dmittedly, my adventures recently have been more tame than most. Other than the occasional weekend trip or summer on the Native American reservation, most of my time is spent studying. Such is life when one is in the midst of flux.
But, as I geared up for a hike two weekends ago, I realized something that ruined my day: my favorite pair of socks had worn through on the balls of the feet. Now, there are few things that dampen your hiking enthusiasm more than shot socks. I decided to take that bull by the horn and make myself a new pair. Crazy, maybe, but damn if they aren’t the most comfortable things that have touched my feet in months.
I’ve knitted since I was nine years old but only recently started making socks. Knitting socks has some great things going for it. For starters, it can help with depression and anxiety. It’s portable, which is excellent for that plane flight to the jungles of South America. It makes the most staid person curious (I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met simply by them asking me what I’m doing. In their defense, it does look a bit as if you’re wrestling with a hedgehog). It’s fast to finish and fairly simple once you figure it out.
Now you’re thinking, “Simple?! What planet did you come from?” But it’s true. Do you know how to knit, purl, increase and decrease? Can you sort of read a pattern? Excellent. You can make a sock. Let’s begin.
The first thing to do when making a sock is picking how to do it. There are three ways: top down, toe up, and heel out. We’re going to discard heel-out immediately as almost no one does this, so there aren’t any fun patterns. I’ve done several pairs of top-down. Skillwise, these are the easiest to do. You make a ribbed cuff (think tube socks), knit to the heel, split the sock in two, and knit the heel on half of your stitches. Then, you pick up stitches, you decrease to the arch, you knit the toe. Having said that, I’ve never managed to make the darn sock fit great. Maybe it’s just me, but the gusset (the area that squeezes from your heel to the top of your ankle-foot connector. Yes, I’m in medical school.) always seems just a bit too big and the stupid sock slips down. So I took the plunge and made a toe-up sock. I’m not saying I’ll never go back, but the ease of fitting! The results! How impressed I feel with myself when I create a toe from nothing!
So, great. We’ve picked our pattern, a basic toe-up sock. Next, we need needles and yarn. Here’s the thing: socks are basically knit on toothpicks. Toothpicks break. Don’t make my mistake and get bamboo toothpicks to knit with because you WILL spend hours picking splinters out of the heel of your amazing sock. Luckily, that sock was for my SO, so he’s had to deal with it.
Your Options: aluminium (cheap but slippery and cold) or carbon fiber (expensive but warmer and grippier) double pointed needles. You can get circular needles too, if you like magic loop, but I can’t stand them myself. Get a US 1 or 2 (2.25 mm or 2.75 mm) or so. You can get these at Michael’s, Walmart, JoAnn’s, or from your grandma (thanks Grandma!).
Socks need to be washed. Unless you feel like hand washing socks, this eliminates yarns like 100% wool, alpaca, cashmere, etc., because they felt up when they’re machine washed. A good sock yarn should be superwash or a sock blend that has synthetic fibers such as nylon in it. Generally, you make socks out of a lighter-weight yarn such as a fingering weight or a sports weight, but some patterns call for worsted or double knit. You can also make these things out of acrylic, but if you’re putting time into them, why not make them nice? You don’t need a ton of yarn anyway (unless you have sasquatch feet). So head to your local yarn shop and ask if you can squeeze some of their balls. Online vendors such as jimmybeanswool.com and knitpicks.com also offer a lot of sock yarn. I’ll be using Debbie Bliss baby cashmerino in this tutorial because my roomie gave it to me and my cat tangled my other ball of sock yarn. I’m still untangling it six days later. Note that cotton will shrink if washed in hot water and alpaca is very oozy and doesn’t hold shape that well, so avoid these for your first socks.
We’ve got our needles, our yarn, and our sanity, so we’re going to get started. This next step is probably the trickiest part of this whole sock-knitting endeavour.
First, let’s look at a professional lady who knows her stuff’s example. Judy’s magic cast-on is much touted amongst the toe-up crowd and can be found here. The issue I had with her tutorial is that I didn’t use circular needles. I hate circular needles. This technique is much easier on circular needles. But that’s OK! We’re adventuring.
Let me illustrate what we’re going to do instead. First, pick the cuss word you have that is most appropriate for the situation that you’re in. I did this in the privacy of my own house, so I was able to go full strength with my choice but that might not be available to you. Then, grab your double pointed needles and find your yarn tail. From now on, this is your loose end and the end that is connected to the ball of yarn is your working end.
