How to Start Knitting Socks: A Few Tips

I was quite flattered the other day to find a comment on my latest sock knitting post from Nikki, who you may know from her fabulous blog, If you aren’t already reading, you really should stop by (and while you’re there, don’t forget to grab a free copy of what may be the most adorable crochet slipper pattern ever from Nikki’s patterns page).  Nikki mentioned that she is interested in knitting her first pair of socks and wondered if I had pattern suggestions.

It struck me that “first socks” is a topic that may appeal to others in the Wool Durham audience, so I’ve gathered my thoughts and suggestions on getting started with socks into this post. This could be a long post, friends. You may want to go grab a beverage. I’ll wait.

Handknits from my sock drawer: a baker's dozen!

OK, then. Let’s get started.

In the past few years, there has been a complete explosion of sock knitting patterns, books, techniques, and materials.  For those of us who caught the sock bug a long time ago, this explosion is heavenly. For people just getting started with socks, on the other hand, I bet it is rather overwhelming.  I’m going to try to list the info I’d want to know if I were in your shoes.

Socks are not especially difficult to knit but they are probably not an ideal first knitting project. You should know how to knit, purl, increase, decrease, pick up stitches and work in the round. The vast majority of sock patterns call for knitting a narrow tube in the round, with a “turned” heel in the middle, and a toe on one end.  This process can be accomplished in a surprising variety of ways, depending on the pattern you are using and how you prefer to work.  You won’t know how you prefer to work until you try out a bunch of different ways for yourself. This can be part of the fun, if you let it.

I recommend working your first socks at a large gauge with big yarn.  Because you will have less time invested in the knitting, you won’t be as disappointed if you have to re-do part to get it right. Trust me, the emotional stakes are higher at 10+ stitches per inch (ask me how I know. . .). Look for a yarn in at least sport weight. DK, worsted, or aran is even better. Once you get the hang of things, then switch to the skinny fingering weights.

My ideal sock yarn is always a superwash wool/nylon blend. Superwash is a chemical treatment that renders wool machine washable, which is good for socks unless you are in the habit of handwashing and air-drying all the socks in your life (and if this is the case, you have my total admiration). Wool is good because it is elastic and forgiving (and warm and lots of other good things).  Nylon adds strength, which isn’t so important in sweaters and scarves, but is important in socks, which are constantly coping with friction from the floor/your feet/your shoes.  Two of my favorite heavier sock yarns: Cherry Tree Hill Supersock DK and Knitpicks Stroll Sport.

Your next choice will be needles. Because of the stress that the aforementioned friction will put on your socks, you will want to knit them at a tighter gauge than you would normally use for your yarn.  Going two or three sizes smaller than the recommended size from your yarn label is a good starting point. For example, I knit my latest pair of Cherry Tree Hill Supersock DK socks on 3mm needles (US2.5).

In addition, you will want to consider what type of needles to use, double pointed needles (often abbreviated DPNs) or circulars. This is a matter of personal preference. I strongly prefer double pointed needles. Plenty of other knitters prefer using one or two long flexible circular needles (see videos of these methods here).  You’ll just have to try both ways and make up your own mind on that one.

Still with me? You’ve now got your yarn and needles picked out. All that’s left is the pattern. Here’s where the fun begins. There are *tons* of great sock patterns out there. Many of them are even free. Once you get going, you’ll find that socks are a great way to try out new stitch patterns. In the meantime though, you should learn to walk before you run. I suggest you stick to a basic pattern worked cuff-to-toe with a traditional gusset heel (not short-rows) and focus on what I think is the trickiest part of the whole business: turning the heel.

Before you get all freaked out about it, keep in mind that turning the heel is also the really fun part! I really do think it is one of my all time favorite knitting tricks. It’s like magic! If you can work knit stitches and read directions, you can turn a sock heel. A few tips to keep in mind for turning your first heel:

  • Follow the directions. Even if they don’t seem like they will work.
  • It may seem strange because you are working in the round for the leg, but at the heel you will have to turn the piece over and work back the opposite direction. Yes, it will technically be in the middle of a row. Just go with it. Take a deep breath and re-read my first bullet point if you must.
  • When your pattern tells you to pick up stitches along the heel flap, don’t be afraid to pick up a few extra on the sides if you need to in order to avoid holes. You can always work extra decreases in the first few rows.
  • Still freaking out?  Set your sock aside and get some waste yarn and whatever other needles you can find. Cast on the number of stitches your pattern indicates for the heel. Work just a heel on the waste yarn first and then go back to your sock.

Last but not least, the toe. By the time you get here, you’re good to go. Take the time to carefully graft your toes closed using the Kitchener stitch.

Ready to get started?  Here are links to some free sock patterns that I think would make good Starter Socks:

  • For plain stockinette, try the 56 stitch 56 row sock (rav link)
  • For plain kids’ socks, great for charity knitting, try the Wool Aid pattern (rav link)
  • For a simple rib pattern, try Thuja (rav link) Note: this pattern is designed to fit men, but you can easily size it down by using smaller needles and making the cuff and foot shorter.
  • If you are a pretty experienced knitter and stockinette stitch bores you, try Duckies (rav link) Note: The simple lace pattern involves yarn overs.

So that’s it then!  Go forth and warm the feet of all your friends and family.  Comments are open if anyone has questions (or if those sock knitting ninjas out there have other tips to share).

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3 Responses to How to Start Knitting Socks: A Few Tips
  1. Nikki
    March 23, 2011 | 11:17 pm

    Wow!!! Thank you! You answered a great array of questions for me- pattern type, yarn choice, troubleshooting. This is truly an amazing post. Thanks again!

  2. Ivana
    March 24, 2011 | 4:25 am

    Thank you, this was very helpful! :)

  3. Mags
    March 26, 2011 | 5:57 pm

    I’d also recommend that if you get bored easily, try knitting something with a 6 to 12 row repeat. I didn’t get into knitting socks until I figured out that I needed the small sense of accomplishment completing those repeats gave me.