How to be a Good Hostess: 1950s manual

After writing How to Skin a Lion: A Treasury of Outmoded Advice I have become somewhat of a magpie for seeking out old fashioned manuals and books of instruction, so imagine my delight when my lovely cousin sent me this book entitled ‘How to be a Good Hostess’. It is full of some fantastic gems which I thought I would share here.Hostess1x600

The book belonged to my late Grandad and was printed in the 1950s for Spillers, a British company who milled flour. My Grandad worked for Spillers as a chemist. It seems it was hoped that by providing lots of fabulous recipes with Spillers flour in the ingredients it would benefit the brand.

The 1950s had seen a great relaxation of many of the social ‘rules’ that had governed society (it is interesting to note the far more casual tips in this 1950s book, compared to a much more rigid Victorian manual), but a certain amount of social norms remained. This booklet no doubt provided useful tips to those unsure of the changing styles of etiquette.

How to be a Good Hostess

How to be a Good Hostess is marvellously of its time, featuring a foreword by the popular British actress Anna Neagle (1904–86), in which she says:

‘If your home is known as a friendly meeting place: if guests feel well and truly welcome: if whatever you offer them is beautifully made and attractively served, you’ll find your reputation as a hostess grows.’

How to invite people to a party

The first few pages are concerned with how to invite people to a party. It is advised that most invitations should be sent via a letter and that it should be from woman to woman (the hostess writes from herself and her husband to her friend and her husband). A word of caution is given:

A photo from How to Be a Good Hostess of a telephone conversation

‘The TELEPHONE is often a useful way of calling up a few friends … and for those of your close friends who love to be asked “on the hop” for an informal meal, it gives that stimulating feeling of the unexpected. But some people dislike being telephoned to make any date – think twice before you dial their number, and then write instead!’

After discussing the various formal methods for inviting folk to a party by letter or card, the booklet goes on to divulge a more informal method:

‘And for the “young” party, or the out-of-the-ordinary party – perhaps a check-cloth Bohemian kitchen supper – there are novelty invitations in the shops bright enough to spark off the party spirit the minute they arrive.’

Put your house in shining good order

A good hostess’s house ‘should literally shine out a welcome to your guests. Gleaming floors and furniture, winking-bright windows, laundry-fresh curtains.’

The booklet advises a thorough clean of the house the day before, including ‘brushing lampshades, polishing looking glasses, putting extra lustre on brass and silver and, if necessary, washing china ornaments.’

A floral display to cheer up the room is also recommended and the booklet contains a series of instructions to create various flower arrangements, including a centre-piece for the dining table.

It is hard to imagine someone these days going to quite so much trouble for a dinner party, I think my friends would be rather surprised if they came round to dinner to find I had fashioned an elaborate floral display for the table!

What to wear

There is a wonderful section on what to wear, with some great illustrations of many glamorous outfits for a variety of occasions, from a dinner party to a country weekend.hostess2x600

The following advice is given for what to wear for a teenage get-together:

‘A teenager entertaining her own friends can say if it’s to be a shorts and slacks evening. Or, if she wants to wear a black top and flowery skirt, or her white tweed dress with its orange cummerbund, she decides it’s a dress up night and says so. What she mustn’t do is tell everybody shirts and jeans, then floor them all with her new pink taffeta.’

‘She must remember she won’t look good in clothes borrowed from Mum and neither will she get away with Mum’s heavy scent or long, drop ear-rings. As hostess, she must instruct the boys what to wear.’

What to eat

The booklet features a number of recipes for all sorts of occasions. To modern tastes the recipes seem rather old-fashioned, including instructions for how to make delights such as meat loaf, orange chocolate mousse, pineapple gateau, egg and onion flan, coq au vin and Viennese coffee.hostess3

There is also some advice on how to order wine if dining out at a restaurant:

‘When the waiter has taken your luncheon order he will ask whether you’d care for anything to drink. If you don’t want a drink, don’t. Offer your friends a drink, of course, but if she refuses don’t let it embarrass you. Many women lunching out together don’t drink, especially when following diets that rule out alcohol.’

Party manners

The booklet ends with a jolly round-up of advice, which I think is worth sharing as it demonstrates that although times have moved on and things are less formal nowadays some advice is timeless:

‘A good hostess makes certain that guests know what they are expected to wear: and in her own dressing she never tries to outshine them.’

