Written by Midland Spinner
The word “Steek” apparently means “gate” or “opening”. Its use in knitting refers to the opening made by cutting the knitting. It is a useful technique which allows you to knit a jumper or cardigan entirely in the round. Which is particularly useful for Fairisle as it means that you never have to turn the fabric, so the pattern is always facing you. It also benefits those knitters (i.e. most of us) who have a slightly different tension in Knit and Purl, and anyone who hates sewing up seams.
In this article I’m talking about knitted steeks where about 10 extra stitches are cast on at the base of the opening. It does look very odd if you aren’t used to it, because the object you are knitting is quite a strange shape, with big “buttonholes” at the underarm, but no vertical openings.
A test piece with stitches for the “underarm” held on a piece of pink yarn, and the new steek stitches cast on above them. Note how it makes a horizontal hole across the work. Also note the way the colours are carried across the steek so that when the work is cut both colours are held secure in the stitches of the steek.
There is an alternative method, the ‘wrapped steek’ which is similar, but instead of knitting across the steek, you wrap the yarn about 10 times round the needle to form long loops bridging the gap. When you have cut the yarns you need to tie each cut end of yarn to its neighbour and then sew in the ends. It is a very fiddly, time-consuming job, but the end result is a bit less bulky than the knitted steek. This article does not address the wrapped steek technique.
Won’t it just unravel?
Most people are put off steeking because they are frightened that the knitting will immediately unravel in all directions as soon as they even look at it with scissors. It won’t. No honestly, I promise, it won’t unravel. To prove it here’s a quick experiment:
Go and find a piece of old knitted fabric – it doesn’t matter what it is – an old sock, even a cotton one, a T-shirt, a charity shop jumper, a moth-eaten old scarf, make sure it is a knitted fabric. Or make a tension square out of some ghastly yarn that you bought at a charity shop. The main thing is that you mustn’t mind cutting it up. Now take a good sharp pair of scissors and make a vertical cut up the fabric preferably between two rows of “Vs” of stocking stitch. Now pull, tug and twist the fabric to see if it unravels sideways. It won’t because of the way the stitches are made – in order to unravel sideways, the cut end of the yarn needs to work its way out through the fabric several times in order to unpick even one stitch – you might even try to unravel one strand – take a fine knitting needle and try to tease one thread out to make a horizontal opening – takes ages doesn’t it? Now, just to complete the experiment, cut off the top (or bottom) of the fabric and see how easily it unravels vertically.
Steeking makes use of these properties of knitted fabric; the steek is made with EXTRA stitches, which are cast on at the point that you want the opening to start. This way you have a cast on edge to start cutting from so there is no danger of the knitting unravelling downwards.
Unless you are 200% certain that your tension exactly matches the tension given in the pattern and that the finished measurements of the pattern are exactly what you need for your jumper, and that your body is the size you think it is, it is a very good idea to try the body on before you start making the steeks for the armholes. To do this, transfer the stitches onto a pair of long circular needles, long enough to allow you to stretch the knitting as you put it on. They don’t need to be the size you are knitting with – you could use any needles so long as they are no bigger than the size you are knitting with. Yes, slipping several hundred stitches onto other needles is time-consuming, but not as bad as finishing the jumper and finding that it only fits a midget, or is large enough to camp in! Remember, once cut, you can’t unravel the jumper to re-knit it.
What to steek
Steeking works best with a hairy / fuzzy yarn – like Shetland, where the fuzz of the yarn stops the threads unravelling sideways from the cut edge. If you are steeking with slippery yarn like cotton or worsted spun wool you may need to sew round the opening with a sewing machine before cutting otherwise the ends of the yarn may work loose.
If you are working in more than one colour in each round you need to make sure that both colours are carried evenly across the steek, so work the steek stitches in alternate colours to make a chequerboard pattern, but make sure that the first and last stitch of the steek are always in the background colour for that row. When joining in a new colour, start it at the middle of the steek, there’s no need to fasten the end in, as it will be cut later anyway.
