About the Author
Donna Druchunas, author of How to Knit Socks That Fit, is the author of six knitting books, including Arctic Lace, Successful Lace Knitting, Kitty Knits, and Ethnic Knitting Exploration. She teaches knitting workshops in the United States, Canada, and Europe and has three online sock-knitting classes with more than 25,000 students on Craftsy. She lives in Vermont with her husband, mother, and three cats, who all help her test the usability and comfort of her finished knitted items.
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Yarn for Knitting Socks
There are many different kinds of yarn that can be used for knitting socks. Not only are there different weights, or thicknesses, of yarns, but yarns are made from different fibers, dyed in both solid colors and multicolored patterns, and spun with different textures. Choosing the right yarn for your sock project is key to being happy with the end results.
Yarn that is called "sock yarn" by yarn manufacturers is usually fingering weight, also called 4-ply in the United Kingdom. The way yarns are categorized can be quite confusing, because even though there is a standard U.S. yarn weight system, most knitters use older names to describe the weight (which in this context refers to thickness, not actual weight), of yarn. The table below includes the Craft Yarn Council (CYC) standard yarn weight system, as well as common U.S. and U.K. names for the same yarns, along with gauge information, a suggested needle size range, and information about the types of socks that can be knit with each weight of yarn. While there are yarns that are both thinner and thicker than those I've listed here, I haven't used them for knitting socks.
In addition to yarn weight, the fiber used to create a yarn is an important factor in the suitability of yarn for knitting socks. All yarns come from one of three sources: animals, plants, and chemistry (man-made materials).
Fibers from Animals
Protein, or animal-source, fibers make warm, breathable yarns that are easy to knit because the fibers have natural give, or stretch. Depending on the type of animal and specific breed, yarns from animal fibers can be soft enough to place next to a baby's skin or strong enough to wipe your feet on.
Using the Chart
The guidelines in the yarn-weights table on the facing page are based on my preferences and experience. If you check the CYC guidelines, you'll notice that they suggest both a looser gauge and larger needles for each yarn weight because the CYC guidelines are generic; my numbers are specifically for knitting socks. You may find patterns that are knit at different gauges than listed here, and you may need to use different needle sizes to get your desired gauge. (For more information about this, see Measuring the Swatch.)
Wool is the most common animal fiber and comes from the fleece of sheep. Wool is warm and breathable and can absorb up to 30 percent of its weight in water without feeling wet, which makes it exceptionally practical for socks. Merino wool is the softest available and is quite popular in sock yarns; however, it is not the strongest of wool fibers for the same reasons it is soft: it has short, fine individual fibers. Merino sock yarns are almost always blended with nylon for added strength. Other breed-specific yarns such as Bluefaced Leicester, Polwarth, Romney, and others have become more popular of late and can now be found at fiber festivals, as well as online and at local yarn shops. Many sock yarns are made with wool from various meat- and fiber-sheep breeds, are often blended together, and do not list the specific breeds on the label.
Alpaca and llama fibers are spun into yarns that are similar to wool but have less elasticity. These yarns can be very soft, but they are usually denser and weigh more than wool yarns of the same thickness. These fibers are not as springy as wool, so the knitted fabric is not as stretchy, but they can be used successfully in combination with knitting stitches such as ribbing that add elasticity to the sock. When blended with wool, alpaca and llama make very warm socks for winter wear, as well as long-wearing hiking and work socks.
Cashmere yarn is made from the downy undercoat of Angora goats. This fiber, as well as other luxury fibers made from down fibers, such as qiviut (from the musk ox), bison, yak, and camel, are not strong enough for long-wearing socks but can be used for socks when blended with wool and nylon for strength.
Angora rabbit fur is the last fiber spun from the fur of a mammal that we'll discuss. While the pure fiber is deliciously soft and cuddly, the individual fibers are short and require a very tight twist (see Why Twist and Spin Matter) to keep the yarn from shedding, even when blended with wool. A few high-twist angora-and-wool-blend yarns are on the market today, and these are excellent for extra-warm socks and slippers.
Silk is the only common protein fiber that does not come from the fleece of an animal. Silk comes from the fibers that form the cocoon of the Bombyx mori moth. The silkworm caterpillar spins a very strong fiber that can be made into yarn or fabric that is cool in summer and warm in winter. Because it has little elasticity, silk works best for socks only when blended with wool or another springy fiber.
Fibers from Plants
Cellulose, or plant-source, fibers usually have less elasticity than protein fibers and often make stronger yarns. Some are even used to make ropes.
Cotton is a versatile fiber that can be spun into a strong yarn. One of the most absorbent fibers available, cotton gains strength when wet, giving it a clear advantage for socks. Mercerized cotton is lustrous and inelastic, while unmercerized cotton is much more absorbent and softer. (Mercerization is a chemical treatment that gives the fibers strength and a lustrous finish, and also helps them take dye for vibrant, long-lasting colors.) Fabrics made from cotton tend to stretch out of shape as they get older. For scarves and shawls, this is not terribly important. Socks, however, will eventually lose their shape after many washings. Blending cotton with wool or a very small amount of spandex (a synthetic elastic fiber, such as Lycra) solves this problem. Using very fine cotton yarn with a very high twist for machine-made socks also solves this problem. This explains why many antique handknit socks, made from cotton yarn thin enough to be called a thread and knit at the astounding gauge of 10 to 20 stitches per inch, have held their shape over the years.