‘She is careful to tell her guests when they are expected: keeps calm when they are late: is ready to accept apologies for lateness with good grace.’

‘She never criticises the drinks her husband pours: the way her son hands them round: never flaps when drinks are spilt – merely mops and smiles.’

‘She never has flowers for her dining table that hide guests from one another: and if she likes background music, keeps it below talk level.’

‘She steers conversation away from a guests who’d monopolise it: gives a talking point to a shy guest: always has a lively anecdote to fill a gap.’

‘She is mindful to serve hot food hot and cold food cold: never needs to make excuses for poor coffee: empties ashtrays before they’re overflowing.’

For more on etiquette, old advice and lost instructions see How to Skin a Lion

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Bygone objects and terms from How to Skin a Lion

 

In my last blog I discussed some of the bygone ingredients referenced in How to Skin a Lion, this time I am going to look at some of the bygone objects or terms, most of which have now disappeared from common use.

Wikiup

(in how to pan for gold)

A wikiup is a simple Native American shelter. Usually oval in shape, the wikiup is fashioned from debris from the forest floor such as sticks, bark or rushes.

The beauty of the design is that it allows the making of a fire inside or right beside the shelter, this has ensured the wikiup’s enduring appeal to survivalists.

Tannycatch

(in how to run a household in Anglo-India)

A tannycatch was a word used in the Madras area of India (in Bengal, mussalchee was used) for a scullery maid who would assist the cook with tasks such as boiling water or grinding rice. In Madras the tannycatch was always a woman but in Calcutta and Bombay a man would take on this role.

Punkah wallah

(in how to run a household in Anglo-India)

punkah-wallahA punkah is an elaborate ceiling fan used to keep rooms cool in India. It consists of large flat ‘sails’ or fans made of canvas or woven from palms, descending from the ceiling and joined together by pulleys and cord.

The punkahwallah was the unfortunate individual whose job it was to pull the cord to keep the fan moving.

In nineteenth century Anglo-India many staff were required to keep a household running smoothly. Edmund C. P. Hull in his 1874 book The European in India estimated that ‘the house of a married couple without children, in comfortable pecuniary circumstances’ would require ’18 men and 5 women’ servants.

Lappets

(in how to get presented at court)

Lappets were two lengths of material attached to a headdress, such as a bishop’s mitre, that generally adorned ladies’ headgear in the early twentieth century.

It was stipulated by Victorian etiquette guides that ladies getting presented at Court must wear lappets on their head dress as well as a plume of feathers. It was generally accepted that the plume should be white in colour (coloured feather were apparently ‘regarded unfavourably in high quarters’) and should be worn on the left, with the lappets on the right.

For more on traditional Victorian clothing terms see this excellent blog.

Skep

(in how to quiet bees)bee-skep-image-full-size

A skep is a traditional domed woven bee hive. Very few people keep bees in skeps anymore as having a beehive with moveable frames for extracting the honey is much easier.

For more information, instructions on how to make a skep and some lovely pictures see here.

Paradox

(in how to stalk a Lion),

A Paradox was a versatile gun developed by Holland & Holland in 1886 that could be used as a rifle or a shotgun.

This type of gun was especially useful for game hunters in India or Africa, who might encounter both large and small prey on the same hunt.

Brain scoop

(in how to skin a lion)

A fairly self-explanatory tool used by the taxidermist when preserving a specimen. In the picture of old taxidermy tools here, the brain scoop is numbered 7.brainscoop

It seems the brain scoop was perhaps used by the more careful taxidermy enthusiast, or perhaps by those who wished to preserve the brain intact, because in Charles McCann’s 1927 A Shikari’s Pocket-book he eschews using a brain scoop, preferring this rather more ‘rustic’ approach:

‘Take out the brain through the orifice at the back by pushing a stick into it and stirring them up, then shaking out the resultant porridge. Pouring hot water into the brain-case and shaking it out again will help greatly to bring away the contents.’

Chessart

(in how to make stilton cheese)

Chessart is originally a Scottish word for a cheese vat or container into which the curd is placed during cheesemaking. Once in the vat the cheese is pressed so that excess whey can escape.

