Monday, November 25, 2013

Two Socks, One Week: Yarn and Needles - And Gauge

I tried to find a way to turn this into a couple of posts, but I really do see contingencies between all of these three concepts: yarn choice, needle choice and gauge. So this post is apt to be, um, full. But my aim is to make it super useful - and comprehensive.

Let's return to the basic premise: we're making a pair of simple socks. Not fancy socks. Not complicated socks. Not over-the-knee socks. Just simple, cuff-down, mid-calf, rib cuff, stockinette socks. Now, this doesn't mean they're going to be dull. Oh no! Some of the most exciting things in the world are simple. But we're going to achieve our primary impact through yarn choice. And simple will be decided, in some measure, by working with yarns that are knowable in their properties.

Here are my recommendations. (Note: You can completely ignore me and you'll still make great socks. They just won't be as simple.)
  • Use a yarn that's 80 per cent wool and 20 per cent nylon (or synthetic) OR
  • Use a yarn that's 100 per cent wool (consider superwash so that it can go in washer and dryer) that's designed specifically for sock-makers
  • Ensure the yarn is fingering-weight. We're going for a gauge that's more-or-less 13 stitches (horizontal) and 20 rows (vertical) in 2 inches. You can certainly choose thicker yarn, but you'll end up having to alter the pattern to do so.
  • Use a yarn that's got a good rep for sock-making - you want something that will keep its shape, that will knit a nice, dense stitch, that isn't too hairy, that feels strong and sleek on the skein. Some examples include:
    • Regia Twin Colour (or others in the Regia line) makes incredibly durable socks. In truth, this German-made yarn is not the luxest, but it makes a seriously dense stitch. If you want a sock that mimics one you'd buy, you may get closest (IMO) with this brand.
    • Also in the "work-horse" category (but much more fun) is Sweet Georgia Tough Love Sock. It's more pricey, but you're paying for the small-vendor experience and the care that tends to go along with it.
    • Of course, now that I've tried Madelinetosh Tosh Sock, I don't know how I'll ever use anything else again. If I were you, I'd just buy this in your favourite colourway and call it a day. It's superwash merino, but I've already made one of my 2 socks from it and I feel it's produced the nicest outcome. It holds its shape but it's soft, soft, soft.
  • Please feel free to weigh in in the comments about sock yarns that work for you. I'm sure peeps will be grateful to learn more.
But How Much Yarn Should I Buy??

I suspect you'll require between 300-350 yards. I've made these very socks with 250 yards (in the Regia, somehow - and I realize it makes no sense since they were the snuggest fitting) or with about 325 yards (Sweet Georgia, Cascade Heritage). I think you'll be safe with 350 but, if you choose to make your sock larger (in the circumference, foot length or height of leg), then I'd go with 400 yards.

Other Considerations:
  • If you're new to knitting socks, choose a slightly variegated yarn in a colour that isn't too dark. I mean, you don't have to go crazy, but the variation in colour and the brightness will assist you in determining things like how many rows you've worked and whether you've accidentally dropped a stitch.
  • If you're going to go with self-striping yarn, consider getting a skein with a short pattern repeat. The larger the stripes, the fussier it is to match one sock to the other.
  • If you're on the fence, spend a few extra dollars and get the nicest yarn you can afford. These socks are special! You're going to wear them or gift them but more to the point, working with nice yarn for hours and hours is worth the money. And good yarn makes a better, longer-lasting sock.
  • Ya'll know I love cashmere, but really, don't make these in cashmere. It's too prone to stretching. It's weaker than wool. It's not the yarn I devised this pattern for. So know that, if you opt to use a yarn with these properties, you'll may end up with a sock that fits differently than the pattern indicates.
Here are the finished dimensions of the sock made from the pattern:

Close to or exactly 9 inches in length from heel to toe. The rib cuff measures from 3.25 – 4”, flat, unstretched (depending on the amount of give in the yarn). All rib, despite how it holds its shape, should still stretch to 5.5” at least. The ankle measures 4”, flat.
And here are the dimensions of the foot their designed to fit: 9 inch length from heel to large to. Ankle at cuff height is a circumference of 8.5". Widest point of foot: 8.5' at the toe base. I like a snug, but not tight sock. We'll talk more about this when we start to knit...

