I’ll state upfront that I did purchase the Twisted Sisters Sock Workbook. I read it, enjoyed it, learned a bit about dyeing from it, and it now resides in my bookcase. But as a spinning and knitting veteran of uncounted pairs of socks, I thought then and think now that making socks from singles is just plain silly!
What prompted this rant? A posting on the handspun sockknitters list digest today. A newcomer spinning sockknitter was asking if it was all right to use singles for socks. My reply is quoted:
“… you can certainly spin and use singles for socks. Any yarn can be used to make a sock-shaped garment, including yarns that are very soft. The issues with using singles are: You won't get very good wear, since plying increases the strength of the yarn, and you'll need to choose a stitch pattern carefully to avoid a bias fabric - it's no fun when the sock does a half-turn between the heel and toe!
On the plus side, you can use beautiful colors with no muddying from plying. And if you like knitting socks, the wearability issue may be moot, as well.”
Yes, I was being kind – I don’t like to start flame wars on lists, it’s rude. I didn’t say anything about how silly I think the whole idea to be. But it is silly to knit socks you plan to wear from singles yarns! Now if you’re planning to use the socks as art, go for it. But if you want to wear them, learn the proper techniques for spinning sock yarn that you can actually use to make a pair of socks you can wear.
No matter how much you love knitting socks, you’ll soon tire of making a pair or two every week. And no matter how much you love to spin, you’ll grow tired of spinning sufficient yarn for a pair or two of socks each week. We all have a life outside our fiber, much as we may sometimes wish we didn't. Why not learn to do a proper job of both spinning and knitting so that you can wear your socks proudly for several years? You are, after all, the one in charge of your spinning and your knitting!
Now that I’ve blown off some steam, I’ll answer the two obvious questions. What is a proper job? How do you make socks from some of the wonderful painted rovings out there and keep the colors pretty and bright? Here is my handy-dandy cheat sheet for doing both – the sockknitting gospel according to me! You’re free to disagree – won’t hurt my feelings at all – I’ll smile and wave my handspun, handknit-covered footsies at you all the way down the road!
What is a proper job? There are all sorts of guidelines out there, but simply put: For long-wearing warm socks that will keep their shape, choose a medium-soft fleece like Romney or Border Leicester or Shetland – anything between 48 and 58 on the Bradford scale with medium crimp, including Suffolk and Dorset. Skirt and clean the fleece. Process it for socks by combing, or by carding and removing the batts from the cards in such a way as to make a semi-worsted preparation. Spin it worsted-fashion with a high degree of twist to a grist of approximately 24 wpi. Two- or three-ply the singles, again with a fairly high degree of twist, to a finished yarn of about 16-18 wpi. Cast on 18 to 24 stitches and knit a swatch in the round on needles from US size 0 to no larger than size 2. Bind off and check the gauge. It should be somewhere between 6 and 10 stitches per inch to make a long-wearing fabric.
But before you make a swatch (or after), measure your foot. Socks that don’t fit well won’t wear well! Measurements needed for a well-fitting sock:
Circumference of your leg at the point where you want the top of the sock to fall is _______.
Circumference of your ankle at the narrowest point is _________.
Length from the point where your ankle-bone begins to the bottom of your heel (heel length) is ______.
Circumference of your foot at the ‘ball’ is _________.
Circumference of your foot at its widest point (‘palm’) is _______.
Length of your foot from the back of your heel to the end of your longest toe is _______.
Now you have a gauge and a list of measurements. Before you cast on for an ankle-down sock, multiply your gauge by the measurement, then subtract an inch’s worth of stitches. That’s your cast-on number. An example: I measure 9.5 inches at the point on my calf where I like my socks to begin. Say my gauge is 7 stitches per inch. 7 times 9.5 equals 66.5. Can’t cast on a half-stitch, so round it up one. That’s 67 stitches. Now subtract 7 stitches (an inch’s worth). Cast on is 60 stitches.
Now before you ask, I’ll explain why you subtract about an inch of stitches. You want those socks to hug your legs so that they’ll stay up. But you don’t want the ribbing so stretched out after a couple of hours’ wear that they start to sag or the cast-on so tight that it cuts off circulation. An inch is just enough.
Decrease to fit the narrow part of your ankle if the difference between there and your cast-on is more than 1 ½ inches. The narrowest part of my ankle is 8 inches. I usually decrease about an inch’s worth of stitches. The key here is the word ‘about’. I do matching decreases starting at a point about 2.5 inches from my cast-on, located at the center back OR the inner leg – depends on the stitch pattern and what I plan to do about the toes. If I’m making anatomically-correct toes, I normally choose the inner leg. But if I’m making my usual side-decrease toes, I make these decreases at the center back. It saves me looking down at my ankles during a meeting and discovering that the decreases are marching nicely down the outside of my ankle!
