Monday, 10 September 2012

Meet Stanley. Flat Stanley

Last Saturday morning, I woke up, slightly hungover, and remembered that I had to be in the City of London in an hour and a half, stuffing a guinea pig.

This was not a normal weekend. Let me 'splain. And first, let me warn those of a squeamish disposition that - while I will not include any graphic descriptions or pictures - this post does concern taxidermy. If it bothers you, I won't be offended if you move on. I'll be back with more humorous sewing stories soon.

I am an animal lover. I have two cats that I adore much more than I think I probably could any children (children are noisy and not furry - usually - and much harder to put in a cattery when you go on holiday), and I grew up on a farm where there was a constant stream of wildlife and pets zipping about the house and garden. I also have a soft spot for whimsical taxidermy. It's not like I have a squirrel army in my house or anything (in fact, until this weekend, my house was free of deceased animals. As far as I know.), but I have no problem with it.

Amanda of the gruesomely-named Amanda's Autopsies creates beautiful ethical taxidermy oddities and jewellery, inspired by Walter Potter, whose creations fascinated me as a (admittedly slightly odd), child. Whatever your feelings on the display of animals after-life, as it were, there can be no denying the skill and imagination in these pieces. I am most certainly not advocating killing interesting beasties purely to decorate one's mantelpiece and nor am I eyeing up my own pets to make into catcopters, but I personally think that - as with the case of Amanda's pieces - if given the choice between being snake food and having a whole lot of love and care invested in your remains in order to preserve their beauty, I'd rather the latter. If I was a rodent. And, lets face it, the rodent probably isn't that worried either way.

And as with anything I am interested in, if given the chance to learn how to do it, I will jump at it.

So it was that I enrolled in Amanda's 'Stuff & Nonsense' Taxidermy for Beginners course last weekend, and learned how to stuff my own guinea pig. Except it wasn't my own guinea pig, it was one specially provided; sourced, as explained above, from animals humanely killed for reptile feed.

The course took place in the stunning environs of St Barts Pathology Museum. Photographs of the surroundings aren't allowed as it holds medical specimens, but they regularly hold fascinating lectures in their rooms which look like something out of Sherlock Holmes and Hogwarts combined and I would highly recommend a trip if you get a chance.

Amanda and her equally brilliant assistant ably showed us the right way to skin our tiny charges, which is the most time-consuming part of the business. As we worked away with teeny tiny scalpels, any initial squeamishness soon dispersed and - believe it or not - it actually became rather enjoyable. I don't mean in a weird, psychopathic Ted Bundy sort of way, but in that oddly relaxing way that any delicate work requiring a lot of concentration can be. And when you think about it, it's really no different from skinning a rabbit in the kitchen, or even a chicken for Sunday lunch (for those raised in less rural climes!).

Once successfully peeled, we washed our tiny guinea pig rugs and left them to dry while we had lunch.

Weirdest. Lunchtime. Ever.

After lunch was time for stuffing - which involves wire and cotton wool. I shall leave it at that for those who might have got this far but still have a delicate disposition.

Once finished, we compared results.

Dear god.

I would like to say, in my defence, that I did not have great raw materials. I was concerned at first that, rather than being humanely killed, my particular rodent had in fact been steamrollered to death as he was somewhat battered. Turns out he was in fact probably squished in the freezer. Which also accounts for the freezer burn down one side of his face. Although I will put my hand up to the fact that it was probably my fault his foot fell off and had to be superglued back on.

I had created an abomination.

This is his GOOD side.
When I brought Flat Stanley home ("pleasedontletmeleaveitonthebuspleasedontletmeleaveitonthebus") Significant Otter laughed at him for a good five minutes. This heartened me greatly as I had been expecting screams.

The next day I decided something had to be done. There were two options for dealing with this horrific creation. I could either burn it, then bury the ashes at a crossroads or make some sort of outfit to hide the worst bits. I wasn't entirely sure that it definitely wouldn't come back to life to haunt me after the burning and burying, so I went with the latter.

What sort of costume could Flat Stanley have that would hide his hideous disfigurements? I will admit I am rarely thankful to musical theatre for anything, but just this once, it had the answer.

I give you - Flat Stanley as The Phantom of The Opera.

"Listen to the music of the OHCHRISTWHATISTHATTHING??!"
(Yeah, I know it also looks a bit Jedi-ish. Multi-purpose taxidermy)
With his mask and tiny gondola-punting stick he has stopped giving me nightmares and is now allowed in the house. I have set Significant Otter to finding a bell jar to display him in. Turns out they are really expensive, but as I explained to him, you just can't put a price on this sort of family heirloom.

