Techniques in Depth: How to Make Socks That Last
If you consider the price of the yarn and the time invested in making them, handknit socks are costly. Totally worth it!—but costly.
And socks take a terrific amount of abuse when worn. All that rubbing on the carpet under your feet, and in and out of shoes; catching on wood floors, being played with by the cat, and so forth.
If you’re going to go to that much trouble and expense, you want to make socks that last.
This is how you do that.
Step 1: Choose a Good Yarn
For the best socks, choose a yarn that’s made for sock knitting. Look for yarns that have multiple plies tightly twisted around each other.
Feel the yarn. It should feel dense and sturdy—hearty, even. Those deliciously soft singles and loosely spun yarns? Save them for shawls, cowls, and hats.
I don’t love merino for sock knitting. It’s too nice, too soft, too delicate. The softer and more loosely spun a yarn in, the more it will pill. And the problem is not just the shabby appearance. Pills are the fabric being worn away. The fluff of pills doesn’t just materialize—it’s coming from the yarn, thinning the knitted fabric.
Some of my favorite sock yarns don’t list the breed of the sheep—they are labeled simply as wool, and that’s fine by me. Merino is to knitting as extra-virgin olive oil is to cooking. In the same way that it’s not worthwhile to use a fine olive oil for deep-frying, merino is wasted making socks.
If you are shopping sock yarns by breed, Blue-Faced Leicester (often abbreviated to BFL) is a winner: It’s got much of the sheen that we love in merino, but it’s sturdier. Wensleydale and Polwarth are great, too.
And although I’m a big proponent of natural fibers, I like a little nylon blended in with my sock yarn—up to 25 percent. Nylon adds density and helps the yarn hold its shape over time. If you prefer all-natural fibers, look for one that has similar proportions of silk or mohair blended in . Both of these fibers add strength and warmth.
Most yarns sold as sock yarn are machine washable. Despite the valid debate about the merits of superwash, I prefer it for socks. No matter how careful you are about sorting laundry, socks like to hide in the leg of your jeans.
In the MDK Shop
Step 2: Make a Dense Fabric
Sock fabric is very different from garment fabric. Many brands recommend US #2 (2.75mm) needles, but I find that for the average knitter, that’s often too loose. You should expect to use US #1-1.5 (2.25mm-2.5mm); if you’re a relaxed knitter, a US #0 (2mm) may be required. I know this seems small, but it’s about making socks that last.
A dense fabric makes for a strong sock.
Remember that socks should be worn with negative ease—that is, they are stretched out to fit–so the fabric should be dense even when expanded a little. Test it: Stretch the fabric a little, and rub the purl side of the fabric. It should feel solid, and you shouldn’t be able to feel the individual stitch bumps or the gaps between them.
Too loose: less strong.
Step 3: Reinforce Areas of Wear
Examine a pair of your frequently-worn socks, hand-knit or commercial. Are there areas of pilling, or places where the fabric looks thin? This tells you where you might need to reinforce. Common areas of wear are the back of the heel, the underside of the heel, the ball of the foot, and the tips of the toes.
There are three strategies for reinforcing, and the location of the wear is an important factor in deciding which strategy to use.
Strategy 1: Reinforcement Thread
Sock reinforcement yarn comes on a spool or card.
You’ve always wondered what these were for. Now you know.
This yarn is the same fiber blend as standard sock yarn (75% wool, 25% nylon), but much finer. When working high-wear areas of a sock, hold this strand along with your actual yarn. It’s not thick enough to significantly affect your gauge (or needle size), but it adds density to the fabric.
You don’t necessarily need to purchase a special thread—laceweight yarn leftovers are ideal for reinforcement. I’m particularly fond of using a fine silk/mohair blend, as it adds warmth and strength. And if you live in a cold climate, whether you need the reinforcement or not, consider adding in a yarn like this when you work the toe, for a bit of extra coziness!
A fuzzy toe is a toasty toe.
This strategy is best suited to the heel and toe—small and discrete sections. If you find yourself needing to reinforce the entire sole of the sock, that’s a sign that your yarn isn’t a good choice, or your fabric is too loose.
One note about reinforcement thread: It needs to be yarn, and it needs to be a similar fiber blend. Don’t use sewing thread or woolly nylon or anything like that since these threads are stronger and “sharper” than yarn, and will cut through your knit fabric. Imagine, if you will, knitting a sock with cooked spaghetti, and holding a strand of wire along with the spaghetti. When you stand on the sock, the wire will cut through the spaghetti. In the same way, a cotton, polyester or nylon thread will cut through your yarn.
Strategy 2: Reinforcement Stitch Patterns
Many top-down sock patterns with a flap-and-gusset heel use a slipped-stitch pattern for the heel flap instead of plain stockinette. This classic one is known, not surprisingly, as Heel Stitch.
Heel Stitch—Even Number of Stitches, Worked Flat
RS rows: (Slip 1 pwise wyib, k1) across.
WS rows: Slip 1 pwise wyif, p to end.
to work Heel Stitch on an odd number of stitches, knit the last stitch on the RS rows; otherwise the instructions are the same.
Eye of Partridge Stitch is a charming traditional variation on Heel Stitch.
Eye of Partridge—Even Number of Stitches, Worked Flat
Row 1 (RS): (Slip 1 pwise wyib, k1) across.
Rows 2 & 4 (WS): Slip 1 pwise wyif, p to end.
Row 3 (RS): Slip 1 pwise wyib, (slip 1 pwise wyib, k1) to last st, k1.
To work Eye of Partridge Stitch on an odd number of stitches, add a k1 to the end of Row 1 and omit the k1 at the end of Row 3; otherwise the instructions are the same
You can apply either of these to an existing pattern, or to the recipes I’ve given in my previous columns.
I don’t use these by default in my sock patterns, as not everyone needs the reinforcement there. If a pattern calls for it, you don’t need to do it; and if a pattern doesn’t call for it, you can add it. (And I reserve the right to giggle if I see a Christmas stocking pattern that has a reinforced heel flap. Surely if you need to reinforce anything, it’s the toe?)
I don’t work these reinforcement stitches on my own socks because the heel flap is not where I wear out my socks. For me, the underside of the heel is more prone to pilling and thinning, which is why I most often work a top-down sock with a square heel, as per my previous column.
The square heel brilliantly allows you to continue the reinforcement stitch pattern right on into the turn. Just keep the reinforcement pattern going. It’s reinforcing! It’s comfy! And I don’t get why it’s not more popular!
Heel Stitch on the bottom of a square heel.
Eye of Partridge Stitch on the bottom of a square heel.
The other types of heel turns don’t lend themselves as easily to this reinforcement, as the stitch count of the turn is always changing. If you’re working one of those, a reinforcement thread is your best choice.
Strategy 3: Pre-darning
The most challenging area to reinforce is the ball of the foot. It’s not necessarily efficient to use a carry-along thread, since you’d end up working a significant part of the foot this way, and the cards and spools don’t have enough yardage for that. And you can’t use a reinforcement stitch pattern on a large area, as it would affect the fit.
If the ball of the foot is prone to wearing out, your best solution is pre-darning: use duplicate stitch (a.k.a. Swiss darning) to thicken up the fabric. It’s comfy, too.
This is also a good solution if you find yourself blowing through the tops of the toes.
Do it preventatively, before you wear the socks, or when you start to notice the fabric thinning in key areas. This is much easier than trying to close up a hole.
And again, consider the yarn you’re using: make sure it’s similar to the original yarn used, and sock-appropriate.
Go forth! Knit socks! And make them last!