Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Debbie Bliss Cotton Top

Knitting, like life itself, doesn't always work out just as you had planned. So you have to be flexible and keep an open mind during the process. It's best (although not an easy thing to do) to focus not on how things aren't what we wished them to be, but rather on what we can do to change things and improve them. With that preface, this post is more technical than most because I had to be flexible and make adjustments as I went along to make this project one that ultimately I love.

This is Debbie Bliss' Sideways Knitted Top from her new book, Coastlines. It is not knit with the yarn that it was designed for, though. The design recommends Debbie Bliss' Stella yarn which is a blend of silk, rayon, and cotton. Because my LYS does not carry that yarn I ordered it on-line. However, as soon as the yarn arrived, I knew that I had a problem because the yarn did not pass what I call a "Sanity Check."

Knitting Tip No. 5 - Perform a Sanity Check
A Sanity Check is something I learned to do many years ago while a junior auditor for one of the largest accounting firms in the world at the time, Deloitte and Touche. It simply means that you step back for a moment and evaluate what you are seeing and/or being told and test it against your common sense. In this case, I was being told that 11 balls of Stella yarn was needed to knit a sleeveless summer top. However, I had an enormous mound of yarn on my bed. Logic told me that using that amount of yarn, with that much mass, was going to create a garment huge, bulky, and not something enjoyable for me to wear.

So I substituted the yarn to Classic Elite Yarns, Premiere, a soft cotton/tencel blend yarn with great stitch definition and a smaller gauge. As a result I dropped the needle size down from a US 8 to US 6 and decreased from 11 balls of Stella to 6.5 skeins of Premiere yarn. So far so good.

Now this will surprise you. Despite calculating a new gauge and doing absolutely perfect math to recalibrate this project for the smaller needles and finer yarn there was a problem with the sizing. Once I had completely knit this top (which, dear readers, I think you know how much time that took) I realized ~ with a sick feeling ~ that I did not have enough width in the body to sew the side seams together to create the "mock sleeves." Here's a picture of the original design so you see what the design looks like and what I'm referring to with regard to the sleeve shaping:

My initial thought was that I had two choices. Either I could wet the fabric and block it heavily so that it was wide enough to give me the width necessary to create the sleeves at the risk of distorting the knitting or I could frog it. Neither option was very appealing.

So, as is always the case when I need good counsel, I discussed the matter over with Mr Puffy. Those of you who have been reading along will know that Mr Puffy is a great one for a quick solution and an early dinner. His thought was that I should just knit some sleeves and add those on. At first I was skeptical but the more I thought about it the more I knew he was right. That Puff. I tell you. He's a treasure.

Knitting Tip No. 6 - Adding Sleeves to a Tank Top

Adding sleeves to a tank top is simply a matter of knitting up sleeves in the same gauge and sewing them onto the tank. If you look through any of the numerous Spring/Summer knitting magazine you will find lots of patterns for tops with short sleeves. You simply knit a sleeve from a pattern that has the same gauge as the project you are making. For this project, I used the pattern for sleeves from my Cherry top and the only modification I made was to add a bobble panel insert to have the sleeves blend more with my overall project.

Speaking of adding bobbles to the sleeve reminds me that I wanted to show a close up of the beautiful texture of this design. There are panels of bobbles, seed stitch, and cables and it really creates a visually interesting piece of knitting.

One last technical tip, which is courtesy of my dear friend Murielle of Murielle Knitwear. When I showed her the top she immediately recommended that I add a "Stay Tape" to the shoulder seam to prevent it from stretching out over time. Because that's such a great idea and should be added to any hand knit item made with a yarn that has a tendency to stretch (i.e. cotton, silk, angora, etc.) I thought I would share it with all of you!

Designer Tips and Tricks ~ Adding a Stay Tape

A Stay Tape is a thin strip of fabric that is sewn on top of the shoulder seam to prevent the shoulder/sleeve area from stretching out with wear. Cut a thin strip of fabric the length that you want your shoulder seam to remain (my stay tape is 3.5 inches long and .75 inches wide) and firmly slip stitch the Stay Tape over the shoulder seam. When you put the time into knitting something by hand you want it to wear well and last for years and this will help it look its best for years to come.

Whew! That was a lot. There are a couple of other things I did, but enough is enough so I'll stop here.

Particulars: Debbie Bliss design, Coastlines, Sideways Knitted Top, 6.5 balls Classic Elite Premiere, US 6 needles. Heavily modified as discussed above.

Have a Great 4th of July Celebration!

I hope everyone has a wonderful July 4th celebration (The United State's Independence day). We'll be spending it at the beach with lots of sun, sand, friends, and fireworks! Between work (which is keeping me hopping right now) and being away for the holiday I'll probably not spend a lot of time on-line over the next few weeks but will look forward to catching up with everyone on the other side of the holiday!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Put the Kettle On ~ It's Tea Time!

Tips on brewing a proper cup of tea and Almond scone Recipe 

I have come to believe that there are many who do not know how to brew a proper cup of English tea. So I have come up with a list of helpful tips. Upon what do I base my authority? My Mother, who is a genuine English Rose, born and raised in England with much of her youth spent in Teignmouth a small coastal fishing town in Devonshire. Her home was right on the water and when the tide was high the waves would reach the back steps. The air was filled with the smell of saltwater and the cries of seagulls overhead circling and diving and fighting for space on the windowsills.

