Techniques in Depth: Socks Without Ears
I am a top-down sock knitter. I am, however, on the record as not being a grafter of toes.
Two reasons for this, one strategic, and one practical, although I will confess that I made the practical decision before I had the knowledge to declare it strategic.
The practical reason is that grafting—also known as Kitchener stitch—is a fiddly, multi-step process that takes a while to learn. There are keychains, wallet cards, project bag hang-tags, and even tattoos that are designed to help you remember the steps. Socks are my portable project of choice, and grafting just seemed to add an unnecessary degree of complication to the process.
The strategic reason is that a grafted toe is fairly flat at the top, and doesn’t fit my feet very well. I have—to coin a phrase—pointy-shoe toes, with a curvy top and a longer second toe. The typical graft-when-a-third-of-the-total-stitches-remain toe is too wide for me. Early in my sock knitting career, I found a recipe for a no-graft toe that fits me well, and it’s the standard one I use for most of my patterns. It’s also useful for my sock knitting classes, as it’s a very beginner-friendly finish.
This is not to say that grafted toes are bad. Not at all! Grafting gives a very tidy finish, and I know many like how it looks and how it fits. I’m all about finding the right fit for you, after all.
But if you do graft toes, you might find that you suffer from the “ear” problem.
An unmodified grafted toe tends to stick up at the sides. This is because the grafted row is essentially an even row, in pattern, and you’re breaking the angle of the toe decreases. If the last round you work before the graft with an even round, you’re effectively working two even rounds in pattern, causing the side edges to straighten.
And it’s often worse on one side: if you work with the start of the round in the center of the sole, you end up having to knit to the end of the sole/start of instep before you can work the graft, which means that on one side, you’ve actually got three even rounds above the decrease in that one spot.
If this happens to you, I offer some solutions, in order of cleverness/amount of attention you need to pay.
Trick #1: Adjust How You Set Up the Toe
Eliminate that extra even round before you start the graft, and level out the decreases.
No matter where the start of round is, make sure you end the toe shaping with a decrease rather than an even round.
Many top-down heel flap socks have the start of round at the center of the sole. If this is the case, before you start the toe, move the start of the round to the start of the sole
Even without any further tricks, these will neaten things up nicely.
Ah, that’s better already.
In addition, any of the three following solutions build on this improved alignment.
In the MDK Shop
Trick #2: Skip the Graft Set-up Step
This helps because it pulls the first and last stitch on each side closer to its neighbor than if you’d worked it as a full stitch.
Simply skip the whole palaver of “work through the first stitch on the front needle as if to purl and leave on, and work through the first stitch on the back needle as if to knit and leave on.” Just start right in on the front with the “repeat,” as follows:
Front needle: through the first stitch as if to knit and slip off, through the second stitch as if to purl and leave on
Back needle: through the first stitch as if to purl and slip off, through the second stitch as if to knit and leave on.
And when you get to the end, drop the last 2 stitches off the needle after the first time you work through them. That is, when working the second time through the second-last stitch, you’ll work through the first one, slip it off as usual, work through the second one (the last one) and drop that off, too.
Trick #3: Work Decreases in the Graft
This pulls two stitches on each side together, allowing the toe top edges to curve in alignment with the rest of the toe shaping.
Work the setup as usual, and continue as normal, working a “graft-2-tog” in the decrease positions.
To graft-2-tog, work through 2 stitches as if they are one: If you are putting the needle through knitwise, put it through two stitches as if you are doing a k2tog; if you are putting the needle through purlwise, put it through two stitches as if you are doing a p2tog.
A good tip on this one from the very clever Cari A.: before you start, put a removable stitch marker or safety pin into the 2 stitches that will be worked together. This makes it much easier to identify them once you’re working.
Specifically, if your toe decreases were worked 1 st in from the edge, it goes as follows:
Work the standard setup steps:
Through the first stitch on the front needle purlwise and leave on. Through the first stitch on the back needle knitwise and leave on.
Then through the first stitch on the front needle knitwise, and slip off; then through the next 2 stitches purlwise—together!—and leave on. Then through the first stitch on the back needle purlwise and slip off, and then through the next 2 stitches knitwise—together!—and leave on. And of course, treat those 2 stitches as one in the start of the next step.
Then continue normally, until 4 stitches remain on each side. You’ll work the first step on each side as normal—insert needle and slip off—but the second step has you work through the next 2 stitches. And continue as before, treating those 2 stitches on each side as one.
Trick #4: Work Directional Decreases in the Graft
As with the previous solution, this changes the alignment of the edges in the grafted row, keeping the angle set by the toe shaping.
The improvement is that the decreases themselves stay aligned with the decreases worked in the toe shaping. Whether this detail matters is up to you, of course! It’s a smidge fiddly, and not necessarily visible at sock gauge, and certainly not in a dark color, but it’s definitely more pleasing to people who are particular. And it would be very nice in a mitten top.