Look over the tutorial. You’ll see that the thumb loops yarn over the top needle and the pointer finger loops yarn under the bottom needle. The thumb controls the working end and the pointer controls the loose end. Keep saying this to yourself. Thumb. Behind and over the top. Pointer. Behind and under the bottom. In this manner, cast 10 stitches on to each needle for a total of 20 stitches (cast on fewer if you’re making a baby sock and more if you’re making a sasquatch sock). You should have your loose end as your last stitch. If you don’t, make it happen by either taking a stitch off the bottom or adding a stitch onto the top. You’ll notice that I used TWO dpns for each side. The first time I tried this cast-on, I didn’t do that. It was dumb. Knitting into these stitches if you can’t slide them onto a cable isn’t easy. Don’t make my mistake. Either size up your dpns for the cast-on or use two.
Great. We’ve got twenty stitches to work with. Now take your needles and rotate them 180 degrees so that your working yarn is on the right side of the needles and attached to the bottom needle. The first stitch you work will be into the last stitch you cast-on, which as you will notice, isn’t really attached to anything. That’s cool. Grab that tail and hold it up against your bottom needle with your thumb. Don’t let it go anywhere. Start knitting.
The first row isn’t very easy. You have to dig into the stitches and keep an eye on the first stitch and make sure that you don’t lose anything including your dignity. It took me four or five tries. Make sure that the needle you aren’t working on has its stitches in the middle or else you’ll lose those. Make sure that the needle you ARE working on has the stitches towards the tip or else you can’t knit those. Once you’ve fought your way to the end of the first ten stitches, drink a beer. Then rotate your needles 180 degrees over and start on the second row.
Congrats! That’s the very tippy top of your sock. Looks a bit funny, huh? Don’t worry. We’re essentially creating a bucket for your toes. After you’ve knitted your first row, you’re going to start your increases. I chose to knit one stitch, make one right, knit to one stitch before the end of the row, make one right, then knit the last stitch in the row. I like this increase because it doesn’t leave a hole, but you can use whatever one you remember how to make. Use this tutorial to review how you’re going to do this if you want to M1R. Rotate 180 degrees, repeat. Increase four stitches every other row this way until you’ve got 46 stitches total. At some point here, you’ll have to divide your stitches between three needles to keep going. If you need it (and I do) place your stitch marker to show the first stitch of the sock before you divide up your stitches. As a pattern, this would read: *K1, M1R, K to 1 st before end of row, M1R, K1* repeat between * where a row is half of the stitches on your needles, then K the next row.
Once you’ve got your 46 stitches, whip off your shoe and try this thing on. It should cover the tips of all your toesies. If it doesn’t yet, keep on with the increases. I have extremely narrow feet and can get away with 46 stitches. I’m making this pair for a friend and she requires 50 stitches. My handsome boyfriend/sock model needs 58 stitches because his feet are wider than they are long. The above picture might be the only time anyone ever asks him to model socks.
Right! We’ve got your toes covered! Now is the time to change colors if you want or start your pattern if you want. Ravelry has a lot of cool free patterns that you can adapt to this project. Generally speaking, you want the bottom part of the sock to be all knits so count from the very first stitch as denoted by your stitch marker to exactly half of the stitches on your needle (for example, if you have 46 stitches your halfway would be 23) will be your pattern and the bottom half will be all knits. I’m going to change colors here because I have too much sock yarn and the moths are eating it. I’m also going to do a seed stitch on the top half of the sock because straight knitting can get a bit boring after a while. Remember that a patterned top can change the width of the sock, so consider that when making your toe box. Then knit until you’re about 1.5 to 2 inches away from your total foot length. If you have a bigger foot, you’ll probably wait until 1.5 inches whereas smaller foots require two inches. My foot is a size 10 so I use 1.5 inches. My friend’s foot is a size 7 so I’m going to use two inches. The best way to figure this out, however, is to try it on. When you hit your ankle, start your heel.
If you want to do this without trying it on, determine your foot length by stepping on a ruler or measuring tape and figuring out how long your foot is when it has weight on it. Then measure your sock from the top of your toe bucket to where your needle is. Remember that your needle will roll in, so straighten that out some. Don’t stretch the sock. When your sock is about 2 inches less than your foot length, think about starting your heel.