My mother remembers the day in 1940 when all the local fishing boats disappeared from her town. They were participating in England's call to civilians to mount what was one of the most heroic and amazing rescues of WWII. Fisherman in small fishing boats from all over England joined the British naval fleet and braved dangerous seas in the Channel and enemy attack to bring home allied troops who were stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk and surrounded by Hilter's army. The smallest boat to engage in this rescue was an 18 foot open fishing boat. Many of the soldiers were rescued directly off the beaches wading into the water to the smaller boats that transported them to the larger ships amid machine-gun fire, bombing and explosions sending shrapnel flying everywhere. While many were killed or captured, many more were rescued. It was a pivotal moment early in the war and could have resulted in a catastrophic loss. Churchill had only expected to evacuate 20,000 to 30,000 troops. Instead, 338,000 were rescued that day. It's a memory that still brings tears to my mother's eyes.

But enough about that. Back to tea a much more congenial subject. To properly enjoy a cup of tea it must be made correctly. I think it is often assumed that you simply have to dunk a tea bag into a cup of hot water and whollah, you have tea. This, of course, is totally wrong and will result in a terrible cup of tea that tastes like dishwater and is not at all related to the rich, mellow, satisfying brew that tea should be. Therefore, at the risk of being too simplistic, I have made a list of tips (with my mother's input) to take the guesswork out of making a proper cup of tea.

Mr Puffy's Ten Tips to Brewing a Perfect Cup of Tea ~ and Where It Can All Go Wrong:

Tip No. 1. Select the right teapot. Tea must be brewed in a vessel (teapot) that holds heat well. Clay or fine bone china works best - but avoid ceramic as it does not hold heat well. I use a variety of teapots including the chintz styled one pictured above which is made by Arthur Wood & Son, Staffordshire, England.

Tip No. 2. Select a good quality black tea. This is a personal preference issue and you might have to experiment with a few. For an everyday tea my favorite is Taylors of Harrogate - Yorkshire Gold. I am fortunate to have several British shops nearby in Santa Monica, California which carry this tea. In fact, the Tudor House not only has a nice selection of British imports it also has a tea room which is a nice place to sit and enjoy a cup of tea if you ever happen to be in the neighborhood.

Tip No. 3. Use the right ratio of tea to water. While this is largely a personal taste issue, a good rule of thumb is 1 tsp. tea to 8 ounces water.

Tip No. 4. Use water that has reached a rolling boil. The water has to be at a rolling boil to make a good cup of tea. Merely heating the water until a few bubbles appear is insufficient. For those of you who do not work from home, an electric kettle can be used to boil water at the office.

Tip No. 5. Tea must be steeped. The term "steeped" is a fancy way of saying allow the tea to brew undisturbed. A standard black tea should be steeped for approximately 5 minutes.

Tip No. 6. Use only fresh tea. Unlike wine, tea does not improve with age. Check the dates on all your tea and if is over 6 months old, toss it out.

Tip No. 7. Use a fine bone china teacup. Rummage through your cupboards and look to see if any of your mugs or teacups are stamped "fine bone china." Fine bone china holds the heat well and is a pleasure to sip tea from. It simply is the best for tea.

Tip No. 8. Only add whole milk. Using a low fat variety simply won't give you enough body. The good news is that you use very little milk in a cup of tea.

Tip No. 9. Keep your teapot warm. If you don't have a tea cozy, simply wrap your teapot in a tea towel which works just fine in a pinch.

Tip No. 10. Enjoy with a scone or shortbread cookie, but nothing too sweet. Below I have shared a recipe for Almond Scones which is a staple of my tea time.


This recipe came in a King Arthur Flour free catalogue a number of years back. I've made it countless times over the years and I like it because it's not as plain as an English scone and not as over the top and heavy as most American style scones.


2 Cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1/2 cup almond flour or 1/2 cup finely ground almonds
1/2 cup sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
1/2 cup milk
1 1/2 teaspoons almond extract
3 to 4 tablespoons sparking white or demerara sugar for topping


1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
2. In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the flour(s), sugar, baking powder and salt. Cut in the butter until coarse crumbs form. Blend the milk and almond extract in a measuring cup, then drizzle over the dry ingredients. Toss lightly with a fork until the dough comes together; add up to a tablespoon additional milk, if necessary, to form a cohesive dough.

3. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and fold it over gently a few times. Pat it into a 6x8, 1/2 inch thick rectangle. Use a deep cookie cutter to cut the dough into circles or heart shapes. Place the scones onto a parchment-lined baking sheet (I use a silpat mat).

4. Brush with milk and sprinkle with sparkling white sugar crystals. Bake for 10 to 14 minutes, until a light golden brown. Cool on a rack. Yield 6-10 scones. I typically divide my dough into 8 scones.

These scones are wonderful warm with butter and strawberry jam. But for an extra nice treat I like to eat them with strawberry jam and whipped cream, which is a wonderful substitute for clotted cream.

Whipped Cream Topping

Simply whip heavy whipping cream with a drop of almond extract and a teaspoon of sugar until a thick spreadable consistency. This can be made several hours in advance.

Why Tea Time Now?

I'm sharing these tea tips at a particularly opportune time as tea time in the Summer can be a wonderful way to share time with friends sitting outside in the shade of your garden or by yourself with your feet up watching that fine old tradition of Wimbledon Tennis. Either way, I hope you will enjoy a cup or two of tea this Summer and if you have any tips to share, I would love to hear them!