Lesson One: Planning your sock

Printable chart | Extra Credit Unit on Complex Patterns | On to Lesson Two

The socks we'll be doing in this class will be in two-color patterning using stranded or Fair Isle knitting techniques. This means that we will be doing circular knitting, carrying both colors all the way around each round by knitting each stitch in the color called for in the chart, and carrying the unused color gently along behind the knitting.

This strand of yarn lying across the back of the fabric is called a "float" or a "strand," hence the term "stranded knitting." Technically the name Fair Isle belongs to a particular regional version of stranded knitting, but in knitting publications the term is widely used to refer to any stranded knitting, to distinguish it from intarsia (which was taught in Edie's Argyle cybersocks class).

Stranded knitting has characterstics that have to be taken into consideration when designing a sock.

The Charts

I've made charts for three different patterns to allow you to choose one you like. See photos of the sample swatches on this page.

The two simple charts on this page each produce a 5-round stripe with some two-color patterning in a contrasting color within the stripe. If you've never done two-color knitting holding one color in each hand, I recommend the simpler one (the one that's a multiple of two stitches), shown in the orange and rust socks. It has only one two-color round out of every five rounds. If you want a little more practice, go with the 8-stitch repeat chart.

[charts for the two simpler patterns]

For those who want a more challenging pattern, I'll give separate instructions in the extra credit unit for designing a sock using the the more complex, 12-stitch repeat pattern. You're welcome, of course, to substitute a different one of your own.

If these charts are too small, or the gray squares don't print well, here's a blown-up version you can print: [go to chart].

Yarn Selection for Color Socks

The instructions I'll give in this class will allow you to design a sock in any gauge. However, I think that color patterning looks best in finer gauge. The pattern is more clearly defined and can be more detailed. Also the double thickness of the fabric is less of a problem in finer yarn.

As I said in the introduction, it is a good idea to use a yarn with some stretch in it, such as wool, wool/nylon sock blends, or acrylic yarns.

Remember that these patterned socks will take more yarn than a single-color sock would take. Look over what yarn you have available, thinking about whether you have enough of both colors to make a heavily-patterned sock.

If you've got plenty of both colors, you can plan on using color patterning throughout the whole sock. If you're short of one, you can do the ribbing, heel, and toe in the other color. If you have only a little bit of one color but a lot of the other, you might put color patterning only on the leg of the sock. The most efficient way to use two colors is to use single-color stripes, with no rounds using both colors at the same time.

Gauge and pattern samples

I like to make samples before I begin, not only to get an idea of the proper gauge, but also to see how the colors look together and how well the pattern shows up. Contrary to the general wisdom which says that if you're planning a circular object you need to knit a circular swatch, I start out with a flat swatch for socks. I'm willing to go ahead with a general idea of the gauge, and let the leg of the first sock serve as a circular swatch--after all, how much work have you committed to this thing by the time it's a couple of inches long?

So here goes--

What's the right needle size for your yarn? A flat swatch in a single color can give you an idea. For socks to wear well, you want a gauge that is relatively firm. I generally assume that if a yarn is specifically designed to be a sock yarn, the gauge given on the label will be good for socks. However, if a yarn is intended for general knitting, the label gauge will probably be loose and drapy enough for a sweater, rather than tight enough for socks, so you should aim for a tighter gauge. The needle that gives you a good gauge will be the size you'll use for the sock, and a size smaller needle will be best for the ribbing.

Now try out the yarns by knitting in your chosen pattern. Because back-and-forth knitting introduces the extra factor of whether your purls are the same tightness as your knits, try this trick from Alice Starmore--knit the swatch on double-pointed needles, starting each row at the right end and knitting it. Either cut the yarns off at the end of each row or else leaving a long loop of yarn hanging as you take the yarns back to the right end of the needle to start another knit row (this way you can frog it afterwards and salvage the yarn). Make the swatch at least three or four inches wide, and measure a couple of inches in the center, away from the distorted edges. Calculate how many stitches per inch you're getting in pattern, including fractions of a stitch.

Planning your sock leg

In planning this sock, we'll only be using three measurements--the distance around the ankle (just above the ankle bones), the distance around the middle of the foot, and the length of the foot. In most people, the first two measurements are fairly close to each other, and the same number of stitches will work for both the leg and the foot of a sock. If they're within half an inch of each other, use the smaller measurement for planning purposes. If not, use the leg measurement and plan to use a different number of stitches for the foot.

In plain knitting, which is stretchy, you plan for a circumference that is 10 to 20 percent smaller than the distance around the leg. Since our patterns will be less stretchy, we'll need to plan for a sock that's closer to the actual distance around the leg. Another factor in the number of stitches will be the number needed for the repeat of the pattern.

A side comment from my own experience--it seems to me that socks in finer yarns tend to come out a bit too tight, and in thick yarns like worsted weight, to come out a bit too baggy. So I like to try to use a few more stitches with fine yarn and a few fewer with thick yarn, than the rules of thumb would give. I don't know how accurate this observation is. Ask me again a couple of years from now.

First, calculate the number of stitches it will take to exactly fit around your ankle, like this--

Number of stitches per inch in the swatch TIMES number of inches per leg EQUALS number of stitches per leg. This is the upper end of the range of stitches you could use.

Now subtract ten percent of that number. This gives you the lower end of your target range.

For example, my swatch for the complex pattern, worked in Woolease on 5's, gave 6 sts/in. I use 9 inches for my measurement (foot 9, ankle 9.5). Six times nine is 54. Ten percent is five or six. So my target number of stitches is 48 to 54. I went with 52, and it was a bit loose.

Another example--my swatch for the 8-stitch pattern in Socka sock yarn was 8 sts/in on 2's. 8 x 9 = 72 stitches. 10% is 7. My range is 65 to 72. I went with 64--mistake! The leg is pretty tight. I should have gone up another 8 stitches to 72. I'll either have to start over, or make the leg shorter.

Your gauge and leg are different than mine. Calculate your numbers!

Choose the exact number based on the number of stitches in the repeat of the color chart. I'll give a way to fudge these numbers in the extra-credit section with the complex design. But for the simple designs, we want the pattern to fit exactly into the number of stitches for the leg of the sock.

The 2-stitch repeat is easy--pick any even number of stitches. For the 8-stitch repeat, it'll have to be 48, or maybe go up to 56. Make your best guess (maybe more stitches for a fine yarn, less for a thick one). We'll check this very soon, during Lesson Two, when you've done a couple of inches in pattern.

The ribbing is another factor that influences your stitch count. A knit 2, purl 2 rib is a multiple of four stitches, so it will fit within the number needed for the 8-stitch chart. If you're using the 2-stitch chart, start with a multiple of four stitches. If you face a situation where the ribbing and the leg can't use the same number of stitches, choose a smaller number for the ribbing, and then increase to the number you need on the first round of the leg.

And you're ready to cast on in one of your colors and go! In general, you want the ribbing to be tighter than the leg of the sock, especially since the ribbing will have to do extra work to hold up these non-stretchy socks. So knit the ribbing on a size smaller needles, and make it long enough to hold up the sock, say an inch and a half or two inches.

Okay, your assignment from this class is to select your yarn, select your pattern, calculate your gauge and the number of stitches to cast on, cast on and knit the ribbing. If you finish early and want to do more, put the first one on a string, and knit the ribbing for the second sock. Good luck!

Lesson Two will be on how to handle the actual two-color knitting.


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