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.


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