steeks 1: introduction

This is the first of three posts looking at steeks and how to reinforce, cut, and finish them.

I thought I’d start right at the beginning: what is a steek?

Put simply, a steek is a small bridge of knitted stitches that are additional to the main pattern. This bridge enables the knitter to work seamlessly, and continuously, in the round. (Most knitters find that colourwork is generally much easier to execute in the round because there are no purl rows, and the pace and flow of the work is smoother.) On a design like my Rams and Yowes blanket, the steek bridge means that, instead of knit / purling back and forth, the knitter works the blanket as one large tube. When the knitting is complete, the steek bridge is reinforced, cut down the middle, and the tube is thereby transformed into a flat piece of fabric. Stitches are then picked up around the edges, and an envelope facing is created which contains the cut edges of the steek.


(Helen Stout of Busta, Shetland, knitting a Fairisle gansey).

On garments, steeks can be used to create armscyes, neck openings, pockets, or cardigan fronts. In the photo above, you can see that Helen Stout has steeked the armscyes of this gansey. Later, she will cut the steek , and pick up stitches around the armscye in order to work the sleeves (or edgings, if it is a vest) top-down.

My Tortoise and Hare sweater uses steeks in a similar manner. The knitter works the whole sweater in the round, adding steek bridges for the neck and armscye openings. These are reinforced and cut, sleeves and edgings are added, and the steek facings are turned to the inside of the garment.

Over time the facings felt and merge into the fabric, and the steeks simply become one with the rest of the garment. This works particularly well if the garment has been knitted in a nice woolly wool, like a Shetland. You may remember a post I wrote a while ago about this Shetland cardigan, which is steeked at the front opening and armscyes, and has seen many years of wear.

Inside the armscyes, the steek has become one with the rest of the fabric and is now virtually invisible. Magic!

Steeks are easy and tremendously enabling to work, yet for many knitters, it seems that they represent some sort of final frontier. I have met accomplished knitters – the kind who would not bat an eye before tackling some fiendish Orenburg lace – but who are terrified of steeking. This is not because steeks are in any way complex or difficult to execute, but simply that they involve taking scissors to your knitting. Horrors!

But chopping up your knitting is nothing to be afraid of. In fact, I take scissors to my knitting on a daily basis. Some of you may be appalled at what I’m now going to show you . . .

Here are some swatches I knitted up last week. When designing, I knit up a lot of swatches, and because most of my patterns are worked in the round, the swatches are too. I generally cast on a wrist or head-sized number of stitches, work it in the round and then, when I’m done . . . I cut it up. This allows me to separate parts of the swatch from other parts. So, in this example, the green swatches are the beginning of an idea for a hat. The crown and edging I’d charted didn’t really work with the rest of the patten, so I just cut those bits away. I don’t steek or reinforce the fabric in any way at all before cutting – I simply chop it up with a pair of sharp scissors – and then I pin the bits of the swatch I remain interested in on my swatch board. Here is the cut edge of one swatch I remain interested in.

Please note that there is no unravelling, stitches are not popping out all over the place and nothing dreadful is happening.

One of the many interesting things I saw at Shetland Wool Week last year were some examples from the Shetland Museum’s collection of colourwork swatches. Some of these had been worked separately, but others had simply been cut from larger swatches, or, in some cases, from whole garments (from which the knitter wanted to preserve the pattern). As you can see, these swatches are completely stable pieces of knitted fabric. They are not unravelling or disintegrating in any way.

While I don’t suggest taking a pair of scissors and wantonly chopping up your knitting, I am saying that for any reasonably adept knitter, steeks should hold no fear.
If you are still unsure, remember that:
1) Steeks are reinforced before cutting, so the cut edge of the fabric is stable and secure.
2) Steeks are cut on the vertical and
3) knitted stitches really do not want to unravel along a vertical cut edge. (Stitches “like” to unravel horizontally).
4) Finally, stitches like to stick together.

This is especially the case when you are working with a grippy or a sticky yarn — of which a woollen-spun Shetland is an excellent example. So if you are in any way nervous about steeking, then I would suggest that you stick with a sticky yarn (choose a woollen -spun yarn with a ‘halo’) and avoid smooth, shiny yarns — ie, those that are superwash-treated, those that are worsted spun, or those with long smooth fibres, like Alpaca.


(AVOID ME!)

In the next post, we’ll get down to business, reinforcing and cutting a steek.

27 responses

  1. I’ve read that steeking can be far less scary if on every row – when you come to where the steek will be – you wrap the yarn a few times around the needle. So you have spare yarn when you cut and can tie the ends off. Is this a valid technique?

  2. Thank you – I have steeked but only for a tea cosy… real garments await this terrifying kniticism…. you are already making it sound do-able, and even fun…. looking forward to next post!

  3. I’m a novice knitter & have only made four hand knitted jumpers & cardigans. Being an accomplished sewer probably helps, but I’ve already steeked two jumpers into cardigans & it really is very easy. Despite my inexperience, I already know that knitting in the round & steeking is the only way forward for me. Why would anyone want to knit a garment in pieces & then sew them together, when they can be knitted in one piece to start with? Can’t wait to explore the technique further.

