The Afterthought Heel and the Peasant Heel
Sock heels come in many varieties. There is the traditional heel flap, turn, and gusset—often one of the first sock heels we learn. Another popular heel is the short-row heel—this one doesn’t have a flap or a gusset; it’s created by first working short-rows that get shorter and shorter, until half the depth of the heel is reached, then working short-rows that get longer and longer until all of the stitches are again being worked.
A different style of heel is called an inserted heel. This type of heel is popular in the Middle East, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe, especially Ukraine. With this style, the heel isn’t worked until after the main part of the sock is complete. There are two related, but slightly different, inserted heels. One is the peasant heel, which uses waste yarn as a placeholder in a planned location. The other is the afterthought heel. As the name implies, this heel is not planned for during the knitting of the main sock. Instead, this heel is added after the leg and foot are complete.
Inserted heels can be used for top-down socks or toe-up socks. They do not have a heel flap or gusset. They are easy to replace because all of the knitting is separate from the leg and foot of the sock. The heel can be raveled or cut out, live stitches can be picked up, and then a new heel can be knitted to replace the old one.
The Peasant Heel
This heel is often erroneously referred to as an afterthought heel, but it is not an afterthought (something thought of or added later); it is planned for while the sock is being knitted. A row of waste yarn is inserted at the location of the heel, then after the leg and foot of the sock are complete, the waste yarn is removed and the heel is worked. This is the method used for Jane Dupuis’s socks in Interweave Knits Summer 2019.
To place a peasant heel:
Work the sock to the location of the heel, making sure to center the heel at the back of the sock. For a top-down sock, work the leg of the sock to about 2″ above the floor (when the sock is being worn); for a toe-up sock, work the foot of the sock until it is about 2″ shorter than the desired finished length.
Choose some waste yarn for the next step.
Choosing the Correct Waste Yarn
Waste yarn should be easy to remove from the stitches. A good waste yarn is smooth (not fuzzy); is the same thickness as, or thinner than, the working yarn; and contrasts well with the working yarn. Either crochet cotton or pearl cotton is a good choice. Sometimes a fine ribbon, such as an 1∕8″ satin ribbon, works well.
In addition to knitting waste yarn into your piece to create a hole later (as with the peasant heel), waste yarn can be used as a stitch holder. This is especially nice for putting sleeve stitches onto a holder in a top-down sweater because the waste yarn is flexible (unlike traditional stitch holders). It’s also great for putting body stitches onto a holder so that a piece can be tried on. You can make a very long holder so the body of the sweater will fit over your shoulders.
Leaving a tail of the waste yarn hanging on the outside of the sock, knit across the heel stitches. You do not have to cut a length of waste yarn before beginning to knit; simply work across all of the heel stitches using as much as you need from the skein of waste yarn, then cut the waste yarn, leaving a tail on the outside of the sock (Figure 1).
If all of the waste-yarn stitches are on one (or two) double-pointed needle(s) or on a circular needle, slide the stitches to the other end of the needle(s) so that you’re ready to work across the waste yarn stitches with your working yarn. Otherwise, slip each waste-yarn stitch from the right needle to the left needle, then knit the waste-yarn stitches using the working yarn (Figure 2).
If you are using a knit/purl or other texture pattern on the sock, do not work the waste yarn in pattern because the pattern will disappear when the waste yarn is removed. Instead, knit the working-yarn stitches with waste yarn, then knit the waste-yarn stitches with working yarn and complete the sock as directed.
To get the live stitches onto the needle(s):
When it’s time to remove the waste yarn and place the live stitches onto the needles, it is easiest to pick up the stitches using very small needles, such as size 0 (2 mm) or even smaller. Use at least two needles: one for the upper stitches and one for the lower stitches.
Beginning at the right end of the heel opening, insert one of the needles under the right leg of every stitch in the row below the waste yarn. Then insert the second needle under the right leg of every stitch in the row above the waste yarn. Remove the waste yarn (Figure 3). (Tip: Use a blunt tapestry needle to tease the waste yarn out of the stitches.)
You’ll notice in the illustration that the upper needle has one fewer stitch than the lower needle. That’s because the lower needle is holding the actual stitches in the orientation in which they were knit, while the upper needle is holding the running threads between stitches.
