Sock Serenity 3: Needles and Architecture

Needle choice/method

Socks are conventionally knitted “in the round”, although they may also be knitted flat (or “straight”) and seamed. To our mind the last thing that a sock needs is a seam to rub and blister our delicate feet and we consider it well worth the effort of learning to knit in a circular fashion. Knitting in the round has an additional benefit for all those knitters who hate purling – stocking stitch can be effected by knitting every row (or “round.”) Have you ever wondered why it is called stocking stitch? Because it makes a beautifully smooth fabric for knitted stockings (socks), that’s why.

So, having decided to knit your sock in the round, how are you going to achieve that – what needles are you going to use? The traditional way is with four (or five) double pointed needles (DPNs). These are like extra-long cable needles and are used to distribute the stitches evenly between three (or four) needles with the last needle “live” used to work the stitches.

But I only have two hands!

We refer you to the earlier comments on juggling. DPNs have been the cause of many a knitter fleeing from socks and other circular knits.

Fear not – we offer you an alternative – the Circular Needle.

Only one set of hands needed

The circular needle has two rigid pointed ends – the “points” joined together by a flexible “cable” –  usually of smooth nylon. The joints between the point and the cable are tapered to allow the stitches to slide easily onto the business end. When talking about circular needles we will normally refer to the complete set of two-points-and-a-joining-cable as “the needle.”

In fact, we offer you multiple ways of using circular needles in order to fabricate a sock

  • Small circumference (i.e. short cable) knitting, where the circular needle is especially designed for knitting small items – the pins (i.e. the sharp ends) are shorter than normal and the flexible cable joining them together is also very short.
  • Two circular needles – using fairly short circular needles, with half the stitches on one and the remainder on the other needle. One needle is used at a time, with the second left to dangle.
  • Magic Loop –  using one long circular needle. The stitches  are divided into two groups as with the previous method and separated by pulling out a long loop of the joining cable.

There are other methods – two socks at a time, one inside the other, on DPNs or small circumference circular, and two socks at a time, side by side on a Magic Loop – but let us not go there right now.

We recommend that you use DPNs or one of the three circular needle suggestions in our list. Of those, the first may look the most straightforward and simplest, but it can be awkward and requires a dedicated needle. The second and third methods are fast and easy. Using  Magic Loop means that you may use one needle for both little itsy bitsy socks and great big shawls, saving money on needles for spending on yarn or fibre – always a good idea in our estimation. Both methods have significant advantages – which you choose is pretty much a matter of personal choice, though different sock architectures may suggest different needle choice.

Overall, we have to note that learning to use DPN sets may save money – the same set of needles will accommodate work of a wide variety of sizes, whereas circular needles in any given needle diameter may need to be purchased in different cable lengths for different projects. One way around this problem is to use interchangeable circular needle sets – where the working points can be switched between a wide variety of cable lengths at will. It is worth noting that DPNs are more likely to be lost, or sat upon and broken… Go on, ask us how we know.

For this series, Gill will be using circular needles and Magic Loop. Beth is using DPNs.

Sock architectures

You can knit your socks starting from the top and finish at the toe, or from the toe upwards, completing at the cuff. You can even choose to start in the middle! There are a range of toe and heel styles to choose from, and you can even knit a sock without a heel at all, the “tube” sock, or knit a tube and then add a heel after you have finished, the “afterthought heel.”

We do not intend to address all the options here, just to give some indication of the paths that you might take. Designers are coming up with new and ingenious sock architectures all the time. This is the great fun of sock knitting, the knitter need never become bored as there is always something new to try. Socks also make great little canvases for displaying new stitch techniques and trying out new lace or cable patterns in a small way.

Top-down

The socks are started at the ribbed cuff and knitted downward towards the toe. When combined with a heel flap and turned heel (see below) they can probably be regarded as The British Standard Sock Model. Normal. Uncomplicated. Non-challenging except for your first pair. At the time of writing there are over 8,000 top-down sock patterns listed at Ravelry.

There are very many patterns to choose from if you wish to depart from a plain sock.

Top-down socks can be knitted on DPNs or using any circular method and lend themselves very well to Magic Looping or knitting on two circular needles.

The main drawback for a handspun knitter is not knowing how much yarn will be needed to finish a sock until the sock is completed. This can leave one with an incomplete pair of socks, or socks with one toe in a contrasting yarn… unless you have more matching fibre and the will and skill to make extra yarn to the same recipe as your initial skein.

Advantages: Plethora of available patterns; masses of user experience shared on the ‘net; basics easily memorised

Disadvantages: Measurements, swatches and maths needed to ensure a good fit; the flap heel can be a wear point, or rub the skin if not well fitted; difficult to try on in progress, especially if worked on DPNs; possible to run out of yarn and difficult to judge how much leg length may be knitted from the yarn available.

Additional skill needed: Grafting, otherwise known as  Kitchener stitch. Grafting the toe ensures that there are no nobbly knots around the toes to rub your skin. More on this when we come to it.


Beth’s example socks will be knitted top-down.

Toe-up

A less common method than the top-down one – Ravelry currently lists 2,710 toe-up sock patterns. This type of sock is knitted from the toes and up towards the leg. It’s perhaps best suited to the short row heel when you get there, but toe-up sock patterns using flap and gusset heels do exist.

