Mending an old arm chair

We inherited a ‘three piece suite’ from Edna’s house in 2010. The sofa is a lovely comfortable huge Parker Knoll with strange knobs on the end of the tall back that hold cords with tassels. These join up with arm extensions that have never been used in the 45 years that I have known the sofa, and live dropped behind the back! There’s a whole story to the sofa, but not for now.

The two arms chairs are not Parker Knoll. They are relatively small, not quite matching, comfortable chairs. Their covers had been a pleasant soft mint green that toned well with the sofa cover, but they wore out. So Edna, with a lot of help from Patrick in the early 2000s, had the chairs re-covered by Plumbs in a brighter green colour, in my view a bit too bright! Once we had the chairs in our quite small sitting room it was clear that they should be recovered if only to avoid a ‘gosh, too green’ feeling whenever we went in there. So Patrick and I chose some fabric and I made loose covers. The spare fabric went into cushion covers, so our sitting room now looks as though the three piece suite is well co-ordinated, amazingly. That is, until we look more closely at various defects of both the sofa cover plus its ‘springing’ and the same with the chairs. The new covers on the chairs are light in colour so they show dirt and wear particularly in the chair that Patrick always sits on. I used the final spare fabric from the loose covers to make arm and back ‘antimacassars’ – pretty effective, especially as I discovered that the fabric is washable without shrinking. Less easy to solve was the collapse of the left side (as you sit on it) of the seat on the chair that Patrick regularly used.

Which is what this account is meant to be all about…….


Move the non-collapsing chair (give it time – sooner or later it will follow its friend and need repairing I’m sure) to the place where P normally sits. I washed the collapsing chair’s ‘antimacassars’ and put them on this chair.

Move the collapsing chair into the conservatory and put the ‘farmhouse/windsor’ chair in its place – which looked very nice and gave a more spacious feel to the room. It’s surprising how much space upholstered chairs take up. There’s another story attached to this ‘farmhouse/windsor’, also for another day.

Take the cover off the chair (and cast casually to one side judging by this picture!)

Dig out the upholstery ‘kit’, ie whatever happens to be in that drawer of odds and ends upstairs. Luckily there was enough that was useful, webbing and twine in particular as well as a twist of spare tacks.

Turn the chair upside down and remove tacks from three sides of the hessian that covers the base to reveal the webbing. You can see that the springs are pressing through the webbing and several of the strips have detached from the chair frame. Needless to say the whole exercise was very dusty. It might have been an idea to have a go at the underside of the chair with hoover tools before starting, but I didn’t think of that.

Sort out the webbing. I didn’t have enough webbing to replace it all and anyway it was clear that there had been a previous repair as there were 2 layers of webbing, older and slightly less old (on ‘top’ as the chair is upside down). The existing webbing that had ripped from the chair frame, or that was working loose, needed extra lengths joined to it to give a solid piece that could be re-tacked to the frame. This is what I’ve started doing in the picture below. I also decided to use the twine to run a line along each piece of repaired webbing from side to side / front to back to add a bit of strength. I tried to fix it securely at either end but the fabric of the chair (as opposed to the wooden frame) was not very substantial so we shall see how it all works.

Complete webbing repairs. The photos below, show the webbing repairs underway. The twine is clearly visible along each repaired piece and the bulging effect of the springs is seriously less than it was. The two layers of previous webbing creates a fairly solid base once the strips are all tightened up and tacked down. It was rather bulky along the edges where the new webbing was added but they neatly folded away, as in the bottom photo.

The repairs all disappeared once the old hessian was tacked back in position – see below.

Check the effect of webbing repairs. Before tacking back the hessian I turned the chair over just in case there were still problems. Superficially it looked fine (top photo below). But when I felt it the sagging left side was still as bad as ever (bottom photo). Without totally reupholstering the chair there was nothing ‘professional’ I could do to improve the springs/horsehair/padding in order to even out the seat……

Fix the problem somehow. We have a surplus of blankets – another feature of inheriting things from households that were mainly functioning in the pre-duvet days ie from the 1940s. So the ‘sagging seat cure’ is now a large blanket, folded unevenly so most of it could be shoved into the space where proper padding no longer existed.

Cover up all that lies underneath. Loose covers are multi dimensional, most noticeable when ironing them. There’s a huge volume to tuck in, but at the same time this gives plenty of scope for tweaking and twitching so in the end it looks fairly smooth and tidy. Once the cover was tucked in the seat felt approximately right.

