grianchloch (Irish for quartz I think—”sun rock”). The yarns are “scrummy”, to use a favorite Mary Berry term—rich colors and gorgeous textures. I’m just about done with the first clue. The second clue is issued on the 27th.

In May, I’ll be starting another MKAL—a throw blanket from a collaboration between Carol and Thea  Colman—Queen of the cables! I’m looking forward to that one, but the work will have to be squeezed in between the demands of the garden. Two years ago, I was away in August and September and last year I was away in April and May and again in September. I’m afraid my vegetable garden paid the price.

I’m going to be more focused this year and try to enjoy whatever bit of summer we get. So far nothing has matched the standard set in the summer of 2020. But I’m hopeful that this year will make up for the wet miserable summer we had last year. And if it is wet and dreary, I’ll just keep quilting and knitting.

Quilting Crazy

The rain is drumming on the skylights. The sky is leaden. It feels like ages since the sun has had a full day out. It’s the kind of February day that could really get you down. But I have the antidote—at least for me. Read on…

I have come to the conclusion that I’m in my “happy place” most when I’m sitting in my comfy chair, my earbuds in, a great narrator reading me a wonderful book, and my quilting hoop on my lap. Added pleasure is a cat lying across my foot. There are days during this rainy winter when I find myself just filling in time until dinner is done, the plates cleared and all is tidied up so I can lose myself for the evening in the gentle order of stitches making patterns across the patchwork of whatever quilt I’ve put together.

Putting the actual quilt top together has its own rhythm and energy. Sew two pieces of fabric together, add that assembly to more pieces and you’ve created a fabric building “block.” Sew two or more blocks together and you create a new visual landscape.  Every time I go to the ironing board to press the seams it’s a magical reveal of a new patterned fabric unfolding like the twist of a kaleidoscope. But most of that work happens during the day. It generates excitement and anticipation. It is not conducive to relaxation and unwinding. For that I need to don my earbuds and thimble, enfold myself in a good story and stitch myself back together from whatever I’ve been doing all day.

This is especially true on days when I’ve been dealing with things like paying bills, reconciling bank statements, preparing for the tax return or deleting over 7,500 malware posts from this blogsite. (The good folks at DreamHost have cleaned out all the bad code and we’ve reset passwords and installed other safety protocols. But the most important thing I can do, I think, is get back to doing, at a minimum, a post a month. So this is February’s post.)

To catch up with what I’ve been doing  since August, here’s a little gallery of the Quilts I’ve worked on since my last post:

Well, I know that’s cheating a little… because I finished Cath’s Coastal quilt in May. But I didn’t get to see it on her bed in her new condo until September. Aiden’s quilt is deceptively simple. I used a sea themed “layer cake” I thought I might use for Cath’s quilt but the collection was a little too subdued. The challenge came in creating something a 19 year old male would like (and hopefully treasure.) And in giving each 10″ block some interesting geometric quilting in black thread for contrast.

Nicki’s quilt was a major challenge, each block of symbolic significance (Sister’s Choice, Storm at Sea, Slip Knot, Trip Around the World) and each needing a different quilting pattern. The border, because it was so wide, needed special attention—a balance of geometric lines and curves. I found a stencil for a spiral seashell that worked perfectly! The decision to use only fabric (for the top) that I already had, including some batiks that Nicki had brought me (decades ago) from Indonesia, also put me on my current path—I’ve resolved to use (as much as possible) whatever I have in my stash in various kinds of “scrap” quilts.

What is a scrap quilt? It’s a quilt where you use, as much as possible, fabric leftover from other projects. New fabric can be bought for the background or borders, but you get an extra thrill when you can keep that to a minimum, or not use “new” at all! My first scrap quilt is the one we have on our bed. In it are fabrics I used for other quilts and my daughter’s little dresses. It took 20 years to finish because I had several twists and turns in my professional life as well as a move to a smaller house with no room to set up my big frame, so it stayed rolled up under the bed in the spare room. It was the specter of having to move it unfinished YET AGAIN that goaded me into finishing it before we came to Ireland in 2017.

That’s what led to Mick & Paula’s Anniversary Quilt—a log cabin quilt made of scrap fabrics. I even carefully stitched together the batting from leftovers. The backing was some fabric I had bought yards of thinking that I would make curtains when we moved to Bristol, RI, but never used because I was in a new job and then decided to go back to school for my PhD. It’s interesting that the fabrics I’m drawn to tend to be 100% cotton (and the yarns tend to be luxurious wools!). I’ve also been known to buy the rest of the bolt if there’s only a yard or so left.

I’ve discovered the constraints that come with only using what you’ve got have actually push me to be more creative and daring in my use of color and shape and I’m really pleased with the outcome. The quilt I am now working on has, as its focus, a panel I bought over 35 years ago. I actually bought two identical panels. The first was quilted into a wall hanging for my friends, Brian and Lindsay, who love everything Christmas. The second was intended for ourselves but, alas, I never got around to it and it sat in a bin of UFPs (Unfinished Projects) until now. The images on the panel are charming and I’m totally immersed in them. Each picture in the panel gives me a new treatment challenge—how much or how little to quilt to emphasize the shapes within the pictures needs careful study. And sometimes my stitches need to be very small indeed!

