What is a steek?

helenstoutbusta1950
(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.

yowesonrock
(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” )

ursula

ursulainside

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.

blaithin

blaithininside

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! .

here . . . a year!

homestead

It is a year today since we moved from Edinburgh to this wonderful spot. We absolutely love it,  and are all enjoying our new life here. An inhabitant of towns and cities all my life, I have always loved the outdoors, and have often yearned to live in the country. . . and being here at last has already made a massive difference to my mindset, my outlook,  my work, and most certainly my health.  Outdoors walking every day, I feel incredibly connected to my surroundings and the changing seasons: every day is subtly different, and I love tracing the turning of the year through the appearance of  wildflowers and the songs of different birds. I have learned the privilege of recognising wild animals as individuals (not just “a hare” but “that hare”) and have enjoyed encountering many different beasties on my daily walks from newts to hen harriers.  There are still many mornings when I wake up, find the world around me absolutely breathtaking, and can’t quite believe I actually live here. I wonder if this feeling will ever go away – I rather hope it doesn’t. The eighteenth-century women, whose letters I used to work on, were very fond of quoting Micah 4, the bit that comes after the swords and ploughshares about sitting under one’s own vine and fig tree. All I can say is that here I have at last found my vine, and my fig tree, though, this being Scotland, I’ll definitely have to erect a greenhouse if I actually want to grow them.

Here are some photos from our first year in our new home.

hiya

sheepbuddies

oakanddumgoyne

westhighlandsfromdumgoyne

sweeksarego

ice

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home-1

congratulations

beds

basket

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hap4lo
eccelfechan11

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mistybruce

scabious

westhighlandevening

changingsky

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Islay snaps

sandbruce

1: Bruce loves the beach

portnahaven
machirbay
2, 3: Great photoshoots in my favourite locations

portcharlotte
4. tasty crabs claws at the Port Charlotte Hotel

billysbench
benchdetail
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5, 6, 7: Discovering Billy’s Bench near Bowmore, and a Scarlet Pimpernel growing through the shingle at Portnahaven

skies

8. Fine weather for walking

crag

wazzstrider

9, 10: The first time in four and half years that, while away, I have not been bothered in one way or another by my health or my physical limitations. Am I really so much better? Or have I merely finally adapted to my “new normal”? Either way, it felt pretty good to climb up behind that crag, to see that view.

a bottle of Uigeadail

Tom likes to run the Islay half marathon. Not only does this race take place in one of our favourite places, but the Islay half marathon is always a grand occasion, with wonderful local support. The Islay half marathon is also sponsored by Ardbeg. Ardbeg is one of Islay’s eight distilleries and the whisky it produces is Tom’s undoubted favourite of any usquebaugh. Ardbeg is very generous with its sponsorship: all competitors receive a wee dram or two at the end of the race, and there are a dizzying array of prizes, most of them whisky related. Tom is in no way a pot-hunter, but it is fair to say that the prospect of a tasty bottle of Ardbeg has certainly spurred him onward on each of the seven occasions he’s run this race.

Here’s the start of this year’s Islay half marathon.

start

. . . here’s Tom shortly after setting off:

runner

. . . despite his recent appendix-related woes, and subsequent lack of training, he had a great run, finishing in 1 hour 25 minutes and coming in 3rd Veteran (that’s the third bloke over 40, in case you were wondering). We were agog at the prize giving: would the 3rd Veteran actually win a bottle of . . . Ardbeg?

prize

Yes indeedy ! And not just any Ardbeg . . . Tom’s prize was a bottle of Uigeadail!

Uigeadail

Uigeadail is named after the “dark and mysterious” loch which provides the Ardbeg distillery with its distinctive water. Tom is such a great fan of this whisky, and was so intrigued by this loch, that we actually took a pilgrimage on foot to it five years ago last winter. It was indeed dark. And mysterious. And very, very cold. Here is Tom at Loch Uigeadail in January 2009 . . .

tomatUigeadail

. . . and here he is having imbibed several prize-winning drams of its namesake in August 2014.

winner

CONGRATULATIONS, TOM!!

fruition

westhighlandevening

This is the view from the top of our lane yesterday evening. The large hulking hill to the right is Ben Lomond, with the Arrochar “Alps”, including the Cobbler, to the left. The weather continues to be amazing. Everything is coming to fruition. My tomatoes are ripening.

tomatoes

I am impressed with my peppers, also grown from seed. . .

peppers

. . .and I am cutting courgettes and sweet peas every day. The sweet peas grow more luminous and psychedelic. Each day I cut a bloom that seems more wildly neon than the day before.

sweetpea

I planted several different cultivars, but am totally useless at keeping tabs on what’s what, so I’m afraid I have no idea of their names…

Meanwhile, inside, things are coming to fruition too as I now have seven completed YOKE designs. Numbers eight and nine are on the needles, which just leaves number ten for the collection to be complete. I’ve been steadily charting and grading and writing patterns, and Mel and I have been knitting away since April. It is extremely satisfying seeing the collection really coming together now, and to look at the group of distinctive garments hanging in my studio, all of which sort of feel like me. Another exciting phase of the project is about to begin, as I am soon to start working on, and writing about, some different regional styles and practices of YOKE knitting since the 1940s. I’ll say more about this aspect of the book shortly, but for now I’d better finish knitting this sleeve. . . Hope you all have a lovely weekend!

Things of Human Interest

hiya

Hiya! It is I, Bruce. Today I am here to tell you about an important difference between Dogs and Humans.

This is where I live.

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whereilive4
whereilive2

It is a good place and there are many things I like about it. My human companions also like this place. But although dogs and humans both can both like a place, it is not often for the same reason. This is one of the many curious but important differences between us.

For example, one of my favourite walks goes past these trees.

oakandstones

I like these trees because they mark the entrance into Good Field, a location where maximum fun is to be had. But Kate likes these trees because they are dead and alive at the same time.

oldoak

Past these trees is Good Field – one of my all-time favourite spots. Whatever the weather, the grass of Good Field is always wet and the ground of Good Field is always squishy and soggy. In Good Field can often be found deer and hare who are fun to chase, and if the cows pass by, they kindly leave an interesting mess behind. In Winter the mud of Good Field grows deep and dank and in the Summer Good Field’s plants grow thick and high. Good Field is a place for bounding, for leaping, for getting wet and dirty, and for gingering oneself up with all kinds of funky smells. In all seasons of the year, then, it is an excellent place to be.

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bounding2
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bounding1

Now, Kate does not like Good Field for its mud or for its interesting aroma. Nor does she seem particularly happy when she trips into the cow mess, or wades clumsily through the waist high grasses. In fact, the qualities I most admire about Good Field are things Kate merely tolerates, or on occasion actually seems irritated by. I have heard her mutter words such as “ballache” as she stumbles, is bitten by a horsefly, or, as today, gets muddy trousers after falling on her arse. So why on earth does Kate take me to Good Field if she herself does not enjoy the many delights it has to offer? The answer is, of course, that it contains Things of Human Interest.

stonescloser

Good Field’s Things of Human Interest are these Old Stones.

theyarejuststones

Now, I am hardly ever diverted by Things of Human Interest, and I have to say that these Old Stones strike me as rather commonplace. Certainly they carry no significance for a dog like me.

stonesit

And yet I am tolerant enough of human foibles to dutifully sit and pose.

stonetongue

Dear dog comrades, the moral of this tale is to joyfully accompany your companions when they wish to visit Things of Human Interest. That way you are likely to spend time in really excellent places, like Good Field.

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