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The Steeking Chronicles: The Unreinforced Steek

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

Today, I'll show you the scariest steek - the one with nothing to stabilize it. No sewing, no crochet, nothing to keep the whole sweater from unraveling but some peculiar properties of Shetland wool. This method won't work for any superwash, manmade, plant fiber, or otherwise smooth yarn, or yarn much thicker than DK weight - hairy, prickly wool fibers and tight gauge are what promote the slight felting that holds the cut steek together.

For a no-sew steek, the bridge can be formed by any even number of stitches, depending on habit and comfort. I have read of production knitters in Shetland working with as little as two steek stitches, for speed and reduction of waste, but I like to use between six (shown below) and ten stitches, depending on the stress the stitches will receive after being cut - more along a high-stress area like a button band or armhole; fewer along a less-manipulated area.

The steek proper is flanked by two edge or border stitches (marked with pink arrows here), usually worked in the background color, which become the stitches for picking up and working sleeves, neckbands and button bands.

There are several ways of working the steek itself. For an unsewn steek, the arrangement of stitches isn't particularly important - the main requirement is frequent color changes (usually every stitch) to create a tightly woven fabric. A steek with long floats of color will not hold together well, while a steek made of yarns that alternate every stitch has a firmness that promotes cling. I follow Alice Starmore's advice and alternate colors every row, creating a checked or seeded effect, while others stack colors, creating vertical columns that can be easily followed for stitching and cutting.

The end-of-round is marked with a blue arrow in the picture above, clearly showing the jog where each row ends and the next begins. The end of round, whenever possible, should take place in the center of a steek, as the jog is hidden and color-change ends become a non-issue once cut. When casting on, the steek stitches should comprise the first and last few stitches of the round.

I simply knot new strands at each color change, though a felted join or no join at all works just as well. If the change takes place outside a steek, I'd later unknot the ends, pull up the tensions, and weave them in. I'll just leave these as is, and trim the knots away with any other hanging ends once the bridge has been cut.

Remember to bind off your steek, or put it on a holder if you prefer to graft or bind off the two sides together. Now, there's nothing left to do but cut.

Elizabeth Zimmerman gave some famous advice about retreating to a dark room with a stiff drink after making the cut. I don't know if it's necessary to go quite that far - though it certainly couldn't hurt. Just cut slowly, snipping a few threads at a time, with a pair of very sharp scissors. Since we have an even number of stitches, we're cutting between the third and fourth stitches of this six-stitch bridge.

Here's the edge formed. As you can see, hardly anything has unraveled at all.

It stands up fine to washing and blocking, too. Further handling will only strengthen the edge - those suckers aren't going anywhere.

Next: The Hand-Sewn Steek

All posts in this series:

After the whole debacle of the baby sweater, I needed something to cheer me up - I started last night on an argyle vest for me in the Korean Merino. If you can make out the "lazybones" scribbled at the top, it's because my construction for this takes the easy way out - no intarsia, knit entirely in the round in stranded Fair Isle (shoulder shaping, too! Walk, do not run, to read this), with the pattern plotted with double lines to ensure that there are no floats longer than 5 stitches.

I'm hoping the final product will be a good union of a very traditional pattern, modern (that is, easy-way-out) construction, and up-to-date shaping, all in an old-school garment (I mean, who wears a vest anymore?). It's going to be a long-line kind of thing, with wide ribbing and a rather deep (below the bust) v-neck. I picture wearing it with a pink oxford, white wide-leg pants, brown slingbacks, and my hands in my pockets - we'll see.


Thanks for explaining the "why" of steeks for Fair Isle; I had been pondering that very question. This line in one of your previous posts also helped to clue me in: Unfortunately, the tension is all wonky on my purl rows - I really need to knit my Fair Isle circularly to keep things even until I have a little more practice. I hadn't even imagined working a Fair Isle back & forth--yikes!

Beautiful planning and nice knitting.

That vest sounds like it will be really cute! I heart argyle, can't wait to learn how to do it myself. =)

Argyle vest, white trousers, slingbacks--very Kate Hepburn. It's going to be smashing.

This is all so informative! I can't wait to read more. I've never dealt with steeks before--the idea of taking scissors to my knitting makes me quiver, but you're starting to make me want to try it!

Love the idea of a sweater vest that requires hands in pockets, too!

Thanks for taking the time to give such useful information, very helpful. I am nowhere near needing to use steeking info yet, but one day I am going to try it.

Thanks so much for the info! I'm deep into Ann Feitelston's "Art of Fair IsleKnitting"...and have you seen Nonaknits.typepad.com today? She, too, discusses Fair Isle Technique.

What a fabulous tutorial. I can't wait for the next installment. Which Alice Starmore book do you have with all this good information? The vest will be very chic and you'll look smashing!

Hurrah for vests! I love them and just did a "top ten" list on my blog about them. But nothing beats designing your own. Great job.

How long have you been knitting? Your stuff is lovely, your designs are inspiring, and the bit on steeks was very informative. I have really only been knitting a short while and have been trying one new thing at a time, so I haven't gotten to Fair Isle yet.

When I first saw your entry my head hurt a little and then I read it! So informative. I'm looking forward to your next entry!

All my steeks so far have been done the safest way possible- machine-sew several times half a stitch apart, cut, then use a knitted facing to hide the mess. It is a bit messy and stiff, but once I've worn the sweater once or twice, I don't even notice. However, I usually find that the stitches hold together pretty well even without the machine stitching so I'm probably being overly paranoid.

Once again a wonderful tutorial Eunny!

I have really been pondering the best way to deal with steeks & yours is really clear "cut"!! :)

1)Awesome breakdown and description.
2)Dude, those are some BIG scissors.
3)I can totally see the vest with the pink oxford and white wide-leg pants. Very cool.

I think you're trying to traumatize us!! That picture of the poor little armwarmer with the scissors... sniff.

There's also the crocheted steek, for those who suck at handsewing (like me, he he). I'm planning on doing a Baby Norgi eventually so all your posts are great!

Don't some outfits just call for your hands in your pockets? I know just what you mean, there. Your vest looks like it will be hip and cute.

Also, I don't mean to gush here, but thanks so much for all the wonderful information you give on your site. I've seriously learned so much more about knitting from reading it (as well as learning how many things there are that I do NOT know about knitting). You make steeking and old-school fair-isle seem absolutely thrilling. :)

Can't wait to see the vest progress, the sketch is gorgeous and so far what you have looks perfect.

I've done steeks, but only the pre-reinforced kind, with sewing ahead of time. I haven't had the guts to try this kind yet--thanks for showing how easy it is!

I got the heebie jeebies when I saw that picture of scissors to the swatch. And it's just a swatch! Obviously I should do a project that requires steeking right away. I have issues that must be worked through immediately :D

eek, you're scareing me! Can we all just come over for lessons? I know, we'll have a huge slumper party full of knit strangers, and we can oo and aa over your lessons. How bout it? I'll bring the wine.

I won't even pretend that my little pea-brain can understand all of that overwhelming information! But WOW, extremely excellent tutorial on the whys and hows of steeks. You just continue to amaze me with every post.

You are a GODDESS. :-)

Thanks for all the useful info! I've never done steeks before but after reading your posts, they don't seem so scary.