Thinking of Shetland

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It was this time of year when I first visited Shetland. How well I recall that crazy drive across Unst in a blizzard! The weird half-light at midday! My first feeling of the profound difference of the place, but my immediate sensation that it was somewhere I could easily feel at home. . . Anyway whatever it is, for the past few days, I’ve been strangely feeling the pull of Shetland on me. Perhaps it is because I’m wearing a lot of Shetland wool: I’ve scored quite a few vintage sweaters recently, and these are now in regular circulation in my winter wardrobe.

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(My new favourite gansey – an eBay find)

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(Bright red Shetland yoke found in a Milngavie charity shop)

Perhaps it is because I’ve been listening to Shetland voices. A recent episode of Radio Scotland’s “Our Story” featured many of my Shetland friends and acquaintances talking about knitting. Please go and listen to the programme if you haven’t already. This really is a great programme (in a great series) which, because it is largely shaped by the words of ‘real people’, rather than the agenda of ill-informed researchers, is SO much better than the ‘novelty’ accounts of knitting of which the mainstream UK media is often sadly so full. You’ll hear Oliver Henry enthusing about the unique qualities of Shetland’s “kindly wool”, Carol Christiansen unpacking the origins of island knitting in the Shetland Museum, Hazel Tindall on the cost of knitting, and knitting as ‘wearable art’, Jan Robertson’s truly lyrical account of the colours of Shetland sheep, and Ella Gordon talking in a most inspiring fashion about design and her sense of place. (The programme is just under half an hour long, and is available on the BBC iplayer for the next 29 days)

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(image from Misa Hay on instagram)

Perhaps its because I’ve been reading 60 North . This issue of the magazine (which is newly available in print) could really be described as a bumper Shetland knitting edition.

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There’s a lovely piece by Donna Smith, this year’s patron of Shetland wool week, about the importance of knitting to her own sense of heritage and identity. Donna is one of those people who just seems to have an easy and effortless sense of style, and this image of her knitting a beautiful fair isle glove while wearing a sleek bright blue leather makkin belt and an Orla Kiely print really sums her up for me.

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“Shetland hosiery taken in exchange for shop commodities”

Glasgow University’s Ros Chapman shares her research in a brilliant and very telling piece about knitting and Shetland’s truck system – which made me think differently about the various ‘repository’ shops that sprang up around Scotland and England in the late nineteenth century, some of which still exist today.

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. . . There’s a feature by Alistair Hamilton about Edmund Hillary’s world famous Everest sweater (a Shetland icon) as well a fabulous account of last year’s Wool Week by Diana Lukas-Nulle and a profile of Selina May-Miller, Shetland Wool Week’s new co-ordinator.

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Finally, I wonder if my current yen for Shetland has anything to do with what arrived in the post this morning? These are seed potatoes – Shetland black tatties, to be exact. Last time I saw Misa we spent a good hour enthusing about gardening, and particularly about the joys and challenges of growing vegetables in our respective parts of the world. I am intrigued to see how Misa’s Shetland black tatties fare down here with me in the west of Scotland, and how lovely it was, on a cold January day to open this parcel, see its sprouting contents, and to feel excited about growing things again. Thanks so much, Misa!

So, in short, I find myself with a curious yearning to be in Shetland . . .which sadly cannot be fulfilled right now. I’ll just have to make do with the live broadcast from Up Helly Aa next week . . .

Jazz Hands are here!

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Good Morning!

We have released the Jazz Hands pattern!

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Skein Queen has also been very busy preparing yarn bundles for these mittens. The yarn – Voluptuous Skinny – is a lovely plump, woolly 4 ply. It is spun up by John Arbon, and composed of 80% Exmoor Blue and 20% organic merino. The yarn is just ideal for a pair of colourwork mittens – the stranding creates a fabric that’s dense and warm, soft and springy. The pattern includes instructions for two sizes of mitten, small and large, and each Skein Queen yarn bundle will include more than enough yarn to knit the largest size.

