Where one ‘Front Door’ closes…

The front door of LA Maison Blanche has always been something I loved about our house in France. It’s huge, medieval even, needs a good, two-handed shove to get it open. It is literally and figuratively thousands of miles away from our London front door.
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The key is enormous befitting a large country house and just seeing it hanging on our London key rack is a constant reminder of our other home.
And it was where we all stood on arrival for the first time as a family and took this photo! The photo I’ve used for my blog heading despite the fact that both boys are now considerably

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But once we had painted our house front, the shutters and even the side wall onto the street, the doors remain the last shabby chic aspect of the house – and truth be told they were just shabby. The front door and our little kitchen door were both quite rotten and let the wind rattle through the house.

And so Peter took them all off, used a vat of wood filler and miles of sandpaper to patch them both up.

I looked into the rather inevitable khaki shades of farrow and ball front door cliche that litter London streets. I looked at pale blue, the choice of most English people in France for shutters and doors. And then I looked around our area and noted that most houses are actually painted in shades of cream and brown. And as the door had originally been painted brown I decided to try and stay with a version of that.

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And as ever, I wasn’t entirely sure if I shouldn’t have gone with something ‘prettier’ but that afternoon our 75 year old neighbour, Madame Camblat popped round to say hello. When we showed her the door she said ‘ah tres bien, c’est un coleur de campagne’ (it’s a colour of the countryside) and I was glad I’d gone for brown after all.

Christmas at La Maison (2014)

We finally have a home worthy of a picture postcard Christmas – or to paraphrase my friend Lorraine ” I remember when it was like Christmas in Beirut in that sitting room….” (See blog post about their xmas visit two years ago here! She has a point.) But this year we were going to do Christmas in style. It was to be like a White Company Brochure so long as he kids didn’t ruin it by trying to put tinsel everywhere – like I always say, kids eh? Anyone would think Christmas was for them! I did however let Seb wear the Santa Costume we bought at Super U several years ago.

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So rather than ramble on about our goose eating, Perudo playing, Bond film watching (thanks to a new projector bought for Peter’s Christmas present) I shall just show you the pics.

Joyeux Noel….

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New job, more cooking and how the two things finally connect.

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Sunshine in October

I haven’t blogged for ages. You would think that the months I’ve had without confirmed employment, could have been spent blogging, creating, setting up a business from my kitchen table etc. I could have become one of those women who tell tales in glossy mags of how they founded thier dotcom empires as the result of getting a life knock. But what I found about being with no specific employ, was it became harder to do anything. And I mean ANYTHING. I was rudderless and energy less. Getting paid to do several things at once but nothing specific took all my spirit. I feel ashamed that while other people use difficult situations to spur themselves onto greatness, I used it as an excuse to sit around feeling sorry for myself and in the evenings lie on the sofa watching Lewis/Grantchester/Scott and Bailey.
On the other hand, lots of people did point out that I’d had a very full on job for ten years which had involved 24 hour thinking, planning, and in the latter months knowing I was steering an oil tanker through a gugrling stream, so I could afford to give myself a break for four months. Plus, my idea of ‘not doing much’ did involve completely renovating a room in our London home, settling our eldest son into secondary school and consulting on several brands also published at Hearst UK.
I also found time for two trips to France – the latter of which was an amazingly hot week in October with zip wiring, lake walks and plenty of cooking which as you know is actually one of my favourite things in the world to do. A glut of squash from our various neighbours meant I persuaded the entire family to eat squash soup with every meal. Plus I made a beef stew with squash and chillis for guests one evening.

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Home made Calamari and squash soup with sage croutons

My love of food is well documented on this blog and on instagram and while in France most of my relaxing time is spent cooking. I even treated myself to a crepe maker this visit.

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oh Crepes!

And as I’ve mentioned several times on this blog, things all happen for a reason. And on my return from France and a lovely restful week of genuinely doing nothing, I had a call to go and see my big big boss. He had some news. I’d been working on lots of interesting projects across Hearst for the last few months (from Elle to Digitial Spy) but my favourite temporary role had been dropping into Good Housekeeping magazine to work on their digital strategy and social media. The biggest selling monthly lifestyle mag in the UK was a very different beast to my old home on a relatively small title like Company. On Good Housekeeping everything was big. The office bigger, the departments bigger and best of all – there was food! Recipes to be tasted, tested and triple tested. An entire cookery department, hundreds of thousands of recipes on the website and things to instagram that I genuinely have an interest in. And the news from the big big boss – was that Good Housekeeping wanted me to stay permanently with them. To be their Digital Director! And so I have a new job. A fabulous new job that means although I won’t be hanging out with One Direction and wearing improbable fashions anymore – I will legitimately be able to live tweet while watching Midsommer and my French idyl is considerably more on brand than it was before. My ‘real’ life and my work life have finally come into sync. I can stop pretending that I listen to experimental indie music at the weekend and luxuriate in Buble’s Christmas without guilt. And best of all – I can bore you all with my food pics on instagram.

