A Short History of the Knitted Sock. The history of the knitted sock is a long and interesting one. Knitted Islamic stockings and other knitted fragments date from the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries. Many were worked upward in colored patterns that often incorporated the name “Allah” in Kufic (an early Arabic script).
As the craft of knitting spread through Europe, the logic of making knitted hose rather than woven, cut, and sewn hose certainly became evident. Although this old style of hose were still worn, knitted stockings became increasingly popular. Knitted fabric was superior to woven cloth because it retained its shape, it fit better, and it offered new options in design and color.
Early knitted stockings were wool or linen, coarsely made with large needles. As skill in metalwork advanced, finer needles allowed finer knit work, and knitted silk stockings appeared on royalty and the aristocracy of Europe.
Due to their popularity and usefulness, the knitting of stockings, socks, caps, and other articles of clothing offered a source of livelihood for many people, thereby becoming an industry in its own right. The knitting of stockings gave many peasant laborers an independence they could not have had otherwise.
In spite of the great strides of technology, the making of stockings by hand still holds an interest for knitters. There’s an attraction to making a useful item with one’s own hands. A hand-knit pair of socks requires techniques that have been developed through history and talents that have been passed on from one knitter to the next. The knitting of stockings or socks provides a connection to history and each pair is, perhaps, a small honor to all the knitters who have had the great pleasure of creating a well-turned heel.
Source: Folk Socks by Nancy Bush, Interweave Press, 1994.
How to Knit a Sock
Knit the cuff. Begin by casting on the required number of stitches and knitting the cuff, usually in a K1, P1 rib or a K2, P2 rib. The rib hugs the leg and helps keep the sock up.
Knit the leg. There are so many sock patterns to choose from, and this is usually where you begin working a stitch pattern if there is one. Knit the leg until it is the desired height.
Knit the heel flap. The heel flap is the extra bit of knitting that extends along the back of the heel from the ankle bone to the base of the foot. The heel flap is usually knit in a slip-stitch pattern, which adds durability to your sock.
Turn the heel. This is one of the parts of the sock (the other is the gusset) that transitions the leg of the sock to the foot of the sock. The heel turn is usually worked with short-rows, which are nothing more than partial rows worked on just the center stitches.
Knit the gusset. The gusset connects the heel with the instep so that you can work the foot in rounds to the tip of the toe. To form the gusset, you’ll pick up stitches along the sides of the heel flap that will connect the newly turned heel stitches with the waiting instep stitches. Once all of the stitches are picked up, you’ll work several sets of decreases on every other round until you get back to the number of stitches you have in the leg portion of the sock.
Knit the foot. Now you knit in the round until you reach the desired foot length, not including the toe.
Knit the toe. This involves decreasing on each side of the sock every other row. You’ll form a wedge shape, similar to the shape of your toes. If your toes are pointy, you can decrease more; if they’re flat, decrease less.
Finish the toe. Work the Kitchener stitch across the toe stitches to form a seamless toe. The Kitchener stitch is worked by using a length of yarn to weave in and out of stitches in a specific pattern that mimics a knit stitch.
Source: Getting Started Knitting Socks by Ann Budd, Interweave Press, 2007.
Join Eunny Jang as she takes you through the steps of knitting a sock!
Working Socks From The Toe Up by Ann Budd
In general, I like to knit socks from the top down, beginning with a cast-on at the top of the leg and ending with the Kitchener stitch at the tip of the toe. But sometimes it’s practical (and preferable) to work in the opposite direction—from the tip of the toe to the top of the leg. With this method, you cast on stitches at the tip of the toe, work the foot to the desired length, work short-rows to shape the heel, then work the leg to the desired length, finishing with a flexible bind-off at the top of the leg. One advantage of the toe-up method is that you can try on the socks at any point along the way to make sure that they fit just right.
Another advantage of toe-up sock knitting is that the heel is shaped in short-rows without a heel flap or gussets. You won’t have to count rows in the heel flap or pick up stitches for the gussets, which can be particularly helpful if you’re working with a highly textured yarn that obscures individual stitches or you tend to have trouble seeing the stitches. And best of all for many knitters, when you work from the toe up, you don’t have to work the Kitchener stitch.
Working socks from the toe up is also a good idea if you’re worried about running out of yarn. Begin with two balls of equal size, one for each sock. Work the foot to the desired length while you have lots of yarn, then continue up the leg as far as you can before the ball runs out. This is a great way to economize with expensive yarn–buy a single ball for each sock and use every precious yard.
A Perfect Sock Cast-On from Nancy Bush
Here’s a lesson from Nancy Bush about an Estonian cast-on that’s perfect to use for socks because it’s so stretchy. I like this cast-on because the space from my heel to where the top of my foot meets my leg is a little bigger than average, and if I’m going to have trouble with a sock fitting, it’s going to be there. I always cast-on loosely, but I don’t like the look of a really loose cast-on because it can be messy and “loopy.” This cast-on is naturally stretchy without looking loose. Try it on your next pair of socks!
Speaking of your next pair, Nancy has written several classic sock knitting books, including Knitting on the Road and Folk Socks. If you don’t have at least one of these sock books, you are missing out on some amazing sock-knitting opportunities!
10 Tips for Longer-Lasting Socks
- Don’t wind your yarn into a cake until you’re ready to knit. Winding a skein into a cake pulls fibers taut and over months the yarn could lose its ability to spring back into shape.
- Choose the right yarn for the project; 100% cotton yarn isn’t necessarily appropriate for socks because they will quickly bag and lose their shape when worn. Wool and wool/nylon blends are popular for socks because of their innate elasticity.
- Choose high-quality sock yarn-inexpensive sock yarn tends have short fibers, which pill and wear out more quickly than longer fibers. If your budget is tight, you can find great deals in sale sections.
- Go down one needle size (or more) when knitting the feet. If a label calls for a US 2 needle, knit the foot of the sock on a US 1, or even a US 0 so you get a dense fabric that holds up to wear.
- Knit the right size socks. Too-big socks slip around more on the foot and cause more wear as they move around in your shoes.
- Rinse socks separately before washing with other items. While dye shouldn’t run, super-saturated colors might and you don’t want your other socks to be affected.
- Turn socks inside-out when washing. That way the inside of the sock gets a fuzzy halo over time, and not the outside.
- Consider washing your finished socks in a small mesh bag in the machine so they don’t catch on zippers.
- Don’t wash socks in hot water. Even socks labeled “superwash” could felt or shrink a bit.
- Lay socks flat to dry. Over time, machine drying will lessen stitch definition and make socks look worn. The intense heat of drying might also break down fibers.
—Allison Van Zandt, Simply Socks Yarn Company