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I’ve also put together a time-limited promotion for those who want to make Jazz Hands to match their Epistropheids. If you purchase both patterns on Ravelry, using the code HEIDANDHANDS you will receive 40% off your total – that’s both patterns for £3.95. Please be sure to add both patterns to your Ravelry cart (using the ‘add to cart’ option) before entering the code or the system won’t apply the discount. Previous Epistropheid purchases should also count toward the promotion – if you encounter any problems please do let me know.

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I’ve been enjoying the snowy weather and have been wearing my Jazz Hands pretty constantly since the cold snap started – my hands have been toasty warm!

Jazz Hands pattern is here
Jazz Hands yarn bundles are here

Mel’s knitting

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I’ve had cause to celebrate Mel’s knitting on more than one occasion here. . .

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Some of you may recognise Mel as a model from Yokes: Mel has many strings to her supremely talented bow, and I’m lucky enough that she works with me on projects such as Yokes as a sample knitter, design consultant, and all-round offerer of sage advice.

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My principal aim when pattern-writing is always clarity, and Mel’s suggestions often help me to achieve that. Keith Moon is a simple sweater with a few nifty details, and Mel’s advice after knitting her version really helped me to hone the instructions for finishing the collar.

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Mel and I have very different colour insticts – though we rarely gravitate towards the same shades, her choices always appeal to me, and often make me think about colour in a different way. Her teal-y green, coal black and silver grey Keith Moon is completely different to my nautical original, and it is totally gorgeous.

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Mel also recently knitted an Epistrophy in exactly the same yarn (tasty Toft DK), but the reverse colourway to the original. Again, it looks very different to my sample, and it is just so neat and lovely I had to show you.

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I don’t mind admitting this is one of my all-time favourites of all the sweaters I’ve designed and knit and -ye gods – I want a dark grey Epistrophy now! Indeed I might have tried to sneak off with it after we took these photographs this afternoon, but Mel is wise to my ways. . .

Here are Mel’s Keith Moon and Epistrophy on Ravelry.

a precious gift

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The day before Christmas eve a wonderful package arrived from Sweden. This was inside. Kerstin Olsson - who you may remember I had the pleasure of meeting a few months ago, and about whose important work for Bohus Stickning I devoted a chapter to in my Yokes book – had done me the honour of knitting me a scarf!

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Oh my! And this was not just any scarf! For Kerstin had knitted this lovely gift from original Bohus Stickning yarns — the same yarns with which she knit and designed during the company’s heyday in the 1960s.

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An awful lot of work went into developing and maintaining the production of Bohus Stickning yarns such as EJA (Emma Jacobsson Angora). The dye palette was rich and varied, and, to meet Emma’s exacting standards, the spinning, blending, and handle of the fibres had to always be of the very highest quality.

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When I visited Göteborg, Kerstin showed me some Bohus Stickning shade cards. Handling them, I was astounded both by the quality of the yarns and the sheer richness of the palette: the vast number of shades the company produced was really pretty astounding. These yarns and palette were Kerstin’s raw materials. It was their quality and variety that allowed her to experiment so successfully with colour, shade, and texture, and to create her wonderful yoke designs, alive with hazy, shimmering hues.

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Kerstin’s aesthetic is clearly evident in this fabulous scarf! When I took it out of the bag Tom immediately exclaimed how wonderful the colours were – and they really are.

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The scarf features several beautifully blended pinks and browns as well as some very pleasing highlights of pale turquoise and tangerine.

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It is just so lovely. I am pretty overwhelmed.

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Kerstin also kindly included some wee twists of yarn in her package – for repairs.

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As a knitter, I’m often prompted to reflect on the meanings invested in acts of making, giving and receiving, and as a researcher, I often find that objects that interest me carry a sort of numinous significance . . . .Well, as both knitter and researcher, I can tell you that this beautiful gift, from an incredible designer and artist, created with these wonderful fifty year-old yarns really means an awful lot to me. I was deeply moved when I opened the package and am so very, very happy with my scarf!