*Pre-purchase Action Item: Take a moment with a tape measure and another pair of socks you own. Hand-knit socks are best but thick-ish store bought will work too. Measure the dimensions of the sock as per the info provided above. Measure your foot too. These are useful comparators to the info provided above and will help you to decide whether my pattern, as is, is right for you, or whether you'll need to make certain elements smaller or larger when you start to knit.

My point is, if you're not going to deviate from this excessively - and I don't suspect you'll have to - then 1 skein of sock yarn having at least 350 yards should be enough. Of course, buy 2 skeins so that you can make the very same pair again (and have extra yardage should you need it) - perhaps with a couple of tweaks having learned from the first pair. See below, in the section about gauge, for more on this.

How About the Needles?

Use the type of circular needle you prefer - but I like Addi turbo lace needles (they're titanium with pointy ends). I don't find them so slippery that it's a problem - but I do think the pointy end is key. Bamboos may also work well, if you're someone who tends to lose stitches.

The reason I recommend Addi is because the join on those needles (between the needle edge and the cable) is impeccable. No snagging or dragging will occur and, when you're working with magic loop, this is KEY. Mind you, Addis cost more than other brands. Furthermore, sometimes, the plastic cable is really committed to its loop (which makes moving the stitches around a bit tricky). You can soften the cable by steaming it over a kettle, but I also find that the metal cables found on certain, thinner-gauge ChiaGoo needles are more pleasant to maneuver. And those needles are much less expensive - if potentially less durable.

BTW, if you don't have access to an LYS that sells Addis, I've found them online at very good prices via eBay. I have purchased from this vendor with no issues...

You'll want to work with a 40" length - or 32" in a pinch, if you've already got a set lying around. Smaller than 32" won't work. Note: when you refer to circular needle cable length, you're actually considering the entire length of the needles from tip-to-tip. Don't ask me why.

Recently I purchased mega small circular needles - 20 cm from tip-to-tip as they're the size you'd need to knit socks in the round, on a circular needle, without using loops. I haven't had the nerve to try them as a recent foray knitting with a 16" cable to make a hat almost threw me over the edge. It was fussy and hard on my hands in a way that magic loop never is. So what you think might be easiest and most efficient is not necessarily easiest.

Though I've made many socks with different fingering-weight yarns, I've only used one needle size: 2.25mm. Some of those socks have been a bit snugger, some a bit looser but they've all fit more than adequately. Unless you knit insanely loosely or insanely tightly, I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that this size will probably work for you too.

Kristin, are you insane?? (The Part About Gauge)

Look, we're making a simple stockinette and rib sock, not a sweater. Not even a sock with a fancy pattern, which might impact gauge considerably. Would it be terrible to admit I've never made a gauge swatch for a pair of socks? I would NEVER advise avoiding to swatch and block under sweater-making circumstances, but does everything need to be a production?

Note that I've advised you use very firm yarn, the kind that doesn't tend to grow or lose its shape. This is because you don't want a sock that's going to look very different after blocking than before. And furthermore, I've suggested that you use the kind of yarn that's wash and dry. Everything loosens in the wash and cinches in the dryer. In a worst case, you can let them air dry or tumble a little longer.

But keep in mind, I basically used my first sock-knitting adventure as a test of gauge. I put my first sock on as I worked to ensure that it would fit. That's how I adjusted the pattern on the fly. Furthermore, I suggest, for your first simple sock experience, that you buy enough yarn to make the socks twice. Then you can easily refine the second pair without having to worry about any added variables. Plus, you get another pair of socks.

Thing is, if you're going to swatch for mega-accuracy, you're going to have to swatch in the round. Flat gauge is not a reliable indicator of round gauge because knitters tend to knit and purl at slightly different tensions and, when you knit in the round, you only use knit stitch. And it's really just as easy to start your sock in the round as it is to do a round swatch. I mean, you can't get much smaller in diameter and still have a reliable outcome with a swatch.

So, my recommendation is that you let your own working-style be your guide. If you are comfortable casting on a couple of times and using an hour or two of the sock-knitting timeline to confirm your sizing works, that's great. If you've knit many socks and you understand your gauge in this needle size with sock-yarn, great.