Linen, made from flax, is the oldest-known natural fiber. Linen is extremely strong and absorbent and, like cotton, was used to knit fine socks for summer wear in times past. Today's linen knitting yarns are not available at such fine weights and are too hard and inelastic for knitting socks unless blended with at least 50 percent wool.
Hemp and bamboo yarns have qualities very similar to linen.
As mentioned above, Lycra can be blended with cotton to add elasticity, and nylon or acrylic can be blended with wool to add strength and washability. Many other man-made fibers are practical for knitting socks as well. Although in the past synthetic fibers such as nylon and polyester were not absorbent or breathable, technologies are available today that make some new high-tech yarns that are much more appealing to sock knitters.
Still other fibers, such as Tencel, rayon, and some bamboo yarns, are made by chemical processes from plant material, becoming hybrids of the natural and man-made categories. Many of these yarns work well for socks when blended with wool, and you can often find them in the sock-yarn section of local yarn shops.
Choosing colors is one of the most personal parts of knitting. In fact, most of the time when we look through books and magazines, the color of a project is what jumps out at us first. In this book, there is no color, so you get to exercise your imagination and choose what is best for you.
Solid colors are excellent choices for socks, especially if you're knitting for someone with conservative tastes. When the yarn is solid, it also shows up your pattern stitches with the best possible results. Solid colors can also be combined in colorwork patterns or stripes.
Semisolid colors are hand-dyed with slight variations. This gives you all of the advantages of working with solids and just a touch of added interest.
Ombré is a term that has come into popularity again lately. These yarns can also be called variegated or multicolored. Many times the colors blend into each other in a sequence that repeats one or more times in a skein. If you want to work a complicated stitch pattern in these yarns, swatch first to make sure the color pattern and stitch pattern don't compete with each other.
Self-striping and self-patterning yarns are clever color arrangements that create stripes or faux Fair Isle designs on your knitting without any extra work on your part. Working with these yarns is a fun way to add variety to your socks while keeping the knitting simple.
Why Twist and Spin Matter
The amount of twist in the yarn and the technique used to spin it are of particular importance to sock knitters.
Yarns are made by spinning, which is essentially twisting individual fibers together. The shorter the fibers are, the more twist is required to hold them together, to prevent the yarn from pilling, and to make the yarn strong. The amount of twist also affects the elasticity of yarn. The looser the twist (or the fewer times the yarn is twisted per inch), the less elastic the resulting yarn will be. The tighter the twist (the more times the yarn is twisted per inch), the more spring and elasticity is added to the yarn.
Yarn that is spun with a worsted technique, where all of the fibers are arranged parallel to each other, is firm, dense, and strong. Yarn that is spun in the woolen technique, where fibers are arranged in a more haphazard fashion, is lofty and fluffy, with a lot of elasticity. (See also Spinning Notes.)
Other factors, such as type of fiber and number of plies, also influence the amount of elasticity in a yarn. Yarn can be made from a single strand of spun fiber (referred to as singles) or from several strands that are plied (twisted) together. I don't consider singles yarns to be appropriate for knitting socks, although there are some singles sock yarns on the market. With just enough twist added (not too much or the yarn will kink up and bias when knit), a singles yarn can work for socks, but it will never have the elasticity or strength of a plied yarn. When multiple strands — two, three, four, or even more — of yarn are plied together, they create yarns of different textures, resulting in different amounts of elasticity, bounce, and strength.
Spinning Notes Yarn can be spun
either worsted (which refers to the spinning method rather than one of the yarn weights described above) or woolen style. Worsted yarns have the fibers all lined up in parallel to create a firm, strong yarn with a smooth surface that is wonderful for knitting cables and knit-and-purl patterns. Woolen yarn is spun from fibers that are jumbled in all different directions, which creates an elastic, fluffy yarn perfect for knitting colorwork patterns. Both styles of yarn work well for stockinette stitch and ribbing, and both are appropriate for knitting socks.
The table below gives a rough estimate of yardage required to knit socks based on calf-high socks in stockinette stitch or ribbing. Additional yarn will be needed for using complex stitch patterns and multiple colors. Many sock yarns today come in skeins of 400–500 yards, which is normally enough to make an adult-size pair of socks or two pairs of children's socks.
Needles for Knitting Socks
Socks, like everything else knitted, are made on knitting needles. My grandmother always used the same kind of needles, probably the only brand available at the discount store where she usually shopped for her yarn. Today, the variety of needles available to knitters is almost limitless. The downside to the available variety is that you have to choose!