    • Just to jump in – one reason to knit in pieces and sew things together is for the extra stability that seams can offer to heavy garments. Most garments are fine knitted in the round and steeked, but some really hold up better with seams in there. Of course, there are other ways of achieving stability, like casting off and picking up stitches or performing three-needle bind-offs, or attaching a facing like a grosgrain ribbon to parts of a garment which need stability.

  4. Steaks have been my nemesis for quite some time, I keep lining up projects involving them and then shying away again. In fact I’ve had yarn and pattern for the tortoise and hare sweater pretty much since it came out! It is my one knitting challenge this year, so maybe with these articles I’ll finally brave it…
    By the way, I love the word ‘armscye’ which I’d not come across before, so much classier than ‘armhole’!

  5. Looking forward to reading more! I downloaded an Icelandic pattern for a cardigan and then realised it involved steeking! But I’d still like to make it! Thanks for your instruction!

  6. Confession time – I am one of those accomplished knitters that have shied away from patterns (yours!) that involve steeking :( I have no compunction in cutting bought wool sweaters to remake into other things but somehow something I’ve done??? – no, no,. no. But am excited now on reading this that maybe I will get to Rams and Yowes after all – yippee!!

  7. I love your swatch board ! I have questions about steeking too, but I think only experience can answer them for me , so I believe I will do as you suggest, make tubes of Fair Isle knits, then steek them, thereby learning more about it.

    I recall a sweater I loved so much, just a fashion brand wool pullover in tiny stranded colors…machine-knit (probably shetland) and the colors were out of this world. Sadly, it was in my Days Of Not Knitting, and well, I think I felted it on purpose, but what is worse, it was in my Days Before Thinking To Darn, and darnit, I could have at least cut a very large swatch out of it to keep. What was I thinking? Oh, hey… I just remember a photo where I was wearing it… now, off to find that photo! It was not close-up, but close enough I think that I can see most of the colors used. (I wore it a lot when we built our house, so no wonder the sleeves became ratty. If it were now, I’d merely rip back to the body and reknit the cuffs. Hindsight is better than 20-20. :)

  8. Thanks, Kate! I look forward to the next two installments. I knit and steeked your Tortoise and Hare jumper pattern, but I think I did something wrong because the ends started popping out of the crochet reinforcement. I got it together before the ends pulled out of the real knitting, though. I’m looking forward to trying steeks again via your tutorial.

  9. Thanks for sharing a bit of your design process – so interesting! I would rather steek any day than have to purl fair isle as its so disconcerting to not see what’s happening on the right side! My first steeks (an Alice Starmore pullover) didn’t use any reinforcing and everything was fine – Shetland yarn is amazing!

  10. Ah well. Too late :(

    I’ve knit a gorgeous icelandic cardigan with a steek down the front in LLAMA (cousin of alpaca) and it is currently drying from being blocked.(And yes, it did stretch!! But that is another issue). Now I am worried!

    I’ll try machine stretch stitch AND crochet reinforcement before turning and catching under a ribbon – again machine stitched. Fingers crossed!

    The next one will be shetland! Looking forward SO MUCH to knitting your tortoise and hare :)

  11. Very reassuring notes about steeking – for me the last frontier, but I want to knit your gorgeous Blaithin cardigan for one of my granddaughters. I’ll read the posts which follow because I am so determined. I love all your things and always look at your patterns first.

  12. Bonjour Kate (Cayt?)and many thanks for this brilliant article about steeking. Do you happen to know if there is a word in French for it? I had no idea it was an actual knitting technique. Once I came across it while knitting a traditional Norwegian white and blue cardigan for my daughter. I had bought the yarn in Oslo and it came with a pattern and directions… which turned out to be in Norwegian only.
    Well, I thought “knitting is knitting” and started making a translation of them using a Franco-Norwegian dictionary… There was a very fiddly bit by the end I could not made sense of, so i asked a Norwegian friend to translate for me (non- knitter, big tough guy type… but I did not know anyone else who spoke Norwegian!)
    When I read his translation about “knitting with round needles” (it’s a cardigan, silly!) and “making sure your scissors are sharp to cut the front vertically”, I thought he was going nuts and kept explaining to him that “a knitter would never do such a thing”, mouthing the words as though he was a toddler.
    Being a good friend, he went as far as contacting an elderly relative who confirmed it was what I should do.
    I said thank you -or rather ‘Tak!- and created my own five part pattern, taking ages to do so…
    And now you make it seem all so obvious! Thank you for all the snapshots which help a lot.
    I would be happy though to see it done, or to do it in a workshop.
    I can see the advantage or never having to purl while making a pattern with two yarns… but the irreversibility of cutting through one work feels daunting so far.
    The reinforcement technique and bridges-making is not very clear to me… I will try and check your further tutorials. Merci beaucoup for all the excitement anyway!

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