Steeking without tears

Today I cut the front steek on Doug’s vest, and it was a glorious thing! I can’t even begin to tell you how much I fretted about the steeks over the last few weeks. (Fair isle knitting patterns are easiest to knit in the round, so that the sweater is in the shape of a tube. The steek is a column of extra stitches which are designed to be cut open once the knitting is done, producing the arm openings or the open front of a cardigan. If you are not accustomed to this, the idea of taking a pair of scissors to your knitting is quite scary.) I finally realised that much of my fretting was actually about the ribbing, rather than the steek itself. That is, I wanted the button band stitches to be picked up perfectly and evenly along the edges of the steek, and I wanted the alignment – both the alignment of one side of the vest to the other, but also the alignment of the columns of rib to the bands of the fair isle pattern of the garment – to be equally perfect. Call me a perfectionist.

I know me, and that means I know that I will pick up the stitches again and again and again, and fiddle, until each one is placed exactly right. I worried about doing this on a cut edge. I posted a question on Ravelry – can I pick up the stitches before cutting the steek? Well, it turns out that the answer – like with most answers in knitting – is that there is no right or wrong way to do it. I determined to pick up the stitches along the steek edge first, and then to cut. This was not only to allay my anxiety that something would go wrong, but also because I didn’t want to be worrying the edge if I ended up ripping stitches out multiple times.

If you are not a knitter and are somehow inexplicably reading this post anyway, or if you tend to get easily bored, please skip this paragraph! For the knitting nerds out there, this is for you! I spent many hours plotting and thinking and measuring and trying to determine the best rate of picking up stitches to allow the rib to lay flat along the button bands, but also to make sure that each button lined up exactly with the middle of each band of colour. The ribbing is 3×2, so the first determination was whether I wanted the buttonholes to be in the troughs (the 2 purl stitches) or along the tops of the knit ribs. This also meant that I needed to know the size of the buttons, and thus the size of the buttonholes. I determined to put the buttonholes in the purl columns. Each band of colour in the pattern was 10 rows high, with two stockinette rows in between, for a total of 12 rows per band. I picked up stitches at 3 per every 4 rows at the bottom ribbing, and then at 5 for every 6 rows for the body of the garment. This meant that I picked up 10 stitches for every band. I made sure that the two stitches at the exact middle of each colour band were purls – these would be where the buttonholes would be placed. That left 8 picked up stitches between each of the buttonholes – 3 knit, 2 purl, 3 knit. It worked out so perfectly!

In the above photo, you can see how I picked up stitches along one side of the steek. Those are on the top half of the photo. This photo is taken along the v-neck, so there are decreases, making the bands of pattern appear at a slight diagonal. I used the little closing markers to mark every group of 2 purl stitches, so I knew exactly how the rib would lay against the fabric. Between every group of two purls, are the three stitches destined to be the knit columns. I picked up stitches along the entire left side of the garment, to where the back neck stitches were held live on a second needle. Then, I used a third needle to pick up stiches all the way down across the other side of the steek. You can see this on the bottom half of the photo. I am picking up stitches from left to right because I am left-handed. I have continued to mark each of the groups of two purls, and this way I can check (obsessively!) to make sure that the purls are directly across from the purls, the knits are directly across from the knits, and furthermore that the middle two stitches of each colour band are always ending up as two purls. Thus, everything is in alignment.

Now, I have picked up along both steek edges. I ran out of stitch markers at some point, so ended up not marking every single grouping of purl stitches, but I can guarantee every picked up stitch along one side of the garment will align with the other side, so that once I have knitted the 3×2 ribbing, there will be no buckling, or stretching, or buttonholes that are in the wrong place. Here is a close up of the top end of the garment:

The back neck stitches are held live on one needle (with a green cable) and there are two long needles (with red cables) holding the picked up stitches along each side of the steek. You can see the shoulders, which I also dealt with in a slightly unconventional manner, having used a three needle bind off on the reverse side, instead of grafting them together. The whole thing looks strange and out-of-shape, because the decreases for the v-neck are worked along the edges of the steek and pull the two sides of the vest together. The v-neck shaping will not emerge until after the steek has been cut.

Now, I am all ready to cut, and you can see that instead of being apprehensive, I am excited and relaxed! This will be fun!

Snip! I can’t describe how satisfying the sound of the scissors was; snip snip! I had knitted the steeks with alternating rows of colour, so there is no guesswork involved in where to cut, and the fabric parts so easily. Now, I am approaching the neckline:

It all goes so fast! Here just seconds later, I am about to make the last cut, just as relaxed and happy (and perhaps a bit maniacal) as the first:

Yay! A steek! I did it! What was the fuss about, again?

You can see the v-neckline has suddenly emerged, now that the steek is now longer holding the edges of the two sides together. The cut edges are incredibly neat and tidy – this is the result of using the right wool. This is Shetland wool, and it is sufficiently “sticky” so that it won’t unravel. Nevertheless, I am so happy that I’ve already picked up the stitches for the button bands, and will be able to start knitting them right away. Look here as I fold back the two sides. Isn’t it lovely? Be still my heart!

Finally, a close-up of one of the steeked edges. You can see that it naturally folds itself to the inside of the fabric:

Next up will be knitting the ribbing for the button bands. This will be followed by two more steeks – one for each armscythe – and the ribbing around each arm. I haven’t decided yet whether to pick up those stitches first or not. I am not so worried about aligning the stitches between front and back of the armscythe, as you won’t see this when the garment is worn, so I suppose that I could cut first and then pick up. I am also less worried about this beautiful Shetland wool unravelling now that I’ve cut this steek. But I have a sneaking suspicion that I will repeat what I’ve done here, given how successful I found it to be this time.

After weeks of fretting in the back of my mind, cutting the steek was a breeze. It took me over 3 hours to pick up all of the stitches and carefully align the whole thing. It took about 30 seconds to cut the steek. No tears in sight.