OK, deep breath: Time to talk about steeks! First of all, there is considerable disagreement about the word "steek," but it is now so pervasive in American knitting that I'm not going to get into it! I'll be discussing several steek styles here, but please keep in mind that I'm talking about steeking Shetland yarn--not cotton or rayon or superwash!
A steek is a set of of extra stitches (or extra yarn) that will be cut apart to create openings in the knitted piece. Steeks allow us to knit a garment in the round rather than back and forth in pieces.
There are many ways to prepare and finish steeks, which creates confusion in those who have never done them before. The finishing method you prefer will dictate the optimal way to set up the steek, so let's organize this little tutorial by finishing methods. (Note on the charts: The X stands for background stitches. Please ignore the odd horizontal and vertical stripes!)
You can ignore the entire issue by breaking off the yarn at each opening and knotting the ends. These knotted ends will felt with washing.
A simple way to make a steek is to wind the yarns around the needle several times when you reach the steek point; on the next round, drop the wrapped stitches and wind new ones. The dropped stitches form a wide ladder, which you will cut up the center. The yarns are then darned into the fabric.
CUTTING WITHOUT STABILIZING THE STEEK
Because Shetland yarn is somewhat "sticky," when you knit at a firm gauge it is possible to simply cut up the center of the steek. To do this successfully, you will want to make sure the colors are alternated frequently; this won't work well if long floats are present. Alice Starmore (Book of Fair Isle Knitting) sets up the steek this way:
Ann Feitelson (Art of Fair Isle Knitting) creates a obvious line for cutting:
When the garment is done, the steek flaps are trimmed to 2 (Starmore) or 3-4 (Feitelson), turned under, and secured with herringbone stitching. This makes an unobtrusive and neat finish.
This is a very secure way of securing the steek stitches. Using a short stitch, you work up one side of the center and down the other, stitching as close to the cutting center as possible. If you are feeling worried about the process, you can run another line of stitching next to the first. When you are ready to cut, work from the back of the knitting: The stitching is much more obvious on that side. You don't want to cut through the machine stitching. In general, the people who machine stitch tend to prefer striped steeks, which guide the stitching. When it comes time to finish the garment, the cut edge is turned under (it's nicely flattened by the stitching) so that the machine stitching is hidden and basted down. This method will work with slippery yarns.
You can stabilize the steek with slip-stitch crochet through the halves of the center stitches. This is my preferred method these days--although it is time consuming, it forces the cut ends to roll under neatly and the steek looks very nice after it's cut. Again, there are several ways to set up for a crocheted steek.
Joyce Williams (Latvian Dreams) sets up her steek this way:
By alternating background and pattern stitches on each side of the knitted fabric, she reduces stress on the stitches. Clever gal!
I set up my steeks differently (within the same garment!) depending on whether I am working a garment with close or extreme color changes. The issue of handling color changes in a steek is one area of confusion for many knitters.
When the colors I am working with blend into each other fairly easily, I use the spit-splice method of changing colors. So, when I am setting up a steek that is not involved with the color changes or is where a spit-splice color change occurs, I set it up this way (heretofore referred to as a Regular Steek):
But this is how I set up a steek when I am dealing with color changes that do not lend themselves to felted splicing (the Color Change Steek):
I drop one color after stitch 5 and start the new color on stitch 6.
CAUTIONARY NOTES ABOUT CUTTING
Don't try to cut the steeks when you are feeling rushed or distracted. It helps to have a pair of very sharp, short scissors. Under good light, cut a few stitches at a time--no need to rush. Elizabeth Zimmermann famously prescribed a cool washcloth to the forehead in a darkened room as a way to recover from cutting your first steek! Others have suggested a glass of wine (or something stronger).
Whew, so there are several set up techniques. Enough to make your head spin. I'm going to pause for a bit to collect my thoughts so I can figure out how to explain the way I approach the actual crochet.