In a previous post, I said that I would never knit another Aran. I don’t know why Arans irritate me so, but they do. The last Aran I knitted, for myself, was my fourth, and I have cursed over every single one of them. (Three were for my husband. I figured it was about time I cursed over one for myself.)
Socks, on the other hand, are…I don’t know. The ultimate crowd-pleaser? I think so. They’re a bit more complicated than mittens, but there’s just something about warm feet. And they are so customizable, as I am proving with the pair I am currently knitting.
The important thing is to get the gauge right. I worked this out so many years ago that I no longer remember how I came up with the magic number of 72 stitches on a set of size 1 (2.25 mm) sock needles, for my husband. For my son it’s been a bit dicier; for one thing, his feet are big. Size 15. For another, because he works outdoors, his socks have to be knitted in thicker wool, so I usually choose Ragg wool, and that entails larger needles – I think I used a size 4 (3.5 mm). The good thing about knitting socks for my son is that by the time his feet got so big, I’d begun making notes on all my projects, so the next time he needs a pair of socks, I can just consult my notes.
The current pair is for my husband, the original Wearer of Socks. When he shovels snow, he wears a pair of work boots that’s a little loose on his feet. Regular dress socks, even doubled, don’t do the job. Thick work socks are too thick. Somehow, the socks I knit, of fingering-weight yarn, fill the bill perfectly.
But you have to be choosy with sock yarn. I once knit a pair of socks out of bamboo yarn, and the darn stuff was so slippery that it was forever falling off the needles – and these were wooden needles, which had been specifically recommended for working with bamboo yarn. Never again! The original yarn, good sock wool, is still the best, in my book.
Then, because it’s for socks, it should be machine-washable. The doyenne of knitting, Elizabeth Zimmermann, knitted socks of regular wool, and often wrote about the desirability of hand-washing handknits. I will thank her forever for getting me out of the plastic-yarn groove I was in; I religiously handwash all my handknitted sweaters; but socks, I’m sorry, is pushing it. I need to be able to throw those puppies into the machine and have them come out looking civilized.
Yarns come and go at an alarming rate. When I first began knitting socks, some thirty years ago, I stumbled across the Absolutely Perfect sock yarn, a Swiss brand called Arwetta. No sooner had I laid in a good supply than the business folded. Then, about ten years ago, I finally found a similar yarn, Froehlich Wolle. How can you resist a sock yarn called Happy Wool? Especially since, like Arwetta, it came with its own card of reinforcement yarn (Arwetta had a spool of reinforcement yarn, but it’s the same principle. Since the stuff is as scarce as the proverbial hens’ teeth, it’s a selling factor). Note the past tense. Happy Wool, unhappily, is no longer available, either.
My current hope, as I work my way through my last skeins of Happy Wool, is for Jawoll. Ha, ha, very clever – it’s pronounced Yah-voll, and means Yes Wool. Whatever. It looks like an acceptable substitute for Arwetta/Froehlich Wolle, right down to the reinforcement yarn, and the colors are suitably conservative for a pair of stick-in-the-muds like the hubster and me. However, my next pair of socks is going to be for me, and I might want something a little more adventurous; Sockalicious, maybe? It doesn’t come with reinforcing yarn, but I can buy a card of that from the Local Yarn Shop – when I pick up my sock yarn. I do try to buy local, and discerning blog readers will note that my yarn links all reference a yarn shop in New Hampshire, where I live.
Here’s the thing about knitted socks: You can really personalize them. Most patterns will start you with a knit-one-purl-one or knit-two-purl-two rib; I’m not especially impressed with the elasticity of either one. My current favorite is knit-two-purl-one, and I defy anyone to find a more elastic ribbing. Holy cow. 27 rows of that, and those puppies will stay up but good. (The 27 rows came from a now out-of-print book about Maine mittens, Fox and Geese and Fences, and apparently, all Maine mittens begin with 26 rows of ribbing. It seems like a workable length of ribbing, and you don’t get too sick of it before it’s time to stop ribbing; somehow, my brain added an extra row of ribbing. Whatever works.)
