Kiwiyarns Knits

A blog about New Zealand yarns, knitting and life

Secrets of the socks, Part 2


I’d like to start by saying this post isn’t a tutorial.  It’s more a discussion around the general principles of what I have found works well in terms of making a sock fit my foot nicely, and comes from experience of knitting more than 50 pairs of socks in the past three years.  I know it’s not a lot compared to some people who have been knitting socks for 30 – 40 years or more(!), but I have learned some valuable lessons along the way, so I thought I’d share.  🙂

The thing about knitting socks is that like all knitting, they are a very personal experience.  What works for one person does not necessarily work for another.  This is why there are so many very strong opinions floating around as to how to knit a sock!  The below is my experience, and I have tried to not be too “Thou Shalt” about it… because what works for me does not work for everyone.

The first thing you should know is this: If you haven’t knitted a sock before and would like to but are worried about how it will turn out, just Knit the Sock.  Knit one vanilla sock using a basic pattern (ie stocking stitch only).  Once you have knitted one, it will become your very own “swatch” sock, so to speak.  Try it on, look at how it fits, work out if that’s what looks good, or whether you want to see something different.  It’s worth the time to do this.

This will be your base point. So, now you have your sock, and you’ve put it on, and what do you see?

If you put the sock on, and it fits perfectly, you know you have got the magic formula straight away.  Don’t bother reading any further.  Just knit the other sock, and feel very smug that you got it right first time!  Socks are generally very stretchy, and one size can fit a surprising variety of feet sizes with little difficulty.

If however, there are a few niggles, the below might be useful.

Look of the stitches/Gauge

I think the most important thing about knitting a successful sock, more so than any other garment, is your gauge.  This is because it affects both durability of the sock and fit.

There are several factors that influence gauge:

1.  Your own tension on the ‘normal’ sock needle of between 2.5mm and 2.25mm and how it compares to the standard gauge of 8 stitches per inch used for most socks.

2.  The weight of the sock yarn you are using.

3.  The pattern.

A sock is always knitted at a much smaller gauge than a garment fabric for that weight of yarn.  This gauge gives you a nice fit around the foot without the sock being too tight or too loose.  To me, a good sock fits the foot like a glove, with no tight bits and no saggy bits, with room for your toes to wriggle.  Some of this effect is achieved by the use of small needles.  Many sock knitters find they automatically adjust their tension to pull harder on each stitch as they knit it, in order to create a good, tight fabric that will give that nice gentle foot “hug” that we enjoy in a hand-knitted sock.

A tightly-knitted fabric will also create a more durable sock.  This is one reason why super-twisted yarn is a favoured knitting yarn – it is much more gentle on the hands when knitting sock tension because it puts less stress on the fingers when knitting at tight gauge.

You should not be able to see the skin through the sock when you put it on.  If you do, it’s either because your stitches are too loose, or your sock is too tight.  If the sock is too tight, it could be that you have got larger feet than the size you have knitted for.  If the fabric is very stiff though, it means that your tension is too tight – check against standard gauge.

Most socks are knitted within the 2.25mm -2.75mm needle range.  If you knit loosely, you will favour the smaller needle, and if you are a very tight knitter, you will find you prefer the larger sizes.

Choosing the right size

I’ve found that foot measurements for socks vary widely and appear to depend largely on the whim on the designer.  In one sock book alone, I have found variations foot measurement of up to 1.5″ for the same size sock. It’s very annoying.  It doesn’t really matter what the exact foot measurement is in the majority of cases (with the possible exception of extremely complicated patterned socks that need a specific length of foot), because you’re going to knit it to your length and width.  My opinion is that so you don’t make mistakes, choose to knit the cast on number of stitches that best suits your own foot, worked out using your gauge (for example, in patterns that give two sizes, and you normally knit a 64 stitch cast on, and you can choose between 64 and 72 stitches, go with 64).  In reality, the majority of people find that a 64 stitch cast on using regular sock yarn works well, and it’s the standard cast-on number for the majority of socks these days.  Socks with very heavy cabling may use more stitches (68 – 72), and socks with a lace pattern often have a slight difference to account for the pattern, usually between a 60 – 66 stitch cast on.

