Socks, or "stockings," as some still call them, have been knit for hundreds of years all around the world. In many countries, children are taught to knit socks at a young age. To those without the benefit of this experience, sock knitting may appear sophisticated. Actually, “turning” a heel is an easy skill to master, and the excitement of seeing the heel develop adds a certain momentum to sock knitting. Socks can be constructed in all manners—knit in the round on double-pointed needles or knit flat and then seamed—and just about any type of patterning can be incorporated into a sock’s design.
While most socks these days are knit from patterns that may feature any number of design elements and variations in techniques, certain aspects of their construction remain consistent. The following information describes the basic components of socks and offers some notes on how they are made.
Most socks are knit in the round on a set of four or five double-pointed needles. This eliminates seams at heels and toes, making the socks more comfortable for the wearer.
The toes, and in some designs, the heels, are woven together using the kitchener stitch. The kitchener stitch mimics a knit stitch, is neat and provides an invisible seam.
Cuff: Most socks are worked from the top down, beginning with the cuff. The desired number of stitches are cast on to one needle, then divided equally over three or four needles to work in rounds. This helps keep the stitches from twisting on the first round. For most socks, the number of stitches on the cuff will equal the number of stitches on the foot after the heel and instep shaping are completed. Cuffs often begin with 1½-2½"/3.5-6cm of ribbing for extra elasticity at the top of the sock, though some socks may be ribbed the entire length of the cuff, and others may be topped with a lace or other stitch pattern, and feature no ribbing at all.
Heel: After the cuff is the desired length, usually 5-7"/12.5-17.5cm, the number of stitches is generally divided in half and shifted around the needles so that the center of the heel is at the beginning of the cuff rounds. The remaining instep stitches—those that make up the front of the foot—are divided onto two needles to be worked later.
The heel is then worked straight on two needles (that is, back and forth in rows), until it is the desired depth. The heel is then shaped—or "turned," as it is commonly described—with short rows into a V-shape or a curved U-shape. The techniques used to turn a heel vary somewhat; your pattern will tell you which method to use for the sock you are knitting.
Instep: To begin working in rounds again, as well as to join the instep to the heel, stitches are knit and repositioned again so that the round begins at the center of the heel (now, the sole of the foot). Stitches are picked up and knit along each side of the heel piece; these stitches will become part of the instep. In subsequent rounds, these stitches will be decreased on either side of the foot (usually on the first and third needles) until the original number of stitches in the round is reached. This decreasing shapes the instep into a wedge shape, sometimes called a gusset, which fits the shape of the wearer’s foot as it, too, decreases in width from the heel.
Foot: When the instep shaping is complete, the foot is worked straight, with no further shaping, until the sock foot measures 2"/5cm less than the desired length from the end of the heel to the end of the toe. When working the foot, original stitch or color patterns established in the cuff are resumed; however, in some cases, highly textured stitch patterns, such as ribs or some lace patterns, are eliminated from the sole of the foot to ensure greater comfort for the wearer.
Toe: Once again, if the stitches are not already in the correct alignment, they are shifted so that half the stitches are on needle 2 and the other half of the stitches are divided onto needles 1 and 3. Then, double decreases are worked at each side edge of the toe until the required number of remaining stitches is reached. The toe stitches are then woven together with kitchener stitch, and the sock is complete.
Sock sizing is as individual as shoe sizing. The best approach to fitting a sock is to measure the foot of the wearer (from the end of the heel to the end of the toe) and knit the foot length accordingly. A good rule of thumb is to begin the toe shaping when the foot of the sock reaches the base of the little toe of the wearer—approximately 2"/5cm down from the tip of the big toe.
Socks are most frequently made with wool or a wool blend, though cotton or cotton-wool blends work well, too. Wool provides warmth and wicks moisture away from skin, making it an ideal fiber for socks. Unlike cotton, wool also has a natural elasticity, allowing for socks that hold their shape well and fit snugly.
When making socks with wool, however, it is wise to choose a wool yarn that also contains a small percentage of nylon, which provides added strength for areas that will receive extra wear, like heels and toes. Alternately, a reinforcement yarn—usually a very thin wool-nylon blend—can be added to a pure wool when knitting the areas of a sock that require extra strength.
Cotton is absorbent, cool and ideal for warm-weather socks. Because of its lack of elasticity, however, you may want to pair it with a sock pattern that features a fully ribbed cuff, to ensure a snug fit.
Socks can be made with nearly any weight of yarn—the most common choices are fingering or sock weight, DK or sport weight, and worsted weight. As with any knitted item, the thicker the yarn used, the larger the needles required, and the fewer stitches needed to achieve the same circumference.
Fingering: Socks made with fingering or sock yarn will have a fine gauge, and will be thin enough to wear with most any shoe. For an average-sized sock with a 7"/17.5cm cuff, you will need approximately 200yd/183m of fingering-weight yarn per sock. Most fingering-weight yarn manufactured specifically for socks comes in skeins of 180-250yd/165-229m, enough for one sock each. Be sure to purchase two for a pair.
Sport: Knitting with DK- or sport-weight yarn will result in slightly heavier socks, usually wearable with casual shoes. For an average-sized sock with a 7"/17.5cm cuff, you will need approximately 175yd/160m of sport-weight yarn per sock.
Worsted: Socks made with worsted-weight yarn will be quite heavy and thick, and are often referred to as boot socks. For an average-sized sock with a 7"/17.5cm cuff, you will need approximately 140yd/128m of worsted-weight yarn per sock.