Sunday, November 3, 2013

Steeks--BETA version, part 1: background


This post is the first in a series, showing a new way of creating and facing a steek to secure the edges and hide the cut ends.

Because it's new, it hasn't been time-tested.  However, at a recent teaching event the participants indicated real interest, so I'm writing it up. If you choose to try this trick, heads up! You're a guinea pig in the real-life test lab of knitting.

I believe it will work. I'm pretty sure it won't come out. Further, it's less bulky than many other methods for hiding a cut edge. Yet, I want to stress one more time that, unlike most tricks on this blog, this one is a beta version (beta=testing version). 

If I haven't scared you away, here's some background about steeks.  The actual method starts in the next post after this one.

* A STEEK is a trick for slitting an opening (usually a front opening or armholes) into a garment which was knit circularly.  In other words, a sweater might be knit in a tube right to the top, with the front and armhole openings being slit open afterwards with a pair of scissors.  As you can imagine, the main trick with a steek is to prevent the knitting adjoining the cut from coming loose, while at the same time hiding the cut ends forever.  In the trick to be shown in the next post, these important functions are performed by a strip of fabric added alongside the steek-cut, a strip called a FACING.

* A FACING is a LINING along a VERTICAL opening.  In this series of posts, we're assuming a facing on the inside of the front band.  The illustrations shows the inside edges of a steeked garment turned outward, showing the facing (in red) which runs up both inside edges of the steek. As stated above, this facing is the part which prevents the knitting from unraveling along the cut steek line, while also hiding the cut edges of the steek-cut.

Why would any sane person take a scissors to a project as labor-intensive as a hand-made sweater? Why not just knit pieces in the first place?

Steeking is a traditional method, and the old-time knitters were no fools: they couldn't go out and buy sweaters at the mall. They had to have had good reason for everything they did. In fact, there are several good reasons to steek.

Knitting on circular needles (making a tube) means you never have to purl. So, if your flat knitting "rows out," working a tube will solve that issue.

Stranded color knitting and circular knitting go together really well, also.  You're always working on the front face of the fabric: easy to see the pretty patterns developing correctly.  Further, you never have to purl back in stranded knitting, and stranded purling is worth avoiding.

While steeking has many advantages, there are disadvantages, too.  In the comments, reader Uehltje points out that cutting is permanent.  While there are other ways to restyle a poorly-fitting garment, it is unquestionably true that you cannot restyle a steeked garment by pulling out the yarn and re-knitting it.

Another disadvantage is that any steek, no matter how cleverly constructed, is going to be bulkier than an ordinary knit edge.  This is because the cut ends of the yarn simply must go somewhere, and there's no place for them to go other than the vicinity of the cut edge itself.

Further, some steeked sweaters are going to wind up bulkier than others. Specifically, a faced steek on a one color garment is going to be less bulky than on two-color knitting.  This is because, in stranded knitting, two strands have to be hidden for each row knit (one strand of each color in that row), whereas only one end has to be hidden per row in a one-color garment.

While some bulk at the front opening of a garment might not be too troublesome, an armhole steek puts bulk in the underarm area, an uncomfortable drawback with no really good solution.

Because of the bulk issue, it's best to try out a steek in the yarn you want to use for the garment, before knitting an entire garment and then discovering the steek is too bulky for your taste. The next post is a tutorial showing the steek worked up on just such a swatch.

Steeks are traditional to knitting cultures where wool is used, most famously northern climates, such as Norway.  The reason is twofold.  First, at that time and place, almost all yarn was wool, so when this technique was invented, wool was it.  Second, wool actually works best for this trick, and by "wool," I mean plain ordinary non-superwash sheep's wool.  This is because wool is, well, woolly.  Each strand is essentially a stack of scales.  When bumped or rubbed, you could see how such scales would hook together.

Wool fibers **

Contrast this to polyester, acrylic and all other oil-based yarns: oil is slippery, and so are its babies.  Further, oil-based fiber is extruded (squirted out) through shower-nozzle type devices, in a single smooth scale-less strand. Even if artificially crimped, as some newer synthetic yarns are, this stuff is slick at the most fundamental level.

Silk is just as slippery as oil-based yarns, being also completely scale-less.  Further, just like extruded oil-based yarn, silk, too, is an extruded fiber--it's just that a silkworm is doing the extruding, not a machine.

Plant-derived yarns, such as cotton and linen aren't as smooth as silk and oil-based yarns, because they do have growth rings, twists and other natural irregularities.  However, these don't compare to the irregular scales of sheep's wool, so these yarns, too, are slippery.

Bottom line: if you're planning to steek, the inherent grabbiness of ordinary sheep's wool is your ally in the fight against unraveling, whereas the inherent slippery-ness of the other fibers would be one more thing to fight against: if you haven't clicked any other link, click this one to check out a side-by-side close-up photo of the various fibers.

The TECH experimental method shown in the next post is based on the crocheted slip stitch.  The finished product includes a facing which hides the cut edges, and prevents any stress being transmitted to the fragile cut edge. The next post is a tutorial of the new method, as worked on a swatch.  See you then!

