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Sock Basics

Your Sock-Knitting Pep Talk

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Knitted sock

A finished knitted sock.

Sarah White

Who's afraid of the big, bad sock? I was, for a long time, and I know a lot of knitters have struggled with anxiety over socks, too. There's a mystique about knitted socks—we know they are infinitely superior to store-bought socks, but we also know the road to homemade socks is fraught with potential peril.

Knitters who've never made socks can quickly become intimidated just trying to read a pattern for knitted socks. When I was learning to knit socks, a fellow knitter confessed she had to take lessons to learn to knit socks because "'turning the heel' just didn't make any sense until I saw someone else do it."

Well, I can't show you how to do it from here, but I hope I can give you the confidence to try it on your own.

Step One: Trust the Pattern

This may be the hardest part for knitters who have never made socks before. Sock patterns on the surface don't make a whole lot of sense. That "turning the heel" part in particular. Basically what you're doing is working only a few stitches in the row at a time and turning the work without finishing the whole row of cast-on stitches.

Just thinking about that, even trying to visualize it, doesn't make a lot of sense. But when you start knitting a sock and you get to that point, just trust the pattern, do what it says, and like magic, you'll have a heel.

Even if you don't work it perfectly the first time, the worst thing that ever happens when you mess up knitting is that you have to tear it out and try again. This can get frustrating, yes, but it's not brain surgery. You'll be fine.

Working with Double-Pointed Needles

The other thing that is intimidating about knitting socks is working with double-pointed needles. Some patterns call for as many as five needles, four of which will have "live" stitches on them most of the time.

This is logistically intimidating, but there's no single answer that is best for each knitter. In the beginning you will feel like you're going to drop a needle, allowing all the stitches to slide off, or that you're going to poke yourself in the hand. You may even actually do one or both of these things. After you've worked a couple of rows you'll feel a lot more secure in how to handle your needles and you'll develop your own method of holding that works best for you.

Another big question beginning sock knitters have is how to arrange the stitches on their double-pointed needles (also known as DPNs). It's easiest to cast on using just one needle and then distribute the stitches onto the other needles as needed. Back your stitches off the first needle, starting with the first stitch you cast on. Arrange the stitches so you have as close to the same number as possible on each of your needles, leaving one needle free of stitches.

To knit using DPNs, start with the needle that's closest to the working yarn. Before you begin knitting, you'll need to join your work in the round. There are many methods that can be used, but I prefer a crossover join, which involves moving the first stitch on the left needle to the right needle and slipping what's then the second stitch on the right needle over to the left needle.

Once you've got your join accomplished, knit all the stitches on that first needle, holding that needle in your left hand and working onto the empty needle. When you get to the end of that needle, use it to knit the stitches on the next needle, and so on around and around. You'll also want to mark the end of your row with a stitch marker, piece of yarn or safety pin. Make sure you put it between the last and next-to last stitches on the needle or it will fall off!

Other Sock Knitting Tips

It's a good idea to start with a basic stockinette stitch sock pattern for your first sock. This is particularly easy when you are knitting in the round, because all you have to do is knit every row. This allows you to focus on the increases, decreases and other mechanics of putting a sock together without the added stress of trying to make a complex pattern stitch work. A good basic pattern can be found here.

One common problem beginning knitters have is "ladders," little places in between the needles where the stitches aren't consistent. Instead of a solid round of stitches, you end up with a piece of yarn hanging between the stitches that were knit on two different needles.

To avoid this problem, make sure that you pull the yarn snug when you switch needles. This will give your sock a clean (and warm) look.

Don't be afraid of knitting socks! There are so many great sock patterns out there that you'll never get bored as long as you've got socks on the DPNs.

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