Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Frequently Asked Questions: Sock Knitting. Number umpty-seven in a series of several million.

I had a great Twitter conversation this morning, and I thought it was worth summarizing here, as it touched on a couple of great points.

A knitter asked about whether it was possible to convert all sock patterns to be worked two-at-a-time, toe up.

The key tweet was this one...

It wasn't directled specifically at me, but I couldn't NOT reply.

My first reply was "Why?" (The unspoken follow-up being" "Are you trying to kill yourself?")

Two-at-a-time toe-up is so not where I would start a new sock knitter, no matter how experienced or talented. I like working toe-up socks, and I find two-at-a-time very amusing, but the start of a toe-up is pretty fiddly for a new sock knitter,and then to compound that by having to keep track of two socks and two yarns... well, it just seems less than fun.

The entirely reasonable reply was that the knitter had been told that toe-up gives you a good way to try the sock on as you go.

Aha, I said! AHA!

This is one of my favourite myths about sock knitting: that there's no meaningful way to try on a top-down sock as you go. Not true!

After all, the sock typically has the same number of stitches in the leg as the foot (given that most people's ankle circumference is pretty close to their foot circumference), so you can put the leg on your foot to check fit. Easy!

And related myth: there's no way to adjust a top down sock foot. Equally not true!

You can try the sock on again after you've turned the heel and you're working the gusset decreases. And you can adjust the fit of the foot by working more (or fewer) gusset decreases. Easy.

And it's actually easier to get the foot length correct for a top-down sock than a toe-up.

Controversial Opinion Alert!

Really. I'll say that again.


Here's the thing: to get the foot length right in a toe-up sock, you need to start the heel at the right place. And to start it at the right place, you need to know how long the heel turn is, and then start working the heel that distance short of foot length. Thing is, I haven't seen many toe up sock patterns that explicitly state that length.

So it's often a guess, or a vague instruction about placement on the foot, or worse, a set length (e.g. 'work foot until sock measures 6 inches, then turn heel'). And if you get it wrong, you've got a fair bit of knitting to undo, and it can be tricky knitting to redo.

It's more common to see a top down sock pattern that tells you when to start the toe(usually, 'work foot until it measures 2 inches short of full foot length'). And if it turns out you've messed it up, there's less knitting in a toe (and it's usually more straightforward), so it's less painful to undo and rework.

To the intrepid knitter on Twitter, I suggested a "walk before you run" approach. I strongly believe that a top-down sock is easiest for a new sock knitter, as you get a chance to build confidence with the tiny yarn and tiny needles working on a set number of stitches in the leg, before you have to start worrying about the tricky stuff. With a toe-up sock, you're immediately thrown in the deep end: you start with a small number of stitches (which is trickier) and straight away have to start shaping the toe.

Once you've mastered top-down, then try toe-up, and then when you're comfortable with toe-up, try two at a time. I also strongly believe a knitter should try both styles to see which construction they enjoy more - and which fits better. They don't fit the same, and feet can vary wildly.

(Totally new to sock knitting? Start here, with my Top Down Training Sock! And if you're ready for toe up, here's the Toe Up Training Sock!)


Kathleen said...


Completely agree - is this actually a controversial opinion? (Who knew.)

This is why I love the hat-heel construction so much - you get the easy-to-fit-the-foot aspect of top-down sock knitting, combined with the easy-to-know-when-to-stop-the-cuff-so-you-don't-run-out-of-yarn-for-the-second-sock aspect of toe-up sock knitting. :)

Zilliah Bailey said...

Interesting! But I still prefer toe-up socks - I like to use up all the yarn and make the leg of the sock as long as possible.

marianne said...

I totally agree, I get a better fit with cuff down. The only time I knit toe up is when I want to use up all the yarn or if I really like the look of a pattern and can't or don't want to convert it to cuff down.

Linda said...

A very interesting post. Just yesterday I looked at knitting two-at-a time but came to the conclusion, "What's the hurry?" I enjoy knitting each and every one of my socks and see no benefit in turning the effort into a production line.

I once took a class on knitting toe-up socks because I wanted to give that method a fair chance. At the end of the class I said "No thanks, I'll stick with cuff down."

Thanks again for the interesting post. I enjoyed it very much.

May said...

I prefer top down socks. Just wanted to say that your sock tutorial really helped me when I started knitting socks. Also, your mitten tutorial is equally helpful. Thank you for making these available. It is very generous of you!

Monita said...

My first socks I ever knit was 2-at-a-time toe-up. I haven't tried knitting cuff-down yet cuz it sounds complicated having to pick up stitches along the heel flap for the gusset. But I'm gonna try it soon...

Unknown said...

while i prefer knitting toe up for . . . no real reason i can think of . . . i TOTALLY agree that it's easier to fit the foot on a top-down sock.
(actually, the reason is that it seems to go faster, which is in all likelihood just my imagination)

Emma said...

Top down is by far my preference. I can knit socks toe up, but I only ever do so if there's a pattern I like and it's written that way. Possibly because I use DPNs I find top down sock easier to try on as well.

Unknown said...

Well, I am new to this - don't know if this is where I post a question or not.
I am making a pair of socks for my sis in law. Her foot is pretty normal - I can repeat the size I use for me (64 sts) and adjust the length, however, her calf just above her ankle is quite large and so I am not sure how to start. What is the best way to adjust for a larger calf? She tried my socks on and - foot worked well, but above the ankle was too snug to pull up all the way.