Sock Serenity 4: Making socks

The yarn is chosen, so is the sock use, and we now also have an inkling which direction we plan to knit our socks, on what kind of needles and may even have already elected for a toe shape and heel type.

  • Gill: Knitting a warm boot sock in Jacob 2ply from a round toe upwards towards a short row heel.
  • Beth: Knitting a sturdy walking sock from Corriedale/Romney 3ply yarn, working top down towards a wedge (or similar) toe, via a flap and gusset heel.
  • You: ?

Time to cast on!

Well, maybe not quite.

Have we swatched?

We cannot get away with this task. When knitting with handspun there is no convenient label to tell us what gauge this yarn knits to on what size needle. Note that when I say “we” I do mean Gill and Beth – you may well be a better spinner. You may have knitted many times with your yarn and know exactly how it is going to perform. Feel free to charge ahead while the rest of us are swatching.


Swatching – the knitting of a small sample of fabric – performs at least three functions:

  1. Testing the fabric produced on a given size of needle – we are looking for a firm fabric that won’t move around when used in a sock. We do not want our yarn to pill or felt or to wear out too quickly.
  2. Providing a gauge or tension measurement from which we can calculate a finished size of sock/necessary number of stitches
  3. Providing a washed sample of fabric

A tension square should be of a reasonable size. If  you are going to be measuring stitches per inch (or per cm) in order to calculate stitch count for a given size of foot then a more accurate measurement can be taken over a number of inches – four inches/10 cm is often given as a guideline. The implication therefore is that your knitted square needs to be a little wider than that.

The good news is that for a plain sock, row count is not critical – so you can cut your square down to a wide rectangle. You should make it at least 2″(5 cm) wide, so that  you can measure stitch count over at least an inch, but 5″(12.5 cm)  wide, allowing you to take an average over 4″ (10 cm) is far more reliable. We understand the impatience of knitters and you will note from our photographs that we do not readily practise what we preach. We are however aware that there may be a price to be paid farther down the road. Feel free to laugh at us when that happens, especially if you take the time and patience to measure your stitch count over four inches… (If it helps, I try to compensate for my lack of inches by sampling measurements in several places on a smaller swatch.)

The even better news is that if you are planning to go toe-up, you have no counting to do at all and will be sizing your socks as you go. You will still need to knit a swatch however! No, really, feel free to ignore this advice, but it is good advice. Knit a small square (though large enough to handle) and wash it. Pat it into shape and dry it flat – but do not pin it out under great tension, as though it were  a lace sample. This simple act will give you a very clear indication of whether you are going to like your sock fabric or not. If you are a little iffy about your swatch, knit another using larger needles for a floppier more open fabric, or smaller ones for a closer, sturdier fabric.

Keep iterating until you find a needle size which yields a fabric density that makes you a happy sock knitter.

  • Write that size down.
  • Do it NOW.
  • Remember where you put that note.
  • Labelling the note with the yarn and project details is a good idea.
  • Attaching it directly to your swatch is an even better idea.

The washing of  your swatch is very important. Only after your swatch is washed will you know if the final fabric will suit your intended use and only after the swatch is washed will any shrinkage have taken place, and it is the final washed measurement that will affect the size of your sock.

If your yarn showed any major shrinkage bear that in mind when trying on toe-up socks. Even better – give that yarn a really good wash and get that tendency out of it before you begin knitting.

Now, count your stitches.

Measuring tension

To count the stitches….
A stitch makes a v shape and it’s these ‘v‘s that you count as one stitch.
Lay the swatch flat and place a tape measure or ruler horizontally on the swatch. Place a pin at the side of one v and another pin 4″/10cm away. If your swatch is smaller, measure one, two or three inches –   as far as you can, always  the bigger, the better.
Count the stitches between the two pins, including any half stitches.

Divide to get stitches per inch or an equivalent metric figure, if that suits you better,

Check it.

Check it again.

  • Add that figure to your note of needle size.
  • NOW
  • Don’t forget to include your units of measurement


Nature, in her wisdom, so arranged matters that the leg measurement about the ankle is pretty much the same as the measurement about the widest part of the foot. Now, that’s very handy for the sock knitter, especially the new maker of socks. It means that once we have calculated the number of stitches needed to fit the ankle, we simply maintain that figure and return to it after making shapings. Effectively we are making a simple tube shape, with a small detour for the heel, and maintaining the status quo until decreasing at the toe. If you are knitting in the  other direction the same holds true – find out how many stitches are required for the foot and you can safely work on the same number for the leg.

This is the reason for us knitting a short-legged sock as our first sock – that and the fact that we don’t want you to get tired/bored knitting miles of leg. You see, we assume that you have a comely turn to your calf – and that means that your socks will need shaping if they are to rise much above the ankle. That would require more measurements and further arithmetic. We think that you have enough on your plate with a first sock without factoring in all that nonsense.