Here’s an example of how yarn and pattern can affect gauge:

I am currently knitting three pairs of socks on different sizes of needle and using different numbers of cast on stitches.  The first pair is knitted in Noro Silk Garden Sock.  This yarn is very fat, I’d say sport weight.  I’m using 2.75mm needles, and have gone down to 56 stitches to knit these socks to compensate for the heavier yarn.  I could probably get away with 3mm needles, but I’ll stick with the smaller ones for now.

Noro Silk Garden socks

The second pair is alpaca/merino/nylon sock yarn dyed by Happy-go-knitty.  It’s a slightly heavier yarn than most sock yarns, but it does well with 2.5mm needles.  Normally, I would knit 64 stitches to get a sock to fit me. This pair is for my eldest son, so I have gone to ‘man size’ of 72 stitches.

Happty-go-knitty alpaca merino sock yarn

The third pair is a standard weight supertwist sock yarn dyed by Doe Arnot (featuring a bit of sparkle with 5% stellina, 20% nylon and 75% merino).  I’m knitting them as suggested, on standard 2.5mm needles.  There are only 60 stitches in the cast-on, but it features a bit of lace, which often opens up the knitting so you don’t need extra stitches.

Swanky school socks in Doespins merino/nylon/stellinaEach of these socks (with the exception of the ‘man’ socks) has been knitted to fit me.  However, they have been adjusted as necessary to ensure they fit and suit my gauge by the adjustment of needles and number of stitches used.  There’s a bit more to it than that though… read on.

This is where things start to get interesting.  If your calves are of average circumference, and your foot an average size, you should find you don’t need to worry about altering a good pattern. Some people though have something slightly unique, such as thicker calves, or very slim, long feet, or high arches (instep), or different shaped toes.  You’ll need to do some fiddling to get a nice fit for your sock, but in general it’s an easy fix.

Starting at the cuff: Top-down or toe-up? Does it matter?

There is no right or wrong.  It’s entirely a matter of preference, just like knitting a sweater from the bottom up or from the top down.  You might like to knit them either way.

Your gauge can have an impact on your choice.  Do you have a naturally tight cast-on or bind-off?  I have a tight bind-off.  It’s very hard for me to knit a pair of toe-up socks and not get issues with a tight cuff.  I have tried using the stretchy bind-off, but I dislike the frilly look of the finished edge.  Plus the cuff then doesn’t hug my calf like a top-down, which then creates drooping issues… it’s all just too stressful in most instances, and I don’t see why I should fuss with extra techniques when I already know what works.  I could try using a needle a couple of sizes larger to finish the sock to get a looser edge. However, my preferred stress free work-around is to knit socks top-down.

On the other hand, if you have a tight cast-on, but a loose cast-off, maybe toe-up works better for you for the exact reverse reasons!  Or perhaps the unique sizing of your foot means that it’s easier for you to knit toe-up.  I explain further.

For the most part of the rest of this post, I’m using top-down as a reference point just to keep things simple.

For thicker calves that find the standard cuff too tight, I’d suggest either using a larger size needle to knit the leg only (switching back to the usual needle for the heel and foot) or you could use the same size needle to knit the leg and add on more stitches.  The only thing is that you’ll need to reduce those extra stitches in order to get back to a smaller number of stitches for the foot.

People with slim feet might find that the standard sock is too loose and saggy around the foot.  They will need to reduce the gusset stitches to less than the cast-on number to create a narrower foot that fits better.  (If knitting toe-up this will mean they increase from the toe to less stitches than noted in the pattern, and then leave more stitches on the gusset when knitting the leg to allow for width in the leg).

The heel: does it sag around the ankle?  It is too tight over the instep?  Does the heel flap slide down under the heel?

Ah, the heel.  This is actually a critical area in terms of getting the fit right.

I have a slightly higher instep than normal. It means that if I do not add more length to the heel flap, the sock will stretch too much over the instep and it will look ugly and feel uncomfortable.  Also, the heel may do that aggravating slipping under my foot thing because there’s not enough fabric to sit nicely around my ankle.   In real terms this means knitting a heel flap that is about 6.5cm long.  I keep knitting the heel until it gets to that length.  Depending on the pattern and the weight of yarn, it means about 18 slipped stitches (the stitches that you pick up to turn the heel), and other times it’s up to 20.  If it’s a fat yarn, it might only be 15.  It’s purely about knitting to get the right length.  I would advise you figure out what length your heel should be to get a nice fit, rather than how many rows, because row count can change depending on the pattern you are knitting and the yarn you are using.

