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Steeking Chronicles: Introduction

Introduction; Setting Up Steeks; Handling Color Changes • Planning and Placing Steeks; Handling Decreases in Fair Isle KnittingThe Traditional, Unreinforced SteekThe Hand-Sewn SteekThe Crocheted SteekPutting It All Together; Working Sleeves; Blocking; FinishingA Word On Norwegian Steeks

To begin at the proper beginning -

Why bother with a steek in the first place?

To quote, uh, myself: "In practice, setting, knitting, and slicing a steek is just a handy way to knit an entire sweater in the round by creating a bridge of waste stitches wherever a separation would be, i.e. between front and back for an armhole, or between the right and left sides of the neck, or all the way up the front of a cardigan.

Pictures are worth a thousand words. On the left is a stylized image of a pullover body. As you can see, the body could be knitted as a tube up to the armpits, but the front and back would have to be worked back and forth, as would each side of the neck. On the right, you see what a steek allows you to do - by filling in all those openings with a bridge of waste stitches, the entire garment may be knit as a tube, in the round, with all your armscye and neck shapings done in the sweater body.

Why should we care about knitting in the round? For a variety of reasons, stranded colorwork is easier and faster in the round: the knit stitch is quicker to form than the purl stitch; the pattern is always visible, allowing the knitter to read his work; seams are minimized or eliminated altogether. Production knitters favored the method for its speed and ease - as do hobby knitters now.

Is steeking only for Fair Isle or other colored knitting? No. The basic principles may be applied to any knitting that can normally be done in the round. There are a few things to consider, though: first, the frequent interweaving of two strands within the steek itself is an important part of what makes the traditional, unreinforced steek work. Careful thought should be given to the stabilizing method used to compensate for the single thickness of plain knitting. Second, not all sweaters are better for being worked seamlessly - a traditional Fair Isle sweater, with its frequent color changes, is a sturdy, firm piece, but plain and textured sweaters may need seams for structure and shape.

Which steek should be used when?

The infinite possible combinations of stabilizing technique, finishing method, stitch number and stitch arrangement can seem sort of overwhelming. Knowing that different steeks are appropriate for different yarns makes things much simpler.

From top to bottom, this picture shows a strand of jumperweight (fingering) Shetland wool; a strand of fingering weight wool; a strand of DK weight Merino; and a strand of fingering weight cotton. You can see that the Shetland wool is coarse and fuzzy, with hairs sticking out in random places. The regular wool and Merino are still fairly hairy looking, but the cotton is almost perfectly smooth. For the purposes of our discussion, all the fibers in the world can be split into two groups - hairy fibers that felt, and smooth fibers that don't. The first group includes natural wool and other animal hair yarns - anything you wouldn't machine-wash - while the second includes all plant yarns, synthetics, and superwash wools.

Steeks are useless, of course, if they unravel into the body of a sweater - different methods need to be applied to different yarns to ensure that this doesn't happen. To wit:

  • The traditional, unreinforced steek relies on slight as-you-work felting to hold the cut edge together. Along with tight gauge and frequent color changes, extremely "sticky" yarn is needed to make it happen. Shetland wool, with all its little fuzzy bits and scaly, wiry hairs, works beautifully. Other extremely grabby yarns may work, too.
  • Hand-sewn and crocheted steeks have some extra sturdiness from the applied reinforcement, but the real work is still done by the natural hold of the yarn - the reinforcement merely holds the strands in the close alignment needed. All yarns that felt are good candidates.
  • Machine-sewn steeks are very firm, with the machine stitching providing all the hold needed to stabilize the cut edge. Since the stitching does all the work, smooth, slippery yarns can be used. Beware, though - machine sewing and handknits don't get along particularly well; I often find that machine-stitched knits have an unpleasant stiffness that interrupts the fluidity and drape that are the chief pleasures of knitted fabric.
  • Wound steeks, which are purposely unraveled to the edge and darned in, end by end, don't need to stay together and are therefore suitable for any type of yarn.