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Thankyou so much for this precious gift, Kerstin. I feel very honoured indeed to receive it, and shall always treasure it.

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So, as December draws to a close, farewell, 2014, and thankyou all for reading! Its been lovely to share this year with you!

knitter-producers and knitter-consumers

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(This is a body and sleeves, knitted up on her machine by Ella Gordon, onto which I’m about to hand-knit a colourwork yoke. Hundreds of thousands of such garments were – and indeed still are – made in like manner in Shetland and elsewhere.)

Thanks so much for your comments on the previous post. As so often, you have given me pause for thought. Some of you have written privately to me that you felt my post unfairly dismissed not just the Munrospun kits, but by implication, the women who made things from them. I can only apologise, and assure you that this was not my intention. These kits undoubtedly enabled many knitters – women with multiple demands on their time, who enjoyed straightforward knitting – to create and wear a lovely hand-made colourwork item. As I said in the previous post, acts of making are always to be applauded, and there are certainly many things to applaud about the way that these kits, so often bought as gifts, lent ordinary knitters all over the world access to Shetland and Scottish yarns and designs. I also have absolutely nothing against the pieced construction of the kit, against knitting back and forth, or against plain stockinette (which really is probably my favourite kind of evening knitting). However, I do readily concede that my first thoughts about the kit were with the knitter-producer behind it, rather than the knitter-consumer to whom it was addressed.

I’ve spent the past few weeks carefully trying to think about yokes from a Shetland perspective. I have examined lots of archive material, looked at knitting, photographs of knitting, personal pattern books and commercial, printed patterns. I’ve conversed with knitters who, over the past half century have differing personal experiences of producing hand-knitted yokes for market. I’ve spoken to Shetland friends about their memories of yoke-wearing and knitting, and I have seen contemporary Shetland women, young and old, of all shapes and sizes, who are wearing Fairisle yokes again. The familiar tree and star designs, hand-knitted onto machined bodies, first so popular in the 1960s are, once more, everywhere in Shetland, and, I think, are clearly gaining fashionable ground farther afield as well. (PLEASE BEAR IN MIND: if you ever find yourself in a shop on the street in Lerwick, looking at a lovely hand-knitted item, it is always worth asking how, and how much, the knitter has been paid for their work. If you don’t get a straight answer, please don’t buy the item). Anyway, I suppose my first thought, upon opening the Munrospun kit, was of the person who knitted that yoke, of how many similar yokes they would have knit, and of the colourwork yoke itself as, by this point in the 70s, a standardised item produced for a ready market – a market of makers, or those interested in making, but an emphatically commercial market nonetheless. Looking at the kit, I also felt that it seemed to mark a definitive moment in the story of the hand-knit yoke: the height of its popularity, but also the turning point of its decline. (It is certainly the case that by the late 70s, hand-knitted yokes were beginning to be seen as old-fashioned, negatively preppy, or just staid, and that hand-knitting itself went into severe decline over the course of the decade that followed). None of this is meant in any way to dismiss the women who made themselves lovely Munrospun cardigans and jumpers, and these kits were certainly enjoyed, both in the making and in the wearing, by many, many knitters. But I do feel the analogy that some of you drew with boxed cake mixes – products that similarly became popularly available in this era – is moot: such mixes certainly offered a speedy, accessible, and in some senses, empowering alternative to baking from scratch, but no one would argue the cakes tasted better.

So that’s how my thoughts have been unravelling this morning. I want to sincerely apologise to any of you who felt affronted by the previous post, and to thank all of you for your comments, whose lively debate and multiple perspectives really make this blog what it is, and always act as a prompt to me to try to see the bigger picture.

Thankyou

yoke in a bag!

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What’s this? Some “Shetland” yarn of very vintage hue, spun and branded here in Scotland?

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. . .and an accompanying pattern? But wait! There’s more . . . .

