Toe-Up Socks: Yarns and Patterns

I’m so glad you’ve decided to join me in knitting socks from the toe up. If you get off on the right foot (pun intended), sock knitting is absolutely addictive and the selection of yarns and patterns available today in a wide variety of price ranges and quality are a never-ending delight. But having that much to chose from can also provide opportunities for things to go awry and become frustrating.

Required skills: The skills you need to before you start this course are (1) casting on, (2) making knit stitches and purl stitches that are straight and even, (3) binding off, and (4) knitting in the round. Fit is critical in socks. If you haven’t knit in the round before, I suggest making a pair or two of fingerless mittens first just to get the hang of it. Fit is a little more forgiving and they can be done in a very simple pattern that doesn’t require advanced skills.

Here’s how this tutorial is going to work. It will consist of a series of posts that take you step-by-step through the entire process of making socks from the toe up. Along the way, I’m going to give you resources for additional information if you want to learn more about something we are discussing or you need a refresher. I will also give you my personal recommendations based on my own experiences.

My goal is for this to be fun and to get you hooked on sock knitting. When I was learning to knit, one of the most common mistakes I made was to get my head turned by a pretty pattern that was way too advanced for me or I purchased yarn that was totally inappropriate for my pattern. When I really screwed up, I did both on the same project.

So, rule number one for this tutorial is that everyone gets to learn from my mistakes and not repeat them. Now, let’s get started. This post is going to cover patterns and yarn. The next one will be on needles and knitting methods.

Yarns and Patterns

If money is no object or you have already have every size and length of circular and double pointed needles, you can select yarn, pattern, and needles in whatever order you please. If that is not you, then let’s walk through this together. I’m going to suggest that the order you do this be either pattern-yarn-needles or yarn-pattern-needles. I promise there is a very good reason (a saving-you-money reason) for this particular order.

Please don’t make any purchases until you have read all the way through the end of this post and the one on needles and knitting methods. I have seen too many knitters with buyer’s remorse and it just ends up in heartache and a lonely skein of yarn in your stash or needles that are never touched by hands and yarn again. You can even print this out and take it with you to the yarn shop if you like or have it handy when you are searching online.

Pick a pattern

  • Select a very, plain vanilla toe-up sock pattern. My suggestion for this project is that you select a very simple sock pattern – stockinette stitch with a little ribbing and maybe a slipped stitch heel.  Let’s focus on learning sock techniques for this particular project. But that doesn’t mean the socks will be plain. More on that later.
  • Make baby or children’s socks first. In her wonderful book on sock knitting, New Pathways for Sock Knitters: Book One, Cat Bordhi recommends first learning new techniques by making baby socks. I found this to be incredibly helpful for several reasons. If it doesn’t fit, who cares? Just say that you wanted to give them room to grow. Also, the socks use a tiny amount of yarn so if you have some sport, fingering, or DK weight yarn in your stash, you can use that. Since baby socks don’t take the same a beating as socks for people who walk upright, you don’t have to worry as much about durability. And all parents and grandparents love handknit baby socks. I strongly recommend going this route.
  • Find a pattern. Ravelry needs to become your new best knitting friend. If you are unfamiliar with Ravelry, get yourself your favorite hot drink, sit in a comfortable chair, go to the website, create an account – it’s free- and don’t expect to re-enter the non-knitting world’s orbit for several hours. We will talk more about how to use Ravelry in a later post. For now, to search for patterns,
    1. Click on the Yarns tab;
    2. Under the search box on that page, click on advanced search
    3. In the left-hand column there are several boxes that have big categories for searching. Under Fiber Type select Merino and Wool; under Weight select Light Fingering, Fingering, and Sport. Once you select something, the column in the middle will magically reorganize and show you only yarns that fit what you selected. Isn’t the Internet amazing?
  • Wendi’s pattern suggestions. To get you started, I have found several toe-up sock patterns on Ravelry (all are free). One pattern is for baby socks. The only reason I am focusing on free patterns now is because I am trying to lower the threshold for getting you to take the plunge and try toe-up sock knitting. Designers put a lot of time and money into creating great patterns and pay technical editors and test knitters to make sure the patterns are well written and accurate. They all deserve to be compensated for that. The patterns I picked are ones I reviewed personally to make sure they were clear, accurate, and well done. That doesn’t mean you can’t pick a pattern with cables, lace, and all other manner of knitting fun. Just don’t complain to me if you get overwhelmed or frustrated. Remember, my goal is to make this fun and get you addicted to sock knitting.
  • Make sure your pattern is for toe-up socks. Read the description of the pattern and make sure it’s for toe-up construction. That seems obvious, but if you haven’t knit socks before, you do NOT want to have to start off by trying to redesign a top-down pattern to be toe-up. Don’t do that. It would defeat the fun.

