Toe-Up Socks: Needles and Knitting Methods

In our last episode, we talked about selecting yarns and patterns for your first toe-up socks. Now, we are going to talk about knitting needles and knitting methods.

Which needles do you need? That depends on (1) which method you chose to knit your socks and (2) which size you need to get gauge with YOUR HANDS.

Socks are knit the round (who wants a seam mashed up against your foot when you are walking?). The most common methods for knitting socks are:

  • double pointed needles (DPNs)
  • two circular needles
  • one very long circular needle (magic loop)

We will talk more about methods below.

Knitting Needles

I promised that there is was a good reason for buying knitting needles last, and here it is. Most yarn stores will not let you return needles. Some will let you return yarn that is still in it’s original skein form and has the ball band. Not so with needles. Needles are going to run from $6.50 for one set of DPNs to $15 for one long high-quality circular needle.

You need the needles that will give you the gauge your sock pattern requires but just because a pattern or skein of yarn says you should get a certain number of stitches and rows per inch with a particular yarn does not mean that is what your hands are actually going to produce. You may need a larger or smaller needle to get the gauge for your pattern with the yarn you have chosen. Those are the needles you need. Many knitting shops will let you try out a needle with your yarn before buying it.

So here is how you buy or borrow needles.

If you have a local yarn shop, you can go to the shop, check with the staff and see if they will let you try out some needles with your yarn before you buy and get your gauge that way. Only do this if you buy your yarn from the shop. Taking in yarn you bought somewhere else is tacky (which a good knitter never wants to be).

If you know another knitter, see if they have needles they will let you borrow or use as a test drive with your yarn so that you can determine what size you need to get gauge.

Remember, it is the gauge written on the pattern that matters. This is another of those mistakes I made that I want you to avoid. Gauge is the most important thing in getting the pattern and your finished product the right size. The pattern is designed to fit based on the gauge listed on the pattern. If you don’t get that gauge, you are likely to end up with socks that are either too small or will need to be gifted to Big Foot.

I am going to preach talk more about gauge and fit in the next post.

One more thing about needles for knitting socks. Needles are made of different materials. Some are very slick, some are a bit more tacky. If you are using DPNs, don’t get slick ones. The last thing you want is to have your needles slipping out (or being yanked out by a child or pet) of your stitches. This particular situation has inspired much cussing by knitters.

Knitting Methods

While DPNs were the only choice for most of knitting history, we modern knitters have the advantage of living in an age of many choices for knitting in the round. If you’ve used before and are familiar with it and want to use it again for this project, great. One way to make this project more interesting and to expand your skills is to chose a method that is new to you.

I’ve included links to YouTube videos demonstrating each technique. I selected these particular videos because they were easy to follow, clear, and accurate. You might want to consider creating a board on Pinterest with a category such as “Knitting Techniques” and pin any of these videos that you want to go back to for another project. Make notes to yourself about the video on your pin to help you remember the specifics of what it contains.

DPNs. This is the method that seems to most terrify knitters and deter them from even trying socks. You are knitting on three or four  needles that are pointed at both ends. I know that it looks like wrestling a hedgehog, but it’s really not as scary as it looks. Basically, you cast on and then divide your needles over three to four needles. Instead of knitting back and forth like on straight needles, you join the stitches and knit rounds instead of rows.

Even if you don’t chose to use this method, learning to manage double points is a good knitting skill to learn because it is particularly useful for finishing the tops of hats or the fingertips on gloves. Watch video on using DPNs from New Stitch A Day

Two circular needles. This is a very popular method for toe-up socks because it is easy to try on the sock as you go without worrying that the stitches are going to fall off the needle. You are also less likely to have a little one or furry one pull your needle out of your stitches when using this method. Your stitches are divided into two sets. Each set is on a separate needle. While you are working on one set, the other set is resting on the cable of its needle. To prevent “ladders” (gaps between stitches where the needles join), try using a needle that is 24 inches long. Watch videos on knitting with two circulars from Cat Bordhi – Part 1 and Part 2.

One very long needle. This method is often called Magic Loop. It was invented by Sarah Hauschka and popularized by Bev Galeskas in  The Magic Loop – Knitting – Working Around On One Needle – Sarah Hauschka’s Magical Unvention. You will need a circular needle at least 32 inches long but it can be longer. The basics are similar to knitting with two circulars but instead half your stitches being held on a separate needle, a loop of cable separates the two sets of stitches. Here is a step-by-step tutorial on Magic Loop by Glenna at Knitting to Stay Sane and here is a video of the technique from KnitDenise (she is knitting continental style.

Next up will be gauge and swatch.

Recap of this lesson

  • The needles you need are the ones that allow your hands to get the gauge listed in the pattern. This may not be the same as the needle size recommended by the pattern.
  • Check out the various knitting methods and find one that you want to try.
  • If you use DPNs, avoid slick ones.
  • Knit a swatch to make sure you get gauge with a particular size of needle before you buy the needles because you likely won’t be able to return them.
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