Setting up the different steeks

All steeks are worked with a bridge of stitches flanked by two border stitches, worked in the background color (marked with pink arrows), which will later become the site for picking up and working sleeves, neckbands and button bands. Unreinforced and sewn steeks are typically worked with an even number of bridge stitches and cut between the center two stitches (shown on the left), while crocheted steeks are typically worked with an odd number of bridge stitches and cut through the center stitch (shown on the right).

Either type may be worked either in stripes or in a basic seeded pattern - the main requirement is frequent color changes, usually as often as every stitch, to create a tightly woven, coherent fabric. A steek with long floats of color will not hold together.

Within the basic distinctions of even and odd, a steek may be worked with as few or as many stitches as preference and comfort allow. I have read of people working with only two or three bridge stitches for speed and reduction of waste - my heart's not strong enough for such a narrow margin. In general, I work with a nine or ten stitch steek in an area destined for lots of stress (button bands and the like), while a six or seven stitch steek feels comfortable for lower-stress areas.

The reinforcing can be applied at different points on the steek, too, as preference dictates:

The even numbered, sewn steeks shown on the left are usually sewn through the centerlines of two stitches on either side of the cutting line. They may be sewn very close to the cutting site (red dotted line), or further away (green dotted lines), or anywhere in between. Sewing closer to the cut creates a wide strip of fabric that may be folded back to form a proper facing and puts the stress of picking up stitches as far away as possible from the cut edge. Sewing closer to the border stitches creates a narrower facing and reduces the possibility of cutting into the sewing by mistake.

The odd numbered steeks shown at right usually have their crochet worked over the center three stitches of the steek (shown in red), creating a wide facing. Alternately, the crochet may be worked over any other stitch pairs in the steek for a narrower facing.

For all types of facing-forming steeks, the final finishing of the garment will include trimming all ends back as close as possible to the reinforcing (or as close as desired to the body of the sweater, for an unreinforced steek), and tacking the folded portion down.

Changing colors in Fair Isle

Though steeking has several attractions, the non-issue it can make of hundreds of color-change ends is mighty appealing. Try to plan your garments to put the end-of-round within the first steek - the steek stitches should be cast on as the first and last few stitches of a round. In a cardigan, this means that your end-of-round will lie at the front of the garment, while pullovers should be planned so the end-of-round lies along one side, and can continue into the first armhole steek. In an even-numbered steek, the end-of-round should fall in the direct center, between the two middle stitches, while an odd-numbered steek should make the center stitch the first stitch of the round.

In an unreinforced or sewn steek, colors may be changed by simply knotting in each new color to the old with a granny knot:

The knots can be trimmed away after cutting. Caution needs to be exercised to avoid catching hanging ends or knots as the reinforcing stitches are applied. When colors are changed in this way outside of a steek, each end will have to be unknotted, its tension adjusted, and woven in or otherwise dealt with.

A crocheted steek must not have knots or ends within the stitch pairs to be joined - this can be accomplished either by weaving new colors for several stitches before and old colors for several stitches after the change:

or by using a felted or spliced join to change colors. This is a handy way to change colors outside of a steek, as well - though the blended colors create a bit of pattern ambiguity for the first few stitches, the properly executed join is smooth, sturdy and more or less invisible.

This join will work only with yarns that can be felted, of course. For those unfamiliar with it, the strands to be joined should both be broken (never cut!). A 1.5-2" tail is about right for a join that blends colors for four or five stitches.

Tease out half the thickness of the yarn on both strands, and break it off.

Laying the two half-thickness strands together, hold the yarn in your palm.

Wet the strands (spit and water both work fine, though we could write a whole 'nother post on the raging debate there), and rub your hands together vigorously to felt the strands together.

The biggest advantage of the spliced join, of course, can speak for itself:

(no ends, except the caston and castoff tails. Wheee!)

Next: Planning and placing steeks, and handling decreases in Fair Isle knitting

All posts in this series:


so can we expect you to come out with a book on this or should we just publish your blog? hehe...you're absolutely fabulous for taking the time to post this. THANK YOU!

