How to Knit a Sock
Beautiful Knit Socks
Why Knit Socks
There are a few basic reasons to knit socks, and they have to do with the kind of knitter you are.
First, there's the product-oriented reason. Handknit socks are a work of wearable art. They're comfortable, beautiful, and you can make them in any color or pattern you want to make. They're a thing of beauty. They also make an excellent gift for any knit-worthy person (most older adults are wearing socks that bind their feet and ankles, resulting in circulation problems-- one size does not fit all!)
Second, handknit socks are an excellent litmus test for the knit worthiness of others. Anyone looking at your socks and saying "you can buy those at Walmart for $2..." probably doesn't understand and doesn't deserve anything handknit (unless your re-education program changes their mind).
And finally, the process of knitting a pair of socks is a valuable step in developing your knitting skills. A basic heel-flap construction sock demonstrates knitting in the round, short rows, picking up stitches, paired slanted decreases, and grafting. With those techniques (and the determination to make a complete pair of something), you can make a sweater, any shawl, any hat-- in fact, most of the more complicated knitting patterns can be broken down into parts that can be practiced on a sock.
Basic Sock Construction
A basic sock has a cuff, a leg, a heel, an instep (the foot), and a toe. This is common to nearly all socks, even ones with variations like separated toes or sewn-on soles like mukluk slippers.
A Short Row Sock
Progression of a Sock Knitter
If you are a new knitter and you want to try knitting socks, here are the types of sock I recommend, in order of difficulty:
With all your first socks, you can practice by making a baby sock or pair of socks first. It's an excellent way to try out a new technique without committing to 10,000 stitches.
The Tube Sock
The first kind of sock to try knitting is the lowly tube sock. Now, it's not my favorite knitted sock, because with all tube socks, the heel wears out first. That's because the heel has a difficult job: it has to stretch out over the back of your foot, around the widest part of your foot. In a normal heeled sock, you add fabric there to make a heel and give the sock enough room to go over that heel. In a tube sock, there's no extra fabric, so you have to make do without.
The Short Row Sock
A short row is a row that adds height but doesn't add width. They're used in sweaters to make fitted bustlines. In a sock, short rows are used to create space for the heel. There are two ways to use short rows in heels, but the "short row heel" means you knit two sets of short rows (one increasing and one decreasing) to create a diagonal-lined heel.
The Heel Flap Sock
The more advanced common type of heel is called a "heel flap" because it's made by knitting back and forth to add fabric, then doing half of a short row heel to make what's called the "heel cup," and then picking up all the stitched along both sides of the flap and knitting around and around, decreasing until you're back to the original sock diameter. The heel flap is a classic heel construction, but it's definitely an advanced sock technique.
Other Constructions and Variants
The number of variants and constructions out there is almost the same as the number of knitters. Some knitters make their socks toe-up, starting at the toes and increasing to the foot. Some knitters throw around the basic constructions until you don't know how that heel got there, but by golly, it's there! Some knitters knit their socks sideways, even.A traditional Argyle sock has specific color requirements and is knit with the cuff flat, then seamed up after the sock is complete.
Cat Bordhi is something of a master at redesigning sock construction, and if you're interested in new and different ways to make a sock, you should definitely check out her books. Her second book on sock knitting has a fabulously simple sock that makes a heel by grafting two halves of a sock together-- it's downright brilliant.
The Tube Sock: A Pattern
Let's assume you're a new knitter and you want to make a basic tube sock.
Let's start with techniques: Do you know how to knit in the round? Do you know how to decrease stitches?
Knitting in the round is a little bit of a specialty technique, but it's one you must learn if you ever want to make hats, cowls, gloves, socks, and even certain sweaters. There are many ways to knit in the round, but the basics are to use 4 or 5 double pointed needles to form a kind of "ring" of needles, or to use two circular needles, one on each half of the stitches, or to use one long circular needle which you kind of divide around the stitches (this is called magic loop). It doesn't matter which technique you use to make socks, as long as you knit your sock in the round.
Knitting in the round means that, if you do nothing but knit stitches, you will have stockinette. When you knit flat, if you only use knit stitches, you will get garter stitch. If you're a very new knitter, you may have a garter stitch scarf somewhere that you've created, right?
The second question is if you can do decreases.
