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.
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.
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.
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. . .
. . . 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.
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.
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” )
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.
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! .
I have recently been designing and knitting a thing with steeks, which required finishing. This project is part of an exciting collaboration, and I’ll be able to tell you (and show you) more about it in a couple of weeks. When working on the steeks, it occurred to me how many different ways there are to finish them, so I thought I’d describe exactly what I did with this project, and show you some different finishes I’ve seen, in different contexts.
I generally swatch in the round, and this project was no different. When working a swatch, I always add a few extra steek stitches to enable me to cut the swatch open, and block it flat, before measuring my gauge. Because I’d tested the yarn in this way, I knew from my swatch that the fabric was “sticky” enough to bear cutting without reinforcement so – shock horror – that is what I did when cutting the steeks on this project. I then picked up ribbing around the steeked edges, and washed and blocked the project to the required dimensions.
When the project was blocked, I returned to the steeks and trimmed them right back so that only a narrow raw edge remained.
I then cut a length of narrow grosgrain ribbon, and positioned it over the top of the raw yarn edges. I pinned it down, easing the binding around the project’s curves, in the same way you’d do when preparing to machine sew.
. . . I then hand-stitched the ribbon down, securing the raw edges with my stitches, again taking care to ease the binding around the curve. The end result is very stable, and gives a neat, bulk-free finish to the inside of the project. It should also mean that this project will stand up to wear for quite a while.
I am very fond of using ribbon, in both a decorative and a functional way, for finishing a steek edge. Here is the inside of the front button band of my Ursula cardigan. In this instance, the steek edges were reinforced with a crocheted chain, which was then carefully unpicked, before being stitched down.
I didn’t trim the steeks back in this instance, but I think it makes a kind of sense to do so when reduction of bulk is crucial to the line and structure of a garment, such as around an armhole edge.
You can see how, in this vintage cardigan in my collection, the steek has been trimmed right back and the edges stitched down to the inside.
. . . and here, in this garment in the collection of the Shetland Museum and Archives, the steek edges have been trimmed back and blanket-stitched in quite an attractive way.
I recall, when I handled the following garment, that I was very impressed with the method that had been used to finish its buttonband steeks . . .
It is a 1930s Fairisle cardigan in the collections of the Shetland Museum and Archives. The grosgrain ribbon has been machine stitched to the buttonband, then buttonholes have been cut through both band and ribbon, and reinforced with hand-stitching. . .
On the inside, the steek edges have not been trimmed, or even stitched down, but have simply been allowed to wear and felt-in to the inside of the garment. The result is very neat, and very strong – even 80 years later!
Finally, here is my steek sandwich – in which two separate layers of stockinette conceal and contain the raw steek edges.
Finished with i-cord buttonholes, the steek sandwich is a self-contained and neat way to finish the opening of cardigans like my Bláithín design. I would say, though, that because it creates a raised corded edge, it is not a finish that would work on a garment where a sleeker, more tailored look is required. (I seem to be having a buttonband thing at the moment, and really want to try double-knitting one with integral buttonholes. If anyone knows of a good book or web tutorial for me to have a look at please do let me know!)
I hope these different steek finishes have inspired you to chop up and stitch down your knitting without fear!
So, have you seen Rowan Magazine 54 yet? I finally got my hands on a copy yesterday and there are some wonderful designs in there. My two favourites are probably Anatolia by Marie Wallin – a beautifully luscious yoked sweater knit up in rich shades of Felted Tweed – and Sarah Hatton’s Melissa – a neat and eminently wearable wee gansey.
As previously mentioned, I have a design in the Magazine for the first time (woohoo!) and Rowan have also kindly included a profile of me and my work in this issue.
Additionally, I have written an editorial feature about knitting in the round and steeking, and produced a steeking how-to for this issue of the magazine. My tutorial includes instructions for crocheted and machine-sewn steeks, while my feature explores different technical aspects of chopping up your knitting, along with the history and etymology of the steek (did you know, for example that in Scots ‘to steek’ actually means to close or fasten, rather than to cut open?)