A chessart varies in size and shape according to the type of cheese being made, but a typical chessart might be a round, half barrel-shaped vat, made from elm staves, strongly bound with metal hoops to prevent it from bursting during the pressing. The bottom of the chessart would contain holes for the whey to escape. According to Henry Stephen’s The Book of the Farm (1844) some chessarts from Cheshire were made from tin.

 

Bygone ingredients in How to Skin a Lion

 

While writing and researching How to Skin a Lion I came across a number of bygone ingredients I had never heard of. I researched these obscure ingredients to find out what they were and where they came from so I could provide explanatory footnotes. Some of them are still in use but others have been replaced by synthetic alternatives.

Seeing as I have a bit more room here on my blog I thought it might be fun to take a little tour through some of these obscure ingredients and the stories behind them.

Essence of Tyre

(in How to look after your hair)

Essence of Tyre, otherwise known as nitrate of silver or Lunar caustic, was used (somewhat unwisely) in Victorian times to dye the hair black (but Styrax_benzoin_-_Köhler–s_Medizinal-Pflanzen-133unfortunately it also ‘dyed the skin as well as the hair; it blackened the fingers; it burnt the linen on which it fell; and what was worse than all, it destroyed the substance of the hair.’)

This inorganic compound has the chemical symbol AgNO3. It was often used as a medicine due to its antiseptic properties. It was used by dentists to cure ulcers and by doctors to treat nose bleeds.

In the 1830s silver nitrate was used to treat epilepsy but had the rather alarming side-effect of turning the skin a blue/black hue, so it fell from use and was replaced by potassium bromide. There is a nice blog post here from The Victorian Clinic which discusses Wilkie Collins’ use of this treatment as a plot device in Poor Miss Finch (1872).

Today silver nitrate is still used in drugs for the treatment of warts or verrucas due to its corrosive properties, despite the Victorian advice on the uses of the compound I would strongly advise against putting it anywhere near your hair!

Saltpetre

(in How to smoke your own bacon)

Saltpetre or potassium nitrate is a compound with many uses from fertilisers to gunpowder. Since the medieval times it has been used as a food preservative, today it is still used in some charcuterie.

There are many traditional methods to harvest potassium nitrate and most of them use manure or urine. The cave method relied on harvesting crystalised bat guano from caves, the French method utilised huge piles of manure mixed with ashes and the Swiss method involved collecting urine in a sandpit under a stable.

Thankfully in more modern times potassium nitrate is derived from nitric acid on an industrial scale, negating the need for any manure-based methods.

It is not so commonly used in food these days as it is not as reliable as other nitrates, but where it is used in the EU it is listed as the ‘E number’ E252.

Sal Prunelle

(in How to smoke your own bacon)

Nitrate of potash (which is just another version of potassium nitrate, see above) which is fused together and cast into round moulds so as to look like little plums (or prunelle).

Malt coom

(in How to smoke your own bacon)

The withered rootlets of germinated barley created during the malting process. In this recipe the rootlets were used along with charcoal to cover the bacon in a chest to preserve it.

Today these rootlets (or malt-culm) are used in animal feed due to their high protein content (25%).

Benjamin

(or Benzoin) (in How to make lip balm)

The resin from an evergreen tree (Styrax benzoin) used as an astringent or antiseptic. It has a sweet scent, similar to that of vanilla and so was frequently used to make incense.

The resin derives from South East Asia and has long been traded into Europe for use in cosmetics, candles, incense (especially for use in Orthodox churches) and as an inhalant to clear the passageways.

Today tincture of benzoin is sometimes used by weight-lifters as an alternative for chalk, as a small amount applied to the hands can help create grip. It is still used by the cosmetic industry in some perfumes.

Storax

(or Styrax) (in How to make lip balm)

A balsam taken from the bark of the Liquidambar orientalis tree native to Asia Minor, generally used as a perfume or expectorant. Storax is mixed with benzoin to create tincture of benzoin.

It was used to treat skin conditions such as scabies.

Spermaceti

(in How to make lip balm)

A wax found in the head of a sperm or bottlenose whale. It was commonly used in cosmetics and as an industrial Mother_and_baby_sperm_whalelubricant.

When extracted the oil forms into hard white wax which is oily to the touch and virtually odourless, this property makes it very useful in the manufacture of cosmetics and candles.

