How to Make a Needle-Felted Steek
The knitting life is full of epiphanies and coincidences. A case in point: Just as Ann was needing to cut the longest steek of her life, on her epic Stranded Stripe Throw from MDK Field Guide No. 13, a knitter wrote us with news of a fantastic way of securing a steek that we’d never heard of. We are thrilled to introduce our newest contributor, Gretchen Funk, and this very sharp (pun!) technique.
—Ann and Kay
Alice Adams of Minnesota is a hand knitter, machine knitter, and scientist, who also is a lot of fun to knit with. I always look forward to time talking about techniques with her.
A few years ago, I made a project with a particularly long steek. Mentioning my trepidation about sewing with a machine, and how tedious I felt it would be to crochet a steek, I asked what her preference would be. Alice smiled and quietly said “I would needle felt it.”
I put down my knitting. My mind raced. Needle felt the steek? How would that work? Would that work? That would work! As soon as I could, I tried it, and now it is my preferred method.
My friend Alice has invented a new way to steek, and it works!
I have had the pleasure of presenting this method to my students at The Yarnery, a yarn store in St. Paul MN, at a workshop at Everwood Farmstead Foundation in Wisconsin, and to fellow attendees at Meg Swanson’s Schoolhouse Press Knitting Camp in 2018. At each event hands shot up with questions and thoughts of how the technique could be used; from steeking, to mending, to reinforcing, to securing floats, and on and on. How appropriate considering the scientific mind that thought of it!
Now, with Alice’s kind permission I am sharing it with you.
What is a Steek?
Let’s start with steeking. Why steek? So we can knit in the round. Because it’s easier to maintain tension in the round, and two-color or cabled knitting can be a major drag to knit flat, but we really like cardigans.
If you aren’t familiar, a steek is a small set (3, 5, or 7) of extra stitches placed within a circular pattern to form a vertical strip of fabric that will be cut later. The knitting is traditionally made of wool and usually in a colorwork pattern. Typically the steek is reinforced after knitting, but sometimes it is just boldly and coldly cut.
Methods of reinforcing have ranged from hand or machine sewing, to crocheting the edges of the steek, to adding extra stitches that are unraveled and sewn in. Occasionally steeks are used in fabrics not made of wool, and those are often reinforced with a machine-sewn line. These methods are all good. Which one you use is a matter of personal preference, yours or the pattern writer’s.
Needle felting to reinforce a steek is quick, easy, and clean. It takes a few special tools that are easily acquired and little new skill.
But most of all, reinforcing with needle felting is secure. Who doesn’t need more security? Of all the methods, this is the one that most calms the nerves, and it’s fun to do.
Here are the tools I use to needle felt steeks:
—A piece of cardboard to place inside the object while cutting
Already in possession of some needle felting equipment? Here are two items I leave off the list:
—Foam or sponge-style needle felting mats. Will it work? Sure. But the fabric needs to be pulled up every few punches so it will not melt into the sponge, which I found tedious. In addition, the squishy texture did not feel secure to me while punching.
—Single felting needles. Of course these can be used, but I am lazy and like to have many needles working for me, like a tiny army. The 5-needle punch with a retractable guard covers exactly the number of stitches I use for my steeking area, and works quickly.
Now that you have the equipment, here are the basics.
Make your knitted item with the 3-7 stitch steek section in the place where your cut will be. In patterns that include a steeked opening, just follow the pattern for placing and working the steek stitches.
Please note I’m not requiring the item be two-color knitting, or solid color knitting, or in the round, or patterned, or not. That is because you can use this method on anything made of wool. If you are unsure, just make sure it works on a swatch. It could even be used on woven or crochet fabric. (Weavers and crocheters, pick up that thought!)
Place the brush pad under the area to be felted.
Be very careful not to pull or stretch the fabric over the brush. If the fabric gets pulled, it will spread while felting. and then ruffle when cut. That will be a major bummer, with nothing to be done about it.
Just place the fabric gently on the brush, and if you are unable to help yourself give it a tiny pat on top to secure it. That’s enough.
Punch the needle through the fabric.
Try to hit all the spots along the steek line at least a few times.
I work 1-3 inch sections over 5 stitches punching about 20-30 times, then checking and maybe doing it 10 more times. Pick up the work to see how it looks on the back. It will be fuzzy and the stitches will get less and less visible. This is what we want, smooth on the front and very fuzzy on the back.
Be careful not to over-punch. If you are overzealous, the fabric can get chewed up, and there is no going back. It is hard to get to that point though, so don’t be scared—just aware. Everything is a balance. I stop when the stitches are no longer visible, usually over the same 3 stitches.
Cut the fabric.
Important: place something (a piece of cardboard is perfect) between what you are going to cut and the back side of the work. It can end in tragedy if floats on the other side of the work are cut, ask me how I know.
That’s it! Now you are ready to finish the edges as you wish.
Please join me at Minnesota Knitters Guild Yarnover 2020 event in Minnesota for a Live Lesson. Special thanks to Alice Adams who trusted me to teach this method and broadened my mind while doing it. Thanks also to my fantastic sample knitter Hanna Stenerson, If you would like to see a tutorial or thoughts from those to whom I have taught this method, check out Meg Swansen’s video blog and my fellow teacher Susan Rainey’s blog post.