Sunday, October 21, 2007

Donna on Ethnic Knitting: Norwegian "Steek"

Here it is -- Donna Druchunas has graciously provided a Guest Post while I am preoccupied with caring for my aging parents full time. This is for any of us who have suffered from Fear of Cutting our hand knit fabric.

Donna writes:

Carol, thanks for having me as a guest poster as part of my blog book tour for Ethnic Knitting Discovery.

A few people on the tour have mentioned their anxiety about working steeks and cutting their knitting open, so I'd like to take a few minutes to talk about cutting knitting. For those who might not have heard the term "steek", I'll start with some basics. When you knit an entire sweater in the round, the body is one big tube. To create openings for the armholes, and sometimes for the front of the neck, you can cut the knitting. Yes, you cut it with scissors. Please don't faint.

Wool yarn works best for knitting that will be cut open, but any animal fiber or wool-blend yarn is also appropriate. If you've never cut your knitting before, don't try working with cotton or any other slippery yarn. Years ago, knitters simply took scissors to their knitting with no precautions to prevent unraveling. When you work with sticky yarn like Shetland or Icelandic wool, you'll find that nothing happens at all, and after a few wearings, the cut edges start to felt. But today we have many softer yarns, washable yarns, and fibers that don't felt. Some of these might tend to run or unravel when cut, so it's best to secure the knitting with machine or hand sewing before getting out the scissors.

The simplest types of armhole and neck openings are made with no special consideration during knitting. To try this for yourself, here are some instructions for making a swatch that you can cut. Every time I teach a workshop about this, the students sigh with relief after they cut this piece open and at least one person says, "I'm not afraid to cut my knitting any more."

Test Swatch for Cutting

Made with worsted-weight yarn in 1 or 2 colors using US size 7needles at a gauge of approx 4-1/2 or 5 sts per inch.

CO 80 sts. Place marker to indicate start of round, and join being careful not to twist stitches.

On rnd 1, place a second marker of a different color after the first 40 stitches. The markers will indicate the placement of the armholes.

Work about 1 inch in K1, P1 ribbing or K1, P2 ribbing. If desired, add a second color. You can use any colorwork chart you like, or you can knit this in one color for practice.

Knit every round until the piece measures at least 6 inches, but if you feel like knitting more, knit until the piece looks to be about the right proportions to be the body on a doll sweater. About 8 or 10 inches should be about right, depending on your gauge.

BO, placing a removable marker at each armhole location.

Preparing to Cut

Ok, ready? See where your markers are? These are the spots where we'll cut the armholes.

Measure down about 3 inches from the bound off edge of the knitting, and put a pin to mark this as the bottom of the armhole opening. Now, with contrasting yarn and a darning needle, baste up the middle of the stitch marking the armhole so you can clearly see the straight column of stitches, then take out the pin.

Use a sewing machine with matching thread, and sew a row of stitches one-half stitch outside the basting, starting at the bound off edge, going down to the bottom of the armhole basting, then go across the stitch at the bottom of the armhole, and back up the other side. Repeat this again another half-stitch away from the first row of stitches. (If you don't have a sewing machine, you can use hand sewing and backstitch. Make small stitches and split the yarn strands as you sew, to catch all of the stitches securely.)


Remove the basting. Then take a deep breath. With a pair of sharp scissors, carefully snip the stitches in the center of the rows of machine sewing.

Congratulations! You've just cut your first armhole open. You can sew and cut in the same manner to open the front of a cardigan.

What we've just done is cut a sweater armhole open in the traditional Norwegian style. We haven't really worked a "steek" on this swatch. A steek is made up of extra stitches that you cast on specifically for the purpose of cutting later on. Steeks are traditionally used in Fair-Isle sweaters and garments from other European countries. I explain steeks in detail in Ethnic Knitting Discovery, but I think this simple Norwegian cutting exercise is enough practice for today. I hope you'll take the time to try it and overcome the anxiety that many knitters have about cutting open their knitting.

Drawing by Deborah Robson, Nomad Press