Whalers would extract the oil buy chopping off the head of a sperm whale and scooping out the oil and storing it in casks for transport back to land where it would be processed. A large whale could produce up to four tons of oil.

Once ashore the spermaceti would be filtered and boiled to remove impurities and stop it becoming rancid. The spermaceti was then stored in a cold place over winter which meant the oil congealed into a more viscous substance. This was then placed into wool sacks and squeezed in a press to remove the precious liquid oil. The remaining wax was then sold on as spermaceti wax.

More information on the process can be found in this great blog post, Dispatches from Pangaea.

At the height of the whaling era (roughly 1830-1870) up to twenty-two whales a day were killed for their blubber and oil. Nowadays modern alternatives such as kerosene are used, so no more whales need be slaughtered.

Gum dragon

(in How to make British anchovies)

Gum dragon or tragacanth is the sap of a middle eastern plant it is used in food as a thickener and stabiliser and in medicine it is used for treating diarrhea and constipation (not quite sure how it can work for two such diametrically opposed conditions!).

Iran is the largest exporter of Tragacanth. It is made from the dried sap of the root of the plant. Alongside its medicinal uses the sap can be mixed with water to make a paste which is used in the tanning of leather, in traditional artists’ pastels and can be mixed with sugar icing to make sugarcraft cake decorations.

Margosa oil

(in How to keep ants at bay)

Derived from the seeds of the Azadirachta indica tree, which is more commonly known as the neem tree in its native India and Sri Lanka. The oil has traditionally been used as an insecticide and as a remedy for asthma and arthritis. Margosa oil has an acrid smell and bitter taste and can be dangerous if ingested by young children.

Water glass

(in How to preserve eggs)

Water glass or sodium silicate is a white powder that is soluble in water, creating an alkaline, first observed in the seventeenth century.

These days it is most commonly used as a glue to hold cardboard together and in various industrial uses such as reducing the porosity of concrete.

It was frequently used throughout the twentieth century for preserving eggs for up to five months. My mother remembers her mother using it in the 1950s as a way to keep fresh eggs.

 

Picture credits: Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen, “Mother and baby sperm whale” by Gabriel Barathieu

The making of How to Skin a Lion: part 2

In the run up to the 14 May publication of my book How to Skin a Lion, I thought I might blog here about how the book went from a one line idea to a finished book. Last week I published my blog on how I came up with the idea and the research process and in this blog I will explain how I crafted the research into a finished book.

Writing up

After months of research and numerous library trips I finally had enough content to begin to fashion my extracts into a book. Each ‘how to’ needed a short introduction and then the extract needed to be trimmed and sectioned up with extra explanations inserted to make the text flow. Sometimes a funny introduction or interjection naturally popped into my head but other times I would agonise over how to frame the extract to its best advantage.holding image pencil

To make the book easy for the reader to follow and understand I also tried my best to footnote or explain in brackets any strange terms or unknown ingredients, of which there are many.

Once I was happy with the introductions I spent a long time juggling the entries around. I decided early on that I wanted the book to be fairly random in order as I imagined a reader would dip in and out rather than reading it from start to finish. This meant I needed to make sure no two entries from the same book or on similar subject areas were too close to each other. This was harder than it seems and I changed the order many times before I finally felt like I had it right.

I then spent a long time reading, tweaking and polishing the book onscreen. Once I was happy with it I then printed out three copies – one for me, one for my husband and one for my mum. We then all read through the book highlighting errors, inconsistencies and passages that needed clarifying or rejigging.

I find it really helps to look at my work on paper as errors you can miss onscreen are often clearer on paper. It was also really good to get feedback from two people whose opinion I really valued and between us all we found quite a few typos and it really helped me to tighten the writing up.

Editing

Once I was happy with the final text it was time to send it back to the British Library for my editor Rob to have a read through and for it then to be sent on to a copy-editor. Once the copy-editor had been through the text it was sent back to me with a few queries for me to resolve.scissors-lots-x600

As a copy-editor myself I know how the process works and am always nervous to send an author their copy-edited manuscript in case they take issue with all my changes and disagree with my author queries. Fortunately the copy-editor had done a great job and the queries were all very sensible and easily resolved.