One last one….

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Quiche for kids AND adults (one half without asparagus!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meet the ‘Neigh’ bours……

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Just your average Saturday morning

I love a challenge. I love doing anything for the first time that I’ve never done before. “What’s the point in living if you don’t feel alive” as a Bond villain once said (answers on a postcard peeps!) And if you can’t do things you don’t do at home when you are in your French holiday home, then when can you? Which is how I came to take up horseriding….And force my sons to do so too.

In the next village to ours, Lafitole – population 454 (a throbbing metropolis compared to Gensac with its population of 85 and that includes us!) is a Riding Stable. And not just any riding stable but a WESTERN riding stable. I had hoped this meant people like Ray Krebbs from Dallas would be wandering around in Stetsons, but what it actually means is you ride on horses with western saddles – and the technique is a bit different to English riding. Sadly, no bucking broncos or inter-famial fights at annual BBQs – well not so I’ve experienced yet!

Growing up in relatively rural Northumberland, I was surrounded by girls at school who rode. Who were obsessed with horses – many of them had their own ponies and I was determined not to join their gang. Like Lena Dunham to their Blake Lively, this was not a pursuit for me. And so, I stubbornly got to the age of 42 without having learnt to ride. The last time I was on a horse was probably when I went outward bounding with the school aged 12. But a chance meeting at our local wood (this is how we roll in SW rural france!) with Sonia who runs Western Paradise, the riding stables in Lafitole, persuaded me that we should all give it a go.

So on Saturday mornings when in France, I began dropping the boys off with Sonia and a collection of french children (mainly girls but I have told the boys this is because there are NO boys in Lafitole or Gensac except them.) They don’t seem convinced but as they don’t speak good enough french they cannot confirm or deny this and those french girls boss them around in french so much they are terrified to object.

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The only boys in the village!

And then one Saturday, Sonia suggested I come too and saddled up a larger horse for me to ride around the fields of Lafitole with her and six children including my own. And I loved sitting on a horse and riding around our neighbourhood. Through sunflower fields in Summer and woods in winter. Shouting Bonjour to locals as we ride past. Down to the lake where we play Pooh Sticks but this time on horseback and while we ride, I teach Sonia english to help with her ex pat customers and she teaches me french for saddle, bridle and reigns (all useful stuff should I find myself in Kentucky with a frenchman) and we chat about her baby or my boys.

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A horse called ‘Chanel’

And although my boys complain a bit about ‘having to go horseriding’ I think deep down they quite like the ritual and when Sonia and the bossy french girls make them groom the horses before and after, clean the bits with toothbrushes and carry the heavy saddles back to the saddlery, I’m convinced this is all what constitutes – life experience. Plus, it stops them playing Minecraft or watching youtube. And it means that I have a ‘friend’ in France. A french friend who I look forward to seeing for a chat, in french. Now if only I could find a paragliding centre nearby…..

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A load of old pony!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

RENOVATION MOTIVATION

Sorry I haven’t blogged for ages. So long in fact that the interface on wordpress has totally changed since the last time I blogged.

I received an email this week from a friend who has just moved into a new house, well it’s an old house, that needs quite a bit of work. “Please come over, and give us the White renovation pep talk,” he suggested. “Reassure us that it will all be OK one day.”

Which got me thinking of the days when our French house was hideous. And I would cry and wonder why the hell we had done this. Check out these pics for example.

Or for those who can’t be bothered to click on the link.. this was once my dining room!
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So I gave him my five point plan for renovation motivation or moreover things I say but don’t always do or feel but they sound like sage advice!

1) Make one room nice straight away. Then you have somewhere to sit in the evening and watch TV or drink wine, or both. In the case of France this was our kitchen as it was the only room with a working fire. In UK renovations I’d go for the sitting room as I am assuming you have heating and/or running water. If not then I salute you.

The fire we huddled around for the first six months

The fire we huddled around for the first six months

2) Sort out a shower. Showers are on that Maslow’s Triangle of needs. Well if they aren’t they should be. Maybe Maslow was more of a bath man? If you have a working shower with nice tiles and some Aveda shampoo you can face anything. So get thee to bathstore.com or victoriaplumb.com for affordable bathroom fittings and do it asap. You can always upgrade to fancy Duravit stuff in a few years time.

