Saturday, August 29, 2009

Sock Knitting 101

Hooray! Someone told me this explained the process very clearly for her! I feel almost valuable or something!

I think the most difficult task of making a pair of socks is imagining how the heel turns and trying to visualize it from the directions. Once you knit a pair—or someone shows you how—it all becomes more obvious.

So my goal in writing this is to give you an idea of how the sock creation process works. You can actually knit a pair using my directions. I do it all the time because I loathe following directions. But be forewarned: my socks come out less than perfect. Ideally, if you can grasp my description and then find some easy-to-follow directions, you will be better off.

Here’s how I make socks. I generally use about 200 yards of a sport weight yarn or two strands of fingering held together. I cast on 48 stitches onto THREE size 6 double-pointed needles, using a FOURTH needle to work the stitches onto. I also have a FIFTH needle nearby that I will use later. I use a knit 2, purl 2 ribbing. Ribbing is nice for the ankle section because it helps the socks stay up. I use this ribbing pattern all the way around on three needles, which form a triangle, being careful not to twist the stitches when I return to my starting point. That’s one mistake beginner sock makers tend to make: twisting the stitches. With me so far? I am hoping the photos that I took will help you visualize it.

Whenever I make the transition from one needle to the next, I snug up the first stitch on the next needle. If you don’t do this, you end up with a sort of ladder-like gap running the length of the sock. But if that's too much information for now, don't worry about it. Try your hand at knitting socks and you will quickly see the ladder showing up and then you will smack your forehead and say, "THAT's what she was talking about!" Then come back here and re-read this. Snugging up the first stitch on each needle is one method to avoid that gap.

Another method to avoiding the ladder gap is to go ahead and transfer four stitches over to the previous needle. This is a little more technical, but don't panic. Try to envision this: let's say I k 2, p 2 three times, which makes a total of 12 stitches. Then I am about to move onto the next needle. But instead of moving on, I skootch four stitches over to the one I'm still using. In other words, I will k2, p2 the first four onto the needle I am currently on. THEN start a fresh needle as I work around the triangle. So I am sort of sneaking future stitches onto the current needle. If this is just too darn hard to understand, don’t berate yourself. You are doing fine. It’s hard to explain. You can get by with using the first technique I described and figure this out later.

Personally, I use both techniques. With a little practice, you will be able to do so as well. I hope I don't sound as if I am addressing you as an eight-year-old. I don't mean to. I am just trying to explain it as carefully as I can. I have complete faith in you being able to get the hang of this!

I continue the k2, p2 circular pattern around the three double-pointed needles, using a 4th needle to work the stitches onto, until the cuff is the length I like. If you like knee socks or if you are making large adult socks, you are going to need more than 200 yards. But if you are a size 6 ½ like me, or making children's socks, or are okay with short ankle sections, 200 yards ought to be enough. Don’t hold me to this, okay? It's just a ballpark estimate.

I now have a nice ribbed ankle section hanging off three needles. I am through using the ribbing pattern. I will put 24 stitches on a stitch holder and work the remaining 24 stitches back and forth on two needles while the other needles are idle. I knit across and then purl my way back. As I work, my sock is inside out and I keep it inside out the whole time.
I know to knit when I can peek inside the sock at the “right side.”
When the inside of the sock is turned away from me, I purl across.

I continue doing this for about 2 ½ inches. Guess what we just made? It's the infamous heel flap you hear so much about. So many knitters freak out when it's time to turn the heel because it seems to make no sense. This flap will go on my heel when I wear the completed socks. There is a better way to make this heel flap and you will learn it when you follow a real sock pattern. But my sock diatribe here is for beginners or cheaters or those who just want an overview before they start working with an actual pattern. It will still produce a sock, but it probably won’t be the perfect sock. Can I tell you something, though? Your first sock probably won't be perfect anyway. You may as well make a cheater sock in cheap yarn before tackling a real pattern. Use the cheater sock as a dust rag when you are through. Or give it to that sister-in-law you never liked.

You're looking at my photos, right?

Notice we now have a ribbed ankle that ends in a stitch holder on one side. Opposite that, we have a heel flap whose last row is on a needle. Then there are two other sides of this rectangular (almost square) shape we are looking at. And those two other sides are the sides of the heel flap. I am going to pick up and knit (or purl) off those sides. Okay, how do I know whether to knit or purl? Repeating what I said earlier:

I know to knit when I can peek inside the sock at the “right side.”
When the inside of the sock is turned away from me, I purl across.
This is still true.

I start with the needle end of the heel flap. I will either purl or knit across--according to the rule I just stated. Now I will pick up and work one side of the heel flap. Then the stitches on the stitch holder. Then the other side of the heel flap. I am back where I started. Ta da! My four needles (I'm using four now because I have more stitches to juggle) form a square. My 5th needle is for working the stitches.

At this point, regardless of whether I have been knitting or purling, no matter which direction I have been going, I will now pick up my work so that I can see the inside of my lovely sock. I now knit across all my stitches, every row, continually, with my project inside out, going around 4 needles and using a fifth needle for the current stitches. I’m still using size 6 double-pointed needles. I stopped using a ribbing pattern. I am using stockinette, the way I did on the heel flap.

We can tell this is stockinette because there are V's on the right side of the sock and U's on the wrong side. And again, the sock is inside out, so the right side is inside this tubelike shape I am making. I will continue to use stockinette (straight K across) for the rest of the sock. Stay with me! We are past the hardest part!

Since my foot tapers, I am going to periodically knit 2 together or decrease so that the foot of my sock will get smaller and narrower as I go. Because I am not following a pattern, I really don't know if I am decreasing often enough or not. So I will carefully try on the sock. That's right. I am going to slip my foot in there. It’s a riot. Don’t let any stitches fall off the needles.

When it looks as though I have enough to encompass my foot, I begin to cast off. And hopefully, at this point, I have far fewer stitches than I had near the heel flap. I then stitch the toe shut by hand. If I were to photograph this sock without my foot in it, it would resemble a balloon-like sock and we would all get a good laugh. But when I put my foot in it, it looks better. And after it’s been worn and been through the wash a few times, it will probably fit reasonably well...or at least well enough to wear with boots, because that’s what these are: thick boot socks that few people will see except for the cuff or ankle and, btw, I did a great job on that ankle so I don't care a whole lot what the foot looks like. Nyah!

Hope this helps you get an overview of the mystery of sock knitting. I’ve made a few dozen pairs like this. Good luck!

This article is copyrighted (c) August 2009 to dj runnels, owner of Life's an Expedition. Plagiarists will be hanged. But you are more than welcome to link to it.

Ta for now.
dj runnels
I have no socks for sale at Life's an Expedition on Etsy, but I have some amazing things there you will want to see.  Especially unusual yarn.
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