Adding the seat cushion made a difference.

Now the chair is back in place it’s clear that the tightened webbing has made a huge difference compared with its pair, the non-collapsed chair. Sitting on the repaired chair is like sitting on a very firm bed – there’s far less give than we expected and you’re higher than on both the other chair and the sofa. But it will no doubt loosen up as the no-longer-collapsed chair is used more and more!

Now there is an urgency, that wasn’t there before, to inspect the under-side of the non-collapsed chair and also the sofa.


Cleaning the conservatory roof

Our conservatory roof is made of lovely slightly blue tinted glass that is alleged to be ‘self cleaning’ which is partly true as there has been no build-up of algae. It has not needed any attention since 2016 when it was built to replace the wooden framed version that we had before.

But four years on some debris had accumulated and a general clean was becoming more urgent, or at least more desirable.

Luckily the roof is relatively accessible both from above and below, as long as there are the right tools: a ‘long-handled gurnet’ or ‘dolphin-scraper’* and a hose.

*These names originated in our family from Patrick’s father. During his time in the Marines the sailors cleaned the sides of the ship with long handled brushes/scrapers and these were the names they used!

The long-handled gurnet before assembly

Fully labelled in case there’s somone out there who thinks this is just an old broom and a broom handle that happen to have got tied together!

And here is the ‘extending’ technique.

Perhaps the most skilled part of this job is carrying the dolphin-scraper upstairs so it can be used to attack the top part of the conservatory roof through the open bedroom windows.

This photo doesn’t show the full extent of debris mainly because of the strong reflection.

Here the dolphin-scraper is in use – slightly wobbly so maybe gaffer tape would have been better than string to tie the two parts together.

Below you can see some of the moss, leaves, twigs and clematis fluff that I loosened and removed with the dolphin-scraper.

And here is the debris viewed from inside the conservatory, once it had slid down the roof. It is easier to see what still needs to be cleaned from under the glass.

The next stage – hosing down the roof from a step ladder below. This is relatively easy, and fun. It involves a fairly fast jet of water, and the dolphin-scraper to make sure all the grime is well washed off.

But it has a down side – the gutter along the edge of the conservatory roof……

It regularly fills with dead leaves and needs cleaning out – best done by hand, then the debris goes in the green bin. It feeds a water butt but once the butt is full (which happens fast when the hose is going strong) for some reason the water just fills the gutter. There is a wet and mucky job to do here, emptying the water butt, dismembering the pipework and checking what is stopping the water from going down into the soakaway, then putting it all back together again….. That will be for another day.

So, as I sprayed water on the roof the gutter filled and water started shooting over the edge. I set up a syphon with a spare length of hose long enough to go comfortably from the gutter down to the ground to drain the water out of the gutter at a fast enough rate – a more comfortable option for me as it reduced the risk of water pouring over the edge of the gutter and reaching me as I stood on the step ladder holding the hose!

This next picture is after the job was finished. It shows the part of the roof which had the largest amount of debris. It’s not perfectly cleaned, but greatly improved.


Planting Potatoes

Here are the potatoes that were chitting at home for a few weeks. They are Winstons, first earlies.

And this is a shabby looking bit of the allotment that they will be planted in. The sunny March weather makes it look particularly dusty. It was dry enough not to need gum boots and the surface soil didn’t stick on my gloves. Luckily it was damp about an inch below the surface.

The soil still looks dusty but it is now dug over.

The potatoes are set out about 30cm apart in the 2 trenches. I’ve marked the rows with any old sticks found in the cane bin in the shed. Tied to the top of one is the net that the potatoes came in which has a label giving the type of potato. These labels have proved to be weather/bug proof in the past (unlike seed packets).

Earthed up and waiting for the potatoes to start sprouting in a few weeks – they were through by late April. We don’t want them shooting up into the air too soon as they could get nipped by frost and, although that’s not the end of them, it sets them back.


Making Face Masks

At the time of making these masks there was no government directive that we should all wear face masks in public to contribute our bit to the anti-coronavirus effort. However it seemed a good plan to be prepared. Also it was fun to get out my old machine (a 21st present in 1968) and start sewing.

