Sock knitting is widely thought of as the holy grail of knitting. Whenever I tell people that I can knit, the next question is very often “can you knit socks”? Definitely once you have socks under your belt then you can consider yourself an accomplished knitter.
But is it really that hard? Well, not really in fact. There is some kind of weird magic that goes on to turn the heel of a sock, but even so there are no fancy stitches to learn or difficult techniques. Yes, there are tips and things that you will get better at the more socks you make, but basically if you can knit and purl, and decrease then you can think about knitting your first sock.
The hardest thing about knitting socks is really understanding the pattern – it can be really confusing to know which bit of the sock you actually are knitting. My biggest recommendation here is to get someone to explain it to you before you try it yourself. Either come to one of our classes or watch some YouTube videos – my favourite YouTube sock tutor is VeryPink knits – the series on magic loop (circular needle) socks is very clear and easy to follow and you can use it together with any pattern you might be following. I have a plain sock pattern for beginners with lots of tips and tricks in my Etsy shop here.
So, you have a sock pattern and some yarn – the next thing you need to think about is whether you are going to use double pointed needles (dpns) or a circular (magic loop) needle. There are pros and cons to each and I’d encourage you to try both. Dpns can feel awkward in your hands, but when it comes to socks it’s easy to see which part is which when you have the 4 needles with stitches on – if you work with circulars then putting markers in the right place is absolutely essential. It does come down to personal choice – I was always scared with dpns that my stitches would fall off the back of the needles, but in fact this really doesn’t happen – when they are connected in a circle they generally stay on – except if you are transporting them around (for this see tips below).
There are two main sock knitting methods: toe up and leg down with the latter being slightly more common. The difference is just the bit of the sock that you start knitting – the bits in between are really exactly the same otherwise!
Let’s assume you are knitting leg down, and you are using dpns.
1. Cast on and join the round
The first thing you need to do is cast on some stitches. Use a long-tail cast on here because it will be more stretchy – you don’t want a tight band around the top of your leg. Cast on the stitches onto one needle (or use two held together) and then separate them onto 4 needles with an equal number of stitches on each. Now you need to join the round. So take your fifth empty needle and with the yarn on the right, start knitting from the next needle onto the spare. You will probably be doing a rib stitch at this point – so knit 1, purl 1. The tail of yarn from your cast on marks the beginning of the round.
Then once you have joined your round you just keep on knitting until your leg is as long as you want it to be. Your pattern will most likely say to knit in rib stitch for a few centimeters and then switch to stocking (or stockinette) stitch – the good news is that when you are knitting in the round, to do stocking stitch you just knit all the stitches because you never turn the work – you just keep going round and round. Finish when your leg is however long you want it to be, finishing at the beginning of the round.
3. Heel flap
Now you’re going to stop knitting in the round and just use the first 2 needles. Knit backwards and forwards on the two needles using whatever stitch the pattern says and for as many rows as it says.
4. Heel turn
This part always seems strange, but somehow it just works! You carry on knitting with the two needles, but you are not knitting all the stitches in the row – which adds a bump in the middle where you have more stitches – and this is the bit that fits around your heel and makes the leg turn into the foot. The pattern will tell you to place some markers, but you don’t really have to if you count the stitches because after the first row there will be an obvious “gap” in the stitches that marks where you have to decrease and turn. One important thing: always do the heel turn in one sitting – don’t attempt to put it down and pick it up again later because it will be impossible to know which direction you should knit in. It’s only a few rows, and not many stitches so just plan to do it all in one go.
So, you will knit across to the second marker (or one before the marker) and then knit two stitches together. Then TURN the work. Do not knit to the end! This is the weird part because you will want to knit the rest, but don’t! Then purl back to the other marker (or one before) and do a matched decrease (slip 1, knit1, pass the slip stitch over, or an ssk). And turn again! Now you will have two gaps in your stitching where you did the decreases. What you want to do is now knit across to the gap, and when you are 1 stitch before it, knit two together and turn. Across to one before the gap, s1,k1,psso (or ssk) then turn. And keep doing that until you have used up all the stitches on the other side of the gap. Again, here a video or a personal demo speaks a thousand words.
5. Pick up stitches
The heel turn done, now you need to pick up stitches on the side of the heel flap and get back to knitting in the round, so now your other 2 needles come back in again. Knit across the heel, then pick up stitches along the side – I personally like to do this with a crochet hook, but you can also just put your needle into the stitch on the side and pull the yarn through. Keep a count of how many stitches you picked up (because you need to do the same number on the other side). Then knit across your other two needles. And then pick up stitches on the other side of the heel flap. Now you are back knitting in the round.
6. Side decreases
You now have too many stitches on your two “heel” needles and so you need to decrease them until you get back to the same number of stitches you had at the beginning. Follow the pattern and do the matched decreases on the sides (so k2tog on one side and s1k1psso on the other).
Now just knit the foot as long as it needs to be, stop when it’s long enough to reach the end of your little toe.
Now we need to decrease on the sides of the foot to shape the toe. Follow the pattern – it will probably tell you to drecrease every 4th then 3rd, then every other row until you get down to a few stitches. Then run the end of the yarn through the remaining stitches and pull it closed – this bit is like doing the top of a hat if you’ve done that before.
And then, all you need to do, is do it all over again for the second sock!
If you are carrying your dpns around e.g. in your handbag, line all your needles up with the stitches in the middle and wrap a small elastic band around both ends of the needles to stop your stitches falling off. If you happen to have kids with loom bands, pinch a few for this purpose – they work great!