Task of the day – bed-making

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No matter how little money you earn, you can enjoy a well-made bed. Slipping between cool, smooth, wrinkle-free sheets like you would in a hotel is a private pleasure. It’s well worth making your bed properly every morning, so that when you crash at the end of the day, you don’t have to think about it, and you can relax into sleep.

So, each morning, air the bed by pulling back the duvet or sheets and blankets if you prefer things the old-fashioned way, spray with linen spray, open the windows and leave the bed to air while you have breakfast.

As a linen spray, I use a dirt-cheap eau de cologne deodorant from my local supermarket, SuperU. As a deodorant it was useless, but as a linen spray it works really well. You can also buy purpose-made ones, though these tend to be expensive for what they are, or use cheap scent, such as Mont St Michel eau de cologne, decanted into a spray bottle. If you suffer from allergies, etc, you can skip this bit.

After breakfast, go and make the bed – properly. Take off the pillows, retuck the sheets, even if they’re fitted, and pull them tight and smooth, especially at the foot end. Plump the pillows and also turn the pillowcase if you have time. Give the duvet a good shake and put it back in place – turn it, if it’s reversible.

One tip from hotels is to double-line your pillowcases (ie: put two cases on, rather than one). This makes the pillow feel more ‘dressed’ and substantial. It also works for the mattress – all mattresses should have covers, and an extra sheet (summer) or wool blanket (winter) will pad the sheet and make it feel smoother under your body. You need wash the undersheet or cover only once a month or so.

When getting into bed at night, you might find aromatherapy helpful. Rather than sprinkling oil on the pillowcase, put a drop or two on a sheet of kitchen roll and tuck it under the pillowcase, to avoid staining. You can also buy pillow sprays such as Sommeil, from Puressentiel, that are meant to aid sleep.

Always buy the best bed, mattress and bedlinen you can afford – you spend a third of your life in this place and what happens here forms the ballast of your daily life.



Brand of the day – Woolovers

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Woolovers is one of those brands that I find myself returning to again and again for nice, well-made basic knitwear.

Recently, I really lucked out by introducing a friend – she got 20% off and I got a £50 voucher to spend, which meant my next purchases cost virtually nothing.

Woolovers makes a range of knitwear for men and women (and some unisex items) in a range of wools, cottons and silks. My favourite weight is the cashmere-merino mix, which is very soft, very wearable and comfortable. The pure lambswool is a bit itchy for me – wearable but needs three or four washes to soften it. Recently I bought a new wool Aran sweater and that’s fantastic – a really nice weight and quality.

For summer, the company also does lovely cottons and cotton-silk mixtures that are lighter in weight – I particularly value their polka-dot cardis.

The Woolovers website is easy to use – you can check out the measures on individual garments (for instance, I often go up a size to get jumpers at least 28 inches long), and shipping is cheap and fast.

End-of-season sales are very good and afterwards, the goods appear on Amazon.

Tip of the day – scented newspaper

If, as I do, you use crumpled newspaper to shine up your windows after cleaning them, here’s a nice tip to make the process of window-cleaning rather less tedious – scent your newspaper.

This is easily done each week by getting a bin bag, crumpling up your newspaper sheets, sprinkling a few of the sheets with some drops of lavender (or other) essential oil and tying the bag up.

Put it aside for a day or two for the oils to sink in, and then use as you see fit.

Nice oils for housework include lavender, peppermint and citronella, all of which smell clean and fresh.

Product of the day – alcool ménager

Alcool ménager is one of those French cleaning products that I never came across in the UK – cleaning alcohol.

It’s a denatured alcohol that’s available in every supermarket and DIY store, and comes in plain (labelled Alcool à bruler, because it’s used for starting barbeques or burning in shepherd’s lamps) and a number of scents, including vanilla, lemon, peppermint and lavender, for cleaning purposes.

It’s a great product for cleaning white goods, door handles, floors where an animal has soiled, pet cages, computer keyboards, bathrooms, etc. I first became aware of it when the French cleaner I had for three brief weeks asked me to buy it for her to use. My local restaurant uses it to wipe down all the surfaces, including sinks and toilet handles. Just squirt it on and wipe it off with paper towels or a microfibre cloth (I use paper towels, then use them as firelighters), or decant it into a plant sprayer.

Alcool à bruler is cheaper, but the smell is a bit fierce, so I do tend to stump up for the scented stuff – peppermint in the bathroom, lemon in the kitchen and vanilla or lavender for use in the living room.

Recipe of the day – household cleaner and degreaser

For many years, I’ve made my own household cleaners, mainly because I don’t want a toxic soup of harmful and unnecessary chemicals in the house. While most things can be cleaned adequately with bicarb, vinegar and water, mixes made up in this way tend to clog up the sprayer.

Recently, however, in a book about cleaning (yes, I’m that sad), I came across this recipe and it’s a marvel – it works to clean sinks, surfaces, bathroom fittings, small electrical appliances, etc, and two tablespoons in a bucket of water is enough to clean floors, though you can use more if you wish. It’s phenomenal for cutting grease, maybe because it’s not thinned with water, and it’s as cheap as chips.