The easiest decrease is k2tog-- knit two together. It's exactly like it sounds-- you put your right-hand needle through the first two loops on your left and knit them together. This turns two stitches into one. A k2tog is called a "right leaning" decrease because when you are done, the stitches appear to lean towards the right.
The opposite of a k2tog is called ssk, and it leans to the left. There are a wide number of ways to do the ssk, but one of the easiest is an older method. Slip one stitch from the left needle to the right. Knit the next stich. Pass the slipped stitch over the stitch you just knit.
Swatch and Gauge
Every knitter's gauge and swatches are different. Take out your yarn and your needles to knit a small swatch in the round. Your gauge swatch has to be done in the round; gauge changes slightly when you purl, so if you knit flat, you won't have an accurate swatch for socks.
If you are using fingering (sock) weight yarn, cast on 32 stitches. If you're using worsted weight or something similar, case on 16 stitches.
Knit 1 Purl 1 for 2 rounds to make a flat edge.
Then, knit around for 10 rounds.
Knit 1, purl 1 for 2 rounds to make the flat edge. Bind off.
Wash your swatch and lay it flat to dry. Then measure its width and height. If you knitted a 32-stitch swatch, divide 16 by your width measurement-- that's how many sttiches per inch you're getting. If you knitted a 16-stitch swatch, divide 8 by your measurement.
Next, divide 14 by the height-- that's your row height. It's not super-important in a tube sock, but it's helpful.
Measuring Your Foot
To make a sock that fits, you have to know your gauge and your foot measurement. Fortunately, both are easy. You already have your gauge. Now, take out a measuring tape and measure your foot at the widest part of the ball of your foot. Measure your foot from back of the heel to the end of your biggest toe, with your foot resting flat on the ground.
To make your tube socks, you need to know how big around it should be, and how long it should be.
Now take your stitches-per-inch horizontal gauge and multiply it by the ball of your foot. On most socks, you would decrease this amount by 10%, but not on our tube socks. Why? Because we need our tube sock to have enough room for your heel!
Knit 1. purl 1 around for 10 rounds. If you like, you can keep k1/p1 throughout the entire sock. It makes it extra stretchy.
If you don't want a sock that is ribbed throughout the whole sock, switch to knitting around and around.
Knit around and around for twice your foot length measurement. Because tube socks don't have a heel, you can just keep going.
Now make the toe. Divide the number of stitches by 4 and put a marker at each of the quarters.
Round 1: * ssk, k to marker, repeat from * all the way around.
Round 2: knit all the way around.
Repeat rounds 1 and 2 for 1 inch. Then, repeat round 1 until you have about 4 stitches left on all your needles.
Cut the yarn. Weave the end through the remaining stitches and pull tight. Weave it into the wrong side of the sock and tie off. Weave in the ends.
Cast on for the second sock. :)
Care of Your Socks
First, understand that socks wear out. It's one of the beautiful things about them: they are not a permanent heirloom. They're functional and practical. With that in mind, here's how to get the longest use out of your socks:
Don't throw away your yarn labels until you've written down the washing instructions. If the label says "hand wash" then you must hand wash your socks-- if you don't, you may end up with felted slippers that won't fit anyone.
Most fingering-weight sock yarns are machine washable and wool. You could throw them in the laundry if you wanted to-- if you do, wash them on cold water and dry them with low heat.
For the best results, however, handwash your socks. Fill your sink with warm-but-not-hot water and some gentle wool wash like Eucalan or Brown Sheep Top of the Lamb. Put your socks in and squish them into the water. Soak for 5-20 minutes. Empty the sink. Rinse gently. Run them through the spin cycle on your dryer. Hang dry or lay flat on a towel to dry.
The first few times you wash your socks, they may pill a little bit, giving off tufts of lint. Pick these off and move on-- that will stop as the shorter fibers in your yarn work their way out.
The Next Steps
Once you've made your basic tube sock, or any basic sock, you're ready to start having some fun with your sock knitting. Try one of the other techniques or heel style. Add some fancy stitch patterns to your socks. Every sock can be both a work of art and a chance to learn something new!
A word of warning, though. Socks can be very addictive to knit. Just remember that every pair of socks can be a learning experience, but if you find yourself buying sock yarn and not knowing what to do with it, remember also that sock yarn can also be used for lovely shawls, sweaters, scarves, and gloves!
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