The longer heel provides more fabric for the foot to fit into.  It’s then an easy matter of reducing the stitches during the gusset shaping to get back to the right number of stitches to knit the foot.  It’s another of one of the reasons why I knit top-down.  I can be sure I’ve knitted the right sized heel for my foot.  I can’t be bothered working out the correct measurements for all the other heel styles!

Some people have a low instep, and they will need to do the opposite if they find their socks are always baggy at the ankle. My basic guide is this:  If the sock bags around the ankle or rides up, exposing the heel turn, it’s likely the heel flap is too long for your foot.  If the heel flap rides downwards, and you don’t feel your heel is supported properly, it’s likely you need a longer heel flap.

The foot:  how long?

Many toe-up up socks use different heel styles (standard square heel, the short-row heel, sweet tomato, fish lips kiss, the list goes on…). When knitting toe-up, I find that a different heel style affects where I stop knitting the foot in order to start the heel, because not all heel styles are the same depth.  This is confusing to my poor brain because it adds to the issue of having to compensate for my higher instep.  I would rather spend my time enjoying the knitting rather than stressing about where to stop the foot and begin the heel.  However, this is my own issue, and it’s a very different experience for every knitter.  Of course, one could always try on the sock after finishing the heel to ensure that the fit is right.  But then I’d have to rip back the heel and start all over again if it was wrong!  This is not an acceptable (regular) option to me. (Also, secretly, I dislike the look of wrapped-stitch heels.  I don’t think they look neat.)

With top-down, I know that once I’ve finished the heel, I knit the foot to a set measurement, and then start the toe shaping. It’s a sure win for a good fit, and it works for me.  Every time.

Again, my experience of where to begin the toe shaping is about length.  If I knit to the length that I know fits my foot, I can begin the toe shaping with confidence.

The toe

There are quite a few ways to knit toes as well. I’m going to use the top-down Kitchener cast-off as my example here.

Funnily enough, you’d think that the toe shaping on a sock would not be that important, but again, it’s actually very important. If you look at your footprint, and your toes are shaped like this (big toe is the tallest digit, and all other toes descend sequentially in size)

classic footprint


then in all likelihood, you’re like me, and find that a smaller number of grafted stitches works best (in my case, it’s 10 stitches on each side) to shape around the toes nicely and not leave too much fabric around the toes that ends up being a source of annoyance.

If you have the foot variety with toes like this (second toe is longer than the big toe):

taller toe footprint

then in all likelihood, you will hate the fit of a small cast-off with a passion, finding it too tight, and need to use a larger number of cast-off (or cast on) stitches (something in the region of 12 – 16 stitches each side) for comfort.

A certain member of my family has toes that look more like this:

wider foot

and for this person, I also use a larger number of cast-off stitches but this is to create a shallower toe so that there isn’t too much fabric around the top of the toes.  In fact, for this toe, I should probably use a different style of cast off altogether (something like how one finishes the crown of a hat by drawing all the stitches together).

An interesting correlation can be had in the shoe style you prefer.  If you like the rounded toe shoe, then you will probably find rounded toe socks suit you better.  If you like a pointy toe shoe, then you will most likely enjoy a pointier-toed sock.

Phew!  Well, that’s it for now.  I hope that was useful.

The last post on this topic will be how I have found various sock yarns have lasted.

Have a great weekend!


Author: kiwiyarns

Welcome to my blog where I talk about knitting in New Zealand and the beautiful yarns you can find here.

23 thoughts on “Secrets of the socks, Part 2

  1. Brilliant post! I agree with just about everything, especially on toe-up socks. I can’t understand why loads of tight increases or w&ts are preferable to a quick graft of 10-20 stitches! Looking forward to your next post on durability…

  2. Perfect timing with very handy info, thanks. I am just about to cast on for my first attempt at toe-up socks. It’s my challenge for the sockswithsarah KAL.
    I agree with the “just get knitting” approach; you learn so much as you go.