Advantages: Can be fitted as you go, no maths required. Very easy to try on for fitting, especially when knitted on circular needle; Yarn can be measured and halved at start, legs are then knitted until yarn is finished; no toe grafting required, so no need to learn Kitchener Stitch

Disadvantages: Care needs to be taken with casting off, to ensure that the cuff is not too tight around the calf – a sewn bind-off is helpful here.

Gill’s example socks are to be worked toe-up.

Heel choices

No heel – as mentioned already, socks do not have to include a fashioned heel. A simple tube, closed at the toe end, is often sufficient for young children or for bed socks. Easy to put on, and wear tends to be evened out.

Short row heel – there are several variations on the short row heel – look for names such as Short Row, Wrap & Turn, Banjo, JoJo and Auto heel. These types of heel are rounded about the heel and formed with a mitred join.

Short Row Heel

 

Advantages: neat; unobtrusive; looks good in contrast colour

Disadvantages: can be difficult to avoid holes in the shaping; some people with high insteps find socks made with this heel type too restrictive about the ankle

Flap heel – sometimes known as a square heel. Usually used in conjunction with a triangular gusset panel and a turned heel. The heel flap is normally worked across half of the sock stitches.

 

Flap Heel

Advantages: the flap is simple to work and easy to reinforce; turned heel cup is neat and is easy to adjust for different heel widths; flap heel accommodates high instep with ease

Disadvantages: Requires picking up stitches; requires additional gusset; people with narrow heels may find excess material at the heel – may rub and/or wear.

Beth’s demo socks will have  a flap and gusset heel, Gill’s will be done with short rows.

Toe choices

There are as many sock toe types as there are shapes of feet. The knitter should choose a toe to suit their skill set and also take into consideration the  wearer’s foot shape. Top-down toes require closing – some are grafted, others are sewn. Grafting eliminates potential of seams rubbing and blistering. Standard toe instructions are usually symmetrical, meaning socks can be worn on either foot. Asymmetrical, or “anatomically correct” toes may be worked instead, for a better fit. A disadvantage of doing so is that wear will not be evened out as the sock is always worn on the same foot.

Top-down socks require decreases to be made towards the toe, whereas toe-up socks are increased from the cast on-point. Decreases and increases are usually mirrored – toe decreases  are made with K2tog on one side of the foot and K2tbl or SSK on the other. M1R and M1L “lifted increases” are useful for toe-up increases. None of this is hard and fast, you can use increases/decreases that are not fully mirrored, if you feel more comfortable working other forms. It would be hard to argue for perfection in stitches that are to be hidden inside one’s shoes; so as long as you can achieve the correct stitch count, who cares how you get there?

Top-down toes seem to almost always finish right at the end of the toe, but some toe-up methods start under the foot, working around the end of the toes to wrap them, and coming back up the foot again. There are a variety of methods of casting on for toe-up socks. Experiment with them until you find the one that suits you best. You should always feel free to substitute your favourite toes (and heels) in any sock pattern that you come across.

We favour Judy’s Magic Cast On for an easy and invisible start to toe-up socks. Cat Bordhi has a video introduction to Judy’s method, that has just a little variation to it.

Wedge – possibly the most common form of toe, and very easily achieved in either direction. Provides a centred toe with a chisel end, so is not really a natural foot shape at all. The top-down form is closed by grafting with Kitchener Stitch. Overall toe instructions when working top-down are usually 1½” to 2″ in length. You should check your pattern instructions and begin working the toe at the appropriate distance from the end. If you want to work the toe to fit your own foot rather than a mythical standard foot, work the foot part of your sock until it reaches the end of your little toe. Begin decreasing on alternate rows. Keep trying on until the gradient to your  big toe increases – switch to decreasing on every row. Close the toe when you have around 8 stitches top and bottom, or when the sock fits. You can rearrange these outline instructions to suit your own foot entirely. Beth will probably be making a bespoke wedge toe, when the time comes. (She has exceptionally awkward feet.)

Round – a more rounded toe shape can be achieved by making more decreases per decrease round, distributing the decreases throughout the round. Alternates with plain rows. On each decrease row, the decreases fall closer together – think of the shaping like a mini-hat. Gill favours a round toe shaping. 

Advantages:  Roomy, good for wide feet. Uses only K2tog decreases, no SSK. No grafting necessary.

Star – the star toe is a similar shape to the round toe. Decreases are made at even spacings in four positions. Alternate rows are plain. At the end, the remaining stitches are gathered up in the same way that a hat is closed. Usually closed somewhere between 4 and 8 stitches.

Advantages: as for round toe

Asymmetricalsometimes called “anatomically correct”, this toe is mirrored, for left and right feet to accommodate the natural shape of the foot. It provides a very comfortable fit and can be modified to suit the wearer’s own foot shape. Normally formed as for the wedge toe, but with the majority of the decreases worked at the outside edge of the foot. Could be achieved toe-up as well as top-down. The main disadvantage, as already noted, is that the wear on each sock is not distributed.

Later on, we will look at the detail of toe shaping for the toes that we shall be knitting. There are many Internet resources that give detailed toe shaping. We recommend Knitty – there is a page on toe-up sock toes here. Knitting Daily also has good instructions for round and star toes here.

NEXT: Making Socks