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Yes, this is a kit to knit your own yoked cardigan or jumper! Having heard of the existence of these kits (from your comments and elsewhere) they have been the focus of a lingering obsession for me for some time. A couple of weeks ago, one appeared on eBay. HUZZAH! FINALLY! I eagerly snapped it up.

Here is the most exciting and intriguing part of the kit – the yoke:

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This is pre-knitted – the label says by hand – and hung on waste threads, ready for finishing:

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The back of the yoke is left unfinished: if you wished to knit a cardigan, you could add bands and button it up the front, and if you prefered a jumper, you could add a small buttoned opening at the back neck.

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There are many things that may seem curious to contemporary knitters about this kit. The first is that the best part – the yoke – has already been knitted up. And the second is that, having missed out on all the colourwork, the knitter is then expected to knit all that stockinette in pieces, back and forth, before a three-needled in-the-round concession enables you to graft the pre-knit yoke onto the body and sleeves. . . . .

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This is the result:

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But the Munrospun fun does not stop there:

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If you wished to be matchy-matchy like these models, you could also whip up a skirt in a co-ordinating length of tweed!

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These kits were produced at the moment when yokes were reaching the high-point of their commercialisation, and having finally seen one, I suppose I find it depressing and intriguing in equal measure. Depressing because all the fun and creativity of a yoked sweater seems to be missing here: though the colours are eye-wateringly bright, the star design is somewhat flat, and predictably standardised – a hazy, shimmering Bohus or skillfully blended, multi-hued Fairisle this most certainly is not. Because the yoke is already made, the fun bit has been done for you, and yet, for the knitters whose job it was to churn out a gazillion Munrospun yokes, I rather doubt they were any fun at all. But the kit is still intriguing because of the way it is addressed to its consumer: the pattern is written, like many comparable commercial patterns of this era, for back and forth knitting with both yoke and sleeves inset. This seems bizarre to many of us now, but was completely commonplace, and indeed is still the case for many yoke patterns produced for UK yarn companies and magazines today. And though it perhaps leaves little to the knitters creative imagination – the yarn, pattern, yoke have all been chosen for you – the kit does also still suggest an enduring level of interest in making something by hand, and in producing for yourself that quintessentially Scottish two-piece of matching yoked sweater and tweed skirt. For how long were these kits produced? How popular were they? I know that many of you have come across similar kits and I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts.

I doubt I’m going to knit this kit up, but I will certainly keep my eye out for a matching length of Munrospun tweed.

What is a steek?

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(Helen Stout, knitting in the round, Busta, 1950. Courtesy Shetland Museum and Archives).

I have recently received a number of messages prefaced with this very question, and I thought that this rather basic introductory essay I wrote about knitting in the round, and steeking, might form a useful addition to my series of posts and tutorials about steeks for those who are curious. The essay is an edited version of a piece that was first published in the Rowan Magazine. Many thanks to the Shetland Museum and Archives for allowing me to reproduce details of garments in their collection.

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knittingmadonna Bertram of Minden, “Knitting Madonna”, (detail of Annunciation from the right wing of the Buxtehude Altar) 1400-1410.

There really is no “right” or “wrong” way to knit: different styles suit different individuals, and a wide variety of methods and techniques exist to match an equally wide variety of garments and fabric types. Yet knitting is a community with its own particular trends and followings, and like any other community, notions of “either / or” divide it. Do you knit English or Continental? Top-down, or bottom up? Do you work back-and-forth, or in-the-round? Such questions of technique — of the “best” stretchy cast-off method; of the “right” way to strand the yarn in colourwork — can transform a bunch of friendly knitters into fiercely opposing camps, each with its own passionate adherents. And there is perhaps no technical opposition more fundamental, or more divisive, than that which is perceived to exist between knitting back-and-forth and knitting in-the-round.

