Fat Knitting Superhero, disguised as Mild Mannered Yarn Shop Employee.

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Top-Down Socks – Needles

What needles to use for your sock-knitting needs is very personal.  It depends on how tightly or loosely you knit and what materials feel good in your hands.  Basically, though, you need to make 3 decisions:  needle size, needle material, and needle configuration.

Needle Size: Many people just go with the recommendation on the ball band of the yarn they’ve chosen, which usually suggests a US size 2 (2.75mm) needle.  With apologies to all the sock yarn manufacturers, that’s just too darn big.  Socks need to be knitted tightly if they’re going to last.  That means that if you use fingering weight yarn, you need to get a gauge of at least 7 stitches per inch (unless you like holes in the toes).  8 or 9 sts/in is even better!  Unless you’re a SUPER TIGHT knitter, you won’t be able to get that small of a gauge with a size 2 (2.75mm) needle.  I generally use a US size 0 (2mm) needle, sometimes a US size 1 (2.25mm) if the yarn is on the thick side.  In order to find YOUR sock needle size, I’m afraid you’re going to have to swatch.  I’ll have swatching instructions later in the series.

Needle Material: Wood?  Steel?  Bamboo?  Plastic (oh please no)?  Bronze?  I’ve seen and used them all.  This is mostly a personal preference issue.  I, personally, hate plastic needles for socks.  They’re not strong enough and they suck.  All of the others are quite nice!  I usually suggest that sock beginners start with wood or bamboo.  Wood/bamboo needles aren’t as slick nor as heavy as metal needles, making them less likely to slip out of the stitches on their own and thus making sock-newbies less nervous.  Once you gain confidence, do experiment with metal needles.  They can be delightful!  Metal needles are also better for both very tight knitters and very loose knitters.  Tight knitters like them because they let the stitches slip better and very loose knitters need them, because the slippery metal forces them to tighten up.  Moderately tight to moderately loose knitters can choose whatever needle they like!

Needle Configuration:  There are four ways to make small diameter knitted tubes (like socks).  I’ll address each one briefly, but they really each need their own post.  Even though almost all sock knitters (including me!) have one definite preference, I really suggest that you try each of the three “good” ways.  You don’t know which you’ll like until you try them all (like ice cream – you have to try all the flavors before you know your “favorite,” right?), so I hope you won’t let my own preference influence you too much!  And I welcome comments about your favorite method!

  1. 9″-long circular needles.  Don’t use them.  Period.  I know some people like them, but they have some problems.  First, the “needle” section is far too short – usually only just over 1″ long, which is just plain awkward to work with.  Second, most socks are less than 9″ in circumference, which means that they’ll have to be stretched HARD around the needle, which will make the knitter unconsciously knit them too loosely.  They just suck and they’re not worth it.
  2. 2 medium-length circular needles.  This works extremely well for working 2 socks at a time, since there’s usually plenty of room for both socks.   It’s a little tricky to learn, but once you understand the process, it’s fairly straightforward.   For some knitters, using 2-circs helps prevent loose stitches (ladders) where you change from one needle to the other, though, to be honest, for some knitters, they make the ladders worse.  Basically, the idea is that you knit half the stitches with the two ends of one needle and the other half with the other needle.  For looser knitters, this is often a fairly easy method, though tighter knitters may become frustrated with pushing the stitches up from the narrower cable section of the needle up to the bigger needle tip section.  Others will find the “flying spaghetti monster” aspect of all the dangling needles annoying.
  3. 1 long circular needle – Magic Loop.  I find Magic Loop easier to teach than 2-circs, but the two methods are very similar.  Choosing between them is purely a matter of personal preference.  With the Magic Loop, the entire sock is on one needle, but a loop of cable is pulled out between the two halves and that loop maintained throughout the sock knitting process, essentially making the one circular needle function as two.  Magic Loop has all the other pluses and minuses of 2-circs, but has two advantages.  One is cost.  Buying one needle is cheaper than buying two, obviously!  The other is that with Magic Loop it’s a little easier for beginners to see where they are.  The other is that there is no dangling “spaghetti monster.”
  4. The Old Classic – Double-Pointed Needles (DPNs).  These are classic for a reason.  It’s the easiest method to teach, the easiest to learn, and favored by the majority of sock knitters (about 60%, in my experience).  They come in different lengths, and I find the 6″ length best for socks (and mittens).  Tighter knitters prefer them because they don’t have to push stitches over the “bump” between cable and needle tip as on circular needles. Show-offy knitters like them because they look much harder to use than they are.   They’re simple and basic.  They’re also my favorite, so I’m a bit biased, and that’s what I’ll be using in the upcoming posts!

So?  Want to know my favorite needles for socks?  Mostly I use wood or bamboo DPNs.  My current sock-in-progress is on size 1 Knitpicks DPNs.  I also frequently use KA bamboo DPNs and HiyaHiya steel DPNs (available in sizes down to 000000).  I also use KA and HiyaHiya circs occasionally.  (KA and HiyaHiya needles are available through Yarnivore.)  My husband (yes, he knits, too, and makes all his own socks) has a drool-worthy set of hot-forged bronze DPNs from Celtic Swan Forge and I’m hoping for a sterling silver set from them one day.

Tomorrow: Swatching!

Top-Down Socks – yarn

As promised, I’m finally doing a sock post!  This is for EvaBla on Ravelry who hasn’t yet successfully knit a sock.

Let’s start with a basic top-down sock.  The first step is…  Picking yarn, of course!  And actually, that’s the least understood part of the deal for most knitters.

Yarn for socks should have multiple plies – at least 4 IMHO, and should be firmly spun and smooth-textured. It shouldn’t be terribly squishy or fuzzy. That smoothness and firm twist are what give sock yarn the strength to resist abrasion and avoid pilling or developing holes too quickly.

