Custom Socks: Knitting Socks that Fit

Jarvis Socks from Custom Knits

Jarvis Socks from Custom Knits

I have a special guest today. Kate Atherley is here to talk about her new book, Custom Socks, and tell you about knitting better-fitting socks; spoiler alert, it all starts with a proper gauge swatch.

Custom Socks and Gauging

If you wish to create well-fitted socks—whether custom-fit or just following an existing pattern—you need to know your gauge.

Here’s how to swatch, properly. I know it seems like a lot of trouble, but your feet will thank me for it. A properly dense sock fabric will last longer and feel better on your feet, and if you’re knitting to an existing pattern, matching gauge will make sure the socks come out precisely the right size.

To determine your gauge, you’ll need to knit a swatch that’s about 6” (15 cm) in circumference. To determine how many stitches to cast on for this circumference, multiply the number of stitches suggested for 4” (10 cm) on the ball band by 1.5 if you’re using a sock yarn; multiply the number by 2 if you’re using a yarn that isn’t manufactured specifically for knitting socks. If necessary, round up to the nearest even number.

Wellington Road from Custom Socks

Wellington Road from Custom Socks

For example, if the ball band on a sock yarn is reported as 28 stitches = 4” (10 cm), you’ll want to cast on 42 stitches.

28 stitches x 1.5 = 42 stitches

If the ball band on a non-sock yarn is reported as 20 stitches = 4” (10 cm), you’ll want to cast on 40 stitches.

20 stitches x 2 = 40 stitches

Some yarns list the gauge on the ball band as stitches per 1” or 2” (2.5 or 5 cm). Read carefully! Be careful: you need to know number of expected stitches per 4” or 10 cm, otherwise your swatch will be ridiculously small.

If you’re using yarn designed for sock knitting (read the label), use the needles recommended on the ball band. If you’re using yarn that’s not labelled as sock yarn, use needles two to three sizes smaller than recommended on the ball band. This will ensure a dense sturdy fabric, suitable for socks.

Using your choice of double-pointed or circular needles, cast on the determined number of stitches and join for working in rounds. Working in rounds, work in k1, p1 ribbing for at least 1/2″ (1.3 cm), work in stockinette stitch (or the pattern stitch you plan to use) for about 3” (7.5 cm), then loosely bind off all the stitches.

Wash the swatch the way you intend to wash the finished socks, then let it air-dry completely.

Don’t be tempted to skip the step on washing the swatch. Some yarns (and therefore knitted fabrics) can change shape with washing. Superwash wools often relax a little when washed—you don’t want to knit a pair of socks that only fit the first time they’re worn! In addition, washing the swatch will let you know if the color is going to run—it’s better to know this before you wash a new pair of red socks in the same load as your favorite white ones. And many yarns soften up and bloom beautifully with washing; washing the swatch will give you a good sense of how the finished sock fabric will look and feel.

Measuring the Gauge Swatch

To measure the swatch, lay a ruler on the fabric (do not press down on the ruler) and count the number of stitches, including partial stitches, in a 2” (5 cm) width. You need to measure and count precisely—partial stitches do matter!

Measuring gauge on sock swatches

Measuring gauge on sock swatches

Measure in two or three places—a yarn that’s a little slubby or inconsistently spun might have different gauges at different places. If this is the case, take the average the gauges you measure.

The number of stitches you count will be your stitch gauge over 2” (5 cm) of knitting. Note that you’ll have to divide that number by 2 in order to determine the stitch gauge over 1” (2.5 cm). For example, if you count 11 stitches across 2” (5 cm) in the horizontal direction, your stitch gauge is 5.5 stitches per inch (2.5 cm).

11 stitches per 2” ÷ 2 = 5.5 stitches per inch

If you plan to knit your socks from the toe up, you’ll also need to know the vertical, or “round” gauge, or the number of rounds per inch (2.5 cm). Simply re-orient the ruler and count the number of stitches in 2” (5 cm) of vertical length. Then divide this number by 2 to determine the round gauge. For example, if you count 16 stitches across 2” (5 cm) in the vertical direction, your round gauge is 8 rounds per inch (2.5 cm).

16 rounds per 2” ÷ 2 = 8 rounds per inch

It’s important to measure over 2” (5 cm) to get an accurate result. Fractions of stitches, which can be difficult to properly estimate over a short distance, can become significant when multiplied over the entire circumference of a sock. For example, when measuring over just 1” (2.5 cm), it can be difficult to discern the difference between a half and a quarter of a stitch. But the difference is more clearly apparent when averaged over 2” (5 cm).

Swatching in the Round: A Shortcut


Figure 1: Loose strands are carried across the back of the work for the I-cord method of swatching in the round. Figure 2: When the loose strands are cut, the gauge is easily measured.

There is a handy shortcut for swatching in the round. Working on a two double-pointed needles or a single circular needle, cast on the necessary number of stitches. Knit the first row, but don’t turn the work at the end of the row. Instead, slide the stitches to the other end of the needle, bringing the working yarn loosely across the wrong side of the piece, and knit again, starting with the first stitch of the previous row, as if knitting a very wide (and very loose) bit of I-cord. To keep the edge stitches tidy, twist the first and last stitch of every row by knitting them through their back loops.

Be careful not to pull the loose strands too tightly across the back of the work—the idea is to have them long enough to span the width without causing puckers. Wash the swatch as usual, then cut the loose strands to ensure the swatch will lie flat when you measure the gauge.

Kate Atherley

Kate Atherley

—Kate Atherley, Custom Socks

This is just a taste of the amazing amount of information in Kate’s new book. If you’re a sock knitter, or want to become one, you must have this book! Get Custom Socks today and start making socks that fit, no matter which sock knitting pattern you choose.


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