Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Socks Education Part 1: Making it a Pleasurable Experience

There comes a time in every knitter’s life when an older knitter needs to sit them down and have a frank discussion about socks.  Well, knitters, that time has come.  Prepare yourself Socks Education.
Sarah, the Obsessed Knitter
I have been a knitter for 33 years now.  Yes, I’ve been knitting longer than Sara has been alive.  I know my way around a skein of yarn and I’d like to let you benefit from my experience.  I thought I would start with a six part series on socks.
Like Sealy Booth on Bones, I'm not subtle about my sock color.
Double-Pointed Needles (“DPNs”).  Everyone is a little nervous, maybe even a tad bit fearful their first time.  Don’t worry.  Though it may feel weird at first, you’ll soon get used to it and will no longer feel awkward.  There are ways to knit socks on circular needles, but I’m old-fashioned.  I actually LIKE using DPNs.
I use 4 needles.  I’ve seen people who use 5, but I think that makes the work flop around too much.  Also, with 4 needles in use, you can divide the stitches into three groups as follows:
    Needle 1:  from the heel to the top of the foot (left side)
    Needle 2:  across the top of the foot
    Needle 3:  from the top of the foot (right side) back down to the heel

Of course, the 4th needle is going to be the needle you knit your stitches onto (the one you hold in your right hand if you are right handed, or left hand if you are left-handed).

Gauge.  My standard sock pattern is worked to a gauge of 8 stitches per inch.  You’ll need the right combination of yarn and needles to get you to this gauge.  Each of us is going to be a tad bit different in what size we are most comfortable with; some prefer larger, some smaller.  With a standard sock yarn, I usually end up with US size 2 needles (2.75mm). 

I cannot stress enough that you want to do a test swatch to check that you have the right gauge.  I never used to do this.  It didn’t seem cool, or I was in too big a rush to get to the good part.  I skipped what was a necessary precaution.  Well, nothing I ever knit in those days fit!  Once I started checking my gauge, things did fit properly and I found the whole experience much more satisfying.  You will, too.

With that said, I do NOT make a 4 x 4 inch test swatch.  That is a waste of time.  I also do not worry about how many rows in an inch.  I have never seen how that matters.  Maybe if the pattern says knit 20 rows, it might make a difference, but most patterns tell you to knit to a specified length like 6 inches.  Whether that’s 40 rows or 43 rows, doesn’t really matter.  6 inches is 6 inches.  (One caveat, if you have a limited amount of yarn, you may need to be concerned about the gauge of the row as more rows means more yarn.  For that reason, I give you my full permission to not skimp when purchasing your yarn--buy lots!).

Here is what I do for my test swatch.  I cast on the number of stitches I am trying to achieve, plus 10-12 extra.  If I want 8 stitches per inch, I cast on 18 or so stitches (it doesn’t need to be precise).  Next, I knit 6-8 rows in my pattern stitch (do not cast off or cut yarn).  I do this to make sure I’ve got an even edge.  Then I measure in the middle of the swatch to see if I’ve got my 8 stitches per inch.  If I have too many stitches, I need to switch to larger needles.  If I have too few stitches, I need to switch to smaller needles. If you do switch needle sizes, go through the test swatch process again to make sure you’ve got the right size. 
Checking the gauge with my knitting tape measure that I've had since I was a teenager.
Once I’m all settled on the gauge, I rip out my test swatch.  No sense wasting perfectly good yarn on a test swatch you’re done with.  Pull it out and use it to knit your socks.

Yarn.  For this project, you will need 2 skeins of sock yarn.  I like to use a superwash wool blend, but use what you want--bamboo, soy, cotton, etc.  Keep in mind that knitting socks is not necessarily an inexpensive project.  With some of these yarns, you can end up paying $30-40 for a single pair of socks. Then you’ll have a ton left over that will probably just go to waste.

Probably the only pair of socks I've knitted from non-scrap yarn.  The yarn was a self-striping wool/nylon blend.
Let me let you in on my secret:  STRIPES.  Stripes are adorable and they will save you money.  If you buy two skeins of solid color yarn, and one skein of the fancy-pants self-striping yarn (or bamboo, silk or other pricey stuff), you can make 2 pairs of socks, maybe even 3 pairs.  What’s more, your socks will be even cuter than if you used just the fancy yarn. 
Now, if you are a truly cheap knitter, like me, you’ll hook up with a knitter who will give you what’s leftover from her sock knitting.  I’ve got Denise.  Denise is an endless supply of leftover sock yarn.  She can’t be bothered to use it all up, but she feels ashamed if she throws it away.  Enter me.  She gives me her cast-off yarn, I go buy a solid color to mix in with her fancy-pants stuff, and I’ve got a pair of socks that looks just as good as hers for about $5-6.  Denise has no guilt.  We both win.
90% of this yarn was passed down to me by my friend Denise.  The other 10% comes from Thrift stores.
Knots.  I hate knots in my knitting and I rarely make them.  Knots make a little bump that is uncomfortable.  This is especially true with socks.  If you walk around all day with a knot-bump rubbing against your foot, you’re going to get a blister.  It’s a safety issue.  Practice safe socks—no knots!

How do I do this, you ask?  Well, I will show you throughout the series what you can do in places you would normally make a knot.  Give it a try.  You’ll be a better knitter for it.

That’s it for today.  If you have any questions, comments, tips, leave a comment or email me through the link in the left column.  Tomorrow in Part 2, we’ll take a look at “The Anatomy of a Sock.”  On Friday, we will start knitting so have your yarn ready!

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