Sock Serenity 1: Socks are Scary

Socks are scary.  Is that what you think? It is what many knitters believe – and that was certainly true of me. I regarded sock knitting as something fearful. I even had Gill promise to help me out with my first heel, when the time came. Of course, I did not need her help because… socks are easy. It is true. All a knitter has to do is to follow some simple instructions and hey presto, a sock appears, exactly as if by magic.

In fact, sock-knitting is a wondrous thing. I like to think of it as soft engineering. Just a few simple stitches that turn a tube into a sock structure complete with heel and toe. The first time that I turned a heel (all on my own, remember) I was thrilled to bits. It’s something that has not left me. Every single time that I turn a heel, I marvel at the way that it works. Here’s a secret – sock knitting makes me feel so clever, even now I know that it is not difficult at all.

Sock-knitting may be a wondrous thing, but wearing a pair of socks knitted especially to fit your own foot – now that is an even better thing. To make those socks from yarn that you have spun yourself? What else could give so much satisfaction!

The greatest difficulty that you might face as a sock knitter is in learning to knit “in the round” on double pointed needles (DPNs) if you have not done so before. Juggling four or five needles may not come naturally or easily. The good news is that a knitter does not necessarily have to be a juggler. Do not let a lack of manual dexterity dissuade you from making a pair of socks. We are here to show you just how straightforward the process can be.

Above all, discount the fear factor. Don’t let a few knitterly nerves get in the way. Can you knit and purl? Can you decrease? Then you can make socks. An ability to increase stitches and to pick up and knit can also come in handy, depending on the kind of socks that you wish to make. And the really good news? You don’t have to learn to use DPNs at all!

Vanilla Socks

In my estimation, one of the best places for a sock knitter to begin is with the free Simple Sock pattern by Sue Morgan that is provided with purchases of Opal and Regia sock yarns. It is certainly simple and it provides a well-fitting sock, with no tears or tantrums along the way. It remains my go-to pattern for everyday socks. I am still wearing my very first pair of Opal socks. I still love them.

The only drawback for us as handspun sock knitters is that such a pattern is written for a specific type of yarn, with known characteristics. Our yarn may be considerably more quirky (well, I know that mine is). We do have one or two minor hurdles to leap before we can discover the simplicity of sock-knitting. We shall have to consider the characteristics of our yarn before making our socks, and we shall have to do some arithmetic too. We will be discovering the Art of the Swatch and something referred to as Tension or Gauge. We shall be taking measurements. Nothing too difficult there; just some worthwhile preparation that will ensure that our completed socks are well-fitting and hard-wearing.

Heresy

Many introductions to socks would have you make a mini sock initially. Some suggest beginning with baby socks. We disagree. We believe that you would be better to begin with a great BIG sock if you want to take baby steps in sock-knitting. It’s easier to handle, being far less fiddly, and far easier to see what you are doing and how the basic sock construction is engineered.

Here’s a thing – first time around, why don’t you disregard everything that we have to say about measuring and tension and getting the right yarn… Forget about aiming to make a pair of wearable socks. Make just one sock! Get yourself some big fat yarn and some big fat needles, choose a number divisible by 4 (64 is a good number, but choose any you like) and set off to make a giant sock. Make a Christmas stocking perhaps. Or knit your single giant sock at a loose tension and then when it is finished, shrink it down to a felted sock that fits. You may find that you want to make a pair of it. Then again, you may wish to return to the beginning and start a proper pair.

You are in control.

Let’s say that again. YOU are in control.

Socks in general

Have you ever properly considered a sock? Go and find a sock now and take a good look at it. Any old sock will do – it does not have to be a hand-knitted one. An oldish and well-worn one would be good to have to hand just now.

All socks share some common factors. Some socks will have a few more things in common.

  • A foot, closed at the toe end – a few perverted socks have individual toes, like gloves with fingers, but we don’t intend to discuss those here!
  • A heel – 90 odd per cent of socks have heels, a few don’t.
  • A leg – length varies from somewhere around the ankle to over-the knee. We shall begin with short ones, ending somewhere under the calf. Anything longer requires a little more engineering and we are not ready for that, yet.
  • A ribbed cuff or some mechanism to prevent the leg falling down – but some socks are designed to slouch, like teenage Emos.

A note on terminology – some patterns refer to what we shall be calling “the leg” as “the cuff” – this seems to vary according to your side of the Atlantic. We are on the right-hand side. We shall therefore be having legs. Cuffs are the bit that hold the leg up, or turnover at the top and are decorative.

Socks are subject to wear. Take a close look at your old sock. Does it show signs of wear? Are there any holes or thin patches? Typical wear points are

  • at the sharp end, especially if you have ridiculously long big toes like mine
  • at the heel
  • under the sole and/or heel

We will be looking at the ways that knitters can accommodate these wear patterns and compensate for them when making their socks. It can be useful to know which the typical wear points are for the intended sock recipient.

What kind of sock do you want to make

We are almost ready to think about making our socks now, but before we go any further, please stop to think about what kind of socks you want to make. It will affect how you progress from this point. Are you aiming to make some boot socks, to warm your toes inside you wellies, or some ultra-hard-wearing hiking socks? Do you need soft, light-as-a-feather bed socks or cosy fireside warmers for your tootsies? Or do you need an everyday sock to wear inside your shoes? You will need to bear this in mind when choosing/making yarn and judging your tension/gauge. We will teach you what you need to go as this series progresses.

It may be that you are coming from the other direction – you have made some yarn and think it should become socks. That’s OK. But you will need to assess what kind of socks and wear that your yarn will be suited to.

As with everything else in this tutorial, feel free to ignore the above. If you don’t mind investing hours in spinning and knitting socks, simply to be faced with the need to darn after the socks’ first outing, that’s entirely up to you. Some people enjoy darning. (I once got a Brownie badge for darning, but that doesn’t mean to say I want to spend my time darning now.)

NEXT: Fibre and Yarn choices