Work the setup as usual, and continue as normal, working the appropriate “graft-2-tog” in the decrease positions.
(As with the previous trick, use a removable marker/pin to designate which stitches will be grafted together.)
You need to create the following decreases:
Ssk on the facing side, k2tog on the facing side; k2tog on the far side, ssk on the far side.
To create k2tog on the facing or far side, it’s as above: if you are putting the needle through knitwise, put it through two stitches as if you are doing a k2tog; if you are putting the needle through purlwise, put it through two stitches as if you are doing a p2tog.
To create an ssk on the facing side, work as follows.
The first time you work through the two stitches (after you’ve done the knit & slip step), using the darning needle, slip the next two stitches, one-by-one, knitwise; return them to the left needle in this new position. Put the needle through the first two stitches as if to p2tog-tbl, and then leave them on the needle. The second time you work through the stitches, put the needle through them as if to k2tog-tbl, and slip them off.
To create an ssk on the far side, work as follows:
The first time you work through the two stitches (after you’ve done the purl & slip step), using the darning needle, slip the next two stitches, one-by-one, knitwise; return them to the left needle in this new position. Put the needle through the first two stitches as if to k2tog-tbl, and then leave them on the needle. The second time you work through the stitches, put the needle through the as if to p2tog-tbl, and slip them off.
If I’ve thoroughly frightened you, or you’re just interested, here’s my favorite non-graft toe.
Using the decrease round as given below, work a decrease round, followed by 3 even rounds.
[Work a decrease round, followed by 2 even rounds] twice.
[Work a decrease round, followed by 1 even round] three times.
Work only decrease rounds until 8-10 stitches remain.
Cut yarn and pull through final stitches to secure.
The decrease round is the standard.
If the start of round is in the center of the sole, it goes as follows:
K to 3 sts before instep, k2tog, k1; k1, ssk, k to 3 sts before end of instep, k2tog, k1; k1, ssk, k to end of round. 4 sts decreased.
If the start of round is at the side of the foot it goes as follows:
K1, ssk, k to 3 sts before end of instep, k2tog, k1; k1, ssk, k to last 3 sts of sole, k2tog, k1. 4 sts decreased.
This Could Come in Handy
You may not need this article right now, but it’s a good bet that you will want to look at it next time you are approaching the toe of a cuff-down sock or the tip of a mitten.
Here’s how to save this article in your MDK account with one click.
THANK YOU! That ear business has annoyed me for years.
Thanks Kate! for spelling it out & sharing. Soooo much neater & easier for the wearer. 🙂
YES! Directional decreases! I like that!!
Wow. I didn’t expect anything I hadn’t heard before, but this is totally new and interesting. Thanks for figuring this out!
What an excellent article! This has bothered me for years. Thank you.
Kate, have you been peeking in my windows? You wrote an article on the button band just as I was reaching that spot on a baby sweater and now this helpful and insightful article as I work on a pair of socks! Brilliant! Thank you.
Amazing and super helpful!! Thank you!
When I learned how to knit socks, our teacher showed us to turn the socks to the reverse side and do a three needle bind off. It’s a lot easier then trying to remember how to do the kitchener. I always do my socks this way and they looks great. I am an addicted sock knitter!
This is so brilliant! Thank you!
Thank you! Love your solution to grafting! I’m left handed and grafting backward (which makes most sense to me) is a nightmare.
What an interesting idea! I am only an occasional sock knitter, and when I do knit them, it is generally toe-up, mostly to avoid grafting. I do love the 3 needle bind off though, so I’m going to remember this!
Excellent! Thanks 😀
This article is wonderful! I’m thinking mittens !
Thank you. I’ve always finished socks with the non grafted toe. Glad my first pattern was done this way. Socks are rounded and very comfortable Thanks for sharing this method with others
Do you have a go to patterns for socks? I am a beginner and need the simplest pattern. I made some in a class but found the pattern difficult to follow. Or perhaps there is a great site to ask questions.
For instance. I was making my husband some socks. I cast on 48 mad knitted the leg I wanted. Then, divided the stitches and put 24 stitches on each needle. I work 24 rows for the heel flap and then moved to turn the heel. Once that is done I picked up 24 stitches on each side which gave me 62 stitches and then freaked.
Was that right? Anyway, I ripped out back to the leg. Now, I need to find the answer and I just can’t find it.
Are you familiar with my book? Custom Socks: Knit to Fit Your Feet. I’ve got the details for toe-up and top down socks for 9 gauges and 12 sizes!
(Kate’s book will knock your socks off! It’s great!)
Rebecca, avid sock knitter here. After you do the heel flap and turn the heel, you want to pick up stitches on either side of the heel flap to make the gusset, one stitch for each two rows. (If you slipped the stitches at the edges of the heel flap, you will be able to see pretty well how many to pick up.) Then you will decrease on the bottom side of the sock one stitch on either side of the gusset every other row until you are back to the original number of stitches that you cast on, in your case 48.