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My bathstore.com bathroom in London – done in haste but enjoyed every day!

3) Remember that the reason you bought a house that needed work is because you couldn’t afford the same size house all done up or because you knew that buying a wreck can mean potential money making opportunities. And then think about how cramped you’d all be living in a high spec penthouse with all mod cons. You see – you feel better already!

4) Only invite people around in the early days who appreciate the joys of a project. People like Peter and I in fact. We will swoon over your peeling paint and original features. We will talk about potential. We will be jealous of the fact you are at the beginning of a renovation project and not nearing the end of it. (I still have wallpapers, tiles etc that I have nowhere to put now in France and entire pinterest boards devoted to rooms that don’t even exist!)

5) In the case of my male friend who was asking my advice on the above I pointed out that the best thing he can do is to accept at all times that whenever his wife has had a bad day, or is fed up with bare floorboards when all her friends have Fired Earth tiles, it is HIS FAULT. ALL OF IT! That way everyone is happy. See – I’ve cracked this renovation malarky….

All change…..

20130629-075054.jpg“Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.”
― Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

And so it was this summer…. After ten years as the editor of Company Magazine, I returned from a short early visit to France, leaving behind my husband and sons for their third feral summer without me, to be given the news that the print version of the magazine was to be closed down. And in a strange way I wasn’t that surprised, not shocked, certainly not angry, but sad that something which has been part of my life for as long as my eldest son (I became editor shortly after giving birth to him!) was suddenly not to be. My team, some of whom I have worked with every day for 5-10 years, would be working on other mags, living their lives somewhere where I wouldn’t hear as they gossip about husbands, boyfriends, flatmates in my earshot every day. The walk from Charing Cross to my office in Soho that I have trudged through sunshine and sometimes snow for 10 years might now be a different commute. It might be no commute at all. And all those years of worrying about circulation figures or advertising revenues were for the time being a thing of the past.

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But the news, which for the first few weeks I had to keep secret, meant that my summer being single had taken a very different turn. My usual three weeks of partying, seeing friends I don’t normally have time to see or just going a little big wild for a few weeks were off the agenda. I couldn’t really see anyone for fear of getting drunk and blurting out my secret. And, my emotional state was just too fragile to face most people anyway – especially not in a chi chi Soho bar/restaurant. So instead I stayed home and watched an entire season of 24 on Apple TV. I drank too much wine and to counterbalance this I went running a lot. Run, drink. Drink, run. And luckily I was allowed to bring one friend into my circle of knowledge, one of my besties who also edits a magazine within the same company so was deemed a safe confidente. And so every few nights I would go and stay with Lorraine and her four offspring – with my goddaughter Mabel donating her new bed to me complete with pink princess bedding. And then Lorraine and I drank wine together – which somehow doesn’t seem so bad as drinking wine alone. And Gracie, her second eldest said “do you two do anything except drink wine?” and so indignantly, we started going to ‘Pyscle’ (spinning in the dark!) together on a Tuesday morning before work to add to my extreme binge/purge summer. Or we baked with the kids and watched Johnny English. And we talked and talked about change and life and jobs and kids. So by the time I did announce the sad news to my team almost three weeks later – I had ‘worked through it’ as they say in the US. And I hope, in doing so, I was able to help them face this enormous change with a sense of strength and calm (and a weight loss of about half a stone!)

And then finally, I got to go back to my boys and my French home – where everything is always alright and Arthur asked if this meant I would have to give my iPad back and wether he would still get to go to X Factor. And Sebastian wondered what would happen to Tanita my Creative Director’s giant pencil that sits on her desk. And I realised that none of it really matters anyway except having amazing friends and family around you and a sense of self outside of what you do for a living. Most of all, I realised that what this actually marks is a new chapter. A new adventure and that can only be a good thing right?

“Just when the caterpillar thought their world had ended. They became a butterfly…” Anon

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What colour should we paint our shutters? (part deux)

20140804-113627-41787089.jpgApologies for the prolonged exterior painting blog. Like those films that wend on and round and just when you think they’ve ended it turns out there’s still another whole section. Like The English Patient. Or Atonement. Or Legends of the Fall by the end of which I was shouting at the screen to anyone who came within of five mile radius of Brad Pitt “steer clear – they all die!!!”

And so it is with my exterior painting. I blogged about shutter colours vs wall colours way back here. And happily you all made suggestions, passed comment etc but as with all best laid plans I seem to have ended up nowhere near any of them.

My paint dramas taking my dreams of a dark cream wall with a white shutter from me – or HAVE they? Here’s how that looks so far…

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All white?

