Steek is an old Scots word that means “a stitch in sewing or knitting.” For knitters, steeking has become the name of an entire process that culminates in cutting one’s knitting. The thought of cutting a garment you’ve spent considerable time knitting can be daunting, but I like to think of it as liberating!
Why on earth would you choose to cut your knitting? The answer lies in a garment’s need for openings. For example, stranded colorwork is most easily and efficiently worked in the round because the patterns are always visible as they emerge. In addition, knitting circularly eliminates the need to purl, which can slow things down. Knitting in the round creates tubes, which are perfect as-is when you make hats, socks, or long tubular scarves. However, other garments require openings to accommodate arms, neck, and cardigan openings.
Steek stitches are extra stitches added where one of those required openings needs to be. Steeks allow the knitting to continue uninterrupted. Later, the steek’s stitches are cut down the middle to make an opening. To discourage raveling, the steek stitches are often reinforced before the cutting occurs.
Although any garment can potentially be steeked, the technique was developed for traditional knitting, and traditional materials offer the best success. Wool works well for steeking because of its inherent property of sticking to itself. With traditional woolen-spun yarns such as Shetland wool, it is possible to cut the steek opening without special preparation because of the “grippy” nature of the fiber—and also because the stitches are reluctant to ravel laterally.
Other fibers require more control. Alpaca is slippery, superwash is nonfelting, and plant fibers such as cotton or linen are naturally nonfelting. With these fibers, machine sewing might be the best option, because it lets you really “nail” the fibers in place. Like most things in knitting, steeking can be accomplished many different ways, and everyone seems to have personal preferences. In this tutorial, I present three traditional steeking techniques.
When you reach the point in your knitting where the opening is to begin, stitches are either bound off or placed on a holder. Steek stitches are then cast on above and the work is resumed. Steek stitches can be as few as one or two stitches, as is common in Icelandic cardigans, or as many as twelve. However, the number usually ranges between five and eight. When you knit steeks, the principal rule is to use both the pattern color and the background color, alternating every stitch, which creates a dense fabric with very short floats.
I like to use an even number of stitches for steeks, keeping the center two stitches in the same color, which makes it very clear where to cut. The examples in this tutorial use eight stitches. I’ve used the same colors for the steek as were used on the current row of the chart: background, pattern, background, pattern, pattern, background, pattern, background.
When you embark on your own steeking adventures, I suggest practicing on a swatch or two made of the same material as your garment. That way, you won’t encounter surprises when it comes time to cut the fabric of the garment you have devoted yourself to for so long. Think of practice swatches not as a burden, but as an intriguing line of inquiry—science, perhaps! Only by practicing the various methods will you find the one most suited to your fiber, your project, and your own inclinations.
1. MACHINE-SEWN STEEK
I highly recommend the machine-sewn method for use with all “slippery yarns,” including superwash yarns, alpaca yarns, mixed-blend yarns, and yarns made from plant fibers or synthetics. It is also useful for large-diameter yarns, which may not stick together as readily as finer yarns do. The machine stitching ensures that the yarns are locked into place.
1. Using a sewing machine, sew a line of stitches down the center of the stitches that abut the two center stitches [Figure 1]. I recommend sewing the line twice to really secure the stitches. Work the second line of machine stitching one stitch over from the first line of machine stitching.
2. Carefully cut down the center of the steek between the two center stitches [Figure 2].
2. HANDSEWN STEEK
Not everyone has a sewing machine, and it is certainly hard to fit one in your knitting bag. Fortunately, careful handsewing is just as effective as machine sewing and follows essentially the same process.
1. Using a backstitch, sew a line of stitches down the center of the stitches that abut the two center stitches [Figure 1]. Make another line of stitching down the center of the next line of stitches [Figure 2].
2. Carefully cut down the center of the steek between the two center stitches [Figure 3].
3. CROCHETED STEEK
Although a bit time-consuming, the crocheted steek creates a lovely finished edge. I recommend that you use a crochet hook slightly smaller in diameter than that of the knitting needles you used. I either use a yarn from my garment, choosing one I think is pretty, or find a similar but slightly finer yarn. Begin by turning your work so that the left side of the opening is nearest to you. You will be working a line of chain stitch crochet by connecting the outside half of one of the two center steek stitches to the neighboring half of the stitch next to it.
1. Make a slipknot with the working yarn and place it on your crochet hook.
2. Pick up the loops of the closest center stitch (the one at the bottom of the steek) and the one immediately below it with your hook [Figure 1].
3. Wrap the yarn around the hook, then pull the hook through the two loops and the slipknot.
4. Continue, picking up the next pair of stitches along the steek and pulling the working yarn through them and through the loop on the hook. When you reach the top of the steek, cut the yarn and pull it through the final loop [Figure 2].
5. Turn the work 180°, so the right-hand side of the steek is nearest you. Repeat Steps 1 through 4 until you reach the end of the steek, then fasten off [Figure 3].
6. Carefully cut down the center of the steek, between the two center stitches. The cut edges will naturally roll to the wrong side along the crocheted stitches, making a tidy finish [Figure 4].
BONUS: KNOTS & OTHER CURIOSITIES
• I spent a little time one winter with world-renowned Shetland designers Hazel Tindall and Wilma Malcolmson, who revealed that they do not reinforce their steeks at all! After working the band or edging, they simply tack the steek stitches to the inside of the garment with a quick running stitch.
• I’ve been lucky to have a close look at garments in the Shetland Museum collection, and many are finished with no steeks at all. Where a steek would be, the ends are cut and knotted. Yes, knotted! Sometimes, the tails of the knots are carefully woven in toward the center of the garment, but other times they’re just left to gently felt. For these knotted steeks, *wrap the working yarns around the right needle a few times. On the next row, drop the wrapped stitches; rep from * so that you get strands of yarn that span the area that will be cut.
• In the collection of the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle, some older garments do not have special steek stitches. The garments are knitted in pattern to the shoulders, then the armholes are cut out.
• Icelandic cardigans typically have one or two purled stitches for a steek. In some cases, the buttonband is picked up and knitted before the steek stitches are cut, occasionally with no additional reinforcement.
• For my book 200 Fair Isle Motifs, I knitted the Shetland wool swatches circularly and cut them open for photography. I did not do any reinforcing at all. I have carried them around the world with me for years as a teaching aid and no harm has come to them; there has been absolutely no raveling. For 150 Scandinavian Motifs, I did the same and have had only a wee bit of fraying on a few of the swatches knitted with superwash.
Mary Jane Mucklestone loves knitting with colors and travels the world to seek out the source of many traditional techniques. Follow her at www.maryjanemucklestone.com.
This article was originally published in the 20th anniversary issue of Interweave Knits.
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