You’ll need white vinegar (usually about 8% acidity), lemon juice (I used the type in 500ml bottles – Pulco is a common brand in France) and plain old washing-up liquid.

In a roomy jug, mix 1 part washing-up liquid, two parts white vinegar and 1 part lemon juice. Stir to mix (don’t shake, as it foams), and decant into a spray bottle. Add essential oils if you like.

Remember not to shake the bottle to mix, as you work, because it will foam.

For exterior work, I have made up a stronger version with household vinegar (14%), lemon juice and liquid black soap.

The white house

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This house used to be full of colour. No more. After a stay in a beautiful gite in Brittany, which made me feel utterly calm, I redid much of our house two years ago (it is even simpler now than in these pictures).

It took me a while to analyse what it was about that gite that I loved. I took photographs of every room to remind me. The walls were white, the sofas were black leather, the bedding was grey, the lampshades were wicker. There was a smattering of good antiques, lots of natural wood, enormous windows that overlooked the sea. Gradually I came to realise that the atmosphere was calming and spa-like: all the photos and paintings were natural – bamboo groves, water, lilies. Every small detail echoed the natural world – the trays were wooden, the shower was lined with pebble tiles, on the landing there was a huge glass jar full of seashells. The colours echoed the sea and dunes that were right outside

And above all, it was tonal. The only colours were white, black, grey and the naturals browns of woods. There was no colour to distract or jar the senses. I mean, I love colour but I don’t want to be surrounded by it all the time – a few years ago, I redid the house in chintz and then found I couldn’t live with so much pattern either.

When I came home, I set about reducing the tonality in the house, starting with the living room, and since the house is dark, with small medieval windows, I settled on a palette of white, cream and beige. There were certain elements that I couldn’t change, such as the much-loathed terracotta floor, the exposed grey granite and the leather furniture in black and brown.

I replaced all our old velvet curtains, in shades of peach, pink and green, with cheap cream cotton curtains from Amazon, and the pink and green tiebacks with plain cream rope ones, which gave a coastal air. I painted almost all of the exposed granite white, which made a huge difference, especially around the windows, and painted virtually all the wooden furniture white (the last two remaining pieces will be done very soon).

I bought four cheap floor-standing lamps from Ikea and placed them on top of furniture in the four corners of the room, where they reach quite close to the ceiling – this creates an all-over light that feels like being outdoors. I made cushion covers from scraps of fabric in creams, oatmeals and a soft, coastal turquoise and threw cream throws over the black leather chair. And I painted white everything I could find, from bread crocks to lampshade bases, picture mounts, picture frames…

The DH cut down an old marble washstand for me and made a new wooden top, which I painted white. This is now my desk, placed directly in front of our largest window, with spotlights on the beam behind me and a daylight SAD lamp in the window recess. All this white bounces back the light to create an open, sunny space even on the darkest winter day and has totally eliminated my winter depression.

We invested what money we could in two large pieces of cream and grey vinyl flooring with a driftwood plank design, which not only brightened the room but also proved a magnet for all the animals, unused to the comfort of padded floors. Our dining table is now covered with beige oilcloth with cream polka dots, which is pretty but easy to maintain. Pictures of nature and the sea have replaced our old images, a row of seabirds decorates the mantel and much of the clutter has been eliminated from the room, along with several pieces of furniture.

All of this wasn’t accomplished overnight, of course. On and off, it’s taken a couple of years and there is still work to be done. But it gave me a few basic rules that I now follow. One is that whatever I buy, I buy the white one, whether it’s the dinner plates I picked up for 1 euro each at Noz, or the white earthenware mugs with a slip glaze that now hang in a row from hooks on the kitchen mantel, or the photograph my husband took on a blindingly bright day at Mont St Michel and we had blown up to giant size.

If I can’t get it in white or cream, then soft neutrals like beige, stone or pale grey come next, and very occasionally I buy something in my favourite colour, turquoise the colour of Egyptian faience.

Perhaps surprisingly, all this white hasn’t resulted in a stark or unwelcoming look – the soft textures of nubbly cotton, rope, furry fleece, chenille, embroidery and jacquard lend softness and comfort, while the painted stone and rough plaster create a play of light on the walls.

Nor is all this white especially difficult to keep clean. Pale surfaces don’t show the dust near as much as dark ones and the oilcloth on the table is wipe-clean. The curtains just go in the washing machine a couple of times a year, as do the cushion covers, and the broken surfaces and light patterns cover a multitude of sins.

I feel massively happier in this pale white house and if I want to create a pop of colour, it’s easily done with a single cushion cover, a throw or a vase of flowers.

Tip of the day – sugar cubes

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Keep empty tins and jars fresh by popping a sugar cube inside before sealing. This is an old antique-dealer’s trick and works on all manner of sealed containers in glass, ceramic and metal, including biscuit barrels and decanters. In the biscuit barrel, it also has the advantage of keeping your biscuits crisp.

Sugar is a biocide, so nothing can grow on it, and it absorbs moisture and prevents bacteria build-up. Make sure the object is dry before you add the sugar, but if the worst happens, you can just rinse out the liquified sugar with warm water.