The copy-edited and approved document then went back to the British Library team who sent it on to a proof reader and a typesetter. It is at this point that the wonderful pictures (which had been sourced from the British Library collection by their fabulous picture researcher) were inserted.

The pictures

At this point Rob and I agreed that we would like to include as many pictures as possible as it brings the text alive. However I had strayed somewhat over the word count (why say something with one adjective, when you can use five fabulous adjectives?) and to fit in as many pictures as we needed I was going to have to cut some content.

I read back through the book and somewhat reluctantly highlighted sections which could be cut, it was hard to choose but I did feel like the book would ultimately be better for having more pictures.

Once these cuts had been made the final pictures could be inserted and the typesetting fixed. It was then just a case of waiting for the books to be printed and my advance copies to arrive.

The final bookHTSALx600

The cover had been designed quite early on in the process so I already knew what it was going to look like, but it really was such a thrill a few months later for a parcel to arrive and to hold the finished book in my hands.

It was a long journey to create this book but so fun. I am really proud of the finished product and I really hope that people will enjoy reading How to Skin a Lion as much as I enjoyed writing it!

The making of How to Skin a Lion: part 1

In the run up to the 14 May publication of my book How to Skin a Lion, I thought I might blog here about how the book went from a one line idea to a finished book.

Back in November 2013 my book The Georgian Art of Gambling was published by British Library Publishing to Cover of The Georgian Art of Gambling - by Claire Cock-Starkeycomplement their exhibition on the Georgians. It had been a really fun project to work on and I had so enjoyed being back working in the British Library reading rooms after an absence of a few years working on other projects.

The idea

Lara and Rob from British Library Publishing asked me if I had any more book ideas as they were keen to expand their gift-book offering. I went away and had a brainstorm. Looking back at my notes from researching The Georgian Art of Gambling I noticed there were references to many of modes of dress, games, foods and fashions which had become outmoded and it was this that led me to my idea. Why not create a collection of lost or outmoded advice?

pencil-and-idea-x600I then sat down and wrote a long ‘master list’ of skills that I thought were no longer common knowledge and used this to create my book proposal. I have written previously on how to write a non-fiction book proposal so I won’t repeat the detail here but it was a really useful process to clarify my thinking and focus my research.

Fortunately the British Library team loved the idea and commissioned the book, leaving me roughly eight months to get the 40,000 words written.

Research

I spent the first six months of this time researching and collecting content for the book. I had to juggle this with my other commitments – working part-time as a freelance copy-editor and indexer, and looking after my three children. This meant using my Saturdays to travel to the British Library to do my research for which I am forever in debt to my wonderful husband for doing all the kid’s Saturday gym clubs and swimming lessons al solo.

To focus my research trips I would use my ‘master list’ of lost skills and pick a couple of subjects for each visit. For example, I might decide to look at how to keep bees, how to build a tent and how to preserve food in one visit.

I would then search the online catalogue for books about bee keeping, restricting the date to pre-1930s. From here I would look through all the titles and select three or four which sounded the most promising and order those. You can only order ten books for each visit and fortunately this proved plentiful!

Once at the library I would flick through my stack of books and try and find sections where the skill I was looking for was described. I would then copy-out passages I wanted to use onto my laptop, aiming to keep as much as the original spelling and punctuation as possible (which makes the transcription take longer as I was constantly checking I had added all the archaic capital letters and the abundant commas).

Aside from looking for skills from my ‘master list’ I also often ordered books which sounded like they might contain lots of old advice which could be used in different sections of the book, for example manuals on etiquette which produced a number of entries from how to hold a cocktail party to how to afford introductions.

At this point I knew I had some really great content but the thought of taking this and crafting it into a finished book seemed so daunting, but with my deadline looming I knew I had to just dive in and get writing!

Next week I will publish my blog on the writing and editing process.

How to Skin a Lion Challenge: The Conclusion

Over the last few months I have been blogging about my challenge to try out some of the outmoded advice in my HTSALx600upcoming book How to Skin a Lion.

It has been a fun adventure and I have learnt some new skills that I will put to good use.

The most interesting challenge was trying the 1856 recipe for making mushroom ketchup (incidentally it has also been my most popular post with over 90 people reading it – seems there is a crowd of mushroom-lovers out there!). The recipe itself was a bit vague so I had to freestyle a bit, but I was really excited to try this forgotten condiment.