The first thing to do was to find some patterns and instructions on the web. There was plenty to choose from, and they all had at least two layers of fabric. The most basic style that I considered was fabric cut off the bottom of a T shirt in such a way that the mask was a double layer with tie strings. Other versions had pleats so the mask fitted properly round the nose, mouth and chin and could either be hooked over the ears or tied behind the neck and over the back of the head. My preferred pattern includes a pocket into which can be inserted an extra layer or two, possibly including something that is not woven.

Home-made face masks are not a way to stop the wearer catching anything. What they do is to slow down the transmission of germs from the wearer to other people.

I looked for suitable fabric stored in a drawer of ‘oddments’. It had to be a fairly tight weave, safe in a hot wash and ironable at the highest temperature. There were many different materials, from sheeting and curtain offcuts to denim and an old shirt.

I put all the fabrics in a hot wash, dried them outside and ironed them. To shape each mask over the nose it is necessary to insert a short plastic coated wire, and plant ties are perfect for this. I also needed elastic (or rubber bands) to loop over the ears, and/or tapes to tie behind the head. I found enough elastic and rubber bands for the 20 or so masks that I made first and made tapes by machining long strips of fabric. I ordered a number of items online, including thread and elastic, so I could carry on making masks as the weeks go by.  There has to be a disposable side to this. If masks are contaminated washing and ironing is fine but there will be times when it is better to bin them.

Here is the old sewing machine, threaded in white cotton.

I used two patterns.  The first one had two outer layers and two layers of lining. I used cotton fabric for both the outer layers and the lining (although in the instructions it suggested the lining should be a non-woven material).

The other pattern was a single piece of fabric, folded in half and sewn in a way that allowed the space between the two layers to be used as a pocket. Here are three denim masks at different stages of construction using that pattern.

Here is one of these masks photographed in a different light hence the colour change!

To the back of the photo below is a pile of ironed and folded fabric waiting to be used.

Ironing seams, pleats etc after each stage of sewing is a good idea. Here the seams for the lined version are pressed ready to insert the nose wire.

Lay wire on the lining, along seam, fold over and stitch in place.

Then it was time to pleat the mask.

And press the pleats flat.

Sewing down the edges of the pleats is done with either a long piece of tape/fabric that extends to form ties that go behind the head, or a short piece of fabric that provides a casing along each side of the mask for elastic.

If you look very carefully at the back left of the photo, the most distant curtain matches the blue grid mask!


Early Stages of Growing Tomatoes

Growing Tomatoes from seed – starting in March

First I checked what seeds were in the box of seed packets. This year (2020) there was an old packet of Money Maker (medium sized red tomatoes) and two new packets of Gardener’s Delight and Ildi (both small tomatoes, red and yellow respectively).

To reduce the risks of pests and diseases I always sow seeds in a sterile medium. In theory we could use our own home-made compost but to treat it so it is clear of weed seeds, pests and diseases would be a major exercise. However it comes in very useful at a later stage when plants are well established and ready to go into bigger pots.

Although it is something that every gardener should do, I have never been enthusiastic about washing pots, seed trays etc. However this year I had time to do that so I gave everything a good slosh with cold water and a chance to dry. When it’s not raining drying is best done by scattering the containers across the lawn. It’s always interesting to see how they have moved overnight – there’s clearly lots going on in our garden in the dark that we don’t know about.

Our allotment society sells sacks of multipurpose compost that does the job very well as a sowing medium and also for all stages of potting on.

I selected the ‘now clean’ containers for sowing.

Before I even opened the seed packets I wrote labels for each of the three types of tomato.

I filled three clean containers with compost. They were a seed tray and two containers with modules that fit into an unheated germinating trough that has a cover.

I sowed the seeds thinly in rows in the tray and two seeds to a module for the other two.

Then I watered them using a rose on the watering can.

The modules were covered with their plastic cover and the seed tray with cling film. I keep a separate roll of cling film for gardening. In the early years I was tempted to nip to the kitchen drawer for cling film but best not to mix cooking and gardening equipment.

One of our bedrooms is north facing with a radiator under the window, a perfect place for starting seeds off. This year I have put two garden tables under the window (a wallpapering table would have been just as good) and covered them with newspaper. The seeds in their containers sat there for about a week before there were signs of seedlings coming through the soil. I kept an eye on them, watering as necessary. After another week they had grown big enough (first set of leaves and early signs of the second set of leaves) to take off the covers and to move them to the conservatory.

