Sock Knitting Basics
Learn to easily knit comfortable and attractive socks using a connection technique of a crochet hook.
By Alice Curtis
Knit Your Socks on Straight (Storey Publishing, 2013) by Alice Curtis is a step-by-step guide with visual instructions to knitting socks for beginners. Readers can learn how to knit socks without complicated patterns requiring two straight needles or the discomfort and unattractiveness of misplaced seams. By teaching readers to knit the socks from cuff to toe and connecting them with a crochet hook, the seam is carefully integrated into the design of each sock.
This book was written specifically for those who like and prefer to use straight needles. All the patterns are knit on only straight needles. They are knitted from the top down, meaning that they start with the cuff and end at the toe. The leg is knitted to a length specified by the pattern and then the heel is worked. The heel is generally worked on half the stitches of the sock.
Because these patterns are knitted flat there is a seam. (Obviously!) I have located the seam most often on the side of the leg and foot, which results in a right and a left sock. Since the heel flap is usually not centered, the number of unworked instep stitches on each side of the heel flap is different. These instep stitches may be placed on waste yarn or a stitch holder while working on the heel, or simply held in reserve on the needles. After the heel is knitted and the gusset brings the stitch count back to the original number of stitches, the foot is knitted. The pattern suggests a length, but it is a good idea to fit them according to the intended wearer’s foot. The sock is then finished with the toe.
Every pattern contains information about the yarn and needles I used to knit them. Do not be tempted to assume that if you replicate that you’ll get the same results I did. Make a swatch at least 30 stitches wide and 4 inches long, in either stockinette stitch or the stitch pattern used in the sock. Consider this a warm-up exercise before getting into the actual knitting. Wash as you would wash your socks and let it dry. Use a gauge ruler to measure across the stitches and up and down the rows. Jot these numbers down and compare them to the pattern. Try to get as close as possible to the pattern gauge. It is important to knit a swatch in your yarn, especially if you are substituting a different yarn, to check what your personal tension is with your needles. You may need to change the size of the needles you are using to get a smaller or larger stitch and row count. Otherwise your finished project may not be the right size. You can also choose to purposefully knit with different yarn and needles to obtain a different size than the pattern offers. Some experience is needed for this, but if you are comfortable with some math to ensure you get the desired size, then go for it!
I like to cast on while holding both needles in one hand and using them as one. This gives me nice, evenly sized, bigger stitches, without trying too hard to cast on loosely. It always makes knitting that first row much easier. If you have a needle several sizes larger, you could use that for the cast on instead. My favorite cast on is the long-tail (also called Continental), because it makes a nice sturdy edge for the top of your sock and yet is fairly elastic. No one likes to wear a sock that cuts in at the ankle. Socks that are too tight at the top never get worn. Don’t let that happen to yours!
Pull out a length of yarn (about a yard for most of the sock patterns) and make a slip knot. Put this on over the two knitting needles held together and make it snug. Keep the tail end close and the working yarn away from your body, and hold the needles in your right hand with the points facing left. Hold both lengths of yarn in your left hand with the last three fingers. Put your thumb and forefinger between the yarn and spread to make a triangular, slingshot shape. Keep fairly close to the needles, about 2 inches away. Now turn your left hand up so the palm faces up to the ceiling. The yarn wrapped around the thumb will look like an X on your hand. Put the tips of the needles under the X and swing over toward your forefinger, go over the yarn, and without letting it slip, swing back to your thumb and back under the X. Now snug the stitch up to the needles. Repeat to cast on as many stitches as directed by the pattern.
I have used two popular heel options that are found in most basic knitting books.
The round heel is the most commonly used and the easiest to learn. Most of the patterns in this book use this heel method, with a couple variations for the heel flap. Basically a round heel begins with what is called a heel flap knitted on half the stitches of the sock. Whatever that number is, that is how many rows you knit. Then a series of short rows turn the heel and shape it to fit around your heel. (Short rows are simply that; rows that are stopped short and the work turned. This builds height into a specific area for shaping.) Stitches are picked up along the sides of the flap, generally half the number of rows knitted. You will have many more stitches than you started with across the row, so you need the gusset decreases to bring you back to the original stitch count.
The gusset can be placed at any point on the heel flap; it still does the job of decreasing the stitches around the foot.
The short-row heel is more similar to a store-bought sock and smoother on the back of the heel. It takes a bit more patience, but is not too difficult to master. Again, the heel is knitted on half the stitches. The heel is shaped by knitting short rows of decreasing length back and forth until only about an inch of active knitting is left. At this point, short rows of increasing length are worked until all the stitches are incorporated back into the knitting, creating a cup for the heel to fit in. Knitting across the entire sock then continues.
Picking up Stitches for the Gusset
Here’s what it looks like to pick up the heel-flap stitches when you’re making a classic round heel. In a classic stockinette-stitch sock, on one side of the heel flap you pick up knit stitches and on the other side of the flap, purl stitches.
Picking up knit stitches (American)
Picking up purl stitches (American)
Picking up knit stitches (Continental)
Picking up purl stitches (Continental)
Most sock patterns today use a wedge toe, similar to that of Touch Me Not and Carnegie Hall, but I have found that the star toe and the round toe work best for most of these sock patterns. First, they are easy to finish — there’s no Kitchener stitch! Also, both of these toes easily accommodate the seam.
The star toe divides the toe stitches into four equal sections, and each section is decreased by 1 stitch on right-side rows until about half the stitch count remains. Then decreases are worked on both right- and wrong-side rows until only 8 stitches remain. The yarn is cut long enough to use for the seam (five or six times the length of the sock), threaded through all the stitches using a yarn needle, and pulled tight to close the toe.
My round toe is a variation on the traditional version, with the same number of rows, but the decrease rows are reorganized slightly to keep the decreases on the right side. The toe stitches are divided into equal sections, and decreased 1 stitch for each section. Then a number of stockinette rows are worked before the next decrease row. When decreased to the final stitch count as specified by the pattern, the yarn is cut long enough to use for the seam (five or six times the length of the sock), threaded through all the stitches using a yarn needle, and pulled tight to close the toe. See, no Kitchener stitch!
That being said, Kitchener stitch is used to finish the cuff of the Livin’ in Blue Jeans socks. And it is a useful skill to learn.
- When I bring my knitting with me, I often use circular needles, even if I’m knitting flat. This prevents me from misplacing a needle and makes it easy to stuff my knitting into my bag without breaking or bending my needles. I like to use a 24-inch circular because the needle tips are a little longer and easier to hold.
- When picking up the stitches on the side of the heel flap, knit an extra stitch into the stitch in the row just below the heel flap, then finish the row. On the next row, work the last instep stitch together with this extra stitch to prevent a gap between gusset and leg stitches.
Picking up stitches