  3. Really helpful, I’ve only just got into knitting socks and mine came out perfect first time. I’m now moving onto more pairs and I’ve decided I’m never buying socks again!

  4. Thanks for another great post ! It just about puts the finger on it to me; for some time i’d wondered if I was doing something worng with short row heels and such that they wouldn’t fit well, but it makes sense now.
    And I think I’ll stuck with cuff down too, though I do like toe up as well, apart from that bind off.. As for toe up heels, I’ll stick to this one, which has a heelflap too

    • I have seen those socks with heel flaps knitted toe up, and been very intrigued. Wendy Johnson has a few free patterns using this technique, which I have sort-of bookmarked to try.

      • I think they’re definitely worth the try ! You can use the same lenght for a heelflap as with cuff down to take care of a higher instep. My only main ‘ploblem’ with getting toe up socks fit well is fine tuning on where to start the heelflap. Guess I should measure my foot again and decide how much negative ease I need.
        On using a vanilla sock for gauge swatch, I guess I might need several, as not all fingering weight 80/20 merino/nylon yarn seems the same thickness, rather to my surprise..

  5. I have by now also developed my own “sock recipe”. I knit all my socks top-down (i.e. start with the cuff), and I also work an asymmetric toe shaping, which means that I for the first few cms of toe decreases, I only work decreases on the one side. For the last bit, I do the same number of decreases on both sides, and then do a knitted kitchener stitch to close the toes. Creating an asymmetric toe makes for a much better fit.
    I’ve blogged about my sock recipe here: (scroll down for english)

  6. Great post again! Did you say over 50 pair of socks already over 3 years? Wow, that’s impressive! I probably made a maximum of 7 or 8 pairs, in total.
    You are such an excellent sock knitter. I think a lot is about technique with socks, much more so than with any other garnment. I totally agree about using the first sock as a swatch sock, it’s what I did but it seems I have to keep “swatching” even after 7 pairs.
    And of course nothing feels better than a well fitted handknit sock. I’ll just have to keep on practising.
    Thanks a lot for sharing all that experience of yours with us!

  7. Wonderful post! I struggled through a toe up sock for the SWS May Challenge, I learned a lot just doing it, like about my high arch and a loose bind off. I think I like the cuff down better, too. One thing that I really have a problem with is the Kitchener stitch on the toe… Maybe it just takes practice, but I’ve never been able to pull it off to where it just zips together. Have any suggestions? Very interesting about the toe. I have a longer second toe just like in your photo, and I never thought about the fact that you can make an allowance for that and have a more comfortable fit. Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge. Love your socks!

  8. I’m also beginning my first attempt at toe-up socks, and my top down socks have been a poor fit, so this is a big help. I’ve printed it out and it will live in my knitting basket. thanks!

  9. Very interesting post. Confession I’ve knitted two socks and they weren’t even a pair.
    I’m an average knitter and love wearing hand knit socks. Your socks are beautiful and inspire me to have another go, after all I’ve got plenty of sock yarn 🙂

  10. What a great post! Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us.
    I would like to add that Toe-up has its place (once you know what your perfect sock fit is) if you have a limited amount of yarn or you want to use up every last inch of that sock wool skein. Personally I prefer toe-up, but I have had some pattern disasters – not all patterns work. It’s just a matter of finding the right heel that works for each foot to get a great fit and sticking to it. I love wearing knitted socks – they never fall down

  11. I wish I had read all these tips before I started sock knitting. There were quite a few disappointing socks at the beginning of my sock-knitting career.

  12. Thank you so much for this article Wei Siew, I had been wondering why one pair of socks bagged across the instep when others don’t. These were my top down version of a toe up sock (Midsummer Night’s Dream) and I used the heel pattern from Stranded Show Off socks. In that sock, there was no problem, but my ‘Titania’ really don’t fit well. Generally I have used a conventional heel pattern, and will stick to that in future.

  13. What an informative post! I haven’t knit socks for a while. Now, however, living where we have cold, wet and not infrequently snowy winter days, I want some homemade wool socks. Simply, with a good pattern, great design and high-quality wool, handmade socks are not only much prettier but better wearing than commercially made socks!

  14. Wonderful post! Thank you so much for your insight and sharing your experience. It’s very much appreciated.

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