Toe-Up Socks: Heels (Shaping and Picking Up Stitches)

You have knit the foot of your sock and now we are about to embark on what can be the most challenging part of our journey in sock knitting – heels. The first time I made a pair of socks, when I got to the heel section, I read through the directions and thought, “that can’t possibly work, it makes no sense.” I kept trying to picture it in my mind’s eye and I just couldn’t get my brain around it. So, I decided to be a big, brave girl and just do what the pattern told me and trust this was going to work. As I worked through each part of the heel section, it made more sense but it was only when I finished the heel that I really understood what was going on and I was in awe of the person who conjured up the idea of how to knit heels and then convinced other people to try it. She or he deserves to be in a knitting hall of fame.

OK, before we get started, let’s make sure we are ready for this step. In case you skipped it in the leg section, here is the assessment to make sure you are ready for the next step.

  • Do you have the correct number of stitches that your pattern calls for?
  • Does your sock look like the foot of the sock in your pattern (increase lines are going the right direction, etc.)?
  • Try the sock on. Does it still fit?
  • Check your math again. Are you on track to have a sock that is about 10% shorter than the actual measured foot length?

The next step is to read through your pattern’s directions for the heel completely. You are looking for the following

  • Do you have any tools it calls for (double-point needles, markers, etc)?
  • Do you understand the stitches it calls for?

Now, we begin.

Heels generally have three sections – gussets (you may have already made those in the increases of the foot), heel turn, and heel flap. When you are working socks from the top-down, you work those sections in reverse order.

You might have a sock pattern that uses an afterthought heel. If this is the case, it is the last thing knit instead of of when you hit the join between the foot and leg. It does not have gussets or a heel flap. This type of heel is easy to replace should it wear out. For our purposes, we are assuming you are working with a pattern that does not use this heel type.

The following is an overview of the process of making a heel from the toe up.

Gusset(s). This is the first part of the heel that you will encounter working from the heel up. You are gradually increasing the number of stitches around the foot until the sock is big enough to accommodate your sole and instep. This is usually about 150% of the number of stitches used for the foot section. Try your sock on at this point to make sure it is still snug but not tight. If it’s loose, that could be a sign that you have a higher arch and you might want to consider making fewer increases to keep the sock snug. Conversely, if the sock is now tight in the instep area but fits in the foot, you may have a wider/lower arch and need to make more increases in this area. If you modify this, remember that you still need the length of the foot to be the same as the pattern calls for for this section of the sock. Also, you need to not how many stitches that you added or subtracted from the gusset section because you will need to make adjustments in the heel creation area for that.

Before you go on STOP, COUNT YOUR STITCHES, and make sure your number is correct and that there are no holes or gaps in your gusset. You need to fix any problems here before you go on as it will be harder and more involved to fix it later.

Heel Turn. Here is where the sock making magic really begins. In many patterns, you are going to divide your stitches into to sections. One section will be the sole/bottom of your foot. The other will be for the top of your foot. Usually, you put the stitches for the top of your foot on a holder or a circular needle that is not in use and you will only work the sole stitches. In the heel turn, you are creating a little cup for your heel. That is usually done by working back and forth on the sole stitches using short rows. Short rows means that you are shaping the knitting by knitting only a portion of the row, turning your work (as if you are knitting flat) and working a part of the row again. This will add extra rows without adding extra stitches. Your pattern may also use a slip stitch or other pattern as a way of reinforcing the heel.

Before you go on STOP, COUNT YOUR STITCHES, and make sure your number is correct, the stitch pattern looks correct, and that there are no holes or gaps in your heel turn. You need to fix any problems here before you go on as it will be harder and more involved to fix it later.

Heel Flap. In many sock patterns this is my least favorite part because you have to pick up stitches along the instep to start knitting in the round again and I’ve never been confident about my abilities to pick up stitches neatly. It’s why I fell in love with Cat Bordi’s patterns that don’t require picking up stitches. Heel flaps are the point where you are working the back of the heel, the part that rubs against the back of a shoe. If you are wearing your socks in shoes with closed heels, this area will take a beating. Many patterns will use a slip stitch or other pattern to strengthen the fabric you are knitting in this section. Basically, you make the heel flap and when it is done, you pick up those instep stitches and start working in the round again.

Before you go on STOP, COUNT YOUR STITCHES, and make sure your number is correct, the stitch pattern looks correct, and that there are no holes or gaps in your heel flap or where you picked up the gusset stitches. You need to fix any problems here before you go on as it will be harder and more involved to fix it later.

Your Big Assessment

Try the sock on at this point and make sure everything is still fitting snugly but not tightly. If there are problems, stop and take some time to examine your sock closely and try to identify where things went wrong. If you can’t, this is a time that you need to reach out to another knitter who has experience with socks. DO NOT RIP IT OUT until you have figured out what when wrong. You need that information so that you can identify what you need to work on and can be successful next time. Once you feel confident that you know what happened, then rip out the heel and start over paying close attention to the parts that didn’t work last time. Take your time to get this right. You are learning many important skills here and one of those is self-assessment of your work and self-identifying things you need to improve on. I also highly recommend writing down what you have learned and what you need to work on. One place to do that would be on your project page on Ravelry in the notes section.

After the heel flap is done and you are working in the round again, this is when you breathe a big sigh of relief and celebrate that you are in the home stretch and through the hardest part. BUT, don’t just think you are home free. There is still work to be done and you do NOT want to mess up in a way that causes you to rip out and have to redo that heel once it looks so nice and you are so proud of yourself.

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