We’re so close now! Turning a heel is a magical thing. Here’s what we’re going to do:
Think back to the original number of stitches you started with on one needle. We started with 10.
Take the needle that holds the stitches for the bottom of the foot. This will be the needle that DOESN’T hold the stitch marker/first stitch of the round. This is the needle we’re going to work with. Knit the top of the sock so that your yarn is now available for the bottom needle. Then make sure that you aren’t going to lose a whole bunch of stitches off the top needle. You can put these suckers on a stitch holder, wrap rubber bands around either end of your needle, whatever. Let’s just say that the majority of my tears have been produced because I failed to secure these stupid stitches.
Now here’s where we get fancy. I’m going to offer two links on this one: a video by Knitting Basics or still pictures by Silver’s sock class.
Knit across to your last stitch. Instead of knitting this very last stitch, slip it onto your right needle like nothing ever happened.
Bring your yarn from the back of your needle to the front, wrapping this stitch in a big ol’ hug because you feel bad that it never got knitted.
Then put the stitch back on the left needle and turn your work around so that you’re ready to start your next row. Now you’ve got a right needle with a single stitch on it that’s being hugged by your yarn and a left needle with the rest of the stitches.
Separate that stitch from the rest by bringing your yarn to the front between the needles. now you’re ready to purl across your row. do it until you get to the last stitch.
Slip this stitch too. Wrap it front to back (because your yarn’s in the front, donchya know), slip it back by itself, turn your work and separate it by bringing the yarn between this stitch and the rest of the stitches.
Keep doing this by knitting to one stitch before the last wrapped stitch, wrapping that stitch, and turning. So for your second row, you knit to TWO stitches before the end, slip that stitch, wrap it, turn, separate it, and purl back across.
Do this until you have the original number of stitches left on the needle. Wtf, right? Let’s do the math. We started off with ten stitches. We increased up to 50 stitches. We have half of those stitches on our needle, so 25 working stitches. This means that you’ll need to wrap and turn 15 stitches, or 7 on one side and 8 on the other leaving ten in the center. I like to go on and count these guys out beforehand and place stitch markers so I don’t even have to think.
We got down to our ten center stitches! Yay! Now we’re going to start over again- knit or purl to your first wrapped stitch, then pick up the stitch AND the wrap, knit or purl it. Then (wrap the next stitch*) and turn your work.
Slip the next stitch, then go back across doing the same thing on the other side- knit or purl across, grab the (TWO*) wraps and stitch, work them, then wrap and turn.
*wrapping twice isn’t necessary. I don’t normally because I’m lazy. But if you don’t like the little holes along the side of the heel, wrap twice. It takes away the holes.
We’re done turning the heel! Isn’t that a magical feeling? Every time I turn a heel, I stop and admire it. Great. Now let’s finish this beast. Start knitting again. Knit across the top of the heel and stop when you get to that huge gap between the heel and the front of the sock. Here, pick up one stitch to close the gap- take your needle, insert it somewhere along the gap, and pull a loop of yarn through. Replace your row marker here. Knit across the front of the sock and pick up another stitch at the huge gap again. Then just keep going. Go as long as you want. I’m worried about running out of yarn, so I made mine a shortie. I knitted about an inch and a half past the heel, then started my ribbing. The bad thing about handmade socks is that they aren’t really stretchy, so you need some ribbing to grip your leg. At the beginning of the row, start either a knit one purl one ribbing or a knit two purl two ribbing. Do this for at least an inch if not more. Viola! There is the cuff of your sock!
I hate binding things off. It takes forever and I just want to wear it! Having said that, you need a good stretchy bind off for your sock. We’re going to do a lace bind-off. Knit two stitches, then move them back to your left needle. Knit these two stitches together through the back of the stitch. Now you have one binded-off stitch on your right needle. Knit a second one to make it a companion, then slip these two back onto the left needle and knit them together through the back loop. Keep going until you’ve got one stitch left, then cut your yarn and pull it through the loop. Take your needle and weave this end in, then go back to the toe and weave that end in as well. Then put the sock on and try not to get second sock syndrome.
Katy Sims is a medical student and orchid whisperer at UNC. In her spare time, she hones her skills at bird calling and dendrology. Her dog is afraid of bumble bees.