The standard arguments of the two camps go as follows:

The back-and-forth faction insists:

1. I like a sleek well-fitted garment. Knitting back and forth allows a garment to be carefully shaped using the best tailoring techniques.
2. The torso is composed of curves and lumps of differing proportions. Tailored pieces create the best lines to accommodate these complicated shapes.
3. In the beginning was the sewing needle. Early humans fitted the first garments to the body by stitching pieces of animal skin together with seams. It must be right.
4. The pattern writers of knitting’s ‘golden age’ created beautiful vintage garments designed to be knit in pieces, back and forth. They knew what they were on about.
5. Flat knitting follows industry standards of garment construction and pattern design. Fashion knows best.


Against which the in-the-round faction counters:

1. I hate sewing seams and finishing. Knitting in the round involves little or no finishing.
2. The torso is basically a tube, supplied with two smaller, narrower tubes. Therefore all sweaters should be knit in tubular fashion.
3. The beginnings of knitting were circular. Medieval paintings depicted the Virgin Mary knitting in the round. It must be right.
4. Folk knitters all over the world have knitted socks and ganseys in the round for centuries. They knew what they were on about.
5. Elizabeth Zimmermann once designed a seamless yoked sweater which was violated by editors ‘translating’ it into back-and-forth instructions. EZ knew best.

While these two positions may seem intractably opposed, in fact, there are elements of truth in both. Though back-and-forth knitting has certainly dominated the standard lexicon of commercial knitting patterns since the 1920s, instructions for many items (socks, gloves, hats) have habitually been written to be knit in the round. And while the knitters of Estonia and Shetland, Norway and the Faroe Islands have produced in-the-round garments for centuries, these women were also talented seamstresses who used sophisticated tailoring techniques to add shape, structure and decoration to their knitted ganseys and jackets. Today, despite the strong antipathy that one method or another can arouse among some knitters, there is more interplay than ever between methods associated with knitting back-and-forth and knitting in-the-round. Commercial patterns are increasingly written to accommodate many different techniques of flat and circular knitting, while knowledge of aspects of both methods — of the speed and ease of knitting in-the-round or of the structure and clean finish of knitting back-and-forth — lends knitters the freedom to modify the construction of garments in ways that best suit them. One such technique — which enables an in-the-round jumper to be easily transformed into a flat cardigan–is the practice that is known as steeking. Because steeking involves taking scissors to one’s creations, it strikes fear into the heart of many knitters. But this technique, common to all Northern knitting traditions, is much simpler to work than many knitters imagine.

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(my Rams and Yowes design is “steeked”)


The etymology of the “steek”

The word ‘steek’ has its root in the general Middle English verb ‘steken’ meaning to shut or fasten. By the Eighteenth Century, ‘steek’ was a term common to Shetland, Scots and Northern English dialects and, while it might be used in reference to a closed gate, door, or mouth, it was most often associated with needlework or knitting. In Scots, the verb, ‘to steek’ meant to sew, darn, or knit:

“Wull ee steek this slittin oxter afore it geets ony woare?”
Will you stitch this fraying underarm before it gets any worse?

Or, when used as a noun, the word ‘steek’ simply meant ‘stitch’.
“For want of a steek a shoe may be tint”
For want of a stitch, a shoe may be lost

While in some parts of Scotland and Shetland the word “steeking” still primarily means to stitch or close, in contemporary knitting parlance, the word has mutated and morphed to signify the opposite: that is, for most knitters, steeking now means to cut open, rather than to fasten shut. Thus, in pattern books that have been produced over the past thirty years or so, one finds the word “steek” being used in reference to what, in sewing, is commonly called a seam allowance (a few stitches that are worked additionally to the main pattern). Put simply, then, for today’s knitters, a “steek” is a bridge of extra stitches, connecting two separate pieces of knitted fabric, enabling them to be worked swiftly in the round. Preparing, reinforcing, and then cutting open this seam allowance (the practice now commonly known as “steeking”) transforms the tube back into flat pieces.

Why use steeks?