We do suggest that you take both measurements, above the ankle (at the point you wish your socks to start/finish) and at the widest part of the foot. If Mother Nature did decide to make you more distinctive than the norm, we can then take this into consideration when making the socks. We’ll bet you find a close correlation, though.

When you have your measurements, add them to your notes.


Now, it would be great to pretend that sock sizing is a precise science. There are a number of pattern calculator tools out there that might lull you into a sense of reliance. The fact is that it is more of a black art. What we can offer you is a couple of heuristic calculations that should yield acceptable results. Take them, use them, discard what fails to work for you and learn from experience. You will soon have your own tried and tested method for making your own perfect socks.

Remember that socks need to stretch in order to stay up. Unless you intend to make a slouchy sock, your stitch count will not be a simple calculation of ankle size multiplied by spi.

Here is Beth’s swatch.

Swatched and counted

Measured over 2 inches and counted in several places, the unstretched stitch count comes up as 13 or 14 stitches- giving us 7 to 7.5 spi. (This is the point at which she begins to wish that she had knitted a larger swatch as this would allow a closer determination of which figure to use.) Now that the swatch is washed, it is agreeable stretchy – this will be factored in to her pattern.

Beth’s slender ankles of her girlhood are now but a distant memory – her measurement is 10″, taken at the top of the socks that she is wearing today. The widest part of her foot is actually around the instep, which measures 9.5″ – the part around her foot that looks the widest is actually only 9″ – you too may wish to sample a variety of locations for your foot.

One heuristic for obtaining stitch count is to subtract one inch from the measurement, then multiply by the stitch count:

  • 10″ – 1″ = 9″
  • 9″ * 7 spi = 63 stitches
  • For a basic ribbed cuff, we need a multiple of 2 stitches. As gauge varies between 7 and 7.5, it is best in this instance to round up to 64.

If your foot and ankle measurements closely correspond, you can knit the same number of stitches throughout – ensure that this is an even number. A multiple of 4 stitches will cover all bases when it comes to toe shaping. 64 can be factored by 4. Hurrah.

A second heuristic does the basic calculation and then subtracts a percentage for stretch

  • 1o” ankle measurement * 7 spi = 70 stitches
  • Subtract 10 to 20% for a close-fitting sock or Subtract a smaller percentage 0 – 10% for a looser fit (Remember that you may need to adjust these percentages according to the elasticity of your stitch pattern and the characteristics of your swatch.)
  • Round to an even number/multiple of 4, as preferred
70 * 0.95 = 66.5 rounded = 64/66/68
70 * 0.90 = 63 rounded = 62/64
70 * 0.85 = 59.5 rounded = 60
70 * 0.80 = 56 rounded = 56

Beth’s sock is to be in stocking stitch, which is fairly stretchy, though she wants a reasonably close fit in a walking sock. The minus 10% figure would seem about right, and this yields 64 stitches too. She will be trying the sock on as she goes, it won’t be too hard to put right if the fit looks poor but 64 looks like a very good start point for this pair of socks.

Meanwhile, in another part of the island, Gill has been a very clever girl. She is knitting toe-up and does not have to do all this planning and calculating. She’s just gone for a cast-on, and will fit her socks as she goes. Her swatch is live. Perhaps we should learn from her example…

Casting on

Gill – Toe up

The toe up sock begins

The toe up sock begins

Using Judy’s magic cast on Gill cast on 8 stitches and knitted one round. She then doubled the number of stitches by knitting every one front and back. In order to make a round toe she then increased on every third row, the first time round increasing in every other stitch; on the next increase, increasing every third stitch and so on, until, after trying the toe on her foot, decided that at 56 stitches it would be a nice chunky wellie sock. Now it’s just a case of knitting up the foot until she gets to the heel.

Beth – Cuff down

Casting on to two needles held together

Beth likes to cast socks on to two needles, eliminating any tendency towards an over-tight cuff. Using the contrast blue yarn, she has cast on 64 stitches, using a long-tail cast-on.These are Clover bamboo 7″ needles. When one is pulled out (carefully!) it is easy to redistribute the stitches onto three (or four, as you prefer) needles for knitting.

Extricate one

The stitches are now on three Brittany Birch 5″ needles. Beth is usually a Magic Loop knitter and dislikes the tendency of DPNs to get tangled up  in her sweater cuffs. Using shorter needles helps.

Redistributed 22 – 20 – 22

Note the absence of any stitch markers. Intelligent placement of stitches on needles can help to minimise the need for stitch markers, especially when the tail from casting on identifies the start of the round.

Beth  is going to knit in a plain K2P2 rib for a while. Probably for about 3″. She will stick to three needles for now, as she likes  the stability of the triangular configuration.

NEXT: Continuing the Top-Down Sock