When you have finished the main part of the garment, the time has come to cut the steek. But before you do, take a good look at the garment, check for mistakes, dropped stitches, errors in the pattern, in fact anything that you might need to undo & re-knit, because this is your last chance. If all’s well, and you’ve double checked the measurements one last time in the pattern, grab a good sharp pair of scissors and cut up the middle of the steek, making sure you keep the cut straight between two vertical lines of stitches. You will (should!!) end up with a vertical flap of fabric 5 stitches wide (or half the width of the steek) either side of the opening. Don’t worry if it looks bulky at this stage, you will trim it and tidy it up later.
The example piece has been cut up through the full length steek, leaving 5 stitches of steek on either side of the opening.
Picking up stitches
Usually, once you’ve cut the steek open you pick up stitches round the armhole, neck opening or fronts of the cardigan and work down / out. If you are working from a pattern this will tell you how many stitches to pick up, making sure you space them evenly round the opening. You pick up the stitches in a vertical line between the first stitch of the main garment and the first stitch of the steek. Make sure you keep the picked up stitches in that vertical line, so that you get a nice tidy line in the finished garment.
This photo shows stitches being picked up along the edge of the body ready for knitting out to form the “button band”
Trimming and sewing down
Once the jumper is finished, you need to trim the steek and sew down the flaps of fabric to tidy up the opening. To do this, trim the steek to just two stitches either side of the opening, then using a herringbone stitch, sew down the spare fabric so that it doesn’t catch on your fingers as you put the jumper on (see photo).
A steek, trimmed and sewn down.
The same jumper, right way out
A worked example – Cardigan
This is not a pattern; I’m assuming that you either have a pattern written with steeks in mind or have a pattern to adapt to use a steek. Or perhaps you are writing your own pattern as you go.
For a cardigan, cast on the number of stitches you need for the body, plus 10 for the front steek. Work the body in the round up to the level of the armholes, making sure that you work the steek stitches in stocking stitch on every row (even while doing the ribbing at the bottom). If you are working in colour, work in alternate colours across the steek so that both colours are worked across.
This photo shows a test piece with a ribbed welt at the bottom and a steek running up the full length of the work from the cast on edge, just as you would for a cardigan, note how the colours are alternated across the steek in a chequer board pattern. You can also see the single stitch band in body colour running up the edge of the steek, when I pick up stitches to knit the “button band” I’d pick up between that stitch and the first of the ‘body’.
When you reach the correct height for the armholes, first try it on to check that the body is the right size (see above), then work to where you want the first armhole to be, put the underarm stitches onto a stitch holder and cast on the 10 steek stitches in their place. The backwards loop cast on is useful for this, but any method will do. Then continue working round the body until you reach the position of the second armhole, place the steek as before and continue working in rounds, placing armhole shaping as necessary and remembering to work all 3 steeks in both colours to carry the yarn over, until the body of the cardigan is complete. Fasten the shoulder seam together - I usually cast off the shoulders together on the wrong side using a 3-needle cast off, but you can cast off in the normal way and sew the seam if you wish.
Take the time to double-check that everything is as near perfect as you can make it before cutting the steeks.
Cut the steeks one at a time, and finish each sleeve / button band before tackling the next steek. Assuming you start with a sleeve, lay the cardigan the right way out, use a sharp pair of scissors and keep one hand inside the work so that you don’t cut through anything other than the steek. Identify the centre of the steek and carefully cut straight up between the stitches so that you have half the steek on either side of the opening. Identify the edge stitch of the steek and pick up stitches for the sleeve between the edge of the steek and the edge of the main body of the work.
Make sure that you space them evenly and keep to the same vertical line all the way round. The ratio of stitches picked up to rounds in the body will depend on the tension for the particular yarn / needle combination you are using but it won’t be one stitch for every round – it never is because stitches are shorter than their width. Work the sleeve downwards towards the cast off at the cuff, shaping as appropriate.
When you have finished both sleeves and the button bands, turn the work inside out so that you can trim and sew down the steeks. When you have trimmed the steeks to just two stitches either side of the opening, use a length of the main colour yarn to sew them down in a herringbone pattern (see photo above in the “Trimming and sewing down” section). Sew in any ends, add buttons. Wear with pride.
It’s the same for a jumper, but without the front opening. You may want to put a steek for the neck shaping, if so, treat it just like an armhole; leave the stitches for the front of the neck on a stitch holder or length of yarn, insert a steek and work the neck shaping either side of it.