Yay! So helpful. I couldn't make sense of your more advanced posts until this background - thanks!

What a great post! At last I feel like I got it!

you so rule. I am trying to learn fair isle and doing research reading. YOU SO RULE!

Another great lesson. Thanks!

I must say that spit splicing is my best friend. It's my favorite way of joining yarns, whether it's in colorwork, or single color knitting. Sometimes it feels like a pain to go through the whole thing (untwisting the plies, getting your hand wet, etc.) at every color change, but it's so completely worth the effort at the end. I'm never going back, unless I'm using a yarn that won't felt.

The scissors again! Oh the scissors! The inhumanity! MUST you always show them? Especially so close to knitting?

Thanks for another great post. I must say that I have terrible luck splicing. First, I can't ever get the yarn to break and then I just can't get it to felt together. I know I'm doing something wrong, but darned if I know what it is. I guess I'll just have to keep spitting and rubbing and eventually I'll get it.

This is awesome!!! I was just thinking about the FI cardi that I'm planning on starting soon, and I thought about emailing you with questions on steeking. I don't have time to read this entire entry right now - must get on Spin bike before I lose what little motivation I have left - but I will and I think it'll answer the questions I have. You are a mindreader!!!

wow eunny - what an incredible post. thank you!

You. Are. Amazing. I recently got hooked on your blog and it inspired me to create my own. I've been so afraid of steeking, but I'm feeling more confident after reading your tutorial. THANK YOU!

Just Brilliant! Thank you again for an excellent tutorial. You have turned so many knitters who read your blog into fearless "steekers" is that a word? You know what I mean. Thanks.

Looking forward to the decrease principles which should come in handy for a hat I'm working on.

Thank you for including the big scary scissors in the background to continue with your theme of knitterly terror. :)

Simultaneous kudos and thanks to you for more wonderful knitterly information. Like others, I feel like this post has made steeking really start to click for me.

Thank you for the great lesson. I'm about to embark on my first fair isle sweater and this will be great to refer back to. Now I can't wait to cut it up!

just a comment about the spit splice. i find that i get a better join if i rub the two ends against my pant leg (jeans work best, but sweats work too, ask me how i know, lol). just my two cents worth

Thank you so much for your post.

The graphics, in particular, that you've created for these posts on steeking are the most clear and helpful I've ever seen.

I'm sure I will refer people to them many times in the future.

Thanks! I'm finally starting to wrap my head around this whole steeking business - the previous posts were too far ahead for me. I'm still terrified by the idea of taking sharp metal to my knitting, but the possibility is marinating in the back of my brain. Thanks again!

Best spit splice tutorial I've seen. You are brilliant.

WOW. I'm quite certain that I have never been struck speechless by a blog before now. (actually I've never been struck speechless by anything) WOW
I have never knit a steeked fairisle sweater, but I am bookmarking this for that day. The details, the pictures and more of the details.

Wow. Your steeking tutorials have been incredibly helpful and CLEAR. Thank you so much for posting them. You are one hell of a knitting geek, and I mean that as an enormous compliment.

A couple of folks have left your addy in my comments, since I've been whining about having to knit back and forth to shape the neck of my Torino sweater. Thank you thank you thank you!

This is fascinating. When I was a kid (40 years ago) I had a Fair Isle jersey that my Great Uncle John brought back from the Shetlands. I worked out how the sleeves were done - this was not steeked, but was grafted at the armpit, then the yoke (where the Fair Isle pattern was)was knitted in the round. But I could never figure out how the back neck opening was done. Now I know.

I only have one complaint about these pages - I can't print the damned things. If I print them I get 2 pages with the side panels, then the first page of the inner panel, then the last page of it, then another page with just the sides.

Thank you for all the advice.. I have been scared stiff to steek my first baby sweater, and now I know that stitching it by hand WAS the proper thing to do!!!! Thank you thank you thank you!!

question???if the center steek is done in black but the other colors in pattern are varied, do you carry the black throughout the sweater? or just in the middle and if so where do you start and finish? I am doing a Fair Isle pattern and am confused.