I imagined myself as a Victorian, chowing down on some meat with mushroom ketchup at a back-alley Ale House. Unfortunately this is not how it turned out and it seems my modern palate cannot deal with the amount of salt used in the original recipe.

I am still interested in trying to find a less salty recipe for mushroom ketchup and hope to mushroomsx600have another attempt at making it in the future.

I really enjoyed trying out some of the ‘mystical’ advice and although I am a sceptic at heart I was fascinated to see if any insight could be gained through trying to tell my fortune with playing cards.

The fortune-telling thus far has not proved to be accurate, but it was a good way to self-analyse and provided some useful starting points for introspection.

Trying to assess someone’s character through their facial moles was always going to be dubious and it didn’t disappoint but it kept me amused for a few hours while I searched for celebrities with moles who I could analyse!

The most useful skills I learned were how to darn (although I certainly need some more practice!) and how to bandage an arm, which was actually pretty simple but definitely a good skill to have.

The instruction I am most likely to use again is how to make lemon barley water as it was really easy but tasted delicious and fresh and I think makes a perfect drink for a summers’ day.barleyingredientsx600

There is a lot more advice in How to Skin a Lion that I would love to follow, such as some of the recipes for making lip balm and ginger wine, but unfortunately due to being Victorian recipes they use ingredients that are either frowned upon – spermaceti (the oil from a sperm whale’s head) or very hard to source (sugar loaf).

However even if I can’t actually try all the advice and recipes contained in the book it is still really interesting to marvel at how things used to be done and take pleasure in collecting and sharing lost or outmoded advice.

Just a few weeks now until How to Skin a Lion comes out, so hopefully some readers might stop by this blog and report on trying out some of the advice themselves, that would be wonderful!

On being interviewed by the Cambridge Evening News

A couple of weeks ago a lovely journalist, Lydia Fallon from the Cambridge Evening News came to interview me about my new book How to Skin a Lion.HTSALx600 I was a bit apprehensive as I tend to talk a lot when nervous so I was slightly concerned I would say an awful lot about not very much. But luckily Lydia had some great questions and I think I managed to represent the gist of my book. The newspaper copy came out on Friday 10 April and you an read it online here. It’s pretty exciting to see my book in my local newspaper!

How to darn: adventures in mending socks

If you are a regular reader of this blog you will know what I am up to, but if not, let me explain! My book How to Skin a Lion: A Treasury of Outmoded Advice will be published in May 2015 and as a result I am attempting to follow some of the historic advice contained in the book.

Darning was once a skill everyone had. In the days before our disposable culture, a hole was there to be patched and mended, not an excuse to bin the offending item and buy a new one.

I have to admit that I have already had a bit of a head start with darning, in that my mother taught me to darn when I was a teenager and seemed to be going through socks like a dose of salts. She thought that if I learned to mend them my sock collection might last a bit longer.holysockx600

Unfortunately as a moody teen my enthusiasm for darning was akin to my enthusiasm for sixteenth century organ music – unkindled.

As the owner of a large collection of holey socks I thought this was certainly a skill to be resurrected. Andy tried to persuade me to practice my skills on his socks, but in the interests of feminism I decided to darn my own darn socks!

The method

I selected a navy pair of socks with a classic heel hole as I already possessed some navy darning wool from my earlier dalliance with the dark arts of darning.

The instructions from Cassell’s Home Encyclopedia (1934) advise:

darnequipmentx600The idea is to counterfeit the weaving of the material, first one way and then the other, till the hole is filled with closely interlaced threads going over and under each other at right angles.’

This is where modern factory produced socks tripped me up. The idea that I might be able to recreate the extremely fine knit weave of my modern socks is beyond me. If I had owned a lovely home knitted pair of chunky socks, I might have been able to create a more seamless darn, but with modern materials my darning wool will stick out like a sore thumb.

Start on sound material well outside the edges of the hole, running the needle (threaded double for all but small repairs) in and out of the stuff in a straight line. Return as close as possible to the first line, going under the stuff where that went over, and vice versa. At the end of each line do not pull thread tight, but leave a tiny loop. This allows for the shrinking of the new thread in the wash. Continue darning up and down till well outside the hole on the far side and on sound stuff again.’1Dx600

I double threaded my needle, put one hand inside the sock to keep the hole open and used the other to start sewing straight lines across the hole, from sound material on one side to the other. Having double threaded I had under-estimated how much thread I would need and ran out halfway through, requiring me to tie a knot and start again.