Another important issue is fiber.  Yarn for socks should be made of a fairly elastic fiber, like wool, and should contain about 15-20% of a something strong and abrasion resistant, like nylon or silk.  Wool gets a bad rap sometimes because people think it’s itchy.  Luckily, the same firm, smooth twist that makes sock yarn strong also makes wool lie down and behave and NOT ITCH.  Others will say that wool is too hot.  Not so.  At the same weight, wool feels cooler than cotton.  This is mostly because, unlike cotton, which feels wet instantly, wool absorbs about 30% of its weight in water before it even begins to feel damp.  This means that the average 50 gram wool sock can absorb 15 grams of sweat (that’s about a tablespoon) before your feet will start to feel damp.  The wool will also allow the moisture to move through the fabric, so that perspiration absorbed at the toes can evaporate outside the shoes from the sock’s cuff.

Lastly, size.  Most yarn sold as “sock yarn” in North America is fingering weight (Craft Yarn Council’s size 1) and many yarn stores put all their fingering weight yarn together and call it all “sock yarn.”  It isn’t.  Even if it’s in the sock yarn section, if it’s fuzzy or single-plied or lumpy, it’s not sock yarn.  Go ahead and buy it, but do me a favor and use it for hats or fingerless mitts or scarves.  That way, you won’t have to darn your socks quite so soon!

Tomorrow – NEEDLES for socks!

Got Sox?

Handknit socks have a mystique all their own.  Most knitters feel very confident that they can knit a scarf or a hat, even a sweater (even if they haven’t made one yet, they’re sure they can).  But socks?  Socks seem like a mystery.  So, over the next few posts, I hope to de-mystify the sock-knitting process.

Meanwhile, here’s some inspiration – my sock drawer!  If I can do it, so can you!

click to biggify

Beginning Knitters ROCK!

I have to say that of all the classes I teach, Beginning Knitting is my absolute favorite.  The look on people’s faces when they first knit a whole row is just priceless!  Watching them go from completely awkward yarn handling to knitting with their eyes shut (yes, I do make them do that!) is such joy!  They’re learning to trust themselves, to trust their fingers, to believe that they can make something magical.  It’s awesome.

So, I have a question?  How long have you been knitting (if you knit) or how long have you wanted to learn (if you don’t yet) and what was your favorite ah-ha moment in knitting?

Not really a fail…

Okay, so I don’t have a post for Nov. 2, but really it counts anyway, because it still feels like Nov. 2 to me. Hopefully, I’ll do better tomorrow!

NaBloPoMo. Can I do it?

Well, I don’t know, but I’m gonna try! So, since there are still a few minutes left in Nov. 1, I’m gonna count this! A short post, but a post nonetheless!

A Sweater Fairy Tale

Once upon a time there was a lovely lady named Stacie (Hi, Stacie!). Stacie’s very charming husband gave her a very nice Christmas present – a class from me on knitting raglan sweaters from the top down (my absolute FAVORITE way to make sweaters). Stacie took her new knowledge and, completely on her own, made this absolutely delightful sweater for her own little Princess. Isn’t it the absolute cutest thing you’ve ever seen?

Isn't it the cutest thing?

Stacie used what she learned in class, plus neck shaping from Barbara Walker’s book Knitting From the Top, the class textbook, and added her own touches.  My favorite part is the adorable line of elephants marching around the bottom!  You can see Stacie’s notes and a photo of the young Princess wearing it on Ravelry.com by clicking the photo above.

Good work, Stacie!  (I feel a bit like a proud granny – I hope that’s okay!)

Positively Negative

I’m always so sad when a knitter brings in a beautifully made sweater that doesn’t fit or flatter them.  More often than not, it’s because the sweater is too big.  A too-big sweater can easily give one that bulky kid-in-a-snowsuit look.  The counter-intuitive secret to well-fitting sweaters?  Negative ease!

Ease is often poorly understood.  It means “the difference between body measurements and garment measurements.”  In garments made from woven fabrics you must have positive ease, meaning that the garment is bigger than the body, because woven fabrics generally have little or no stretch.  We have no such restriction in knitting, because knitting stretches beautifully!  Negative ease means that the garment is actually smaller than the body measurements and must stretch a bit when worn.  Socks are a great example.  A sock has to be narrower than the foot or it will feel baggy and uncomfortable.

Another rule of ease?  The lighter and more drapey the fabric, the more ease (looser) the garment can be.  Think of a really lightweight rayon or silk blouse.  It needs lots of extra fabric in order to take advantage of the fluidity of the material, but it doesn’t add visual bulk to the body.  Heavier fabrics, like suiting, denim, and most handknitting, need to be fitted more closely.  They don’t drape well, so they tend to stand away from the body, creating bulky silhouettes that don’t flatter anyone.

Many knitters, not understanding that less ease will look better, choose patterns by picking the one that is the same as or a couple inches more than their own chest/bust measurement, even when working with thick wool yarns.  This usually creates a sweater that will stay in the drawer and never be worn.  Instead, choose your size with ease in mind.  Very drapey, fine-gauged yarns like rayons and silks and some linens and cottons can be made with a small amount of positive ease.  All others should be made with negative ease.

Knitting Daily made a great video illustrating this concept and I hope you’ll watch it, and learn the positive side of negative ease!


I’ve been absent from blogging the last week or so because of this:

No, I’m not showing off a fancy fabric beard – it’s an ice pack. I had all four wisdom teeth extracted a week ago, and have been living on painkillers ever since.

I’m working on a post about darning, and hopefully will have it live in a few days. Until then, I wish you all painless chewing!

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