Monday, March 21, 2016

Ode to Sock Knitting

Some of the socks I've knitted.

I find it utterly fascinating that I can take what is basically some string and sticks and magically not only create fabric, but create fabric that has shape to it.  A sock is so complex - it starts out small at the toe, and with gradual increases you shape it to fit around the foot before magically making that fabric do a nearly 90 degree turn to form the heel...again, all with sticks and string!  I never thought I'd enjoy sock knitting - heck, just a year ago, I still was someone who swore she'd never knit socks.  Too complicated, too fiddly, needles too tiny, yarn too thin, too much work.  Not for me...or so I thought.  Turns out, not only do I like knitting socks, I like the entire process - and I'm here to spread the word on the wonderment that is sock knitting.

Socks are made with with very tiny needles - when I first started knitting, I referred to them at toothpicks, and if you look at this comparison picture, you can see that I wasn't exaggerating:
Needle is a U.S. size one; toothpick measures at a U.S. size zero needle!
Size one needles on a long cable; perfect for doing a toe-up cast-on.

I like to knit mine toe-up, which means that I start off with casting on just 10 stitches on each of two needles connected by a long cable; I then knit increases that shape the toe and make the sock big enough to fit around my foot - generally I'm good with a total of anywhere from 60 to 64 stitches.  I prefer the toe-up method because I can try on the sock as I go, and I can knit the leg without worrying that I might run out of yarn - if you knit from the top of the sock down (commonly called "cuff-down") you have to make a judgement call on when to make the heel turn, and you usually end up with a lot of unused yarn (unless you're knitting a sock for a very large-footed person, like a man).  Sock yarn is pretty and I want to use as much of it as I can!
My current sock yarn stash that I'm working my way through.

 
Size one 9-inch circular needles - where most of the sock knitting takes place.

Once I've completed my cast-on and increases, I switch to 9-inch circular needles, which, I'm convinced, is one of the biggest reasons why I like knitting socks so much.  Traditionally, socks are knitted using a set of double-pointed needles (DPNs), and while I can use them for knitting in the round, I find the process awkward.  I'm always having to shift my stitches, and I drop the working needle every so often, which is annoying.   

Size one double-pointed needles - they come in sets of five, usually.
This is a 24-inch size one circular needle; it works for Magic Loop, although really, a 32-inch cable would make it easier.  

Another way of knitting socks is to use a circular needle with a very long cable - you pull the cable through the stitches at the halfway point in every round.  This is called Magic Loop, and it's how I learned to knit hats in the round, back when I was a beginning knitter.  As with the DPNs, it's a bit awkward; once I realized that I could knit hats with a 16-inch circular needle, I never went back to using the Magic Loop method, and I've never used it on socks.

Some people have "second sock syndrome" where they aren't motivated to knit the matching sock once they've made the first of a pair.  I don't find that to be a problem, and it could be because of two reasons.  First, the entire process of knitting a sock has enough changes in it that I'm interested, anticipating what is coming next, and I enjoy the process.  The other reason is that I am not a rule follower; sometimes I knit a sock and then start a different sock - honestly, sock yarn is so appealing that I always have a new skein waiting in the wings for its debut - and then I'll go back and start the second sock of the first pair.  I recently purchased a second set of 9-inch circular needles in my preferred sock size, so now I can have two different pairs in progress.

After looking at a bunch of sock patterns on Ravelry, reading sock forums, and talking to other knitters, I realized that most people have their own personal vanilla sock pattern; a basic, tried-and-true formula for knitting a sock that will fit them (or a very deserving relative or friend).  And while there are a lot of socks with intricate patterns out there to knit, right now I'm content to let the yarn shine front and center, so I have mostly made plain socks - but as you can see from the sock collage at the top of this post, my socks are anything but plain looking, thanks to the fun yarn.

Here's my personal sock pattern formula:

Items needed - sock yarn, size one needles in 9-inch circulars, 24-inch circulars, and a set of DPNs, two stitch markers, darning needle.

Using Judy's Magic Cast On, cast on 10 stitches per needle onto the 24-inch circulars.  Round one:  Knit
Round two:  Begin increases.  On needle one,  K1, Kfb, knit to last two stitches, Kfb, K1; repeat for other needle.
Round three:  Knit
Repeat rounds two and three until you have increased to 60 or 64 stitches in total.  Switch to 9-inch circular needles and knit, knit, knit away!  Because I'm just knitting in the round, not doing a pattern, I don't bother with using stitch markers to mark the top and bottom sides (or beginning of the round) of the sock - it's easy enough to flatten the sock out and see where that is.  I use my sock ruler to know when to start the heel:
I read about The Sock Ruler on a sock knitting forum and purchased one; I need to hit the 7.5 inch mark for my socks, while my mom's foot comes in at the 7.0 inch mark.  No need to count or keep track of each row - I just slip the sock over the ruler when I think I'm getting close, and check it periodically until I'm at the right spot.  It's a great tool and if you're a toe-up sock knitter, I recommend getting one.