It’s been a miserably wet winter so far and this month hasn’t looked much better. But it can rain all evening and I won’t complain. As long as I have my hoop, my thimble and and something to quilt, I’m more than content—I’m at peace.

The Cat King of Cardboard

Sometimes I think that my relationship with Amazon (or any of the online shopping I use) is less about buying things and more about getting things in big cardboard boxes. Cardboard—especially the brown, uncoated kind—is a boon to a “no dig” gardener (see Charles Dowding primer). Lay some down on a weed and grass covered patch, mulch generously (about 4 inches) with compost, wood chip or bark mulch, and you’ll have far less weeding, more organic matter and, over time, more fertile soil for whatever you want to plant.

However, I have competition for any cardboard that comes my way—Mouse, the cat.

Minutes after I have taken out whatever I have ordered and towed the box and the packaging outside to put paper or straw in the compost and strip off any tape, especially the non-biodegradable stuff, I turn around to find the cat has taken possession.

He does this with little piles of dirt and detritus I sweep up on the path as well as newly cleared and composted VegTrug beds and potato bags… even my “potting bowl”! (See below for a gallery of places he has overtaken.)

I’m not sure what the attraction is. Himself (Robbie) says it’s because these are things I’m working with and that Mouse sees me as his “mommy”—heaven forbid!

But maybe he has a point… because the other day I turned my back on a selection of fabric for a quilt I was planning in order to contemplate my “almost neatly stacked” fabric shelves of scraps and pieces for possible additions. When I turned back… behold! He had, yet again, taken possession of my stuff! I call this his Mandarin Pose—and I think he knows it.

The Cat Who Would be King of All Cardboard
(and straw and dirt and planting places)

A visual walk around the garden

Lots of needlework — very little gardening

Here we are—almost at the end of what must be the wettest March I have ever experienced. Even when the day gets a bit of sun, the ground is so heavy and wet that there’s little can be done in the way of gardening. With the help of cousin Fionán, we did cover and mulch the Blackcurrant bed. What was a lovely ground cover of Ajuga Reptans (Wild Bugle) had become choked with creeping buttercup. When I could, I dug up the small ajuga plants and potted them up to grow on. We’ll replant them in the edges of the bed and in the rockery. Once (if ever) the bed is free of buttercup, I’ll replant the ajuga again. In any case, the bed is all mulched and will need very little attention for now.

The other project I completed was a lacy shawl for Lizzie. I learned several new techniques and stitch patterns doing this, sitting by the fire in the long winter nights while listening to all the Terry Pratchett Discworld books on Audible. This is something I find I’m doing more of… going through whole books (and authors) while my fingers are busy with needles and soft fine wool… sometimes with a glass of wine or a brandy & port. It really puts me in my “happy place.”

Much of what is happening in the garden is taking place without my attention. The daffodils are on the wane and the tulips are beginning to bloom along with the gorgeously scented skimmia. Of the fruit trees, the plum tree is the first to show any flowers, the others just barely in bud. The rhubarb has been coming up and the early variety, Timperley, is just about ready for a crumble. I’ll add some of the frozen blackcurrants I put by from last August and it will feel like summer is nearly here.

I am now on to a massive dose of quilting. Much of this spring has been spent on hand quilting my daughter’s quilt. I bought the fabric last September when I was in Ballard visiting my dear friend and colleague Kathy. She is also a quilter although she’s been very busy remodeling her new house there. Shout out to Quilting Mayhem! A most amazing quilt store — I WILL be back! I know there are some who would rather spend five hours in a dentist chair than 5 minutes hand quilting anything but I find a calm and serenity in my needle and thread, using my stitches to create the subtle third dimension in the quilt. The very intentional divisions and the re-joining and defining of two-dimensional patterns add complexity to the quilt no machine could achieve. It soothes and satisfies me and makes me feel like I’ve brought peace, order and beauty into my small space.

I’m beginning work on a new quilt for my sister Monique who turns 60 this April. I think I’ve found a combination of blocks that fit her life: Traveller ‘Round the World for the center, Slip Knot, Storm at Sea and Sister’s Choice for the framing blocks, which should look like Dutch tiles. There’s a bit of geometry and math required as two blocks are a 4-patch base while Sister’s Choice is a 5-patch base and I need 12″ finished blocks to make the 60″x60″ quilt (not including the outside border.) So there’s a challenge involved… and the making of “test” blocks to make sure my math is correct before cutting into the fabric for the final quilt. A little stressful, but it’s creativity stress, so that’s okay.

All of this should tide me over until I get a sunny enough day to clear out the greenhouse. I’ve detected aphids so I think I need to take EVERYTHING out and spray it down and maybe add a bit of garlic or vinegar to the sprayer. And we probably should tidy up the tool shed as well… that’s two days work and we have not had a warm enough (or sunny enough) day to get that done. But April is just two days away. Maybe we’ll get lucky. Saturday promises a sunny afternoon and sunset at 8:04 pm… so maybe we can get something started. Although that WILL be April Fool’s Day. Finger’s crossed!


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