Pick a yarn

  • Only use plied yarn. Pay attention. This is really, really, REALLY important. Most of the time, I’m going to give you many options and say that you have a lot of freedom of choice. This is not one of them. For this project, I am requiring that you use plied yarns. Actually there are only very, very few instances when non-plied yarn would be a good choice for socks.  Socks must endure sweaty feet, being shoved into shoes, and bearing all of your weight. No other knitted object works harder and has more demanded of it than socks. If you want socks that will last more than a month and stand up to that sort of abuse, you need to use plied yarns.You might be thinking, “If that’s true wouldn’t all yarns promoted as sock yarn be plied?” No. And you can’t just trust that your local yarn store will automatically steer you right. I cringe to say this, but I have had more than one person I was teaching to knit socks go to a local yarn store and be encouraged to buy a skein  of non-plied yarn. The knitting student would attempt to make it work, but in the end, every one of them purchased a new skein of plied yarn to make their socks and those non-plied skeins were jilted and are now buried in the recesses of someone’s stash. Don’t let this be you. Learn more about singles (non-plied yarn), ply, and other yarn basics from Clara Parkes at Knitters Review. If you love yarn, I highly recommend you sign up for her weekly email. I eagerly await it every week.
  • Wool. Before you start itching just from the word, hear me out. Today’s sock yarns are not the wool of your childhood nightmares. You may even be shocked when you touch sock yarns to realize that many are predominately wool (most often merino). The reason you want wool is its durability, elasticity, and memory. Wool can stand up to the challenge of being socks. For this project, I strongly recommend that you use a wool-based yarn. Please touch some wool skeins before you say no. If you can’t use wool, look for an acrylic. What you can’t use for this is cotton, unless you are making baby socks and fit will not matter. Cotton isn’t going to have the resilience of wool or acrylic and it will grow and grow and get looser and looser. For the definitive explanation of why wool matters for socks, check out Clara Parkes book The Knitter’s Book of Socks: The Yarn Lover’s Ultimate Guide to Creating Socks That Fit Well, Feel Great, and Last a Lifetime.
  • Color matters. Remember when I said earlier that a plain vanilla pattern didn’t mean a boring sock? There are a mind-boggling number of great (plied) sock yarns out there that have been hand dyed in every color and color combination imaginable. This is what will take that plain pattern from boring to “wow! you made those?” There is only one rule on color for this project – no dark colors. No black, navy, dark brown, etc. The reason is that sock yarns are thin and knit on small needles, which creates small stitches. Small stitches can be very hard to see in dark colors. Be brave and pick a great color or make those baby or children’s sock and use light or bright colors.
  • Yarn weight. If you’re planning to wear your socks with shoes, I’d stick with a fingering weight yarn. If you are making socks to just pad around the house in, then DK, sport, or even worsted weight can work. For children, either fingering or DK. Anything thicker is just too thick. Check the information on your pattern to see what weight yarn it calls for.
  • Wendi’s yarn suggestions. This is by no means an inclusive list. If you have a local yarn shop, I strongly recommend you go there to look for yarn, but it must be plied. The list below are yarns I have personally used for socks for adults and really loved. Some of these are luxury. There are variegated and solid colors. If you can’t find a color you love among the yarns in this list, there is something wrong with you.
    • Blue Moon Fiber Arts Socks that Rock Lightweight or Mediumweight.  This yarn has so much energy and great colors, it’s one of my frequent go-tos.
    • Lorna’s Laces Solemate or Shepherd’s Sock. You can also find special color combinations in Solemate that were made for Camp Loopy at Loopy Ewe.
    • Handmaiden Casbah Sock. This is the definition of luxury. Absolute pleasure every stitch of the way.
    • Skacel Trekking. A great yarn that holds up well.
    • Mountain Colors Bearfoot and Crazyfoot. Terrific colors and a great feel to the yarn.
    • Koigu KPPPM. Color combination heaven.
    • Knit Picks Stroll, Gloss or Capretta. Low-cost yarns in a variety of solids and paints. Avoid the Comfy Fingering for this project because it is mainly cotton.
    • Patons Kroy Socks. If you are looking for a low-cost yarn to use, check out this one. You are also likely to find this at national stores such as Joann’s, Michael’s, and even Wal-Mart.

Recap of this lesson

  • Select a plain, toe-up sock pattern.
  • Consider making your first project children’s or baby socks to learn techniques.
  • Set up an account on Ravelry, if you haven’t already.
  • Pick a plied yarn. This is not negotiable.
  • Yarn should be predominately wool (merino is very soft), not a dark color, and preferably in fingering or sport weight.
  • Take a picture of your yarn and post it to the the stash area of your Ravelry account.

Next up is needles and knitting methods for making socks.

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