The Tip Jar: Top-down socks 101
I am currently socking along with a neighbor who is embarking on her maiden sock-knitting voyage, and I thought I would use this opportunity to help other maiden sock-knitters with two goals: get over your fear with this demystified anatomy of a sock, and remind yourself that spring and summer are coming. Socks are the most portable project in knitting, and each one is a little feat of engineering that no seamed garment can parallel.
The photos show two typical top-down socks. The sock on the left (the darker one) is six years old and was knitted by my friend Michelle, and the yellow and pink one was knitted by me two years ago. You can tell I wear both quite often, but I challenge any department-store sock to last you six years, not to mention feel as heavenly as a hand-knitted sock. This is a guide to the basic components, but understand that with the million sock patterns in the world, the possibilities are endless in terms of fancying up the toe, heel, leg, and even the cuff!
The sock starts with the cuff. You are knitting in the round either on double-points or on super-long circulars, but it is actually easier than it looks when you watch someone else do it. “I couldn’t work with all of those needles at once!”, you say? Of course you can. As simple as it sounds, you just ignore the needles that are holding the staged stitches and concentrate on your two working needles. Seriously.
Anyway, cuffs tend to be ribbed, to help the sock stay up on your leg. Sometimes, like the sock on the left, the entire leg is ribbed, but many socks have patterns on the leg portion. The same pattern may be repeated based on the stitch count on each needle, or there may be a front and back pattern. After knitting some ribbing for an inch or two, you will be knitting a pattern in the round for a five- to six-inch tube to make the leg. No problem! There is generally no changing of the number of stitches from row to row, making it easy to tell if you have either dropped or added a stitch simply by counting what is on each needle. For those who dislike purling, the sock on the right does not have a single purl stitch in the leg.
The next part is the heel flap. The heel is worked back and forth while the front of the sock leg, or what’s called the instep, just basically hangs around and waits for something to do. The heel is often knitted with slipped or ribbed stitches to strengthen the fabric a bit, and the stitches on the beginning of each row are slipped to leave a nice, clean row of loops to pick up stitches later.
Once the heel flap is complete, the magic really begins. The stitches at the bottom of the heel are knitted in short rows, or back and forth without completing the row, and the stitch at the end of each short row is a decrease stitch. This process is called “turning the heel,” and it scares new sock-knitters more than anything. Fear not! As you turn the heel, you are eating up some of the stitches and forming a little cup at the bottom of the heel flap. This orients your needles in the correct direction to continue knitting the rest of the sock, in addition to giving a comfy little pocket for your heel. Following short rows on the heel turn is actually quite simple; there is a gap between a slipped stitch and a decrease stitch to guide you on every row.
Now, to give those instep stitches something to do. Remember those loops from the slipped heel-flap stitches? You now pick up and knit a stitch in each loop until you get to the first instep needle, and then you continue to knit the instep stitches in the leg pattern. You do the same thing down the other side of the instep. This part of the sock is called the heel gusset, and it goes from the center of the heel to the top of the foot where it meets the ankle. The pattern is continued on the instep, and the bottom of the foot, is just plain stocking stitch the rest of the way. The stitches are decreased up by the instep needles until each needle has the same number of stitches as were at the cast-on. See the slope? Those are the decreases.
The foot is knitted (pattern on instep, stocking on bottom) until approximately two inches before the end of the sock. This is one of the greatest parts about socks: there is no perfect formula for how long they need to be. You just slip them on your feet, needles and all, to see how long they need to be before starting the toe.
When you are ready for the toe, the entire thing gets switched to stocking stitch, and the decreases occur at the end of the first needle, beginning of the second needle, end of the third needle, and the beginning of the fourth needle. This causes the sock to flatten out a bit, in a similar fashion as your foot shape. If you forget a decrease somewhere, oh well; one stitch probably represents an eighth of an inch (3.0mm) so fixing it with another decrease will barely be noticed.
I showed two toes here: Kitchener stitch was used on the darker sock, and a gathered toe was used on the right one. Both involve the flat toe decreases, but one of them involves sewing and the other involves cinching up the stitches when there are few enough to do it. They are both easy enough to get right on either the first or second try.
So let’s recap: ribbing, pattern in a tube, back-and-forth heel, short rows, pick-up-and-knit, decreases, and the toe. What on this list is frightening? If there is any technique you do not know yet, they are all easy to learn. Just compartmentalize your first socks, conquering one section at a time, and you can do it. Who else wants to sock along with me?
Last updated: March 12th, 2014.