As part of my research for the feature, I had a chat with lovely Stephen West. I am a great admirer of Stephen’s approach to design, and really love his style, and I was blown away by the steeked sweater-pants that he began to make last year out of his Amsterdam thrift-shop finds.
For the feature, Stephen sent me some fabulous images of a pair of SWANTS (Sweater-Pants) that he’d whipped up from a vintage Setesdal sweater, but as these didn’t make Rowan’s final selection for the magazine, I can (with his permission) show them to you here.
For me, Stephen’s SWANTS really sum up the approach to steeking which I have tried to get across in the the feature – viz – to just go for it and have fun . . .
I love the SWANTS!
If you’d like to have a go at steeking and refashioning your own pair of SWANTS, Stephen tells me that a tutorial or two will be forthcoming on his blog this Autumn. Thanks, Stephen!
Today I’m very excited to announce the release of the digital edition of Colours of Shetland!
This means that those of you who wished to purchase a digital-only copy can now do so here, and that all of you who have already purchased the print edition can now use the ‘unique download code‘ in your copy to access your complementary digital edition of the book.
Here’s how to redeem your code.
First, open up the book. On the inside cover, you’ll find a sticker with your unique download code printed on it.
Next, follow this link to the book’s Ravelry page. Click on the ‘buy it now’ button (highlighted below).
You are then directed to check out. Click on the ‘enter coupon code’ button (highlighted below).
Enter your code into the box, then click the “Apply” button.
You’ll then see the checkout screen, letting you know that you’ve not been charged for the download. Click on the “Checkout Now” button.
Finally, you’ll receive a receipt, and links to seven PDF files which contain the full content of Colours of Shetland. If you are a Ravelry member, these files are now stored in your library, and you’ll be automatically notified of any updates to future editions of the book. You can also download the files individually for reading on a device or computer.
A final few points:
1) Happily, we haven’t found many errata or typos (there’s a full list here), but those that there are have all been corrected in the digital edition.
2) Otherwise, the content of the print and digital editions is exactly the same (that is, all patterns, tutorials, essays and photographs are included identically in the digital edition)
3) The patterns will not be released as individual digital downloads.
4) The book has a single retail price of £14.99: that is, the digital-only version of the book costs exactly the same as the print+digital version — so, if you purchase the print edition, then, like the happy Shetland sheep on page four of the book, you’re laughing!
If you have any other questions about this process, please feel free to add a comment to this post, and I’ll do my best to answer!
Why do you weave in your ends away from the steek centre?
This is just a personal thing: I know that many knitters recommend just leaving the ends in the middle of the steek (as everything will be trimmed later), but I personally don’t like to do this. I want the back of the work to be as clean and firm and stable as possible before I begin the crocheted reinforcement. When one is working the crochet, one is poking and re-poking one’s hook through the fabric, pulling up yarn from the back of the work. It is all too easy to catch one or more of the hanging ends, and get oneself in a wee bit of a tangle. Also, in the pattern I’ve just written, the start of the round is one stitch to the right of the five steek sts. I find that it makes things much easier and simpler to just weave in all the ends off to one side, away from the steek stitches, before I start to crochet and cut.
Would you recommend blocking before steeking?
I tend to give the front and back of the work a quick steam before steeking (with an iron on the wool setting, without touching the fabric) just to allow it to relax. I don’t recommend blocking any more vigorously than that – if the stitches are stretched significantly before you work the steek, then they will be more likely to want to pop out of the crocheted reinforcement. (I have seen this happen . . . AIGH!) You can give your garment the full blocking treatment when you have finished it completely, with the steeks properly secured. . .
How about working with heavier yarns?