Wooden needles are smooth but not overly slippery and are a good choice for beginning sock knitters. Wooden needles are also warm, making them more comfortable to hold than other materials. The wood itself is often birch, but rosewood, ebony, and a variety of other woods may be used. The strength and flexibility of the needles varies based on the species of tree from which the wood is milled. I don't recommend using wooden needles at sizes smaller than U.S. 2 (2.75 mm) because they are prone to break unless you handle them gently.
Bamboo needles are stronger than wood, particularly in the smaller sizes, while providing the same advantages of being warm and smooth but not slippery.
Plastic needles are also warm and flexible and are another good choice for beginning sock knitters. They can be less expensive than wooden needles but are generally not available in the smallest sizes because of manufacturing limitations.
Metal needles are available in many different styles and brands today. In general, these make for fast knitting because they are slick and very smooth. They are also quite slippery, however, and can be frustrating for new sock knitters because they make it too easy to drop stitches, especially off the ends of double-pointed needles (more on that in the next section). Metal needles can be extremely slippery when nickel-plated, very slippery when made from stainless steel, and moderately slippery when coated or painted, but they are all more slippery than plastic, wooden, and bamboo needles. Very thin-needles can be made with steel, however, making them popular for sock knitters who like to work with fine yarn and small needles to make firm, dense stitches and lightweight socks. These fine steel needles are flexible and will bend over time, however, which I find annoying.
Carbon-fiber needles are newcomers to the knitting marketplace. These needles are less slippery than metal needles and stronger than wood or bamboo, making them a new favorite of sock knitters. Some brands come with steel points on the ends of the needle for speedy knitting, while the carbon fiber of the needle shank holds stitches in place and helps reduce the frequency of dropping stitches.
Knitting in the Round
Socks are knit circularly, so they cannot be knit on two straight needles. Although it is possible to knit socks as flat pieces, then seam them together, the seams could be uncomfortable and also weaken the structure of the finished sock. There are several different techniques that can be used for knitting in the round, each requiring different types of knitting needles. These include:
* one short circular needle
* a set of four or five double-pointed needles
* two circular needles
* one long circular needle for a technique called "Magic Loop" (see Using One Long Circular Needle: The Magic Loop)
Let's look at how each of these works.
Using One Short Circular Needle
The most obvious way to knit a small tube is to put the stitches on a short circular needle and work around and around and around. Some knitters are, in fact, quite fond of this method. Many other knitters find the short circulars difficult, if not impossible, to work with because the needle portion is only a few inches long, which, depending on how you hold your yarn and needles, makes it difficult to grasp.
Needle length: 9 to 12 inches (must be shorter than the finished circumference of the sock)
1. Cast on the appropriate number of stitches, then place the needle on a flat surface, and make sure all the stitches are lined up on the inside of the needle's curve and not twisted. With the yarn tail and the working yarn on the right side of the needle, pick up the needle carefully, and knit the first couple of stitches with both strands. This joins the knitting into a circle. (When you come back to the beginning of the round, work the double-stranded stitches as single stitches.)
2. Now just knit around and around and around. You can use the yarn tail to keep track of the beginning of the round (as I do), or you can put a little plastic marker onto the needle and slip it every time you come to it.
Using Double-Pointed Needles
Double-pointed needles are straight needles that have points on both ends. By using four or five needles, it is possible to knit in the round without having a curved needle. This is the oldest way of knitting in the round and was used throughout the Middle East, Europe, and South America for centuries before circular needles were invented. You can put your work on three needles and knit with the fourth (common in the United States, this is my preference) or you can put your work on four needles and knit with the fifth (more common in Europe). If you've never used double-pointed needles before, try both setups to see which is most comfortable for you.
Needle length: 5 to 8 inches
1. Cast on, then divide the stitches evenly onto three or four needles by just slipping the stitches from one needle to another.
2. Place the needles on a flat surface, and make sure all the stitches are lined up on the inside of the triangle or square formed by the needles and not twisted. With the tail and the working yarn on the right needle, pick up the needles carefully, and knit the first couple of stitches with both strands. This joins the knitting into a circle.
Excerpted from "How to Knit Socks That Fit"
Copyright © 2015 Donna Druchunas.
Excerpted by permission of Storey Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of ContentsIntroduction: Why Knit Socks?
Chapter One: Yarn for Knitting Socks
- Yarn Weights
- Fiber Content
- Yarn Colors
- Why Twist and Spin Matter
- Yarn Amounts
- Needle Materials
- Knitting in the Round
- Tips for Arranging Stitches on Different Kinds of Needles
- Taking Foot Measurements
- Working a Gauge Swatch
- Choosing What Size to Make
Chapter Five: Cuff Down or Toe Up?
- A Little History
- Structural Differences
- Pros and Cons
- Basic Cuff-Down Sock Pattern
- Basic Toe-Up Sock
- More Ways to Work a Heel
- More Ways to Work Toes
Chapter Ten: Stitch Library
My Favorite Knitting Resources
Metric Conversion Chart