Another few days passed then I decided to prick out the seedlings into 3 inch pots, two to a pot. All tomato seedling look the same to me so labelling the pots carefully is important if you want to know what type of tomato is in each pot.

I realised that I had far too many for us to use so asked a few friends and neighbours if they would like plants. Four people responded that they would. At this stage the seedlings are quite delicate – I hope they have survived with their new owners.

The picture below is of four pots packed and ready to be taken home to their new home in a bike pannier.

The seedlings need to get used to outdoors so I put them outside every day to harden off and bring them back in overnight. It is far too cold at night for tomatoes to survive outside unprotected. We have a cold frame but it is in shade so a bit too cool at the moment for tomato seedlings.

The pots are easy to carry in and out, evening and morning if they are in larger containers. Normally I use seed trays but this year I found these redundant old bowls under our potting table. They are nice and solid so I’ve found them easy to handle.

It’s early days yet and the plants are slowly putting on growth. Once they are about 6 inches tall and the weather is warmer I’ll decide what to do next. This means deciding how many go to the allotment (and a higher risk of blight) and how many stay here in the garden in large pots. It’s lovely to nip into the garden to pick tomatoes to eat immediately. It’s also good to have a decent amount of space to grow them, ie on the allotment.

The potting on and planting out stages will be followed by staking, watering, pinching out if necessary, and eventually harvesting in late July and August.


Stacking Logs

Logs – from ordering and delivery to wood store

The first thing to do is to phone the farm who have been supplying us with dry logs for 6 years. This time they were able to deliver two days after I called. It all depends on their orders from Cambridge city and they organise the delivery round to drop off a lorry load to different customers in the same area. Our 1sq metre of logs is a third of their load. Our last load was relatively recent and we just about had enough for another three weeks taking us to Easter (12 April) then it should be warm enough not to need more wood – but we thought it wise to top up as future deliveries could be uncertain. Also it’s nice to have a fire and the wood burner does a whole evening on three logs (unlike the open fire which is even more comforting but needs at least three times that amount of wood).

Normally we pay (£95) in cash but this time we decided to write a cheque – less hassle than getting the cash and probably safer as social distancing/washing hands etc is the norm with the coronavirus outbreak so using a cash machine, handling cash might be less ‘clean’ than one cheque. We agreed to leave the money in the porch to reduce contact.

The farm left a phone message the day before delivery to say it was going to be between 9 and 10 on Saturday 28 March.

On the day, first of all I moved the car out of the drive. The doorbell rang just after 9; the lorry, as usual, had reversed into the drive. It was a different driver, another member of their family. Patrick wrote the cheque as they tipped out the logs.

Then our job was to get the heap of logs stacked in the wood store. We have a well-tested routine.

These 2 photos were taken when we were about two thirds of the way through the pile on the drive.

Patrick sets aside scraps of wood etc (behind the wheelbarrow) and at the end puts them in a separate old compost bag for kindling.

The next stage is to trundle the logs into the garden. There were 13 barrow loads this time. Quite a lot of lifting, trundling etc! And on this occasion we followed the log stacking with a visit to the allotment to keep up with the digging so a good day for exercise.

The logs land on the path and lawn near the wood store

Stacking them takes time as the idea is to fill each shelf two logs deep and to the top (photos iv. and v. below). I have to fit the logs together, wedge them firmly to make sure they don’t fall down through the gap at the left hand end of the shelves (photos ii. and iii. below), fill small gaps with slimmer logs and if possible have a space for the kindling tray.






All done

A view from the side

Kindling tray perched on some logs and

the old compost bag of chippings that P swept up

from the drive ready to use


Easter Decorations – mainly eggs

These lovely eggs all started as regular hen’s eggs. They had a friend who was a goose egg. All these eggs were first blown and rinsed, then, for most of them, a thread or wire attached to hang them up.  The goose egg was decorated as Humpty Dumpty wearing a school cap! Sadly he has broken beyond repair.

The eggs below have been decorated over the years by members of the family. In the early days the painting was fairly basic as you’d expect when done by a 3 or 4 year old. As time went by the decorations became more complicated or individual. Year by year the numbers increased, the new eggs outpacing the breakages. This year there were two that broke and no new ones, but there are still plenty to hang on a banch.

This is the 2020 bare branch. It is lilac that is just coming out – it has been an early spring and a fairly late Easter so forsythia is over so this was the best option amongst the shrubs in the garden.

The branch is decorated by hanging the eggs on the branches. The ones on threads sway gently if there is a breeze.