Now, 72 stitches on four sock needles works out to 18 stitches per needle. They used to sell four needles to a set, three to hold the stitches and a fourth to work with, but German needles came five to a set – four to hold the stitches and one to work with – and American needle manufacturers seem finally to have cottoned to the idea that four needles make a perfect circle, whereas three needles are tight to work with. Anyway. Eighteen stitches per needle. Or, nine times two. Nine times two works out to a very serviceable rib of seven knit, two purl, which keeps a purl-hater like me from going completely crazy, but still keeps the socks up on the leg. I used always to change to stocking stitch after the initial ribbing, but the socks don’t stay up all that well without a little extra encouragement; knit seven purl two works out very well, in terms of Encouragement.
So! I’ve cast on, using the “long-tail cast-on” method, because it’s nice and elastic. I’ve got my 27 rows of knit-two-purl-one, and six inches of knit-seven-purl-two. Now I add in reinforcing yarn, and knit the heel flap. There are a couple of ways to do this, and one of these days I promise I will try Elizabeth Zimmermann’s Afterthought Heel (if you can get your hands on a copy of Knitting Without Tears, the best heels are all covered in it, including the Afterthought Heel); but for lo these many years, I have knitted her turned heel, and it works well for me, especially since you knit the first four and last four stitches of each row, thus producing a garter-stitch edge that just look spiffy and is easy to pick up stitches on, when shaping the heel.
I won’t go into the actual heel-turning, but I will say that I leave the reinforcing yarn in for the entire process, including the instep of the sock. This is what I mean about completely customizable, since the hubster desires a little extra padding in this area of his boot, and the reinforcing yarn supplies it nicely. If I weren’t going to pad this area, I would leave in the reinforcing yarn for the heel and snip it as I came to each instep, joining it back in while I worked my way down the heel. When I am done with the heel, I like to knit in a strand of a different-color thread on just the heel stitches; this way, when the heel wears out, I can rip it out without having to replace the whole foot.
(I once did try out Elizabeth Zimmermann’s Totally Refootable Sock, from Knitters Almanac, and didn’t like it. But that’s just me, Traditionalist to the end.)
Once the heel is turned and the side stitches have been gobbled up so that I again have 72 stitches on four needles, I knit straight, stocking stitch on the sole of the foot and my weird 7-and-2 ribbing on the top of the foot, for another four inches, and join in another strand of contrasting yarn, this time around the whole sock: I will be padding the ball of the foot and the entire toe with reinforcing yarn, and since these areas also wear out quickly, I have planned ahead for this section to be replaceable, too. This time, I don’t carry the reinforcing yarn around, but add it in as I begin the sole and snip it when I get to the top of the foot. After a final two inches (six inches in all to the foot, measured out from the garter-stitch of the heel flap), I work the toe, entirely reinforced, and when I’m down to five stitches per needle, I work them off in Kitchener Stitch.
A couple of years ago, I took a class at my Local Yarn Shop on toe-up socks, and the selling point for them was that you didn’t have to work Kitchener Stitch. I like the idea of toe-up socks because you can just finish the sock off when you reach the end of your yarn – theoretically – I mean, you still have to leave some yarn for knitting the ribbing and binding it off, and then, as it turns out, if you want a bound-off edge that doesn’t cut off circulation in the leg, you have to use a bind-off that resembles – whaddaya know – Kitchener stitch. I’d rather work Kitchener stitch for ten stitches than for 72.
The big disadvantage of socks is that having knit one, you have to turn around and knit another. There’s a technique out there for knitting two socks at once, on a cable needle, from the toe up. Aside from my grumpy objection to toe-up socks, I just don’t like socks worked on a cable needle (the class I took in toe-up knitting was worked on a cable needle). I like socks knitted on sock needles, thankyouverymuch, and I like them knitted in the traditional way, top down. And if that means I have to work a second sock, well, so be it.
However…Leo Tolstoy wrote, in War and Peace, about Anna Makarovna’s [sic] Secret Socks: Apparently, this peasant woman had developed a technique for knitting one sock inside another, and when she was done, she pulled the second sock out from the first. I think I know how it’s done – I’m thinking a kind of double-knitting technique – but I can’t think how I would keep the ribbing straight. You’d have to cast on with two separate balls of yarn and knit one stitch for the outside sock and one for the inside sock, then another for the outside sock and another for the inside sock, and then how would you bring the yarn forward for the purl stitch on the inside sock?? Too confusing.
So I’d best get back to my knitting because – I’m still on the first sock.
Reblogged to my knitting blog, Being Woolly-Minded