And once the window frames have been painted white too – it might be calm, serene and sophisticated… So that plan is, to paint all the shutters white (and as they are all in such bad condition they probably need lots of base coating and TLC anyway – check out our Shutter A&E area

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Always knew this bit of barn would come in handy for something?

And then – I can take a view. After a long chat with Serge we decided that it might be nice to do at least the doors in a silvery green to match the leaves on my burgeoning lavender plants. (Imagine that conversation in French?) But the truth is I really can’t decide. Anyone got any thoughts then do share. I’m a bit stuck!!

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Let’s go (paint) Outside

And so I have caught up with myself… The story of our house in France is almost up to date. Which is why my blog posts have become much slower. I could have told you about Uncle Richard and Stuey’s new year visit – of how we had ‘welcome drinks’ in the Salon to celebrate and then danced outside to Wham hits. But I suspect only we really find ourselves amusing and I have the photos on my phone for memories.!!!!

What you really want to know about are renovations. I’ve peppered this blog with personal tales more for my own benefit. A record of all that passed at La Maison while we were painting, varnishing or tiling. And a memory for the children who in the years since we bought it have hurtled towards being a bit ‘France is so lame….’

And this summer is Arthur’s last one before Secondary School. And if that weren’t milestone enough – we decided it would be the summer we paint the exterior of La Maison.

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My Dad has passed comment about why we hadn’t ‘smartened up the front a bit’ before now. And my answer is always – when you have no loo to pee in or kitchen to cook in, nicely painted gates seem rather a luxury. And then we needed bedrooms to sleep in and bedrooms for guests to sleep in and extra bathrooms for extra guests and so the faded walls and peeling shutters slid further down our list of priorities.

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But this summer with fewer guests than usual and no other major interior jobs to do, we earmarked it for project L’exteriuer…

And so my colour plans began. I decided to keep it simple with beigey, cream walls and white shutters. This would keep costs down (white eggshell cheaper than coloured and easier to repaint) but it would also keep the house relatively true to its history. After a thorough search and tester potstravaganza of fifty shades of cream I settled on one called doves bum or some such and took it to Homebase. “Oh no love – we don’t do colour match masonry paint,” said a helpful man. “But look, this premixed one is virtually the same – Cornish Cream” he added. And so I bought 80 litres of it. And we drove the 80 litres to France. And Peter could hardly wait to get started so on the first day of our Hols he painted a side wall – just to check I still liked it….

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And it was dark yellow!!!!! Not cream at all but a horrid, dark, colour that would not allow the sunlight to bounce off it on hot days… I tried to like it, thinking of the 80 litres of it we had. But I couldn’t….

And Peter, who knows me well, knew that I would moan and complain for the next fifteen years if he continued painting the house a colour I wasn’t happy with. So we went to Bricot Depot to see if they had anything preferable. But that’s for another blog post….

Renovation project Number 2 (meanwhile back in London..)

The French House had taken shape and over the last three years we’d achieved a huge amount. Sometimes I had to sit and look at old photos of dirty concrete floors and rats nests just to remember how bad it had been. The early days where we huddled around the fire in the kitchen with only an acroprop for company! And a bizarre Flinstones grotto!

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yabadabadooooo!

Yes there is still a lot to be done and we’ve even had to redo certain rooms like the downstairs guest room here (am planning a big kitchen makeover in 2015 – watch this space!) but essentially it was comfortable and clean. We’ve even listed it for rent on Air BnB (link here )

And yet, about a year after starting the French house project, we decided to buy a house of similar disrepair in London. So now when we arrive back at our London house after the fourteen hour drive home – we leave a relatively nice, comfortable, clean french home – back to a dirty, ugly, building site of a house! Truly it’s basic. And the speed of fixing up our London renovation project is nowhere near the pace of France. We are seasoned renovators (Peter has done up and sold three or four houses over the last few years) so we thought we should have a go at a large family home that came on the market on our street in London. Actually it was three bedsits – with an external staircase to access the top floor one. In the early days of living there we had to go outside just to go to bed.

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But as it was over four quite large floors, we saw ‘potential’ the renovators dream! Large, high ceilinged rooms, room to expand out on all sides, separate sitting rooms for us and the boys, four bathrooms and a huge garden by London standards. (Non London readers, anything others than paving slabs of 10×10 is quite a luxury)

So reader, we bought it and moved in. And three years later we don’t seem to have done much at all compared to our French House. Maybe because when in France we have little else to do whereas in London combined work lives and social lives suck our time like a Dr Who vortex!