Once I had covered the hole with stiches in one direction it looked rather neat, but I knew the next step was the more fiddly aspect of the endeavour:

weavex600Then darn closely across at right angles, alternately under and over the original lines of the stitches until the hole is completely filled.’

This under and over business is way more tricky than it sounds. It is quite hard to manoeuvre the needle in and out of the rows and to remember if you are supposed to be going over or under. It also takes an awful lot of thread.

The result

This is certainly a skill I think you need to practice, as this attempt though adequate was not as neat as I’d hoped. Once I had finished weaving through my second layer I had reasonable coverage of the hole, but on putting the sock on you can still see a few tiny holes. However, it felt really strong and I think it is a good solid mend.darnedx600

The instructions for this task were really nice and easy to follow and the skill itself very useful. I think darning modern socks is probably not worth it as the cost of the darning thread is about the same as that of a new pair of socks! However, having practised this skill I subsequently successfully darned a hole in a jumper, which was great as it gave a much-loved jumper a new lease of life.

So here is an old fashioned skill that I shall certainly be putting to good use in the future.

Do you have any darning or mending tips? If so please share with a comment.

How to read moles

"Talpa europaea MHNT" by Didier Descouens - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Talpa_europaea_MHNT.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Talpa_europaea_MHNT.jpg
A mole.

Now, before you get excited this is not an ancient lost skill of mole whispering, whereby using the power of stroking and blowing in a mole’s face you persuade them to kindly stop digging up your lawn. No, this is about facial moles.

As Nine Pennyworth of Wit for a Penny (1750) explains:

Moles in the face particularly, and those in other parts of the body are very significant as to good or bad fortune.’

If you have read my previous blog posts you will know I am attempting to try out some of the historic advice contained in my upcoming book How to Skin a Lion (published 14 May 2015). My previous dip in the pool of fortune-telling was rather grim (see my post on How to tell the future with cards) but hopefully my mystic powers will be engaged by this task.

I have to admit I am somewhat lacking in the mole department, so I shall be mostly using celebrities to illustrate the power of physiognomy.

But first I feel I must assess the significance of my only facial mole, a delightful eyebrow nestling specimen.

A mole on the eyebrow signifies speedy marriage and a good husband.’

At last a good result from the realms of the occult (I was beginning to take a very dim view). I do indeed have a good husband, so one point to the mystics.

Thankfully the Internet has created many an article and picture gallery on ‘celebrities with moles’ so I was able to find a few examples to assess the quality of my mole reading technique.

A mole on the left side of the temple, promises loss and affliction to either sex in the first part of their age; but happiness by overcoming them in the end.’

This description fits Angelina Jolie rather well, she had well documented issues in her youth but now seems to have found great happiness with her husband Brad Pitt and their six children. Point number two for the mystics.

A mole on the left cheek, inclining towards the lower part of the ear, denotes loss in goods, and crosses by children; threatens a woman with death in child-bed.’

Oh dear Natalie Portman and Cary Grant, not a promising reading for those with moles on their left cheek. Portman is rich and has a child and Cary Grant, though unlucky in love (he married five times), was also rich and had a child, so I think we can say this reading is not true. It is now two to the mystics and one to the sceptics.

A mole on the right corner of the mouth, near the jaw, promises happy days to either sex; but on the left side, unlawful copulation, and much loss thereby.’

Goldie Hawn has a mole on the right corner of her mouth and does appear to be a very happy person (but who really knows? I am judging this purely by the fact that anyone married to Kurt Russell must have a pretty awesome life). Cindy Crawford and Mariah Carey both have moles on their left side but I am not sure I am in a position to judge if they have had unlawful copulation! I think I’ll call this one a draw, one point for mystics and one for sceptics.

Thus my short tour of physiognomy has come to an end, and the totally unscientific score was 3 points to the mystics and 2 points to the sceptics. It’s certainly fun to try and judge a person’s character or future by the moles on their face but I think we can safely say it is not hugely accurate.

Do you have any facial moles? If so, what do the predictions say about you? Please leave a comment!