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For many dyed-in-the-wool knitters, the very idea of cutting their carefully hand-knit fabric is close to blasphemy. However, knitters have been cutting their garments intentionally for many years. Most of the Fair Isle sweaters, prized for their intricate and colorful use of many yarns to create a wealth of patterns, employ the technique of using steeks to insert sleeves, make cardigans and even produce V-necks, all without knitting a wrong-side row.
I first learned about the steeking process when knitting garments designed by Elizabeth Zimmermann. Using the methods to which she ardently subscribed, a cylindrical tube of knitting could be produced without ever purling! For those who dislike the action of purling, this is a real boon. The process requires either circular- or double-pointed needles to do the trick, but the knitter is never required to turn the work and purl back. An added bonus is practically no seaming is required upon completion of the garment.
The first argument I had when trying to visualize this technique was "won't the stitches just disintegrate into a pile of yarn?" The answer is "no, they won't." Here’s why: raveling is an action which happens in the vertical plane of knitting, not the horizontal. If a stitch is cut, no cataclysm will befall the stitches on either side of the cut. In order to allay your fears and prevent any "collateral damage," most steeking is preceded by connecting the stitches to the right and left of the intended cut, either by machine sewing or using a crocheted method. We'll be using the sewn technique in the lesson today.
The classic Fair Isle garments were made with Shetland wool, known for its rather prickly fibers. This wool is perfect for the technique as the fibers adhere to each other, preventing any raveling without the need of sewing before cutting. Because many knitters like to use other more refined wools with this technique, the sewn method was developed to allow knitters to have confidence and the ability to sleep at night after cutting their knits.