It has taken so much longer to do anything as we are living among it all. Just moving all the wiring in the four floors of corridors and replacing skirting and architrave around doors (oh and taking all doors off to sand and repaint) has taken a year. But recently we turned a bit of a corner as the boys bedrooms in the loft are almost finished and work has begun on their top floor bathroom.
I have no before photos as these rooms simply didn’t exist – they were one big attic room we had a loft conversion company come in and build out to both sides.

I let the boys get involved with colour choice and tried to make some fun elements for both of them. They each have a sofa bed from made.com

Seb has a magnetic board with minecraft magnets so he can put up posters etc while Arthur has a whole wall made of cork tiles to pin his various Dr Who related stuff.

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magnet board made with a bit piece of MDF and magnetic paint

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exterminate!

The boys both wanted shades of blue so for Arthur it was a ‘almost teen friendly’ Hague Blue from Farrow and Ball. And for Seb Borrowed Light – “it’s grey” he wailed when it was done, but I persuaded him that no it was blue, very pale blue. I have promised him an orange cupboard eventually to brighten things up!

And although it is small steps and the rest of the house is really, still huge amounts of work, the progress we made over the years in France means I KNOW that we can do it and one day it will be nice. I just have no idea when that day is!!!

I heart eBay

I’ve decided to do a blog post showcasing my greatest eBay finds. Friends of mine are forever bemoaning the fact that I always buy stuff on eBay while they cannot find anything of any worth or just can’t be bothered to look. Which is really their big problem. Ebay can be a bit time consuming but there are bargains to be had and the fun of knowing you got something for a lot less money than if you went to John Lewis/Habitat etc Best of all you can get one off, no one else will have them, pieces which is my favourite thing of all.

So here is my idiots guide to shopping for stuff on eBay…

1) EVERYTHING is cheaper on eBay. Even IKEA. Our Kitchen in France was all bought up on eBay thanks to constant searching for IKEA VARDE. If you do want IKEA stuff be specific. Find out its funny Swedish name and search for that. In the case of our french kitchen we plumped for a freestanding range which people seem to be often selling off on eBay so even though it’s pretty cheap to buy it full price, by the time we’d bought 10 units of differing size including drawers and a sink unit, we worked out we saved around £1500.

 

Going potty

Going potty

2) SAVED SEARCHES ARE YOUR FRIEND. Think about specific things you want or need and save a search on eBay. I currently have saved searches for Made.com and Graham and Green and so every time anyone puts anything up there I get a notification taking me straight to it. We bought our cooker in France this way with a saved search for Smeg Range. You can see the kind of price range you can expect to pay and sometimes one is going cheap. Like this range with hood – ours for just £500 from a cookery school closing down in Watford.

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3) BE PREPARED TO TRAVEL. Husband (patiently) has driven for miles around the country over the last few years to buy up stuff I have found and bought on eBay. The further from London the cheaper it will be. FACT.

4) Don’t be put off by things listed as damaged or broken. Our bedroom mirror in France was honestly listed by someone as chipped in the description line which obviously put everyone else off. When it arrived the chip was so minor you can’t even see it but I got the mirror for £50 as opposed to hundreds of pounds for similar ‘non damaged’ ones.

 

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my fifty pound mirror

 

5) Buy ‘new’ stuff on ebay….I get all manner of useful but quite practical stuff on ebay. Things like ‘wire’. Hanging lights look so much nicer with antiqued or coloured wire hangings and you can search for all this sort of stuff on ebay. And the choice is massive. I had been searching for light wire and stumbled upon this black and white ‘iron’ wire which I switched onto my White Company lights in my London home to make them look a bit more interesting.

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Difficult to see but the wire is black and white stripes.

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‘antique’ wire on the hanging lights. Search for fabric wire on eBay

6) If you have something you like – keep buying more on eBay. Our garden hammocks were getting a bit shabby but we loved them and used them more than any other item in our french house. IKEA had discontinued them but we saved a search on eBay and now just keep buying them and storing them!

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Our favourite place

7)It is the BEST place for haberdashery (well apart from John Lewis but you can get this stuff from your desk!) Cushion fabrics, linging fabric, zips etc can all be bought on ebay. Even discontinued fabrics. Or save a search for expensive brands like Designers Guild and you can always get some scraps and make cushions. I’ve bought all my lovely hessian fabric to make curtains on ebay – its not really intended for curtain making but I love it and it is VERY cheap.

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hessian fabric just 2 pounds a metre! Perfect for 3m long curtains!

So there you have it. I literally buy almost everything I can on ebay. Even if I see something I like in a shop I just go home and do a search on eBay to see if I can find it cheaper. And that’s the way to make sure you get lovely stuff even if budgets are tight. Hope you find my advice useful. You’ll become the master or mistress of the ‘saved search’ before you know it!