The Afterthought Heel
The afterthought heel, a term coined by Elizabeth Zimmermann in her book Knitting Without Tears (Fireside Books, 1971), isn’t placed until after the leg and foot of the sock are complete. At that point, the location of the heel is determined—usually on the foot about 2″ before the back of the heel—and a stitch is snipped at the center of the heel. Stitches are then raveled going left and right from this snipped stitch (Figure 4). The stitches should be placed onto smaller needles (same as for the peasant heel) as the yarn is removed so that they don’t ravel any further.
Whether working the peasant heel or the afterthought heel, a stitch must be added to the upper needle so that the top and bottom of the heel have the same number of stitches. There are different ways to correct for the one-stitch discrepancy: by inserting the upper needle into a stitch adjacent to the stitches on the needle or by picking up and knitting an extra stitch in the corner of the heel. Either approach is fine.
Once the stitches are on the needles, both heels are worked in the same way as a standard wedge toe.
Working the heel:
Usually an extra stitch (or two) is picked up at each end of the heel to close any gaps that might form there. So, for the first round of the heel, pick up and knit one stitch in the corner, work across the stitches to the other corner, place a marker, pick up and knit one stitch in the second corner, then work across the remaining stitches to the first corner. Place a marker and join for working in the round.
The markers could be removable ones that are inserted into the fabric between the upper and lower needles, rather than a marker placed on the needle. If you’re working with two circulars or a set of double-pointed needles, a marker at the end of the needle will just fall off.
Decrease rounds are typically worked as follows:
Dec rnd *K1, ssk, knit to 3 sts before m, k2tog, k1, sl m; rep from * once more—4 sts dec’d.
Repeat this decrease round every other round until the heel is the correct length. It’s easy to try on the sock to check the fit. When the heel is complete, use Kitchener stitch to graft the upper and lower stitches together.
If you find that the heel does not fit comfortably, work it on 2/3 (rather than half) of the total stitches, for a deeper, roomier heel.
Another way to change the depth of the heel is to work some rounds even—up to an inch or so—before starting the decrease rounds.
Both of these heels are worked independently from the rest of the sock, so there is an opportunity to incorporate different patterning or color for the heel. A stranded knitting motif could be worked on the back and sole portions of the heel, between the lines of decreases. It could be the same motif on each section or a different motif for the back and sole. Intarsia motifs would need to be worked using an “intarsia in the round” technique.
Knit/purl patterning could also be worked on the heel. If using a slipped-stitch technique, be aware that the fabric may draw in. You may want to increase some stitches at the start of the heel to compensate for this.
If there is patterning of any type on the leg of the sock, it may be tempting to continue that patterning through the heel. If the sock is worked from the top down, then the patterning can be continued uninterrupted from the leg through the back of the heel. But if the sock is worked from the toe up, the stitches will be offset by half a stitch where the heel meets the leg (because the heel stitches are the running threads between stitches).
If the leg and/or foot of the sock is worked with a stranded knitting pattern, it can be difficult to pick up the stitches for the heel. For the peasant heel, consider working a round using only one strand of yarn, inserting the waste yarn before working the single yarn. For the afterthought heel, work two rounds of a single yarn, snipping a stitch in the first single-yarn round. In either case, the difficult stitches—the ones that are really the running threads between stitches—will be worked with one yarn, so there won’t be the challenge of finding the correct running thread to pick up.
Replacing a Heel
As mentioned earlier, one of the advantages of inserted heels is that they can be replaced relatively easily if they wear through. To do this, cut a stitch and ravel until the heel yarn disconnects from the rest of the sock. If you cut near the beginning of the heel, you’ll have more individual stitches to pull the yarn through before you’re able to rip. If you cut near the grafting, there will be fewer stitches to pull the end through, but more length to rip.
When you reach the end of the heel yarn, catch the live stitches and work the heel as usual.
Featured image: The Sonora Cacti Socks by Jane Dupuis from Interweave Knits Summer 2019
Karen Frisa is a technical editor for Interweave Knits, knitscene, Wool Studio, Spin Off, and other publications. She has fantasies of a world where everyone knows the difference between a peasant heel and an afterthought heel.
Budd, Ann. Sock Knitting Master Class. Loveland, Colorado: Interweave, 2011.
Bush, Nancy. Folk Socks (affiliate link). Loveland, Colorado: Interweave, 1994.
Gibson-Roberts, Priscilla A. Ethnic Socks & Stockings (affiliate link). Sioux Falls, South Dakota: XRX, Inc., 1995.
Zimmermann, Elizabeth. Knitting Without Tears (affiliate link). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971.