Now comes the fun part:  turning the heel.  I use the Fish Lips Kiss Heel pattern for this.  I've made a few pairs of socks using the traditional heel flap, but I much prefer the FLK heel; for whatever reason, it clicks better with my brain.  That said, the designer of the FLK heel goes into great detail on the mathematics and fit of the heel on her pattern; don't let that scare you off - it's not necessary to know all of that in order to use her method.  Here's the sock with the first half of the heel built:
You will notice that I'm using DPNs for the heel.  Half of the stitches are resting on the cable of the circular needle (on top, in the picture) and the other half of the stitches are being used to create the heel.  It's a precise technique that I have to pay close attention to, so if I'm watching a TV show or movie I usually pause it, but by this time, I'm ready to have some more involvement with my knitting.  You will need two stitch markers during the FLK heel process, but only for a couple of rows.
Side view of the heel process
The heel is completed.  I tried it on while I still had the sock on both the DPNs and the 9-inch circular needles just for fun; once I took the picture, I knitted all of the stitches off of the DPNs back onto the circular needles and once again, started knitting away, making the leg part of the sock.
I knit the leg part until I'm ready to be done.  Precise, no?  But really, that's the beauty of making your own socks - you do what you like.  I like mid-calf length, so that's what I do.  Once the socks are long enough, I place a stitch marker to mark the beginning of the round, and knit ribbing for the cuff.  I generally knit at least an inch of ribbing - sometimes two - but I consider the sock done when I'm tired of knitting ribbing (I've done 1x1, 2x2, and 3x1 ribbing; my go-to is 2x2, but sometimes I like to change it up).  Then I bind off, using Slip Slip Knit's miraculous elastic bind off - I use one DPN with the circular needles to do this.  Use the darning needle to weave in your ends and BOOM - you are finished!

To go from this:
 to this:

amazes me to no end.  If you're a knitter who hasn't attempted making socks yet, I encourage you to give them a whirl.  You might just find yourself as enthralled by the process as I am...and being able to wear a pair of socks that you made is a very satisfying feeling, indeed.

21 comments:

  1. I love everything about this post! Thanks for the sock knitting lesson with pictures. Right now I am knitting my first toy a stuffed lamb using size 4 circs. this is a big switch from my usual size 8. I will write down what you recommend and promise to give making a pair of socks for myself a try very soon. No telling how many knitters you have influenced today:)

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    1. I hope you do give sock knitting a try! And I'm right with you on feeling strange when you go down to smaller needles - I was comfortable knitting with size 13 needles for the longest time so size 8 felt tiny!!

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  2. Wow so much to learn. I find the sock ruler interesting! You should start an etsy store!

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    1. Haha, no etsy store happening over here - these socks are all for ME (and my mom). :)

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  3. I love your socks, so colorful. I did knit socks when I was a lot younger (somewhere between 10 and 20), my granny helped me with them. Socks are more fun to knit then a sweater because it takes less time to finish one.

    I said it before but say it again, I love to see how you've grown from your first knitting project to now, you have developed your knitting skills so much.

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    1. Thanks - I have come a long way with my knitting, I agree. :)

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  4. I don't think I'd have the patience for that - especially when I would get to the heel, I think I'd just give up! They look amazing though! :D

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    1. The heel used to scare me BIG TIME. But seeing the magic happen made it less scary, and then discovering the FLK heel pattern makes me look forward to it!

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  5. LOVE YOUR SOCKS. Ii try to do complicated patterns - don't know why. I always use 3 2-pointed needles. I put things on the ends so the stitches don't fall off.

    I need to start a pair since it's been awhile.

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    1. It's really nice with the 9-inch circular because I rarely lose a stitch off of them...not so with the DPNs, unfortunately (and oh, what a heartstopper that can be!).

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  6. Socks are my favorite thing to knit, so this is a visual and sensory pleasure of a post for me! Thanks - makes me want to get my knitting back out!

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    1. Hi Leslie, good to see you here!! I remember your generous giveaway of knitted (and felted) bags - wayyy before I was a knitter and understood just how huge that was. You definitely should get your knitting back out - you're too talented to not be knitting!

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  7. I could have written something like this a few years ago! I loved everything about sock knitting, especially that when you got bored with one part, another came along to capture your interest again. You have a lot of new fangled tools and techniques that I don't even know! And you are making me want to knit socks once again. Your description of how every knitter has their own "vanilla" sock pattern is right on. Mine were knit on size two needles with usually 48-56 stitches. That's because I was using my handspun yarn, which was thicker than store sock yarn. But the variety of patterns you could do within that vanilla pattern was endless!

    What a great post! Have you shared it on Ravelry? It seems like it would be really helpful and encouraging to other knitters.

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    1. I haven't shared it on Ravelry - honestly, this probably is old news for most knitters? I just wanted to share my fascination with it; it's nice that you understand where I'm coming from - and are you taking some credit, since you were the one who taught me how to knit in the first place? ;)

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  8. I love your socks! I just learned to crochet last weekend, but have no clue how to knit. Maybe I'll try to crochet some stocks instead!

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    1. Very cool! I can't grasp how to crochet; occasionally you need to crochet to start certain patterns, and it never goes well, nor looks pretty.

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  9. I love knitted stuff, but I just cannot see myself taking up knitting with all the other things I do. I would probably have to quit my job - not that that would be so terrible...

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  10. Love the socks! (and all the colours of wool!) You are a knitting maverick!!!

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  11. Thanks for writing this all out! I want to try it!!! Especially if I don't have to do Magic Loop EVER, ha ha :) I think I would like to start at the heel too, for the reasons you recommended. Man, those are TEENY needles, too. My fingers always hurt more when I use smaller ones, ha!

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