This papier maché egg has painted daffodils on the top half and trains from Thomas the Tank Engine on the lower half. As you can see Toby the tram engine (7) is there and also Gordon (4) on the top photo with Henry (3) below, and Edward (2) on the bottom photo. Thomas is between Gordon and Edward, just in view on both pictures, but not his number (1)! This egg was made in about 1984, with help from a three year old, and astonishingly it has lasted all this time.

And below is what happens to the small eggs waiting on the table……. The skilled part is putting the two halves together without eggs spilling everywhere, tying the ribbon round and standing the egg vertically – a bit of a balancing act.


Easter decorations – start with blowing eggs

You will need a bowl and an egg.

Then find a substantial pin – a safety pin works well. Stab it into the pointed end of the egg and wiggle round to make a small hole. If possible, push it into the egg far enough to perforate the yolk. Then do the same at the round end and make a bigger hole. The right hand picture shows that this can cause a leak from the smaller hole – no problem – just wipe away the raw egg.

The next stage is to blow the egg. Blow through the small hole so the yolk and egg white come out of the larger hole. Sometimes it takes quite a lot of force to blow out the contents – but be careful as the shell can break.

Keep the egg contents for cooking, then the empty egg is ready to be rinsed, inside and out.

Then the fun stage – decorating. Use anything from paint, ink, felt tips etc to colour the egg, create a pattern or design. Be careful – it’s easy to break the shell!

To suspend the egg from a branch you will need to fix a wire or thread to it. There are several methods.

Probably the easiest is to take a simple wire plant tie and twist a ‘knot’ at one end. Then push the wire into the egg through the large hole and out through the small hole at the top (stopped by the ‘knot’).


Decorating Simnel Cakes


  1. Make cake(s) following a simnel cake recipe, and including a layer of almond paste (marzipan) through the middle.
  2. Make sure you have enough marzipan – it’s surprising how much you need for the top of the cake plus the balls.
  3. Brush the cake with apricot jam (or home-made jelly in my case) so the marzipan will stick to it.
  4. Use half the marzipan for the top (and possibly sides) of the cake and the other half for the eleven balls (12 disciples minus Judas = 11)
  5. Roll out the marzipan to cover the top (and possibly sides) of the cake
  6. Divide the rest of the marzipan into 11 and roll into balls to go round the edge of the top of the cake
  7. If you like, gently grill the marzipanned cake so the marzipan browns but beware – it burns very quickly so needs watching all the time
  8. Add ‘frill’, eggs, Easter chicks etc.

I made four cakes, for us in Cambridge, to send to Will and Jenny, for Elin and for John P. who always likes a good fruit cake. The two that look like puddings or pies (!!) are for us and W+J.

Preparing the balls for the two larger cakes. Dividing pieces of marzipan into 11 equal sized pieces is slightly less easy than it seems. I have never resorted to using scales even though that would make it more precise. Icing sugar is great for stopping the marzipan from sticking, including as I roll the balls in my palm. It’s surprising how it gets absorbed so there are no puffs or smears of white sugar left on the marzipan.

This is one of the bigger cakes under the grill. I watched each cake carefully and turned them round so the tops of the balls toasted evenly. That’s why there is foil under the cake, to slide it round on the grill pan.

This is what happens under the grill – not actually burnt but well toasted. The foil in the middle of the cake on the right is to stop that one toasting in the middle.

The next thing was to add ‘frills’ made of a plain ribbon (gold or dark blue) with a narrower check yellow ribbon stitched on top to give a spring feel rather than Christmas. It was a bit of a fiddle and the rough and ready cake sides have not allowed the ribbons to lie nice and flat. But never mind!

And here they are pretty much finished. Will and Jenny’s (top left) will have a separate packet of mini eggs in the parcel and ours will get its mini eggs and a small fluffy chick at Easter. I stuck the mini eggs on with small blobs of icing. Intriguingly the sugar shells of the mini eggs on the cake on the right (for John) split soon after I put them on the cake whereas the ones on the bottom middle cake (Elin’s) have not. I’m unenthusiastic about the shocking green ribbon on our cake and we’ll take it off as soon as we start to eat it – the ribbon is easy to handle as it has wire edges (as with florists’ ribbon) which may have swung the decision to use it.

These cakes keep well although the marzipan can get a bit crispy if kept out of a tin for too long.