If you too are interested in the deconstruction and reconstruction of small furry animals, check out the Amanda's Autopsies website for details of the next classes and also photos of past ones - including this weekend's. Flat Stanley is number 71 in the photo album. I'm going to use that picture for his Spotlight application.

Monday, 3 September 2012

It's NOT Spearmint, it's EAU DE NIL!!!

About a month ago, Significant Otter and I helped a friend of ours move house. It was one of those slightly unorganised, chuck-everything-in-a-van-and-hope-for-the-best moves, where several bits of furniture that were deemed too bulky or knackered to survive were left behind to take their chances with the next occupants.

Among the newly-orphaned pieces was this chest of drawers:

"Save me", it seemed to cry....

Battered and bruised, it had loyally held the socks and pants of several studenty males over the years and deserved a dignified retirement.

So I decided that I would take it home and rehabilitate it.

"It'll be great!" I cried, lovingly stroking the cracked veneer and trying to avoid the suspicious stains, "I'll sand it all down and take off all the handles and fill in the holes and put new vintage ones on and paint it duck egg blue and use it to replace that IKEA thing in the bedroom"
SO was not so sure. "You won't", he sighed, "you'll never get round to it and it'll sit in the house taking up space and bruising our shins until we wish we'd just left it here."
"But it's SOLID WOOD", I declared, bringing out my trump card. If there's one thing I know about furniture (and there literally is only one thing, and this is it), it's that if it's solid wood you have to keep it and cherish it and never let it go because it might as well be made out of unicorn hair and fairy dust.

After a lot of eye-rolling SO decided that lugging this ridiculous thing down the stairs, emptying out a load of stuff that was already in the van to make space for it, then driving it round to our house and lugging it back up a load more stairs was going to be a lot less painful than arguing about it any more.

After a few weeks of its temporary internment in our kitchen, it became clear that SO's prediction was becoming horribly true, so after I had barked my shins on it for the 15468724th time  I decided it was time to evict the cats from the drawers (they were very pleased with their new feline apartment building), and do something about it.

So, one trip to B&Q later, SO had an electric sander and I had a tin of the most middle-class paint I have ever bought - Laura Ashley Eggshell in Eau de Nil. We also had a ton of plastic sheeting, bought on my insistence after it became clear that SO was planning on using bedsheets as dust catchers ("It's ok, I'll wash them afterwards.")

SO erected a Murder Screen, which made the kitchen look like something out of Dexter:

SO - Not Doing A Murder

....and he happily sanded away.

For about four hours.

While I filled in holes with wood filler and accidentally threw white spirit in the toaster. I was quite glad of the Murder Screen myself at that point, as SO didn't see my little accident. It brought the chrome up a treat.

Several hours (and one exploded sander), later, the chest of drawers was denuded and I was happy.

SO was not so much:


Neither was the basil plant on the windowsill, which was COVERED in sawdust. As was the winerack, the sink, the radio, the dishwasher and everything else that was on the Murder Screen side of the kitchen. Planning. SO does not have it.

The rest of the process was easy-peasy (and therefore I did most of it). One coat of white undercoat/primer, two of the Posh Paint, and one of Matt Satin varnish. Top tip - make sure you get water-based eggshell emulsion - it washes off the floors. And the walls. And your hands. And your shoes. And the cat.

Then all it needed was some posh new knobs (arf), which we sourced from This mail-order shop is based in Wales, but when the handpainted ceramic drawerpulls (I'm saying drawerpulls because every time I write 'knob' I have to stop to snigger), arrived it turned out they were made by Gisela Graham in  SE17, so we had unwittingly supported a local company after all.

And here's the finished product:

Even SO admitted that it was worth all the hassle in the end. Despite his insitence that it came out 'looking all spearmint'. It's not spearmint, it's EAU DE NIL.

I'm really pleased with how it's turned out, and it is now in the bedroom lording it over all the inferior furniture. I want to paint the whole house to match.

I reckon it probably cost about £60, a lot of which was kn.....drawerpulls, which were £2.50 each. And posh paint. You could argue that I could have bought something brand new for that much, which wouldn't have (as I later discovered), slightly sticky drawers where I really should have sanded down the varnish, and which wouldn't have given SO the Black Lung after spending the best part of a weekend inhaling sawdust, but where would be the satisfaction in that?


 In other, Lemur Lady news, check out my new large wallets. Card pockets, a bit for change, and more space for gubbins than you can shake a stick at. More designs on the way!