My new cardigan pattern is actually knitted in a worsted / light aran weight (can you guess which yarn I’ve used?!) My samples (and those of the test knitters) used sock yarn and a 3mm hook to crochet the steek reinforcement, and this worked really well. With all yarn weights I would definitely recommend using a finer, strong yarn that won’t snap, and a smaller hook for your crocheted reinforcement.
Does it matter what colour yarn I use for the crocheted reinforcement?
I used yarn in a contrasting colour for illustration purposes. I would say that, just as if you were sewing an invisible hem on a skirt with needle and thread, that it is probably best to use a yarn that is quite close in hue to the main colour of your garment. If (for example) you were knitting a white cardigan, and used black sock yarn for the crocheted reinforcement, then you would definitely run the risk of the reinforcement showing through between the stitches of the sandwich edging.
Where precisely do you pick up the stitches to work the edging from the right side?
I’ve worked quite a few of these ‘sandwiches’ now, and I would say that for the neatest result (ie, for the edging to sit properly flush against the main pattern), you should pick up your stitches in the gap between the outermost steek stitch and the first stitch of the main pattern. See the diagram below: there are two pattern stitches on either side, and five steek stitches in the middle. You pick up the stitches along the pink lines.
Several of you asked this question, so I’ll add this diagram to yesterday’s sandwich tutorial, to clarify things.
In relation to picking up the stitches from the right side, and my instruction to “make sure you push your needle all the way through to the back of the work, and draw the yarn through from the wrong side,” Donna asked: “are you creating new stitches thru the knitting rather than picking up stitch from the front ie the already knitted stitches?” The answer is: YES. It is is necessary to pick up through the fabric to get this effect on the back of the work.
This is the usual way in which I pick up stitches and it is clearly not everybody’s way (which is why I mentioned it). And in relation to the moot “fence post” issue Lynn raised in her question, logic would indeed suggest that there should be one less loop on the back of the work than the front but . . . having made multiple sandwiches, I have honestly never noticed this. I always check that the number of stitches is the same for back and front needles before beginning to knit them together and it always is… I have been told by my knitting buddies that I pick up stitches in an “odd” way, and I generally begin the process by attaching a slip-knot loop to the back of the work before starting to pull the yarn through. . . perhaps this provides me with an extra stitch? Your thoughts are welcome.
How do you work an i-cord bind off?
This is a very simple (albeit time-consuming and yarn-greedy) bind off. It is probably my favourite finish for a cardigan edge.
Here is how it goes:
Cast on 3 stitches using cable cast on. *k2, k2tog tbl. Slip 3 stitches from rh needle to lh needle. Pull the working yarn across the back * Repeat from * to *. At final 3 sts, finish by k1, k2tog tbl, slip 2 sts to left hand needle, k2tog, pull yarn through.
The result is a neat, raised, corded edge.
How does the sandwich facing relate to the button bands?
The beauty of this method is that the sandwich is the button band! You’ll see precisely how when I show you some photos of my new cardigan (hopefully tomorrow). Another fantastic thing about the i-cord bind off is that it allows you to create neat, integral buttonholes (by binding off a couple of stitches in the normal fashion, and working a couple of rows of plain i-cord over the top of the gap). It is (of course) an EZ method, and I use it on my Manu design, as well as on the new cardigan. It is by far my favourite buttonhole.
Could I use a different bind off?
Yes, of course. Use any method you like. For example, you could simply complete the sandwich by grafting or working a three-needle bind off when you are knitting the back and front stitches together. I am intrigued by the Dale-of-Norway three-needle bind off / picot facing method that Lisa mentioned in her comment. It sounds lovely – I will have to try it.
Could I knit the loops of the crochet reinforcement together with the back and front stitches?
I’d say not. You do not want to put any strain at all on that reinforcing chain. If you tug or pull at it in any way then you run the risk of the cut edges popping out. Don’t do it!
Thanks for all your questions and comments! I hope I’ve covered all your queries.