For a 7 st/inch gauge, I’d make 5 matched decreases, with the final one occurring about a half-inch above the start of the heel. Yes, I know that adds up to 10 decreases, and that’s more like an inch and a half – but knitting is elastic, and I want those socks to fit snugly around my ankle, not pool over the top of my shoes. At this point you have 50 stitches; divide in half and make your heel over 25 stitches – 26 if you want an even number.
Do your favorite heel. I tend to do a standard turned heel – I think Priscilla Gibson-Roberts calls it a German heel – cause it fits me quite well and I’ve done so many that I can do them in my sleep. You know the one – knit across half your total stitches (25 in our example) doing a heel stitch (sl 1, k 1), then purl back across. Slip the first stitch of each row purlwise to make a nice chained edge. Don’t stint here – a too-short heel is just as uncomfortable as a too-long one. You have the measurement already – stop when you get to that length and turn the heel! You can either go back to stockinette at this point or continue in heel stitch until you’re ready for the gusset.
After you’ve turned the heel and are ready to pick up for the gusset, stop and count the number of stitches you’ve picked up on the first needle. Pick up the same number of stitches on the other side of the heel! Then do your matched gusset decreases until you have a total number of stitches that is about an inch less than the circumference of your foot. Which circumference? Well, there’s a decision to make. If the ‘ball’ of your foot and the widest part of your foot (the ‘palm’) shows a difference of more than an inch, decrease to the ‘ball’ measurement less an inch and knit an inch of length on that number of stitches. Then increase stitches on the bottom of the foot fairly quickly to make enough stitches to fit the ‘palm’ measurement – do two increases every other row until you have enough. BUT if the difference between the ‘ball’ and ‘palm’ measurements is equal to or less than an inch, don’t bother with increases – just work straight until you’re about 2.5 inches short of the total length needed for the sock foot.
Once you’ve reached this point, choose your favorite toe decrease method and finish up, Kitchenering the toes together when you have about 2-3 inches worth of stitches left on both top and bottom (28 stitches, 14 top and 14 bottom, in our example). There are various suggestions for avoiding Kitchener-stitching toes together. Some work fairly well. But learning to Kitchener stitch doesn’t really hurt – it just takes a little time. And you have a new skill at the end. So go ahead and learn it. It makes a lovely seamless sock toe, or shoulder join, or lace graft…
I can hear you now – “But I want to do a toe-up sock!” So do it. You still need a gauge swatch – then use your favorite cast-on method to put 4 inches worth of stitches (circumference equals 2 inches on top and 2 inches on the bottom) onto the needles. Increase until you’re happy, trying on as you go –you will most probably have about an inch’s less stitches on your needles than the exact circumference of your foot at the ‘palm’. Continue working until you get to the stretchy bind-off, and don’t forget to bind off in ribbing!
Now that I’ve beaten the first question into the ground, let’s take a stab at the second one. How do you spin and ply to keep those lovely colors bright and unmuddied? You actually have two options, and variations within those options. Again, you’re in charge – make a choice and follow through!
Most commercially-painted top is made up of several colors, and the colors are blended in lengthwise stripes. Those stripes are pretty well-defined. It is possible to vertically strip each stripe apart and spin each strip as a different-color singles. You’ll have a few fibers in the neighboring color(s) in each strip, but they won’t show up enough to matter. Then ply the singles normally and knit as you would for any stripe pattern, changing the colors at the points of your choice.
All right, all right – I know this takes a lot of the fun out of things. You bought that top/roving because you liked the way the colors flowed and blended. And it doesn’t help at all with the top or roving that you painted yourself in six- to ten-inch sections! I did say that there were two ways, didn’t I?
For those color sections that are greater than the length of a single fiber you can, again, take them apart and spin singles from each color, plying the singles, and blending at the knitting stage. OR, you can spin them as they come (or after vertically pre-drafting a yard or more of the color changes for shorter color repeats), letting the colors fall where they may at the singles stage. Then Navaho-ply the singles slowly and carefully to make a three-ply yarn with beautiful color definition. Again, it’s up to you, the spinner. Learning Navaho-plying isn’t all that difficult, and the ‘bumps’ disappear in firmly-plyed yarn. I’ve never felt a bump in my Navaho-plyed socks, and I have pretty sensitive feet.
You don’t have to pay any attention to my advice. But don’t come whining to me about how much time you spend knitting and then darning socks from singles. Of course my way is more work - but I make lovely socks with beautifully-defined color changes that wear for years without darning or re-knitting. And that’s worth a little more work!