9 Tips for Knitting Stranded Colorwork Socks
Stranded colorwork is the knitter’s version of painting by number—and just as simple. It produces intricate patterns using just two different colored yarns per round and a straightforward chart. It’s a great way to add patterning to your knit socks.
But even knitters who have successfully used this technique for other garments may find that their finished socks simply don’t stretch enough to fit over their heels. Fortunately, there are tricks to create a more elastic fabric and a successful sock fit.
Even if you get gauge for the stockinette portions of a sock pattern, you may have trouble maintaining it in colorwork areas. Knitters generally find that their gauge is tighter, with more stitches per inch over stranded areas than plain stockinette stitch. A tighter gauge means a tighter sock—one that won’t fit. Because stranded colorwork does not have the same stretch capacity as plain stockinette knitting, you have a real problem.
Why is this fabric too tight?
The culprits are the strands, or floats: lengths of yarn not being knitted and simply carried along the back. The knitted loops create the elasticity of knitted fabrics; these straight sections of yarn do not have much stretch capacity.
When the yarn stranded across the back of the work is too tight, the floats reduce elasticity and create too-tight socks.
Socks fit our legs and feet through the combination of shaping and negative ease. Most socks are knitted a tad smaller in circumference than the actual measurements of your calf and foot; the elasticity of knitted fabric generally allows them to stretch. An inelastic fabric will not stretch to allow your heel to pass through or pull in to gently hug your leg.
So what’s a knitter to do?
Gently stretch out the stitches on your right-hand needle as you strand the unused yarn across the back of these stitches. Aim to space the stitches across the needle more widely than your goal gauge—remember that you will stretch the sock when you put it on. This will ensure that the unused yarn strand will later relax against the back of the work. Avoid over-spacing your stitches on the needle until you’ve had some success and know how much is too much.
Let the unused yarn relax on the back side, and be careful not to tug on it when you make the first stitch of the new color. A float should look like a flattened U shape rather than an arrow-straight tight line. You don’t want overly loose, wobbly stitches, so practice until you get it right. Even if some stitches look large when you first try it, you’ll be able to wear the socks!
3 Get bigger.
Try using needles one to two sizes larger than normal for the stranded areas of the sock, especially on the leg portion. Overly loose stranding and a bigger gauge are preferable to short floats and tight knitting. I work the cuff, heel, and toe at about 81⁄2 stitches per inch, then change to a larger needle and work the stranded areas at a gauge of 8 stitches per inch. You can’t see much difference between the gauges, but it makes a difference in the elasticity of the fabric.
4 Turn inside out.
Here’s a trick I use for every round of stranded colorwork I knit on my socks: I flip my sock inside out, then knit these rounds. Start by turning your sock inside out on the needles so that you see the right side of the work inside on the needle farthest from you. The wrong side of the sock with the floats will be outside. The outside of the circle has a larger circumference than the inside, which forces you to make your floats a bit longer. The greatest benefit of working this way is you can’t inadvertently “jaywalk” your strands diagonally across the corner between needles. This would pull the float tighter than the stitches it should relax against on the back side. With the sock inside out, you can easily see both the color patterning from the previous rounds and the behavior of your floats at the same time.
5 Drift away.
When learning stranded colorwork, you might have been taught not to let strands go more than four stitches without twisting them in your working yarn, but for socks, let your floats drift across five or six stitches before you consider catching them. Not only is this easier, but your finished sock will look much better. Frequent catching of the floats can make the stitches uneven, cause the fabric to pucker, and reveal dots of the unused yarn color peeking through to the right side. That said, it is important to remember to catch those floats over long stretches of more than six stitches where a color isn’t used. You don’t want to snarl your toes in the floats when you put on your socks!
After you’ve worked a few inches of the stranded colorwork areas on your sock (either on the leg if working cuff-down or on the foot for toe-up socks), it’s time to measure. Wrap a tape measure around your foot (or your intended recipient’s foot) around your heel and up and over your instep, which is the widest point where the sock will need to stretch the most. Next, measure the circumference of your knitting while stretching it out as much as possible. Compare the two measurements and make sure your sock is able to stretch to match or exceed your foot measurement. You can even try your sock on to do this, taking care not to break your needles.
7 Add on.
If you find your sock is still too tight, another trick is to add more stitches—especially to the leg portion. Some pattern designers will do this for you. If not, it may be easiest to follow the pattern for the next size up, decreasing the stitch counts for your cuff and heel to fit. If the pattern repeat is a small number, such as the four-stitch repeat in the Spectrum Socks, you can simply increase four stitches after the cuff and work an additional repeat of the pattern. Decrease these four stitches at the ankle before working the heel.
8 Don’t be afraid to duplicate.
Since different colors of yarn are used throughout the patterned areas of the socks (sometimes for only one round!), there are more yarn ends to weave in when finishing a stranded-color sock. To maintain the elasticity of the fabric, use the duplicate-stitch method to weave in your ends on the inside of the sock. The duplicate-stitch weaving closely mimics the path of the yarn in the stitches and will stretch almost the same amount as the original stitches.
9 Block it out.
The last step is to block your finished socks with plenty of moisture. Stretch your wetted sock gently in several directions to even out the stitches and floats.