Until next time, good knitting --TK

** The illustration of wool fibers is from the copyright-free book "The Chemistry of Hat Manufacturing" by Watson Smith, available through Project Gutenberg


  1. I'd love to try this out. I am in need of sweaters and love circular knitting to pieces; I see quite a bit of steeking in my future.

  2. Ooh yes! I don't usually worry about facings honestly, but I'm all for seeing and trying a new method for steeking. Can't wait to read more about it!

  3. I look forward to being a guinea pig! I haven't tried steeking yet (although Fair Isle is on my bucket list), and I am a sucker for "better methods." (That's why, after reading about the various sock-making methods, I decided that two-at-a-time on Magic Loop make the most sense and literally jumped in with both feet! ha!)

  4. Ri Ri Ri
    Sign me up... I'll have a try :)

  5. A big drawback of steeking (for me) is also that you cannot go back and resize your article anymore. I ended up with a cardigan that was way too tight.

  6. Thanks to all the commenters who are willing to try this trick. I'm not actually formally looking for test knitters, it's more that I'm putting out this new trick with a warning note.

    On other words, while I think it will work, this trick is NEW, and so it might have wrinkles that haven't yet come to light. Proceed at your own risk!

  7. Hi Uhltje--You're right--once you've cut your knitting, there is no going back, the yarn can't be recycled. However, there are things you can do with the front bands which can make the cardigan bigger, at least across the front.

    In a future post in this series, I'll talk about front-band extensions, with some photographs showing what I mean. Maybe these extension tricks will help you rescue the too-tight garment.

    Stay tuned! TK

  8. Remembering a sewing quick-fix I had to do some time ago, I wonder whether it might be possible to widen the back of a steeked sweater by cutting down the middle and knitting a central stripe. Of course it would depend on the pattern. Some patterns might work with a decorative vertical strip inserted.

  9. I'd love to be a guinea pig! My plan is to work up a toddler-size Fair and steek from there. This should mean less knitting time and possible yarn waste (and fewer tears if it doesn't work for me!). Looking forward to your next post. Please be sure it shows in Facebook. Thanks!

  10. I went to a knitting exhibition here in Oslo last week and they said something I hadn't thought of: The circular needle was invented about 1890-1910 (they are not sure), so before that the knitters used either many needles, I knew about that, or they made the knitted project very small, with less needles, cut it open and sew it together - like an advanced steeking. These old Setesdalskofter was made in pieces like that. So even if you have cut the knitted garment, you can just add another stripe of knitted garment, if you need more space like.

    I grew up with a mother that used to hide the steek with a knitted lining, but there is some sense in that because it was made to last - like in forever. Because it used to be an outer garment it was important that it had to be sturdy, I guess. When I knit, now, and I love steeking because I knit a lot of stranded knitting and pure wool, I just cut it open, no crochet edge, no machine seam, because I know the wool will hold itself together. And I just turn the cut edge under the middle part of the edge, like this. I trust the hooks in the wool, you could say :)

  11. Hi Tamar--As Pinneguri points out below, yes, you can add a strip to widen a garment. Usually, however, it is added where the side seam would be in a pieced sweater, and goes at least partway up the sleeve.

    Hi Tooty, I will post a notice on FB about the next in the series. Thanks for the idea.

    Hi Pinneguri--As far as not using circular needles, there are certainly historical images showing women knitting circular garments on 4 or five needles, there is even a famous old painting called the "Knitting Madonna." Here is the link to it:

    The woolly garment at your link is VERY lovely--I can't tell, but is it made, perhaps, from a long-fiber type yarn? Those are are the very best yarns for steeking, for sure. I think in a lofty and rather soft, slick, fluffy "Germantown-type" yarn, the hooks would have a hard time holding the cut. I'd be anxious about it, anyhow.

    I shall be MOST interested in your reaction to this new method.

    Best regards, TK

  12. TECHknitter and Pinneguri in one place! I have not been brave enough to steek yet, although I'm eager to try, and you haven't steered me wrong yet. Looking forward to seeing how you do this!

  13. Has anyone ever tried out faux steeking (my own term)?

    I am afraid to steek because I do like to rework a project until it looks right to me.

    On the other hand I think seams give a garment structure that it would otherwise lack.

    So why not do the entire prep in reverse, say a column of:


    at every place you want a seam. Do the sewing up and all the preparation for steeking except the actual cutting and then seam it up.

    If there's going to be bulk anyway, would this give a bad result?

    I haven't tried it because I'm a very slow knitter and I have to think through a technique before I can actually inflict it on my work but this must have occurred to someone before me. No??

    I don't think it even wastes significantly more yarn.

    And then twenty years down the line, it can be repurposed without making a mess.


  14. Dear Naomipaz--I'm not sure why you would want to create a thick and bulky fake steek which, at the end of the day, is the same thing as a seam? Or am I confused about your proposal? Best regards, TK


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Thanks, TK