Steeks can be inserted into any kind of knitted fabric, but their most common application is perhaps in knitting a cardigan using the Fair Isle method of stranded colourwork. This is because carrying and purling two shades of yarn can prove tricky: many knitters find that the purl stitches create significant differences in their tension, or are much slower and more cumbersome to work. But if a steek is cast on in the places where the knitting would have to be divided to be worked back and forth — namely, at the cardigan’s centre front opening, and sleeves — the knitter can work the entire garment in the round, without purling, all the way from hem to shoulders. When the steeks are cut open, the extra cast-on stitches act just like seam allowances around which the knitter can pick up stitches to create button bands and sleeves.

But don’t steeks unravel?

Knitted fabric certainly likes to unravel, but it does so horizontally. Steek stitches are cut on the vertical, making them far less likely to do so. As anyone who has pulled back their knitting will know, wool is also a very ‘sticky’ fibre which likes to retain its shape. If one is knitting with a pure-wool or majority-wool yarn then it is very easy to work a steek simply because the stitches ‘want’ to hold their shape rather than to unravel. That said, because the cut edges of the steek are generally used to pick up a sleeve or edging afterwards, it is useful to reinforce them before cutting to help them deal with any strain they might take afterwards. Steeks can be prepared, reinforced and finished in a wide variety of ways. Taking a look at the interiors of a range of historic and contemporary cardigans that have been knitted in the round, before being “steeked” open, illustrates just how different steeks can be.

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(Shetland Museum and Archives)

This image shows the front button bands of a 1920s cardigan knit in several natural shades of Shetland wool. The band has been worked in corrugated rib; buttonholes have been cut vertically into the band; and machine stitching has been used to attach a reinforcing grosgrain ribbon to the inside. . .

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(Shetland Museum and Archives)

. . . here you see the grosgrain button-band reinforcement from the inside, and, to its left, the raw edges of a steek, which has been cut open, and folded back to the inside of the garment, away from the bands. The steek has not been reinforced, or stitched down: because the natural Shetland wool is very ‘sticky’ and has a tendency to felt, the knitter has trusted to the natural action of wear, and, over time, the steek edges have slightly felted together and adhered to the inside of the cardigan. Leaving steek edges ‘raw’ and allowing for felting in this way is a common feature of many Shetland hand-knitted garments, such as yoked cardigans that are still produced and sold today.

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(Shetland Museum and Archives)

Here, a steek has been cut to create the cardigan front opening, and the raw edges have been trimmed back, bound over, and secured to the inside with blue blanket stitch.

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(personal collection)

Here we also see the front and interior of a button band, illustrating a different and rather more laborious method of securing raw steek edges to the inside of a cardigan. The knitter has either created a wound steek (by winding both strands of working yarn round her needle several times) or a dropped steek (in which the steek bridge is knitted and unravelled). Both methods create a giant ladder of strands, and, when the knitting is complete, the knitter cuts this ladder in two, creating a series of ends, which are then individually woven in to the back of the work. A button band has then been picked up from the edge of the wound steek, and worked in moss stitch. The careful finishing of the steek has made the edges of this 1930s garment extremely neat and durable. (For more on this method, see Tom of Holland’s excellent tutorial on the “knotted steek” )

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My own designs use similar techniques of steeking and reinforcing as these earlier garments. Above is a detail of my Ursula design. As you can see, a crocheted steek has been worked, a button band has been picked up along the steek edge, and a ribbon reinforcement has then been hand-sewn to the inside. Rather than leaving the steek edges raw, the crochet reinforcement has been carefully removed, and the steek edges lightly hand-stitched down to the inside.

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Meanwhile, in my Bláithín , design, a ‘sandwich’ edging is worked to cover and enclose a crocheted steek, securing the cut edges, and rendering them completely invisible.

As we can see from these examples, there are a wide variety of ways to cut and finish a steek. And, because shaping can easily be worked around a seam allowance, steeking is a technique that can be used to knit just about any garment or object. Steeks easily lend themselves to the creation of tea-cosies and blankets, dog jackets and tank tops. Once you are able to cut up knitted fabric without fear, you really can make just about anything.

Want to learn how to work a crocheted steek, or steek “sandwich”? Find the rest of my steeking tutorials here! .

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