April 16, 2020
by Kellen Chang
When it comes to socks, I'm the near epitome of a beginner. I have three patterns under my belt (soon to be four, once I get the right math done and cast on the "Manoa" pattern, as pictured on the blog post), and I'm finally looking to make the daunting switch from Aran/Worsted weight socks to sock weight patterns...maybe. If the light weight and tight gauge scare me off, I'll be heading right back to my trusty stash of 7 Brothers sock yarn. In the mean time, I'll offer you this absolute sock beginner's review of some common techniques. Good luck!
1. Toe-Up vs. Top-Down
In my experience, this is the biggest question facing any sock knitter. There are benefits to each option, like yarn usage or cast-on/cast-off preferences, and some patterns will even come with instructions on how to do both. Big Recommendation: Decide what leg length you want at the start and make sure you've got enough yarn for that, no matter which end you're knitting from.
a) Kitchener Stitch Finish: This looked super pretty when I was done, but I sometimes worry about it falling apart! Even though I've done this finish before, I prefer to keep the instructions available, just in case I suddenly forget everything I've ever learned about finishing. Cut an extra long tail for this one, and after you're done, weave it back through the other way.
b) Judy's Magic Cast-On: Basically a life-saver for me. Try it out a couple of times before you actually break out the sock yarn, because it's a great alternative to the wrap and turn toe-up cast-on! Less holes, less fuss, more sock knit fun for us.
c) Tubular Cast-On: I'm basically addicted to this super stretchy and ridiculously sleek cast-on. There's a long tail version out there that's super easy to memorize, and a provisional stitch version for anyone who's worried about overusing yarn on a cast-on. The first is great for heavier socks, as long as you're careful about which direction it twists! Absolutely use straight needles for the beginning portions of both.
d) Tubular Bind-Off: I'd heard about this somewhere, forgot about it along the way, then found it completely by accident! I was typing in "tubular" to find another tubular cast-on reference, and I haven't stopped using it since. It requires that you have some practice with the Kitchener Stitch Finish, and I definitely recommend you double check that your tutorial's designed for binding off in the round, but the sock tops it makes are so stretchy! Love. It.
2. Heel Options
Heels stress me out. All those holes? Ugh. Of the three I've tried...I have a clear favourite, but a lot of it is down to personal taste! Big Recommendation: Do most of your heel work on DPNs.
a) German Short Rows: These. Look. Beautiful. When I finished my first German Short Row heel, I couldn't believe how seamless the shift between sections looked! Unfortunately, the pattern's directions made this experience a lacklustre (and hole-y) one for me—if I ever do them again, I'm going down a few needle sizes to keep things tight.
b) Heel Flap: Tin Can Knits had a spectacular approach to heel flaps that made my Rye socks look great, and the whole experience was super enjoyable. By the time I'd finished the first one, I found myself wishing I'd done these two at a time, just so I could do it all again!
c) Short Row Heel: This particular heel came along with Knitty's Universal Toe Up Sock Formula, and I have to say, it's pretty okay! It was straightforward to knit, and the major holes were easily fixed with a little creative knitting. Downside? The inside felt really weird to the touch, and I worried the wraps and turns would show too much on the outside.
3. Contrast Colour Sections
Those cute socks you were admiring, with the toes and the heels in a contrast pop of colour? Oh my god, they are not fun for a beginner to make, but boy do they look great. My first pair with a contrast toe and heel were in Aran, which is probably the only reason I survived making them.
Juggling several loose ends while you're trying to turn a heel is hard, and I do recommend doing a loose bunny ear bow between the end of your contrast yarn and your main yarn. While I made life harder for myself by slipping the first stitch of any new yarn (prevents a jog in stripes and changing colours, but also means you have to deal with the loose end of the working yarn for that much longer), the finished product was so cute, and switching up yarns meant I saved enough of the main colour for another project later.
4. DPNs vs. Magic Loop vs. Sock Circulars
I've tried all three of these! Sort of—the sock circulars lasted no more than a couple of very miserable attempts at casting on and knitting before they were unceremoniously thrown back into my knit kit, never more to see the light of day. Using them made me feel like a T-Rex trying to knit! Where the heck do my elbows even go?
DPNs are absolutely great. They're a good starting point, they're handy to have, and knitting on them is basically like having a set of built-in stitch markers. That said, they can be a little stabby (raise your hand if you've ever sat on your knitting), you can only knit one sock at a time, and they don't always pack nicely. I like my socks to be OCTranspo friendly projects, thanks very much.
Magic Loop will probably become my new standby, because apparently, I really like knitting my socks two at a time! I feel like I get more done, faster, and the resulting socks make me much less stressed about little things, like uneven lengths or different stops and starts.
5. Two At A Time
After having a go at knitting socks two at a time (with much trepidation, given that I'd never done it before, ever) I'm happy to admit that I'm a total convert. Second sock syndrome was something I'd only faced once, with my very first pair, and it pushed me to do the second pair as an ankle length set, casting my second sock onto DPNs immediately after the first was bound off, which barely got me through the project.
Knitting two at a time meant that I got to retry concepts that had me on edge immediately after my first go with them (looking at those German Short Rows) and also gave me the opportunity to compare the socks as they went along! My only major concern would be that my striping on one sock didn't match the other sock, which I don't think will be as much of an issue for the wearer as I sometimes worry it might be.
I'm pretty sure my ideal sock pattern would be a nice toe-up cast-on with a heel flap, a tubular bind-off, and something fun to do between sections, or a tubular cast-on, still the heel flap, and enough leftover yarn to double up on weaving in the end post-Kitchener stitch. That doesn't mean I'm not looking forward to testing out something new! Especially if I'm using a heavier weight, where all my mistakes and triumphs will be easier to see and correct (or admire!). Why not try a sock technique you've never done before? You just might find your new favourite one!
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