Everyone knows that knitter. You know, the one that is CONSTANTLY knitting socks. In line at the post office, waiting for their kids at pickup, or at knit night. Once upon a time six years ago, I thought I would try my first foray to see what all the fuss was about. I picked some gorgeous Italian merino that *spoke to me* at my local yarn store, and a pattern that was so beautiful I would want to stick with it. I read 5000 books about sizing, fiber choice, techniques, etc. before I started. And then I made one and the other sat in a bin, half knit, for the last six years. Mainly because I fell victim to what so many people do when they start out with a brand new project: I didn’t make choices for a successful and fun project. In the last few months I’ve become addicted to knitting socks, and have become one of those people. So here are some tips I have if you’re thinking about picking up your first pair and want to actually have a good time and keep on going.
Make a good yarn choice. Yarn for socks should be made specifically for socks; typically superwash wool, most will have a small amount of nylon or other synthetic yarn to help with their lifespan. I know, some yarns don’t have this. And some are handwash only. Which are all great. But if you’re just starting out, give yourself the benefit of the doubt and pick something durable. The other thing about yarn made specifically for sock knitting is that it most of the time will have a bit of a spring or twist to it, which will help with elasticity in knitting and also hug your foot nicely. Light colors will also be easier to see, which helps when working things like heels for the first time, and will also showcase a pattern better.
My bad first yarn choice: Tightly spun 100% merino, it had no spring and was a bit harder on the hands to work with. Also since I read my 5000 books, I was convinced I would want a bit of synthetic for strength, and held a polyarn meant for sergers double as I worked. Also fine, but again added to being harder on the hands. And super fun (not) to be working with doubled yarn on size 0’s for intricate cable work. It was also a dark color, making it harder to see at night, which is when I typically get to sit down and knit.
Pick a starter pattern with a bigger gauge. Something dk or worsted weight would be fabulous. If you’re just trying to figure out Judy’s Magic Cast On, or how to turn a heel, or whether you like working on double points or magic loop, you want a fast knit. Getting through a pair quickly will help you get a feel for how you like to work socks. If you have a yarn and a gauge that are larger than typical, it will make for a speedy test project. You could also make a pair up for kids if you’d like to use regular small sock gauge, but a smaller test knit.
My bad gauge choice: The gorgeous merino I picked knit up at a really small gauge, even for socks. I was getting 9 stitches and 13 rows per inch on size 0’s. I’m sure they’ll wear forever since it’s a nice dense fabric, but it meant that my work was sooooooo sloooooow going, I wasn’t seeing progress quickly. And when I don’t see progress, I tend to put projects aside. I timed myself while finishing them recently, and it took me 7 minutes to knit a single row. Which means it took 91 minutes to make an inch. Multiplied by the length of my foot and the length of the sock leg, I’m estimating about 40 hours of solid knitting time. Not counting silly things like bathroom breaks, sipping on my wine in between rows, watching that scene in Mozart in the Jungle that you can’t possibly keep knitting during. Just SOLID KNITTING.
Pick an easy pattern. Maybe just plain old stockinette and try out a toe, heel, and cuff variation that intrigues you. But something easy. Again, you want to whip through this pair just to even see if socks are your thing. Because they might not be, and then at least you won’t have Single Sock Syndrome taunting you from a project bag in the back of a closet. I’m in love with Lucy Neatby’s books for this, which have so many options you can just pick techniques for parts that intrigue you and come up with your own sock.
My bad pattern choice: I picked something pretty that I’d want to wear as socks. Yes, please laugh with me. Knitters know that “things I’d love to wear” and “things I’d love to knit” don’t always go hand in hand. For the love of socks, just pick something easy to knit and get through. Not a 36 stitch wide, 20 row repeat cable chart that you can never memorize and have to keep a placeholder on, so the possibility of knitting when you’re not completely in the zone is out the window. I was never able to knit these complicated things around my kids, or even just do a row when I had a spare moment during the day. And at night when I’d take them out, it was so hard to see with the dark yarn and all the cables and the size 0 needles…..
All the other knitting stuffs
You may have a preference for what kind of needles you like, and you may not. Your preference with socks might be different than other projects. You may want bamboo needles so everything stays put while you learn a new technique, or you may want metal so you can work the stitches with lightning speed. You may like double points. You may like working on two small circulars. You may like magic loop. The thing with all these choices though is there isn’t really a “best” for your first rodeo, it’s just what you like. And it’s completely okay to switch if whatever you’ve started with isn’t jelling. I started my socks from hell on double points, and then realized that my doubled yarn, four needles, a working needle, and a cable needle was ridiculous to ask of my hands. So I tried double circs and ended up liking magic loop best. As long as you stay same gauge, it’s fine to switch up your instruments.
And as far as sizing goes, here’s what I’ve distilled from umpteen books and websites: knit a circumference about 10% smaller than your foot. Unless you’re using yarn with elastic, like Cascade Fixation or Soxx Appeal, and then make them even smaller. You want the yarn to stretch and hug your feet. Knit the length of the socks a tad shorter than your foot for the same reason, but because knitting stretches less lengthwise than around, somewhere around half an inch shorter will do. Most patterns are written assuming your ankle and your instep circumference are the same; if they’re not, just add or subtract stitches as needed.
The funny thing is that I actually put my socks of death to the side and whipped out several pairs for my kids over the years, just knowing how speedy they would be. And being able to work on such small things helped me see that sock knitting isn’t inherently evil, just my combination of choices was. I found my favorite elastic cast off (Russian bind off 4evah), that I like knitting toe up best for yarn usage, test how several different yarns wash and wear over time, and all with the added bonus of having wool socks on my kids in frigid winters when wool socks for kids are hard to come by commercially. I started 2017 wanting to finish all my outstanding UFO’s before starting new things, and made myself dig out my old unfinished socks. And you know what? They were so much fun to finish, I’ve made two pairs for myself since. With much better choices. One even had a charted pattern, and I promised myself I’d knit only on those, one repeat a day, until they were finished. And without letting myself cheat, I did it! I’m almost sad that I’m going to force myself to get back to the sewing room and finish all my stitching WIPs before casting on more socks, there are just so many more pretty yarns and patterns to test. Until then, sock on, friends.
Love from Wisconsin with my toasty warm feet,