I’m obviously not a pattern-writer, as what I just wrote above might be confusing. I suggest you get Stephanie Pearl-McPhee’s book “Knitting Rules,” which has generic patterns for socks, hats, scarves, etc. with very clear instructions. If you keep at it, you will soon be able to knit socks without using a pattern at all. Good luck!
Two other good books for the beginning sock knitter are Getting Started Knitting Socks by Ann Budd and Teach Yourself Visually: Sock Knitting by Laura Chau. I found both of them to be helpful.
I love you.
That tippy toe decrease has been the way I have been doing it in like forever … since I wrote up my go to sock knitting instructions … oh … 10 years ago?! I have never been a fan of the Kitchenering of the toe closing up and my Ambach Oma did it this way when making my uncles socks way back when. It’s the German heritage of simple + beautiful + practical = priceless!
Thank you for this! Although “ears” have never really bothered me as I am not very picky, I dislike Kitchener because I don’t do it very often, so I will very happily skip the set-up. And maybe try some of the other tricks as well.
Hooray, thank you! I tend to use the last solution for socks, but your other solutions would be excellent for mittens.
I love Kitchnering and i think this is genius – thanks!
This is timely! I finally learned how knit a sock (it’s so awful, but I love the poor thing), so now there’s this tip to work into my learning.
I think sometimes you’re peeking in on what my latest knitting dilemma is, lol.
Thank you for this amazing article and options for other than Kitchener stitch! I’ve never liked the “ears” and have tried to sew them down with the yarn ends with mixed results. Love your articles.
Hi, Kate! I’ve always done the 8 stitch pull through for socks, mostly because I hate having to look up kitchener. I’m glad to know I’m in stellar company with you! I make my toes a little stubbier, like my feet. Whatever fits!
Whoa! Clip n save greatness here! Thank you!!!
Perfect timing. Was at the end of sock number 2. I knew about Trick #2, but could never remember how to end it. This is one time that reading it worked better than watching it. Thank you!
Wow! Just when I thought I might try a top down again…. I’m sure if I read this while doing it I’d love it. Instead, I’m feeling completely inadequate. Thankfully I have wide toes and the second one is shorter! Seriously, FABULOUS tutorial. Thank you!
And thanks MDK for the list of previous posts in the email. Ciz when I forget to read a post, I never recall it was forgotten.
My sock knitting on-the-road benefited greatly from learning grafting without a sewing needle, from TECHknitter’s blog. But I like the idea of the no-grafting finish for mittens, as I really hate the flat top for those. Thanks Kate!
As usually, amazing!! Thank you Kate, for your always great advice!
Thank you! I too have the pointy shoe toes, and hate the dogged ear look and feel. Love the last one the best.
Initially I didn’t understand, but think I do now. For a 64 stitch sock is the method as follows?
Row 1: K1, SSK; knit to last 3 stitches, K2 tog. I understand this is for both the top (instep) and bottom (sole) of the sock,
Rows 2-4 Knit.
Remaining rows as Row 1 until 8 stitches remain (eg 4 on each needle).
Thanks for a brilliant new approach. Love it!
I took a look at my post and thought about it and it makes no sense–all it accomplishes is a longer toe, not a rounded toe. So! I have no understanding of the method described at all. I feel rather stupid given how many others get it. If anyone has the time to explain, that’d be great. Otherwise, I plan to try a method where I decrease multiple stitches per round to achieve a round toe. Thanks much!
Outstanding! I’m going to try technique #2 on my current socks. I’ve used the non-graft toe in the past and really liked it but had completely forgotten about it. Thanks for the great article!
Is there an actual video of your doing the grafted toe with the decreases?
yes please!! agreed.
Very interesting. Do you have a go to basic
hi. i am making my first sock.. after hours of research (who knew there were so many techniques for every part of it!) i decided on toe up because once i read that grafting was involved in cuff down i said no thank you! but the yarn i picked called for it to be a cuff down (due to the striping). i was hesitant to start the toe and after looking through all the options i found this tutorial and was so happy because it has no grafting and looks so much nicer than all the rest.. but i am a visual learner and am so confused by how to go about doing your tips.. (just the part about setting up where to start confuses me.) i am trying to understand what you wrote but most of it’s lost on me. do you by any chance have a video tutorial?? like the other commenter, i feel stupid. thanks.
(i am in the same boat as michelle from nova scotia.. i want to do the one in the epilogue photo and am confusing myself)
Do you by chance have a VIDEO to see the grafting for those of us who are visual learners? I’m a fairly new sock-knitter and always used your non-grafted toe pattern and would like to try the kitchener versions but can’t visualize.
I used the non graft toe for the first time last night and I love it! I love how the sock fits my toes! I may never kitchener sock toes again.
a video of Trick # 4 would be really helpful! Great post!
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