If you want to do a gauge swatch in the round, perhaps a good idea if your dimensions are very different from the pattern's and/or you are a new knitter / have never knit on tiny needles, check out this useful tutorial.

I will be knitting with fingering yarn on a 2.25mm needle and I will probably use 325 yards of yarn when all is said and done. Over many instances I've learned this works for me. The small variations in size produced by yarn properties or my own gauge tension at any moment are entirely acceptable to me. And I'm pretty fussy.

But you need to be happy with this process so I urge you to swatch if it makes you comfortable. And, if you're going to, the next couple of weeks will provide an adequate opportunity to do so.

So, today's questions: Do you find this info helpful? Are you horrified by my methods?? Do you have questions about yarn or needles or anything else at this time?

Next up: The pattern - so that you can see how this all plays out on paper. Cheerio.


  1. hello! i am not at all horrified by anyone's methods. this will be my first pair of socks (and i have only knitted 2 tension squares in my life!). i like to live on the edge. but as a result i have found that as i am a tight knitter, i need to go up 1/2mm in needle size to get guage (based on DK or aran/ worsted weight cardigans). should i still get 2.25mm needle or should i go for a size up? or 2? thanks for the recommendation on addis needles - for me the worst thing about knitting in the round is the "bump" between cable and needle and if these don't have it i will buy!

    i'm also looking for wool and am tempted to use the gorgeous but pricy malabrigo. i can't wear pure wool but this is super soft and really luxurious. any other suggestions for brands i could consider that won't make me itch to distraction?

    i can't get my head around how you knit in the round without using magic loop!

    1. Glad to know I haven't scared you off! If you're a really tight knitter, going up a needle size is a good idea. Once you go up 2 needle sizes, however, you may start to impact the look of the finished fabric. What I mean is, it might be that you'd never get my gauge given how you knit with fingering yarn. That's cool! Everyone is different.

      The best idea, I suspect, is that you buy needles in 2.25 and 2.5 (maybe the less expensive ones?) and start on the 2.5s. If they make a fabric that's too loose, you can either cast on again or switch to the 2.25s when you move from rib to stockinette. If it's too tight, you can rework your stitch numbers to add a bit of give. Either way, you'll still get a nice sock.

      I've used malabrigo (not sock, but fingering weight) and I have to say I don't love the end result. Why? It pills like a bitch. Mind you, the stuff I used wasn't branded for socks... It is INSANELY soft though, so if you want to give it a go, you might enjoy that element...

      I can't get my head around knitting in the round without magic loop which is why I seem to be knitting those gloves on magic loop - even though i'm supposed to be learning DPN method. Hmmm...

  2. I'm probably not going to join in on the fun, but I am curious. Can you make socks that have the arch support/compression features? The socks I really like have at least an arch support, preferably with a smidge of compression. Probably mostly because RTW socks are made in size ranges--and I'm at the small end of the range.

    1. Cmon! You don't have enough going on?? I don't know about arch support. I'm sure you can do it, but I haven't done it. Ravelry could probably find you a sock pattern if you plugged that into search.

  3. I agree with everything you said! I love cashmere socks, but their lifespan is tragically short. I almost never knit a gauge swatch and prefer to try on as I go.

    For those who really don't want to invest very much in a first pair of socks (as I didn't), the socks I knit with Knit Picks Stroll yarn have become favorites over time as they have really held up beautifully to wearings and washings and still look great.

    1. Oh, I'm glad to hear it. I was a bit worried to click post! Thanks so much for the yarn suggestion. I've heard a lot about Knit Picks yarn being very good but I haven't tried it. I also think that Quince Finch (that's the fingering weight, right?) would make excellent socks. Durable in, I sense, a similar way.

    2. I just read on rhinestones and telephones that knit picks have a sale on just now too! I'm sure the postage to the UK will be horrible but if you are on that side of the pond?

    3. Excellent info! Thanks for letting us know. It's not great pricing to ship to Canada - but I'm sure it's not nearly as bad. And most participants will likely be from US.

  4. Thanks for all the info. Now, I have to add a pair or two of sock to my list.

  5. I am knitting socks for the first time too my question is how do you mke them the same I made slippers with the varaarate yrn and they bth turned out different how do you get them the same