It’s that time of the year again! Knitters scramble to finish up gifts, they scurry to gather provisions for the wintertime queue and I get inundated with frantic calls and emails about steeking – a finishing technique that’s central to stranded knitting – one that elicits shock and panic from the uninitiated, yet pride and delight from the practiced. If you’re new to this concept and wonder “Why in the world would any sane knitter ever cut their knitting?!”, check out this old 7-page steeking tutorial of mine. In a hurry? (Who isn’t?!) To get you through today’s really-not-at-all-terrifying task, here are my top ten tips on how to make your machine-sewn steeks a quick, and ever-lasting, success:
- I would NOT use crocheted steeks on anything other than Shetland wool. All smooth wool yarns, and ANY plant-based or synthetic yarns, require machine-sewn steeks.
- As with all things in Knitting, it’s the lowly swatch that’s key in separating the pros from the schmoes. Use your swatch for a little trial sewing-and-cutting run, to take the guesswork out of the process. Didn’t swatch for this project? (Boy, are you in trouble! We’ll have to talk about this later, Young Knitter. In the meantime…) Use any old swatch, or part of a frogged project, or even that Ugly Christmas Sweater you can’t believe you’ve kept in your closet all these years…as long as it’s about the same gauge and similar material, any scrap knitted fabric that you can experiment on will be a huge help in giving you a carefree, and informative, practice run. Better to find out how your machine behaves – or misbehaves – on something you don’t care about!
- Use a very short stitch length on your sewing machine. The reason crocheted steeks fail with smooth yarns is that they typically loop around each strand of yarn. With a slight tug, most any smooth yarn can slip right through that crocheted loop. (But, if it’s sticky, like Shetland wool, well, you might not even need that bulky crocheted loop to begin with. But, that’s another post, for another day.) If you bisect, or even trisect, each yarn strand with short machine stitches, cut strands will not be able to slip through – they’ll be locked in place for good.
- Sew two lines, right next to each other, for the ever-helpful belt and suspenders approach. (I always use straight lines. Some people like zigzags. I don’t see the point. And, I always have at least one stitch column for cutting in the middle of my steeks, sometimes two. But, I have seen patterns without any extra columns at all. I think an extra stitch or two in the middle is great insurance – well worth the effort!)
- Odds are you’ll be covering your sewing lines with hems, facings or maybe even a covered steek, so feel free to use a contrast color of thread to make the process easier on your eyes.
- Keep loose yarn ends away from your sewing lines by temporarily tucking them aside under plain, old scotch tape – it takes seconds and it works wonders!
- Another plain, old wonder: A layer of tissue paper between your knitting and the machine keeps fluid, textured or extra fine fabrics from getting snagged by the machine’s feed dogs (those pesky, gnarly gears below the needle that pop up to pass the fabric through.) Once you’re done reinforcing, the tissue peels away in a snap.
- Norwegian armhole steeks are typically sewn and cut right into patterned body fabric, without any striped guidelines. If you’re afraid your sewing might stray out of bounds on those spots, run a quick baste line with contrasting yarn down the center of the sideline, to the base of the armhole. You can pull it out as you sew along, knowing your stitches are staying right on track. (As for cardigan and neckline steeks, I ALWAYS knit those steek stitches to create vertical stripes, but I know some folks like to create a checkered pattern. That makes no sense to me! I say stick with the striped method and you’ll have your guidelines set from the start.)
- Work that backstitch! The most high-risk areas tend to be the very tops and bottoms of the opening (aka the stops and starts of your sewing lines) and the base of the armholes. Those are the areas where you’ll want to use your machine’s backstitch function liberally. And it does not have to be a thing of beauty – you’re shooting for a thing of strength! Remember, these areas will eventually be covered, so don’t hesitate to backstitch a couple of times to be sure you’ve caught the edge stitches securely. Same thing on that armhole – it’s okay to go around the bottom corners a couple of times to be certain you’re leaving a secure line that will hold up to constant movement.
- Once it’s time to cut, use sharp, pointed scissors, sit in a well-lit spot and take your time. A sheet of cardboard inside your sweater, underneath your steek, can keep you from cutting anything other than your cutting line – priceless for peace of mind!