Magic or engineering? The alchemy of socks

November 11, 2014 § 7 Comments

Mr M has been watching my latest knitting project with more interest than usual. He is always fascinated by the four double pointed needles I use to knit socks, which strike him as a cross between ancient torture implements and some type of divination tool. As the socks I’m currently working on involve a cable pattern, I’m using a fifth needle, which thoroughly intrigues him.

All joking aside, Mr M is genuinely fascinated to see a sock take form, just as I am. No matter how often I knit them, I never stop marvelling at how it’s possible to transform one-dimensional yarn into a complicated three-dimensional object, without cutting the yarn or seaming various pieces together. And to think that for many years I put off knitting socks.

I didn’t start until about four years ago. I was wary of the tiny needles (typically a 2 or 2.5 mm set), the fine yarn (usually a 4-ply/fingering), instructions that look as if they’re from a book of spells, but most of all the fear that it was too difficult. Although I had years of knitting under my belt, knitting socks seemed like magic that was beyond all but the most advanced knitter. How wrong was I!

Finally, sick of shop bought socks that were neither warm nor durable, I turned my hand to making some and discovered that knitting socks actually is magic. Not in the sense of witchcraft but rather in terms of alchemy. The process taps into my childlike curiosity. It stirs my desire to understand what I see around me even if I lack the jargon to describe the concepts or the formulae to articulate the mathematical or scientific principles. When you stop to think about it, turning the heel of a sock (i.e. the process that takes you from the leg section into the foot) is pure engineering, akin to tunnelling around a corner. Without understanding the mathematics, you watch the stitches combine to achieve all kinds of complex trigonometry. And binding off in Kitchener stitch to close the sock at the tip of the toes is to wool what brazing is to copper: a way of seamlessly bonding two planes of material.

Knitting socks

Creating the heel flap

Knitting socks

Turning the heel

Knitting socks

On to the foot of the sock

So if you fancy warm toes and want socks that will last (and even when they wear thin are actually worth darning), don’t procrastinate as long as I did! And to help you along, here are some tips and suggestions to bear in mind when you decide to tackle your first pair.

  • Pick a simple pattern to start with. Ones that are ribbed as far as the ankle and then stocking stitch/stockinette for the remainder are ideal. There are plenty of free patterns on Ravelry, including very simple ones.
  • Although the needles look complicated, remember that you only use two at any one time, as with any other knitting project. You can use a set of double pointed needles (DPNs) or two circular needles. There’s also a technique using one long circular needle, known as the magic loop technique, which some people love and others avoid like the plague.
  • Short ladies’ socks typically require about 350 to 400 metres of 4-ply yarn. Remember that socks are hardwearing so don’t go for anything too delicate. And if you want to use up various skeins of 4-ply left over from other projects, go ahead! It is only convention that dictates that socks should match and by knitting your own, you’re already flouting conventions!
  • Follow the pattern to the letter. At times you may wonder at it and be convinced that it contains errors or is missing something but stick with it. These sections usually tee up the point where the alchemy begins.
  • If you’re unsure about any techniques, check on YouTube for advice. There is a fair chance that somebody has asked the same question and another knitter has obligingly posted a demonstration.

Most of all, just give it a go and have fun with it, and before long you too may be participating in a most constructive little act of rebellion!

A finished sock and the next one on the go

A finished Collinwood* sock and the next one on the go

***

*I used the Collinwood sock pattern by Rachel Coopey for these socks. I picked the wrong yarn as the self-striping wool does not show off the lovely design particularly well, but I love the pattern and will be using it again. It is a bit involved so not really suitable for a novice. However, Rachel’s patterns are very precise and easy to follow so I would definitely recommend looking out for her designs if you’re bitten by the sock knitting bug.

 (This recommendation is based purely on my experience and has not been paid for, sponsored or induced in any other way.)

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§ 7 Responses to Magic or engineering? The alchemy of socks

  • Your socks look beautiful. I’m visiting my brother and sister for the week and my sister Michelle is knitting socks as I type. I mentioned Ravelry and she said it’s wonderful. I don’t knit nearly as much as she does, so I hadn’t heard of it but I just registered now. Thank you for the link! (I’ll tell my daughter about it too.) I’ve always felt knitters are quiet rebels, but had never heard anyone else before make that association 🙂

    • Thanks, Anne-Marie. Yes, knitters are charming quiet rebels. Translate materials and cost of our time (in minimum wage terms) in to money and economically speaking knitting is sheer madness but much like gardening, cooking… it makes us producers rather than mere consumers, but most of all it makes us happy!

  • jackiemania says:

    I love everything about this post 🙂 Your socks are coming out beautifully — I like how the pattern of the yarn and the pattern of the knitting is interacting, actually! I bet it will look really striking when worn, too.

    I used to be terrified of DPNs but I agree — they are not actually scary. OK, casting on and juggling that first row is a little tricky, but once you get going, all is good 🙂

    Out of all the things I knit, socks are one of my favorites (the other are my wash cloths and dish towels!). The practicality, the engineering/magic, the tiny needles, the fact that hand knit socks are so much nicer to wear than store bought socks, and, actually seem like an entirely different beast than store bought socks (the colors! the patterns, the customization), the warmth (literal and figurative).

    • Thanks. I know what you mean, they are so down to earth and practical and in economic terms it is probably madness, but that’s part of the joy: to lavish care and skill on such a basic everyday garment. Apart from the toasty toes at the end of it, it really feels like taking a bit of power back from the corporates 😉

      • jackiemania says:

        Yes, by the hour rate is not good for sock knitting, but make the picture more holistic — health benefits of meditative work, feeling of agency, fact that people tend to care more for items they have made and are more prone to repair them … A brighter view 🙂

  • Judith says:

    I knit a pair of socks some time ago and vowed never again. I then decided to have another go, using a pattern designed for magic loop, as this is what I use to knit in the round. Perfect and I am just starting on another pair.

    I do not like sewing up, so anything with no seams is perfect for me:)

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