Sunday, March 9, 2014

Skeps and stitches

One of my favourite books, when I were a wee tacker, was Evelyn Scott's The Fourteen Bears in Summer and Winter. Daddy Bear and Mother Bear live with their improbably large progeny in the woods, where they swim and skate and decorate trees and skip paw-in-paw through the buttercups. The bear cubs (they have gorgeous names like Henrietta and Gloria and Dora and Little Theodore) sleep inside tree trunks, decorated to taste. One is all folksy floral kitsch; another is rocking the 1960s Danish minimalism. I blame this book for the fact that from the age of 4 to ... I dunno ... 27? ... I couldn't look at a Morton Bay fig tree without imagining myself sitting inside it arranging my prize collection of hand-carved spoons.

One of the most exciting things about this book was its depiction of bee-keeping. Flora has a "honey farm with very special bees". She turns the spigot on each skep and out comes vanilla honey, or maple honey, or strawberry honey, or coconut honey, looking remarkably like soft-serve icecream.

This is not, perhaps, an entirely realistic account of bears, or bees, or honey. For one thing, contrary to widespread lore, bears aren't especially interested in honey; rather, they're extremely keen on bee larvae. Delicious, high-protein, pollen-fed grubs. For another thing, there ain't no kind of beehive where the honey flows neatly out of a tap.

When beekeepers used to use skeps - those beautiful conical basket hives - the only way to harvest the honey was to destroy the hive. In autumn, the beekeepers would select the strongest hives, which they'd leave to over-winter, in the hope that come Spring those strong hives would swarm and replenish numbers; but they'd cut open the middling ones, after "tanging" the hives to chase the bees out. They'd remove the honey and (more importantly, in an age of DIY lighting) the wax, and kill a whole lot of bees in the process. It sounds (and I guess was) appallingly violent, and pretty unideal for the beekeeper too, who must have been stung from head to toe by justly disgruntled insects.

Apart from this substantial defect in the skep system, though, skeps are the perfectest human-made bee homes I can imagine. Well, a skep lodged three metres above the ground is the perfectest human-made bee home I can imagine. In the absence of human-made structures, honeybees choose homes inside trees and they choose homes at altitude - out of bear-reach. I've seen comb made in the absence of human interference. It curves; it's built on an angle; it certainly doesn't run east-west in straight parallel lines. The skep mimics the hollow of the tree, and it allows whatever graceful free-form comb-creation the bees choose.

I'm pretty in love with skeps, is what I'm saying, and if you were interested in keeping bees for pollination (or just for the bees' sake), rather than for honey harvesting, I think a skep would be excellent.

On another (but tenuously related) matter, I've just finished sewing my new uniform, which apparently I couldn't manage to iron before taking this photo:

I made the skirt one evening after work. It's a very simple A-line job, made out of a grand total of five pieces of fabric, plus a zip, and a button. My favourite colours are teals and turquoises and greeny-blues, so I'm pretty pleased with the fabric.

But I'm even more pleased with the fabric I've used for the shirt. It's a peach-and-white print of skeps, designed by Bonnie Christine. I stumbled across this material ages ago and knew I would find a use for it.

Then these wooden bee buttons turned up on ebay. Ten for $2, which felt a bit wrong, but I'm not one to say no to el cheapo bee buttons when they throw themselves across my path.

I used my old faithful late-1980s blouse pattern. It's already given me a frog-print shirt with green buttons and a blue polka-dot shirt with little cat's-face buttons. In both cases I experimented with alternative collars (finagling variations on the pussy bow), because I don't love the collar in the pattern and I'm a bit phobic about sunburn of the thoracic epidermis.

This time, I've invented a sort of Mandarin collar, having finally come to appreciate the value of a stiff layer of interfacing.

I'm not a very patient (and therefore not a very good) sewer, and my Aged Singer (picked up for $10 from the Rozelle Markets in Sydney in 2002) is rather given to swallowing bunches of fabric and generating snarls of cotton. But I took this slowly, cutting out the pieces one night, sewing a little bit another night, more again later. The slow and steady approach seems to have averted break-downs in both the machine and the tailor. So, skeps ahoy!

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